Sean K. Cureton

Archive for 2018|Yearly archive page

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch: Agency & Illusion

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on December 29, 2018 at 12:14 pm
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch


Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Directed by David Slade
3 out of 4 stars

The latest iteration of Black Mirror – the now seminal Twilight Zone-esque update for the digital age of smart phones, tablets, and super computers –  comes in the form of a choose-your-own-adventure interactive feature. Directed by returning series collaborator David Slade (“Metalhead”) and written by program creator Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch takes fans of the show on a variegated journey of the mind. Centering around the chief exploits of young programmer Stefan Butler – played to great aplomb by breakthrough lead actor Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) – Bandersnatch attempts to explore the notion of whether any one of us are really in control of our own actions. While struggling to break-into the 1980s era video game industry with his own adaptation and interpretation of the fictional sci-fi epic Bandersnatch, Whitehead is quickly ensnared by his own demons within a maze of his own design and someone else’s. Worse yet, his own life begins to mirror that of his enigmatic muse Jerome F. Davies, while every choice he makes begins to feel as though it has been chosen for him by someone or something beyond his own control.

Grappling with how best to provide the illusion of agency in preprogrammed narrative pathways in adventure video games has become an ever more subtle art of the industry of late. Most notably, former developer Telltale Games made great strides with the formula via titles such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, wherein players’ choices minutely affected spare moments of moral and emotional intrigue within a story that had already been written. Likewise, Slade and Brooker have managed to mimic that illusion of agency for viewers with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which allows Netflix users to stream their interactive feature film with multiple endings and numerous choices that effect the lives of the characters within it. Yet even Bandersnatch can’t quite overcome the trappings of its script in order to deliver an entirely autonomous viewer experience. But perhaps that’s the entire point.

Sitting smack dab at the center of Bandersnatch is Will Poulter (Detroit) as video game mastermind Colin Ritman, who surreptitiously narrates and dictates Whitehead’s professional and creative ambition, in addition to the choices that the viewer is prompted to make. Played off like a sly bohemian intellectual/conspiracy theorist, Poulter steals the show away from Whitehead in a play for the viewer’s attention and understanding of the implications of choice in games and life. Extrapolating on the illusion of agency in the real world in a second act speech that is immediately enthralling in its reminiscence of past sci-fi philosophizing features like the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix trilogy, Poulter urges viewers to be dubious of the agency that they hold at the tips of their fingers in altering the trajectory of the film that they are supposedly controlling. Every choice made over the course of Bandersnatch may lead to one end, but as extolled by Poulter, the choice to try again is always there as well. Ready player, or viewer, one.

Beyond the immediacy of the film’s narrative and experimental interactivity, Bandersnatch does present a perplexing dilemma for filmmaking as a whole. Depending on how well the new feature performs, Netflix and other major streaming services may begin to opt for interactive narratives over traditional movies when producing their own original content in the future. It would be doubly fascinating to see if the trend takes off outside of an online format, where it would seemingly be even more difficult to make the technology that stands behind Bandersnatch appear as familiar as traditional network and cable broadcasts. By and large,  Bandersnatch works well enough as a Netflix experiment, especially when the nature of the platform enters into the film’s narrative in a cheeky, fourth wall breaking moment in the midst of the film’s tumultuous third act. The competing notions of agency and illusion in video games is granted stunning clarity by Slade and Brooker in Bandersnatch, even if the production as a whole feels a little too outsized for its own ambition.


The Discovery: Pondering the Afterlife

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 11, 2018 at 11:26 am
The Discovery


The Discovery (2017)
Directed by Charlie McDowell
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Two-time director Charlie McDowell initially turned heads with his 2014 Sundance science-fiction drama The One I Love. That film’s legacy resumes in The Discovery, a Sundance follow-up that continues an ongoing thematic investigation into a philosophy of human intimacy jointly established by McDowell and returning screenwriter Justin Lader. Set in a world where the discovery of life after death has resulted in a worldwide suicide phenomenon, leading man Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) finds himself at the center of unraveling the mysteries of a universe that bears a passing resemblance to our own. Co-starring Robert Redford as Will’s troubled father and leader of a pseudo-cult of followers dedicated to continuing his research into the meaning and reality of a presumed hereafter, The Discovery offers a meditation on a whole swath of profound ideas and heady postulations that circuitously run circles around one another and themselves. And in the process, the faintest sliver of an emotional catharsis is reached at the farthest edges of the human psyche and mortal experience.

Instead of offering an easy answer to what happens after we die, The Discovery is far more concerned with solving the problems presented to us in our immediate waking realities. Winding throughout the film’s plot and script, instead of a morbid fascination with death, is an embrace of life and the people with whom we share it. When Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara) on a ferry at the beginning of the film, The Discovery introduces the idea of a romantic sub-plot that subsists at a subterraneous level of intellectual engagement. The possibility of finding love with another person becomes just as much of hindrance to emotional contentment as it is a spiritual necessity to our survival. Independent torment is thusly lessened by codependent comfort, provided each of us can get out of our own way long enough to meet the other person on a level playing field.

Even as McDowell and Lader refuse to reach any conventional kind of dramatic climax, The Discovery demands the viewer’s full attention and retention. Instead of explicitly laying out the foundations for a grand philosophy on human intimacy, The Discovery introduces a science-fiction premise whose opaque quality gives rise to further questions and a few self-supplied answers. The meaning of life and death are beguiling enough in their own complexity, but in The Discovery, love comes close to providing the footnotes necessary to interpret the former texts. The specifics of the narrative remain frustrating in their complexity, and the rest of the film does little to alleviate said confusion. But provided with the right mind set going in to watch the film for the first time, The Discovery is a movie that works on the same sub-conscious level of narrative logic previously employed by such art house fare as Synecdoche, New York and The Master.

There is plenty to love and hate about The Discovery, which will endear as many viewers to its meandering qualities as it will repulse many more from even entering its labyrinthine environs. McDowell and Lader provoke the viewer with a measured dose of self-importance in The Discovery, which leads to more than a few moments of stilted genre set pieces that ring with a clamorous din of preposterousness. Thankfully, Segel, Redford, and Mara–in addition to a supporting performance of exceptional resonance from Jesse Plemons (Fargo) – provide the human core of sentimental connection to The Discovery that the script alone could never achieve. The question of finding some happily ever after is denied at the end of The Discovery, but the acceptance of that reality results in a far more nuanced idea of a hypothetical heaven. The Discovery never quite comes together to form a cohesive whole fit to please general audiences, but in its unapologetic interrogation of a manufactured set of postulates, it entertains a philosophy worth interrogating beyond an initial viewing.

The Discovery is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review was originally published by Audiences Everywhere


Halloween: Evil At Rest

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on October 28, 2018 at 3:34 pm

Universal Pictures

Directed by David Gordon Green
2 out of 4 stars

There are spare moments throughout Halloween, the most recent reboot of the classic 1978 horror property written and directed by John Carpenter, that remind viewers of why the original film is still so adored. Watching the ominous serial killer Michael Myers return home to Haddonfield, Illinois to stalk another fresh batch of unsuspecting victims on Halloween night makes for the very best cinematic throwback of the year. Aided by the likes of the unpredictable director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) behind the camera – in addition to an original screenplay co-written by Danny McBride (Vice Principals) – Halloween is lent a brand new coat of paint that provides a fresh new sheen following the release of the Rob Zombie led affairs from 2007 and 2009. Trading in Zombie’s penchant for domestic abuse and backwoods socio-pathology for Carpenter’s more reserved flair for unease and paranoia – all of which is aided in no small part by an all-new original score composed by the horror movie music maestro himself – Green’s Halloween  is a welcome change of pace for longtime fans of the series. And considering the famously convoluted mythology and continuity that has plagued the franchise ever since the release of the original Halloween II in 1981, that’s a welcome blessing.

But for all of the nostalgic fondness that the new Halloween holds for a legacy that it largely upholds, Green has turned in a mixed bag of seasonal goodies and treats. The Shape looks effectively aged and leeringly ominous in his slightly altered garb and updated Captain Kirk death mask, but he also moves with an intent of purpose that detracts from the central argument that the characters in the film itself continue to make, namely that Michael Myers is a force of impassive evil. If that were true, then the death count of the film would have been enacted with the same breathless tact that original actor Nick Castle took with character starting in 1978. Instead, Green’s rendition of Myers appears to revel in the goriness of his kills, and makes a decided point of sometimes posing the dead in garish displays to elicit fear in a series of seemingly predetermined victims. And at the head of the pack is Jamie Lee Curtis, back to reprise her role as Laurie Strode and put an end to the evil that began on October 31, 1978 in a climactic showdown that is meant to feel intentional despite the script’s attempts to keep its interrogation of impassive evil intact.

It’s fun enough to see a return to form for a series that has undergone so many reincarnations and reboots to comprehensively contemplate in short form. Furthermore, its doubly exciting to see a horror series as old and conventionally put together as Halloween continue to pack theaters and make a killing at the domestic box office over the course of its opening weekend some forty years after it first stalked its way into theaters. Fans of Michael Myers will likely be pleased with what could very well be another unofficial final chapter to the storied saga of The Shape, and the film itself closes with an emotional crescendo and poetic final shot that can’t be beat. The Shape and Laurie Strode continue to duel in a manic manner that thrills and titillates, while playfully paying homage to all of the duels that the two have engaged in in past films before. Carpenter’s seminal horror property has been given the facelift that it deserves, and the health of the franchise couldn’t be better for it.

But in leaving its evil at rest, Green also drags a lot of the good will that his film has going for it through the mud in a few too many moments of morbidity that appear to have bled over from the Rob Zombie directed films. The kills in the new Halloween are grisly and ultra violent, and are obviously meant to elicit excitement in the viewer instead of horror. Comparatively, Carpenter never took much enjoyment from the onscreen violence perpetrated by his movie monster. Instead, his film is marked for its eery atmosphere and haunting presence that continues to linger with viewers, leaving many of us looking over our shoulder on a nippy autumn afternoon stroll after mistaking some rustle of the grass for the presence of The Shape staring with cold intent after us. On that note, here’s to Michael Myers and the past, present, and future of the Halloween franchise.

Brad’s Status: On Lives Lived Online

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 15, 2018 at 10:15 am
Brad's Status

Amazon Studios/Annapurna Pictures

Brad’s Status (2017)
Directed by Mike White
VOD Rating: Liked It

Written and directed by Mike White – whose past screen credits include his work in writing the screenplay for School of Rock and developing the original HBO drama series Enlightened – Brad’s Status plays out with a lot of the same downtrodden melancholy that has become White‘s thematic staple. Ostensibly aiming to critique and satirize the acceleration of competitive impulses held between old friends as they are hyper-realized on social media, White has reached a level of accessibility that few of his other films have ever achieved. From tackling sticky subjects like hermaphrodites in Freaks and Geeks, to extrapolating on severe alienation and depression in Year of the Dog, White is never one to shy away from topics and people who might repel some viewers, which is exactly why Brad’s Status comes as something of a surprise. Serving as perhaps White‘s most optimistic film yet, Brad’s Status sees Ben Stiller cast in a lead role that feels slightly less misanthropic than viewers have come to expect. Coming off of the despairing turn from Laura Dern in Enlightened, Stiller plays a surrogate White with a striking affability that simultaneously buoys the film’s effect and detracts from the script’s dour defeatism.

Slowly over the course of the past ten years or so, social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter have reoriented the means by which we engage and interact with our peers, friends, and family. Friends now constitute anyone we might have met only briefly in casual and disposable settings, but are now vying for our attention and sympathy online or via text message. But worse than anything else, social media has given rise to a growing sadness, in general perpetuated by the pictures we paint of ourselves online. Brad’s Status gets at a lot of these fairly routine anxieties of the digital age in the late 2010s with some humor and a healthy dose of cynicism. While embarking on a college tour with his young son, Stiller‘s thoughts begin to turn sour when he thinks about the monetary largesse and notorious success of his old college pals, and the lack of forward momentum he sees reflected comparatively in his own life.

Compared to Michael Sheen– who plays a former White House insider and best-selling novelist – Stiller is made to feel less than in Brad’s Status. Worried that he took a wrong turn and might have done better if he had gone into banking in order to procure the funds sorely needed of his philanthropic aspirations, Stiller approaches Facebook like a troublesome spiritual tormentor. Yet his son is miraculously free of any familial anxieties. Determined to study music in college, Austin Abrams (Paper Towns) shines as the post-ironic Millennial to Stiller‘s modern Baby Boomer. Passing through the halls of Harvard University and Tufts with a self-assured swagger and competent demeanor, Stiller is forced to reassess all of his insecurities in order to reach the film’s oddly touching third act.

Regrettably, Brad’s Status is far too often broached with broad brush strokes that lack the kind of definition that made past Mike White films like Year of the Dog unforgettable exercises in heavy-heartedness. Oscillating between mild humor and navel-gazing pretension, Brad’s Status is a road movie about fathers and sons that sporadically lands when it stops taking everything so seriously. But by and large, White has done a laudable job in bringing Brad’s Status to the big screen, and casting Stiller in the lead role helps make the movie more approachable for general audiences. The script’s subject matter has been broached with far more subtlety and nuance elsewhere – see Ingrid Goes West  from the same year for just one recent example – thereby lessening the reward of actually watching the finished production. Yet there is something to be said for any movie that allows Stiller room to breathe uneasy, and as was the case with his starring role in Greenberg from 2010, Brad’s Status benefits from his everyman presence.

Brad’s Status is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

Juliet, Naked: Audiophiles In Love

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on September 9, 2018 at 9:50 am
Juliet, Naked

Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

Juliet, Naked
Directed by Jesse Peretz
3 out of 4 stars

Nick Hornby is no stranger to the obsessive pursuit of art for art’s sake, and Juliet, Naked serves as perhaps his greatest novel on the monomaniacal fervor involved in said chase. Perhaps most well known for penning the seminal 1995 everyman opus High Fidelity – which was famously adapted into the classic 2000 feature film starring John Cusack – the English author revels in the often one-sided love sustained by a fan for their artist. And their is the operative word, as is especially the case with Juliet, Naked, the new feature film adaptation from director Jesse Peretz (Girls). Centering around one man’s (Chris O’Dowd) infatuation with a reclusive alt-rock singer-songwriter (Ethan Hawke), and his neglected wife’s (Rose Byrne) surprising romantic tryst with said songsmith, Juliet, Naked  offers a more sober-eyed view of love than the weedy womanizer of High Fidelity could hope to entertain. When it comes to loving music, Hornby is the best, especially when his stories are as poetically insightful as this one.

Stranded in a coastal English town that holds little promise for her both personally and professionally, Byrne pines for a way out of her humdrum life and slavish devotion to a husband (O’Dowd) who is emotionally engaged to another man (Hawke). In the book and the film, Byrne’s character is exquisitely drawn, as is her husband’s music blog circa 2009. Delving into the early days of the internet when the possibilities for connection still seemed limitless and without the potential of becoming societally detrimental, Juliet, Naked recasts the record store clerk mentality of High Fidelity against a far more porous dividing line between the fan and the artist. The kind of obsession that drives the protagonist of High Fidelity towards isolated narcissism in the 1990s dissimilarly casts the love triangle in Juliet, Naked adrift in communal desperation. As a result, Juliet, Naked serves as a semi-sequel to the former film serendipitously separated by barely a decade.

The speed with which the internet held a megaphone to the mouths of the same kinds of malcontented dude bros like John Cusack in High Fidelity is vaguely discomfiting in Juliet, Naked. And O’Dowd nails the nebbish film and TV professor who would take to the blogosphere in the late 2000s to broadcast his feverish mania with cringe-worthy aplomb. Rather than being immediately seen as someone who genuinely loves the album, Juliet, Naked artfully gets at the nagging selfishness that online forums have since given rise to in the intervening decade since the novel’s initial publication. Hornby has always been one who leans heavily towards self-deprecation, and in Peretz’s hands that kind of self-conscious humor is tactfully turned into another winning cinematic comedy. Despite some roughness around the edges, Hawke, O’Dowd, and Byrne all play their respective roles to a tee, and Peretz has successfully adapted another Hornby novel about audiophiles in love.

Towards the half-way mark of Juliet, Naked, the three main characters share a tense dinner alone with one another. Over the course of the emotionally fraught meal, O’Dowd espouses various apocryphal theories and beliefs about his idol, and Hawke responds with a demure grimace that shortly turns into a sour scowl. But after being scolded for propagating the kind of invasive celebrity gossip that the internet is contemporaneously synonymous with, O’Dowd makes the assertion that art is for the beholder, and thanks Hawke for making something that he has enjoyed so very much. In a similar vein, Hornby holds some sway over anyone who read both Juliet, Naked and High Fidelity over the years, and continue to hold them in high personal regard. Perhaps a great record, or a good book, is left to the consumer alone to herald and celebrate, and the artist is merely meant to provoke enthusiasm as is the case in Juliet, Naked.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story: The Cult of Celebrity

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on August 25, 2018 at 9:24 am
Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Amazon Studios

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

First published in 2000 under the pseudonymn JT LeRoy by author Laura Albert, “Sarah” became a transgressive fiction literary sensation. After holding court with such seminal writers of the sub-genre such as Bruce Benderson and Dennis Cooper, the rising writer of American letters seemed destined for superstardom. Whisked away on the coattails of celebrities impressed with her abilities on the page, Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy become the queer it lit boy of a generation, despite himself being another work of fiction conjured up by Albert. Enter documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, whose impressive pedigree as a New Journalism auteur on such works as The Devil and Daniel Johnston from 2005, makes him the perfect candidate to tell Albert’s tumultuous tale of creative identities. In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig presents a convoluted story that’s stranger than fiction, as it occurred according to Albert, about a highly contentious and controversial spin on the intersection of celebrity, art, and genius.

Historically speaking, the entire legacy of JT LeRoy seemed destined to unravel. What began as an exercise in personal therapy undertaken over the phone by Albert with Dr. Terrence Owens had become an unprecedented literary sensation. LeRoy was an “avatar” that allowed Albert to express things that she wasn’t ready to own up to as herself, so instead she cast her androgynous sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to play the part for her in real life. And despite the legally questionable extent to which Albert operated under the public fiction that LeRoy was a person separate from herself, Feuerzeig manages to make her into an unsung hero throughout his film. Yet the entire film is dependent on Albert’s word over anyone else’s.

Citing several formative moments of emotional and physical abuse from her own childhood, Albert indirectly apologizes to anyone she might have hurt. As a director of her story, Feuerzeig leans back from dictating the nature in which Albert justifies and explains her own actions, however misguided and damaging they may be perceived.  In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig and Albert appear to believe that the work should stand on its own outside of the controversy surrounding the name JT LeRoy, however complicated the surrounding social and cultural context has become in retrospect. For them, the novel Sarah and the book of short stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things are permanent reminders of Albert’s prowess as a writer.

Thanks in no small part to Feuerzeig‘s impassive role as a spectator to Albert’s genius, sanity gives way to subtle madness, tragedy, and a very public humiliation, years after the initial controversy. Like his 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston did for its own titular singer-songwriter misfit of the 1980s, Author: The JT LeRoy Story manages to present its own pop cultural phenomenon according to his/her own terms. How much of the story anyone might believe is entirely up to the individual viewer’s discretion, as Laura Albert makes the case for the defense of JT LeRoy under the auspices of her own assumed genius and madness. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and nothing is more peculiar than the legacy of JT LeRoy ten years later. Regardless of how you feel coming away from Feuerzeig‘s controversial film, you’ll be hard pressed to forget Albert’s impressively articulated story anytime soon.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.


Eighth Grade: Coming of Age Online

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on August 18, 2018 at 7:27 am
Eighth Grade


Eighth Grade
Directed by Bo Burnham
4 out of 4 stars

It’s strange to see a movie as tender as Eighth Grade see wide release. It’s even stranger still to see a YouTube star/standup comedian turned director be the creative talent behind its inception, production, and distribution. Starring Despicable Me franchise star Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a young, intense, and turbulently thoughtful middle schooler, Burnham’s first trip behind the camera of a major motion picture is everything that every twee Millennial twenty-something with a penchant for anxious sarcasm has come to expect from the internet celebrity, and then some. After building his career and public image on comedic songwriting and post-modern grandstanding, Burnham has come away from it all with some hard earned truths about the perils of coming of age online. And in Ms. Fisher, Burnham has found his perfect avatar.

Quick to cite his own issues with mental health, Eighth Grade navigates the perennially fraught psychological waters of middle school for girls with remarkable empathy that only Burnham could have delivered. The ways in which the film tracks Kayla’s awkward coming of age as she girds herself for the transition into high school is a terror to watch. Aided by an especially effective musical score that serves to highlight the innermost thoughts and fears through moody electronic soundscapes, a pool party turns into a monster movie and a night spent alone on Instagram turns into a delirious odyssey. But rather than make any moral statements on the ills of social media outright, Eighth Grade tactfully remains uninterested in condemning or celebrating online culture at all. Instead, it seeks to understand the ways in which it shapes us all, especially young people, and how we all choose to engage and cope with its unavoidable integration into our personal and professional lives.

But more than that, Eighth Grade really gets at what it feels like to feel shy, alienated, and alone. At the beginning of the film, the viewer is meant to feel the intense stab of pain that comes from being acknowledged as the quiet one. Substitute quiet for weird, aloof, or dorky and the epithet would amount to the same social impediment of feeling out of place in your skin. The ways in which others are so quick to judge Kayla throughout the film as the quiet one force her deeper and deeper into her own corner. Meanwhile, her doting father (Josh Hamilton) struggles to get his daughter to come out of her shell so that everyone else can see the lovely person that he knows he has raised.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Eighth Grade comes in its depiction of Kayla’s output on YouTube. Bookending the beginning and the end of Burnham’s directorial debut are two videos that see his young muse extolling painfully self-reflective words of wisdom about learning how to fit in with your peers and loving yourself despite your insecurities. Yet the pain isn’t a burden. Far from it, the pain that Kayla feels is immediately akin to that of the viewer, who has undoubtedly also struggled over the course of their life to take the same kind of advice to heart and follow it through to the end. But most importantly, that epiphany is reached online.

The Lovers: Love the One You’re With

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on July 28, 2018 at 11:02 am
The Lovers


The Lovers (2018)
Directed by Azazel Jacobs
VOD Rating: Liked It

Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, The Lovers is an unconventional romantic comedy about the vicissitudes experienced by a soon-to-be divorced couple.  Starring Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as the woebegone Mary and Michael, Jacobs’s latest feature attempts to ground itself against the inherently impetuous tides of a highly unusual romantic tryst. Equally determined to divorce the other and fall back into the arms of their newfound lovers – enter Aidan Gillen and Melora Walters– The Lovers soon sees its titular paramours falling back into each other’s arms in an attempt to find new meaning in a marriage on the brink of collapse. Watching Winger and Letts dance circles around each other in a dizzying display of arrogance, passion, and naïveté provides for a disconcerting bit of emotional choreography to philosophically track. In the film’s best moments Jacobs leans on the performances given by his seasoned lead actors, and with the help of a musical score consisting of classical compositions, The Lovers floats on the air of its own triviality.

By choosing to open his film with Winger and Letts struggling to come to terms with their impending divorce, Jacobs interprets infidelity as an ambiguous satire of romantic intimacy. Neither Mary nor Michael is especially dedicated to their prospective significant others, but over the course of the following ninety-seven minutes they each come to find some kind of peace and resolve in their pending separation. Despite presumably finding greater happiness outside of their marriage, Mary and Michael can’t help but look back and wonder at what used to be. And Jacobs is equally willing to explore the extent to which the human heart is an ever maleable facet of the human condition. Rather than forcing any one of his romantic subjects to become exclusively attached to one partner, The Lovers is more than willing to allow its players to exchange their significant others for another more appealing parter on a whim.

Romantic exclusivity has long been a tantamount goal of the romantic comedy genre. From When Harry Met Sally to Love Actually, the goal of falling in love in the movies is to find one person to share your life and love with forever. In The Lovers, such a sentiment is patently ridiculous and realistically untenable. Times change, and so do people, and with both elemental forces comes the dissolution of relationships euphemistically meant to last for an eternity. If people can’t stay dedicated to one person for their entire lives, then The Lovers is a prime cinematic interpretation of an unpopular reality.

Azazel Jacobs intends to withhold any arbitrary happy ending from occurring over the course of the climax to The Lovers. Far from falling in line with any of their romantic comedy forebears,  Jacobs’ characters are far more idiosyncratically inclined than even the most flighty and feather-headed Meg Ryan character that you could possibly imagine. As such, there is no happy ending to The Lovers, but there is a cathartic conclusion. As we see Winger and Letts stealing another brief moment of intimacy together before the final credits begin to roll, there is some catharsis to be found, no matter how fleeting it may be. Long after Winger and Letts have spent countless minutes past wandering a series of misanthropic dramatic digressions, the soon to be divorced couple is still capable of speaking to and of one another in loving terms, and their divorce stands as a hard earned reality.

The Lovers is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

Sorry to Bother You: Competency Not Required

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on July 21, 2018 at 2:32 pm
Sorry to Bother You

Annapurna Pictures

Sorry to Bother You
Directed by Boots Riley
3 out of 4 stars

There is a moment early on in Boots Riley’s directorial debut that cuts right to the heart of the matter. After spending the last several hours in a telemarketing office set against a snidely dystopian version of present day Oakland, California, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) bemoans an overwhelming sense of incompetency. Living out of his uncle’s garage definitely doesn’t help matters, while all around him he is bombarded by advertisements for WorryFree, a national corporation that promises its employees free food and lodging for life in exchange for the yoke of what amounts to indentured servitude. Meanwhile, his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) becomes involved in the political activist group “The Left Eye,” which collectively sets about to violently dismantle the capitalist hierarchy that actively enables the various forms of social and economic slavery which Cash and his friends have been subjected to. But competency comes at a cost.

The way in which Sorry to Bother You tackles social satire is overwhelming and unrelenting. Far from easing the viewer into its surreal world, the narrative picks up without much in the way of an introduction, with Cash nervously fidgeting in the hiring office of RegalView, the telemarketing business that secretly serves as the public relations mouthpiece of WorryFree and its sociopathic CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). After successfully overcoming the often precarious process of the job interview, Cash finds himself enmeshed in a work culture that prides itself on literate resourcefulness. Rhetorical flourishes aided by racial stereotyping rule the day, and the very best telemarketers are promised the prestige of the ever tantalizing job title of “Power Caller.” Competency not required.

Yet nothing is ever as it seems on the surface. Rather than offer an easy way by which to understand the rules that govern its capitalistic game, Sorry to Bother You frequently pulls the rug out from under the feet of its protagonists and sends the viewer reeling against a series of images, icons, and motifs that offer an endless cornucopia of subtle resonances. Horror builds slowly to terror before subverting back to comedy all in the span of five minutes, lending Riley’s film an authorial bent all its own. On one level, the film overtly parodies the income divide between white and black people, while on another it laughs in the face of the very idea that anything was wrong to begin with. Revolution is always at the tip of the tongue, but rarely spoken aloud.

Owing some small debt to Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope in terms of its thematic legacy, Boots Riley has likewise delivered a film perfectly suited to its time. In an age of political untruths and civil unrest, Sorry to Bother You has its finger firmly held on the pulse of America in 2018. Nothing feels safe in a world casually and forcefully ruled by reality TV personalities and multi-billionaires, as Cash and the rest of the world surely know by now. Forced to contend with a universe gone awry, Sorry to Bother You acts as a funhouse mirror reflecting our own distorted national identity back at us. The world is a nightmare, and Boots Riley is intent on rousing viewers from their slumber.

Outside In: The Human Spirit Confined

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on April 21, 2018 at 11:36 am
Outside In

The Orchard

Outside In (2018)
Directed by Lynn Shelton
VOD Rating: Liked It
Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, Outside In is the latest in a long line of exquisite character studies. Following her work on the star-studded comedy Laggies from 2014, Shelton returns to a more subdued thematic palate that brought her such initial successes as Humpday in 2009 and Your Sister’s Sister in 2011. Co-written with the film’s star and executive producer Jay Duplass, Outside In examines another relationship between two people who are arbitrarily barred from expressing the full range of their feelings for one another due to the pressures of social conventions. As an ex-con in his late 30’s, Duplass‘s Chris pines after Edie Falco‘s Carol, a high school English teacher and part-time counselor who helped secure Chris’ early release from prison. But after suffering a severe injustice for a crime that he didn’t commit, Chris (Duplass) is greeted by a cold world that doesn’t appear especially eager to welcome him back into the fold of mainstream society.

Like any number of previous feature length movies from Lynn Shelton, Outside In presents the adult world as one roiling with an undercurrent of subversive discontentment. With Carol (Falco), viewers find themselves welcomed into a nuclear unit that has long since forgotten how to love and communicate with one another. Estranged from her husband (Charles Leggett) and teenage daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) due to years of intense work and care for Chris during his incarceration, Carol finds herself struggling to tread water in a sea of shifting obligations and desires. As for Chris (Duplass), life on the outside is just as troubling. Forced to live in an acrimonious household with his brother Ted (Ben Schwartz), the ex-con soon discovers that all of his friends from high school have long since grown up and largely forgotten about him.

By the end of the film’s trim 109-minute runtime, Shelton leaves her characters with the surprising degree of contentment that can only come with a full acceptance of the inevitable shortcomings of life. Determined to take on more counseling assignments as part of a full-time vocation, Carol leaves her husband and Chris in order to find her true self. And after their solitary night together in carnal bliss, Chris is also granted the clarity to put his past behind him and chart a new course towards a sustainable and happy future. Much like the lyrical lilt provided to the film by an original Andrew Bird musical score, Outside In embraces the vagaries of adulthood as a journey whose destination resides within. The outside world of Outside In is peopled by weary travelers, yet its heroes are among the happy few who somehow manage to find their way back home.

Lynn Shelton finds some kind of peace and harmony among the disaffected, which proves to be the case once again with Outside In. And perhaps more so than with any of her previous theatrical efforts, her latest feature length endeavor examines the human soul in confinement, literally and metaphorically. Chris (Duplass) and Carol (Falco) shine as the film’s unconventional couple, as the film weaves its way out of sober depression and into eager ambition. Much like the moody sculptures created and curated in the film proper by Hildy (Dever), there is beauty hiding in between the shadows of Outside In waiting to burst out in a bright ray of light and be seen despite its illusive nature. And once that beauty is found, the rewards are numerous and plentiful, especially after spending so much time in the dark.

Outside In is currently available to rent online, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.