Sean K. Cureton

Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews: 2015’ Category

The Revenant or (The Expected Virtue of Iñárritu)

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on January 23, 2016 at 12:17 pm
The Revenant

20th Century Fox

The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
3 out of 4 stars

Like his last film of dramatic portentousness, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest work is heavily poetic and mock spiritual to a fault, with many stunningly photographed vistas of snowbound alpines meant to stand in for some kind of abstract notion of human idealism that can prove hard to grasp. Where Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) took on its sub-titular notion of artistic pretention and pride, The Revenant explores revenge played out to its brutal end, a film that renders violence enacted upon one’s fellow man felt as an emotional wound that scars the psyche, and hollows out its victims seeking justice in all the wrong places. As real life American frontiersman and fur trapper of legend Hugh Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio pushes himself farther than might be deemed entirely necessary of what would otherwise be called fiction, and makes a film in dedication to the man as seen through the convoluted lens of Iñárritu’s poetic vision. There’s plenty of beauty and horror to be found throughout the film, and as such much of its seemingly ungraspable visuals become metaphoric intuitively, with the realistic filming technique undertaken by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki resulting in an equally honest depiction of historical events. Iñárritu has perhaps created a mountain of self-involvement that other directors might find hard to surmount in the making of his latest film, and yet The Revenant manages to surpass all expectations, resulting in a work of contemporary cinema that needs to be seen by anyone who professes a love for the medium.

Of late, and following Iñárritu’s string of awards lauded onto Birdman and The Revenant in kind, a small minority of voices has come forward to voice their needling displeasure with much of the director’s grandiose pomposity. For some, Birdman was an entirely contrived affair meant to cater to the simpering intellect of the cinematic intelligentsia, while shutting out general audiences with its open degradation and condescension towards big budget Hollywood fare. To some, Riggan Thomson proved a thoroughly unlikeable character, whose Icarian flight towards the sun was scorching and without human insight, regardless of how minutely manifested his particular brilliance might otherwise have been seen by the assembled majority of otherwise captivated film critics. As a member of the latter party, it becomes difficult to assess just where some of this miniscule, albeit vocal, minority of dissent has its origin, though perhaps much of the film’s post-modern aestheticism is to blame, with Iñárritu often adopting the visual poetics of a Terrence Malick without any of the latter’s warmth or compassion. Birdman is a fast-paced, chess game of the mind that plays like a studio comedy, and The Revenant is a slow, spiritual ballet that moves with all of the speed of mortal folly in war, though neither ever truly feels as though it has earned either accolade when it comes to a feeling, deeply and emotionally, for any of the characters depicted on screen as characters of Iñárritu’s personal invention and insight.

But such a digressive discourse fails to get at what it is that makes a film like The Revenant such a compelling drama to begin with. Simply put, it’s breathtaking to watch the film, and discover the various paths that Glass must overcome in order to try and fail, and try and fail again, to come back from the brink of death, over and over again, and finally find his revenge lacking in any spiritual resolution. If our hero’s final words are to be believed as religious truth, then revenge is truly up to some great deity, and our own strivings towards justice may be deemed laughable and narcissistic in comparison to the former’s almighty power. Watching DiCaprio and his co-star Tom Hardy, who plays the film’s chief antagonist John Fitzgerald, come to blows with one another after just over two hours of grueling tension and physical torment is truly satisfying, and a dramatic achievement that viewers may never quiet recover from. The Revenant may cast aside human performance in the service of its photographically depicted realism that verges into the realm of sheer documentary filmmaking, but it is also one of the more gripping meditations on human spirituality and religion in the face of man’s inherently sinful nature to be seen on the big screen in a long time.

The Revenant, regardless of how you may feel about its high-minded intentions, is one of the best motion pictures of the year. Its ability to articulate some of the most deeply held, sub-conscious human truths is awe inspiring, and when coupled with Emmanuel Lubezki’s photographic poetry, the picture becomes about far more than revenge and God. Iñárritu has truly delivered something unimaginable in his latest film; even as his prior work threatened to define his entire career, it is his latest opus that may be far more cohesive in its meditation on another facet of man’s ego. The film is gut-wrenching and beautifully told, while simultaneously offering spiritual succor for those seeking answers to life’s most persistent existential questions and entertaining audiences with a thrilling tale of philosophical adventure to rival the works of Jack London. DiCaprio and Hardy pair well together under Iñárritu’s deliberate direction, and the dance they undertake in the film is one to see as set against the thematic tableaux of early nineteenth century American colonialism and greed, and stands as further proof of its director’s entirely expected virtue of dramatic cognizance.

Krampus, Late Capitalism, & Christmas

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on December 26, 2015 at 12:54 pm
Krampus

Universal Pictures

Krampus
Directed by Michael Dougherty
2 ½ out of 4 stars

The latest seasonal horror-comedy from writer-director Michael Dougherty has already been cast as a contemporary successor to Joe Dante’s Gremlins of 1984, despite its Alpine folklore elements never quiet cohering entirely with a central narrative reluctantly concerned with the spirit of its featured holiday season. In Krampus, the titular Austro-Bavarian creature of legend is summoned by a disharmonious family that is forced to spend the Christmas holiday under one roof, whose antagonistic displays towards and against one another continue to proliferate and emerge until the anti-Santa is unleashed upon them. In the opening credit sequence of Dougherty’s new film, there is a surprisingly well-orchestrated bit of comedy at play, wherein the consumerism of the holiday is expertly lampooned in a hyperbolic fashion. The tableaux in question centers around a violent outburst perpetrated at a local shopping mall, Santa meet-and-greet, as the Engel family’s eldest son Max erupts in a fit of violent rage over some inexplicable, and likely self-involved moment of environmental misjudgment, that plays out like any tantrum thrown by any child under thirteen in a public shopping center at the height of the winter holiday season. Much of the film’s lightly applied social satire develops from this early moment of comic clarity, though much of its fails to deliver on the nuance and light-hearted subtlety at play early on, and ultimately delivers on a wide range of ill-timed and excessive horror movie elements.

Which is not to say that most of the scare tactics and grisly movie monsters that Dougherty employs throughout his new film are entirely without merit, or contrived and silly on their own terms. Divorced entirely from the rest of production, many of the demonic children’s toys that populate the snowy landscape of Krampus are either minutely disturbing enough to warrant their own short films, or genuinely unsettling to behold, and make for some the film’s more effectively creepy scenes and sequences. But the sheer multitude of these miniature movie monsters often becomes too much, and their ubiquity for the first two thirds of the film makes for a less imposing final reveal when Max finally confronts the great beast that he has unwittingly unleashed upon his family by film’s end. The grotesque Jack-in-the-Box and the army of malevolent gingerbread men are effective on their own, but combined with an evil teddy bear, a satanic angel ornament, and a smattering of incoherent, malicious elves, much of the film’s horror movie elements fall flat inn juxtaposition to one another, and serve to flatten a lot of the film’s scares, while simultaneously diminishing the script’s more tender-hearted narrative intentions. If Dougherty had scaled back on the sheer assault of unnecessary, annoying, and entirely predictable jump scares and horrific surprises, he might have been able to produce a subtler film that relied more heavily on the imposing presence of its featured movie monster, and delivered a fable more in keeping with the quaint nostalgia that beats at the very heart of many of the film’s stellar performances.

In their respective roles, the actors who comprise the cast for Dougherty’s latest horror-comedy are at the top of their game respectively, and serve to ground the film in a humanistic story that is both sardonic and tragic. Adam Scott and Toni Collette are sweet and believable throughout as a couple struggling to stay together and in love, and serve to offer some kind of hope for the end of an entirely disparate film that never comes to pass. Likewise, David Koechner and Allison Tolman are diametrically endearing as the imposing relatives, and Conchata Ferrell is always a welcome presence to any broad comedy production. But there simply doesn’t appear to be anywhere for these characters to go except down, as the narrative that Dougherty’s quickly established over the course of the film’s second act is one that offers no hope or redeeming moral lesson to be learned from the horrific comedy of errors that otherwise ensues. Instead, the Engel’s are left to contemplate the error of their ways in an apparent purgatory that seems oddly misappropriated for a movie purportedly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, and ends in one of the worst jump scares all year, save for the nearly identical one more appropriately tagged onto the end of Leigh Whannell’s Insidious: Chapter 3.

Joe Dante’s aforementioned horror-comedy is a better film in a every way imaginable to Dougherty’s contemporary revamp of many of the same ideas and basic dramatic structure. In Gremlins, the tiny demonic creatures who wreak near-inescapable havoc are vanquished by film’s end, and the family forced to undergo a holiday of terror are chastened and all the better for the ordeal undergone. Meanwhile, Krampus is an oppressively nihilistic version of the same story, even as it doesn’t appear to mean to be. Dougherty’s horror movie elements effectively take over what is an overtly humorous take on the scary story at the comedy production’s center, and ends up offering one of the worst holiday films imaginable, with none of the heart or understanding of many of the themes and lessons that it purports to deliver. At times, it feels as though Krampus wants to be a different film entirely, one more in keeping with much of the holistic goodness of Dante’s aforementioned cult-classic, but fails to see very far beyond the outwardly apparent bleakness of its chosen source material, and offers little more than a confused satire of late-capitalism, with a couple of scares thrown in to make sure the audience is paying attention.

James Bond in Abstentia

In Movie Reviews: 2015, Uncategorized on November 28, 2015 at 5:44 pm
Spectre

MGM/Columbia Pictures

Spectre
Directed by Sam Mendes
2 ½ out of 4 stars

Following on the heels of what was perhaps the best 007 film since Sean Connery’s heyday turn as the characters over the course of the 1960s, director Sam Mendes’ Spectre is a lukewarm, leftover serving of what made his Skyfall such a thrilling, resuscitation of its storied, supporting property. Where his last film made Bond into something of a lame duck, alcoholic has-been, forced to mourn for the loss of a certain naïve innocence that might just constitute the very joie vu vivre of life itself, Mendes finds his take on the Ian Felming original character in his new film in a state of emotional and philosophical despondency. M is dead, the future of MI6 is uncertain, and all of the ghosts from Bond’s past have come back to haunt in a series of confounding, ethereal ways. As Daniel Craig finds himself contending with the fallout of his four feature tenure as Bond within the boundaries of the film’s narrative context, it becomes easy to see the film as a much larger confrontation of the necessity of the Bond character in general, a hero archetype in dire need of recasting and moral reevaluation. It would be easy to merely ask the question of whether or not we need 007 anymore, but Spectre appears ready with the follow-up expose after the fact of the former line of inquiry, delivering a surreal, supremely bizarre moratorium on the character.

Bond is not a character of the current cultural climate, to put it bluntly. His archaic, patronizing tone, overriding misogyny, and outright disregard for the individual agency of the women in his life since the character’s inception has become inseparable from the character proper. Where actors like Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan have been able to bring perhaps a little more light to the character over the years, Bond has remained a relic of a pre-feminist age, and utterly unrepentant in his inability to cope or adapt to an increasingly liberal, socio-political landscape since. Enter Daniel Craig in the 2006, Martin Campbell directed reboot of the character in Casino Royale, and everything previously established in regards to the character’s outward demeanor is tossed out the window. For the most part, Craig has come to symbolize a personally compromised Bond, a 007 who has given into a certain feminine leniency and post-feminist rebuttal of the extant patriarchy of his service.

On several separate occasions over the course of three prior films, Craig has come to promote a James Bond more in line with the politically correct, left-ward leaning times of the contemporary cultural climate, for whatever fault viewers may find with such a sentiment notwithstanding. Craig is a wounded, brooding, and self-sufficient agent of her majesty’s secret service, only said enlistment is now subject to an entirely different set of historical parameters. The late M, played by Judi Dench, takes up more space in the film’s establishment of command throughout Craig’s tenure as Bond, resulting in an opaquely applied facsimile of the latter character overall. Craig plays Bond like an old dog, entirely capable of trotting out old tricks for the amusement of an amassed audience of easily placated viewers, though his agency acts as a mere parlor show for an assembled coterie of similarly staid ex-patriots. Enter Spectre, and you have the timid culmination of the fallout from Skyfall, a seeming memorial to the franchise’s past successes without any of the vibrancy and ingenuity to ever truly come across as anything but a swan song to Craig as 007.

There’s a lot of style that makes up for a lack of narrative content in Medes’ latest outing as the successor to Fleming, though much of the film itself is sorely missing anything to make itself stand out on its own. Mendes borrows entire set pieces and plot points from past films in the series, and at times entire character arcs feel poorly misappropriated within the context of Craig’s post-modern take on the role. Christoph Waltz is a welcome enough presence when his character final enters the picture, though the pall he casts over the entire production thereafter often feels more intrusive than effectively articulated or dramatically cathartic. At many points throughout the film’s overlong, self-important, and pre-ponderous 148 minute runtime, Craig appears lost in a wasteland of Bonds past, his own tenure as the iconic character on the verge of running up, the film a seeming purgatory to his necessary and thoroughly original performance within the surrounding series. Spectre may be among the most atypical entries in the storied history of Fleming’s secret agent; its bizarre narrative structure rings hollow where it should resound with all of the clear-eyed focus of its immediate predecessor, with Mendes leaving the property for now with a resounding echo of what it once was, with James Bond in absentia.

Gothic Romance as Macabre Farce

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on November 7, 2015 at 2:12 pm
Crimson Peak Theatrical Poster

Universal Pictures

Crimson Peak
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
2 out of 4 stars

Crimson Peak comes on heavy from the start, with its supplementary ghost story an element of the film’s fabric that becomes all pervasive, drowning out many of director Guillermo del Toro’s more subtle and rhetorical flourishes. The film itself is an incredibly atmospheric, gothic romance, as the director so vehemently made a point of stating in the promotion of his new film over the course of the last month, though its tender tragedy comes at the very center of a fairly convoluted, meager, and mediocre, melodramatic period piece. While the film’s stars Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain form a compelling lover’s triangle that is constantly on the verge of the cross-strangulation of all three aphrodisiacs, their story is largely put on hold in the service of a fairly route, haunted house ride. Implementing perhaps more CGI than would have been advisable, the monsters in del Toro’s latest all appear hyper accentuated to a fault, though perhaps this particular un-reality has more to do with the ludicrous plot, setting, and climactic clash over hallowed grounds that have been reddened through a plot contrivance exhaustingly convenient. The film itself never coheres into anything close to resembling an independent production, but instead peters out into several incongruent and seemingly discontinuous parts, with del Toro’s impeccable eye for detail and literary allusion his apparent undoing this time around.

Wasikowska is sympathetic enough in the role of Edith Cushing, an educated young woman living in what passes for America within the film’s disparate landscapes, on her father’s moneyed estate. Bearing a passing resemblance to such Victorian characters as Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the film makes blunt associations to the two former literary characters of the period of time that del Toro attempts to portray visually, even as his script plods along with overbearing dialogue and brashly cliché, narrative beats. When the film moves across the pond to Hiddleston and Chastain’s estate amid a cinematically secluded English country side, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe prove not only dislikable antagonists, but villains without any heart or bearing of their own outside of the heavily redundant world against which they are cast. The film becomes an exercise in indulgence spurred on by del Toro’s decided love for all things creepy, though his attempts at recasting the haunted hills of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is well neigh suffocating in his persistent courtship of intellectual pretention. As the entire affair comes to a bloody head at the film’s conclusion, and Wasikowska’s Cushing character closes the book of her own writing on the events contained within the film proper, viewers may at least come away with the relief afforded by never having to glance at the flowery and pompous prose intimated by the film’s self-aggrandizing majesty.

Which is all not to say that the film doesn’t still have its moments, or that del Toro has completely lost his touch as an inherently hyperbolic filmmaker. Like Pacific Rim, the director’s latest builds upon pre-established and well known storytelling traditions while incorporating his own unimpeachable aesthetic vision. The Sharpe estate in his new film is gloriously macabre, with his dilapidated structure, groaning, mechanized structural bearings, and oozing floors threatening to be over taken by the red clay that becomes visually associated with the crimson ghouls that haunt the ancestral abode with menace and woe. Edith is an appropriate avatar by which to navigate the films labyrinthine, maze-like structure so well known to fans of del Toro’s larger oeuvre, and the very construction of his latest cinematic set piece is reminiscent of the many winding gears and widgets of his directorial debut Cronos, only to be recast and seen again later on in Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s always a pleasure to get to know the inner workings of behind the tapestries that adorn del Toro’s films, even if the fabric quickly gives way to a skeletal frame in dire need of expositional support.

The film’s cast at times appear aware of the del Toro’s many excesses and illusory sparks of innovation that ultimately give way to a barren cellar of discarded and recycled tropes and images from greater works on the page and screen from the past. At times Hiddleston’s limber frame and hints towards a predatory menace necessitated by a wounded humanity resulting from his own loss of innocence, though in extrapolation on the Thomas Sharpe character it is in his sister Lucille where much of the film’s horror arises, and to lesser reward. In moving so quickly between too many literary and cinematic allusions to count, del Toro makes a mockery of his own sycophantic appreciation of his own artistry, his gothic romance a macabre farce in disguise. The estate from which the film derives its name is an effectively eerie setting that becomes undone by the film’s many surrounding elements, all jockeying for their time in front of a camera that moves far too frenetically between its many points of reference. On that note, it becomes possible to leave the would-be Victorian novelist, Ms. Edith Cushing, to ponder over her own shallow pool of narrative recursion between the covers of a book that may be closed by the film’s viewers indefinitely.

Another Stranger in a Strange Land

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on October 17, 2015 at 12:15 pm
The Martian Theatrical Poster

20th Century Fox

The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott
3 out of 4 stars

After the debacle of his ill-conceived, quasi-sequel to Alien, Ridley Scott has returned to the science-fiction genre once more with yet another space odyssey to rival the likes of what has come before. Unlike 2012’s fantasy-fable Prometheus, The Martian, adapted from the novel by real life software engineer Andy Weir, takes on the grandiosity of space travel less as a means for wild extrapolation and adventure but instead examines the real world implications of deep space exploration. In the film, as in Weir’s original novel, NASA astronaut Mark Watney, played in the film by Matt Damon, finds himself stranded on the surface of Mars after a freak sand storm strikes the planet’s surface, and his fellow scientists leave him for dead in a scrum to leave the planet’s immediate atmosphere. The rest of the film then becomes a Robinson Crusoe travelogue of sorts, with Watney speaking directly into a camera in order to record his day-to-day ordeals and brief spates of existential terror. Written and produced by film and TV veteran Drew Goddard, Weir’s novel becomes a wondrous love letter to outer space as it has been seen on film, even as Scott makes a bold departure from the horror and turmoil of such past successes in the genre as Alien and Blade Runner, Mark Watney a more willing and self-assured protagonist capable of overcoming overwhelming odds in a world more akin to our own.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Scott’s new film is the optimism and enthusiasm it holds for the human spirit, and collaborative innovation in general. Where Ellen Ripley was prototypically required to play the role of the “Final Girl” in a franchise that become dependent on horror movie tropes, and Rick Deckard was crippled with philosophical ponderings over the fundamentals of human consciousness, Watney is freed from such genre-based thematic recursions, and instead focuses on surviving as yet another stranger in a strange land. In Goddard’s script, the film’s narrative beats are empathetically articulated, playing upon the heartstrings and steadfastness of an utterly American spirit seemingly imbued into the film’s very fabric. Over the past half century, films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact have rendered the science-fiction genre on film self-involved and overly concerned with answering grandly spiritual questions. Shirking off the legacy of said contemporary classics, Goddard and Scott have delivered a new film more akin to the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, films where deep space holds a little danger that always gives way to the endurance and ingenuity of the human mind and soul.

Damon plays a credible NASA astronaut living well into the twenty-first century in Scott’s new film, predominantly due to his unwillingness to be beaten by an apparently inhospitable environment otherwise intent on breaking his will to live. In Watney’s refusal to be defeated by his circumstances from the very start of the film, Weir’s original space epic becomes one about the individual innovation, hard science-based facts, and just the slightest bit of bureaucratic negotiation. In Goddard’s script, Watney’s journey for survival is never fantastically imagined, and no supernatural or surreal elements ever seek to influence and corrupt his reading of the events that continue to surround him, neither directly nor indirectly. Likewise, the men on the ground at NASA in the film never become entirely defeated by the obstacles that they are forced to overcome and address across a chasm of deep space, even as they grow embittered over how best to go about solving Watney’s central dilemma. The film thus becomes akin to the literary tradition set by Daniel Defoe in the early eighteenth-century, Watney a modern day Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on his very own island of sorts, even if his struggles have abandoned a metaphorical God in favor of rational realism and critical thinking.

Alien was a fundamental shift in the very nature of how science-fiction films were constructed and told to their audiences, like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it. In both films, certain dramatic and thematic tropes were introduced by which the loneliness of deep space exploration might be examined here on earth, the vast expanse of interstellar space both inspiring and alienating. In space, no one can hear you scream, as Ellen Ripley so infamously found out, and necessity of survival at all costs becomes an impending threat and boon alike. Enter Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut readily aware of the dangers inherent to his small step onto the surface of Mars, but willingly takes several subsequent leaps and bounds for mankind. Scott’s titular Martian is therefore a surprising entity in his authentic humanity, neither a machine nor an extraterrestrial monster, but instead an inspiring avatar for those of us eager to reach out and discover the unknown despite the odds.

Sheep Out of Water

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on September 5, 2015 at 11:42 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Shaun the Sheep Movie
Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak
3 out of 4 stars

Shaun the Sheep Movie is something of an anomaly as a late summer release. Where other major motion pictures available to screen amid the dog days of summer typically feature more readily recognizable and persistent genres and sub-genres for viewers to subconsciously engage with, the latest feature length, stop-motion animated adventure comedy from the studio that brought the world such iconic characters as Wallace and Gromit in the 1990s is gleefully self-contained. Without playing into the contemporary craze for masked vigilantes or teen-dystopia, science-fiction adaptations, Aardman Animations has taken a cult-classic independent property and repackaged what was already appealing to many in a completely new and at times revelatory manner. Like Universal Pictures’ Minions, Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep is an already recognizable character pulled from an original Wallace and Gromit short film that was produced and directed by Nick Park in 1995, and has since become an established character on his own television series and an entity unto himself. Unlike the Despicable Me spin-off phenomenon, Shaun the Sheep substantiates a feature length narrative through innovative character invention and the meticulous construction of individual set pieces behind the scenes at Aardman, with Gru’s henchman meanwhile doomed to repeat a litany of one-liners, stale sight gags, and a cacophony of immature sound effects.

Pulling from an entirely cinematic tradition of visual and physical comedy on the big screen, directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak cast their anthropomorphic characters onto a canvas as big as any seen before in past stop-motion marvels from the studio. Like Aardman’s Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Shaun the Sheep Movie builds action out of what at first appears to be a limited canvas before the actions undertaken within fill the landscape with color and multi-faceted personalities that are by turns heartwarming, empathetic, and hilarious. The artistry and technical design that goes into each and every scene is truly marvelous to watch, and makes for one of the most impressive animated spectacles in years. Pixar might have the upper hand when it comes to master storytelling, but Aardman takes an alternative path that reveals novelty through an understated and mundane outlook on life as the viewer knows it. Films like Inside Out are brilliantly staggering on an intellectual level, but it is only in smaller concept films like Shaun the Sheep Movie where some of the more immediate familiarities between people come out more evocatively by being so simply put.

At the heart of Burton and Starzak’s new film is the universal notion of growing up and wanting more out of life than what you already have. In the hands of a more American sensibility, such an enthusiasm for personal reinvention might be granted more economically through commercial capitalism via consumerism. In Shaun the Sheep Movie, the same dilemma is addressed in the same way to a certain extent, but what is of central importance to this film’s story is not cultural homogenization in an attempt to fit into a preexisting social mold, but the sustained and upheld family values shared at home and in one’s individual heart and soul. Several sequences in Burton and Starzak’s film have to do with advertising and celebrity, but they are never celebratory of such values. Instead, their film is one where the cult of bourgeois ephemera is largely lampooned and exposed for the self-destructing vice that it usually is, with a quiet, private life back home more conducive to values and ethics that are morally sound and existentially fulfilling.

Like the original short films made by Nick Park that helped launch the studio to worldwide acclaim and recognition, Aardman’s latest is a marvel on a small scale with plenty of heart to supplement its overt comedy theatrics. Like Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep is a character who is immediately compelling to watch not because of what he does or due to the world and narrative which he inhabits, but because he lives simply and sympathetically. Where the Minions of Minions are only ever funny in an entirely fantastic and commercially distracting way, the barnyard animals of Shaun the Sheep Movie exude warmth and compassion. Burton and Starzak appear to care deeply for their viewers, and in so doing have crafted a film that strives to speak to how we all feel, first as children and later on as adults, their family entertainment one that anyone and everyone can watch and enjoy without irony, self-deprecation, or post-modern deconstruction of individual narrative beats or comic punches. Minions may have ruled the global box office this summer, but Aardman’s animated fare is far more fulfilling, and more worthy of your attention as a viewer than most of the mainstream films being released in theaters right now.

Another Potential Four

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on August 22, 2015 at 11:45 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Fantastic Four (2015)
Directed by Josh Trank
2 out of 4 stars

There’s something within the second act of Josh Trank’s third theatrical adaptation of Marvel Comics’ First Family that gets at the source material’s sense of wonder and awe with the possibilities inherent to scientific invention. After the viewer has forced themselves through the thankless task of watching a first act wherein Miles Teller as Reed Richards and Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm grow up in a small, blue collar town just outside of the Big Apple, there is an extended dramatic movement wherein Richards and company pull together to establish a means by which inter-dimensional, deep space travel may be accomplished. Watching Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, and Toby Kebbell as Victor von Doom discover a means by which Teller’s childhood dreams might be accomplished is genuinely exciting and infectious in its spirited optimism that’s suggestive of a better film than the one that viewers will ultimately receive in the film’s third act. Unfortunately, once Richards, Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Doom make their trans-dimensional journey to a planet maddeningly ambiguous in its titular signifier of Zero, suggesting more than a mere lack of quantifiable objective matter, the film collapses in upon itself, with issues of plot and narrative consistency arising from the script’s illogical construction and rhetorical incoherence. The cast that make up the Fantastic Four team of the comics is capably handled by a cast of well seasoned young actors, but Trank’s film ultimately fails, for more than one reason and another, and the young Hollywood director in effect delivers one of the worst comic book films of the past decade, with the latest adaptation of Richards and company being more laughable than Rise of the Silver Surfer was in 2007.

It’s obvious from scene one that Trank wanted to make a different film than the one that distributor 20th Century Fox ultimately put together via professional coercion of their creative talent otherwise at the helm of the project. The issues that took place behind the scenes are well documented by now, with some of them seemingly more crucial than others, though based on the evidence at hand it becomes impossible to easily blame anyone or, for that matter, award anyone the title of sole creative director of a project such as this one. Watching the film becomes an exercise in self-laceration of the human psyche, as each and every line of dialogue is overburdened with the dead articulation of ideas and character archetypes that come with all of their narrative clichés in tact and utterly undisguised. Fantastic Four (2015) is boring without effort, largely because there was no seeming effort put into the writing and re-writing of the film’s impotent script that serves time and time again to strangle the better visual concepts and set pieces conceived by Trank initially and at times engaged earnestly by the film’s accomplished performers. The film’s shortcomings come across bluntly and without any seeming attempt being paid to aesthetic invention on the level of visual storytelling in marriage to the film’s script, resulting in a flaccid finished product that is an unfortunately made follow-up to Trank’s well liked superhero drama debut Chronicle, Fantastic Four (2015) a sad imitation of the director’s debut glory all around.

Like Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Trank’s new Marvel Comics caper for the big screen will be lethargically maligned for years to come, with a larger audience of moviegoers otherwise disengaged with a franchise that very well could have been. Without the meddling that occured from studio executives at 20th Century Fox, Trank’s First Family might have become something more in keeping with his super-kids in Chronicle, a film that married the visual majesty of special effects laden set pieces, observable in some of the more inspired scenes in Fantastic Four (2015), with a compelling narrative driven by intimate character studies. During the second act of Trank’s finished film, there is a cliche ridden but sustainably held scene between Mara and Teller in which the two future vigilantes flirt coyly via dialogue delivered with emotional tenderness and conviction only to be deflated by the sheer obviousness of what is an otherwise consistently mediocre script; and there are many more near hit scenes like it, including several held between Jordan and his movie father Dr. Franklin Storm, played by veteran character actor Reg E. Cathey. Despite such moments of melodramatic intention. the film always come off as laughably sophomoric and more in keeping with a meta-textual deconstruction of the familial and fraternal tropes being brought up again and again throughout the film’s runtime. Such scenes would be seemingly more at home on an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! than they are within a more overtly sentimental coming-of-age piece, leaving Trank’s film unsuccessful in fully coming into its own on the merits of a net worth of any summation of its incongruous parts.

With a follow-up already in the works from 20th Century Fox, including a planned cross-over with the studio’s other Marvel Comics independent property X-Men, there is no sign that there will be any cessation of feature films featuring Reed Richards and his team of space traveling cosmonauts anytime soon. Yet such a turn of events isn’t necessarily bad, per se, as even Trank’s latest effort to bring the Fantastic Four to life is more interesting and self-sustained than any one of the efforts to be most recently included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Marvel Studios. Fantastic Four (2015) is a leaden, tone deaf adaptation of its source material, but in its brief moments of insight and narrative invention a greater film shines through the lesser production’s portentous shell. Certain moments and images are viscerally awe inspiring and existentially resonant throughout, though they never lead anywhere interesting due to the film’s underwritten dialogue and plodding progression of plot. When the Fantastic Four come back to the big screen in June 2017, it will be interesting to see whether or not another director might be able to salvage something from the promise upheld in Trank’s film’s second act without devolving into the messy cliché-ridden third, as Fantastic Four (2015) isn’t a bad film; it’s conceptually sterile, which is far more egregiously disappointing.

Search for Meaninglessness

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on August 8, 2015 at 10:44 am
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Irrational Man
Directed by Woody Allen
1 ½ out of 4 stars

Irrational Man is about a philosopher named Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who, through a series of convoluted events that make about as much sense as the narrative whole to which they are a part, becomes a calculated murderer driven by existential postulations and an abstract sense of moral justification. At the beginning of Woody Allen’s latest film, Phoenix is depicted making his way to yet another college campus where he has recently taken a highly sought after position within the philosophy department. By all appearances, Phoenix is out of sorts, drinking heavily from a flask that seemingly never ceases to be at hand, and is possessed of a devil-may-care attitude that has given birth to a substantial abdominal paunch belying personal despondency and defeat. Just how Irrational Man transitions from being an impotent comedy of errors and verbal masturbation to a take off on Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is about as haphazard and illogical as the movie itself. The film is never surprisingly awful, but it is exceptionally ill made, its basic conception of plot and dramatic catharsis so tired and clichéd that any comedy it evokes arises purely from the viewer’s ability to see the seams coming undone around the edges of Allen’s latest failure in novel screenwriting.

As always, Phoenix is a fascinating performer to watch, his powers for immediacy and humanism via his very presence on screen consistently entertaining, even in a film as bad as Irrational Man. Emma Stone on the other hand, who plays Phoenix’s infatuated pupil, suffers in a performance so exceptionally trite that the viewer begins to long for the kind of improvisation and passion so recently enjoyed from her in last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s almost unbelievable that Stone, who has proven herself alongside the likes of such powerful leading men as Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, should appear in this film where her powers for performance are overcast by a character that is insulting to women in general, and Stone in particular. Stone’s character swoons over Phoenix’s boozy professor to an extent that is unbelievable, her presence meant to stroke the ego of a character obviously meant to stand in for Allen himself, and nothing more. Phoenix exudes something like genuine existential torment, but in his relationship with Stone the film verges into the realm of solipsistic self-involvement, negating viewer engagement of any kind.

But Phoenix, who is the undoubted star and shining light at the end of the dark tunnel that is this film, is not the only interesting facet to pay attention to for the hour and a half that you can choose to waste watching Irrational Man. Parker Posey, who plays a wayward chemistry professor and more age-appropriate lover to Phoenix’s turbid thinker, is yet another innately fascinating screen actor whose inherent charisma makes up for the lack of interest presented in Allen’s script. Posey, like Phoenix, is such a strange character herself that the cliché present on the page is superseded by the effusiveness of her own manner and bearing, her individualism as a performer something to watch in and of itself. In a better film, Posey would be the central protagonist, a la Cate Blanchett in Allen’s far superior tragedy Blue Jasmine of 2013, and Irrational Man’s insipid search for meaning would be rendered a moot point, as per Allen’s presupposition going into each and every one of his films that life has no meaning to begin with. In Phoenix’s woeful typecasting as the Woody Allen character in search of some sort of spiritual fulfillment Posey stands as the clear contrast and answer to Phoenix’s aimless wandering, her character already content to wallow in the ethereal meaninglessness of life itself.

At the beginning of Irrational Man, with Phoenix depicted driving towards the college campus that will serve to bring him to philosophical fruition and peace with what is presented in the film as being a chaotic universe, an answer to life’s search for meaning appears to be at the heart of the film’s rhetorical structure. Indeed, the film’s climactic scene serves as an answer to that very question, with Phoenix scrabbling for purchase in the soil of a world that apparently has no concrete use for him. While Abe Lucas may be the most pompous and ponderous malcontented Woody Allen character yet, Phoenix makes his plight temporarily amusing. In exuding his characteristic deep soulfulness and wounded humanity, Phoenix is allowed to sing however softly, his voice registering lightly with an audience only ever tacitly engaged with a film that takes badness to subterraneous lengths and levels. Through Phoenix, Irrational Man becomes ever so slightly logical and dramatically cathartic, even if his relationship with the far more intriguing character portrayed by Parker Posey is immediately more interesting than the one sustained with Emma Stone, which might be the key failing with Allen’s prowess as a screenwriter in this particular film, Irrational Man concerned with the strivings of the more patently obvious and redundant sex.

Off the Rails

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on July 25, 2015 at 10:49 am
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Trainwreck
Directed by Judd Apatow
3 out of 4 stars

Judd Apatow’s latest directorial effort marks the first time that the well-traveled comic writer and producer has helped in the distillation of another comedian’s voice, presence, and screen image at feature film length. After uplifting Lena Dunham’s indie film cultural cache to the level of international fame on the hit HBO original series Girls, it only makes sense that Apatow’s next work as a director would be more precisely aimed at uncovering the potential of another comic talent of the millennial generation in the multiplex. Amy Schumer made a name for herself as an insult comic featured on Comedy Central’s roast of Charlie Sheen before going on to write and star in her own sketch-comedy show on the same network, and her’s is the muse of Apatow’s professorial tutelage in the tenured studio comedy filmmaker’s fifth film, supporting an original script written by the film’s star, and featuring all of the young comedienne’s stereotypical wit and parodic verve. Unlike Lena Dunham, Schumer is a little more profane in her own wholly sophomoric approach to comedy, Trainwreck an unholy mock-drama of all the romantic comedies to come before it. In skewering basic gender stereotypes and making fun of commonly accepted moral values and ethical laws otherwise acknowledged and obeyed in even the most low-brow sex comedy, Schumer proves herself to be the Nora Ephron of the next generation, her Trainwreck like When Harry Met Sally only with the roles reversed, the title of Ephron’s famous film more appropriately reading When Sally Slept With Harry if Schumer had written the script to the well-loved Rob Reiner film.

In Trainwreck, Schumer plays a version of herself, the Amy of the film an immature, sex-obsessed, infidelity loving heartbreaker who is content to traipse from one one-night stand to the next, the proverbial walk of shame experienced by many a twenty-something after a long night of half remembered embraces an experience of daily existence for the Amy of Schumer’s new film. Amy in Trainwreck comes off as something of a lost soul in a way that is similar to Lena Dunham’s doppelgänger Hannah Horvath in Girls, only where Hannah appears genuinely interested in pursuing goals and achievements outside of rendering pleasure unto herself, the Amy Schumer character is utterly without a moral compass, her bumbling solipsism disguised as a means by which to navigate the absurdity of a world in which monogamy is the expected norm (a cruel, social joke which she has learned to laugh at following the example and lessons taught to her from an early age by her ne’er do well father). In the opening scene of the film, Amy’s father (Colin Quinn) tells his two daughters that he is divorcing their mother because it’s a ridiculous expectation to believe than anyone should be forced to play with one “doll,” as he so figuratively puts it within the context of a metaphor meant to be readily assessable to his two pre-pubescent daughters, for the rest of their lives. Harping on the purported statement that “monogamy isn’t realistic” as if it were fact, Quinn leads his eldest daughter down a path well paved with empty gestures and cruel intentions. Solipsism thus plays a central role in terms of establishing character in Schumer’s script, and under Apatow’s direction Amy’s obsessive-compulsive, self-involvement becomes a means by which alcoholism and serial polygamy is allowed via the prism of self-delusion and the projected martyrdom applied to Colin Quinn’s father figure.

Girls provided an avenue by which Apatow might be able to explore patriarchy through the purview of a female protagonist, and in ceding authorial control over to another comic voice the studio comedy producer found a new means by which art greater than that which he might be able to develop on his own was given birth through collaboration with an entirely dissimilar gender, class, and generation. Trainwreck follows this example directly, and offers the means by which another new talent in comedy may be given the space to explore her own desire to tell stories on the big screen, the thematic content of Schumer’s work invigorating in its dissimilar nature to Dunham’s in tone, rhetorical structure, and comic timing. Where Dunham often appears prideful in her appropriation of the feminist agenda as she sees it, Schumer is less interested in promoting the morals espoused by any specific social movement, her only form of political activism arising from within, Trainwreck a true representation of her voice as Girls is of Dunham’s, each one a product of Apatow’s mentorship and ability to guide seemingly similar voices to their seperate ends. Amy Schumer, as she appears in Apatow’s film, is perversely seductive, not because she is classically feminine, but in her opposition to capitulating to accepted standards of gendered beauty, her slovenly, devil-may-care comportment and attitude bleeding into a character who is intensely attractive despite herself. Amy the character is real in a way that the likes of a Meg Ryan only ever appears to be on film, Trainwreck the story of the morning after a night of Dionysian excess, not the fantasy imagined through the fog of booze from the night before.

Nora Ephron may be the patron saint of being in love in the movies, but Amy Schumer might just be the fallen angel of that former fantasy. Trainwreck thrives on its seeming subversion of the romantic-comedy genre over the course of the first half of the film before becoming the post-modern embrace of the self-same genre over the course of the feature’s second half. The Amy character that Schumer chooses to portray may be a stubborn, obstinate, and reluctant lover to Bill Hader’s immediately likable sports doctor, but she is also the antidote to all of Meg Ryan’s unrealistic, coy flirtation in films like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Where Ephron was frustratingly content to promote the immoral fantasies that have made romantic comedies a joke even when done as well as she herself was able to compose them, Schumer feels more at home telling the truth about her relationships with men, even if her film also falls prey to the happy ending required by its inherent melodrama. Judd Apatow has a made name for himself in the past as a frat boy comedy writer, the boys club featured in films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up largely superseded by his recent passion for scouting talents from outside of his established fraternity, more often than not coming from neighboring sororities of late. Trainwreck falls victim to more than a few conveniences in terms of scripted plot, but where it truly excels is in its star performer, Amy Schumer’s vitality as a comic actress powerful and viscerally felt throughout, however happy an ending she may have seen fit to prematurely award herself at film’s end.

Schizophrenic, Genius & Madness

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on June 13, 2015 at 11:40 am
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Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad
3 out of 4 stars

In adapting the fractured life and mind of The Beach Boys’ front man and solo artist Brian Wilson, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy often struggles to stay on the right track narrative track, the film’s many subjective detours and digressions each individually fascinating in their own right, even if they don’t all lead to the same cathartic destination. Thankfully, the film does cohere, more or less, into a feature film that supports its own more clearly defined legal drama, even if the melodramatics of that particular narrative arc is only half of the film’s dramatic focus, and the less developed one at that. In Pohlad’s bio-pic, screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner explore the life and works of American pop musician Brian Wilson through two different versions of his character, the first being the young, budding musician who single handedly composed and recorded much of The Beach Boys eleventh studio album, Pet Sounds, before succumbing to mental illness and self-imposed isolation. The second comes in the form of a much older Wilson living in the 1980’s, a time when the real life musician was placed under court ordered 24-hour surveillance under his former therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. The way in which the viewer is allowed to follow the path of an older Wilson struggling to come to terms with his mental illness, alongside longer, more aesthetically nuanced depictions of the recording sessions for Pet Sounds in the late 1960’s is masterfully accomplished, the juxtapositions between the two narrative arcs and characters at first glance entirely disparate, before the cohere into one man, the final depiction of Brian Wilson depicted in the film by Pohlad one equally informed by the artist’s genius and his inherent madness, the difference between the two tenuous at best.

Over the course of the half of the film that depicts and documents Wilson amidst creative fruition in the 1960’s, the young man is portrayed by actor Paul Dano, who lends a certain off-beat charm to the proceedings, which helps to offset some Wilson’s more extravagant eccentricities from becoming entirely unattractive. Starting in the film’s opening scene, in which Wilson is depicted late at night, positing the question to himself of what he would do if his genius and inspiration were to ever leave him, Dano is allowed the space to evoke a quiet, human fragility that we the audience already know will prove too timid to survive the aggression of his father, his family, and the realities of his own mental instability. In the glimpses offered of Wilson recording his magnum opus in the studio, sound designer Eugene Gearty emotively captures the layered textures of the original Beach Boys LP beautifully, the sounds which we hear in the studio simultaneously gorgeous and subjectively threatening, as they gradually begin to haunt Wilson’s unconscious with a malicious tenacity that proves aurally dissonant for the viewer. As the line between artistic inspiration and singular madness begins to blur for the young Brian Wilson, glimpses of a much older Wilson in the 1980’s, played by John Cusack, begin to intrude upon Dano’s performance, informing how the viewer sees Dano as Wilson, and vice versa, as the film tracks the trajectory of the fallout of the 1960’s visited upon Cusack’s portrayal of the same man in the 1980’s. In Pohlad’s film, Brian Wilson is neither the young artisit he once was, nor the older man living a beleaguered existence in the 1980’s, but an amalgamation of the two, the image that the viewer assembles from the film’s two distinct portrayals of the same character as important in capturing the essence of Brian Wilson as anything that the film is ever able to objectively quantify.

Over the course of the second half of the film, that in which John Cusack plays Brian Wilson under 24-hour surveillance in the 1980’s, Pohlad’s talent as a melodramatic storyteller come into play, the legal battle staged between Wilson’s former therapist and legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy, and his intended second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, one that is more immediately familiar to anyone who has watched even a single episode of Law & Order or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Compared to the aesthetic mimicry of Wilson’s work and ethos on display in the film’s better half, Cusack’s estimable portrayal of a wounded older man is overshadowed by the film’s lazier machinations of a narrative perhaps better suited to an entire different film altogether. In the film’s depiction of Wilson’s struggles in the 1980’s, Elizabeth Banks portrays Wilson’s second wife Melinda Ledbetter with a ferocious energy and feminist mystique that is admirably achieved, but which distracts the film from its subjective focus entirely. In the scenes held between Banks and Dr. Eugene Landy, played a little too broadly by an otherwise welcome performance from Paul Giamatti, Cusack takes a back seat to a narrative that feels better suited to day time TV, Cusack’s performance more often than not encroached upon by a soap opera that comes inexplicably out of left field. While Cusack shines in the role of Brian Wilson, the light of his performance is muted by his supporting actors, Banks seemingly auditioning for a Melinda Ledbetter bio-pic of her own, and Giamatti chewing the otherwise clearly established scenery to bits with his own feral menace and intractable charisma.

In Bill Pohlad’s attempt at constructing a bio-pic featuring the life of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy succeeds in its evocation of the beauty of the mind of the artist, but struggles to overcome some of its more discordantly applied dramatic tropes. Paul Dano is an immensely empathetic object for our sympathies to attach themselves to, his portrayal of Wilson’s early genius turned to madness echoed in Cusack’s more subdued performance as an older, wiser artist in constant competition with the aforementioned capacity of his former self. However, the film often becomes distracted with its subsidiary characters, who are played so well by the film’s supporting cast that watching the film becomes an exercise in combating and deciphering narrative misdirection. Pohlad has an obvious aesthetic understanding and appreciation for the music of Brian Wilson, but what remains unclear in Love & Mercy is just what Pohlad wants to say about that affinity for his subject, the film at times flirting with intimate character study, but more often than not falling back on the sorts of narrative contrivance and cliché previously discussed at length. For better or worse, Love & Mercy is a somewhat schizophrenic study of a man with well documented mental deficiencies, the film’s dramaturgy effective in its ability to evoke intense sympathy and understanding in the viewer for Wilson’s plight across the span of twenty years, which is perhaps more than can be asked for, or expected, from the film’s established genre, which is pretty good, considering the alternatives.