Sean K. Cureton

Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews: 2017’ Category

The Disaster Artist: Studio Comedy Caricature

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on January 13, 2018 at 11:36 am
The Disaster Artist

A24

The Disaster Artist
Directed by James Franco
2 out of 4 stars

The circumstances that gave birth to the 2003 feature The Room border on the unbelievable. Written and directed by its enigmatic leading man, Tommy Wiseau, the film was independently funded to the tune of $6 million. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Wiseau’s magnum opus doesn’t look like a $6 million motion picture. Far from it, The Room is marked by a peculiar narrative and lacks any cohesive logic. Each successive scene builds upon a singular worldview that feels familiar only if the viewer is aware of Wiseau’s equally peculiar personal history and artistic obsessions.

Enraptured by the storied careers of James Dean and Marlon Brando, Wiseau spends much of his time in The Room tactlessly conjuring his very best impressions of the two formerly cited Hollywood icons. Yet at the same time that Wiseau is trying to ape the traditions of his cinematic forebears, his own ineptitude shines forth more brightly than anything else on screen. The extent to which his own tortured personal history remains shrouded in mystery, evasiveness, and dishonesty only serves to further attract newcomers to his cult-hit directorial debut. And the kind of attention that Wiseau’s character frequently excites in an audience is often tied to the absurdity of his profile. In The Disaster Artist, this pattern of superficially misunderstanding Wiseau’s subtle appeal continues.

On paper, casting James Franco to play the role of Tommy Wiseau – in addition to directing a major motion picture about the cult icon – is commercially appealing. Franco is more handsome than Wiseau, and having Franco featured prominently on the film’s posters and in its trailers positions the movie for a wider appeal than just die hard fans of The Room. And by and large, Franco does a remarkable job of playing the part of Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist. Fans of Wiseau and The Room will no doubt be thrilled to follow along as Franco and company recast and reshoot several scenes and sequences from The Room shot-for-shot. But that’s also where the appeal of The Disaster Artist begins and ends.

Based in part on the non-fiction book of the same name co-written by The Room actor Greg Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist presents itself as the cinematic retelling of the making of one of the best worst movies ever made. But instead of delving into Tommy Wiseau’s convoluted biography, his hostile relationship with women, or his envious attraction to Sestero, The Disaster Artist is content to let its all-star cast of comic actors exchange well-worn lines from The Room with one another verbatim. Instead of exploring the winding narrative that Sestero lays out in his spellbinding memoir, The Disaster Artist plays it safe while opting to whittle the essence of Wiseau down to studio comedy caricature. Unlike The Room, the appeal of The Disaster Artist is easy to explain. Borrowing heavily from the formerly mentioned film’s popular reputation as a “so bad it’s good movie,” The Disaster Artist is made for the kind of person who enjoys watching The Room to laugh at its grotesque star.

This review is an expanded version of an article that was originally published by Audiences Everywhere.

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The Florida Project: Just Outside the Greatest Place On Earth

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on November 25, 2017 at 11:59 am
The Florida Project

A24

The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Florida Project offers as unique a glimpse into the life of low-income Americans in the 21st century as only writer-director Sean Baker could deliver. Coming off of the breakthrough success lauded onto his 2015 indie drama Tangerine, Baker has turned his attention from one maligned subculture to another. After following the winding lives of several transgender sex workers traversing the urban environs of Tinseltown on Christmas Eve, The Florida Project offers a vibrantly colored parable on the plights of those living in the shadow of commercial largesse in Orlando, Florida. Focusing in on an unconventional assemblage of residents living out of an economy motel, The Florida Project offers a unique point of view from which to watch its characters, namely that of child actor and star Brooklynn Prince. Rather than seeing all the ways in which her purple colored abode are lacking, Brooklynn frolics in a paradise of her own imagining that rivals the real world splendor of Walt Disney World.

Playing the role of her mother is untrained actor Bria Vinaite, a spritely youth whose impoverished lifestyle is worn more like a badge of honor than an albatross. Rounding out the nuclear unit is celebrated Hollywood star Willem Dafoe, who plays the part of the put-upon motel manager who single-handedly protects his residents from further destitution, often to his own professional and personal detriment. The ways in which Brooklynn Prince discovers small delights and wonders scattered across the landscape of the larger Orlando, Florida area offers a unique representation of the various landmarks and tourist traps that might otherwise beleaguer the spirits of its older residents. Instead of seeing the gross gap of income inequality that is perversely laid bare in the difference between the residents of Dafoe‘s garish purple castle and the moneyed tourists who determinedly turn a blind eye to its suffering indigenous population, Brooklynn finds Neverland within the same environment. Much like Beasts of the Southern Wild did for the Louisiana Bayou, The Florida Project recasts the legacy of another American territory against the realm of myth and fantasy.

Paying special attention to the many grotesqueries of Florida’s commercial real estate, Baker toys with how viewers might otherwise approach a cinematic world that is marked by tragedy, turmoil, and violence. Lacking any formal education, Bria Vinaite is a creature shaped entirely by circumstance in Baker‘s film. But rather than wallow in what many might see as a sorry existence, Vinaite thrives on the fringe of prim propriety. Yet whenever she does so, it’s hard to come away from any of her encounters with the film’s other characters with an even an ounce of malice towards her uncouth behavior. Except the dream that Vinaite has established for herself and her young child frequently bleeds into the realm of nightmare.

During a particularly volatile arc of the film’s script, Neverland is lost to the surrounding harsh reality of 21st century American poverty. In the midst of a confrontation with her best friend and neighbor, Vinaite lashes out in violence against a facile domestic ideal that irrevocably begins to crumble soon thereafter. During the film’s climactic final sequence that sees Brooklynn seeking out the cold comfort of Walt Disney World just as the surreality of childhood begins to lose its hold on her imagination, there is a tenderness to the kind of tragedy that is being depicted. The visual and ethical tenacity with which Baker represents the world of The Florida Project is astounding, and newcomers Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite shine right alongside Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe in one of the greatest films of the year. The paradise that is lost over the course of the film’s trim 110 minute runtime is one that many of us may remember fondly from childhood; only in The Florida Project, the wild flights of fantasy feel even more precious and irreplaceable considering the real world that their creator will soon inherit.

This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

Patti Cake$: Blue Collar Fever Dream

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on September 16, 2017 at 11:20 am
Patti Cake$

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Patti Cake$
Directed by Geremy Jasper
3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Patti Cake$ starts with a fever dream. Living a life of quiet desperation in Bayonne, New Jersey, Patricia Dombrowski – played by the fresh-faced Australian actor Danielle Macdonald – dreams of being an all-star MC. Christening herself Killa P, Dombrowski’s life is one filled with personal and economic toil and turmoil that tempers her otherworldly dreams against a stark reality. Forced to singlehandedly keep a roof over her own head – in addition to those of her boozing and promiscuous mother (Bridget Everett) and her terminally ill grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) – Patti dreams of being welcomed into an emerald paradise presided over by local hip hop legend O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). Unfortunately for Patti, the local rap community is dominated by chauvinism, with her immediate contemporaries more than willing to denigrate her talents on the grounds of weight and gender.

Like many other independent features that takes place in New Jersey, Patti Cake$ is dominated by the pervasive shadow of New York. The local residents of Bayonne all might wish to trade in their blue collar despair for the bright lights of the Big Apple, and Patti is no different. Struggling to get by as a part-time party caterer, Patti spends the rest of her waking hours dreaming up new rap verses alongside her best friend and local pharmacist Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), listening to her favorite O-Z LP, and failing to impress anyone in the local rap scene. In its best moments, writer and director Geremy Jasper delivers a feature length debut that teems with the kind of optimism and ambition that feels more than perfectly suited to the likes of a character like Patti. In its lesser moments, Patti Cake$ stumbles over more than a few scenes and characters who blatantly serve to move the plot along an entirely predictable trajectory.

Early in the film, Patti takes a walk along the dilapidated streets of her economically impoverished Bayonne, NJ neighborhood. Thankfully, with her walkman in hand, O-Z playing on full blast through the headphones, and not a care in the world, she quickly ascends towards the emerald clouds of her favored fever dream, only to come hurtling back to earth when a car pulls up behind her and its driver breaks the spell of fantasy by spouting the noxious epithet “Dumbo.”It’s easy to see why Patti Cake$ was such a hit following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. After securing the attention of several prominent art house distributors – including Focus Features, Neon, The Orchard, and Annapurna Productions – Jasper’s mainstream debut found a home at Fox Searchlight Pictures. Joining the ranks of such indie blockbuster hits of yesteryear as Little Miss SunshineJuno, and the forthcoming awards season contender Battle of the Sexes, Patti Cake$ is on course to becoming another feel-good indie gem years after its initial theatrical run.

Jasper has really done something special in writing and directing Patti Cake$. Macdonald is a revelation as the young white MC from Bayonne, NJ, and with any luck Jasper’s film will soon join the ranks of such iconic New Jersey films as ClerksThe Station Agent, and Garden State. New York City looms large on the minds of many of the film’s characters, but the city’s shadow falls across the industrial sprawl of North Jersey in a way that serves to define the film’s specific regional tone. Setting out to track the cultural influence of hip hop, Patti Cake$ spits more than a few noteworthy verses. And Macdonald – who before the start of filming was entirely unfamiliar with how to rap – shines as the newly christened MC Patti Cake$ by film’s end, and in the film’s upbeat celebration of her talents it’s easy to become a fan of the fictional recording artist.

This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

 

A Ghost Story: An Egocentric Purgatory

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on August 12, 2017 at 11:22 am
A Ghost Story

A24

A Ghost Story
Directed by David Lowery
2 out of 4 stars

You get to know the two central protagonists in A Ghost Story over the course of an evening, except they’re not the only ones that the viewer is introduced to. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara lounge in one another’s arms only to be startled in the middle of the night by a spectral disturbance. They get out of bed, sheets draped around their unclothed bodies, and fail to determine what caused an errant noise to ring out. In the scene, Affleck lingers for a particularly long time beside a piano, before half-consciously returning to his slumber. The next morning, Affleck is killed in a car crash, and becomes the ghost he unknowingly met in the dark the night before.

Serving as the latest feature length film from writer and director David Lowery, A Ghost Story plays a melancholy song in several movements. Like any contemporary post-rock outfit, Lowery seeks to explore the relationship between time and space on a cosmic scale. Themes oscillate and obfuscate simple plot points, and hum drum exchanges and occurrences become laced with intimated meaning and profundity. Thanks to the film’s sparse technical prowess and quaintly applied letterboxed aspect ratio, A Ghost Story is predesigned to provoke deep thoughts from its viewers. Except a lot of this careful attention to detail leads to a lot of tone deaf choices that stubbornly refuse to allow Lowery’s balladry to reach a fitting crescendo.

Ostensibly seeking to explore what happens after we die, A Ghost Story treads familiar territory while implementing admittedly original visuals. Following Affleck around with a bed sheet draped over his body – with two eye holes cut out in front of his face like a creepy appropriation of a children’s Halloween costume – is emotionally disarming. What’s even more upsetting is when Affleck continues to linger in his martial home, even long after Mara has moved on with another man. There are brief moments that jarringly would have fit better in the latest Poltergeist rip-off, but by and large the simplistic gimmick that serves to set the tone works in A Ghost Story to Lowery’s credit. When it doesn’t, the effect can run the gamut from embarrassing to inappropriately hilarious.

 Towards the end of the second act – before Affleck returns home via a rift in space and time to meet himself on the eve of his mortal demise – Lowery greets the viewer with the most straightforward explanation of the film’s rhetorical intentions. Expounding upon the necessity of art to ensure that some small piece of us remains long after we die, the viewer is allowed audience to a longwinded oratory delivered by American singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Fueled by booze and the bacchanalian revelry of a great party winding down into the early hours of the morning, Billy’s diatribe falls on deaf ears. Ringing with the same bravado and self-conscious pretension that pervades throughout the rest of Lowery’s script, A Ghost Story can’t quite save itself from itself. It’s mildly heartening to hear the familiar strains of the song written by Affleck for Mara hummed by a young girl hundreds of years in the past – thus echoing Billy’s lament – though it would be undoubtedly more interesting if it felt like the song were being heard outside of the egocentric purgatory that Lowery has created for himself.

It Comes at Night: A Midnight Odyssey

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on June 10, 2017 at 9:54 am
It Comes at Night

A24

It Comes at Night
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
3 ½ out of 4 stars

It Comes at Night – the sophomore outing from American writer-director Trey Edward Shults – is a thoroughly satisfying art house genre feature. Shults’ latest motion picture production ensconces itself in the shroud of horror, only to pull the rug out from under the feet of an unsuspecting audience to reveal a more psychologically tuned drama. Ostensibly about a viral outbreak that has killed an unknown percentage of the human population, It Comes at Night builds upon the tension of its title while offering little in the way of explicit terror. Holed up in a house in the middle of the woods is a family of three, who soon find themselves playing reluctant hosts to another close-knit nuclear unit. What follows from this premise is a whole host of paranoid apparitions that operate in a surreal realm of tangible distrust and unease.

In the opening shot, Shults greets his audience with the face of a dying man named Bud – played by David Pendleton – who is soon revealed to be the grandfather to Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah, herself the wife and mother of Joel Edgerton’s Paul and Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis. Pallid and covered in dark spots, it’s quickly made apparent that Bud has become infected with a virulent virus of an untold contagion, and is swiftly taken out to the woods to be shot in the head before burial. Hinting towards the very best works of the zombie sub-genre, It Comes at Night borrows from some of the core narrative tropes of horror master classes like Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later, yet manages to surpass them in its unwillingness to exploit the walking dead. Instead of falling back on a host of shambling deadites to illicit an immediate sense of danger, Shults feels far more at home with the imagined horrors of the living. Forced to undergo varying states of cabin fever brought about by instinctual self-preservation turned hermitic isolation, It Comes at Night exhibits the hollowness of people living in the wake of the apocalypse.

Borrowing heavily from the themes and imagery of 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch – whose canvases of grotesque and decripit landscapes feature prominently during the film’s first act – It Comes at Night is a dark and twisted fantasy. Scrabbling for a hold in a world that doesn’t really seem to exist beyond an established set of routines and the bonds of one’s immediate family, belief in the good of mankind becomes an antiquated philosophy. When Christopher Abbot’s Will shows up at their door one night, Paul, Sarah, and Travis are reluctant to take in an unwanted visitor. And later, when Will and Paul go out to retrieve Will’s wife and son, Kim and Andrew – played in the film by Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner, respectively – the two fathers are attacked by another roving pair that bear an unsettling resemblance to themselves. Ostensibly having killed two people whose situation may not have been all that different from their own, Shults makes it apparent that Paul and Will live a disassociated existence.

In the film’s climactic third act, It Comes at Night retains a parabolic ambiguity. Refusing to offer any easy answers – or explain Travis’ strange nightmares and midnight odysseys – Shults spins an unforgettable yarn. The movie leaves viewers with an oddly compelling series of half-remembered shots and stolen glances that serve to give shape to its discomfiting form. Edgerton turns in another stirring performance that serves to ground the film in a world where assumptions inform a reality ruled by solipsism and mania. Fact and fiction are blurred in It Comes at Night in a way that serves to mirror the disorientation of its characters – and the viewer by proxy.

Logan: A Bittersweet Ode

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on March 18, 2017 at 11:07 am
Logan

20th Century Fox

Logan
Directed by James Mangold
3 out of 4 stars

Hugh Jackman is among the most notable screen actors of the past twenty years, and a lot of that appeal has to do with his starring role in the X-Men feature franchise. After teaming up with Bryan Singer at the dawn of the 21st century in the making of the first installment in the series, Jackman has become iconoclastically equated with the bulking, bruising, side burn sporting superhero, Wolverine. Over the course of eight theatrical releases, the infamous Canadian anti-hero has leaped from the comic book panels that gave him birth only to find a whole new life as the marketing centerpiece of a wildly lucrative action blockbuster property. Aided by supporting performances from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Jackman has taken what his character derisively calls, “Ice cream for bedwetters,” and turned it into a bastion of hope and integrity for millions of superhero fans and devoted moviegoers. And with Logan – which is primed to feature the final onscreen performance from Jackman as the titular protagonist – that legacy sees itself eulogizing its own cultural significance.

Focusing on an aging James “Logan” Howlett eking out a meager existence in hermitic isolation while caring for a severely disabled Professor Charles Xavier, director James Mangold makes good on a lot of the promise previously entertained in his The Wolverine from 2013. Granted, a lot of the onscreen action, mayhem, and R-rated carnage depicted in Logan is beholden to a lot of the same frenetic incoherence that has plagued big budget superhero movies in general. Thankfully, the rest of the movie is rooted in a whole set of understated lead performances from Jackman, Stewart, and newcomer Stephen Merchant – in addition to the scene stealing supporting turn from child actor Dafne Keen as the young mutant-on-the-run, Laura. Living in a world where mutants have largely become an extinct sub-species whose vitality has been scrubbed out by an anti-mutant, genocidal temperament beholden to the world at large, Wolverine is forced to grapple with the idea that maybe mutants were, “God’s mistake,” and not the next stage in human evolution. This kind of grandiose melancholy persists throughout Jackman’s final big screen turn as Wolverine, and turns Logan into the bittersweet ode to the character’s undying popularity that fans are sure to adore.

Yet a lot of the fan service to the franchise begins to ring a little hollow after the first two acts of the film are over. Once Stewart is killed – in an unceremonious and callously brutal manner, at that – Jackman and Keen are left to their own devices to rebuild their world out of the very same wild flights of fantasy that have propelled the X-Men movies thus far. Except in Logan the comic books upon which the prior movies in the series have been based are revealed to be the very same kinds of romantic fictions that moviegoers have always known them to be. Thematically dissonant and irreverent towards any sense of continuity with what has come before in movies past starring Jackman as Wolverine, Logan uncomfortably seeks to establish new territory for itself at the very fringes of the likes of last summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse. If you want to go along for the ride, you’ll undoubtedly have a good time, but it’s hard to come away from Logan without admitting to yourself that perhaps the underlying drama might have been better served by a PG-13 rating.

Jackman is a Hollywood icon, and his tenure as Wolverine in the X-Men feature franchise will likely continue to influence subsequent films in the series. As a tentative final chapter to the story of Weapon X on the big screen, Logan manages to wed sentimentalism to an action blockbuster that largely succeeds as far as pleasing its immediate audience is concerned. There have been better movie in the series, and likely more will follow – good and bad – but Logan will undoubtedly remain a high water mark for subsequent productions to look up to for some time to come. But for all of its bluster and mature themes shuffling towards annihilation and death, Logan is another predictable chapter in the larger superhero phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping or taking itself less seriously. That approach works well enough for Jackman in Logan, but it will be disappointing when more filmmakers inevitably begin to further grossly misappropriate the same tone in even more movies starring super-powered men and women in tights.