Sean K. Cureton

Archive for the ‘Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week’ Category

Goon: Last of the Enforcers: An Inside Hockey Sports Comedy

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on December 16, 2017 at 12:40 pm
Goon: Last of the Enforcers

Entertainment One

Goon: Last of the Enforcers (2017)
Directed by Jay Baruchel
VOD Rating: Liked It

Goon: Last of the Enforcers sees director, writer, and actor Jay Baruchel applying a second chapter to his 2011 hit sports comedy Goon. Starring Seann William Scott once again as the dimwitted minor league ice hockey enforcer Doug “The Thug” Glatt, Baruchel pulls from a roster of surprisingly well-rounded cast of characters in the making of a second act that sees Doug facing a brutal end to a short career. After sustaining severe injuries during a fight with competing enforcer Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell), Doug leaves his position as the newly appointed captain of the Halifax Highlanders at the behest of his pregnant wife Eva (Alison Pill). But despite all of its scurrilous bluster, bloody knuckles, and sophomoric humor, Goon: Last of the Enforcers is a less worthwhile successor to its predecessor. Without the help of co-writer Evan Goldberg, Baruchel and Jesse Chabot have done a minor disservice to what made the original movie an unexpected cult hit and lose sight of their audience in recreating some of the deeper cuts from sports history.

Taking direct inspiration from real life exhibition events, Goon: Last of the Enforcers grapples with the continuing controversy surrounding violence in professional hockey. Specifically, the film examines the very real ramifications of the kind of fisticuffs most frequently engaged in by enforcers hired by minor and senior league teams. Like Doug Smith – whose autobiography and career helped inform the character portrayed in the film by Seann William Scott – enforcers have long been brought into the hockey industry for their ability to take a beating. Oftentimes lacking in any overt grace on the ice, enforcers were expected to beat themselves to death in gladiatorial combat. In Goon, a lot of the physiological damage that goes into the making of an enforcer is glossed over in service of a feel-good sports comedy; in Goon: Last of the Enforcers, the very real toll that fighting for sport takes on Doug “The Thug” Glatt (Scott) shows its true colors.

Director Michael Dowse brought a healthy dose of subtlety to the proceedings behind the scenes in the making of Goon. Beyond the film’s lurid subject, viewers were graced with the rare sports comedy that was about people who just so happened to be involved in athletic competition. In Goon: Last of the Enforcers, Baruchel turns in a directorial debut that teems with untapped potential. Far too often, Baruchel indulges in fanboy adulation, resulting in a movie that feels like it was made for hockey super-fans only. The references that it makes to the contemporary concern over violence in hockey – and the precarious position that certain censorious voices have put the industry under – serves as an inside hockey reference that only the most well-versed sports historians will catch onto without having to seek out a whole host primary sources.

Despite a few new faces that briefly enliven the mood – namely Elisha Cuthbert, Trent Pardy, Jason Jones, and Wyatt Russell – Goon: Last of the Enforcers loses sight of the characters that made the first movie so engaging. Played out like the minor league hockey parable that Baruchel was ironically going for, it’s hard to imagine the film leaving as serious an imprint in the minds of general moviegoers that Goon continues to conjure in its breathless dynamism. Picking up from where the first film left off in 2011, Goon: Last of the Enforcers still revels in the playful camaraderie sustained between returning rival and mentor Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber) and Doug “The Thug” Glatt (Scott), but simultaneously manages to underserve Alison Pill as the once psychologically complicated Eva. Beyond paying minor lip service to the emotional resonance of the many returning characters from Goon, Baruchel is far more concerned with the immediacy of hockey in round two. Serving as another ode to ice hockey, Goon: Last of the Enforcers loses sight of its audience in recreating some of the deeper cuts from sports history.

Goon: Last of the Enforcers is currently available on iTunes, 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. 

Advertisements

Donald Cried: The Adolescent Sisyphus

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 18, 2017 at 12:41 pm
Donald Cried

The Orchard

Donald Cried (2017)
Directed by Kris Avedisian
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Following its premiere at South by Southwest in 2016, Donald Cried saw theatrical release earlier this year. Serving as the directorial debut of lead actor and screenwriter Kris Avedisian, Donald Cried is an unsettling dark comedy about fraternal friendship. Centering around the story of a frazzled man returning to his childhood home when his grandmother dies only to find himself beset upon by a troubled acquaintance that he soon becomes indebted to, Donald Cried boldly walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy. When Peter LaTang (Jesse Wakeman) returns to his old stomping grounds to take care of his deceased grandmother’s affairs, he soon discovers that he left his wallet at the train station. Lacking any other resources by which he might get around town before heading back to his adult life as a big city banker, he begrudgingly surrenders to the myopic whim of Donald (Avedisian).

Over the course of the film’s trim 85-minute runtime, Donald Cried tactfully manages to navigate the tumultuous waters of trying to rekindle a friendship forged by one’s own former naïve self. And as anyone who has ever considered becoming friends again with someone that they went to high school with but haven’t seen or spoken to in several years can attest to, the scenario proves to offer a more than familiar narrative bolstered by the specificity of Avedisian’s nostalgic nightmare. Sometimes the friends we make when we’re teenagers are nothing more than the most convenient options available when we’re still not cognizant of our respective selves. During a time in which one is expected to grow up and mature, high school camaraderie can quickly fade if it’s built upon little more than pop culture propagated as a shared personality. And in Donald Treebeck, Avedisian has crafted one of the most accurate portrayals of the surreal nature beholden to what is an inherently juvenile intimacy.

Unfortunately for the titular character in Donald Cried, heavy metal quickly comes to stand for a regressive signifier of a relationship built upon subversive enmity. On the flip side, Donald Cried is also a touching tribute to the people who never really left the confines of home after graduating from secondary – or higher – education. For those who never really found a place for themselves in the adult world, childhood becomes an ever-present state of being that sees some lost forever in a Sisyphean prison of codependent sycophancy. Avedisian as Donald thus acts as both a protagonist and an antagonist. His simpering demands upon the attention and affection of Peter (Wakeman) are both a repugnant deterrent and familiar plea to and for the viewer’s sympathies.

It’s easy to come away feeling a little unsure of what to think after watching Donald Cried for the first time. But upon repeated viewings, Avedisian’s first feature really shines a light on one of the more peculiar aspects of childhood and growing up. Who we were in high school continues to affect how we strive to present ourselves to others as an adult, the latter state of being a past that is often a painful reminder of formative experiences. Avedisian has merely pulled back the curtain on a secret shame that many of us know all too well, but are less than willing to welcome back into our lives. By giving that existential foreboding corporeal form, Donald Cried delivers one of the most unforgettable independent features this year, and it would be a real shame if nobody noticed.

Donald Cried is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies On VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an expanded version of an article that was originally published by Audiences Everywhere.

The Devil’s Candy: An Intersection of Genius, Madness & The Devil

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 2, 2017 at 10:37 am
The Devil's Candy

IFC Midnight

The Devil’s Candy (2017)
Directed by Sean Byrne
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

The Devil’s Candy sees Australian provocateur Sean Byrne fully coming into his own as a storyteller whose primary interests continue to aim towards the macabre. Evil forces pervade throughout Byrne’s latest film in ways that often veer towards the kind of morbidity made popular by Rob Zombie. The devil plays a central role in The Devil’s Candy, a satanic influence that can be keenly felt in the sheer terror that pervades throughout. But unlike House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, Byrne spins a tale of demonic influences that never seeks to embrace its movie monster outright. Far from it, The Devil’s Candy builds its own scares in such a way that the viewer’s fascination with the evil contained therein proves self-reflective.

Crossing the intersection of genius and madness, Byrne seeks to find inspiration in the darkest parts of the human psyche, where a loss of control sometimes amounts to an artistic breakthrough. Unfortunately for central protagonist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), whose slavish devotion to an unseen force of primordial malevolence threatens to consume him and his family whole, that kind of fiendish obsession can prove all too alluring. Byrne directs scenes of terror with a visual aestheticism unmatched by most of his contemporaries, and in The Devil’s Candy, viewers are offered what is perhaps the most significant 21st century genre film since Zombie burst onto the scene in 2003. Like Zombie, Byrne‘s latest is unsettling on a subconscious level, wherein narrative logic gives way to viscerally shocking imagery and implied ideas that become fleshed out via the co-operation between the director and his audience.

In order to perfect their very own iconic family portrait reminiscent of Grant Wood’s early 20th century American masterwork, Jesse (Embry) and Astrid Hellman (Shiri Appleby) decide to purchase a house in rural Texas. Enamored with their new abode’s rustic integrity and backwoods isolation, Jesse immediately begins to set up his art studio in a repurposed barn. The only thing that stands in his way is the history of the estate’s previous tenants – who were viciously slaughtered by their troubled son (Pruitt Taylor Vince) acting at the behest of the Devil himself. Soon enough, the voice of the Devil begins to torment Jesse, whose commissioned piece of domestic tranquility is quickly turned into a pictorial representation of demonic prophecy concerning the mortal soul of his young daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Meanwhile, the troubled Ray Similie (Vince) makes his presence known and begins to commit the acts of murder that Jesse’s painting foretold.

Instead of devolving into the same kind of fatalism that so often plagues Zombie at his most heightened states of cinematic vitality, Byrne walks up to the same edge of moral depravity only to shock his audience into fully realizing the gross reality of his film’s transgressions. Unlike Zombie, Byrne manages to find a way out of the hellish furnace that he literally and figuratively places his characters into. Spiritually reminiscent of the late Tobe Hooper‘s cult-classic masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw MassacreThe Devil’s Candy reexamines the same regional well of inspiration only to find another movie monster possessed of a grotesque appetite for the human flesh, spirit, and soul. Following his debut film The Loved Ones from 2009, it will be exciting to see where Byrne will turn his attention next. Offering much more than the sum of its parts, The Devil’s Candy tells an American horror story that is ethereally tinged with a subtlety that often lends to frightening visions of presumed domesticity.

The Devil’s Candy is currently available on Netflix, 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.

Youth in Oregon: The Problem of Pain

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on June 17, 2017 at 11:42 am
Youth in Oregon

Orion Pictures

Youth in Oregon (2017)
Directed by Joel David Moore
VOD Rating: Liked It

The task of articulating and presenting the case for the right to die is tricky to say the least. The legal quandaries that inevitably arise when the issue is raised in public or private has continued to be a spot of political and moral contention, resulting in a stalemate for those who wish to turn in a life of prolonged anguish for the final relief of death. Enter Youth in Oregon – the latest directorial outing from actor-turned-director Joel David Moore – as a cinematic apology for those on both sides of the continuing argument. Starring Frank Langella as the terminally ill octogenarian Raymond Engersol determined to make his way back to his estate in Oregon in order to secure legal euthanasia, Youth in Oregon is an inherently taut drama. Billy Crudup and Christina Applegate co-star as Raymond’s dissapproving son-in-law and daughter respectively, and through their emotional admonishment of assisted suicide the viewer is able to hear both sides of the issue.

By and large, Youth in Oregon goes a significant way towards advocating euthanasia to the mainstream. In a film that opens on the Engersol family in a state of mild disrepair, with Raymond having long since moved into his daughter’s family household following his initial diagnosis, Langella leads a life of emasculated indignity. With death knocking at his door, and current treatment methods quickly becoming more and more ineffective against his illness, Raymond ceremoniously announces to his immediate nuclear unit that he has decided to make the trip back to Oregon to secure the right to die. The road trip that shortly ensues is filled with humor, warmth, and passion, and the final destination – even as its details have been explicitly described and ascertained throughout – still manages to shock and awe in its implied ethereal significance. Avoiding any easy spiritual bypass towards alleviating the problem of pain, Youth in Oregon struggles with the meaning of life by way of the importance of the people that make up the only world that is quantifiably self-evident to the senses.

For some, Raymond’s disillusionment with continuing to live could be seen as a form of nihilism. For others, his bravery in the face of suffering may ring with the clarity of logic. It’s impossible to summon the pain of another human being as our own, and in Youth in Oregon that task is approached with sincerity and deference to the ones facing that problem head on. At the end of the third act, Youth in Oregon allows the viewer into an incredibly intimate sequence that sees Raymond visiting a dying friend on his death bed who has secured the right to assisted suicide. Moore thusly takes the viewer to death’s door, opens the lock, and lets the viewer decide how much further they themselves are willing to go, thus barring any arbitrary conclusion from being reached – albeit with the hinted certitude that Raymond will cross said threshold of his own volition.

Moore offers his viewers a lot of dense material to chew over in Youth in Oregon, and for the most part his latest film acts as a marvelous talking point for a complicated issue of civil rights. As an argument for the right to die, Youth in Oregon manages to present the issue as it might actually be faced in real life, resulting in a dramatic representation of how one might approach the issue as an active participant. It’s easy to make pronouncements regarding the legal and moral implications of taking one’s own life regardless of the personal circumstances, which is why a movie like Youth in Oregon is so refreshing in its ability to force the viewer to contend with the ethical quandary with respectful restraint. Moore might not state how he explicitly feels about euthanasia and the people who pursue the legal right to it, but Langella goes a long way in his performance towards making the realities of such a decision more immediately approachable. The idea of ending one’s own life is a harsh reality to contend with, but having a cinematic expression like Youth in Oregon with which to approach its thorny edges is a small blessing in a life filled with pockets of such intense human pain.

Youth in Oregon 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.

The Big Ask: Lost in the Desert

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on May 6, 2017 at 11:44 am
The Big Ask

Tribeca Film

The Big Ask (2013)
Directed by Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman
VOD Rating: Liked It

Centering on the relationship between three friends and their girlfriends, The Big Ask is a sensitive drama about grief and the means by which we cope with it. Starring David Krumholtz as Andrew – a reserved young man struggling to get over the tragic death of his mother – alongside Jason Ritter and Zachary Knighton as his closest confidants Owen and Dave respectively, the film’s desert landscape soon becomes riddled with the unasked questions and underlying anxieties that define the three best friends. After Andrew makes an indecent proposal of his two friends – namely the desire to sleep with their girlfriends Emily and Zoe, as played by Gillian Jacobs and Ahna O’Reilly – the film takes a turn into unfamiliar territory. To make matters worse, Owen quickly makes it apparent that he has eyes for Andrew’s girlfriend Hannah – as played by Melanie Lynskey. The way out of The Big Ask is thusly paved with intense emotional introspection that results in a psychological reconditioning of all six of the main characters’ basic understandings of themselves and each other, a task that the film is more than capable of tackling.

Co-directed by first-time writer-director duo Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman, The Big Ask takes a familiar premise and turns it on its side in the service of an emotionally fueled romantic drama. As Andrew, Krumholtz plays the role of the improbable suitor sans swagger, exuding excessive amounts of discomfort with himself and those around him. In response, the rest of the cast reacts to Andrew’s presumed mental breakdown contrastingly according to temparment and personal history. In short order, Lynskey as Hannah rages against the prison of Andrew’s fragility, Ritter as Owen makes passes at Hannah, Knighton as Dave and O’Reilly as Zoe begin to understand their respective intentions towards monogamy together, and Jacobs as Emily finds herself drawn to Andrew’s selfless transparency. None of the characters are ever right or wrong, but by following each one’s path individually they all arrive at the same devastating destination.

Andrew may be the instigator of all the drama in The Big Ask, but as the film progresses it becomes quickly apparent that each character has their own part to play in the dissatisfaction of their own lives. Krumholtz may be the most wayward among them, but in Ritter and Knighton there are commensurate traces of listlessness and indecision. Andrew may be the one trying to sleep with his best friends’ girlfriends, but Owen and Dave are equally responsible for pushing themselves further from loving arms. Without explicitly formulating any kind of profound question or a making grand statement, The Big Ask provokes the kind of deep thinking on the part of the viewer that can be most closely associated with a stream-of-consciousness narrative. There are no sign posts or designated in paths out of the desert in The Big Ask, reminding the viewer that not all those who wander are lost.

Watching Krumholtz stumble through grief and personal torment throughout The Big Ask feels almost like trespassing on someone else’s most deeply held emotional secrets. Akin to the kinds of feelings stirred by a solitary walk, The Big Ask is a thoroughly subjective viewing experience. It’s hard to imagine each and every viewer coming away with the same rhetorical response to its dramatic intent, as it is doubly hard to imagine each and every viewer feeling the same way about its characters. Some may find themselves relating wholeheartedly to Andrew’s uncomfortable plight, while others may run towards the conventional perspectives offered by his companions. Either way, The Big Ask is an exceptionally original drama that shouldn’t be missed among the shuffle of other higher profile options vying for your attention.

The Big Ask is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

David Brent: Life on the Road: He’s Back

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on February 25, 2017 at 12:55 pm
David Brent: Life on the Road

Entertainment One

David Brent: Life on the Road (2017)
Directed by Ricky Gervais
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Based in part on the cult-classic mockumentary comedy series The Office – as originally cast, produced, and broadcast on BBC Two from 2001 to 2003 – David Brent has become something of an icon to many a disaffected white collar worker. Prior to NBC adapting the series to a fit a softer, more romantically idealistic demographic in the United States, lead performer and prolific series creator Ricky Gervais personified the worst boss on television. Stereotypically buffoonish, Brent’s antics could range anywhere from the banal to the offensive, leaving a wake of justifiably miffed-to-outraged employees in his tyrannical wake. On The Office, poor middle management resulted in a deluge of painfully rendered moments of unmitigated human callousness, and the joke was often placed on the head of the comically oblivious Brent. When the show made its way to American audiences, some of that harsh realism was surrendered over to a cast of performers possessed with an innate sense of empathetic camaraderie, though Brent’s obtrusive shadow continued to cast an influential shadow on the franchise.

Ten and a half years later, David Brent: Life on the Road seeks to revisit Gervais as Brent to see where life has taken the social malcontent since his starring turn on the original The Office. Picking up where the original BBC sitcom left off, viewers find Brent demoted to a position of a local sales representative for yet another mid-size, non-descript corporation. The moments that find Brent being alternatively abused and coddled by his co-workers make for some of the best moments of the film, and ultimately serve as a launching pad for one of the funniest road movies since This Is Spinal Tap. Disillusioned by a waking life dominated by the demeaning nature of his job, Brent pools all of his money into a last ditch effort to become the rock and roll icon that he has always dreamed of being. Predictably, his self-funded tour is a bust, his hired session musicians don’t want to have anything to do with him, and his only friend and reluctant confidant is constantly overshadowed by Brent’s narcissistic ego.

Many fans of The Office will undoubtedly remember Brent’s penchant for reminiscing about his halcyon days spent as the front man of a band. Recursively recalling that solipsistic fantasy, David Brent: Life on the Road establishes itself as a spin-off to the former series while capitalizing predominantly on Brent’s appeal to a wider audience. It’s always fun to watch an idiot behave stupidly, and Brent has always been a comic character capable of that feat in spades. Accordingly, Brent’s invasive personality constantly finds its way to the center of numerous moments of tension alleviated by the inspired nuances of Gervais’ performance and writing. Instead of merely catering to the most devoted fans of the character, David Brent: Life on the Road operates on its own terms and may be seen as a piece of narrative entirely separate from The Office.

There is plenty of interpersonal confrontation to go around throughout David Brent: Life on the Road, and if you were a fan of the antagonistic aesthetic of the original The Office, there’s plenty more of that sort of comedy to be found in Gervais’ latest theatrical outing. But what many might be surprised by is how emotionally cutting a lot of the comedy insists on being. Brent has always been an ass, but in David Brent: Life on the Road Gervais brings all of the empathy that he miraculously conjured up in his underrated mockumentary series Derek to a bear on a character study that reveals more about Brent than even the most devoted fan could have possibly imagined. Going into the movie, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone expecting to sympathize with Brent’s plight, but by the end of the movie it’s hard not to get a little emotional about the titular misanthrope’s unexpected emotional longings. Like Christopher Guest, Gervais has come a long way in regards to how he approaches the mockumentary sub-genre, and David Brent: Life on the Road might be his most sympathetic comedy yet.

David Brent: Life on the Road is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Little Sister: Gothic Pathos

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on January 28, 2017 at 1:13 pm
Little Sister

Forager Films

Little Sister (2016)
Directed by Zach Clark
VOD Rating: Liked It

It’s hard to represent all of the emotional idiosyncrasies inherent to any one socio-cultural subset. The 21st century alone has seen the rise of the Millennial, and with it a cultural focus on the self-involved, sheltered, and precocious spiritual and political leanings of an epochal generation that has been derisively labeled as Generation Me. Intellectually equated with of the ever irksome hipster aesthetic, Millennials have become the butt of every joke regarding the recurrent aimlessness of youth. But just twenty years prior to the dawn of the Millennial, the Goth movement was far more pervasive in its influence upon young minds. Little Sister sees director Zack Clark approach Goths as a narrative conceit, but instead of marginalizing them for their affinity towards garish makeup and abrasive music, his film seeks to discover the humanitarian ethos that persists across generations regardless of the tone and content of each and every subsequent youth in rebellion.

Centering on a young nun in training named Colleen Lunsford (Addison Tomlin), Little Sister goes about divulging the innermost traits of its characters in a roundabout manner. Rather than openly admitting to his film being about a pair of former teen Goths coming back home to deal with the past, their dysfunctional parents, and the lingering horrors of the Iraq War, Clark means for his audience to see his protagonists as people first. Upon entering her childhood home for the first time after spending several years in self-inflicted excommunication, Colleen immediately begins coming across all of the various personal mementos from her time spent as a Goth. An inverted cross greets the viewer when Colleen makes her way to her old bedroom, which is ethereally tinged with an otherworldly glow amid the shadows and black painted décor. All of this back-story is implicitly accessible to the viewer, and goes a long way towards representing what is a far more realistic and unsensational version of what could have been a broad comedy in the wrong hands.

Tomlin brings an undeniable compassion to her role that results in Little Sister being among the more somber and reflective movie going experiences from this past year. Where Barry Jenkins sought to viscerally propel his viewers through his respective coming of age drama in the critically heralded, Best Picture nominee Moonlight, Clark takes a page from fellow contemporary Jeff Nichols and allows his characters to reveal as much about themselves as the viewer is willing to receive. When Colleen’s older brother Jacob Lunsford (Keith Poulson) is revealed for the first time, there is no remark to be made about the deformity that he brought back with him from the Iraq War. Instead, Colleen seeks to urge her brother out of hermitic isolation by indulging their shared love for the hardcore punk band GWAR. Her pantomimed performance that serves as the cornerstone of the entire production reveals far more about the viewer than it does about either Colleen or Jacob, as Clark means for this instigation of old passions to reflect a shared sense of creative vitality that is the lifeblood of humanity as a whole.

Little Sister approaches its characters without any contextualizing tone, which might make its intentions not entirely easy to read all the time. But for those viewers who are willing to suspend their need for concussive narrative exposition, Clark’s latest directorial effort signals the rise of a filmmaker whose past and future work should be sought after with a renewed vigor. Taking a cue from the Mumblecore film movement, Little Sister offers one of the most irreverent independent film experiences since Garden State, though Clark is a far more tactful storyteller than Zach Braff could ever hope to be. Adolescence is a wellspring of creative inspiration that everyone will continue to draw from as more people come forward to tell their own stories of youthful rebellion, and Clark has added another indispensable entry into that canon with Little Sister. Teeming with pathos and earned dramatic catharsis, Little Sister is a truly exceptional movie that slipped through the cracks of mainstream attention due to its unobtrusive tenderness.

Little Sister is currently available on Netflix, and is my Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Blue Jay: An Appeal to Anonymity

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on December 25, 2016 at 11:25 am
Blue Jay

Netflix

Blue Jay (2016)
Directed by Alex Lehmann
VOD Rating: Liked It

Mark and Jay Duplass are among the more surprising Hollywood success stories of the past ten years. Following the release of their directorial debut The Puffy Chair in 2005, the Duplass brothers have managed to corner the market on the kind of twee, independent feature that was marketed throughout the early 2000s under the Mumblecore banner. But in the years since the likes of Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, and Greta Gerwig became bigger Hollywood names, the Duplass brothers have seemingly struck out even further from the call to becoming mainstream filmmakers. Swanberg and Shelton have experimented with bigger and bigger casts of late, and Gerwig has become a celebrity of un-diminishing notoriety. Meanwhile, Blue Jay sees the Duplass brothers making another movie for themselves that plays to their immediate audience at the risk of flying completely under the radar.

Directed by Alex Lehmann – a career camera operator best known for his work with Mark Duplass on the sports comedy series The League Blue Jay is the first feature film released under a multi-project deal between the Duplass brothers and Netflix. Following its theatrical premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, the new drama film quietly made its way online earlier this month. Co-starring Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson, Blue Jay is a meditative glance at two former high school sweethearts colliding into one another during a visit back home. Moving with the same slow-measured pace that has served to define the Duplass brothers’ work behind the camera for some ten years now, Lehmann’s directorial debut sees the Duplass brothers revisiting familiar territory with an abundance of sentimentality and emotion. It’s hard to go home, and in Blue Jay that particular nostalgic odyssey is evoked through two of the best film performances of the year.

Paulson turned heads earlier this year with her work on the original drama series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and has been attracting plenty of late career attention for her performances on multiple seasons of American Horror Story. But in Blue Jay she and Mark Duplass present what is perhaps the most compelling two-person drama of their respective careers. Blue Jay acts in the same way that Swanberg’s Netflix original series Easy did earlier this year in that it came completely out of left field in a media landscape otherwise dominated by Marvel Studios original series premieres and 1980s throwbacks like Stranger Things. But unlike Luke Cage, Blue Jay was released entirely without fanfare or a ubiquitous marketing campaign. Like Easy, Blue Jay exists and operates in a universe unto itself.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which saw initial theatrical release during the summer of 2012, is the biggest Duplass brothers production to date. If the two Mumblecore veterans were going to make it big with general audiences, a studio comedy starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon would be it. Yet general audiences continued to remain largely nonplussed-to-unaware of the Duplass brothers’ specific blend of quirky comedy and tragedy. In response, Blue Jay marks the first feature length effort from the filmmaking duo since the abrupt cancellation of their HBO series Togetherness, and like the latter Blue Jay sees the two filmmakers continuing to march to the beat of their own drums, popular appeal be damned. Blue Jay offers one of the most compelling tragicomedies of the past few years, and part of its appeal may very well reside in its own unobtrusive anonymity.  

Bue Jay is currently available on Netflix, and is my Movies on VOD: Review of the Week.

Mascots: Another Christopher Guest Comedy

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 26, 2016 at 12:27 pm
Mascots

Netflix

Mascots (2015)
Directed by Christopher Guest
VOD Rating: Liked It

Christopher Guest served to define the contemporary mockumentary with his work on the classic 1984 satirical rock n’ roll feature This is Spinal Tap. Written alongside director Rob Reiner, and co-stars Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, Guest’s work on that classic work of pop culture skewering was like nothing else that had come before it. In its wake, Guest has become the director of several likeminded films that have seen fit to examine the eccentric characters that make up several sub-cultures of the modern world. From amateur theater performers in Waiting for Guffman, to professional dog trainers in Best in Show, Guest has a peculiar flair for representing the marginalized supporting players of real life. His latest movie, Mascots, manages to do a lot of the same for the world of professional sports mascots.

Centering on a heated contest for the World Mascot Association’s Gold Fluffy Award, Mascots playfully gets at the kinds of characters who might become sports mascots in real life. Filling out his roster of supporting characters with both returning collaborators and relative newcomers, Guest once again offers comedy fans a thoroughly worthwhile social satire like no other. Watching impeccable performances from Parker Posey, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, and Jane Lynch makes the world of Mascots appear simultaneously hyperbolic and idiosyncratically startling. People’s actions are often incongruous to expectations, and in Guest’s hands those actions prove to be all the more surprising when they occur spontaneously. There is an undeniable effortlessness to the proceedings of Guest’s films in general, and Mascots sees the talent working behind the scenes in the making of one of his most accessible works to date.

As Owen Golly Jr., a Londoner hoping to take home the Golden Fluffy Award in a concerted bid for the attention and respect of his overbearing father – and as an independent achievement separate from his family’s legacy – English actor Tom Bennett is the clear throughline for the entire affair. Immediately sympathetic and patently buffoonish all at once, Owen’s story is the easiest to cheer for throughout, as the rest of the film’s cast of characters prove to be far too preposterous to be taken entirely seriously. Ed Begley Jr. plays a perfect Christopher Guest character as a former mascot famous for bearing an anatomically correct male sex organ, but the jokes associated with his performance never prove to be as heartfelt as Owen’s. Likewise, Parker Posey and Fred Willard provide brief turns that feel far too broadly sophomoric to ever really land with the same gravitas that they’ve provided in past Guest features. Mascots knows why its subject matter might be funny, but never really goes about understanding the human core from which that humor derives.

In the critically underrated 2013 HBO series Family Tree, Guest delivered what is perhaps his most empathetic comedy effort to date. Over the course of a mere eight episodes, co-creator and star Chris O’Dowd offered viewers a moving quest for personal connection with a genealogical past undertaken by the near Dickensian protagonist Tom Chadwick. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after one season, and Guest was soon left to his own devices to write the script for a new feature length production. In that light, Mascots feels a little too safe for Guest’s own good. It lacks a lot of the bite of past efforts like For Your Consideration while abandoning the humanism newly found in his most recent career high, even if it’s just as funny as anything he’s ever done.

Mascots is currently available on Netflix, and is my Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Wiener-Dog: Picaresque Fable & Dystopian Fantasy

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 17, 2016 at 12:21 pm
Wiener-Dog

Amazon Studios/IFC Films

Wiener-Dog (2016)
Directed by Todd Solondz
VOD Rating: Liked It

Standing as the other great independent filmmaker of the 1990s hailing from New Jersey, Todd Solondz is everything that Kevin Smith is not. Trading irreverent populism for biting realism, Solondz’s filmography is markedly dour. Despite attempting to write what he claims are mainstream comedies, Solondz is a filmmaker whose work is unrelentingly bleak. Even when characters like Dawn Wiener – from both his 1995 sophomore effort Welcome to the Dollhouse and its spiritual sequel Wiener-Dog from earlier this summer – seek love in earnest, the trials and tribulations endured in the effort often outweigh the meager rewards. Characters in Solondz’s films are the outcasts and misfits forced to settle for less in a world that appears to have left them behind, or perhaps never really cared about them to begin with. But seeing characters in such dire domestic straits is miraculously inclusive and fantastically achieved, as anyone from the Garden State might relate of a life lived in the shadow of bigger and better things in New York City, be they imagined or not.

Serving as an anthology film, Wiener-Dog finds Solondz at his most concise and optimistic. Following the travels of a singular dachshund as the household pet passes from owner to owner, the film examines several less than fulfilling ways to spend one’s mortal existence. Starting under the care of a highly dysfunctional family that leaves the vulnerable creature under the care of a far too innocent young boy, the dog is quickly whisked away to apparent euthanasia after consuming mass amounts of chocolate and granola. Enter Dawn Wiener of Welcome to the Dollhouse, who quickly saves the poor animal from impending death and nurses it back to health. The titular wiener-dog than eventually gets passed along to several subsequent owners through a marvelously circuitous series of interconnecting stories, characters, and micro-events.

In the same way that Solondz has examined quiet humanity and spiritual desperation in past films like Happiness from 1998 and Storytelling from 2001, Wiener-Dog veers towards nihilism at every twist and turn. Individual protagonists struggle against the constricting forces of a world on the brink of collapse that suffocates anyone who would so much as hope or aspire to anything greater. Set against the dueling landscapes of northern New Jersey and metropolitan New York, Wiener-Dog is part picaresque fable and part dystopian fantasy. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn Wiener plays the would-be coming of age protagonist whose inner value is only just beginning to blossom into fruition. In Wiener-Dog, the same fictional heroine has become resigned to playing the part of a walk-on role in the same story.

Yet the film doesn’t feel bleak at all. All of the characters whose lives are interconnected throughout Wiener-Dog work together in a macro sense, even as their independent volition is only relevant in a micro sense. Nobody’s hopes or dreams matter in any real way in Wiener-Dog, yet such a self-defeating prophecy simultaneously serves to uplift the film’s bleakness by casting personal despair within the context of a communal pastime. If everyone else is feeling as downtrodden as Solondz makes them out to be, then there is no real shame in feeling alone, unwanted, and irrelevant. There is a community of despair throughout Solondz’s films that provides for a sense of immediacy and connection between characters and story arcs that seeks to include the viewer in a way that is remarkably honest, forthright, and earnest, even if there are no happy endings.

Wiener-Dog is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is my Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.