Sean K. Cureton

Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

Eighth Grade: Coming of Age Online

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

A24

Eighth Grade
Directed by Bo Burnham
4 out of 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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The Lovers: Love the One You’re With

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

A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside In: The Human Spirit Confined

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

The Orchard

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

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.

Paterson: Rhyme, Meter, & Verse

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on February 4, 2017 at 11:39 am
Paterson

Amazon Studios

Paterson
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
3 out of 4 stars

Jim Jarmusch has always been a filmmaker who has made movies on his own terms. Heralded for his early work in black and white, including his directorial debut Permanent Vacation, it’s immediate follow-up Stranger Than Paradise, and Down by Law, Jarmusch is a filmmaker who revels in the mundane and the eccentric. His filmography is peppered with big name Hollywood talent and countercultural icons alike, with turns from the likes of Bill Murray and several key members of the Wu-Tang Clan frequently occupying the same narrative space. In later works like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch has toyed with broader ideas and conceits, but it will be for his smaller works populated by stranger characters like Night on Earth and Coffee and Cigarettes that most cinephiles will continue to refer to him. Continuing in that tradition, Paterson sees Jarmsuch at his most laid back, self-reflective, and concerned with the tedium of day-to-day life.

On first glance, Paterson is a far more intellectual exercise than many viewers might have been anticipating. Despite running behind a theatrical trailer that made Paterson out to be a feel good romantic comedy, the actual film is devoid of much in the way of volatile activity or inactivity. As a NJ Transit bus driver and aspiring poet named Paterson, living in Paterson, NJ, who habitually reads Paterson as written by the late resident poet William Carlos Williams, the circuitous nature of the film’s thematic tone can be a little inaccessible. And the means by which Jarmusch constructs drama out of the banal can be frustrating. For the greater part of the movie’s 120 minute runtime, nothing really happens and the viewer is left in a state of peace, calm, and tranquility that is a true rarity in a day and age where big budget blockbusters rein a schizophrenic assault on the senses of the contemporary moviegoer.

But within Paterson there is a visual attention given to detailing every minute facet and vagary that is a welcome respite for those looking for something more mindful of humanitarian interests. If you’re willing to indulge Jarmusch and the rest of his cast and crew in the telling of an essentially anti-dramatic tone poem, than chances are you’ll find yourself loving Paterson despite yourself. The movie proceeds with a languid pace that feels too slow in certain moments, and not slow enough in others, and before you know it lead actor Adam Driver has become the conduit of human emotion and poetry. It’s easy to begin losing yourself in the hyper-reality of Jarmusch’s carefully articulated romanticism, and you begin to feel at home in Paterson to an extent that is unusual for most films. Paterson sets out to evoke the structure of poetry in terms of content, theme, and structure, and succeeds on all three counts.

At the heart of Paterson, beyond its lackadaisical pace and absence of any real source of tension, anxiety, or conflict, Driver delivers one of the most heartwarming lead roles from the past year. It’s unlikely that many will be willing to go along for what is an undoubtedly inconsequential ride through the dilapidated urban sprawl of Jarmusch’s imagination, but for those that do there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Instead of offering a true dramatic climax, towards the final quarter of the film a string of small moments between the many characters that make up the world of Paterson occur that provide a minor sense of catharsis. A jilted Romeo questions the point of the universe without love, Paterson’s girlfriend finds success at a local farmer’s market, and another poet makes a brief appearance signifying the spiritual renewal to be found through creativity in the face of even the most devastating of personal setbacks. Paterson, in its unassuming non-demands on the viewer’s attention, casts a spell on those willing to give in to its idiosyncratic spirit and be swept up in its communally minded rhyme scheme, meter, and verse.