Sean K. Cureton

Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

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.

 

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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: Reviews and Recommendations 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: Reviews and Recommendations 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.

Little Sister: Gothic Pathos

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations 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: Reviews and Recommendations 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.

Moonlight: The Rhetoric of Empathy

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on December 3, 2016 at 1:01 pm
Moonlight

A24

Moonlight
Directed by Barry Jenkins
3 out of 4 stars

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that challenges your preconceptions about the way you view the world; Moonlight is one of those films. Directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is one of the most memorable representations of American gender and racial division in recent years. Depicting the life of two sensitive, young Miami, Florida natives growing up in moderate poverty, Jenkins’ latest motion picture offers a sliver of hope for a country in a state of seemingly irreparable division and economic disparity. Over the course of three acts, the life story of one Chrion “Little” is told from the perspective of three generations of lead actors, all of whom provide the means for exploring identity in a state of transition. At the heart of Jenkins’ new film is a crisis of sexual identity and the forces of masculine anxiety that threaten to topple one man’s sense of self-worth as a black man.

Writing from the perspective of a white heterosexual male of moderate financial means makes coming to Moonlight an especially tricky endeavor. As a critic, it begins to feel like a means of cultural appropriation to even begin to exchange one’s own social experience for that of Chiron’s in Moonlight. Thankfully, Jenkins doesn’t ever demand that one experience the acts depicted in Moonlight as a strictly dramatic exercise. Instead, Moonlight offers an elegiac meditation on the passions of his lead protagonists that provides the opening rhetorical flourishes for empathy instead of a conclusive argument. In the theater that I saw the film, I was left stunned by the film’s moving third act that sees a much older Chiron – played by Trevante Rhodes – embrace his childhood friend and confidante – played by André Holland – in a state of cathartic reunion and self-realization; meanwhile, a whole row of old white woman in the back of the theater didn’t know how to react or whether the experiences depicted on screen were true to real life.

There has been a rising trend in recent years that has called for the inclusion of more directorial voices in American filmmaking in terms of both gender and racial ethnicity. As a rallying cry, diversity on the big screen is a worthy one that demands to be heard now more than ever. Based on an original story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins’ Moonlight gives voice to two distinct minority voices by way of a singular narrative experience. The story of Chiron “Little” – from his time spent as a picked upon young boy, to his years as a brutally bullied teenager, and finally as a hardened street thug adult – is shockingly different from most other mainstream movie success stories. Not only is Moonlight an enveloping interrogation of queer love, but also simultaneously gives voice and representation to an entire American community otherwise invisible to the very same row of old white women left questioning the veracity of the lives represented on screen at the end of the screening I attended.

It has become apparent over the course of the past few months that we as Americans no longer know our neighbors. We wave hello to the kindly old lady across the street, and respond cordially to the requests of our co-workers and friends, but we never stop to discuss our own lives, fears, and hopes for the future. Moonlight, among many other things, accomplishes the feat of representing this form of personal dishonesty to one another and our-selves with moving compassion, empathy, and understanding. The pejorative other in society has become the scapegoat for avoiding true community, but films like Jenkins’ light the way towards a potential path out of the darkness of narcissism. We can only hope that more directors of color and differing sexual identities will be allowed to come forward and encouraged to tell their own story of an all-inclusive American dream.

Listen Up Philip Offers a Sermon On Narcissism

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on June 25, 2016 at 11:18 am
Listen Up Philip Poster

Tribeca Film

Listen Up Philip (2014)
Directed by Alex Ross Perry
VOD Rating: Liked It

There are several times in which the lead character of writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip tests the viewer’s patience and capacity for empathetic identification. Films want you to sympathize with their protagonists so often that one can forget that sometimes movies can examine the lives lived of people who are antagonistically deplorable. Such is the case with Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an aspiring New York novelist and character who draws immediate inspiration from the coterie of bourgeois literati that have come before him. Thanks in no small part to the film’s aesthetic allusions to the greatest works of Philip Roth, and bolstered by Schwartzman’s sneering narcissism that adds lighter shades of Bret Easton Ellis to the proceedings, Listen Up Philip is an unusually rare treat. The life of the next great American novelist is treated with broad strokes of deadpan satire, but under Perry’s watchful eye the production never strays too far into the adjacent realm of melodramatic comedy.

Listen Up Philip is an alienating and difficult viewing experience, and as such it serves to build up one of the greatest scripted characters in recent memory, in which Perry has seemingly discovered fertile ground to sow the seeds of one of the more remarkable films of the past ten years, and delivers a fascinating dichotomy of the sins and virtues of the life and mind of the writer. It’s not often that a Jonathan Franzen type is placed at the front and center of a filmed drama, which is part of why the production is so immediately unique if not always engrossing. Philip Lewis Friedman plays the part of the East Coast intellectual with all of the baggage that comes with such a personal signifier, and coasts through the streets of Manhattan as though he already owns everything by virtue of his own assumed sophistication. Schwartzman seemingly relishes playing each and every exchange with another character with undisguised contempt and sub-textual self-loathing. The feeling of never being able to love oneself is so much a part of the fabric of the artistic pursuit at this point that is should come as no surprise that the main villain of Listen Up Philip gradually reveals himself to be the eponymous author himself.

When New York becomes too distracting for Philip, the young novelist seeks refuge with Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an aging writer whose early works of fiction serve as the high watermark in literary innovation in the mind of Schwartzmann’s junior scribbler. Pryce is a crucial figure throughout the second half of Listen Up Philip, as his own musings on the importance of hermitic isolation reflect just one of the many paths that Philip may find himself going down in the future. Pryce as Zimmerman serves as something of a father figure and the last remnant of the patriarchal past, whose suggested alcoholism and misogynistic rage against his estranged daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) turn him into a pseudo-stand-in John Updike. If Philip hopes to escape the cold winters of an inescapable melancholy laid out for him under Zimmerman’s tutelage, then there doesn’t appear to be much hope in the realm of literary writing. Listen Up Philip subversively suggests that the life of a young writer is dictated by the isolationism of the oft-cited ivory tower, an expansive abode that becomes a prison the longer one stay within its emotionally restrictive environs.

The way in which Listen Up Philip tacitly acknowledges the successes and failures of some of the most notorious American novelists of the twentieth century as they meet the oncoming twenty-first century that will render them culturally irrelevant is spellbinding. Meanwhile, Philip might yet chart a different course for himself as the voice of the next generation if only he could get out of his own way. Schwartzmann’s brutally vicious attacks against his ex-girlfriend Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss) throughout Perry’s film present the case for Philip’s inherited bigotry while shedding light on some of the worst facets of anyone who would presume to write a great work of American fiction. There is little hope for many of the characters in Listen Up Philip, save for Ashley who is able to escape the suffocating neediness of Philip’s insatiable need for flagellating adulation. When Ashley shuts Philip out of their apartment one final time towards the end of the movie, Perry provides a final pronouncement on Philip’s character that would be tragic if it weren’t for the sense of triumph earned by Ashley, and presumably appropriated to great sardonic effect by Philip in isolation.

Listen Up Philip is currently available on Amazon Prime Video, and is my Movies on VOD Recommendation of the Week.