Sean K. Cureton

Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews: 2017’

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.

 

Advertisements

A Ghost Story: An Egocentric Purgatory

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

A24

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

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

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

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

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

It Comes at Night: A Midnight Odyssey

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

A24

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

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

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

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

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

Logan: A Bittersweet Ode

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

20th Century Fox

Logan
Directed by James Mangold
3 out of 4 stars

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

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

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

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