Sean K. Cureton

Posts Tagged ‘Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations’

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.

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

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on February 25, 2017 at 12:55 pm
David Brent: Life on the Road

Entertainment One

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Sister: Gothic Pathos

In Movies on VOD: 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.

Mascots: Another Christopher Guest Comedy

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on November 26, 2016 at 12:27 pm
Mascots

Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wiener-Dog: Picaresque Fable & Dystopian Fantasy

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on September 17, 2016 at 12:21 pm
Wiener-Dog

Amazon Studios/IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men, Women & Children: A Parable On the Digital Age

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on August 27, 2016 at 10:54 am
Men, Women & Children

Paramount Pictures

Men, Women & Children (2014)
Directed by Jason Reitman
VOD Rating: Liked It

Based on the novel of the same name by Chad Kultgen, Men, Women & Children is a surprising social satire whose barbed critiques of social-sexual identity are acutely aimed. Directed by Jason Reitman, the film stars the likes of Adam Sander, Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner, and Dean Norris as the well seeming guardians of the millennial generation. Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Denver, Olivia Crocicchia, and Elena Kampouris round out the cast as the besieged upon adolescents whose use of social media and online porn becomes the source of demonstratively structured moral guidance. Kultgen has made his name for being a provocateur on the page of wildly sophomoric antics wherein the very worst facets of American life and living are exaggerated for comic effect. In adapting an easily misread book, Reitman’s cinematic satire revels in pockets of dramatic ambiguity further complicated by a number of subtle performances throughout.

Men, Women & Children, like Reitman’s other social satires such as his breakthrough comedy hit Juno from 2005 and its immediate Oscar nominated follow-up Up in the Air from 2009, is sentimentally heartfelt. Reitman approaches the potential problem of the digital age with a decided aesthetic flourish in keeping with kinds of superimposed cyber text and imagery made popular by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in 2010. Seeing Ansel Elgort roam the halls of high school while streams of literalized data buzz around his head is as discomfiting a cinematic experience as the pangs of needing to answer each and every text massage actually is in real life. The digital age isn’t so much a monster in Reitman’s hands as it is a near indefinable chimera of social hysteria. It’s source and immediate ramifications are constantly changing and opaque, which lends some of the surrounding paranoia personified by Jennifer Garner in the film feel earned despite its inherent hyperbole.

As the head of a local task force of parents stereotypically afraid of anything they don’t understand on the Internet, Garner is perhaps the most potentially awkward facet of the film’s script. But what makes Garner sympathetic, or at the very least comical, comes in her absolute fear of the unknown that proves perennially applicable. It’s easy to make a mountain out of a molehill at a long distance, and Garner’s digital paranoia is likewise one of lacking the kind of fundamental familiarity with social media that her young daughter was born with. The need to protect one’s daughter from unwanted advances online is certainly nothing new when it comes to protective parents of teen girls, making Garner’s role in Men, Women & Children just another generational variation of the same narrative archetype. At once silly and misguided, Reitman makes it quickly apparent that Garner’s character should be seen as just one outcome of the larger digital revolution, and one that will dwindle as our cultural familiarity with various facets of social media increases with time.

There’s plenty to scoff at in the making of Reitman’s social satire, most notably including Adam Sandler and his dumpy wife’s brief flirtation with online polygamy; or Judy Greer’s willfully ill-advised facilitation of a soft-core porn site featuring her teenage daughter. Many of the social circumstances that arise throughout Men, Women & Children can appear far too broad to be believable at first, lending the entire production over to the realm of a made for TV after school special. But Reitman doesn’t act like a stern disciplinarian intent on reprimanding millennial transgressions online. Instead, Men, Women & Children seeks to find a human core in much of the misconstrued hi-jinks that occur throughout the entire production’s circuitous series of crimes and misdemeanors. The characters that populate the film’s script are all recognizable characters from real life whose individual errors are forgivable and familiar, making Reitman’s feature a heartwarming parable on the digital age.

Men, Women & Children is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is my Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Passes the Torch

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on March 19, 2016 at 11:41 am
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Review

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
VOD Rating: Liked It

Coming from a recent veteran director of television melodrama primarily aimed at the adolescent milieu, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is acutely aimed at the hearts of many a misanthropic teenage misfit whittling away at their high school years, all in the anticipation of the great unknowable chasm that is college and a life beyond that of being a student. As disaffected, asocial nobody Greg Gaines, actor Thomas Mann takes on the role of an erstwhile caregiver and amateur classical film satirist with great aplomb, exuding a certain understated despair entirely specific to pre-undergraduate work and ambition. When Greg is forced to grapple with the terminal cancer diagnosis of a fellow classmate Rachel Kushner, played with surprising maturity and fierce intelligence by Olivia Cooke, his world of tightly held together affectless cool comes apart, and his own underlying self-loathing is brought under closer scrutiny than the young man had perhaps ever previously allowed. As his best friend and fellow social outcast, or “co-worker” as Greg facetiously calls him, the up and coming actor RJ Cyler lends his own particular charm and immature grace to the role of Earl. Collectively, Mann, Cooke, and Cyler form a tightly knit trio of erstwhile friends and confidants who appear to resemble the very same social ephemera that often makes up for so many of our interactions with peers in high school, and all three performers make Gomez-Rejon’s second theatrical release as a director compelling despite its underlying thematic redundancy and conceited ego.

It is perhaps too easy, and potentially hypocritical, to cite all of the assumed errors and moments of dramatic stagnancy and flat moments of storytelling that make up for one of the most well worn and tired dramatic sub-genres in film. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is yet another coming of age drama that resembles all of the films like it that have come before, but thanks in no small part to Gomez-Rejon’s penchant for strikingly visual aesthetic flourishes, coupled with the immediacy of the film’s cast of lead actors, the movie is often better than many of its kith and kin. There are better films of its kind, see Mike Nichol’s The Graduate, but it also stands on a par with certain motion pictures that are its temporal contemporaries both tonally and temporally, see Zach Braff’s Garden State. Much of Gomez-Rejon’s film proves to be less than that which it aspires to be, and yet its hard to find fault with a cinematic narrative that is ultimately just one more story that screams with the desire of its subject, adolescent turmoil an endless, if regressive, inspirational well of pure emotion from which to draw perpetually. Greg Gaines is no Ben Braddock, but in some of the film’s more viscerally realized moments Mann proves to be a far more capable dramatic performer than Braff in kind.

By turns unremarkable and incendiary, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was adapted for the screen by novelist Jesse Andrews who wrote the book upon which the entire production is based, is a good movie, though not a great one. Perhaps the greatest stumbling block of the independent film movement that has arisen out the early 2000s, with films like Braff’s aforementioned navel-gazing directorial debut, has been the perpetual lack of overt direction in said production’s individual visions. At times many of these movies feel like retreads of past experiments in the medium, which is perhaps why it is so easy to lump Gomez-Rejon’s subjectively moving picture in with other lesser works of the same aesthetic sort. Yet what makes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl stand out ultimately is in its undeniable voice that arises from a generation divorced from both that of Nichol’s late 1960s post-graduate, as well as Braff’s preening early twenty-first century liberal malaise. For the most part, Gomez-Rejon seems to be speaking to the adolescent teens of the now in the 2010s, and as such his film feels pretty spot on in terms of articulating their generational angst and depression, however much it may resemble the follies of past youths.

Greg, Earl, and Rachel look twee and conveniently positioned from a dramatic perspective at first glance, and the story that Gomez-Rejon and Andrews choose to tell is one perennially well known. But such a reading would be giving short shrift to the persisting vibrancy and staying power specific to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and of the coming-of-age sub-genre in total. For many viewers of the Millennial generation, Gomez-Rejon’s film will be burned into their emotional memory, and all subsequent films that try to tell the same story for succeeding generations will ultimately fall short in striving to replicate and replace the one that they know so well already. Such is the case for those who grew of age in the early 2000s, and for whom Zach Braff proved an indispensable barometer of counter-cultural whimsy, merriment, and melancholy, on film and television alike. And such will be the case for those reaching maturity now in the 2010s, and for whom Mann will forever remain the paragon of all young adult yearning, and Gomez-Rejon’s film set to become The Graduate of an entirely different generational sort, with future successors primed to pass the torch of youth in kind, ad infinitum.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is currently available through HBO GO, and is My VOD Movie Review of the week.

Palo Alto & the Quiet Rebellion of Youth

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on February 20, 2016 at 1:01 pm
Palo Alto Movie Review

Tribeca Film

Palo Alto (2013)
Directed by Gia Coppola
VOD Rating: Liked It

Based on the collection of short stories by multi-media artist and actor James Franco, Palo Alto is the directorial debut from Gia Coppola, the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and the niece of his daughter Sofia Coppola. Like the book of prose upon which Coppola’s coming of age drama is based, the film details the quiet rebellion of youth perennially in revolt against the landscape of modern day Palo Alto, California, where the American malcontents of a dawning generation are forced to reckon with themselves and one another in the midst of violent passion and apathetic dispassion. The movie stars such young adult thespians as Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, and Nat Wolff in the lead roles, while James Franco and Val Kilmer stand-in as some kind of bizarre mirror to the former protagonists’ self-defeating ambitions, or lack thereof. Throughout Coppola’s film, Roberts, Kilmer, and Wolff are compelling as a collective unit, with the two former innocents continually corrupted and held apart from one another by the corrosive influence of Wolff’s aimless delinquent. The three characters comprise a drama that ends in a whisper as opposed to the bang constantly on the verge of erupting, echoing the lack of power held by those in a state of adolescence, perpetual or temporary.

Of particular interest in the film’s adaptation of a collection of individually disparate narratives from Franco’s original book is the story of Kilmer as Teddy, a sweet aspiring visual artist held back by his own naïveté and indiscretion brought about by an overriding immaturity. In Franco’s hands, Teddy doesn’t feel nearly as compelling as he does when portrayed by Kilmer as seen through the eyes of Coppola, whose collective poetry in motion suggests a certain intelligence absent or so deeply submerged beneath Franco’s aesthetic façade initially to be rendered indistinguishable. Likewise, Roberts as April is a welcome breath of fresh air in much the same way that Kristen Stewart is, stemming not so much from an actor fully in control of her art, but an individual who seamlessly influences the drama around her via an indescribable charm and savant-like appeal. And Wolff as Fred might be the most interesting character of all, as his self-destructive misogyny appears to have been inherited by the examples of masculinity presented to him in the surrounding the culture. By the end of the film, Teddy, April, and Fred may have committed gross acts of personal prejudice against themselves and one another, but their error is one of a surrounding society that apparently breeds upon malice and ill-will.

At one point over the course of the film’s subtly told drama, Coppola interweaves a single shot of Teddy donning a wolf suit obviously reminiscent of the one worn by Maurice Sendak’s juvenile delinquent in the classic children’s storybook Where the Wild Things Are. This moment is small and fleeting, and could be easily glossed over as a meager attempt at suggesting an underlying disquiet within Teddy, but in its brevity of focus upon the viewer’s attention, it becomes ever more memorable, and proves to be an image that is burned into the viewer’s mind long after the film has concluded. Like Sendak’s pre-pubescent rebel, Coppola’s band of teenage misfits want so dearly to cast off the seeming shackles of suburban complacency, but are so dependent upon the very source of their anger that they are forced to concede to the powers that be, however temporarily. Franco’s book tells stories that are objectively unsettling and pruriently entertaining in subject matter, with several sequences focusing upon wildly imaginative acts of sexual violence that come right out of the fevered American nightmare of a good Bret Easton Ellis novel. Coppola, instead of depicting these acts outright, suggests them through the underlying intentions of Wolff’s Fred, whose desire to take what he wants is so often denied form him, resulting in the very near tragedy of personal annihilation in the film’s thrilling final sequence.

What makes Palo Alto such a memorable event in the contemporary cinematic landscape derives from Coppola’s ability to dissect the visual elements of Franco’s prose that stick with the reader, and now the viewer, despite the overriding thematic redundancy of the film’s central narrative. Roberts, Kilmer, and Wolff all play their parts to a tee, and their temporary rebellion of youthful ignorance echoes that of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange before them. In adapting the stories of Franco, Coppola has a found a means by which the former writer’s debut book of prose to the realm of communally shared fantasy, and extracts some of the most universal feelings from said adapted source. Long after having watched Coppola’s film, the scenes, scenarios, and brief glimpses of spiritual epiphany still ring loudly, even as the content of said ephemera proves to be as insubstantial as adolescence likewise becomes in retrospect. Franco might be a distracting influence upon the film’s surrounding intentions, but through Coppola’s intense gaze even some of the film’s more tiresome clichés become imbued with a newfound inspiration that appears entirely novel and revelatory, however briefly.

Palo Alto is currently available through Amazon Prime, and is My VOD Movie Review of the week.