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Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a new mystery/horror film currently available to stream on Netflix. Dan Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rene Russo all reunite after the stellar film that was “Nightcrawler” in 2014. Just as “Nightcrawler” satirized the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality of local news stations’ greedy pursuit of more eyeballs on their network- Buzzsaw tackles a similarly dark, almost comedic, satire of the Los Angeles art scene in all of its pretentious nature. Once we’re introduced to all of the major players of the story things get rolling after Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers the dead body of one of her neighbors in her building. She quickly discovers that the recently deceased was an undiscovered, and brilliant, artist. Being the young, green, aspiring art agent that she is, Josephina takes her discoveries home- only to be discovered later by her boss, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), a ruthless and successful art collector and distributor.

Once the word is out, it isn’t long until Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) catches wind of the discovery- he frequents the events that Rhodora hosts and is romantically involved with Josephina as well. Gyllenhaal portrays Morf as an ostentatious and glib-lipped art critic, he’s seen as a god among his peers- his opinions can make or break the bank of an art gallery or installation. Gyllenhaal is clearly, having a ball with the character and he was one of the best parts of the film. The cast as a whole had a lot of moving pieces and nearly every major speaking part had a role to play in moving the plot forward. Tom Sturridge and Toni Collete equally chew the scenery when given the chance as Jon Dondon and Gretchen, fellow competitors with Rhodora in the world of gallery owners and art distributors. John Malkovich also appears to be having a good time as Piers, a once promising artist who’s been considered washed-up since ridding himself of alcoholism. Even Natalia Dyer’s got a fun role as the sheepish secretary, Coco, who ends up working for all of the major art collectors in the story once things start to get bloody.

(Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal appear in Velvet Buzzsaw by Dan Gilroy, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Claudette Barius. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.)

Which brings me to the hook of the story, there’s something weird about the artwork of Dease (Josephina’s deceased neighbor). It seems to have supernatural properties and works to kill those who profit from displaying the artwork. It’s a silly premise indeed, but the actors deliver such passionate performances within that premise that make it delightfully fun. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy the tagline of “Pretentious art critics brutally attacked by the art they critique“? If you’ve got the time and enjoy a good genre flick, I’d recommend it.

Final Score: Thousands of Dease pieces

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film

Review: Roma

Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” follows a family through a tumultuous year in early 1970’s Mexico City. Specifically it is the story of Cleo Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two maids that live with the family they clean and care for. While we follow the arc of the family’s overall storyline as the film develops, we see most things through Cleo’s perspective. She works with Adela (Nancy García García) cleaning the floors, preparing food, and watching over Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio’s (Fernando Grediaga) four children Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf), and Sofi (Daniela Demesa).

I won’t divulge too many details, as I believe this small film benefits from a less-is-more attitude upon first viewing. The emotional core of the film lies in the parallel storylines of Cleo and Sofia, both of whom experience cycles of neglect and trauma. The first half of the film is cleverly benign. It explores the intimacy of small moments between various characters, forcing a closeness between the audience and the family onscreen so that when the dramatic events unfold, the twisting of the narrative knife is that much more painful. In an article for Variety the director speaks about the sensation of memory, about how the film isn’t meant to be a direct representation of the time and place, but informed by how he remembers it. “[Jorge Luis] Borges talks about how memory is an opaque, shattered mirror, but I see it more as a crack in the wall. The crack is whatever pain happened in the past. We tend to put several coats of paint over it, trying to cover that crack. But it’s still there.” -Alfonso Cuarón.

With “Roma”, Alfonso Cuarón demonstrates his deft handiwork and skill behind the camera, which firmly reminds us of his place in cinematic history. This passion project of Cuarón’s has his fingerprints in nearly every department of production. Not only did he write and direct the first Best Picture nominee for Netflix, but he was also behind the camera as the cinematographer and edited the film himself too! Informed by his own childhood growing up in Mexico City, Cuarón’s semi autobiographical work is dedicated to the real Cleo of his childhood, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez. Though in a fun sidenote, there’s even a nod to the director’s other works when the family goes to the cinema to see “Marooned”- an inspiration for his own sci-fi film in the shape of “Gravity” years later.

Cuarón’s cinematography makes everyday life seem like a spectacle to behold. This works wonders in the latter half of the film when the narrative starts to weigh more, for both the audience and the characters involved. If “Roma” doesn’t sweep the Oscars with its ten nominations then it should at the very least get the cinematography award. Though admittedly, it would be a shame if Yalitza Aparicio didn’t get the Best Actress- her performance was grounded, warm, tragic and outstanding. I haven’t seen as many of the Oscar nominations as I normally do this time of year, but I’d have a hard time considering others over this performance, and the film as a whole truthfully.

What I loved most about this film was that it captured the breadth and depth of life’s circumstances. It asks how we’re supposed to wade through the vague and swirling confusion of psychological and emotional trauma that is life when we’re supposed to go about our lives and do things that are required of us, like work and the accumulation of wealth. In my humble opinion, good art makes you question life and your place in it. Really great art reaches you on a previously unseen level and makes an impact on you- but the best stuff burrows inside your mind, and it becomes a part of you, it makes you live in ITS space. Any great novel, painting, orchestra, or film can accomplish this- and it is different for everyone, but Roma was all of these things for me after the end credits had rolled.

Final Score: 4 kids, 2 maids, and 1 Borras

Check out this article (mentioned earlier in the review) about the film and the director’s complex relationship with the material from Variety: https://variety.com/2018/film/news/roma-alfonso-cuaron-netflix-libo-rodriguez-1202988695/

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Review: Mute

Written by Michael Robert Johnson and Duncan Jones and directed by Jones, “Mute” is a futuristic sci-fi neo-noir that follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) a mute Amish man living in Berlin some forty years in the future as he searches for his missing girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). This is Jones’ fourth feature, but his first to be released through Netflix, which gives me even less of a good reason to have missed it until now. However, that being said, the film seemed to have been mired in a quagmire of sour reviews upon its release and I was perplexed by this given the enticing trailers. The film looked to be a unique take on the Blade Runner format with a few twists and turns of its own. After giving it a watch, I can see where some complaints make sense, but overall I enjoyed the film as a whole.

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There are several aspects of the film that stand out to me and what save it from getting too bogged down for its own good. The casting was a unique array of actors but the most worrisome of the bunch was Paul Rudd and whether or not he’d be able to deliver a compelling, and convincing, villain. A villainous turn may have seemed antithetical to most of Rudd’s past work, but his role as Cactus Bill turned out to be my favorite part of the movie. He portrays a nasty, rude, and entitled American soldier that went A.W.O.L. after a recent war in Berlin. Cactus Bill is volatile and unsettling at moments, but he’s also a father figure throughout the movie carting around his young daughter as he goes about trying to illegally obtain new passports and IDs to get out of town. His partner in crime is Justin Theroux’s ‘Duck’ the inverse of Cactus Bill. Duck speaks softly and wears outdated professor-marketed wool sweaters, but he too shares a darker identity that becomes more visible as the film goes on. Both are former military surgeons that work in tandem with Russian (I assume) mafia figures needing to be stitched up. These two garner a hefty amount of the plot and a lot of the attention away from Skarsgård’s Leo, luckily they earn their screentime.

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Speaking of Leo, his anchor in this story is formed based on his upbringing and the beliefs of his family that led to his muteness. After a tragic boating accident that shredded his vocal chords, Leo’s mother declined surgery citing that Only God can help him now, and thus we have our voiceless hero. Fast forward to Leo’s adult life as a bartender in a shady club run by criminals and we see the different shades of his life folding in on one another. Naadirah also works at the club where we witness Leo’s righteous wrath on several patrons after they crudely harass her. His stoicism and height lend to this handling of justice, however his occupation does not. Put on the bench by his superiors Leo steps back as tries to keep his life with Naadirah safe. Therefore, she disappears a few scenes later and Leo kickstarts his detective storyline as he desperately tries to track her down. The other idea in the story that stayed with me after the movie was the idea of an Amish man living in the futuristic world of Neo Berlin. The film did a good job of making his life in this world feel authentic, his apartment and his mannerisms play into that idea efficiently.

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There are some rough edges to this film though. The meshing of storylines between Leo’s quest to find Naadirah and Cactus Bill’s journey to escape Berlin isn’t always smooth. Ultimately the two storylines end up being far more linked than expected, but the atmosphere and feel of them isn’t as cohesive as it could have been. There’s also a scene in the third act that’s built up as something that could be more than what it ends up being, and it’s simply anticlimactic, which is a bit of a bummer. The film also goes on for about twenty minutes, or so, longer than I feel it needs to. It lingers longer than is needed and somewhat overstays its welcome because of this. Though if you’ve seen Duncan Jones’ first film “Moon” there are several entertaining cameos by Sam Rockwell’s Sam Bell on Television in the background of some scenes, there’s even a few recurring graffiti images of Bell throughout Berlin’s streets.

“Mute” is a good time in the end, even with a few uneven sides. It’s nowhere near as bad as the majority of reviews seem to have deemed it, I suggest giving it a watch if only to see Paul Rudd’s rare villainous appearance.

Final Score: 2 criminal surgeons and 1 good ole fashioned Amish beat down 

“Mute” is currently available on Netflix.

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Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

There Will be spoilers in this article, as it would be difficult to discuss the film without acknowledging them. You have been warned.

On Sunday during the Super Bowl a trailer was revealed for the newest film in the evolving Cloverfield series titled “The Cloverfield Paradox”. An intriguing and quick snippet marketed the latest installment as a sci-fi horror with mysterious ongoings, but more importantly- the film would be available immediately after the Super Bowl on Netflix. So, I thought I’d give it a shot, I adored the initial Cloverfield film and the secret sequel in “10 Cloverfield Lane” was a nice little surprise when it was released- why not give this flick a watch? Written by Oren Uziel and directed by Julius Onah, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is a science-fiction thriller set on an international space station in a future timeline where the Earth is embroiled in a dire energy crisis that threatens to throw the nations of the world into world war three.

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First let’s discuss the best part of the film, the cast. The crew of the Shepard consists of seven experts from different fields of study and different countries of origin. They include our lead, Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) from Britain, Kiel (David Oyelowo) the commander of the Shepard and an American, Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) an Irishman and the comedic relief, Monk (John Ortiz) the doctor aboard the ship and resident representative of the faithful alongside Oyelowo’s American Kiel. Next up are Schmidt (Daniel Brühl) the German electrician and Tam (Ziyi Zhang) the Chinese scientist who together are the only relationship on the Shepard while, curiously, Tam is the only specialist that speaks her country’s language. The last member of the Shepard is Volkov (Aksel Hennie) the Russian navigator that ironically instigates the others into fisticuffs and arguments.

The movie opens during a blackout in Britain before the Shepard takes flight. We’re introduced to Hamilton and Michael (Roger Davies) a doctor in London, and her husband. They discuss her options between staying on Earth and helping as best as practically possible while getting over their shared grief, or to secure her position on the Shepard and use her skills to the greater betterment of humanity. Ultimately, we know the choice that she will make, which leads me to one of the issues I have with the film. While I did enjoy my time with this film, and I’d be doing a disservice to myself and this review by saying otherwise, the movie does telegraph a lot of the the film’s ideas in play a smidge too much for me, which clashes a bit with the mystery box style so beloved by the properties that J.J. Abrams has had a hand in producing. To it’s credit though there are some excellent moments and scenes that fully encapsulate the “What the hell just happened and how do we deal with this?” aesthetic, such as the earth disappearing from view after the particle accelerator is turned on, and the mysterious woman that the crew finds in the walls of the ship.

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Eventually the crew discovers the Earth on the opposite side of the sun. They can receive signals but they cannot transmit any, thus during their celebration they discover that the Earth is in the midst of a forty month war across Europe as the energy crisis has erupted into a full blown world war. They also see a newsflash of their ship, now called The Cloverfield in pieces floating in the ocean. They quickly realize that they aren’t in some future or past, but rather they are in another dimension. One where the Particle accelerator blew up the space station instead of transporting it across dimensions.

So, here I’d like to take the time to discuss the confusing response to the film’s release and what I enjoyed about the film overall before getting into my own theory on what happened across all of these films. I was quite taken aback by the anger and vitriol thrown at this movie from all corners of the internet after it’s release. Some called it a comedy, while others trash the film as somehow tricking moviegoers into watching a movie, and even a few seemed to outright hate this film and conveyed feelings of betrayal. I’m not sure how so many people came to despise this movie when nobody had to even pay for it, with the exception of the monthly Netflix fee. It’s not a truly horrible film, nor is it a pillar of exceptional science fiction filmmaking. It’s just fine. I would argue that it’s the perfect sort of film to get a streaming release as it did because it can be enjoyed at the viewers’ leisure without undue costs.

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I really enjoyed my time with this film. It wasn’t the best film I’ve seen, or even the greatest film I’ve seen recently (that award goes to you Shape of Water!), but it certainly wasn’t awful either. There was some good tension among the various crew members with alliances known and unknown that, paired with the quick pace of the film, helped to keep me engaged. The film had a good production design, the special effects were handled efficiently, and we got some deliciously gross body horror involving space worms! Hell, we even got a bit of space espionage to boot. While the film can be a bit predictable at times there was enough positive aspects to the film that they outweighed the negatives for me.

In fact, I personally believe the film gave another layer of intrigue to the Cloverfield series. If you factor in the multiverse theory, I think this film does help to explain more of what happened with the film series. First let’s simplify things with labels. Let’s call the first film in the Cloverfield series Earth 1, the Shepard crew’s Earth as Earth 2, and the Earth that they travel to in Paradox as Earth 3. I’m not sure if the events in “10 Cloverfield Lane” exist on their own separate Earth or if that was just a smaller story taking place on Earth 1 later in the timeline. For now, let’s say it happens on Earth 1 for clarity.  The Shepard’s particle accelerator malfunction at the beginning of Paradox is the inciting incident that triggers a wave of effects throughout the multiverse resulting in untold horrors of monsters and aliens being catapulted across space-time and colliding with various Earths. This is doubly proven when Hamilton crash lands back on her own Earth and a noticeably larger Cloverfield monster bursts through the clouds while her husband Michael screams into his phone “Tell them not to come back! Tell them!” After which I had a hearty laugh and then scrolled around Netflix to see what’s next..

Final Score: Two Earths and an infinite amount of Cloverfield Aliens

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Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, “The Meyerowitz Stories (new and selected)” is a Netflix original movie about the inherent drama in family life and how it can be both tragic and at times, hilarious. There is a plot at hand prodding characters into rooms with each other, but the film is mostly concerned with how each of these family members interact with each other rather than involving any sort of macguffin to pursue. After months of devouring films soaked in science fiction and battered in fantasy laced with imagination, this was quite the reprieve from my more genre based consumption and I really did enjoy it quite a lot actually. Speaking of which, barring any all-encompassing Holiday errands I’ll be trying to get into showings of both “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, but back to the film at hand. As the film is divided into sections with title cards, I’ll mirror that and give each major character their due diligence.

 

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                                        -Danny-

The film begins with a title card, “Danny” and the briefest of introductions in a second card which began the film with “Danny Meyerowitz was trying to park”. The scene plays out in much the same way that Danny’s own life has, trying to find a spot, but always missing the opportunity. He desperately tries to fit in, but never quite makes it. Adam Sandler finds in Danny Meyerowitz a similar well of history and emotion to draw from that he’s occasionally brought to the odds and ends of his film work, his work here is evocative of his “Punch Drunk Love” character in his quietly building rage and incandescent sadness. Danny is the closest we come to a protagonist in the film, the first third of the story is predicated by bringing his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) to his father’s house in New York the night before she’s to begin college. In a brief scene with Eliza and Danny playing and singing at the piano of house Meyerowitz we see a caring father who was once a musician with potential. In the following scenes we get to understand the inner workings of the family Meyerowitz in how Danny reveals past neglect from his father Harold (Dustin Hoffman). Harold was a sculptor turned academic that was never discovered and therefore never truly obtaining the royal treatment from the intellectual crowd that he so desires. There are years of conflict buried in the way Harold dominates conversation with his sons. He’s a character so self absorbed by his own projects and failures that he could have been a real monster if portrayed by another, but Hoffman plays Harold with enough shades of brevity and aloofness that it never slides into blatant cruelty. A perfect example of this happens when Danny and Harold go to an art show that Harold’s far more successful friend L.J. (Judd Hirsch) was hosting in which Harold tries to share a moment with L.J. but is seemingly forgotten by the crowd of New York Elites clamoring to meet L.J. We even get the briefest of cameos by Sigoruney Weaver as herself as L.J. introduces her to Harold, but she seems to question this introduction as if saying “Who is this person you’ve introduced me to L.J. and why?” Though she does this without malice or scorn. Danny seems to be the only one that listens in the Meyerowitz family, but even he has his outbursts, a tool for Sandler that allows for character moments to shine through his shlubby shouting. Danny really is the heart of the family, and of the film.

 

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                                        -Matthew-

Matthew had just arrived on the red-eye from LA, as we’re told with another brief vignette opener. The youngest child of Harold’s and the most successful of the Meyerowitz clan, Matthew’s relationship with his father has a far more antagonistic trait weaved into it. He’s removed himself from the weight of Harold’s expectations by physically living on the opposite side of the country, but also in his career choice. He’s a financial accountant for creative artists that don’t quite know how to handle their money. In Matthew’s introduction we’re greeted by a quick cameo of Adam Driver as the musician/artist/entertainer that’s having building renovations done. Stiller’s Matthew talks Driver down from needing a saltwater pool in his two floors of renovations showcasing his ability to negotiate and play to the off-kilter, quirky, personalities that embody the world of artists. Though he doesn’t look forward to his interactions with his father because of their constant competitive nature being at odds with each other, Harold does heap most of his adoration onto Matthew, the son that wants and needs it least. This second vignette of the film ends with Matthew yelling “I beat you! I beat you and you know it!” at his father as he drives off into the Manhattan night. Love in a family this dysfunctional doesn’t always look or feel correct, but there’s enough done by Noah Baumbach’s direction and the cut of the edit to show that there is connection there, even if it’s not the healthiest of relationships.

 

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                              -The Group Show-

The disparate family eventually comes together after they all learn of Harold falling and hitting his head, forcing a long gestating hospital visit. The rest of the film is devoted to all of Harold’s family working together to take notes from the various doctors and specialists they’re flung back and forth to while sharing shifts at Harold’s bedside. This shutdown of Harold’s incessant chatter allows his children to assess their relationships with him and how to best move forward in life rather than holding onto the past. Just as the film nearly forgets about Harold’s third child Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) at times, I mustn’t neglect her presence as well. Jean’s the forgotten child, She and Danny came from Harold’s second marriage, and Matthew the third. Quite the opposite from Marvel’s previous roles in “House of Cards” and “Homeland”, Jean is the quiet and most awkward of the three, but even her presence being shadowed by her brothers is ingrained in her story and is relevant to her progression later as she helps Danny’s daughter Eliza by starring in her college films-which I might add are quite the homage to the overly sexualized youth of college age film-making wannabes, but the family treats it as a creative outlet all the same, no matter how much nudity and sexual obscurity fly off the screen when they check-in on her. It would be remiss of me to forgetting to mention Emma Thompson’s performance of Maureen, Harold’s fourth and current wife. Maureen’s a mixture of meshing in with the artistic and elite intellectual crowds through her 1960’s clothing to her drunkenly making Shark soup.

“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” turned out to be a fairly funny dive into familial dysfunction with enough nuance to keep the characters grounded and relatable. The relationships of each family member evolve based on reactions of other actors inputting their knowledge of our cast and the choices they made or the way they lived their lives, thereby informing us where the main characters may not have been the most reliably honest keepers of their own histories. It’s a fairly solid movie in a similar vein to Woody Allen’s films, so if you have the time or the curiosity, give this film a shot. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is currently on Netflix at the time of this review.

Final Score: 1 Artistic Patriarch and a Poodle named Bruno