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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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Review: Hereditary

Written and Directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” is the latest horror movie from studio A24. This most recent offering continues A24’s tradition of releasing films that refuse to be average, which results in a storytelling boon for their audiences. “Hereditary” follows the lives of the Graham family as they navigate the loss of their Matriarch, Ellen. The film opens with her funeral as her daughter Annie (Toni Colette) gives a muted eulogy which perfectly preps us (but does not prepare us) with a foundation of paranoia. Ellen, it seems, was a very private person with private friends. So much so that her closest relatives know almost nothing about her life and its many secrets. The family dysfunction that stems outward from Ellen has produced a multitude of psychological and emotional issues in her offspring. Most notably affected by this is Annie, a miniature model creator, wife, and mother, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown- or at least close to one- right from the beginning of the film. Her husband Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne) just tries to keep everything and everyone around him afloat amidst the cavalcade of creeps that’s about to descend into his family’s life. They have two children Peter (Alex Wolff), the older teenager, and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the very unsettling young girl who makes those creepy clicking sounds that you’ve heard in the advertising of the film.

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I will do my best to avoid spoilers in this review, or at least keep them to a minimum. There are essentially two sides to this film. There’s the story you think you’re watching for the first half of the film, and then there’s the second story that you won’t likely fully grasp the details of until the film very deliberately tells you what’s happening in the final shot of the film. In retrospect, there’s a very well thought out string of breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the film that do hint at the supernatural underpinnings that are taking place just out of frame. There’s a lot going on in the film, there’s throwbacks to classic horror cinema from the mood and tension building of “The Shining” to the wild shock and awe of certain scenes from “The Exorcist”. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend going into any movie with your expectations rampant and out of control- the film simply cleverly pulls from those icons while greatly remaining as its own unique experimentation.

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The greatest thing the film accomplishes is its’ execution of tension and unsettling mystery. There’s one, maybe two, jump-scares in the entire film and that is a huge benefit. There is no release here, once the film has entrapped you, it has your undivided attention. There are words scrawled on the walls of the Grahams’ house, only ever seen by Annie who seems to become more and more untrustworthy and unraveled as the film progresses- which makes us question if she’s actually even seeing them. Not to mention Charlie, who is unquestionably disturbing in nearly every scene she’s in- and even in a few she’s not. Charlie has visions of her dead grandmother, cuts off a dead bird’s head for unknown reasons (a prelude to all the beheadings later in the film- there’s more than you would expect from this film’s pretenses), and she exponentially keeps making that freaky clicking sound that I keep thinking I hear when it’s too quiet around the house. Curiously Peter isn’t all that focused on in the first half of the story, until about the mid point when THAT SCENE happens and it affects Peter so much that he begins to slowly lose his mind. Then there’s these visual clues, symbols, and red herrings all over the film- everything that happens or is shown seems to have a reason and action behind it, but it does help to keep the audience out of the conversation and thereby cleverly distracting us to keep the intrigue high. It keeps building this ever creepy crescendo of madness until it reaches the boiling point.

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Everything about “Hereditary” was crafted with horror loving hands. The score is effectively distressing and alarming when it needs to be, the way the film is edited is pure unease, and the progression of the characters is downright unnerving. There’s so much more I could discuss, but by doing so I would ruin the fun of the mystery. I highly suggest seeing this film if you enjoy good horror films. I don’t even really care all that much for the genre, but this film got to me. It still wanders into my mind days later and turns lovely afternoons into insidious hours of peeking around corners and occasionally getting scared by the cat.

Final Score: a Dozen creepy cult members

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Review: Krampus, a creature feature for Christmas

The wintry season brings with it the promise of gift giving, hordes of homemade delicacies, and generally warm and fuzzy sensations. This year comes a movie that would like to share the creepy side of the Christmas legend, the titular demon occasionally known as the shadow of Santa Claus, Krampus. The story opens on a wonderfully comedic montage in a typical big box store as consumerism mayhem reaches a violent fever pitch in stereotypical Black Friday style. From here until the end the message is clear to all who enter this tale, don’t let cynicism overwhelm you and make you lose hope, lest darker things come to bump in the night.

‘Krampus’ centers on the Engel family (I see what you did there writers) as they begrudgingly welcome the rest of their family into their home for the Holidays. Things go awry when young Max Engel’s letter to Santa is discovered by his country bumpkin cousins who proceed to make fun of him for his continued belief in the big guy. Max then goes to the dark side by dashing his hopes that this Christmas could be reminiscent of the good ole days by ripping up his letter and throwing it out the window. Thus summoning Krampus to befall the home in a malevolent blizzard.

Directed by Michael Dougherty, ‘Krampus’ succeeds on several fronts. Firstly the production should be praised for its use of practical effects. They offer a far more palpable approach to something that is clearly a lower budget film among such giants as the Marvel Machine and the pop culture phenomenon Star Wars, which we will all be obsessed with shortly. It is refreshing to see such a reliance on costumes, props, and prosthetics. Krampus in particular is always a powerful and creepy presence onscreen. Secondly, the cast all do serviceable performances while not going too over the top, here’s looking at you David Koechner! Adam Scott was a standout to me as he wasn’t playing his typical obnoxious foil in comedies such as ‘StepBrothers’. He really sold me as the father that truly cared despite life taking its toll on him, his family life, and his marriage. Toni Collette also helped the film to stand taller through her performance as well. The two matriarchs of the film, Conchata Ferrell as Aunt Dorothy & Krista Stadler as Omi Engel, have wildly different characters and performances, but they both add to the piece as comedic relief and emotional weight respectively.

My problem with Krampus is that while it is clearly inspired by such 1980’s horror comedies as ‘Gremlins’ and the like, the film does little more than dip its toes in those waters without delivering the extra punch of scary goodness that we all want. As a PG-13 rating the film gets away with some admittedly creepy sights and beats, but it doesn’t quite get to itch that particular scratch. Walking out of the film my first reaction was that if it had gone full ‘R’ with some over the top gore it might have sold me more as a Christmas-Horror flick, but as it stands it was more like a fun ‘What if?’ Christmas tale. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film, just that it could have gone farther in the direction that it was headed. There was also too much reliance on Krampus’ minions over Krampus himself. He was a captivating presence every time he was onscreen, but his moments were too fleeting in my mind.

There’s also the issue that almost all of the characters are not terribly likable, thus the audience almost roots for Krampus in the end and we have little to no remorse over the carnage that ensues later. The notable exceptions being Max and his grandmother, Omi. There was a singular moment in which Omi, (remember, all the Engels are the good characters) tells Max that the belief in Santa Claus is not so much based on the details about the man himself, but rather what Santa Claus represents, hope, goodness, & the sacrifice of giving. In fact that last part leads me to my biggest issue with the film.

The ending of the film leaves something to be desired though. Especially with the ‘sacrifice of giving’ lesson that Omi introduced in the third act and follows through til the end. Does the ending undermine that lesson? As I see it, yes. The lesson might have been learned, but if there isn’t any staying power in a message, then what is the point? I suppose as a Christmas tale, as well as it being ‘Horror-inspired’, then it must end with those expected warm and fuzzy feelings. The ending simply felt too predictable and a bit lacking to me.

So, if you’re a fan of campy creature features, and don’t mind a Christmas twist, then you’ll likely find merit within ‘Krampus’. Happy Holidays readers!

 

Final Score: 3/5