Category Archives: Mystery

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” Movie Review

This may be one of the few films I’ve ever seen that actually doesn’t live up to the description in its title. In context with the story and characters, it makes sense but there is not a single moment here which indicates that it earns it. This biographical crime thriller initially premiered out of competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Picked up for approximately $9 million, it also played at the Tribeca Film Festival later in April to similarly mixed opinions. It later received a limited theatrical release on May 3rd, 2019, and landed on the streaming service Netflix the same day. It is believed to have made close to $2 million in specialty markets, although, like all of the distributor’s theatrical releases, there’s no telling the veracity of these reports. It’s also scheduled to make a return to theaters later this fall as a way to provide more visibility for awards season. The film marks the narrative feature debut of director Joe Berlinger, who previously helmed a number of documentaries. This is his second Netflix project focused on the main subject, after the docu-series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. There was some initial backlash when the film was first announced at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, particularly over its star’s seemingly problematic casting, and sparked further controversy with its first trailer. Beginning in 1969 Seattle, the true story is told from the perspective of Liz Kendall, played by Lily Collins, a single mother and secretary. Pretty soon, she becomes romantically involved with law student Theodore “Ted” Bundy, played by Zac Efron, who soon moves in and becomes a stepfather to her daughter Molly. However, Bundy quickly becomes accused of committing a number of heinous and disgusting crimes against women, eventually culminating in the first-ever televised court trial. And while all of this happens over the course of more than a decade, Liz struggles to reconcile her love for Ted with the crimes he committed. I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t expect this movie to garner controversy when it first made waves. Like many films focused on the lives and/or exploits of serial killers, it would have to walk an incredibly fine line to really work. I was somewhat worried that it would turn into a voyeuristic or fetishized depiction of what Bundy did to all of those women. Although I haven’t watched Joe Berlinger’s Confession Tapes, I have a pretty good feeling that he’s fascinated with this man. And I was curious to see if he could find a certain wavelength or angle that would serve up a fresh and respectful treatment of the subject matter. And Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is by no means exploitative or distasteful, it’s just… not that remarkable. In fairness to the filmmakers, the story of Ted Bundy has been covered in so many different views and perspectives. The idea of looking at his decades-long crimes from the P.O.V. of his real-life girlfriend, whose book The Phantom Prince served as the source material, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because his sickening acts of violence are only heavily implied throughout the film, which also ends with a list of his known victims. But it’s also a curse because Extremely Wicked still feels beholden to stay in Bundy’s orbit constantly. He keeps insisting that he’s an innocent man and it’s not really until the very end of the movie that he finally relents. The whole film is framed with Liz visiting him in prison one last time before his ultimate sentence and for whatever reason, that format just didn’t feel right. For whatever problems the movie has, Zac Efron is practically perfect casting as Ted Bundy. He has all of the confidence, swagger, and deceitful charm befitting of the man, able to swoon entire flocks of people with just a blink. He surprisingly maintains a level-headed composure throughout the film, internalizing his sick thoughts and deeds. And although the film is told from her perspective, I have mixed feelings about Lily Collins as his longtime girlfriend Liz. Don’t get me wrong, she’s great in the role, but her lack of agency and full characterization make her feel more like a sketch of a person than a real individual. Kaya Scodelario turns in surprisingly effective work as Carole Ann Boone, Bundy’s old friend and by far most ardent supporter. She is absolutely devoted to getting Ted acquitted by any means necessary, following him to his various trials and trying to persuade the judge or juries to let him be. Haley Joel Osment and Jim Parsons are pleasant surprises as Liz’s new boyfriend and the Florida prosecutor, respectively, while Brian Geraghty and Jeffrey Donovan excel as Bundy’s failed attorneys. John Malkovich is quite impressive as Edward Cowart, the judge presiding over Bundy’s final trial. Despite the violence and degrading, inhumane crimes described in the case, he offers a bit of empathy to the defendant. “It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom,” he says to a full house, deeply disappointed by what has transpired over the trial. And although it’s only his first feature, Joe Berlinger first feature, he shows some promise with the technical aspects of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The film is shot by regular comedy cinematographer Brandon Trost, and his usually dark aesthetic translates rather well here. Much of the film seems desaturated of color to strip away any color or glamour in Bundy’s crimes. Many scenes are done in long takes, with one unbroken monologue that Ted delivers when his final sentencing is announced in court being especially memorable. The editing by Josh Schaeffer, on the other hand, is rather bland and uninteresting in it execution. The aforementioned framing structure makes the story feel more constrained than it needs to be, as the rest of the film is cut together in chronological order. The film frequently cuts between filmed scenes and actual archival news footage, which works to an extent with bringing the historical context full circle. An example of the sum of its parts being better than the whole, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has a fantastic lead performance that cannot save a middling-at-best film. While not nearly as gross and exploitative as I feared it would be, Joe Berlinger just doesn’t put enough oomph or engagement to really examine its subject matter. Yes, Zac Efron is undeniably great as one of the most reprehensible humans to have ever walked the Earth, but I just wish it had focused more on the intriguing angle it had promised. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the movie forgets that.

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“Long Shot” Movie Review

In all seriousness, if Charlize Theron were running for the presidency, I would go out and vote for her, no questions asked. This politically charged romantic dramedy premiered at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It was then released in theaters worldwide by Lionsgate on May 3rd, 2019, riding a wave of incredibly positive buzz and word-of-mouth from the festival. It has thus far grossed roughly $44.5 million at the box office against a middling budget of $30 million. Not bad for a mid-budget studio rom-com coming out the week after the biggest movie event of the year. Directed by Jonathan Levine, the film had originally been pegged for an early February release, before extremely encouraging test screenings convinced the studio to move it into a summer tentpole position. The script was originally penned by Dan Sterling under the original title Flarsky, before being overhauled and rewritten by Liz Hannah. Hannah, who broke onto the scene in 2017 with Steven Spielberg’s The Post, had her first Hollywood job working for the main actress’ production company, who was only initially onboard as a producer. Seth Rogen stars as Fred Flarsky, a vulgar and left-leaning journalist from New York City. He quits his newspaper in a rage after it gets bought up by a massive news conglomerate whom he despises, only to run into and reassociate with his former babysitter Charlotte Field, played by Charlize Theron. Field, currently serving as the U.S. Secretary of State, is gearing up to campaign for the office of the President of the United States after learning that the incumbent President is not running for reelection. Impressed by Flarsky’s writing, she hires him as a speechwriter to help add flare and personality- only to grow closer to each other along the way. Now, I was a big fan of Levine’s 2011 underrated rom-com 50/50, starring Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It totally subverted my expectations and turned out to be a really charming and genuinely touching buddy movie, which was apparently semi-autobiographical for its star. In fact, Rogen’s movies of late have a consistent streak of surprising me with their quality and empathy, such as last year’s hilarious and progressive Blockers. Which is why, despite the absurdity of the premise, I had good hopes for the actor and director’s third collaboration together. Especially with an incredible co-lead like Charlize Theron, who has slowly proven herself to be quite a funny woman. And I can safely say that Long Shot met my expectations and is an extremely likable if somewhat uneven rom-com. I think what I love most about it is that despite some of the obvious parallels to our current world, it doesn’t really have any interest in making a serious commentary on it. For the most part, it steers clear of the nastiness in politics and modern journalism because both Flarsky and Charlotte are the main focus. Levine does acknowledge the inherent absurdity behind the premise to hilarious results, but that doesn’t mean he skimps out on the pressures Charlotte faces as a woman running for office. There are definitely some pacing issues throughout Long Shot, and in particular, one scene that has an awkwardly placed commentary on centrism. When compared with the rest of the film, it just felt kind of out of place and like a forced attempt to make a real commentary. But for the most part, the movie is able to skirt around this and stay focused on the fantasy-like romance at the center. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’ve grown more impressed with Seth Rogen as his career’s gone on. As Fred Flarsky, he’s just as vulgar and raunchy as he’s ever been, but there’s a certain tenderness to his character I wasn’t expecting. His fierce commitment to his views and moral compass put him into some tricky situations. Opposite him, Charlize Theron is genuinely hilarious and compelling as Charlotte Field. While she maintains an idealistic worldview, she constantly has to deal with misogyny both on the homefront and abroad. Her timing is absolutely impeccable and proves that she deserves more comedicroles in the future.  The chemistry the two share together is refreshing and believable, making this otherwise extremely unlikely couple easy to root for. Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. also shouldn’t be overlooked as Fred’s loud-mouthed best friend Lance. He has enough flair and personality to step out of the typical archetype to provide some genuinely funny lines with killer delivery. The two of them are flanked by a cast full of capable actors in key supporting roles. There’s Bob Odenkirk as a T.V. actor-turned bumbling President of the United States, Andy Serkis in full makeup as a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul with his own agenda, Alexander Skarsgård as the overtly flirtatious Prime Minister of Canada, Ravi Patel and June Diane Raphael as Field’s key campaign staffers, and amusing cameos from Boyz II Men and Lil Yachty as themselves. Nearly all of them have at least one moment of hilarity or insight during the 2-hour and 5-minute runtime. And although the technical aspects of Long Shot aren’t particularly impressive, they are still worth mentioning. Shot by Jean-Marc Vallée’s regular cinematographer Yves Bélanger, the film is shot in his typical handheld, cinéma vérité style, which makes it feel more fly-on-the-wall than your usual rom-com. Especially good-looking is a night-time party sequence in Paris when Charlotte finally decides to let loose a little and have some fun. It also seems to highlight the colors of Flarsky’s clothes, specifically his unusual jacket. Meanwhile, the colors of Charlotte’s personal world, by comparison, and staff are mostly beige and drab. The film is edited together by Melissa Bretherton and Evan Henke, who are able to cut together and structure the film from scene to scene competently. There’s a montage about halfway through the picture of Charlotte and her team making their way across the world as she runs on a controversial platform. It can also be affecting whenever the film cuts from her lavish meetings with world leaders and wealthy influencers to Fred’s quiet space with some other workers. Using a classic formula and giving an appropriately modern update, Long Shot is a hilarious yet predictable romp that somehow finds romance in politics. Although it’s far from perfect or even the best romantic-comedy of the year, Jonathan Levine still deserves credit for being able to find something fresh. This is by far the most entertaining thing to take place within the sphere of American politics this year- which is, admittedly, a very low bar to clear.

“Us” Movie Review

After watching this movie late at night, I’m officially afraid to look at myself in the mirror anymore. Not that I was a particularly big fan of doing so to begin with. This horror thriller premiered as the opening night feature for the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival. Following incredible buzz from those who attended, Universal Pictures released the film worldwide on March 22nd, 2019. Making over $7.4 million from Thursday previews, which far outpaced that of the director’s previous film, it has thus far grossed over $247.4 million at the global box office. Already on its way to an extremely profitable run, the film had the highest-grossing opening weekend for an original film since James Cameron’s Avatar way back in 2009. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, the film is the second of five proposed “social thrillers” he wants to make, the first of which was his debut Get Out. Disappointed by audiences’ general confusion about that particular film’s genre, he went ahead and decided to make a full, straight-up horror movie, inspired heavily by the Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image.” The director has repeatedly stated that while it was very important for him to have black actors in the starring roles, the film is not actually about race. Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Wilson, a young woman dealing with a trauma from earlier in her life. During the summer, she goes with her husband Gabe, played by Winston Duke, and their children Zora and Jason to a family beach house in Santa Cruz. One night, they are confronted by a group of evil doppelgängers named “The Tethered.” Throughout the night, they must fight to survive the Tethered and their cruel plans while getting a closer look at who they really are. That right there is about as far as I can go with the premise before getting into spoiler territory. Much like the director’s previous effort, that description just barely scratches the surface for what’s really going on in the film. That was one of the main reasons why I loved Get Out so much back in 2017, and a huge reason why I was anticipating this movie. Ever since the project was first announced last spring, I’ve been salivating to see what movie Jordan Peele would come up with next, especially after winning Best Original Screenplay. Even if it wouldn’t be great, I would still make an effort to go see it in theaters because the director already has THAT much support from me. While it may be a completely different film from Get Out, Us is just as much of an audacious, thought-provoking, and supremely entertaining genre film from the former comedian. However, your own enjoyment of the film might have to depend on expectations. If you’re expecting another round of scathing social commentary on race relations in America, then you’ll likely be disappointed. This is indeed Jordan Peele’s first swing at a horror movie, with plenty of loving tributes and subversions sprinkled in throughout. In that sense, Get Out is arguably thematically stronger and more focused in on its issue. That being said, I would actually argue that Us is a better paced film, and it still has a lot on its mind than mere suspense and kills. It isn’t just the idea of “we are our own worst enemy,” but also how classism in modern society can help create a fear of the Other. Once you strip away a person’s social standing, or lack thereof, there’s very little that separates us from each other. Lupita Nyong’o has built an amazing repertoire over the last few years, and this performance is only the next step in her career. As Adelaide, she is paranoid and mindful of all of her surroundings, always feeling like the threat is only a few paces behind. She reunites with her Black Panther co-star Winston Duke, who strays very far away from his role as M’Baku. His performance as Gabe is one of trying to consistently prove himself as the “man” of the house, attempting to impress their wealthy friends and act intimidating when the Tethered all arrive. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are also worth noting as the daughter and son, Zora and Jason, respectively. Both of them forego the trope of bad child acting in horror cinema by adding endearing layers to their characters, making us truly care about their survival. Other players include Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Tim Heidecker, Elizabeth Moss, twins Cali and Noelle Sheldon, and Duke Nicholson. Of course, all of the actors also pull double duty with their Tethered counterparts, managing to be both creepy and physically imposing. Nyong’o is especially impressive as her doppelgänger “Red,” particularly during an unbroken monologue about her life story told through an unsettlingly raspy voice. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Us show that Jordan Peele is only getting an even stronger grip on his own unique voice. For this outing, he chose Mike Gioulakis as the cinematographer, who also shot Glass and It Follows, and it really paid off. Like those other film’s there’s a certain fluidity and surreal nature to the camera in each scene. The lighting is on point, capturing the darkness in each character with subtlety and grace while making room for some impressive Steadicam moments. Nicholas Mounsour edits these moments together really well. Not once during the 1-hour and 56-minute runtime did a scene feel choppy or hard to follow. The precision and deliberate cut between each different scene or shot is extremely commendable. It often moves back and forth between two separate time periods, offering more context to what’s going on. Michael Abels returns to collaborate with the director to compose and conduct the instrumental film score, his second for a feature film. It’s an infinitely more impressive soundtrack than Get Out, utilizing numerous unconventional instruments to convey a sense of creepiness. The film’s opening credits are played alongside an unsettling anthem that mixes chanting in a nonsense language and unique percussion beats. Other tracks use either swaying or plucked strings to their advantage and never act as a device for a cheap jumpscare. The soundtrack also utilizes the hip-hop song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz to great effect. Abels somehow managed to transform it from a fun, feel-good song into a genuinely terrifying melody. That’s no easy task, and for that alone, he deserves to be on a list of the most promising composers working today. With strong performances, evocative imagery, a fantastic score, and one of the most unique movie monsters in recent memory, Us is a marvel of originality and thought-provoking ideas wrapped in a fun horror movie. By taking lessons from his debut feature, Jordan Peele has already established himself as a filmmaker who has my undivided attention. I eagerly look forward to anything he’s working on in the future, and I hope that in the years to come, we’ll be talking about this film the same way we’ve been talking about The Shining and A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of the other horror classics.

“The Curse of La Llorona” Movie Review

How exciting! This is my first ever review for a film I saw at a festival! I wish it were a better film, but hey I won’t complain too much. This supernatural horror thriller had its world premiere at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival. It is currently scheduled to be widely released in theaters on April 19th, 2019, by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. Made for the budget $35 million, given the studio’s track record the last couple years, it should have little problem earning it all back by the end of its theatrical run. But whether its middling critical reception can improve with general audiences remains to be seen. Produced by James Wan and Gary Dauberman, this movie marks the feature-length debut of director Michael Chaves, who previously helmed a number of short films. The screenplay was written by partners Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry under the original title The Children. Wan and CO. were apparently so impressed by Chaves’ work on the film that they immediately hired him to take over the next Conjuring film, which is supposedly slated to begin production later this year. Set in Los Angeles in 1973, Linda Cardellini stars as Anna Tate-Garcia, a social worker and widow. She’s called to check in on the status of a single mother Patricia Alvarez, played by Patricia Velásquez, who claims to be protecting her two boys from La Llorona, a ghost in Latin American folklore. Also known as the Weeping Woman, the story goes that a young Mexican woman drowned her children in a river after discovering her husband’s infidelity and then drowned herself out of extreme guilt, cursed to wade through the waters for eternity. Now, Anna becomes convinced that La Llorona is coming after her family next and enlists the help of a disillusioned priest, played by Raymond Cruz, to stop the evil spirit. Let’s get this out of the way before going any further: The Curse of La Llorona is the newest film in The Conjuring Universe. While such rumors had persisted for a while, it was always marketed as its own standalone horror flick. I don’t really consider this to be a spoiler because the connection to the other films is extremely lowkey, but take it as you will. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really have that much familiarity with this franchise, other than hearing a lot of praise from horror fans. I enjoyed what Wan did with the first Saw movie, and I like how he’s giving opportunities to newer filmmakers in the genre like Chaves or David F. Sandberg. Being my first experience at a film festival, there was a unique sort of anticipation I had for this film. And while The Curse of La Llorona has its share of fun moments, it just can’t quite rise high enough to separate itself from the crowded deluge of ghost movies. I have no doubt that Michael Chaves has a great career in the genre ahead of him, and he certainly shows some great skill behind the camera. But the issue is that the script he’s working with is so rote that it often feels like he’s fighting off what begs to be a jump-scare fest and dumb character decisions. At the very least, it could have honestly used an overhaul by another writer to make it a lot better. Furthermore, similar to The Cloverfield Paradox last year, I don’t feel like this had to be connected to The Conjuring at all. It’s a very fleeting moment shown in the latter half that doesn’t bear any actual relevance to the plot itself. I understand the desire for brand recognition to increase box office potential, but this could have easily written that crossover out entirely and no one would be the wiser. Linda Cardellini’s built a pretty sweet resume over the last few years with roles in films like Green Book and the underrated A Simple Favor. For her first stab at the horror genre, she does a pretty great job as Anna and exudes a certain vulnerability and strength in a frightened mother. Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou play both of Anna’s children, Samantha and Chris, respectively. While horror films are often prone to terrible child actors, these two showed a decent range with what they were given. Patricia Velásquez is also pretty good as the petrified mother in Anna’s case while Breaking Bad‘s Raymond Cruz delivers some goods as a man of faith who may be the family’s best hope of survival. While they both did well with the material, their limited screen-time and development makes it hard to become invested in them. Cruz particularly feels underutilized and only really becomes important in the second half, and at that point he feels more like an archetype than an actual character. As continues to be tradition with New Line’s horror films, The Curse of La Llorona has some pretty polished and inspired moments from behind the camera. Wan’s regular cinematographer Don Burgess captures much of the action in darkness, often switching between tight Steadicam and handheld scenes. After a somewhat uneven prologue, the opening scene sees a single shot follow Anna and her children rushing around the house to get ready for school, setting the atmosphere. There are also a number of admittedly impressive bits where a shot seems like it’s following the titular ghost in one area, only for her to come back in the same shot. But the editing by Peter Gvozdas is pretty inconsistent and at times frustrating. While not necessarily choppy, it does feel in favor of creating jump scares with different shots following another. It can be clever sometimes in how it shows imagery, such as highlighting table cloths to imply that La Llorona is there. But the film is already wrestling with a meager script and editing it in such a ham-fisted way felt detrimental. Despite what the tone this review may make you think, I had a decent time with it. This is certainly a leap ahead of other horror movies like Wish Upon and The Bye Bye Man, but it still feels weighed down because of its obligation to the Conjuring Universe. Definitely a better viewing experience with a huge crowd, The Curse of La Llorona is a fleetingly scary flick that muddles a truly terrifying legend in favor of franchise connections. If for nothing else, this film shows that Michael Chaves clearly has a lot of talent and should enjoy a healthy career in Hollywood. His and Wan’s hearts are in the right place, but it just doesn’t make enough effort to distinguish itself from the genre. You’re most likely going to leave the theater having a fun time with all of the other patrons, but won’t remember much of it come the next day. But hey, it was super fun to watch at South By Southwest, so it’s great for that memory.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” Movie Review

I’ve only been to a handful of art museums in my home state in Texas, and I can confirm that there are indeed people who act like the people in this movie. I shudder just to think how much more snobby they could be in a huge place like L.A. or New York. This satirical horror-thriller premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to a wide range of responses from those who attended. Just 5 days later, it was released in a limited theatrical engagement as well as on the streaming service Netflix on February 1st, 2019. The $21 million production was supposedly originally going to be released back in October of last year, but got pushed back. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the same man behind 2014’s Nightcrawler, the project was conceived from the filmmaker’s tumultuous experience co-writing Tim Burton’s unmade version of Superman Lives. Embittered over Warner Bros. concern for the increasingly large budget over anything else, it had apparently taken him quite a while to make peace with the disaster. He has frequently described the film to be similar in themes and style to Robert Altman’s ensemble classic The Player. Set in the glitzy modern art scene of Los Angeles, the story follows quite a few characters, but it mostly focuses on well-renowned art critic Morf Vandewalt, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. His agent and lover Josephina, played by Zawe Ashton, discovers a treasure trove of never-before-seen paintings by a recently deceased artist named Vetril Dease. But when numerous people in the world of art seek to profit off of them, including Rene Russo as the cutthroat gallery owner Rhodora Haze, these paintings apparently come to life and start murdering anyone wanting to make money. 2014’s Nightcrawler is one of my absolute favorite films of the last decade, and one of the best directorial debuts I’ve ever seen. It was clear that Dan Gilroy had something to say about the ruthless world of commercial entertainment and how anything can be made into such with enough grit. Not to mention, it featured two astounding and horribly snubbed performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo as the sociopathic protagonists. The prospect of seeing these two actors reunite with Gilroy on a brand new movie, especially one as oddball as this ,was highly intriguing. After all, the modern art world has essentially become a parody of itself. And while Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t anywhere near as good or revelatory as Nightcrawler, it’s still very entertaining and engaging. Although it is a straight-up horror flick, it really isn’t all that scary or even disturbing. Rather, Velvet Buzzsaw approaches its subject matter with a surprising amount of silliness and hot air, (The characters’ names are deliberately ridiculous) while still telling its story with a lot of venom. Most of the individuals in the film are pathetic creatures who only care about how much money a piece of art may make, and not at all appreciate what Jackson Pollock or Allan Kaprow are trying to say with their art, with one character exclaiming, “What’s the point of making art if nobody sees it?” However, it ultimately falls prey to its setting, and at points it starts to feel like a pretentious critic shouting into the void. While it is poetic that the film was funded and released by Netflix, it still doesn’t feel as insightful or deep as it wants to be. Thankfully, it tries to avoid much self-seriousness with a mad capper tone, which helps save it from becoming a hollow mess. Morf Vandewalt has to be one of the weirdest names I’ve seen recently, but Gyllenhaal hams it up perfectly. He’s a sniveling, detached, and snooty critic who may not even believe his own critiques as long as the piece is a success. Gilroy’s real-life wife Rene Russo and Toni Collette are equally brilliant as Rhodora Haze and Gretchen, the icy art gallery owners who always have money on their minds before anything else. While they may be rivals in the film, their goals are very similar as they want nothing more than to be the only ones to sell Dease’s paintings. And the big ensemble cast features awesome roles from John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge, Natalie Dyer, but the biggest revelation has to be Zawe Ashton a Josephina, the agent who finds the art in the first place. While at first she appears decent, she gradually and deliberately gets rid of any sympathy for this character as she herself succumbs to insatiable greed. Like Morf, she slowly becomes disillusioned with reality from these works and will do anything to stay at the top of the ladder. I’d love to see what else she has in store for viewers in the future. Meanwhile, the technical aspects show that Gilroy is further developing his own style and voice. With Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, who shot the director’s two previous films, he proves once again he has a unique talent for shooting the city of L.A. The shots and framing are as sleek and shiny as the world in which the story takes place, and frequently floats around from character to character in a scene. It also uses lighting to its advantages in many aspects, such as telegraphing when someone might be killed next. The director’s twin brother John Gilroy also edits the film, as he has for every member of his family. It knows when to cut away from a shot or let something linger on-screen. And this being a horror movie, you’d expect there to be some creative or memorable deaths. With so much art to go around in the plot, I was pretty impressed by a lot of the kills, some of which drew real laughter from me. Replacing the director’s previous collaborator Jams Newton Howard, Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders give us the film score. I’ll be perfectly honest, I can’t remember a single track or note from the whole film, so it’s not really worth it. Instead, it leans a lot on contemporary pop or electronic songs. This ultimately contributes to making the art world feel even more plastic and vapid. Knowing what it wants to do and wasting zero time lollygagging before getting to it, Velvet Buzzsaw is a gleefully trashy and scathing, if somewhat slight portrait of profit over art. It’s definitely an interesting next step for Dan Gilroy’s directorial career, if not a totally solid one. He clearly has something to say and a particular way to say it, all while trying to keep it as an entertaining horror flick. I would say more, but honestly, critique can be so limiting and emotionally draining.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” Movie Review

I’m honestly not quite sure if this was the best or worst movie for me to watch in preparation for Valentine’s Day. All I’ll say is that, as a hopeless romantic myself, I think I might have related to it a little more than I should have. This science-fiction romantic-dramedy was originally released in theaters worldwide on March 19th, 2004. Made on a budget of $20 million, it made over $72.3 million at the box office, making it one of the director’s most profitable films to date. It also earned critical acclaim, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and has developed a strong cult following in the years since. Many critics have even gone so far as to call it one of the best films of 21st century cinema. Directed by Michel Gondry, the idea was initially conceived in the 1990’s when his creative partner Pierre Bismuth mentioned how a friend said she wanted to erase her ex-boyfriend from her memory. Originally designed to be an art experiment, the two hired Charlie Kaufman to write the screenplay proper, who rejected Focus Features initial idea of making it into a thriller. The script was consistently rewritten during the film process, and a number of scenes were either toned down or just cut out entirely. Jim Carrey stars as Joel Barish, an introvert who can never seem to find the right person for a relationship. One day, his prayers are seemingly answered by a blue-haired woman named Clementine Kruczynski, played by Kate Winslet, but the two suffer a terrible breakup after two years together. Heartbroken beyond repair, they then resolve to have a firm called Lacuna Inc. erase all memories of each other from their brains. But as Joel journeys down the rabbit hole, he soon realizes that he’s still in love with her and tries to preserve her memory by any means necessary. Although I’m not well acquainted with Gondry’s filmography, I do really like Charlie Kaufman’s work as a screenwriter. His debut Being John Malkovich is one of the most original and wildly eccentric films to ever come out of the medium, and while his other works are mixed bags, I can definitely appreciate his ambition. I was long interested in checking this film out, primarily because people kept boasting it as one of the best science-fiction films ever made, and one of the best films of the last 20 years. And let’s face it, we’ve all met at least one person in our lives that we’d love to complete wipe from our brains. And while I’m not quite convinced that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the 2000’s-defining masterpiece many make it out to be, it’s still a wonderful movie worth watching. What surprised me a lot was how the film shares many similarities with Spike Jonze’s own sci-fi film Her. By that, I mean both films use a sci-fi concept or idea as a means to open up its characters and story, but doesn’t entirely rely on it as a crutch. Eternal Sunshine obviously couldn’t exist without its core conceit, but the impressive thing is how often Gondry and Kaufman push it to the background to give leeway to a genuinely tragic love story. Of course, this being a Kaufman script, it’s never that simple and practically indulges on taking the audience for a head-whirl. Jim Carrey has always been best when balancing humor and drama together, and his performance as Joel Barish is a perfect example of this. More melancholy than his turn in The Truman Show, he believably portrays a soft-spoken man with a huge emotional void looking for loving relationship. Opposite him is Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski, which deservedly earned her a Best Actress nomination. An unconventional love interest if ever there was one, she completely foregoes the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stereotype. Elijah Wood is also worth mentioning as Patrick, a slimy, creepy guy trying to take advantage of the memory erasure. It’s a complete far cry from his role as Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and one that makes his career even more fascinating. Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst all do respectable work as various members of Lacuna Inc. I wasn’t expecting to get interested in their stories, which play alongside what’s going on inside of Joel’s head. But lo and behold, they managed to be pretty compelling and engaging characters. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind prove to be very distinguished and unique. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography is very inspired and immersive, utilizing mostly a handheld, cinéma vérité style to make the story feel more immediate. For tracking shots, instead of using traditional camera dollies, they used sleds and chariots, continuing the feeling of a disorienting, gradually fading nightmare. It also achieves a number of impressive visual effects in-camera via forced perspective, which contribute even further to Gondry’s uncompromising visual style. The editing is done by Valdís Óskarsdóttir, who reportedly clashed with the writer and director during post-production. It’s absolutely fascinating how well it was cut together, especially with all of the continuity that one would have to keep in check. It uses a number of sudden jumpcuts throughout, similar to French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard. These help to trim so fat off of the 108 minute-long runtime, and create juxtapositions to whatever someone may be saying. Multi-instrumentalist and indie darling Jon Brion provides the film score here, and it’s definitely an interesting one to listen to. Unlike some of his later work, the soundtrack here feels wholly unconventional in its sound and style. The primary theme incorporates a melancholy piano melody and distorted strings to create an effective feeling of heartbreak and nostalgia. He uses these instruments throughout nearly all the tracks, and manages to be touching without resorting to manipulation or mawkishness. There are also a number of pre-existing songs used in spurts throughout the film. The most notable of these is “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” by Beck, while plays in the final scene as well as the credits. It’s arguably the best song they could have picked to close out the wholly unique story. All in all, this  might just be the most emotionally involving film in the screenwriter’s repertoire. While I’ll keep defending Being John Malkovich, it’s hard for me to blame anyone who left feeling completely cold. And while this film is by no means a “feel-good” or universal experience, it might be one of his most easily accessible works to date. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a highly creative and introspective story of love and heartbreak. The collaboration between Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman is quite the final product, and stands as one of the most original romances made for cinema. Jim Carrey also performs his heart out in one of his best roles while Kate Winslet breaks typecasting as his perfectly matched soulmate. And despite its weird premise, I guarantee that it’s a good choice for Valentine’s Day, whether you’re in a relationship or not. It may not be for everyone, but it should certainly capture their attention.

“Hold the Dark” Movie Review

If this and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia prove anything, it’s that the Alaskan Wilderness is a scary environment to go hunting for killers. I don’t care how pretty the scenery may be, if someone (Or something*) up there is wanted in questioning, I want no part in any of it. This horror thriller was initially set to premiere out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. However, following a series of heated clashes between the distributor and festival elites, it was pulled away from its original summer release and instead premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September to somewhat polarized reactions. Following another screening at Fantastic Fest, it was released (very briefly) in art house theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on September 28th, 2018. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the same man behind Blue Ruin and Green Room, his childhood friend and frequent star Macon Blair adapted the screenplay from the 2014 novel of the same name by William Giraldi. A24, the same production company that released Green Room, was initially supposed to distribute the film, before Netflix acquired worldwide rights in January of 2017. Set in December of 2004, the film opens with a young woman named Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough, whose young son is seemingly taken and murdered by wolves near a tiny Alaskan village named Keelut. She writes to Russell Core, played by Jeffrey Wright, a writer and retired naturalist who studies wolf behavior, begging him to help track down the wolves and kill them. She wants to make sure she at least has something to show her husband when he returns home, who’s currently deployed in Iraq. But while Core agrees and is out on the job, he accidentally gets drawn into a very dark mystery that the rest of the village seems to be in on. I’m a pretty big fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s two previous directorial efforts, Green Room and Blue Ruin. While the characters in both films were victims to making stupid choices, they both illustrated an exciting new filmmaker with a tight control on his voice. So getting the opportunity to see his next picture from the comfort of my dark living room in the evening made me anticipate Hold the Dark, not to mention the wonderful cast assembled. In particular, I wanted to see how he would be able to handle the bigger-scaled story compared with what he had previously written and directed. While it’s admittedly not really as great as those films, it’s still a solid thriller worth watching at least once. It’s clear in its metaphors that Saulnier has much he wants to say about human nature and our violent natural instincts. We witness numerous heinous acts committed by humans in either the village in Alaska or over in the Iraq warzone, ranging from murder to rape. In comparison, the wolves of Alaska, which are often viewed as savage and uncivilized, are oblivious to their own actions; everything that happens to them is seen as natural. Similar to his previous films, Hold The Dark doesn’t hold back on gruesome violence, but none of it ever happens unless it’s in service to the story. In fairness, Saulnier and Blair ultimately get carried away with their metaphors as the film doesn’t seem to lead anywhere totally concrete. It attempts to hint at something a little more supernatural, but rarely does something totally meaningful with it. I’ve enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Wright in a number of supporting roles over the years in both T.V. and film. And he proves here that he’s fully capable of carrying a feature-length picture as a lead character. As Russell Core, there’s a quiet aura and history of sadness and loneliness surrounding him, and we watch him trying to cling to reason and do what’s right. Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgård also do great work as the Slone couple, who never seem quite right when they’re separated. From the very minute that these two first appear onscreen, they exude a cold, observational outlook on the remainder of their community. Julian Black Antelope and Tantoo Cardinal do superb supporting work as indigenous locals who seem to know something isn’t right with the family in question, while James Badge Dale is wonderfully subdued and grizzled as the honest cop hopelessly looking for answers. There are also tiny but effective parts by Peter McRobbie and Macon Blair himself that leave something of an impression. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Hold the Dark reveal reasons why Saulnier is a talent worth watching out for. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography is quite gripping, using the bleak snowy environment to create a strong yet melancholic atmosphere. The way that it focuses on subjects and their every movements is very reminiscent of David Fincher, especially in the slow way that it reveals certain things. The editing by Julia Bloch, collaborator for the director on his previous efforts, cuts the movie in an extremely patient, slow to roll manner. Whenever violence bursts out, such as an intense shootout at a barn, it refuses to linger on gratuitous or bloody images for too long. It also focuses on certain subjects while other things are happening offscreen, as if to create a distant and observational look at the events displayed. Brooke Blair and Will Blair, Macon’s younger brothers and who have previously scored Saulnier’s last two features, have written some music for this film. It is in line with material they’ve written in the past, as it mostly consists of somber synthesizers and strings, reflecting the sad world the characters all live in. It also has a couple of tracks using the same instrumentation but instead arranged to rack up intensity. Filled with atmosphere and perhaps more metaphors than it can afford to carry, Hold the Dark is a sturdy, if unsatisfying slow-burn with a tight central mystery. Jeremy Saulnier proves that he’s able to handle a bigger budget, even if the results don’t always work. Moreover, Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgård provide some of their best work yet and show why they should be taken more seriously by studios and filmmakers. If for nothing else, this movie stands as further proof why I never want to live in Alaska.