Category Archives: Mystery

“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.

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“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.

“Widows” Movie Review

Who ever said that auteur filmmakers could never make more commercial fare for big Hollywood studios? Apparently, nobody said this to Steve McQueen and I’m so glad they didn’t. This heist thriller premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, earning numerous raves from many who attended. It was then released in theaters worldwide by 20th Century Fox, and has thus far only grossed about $53 million against a budget of $42 million. This started a debate among industry experts whether the fault was the scattershot marketing campaign or the perceived lack of broad appeal towards film audiences. Directed by Steve McQueen, the same man behind 12 Years a Slave, the film is based off of the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name by Lynda La Plante. Following the frustrating cancellation of his proposed HBO series Codes of Conduct, he instead teamed up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to co-write the screenplay for what he professes is his passion project. There were also a number of apparent risks during the filmmaking process, such as the devastatingly regular amount of shootings in the city it was set and shot in. Set in modern-day Chicago, Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlins, a former unionizer and the stay-at-home wife of renowned career bank robber Harry Rawlins. When he and three other criminals are killed in a heist gone wrong, she is confronted by the man they stole from, Jamal Manning, played by Brian Tyree Henry. He says they stole over $2 million from his planned alderman campaign and gives her a few weeks to get it back for him, or else. Desperate and low on options, she contacts the widows of the other three men, Linda, Alice, and Belle, to pull off another heist to pay off the debt. This is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while, way before any trailer or official image dropped. 12 Years a Slave was an absolutely soul-crushing film that was completely stripped down in its approach to a topic as horrifying and disgusting as slavery. Hearing that that same director was going to be dipping his toes into the action genre, with help from the woman behind Gone Girl, was extremely exciting. Not to mention the impressive ensemble that he had assembled. I know there’s a stigma against more singular filmmakers trying to make more big-budget studio fare, with some of them being declared “sellouts” by fans. I’m happy to report, however that McQueen’s modern rendition of Widows is not only highly entertaining but also marks an important step forward in his career. As I’m sure many other reviewers are bound to talk about, what truly makes this film work is its unique mixture of timely themes and popcorn thrills. In any other director or writer’s hands, this would most likely come off as either way too preachy or bland beyond belief. But under Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, we get to look at subjects that speak to America’s current moment and social angst. Ranging from everything including capitalism, interracial marriage, political corruption, class differences, and fidelity, the screenplay is very ambitious and often grasps what it reaches for. Think Michael Mann’s Heat by way of HBO’s The Wire. Occasionally, it does feel as though there are too many plot threads running at once, as one thing seemingly sets up another nearly every scene. But the transition between these threads is beautifully smooth and slick, offering up a portrait of Chicago that truly feels both realistic and alive. Leading the charge is Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, and this movie stands as proof that she needs more lead roles. As Veronica, she is incredibly empathetic but has no interest in remaining a meek victim, despite all of the luxury her husband’s life has bought her. Speaking of husband, Liam Neeson is excellent in a small but vital role as Harry, a criminal with an extreme amount of detail and professionalism. Their chemistry is undeniable, and as we get glimpses of their tragic past through flashbacks, or a sequence where his ghost comforts her over the skyline, we see the complications their relationship brings in modern America. The three other widows are played by Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, and Michelle Rodriguez. They each go beyond what roles they may usually by typecast as, showcasing their stryuggle for survival in a world dominated and largely defined by men. The filmmakers also assembled an impressive ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall and Collin Farrell as the racist and powerful alderman incumbent and his reluctant son, Garret Dillahunt as Veronica’s trusted driver, Lukas Haas as a handsome man intimately involved with Debicki’s character, and Carrie Coon as another reluctant widow. My favorites are Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother Jatemme. A far cry from their respective roles in Atlanta and Get Out, they both portray intelligent, downright scary antagonists who are still genuinely trying to do right by their home. Kaluuya’s screen presence particularly made me tense each time because of his cold, removed demeanor. Meanwhile, on the filmmaking side of things, Widows is still a Steve McQueen movie through and through, with his regular collaborators popping up in various departments. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is sleek and controlled, capturing the city of Chicago in a dingy yet diverse palette. Movements are extremely precise, a la David Fincher, and it often focuses on a subject’s facial expressions for an extended period of time, revealing their true state of mind. There’s an incredible tracking shot mounted from the hood of a politician’s car that goes all the way from the projects to his luxurious estate, all while we can hear him fighting with his assistant. It’s a truly remarkable set piece that shows the disparity of privilege in Chicago and serves as an amazing dichotomy to what the people in the car are discussing. As for the editing, Joe Walker knows exactly when to keep a shot going and when to cut it down. In fact, the way that a shot lingers on someone or something can have extremely important subtext for what’s going on. When there is action happening, such as the tense opening sequence or the heist itself, it refuses to cut too much, allowing us to understand what’s going on and keep us on the edge of our seats. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer, previously working on 12 Years a Slave, composes and conducts the instrumental film score. As we’ve come to expect from the prolific composer, it’s very unusual from typical Hollywood flare, as much of the soundtrack is initially very lowkey. But when things start going down, it ramps up the intensity to new heights, thanks to heavy low strings and unique percussion. Like much of his work, it often feels like a never-ending crescendo. There’s also an original song called “The Big Unknown” by Sade that plays over the end credits, her second one for a film this year. It’s a soft, melancholy R&B ballad that perfectly sums up the unfortunate predicament that the women in the story have been put into. With her sweet voice playing against a soft piano melody and bass guitar hits, it’s a song I definitely intend to pick up soon. With a director and cast working at the tope of their game, a tense story that twists and turns, and far more on its mind than just gunplay and car chases, Widows is an immensely enjoyable ride of heist thrills packed with thematic punch. I can’t wait to see what else Steve McQueen may be able to come up with for Hollywood, and now there’s no excuse to not give Viola Davis top billing in more movies of the future. It’s genuinely the best heist movie in years.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” Movie Review

For those who are not in the mood for something as bleak as Godless but still more entertaining and valuable than The Ridiculous 6. This anthology-style Western dark comedy premiered in competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Despite a relatively cool response, it won the award for Best Screenplay and grew in favor with critics and industry insiders at further screenings at the New York Film Festival and A.F.I. Fest. In a truly unusual move for Netflix, it was released in limited theaters throughout the country a week before hitting the streaming service on November 16th, 2018. Of course, they never release their rating numbers, so it’s unlikely if we’ll ever know it’s true success at the box office. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the project is based on a series of short stories the duo wrote over the course of 20 to 25 years. Although it was initially reported to be a six-part television series, it has been insisted by the brothers and production company Annapurna Pictures that it was always intended to be a feature film. Told in a storybook format, we’re given 6 individual stories, all set in the Wild West. The first one finds the titular misanthrope as he sings and gallops through the desert. Then, “Near Algones” follows an outlaw who constantly finds himself in danger, while “Meal Ticket” sees a tragic traveling act as they work their monologue-heavy show through the winter in various towns. “All Gold Canyon” (An actual short story by Jack London) sees a grizzled prospector mining gold out of an untouched part of land, whereas “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is about a young woman begins a lustrous relationship with someone aboard a wagon train. And finally, “The Mortal Remains” sees a handful of travelers riding in a wagon together, arguing about life, death, morality, and other fundamentals of the world. As mentioned in my review for Fargo, I’m generally a big fan of the Coen Brothers’ work. While some of their work has been more impressive than others, Fargo and No Country For Old Men are two of my favorite movies of all time, while most of their filmography is still great at blending various genres and tones. While yes, their 2010 remake of True Grit was a straight-up Western, hearing their plans for an anthology like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sounded like a great advancement of their careers. It being released on Netflix is both a blessing, because I get easy accessibility to their newest work, and a curse, since it’s not released in theatrical form like its counterparts. But still, it’s a great segue into their filmography with all of the excellent traits to expect from each film of theirs. Like many of their works, this one is far darker and more melancholy than it may seem at first glance. Yes, there is a healthy dose of genuinely funny dark comedy, often through the ironic situations characters in each story get themselves into. (“Near Algones” features the epitome of “gallows humor”) But they also come with a certain kind of sadness, some cases more obvious than others, and even a nihilistic view of the world they live in. The Wild West may be vast, beautiful, and open, but it’s also lawless, harshly violent, and wholly indifferent to the problems of its occupants, especially women and minorities. It’s very similar territory that the Coen Brothers have explored a few times before, but now it’s in anthology format. This is the thread that connects all of the tales together, instead of some crossover character of narrative crutch; for which I’m very thankful. Tim Blake Nelson stars as the titular outlaw in the first short, and I can’t think of an actor better fit for the part. Dipped in a heavy Texas drawl, he constantly breaks the fourth wall to humorously explain his state of mind during otherwise serious scenarios. It fits in good contrast with his violent nature, although he claims not to have any animosity towards his fellow man. The only other two actors that can match him is Tom Waits as the prospector in “All Gold Canyon” and Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Both show a tremendous amount of wonder for the untouched land that they explore and get to witness firsthand the violence that can erupt at any time. The rest of the ensemble is stacked with amazing talent from cover to cover. Liam Neeson, Clancy Brown, Bill Heck, Stephen Root, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Ralph Ineson, and Grainger Hines all do outstanding work across their respective shorts. Each of them is able to speak the absolutely brilliant dialogue to be expected from the filmmakers in their own distinct ways, creating unique characters aplenty. As far as technical aspects go, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows the Coen Brothers can still retain their unique voice no matter what platform its released on. Without regular collaborator Roger Deakins, Bruno Delbonnel had to step in for cinematography, marking the directors’ first foray into digital filmmaking. It’s a seamless transition, though, as there are many stunning shots throughout the film that capture the beautiful Western landscape, in stark contrast to the violence common in this area. Colors are vibrant and pretty, especially green for the pastors, and really make it look like a painting of the Romantic Era. The editing by Roderick Jaynes, meanwhile, shows the very precise way in which the brothers like to cut their films together. It breaks between cuts very artfully, such as Scruggs moving between different cameras to talk to about his perspective on the West and those who inhabit it. Continuing their fruitful collaboration, Carter Burwell composes and conducts the musical score for the 15th time with the filmmaking duo, with yet another round of impressive. Both sweeping and immediate, the score as a whole often feels like it was made for a Western picture back during the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are a lot of tracks involving strings, including strummed guitars and jagged staccatos, that establish the mood of each short. The use of brass also makes it sound classical, especially with the trumpet solemnly carrying the melody in several parts. It also has an original song called “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Performed by Tim Blake Nelson and singer Willie Watson at the end of the eponymous first short, it’s a bittersweet duet ballad that laments about what it’d take for a gunslinger to give it up. It utilizes both singers magnificent voices, as well as harmonica and choral background; you’d swear it was written in that time period. In many ways, it’s perfect for the film as a whole for how it captures the gloomy tone. As with most anthology films, not all of the shorts are of equal quality to each other. I could have honestly spent an entire feature-length adventure with the titular character alone and been satisfied. Length is also an enemy, as I’m not entirely convinced that “The Gal Who Got Rattled” or “Meal Ticket” needed to be as long as they were. Overall though, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an expertly woven storybook that’s as hilarious as it is tragic. The fact that the Coen Brothers were able to wring a compelling film out of Netflix is a testament both to their versatility and the distributor’s draw for auteurs. Featuring great music and intriguing themes in each of its stories, like many of their films, it really marinates on you after the first viewing. You may even be compelled to watch it again.

“22 July” Movie Review

Generally speaking, I attempt to avoid talking about current politics on my blog. But after watching this movie, the temptation is way too strong. I’ll try to stay off of my soapbox as much as possible, though. This political drama premiered at the 75th International Venice Film Festival to great acclaim. However, it received a much cooler response from its screening during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, before releasing on Netflix on October 10th of that year. However, while it did receive a limited run in theaters day-and-date, it saw an unusually wide release in over 100 specialty theaters around the globe. Box office estimates are believed to be are $166,000 against a $20 million budget. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, the man behind The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93, and Captain Phillips, he had originally developed the film under the title Norway and had also set it for a later release date. It was one of numerous films that the distributor pulled from screening at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in protest of new policies. It is unique among modern productions because it was made using a local cast and crew that were bilingual. The film is based off of a sad true story. On July 22nd, 2011, a far-right terrorist named Anders Behring Breivik committed a shocking sequence of violent acts in Norway. These include a bombing of the government headquarters in the capital city Oslo and a teen-led Worker’s Youth League on the small island of Utøya; 77 were killed, making it the worst terror attack in the country’s history. It then shifts into the aftermath, focusing on Breivik’s tumultuous legal process with a reluctant lawyer, the attempts of his victims to recover from the tragedy, and the Labour Party-controlled government wrestling with how to move forward- especially since there may be more attacks to come. I hadn’t even heard about this movie, let alone the events that it was based on, before a couple months ago. And in all seriousness, at first, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to watch it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Paul Greengrass and his unique cinematic approach to realism, but stories about domestic terrorism are usually ones that I steer clear from. After some thought, though, especially considering the recent rise of hate violence and nationalism in America, I decided that it was important to at least give 22 July a shot and see this issue from a European perspective. And while it doesn’t necessarily work in all aspects, this is undoubtedly a film with honest intentions and speaks to our current moment. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how the attacks themselves are dealt away with in the first 40 minutes. Whereas other films like this such as United 93 spend the majority of the film centering around and building up to the big tragedy, 22 July is far more concerned with the aftermath and how a country should be able to deal with something like this. Moreover, Greengrass has no interest in diving into what ticks or drives in someone like Anders Behring Breivik because he knows that he’s wrong. And others like him, too. Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh, David Duke, Robert Bowers; people who use violence to promote a far-right agenda are wrong. It was also something genius for Greengrass to use a local Norwegian cast as they feel infinitely more believable, even as they speak English. Arguably the main actor is Jonas Strand Gravli as Vilijar, one of the survivors from the attack on Utøya. Disabled and traumatized, he is heartbreakingly convincing and sympathetic as a young teen who’s lost so much due to one violent attack. Equally good is Jon Øigarden as Geir Lippestead, the reluctant lawyer of Breivik during the trial. Selected for having defended a Neo-Nazi a decade prior, you can tell all the struggle he faces trying to defend a monster, especially as he receives threats from Norwegians citizens to step down. Meanwhile, Anders Danielsen Lie is both cold and terrifying as Anders Behring Breivik. He executes the teens with utter impunity and later he espouses his reasons so straightforward and confidently, with no regret for his heinous actions. “I demand to be acquitted because I acted in defense of my country,” he says before the prosecution and families in court, as if he were a misunderstood knight guarding the borders. Sadly, a lot of the things he says in the movie have become mainstream in the Western world as of late, with even some powerful, influential people taking on similar philosophies. Meanwhile, despite working with an unknown cast and crew, Paul Greengrass is still able to project his unique voice through 22 July in the technical aspects. Pål Ulvik Rokseth’s cinematography is very much in line with the director’s previous style of documentary-style, cinéma vérité looks into the lives of these victims. A lot of the film is handheld, but never unintelligible in its delivery, often using zoom-ins and over-the-shoulder shots on subjects. This proves to be a fairly effective as it allows us to peer into these devastating events like we’re either a fly on the wall or watching a highly televised version of what’s happening. Michael Mann’s longtime collaborator William Goldenberg edits the film in a mostly subtle way, bringing each scene together pretty well. When the attack on Utøya is happening, he wisely decides to not linger on the horrifying violence that Breivik commits. Instead, he cuts back and forth between the survivors and him, making it all the more visceral, a similar strategy used when he’s giving his statement in court. There is a musical score written by Sune Martin, in their first English-language feature. It is appropriately sparse and minimalist, as an overt soundtrack could’ve made it come off as manipulative and cheap. What tracks there are throughout are extremely lowkey, mostly utilizing synthesized strings and piano. This creates an ambient atmosphere of sadness and uncertainty, just like the mindset of the country. But there are many other instances without any music, allowing the actors to convey the emotions without any sentimentality. While the music that does exist isn’t necessarily bad, one has to wonder if the film would’ve been better without one at all. Obviously, due to the subject matter, there are a lot of people who will have a hard time sitting through this film, let alone click the “Play” button. At a number of points, it is quite difficult to watch, especially the scenes involving Vilijar’s recovery. And it can also be infuriating watching Anders Behring Breivik sit so smug while the government and courts scramble to figure out what to do with him. Nevertheless, 22 July a clunky but harrowing examination of hope and unity in the face of terror. While the resolution and overall message may come off as naïve and childish to some, in these scary times, it may be just what we need to witness. Not only that, but it demands that our government and the people in charge of it take responsibility for the citizens so that something like the Norway attacks can never be allowed to happen again. And I’m hoping that it doesn’t.