‘Velvet Buzzsaw’: Something Killer This Way Arts

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Claudette Barius/Netflix

Not too long before I watched Velvet Buzzsaw, I discovered that its director, Dan Gilroy, has been married to one of its stars, Rene Russo, for nearly 30 years. I migh have previously known that fact, but I don’t think I knew about it as far back as Gilroy’s last film, 2014’s Nightcrawler, which also featured Russo acting quite excellently. Besides making movies together, they also have a daughter who’s already all grown up. I mention all this because I enjoy thinking about the familial background that can go into making a movie. And also, I find it more satisfying to think about the Gilroy-Russo family than I do to think about Velvet Buzzsaw. That’s not to say that Velvet Buzzsaw is bad, but rather, it’s just to say that I’m the type of person who generally finds it heartening to see even just a snapshot of any family life.

Anyway, it’s particularly interesting to think about this marriage in light of Russo’s death scene in Buzzsaw, which her husband wrote AND directed! Honestly, I think it’s the sign of a good relationship when you can orchestrate your spouse’s death onscreen but not do so in real life. It’s a pretty gnarly moment and probably the best realization of the movie’s concept of “killer art.” I got a real Wes Craven’s New Nightmare “art imitating life” vibe during Velvet Buzzsaw‘s first deadly set piece. It takes us a little while to get to all the moments of the paintings and pieces tearing up human flesh, but when they do happen, they’re impressively, lavishly staged. But I think I would have recommended getting to the gore a little more quickly, because before we get there, we don’t have much to latch on to, other than Jake Gyllenhaal (who, you may recall, was also previously directed by Gilroy in Nightcrawler) as a fellow named “Morf” lounging around naked with only a laptop to cover his naughty bits.

I give Velvet Buzzsaw 3 Thick Black Eyeglass Frames out of 5 Wax Families.

Movie Review: ‘Aladdin’ Grants Our Wish for an Illuminating Disney Remake

2 Comments

CREDIT: Daniel Smith/Disney

Starring: Mena Massoud, Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Marwin Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Numan Acar, Billy Magnussen

Director: Guy Ritchie

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG for Vividly Fantastical Wish Fulfillment

Release Date: May 24, 2019

One of the best possible values of Disney’s recent spate of remakes is something typically associated with theatrical revivals, i.e., the space to illuminate and expand upon the messages of the original. With that in mind, Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Aladdin is one of the best entries in this trend because of how much it emphasizes what worked about the original and how successful it is with its new elements. Both versions are clear, thorough, and simple about explaining their character motivations, which sounds like it should be a basic tenet of storytelling, and it is (except when you want to be ambiguous), but sometimes filmmakers get distracted by the bells and whistles.

While the details are fun and fancy, the main ideas are what keep Aladdin flying along. We know that Aladdin and Jasmine are smitten each other, we know that Genie wants his freedom, we know that Jafar is power-hungry, and we know that the Sultan wants what is best for his kingdom and his daughter. The circumstances that frustrate or reward these desires are understandable and internally consistent, which adds up to a formula for a satisfying story.

So Ritchie and his co-screenwriter John August know what clicks about the meat of what they’ve got here – how about the fresh flavors they add? Casting is key here, and that is a success across the board. Mena Massoud (Aladdin), Naomi Scott (Jasmine), and Marwin Kenzari (Jafar) are mainly playing variations of what came before, while Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much sterner than, though just as lovable as, Douglas Seale’s goofball version. Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnussen provide a good chunk of the comic relief as a couple of new characters, a saucy handmaiden to Jasmine who can totally get it and a very sweet, but way-of-his-depth, Scandinavian-ish suitor, respectively.

Of course, the question everyone is parroting is: does Genie Will Smith grant audiences their wishes? There were plenty of concerns after trailer footage suggested that a blue Fresh Prince was maybe a little too creepy for comfort. Frankly, though, I have spent this whole time believing that any weirdness is this movie’s biggest asset. And ultimately anyway, I believe that the CGI threads the needle between off-putting and palatable. (Although I’m not sure how necessary his jacked torso is.) Smith is reverent to Robin Williams’ iconic performance, but his Genie is just as unique. He’s operating at the height of Big Willie style, the sort of confidante who knows just how to swag out confidence and perception to everyone’s advantage. We have had a friend like him before, but we could always use another.

Aladdin is Recommended If You Like: Aladdin (1992), Big Willie Style, Willennium, Sitcom episodes with Nasim Pedrad guest appearances

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Magic Carpets

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Oath’ Offers a Caustic Vision of Thanksgiving in an America Built on Loyalty Above All Else

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Topic Studios/Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass

Director: Ike Barinholtz

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for the Profanity of Thanksgiving and Surprisingly Potentially Lethal Violence

Release Date: October 12, 2018 (Limited)

I do not pledge allegiance to The Oath. Nor do I pledge anti-allegiance to it. That lack of fiery passion might be antithetical to a movie that is all about getting everyone riled up, but I need to be honest about how I really feel. And besides, I believe that The Oath ultimately advocates taking a breath and having more measured reactions to potentially explosive situations.

Is the America of The Oath the America that writer-director Ike Barinholtz is worried his country is turning into? He stars as Chris, alongside Tiffany Haddish as his wife Kai, with the two of them united in their disgust at The President’s Oath, an act that requests that Americans declare their allegiance to the president. Barinholtz and Haddish are both known for playing unpredictable balls of energy, but they both tone it down quite a bit here. Perhaps it is best to think of Chris and Kai as what the typical Barinholtz and Haddish characters would become if they settled down in the suburbs and had a young daughter. They are still plenty wound-up, though, Barinholtz especially, as Chris is a news junkie who despairs at every story that pops up on his screens. I suspect that Barinholtz is not quite so constantly on edge in his personal life and that he allows himself the catharsis of freaking out in his work. (If my presumption is wrong, then I sympathize with his friends and families.)

The fallout of the Oath on Chris and Kai and their extended family plays out on Thanksgiving, that hallowed day of controversial conversations between loved ones breaking down along predictably political lines. The Oath ups the ante by throwing government officials, firearms, and general creeping paranoia into the mix. Barinholtz is clearly influenced by a current administration that values loyalty above ethics, but he keeps his warning timeless by avoiding giving a name to anyone in charge. This breakdown in trust in society could happen any time, The Oath argues, and maybe wacky black comedies are the best thing we have to make sense of that.

The Oath is Recommended If You Like: Black comedy stage plays about squabbling families, Grounded political dystopias

Grade: 3 out of 5 Breaking News Alerts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Birth of the Dragon’ Wrings Some Drama Out of a Legendary Kung Fu Fight

Leave a comment

This review was originally published on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Philip Ng, Billy Magnussen, Xia Yu, Jinjing Qu, Jin Xing

Director: George Nolfi

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Kung Fu Ass Kicking and Mild Gangsterism

Release Date: August 25, 2017

Birth of the Dragon purports to be about a legendary fight between martial arts masters Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) and Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), and it is about that for the most part, but an oddly significant amount of narrative weight is devoted to an out-of-place love story. I am not sure if this can be explained by commercial reasons, but I do not imagine that anyone who is mainly looking for romance would also be in the mood for sitting through a bunch of kung fu. Or perhaps it is just there to pad out the story. But that too is a puzzling choice, as there is more than enough drama to draw out of the Lee/Man conflict. The love story is far from fluffy, as it touches upon the struggles of Chinese immigrants in 1960s San Francisco, so the problem is more about overstuffing than irrelevance.

Much of the buildup to the fight is conveyed through a go-between in the form of Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), one of Lee’s American students, who is essentially a third protagonist. Far from whitewashing, his presence gets at the heart of the conflict, or at least what one combatant assumes to be the heart of the conflict. Lee believes that Wong Jack Man has travelled to America because he disapproves of Lee teaching kung fu to Westerners. While Man is certainly the more traditional of the two, their disagreement is more complicated than that. That ambiguity helps overcome the problem intrinsic to this film: the actual fight between these two was not recorded, and its result is the stuff of legend. Birth of the Dragon makes the wise decision that the actual winner is beside the point.

Naturally, Birth of the Dragon is really only worth recommending if its action choreography can come anywhere close to the level of its subjects. I have only ever seen clips of Lee’s film and TV work, but I cannot imagine that Birth is anywhere near as stunning as the likes of Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. It is far from embarrassing (Ng especially has an extensive martial arts background), but masters in any field deserve tributes that earn more than only the faintest of praise.

Birth of the Dragon is Recommended If You Like: Kung Fu Completism

Grade: 2 out of 5 Chips on Your Shoulder

This Is a Movie Review: Aubrey Plaza Stops You Cold in the Instagram Tragicomedy ‘Ingrid Goes West’

Leave a comment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen, Pom Klementieff

Director: Matt Spicer

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: R for Cosplay Hanky-Panky, Surprise Cocaine, and an Amateur Kidnapping

Release Date: August 11, 2017 (Limited)

An early montage of Instagram posts in Ingrid Goes West features Elizabeth Olsen reading out loud the entirety of the captions. This is jarring for a couple of reasons, partly because captions are not designed to be spoken aloud and mainly because the emoji are given concrete descriptions. I would argue that such straightforwardness is antithetical to the spirit of emoji, whose meanings are often implicitly understood but generally maintain a level of fluidity. Similarly, social media posts purport to present a certain specific message, but there are layers of further meaning lurking underneath.

People like Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) interpret public personae with too much unwavering conviction, overly certain that an interaction with a virtual fan is an invitation to become a flesh-and-blood friend. But what Ingrid Goes West suggests is, maybe that is not exactly what she believes. Maybe that rigidity is just a coping mechanism because the alternative is too complicated to handle. Ingrid becomes obsessed with Taylor Sloane (Olsen) not just because her Instagrams of avocado toast represent the height of L.A. cool, but mainly because of the illusion that her life is perfectly put-together. To someone who is obviously mentally ill (and thus whose brain does not allow any stability), that is intoxicating.

Ingrid Goes West is not a condemnation of Instagram, not really. It is just the medium through which some unhealthy behavior that would still exist otherwise happens to be taking place. Still, if you are wrapped up in it, it is an overwhelming medium. What is fascinating about Plaza’s performance is that her excessive social media use does not drive her to make Ingrid excessively fake, but rather unnervingly real. True, she makes “friends” under false pretenses, but her capacity for genuine relationships and deep cavern of pain are what stick with you.

Ingrid Goes West is Recommended If You Like: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The King of Comedy

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Avocado Toasts