Velvet Buzzsaw (2019): A Film With no Likable Characters

Velvet Buzzsaw Cast & Character Guide | ScreenRant

     There aren’t many great “Netflix” films and this film continues that. I like that we are getting all these new original and oftentimes experimental films but so often these films have characters that are completely unlikable or a plot reveal that just isn’t scary or says anything. All these cons are things that “Velvet Buzzsaw” suffers from. This is a film that had so much potential (premise of haunted artwork is just cool) but it is a film that I would not recommend. The premise and initial tension are the only things holding this film up.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” was directed and written by Dan Gilroy.

The story follows art critic Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose lover Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers many paintings from her deceased neighbor Vetril Dease. When she steals them and the exhibit picks them up strange things begin happening around the Studio which leads to Morf investigating as his life begins to fall apart.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Premise – The idea of haunted paintings is really neat. What if the images could come to life and get you? It is a creepy concept because art is everywhere and in this instance all it takes is the paint spreading for the horror to travel to other things that would be in an art studio giving haunted abstract art or bringing speaking robots to life. This concept done right could easily become a favorite horror film for me, this is not that film.

The Tension – The tension is one of the few good things that works in this film. Weird things happen and people start dying leading to it continuing to build. The problem is by the time the final comes around it doesn’t matter how good the tension is because none of the characters matter. They are all terrible people so you have no reason to hope they survive the scenes that build up to deaths.

The Cons:

The Characters – The characters are why this movie sucks. The premise works, the tension works but the characters are awful and even if they were wrote that way, they should at least be directed to be sympathetic. By the end of the film I hated all of them and because of it I didn’t care what happened to them so the basic horror premise became meaningless. If you have a cast full of characters and them dying is what is raising the stakes, than you have to be given a reason to care about said characters. Not a single one of these characters were sympathetic. They were all selfish and back stabbing and those who could have been sympathetic never got properly developed.

I really can’t recommend this film. I’m picky with what horror movies I watch and this film is a great example of why. I need to care about characters or else jump scares and tension building means absolutely nothing. Again, I didn’t hate this film as the concept and the tension were done well, but a story with no compelling characters is a story I will never recommend to anyone. This is a Netflix original film that really isn’t worth your time. Like many Netflix films I wish there was more to say, but it is hard to do so when the film itself says and means nothing.

Final Score: 4 / 10

 

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Annihilation (2018): A Haunting Exploration of Inner Fears

  If you are new to the blog, I am a huge fan of sci. fi. Most of the films and shows I review are science fiction based and more often than not, they make my Top 5 of whatever year they were made if they are great. “Annihilation” never reaches the heights that the premise creates, but it is a solidly good film. I rented it from Amazon and it is worth checking out.

The film was directed and wrote Eric Garland, who was the writer and director behind one of my favorite films “Ex Machina.” It is based off a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, which I plan on checking out.

The story follows Lena, a biologist who is brought in on a special mission when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns back changed and goes into a coma. From here she works with the team to try and solve the mystery of “The Shimmer,” a reality warping anomaly that is expanding slowly upon the Earth.

The Mystery – The core mystery is what drives the story, and what kept me most involved. The characters were interesting enough that I cared about what happened to them a little (though we never got to know them fully outside of Lena). And, I love that it starts out with a mystery; someone coming home different with no memories of who they were before. “The Shimmer” is a fascinating concept and I love how everytime you feel you learn something else about it, it reveals a greater mystery. The core premise of solving “The Shimmer” kept me in the story the entire time.

The Idea of the Team – The team is made up of women, and they are awesome! We have Lena, the biologist, holding her secrets. The cruel and distant Dr. Ventress, as the leader. The empathetic Josie, the kindness of Cassie, and the hard driven Anya. Each character carries a darkness that “The Shimmer” brings out.

The Darkness We Carry – Each of our characters carries a darkness with them. There is the fact that Lena cheated on her husband, Anya cuts herself, and Ventress has become detached and uncaring. The darkness consumes each of the characters in different way the deeper they get into the “Shimmer.”

Metaphorical and Actual Cancer – The film is also a metaphor for cancer. Everything in “The Shimmer” warps and grows. Like cancer it consumes until there is nothing left. “The Shimmer” is defeated after the alien inside of it is set on fire by Lena. As it burns, the entire “Shimmer” down to its core continues to desire to spread.

Okay:

Lena – Lena is okay. I like how she is complex as a character, but Natalie Portman’s performance doesn’t bring to the next level. I didn’t care enough about any of these characters the way I cared about the protagonists in “Ex Machina.” Here there is a level of detachment from the events going on, and a good portion of that is Lena’s own detachment from the situations she is in. She still did okay, but I can’t put her as a pro, though she was the most compelling member of the team.

The Cons:

The Ending – In the end we find out Kane, who came back as a doppelganger, is the alien life form (from “The Shimmer”.) The twist is that Lena is now a doppelganger too, even though she defeated it in the end. This contradiction took away from the entire film’s theme of overcoming darkness and healing. It kept the film from being great. The film really should have ended with her being interviewed, and Kane’s mystery never being answered. .

If you are fan of sci-fi, like me, chances are you will enjoy this film. This is a flawed and beautiful film that aspires to achieve so much, but because the characters are never quite fleshed out enough, never gets there. The ending also was a bit of a cop out and cancels out so much of what Lena went through. Even with a flawed ending, it is still worth checking out. I rented it, and it is a film that I’d say isn’t worth buying, but was worth the rent.

Final Score: 8 / 10

Dig Two Graves (2017): A Wonderful Gothic Horror Exploring the Cost of Revenge

      “Dig Two Graves” is an indie film that was finally released off the Festival Circuit this year. It first premiered at the Midwest Independent Film Festival in 2015 and later that year at Beaufort International Film Festival, Sedona International Film Festival and Beloit International Film Festival (winning awards at the later 3 festivals) it was finally released to the greater public this year, so I’m including it in the films released this year.

This is a wonderful film that explores the cost of revenge and the price that we way for the evils done to others. It has a strong Gothic undercurrent to it and works really with the small cast it has. My biggest issue is length and character development. The film really could have been longer and from that, the character motivations explored a lot better.

The film was directed by Hunter Adams, who co-wrote the film with Jeremy Philips while the film was produced by P.J. Fishwick and Claire Connelly.

The story begins in the 1940s with Sheriff Proctor and Deputy Waterhouse dumping two bodies into the quarry. It is here the Sheriff is forced to give up his badge and we jump to the present day with his granddaughter and grandson Jake and Sean are at the quarry with Sean jumping off. When Jake panics 3 strange men approach her and say she can bring her brother back to life, all she has to do is kill another to take his place. From here the story unfolds.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Cinematography – Eric Maddeson did a fantastic job on the cinematography as the film feels like you are in a dark fairy tale. The color is slightly off in the flashbacks but they usually always line up to events happening in modern day and the use of darkness and shadows, especially in presentation of the Three Brothers is simply beautiful. This is easily one of the best looking Indie films out there.

Presentation of Time – One of the major themes of the story is events repeated through time. We get the flashback in the 1940’s with the Sheriff and his deputy and how it ties into modern days with the Brothers making a deal with his granddaughter. From here events unfold as we come to see what motivates the characters.

The Cost of Revenge – The main theme, that honestly could have been done better is that of revenge. In the end the 3 brothers are the sympathetic ones, not the granddaughter or grandson as the grandfather is simply a villain who cares about his family. In the end he does save his granddaughter and the brother succeed but they all die in the process. This is where the name of the title comes from, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Basically don’t expect to come back and that is what it does as he seeks revenge against them and them against him. It was rewarding when the Sheriff finally gets killed given everything he did.

The 3 Brothers and the Sheriff – The sheriff is a racist (his harassing of the Roma family) a rapist (he rapes their mother as does his deputy) and only doesn’t kill the kids because his deputy appeals to what little empathy he has in him…so murder on top of that since he kills the father of the brothers. The brothers are wonderful as they seem to be a mini satanic cult that uses snakes as a part of worship. They are outside society, and given what happened to their parents it makes sense. I wanted to know more about what they were doing though as they seemed to be living in the wild and were the most compelling characters in the film.

Okay: The Rest of the Cast – The grandfather’s daughter is just kind of there, the granddaughter and her classmate have only as much development to show us they are outsiders. Their motivations and ways of being really aren’t explored that well. This was a shame as with a better written story these characters could have been really compelling.

The Cons: Needed More Character Development – This a film that could have been longer as so many of the characters needed to be developed more. This was still a really good movie and one I’d highly recommend. I wouldn’t call it a favorite because I’m not sure if I’d watch it again anytime soon but it is well worth the time.

This is a great horror film that is well worth your time if you enjoy indie films and horror films. The themes are powerful, the story and how it is told is compelling and the older actors do a great job in their roles, though sadly the same cannot be said of the rest of the characters, this is a film that could have been great if we’d had more time with the characters who fleshed out the world. It is currently on Netflix so if you are interested, check it out. I doubt you will be disappointed.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

“Stranger Things” Season 2 – Growth in Character and Action

   If you enjoyed the first season of “Stranger Things,” chances are you will greatly enjoy the second. This is a season that builds on character development, expanding the world and action. It does everything a sequel akin to “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Terminator 2” and “Aliens” did and succeeds because of it. If you haven’t watched this show yet and enjoy sci. fi. or 80’s films…check this out. I doubt you will be disappointed.

The show was created by the Duffer Brothers who truly have once again done it again.

The story picks up where we left off with a few months having passed. The new status quo is 11 is now living in hiding with Sheriff Hopper, Will’s trauma from the Upside Down is shown to be much more than anyone realizes and Max is a new girl in town who changes the Team’s dynamic while Nancy and Jonathan wrestle with their trauma and revealing the events of Season 1 to the world.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Cinematography and Action – I’m putting these together this time because they are somewhat obvious and don’t contribute anything substantial to how characters grow or change. These are things that really work in the context of the narrative and are an improvement from Season 1 but aren’t what stand out the most. I loved how the film looks and the action scenes are amazing, especially the action shots of the Team. So these are both positive that I wanted to state up front.

The Expanding Upside Down and the Mind Flayer – One of the main arcs this season is the Mind Flayer and it’s expansion of the Upside Down. The Mind Flayer is the giant smoke creature that appears in a lot of the posters and is usually always behind a red cloud. In this the creature even possess Will, making him a spy and a way to outsmart the humans it knows it is trying to stop it. The Mind Flayer is a great enemy and a wonderful way of raising the stakes from the Demogorgon from the first film.

Fathers and Those Who Become Good Fathers – Another major theme is fatherhood from our adoptive fathers of Sean Astin as Bob who is dating Joyce and helps take care of Will and supports the Team in their fight. We also see it in Sheriff Hopper and his raising of 11 and him failing until he takes responsiblity for his anger and finally as a contrast Neil who is Billy’s and Max’s abusive father. Through the film this contrast drives how many of our characters are shaped. Sean Astin’s Bob is an amazing character and you will feel for the arc he goes through. I’m glad he’s a part of this season.

Mad Max and her arc – Max’s arc is finding family and standing up to her abusive brother Billy. We see this in how she stays away from the team but as they open up to her she begins to trust them and finally stands against them and defeats Billy who had been attempting to isolate her and abuse her through the show.

8 and her Team – This season we meet 8 who is another experiment who can make people see things that aren’t there with her mind. She is awesome and like Magneto she is out for revenge against the government agents with her band of punks. She’s not entirely an antagonist but she isn’t a protagonist either. This arc was good because she finds them after she finds her mother in a comatose state (that the government forced on her after stealing 11 from her) which makes 11 ready for revenge until she learns that she can’t kill out of rage, only out of love for another. 11 leaves her but we know she is still out there and I can’t wait to see her again and any other experiments who are free or exist.

Saving Will – Another arc that is handled really well is saving Will. Last season set up the Upside Down was still a part of him when he threw up a slug and in this we see the Mind Flayer possess him leading to him going through hell as the Team seeks to save him. It is tough and he isn’t rescued until the end and it is a fight to get to that point. The danger and visions give a good foreboding tone through the entire season.

11 and Hopper – I love this relationship. Hopper lost his daughter and 11 is his new daughter and Hopper is 11’s new dad. They’ve both been through trauma loss and it shapes how hard it is for them to trust one another. Hopper is extremely over protective at first and 11 is counting down the days she’s been stuck away from the world being protected. It is powerful and comes to a head when she runs away and Hopper calls her finally ending in them meeting up and her reunion with the Team and Mike. The resolution is powerful and we see that her standing together with her new family gives her the power to take on the expanding influence of the Mind Flayer.

The Team (old and new) – The Team is fantastic in this! You have Nancy and Jonathan revealing the government corruption, Steve and Dustin teaming up to find Dart (a baby Demogorgon), Lucas and Max and their budding relationship and Will and Mike dealing with the Mind Flayer with his mother and Sheriff Hopper as 11 joins them after she learns more about her backstory and finds 8 and her crew. I loved the new team dynamics and how all of them grew. None of these characters are the same after the events, they all grow and change and become stronger as they face their own trauma and loss.

The Cons: Slow Start – The one problem that stood out about this season was the slow start. It really picks up after episode 4 but before that it has a pretty slow build. I think this pays off later on but I also think more could have been done to give us more information on the Mind Flayer and it’s influence and just how pervasive the Upside Down had become. This was the only issue for me that kept it from being perfect.

This was one of the best seasons of television I’ve watched and much how “Defenders” season 1 fixes some of the problems in the first season of “Iron Fist” this does the same thing. This is a season of moving past nostalgia and dealing with consequences. This is a show that is more than 80’s movie and music references. This show faces trauma, loss and our characters grow and what they do matters. I’m not sure what is going to happen Season 3 as Season 2 ties things up rather nicely, but I I still can’t help but be fascinated by seeing how the characters grow further.

Final Score: 9. 8 / 10 Perfect length, great action and characters grow. The slow start is the only thing working against it.

Dagon (2001): Lovecraft and the Fear of Losing Control

    I’m at the point now where I prefer Stephen King to H.P. Lovecraft. With Lovecraft you get a bit of racism, sexism and victimization and nothing that happens has any point, which would make a fun game but not a good story. This film is a shining example of nothing mattering and victimization. This works in the context of a horror film but given all the good Stephen King books I’ve read or films I’ve watched…I like my characters to be empowered, even if they lose they should die fighting and in Lovecraft, that doesn’t happen. This comes out in the adaptations and based off my own bias I have discovered in regards to what I enjoy in a horror film. The one exception I can think of a Lovecraftian horror film that doesn’t fall into this trap fully, is “The Void” which is well worth checking out.

The film was directed by Stuart Gordon and written by Dennis Paoli while being produced by Carlos and Julio Fernandez, Miguel Torrente and Brian Yuzna.

The story involves Paul who is on vacation with his girlfriend Barbara and another couple named Vicki and Howard. When a storm happens Paul and Barbara are forced to go for help at the town of Imboca, but all as not as it appears to be as horror unfolds upon their arrival.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Terror of a Lovecraftian World – Unlike “In the Mouth of Madness” “Dagon” truly captures the terror of what it would be like to have no control and be trapped and isolated. “In the Mouth of Madness” explores the terror of being a character in a story and having no agency, where “Dagon” is having your agency ripped from you. That is one thing that this film does really well and why it works as a horror film.

The Raw Perspective – The film isn’t filmed all that well in regards to the fact that it isn’t stylized and looks raw. This does a good job of contributing to the terror as it gives the film an almost documentary feel, and helps hide the bad CGI making the more practical costumes and effects stand out.

The Town and Setting – The town of Imboca (a translation of Innsmouth like the Lovecraft story of the same name) is terrifying. What would a town be like that was full of people who had been warped by an old one into half-fish people who worship a monster? In this we see that and how they have lost all their humanity and perspective. This adds terror as wherever Paul runs to, he isn’t safe as there are always monsters chasing him and his understanding of what he knows to be true is changed.

The Cons: Paul’s Transformation – We learn that Paul is part fish-person as after Dagon takes Barbara to be his consort he transforms and receives gills. The steps to get here aren’t believable though, it just happens and given how sudden it happens, his human motivations should not change but they do. He should be trying to save Barbara or at least fulfill her last wishes of wanting to die, instead he follows the High Priestess Uxia (his half-sister who wants to be his lover) into the depths where Dagon is.

Dagon’s Motivation – Why does Dagon need a consort? There is no reason for Dagon to take human slaves to have sex with…he is a giant tentacle monster that can warp people without giving birth to them. This I felt was pretty weak and given that Dagon is key to the story we never learn about what motivates it.

The Victimization of the Women – Vicki gets rapes and Barbara is going to be raped by Dagon. This is what happens to the women of the story who aren’t Uxia, whose soul purpose is to victimize women as sacrifices. This is awful and it doesn’t make any sense why an Old One like Dagon would even want this, this is Lovecraft’s warped perspective and honestly a major problem in his writing as this seems to happen to any woman who appears in his stories or stories adapted to film.

The acting isn’t great in this film but I don’t really know if that is a point against the film as it feels raw and real which contributes to the terror aspect of the film, so I can’t really include as a pro or con. This is a film that if you enjoy Lovecraft, you should check out. It captures the worst and best aspects of his writing and the themes within. What I enjoyed most was the terror of the town, which took me back to the town in “Resident Evil 4” where there wasn’t a safe place and you were always on the run. This and the overall tone and foreboding are easily what I enjoyed most, while the characters and events were what had the most to be desired.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10

1922 (2017): The Price of Toxic Entitlement

Netflix is the streaming service that is master of the great original shows and the okay to good movies. I have never seen a great movie on Netflix and this good film is a shining of example of a problem I see running through their films, and why they don’t reach that final point that I’ve seen come out of studio films. I’ll get into what I mean later on, as we continue Horror Week with “1922” a film adapted from a Stephen King book of the same name.

The film was written and directed by Zak Hilditch and produced by Ross M. Dinerstein and adapted from the Stephen King book of the same name.

The story involves a farmer named Wilfred (Thomas Jane) who plans to murder his wife in order to own the land and to do it with the help of his teenage son.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Cinematography – This is a beautiful film. Visually it feels like you are inside a dark storybook and the visuals of the ghosts, especially his wife and later his son is haunting. There is great use of the shadows and light to imply danger and I couldn’t look away while watching. It is easily the best looking Netflix film I’ve watched. 

The Cost of Toxic Privilege – This is a film that tackles toxic privilege, specifically in regards to males and masculinity. We see this in how he cares nothing for his wife and her interests and how he immediately plans to kill her when she is moving on and planning to sell the land and move to the city. He gets his son in on it too as his son fears moving away from the girl he’s dating. In both cases both his son and Wilfred get what they want through violence and control. Wilfred kills his wife and his son is robbing stores around the state to take in order to keep being the the neighbor girl. They never see past themselves and no one questions his wife’s disappearance because a wife in the 1920s, “Is a man’s business.” You don’t question the husband. This is toxic privilege and male entitlement and it is the demon that leads to his Wilfred’s end.

The Tragedy of the James Family – The main arc of the story is how Wilfred’s act ruins the family. In killing his wife his son loses his guide and impregnates the neighbor girl who is 14 like him. Together they run away and he becomes a crook before finally dying as all this time his wife’s ghost haunts him and forces him to confess after he losing everything he loves. The act of selfishness and murder based on something as stupid as land are Wilfred’s undoing.

Okay: Wilfred James’s Motivation – Wilfred was a small time farmer and Thomas Jane portrays his “man of the land” mentality beautifully. The problem is I felt like the jump to killing his wife felt so contrived. I get that entitlement, greed and privilege were major motivators of the act but the steps it took him to get there didn’t feel concrete. We needed to see more of their relationship falling apart before he begins justifying what he plans to do.

The Cons: The Character Arc of the Son Henry – His son loves the neighbor girl, he is worried about losing her so he helps his father kill his mother…I know 14 is a stupid age but I never believed his motivation. The fact that the actor isn’t very good doesn’t help. He was easily the weakest part of the story and film.

Most Netflix films are very clear in their themes, have small casts and look great visually. These are all reasons that I appreciate this streaming service as I haven’t ran into too many outright terrible films to come out of Netflix. They also never reach that higher place, often because they fail to develop the motivations of their characters to the fullest degree. “1922” has an amazing cast but I could not tell you fully what the motivation of the son and father was behind the murder. I know what I was told, but it wasn’t explored enough to fully make the impact it should have had. If you like Stephen King, you will probably enjoy this film as I did, just know it could have been more.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

The Langoliers (1995): A Good Idea that Didn’t Need the Monsters

   “The Langoliers” is an infamous Stephen King film. The Nolstalgia Critic did an early takedown of some of the more hokey aspects of it. This is not a good film, the acting and writing are awkward and it could have been cut way down in length. The thing is though, I don’t hate this film. The core idea and the tone are actually handled really well and the Stephen King theme of people being our own worst enemies is done beautifully given the other limitations listed above. I’ll get into what I mean deeper into the review.

The mini-series was directed by Tom Holland who co-wrote it with Stephen King. The film is inspired by Stephen King’s short story Four Past Midnight.

The story involves a bunch of passengers who find themselves trapped on a plane in which all the passengers have disappeared. From here they must find out what is going on, where the other passengers are and where they’ve been transported to.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Tone – The tone of this tv show is actually pretty great. There is a sense of foreboding, isolation and paranoia. The characters are trapped and it pervades the piece in how the music and scenes are presented. We get scenes of silence where we are in the head of our characters and the mystery author being a major character leaves the trap as something to be un-weaved, increasing the sense of isolation and paranoia.

Isolation and the Consequences of It – Stephen King loves exploring what fear does to people, especially when people are cut off from society. “The Mist” film did this extremely well and the book “The Stand” and even aspects of the Gunslingers world encapsulate this too. This theme is handled decently in this film. We see how isolation drives our characters insane and causes conflict between them, eventually leading to one of the folks who is already unstable, going off the deep end and breaking down, becoming a threat to everyone else who is still alive.

Unseen Terror – We don’t see the Langoliers (the time monsters) until the end and it is the fact that we don’t see them that really helps increase the foreboding tone and sense of isolation. We see time collapsing on itself at one point and that is terrifying enough as our characters are in a race against time and don’t even know if they have a way out. It is in the fact that we don’t know what these creatures are that keep up the tension, we hear them approaching and see how it makes the characters afraid and that is enough.

Exploring the Nature of Time – At the end of the day this is a time travel story. Our crew passes through an event where they find themselves in the past and learn that time gets destroyed by the Langoliers as it catches up to the present and as they pass into the future they realize they can get ahead of the present as well.

The Cons: The Writing – The writing is not very good, it is actually kind of bad. The characters are all tell and no show and it is a major thing that brings the story down. The best parts of this film are when characters are silent or the moments of implication in a backstory. A character not sharing their backstory is when this film is strong. This was co-wrote by Stephen King, but that couldn’t save the problems in the script.

The Performances – The performances are a bit stilted (this is made for television) but some characters are great in just how hammy they are. Bronson Pinchot is enjoyable in how over the top he is and I did enjoy Stockwell’s mystery author. He was the only one who seemed to know what he was doing. A lot of the others felt like they didn’t really know what they were doing.

The Langoliers – The Langoliers are a joke. Special effects of this era in television weren’t good and these creatures are a shining example of it. They clearly look like bad CGI and they aren’t scary in the slightest. The thing is this could have been easily avoided, we should have never seen these things or not had them at all. Time become erased as it comes to the present is a scary enough concept as is without adding badly done teeth monsters. When they popped up on screen I burst out laughing….that’s how bad they look and how all the tension and build up was immediately canceled out.

This was a film that could have been good if it hadn’t shown the Langoliers (or gotten rid of them all together) and with some better casting and writing decisions could have even been a great mini-series. Sadly this is not the reality we are in and it was the length, performances and finally the Langoliers that made this film merely okay. I’m not ready to write it off as I did enjoy the idea and Bronson’s over the top performance coupled with Stockwell’s exploration of unraveling the premise was enjoyable. So I didn’t hate this film, though there is so much that doesn’t work. If you like Stephen King and his works, this is worth checking out for how he explores time but besides that…you have to really enjoy King to get enjoyment from this work. I understand the infamy of this film, even if I don’t share the hate.

Final Score: 6.5 / 10 Not good, but fun.