Tag: rene russo

Outbreak


Outbreak (1995)
★★ / ★★★★

Wolfgang Petersen’s medical thriller “Outbreak” is composed of two movies that do not mesh well. The first one, established during the former half, is a drama that tracks the origin of a new virus and how it comes to make its way to a small California town. The second, which dominates the latter half, is an action picture composed of helicopter chases, men in uniform yelling at each other over radio, and a bomb about to be dropped on the infected. The differences between the two halves are day and night and I wished screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool had chosen one path—the former which is vastly superior than its counterpart—and explored it without fear or shame that the material may not appeal enough to the mainstream audience.

Petersen commands a solid sense of pacing—very necessary because his all-star cast deserve to shine on their own, from Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo as divorced virologists who work for the United States government, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland as generals involved in a cover-up which cost innocent lives decades ago, to Cuba Gooding Jr. and Kevin Spacey as a new recruit and veteran field scientist, respectively. Patrick Dempsey even makes an appearance as a young man directly responsible, albeit inadvertently, for allowing the host animal to infect even more people. The powerhouse cast is juggled with seeming ease and there is genuine chemistry among them, particularly Hoffman and Russo even though I did not care much about the whole subplot regarding the former couple finding that special connection again.

Notice the dialogue. These are strong and forceful, almost always to the point—appropriate given the urgency of the plot. For instance, when the Hoffman and Freeman characters are at odds, there is a convincing push and pull between the two figures. We believe that these men have experienced major medical emergencies prior to this one, an Ebola-like virus from Zaire called Motaba, and so they are willing to fight what they believe is the right thing to do given a set of specific circumstances. At the same time, Drs. Daniels and Ford share a friendship just underneath their professional rapport. It is a joy to watch Hoffman and Freeman clash.

However, as the picture unfolds, the looming threat of politics and power play getting in the way of correctly (and morally) dealing with a public health emergency begins to take over. And as it does, the story, while somewhat sizable in scope, also starts to feel less personal or intimate and more like a standard action-thriller. Uncontrollable virus infection movies are scary precisely because we tend to relate to the confused and terrorized characters on screen who fear for their lives. The fear lies in something unknown but natural, not because of a missile or bomb threat.

And so it is ironic that by introducing two things that could kill—a virus and a bomb—the film is rendered less effective. It is far more unsettling to fear the unknown, something we cannot see or imagine. Bombs, on the other hand, are found in every other action flick. Still, even then the more action-packed chases are not all that impressive because they neither offer nothing new in terms of visuals nor is the action being told from a different or fresh perspective. Thus, the generic action comes across like an awkward appendage in otherwise watchable disaster film.

Velvet Buzzsaw


Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a frustrating mix of satire and supernatural horror—riotously funny at its best, soporific and pedestrian at its worst. The reason is because the screenplay’s connective tissue between comedy and terror is, for the most part, malnourished. As it vacillates from one end to the other, like staring at a metronome, the longer we look at the images, a sense of surrender can be detected—the antithesis of an experience that is meant to grab you. The film suffers from a lack of urgency which is the very element that the smartest, wittiest, and most creative comedies and horror films possess. It is a misfire of a black comedy.

Personas to be skewered have found a career in the art world, from receptionists, gallery owners, representatives of buyers, the artist themselves, down to the punctilious critics whose reviews can not only make or break a show, they can determine the artists’ future. The story revolves around three central figures: Morf the critic (Jake Gyllenhaal), Josephina the receptionist (Zawe Ashton), and Rhodora (Rene Russo) the gallery owner. Each has a unique perspective about what art is, the perception surrounding the art, and the art business. These figures are not meant to be liked but they must be interesting throughout. But I saw nothing else to their deadpan shallowness. Perhaps a director of Robert Altman’s caliber, for instance, might have done something more interesting.

Although the performers prove they are willing to try anything to get a reaction from the audience (Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette are standouts), at times I found myself turning out from the histrionics and wondered, for example, about the costume and wardrobe department’s inspiration regarding the type of clothing each character wears—the colors, the patterns, the instructions on how they must be worn or carried. When the clothes have more intrigue than the characters, there is a problem. It should not be this way when watching a first-rate satire since the sub-genre is a critique of ourselves. The story may take place in the art world, but it must say something about us, especially those who may not be a part of the sphere being examined.

Scenes that are supposed to be creepy or scary are neither. CGI involving paint dripping off the canvas and attacking people is ludicrous and laughable. (For some reason, the paint cannot be felt as it moves up one’s body.) Figures depicted on sketches or paintings suddenly moving their eyes or facial expressions are generic. Cue the sinister score and jump scares like clockwork. At times I felt like I was watching a horror film made in the early 2000s when just about every horror movie wants to try to use computers in order to create convincing visual effects. The irony is that although these effects are meant to create life-like illusions, in actuality, the more they are utilized the less convincing the overall experience becomes. As is the case here. Notice that as the writing wanes, characters exploring dark corners becomes more prevalent.

I get it: “Velvet Buzzsaw” wishes to comment on the soullessness of the art world. Still, the film itself should create an experience that is neither bland nor blasé. Just because the art world is shallow and pretentious does not mean that the work should render itself blind to the humanity of its subjects. It takes the easy way out one too many times.

There is a point in the film when a woman is brutally murdered in a gallery. Her body is found by people who open the building—and they do not know much about art. It is assumed that the corpse, the puddles blood on the floor, and blood spatters on walls are all part of the exhibit. Visitors come in and out of the gallery. They, too, assume it is all for show. It isn’t until hours later when someone who is actually familiar with the pieces immediately realizes that something is terribly wrong. If only the picture functioned on this level throughout the near interminable two-hour running time.

Nightcrawler


Nightcrawler (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Standing out almost immediately in “Nightcrawler,” written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is the way nighttime hovers like a thick gloom in downtown Los Angeles—beautiful, curious, eerie, and dangerous all rolled into one vivid dream of a filmmaker with a keen eye for not only what looks good on screen but also how certain images, framed just right, can allow the audience to feel or think a certain way. In this sense, the picture is an achievement in presentation and execution. It is made for people who crave looking closely at things, just like the main character played exceedingly well by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Louis Bloom comes across a traffic accident after being told that he is not a person worth hiring long-term because he is a thief. What catches his eye is not the accident itself but the man holding a camera at the scene, filming every bit of detail that might be considered profitable. Louis learns that such footages can be sold to news stations. The more intense or important a footage, the higher the pay. Louis hopes to cash in.

The film is about a man driven by an obsession. However, it does not mean that Louis can easily be classified as a Freak-of-the-Week just because we can almost always guess correctly which course of action he intends to take given a high-risk, high-yield opportunity. One might argue that he is driven by money while others might claim he craves fame. Some might say he has found a passion but the need to sustain it has gone to an extreme that we wonder if it is unhealthy. There is evidence supporting all of these hypotheses.

What is so interesting is how Gyllenhaal monitors his character’s responses like clockwork that it is almost Hitchcockian. Louis appears very calm most of the time that even the more intense events do not invoke a reaction out of him. I wondered if he had SPD—schizoid personality disorder—and, if so, to what extent the disorder has taken over throughout the course of the picture. Or maybe from the moment we meet him, the condition is already established and no true character arc is ever truly captured. When his character does react, it is more like watching an implosion—so quiet but deafening in its power.

One is likely to read statements that watching the film requires a lot of patience. I’m not entirely certain if such a disclaimer is accurate. While the writer-director is confident enough to take the time and allow the scenes to unfold, there is great entertainment in the escalation of tension.

Particularly suspenseful is when Louis creeps up the driveway of an affluent family, enters the mansion, then comes across a crime scene that is dangerous and disturbing. I caught myself shuffling in my seat because it felt like at any second, everything could go terribly wrong. Louis may be unlikable or downright detestable, his actions may be morally gray or lacking morals completely, but one thing is certain: I did not want him to get punished or, worse, “learn a lesson”—a tired avenue that has been traversed so many times, it’s worse than stale.

“Nightcrawler” is well-acted, paced in such a way that we cannot help but be curious at what is happening and what is going to happen, and photographed with a confidence that we feel we are experiencing the filmmaker’s vision raw. It takes a lot of risks with its character, subject, and scope but just about every decision feels right for the material. I am always on the lookout for movies that will or should be remembered decades from now. “Nightcrawler” may belong in one or both categories.