FilmSpace: Burning; Velvet Buzzsaw; Escape Room; Second Act

Calum Cooper

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back at some of the week’s additional releases, including a fascinating Korean film, a Netflix original starring Jake Gyllenhaal, a horror movie about Escape Rooms, and the latest rom com starring Jennifer Lopez.

Burning – ★★★★☆

Burning is a film that plays a long game with its hand hidden, never revealing its tricks throughout its runtime, and leaving you to ponder how it did it. It’s gorgeously shot and beautifully written, but it’s the staunch trust it has in its audience that makes it such an impressive spectacle – one that’s rich in atmosphere and roaring with emotion. It’s a gargantuan 148 minutes long, and yet it flies by.

Set in present day South Korea, we follow Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in). He’s a graduate and aspiring writer who moves back to his old farm in Paju after his father is arrested. While in town, he comes across a childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi (Joen Jong-seo). He fails to recognise her initially, as she claims to have had plastic surgery. They begin bonding again, with her bubbly personality contrasting with his painfully shy one. Eventually, after a trip to Africa, Hae-mi returns with an older man, Ben (Steven Yeun), who she met on her travels. With Ben’s introduction to the group, unexplained changes arise around Jong-su, and the film gradually moves from a drama to a mystery thriller in ways I do not wish to give away.

In many ways this is a difficult film to pin down. The amount of potential conflicts on display are too many to count. Urban vs rural. Reality vs memory. Ambition vs conformism. And, the most apparent one, working vs upper class. We see them through various scenes in which we never quite know what’s going on. During Hae-mi’s travels, Jong-su is trusted with feeding her cat. He does so dutifully, but he never actually sees a cat. When we first meet Ben, we, like Jong-su, can sense that there’s something off about him. But we’re not sure what exactly it is. Perhaps it’s mere envy. Ben drives a Porche and owns a huge flat, despite seemingly not working, whereas Jong-su struggles both financially and with his estranged family members. There’s a great scene where he tells Hae-mi, “there are too many Gatsbys in Korea”, conveying his apparent jealousy. Yet, when disappearances and coincidences begin aligning in the second half, as well as a bizarre revelation that Ben burns down greenhouses as a pastime, we, like Jong-su, fear that it could be more than that.

It’s an utterly strange film that refuses to lead its audience by the hand. But it still works. It works because at the centre of the film are empathetic characters and a haunting atmosphere that feels like a cage closing in on our leads. There’s a beautiful metaphor throughout the film concerning hunger, conveyed through various means such as Hae-mi doing a peculiar “hunger dance” or pantomiming herself eating a tangerine, with movements so specific you start to imagine a physical tangerine. Hae-mi talks about Little Hunger, which is our usual cravings for food, and Great Hunger, which is the human desire for something truly fulfilling.

I find myself unable, perhaps too inexperienced as a film reviewer, to really express Burning’s meanings or tactics. And yet, it kept me completely absorbed.

For Jong-su, that is companionship. As a shy guy who keeps to himself, just the marginal interest Hae-mi has in him causes him to fall deeply in love. They share a few drinks and reminisce, then find themselves in bed together. It’s the most realistic depiction of the act of sex I think I’ve ever seen in film, but it all helps to build Jong-su’s confidence, only for it to be wiped clean with the arrival of Ben. He presents as much of a mental danger as a physical one, and yet we never truly know what the source is, or if this feeling of danger is justified.

So much of that comes from simple, almost irrelevant, sounds and occurrences that heighten the atmosphere. North Korean propaganda blasts over the nearby border, riding over the stunningly filmed hills and countryside toward Jong-su’s home. Jong-su answers phone calls but no one ever replies. Fire plays an important role too, which is probably why the title was chosen. For Jong-su it represents the difficulties of the past and how they shaped his character. For Hae-mi it offers prospects of a fulfilling future and cultural beauty. For Ben, fire is a play thing that he weaponises to quell his own boredom, his own Great Hunger maybe?

As the film slowly but surely transforms from a romantic drama to an intricate mystery thriller, our questions and uncertainties go unanswered, almost ignored. For it is not a film about what happens. It is about our deeper emotions, our fears and anxieties that emerge when unexplained happenings occur. Whether it’s trying to retain a memory of a well in his old community, or figuring out Ben and his true intentions, Jong-su’s fears eventually become our own. From then on, the film grabs on tight to our attention and refuses to let go.

I find myself unable, perhaps too inexperienced as a film reviewer, to really express Burning’s meanings or tactics. And yet, it kept me completely absorbed. I may not know the meanings behind every image or every narrative beat, but what I do know is that each one served a purpose to create a mystifying, almost other-worldly experience. It’s wonderfully acted, gorgeously filmed with an exquisite range of a colour palette, and meticulously crafted by director Lee Chang-dong. It never reveals its secrets – instead leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions. But no matter which way you choose to interpret the film, we’re left with a hauntingly engrossing experience that’s going to gnaw away at my psyche for weeks to come.

Velvet Buzzsaw – ★★★☆☆

I’ve been on a bit of a horror movie craze the past few weeks. I don’t know why but I’ve really been in the mood for a good scare. Recently, I’ve revisited The Exorcist, and watched Dario Argento’s Suspiria for the first time. Both of those films are masterpieces, but they and others, e.g. Carrie and Psycho, effectively show how horror can be fashioned and applied to any subject matter. Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw takes the world of art, and offers it up to this genre. The results are… interesting.

The film concerns several characters, the main trio being Rene Russo as gallery owner Rhodora, Zawe Ashton as agent/assistant Josephina, and Jake Gyllenhaal as a critic named Morf Vandewalt, because doesn’t that name just scream icy critic? They run a successful business together, particularly since Morf’s opinions on a piece can make or break an artist’s career. When an elderly resident in Josephina’s block of flats, Vetril Dease, dies, she stumbles across his hidden artwork. With all three seeing Dease’s art as genius, they decide to exhibit and present them, despite posthumous orders to destroy them. Once they commit themselves to Dease’s artwork however is when death and carnage begins to slowly but surely ensue.

Velvet Buzzsaw seems to have polarised reviewers if the internet is anything to go by, and it’s easy to see why. It doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a horror-satire, or a genuine horror. I suspect it was trying to be the former given the character names, but the tongue-in-cheek tone can come off as up itself in the worst scenarios. Gilroy’s first film, Nightcrawler, established its neo-noir thriller tone in its first few scenes, whereas Velvet Buzzsaw seems to jump back and forth between mockery and authenticity before finally settling on horror. Even then its horror seems to wobble between preposterous and haunting.

It’s an unorthodox subject matter to turn into horror, but I think it experiments well, especially with the unusual, almost comical ways characters are killed off.

Then there are the narrative issues. I don’t want to compare too much, but where Nightcrawler focused primarily on one character, with three important supporting players, this film focuses on three primary characters, and numerous supporting players of various importance, played by Toni Colette, Natalia Dyer, and John Malkovitch among others. It’s hard to fully keep track of who is relevant to who or what, especially since many are playing lined up fodder to be killed. Not to mention tedious subplots that threaten to throw the film off course, the most predominant one being a love affair between Morf and Josephina, which I personally felt wasn’t needed at all.

However, I do admire the film for the risks it takes. It walks a line between strange and horrifying, but it seems to serve as a cautionary tale on greed and over-ambition with the way its narrative plays out. It’s an unorthodox subject matter to turn into horror, but I think it experiments well, especially with the unusual, almost comical ways characters are killed off, including a tattoo that comes to life. Whether it’s a genuine, or even satirical, take on the art world is something I’m not qualified to comment on. But it nonetheless embraces its sillier aspects too, with Gyllenhaal in particular providing an enjoyable range between over the top elitism and genuine fear and mental stress when the film starts to experiment with its horror elements.

What truly kept me on board with the film was its visual style and constant sense of suspense. Its utilisation of quick editing work and a range of close up and wide angle cinematography to convey isolation or claustrophobia was skilfully done. And I really appreciated the work it did with the various paintings and artworks on display, often incorporating them into the way a character dies or is feeling anxiety. It showed a considerable amount of imagination, and the way Gilroy used these technical elements only feed the film’s sense of atmosphere. It was hard to ignore the more questionable moments, but I can’t say I was ever bored by it.

Velvet Buzzsaw is a very flawed film in many regards, and I can see many other film lovers finding it pretentious or dull. For myself though, I oddly respect it. Gilroy seems to have aimed for something very uncanny here, and, whether for better or for worse, I think he’s succeeded. It’s got nothing on Nightcrawler, which is a work of genius to me, but I think it offers enough unique style and creativity toward its chosen setting to make it worth at least one viewing.

Escape Room – ★★☆☆☆

If cool concepts alone made for good films then I’d be writing a very different review for Escape Room – a movie with a creative premise that starts off interesting enough, but eventually trips up on itself and goes plummeting toward the underworld of redundancy and ridiculousness.

Following the usual trend of giving trends a cinematic make over, in this case the growing popularity of escape rooms, the film follows a simple premise. Six individuals of various tropes (wunderkind student, scarred veteran, arrogant businessman, nerdy expert on subject matter, etc.) are invited to an escape room. They are locked in and the escape room, with its various environments, tries to pick them off one by one. You can probably guess the rest from there.

This is another one of those films where it’s clear the execs came up with the idea first, but had to conjure up substance around it once the project got greenlit. And it sucks because there are things to admire here. The production design is surprisingly impressive. Each escape room created usually has a common theme, and some stages of the escape room here do have some creative gimmicks to them. There’s one sequence where the characters have to navigate through an upside down bar. That was genuinely fun, and director Adam Robitel does utilise some inventive camerawork to evoke tension during this sequence and others.

However, once you look beyond the nifty sets, the cracks start to emerge. Half the battle of any film is getting a good story. But the other, and I’d argue more important, half is creating good characters to occupy it. These characters are bland at best, and monstrously annoying at worst. The actors do what they can with the material, but their roles exist purely to fill in quotas as their designated tropes. Each has a backstory that creates a common link between them, but they do little to give us reasons to care. I know the selling point is an escape room murdering people, but when I’m sitting there and hoping half the characters die, you’re doing something wrong.

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The further in we get, the more the film starts to resemble a tame version of the Saw franchise, which is annoying as there are moments of suspense or unease scattered about in the first half. Yet characters bite the dust in mundane fashion, such as drowning or falling, despite all the routes you could go with its setup. It doesn’t have to be torture porn like the Saw sequels, but if you have a premise like this, where one room can be inverted and another can burn you to cinders, you might as well embrace your inner psychopath a bit.

And the way the story plays is tediously repetitive too. Often the same character, the student, realises what’s going on, followed by arguing, then heightened tension, then compromise, and then one of them dying. The rooms change but the progression of events don’t, and the dialogue doesn’t do it any favours either. One such line includes, “it’s like I’m playing the world’s funnest game with the world’s meanest people.”

What it leaves us with is a colossal waste of potential, particularly with its franchise building climax that ends the film on a sour note. It’s another gimmicky horror to add to the ever-growing pile. Nonetheless, there still may be an enjoyment factor to the film if you go with it, or if you have a drink in your hand. After seeing it, I know what my preference would be.

Second Act – ★★☆☆☆

I feel like there’s a well-meaning intention behind Second Act. But there’s next to no originality or spontaneity to be found on screen. It presents its story and ideas in such a done-to-death manner, that, after a while, I gave up on taking notes during the film and started listing its clichés in a checklist manner.

Jennifer Lopez plays Maya, a 40-year-old shop worker. She’s never graduated from high school, yet believes her sales experience gives her enough street smarts to equal book smarts. Her entourage of friends, who pop up when convenient, seem to think so too. Eventually, she lands an interview with a hot make-up company in New York City, largely in part due to the tampering of her best friend’s teenage son, as his falsified CV claims she graduated from Harvard, and is fluent in Mandarin among many other setups for obvious jokes. She lands the job, but must prove her worth by competing against an uptight younger woman (Vanessa Hudgens) to make a more organic skincare product. Will she prove her worth to her counterparts, or will the truths she’s been hiding come out to bite her?

Does that sound familiar to you in any way, dear reader? If it does, it’s because you’ve seen this plotline a million times. It’s the underdog story where they achieve something extraordinary through deception, but must demonstrate their abilities to superior caricatures. All while they hide their lies from their respected peers, before said lies inevitably come out and cause repercussions in the last third. A Bug’s Life, Yes Man, Avatar, half of Adam Sandler’s movies – the list goes on and on. It’s a formula older than time itself, and it leaves little room for creativity for writers who insist on sticking with it, meaning it’s easy to predict every dramatic moment. Second Act, save for one interesting revelation between Lopez’s and Hudgen’s characters, is no exception.

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But that’s only one of the many redundancies. Its attitude to comedy and modern tropes isn’t much better. I’ll confess I chuckled to some of the antics between Charlyne Yi and Alan Aisenberg, but otherwise most of the comedy is typical prat falls, insults, and lowest common denominator pandering. This includes a seven-year-old who repeatedly says swear words. Can you see how much my sides are splitting?

Let’s see if any of the notes I made in my checklist bother you: Cartoonish managers/colleagues, preferably male, with laughably fragile egos? Check. Adult women who act like high schoolers? Check. Shallow scenes of vapid consumerism? Check. Tragic backstory that ties into the film later on? Check. Shoehorned dance sequences? Check. Tries to be serious despite all of this? Check. If these are attributes that annoy you, like they annoy me, then this may not be the wisest choice for a cinema outing.

I don’t hate Second Act however, for I know I’m not in the target audience. It’s not my idea of entertainment, but there is a crowd for this kind of thing. Besides, there’s nothing offensive about the way it’s presented either. It’s not dangerously misguided or morally repugnant like Entourage for example. I would even argue its messages on second chances, hence the title, and valuing professional experience as much as academia are relatively wholesome ones. It’s just lacking in anything unique to help it stand out in my opinion.

As such, I view Second Act as harmless fluff. So harmless in fact that I’m probably going to forget I even saw it come the end of the year.