IO, Reviewed

Jonathan Helpert’s IO tells the story of a young scientist (Margaret Qualley) carrying on her father’s work on a ruined Earth, whose surviving inhabitants have abandoned it for sanctuary on Io, a moon of Jupiter. She maintains a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend (Tom Payne), who is now on Io. One day, a balloon descends from the sky carrying a man named Micah (Anthony Mackie), who is the first human she’s seen in a long while.

This film is deliberately slow and meditative, more intent on exploring its themes than in plot. The first act examines the inner and outer states of a single character, and in the second act, two characters. Only in its third act are we given a sense of purpose and mission. Mythology, adaptability, inheritance, obligation, and human connection are the film’s main concerns as it tells the story of how those who look to the past and those who look to the future coexist with one another.

As this movie places so much emphasis on the achievements of the classical Greeks, giving intellectual time to Plato along with elements from Hellenistic mythology, I find it interesting that the screenwriters (of which there are at least three) subvert Aristotle’s dramatic theory by giving more attention to character than to plot. That’s not to say that the film is not engaging – Qualley’s and Mackie’s performances are largely quite good. But the lack of conflict from scene to scene did allow my mind to wander to other production elements in the film’s many open spaces.

The dialogue throughout allowed for a fair amount of subtext, which is always a plus. In certain places, however – mainly during passages where the characters spoke of or even recited passages from classical literature – the dialogue was sufficiently stilted that I felt yanked out of the story. There were also elements of Mackie’s performance that left me a little cold. In the beginning, especially, his character evinces little more than a scowl. And in two places, the sexual politics of the film would be considered (in some circles, at least) problematic: a character makes a pass at someone, that person rejects them, and yet the original character persists until they get what they want; and the story of Leda and the Swan, which is a crucial thematic component of the third act, glosses over an important part of that story.

All that said, I did enjoy this movie. In the face of our hopes for a technological solution to climate change, the question of what we are willing to sacrifice in order to preserve our own history is an important one, and that is where I feel the film was most successful.

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VELVET BUZZSAW, Reviewed

Dan Gilroy’s VELVET BUZZSAW is an extraordinary film. It’s a horror film that takes its cues from BASQUIAT, and an intellectual art film that takes its cues from IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Working from his own screenplay, Gilroy tells the story of a group of art world movers and shakers who are profoundly and disastrously affected by the discovery of a deceased outsider artist named Ventril Dease.

From its stylish opening credits, the film establishes itself as an intensely visual experience. Some of the art openings involve long, winding tracking shots that allow us to be tourists through several let’s-be-nice-and-call-them-sophisticated conversations. Gilroy certainly takes a mocking attitude toward the extremes of high culture. In fact, characters mistake ordinary garbage for installation pieces on more than one occasion. Throughout the film, Robert Eswit’s cinematography dazzles. (One shot in particular, in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s character enters a sunlit factory, deserves an exhibit of its own.)

The performances are, almost across the board, quite good. The film’s marketing focuses on Jake Gyllenhaal, although it would be a mistake to call his character the protagonist. In fact, the film seems to begin with one focal character, then switches horses at the midpoint. While this rarely works, Gilroy manages to pull this off by clearly drawing each of his characters: Rhodora (Rene Russo) is the aging queen, Morf (Gyllenhaal) is the spiritual seeker, Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is the calculating climber, Gretchen (Toni Collette) is the ruthless shapeshifter, and so on. The only performance which didn’t work for me – Daveed Diggs’s “Damrish” – wasn’t a large enough or sufficiently significant part to dim my enjoyment. (I have liked Diggs very much elsewhere, but felt he was miscast here.)

But the real star is the screenplay. Gilroy gives us sufficient time to soak in these characters and their world before giving us our inciting incident, which is the discovery of Ventril Dease and his work, and allows us to root for the put-upon Josephina in her decision to use this discovery as leverage. Once the core mystery (who is Ventril Dease and what is he doing to us?) is afoot, we are sucked in.

Gilroy’s film has a lot to say about a cluster of subjects. He shows us a world of acquirers and tastemakers, shows us the behind-the-scenes machinations of those who would determine what art lives and what art dies. Late in the film one character exclaims that ‘all art is dangerous,’ while another attests that ‘any of us who profited are in danger.’ His conclusions about the relationship between art and commerce aren’t particularly surprising or controversial, but they are well-stated. Perhaps the most important thematic element, for me, occurs during the closing credits, after the main action of the film has ended: a character creates art on a canvas that is, by virtue of its own nature, temporary.

Hopefully this film will reach a large audience, as this year’s BIRDBOX did. I suspect it won’t, and that’s okay. But much like with the paintings in VELVET BUZZSAW, those who see this will absolutely find themselves changed.