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“Problemista” Movie Review, Live Streaming & Download

problemista 2024 (via Primetweets)

Since his breakout sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” Julio Torres has established himself as a surrealistic comic. He graduated from the show to co-creating and starring in the quirky horror comedy series “Los Espookys” as the deadpan blue-haired diva Andrés and the solo special “My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres,” which true to its title, features Torres in a glamorous silver suit on a futuristic set using shapes to tell humorous stories and jokes. On Instagram, he features a chicken nugget toy named Krisha that argues with him in a long running antagonistic friendship. 

Knowing Julio Torres’ previous work is the key to understanding his feature debut “Problemista,” which combines his love of design, the inner lives of toys, surrealism, and whimsy into a race against the clock, the immigration system, and the art scene in New York City. Torres, who wrote and directed the film, plays Alejandro, a young man who leaves home in El Salvador to pursue his dreams of making toys in “the most competitive city in the world.” While waiting to pursue his dreams at Hasbro, he makes ends meet at a cryogenics facility aimed at artists. Assigned to the frozen artist Bobby (RZA), himself a dreamer who specialized in painting eggs, Alejandro’s paths cross with Bobby’s widow, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a tempestuous art critic who is rude and unforgiving to just about everyone. Despite her horrid behavior, she takes a shine to Alejandro, who jumps at the chance to help her curate a show of her late husband’s work in the hopes she will sponsor him for a visa. 

Torres’ Alejandro is a dreamer but not detached from reality. While he may pitch ideas about insincere Barbies, disappointing Slinkys, and Cabbage Patch Dolls posting on social media, he also has to be a realist when navigating the labyrinthian bureaucracy that is the American immigration system, an experience Torres had to deal with less than a decade ago. His character, like others he’s played before, acts mostly restrained, almost soft spoken, except when Elizabeth manages to get the better of him. Torres’ performance is understated in contrast to his outlandish co-star, almost Keaton-esque in its somber observation of those around him. 

While Swinton may be better known for her ethereal screen presence, as Elizabeth, she puts the “problem” in “Problemista.” Her character is a sharp-tongued chaos monster, making enemies wherever she goes, rude to people in her life and strangers alike, and ruthless to anyone she isn’t pleased with, earning the nickname hydra for the way she attacks back with more questions and angry criticisms. She’s paranoid, holds grudges, and outdated beliefs like “Filemaker Pro is the Cadillac of spreadsheets,” or leaves her phone light on because people are afraid to correct her since she would rather fight than listen. Swinton is terrifying in her magenta-stained wig and angry face, the kind of walking pillar of anger you would move away from on the subway because she looks liable to scold you for something. Eventually, Alejandro sticks up for her and stands by her, perhaps a bit out of Stockholm Syndrome, but also because he sees something of himself in her passion and ambition. He’s drawn to her combative spirit and understands her in a way few others do. In contrast, narrator Isabella Rosselini appears only in voice, calmly recounting Alejandro’s quest as her own bemused storyteller self, softening Elizabeth’s cutting remarks with exposition. 

Alejandro’s mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra from Sebastián Silva’s “The Maid”), appears as a soothing presence in his life, giving him everything he wanted when he was a child and rooting for him from afar when he’s moved away as an adult. It’s a reality many parents and children share, but Dolores and Alejandro also share a creative connection. She introduced him to fantastical designs, and when she’s worried about him, she finds it hard to sculpt. This seems like an homage to Torres’ real mother, who as an architect and a fashion designer, has also influenced him. 

Design and playful colors are crucial ingredients to the whimsical feel of “Problemista,” which also draws elements from surrealistic classics like Jacques Tati’s “PlayTime” and Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” Torres imagines a world where immigrants are racing against an hourglass to stay in this country or fade away once they’re no longer legally allowed to remain, a metaphysical world where he’s stuck in a neverending escape room to resolve his visa issues, or trapped in a messy web of a Craigslist genie who offers suspect job listings among Ikea bookcases and unwanted gym equipment. “Problemista” is the latest evolution in Torres’ offbeat comedy; it rewards those who know what came before it (“My Favorite Shapes,” “Los Espookys”), but it is not closed off to those who haven’t kept up with all of the in-jokes. It helps to be open to the whimsy, the silly, and the creative essence of “Problemista,” or face Elizabeth’s wrath with no source of joy for reprieve.

Problemista movie poster

Problemista (2024)

104 minutes

Cast

Julio Torresas Alejandro

Tilda Swintonas Elizabeth

Isabella Rossellinias Narrator

RZAas Bobby

James Scullyas Bingham

Greta Leeas Dalia

Director

  • Julio Torres

Writer

  • Julio Torres

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