VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

February 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Dan Gilroy has distinct ideas on how to make his movie stand out from the cluttered maze of Netflix: give elitists a violent comeuppance, and allow Jake Gyllenhaal the freedom to take his character over the top. Not only has Mr. Gilroy reunited with Mr. Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, his leads from the excellent NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), but he has also assembled a deep and terrific ensemble of actors who understand exactly how to present the material … even if some viewers will be confused, startled, or unimpressed.

What begins as a parody of the highfalutin contemporary art world, slowly transforms into a satirical-supernatural-horror film that judges severely those who drive the profit train by peddling art. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the flamboyant art critic who possesses God-like abilities to make or break an artist with the words he chooses for his reviews. His work often intersects with Rhodora Haze (Ms. Russo), who runs the largest gallery in the city. She was once part of a punk rock band (from which the film takes its title), and now she lives to cash in on the work of others. As she so eloquently describes, she has moved “from anarchist to purveyor of good taste”. Other players include Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) as Rhodora’s competitor, Gretchen (Toni Collette) as an agent, Bryson (Billy Magnussen) as a whip smart handyman, Coco (Natalia Dyer) as a Midwestern girl trying to make it in the big city, Piers (John Malkovich) as a blocked artist who regrets quitting drinking, Damrish (Daveed Diggs) as an up and coming artist, and Josephina (Zawe Ashton) as Rhodora’s ambitious assistant.

The story shifts tone when Josephina discovers the artwork left behind when her reclusive elderly neighbor Mr. Dease dies suddenly. Dease is unknown as an artist and was in the process of destroying his life’s work when he died … he wanted no part of the art world, other than creating his own work. Josephina seizes on this opportunity and works with Rhodora in representing the work of this “hot” artist. As the work is monetized, the supernatural forces take over – often in quite violent ways. The players are so focused on how to capitalize on the work, it takes them an inordinate amount of time to realize evil forces are afoot. No one escapes scrutiny: artists, critics, agents, or collectors.

In cinema, if you choose to go bat**** crazy, it’s best to not hold back. Gyllenhaal plays Mort full tilt and he’s immensely fun to watch. The extraordinary ensemble cast benefits from some unusual and vivid imagery supported by expert cinematography from Oscar winner Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD). It’s rare for so much social commentary to be included in a project that could easily be compared to a teen slasher. There is some excellent dark humor, though maybe not quite enough, and two art exhibits in particular are memorable: Hoboman, and the Sphere. There are some clear cut groups of people in the film: the hot youngsters (Josephina, Dondon, Damrish) vs. the establishment (Mort, Rhodora, Piers) vs. misguided wannabes (Gretchen, Coco, Bryson). No matter their approach, one of the messages shines through – artists invest their soul into their work and that often stands in direct conflict with the other side of money and commerce. We can be a bit forgiving the film’s faults given the ambitious nature of the project; just be cautious of the monkeys in the mirror.

available on Netflix

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ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017)

November 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Denzel Washington is one of our most iconic actors and he’s put together a remarkable career, including 8 Oscar nominations and two wins. He’s had his Al Pacino SCARFACE comparable with TRAINING DAY, his Robert DeNiro GOODFELLAS comparable with AMERICAN GANGSTER, and here he gets his Dustin Hoffman RAIN MAN as he plays the titular Roman J. Israel, Esquire. It’s a role that lacks Denzel’s usual cool factor, but it’s one in which he dives head first.

‘Esquire’ rates “above gentleman, but below Knight” as described by Roman. He has spent more than 30 years as the wizard behind the curtain of a two man law firm run by his mentor and partner William “Bulldog” Jackson. We never really meet Mr. Jackson, as circumstances force the closing of the firm and shove an uncomfortable-with-change Roman into the high profile and high dollar firm run by George Pierce. Mr. Pierce is played by a strutting Colin Farrell – and no actor peacocks better than he.

It’s here we must note that Roman appears to have a touch of Asperger’s and/or be some type of legal Savant. He’s kind of a Dr. Gregory House for the legal profession – remarkable on the details, while lacking in the delivery. His long held idealism and belief system were in fine form while he was the back office guy, but Pierce forces him into the front lines and it’s a bumpy transition with sometimes comic and sometimes tragic results.

The film bookends with Roman crafting a legal brief, that while somewhat convoluted, is actually more of a confession, with himself as both plaintiff and defendant. Much of the film focuses on Roman’s idealism and revolutionary beliefs, and what happens when that crumbles. There is an odd quasi-love interest with Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA). We never really grasp why she is so taken by him, other than his seemingly solid belief system reminds her that a mission of goodness and justice is always worth fighting for.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy is one of the quiet secret weapons in Hollywood these days. His last project was the terrific NIGHTCRAWLER, and he’s also written the screenplays for this year’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and one of my favorites from 2006, THE FALL. Here he teams with Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) to deliver a stylish look that feels unique to the story and characters … the frumpy look of Roman, the ultra-slick look of Pierce, and the various textures of the city. It’s really something to behold – especially when accompanied by Roman’s ringtone of Eddie Kendrick’s “Keep on Truckin’”. A couple of cast members worth mentioning: for you NBA fans, Sedale Threat Jr (son of the long time player), and simply for catching my eye in the closing credits, an actor named Just N. Time. There is plenty to discuss after this one, but mostly it’s a chance to watch Denzel chew scenery.

watch the trailer:


NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)

November 1, 2014

nightcrawler Greetings again from the darkness. Many of us still catch ourselves asking “Why is this news?” while watching the local newscasts. We ask this despite knowing sensationalist journalism is the way of the world, and writer/director Dan Gilroy reminds us (in a rare comedy-thriller) … if it bleeds, it leads.

Jake Gyllenhaal continues his progression as one of the most fascinating actors working today. Here he plays Lou Bloom, a fast-talking, self-help studying, ultra-charming sociopath, with creepy bug eyes (thanks to a 20-25 lb weight loss) and an even creepier grin. Mr Gyllenhaal nails the role in a way that reminds of Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (Robert DeNiro was 33 at the time – the same age as Jake now).

Three other movies came to mind while watching this: Network (the lack of a conscience approach to ratings), Drive (the stylistic camera work and loner lead character), and Body Double (a fascinating Brian DePalma film from years ago). Rene Russo is the veteran news woman who encourages and enables the Bloom character to use his “good eye” to pursue the money shots … defined as anything that strikes fear into the suburban world.

Gyllenhaal is all in for his role as Bloom. Nightcrawling is the label given to stringers (private cameramen) who compete for the video that will lead the newscasts. Bloom’s google-based training has turned him into a Tony Robbins type who blows through dialogue at a speed every bit as fast as he drives his red Dodge Challenger to the next tragedy. Bloom is the epitome of charm in the wrong hands. Think Ted Bundy with a camera. While Bundy actually committed the murders, Bloom blurs the line between recorder of history and influencing the criminal action. He also delivers one of the first on screen ‘chasing a car chase’ scenes.

This is Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, though he has written over films, including The Bourne Legacy, which was directed by his brother Tony. Dan also wrote my of my favorite rarely seen films entitled The Fall (2006). Dan Gilroy is married to Rene Russo, and her calm, yet equally sleazy, presence works well with the quirky, in-your-face Gyllenhaal character. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (known for his work with Paul Thomas Anderson) beautifully captures the nighttime energy of Los Angeles, as well as the brutal and savage crime scenes.

Gyllenhaal is the real deal here, and somehow makes this frightening monster believable as a guy who could walk amongst us every day (or night). Early on in the film, his character is asking for a job and spouts off a line that includes a bit about being “raised in the self-esteem movement so popular in schools“. It’s our first glimpse of his psychosis which is also grounded in reality.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see the extremely rare comedy-thriller OR you want to see Jake Gyllenhaal’s wildest performance yet

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the actual nightly news is creepy enough for you … no need to see how it could be even worse

watch the trailer: