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

watch the trailer:

 


THE INTERN (2015)

September 24, 2015

intern Greetings again from the darkness. A feel-good mainstream movie featuring two big time movie stars will likely have box office success and cause a lot of people to laugh out loud. In other words, the latest from writer/director Nancy Meyers should be celebrated for its entertainment value, rather than picked apart by film critics. Ok, I’ll give it a try.

Robert DeNiro stars as Ben Whittaker, a retired 70 year old widower, who just can’t seem to find meaning in hobbies and the leisure life. He applies and is selected for the “Senior Intern” program at About the Fit, a fast-growing online clothing company run by its founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). In addition to being a Type A driven and obsessed-with-details company leader (the type that rides her bike through the office to save time), Jules also has a husband, a young daughter and a fabulous brownstone. What she doesn’t have is enough sleep, any friends, or enough time to enjoy any of the good stuff.  You aren’t alone if a buddy flick with DeNiro and Hathaway seems unusual to you.

At the same time Ben arrives on the scene, Jules is struggling with her investors’ decision to hire a more experienced CEO so that the company can maintain its phenomenal growth. That’s about as deep as the business talk ever gets (but just try to keep track of all the Apple product placements). Jules initially spurns Ben, but of course, he soon becomes invaluable around the office, and while blinking his eyes, becomes her most valued confidant and adviser.

Much of the comedy is derived from Ben’s interactions with the young employees. It’s quite simply a ‘generation gap comedy’ that makes all the points it needs to make without really breaking a sweat: senior citizens are a wealth of knowledge and can bring value to an organization or relationship, young people can learn from elders (it’s OK to shave everyday and dress for success) … and vice versa (computers are our friend), there still exists some animosity between stay at home moms and working moms, stay at home dads face challenges of their own, running a company is hard work both physically and mentally, communication often requires more than a text or email, and staying true to one’s self is not always easy.

Ms. Meyers has brought us other mainstream films such as It’s Complicated (2009) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003), and she has a feel for presenting the upper-middle class as a punchline for the masses. She likes showing successful people in uncomfortable situations … leaning heavy on awkward, while avoiding dangerous altogether. Her latest is a feel good movie that makes you laugh, without causing you to think about anything in your life that might bring you down. And there is real value in that.

Ok, I tried, but there are some things that must be pointed out. There was so much of Ms. Meyers’ script that was begging to be pushed to the edge and analyzed from a societal aspect. Her specialty is rounding off the corners so that no one gets hurt, and because of that the film is bereft of conflict … the single most important element for a meaningful scene. For example, the conflict between Jules and her husband occurs in a hotel room, which would be fine except … only one of them is there!  Also, we never really get any of the story from Ben’s perspective. Instead, we are just to believe that his Gandhi-like influence on co-workers is the only reward he seeks. I also found myself bothered a bit in the quick glimpse we get into Ben’s personal life. He blows off the advances of Linda Lavin and pursues Rene Russo … understandable, but a bit off-putting given that this female writer chose to have him hook up with the 11 years younger character, rather than the one closer to his own age.  There are many other similar type issues that warrant discussion, but that’s why it’s best to just sit back and enjoy this one, rather than asking “what if?”

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:

 

 


THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

November 12, 2013

thor3 Greetings again from the darkness. While this is the second Thor movie, we feel a bit more familiar with the Norse God thanks to The Avengers. It’s not surprising that Chris Hemsworth can hold his own with the character given his looks and physicality, but this time he gets a run for his money thanks to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. (not my favorite part of the first one).

The film’s official villain is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who rules the Dark Elves and is trying to re-capture the all-powerful Aether, a substance of infinite energy. But the whole battle for the 9 realms is really just a sideline to Thor vs Loki, and Thor’s touch of humanity and eye for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Most of the key characters are back: Anthony Hopkins as Odin (even more over the top this time), Rene Russo (Thor’s mom), Ray thor2Stevenson as Volstagg, Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Kat Dennings (Darcy), and Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig).

This sequel is kind of interesting to analyze. It’s certainly bigger than the original … the special effects are huge and much improved. Light comic moments abound, but luckily the snark from Kat Dennings is minimal. Chris O’Dowd shows up for a couple of pretty funny, but slightly out of place scenes. There are a couple of cameos including an off-beat appearance by one of the The Avengers. Rene Russo even gets her own sword fight! Though it matters not to me, I assume there are many who would choose a Skarsgard other than Stellan to run around Stonehenge sans clothes. So while it has all of that going for it, the story often fails at engaging the audience.

thor4 This one is directed by Alan Taylor, who is quite a successful TV director, and there was clearly some upfront concern over the script as Joss Whedon was brought in for scene doctoring. I believe what we learn is that the fish out of water story works when Thor is on Earth, but it loses impact when Jane Foster visits Asgard. Still, Tom Hiddleston is such fun to watch as Loki, that none of that really matters.

It’s a superhero movie that will entertain the fans and provide plenty of ammunition for the critics looking to bash. If you see it in the theatre, you should know to stay for BOTH post-movie scenes. A rare Benecio Del Toro sighting makes it worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of the Marvel comics and the corresponding films … and know that there are many more to come!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are rational human being unwilling to spend time on the superhero fantasy world.  Just know that there are many more to come!

***SPOILER ALERT***

If you are interested in the Benecio Del Toro character, then continue reading.  If you prefer to be surprised, then please stop reading now.

Del Toro plays The Collector in the final scene.  Expect an expanded role for Guardians of the Galaxy.  The Collector is millions of years old and is a pre-Cognitive (he sees the future).  He collects items and beings of real power.  At the end of Thor: The Dark World, he takes possession of Aether and states “One down, five to go“. There are six gems of color in this universe and possession brings ultimate power.  Expect more to come in future Marvel films.


THOR

May 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Upfront admission: I am not a Thor comic book expert. Many people are and I fully appreciate their take on this film will be much different from mine. I can only judge this movie on the basic background knowledge I have and the final product on the screen.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Chris Hemsworth makes a terrific Thor. If I had his looks and build, I would certainly consider myself a Nordic God. Heck, I might even carry around a giant hammer just for fun! Thor, son of Odin, is all set to be named King of Asgard until his quick temper and love of battle cause a break in the peace accord with the Frost Giants. His dad, Odin, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins is none too pleased with his hot-headed son. Not only does he renege on the promise to name him King, but he strips his power and casts him down to Earth … specifically New Mexico. For some reason, all alien portals lead to New Mexico. You can tell it’s a been a bad day for Thor because he lands in the middle of nowhere and is promptly run over by a science lab van driven by Natalie Portman.

 Other good stuff: Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper, is excellent; there is a cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye – a teaser for The Avengers movie next year; Jaimie Alexander shows some chops as Sif; Clark Gregg is back as Agent Coulson; some of the special effects are pretty cool … the Frost Giants are very detailed and The Destroyer looks like Iron Man on metallic steroids; and lastly, Kat Dennings has a couple of sharp lines as Portman’s assistant. Ms. Dennings was superb in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

 OK, the not so good stuff: I am beginning to despise 3-D (it adds nothing, while diminishing the brightness of colors); Jotunheim (land of the Frost Giants) is plain, gray and boring; Natalie Portman, fresh off an Oscar is just terrible as an astro-physicist with a teenager-style crush on Thor; Tom Hiddleston as Loki is one of the weakest villains I have ever seen in a super-hero/comic book movie; Rene Russo must not have read the script prior to accepting her role – she has about 3 lines and is totally wasted.

Despite the weaknesses, I found the movie to be entertaining enough thanks to the scenes with Thor and Odin. The ambitious son being shown tough love by his father is a missing element in much of society today. Guess it takes a Nordic God to show us how. The scenes with Portman are painful to watch, but I believe there is enough to keep the comic book fans, and just about anyone else, entertained.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who is best known for his Shakespeare and stage work, the movie does have a little different look and feel from the average superhero movie. Still, I wouldn’t put it in the class of Batman, Spider-man, or Iron Man. We do get the expected Stan Lee cameo and the end-of-the-credits appearance of Samuel L Jackson. Up next, Captain America but for now, it’s Hammer time!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Thor comic books OR you just want to see what a shirtless Nordic God would look like OR you want to see a challenge to Elisabeth Shue in The Saint as the most miscast scientist (Ms. Portman)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the dialogue and story to make sense OR you prefer to remember Natalie Portman as the fine actress she was in Black Swan.