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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JOURNEY’S END (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. R.C. Sheriff wrote this 1928 play based on his experience as a British Army officer in WWI. The play’s successful two year run led to a 1930 big screen adaptation directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive – two legends of cinema who also collaborated on FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Now, exactly 100 years after “the Spring Offensive”, director Saul Dibb (THE DUCHESS, 2008) delivers screenwriter Simon Reade’s version of Sheriff’s story and a tribute to those who served in the Great War.

It’s the Spring of 1918 and a stalemate in the trenches of Northern France has occurred during the fourth year of the war. Fresh from training, a baby-faced Lieutenant named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, HUGO) is assigned to a front line unit whose commanding officer is his former school mate, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claffin, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY). The others in the unit include Trotter (Stephen Graham), who eats and talks incessantly to mask his anxiety; Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who suffers from shell-shock; Mason (Toby Jones), the cook who brings subtle comedy relief: and Osborne (Paul Bettany), the heart and soul of the team.

Slowly cracking under the untenable pressure is Captain Stanhope. His coping method involves a problem with whiskey which drives his raging temper. That temper masks a not-so-obvious commitment to his men … men who walk on eggshells around him. Most of the movie takes place in the dugout over 6 days, and though the soldiers spend much time in a holding pattern, the battle sequences involve an ill-planned surprise attack on a nearby German hold, and of course, the famous battle that kicks off the Spring Offensive – a 3 month run that cost the lives of more than 700,000 from both sides.

With military orders such as “hold them off for as long as you can”, this is no romanticizing of war. Bravery and courage in the face of likely death are balanced with overwhelming human emotions. Confusion and disorientation abound as bombs explode in an environment that offers no place to hide or escape. The war ended later that year on November 11, and trench warfare would never again be the predominant strategy.

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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)

May 8, 2015

far from Greetings again from the darkness. If you have read Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel or seen director John Schlesinger’s 1967 (and far more energetic) screen adaption starring Julie Christie, or even if you are a High School Literature student with the novel on your summer reading list, you will probably be interested in this more modern-day thinking approach from director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt). It’s more modern not in look, but rather in the feminist perspective of Bathsheba Everdene (one of my favorite literary character names).

Carey Mulligan plays Ms. Everdene, and she is exceedingly independent and ambitious for the time period, while simultaneously being attractive in a more timeless manner. This rare combination results in three quite different suitors. She first meets sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone), who is smitten with her spunk, and he proposes by offering her way out of poverty. She declines and the next time they cross paths, the tables have turned as she has inherited a farm and he has lost everything due to an untrained sheep dog. Next up is a proposal from a socially awkward, but highly successful neighborhood farmer. Michael Sheen plays William Boldwood, who is clueless in his courting skills, but understands that combining their farms would be a make-sense partnership. The third gent is Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a master of seduction by sword. She is sucked in by Troy’s element of danger, unaware of his recent wedding gone awry to local gal Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple).

As with most literary classics … and in fact, most books … the screen adaptation loses the detail and character development that make the book version so enjoyable. Still, we understand the essence of the main characters, and the actors each bring their own flavor to these roles. The story has always been first and foremost a study in persistence, and now director Vinterberg and Mulligan explore the modern day challenges faced by women in selecting a mate: slow and steady, financially set, or exciting and on edge. In simpler language, should she follow her head, wallet or heart?

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