Velvet Buzzsaw

Release: Friday, February 1, 2019 (Netflix) 

→Netflix

Written by: Dan Gilroy

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Beauty is in the eye of the soon-to-be-murdered in Velvet Buzzsaw, the new film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, who made his mark back in 2014 with the sensationally gripping Nightcrawler. His third directorial feature following 2017’s collaboration with Denzel Washington on Roman J. Israel, Esq., Velvet Buzzsaw is an apt title for a movie that leans fully into creative madness.

Gilroy’s latest is advertised as a mashup of horror and dark comedy, something that makes it immediately stand out from his previous genre-specific efforts — Nightcrawler a distinctive thriller and Roman J. Israel, Esq. firmly a legal drama. What also makes it stand out is its unapologetic strangeness. As you are no doubt aware by now, Velvet Buzzsaw is the movie where people get killed by artwork. But these are no ordinary schmucks who can’t tell a Renoir from a damn Monet. These are art profiteers who slowly get seduced and then offed by the very works they try to profit from — paintings whose fictional, beyond-tortured artist Vetril Dease seemingly imbued them with a strange and haunting power. As the story progresses, events only become more outlandish — so much so you’re all but compelled to disregard the horror part of the label and embrace the comedy inherent in all the (occasionally bloody) wackiness.

The art of the satire stems from a real-world experience Gilroy had back in the 1990s when he devoted significant time developing a screenplay for a Warner Bros. project called Superman Lives. It was set to star Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent. Try to digest that for a minute. Burp it back up if you need to. Unfortunately for anyone drawn to the image of Nic “Crazy Face” Cage donning the cape and tights they will never get the satisfaction as the studio shut down the project over budgetary concerns. That frustration informs the thematic core of Velvet Buzzsaw, a scathing criticism of the modern L.A. art scene and those who are only in the game because of the money.

The film is set in an alien environment of esoteric taste, haughty opinion and generally unpleasant personality and follows multiple perspectives through a tangled web of relationships, from rivaling art gallery owners — Rene Russo’s icy Rhodora Haze and Tom Sturridge’s creepy, conniving Jon Dondon — to influential outsiders like art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal, reuniting with Russo from Nightcrawler) who has the power to not only sway pricing but as well make or break careers. At the ground floor you get contrast in artistic philosophies in Piers (an unfamiliarly sympathetic John Malkovich), an old-schooler struggling to find inspiration versus Damrish (Daveed Diggs), a hot new street artist reticent to display his work in a gallery. Keep an eye out for rogue players like Gretchen (Toni Collette), an art curator and close friend of Morf’s, who is also itching to make a big career move, as well as the highfalutin Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s frequently under-appreciated assistant, and an art installer named Bryson (Billy Magnussen) with an agenda of his own.

Granted, that is a long list of characters to keep track of. The good news is that we aren’t meant to form an emotional attachment to these creatures. Natalia Dyer’s character, a meek and mild-mannered Haze Gallery intern named Coco, is an exception. As someone rather out of place in this world — she hails from the East Coast and doesn’t seem to have much of an artistic inclination other than balancing multiple Starbucks cups on her daily coffee run — she is best positioned as an audience surrogate. By virtue of how frequently she stumbles upon the gruesome aftermath of paintings come to life, Coco gives us the key to enjoyment here. Go with the flow, absorb the imagery but don’t get too close.

Almost everyone else is disposable, many of them in a literal sense. These are near parodies of people who pontificate over artistic merit for a living. With a couple of exceptions these characters are either completely self-absorbed or cutthroat opportunists, finalists for the old “I can’t wait to see who goes down first” competition. The way they go down certainly makes Velvet Buzzsaw visually pop and feel edgy, while Gilroy’s screenplay, dripping with foreshadowing and cliché-riddled dialogue, tend to align the production with something decidedly more mainstream and predictable.

It’s a frustrating experience because as the film careens towards the absurd it delivers on its promise of comeuppance and in so doing entertains in a strange, almost perverse way. At the same time Gilroy gets so loosey-goosey with his direction the critique itself threatens to lose all meaning. The domino effect of bodies dropping ends up feeling like a gimmick after so many instances, yet undeniably the art of the kill is something to behold. And if this nobody blogger is taking note of some sloppiness, I can only imagine what Morf would do.

“Who are you to judge me?”

Recommendation: How you respond to Velvet Buzzsaw I think really depends on how you interpret the tone. I found it far more funny, albeit darkly satirical, than it was horrifying. Though I did find a few elements that were horrific, like the aftermath of The Sphere sequence and Toni Colette’s hairpiece. Either way you look at it, the premise is pretty out there — but that’s something I’d rather have than a formulaic/half-cooked Netflix Original. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “These are heinous.”

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Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

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Release: Friday, October 14, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

If you have never heard of Cai Guo-Qiang, you are primed for a transcendent experience in Sky Ladder, a Netflix exclusive that delves into the personal and professional life of this blisteringly original Chinese contemporary artist.

In this quietly unassuming but bold and visually-oriented documentary from Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland; Touching the Void) we’re introduced to a modern Picasso, a visionary who expresses himself on the largest scales imaginable, through pyrotechnics and gunpowder. Across the world he has bathed cities in the light of his colorful, provocative works — the Illumination project in Berlin; the opening of his Ninth Wave exhibit in Tokyo; the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing; a message of peace and unity in a post-9/11 New York — and though the film is ultimately concerned with the artist’s fourth and most recent attempt to realize the most elaborate and challenging project of his career, the Sky Ladder, it finds time to showcase many of his other elaborate works along the way.

While tracking the progress of Guo-Qiang’s looming super-project in the present tense, Macdonald reaches back into the past, giving the artist plenty of room to breathe so he feels comfortable sharing his experiences growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Guo-Qiang is every bit the intellectual his exotic displays of organized chaos suggest he might be (and every bit the kind of creative free thinker Mao Zedong wished to eliminate under his regime), but more importantly he’s a man who has traveled a long and weary road. Not only is he a deep thinker and among the marquee names that have helped increase the visibility of modern Chinese artists, but the man is also easily relatable. He is a devout family man, willingly sharing his stories with his eldest daughter. Later we see him making a visit to his father, who has been stricken with a serious illness. The Sky Ladder project is also dedicated to his late grandmother, who died a month after watching it come into fruition in June of 2015. She was 100 years old.

Macdonald balances elements with a deft hand, making sure the creation around the creator doesn’t become preoccupied with the way it presents itself. This is a quietly profound story dealing in complex themes like Chinese culture, philosophy and government censorship whose framework stays on just the right side of simplistic. After all, Macdonald needn’t have slaved over finding ways to spice up the material. Guo-Qiang’s canvas — typically metropolitan skylines — does the work for him. His explosion projects punctuate the narrative with bursts of revitalizing energy as we sift through all of the elements that have come together in just the right way for the man to make a living out of blowing things up.

And yeah, about that . . . why explosions? Some context might be helpful: gunpowder, thought to have been discovered by 8th Century Taoists in search of immortality, was identified by the Chinese as the earliest chemical explosive (“fire magic”) before Europe and eventually the rest of the world began to fully realize its potential utility. We’re all familiar with its most common usage. Guo-Qiang explains how growing up in the Fujian province of Quanzhou led to his fascination with the stuff. Gunpowder in China has many practical uses, be they celebratory or otherwise. He noticed that its combustible properties could be channeled into positive forms of self-expression; to him the possibility of creation was just as readily apparent as that of destruction. These epiphanies would alter the course of his personal and professional life forever. Where he once followed in the footsteps of his father, a calligraphist and painter of some note, Guo-Qiang would soon start blazing a path all his own.

There are a great many reasons to get into this documentary. Firstly, it will require no more than 76 minutes of your time. I’ll say it again, too: this is a sensory experience to the point where the account feels more cinematic than journalistic (one can only imagine what this would have been like to watch on the big screen). Sky Ladder is not only a great escape into the wonders of modern art, it’s also an education. This is the epitome of redefining what art is and what it can be. The caveat to his form is its temporariness. Given that fireworks never seem to last long enough, the amount of resources and energy he pools into realizing these often fleeting visual spectacles tends to boggle the mind.

To top it all off, there’s a strong psychological component to the way his live shows and the grander scope of the narrative coalesce. For Guo-Qiang, many of the barriers he has had to overcome in his life have been political. It’s a shame, if entirely unsurprising, that we learn not everyone has been so eager to embrace him as a god among men. His form is entirely dramatic and can’t be packaged in traditional museums. Perhaps it’s enough to say that if, like me, your experience with “explosion projects” is more or less limited to your local Fourth of July displays, you absolutely owe it to yourself to discover what this uniquely hypnotic, visual feast has in store for you.

Recommendation: Must-see documentary for the artistically minded. (And even those just looking for “something cool to watch on Netflix.”) Incredible displays of immense complexity, color, power, emotion and originality. I have never seen anything like this before. Interested in more? I recommend visiting Mr. Guo-Qiang’s official site here

Rated: NR

Running Time: 76 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.upperplayground.com 

Love

'Love' movie poster NSFW

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gaspar Noé

Directed by: Gaspar Noé

French-Argentinian Gaspar Noé has chosen to follow up his “psychedelic melodrama” Enter the Void with a graphic examination of relationships driven by lust and jealousy, and while it is a warmer film than his previous effortsLove is a far cry from feel-good and offers its own set of challenges. Owed in part to Noé’s fascination with close-ups of body parts — genitals in particular — the film finds the controversial director again exploiting extremes in his quest to understand what exactly love is and what it does to us.

The good news is that Noé gives viewers, the morbidly curious or otherwise, an easy out: the opening frame leaves little doubt as to what you have to look forward to over the next two plus hours (as if the posters don’t). While it is reductive to label Love‘s no-holds-barred depiction of sexual intimacy as pornographic — there’s much to be said about the purpose of these sex scenes versus those created in an industry that’s only interested in form and not function — offhand comments about this being a movie for fetishists I can at least understand as the number of scenes that indulge in excess is in itself excessive.

Centering around Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American ex-pat in Paris studying to become a filmmaker, Love features a brutally nonlinear narrative that intertwines his past and present relationships, making for a rather disorienting, disjointed watch that is on more than one occasion difficult to commit to. Murphy claims to aspire to making films that celebrate our baser instincts but all he really seems to ever accomplish is finding ways to have more intense sex with his nutcase girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock). This isn’t the girl we first see him with, however.

We first meet Murphy awakening in an apartment he likens to a prison cell ever since his new girlfriend Omi (Klara Kristin) moved in. This is the girl he now has a child with, but she’s not the one he ‘cares’ about. His drug-addled existence is explored in a meditative, if not meandering story that measures his loss of self-control (and by extent, happiness) by showing us the various stages of both relationships, the latter originating after a night in which Murphy and Electra’s ultimate fantasy is finally realized. Two years after their break-up, when he gets a phone call from her mother telling him Electra has disappeared, Murphy finds himself cast back into the throes of regret. Consequently we’re sucked into his mind, where we’re subjected to a maze of flashbacks intended to demonstrate the unreliability of memory.

In Noé’s neon-tinged world, sex manifests itself both thematically and in the way the narrative expands to encapsulate the life cycle of a relationship, atypical as it may be. The numerous bedroom scenes aren’t created just to rile up audiences, even if stimulation or repulsion is an inevitability. While several scenes carry more than a whiff of misogyny and are shot with a masculine power that’s hard to ignore, aggression also stems from Electra who asks her lover to go to some very dark places in order to please her. Tone plays a huge role in how we perceive the lovemaking. Turns out, both individuals are as depraved as the other. (I don’t know if ‘depraved’ shows some lack of sensitivity on my part but I tend to draw the line where I’m forced to watch people receiving fellatio from transvestites.)

On the matter of Love‘s themes: Noé relies heavily on sexuality and sexual aggression as a means of contrasting cultures — Paris is, after all, the city of love and he thrusts an American into this whirlwind of flesh and fantasy fulfillment. It’s not exactly an exhaustive approach; for as much sex as this movie contains the romance you expect to see surrounding a couple so infatuated with one another is surprisingly sparse, save for a fleeting scene that finds the couple meeting for the first time in public — Murphy playfully chastising Electra for not having seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, his favorite film, and she reciting lines from her favorite Robert Frost poem.

The word of the day certainly seems to be ‘intense,’ for Love is an intensely internalized realization. The majority of the film takes place within Murphy’s memory as he tries desperately to reconcile what he has lost with his current romantic life: “I’m so tired of this bitch.” Whatever happened to Electra? What would have happened to her if she never knew Murphy? Was this fate? Is that oh-so-coveted feeling truly sustainable, for human beings are such selfish creatures.

Unfortunately by the time the shower scene commences we’re entirely unsure of what to think. The film is a test of endurance, not simply due to the content but the glacial pacing that finds its actors shuffling between discreet underground night clubs, the S&M and all of that. Lost in a perpetual haze of lust and thrill-seeking, we’re dared to watch committed acts of unsimulated sex. But Noé isn’t that shallow. There’s more to all of this than masturbatory imagery, though I can’t put my finger on what that is specifically. Maybe that’s the point.

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Recommendation: Love finds Gaspar Noé doing a lot of soul-searching in a decidedly passionate, if muddled, examination of human relationships and what causes them to deteriorate. He is a filmmaker who doesn’t make concessions for the mainstream. Love is an extreme film and it should be approached with caution by anyone who thinks they can handle it. 

Rated: NC-17

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “If you fall in love, you’re the loser.”

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Photo credits: http://www.blogs.indiewire.com; http://www.collider.com 

Woman in Gold

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Release: Wednesday, April 1, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Alexi Kaye Campbell

Directed by: Simon Curtis

For a film trading in the recovery of stolen artwork at the hands of the Nazis Woman in Gold should, without necessarily resorting to graphic depiction, linger in the mind much longer than it’s going to.

Simon Curtis’ suitably respectful tone and ability to extract heartfelt performances from his leads does not make for a product that approaches poor quality, but here is a film that wastes more often than passes time laboring over detail in its over-reliance on flashbacks to set the scene of a contemporary legal battle. The legalities in question revolve around Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (an endearing Helen Mirren) and a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who together bring the Austrian government to court in a bitter dispute over whom some of the nation’s most famed artwork ultimately belong to.

One particular painting by Gustav Klimt, the ‘Woman in Gold’ portrait — so named by the Nazis who took it from her home — of Maria’s aunt Adele is regarded as “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Austria” and is valued at $135 million (this is the price a New York museum buys it for when all is said and done, anyway). This is the piece with which Maria’s ultimate concerns lie. Will the last remnants of her family history remain property of the famed Belvedere Gallery in Vienna or do they belong stateside with her? A large portion of the film is indeed spent in the present (well, in 1998 Los Angeles) focusing on the practicalities of setting up her case. Reynolds is excellent in another mature performance as Maria’s put-upon legal representation. His new job at a major law firm grants him a week to pursue this most unlikely avenue but his boss (Charles Dance) advises him that he ought not to get too invested.

Which of course he absolutely does. His initial impetus for helping out the elderly (and cranky) woman is of a financial nature, which no one can really blame him for. But things change once he has spent said week in Vienna only to have unsuccessfully built a case for Maria to retrieve the art. An Austrian journalist by the name of Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) inexplicably, though conveniently, takes an interest in the case as well, assuring them that not all hope is lost, although in order to pursue further action it’ll cost the pair a fortune in court costs. Thus far investing in the drama is almost as effortless as Mirren makes it look in portraying a woman so historically connected to, yet simultaneously repulsed by this part of the world, and Reynolds is again far removed from his days as a partying, wise-cracking slacker.

One of Woman in Gold‘s strengths is its ability to etch a portrait of human strength using minimally distracting cinematic tricks. The flashbacks are perhaps as ambitious as this film gets. Quite a few moments spent in the 30s serve to heighten the drama and contextualize our first visit to Vienna, a trip Maria initially claims she’d rather die before undertaking. We should have some background on this character, the significance of the artwork as well as the characters of Maria’s opposition. Of course, the fascists hiding in the shadows of the past we need little introduction to.

Unfortunately Curtis overestimates the technique’s effectiveness. After awhile the repetition and reinforcement of Maria’s haunted past cross over into redundant exercises in sentimentality. There are easily ten to 15 minutes that could be removed from his final cut. For a film that clocks in under the two hour mark time moves rather listlessly, save for a harrowing scene that explains just how narrowly Maria and her husband managed to escape the clutches of the Nazis. Woman in Gold is certainly not known for its action sequences, nor should it be, and perhaps it is overly critical to call out its deliberate pacing for this is a narrative that effectively absorbs — particularly hitting upon nostalgia with a marvelously crafted opening scene. Impossible to shake though, is the sense that the film sans a few of the trips down memory lane would have struck a deeper nerve.

This is a potent film all the same. It’s terrifically acted and to their credit the flashback cuts possess an ethereal quality that begets an, ironically enough, simpler era. They counter in an often colder palette the warm yellows and reds of the modern portions. Indeed, cinematography resembles that of a labor of artistic love. Maybe not as elegant as a Klimt, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes and heart all the same.

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3-5Recommendation: The true story of Maria Altmann, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 94, makes for compelling cinema. This is a few shades away from being a truly memorable tale though and could have benefitted from editing and a few sharper scenes. Still, it’s getting ever more exciting watching Ryan Reynolds adapt his skill set and any fan of historical events and Helen Mirren ought not to give this a pass.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “I wasn’t going to miss all of the fun! This is like a James Bond film, and you’re Sean Connery.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Mortdecai

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Release: Friday, January 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Aronson

Directed by: David Koepp

Charlie Mortdecai has a sensitive gag reflex. He endearingly calls it a ‘sympathetic gag.’ After seeing Johnny Depp embrace an entirely new level of bizarre here, I’m pretty sure I’ve developed something similar, except mine’s not out of sympathy. I’m genuinely disgusted by how bad this movie is.

If like me at my apparently most vulnerable you were unfortunate enough to stumble into a theater only to have Johnny Depp harass your sense of humor and goodwill for slightly more than an hour and a half, you might agree that there is a huge difference between the gags featured in decent comedies and the ones provided here. Two types of gags activating two completely different parts of your body.

The apple of Charlie’s eye, his so-called great love Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), gags in the film because she is taken aback by her man’s interest in sprouting hair on his upper lip. A fashion faux pas at the very least, the mustache might be the funniest bit of the entire film. Mortdecai is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. If anyone’s in need of an explanation as to why I would willingly put myself through something that sounds this bad, I need only to refer you to some of the media I have included with this review. I hardly gag in response to a mustachioed Olivia Munn. No siree. Nope.

A plot synopsis is as follows: Depp aims to get to the bottom of the theft of a particular Goya painting, or something or other. As a man who dabbles in more than just facial hair and beautiful women, his character caricature is both financially and personally invested in the stolen art. His recent coming into debt compels him to find it, as does a recent visit from Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor, the poor chap), a man who has had a thing for Johanna ever since he first laid eyes on her. (When she’s saddled with a douchebag of Mortdecai’s stature, who can blame him?) Together, the art snobs and Constable Can’t Get Any travel the world over to locate the missing Goya, thought to bear a code somewhere on it potentially leading to a stash of untold amounts of Nazi gold.

The prime suspect is — well, it doesn’t matter who that is. Essentially everyone’s a suspect, even Mortdecai but after he’s kidnapped by Russian mobsters and his very ability to reproduce is threatened in no small way — how about some electrocuted bollocks to go along with this heaping helping of what the fuck? — it’s clear that Mortdecai, in spite of himself, hasn’t actually taken the precious artwork for himself. Jock will back him up on that, too. Jock (Paul Bettany), referred to as Mortdecai’s man-servant no less than 70 million times because repeating already lame jokes always seems to do the trick with audiences, is a good bloke despite his zipper problems. That he’s always got Charlie’s back takes precedence over his incredible womanizing abilities. Believe it or not, he’s the most likable character of the whole lot. I’m still scratching my head though as to why he signed on for this one.

People are going to be gunning for Depp after this one. That much is certain. But his colorful performance actually triggered some chuckles deep within. Maybe I feel dirty for admitting that. But he’s not the overriding issue with David Koepp’s impossibly dumb movie. The real killing blow is Mortdecai‘s inability to realize it’s potential. Or to even care about it! It can’t take itself seriously for even one second. Majority of the gags do not land, save for the physical ones that land on the floor; the characters are off-the-map ridiculous (Olivia Munn as a nymphomaniac — makes sense, if you’re going to cast someone that beautiful she may as well be a sex addict too; Jeff Goldblum is in the frame for all of two minutes, but suddenly collapses after being poisoned — I’m not sure if that was in the script or just his subtle way of saying “get me out of this farce”); the humor is too low-brow and monotonous even if occasionally it strikes a nerve. Nothing scatological here, but nothing memorable either.

An adaptation of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s comedy anthology, Don’t Point That Thing At Me, this movie is elegant in its failings. It’s difficult to imagine this squeezes out any of the zest of that book series. Unfortunately this is a production so feeble in its construction and so ill-advised in its overwhelming inanity it’s highly unlikely I’ll get around to checking out the source material. For higher-quality entertainment, you’d be better off getting your balls zapped by some angry Russians.

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1-0Recommendation: This was pretty bad. I . . . I don’t know if I recommend Mortdecai on any level to anyone outside of those with a penchant for s. (I think that’s what led me into this theater, along with the three other poor saps that were there with me. Here I was, thinking my taste in movies was pretty decent . . . )

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I had no idea I was so deep in Her Majesty’s hole!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com  

Big Eyes

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Release: Christmas Day 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski 

Directed by: Tim Burton

Tim Burton’s latest feels a little on the safe side. Why does that sound like I’m complaining? Shouldn’t the one thing that I ought to be doing right now be praising the director’s efforts for attempting to reach for a new muse? I guess more than anything I’m afraid for Waltz (or Amy Adams for that matter), as I don’t want either of them to end up floating down a chocolate river sometime soon in their careers. That’s a concern that’s as metaphorical as it is literal.

Because you never know with Burton. The next muse he might find could be a tap-dancing lizard. But there is one thing that’s clear about him this time: he’s willing to tone down the weird — or dispense with it completely — if it serves the subject properly. I have time for any artist who is willing to show humility, especially those this far into careers that have thus far worked even moderately well for them. In years past, there hasn’t seemed to have been a great deal of suspense when it came to anticipating (and later experiencing) one of his projects. You know what you are going to get with him, despite not knowing precisely what you are going to be shown on screen. Fine for everyone who has bought into his peculiar brand.

It’s different with Big Eyes. This doesn’t feel like that one thing that has captured another ‘it’ actor in a bubble; mostly that’s due to Christoph Waltz’s inability to be described as such. The man’s talent knows no bounds. Plus, he probably doesn’t want to hang out in a bubble anyway. Adams, the same. And it’s not like this story is so familiar that any sort of contemporary revisitation would become an exercise in embarrassingly transparent superfluity at the corporate level (Dracula: Untold, my big eyes are on you). In a way, Burton ought to be credited for taking something as endearing as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and renovating it so much it’s no longer recognizable to even its most blue-faced fanatics.

Big Eyes concerns the personal and (lack of) professional life of one Margaret Keane (née Peggy Doris Hawkins), a woman who marries an artist she meets on a sun-spackled San Francisco boulevard because he is a bit of a charmer. He also can provide the financial support she and her daughter Jane both desperately need. That same husband would later claim credit for every piece she created while locked away in an attic outfitted as a dingy art studio. That’s no spoiler if you’re familiar with the Keane story. But I’ll keep my big mouth shut when it comes to revealing the manner in which this typically extravagant director goes about solving Margaret’s problems with her increasingly cartoonishly delusional husband. Suffice it to say this is Burton’s most accessible story in years, even if the subject matter might not appeal.

His film truly showcases some gorgeous artwork, and it is within these delicate frames — portraits, typically of children with gaping, vacant eyes standing against drab backgrounds — that some semblance of Burton’s infectious spirit pops out at the viewer. It’s restrained to the point of manifesting as another artist miming his style, but there’s no plagiarism going on here. On occasion Margaret’s dedication to maintaining the lie that she has helped build around herself, purely out of fear of crumbling the family’s financial empire that has gloriously arisen out of it, contributes to her hallucinations of people having actual big eyes. Once more Tim Burton reveals himself but for only brief interludes.

Big Eyes is something to admire, if not for the way it belies Burton’s fascination with the absurd, then for its distancing from it. It’s not the first time Burton has done something besides messing with skeleton-looking. . .thingies. . .for an inspiration but this is probably the furthest he’s been from actually thinking about them in sometime. There’s a profound respect he has for Margaret’s work here that shall not be denied. After all, in the 1990s he did commission the artist to paint a portrait of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie. Hopefully that one hangs right beside an eerie oil-on-canvas of Willy Wonka grinning ear-to-ear, standing directly behind a wide-eyed Charlie Bucket.

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3-0Recommendation: While Big Eyes isn’t the most inspired piece of film you’ll see this year (whoops this was supposed to be posted last year), this is a passionate love letter to the artistic style of Margaret Keane and her ‘big eyes’ portraits. The narrative brims with a potent fascination with the times, the people, and the art itself and it gives weight to both the artist and the husband behind her in equal measure. Waltz and Adams are both spectacular and their performances make this film memorable. Ultimately, this just doesn’t feel like a Tim Burton film, despite his obvious infatuation with Keane’s unique style.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good God, it’s a movement. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

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After throwing out my back last Thursday, I return from some much-needed time off here on TBT. And you know, even after only one week gone here I feel kinda rusty and couldn’t think of something for the longest time to write about. After filtering through several great suggestions on Facebook I’m here to announce those are going to surface VERY soon because the responses I got were numerous (and I haven’t seen any of them, which is a bonus). In the meantime, I’m sure some are going to be surprised to find out what I’ve chosen for 

Today’s food for thought: The Thomas Crown Affair.

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Getting off on ripping off museums since: August 6, 1999

[DVD]

Undoubtedly, some are going to be surprised to see a lack of a certain Steve McQueen here. I know, and while we are on the subject, I may as well get this off my chest right now rather than let it loom over this review at large. I have not seen the original.

Okay, please stop throwing fruit at me.

Thank you.

Sooner rather than later, this issue is going to be resolved. I’m fairly sure I’ll fall in love with the original cast as much as I have this modern one: I mean, come on — a young Faye Dunaway, who happened to appear in this modern touch-up from John McTiernan as well. She assumed the role of Thomas Crown’s psychologist, seen at the beginning trying to assess the current emotional state of a billionaire playboy finding his interest in being able to purchase (or do) anything he so desires on the wane. And of course, then there was Steve McQueen, doing Pierce’s work in 1968. The mischief, back then, was inherent in the name alone.

I can only assume Pierce had to work for it a little bit more here, though he hardly had to break a sweat. As Thomas Crown, he cranked up the sophistication to 11 and kicked up his feet, relaxing into one of the more casual roles of his career. In the midst of his James Bond fame, Brosnan had to have relished getting to chew scenery in a lighthearted crime-caper/romance flick.

Rene Russo reprised Dunaway’s role as a sumptuous insurance investigator who had become involved in the recovery of a precious Monet painting that was lifted in a seemingly random heist at the New York Metropolitan Museum. (There arose another key difference: rather than a museum heist, the old version hinged on a situation involving a Boston bank.) Her insertion into the scene proved simultaneously an amusing foil for the authorities currently working the case — mostly for Denis Leary as a abrasive but ultimately lonely detective heading up the investigation — as well as a worthy adversary of sorts for the brilliantly evasive Thomas Crown.

Director John McTiernan’s jigsaw puzzle may not be as iconic or even half as witty as what might be accomplished in a match-up between the mighty McQueen and the gorgeous Stun-away; however there’s undeniable charm between Brosnan and Russo who tumble headlong into a passionate romance bound for an uncertain, unsafe future together. Or not?

This place is pretty much spoiler-free, so I won’t put too fine a point on that.

But here’s one I can’t avoid mentioning: The Thomas Crown Affair was a great deal of fun. Still is. Between the exotic locales, damn near tantric-levels of heavy-petting, and an unrelenting sense of freedom cultivated through the performances and fluid direction, this film had all the hallmarks of a guilty pleasure. The only knick in this production is once you’ve experienced it the first time, the magic in the trick slightly dissipates. Still, being able to predict what happens next is merely a byproduct of a film that can be watched over time and again. This deviation, this joyride, is certainly worth its weight in gold.

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3-5Recommendation: The Thomas Crown Affair is a great escape for the crime-thriller lover who is not opposed to a little sappy romance here and there. It features solid performances from Brosnan and Russo, whom this reviewer would personally feel more comfortable with being insured by; as well as a sufficiently engaging mystery/adventure plot to justify an hour and forty minutes’ worth of material. This is a film that entices on more than one level. I highly recommend it to anyone a fan of either actor, though it’s just a little odd the director of things like Die Hard and Predator would say yes to something like this.

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

TBTrivia: The idea of unusual heat in the museum rendering thermal cameras useless came from McTiernan’s Predator. In that movie, McTiernan’s actual thermal cameras began to fail when the jungle temperature broke 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.fanpop.com; http://www.movieweb.com

For No Good Reason

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Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

If there’s any good reason to go see For No Good Reason, it’s the chance to see an extended slideshow of some of Ralph Steadman’s more provocative paintings.

Sure, you know who this guy is. His illustrations have probably even made an appearance in your nightmares at some point. Grotesque, emotionally raw and occasionally quite graphic, the splatter-art that has defined a couple of Hunter S. Thompson novels and the subsequent cinematic adaptations thereof has been a phenomenon you can’t quite ignore. The 78-year-old artist is simply too prolific. He has illustrated children’s books almost as much as he has detailed horrific imagery depicting some of the darkest corners of the human heart. While he has at times proven to be the voice of reason, other times he represents chaos and disorder, using his unique style to express deep frustration and even outrage at humanity’s capacity for evil, wrongdoing.

It is possible Steadman and his ideas are perhaps too big to fit into the home video format, which is essentially what For No Good Reason boils down to. His iconic work deserves much more detail and arguably even it’s own, separate film. Set Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets as the soundtrack to a collage of his best work, and you’re set; you have an instant classic on your hands. Neither the subject nor his art belong in a documentary quite as pedestrian as this. Director Charlie Paul and his wife, Lucy, a producer on the film, have good intentions, though, and they clearly revere the man and cherish the time they get to spend with him.

It’s certainly obvious what the film’s narrator — Hunter S. Thompson aficionado and puppeteer Johnny Depp — thinks, too. (Everything presented here is “amazing” to him. . .though he can’t really be faulted for saying the word over and over again, the work really is just that.) Ignoring all of the film’s blandness and a general failure to launch, the argument that the subject matter isn’t treated with respect cannot be made.

Any fan of the artiste or those with a general interest in the collaboration between Steadman and the father of gonzo journalism — a style of writing in which the narrator/author is not only spectator to the events surrounding him, but becomes a part of the drama himself, and writing from a point of view that’s not necessarily objective — will find themselves intrigued as Steadman regales the small camera crew that hangs about in his Kent, England home about a time in his life, something slightly more than a decade, that would prove to be both exciting and critical for his career. Touring the country with the crazed writer after bumping into him at the 1970 Kentucky Derby, Steadman would go on to experience great success as his frequent collaborations with Thompson gave him exposure he likely wouldn’t have received otherwise. In reflecting, Steadman’s nostalgia and passion for those days is palpable and these moments justify some of that ticket price.

But Johnny. . .oh Johnny: “Amazing.”

The documentary also is quite helpful in providing a first-hand account of how Steadman physically sets about creating his work. This is fascinating stuff as well. It could arguably be the main event. What blossoms out of a simple splattering of black paint is likely to leave the mind reeling. During this creative process the intimacy of the home video is actually beneficial. We always feel like we want to get closer to the artist and his canvas, and here we do.

Watching the soft-spoken Steadman go to work feels somewhat like a privilege, but elsewhere the production feels amateurish. The documentary doesn’t assume it’s audience has read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which seems a little counterintuitive since this documentary is all but catered to the fandom thereof. (Well, it’s not. It’s catered to the artwork. But the gonzo journalism-obsessives are likely to comprise the majority of the audience. This is a safe assumption, no?)

Outside of seeing the artist at work, there is not a great deal of payoff. Audiences paying to see this movie ought to have a decent background already on the Thompson-Steadman dynamic, but the Pauls make the mistake of assuming those in attendance haven’t yet accessed these beyond-ridiculous pages, this depraved adventure spewed forth from the collective minds of two men hell-bent on doing drugs and living the ‘American dream,’ as it were. There’s too much exposition and back-tracking, on top of a very awkward use of Depp. There’s a sense that we should all be paying more attention to this Hollywood celebrity more than the subject itself at times.

The film features additional interviews with the likes of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Richard E. Grant (Dracula), and Jann Wenner (Jerry Maguire) but their talking time is limited to unforgettable segments.

For No Good Reason means well, and it required a lot of effort and time to create. Apparently 15 years in the making, the final result unfortunately stoops to treating its audience as if it has deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts. Unless we have been casually sipping on gin and ingesting ether on a somewhat regular basis, there’s simply not enough here to justify a 90-minute production.

GALLERIA 

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illustration for ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury

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‘Earth Belly’

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‘Queen and Alice,’ an illustration for Alice in Wonderland

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2-5Recommendation: Although fans of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalism, and Steadman’s unique art will undoubtedly find something to appreciate about the small window into the man’s life, this rather insignificant documentary ultimately comes off as slapdash, underserving both its subject and target audience by providing redundant information and failing to make proper use of Steadman’s utterly fascinating imagination. There are a few artistic flourishes throughout, but even these feel cheap and tacked-on. Somewhere out there lurks a better version of this film, and the faithful should stay vigilant for whatever that may be.

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “It’s what we’re thinking in the back of our heads, but aren’t capable of getting it out.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.ralphsteadman.com 

Locke

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Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

What’s harder to reconcile — the uncertainty and doubt associated with what the future may or may not hold for you, or acknowledging the truth of what’s happened in your past?

If you don’t find yourself moved by this kind of prying, existential question, a question that you can almost feel digging fingernails into your psyche as this simple narrative unfolds, there’s probably not a great deal something like Steven Knight’s brilliantly conservative Locke can offer you.

For anyone who does find themselves so moved, the film offers even less in the way of comfort. Emotionally hard-hitting and complex, this is a film that mirrors reality so well it’s actually more impressive that any of this is scripted. Presented as something of a road trip adventure infused with a touch of film noir, Locke is entirely caught up in the here-and-now, realizing what’s most important should be the thing that’s made most readily available to the viewer, and has little time or interest in distracting with other subplots or storylines. Indeed, what we get is Hardy’s face, a hands-free cell phone and a beautiful BMW (finally, product placement that isn’t obnoxious) as the key ingredients responsible for doling out the drama.

Tom Hardy plays an esteemed construction foreman who is seen at the film’s open leaving a work site for the evening, knocking wet concrete from his boots before getting into his car and driving away. For the remainder of the film this is where both he and the audience shall be confined — a gauntlet on wheels that comes to spawn a multitude of situations and conversations, all of which are not only believable, but also inconceivable. As the drive continues, Locke’s situation perpetually worsens and in ways that are entirely too convincing, with each successive phone call devolving into another nightmarish battle.

That the film is primarily set in the driver’s seat of a four-door sedan should be enough to make for a compelling indie film reel, but that’s not where the film excels the most. Though this intimacy certainly helps elevate the film, it’s the work that Hardy turns in that separates Locke from other limited-setting movies, and by several mile markers at that.

Hardy is a one-man show, an artist so in the moment time almost seems to come to a stand-still. He imbues his character with the perfect sampling of each human emotion that invariably would surface during a car ride of this magnitude, or during any number of stressful — granted, less intricate and bizarre — situations for that matter. Sure, driving may be the only activity the man takes part in here, but the circumstances surrounding what he’s doing have a kind of gravity that will put a lump in your throat.

Locke is, in a word, defiant, and the more that’s left unsaid about it, the better. Suffice it to say, though, expect a story which refuses to bend to convention, as Ivan refuses to lose sight of his ultimate goal. We, the ever curious — bordering on frustrated — third-party simply must sit perched on the edge of our seats, nervous, as we anticipate each precious little detail as they come spilling forward, either from Hardy’s mouth or from the speakers on the dashboard. The genius in this film is that frustration mounts but it never overwhelms, and that frustration is not the end game. It’s only part of the experience. And there are so many different parts.

An existential drama disguised as a road trip movie, Locke is quite simply one of the most inventive and riveting films you will see this, or any other year. There won’t be many things quite like it.

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5-0Recommendation: An exemplary indie film that is sure to satisfy the art house crowd and Tom Hardy fans in equal measure. See it for a much more nuanced Hardy performance — it’s really quite something comparing this role to his Bane, or something like Charles Bronson. But see it for far more fundamental reasons also: if you appreciate deeply human stories, Locke is one you cannot afford to miss.

Rated: R

Running Time: 84 mins.

Quoted: “Gareth, with all due respect: f**k Chicago.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Tim’s Vermeer

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Release: Friday, January 31, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Tim’s Vermeer is the documentary that does not discriminate. It does not care how far-removed a viewer is from their high school art course, nor about how much the stigma attached to a genre like ‘art documentary’ limits the potential total audience. Despite a title that might suggest something complicated, perhaps even pretentious, it doesn’t have extremely lofty ambitions (other than to expose its ambitious subject), nor the intention of seeking the approval of the artistic world at large. It does, however, aim to be as stimulating as possible to those who lay eyes upon it — and by the ear of Van Gogh, it succeeds!

Behold the story of Texas-based inventor and the most recent example of me being tricked by a Santa Clause look-alike, Tim Jenison. (Not sure if it’s more the facial hair or his general jolly attitude that gets me more confused. Or his ability to magically create and fix things. Really, there are many parallels.)

With only a brief introduction to this endearingly eccentric man, it’s not long before we understand that, while this documentary certainly focuses on his life, it features only a small part of it. Tim is the type who enjoys staying constantly busy, overseeing the operations of NewTek, a software company he himself founded some years back, all while discovering all sorts of obscure projects and puzzles to work on in his spare time. Not to mention, he is a father and husband.

Where we come in is at a point in his life where he’s taken particular interest in the work of Johannes Vermeer, a 17th-Century Dutch painter most known for his ability to create photo-realistic images well before the concept of the camera had been introduced. Tim’s main objective is to attempt to explain how Vermeer was able to produce such stunning beauty and accuracy so early. Did he use technology to guide his vision or did he simply define the term savant? Tim’s focus turns first towards devising a system of mirrors that would allow him to simultaneously paint directly onto canvas underneath a reflected image of his subject. Sort of like tracing, only without lines being in place.

The experiment itself is difficult to explain clearly, but suffice it to say the results it produces are remarkable. Luckily for Tim, his painting skills are more than passable for a supposed first-timer. His ability to pick up on any number of trades and skills that his current obsession requires is one of the more entertaining and impressive aspects on display. So he’s not a painter, who cares? He’ll try anyway until success is within reach, and then keep trying once its surpassed. The man’s dedication, though it does border on obsession, is something to admire, truly.

In order to solidify his argument — did the famed Vermeer indeed lean upon some sort of technology to accomplish photorealistic paintings? — Tim makes the ultimate goal of recreating ‘The Music Lesson,’ one of the artist’s more intricate pieces. Featuring a woman playing at the piano in the corner of a very small room and a man (presumably the instructor) watching on, the colorful and exquisitely detailed portrait exhibits many of Vermeer’s signature marks including a sophisticated usage of soft, natural light.

Speaking of sophisticated, as our fearless leader faces up to the task of replicating such an image, he recognizes the unique challenges associated with it. His studio set-up will need to be more complex given what and where he will be painting. In order to ensure accuracy Tim rebuilds the room featured in the painting, converting a small section of a Texas warehouse into the space exactly as originally presented. It’s an extensive process in itself, but one that pales in comparison to the daunting prospect of the physical painting — something that ultimately takes Tim a little over four tedious months to complete. There is a statistic at the end of the film which summarizes the length of the entire Vermeer project. Something just over 1,000 days pass since Tim first conceives of the idea. At one point, Tim takes off of work for a week or two to travel to Holland for research. So much for this being a side project.

Narrated by Penn Jillette of illusionist duo Penn & Teller fame, the documented experiment moves along at a brisk pace, and despite seeming like an odd choice for a narrator, Penn never strays from being pleasantly conversational. Actually, it’s less surprising considering the magician’s healthy skepticism tends to balance out Tim’s almost unhealthy optimism. While not necessarily for everyone, there is an addictive quality to what is being filmed that should win over more than just art aficionados. What he obsesses over, we become obsessed with too, as we want to see the finished result. Instead of ostracizing those unfamiliar with Vermeer and the craft itself, Penn’s narrative, along with Tim’s enthusiastic ramblings, are just general enough so as to clue everyone in on what they need to know. And while it avoids condescension, some patience may be required of those well-versed in the medium as they may find a little bit of retread in the simplistic presentations.

Tim Jenison may be a bit of an oddball, but he may also have experienced his breakthrough. His epiphany with the mirrors appears to be less of an invention and more of a rediscovery of a centuries-old technology. His ability to recreate the elaborate oil-on-canvas piece serves as potentially the most convincing bit of evidence that this could have been the method Vermeer relied on in his day. However, without any documentation on the man no one can know for certain.

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4-0Recommendation: Though obscure, this documentary is chock-full of fascinating insight and personality. Tim Jenison is one interesting character and it is good to have met him. For anyone with the slightest interest in art, I highly HIGHLY suggest Tim’s Vermeer. Lightweight, informative and humorous to boot, it’s a quirky little gem that deserves international exposure. The discoveries made herein need to be made more public.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 80 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com