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.”

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

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

Krampus

Krampus movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Michael Dougherty; Todd Casey; Zach Shields

Directed by: Michael Dougherty

Is Krampus the next Christmas classic? No, not by a long sleigh ride, but at least it offers some respite from the other bullshit holiday films we’re routinely forced to endure for the sake of good tidings and shameless studio profiteering.

Michael Dougherty’s subversive seasonal offering is best described as one-part wicked horror, and two-parts ruthlessly silly comedy. It introduces a mythical, quasi-Satanic creature famous in Austro-Bavarian folklore for representing the polar opposite of everything Father Christmas stands for. Krampus, a long-horned, long-tongued, hulking, cross-dressing nightmare is conjured by misbehaving children who no longer believe in the spirit of Christmas. Instead of giving gifts to Nice Boys and Nice Girls, he takes away something dear to those on the Naughty list.

This year is the year Max (Emjay Anthony) finally loses faith in Santa after being humiliated at the dinner table thanks to two of his miscreant cousins who, in an almost unbearably mean-spirited scene, make fun of the letter he planned to send to the North Pole. He shreds the note and tosses it out the window, and that night a fierce blizzard descends upon the town, burying the community in snow and knocking out the electricity. Max’s parents, Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) and sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) will have to contend with keeping their rather obnoxious in-laws happy during the power out, while Max quietly switches into emo mode, wishing they would never share Christmas together again.

Krampus takes some time getting going, but to Dougherty’s credit the slow-burn set-up is justifiable as it allows us to get to know this family and at least try to build empathy for one side before all hell breaks loose. On one hand there’s Max’s immediate family, comfortable middle-class suburbanites. On the other, Howard (David Koechner) and his wife Linda (Allison Tolman) are Pittsburgh Steelers-worshipping, lower-middle class, gun-toting loudmouths who seemingly don’t know how to raise children in any way, shape or form.

If there is meant to be some commentary on the differences between social class status, Krampus doesn’t fully take advantage of it. The two halves of this family seem to exist as exaggerated versions of blue collar versus white collar lifestyles and perhaps it’s merely coincidental (or me reading into things too much) that Koechner, Tolman and Conchata Farrell, who plays the classic overbearing, alcoholic Aunt Dorothy, stand in stark contrast to the more financially secure Scott and Collette. And when Krampus comes a-knockin,’ he certainly doesn’t discriminate.

The real fun lies in the film’s latter half, wherein the titular creature starts to make its presence known. Dougherty and his special effects team impressively restrain themselves at first, parceling out only glimpses of the demonic beast in an effort to build suspense for a later grand reveal. (Or what we’re hoping to be a grand reveal.) As the situation becomes more desperate, we’re fed bits of backstory courtesy of the wizened old Omi (Krista Stadler), Tom’s Austrian mother, who has seen all of this before. Of course she has. Meanwhile Max tries to assuage his guilt by coming clean about what he did the night previous.

Krampus proves itself adept at balancing comedic and horror elements, deploying outrageous visuals — you’ll never look at Gingerbread men or Jack-in-the-Boxes the same way again — alongside moments of dread-inducing suspense. The beast himself may not factor in as much as many might assume he would given he bears the title of the film, but there’s no denying this anti-Santa earns his screen time. He makes for a satisfying monster, one that could just as easily manifest as a metaphor for the worst in all of us when it comes to our tendencies to want more given to us than what we give to others. (Naturally this doesn’t apply to me because I’m perfect.)

When it comes right down to it, Krampus offers more fun than it really ought to, blending larger themes of forgiveness and personal sacrifice with more acute notions like family togetherness and being thankful for living in a part of the world where it actually snows on Christmas. It may never amount to a holiday package that you can share with generations of family but it will probably make do until next Christmas when some other jaded filmmaker comes up with the next bright idea. (Please Santa, no — not a sequel.)

oh fuck, it's Krampus

Recommendation: Highly entertaining diversion will appeal to viewers in search of an alternative to the typical Christmas movie and those who like their horrors served up with a heaping helping of outlandish comedy. A fun thrill ride but not much more. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “. . . I just got my ass kicked by a bunch of Christmas cookies.”

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.cinemania.es 

The Way, Way Back

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Release: Friday, July 5, 2013 (limited)

[Theater] 

The screenwriters for The Descendants return to write and direct this incredibly satisfying coming-of-age story about an awkward teen and his adventures at the local water park as he seeks refuge from his painful family life. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash pen another script which has become primarily responsible for winning people over left and right — myself included. Not only do the pair come up with characters who are believable, flesh-and-blood, and, for the most part, easily likable, but they harmonize comedic and dramatic elements just so that the film maintains an equilibrium of being wholly enjoyable from start to finish, without ever becoming too silly or too melodramatic for it’s own good. This is a remarkably good film for first-time directors and their writing abilities do not fail here either.

At the center of attention is Duncan (Liam James) and his struggle to fit in with anyone, even with those in his own family. His mom (Toni Collette) is now seeing a man with whom Duncan frequently butts heads. Trent is practically the antithesis of who we’re used to seeing Steve Carell play, even if we’ve gotten glimpses of his ability to be a complete dolt in previous roles (Michael Scott, anyone?), and more often than not, it is Trent who is making life miserable for Duncan. He asks what Duncan thinks of himself as a person on a scale of 1-10, and when the kid reluctantly responds with “a six,” Trent offers his thoughts: “Well, I think you’re a three.” There are other factors, too. His sister, Steph (Zoe Levin) is a spoiled brat who can’t stand being around Duncan for longer than she has to. His mom is a little more neutral, even though she can never quite get a good read on her son’s mood at times.

Regardless of appearances, and despite the fact that Trent insists on exerting total control over what Duncan “can” and/or “should” do here, this is Duncan’s story, told from his perspective, and we can only look on and silently cheer as he breaks down the barriers and makes his own way in becoming a young adult in spite of the circumstances.

One afternoon Duncan is off biking around trying to forget the latest drama around Trent’s beach house, when he comes across the Water Wizz Waterpark, and decides to explore what’s going on there by entering through an unlocked employee gate. Not long after he bumps into the same guy whom he had run into a day or so before at a pizza parlor, playing Pac Man by himself and rambling on about setting a personal high score. He introduces himself at the water park as Owen, and the two are fast friends. Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes an immediate notice of Duncan’s social anxieties, and aims to fix this as quickly and hilariously as possible.

The second act of the film, then, blossoms into a fun-filled montage of situations in which Duncan sheds his introversion and starts to come into his own. A lot of the process is owed to Rockwell’s wonderful performance as this gregarious park manager. I’ve been a moderate Rockwell fan for awhile, but nothing he’s done so far compares to the energy he emits in this little summer indie. Both Faxon and Rash have lesser but still funny roles as other Water Wizz employees — Rash as a bug-eyed, disillusioned employee who is unfortunately also a germ-o-phobe. It may be argued, though, that Rockwell is the best there is to offer in this film — a beacon of light among other solid performances from this ensemble cast.

What makes The Way, Way Back such an engrossing adventure, aside from Rockwell’s irresistible charm and the brilliant way James carries himself as the awkward teenager, is the secrecy of Duncan’s quasi-employment at the water park. After his first venture out to Water Wizz, Owen offers him a job “cleaning up puke” and doing other related, otherwise unappealing tasks. He commutes back and forth to the park on a hot pink bike, and is able to avoid saying anything about it when Trent and his mom ask where he’s been all day. He’s somewhat successful in keeping this adventure to himself; that is, until he attracts the attention of the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Equally awkward and out of sync with what’s going on in the world around her, she is able to extract a few sentences from Duncan each time they meet and this makes for a very sweet and believable relationship, perhaps made even more so because it’s not perfect.

I’ve had a very hard time pinning down the one creative element that made this film destined to become a classic, but maybe that’s just it: imperfection (I’m not talking about behind-the-scenes things like writing/directing/production values, etc). The human relationships — all of them — are all flawed, some in minor ways and others in more obvious and painful ways. One is flawed to a degree that has our protagonist questioning why his mom makes the decisions she makes. Duncan’s relationship with his mother is slightly flawed because he assumes he knows a lot about the goings-on of her life (it becomes clear late in the movie that he doesn’t). He assumes Owen won’t know what he’s going through because he’s just a park manager who seems to be always having fun (fortunately this is also an incorrect assumption). Trent’s neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney) is a fun-loving party-girl. But she’s in her forties and single. The fact that the movie is filled with flaws and wrongdoings makes the overall product ironically perfect. Or at least, something close to it.

On top of that, the movie is set in a beautiful location and the use of a water park makes for some interesting visuals and plot developments. That, and, well. .  water slides are the shit.

The Way, Way Back ultimately benefits from a great cast putting on great performances in conjunction with a strong screenplay and interesting setting. I could name at least a dozen coming-of-age tales that have been in varying degrees stimulating enough, but this basically puts on a clinic in terms of showing why that type of story has a place in the film industry. Thanks to Faxon and Rash’s sensitive direction, you can no longer say that these types of films are a dime a dozen. Or maybe you still can, but you cannot include this movie in that category. It is a much more matured film that absolutely deserved its wide release.

It’s hard impossible to imagine this movie not getting any nominations come February 2014.

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4-5Recommendation: The Perks of Being A Wallflower of 2013. Even if that’s not my original thought, I love that idea. Both films feature a quiet protagonist who, about halfway through the film, really develops into a lovable, unforgettable (read: young) central character who benefits from the help of his elders. If you loved Perks, this should be what’s next on your list (of indie films, anyway).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 103 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