Velvet Buzzsaw Movie Review

There’s a moment in Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw where one of the vapid SoCal characters walks past a pile of garbage and declares it an inspired work of art. He doesn’t realize it’s just plain garbage. The writer/director has his eye trained on the reviewing class here in this satire fueled with intermittent gore. Items are junk or priceless because critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) says so. His opinion matters and his choices influence. When he has his eyes dilated after an eye appointment, someone asks if those flimsy and disposable sunglasses he wears after are the new designer craze.

These small moments provide some well-placed humor as Gilroy dissects his power-hungry characters one by one. The setting is Los Angeles, the same locale from his 2014 effort Nightcrawler (which happened to be my favorite film of that year). Gyllenhaal starred in that as well. His portrayal of Louis Bloom was a desperate figure looking to climb the ladder of his chosen profession. In Buzzsaw, Morf already has made it. The Bloom figure would be Josephina (Zawe Ashton). She works for an art gallery run by Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and she’s trying to make her mark. Josephina gets that chance when a tenant in her building dies and leaves behind a vast collection of paintings. No one knows much about the dead man’s background, but his works are immediately deemed masterpieces.

It takes a considerable amount of time for people to discover that the paintings have a mind of their own. A violent mind for anyone who dares to exhibit them. Or perhaps they’re just blinded to it because they see the dollar signs involved. Everyone in this piece judges art by that monetary standard only. Whether it’s an image that could harm you or whether it’s literal garbage, it’s valuation is what counts.

Velvet Buzzsaw is a bizarre and hit or miss concoction filled with stuffy self-important individuals to root against. You may find yourself cheering on the paintings to do their grisly thing. The cast is sprawling with Gyllenhaal adding another peculiar part to his repertoire. Russo (who’s married to Gilroy) is as ruthlessly profit hungry as she was in Nightcrawler (though her part isn’t as memorable). Her background here does provide the title as it’s the name of a punk rock band she was in decades ago. Toni Collette is a curator looking for her best angle to get in on the new craze. Natalia Dyer (of “Stranger Things” fame) is an opportunistic assistant who gains the unfortunate distinction of finding lots of dead bodies.

The artwork comes alive in visually arresting ways from time to time. The main difference between this and Nightcrawler comes down to this – I was constantly enthralled by the disreputable populace of the latter. It’s a more rare occurrence in the former. Velvet Buzzsaw won’t be mistaken for trash, but it shouldn’t be hailed as a sensation either.

**1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch: Velvet Buzzsaw

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival just before its Friday debut on Netflix is Dan Gilroy’s latest picture Velvet Buzzsaw. The horror satire reunites the writer and filmmaker with his Nightcrawler lead Jake Gyllenhaal in a film said to mercilessly mock the world of art critics and collectors. Several movie critics seem quite impressed. Others are more mixed. The current Rotten Tomatoes score is 82%. Costars include Toni Collette, Gilroy’s spouse and frequent collaborator Rene Russo, and John Malkovich (who must have office space at Netflix with this, Bird Box, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile).

Reviews suggest Buzzsaw could be quite polarizing. It may have a tough time breaking through with Oscar voters nearly a year from now. That said, both of the director’s previous works nabbed one nomination. 2014’s Nightcrawler was recognized for its Original Screenplay. In my view, it should’ve received more nods than that (especially Gyllenhaal). 2017’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. saw Denzel Washington garner a lead actor spot.

If Velvet has enough strong boosters, another screenplay nomination isn’t totally out of the question. Yet there’s a long road ahead to see whether that’s a possible outcome. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Roman J. Israel, Esq. Movie Review

Like his directorial debut Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy combines a myopically focused central character with Los Angeles landscapes in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington is Roman, the secret weapon in a small law firm known for its justice fighting pursuits. He’s a behind the scenes legal guru who’s uncomfortable in the courtroom and dealing with people in general.

When the public face of the firm suffers a heart attack, Roman (who I’ll refer to as that but always uses his full name and title) must go job searching. He pairs up with George Pierce (Colin Farrell), who runs a more successful operation that puts dollar signs over the virtuous work Roman is used to. It creates an opportunity for him to expand his wallet, as he struggles with the morality of his more high scale surroundings and assignments.

Part of the conscience searching is represented by Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a civil rights activist inspired. She works in an underpaid environment that her new friend would flourish in. Yet he also is effective with George until a questionable ethical decision about a murder case changes things.

Gilroy created a masterwork in 2014 with Nightcrawler. In that, Gilroy wrote Jake Gyllenhaal his best role as a strange but ingenious man whose work comes before all else. That traits apply to Roman and we have Washington providing a unique and always watchable performance. With big glasses, an Afro, and an extensive music collection constantly filling his ear buds, we’ve never seen Denzel quite like this and he seems to relish it.

Unlike Nightcrawler, this picture doesn’t totally work. The court case involved is practically an afterthought. The interpersonal relationships between Roman with George and Maya feel a tad underserved. This may be because the central figure here can’t get too close to anyone, but the film sometimes feels as distant as he is.

Washington almost makes it all worth it anyway, but ultimately Roman J. Israel, Esq. is well meaning and also slightly disappointing.

**1/2 (out of four)

 

Oscar Watch: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

The reaction to the film itself was mixed, but Denzel Washington has increased his chances for an eighth Oscar nomination for Roman J. Israel, Esq. The legal drama is director Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2014 pic Nightcrawler (which is one of my favorite movies of the last few years). Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo costar.

As mentioned, reviews from its Toronto Film Festival screening have not all been positive (it’s at 71% currently on Rotten Tomatoes). Yet critics have singled out Denzel’s work here. His inclusion in Best Actor might be its only chance at Academy recognition. Gilroy could land an Original Screenplay nod (as he did for Nightcrawler), but that race is already looking busy.

Mr. Washington has won twice – for Supporting Actor in 1989’s Glory and lead in 2001’s Training Day. Just last year, he probably came very close to getting his third for Fences (he lost to Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea).

In my intital round of predictions last Thursday, I had the performer playing the title character here ranked 15th. He’ll be ranked higher in the second round on Thursday.

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

The Superman We Never Saw

When you’ve got yourself a documentary about a major Hollywood production that never ended up being made and its director Tim Burton isn’t the most eccentric individual being interviewed, you’re probably in for something fascinating. And so it is with The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, which tells the tale of why Burton’s proposed reimagining of the Man of Steel never made it to the screen.

The more eccentric character is by far Jon Peters, the mega producer who had successfully worked with Burton to bring Batman to the masses in 1989. The two were deep into pre-production on the late 1990s Superman Lives project before the plug was pulled and some of this doc’s greatest moments involve Peters being interviewed and, even more so, other people talking about him. Peters started out as Barbara Streisand’s hairdresser before becoming a major producing player. We hear tales of Peters’ insistence on having a giant spider featured in the film, his preference on having scripts read to him while he lays on the couch, his proclivity for putting employees in headlocks and trying out his jiu jitsu moves on underlings.

There’s a lot more to the story of how Superman Lives died and director/writer Jon Schnepp explores it in great detail here. This documentary has had its own difficult history in finally being released and it was partly funded through a Kickstarter campaign. The Supes reboot went through three screenwriters during its gestation: Kevin Smith at first, who brought his comic book geek sensibility before being jettisoned by Warner Bros brass, Peters, and Burton; Wesley Strick, who would eventually suffer the same fate; and its final writer Dan Gilroy, who would go onto direct my favorite pic of last year, Nightcrawler. Nicolas Cage was to star in the title role and there’s even fascinating footage of him trying on the iconic Superman costume, which the doc spends a lot of time talking delving into. In the late 1990s, Cage seemed like a fairly logical choice as he was coming off an Oscar for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas and headlining A list action projects like The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off.  In other words, it was a few years prior to Cage seemingly accepting every single script that came his way. Other casting choices are discussed, including Sandra Bullock as Lois Lane, Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen, Christopher Walken as Brainiac, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (that actor would go onto play him in 2006’s Superman Returns).

What emerges from the documentary is a film about a film never made (it was three weeks away from shooting) that probably would’ve been something to behold. Would it have been good? Hard to say. The two subsequent Superman reboots that would follow years later (the aforementioned Superman Returns and 2013’s Man of Steel) were both rather disappointing in my view and many comic book lovers felt the same way. Burton’s track record over the last quarter century has been hit and miss. While his take on Batman was a rousing success, his “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes in 2001 left much to be desired. What’s clear is that it would have been a much different Superman than we’ve ever seen and would have looked a whole lot different (the long portions about its production design are quite intriguing).

One important through line that runs in the doc is the fact that Superman Lives was by no means guaranteed massive success in the late 1990s. We must remember that it wasn’t until the turn of the century that 2000’s X-Men truly helped usher in the golden age of comic book flicks that we’ve seen steadily over the last 15 years. When this project was gestating, 1997’s Batman and Robin had essentially killed that Caped Crusader franchise until Chris Nolan brought it back to life eight years later. Warner Bros. was nervous about a similar fate for Burton’s new project. Ironically, it was Batman and Robin director Joel Schumacher who killed Burton’s Batman series and helped pump the brakes on Burton’s budding Superman picture.

For comic book lovers, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? will be a treasure trove of intel on why this project never saw the light of day. Yet for movie fans in general, it provides key insight into how movies are made… and how some aren’t made. And how its possibly crazy main producer was obsessed with spiders and jui jitsu.

Nightcrawler Movie Review

“What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?”

So says Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), our central character in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler who barely leaves the screen during the film’s running time and probably won’t escape your mind for some time either. When we first meet Lou, he’s a common thief stealing scrap metal who makes what he believes are captivating attempts at obtaining employment. We immediately notice that Lou has no social skills whatsoever. He doesn’t know how to relate to people. All he knows is how to negotiate but he hasn’t found a field in which his negotiations bear fruit.

This changes when Lou happens upon a crime scene and figures out that Los Angeles TV news stations will pay handsomely for gruesome footage. “If it bleeds, it leads” he’s told by another “nightcrawler” played by Bill Paxton . Lou believes he’s found his calling and soon his explicit videos of horrific offenses are airing at 6AM and 11PM by the lowest rated Southern California affiliate. Their news director Nina (Rene Russo) recognizes Lou’s value in increasing ratings. And Lou knows his worth and uses his leverage to bargain with her – not just for gainful employment but for everything he wants from her. This is done in a pitch black comedic restaurant “date” with Nina in which he makes his wishes explicitly clear.

Lou also hires assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) and he suffers the endless banterings of a boss who is forever conducting a verbal performance review of his employee. Their interaction veers between hilarious (in a very dark way) and chilling (in a very real way). Our central character doesn’t like people in a manner that’s somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Everything is negotiable to Lou and as amazingly awkward as he is, his objectives are usually met. This extends to his filming work and if the photos of a slain family member aren’t close enough to the bullet holes lodged in the fridge, there’s a way to fix that.

For the better part of this decade, Gyllenhaal has made one solid choice after another from Source Code to End of Watch to Prisoners. This is the pinnacle so far. With director Gilroy’s screenplay giving him a truly unique and endlessly fascinating character to work with, Gyllenhaal nails his quirky and creepy role. Russo gets her juiciest part in years as the producer who will go to the same lengths as Lou to ensure success. Ahmed is the most sympathetic person here (it’s not saying much) and he sees his demented mentor much like the audience does.

Nightcrawler effortlessly manages charcoal colored comedy with a heightened sense of tension. A major accomplishment indeed. The screenplay has plenty to hint at regarding the public’s insatiable need for the most violent news stories while we are eating breakfast or ready to turn in for the night. Lou Bloom realizes it and knows how to profit from it. He figures a way to achieve his sick dreams. Our brilliantly realized title character with a career best performance from Gyllenhaal gets it right with that opening quote. He doesn’t really like people. And while the characters he speaks with in Nightcrawler thinks he doesn’t understand them, maybe he does all too well.

**** (out of four)

Todd’s Final Oscar Predictions!

Well here we are! Oscar nominations will be announced tomorrow morning and this is my sixth and final round of predictions for nominees in the eight major categories. For my final predictions, I’ll list the predictions as well as others that could potentially make the cut. Here’s what changed the most: I have finally gotten on the Nightcrawler bandwagon and am now predicting a number of nominations for it. Tomorrow – I”ll have my reaction post up and pontificate on where I went wrong and right.

As you may know, the Best Picture race (unlike all others) can list anywhere from 5-10 nominees. I finally settled on nine… which is the same number of films nominated each year since that system was put into place. And without further adieu – Todd’s Final Oscar Predictions:

Best Picture

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Imitation Game

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Other Possibilities: American Sniper, Gone Girl, Unbroken

Best Director

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ana DuVernay, Selma

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Other Possibilities: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Clint Eastwood (American Sniper), David Fincher (Gone Girl), Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

Best Actor

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Jake Gyllenhall, Nightcrawler

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Other Possibilities: Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), David Oyelowo (Selma)

Best Actress

Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Other Possibilities: Amy Adams (Big Eyes), Jennifer Aniston (Cake)

Best Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall, The Judge

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Edward Norton, Birdman

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Other Possibilities: Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice), Tom Wilkinson (Selma)

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Emma Stone, Birdman

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Other Possibilities: Laura Dern (Wild), Rene Russo (Nightcrawler), Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer), Naomi Watts (St. Vincent)

Best Original Screenplay

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

Other Possibilities: The LEGO Movie, A Most Violent Year, Selma

Best Adapted Screenplay

Gone Girl

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Other Possibilities: American Sniper, Wild 

And there you have it, folks! We’ll see how smart (or dumb) I am tomorrow morning!!