REVIEW: “Velvet Buzzsaw”

VelvetPOSTERNow with three movies under his belt screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy has shown a keenness for creating and developing characters who march to the beats of their own unique and often idiosyncratic drums. We got that in 2014’s “Nightcrawler” and in 2017’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Two very different movies concentrated on two very unusual personalities.

Gilroy’s latest is “Velvet Buzzsaw” and you could say it features a collage of these type of characters. Set as a snapshot of the bizarre and amoral Los Angeles art scene, the film relishes every satirical jab it takes at art culture pretension and pomposity. But it goes much further than that. Things really go bonkers in the second half where Gilroy turns it from devious art world parody into a wacky full-fledged horror thriller.

Gilroy’s centers his cadre of eccentrics around the freshly discovered paintings of a recently deceased recluse named Vetril Dease. The artwork is discovered by the opportunistic Josephina (Zawe Ashton) who smuggles them out of Dease’s apartment and into the hands of her cutthroat boss and gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo). Jake Gyllenhaal plays prominent art critic Morf Vandewalt, a prancing narcissist commissioned to study the Dease collection for Rhodora.

Those three prove to be the major players, but there are several other jaunty characters played by an interesting and talented cast. Toni Collette, Natalia Dyer, John Malkovich, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, and Todd Sturridge all find themselves playing a part in Gilroy’s twisted genre mashup. And once it is revealed that Dease’s art possesses a dark supernatural power, let’s just say you don’t want to be caught alone with one of his paintings (which conveniently happens a lot).

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Making sense of “Velvet Buzzsaw” isn’t the easiest thing to do but I appreciate how it prompts us to try. I keep leaning towards the idea of jurgement. Could it be that the force/spirit within Dease’s paintings is judging the ruthless, depraved, art crowd miscreants? That’s a preposterous reading but I kinda like it.

While there is something fun about the nuttiness of it all and most of the performances (sorry Zawe Ashton) are really good throughout, those things can only take it so far. It’s hard to get into without spoiling things, but suffice it to say we never get a good sensible understanding of what is going on. It’s not so much the ‘whats’ but the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ that makes no sense specifically in the film’s second half. It almost feels like Gilroy had a cool and creepy concept but wasn’t exactly certain how to land it. That leaves us with a flawed yet peculiarly fascinating film. Kinda like Dease’s paintings themselves.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Vice” (2018)

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Adam McKay’s makeup and costume dramedy “Vice” is quite the movie to unpack. With its double-edged title and full lather of political messaging, “Vice” resembles a progressive manifesto more than a stinging satire or credible biographical sketch. And McKay comes across as the political left’s version of Dinesh D’Souza but with a bigger budget and an attention-grabbing cast.

Now I am all for filmmakers having their own voices and relaying their own messages. It’s one of the things that makes cinema great. But when that message is used like a blunt weapon you can end up with the exhausting mess that is “Vice”. It is a frustratingly schizophrenic movie, bouncing around from scene to scene with no sense of focus. Good luck figuring out what McKay wants his film to be.

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The game plan for the story was pretty simple – portray Dick Cheney to be the devil incarnate and use every single frame and every line of dialogue to do so. But in doing so, McKay ends up giving us someone who more closely resembles an 80’s Saturday morning cartoon villain than a character with any real human qualities. It’s a shame because Christian Bale’s stunning transformative performance deserves the critical acclaim it has received.

Storywise “Vice” makes the same mistake you often see in these types of movies – it tries to cover way too much ground. It starts with Cheney’s early days as a drunken “dirtbag” and then moves to his marriage to Lynne (a very good Amy Adams). It then meanders through six different presidencies showing Cheney’s various political roles in his (as McKay presents it) quest for power. Of course then there are the Bush years and Cheney’s time as VP and alleged puppet master.

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And to bog things down even more why not wedge in as many conservative stalwarts as you can – Roger Ailes, Antonin Scalia, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, the Koch brothers, and that just scratches the surface. There is plenty you could say about some of these people, but they aren’t here to enrich the story. They are simply targets of McKay’s detestation both for them and Dick Cheney.

Oh, and after all of that, if somehow you didn’t get McKay’s blaring point that Chaney is pure evil in human form, you get a final 20 minutes where the director starts throwing as much as he can at the screen – Valerie Plame, the infamous hunting incident, and more. It all feels tacked on, as if he ran out of time but still didn’t know when to quit jabbing.

McKay’s structural choices aren’t much better. The story is jolted by several weird time jumps as well as out-of-the-blue attempts at humor that mostly land with a thud (apparently Cheney’s heart attacks are quite a gas). There is also an assortment of ham-fisted, on-the-nose imagery much of which probably looked better on paper than it does on the screen. But worst of all is this bizarre Jesse Plemons narration that plays out in the dopiest way imaginable.

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Sam Rockwell is fun as George W. Bush but he’s not much help. His scenes are more like sketch-comedy bits than a meaningful movie role. Steve Carell comes off even worse. He plays Donald Rumsfeld as if he was doing an episode of “The Office” or another “Anchorman” sequel. Ultimately you end up clinging to Bale and Adams who give standout performances but can’t save the film from its plethora of flaws and miscalculations.

“Vice” is one big frustration especially considering the tons of potential it wastes. It’s a textbook example of how bad things can go when you have such rotten tone management and a dogged fixation on your message that smothers your storytelling and character building. To no surprise there has proven to be an audience for this slog. I can confidently say I’m not a part of it.

VERDICT 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

REVIEW: “Venom”

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“Venom” had two encouraging things going for it since its initial announcement. First it stars Tom Hardy, an actor I’ve really liked since his 2001 debut in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”. Second, it features a truly great Marvel comic book villain (and eventual antihero) with a compelling backstory and formidable superpowers. Those are two big steps in the right direction.

Does Sony Pictures make the most of Hardy and the titular title character? It seems critics would say no as most have panned the film. Moviegoers seem to have had a different reaction, not being nearly as harsh and having helped the film rake in $205 million globally on its opening weekend. Let’s say I fall somewhere in the middle.

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Versions of “Venom” have been in the works since 1997, but this particular iteration had its own set of challenges. Fans of the character will immediately notice how far the movie strays from his comic book origins. The filmmakers aren’t entirely to blame. Sony’s deal with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man into their carefully guarded MCU handcuffed the writers forcing them to create a webslinger-free origin. Interestingly they did shelf the idea of an R-rating leaving the door open for a potential crossover.

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a Bay Area investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering deep-seated corruption. He sets his sights on the Life Foundation and its CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Turns out Drake has discovered and captured samples of splotchy alien lifeforms he calls symbiotes. Eddie gets a whiff of potential human testing and confronts Drake during an on-air interview. It goes bad for Eddie who loses his job and even his fiancé (Michelle Williams) who works as a Life Foundation attorney.

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Six months pass and a down-on-his-luck Eddie is contacted by a Life Foundation scientist begging him to blow the lid off Drake’s experiments. While secretly infiltrating the labs Eddie is exposed to the symbiote which instantly gives him superpowers and a gruesome appetite for violence and human heads. Check that, it isn’t Eddie who has those appetites. They belong to his new parasitic alter-ego Venom.

From there the movie becomes a weird blend of horror and humor set within the framework of a superhero movie. I kind of like what it’s going for even if its tone can be wildly uneven. Eddie’s back-and-forths with the menacing Venom voice in his head can be amusing. There is also the intriguing duality of two distinct characters warring within one man. The film flirts with the idea more than exploring it which seems like a missed opportunity.

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This is also where the action amps up but not in a particularly thrilling or impressive way. Most of it is encapsulated in the trailer – a big chase sequence in downtown San Francisco and several fight scenes featuring a reluctant Eddie and the more violent Venom’s stretchy tentacles. It all culminates in a CGI-soaked finale that doesn’t do the movie any favors.

Tom Hardy does his best to bring energy and nuance to his character. It’s a good performance with several interesting layers. Director Ruben Fleischer clearly wanted to make an atypical superhero movie with a distinct edge to it. I applaud that aim and see glimpses of what he’s going for. But ultimately it’s the script and some pretty uninspired action the left me feeling a bit deflated. Sadly a good Tom Hardy, Fleisher’s edgy ambition, or even a killer end credits scene can’t quite keep “Venom” from disappointing.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

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If you have even an ounce of sympathy in your bones you have to feel for Luc Beeson. Without question “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” was a passion project. The film’s $200 million-ish budget was crowd-sourced and personally footed by Beeson making it not only the most expensive European film, but the most expensive independent movie ever made. That’s one reason the early box office results seem so catastrophic.

But it goes beyond that. Beeson writes, directs, and co-produces with his wife Virginie Besson-Silla. That only adds to the sting because there are no two ways around it – “Valerian” is a really bad movie.

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Let’s be honest, there were warning signs everywhere yet I was hoping for a “John Carter” experience. You remember it – terrible trailers, shredded by critics, but much better than the bad press it received. That’s not the case with “Valerian”. Instead we get a nearly 140 minutes slog through poor storytelling, boring characters, laughably bad dialogue, and CGI overload.

The story is based on the French comic book series  “Valérian and Laureline”. I’ve never heard of it but apparently Beeson’s interest in adapting it dates all the way back to the filming of “The Fifth Element”. But despite the enthusiasm and ambition, “Valerian” stumbles all the way through its grueling run time and no amount of money thrown at it can save it from its glaring problems.

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Let’s start with the performances. Dane DeHaan is a peculiar choice for the lead character Valerian. We are tasked with buying into him as a major(!) in the human police force on Alpha (aka the City of a Thousand Planets). The story desperately wants him to be a Han Solo-like bad boy. Look no further than an early scene where his dialogue all but pleads with the audience to believe it. And as much as he and the script tries to manufacture charisma, we never get it. I’m not certain what he’s going for, but his line delivery constantly reminded me Keanu Reeves from “Point Break”. It’s not like he gets much helps. A steady flow of mind-numbing one-liners should earn plenty of unavoidable face-palms.

His partner on the force is Laureline played by Cara Delevingne. Her stiffness is meant to be toughness but is only believable in small spurts. Her relationship with Valerian is weighted by a stale and uninspired sexual tension that is far more silly than romantic. And much like her counterpart, Delevingne is given some truly horrible dialogue. It’s astonishing that many of these lines actually made the page much less left it!

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Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) orders Valerian and Laureline to investigate a alien force gathered at Alpha’s core. The beings are potentially linked to the film’s quirky yet interesting prologue. Unfortunately it all plays out with practically no suspense and with one of the most glaringly obvious reveals I’ve seen in a while. Along the way we are inundated with corny banter, heavy-handed social/political metaphors, and an assortment of weird encounters including a pearl-pooping miniature anteater, a shapeshifting exotic dancer, and Ethan Hawke playing someone named (and this is no joke) Jolly the Pimp. Okay, so that last one was good campy fun.

That brings us to the special effects which “Valerian” leans heavily on. It’s essentially a sugar rush for the eyes that ranges from spectacular to downright gaudy. Ultimately it’s not enough to cover the abounding messiness. “Valerian” seems to be shooting for an Avatar-like experience. It’s story is worse (and Avatar’s wasn’t good) while the visuals (Avatar’s saving grace) only occasionally ‘wow’. Once again it’s a real shame. When you put up a $200 million target you certainly don’t want to miss it this badly.

VERDICT – 1.5 STAR

1-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Visit”

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Few people have had a more roller coaster Hollywood career than M. Night Shyamalan. His first films earned him a ton of praise from enthusiastic critics and moviegoers. But after that he put out a series of true stinkers that threatened to railroad his once promising career. In fact many people wrote Shyamalan off as dead in the water. Yet while he did put out some really bad movies there was always a glimmer of hope that we would once again get a glimpse of the filmmaker we want him to be.

His latest film “The Visit” is another reminder of how effective Shyamalan can be with small-scale focused horror. It follows his familiar formula of slow buildup, slow buildup, big reveal and it does so competently and effectively. As with many of his stories, “The Visit” toys with some of our secret personal fears – twisting, contorting, and amplifying them before our eyes. This time it’s the fear of the elderly and senility.

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As the movie started my very first response was a concerned “Oh no”. Shyamalan chose to make this a found footage picture which is a fad I had hoped was finally dead and gone. But Shyamalan is intelligent in his usage of it. He dodges most of the annoyances that come with the found footage style, most notably narrative holes and the constantly moving cameras. We get fluid storytelling and predominately still cameras which are strategically implemented throughout the film.

The story is fairly simple. A single mother named Paula (played by Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t been the same since her husband left her and their two young children years prior. Her documentarian-in-training daughter Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and freestyle rapping young son Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) encourage her to take a cruise with her boyfriend while they go spend the week with their grandparents who they have never met. Here’s the deal, Paula hasn’t spoken to her parents for 15 years following a painful and bitter fight.

This will sound absurd but just go with it. Paula puts her two children on a train to Masonville, Pennsylvania where their grandparents pick them up. Rebecca films the entire thing as a gift to her mom hoping for a possible healing and reconciliation. At the station the kids are greeted by their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) who take them out to their country farmhouse. Everything is documented through Rebecca’s two cameras. Things start well but soon the kids begin noticing weird behavior from their grandparents which gets worse during their week-long stay.

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As I mentioned M. Night Shyamalan is known for his slow, methodical buildups and here we get it in the form of creepy moments from the grandparents. Shyamalan takes his time in feeding us these moments and just as the film started to fade for me we get the big twist which I thought worked like a charm. It quickly re-energized the story and made the final act a chilling and eerie ride filled with terrifying unpredictability.

While Shyamalan doesn’t reinvent the wheel with “The Visit” he does show us the able creative flourishes that made him a respected name and overnight success in the horror-thriller genre. It also (hopefully) reinvigorates a career that had been written off by many due to four consecutive disappointments. Maybe it’s the smaller budget or maybe it’s the clearer focus. Whatever the case, I can get behind Shyamalan doing these types of projects and hopefully this is the first step in an exciting comeback.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

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2015 Blind Spot Series: “Village of the Damned” (1960)

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Creepy kids are often an automatic score when it comes to horror films. 1960’s “Village of the Damned” is an early example of that theory in action. This unique piece of British sci-fi horror anchors its suspense in its largely unexplained phenomena. But that’s just fine because watching its straightforward story play out is a lot of fun.

“Village” was initially intended as an American picture but MGM moved it to their British studio and brought in German director Wolf Rilla to head the project. The story was based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel “The Midwich Cuckoos”. The film faced several criticisms from censors over different bits of content most of which still found its way into the final version.

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The film opens in the small British village of Midwich. Suddenly and mysteriously everyone in the village falls unconscious including a prominent professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders). Gordon’s brother-in-law Alan (Michael Gwynn) grows suspicious after failing to reach anyone in the village over the phone. The unexplained phenomenon soon wears off and the community seems to be unaffected. That is until a short time later when every able woman in the town turns up pregnant including Gordon’s wife (played by the “First Lady of British Horror” Barbara Shelley).

The film presents the confusion, anger, and distrust that would naturally follow such and event. But Midwich then suspects something else is taking place as the babies mature and are born at an accelerated rate. Once born they continue to grow faster than normal, each with bright blonde hair, a heightened intellect, and “arresting” eyes. A series of unexplained events follows leaving the village and outsiders wondering what these children represent and what their motivations may be.

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Wolf Rilla doesn’t let his film devolve into an endless parade of cheap scares or contrived creepiness. Instead the movie focuses on the mystery and the evolving threat itself. Questions aren’t always answered. The movie doesn’t serve everything to the audience on a platter. Instead it leaves many things up in the air and we are just as lost and confused as most of the characters. It’s a smart approach that keeps the film from being corny or routine.

It is also helped by a solid cast of characters each of whom are truly invested in the predicaments of their characters. In fact I was a bit surprised at just how well presented the characters are both from the script and the performances. Actually the entire movie functions this way. The well presented script and performances solidify the film’s aim to be a mysterious and creepy science fiction, horror, thriller. The true grip of “Village of the Damned” is rooted in its unsettling mystery and the filmmakers know how to keep their project within those bounds. The film definitely benefits from that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars