Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

2019 #11
Dan Gilroy | 112 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Velvet Buzzsaw

The team behind neo-noir modern classic Nightcrawler (writer-director Dan Gilroy, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, cinematographer Robert Elswit, among others) reunite for this direct-to-Netflix genre mash-up — it’s part art-world satire, part mystery-thriller, part horror. The Verge described it as “Robert Altman’s Final Destination”, and that so succinctly articulates what the film reminded me of that I decided to just lift it. Well, just pilfering someone else’s work is in-keeping with the film’s themes, at least.

Set in the world of high art, it stars Gyllenhaal as all-powerful critic Morf Vandewalt, whose reviews can make or break sales worth millions of dollars, plus the careers that go along with that. One person his tastes always align with is prominent dealer Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is falling out of favour due to relationship woes. But when her reclusive neighbour dies, she finds his apartment full of striking and original artwork, which she promptly steals. Mort is bowled over by their quality, Rhodora muscles in on the sales, and soon the deceased artist is a sensation. But there’s more to his disturbing work than meets the eye, and soon people start dying…

So far so Final Destination, but not very Robert Altman, I know. The latter comes more in the execution than the subject matter, in particular that this is really an ensemble piece — the marketing pitched Gyllenhaal as the lead, I guess because he’s the biggest and most marketable name, but Ashton’s role is at least as large and central, if not more so, for example. Plus, as well as those two and Russo that I’ve already mentioned, there are significant roles for Toni Collette (as an art buyer for a museum), John Malkovich (as an uninspired elder-statesman artist), Natalia Dyer (as an intern struggling to break in), Billy Magnussen (as a handyman who wants to be an artist), Tom Sturridge (as a rival dealer), and Daveed Diggs (as an up-and-coming artist everyone wants to sign). Before the thriller and horror elements come into play, this spread of characters makes the film seems much more like a portrait of the art world from multiple different perspectives.

Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining

Gilroy has specifically cited Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player as an influence on how he approached things. By complete coincidence, I watched The Player just a few days before this, and so that similarity was very clear to me. That said, Gilroy’s lack of experience relative to Altman perhaps shows through. Where The Player was very pointed and effective in its satire, Velvet Buzzsaw takes more of a vague, scattershot view of the contemporary art scene. Gilroy does have a specific theme in mind — specifically, the disjunct between art and commerce, and their negative effects on each other — which manifests in various ways (it’s part of the film’s horrors as well as its satire), but that seems slightly disconnected from the Altman-esque “different perspectives” approach. Having so many key characters does lend a slightly different feel from what you might expect, but it doesn’t lead to the same kind of forensic dissection that Altman was capable of.

It’s just one aspect of the film that seems somewhat muddled. It’s not fatally flawed, but there are things about it here and there that just don’t seem to add up. It’s almost as if scenes had been arbitrarily removed; not ones that particularly affect the plot, but maybe ones that affect the details. For example, at one point Mort exclaims that he’s been seeing strange things recently, but the only evidence we’ve seen of that came with the thing that prompted his exclamation. These kind of vague, not-quite-right bits pop up now and then. You’d almost wonder if it had something to do with the film’s horror side, like it was trying to be disquieting, but it doesn’t correlate or connect up to the actual horror bits.

About to connect with the film's horror bits

And yet, despite that, it’s so good in places. In particular, it looks gorgeous, especially in UHD. That’s how Elswit has shot it, of course, but also some of the striking visual ideas Gilroy throws into the mix. His screenplay definitely has its moments also. One of Mort’s first reactions to the startling work Josephina has unearthed is that “critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” which is just begging to be quoted in reviews. That line was in the trailer, so it’s already threatened to take on a life of its own outside the film, but it’s certainly not the only meme-in-waiting that’s thrown up. “The admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated” is another choice example. Heck, about half the rest of the dialogue is as well, never mind some reaction shots.

Sometimes, star ratings really aren’t nuanced enough to represent one’s reaction to a film. There are bits of Velvet Buzzsaw I adored — performances, scenes, individual lines, the cinematography — at a level normally found in a five-star film. But there are other things it fumbles, like the way the story sometimes jumps as if scenes have been deleted, or the way it doesn’t seem to have an answer for some of its mysteries, or the way the trailer spoilt pretty much everything (not a fault of the film itself, I know, but still a grievance). Some of those err down towards a three-star experience. It’s quite frustrating in that respect. Overall, there’s enough I liked that I’m going to give it a four, albeit a cautious one.

4 out of 5

Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix now.

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Mr. Turner (2014)

2016 #153
Mike Leigh | 150 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & Germany / English | 12 / R

Mr. TurnerThere are two stars in Mike Leigh’s biopic of famed British artist J.M.W. Turner: Timothy Spall, grunting his way through the title role with a deceptively layered realisation of an apparently simple but deeply complex man; and Dick Pope’s cinematography, which makes almost every frame look like a rich landscape painting, so that you feel you can almost see the brushstrokes.

That’s to do a disservice to the supporting cast, however; in particular Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s near-silent psoriasis-afflicted maid-cum-fuckbuddy, and Marion Bailey as the twice-widowed landlady he eventually shacks up with. Both deliver performances that reveal far more inner life than their characters say out loud, and are every bit the equal of the awards-robbed Spall.

Leigh unfolds the story in long takes, evoking a previous era of filmmaking — between those, the era it’s set in, and the painterly photography, I was reminded of Barry Lyndon more than once. The film occasionally plays out as a series of vignettes, with scenes that The marrying kindsometimes lack clear relevance (recognisable-off-the-telly actors turn up silently for what we’d call cameos if they were more famous). It creates a measured pace that is surely not to every taste, especially over the long running time, though personally I only found it sluggish towards the very end.

Still, the cumulative effect is to — fittingly — paint a portrait of an interesting man.

4 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 (2007)

2015 #149a
Jeremy Sutheim | 7 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

After watching Inherent Vice back in August, I was inspired to re-read the only Thomas Pynchon novel I’d ever read, which I’d liked very much and been meaning to take another run at for years. That was, as you might guess, The Crying of Lot 49, a ’60s tale of possible conspiracy and definite paranoia. Reading about it afterwards, I came upon thomaspynchon.com — not an official site, despite the straightforward name — which linked to their series of Wikis on each of his novels; and right at the top of the Crying of Lot 49 one was a subsection entitled “And now… The Movie…”, complete with a YouTube link. So I watched that and now I’m reviewing it because, you know, that’s what I do.

Although details are fairly scarce on the film’s YouTube page, it appears to be a student short, possibly only made for some school project. It adapts the entire novel in just seven minutes, solely through meaningful images and music — there are no actors, no dialogue, no voiceover. A solid knowledge of the book is essential to understand what’s going on and why certain imagery has been chosen; without it, I think the film would come across as utterly meaningless. Even with it, you find yourself grasping back to memories of the novel to work out what you’re being shown and why.

Some images are lifted out of the text wholesale, like representing an approaching city as a circuitboard. In the novel, it’s a memorable visual simile; on screen, its effectiveness is bluntly underlined (you can, literally, see what Pynchon means), though in the context of the film it’s an odd item to just pop up. Most of the rest of the film is more literal, picking out locations and things to show that will (or may) trigger a memory of the appropriate part of the book. That’s where a viewer will get the narrative from — as a film in its own right, it’s unfollowable. As someone in the comments accurately describes it, “This feels like a version of [the novel] done by Microsoft’s Summarize Text feature. It’s all basically there but coherence and cohesion have been thrown out the Windows.”

It’s probably not fair to judge The Crying of Lot 49 by normal moviemaking standards. As a high school project to summarise a novel in a few minutes of video (which it may or may not be), it’s probably alright. Otherwise, though, it’s not worth the seven minutes; not even for die-hard fans of the author and/or novel. It is, you might say, a W.A.S.T.E. of time. #injoke

1 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 can be watched on YouTube.

1945-1998 (2003)

2010 #66a
Isao Hashimoto | 14 mins | streaming

1945-1998 title cardIs 1945-1998 actually a film? Or is it a piece of video Art? Or just another online video?

Its setup is quite simple: it charts every nuclear explosion between the titular years; the total, by-the-way, is 2,053. These explosions play out as flashing dots on a world map; different colours indicate which country was responsible for the explosion, accompanied by running totals. You might note at the end that the US are solely responsible for over half.

The film begins with close-ups: the first test by the US; then the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. Then it zooms out, to a map of the whole world (arranged differently to how we’re used to seeing it here, with the UK and Europe off to the far left and America on the right. I suppose this is neither here nor there, but it took me a bit to get my bearings on where the explosions were happening). From then it progresses through time at a precise rate of one month equalling one second. If that sounds quite reasonable, the maths holds that it’s 636 seconds, aka ten-and-a-half minutes; or, quite a long time to look at a static map with flashing lights.

There are long gaps between explosions to begin with, but as it heads into the ’60s things pick up (so to speak). As time wears on further, the initially lifeless map transforms into an almost hypnotic array of multi-coloured flashes and variously toned bleeps (provided your 1945-1998: the first testattention didn’t already wander, that is). There are ultimately so many flashes and bleeps, and the effect is so lulling, that I had to force myself to remember these represented Big Nasty Bombs that were Not A Good Thing. Perhaps something more aurally grating would’ve been appropriate; the counter argument going that this would cause even more viewers to abandon the work.

Sadly, it’s become outdated: the bleeps all but stop after 1993 but, as the webpage you can view it on notes, North Korea have since tested nuclear weapons several times. Perhaps Hashimoto needs to add another 2 minutes and 24 seconds, just to ram home that the issue of nuclear weapons is still depressingly relevant.

So is it a film, or video Art, or just another online video? It’s all of the above (of course). 1945-1998 isn’t exactly fun viewing — really speaking, it’s a kind of moving graph — but, if one sticks with it, and despite its outdatedness, Hashimoto makes his point reasonably well.

3 out of 5

1945-1998 can be seen at CTBTO.org.