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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Nightcrawler (2014)

2017 #63
Dan Gilroy | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller is part “state of the nation” observational drama and part character study.

The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who, like so many in modern America, struggles to find paid employment. Indeed, as the film opens he’s resorted to stealing fences to hawk to scrap metal dealers — and, when cornered by a security guard, also resorts to violence. That’s the kind of man Bloom is, which will become important as the film goes on. On his way home he comes across the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, and witnesses the freelance news cameramen rushing to the scene. For some reason this job strikes Bloom as glamorous, so he buys a camera and a police scanner and throws himself into it. His boundary-pushing enthusiasm soon puts him on the way to success, racing around nighttime L.A. chasing bloody imagery. It’s a cutthroat industry, but Bloom is prepared to go pretty far for exclusive footage…

Any well-informed viewer isn’t likely to glean much from Nightcrawler about the state of modern America. That Bloom is desperate for employment is more of an inciting incident than a dissected issue, though it does also partially fuel a subplot when he employs an assistant. That US TV news is all about shock value — “if it bleeds it leads” — is a truism that’s decades old, too. If the film contributes anything to that discussion it’s to wonder if things have reached a nadir. Writer-director Gilroy says he was trying to tell an objective and realistic story, but it’s coming from a very cynical, almost satirical place about TV news. Or maybe local US news really is that extreme, I don’t know. Either way, this observational stuff isn’t bad, but nor is it revelatory.

If it bleeds it leads

Where the film really flies is in its characters. There are impressive supporting performances, from Riz Ahmed as the uncertain and kinda gullible young guy Bloom employs as his assistant, and Rene Russo as the outwardly confident but actually kinda desperate TV news producer Bloom sell his work to; plus an almost cameo-level appearance by Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler who rubs Louis up the wrong way.

But the film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Wild-eyed, eager to please, but not quite right in how he interacts with other human beings, and with a real thirst for the gory profession he lands upon, Bloom has a sense of morality that is quite removed from the norm. From the start we’re in no doubt that this is a guy prepared to take relatively extreme measures to secure what he wants, but how far will he go? As he begins to establish himself as a respectable businessman — or, at least, someone who wants to be thought of as respectable — how much has his attitude changed, if at all? Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the role, skilfully negotiating Bloom’s swings from smarmy charm to emotionless non-engagement with the horrors he films. He’s physically transformed too: he lost weight, didn’t eat, and stayed up nights in preparation for the role. On the Blu-ray, Ahmed comments that the literal hunger Gyllenhaal was enduring contributed to his performance as a guy who is so hungry (for success) he’ll do anything necessary to achieve it.

(Talking of the Blu-ray, its only special feature (aside from an audio commentary) is a five-minute featurette that briefly features the two real-life nightcrawlers who consulted on the film. They share a couple of quick anecdotes about what the real job is like, which is quite fascinating — it’s a shame there’s not a fuller feature about those guys and their work. I don’t know if it would sustain a whole feature documentary — maybe it would — but a decent-length DVD extra would’ve been nice.)

Nighttime L.A. car chase

Outside of its characters, Nightcrawler impresses with technical merits. The lensing of nighttime L.A. by DP Robert Elswit is highly evocative, a netherworld where flashing red-and-blue lights illuminate scenes of carnage. The film’s pace is apparently unhurried but constantly engrossing. You’re not exactly sucked into this world alongside Bloom (Gilroy’s right that presenting him as unnecessarily aggressive upfront serves to stall sympathy from the viewer), but you become an interested observer, unable to look away — like a rubbernecker at an accident, appropriately enough. Several scenes, especially in the film’s second half, generate a level of nail-biting tension, while a climactic car chase is an action scene for the ages. Gilroy’s brother Tony, a producer on the film, was one of the architects of the Bourne franchise, and you wonder if he brought some expertise to the realisation of that sequence. This isn’t a film for adrenaline junkies on the whole, but that scene is a kick.

Driven by a sharp character examination from writer-director Dan Gilroy, brought to life in a compelling, committed performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is an appropriately cynical exploration of modern morality as embodied by one outsider, moulded in the shape of a fantastic noir thriller.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Nightcrawler is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, after which it will be available on iPlayer.

Nightcrawler was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 8th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

2016 #73
John McTiernan | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Once upon a time, John McTiernan was an action auteur, known for films that sat comfortably on the “mainstream modern classics” scale, like Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and, most of all, Die Hard. Then he made a couple of bombs (Rollerball and Basic), before ending up in a career hell of his own making thanks to some protracted legal battles. This thriller remake, starring Pierce Brosnan at the height of his Bond tenure (it was made between Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough), is the once-eminent director’s last well-regarded film.

Brosnan plays the titular Thomas Crown, an ultra-wealthy New York entrepreneur whose hobby is stealing art from museums. His latest theft attracts the attention of the insurance company’s investigator, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), who is clever enough to see past the fancy gadgets and gang of Eastern European crooks placed to take the fall. So begins a game of cat and mouse, as Banning tries to catch the thief, while he tries to woo her, and she tries to resist his charms — while also using her womanly wiles to try to ensnare him.

It’s the latter that practically kicks The Thomas Crown Affair into the realms of the ‘erotic thriller’. Throw in a couple more sex scenes (and a few less high-profile contributors) and you’d have late-night TV filler. There’s virtually no swearing and certainly no violence, but with some gratuitous boobs you’ve got a 15/R-rated flick. The film doesn’t really need such titillation to attract attention, because it’s a strong cat-and-mouse thriller in its own right. On the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from sexuality and the part that could play in such a ‘game’, so in that respect it’s more plausible than a million other neutered movies.

McTiernan’s action background comes to the fore in a pair of extended heist scenes at either end of the movie, which are surely the standout parts. The seductions and plot twists in between these bookends are certainly entertaining and may even keep you guessing, but it’s the heists that pack the most entertainment. They’re the kind of thing we don’t see so much nowadays, at least not in mainstream movies, because any sequence designed to provide excitement is a fight of some kind, and most of those are shot in the shaky-cam style. There’s none of that palaver here, just perfectly choreographed cutting between the various players in each heist, and some well-chosen music — as if being ably to do awesome stuff accompanied by the James Bond Theme wasn’t cool enough, here Brosnan gets to do the same to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman.

Those scenes are reason enough to watch the film, in my opinion, but that’s not to denigrate what comes in between. Brosnan is mainly just charm personified as Crown, a kind of “Bond gone naughty” playboy (without the, y’know, murdering), while Russo makes Banning’s back-and-forth umming-and-ahing seem largely plausible, whereas in other hands it might’ve just come across as inconsistent character writing. Denis Leary and Frankie Faison bolster the entertainment as the pair of NYPD cops forced to work with Branning, while Faye Dunaway (star of the original film) appears in a handful of tacked-on cameo scenes as Crown’s psychiatrist.

The Thomas Crown Affair may not be the best film on any of its principals’ CVs (well, except perhaps for Russo’s), but it’s a consistently enjoyable light thriller with a couple of particularly memorable sequences and a fun central dynamic. Apparently it’s better than the original, too. There’s long been talk of a sequel, but it seems to have gone the way of McTiernan’s career, which is a shame.

4 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.