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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Sorry to Bother You (2018)

2018 #250
Boots Riley | 111 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Sorry to Bother You

It felt like everyone was on about Sorry to Bother You early this year, after it was released in the US in July. It’s taken ’til now to make it to UK screens — I don’t know if that was a conscious delay, or if the outpouring of recommendations from critics and audiences on social media had something to do with creating demand for distribution. Anyway, it’s fortunate that, as a small movie, most of the discussion (that I saw) was about urging people to see it and not giving away the twist (naturally, this review is equally spoiler-free), because it is indeed a helluva turn to come across unaware. As for the rest of the movie, well, I was less convinced.

Set in a like-our-world-but-not-quite present day Oakland, the film centres around Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck chap who lives in his uncle’s garage with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He manages to land a lowly job as a telemarketer, but struggles to sell anything. As his equally unsuccessful colleagues attempt to unionise, Cash discovers the key to the job and is soon on his way up the company, where there are dark secrets to be discovered…

That’s the simple version, anyway. First-time writer-director Boots Riley clearly has a lot on his mind, and it seems he wanted to say it all in this one film. The unifying theme seems to be “mega-corporations treat their workers like slaves and will go to extraordinary lengths to exploit them”, which is a worthwhile point but hardly a revelatory one. In the film, the concept is primarily satirised by the company Worryfree, which offers customers a home, employment, and food for life, in exchange for living in their facilities, working their jobs, eating their food, and not getting paid because they’re providing all you need. As a business concept you can kinda see the appeal, actually, but obviously it’s a form of slavery really. Capitalism is bad, y’all.

Too young for this shit

Naturally, with a black writer-director and black main cast, there are connections to be drawn out to history and the present black experience, and here the film finds somewhat more subtle and fertile ground. For example, the key to success in business turns out to be for Cash to use his “white voice” when selling — sounding literally like a white man, to the extent that Riley has these scenes dubbed by a white actor (in Cash’s case, David Cross; other character’s white voices include Patton Oswalt and Lily James). As I say, it’s only “somewhat” subtle, but it’s effective. The film’s best scene, for my money, sees Cash attend a party thrown by Worryfree’s founder (Armie Hammer, perfectly cast), who urges Cash to rap — because all black guys can rap, right? Cash can’t. He tries. It’s painful. Then he hits upon an idea… I shall say no more (partly because I’d just have to censor it), but it’s both hilarious and true.

As for the aforementioned big twist, it’s absolutely barmy and out of left-field. Its utter craziness I have no problem with, but for me the film seems to fall apart after that point, as if including such a batshit insane idea was felt to be enough. Riley doesn’t seem to quite know where to go with it, except, frankly, some pretty obvious places. Arguably, the twist is too out there — it’s shocking and funny at first, but it completely disconnects the film from reality (and the connection was a little loose in the first place, thanks to the way all other parts are satirically presented). It makes the bad guys into cartoon villains with a crazy plan, rather than the scheming corporate overlords we recognise from real life. There’s plenty of other stuff in the film that doesn’t have 100% fidelity to reality, but they work in the name of satire. The twist isn’t really satire, it’s barminess for the sake of barminess; and in that sense I’m down with it, but it also means it somewhat undermines the film’s satirical goals, and that’s a shame.

Does he look worry-free to you?

While the finale might be the most obvious example, this lack of focus permeates the film, with scenes that are a total aside or subplots that go literally nowhere. The most egregious example is perhaps a mystery VIP room in the shitty bar the characters drink in. It’s featured in one early scene, doesn’t introduce any characters or plots, and isn’t related to any of the film’s themes — it just is; a sketch-like vignette of silliness. Most viewers probably forget about it, even, because it occurs so early on and has literally nothing to do with anything else that happens, but that’s exactly what’s wrong with it, and why it should probably have been cut.

Riley clearly has a surfeit of ideas, which sometimes works to the film’s merit — there are effective, memorable visuals and concepts, a few solid characters (Stanfield is great as just an ordinary guy getting swept along by shit; the kind of person most of us would be, I feel), and a bunch of funny lines and exchanges. But there are so many different things all being rammed onto the screen at once that it becomes a tumult of stuff that the first-timer in charge can’t quite control (as a counterpoint to Stanfield, the regularly-brilliant Thompson struggles gamely to bring some depth to her thinly-sketched girlfriend/performance artist character, and can only partially succeed).

Sorry to Bother You seems to lack the behind-the-scenes acumen to make everything come together as a single, focused movie. It’s certainly an interesting film (well, apart from when I began to get a bit bored, frankly, as it dragged itself through that surprisingly predictable finale), and I can see why it got Film Twitter talking back on its US release, but I don’t think it coalesces into a fully satisfying whole.

3 out of 5

Sorry to Bother You makes its belated debut in UK cinemas tomorrow.

Comedy Review Roundup

In today’s roundup:

  • This is the End (2013)
  • The Heat (2013)
  • In the Loop (2009)


    This is the End
    (2013)

    2017 #109
    Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    This is the End

    Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride star as Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride (respectively) in a movie about the apocalypse written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

    And it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect a movie about the apocalypse starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, and written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, would be like — for good or ill. Personally, I laughed and enjoyed myself more than I expected to, even if it is resolutely silly and frequently crude just for the sake of it.

    4 out of 5

    The Heat
    (2013)

    2017 #144
    Paul Feig | 112 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Heat

    Having been surprisingly entertained by Bridesmaids, Spy, and the new Ghostbusters, I thought I might as well tick off the last film-directed-by-Paul-Feig-since-anyone-noticed-he-made-films (he also helmed a couple of movies in the ’00s that no one mentions).

    It’s a female-led (obviously) version of the familiar buddy movie template, starring Melissa McCarthy (obviously) as an uncouth cop who must team up with a strait-laced FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) to bring down a drug lord.

    As I suspected, it’s the least likeable of those four Feig/McCarthy collaborations, although it manages to tick along at a level of passable amusement with occasional outbursts of good lines or routines. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hadn’t first seen and enjoyed at least a couple of their other movies, but there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

    3 out of 5

    In the Loop
    (2009)

    2017 #147
    Armando Iannucci | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

    In the Loop

    Acclaimed political sitcom The Thick of It steps onto the global stage in this comedy, which sets its satirical sights on UK-US relations and the countries’ intervention in the Middle East.

    Despite the change in format and (intended) screen size, In the Loop manages to be as hilarious as the show it’s spun off from — not always a given when TV successes make the leap to the big screen. In part that’s the advantage of a 237-page script and 4½-hour first cut being honed to little more than an hour-and-a-half, but it’s also thanks to the skilled cast. The star of the show is, as ever, Peter Capaldi as sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker. Most of the rest of the UK cast carry over from The Thick of It (albeit in new roles) so are well versed in writer-director Armando Iannucci’s style of satire, but proving equally up to the task are a compliment of US additions headlined by James Gandolfini.

    It’s not perfect — there were a couple of subplots I could’ve done without (I’m not a big fan of Steve Coogan so wouldn’t’ve missed his near-extraneous storyline) — but they’re minor inconveniences among the barrage of hilarity.

    5 out of 5

  • Get Out (2017)

    2017 #104
    Jordan Peele | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Get Out

    Writer-director Jordan Peele’s timely horror (or, according to some people, horror-comedy — I’ll come to that) has topped various “best of year” critics polls, including those in Sight & Sound and Empire magazines, and is now part of the awards season conversation, having been nominated for Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and is many people’s pick for an Oscar nod too. It’s a good film… but is it that good?

    It’s the story of a guy, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), going to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The only complication is that Chris is black and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white. But it’s okay, her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are very liberal and keen to be welcoming to their daughter’s fella, even though they’ve accidentally arrived the same weekend as a large gathering of the family’s friends. And there’s something strange going on with their black housemaid and gardener too…

    Get Out unfurls with a slow-burn tension, where you can’t be sure that Chris isn’t just being paranoid. Well, we can be sure, because we know we’re watching a horror movie. In terms of that genre, it’s effectively creepy without indulging in many outright scares — it foregrounds an encroaching sense of unease rather than pure terror. It’s as much about the mystery of what’s going on, and in that regard it’s neatly littered with clues that either you can piece together or, with hindsight (or a second viewing), marvel at all the little blatant hints you missed.

    Everybody loves Chris

    The aspect that’s attracted so much praise beyond the usual genre constraints is its commentary on contemporary race-related issues. What it has to say is clear without being batter-you-round-the-head obvious. It satirises the casual racism of white, liberal, “woke” (as I believe the kids are saying nowadays) people, with a particular view on something akin to cultural appropriation — the point where white acceptance or praise of black people and their culture runs into being racism, just not of the ‘traditional’ sort. It’s more nuanced and current than your old-fashioned KKK-ing.

    It’s also where we run into the “comedy-horror” point. We usually think that satire = comedy, but Get Out demonstrates it doesn’t have to; or, at least, not in an overt, laugh-a-minute kind of way. I don’t think the comedy-horror label is accurate because, while it’s undoubtedly satirical, it’s not outright comedic. There’s a funny character/subplot about the antics of Chris’ friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), but as he’s not actually very funny I don’t think that lends much credence to the idea this is a comedy. There’s the odd other laugh here and there, but no more than you’d expect from any movie that wasn’t concerned with being po-faced for every single second. In other words, this isn’t Shaun of the Dead.

    Everything's FINE

    As a film it’s mostly well made, with good performances in particular from Kaluuya, Whitford, and Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid. The most effective moment comes at the end, an aspect that was changed after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which now effectively plays on the audience’s expectations for what’s about to happen. That said, while there’s the odd moment like that to praise Peele’s direction, I didn’t think it was especially striking on the whole. The film’s certainly not without glaring faults, like the grating ‘comedy’ character I already mentioned, or a deluge of exposition at the start of act three that’s disappointingly clunky.

    This is why I’m not convinced by Get Out’s presence in those best-of-year conversations. Personally, I think it’s merely the timeliness of what it has to say that has put it in that position — perhaps, if we’re being cynical, even just white critics/voters being keen to signal their approval of its message. Or maybe the way it encapsulates and comments on things that are very pertinent in society right now is merit enough? Whether it’s the year’s best film or not, it deserves to be seen, not only for its commentary on contemporary issues, but simply as an entertaining horror-mystery.

    4 out of 5

    Get Out is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016)

    2017 #6
    Jeremy Konner | 50 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie

    Almost a year ago, Donald Trump was still just a Republican candidate that half of the US and most of the rest of the world laughed at, waiting for something to come along and make him go away. And at that time, this was released: a feature-length(-ish) spoof from sketch comedy website Funny or Die, with a (sort-of-)starry cast, that no one knew was coming. That surprise factor — “a website that does short sketches has made a whole movie and it stars famous people and we didn’t know about it but it’s out now!” — is, frankly, the most memorable thing about it.

    Introduced by Ron Howard, who supposedly discovered a VHS copy at a yard sale or something, the film poses as a lost ’80s TV movie produced by Trump himself as an adaptation of his best-selling book of the same name. Trump is played by Johnny Depp, under a pile of prosthetics and doing a passable version of that distinctive voice, who comes across a kid and relates some exploits from his life. There are cameo appearances by quite famous people like Alfred Molina, Henry Winkler, Stephen Merchant, Patton Oswalt, Robert Morse, Room’s Jacob Tremblay (looking vacantly amused), and Christopher Lloyd doing what most of his career has consisted of these past few years: playing Doc Brown in a Back to the Future joke/reference. There are some other people who get billed above some of those people, so maybe they’re also famous in America, I don’t know.

    Make kung fu great again

    Considering its pedigree, it should come as no surprise that The Art of the Deal: The Movie plays like a very long, out of control sketch. Just like all sketch comedy, some jokes land better than others, and just like most sketch comedy, it begins to outstay its welcome by the end. It gets a lot of passes because Trump is so ridiculous that anyone taking the piss out of him is always welcome, and as such it ticks over with a level of slight amusement rather than outright hilarity.

    Bits that do land include the ever-so-’80s title song by Kenny Loggins; the ethnicity of the kid suddenly changing every time Trump notices it; a bit about him paying tramps to piss in a building that (accidentally) has added resonance now; some of the comedy end credits; and a post-credit bookend with Howard, who declares that “we should probably just pretend that this film, and in fact Donald Trump, never even existed.”

    Indeed.

    3 out of 5

    Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #49

    Sex. Murder. Mystery.
    Welcome to the party.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 103 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 14th September 2005 (France)
    US Release: 21st October 2005
    UK Release: 11th November 2005
    First Seen: cinema, 2005

    Stars
    Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin, Zodiac)
    Val Kilmer (Top Gun, Batman Forever)
    Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III, Source Code)

    Director
    Shane Black (Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys)

    Screenwriter
    Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout)

    Based on
    Bodies Are Where You Find Them, a novel by Brett Halliday.

    The Story
    After accidentally getting cast in a movie, fugitive crook Harry Lockhart is given on-the-job experience with private eye ‘Gay’ Perry van Shrike. When the pair become witnesses to a murder that it looks like they committed, they become embroiled in a conspiracy that they’ll have to untangle to save themselves.

    Our Heroes
    Harry Lockhart is our narrator: a crappy thief who stumbles into an acting audition while on the run from the cops, and ends up whisked off to Hollywood to play the lead in a mystery movie. To help him prepare for the role he shadows Gay Perry, a top L.A. P.I., who’s consistently, hilariously sarcastic. Also, homosexual.

    Our Villains
    It’s a murder mystery, so, that’s kind of a spoiler. Also: almost not the point.

    Best Supporting Character
    Harry happens to run into his childhood crush Harmony Lane, now working as a waitress in L.A. Soon she’s asking him to investigate her sister’s recent suicide, which she thinks was actually a murder. That subplot isn’t at all related to the main case. Nope.

    Memorable Quote
    Perry: “Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.”
    Harry: “Bad.”
    Perry: “Excuse me?”
    Harry: “Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep—”
    Perry: “What, fuckhead? Who taught you grammar? Badly’s an adverb. Get out. Vanish.”

    Memorable Scene
    Arriving back at his hotel room after they’ve witnessed the murder, Harry goes into the bathroom to take a leak. As he’s doing that, he glances round… and sees the girl’s body in the shower. He turns to look at it in shock… and pisses all over it. Cue hilarious exchange when he phones Perry for help.

    Awards
    5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Robert Downey Jr.), Supporting Actor (Val Kilmer), Supporting Actress (Michelle Monaghan), Music)
    1 Phoenix Film Critics Society Award (Overlooked Film of the Year)

    What the Critics Said
    “the plot of the film is almost willfully convoluted. But it’s also largely beside the point, an excuse for quite a few good scenes, most of them equal parts homage and subversion. The familiar ingredients of the hard-boiled school (and the noir cinema it spawned) are all here: the half-glittering, half-seedy L.A. setting; the protagonist’s expository voiceover; the jaded but ultimately decent private eye; the dead body that mysteriously turns up exactly where it’s not wanted. But Black gives each element a satiric twist: the tough shamus is gay; the corpse is discovered in a bathroom and accidentally peed on; the first-person narrator is not so much unreliable as simply incompetent.” — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

    Score: 85%

    What the Public Say
    “What’s unexpected about the movie is just how funny it is despite all the graphic murder, incest, torture, suicide, and dismemberment that occurs. […] Black effortlessly moves between legitimately realistic, unsettling violence (a murder witnessed by Harry midway through the film is a prime example of this) to wacky, slapstick violence (a late-in-the-movie Russian Roulette-style interrogation that does not, shall we say, go particularly well, for instance) without ever losing his balance. The real joy of the movie, though, is watching Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. bounce off one another.” — Jake Farley, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

    Verdict

    One-time “highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood” Shane Black made his directorial debut with this satirical neo-noir, which can be credited with reviving Robert Downey Jr’s career for the third or fourth time (it led directly to him being cast in Iron Man). The film’s best quality is probably its humorous dialogue — choosing just one memorable quote was hard, though many come in lengthy exchanges. Downey Jr is hilarious, of course, but even he’s outmatched by Val Kilmer as sarky investigator Gay Perry. Even more impressively, love interest Michelle Monaghan holds her own against them both. The plot may be so confusing it’s easily forgotten, but the whodunnit reveal is beside the point when the journey there is so entertaining.

    #50 will… retrace each and every one of the Baudelaire children’s woeful steps.

    They Live (1988)

    2015 #123
    John Carpenter | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Sci-fi parable about aliens controlling us via subliminal advertising.

    There’s action, including a comically lengthy fight between lead good guys Roddy Piper and Keith David, but the meat is satire. Thirty years on, it remains thematically relevant; perhaps even more so. That no one’s actively considering a remake suggests how Hollywood has lost its political teeth. I’m not saying they should remake it, just, y’know, Hollywood.

    In fact, considering the apparently-victorious ending is kinda bleak if you think it through, perhaps they should make a sequel with the status quo unchanged decades later. It might be rubbish, but there’s potential.

    4 out of 5

    This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Brazil (1985)

    aka Brazil: The Final Cut

    2015 #100
    Terry Gilliam | 143 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    I normally aim for a “critical” (for want of a better word) rather than “bloggy” (for want of a better word) tone in my reviews, just because I do (that’s in no way a criticism of others, etc). Here is where I fail as a film writer in that sense, though, because I’m not even sure how I’m meant to review Terry Gilliam’s dystopian sci-fi satire Brazil, a film as famed for its storied release history as for the movie itself.

    It’s a film I’ve long looked forward to watching, utterly convinced it was “the kind of thing I’d like”, but then almost put off by the fact that I should like it. I was rather pleased when it finally popped up on this year’s What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen because it’s precisely the kind of film (or “one of the kinds of films”) that project was meant to ‘force’ me to watch. And, thankfully, I did really enjoy it. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s massively imaginative in both its visuals and its storytelling, and its influences on the 30 years of dystopian fiction that have followed is… well, fairly clear, because it also has influences of its own, so whether future works are influenced by the original influence or whether the influencee has become the influencer is an over-complex matter for over-complex people to discuss ad infinitum.

    I can tell you, factually, that there are at least four versions of Brazil: differing European and American theatrical versions; the “Love Conquers All” version (which according to the Criterion DVD is a cut for syndicated TV that made all the changes Gilliam refused to make, but may never have actually been released outside of that box set (IMDb implies it was never shown)); and the “Final Cut” that Gilliam assembled for Criterion in 1996 that is now the version released everywhere always (to the best of my knowledge). I’m sure there’s a thorough list of differences somewhere, but one good anecdote from Gilliam’s audio commentary tells how the ‘morning after’ scene was cut from the European release so last-minute that it was literally physically removed from the premiere print. (Gilliam regretted it immediately and it was restored for the video release.)

    I can also tell you that I now struggle to read the word “Brazil” without hearing the “Braaziiiil” refrain from the soundtrack.

    Brazil was 30 this year, but its particular brand of retro-futurism hasn’t dated, and its themes and issues are as relevant as ever. It’s a bit of a head trip of a film, which is what one should always expect from the guy who did the cartoons for Monty Python, I figure. I don’t know if it always gets its due in the consensus history of sci-fi cinema — in “best ever” lists and that kind of thing — though I’m not doing anything today that will help improve that.

    The best I can say is that, if you like a bit of dystopian SF but have somehow (like me, until now) missed Brazil, that’s a situation you want to rectify lickety-split.

    5 out of 5

    Brazil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

    It placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Braaziiiil…

    Birdman (2014)

    aka Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

    2015 #164
    Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
    9 nominations — 4 wins

    Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
    Nominated: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.



    I started the week by reviewing the first Best Picture winner, and now end it with a review of the most recent — which just so happens to be coming to Sky Movies and Now TV from today (couldn’t’ve planned that much better if I’d tried!)

    Birdman isn’t a superhero movie, though if the title sounds like one then that’s no accident: Michael Keaton is an actor who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Well, to clarify, Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan Thomson, who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s — the Birdman of the title. Decades later, he’s trying to be taken seriously by starring in a play on Broadway… which he’s also written… and is directing… and has sunk his personal finances into. So it’s probably not a good thing that one of his cast can’t act, his personal life is all over the place, the critics hate him before the play’s even opened, and he’s hallucinating superpowers.

    Birdman is a comedy. “How the heck did a comedy win Best Picture at the Oscars?” you might well wonder, because that never happens anymore. Well, it’s a comedy-drama — it’s certainly funny, but drily so, and with lots of Personal Character Drama and a few Issues along the way. As it goes on, and gets a bit weird and kinda arthouse-y (as if it wasn’t to start with), you may forget that’s where it began. Nonetheless, I found it more consistently amusing than other recent acclaimed comedic Best Picture nominees, like the disappointing American Hustle.

    In part this is thanks to Keaton, who gives quite an immersive performance as the numbed, self-deluded star. Some people were very much behind him for the Best Actor gong, but I think it found its rightful home: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was transformative to the point you forgot you were watching an actor; Keaton is just rather good. Anyway, for me the more enjoyable performance came in a supporting turn from Edward Norton. Norton is a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor… sorry, Norton plays a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor, who joins Riggan’s production and begins to wreak all kinds of havoc.

    The rest of the cast are dealt very mixed hands. Emma Stone is good, but was there enough meat on the role’s bones to justify Best Supporting Actress, other than one awards-clip-baiting shouty monologue? I’m not sure. The most memorable thing about her performance is how extraordinarily large her eyes are. Andrea Riseborough is thrown a bone or two; Zach Galifianakis doesn’t showboat like I’d’ve expected a comedian with his background to; Lindsay Duncan appears for one scene, but it’s a pretty good one (sometimes it really benefits American movies that there are swathes of fantastic British actors who are capable of first-rate leading performances, but so low down the food chain that they can be drafted in for single-scene roles); and Naomi Watts is utterly wasted. (At one point Riseborough and Watts kiss, which is apparently a spoiler for Mulholland Drive because she kisses a woman in that too. Oh IMDb trivia section, you will let any old rubbish in.)

    Famously, almost the entire film takes place in a single take. A fake one, of course. Well, I say of course — Russian Ark did a feature-length single take for real. I’d assumed this meant the film took place in real time, because that seems the obvious thing to use an unbroken shot for — to show us everything that occurred in the time it occurred. But no. Iñárritu uses that and the fact it’s faked quite cleverly at times, to pull off impossible changes of location. For example, at one point the camera leaves Norton in the theatre’s gods and drifts down towards the stage, where we can see him mid-performance.

    The most curious aspect of the single take is: what did it need two editors for?! Everything had to be meticulously planned in advance — apparently, longer was spent on the screenplay than is normal, because once it was shot nothing could be cut — so surely all someone had to do was stick it together at the joins? Some of those joins are actually fairly obvious (your familiarity with filmmaking techniques and where joins might be hidden will dictate exactly how many), but a decent number remain hidden, I think. Well, I presume — I didn’t see them. Anyway, it’s more a feat of logistics and cinematography, the latter of which Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki did win an award for. How deserved that was, I’m not sure. It’s very impressive to work out how to shoot a movie in a single take, even a pretend one, but surely cinematography awards are for the quality of the images, not the logistics of moving your camera around? Birdman is by no means an ugly film, but the best-looking of the year? I’m not so sure.

    Birdman is an entertaining film, both funny enough to keep the spirits up and dramatic enough to feel there’s some depth there. It’s also a mightily impressive feat of technical moviemaking, but then I do love a long single take (even a fake one). Is it the Best Picture of 2014? Well, from the nominees, it’s not the funniest (The Grand Budapest Hotel), nor does it have the most impactful performances (The Theory of Everything), nor is it the must gripping or thought-provoking (Whiplash), and it doesn’t feel the most significant (Boyhood). There is an interesting element of having its cake and eating it about Birdman, though, as it berates The Movies for their current superhero obsession while telling the story of a Hollywood actor who sets out to prove those snooty New York theatre critics wrong. Hm, however did this win Best Picture from an organisation whose main voting bloc is Hollywood actors?

    4 out of 5

    Birdman debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:45pm and 10:10pm.

    Modern Times (1936)

    2014 #55
    Charles Chaplin | 83 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Modern TimesCharlie Chaplin satirises technology and modernisation in arguably the last film of the silent era. It actually has a synchronised soundtrack, primarily for music and effects, but also dialogue — though “we hear spoken voices only when they come from mechanical devices, a symbol of the film’s theme of technology and dehumanization.” The irony is it was that technological progress which rendered Modern Times the last hurrah for the era Chaplin remains most identified with.

    Stand-out sequences include Chaplin and co-workers battling a speedy production line, and him being the test subject for a new machine designed to feed workers quickly.

    4 out of 5

    Modern Times was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

    In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.