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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Dreams of a Life (2011)

2015 #151
Carol Morley | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & Ireland / English | 12A

In 2006, the body of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent was found in her London bedsit, surrounded by Christmas presents and with the TV still on. Sad, but largely unremarkable, were it not for the fact that she’d been dead for three years.

Carol Morley’s documentary attempts to uncover the story of Joyce’s life, and how it reached a point where no one noticed she’d been gone for so long. It’s told mainly by her friends and colleagues (her remaining family, perhaps unsurprisingly, declined to take part), who paint a picture of an attractive, outgoing, personable woman; but also one who was a social chameleon, adapting to her current group of friends, and sometimes disappearing for months at a time. Later, her life seemed to follow a more tragic path, though details are scant for various reasons.

As it goes about encapsulating a life that ended so tragically, Dreams of a Life is surely one of the most heartbreaking films you’ll ever see. Consequently, I don’t quite understand the negative reaction you’ll find in some comments sections online, because I thought it was unmistakably powerful and affecting. I know this is a review of the film rather than other people’s reactions to it, but, well, as much as I found the film insightful and upsetting, some of those reactions angered me, so let’s have a go at them anyway.

Some people seem to view this as little more than a detective mystery, and are frustrated that Morley ‘chose’ to leave out details. I guess such critics have no understanding of things like confidentiality (when it comes to why Joyce was in a women’s refuge and what she disclosed there), rights to privacy (if the family don’t want to be interviewed, you can’t force them), the realities of investigating a real-life case (maybe some people who knew her in those final years just don’t want to be found), or human decency (Joyce led a fragmented life that came to a terribly sad end, and all you can think about is why she didn’t leave a few more clues around for you to deduce what happened and why?!)

Some people outright refuse to believe the story. “It’s implausible no one noticed her bills hadn’t been paid for so long.” Well, that’s what happened, kiddo. Whether it seems plausible to you or not, it obviously occurred. I don’t wish to tar an entire nation with the same brush, but the people who find these parts incredulous often seem to be American, generally because certain things work differently in the UK to the US. There’s a certain type of person who seems to believe the entire world operates in the same way as the US (not just Americans — thanks to the overabundance of US films and TV, it’s been observed around the world that there are people who think their own country has the same laws/rights/etc as the US), but obviously that isn’t true, and this is a case in point.

On the more considered side of the internet, there’s a reasonable debate to be found about the filmmakers’ right to tell the story at all. Joyce kept her life story secret even from some of her closest friends, and yet here it is being picked over in a movie for anyone to see. Is it moral to do such a thing? Should she not just be left in peace? Are the extraordinary circumstances of her death a good enough reason for this level of prying? Surely her death and how it came to occur needs to be understood, though, and surely the only way to do that fully is to examine her life. But is that not the business of inquests and the like, not films? But then, the filmmakers seem to have dug up information the inquest didn’t get close to unveiling. Perhaps the question is, when does society’s interest justifiably overtake the rights of the individual? Does it here? I’m not sure. Maybe.

One criticism I will side with is that the film is sometimes frustratingly put together. The accounts of Joyce’s childhood and early 20s are jumbled up, flitting back and forth in time. The viewer has to piece together the chronology; a challenge for no particular reason. Dramatic recreations of her life are largely pointless, though arguably necessary in a visual medium. Actress Zawe Ashton portrays Joyce in her 20s and 30s, but any scene where she’s required to give a performance — to do more than just walk around in a dumbshow recreation of that life — feel too much like a needless dramatisation, not the fact-based reenactment you’d expect or want from a documentary.

Nonetheless, these flaws can’t detract from the fundamental power of the story being told. If you come away from this thinking not about how sad it was for both Joyce and the people who knew her (especially Martin, especially in the film’s final moments), or what you should or could perhaps be doing better in your life, but instead being angry that it didn’t satiate your ghoulish need for full and frank revelations… well, I don’t know what to say about you, but it wouldn’t be very nice. Through this incident, Morley and her interviewees are really making bigger points about our society and our relationships. It’s no one’s fault, per se, that this happened to Joyce, but that it can happen is horrendous.

5 out of 5

Dreams of a Life is on Film4 tonight at 1:30am.

Blitz (2011)

2015 #58
Elliott Lester | 93 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK, France & USA / English | 18 / R

BlitzJason Statham plays the kind of copper who wakes up on his sofa in the middle of the night, immediately pours himself a whiskey in a mug, then goes out and beats up three youths who were trying to nick a car, in this godawful crime novel adaptation.

The plot is something to do with someone killing police officers, seemingly at random, but don’t worry about that because there are multitudinous reasons not to bother watching it. It feels like it was made for TV in the ’70s — the quality of the dialogue, the attitudes, the performances, the visuals… Not just the ’70s, even, just any cheap “for blokes” production from before the millennium. Throwback entertainment can work — though we tend to call it “retro” and play it tongue-in-cheek — but Blitz just feels dated.

The writing is, unsurprisingly, awful. It’s adapted from the fourth novel in a series, which apparently explains why some of the supporting characters (Zawe Ashton’s in particular) engage in pointless subplots barely connected to the main narrative — in the novels, it’s an ongoing thread spanning multiple books. Why did it get left in? Presumably because writer Nathan Parker doesn’t know what he’s doing. He did also write the acclaimed Moon though, so who knows.

The running manAt least it has some so-bad-they’re-good one-liners — “Aren’t you going to take any notes?” “Do I look like I carry a pencil?” Unfortunately, their presence meant the thing Blitz most reminded me of was A Touch of Cloth, Charlie Brooker’s Naked Gun-esque police procedural spoof. After that notion embeds itself, the whole film feels like a straight-faced spoof, where nothing that occurs can possibly have been meant to be taken seriously.

Surprisingly, the cast is filled out with some really good (and/or recognisable) actors slumming it: David Morrissey, Paddy Considine, Aidan Gillen, Luke Evans, Mark Rylance. Yes, Mark Rylance. Mark “Wolf Hall” Rylance. Mark “greatest theatre actor of his generation” Rylance. Mark bleeding Rylance! Why, Mark? Why?!

The cast might make you think this is an above-average Jason Statham movie. It isn’t. In fact, even by the standards of Statham’s usual work, this is bad. Avoid it.

1 out of 5

Blitz featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.