Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a frustrating mix of satire and supernatural horror—riotously funny at its best, soporific and pedestrian at its worst. The reason is because the screenplay’s connective tissue between comedy and terror is, for the most part, malnourished. As it vacillates from one end to the other, like staring at a metronome, the longer we look at the images, a sense of surrender can be detected—the antithesis of an experience that is meant to grab you. The film suffers from a lack of urgency which is the very element that the smartest, wittiest, and most creative comedies and horror films possess. It is a misfire of a black comedy.
Personas to be skewered have found a career in the art world, from receptionists, gallery owners, representatives of buyers, the artist themselves, down to the punctilious critics whose reviews can not only make or break a show, they can determine the artists’ future. The story revolves around three central figures: Morf the critic (Jake Gyllenhaal), Josephina the receptionist (Zawe Ashton), and Rhodora (Rene Russo) the gallery owner. Each has a unique perspective about what art is, the perception surrounding the art, and the art business. These figures are not meant to be liked but they must be interesting throughout. But I saw nothing else to their deadpan shallowness. Perhaps a director of Robert Altman’s caliber, for instance, might have done something more interesting.
Although the performers prove they are willing to try anything to get a reaction from the audience (Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette are standouts), at times I found myself turning out from the histrionics and wondered, for example, about the costume and wardrobe department’s inspiration regarding the type of clothing each character wears—the colors, the patterns, the instructions on how they must be worn or carried. When the clothes have more intrigue than the characters, there is a problem. It should not be this way when watching a first-rate satire since the sub-genre is a critique of ourselves. The story may take place in the art world, but it must say something about us, especially those who may not be a part of the sphere being examined.
Scenes that are supposed to be creepy or scary are neither. CGI involving paint dripping off the canvas and attacking people is ludicrous and laughable. (For some reason, the paint cannot be felt as it moves up one’s body.) Figures depicted on sketches or paintings suddenly moving their eyes or facial expressions are generic. Cue the sinister score and jump scares like clockwork. At times I felt like I was watching a horror film made in the early 2000s when just about every horror movie wants to try to use computers in order to create convincing visual effects. The irony is that although these effects are meant to create life-like illusions, in actuality, the more they are utilized the less convincing the overall experience becomes. As is the case here. Notice that as the writing wanes, characters exploring dark corners becomes more prevalent.
I get it: “Velvet Buzzsaw” wishes to comment on the soullessness of the art world. Still, the film itself should create an experience that is neither bland nor blasé. Just because the art world is shallow and pretentious does not mean that the work should render itself blind to the humanity of its subjects. It takes the easy way out one too many times.
There is a point in the film when a woman is brutally murdered in a gallery. Her body is found by people who open the building—and they do not know much about art. It is assumed that the corpse, the puddles blood on the floor, and blood spatters on walls are all part of the exhibit. Visitors come in and out of the gallery. They, too, assume it is all for show. It isn’t until hours later when someone who is actually familiar with the pieces immediately realizes that something is terribly wrong. If only the picture functioned on this level throughout the near interminable two-hour running time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Standing out almost immediately in “Nightcrawler,” written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is the way nighttime hovers like a thick gloom in downtown Los Angeles—beautiful, curious, eerie, and dangerous all rolled into one vivid dream of a filmmaker with a keen eye for not only what looks good on screen but also how certain images, framed just right, can allow the audience to feel or think a certain way. In this sense, the picture is an achievement in presentation and execution. It is made for people who crave looking closely at things, just like the main character played exceedingly well by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Louis Bloom comes across a traffic accident after being told that he is not a person worth hiring long-term because he is a thief. What catches his eye is not the accident itself but the man holding a camera at the scene, filming every bit of detail that might be considered profitable. Louis learns that such footages can be sold to news stations. The more intense or important a footage, the higher the pay. Louis hopes to cash in.
The film is about a man driven by an obsession. However, it does not mean that Louis can easily be classified as a Freak-of-the-Week just because we can almost always guess correctly which course of action he intends to take given a high-risk, high-yield opportunity. One might argue that he is driven by money while others might claim he craves fame. Some might say he has found a passion but the need to sustain it has gone to an extreme that we wonder if it is unhealthy. There is evidence supporting all of these hypotheses.
What is so interesting is how Gyllenhaal monitors his character’s responses like clockwork that it is almost Hitchcockian. Louis appears very calm most of the time that even the more intense events do not invoke a reaction out of him. I wondered if he had SPD—schizoid personality disorder—and, if so, to what extent the disorder has taken over throughout the course of the picture. Or maybe from the moment we meet him, the condition is already established and no true character arc is ever truly captured. When his character does react, it is more like watching an implosion—so quiet but deafening in its power.
One is likely to read statements that watching the film requires a lot of patience. I’m not entirely certain if such a disclaimer is accurate. While the writer-director is confident enough to take the time and allow the scenes to unfold, there is great entertainment in the escalation of tension.
Particularly suspenseful is when Louis creeps up the driveway of an affluent family, enters the mansion, then comes across a crime scene that is dangerous and disturbing. I caught myself shuffling in my seat because it felt like at any second, everything could go terribly wrong. Louis may be unlikable or downright detestable, his actions may be morally gray or lacking morals completely, but one thing is certain: I did not want him to get punished or, worse, “learn a lesson”—a tired avenue that has been traversed so many times, it’s worse than stale.
“Nightcrawler” is well-acted, paced in such a way that we cannot help but be curious at what is happening and what is going to happen, and photographed with a confidence that we feel we are experiencing the filmmaker’s vision raw. It takes a lot of risks with its character, subject, and scope but just about every decision feels right for the material. I am always on the lookout for movies that will or should be remembered decades from now. “Nightcrawler” may belong in one or both categories.
Bourne Legacy, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Eric Byer (Edward Norton), a retired colonel of the U.S. Air Force, is assigned to analyze, determine, and contain the damage that Jason Bourne started after information about the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs have been exposed to the public. He is also in charge of protecting the interests of the Outcome project which involves pharmaceuticals that have the capacity to enhance a person’s physicality and intelligence. Enter Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the select participants of the program who relies on the drugs for his training. His stock has run out and in his attempt to get some more from Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), he becomes Eric Byer’s primary target.
Imagine being struck by a bat on the back of the head and then immediately being asked to solve a rather complicated jigsaw puzzle. That is how I felt while watching the first act of “The Bourne Legacy,” based on the screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy, so early in the game but we are already neck-deep in the secret intelligence politics and seething frustrations of the officials in charge of trying to figure out who knows what and what can be done to prevent a bad situation from turning much worse.
The intercutting between Byer’s desperation to keep a lid on whatever is going on and Cross’ adventures in the snowy mountains of Alaska does not work because the latter is executed in a much more interesting manner than the former. Scowls and intense glares in a professional environment grow very dull quite quickly when the reasons behind the muted commotions and conflicting motivations are not always clear. I longed for the picture shift its focus on Cross and his interactions with an enigmatic man in the cabin (Oscar Isaac). There is a palpable tension between the two men, one friendly and the other reticent, because we are not quite sure how they are going to react to one another. One gets up from the table and our eyes are drawn to him, especially his limbs, because we expect them to duke it out any second.
Aside from the chilling killings in a research facility, the middle section sags like a deflated balloon. It is a mercilessly drawn-out rising action. The point where Dr. Shearing and Cross decide to work together has a slight sense of immediacy, but it feels a little bit too forced. For example, instead of being immersed in the duo’s struggles to go undetected at an airport, I was constantly reminded that I was watching an action-thriller because there are plenty of familiar elements designed to make us nervous for the characters like the two of them having to line up and get their boarding passes stamped. Of course they are bound to make it through the checkpoints. However, there is no surprise waiting for them–and us–once they do.
The momentum manages to pick up a notch with the scenes set in Manila. While the expected rooftop foot chase sequence proves underwhelming, the chase involving a motorcycle and a police car is an exciting wake-up call. I loved the way the film captures the place’s lack of space which renders the drivers impossible to safely maneuver their vehicles. When we are allowed to appreciate the lack of distance between the machines, there is a real sense of danger from the images shared.
“The Bourne Legacy” reshuffles familiar elements that have come to define the series. We know these elements work but it is the handling that it is ultimately lacking. If the intention is to reboot the series, I am not convinced that using the same bag of tricks is the smartest decision because Jason Bourne has cast such a large shadow, what once felt new is now hackneyed and formulaic. The resolution suggests that we will see these characters again. However, with such a lackadaisical resolution, if it is granted to be called as such, I cannot help but wonder if I really want to.
Real Steel (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was addicted to robot gambling which was inopportune, in the least, because he was neck-deep in debt. After his robot was demolished by a raging bull, he was informed that his former girlfriend had passed away and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), needed an official guardian. Charlie was to appear in court to pick up the boy, but Max’ aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), who married a rich man, wanted to adopt him. For a hundred thousand dollars, the gambler made a deal, unbeknownst to Max and Debra, with the husband: Max was to spend time with his father over the summer but he was to be returned in Debra’s care after their trip to Italy. Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven, “Real Steel” managed to be quite involving as it explored the connection between father and son through robot fighting. The picture was smart in first establishing Charlie as our protagonist on the path to self-destruction. He was a good guy, but he often relied on instincts instead of measured calculation to make a quick buck. On the outside, he seemed to do it for the money. He was a former boxer who saw himself as a failure in that field. I looked at him and considered that perhaps he gambled for the rush. Maybe watching his robot fight was like being in the ring himself. As his machines were eradicated, so were his personal connections. Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his somewhat girlfriend and the daughter of the man who taught him to box, really needed the money that Charlie burrowed to pay for the gym she managed. This made him so desperate, he didn’t even think twice to sell his son. Charlie and Max were quite opposite but the same in important ways. Meeting for the first time, the son suspected that he’d been sold and asked his father if he, in fact, was. Charlie told the boy the truth but Max, plucky and sarcastic, digested the information with dignity and dealt with it on his own. When presented by bad news, neither shriveled; both saw it as a chance to start anew and to prove everybody wrong. That was the reason why I wanted Charlie and Max to succeed as robot gamblers and as father and son. Notice that I haven’t even discussed the robots. That’s because they were secondary to the human drama that propelled the movie forward, yet necessary as a catharsis for these characters. Max stumbled upon a robot named Atom in a junkyard. It was a sparring robot, designed to take a lot of hits but not actually hit back as effectively. With the help of Charlie’s robots, Ambush and Noisy Boy, that had been destroyed, Max was able to extract necessary pieces from them to make Atom stronger in both offense and defense. Eventually, they won enough fights to gain popularity and be invited to World Robot Boxing Tournament in which they had to face Zeus, the undefeated robot champion. Based on “Steel,” a short story by Richard Matheson, “Real Steel,” directed by Shawn Levy, was ultimately a story of redemption. Our decision to emotionally invest in the characters, if one so chooses, was worthwhile because it wasn’t just about metals clanging against each other like in Michael Bay’s egregious “Transformers” movies. There was something real at stake. That is, a father finding his son and recognizing that he was good enough even though he wasn’t perfect.