Skip to main content

A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity.

Velvet Buzzsaw
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Oh dear. That’s two strike outs in a row for Dan Gilroy, following Roman J. Israel, Esq. And it all looked so rosy in the wake of Nightcrawler. For his third feature as helmer, Gilroy has offered up a skewering of the LA art world via a supernatural force exacting revenge for misuse of a deceased artist’s paintings. If that instantly carries with it an air of familiarity, like an extended X-Files episode that fails to hit its target, that’s entirely understandable. Velvet Buzzsaw wants to be as gaudily over the top as the title, but has to settle for not being all that incisive, smart or funny instead.

I wondered if Gilroy had seen Amicus portmanteau Vault of Horror (1973), mostly adapted from EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt; in the final segment, Drawn and Quartered, Tom Baker’s painter is enabled (via a voodoo priest) to take revenge on those who cheated him of his rightful earnings; he paints their portraits, which he then mutilates, ensuring their demise. Here, the passing of the completely unknown Vetril Dease is seized upon by agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) to further her career following a run-in with her employee Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo: Haze was once a member of the punk band of the title); in consort with Haze, she pretends she found them in a skip, ignoring the explicit instructions Dease (sounds lazily like disease) left that they be destroyed.

Naturally, his art becomes enormously popular, which is when those involved in trading or obtaining it start dropping dead. As one would expect from a horror tale, Dease has a dark history; he was sent to the Good Templars Orphanage following the deaths of his mother and sister; when he left, he tortured and murdered his father, and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane that used inmates for medical experiments, injections, shocks, “God knows what else”; on his release he ended up as a janitor at a veterans home for 42 years, plying his talent in secret, with an emphasis on blood.

Gilroy’s laid down all the detail for a pseudo-science X-Files explanation if one wants one, then, of an insane man’s id-unleashed through dark experiments, but he’s made a film that, despite the trappings, isn’t remotely scary. Even the kills are pretty pedestrian: art coming alive and attacking people in fairly unimaginative ways (by hanging, by robot Hoboman exhibit, and a rather nano-tech-derivative suffusion by CGI paint). Haze’s end comes via her own Velvet Buzzsaw tattoo, having taken pains to empty her house of all artwork, but the only really memorable one is the most Grand-Guignol, in which an art curator (Toni Collette) has her arm severed by an exhibit (Gilroy was inspired by Roman Holiday, but I thought of Peter Duncan in Flash Gordon).

None of this is executed with much in the way of dread, build up or visceral panache. Gilroy compared his project to The Player, and it shares a similarly lackadaisical pace, at odds with its genre leanings, while also lacking that movie’s insider edge and satirical bite. The first fifteen minutes sprawls untidily as if Gilroy’s either forgotten how to grab the viewer or doesn’t care, content to arbitrarily introduce characters with no obvious sense of purpose of trajectory. And so it goes on, setting the tone for the rest of the movie, even once the from-beyond-the-grave justice plot is established.

Gilroy gets the best performances from returning collaborators, Gyllenhaal (OTT, but fortunately not Okja OTT) and missus Russo (suitably cool, calculating and conniving), and also Collette’s Gretchen; when she and Gyllenhaal get together, it’s momentarily a wonderfully OTT competition for who can go most OTT, as if they’re channelling the spirits of Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard, but alas, they only get a scene or two.

Ashton seems entirely miscast, one of those cases where an English actress has been drafted in, retaining her RP, and comes across as entirely wooden. Billy Magnussen has an annoyingly intrusive and extraneous role as gallery worker-cum-artist that might suggest a larger role left on the cutting room floor, in which case, I can’t say it’s a shame to have lost it. John Malkovich is an artist with painter’s block but is only worth remarking upon for surviving the movie (his final scene of doodles in the sand being washed away by the tide was the germ inspiration for the movie, in the wake of the aborted Superman Lives). Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer plays an innocent who somehow escapes the wrath of Dease, I guess through not having tangibly got her hands dirty with his works.

The occasional scene manages to stand out: Rhodora arriving at Josephina’s apartment and effortlessly commandeering her representation of Dease; a marvellously chilly bit post-Gretchen’s death wherein it’s related to Rhodora how security guards thought her dismembered body was part of a new installation, so they just opened the gallery and let visitors in, with kids from a school tour duly stepping in her blood. These are fairly rare, though.

And, while there’s some decent barbed dialogue (“A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity”; “We don’t sell durable goods. We peddle perception. Thin as a bubble”; “All art is dangerous, Mort”; disrespectful funeral talk – “That casket. What colour is that? Smog orange? Did they buy it on sale?”) it only takes one stinker to sink the ship; “We’ve got a fucking problem. Literally” is literally a line mid-coitus. NotGilroy’s best writerly move.

So, alas, we can add Velvet Buzzsaw to the increasing pile of Netflix movies that have given a director carte blanche, only for the uninhibited director to then deliver something less than scintillating. I’m not ensorcelled.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

You’re a regular little CIA all on your own, aren’t you?

The Internecine Project (1974)
(SPOILERS) I underrated Ken Hughes’ sharp little spy thriller last time I saw it; probably, the quality of the battered, pan-and-scanned print didn’t help any. In pristine form, The Internecine Project – I think it’s a great title, in contrast to Glenn Erickson’s appraisal – reveals itself as commendably oddball and unlikely, but also politically shrewd picture, if in a manner that is anything but heavy-handed. Plus, it has James Coburn, being magnificently James Coburn about everything.

Well, it seems our Mr Steed is not such an efficient watchdog after all.

The Avengers 2.7: The Decapod
A title suggesting some variety of monstrous aquatic threat for Steed and Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith. Alas, the reality is much more mundane. The Decapod refers to a Mongo-esque masked wrestler, one who doesn’t even announce “I will destroy you!” at the top of his lungs. Still, there’s always Philip “Solon” Madoc looking very shifty to pass the time.

Madoc is Stepan, a Republic of the Balkans embassy official and the brother-in-law of President Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino). There’s no love lost between him and his ladies’ man bro, and dark deeds are taking place with the embassy confines, but who is responsible proves elusive. Steed is called in, or rather calls Venus in as a replacement, when Borb’s private secretary is murdered by Mongo. Steed isn’t buying that she slipped and broke her neck in the shower; “I shouldn’t like a similar accident to happen to you” he informs the President.

The trail leads to wrestling bouts at the public baths, where the Butcher…