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On Netflix: VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

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VELVET BUZZSAW
(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, Marco Rodriguez, Mark Steger, Steven Williams, Alan Mandell, Pat Healy, Nitya Vidyasagar, Mig Macario, Sedale Threatt Jr, Andrea Marcovicci, Christopher Darga, Ian Alda. (R, 112 mins)

Since shifting to directing with 2014's acclaimed NIGHTCRAWLER, veteran journeyman screenwriter Dan Gilroy (FREEJACK, CHASERS) has demonstrated a knack for getting top-shelf performances from his actors. Jake Gyllenhaal's work in NIGHTCRAWLER remains his career-best and one of the most egregious Oscar snubs in recent memory. Gilroy guided Denzel Washington to yet another Academy Award nomination for 2017's legal thriller ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ, and while those two films share common themes, they also share similar flaws. Gyllenhaal is so great in NIGHTCRAWLER that he single-handedly allows you to overlook the borderline naivete of the film's core observation that--SPOILER--people in the news media often resort to dubious tactics for a scoop and even--find the nearest fainting couch--sensationalize stories for ratings, something that wasn't even a shocking notion when NETWORK came out in 1976. Likewise, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ is carried by the exemplary work of Washington in service of a story that blows the doors off the idea that lawyers might become cynical and greedy after years on the job and may make decisions that aren't in the best interest of their clients. There's nothing wrong with the stories of NIGHTCRAWLER and ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ in and of themselves, but while watching them, one gets the feeling that Gilroy thinks he's really on to something that no one's ever considered before. His two directorial efforts up to now are pretty good movies blessed by stars who heroically carry them on their shoulders and take them to the next level.






Gilroy's luck runs out with his latest, the Netflix Original VELVET BUZZSAW. More of an ensemble piece--he's likened it to Robert Altman's THE PLAYER, which is hubristically wishful thinking--VELVET BUZZSAW can't rely on just one actor to carry it, which only magnifies the weaknesses and, again, the obviousness of the points he's attempting to make. A bit outside Gilroy's comfort zone, VELVET BUZZSAW is a supernatural horror film set in the pretentious, self-important L.A. art world, centered mostly on snooty critic Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), a powerful mover-and-shaker in the scene who enjoys the constant sycophantic ass-kissing he gets from gallery owners, artists, and agents all looking for a good review. Just out of a relationship with Ed (Sedale Threatt, Jr), Morf falls hard for Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an ambitious assistant to top gallery owner and one-time '80s punk rocker Rhodora Haze (Gilroy's wife Rene Russo). Leaving for work one morning, Josephina discovers the dead body of a neighbor (Alan Mandell) in the hallway. The neighbor turns to be an enigmatic mystery man named Vetril Dease, a janitor who left behind well over a thousand sketches and canvases in his HOARDERS-esque apartment, with specific instructions that they be destroyed upon his death. No one in the art scene has any info on Dease, but Josephina sees something in his work, steals it all from his apartment, and through shady legal machinations, ends up bringing them to Rhodora, who, along with rave blurbs from Morf, turns the late Vetril Dease into the scene's newest star. But those who come into contact with Dease's work start having bizarre hallucinations. Before long, there's a body count as everyone around Morf and Josephina start dying in inexplicable accidents involving Dease's work coming to life, almost as if part of his soul remains trapped in all of the art he's left behind.


Playing like an ill-advised collaboration between Clive Barker and Banksy, VELVET BUZZSAW (the name of Rhodora's old band, with their logo tattooed on the back of her shoulder--a cool title but it has virtually nothing to do with anything that happens) manages some occasionally decent satirical digs at L.A. art scenesters--like Morf showing up at one Dease victim's funeral and harshly critiquing the casket--but when almost every character is either an over-the-top caricature or a ruthless, self-serving asshole, it's kinda like shooting fish in a barrel. Gyllenhaal doesn't recapture his NIGHTCRAWLER mojo here, operating in two modes: incredulously condescending or Nic Cage freakout. Ashton's Josephina goes from the sympathetic moral center to heartlessly cruel viper out of nowhere, while Russo more or less plays her NIGHTCRAWLER character transferred to an art gallery. Gilroy doesn't really know what to do with either Toni Collette, as an art museum director turned buyer for Rhodora's chief rival Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), or John Malkovich, cast radically against type as "John Malkovich," playing a cynical recovering alcoholic and L.A. art legend who realizes right away that something is very wrong about Dease's work. There was some potential here, but Gilroy doesn't seem aware of the horror genre's cliches--paintings and art coming to life, Dease's work being painted with his own blood, a robotic exhibit called "Hoboman" (Mark Steger) that's an obvious attempt at creating a new Pinhead-type horror icon--and one attempted jump scare involving a roll of film on a projector might've worked if movies like SINISTER and IT didn't already exist (also, nothing here is as creepy or as unsettling as any random moment Gyllenhaal is onscreen in NIGHTCRAWLER). There's a valid point to VELVET BUZZSAW--that commerce trumps art and all anyone cares about is how much money they can make from it--but in criticizing this world in such a smug and pompous way, whether it's silly character names or a demonstrable lack of familiarity with horror in general (and the CGI splatter is really terrible), VELVET BUZZSAW is ultimately just as empty and vacuous as what it purports to be skewering. Just don't be surprised when "Hoboman" gets his own spinoff franchise.




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