FlixChatter Review: Netflix’s VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

Netflix has truly become a force to be reckoned with in terms of original content, the fact that they apparently planned on making 90 original movies this year alone… with budgets up to $200mil! In the Winter time, streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon are a staple for me, as weather can wreck havoc on your moviegoing plans (esp when we’re plagued with Polar Vortex!). Thankfully, many of Netflix original programming are pretty high-quality, and they attract high-quality filmmakers and talents.

In Velvet Buzzsaw, Dan Gilroy re-teamed with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, who were both excellent in Nightcrawler. It’s a satire thriller with a rather whimsical tone, offering a tongue-in-cheek commentary about the relationship between art and commerce. Right from the first trailer, I was hooked by the premise of a thriller set in the L.A. art world AND the outstanding cast.

The main players of the movie are art critic Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), gallery owner Rhodora Haze, and an ambitious agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton). One fateful day, Josephina found her neighbor Vetril Dease dead in her apartment complex. As it turns out, Dease was a painter and a plethora of his unseen work are stored in his apartment. Josephina stole a bunch of them, and upon showing them to Morf and Rhodora, they’re convinced they’ve stumbled into something truly lucrative and decide to profit from Dease’s work. So voilà! Rhodora showcased Dease’s paintings in her posh gallery along with some over the top pieces like a talking [creepy-looking] robot and a giant interactive sphere. Everyone was mesmerized. Everyone from curator assistant Gretchen (Toni Collette) and another artist who’s kind of in a funk Piers (John Malkovich), Rhodora’s rival Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), are all equally enamored. Dease’s work becomes a social media hit and the paintings can net 8-figure sum. But of course it’s all too good to be true. There’s evil lurking behind those paintings, ready to exact vengeance upon whoever tries to profit from them.

Strange things start to happen, as people begin to notice that the paintings actually move. I’m glad I don’t have many paintings in my home as those scenes are really quite eerie. I don’t know who the actual artists are who created the paintings for the movie but some are really amazing. Predictably, people who stand to profit from Dease’s work are starting to get killed one by one. It kind of lessens the suspense of it all but I don’t think Gilroy intends to make a ‘twist-y’ movie a la M. Night Shyamalan. I started to play a guessing game with my hubby as who’s gonna be offed next. It didn’t quite descend into the Final Destination franchise banality where the writers just have to figure out a ‘creative’ way to kill their characters. That said, some of the death scenes are pretty creative. It seems Gilroy decidedly made Velvet Buzzsaw a kitschy satire, as if he didn’t really take this story too seriously.

Toni Collette & the giant interactive sphere

Performance-wise, I think most of the actors are solid. Gyllenhaal seemed to relish playing a neurotic, flamboyant, ‘sexually-fluid’ art critic, delivering an over-the-top performance with such glee it was amusing to watch. Glad to see Russo in a meatier role here and she looked absolutely convincing as a gallery owner. Collette doesn’t have much screen time but she’s always memorable in any role and here she plays the pretentious museum curator with aplomb. I’ve never seen the British actress Zawe Ashton portraying the loathsome snob Josephina, well she definitely made quite an impression here.

Overall Velvet Buzzsaw didn’t have quite the shock value as Nightcrawler, which is still the better Gilroy-Gyllenhaal collaboration. This one feels shallow, one might even say frivolous, which is ironic as the outside world often views the art community that way. It’s also lacking a deep emotional resonance as most of the characters are so unsympathetic. In fact, I got so annoyed by Josephina and her greedy, duplicitous ways that I can’t say I was sorry to see her go. As a non-horror fan though, I was pretty entertained by it and thankfully it’s not as gory as I had been led to believe. (if you haven’t seen the trailer yet, I suggest you avoid it as some of the ‘deaths’ actually happen in the trailer!)

I read later that apparently Gilroy was inspired to write the script because of the whole Superman Lives debacle. He was the writer of that project that was supposed to be directed by Tim Burton starring Nicholas Cage. He was dismayed that Warner Bros pulled the plug, he’s quoted as saying ‘Wow, I just spent a year and a half. Nothing I wrote is gonna ever be seen…I was looking at the waves and I was like, ‘I might as well come down and write words in the sand and have the waves just wash them away.’” (per The Playlist) Interestingly, he wrote a scene with one of his character on a beach. So I guess if there’s one takeaway from this movie, at least the way I think Gilroy envisioned it, is that, an art is more than just a piece of commodity and the level of success shouldn’t define it.

Despite its flaws though, props to Gilroy for his creativity and taking us to a world rarely depicted on screen. Heck, the character names alone is ingenious… Morf Vandewalt, Vetril Dease could be such fun band names! One thing for sure, I probably won’t be able to see an art gallery/museum the same way again after this.


Have you seen Velvet Buzzsaw yet? I’d love to hear what YOU think!

FlixChatter Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

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Review by: Vitali Gueron

Denzel Washington is at the top of his game in the new movie Roman J. Israel, Esq. from writer/director Dan Gilroy. Having seen and been impressed by Gilroy’s 2014 debut film Nightcrawler (with Jake Gyllenhaal), I was curious what the director had in store for us.

This film starts out slow, with Roman (Washington)’s firm in crisis as his law partner dies after suffering a heart attack. Roman’s left picking up the pieces and tying up loose ends in court – something he had not previously done before as he was the behind-the-scenes attorney at the small firm. His (what should have been) normally routine court appearances are a disaster; his tendency to blurt out what he perceives as the truth gets him held in contempt by a less-than-understanding and impatient judge. Without a job and out of luck, Roman (sporting his trademark ‘70s Afro hairstyle) walks the streets of Los Angeles, lugging around a huge briefcase filled with his lifelong passion project. What we eventually learn is that that he hopes to file a brief to bring about a class action lawsuit that will change the justice system for African American sentencing and those already incarcerated.

Roman interviews at a nonprofit run by Maya (played by Carmen Ejogo), but instead of finding a job, he gains an ally in Maya. She is not in the same mindset as her younger staff at the nonprofit are – that Roman is like something from another time that is outdated and out of the current mainstream. Maya believes that Roman should be respected and listed to. They end up developing a personal connection and she calls him to ask him out on a date, even though the talk he gave to some young students at her nonprofit doesn’t go very well.

Roman finds a job at George (Colin Farrell)’s firm, where George acts more like a legal shark, putting profits ahead of people. Roman does gain some valuable mentorship from George, who sees Roman’s scholarly ability to memorize a library of law books as an asset. Surrounded by wealth and unethical behavior, Roman chooses to claim a reward for $100,000 with the knowledge he acquires from taking on a case of a gang member who’s accused of murdering an Armenian store clerk. Once Roman gets his hands on the cash, he suddenly starts living large – taking a day off to get bacon maple-glazed doughnuts by the beach (something he always talked about doing but never had the time), purchasing pricey business suits and getting a modern hairdo, among other things. He takes Maya out on a fancy date and shows off his new suit and hairstyle. Maya shares with Roman some her life struggles with idealism and the reality of life, but Roman seems to lack compassion, even though he actually does feel it, he is really preoccupied with other things. The date ends on a high note as we see that they still have a strong connection.

The movie takes more of a predictable turn as Roman ends up paying the price for his unethical behavior and becomes a sort-of martyr for his cause. His real undoing comes about when he quips “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.” The Roman we met in the begging on the movie would have never said that. Gilroy wraps the movie up neatly, with George doing what Roman wasn’t able to do – filing Roman’s brief in court — and Maya being inspired to mentor her students with Roman’s kind of activism and resistance. This ending in no way detracts from Denzel Washington’s brilliant performance, playing a man who is living with a mild-yet-obviously-present case of autism.

Washington brings his best effort to deliver an outstanding performance — one for which he may soon end up being rewarded for — in a movie that is headed for a predictable and unoriginal ending. As Roman tells us early on in the movie, the “Esquire” in his name means he is “above gentleman but below knight.” Similarly, Gilroy’s movie Roman J. Israel, Esq. is above average but below the greatness that we associate with Denzel’s most recent movies (i.e. FencesFlight).


Have you seen ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

NightcrawlerPosterSeems that I might be the last person who hasn’t seen Nightcrawler and I’m even gutted I didn’t see this on the big screen. There is something so mesmerizing and disturbing about this film which is in keeping with the theme of the gawker mentality that the small-screen media capitalize on.

Set in the nocturnal underbelly of the City of Angels, the film begins with a desperate but resourceful thief Lou Bloom who can’t seem to catch a break. That is until he witnessed an accident on a highway and came across a freelance camera crew (Bill Paxton) who film crashes, fires and any kind of mayhem, that a lightbulb went off in his head. Lou says several times in the film that he’s a fast learner and he’s not exaggerating. Within days of acquiring some camera equipment and a police scanner, Lou went to work and quickly sneaked his way into the dangerous and competitive world of night-crawling – these are the people who take pictures and film horrifying events to deliver them in time for the morning news.

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“If it bleeds, it leads!”

That’s the mantra Lou lives by and he approaches his newfound profession in a mechanical precision, almost robotic way. He’s always been a methodical guy, he waters his plants, iron his shirt as he watches TV, there’s almost a certain regime if you will, in how he conducts his life. His work ethic doesn’t resemble as a human being, the way he approaches victims as if they’re nothing but soul-less objects for him to profit from. When he actually talks to a living-breathing fellow human, he also has this robotic quality in that he doesn’t see the person across from him as having any kind of emotion. His salesman-like delivery is both creepy and hilarious, in fact, Jake Gyllenhaal‘s gaunt, bug-eyed face still gives me the creeps days after I saw this film. I’m still astonished that Gyllenhaal wasn’t nominated, as it’s truly a tour de force performance. I read that the 35-year-old actor literally starved himself to play the role, losing 30 pounds as he visualized himself as a hungry coyote. His look definitely gave a certain realism to his character, but there’s more to it than that. His speech delivery and the precise mannerism of how Lou behaves, such as not blinking for a long period of time, really gets under your skin.

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As Lou continues to rise to the top, he took deliberate measures to get what he wants. Along the way he recruits a down-on-his-luck young man, Rick (Riz Ahmed), as his assistant. It’s appalling how Lou treats the hapless and homeless guy like dirt, but we shouldn’t be surprised that he does so, given what we know about him thus far. Lou seems to have met his match in Nina (Rene Russo), the beautiful older news director who buys Lou’s footage. But before she even realizes what happens, Lou backs her into a corner, figuratively and literally, as he feeds off her vulnerability and fear of working in such a notoriously competitive field. That entire scene at the Mexican restaurant gives me the heebie jeebies and the script is so taut that even without Lou so much as touching Nina, the whole scene still makes your skin crawl.

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This is another astounding directorial debut in recent memory and would perhaps rate as one of the best debut by a screenwriter. Dan Gilroy co-wrote The Fall and The Bourne Legacy, which strangely enough wasn’t that great in terms of script, but here he shows not only his screenwriting chops, but also his talents behind the camera. The way he filmed mostly at night, there’s an eerie, haunting quality that adds to the suspense. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time even though there’s not that much action going on throughout.

The chase towards the end is utterly exhilarating not only because of the car chase itself, but the manic energy that Lou displays throughout. He proceeds to drive like a maniac despite Rick’s protest to slow down, and in a way we live vicariously through him in the way he views Lou. Unlike the preposterous car chases in movies like say, Fast & Furious, the scene is tinged with realism because even amidst all that action, Nightcrawler is still very much a character-driven film. When we think that the movie’s gone off the rails, Gilroy reminds us that Lou is still in control, for the detriment of those around him.

“What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?”

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In this Indiewire article, Dan Gilroy joked following a screening that this is “…about the triumph of the human spirit…it’s a feel good film.” Very funny Dan, as nothing could be further from the truth. I was screaming at my TV during the finale and I think the director deliberately wants us to feel disturbed by the unsettling story. But with any kind of industry fueled by consumer demand, this film is as much a commentary on the TV news business as those who choose to watch these kinds of graphic coverage.

The night cinematography by Robert Elswit is excellent in its use of ambient lighting, it adds so much to the tone of the film. It’s definitely one of the best-looking films shot in L.A., right up there with Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral. I have to mention again the superb acting by Gyllenhaal who hopefully will score an Oscar one day, but props also to Russo and Ahmed in memorable supporting roles. Nice to see Russo in top form and actually gets a role worthy of her talent. I was impressed by Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and the British actor shows his amazing versatility playing an entirely different persona.

If only I had seen this film sooner, it’d definitely have a place in my Top 10 list. Nightcrawler is a brilliantly-crafted Neo-noir that has a lingering effect long after the end credits. The film was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, written also by Gilroy. I think it merits at least a few more nominations in the acting category AND a Best Picture nod. It’s THAT good.

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What do you think of Nightcrawler?