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‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ Delightfully Paints the L.A. Art Scene Red

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After creeping audiences out with 2014’s excellent Nightcrawler, a vampire movie disguised as a critique of local broadcast news, writer/director Dan Gilroy has returned to an acerbic take on horror with Velvet Buzzsaw, a quirky, quasi-ghost story involving cursed paintings that terrorize an already cutthroat Los Angeles art scene. Those able to parse the pseudo-intellectual gibberish will find some bloody genre thrills beneath a savage critique of self-obsessed artists, vapid dealers, and elitist tastemakers. Brightly shot and darkly funny, this cultural roast may seem like low-hanging fruit, but Gilroy’s sharp dialogue coupled with off-beat performances from his stellar cast keeps things zipping devilishly along even when the story gets bogged down in trying to explain its own silliness.

When a vast collection of never-before-seen paintings by a recently deceased, unknown artist called Vetril Dease (the names only get better) catches the eye of snooty art critic Morf Vandewalt (see?) and the queen of the gallery owners, Rhodora Haze (yep), the art world is all atwitter at the fresh meat. Greedy merchants jockey for position hoping to strike while the iron is hot as they peddle culture to wealthy buyers looking for the latest status symbol, while fellow artists can’t contain their jealousy in admiration for this new (and dead) talent. However, this boon may not be what it seems to Morf and his cohorts, and perhaps was never meant to be found. You see, something haunts these paintings — something evil, created from a tortured agony that now means to exact some sort of revenge.

The bodies of those who would exploit this artwork soon begin to turn up, gruesomely murdered by the paintings themselves, which furthers Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) into an investigation that reveals a twisted past and a potentially dangerous future. It’s a goofy plot, one that measures once and cuts lots, never seeming entirely sure of the supernatural elements, but it manages to get from point A to C without too much trouble — as long as one doesn’t ask what happened to B. Threads involving a cat and a mousy secretary named Coco appear to have more to do with the proceedings than is let on, but the script apparently doesn’t feel the need to expound on that — it’s too busy taking gleeful potshots. Story probably won’t end up being the draw here, but it needn’t be. Velvet Buzzsaw contains just enough spooks and splats for genre fans, but it’s the hilariously pretentious characters at its center that really make the movie ooze with charm.

Gyllenhaal plays the bespectacled Morf like a Louis Bloom who has achieved his ambitions and now isn’t sure what to do, oddly confident in his esteemed position, yet still deeply insecure. He has no problem ripping a creator’s lifelong passion to shreds (“A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity”) or even lambasting a passed colleague’s choice in caskets, yet stings at any criticism of his own work, immediately shielding himself under the cloak of integrity — despite tanking some exhibits for personal reasons. He’s back and forth with himself, a trait that extends to his love life, and that vacillation makes for another watchable curiosity, full of fascinating mannerisms and cadences brought to you by the Gilroy-Gyllenhaal team; they clearly work well together. Rene Russo plays Rhodora tough-as-nails, seasoned by a failed music career, now in this gig for the money. She also reveals shades of a certain Nightcrawler news producer; her relationship with Morf — though not quite as cold-blooded — is still mostly about power and manipulation.

Much of the fun of Velvet Buzzsaw is watching these two interact with the comfortable bubble they’ve blown for themselves, then be forced to deal with outside forces they don’t understand. Cocktail parties are rife with the kinds of people who would blindly applaud the Emperor’s new clothes, wannabe geniuses desperate to lap up any scraps from the table of their gallery masters, all the while conniving their own ascent. In one wickedly funny moment, a gruesome murder scene is obliviously mistaken for an installation; reality is checked at the door for these people. Even the handyman can’t resist boasting of his own artistic talents. Yet, everyday eye doctors and maintenance workers know nothing of these people’s lives, nor do they care, offering quizzical looks even as their free sunglasses are pronounced as “heinous.” Everyone and everything is sized up, a piece to be judged.

Gilroy never forgets to remind audiences of this gaze, often focusing in on his characters’ studious stares, and decorating various backdrops with watchful eyes, whether featured prominently in paintings or relegated to a subtler status. His camera also has a tendency to ‘look,’ especially in the moments of tension that precede a kill. These scenes are tightly constructed, at times more cinematic than the rest of the picture, which though refreshingly bright and colorful, is often a little too visually bland for its subject matter. Slick, yes — but safely so.

But what Velvet Buzzsaw lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in stylish acting. Aside from the two leads, John Malkovich has fun with his once-brilliant-now-sober legend, Toni Colette (in another winning horror assignment) drips of oiliness as a former museum employee now turned art buyer, and Zawe Ashton makes for a convincingly sleazy social climber as she sacrifices morals for lifestyle. None of the people here are particularly likable, but they’re all so delectable to watch that the effect is the same. It’s sad to see some of them bite the dust.

Determining exactly why they’re biting that dust is like looking at an impressionist painting up close, but viewed from a distance, Velvet Buzzsaw is a skillful romp. The brush strokes might be too broad for those who like their slices more incisive, but outsiders curious about this specific world will find much to revel in. Dan Gilroy has painted another part of his town red, slathering satire over slaughter. It may not be art, but I know what I like.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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Tom Hanks Soars in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

TIFF 2019

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.

Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.

Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? [2018]), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.

Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.

Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.

In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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