Velvet Buzzsaw

I’ve been physically and emotionally preoccupied with bushfires the last few weeks, with friends, their properties, native wildlife and some of the most beautiful places on the planet destroyed or under threat. The air quality’s been pretty horrendous even here in the city – what must it be for firefighters and local residents? – and I’ve had messages from friends in northern climes, who are telling me of snow in Cornwall UK and the horrific Polar Vortex that’s caused so much chaos in Canada and the US. So please forgive me for not keeping up here. In truth, I’ve been neglectful of writing anything.

Velvet Buzzsaw 2019

Written & directed by Dan Gilroy.

This very stylish thriller is another Netflix production and I’ve read very mixed reviews since it dropped here at the start of February. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, this reunites him with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo (Gilroy’s wife), who all previously worked on Nightcrawler (2014). Where that film was a dark, noirish beast that centered on some very dubious characters, Velvet Buzzsaw is drenched in the sunlit and very elite world of the LA art market. Russo and Gyllenhaal lead a very impressive ensemble cast in this bitchy satire on the fine art world but there are definitely problems. Jake Gyllenhaal always impresses but I found his portrayal of the art critic at times almost a caricature of a young Andy Warhol.

Russo is entirely convincing as a former punk who’s made a fortune out of other people’s talent, Toni Collette is delightful as the bitchy Gretchen and John Malkovitch is hilarious as the artist battling to create while sober. But at the core of the film is the mesmerising and often downright creepy artwork of Vetril Dease, which is stolen after his death by Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an art agent working for Rhodora Haze (Russo). As people start to make a lot of money out of this work, strange things start happening – I think you get the picture.

While I mostly enjoyed the movie (it was a welcome relief from the real world) I found it quite clunky at times and think it could’ve done with a very different edit to lift some sections. Also, I felt this was a film caught between two genres, not quite being a full-blown satire and never being close to a true horror movie.

Some of the death scenes are quite inventive and there are moments of definite creepiness, but I know this won’t satisfy horror fans.

Fun while it lasted – but quite forgettable.

Colette

Colette 2018

Directed by Wash Westmoreland

Straightforward biopics are not generally my favourite genre. Even with cradle to the grave movies, we only ever see little snippets of someone’s life – usually the dramatic, life-changing moments. I think it’s akin to peeking through a keyhole with a telescope, where you can only see a very limited view through the lens of the filmmaker’s vision. With an extraordinary character such as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who actively wrote and rewrote her own history throughout her long life, there are bound to be contradictions and conflicts. So, I went with a girlfriend to see Colette (a writer I haven’t read since my 20s) with a certain amount of healthy trepidation. I’m pleased to say my fears were allayed very quickly and I’ve determined I must reread at least The Vagabond again this year.

Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice 2014) wisely concentrated only on Colette’s early life, through the Belle Epoque until she leaves her first husband, delivering a sumptuous film that is full of tiny visual details that delight and enhance this ultimately uplifting story of female empowerment and independence. Apparently, this project became something of a labour of love that Westmoreland began with his late husband, Richard Glatzer some years ago. Fittingly, the film is dedicated to Glatzer and he is credited as co-writer with Westmoreland and Rachel Lenkiewicz (Disobedience 2018). It is of course, heavily condensed but through the lens of the 21st century, is a triumphant story of one woman’s battle to live her life on her terms.

Small things abound that capture the eye. The set decoration by Lisa Chugg and Nora Talmaier provides fine period detail of furniture, everyday items and art nouveau decoration and the glorious costumes by Andrea Flesch and their handmade finishing touches are fabulous. I also appreciated the cinematography of Giles Nuttgens with the subtle lighting and colour differences between the countryside and Paris.

A superb star turn by Keira Knightley is a fine reminder of how much she can do with a good script and direction, taking Colette from a schoolgirl in Burgundy to a style-maker in Paris. But she is surrounded by a uniformly excellent supporting cast, including Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh as her parents, Denise Gough as the wonderful Missy and Dominic West as the dashing and domineering libertine, Willy. West is utterly delightful as the pompous and caddish literary entrepreneur and plays it to the hilt.

But ultimately, this is Knightley’s film and – like The Favourite – another timely reminder that audiences are keen to see women’s stories.

Highly recommended.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2018

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman.

I’m usually a little suspicious of films with multiple directors that aren’t siblings. Though it can be argued the Spierig brothers and the Wachowski’s have made some suspect pictures – think Winchester (2018) or Jupiter Ascending (2015) – usually multiple directors in something other than anthology films speak of behind the scenes production issues and on set problems.

On the other hand, there’s a movie like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

I finally got round to it yesterday, at the end of its run in Hobart, and I’m so glad I saw it initially on a big screen. This movie is very special at a number of levels, not least of which is its massive vision, courtesy of producers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

The script by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman is excellent, making sense of what could’ve been very messy in lesser hands. But the big thumbs up from me goes to production designer Justin Thompson, who gave this ambitious project its amazing look. At times it’s like being in an animated comic book and it took me a few minutes to get used to it. Also, this is very action-heavy but most scenes have a central point to frame around, making it easy to follow.

The animation is top class with multiple Spider-people and villains innovatively appearing in appropriate styles, and the level of detail here wasn’t lost on me. This mostly echoes the work of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, and it is a fabulous homage to them both.

Narratively, the set-up was excellent. Miles Morales is a teenager struggling to fit in to his new school, maintain a good relationship with his loving parents but still hang out with his shady Uncle Aaron. Once he gets bitten by the radioactive spider, the action goes into overdrive and it’s a pure delight.

As a PG rated film in Australia, this is suitable fare for family viewing and I was impressed at how many kids were at the session. Essentially, the story is about belonging, family, friendship and expectations – mostly those we impose on ourselves – and it hit all the right beats with me. It also has to be noted there are moments that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. The voice cast are uniformly outstanding and the soundtrack is excellent. Do wait for the post-credit scene – it’s worth it!

All in all, it’s a movie that’s about superheroes of all ages, ethnicities, genders and even species. While there’s plenty for adults, it’s perfectly suitable for younger viewers and it’s a total joy to watch.

Destined to become a classic for its technical innovations and feel-good story.

Apostle

Apostle 2018

Directed by Gareth Evans

As many of you here are probably aware, I watch a lot of movies of all different genres and have very eclectic tastes. I particularly love a good psychological thriller, so was pleased I finally got around to watching this on Netflix over the weekend. After fairly successfully avoiding most reviews and spoilers, I went into this knowing only that Dan Stevens and Michael Sheen (two of my favourite actors) were leads, it was a folk horror/thriller set in 1905 and it was written and directed by Gareth Evans, the man who gave us the astonishing The Raid: Redemption (2011).

This should have been brilliant.

Instead, I enjoyed a solid first act that had promise – but the remainder rapidly spun out of control, devolving into a very incoherent and badly edited mess. I was left feeling that an opportunity had been somehow missed.

It made me wonder if I watch too many films. Was I expecting too much, being too picky? But everyone I’ve spoken to about this in the last few days had similar issues with it. I’m also wondering about the uneven nature of Netflix’ original films, though it’s early days still and I hope they keep pursuing their line of quirky, not quite mainstream productions.

The sound design starts well, it’s interesting, unobtrusive and adds a lot to the excellent cinematography by Matt Flannery, who’s worked with Evans on all his films. Sadly, the soundscape became increasingly insistent, ending up as tags to tell the audience what they’re supposed to be feeling. This really took me out of the action scenes, which were well done, but when I started wondering how that woman managed to get so much makeup (and be allowed to wear it) in an isolated religious community, I knew I’d been dragged out of the film.

Some of the shot selections were very reminiscent of Ben Wheatley (never a bad thing in my opinion) but the script and editing really let Apostle down.

Dan Stevens and Michael Sheen are both top class performers and are fine with what they’re given to work with but I really wanted more of them on screen together, being protagonist and antagonist respectively.

Instead, I was left feeling like I’d just seen something that could’ve been really good that ended up just mediocre.

The Favourite

The Favourite 2018

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

I went to the State Cinema on Friday night, this time with a girlfriend who is very knowledgeable (and incredibly interesting to chat with) about history, style and particularly costume – the perfect partner for a film like this! It was a hot night in Hobart and after grabbing some drinks at the bar, we made our way into the cool air conditioned cinema and lost ourselves in Baroque England for the next two hours.

One of the first things I noticed was the lighting and the wonderful cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Lanthimos wanted to shoot only with available light and candles, which gives a fabulous softness to the finished movie. They also used 35mm film, rather than go for the crisp, digital look that is the industry standard now. The use of extreme wide-angle perspectives is introduced early but isn’t overdone and similarly with slow motion. For me, this elegantly underlined the surreal nature of the overall work. Shot framing (particularly some of the exteriors) and the use of space in general is breathtakingly beautiful The costumes are equally as fabulous and hats off again to Oscar-winning designer Sandy Powell for another wonderfully inventive film.

This film is many things – at once sumptuous, irreverent, surreal, elegant, outrageous, heartbreaking, laugh-out-loud funny and at times, downright bawdy – and I loved every minute of it! Plus, there’s bunnies!!!  The sound design is rises and falls as needed but never gets in the way of the excellent script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and the cast deliver it wonderfully. The three female leads Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are engaged in a complex power struggle and all are at the top of their game here. Mark Gatiss, James Smith and Joe Alwyn are great supporting players and Nicholas Hoult is delicious as the bitchy and be-wigged Harley.

But at its heart is a stellar performance by Olivia Colman. I loved her in Broadchurch (2013), The Night Manager (2016) and especially Tyrannosaur (2011). She brings her best to this film, expressing all the complexities and inner turmoil of the ailing Queen Anne on the screen with a power and deftness that deserves ALL the awards.

Overall, I think Lanthimos has made his most accessible work to date. This was my first trip to the cinema for 2019 and I suspect I saw one of the year’s best films – it’s going to be hard to top!

Go see it on the biggest screen possible.

Homemad(e)

Homemad(e) 2001

Directed by Ruth Beckermann

Thanks to Mubi streaming service I’ve been watching a lot of Ruth Beckermann’s documentaries the last few months. She has a very interesting way of telling extraordinarily big historical stories through the lens of the intensely personal.

Homemad(e) is a great example of this, where again Beckermann turns her lens on Vienna. This time, Marc Aurel-Strasse, where her parents ran a business and where Beckermann lives. The street is the heart of the former textile district, dotted now with cafes and a thriving nightlife but the whole is pervaded by the sadness of a dying culture. The title of the film alludes to the homemade quality of the piece as well as its themes.

She interviews particularly Adolf Dolf, the self-proclaimed last Jewish textile merchant who talks about how he survived the camps during WWII. Even at this late stage of his life, the man is clearly suffering survivor guilt but Beckermann is always respectful and gentle with him. Similarly, she talks with Rikki Goschl, the owner of Café Salzgries and her regular customers. Always the ghost of her husband Ernst, who was the heart and soul of the coffeehouse is present. His photograph is on the wall, while customers/friends reminisce about him and his importance in their lives. The majority of the interview subjects are older, mainly Jewish and WWII survivors but I found the Persian hotelier and the poet who owns five hundred pieces of jewelry but only wears about ten especially interesting.

One of the standout points to me about this film is it never wallows in melancholia or uses outside cues to trigger an emotional response from the audience. There is no soundtrack, just the sounds of the street. It made me want to rush off to Vienna immediately for coffee!

Highly recommended.

Berberian Sound Studio

US release poster

Berberian Sound Studio 2012

Directed & written by Peter Strickland

Another film I’ve finally caught up with after too many years – once again, thanks to streaming service Mubi.

This sophomore directorial effort from British filmmaker Peter Strickland, is more a psychological thriller than straight up horror movie or drama and I unreservedly loved it. (So much so that I’ve included two posters).

With clear homage to Italian giallo cinema, this is the story of Gilderoy (brilliantly played by Toby Jones), a very passive and retiring British sound engineer, who comes to the sound studio in Rome to work on what he thinks is a film about horses, The Equestrian Vortex. Despite the director’s denials, he discovers very quickly the film is a classic Italian giallo, and is forced to work on some surprisingly gory soundscapes. Throughout, Gilderoy seems like a man out of place and very much out of his depth, and as the tension grows between him and the Italian filmmakers, his mind seems to unravel and the film appropriately left me asking more questions than it answered.

The soundscapes are wonderful, but the cinematography by Nicholas D. Knowland and excellent editing by Chris Dickens add extra dimensions to this tense and very thought provoking film.

Above all though, is an outstanding lead performance by Toby Jones, and it is worth watching just for him. He is the glue that holds the film together and conveys volumes of meaning with his face and body language, hammering home yet again the importance of ‘show, don’t tell’ in visual storytelling.

It isn’t for everyone, but if you have even a passing interest in the genre, I wholeheartedly recommend this gem.

UK release poster

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