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Velvet Buzzsaw’ Leads Streaming Choices

Some films to watch from a cozy couch on a rainy night

Photo credit: Netflix

Renee Russo runs an art gallery and Jake Gyllenhaal is an art critic who can make or break a career in Netflix's "Velvet Buzzsaw."

Last week San Diego filmgoers had so many choices for going out to the cinema that I didn’t have time to highlight some streaming movies that are also available.

Now that the San Diego Black Film Festival and Human Rights Watch Film Festival are over and Ken Classics is winding down maybe you want to check out some new streaming films.

“Velvet Buzzsaw”

Top of the list is the reteaming of Dan Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal and Renee Russo for Netflix’s “Velvet Buzzsaw.”

Netflix just garnered an armload of Oscar nominations for its film "Roma" and last month became the first streaming service to join the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). This marks the first time an internet-based, non-studio has been granted membership to the nearly 100-year-old trade association. Netflix is becoming a player in Hollywood so what better way to embrace that than to savagely assault Los Angeles' art world?

Gilroy garnered an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay for his directorial debut “Nightcrawler,” which starred Gyllenhaal and Russo. That film focused on the underbelly of L.A. crime journalism and it was ruthless in assessing the ambition of its main character Louis Bloom, played by Gyllenhaal. The film was so entrenched in that dark underworld that you could feel the grime and felt like taking a shower after watching the film.

Now Gilroy leaves the grit and sleaze of sensational TV journalism behind to deliver a satire on another aspect of L.A. life that seems worthy of skewering, the high-end contemporary art world where art and commerce make uneasy bedfellows.

In the press notes, Gilroy states: “I want this movie to do for the art world what Jaws did for swimming. When walking into a gallery of art, one should fear what might happen...”

Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vanderwalt, an art critic who can make or break an artist’s career. Russo is Rhodora Haze, a former punk rock musician who is now a high-end gallery owner. The catalyst for the story is Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a young woman with ambition but far more surface polish than Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom. She happens upon some stunning and undiscovered art in the apartment of her dead neighbor who appears to have no legal heirs and whose instructions were to destroy all his art. But Josephina sees this as a rare opportunity and exploits it.

She partners with Rhodora to sell the art and Morf insists on being the one to introduce the artist Dease to the world. But as Morf researches the man’s life, he uncovers some disturbing information.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is slick, gorgeous and entertaining with an appealing nasty streak. But in some ways, the L.A. art world seems low hanging fruit and too easy to target for satire. The recent Swedish film “The Square” covered similar ground but at least had some clear ideas about what it had in its sights to examine: pretension, hypocrisy, political correctness and freedom of expression.

Both “The Square” and “Velvet Buzzsaw” start strong but then seem uncertain where to go. “The Square” sticks firmly with satire but “Velvet Buzzsaw” wants to stray off into horror but seems uncertain if that means leaving satire behind or making the horror part of the satire. Gilroy’s characters are so shallow and obvious in their motivations that we never care anything for them and have no real vested interest in what happens to them. And none of them is as compellingly watchable as Bloom was in “Nightcrawler.”

So when you don’t care for characters and they are put in jeopardy the horror or the thriller dynamic is less effective and we can watch with a sort of detachment as horrible things happen to horrible people. Plus we get no insights into anything about the art world or even human behavior. It’s just Gilroy mocking these ridiculous people. His tone is so flippant that when a serious idea about art does occasionally pop up we pretty much miss it.

There is definitely a fascination at the core of the film about the power perhaps of real art especially if it comes from real pain and even real psychosis. Delving into what art might represent whether it’s the supernatural elements of “Portrait of Dorian Gray” or the obsessiveness of real artists like Van Gogh who are consumed by their passions is inherently fascinating. Dease’s art has an effective creepiness to it that is never fully exploited. I don’t want to give away too much but his art seems to interact with other art and that never develops in a fully satisfying way, it ends up being more like a joke that Gilroy gets a kick out of in the final moments.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” had me excited about its potential with its trailer but the film itself was a bit of a disappointment. But high expectations can be unfair to a film and I don’t think anyone who watches it will be bored. After all, it also boasts John Malkovich and Toni Collette. “Velvet Buzzsaw” ends up being as slick and beautiful and shallow as most of the people it’s about, but like them, it is also entertaining. I just hope Gilroy’s next film aims for a bit more.

Photo credit: Dread/Epic Pictures

Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) faces the creature she created in "The Golem."

“The Golem”

Dread Central is a horror website that started in San Diego and has given rise to Dread Central Presents (a showcase of horror films given limited theatrical release) and to Dread a new label for making and distributing horror films. On Feb. 1, a press release announced that Dread Central would start 2019 under the new moniker of simply Dread and would release its first in-house production, “The Golem” as a Dread Original in conjunction with Epic Pictures. That film comes out on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday.

The film is directed by Israeli brothers Doron and Yoav Paz that reimagines the Golem of Jewish folklore in a new way.

In the 17th century, a Jewish community in a shtetl in Lithuania finds itself under attack from deadly intruders. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) the wife of the local rabbi’s son Benjamin (Ishai Golen), turns to Jewish mysticism and The Kabbalah to conjure up a Golem to protect her community. But the creature she brings to life out of mud reflects her own personal tragedies and soon becomes more dangerous than the enemies that threaten to attack them.

In the press materials director, Doron Paz says: "'The Golem' was created with the need to bring the fascinating and yet unheard Jewish mythology to the screen. These legends are what horror films are made of: abnormal creatures, demons, monsters and the dark side of Judaism."

Director Yoav Paz adds: “The most famous story is that of the Golem of Prague — a mud figure out of the ground, created by the Rabbi of Prague (the Maharal), using the powerful Kabbalah wisdom. While this myth may have inspired our storytelling, we knew that we wanted to make a new and relevant adaptation of it which would focus on a female heroine and a unique twist on the ancient Golem. We decided to create something based on its Jewish origins as well as contemporary horror, and a new genre was born: Jewish Horror.”

As someone who was raised Catholic I know that Catholicism (be it about exorcisms, the Devil, the Inquisition, or other things) has inspired many a horror film and quite a few very effectively.

“The Golem” is a solid effort that reveals good production values, an effective lead, a creepy Golem creature and a fresh take on horror. The film is not great but it holds your interest, creates some effective visuals (the mask worn by the men dealing with the plague victims are great), and hooks your interest with mythology that is less familiar to the general public.

“The Golem” is a promising first effort from Dread and makes me interested in what the Paz brothers may do next.

Photo credit: RLJE Films

Sam Elliott is "The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot."

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

OK, this title totally hooked me especially since “The Man” of the title is Sam Elliott. Based on just the title I asked for a screener and eagerly watched immediately. But sadly, the film did not live up to the high expectations of the title.

First of all, Elliott may be the main character, but the whole Hitler plot takes place in the past where he is played by a younger and far less charismatic Aidan Turner. So the main appeal of the film is cut in half.

Then, as my son said when asked if he wanted to watch with me, “Doesn’t the title give everything away?” And sadly it does. There are no surprises here that you cannot figure out in the first 10 minutes of the film. But it does still have two attractions: Elliott is always fascinatingly watchable and Bigfoot is pretty darn cool. Elliott’s strength here is that no matter what lunacy he tells us he makes it sound entirely credible and true. That man is just integrity personified. Maybe he needs a “Training Day” role reversal film where we can see what he can do when allowed to be evil.

If this film happens to be on, pay attention whenever Elliott comes on screen and savor his gravelly voice and well-worn features. Everything else is completely forgettable.

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