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Writer-director Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal, who previously partnered up on Nightcrawler, take a creative step backward with Velvet Buzzsaw, an art-world satire/horror effort.

Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, an art critic losing his lust for the profession. His love affair with Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an art-house employee, gets confusing in many ways when she comes across paintings by a dead man in her apartment building. The paintings, which the artist literally put his blood into, have deadly consequences for those who gaze upon them.

Gyllenhaal is his usual sharp self, creating something funny without going for obvious laughs. Rene Russo is equally good as a ruthless art dealer—she’s willing to cut down anybody who gets in her way. The supporting cast includes Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Billy Magnussen, which contributes to the feeling that the film should be more than what it is.

And what is it? It’s sharp satire in its first half, and a sloppy horror film in its second. Velvet Buzzsaw is not scary by any means, and it tries a little too hard to be. Gilroy takes his eye off the ball, loses focus and wastes a promising premise and solid performances.

Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Fine performances bolster Wildlife, Paul Dano’s excellent directorial debut. The movie, about a family falling apart in the early 1960s, is sometimes uncomfortable—just as it’s supposed to be, considering the subject matter.

Young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living a typical life in Montana. Mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), stays at home while dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), works a low-paying job at the local country club. Jerry urges Joe to try out for football, while Mom helps him with his studies. It’s not an ideal life; money clearly could be an issue if life takes a wrong turn.

Then comes that wrong turn.

When Jerry loses his job, a family meltdown takes place. Jerry becomes despondent, while Jeanette takes a job teaching swimming. Joe gets a part-time gig at a photography shop taking pictures, while Dad spirals further into depression.

When Jerry announces that he will be joining a firefighting team—despite almost no firefighting experience—Jeanette doesn’t take the news well. Jerry takes off into the mountains of Montana for low pay at high risk, while Jeanette and Joe fend for themselves back home. Jeanette accuses Jerry of running away from their problems and basically abandoning them, while Jerry sees his move as a more reputable and manly way to make money than shining a golfer’s shoes at a country club.

The stage is set for the best performance of Mulligan’s career, as Jeanette shows signs of insecurities and mental-health issues. Jerry shows the very same signs; Gyllenhaal is also amazing. As Jeanette’s behavior becomes erratic, with Jerry digging fire trenches in the mountains, Joe seems to be the only one in his family acting like an adult.

Dano (who co-wrote the script with his extremely talented partner, Zoe Kazan) does a beautiful and sometimes scary job of framing all of this through the eyes of Joe. We see the love both Jerry and Jeanette have for their son, even as their behavior ranges from pathetic to despicable. It’s the little things—like Jerry throwing a football to his boy, and mom solving a math problem with her son—that establish the undeniable family love. The couple is very likable, even as they are going off the rails.

Bill Camp also gives a fantastic performance as local businessman Warren Miller (no relation to the ski-film dude), whom Jeanette turns to while Jerry is away. He seems to be a decent-enough guy, discussing poetry with Jeanette in her living room and talking up Joe—even suggesting he’ll give Jerry a job when he comes back from the mountains. But it isn’t too long before Joe is spying Warren’s naked ass through the crack of his door as he approaches his mother.

One of the more impactful scenes in the film involves Jeanette driving Joe to the area where Jerry is fighting fires. Jeanette tells Joe to step out of the car to take a look. We just see Joe’s face as he uncomfortably stares at the fire, as if he’s observing his family’s oncoming disaster. The shot is followed by an actual view of the mountainside as it is rapidly consumed by flames. It’s a beautifully filmed moment.

All of these performers have great faces. Gyllenhaal says so much with a glare. There’s so much fear and uncertainty behind Mulligan’s smile, and Camp’s gentle expressions somehow denote a level of villainy. Oxenbould’s eyes just scream: “Adolescence is truly kicking my ass.”

Mulligan is most definitely in the hunt for Best Actress honors, while Gyllenhaal is having a fine year in supporting roles such as this and The Sisters Brothers. Oxenbould is somebody to keep watching, as is Dano as a director. Wildlife is loaded with talent—talent that is put to good use.

Wildlife is coming soon to local theaters.

Published in Reviews

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix join forces as title-characters The Sisters Brothers, guns for hire who are contracted to find a prospector (Riz Ahmed) with a scientific trick for finding gold in rivers.

Reilly plays Eli, the nicer of the two brothers, who is starting to consider life after riding and killing. Phoenix plays Charlie, perfectly content to be a bounty hunter of sorts, as long as the mission includes hookers and lots of booze. Another man (Jake Gyllenhaal) intercepts the prospector with the intent of turning him over to the brothers, but he has a change of heart—and the hunt takes on a new dimension.

Reilly and Phoenix are great together, creating a palpable fraternal bond. This is a dark period Western speckled with some funny moments, but don’t be tricked by the commercials for the film: It’s a mostly dark affair, acted well by all involved.

Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) has made a moving, absorbing, appropriately nasty Western that gives the impression that everybody onscreen smells really bad. Phoenix, having a banner year, turns out to be perfectly cast as a gunslinger, something I wouldn’t have believed going in. He and Reilly give this film a ton of soul, and it doesn’t hurt having the likes of Gyllenhaal and Ahmed in their supporting roles. They are all equally good.

The Sisters Brothers is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

With the release of the Golden Globe nominations comes the yearly opportunity to talk about the stupid, shitty snubs that make the Globes a joke.

High atop this year’s WTF? list would be the snubbing of one Jake Gyllenhaal for some of his career-best work in Stronger, the story Jeff Bauman. Bauman lost his legs to the asshats who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon—and he managed to get a glimpse of one of the attackers before the explosion.

At the time of the marathon, Bauman was sort-of on hiatus from on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). In an effort to win her back, he promised to show up at the finish line to cheer her on as she completed her great personal journey. What should’ve been a triumphant moment wound up being a terrible tragedy.

Directed by David Gordon Green, the film is a story of strength and love, endurance and determination—and being just plain pissed off about being permanently injured. Gyllenhaal’s warts-and-all depiction of Bauman resonates in a way that feels real. It’s the kind of performance that deserved recognition.

Let’s see what Oscar has to say about this.

Stronger is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director Joon-ho Bong, the purveyor of spectacularly wacky cinematic things (The Host, Snowpiercer), has delivered to Netflix Okja, perhaps his wackiest film yet: It’s a tale about a future world in which meat is scarce, so huge pigs are biogenetically engineered for slaughter.

The title character is a prized, giant animal raised in the mountains by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a young girl who thinks Okja is her pet. She’s oblivious to the fact that Okja’s days are numbered, so when an envoy for a large corporation (Jake Gyllenhaal, going completely nuts here) shows up and takes Okja away, Mija flies into action—and the bizarre adventure begins.

Paul Dano, one of the kings of movie weirdness, chips in as the leader of an animal-rescue corps that includes Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) and Lily Collins. Following up her collaboration with Bong on Snowpiercer is Tilda Swinton, playing twins (as she did in Hail, Caesar!)—two evil sisters running the corporation that produced Okja.

The movie mixes absurd laughs with mayhem, and the cast is great. Like films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Babe before it, this movie tries to shine a light on the cruel treatment of animals—and perhaps get you to pass on the bacon the next time you are at Denny’s.

Okja is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

I watch Donnie Darko every few years. It’s one of those great weird movies in which new things hit you each time you see it.

It’s also fun to see how young Jake Gyllenhaal was in this 2001 film. He was just a lil’ baby.

My discovery with this viewing: I had forgotten Seth Rogen is in this movie. He plays a bully who harasses Gretchen (Jena Malone). Also, I’m not sure I’d watched it since Patrick Swayze passed away. The film is just a little bit darker knowing the former Outsider is gone.

This new limited edition includes a director’s cut, as well as the original version. Honestly, I can’t remember whether I’d watched the director’s cut before; the version does not seem all that different, other than it’s about 15 minutes longer. I did see a few scenes that struck me as new.

Mary McDonnell plays one of the all-time-great screen moms here, as she’s bemused by all that’s going on—including casually smoking a cigarette after a jet engine lands on her house.

And, of course … Sparkle Motion.

This is a good time-travel film that stands the test of time.

Special Features: As mentioned before, this new four-disc limited edition comes with both versions of the film, along with commentaries, including one with Kevin Smith. OK, now I remember: I have seen the director’s cut before. There are tons of deleted scenes and docs, as well as a Q&A with director Richard Kelly.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Life, the new sci-fi/horror film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, is an inconsistent but overall sturdy genre pic that looks great and ultimately delivers the goods, despite a few slow patches—and a couple of remarkably dumb moments.

Credit director Daniel Espinosa for setting a grim tone and sticking with it through the very end. Too many big-budget films wimp out with their vision; Life does not.

Gyllenhaal and Reynolds play astronauts pulling a long haul on the International Space Station. Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan is actually about to break the record for consecutive days in space, and generally prefers life among the stars to life back on our miserable planet.

The crew is awaiting a space capsule containing samples from Mars, and these samples will lead to an amazing discovery: life beyond our planet. Ship scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a cell, wakes it up and marvels at its ability to grow at a rapid pace. He eventually finds himself also marveling at the little guy’s ability to grab on to his glove and mulch the hand within it.

We quickly learn that life on Mars was probably a total shit show, because this nasty glob (a distant cousin of Steve McQueen’s The Blob) kills everything in its path. The expedition goes from a triumphant discovery to ultra-protective mode in a matter of seconds—because if this thing gets to Earth, the Blue Planet will become lifeless virtually overnight.

The movie hums along nicely for a while as the organism picks off crewmembers in rather grisly fashion. Some of those death scenes will impress those of you who like your movie deaths yucky; Life does good things with weightlessness and blood-splattering. The momentum gets interrupted by one genuinely dumb death scene that makes no sense, and a few talky scenes that go on a little too long. While these scenes don’t derail the film, they do take it down a couple of notches. Without these legitimate flaws, Espinosa was on his way to a very good sci-fi offering instead of a passably good one.

Gyllenhaal, playing what is essentially the male lead, is his usual reliable self, giving his character a few quirks to make him original. Reynolds gives the movie a few laughs, and Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation) is good as the ship’s voice of reason.

While the film borrows from other genre standbys like Alien and Event Horizon, the central monster has plenty of standout, original qualities, and its method of killing people from the inside is terrifying. There were definitely enough original moments to distinguish the film as more than an Alien rip-off. (I’ve seen a few complaints branding the film as such.)

The movie gets high marks for its technical achievements, including some nice camerawork and solid editing. The musical score gets a little sleepy at times, and a bit distracting at others. It’s not bad, but when you are noticing the score too much during dialogue scenes, something is a little off.

If you are thinking this is Deadpool in Space, don’t go. Reynolds, although very good in the film, has a supporting role. This is Gyllenhaal’s film, so if you are looking for Donnie Darko in Space or Jarhead in Space, you should be OK.

The movie leaves itself open to a sequel, but it’s doubtful that will happen: Life is not making the big bucks, and the setup would call for a film with an enormous budget.

Life is entertaining, but it probably won’t stick around in your mind for long.

Life is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A jilted husband uses the power of the pen to mess with his ex-wife’s mind in Nocturnal Animals, an engaging and dark-hearted film from director Tom Ford.

Amy Adams, on fire in 2016 even after you deduct points due to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, plays Susan Morrow, a bizarre art-gallery owner stuck in a rut. Her bland but gorgeous husband (Armie Hammer, also having a good year) is ambivalent toward her; she’s borderline broke, and generally unhappy.

She gets a manuscript in the mail from ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He was a struggling writer while the two were together, but now he just might have written the novel that could get his career going. Susan agrees to read the advance copy—and the story within, to say the least, freaks her out.

The film’s screenplay, written by Ford and based on the novel by Austin Wright, takes a rather clever route: We see the story play out as Susan reads it, and, as many of us often do, Susan casts the main character in the novel, Tony Hastings, as somebody she knows: her ex-husband. So Gyllenhaal is essentially playing two roles in the film: Edward in flashbacks, and Tony, husband of Laura (Isla Fisher) and father to India (Ellie Bamber), in her visualization of the novel.

One of the great tricks of the movie is that it remains a mystery whether the events in the novel are based upon “real” occurrences, or are just symbolic representations of the cruelties Susan inflicted upon Edward when she left him. Also, we never really know if Edward is somebody who simply wrote a chilling thriller and wants his ex-wife’s honest opinion, or if he’s sending her a “message.”

Edward’s novel is a searing work involving a family, led by Tony, on a road trip in Texas. They get harassed on the highway by a group of thugs, but most notably Ray (a completely terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Things go really wrong, which allows for the entrance of a lawman character, Bobby Andes. That lawman just happens to be played by Michael Shannon, so now you know why this movie is so much damned fun to watch.

Well … it’s fun in that it’s a pleasure to see performers setting the screen ablaze with their work. It’s not so fun in that there are a lot of exposed nerves and brutal moments in this movie; it isn’t for the fainthearted. Ford and friends are trafficking in the dark side. All of the worst fears of husbands and wives are in play, and happy endings aren’t on anyone’s mind.

Gyllenhaal, who did a great job with dual roles in Enemy, excels as the jilted husband and helpless father. His characters go through seemingly every kind of torture a man can go through—and then some. You get the sense he worked himself up to a lot of stomach aches while making this film.

Adams portrays a once-virtuous woman made slightly vapid due to some arguably bad life choices. She still manages to create a character who ultimately breaks your heart. While Edward’s possibly vengeful actions might paint Susan in a bad light, Susan still winds up a sensitive, sympathetic character. That’s Amy Adams for you. She can pretty much pull off anything in front of a camera.

This is Tom Ford’s second film as a director after A Single Man, so he’s a solid 2-for-2. Nocturnal Animals is one of the year’s more unique mainstream films. It’s also a movie that might inspire you to take a less-rural road on that journey through Texas you’ve been planning.

Nocturnal Animals is playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

Director Baltasar Kormákur turns in a grueling testament to the hell that is climbing the world’s tallest mountain in a production that demands to be seen on an IMAX screen.

Jason Clarke does his best work since Zero Dark Thirty as Rob Hall, who helped lead an ascent of Mount Everest that resulted in the deaths of eight people in 1996. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Scott Fischer, another of the expedition’s leaders who’s legendary for his ability to scale the mountain without the aid of oxygen. Josh Brolin is on hand as Beck Weathers, the brash Texan who has perhaps bitten off a little more than he can chew, while John Hawkes is present as Doug Hansen, an ambitious climber returning after a failed ascent the year before. Yes, some of these real people have been written a tad stereotypically, but you won’t care once the snow hits the mountain.

Kormakur has crafted a movie that puts you right in the middle of things—genuinely uncomfortable things. The effects are very good, and there’s a nice attention to detail when it comes to the perils of climbing.

The supporting cast includes Emily Watson as the mother hen at base camp, Keira Knightley as a worried wife, and a solid Sam Worthington as climber Guy Cotter.

This expedition is the one on which Jon Krakauer based his book. He was on the expedition and he’s in the movie, played well by Michael Kelly.

Everest is now playing in regular format at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342). It’s playing in IMAX/large-screen format at the Regal Rancho Mirage, as well as the Ultrastar Desert Cinema Large Screen Experience (68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City; 760-324-7333).

Published in Reviews

Southpaw is one of the better boxing movies I’ve seen in recent years. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms himself as Billy Hope, a boxer at the top of the world with a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams) and daughter (Oona Laurence). He loses everything, Rocky V-style, and must fight for redemption and the custody of his child.

Forest Whitaker plays Billy’s unorthodox trainer; it’s reminiscent of the role Burgess Meredith played in the Rocky films. Yes, I’m comparing this movie to Rocky in many ways, because it is clear director Antoine Fuqua drew much of his inspiration from that series.

Gyllenhaal put himself through a rigorous training process to become a convincing fighter, and he certainly looks the part in the ring. Outside of the ring, Billy mumbles a lot, which makes sense considering the number of blows he’s taken to the head. It’s a typically great performance from Gyllenhaal, who rises above the moments where the script becomes a little too conventional.

Laurence, who reminds of a young Natalie Wood, does strong work as the daughter who has to put up with a dad who can’t seem to get his act together.

Southpaw is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

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