Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Movie Review: Some Velvet Morning

Some Velvet Morning
Directed by: Neil LaBute.
Written by: Neil LaBute.
Starring: Stanley Tucci (Fred), Alice Eve (Velvet).

There was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I felt that Neil LaBute may become one of the best American filmmakers of his generation. His In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) are both brilliant, cruel examinations of the harm men (and in the later, women) do to each other. They are tough, cynical and darkly hilarious. His Nurse Betty (2000) was a departure – a strange comedy – but was just as good. But I don’t think he`s made a great film since then. Perhaps it’s because he stopped writing the movies, or tried to go too mainstream when he did. LaBute, who got his start as a playwright continued to write plays in his trademark style, but in terms of his film work the last film of his that felt like a "typical" LaBute film was 2003`s The Shape of Things (based on one of his plays) – which I liked, but didn’t love as I thought Rachel Weisz screwed up the lead role. Last year`s Some Velvet Morning then is a welcome return to form for LaBute – at least partially. It`s still nowhere near as good as those first two films – but at least it feels like a the work of the same filmmaker who made them.

Some Velvet Morning is not based on one of LaBute's plays – although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that LaBute originally did write it with the stage in mind. The entire movie is set in one location – a house – and has just two characters in it. Fred (Stanley Tucci) shows up on the doorstep of Velvet (Alice Eve) – with all his worldly belongings. He tells her he has finally left his wife, and his ready to move in with her. This, even though, the two broke up four years ago, haven’t seen each other, and Velvet is an upscale prostitute. She tells him she doesn’t love him anymore, doesn’t want him anymore, and wants him to leave the house. She has to go meet a client, and doesn’t want to keep him waiting. And the client may well be Fred`s adult son – the one who introduced the two in the first place. Fred refuses to leave – and this starts an 84 minute argument between the two of them, where Fred lets forth with a litany of misogyny, and Velvet responds in kind – even if she cannot quite keep up with the cruelty of Fred.

A movie like this is dependent on two things – the strength of the performances, the strength of the writing. LaBute tries to make the film more cinematic, and less stage bound, by shooting much of it with handheld cameras – but it doesn’t really work and is more of a distraction than anything else. The writing is as good as LaBute`s best work either – with too much dialogue that seems to be written for the benefit of the audience so they don’t get lost. But the performances by Tucci and Eve are great. Tucci treats the entire movie like an acting exercise – to see just how hateful he can make Fred – and although we`re always aware we are watching a performance; it’s still a great one. Eve plays things a little closer to the vest, a little more subdued, and it’s far and away the best film work she has done to date. The two go back and forth for the entire movie, inflicting pain and cruelty on each other for the entire runtime of the movie. When the scenes work, and they do more often than not, it’s somewhat mesmerizing.

As LaBute is fond of doing Some Velvet Morning comes with a twist ending – one that forces us to reconsider everything we`ve seen in the movie up until that point. The ending works, wonderfully, and if you`re being generous you could even argue that what we learn at the end makes even the films earlier problems make sense. I wouldn’t go that far, but the end of the movie does work.
If there is a larger problem with Some Velvet Morning it’s that none of it feels new – not for LaBute anyway. He`s done this type of movie before – and far better – than he’s done here, and his insights into the cruelty people inflict on each other, and the different roles men and women have in society, are rather dated. But Some Velvet Morning shows that LaBute still has it – still has the potential to make another great movie. He hasn’t shown that in years – going through the motions with a terrible movie like the horror remake The Wicker Man, or the lame thriller Lakeview Terrace or the unnecessary Americanized Death at a Funeral. And surprisingly for a movie that is built almost entirely on non-stop dialogue, they moment that sticks with me the most is the final silent shot. What precisely is going through that characters mind in that shot? That question still haunts me a few days later. I hope that LaBute continues with this type of movie, instead of those previously mentioned in this paragraph. At the very least, it feels like he has finally returned to the type of movie he should be making.

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