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Film Review: The Square

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

The Square (2017; Directed by Ruben Östlund)

One bracing, galvanizing scene in Swedish arthouse director Ruben Östlund’s ambitious and over-indulgent The Square fulfills and exemplifies its arch, too-clever-by-half satire of the contemporary art world and, by extension, contemporary neoliberal capitalist social conventions and moral behaviour. During a swanky black-tie gala dinner for Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum in a grand ballroom filled with wealthy donors and dignitaries, performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) provides the night’s cultural entertainment by approximating the movements, sounds, and predilections of an ape. What is initially greeted by the well-heeled attendees as an amusing if convincing trifle of an animal impersonation grows swiftly confrontational and uncompromising, a sharply uncomfortable demonstration of the aggressive trangression of social etiquette, personal space, and acceptable public conduct.

Skin-crawlingly gauche as the sequence becomes before its conclusion, it’s remarkable cinema from conception to execution. Based on similar, controversial dog-performance antics by Ukrainian/Russian artist Oleg Kulik (give his Wikipedia page a quick scan, it’s wild, unparodiable stuff), Östlund’s employment of Notary is inspired, as is the actor’s performance: a former Olympic gymnast and movement coach for The Hobbit Trilogy, Notary has become one of the most successful of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture acting disciples and has already played apes in two of this year’s most potent blockbusters, War of the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. His performance as Oleg in this scene distills all of Östlund’s self-satisfied ideas about Western democratic society’s smug hypocrisy and renders it as brazen, all-up-in-your-business agit-prop. It is, without question, one of the scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, The Square contains two-and-a-quarter hours of more scenes saying essentially the same thing, sometimes well, often less well, frequently with a repetitive sneer. Using the Swedish museum’s Danish curator Christian (Claes Bang) as its center, the film follows three storylines exploring and challenging social conventions. In one thread, an edgy marketing campaign for a forthcoming contemporary conceptual exhibition at the museum goes controversially viral when a video ad is released featuring something bad happening to a cute homeless girl; in another, Christian’s wallet and mobile phone are stolen, and he and his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) become embroiled in a chaotic situation when they print and distribute accusing letters at an apartment building where the phone’s GPS tracking indicates the thieves are based; and finally, a one-night stand between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, wonderful as always) leads to a few more squirming scenarios.

Where Östlund’s previous social satire Force Majeure masterfully examined a breakdown of family connections and social assumptions as a result of an avalanche at a ski resort with deadpan humour and sneaking empathy for human weakness, The Square is a meaner, colder film that refuses to build back up what it tears down. When that tearing down is directed at the hopelessly puffed-up realm of contemporary art, it’s generally a punching-up delight. Dominic West appears as an arch, insufferably casual Julian Schnabel clone whose showpiece exhibition is called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” and features, yes, actual piles of symmetrically-arranged gravel (a museum cleaner accidentally sweeps up a portion of one of the piles). His inflated image is punctured by the profane exclamations of a Tourette’s sufferer during a name-dropping Q&A appearance, then by Oleg, who satisfyingly chases this alpha-male rival from the ballroom (before things get really troubling). Anne asks Christian about a prior seminar about “the exhibitable and the non-exhibitable” with an online summary from the museum website that is indecipherable quasi-intellectual nonsense.

Less effective and more snide is Östlund’s commentary on bourgeois indifference to poverty and homelessness, which feeds into the faux-avant-garde controversy-baiting of the viral video ad. The Square doesn’t seriously examine the issue any more than the clip that it mocks does; for all of Östlund’s nicely-composed interspersed shots of beggars and street people, both the film and its diagetic YouTube video use their transient suffering as an arch cudgel to provoke a reaction from the bourgeois establishment. Perhaps this is intentional, and Östlund is aware that his beautifully-shot arty film, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or firmly in hand, is as much a symptom of society’s painful lack of self-awareness and humaneness as it is an analgesic for it. The Square, to be fair to it, might be in on its own joke, especially given that the core titular art piece – a lighted square embedded in the pavement in front of the museum (in place of a bronze equestrian statue that is clumsily removed by shambolic workmen) that is a “sanctuary of trust and caring” where “we all share equal rights and obligations” – is based on an installation that Östlund himself collaborated on.

There is plenty to like about The Square. The performances, often semi-improvised at the director’s urging, are uniformly good. As a filmmaker, Östlund has a wit both verbally sharp and visually sly, and many of the film’s best gags are placed out of the centre of focus in the frame, to be discovered by the sharp-eyed. Some of these jokes are buried in the wardrobe: West’s Schnabel-esque artist wears what appears to be a pyjama onesie with a sport jacket over it, the nattily-attired Christian sports a knotted scarf like a culture-industry tie proxy, and Anne smooths down an admission sticker on her lapel while haltingly flirting with the curator. My favourites involve the judicious application of animals: the homeless girl in the viral video holds a button-nosed kitten, which merits a whole column of its own in the multi-page newspaper spread about the controversy; the museum director (Marina Schiptjenko) is followed everywhere by a perceptive Italian Greyhound, whose withering glances at the bloviating Christian in the wake of the video ad flap mirror her own; and Anne shares her apartment with an artistically-inclined chimpanzee whose presence she doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest.

When its satirical volleys land on target, The Square can be scabrously funny and definitely thought-provoking. But it’s a bit bloated and messy and even misdirected, often as frequently as it’s on track. The storyline revolving around the theft accusation letters begins with some good stuff lampooning Christian and Michael’s giddy wine-fed bravado at the scheme that devolves into panicked haste to get the awkward thing over with, but beats a dead horse thereafter. It’s supposed to be the equal of Force Majeure‘s rich central relationship-destabilizing scenario, but while it drives Christian to distracted anxiety and guilt, it doesn’t shift his axis in any serious way. The art-world satire is so much stronger, it seems a significant miscalculation for Östlund to spend so much of his film’s running time focused on something else.

But then this, too, is part and parcel of Ruben Östlund larger thesis in The Square. The negative public reaction to the exploding-girl viral video shifts from outrage at the violent insensitivity of the imagery to an excoriation of Christian and the museum for disowning the ideas therein as disturbing self-censorship by an institution supposedly dedicated to artistic free speech. It’s unsubtly suggested in this thread, and much more spectacularly in Oleg’s disturbing performance, that the purported public demand for art that is challenging and that subverts our social, cultural, and political assumptions is insincere, hypocritical, or just plain bullshit. Art that gets up in our grill and upends our understanding of our place in the world is not welcome unless it renders that upending in acceptable form, in digestible morcels. The Square is often not acceptable or digestible, to its superficial credit. But it can be a bit too hard to choke down, too. Is that more of a censure on its creator, or on the movie audience whose prejudices and assumptions he conceives himself and his film as challenging?

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Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Thor: Ragnarok

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Thor: Ragnarok (2017; Directed by Taika Waititi)

Seventeen films into the sprawling, movie-marketplace-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe comes a movie that finally, belatedly gets superhero comics. Thor: Ragnarok is not the best film to come out of the MCU, though despite the phalanxes of clickbait ranking lists rattling around online media, updated with each new installment’s release, there isn’t really a meaningful consensus on that question anyhow (most would say Iron Man or The Avengers, though I would stump for either of the last two Captain America movies). It is, however, the one most in tune with the silly grandeur, the chromatic crackle and pop, the cartoon punch-up violence, and the broad-to-specific-to-broad thematic see-saw that defines superhero comic books in general and Marvel Comics in particular. Thor: Ragnarok is fun and spectacular and overstuffed and expensive-looking and full of funny jokes and and busy action sequences and world-class thespians having the time of their damn lives or, because they’re world-class thespians, convincing you that they are, at the very least (Ms. Blanchett, I’m looking in your direction).

Directed by Taika Waititi with a deft professional hand but precious few hints of the brand of loopy semi-deadpan New Zealand comedy of the mundane that defined his past films like Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok feels about as loose and semi-improvised as an impeccably planned and focus-grouped $180-million Hollywood superhero blockbuster can reasonably feel. As a simultaneously sequel to at least three previous MCU films (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Doctor Strange, with the star of the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch, popping up to help the titular hero on his way) and setup to probably just as many future installments, Ragnarok is hassled with as much short- and long-term expository heavy lifting as any MCU episode. Still, the weight doesn’t sit deep on its shoulders. Waititi’s comedy background doesn’t just elevate the jokes here, it relieves some measure of the pressure inherent to any MCU movie (which is also quite detectable despite their usual light, jocular tone).

The effect of this release valve shows most clearly on the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth, as the titular Asgardian god of thunder and wielder of an indestructible flying hammer. Cast as the bluff, square-headed action hero not just in the role of Thor but practically everywhere he turns, Hemsworth has a nascent goofball comedian side, a keen willingness to upend his handsome hunkery with self-deprecation (as he did in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot). The first Thor movie accomplished that to some extent by pulling him out of his familiar space Viking milieu and stripping him of much of his prodigious power, and it’s a method that Ragnarok resurrects. After confidently escaping imprisonment at the hands of an apocalyptic fire demon known as Surtur (Clancy Brown) with apocalyptic designs on Asgard, Thor returns home to find his aged, increasingly unreliable father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) absent and being impersonated by the adopted brother he believed to be dead, the trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Fortunately, the sometimes-evil Loki has done nothing more malevolent than build a statue of himself and stage hagiographic theatricals to his self-sacrificing glory (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the star cameos of the actors in this play-within-a-movie, each one an in-joke on some level). Still, Odin must be found to assure Asgard’s stability, and when he is located (with an assist from Doctor Strange) and disintegrates into the sea air off the Norwegian coast, his expiration leaves Asgard vulnerable to the return of a dire existential threat.

This would be Hela (Cate Blanchett in full, gleeful villainous vamp), the goddess of death and Thor’s long-exiled sister. The right-hand enforcer of Odin’s long-ago conquests of the Nine Realms, Hela desires to extend Asgard’s dominion and, drawing her dark power from their home realm itself, flicks aside her thunder-god brother and Loki as well. As Hela destroys Asgard’s defenders and takes the fill-in Bifrost transportation portal minder Skurge (Karl Urban) as her main lackey (usual Bifrost sentry Heimdall, played again by an underutilized Idris Elba, is in hiding leading a resistance movement), Thor and Loki are stranded on the junkyard planet Sakaar with other sentient detritus of the universe. Captured by a boozehound bounty hunter and former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, summoning a tremendous, appealing swagger that you just want to see more of), Thor is compelled by Sakaar’s capricious pleasure-hound dictator Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, hedonistically louche as all get-out) to battle for his life in his galactic gladiator stadium against the grand champion.

The revelation of this champion opponent would be a fantastically fun surprise had it not been spoiled in trailers and other ads. It is, of course, the Incredible Hulk, in whose form Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been stuck for two long years since departing Earth after the Sokovia incident at the end of Age of Ultron. A thunderous (literally) dust-up between the two of them followed by a bit of buddy comedy, then a few getting-the-team-together scenes and a breakneck spaceship escape, and Thor, Hulk, Loki, Valkyrie, and some others besides are banding together to stop Hela leaping off from snatching up Asgard to malevolent galactic domination.

Thor: Ragnarok‘s plot is far more complicated than this, but Waititi is keen enough to recognize that it’s all so much nonsense between bursts of moving-comic-book delight. Ragnarok is full of such delight, and becomes a full-motion annal of absurd pleasures which can be effectively recorded in point form.

  • Thor’s opening fight with Surtur’s fiery legions is set giddily to Led Zeppelin’s Viking-invasions-themed “Immigrant Song”, a soundtracking choice repeated during the climactic battle with Hela’s army of the dead in Asgard which commences with a splash-page frame that is among the most memorable single comics-adapting images anywhere in the MCU (aurally otherwise, Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is a left-field marvel of big orchestral themes and pulsating stellar electronica).
  • The aforementioned spaceship chase, besides being a spectacular coming-out party for Thompson’s chip-on-her-shoulder badass Valkyrie, also features the loopy idea of our heroes’ escape craft being the Grandmaster’s orgy-party space-yacht (complete with orgasmic pyrotechnics), as well as frequent Waititi collaborator Rachel House as the Grandmaster’s bodyguard Topaz, pursuing them with silent determination. At one point, Waititi cuts to House in the cockpit of her spaceship, her steely gaze focused straight ahead, and she points a single, possessive finger at her quarry. It’s maybe the funniest moment in an often very funny movie.
  • Speaking of funny, Waititi himself plays a revolution-obsessed rock-being gladiator acquaintance of Thor’s named Korg, and gives him a mild, polite, and wildly, incongruously hilarious rural New Zealand accent.
  • Where Asgard was not always highly detailed in previous appearances, it’s given added dimension and design here. The digitally-extended sets are grand and semi-medieval (the production designer is Lord of the Rings alum Dan Hennah), and a ceiling fresco with echoes of medieval Christian art both Roman Catholic and Orthodox figures prominently in Hela’s account of Odin’s whitewashing of his brutal conquests. A burnished neoclassical history-painting look also pervades Valkyrie’s reminiscence of her last battle with Hela.

Taken in full, Thor: Ragnarok is most notable in both the MCU and in superhero movies in general for not only these delights but for how, contrary to most products of the medium-dominating genre, it leans into its comic-book silliness instead of disavowing it, embraces its pulpy material instead of rendering it in terms analagous to reality. All of this, the characters and the costumes and the settings and the fights and the narratives and the themes, is utter nonsense, ultimately. Taika Waititi recognizes this and draws out the inherent weird awkwardness of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe enterprise, making it fodder for cathartic comedy and celebratory abandon. This is what superhero comics fundamentally are, and despite the artistic ambitions of many writers and artists who seek to make them more than that, it’s still the form’s purest terms of expression and criteria for enjoyment, and it’s the purest appeal of Thor: Ragnarok as well.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Crimson Peak

November 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Crimson Peak (2015; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

The initially seductive Crimson Peak ultimately fails to live up to the deep promise of its evocative design and syncretic root-network of influences. In doing so, it suggests with a troubling persistence that the rich litany of varied ingredients that inspire writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s visually dense, weirdly poetic, and symbolically detailed films (reflected in a touring exhibition of his personal collection currently at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario) can dispiritingly add up to less than the sum of their parts. Not a proper horror film so much as an atmospheric and significantly chromatic gothic romance with elements of the ghost story, Crimson Peak stumbles from a drawn-out establishing passage into a relatively and disappointingly conventional conclusion. It’s not a case study of del Toro’s acclaimed vision being constrained, however, but an uneasy suggestion that his alchemist’s vision has limits and blindspots that display a tendency to let it down, in the breach.

Del Toro sets the latter half of Crimson Peak in the titularly-nicknamed manorial pile in Cumberland, England (all of it, mind you, filmed in Southern Ontario, where most of his recent productions have been based). This closing setting, Allerdale Hall, is envisioned as a classic Victorian Gothic construction, a rambling haunted mansion of pointed arches, restless spirits, unfriendly corridors, and blood-hued red clay literally bubbling up from its foundations like an uncontainable violent buried history. It’s a symbol of the slow decay of aristocratic privilege, with Industrial Age accoutrements stitched Frankenstein-like onto its failing body. Del Toro’s reference points for this house of horrors are numerous and probably ultimately known only to himself, but the titular house in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall, Dracula’s castle, and even the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stand among them.

Before he takes his story there, however, del Toro provides as an introductory contrast the robust American capitalist respectability of fin-de-siècle Buffalo, New York. This is the hometown of his heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a clever but romantically naïve aspiring novelist and daughter of wealthy industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Haunted (quite literally) by the memory of her mother’s death, her romantic aspirations are appealed to by a visiting English aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who with his just-a-bit sinister sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is seeking the Cushing père‘s financial backing for a clay-mining contraption of the tinkering Thomas’s own invention. Carter doubts the viability of Sharpe’s scheme (especially given the discouraging discoveries of his private investigator Mr. Holly, played by del Toro semi-regular Burn Gorman) and sharply disapproves of his courtship of Edith, withholding his approval of Thomas’s marriage proposal. The elder Cushing’s objections will be, shall we say, firmly overcome, however, as will those of Edith’s childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and newlywed Edith will be swept away to Allerdale Hall, where she will find herself in quite a horrible and not at all romantic situation indeed.

Del Toro’s rich wellspring of sources and inspirations colours the establishment of this onscreen world, spanning haunted house movies of the Studio Era, English Gothic literature, and jump-scare modern horror flicks. Crimson Peak‘s ghosts, reflecting cultural sources as much as personal ones, are its creepiest and perhaps most resonant creations. “Ghosts are real. This much, I know,” intones Edith in narration at the beginning and end of the film, but she also tells a prospective publisher that the ghosts in her novel are metaphors. For del Toro, ghosts are both literal and metaphorical, horribly tangible revenants of past agony and regret and love and tenderness as well as spectral symbols of such fading sentiments galvanized by the mortal fear of death. Edith is warned by the ghost of her mother, clad in the black clothes of mourning (and based on the ghost of del Toro’s own grandmother, who evidently visited his mother after the older woman’s demise), about a dire “Crimson Peak” that she must avoid, and is further bedeviled by a blood-red ghoul at Allerdale Hall, which emerges from the floor like the consuming crimson clay.

Colour is vital to Crimson Peak‘s intended affect (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen, whose most notable visual work was on the bonkers French genre mash-up Brotherhood of the Wolf and who is also lensing del Toro’s forthcoming The Shape of Water), but it works best in small, well-observed moments of character-arc foreshadowing more than in the grand, baroque, violent (and unfortunately tedious) climax. The best example is a quiet but key scene between Edith and Lucille in a Buffalo park. Observing delicate, beautiful butterflies dying from the approaching winter chill, Lucille tells Edith of the black moths back home, “formidable creatures” which “lack beauty” but “thrive on the dark and cold” and consume butterflies. Their wardrobe symbolically identifies them with these contrasting insects: Edith’s hat, parasol, blouse, and skirts visually echo the colour-markings of the butterflies, while Lucille’s black dress and deep-red rose carnation align her with the predatory moths she describes.

Intricate weavings of cinematography, editing, wardrobe, dialogue, performance, and subtextual ideas as displayed in this scene define del Toro’s work at its best (it must be said, however, that only Chastain, revelling in Lucille’s waxing villainy, stands out at all among the cast). Sadly, Crimson Peak, for all of the splendour and the near-novelistic density of its visual world, never quite comes together in the way his strongest films do (I’m thinking, of course, of Pan’s Labyrinth, above all). The tense horror-thriller sequences of Edith being stalked by the ghosts are impeccably paced and orchestrated, but are of secondary or even tangential significance compared to the pulpy central plot of the Sharpes. This is a trademark of del Toro’s treatment of fantastical or supernatural elements in his work, granted: the magic he conjures is grand and beautiful and dangerous and terrifying, and it certainly does not abide by concrete human-conceived rules of logic or causation.

But in Crimson Peak, these elements seem at once to be stitched onto a different body of a film and to act as a pestilent virus seeking to take over its host. There’s a better film buried inside the tangled intertextual vines of Crimson Peak, struggling to free itself. There is no doubting the breadth and depth of del Toro’s vision here as elsewhere, but whether for budgetary or generic or imaginative reasons, Crimson Peak doesn’t unfold the possibilities of that vision so much as narrow its focus as it proceeds. This is what it looks like when Guillermo del Toro gets lost in his own head and takes a wrong turn. Those of us who have admired the products of his mind and his imagination in the past do fervently hope that he rights his path again.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews