I tend to be impressed by film doing a single thing well and managing to do that one good thing through its running time. Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’or-winning The Square manages to be good at doing many things simultaneously, to the point where it’s hard to collect all those things in your head at once. I needed a couple of hours afterward to decompress.
A spiritual partner to last year’s Toni Erdmann, The Square is a dark comedy of white, European anxiety as represented by Christian (Danish actor Claes Bang, a revelation), a terminally distracted Stockholm art museum curator. He’s under pressure to manage the expenses at work while orchestrating the promotion of a new exhibition just as his phone and wallet are stolen. Tracking down his phone, he makes a particularly bad decision that has immediate consequences, to his mental health, to his Tesla’s paint job, and eventually to his career. He also finds time to be a father to his two girls and pick up an American journalist (Elizabeth Moss, everywhere at the moment) at a party, all while homeless people and refugees fill the streets of the Swedish capital. There’s more to unpack here, including scenes I’d hesitate to describe since much of the film’s pleasure comes from surprising, awkward moments sprinkled through the movie like land mines.
Included in the list of the many things The Square does well is peel back the emptiness of consumer society and our device devotion, the ridiculousness of the art world, masculine insecurity—building on Östlund’s excellent earlier film Force Majeure—and maybe even shine a light on the enmity between the nordic states. I was trying to figure out why Christian is Danish and speaks Danish to everyone around him, even the Swedes, and they speak back to him in Swedish… yet everyone in all walks of life understand each other. I know the languages share some vocabulary, but that’s just weird.
And speaking of weird, what exactly was up with the domestic chimpanzee? And the performance artist who simply wouldn’t stop? Or the kid who vanishes in the stairwell? The Square is a rambling concoction unafraid to let some details dangle, but it’s the furthest thing from a mess. It’s going to be hard to find a better movie than this in 2017.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool
Directed by Paul McGuigan and produced by Barbara Broccoli of EON, the company that brings us James Bond 007, this is quality tearjerking prestige drama. It’s based on the memoir by Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner detailing his relationship with Oscar-winning Gloria Grahame, star of In A Lonely Place and The Big Heat, toward the end of her life. There’s been a couple of these I-Knew-That-Star-When pictures recently—such as My Week With Marilyn and the James Dean biopic Life —but Annette Bening and Jamie Bell’s lead performances distinguish this one from the pack. It’s a fresh spin on the May-December romance—Turner was in his late-20s while Grahame was in her 50s when they got together.
I enjoyed much of Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, especially how unhurried it is, allowing its two leads to really establish their affection for each other. But the film’s flashback structure—flitting between London, New York and Los Angeles of 1979 and Liverpool of 1981—is overly fussy, and McGuigan seems to have forgotten to include an establishing scene of how Glo first connected with Peter’s mother (the always welcome Julie Walters). But the leads’ chemistry is off the charts, making for a deeply felt picture that can’t help but pay frequent stylistic tribute to the films of yesteryear, especially in the charmingly obvious soundstage recreations of New York apartments and California beaches. Expect plenty of recognition for the performers come awards season.
The AFF in September 2015 closed with a superior thriller, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. Following up the filmmaker’s inspired Blue Ruin, it confirmed him as a master of suspense. I couldn’t be more pleased to report that Saulnier has some Canadian competition for that title: Jamie M. Dagg, director of Sweet Virginia. I actually haven’t seen Dagg’s first feature, River, but I’m going to seek it out based on the undeniable strength of this new movie.
Set in smalltown Alaska—but filmed in Hope, BC, known as the town where they shot First Blood—it’s the story of a young woman (Green Room‘s Imogen Poots) who hires an angry drifter (Christopher Abbott) to kill her husband but finds she can’t pay him. Things go badly from there, especially for former rodeo-rider turned motel owner (the very busy and always excellent Jon Bernthal) and the woman with whom he’s having an affair (Rosemarie DeWitt, terrific as always). Dagg, working off a drum-tight Black List script by the China Brothers (Benjamin and Paul), shoots with impressive economy, the score and the prowling camera bringing a noirish tension from the off. His casting is against type—Bernthal’s character’s neurological issues gives him a surprising vulnerability, an idea Dagg credited the actor with in the post-film Q&A. Abbott really surprises as the rage-filled killer. I’ve seen him in a few things now, but never would’ve expected this kind of an energy from him. That Dagg had that casting insight suggests laser sharp filmmaking intuition. When this opens in cinemas later in 2017, do not miss it.