Border(11/17/2018)

About ten years ago a film came into the culture called Let the Right One In.  That movie, about a young boy who befriends a girl who turns out to be a vampire, was widely acclaimed at the time and has managed to hold up quite well over the course of the following decade.  At the time liking the film felt like an act of defiance.  This was going on during the Twilight phenomenon and liking this Swedish vampire movie that seemed to cover similar-ish subject matter in a smarter and more adult way felt like a necessity to defend the honor of vampire fiction, which is an attitude that feels a bit overly dramatic in retrospect.  Ten years later that movie still works as a sort of dark modern fairy tale, which is a form that’s become increasingly popular with the rise of Guillermo del Toro.  That movie was directed by Tomas Alfredson, who went on to various highs and lows in Hollywood, but it was written by a guy named John Ajvide Lindqvist and based on his own novel of the same name.  That was actually his first published novel and he’s written a number of books since then without having really had the same kind of crossover success, but now he has found another set of collaborators and has come out with another film has emerged based on one of his short stories called Border.

The film is set in modern Sweden and follows a woman named Tina (Eva Melander) who works as a customs agent at the airport trying to thwart smugglers and the like.  Tina has a bit of an unusual look to her, one that almost looks like a physical deformity of sorts.  She has kind of a puffy face and some oddly shaped features like her nose and chin.  At one point it’s suggested that she believes she has some sort of chromosomal abnormality but it’s increasingly clear that what’s going on with her is different from any real world disability as she seems to have a sort of sixth sense that allows her to “smell” people’s feelings and fears, a trait that makes her rather talented as a border guard but which can alienate her from others.  She seems to be living a rather quite life until one day a guy named Vore (Eero Milonoff) walks past her customs desk who seems to have similar facial features including a large nose and a weird looking smile that kind of makes him look like Aphex Twin in the “Windowlicker” video.  Immediately Tina finds herself drawn to this guy, in part because she thinks he may have a better understanding of whatever she is, but Vore seems to have a couple of secrets of his own that he’s hiding.

The bones of the story here are not unlike that of Let the Right One In: both end up putting the supernatural into a modern context and both focus on two people who find something of a kindred spirit in one another even if it maybe isn’t good for both of them.  Border will perhaps be a harder sell to audiences for a few reasons, one of them being that unlike Let the Right One In this isn’t really a horror movie and it also can be a little alienating watching these two rather strange looking people interacting.  The film’s makeup effects are impressive, but not entirely seamless, you can see the prosthetics if you’re looking but at the same time the movie does a pretty good job of making these people look just weird enough to stand out but not so weird that they couldn’t live more or less normal lives if they wanted to.  There are also sexual elements in the film that emerge later on that will alienate audiences that don’t go in with a pretty open mind and other little touches that will frankly come off as rather gross.

As the film goes on it does become clear that this is meant to be something of an allegory for “otherness” within society, whether in terms of race, sexual orientation, or disability.  Specifically I think the film is supposed to tap into sexual orientation and gender identity given that the main character lives in society but feels different and isolated from everyone until she meets one of “her own” and starts to have everything snap into place.  The film also deals with some of the darker aspects of being and outsider given that Vore turns out to have something of a Magneto-like view of “normal” people.  That what the movie ultimately has to say about these themes is never quite as original as the weird trappings might suggest.  All in all this is not the easiest movie to recommend except to a very specific kind of audience that looking for something weird.  I don’t see this finding the relatively wide audience of Let the Right One In, but people who really loved that or the dark fairy tale aesthetic that Guillermo del Toro should probably give it a chance.

*** out of Five

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Blackkklansman(8/12/2018)

Warning: Review Contains Some Spoilers

More than any other filmmaker I can think of Spike Lee is a guy you want to see tackle as many issues as possible to the point where his filmography becomes a sort of unified exploration of every debate about the black experience in America (along with some side conversations about New York).  He’s often talked about as a filmmaker who rails against white racism, and that’s certainly something he does, but if you just look at his first six movies and you’ll see statements about historically black universities (School Daze), jazz (Mo Better Blues), interracial relationships (Jungle Fever), and drug use (Jungle Fever again) alongside movies about more conventional race relations both in the past (Malcolm X) and in contemporary times (Do the Right Thing).  One aspect of American racial strife that he has not up to now spent a lot of time looking into up to now are the actions of organized hate groups of the neo-nazi and Ku Klux Klan variety.  His reasons for not focusing on groups like this are many.  For one thing, these groups have often been seen as something of an easy target.  They were viewed as a small group of extremists that the intellectual whites who go to Spike Lee movies aren’t going to see a lot of themselves in.  Additionally movies about hate groups like American History X and This is England tend to be in the rather queasy position of being movies told largely from the perspective of white people about an issue that ultimately causes a lot of black pain.  Of course in the era of Trump these groups are as relevant as ever and far more powerful than they’ve been in decades and Lee has found the perfect solution for telling the story of an all-white group from a black perspective through the true story told in his new movie Blackkklansman.

The film is set in the 70s and begins with a young black man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joining the Colorado Springs Police Department as their first black officer.  Officially his hiring is applauded and encouraged by the department but it’s never quite clear where the police chief (Robert John Burke) stands and he occasionally needs to deal with sneers from other officers.  Stallworth is not exactly a black power rebel however, despite his rather large afro, and even volunteers to go undercover at a speech by former Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) where he meets a woman named Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) who is very decidedly “down with the cause.”  With that assignment complete Stallworth is given a more permanent position as an undercover narcotics cop.  While in that assignment Stallworth comes up with the idea of using these same undercover tactics to go after the Ku Klux Klan after he sees a recruitment ad for them in the newspaper.  Stallworth calls the number in the ad and begins to infiltrate them over the phone and then convinces his superiors to hatch an undercover operation in which a white cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) will assume the cover and meet them in person to find out if they’re hatching any plots.

Ron Stallworth is a bit of a curious character to put at the center of a film like this.  He, like the real police officer he’s based on, is a black man who is more or less proud of his association with the police department and shows a degree of ambivalence about the black power movement and is even willing to wear a wire to the Ture speech even if only to advance his career.  The movie does not, however, dismiss Stallworth as some sort of “Uncle Tom.”  Stallworth proudly wears a large afro (a decision that I doubt Lee made casually), he fights back in his own ways against fellow officers who are abusive or racist, and of course he spends most of the movie trying to bring down the Klan.  His girlfriend in the film is in some ways supposed to stand in as a voice for a more radical approach to the issues in the film and she occasionally sort of acts as his conscience as a black man, though I must say that she at times feels a bit too much like a symbol for certain themes rather than a true character and her relationship with Stallworth occasionally feels like a setup for one of those clichéd rom-com “you lied to me!” twists in the second act.

The undercover operation in the film is a bit odd.  The plan in the film is to have Stallworth talk on the phone with the KKK members and set up meetings and for Zimmerman then show up in person.  I’ve looked up the fact checking articles and this does appear to be how the operation was conducted in real life but it still isn’t clear to me why.  Would it not be easier to just have Zimmerman maintain his cover both on the phone and in the field?  Wouldn’t that ensure that the voices match and that the two would never find themselves contradicting each other?  In the long run this is probably a quibble that just needs to be set aside, especially given that it’s apparently accurate and it goes to the whole “black klansman” concept, but it was still a bit odd.  Much of the investigation into this local branch of the klan is disturbing as you might expect but also comical in how stupid these guys seem to be.  The main white klansman we spend time with sort of represent different strains of hatred: there’s a guy who seems to be just filled with uncontrolled rage, another guy who seems to blame others for his failures in life, and one guy who’s just stupid to the point where you half expect him to forget to breathe.

The fact that this is set in the 70s is also a bit curious as that was probably the decade when the Ku Klux Klan was at its absolute lowest point.  It had already lost the civil rights clashes of the 60s and hadn’t yet reinvented itself through the use of the internet yet or found a sympathetic president either.  We do get introduced to David Duke who is played here by Topher Grace and comes off as a kind of Ned Flanders from hell.  Today Duke is a well-known boogieman whose name is supposed to be synonymous with the worst kinds of racism but the movie explains that his ultimate goal was to make hatred mainstream through politics and to replace cross burnings with rhetoric about “white rights” and the like.  Here though that is not explored too deeply as the klan members we spend most of the time with are rednecks who do not seem to have gotten the memo about dog whistling.  Instead the film ends with them engaging in a pretty traditional KKK hate crime and with our heroes chasing them down to stop them in a finale that cleverly mirrors D.W. Griffith’s infamous classic The Birth of a Nation but which also feels rushed and a bit too easy.  In the true story this was based on there was no bombing incident that the police could easily stop and arrest people for.  The film’s final shot before its postscript does at least acknowledge that hate can’t be so easily stamped out but there are still places here where this feels like a slightly more conventional thriller that’s been seasoned by Spike Lee rather than the undiluted goods.

Overall though I think Blackkklansman is a pretty good romp even if it’s a bit messy around the edges and isn’t quite able to tie up all its loose ends by the end.  In some ways I do think seeing the Spike Lee name on it and viewing the film within his body of work helps the movie.  The film finds a solid means of exploring some really rough territory in a way that feels accessible, almost fun in a way, and manages to connect it to some of the more disturbing aspects of our modern times.  It’s hard not to like that even if I think there are an abundance of rough edges that Lee maybe didn’t have the time to sand out in his rush to get the product out in time.

**** out of Five

Blindspotting(8/7/2018)

With increasingly becoming America’s “second city” it is perhaps interesting that their Harlem, Oakland, has been going through something of a renaissance of African American filmmaking in the last few years.  This perhaps goes as far back as the 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy, an early Barry Jenkins effort about two African Americans living in neighboring San Francisco who spend a great deal of time talking about gentrification in the bay area.  But the tread really seems to have taken off with Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station, about a real life case of police violence that occurred on a BART station in Oakland.  By necessity Coogler’s follow-up films (Creed and Black Panther) have been primarily set in Philadelphia and Africa respectively but given that he went out of his way to set parts of Black Panther in Oakland I think it’s fair to say that his roots still grow strong in the East Bay.  This year has perhaps where we have gotten our three points to make a trend because within a span of a couple of months we’ve gotten two movies that make a point of being set in Bump City.  One was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which is admittedly a film so strange that it’s setting somewhat secondary, but it was nonetheless largely shot on location in Oakland.  The next and latest film set in that city is even more vocally about its setting, the new film covering both police violence and gentrification called Blindspotting.

Blindspotting begins with a man named Colin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs) being released from prison after a short but painful sentence and then flashes forward to the last three days of his probation.  While Hoskins is living in a halfway home he has a job as a mover and works with his best friend from childhood Miles (Rafael Casal).  Miles is a white guy but he’s Oakland born and raised and talks in the black vernacular.  He could be described using a word that is a racial slur that has had an “N” replaced by a “W.”  Neither Colin nor Miles appear to have ever been professional criminals but they are streetwise and can hold their own in a fight.  As the film begins Hoskins has only a couple of days left on his probation when he suddenly finds himself the sole witness to a police shooting of a seemingly unarmed man.  In many cases that would be the setup to a thriller with Hoskins acting as a sort of Serpico who acts as a bold witness to bring down the killer cop, but that kind of heroism isn’t going to happen here.  When asked if he’s going to go to the police with this information he simply says something along the lines of “what am I going to do, report the police to themselves.”  The tension here is instead about how witnessing something like that effects Hoskins’ psyche as well as the various other conflicts in his life coming to a fore.

Blindspotting is a movie with a certain theatricality to it in that it’s the kind of story where a lifetime’s worth of tensions all come to a head over the course of three days’ worth of conversations and things all just kind of come together according to theme rather than conventional plausibility.  The film was written by its stars, making it something of a throwback to the era of independent films like Swingers and The Brothers McMullen where writers would make very personal projects and wear a lot of hats in getting them made.  The downside of this is that this is that the script written by first time screenwriters who began their work while they were in their 20s and at times this really shows.  The film wants to tackle a number of themes and it does so in a really on the nose fashion when it didn’t necessarily have to.  For example, the film is largely about gentrification, which it tackles by having its characters explicitly talking about the subject and occasionally run into situations that illustrate the theme right on cue.  The film also reaches something of a nadir in its climactic scene which is something so stupid that I thought (hoped) it would turn out to be a fantasy sequence, but no, it’s supposed to be real and the film had not done nearly enough to set a tone that would make such a moment work as some sort of surreal touch.

Having said that, there’s still a lot I like about Blindspotting.  For one thing I thought the two main performances in the movie were quite good.  Daveed Diggs is an actor who’s primarily known for his stage work (he was in the original cast of “Hamilton”) so I wasn’t terribly familiar with him but he does have screen presence and clearly connects a lot with this character he’s created for himself.  Rafael Casal on the other hand was a complete nobody before making this, to the point where he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and yet he’s able to make this character who could have easily come off as a rather pathetic stereotype seem plausible and even understandable.  I also found myself rather liking the way the film shoots Oakland even though obsessions with local geography can often be a rather cringey aspect of indies like this.  Blindspotting is ultimately a pretty good little movie that’s bogged down a bit by a couple of misguided flights of fancy and a couple of moments that just seem really on the nose in a slightly sophomoric way.  Certainly worth checking out but not exactly one for the ages.

*** out of Five

Blockers(4/5/2018)


I recently took a trip to New York City and was struck by a lot of things both big and small about the city but perhaps the most pertinent thing that jumped out at me was that the week I went there nearly every square inch of Manhattan Island seemed to be covered in advertisements for the movie Blockers.  The amount of advertising for the movie already seemed heavier than normal long before I found myself on the East Coast.  I’ve seen all sorts of TV commercials for it and Youtube seemed to put an ad for it in front of every video I found myself watching, but when I got to the Big Apple I was struck seeing that rooster logo on top of damn near every taxi cab and the poster posted above every subway entrance and also on every subway platform.  I’m sure that people who actually live in the city that never sleeps are used to this sort of onslaught of printed marketing but it seemed a bit novel to me.  Part of this might simply be that I noticed this advertising more than all the advertising for the likes of Truth or Dare because I already thought it was going to be a funny movie and was already king of thinking about seeing the movie.  But maybe the studio knew what it was doing because on the movie’s opening day I found myself unwinding from a busy day of walking around the city by going to the Regal E-Walk 13 on 42nd street to sit back and watch this mainstream sex comedy.

The film is set over the course of prom day and night at a high school in a Chicago suburb.  Specifically the focus is on a group of three longtime friends: The blonde cheerleader type Julie (Kathryn Newton), the athletic and somewhat wild Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and the nerdy Samantha (Gideon Adlon), who has been questioning her sexuality.  As the three are talking about their prom plans it emerges that Julie is planning to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time that night and upon hearing this Kayla decides that she also wants to lose her virginity to her date to “get it over with” and while neither girl tries to pressure their friend Samantha finds herself getting in on the “#sexpact2018” too despite minimal attraction to her male prom date, possibly in a desire to confirm her preferences.  What they don’t know is that their various parents have semi-accidentally intercepted their text messages about these plans. Julie’s mother Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s father Mitchell (John Cena), and Samantha’s estranged father Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) all decide for various reasons that they want to stop this from happening and thus become the “blockers” referred to in the title, which is an MPAA approved shortening of “cockblockers.”

Blockers has a bit of a challenge on its hands in that it needs to find a relatively plausible reason for three seemingly progressive parents in 2018 to go to such lengths to “block” their daughters from having sexual encounters something like three months before they go to the even more sexually charged environment that is college.  Of the three parents only John Cena’s character really seems to be going on this journey for the usual patriarchal reasons: his daughter is “daddy’s little girl” and her man-bun toting prom date seems unworthy of her.  The Ike Barinholtz character, on the other hand, seems to be against this whole panic in the first place and when he does get caught up in it it’s mainly because he thinks his daughter (who he knows to be closeted) is being pressured into the situation and the Leslie Mann character just seems overly attached to her daughter and her “blocking” quest is sort of a manifestation of her worries about losing her after it’s discovered that she’s planning to attend a college that’s out of state.  The movie also has a moment at around its midpoint where the Cena character’s wife steps in and gives a big counter-argument about what all these characters are doing.

What makes the film a bit different from other comedies like this is that it basically has six principal characters, and they do a pretty reasonable job of building each of these characters despite how crowded it is but there are moments where corners need to be cut.  As this is a raunchy comedy of the post Apatow era the stories eventually do converge into a sort of sentimental climax and given the ensemble nature of the movie that means there are something like six different “meaningful” moments in the third act as each of the girls has to have a revelation with both their respective boyfriends and their parents, but the movie does manage to juggle all of these pretty effectively.  From a comedy perspective the movie probably could have benefited from a slightly more seasoned cast.  John Cena certainly expands a bit after having dipped his toe into the comedy waters with Trainwreck, but he still sort of feels like a budget version of The Rock, and Ike Barinholtz is mostly just transferring over his not overly memorable character from Neighbors.  The teenage cast mostly shows promise but they aren’t necessarily seasoned comic actors either.

Leslie Mann certainly fares the best of everyone here, but the material is mostly solid and director Kay Cannon does a good job getting the best out of the cast she was given, though I do think she would have done better to leave out some of the more gross-out gags that seem to be in here more out of obligation than real necessity.  The “chugging” scene seen in most of the trailers really did nothing for me and another scene where three people straight-up vomit from drunkenness despite being seemingly sober about an hour later felt like little more than an attempt to one-up other movies.  It really didn’t even need to be this way, if you look back on a movie like Superbad or even something like The Hangover there really isn’t really that much in the way of on-screen bodily fluids in either movie.  Even the diarrhea scene Bridesmaids was almost entirely done with suggestion.  Outside of those two scenes though the movie is a pretty solid comedy that manages to stay on the right side of stupid.  This certainly isn’t a new comedy classic, but it comes after a pretty long drought of respectable mainstream comedy.  In 2017 pretty much the only Hollywood comedy worth a damn was Girls Trip and even that didn’t really do a whole lot for me, so with this one movie 2018 has already beat its predecessor in this one regard.

***1/2 out of Five 

Black Panther(2/17/2018)


The weird thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the critics seem to hate the MCU as an enterprise and yet they seem to like every individual film in the MCU and whenever one comes out they seem to forget that they’ve liked every individual film.  Like, when Thor: Ragnarok came out last year the critics were all saying “oh my god, they really let Taika Waititi inject his signature humor into this, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.”  Of course four months earlier they were saying “oh my god, they really managed to turn Spider-Man: Homecoming into a down to earth high school movie, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.” And the year before that the critics were saing “oh my god, they really managed to turn Doctor Strange into a crazy acid trip, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.”  So on and so forth.  Critics also have a history of going overboard with their praise whenever a film seems to be an advance in representation in Hollywood cinema, something which led a lot of critics to really lose their minds when presented with good but not truly extraordinary movies like Wonder Woman, Bridesmaids, and The Big Sick.  As such I was pretty cautious when the raves and hype for the newest Marvel film Black Panther started rolling in as I feel a bit like I’ve been cried wolf to before when it comes to movies like this.

The action in Black Panther picks up about a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the movie which introduced the character.  With his father dead the time is now for young Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to be officially crowned as the king of Wakanda.  Wakanda is a fictional African country built on top of a reserve of a material called vibranium, a metal so useful and powerful that it trumps all the guns, germs, and steel that have allowed colonial powers to dominate other African countries for centuries.  They’ve used that technology to build some kind of cloaking device that hides their futuristic capital city and have generally hidden their incredible technology for centuries.  Shortly after his coronation T’Challa gets intel that an enemy of the Wakandans named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is going to be in South Korea selling a stolen vibranium artifact.  T’Challa promises his confidant W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) that he will kill or capture Klaue, retrieves his new suit from his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and heads to Korea with his to top agents Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira).  Once there he finds an undercover CIA agent named Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) also on the hunt for Klaue, but what neither of them know is that Klaue is now in league with a man named Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who has grand plans that could have grave consequences for Wakanda.

Aside from the fact that the character was introduced in a previous film (a fact that would not be terribly apparent to people just jumping in here) Black Panther feels mostly independent from the wider world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and outside of a couple of technical elements it does feel somewhat distinct from that Marvel house-style.  The biggest thing that sets this apart is its setting in Wakanda, which is quite the creation.  It takes a few leaps of logic to buy that this civilization could completely hide itself for so many centuries (how long have they had that cloaking device?) and the notion that they spent all these years living in peace and harmony with their neighbors despite having overwhelming advantages over them goes a bit contrary to human nature, especially given that they apparently select their rulers through trial by combat.  Still, once you get past that this is a really interesting place to be setting a movie.  We’ve seen plenty of science fiction versions of European and Asian cities but we’ve basically never seen a vision of a technologically advanced Africa brought to the screen with anywhere near this kind of budget or scope and it gives a very interesting flavor to the whole movie.  We see things that would be neat sci-fi tech in any context like a line of soldiers with force field shields and make them that much more unique by having them be tied to said soldiers’ African garb for example.

If Black Panther has a real problem it might be that it’s a touch over-crowded with a large cast of supporting characters who almost begin to overshadow the title character in his own film.  For instance, the characters of Nakia and Okoye feel a touch redundant, both basically just act as glorified sidekicks and one or the other likely would have been sufficient.  Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross is also a somewhat interesting presence in the movie but is also largely story irrelevant outside of his role as an outsider who can ask questions on behalf of the audience which probably didn’t need extra explaining.  The Forest Whitaker and/or the Angela Bassett character also probably could have cut down as we probably only really needed one tribal elder character to explain some of the backstory.  It gets to the point where, in the film’s finale, we get three different action scenes being intercut and the one where our hero is fighting the main villain is plainly the least interesting of the three.  Still there are a lot of side characters here who do work quite well.  I liked Letitia Wright a lot as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri who acts as a sort of Q figure giving gadgets to our hero and I particularly liked the film’s villain The Killmonger.  Michael B. Jordan isn’t necessarily the most physically intimidating villain Marvel has ever put forward what with his youthful demeanor and wacky Jaden Smith haircut, but he has motivations that generally make sense and you can divine a bit or a Trump allegory in the way he uses holes in the Wakandan succession laws to become a dangerous person in power.

On a pure filmmaking standpoint Black Panter is perhaps a bit of a step backwards for Ryan Coogler.  There are a couple of cool action scenes here, especially a car chase around the film’s midpoint but these scenes are a bit over-edited and there are a couple of moments of questionable CGI (the rhinos were a bit much).  I found the boxing scenes in Creed to better rendered in their simplicity, but perhaps that’s inherent to making big action scenes in Marvel movies.  I’m not exactly sure where I’d rank the movie within the annals of the MCU, especially given that Marvel has been varying things up lately and these comparisons have become a bit harder to make.  Visually it’s pretty high up there but maybe not as high up there as Doctor Strange, as a thriller narrative it’s also up there but maybe not as high as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and in terms of action it’s fairly high up there but maybe not as high as The Avengers.  Still there is an x-factor here that cannot be ignored; we simply haven’t seen an African science fiction movie like this before and that isn’t something to be ignored.  That’s something that sets it apart from last year’s “glass ceiling breaking” superhero movie Wonder Woman, which really didn’t do anywhere near as much in its imagining of a matriarchal society.  I’m only really able to ride the hype train on this thing so far, at the end of the day it’s a bit messy, but the things it does right it does very right.

**** out of Five

BPM (Beats Per Minute)(11/11/2017)/The Square(11/12/2017)

Every year I follow the coverage of the Cannes Film Festival and every year I get excited.  2017’s festival didn’t seem overly notable while it was going on given that no one movie ever really stood out as being terribly important.  Everything seemed to just get a B or B+ from critics and for the most part people spent more time talking about Netflix than about the movies.  Still there were definitely a decent number of movies to look forward to and for a variety of reasons it seems that we’re actually having something of a banner year for Cannes competitors actually showing up in American theaters in a timely manner.  By my count eight of the nineteen movies that played in the main competition have gotten American releases including two movies that showed up in my city just this week: BPM (Beats Per Minute) and The Square.  Coincidentally those happen to be the two movies that ended up taking the Palme d’Or and the Gran Prix, which are the first place and second place at the festival.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was the movie that seemed to get the most enthusiastic reviews while the festival was going on, but it was The Square that Pedro Almodóvar and his jury ended up selecting, a decision that most analysts thought was a surprise but one that made sense to them in retrospect.  These are both big and important movies that probably deserve to be looked at individually, but the novelty of being able to look at the top two films from Cannes side by side (plus, admittedly, the pressure to avoid getting behind on my reviews) inspired me to look at them together and decide whether the jury got it right.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is set in France during the 1990s and focuses on the Parisian branch of the famous AIDS activist organization ACT UP.  It begins with some new members being inducted and trained in the group’s mission and methodology but the film doesn’t necessarily focus in on those new members and instead becomes a true ensemble piece which becomes something of a procedural look at a year or so of the group’s activities including a number of scenes where you get to be a fly on the wall as the members debate strategy and group priorities.  The Square by contrast has more of a central character but also largely functions as a look into the inner-workings of a community of sorts, namely a modern art museum in Stockholm.  Our focus is a guy named Christian (Claes Bang) a curator who is getting the museum ready for its newest exhibit, a conceptual piece called “The Square,” which is a square drawn in the center of a room with a plaque next to it which reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”  While prepping for this exhibit Christian suddenly finds himself distracted from a number of personal and professional problems as he obsesses over retrieving his cell phone and wallet that were stolen from him during a pickpocketing.

It is probably worth noting that neither of these movies came from directors that I was eagerly awaiting new films from.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was directed by a guy named Robin Campillo, whose directorial output I’m not familiar with but who was a co-writer and editor on a 2008 Palme d’Or winning film called The Class which I liked quite a bit but which never really made a big splash when it left the Croisette and went out into the world.  That film followed a teacher as he taught French literature to a class of urban students over the course of a year and the activist meetings in his newest film definitely share a DNA with the classroom sequences that made up the majority of that film.  The Square’s director, Ruben Östlund, is probably the guy the film world was more excitedly waiting for a new film from.  Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, was an extremely well received satire about a man who finds himself confronting his own shortcomings while on a ski trip with his family after he runs like a coward when his family is put in danger’s way.  I got what that film was doing and could see why people liked it but it didn’t really do much for me; I never really found it all that funny, I thought its sub-plots were unneeded distractions, and I don’t think its interest in the fractured male ego ever really went anywhere after the initial setup.

The Square, worked a lot better for me than Force Majeure in no small part because its humor just seemed a bit more on point but also because I found its anxieties more relatable.  I don’t have a family and I make no claims to being some courageous protector, so the concept of being exposed as a coward does not exactly hit home with me.  The Square on the other hand is about the prospect of being exposed as a jerk, as someone whose behavior doesn’t come close to matching your ideals and who maybe isn’t as brilliant and in control as you think you are.  The main character, Christian, seems like he should be the platonic ideal of an upper-class European.  He’s wealthy, attractive, intellectual, and somewhat powerful, and yet heavy rests the crown because he seems to spend a lot of the film trying to maintain his reputation despite everything going wrong.  Christian is not an asshole exactly; he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone and he generally doesn’t have evil intentions but he proves to be rather oblivious to the damage he occasionally causes and also proves to be rather flexible in his ideals when put to the test.  His solution to getting his wallet stolen, dropping a threatening letter into every mailbox in a low-rent apartment building, is a pretty good example of this.  It’s not exactly illegal and not entirely aggressive, but he certainly isn’t thinking about the distress he’s causing everyone else in that building and this comes back to bite him in a big way.

Of course Christian’s first world problems would seem to be even more pathetic when compared to the ACT UP members chronicled in BPM (Beats Per Minute), who are fighting very hard for their ideals but also for their very lives.  Campillo’s movie is at its best when it sits back and observes these activists’ interact with each other and plan their various protests.  These scenes capture both the youthful passion of these activists but also doesn’t depict them as immature fools and also has an interesting ear for the tempo of the kind of arguments that emerge in these settings.  The focus of the movie is ultimately on the people rather than the politics, the various issues being debated like the speed at which clinics share results with the public are not really explained to the audience and the movie isn’t necessarily trying to make much of a case for how effective ACT UP’s brand of confrontational demonstration were in the fight for AIDS research.  Where the film starts to falter a bit is when the group breaks up a bit and we start observing these characters act as individuals rather than as a group.  I’m thinking particularly of the film’s third act where we watch a character named Sean Dalmazo as his health deteriorates.  I wouldn’t call these scenes bad at all but they are a lot more conventional than the movie that surrounds them and feels a lot more like a generic tragic approach to the AIDS epidemic of the kind we used to see out of 90s movies.

If BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a very heartfelt and emotional movie, The Square is a bit brainier and leaves you with a bit more to interpret and dissect.  Key amongst its mysteries is what to make of the fictional art exhibit with which it shares its title.  Christian seems to view “The Square” as a piece with a rather utopian vision of human cooperation but I think he might be missing the larger point of the piece.  The plaque on The Square does read that “within [The Square] we all share equal rights and obligations,” but the implication there is that outside of The Square those lofty ideals are far from guaranteed and more than likely the only reason that those things apply inside The Square is because it sits in the middle of a big well-funded museum with a security team.  In some ways that feels like a bit of a metaphor for what these museum curators have always been doing: creating a bubble where various principles exist, but are contained, and then not putting a whole lot of thought into what happens outside of that bubble.  This pretty clearly makes the characters in The Square sort of the polar opposites of the ones in BPM (Beats Per Minute) who are if nothing else very dedicated to their ideals and are insistent to the point of sometimes being obnoxious and are very much trying to spread them into the wider world.

So, do I ultimately agree with the choice that the jury made at Cannes?  Yeah, in this head to head matchup I do, and of the eight films from that festival’s main competition I would say I liked The Square the best.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that The Square is quite the instant classic that some other Palme d’Or winners have been.  It is, however, a very clever and very entertaining movie that manages to critique the “elites” in a smart way that doesn’t resort to overstatement or unfair pitchfork waving.  This is not to say that BPM (Beats Per Minute) isn’t also a film that’s well worth your time.  Those scenes of the activists debating are great but the movie as a whole never quite manages to find an overall structure that really brings it together.  Still, it’s a fine movie and certainly a more worthy companion to the great ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague than the indie/Hollywood depiction of the era Dallas Buyers Club.  However, The Square is the more creative movie and the movie that jumps out at me and which I can see myself revisiting more often.  In some ways I think I might “get” Ruben Östlund now in a way I didn’t before and might even want to give Force Majeure another look.  Ultimately though these are both fine works of world cinema worthy of your time

BPM (Beats Per Minute):

The Square: