Burning(12/16/2018)

Let’s talk about platform distribution.  In theory movies on this track are supposed to open in New York and L.A. for about a week, and then expand outwards into the other large markets until hopefully you’ve opened wide.  It usually works out pretty well for me because I’m in a large enough market that I pretty reliably get most independent/foreign movies a couple weeks after they debut or at least know when they are coming out.  However some sort of monkey wrench got thrown in the gears when it came to acclaimed new South Korea drama Burning, which got picked up by some strange company called Well-Go-USA which usually focuses on Asian cinema of the martial arts variety and seems to have some bad ideas about how to release art house movies because from where I sit they’ve really botched this one.  When the film first expanded they skipped over the Twin Cities entirely and opened in places like Dallas, then the next week in places like Albuquerque.  My city wasn’t entirely alone in this suspense.  The damn thing opened Columbus Ohio before it opened in Seattle, it opened in Omaha before it opened in Denver, and in Salt Lake City before it opened in Detroit.   And to this date it still hasn’t opened in Minneapolis and there’s no indication as to when or if it will.  Color me pissed.  Fortunately I was still able to catch a screening of the movie while on a trip to Chicago, or else I may have missed out on one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, and if that had happened I may well boycotted the damn company for life.

Burning is set in modern South Korea and focuses on Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer who lives on his father’s run-down old farm in the town of Paju, which is located a little bit outside of Seoul.  One day while visiting Seoul he runs into a woman named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who was a neighbor of his back in Paju while they were kids.  The two form something of a friendship, one that Jong-su is never quite sure is venturing towards the romantic, and Hae-mi recruits him to feed her cat for her while she takes a sort of “spirit journey” to Africa.  When she returns from this trip she’s accompanied by a guy named Ben (Steven Yeun) who was the only other Korean where she was, causing the two to form a bond that Jong-su is never quite sure was or is romantic.  From there Jong-su has to navigate whether or not he’s been put into the “friend-zone” by Hae-mi and whether or not he should be jealous of whatever bond she has with Ben and how that makes him feel, at least before things start to take a different and altogether more sinister turn in the film’s second half.

Burning is the work of Lee Chang-dong, an important but not overly prolific Korean auteur who has largely eschewed the more extreme genre tendencies of some of his most famous countryman to instead make realist dramas, usually about ordinary people at crossroads in life trying to cope with where they find themselves in life. His signature film, Secret Sunshine, remains one of the finest examinations of the concept of forgiveness in all its complexity and his follow-up Poetry is an excellent meditation on justice and legacy but it’s been a long eight year wait for his latest film.  Burning is a little more playful than his previous films in that it doesn’t burden the audience with super heavy themes right away and generally operates on a more cinematic logic than strict realism.  That said, “playful” is a bit of a relative term given that this is a film that still very clearly addressing its themes seriously and the film does end up going to some pretty dark places in its second half.

There’s a scene in the film where the protagonist casually watching a news report of Donald Trump giving a speech.  Jong-su doesn’t seem terribly enamored by what he’s watching and the scene feels superfluous but it isn’t.  Lee Chang-dong isn’t trying to suggest that Jong-su would have any particular affinity for Trump himself or his xenophobic nonsense but he is trying to sort of establish him as something of the Korean equivalent of the prototypical “Trump voter” that outlets like the New York Times can’t help but profile.  He’s a rural guy who’s been given the short end of the wealth inequality stick and has kind of been left behind by the modern world and that this outlook does not lead him to make the healthiest choices in life.  He also seems to be in way over his head in dealing with Hae-mi, who may have come from his village but who has become quite the free spirit in Seoul and Jong-su spends a lot of the film’s second act trying to determine whether or not their single hook-up was something that was more casual to her than it was to him and trying to play cool around her.  His jealousy toward Ben is readily apparent and it certainly has at least a little bit to do with class resentment.  This is all helped quite a bit by the fact that Jeon Jong-seo manages to create a character who is in fact quite captivating and seems to be worthy of all the investment that Jong-su makes in her.

Of course there’s also the sinking suspicion in the back of both his mind and the audiences’ mind that he’s being played from the very beginning either by Ben or by Hae-mi or both of them.  That third act is very much about obsession and paranoia and it keeps the audience guessing throughout.  As a whole this is a film that doesn’t really follow the usual formulas you expect movies to follow, but it also isn’t trying to be radically strange or avant-garde either.  That is in part what sets it apart from Lee Chang-dong’s earlier movies, which certainly weren’t formulaic but they were less noticeably meta and were generally heavier exercises.  Does this then mark a new chapter in his auteur style?  We’ll have to see, though I must hope his next movie comes a bit faster than this one, because Chang-dong is too fascinating a filmmaker to keep operating on a “two movie per decade” pace.

****1/2 out of Five

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If Beale Street Could Talk(10/27/2018)

The great writer James Baldwin died about thirty years ago but it’s not hard to see that here in the late 2010s the guy is having a bit of “a moment.”  I think this started with the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a thinker and public intellectual.  Coates, with his intellectual demeanor, roots in the literary world, and uncompromising politics in many ways felt like Baldwin’s intellectual descendant and he more or less invited the comparisons when he wrote his 2015 essay collection “Between the World and Me” as a letter to his teenage son, a literary device that was not dissimilar from one that Baldwin used in his 1963 book “The Fire Next Time.”  Baldwin’s next re-emergence happened with the release of Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was adapted from Baldwin’s final manuscript and looked at his views of the civil rights movement and of larger American culture.   That was a great documentary but it was a limited one insomuch as it was largely concerned with Baldwin’s work as an essayist and as a public intellectual and was not really focusing on his work as a novelist, which is what made him famous in the first place.  Enter Barry Jenkins, red hot from his amazing Oscar winning film Moonlight, who has decided to bring attention to that said of Baldwin’s career by making as his next film an adaptation of Bladwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Despite the tile the film actually isn’t set in Memphis and is instead set in Harlem during the early 70s.  The film is told from the perspective of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne), a nineteen year old who has fallen deeply in love with her longtime friend Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James).  Unfortunately, as the movie begins Fonny is in Rikers Island awaiting trial for an alleged rape, one that Tish knows he didn’t commit because she was with him when it was alleged to have happened, an alibi the police do not believe because of her relationship to Fonny.  Complicating matters further, Tish is apparently pregnant with Fonny’s baby.  From here we get a number of flashbacks about Tish and Fonny’s courtship and attempts at building a life interspersed with material about the family’s attempts to find a way to help get him out of jail.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” was not one of James Baldwin’s more famous novels either in its day or in modern times before Barry Jenkins decided to adapt it.  It was written after Baldwin was at the height of his fame and at a time when America was a bit weary of the topic of race, believing falsely that the Civil Rights Movement had already accomplished everything that needed to be accomplished and that everything else would just sort itself out eventually.  Baldwin’s novel certainly doesn’t labor under any delusions that that is true but it’s not a book about the macro-politics of civil rights so much as a portrait of the small and not so small indignities that interrupt black life and prevent greater prosperity for the African American family.  In particular the story looks at the effects of the criminal justice system on black life, which I think is a big part of why Jenkins believed the film would be particularly relevant today.  The story is very much designed to make you root for the couple at the center of it and to be extremely frustrated by the fact that they’re being kept apart by circumstance.  In this sense the film is a very traditional romance plot, but one where society is keeping its characters apart rather than parents or misunderstandings within the relationship.

As a case study in the criminal justice system Fonny’s is perhaps an extreme case as it seems that the police involved have gone through a lot of trouble to frame him for a fairly serious crime for rather petty reasons, something that is probably not unprecedented in the history of American policing but which remains a something of a worst case scenario.  Another character played by Brian Tyree Henry comes into the film at a certain point and tells a story about getting a rather brutal prison sentence for carrying weed on his person, which is probably a bit more representative of the kind of cases that are overfilling American prisons in a post-“War on Drugs” era than Fonny’s predicament.  There is also, in this climate, something just a little queasy about having a film center around trying to get a rape victim to recant her accusation even if that accusation appears to have been influenced by biased police officers, but the film does manage to portray that woman’s story with sensitivity as well.  Still, the bigger point here is about how disruptive arrests like this are on the black family and the ways in which they cannot count on a fair trial or treatment.

Really though, the story’s relevance to modern political debates are not what makes this movie special, what really stands out is simply how well it renders the lives of its characters.  The film certainly brings early 70s New York to life in an interesting way, endowing it with some of the romance of something like Manhattan when necessary while also showing some of the grit and hardship that living there could entail.  The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s set during a particular period, the characters seem to have appropriate hairstyles and have a habit of referring to people as “cats,” but it avoids emphasizing the kitchier elements of that decade.  Most of the music the characters listen to seems to be the jazz and blues of an earlier time rather than the chart hits of 1973 and the movie doesn’t give anyone an oversized afro or anything.  In general the movie uses a lot of the same cinematic tricks that made Moonlight such a revelation but applies them to what is structurally a very different movie that operates in very different ways.  Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have once again managed to create the perfect color scheme for the film and Nicholas Britell has contributed another fine score for this film, and the cast is absolutely killer.   KiKi Layne, who as far as I can tell from IMDB has done almost nothing onscreen except for a couple of guest starring roles on TV, manages to anchor the film perfectly and Stephan James brings just the right mix of sensitivity and masculinity to Fonny.  Regina King is also a standout as Tish’s mother, who comes to have a key sequence late in the film.

In terms of adaption the book skews very close to Bladwin’s novel, to the point where it acts as an almost word for word adaptation at times, which mostly works for the movie as it encourages Jenkins to leave in little bits of character that other movies might have cut out as superfluous.  Little bits like Tish’s discomfort with her job at a department story perfume counter add a lot to the movie and easily could have been left out of a screenplay that were less reverent to the adaptation source, but this reverence can be a bit of a hindrance as well. For instance there is a lengthy scene at the beginning of the book and movie in which Tish’s family is at odds with Fonny’s self-righteous mother, which is in and of itself an excellent scene, but the conflict it establishes basically never comes up again in the movie and it feels like a bit of a dangling thread at the end.  That and another subplot about the two lovers’ fathers conspiring to raise funds for Fonny’s defense are both left unresolved in the movie, in part because of the one aspect of the novel that Jenkins chose to alter in a significant way: its ending.  I will not go into detail about this except to say that the ending of the novel is a bit abrupt and probably did need a change of some kind, his solution is to omit some of the material that would have slightly resolved the above plot threads in favor of an epilog he’s added which I don’t think fits exactly with what the rest of the film is setting up.

That was kind of an odd decision but I see what Jenkins was going for and aside from that one misstep I think this is basically another triumph for Jenkins.  I’m not sure whether or not I’d consider this to be the better movie than Moonlight, truth be told they aren’t as easy to compare side to side as you would think given that they were more or less made by the same filmmaking team.  If Beale Street Could Talk’s literary nature and general talkativeness differentiate it from Moonlight’s unique triptych narrative and enigmatic lead character, but what the two movies have in common is that they are both trying to apply a level of artistry to stories that the cinema and culture as a whole often renders as sensationalistic stereotypes.  In the eyes of society Moonlight’s Chiron is merely a drug dealer, but Jenkins managed to show him as a lot more than that, and he is similarly able to show through this movie that Tish is far more than a mere “baby mama” and he effectively both explains why her life is the way it is while also endowing it with a clear degree of dignity.  By the film’s end you feel like you’ve made a connection with its characters and that you’ve gone on something of a journey with them, which is theoretically what all movies are supposed to do but it’s kind of rare for one to really deliver on that and this one does.

****1/2 out of Five

The Favourite(10/27/2018)

Warning: Review reveals an aspect of the movie’s premise which may be considered a spoiler.

I like to think I’m more knowledgeable about American history than most.  I have a degree in the subject after all and I do find myself reading a fair number of books about it since then.  I cannot, however, necessarily say the same thing about British history and especially not pre-20th Century British history.  I do know a little more about certain eras of interest like Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign and I guess the handful of kings that Shakespeare wrote plays about and I suppose I have a cursory knowledge of William the Conquerer and The War of the Roses and a few other events but at a certain point it becomes very hard to keep track of all the monarchs, parliaments, and reformations that have happened in that country in the last two thousand years.  I don’t exactly feel terrible about that given that it’s not a country I live in.  In theory there’s no particular reason I should know more about English history than, say, Chinese history but nonetheless I do take in a lot more popular culture from and about the United Kingdom and occasionally I feel a little more unsteady than I would when watching period pieces set in the United States.  Take the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, which is set in the early 1700s during the reign of Queen Anne.  I had probably heard the name “Queen Anne” at some point before but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much of anything about her.  So the film, titled The Favourite, is something of an education for me… or is it?

The film begins with a woman named Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arriving at the court of Queen Anne (Oliva Coleman) in hopes of getting some sort of job there.  Hill is of noble birth but her family has fallen because of some terrible decisions by her father and she is basically penniless.  Her hope is that her distant relative, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), will give her some sort of assistance.  The Duchess is not a person to be trifled with.  She’s wily and tough as nails and she’s also more or less become the right hand woman to the queen, who is depicted here as smart but sickly and perhaps a bit loony from her life of privilege and indulgence.  Hill does manage to get a job as a lowly palace maid but soon the duchess finds something of a kinship with Hill.  The Duchess gives her a better job in the palace and also invites Hill to join her in recreational live pigeon shooting.  Soon though, Hill comes to learn that the duchess and the queen are not merely confidants but are in fact also lesbian lovers.  Seeing an opening, Hill comes up with a plan to supplant the duchess as the queen’s favorite subject and to use that to return herself to the nobility.

Like I said, my knowledge of British history in this period is minimal, so when I finished the movie I had just assumed that this was a fictional story set in the time period.  However, when I started poking around on Wikipedia it became clear that there actually is a lot more genuine history here than I thought.  The Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Hill were real people, their circumstances were about the same as what’s depicted here, and they really did fight for the queen’s favor as well.  Where the film differs from the history record is in speculating that these three were engaging in a lesbian love triangle, which appears to have been something that was rumored at the time but for which little hard evidence exists.  The movie is also basically engaging speculation in depicting the motives of the two women who may or may not have been as power hungry in real life.  That said historical accuracy is probably a secondary concern here as Yorgos Lanthimos does not treat the film as a historical reenactment and instead injects it with a lot of modern energy.  The film’s dialogue is not distractingly anachronistic but it isn’t filled with “thees” and “thous” and “prithees” either and the screenplay does not shy away from having the characters use various vulgarities that would not make it into the history books.  The film also uses some stranger elements of life in this period are also emphasized for comedic effect like the nobility’s apparent pastime of duck racing.

This unconventional take on the period piece reminded me a bit of The Death of Stalin, which leaned even heavier into anachronistic language and was a generally broader comedy, but the Armando Iannucci project that the movie really reminded me of was his HBO series “Veep” in the way that the characters are self-interested vipers that are constantly playing chess with their adversaries.  Unlike Iannucci’s comedies, which tend to take place in worlds where anyone and everyone has their eyes on the prize, in this movie no one except for the main trio at the center really seems to stand a chance.  That’s especially true of all the men in the court who are primarily represented by a pair of groveling politicians and a conceited military officer, all of them made to look like comical fops by the ridiculous fashion of the day which involved gigantic wigs and unappealing purple jackets.  That rather feminized appearance is quite intentionally contrasted with the women in the movie, who are slightly musicalized power players that ride horses and take up target shooting in their free time.  The movie is not in denial that this was not the gender dynamic of the vast majority of people in this time and whenever any of them leave the bubble of Queen Anne’s court they start to face the same dangers that women generally faced in the wider world, but while they’re in the palace they pretty much only view each other as a threat.  Of course all of this would have a slightly different ring to it if the queen was a king and the two women were involved in a love triangle with a man, but as a lesbian triangle the monarch’s behavior feels less like exploitation and more like a game that they’re all sort of willingly entering into.

Another thing that differentiates the film from Iannucci’s work is that Yorgos Lanthimos is certainly not going to let it have the same kind of televisual “comedy first” look that Iannucci’s projects tend to have and is instead bringing his own brand of weirdness to the film.  I’ve been a little agnostic about Lanthimos’ two English language films so far, I admired their unique vision but was also alienated (mostly in a bad way) by the peculiar nature of how his characters spoke and acted.  Things are different this time around, certainly in part because he’s working with a screenplay written by others this time around but I think also because this material just works really well for him.  The characters seem to be heightened in just the right way and you feel like their quirks are specific to them rather than the whole of the film’s world and things that might otherwise just feel like Lanthimosian flights of fancy here just feel like aspects of this strange time and place.  It’s certainly his most accessible film though that is relative and I’m sure it will feel plenty strange to people who haven’t experienced The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Lobster, so I wouldn’t think of it as any kind of sell-out scenario and it won’t be for everyone.  Still, the movie is clearly an excellent twist on the conventional costume drama and one that will be starting some very interesting conversations throughout the year.

****1/2 out of Five

Annihilation(2/21/2018)


He’s taken an odd route to Hollywood success but the English novelist Alex Garland has somehow managed to work in movies for over fifteen years and doesn’t really have a bad movie on his resume.  Beginning with the sale of his novel “The Beach” Garland began a working relationship with Danny Boyle which led to Garland writing screenplays for the Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which both had their flaws but which were nonetheless very solid movies and then he went out on his own and wrote the screenplays for the under-rated Never Let Me Go and Dredd but he really became a force of his own in 2015 when he stepped into the director role and made the small scale science fiction film Ex Machina.  That was a movie I was kind of lukewarm on when I saw it but which in retrospect I think I was a bit too hard on.  That was an original science fiction movie made on a mid-budget, which is a kind of movie critics get really excited for but are also often disappointed by and Ex Machina managed to deliver and even somehow managed to get a visual effects Academy award despite being made on a relatively small budget.  He’s now been allowed to make another science fiction film and this time with a bigger budget and despite being made in a major studio his new film Annihilation is just as uncompromising as Ex Machina.

Annihilation begins with the sight of some kind of object crashing to Earth and hitting some kind of lighthouse.  From there we flash forward and meet a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and military veteran whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing since going on a classified special forces mission a year prior.  That ends one day when he suddenly shows up at her door and begins behaving strangely and can’t explain where he’s been and shows signs of deteriorating health.  Later that day they’re both stopped and arrested by government agents and brought to a secret facility that sits outside a national park that has been taken over by a strange phenomenon called “The Shimmer” which has encompassed the park (which has been evacuated under pretext of a chemical spill) and seems to be expanding outward.  Kane is apparently the only person so far to have returned from The Shimmer and as such Lena convinces a lady named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to let her join the next team to enter The Shimmer in hopes of finding answers.

One of the reasons I was a little cool on Ex Machina originally was simply that I was a little tired of the whole “how human are robots” question that science fiction has been batting around for the last hundred years.  With Annihilation avoids this problem, in part because it’s a lot less cut and dry about what it’s trying to say or even what questions it’s asking in the first place.  In broad strokes it’s pretty clear what “the shimmer” is insomuch as it appears to be some sort of alien terraforming effort but the exact reasons for its creation and the full extent of what happens there is less defined.  The area is plainly reminiscent of “The Zone” from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in that it’s this seemingly earthly area where few people opt to venture because of the strange things that happen there.  Also like Tarkovsky’s film the mission that Lena and her compatriots go on seems less like an adventure and more like a grim inevitability they’re driven to by various personal demons.  Unlike Stalker though Annihilation has some more conventional genre thrills along the way.  I don’t want to give away too much of what goes on inside of “the shimmer” but the is a horror element to it including some creature effects that are somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing and some of the group dynamics as the trip into “the shimmer” reminded me a bit of The Blair Witch Project.

In short, Annihilation is quite a trip.  It’s a thoughtful science fiction movie but one with imagery and structure that make it an entertaining viewing.  The most obvious recent touchstone for the movie would likely be the 2016 film Arrival, which was probably the last intelligent science fiction movie to really catch on with the public.  Both films are about women tasked with making contact with aliens who have appeared on Earth for mysterious reasons, but Annihilation is a little more visually adventurous and a little less generous in doling out its meaning.  This is a movie that’s going to keep people guessing and theorizing for a while, maybe not as long as one of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films, but certainly longer than most of the movies that Hollywood gives us.

****1/2 out of Five

Phantom Thread(1/13/2018)

Paul Thomas Anderson is in an elite group of directors right now, the league of directors whose every movie seems like it will be a potential classic long before we’ve so much as seen a trailer for it.  The qualifications for this tier of excellence are nebulous, almost based more on mystique than anything.  It isn’t necessarily a matter of having a perfect track record, Anderson himself is actually coming off of something of a failure given that his last movie Inherent Vice proved to be more of a curiosity than a classic.  It also doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quantity of great movies you have to your name.  The Coen Brothers, for instance, have made more than enough amazing cinema to seemingly be in this club and yet I doubt even the most optimistic of Coen brothers fans to have been expecting Hail Caesar to have been any sort of classic for the ages.  Really being in this tier is mostly a matter of seeming like the kind of filmmaker who does not mess around, someone who seems like he is swinging for the fences every time and who also has the stats to back up such cockiness.  Mike Leigh, for example, has hardly made a single bad movie and yet I wouldn’t necessarily put him in this company for the simple fact that his movies are sneaky in their quality and aren’t necessarily the kinds of things you anticipate months ahead of time despite his track record.  Scorsese is probably in this club, so is Tarantino, Malick was in the club before his quality control went out the window with his last couple of projects, Christopher Nolan is probably in this club despite sort of operating in more of a populist lane than some of these guys, Alfonso Cuaron probably would be in the club if he worked a bit more often.  Of course being in this club has its downsides as it can create some very specific expectations that not every movie is designed to live up to and there are certainly high expectations for the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread.

The film focuses in on Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world renowned dressmaker in London’s haute couture scene during the 1950s.  The House of Woodcock is already at the height of its success as the film begins but Woodcock is aimless in his personal life and has just let an assistant go and is soon on the prowl for a new muse.  Eventually he finds himself in a country diner and spots a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and seems immediately smitten, but it’s not exactly clear what he wants from her.  Soon she’s in his employ as a personal assistant and as a model for his dresses, but she’s also living in his house and is soon acting as his lover and muse.  From here the movie largely becomes a mystery of sorts as to what exactly this mysterious man wants from Alma.  This guy is a fashion designer and at one point uses the phrase “confirmed bachelor,” so the possibility that he may be a closeted homosexual is certainly going to be in the back of most audience members’ minds but the truth of what makes this guy tick is a lot more complicated than that.

The filmic reference point for Phantom Thread seems to be, of all things, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca.  That movie is generally not considered one of Hitchcock’s major efforts, in part because the Daphne du Maurier novel it’s based on is a bit higher brow than his usual fare and that sometimes overpowers his interest in suspense.  At its heart Rebecca is something of a mystery, but it’s not a mystery about “whodunit” but more of a mystery as to what the intentions of its male lead’s intentions are.  Like Rebecca this is a movie about a young woman of modest origins who suddenly finds herself courted by a much older and richer man who is sort of mysterious and aloof and it’s not clear if this is a true romance or if this is merely an older man trying to control and possess a younger woman.  There are also shades of Mrs. Danvers in Leslie Manville’s role of Woodcock’s sister Cyril, who acts as something of a business partner and at times seems to have a bit more of an objective eye on Alma.  There are, however clear differences between the two movies and the comparison between the two only really goes so far.  Unlike the narrator in Rebecca Alma is never really seems to be living as much in the shadow of a former lover.  There’s an element of mourning in Woodcock’s life but it isn’t as pervasive.  The big twist from Rebecca also isn’t really here at all and the second half of the movie isn’t really all that analogous to Rebecca at all, so this is less an adaptation and more of a jumping off point that Anderson seems to have used to conceive of the movie.

That this movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis is of course itself an event, like Anderson he is someone who does not mess around.  Day-Lewis’ work here is a bit more subdued than what we’ve come to expect from him recently as he is not doing a major physical transformation like he is in a movie like Lincoln and he isn’t going into the kind of grand theatrics we saw him doing in There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York.  Instead here he’s characterized by a generally gentle demeanor that often belies his more ruthless actions and his generally controlling personality.  In some ways it almost feels like he’s holding himself back to leave some room for his co-stars, especially Vicky Krieps who is something of a revelation here.  Krieps has been seen in small roles in movies like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man and has apparently starred in a variety of not overly notable European films but this is clearly her most prominent performance to date and she manages to be effectively mysterious throughout.

Throughout awards season I’ve been a little confused as to why Phantom Thread seems to get so many awards despite receiving such positive reviews.  Now that I’ve seen it I kind of get what was going on.  Phantom Thread is a movie that demands respect but repels simple acceptance.  It’s a movie about the lives of two really messed up people and it’s not always easy to relate to either of them or really get a grip on their behavior.  This is very much a film for the arthouse crowd and for people willing to take a deep dive into the weird dynamics of this strange relationship.  There is certainly some interest in the procedural elements of watching this fashion house work but outside of that I don’t think this will have much appeal for the mainstream viewer.  Even for the arthouse crowd the film may seem elusive.  It’s a movie that intrigues you and leaves you looking for answers to questions the movie never really even asks.   Honestly, I think I’m going to need to see this thing a few more times before I’m really going to be in a position to talk about it intelligently, but I certainly liked what I saw.

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: