THE SQUARE: ambitious, brilliant and almost cohesive

Claes Bang in THE SQUARE. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The Square, the social satire from Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund is one of the most ambitious movies of the year.  Often LOL funny, and just as often uncomfortable, The Square hits moments of triumph that would constitute a great movie if they were braided together more cohesively.

The Square is set in a world that is ripe for mockery – Christian (Claes Bang) is chief curator at a Stockholm museum of modern art.   The museum is funded by the very rich, and the art is impenetrably pretentious, inaccessible to all but those predisposed to  deconstruct it (or at least pretend to).  One installation is described in straight-faced mumbo jumbo as “relational aesthetics”.  Another is a roomful of conical piles of rubble, with a museum guard rebuking visitors with a stern “no pictures!”.

Christian is comfortable in his privilege, but he is curious about exploring social inequity – but only as an intellectual exercise. Christian is interested in street beggars (and finds one especially ungrateful one), and The Square is filled by “help me” moments.  He is victimized by a robbery that seems like performance art, and  sets off on an adventure called the “Tesla of Justice”, which goes horribly awry.

There are lots of laughs in The Square.  Christian admonishes a colleague not to use Comic Sans font in a threat letter.  There’s a very funny tug of war in a post-coital spat.  A self-congratulatory on-stage interview with a precious artist wearing a blazer over pajamas, is disrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s who ejaculates “cock godammit”  and the like, all while the audience pretends it’s all ok.  And there’s a riotous thread with PR guys making a BS pitch that results in the very most counter-productive promotional video (think Springtime for Hitler in The Producers).

Östlund is very gifted at finding the humor in interruptions.  The most serious, intimate and formal discussions are interrupted by a baby crying, construction noise and lots of cell phones ringing.

And, finally, there is a museum opening gala with a “welcome to the jungle” theme.  This segment of The Square could stand alone as a sort film and probably win an Oscar.  (Again, completely universal terror is interrupted by a ringing cell phone.)  But, it’s unclear how this fits inside The Square’s themes.

Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in THE SQUARE. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The Square is very well-acted.  Claes Bang is exceptional as Christian, exuding the ennui of Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2, Gabriele Ferzetti in L’Avventura and David Hemmings in Blow-up.

As an American journalist, Elisabeth Moss (who is always excellent) gets to show us her playful side, which is a treat;  there’s a wonderful Moss moment when her eyes tell us she’s made a decision about her sex life while in the restroom line.

The most stunning performance is by Terry Notary as the performance artist at the gala.  Notary, a stunt coordinator, choreographer and movement coach, is a master of motion capture, and his work has been featured in the Planet of the Apes and The Hobbit franchises and Andy Serkis’ Jungle Book.  It’s one thing to imitate an ape, but Notary’s performance in The Square plays off of and dominates a banquet room full of other actors.  It’s a really singular performance.

Terry Notary (on table) in THE SQUARE. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

I loved Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, which made my list of Best Movies of 2014
Force Majeure was Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. It is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.  Force Majeure was a satirical drama with some very funny moments; The Square is a satirical comedy with some very serious themes.

The Square is a movie that my head liked a lot, but it didn’t thrill my heart.  Filled with brilliant moments, it just doesn’t hold together as one cohesive great movie.

[SPOILER: At the end, Christian tries to be genuinely helpful by making amends –  but he is proven ultimately and ironically helpless.]

 

DVD/Stream of the Week: the original TOP OF THE LAKE

Elisabeth Moss in TOP OF THE LAKE

Netflix will release the episodic drama Top of the Lake: China Girl in September.  It premiered at this May’s Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews.  The Wife and I are looking forward to binging through it when it’s available.  So NOW is a good time to catch up on the FIRST season of Top of the Lake from 2013 – you can binge it on Labor Day Weekend.

In the original Top of the Lake, Moss plays an Australian detective who returns to her rural New Zealand hometown only to get entangled in the case of a missing pregnant 12-year-old. Moss’ cop begins unraveling the community’s secrets, and it turns out that she has a past herself. It’s easy to find oddballs and seekers in a mountain community, along with the usual crop of redneck louts, and this New Zealand backwater has more than its share of both. There’s a dodgy police commander, a slimy real estate broker, a bunch of edgy teenagers – and the protagonist’s old prom date is now living in a tent.

But that’s nothing compared to one of the most twisted characters of recent years, the sadistic local drug lord played by Peter Mullan (the Red Riding series, Tyrannosaur, The Claim).

And then there’s a colony of women living in shipping containers while they heal from life’s traumas and seek enlightenment. Their sometimes catatonic and always harsh guru is played by Holly Hunter.

Throw all these characters together into a cleverly constructed plot, and you’ve got one highly entertaining series.

Peter Mullan in TOP OF THE LAKE

Top of the Lake was created by New Zealand’s own Oscar-winning director Jane Campion.  Each of the episodes is only 48-50 minutes long, so watching all seven episodes goes pretty briskly.

In Top of the Lake: Chine Girl, the Elisabeth Moss character is back in Sydney, Australia,  and Nicole Kidman will join the cast.

Holly Hunter in TOP OF THE LAKE

You can catch Top of the Lake episodes on the Sundance Channel or watch all seven episodes on  DVD from Netflix or streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, Vudu, Hulu, YouTube and Google Play.

LISTEN UP PHILIP: maddening self-absorption can be funny

Elisabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman in LISTEN UP PHILIP
Elisabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman in LISTEN UP PHILIP

The dark indie comedy Listen Up Philip features perhaps the most self-involved character in cinema (and that’s really saying something).   The young novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) believes that his writing talent entitles him to simmer in permanent rage and to crap on every one in his path.  To the credit of writer-director Alex Ross Perry, this supremely unsympathetic character is very fun to watch.  (And, unlike in most mumblecore movies, Philips’s self-absorption is not accepted as an aspect of normal life, but treated as appallingly aberrant and cruel.)

Philip is living with his photographer girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), whose career is beginning to eclipse his.  It’s pretty clear that their home will soon be tossed on Philip’s trail of relationship carnage.

Just when Philip might have to face the natural consequences of his behavior, he meets the WORST POSSIBLE mentor – an older famous novelist (Jonathan Pryce).  The older guy, who has his own collection of relationship wreckage, is ready to enable, nurture and magnify all of Philip’s worst tendencies.

Perry cleverly moves the story’s focus from one character to another and adds a hilarious voiceover narration that parodies the tone of many modern American novels.  Be sure to watch for the faux book covers during the final credits.

Listen Up Philip is smart and funny, but plenty dark.   It’s available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

THE ONE I LOVE: a relationship enters the Twilight Zone

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in THE ONE I LOVE
Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in THE ONE I LOVE

Opening tomorrow, The One I Love is one of the year’s most original stories – a romance, dark comedy and sci-fi fable rolled into one successful movie.  Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play a couple in that place in their relationship where quirks have become annoying instead of endearing, some trust issues have emerged and the two are just generally misfiring.  Their couples therapist recommends a weekend at an idyllic, isolated vacation cottage, which also has a second (presumably unoccupied) guest house.  The beautiful setting is enhanced by a bottle of wine and a reefer, and the desired rekindling of romance and intimacy occurs.  So everything goes as we would expect for this first nine minutes of the movie, and then – WOW – a major plot development that involves the guest house.

As soon as one of the characters explicitly references TV’s The Twilight Zone, the story becomes what would have been a perfect episode in that Rod Steiger series.  Screenwriter Justin Lader pulls off a What’s Gonna Happen Next? story that has its moments of creepy thriller and madcap comedy.  But, at its heart, the story explores these questions:  what is it about our partners that keeps us in or drives us out of a relationship?  How do we stay in love with someone who has changed from who we fell in love with?  Or who hasn’t become the person we had projected?  The One I Love is only 91 minutes, so the tension and the thoughtfulness can slowly build while keeping us on the edges of our seats.

Moss and Duplass are simply remarkable here – these are two great performances.

MINOR SPOILER ALERT: Both Duplass and Moss play other characters in this movie – and they excel at creating subtle differences in the characters that are revealing, thought-provoking and scary.

DVD/Stream of the Week: Top of the Lake

Elisabeth Moss in TOP OF THE LAKE

If you’re looking for an episodic drama before you can get another taste of Treme, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Justified or the like, you can do a lot worse than the Sundance Channel’s seven part series Top of the Lake, staring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss.  It’s just right for a Labor Day Weekend marathon.

Moss plays a cop who returns to her rural New Zealand hometown only to get entangled in the case of a missing pregnant 12-year-old. Moss’ cop begins unraveling the community’s secrets, and it turns out that she has a past herself.  It’s easy to find oddballs and seekers in a mountain community, along with the usual crop of redneck louts, and this New Zealand backwater has more than its share of both.  There’s a dodgy police commander, a slimy real estate broker, a bunch of edgy teenagers – and the protagonist’s old prom date is now living in a tent.

But that’s nothing compared to one of the most twisted characters of recent years, the sadistic local drug lord played by Peter Mullan (the Red Riding series, Tyrannosaur, The Claim).

And then there’s a colony of women living in shipping containers while they heal from life’s traumas and seek enlightenment.   Their sometimes catatonic and always harsh guru is played by Holly Hunter.

Throw all these characters together into a cleverly constructed plot, and you’ve got one highly entertaining series.

Peter Mullan in TOP OF THE LAKE

Top of the Lake was created by New Zealand’s own Oscar-winning director Jane Campion.

Each of the episodes is only 48-50 minutes long, so watching all seven episodes goes pretty briskly.

Holly Hunter in TOP OF THE LAKE

You can catch Top of the Lake episodes on the Sundance Channel or watch all seven episodes on DVD or streaming from Netflix.