REVIEWS: The Square (not the Palme D’Or winner)

29 05 2017

Remember when Harvey Weinstein manufactured a PR stunt for “The Butler” by juicing a scandal over the name of the film, eventually making a big hubbub and changing it to “Lee Daniels’ The Butler?” (Nope? Good for you. I still refuse to call it that.) Hopefully Magnolia Pictures will spare us the drama when it comes to getting the word out about Ruben Östlund’s “The Square,” which won the Palme D’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Just in this decade, there have already been two films by the same name!

Nash Edgerton (brother of Joel, who co-wrote the film) goes full Aussie neo-noir in his debut feature “The Square” (B / ). It’s got many of the hallmarks of the genre: unfaithful spouses, torrid affairs, money issues, crooked businessmen, staged crimes, doomed escape. It’s almost as if the characters should know they’re in a noir movie, that’s how closely it fits the genre script.

Edgerton has clearly done his homework here and knows how to do right by the rules of noir. But those rules are meant to be bent, even broken, a little bit in the modern era. Otherwise, why not just go watch a classic noir on TCM? “The Square” can be exciting at times, yet anyone who knows the genre patterns will be able to predict what’s coming from a mile away.

Still, it’s a promising start for a director – and it’s a little shocking that it took him a decade to get another feature off the ground. (Per IMDb, he’s currently filming “Gringo,” a star-studded production for Amazon Studios.)

Jehane Noujaim’s documentary “The Square” (B+), on the other hand, feels like something vital and fresh at every turn. Her camera captures the democratic uprising of the Arab Spring in Egypt as protestors demand the downfall of the autocratic Mubarak regime. It begins with the demonstrations and continues as their optimism and idealism gradually weans when the realities of governance begin to set in.

Don’t come to “The Square” expecting a “Frontline” style special breaking down the progress of the protests or providing an extensive primer on Mubarak’s reign. Noujaim’s film has all the vitality of a primary source document, one that’s focused entirely on the sensations of the actual revolution. It’s a present-tense documentary, one full of raw emotion and intense fervor.

The film is a bit messy, though perhaps a more tidy edit would betray the sensation of “The Square” in the first place. Form matches content quite nicely. While a more conventional streamlining might have made the documentary a better film, those moments of pure, unfiltered emotion break through nonetheless. This is more than just a movie. It’s history, filmed.





REVIEW: Wind River

28 05 2017

Sundance Film Festival

“You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists,” stated Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro in the final lines of Taylor Sheridan’s “Sicario” script. “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.” As if picking up exactly where he left off, “Wind River” continues following the journey of a law-abiding law enforcement official into the heart of darkness.

It’s almost a little too eerie how many parallels exist between Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in “Sicario” and Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner in “Wind River.” Both are female FBI agents sent to perform their duties in a place outside their jurisdiction where previously all-encompassing authority means nothing. For Jane, that’s an Indian reservation in the remote regions of Wyoming. In order to survive, both agents must rely on a more experienced, world-weary male who can serve as her shaman to a more questionable legal territory.

Jane’s guide is Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert, who unlike Alejandro in “Sicario,” does not belong to the group with whom he liaises. He is a white man who has gained the trust of the Native American communities by taking the time to understand how they live, a marked contrast from Jane’s treatment of a murder case on their land like it’s just another Las Vegas or Ft. Lauderdale homicide. The film’s most poignant scenes show how Cory can code switch and compartmentalize the many facets of his life. Going from a hunter to a father to “Cap,” as he’s known, takes a toll on his psyche – even if his stoic expressions never reveal such turmoil.

Otherwise, “Wind River” plays like a “Sicario” spinoff with far fewer surprises. The tone, attitude and general plot progression are familiar now and remain mostly unchanged. While the United States’ relationship with the Native American reservations is one that definitely deserves more attention, it lacks the searing topicality of a story set on the Mexican border. Without that heft, Sheridan’s signature terse one-liners like “Luck is in the city” come across as more risible than bone-chilling. B-





Deux Par Ozon (Ricky, Potiche)

27 05 2017

Ever since his “Young & Beautiful” beguiled me at Cannes in 2013, I’ve been a fan of Francois Ozon’s peculiar blend of French cinema. His blend of camp and noir traditions provides for unconventionally satisfying watches in “Swimming Pool” and “In the House” – and, for something totally different, he made a stunningly classical film recently with “Frantz.” That’s not to say I find him perfect, though.

Potiche” (B-) casts icon of French cinema Catherine Deneuve in a role fitting of her status. As Suzanne Pujol, matriarch of a business-owning family, she often keeps her dysfunctional family functioning while receiving little credit. She’s the titular trophy wife (the literal English translation of “potiche”) in a late ’70s era when such was a high honor to which a woman aspired.

But out of necessity, she must step in to manage her husband Robert’s umbrella factory while he falls ill – and during a classic French workers’ strike, no less. Her feminine wiles turn out to be just what the doctor ordered for the factory, so much so that her temporary custodianship begins calcifying into a more permanent management. Her newfound purpose divides her families and galvanizes French society, then still in shock over a woman exerting such authority in the business world so openly and unabashedly.

“Potiche” is a mostly enjoyable romp, although it eventually begins to drag as Ozon hits the same notes on his satirical social commentary again and again. We get the point pretty early on about female empowerment in a patriarchal society, and it’s not exactly a novel idea. Still, the fun of Deneuve letting loose in classic Ozon style makes the film worth a watch.

Now, I have seen Ozon make a movie about a teenage girl who chooses to be a prostitute, a widower who changes gender identity, and two tales about an obfuscated boundary between fiction and reality. These have been exciting takes indeed, though neither promise the sheer spectacle of “Ricky” (D / ). The film quite literally features a baby that sprouts wings (that resemble the kinds you’d see on a Butterball turkey at the supermarket).

It’s told with no urgency, no energy and no vitality – an especially shocking thing to say regarding Ozon, whose films are usually zany expressions of his twisted desires. Every moment rings false and every scene feels phoned in. To call it melodrama implies that there might be a moment resembling dramatic tension. There isn’t.

In fact, the cherubic titular character isn’t even the focus, he’s just the means for the mother to realize herself – but Ozon doesn’t develop her enough for us to give a damn. It’s just a bizarre spectacle and a head-scratcher of the worst variety.





REVIEW: Paris Can Wait

26 05 2017

Eleanor Coppola’s “Paris Can Wait” amounts to little more than a middle-aged French retread of “Leap Year” – rack your brains and see if you can remember that 2010 Amy Adams romance. The setup is simple: a charming American woman needs a ride to meet up with her romantic partner, so she must enlist the help of a native of a charming European man to whisk her across the rural backroads of his native country. Along the way, however, she begins to doubt her allegiances as the extended car trip softens her stance towards the courier.

“Paris Can Wait” offers many gorgeous views of scenic French vistas, but if that’s what Coppola wanted to shoot, then perhaps her energies are better spent filming a promotional spot for the country’s tourism bureau. With all due respect, I’ve seen half-hour TV specials with more meat on their bones than this film. The only bit of content worth serious deliberation is when Anne (Diane Lane) and Jacques (Arnaud Viard) discuss what separates the Americans from the French.

Otherwise, “Paris Can Wait” is a lavish nothingburger of a travelogue that is every bit as self-indulgent as an Adam Sandler comedy set in Hawaii or Africa. The cast and crew get to enjoy the majesty of France’s countryside – the culture, the food, the sheer joy of getting caught up in a moment of inexpressible beauty. We’re left to experience it from afar through the eyes of Anne and her digital camera, which she uses to take Instagram-style foodie pictures that she is too sheepish to share. I couldn’t even get a vicarious thrill from observing. C





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 25, 2017)

25 05 2017

No book I’ve read in the past few years has changed the way I think (and thus, the way I write) quite like Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?” The text is worth reading for a number of reasons, but what’s really stuck with me are his notes on canonical thinking. This weekly column is, by definition, an attempt to set aside movies and put them on some kind of elevated pedestal above the riff-raff of the multiplex. And in time, very few of these will be remembered.

The Kafka of our time, Klosterman argues, “will need to be a person so profoundly marginalized that almost no one currently views his or her marginalization as a viable talking point.” His chief example? Native Americans. They are out of sight and out of mind for most of the country. Their vantage point on so many issues is so underrepresented that we scarcely even notice it missing. Rhetorically, he asks, “When the Academy Awards committee next announces the nominations for Best Picture, how many complaints will focus on the lack of films reflecting the Native American experience?” To answer, odds are very few.

And yet … this is their country. Americans like myself, descended from Europeans, are mere immigrants.

To be fair, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is not written or directed by a Native American. The creative force behind the project is Chloé Zhao, who made her feature film debut delving deeply into reservation life and culture. There’s not a moment that feels inauthentic, though. In a remarkably assured first film, Zhao illuminates a portion of the country that many people forget exists. And, ironically, that very fact makes her film far more likely to stand the test of time than many others I have heaped praise upon in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column.

In her lyrical interpretation of a South Dakota Native American reservation, Zhao adopts the roving, windswept look we come to associate with Malick. But that’s where the conversation should start, not where it should end. “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is incredibly grounded and less ethereal. Zhao’s interests are noticeably more tactile. In a sex scene, for example, she hones in on tangible elements in the frame: the hymen blood, the friction of the sheets, the shimmering surfaces of two teenagers discovering the possibilities of their bodies.

The film is far from plotless, though it’s definitely not plot-driven or thematically motivated. Zhao simply gets us into the state of mind of two teenagers, free-wheeling John and his green younger sister Jashuan, as they watch the dust settle following the death of their largely absent father. Most events chronicled in “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” are actions taken by John, which are then observed or secondarily experienced by Jashuan. But the perspective of the film belongs to her.

Technically, this narrative could fall under the “coming of age” category. Zhao, however, seems less concerned with charting progress and more interested in extracting one vivid cross-section. In “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” we come to understand her naïveté and curiosity inside and out. Through it, we also receive a filtered look at the poverty and neglect that run rampant through Native American reservations. It’s a glance that could replicate Zhao’s own in studying this community – but very likely resembles far too many in the country.





REVIEW: Baywatch

24 05 2017

In the opening credits sequence of “Baywatch” – unoriginally set to the tune of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” – Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch converses with a surfer bro on the beach where he lifeguards. The chat has to be subtitled because, of course, Florida English is practically unintelligible to the untrained ear. It’s one of the few subversive or creative tricks the film has up its sleeve in a waterlogged two hour runtime.

What passes for clever throughout “Baywatch” is Mitch and the rest of his bathing suit-clad team engaging in middle-school level taunting by pulling out some new name to taunt Zac Efron’s Matt Brody, a Ryan Lochte-esque “him-bo” has-been swimmer. (The film appears to have wrapped before that Olympian’s robbery scandal in Rio, so the parallels do feel a little eerie.) “21 Jump Street” this most definitely is not. Seth Gordon’s film, which passed through the hands of six writers, takes far more pleasure in fitness porn and over-the-top humor than any kind of satirization or interrogation of its source television show.

There are hints here and there of a movie “Baywatch” could have been. Various instances of fraternizing between men display the faintest whiff of parodic homoeroticism – only to fade into a low-grade gay panic joke. The film plays like a studio-massaged bauble, selling products (shout-out to the Tag-Heuer product placement) and its stars’ chiseled physique above all else. It’s like a two-hour aquatic Equinox ad with some narrative propulsion added in for good measure – even complete with an unearned feminist zinger in its climax! The hit-or-miss humor is a generous life preserver to keep us from drowning in their consumerist ocean. C+





REVIEW: The Wedding Plan

23 05 2017

As one afflicted by chronic singleness syndrome (mostly by choice, or for lack of trying – look, this isn’t about me, ok?), many of the emotions along the journey in Rama Burshtein’s “The Wedding Plan” felt all too familiar. There’s the isolation of being an adult who hasn’t found a life partner as everyone else finds theirs, the impatience and judgment of everyone around you, and the occasional spurts of anger directed at the cosmic authorities for imposing what feels like a curse.

Burshtein’s protagonist, Michal, treks on towards the goal of a wedding in the ultimate act of defiance against these internal and external pressures. She holds a date for her nuptials on the final day of Hanukkah without a groom in place. Trusting in both her own charm and determination as well as divine providence, Michal bends the will of love to her own timeframe.

Michal’s oft-hapless desperation lends some levity to “The Wedding Plan,” though labeling Burshtein’s film a “rom-com” doesn’t do the experience justice. This trek towards the altar assumes continued gravity as Michal puts the cart before the horse in the matter of love. The unconventional move garners a wide variety of reactions from Michal’s suitors, though Burshtein’s lens on events also collects valuable information on her female counterparts. The men of this orthodox Jewish society espouse patriarchal beliefs, but the women also internalize and parrot them. One woman tells Michal that of course all men want an obedient wife; Michal, and Burshtein by extension, cast back a doubtful and inquisitive glance.