There’s plenty to see in this run up to the Oscar qualifying season. Both good and bad. Here's how to zig and zag through it all.
You’ve lived a good life. Made a few bucks. Are on a few boards, because you gave some of those bucks to the opera, maybe a cancer fund, the art museum. You look good in a tux. Woman you came with fills out a dress, and it costs some money for hair like that. Not to mention the ear rings.
So, when the Ape Man crashes the gala patron event at the museum and hops up on the table to finger the perfect lady’s coiffure and stroke her cheek, Ruben Ostlund’s The Square delivers on its promise to confront its characters and its audience about just where they believe the line is between art and society.
The confrontation between the Haves and the wild child is Swedish director Ostlund’s extension of his talent to confront an audience’s senses of safety, certainty and certitude. Ostlund’s Force Majeure three years ago, in which an avalanche at a ski resort breaks up a family’s breakfast on a ski lodge patio, was a young masterpiece of such confrontation. The dad is seen bolting from the table, leaving his two kids and wife to fend for themselves. Slowly but surely, the wife confronts her husband about his abandonment of them and of his gender responsibilities, in what amounts to a funny and itchy de facto courtroom trial over dinner and drinks with friends.
To his rescue comes the dad’s pal, Kristofer Hivju, the big red beard who plays the aptly named Tormund Giantsbane on Game of Thrones, In Force Majeure Hivju reincarnates Art Carney in what amounts to a lost episode of The Honeymooners. Ostlund climaxes the film with some gender turnabout being fair play.
If you haven’t seen Force Majeure, you can stream it to catch up with how Ostlund is maturing as a director. In The Square, partly in Swedish and English, Ostlund pits Claes Bang as a high-flying art museum curator against the world that supports him, including Elizabeth Moss as the American culture journalist he bedded and fled. The film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year. And as such is a film for demanding audiences who go to the movies to be poked and provoked. It comes with an A plus recommendation here.
Not so true of Suburbicon, which is ersatz art, directed by George Clooney, meant to be a social satire of 1950s suburban American race prejudice and family mores. Of course, the script by the Coen brothers means to suggest nothing has changed. A black family moving into all white suburbia gets the ball rolling.
Suburban Stepford Mom Rose Lodge, played by Julianne Moore, is dispatched by a mob hit man and suburban dad, Gardner Lodge, played by Matt Damon, looks befuddled. Of course, Dad is there waiting for his son, as the script hinge takes us into the dark heart of America.
Julianne Moore swivels from her role as the dead Rose to show up as her identical twin sister Maggie in what turns out to be a life insurance fraud reminiscent of the Coens' 1996 masterpiece, Fargo. This one is a master-something but piece isn’t the way that word ends. Investigating Rose’s demise is Oscar Isaac (from Inside Llewyn Davis) as an insurance adjuster of low moral repute. Which somewhat summarizes this whole venture as a Coen Boys sketch that fell out of their drawers. Clooney and writing/producing partner Grant Heslov worked over the Coens’ script and arrived in a hole that they married to the ubiquitous Alexander Desplat’s soundtrack that refuses to let you miss every second of the sledgehammer level of dark whimsy. Decidedly a non-hit at the recent Toronto Film Fest, Suburbi- is a con alright.
Instead, there are some smaller quality films worth a look. Novitiate is a nun’s story set in the American south in the mid-60s after the liberalizing effects of Vatican II have begun to take root in the Catholic Church. Directed by Maggie Betts, a young actress turned director, the film made its debut quietly at Sundance ‘17, and stars Margaret Qualley as the young novitiate who tests the faith. There’s a role for Melissa “Can Do No Wrong” Leo—I lover her--as the Mother Superior you hate to love.
Also catch up with Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which completes the arc Baker began with Starlet and Tangerine (that’s the one shot on an iPhone) and Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck (more Julianne Moore here in a wonderful ode to NY City that completes its arc at the topographical NYC map in the Queens Museum). Get set for more quality films to come tumbling out in November, which nearly always ends in a turkey.
Click above to hear Harlan Jacobson's complete movie review.