Tag Archives: B

THE SQUARE

Producer: Erik Hemmendorff
Director: Ruben Ostlund
Writer: Ruben Ostlund
Stars: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary, Linda Anborg, Christopher Laesso, Annica Liljeblad, Emelie Beckius and Jan Lindwall
Studio: Magnolia Pictures

B

Comedy of frustration takes a darkly satirical turn in “The Square,” the elegant new film by Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure”). A sly parable of white privilege brought low, it’s like a cousin of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” but set in a world of riches and social pretension.

Tall, handsome Christian (Claes Bang) is the director of Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum, where he oversees cutting-edge exhibits such as one that consists of piles of sand arranged in geometric patterns across a floor with a sign reading “You Have Nothing.” While he’s walking to the museum one morning, he’s accosted by a woman who’s being chased by an angry boyfriend and screaming for help; he and another bystander protect the clingy woman from her pursuer and they go their separate ways. But when the incident is over, Christian finds that he’s been denuded of his wallet, phone and cufflinks.

That happens just as Christian is in the middle of preparing for the launch of a socially-conscious new exhibit called The Square, a small spot in the museum’s courtyard identified as a zone of social responsibility and compassionate human contact. Part of the process involves hiring a couple of with-it ad guys to come up with a campaign that will attract public attention to the exhibit.

But Christian’s attention to the campaign is diverted by other emergencies—like one of the sand piles being vacuumed up by a janitor (his solution is just to recover the sand and rebuild the pile without telling anybody)—and by his irritation over being robbed. An aide suggests that he take action when the GPS on his stolen phone shows that it’s now somewhere in a high-rise housing project: he inserts in the mailboxes of each apartment a note accusing the residents of being thieves and demanding his property back. The plan actually works—the phone, wallet and cufflinks are returned anonymously—but as a result of it a young boy shows up demanding an apology for accusing him of stealing (which has brought punishment from his parents). And this is one insistent kid.

Meanwhile Christian runs afoul of an American reporter (Elizabeth Moss) with whom he has a one-night stand after a botched interview in which he’s flummoxed by a question about some gobbledegook in one of his recent catalogues. She’s a forceful sort herself (even engaging in a tug-of-war over the condom he’s used as they argue over who should dispose of it) and proves unwilling to let him get away with using her so cavalierly. She accosts him in the museum, creating an embarrassing scene.

To make matters more fraught, Christian’s position at the museum deteriorates. He arranges a gala fund-raiser in which the dinner guests are confronted by a fellow pretending all too convincingly to b a dangerous primitive, a performance that ends in actual violence. As if that weren’t bad enough, the ad men come up with a video spot that outrages the public and, in turn, leads the governing board to demand his resignation. At a press conference Christian finds that the press is not willing to let him off the hook so easily.

“The Square” is, partially at least, a satire about the world of modern art and the pretentiousness associated with it. But its chief target is Christian—a name that’s admittedly on-the-nose—who represents the cluelessness of liberal-minded individuals who blithely assume that their generalized sympathy for those less fortunate than they and an air of smug self-confidence will carry them through any crisis. Christian is kind of a square himself, and is forced by circumstances to learn that his position is a lot less secure than he thought it was.

“The Square” is filled with oddball asides. When Christian and his assistant go to the high-rise to deliver those accusatory notes, for instance, the aide refuses to go into the building and makes Christian do so himself, remaining in the car—which is promptly assaulted by passersby. And when Christian goes to the reporter’s apartment, he’s bewildered, as we are, by the fact that her roommate is apparently a chimpanzee. Such episodes are unexplained, and keep us as off=balance as Christian is.

They are also played in an extremely deliberate fashion, their extension drawing the picture out to epic length at nearly two-and-a-half hours. But so expert is Ostlund’s sense of control, so right-on Bang’s performance, and so striking the visuals (the cinematography is by Fredrik Wenzel and the production design by Josefin Asberg) that even the longueurs have a certain fascination. “The Square” will make most viewers wonder how much like Christian they are, and leave them feeling uncomfortable at the thought.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Producer: Ridley Scott, Mark Gordon, Simon Kinberg, Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund and Michael Schaefer
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Michael Green
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Mihelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley. Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Tom Bateman and Miranda Raison
Studio: 20th Century Fox

B

Why do people think that they can improve on Agatha Christie? One of the greatest strengths of Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film of “Murder on the Orient Express” was its near-compulsive fidelity to her novel, and the craftsmanship with which it laid out the intricacies of the narrative. Kenneth Branagh’s remake isn’t the bastardization that the 2001 CBS telefilm starring Alfred Molina—a horridly updated version—was. Nor does it careen as far in the direction of modern moralizing and religiosity as the 2010 ITV television adaptation starring David Suchet (one of the last films in that actor’s mostly admirable series of Christie stories) did.

But this new take on “Murder” does involve modifications that, quite frankly, are unnecessary and unhelpful. Characters are pointlessly altered and/or combined: Col. Arbuthnot, the military man played in Lumet’s film by Sean Connery, becomes Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.) who also sort of assumes the part played by elderly Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris in 1974). The Swedish missionary portrayed by Ingrid Bergman the first time around becomes a hot-blooded Latina (Penélope Cruz). The Russian count played in a courtly fashion by Michael York for Lumet is now a smoldering, hot-tempered dancer (a nod, no doubt, to the fact that he’s played by Sergei Polunin) who apparently also has martial-arts talent. Hardman, the Pinkerton man played by Colin Blakely for Lumet, here poses as a Nazi-spouting Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe). Some of the changes are clearly made to allow for ill-advised “contemporary” touches—Hardman’s contempt for the African-American Arbuthnot, for example. But none are especially successful.

Then there is the characterization of Hercule Poirot. He remains, as Branagh plays him, a man obsessed with order—but unlike in Suchet, or Lumet’s Poirot Albert Finney (or Peter Ustinov’s later version; the less said about Tony Randall’s maladroit assumption of the character, the better), the obsession is depicted as a harmless, humorous tic (and it’s not always observed anyway—Christie’s Poirot would cringe at his hair being disheveled, as Branagh’s often is, though his prodigious moustaches—taken to absurd lengths—remain unalterable).

And that points to the fact that Branagh’s Poirot is younger, sprightlier and given to far more physicality that the detective’s previous incarnations. He isn’t taken to quite the action-hero lengths that Sherlock Holmes was in Guy Ritchie’s pictures with Robert Downey, Jr., but he does engage in a chase under a railroad bridge and indulge in a walk atop a railway car—as well as put on a show of exposing a criminal in a Jerusalem prelude that involves pre-positioning his cane in the very place where it can literally trip up the culprit. This is not your father’s Poirot, and it’s not an improvement.

Still, there is still a considerable amount of fun to be had from this journey on the fabled train, despite some lurches and bumps. First of all, Christie’s basic plot, essentially a locked-door mystery set on a train stopped on its tracks by an avalanche and constructed with all her skill in misdirection, remains a crackerjack affair, almost as pleasurable to watch unfold when you know the ending as it was the first time around. Michael Green’s laying out of its twists and turns isn’t as sure-footed as Paul Dehn’s was for Lumet—he steers one toward the big revelation too ham-fistedly—but it’s workmanlike and gets the job done.

And visually the film is a winner. Branagh’s decision to shoot in 65mm pays dividends in the gorgeous shots of the train moving through the snow-covered mountains, and also allows the many felicities of Jim Clay’s production design, Alexandra Byrne’s costumes and Rebecca Alleway’s set decoration to register beautifully in Haris Zambarloukos’ ever-elegant widescreen images. Mark Audsley’s editing is reasonably good, too, avoiding the sense of stasis that sometimes afflicted Lumet’s film while keeping things fairly clear. Unfortunately Patrick Doyle’s score doesn’t at all match Richard Rodney Bennett’s in the earlier version, with its lovely waltz.

Under Branagh’s efficient but uninspired direction, none of the cast members makes the vivid impressions many of Lumet’s did in brief strokes. The best of the lot are probably Dafoe, Judi Dench, replacing Wendy Hiller as the imperious Russian countess, and Derek Jacobi standing in for John Gielgud as the stiff-upper-lip butler. The others are okay, but don’t match their earlier counterparts. Even Johnny Depp comes off as second-best to Richard Widmark as the dastardly Ratchett.

In sum, Branagh’s remake of the Christie classic is enjoyable enough, but it’s not a patch on Lumet’s 1974 “cavalcade of stars” version. It does, however, reaffirm the principle that most of the “improvements” an adapter might be inclined to make to the grande dame’s work should be resisted. Some things are best left as they were.