Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Terry Notary’

It was suggested that I come up with some kind of contribution on the topic of ‘public art’ for a forthcoming themed issue of the webzine I contribute to. Once I’d found out what that meant and done some googling, it turned out that there are a few films on this subject, mostly documentaries, but for the most part access to them is restricted, either by geography or a paywall. Maybe this is the future of cinema right here: if, as people are seriously suggesting, physical cinemas will no longer be financially viable in the post-pandemic world, then everything is going to depend on where you live and which streaming services you can afford to subscribe to. At which point I think I will simply just throw in the towel and just stick to watching moronic game shows and TV series from fifty years ago.

Thankfully, that awful day is still a few months away, and in the meantime there are still a few relatively free streamers available: mostly those tied to TV networks, which just means you have to endure them stopping the film now and then while they try to sell you things you can’t really afford any more and never needed in the first place. One of them turned out to be showing The Square, directed by Ruben Ostlund (O with two dots over it), an artist whose career has had some ups and downs: The Square won the top prize at Cannes, but on the other hand his previous film, Force Majeure, suffered the indignity of an American remake starring Will Ferrell. So it goes sometimes.

The Square takes place in and around a Stockholm art museum, curated by the suave and thoughtful Christian (Claes Bang). He is something of a public figure around town, and the museum is hosting a number of prestigious shows and installations, including a man pretending to be an ape (Terry Notary) and the ground-breaking ‘Mirrors and Piles of Gravel’, which is pretty much what it sounds like.

All is well in Christian’s world until he sees a young woman begging for help while he is on the way to work one morning: naturally, his decent and humane instincts lead to him being dragged into a scene with her, her violent ex, and another stranger. Everything seems to resolve itself quite peacefully, but then he is horrified to discover it was all a set up and he has been mugged.

This preys rather on Christian’s mind, as you might expect, and somewhat takes his mind off preparations for a new installation called ‘The Square’, which apparently symbolises compassion and shared humanity. Then, one of his staff is able to trace the location of the stolen phone to a nearby tower block, and rather than face a confrontation, Christian decides to send a letter demanding the return of his property to every single flat.

You know this is not going to end well, but exactly how it all goes wrong is not quite so easy to guess. The general thesis of the film is much easier to discern, though, as it’s not presented with particular subtlety: one scene shows a charity worker in a busy street asking the passers-by to ‘Save a human life’, the irony being that she herself seems completely oblivious to the plight of the various homeless people around her. Most of the film is a series of extended riffs on the same idea: characters make a big deal about how decent, humane, refined and liberal they are, but then their actual behaviour suggests they are rather more petty and self-serving.

There are also a number of pretty good gags about the absurdity of the contemporary art and culture world: at one point part of one of the piles of gravel is accidentally hoovered up, forcing Christian to get some fresh gravel and recreate the pile using old photos as a model. (The Duchampian question of what this says about the nature of art is left implicit.) The hip young social media gurus the gallery hires to drum up publicity for The Square come up with a video which is ridiculously offensive and inappropriate, but still somehow entirely credible.

Elsewhere the film perhaps acts as a reminder that satire and comedy are not always the same thing. In one of the film’s big set pieces (and the one depicted in most of the publicity), the artist pretending to be an ape runs amok at a dinner, which is initially greeted with indulgent laughter from the attendees, but eventually results in an angry mob delivering a beating. It’s oddly uncomfortable and unsettling to watch, as are the various scenes where Christian is given a hard time by a young boy who is suffering as a result of his non-confrontational approach to dealing with the muggers.

In the end, if this is a comedy, then it is a comedy of manners and social awkwardness, although one taking place in a milieu that was unfamiliar to me, at least: there’s a scene in which Christian and Anne (Elizabeth Moss), a journalist he hooks up with, have a protracted row over who should be allowed to dispose of the used contraceptive. Another depicts a visiting artist (Dominic West) attempting to give an interview in front of an audience which contains a man with Tourette’s syndrome: it’s all very low-key and naturalistic, but still somehow squirm-inducing. (Apparently this is one of several sequences in the film based on real events; another touch of verisimilitude which led to problems is that The Square is ascribed to real-life artist Lola Arias – there was a dispute over whether she actually gave her permission to be used.)

You know, reading all this back I’m making The Square sound like a solid, thoughtful, intelligent film, a worthy Palm D’Or winner. Maybe it is – Bang’s performance is a fine one (he has since become rather better known in the UK after appearing in the BBC’s Dracula), and it is clearly not one of those films which has just been slapped together. However, as with Force Majeure, I found a lot of it to be so understated, deadpan and slow that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The problem is compounded here by the fact The Square is nearly two and a half hours long. I’m not saying it sprawls, but I did find it very hard work and in the end watched it, effectively, as a mini-series of three episodes, which isn’t something I normally consider doing. After all that, would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It almost seems more interested in its own austere and careful style than in actually making its points effectively and entertainingly. It actually comes across as slightly pretentious, which for a film aspiring to satirise pretentiousness is not a good look. It’s okay, but I would be wary of giving a more enthusiastic endorsement.

Read Full Post »

If an alien or someone fresh out of long-term hibernation were to cast an eye across the cinematic landscape and try to guess who amongst the actors currently working was, by some metrics, the most successful movie star in history, the chances are they would go for one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks)  – which would be a reasonable guess, but not quite right. In the end it all comes down to how you measure these things, and many people would suggest that Samuel L Jackson’s string of cameo appearances in huge movies from the Marvel and stellar conflict franchises, not to mention Jurassic Park (and many others), puts him on the top spot, but others reckon it to be someone who has a rather lower profile these days: Harrison Ford.

Now, as with all right-thinking men of a certain age, I loved Harrison Ford when I was younger – or, more accurately, I loved the movies he made as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and those movies made me go on to watch many other Ford performances in films like Witness and The Fugitive. At this point I was all set to do my usual thing of bemoaning the fact I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with Ford’s more recent movies – but then I checked out his recent filmography and it turns out that I have seen every film he’s made in the last seven years, and only missed eight of the twenty he’s appeared in this century. He just doesn’t crank ’em out any more.

How he picks his projects I’m not entirely sure (though I imagine an enormous paycheck was a factor in his last couple of appearances for Lucasfilm), but it does seem that he still has proper movie star clout and consequently draws the salary one would expect. Chris Sanders’ new version of The Call of the Wild has Ford’s name above the title, and he is prominent on the poster – though in some of the advertising he is definitely playing second banana to a dog.

Then again, this is par for the course with The Call of the Wild, which – again, according to some of the advertising – is based on ‘a classic family adventure’. I’m not sure what Jack London, who wrote the original novel, would have made of that. I’m not entirely sure I ever actually finished reading The Call of the Wild – I can only imagine I bought a copy as background material while planning out a Werewolf RPG chronicle – but I don’t recall it being particularly gentle or family friendly. The new movie rectifies this, of course.

This is the story of Buck, an enormous St Bernard-Scotch Collie dog who as the film begins is living a pampered existence in California in the late 1890s, as the pet of the local judge (Bradley Whitford, briefly appearing). He is good natured but disruptive, and generally a bit of a softie. But Buck’s life changes when he is dognapped and sent north to Alaska, where the Gold Rush is in progress and dogs are required for all sorts of jobs. Here he briefly encounters grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable prospector John Thornton (played by grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable actor Harrison Ford), before being bought by a couple (played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee) running a dog-sled mail route. Can Buck find a place for himself in the savage north? Will destiny bring him and Thornton back together (hint: yes)? Can he resist the call of the wild (hint: no)?

I imagine the thinking behind the new version of Call of the Wild (this is a much-filmed tale) was basically that the CGI version of The Jungle Book was based on a classic novel and made a ton of money, and so a CGI-heavy version of London’s book was likely to do the business too, especially with the cachet brought to it by the presence of a superstar like Harrison Ford. It all makes sense when you put it like that, but the fact remains that Call of the Wild looks likely to lose the studio (it is the first film released by the newly-rechristened ‘Twentieth Century Studio’) a nine-digit sum. Maybe people will only go to see Ford playing either of the characters who made him famous, or maybe people don’t have the same kind of warm associations with London that they had with the Disney take on Kipling. Either way it’s a shame, as this is a solid movie that I found to be rather more satisfying than I expected.

Of course, it is a movie of the modern day, with all that goes with this both narratively and technically. The most striking thing about it is that much of the time the dogs and other animals in the film are all CGI, which I suppose cuts down on trainers’ fees but also lifts the whole thing into the realm of being effectively part-animated. Buck is ‘played’ (through the wonders of mo-cap) by Terry Notary, who I suppose is the American answer to Andy Serkis: other mo-cap roles include parts in the last King Kong film, along with the Hobbit trilogy, the most recent Planet of the Apes films, and (almost inevitably) a bunch of films for Marvel. You really have to get on board with the fact this is a CGI/mo-cap heavy film, or it will just do your head in; it mostly does look indefinably fake, but it’s a pretty enough fake to be tolerable.

Needless to say, the Progressive Action Committee have also made an appearance in the course of the production and various diversity quotas have been met, with characters given racial and gender makeovers. For once I’m not too inclined to grumble about this, because the actors employed as a result – Omar Sy and Cara Gee – are both very able and engaging. The role of bad guy has been taken from some native Americans and – of course – given to a privileged white man (played by Dan Stevens).

The other main departure from London is that the film has been softened up quite considerably – there’s a lot of whipping and clubbing and biting and clawing, if memory serves, and the story doesn’t shy away from some brutal realities. The hard edges have been sanded down quite considerably for the screen, though, with the result that the film rests comfortably in the PG bracket. It is mawkish and sentimental in places, but the moment I was dreading, when the dogs would start talking to each other, never arrives. The animals are allowed to be animals to this extent at least.

And the humans are allowed to do some decent acting, too. Whatever else you want to say, the film does seem to lift considerably whenever Harrison Ford comes on the screen. He’s never been the most extravagant of performers, but his ability to give heart and heft to unlikely material remains undiminished and it is a pleasure to watch his slightly earnest performance in this movie (I should say the movie itself is determinedly earnest and somewhat old-fashioned in its storytelling). For a while I was wondering why this movie was making me feel quite so nostalgic, but the fact it features Ford partnering up with a co-star who is enormous, hairy, and doesn’t have any dialogue should have tipped me off. Eventually I remembered the Russian word for dog is sowbacca and it all fell into place.

Let’s be clear: The Call of the Wild isn’t going to rock your world or give you a thrilling night at the movies you will never forget. But it is a well-made movie in its way, which is clearly trying hard to be respectful to the source material, and in the end it is very engaging and satisfying entertainment. And it’s always good to see Harrison Ford in a movie. Hopefully it will find some kind of audience.

Read Full Post »