Friday, November 3, 2017

Novitiate, God's Own Country, Aida's Secrets, Thank You for Your Service, The Square


God's Own Country

Aida's Secrets

Thank You for Your Service

The Square

A mostly meritorious mixed bag as the calendar flips to November:

Margaret Betts' "Novitiate," with Melissa Leo (who was exceptional as a Mitzi Shore type in Showtime's "I'm Dying Up Here") in good form as the Reverend Mother of an American convent and Margaret Qualley as the young postulant Sister Cathleen, takes religion - love of God, challenges to and reaffirmations of faith - as seriously as any film since 2011's "Higher Ground." But it's not at the level of Vera Farmiga's earlier work. Betts tries to squeeze in one too many out-of-the-headlines issues, and loses control of a ponderous runtime that ultimately eclipses the two-hour mark. Still, a climactic scene in which Leo is forced to accept, and apprise her nuns of, the radical changes imposed by Vatican II solidifies a mild recommendation… Ditto for Francis Lee's "God's Own Country," about Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor), whose quiet life with the animals on his family farm in the north of England is punctuated by weekends of hard drinking and furtive, resolutely unemotional sexual encounters with men. When his parents (Gemma Jones of "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" and Ian Hart) hire a swarthy Romanian laborer (Alec Secareanu) to help build a wall (always a good idea), Johnny and Gherorghe's bickering ("Gyppo." "Freak. Faggot.") turns into sex and the slow (very slow) acceptance by Johnny of his need for intimacy. (Lee also drops hints of Johnny's submissiveness, which is daring and welcome.) The ending smacks a bit of wishful thinking, but the movie mostly earns it with its honesty and verisimilitude… And one last mild rec for Alon and Shaul Schwarz's documentary "Aida's Secrets," about Izak Szewelwicz, who was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp and sent as a very young boy to Israel to be adopted and educated. He has lived in Israel his entire life, eventually reconnecting with his birth mother. But when new records are found that include not only his birth certificate but that of a previously unknown brother, Shep, who had been sent to Canada, the two brothers arrange to meet for the first time seventy years after the fact. Then Izak introduces the blind Winnipegger Shep to his birth mother, Aida, who (unknown to Shep) has long lived mere hours away in Quebec. And that would be the happy ending of most movies, but here the secrets - about birth fathers, even a potential third sibling - have only begun.

Landing on just the other side of the line is Jason Hall's PTSD drama "Thank You for Your Service," with the busy Miles Teller as one of three soldiers who return together from Iraq physically but not always mentally. (The others are played by Beulah Koale and, less memorably, Joe Cole.) Hall too tries to check off too many boxes: we get the perfunctory flashbacks to war and the killing of Teller's commanding officer, who had insisted on filling in for him after Teller had been through an earlier horror, the red tape at the VA, the eruptions of violence that pierce Koale's domestic life. He doesn't quite find a convincing way to portray, for example, the overlay of lived combat experience on top of the war-themed video games Koale plays rabidly. The writing is mostly on-the-nose, but comes to life in the performance of Haley Bennett as Teller's wife Saskia, who tells Mr. I've-Got-This she can handle anything except his silence. A scene in which she stumbles upon his answers to a VA psychologic questionnaire is the movie's most memorable.

The pick of the month is Ruben Östlund's Palme D'Or-winning art-world satire "The Square." Östlund's last film, "Force Majeure," made the top half of my top-ten list in 2014 (and its exclusion from the Oscar shortlist was another blot on the Academy). Östlund is better than any other director working at putting you smack in an unpleasant situation and forcing you to think about and decide what you would do. It's a cinema of dilemma, but more so a cinema of discomfort. Things - aural things even more than visual - are always happening around the edges of his frame that keep his characters and us from ever being able to relax. I was surprised but not shocked that both the friend I attended "The Square" with and two friends to whom I had recommended it walked out. I, on the other hand, was nodding my head up and down with excitement. In a largely moribund current cinema, "The Square" feels jarringly alive.

Christian (stunning newcomer Claes Bang) is a divorced father of two young girls and the curator of a cutting-edge Stockholm modern art museum. As the movie opens, he is busily preparing for the arrival of a major (but highly minimalist) installation called The Square, approximately half of a room in size, in which visitors are exhorted to treat each other with respect (passive) and care (potentially active). Of course, this being an Östlund film, Christian's own behavior may not live up to the same ideals, particularly when his mobile phone is stolen while he buys a sandwich for one of the city's seemingly vast stream of (rarely appropriately grateful) beggars.

He and a colleague decide to print out ransom-note-type flyers and place them in the mail slots of every apartment in the 13-story building to which his phone tracker shows him it was taken. Needless to say, none of this harebrained escapade goes as planned. Still, the lady at the convenience store calls him the next day to tell him his wallet was returned, and fully intact. Which makes it all the stranger when the counter girl calls him the following day to tell him a letter has been left for him, promising to "make chaos" unless Christian apologizes to the writer and his family. He is not whom you would expect.

And we haven't even gotten to the journalist (Elisabeth Moss) who interviews, sleeps with and later goes Glenn-Close-in-"Fatal Attraction" on Christian. Or the barely post-adolescent advertising team who come up with a commercial in which a blonde, blue-eyed girl of six is blown to bits inside The Square, triggering mass condemnation and jeopardizing Christian's career. Or the brilliant set piece - and Östlund is a true master of the set piece - in which a male artist who has been caged and treated as an animal is loosed upon the wealthy donors and socialites at the grand opening dinner for The Square, twenty minutes of exquisite squirm-in-your-seat tension. "This shouldn't be happening, but it is." That's Ruben Östlund in one sentence. Life isn't happening the way I planned; what do I do now?

And I couldn't complete this review without mentioning one line in particular. Now, every so often, I'll hear a movie line and instantly be inconsolable with laughter. It happened in an otherwise unmemorable 2015 romcom called "Sleeping with Other People," when Alison Brie has dressed up for dinner at a nice restaurant with Adam Scott, who returns from using the facilities and promptly breaks the mood by announcing, "Bathroom fucking stinks." Here, a woman is attempting to slow passersby on a bustling plaza and interest them in her charitable cause: "Would you like to save a human life?" As he keeps walking, one man clumsily offers, "Not right now."

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