Category: Media satire

The Menu (2022)

The Menu (2022)

Dark satire is mixed with intelligent character work and a challenge to our assumptions in this intriguing film

Director: Mark Mylod

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Julian Slowik), Anya Taylor-Joy (Margot Mills), Nicholas Hoult (Tyler Ledford), Hong Chau (Elsa), Janet McTeer (Lilian Bloom), John Leguizamo (Famous Actor), Reed Birney (Richard Liebbrandt), Judith Light (Anne Leibbrandt), Paul Adelstein (Ted), Aimee Carrero (Felicity), Arturo Castro (Soren), Rob Yang (Bryce), Mark St Cyr (Dave)

A dash of Succession. A soupcon of Hannibal Lector. Lashings of The Most Dangerous Game. All these ingredients are mixed to delightfully dark comic effect in The Menu, a sharp and tangy assault on class and modern society which leaves an unusual but satisfying taste in the mouth.

First those touches of The Most Dangerous Game. Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes) is a restauranteur so exclusive, his restaurant is based on a private island. Each course, of each menu is part of an overall story that forms the meal. For the story of the meal he is currently preparing, Slowick has selected an exclusive guest list of the rich and famous: businessmen, the rich, movie stars, food critics – the elite, the snobbish, the 1%. And the story he is serving up is one of increasingly grim retribution for this table-load of takers not givers. The only unexpected figure there is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), last-minute guest of obsessive food purist Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). How will this unexpected fly in the soup affect Slowick’s plans for the evening?

The Menu in many ways is a revenge satire. Slowick does not hold back in his increasing fury and bitterness at the people he serves without appreciation or gratitude in return. His customers are interested only in food if it costs a lot and is exclusive. They have no interest in his actual skills, in the staff (whose names they do not remember), the food itself or anything beyond their own desires. Many of the customers – most hideously a trio of “bro” investors (played with slapable smugness by Castro, Yang and St Cyr) – flash their jobs and cash expecting these to ensure their every whim is met. To them the world is like dough to be shaped into whatever bread they want it to be.

The film – with glee – exposes the hideous selfishness of the rich customers. A rich couple (Birney and Light) who have attended Slowick’s restaurants several times yet remember nothing about the food or the staff. Janet McTeer’s elite food critic, who practically scratches marks into her pen to mark the restaurants she has closed (she’s accompanied by a fawningly obsequious editor, played by Adelstein). A famous actor (John Leguizamo) who has long-since sold-out and treats his fans with contempt, joined by his spoilt rich-girl assistant/girlfriend (Aimee Carrero). Each of them is deconstructed in turns by Slowick over a series of courses parodying the snobbish bizarreness of high-class dining.

And here is where those touches of Succession make themselves known in the flavour. That series – and Mylod is a veteran (and its finest director) – also presents the ghastly shallowness and greed of the super-rich to expert comic effect. But what that show also does – and what Mylod brilliantly manages here – is make what could be two dimensional monsters sympathetic. The Menu presents these dreadful people with honesty; but, as the punishments – cruelly personal reveals, psychological torture, a finger cut off here, a man hunt there – pile up, you start to wonder if the punishment is too much?

The “bro” investors may be dreadful selfish, arrogant, dick-swinging morons: but they are also immature idiots who have never really grown up. The rich couple might treat places like this elite restaurant as a God-given right, but does that really deserve death? The food critic is harsh and arrogant, but is writing cruel words a mortal sin? The actor loathes himself for selling out his talent to make money and his girlfriend has simply been born into money and never wanted for anything. Do these people really deserve the monstrous ends Slowick has planned for them?

It’s the smartness of The Menu which could easily have invited us to just enjoy the rich and powerful being exposed, humiliated and punished. Instead, this is a smarter, more intelligent dish. The lower-class restaurant staff should be the people we are rooting for. But Slowick runs the restaurant like a cult, the staff near-robotic automatons that follow Slowick’s orders without question, intone their “Yes, Chef!” answers like a religious chant and snap to attention as one. Slowick’s number two Elsa – superbly played by Hong Chau – sums them up: all of them are desperate to become her boss and will follow Slowick to hell and back without a murmour and their heartless, personality free cruelty makes them very hard to root for.

As does Slowick himself. Here comes that sprinkling of Lector. Played with a superb, chilling intensity by Ralph Fiennes at his most coldly austere, Slowick could have been a character who swept us up in his intelligent superiority. But there is not a hint of joy in Slowick, only a vast, bubbling anger and resentment under a coldly precise exterior. Who on earth could look at this near-psychopath and think “I’d love to be him”? Slowick’s service is dryly, terrifyingly funny but you’d certainly not be left wanting to leave him a tip (unless it was your only way of getting out alive).

Instead, we gravitate towards the odd one-out. Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as Margot, the unexpected guest who finds herself the only person unprepared for by Slowick, who is neither a member of the super-rich, but too free-spirited and independent minded to join the Slowick cult. Dragged along by Tyler – a hilarious performance of over-eagerness, snobbish elitism and stroppy self-entitlement by Nicholas Hoult – The Menu revolves more and more around the dance of death between her and Slowick. Like the audience, Margot is invited to pick a side to sympathise with.

It makes for a rich, lingering dish with an intriguing after taste, far more developed and better cooked than the sloppy revenge saga or re-heated leftovers it could have been. It left me wanting a second course.

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Östlund’s super-rich satire lines up straight-forward targets to easily knock down

Director: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Harris Dickinson (Carl), Charlbi Dean (Yaya), Dolly de Leon (Abigail), Zlatko Burić (Dimitry), Iris Berben (Therese), Vicki Berlin (Paula), Henrik Dorsin (Jarmo), Woody Harrelson (Captain Thomas Smith), Alicia Eriksson (Alicia), Jean-Christophe Folly (Nelson), Amanda Walker (Clementine), Oliver Ford Davies (Winston), Sunnyi Melles (Vera)

In my review of The Square, Östlund’s previous Palme d’Or winner, I described its targets as “so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels”. If only I’d known: Triangle of Sadness, his satire on the super-rich, takes this to the Nth degree: it’s an entire film of Östlund spraying machine gun bullets into an aquarium of drugged fish. That’s not to say there ain’t good jokes in here and several of its sequences are cheeky, engaging and funny. It’s well-made and high quality: but it’s also obvious and is in a such a rush to make its oh-so-clever satirical points that it frequently blunts its own impact.

The film revolves around a luxury cruise liner. On board: the self-obsessed, selfish, greedy representatives of the world’s oligarchs. A Russian who repeatedly amuses himself by bragging that he sells “shit” (fertiliser), a Danish app builder who splashes his cash, a married couple of British arms-traders who jovially bemoan how UN restriction on landmines made for tough financial years… you get the idea. Also on board: Instagram influencer supermodel Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and her insecure male model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson). All of them treat the staff like slaves. But when the ship sinks after a storm and an attack by Somali pirates, the surviving passengers find they entirely lack the skills needed to survive on an island, unlike toilet-cleaner Abigail (Dolly de Leon) who rockets from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy.

Östlund’s film lays into the emptiness, greed and selfishness of the super-rich with glee, even if it hardly tells us anything we don’t already know. The rich are only interested in their own needs and can only see others as tools for their own pleasure: who knew? Wanting to expand his satirical targets even further, Östlund also takes a pop at the social media generation. Apparently, they are shallow and interested only in commodifying their own lives. Who knew? It’s the sort of stuff that makes for a punchy student revue, but you want something a little bit more challenging that moves above cheap shots from a Palme d’Or winner.

In many ways the film’s most interesting section (and most subtle ideas) take place before we even reach the boat. The film’s first chapter exclusively follows Carl and Yaya. Carl auditions for a modelling job where he’s treated like a piece of meat (hilariously they mutter about him needing botox). At a fashion show, staff pleasantly demand three people move out of their seats to make way for VIPS – who immediately ask for one more seat. Everyone shuffles along one (the camera following this with a neat tracking shot), leaving Carl seatless. This is a more subtle commentary on the self-obsessive focus of the super-rich than anything that follows.

Carl and Yaya are in an interesting position: they are both part of the beautiful super-rich and not (they don’t have any money). That early act opener balloons from a disagreement over who pays for a meal into Carl inarticulately arguing for sexual-equality and mutual partnerships that defy gender roles. It’s more interesting than almost anything that follows, because it’s multi-layered and raises genuine issues we all face (to varying degrees).

But the film abandons multi-layered the second it steps foot on the boat. There are fun set pieces. Carl unwittingly gets a pool attendant fired because he’s jealous of Yaya’s admiration for his topless body. The staff on the boat gee themselves up for days of enthusiastic deference with a tip-expectant-group-chant. A Russian lady demands the staff all swim in the sea so they can have as much fun as she is having (and to show how ‘normal’ she is). The film’s most infamous set-piece occurs as a storm coincides with the captain’s dinner (with the fish courses under-cooked due to the aforementioned obligatory staff swim) leading to nearly all the passengers projectile vomiting across the state room, then sliding around the floors of the swaying ship in their own filth.

Amusing as that can be in its guignol excess, it tells you how subtle the film is. The film is awash with obvious, lazy jokes – of course the polite arms trading couple are called Winston and Clementine! To hammer home the social issues the film whacks us over the head with, the Captain (an awkward performance from Woody Harrelson) an alcoholic Marxist spends the storm pissed in his cabin, reading Noam Chomsky and his own anti-capitalist ravings over the ship’s tannoy. This takes up a huge amount of screen-time and manages to be both obvious and not very funny.

The film enjoys taking these pot-shots so much, it ends up feeling rushed when we arrive at the island. If we had seen more of Dolly de Leon’s Abigail earlier in the film (in actuality, the film sidelines her as much as the characters do, barely allowing her more than a minute of screentime in its first hour), the shift in social hierarchy would have carried more impact. If Östlund’s film had more patience to show the passengers expectation that shipwrecked life would be identical to that on the boat, then Abigail taking charge after a few days that would have carried more impact. Instead, Abigail takes command from arrival, and then essentially behaves (in a way I’m not sure the film quite understands) with exactly the same self-entitled greed as the passengers did. She takes the best cabin, establishes a hierarchy, keeps most of the food and turns Carl into a sex toy.

Because we’ve not really seen Abigail earlier in the film, we don’t get a sense of her earlier mistreatment (really, most of the film would have been better told from her point-of-view) or join her satisfaction at the tables being turned. The film also exhausts its commentary on the super-rich leaving it with little to say about in its third act Lord of the Flies set-up. Instead, the film dawdles its way to a conclusion and cliffhanger ending that feels unearned.

It makes you regret the loss of its earlier more subtle commentary on Instagrammers Carl and Yaya (good performances from Harris Dickinson and the tragically late Charlbi Dean) who are drowning-not-waving in a world where they must commodify their bodies but have no power over them, struggling to work-out where they fit in a world. It throws this overboard to go for some (admittedly at times funny) gags about greed and very obvious social commentary. If it had committed to its social underclass uprising earlier – or carried on with its more subtle themes from the opening prologue – it would have been a better film. Instead it’s as subtle and probing as the faceful of vomit it serves up halfway through.

Amsterdam (2022)

Amsterdam (2022)

Lots of quirk, whimsy and smugness, not a lot of interest or dynamism in this satirical mis-fire

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale (Burt Berendsen), Margot Robbie (Valerie Voze), John David Washington (Harold Woodsman), Robert De Niro (General Gil Dillenbeck), Chris Rock (Milton King), Rami Malek (Tom Voze), Anya Taylor-Joy (Libby Voze), Zoe Saldana (Irma St Clair), Mike Myers (Paul Canterbury), Michael Shannon (Henry Norcross), Timothy Olyphant (Tarim Milfax), Andrea Riseborough (Beatrice Vandenheuvel), Taylor Swift (Elizabeth Meekins), Matthias Schoenaerts (Detective Lem Getwiller), Alessandro Nivola (Detective Hiltz), Ed Begley Jnr (General Bill Meekins)

David O Russell’s has made a niche for himself with his ensemble awards-bait films, filled with touches of quirk and offering rich opportunities for eccentric, showy performances from actors. Some of these have walked a fine line between charm and smugness: Amsterdam tips too far over that line. Like American Hustle it’s a twist on a real-life event (opening with a pleased with itself “A lot of this really happened” caption) but, unlike that film, it fails to insert any compelling storyline, settling for a whimsical shaggy-dog story that frequently grinds to a halt for infodumps or lectures.

Set in 1933, just as Roosevelt has taken office, it follows three friends who formed a friendship for life in post-war Amsterdam. They are: wounded veterans doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and lawyer Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) and socialite-artist-turned-nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). Berendsen and Woodsman lost touch with Valerie in the 1920s, but now they are all bought together after the murder of their respected former commander as part of a plot from various nefarious types to overthrow the government in a fascist-inspired coup.

Sounds gripping right? Well, Amsterdam fails to find any urgency in this. In fact, details of this plot and the political context it’s happening in are sprinkled around the film as if Russell kept forgetting what the film was supposed to be about. It’s almost as if he stumbled on an unknown piece of American history – a rumoured coup attempt, thwarted by being denounced by the ex-Marine General approached to lead it (here represented by De Niro’s ramrod straight General Dillenbeck) – but got more and more bored with it the longer he spent on it.

Instead, his real interest is in the faint overtones of Jules et Jim style thruple between Berendsen, Woodsman and Voze (though this is American not French, so any trace of homoeroticism is dispatched, despite the obvious bond between the two men). The most engaging part of the film is the Act two flashback to these three healing, dancing and bonding in post-war Amsterdam, in a “our troubles are behind us” bliss. Even if it’s self-satisfied in its bohemianism.

To be honest, even then, they have an air of smugness behind them. They pass the time singing improvised nonsense songs based on words pulled out of a hat and playfully posing in Valerie’s modernist artwork. Valerie is played with almost enough charm by Robbie for you to overlook she is a standard Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, the sort of babe who pulls shrapnel from bodies to turn it into artistic tea-sets as a commentary on the madness of war. She and Woodsman form a relationship (with the married Berendsen as a sort of – well I’m not sure what, but definitely not a sexual third wheel) and these blissful Amsterdam days are the times of their life. Russell is so keen for us to know it, that all three pop up in short cutaways at key moments to whisper “Amsterdam” direct to the camera, an affectation that fails to deliver the spiritual impact its straining for.

It’s better than the shaggy dog story around the conspiracy that fills the 1930s part of the storyline. This remains so poorly defined, that Bale has to narrate a concluding slideshow of clips and fake newsreel and newspaper coverage to explain what on earth has just happened. The lack of clarity about the stakes – and the general lack of seriousness or urgency anyone treats them with –fails to provide any narrative oomph. Instead, it drifts along from casual meeting to casual meeting, every scene populated with a big-name actor showboating.

There is a lot of showboating in this film. Bale, an actor with an increasingly worrying tendency for funny voices and tics, fully embraces the facially scarred, glass-eye wearing Berendsen, perpetually stooped with a war wound and prone to fainting from pain-killer overuse. It’s a showy, actorly performance with a licence to go OTT. Bale does manage to invest it with an emotional depth and vulnerability, but there’s more than an air of indulgence here.

Most of the rest follow his lead. Malek and Taylor-Joy sink their teeth into a snobby socialite married couple. Rock essentially turns his role as a veteran into a less sweary extension of his stand-up act. Myers and Shannon seize with relish roles as ornithologist spies (is this meant to be a joke about the origins of the James Bond name from the author of a bird-spotting guidebook?) Poor John David Washington ends up feeling flat with his decision to underplay (like he’s in a different movie) and only De Niro really manages to feel like anything other than an actor on holiday.

Russell wants to make a point about the continual corruption of the rich and how their hunger for more power will never be sated. There are some half-hearted attempts at attacking racism, with the ill treatment of black veterans, but it lacks bite or edge. His attempts to draw parallels with Trump are all too clear, but the film largely fails to integrate these ideas into the film. In fact, it ends up relying on voiceover lectures from Bale about dangers to democracy. It ends up like being hectored by an angry socialist after a student revue night.

The film is shot with a series of low angle shots and medium and close ups that eventually made me feel like I was watching it from the bottom of a well. A vague sepia-ish tone is given by Emmanuel Lubezki, but the film looks flat and visually uninteresting (so much so I was stunned to see $80million had somehow been blown on it, despite most of the cast working for scale). It drifts towards a conclusion, without giving us anything human to invest in (as Russell managed so well in Silver Linings Playbook or The Fighter) or providing the sort of caper enjoyment he delivered in American Hustle. Instead, it’s oscillates between smug and dull.

Nope (2022)

Nope (2022)

Be afraid of looking in Jordan Peele’s puzzling but less enlightening horror suspense film

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Otis Jnr “OJ” Haywood), Keke Palmer (Em Haywood), Steven Yeun (Ricky “Jupe” Park), Brandon Perea (Angel Torres), Michael Wincott (Antlers Holst), Wrenn Schmidt (Amber Park), Keith David (Otis Haywood Snr), Donna Mills (Bonnie Clayton)

Spoiler warning: Peele loves to keep ALL the plot details on the QT – so I discuss more than he would want, but hopefully not enough to spoil the plot.

Jordan Peele’s previous horror films brilliantly married up genuine chills with acute social commentary. Plot details have often been kept under wraps – after all half the joy of watching Get Out or Us the first time is working out what the hell is going on. Nope continues this trend, but for the first time I feel this is to the film’s detriment. I actually think Nope would be improved if you know going into it that this was Peele’s dark twist on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with added body horror). Instead, Nope plays its enigmatic cards so close to its chest that it ends up never having a hand free to punch you in the guts.

Pensive and guarded Otis Jnr (Daniel Kaluuya) – known, unfortunately, as OJ – and his exuberant wanna-be-star sister Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) are trying (with differing levels of enthusiasm) to keep their father’s Hollywood horse handling business alive after his freak death from a coin falling from the sky (everyone assumes it fell from a plane). The business is struggling, with OJ forced to frequently sell their horses to their neighbour, a former child star turned ranch theme-park owner, Ricky (Steven Yeun). Their lives are altered however when they discover a huge UFO living in a cloud near their ranch, sucking up horses (and other animals) and spitting out any inorganic remains. Seeing this as their path to fortune (and in Em’s case fame) they try and capture the UFO on film.

Nope is all about our compulsive need to look. Nothing draws our eyes like spectacle – and what could be a bigger spectacle than a huge saucer in the sky that eats people? It doesn’t matter if we know we shouldn’t, our eyes are drawn up (now imagine if Peele had been able to call the film Up!). We want to be part of the big event, whether that’s seeing the latest blockbuster at the big screen or rubber-necking at a roadside accident. Nope hammers this point home, when it becomes clear you are only at danger from the saucer when you look directly at it. Spectacle literally kills!

This is all an inversion of the mid-West America that starred at the skies in wonder in Close Encounters. There the Aliens capped the film with a glorious light show with awe and wonder from the humans watching. Here the appearance in the sky is a prelude to sucking you up, digesting you and vomiting out blood and bits of clothing a few hours later. Despite this, Ricky tries to make an entertainment show out of the creature (something he, of course, learns to regret), and OJ and Em find little reason to re-think their attempts to capture the animal on screen.

Peele’s film takes a few light shots at social media culture. Of course our heroes’ first instinct is to reach for their phones (they are looking for that “Oprah shot” that will guarantee fame and fortune). OJ at least is largely motivated by the cash influx his struggling business needs – Em wants the fame. But the film still attacks the shallow “main event-ness” of social media, where having the best and most impressive thing to show off (for a few seconds) is the be-all-and-end-all.

Peele remains too fond of these characters to judge them too harshly. But he has no worries about taking shots at the fame-and-money hungry Ricky, or a TMZ reporter who arrives at the worst possible moment and dies begging to be handed his camera so he can record the moment. Arguably Ricky would have made a more interesting lead: a man chewed up and spat out by the fame machine and angling for a second chance, who thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is.

The film opens with a chilling shot of what we eventually discover was the bloody aftermath of the disastrous final filming day of Ricky’s sitcom from his childhood-acting days, Gordy’s Home. Gordy was a chimp living with an adopted family: until the chimp actor snapped in bloody fury. It sets up a sense of danger, but the plot never quite marries it up with the main themes of Nope. Parallels are thinly drawn with Ricky’s attempt to commercialise this infamous tragedy, but it feels forced: the whole section plays like a chilling short story inserted into the main narrative. And the film never explores in detail the lesson from this bloody tragedy, that we underestimate the dangers animals can pose (despite the film being littered with creatures).

Instead, Peele settles for a stately reveal of his plot. It takes almost an hour for the film’s true purpose to become clear, but it lacks the acute and darkly funny social commentary that made his previous films so fascinating while they took their time showing you their hand. Interesting points are made about how black people are (literally) whitewashed out of Hollywood’s history (the Haywoods claim to be descended from the black jockey featured in the first ever moving film made in America). But it’s a political point that sits awkwardly in a satire (about something else!), and Peele overstretches the opening without making the central mystery compelling enough.

There are, however, fine performances from the actors, Kaluuya’s shuffling physique – slightly over-weight, the troubles of the world weighing him down – is matched with his charismatically sceptical looks. Keke Palmer is engaging and funny as his slap-dash sister, and the warm family bond between these two works really well. It never quite makes sense that someone as publicity-averse as OJ would really want to become a social media sensation, but you can let it go.

There is lots of good stuff in Nope – it’s beautifully filmed and assembled and once it lets you in on its plans, it has a strong final act. But its social commentary isn’t quite sharp or thought-provoking enough – people are shallow and love spectacle and social media, who knew – and neither the mystery or the plot are quite compelling enough. It’s told with imagination and Peele has a fascinating and unique voice: but Nope isn’t much more than a solid story well told.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Ennui, emptiness and envy in Fellini’s coolly satirical portrait of a hedonistic Rome

Director: Federico Fellini

Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Marcello Rubini), Anita Ekberg (Sylvia Rank), Anouk Aimée (Maddalena), Yvonne Furneaux (Emma), Walter Santesso (Paparazzo), Lex Barker (Robert), Magali Noël (as Fanny), Alain Cuny (Steiner), Nadia Gray (Nadia), Jacques Sernas (Divo), Laura Betti (Laura), Valeria Ciangottini (Paola)

It’s one of those films as much about everything as it is nothing. Fellini’s omnibus of interconnected shaggy-dog short stories follows Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a would-be novelist writing a gossip column, as he mixes with the great and the good in Rome. Casual affairs, Hollywood stars, nightclubs, drunken parties and would-be orgies – Rome is a whirligig of the shallow and meaningless, all wrapped up in a classic façade. La Dolce Vita was gloriously popular and hugely influential – it seemed to be casting a cynical eye over the 60s, even as they were kicking off – and remains possibly Fellini’s best-known and most popular film.

At its heart is Marcello. Gloriously played with a shallow suaveness smothering deep self-loathing by Mastroianni, Marcello has enough insight to understand the world he occupies is an empty and meaningless one – but not enough drive, discipline or determination to do anything about it. For all his dreams of becoming a novelist and artist, he’s all too easily seduced by the glamour and the hedonistic pleasures of Roman high society. When presented with choices, he invariably takes the easier one. He has enough soul to wish he had more of one.

Fellini lays out his journey through Roman night-life with a painterly skill – the frame is often full of fresco like images, taking in multiple characters at once, all preoccupied and busy with their own needs and wants. Fellini uses a superb mix of shifting POV shots to constantly place us in and then immediately out of Marcello’s shoes. Characters stare direct at the camera – are they look at us or Marcello? Marcello arrives at Steiner’s house in a POV shot – but then Marcello walks into the shot and suddenly we are witnesses again. It’s a film where we are always reminded we are on the outside, like participants in a dream.

La Dolce Vita is long, but also spry. This is a city of people universally keeping ennui at bay, by a never-ending parade of parties and sex. While we might see and hear life-changing statements – declarations of love, resolutions to build a better life, the severing of personal relationships – these lead to nothing. Fundamental relationships and patterns of living remain unchanged across the (unspecified) period of time the film covers. Words come and go as easily as parties.

La Dolce Vita is constructed from seven, each exploring a different aspect of Marcello’s empty, hedonistic existence. They cover: a sexual encounter with society heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) in the water-logged flat of a prostitute; a night Marcelo spends trailing Hollywood star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) across Rome; Marcello and other reporters reporting on a ‘miracle’ just outside Rome; a visit from Marcello’s estranged father; a party at an aristocrat’ faded palazzo with a failed encounter with Maddelena; finally a beach-house party where a jaded Marcello fails to initiate an orgy and collapses into something akin to a mini-breakdown, which he shrugs off. Intercut with this is Marcello’s friendship with Steiner (Alain Cury), the intellectual family-man Marcello aspires to be, who transpires to be as depressed and trapped as Marcello – with disastrous consequences.

These encounters are open to multiple interpretations: and part of the film’s strength is Fellini’s lightness in telling the story. Interpretation and significance isn’t forced upon the film: it’s long because it is stressing the repetition of its cycles. Each ‘short story’ is told with a pace and skill, frequently shifting in tone. Fellini will make you hoot with laughter or swoon with sensuality in one scene – and then shift uncomfortably in your chair the next.

Part of La Dolca Vita’s aim is to move Rome on from the tourist-centred attractiveness it had been given by a host of films from Roman Holiday on. It’s essentially marrying films like that with Rome Open City and Bicycle Thieves. It’s Fellini’s attempt to compare (and perhaps question) Rome’s classical cultural background with the hedonistic casualness of today’s world. It opens with a statue of Jesus being helicoptered across the outskirts of Rome towards St Peter’s. The statue is a glorious reminder of the power of Rome’s religious significance: but what follows it? A second helicopter, flown by Marcello and Paparazzo (his photographer), smirking and trying to pick up the numbers of the sun-bathing women waving up at them. New and old Rome intermixed, and not favourably.

The film is full of moments like this. The party at the aristocrat’s palazzo takes place in gorgeous grounds and rooms lined with busts of Roman emperors. At first it feels like a comparison between class and classlessness. But then you remember that ancient Rome was a hub of orgies and violence, and everything at this party would probably look pretty tame to the emperors watching.

The false miracle suggests affectations of Christianity are stage-managed and willingly performed at the dictates of the media. A priest may denounce the whole thing, but it doesn’t stop an army of people desperate to grab a piece of the action – from the media to ostentatious worshippers – descending on a small field, all of them willingly playing their expected parts. It only takes a downpour of rain to turn this devotional crowd into a panicked mass of people, blindly charging from shelter to shelter – with tragic results for one pilgrim. TV journalists stage-manage the crowd, give lines to members of the crowd and turn the whole place into a film-set.

As the film progresses, elements of classical Roman architecture slowly drift out, replaced by the harsher modernist buildings and blocks of flat (we’re subtly reminded, particularly with the arrival of Marcello’s father, mysteriously ‘absent’ for much of Marcello’s childhood, that a lot of these buildings were fascist in origin). Ironically the most famous sequence buries itself in classical architecture: Marcello’s night vainly following Sylvia (an alluringly playful Anita Ekberg, channelling Marilyn Monroe) in the hope of a sexual encounter (she remains wilfully oblivious of this). It culminates in Ekberg’s famous Trevi fountain dance – inspiring millions of would-be imitators.

Marcello’s life takes place in nightclubs and drunken parties, where social and sexual morals are modern and casual. Marcello’s most significant relationships are with Maddalena (Aimée is wonderfully arch cold), who toys with a profession of love only to instantly sleep with another man, and fiancée Emma (a clingy and desperate Yvonne Furnaux), who Marcello dutifully maintains a relationship with. Marcello wishes to see himself as a glamourous playboy, but he’s frequently on the backhand – picked up when wanted by Maddalena, played with by Anita and oppressed by Emma. We see him as often ignored and rejected as we do conquering.

Who Marcello really wants to be is the intellectual Steiner, who seems to have it all: fame, respect, and a loving family. It’s after meeting Steiner that we see Marcello doing the only novel writing in the film. Sitting in a beach café, he chats with a young waitress, Paola, who he compares to an angel in Umbrian paintings. Paola is also the last face we see in the film: waving to Marcello from a distance after his depressingly bitter failed orgy, as the guests gather around a leviathan washed up on a beach. She seems to be trying to ask him how the writing is going: he fails to understand and walks away. Paola feels like a moment of hope – a representative of a more fulfilled life of creativity and meaning – rejected by Marcello in favour of wallowing in pleasure. Fellini ends the film with Paola staring directly at the camera: is she making the offer of meaning to us instead?

It’s open to interpretation – as is the whole film. A big part of Fellini’s skill is not to hammer his points home, but let events speak for themselves, leaving the film open to interpretation. I see it as a sort of Dantesque parallel. Nearly every story is framed with characters moving up and down stairs – like the circular descent of Dante through Hell. Its structure seems to be broken into Cantos. And each step sees Marcello descend a little bit further – culminating in Mastroianni impotently ripping up pillows and spraying feathers over a laughing woman.

Is modern Rome hell? That might be a little bit too far. But it’s definitely a soulless purgatory. Paparazzo doesn’t care who he hurts to get the photo – a dead child or a grieving mother are all game. Marcello’s uses what talents he has for empty and cynical purposes and to seduce women. Everyone thinks only about their next hedonistic encounter. It’s a wonder that Fellini makes this as strangely enjoyable as it is: but then he is a master. And La Dolce Vita remains his most popular and most recognised work.

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

An enigmatic beauty finds fame but not happiness in Hollywood in Mankiewicz’ slightly muddled mix of satire, romance and tragedy

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas), Edmond O’Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini), Elizabeth Sellers (Jerry Dawes), Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards), Franco Interlenghi (Pedro Vargas)

Rain hammers down on a funeral in the Italian Rivera. A group of (mostly) men gather to pay their respects to deceased film star Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). In flashback, two of the men who discovered her as an exotic dancer in a Madrid nightclub, remember her. Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is the world-weary writer-director and her friend and mentor, Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) a publicist to power-mad producers and self-satisfied millionaires who wanted to use Maria for their own ends. Maria’s success goes with a growing loneliness and ennui: marriage to Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi) feels like a fresh start but leads only to further tragedy.

Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa was an attempt to do for Hollywood what he so superbly did for theatre in All About Eve. What’s fascinating is that it’s clear Mankiewicz loved the theatre – for all its bitchy acidness – but clearly didn’t like Hollywood that much. The Barefoot Contessa is a cold, cynical film where Hollywood is a shallow, selfish place with no loyalty and where people are only commodities.

The only exceptions are Dawes and Maria. Dawes – an obvious Mankiewicz stand-in (and who hasn’t wished they could be Humphrey Bogart?) – is an artist, with an abashed guilt about wasting his talents on shallow films. Played with a quiet, observational languor by Bogart (so ashen faced at times, he seems almost grey), Dawes narrates with a dry distance, seeing but avoiding involvement, an arched eyebrow for every event. He’s also got a level of principle and integrity largely missing from the other Hollywood figures.

What we see of them is often hard to like – could Mankiewicz already be so bitter about his profession, just a few years after dominating the Oscars? Maria’s first producer, Warren Stevens, is a spoilt millionaire (inspired by Howard Hughes), played with a stroppy greed by Kirk Edwards. Stevens humiliates underlings in restaurants, treats Dawes like a bellboy, demands total devotion from Maria (sulkily ordering her to stay away from a potential rival at a dinner party) and has not a shred of interest in art. Under his control, Dawes directs films which sound formulaic (Black Dawn!) and which he clearly despises. A screen-test for Maria is gate-crashed by a series of European producers who gossip about money, stars, finance and never art.

Maria rises above all this as a true romantic ideal, her tendency to go barefoot part of her defining characteristic as a natural free-spirit in touch with the Mother Nature (“I feel safe with my feet in the dirt”). Ava Gardner is perfectly cast as this romantic but enigmatic figure, an idealised figure we never quite understand. Introduced as curiously indifferent about auditioning for Hollywood (partly due to her instinctive dislike for Stevens), Maria almost drifts into stardom but finds little contentment. She lives the ultimate Cinderella story (as she comments on with Dawes) but never find a satisfying fairy tale ending after her rags-to-riches story.

The Barefoot Contessa starts as a Hollywood expose, but becomes an ill-focused study of this almost unknowable glamour figure. Gardner is, of course, nothing like what a Madrid dancer from the slums would look or act like, but she is perfectly cast as the idealised figure Mankiewicz wants for his Maugham-ish exploration of ennui and shallowness among the jet-set of Europe. They’re not that different from Hollywood producers: obsessed with status and class, and uninterested in truth and art. Marius Goring’s Italian millionaire turns out (for all his Euro-charm) to be as much a stroppy ass as Stevens (humiliatingly blaming Maria for his gambling losses). Her husband, the Count, seems to be her salvation, but turns out to be as much a deceptive empty-suit as anyone else.

I suppose it’s part of the point that we never get to hear Maria’s own voice, only the perceptions of the men around her. You could say the same about All About Eve’s Eve and Margo, but they were such rich characters our understanding of them was always clear. But Maria is never quite compelling enough and Mankiewicz never escapes from making her feel a variation on a fantasy figure (between sex bomb and earth mother). Mankiewicz was forced to compromise on his central conceit (rather than gay, her husband is cursed with ludicrous war-wound induced impotency) of Maria marrying the man least suited to giving her the family-life purpose she seeks.

The Barefoot Contessa – strangely for a film from a director whose best work was with women – eventually becomes a film about men, fascinated with a woman they can never really understand. Dawes gets the closest, the only man free of sexual desire for her, but to the others she is often seen as an unobtainable sexual figure (on a yacht, she defiantly confronts the lecherous stares of the men on board). When we finally see her dance, she has a freedom and naturalness you feel has been crushed by the circles she now moves in.

It feels like two films pushed together: one a Hollywood expose about a newly-grown star (that film is a broader, farcical one where Edmond O’Brien’s hammy Oscar-winning turn as a wild-eyed, famously sweaty publicist seems to fit); the other a novelistic musing on ennui in the moneyed jet-set classes, where an unobtainable woman is at last obtained by a man who can do nothing with her.

Mankiewicz’s weakness is not pulling these two narratives together into a coherent thematic whole. He himself was later critical of the films structure. It’s beautifully written of course – Mankiewicz is a master of theatrical pose – and Jack Cardiff’s technicolour beauty is outstanding. The Barefoot Contessa sits in the shadow, both of In a Lonely Place (Bogart’s vicious 1950 Hollywood expose) and films that loosely followed in its ennui-exploring footsteps, like La Dolce Vita. But it’s as if Mankiewicz got a bit lost (like Dawes) about what his intentions were in the first place.

Don’t Look Up (2021)

Don’t Look Up (2021)

A host of stars tell us the world us coming to an end in this self-satisfied film

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dr Randall Mindy), Jennifer Lawrence (Kate Diabiasky), Rob Morgan (Dr Teddy Oglethorpe), Meryl Streep (President Janie Orlean), Cate Blanchett (Brie Evantree), Jonah Hill (Jason Orlean), Mark Rylance (Peter Isherwell), Tyler Perry (Jack Bremmer), Timothée Chalamet (Yule), Ron Perlman (Colonel Benedict Drask), Ariana Grande (Riley Bina), Scott Mescudi (DJ Chello), Himesh Patel (Philip Kaj), Melanie Lynsky (June Mindy), Michael Chiklis (Dan Pawketty)

Climate Change. It’s the impending disaster where we stick our head in the sand and pretend it’s not incoming. Governments have been told for decades our carefree use of fossil fuels and slicing down of rainforests will have a cataclysmic impact. But it’s always easiest for governments and people to just say “nah” and not let those thoughts get in the way of our everyday lives. Adam McKay’s satire Don’t Look Now takes these trends of indifference, disbelief and denial climate scientists have faced their whole careers and reapplies them to a comet-hits-the-Earth disaster movie.

So, when Michigan State University astronomers Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Diabiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) spot a hunk of ruck the size of Everest on a collision course with the Earth they are met with a chorus of… yawns, memes and flat-out denials. The Trumpian President (Meryl Streep) is only interested in her donors, the mid-terms and dodging the fall-out from a host of scandals. The media – represented by Fox News style anchors Brie Evantree (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) – aren’t interested in a story they can’t process down into a feel-good social media meme. And even when people start to listen, plans to destroy the comet are benched in favour of a wildly risky scheme, dreamed up by Steve Jobs/Elon Musk style tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) to mine the rare ores it contains for money. What could go wrong?

I can see what Adam McKay is aiming for here, to create a sort of Dr Strangelove for climate change, where the great and the good we are counting on to get us through a crisis, turn out to be the blinkered morons who end up causing it. There are moments where it sort-of hits on a rich mixture of farce and genuine anger. Moments where first Kate then Mindy – thelatter with lashings of Howard Beale – melt down on National TV, apoplectic at the comet-denying indifference of millions of people stand out as both hilarious and also compelling.

But, like a lot of McKay’s would-be satirical attacks over the last year, on finance and politics, the message sometimes fails to land because of the heavy-handed, self-satisfied, smug tone of the delivery. Don’t Look Up frequently isn’t very funny – and yes I know it ends with the world being destroyed due to everyone’s indifference and incompetence – and it ladles most of the blame on obvious targets. It’s takedown of Trump – here represented by Meryl Streep – is basic, it hits open goals with the agenda-driven bias of American news reporters and takes pot-shots at messianic tech billionaires. A real punch would perhaps have focused in more on how all the mindless, unfocused greed and ambition of these people is fed by the bland, social media focused, sound-bite obsessed shallowness of the masses. But Don’t Look Up remains focused on the big people.

So focused in fact that, even in this satire, only America has the wherewithal to launch a mission against the comet. A joint Russian, Chinese and Indian mission fails to get off the ground and other world leaders are noticeable by their absence. We never really spend time with any normal people. While much of the blame does lie with governments not taking a lead, we do live in a world where normal people are radicalised by reading about nonsensical mush like QAnon through chat rooms. Imagine a satire that looked at how ordinary people can be made to believe wild theories rather than the evidence of their own eyes as a comet heads towards Earth? Instead Don’t Look Up wants to stick with something vaguely comforting – that there are big, selfish, elites running us who act out of greed and stupidity and they carry all the danger (and the blame).

Where the film is strongest is the doubt and nonsense thrown at scientists. Mindy and Diabasky are first ignored by the administration because they aren’t Ivy League. Attempting to leak their findings on the TV, they are overshadowed by an on-air-proposal of a celebrity DJ to his singer girlfriend and when they hit the news, the only takeaway is that Mindy is ‘cute’, while Diabasky is a freaky angry woman, ranting about the world ending (she’s a meme in minutes). At every point the science is questioned or put on the same level as gut feelings and political agendas. Even their campaign to encourage the world to “Just Look Up” to see the impending catastrophe is countered by the President’s “Don’t Look Up” campaign that persuades millions of people the comet isn’t real.

Really rule by social media and the dumbing down of humanity should be the main target here. A comet isn’t even a great metaphor for climate change – which is gradual, can’t be just blown up and needs to be prevented by society making changes to the way we live. In some ways, by replacing climate change with a comet, even the film is acknowledging its not sexy or exciting enough – and that it doesn’t want to turn its critical fire on millions of people who would rather turn the heating up or drive to the corner shop rather than push to make changes in their lives.

So, it’s easier and simple for McKay to create a cartoon freak show of easy targets and bash them rather than tackle the underlying causes of climate change – that our world and its population wants to have its cake and eat it, and governments for generations have been too focused on the here and now to ever worry about the years to come. So funny as it can be to see Streep Trump it up, or Rylance channel his softness into insanity, or Hill play another of his mindless frat boys turned power brokers, the film doesn’t feel like it really goes for the real causes of climate change: our own culture. It takes hits at our social media simpleness, but not at our short sightedness.

McKay does at least direct without much of the fourth-wall leaning flashiness of his earlier works, and there are committed – if not exactly stretching – performances from Lawrence (whose characters checks out in despair at the shallowness) and DiCaprio (who is seduced by fame, power and Blanchett into becoming an apologetic mouthpiece for the administration). But Don’t Look Up is a little too pleased with itself, a little too focused on easy targets and doesn’t do enough to spread the blame wider. It stills see many of us as victims or mislead – when really we are as to blame a everyone else.

Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News header
Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter and William Hurt struggle with the news and love in James L Brooks not very funny or insightful romantic media satire

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: William Hurt (Tom Grunick), Holly Hunter (Jane Craig), Albert Brooks (Aaron Altman), Robert Prosky (Ernie Merriman), Lois Chiles (Jennifer Mack), Joan Cusack (Blair Litton), Peter Hackes (Paul Moore), Christian Clemenson (Bobby), Jack Nicholson (Bill Rorish)

TV news – what is it for? To inform or entertain? It’s a debate James L Brooks tries to explore in his inconsistently toned hybrid rom-com and satire. At the end you very much intended to come out with the view that it should be about one, but is more about the other.

In the Washington branch of an unnamed network, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a rising star producer, prone to daily emotional breakdowns. Her best friend is brilliant, committed reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), who longs to be the anchorman but lacks social skills. Arriving in their branch is Tom Grunick (William Hurt), handsome and full of TV savvy, set to become an anchor but lacking any real knowledge of either journalism or current affairs. Naturally a romantic triangle develops between these three, along with all sorts of debate about the purpose of TV news.

The film stacks the deck firmly in favour of the view that news should be a comment-free recitation of facts. Brooks’ film bemoans – often in heavy-handed ways – the intrusion of human interest, soft stories and puff pieces in place of hard-hitting questions and challenging coverage. Tom Grunick is the embodiment of this: charming, friendly, reassuring – and totally uninformed, interested in “selling” a story rather than telling it. Meanwhile, to the film’s disgust, the higher-ups at the network frequently value appearances and popularity over tough analysis, and looking good on TV counts for more than journalistic skills. Pity the film: if it feels this network is bad, imagine how it’d feel about Fox News today.

Of course what the film isn’t interested in is acknowledging a certain level of showmanship is an important tool in making the news accessible, engaging and interesting for the audience – making them more likely to pick up the important things in the content. It also overlooks that purists Aaron and Jane may avoid stage-manging their stories as overtly as others – but they’re more than happy to fill them with heart-string-tugging references and shots to get the audience reactions they want. In fact, you can see Tom’s point – what’s really wrong with him interjecting a shot of his own teary face while interviewing a rape victim (a moment he recreates)? Isn’t that basically the same?

Broadcast News tries to outline the difference, but I’m not sure it goes the full distance – or makes the debate accessible or interesting. That might be partly because the film can’t decide whether to give more attention to the satire or the romance – Jane is attracted to Tom (who returns her feelings), but is extremely close with Aaron, who carries a not-even-concealed passion for her. Both plots sit awkwardly side-by-side, getting in each other’s way and not adding insight to each other.

But then the film is fairly shrill. That partly stems from the two characters we are meant to relate to being tough to like. Holly Hunter is dynamic as the forceful, passionate Jane, but she’s also a rather tiresome character. Her purist demands are slightly holier-than-thou and while there are nice touches of humanity (on a date with Tom, she doesn’t want her handbag opened at a security check because she’s put a pack of condoms in it)  the film doesn’t manage to warm this control freak (so domineering she can’t get in a taxi without dictating the route). Jane also has a tendency to burst into tears – a suggestion of some underlying emotional problems the film instead treats as a joke.

That’s nothing compared to Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman. This is exactly the sort of character beloved by film-makers, but who if you met in real life would come across an an unbearable creep. Like Jane, he’s an uncompromising idealist whose pious self-importance quickly grates. The film doesn’t appreciate the irony that its champion of professional reporting yearns to be the pretty-boy face of the network and resents that he’s neverbeen the popular kid.

His tantrums and rudeness are meant to be signs of his genuineness and the film leaves no doubt that his love for Jane should be requited because he knows what’s best for her. He’s the Nice Guy who doesn’t get the girls even though he really deserves them.  A scene where he furiously berates Jane when she confesses her feelings for Tom, then demands she leaves, then demands she stays so he can lecture her on his pain and why her feelings are wrong smacks of a thousand male script writers who didn’t get the girl they wanted and it was so unfair.

The film’s view of women is often questionable. Today, Aaron looks more like a Proto-Incel, one emotional snap away from strangling Jane because she won’t love him when she SHOULD. The film sees him as a relatable, principled hero. Jane may be smart and principled, but she’s hysterically over-emotional for no given reason (Women! They’re so crazy!), domineering and controlling. The film’s only other female character is Joan Cusack’s production assistant who spends her time either shrieking in shrill panic or talking with nervous incoherence.

So, it might be a fault of the film that the character I related to most was the one we were meant to condemn. William Hurt’s Tom is nice-but-dim, superficial but polite, supportive, hard-working and honest, self-aware enough to feel guilty that he’s not really qualified to do the job. He tolerates being mucked around by Jane far more than many others would and despite being constantly abused by Aaron, offers him no end of support. If Tom is the nightmare shape of TV news, you end up thinking “well heck, is it really that bad?”

Broadcast News overall is an underwhelming experience, not funny or romantic enough to be a comedy, or insightful enough about journalism to be thought-provoking. Brooks directs with his usual televisual lack of flair, but there are some decent comedic set pieces: Cusack has a mad-cap dash through a TV studio to deliver a taped report for a deadline that is a masterclass in physical comedy, while the film’s best set-piece is Aaron’s sweat-laden anchor appearance on a weekend news bulletin. But the film gives too many characters a pass and avoids asking itself the tough questions. It ends up a bit of a slog that probably has more appeal to insiders than audiences.

The Square (2017)

The Square header
Art goes wrong in Ruben Östlund’s scattergun satire The Square

Director: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Claes Bang (Christian), Elizabeth Moss (Anne), Dominic West (Julian), Terry Notary (Oleg Rogozjin), Christopher Læssø (Michael), Lise Stephenson Engström (Daughter), Lilianne Mardon (Daughter), Marina Schiptjenko (Elna), Annica Liljeblad (Sonja), Elijandro Edouard (Boy with Letter)

Christian (Claes Bang) has it all. The respected director of a celebrated Swedish Modern Art Gallery, he’s rich, handsome and highly thought of by all. That all fractures when his phone and wallet are stolen in a confidence trick. Using the phone’s tracker, Christian identifies the working-class apartment building its in. In a burst of late-night energy, he writes a threatening letter to the thieves and posts a copy through every single apartment door demanding it’s return. It is: but Christian’s letter has a negative impact on an innocent young boy (Elijandro Edouard) whose parents now believe he must be a thief. Christian is so preoccupied with this he fails to pay attention to a YouTube video created to promote his new exhibition: the video of a homeless child being blown up outside the museum leads to national condemnation.

And that exhibit? It’s called The Square (you see!). Its main feature is a literal square on the floor, marking a safe space where everyone is equal. The exhibit is themed around trust, mutual respect and altruism. Traits which Östlund’s film reminds us time-and-time again his central characters are all sadly lacking in. It’s part of a broad-ranging satire on the self-importance of the Art World and the self-obsession of the upper classes that, while beautifully filmed, comes across as rather scattergun. Putting it bluntly, most of its targets are so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels.

A film like this, hinges on Christian’s self-perception being clearly shown to be very different from his reality. In effect, we need to see how Christian believes himself to be a decent, upstanding, noble fellow but also be shown he is in fact prejudiced, self-obsessed and vain. While the film does very well to show how shallow Christian’s “nice-guy” image is – he basks in the adulation of colleagues and museum patrons and carefully prepares his ‘spontaneous’ presentations for maximum effect – we never get quite enough of a sense of how he sees himself. His mystique is punctured so early, that the sense of events forcing an awkward confrontation with his true character is not developed.

This takes nothing away from the exceptional performance of Claes Bang, a charismatic and gifted actor who can pivot on a sixpence from huge charm to bullying menace. He’s completely believable as the red-spectacled, scarf wearing aesthete just as he is the sort of bully who’ll push a troublesome kid over. Matey and jovial with his employees, he’s also hesitant on their names and berates assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) when he gets cold feet about executing his letter drop plan (on top of which, he naturally assumes as Michael is black, he’ll be better at carrying out the plan than Christian). His life is a careful performance, with every moment scripted by him, that fractures into something much messier the instant he loses control.

It’s just a shame that Östlund doesn’t delve into the opportunities this presents. He’s more interested in obvious characters like Elizabeth Moss’ Anne, a preening journalist (she inexplicably lives with a Chimp) with whom Christian enjoys a one-night stand, culminating in the two of them bickering over a used condom. (Christian seems worried she’ll pinch his sperm).

Too often Östlund contents himself with simply stating that the upper clases are vain and pre-occupied with their own needs instead of the lives of others. In case we miss this point, the film is littered with shots of beggars. It even opens with the camera focused on a beggar sleeping on the street in broad daylight while, off camera, a passionate student pushes leaflets urging people to do more to help the homeless while passers-by express irritation or disinterest to them. You see! Even the campaigner is more interested in virtue signalling than actually helping people! Interactions with beggars pepper the film: Christian is annoyed by one beggar not being grateful enough when he condescendingly offers to buy them dinner to get out of an awkward conversation with them and then later pays another to guard his shopping when he takes a phone call.

This social satire runs in parallel with a scathing-but-rather-obvious series of jokes at the expense of the preening self-importance of the Art World. The exhibition, The Square, is treated as if it’s the second coming but, other than parroting the Artist’s written vision, no one (not even Christian) seems interested in engaging in it or really has a clue what it is trying to do. The most important part of Christian’s role is in fact attracting money from rich patrons, who ooh and ahh over the art but have nothing whatsoever to say about it. The art itself is a parade of cliches – although there is a very funny recurring joke of an installation that is a series or piles of ash on the floor which the museum cleaners inadvertently slowly reduce each night.

The unwillingness of people to rock the boat in social situations is also parodied. Dominic West cameos as an American artist whose Q&A is constantly disrupted by a man with Tourettes – the discussion collapses but no one knows how to even to begin to manage the situation. This culminates in the film’s showpiece (and best scene). A Russian artist whose ‘art’ is to impersonate a monkey (played by motion-capture guru Terry Notary), performs an installation at a fund raiser dinner. The guests (and Christian) sit in increasingly awkward silence, no one willing to take the first step to intervene, as the artist progresses from humorous monkey noises to increasing acts of intimidation, violence and finally sexual assault.

It’s all interesting stuff, but it all feels a little too obvious. The advertising reps bought into design the video are such cliched social media obsessives they feel like sitcom characters. The juxtaposition of The Square’s idea that “everyone inside the square is equal” with the reality of no one being equal is made time and time and again with reduced impact.

Östlund finds a host of squares (stairways, windows etc) to frame Christian in visually to hammer this home. He makes frequent use of one-sided two shot set ups (meaning we only focus on one character during a conversation or exchange) which helps further drill down into that character’s psyche and stress their distance from whoever they are talking to. But it’s a lot of flash on an otherwise rather obvious and self-satisfied film, which never makes as many new and original points as it thinks.

If it’s a stunning realisation to you that people have a tendency to be self-obsessed, that the Art world is as much about posing and money as it is art and that social awkwardness will stop people intervening in the most disastrous circumstances, this is the film for you. Otherwise, you might find little real insight here.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Martin Landau and Woody Allen reflect on Crimes and Misdemeanors

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Caroline Aaron (Barbara), Alan Alda (Lester), Woody Allen (Cliff Stern), Claire Bloom (Miriam Rosenthal), Mia Farrow (Halley Reed), Joanna Gleason (Wendy Stern), Anjelica Huston (Dolores Paley), Martin Landau (Judah Rosenthal), Jerry Orbach (Jack Rosenthal), Sam Waterston (Ben)

Successful ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) has it all: respect, fortune, a loving family…and a mistress. That mistress, Dolores (Anjelica Huston), won’t play ball and disappear but actually wants Judah to deliver on his half promises of leaving his wife. Should Judah confess all, as his rabbi friend Ben (Sam Waterston) suggests? Or should he follow the advice of his gangster brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) and remove Dolores permanently? Meanwhile, documentary film-maker Cliff (Woody Allen) has been hired by his brother-in-law, pompously successful TV producer Lester (Alan Alda), to shoot a film celebrating Lester’s life. During the shooting, Cliff can barely hide his irritation – or his growing attraction to Halley (Mia Farrow), the associate producer both he and Lester are romancing. Who will she end up with?

Dostoyevsky – could you live with a murder? – gets the Woody Allen treatment in one of Allen’s most highly respected, but troubling films. To be honest, I didn’t much care for Crimes and Misdemeanors. I have moral qualms about it – and, I will hasten to add, these qualms have nothing to do with the lack of punishment for Judah. Crimes and Misdemeanors hides its blatant cynicism and loathing for people, underneath some fine acting and good jokes. But its possibly one of Allen’s most unlikeable works, where his sympathies seem hideously astray.

It wants to be an exploration of the guilt that follows a crime. But to be honest, aside from some expert furrowing of brow and distressed line deliveries from Landau, I’m not sure Woody has much to say about guilt. Furthermore, I think he is inviting us to sympathise with Judah not because he feels bad (and even then, so what?), but for various extenuating circumstances. Namely, he’s a good man (he has all but funded a new hospital wing by himself) with a loving family and is a dedicated doctor. Furthermore, his mistress is presented almost exclusively as a demanding and difficult floozy (Anjelica Huston in an unflattering part – although at least she gets more to do than Claire Bloom in the thankless part of Judah’s wife, an almost non-existent role).

Frankly, the film suggests Judah’s motives are more complex than just removing a self-caused problem and since he feels shock (sorrow for Dolores or the crime seems noticeable absent, and it feels like Allen mistakes the one for the other) and is a nice guy, we should think again about our knee-jerk reactions of right and wrong. Problem is, Judah is not a nice guy – he’s shallow, self-pitying and self-justifying – and watching a character with, it turns out, no real morals go through a moral quandary doesn’t make for engaging viewing.

Judah’s moral reaction to the murder is insubstantial. Essentially guilt makes him wonder where there is in fact a God after all – before deciding that, on balance, the probability is that the universe will not punish him. Other than that, I’m not sure Allen has much more to add to the discussions of right and wrong. Dostoyevsky made hundreds of pages of conscious and guilt shattering a man’s equilibrium. Allen can’t manage more than about ten minutes of screen time, let alone 90 minutes.

Perhaps that’s why Crimes and Misdemeanors is padded out with a second, almost as long, unconnected secondary plot. It’s a one-sided rivalry between Allen’s film-maker and Alda’s pompous producer, with Mia Farrow as an artistic waif who serves as the prize for this unspoken competition. (This is perhaps one of the worst Allen films for female characters: we have two cold, personality-free wives for the main characters, a shrill mistress, a bland artistic waif and Woody’s character has a sister who is tied to a bed and defecated on. How did the same guy write Hannah and Her Sisters?)

Again, Allen’s sympathies lie with the idealistic, uncompromising Cliff, even more so because his interest in making films people don’t want to see makes him, in Allen’s eyes, noble. Compare and contrast with the film’s loathing for Lester – hilariously played by Alan Alda as a neat self-parody. Lester is everything Cliff isn’t, but secretly wants to be (though I’m not sure Allen realises this): successful, well-regarded, admired, rich and gets all the girls. No wonder the film hates him – even though, to be honest, he doesn’t seem the bad. After all, the sort of drive and ambition that Lester has is exactly what makes a man successful.

It wouldn’t matter so much if Cliff wasn’t remarkably similar to him, but considerably less charming. Just like Lester, Cliff is a self-important bore, cuddling his lack of success as proof of his genuineness. Cliff has no problem with effectively creepily stalking Halley (despite being married – fine though as Allen thinks she’s a bitch). Cliff’s passive aggressive assertions that Halley deserves someone like him rather than someone like Lester aren’t romantic, they’re creepy. (Needless to say, Halley ends up with Lester, to Cliff’s shock, horror and disappointment – while his wife plans to leave him).

Now I get it, there are people reading this who will think “well yes you just don’t like it because you want a simple ending where the baddies are punished – well life isn’t like that”. That’s not the case: I’m fine with films where murderers escape scot-free: but I generally want the film to know they are bad people. Crimes and Misdemeanors doesn’t. And it doesn’t really have anything of interest to say. It’s one of Allen’s films where his cynicism about humanity is exposed too heavily. You long for a bit more critical insight into Cliff, or for a more acute exposing of Judah’s self-interested excuses. You get neither, instead Allen ending on the note that the universe is dark and indifferent and only love can change things. There’s lots of the first two and precious little of the third here.