Category: Political satire

The Front (1976)

The Front (1976)

The Blacklist is skewered in this heartfelt comedy that turns tragedy

Director: Martin Ritt

Cast: Woody Allen (Howard Prince), Zero Mostel (Hecky Brown), Herschel Bernardi (Phil Sussman), Michael Murphy (Alfred Miller), Andrea Marcovicci (Florence Barrett), Remak Ramsey (Francis X Hennessey), Lloyd Gough (Herbert Delaney), David Marguiles (William Phelps), Danny Aiello (Danny LaGattuta), Josef Summer (Committee chairman)

The first Hollywood drama about the “the Blacklist”, the shamefully unconstitutional banning of left-leaning Hollywood figures from working as a result of the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation into alleged communist subversion. If there was any doubt how personal the film was to its makers, the credits scroll with the Blacklisting dates of many of its makers including Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, Mostel, Bernardi, Gough and Delaney. The Front is a tragedy told with a wry comic grin. Perhaps the makers knew that if they didn’t laugh they’d cry.

When screenwriter Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) is blacklisted he asks an old friend, small-time bookie and cashier Howard Prince (Woody Allen) to attach his name to Miller’s scripts and submit them. In return Prince will keep 10% of all payments. The scheme is so successful Prince becomes “the Front” for two other writers and the quality and volume of Howard’s ‘output’ wins him a lucrative job as lead writer on a successful TV show, while his ‘genius’ wins the love of idealistic script editor Florence (Andrea Marcovicci). But, as the Blacklist takes hold – driving out of work actors with tenuous links to Communism like the show’s star Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) – will Howard take any sort of moral stand about what’s happening in America?

The Front took a bit of flak at the time for not being more overtly angry about the Blacklist – as if the only response possible was spittle-flecked fury. However, today, its mix of comedy and real, visceral tragedy looks like the perfect response. The Front embraces the Kafkaesque ridiculousness the Blacklist created. Howard locked in an office at his studio to do an emergency re-write, calling Miller who taxies round replacement pages. Howard’s general ignorance of writing in general and his desperate mugging up on Eugene O’Neill and Dostoyevsky to pass them off as ‘influences’. The fact the list hasn’t done anything to stop these writers’ work from getting out there.

It’s also strong on the sense of underground community that grew among the banished writers. As veterans themselves, Ritt and Bernstein could be nostalgic about the sense of ‘all being in it together’ that the unemployed scribblers had.That vibe comes across well form Miller, Delaney and Phelps meeting in restaurants, libraries and hospital rooms to knock ideas around. There is the espionage-tinged excitement of watching script pages being palmed across to Howard like dead-drops. The film never forgets the gut-wrenching difficulty, stress and pain of not being able to work openly. But it also remembers the family feeling of a support network, giving people the courage to keep going.

But then the Kafkaesque comedy slowly drains away, as the punishing injustice creeps to the fore. Studio fixer – and vetting officer – Hennessy (played with self-satisfied relish by Remak Ramsey) calmly pressures creatives to turn on each other. Sure, there is comedy in him telling a victim of mistaken identity that there is nothing he can do to help him as the guy has nothing to confess to – that’s Kafka – but Ritt doesn’t miss the desperation and fear in the victim’s eyes. To Hennessy everyone is guilty, innocence is something that needs to be proved – and it’s a lot less funny when he strips people of their livelihoods because their personal views don’t fit.

The film’s true tragedy is actor Hecky Brown. Beautifully played by Zero Mostel, in a performance of a jovial front placed over ever-growing bitterness, anger, self-loathing and despair, Hecky can’t work quietly behind a front. As an actor, once he’s under suspicion, he’s unemployable. Despite his jokey pleas that he only marched on May Day and subscribed to the Socialist Worker (six years ago, when as he points out the USSR were our allies) to impress a girl, he’s goes from star to begging for work at the Catskills. There the manager is all smiles and pays him $250 for a gig worth thousands (based on a real life incident that happened to Mostel – and the pain and anger of it is still in his eyes).

Mostel’s performance is the heart-and-soul of the film which follows his increasingly bleak tip into despair. He scuffles with that Catskills manager over his hypocritical sorrow. Staying in Howard’s apartment, he despises himself as he searches through Howard’s desk for incriminating evidence. In a striking scene, he berates “Henry Brownstein” (Hecky’s real name) for stopping him turning state’s evidence. It’s a sad, moving picture of the real human cost of this injustice that helps moves the film past comedy and into dark drama.

And to get an even better of how serious this human cost, what could be better than placing a self-interested, politically disengaged chancer at its heart and seeing how he responds. The casting of Woody Allen – in one of the few films he appeared in and didn’t write – is perfect. There is no-one more politically disengaged and full of pinickity obsession that Allen. Howard Prince is a decent guy but his main interests are money (his eyes light up at earning 10% for nothing), his fancy apartment, seducing Florence and the adulation from fawning producers.

What better way to show the impact of the Blacklist injustice, than to see how Howard slowly shifts from a man so disinterested he doesn’t even know what the Fifth Amendment is, to someone who feels compelled to make a stand. Slowly he finds he can’t ignore the injustice – there is a beautiful moment when Howard embarrassedly drinks and stares at a poster on the office wall at the back of the frame while Hecky begs for $500 from that Catskill’s manager. He gradually realises a fun ride for him is a dystopian nightmare for others – his self-satisfied shrugs turning into real principle.

Because, he will learn, HUAC doesn’t care for names – they care about breaking people. Being as ignorant and disinterested in politics as Howard won’t save you. That’s what Ritt and Bernstein have been driving to: this wasn’t Kafka, it was Orwell, it wasn’t about the obstructive indifference of bureaucracy but Big Brother’s ruthless rooting out of thought crime. So, when Allen tells them – in the final lines of the film – to go fuck themselves, and the film freezes so he can walk out of it, you really understand why this is a glorious cry of wish fulfilment straight from the heart of the film-makers.

La Règle du Jeu (1939)

La Règle du Jeu (1939)

Shallowness, selfishness and self-indulgence swirl in Renoir’s masterpiece, that plays like a giant metaphor for Europe in the 1930s

Director: Jean Renoir

Cast: Nora Gregor (Marquise Christine de la Chesnaye), Paulette Dubost (Lisette Schumacher), Marcel Dalio (Robert, Maquis de la Chesnaye), Roland Toutain (André Jurieux), Jean Renoir (Octave), Mila Parély (Geneviève de Marras), Julian Carette (Marceau), Gaston Modot (Edouard Schumacher), Anne Mayen (Jackie), Pierre Magnier (The General), Léon Larive (Chef)

When you are at the top of society, the rules bend to your will. They are, after all, for the little people. Get to the very top and life is all a game anyway – birth, death, marriages they are just movements in a great dance, none need cause you any concern if you don’t let them. Renoir’s masterpiece La Règle du Jeu explores in microcosm a whole fractured society of pampered, myopic focus on immediate pleasures, outweighing real life tragedies. And, whether at the top of bottom of the social ladder, no one seems able to move beyond a blasé and shallow attitude to life.

La Règle du Jeu is set at a weekend shooting party in the French countryside, hosted by Robert, Maquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). Robert is married to a German wife, Christine (Nora Gregor) but having an affair with Geneviève (Mila Parély). But that’s fine, Christine is having a half-hearted affair with naïve airman André Jurieux (Roland Toutain). Below stairs, Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) yawns through her boring marriage with stuffy groundskeeper, the German Schumacher (Gaston Modot) by flirting with cheeky poacher-turned-employee Marceau (Julian Carette). Over the weekend, flirtations and affairs simmer to the boil, with Octave (Jean Renoir), a family friend, moving uneasily between parties trying to do the right thing.

The timing of Renoir’s film could not have been better. The story of people, as he put it, “dancing on the volcano” found its way into cinemas in July 1939. Europe was on the edge of the precipice. Within a year France would be literally ripped in two by Hitler. And here was Renoir releasing a blackly dark drawing room comedy, with its characters obsessed about small, shallow and trivial details and utterly ignorant of the world around them. Even worse, when violence and death intrude, it’s brushed under the carpet. It was a film that embodied the head-in-the-sand attitude of France, a country just months away from being steam-rollered by the Nazi war machine.

It wasn’t until 1959 that it was rediscovered and took its place as one of the great films. Renoir creates both a delightfully dark and droll comedy of manners, but also a rich and overwhelming metaphor for global chaos. Everything here is magnificent surface, with everyone pretending they are fine, upright citizens while flitting in and out of each other’s beds and never letting anything like morals or genuine emotions intrude. The game demands life be played as lightly as possible.

Everyone seems to know everything, but it’s all a joke. Robert is sleeping with the imperiously bitter Geneviève – so he seems less bothered about his wife Christine’s affair with airman André. Renoir’s film opens with André’s return from a cross-Atlantic flight. The media swarm around him, but André retreats into a funk when he sees Christine is not there to greet him. Even would-be heroes in this film are insular and self-obsessed. Toutain makes André strangely pathetic (you wonder – as does she at times – what the cultured and daring Christine saw in someone so prone to self-pity and devoid of drive). He whines about an affair which won’t take fire, does nothing to drive it and turns a car accident suicide attempt into a sulky fit of pique. He’s neither a romantic hero or a tragic figure.

But then no-one fills their role. Robert hosts the event, but he’s a strangely winsome, at times insecure figure (Dalio used his personal unease as a Jewish actor cast in a very Aryan role to skilled effect). He both puffs about how he doesn’t care about conventions – willingly inviting his wife’s lover to the weekend – but is also a fussy, eccentric figure who delights in clockwork machines and amateur theatricals. He has a casual, playboy attitude to money and life – everything comes easy, so he values very little. He doesn’t like conflict, preferring to let people off the hook, partly why he’s keen to end his relationship with Geneviève as he can’t bear the idea of Christine finding out.

Christine, played with a very effective awkwardness by Nora Gregor, feels surprisingly out of place among this social mileu. She’s consciously aware of her German background, looks uncomfortable in fine clothes, doesn’t enjoy social events and seems less assured than her bolshy, irreverent maid Lisette. She seems less like a Countess than Geneviève, played with cool austere sharpness by Mila Parély. Christine shrugs off the arrival of her lover André (to the respect of all) but on discovering her husband’s parallel affair seems unsure how to deal with it: she goes from bouncing mutual jokes about Robert with his lover, to considering half the household as potential elopement mates. Renoir felt Gregor was uncomfortable in the role – but her discomfort works superbly.

At the heart of this weekend retreat – and the film itself – is a brutish, extended hunting sequence. Renoir, who loathed the killing of animals, knew that nothing speaks more about the nature of man than how he treats those weaker than himself. The hunt is machine-like in its rounding up of birds, rabbits and other animals to be blazed down by the rich and powerful, with the carcasses chucked into the back of a van and never thought of again. Renoir shoots a single rabbit death with intense sympathy, the creature halting then curling itself vainly into a ball in its death throws. It reminds us queasily not only of the blood baths in fields like this only 20 years earlier, but also the carnage to come. It also foreshadows the death the film ends on, the victim falling as pathetically as the rabbits.

This same hunting party is also the catalyst for a string of disasters. Marcel Dalio’s Robert spontaneously affronts the tiresomely officious Schumacher (an unbending, unsympathetic Gaston Modet, rigid in his Prussian militarism) by not only shrugging his shoulders at the actions of charming poacher Marceau (a Hancock-ish Julian Carette, as charmingly amoral as anyone in the film) but actually hiring him. Needless to say, Marceau is less grateful and more delighted at the opportunities for shamelessness this presents him with and instantly attempts to seduce the maid Lisette (a coquetteish Paulette Dubost), setting him on a collision course with Schumacher. All stemming from Robert’s blasé indifference to rules and the contempt for hierarchy only those at the top can afford.

Renoir brings all these events together in a series of masterful sequences. This is a film that frequently shifts in tone and transition. The film moves so comfortably between storylines, from upstairs and downstairs, that it’s unfocused and meandering narrative reflects its themes and delivery. Above all, Renoir yet again demonstrates his mastery of marrying film and theatre. La Règle du Jeu could be a classic piece of farce, but is constructed with the skill of a master cineaste.

Much of the final act of the film is taken up with a truly sublime sequence, edited and shot to perfection, that sees all plotlines and entanglements intermingle in a dinner party. Renoir’s camera roves and tracks through the house. Events and characters play out in the back of scenes, while our focus is elsewhere. Figures at the edge of the frame suddenly seize the camera’s attention. We’ll move rooms and characters we left five minutes ago will march in continuing arguments. It’s a breathtaking display of planning, narrative and cinematic panache, expertly directed.

Renoir himself, as Octave, is the closest thing we have to either an audience surrogate or master of ceremonies. Of course, he’s neither of these things: he’s a clumsy bear of a man (even dressing as a dancing bear for the amateur theatricals), who tries to do the right thing out of stubbornness and masochistic pride. He pushes André and Christine together even though he loves Christine – in fact he sets at it with more energy than either of them. He fantasises about himself as a conductor, and that’s what he wants to be: controlling the dance rather than playing the tune. But he’s clueless, clumsy and ineffective and his actions inadvertently push a man to his death.

That death ends the film. Renoir triumphantly doesn’t make this epic or even tragic – it’s a clumsy case of mis-identity, the victim of one of these unhappy lovers settling accounts and picking the wrong person. But the game goes on: everyone pulls together to re-establish the status quo and stress it was an all accident, no one should feel bad, these things happen and everyone back to your drinks. Master and servant come together to keep the status quo ticking over and nothing is allowed to intrude on life. It’s a stage-managed ending that allows nothing to be learned and nothing to change.

After all, the rules mustn’t be changed when everyone is comfortable with them. La Règle du Jeu is a masterful metaphor for an entire society where shallowness, selfishness and self-indulgence win out over duty and decency. Everyone we see is preoccupied only with their own desires, from the whimsy of Robert to the flirtations of Lisette, the self-pity of André and Octave’s desire to influence the narrative. It whirls round and round like a merry-go-round until someone falls off and dies. The volcano is primed to explode, but the dance goes blithely on.

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.

The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator (1940)

The Little Tramp takes down Hitler in this iconic satire on the dangers of over-mighty strong-men

Director: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin (Jewish barber/Adenoid Hynkel), Paulette Goddard (Hannah), Jack Oakie (Benzino Napolini), Reginald Gardiner (Schultz), Henry Daniell (Garbitsch), Billy Gilbert (Herring), Maurice Moscovich (Mr Jaeckel), Emma Dunn (Mrs Jaeckel), Grace Hyle (Madame Napolini), Carter de Harven (Bacterian ambassador), Bernard Gracey (Mr Mann)

They were born four days apart and had the two most famous moustaches of the 20th century. There the similarities end. One became the world’s most beloved comic, the other its most reviled bogeyman. Chaplin and Hitler were bound together in people’s minds for a decade before Chaplin turned his revulsion at Hitler into satire: The Great Dictator sees him play both a version of his Little Tramp (here reimagined as a Jewish barber) and a version of the Fuhrer (as a temper-tantrum-throwing, hatred-spewing, lunatic). But it also sees Chaplin effectively playing himself, capping the film with a famous humanitarian appeal to the audience for a little peace and understanding.

The Great Dictator is, just about, a comedy. A Jewish barber (Chaplin) serving in the front lines for Tomania during World War One, saves the life of officer Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) but loses his memory. In a veterans’ hospital for 20 years, he emerges into a radically different Tomania, now an anti-Semitic, fascist dictatorship ruled by the barber’s doppelganger Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again). Hynkel rants and raves about racial purity and Tomanian expansion and his stormtroopers march through the Jewish ghetto. The barber is saved from death, first by Hannah (Paulette Goddard) and then by Schultz, now a senior leader in the new Tomania. But, as Hynkel eyes up an invasion of neighbouring Osterlich, what role can the barber play in stopping his plans?

Chaplin said later, if he had known the horrors Hitler’s regime would perpetrate, he would never have made the film. That would have robbed us of one of the sharpest, most astute satires of power-hungry radicalism ever made. But Chaplin made his stinging assault on Hitler – painting him as both ludicrous and insanely dangerous – at a time when Hollywood was still nervously appeasing Germany to keep access to its film market, before the true horrors were known.

Chaplin’s film is chilling enough with what it does know. Its depiction of bullying stormtroopers is deeply unsettling, for all they are also comic buffoons. These jackbooted bullies march into the ghetto, swiftly escalating from daubing “Jew” on shop windows to beating and shooting innocents. Hynkel casually orders the execution of thousands and day-dreams of a world where Jews are no more. We see Jews brutalised. Chaplin doesn’t pull punches in demonstrating fascism is a dangerous cancer in the world, or that the likes of Hynkel are appalling in their ruthless heartlessness.

That makes it a mark of genius that Hynkel is also the centre of a ridiculous farce painting him as inept, childish and laughable. Chaplin achieves this by masterfully channelling Hitler’s mannerisms – no less than you would expect from the most gifted physical comedian in history. We are introduced to Hynkel at a Nuremberg-style rally, delivering a speech in a hilarious mix of gobbledegook and random German words (“Werner Schnitzel!”) delivered with a perfect parody of Hitler’s physicality. (Marking the film’s careful balance between jokes and seriousness, this includes a spit-flecked rant against “Der Juden”). His grandiosity is further punctured with coughing fits and clumsiness.

That’s nothing to what we see of Hynkel off-stage. Prone to carpet-chewing rants, prat-fall prone with the manner of a bitter, insecure teenager, Hynkel is a bully elevated into a position of power, clinging to the trappings of office to give him a feeling of personal worth. Residing in a presidential palace that’s a perfect parody of Speer’s grandiose architecture, Hynkel is both laughable and deeply dangerous. Chaplin gets this mixture of the sublimely ridiculous and terrifying in every scene: most notably in Hynkel’s famous dance with an inflated globe. He bounces and cavorts with this like a romantic lover (appropriately themed to Wagner) – but it all grows out of his near sexual excitement at the idea of conquering and purifying the world of Jews (and brunettes).

The Great Dictator bursts that globe, but it also bursts the bubble of puffed-up strong men in a way that’s still highly relevant today. Hynkel and fellow dictator Napolini (a perfect capturing of Mussolini’s mannerisms, mixed with a “mamma-mia” accent from Jack Oakie) are both buffoons, who can’t even co-ordinate shaking hands in between their ludicrous salutes. These buffoons have the power and coldness to kill millions, but are both idiots. Napolini’s state visit is a hilarious game of one-up-manship, from Hynkel’s feeble attempts to intimidate Napolini in his office, to the two of them pathetically pumping their barber chairs higher and higher (to insane levels) to try and look the tallest. They even engage in a childish food fight while bickering over who will have the right to invade Osterich. Vanity, childishness and homicidal nation-destroying all hand-in-hand.

To counter his brilliant deconstruction of Hitler, Chaplin deployed his Little Tramp character in a new guise, here re-imagined as a Jewish barber, but with the same mix of good intentions and bumbling clumsiness. There is classic Chaplin business – his shaving of a client perfectly in time to Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No 5 is pretty much perfection – but also darker material. The Barber is saved from lynching, nearly gets roped into a suicide attack on Hynkel and winds up in a concentration camp. This is the Tramp’s war: his decency used to point-up the hideousness of Hynkel even more.

And, in case we miss the point, Chaplin plays a third character in the final five minutes. With Hynkel in prison (mistaken for the Barber), the Barber-as-Hynkel takes his place to speak to Tomania. He’s got the Barber’s soul, Hynkel’s appearance… but his words are Chaplin’s. Talking direct to camera – just as the Barber glances at the fourth wall throughout – Chaplin makes an impassioned plea for peace, like the curtain speech of a classical actor. He was begged not to do it (it later lead to him being denounced as a Commie) – but Chaplin was making the film to make this point. It was all very well to make Hynkel look stupid, but equally important to put forward an alternative vision, one of hope and faith in mankind’s decency. The speech may be on the nose (probably a little too much), but Chaplin delivers it with the intensity of someone who passionately believes every word he is saying – and at least it serves as a culmination of themes and ideals the entire film espouses among the jokes, rather than a blast from the blue.

The Great Dictator is over-long (at over two hours), and some of its comic moments are more successful than others. But the sequences that deconstruct Hitler are almost perfect (and feature superb support from Daniell and Gilbert as lupine Goebbels and cry-baby Goering parodies) and the film balances hilarious farce, biting political wit, and an earnest despair at the horrors of dictatorship with just the right touch of hope.

Chaplin’s genius combined with his passion created a landmark, brave film. Few others could have balanced its tonal shifts with such deft skill and perhaps no other performer could have been both so funny and so appallingly destructive. Hitler banned the film, but succumbed to curiosity and arranged a private screening. No one knew what he thought of it – but he watched it twice.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Dinner dates never happen in Buñuel’s playfully witty, absurdist satire

Director: Luis Buñuel

Cast: Fernando Rey (Rafael Acosta), Paul Frankeur (François Thévenot), Delphine Seyrig (Simone Thévenot), Bulle Ogier (Florence Thévenot), Stéphane Audran (Alice Sénéchal), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Henri Sénéchal), Julien Bertheau (Monsignor Dufour), Milena Vukotic (Inès), Claude Piéplu (The Colonel), Maria Gabriella Maione (Terrorist), Muni (Peasant), Michel Piccoli (Interior Minister), Pierre Maguelon (Brigadier Sanglant), François Maistre (Commissaire Delecluze)

Six very bourgeoisie Parisian friends try to have dinner; but circumstances keep getting in the way. Circumstances that become increasingly bizarre, surreal and absurdist and half of which may or may not be dreams (or even dreams within dreams). This is the jumping off point for Buñuel’s engagingly light and witty, but also profound, intriguing and defying interpretation. The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie. In the hands of a dogmatic artist, it would be heavy-handed trash: in Buñuel’s it maintains a playfulness making it entertainingly (if at times infuriatingly) mystifyingly unreadable.

Those six friends are a shallow, self-obsessed bunch who talk the snobby talk of class and culture, but their knowledge is skin-deep and their lifestyle funded by cocaine smuggling. That cocaine is trafficked into Paris in the diplomatic bag of Ambassador Rafel Acosta (Fernando Rey), representative of the (fictional) Latin American Republic of Miranda. It’s sold by his friends, François Thévenot (Paul Frankeur) and Henri Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and its these three – along with their wives Alice Sénéchal (Stéphane Audran) and Simeone Thévenot (Delphine Seyrig) and Simone’s sister Florence (Bulle Ogier) – who keep trying to have dinner.

Those dinners are constantly interrupted by a series of increasingly outlandish events, that the guests accept with the sort of blasé insouciance this sort of people pride themselves on. Things escalate on successive nights from Henri forgetting he has invited their guests to dinner, to a dead landlord of a country inn, the Sénéchals slipping out to the garden to have sex, a Bishop (Julien Bertheau) who longs to be a gardener, a café that runs out of tea and coffee, an army division on military manoeuvres, their arrest by the police… That’s not mentioning the onslaught of dreams as the characters imagine yet more meals interrupted by murder, terrorism and even their dining room turning into a stage in front of an audience where they don’t know their lines.

If that sounds pretentious… I suppose that’s fair. But the point is that Buñuel never hectors or overplays his hand. Instead, the film is an absurdist light comedy, a whimsical road-to-nowhere (like the country road we frequently see the six characters walking down in cutaways) that, in its structure, aims to expose the shallowness and hypocrisy of an entire class. Our ‘heroes’ are overwhelmingly concerned, time and again, with their own basest needs – mostly food and sex – and are more than happen to call in a chauffeur so they can mock him for not knowing how to drink a cocktail correctly (doesn’t stop him enjoying the cocktail way more than any of them do). They encapsulate a whole class, concerned only with tucking in and making sure everyone can see they are unshaken by events, no matter how outlandish they seem.

Into this mix, Buñuel throws an astonishing and inventive selection of dreams that increasingly dominate the second half of the film. (And in fact, makes you wonder after a while whether everything we’ve seen in the film is some sort of crazy, unlikely fever dream). Buñuel used to joke he slipped in dreams when he needed to expand a films runtime, but it’s wonderful here how often the dreams comment subtly on the characters and their perceptions of each other: and how little they seem to learn or be aware of the implications of this.

The most surreal dream of all is Henri’s fantasy of entering a house – a house with walls painted with false perspective images of other rooms – where the group encounter rubber food and then a curtain sweeps aside to find an expectant audience watching them. Despite the prompts for their lines, the characters flee in sweaty nervous panic. Do they realise the meaning of this exposure of their sense of unbelonging? You can be sure they don’t.

In fact, in a stroke of daring by Buñuel, they are so remote from understanding this that Henri is in fact having a dream inside François’ dream: as if François can only vicariously confront his fear of unbelonging by dreaming about another man dreaming about it. That worry of mockery and isolation in society is then continued in François’ dream, as he dreams of Henri waking from a dream and arriving at a party at a Colonel’s house where the mockery and ignorance of Rafael’s home country becomes so overbearing, Rafael shoots the Colonel dead. As if, again, François can only imagine being pushed to extremes vicariously.

Perhaps he’s simply jealous of Rafael, who is blatantly conducting an affair with his wife. Rafael’s a man of class, obsessed with greed and lust. He’s also a sneaky coward and a creepy opportunist, not above trying to seduce a female terrorist who tries to kill him (and then having her shipped off by his security when she turns him down). Doesn’t make him different from anyone else: the Thévenots are arrogant upper-classes scorning those below them, Florence a shallow, selfish drunk, the Sénéchals full of hedonistic entitlement.

Buñuel’s film gently deconstructs the code and hypocrisies of this society – with its unspoken rules, strange hierarchies and lusts – not with lectures but with the tools of farcical theatre. The film repeatedly feels like a left-field Cowardian drawing room comedy, mixed with Moliere farce. A cheating wife is interrupted by the sudden arrival of her husband, a Bishop borrows the clothes of a gardener so no one believes he is a priest, sudden entrances and exits constantly interrupt scenes. This is all told with a light, revealing wit: with subtle playing and controlled, skilful direction, we learn about these characters depth (or lack of them) while enjoying the frequently bizarre circumstances.

It doesn’t just touch them either. When the characters are arrested, they are released on the orders of the Interior Minister for reasons that we are don’t hear three times because of traffic noise. Outside noise jumps in at several key points to undermine key information and interrupt events – the characters indifference to this as constant as their general ambivalent uncaring coolness to everything else. It’s also funny.

There are also darker dreams, told by soldiers and police officers, haunted by mauled bodies and murderous consequences. A soldier tells a dream of a ghostly encounter of his dead mother, urging him to avenge the death of his parents (its left unclear if this is a false memory or a dream). A policeman sees a vision of his dead body releasing his prisoners – after an interrogation of a young man that sees a piano transformed into an electric chair.

Not to mention a world where suave class and violence sit side by side. Rafael’s readiness to use guns – shooting a wind-up toy of a terrorist from across the street, his apartment littered with hidden firearms – is matched by the Bishop who mixes forgiveness and revenge for the man who killed his father. Much of this taking place in the classiest and most well-observed of environments.

There are excellent peformances across the board, but this is a triumph from Buñuel. It’s a film that defies easy interpretation and understanding, that wraps its insight up in intriguing, unreadable and bizarre dreams and events which strike a magical balance between both possible and impossible. It explores a whole class and its hypocrisies, but does so in a series of light, even playful, scenes which feel more like light-comedy. It’s the work of an inventive master working with the medium in a unique and unrepeatable way, who can be both surrealist enigma and master of farce. You could watch it multiple times, drawing different shades and interpretations every time.

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.

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.

Dr Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Peter Sellers tries to stop the end of the world in the terrific satire Dr Strangelove

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Peter Sellers (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr Strangelove), George C. Scott (General Buck Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Brigadier General Jack D Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Colonel Bat Guano), Slim Pickens (Major “King” Kong), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador), Jack Creley (Mr Staines), James Earl Jones (Lt Lothar Zogg), Tracy Reed (Miss Foreign Affairs)

“Gentlemen you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Kubrick’s hugely influential satire helped shape our perceptions of the Cold War and its mantra of mutually assured direction. Showing no mercy to its targets, it mixes Goonish schoolboy humour with moments of genuine tension and rising horror. Sure it features some of the faults of its director –self-importance, cold distance and much of the wit is due to Sellers and the performers rather than the not-particularly-witty-Kubrick – but there is no doubt it remains a seminal classic.

General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden – excellent) orders his planes to drop their nuclear bombs on the USSR. Ripper is launching a pre-emptive strike to protect the American way of life from the Commies and, most importantly, to protect our precious bodily fluids. Yup he’s crazy, something his second-in-command RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) quickly realises, but can’t do anything about. US President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) reacts with horror at the prospect of all-out-war, negotiating with the Soviets to co-operate in shooting down the planes, while some of his advisors such as trigger-happy General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott, hilariously OTT) argue perhaps there is some merit in striking first. And sinister former-Nazi scientific consultant Dr Strangelove (Sellers one more time) spells out the impact of nuclear war.

Kubrick quickly came to the conclusion that if you were going to make a film about nuclear war, it almost couldn’t be anything buta comedy: after all the idea of two sides building a huge arsenal of weapons capable of destroying the world was so crazy, you wouldn’t believe it if you were told it. Dr Strangelove therefore ends up taking place in a world that’s one third grounded and two-thirds heightened reality. There is a great deal of college-style humour in the film (you can see it in those characters names which reference everything from the Whitechapel killer to female genitalia and excrement), but it works because its (mostly) played dead-straight.

Part of the film’s appeal was the number of sacred cows it slays. All the things that, at the time, America was meant to respect were ridiculed. The military, politicians, the Presidency, America’s moral authority, the ingenuity of American science and engineering. It’s all shown to be ineffectual, misguided, underpinned by fascist-tinged insanity, myopically obsessed with big bangs over humanity or plain ridiculous. Every single authority figure in the film is deconstructed over its course as some combination of childish, empathy-free or useless. You can’t come out of this film and every again have an unquestioning assurance our leaders know what they are doing.

This works, because it’s placed in a film that in many ways has the plot of a far more serious film (its very similar of course to Fail Safe). Chunks of it are played completely straight, or with just the merest touch of the surreal. In particular the sequences set on the bomber, commanded by Major Kong (played at short notice by Slim Pickens after injury prevented Sellers taking on that role as well) have that true sense of Kubrickian detail in their careful staging of all the procedures a bomber crew would follow (even if it still allows some fun to be poked at the expense of the survival kit, the contents of which would give a fella “a pretty good weekend in Vegas”).

Those bomber scenes sometimes outstay their welcome in their cold technicality (it’s odd to say that a film as short of this sometimes feels a little overlong), but that’s largely because in a film that is clearly demanding us to shake our heads at the madness, it struggles to get us invested in a more conventional heroic story (especially as success there is starting a nuclear conflagration).

Perhaps that’s because of the coldness in Kubrick’s style – emotion doesn’t often find its way into his greatest works, and he was often reliant on working with the right people (get a McDowell in it or a  Nicholson and things can click, get an O’Neal and you can get a different story). Humour isn’t his strong suit, but fortunately he worked with Sellers at his finest hours. Sellers takes on three roles, all of them a sharp contrast, and he’s masterful in all of them. There were fewer more gifted improvisational performers than Sellers, and each of his parts benefits hugely from the dynamism (of various sorts) he gives them. It’s also interesting that two of them are actually the “one sane man” (Muffley and Mandrake) while Strangelove is a pantomime monster of insanity (introduced late in the film, he’s the final indicator that our fates are in the hands of complete lunatics).

For Mandrake, Sellers parodied the stiff-upper lip upper class, with Mandrake a stuffed-shirt, attempting to wheedle recall codes out with Ripper with a clumsy bonhomie. Muffley is played almost dead-straight as a weak man out of his depth. But he does have a phone call monologue with the Russian premier (largely improvised with Sellers) that is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see. There’s no restraint in Strangelove, a wheel-chair bound grotesque with a phantom (hardcore fascist) hand, constantly suppressing involuntary Hitler salutes and trying to hide his mounting excitement at the prospect of worldwide annihilation (“Mein Fuhrer! I can valk!”).

Kubrick’s directorial approach – wisely – seems to have been to acknowledge that Sellers was providing so much of the madness and dark comedy the concept demands, that he could be more restrained. Interestingly, for being his most famous film, it often feels like one of his least personal ones. It stands outside much of the Kubrick cannon – it’s short, its often brisk, technically it’s unflashy and often unobtrusive – and it plays on the director’s weakest vein, comedy.

But it’s got his mastery of detail – partly also due to its faultless set design by Ken Adam. The reconstruction of the bomber interior is overwhelmingly convincing (the Air Force was amazed at how accurate it was). Ripper’s low-ceilinged office is a visual metaphor for the character’s insular insanity. Most influential of-all, the Bond villain-ish War Room, with its vast circular table and huge screens was so perfectly conceived, it cemented the idea for generations of what war planning rooms should look like (Reagan even asked where it was when he took office). The film may be darkly surreal, but its surroundings give it an authority that is essential for its success.

Authority is what the film needed to work. Perhaps that’s the greatest contribution of Kubrick, to create a structure of convincing reality, allowing the surreal and insane actions to work. From Ripper’s clear fixation on his own impotence (“I do not avoid women but I do deny them my essence”) – to Turgidson’s increasingly bombastic militarism (“I don’t say we won’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed. Tops.”), they all work because they contrast with a setting soaked in reality and detail. It also adds the important depth that gives the film impact: sure it wouldn’t happen like this, but something like this could happen.

Dr Strangelove’s humour has at times dated – there’s something undeniably schoolboyish about its tone. Stretches showing the detail of the bomber’s operation go on way too long. The film itself also takes a while to get going, and like many Kubrick films it has an air of being pleased with itself. But in Sellers it has a comic genius at the height of his game and its impact in changing the way we think about the world can’t be denied. Still a classic.