Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Square Deal

So, I was sitting in the theater before The Square (2008) started to unreel, and I thought to myself: "Wow, all of these previews make me want to see those movies." The previews were for The Secret in Their Eyes (this year's Oscar winner for best foreign film), Please Give, and Exit Through the Giftshop. I don't get that "wow, I want to see that feeling" very often at the multiplex, but I've been getting it a LOT at the arthouse these days. That's because the multiplexes aren't interested in movies anymore; they're interested in product. Movies like The Square--a movie I paid to see on the strength of its trailer and on word of mouth from a friend whose taste I trust--used to be the mainstream. Hollywood USED to make movies like this one, and like Mother and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all the time and they were not considered specialty items. The Square, like those other two films, is part of one of the great American film genres, Film Noir, that Americans themselves have largely abandoned in favor of juvenila.

Yes. I am officially an old fart.

Here's a trailer for The Square:

Anyway, The Square (2008), is the feature debut of director Nash Edgerton. It's written by his brother, Joel, who co-stars as hapless arsonist, Billy. It's one of those movies in which its characters take one misstep and it leads, Rube Goldberg-like, to an intricate, unlikely road to hell. The filmmakers have appended their 2007 short film, "Spider," to open the film, and it's an instructive companion to The Square, in so far as both films hinge on everything going wrong in spectacular fashion, but one is a comedy and the other is a tragedy. Oddly enough, the comedy is much more graphically violent than the tragedy, which just goes to show that Mel Brooks was completely right when he said that "I cut my finger. That's tragedy. A man walks into an open sewer and dies. That's comedy." "Spider" is short, sharp, horrifying, and hysterically funny. (As a note to my horror friends, this short contains an injury-to-the-eye scene that would make Lucio Fulci weep with envy.)

The feature film itself follows likable enough contractor Ray Yale, who is cheating on his wife with his neighbor, Carla. Ray is also taking kickbacks from his sub-contractors while he works on a new development. Carla, meanwhile, has discovered that her husband has a sack full of (probably ill gotten) money hidden in their house. Between them, they contrive a scheme to steal the money, burn down Carla's house to convince her husband that the money is gone, and then skip out on everyone. To this end, Ray contracts arsonist Billy to burn down the house. Unfortunately, the arson doesn't go quite as planned. Neither does anything else. Soon, the bodies are hitting the floor.

The narrative here follows three separate strands. First, you have Ray and his contracting problems, including a blackmail scheme, a body dump underneath a foundation that resolutely refuses to get poured, and his suspicious wife. Next, you have Carla, whose husband is on to something shady, and who knows almost immediately that his money was stolen, not burned. Finally, you have Billy and his shy, traumatized girlfriend, who feels like he was duped into committing murderer. These three strands circle around each other for most of the movie, then converge at the end. The center of it all is Ray, played by David Roberts, who becomes more and more unhinged as the movie goes on, but Billy the Arsonist is an interestingly complicated character, as is Lily, his girlfriend, played with timid intensity (is there such a thing? There is here) by Hanna Mangan Lawrence. The men in this film are certainly a rugged bunch. They're still manly men in Australia.

In any event, the movie handles it all with a sure hand. Stylistically, the movie contrasts tidy drawings with the messy ways that human beings collide--Billy even comments to Ray that his drawing of Carla's house is a "nice drawing, mate." The movie even takes time out for amusing digressions. The romance between Carla's bulldog and Ray's poodle, for instance, has a magnificent punch line. For that matter, so does the movie. Every time you think it can't get any worse for our heroes, it does, in increasingly audacious and increasingly horrifying ways. The filmmakers have a gift for one-upmanship. I mean, you know from the outset that things are NOT going to turn out well for anyone, but the movie is still surprising, not only for its twists and turns, but for its instinct for the jugular. As the beginning of "Spider" opines: "It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye."

Edited after the fact. You can watch "Spider" on YouTube:


DeAnna said...

It sounds like you just had what used to be my general reaction to previews. There's usually a movie or three that I have to see. But then, I discovered my local Art house cinema in college and have been an addict ever since. I actually go to the multiplex a lot more these days, but that is because I could walk downtown to the big theaters, while the Landmark theaters are more of a journey now. But the Seattle multiplex shows cinema that one would see at an arthouse, like Greenberg was at the big AMC theater. I should see the movie at Grand Illusion and NWFF more as those are the REAL Seattle art houses, but they tend to show the movies that I've never heard of. But every I go to Grand Illusion, which tends to show really odd, outlandish and often Asian cinema, I consider signing on as a volunteer. And I should become a member and a volunteer there, but they are WAY up in the U District. 4-5 miles from my house. Way too far to travel!:)

Okay, Nate said I should post the concise version, which goes: 'Hey, great flick' and 'Art house cinema rules!'

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I didn't want to get into it too deeply (because I never would have gotten around to talking about The Square), but "art house" movies are increasingly the kinds of movies that used to play the multiplexes before the poisonous virus of fanboy culture destroyed "mainstream" movies.

I envy the movies available to you. I should have moved to Seattle years ago.

I love seeing movies I don't know anything about, BTW. I'm a screener for a film festival right now (I can't tell you which one), and it's been an absolute gas.

DeAnna said...

I would probably enjoy going out to films I know absolutely nothing about, if it didn't cost so much to do so. At least movie tickets aren't $10-12 where you are. Still, I do occasionally go out to see something at Grand Illusion. Where else could I have seen Mad Cowgirl, with James Duval, about a woman with mad cow? Terrible, but totally worth it. and normally, I'd be spending around $200/week right now because SIFF started, but I'm refraining. Not even looking at the schedule this year, since I'm trying to save for a wedding cruise. But plenty of those films were total surprises. I've also been to Secret Festival, but I'm not allowed to disclose what I may or may not have seen there. But normally, I'm in the habit of thoroughly researching the movies I see, usually via criticism.

So when did mainstream movies begin to suck? It was with the 1990s, that I started seeing upwards of 100 movies or so a year in the theaters and it was at that time that I realized the most interesting stuff was at the art house.