3 posts categorized "Social Satire"

November 29, 2018


House_that_jack_builtIt isn’t so much that Lars Von Trier a gifted filmmaker, which he is, that makes his films singular for their thick layers of political and social satire, but rather that Von Trier has so little competition in this realm. Yorgos Lanthimos is an avant-garde filmmaker who wins overpraise for satirical films, such as “Dogtooth” or “The Lobster,” that come nowhere near the level of filmic and allegorical sophistication that Von Trier achieves. Lanthimos isn’t anywhere near as rigorous as Von Trier. He doesn’t work as hard. You’d have to look to Paul Verhoeven (“Elle”) for a peer. As for sophistication, Von Trier isn’t above poking fun at himself; “Mr. Sophistication” is the oh-so-clever moniker that this film’s main character gives himself. Naturally, the character is anything but sophisticated.   


“The House That Jack Built” is a methodically crafted social satire that pokes at the emptiness of social media mob rule, Globalization, and the intimate connection between guns, war, and capitalism. That’s just scratching the surface. Von Trier compartmentalizes his latest film in fluid dramatic depths that the audience experiences as if submerging and resurfacing in an intellectual, emotional and visceral cinematic vessel.

Matt Dillon plays the title character, an architect who wishes he was an engineer. Jack is like the bass player who wants to play lead guitar. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Jack is obsessed with artistry; unlike Wright, he isn’t very good. Jack owns a plot of lakeside land where he continuously begins building a self-designed home that he tears down only to start over from scratch with a less inspired design. Von Trier cleverly creates this building allegory to underpin his narrative about a would-be/could-be/isn’t really serial killer engaged in an ongoing therapy session with a largely unseen shrink played by the legendary Bruno Ganz. Jack brags about five of the 60 murders he has supposedly committed. The snag is that Jack is far too lazy and dumb to steal a beer from a gas station without being caught.  


The audience has to play along with Von Trier’s artistic narrative mechanics to extract his or her own ideas or questions about a violent world where some people are considered heroic if not iconic for murdering fellow human beings, while some are not. If you’ve never seen a Lars Von Trier film before, you will be thrown into the deep end of the pool and probably not be able to come up for air. Too bad.


Here is a brilliant satirical film bathed in touches of Buñuel, Greenaway, Hitchcock, and Lynch that contextualizes the nature of cruelty within the context of the power of persuasion. Art informs reality. Is it ethically correct for Jack to spend so much energy and thought imagining the ways he would like to kill people. It is after all a primary occupation of the American government and its militarized police. How complicit is the audience in such a toxic social atmosphere where we wait with baited breath to witness the murders that Jack could or might commit in “The House That Jack Built”? The film raises as many answers as it does questions. Yes, you read that right. Reading this film is up to you if you think you’re sophisticated enough for the task.    

Unrated version. 152 mins. (A+)

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October 11, 2017


Colesmithey.comJust because a film won the Palme d’Or in Cannes is no reason to assume it is any good. Ruben Östlund’s ham-fisted, but also cheesy, attempt at self-aware social satire is in keeping with his overpraised [debut] parlor-trick drama “Force Majeure.” Ruben Östlund aspires to be a cross between Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl but is in fact closer to Yorgos Lanthimos, another enfant terrible wannabe.

“The square” of the film’s title represents an art instillation outside the X-Royal Museum, a prominent nouveau arts center run by Christian (Claes Bang), a Scandinavian everyman imperiled by the people around him. Is society breaking down? Perhaps. The lighted square represents a safe communal place where people help each other.  

Christian’s troubles begin when he’s robbed while walking to work by a creative group of seemingly unrelated people. As Christian walks across a plaza a woman comes running towards him, shouting about being killed by a man chasing her. Another bystander protects the woman, and Christian joins in to defend her from the approaching brute. Only later does Christian realize that his watch, wallet, cell phone, and cuff links have been stolen. The entire episode was an act of carefully orchestrated thievery not unlike that which Christian’s overblown museum commits with works of art such as a room with many piles of rocks.


Christian’s entitled status doesn’t prevent him from doing some stupid things. At the advice of his minority employee Michael (Christopher Læssø), Christian prints out a bunch of incendiary flyers that he personally puts in the doors of a low-income high-rise where his phone is tracked.


After being interviewed by Anne, a loose-screw American TV journalist played by the now ubiquitous scientologist actress Elisabeth Moss, Christian makes the mistake of bedding her. In the film’s most cringe-inducing scene, Anne engages Christian in a tug-of-war for the freshly used condom that could provide her with innumerable legal options, aside from the obvious motivation of impregnating herself with his semen. You have to hand it to Östlund for typecasting Moss to play such a bad-animal character; Christian is no judge of character. He’s also not very good at tug-of-war.

The square

“The Square” fails as a social satire because Östlund isn’t capable of completing any of his slow-moving trains of thought. He creates provocative situations that he isn’t prepared to pay off on. Östlund got away with pulling the wool over many critics’ eyes with “Force Majeure” because the narrative rested on one blink-and-you-miss-it element. At two hours and 22 minutes, “The Square” puts its many weaknesses on flagrant display. Here is a lazy satire unworthy of a sneeze from such masters of the form as Lars von Trier. Perhaps one day Ruben Östlund will make a competent film; don’t hold your breath.

Rated R. 142 mins. (D) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)   

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October 28, 2014


Vampire Culture
Jake Gyllenhaal Goes Dark

NightcrawlerSocial satire doesn’t get much darker than it does in “Nightcrawler.” Jake Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds in order to play Louis Bloom, a devious social misfit who goes from scrap metal thief to self-made video journalist, selling accident and crime footage to a Los Angeles television station. Filmed primarily at night in Los Angeles, “Nightcrawler” feels like a twisted, more engaging, West Coast version of “Bringing Out the Dead.”

Gyllenhaal’s unreliable anti-hero looks like a recently recovered meth addict. He tempers his gaunt wide-eyed persona with polite speech soaked in “the self-esteem movement so popular in schools” and corporate management double-speak. Lou is an autodidactic monster who has risen from the sludge of America’s economic failure and its relentless culture of greed. Lou’s motto is: “if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.” While it’s not stated, Louis Bloom is a radical right-wing tool.

The slogan tells a lot about Lou’s warped value system, which plays out in all sorts of shocking displays of dangerous and selfish behaviors that are all the more appalling for the success that Lou achieves through them. Lou reflects America’s rampant corporate-political model for creating mayhem and profiting from its aftermath.

Screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”) gets deep inside the mind of America’s poisonous organized (read racist) culture of violence-worship. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the famous fear-based ethos of the stereotypical television news station that pays Lou increasingly more for his ethically dubious footage. Lou is not above moving a body at a car crash site to get a better camera angle. He also has a knack for developing strategies on the fly to optimize the value of violent situations.


Hiring Richard (Riz Ahmed), a possibly illegal immigrant, as his assistant is the first step in Lou’s plan to corner the market on salacious news footage. Paying Richard $30 a night isn’t as good as paying him nothing as an intern, but Lou knows a sucker when he sees one.

Nina (Rene Russo) is a middle-aged news director at the local news TV station whose ratings rely on the kind of exploitation “news” coverage you see on CNN. Nina’s personally racist editorial vision cherishes “urban crime creeping into the suburbs” as the theme her viewers want to see supported. She informs Lou about her ideal content being a “screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit.”

An ostensibly romantic restaurant negotiation scene, in which Lou blackmails Nina into acting as his sex partner, captures the political climate that enables Lou to work his intimate brand of skullduggery. Witnissing how Lou gets the upper hand on Nina in a seemingly unwinnable situation is as diabolically funny as it is disturbing.

Nightcrawler2Lou is a mercenary. Building his brand and making money are his priorities. He views people as objects he can manipulate to meet his goals. When Lou says, “today's work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations,” it discloses an indisputable American viewpoint of cruel social conditioning.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s canny portrayal delivers a revelatory character study of an opportunistic sociopath working all the angles in a system built on violence-feuled propaganda. Lou Bloom is an ideal agent for the faulty structure because he can manipulate people, places, and images to support the one-percenter’s party line for the masses to absorb. You’ll feel a chill.


Rated R. 117 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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