Short Cuts: GOOD TIME

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In the end credits of the Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, the first name to appear under the special thanks is Martin Scorsese. I don’t know what went on behind the camera, but they’d owe him that much for Mean Streets (1973) alone; like a classic Scorsese crime picture, Good Time is about reckless hoodlums who are almost smart enough to realize how dumb they are. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a New York City kid who ropes his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Benny Safdie, stepping in front of the camera) into helping him commit a bank robbery. When it goes south, Nick is caught and thrown in prison, and Connie spends a long night bouncing through the outer boroughs in a series of increasingly desperate, ill-advised plans to score some cash to get him out, with dawn and inevitability on the way.

It is a film with style to spare, full of rave colors, sharp editing, and a few stunningly controlled helicopter shots. And fittingly, the key question hovering over the film is the same that has hounded Scorsese, and that’s whether or not there’s more to the film than just an invigorating shot of pure cinema in the arm. There is: to its credit as a film, Good Time is not a good time, but a bad trip laced with social criticism and MDMA. It is an overload, a discomforting vision of America’s strivers, fuck-ups, and have-nots, precise and convincing in its earthy detail of mid-to-lower-rung city life. (Essays can be and have been written on which characters the Safdies make white or black, as class throws the two into the same boat but race keeps them judged by different standards.) As an actor, Pattinson has been looking for arthouse cred for a while now—just like fellow Twilight star Kristen Stewart—by working with directors like David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog, and James Gray. And it’s to his credit that by the end, what starts looking like a “a bunch of authentic New Yorkers plus an English matinee idol” ends with him having disappeared into the role. Besides, you’d need the looks of a matinee idol to get away with half of the scams he attempts.

The harsh, jagged nature of the film has its limits, particularly for a film whose biggest flaw is how it keeps you at arm’s length while yanking the chain. (That is, if a film isn’t at least half-interested in tenderness, you can easily spend two hours watching anti-heroes ruin their lives without growing to know or care for them.) But the finale, in which the two words of the title are spoken, suggests an ambivalent moral that the only responsible path forward in life is not fast or exciting but drab and dutiful and banal. A Scorsesian theme if there ever was one, and enough to say that the Safdies’ neon odyssey, already showered with cinephile acclaim, could be the breakthrough of an outstanding body of work. Scorsese himself has signed on as an executive producer of their next film. Fingers crossed.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Good Time was a darling at the Cannes Film Festival last May and is now available for download. Keep it legal, please.

Short Cuts: THE SQUARE

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There are many delicious ironies inside and encircling The Square, the cringingly funny new comedy by Swedish director Ruben Östlund, not least of which is that it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes is a place both magical and somewhat insane, a hotspot of global prestige where for two weeks each May, aspirations of important, global cinematic art mingle with crass elitism, conspicuous consumption, and institutional absurdity. So where better to celebrate the story of Christian (Claes Bang), the anti-hero of The Square? Christian is the curator of a museum of contemporary art in Stockholm; the number one obstacle is money, he explains early on. Hiply dressed and doing his best to dodge his own faults, he juggles his day-to-day job, his nights at parties, his young daughters from a previous marriage, a reporter he slept with (Elisabeth Moss), an encounter with a pickpocket, and the problems with the museum’s new installation called “The Square”: a physical space where all people are equal and must be humane to each other—a concept that proves difficult to concretely explain, and even more difficult to market.

Östlund had a breakout of sorts with 2014’s Force Majeure, and The Square continues that film’s way of breaking people down, particularly men, into creatures with absurd atavistic instincts barely covered by even more absurd public facades. The Square is nothing if not a string of not-at-all-subtle comic setpieces to that effect, including a violent performance piece during a black-tie dinner party (Buñuel would be proud) and a Q&A with a conceptual artist (Dominic West) who keeps being interrupted by a man with Tourette’s syndrome. As for artistic concepts, the one at the center of The Square is delightfully droll: the idea that serious introspection and universal empathy—which, in a perfect world, we would all practice anyway—can be turned into the kind of artistic event that only the rarefied would even attend, let alone be effected by. Art-world pretension is a fish in a barrel if there ever was one, and to the film’s credit, Östlund has his sights on something larger: class-conflict, poverty, and the idea of a utopian society that has evaded even a place as progressive as Sweden. Christian is callow, irresponsible, and self-centered, but the film works because Bang is affable enough to keep the movie from condescending. Christian is both a cad and an innocent; his mistakes are mistakes that anyone in his position might make, and his humbling is not one we’re meant to take snide pleasure in. (“You must think very highly of yourself”, Moss says to him at one point, to which his response is an instinctive, strikingly sincere “I don’t”).

This is an idea whose weight the film doesn’t do full justice to: that utopian artistic humanism and absurdist cringe-comedy should be forever bound together, because we are, on the whole, a very absurd species. The Square‘s level of insight into said absurdity, either for the art world specifically or humanity in general, is thin for a movie that stretches for two and a half hours. Like Force Majeure, it ends on a weaker note than it begins, as if Östlund the dramatist is better at spotting our foibles than coming up with emotional, weighty, meaningful conclusions for them. But as a humorist, he’s a shrewd adult who hasn’t lost touch with his inner child, and that inner child is a very naughty prankster. As the various ideas of this deadpan comedy diffuse, the most lasting ones are that low-brow entertainment can do more than art, that truly effective art has to be dangerous, and that—in a world of pretensions and poses, of problems that have no perfect solution, of political arguments where it’s impossible to please everyone—the most honest form of human expression is an awkward breakdown. I’ll drink to that.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Square was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. It’ll be available on iTunes by the end of the month, if you want to wince in the privacy of your own home.