Update January 20, 2018 - January 26, 2018
Film Review: Palme d’Or winner ‘The Square’ is a charming satire
shows Terry Notary (center) in a scene from “The Square.” (Magnolia Pictures
Los Angeles (AP) - Swedish
filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s last film, “Force Majeure,” began with the rumble
of an alpine avalanche and the wallop of a shattered self-image. When a
swelling white tide appears headed straight for an outdoor cafe, a panicked
father flees with his iPhone, but not his children or wife. Their respect
for him is undone in a cloud of snow.
In Ostlund’s follow-up, the Palme
d’Or-winning “The Square,” an upper-class, highly placed man is again
humbled by a latent cowardice, but one that reveals itself in more subtle
and daily acts of fraudulence.
Claes Bang stars as Christian, the
handsome and suave chief curator of a Stockholm contemporary art museum. In
the early scenes, we see him trying to explain a pompous museum description
to an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) and rehearsing remarks for a
museum event that he will later pretend are off-the-cuff. He’s a smooth
operator with the practiced air of privilege.
That the high-minded contemporary art
world would have something a touch fake about it is far from a new idea.
But Ostlund, in his fifth feature, has more expansive satire in mind. The
title of “The Square” refers to an exhibit the museum is preparing in a city
courtyard in which a square is laid into the cobblestone street. “The
Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring,” reads the description. “Within
its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.”
Outside of the square, not so much.
Throughout the film, Christian and others who espouse such enlightened
ideals of community are seen failing to live up to them — and often not even
trying to. “The Square” is a consistently clever odyssey of modern-day
hypocrisy that rambles and hiccups but seldom lacks Ostlund’s charming but
clinical satirical touch. It’s as entertaining as it is damning.
The central thread of the film begins
with Christian’s phone, wallet and even cuff links being stolen in a
sidewalk setup where a woman feigns to need help from her attacking
boyfriend. Christian and another bystander rush to her aid, but while
basking in his good deed, he realizes he’s been fleeced. Christian and a
younger museum employee (Christopher Laesso) are able to track the phone to
a low-income housing project where, in a lark that turns grave, Christian —
unsure of which tenant to approach — disperses print-outs demanding the
return of his things to every apartment.
The scheme has unwitting fallout for
one furious little boy (Elijandro Edouard). Meanwhile, Christian spends an
awkward night with the journalist, Anne, that includes both an unexplained
chimpanzee walking around her apartment and a tense post-coital debate when
Anne offers to discard the used prophylactic, rousing Christian’s
suspicions. He later comes under fire for an ill-conceived marketing
campaign for “The Square” that threatens his high perch.
“The Square” is populated by reminders
of our more primitive impulses. In one terrific scene, a man with Tourette
syndrome interrupts a well-attended conversation with a highfalutin
conceptual artist (Dominic West). In the film’s centerpiece, a muscular
performance artist posing as a gorilla (Terry Notary of “The Planet of the
Apes”) runs amok at a fancy fundraising dinner. He stalks the well-dressed
attendees until an air of real fear sets in. Only after the performer has
thoroughly harassed one woman does anyone dare to protest; once a single man
stands up, dozens follow. Compassion runs in herds.
There’s less balance to “The Square”
than there was to “Force Majeure.” Its tight early scenes (one favorite: a
sea of commuters breezing past the entreaty to “save a life today” with
answers like “not right now”) give way to increasingly overwrought set
pieces (like the dinner scene) that are eye-catching but implausible and,
besides, lose the narrative. I’d also quibble with the very late entry of
Christian’s children who turn up in the film’s final third to observe,
impressionably, their father in his downfall.
But “The Square,” where the enlightened
and well-heeled are always gliding past beggars, remains a potent satire.
The key, I think, is the exceptional Bang, a tall and dapper Danish actor
who could legitimately play James Bond. He plays Christian with just the
right cocktail of vulnerability and arrogance. That he’s so easy to see
through makes him, in a funny way, almost loveable.
“The Square,” a Magnolia Pictures
release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for
“language, some strong sexual content and brief violence.” Running time:
145 minutes. In Swedish and English with English subtitles. Three stars out
Update January 13, 2018 - January 19, 2018
Film Review: Jackman’s a great ‘Showman.’
The movie? Not so much
shows Hugh Jackman in a scene from “The Greatest Showman.” (Niko
Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox via AP)
Los Angeles (AP) - “Don’t fight
it,” goes the opening song of “The Greatest Showman,” sung by Hugh Jackman.
“It’s coming for you, running at ya.”
Well, that’s for damn sure. “The
Greatest Showman” is a one hour-and-45 minute onslaught on the senses — all
peppy, fizzy ballads and frantic energy, earnest sentiments and impossibly
good intentions. It’s begging for love, like a puppy serenading us with pop
It’s exhausting, and messy. And that’s
too bad, because Jackman really IS one of the great showmen of our time.
Give the man a stage and a song, and it’s near impossible not to love him.
The movie? Not so much.
Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, the
19th-century businessman and politician — but a showman above all — who
founded the Barnum & Bailey circus. He did a lot more than that; the
movie’s publicity notes call him “America’s original pop-culture
OK, but they weren’t singing
21st-century pop ballads back then, and one of the movie’s biggest problems
is its almost desperate determination to contemporize everything for a young
audience. It’s not so much the casting of Zac Efron and Zendaya as young
lovers; it’s that they and the others are given upbeat pop songs and
self-empowering anthems that would perhaps sound great (if generic) on their
own, but simply feel jarring when sung by 19th-century characters in period
dress. It’s all the more frustrating given that the songs come from
talented duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the lyrics for “La La
Land” and the terrific score for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”
The film is a debut feature from
director Michael Gracey, known for his work on commercials and music videos,
and that’s telling, because it often feels like a collection of slickly
produced music videos, loosely tied together with a plot we’re not supposed
to care too much about.
It does start off with a bang — that
opening number set at the circus, with Jackman in a top hat and long red
coat, wielding a cane and recalling the stylish emcee in “Pippin.” Then we
go into flashback, meeting the young Barnum as a poor boy, a tailor’s son.
He meets the angelic girl of his dreams in a fancy mansion, and resolves to
marry her. “A million dreams is all it’s gonna take,” he sings.
The song continues as the youngsters
segue into adulthood: “A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make.”
Their early years together are short on cash, long on, um, dreams. Wife
Charity — Michelle Williams, given little to do but always genuine and
touching — insists she doesn’t regret leaving her wealthy past.
Barnum loses his first job, and comes
up with the idea of a museum of oddities. The first version is a bust.
Then one of his little daughters tells him: “You need something alive.”
Light bulb! Barnum realizes his
oddities need to be human: General Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Siamese
twins. “They’re laughing anyway,” he tells one of them, “so why not get
paid?” The place is a hit, and suddenly Barnum’s very wealthy.
But he needs something more:
Acceptance, among the snobby elites. He convinces a young, patrician
playwright, Philip (Efron) to join him in the business. They seal the deal
in an energetic number set in a barroom, “The Other Side,” which reminds us
of those “High School Musical” days and how we’ve rather missed Efron
singing and dancing. Soon Philip will be falling in love with a beautiful,
soft-spoken acrobat (Zendaya), and their mixed-race romance — scandalous
back in the day — will produce the sweet yet also generic “Rewrite the
Stars,” performed with the help of aerial acrobatics.
Then there’s a subplot with the Swedish
soprano Jenny Lind — inspired by fact but veering into the fictional.
Barnum goes to Europe to persuade Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to tour America;
the high-stakes enterprise, he reasons, will finally get him embraced by
If there’s an eleven-o’clock number,
it’s got to be “This Is Me,” ably sung by Broadway belter Keala Settle, a
motivational anthem that seems meant to stop the show but sounds too
familiar to really stir the spirits. “I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown
them out,” the bearded lady sings, and alas, it’s an apt description of what
this movie seems to be doing: Drowning us in pizazz and feel-good emotion,
but not making us think, or learn. In the end, not much is happening under
that circus tent.
“The Greatest Showman,” a 20th Century
Fox release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for
thematic elements including a brawl.” Running time: 105 minutes. Two stars
out of four.
Ed Sheeran helps music industry hit a high note in 2017
(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
New York (AP) - Ed Sheeran’s
album “Divide” was the most popular album of 2017, helping the music
industry enjoy a growth spurt during the year, according to Nielsen Music.
Sheeran’s blockbuster album sold 2.764
million equivalent album units, which takes into account traditional album
sales, downloads and streaming tracks. Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” was next
and Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” was in No. 3.
In terms of only album sales, Swift’s
“Reputation” was No. 1, with 1.9 million in sales; Sheeran’s “Divide” was
No. 2 with 1.1 million in sales and Lamar’s “DAMN.” was No. 3 with 910,000
Nielsen Music reports overall
consumption of albums and songs grew 12.5 percent over 2016. A 59 percent
increase in on-demand audio streams offset declines in track and album
Vinyl album sales increased for the
12th consecutive year to reach a record 14.3M units. The biggest song of
the year, in terms of total activity was the version of “Despacito” by Luis
Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber.
Polka, Ponzi and prison:
Jack Black stars in new biopic
In a Jan.
22, 2017 photo, Jan Lewandowski (right), better known as Jan Lewan, embraces
actor and comedian Jack Black at the premiere of “The Polka King” at the
Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (John Koterba via AP)
New York (AP) - Jan Lewandowski
built a “polka empire” from his base in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, only to
watch it crumble after his arrest on fraud charges.
Lewandowski’s rise and fall is played
for laughs in “The Polka King,” starring Jack Black as the flamboyant Polish
emigre who attracted legions of polka fans — and fleeced some of them as he
tried desperately to keep his business enterprises afloat. The movie comedy
premieres this month on Netflix.
Now living quietly in Florida, the
76-year-old is thrilled about Black’s portrayal, warts and all. Lewandowski
said he spent hours with the actor and comedian, telling him his life’s
story and working with him on his Polish accent.
“I heard myself when he was talking,”
Lewandowski said by phone from West Palm Beach. “I’m telling you, in
moments, I’m wondering if it’s me or him. ... Jack Black portrayed me in a
The Grammy-nominated bandleader and
crooner better known as Jan Lewan served five years in prison after pleading
guilty to bilking investors.
An exuberant performer costumed in
sequins, Lewandowski and his polka band were popular on the festival
circuit throughout the 1980s and ’90s. They played scores of shows a year
from Florida to New York, enjoying a long run at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic
City. Critical acclaim came by way of a 1995 Grammy nomination for best
polka album for “Jan Lewan and His Orchestra.”
Lewandowski, who defected from
communist Poland in the 1970s and became a U.S. citizen, branched out with a
travel business that took fans on tours of Poland and other countries; a
gift shop and mail-order catalog; and his own TV and radio shows.
To fund his ventures, he began selling
promissory notes to his ardent fans, many of them elderly, using money from
new investors to pay off old investors to whom he had promised huge
returns. It was a classic Ponzi scheme.
Lewandowski said he didn’t set out to
cheat anybody. But he acknowledges he hurt people who had placed their
trust in him.
“I don’t hide. I did wrong,” he said.
Prosecutors said he defrauded about 400
investors in more than 20 states. A federal judge who sentenced him to
prison called his conduct “despicable.”
More than eight years after his
release, Lewandowski is retired and doesn’t perform much anymore. He lives
off Social Security and gives the occasional piano lesson, barely making a
dent in his court-ordered restitution of nearly $5 million — a judgment he
has little chance of satisfying.
“The Polka King,” based on a 2009
documentary about Lewandowski, could boost his profile if not fatten his
wallet. (He said he wasn’t a paid consultant, though the producers took care
of his travel expenses.) Lewandowski said he’s in talks with an Atlantic
City casino, which he declined to name, about a reunion concert with his
“I’d be able to pay a little bit more
in restitution,” he said. “I want to perform.”
Some of his victims aren’t exactly
thrilled about a comeback or the movie.
Eleanore Ciuba, 87, of Galloway, New
Jersey, and her late husband lost tens of thousands of dollars to
Lewandowski. She has never forgiven him, calling the disgraced bandleader a
“dirty rotten b***ard” who doesn’t deserve the attention.
“I don’t know who would be interested
in that kind of a movie, to tell you the truth, about dealing and stealing
from people,” said Ciuba, who recalls getting a single, tiny restitution
Lewandowski said he’s sorry for the
people who lost money. Ever upbeat, he shrugs off his critics.
“They don’t want to see me happy,” he
said, “but I am happy right now.”
And he’s hoping “The Polka King” will
give the genre itself a boost.
“The ones who care about the polka are
old, and they’re not dancing anymore,” he said. “Now we need a younger
Update Saturday, Jan. 6 - Jan. 12, 2018
Film Review: ‘Jumanji’ sequel serves up stars, good hearted fun
This image shows (from left) Karen Gillan,
Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in a scene from “Jumanji: Welcome to the
Jungle.” (Frank Masi/Sony Pictures via AP)
Los Angeles (AP) - More than two
decades after Robin Williams conquered that pesky board game, “Jumanji” has
been resurrected with more and glossier stars (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart
and Jack Black), a comedy director and a “modern” twist. The result,
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ,” is a very sweet, and generally
entertaining body swap lark with some nice messages about being, and
believing in, yourself.
Why it had to be “Jumanji” is the
head-scratcher. Even speaking as someone who was 12 when the first one came
out, and genuinely enjoyed the Joe Johnston-directed adventure and the
fantasy of being swept up in a board game come to life, the idea that a
die-hard “Jumanji” fanbase exists, or that the “brand” is so rock-solid that
it needs a reboot, seems dubious at best.
There are pointless sequels everywhere
of course, and questioning the purpose for their existence is a fruitless
exercise. The only reason I bring it up here is because Jake Kasdan’s
“Welcome to the Jungle” spends a fair amount of genuinely unnecessary time
straining to justify how it is connected to “Jumanji” including a whole
prologue establishing how it had evolved into a video game by 1996.
The concept here is that when you’re
transported into the game, you are suddenly a character in the game, in
body, voice and skillset but with your earthbound personality pretty much
intact. This is how a group of mismatched teens sharing the same detention,
including the nerdy, shy Spencer (Alex Wolff), the football player Fridge
(Ser’Darius Blain), the superficial popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman)
and the too-smart for gym class Martha (Morgan Turner), transform into
avatars played by Dwayne Johnson (Spencer), Kevin Hart (Fridge), Jack Black
(Bethany) and Karen Gillan (Martha).
It’s a role reversal for everyone — the
nerdy girl is hot now (and scantily clad), the hot girl is a soft, middle
aged man, the skinny guy is The Rock and the big football player is now tiny
and wimpy — and they all have to go through the stages of learning to accept
their new bodies, talents and shortcomings.
There is of course a lot of easy comedy
in these situations — Spencer admiring his new muscles and Bethany getting
used to her new anatomy among them. And all the main actors/avatars are
kind of great at imitating the facial expressions of their teenage
counterparts, especially Johnson and Black.
How can you argue with a bunch of movie
stars acting goofy and hawking a “believe in yourself” message? There are
some odd beats and choices, especially around Gillan’s Martha, who is
costumed in nearly nothing (surely as a send up of what female characters
usually wear in video games, but however meta it might have been intended to
be, it is still literally her costume). There’s also a plot line that
hinges on her learning how to flirt from Bethany (because they all decide
that flirting with the bad guy security guards is the only way they can get
past them). Maybe it’s all in good fun, or maybe one of the four credited
screenwriters could have been a woman.
But “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”
probably doesn’t warrant that much scrutiny. Its surface pleasures are
strong enough for a fun holiday afternoon at the movies.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a
Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of
America for “adventure action, suggestive content and some language.”
Running time: 119 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Branagh teases return of
old friends in ‘Death on the Nile’
director Kenneth Branagh.
(Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Los Angeles (AP) -
Kenneth Branagh is teasing the return of “old friends” in his planned sequel
to “Murder on the Orient Express.”
Branagh is expected to
both direct and reprise his role as the fancifully mustachioed lead
character Detective Hercule Poirot in “Death on the Nile,” another mystery
based on an Agatha Christie novel, which screenwriter Michael Green will
return to adapt.
Branagh says he’s
excited to gather an ensemble cast that could possibly include bringing back
some “old friends” to explore “primal human emotions” like “obsessive love
and jealousy and sex” that make for a “very dangerous atmosphere.”
The tense whodunit
“Murder on the Orient Express” featured an all-star cast including Johnny
Depp, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer. It was
a global hit after its release in early November. Branagh says he was glad
to see audiences responding to his quirky portrayal of Poirot and looks
forward to seeing how that will evolve in the sequel.
“One of the things that
I liked — really loved doing here that the audience responded to was that
Hercule Poirot, for all his intellectual power, got dragged into it, got
dragged into feeling it. And I think it’s a hell of a trip, that trip down
the Nile. So I think it would be great to see how he, how his heart,
responds to that kind of intensity,” he said.
Christie’s 1937 novel,
“Death on the Nile,” was previously adapted into a 1978 film starring Peter
Ustinov, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow and Maggie Smith.
With a wealth of source
material to draw from, Branagh also endorses the idea of a
Poirot-slash-Christie “cinematic universe” — the popular term for a series
of interlocking films that bring various characters together.
“I think there are
possibilities, aren’t there? With 66 books and short stories and plays, she
often brings people together in her own books actually, so innately — she
enjoyed that,” he says. “You feel as though there is a world — just like
with Dickens, there’s a complete world that she’s created — certain kinds of
characters who live in her world — that I think has real possibilities.”
However, Branagh says
he hasn’t exactly floated that idea with any of the brass at 20th Century
“I bet they’ve been
thinking about it though,” he says.
“Murder on the Orient
Express” will be released on home video in the coming months. “Death on the
Nile” is in the early stages of pre-production.
Marquis de Sade text named French treasure, auction canceled
The original manuscript of “The 120 Days of
Sodom or the School of Libertinage,” by French writer Marquis de Sade is
shown on display at an auction house in Paris, Tuesday, Dec. 19. (AP
Paris (AP) - An original
manuscript for the Marquis de Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom” was
withdrawn from a Paris auction after the French government declared it a
“national treasure” and banned its export.
Auction house Aguttes said the
French culture ministry granted the most valuable lots in the December
20 auction the rare treasure classification and proposed buying them.
Following the ministry’s decision,
a court receiver allowed Aguttes to withdraw the top lots from the
auction list and to negotiate their eventual sales directly with the
In addition to the Sade’s 1785
explicit text, the withdrawn lots included the 1924 manuscript for the
first “Surrealist Manifesto” by French writer Andre Breton. The lots
had a combined value estimated in the multimillion-dollar range.
De Sade is known for his libertine
writings on sex.
Never say never: Shania Twain finds new voice after illness
singer Shania Twain.
(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
New York (AP) -
After becoming a global icon and one of the world’s best-selling singers
of all-time, Shania Twain had to utter the scariest five words a
vocalist would ever hear: “I may never sing again.”
The queen of
country pop contracted Lyme’s disease, which crippled her most prized
instrument — her voice — and she thought her singing career was over.
“It can kill you.
And if it doesn’t kill you, it can give you a seriously degenerated
quality of life for the rest of your life,” she said in a recent
It didn’t kill
Twain, but the process of finding her voice again was gruesome and
trying: “I sounded like a dying cow for a long time before I was able to
really make any sounds that were pleasing at all.”
But Twain, who has
persevered since her career launched in 1993, was ready to do the work
to rebuild her voice, and life. She trained with coaches and worked
extensively on her vocals, comparing the experience to an athlete
recovering from a major injury.
Twain tested out
her voice in various ways in the 15 years in between her last album,
2002’s “Up!,” and her newest effort, “Now”: She sang duets with Lionel
Richie and Michael Buble for their own albums; she completed a residency
in Las Vegas; and launched a successful U.S. tour, reconnecting with the
fans that helped her sell more than 90 million albums worldwide.
triumphant,” Twain said. “I just feel like I’ve climbed this huge
mountain and I made it to the top. ...And, you know, coming from a time
when I really thought I would never record an album again, that I would
never tour again, that I would never sing professionally again.
“And now here I am
with a whole album,” she continued, “it’s like a small miracle really
for me personally.”
“Now” is probably
Twain’s most personal album to date. She wrote all 16 songs alone — a
rarity in today’s music world — and she spilled her feelings and
emotions in the songs, even crying and breaking down in the studio
throughout the process. Though she is one of the most celebrated
musicians in history and she’s found a lifetime success in performing,
her life hasn’t been easy.
Twain, who had a
rough childhood in Canada, grew up poor and around abuse. Her parents
died in a car crash and she took on the role of caring for her three
younger siblings. She moved to Nashville, but the country star with pop
flavor had trouble settling into the new town. She eventually married
producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, and they co-wrote some of her most
successful songs, but they later divorced.
Her latest album’s
lead single, the fun and breezy “Life’s About to Get Good” peaked at No.
33 on Billboard’s Hot country songs chart, and despite having an album
that sold more than 20 million units in the U.S. and two others sell
more than 10 million each, Twain and her label aren’t feeling pressure.
“The industry has
changed so much. ...It’s like comparing apples and oranges now,” Twain
said of selling albums today compared to the 1990s and early 2000s.
“It’s just different and the tallying is coming from such a broad
spectrum, so I’m not feeling that pressure just because it just doesn’t
even exist anymore. The pressure for me is really more, ‘Will I write
music that relates to my fans? Will they relate to what I have to say?’
now. I think differently now. I’ve evolved. That’s why I call the
album ‘Now,’” she said. “This is me now.”