Monday, June 17, 2019

An entertainer rises from obscurity, bolstered by a fascinated media and a fawning public, to become formidable political demagogue who spouts hollow "man of the people" populism as a means to power.

Sound familiar? Cinephiles were quick to point out the eerie parallels between Andy Griffith's Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes from Elia Kazan's 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, and Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election. And while there are certainly some differences, it's hard to ignore the striking similarities. Here's populist sensation born out of near-constant, uncritical media attention, who becomes a monster; drunk on his own power and his ability to sway the public through plain-spoken faux-folksy pablum and preying on the insecurities and prejudices of a naive public.

It's part of what makes A Face in the Crowd such a ferociously prescient picture, as if Kazan somehow peered into the future and saw what was coming - a perfect storm of unchecked power and a complicit media. It recalls Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) in its pitch black emulation of a future it couldn't possibly know, but presages anyway. Griffith, making his film debut here, is a wonder, making the most of his unique, down-home charm and giving it a sinister spin. We're a long way from the noble "sheriff without a gun" of The Andy Griffith Show. Kazan was known as an actor's director, and what he pulls out of Griffith is extraordinary - even reportedly going so far as to get Griffith drunk for his fiery final scene. Yet the film really belongs to Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries - the reporter turned lover turned unlikely hero who discovers, cultivates, then ultimately brings down "Lonesome" Rhodes. Her character arc, as she slowly begins to realize what she has unleashed upon the world, is a thing of great and terrible beauty - bringing into sharp relief the unique talent that Kazan had with actors.

A Face in the Crowd unfolds like a play - the screenplay by Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) humming with a kind of rough-hewn power. It has never felt more relevant than it does today, and one almost wishes that some intrepid theater artist would adapt it for the stage to comment on our current times. Yet its new Blu-Ray treatment from The Criterion Collection brings it to life at a time when the world needs it the most. It's a haunting satire of America's fascination with celebrity and the power of the media to create uncontrollable sensations whose lust for fame and power become vicious cycles - fueled by media attention and the public's lust for a juicy story and a charismatic star. Here in 2019 we may be wondering where our Marcia Jeffries is to expose Trump's true nature to his supporters. But while the revelation of Rhodes' distain for them rubes who follow him is ultimately his undoing, one has to wonder if Kazan and Schulberg's dark vision wasn't too hopeful about human nature in the end. In 2019, we have to wonder if anything matters at all. The film's most nagging idea is that maybe A Face in the Crowd didn't take the satire far enough.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A FACE IN THE CROWD | Directed by Elia Kazan | Stars Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Anthony Franciosa | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features include:
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan 
  • New interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith 
  • Facing the Past, a 2005 documentary featuring actors Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa; screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic April Wolfe, excerpts from director Elia Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Irreverent, self-referential, and gleefully misanthropic, Jean-Luc Godard's 1983 film, First Name: Carmen, was released near the beginning of the legendary raconteur's return to feature filmmaking in the early 1980s. In the decade since his radical left-wing period with the Dziga Vertov group in the early 1970s, the filmmaker mostly concerned himself with documentaries and experimental short films before reuniting with long-time cinematographer Raoul Coutard (Breathless) and writer Anne-Marie Miéville for this loose adaptation of Bizet's opera - Carmen.

Once the French New Wave's most iconoclastic Enfant terrible, Godard reinvents Carmen as something of a domestic terrorist (whose political motivations are never fully revealed) who falls in love with a bank guard, who becomes something of a patsy-cum-parter in crime. Carmen invents a fake movie as a front for her organization, and approaches her doddering Uncle Jean (played Godard himself in full-on self-parody mode) about using his home as a location.

Jean, a "washed up" film director, gets dragged back into commercial filmmaking kicking and screaming, making no bones about his disdain for the whole enterprise. Godard pokes gentle fun at himself, rambling on about his Maoist days ("he's not in favor anymore") and shaking his fists at the "kids these days." But Godard is nothing if not self-aware, and he drops all pretense of being anyone else, as characters begin to call him "Mr. Godard" by the end of the film.

Rather than his trademark jump-cuts, Godard works toward a similar effect with sounds, blending diagetic and non-diagetic music to contrast against the action, often dropping it in and out seemingly at random. First Name: Carmen is Godard at his most playful, tweaking the system that has called him back in and poking holes in society's sacred cows (he even critiques Shakespeare). This is absolutely the Godard we all know and love to hate; arrogant, defiant, and yet unendingly fascinating. First Name: Carmen is at once the kind of Hollywood gangster picture Godard used to worship, but also a deconstruction and dismantling of the same. He ends with the coda: "In memoriam small movies." Much as he did in Weekend (1967), Godard is railing against the very idea of cinema and its place in our world. What exactly he's trying to convey is anyone's guess, because at its core First Name: Carmen is a really just a bit of trolling. But nobody does it like Godard, perhaps the greatest troll in cinema history - and he's certainly in rare form here.

Godard tackled the Greek myth of Alcmene and Amphitryon for this 1993 meditation on the nature of the divine. Wracked by a troubled production, in which star Gerard Depardieu stormed off set never to return (and never to be replaced), Hélas pour moi (Oh, Woe is Me) is at once one of Godard's most deeply felt and most obfuscating works.

The filmmaker himself would later become one of the film's chief detractors, writing it off as a failure despite widespread acclaim in France  (Cahiers du Cinema named it one of the best films of 1993). It's certainly a muddled work, as Godard restructured much of it after Depardieu left the project. Hélas pour moi centers around a man named Simon (Depardieu) who is possessed by the spirit of God so that God may experience and examine human life through his marriage with Rachel (Johanna ter Steege). In order to fill the gaps left by his falling out with Depardieu, Godard frames this drama in flashback, as a book published named Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley) investigates reports of God's arrival on Earth.

It's a wildly experimental work, to be sure, marked by some of the most gorgeous imagery Godard ever produced (courtesy of cinematographer Caroline Champetier). And yet, its ideas are so scattershot that they never reach the level of spiritual focus achieved by Bresson, who was a clear influence here. Godard is probing and exploring, but his musings are too opaque to be fully engaging. His usual experimentations with non-diagetic sound design that was so integral to this period of his career seems somewhat subdued, still very much present but of less thematic import. The film seems somewhat lost, at once a criticism of humanity from the point of view of God (one of Godard's most vain provocations) and an existential treatise on cinema and international politics, informed by the global conflicts happening in the early 1990s. It's undeniably fascinating work, but as was Godard's wont, especially during this period, his attempts to radically reinvent the cinematic language don't always jell with the ideas he's attempting to interrogate.

Godard's The Image Book is at once perfectly at home with his other late-period collage films such as Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, and yet completely unlike anything the 88-year-old Nouvelle Vague iconoclast has ever made. It's part of the filmmaker's quest to investigate and reinvent the cinematic language, a life-long passion for Godard at least since 1967's Weekend, in which he infamously declared the "end of cinema."

His last film, Goodbye to Language (2014), similarly tried to redefine the cinematic language, a brazen attempt to force viewers to reevaluate the very way we watch and engage with movies. There his medium was 3D, experimenting with the prevalent gimmick of the day to explore the multiple dimensions cinematic plane. In The Image Book  he moves in a different direction entirely. Now having re-written cinematic language, he seeks once again to make audiences redefine their preconceptions about the confines of the film frame and explore the dynamics of the moving images.

Through re-tooled images from cinema history (taken from such films as Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down) and an often shifting aspect ratio, Godard is quite literally making the audience look at these familiar images from alternate points of view. He even goes so far as to repurpose images from his own films, (including bits of Hélas pour moi) in what could be seen as either an act of supreme ego or self-interrogation. It's an effect created by the way Godard transfers films from VHS to his DV camcorder, as the camera attempts to adjust to the different aspect ratio, yet this digital "mistake" was purposefully left in.

The value of these images, in fact the very nature of their beauty (or lack thereof) lies in our own perception of them. Godard gives us the tools to decode them, but intentionally leaves us without a guidebook. Through the various lenses he places in front of them, be they digital imperfections, analog glitches, or simply the fog of time, The Image Book asks us to look at the world around us in ways we've never before considered. It's an endlessly fascinating and somehow wistful work, a career summation by a legendary iconoclast who continues to reinvent himself well into his ninth decade of life, now looking back at a life's work and asking "what was it all for?" The answer lies somewhere buried in the bleary fragments of images recorded from Godard's VHS player, a radical reinvention of cinematic language that will be studied and appreciated for decades to come.


The Image Book is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. First Name: Carmen and Hélas pour moi will be released on June 18.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

19 years ago, the cinematic superhero craze got its kick-off in the form of Bryan Singer's X-Men, spawning a series of imitators as rival studios rushed to capitalize on its success with superhero franchises of their own. Looking back on it now, the original X-Men is a surprisingly character driven, mid-budget film whose sequel, X2: X-Men United remains perhaps the high point in 21st century superhero filmmaking.

The X-Men series went on to spawn 10 films, including a spin-off trilogy featuring Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, making it the longest running superhero series outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that hasn't been subjected to some sort of hard reboot. That's all likely to change now after the release of Dark Phoenix - whose release arrives mere months after the complete acquisition of its parent studio, 20th Century Fox, by the Walt Disney Company.

Disney, of course, owns the MCU, and since the X-Men originated in Marvel Comics, it's all but likely that their current incarnation will be wiped clean to make way for a new iteration to join the world of the Avengers. It's something of an inauspicious end for the series. While fans have long clamored for an X-Men/Avengers mashup, its a shame to see the venerable series come to such a weak conclusion, its glory days long since past, unceremoniously dumped into theaters by Disney who's clearly in a hurry to move on.

Everything about Dark Phoenix feels phoned-in, even defeated, as if the filmmakers somehow knew the end was near. First-time director Simon Kinberg (long-time producer of the series) seems completely lost, tasked with crafting an epic ending to a series that no one, not even the actors involved, seems to care about anymore. The actors are all on auto-pilot (the usually terrific Jennifer Lawrence seems especially over it), to the point that most of them feel like they're just fulfilling terms of a contract rather than giving it their all. Meanwhile, Kinberg seems determined to take the franchise in a darker, grittier direction, even going so far as to hire composer Hans Zimmer to craft a muscular score similar to his work on Man of Steel, sounding nothing like anything previously heard in the X-Men universe.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Raven/Mystique in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX.
Photo Credit: Doane Gregory.

The Dark Phoenix Saga was previously tackled by the series in the much maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, in which psychic heroine Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is saddled with unlimited power she's unable to control. Rather than improve the story, Dark Phoenix seems to have learned nothing, taking the worst elements of The Last Stand and doubling down on them, resulting in a film that's neither different enough to be worth the trouble nor bold enough to truly stand out on its own. This could be because Kinberg wrote the screenplay for both films, and he hews close to previously covered territory here.

Yet the weak script is only part of the film's troubles, which relies on obvious themes ("my emotions make me strong") rather than dealing with the true issue at the heart of the film - the fact that burying Grey's trauma rather than dealing with it head-on are what caused her problems in the first place. Turner does her best with the subpar material, but the film completely wastes Jessica Chastain as the emotionless alien villain, Vuk, and the characters are so poorly drawn that their motivations (and subsequent reversals) often make little sense. Gone is the social commentary that once set this franchise apart, not to mention its inherent optimism about the future and its place for those who are different. In its place is a strange sort of anonymity, just another self-serious superhero dirge that doesn't know how to have fun. Dark Phoenix represents the dying throes of a once illustrious comic book franchise making one last half-hearted gasp before being obliterated by the Disney juggernaut.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

DARK PHOENIX | Directed by Simon Kinberg | Stars  Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language | Opens today in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

The prospect of another musical biopic of a popular rock musician following so closely on the heels of the aggressively bland Bohemian Rhapsody may seem like a hard pill to swallow, especially considering that director Dexter Fletcher was the filmmaker who stepped in at the last minute to finish Rhapsody after Bryan Singer went AWOL. 

But Fletcher seems determined not to make the same mistakes twice, turning his Elton John biopic, Rocketman, into the film Bohemian Rhapsody could and should have been. Whereas Bohemian Rhapsody, with its troubled production and too many cooks in the kitchen, often felt like a rote connect-the-dots between Queen's creates hits, Rocketman instead allows the songs to flow naturally from the story. Fletcher isn't trying to show us the inspiration for each of John's hit songs, eschewing Bohemian Rhapsody s thudding literalism for a kind of musical fantasia, the songs belting out like Broadway numbers to accompany the major events in the singer's life.

From partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his infamous drug addiction, to his romantic relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden), Rocketman traces the life of Elton John (Taron Edgerton) in a way that is familiar to the musical biopic genre. However, Fletcher reinvigorates the formula by infusing the film with a bracing shot of John's colorful personality, taking the audience inside his mind for a peek into his creative process. These aren't necessarily events as they actually happened, but Fletcher captures the exhilarating spirit of those events, levitating the characters (and the audience) into a kind of phantasmagorical cinematic ecstasy.

Rocketman also refuses to treat John's sexuality as a liability (the way that Bohemian Rhapsody did with Freddie Mercury). Elton is an unabashedly queer figure, and Fletcher doesn't shy away from this, leaning into the singer's campy personality and yearning for true love from another man (which he eventually finds as the film reminds us in its requisite coda). John is memorably embodied by Taron Edgerton, who impressively enough actually does his own singing, emulating the him with striking soul and wit.

While the film strikes many familiar notes for anyone who has ever seen a movie about a rock star, Fletcher manages to reinvent those cliches by untethering Rocketman from the confines of reality. Instead, he turns the film into a joyous celebration of a legendary entertainer, a warts-and-all emulation of who Elton John is, saving it from being yet another standard issue biopic and embruing it with a heart and soul all its own.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ROCKETMAN | Directed by Dexter Fletcher | Stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh | Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Having now seen Khalik Allah's altogether extraordinary film, Black Mother, twice now; I can confidently say that it has left me at a complete loss for words.

It's a rare thing to be left speechless by a film. Even more so for someone who writes about film for a living; yet Black Mother is the kind of film that defies description, a work of such radical beauty that it nearly reshapes the entire cinematic experience in its own image. Part documentary, part travelogue, part poem, Black Mother is a deeply personal tribute to Jamaica (the ancestral home of Allah's mother) and to the black experience, specifically the black women who actually birthed a nation.

Allah examines the effects of religion on the tiny island nation, both as a symptom of colonialism and a reaction to it, as Christianity and Rastafarianism blend together into something beautiful and unique. Allah, a renowned photographer, captures snippets of island life and blends them together into a singularly breathtaking. There are films that move you, there are films that shake you, and then there's Black Mother - a transcendental meditation on life, love, and black identity that takes the mundane and makes it feel miraculous.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

BLACK MOTHER | Directed by Khalik Allah | Not ratedNow playing in select theaters.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is perhaps the first American kaiju film (a genre term meaning "strange creature" in Japanese) that really understands the genre's aesthetics. The Japanese have been making movies about giant monsters fighting each other for over half a century, and American filmmakers have long tried to emulate them, but the results have historically been mixed. Whether they're recutting the Japanese films for American audiences or remaking them outright, Hollywood has never quite managed to capture the sheer sense of lunacy that make these films so entertaining.

The 1956 American recut of the original 1954 GodzillaGodzilla, King of the Monsters, remains one of the most egregious and laughable examples of cultural appropriation in cinema history, completely obliterating the original film's elegiac beauty and nuclear allegories, instead turning it into the badly dubbed joke that has informed many Americans' perception of the genre to this day. Thankfully, the original Japanese versions of the Godzilla films (there are 29 in all) have become more widely available in recent years, revealing a wealth of monster-on-monster action to American audiences for the first time so they can finally be seen as they were intended.

Now we come to 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters  the sequel to Gareth Edward's American Godzilla reboot from 2014, which pits the giant lizard against his greatest foe from the original films - King Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon from outer space. Along for the ride are the fire fearsome flying "fire demon" Rodan and the luminous Mothra, all staples of Toho Studios' original kaiju lineup. Much has been made about the film's over-reliance on the human drama revolving around a broken family and a nefarious plot by eco-terrorists to unleash monsters upon the world to restore "natural balance." Yet it is this outlandish plot that surrounds the kaiju action that makes it feel the most like its Japanese counterparts. It combines the ridiculous human plots and rear-loaded structure of the Shōwa-era films (1954-1975), combined with the darker tone and more epic sense of action of the Heisei-era films (1984-1995).

King Ghidorah first appeared in 1964's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (the Shōwa era's fifth film), and would go on to terrorize Godzilla in numerous other films throughout the series. Ghidorah was the first film in which Godzilla appeared as a heroic character, teaming up with Mothra and Rodan to save the earth from this extra-terrestrial foe. Godzilla: King of the Monsters shares a lot of DNA with this film, which featured a plot about foreign assassins trying to kill a queen, who loses her memory and returns as a Venusian to warn earth of its impending doom. The Shōwa plots got increasingly convoluted as they went along, but they were so much fun, and that is exactly what director Michael Dougherty (Trick 'r Treat) delivers here.

The plot is full of wild twists and outrageous conspiracies, and it’s often drunk on its own lunacy (they go to Atlantis!), and while it may be as well-directed as 2014's Godzilla (which felt like a war movie with giant monsters), it captures the Toho spirit more than any other American iteration of this character. Composer Bear McCreary even brings back Akira Ifukube's immortal "Godzilla Theme" and Yūji Koseki's "Mothra's Song" to represent their respective characters. The film balances its convoluted plot with some truly breathtaking imagery and bone-crushing kaiju battles that actually take into account the brutal real-world consequences of urban smackdowns between giant monsters. While Dougherty sometimes loses sight of the finer points of the story he's telling (he kills a major character off-screen in such a confusing manner that he has to show their face on a screen with the word "deceased" next to it in the very next scene), story was never really the reason people came to kaiju films. These are films about giant monsters battling to the death, and on that front Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivers in spades.

Godzilla (2014) may be the more elegant film, more organic and grounded, but Dougherty's fantastical, no-holds-barred take is the kind of epic monster showdown that fans of the original Godzilla films have longed for. Its titanic, elemental battle sequences truly feel like an apocalyptic clash of ancient gods, taking us all to monster movie heaven.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS | Directed by Michael Dougherty | Stars Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Zhang Ziyi, O'Shea Jackson Jr. | Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, May 27, 2019

They say the internet is forever, but there's something about the ephemeral nature of social media that makes films about modern technology feel instantly dated. Enter Olivier Assayas, the latest auteur to try and tackle the deeper questions of modern technology. 

Non-Fiction is essentially a series of talky, philosophical musings about our intangible digital world, a sexier My Dinner with Andre set in the world of modern-day publishing. The film centers around 5 characters - Alain (Guillaume Canet) a publisher struggling to maintain the relevance of physical books in the face of rising e-book sales (reportedly, the film's English title was almost E-BOOK); his wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), star of a potboiler police procedural TV show; his longtime friend, Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), an author who often gets in trouble for making his real-life inspirations a bit too obvious (including a brief affair with Selena), and his wife, Válerie (Nora Hamzawi), who is having an affair with Alain.

As the group swap beds and complaints about the state of the world and the publishing industry, Assayas begins to parse a series of theses about life in a world that cannot be touched, where human connections are fleeting and transitory, lived through a screen rather than face-to-face. The filmmaker mounted similar investigations of communication in Personal Shopper (2017) and theatre in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), yet something seems to be missing from Non-Fiction that made those films so enthralling.  The heart of Non-Fiction seems to be a luddite rant about "kids these days and their cell-phones and e-readers" rather than a studied meditation on human experience. Assayas seems to be throwing his hands up in exasperation at every turn, decrying the progress of technology while longing for the feel of a real book in his hands.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course (I, too, prefer physical books to e-readers), and the filmmaker often seems to be in dialogue with himself about that very inner conflict. But his self-referencing (Juliette Binoche gets name-checked as a potential audio book narrator) and his prodding of Michel Haneke through a running joke about The White Ribbon feel like odd attempts at meta-humor that never quite congeal. While its never quite as didactic as Haneke's Happy End, a similar critique of modern technology, Non-Fiction feels as oddly temporal as the very ideas it seeks to explore. There are some fascinating ideas at play here, but Assayas handles them with a kind of smugness that is more off-putting than involving. There's a strange sense of condescension in his musings that keeps us at arm's length, never allowing its exploration of modern technology to really bloom. It's an unusually uninvolving detour for the historically erudite director, seemingly stuck too doggedly in the past to really explore the ideas that will shape our future.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

NON-FICTION | Directed by Olivier Assayas | Stars Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi, Christa Théret, Pascal Greggory | Rated R for some language and sexuality/nudity | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Disney's new trend of remaking its animated classics as live-action features continues unabated with Guy Ritchie's Aladdin, a remake of the 1992 musical directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. The original film was defined mainly by Robin Williams' now iconic performance as the Genie, a mystical blue being summoned from a magic lamp by "street rat" Aladdin.

Stepping into Williams' considerable shoes is Will Smith; not a bad choice on paper, but Smith seems consistently trapped in Williams' shadow, seemingly unable to define the character as his own. He stumbles when trying to recreate Williams' manic improvisations, only managing to distinguish himself when he makes the character his own - we'll call him "Hitch in a bottle." His attempts to make-over Aladdin from a common thief to a prince are the highlights of a film that is sadly bereft of them. In fact (and this should come as a surprise to no one), the entire film is seemingly devoid of imagination - it's a bland, lifeless remake with no personality of its own, hitting all the notes of the original film while adding a few new flourishes to make it more in tune with 2019 audiences.

The Disney live-action remakes have been something of a mixed bag, ranging from great (Pete's Dragon) to good (Cinderella, The Jungle Book) to abysmal (Alice in Wonderland). While most have fallen in that middle range, Aladdin is near the bottom of the pile. The faux-Bollywood musical numbers are strangely flat and cheap-looking, like a community theatre production of "Aladdin Jr." You'd find a greater sense of wonder and awe in a performance of the same material at Walt Disney World, and therein lies perhaps its greatest problem - Aladdin is little more than the latest piece of corporate synergy released in theaters to make tons of cash off millennial nostalgia without bringing anything new to the table. It's like they're not even trying - director Guy Ritchie is all wrong for this material, but even he seems strangely neutered, his trademark style completely obliterated by the milquetoast design and uninspired cinematography.

What's the point? Why did it need to be a musical at all? If you're going to remake this story, bring something new to the table. The musical numbers feel unnatural, and the film's new song, "Speechless" (written by The Greatest Showman's Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), is an insipid anthem for Jasmine that feels shoe-horned in from a different show entirely. Turning Princess Jasmine into a stronger character and the next natural Sultan of Agrabah is an appealing idea, making her a more modern role model for young girls, but "Speechless" is a cringe-worthy song, and completely undermines what the film is trying to do with her character by turning a major character moment into pure cheese.

Add "Shameless" to a variety of off-tempo covers of the songs from the original film, and you have a bizarrely lack-luster, dully designed big budget extravaganza that feels tired and stale. Rarely has so much money gone toward creating something so drab and unimaginative. It's not the worst of Disney's live-action remakes, but it's certainly one of the laziest; a bloated cash-cow that is as tedious as it is ponderous.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

ALADDIN | Directed by Guy Ritchie | Stars  Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen | Rated PG for some action/peril | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare
Photo by Robert Youngson. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Very little is known about the last days of William Shakespeare, who died in 1616 at the age of 52. The manner and circumstances of his death remain something of a mystery, leaving historians to fill in massive gaps using minimal evidence. What is known is that is that after the Globe Theater burned during a performance of Shakespeare's final play, Henry VIII (a collaboration with John Fletcher), the playwright never wrote again.

Kenneth Branagh has always shown an affinity for Shakespeare's plays, having directed cinematic adaptations of Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labour's Lost, and As You Like It, so it seems only natural for him to step into the role of the bard himself in his latest film, All is True.  Set in the last years of Shakespeare's life, All is True (which shares its name with the alternate title of Henry VIII  portrays the playwright as a broken man, a distant father returning to Stratford-upon-Avon to mourn the death of his young son, Hamnet, who died years earlier while Shakespeare was away in London.

This is not the winsome, happy-go-lucky Shakespeare of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. The film explores the idea of the world's greatest playwright, one of the finest investigators of human emotion who ever lived, being completely unable to apply that genius to his own personal life. He has all but neglected his family. His wife is distant, his daughters resent him, and Shakespeare, the man who gave us some of English literature's most enduring love stories in Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is unable to connect with the very people who are closest to him.

All is, of course, not true. The title in and of itself is something of an intentional misnomer, as Branagh is essentially creating Shakespeare fan fiction here. But as the playwright explains, all is true that comes from the heart, and that is perhaps the film's greatest asset - it comes directly from Branagh's heart. It's a strangely shapeless narrative, loosely centered around Shakespeare's mourning for his son while trying to preserve his family's standing by clearing up scandals involving his daughters. All is True is, at its heart, a character study, but it often seems to meander - rushing from one scene to the next with a pace that is often at odds with its elegiac tone.

But when Branagh finally stops trying to connect seemingly unrelated dots and lets his characters speak, All is True really soars. Branagh's scene with Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellan), here portrayed as the unrequited object of Shakespeare's affection from his sonnets, is pure poetry, and his scenes with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), are likewise imbued with a kind of quiet fire. Watching these great actors tackle these characters is a privilege, and Branagh's work as Shakespeare is one of his finest performances.

The whole affair has a kind of autumnal beauty, reflecting on a life that, no matter how well lived, is still filled with regrets; T's left uncrossed, I's left un-dotted. It's a lovely chamber drama born out of a real passion for its subject, and that while that passion may seem oddly muted and underplayed, Branagh's uncharacteristic restraint, even amid such gorgeous production design and vibrant cinematography, displays a disarming maturity of craft. Even when it threatens to traffic in contrived family drama with its final revelations, Branagh's focus on the actors and their performances keep All is True from becoming a melodrama. It's uneven, to be sure, but it's hard not to be swept up in Branagh's hauntingly reflective vision of a lion in winter; a great man now removed from the work that made him a legend, trying desperately to learn the emotional lessons he once wrote about so eloquently, but never got the chance to put into practice.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ALL IS TRUE | Directed by Kenneth Branagh | Stars Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Kathryn Wilder, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Matt Jessup, Lydia Wilson | Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material and language | Now playing in limited release.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Keanu Reeves stars as John Wick in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM.
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

The third entry in the popular John Wick series, John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum picks up immediately where John Wick: Chapter 2 left off, with the eponymous assassin (Keanu Reeves) being labeled "excommunicado" by the criminal organization where he once worked for killing a man on the grounds of their sanctuary hotel, The Continental.  With one hour to go before becoming the most hunted man in the world, John Wick sets out to find the man in charge of the High Table in order to clear his name and save his own life. But with nearly every assassin in the world hot on his trail, that's a task easier said than done.

It's important to remember that all three of these films take place back to back to back, essentially making John Wick the world's more tired killing machine. Director Chad Stahelski manages to ratchet up both the action and the stakes while reminding us of Wick's growing weariness. The fight sequences are more bruising, more protracted, and more brutal, with Wick resorting to more and more creative methods with which to dispatch his enemies. The beautifully choreographed action sequences have always been one of the biggest selling points of these films, and Stahelski outdoes himself here. The violence of John Wick 3 has consequences; the audience feels every punch and every shot. Wick may be an unstoppable angel of death, but that doesn't mean his job is easy.

Perhaps even more so than its predecessors, John Wick 3 is clearly influenced by Hong Kong action cinema, with its blazing mix of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay. Shot in bright, contrasting neons, the film often feels like a cross between the work of Johnnie To and Nicholas Winding Refn, endlessly action-packed and yet somehow light on its feet - a gloriously over-the-top symphony of violence featuring some of the most dazzling action sequences in recent memory.

Yet perhaps the most impressive aspect of the John Wick films is their world-building. Stahelski has created a hyperrealistic world of honor among criminals, where the underworld has risen and the rules of the real world no longer apply. The mythology of the High Table and the endless rules by which its adherents must abide have been gradually revealed over the course of the three films, which began as a simple tale of revenge about a man avenging the death of his dog, and has now expanded to an operatic tale of a brilliant assassin taking on an entire system of criminals as a result. It's a fascinating world, and Stahelski has crafted it beautifully, showcasing a wildly creative and intricately plotted system of petty murderers and minor kings, all playing a part in a grand, overarching network of crime.

The film ends with a setup for yet another film in the series, so don't come to Parabellum expecting closure. But its promise of a fourth film actually feels earned - there's more world here to explore, and Stahelski leaves us wanting more. The John Wick films make up a rare series that just keeps getting better, with a righteous anti-hero at its center who remains compelling not just because he will stop at nothing to get his man, but because all he wants is to be left in peace with his dog, but keeps getting dragged back into work. Who among us can't identify with that?

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

JOHN WICK | Directed by Chad Stahelski | Stars Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui | Rated R for pervasive strong violence, and some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Francisco Reyes in The Wandering Soap Opera. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a film as sly, smart, and hilarious as Raúl Ruiz's dazzlingly experimental The Wandering Soap Opera. Ostensibly a send-up of Chilean telenovelas, the film offers a series of vignettes, made in the over-the-top style of South American soap operas, that savagely poke fun at Chilean society.

Ruiz, who passed away in 2011, shot the film in 1990, but left it uncompleted. His wife, Valeria Sarmiento, picked up the pieces and completed the film in 2017, five years after the release of Ruiz's final film, Night Across the Street, and its resurrection now makes for a fitting swan song for the legendary filmmaker's career. Ruiz began work on the film upon returning to Chile after a 15 year exile. Chile had undergone myriad reforms in the interim, leaving Ruiz feeling like a stranger in a strange land, an alien in his own country. It was a time when Chile was transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, opening up to the rest of the world in ways it had not before. Ruiz did not see all those reforms as a positive - the democratization of culture also meant a certain homogenization, hence the telenovela structure the filmmaker chose for The Wandering Soap Opera.

Each vignette is set within its own soap opera - a man attempts to seduce a woman with his muscles (that are literal pieces of meat), gangsters with political manifestos kill each other with increasingly self-aggrandizing feats of self-delusion, a group of women lose their husbands, while characters from other soap operas watch their exploits on screen, and strangers meet on the street while searching in vain for a place that must be around here somewhere. Meanwhile, the vignettes begin to bleed together, each person a character in someone else's soap opera, a cheesy melodrama played out on a national scale where reality is merely an abstraction.

Ruiz brilliantly manipulates our perception, exploring the relationship between cinema and the audience wherein we find ourselves watching and engaging with other people who are also watching and engaging with others on screen. The Wandering Soap Opera takes us down a fascinating rabbit hole of media consumption as it satirizes the vapidity of the culture that gave rise to them, as well as the world of lost souls they create. Just as Ruiz felt lost in 90s era Chile, so too are the characters in the film lost, trapped in a wandering soap opera they are at once aware of and yet completely oblivious to. Sure, they're in a soap opera, but it's the people in those other soap operas who are really lost, and around and around we go.

The Wandering Soap Opera may be finally arriving in North American theaters nearly 30 years after it was originally shot, but it feels as vital and timely as ever. It's the work of a master filmmaker interrogating his own art and his place in the society that made him. It's a radical, thrilling, and deeply funny satirization of mass media that boldly implicates the audience in the very culture that gave birth to it. Rarely is cinema so fearlessly and effortlessly manipulated into uncharted territory; even in death Ruiz is still boldly pushing it, and us, into the future.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE WANDERING SOAP OPERA | Directed by Raúl Ruiz | Stars Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Luis Alarcón, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes burst onto the international arthouse scene in 2015 with his harrowing Holocaust drama, Son of Saul. The film went on to garner widespread acclaim, eventually taking home the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Yet despite its sterling reputation, “Son of Saul” was a film I found to be cold and distancing, enamored with its own particular stylistic affectations. Nemes doubles down on these affectations in his new film, Sunset, holding his protagonist tightly in frame, forcing the action happening around her to occur in the periphery. This time, however, the technique works on a more fundamental level, seemingly less self-conscious and more thematically justified.

The protagonist in question is Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), an orphaned heiress to a successful Budapest hat company, who returns to her home to work at the shop and reclaim her birthright in the days before World War I. She gets more than she bargained for, however, when the new owners of Leiter's turn her away, and she begins to uncover dark secrets about her family and the business they created.

"The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things" a man tells Írisz while examining the Leiter hats, and indeed the cracks in the facade of Austria-Hungary's upper crust are beginning to show in Sunset. Acts of terror rock the country, everyone is on edge, and the projected gentility of the nation's ruling class is beginning to fall away. Society is rotten to the core, and Írisz soon finds herself lost in a world that is coming apart at the seams. By keeping the camera focused tightly on her, Írisz becomes something of an avatar for the audience, her inscrutable face a mask onto which viewers can project themselves. The camera is constantly in motion, the whole film seemingly in flux, as it follows Írisz through the streets of Budapest, uncovering snippets of sinister rumors and witnessing ever increasing acts of violence that betray a crumbling society.

Nemes' craft feels far more assured here than it did in Son of Saul. Írisz is a kind of vessel through which the audience witnesses society eating itself from within. It's a similar idea to those put forth in Son of Saul, but here it feels less frustrating self-satisfied and more haunting and unsettling. Shot in golden-hued tones with sumptuous period detail, Sunset feels like a Merchant-Ivory production slowly dissolving before our eyes, the warm cinematography eventually fading into washed out grays and muted colors. It's a disturbing portrait of a world slowly going mad, where the privileged prey on the weak and look the other way as the world disintegrates around them. In that regard, it's less about the socio-political climate of pre-war Austria-Hungary and more about the world in which we live now, a world standing on the brink of catastrophe, careening toward the precipice while disguising the intrinsic rot with shiny baubles to distract from the coming devastation. Sunset plays its cards close to the vest, never quite revealing the true nature of the darkness at its core, yet it’s that very sense of mystery that makes it so universally unsettling. This is a society seemingly hellbent on ushering in its own destruction - we would do well to sit up and listen.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)

SUNSET | Directed by László Nemes | Stars Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Susanne Wuest, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn | Rated R for some violence | In Hungarian w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The romantic comedy genre seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance of late. From Love, Simon to Crazy Rich Asians, filmmakers are finding ways to play within the established rules of the genre while making it wholly their own.

Jonathan Levine's Long Shot may not break any new ground, but its smart script (by Dan Sterling and The Post scribe Liz Hannah) makes its romantic comedy tropes feel somehow fresh. We've all seen movies where a shlubby guy ends up with a woman way out of his league. Putting aside for a moment the vaguely sexist overtones of this cliche (you rarely, if ever, see the opposite occurring in film), Long Shot feels so genuine and so cleverly written that the lack of originality in its structure takes a back seat to the witty dialogue and winning performances.

Seth Rogen stars as Fred Flarsky, a guerrilla journalist who reconnects with his former babysitter, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), now a successful Secretary of State eyeing a run for President. After reuniting at a Washington fundraiser, Field hires Flarsky to boost her speeches with some of his trademark humor, but the two hit it off and are forced to hide their relationship from the press in order to keep her favorability ratings high, or face losing her dream of becoming the first female president.

It's all fairly standard fare, but achieved with a rare sense of narrative grace. Rogen and Theron are great fun, ditto Andy Serkis, who is nearly unrecognizable as a sleazy, Rupert Murdoch-esque media tycoon. The film manages to explore the idea of the negative influence of money in politics, and how compromise often leads to policies that do no one any good other than to play lip service to real progress. It does dabble in some milquetoast "why can't we all just get along" centrism by the end, which seems to undercut its core message about the detriments of trying to please everyone, only to please no one, but the way it manages to zero in on the corrupting influence of corporate interest in our politics in a comedic way is to be commended.

It's also a grand return to the kind of R-rated comedy of There’s Something About Mary, American Pie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Superbad, in that it doesn't feel aimed at the lowest common denominator. It's a kind of grown-up romantic comedy that doesn't feel like it's pandering to a teen audience, set amongst a modern political landscape that still manages to feel like an escape from our current farcical system without avoiding actual issues. It may feel overly familiar, but Rogen and Theron are such a constant delight, and the screenplay such a winning combination of humor and heart, that it manages to subvert its own clichés even while resting comfortably among them.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)

LONG SHOT | Directed by Jonathan Levine | Stars Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Serkis | Rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use | Now playing in theaters nationwide.