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.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Kim Min-hee in GRASS. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

As an undergrad theater student, one of the most fascinating playwriting exercises I was ever given involved sitting in a coffee shop, listening to the conversations of fellow patrons, and writing them down word-for-word as their own self-contained play.

Hong Sang-soo's Grass is the very embodiment of that exercise come to life on film. Hong is known for his improvisational style of filmmaking, often writing scenes the morning they're to be filmed, giving actors minimal time to learn their lines and prepare. This often results in a kind of languid, stream-of-consciousness style, exploring characters and ideas through breezy conversations and observational bon-mots.

Grass centers around a writer named Areum (Hong regular, Kim Min-hee), who sits in a tiny cafe and observes the world around her. There's a couple awkwardly reuniting, a filmmaker trying to find a new place to live, two people grappling with a mutual friend's suicide. Areum catches snippets of their conversations, often attracting their curiosity. Is she writing about them? Is she ignoring them completely? Or, perhaps most intriguing of all, do the people exist at all?

What makes the film so wonderful is that Hong never directly asks these questions. He brings the disparate characters together and lets them play, but we constantly wonder if what we're actually seeing is what Areum is writing, or if it's actually happening. One could easily watch Grass and never pick up any of these cues, because on the surface it's simply a film about a woman sitting in a cafe while life happens around her. It does not appear to be about anything. But Hong films always seem to operate on multiple levels, there's the film we're watching, and then there's the film that's really happening beneath the surface. Hong is at his best when he's crafting elliptical narratives, playing with time, or even experimenting with reality itself. And yet his films are never flashy or outwardly experimental. They're multifaceted and beguiling, little unassuming emotional depth-charges that only reveal their wonders upon closer examination.

While Grass doesn't quite have the emotional weight of Hong's other 2019 film, Hotel by the River, but it reveals a fascinating window into the filmmaker's unique creative process. It takes snippets of overheard conversations and turns them into something wonderful and new, a summation of life's tiny moments made disarmingly momentous.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GRASS | Directed by Hong Sang-soo | Stars Kim Min-hee, Jung Jin-young, Ki Joo-bong, Seo Young-hwa | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.