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.