Short Cuts: RISK


The making of Risk is far more interesting than the film itself, though in a way the two are one and the same. Director Laura Poitras, who won an Oscar for Citizenfour, originally premiered Risk—a documentary on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks—at Cannes in 2016. But then, in that insane year, circumstances changed: first when one of her interview subjects at WikiLeaks (a former lover, she reveals) was accused of sexual assault, and then when WikiLeaks played a key role in helping Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. With reality unfolding faster than her film, she went back to Risk after its festival premiere, added to it, and re-edited it. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” Poitras says in voice-over. Then what is it? The 2017 cut captures nothing so much as a sense of utter disorientation. The political becomes personal, but is Assange a hero, personally or politically? In the story of WikiLeaks, ironies abound: a martyr for many libertarians, progressives, and leftists helped elect the most reactionary American President of our lifetime. It all depends on whose secrets you expose, and to what end. After the DNC leaks, Sarah Palin went from calling Assange a terrorist to praising him for opening the public’s eyes.

As for Assange as a human being, Risk has only a limited portrait to work with. What comes across most in his direct interviews are calculated egotism, a hyper-awareness of public perception, and a grandiosity that fits whatever an anarchist’s version of “megalomania” is. Most of the film is, in fact, sparse and rather dull, detailing in a scattered way all of the backstory we already know: the rise of WikiLeaks, the contested Swedish rape allegations against Assange, and his asylum in Ecuador’s British embassy. But the final fifteen minutes of the film, ripped from last year’s headlines, are something potent. Some have accused Risk of having an axe to grind against Assange, beca8se certain scenes present a very unflattering view of his attitudes towards women. But I think it’s more complex than a hit job: what we have is a political filmmaker at the center of a spinning moral compass. Poitras is, to put it mildly, far from pro-establishment. In fact, she has a history of being monitored, detained, and questioned by the feds. But the conclusion of Risk, to the extent that it concludes at all, is a fear that the control of information in the digital age is too great a power to be entrusted to anyone. Whether it’s the NSA, telecom companies, the New York Times, Rupert Murdoch, or an organization ostensibly built to promote political transparency, there are agendas and motives that won’t be openly talked about to the public. Risk neither rails against nor unquestioningly supports WikiLeaks. It fears Trump and holds no affection for Clinton or the United States federal government. In the space in between, it ends up as one of the most coldly anxious films of the year.

Reality continues to unfold fast. Since Risk came out, it’s been revealed that WikiLeaks communicated and coordinated with the Trump campaign, with Assange’s antipathy towards American imperialism making strange bedfellows out of WikiLeaks, Trump, Putin, Bernie-or-busters, and your ardently Republican uncle. Risk‘s misfortune as a shaky, fitfully incomplete work of documentary cinema is that Poitras happened to make it too soon. America, Assange, Trump, and a global gallery of power players and activists are all caught in a whirlwind. Risk is just a brief, blurry snapshot of a story that’s far from over. Someday, it can be told in full. If nothing else, what a documentary that will be.



Risk is available wherever you can watch or stream Showtime.

All Sides of the Screen: ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE and the Cinema of Hong Sang-soo


With a director as prolific and resolute as Hong Sang-soo, it’s easy to see each film not as a discrete work, but as a piece of an endless whole—a kind of check-in, or the next stop on an artistic trip that’s constantly unfolding. Hong has, if nothing else, been wildly busy: he’s made over ten feature films this decade alone, including one he shot quickly at Cannes during the Cannes Film Festival. Like Yasujiro Ozu or Eric Rohmer, he tends to return to and remix the same settings, themes, and elements over and over—in Hong’s case: young people at a crossroads, gatherings in cozy bars, the allure of film festivals and cinematheques, and the atmosphere of quiet locales where people go to get away. Also like Ozu, his style of drama is subdued; also like Rohmer, he likes to focus on long takes of pure conversation. But his structures can be as tricky as David Lynch’s: any frame of a Hong Sang-soo film would look like casual digital realism, but he’s just as drawn to time-shifts, ambiguous dream states, meta games, sudden touches of the unexplainable, and identities/realities that are liable to split and merge. His are not the most accessible of films, and I can’t imagine his method could sustain itself economically at higher budgets. But Hong doesn’t need much more than a camera, a tripod, a few actors, and a seaside town. In short, he is one of the few directors truly taking advantage of the possibilities of low-budget digital cinema. He shows that the ingredients of a complex film are so simple—there’s no excuse not to use them.

On the Beach at Night Alone is, as of this weekend, Hong’s latest film to open in the United States, perhaps his most difficult, and certainly one of his most private. It’s impossible to grasp the full emotional resonance without knowing that Hong and his leading lady (Kim Min-hee, twenty years his junior) had just had a scandalous extramarital affair, and the film plays out as an on-screen attempt between ex-lovers to understand each other and the transgression they shared. The word “indulgent” tends to get thrown around with annoying ease on the internet, and I suspect many viewers will reach for it here. On the Beach works so obliquely, or through banal moments, that it is most enjoyable in retrospect and probably most meaningful to its own creators and to those willing to extend them patience. (Hong can be funny when he wants to be, which, as it turns out, is not now). But if we’re calling a moratorium on directors and actresses airing their relationships on film, we’d have to toss out some of the best films of von Sternberg, Godard, etc., etc., which would be tragic. So for now, it’s enough to meet Kim Min-hee as a young woman in an affair with a much older married man—a man, we discover, who happens to be a director.

The film is divided in two. In the first half, the affair is still secret and happily aglow, and Young-hee (Kim) is on a trip to Germany but thinking of him from afar. Accompanied by an older divorcee who was once cheated on herself—a metaphorical stand-in for Hong’s wife?—Young-hee talks about how enamored she is, and the two women share their stories and advice. In the second half—signaled by a strange man inexplicably plucking Young-hee off the beach and carrying her away—the affair is over. And Young-hee, now back in South Korea, is utterly adrift. It’s telling that, throughout this section, Young-hee meets several men who scarcely drive the plot, but none of whom come off flatteringly: they are all either invasive or callow. The man who carried her off the beach appears again, now as a window washer; like one of Lynch’s avatars from the strange beyond, he is pregnant with symbolism, like a clue without a mystery. It all culminates in Young-hee meeting her ex-lover over dinner, where the other guests serve as an audience (us?) while she interrogates him and he breaks down.

Hong’s weakest point is, I think, as a writer. Each seemingly banal scene serves a thematic purpose, but Hong lacks Rohmer’s verbal wit and Ozu’s instinct for defining even minor characters so vividly, either of which could make a film like On the Beach at Night Alone as fun to watch as it is to think, talk, and write about. It is in that final confrontation—a conversation between Hong’s literal ex-lover and an avatar for himself—that the film reaches its excoriating peak. It is a naked exorcism, one of the best scenes of the year. And if, by being the most self-referential and intimate part of the film, it is therefore the most “indulgent”, it is also paradoxically the most accessible and dramatic; when it comes to art, the intimacy dragged up by indulgence is something we could use a lot more of.

The challenge of Hong’s films is one of reversal: if most movies are explicitly emotional films that open themselves to academic readings, his are more academic films where emotion is fully unleashed by deconstruction. The ultimate satisfaction of On the Beach is how we’re watching a romantic connection that goes not across the screen, but through the camera—with the heroine’s mindset informing the presence of everyone she meets. The cult of the director reigns supreme in cinephilia, and Hong’s own sneaky presence is felt, as always, with the sudden, enigmatic pans and zooms during scenes so otherwise given over to visual stasis. But Kim shows just how much an actress can grab control of the screen and not let go. In a strange way, it reminds me of the old cartoons where a creation would rebel against its own animator. Only here the battle is a love affair and the creation is a real woman—a woman who won’t be kept in, who commands the sympathy and understanding of the crowd, who will take strides to show just how little she needs men, and who demands her challenges be answered. She holds the film together, just as she can ultimately chose to simply walk out of it, and just as he (by proxy) will step in front of the camera and confess. It is her film as well as his. In its wreckage and weary final peace, it is theirs.




Short Cuts: LADY BIRD


Don’t look back in anger—in fact, it may not even be possible to. That’s the main takeaway of Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical and wholly delightful Lady Bird. It is a ceaselessly witty coming-of-ager, marking the directorial debut of an actress whose work—particularly as the muse/star/co-writer for Noah Baumbach—had already made her an indie darling of the 2010s. Gerwig and Baumbach’s latest films together were comedies set in the New York of so many millennial hipster dreams, to which Lady Bird is something of a prequel. We open in the suburbs of Sacramento, where a stifled, bored teenager (Saoirse Ronan) who insists on being called “Lady Bird”—her “given name” from herself to herself—dreams of leaving California and her Catholic school behind for college in New York City. The tightness of Lady Bird is part of the lost art of the 90 minute movie, which, thanks to sharp writing, gives the film plenty of time to delve into mother-daughter dynamics, the class divide at private schools, and how NorCal can be a really uncool place even when it’s trying hard not to be. (The word “hella” gets the ironically unironic line-reading it deserves).

As a comedy, it is one of the best of the year, carried by the fast dialogue and chemistry of the cast, with Ronan as the authentically spunky, back-talking teenage heroine that Juno couldn’t match in her most ostentatious dreams. But the chipper speed of Lady Bird serves another function, I think. As the film flips so quickly through the calendar year and its rites of passage—college applications, driver’s tests, school plays, identity crises, losing your virginity to a pretentious ass—it adds to the film’s air of fond, retrospective distance, as if to say that any conflicts, failures, and humiliations will turn naturally into comedy once they’ve shrunk in time. (Tellingly, the tempo only really slows down for the finale, and in a nice touch, the movie ends with its heroine in mid-breath). Oscar buzz has already begun; for those keeping score, Lady Bird was one of the ten top-grossing movies of last weekend despite playing in less than 40 theaters. Backlash will follow, I’m sure. The film telegraphs far more than it needs to, it could do more with its most distinctive ideas, and as both teen dramedy and “indie” cinema, it colors firmly inside the lines—to put it simply, there’s only so high a movie content to stick to convention can rise. But Lady Bird remains a joyful success on those terms and hopefully not the last we’ll see of Gerwig as a writer-director. It is a bittersweet farewell to the idea of a hometown: to hers, to mine, possibly to yours, and resonant for anyone who gets out only to realize that it will always be with you. For better or worse.



The law at theaters these days seems to be feast or famine: despite a few movies that became big events, there has been a steady stream of reports that 2017 has been a brutal year for the box office. Some Hollywood insiders have pointed the finger at RottenTomatoes, arguing that the review aggregator is to blame for one flop or another. None other than Martin Scorsese wrote a column for the Hollywood Reporter in which he criticized the website’s reductive view of labeling a movie as “fresh” or “rotten” on its opening day.

As someone who holds no absolutely sway over the TomatoMeter, I don’t think RottenTomatoes can be scapegoated for big-budget fizzles; the Transformers series has been getting panned for years, and if 2017’s installment underperformed, I doubt it’s because the movie’s target demo suddenly started caring what reviewers think. The simplest answer is that some things are critic-proof and some aren’t. So when Wonderstruck, the new film by Todd Haynes, landed with a 70% approval rating on RottenTomatoes, it was the sort of lukewarm reaction that can mean box office death to a small film looking for attention. But it’s also chum in the water for me: I’m more intrigued when an interesting director gets reviews all over the map than when the latest Marvel movie cracks 90%. In short, I’d rather watch someone be unusual, even when they falter.

So if it’s not too defiantly wishy-washy of me, I would like my own verdict of Wonderstruck to precisely straddle the line between “fresh” and “rotten”, because carefully pondered ambivalence seems like the only sane and honest response to a thoughtful, idiosyncratic film that contains both handcrafted beauty and mind-boggling frustration. Based on a children’s book by Hugo‘s Brian Selznick, who also wrote the script, Wonderstruck is one story disguised as two: the film cuts back and forth between two children, one in 1927 and one in 1977, both deaf and potentially orphaned, who run away to New York City and find a revelation at the Museum of Natural History. The 1920s scenes are shot in black and white and staged as a silent movie, while the 1970s scenes have the feel of Super 16mm. And slowly but inevitably the timelines begin to merge.

Haynes—Safe (1995), Far From Heaven (2002), I’m Not There (2007), Carol (2015)—is one of the great filmmakers to emerge from the American independent cinema of the 1990s, and it gives me no pleasure to say that he’s made his weakest film. Despite the fact that his previous features have all been either transgressive provocations, intellectual experiments, or Oscar prestige pics, Haynes is actually perfectly suited to a children’s book about emotionally resonant cultural artifacts and young heroes who tentatively feel their way towards an identity. (I’d recommend seeking out his 1993 short film Dottie Gets Spanked, which shows he could have been the LGBT answer to Tim Burton if he’d wanted to).

The issue is simply one of dramaturgy: Wonderstruck is a beginning and an end in search of a middle. The first 40 minutes are lovely and deft, with Haynes taking his customary joy in juggling styles and Carter Burwell’s music supplying an emotional ache. But once our heroes arrive at the museum—the central metaphor for the memories of a lifetime—Wonderstruck grinds to a halt, spending an hour or so as one of those deathly inert cinematic experiences where the characters are enjoying themselves much more than the audience. Consider it the perils of adaptation: children’s literature often has a simple linear quest, which can be psychologically intimate on the page but oddly removed when staged. (It doesn’t at all help that the middle act hinges on us being heavily invested in a friendship-betrayal arc with a supporting character who’s so thin he might as well be named “some kid.”)

But Wonderstruck, amidst the stasis and contortions of its second half, does have a meaningful and sincere destination in mind: the idea that some losses in life may be permanent, but that we have to find a way to be happy anyway. This is, needless to say, something of a truth bomb to drop onto an audience of parents with their kids. And it’s a testament to Haynes, Selznick, and company that the film remains so optimistic and kid-friendly, in part because, like the best children’s literature, it keeps faith that children have a deeper well of emotional understanding than they even realize. This is a family film that opens with the famous Oscar Wilde quote about lying in the gutter but looking up at the stars, and then ends by making those stars literal. Considering the film’s final message, it’s mournfully fitting that Wonderstruck is bound to fade away quickly. But that message deserves consideration, just as it deserves to belong to a much better movie: that all you kids in the audience will someday learn that you’re small travelers passing through history—but what a joy passing through history can be.



Wonderstruck is in select theaters and will eventually end up on Amazon Prime. They’re never too young to get “Space Oddity” stuck in their head.



Take the label and own it. There’s already a Lilith Fair and a, so why not reclaim another mythic symbol of female wickedness in the name of empowerment? At least, that’s the idea behind Lady Macbeth, a scrappy, nasty period piece that’s recently arrived from the UK. The connection to Shakespeare is purely thematic, though its heroine will at one point stare at the literal blood on her hands. The film’s thesis is simply to look you straight in the camera and say, “You think I’m not cooperative enough? That I want too much dominance? That I’m not what a woman or a wife should be? Let me show you why.” And so we follow the defiantly self-possessed Katherine (Florence Pugh) as she’s sold into marriage with a wealthy landowner. The union is loveless—in a nice evocative touch, the film holds back on showing us the man’s face for as long as it can. Her new environment is oppressive. Her husband’s sex drive is, shall we say, peculiar. So, while he is away, she takes on a lover, gets high on class-based status, and winds up in an escalating series of murders and untidy subplots.

At 89 minutes, it is murderous potboiler material stripped bare—too bare, I think, because it ends up lapsing into vagueness. To address just one fundamental question, is Katherine experiencing true romantic passion in her affair or just exercising her god-given right to casual sex? Or is an inability to distinguish the two part of the whole point? That the answer seems to shift scene by scene indicates a lack of narrative firmness: the story isn’t able to go more than skin deep, no matter how much skin it shows. We get better insight from Florence Pugh’s performance itself, in the little flickering gestures that make it clear that Katherine, like Pugh, is barely more than a teenager testing out the pros and cons of being a lady. The chief pleasures lie in the film’s corners: the sharp turns it makes, the traps it backs its characters into, and the jagged editing that connects so many static shots. It is, I would say, certainly more interesting than your average costume drama, and god knows most costume dramas could use some of the earthy rattles this film pulls off. But wonky third act mechanisms don’t help, and the coldness keeps you at arm’s length. It is as if, for an archetype that offers so many avenues for exploration, intimacy, and psychology, the film’s quest for success would give it all up in a second for pure brute force.



Lady Macbeth is available for rent on Amazon and iTunes. See it with someone you’re not sure you trust.

“They will pay to see the truth”: Powell & Pressburger on MUBI

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My old friends at MUBI have put together an amazing triple-bill of films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and for the occasion, I was thrilled to write about them for the Notebook!

MUBI has The Small Back Room (a stellar noir, and P&P’s most underrated masterwork), The Tales of Hoffmann (more intoxicating than ever in its new HD restoration), and Peeping Tom (a sneaky horror movie required for cinephiles everywhere). Dive in!