Short Cuts: MUDBOUND

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It’s one of the most famous lines in Hollywood cinema: Norma Desmond, movie queen of the silent era and the anti-heroine of Sunset Boulevard (1950), flares her nostrils and declares, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.” She never lived to see Netflix. Streaming services, Netflix chief among them, have revolutionized the way television content is produced and consumed. But movies have been a trickier debate, even as the line between “TV” and “cinema” gets blurrier by the year. One reason Amazon beat Netflix over the finish line as the first web giant to win a major Oscar—last year, with Manchester by the Sea—is that Amazon still treats films as a theatrical event. The challenge that Netflix has set for itself is finding a way to virtually skip the theatrical window, go right to your TVs and mobile devices, and somehow shake off that direct-to-video stigma that can make a movie feel small. And make no mistake, Mudbound—Dee Rees’s new film and Netflix’s gambit for Oscar season—is the sort of film that needs to feel big. It’s a historical/literary period piece that spans years. It is a two-hour-plus story that straddles a historical fissure (World War II, in fact, the Academy’s favorite historical fissure). It tackles the social issue of American racism. It films the heartland sunrise in CinemaScope. It jumps back and forth a few times between continents. And it features an award-eligible original song, played at the end for your consideration.

But even setting aside how Mudbound is distributed and received—which, to be fair, may wind up the most consequential thing about it—it is a film that wastes too much of what it does well. The greatest strength of this tidy epic about two families in the Deep South, one black and one white, is its Faulknerian dedication to multiple point of views. It trades off inner monologs and voice-overs, mapping how the world of the film looks if you’re young or old, male or female, rich or poor, black or white. But its sense of time and place is thin. It can’t consistently fool you into thinking you’re not watching actors in costumes. And by the end, it has dived into the melodramatic hand-me-downs that have haunted the Academy stage since at least Sophie’s Choice (1982): that is, Mudbound feels like our era’s version of an earlier era’s version of an earlier era. Even as it goes for a violent gut-punch near the end, I’m not entirely convinced this kind of period piece is the most effective way to provoke a dialogue about race in America in 2017. A bizarro genre film like Get Out—whose villains aren’t mid-century brutes with Mississippi drawls, but a left-leaning white upper-class that’ll swear on its heart that it loves black people—is so much better at stirring the pot.

By comparison, the world of Mudbound, multiple perspectives and all, is frozen in sepia and converted to a digital copy. It is not a film without impact. It has characters, it has an arc, it has a destination, it has a certain soap-operatic intrigue, it has an ambition towards complex humanism, and when it is content to quietly smolder rather than yank, it has moments that strike home. But at least 40% of it feels like it could have sprung, fully formed and without an individual identity, from the collective unconscious of Oscar season itself. That the film has arguably accrued more year-end prestige than any Netflix movie so far may be its biggest irony: a still-early trial balloon for the model of the future has one foot so utterly tethered to the old-fashioned.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Mudbound premiered at Sundance and was given a small theatrical release to qualify for awards. It currently lives on Netflix.

Short Cuts: THE SHAPE OF WATER

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With Tim Burton dicking around and Terry Gilliam still living under a question mark, Guillermo Del Toro stakes a claim to being our finest practitioner of modern fairy tales, a director who can fade in on the world of automats and Cold War paranoia with an atmosphere that immediately and beguilingly says “once upon a time…”. So if you’re wondering what Cinderella would be doing in the early 1960s, Del Toro’s The Shape of Water has an answer: she’d be living above a grand movie theater and working as a maid at a secret government research facility. She is, as played by Sally Hawkins, a mute, and a delicate, private, and timid individual. After her G-man bosses capture what looks uncannily like the creature from the black lagoon—one of Del Toro’s favorite movie monsters—she and the creature bond as fellow outcasts, and an escape plan is hatched.

To put it mildly, Del Toro has great tenderness for cinema’s monsters, so it’s only fitting that he use one as a symbol for America’s disenfranchised communities, be they racial, sexual, or economic. That social commentary is more or less safe, tidy, and unremarkable; pointing out that America was a regressive place during the Civil Rights era is, these days, like shooting fish in a barrel. But without spoiling anything, I wonder what on Earth the studio thought of at least two sequences Del Toro devised for his silent aquatic hero, both of which double down hard on the film’s heartfelt predilections. And that gets to The Shape of Water‘s greatest strength: it so clearly comes from such an utterly singular consciousness, a cinephile mind in love with both plucky B-movie weirdness and luxuriant A-movie craft—and a mind that believes that the most pitiable monsters might be humans. Much like Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), two of Del Toro’s earlier fables, The Shape of Water is not a lean, mean suspense machine or an airtight plot. (More than once, you may find yourself marveling at how lax the security at this government facility really is). But it is laced with details, themes, characterizations, and subtle morality plays that make it linger pleasingly in the mind. As the film’s villain, Michael Shannon could fulfill his plot function simply by growling, but the scenes Del Toro includes of his personal life—the straight-society alpha male who wants everything he’s supposed to want—make his character as pathetic as he is menacing. (Both he and Hawkins spend the movie carrying a physical scar or deformity, and how each wound turns out is bizarrely poetic in its sincerity).

What results, as the film fades to black, is a risky pastiche of genres, elements, and tones, and I haven’t told you the half of them. But the film works as well as it does because, like an Old Hollywood classic that might play at Sally Hawkins’ nearby movie theater—this fairy tale’s true enchanted palace—The Shape of Water holds so purely to its convictions: that an outlandish monster can open a serious metaphor, that color should be splashed across the screen with gusto, that bedtime story logic might follow us into the world of modern genre cinema, and that the filmmakers, star, and story can unironically hurl themselves at the unexplainable in the hope of a happily-ever-after.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Shape of Water is now playing in theaters and is nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Bless it when something this strange gets bestowed with prestige, and I hope the Academy tosses a nod to Shannon as well as Hawkins.

Away From the Breach: DUNKIRK and Christopher Nolan

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Over the last ten years, Christopher Nolan has become perhaps the closest thing Hollywood has to a tentpole director with a blank check. So, with curiosity, earlier this year I took a look back at Following, his 1998 debut, a fractured and scrappy modern noir made in the UK for $6,000 before Nolan had turned thirty. It is a remarkably skillful beginning, and it shows how many of his virtues, vices, and trademarks were there from the start: an addiction to non-linear narrative, a dark fascination with moral compromise, an eye for slippery editing, an ear for rattled anti-heroes, a few cheap tricks and small hiccups, and the gnawing, inescapable sense that the cynicism/fatalism of his cinema is not really worldly wisdom, but an aesthetic preference. And make no mistake: in an era when fans treat Nolan as one of Hollywood’s reigning geniuses, true wisdom remains the most underrated quality a film can have.

But looking at the structure of Following, in which a doomed man tells his tale, it struck me that the story-within-a-story format is very telling for Nolan. First, there are flashbacks to moments that the main character was present for (memory). Then, there are scenes from the main character’s story that he did not witness, but must assume happened (imagination, or some element of it). Last but not least, there is a final revelation that is neither narrated or witnessed by the hero, but presented to us as objective fact (let’s call it reality). And so, to tell its simple story, we juggle between the three realms, with different levels of subjectivity and none really distinguished from the other. But as impressive as Following is, digging so deep into its layers of narrative reliability may be giving it too much credit. By the end, there aren’t three kinds of perspectives. There is only one: Nolan’s, the all-seeing man with the camera, the sole presence in the film with all the answers, doling out information or twists to the audience in just the right amount—and in just the right order—to try to catch you off guard. He is, first and foremost, a purveyor of effective, clever, and dubiously meaningful narrative magic tricks. It’s no wonder that, for many cinephiles, including myself, it feels like his most personal work comes in the dueling magicians of The Prestige (2006).

About those cinephiles: for the last ten years, I’ve been stuck in the middle, caught between worshipful fanboys versus critic types for whom taking Nolan down a peg has become a kind of standard. As for the latter, I can understand it: Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and Interstellar (2014)—his first three films after The Dark Knight (2008) made him an IMDb god—are his weakest films by far, overextended in their complexity, overhyped in their deeper meaning, and vague in their narrative mechanisms. But I’ll say this for Nolan: he uses the power of that blank check for good. In his ambition and dedication to the virtues of analog filmmaking, he’s worth tracking because he’s the only major studio tentpole filmmaker active today to reach so far.

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Part of that analog spirit is why Dunkirk, his latest film and a prime Oscar contender, is only coming out on home video now, when plenty of other summer releases became available to rent months ago. As part of the Oscar campaign—and, I would venture, Nolan’s personal taste—the film was rereleased in theaters earlier in December for select IMAX and 70mm presentations, before Blu-ray, iTunes, and Amazon Video viewers could get their hands on it. I was eager to see it, because it promised the end of a rut that needed to be shaken. It is Nolan’s first film in over a decade to be set in the real world, as opposed to a sci-fi or comic book world. It is his shortest film in a decade as well, and it’s a testament to the multiplex grandiosity of his last few films that this time-shifting, $100 million movie feels like Nolan has scaled back to basics.

Set at the evacuation of Dunkirk during the early days of World War II, the film is an epic of survival and retreat, as half a million Allied troops, stranded on the coast of France, hold fast and wait for help from home. And of course—nothing being linear for Nolan, even history—the film intertwines three stories on three timescales: frantic troops look for a way off the beach (set over the last week before evacuation); a British civilian sails his boat across the channel to rescue as many men as he can carry (set over the last day); and an RAF pilot, running low on fuel, engages in a dogfight over the sea (set over the last hour).

The result is his first great film in ages. Watching it unfold, I couldn’t help but think of the omniscient Nolan of a film like Following—the all-seeing eye—because Dunkirk is material that calls for a certain Mount-Olympus point of view. Which is to say, Dunkirk overcomes most of Nolan’s weak points by either dodging the attempt or leaning into them so hard that they become strengths. It is a decentralized mood piece writ large, a relentless string of immaculately terrifying set-pieces to escape an unseen enemy, and a film that sustains high-wire darkness before giving way to the chance of mercy. It is above all a sensory experience, a kind of narrative soup where every figure is dwarfed and no one can claim to be the main character, not even a dignified Kenneth Branagh, a devoted Mark Rylance, or a shell-shocked Cillian Murphy. The wonky exposition of The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are not an issue; the underlying plot events of Dunkirk are pure simplicity, and its chaotic presentation feels both appropriate for a fog of war and increasingly lucid as the film goes on. Nolan’s last two films had blind spots when it came to nuanced psychology or seamless characterization. Here, there’s no need for either; it’s enough to know that these characters are people who face death and fear it. (Indeed, the film’s biggest stumbles come when it attempts to get more intimate than that). In the absence of so many of the up-close-and-personal elements of an epic drama, what that leaves you with is a distilled version of Nolan’s physical craft, which has never been stronger or more controlled, and an evocative sea of actors’ faces.

It is certainly a war movie for its time. “Survival is victory”, says the movie’s tagline, and the sentiment is echoed rather explicitly near the end, which finds Britain reflecting and regrouping. “Inspiring” is a word that tends to get thrown around a lot in Oscar season, and Dunkirk is, on the face of it, the sort of inspiring “based on a true story” that Hollywood dreams are made of: Britain hoped to save 30,000 troops, and ended up saving ten times as many. But Nolan remains fascinated by compromise, and there is a certain conflicted passion to the way it comes to a close. Dunkirk runs its characters through a gauntlet of some very un-heroic emotions, and ends with one of them—nobody more or less remarkable than one soldier among many—reading aloud Churchill’s famous “we shall never surrender” speech while the music swells.

Are we meant to find it inspirational? The simple answer is yes, of course, naturally. But all you need to do is set it side by side with, say, the Lincoln letter scene of Saving Private Ryan (1998) to notice that Nolan’s tone, and where he leaves his characters, is something different than just the typical piety—starting with the fact that the soldier reads the speech solemnly but without grandiloquence. Is he dazed? Weary? Optimistic? Nervous? Quietly resolved? All of the above? Contradictions can be found in reconciling the end with what came before it: war as a challenge that must be faced, as an ordeal that any sane man might run from, as a reverent demand for heroism, as a reality where survival matters most. (And, whether the film realizes it or not, as both a violent nightmare and a spectacle with an audience-friendly PG-13 rating). It is in this respect that Dunkirk, taken as a whole, comes shy of being a masterpiece, but provides one of the more valuable storytelling lessons of Nolan’s career: that the true measure of a film’s complexity is not its tricky structures, loaded mythology, or topical window-dressing, but the amount of opposing truths it can fit onto the same screen at once.

In other words, Dunkirk is, like any Nolan film, a clockwork mechanism. But it is built to leave you somewhat disoriented and suspended as well as moved, whereas someone like Steven Spielberg always left World War II, as both an event and an idea, tied in a neat little bow. Nolan may be the first director to try and reconcile the Spielberg of Saving Private Ryan with the Terrence Malick of The Thin Red Line (1998)—a cinephile divide if there ever was one—and the fact that Nolan even comes close is a remarkable achievement. Dunkirk isn’t a film without flaws, compromises, or contrivances. It doesn’t reinvent the World War II movie, which is a lot to ask, I know. But for now, it is one of the most potent movies for both its year and its director; it means more to me in 2017 than Private Ryan ever did. Skill with a camera was never Nolan’s problem, even when he was working on less than $10,000. But more than ever, Nolan and his considerable talents are closer to saying something magnificent than to performing sleight-of-hand.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Dunkirk is now available as a digital rental, whether Christopher Nolan likes that or not. It will still feel intensely claustrophobic on a laptop screen.

Short Cuts: THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

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Can whimsy and social urgency mix? As a matter of principle, I see no reason why a topical issue can’t be heavily aestheticized—if done properly, it’s both more vivid and more honest than the pretension of “realism.” But doing so takes the greatest of care. That’s the thread walked by Aki Kaurismäki’s new comedy The Other Side of Hope, in which a Syrian refugee named Khaled, having fled the violence in Aleppo and been driven across eastern Europe, lands unceremoniously in Finland. Or rather, in Kaurismäki’s version of Finland: a place of chain-smoking cool, retro guitar licks, and rooms so color-coded that just about every scene includes a static composition that could be hung comfortably on a wall. (Kaurismäki’s deadpan sensibility makes him Finland’s Jim Jarmusch, though it may be more proper to say that Jarmusch is America’s Kaurismäki). Khaled, as played by Sherwan Haji, is something of a Buster Keaton figure: generally silent, physically small, expressively inexpressive, unfailingly innocent and honest, and ever-persevering through all the indignities, indifference, and injury that life—in this case, life as a refugee—throws his way. And fate has him set on a course to collide with a wannabe restauranteur whose morals are shady at best. The film often plays by screwball logic; that is, characters will make a decision because that’s what’s required for comedy—and the way this mingles with the migrant crisis, including glimpses of real violence on the news, can make The Other Side of Hope a bit too arch or nebulous or listlessly trapped between tones. But as its plot threads come together and the film closes, it has become a truly uplifting comedy in the classical sense of the term, borne from the idea that people can go on, that locals aren’t necessarily more law-abiding than immigrants, and that maybe the system will get its shit together. The coda earns the word “hope”. Bless it.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Other Side of Hope is appearing and disappearing at arthouses across the country. If you have a chance, take it.

Short Cuts: RISK

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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 (2014), originally premiered Risk—a long-gestating documentary on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks—at Cannes in 2016. But then, in that frazzled, 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 then 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. 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 a scent of 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, as 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 (indeed, 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. At 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.

✬✬✬✩✩

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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

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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.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Short Cuts: LADY BIRD

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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.

Short Cuts: WONDERSTRUCK

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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.

✬✬✬✩✩

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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.

Short Cuts: LADY MACBETH

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Take the label and own it. There’s already a Lilith Fair and a Jezebel.com, 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.

✬✬✬✩✩

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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!