Alex Gibney is the documentary filmmaker whose politically charged exposés include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. It makes sense that he would clamber onto the spicy tale of Julian Assange, the white-haired super-hacker whose WikiLeaks enterprise has brought down the wrath of governments and corporations. Gibney should be a good match with the subject. But We Steal Secrets, while containing no shortage of fascinating material, is less than satisfying.
Gibney begins with background on Assange and WikiLeaks, building to the 2010 disclosure of a video of the U.S. military killing people revealed to be non-combatants in Baghdad. That was followed by the cascade of classified documents leaked by Assange and simultaneously published in The New York Times.
The phrase “spoiler alert” gains new currency in the realm of narrative documentary. The reveals and gotchas contained within them are probably already public record—but still, one hesitates to blow the incredible surprises of, say, Searching for Sugar Man for unsuspecting viewers. In the case of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, we should be able to dance around the spoilers. And yet, because the actress/director wants not merely to tell a tale of her family’s life, but also to question the reliability of storytelling itself, we might wonder why old-fashioned issues such as suspense and surprise should be part of the program in the first place.
But Stories We Tell is suspenseful and surprising, even if the filmmaker might want to disown those qualities. Polley was a child star in her native Canada, won raves for her youthful roles in The Sweet Hereafter and Go, and snagged an Oscar nomination for writing Away From Her (2006), a much-liked film she also directed.
Maybe it’s a lingering childhood memory of the classic book My Side of the Mountain, or a weakness for a certain kind of afternoon-daydream movie, but The Kings of Summer fell directly into my sweet spot. The movie doesn’t exist in a real world (please don’t waste energy trying to reconcile psychological motives or social logistics), but in the enchanted realm of a teenage summer. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts understands this charmed mood, which is why he layers the film with dewy inserts that would not be out of place in a Terrence Malick picture. The result is a nicely bittersweet ode to killing time and patching up differences.
We must begin by buying into screenwriter Chris Galetta’s implausible premise: Three high-school lads build a ramshackle house of their own in a clearing in some woods outside their suburban Ohio hometown. Joe (Seattle native Nick Robinson) has had it with his ill-equipped father (Nick Offerman); both are working through hostilities connected to the death of Joe’s mother. Joe’s friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is almost as disenchanted with his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), so he joins his bud for the adventure.
The most famous children to spring from the pen of Henry James are the brother and sister from The Turn of the Screw, that celebrated and oft-filmed ghost story. The young heroine of James’ What Maisie Knew is about to receive her most prominent film exposure, albeit in a setting the author could not have imagined. Directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) place the 1897 novel smack in the 21st-century urban jungle. Here, the ghosts in 6-year-old Maisie’s life are her parents: Julianne Moore plays the mother, an irresponsible singer trying to revive her career; Steve Coogan plays the father, a sarcastic art dealer.
They’re splitting up, and Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the club with which they can hammer each other. The fact that Maisie’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham) has moved in with Dad gives Mom an excuse to retaliate with an abrupt marriage to a genial bartender (Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood) in her bohemian circle. The audience is quick to spot how these younger stepparents behave more lovingly toward the kid than her own flesh and blood does.
From her earliest mumblecore movies, something about Greta Gerwig didn’t quite fit the scene. Here were these lo-fi indie efforts (including LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Baghead), nobly scruffy around the edges, intended as the antitheses of Hollywood—and right in the middle of them was a movie star.
Hard to miss it: Gerwig may have been an unknown, but she had crack timing and silent-movie eyes. Despite the best efforts of all concerned, she jumped off the screen at you. Non-mumbly filmmaker Noah Baumbach took note and cast Gerwig in his caustic Greenberg, a move that led to a personal and professional partnership between the two.
The fruit of this is Baumbach’s Frances Ha, co-written by and starring Gerwig, an unabashed tribute to the actress’ distinctive (don’t you dare say “quirky”) charms. The outline of a typical indie picture is in place, as we follow 27-year-old Frances and her New York apartment-hopping over the course of a few months. Frances dreams of being a dancer, as though nobody’d told her that if you haven’t made it as a dancer by 27, your dream should probably be in the past tense. (Actually, somebody probably told her. But her go-with-the-flow optimism is undaunted by such realities.)
François Ozon’s parents were schoolteachers. That could account for the slyly mixed feelings he shows toward the protagonist of his new film. Meet Germain, a high-school teacher whose commitment to his profession is tested by his boredom, his frustrated dreams of being a writer, and the seductive series of papers turned in by a precocious student.
Not “seductive” in the obvious sense—the movie’s got more on its mind than an inappropriate affair. What Germain (Fabrice Luchini) sees in the serial narrative written by Claude (Ernst Umhauer) is a spark of talent, a reason to invest himself in a student, and a string of cliffhangers that have him—and eventually his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)—waiting breathlessly for each new installment.
The device at the heart of Graceland is unsavory but gripping: A flunky for a crooked politician is driving his daughter and his boss’ daughter home from school when kidnappers pounce. The baddies immediately kill one of the girls and drive away with the other, a huge ransom demand trailing in their wake.
The twist? The kidnappers have killed the wrong girl, and the driver is the only person who knows that his daughter, not the rich guy’s kid, is the one held captive. As it happens, this is not the only twist waiting in Ron Morales’ Graceland, a Philippine suspense picture that puts the hammer down, hard.
When Midnight’s Children was published in 1981, one might have assumed that its promising author would become best known as a writer of magical realism and an observer of the divide between India and Pakistan. That’s not the way it worked out for Salman Rushdie. His 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was judged to be blasphemy against Islam by the world’s worst literary critic, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Rushdie has lived under threat of death ever since.
Midnight’s Children predates all that, yet its absurdities depict the maelstrom out of which such chaos comes. And when the new film adaptation was in production in Sri Lanka, it encountered lingering hassles related to Rushdie’s notoriety; at one point a forced shutdown was lifted after director Deepa Mehta made nice with the president of the island nation.
Proposed: One of the basic concerns for a storyteller is what to put in and what to leave out. That sounds really obvious. But it’s a huge deal, and deciding what should go in—as opposed to all the other stuff that might, but shouldn’t—makes the difference between a spellbinding experience and a nap. It matters even more in movies than in literature: Ten pages of dull writing in a 400-page novel can be forgiven, but 10 off-key minutes in a movie will break an audience’s faith.
I thought about this principle while watching Eden, a harrowing film by Seattle director Megan Griffiths. Handled in middling fashion, the subject would have some punch: Eden is based on the true story of Chong Kim, a victim of the U.S. sex-trafficking trade, so horror and suspense are already built into it.
Even with that backbone in place, there are ways to mess this up, but Eden rarely sets a foot wrong. Given the potentially lurid material, Griffiths gives the film a sort of committed austerity—which comes to seem more horrifying for its calm approach.
The 2010 film Four Lions is about a British cell of Islamic fundamentalists plotting to plant homemade explosive devices at—among other targets—the London marathon. It’s an uproarious comedy.
Too soon after the Boston bombings to recall this scathing movie? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be—Chris Morris’ prediction of stupid, self-styled jihadists looks even keener and more furious than it did three years ago.
In Four Lions, Oxford-educated actor and hip-hop artist Riz Ahmed played the leader of the hapless terrorists. That movie’s a better vehicle for the wunderkind artist Ahmed than this tepid new effort from director Mira Nair, which passes glumly over distantly related turf.
Pretty pictures in a movie are sometimes dismissed as eye candy, the implication being that empty calories are no substitute for the sound nutrition of noble stories and thematic depth. That may be, although it would be difficult to deny the chocolate-box allure of Renoir, a lushly photographed gloss on a real-life moment in an artistic family.
The title identifies the family; the moment is 1915. As war rages on the other side of France, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), by now elderly and arthritic, paints at his sun-dappled estate on the Côte d’Azur. He employs a new model, Andrée (Christa Theret), a willful redhead who suits Renoir’s vision of glowing flesh and interior mystery.
Actually we have to take the mystery on faith, because Theret doesn’t suggest much beyond a handsome surface.
Last year when the jury members for the Reel NW prize at the Seattle International Film Festival got together, we were strongly agreed on Megan Griffiths’s film Eden as our top pick. But it would’ve been a short meeting if we hadn’t at least kicked around our next-favorites, and so we did.
I made a next-best case for Welcome to Doe Bay, a cheerful, hang-loose account of the annual Doe Bay musical festival on Orcas Island. I have never attended this weekend music fest, having been born between the hippies and the retro-hippies and thus slightly out of key demographic range, but this documentary conveys some of the vibe of being there.
The movie’s built around performances from the Head and the Heart, Pickwick, Damien Jurado, Maldives, and Lemolo, among others. Lots of performers are Northwest-based, and the setting for the festival is one of those green waterside perches in the San Juans that seem designed to entice outsiders to seek out this part of the country. There’s also a lot of conversation and explanation from the organizers of the event, whose entrepreneurial spirit is somehow both laid-back and savvy. In some ways the D-I-Y approach of the Doe Bay organizers and participants, emphasizing smallness and specialness over huge commercial ambitions, is like a mirror of the Northwest film scene: Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission, don’t go gigantic, and don’t worry about looking weird.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
No event exists without the process by which it is apprehended and understood. It is irrelevant and impossible to refer it to an absolute standard like realism because the means of measurement cannot be extricated from the observation. The relationship between the real and the surreal is not distinct but blurred —David Thomson, Movie Man
The cinemas alone stayed open, twinkling with lights and turning the night into dark velvet. The cinema comes to life with dark—like Dracula.
—David Thomson, America in the Dark
It all begins in the dark. This is a point of crucial poetic and philosophic importance for David Thomson; he is obsessed with the fact that the delicate interplay of light and dark images on the screen, as produced by film and projector, is possible only after a room has been completely darkened and a shaft of light sent streaking across that room to illuminate the screen. Illumination occurs elsewhere. For the adolescent David Thomson, sitting in a cinema in South London, it strikes him while watching and rewatching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The realization that an intelligence guiding the camera was commenting on movie-viewing itself—a man sitting in the dark, watching people move in a box—was a stimulating experience, and Thomson works with the tangled mesh of art, life, observation, and participation in his three books Movie Man (1967), A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975), and America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality (1977). The very private relationship he maintains with films, even when he expands his notions to include theories and pronouncements on all society, is passionate and idiosyncratic (need I add, subjective?). Thomson refuses to be pinned down or to wear a label; humanist, auteurist, structuralist, whateverist, he remains doggedly an individual, exploring his personal contact with movies—with prejudices, usually acknowledged, but always with a real determination to get at the roots of the power that has hold of him: cinema.
Andrew Sarris came to Seattle for a talk on the night of March 12, 1987. My friend Tom Keogh and I had recently founded a non-profit organization dedicated to showing movie repertory, the Seattle Filmhouse, at just exactly the wrong moment to found such a thing. But before that enterprise fell apart, we managed to get Sarris out to talk about what a film critic was, and what film criticism was for, and—oh, whatever he wanted to talk about.
His arrival at the airport, and his presence over the next couple of days, somehow embodied every idea I had about a vintage New Yorker. The rumpled trenchcoat, the garrulous manner, the roving intellect, the way food would not stay in his mouth as he talked over some urgent subject at dinner—all these things seemed exactly from that classic world of the East Coast, so juiced-up in comparison to our laid-back Northwest ways. (In leaving a restaurant, he grabbed someone else’s raincoat, which we had to return the next day—a mix-up discovered when Andrew found parole papers in the guy’s pocket.)
The day of his lecture, Tom and I schlepped him around to radio stations for publicity interviews, and I got worried. He looked pretty exhausted, though gracious in beating the drum on our behalf. Then came the talk in Kane Hall at the University of Washington, and Sarris was on, gliding from autobiographical anecdote to concise recaps of the Kael rivalry to piercing quick takes on movies in release at that moment (the Oscars were imminent—Platoon was the odds-on favorite, but he said his favorite of the year was Eric Rohmer’s Summer). He could ramble, yes, but then yank back the train of thought with some arresting observation.
Continue reading at Film Comment here. The transcript of Andrew Sarris’s appearance at the Seattle Filmhouse in 1987 is also at film comment in two parts, here and here.
CinemaScope was de rigueur at Fox at this moment (1955), so here is Samuel Fuller going widescreen for a bright-lit color-filled noir shot in Japan. Like Hell and High Water just before it, it feels as though Fuller is not yet happy about ‘Scope, and unless you have a giant TV it looks very tableau-heavy, with small figures moving around in large spaces.
However, Fuller does juice things up, rolling the camera through the midst of a traditional dance (a movement broken up by the blundering of the hero) and, especially, finding dynamic angles on a rooftop climax, where the final showdown plays out on a large, rickety globe that spins as it hangs out over Tokyo. Another gangster story where the boss thinks the world is his.
That story: American Robert Stack (nothing but voice and trenchcoat, already auditioning for Eliot Ness) is the blunderer, come to Japan to find a dead buddy and initiating contact with the buddy’s widow (Shirley Yamaguchi). After trying to lean on a few pachinko-parlor managers, Stack gets leaned on by the real local Ichiban, Robert Ryan, who runs protection (and the occasional bank robbery) with his loyal harem of flunkies. Ryan is introduced when Stack is sent flying through a screen wall in the back of the frame and we discover the boss perched here, amused at the crudeness of this newcomer.