REVIEW: Stories We Tell

18 08 2013

Last semester, I took a course that had me write a paper using my family as the evidence to explore sociological themes.  A requirement of this essay was to conduct ethnographic research myself – that is, interview four members of my family.  From just those brief sessions, I learned plenty about my own family history.

But perhaps the biggest lesson I took away from that project was that every person had their own way of describing the same person, thing, or event.  Moreover, what was included and excluded from someone’s narrative was a story in and of itself.  While it was not related to the focus of my paper at all, the research got me fascinated about the way that we filter history through the lens of our own experiences.

A few months later, I was sitting in a dark room watching Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” and a silent prayer was answered.  This documentary is an ethnography project, handbook, and critique all tied up in one immensely satisfying bundle.  It addressed all the lingering questions from my project – and then went a step further by brining to light many more intelligent issues that continue to bounce around in my head.

Have no worry, you don’t need to have completed an academic exercise in ethnography (the study of people) to get something out of “Stories We Tell.”  It’s a film for anyone who has ever told their own story or been told their history by someone else.  Polley’s documentary may be about her own family, but its sharp insights penetrate so deeply into the human condition that her findings apply to just about anyone.

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REVIEW: Take This Waltz

6 08 2012

Michelle Williams, fresh off a Best Actress nomination for “My Week With Marilyn,” disappointingly dials down the charm back down to “Blue Valentine” levels for her latest film, “Take This Waltz.”  It’s a return, though not necessarily a regression, to the familiarly frumpy, downtrodden women who prefer to express their thoughts by gazing at the ground rather than through words.  Williams is a fantastic actress, and she pulls it off so well time after time – but I think it’s time to start expecting more from her.

Her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe was far more than a caricature or an impersonation; it was spirited, sexy, and oh so soulful.  It was definitely outside Williams’ comfort zone, yet she totally nailed it!  I think “My Week With Marilyn” is hardly her limit, and the longer she dwells in her pre-Marilyn state of mind, the more disappoint her post-Marilyn films are going to feel.   (Yes, “Take This Waltz” was filmed first, but virtually no one saw it first.)

Perhaps it’s less the archetype I’m frustrated with and more her character in Sarah Polley’s sauntering drama.  As a sullen Toronto-dweller bored in her marriage, she begins to ponder an affair with the literal boy next door … well, down the street.  Daniel, a shyly passionate artist as well as rickshaw for money, is the man who will indulge her deepest sensual passions and go through the Kama Sutra with her.

But she’s married to the sweet, good-hearted poultry chef Lou, played with good-natured charm by Seth Rogen.  He has moments where perhaps he seems content to let the spark go out of their marriage, although it’s always clear that he’s the man we should be rooting for because he does care for her and will always love her deeply.

The decision is overwrought and strung out over nearly two hours when it could have easily been compressed to 90 minutes.  Sarah Polley’s camera does dazzle more than the usual quiet indie drama.  However, the story those images serves to complement is little more than a segment from “He’s Just Not That Into You” that fashions itself to be a drama.  C+ 

REVIEW: Splice

3 06 2010

You should be warned: “Splice” goes there.  It pushes your moviegoing boundaries in unwanted and unsettling ways, which wouldn’t have bothered me had they not been so unrewarding.  Telling you the exact nature of how it will disturb you would undoubtedly spoil the movie, so I’ll just leave it at a very strong warning against seeing this movie if you are easily offended.  It had my packed preview screening groaning in disgust and shock.

I don’t mind being feeling these emotions while watching a movie, it just has to be done right.  The filmmakers need to present the edgy material and build the rest of the movie knowing the implications of it.  “Splice” simply disturbs you and then tries to act like it didn’t happen.  A heated argument between two scientists whose latest experiment has made them tense and frenzied (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) completely evades discussing unethical and immoral behavior.  There’s no point in destroying boundaries if you don’t explore what’s on the other side of them, and the movie abandons you with the empty feeling of shock value.

Really, this unspeakable scene turns “Splice” from bizarrely plausible to just plain bizarre.  I didn’t think the first two acts were all that bad.  There’s all sorts of parallels to “Frankenstein” as the two scientists create their monster out of anger.  But it’s actually a story about the perils of parenthood.  Elsa (Polley) was raised by an abusive mother, and it forever distorts her perception of the necessity of children.  When Clive (Brody) even brings up the subject, she seems to relate having a baby to having a parasite.  In some ways, she uses Dren, their creation bred from a hybrid of human and animal DNA, to give her the kind of parenting experience she wants.  The movie does a great job of showing us how twisted she really is, mainly through her undying love for the gross thing.  Props also the visual effects department for creating a monster in their own right.

But still … that one part.  It’s unfortunate when one part of a movie stands out so much that it overshadows the rest of the movie.  The scene has unintended consequences, particularly a dramatic shift in tone of “Splice.”  The movie becomes outrageously farcical as it comes to a close.  Because it enters such strange realms, it’s hard to take anything that follows seriously.  And for a movie that tried to sell itself as horror but is in reality all science-fiction, the whole thing just comes off as a jumbled mess.  D+ /