Movie Review: Stories We Tell

Making a personal film takes a certain level of courage on the part of the filmmaker. Allowing the audience into one’s memories, thought process, and feelings is, of course, difficult. That being said, when done successfully, it can often make for great cinema. Sarah Polley’s third film, Stories We Tell, is just about as personal as a film can get. It is also as heartbreaking, honest and beautiful a film you are likely to see this year. 

Stories We Tell is Polley’s first documentary, and her most accomplished film yet. It deals with her discovery that her dad may not actually be her biological father. Polley made the brilliant decision to tell the story not from her perspective, but rather from the perspective of just about everyone else involved.

Presented in chronological order, the story is told by her family, family friends, and even possible biological fathers. And with these different perspectives on the story of her family, the film ends up being more about her mother, actress Diane Polley, who died when Sarah Polley was 11.

Her father, Michael Polley, serves as both one of the storytellers and narrator to the film. It is a fascinating perspective, and is a great example of why Sarah Polley’s uniquely personal film never feels self-indulgent. Beyond the storytellers, Polley also employs a mix of home-movies, and reenacted 8mm footage that flow seamlessly together. 

The story is rarely seen from Polley’s point-of-view, and instead of this being distancing, it actually makes the film work so wonderfully. She had no control over this aspect of her life, and as such, it is appropriate that she lets the story be told by those directly involved.

Once the film begins to concentrate on her biological father, it becomes its most emotionally effective. Up to this moment, the film is entirely about Michael and Diane Polley, and their family. And then, we are given the parallel story. A story of a man desperately in love with someone he could not have, and with a daughter he did not know. It is a film that breaks you down emotionally, like so few films can. 

Many filmmakers put their hearts on screen, but it is rare to see one give so much of themselves to the audience. With Stories We Tell, Polley invites us into her family, and into a life-changing moment. It is a privilege to be allowed into something so utterly personal and important to a small group of people, especially when it is shared in such a beautiful way.

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Movie Review: Sinister

I love great horror films, just as I love great cinema in general. Horror is no different than comedy or drama, in the sense that the scares only work if the rest of the film does too. Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is a great example of a horror film that is not only terrifying, but is also a very satisfying film overall.

Originally, I was not sure whether I would write a review of this film or not. It had already been a week since the film had come out, and yet I felt a horror film this interesting deserved credit. October is, of course, a time for studios to release their franchise horror films. Sinister is a refreshing alternative as it is not only an original release, but a thoroughly scary and rewarding film.

Co-written by film blogger C. Robert Cargill, Sinister follows true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt, played by Ethan Hawke, as he moves his wife and kids into the home of a recently murdered family. The basics of the story aren’t particularly original, however, it is how they are handled that makes this film so effective.

Instead of being a found-footage film, Derrickson and Cargill cleverly use a series of 8mm home-movies as the main focus of the film. In a way, Derrickson’s use of found-footage is similar to Antonioni’s Blow-Up or De Palma’s Blow Out, as Hawke’s character becomes obsessed with the disturbing footage he finds. Never leaning too heavily on one type of scare, the 8mm home-movies, that Oswalt finds in his attic, give a nice balance between jump-scares and suspenseful, unnerving moments.

In most haunted-house films, there is a point in which you have to wonder why the characters do not simply move out and abandon the house. This problem is largely avoided, as the script and Hawke’s performance are strong enough that we can sympathize with Oswalt’s need to continue his investigation and his book. It is a clear sign that Derrickson and Cargill cared about the development of these characters as much as they did with scaring the audience.

One element of the film I was quite surprised by, was the unconventional score by Christopher Young. While at times slightly overbearing, as a whole, the score is unique and incredibly creepy.

Sinister is one of the few films that caused a physical reaction out of me, as I nearly jumped out of my seat several times, and it appeared most of the audience did too. It is a terrifying film, one that will keep you from looking out your windows at night, and maybe even from reviewing your old home-movies.

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A Film Without A Home: Who Really Made John Carter?

Six months after the disastrous release of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, it is somewhat easier now to look back and explore some of the more interesting questions left unanswered. The primary of which, largely ignored in the midst of the schadenfreude, is who really made John Carter?

It is not a question of blame, as I firmly believe John Carter is a great film. Rather, while most parties claimed it was entirely a Disney film, Pixar’s fingers prints are all over it.

After the rights of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic series were purchased by Disney executive Dick Cook, for Stanton to direct, no one involved knew if it would be animated or live-action. From the very beginning, the question of whether it would be a Pixar or Disney film was seemingly up in the air. Stanton told /Film in 2008, “There’s been no discussion about exactly how it will be distributed or what moniker it will be under.” Once it became clear that the film would be live-action, most news sources claimed it would be Pixar’s first live-action effort.

This turned out to be false, at least on the surface. Stanton soon cleared things up, stating that, “It’s being done by Disney, and I’m sort of being loaned out”. Even with Stanton directing, Mark Andrews co-writing and Pixar GM Jim Morris and longtime Pixar producer Lindsey Collins producing, it was still said to be a Disney film. And when those involved in the film say this, why would we doubt them?

Throughout post-production, many clues were dropped that would lead to the assumption that Pixar’s involvement may be deeper than simply loaning out talent. For example, when press were invited to a preview event, it was at Pixar’s headquarters. However, they were told this was simply out of convenience rather than Pixar having any involvement.

In July 2012, Patrick Giusiano, an animator who worked on the film, released a video showcasing his work on John Carter. The video features the original storyboards sent to him by Pixar for him to follow in his animation. I reached out to him, asking whether he received creative direction from Pixar or Disney, and he told me that in fact “dailies [were] video-conferenced from Pixar”. Even if Pixar was simply directing the animation for the film–that is still a larger connection than they previously had admitted to.

As Stanton has discussed in detail, he approached the film from a Pixar mentality. After shooting was completed, he made a rough-cut and showed it to the Pixar brain-trust. This is the technique Pixar uses to perfect its films, as they will remake each film several times before releasing it. The heads of Pixar helped Stanton crack the film, before Stanton went back for extensive reshoots that made the film the creative success it is.

It is possible, even likely, that John Carter was at one time a Pixar release. It is understandable, however, why they would choose to release it under the Disney banner. Pixar is a trusted and loved brand that consistently releases family-friendly films. It has made its name with a special brand of beloved animated films. A darker, more violent live-action film might confuse audiences.

That being said, while Pixar may deny it, it is clear it had at least some creative influence on the film. Even without the evidence that proves Pixar’s involvement, the film feels like a true Pixar film. It may have a PG-13 rating, yet its core focus remains on adventure, heart and humour, like any great Pixar film.

As the film’s production came in the midst of a regime change at Disney, Stanton was largely left to his own devices. When the film was finally finished, the people whose jobs it was to make sure it was a success were not the ones who gave the film a green-light in the first place. John Carter was left in an awkward position, essentially without a home.

Creatively, John Carter may have been Pixar’s film, at least partially. However, due to an attempt to protect the family-friendly Pixar brand, it was sold as a Disney film, even going so far as to not mention Stanton’s previous successes in the marketing.

Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is a great film, one that was released without a home. Even without the Pixar label, it fits alongside their classics and hopefully, one day, will find a special home among cinema fans.

Special thanks to Michael D. Sellers, from The John Carter Files, for helping research this piece.

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What’s In A Game?

Originally published on Battleship Pretension.

A never-ending debate among film and video-game fans alike is whether or not a film based on a video-game could ever be great. As it stands now, no film has come remotely close to that goal. And unfortunately, films like the recently released Resident Evil: Retribution do nothing to help prove naysayers wrong.

The five Resident Evil films are among the dozens of awful to mediocre video-game adaptations of awful to good video-games. It is rare for a truly great game to be adapted, as many studios are wary of the idea and want to protect their brand. Others, however, see no point in this precaution and allow their products to be adapted by anyone for a quick buck. A scheme that only further adds to the notion that allowing a film adaptation is a great way to sully your brand.

It is the failure of these films that people point to when trying to argue that no film based on a video-game could ever be great. That argument, however, is ignoring the possibilities of a great adaptation that simply has yet to grace the big screen.

Many video-games have fantastic narratives, they are just told in a more unconventional way as they are interactive. The Mass Effect series is a brilliantly told sci-fi epic, it just happens to be told in a more interactive fashion. The interactivity does not mean an effective adaptation to the screen would be impossible. It simply means the interactivity would not be as direct, and would come from making the audience invested in the alternative medium that the story is being told from.

Valve’s immensely popular puzzle series, Portal, is another example of a game that derives much of its enjoyment from its addictive game mechanics. That being said, the incredible dialogue and inventive storytelling could be translated beautifully to a feature film. In fact, commercial director Dan Trachtenberg made an extremely popular unauthorized, short film based on the Portal franchise.

It should be common sense that if a game’s success comes solely from its game mechanics, it should not be adapted to a film. And yet, we have hilariously bad films based on games like Mario Brothers, Street Fighter, and most recently Tekken.

It is, therefore, imperative for an effective video-game adaptation to be based on a game that has strong characters, themes and story opposed to simply being a popular brand.

Video-games are like any other source material, they must be adapted correctly to be effective cinema. A film that is too faithful to the novel it is based on, usually fails, as the two mediums are different. The same is true with video-games and cinema.

If a real cinematic talent decided to take the helm of a narratively strong video-game, it is very likely a strong film could come out of it. As such, it is unfair to deny the possibilities of a great adaptation based on the output of a few terrible filmmakers and the game studios allowing these films to come out.

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Movie Review: Compliance

Soon after a film ends, I am usually able to come up with the angle for my review. If it is a particularly powerful film, sometimes it takes longer to gestate and contemplate my thoughts on it. Craig Zobel’s Compliance is a whole other story. 

It is one of the few films where I just have no idea where to start. While it is not entertaining, it is not a film I regret seeing. Zobel’s second feature is a very confidently told cautionary tale that reveals a level of stupidity that we all hope we cannot be guilty of.

Based on true events, a fact that is made quite clear, the film follows a prank caller as he convinces a fast-food chain manager that her employee has stolen money. Ann Dowd plays the manager, who is convinced to supervise a disgusting series of events that tortures a young girl. The fact it is based on true events is, in someways, very important. Throughout the screening, I heard audience members exclaim their disbelief on what they were seeing on film. 

This is not Zobel’s fault, as his film and the actors portraying these characters, sell it honestly and authentically. That being said, as the plot moves into areas you wish were not possible, you would think people would not fall for a prank call that becomes so sinister and unbelievable.

It is a basic premise, one that becomes increasingly disturbing as the film goes on. The victim, played convincingly by Dreama Walker, is a young, good-looking girl working part-time at the restaurant. While other employees raise concern with the obtrusiveness of the false investigation, no one dares to step in.

Zobel does not judge these characters. Instead, he challenges the audience to consider whether or not they believe they would react in the same way. And while the film has a villain, played with a bizarre level of calm and normalcy by Pat Healy, Zobel does not even go so far as to condemn him either. We are left entirely to judge these characters, and try to figure out what we would do.

Rarely do films lay the facts out so blatantly, as to force the audience to confront this scenario. It is actually more troubling than if it were to make its own mind up. It puts questions into your head you would rather not consider, and it is a technique that has put many off.

Craig Zobel’s first film, Great World of Sound, was a very funny, effective debut. Compliance sees him grow as a filmmaker tenfold. It may not be the most pleasant film, however, it is a very well-constructed film that forces us to confront our own ability to blindly follow authority against our better judgement.

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Catching Up On The Summer’s Best

While I may have spent most of this summer making my own film, I was still able to watch many great, small films that I did not have time to review. These films kept me going throughout the difficult editing process, inspiring me. I feel it is important for me to talk about them now to transition from a filmmaking focus back to one of writing about film.

Many of the summer’s blockbusters disappointed, and yet hidden among those much bigger films, were smaller gems.

Magic Mike

Someone at the Warner Bros marketing team deserves a raise. Magic Mike became a solid hit this summer, and for a relatively low-budget, realistic look at the life of a male stripper, that is an impressive task. The trailers for the film were not selling a completely different film, but they did seem to gloss over the realism of it, not to mention Soderbergh’s unconventional style.

While I was expecting to like it, upon revisiting the film, I realized just how much I loved it. Soderbergh has perfected his style, and Magic Mike is a great example of this. It is not aspiring for greatness, but not all films have to. That does not mean it is simply mediocre, it is far more than that.

It is a very fun film, that does not need to become overtly showy to be entertaining. It is a very confident, small film that avoids being classified as one genre. If the trailers did not sell you, Soderbergh’s third last film before retirement is certainly worth a shot.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Occasionally a film comes around that reminds you of the untapped possibilities of cinema. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one such film. It is the debut feature from Behn Zeitlin, and while you can certainly tell, it is not to the film’s detriment.

Beasts takes place in a fictional part of America, called the Bathtub. Told from the perspective of Hushpuppy, played wonderfully by six-year old newcomer Quevenzhane Wallis, the film follows her struggle to survive in an area in constant danger of flooding.

It is a film full of ambition and light on story, and while it may occasionally fall off course, it is not long before it is realigned. Zeitlin does things a first-time filmmaker should never attempt, and it is this naivety that makes the film great. In many ways, Zeitlin sees cinema as Hushpuppy sees the world, full of wonder and possibility.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is as strong a debut feature as is just about possible. It is beautiful, touching and at times, scary. Zeitlin is a true talent, I just hope he does not lose the naivety that made this film such a unique wonder.

Wuthering Heights

This year has had few true surprises so far. Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights was my first. While I was a fan of Arnold’s previous film, Fish Tank, a costume drama was not something I was looking forward to from the filmmaker. Finding it available in England while I was there in July, I decided to take a look. From the first frame, I was unable to look away.

It is an achingly beautiful, and difficult adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights. Unlike most costume dramas, this film feels real. It spoke to me in a way few films do, from the brutal love story to the stunning cinematography. It all works, and yet it is dark and twisted in ways you do not expect. While not the most pleasant love story, the filmmaking at work here is at such a level that you are left wanting more. That is a sign of a great filmmaker, and Andrea Arnold is certainly one.

Take This Waltz

Sarah Polley’s sophomore film Take This Waltz is special in many ways. It is a relationship drama that does not judge, nor does it ever resort to being obvious or explicit. It is a mature, realistic look at a seemingly perfect marriage slowly falling apart.

Michelle Williams plays Margot, a woman in a wonderful marriage who happens to fall for her neighbour. It seems that many critics have taken issue with the perspective from which this film is told. It is understandable in some ways. Instead of having a villain, we see the film from the eyes of the person we should be rooting against. We do not hate her, instead, we just feel sorry for both Margot and her loving husband, played by Seth Rogen.

Sarah Polley shows her first film was not simply a fluke, with this even more impressive second film. It is beautiful, and at times, hard to watch. It is refreshing to see a story like this told without judgement. And while some critics had problems with it, Take This Waltz is one of the most refreshing and heartfelt films I’ve seen in a long time.

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Making A Movie About Us

As shooting was winding down on my first short film last summer, I edited together a rough-cut for my crew. At that point, we had yet to film the last couple of scenes, so I created an ending using unused footage, some of which was simply behind-the-scenes material. That ending stayed in the film, as I found the process of creating a scene out of unrelated material fascinating and surprisingly effective. It remains my favourite scene in the film, and made me want to explore the technique further.

Since about 2005, I have had the habit of filming my friends at just about any time. Throughout high school, I was a constant pest with my standard-definition DV camera. To this day, I will find rogue DV tapes in just about every nook and cranny of my house. That annoying habit of mine intensified over the last year, as I decided that I would make use of that footage and craft my next film largely from pre-existing material.

That film eventually became, I’ll Remember You, and while it is not a documentary, the footage is real. At least, it is real in the sense that it is unscripted footage edited together in a somewhat dishonest way. It is a 30-minute film about me, my friends and the community we live in. It is about people who are stuck in the past, and unable to accept they have moved into adulthood.

It is a film I felt I had to make before I could move onto other projects. I have always been preoccupied with childhood and remaining in the grey area between being a child and being an adult. This film is my attempt at incapsulating that feeling, and dealing with my own insecurities about my future.

The style of filmmaking I used for this film is one I want to develop, as it feels like a natural way of storytelling for me. This is my first attempt at it, and it is, of course, not perfect. That being said, I am very proud of this film, and what I was able to accomplish from those hours upon hours of memories trapped inside my old DV tapes.

As I decided not to submit the film to festivals, I ask, if you enjoy the film or want to support independent filmmaking, that you help spread the film around. Post it on twitter, or facebook. While this is my first attempt at this style of filmmaking, it is very much indicative of the kind of films I hope to make in the future.

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