Saturday, May 25, 2013

Stories We Tell

Secrets and Lies                            
by Zac Ryan

As memories of past lives are passed down through generations, the truth can be distorted or changed to protect certain indiscretions. In Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley turns the camera on her father, her siblings and friends of the family to recount the stories and memories of her mother, Diane Polley.

Sarah Polley was a film and television actress during the 80s and 90s, but moved to the other side of the camera during the past decade, directing notable films that explore crisis points in human relationships, such as Away from Her and Take This Waltz.

Since Sarah's mother passed away when she was only eleven years old, she feels she never truly got to know her. All she had were the stories that others would tell her over the years.  Several inconsistencies started to pop up. So to find the proper answers, she decided to look to those who were close in her life, spending five years in exploration of both the good and the bad.

Diane Polley

In the beginning we meet Sarah's father, Michael Polley, who, like her mother and herself, is an actor. She sets him up in a booth to record the narration for part of the film, so while this is Sarah's film, it has many poignant moments for him, as well. He has his own memories of Diane, and like others, they are both good and bad.  As he recounts his stories, you can see the deep love he felt for her, even if it wasn't returned equally.

Michael Polley

To go further really gives away most of what Sarah was able to explore and dig up, and those moments are best experienced through the film. As the story unfolds, the film sometimes feels like a movie within a movie. The imagery presented of Diane through old home movies and photos starts to show a different side of her than the truth. Then again, she was an actor, so maybe most of her life was just one big role.

My only complaint is that I wish Sarah was on-screen a little more to see her reactions, instead of just hearing her inquisitive voice asking questions from behind the camera.

Sarah Polley

Stories We Tell was recently awarded the Ted Rogers Best Feature Length Documentary award at the 2013 Genie Awards, Canada's version of the Oscars. The film is currently playing in limited release.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


When All is Lost                                
by Mark Dispenza

Eden, based on the true life story of Chong Kim, captures the terror and loss of hope faced by victims of human trafficking.

Kim, who escaped captivity against the odds after two horrifying years of sexual slavery, decided to tell her story publicly after she noted that the majority of Americans believe that trafficking is something that happens only to foreign girls, not the girl next door in the United States.  She contributed to the screenplay by director Megan Griffiths, from a story crafted by fellow contributor, Rick Phillips Jr.

Chong was an 18-year-old Korean-American teen working in her parents' shop when she was kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery in 1995.  She was selected because the traffickers thought she was younger than her actual age.  Let that sink in a moment.

Jamie Chung

In the film the traffickers force her to break completely with her past and lose all hope of rescue, using a very effective combination of both physical and psychological torture.  She is given a new name - Eden. Actress Jamie Chung does a great job of conveying Eden's psychological state during each stage of her captivity.

She is a spunky girl and spends the early months repeatedly defying the traffickers and causing as much trouble as she can.  After the point is made, the story mercifully jumps forward to one year later, sparing us the awful details of how the traffickers ultimately break her spirit to resist.  They give us a taste of that horror, and it's all that's needed to make the point.

Jamie Chung

Eden survives the second year by playing along with the traffickers and working hard to win their confidence.  The more they trust her, the more she will be allowed access to places that might open opportunities for escape, and that turns out to be the smart move, as escape she does, but not until long after she has experienced horrors that will undoubtedly leave her psychologically scarred for life.

The filmmakers chose to tell this story without resorting to the graphic detail  of torture and sex scenes.  Like a horror movie that relies more on psychological terror than gore, they get their message across effectively without forcing the audience to look away.  In fact it is difficult to look away, as each new plot twist draws viewers deeper into this world and leave them wondering how Eden can possibly cope with each new setback.

Beau Bridges

Beau Bridges is chilling in his portrayal of trafficker, Bob Gault, who is a US marshal assigned to stop the very business he's engaged in.  Gault travels around talking to local police departments about how to identify and apprehend sex offenders.  In a twist of irony, he tells them in one scene how perpetrators can look like anyone, particularly a trusted member of the community.

Matt O'Leary does a great job of portraying drug-addicted, war veteran bad guy, Vaughan, in all of his complexity. He is a volatile personality, forcing Eden to work hard to win his trust during his more lucid moments, while keeping him at arms link during his frequent descents into depraved cruelty.

Griffiths does an excellent job in straddling the line between depicting the horrors of sexual slavery and crossing over into exploitation.  She makes her point by making sensitive choices about a subject in which sensitivity is lost.  SXSW rewarded the Sundance veteran last year after the film's premiere with the festival's Narrative Feature Award, along with a special recognition to Jamie Chung for her performance.

Eden is currently in limited release in the USA, but is also currently available for download on iTunes, Amazon and Vudu.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

To the Wonder

The Meaning in Malick                      
by Mark Dispenza

The films of Terrence Malick may not be as ethereal as we think, and maybe that's the point.

After viewing his latest feature, To the Wonder, I believe that against all odds, I may have finally come to understand him.  A perennial favorite at Cannes, Malick's films feature stunning cinematography, particularly of the natural environment, and a storyline that is slow, uncinematically focused on the inner thoughts of angst-ridden characters, and somewhat spiritual in feel.  They are usually period pieces and there is a sometimes nebulous thread that ties together generations.  In the Tree of Life, Malick famously interwove his protagonist's memories of childhood with scenes of the dinosaurs.

Audiences and critics have struggled to understand Malick's films since he reappeared at the movies in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, after an absence of over 20 years.  Some of the most talented actors in Hollywood are attracted to Malick, and he has achieved a guru-like status among them that has boggled my mind.  I've always chalked it up to the shallow nature of Hollywood.  Just because something has the appearance of being deep and spiritual, doesn't mean it's not a load of baloney under the surface.

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you likely know that I have historically struggled with Malick and have been unable to relate to his films, because his stories do not appear to me to contain any kind of narrative arc, and his protagonist does not really change or come to any kind of personal resolution by the end of the story.  That to me is a fundamental violation of the form and purpose of storytelling.  If there is not a discernible hero's journey, what's the point?

And then I saw To the Wonder.

Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko

The story follows the off again, on again romance and marriage of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko).  Typical of a Malick film, the relationship unfolds visually against voice-overs of the characters, as they question and second-guess each other.  Malick's characters are improbably articulate, almost poetic, in their musings.

Earth is a character in the film, also par for the course with Malick, and his characters are surrounded by incredible natural beauty, captured in stunning cinematography by his long-time director of photography, Emmanuel Lubeski.

Neil can't seem to stay satisfied, despite many wonderful moments of love and happiness with Marina.  The two interact lovingly and tenderly in one scene and hurt each other carelessly in the next.  They break up.  They get back together.  Neil sends her away and has an affair with Jane (Rachel McAdams), who he's known and coveted for most of his life.  When he's with Jane, he hurts her, too, even though he knows she's had a tough time and trust does not come easy to her.

Marina is also complicit in the ongoing sabotage of her relationship with Neil and has considerable trouble in her relationship with her daughter.  By the way, it's wonderful to find out that Bond girl Kurylenko is also a talented actress.  In typical Hollywood fashion previous filmmakers have utilized her as little more than eye candy.  Malick utilizes her to full effect and allows her to show a beauty that is more than skin-deep.

Javier Bardem

Although Neil is the central character of the film, there is the parallel journey of the Catholic priest, Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, who can always be counted on to deliver a memorable performance.

Although Neil and Father Quintana live in the same city and Neil is one of Quintana's parishioners, their narratives intersect infrequently, but notably during moments of major transition in Neil's life, such as marriage, childbirth and divorce.

The film's focus on Neil is broken up by scenes of Quintana going about his priestly duties, engaged in a negative inner dialogue in which he agonizes over the Lord's purpose for him.  Quintana does not believe his life means anything, so he seeks an elusive higher calling that will leave him fulfilled.  What's amazing is that all of this negative self-talk occurs over scenes in which Quintana is actively engaged with people during the most important moments of their lives, and as he comforts those who suffer, very often their sole lifeline during a terrible time.

In one memorable scene Quintana goes to the prison to hear the confession of a convict.  At first the convict is evasive and defensive, refusing to admit to his actions in some undisclosed crime.  As he talks to Quintana, he begins to complain loudly about the bright light coming through the window.  He is in an exaggerated amount of physical discomfort and becomes emotional, near the point of breakdown.  Is he in pain because his conversation with Quintana illuminates the terrible error of his ways?  Quintana is so caught up in his negative self-talk that he hardly seems to notice.

In another scene a parishioner afflicted with Down's Syndrome notes Quintana's morose state and points out that there are many churches in the city, and therefore, many pastors are required.  If people didn't need them, why would they be there?

Is that Malick's message?  As we go through life agonizing over our purpose and fighting to align ourselves with the person or thing that we believe will make us happy and fulfilled, are we missing the reality that the people we touch everyday are the meaning of our lives?  Are we missing the beauty all around us by our perpetual unhappiness?  Could it be that we are just a speck on the surface of the natural world and on the long axis of time, and all of our personal discomfort is ultimately meaningless against the broad tableau of our existence?  If that's the case Malick may be giving us a truly illuminating and profound statement of the human condition.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong, and my brain is finally fried after seeing too many of these films and trying to decipher their meaning.

Malick isn't talking.

To the Wonder is currently in limited theatrical release and can also be downloaded from iTunes.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Upstream Color

Beneath the Surface                         
by Zac Ryan

As the Hollywood studios ramp up their release schedule of uninspired and unoriginal summer programming, thankfully we can expect something original, albeit a little strange, in the latest film from .

Carruth first burst onto the scene at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival with his micro-budget film, Primer, which he claims he made for only $7,000, "because that's how much Rodriguez made El Mariachi for." While Primer tackled what may happen in the future with the possibility of time travel, Upstream Color tries to dig deeper into what may have happened in our past to make us feel how we do in this given moment. It is our own actions, or possibly misfortune, that brings us to who we are now.

Sure, it doesn't sound too original, but how it builds is what really allows Carruth to shine as the ultimate multi-hyphenate (he directed, wrote, starred, shot, co-edited, scored and distributed the film). And just like his previous film, he wants to give you enough pieces to give you something to talk about once the end credits start to roll.

Now before I get into what actually happens in the film, I wanted to give a bit of a spoiler warning here. I'm not going to give everything away, but I feel that this film is best experienced knowing as little as possible. I went in without even seeing a trailer or reading a synopsis, and yet I was transfixed from the opening scene until the end, even if the extra large iced tea kept yelling at me to leave the auditorium for a couple of minutes. I couldn't.

Amy Seimetz

When the film first starts, we witness the Thief () digging through some blue orchids. Not for the plants themselves, but for the worm-like creatures within the soil. These worm-like creatures have a side-effect when ingested, leaving the person under a spell, a zombie-like trance, allowing the Thief to get them to do mundane tasks, including memorizing and writing down passages of Thoreau's book, "Walden". One night he finds the unsuspecting Kris (), drugs her and uses his power of persuasion to drain her of her life savings, leaving her broke and jobless, as she tries to put the pieces of her life back together.

One night she is drawn to a pig farm that is run by The Sampler (), or so it seems. The Sampler easily blends into any group and setting, and spends most of his time in nature recording its sounds. What for? That's part of the mystery of the film. But it is sound that draws Kris to his farm after several unsuccessful attempts to remove the worms from her body with a knife. The Sampler is able to extract the parasite and implants it within one of the pigs on the farm, which he tags "Kris."

Amy Seimetz and Andrew Sensenig

As stated in the opening, this is like nothing you've ever see from one of the major studios (or possibly even one of the many indie distributors), and this is only the first third of the movie. In the last hour of the film, it shifts from the sci-fi set-up to something a little more mundane, a romantic drama. After meeting on a train, Kris finally agrees to have coffee with Jeff (played by Carruth). There's no way to tell how much time has passed, but Kris is on the defensive and attempts to put a stop to any relationship by divulging she has problems which only prescription medicine can help. But this doesn't phase Jeff, as he also has some of his own problems.

The relationship grows, connections are made, and the bigger purpose of the narrative slowly starts to unfold. To go any deeper would be criminal, but to say it all ends up where you believe, you may be shocked in the end. Or maybe I was just entranced while watching the film, slowly manipulated and sucked in by the beautiful cinematography and accompanied score.

If David Cronenberg and Terrence Malick had a child together, it just may have turned out to be Shane Carruth. Let's just hope that we don't have to wait another nine years for his next film. In the meantime, I may just have to watch the film once again to grab the hidden clues that were missed the first time around.

Upstream Color is currently in a limited theatrical run (dates found here) and will be available on most digital platforms starting May 7th.