Tag: sarah polley

Stories We Tell


Stories We Tell (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Michael and Diane Polley have been married for a decade until that “one thing that happened” in Montreal 1978. Upon Diane’s death due to cancer, when writer-director Sarah Polley was eleven years of age, the dynamics of their family changed. Since then a woman full of exuberance and vitality became an increasingly distant memory.

And so “Stories We Tell” is kicked to full gear as it explores the depth and fallibility of memory. What makes the documentary compelling is that there are three groups of storytellers instead of only one. First and most obvious are the people being interviewed in front of the camera: Polley’s father and siblings; Diane’s close friends; and those who knew Diane as an actress. A second layer involves Polley’s father reading from his book directly. It contains his version of the events as well as his thoughts about them. There is a difference between a person reading off a book and that same person being interviewed: the former situation makes room for further processing when it comes what should make it onto the page while the latter is less filtered. The small differences are worth looking into.

The third and most difficult to explore is the director herself. Though she is—or should be—in control from behind the camera, objective, she remains close to the subject because she has a critical role in the stories—no matter which version is exorcised. After all, the person being talked about is her mother: what people think of her, what they believe she has done, and what she left behind. I can only imagine losing a parent at such a young age.

Despite what might be an uncomfortable subject matter, there is a level of ease in the people being interviewed that I enjoyed. It is almost as if they are talking to Polley, their sibling or daughter, rather than a stranger. At times we get a sense that they forget the unblinking camera is standing right there. It works for the picture because it makes us wonder about their level of honesty and whether they would have chosen to reveal so much if someone they did not know as well is calling the shots or asking questions. Sure, not one person is one hundred percent reliable in the first place but since the people being interviewed are aware that someone they know is at the helm, it creates a feeling that the material being told is all the more personal.

The film takes on various twists and they can easily be missed by those who do not pay close attention. The subtle approach to the revelations reflects how tenuous the so-called truth really is. As the film draws to a close, it encourages us to ask questions. There is what exactly happened, which is near impossible to make out being the woman in the center has long been gone, what the interviewees think happened, and what what we think happened given the limited information that have been provided to us.

Peeling away at the family secrets is, in a sense, also about us as third party observers. Which version of truth do we believe? The director’s? Diane’s husband’s? The home videos’? What we feel in our gut? I believe the message is that we are all storytellers. It is not so much about agreement or disagreement when it comes to the facts or claims than it is about our attempt, as human beings who have the need to know and preserve, to clutch desperately at the events that have been and are being carried away by time.

Mr. Nobody


Mr. Nobody (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

“Mr. Nobody,” written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael, is one of those movies with a plot so vast and far-reaching that one can only attempt to describe its surface.

Telomerization, which prevents chromosomes from reaching a state of senescence, is a science that has been conquered. Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the last of his kind: a 117-year-old man capable of dying due to old age. Naturally, this makes him a celebrity. A journalist (Daniel Mays) assigned to interview him is perplexed because Nemo admits on tape that he has lived several lives: a choice not made at the time is later made once the former choice—and the life thereafter—has run its course.

I admire movies with a whole lot of ambition instead of simply relying on same old thing. But movies that dare to dream and push the envelope should be supported by a screenplay that is consistently intelligent or insightful and commanding a certain level of clarity. Since the script lacks such qualities in certain sections, I am afraid that many will be lost somewhere in the folds of its alternate realities. Though it is two-and-half hours long, it does not come off successful in conveying everything it hopes to accomplish.

The movie is beautifully shot. In a way, it needs to be visually appealing because it invites us to look into a possible future that is filled with uncertainty. I enjoyed that even though science has made immortality possible, sometimes it feels almost like an afterthought. The future people continue to live their lives and we get only glimpses of their reality. At one point, the journalist asks the old man how it was like to have sex in the past. In the present, sex is obsolete.

There are three women in Nemo’s life—or lives—and they are given appropriate time on screen. As the film goes on, it becomes clear why Anna (Diane Kruger as an adult, Juno Temple as a teenager), Elise (Sarah Polley, Clare Stone), and Jean (Linh Dan Pham, Audrey Giacomini) end up making a lasting impression on our protagonist. Each woman offers Nemo a different dimension of love. Conversely, he is required, depending on the woman, to love in a specific way. We watch Nemo receiving and providing love. Therefore, it is necessarily that Leto give at least three different performances.

The way the screenplay sets up its alternate realities comes with a cost. Because it jumps from one life to another without a defined pattern, the material fails to build continuously. Though I realize it is not the movie that was made, perhaps it might have worked better if we were allowed to start with a life and then seeing it all the way through before moving onto a new one. This way, philosophical musings clearly designed to get the audience to think or consider might not have been lost in the shuffle.

A subplot that ought to have been front and center is criminally ignored at times. What triggers young Nemo’s ability (Thomas Byrne) to live multiple lives is his parents’ separation (Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little): he must decide whether to stay with his father in England or move to America with his mother. Why is it that we do not get more scenes of teenage Nemo (Toby Regbo, providing a wonderful layer angst and verve) interacting with his parents? At times it is almost like the movie is dealing with a disease in a nonsensical way: only dealing with the symptoms but rarely the root of the problem.

“Mr. Nobody” is an experience but it fails to make a lasting impression because select critical pieces are either not dealt with or merely pushed to the side. Just about halfway through I wondered how more effective it would have been given that it had embraced a more cerebral rather than a sentimentalized approach.

The Sweet Hereafter


The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) visited a small town a few weeks after a tragic school bus accident that killed most of the children passengers. The lawyer tried to talk to the children’s parents to create a case of negligence against the company that made the school bus. While the parents were reluctant at first, they were eventually persuaded by Mitchell because he was able to offer an explanation out of the unexplanable. In a way, I saw him as a vulture or an opportunistic organism that nourished itself on the parents’ grief. Most of them wanted to move on but he wouldn’t allow them because he really wanted to have a case to serve as a distraction from his own personal life regarding his drug-addicted daughter (Caerthan Banks). Maybe he was doing it for the money. Maybe he was doing it to atone for his own mistakes. Either way, his presence helped to drive the town further apart. Based on a novel by Russell Banks and directed by Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” was not a typical drama about loss. There was no big homage to demonstrate how sad the town was and there was no screaming matches between the parents because their child had passed away. Instead, all of the negative emotions were suppressed. It was the kind of sadness I felt when we’ve lost a family friend or a relative. There was more silence than screaming to the top of our lungs. The stand-out for me was Nicole (Sarah Polley) as a once-promising singer who was now confined to a wheelchair. One of her secrets was she and her father were in an incestuous relationship. Nicole was torn because she wanted to deal with the paralysis over the lower portion of her body while her parents wanted to join the lawsuit. I felt sad for her but I didn’t feel sorry for her. And I think that’s what Egoyan did best: His project was able walk between delicate emotions and deliver a film that did not feel manipulative. From several reviews I read, they claimed that it was slow and they did not really learn anything new about the characters. I agree to some extent, but I don’t believe that type of critique necessarily means that the movie is not worth watching. With certain kinds of films, it’s more difficult to simply show what is instead of offering a defined explanation that we can easily grasp. Losing a child defies explanation and grieving need not make sense. That was the film’s main thesis and I thought it was successful at tackling those issues. “The Sweet Hereafter” was challenging, beautiful, and heartbreaking. It was a complex and painful examination of the human condition.

Splice


Splice (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Two biochemists, Clive and Elsa, (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) who worked for a pharmaceutical company (led by Simona Maicanescu) decided to make an animal/human hybrid because they felt that they should push the boundaries of science in order to ultimately free humanity from unsolved genetic diseases. As well-meaning as they were on the outside, I loved the fact that as the film went on, I began to feel detached from the characters instead of feeling attached to them like in most other movies. As astute and gifted as they were, I felt that they were selfish, arrogant, rash and they deserved what was about to happen to them. The special and visual effects kept me glued to the screen. I wasn’t sure how much of the creature (played by Delphine Chanéac) was computer-engineered but I couldn’t take my eyes off her due to fascination and complete horror. From the trailers, I thought “Splice” was going to be a standard sci-fi/horror picture but I was glad it turned out differently. Instead of going for the easy scares (although there were three or four), it took its time to establish the characters and place them (and us) in moral conundrums to see how they would respond to the challenges that faced them. Since the two biochemists were in a romantic relationship prior to the genetically engineered creature, there was something amusing about the way they eventually took on the role of being a parent for the creature including the usual tensions that arise during motherhood and fatherhood. There were even some Freudian implications that became very obvious as the movie unfolded. Having said all that, I felt that the film stalled somewhere in the middle. The movie hinted Elsa’s dark past which should have explained why she treated Dren (the creature) the way she did. But the whole thing was so vague, I felt like I was constantly reaching for something in the dark that may not even be there. As the picture reached its somewhat typical and predictable climax of characters running in the woods and fighting for survival, I waited for some answers about Elsa’s past but I didn’t get any. Instead, there was a completely gratuitous scene that just made me feel uncomfortable and rotten. The last time I felt that badly in a movie theater was when I saw 2009’s “The Last House on the Left.” I know about Vincenzo Natali’s reputation as a director who likes to inject something different in his projects but I strongly believe that the scene in question could have been altered in such a way that it didn’t degrade women. Nevertheless, I’m recommending “Splice” because it exhibited intelligence, its ability to surprise and it worked as a cautionary tale.