The fall movie season is off to a shaky start. Anticipated films like the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, Clark Gregg’s Choke, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna and Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness have left critics (and most audiences) wanting.
Even the relatively well received Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist has its detractors (like me) — if you're hanging your entire premise on being knowing and hip, you'd better be knowing and hip, which N&N doesn't quite pull off. It's like a meld of 200 Cigarettes and Empire Records (come to think of it, that might sound good to some people) — glossy imitations of the real thing. N&N is much too conventional, which is somewhat surprising considering director Peter Sollett was the guy who gave us the perceptive teenage romance Raising Victor Vargas.
(Michael Cera and Kat Demmings contemplate what might have been in Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist.)
Add this week’s two biggies — The Duchess and Body of Lies — to the list of disappointments. While each has its charms, neither is entirely satisfying. (See reviews below.)
Lucky for us, we have other options. The Contemporary Arts Center begins its “Historical/Horror Film Series” on Monday night (Oct. 13) with a double feature of John Huston’s Let There Be Light at 6:30 p.m. and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr at 7:40 p.m.
Finally, and most curiously, the Esquire Theatre will present a Paul Newman Tribute with rotating screenings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Verdict beginning today through Oct. 16. Go to www.esquiretheatre.com for times.
On to a complete list of this week's theatrical releases. As usual, several didn't screen for critics in advance, which means I'll have reviews up for them later this weekend.
Opening films (Oct. 17):
BODY OF LIES — While Ridley Scott's film strips away much of the fat from David Ignatius’ source novel, it also winds up frustratingly superficial. Body of Lies is a nuts-and-bolts action drama putting on the undercover persona of something with a message. Still, it's fairly successful as an action drama. (Read review here.) (Rated R.) Grade: C plus
CITY OF EMBER — Upstart British director Gil Kenan’s latest family-friendly fantasy finds an elaborate underground city in peril as its once powerful generator begins to fail. It’s up to a pair of teenagers (Soairse Ronan, so strong in Atonement, and Harry Treadway) to save the residents of Ember — including its curiously upbeat mayor (Bill Murray) — before it’s too late. The massive cast includes Tim Robbins, Mary Kay Place, Toby Jones and Martin Landau. (Rated PG.) Grade: Review coming soon
THE DUCHESS — Saul Dibb’s costume drama captures the look and feel of the period exquisitely but lacks the daring to provide greater context for its titular character's political activism. Stars Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. (Read review here.) (Rated PG-13.) Grade: C plus
THE EXPRESS —Dennis Quaid has a thing for sports flicks. The trend continues in this true-life story of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Quaid plays Ben Schwartzwalder, Davis' inspirational — and revolutionary — coach. Gary Fleder, the guy who once upon a time gave us the stylish, corrosive crime thriller Things Denver to Do in Denver When You're Dead, directs what looks to be yet another uplifting sports drama. (Rated PG.) Grade: Review coming soon
QUARANTINE — Quarantine might be a remake of Jaume Balaguero’s Spanish thriller [Rec], but, if the trailer is any indication, John Erick Dowdle’s big feature splash looks to suckle the creative teat of last year’s surprise success, Cloverfield. The plot centers on a television reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman (Steve Harris) who battle a mysterious adversary while trapped in an apartment building. (Rated R.) Grade: Review coming soon
The amusing, curiously lo-fi comedic diversion known as Hot Tub Time Machine revisits a moment in time not known for its significant cultural contributions (especially on a mainstream level). Who better, then, to appear in a movie that looks back with a nostalgic eye to the 1980s than Crispin Glover, one of the great, under-appreciated oddballs of that or any era?
What's up with all the 1980s love currently spilling out of multiplexes?
Sure, Hollywood and marketers of all sorts have long mined nostalgia as a powerful enticement tool in the marketplace. But is 20 years enough time to generate sufficient yearning for a period whose mainstream culture is best represented by the rise of stupid action movies and/or creatively bankrupt sequels (see the career of Sylvester Stallone for examples of both), acutely disposable Pop music (see everything from Hair Metal to Milli Vanilli), ludicrous clothes (see Miami Vice) and the presence of a two-term president whose nefarious policies laid the groundwork for our current economic meltdown?
In 2008 there was Definitely, Maybe. Last year, there were Confessions of a Shopoholic. And now, with only six days left before Valentine’s Day is actually upon us, a movie baring the same name is set to hit theaters.
Valentine’s Day, this year’s most blatant bid for romantically charged girls to drag their boyfriends down to the theater, and spend gobs of money to found out whether or not Ashton Kutcher, Julia Roberts, and a fistful of other stars will live happily ever after. For anyone with a remotely decent sense of cinematic taste, this would be something to avoid. And yet, in the deep recesses of my otherwise logical brain, there lives a tiny little blob of girly power that screams, “Go see this movie!”
What does it say when Golden Globes’ host Ricky Gervais is getting more post-show attention than the night’s winners (or January Jones’ gravity-defying dress)? Sure, Gervais’ sharp-tongued shots at various targets — from the easy (Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson) to the slightly less so (Steve Carell, Tim Allen and God) — were often insensitive and sometimes crass, but none of them were necessarily untruthful or even far from what most viewers would say about each recipient.
The key word there is “good,” an adjective that doesn't often describe modern summer movies, most of which are lowest-common-denominator products laden with special effects instead of interesting characters. We're now lucky if one or two transcend mediocrity each summer — last year Toy Story 3 and Inception were the big exceptions.
A trio of “event” screenings boosts this week’s mixed bag of new releases (of which Bong Joon-Ho’s Hitchcockian thriller, The Mother, is the clear winner).
A teaser trailer of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which is still in production, has made its way to cyberspace. It’s being billed as his ensemble war flick/spaghetti western, and if the tone of this teaser is any indication, look for Basterds to lean toward the genre-pillaging frivolity of Death Proof and the Kill Bill films. (Personally, I was hoping for a return to Tarantino’s more emotionally satisfying heyday, especially the underrated Jackie Brown.)
There is a story embedded in this review. Maybe, in fact, this isn’t a film review at all, just a story, several stories, like little assignations – drawing a reference there to a Joyce Carol Oates collection of short stories that triggered in me a desire, for the first time in my adult life right after college, to pick up the proverbial pen and write. The Assignation assembled pieces that were brief, sometime no more than a paragraph long, but even the shortest of the shorts told so much, too much about their subjects.
And that is what Sarah Polley, the Canadian actress and now writer-director, whose documentary Stories We Tell is ostensibly the focus or subject here, has done; she has spun the most amazing and haunting of stories about (and with the assistance of) her family and a secret that had remained unspoken for so long among them. It seems Polley’s mother Diane, an actress and later a casting director in Toronto, married Michael Polley, an actor and writer, had three children – Sarah being the third – but this bright and passionate woman found herself seeking a love that matched her own. Failing to do so within her marriage, she stumbled headlong into an affair, while working on a play in Montreal, which produced Sarah.
Diane and Michael resumed marriage life after the end of the show and raised Sarah together until Diane’s early death in the late 1980s. Sarah was approximately 11 years old and left to grow up in the loving comfort of Michael Polley, but thanks to a series of family jokes about her parentage, Sarah, began a quest to discover the truth about her father. Stories We Tell, built on the framework of frank interviews with her siblings and Michael, along with extended family, friends, and fellow artists from those early days, captures her telling of this story of the surprising revelation and its impact on everyone involved.
What is the story, her story, but a collection of memories, fragmented perspectives on the truth? It is a thing of intriguing beauty to watch unfold, raw and honest, but always, in every moment, calling into question, the notion, the very idea of truth. What is the truth?
No one lies; they tell what they can, from their point of view, but the truth, as we find out, is not something that one person can know, not without being privy to all other points of view. And when we tell our own stories, we are never as truthful as we might hope or desire.
But what Sarah has done is wrestle with the impossible. Her aim was to corral as many angles as possible, to tell the truth – the whole truth and nothing but. Although for all her effort, Stories We Tell falls short, in two ways.
We discover, along with Sarah, who her biological father is beyond a shadow of a doubt (thanks to DNA testing), and she works in not only his perspective but also that of his daughter from another relationship – another half-sister for Sarah who already has half siblings (a brother and sister) from Diane’s marriage prior to her union with Michael as well as another half-brother & sister set from Michael. It is all rather confusing to document here, but the film grants each one of them their own time to speak and breath as more than mere characters before us.
But we never hear from Diane. She is the hole at the center of things, the voiceless presence that looms large, so large that the film nearly tricks us into believing that we have heard from her. We want to and our desire is so strong that we, along with Sarah maybe, convince ourselves that we have her from her. There are so many images – photos and video – of Diane that dance before us and tease us with thousands of unspoken words.
And in the same way, it could be argued that we never get Sarah’s real story either. Her meticulous focus on gathering so much from so many allows her to disappear. I don’t believe that was her intention, but still, it is the result.
How do we tell our own stories?
I have returned, again and again, to a quote from Roger Ebert’s memoir Life, Itself, which I picked up about six months ago and read before his death. Speaking of advice he received once he took on the assignment of covering film, by way of Esquire critic Dwight McDonald and Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”
What happened to me, while watching Stories We Tell?
I found it difficult to separate from the story, which for me, was a focus on fathers and fatherhood. Like Sarah Polley, I grew up without knowing my biological father. That’s not quite true. Unlike Sarah, I knew who he was, but he wasn’t involved in my life and there were periods when I considered seeking him out. There have always been people close to me who knew where he was and would have assisted me in the search, but I always found reasons to back away from the quest.
At one point, I hatched a plan. I started a novel about the experience of finding him. My fictional telling was rooted in the idea of creating him from the snippets of anecdotes and traits I had been told over the years. Once the book was completed, I would track him down and compare notes, see how close I had come to realizing him on the page. I got about 13 chapters and pages and pages of notes into the project, but set it aside. That was almost 20 years ago and for the life of me, I’m not sure what put me off that time.
Two years ago, I finally accomplished the mission, driving down to North Carolina for a meeting, which lasted all of 30 minutes. He told his story, as best he could, in a breathless rush that led me to believe that he realized this would be our only meeting face-to-face. I sat and listened. I stared into his face. And now, as I sit here relaying the story, there’s not much to tell. I don’t remember much of what he looked like. I can’t say that I found myself in any of his features. I do remember him saying that God brought me to him. He said it several times, but the truth, my truth at least, is that God had nothing to do with it. I came, I saw, and I returned to the only story that mattered.
This story was originally published on tt stern-enzi's blog, here.
The post-holiday/awards season dumping ground is upon us — just two films hit theaters this week, neither of which are likely to pique the interest of more discerning moviegoers.