Movie Review: “Stories We Tell” (Sarah Polley, Canada 2012)

This is not an easy film to figure out. In theory, it’s a documentary about actress/director/generally-awesome-person Sarah Polley’s journey to discovering that her birth was in fact the result of an affair between her mother and a film producer whom Sarah had never known. However, Polley hired actors to make “home movies” of past events in order to reconstruct the story, which is not exactly the way documentaries are typically made and in fact is somewhat antithetical to the basic concept of a documentary.

Within the film, Polley herself discusses the fact that she’s filming a “project” about her discovery and using it to show how people tell stories and warp their memories to their own purposes. She openly says that she isn’t sure whether the project is for herself or the family or an audience. But if that’s what she’s doing, including discussions about that being the point and “recreating” the past with enacted scenes works against the idea that she’s showing how reality and memory are not the same doesn’t really make sense.

So what is it?

In the end, after discussing what she’s trying to do, she ends up revealing the truth while everyone else discusses the ideas of truth, storytelling, and memory: it’s simply a woman trying to connect with a mother she lost before she was old enough to know her by reconstructing her out of the memories of others and what tangible evidence she can find. In that way, it is a very personal project and one whose ability to affect an audience should, by all rights, be limited.

Instead, it is one of the most moving, affecting, fascinating pieces of filmmaking a person can see, and I hardly even know how to say what makes it so special.

There are moments, like watching characters riding a bus in shots that essentially match those beautiful shots of Sarah herself in The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, Canada 1997) and the shots of her reactions to her father reading his own written account of this entire situation, that are effective because of the restraint that they show and the way they pretend not to manipulate the audience at all.

There are other moments like some of the descriptions of Joanna Polley’s desires for a film career and deep-seated independence that hold resonance simply because we, as an audience, already know her daughter and can see how she came out of this background.

So many moments in the film work so well for so many different reasons that it’s tempting to think that the film is actually a camel, built out of disparate parts thrown against a wall and only somewhat fitting together. However, it most definitely is not. Everything in the film is carefully chosen to deepen its picture of Joanna Polley while we accompany her daughter on this journey of discovery. Even the sequence of discussion about this “project” being a rumination on storytelling and memory is really there to say, “I don’t have the memories to tell the story of my mother. The best I can do is construct her out of others’ memories and story.” Polley’s focus on her point is admirable and the fact that she could stay so focused in such an unusual film highlights just how silly it is how so many filmmakers cannot do it in fictional narratives over which they have complete control.

Ultimately, Stories We Tell is a difficult phenomenon to explain. It’s a brilliant and deeply affecting film, but it is so unlike anything else that you will ever see that it’s difficult to explain its greatness. It won’t be winning the major awards that it should win because of its singularity, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece, and I have rarely been happier to have seen a film than I was with this one.

Movie Review: “American Hustle” (David O. Russell, USA 2013)

In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was released to eventual great (if undeserved) acclaim, a novel deconstructing the idea of “the American dream” through a distasteful character who seeks the trappings of that dream via some unfortunate means with eventually disastrous results. In more recent times, the clearest examples of films with the “American dream” narrative have been gangster films like Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, USA 1990) (“As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”) and Once upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, Italy/USA 1984). However, they rather celebrate than deconstruct the dream, using it as a motivation for characters who would otherwise be difficult to understand. Sensibly, in 2013, David O. Russell presents us with American Hustle, a deconstruction of the American dream through the lens of a gangster film parody.

The film presents the story of Irving Rosenfeld. He is a low-level con artist, a bad husband to a crazy wife, a loving father, and the owner of the world’s worst combover. His rather dull life finally finds a spark of interest when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser and she is not only willing to live with his illegal moneymaking scheme but willing and able to help him with it and to accept the existence of his wife and son. Then, the FBI walks in, catching her red-handed. But, it offers an opportunity: help us catch some bigger fish, and we’ll let you go. He agrees. Hilarity ensues.

In what follows, the film is a mix of successful and unsuccessful.

Its parody of gangster fiction is exactly what a parody should be—the absurdities pointed out and taken to extremes. We’ve seen married gangsters with children who had girlfriends whom they liked more than their families before and we’ve even seen them be conscientious parents, but here we get a long sequence of Sydney and Irving falling in love in a very 1970s Woody Allen style only to suddenly reveal the family’s existence in a sly narrative trick. When the ultimate big bad guy gangster shows up, he is actually played by Robert de Niro. There is so much fetishization of women’s breasts that Ken Russell would be proud. And, directly parodying Goodfellas, it’s all set to a loud, rocking, rollicking score of ‘70s rock classics.

Meanwhile, however, it was attempting to pull off a con film, and that it did far less successfully. First of all, it violated the rule that all con movies must cast Ricky Jay in some part. Secondly (and more seriously), the long con was so obvious that it seemed like a joke but the reveal was handled so seriously that it was difficult to take it as a sly joke about con movies. The Spanish Prisoner* (David Mamet, USA 1997) makes an obvious long con plot work because it is a self-aware comedy and it draws attention to the fact that it’s about to pull the rug out from under its lead character again and again. That doesn’t happen here, and that makes the con element of the film rather fall flat.

The film also loses itself in some moments of pure broad comedy that really do not advance its point at all. The most obvious of these moments is Jennifer Lawrence’s “Live and Let Die” sequence cleaning the house, but also includes scenes like her starting a fire with the microwave. Yes, she is comic relief and comic relief is fine, but there are times when she feels like part of a separate movie that has nothing to do with this film and is being stitched in just to get a super hot star into the film.

Visually, Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren present a brightly-lit film full of broad 1970s colors and seem obsessed with having cameras spinning about their characters. It emphasizes the bizarre world the film inhabits and just how strange and bewildering it is, but it’s also not terribly deep. And those tricks seem to be all the film has from a visual standpoint. I wouldn’t say the film is poor from a visual standpoint, just not very deep.

The acting deserves some attention from this film, which is chock-full of talented star actors performing very well with what they are given. Christian Bale is carefully physically hidden under the awful hair and the oversized belly and glasses, and he manages to successfully hide the enormous presence he usually has and walk with a nervousness that’s nothing like what he has done in the past. It’s not a terribly deep performance, but it’s very good at the note it hits. I would quibble with his line delivery as being quite derivative, coming across as an impersonation of Robert de Niro, but given the film that derivativeness actually makes sense. Amy Adams also has a relatively simple role as a smart, coolly manipulative beauty and she undoubtedly works, though again she has little to do. Jeremy Renner surprisingly comes across as an incredibly genuine guy with, as Irving says, a huge heart who just can’t stop himself when he should. Louis C.K. plays the same sort of not-too-bright, rather nervous character that he played on Parks and Recreation and seems like the same guy. However, the most difficult job here and the best performance belongs to Jennifer Lawrence. I will admit that for all that she has become such a huge star over the last few years, the only time I had ever seen her was in a small part in The Beaver (Jodie Foster, USA/United Arab Emirates 2011), so I was interested to see whether she would live up to the hype, and she certainly did. She had some scenes that were just comic showcases for her, which I don’t care about analyzing, but the rest of the time she was believable in a role that could easily have been so over the top as to be completely unacceptable, whether she was taking credit for protecting her family from the dangerous microwave by accidentally starting a fire with it or claiming that she sent a mobster to beat up Irving in order to motivate him. It’s an excellent performance on her part that deserves real acclaim.

Overall, American Hustle is an interesting film but one that’s a bit difficult to rate, because it tries to do so much and does some so well while doing some so poorly. I definitely found it to be a fun, enjoyable experience, but I’m not sure it’s deserving of quite the amount of praise it has received. It’s a fine film and I liked watching it, but it’s not any kind of masterpiece.

*A relatively obscure film that’s one of my all-time favorites. Not doing something as well as it does is not much of an indictment.