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A Meta Life
8 June 2013
Filmmaker/actress Sarah Polley deserves to be titled in that order, if it makes a huge difference. Yes, she's a luminous actress, but over the past 4 years and 3 films, Polley has ascended into something bigger than that... a woman crafting tremendous, personal works of art that transcend her young age.

Polley's latest film, "Stories We Tell" is a documentary, turning the lens on herself and her own family as she scalpels away at the truth of the infectious personality of mom Diane and exactly what happened in the late 70's. Using direct interviews, grainy home video footage and even actor-portrayed recreations, "Stories We Tell" charts the timeline of her family with judicious investigation. Why doesn't she look like the rest of her family? What causes a marriage to fade into boredom and familiarity? And what's the responsibility of future generations to trace the truth of past ones? All of these questions are answered in Polley's capable hands, at great personal cost to all.

In actuality, Polley has probably been answering these questions for years now. Her debut film, "Away From Her" was a moving and real depiction of a woman's slow ascent into sickness, featuring a wonderfully nuanced performance by Julie Christie and, obviously, based on the slow progression of cancer that eventually took Polley's own mother when she was just 11 years old. Last year, Polley released "Take This Waltz"... a film starring Michelle Williams as a woman torn between the comforts (and boredom) of marriage and the exciting possibility of an affair. I was on the fence about the film, amazed by certain moments of spontaneity but taken aback by the weird outbursts of Williams' character. After seeing "Stories We Tell", it's clear "Take This Waltz" was more autobiographical than anyone realized. Both films, seen as a fictional and then non-fictional rendering of the same woman- Polley's mother- compliment each other and deepen the conflicted and quizzical feelings Sarah must have about her mother. While most of us can appreciate a parent in the here and now, Polley is recreating her through grainy images, interpretive writing and tough questions.

In "Stories We Tell", a unique structure is used where her own father reads aloud from a text (we find out at the end of the film where it came from) and Polley frames the images around the meta-textual musings. It's ironic (and somehow perfect) that the most memorable images of the documentary are stationary reaction shots of Polley as she listens, her face or mouth or eyes tightening or twitching in discovery as the words are made. Not only is it a human moment, but a touching one that forces the audience to discover and relate to her own discovery. The best non-fiction works, like those of Jonathan Caouette or Ross McElwee, not only mine the potential of a great personal story but they allow us unsettling peaks behind the emotional curtain of the author or storyteller. Sarah Polley has created a brave undressing of her family that not only belongs in this class of personal docudrama, but stands head and shoulders above anything else this year so far.
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Another Assayas knockout
26 May 2013
"Something In the Air", the latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas feels like his most personal since "Cold Water" in 1994. Both films feature a young man named Gilles (this time played by Clement Metayer) acting as the surrogate for Assayas himself, tantalizingly poised on the precipice of awkward adulthood. But where "Cold Water" dealt with interior feelings of belonging and amour fou (in the relationship with beautiful but dangerous Virginie Ledoyen), the stakes are a bit higher in "Something In the Air". Set in Paris after the May events of '68, this Gilles and his close sect of friends find themselves mixed up in violent student activism… so violent that they accidentally hurt a security guard during a routine vandalism attempt and are forced to split up in hiding. And while the first third or so of "Something In the Air" deals with these subversive acts of revolution, the real thrust of Assayas' narrative kicks in after this action, setting up Gilles, Christine (the wonderful Lole Creton), Alaine (Felix Armand) and their various lovers to seek out their own paths in life. The title, while initially evoking the revolutionary scents in the air, subtly changes to denote the forks in the road each individual takes with their lives. Assayas handles all this reverie beautifully, never losing his gentle touch on relationships and staying to true to the way he continually crafts a knockout finale. It may not all be 100% accurate, but the way in which Gilles the man on screen become Assayas the filmmaker is still precise, loving and attuned to the nuances of everyday emotions.
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Lovely Winterbottom debut
25 October 2011
Besides being one of my very favorite filmmakers, British director Michael Winterbottom is a true chameleon.... one of the closest things we have today (along with Steven Soderbergh) of the studio boys back in the 40's and 50's who were able to parlay an extensive list of films together over a number of years, weaving in and out of genre and styles with ruthless efficiency. At the heart of many of Winterbottom's films lies an inherent respect for the serendipitous moments that people discover with others throughout their daily hustle and bustle. "Wonderland", "The Claim", "The Trip", "Summer in Genoa" all bracket a human drama against the wild tonality of a road movie. Winterbottom also loves his rock music, as evident in "24 Hour Party People" and "9 Songs". Both of these tendencies are at the center of his debut 1990 debut film "Forget About Me". Starring Ewen Bremner and Brian Mccardie, "Forget About Me" begins as a road as two soldiers in training take their Christmas leave and travel to Budapest to see their favorite band, Simple Minds, perform. Along the way they pick up a beautiful hippie girl hitchhiker named Czilla (Zsuzsanna Varkonyi) and they lay over in her Hungarian hometown where they're introduced to local culture, the girl's shifting affinities for both boys and Hungarian death metal.

Financed by British television and gaining some exposure on the festival circuit in early 1990, at first glance "Forget About Me" feels like an airy, insubstantial piece of love triangle drama. On a second viewing, the awkward moments between the two soldiers and Czilla and Winterbottom's hand-held camera capture uniquely moving flutters of emotion and feeling. In one scene- and one of the first where Czilla turns her attention towards the more mild mannered Broke (Ewen Bremner)- her playful advances come as he's shaving in the mirror. They chase each other around the room for a minute before the tension sets in. In another, Czilla and Broke run away from a party where her rocker ex-boyfriend Attila (Attila Grandpierre) has picked a fight with Bunny (Mccardie) and the two end up in the middle of family dance party at midnight. It's a magical little moment where no words are exchanged and the mood of a vibrant, surreal foreign country sets in perfectly. In description, this type of independent, hippie road movie seems hackneyed to say the least, but in 1990, I'm sure it felt otherworldly and a bit ahead of its time. Bottom line, "Forget About Me" owes more to the loose French nouvelle vague then the sometimes over hyped Alexander Payne 'search films'.

In addition to establishing many themes later revisited by Winterbottom, "Forget About Me" also marks the first time Winterbottom and friend/screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce would work together, later collaborating on such diverse films as "Code 46", "Welcome To Sarajevo" and "Tristram Shandy; A Cock and Bull Story". The script for "Forget About Me" is simple, relying on the elusive, natural beauty of female star Varkonyi and the wild-eyed innocence of Mccardie and Bremner as they experience life for the first time. And the ultimate irony of the film? When the two lads finally do get to attend the Simple Minds concert they've traveled over 400 miles to see (and which is shortly filmed, possible leading to the reason the film has never been released in any home video format), Bremner wanders off into the night unable to cope with the crushing effects of a grown up romance. It all feels a bit biographical, and perhaps Boyce and Winterbottom were these two lads at some point.
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A good Kurosawa
19 September 2011
Before emerging as an international cult favorite with the slow-burn thriller "Cure" in 1997, Kiyoshi Kurosawa was deeply mired in producing efficient and violent direct to video yakuza cheapies. The six part TV series "Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself" (1995-1996) had made Kurosawa a well known artist in Japan, and this gave him the license to create further experiments in the yakuza genre, playing with conventions and, ultimately, not really taking the genre very seriously. "The Revenge; Parts 1 and 2" were prime examples of a filmmaker whose boredom with the idea of the embedded yakuza culture gave way to seeing just how oblique he could make the well-worn genre look.

If some studio were to bless Kurosawa with the finances to create an 8 hour gangster flick, I'm certain he'd run with the idea. Like his later films "The Serpent's Path" and "Eyes of the Spider", Kurosawa takes a central theme and tweaks it just enough to back end two films together in alternating fashion. Starring long time regular Sho Aikawa, "The Revenge; Parts 1 and 2" tracks a man's existence from goodly cop to incessant revenge-driven killer after his wife is murdered by the local yakuza. Part 1, titled "A Visit From Fate", is the better of the two parts, building up a slight back story for Aikawa's cop Anjo as his family is murdered before his eyes while he cowers in the closet as a scared five year old. Spared by the seemingly aloof killer, Anjo grows up to become a policeman. After a drug suspect kills himself when running from Anjo later in life, his body is picked up by a guardian, who turns out to be the seemingly benign killer who spared his life as a child. Anjo's tracking of the guardian leads him into the spotlight of a local yakuza gang, so they murder his wife as a warning. From there, Part 1 and Part 2, titled "A Scar That Never Disappears", follows Anjo on his quiet but violent quest to exact revenge.
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The Last Run (1971)
Great, hard to find Euro thriller
26 June 2010
The plot is simple: an aging criminal getaway driver stumbles out of semi-retirement for one last job and ends up getting more than he bargained for. It's the stuff film noir writers have dreamed up for years. But in Richard Fleischer's "The Last Run", released in 1971 and starring George C. Scott, it feels refreshingly original and brash.

A troubled production from the start, "The Last Run" barreled through several directors (including John Huston) before Fleischer came on board. It probably wouldn't have been quite as successful without the star status of Scott... an interestingly low budget choice for an actor spring boarding off his home run performance in the blockbuster "Patton" a year earlier. And it is Scott who gives the film its grizzled pessimism... portraying his character Harry Garmes as a guy who understands the consequences of a lifetime on the fringes. He doesn't wink at the audience and for that, "The Last Run" is a seriously overlooked film that ranks with "The Outfit" and "Prime Cut" as three no-nonsense early 70's examples of the crime picture done amazingly right.
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Odd intro to a great filmmaker
6 March 2010
Kurosawa's debut film is something of a compromising mess. Part "pinku" film and part self-referential art film, it's clear he stayed true on his commission of delivering a straight up erotic film while sneaking in bouts of Godard-like pop moments and sly evocations of Hitchcock. The story: two female friends, one bored by continuous sex with her boyfriend and the other just bored, spy across the street from their apartments and observe an older woman forcing her son into incest. They devise a plan to spring him from the confines of this life, thus sending the film into an airy series of foiled freedom attempts and long shot rolls in the hay. It doesn't always come together, but Kurosawa's deviant swipes of humor and his obvious love for Godardian snatches of cinema (the two women staring directly at the camera and posting a paper on the wall that reads "charge!", as well as the endless names of classic films on the background of one apartment) create a slowly endearing attitude.
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One of my favs of the year
27 October 2006
First time director Dito Montiel's "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" is a harsh autobiographical look back at his youth on the mean streets of Astoria, Queens in the mid 1980's. From the film's opening moments, Montiel introduces us to an intimate world of family and friendship that totally blindsided me by its greatness. There are moments in "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" that roll along with such force and emotion, that Montiel feels like a natural born filmmaker, infusing his personal heartache into strong characters breathing within a vivid time and place. Montiel's handling of edits, sound, and music are also powerful, such as a scene in Dito's kitchen between his father and group of friends that explodes into stark images and quick cuts to black. Montiel also handles the return home of Downey Jr. with care and vulnerability, searching for small answers that come in revelatory conversations with his mother (Dianne Weist) and grown up girlfriend Dianne (played by Rosario Dawson). And while such personal material can be hard to translate without lapsing into melancholy, Montiel finds a way to craft a clear eyed version of his life, allowing strong acting and electric film-making to take over the balance of the experience. I love finding unheralded gems such as this. The name of Robert Downey Jr. brought me to the theater and I discovered a true talent in Dito Montiel who has crafted one of the finest directing debuts in several years
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