DVD/Stream of the Week: STORIES WE TELL – when life surprises…and how we explain it

Michael Polley in STORIES WE TELL

Stories We Tell is the third film from brilliant Canadian director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz), a documentary in which she interviews members of her own family about her mother, who died when Sarah was 11. It doesn’t take long before Sarah uncovers a major surprise about her own life. And then she steps into an even bigger surprise about the first surprise. And then there’s a completely unexpected reaction by Polley’s father Michael.

There are surprises aplenty in the Polley family saga, but how folks react to the discoveries is just as interesting. It helps that everyone in the Polley family has a deliciously wicked sense of humor.

The family story is compelling enough, but Polley also explores story telling itself. Everyone who knew Polley’s mother tells her story from a different perspective. But we can weave together the often conflicting versions into what seems like a pretty complete portrait of a complicated person.

Polley adds more layers of meaning and ties the material together by filming herself recording her father reading his version of the story – his memoir serves as the unifying narration.

To take us back to the 1960s, Polley uses one-third actual home movies and two-thirds re-creations (with actors) shot on Super 8 film. Polley hired cinematographer Iris Ng after seeing Ng’s 5 minute Super 8 short. The most haunting clip is a real one, a video of the actress Mom’s audition for a 60s Canadian TV show.

Make sure that you watch all of the end credits – there’s one more surprise, and it’s hilarious.

You can rent Stories We Tell on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Cinequest: LOST SOLACE

LOST SOLACE
LOST SOLACE

The Canadian psychological thriller Lost Solace takes a highly original premise and turns it into a pedal-to-the-metal thriller.  It’s an astonishingly successful debut for director and co-writer Chris Scheuerman.

Co-writer Andrew Jenkins stars as the psychopath Spence, whose life is devoted to exploiting women, stealing their stuff and emotionally devastating them to boot.   Spence is remarkably skilled and seems unstoppable until he unwisely ingests a recreational drug – he starts suffering hallucinatory episodes that are intensely emotional.  Here’s the brilliantly original core of Lost Solace – having the occasional fit of feelings and empathy really gets in the way of being a coolly cruel psychopath.

Spence targets the emotionally fragile rich girl Azaria (Melissa Roxburgh).  Melissa is burdened both by the care for her violently psychotic brother Jory (Charlie Kerr) and by years of verbal evisceration by her prick of a father, Chuck (Michael Kopsa).  Able to peg Spence as a scumbag, Jory offers Spence a share of his inheritance to kill Chuck.  It’s a plan hatched by a psychotic – what could possibly go wrong?  Add an ambitious physician (Leah Gibson) who is eager to cash in on a cure for psychopathy, and we’re off to the races.

Scheuerman is an economical story-teller who lets the audience connect the dots.  Spence doesn’t even speak until well into the movie. But Scheuerman spins a great tale, and as he reveals his characters, we see that Chuck may be every bit as fiendish as Spence and that Betty the doctor, may be just as greedy.  There’s plenty that can unravel Spence’s Perfect Crime, and that’s what keeps us on the edges of our seats.

Andrew Jenkins is completely believable as both the supremely confident Spence and, later, as the Spence determined to steel his way through his unexpected confusion.   The rest of the cast is exceptional, too, especially Kopsa and Gibson.

So far my personal favorite at Cinequest 2016, Lost Solace will have its World Premiere on Friday, March 4, and screen again on March 6 and 10.

Cinequest: HEAVEN’S FLOOR

HEAVEN'S FLOOR
HEAVEN’S FLOOR

Restlessness, thy name is Woman.  The absorbing and character-driven autobiographical drama Heaven’s Floor begins with photographer Julia (Clea Duvall) finishing a shoot, but then being reluctant to go home.  Now Julia has built herself a comfortable West LA life – career, marriage, kid, friends, house.  What is she missing?

Julia feeds her wanderlust by impulsively joining an arctic adventure led by Jack, a charming reprobate.  This isn’t fair to Julia’s husband Ed, but he dutifully covers for her on the home front.  The trip to the Canadian Arctic becomes more nightmare than adventure, and Julia is marooned in a small Inuit village where she meets an orphaned girl.  Both Julia’s compassion and her impulsivity kick into high gear, and we are off on a journey that will indelibly change several lives.

Note that Heaven’s Floor is autobiographical.  Indeed, what seem like the most improbable and extreme plot points in Heaven’s Floor really happened to writer-director Lori Stoll.  Stoll’s real life background as a photographer also informed the film’s cinematography – and the scenes in the Arctic are particularly impressive.

There’s plenty of exciting, true life adventure in Heaven’s Floor.  But, at its core, it is an evocatively crafted character study  of Julia – her restlessness, impulsivity, compassion and emotional needs.  Heaven’s Floor takes on a quest that may – or may not – satisfy those needs and complete the already complicated Julia.

Although it’s anything but a showy role, the part of Julia’s husband Ed is also remarkably written.   Movies are not often kind to characters who resist someone’s “following their heart”, no matter how impractical or whatever the consequences to others.  Yet Stoll’s depiction of the husband Ed is very sympathetic, as someone reacting with understandable resistance to impulsive, unilateral and life-changing commitments.

Clea DuVall has a knack for making small parts in good movies (21 Grams, Zodiac, Argo) memorable.  Here, she gets her chance at a leading role and her Julia keeps us on the edge of our seats; we care about her, but have no idea what she’s going to jump into next.  Toby Huss is very, very good as Julie’s loving but aggrieved husband Ed.  Veteran Irish actor Timothy V. Murphy sparkles as the huckster adventurer Jack who could sell the proverbial ice to Eskimos.

Heaven’s Floor is one of the 129 Cinequest films directed by a woman.  Heaven’s Floor’s World Premiere is at 6:45 PM on Friday, March 4 at Cinequest with more screenings on March 6 and 11.

Coming on Friday: an interview with Heaven’s Floor writer/director Lori Stoll.

 

Cinequest: ANTOINE ET MARIE

ANTOINE ET MARIE
ANTOINE ET MARIE

In the French-Canadian drama Antoine et Marie, a woman’s life is changed by an event. What happens to her is something that Marie herself must figure out, as must the audience. When we meet her, Marie is a forty-two-year-old clerk at an auto-repair business with a lust for life. She’s living with a guy who adores her, and she enjoys socializing with her with her work buddies. But something makes her unsettled and gradually sucks the spark out of her life. Will she find out the cause and decide what to do about it?

Antoine et Marie is extremely topical, but revealing that topic would be a significant spoiler, so you’re just gonna have to take my word for it.

Martine Francke delivers a superbly modulated performance as Marie. Sebastien Ricard is equally compelling as a repressed and dissatisfied blue collar husband and father.

This is writer-director Jimmy Larouche’s second feature film, and he has delivered a brilliantly constructed story with two unforgettable characters – and performances to match. Antoine et Marie is an unqualified success, tense and riveting all the way through.

Antoine et Marie’s US premiere will be February 28 at Cinequest, and it plays again on March 2 and 4, all at Camera 12.

DVD/Stream of the Week: THE GRAND SEDUCTION: funniest movie of 2014

THE GRAND SEDUCTION
THE GRAND SEDUCTION

The Canadian comedy The Grand Seduction is the funniest movie of the year so far. It’s a MUST SEE.

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard, The General, Braveheart) and Gordon Pinsent (Away from Her) play isolated Canadians try to snooker a young doctor (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights) into settling in their podunk village. They enlist the entire hamlet in an absurdly elaborate and risky ruse, and the result is a satisfying knee-slapper that reminds me of Waking Ned Devine with random acts of cricket.

The Grand Seduction opened this year’s Cinequest on an especially uproarious note. The audience, including me and The Wife, rollicked with laugh after laugh.  I can’t understand why, like Ned DevineThe Grand Seduction didn’t become a long-running imported art house hit like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Full MontyThe Grand Seduction is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

The Grand Seduction: funniest movie of the year so far

THE GRAND SEDUCTION
THE GRAND SEDUCTION

The Canadian comedy The Grand Seduction is the funniest movie of the year so far.  It’s a MUST SEE.

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard, The General, Braveheart) and Gordon Pinsent (Away from Her) play isolated Canadians try to snooker a young doctor (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights) into settling in their podunk village. They enlist the entire hamlet in an absurdly elaborate and risky ruse, and the result is a satisfying knee-slapper that reminds me of Waking Ned Devine with random acts of cricket.

The Grand Seduction opened this year’s Cinequest on an especially uproarious note. The audience, including me and The Wife, rollicked with laugh after laugh.   Like Ned Devine, I think that The Grand Seduction can become a long-running imported art house hit like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Full Monty.

Cinequest: The Grand Seduction

Cinequest opened on an especially uproarious note with the Canadian comedy The Grand Seduction.  The audience, including me and The Wife, rollicked with laugh after laugh.

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard, The General, Braveheart) and Gordon Pinsent (Away from Her) play isolated Canadians try to snooker a young doctor (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights) into settling in their podunk village.  They enlist the entire hamlet in an absurdly elaborate and risky ruse, and the result is a satisfying knee-slapper that reminds me of Waking Ned Devine with random acts of cricket.

Like Ned Devine, I think that The Grand Seduction can become a long-running imported art house hit like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Full Monty.  And I would definitely see it again.

Stories We Tell: when life surprises…and how we explain it

Michael Polley in STORIES WE TELL

Stories We Tell is the third film from brilliant young Canadian director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz), a documentary in which she interviews members of her own family about her mother, who died when Sarah was 11.  It doesn’t take long before Sarah uncovers a major surprise about her own life.  And then she steps into an even bigger surprise about the first surprise.  And then there’s a completely unexpected reaction by Polley’s father Michael. 

There are surprises aplenty in the Polley family saga, but how folks react to the discoveries is just as interesting.  It helps that everyone in the Polley family has a deliciously wicked sense of humor.

The family story is compelling enough, but Polley also explores story telling itself.  Everyone who knew Polley’s mother tells her story from a different perspective.  But we can weave together the often conflicting versions into what seems like a pretty complete portrait of a complicated person.

Polley adds more layers of meaning and ties the material together by filming herself recording her father reading his version of the story – his memoir serves as the unifying narration. 

To take us back to the 1960s, Polley uses one-third actual home movies and two-thirds re-creations (with actors) shot on Super 8 film.  Polley hired cinematographer Iris Ng after seeing Ng’s 5 minute Super 8 short.  The most haunting clip is a real one, a video of  the actress Mom’s audition for a 60s Canadian TV show.

Make sure that you stay for the end credits – there’s one more surprise, and it’s hilarious.

DVD of the Week: Monsieur Lazhar

This week’s pick is on my list of Best Movies of 2012 – So Far.

A fifth grade class in Montreal loses its teacher in just about the worst possible way – she hangs herself in their classroom at recess.  Monsieur Lazhar is about how the kids face this trauma with their replacement teacher, an Algerian immigrant.  The school gets a psychologist to lecture to the kids, but bans them from otherwise mentioning the suicide in class – a rule designed to minimize the discomfort of the administrators and parents.  Meanwhile, the school’s zero tolerance rule against touching children means that the kids can’t get a reassuring hug.

The new teacher, Monsieur Lazhar (well-played by Mohammed Fellag), is a traditionalist who demands respect but with humor and compassion.  He also seems oddly ignorant of modern teaching methods.  Although mild-mannered, he is fiercely devoted to protecting the kids.  That devotion keeps him from sharing his own burden with the children, for we learn that he, too, has reason to grieve.

Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and won Canada’s equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar.  The child actors are superb.  It’s an uncommonly sweet and powerful film.