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Review: Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley is much more interested in the malleability of memory and the consequential refractions felt throughout her kin rather than telling a linear narrative.

 

3.5

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Stories We Tell
Photo: Roadside Attractions

As if adapting a family photo album into a humane Rashomon-esque documentary, Sarah Polley’s multi-faceted and confrontational Stories We Tell lays out the complex history of her family makeup and investigates the seeds of her own existence. Inward-looking, and yet eschewing narcissism, Polley constructs the mostly Toronto-based narrative via inherently nostalgic Super 8 footage, comprehensive interviews with her close relatives and family friends, and an elegantly composed voiceover from the patriarch, Michael. Foreshadowing the conceit of homegrown yet fascinating storytelling of family secrets that would make Ira Glass’s head spin (This Canadian Life, perhaps?), Polley opens the intensely personal film with a quote from Margaret Atwood: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it’s not yet a story.”

From the onset, the genre-bending documentary is aggressively framed; it peeks behind the scenes of siblings’ living rooms, and the sound studio exquisitely sets the tone as Polley’s family members prepare to act as storytellers of oral tradition within the family’s universe. Polley jokes to one of her siblings as the film crew sets up, waiting to film an initial confessional: “We told you it’s a documentary, but it’s actually an interrogation process.” Each family speaks their own language, and as this household is a sprawling clan sprouted from parents who were writers and actors, it’s apt that Polley chose a multi-narrator cinematic personal essay through which to communicate their saga.

The story begins primarily as a deceptively simple profile of Polley’s late mother, Diane, and the relationship she had with husband Michael. Diane was a vivacious soul, reminiscent of a Cactus Flower-era Goldie Hawn mixed with French New Wave icon Jeanne Moreau in appearance and behavior—a would-be actress who was pleased to roll around in the snow with her and Michael’s three children throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, yet craved more outlets to express her infectious energy. With Michael being of more stoic and introspective character unable to fulfill his promise as a writer, Diane was disappointed in the frustrated and introverted actor/writer she married and loved; upon being cast in a play in Montreal, Diane leaves for a brief stint, excited about the brief sojourn from Toronto, leaving Michael to become a more engaged father to their two children and reflect on their tumultuous marriage.

After a mirthful reunion during a visit to Montreal, Michael and Diane revived the joy within their marriage; when Diane returns to Toronto, she’s surprised to discover she’s pregnant with Sarah. Life endured until Diane was diagnosed with cancer in the mid ‘80s, her spirit crushed, and when Sarah was only 11 years old in 1990, Diane passed away. In the wake of Diane’s death, however, a rumor surfaces within the family—via an eavesdropping son recalling a private conversation Diane had over the phone—that Diane may have had an affair in Montreal and a morbid family in-joke soon becomes an investigation for Sarah to search for a biological father that may not be Michael.

Polley is much more interested in the malleability of memory and the consequential refractions felt throughout her kin rather than telling a linear narrative. This, of course, is the nature of family anecdotes: those tales—wry and often full of absurd coincidences—that are repeatedly told at every family gathering, molded from various perspectives, as if they would evaporate if they weren’t presented and shaped throughout a family’s ongoing history to recollect on the past and reflect on the present. Stories We Tell consistently posits an existential inquiry into the way narratives are framed, and the coping mechanism of selective memory, respectful of, and yet questioning, the contribution of each storyteller (as they’re billed in the credits). Polley often tells relatives what other interviewees said in their interviews, and they react with “I don’t exactly remember it like that” before adding the slight moderation on who said what in which place and when, often adjusting one or two elements of the Who What When Where Why How to reach a fuller vision.

The film’s greatest success is the way it captures the essence of what it means to be a family, despite the fissures in the cracks of its foundation—that sly ethos from which we appreciate, become annoyed, feel guilty, and ultimately understand our relations both socially and genetically. The pieces of film feel intertwined with DNA, and the audience feels welcome yet suitably unnerved while learning the various dynamics and attitudes in this exhaustive and tricky story, which ricochets into new narratives with every new discovery. Stories We Tell continues to weave a sprawling tapestry that, like family, feels so much more significant when considering the context—and Polley unyieldingly layers contexts and perspectives to frame the multiple sides of each situation to uncover ideal truths and question the ethical validity of controlling this history.

Given the inspired mess of introductions and devices that open the documentary, what began as a delicately told marital observation unsurprisingly unfolds as a subversively inventive, mythic portrait of chaotic scenarios leading to potential family entropy. Despite never placing herself in front of the camera to be directly interviewed, Polley is hyper-aware of her own narrative framing, apprehending the tacit balance of perspective and potential deceit that comes with the editorial and filmmaking process. Polley is occasionally seen in the sound studio, listening as Michael reads the voiceover and occasionally interjecting, “Dad, can you go over that line again.” (In one instance he replies, “Aw, really? But I was being so real.”) Shockingly, these tools of self-reflexivity immerse instead of alienate, forging the audience to become part of the experience of this family and feel at once warm and intellectually tickled.

Stories We Tell hints at a meta-film without ever abandoning the genuine spirit and search that oozes with the perfectly calibrated balance of headiness and poignancy. Because of this, and Polley’s exploration of her late mother, the film feels special in the most alarmingly personal way, and not only because it’s so obviously close to Polley. If the conclusion is a rambling, unwieldy study on the responsibilities of storytelling, it’s because the filmmaker can’t help herself—and appropriately so, considering the sloppy intimacy of this reality she’s turning into a nonfiction film. In a protracted and devastatingly powerful finale, she exposes, once again, the filmmaking devices and editing tricks that serve to deceive and yet elicit truth and pathos nonetheless. As an actress, student, and practitioner of film, Polley uses the tool of cinema as a form of therapy, as a way to rationalize and gain deeper, satisfying clarity for how the world of her family functions, and we’re pleased to lie on the couch and silently weep along through each bittersweet realization.

Cast: Michael Polley, John Buchan, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley, Harry Gulkin, Susy Buchan, Sarah Polley Director: Sarah Polley Screenwriter: Sarah Polley Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2012 Buy: Video

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Features

Top 10 Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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Misery
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

5. Christine (1983)

John Carpenter is an ideal director for this story of a haunted 1958 Plymouth Fury that possesses its newest teenaged buyer, leading to a supernatural revenge-of-the-nerds scenario that was already a trademark of King’s writing by this point. A master of composition, Carpenter emphasizes the car’s unerring verticality and horizontality, contrasting these antique dimensions, and the American prosperity they symbolize, with the general hopelessness of the 1980s. A chillier artist than King, Carpenter dries the narrative of its overheated dimensions, which paradoxically brings the tragedy of the people that Christine ruins into starker focus. One wishes that Carpenter had attempted to stage a few of King’s crazier flourishes (such as Christine’s chilling methods of disposing of her victims), but this is nevertheless a sleekly atmospheric, disturbing, and generally overlooked entry in Carpenter’s canon.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

4. The Dead Zone (1983)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of one of King’s best novels displays a working philosophy that will characterize the filmmaker’s future interpretations of “difficult” books by William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Don DeLillo: He finds the thematic center of the source material, pruning or changing whatever’s necessary to heighten it. In this case, Cronenberg softens King’s kink and gore, honing the narrative to entirely reflect the yearning for “normalcy” that hounds Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) as a car accident and prolonged coma transform him from a meek, gawky schoolteacher into a tormented, decidedly Walken-esque eccentric who resembles a rock star and proceeds to alter people’s futures. Walken’s playing a classic Cronenberg protagonist: a gifted, temporarily empowered man who’s altered in a fashion that allows him to wrestle, tragically, with the differences between his internal and external selves. There’s a memorably lonely, unsettling image of a long, gray tunnel that encapsulates Johnny’s straddling of two worlds: the conventional world, and the “dead zone” that he accesses when calling on his new power.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

3. The Shining (1980)

The most hotly debated of King film adaptations, and, as in most debates, all sides are partially right. Yes, the famously grouchy author is correct in asserting that director Stanley Kubrick nulled the tragedy fueling the novel, portraying the film’s protagonist as someone who’s callous and crazy before they’ve even set foot in the haunted Colorado hotel forebodingly located somewhere in the wintery mountains. And, yes, the film is distractingly misogynistic, showing at best an obligatory amount of sympathy for the imperiled woman at its center. Yet, these qualities are precisely, in part, why Kubrick’s The Shining is so fascinating. The director admires the simplicity of King’s pulp setup, but distrusts the author’s sense of humanity and autobiographical feelings of collusion with the family; instead, Kubrick’s attempting a purely primal rendering of the ageless cruelty that resides deep underneath all horror. Kubrick fashions a brilliant formal object, a cynically existential horror companion to his 2001, suggesting what might have happened if Alain Resnais had directed The Haunting. And, yes, Kubrick’s hedge maze is scarier than King’s hedge animals.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

2. Cujo (1983)

Lewis Teague’s gallingly underrated adaptation of an equally underrated novel embraces the unwavering, visceral brutality of King’s writing in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The book’s central conceit—of a rabid Saint Bernard as a metaphor for unchecked addiction—is softened by narrative trimming, but the chaos, violation, and sheer velocity of King’s vision are still allowed to break through. Teague beautifully builds to the carnage, allowing us to feel sympathy for Cujo even as he devolves into a monster, emphasizing the heavy heat of the dog’s body as it grows deranged by disease, and, later, the piercing sun as it bakes a mother and son trapped by Cujo in their broken-down car. That car is a significant touch: King’s interest in addiction may be dulled here, but his understanding of the apocalyptic fear gripping those with money problems is accorded full prominence. As Cujo’s prospective victims, Dee Wallace Stone and Danny Pintauro give performances of such naked, panicked urgency that the viewer feels as if they’re eavesdropping on something privileged and primordially awful. This is the film that Mary Lambert’s misbegotten Pet Semetary wanted to be.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

1. Carrie (1976)

The first and still greatest Stephen King adaptation is as much an announcement for director Brian De Palma as it is for King, and the artists complement one another throughout Carrie. Unlike many filmmakers, De Palma doesn’t shy away from King’s propensity for melodrama; he embraces it, finding his own footing as a formally sophisticated horror trickster in the process. Carrie was King’s first novel, and it’s structurally awkward though driven by an emotional force that would define his writing. It’s this force that De Palma keys in on, smoothing out the narrative wrinkles, deepening the ironies and characterizations, fashioning a horror opera out of alienation and estrangement, revealing an elaborate high school caste system that’s finally punished for its unwavering cruelty. One of the best and most poignant of all horror films, with astonishingly big and heartbreaking performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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Film

Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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