storieswetellposterIf you think you know anyone, even your closest family member, you may be wrong. Canadian director Sarah Polley makes that vividly clear with her new film Stories We Tell. After losing her mother Diane to cancer, Polley tries to demystify some of the subtle mysteries behind the woman who bore her into this world.  Unfurling like a rosebud into infinity, the more Polley explores, the more unknowable her mother seems. The journey is heartfelt, witty and devastating. As Polley has proved throughout her cinematic career, which also includes such marvels as Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), she has composed another film about relationships that is both humbling and transcendent.

The candid cinéma vérité thing may seem cliché by now, but Polley’s casual set-up of her family preparing to tell the story of her mother is breathtaking in its brilliant brevity, as she ends with a match cut of her and her mother’s faces at around the same age. Her siblings, two brothers and a sister, and her father, fuss and complain of a sense of discomfort sitting in front of her camera. Stories-We-Tell-1There’s a human sense of insecurity captured in candid commentaries as they worry about how they appear on the monitor. It’s stuff they probably never wanted or expected to appear in the film, but as such becomes more real than anything played self-consciously to the camera. Then there is a dissolve to black and white footage as the elder Polley settles in similarly for a vintage television appearance. Her own discomfort passed down to this younger generation. As the beautiful Bon Iver song “Skinny Love” quietly stirs along, Polley’s face melds with her mother during the song’s climax where singer Justin Vernon howls “And I told you to be balanced/And I told you to be kind.” It’s a ghostly, stirring moment that speaks to the film’s multi-layered brilliance, capturing both the doubt and intimacy between the generations.

As Diane was an actress, and the man who married her seemed obsessive with shooting home video, there exists a lot of vintage footage for Polley to incorporate into her film. stories-we-tell-485Polley puts her father in a recording booth to read his own story about her mother. Like everyone she asks, he is told to start at the beginning, when he first met Diane, and keep going until her end. Everyone seems taken aback at such an all-encompassing question. But as daunting as it might seem, there also lies a sense of trepidation. How much knowledge is too much, and is there even truth to be had in any such knowledge?

Despite the mystery upon mystery revealed by the film’s meandering but always surprising narrative from the various interview subjects, what comes across from Polley’s research is far from empty. It actually illustrates the complexity of any one person’s life and the array of personas within all of us. We all behave differently at school versus home with family, so no one but sociopaths should be surprised. Just as children try on their personas in those two different worlds, the film offers an illuminating insight into both family and the mother’s career choice: acting. But, then there are the additional shifts in persona that exist on a more intimate level that may seem a bit more subtle. Some women interview by Polley volunteer: “She had secrets.”

The film is filled with such tidbits that keep stringing the viewer along and engaged. Polley effortlessly weaves the various perspectives while also offering behind-the-scenes glimpses that reinforce the film’s intimate quality. Stories_we_tellIt does not come across as voyeuristic. Despite some tears from her siblings over this journey into loss, the film is relatable beyond this one family unit because this is not necessarily only about Polley’s family but family in general.

Meanwhile, it remains dramatic in its own way. At the very end it offers a note, a passing thought—maybe a fact— that turns the whole film on its head, staying true to the aloof and unknowable woman at the heart of Stories We Tell but maintaining its thesis of growing up among strangers. Just when you think you might know someone, another fact pops up that will redefine the perspective. Though the story is as intimate and personal as one can imagine, there’s also a melancholy thesis that the only person and the only world one can really know is one’s own experience.

Hans Morgenstern

Stories We Tell runs 108 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater this Friday, June 14. The theater arranged for on-line screener for the purposes of this review. This documentary is also playing in other theaters nationwide; check out the film’s official blogspot site for theaters.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Joaquin Phoenix in 'The-Master.' Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.There were many great film experiences for me this year. I had more access than ever thanks to the Florida Film Critics Circle, a group of professional film writers who welcomed me into their group in 2011. We voted on many films for several categories. The results of these winners was posted and discussed a bit here.

However, as the critic motivated to celebrate the independent ethos of creators of art, my votes for best films and their components often steer toward another direction. Well-made films are not always easy to understand (though they must first be well-made: smart, writing, illuminating pacing, surprising cinematography,  an eye for miseen-scène, great soundtracks and powerful acting performances can all be found in the films listed below). If I learned one thing while completing my MA thesis on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is that the depiction of the sublime should never seem literal. I would blame Ang Lee’s Life of Pi for something like that. It is also well and good that a film have entertainment value. I won’t deny that I enjoyed Ben Affleck’s Argo, but was it something more than thrilling jingoistic entertainment? It was not. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty does a little better, as it explores the slipperiness of the notion of truth. It’s a subtle thing, overshadowed by lots of dramatic violence, including 20 long opening minutes of torture, explosions and a climactic ambush attack whose results are no spoiler (review to come sometime next week).

Though one of the better film experiences of the year, Zero Dark Thirty still does not enter my top 10 (it may enter my top 20— that list to come in February). My top 10 are for those looking for something even deeper. It starts with a gut feeling that is hard to explain, but even if you cannot understand the film at first glance, there is something in it that makes you feel you saw something different. These films often warrant and reward repeat viewings (or a lengthy review on my part). Several of the films listed below I did see more than once this year. Here are my top 10 films of 2012, as of Dec. 31 (with links to my original reviews were appropriate. Note: all titles are links that will re-direct you to the title’s Blu-ray version on Amazon. By buying the item through that link, you support the Independent Ethos with a commission at no extra charge to you):


1. The Master

(read my full review)

The Turin Horse - poster art

2. The Turin Horse

(read my full review)

Holy Motors - poster art. Image courtesy of Indomina Releasing

3. Holy Motors

(read my full review)

'This Is Not a Film' poster art

4. This is Not a Film

(read my full review)

Amour - poster art

5. Amour

(read my full review)


6. Take This Waltz

(This film was not reviewed on Independent Ethos)

'In the Family' Poster art. Image courtesy of In the Family LLC

7. In the Family

(read my full review)


8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

(This film was not reviewed on Independent Ethos)

Moonrise Kingdom - poster art

9. Moonrise Kingdom

(read my full review)


10. Cosmopolis

(read my full review)

Now, why “as of Dec. 31” or the “so far” in this post’s title? As noted in a similar post for 2011, based on my experience as a film critic in Miami, many great foreign films of the year do not make it to my area until the early part of the following year. Amour saw its debut in Cannes at the start of this year, but will not see official release in Miami until the end of January. Thanks to my membership in the FFCC I had a chance to see this movie way in advance. However, I still have not had the opportunity to see much praised foreign works like Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, Christian Petzold’s Barbara and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. I also have some catching up to do. I have yet to see Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds and Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. So there is still time for the top 10 to shift. In order to make up for the shift and allow for some text to explain my top 10 (the under-appreciated and often superficially understood Take This Waltz especially merits some explaining). In February, I plan to do what I did for my favorite films of 2011 with this post and this post. So here’s to looking forward to what 2013 has to bring. Happy New Year, indeed!


Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Last year, Bridesmaids received much hype for featuring women doing funny things in a script written by a woman. Though directed by a man (Paul Feig), the media hyped it as a “look-women-are-funny-too” because Kristen Wiig co-wrote the script (with Annie Mumolo) and performed in the lead role. There was even a serious push for a best picture Oscar®, despite it being base, fluffy sit-com material that goes down as quick and forgettably as fast food. An Oscar® for that? Still, at least the film maintained a focus on female characters that it never compromised.

Celeste and Jesse Forever finally arrives in wide release on a similar wave of hype following its Sundance Film Festival debut earlier this year. Rashida Jones, who is probably best known as a cast member on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack and plays the titular Celeste, with Andy Samberg taking on her other half. Though— like Bridesmaids— directed by a man (Lee Toland Krieger), Celeste and Jesse Forever seems to again been heralded as another entry of this “movement” of woman filmmaker/starring pieces in Hollywood. And maybe it could have lived up to such ballyhoo had it not spent so much time compromising the female perspective to tie up every loose end in the plot and concern itself halfheartedly with the man’s view in the couple. The film becomes one squandered opportunity, as indeed Celeste is an interesting female character … when she’s not pausing for someone else to steal the spotlight. She becomes lost in the haze of too many zany characters and sub-plots. What could have been a film of touching quality becomes a din of noise reaching too far for inclusiveness and appeal.

About 70 percent of the film seems devoted to Celeste and 20 percent figures on Jesse, while 10 percent focuses on other characters who are never fleshed out enough to even care about. These people include Celeste and Jesse’s engaged friends, Beth and Tucker (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), Celeste’s wannabe queer media company boss (Elijah Wood), a pop star (Emma Roberts) whose image Celeste is supposed to boost in her role as a “trend forecaster” and a possible suitor for Celeste (Chris Messina). There’s also a few seconds of time devoted to the couple’s mutual dope-dealing friend (McCormack) … because pot dealers are so darn cute and funny in movies nowadays.

This “hip” couple is established at the film’s beginning driving in their hybrid vehicle, singing with gusto to Lily Allen. He’s a slacker surfer and graphic designer while she’s a pop culture specialist with such disdain for her specialty she authored a book called “Shitegeist.” Though they share jokes, like putting on phony German accents as they peruse a restaurant menu aloud together and simulating handjobs to lip balm as they mutually squeeze the tube, it turns out they have decided to divorce after five years of marriage. Instead of a fight that shows the couple’s dysfunction, these instances of cute, comfortable interactions serve to inform their reasons for divorce. As husband and wife they have only become best friends, not a romantic couple or a team with ambitions for children and careers.

Beth and Tucker sit across from Celeste and Jesse at a restaurant, as Celeste and Jesse put on their German accents. Beth and Tucker make faces of disgust, calling the soon-to-be divorcees creepy. Meanwhile, Celeste and Jesse put on their own faces of disgust as Beth and Tucker smooch at the table. Granted, the fiances’ behavior is portrayed as cutesy and over-the-top, but what’s really happening is a revelatory moment that shows Celeste and Jesse acting like elementary school kids too immature to have married in the first place. At the end of the night, Celeste and Jesse get drunk on wine when Jesse comes out of the studio in back of the house they once shared to help Celeste build an Ikea shelf. Neither can figure out the instructions (wink, wink. It’s Ikea!), so Jesse saws and hammers together a robot sculpture, and they have sex. That’s when Celeste realizes she must finally kick Jesse off the property and force him to find a job.

There exists a fine line in comedies of this sort. Where does the script serve to illuminate a character or give characters something witty to do in service of the script’s witty ideas? The actors seem to serve a script eager to get to the next witty idea of character development, that does nothing to reveal much growth or decline in the characters. They just seem to tread water. Characters in these comedies always seem funnier when they smoke pot, so both Celeste and Jesse separately get a turn at spend time with their dope fiend friend.

Then there are “original” ideas like the simulation of a hand job to the lip balm the two share more than once in the film, like some secret handshake. It becomes distracting in hollow humor from the true problems of these characters: they’re adult children. Instead of exploring why these two do not truly connect as a married couple, the film presents humorous situations that gloss over the characters problems and, in effect, problems in the script.

I had hoped for a more light-hearted take on the dissolution of a marriage than Sarah Polley’s little-seen masterpiece Take This Waltz (starring a couple of capable comedians in dramatic roles: Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman). Instead, all I saw in Celeste and Jesse Forever was an amalgam of precious scenarios too concerned with finding superficial conclusions for every other character that appears in the movie (the tidiest and, in effect, most ludicrous of which involves a male model Celeste dates for a moment and Celeste’s way too quick taming of Roberts’ Ke$ha-like pop star, another wasted female character turned into a punchline). Though presented as an indie film, as its distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, the film compromises to the Classical Hollywood form almost slavishly.

When there are moments of dramatic, emotional diversion, out comes the unsteady camera and plaintive, quite few seconds of the character. The director never lingers enough to allow these respites from the din of story-telling and humor to sink in to any significance. These moments just seem out of place. The film seems scatter-shot and its over-reaching allows it to ring hollow. Had the film simply focused on Celeste and allowed these other characters to wander through, damn their own fates, this could have been a much more interesting and engaging film. Jones’ character only becomes uninteresting when she has to take a backseat to the other actors’ story lines. That happens way too often to allow her to matter, when it is she, in the end, who must do some growing up. But who wants to see an immature woman grow? Is that too risky a film for Hollywood? Shame on this cop-out that ultimately sells short what could have been an interesting female-led film.

Hans Morgenstern


Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing Celeste and Jesse Forever in South Florida this Friday, Aug. 24, at the following theaters:

Gateway 4 – Fort Lauderdale, FL
Cinemark Palace 20 – Boca Raton, FL
Cinemark Paradise 24 – Davie, FL
Shadowood 16 – Boca Raton, FL
Delray Beach 18 – Delray Beach, FL
Regal South Beach – Miami Beach, FL
Cinemark Boynton Beach – Boynton Beach, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the month. A full schedule of US dates can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)