Stories We Tell film review

September 26, 2013

(A different version of this review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 26 September 2013.)

In a relatively short writing and directing career, Canadian film actor and director Sarah Polley has tackled some tough subjects, all of which have centred on the theme of adultery in marriage.  In the heartbreaking “Away From Her”, Julie Christie stars as a dementia patient who develops a romantic relationship with another resident of her nursing home, totally forgetting her husband, to his great dismay. “Take This Waltz” – the title is taken from the Leonard Cohen song – also portrays a marriage in crisis.  Seth Rogen stars as Lou Rubin, whose wife (Michelle Williams) leaves him for another man.

With careful plotting and emotional honesty, Polley’s first two directorial outings painfully detailed the impact of adultery on marriages.  But those earlier films did not have the challenge which Polley set herself in “Stories We Tell”, her documentary about her family’s history.  Polley’s interest in this film is not just artistic; it’s about the uncovering of a long-unacknowledged family secret – her late mother’s affair with a fellow Canadian actor.

And the story is very personal, because the adulterous relationship that “Stories We Tell” explores is one that produced Sarah herself.  The background is that Polley grew up believing that actor Michael Polley was her biological father.   Some years ago, after her mother Diane died in 1990, she discovered that her actual father was Harry Gulkin, a Canadian Jewish film producer with whom Sarah’s mother had had an affair while acting in a play in Montreal.  Ironically, the title of Gulkin’s most famous film, the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning “Lies My Father Told Me” (1975), has an eerie resonance to the “lies” that Sarah Polley was told about her real father when growing up.

“Stories We Tell” uses family archives, interviews with siblings and family friends, along re-created scenes from Sarah’s childhood to investigate this unravelling of family secrets.  Polley shot the recreated scenes with actors and a Super-8 camera, achieving a verisimilitude that adds profoundly to the impact of “Stories We Tell”.  But don’t be fooled: this is “manufactured memory”, based on the stories that people tell.

Transcending the limitations of the usual personal documentary, Polley is, we come to realise, asking some “big” questions.  Are we all just re-creating memories to suit our own purposes?  How much did her father know, and when did he know it?  Why did her mother never tell her?  These are great questions; the fact that we do not have reliable answers makes Polley’s film memorable, because she knows that each person is creating their own narrative to suit their own emotional needs.  Watching this film is about investigating a mystery for which there are no definite answers.

A number of fictional films have portrayed stories of “found” Jewish identity: the 2010 British comedy “The Infidel” explored what happened when a British Muslim found out that he was actually Jewish.  Unfortunately, Polley skips some of the most interesting parts:  what, exactly, does having a Jewish biological father mean to her?  The film shows Sarah at a Passover seder with Gulkin, but we never quite know if this new-found identity has produced any changes in her.

Does Polley’s fascination with adultery – reflected in both of her dramatic features, completed before “Stories We Tell” – result from her own personal history?  Was there any particular reason that she made the Seth Rogen’s character Jewish in “Take This Waltz”?  We do not know.

Despite – or perhaps, because of – these unanswered questions, “Stories We Tell” is likely to be one of the most memorable stories you will see on film this year.

Stories We Tell(photo:  Sarah Polley with Harry Gulkin)

Blue Jasmine – More admired than enjoyed

September 12, 2013

(This review of “Blue Jasmine” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 12 September 2013 in a slightly different format.  The film opens in Australia today.)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg

There are no funny-looking wisecracking Jewish guys in Woody Allen’s latest film “Blue Jasmine”.  In fact, there are almost no Jewish characters at all, unless you count a bizarre dentist.

What “Blue Jasmine” has, instead, is a bravura performance by Cate Blanchett in the title role, one of the most captivating this year, equal to her best screen work.  It’s a certain Oscar nomination.

There are few moments of open hilarity in “Blue Jasmine”, and some of those are provided by “Dr Flicker”, the Jewish dentist who Jasmine goes to work for.  Flicker is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, the Jewish actor (and star of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”).   Those with sharp ears may remember that this is not the first “Dr Flicker” in a Woody Allen film:  in the opening scenes of “Annie Hall”, the young Alvy Singer visits a cigarette-smoking “Dr Flicker” with his mother, complaining to the GP that he is depressed because “the world is expanding”.

Well, Jasmine Francis (Blanchett) has the opposite problem.  Her world is collapsing.  In fact, “Blue Jasmine” is one long series of humiliations for this former Upper East Side socialite’s descent into poverty and mental illness.  Jasmine – also known as Jeanette – had been married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a fast-talking, Bernard Madoff-like financier.  They lived an uber-wealthy New York lifestyle of sophistication, fancy parties and weekends at their house in the Hamptons.

But Hal’s empire collapsed (how it did is part of the story, not to be revealed here), sending him to prison, and breaking up the family forever.  Left with nothing, Jasmine flies to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is dating Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and living in a marginal Mission District neighbourhood.  Using a complicated but effective series of flashbacks and dual story-telling, Allen counter-poses Jasmine’s struggles in San Francisco with her former privileged life in New York City.

Chili is an uneducated working class mechanic, just the sort of person Jasmine despises.  This sets up a “Streetcar Named Desire” sub-theme, neatly woven into the story – and of course Blanchett is well-known internationally for her role as Blanche du Bois in Williams’ classic play.  There’s a lot more family baggage:  at one time Ginger and her former husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) had invested the whole of a major lottery win with Hal, and lost it all.

For years, Allen has created memorable roles that attract a “who’s who” of acting talent.  “Blue Jasmine” continues Allen’s record of great film characters, especially for women, who have received twelve of the fifteen Oscar acting nominations for Allen’s films.

“Blue Jasmine” belongs to Cate Blanchett, although each performance is a delight.  In addition to Hawkins, Clay, Baldwin and Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard also appears as a diplomat and aspiring politician who falls in love with Jasmine, Louis C.K. as a boyfriend of Ginger’s, and Alden Ehrenreich as Jasmine’s estranged son.

Allen contrasts Ginger’s claustrophobic flat with beautiful bay-side homes in Marin County, north of San Francisco.  He has long been criticised for ignoring social and economic class:  surely the world is not all rich white people living near Central Park.  In “Blue Jasmine”, he introduces a number of working class characters and delves into class differences, although uncomfortably so.  I had a sneaking suspicion that the writer/director, like Jasmine, is “slumming” in this world, looking down on these characters and their modest homes.

Ultimately I admired “Blue Jasmine” much more than I liked it.  This film falls squarely into Woody Allen’s “serious” genre.  It’s not as bleak as his totally humour-less “Interiors”, but Allen gives us very little leavening of Jasmine’s descent and self-destructive failure in the way his “Crimes and Misdemeanours” alternated a very dark story with broad humour.  As a film about self-deception, human frailty and vulnerability, however, it succeeds.

Blue Jasmine Cate B GG Bridge

September 11th twelve years on

September 12, 2013

Today is the twelth anniversary of the events of September 11th 2001 in the USA.  I was in New York two years ago for the tenth anniversary, and so felt the profound and mixed sense of unease, loss, mourning, triumph and wonder that many New Yorkers feel about those events.

Sitting here in Sydney, Australia, we are remote from the experiences and the memories, and the day (we are 14 hours ahead) passed with little comment in the Australian media.  We did, however, have a large number of September 11th-themed documentaries on television.

I have not provided any links to the national newspaper USA Today, but they have provided a neat 1’30” stop motion “Earthcam” video showing how the Twin Towers site in lower Manhattan has been transformed from 2004 through 2012.  You can view the link here.

(Note that an advertisement may appear first – that’s the digital economy for you.)

Woody Allen going strong at age 77

September 7, 2013

(This article appeared in the print edition of The Australian Jewish News in a somewhat different version on 5 September 2013, with the title “Oscar Winning Form for Woody Allen”, and online with the title “Woody’s Oscar-winning form”.)

Pop quiz.  Who are the most Oscar-nominated American film directors actively making movies today?  Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg each have seven directing nominations, with Spielberg winning twice and Scorsese once.

He is not nearly as flashy a director, but Woody Allen ties Spielberg and Scorsese.  His seven “Best Director” Oscar nominations include one win, for “Annie Hall”, in 1977.  Only William Wyler (12 nominations) and Billy Wilder (with eight) beat these three.  And of living/working film directors, only Clint Eastwood, Ang Lee, Milos Forman and Oliver Stone have two directing wins.  This is pretty elite company.

But Allen also holds more Academy Award nominations for “Best Original Screenplay” (15) and wins (three) than any other writer in history.  His writing Oscars (for “Midnight in Paris”, “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Annie Hall”) place him ahead of Billy Wilder and Paddy Chayefsky (both Jewish), as well as Quentin Tarantino and Charles Brackett, all of whom have received two screenplay Oscars.  Frederico Fellini sits a distant second in nominations with six, but no wins.

Mark it partly to longevity.  At age 77, Woody has directed an average of one film per year since his film career commenced in 1965 with “What’s New Pussycat?”

With next week’s Australian release of “Blue Jasmine”, Allen’s drama set in San Francisco and starring Cate Blanchett in the starring role, this tireless Jewish film-maker is back in the news.

And Blanchett’s role as “Jasmine”, a down on her luck former socialite forced to seek refuge with her working class sister (played by British actress Sally Hawkins), is one of the biggest acting triumphs this year.

Allen is already well-known for writing memorable film characters.  His actors have gained 15 Oscar nominations, with five wins:  Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”), Dianne Wiest (twice, for “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”), Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”) and Michael Caine (“Hannah and Her Sisters”).  Others Allen nominations include Mariel Hemingway (“Manhattan”), Sean Penn and Samantha Morton (both for “Sweet and Lowdown”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”), Martin Landau (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”), Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri (both for “Bullets Over Broadway”), Judy Davis (“Husbands and Wives”), and Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton – both for “Interiors”.

Of these 15 acting Oscar nominations, 12 have been for female characters. The pattern is clear:  despite Allen’s notorious personal history with former partner Mia Farrow – having an affair with and then marrying her adopted child, Soon-Yi Previn – he writes and directs great female screen roles.  Blanchett’s character continues this pattern, and gives her an early tipping for another Oscar nomination:  she already has five, including a win for playing Katherine Hepburn in Scorsese’s “The Aviator”.

“Blue Jasmine” also marks another milestone:  it is only Woody Allen’s second film set in the USA since “Melinda and Melinda” in 2004 (“Whatever Works” in 2009 was the other).  He effectively “moved” to Europe for a quartet of films shot in London:  “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, “Match Point”, “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream”.  He hopped to Spain for “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and to Paris for “Midnight in Paris” and finally to Rome for last year’s “To Rome with Love”.  The French, Italians and Spaniards love him.  In fact “To Rome with Love” was financed by Italians, with the only condition being that he shoot the film in Rome.  Two thirds of the total ticket sales from “Midnight in Paris” came from outside North America, particularly Europe.  Its popularity there boosted that film to become Allen’s top theatrical grosser, although with price inflation, the ticket sales were roughly equal to his classic New York films “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”.

The San Francisco setting of “Blue Jasmine” is unusual for life-long New York resident Allen. His first film as director – “Take the Money and Run”, in which he played a small-time and incompetent crook, was also shot there, with prison scenes actually filmed inside the nearby high security San Quentin.  Allen already knew that city well from his early days as a touring comic. Locals still remember the early 1960s when Allen was the opening act for Barbra Streisand at “the hungry i” nightclub.

Although Allen’s original stage play for “Play It Again, Sam” was located in New York City, the 1971 film version moved to San Francisco.   Although he did not direct the film (Herbert Ross did), Allen wrote and starred as a nerdy film critic haunted by a determined and tough Humphrey Bogart fantasy mentor.  Many notable San Francisco area landmarks appear in the film:  Allen’s character lives in North Beach, rides the cable car ride with actress Diane Keaton, and travels across the Bay to eat at a waterfront restaurant in Sausalito and holiday at Stinson Beach.

Woody Allen Diane Keaton SF cablecar(Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in “Play It Again, Sam”, riding a San Francisco cablecar)

In “Blue Jasmine”, Allen again uses San Francisco locations:  Jasmine’s sister lives on South Van Ness Avenue in a seedy section of the Mission District.  A number of scenes are shot near the Golden Gate Bridge, and the scenic water-side Marin County suburbs of Tiburon, Larkspur and Belvedere all feature prominently.

Will there be a Woody Allen film in 2014?  Yes.  His “untitled project” started production in the south of France in early July of this year, and stars Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver.  Will he still keep going into his ninth decade?  Wait and see.