Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

" I can safely say at this point that we are lost. "
— Heather Donahue, The Blair Witch Project

MRQE Top Critic

Sponsored links

With 372 films on display, TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) guarantees that no two patrons will experience the exact same festival. I saw 28 films. The chances that anyone saw the same 28 are 1 in 10^41, so take my summary with a grain of salt (and anyone else’s for that matter).

Also, I was at TIFF looking for a certain kind of film: something not so big that it has a guaranteed release this fall, but not so small or cheap that it couldn’t fill a theater in my home town. I’m not sure I found anything perfect, but I certainly had a better festival than average — fewer highs, but fewer lows as well.

This is part one in a series of four summaries of what I saw. Personal favorites from TIFF 2012 are marked with an asterisk (*).

Tiff 2012 - The Primacy of Story

Storytelling is a vital human need. We make sense of our lives by organizing events into stories, as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell will tell you. And as In the House reminds us, the sultan kept Scheherazade alive on the condition that she tell him a good story every night.

Some films this year recognized the importance of storytelling — either as a way to excuse artistic liberties ( Stories We Tell), or to explain our irrational obsessions ( Room 237), or simply to fracture the timeline in a way that makes the viewer more satisfied than a more linear telling would leave them (the crime capers). Here are seven films that seemed to have the structure of storytelling in mind.

Stories We Tell *

Sarah Polley makes a very personal movie about her extended family. It is moving and touching; it is genuinely interesting, even if Sarah Polley weren’t a celebrity. The fact of her celebrity may give her an audience that 51 Birch Street or Surfwise didn’t have. Both of those documentaries similarly peel back the layers on families with skeletons in the closet. Polley may have learned some good tricks about editing from them; she spreads out the revelations over the course of the movie, delving into one revelation for twenty minutes before surprising us with the next. (She even saves one surprise for the credit roll.) Of all the characters I saw in movies at TIFF, one of my favorites is Sarah’s father Michael. A retired actor, he comes across not as egotistical nor a chameleon, but rather one of the most refreshingly self-aware, humble, people you could ever meet. There are people in the movie whose stories are essentially happy and joyful. Michael’s is more bittersweet, which makes him all the more likeable and sympathetic.


Harvey knows the police just want a good story
Harvey knows the police just want a good story

Another film that tells its story with evenly spaced revelations is this crime caper from England. Timothy Spall has a small role as a police investigator interviewing the suspect Harvey Miller (Luke Treadaway) to get to the bottom of the story. (See? Even the turn of phrase emphasizes the importance of story.) Clearly inspired by The Usual Suspects, Wasteland lets its smart protagonist tell the story of theft, assault, and narcotics in his own words to sell it to Spall’s character. Even within Henry’s story, he says that criminals will feed interesting stories to the cops, who would rather have a good story than the truth. In fact, that’s his alibi — that he was handed to the cops as a plausible perp, to keep them from investigating any deeper. Wasteland is not the strongest crime film in the world, but it seems better produced than its cohort Jump.


Set in Northern Ireland, Jump is also a crime caper about young amateurs caught up in the world of professional players. There are about four threads interwoven, including the story of a young woman dressed as an angel for New Year’s, ready to jump off a bridge. Her father owns a business with a safe that has been robbed. The story is told in a fractured timeline, where the identities of key players are revealed later in the film. The movie drew me because I hadn’t seen many films from Northern Ireland, but it didn’t pay off as well as Wasteland; in particular, some of the movie’s threads are much weaker than others. I’m sure it didn’t help that I saw Jump at 4:00 in the afternoon — crash time after a day of movies.


De Palma probably knows the genre conventions by now
De Palma probably knows the genre conventions by now

Brian De Palma directs in this tale of two femmes fatales. Rachel McAdams plays Christi, the top dog at an ad agency and Noomi Rapace plays Isabelle, a member of her pack. Christi takes credit for Isabelle’s kick-ass idea, thus initiating the cycle of backstabbing. As the film illustrates, “backstabbing” is mostly about framing stories to win the support of the audience. Whoever can tell the most convincing story will win the support and adoration of the company. Halfway through Passion, the film slips into dark, surreal territory, where murder and fantasy blend together. My packed audience was inclined to laugh, though whether they thought the action was ridiculous or simply genre-fulfilling over-the-top fun is impossible to say. I personally think that De Palma knows the conventions of the genre well enough to predict that a sophisticated audience might laugh at the lengths to which he went. Then again, a colleague I spoke to thinks he just lost touch.

In Another Country

Korean men are distracted by French women
Korean men are distracted by French women

Korean director Hong Sang-soo is prolific (his filmography shows 15 films in as many years), though I’ve only seen one other. I found his previous film The Day He Arrives an academic, intellectual exercise, and that’s basically what In Another Country is too. It’s an arty, though not particularly artful, experiment in film. Three different stories are told using many of the same actors (including French heavyweight Isabelle Huppert) and the same basic situation: a French woman comes to a bed-and-breakfast in a small Korean town and disrupts the lives of the locals. The stories are justified as the amateur scribblings of a young screenwriter, the daughter of the family that runs the B&B. So does the Frenchwoman provoke the local men by flirting with them? Or are Korean men easily distracted by French women? Is the film really supposed to be seen through the eyes of a young teen? Or is that just an excuse for a professional filmmaker to play with the medium? Art film audiences might take note of In Another Country, but more mainstream audiences should skip it.

In the House *

Student and teacher work on refining a story
Student and teacher work on refining a story

A more polished blurring of the lines between fiction and reality is In the House, from director Francois Ozon ( Swimming Pool,5x2). Germain (Fabrice Luchini) teaches high-school literature, and most of his students have trouble stringing together two sentences: “Saturday I watched a movie and ate pizza. Sunday I didn’t do anything.” But Claude (Ernst Umhauer) writes a two-page story about how he inveigled his way into the house of a middle-class friend (Claude’s family is poor) and enjoyed the scent of the matron of the family. He ends his essay, “to be continued.” Germain and his wife (Kristin Scott-Thomas), while struggling through their own problems at home, become ensnared by the ongoing saga of Claude and his foray into bourgeois life, as helpless as the Sultan under the power of Scheherazade’s storytelling.

Room 237

Run The Shining backwards and forwards simultaneously and you get this lovely postcard
Run The Shining backwards and forwards simultaneously and you get this lovely postcard

The final entry in my “primacy of story” list belongs to Room 237: An inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts. This documentary is about the many and various “deep” interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It makes brief reference to — and I wish it were more overtly about — how people are good at seeing patterns, whether or not the pattern actually exists. As a skeptic, I would not have been interested in a movie that buys into — and tries to resell — any single conspiracy theory. But because Room 237delves into several competing theories, it doesn’t fall into that trap. And in fact, it can be fun to play the confirmation bias game. Even more fun is seeing some of the deliberate incongruities that Kubrick placed into The Shining. The pattern on a rug clearly changes direction between two takes. A chair disappears. A match cut between two different locations messes up the geography of the hotel. People have noted these details, and more, and they are there for anyone to see. To go from the pattern of a carpet to “the moon landing was faked by Stanley Kubrick” is a little much, but it shows how obsessive humans can become in search of a good story.