Monthly Archives: July 2013

Review – We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks

In my review of Stories We Tell, I mentioned that one of my issues with documentary cinema is that sometimes it simply can’t quite grip in the way that a fiction film can. We Steal Secrets has no such issue, it is a complex and engaging tapestry of the controversial website, the enigmatic man behind it, and the ramifications it had on both Assange himself, and the world in general.

One of the main issues with all documentaries is the issue of balance, and the need to take one side and fight for it with all you’re worth (look no further than the films of Michael Moore to see how this is done, with varying degrees of success). We Steal Secrets manages to (for the most part) create a genuine balance, asking people from all different sides of the Wikileaks story for their opinions, which is perhaps enhanced by the fact that, with Assange as political refugee at the time of filming, that he could not be asked. It seems strangely fitting that, even now, Assange is perhaps the man behind the curtain once again.

We Steal Secrets is more than just, as the title suggests ‘the story of Wikileaks’. It looks at Assange, his colleagues, and, perhaps most interestingly, the story of Bradley Manning. Manning was a whistleblower, who leaked military secrets to Assange, and following on from both the leaking of secrets, and Manning’s own personal demons (which are touched on throughout), he was arrested and tortured (his trial is now nearing its conclusion). Across its two hours plus running time, We Steal Secrets deftly balances several elements of the same story, leading them all – Assange, Wikileaks and Manning – to their almost inevitable convergence.

Assange as a man quickly becomes the focus of the film, as we see his collaborations with The Guardian and The New York Times when Wikileaks was at the height of its fame (or perhaps infamy). From young hacker in Melbourne to public figure and the face of Wikileaks (and later a folk devil, deemed a terrorist by the American government), the journey, and indeed transformation of Assange is fascinating in its own right, and could have a film of its own (Assange is seemingly hot property in the film industry, with the trailer for the biopic The Fifth Estate being released today).

The one balance issue in We Steal Secrets is shown when the film touches on the sexual assault charges levelled against Assange (and perhaps becomes a bit too preoccupied with them during its final act), bringing on one of the woman who alleges that Assange sexually assaulted her. I understand the need to cover all elements of Assange’s story for the film, with the sexual assault charges playing quite a large part in that, but after keeping such a clear balance and impartiality, doing this just felt unnecessary and, quite frankly, cheap.

The film also contains some interesting visual touches, from showing IM text to illustrate the conversations Bradley Manning had with hackers, and later Assange himself, as well as melding archive footage and talking footage in order to explore all facets of the narrative. This largely works well, but sometimes, especially with some of the other visual flairs (which are a bit harder to explain on paper) it feels out of place, given it doesn’t serve much of a purpose. In fact, beyond the single balance issue, my only real gripe with We Steal Secrets was another move that felt cheap, the music that plays over the film’s final moments.

Gripping and intriguing, We Steal Secrets is a kaleidoscopic examination of secrets, their keepers and their thieves. Capturing the Zeitgeist almost uncomfortably well the impending end of Bradley Manning’s trial, Alex Gibney’s documentary, an almost perfectly balanced examination of Wikileaks, and the seemingly decaying values of its founder, is necessary viewing for all.  

 

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Review – Frances Ha

“Tell me the story of us.” So says Frances (Greta Gerwig) to Sophie (Mickey Sumner) near the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s Allen-channeling ode to the so-called ‘millennial generation’. The story of Frances and Sophie, in Sophie’s words at least, is an idealised view of their future, where Frances is a successful dancer and Sophie a publisher. The problem is, for a large amount of the film, although Frances is a dancer in a company, she does very little, almost taking pride in her apathy. This seems to bring with it some kind of self-righteous self-loathing that comes with her lifestyle, particularly when she says to two of her friends that she’s poor, almost needing to convince them that she is so she can feel bad about herself. I’m aware that something like that is par for the course in a film like Frances Ha, which channels Lena Dunham’s Girls more than it does Woody Allen (in spite of a gorgeous black and white cinematography courtesy of Sam Levy, who’s shots of New York and Paris bring to mind, at the best moments, the iconic Manhattan), but for these two things (i.e. “the story of us” and the apathetic reality of Frances’ situation) to be at odds all the time makes it difficult to be engaged or sympathetic towards Frances, as if, for some inexplicable reason, barricades are built around her to avoid any connection from being made.

My minor qualms with the character aside, Gerwig’s performance as Frances has some truly wonderful moments. A lot of the time it feels a little simple in terms of acting, perhaps somwhere between Alvy Singer and Hannah Horvath, but there are truly excellent pieces of acting that shine through the film. All of these moments come whenever Frances doesn’t indulge in how ‘difficult’ her life is, and instead we see her facing, rather than her lifestyle or career choices, the personal issues that have arisen around her (although how Frances is supposed to be “un-dateable” will forever mystify me), from her realising things that have gone wrong as she talks at a dinner party, or, in one of the best and most human moments of the film, consoling a drunk and confused Sophie. And while Gerwig delivers a strong (and at times excellent) performance, for me it’s Sumner’s performance as Sophie that runs away with the film. She perhaps gets better material, but seeing her drunk and angry towards her boyfriend near the end of the film is one of the most powerful moments in it.

That’s what’s a little strange about Frances Ha. Although it is largely a comedy. and there are plenty of good jokes, all of that seems to be overshadowed by the flashes of drama that sneak out through the witticisms and the apathy. The script (penned by Baumbach and Gerwig) is the film’s strongest element, since it does a great deal with seemingly simple dialogue, and its only really hampered by a few montages of Frances and Sophie’s escapades that makes the pacing seem jarring at times, slowing it down so that it feels longer than its short running time. Frances Ha also boasts an ensemble that, while a little underused, is destined to be underrated, with Adam Driver, an alum from Girls giving an excellent turn, especially since he doesn’t just make it a mimicry of his performance on the aforementioned HBO comedy.

There’s a lot of good in Frances Ha, and when it’s good, it’s great. From the stunning photography to a pair of great performances at its core, it feels like a breath of fresh air, light in tone, with perfectly contrasting moments of darkness. It’s not without faults, from pacing that’s a little off, as well as characterisation (and the cheap jokes that come with it) that feel like nothing more than a cheap one liner. But what’s most interesting about it is, since the credits rolled on the screening I was at, and since I finished writing this review, my admiration for the film has grown a little. It may sound strange or hyperbolic, but Frances Ha is a film to fall in love with.

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Do reboots need to be origin stories?

In the wake of this year’s Man of Steel and last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man which of course followed the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it appears the rebooting comic franchises is very much in vogue right now. But I also get the feeling that people are a little tired of these reboots (I know I am, although I did, to varying degrees, enjoy all of the aforementioned films), perhaps because they always cover the same ground. These reboots are always origin stories. 

And so, I really need to ask this question: why?

Is it an unfamiliarity with the canon? Perhaps that’s the most likely reason, especially with, for instance Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which package the Caped Crusader for a newer generation, making him much grittier, and in fact devoting an entire film in his trilogy to the genesis and birth of the Bat in Batman Begins.
But I think, especially given that these are reboots of franchises (admittedly franchises with varying degrees of succes), considering the wealth of old material out there on these characters, sometimes focusing on the origin can simply be time wasted.
Take The Amazing Spider-Man for example. The first act is of course dedicated to introducing us to Peter Parker, and showing us how he got his powers. But basically everyone knows that. Spider-Man is a staple in pop culture, and has travelled across so many different mediums, I think it’s tough to find anyone who’s likely to go and see the film that doesn’t already know the origin. The same goes for Superman. I’ll admit I’m not well versed in the comics that Superman originated in, but based on, quite simply, exposure to pop culture, I know that his origin was being sent to Earth from his dying home planet of Krypton.

The other issue with focusing on origins so much, especially in reboots, often means that the same gallery of rouges can be re-tread. Granted that hasn’t really happened, but it immediately puts the film at a struggle to establish a villain, and it’s often the villain who is granted some semblance of origin as well (particularly with The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man and, to a point, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). And the issue here is sometimes we don’t get to see villains that aren’t already wildly well known. Of course that’s what people want to see, but sometimes villains that don’t get focus have interesting stories. Why not a ‘Kraven’s Last Hunt’ storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man, for instance?

I know it’s a tall ask to disregard total newcomers from the franchise, those who don’t know the source material, although less likely, people that are simply not aware of the characters. I gather these people will need to see the origin in order to become invested in the characters and their situations. But surely there’s a better way to do it than dedicating an act of a film to establishing it all.

Man of Steel tries to shake things up a bit, and is in fact the closest that a reboot has come to not being an origin story. While we do see what is essentially a prologue on Krypton, showing us the fate of the planet and it’s people, as well as introducing Zod, the film’s antagonist, afterwards, there’s a time skip. We see an already grown Clark Kent, having adjusted to his powers and trying to live a normal life on Earth.
Now, while this sounds like Man of Steel completely discounts Clark’s formative years on Earth, that’s not the case. Instead, sometimes through flashback and sometimes not (as well as sometimes being unfortunately uneffective), flashbacks are used in order to show us when Clark discovered his powers, and how he coped with them. This -while having some detrimental effects to the pacing, as well as making the chronology sometimes pointlessly pseudo-intricate – seems like a much more time-effective way of establishing a character, especially given, when the flashbacks are used well, they add an interesting level of depth to the characterisation of eponymous hero.

As I mentioned, Batman Begins spent an entire film exploring the origins of Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego, but that was under a different context. There was a planned endgame, a planned trilogy, in place for this incarnation of the character. On the other side of that spectrum is The Incredible Hulk, who has, in the 21st century had two standalone films and appeared in The Avengers. Both standalone films were origin stories, because they didn’t get sequels (the two standalone films were released only five years apart, to seemingly no response, yet there was outrage across cyberspace when it was announced Spider-Man was being rebooted, even though it was ‘too soon’ after the end of Raimi’s trilogy). Just because a franchise (or even an attempt at one) is being established, doesn’t mean old ground must be totally retread.

Besides, reboots aren’t meant to just show us the same characters again and again and again. The point of a reboot, more than anything, is to alter the sensibilities of the character and their universe. World-building is the core of any reboot, perhaps even more than re-establishing the central character. Nolan’s Batman films are a perfect example of this. Even in Batman Begins, dedicated to exploring the origin of its eponymous vigilante, he also sets out to build a new, darker universe for his character to occupy. The same goes for Man of Steel, everything seems decidedly less ‘All-American’ and homely than the Superman of yore, this modern version is shot in a sleeker, bleaker way, with a little more edge to it. In Nolan’s films, even the Batcave, a staple of the character, is given a makeover.

Burton’s Batcave (left) and Nolan’s (right).

And all of this world-building can be done without giving the character an explicit origin. Instead, they’re shown at the beginning of their arc for any given film, and the world, and the character, are simply introduced through the events of the film. Now, while this could of course lead to streams of exposition loaded dialogue, Man of Steel proved there are other ways to explore origins and world-building (especially given Krypton is very deliberately designed and shown in the prologue).
Between pre-existing material, a wealth of canonical options, and quite frankly, more interesting ways to tell a story, I think that the terms ‘reboot’ and ‘origin’ can finally be severed from each other, so that, while the latter still plays a role in narrative, it isn’t symbiotically joined to the former.

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Review – Before Midnight

I have a confession to make. Until a couple of days before I went to see Before Midnight, I hadn’t seen any of the films in Richard Linklater’s critically acclaimed Before… trilogy. So, having heard that if one hasn’t seen the first two before diving into the most recent one, that something would be lost, I immediately resolved to seek out and watch the first two, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. And to put it bluntly, I’m glad I did.

But this post isn’t about the first two films in the trilogy, as excellent as they are. This is about the most recent, and finest, part of the trilogy – Before Midnight. Perhaps the most interesting about it from the off is that it doesn’t follow the same structure as the first two. Instead, Jesse and Celene (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who are on peak form) are together and have children. What this does is opens a completely different door in terms of both story and characterisation, as we see these two characters in a completely new situation, dealing with problems that they’ve never had to before (at least not together). In fact, there’s a lot about Before Midnight that quite explicitly differentiates it from its predecessors. It’s got the largest cast of principle characters, and perhaps the biggest scale as well, especially given that locations are stopped at rather than passed through. This increase in scale also seems to come through in an increased tonal and thematic breadth. It’s possibly the funniest of the three films, with a surprising amount of laugh out loud films. And what Before Midnight does wonderfully, perhaps by breaking from the courtship mould of Sunrise and Sunset, is touch on new thematic ground for the series, including a wonderful and heartwarming speech on the notion of “passing through.”

Of course, the core trinity of the series (Linklater behind the camera, along with Delpy and Hawke behind it, and all of them contributing to the script) just seem to get better and better with each passing film. Linklater becomes more assured, a directorial development shown in its fullest during the film’s climax where it returns to what it does best: Jesse and Celene in a room, talking. But more on that later. Hawke and Delpy give their strongest performances thus far in the trilogy, and perhaps of their careers, getting their teeth into excellent material, and with their powerhouse performances manage to grip an audience through an almost two hour duration of what is, when distilled to its essence, people talking.

As I mentioned before, the hotel scene is the film’s highlight. It’s wonderfully shot, showing the hotel room to be both desirable and suffocating, as Jesse and Celene go verbally at each other, holding no punches. Perhaps for the first time in the series, we see the characters stripped of all artifice and courting pretence, as they are forced, by both the other and themselves, to finally face up to their demons, and the almost self destructive tendencies that drive them apart each time they get closer to each other, even now they’re married. It is here that Before Midnight deals with themes of inevitability, the end of love, and harsh realities that they are forced to face.

Before Midnight is exactly what fans of the series will expect, and even more. As natural as ever, the chemistry between Delpy and Hawke is nothing short of faultless, and the performances are excellent, particularly from the leading duo, but also from the surrounding cast members. The notion of a script can be forgotten, nothing feels written, it is as if we are simply watching their lives unfold. Melancholic and moving, funny and savage, Before Midnight is utterly exceptional, a subtle, and utterly sublime piece of filmmaking, destined to be one of the years best.

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Review – Man of Steel

After Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful Batman trilogy, it’s safe to say that superhero reboots are all the rage, with The Incredible HulkThe Amazing Spider-Man and now Man of Steel following in its wake. The interesting thing here is that DC and Marvel reboots seem to be doing slightly different things (although that’s something to touch on in more detail in another piece), and Man of Steel, even compared to another DC character reboot (Batman Begins), does different things to that, which makes it one of the more interesting (and if other critical reception is anything to go by more polarising) superhero reboots of the last few years.

Before going into anything else about the film though, I feel like special mention needs to be given to the visual effects. While Snyder is known for his… Extravagant visual style, here it’s at its best, and perhaps least detrimental to the story. From the planet of Krypton, to watching its chosen son fly and fight among the stars, it’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in years, and it genuinely took my breath away.

We all know the story of Man of Steel, it’s a Superman origin story, although by not discussing the story at all, that does lead me to mention where it succeeds and fails as a reboot. All reboots are origin stories to an extent, whether it’s simply the first act of the film (as it is in The Amazing Spider-Man) or the entire film is an origin story (as it is with Batman Begins), but what Man of Steel does differently is by ingraining the origin elements – Clark’s discoveries of his powers – into the story via flashbacks. Now, we still see young Kal-El being sent to Earth courtesy of an excellent prologue sequence on a dying Krypton, one of the highlights of the film, both for its stunning design and visual effects, and the deliciously villainous Michael Shannon as General Zod, squaring of against Russell Crowe’s Jor-El (although the gratuitous overuse of Superman’s iconography does begin to grate). Now, these flashbacks are something of a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re prompted by a line of dialogue, so they can be jarring, which almost creates the illusion that they’re bad for the pace (although the film feels faster than it’s two hour plus running time, in spite of an overly extended and problematic third act) of the film, although it’s certainly an interesting attempt to avoid the structure of most reboots/origin stories, and it mostly succeeds.

David S. Goyer, the scribe for Nolan’s Batman films, does a solid job here, particularly in terms of world-building and making this characterisation of the eponymous hero a little edgier and more interesting. In flashbacks we see him conflicted about revealing himself, and the consequences of both his actions, and what happens if he were to do nothing. However, that contrast between explosive grandeur in the fighting set-pieces and the angst-y introspection of some of the films quieter moments, doesn’t always work, and it feels tonally uneven, less cohesive than Goyer’s other reboot script. And the screenplay as a whole isn’t without problems however, given some of the characters are weak (disappointingly, Lois Lane, played well by Amy Adams is among that number. In spite of some strong scenes, in the final act, a character who’s been set up to be strong and independent has all of her attempts to help become blunders that the men around her need to fix), and the third act is riddled with the same problems that superhero films tend to be (The Avengers was particularly guilty of this too), and became a rather indulgent (although in the case of Man of Steel, visually breathtaking) sequence in which the city in which the story takes place is left in the dust in the wake of the protagonist and antagonist finally going toe-to-toe.

It’s a well cast film, Henry Cavil is excellent as Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, giving him presence and an edge that allows for the angst-ridden flashbacks to have had a noticeable effect on a fully grown Clark. Small appearances from stalwart actors like Richard Schiff and Laurence Fishburne help to round out the cast. But as I said before, it’s Shannon’s General Zod that runs away with the film, whether it’s through the screaming villainy shown in the prologue or the grand, almost Shakespearian speech he delivers before the climactic battle (this kind of extreme and theatrical villain is what was missing from Thor), he may well have given my favourite performance as a comic book villain since Heath Ledger’s already iconic Joker.

A little uneven and scrappy, perhaps even unsure of itself, at the worst of times, Man of Steel is a noble failure. Ambitious, visually exceptional filmmaking that manages to shake up the reboot/origin story and structure that we’ve all seen ad nauseum by now. But at it’s best, in those moments of synergy between introspection and explosive pomposity, it’s breathtaking, well acted, and with the help of a wonderfully cast villain, stands above the crowd in terms of recent comic book adaptations.

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Review – Spring Breakers

When I finally got around to watching Spring Breakers (the first in a reasonably large number of films that I missed in the cinema, and am catching up on and reviewing), my expectations had been in flux for quite a while. In spite of fairly middle of the road ratings on Metacritic and sites of that ilk, I’d constantly seeing it topping lists of the best films of the first sixth months of the year once they’d begun floating around the blogosphere. I suppose, to be blunt, I can see why it’s topping such lists – it’s bitingly satirical, visually dizzying and quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.

But I’ll be the first to admit that I was more than a little bit cynical, both in the lead up to the release of Spring Breakers, and until I’d begun watching. A great deal of the marketing focused on the whole ‘Disney girls gone bad’ kind of thing that was floating around the internet once images of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in the film began circulating around the web (but more on them later). This, and a lot of the marketing for the film seemed to focus almost entirely on the superficial elements of its story, as well as making it look rather like a straightforward crime film, just with a scantily clad cast and a borderline unhinged (and brilliant, it must be said) James Franco. To set the record straight, Spring Breakers is neither superficial, nor straightforward. Lots of reviews of the film have called it a ‘fever dream,’ and while it may seem like I’m hopping onto some sort of bandwagon, there’s really no better way to describe it.

This idea of a fever dream is achieved by some exceptional below-the-line work, which is very much where Korine’s vision lives and dies. The film is frantically, almost jarringly edited, forcing you around in an aggressive haste, along with almost constantly moving cinematography and production design that captures perhaps the core duality of the film – something that is at once seemingly all-American, but at the same time grimy, and almost repulsive.

Spring Breakers is, on the surface, about a group of girls who rob a bank to pay for their spring break vacation. But that’s really not too important, given the initial robbery is scarcely seen, and if anything, is just a launching pad for the main meat of the film, it’s satire, it’s comments on the excess and apathy of the current generation, this constant yearning to be somewhere else, or just to be something for that matter. Early on, one of the characters talks about how they don’t want to be stuck here like everyone else, sick of being in the same classrooms with the same professors and the same students.
And so, they resolve to do something about it, and once they have, Spring Breakers descends into much more nightmarish territory, calling to mind the dark dreamscapes of David Lynch, but decorated with neon, sun, and a brutal attack on the American Dream. Sometimes though, Korine’s satire doesn’t always quite hit the mark, there are times when it lags a bit, but it’s almost faultless execution, with wonderful derectorial touches and dualities – scenes of excess over letters to one of the character’s grandmother (in which everything we hear from the letter is a lie), is nothing short of inspired.

Now, the casting for Spring Breakers seemed to be the thing that drew the most attention to it during promotion, as I’ve mentioned, the cast are, by and large stepping out of their comfort zones, and that’s putting it lightly. And while it might be almost considered stunt-casting, the actresses chosen are damn excellent, both in terms of their performances and the casting itself, with the previous, family friendly credits that some of the actresses have, coupling that with the material they tackle (with skill and a total lack of awkwardness) is the perfect way of showing the duality of the Dream that these girls are chasing.
However, as good as they are, it’s James Franco that steals the show as the excess driven, and mad as a hatter white rapper – Alien. Alien is the personification of the American Dream for these girls – living a dangerous life, and one littered with superficiality and material wealth. One of the first things he says to them is “look at my shit”, showing them his considerable firearm collection. Alien proclaims that these girls are his “soulmates,” and you know what, I think he’s right.

While my expectations weren’t the highest, and my cynicism was out in force, I must admit I was glad I took the plunge and decided to watch Spring Breakers. It’s visually unique, and the satire that drives it forward is almost always employed and executed to perfection. A surprisingly good principal cast, and a super Franco help to cement this as something that’s likely to be on even more top ten lists by the time the year is up. Oh, and it has perhaps the best use of Brittany Spears in any film. Spring break forever. 

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Review – Stories We Tell

“Can you tell me the whole story, in your own words, from beginning to end?”
This is the question that serves as the catalyst for the interviews that Sarah Polley asks her own family at the beginning of Stories We Tell. Because, while Stories We Tell is very much framed through Polley’s discovery of her parentage, and the way this impacted her relationship with her father, and the memory she has of her late mother, what it really seems to be about is exactly what the story implies – storytelling. Recollections of Sarah’s mother are almost fractured, coming from different points of view from different family members and friends. It’s this factor that gives Stories We Tell one of its most quietly powerful aspects, it’s feeling of universality. Early on in the film, Sarah is asked by one of her interviewees “who the fuck would want to hear about our family?”. and while of course, as I mentioned, the family is the crux of the film’s narrative, by focusing almost more on the storytellers and their memories than the story itself, the film becomes, rather than what could almost be construed as a vanity project, a unique way in which we remember the past, and how it impacts our feature.

It is through this, perhaps unnoticeable thematic element that the almost deceptive complexity of Stories We Tell can be seen, something reflected in the way its constructed. It uses three different elements to convey its story: the interviews, filmed footage made to look like super-8 home movies, and narration from Michael Polley’s memoir. The layers of the film’s construction, and the way they are intertwined perfectly complements the thematic elements of the film, as well as allowing for refreshing visual touches (particularly the integration of the filmed footage) that stop it from becoming stale.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never been the biggest fan of documentary cinema. I’m not even sure why I haven’t, I kinda struggle to get invested and drawn in by it, it feels like there’s an element of the unknown that’s missing from fiction films. I was worried that, while I was watching Stories We Tell that I’d, for want of more subtle phrasing, get bored. And while I did find that, as the narrative was shown more, that earlier elements were almost redundant, I was still intrigued as to exactly how it would unfold. These almost redundant elements did irritate me at times though, leading to what were almost pacing issues. Not that it’s a particularly long film (just shy of an hour fifty), but in exploring in detail only the elements of the story that were shown in the latter half of the film, parts of the first half become almost irrelevant. But the more I’ve thought about the film, and, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this review, it occurred to me that the story itself is only about 50% of what Stories We Tell is about. In fact, the more I’ve thought about the film, the more it’s hit me that the storytelling is more important than the story itself. The medium of film itself is foregrounded throughout (it’s almost constructivist in it’s approach) – we see Sarah filming things that are shown later, we see Michael in the recording studio as he records the voiceover used throughout the film. The way the story is told may have some issues, but that almost feels like the point.

One of the only documentaries I’ve seen in a movie theatre, there’s a lot to say about Stories We Tell. A fractured, contradictory narrative is used as a springboard to consider broader themes – memory, family, and the art of telling stories. With a unique visual style and foregrounding of the cinematic medium, it is a film of subtlety, nuance and complexity. A small marvel, and the first great film I’ve seen all year.

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