TIFF 2012 Capsule Reviews: ‘Stories We Tell’, ‘Reincarnated’, ‘The Act of Killing’, ’9.79*’, ‘West of Memphis’

STORIES WE TELL
Dir. Sarah Polley
Canada

The first person, autobiographical documentary can go two ways. At the best of times it’s an intimate and fearless examination of the human condition that explores universal themes which reveal something about ourselves. At the worst of times it’s a self-indulgent, narcissistic opportunity for a filmmaker to legitimize their home movies by passing them off as cinema vert. I can’t say I generally have much faith going into these films but Sarah Polley’s ‘Stories We Tell’ was an exception. Her previous (fictional) effort, Take This Waltz, looked at the complicated and sometimes ugly side of love through a character whose selfishness is all too human. This moral dilemma arouses indignation which leads to an interesting dichotomy within the audience; those who are self-righteous, those with humility, and those who don’t claim to have all of the answers. These perspectives are also what makes Sarah’s characters and their stories interesting. ‘Stories We Tell’ continues this conversation as Polley turns the camera onto herself and her family, exploring a deep dark secret that might have directly inspired some of the themes of Waltz. The story is narrated by her father during a recording session that works as a sort of framing device for the film. He talks about his days as a theatre actor and meeting his wife, Sarah’s mother, on stage and immediately falling in love. We’re introduced to various siblings — from various failed marriages — and immediately its clear that everybody is not only comfortable in front of the camera, but quite entertaining to watch. Sarah’s mother remains a mystery as various family members and friends talk about her in the present tense, suggesting that beneath her outgoing and fun personality was a secret. That’s all I’ll say as I do think going into this film fresh is probably for the best. In the end, ‘Stories We Tell’ is a beautiful examination of family dynamics and the way in which stories are passed down through generations, perpetually reshaping and reconstructing moments that are forever lost in time. The film itself plays with these memories, some of which emerge as a composite of objective truth and a subjective recollection, resulting in a sort of hyperreality. It’s a beautifully crafted film with some fearlessly personal and ultimately entertaining storytelling. One of the best films of the festival! 5/5

 

THE ACT OF KILLING
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Denmark / Norway / United Kingdom

It’s tough to put into words the mix of emotions I experienced while watching director Josh Oppenheimer’s amazing film ‘The Act of Killing’. At first glance, it’s yet another ‘making of’ documentary that focuses on some unlikely filmmakers and their attempting to cobble together a movie in the face of poor production values and a shortage of talent. It’s got all of the hallmarks of this sub-genre and even some of the potentially big laughs. The film’s two lead characters initially come across as goofy, likeable friends whose classic silhouettes — one tall and thin, the other short and fat — are reminiscent of an Indonesian Laurel & Hardey or Abbott & Costello. Perhaps more appropriately, Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank of American Movie come to mind. However, there is one big difference. In this film, the men we follow harbour dark secrets. In 1965-66 they were paramilitary leaders who took part in the mass murder of thousands of suspected communists. Now, over forty years later, they’re tasked at recreating some of their most disturbing memories of murder, using their love of western cinema as a template for graphic scenes of torture and homicide. The result is a deeply dark and unsettling look at what seemingly normal human beings are capable of under the orders of a militaristic regime. ‘The Act of Killing’ is humorous at times but the absurdity never really manages to mask the overwhelming sense of horror as the characters laugh and boast of their genocidal conquests, showing off their streamlined methods of murder on camera. In one scene the main character, Anwar, wraps a wire around a man’s neck as a demonstration of how they would kill without spilling needlessly messy amounts of blood. Later on he would wear the wire in his own film, playing the part of the victim against a classic film noir back drop. This gives him a chance to experience what his victims went through and proves to be a profound moment. These recreations provide the occasion for a strange sort of exposure therapy in the form of a Hollywood horror show, complete with technicolor backdrops and big musical numbers. Anwar’s personal journey through this process proves to be an unexpected one, resulting in some truly gut wrenching scenes of regret. The result is an emotionally exhausting, perverse examination of guilt and regret that ends with a powerfully visceral moment of vulnerability that will leave audiences speechless. ‘The Act of Killing’ is a truly great film. 5/5

 

REINCARNATED
Dir. Andy Capper
USA

I don’t like reggae music and I’m not particularly interested in the culture that surrounds it, but that’s okay. With Snoop Dogg as my guide, I’m in perpetually high but capable hands. Director Andy Capper’s ‘Reincarnated’ chronicles Snoops’ transformation from ‘Dogg’ to ‘Lion’ as he explores the roots of reggae music and mingles with some true Rastafarians in Kingston, Jamaica. The film has a travelogue feel at times, placing it comfortably along side Vice’s similarly produced brands of gonzo tourism that aims at exploring unique and sometimes dangerous cultures. In this case, the focus is mainly on Snoop’s own enlightenment as he attempts to centre his energy towards reinventing himself as an artist and creating a new album. ‘Reincarnated’ doesn’t get caught up in any hyperbolic analysis of the importance of Snoop’s music, which tends to bog down most music docs. There’s no talking head interview with some Rolling Stone magazine editor talking about Snoop’s legacy, and I’m thankful for that. We simply watch a popular artist attempting to reinvent himself. Some might question the sincerity behind his transformation, but for me it has little effect on the intentions of the film. If anything, it adds an interesting subtextual complexity to Snoop as a character. Is this transformation simply an impulsive whim at the hands of a powerful pop star or are we witness to a true epiphany experienced by a man who claims to live his life in stages? While at times there seems to be something inherently ridiculous and occasionally hilarious about the whole thing, Snoop’s sincere interest in the Rastafarian culture and the affable way in which he interacts with the locals makes for an experience that I found myself totally caught up in. As for his music, we do get to see some footage of Snoop recording his next album along with producer Diplo. The results are definitely reggae inspired but still retain modern sensibilities and play towards Snoop’s strengths (or limitations). With such a reliable and consistently entertaining narrator in Snoop Lion, you don’t have to be a fan of hip hop or reggae to get any enjoyment out of Reincarnated. 4/5

 

9.79*
Dir. Daniel Gordon
United Kingdom

With their 30 for 30 series and the more recent ESPN Films brand, there’s no question that the legendary sports network has become one of the most consistent — both in quality and quantity — producers of sports themed documentaries over the last few years. They manage to create content that transcends a potentially limited audience of sports enthusiasts, focusing on universal stories in favour of player stats and batting averages. There’s almost a curatory nature to their productions, hand picking rich stories and pairing them up with talented documentary filmmakers. As a non-sports fan, this is definitely appreciated. Unfortunately, 9.79* felt much more alien to me than some of ESPN’s previous output. As somebody who has zero interest in track and field, I struggled a bit with the controversies and conspiracies surrounding Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s infamous 1988 Summer Olympics scandal. Accusations of doping led to the his disqualification and the rescinding of his Gold medal in the 100 meter dash. As a Canadian, I was more than aware of this story and remember all of the press when it happened. Unfortunately, my feeling of apathy towards this landmark sporting event has not changed. The film is presented in a fairly straight forward fashion, featuring talking head interviews in combination with stock footage. I think the main stumbling block for me is Ben Johnson as a character. He’s mostly quiet and reserved and doesn’t really offer any interesting or overtly revealing moments. His rivalry with Carl Lewis felt loosely plotted and might play more interestingly for someone who’s able to draw upon an already established basic knowledge of the details surrounding this event. It’s touted as one of the biggest scandals in Olympics history, but for me it’s a rather insignificant moment that might have worked if I’d been more interested in the characters involved. This may be less the fault of the film rather than my own disinterest in the subject matter. 3/5

 

WEST OF MEMPHIS
Dir. Amy Berg
USA

When Amy Berg’s West of Memphis was announced for Sundance 2012, my stubborn allegiance to Bruce Synofsky and Joe Berlinger’s ‘Paradise Lost’ films had me questioning the value of yet another take on the story of the ‘West Memphis Three’. With the recent release (without exoneration) of Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, there was clearly reason to revisit the story. It’s just unfortunate that West of Memphis and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory were released within a year of each other and seemed to cover similar ground. Still, my interest in the case and the characters involved guaranteed that I’d be checking out Berg’s film eventually and I have to say my concerns were unfounded and I was pleasantly surprised. Where Paradise Lost 3 stumbled a bit with the recap nature of the first third of its runtime, West of Memphis manages to feel mostly fresh thanks to some new perspectives and a different approach in terms of style and structure. Even something as simple as the change in music made the story seem fresh again, even if it was initially strange revisiting Little Rock without Metallica’s ‘Sanitarium’ on the soundtrack. It’s been said that one clearly defining feature of West of Memphis is the inclusion of what most believe to be the actual perpetrator. Terry Hobbs, stepfather of victim Stevie Branch, is the main focus of Berg’s film and the evidence against him is pretty convincing. However, this is familiar territory as Paradise Lost 2 similarly targeted John Mark Beyers in an equally convincing albeit more sensational manner. Still, with Hobbs it seems that the focus is more on DNA evidence and a past history of violence rather than simply targeting a suspicious weirdo. Damien Echols has said that this is the first time he’s actually been involved in telling his story but I can’t say his more direct involvement is immediately visible. Probably the biggest departure from the previous HBO docs is the inclusion of the many celebrity supporters who have been drawn to the case. Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines, Eddie Vedder, and Peter Jackson all appear in the film with varying degrees of screen time. In fact, West of Memphis was produced by Jackson’s own Wingnut Films. I went in feeling like I’d feel a bit burnt out on the case, but I left the film curious about additional instalments as the West Memphis Three and their many supporters fight for total exoneration and the conviction of the true murderer of the three young boys. 4.5/5

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