Stories we tell

The summer movie season is incomplete without the addition of a few on-demand selections

<i>Stories We Tell</i>

Stories We Tell

Amid all the usual summer-blockbuster hoopla, the most notable of recent movie pleasures have turned up somewhat off to the side—in relatively unheralded pictures mostly, and in unexpected elements of some that were widely publicized.

For me, the emblematic movie of the summer season now ending was Baltasar Kormákur’s 2 Guns, with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. It’s an uproarious action movie about foolish American muscle and firepower, a brusquely comic farrago that maintains violent high spirits even as it collides with multiple levels of corruption in the nation’s law-enforcement agencies. Both men are working undercover on separate and conflicting missions about which both have been deceived, and their movie treats corruption in high places as little more than a challenge worthy of their action-movie resourcefulness and their great good humor.

Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, similarly emblematic, has a more pointed satirical edge to its comic action—both in its mashup of western movie conventions and in its rewiring of American history from an intermittently Native American perspective. But in both films, goofy comedy and action seem to serve as protective masks for rebellious energy that can find safety in few places outside a movie theater. Their political and historical incoherence is oddly refreshing, particularly insofar as both aim to entertain but neither is in any particular hurry to offer comfort.

Among the other films that get high marks as offbeat pleasures of summer movie-viewing are a handful which are available via video on demand but haven’t reached Chico theater screens.

The tangles and mysteries of our stories and tales is very much the subject of Stories We Tell, a fascinating and unexpectedly moving documentary hybrid from actor/filmmaker Sarah Polley. What begins as a family-based reminiscence about her mother, an actress who died young, soon becomes an inquiry into the lives of both her parents and a search for her biological father. What results is 104 jam-packed minutes of drama and reflection, with enough family secrets, shifting relationships, convoluted memories and paradoxical emotions to fill a good-sized novel.

Polley, her parents, four siblings from two different marriages, and an assortment of relatives, old friends, and former colleagues all figure in the on-screen action, which is a brilliantly edited mixture of home movies, archival footage, new interviews, and stylized re-creations of remembered events (with lookalike actors playing younger versions of family and friends). In style, thematic substance and complex emotion, Polley’s film is simply one of the year’s best.

David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints—also one of my summer season’s best—is a darkly romantic outlaw love ballad set in the harsh, flat, scrubby landscapes of the Texas outback. A small-time thief (Casey Affleck), imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, escapes in hopes of rejoining his beloved (Rooney Mara) and the baby daughter he’s never seen. A sternly supportive father figure (Keith Carradine) and an unexpectedly sympathetic deputy (Ben Foster) get involved in the increasingly convoluted chase that results.

Smoothly understated performances, bursts of flashing memories in montage, fragments of de-glamorized violence, and music tracks that sound homemade all make signal contributions to the film’s richly evocative atmosphere—the gloom and glow of tragic farce somewhere out in the underbrush.

Blancanieves, from Spain, is a silent-movie pastiche, filmed in black and white and transposing the traditional story of Snow White to Seville, Spain, in the 1920s. Filmmaker Pablo Berger loads up with bullfighting sagas, father-daughter dramatics, the extravagant villainy of a wicked stepmother played by Maribel Verdú, and plenty of flamenco.

In David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are highway-maintenance guys, painting yellow lines and restoring signs along a desolate stretch of highway in the Texas hill country. A droll, bittersweet comedy of delayed maturity, it’s theatre of the absurd set out on the open road and seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Blancanieves and Prince Avalanche both get high marks as offbeat pleasures of summer movie-viewing that are—like the films by Polley and Lowery—available via video on demand but haven’t reached Chico theater screens.