Sunday, February 22, 2015

MY OSCAR BALLOT

It's Oscar day, and I am expecting that my annual mixture of kvetching and ogling and cheering is going to veer a lot more toward kvetching, given that this is one of the most homogenous and least impressive (and whitest) slate of nominees in recent memory.  Why do I bother even commenting?  Because the Academy Awards purport to be about rewarding the best work, and winning leverages careers.  Having seen so much of the work that is eligible for that recognition, I continue to wish that those who deserve it more regularly had a shot at getting it.

Here's how I would vote on this year's nominees, such as they are--entirely non-predictive of what will happen at tonight's Oscar ceremonies--along with some commentary about glaring omissions from the nominations that are worth seeking out.

Best Picture:  SELMA.  As I indicated on my ten-best list, I could make a case for "Boyhood," but when all is said and done, I think "Selma" deserves best picture recognition because it pulls off something extremely important and difficult, and sets the bar for beginning to tell some of the scores of neglected stories of the American Civil Rights Movement.  As for the rest of the list of nominees, "Boyhood" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" deserve to be here, and I think the case can be made for "Whiplash," but "Birdman" is way overrated and I don't think either "The Imitation Game" or "The Theory of Everything" are best picture material.  "American Sniper" is an absolutely terrible film.  I would replace those films with "Calvary," "Metro Manila," "Ida," "Two Days, One Night," and "Dear White People."

Best Actor in a Leading Role:  DAVID OYELOWO, who isn't nominated.  This group of nominees makes me furious.  None of them comes near either Oyelowo's performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" or Chadwick Boseman's performance as James Brown in "Get on Up" or Brendan Gleesan's performance in "Calvary."  I would also add Ralph Fiennes for his pitch-perfect performance in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and Timothy Spall's performance in "Mr. Turner."

Best Actress in a Leading Role:  MARION COTILLARD, who is absolutely phenomenal as a woman fighting for her job in "Two Days, One Night."  Julianne Moore is also excellent in "Still Alice" and is more likely to win, because the challenge of playing someone with Alzheimer's Disease is more obvious.  The other nominees do not belong on this list at all, particularly Rosamund Pike, who is one of the least believable actresses working.  I'd replace them with Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Beyond the Lights" and Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska in "Ida." It strikes me that this year's roles for women are particularly underwritten.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:  ETHAN HAWKE for very thoughtful work playing the hapless weekend dad in "Boyhood"--though I can make a very solid case for J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash," who is riveting as an abusive music conductor.  I love Robert Duvall, but his role in "The Judge" is far too ridiculous to be award worthy.  I would replace Duvall with Chris O'Dowd in "Calvary."

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:  PATRICIA ARQUETTE all the way.  She is absolutely wonderful as a complicated mom doing her best and making loads of mistakes in "Boyhood."  I'm not really a fan of any of the other nominees; although fair criticisms have been raised about the way Coretta Scott King is portrayed in "Selma," Carmen Ejogo's performance surpasses those of all the other nominees.  Tilda Swinton also deserved a nomination for her iconic oppressor in "Snowpiercer."

Best Cinematography:  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, though I could also make a case for "Ida.  "Mr. Turner" is also a deserving nominee; not so "Birdman" or "Unbroken." 

Best Costume Design:  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL again, with its wonderful and quirky artistic vision. 

Best Director:  RICHARD LINKLATER, among these nominees.  He really did a visionary thing by using such an extended and spacious creative process for "Boyhood."  However, Ava DuVernay absolutely deserved a nomination, as did John Michael McDonagh for "Calvary" and Pawel Pawlikowski for "Ida."

Best Documentary Feature:  FINDING VIVIAN MAIER.  Only two of the nominees were released in Portland in time for me to screen them and, of those two, the exploration of the quirky nanny with a singular eye for capturing the downtrodden on film is the most deserving.  I'm glad that "Citizenfour" was made but don't find it a particularly well-crafted film.  I would add "Keep On Keepin' On" to the list of nominees.

Best Film Editing:  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL again.  "Whiplash" is another worthy nominee in this category. 

Best Foreign Language Film:  TIMBUKTU, which was my favorite film at this year's PIFF (though I didn't screen it in time to include it in my own top ten films for 2014).  "Ida" is another worthy nominee; "Wild Tales" is entertaining but a very slight film.  The other two nominees weren't released in Portland in time, but I did see several of the other films eligible in this category and consider "Today" from Iran and "Corn Island" from Georgia far worthier of recognition than "Wild Tales." 

Best Original Song:  "GLORY" from "Selma," which accomplishes what an original film song is supposed to do.

Best Production Design:  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL for sure.  "Mr. Turner" is an especially deserving nominee in this category.

Best Visual Effects:  INTERSTELLAR, out of this rather unimpressive group of nominees. 

Best Original Screenplay:  BOYHOOD, which Richard Linklater wrote over a period of a dozen years.  "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is the only other nominee worthy of nomination.  "Calvary," "Dear White People," and "Ida" belong on this list.

Best Adapted Screenplay:  WHIPLASH, among an unimpressive group of nominees. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

MY TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014--AND SOME OSCAR COMMENTARY

[A version of this article appears in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/feb/17/counterpoint-oscars/ ]

I have even less interest than usual in making Oscar predictions this year; it's the whitest and most unimpressive slate of nominees in years, overlooking a particular wealth of absolutely amazing work, including some featured in the films below. But as is my tradition, I offer this list of the 10 best films of 2014 just in time to provide a counterpoint to the Oscars, with a little bit of Academy Awards commentary thrown in.

My three top films were hard to rank; I could make a case that any one of them was the best film of the year. The two I ranked first are underappreciated, and both happen fundamentally to be stories of heroic faith. They are followed by two films that have received and deserved a lot of awards notice. My list also includes three films that I first saw at last year's Portland International Film Festival (PIFF), two of which garnered Oscar nominations. I've provided links to my full-length reviews of all but three of the films; those I have yet to review, so I've provided a preview of forthcoming longer pieces on them.

First, here's the list:

1.  Selma

2.  Calvary

3.  Boyhood

4.  The Grand Budapest Hotel

5.  Metro Manila

6.  Keep On Keepin' On

7.  Ida

8.  Two Days, One Night

9.  Dear White People

10. Finding Vivian Maier.

1.) Of all the films on my list, "Selma" pulls off the most difficult and important storytelling on this or any list. The American film industry loves stories of dark chapters in other people's history (most notably Nazi Germany), but doesn't have much of a track record for producing films that wrestle competently with the troubled parts of our own, barely more recent history. Ava DuVernay deserved an Oscar nomination for best director for what she accomplished here: a depiction of an important chapter of American Civil Rights history which neither whitewashes nor oversimplifies, and which imparts a sense of the canny strategy, guts, and heroic faith that it took to win for black Americans rights already guaranteed to them by the Constitution. She has set the bar for future work in telling the scores of neglected stories of this part of our history. And David Oyelowo deserved best actor honors for presenting Martin Luther King, Jr., as a living human, a young man thrust into leadership with the skills to pull it off but also with flawed humanity.

As with any historical drama, valid questions can be raised about some dramatic choices (most notably about Coretta Scott King, whose depiction here likely diminishes her influence, though no more than has chronically been the case). But compared to most other fact-based dramas (including the Oscar-nominated "The Theory of Everything," "The Imitation Game," and, most egregiously, "American Sniper"), "Selma" gets the balance right between facts and truth. You can read my full length review here.

[Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language; on at least 69 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Song; deserved nominations for Best Director (Ava DuVernay) and Best Actor (David Oyelowo); still in limited release and well worth seeing on the big screen.]

2.) "Calvary" is the film that means the most to me personally. It is also a perfect depiction of heroic faith as it might be lived by the rare person who takes seriously what faith demands in daily life. I actually can't think of a film that deals with questions of faith in a more complex and challenging way--which may account for why it hasn't really received the critical reception that it deserves. What passes for faith, in life and on film, is too often way more packaged and safe than what is depicted here; this film is pitched perfectly between faith and doubt, and shows how heroic action often occurs in exactly that intersection. It's a film I will return to for inspiration again and again. You can read my full-length review here.

[Rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence, and some drug use; deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (John Michael McDonagh), Best Actor (Brendan Gleeson), Best Original Screenplay (John Michael McDonagh), and Best Original Score (Patrick Cassidy); on at least 19 other critics' top 10 lists; available on DVD and streaming.]

3.) "Boyhood" has received universal acclaim--and that acclaim is, for once, well-deserved. By filming over the actual span of the lead character's childhood and making flexible and attentive use of that childhood in constructing this story, writer-director Richard Linklater created a container for storytelling that is far more authentic than the usual film fare, certainly more authentic than other coming-of-age stories and stories about children. He gets excellent work from the two children at this film's center, and also great work from the parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who deserve to win Oscars for their performances. The film is full of nuance about how kids and parents can be both good and perfectly awful, sometimes in the same moment. The film has been justly criticized for depicting an unrealistically white Texas in which the only Latino character is a crude stereotype; though that isn't okay, I still think the film succeeds on its own terms, and I hope Linklater has absorbed that very fair criticism in the midst of all the praise he has justly received. You can read my full-length review here.

[Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for best supporting actor (Ethan Hawke), best supporting actress (Patricia Arquette), original screenplay (Richard Linklater), and best director (Richard Linklater); on at least 151 other critics' top ten lists; still in limited release and also available on DVD and streaming]

4.) Wes Anderson's films are famously not for everyone, and I will cop to being a fan, though not of every one of his films. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is one of his best. It is characteristically quirky, laugh-out-loud funny, and packed with interesting characters who are both comic and soulful. He has achieved a meticulous and dazzling visual style here that feels both borrowed and original; Anderson loves old things and puts them to fresh use. And the film's plot centers around a very ugly and complicated part of European history, which gives the whole enterprise an air of tragic wistfulness that makes it linger in one's memory. Like all of Anderson's best films, I expect to revisit this one often.

[Rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for cinematography, costume design, film editing, production design, and original score; also nominated for best picture, best director (Wes Anderson), and best original screenplay (Wes Anderson); also deserved a nomination for best supporting actor (Ralph Fiennes); on at least 116 other critics' top ten lists; available on DVD and streaming.]

5.) "Metro Manila" was my favorite film of last year's PIFF, and I am really disappointed that the film achieved neither a theatrical release nor the critical acclaim that it deserves. That's the price that director Sean Ellis paid for following the path that the Filipino story he sought to tell led him; he worked with Filipino actors, relied on them to translate the story into Tagalog, and accepted the challenge of directing in a language he didn't understand. Those choices surely dimmed both the film's commercial prospects and its chances for awards recognition (since it doesn't look like typical award-worthy fare), but the pay-offs in terms of the authenticity and depth of this story are profound. This film literally took my breath away when I first saw it, and I highly recommend taking its absorbing journey into the lives of marginalized people. You can read my full-length review here.
[Not rated; in Tagalog and English; deserved Academy Award nominations for best director (Sean Ellis), best original screenplay (Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers), and best picture; available on DVD and streaming]

6.) I admired the film "Whiplash" and am happy for its Oscar nominations for best picture and best supporting actor (J. K. Simmons). However, the antidote to the philosophy of Simmons' character--a conservatory band director who espouses the view that great music requires sadistic abuse at the hands of a mentor--can be found in the transcendent "Keep On Keepin' On." This documentary--my hands-down favorite of the year--explores the relationship between jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, who played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie and was a mentor to Quincy Jones, and a young sight-impaired pianist, Justin Kauflin. Kauflin is merely the latest in a long, long line of musicians who Terry has mentored and loved into doing their best musical work, and here one sees a relationship that is profoundly life-giving to both men. Both are struggling with health issues and life challenges, and both speak the language of music so well that listening to and watching them is a very moving revelation. This is love personified--and it works.

[Rated R for some language; deserved an Academy Award nomination and win for best documentary feature; on at least 2 other critics' top ten lists; available on DVD and streaming.]

7.) "Ida" is another of the films I saw first at last year's PIFF, and it is a beauty. Set in Poland in 1962, it follows a young novice nun's reluctant journey into her own history, where she discovers that she is a Jew and that her family history contains terrible tragedy. The director cast a veteran to play Ida's hard-bitten aunt, who has managed her trauma by grabbing at destructive power, and chose a young woman he encountered in a coffee shop to play the title character. Both choices paid off richly, and the latter actress (who had never acted before) perfectly captures the soul of a young woman at a crossroads, whose years of spiritual practice prepare her to struggle with questions she had not thought to examine. You can read my full-length review here.

[Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality, and smoking; in Polish; nominated for Academy Awards for best foreign language film and best cinematography; on at least 58 other critics' top ten lists; available on DVD.]

8.) The films of Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are concerned with realistically depicting the day-to-day struggles of the working class, and "Two Days, One Night" is their very finest work to date. Its main character, Sandra, about to return to her factory job after a medical leave, learns that her job has been eliminated by a vote in which her foreman presented her colleagues with a choice between receiving a significant bonus or keeping Sandra in her job. What follows is a weekend in which Sandra, having persuaded the boss to hold a re-vote the following Monday, sets out to persuade a majority of her colleagues to change their minds. Marion Cotillard perfectly captures Sandra's fear and agony, and the story unfolds to demonstrate the array of ways in which people respond when called upon to think about interests other than their own. This acutely perceptive film tells a particular and somewhat ordinary story very well; it also functions as a metaphor for the ways in which we humans often badly assess the stakes of our constant battles for resources and energy. There is much, much to think about here.
[Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements; in French, Arabic, and English; Marion Cotillard is nominated for and deserves to win an Academy Award for best actress; on at least 37 other critics' top ten lists; still in limited theatrical release]

9.) I little suspected that "Dear White People" would end up on my top 10 list when I first saw it, because it was so uncomfortable to watch. That discomfort turned out to be so rich with ideas and tools for struggling with them that this clever film won me over with its sheer ambition. It tosses up a whole host of questions about race that no other film has dared to touch, and then wisely resists answering them. This film contains challenges for everyone on the spectrum, and that kind of rare courage and originality deserves a shout-out in any year. You can read my full-length review here.

[Rated R for language, sexual content, and drug use; deserved an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay; on at least 9 other critics' top 10 lists; available on DVD and streaming]

10.) Finally, another of the films I saw first at last year's PIFF, "Finding Vivian Maier" tells the story of an obscure life that contained actual buried treasure, and gives one pause to reflect on how often the same may be true of those we overlook. Its subject spent her life as a nanny to a number of Chicago families, while obsessively documenting her observations of the world in beautiful and artistic photos which she never developed, and which were later discovered by the filmmakers. The film applies a kind of reverence to the exploration of a very odd person with a keen eye for outsiders, and invites reflection on the neglected art of attentiveness. You can read my full-length review here.

[Not rated; in English and French; nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature; available on DVD and streaming]

Friday, February 13, 2015

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PIFF VIEWING

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/feb/11/world-focus/]

I have seen a host of wonderful films in the first week of the Portland International Film Festival. Here are some screenings you can still catch, ranked from my most to least favorites. I’ve also included two films whose festival run is over but are expected to get a theatrical release:

The President,” a Georgian/French production directed by Iranian Mohsin Makhmalbaf, is one of my favorites of the festival so far. Set in an unknown country, it begins with a window into the lives of a dictator and his family, who live in obscene luxury and rule ruthlessly. The opening scene between the dictator and his grandson, who is maybe four or five years old, made my blood run cold. Soon after the dictator’s wife and daughters leave the country he is overthrown and is forced to flee with his grandson who had insisted on staying behind. For most of the rest of the film, they are fugitives, posing as street musicians. They encounter people who suffered under the dictator’s rule, witness atrocities in the wake of the revolution, and end up traveling with people who were imprisoned and tortured on orders of the dictator. The interactions with child and grandfather serve as a lens into the values that both have been taught and that the dictator has inculcated. (Plays on Sunday, Feb. 15 and Tuesday, Feb. 17)

Another Georgian film, “Corn Island,” also captured my imagination. A river that forms Georgia’s border with the breakaway republic of Abkhazia changes dramatically with the seasons; from spring until fall, the waters recede to form tiny islands with fertile soil that don’t belong to either country. This nearly wordless film depicts the lovely, hard, and self-contained life that an old Abkhaz farmer builds for himself and his teenage granddaughter on one such island, beginning with nothing, building a small hut, plowing the earth, and planting corn that has the potential to get them through the rest of the year. With no explanations, this visceral film makes you feel the weight of the wood and tools and straw he carries, the granddaughter’s blossoming into womanhood, the threats of weather and politics that impinge on their simple existence. Moving and evocative. (Plays again on Saturday, Feb. 14)

Though slighter in its ambitions, the Spanish film "Living is Easy with Eyes Closed” is gently satisfying in its own way. It is inspired by the true story of a Spanish schoolteacher, Antonio, who uses the Beatles’ music to teach English and is such a fan that his students have dubbed him the Fifth Beatle. Having learned that John Lennon is visiting Spain to make a film, Antonio embarks on a car trip to Almeria with the intention of meeting his idol. Along the way, the quirky enthusiast picks up a 20-year-old pregnant girl and a teenage runaway fed up with his father’s authoritarian ways, and the journey they take together is marked by Antonio’s affable generosity and the little life lessons that Antonio finds embedded in Lennon’s lyrics. (Plays again on Wednesday, Feb. 11)

The Gambler,” from Lithuania, feels like it would be best viewed with someone who actually knows Lithuanian culture, as I suspect there are some metaphors here for Lithuanian society that would be interesting to explore. The story centers on Vincentas, a talented paramedic who appears to be addicted to adrenalin and calculating odds. Desperate to hit it big to pay off his mounting debts, he devises a game that involves betting on his patients’ survival. Most of his fellow paramedics join in, and soon they have created a major enterprise. But as the stakes mount ever higher in their games of risk, Vincentas has pursued a romance with a gentle colleague who wants no part in such things but is facing her own high-stakes crisis. A cutthroat world is depicted, with stakes that didn’t always seem to add up, and the filmmaker employs some flashy touches that fell flat for me. Still, the story never lacks for interest. (Plays again on Wednesday Feb. 18)

Belle and Sebastian,” based on a beloved French novel and adapted from a popular 1965 television series, is built around the friendship between a motherless six-year-old boy and a mountain dog who his village treats as a threat. Set in the Alps during the German occupation in 1943, the film intends some obvious parallels between the threats experienced by the dog and those experienced by the villagers at the hands of the Nazis, and the story-telling all around is pretty clumsy and over-simplified, even allowing for its intention to be a family film. That said, the boy and dog are immensely likeable, and the scenery of the Alps is gorgeous. It was a huge hit in France and has the potential to please audiences here as well. (Plays again on Friday, Feb. 13 and Monday, Feb. 16)

And now for a couple to watch for in theaters soon:

The festival run for“’71” is past, but it will be released theatrically in mid-March and is worth watching for. It stars Jack O’Connell, recognizable from the less-arresting recent film “Unbroken” as an English army recruit sent over to Belfast in 1971 at the height of the northern Ireland conflict termed “the Troubles.” More honestly than most war movies, it depicts a tangle of betrayal, divided loyalties, lies, and double-crosses that certainly characterized that conflict but is actually the very stuff of war. But you don’t need a lesson in Northern Island politics to follow what is happening when this young soldier gets left behind, unarmed, in hostile territory. While focusing on depicting this particular story with tension and immediacy, director Yann DeMange also manages to illuminate some things that are true of all such conflicts. It’s auspicious work for a first feature film.

I expect that “Clouds of Sils Maria” will also get a theatrical run, if only because of its high wattage stars, Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche. Though mostly in English, the film feels very French—that is, the story is very mannered and frequently solipsistic, concerned more with subtle shifts in perspective than with plot dramatics. Binoche plays an international star (not unlike herself) who is at a personal and career crossroads, and Stewart plays her very capable personal assistant. Both women are excellent and the film provides a credible window into what that kind of life might be like, including the insecurities and self-doubt that plague particularly women in film industry. In the end, though, it is a lot of talking and it’s not clear that anything satisfying ever happens.

There is still a week and a half to go, so don’t miss the opportunity to see more films from all over the world. Films will play all over the city and you can buy advance tickets on the festival's website, festivals.nwfilm.org/piff38, by phone at 503-276-4310 or at the box office at the Mark Building, Portland Art Museum, 1119 S.W. Park Ave.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

PIFF WORLD TRAVEL AWAITS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/feb/04/savoring-cultures-and-perspectives/]

Every February, I travel the world--and so can you, or virtually so, because the Portland International Film Festival offers the most culturally diverse film event of the year, beginning this week. You can choose from 150 films (97 features and 60 shorts) from 52 countries. One of the true pleasures of the event is that it brings out local folks with ties all over the world; I savor the pleasure of hearing so many different languages spoken as I wait for the films to begin.

The festival’s opening night film is "Wild Tales," an Argentine production that presents six darkly-comedic short stories and is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I caught a preview screening of the other Oscar-nominated foreign language film on offer, "Timbuktu," a powerful depiction of a community in northern Mali under jihadist occupation. It’s a rare opportunity to see a film by an African director (Abderrahmane Sissako, who lives in France), and his depiction of the effects of Islamic extremism on one community is subtle and visually poetic and so visceral that I actually involuntarily cried out during one scene. It's a contender for my list of the best films of 2014--and my yearly 10-best list nearly always includes a film or two that I see first at PIFF. Timbuktu will play on Feb. 7 and 10.

I also have caught two other films in preview screenings so far. "10,000 Km," from Spain, focuses on a Barcelona couple who set out to live apart for a year while one of them pursues a career opportunity in Los Angeles. A lot of the film's visual focus is on the range of electronic communications that tie the two as they attempt to stay connected over Skype and text. But what attracted to me was how perceptive the film was about intimacy itself; an apparently quite connected and compatible couple in a seven-year relationship find that their intimacy begins to disintegrate rather quickly with physical distance. How many relationships would survive such circumstances? Why and in what way would they survive? The film is full of insights about the thin line that separates a life together and a life apart. It plays on Feb. 8 and 18.

"The Japanese Dog," from Romania, didn't intrigue me in the same way. It's a quiet tale of a grouchy older man who lives in a small village and is adjusting to the loss of his wife and many of his belongings in a flood. He appears stuck in his curmudgeonly rut until his estranged son returns home for a visit with his Japanese wife and small son. Their scenes of reconnection are quietly charming but what some have called subtlety struck me as a little thin and not very rich in understanding about what drove father and son apart. It is scheduled to play three times, on Feb. 6, 11, and 19.

Some of the films I'm especially looking forward to early in the festival are "'71," a thriller set in Belfast during the worst part of the Troubles, in which Jack O'Connell (star of "Unbroken”) plays a soldier trapped and unarmed in hostile territory; "Clouds of Sil Maria," a French film starring Juliette Binoche as a middle-aged actress returning to a play that made her famous, but this time playing the older of two key roles (having built her career on the younger character); "The Tribe," a Ukrainian film that won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and is presented only in sign language with no translation; "Hotel Nueva Isla," a documentary about a formerly luxurious old Havana hotel that now houses people living on the fringes of Cuban society; "Underdog," about a young Swedish immigrant working as a domestic in Norway; "Phoenix," a German film about a concentration camp survivor returning to Berlin to find the husband she still loves who may have betrayed her to the Nazis; and "The Duke of Burgundy," an erotic melodrama from the United Kingdom.

I've got an ambitious goal of seeing about 50 feature-length films this year; who knows if I'll make that goal but there is no doubt I'll savor the opportunity to sample so many different cultures and perspectives. Many of the PIFF films, even some of the best, never get a theatrical release. So it pays to take a risk and find an evening or two (or 10) to stretch beyond the usual multiplex fare.
 
Films will play all over the city and you can buy advance tickets on the festival's website, festivals.nwfilm.org/piff38, by phone at 503-276-4310 or at the box office at the Mark Building, Portland Art Museum, 1119 S.W. Park Ave. Paper copies of the schedule are also available all over the city. I advise arriving 30 minutes ahead of each film, as many films screen to full houses and they will only hold seats until 10 minutes before the film begins. The festival website has links to previews of most of the films to help you choose, and I'll be posting reviews of upcoming films next week.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A WISE LOOK AT CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY IN "SELMA"

[A version of review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/jan/13/riveting-and-inspiring/]

I long for more films that attempt to tell the stories of genuine courage and struggle and sacrifice that are the stuff of all the most important gains in civil rights for minorities and women and LGBTQ people and others who are marginalized. Such stories get far less attention than they deserve. But every time a film comes out that purports to deal with such topics, I brace for disappointment. Such films nearly always oversimplify the struggles depicted, so that the villains are cartoonish or the struggles themselves more easily resolved than they ever can be in real life.

What a treat, then, to watch “Selma”—and by a treat, I mean that I was riveted and inspired, and that I wept through most of it. For once, I found an insightful depiction of what working for social justice looks like. And what it looks like is broken bodies, fear, treachery, risk, mistakes, choices between terrible options, and unthinkable sacrifice. And it involves many heroes, not just one.

The film has an interesting back story. It was stalled in development for several years, and several well-known directors signed on and then dropped the project. Its star, David Oyelowo, felt called to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. back in 2007, but some of the early directors were not convinced he was right for the role. By the time director Lee Daniels became the fourth director to abandon the project, Oyelowo had been cast, and it was he who convinced the producers to bring on Ava DuVernay as director. She is one of very few women of any color to get the opportunity to helm a major Hollywood studio project and, if there is any justice in Hollywood (dare I hold my breath?) is poised to become the first African-American woman to win an Oscar nod. And she hails from the world of independent film.

I have to believe that DuVernay’s perspective and experiences helped this project. The usual mix of leadership hasn’t been able to pull off a film like this; all the cards of how a Hollywood film gets made are stacked against the necessary clarity of vision. The challenges of telling stories of the Civil Rights Movement include that the work is not finished, but we want to believe that it is. Fifty years after the events depicted in this film, there have not been biopics of black leaders of the movement, and most of the film treatments of the subject have been told from the perspective of white characters. Even non-film celebrations of Dr. King’s legacy tend to focus on him to the exclusion of other leaders and to celebrate his oratory divorced from the context of his words.

But social justice movements are not born of single heroes. They always depend on the actions of scores of brave individuals—real people who alternate between fear and courage, between clarity and confusion—who take courageous action with no hope of recognition and no assurance of success. Leaders work among other leaders, and they make mistakes too. They may neglect their families, or minimize the contributions of marginalized members of their own group. Yet those same leaders also have moments of clarity, and their disagreements may help them to fumble toward bold strategies that succeed despite long odds. Director DuVernay works from a place of understanding these truths, and her position of relative disadvantage as a woman of color working in the film industry can only have helped her to grasp them.

The result is a film that is uncommonly wise. Though it cannot tell all their stories, it recognizes people around Dr. King who contributed to the movement’s shape and strategy (Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton Robinson) or who laid down their lives or suffered serious injuries in the struggle (Lewis, Robinson, Jimmie Lee Jackson). And in depicting scenes of violence (the bombing of the Birmingham church where four schoolgirls were killed, the unprovoked and brutal violence against black protestors on Bloody Sunday), DuVernay evokes the experiences of scores of individual citizens who sacrificed their bodies and sometimes their lives, all without recognition or reward. She helps you recognize the fear and trauma that these people, their ancestors, and their descendents carry in their bodies. This is their story.

Though the film is not strictly about Dr. King, it depicts him, too, as a flesh-and-blood man gifted with uncommon courage and anointed with the power to inspire, but also as a man whose burdens were too heavy, who was too often away from his family, and who sometimes failed those close to him. The film helps you recognize how remarkable it was for any man, and particularly one so young, to shoulder the weight of responsibility that Dr. King carried, and the burden of that anointing. And by opening with his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and moving directly into scenes of life-and-death struggle in Alabama that occurred in the three months that followed, the film captures how the life of a great leader is likely to be filled with moments of applause and peril, sometimes in the same week, and how each victory often comes with renewed struggle.

The controversy that has arisen about the film’s historical accuracy reveals some things about the difficulty of telling stories like the ones depicted here. President Johnson’s top domestic aide, Joseph Califano, urged people in a December Washington Post op-ed to boycott the film because it failed to give President Johnson due credit for supporting and even devising the protests in Selma which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. For the truth, he said, people should read Califano’s own reports. A number of other critics and commentators, even while admiring other aspects of the film, have fallen into line with the view that the film unfairly shorts President Johnson of credit for the strategy employed by Dr. King and other black leaders in Alabama.

I feel like I saw a different film than these critics did. The picture that emerged for me was that Johnson wanted legislation on voting rights, but didn’t think it could be accomplished as quickly as black leaders wanted and was intent on pursuing his Great Society programs first. To suggest that Johnson was the architect of the high-risk, non-violent resistance that ended up being necessary to arouse the momentum for such legislation, especially given that the participants received no federal protection and that the racially-motivated violence against them went entirely without redress, makes no sense and is troubling in ways that Califano and others don’t even appear to notice. At the very least, when a powerful person who is part of the dominant culture demands that only he gets to tell the story, how can we trust the truth of the story he tells? The truth is generally a lot messier, and getting at it always requires making space for more voices.

The voices we can hear in “Selma” have not been given nearly the airing they deserve. A historical film will always reflect some compromises borne of everything from the difficulty of capturing what was true to the challenges of getting a film made at all; the question is only what drives those compromises and how faithfully the film manages to portray what is most deeply true.  In this case, for example, DuVernay could not get rights to Dr. King’s actual speeches (they are held by another studio for another project), so she sought to capture their essence in other ways. Yet in capturing Dr. King’s essence, and in depicting the work and sacrifices of countless others, DuVernay and Oyelowo and so many others involved with this soulful project have managed to keep their eyes on the prize, and have captured what is true more than what is accurate. The result is a transporting vision of what progress looked like in a particular time, with some wisdom for those of us who need it to face the challenges that continue to plague us.

Friday, January 2, 2015

"METRO MANILA" REFLECTS RESPECT FOR THE EXPERIENCES AT ITS CENTER

[A version of this review appears in the Portland observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/dec/31/confronting-harsh-realities/]

I saw "Metro Manila" back in February at the Portland International Film Festival and was so blown away by it that I hoped, against hope, that this taut and carefully constructed tale of a Filipino family trying to survive the harsh realities of life in Manila might actually get a U.S. theatrical release, though the commercial prospects for a tale in Tagalog seemed doubtful. My hopes failed to materialize, but the film is now available on Netflix and iTunes and Amazon, and I'm determined that everyone should see it. It's one of the best films I saw in 2014.

You wouldn't necessarily get that from the film's marketing or from reading the reviews. It's marketed as an urban thriller, and that is the focus of the praise it has garnered (which is less than it deserves, in my view). The latter part of the film does indeed turn into an intricately plotted, life-and-death crime story, but the film derives its power from the human story at its center, a story that many critics seem to have dismissed as pedestrian.

Its protagonists are Oscar and Mai, a loving couple with two small daughters who have been eking out a living farming rice in a remote province. When the economics of rice farming become untenable, they quite reasonably decide to move to Manila to find work. They are used to hard work, and both are strong, smart, and determined. But nothing can prepare them for the harshness of life in the city, and the cruelty of the people and circumstances they will encounter there.

There is nothing clichéd about the film's depiction of the couple's circumstances; we are hardly swimming in movies that sink deeply into the harsh realities of life in places like this. The film shows us what kind of people Oscar and Mai are and what fuels their choices. We see how they work together, how they respond to setbacks, how they attend to the needs of their daughters. Their love for each other is simple and specific.

They are duped out of most of their meager savings almost immediately upon arrival in Manila. It is clear that their naïveté is born of lack of experience; no one would expect the harshness of what they encounter. Mai is forced to take a job in a go-go bar, her loveliness her only marketable asset in this place. She stolidly submits to the reality of a situation that she clearly finds repugnant; though Oscar takes it as a mark of his own failure to provide, she tells him, simply, "Sometimes the only thing left to hold onto is the blade of a knife."

After not getting paid for a day of honest manual labor, Oscar appears to luck into a more lucrative and dangerous opportunity: he takes a job driving an armored car through the streets of a city whose extremes of wealth and poverty are far beyond what most Americans can imagine. His seeming benefactor is Ong, who helps him through the application process and takes him on as his partner. But before long the story moves from drama to thriller as the stakes of Oscar's situation escalate, and Oscar soon finds that he must fight past his own revulsion on occasion. Ong, with his fast talk and ready laugh, is Oscar's guide to the ways of this world. His advice to Oscar to "stick your finger down your throat" (mistaking Oscar's despair for physical illness following a night of mandatory hard drinking with his colleagues) feels laden with significance.

I was surprised to learn that the film's director, cinematographer, and screenwriter is a Brit, Sean Ellis, who had never been to the Philippines before visiting with a friend not long before writing the screenplay. He wrote the film in English, and then hired Filipino actors, who translated most of it into Tagalog. It's an interesting and significant choice for the filmmaker to direct the film in a language that he doesn't speak, and it contributes to the sense that the film is sunk into Filipino culture. While that decision may have dimmed the film's commercial prospects, it makes for a much more authentic experience than the usual Hollywood fare.

The choice to shoot in Tagalog also feels more respectful. We in the so-called "first world" don't spend much time thinking about the experiences of people at the margins of our own society, let alone those in parts of the world most harshly affected by globalization and power imbalances. If you added up their numbers, people at the margins far outnumber those whose cultures dominate movie screens and other barometers of attention. This film presents such a visceral look at the realities of life for people like Oscar and Mai that I felt absolutely wrung out after two hours watching it. I also felt a bit ashamed to think of how much stress I experienced merely affording some attention, in the comfort of a movie theater, to experiences that people actually manage to survive, if at all, only at great personal cost.

The filmmaker has made some smart plotting choices that aid reflection on what options really exist for smart and good people like Oscar and Mai. It doesn't seem too much to ask us to reflect on what the stakes truly are for people realistic enough to discern that the survival of everyone they love is not in the cards that life has dealt them.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"GONE GIRL" GOES DOWN A DREADFUL PATH

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/nov/26/gone-girl-dreadfully-disappoints/]

Writing film criticism is a labor of love for me, with the primary objective of appreciating and bringing attention to films that really deserve an audience. But rarely, I feel the need to call out a film that is particularly terrible, especially if it is garnering a lot of acclaim that I don't think it deserves. So, let's talk about "Gone Girl."

Fair warning, this review will contain spoilers. If you want to judge this film yourself and want the opportunity to be surprised by it, postpone reading this. But I hope you will read it.

Let me start by saying I think this film fails on its own terms. It is supposed to be a suspenseful psychological thriller, and has been lauded as a masterful example of one. I find that baffling. I saw everything coming, except the ending -- and I suspect that is because I didn't think even this dreadful film would stoop so low as to end the way it did. The plotting seemed to me clunky and obvious. I didn't believe a second of it.

That also goes for the psychological aspects of the film. The story involves a really bad -- that is to say, murderous -- marriage between a woman, Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) who is meant to be seriously disturbed (perhaps a psychopath), and a man, Nick (played by Ben Affleck), who does bad things but is not psychologically disturbed. You know, more of a movie Everyman.

As someone whose life has included more than the usual number of encounters with people with personality disorders and who sometimes finds stories about destructive and disturbed people interesting and enlightening, I did not find Amy's behavior and psychology to be remotely believable. I am curious about what anyone with psychological training would say, but I thought her motivations and actions made no sense even for someone who is disturbed. For example, why the attraction to Nick? He is handsome, yes, but with her looks and money she can get any number of handsome men. He is sort of a lunkhead, and not her intellectual equal. He is more lowbrow than she fancies herself to be. Why the obsession that culminates in her locking him into the marriage at the end? I could go on -- but suffice it to say that the film did not convince me that people like Amy exist, or illuminate anything about them if they do.

And then there is Nick, himself. We're meant to believe that he is suave and dashing enough to capture Amy in the first place but then a complete plebeian in who he associates with and how he spends his time and in how he deals with vicious, female-driven media hounds (more on that later). He cheats on Amy with a younger student and lays around the house playing video games and having no ambition. Yet Amy is obsessed with him.

You would think this world filled with diabolical women torturing poor, hapless Nick was dreamed up by a man -- but, as people are quick to point out when I and others criticize this film, the writer of both the screenplay and the best-selling novel on which it is based is a woman, Gillian Flynn, who even describes herself as a feminist.

Flynn has noticed that, despite the acclaim that both the novel and the film have received, both have garnered criticism for being anti-feminist and trading in a host of negative stereotypes about women. She dismisses these criticisms lightly (as in a New York Times interview this month), suggesting that she is actually advancing a more nuanced view of women by creating a really interesting female villain. She suggests in a 2013 interview in The Guardian that her writing seeks to move us (meaning feminists? pop culture generally?) beyond the need for women only to be innately nurturing and to recognize that women, like men, can be pragmatically evil and cunning. Somehow this is going to sharpen our cultural view of women, or make it more sophisticated.

I find Flynn's response to criticism to be self-serving and disingenuous. There is no glut of women heroes in our cultural conversation -- indeed, a recent study found that the top-grossing films feature only 15 percent women protagonists, heroic or otherwise -- and, even if there were a glut of women heroes, its antidote would not be to create more diabolical female villains -- particularly villains that trade in already virulent stereotypes about women as liars and cunning manipulators.

I also think that Flynn shows a remarkable lack of awareness about the implications of the fact that, as an attractive, white, well-educated woman in, by all accounts, a happy straight marriage, she writes from a position of relative social, psychological, and financial safety, about a subject that directly threatens the safety of a staggering number of women who are much less fortunate than she is. Sexual violence and domestic violence toward women is a persistent problem in our society. Abundant evidence suggests that women underreport such crimes and that victims often struggle to be believed when they do report. Yet evidence also suggests that, to an alarming degree, people continue to believe that women regularly lie about both things, despite abundant evidence that false accusations of rape and domestic violence, though they do happen, are relatively rare.
Unlike the world of "Gone Girl," where fooling the trusting police and gullible media with serial false accusations of rape and abuse are Amy's hobby, women at all levels of American culture face the struggle to be believed when they speak up about violence, and those struggles are exaggerated for immigrants, the poor, the disabled, and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. As for women in positions of influence, we regularly still encounter people's unconscious fear about our ulterior motives and are treated as threatening when we even so much as ask questions that people don't want to entertain.

Given those realities, it is downright irresponsible to make a major blockbuster which peddles a story -- which it treats as psychologically interesting and believable -- in which a career woman with more economic resources than her husband responds to his infidelity and lack of ambition by devising an elaborate ruse (complete with colorful post-it notes) to (a) fake her own disappearance, (b) make him look like an ass in the media, (c) fake her own death so that he will get the death penalty,(d) then changes her mind witlessly when the husband fake-apologizes in the media, (e) then traps a rich former suitor into rescuing her and tells him a bunch of lies about how her husband abused her, (f) then abuses her own sexual organs so that she can frame the suitor for abusing her after she brutally murders him, (g) then returns to Nick and traps him into staying with her by stealing his stored semen to make a hate child with it.

"Gone Girl" indeed tells that story -- and then makes it even more ludicrous by portraying the media and police as readily accepting all of Amy's accusations even though they are full of holes, and adding enough additional vicious women characters to people a small village. They include two particularly noxious women reporters and several other women who, without knowing Amy, join in her plot against Nick by trapping him into appearing to flirt with them on camera.
As I've said, "Gone Girl" did not convince me that women like Amy exist, or that portraying them advances feminist ideals, or any ideals, for that matter. And we do not live in a world where the response to accusations of sexual assault or domestic violence would be a frenzy of media and police support for the alleged victim.

The fact that feminist criticisms of the film are frequently dismissed as lacking sophistication or as demonstrating an unwillingness to tolerate female villains suggests that we as a culture dramatically underestimate how difficult it is for women to be believed when they report sexual and physical violence, or even for privileged women to carve out a space from which to speak with power without being treated as threatening. Because if we as a culture really understood those realities, we would not view it as playful or even as fair game to trade in the barely hidden fears and prejudices that keep women down, any more than we would view it as playful to make a film about a diabolical welfare-cheating African-American woman too lazy to use her bachelor's degree in accounting to get a job. Please tell me that we would demand that such a film demonstrate an awareness that such a story is highly implausible and promotes dangerous stereotypes. Or don't give Gillian Flynn or director David Fincher the idea to make that film.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"DEAR WHITE PEOPLE" INVITES HONEST GRAPPLING WITH HARD TRUTH

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/nov/05/right-kind-discomfort/]

When was the last time you saw a film that challenged your assumptions about identity? Or one that depicted anything like the variety and complexity of identity struggles and micro-aggressions experienced by people outside the dominant culture(s)? Or one that managed both to make you feel understood and to make you squirm?

"Dear White People," the first feature film of writer-director Justin Simien, manages all of those things and more, which is to say that it is quite an achievement. That is not to say that it is exactly fun to watch or even wholly successful -- but even as I write that, I question whether my discomfort with some aspects of the film says more about me than it does about the film. To pitch a film at this level of complexity and to manage to sustain it there is more than most films even aspire to.

Please don't stop reading or decide that this film is not for you. It is for you. No matter who you are, "Dear White People" will repay your investment of time and discomfort, will plant fruitful questions in your brain that deserve your attention, and will sharpen your awareness of things happening all around you. And, as I like to remind myself, what's true is true. The only question is whether you deal with it or it deals with you. And the truth will deal with you, even when the privileges you enjoy insulate you from perceiving it.

The truth in a predominantly white, Ivy League university like the fictional Winchester University -- like most places housing access to privilege -- is a lot more complicated than is depicted in popular culture or even popular parlance. The roving vantage points of the film involve mostly the African-American members of a mixed cast, and the variety among those characters is considerably more than we usually see in films (including in the sort of romantic comedies and romantic thrillers that seem to predominate among the few films with majority-black casts). Chief among the characters here is Sam, whose campus radio program shares the movie's title and who dispenses pitiless jibes at the hypocrisies and micro-aggressions that African-Americans experience in their daily interactions with clueless Caucasians. ("Dear White People, stop touching our hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?") Sam's perceptions are sharp and spot-on, but her own behavior frequently verges into unkindness, including to the white boyfriend who she keeps secret from her otherwise all-black social set.

Sam is running for leadership of a residence hall whose traditional status as all-black has been altered due to a change in university housing policy. This is a matter of controversy about which she disagrees with her opponent, her ex-boyfriend Troy, a clean-cut, athletic campus leader who is much easier for majority-culture sensibilities to accept than Sam is. Troy is dating Sofia, the daughter of the white university president, who in turn has edged out Troy's father, the dean of students, in most competitions in their decades-long-rivalry. Sofia's brother, Kurt, is the editor of the college humor magazine and a defiantly politically incorrect provocateur who reserves especially obnoxious taunts for Lionel, a nerdy gay black student who doesn't feel comfortable in any community and whose rangy afro evokes fascination in his white peers and irritation in his black ones. Also in the mix is Coco, a calculating economics major from the South Side of Chicago eager to distance herself from her original name, Colandrea, and its attendant ghetto associations. Coco seeks to forge a reality television career and a more assimilationist identity in direct contrast to Sam.

All of this culminates in a black-ghetto-themed party in Kurt's residence hall where white students don black-face and polyester and gold chains and teeth and other accoutrements of black culture as popularly depicted. (Simien cannily includes with the end credits news articles establishing that such parties have sprung up on actual college campuses across the country.) How the party came to be and how the black characters incite and respond to its elements is where all the disparate plot elements converge.

Everyone is angling. Sam indulges romantic attention from Reggie, a political ally who she apparently sees as a more suitable romantic partner, though her heart doesn't seem to concur. Troy smokes weed several times a day to smooth his struggle to assemble a persona powerful-yet-non-threatening enough to please his father, his white girlfriend, and enough of his peers to fuel his political ambitions. Coco chafes at the sense that, for black men, she is destined to be only a way station to a white girlfriend. Bright and observant Lionel struggles to find a vantage point from which to express himself, but his experience mostly buffets him between bullying and invisibility and exploitation.

Shifting between the half-dozen plot elements, the film's tone often feels self-conscious. But ultimately the complexity serves the film well; Simien is trying to get at themes we resist looking at, and multiple vantage points is a smart way to back us into doing that. The film is pitched at satire, and though the elements sometimes feel a bit too carefully assembled, they are more complex than stereotypes. The film captures the sense that, for African-Americans with a shot at rising, forging an identity is uniquely complicated. Am I black enough? Selling out? Selling short? How hard should I work at being non-threatening to the people with the means to help me rise? What should my agenda be if I succeed? What would success even look like? Is there any point to asking these questions at all? Will I even have any say in the answers once I get there?

As a person of mixed (European and Mexican) heritage, I related to these struggles, both from my own experience and from that of my friends from outside the dominant legal culture trying to make it in the world of law. But I also related to the anxiety evident in the white characters. Even denial (also much in evidence) appears at times to spring from a place of anxiety. I'm one of the good people, right? I get it, right?

"Dear White People" doesn't presume to answer these questions. It is wisely content to pose and play with them. In doing so, it has offered up a collection of characters who, with the exception of Kurt (undeniably a jerk) and Lionel (the most guileless), are by turns unlikable and worthy of compassion. And it has aspired to more than any film I can think of: a conversation about privilege and identity and race that sits with the questions instead of pretending that they have been or can be easily put to rest, by anyone.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MISFITS AND HIDDEN GIFTS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/sep/17/misfits-and-hidden-gifts/?page=1]

I went to see the new production of "A Wrinkle In Time" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival mostly because I see all the OSF productions. I vaguely remembered that the book on which it is based meant a lot to me as a young person, but recalled nothing about why. As it turned out, my murky recollection -- aided by some smart choices by director and adaptor Tracy Young, the production's talented designers, and a cast who clearly loves the source material -- all added up to an unexpectedly profound experience for me.

The story, for the uninitiated and the forgetful, involves an awkward adolescent girl, Meg Murry, who is a social misfit and unsuccessful student. Her beloved father, a physicist who had been employed at some top-secret government project, has been missing for more than a year. She and her genius five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, receive a nighttime visit from a mysterious old woman, Mrs. Whatsit, who tells them and their mother that there are such things as "tesseracts," or wrinkles in time and space that one can travel through. The following day the two children and Meg's schoolmate, Calvin, end up "tessering" -- traveling through such wrinkles -- to combat an evil Black Thing that is threatening the universe, and hoping to find Meg's father.

It's a complex story to depict on stage. The world of the book contains lots of fanciful elements and twists of the rules of time and space that can be difficult to describe, let alone stage. These are not so much problems for a book, whose literary life depends on the imagination of the reader, but bringing the story to life on stage is full of potential for corniness and camp.

But this cannily-designed production manages to strike all the right notes. The book was written in 1962, and the set design incorporates lots of signals of 1960s America, with its relative innocence mixed with paranoia. The design has a sort of handmade feel which suits that time and also the book's demand on imagination; it also captures the sense of a book that was once beloved by now older adults who are sharing it with present-day children and grandchildren. All the child characters are played (quite effectively) by adults, but one child actor appears often on stage, reading or working on her own science experiments. Her presence on stage captures a sense of a mixture of generations who have responded profoundly to this material.

When done well, a minimalist approach to special effects can serve to bring the profundities of a story into bold relief. Somehow the actors seem more vulnerable, awakening audiences to the poignancy of the story. And so it is here; the innocence of Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin convinces, underlined by various members of the cast frequently reciting lines from the beloved book. The production moves between various levels of realism and stagecraft in a manner that parallels the time-travel of the story, inviting the audience to travel through worlds of imagination and meaning.

Best of all, because I had not recalled much beyond that this particular book had meant much to me as a child, the production set me on a search for what had appealed to me then. The obvious answer -- and the one reached for by so many critics -- is that the story makes a hero of an awkward adolescent, and sets her on a voyage of self-acceptance and discovery of her hidden gifts. That is, of course, true. I indeed felt myself awkward and ugly and a lonely misfit, like so many children, and must have connected to the hope that I too might possess hidden gifts.

But there is so much more here. This is a story of the power of outsiders. The three main children are staked at various points on the spectrum of outsiders -- the social misfit, the misunderstood genius, and the person whose capacity to blend in comes at the expense of his essential self, who then remains imprisoned in loneliness. This story profoundly illustrates the pressures most humans feel to conform to norms that squash the deep truths of their being, and how it is that outsiders make the best containers for the most challenging truths. Reflecting on my own experience of childhood and my current experience of adulthood as I watched this story gave me a balanced set of reasons to weep--at how this story must have resounded for me then and how it encourages me now. And that is reason enough to stage this inspiring bit of theater.

[A song that has captured my imagination recently plays with similar themes:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPt0LkdM8Bc.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"CALVARY" GRASPS FOR A WORLD BEYOND FAIRNESS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/aug/20/calvary-grasps-world-beyond-fairness/]

In the opening scene of "Calvary" (my favorite film so far this year), a priest, Father James Lavelle, awaits the confession of one of his parishioners. Instead he receives a death sentence. The speaker informs the priest that he was raped by a priest for five years as a child; the perpetrator is now dead, so he intends to kill Father James. "I'm going to kill you 'cause you've done nothing wrong, I'm going to kill you 'cause you're innocent." He will give the priest a week to get his affairs in order.

The rest of the film reveals how this priest spends the next seven days leading up to his date with his would-be killer. He believes he knows who has made the threat -- but we don't. So we watch him going about his priestly duties, visiting the sick and the (possibly) penitent, attempting to intervene in a domestic violence situation, visiting with his wounded daughter Fiona and the local bishop. The ending of the story is less important than how this minister lives his life.

How should a person of genuine faith respond to a death threat? The question resounds for me in both its literal and metaphorical senses. Should he report the threat to the police? Obtain a gun for protection? Leave town? How Father James responds is profoundly instructive.

He shows up. Often his job is to be present when people are struggling or suffering, and to remain attentive to what he might do. One of his first lines of the film is "I'm here to listen to whatever you have to say," and he often expresses a commitment to "try my best to help you." But that doesn't mean offering platitudes or cheap solutions out of the typical religious toolkit. Sometimes it means just sitting with a person's dilemma, and offering a way to wrestle with it honestly. For example, an angry and awkward young man tells the priest that he is considering joining the military, and Father James engages him on the shallowness of his thinking about violence. "The commandment, 'thou shalt not kill' doesn't have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page, where there's a list of instances where it is okay to kill people," he explains. "What about self-defense?" the young man asks. "Well, that's a tricky one, alright," Father James responds. Of course, the priest is the only one facing a threat.

He listens. Again, watch that opening scene. Father James listens, intently. When the congregant criticizes him for his reaction to the revelation about sexual abuse, Father James considers, then apologizes. In scene after scene, you can see him working at remaining open to what may be happening in each interaction. That doesn't mean he always responds in a way the speaker wants to hear, but generally he works to remain open and engaged.

He is courageous. He doesn't shy away from the hard questions. During the visit from Fiona, who has recently failed in an attempt to kill herself, he gently pursues her with questions that will move them past her despair and defensiveness. He hangs in there as she expresses sorrow and anger for the ways he abandoned her for the priesthood after her mother died, and as she struggles with the ultimate questions of faith. In other scenes, he attempts to intervene in a troubled marriage where a cheating wife is getting beaten, even though the wife, husband, and lover all are hostile and unrepentant.

He is discerning. Nearly all the members of his community are responding to their own brokenness or doubt with anger, or treachery, or hostility. Father James is generally onto them, but doesn't overreact. A local atheist doctor who has seen too much of the dark side of humanity brazenly snorts cocaine around the priest and tries to provoke him with a story of a botched operation that left a young child blind, deaf, and paralyzed. A financier keeps turning up and cynically offering the church money to assuage guilt he doesn't even feel for his sins, and keeps emphasizing how much his possessions cost and how little they mean to him. Father James also visits a vile serial killer in prison who taunts him with the revelation that he felt like God as he took the lives of his victims. Father James sees the hostility and dishonesty of these men for what it is, and sometimes responds with appropriate revulsion. Often he will ask a person, "Why am I here?" when it is clear that he is being toyed with. But generally he manages to keep open a space to respond in genuine love if ever the person comes around to being able to accept it.

His actions communicate his belief that no one is a lost cause. Not the doctor, despite his taunts. Nor the financier, even after he pisses on a painting to prove the already obvious point that nothing means anything to him. Nor the serial killer, who Father James continues to visit even while aware enough of the man's history to know when the man is manipulating him. The unrepentant wife seems bent on communicating that she is a lost cause, and even says so at one point, but Father James corrects her. And to the male prostitute who assumes a manufactured accent and a flamboyant, nearly assaultive bravado, Father James finally asks, without irony, "Do you need help?  Are you okay?"

He has integrity. Perhaps the hardest person for Father James to tolerate is his co-pastor, a facile priest who preens and judges and utters not a single word of authentic truth in the entire film. Fiona observes wryly that the co-pastor is "the future of the priesthood," and one might fear that is the case, though history does not lack for similar examples, and not just in Catholicism. At one point Father James cries out in exasperation, "Why are you a priest?" The question wounds the co-pastor, who later remarks that he didn't realize Father James hated him that much. Father James, who has spent the past week with a murderer and a thief and a prostitute and two adulterers, responds, "I don't hate you at all. It's just that you have no integrity. That's the worst thing I could say about anybody."

Indeed. And though by this point Father James' own flaws are more evident, it is clear that he does have integrity. He is engaged in a struggle for truth, including a struggle for the truth in himself, right until the end of the film and even in his moments of fear when his life hangs in the balance.

This film deals with the question of faith in a challenging way, which also involves dealing with the question of fairness. Father James is an innocent man facing a threat of death that is wholly unjustified. The question of the unfairness of life hangs over nearly every scene of the film. Much of what troubles these characters is life's unfairness -- the doctor who has seen a patient killed by a drunk driver and a child's life ruined by an anesthesiologist's error; the sex abuse victim for whom there will be no justice; the prostitute who has spent his life as a play-thing; Fiona, who has struggled with experiences of abandonment.

The film places an answer to these questions in the mouth of a young Frenchwoman whose husband is killed by that drunk driver. Father James comes to perform the last rites, and learns that the couple loved each other very much and had a good life together. He tells her that performing the last rites is never easy but that some cases certainly seem less unfair than hers. When a person dies so young, people often lose their faith, he says.

That isn't much faith to lose, she remarks. And he allows that for most people, faith amounts merely to fear of death, which is easy to lose. The woman remarks that what happened to her is not "unfair; it is just what happened." She notes that some people don't live good lives, and never experience love. "That is unfair," she says.

Having just lost someone under circumstances even more unfair than an accident caused by a drunk driver, I struggle with the woman's statement. But perhaps that struggle has integrity. Late in the film she and Father James encounter one another again and, deep in her grief, she remarks, "At times I think I cannot go on. But I will go on." In the view of this film, and in my own view, that's faith.