Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"THE SALT OF THE EARTH"

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/may/05/journey-humanity/]

For most of the last 40 years, acclaimed photographer Sebasti√£o Salgado has been traveling the globe and focusing his practiced photographer's eye primarily on the experiences of people at the margins -- the poor, the dispossessed, refugees, the starving, the homeless. The images he has captured, all in black and white, are startling; luminous and beautiful, though often stark and disturbing, they convey a profound sympathy and a deep appreciation for the humanity of his subjects.

This artist understands and is fully at home with what the 12th century philosopher Miguel de Unamuno termed "the tragic sense of life." His work evinces a mindfulness that, as Unamuno explained, life is characterized much more by exception and disorder than by total or perfect order, and that life is inherently tragic. The documentary "The Salt of the Earth" meditates on the images themselves, and allows their creator to speak from the experiences that brought them into being. The result is a kind of spiritual journey into the deep.

The film is co-directed by Wim Wenders and by Salgado's son, Juliano, and theirs is an inspired collaboration. Juliano Ribeiro Salgado had begun to travel with his father and had accumulated a wealth of footage of the elder Salgado at work among the Yali tribe in Papua New Guinea; among another isolated tribe, the Zo'é, in the Brazilian Amazon; and in an island in the Arctic Circle. The two Salgados recognized that the creation of a documentary would benefit from a third perspective, and enlisted Wenders, who had long admired the elder Salgado's work. Wenders' prior films -- notably "Wings of Desire," a black-and-white film about an angel who wishes to become human when he falls in love with a mortal, and "Pina," a documentary tribute to the late German choreographer, Pina Bausch -- display a facility with mystery and deep longing that makes Wenders a good collaborator with Salgado.

From Juliano, who films in color, we acquire a sense of his father at work and of the influence of his important relationships. The photographer does not merely drop into a place and snap pictures with a practiced eye. Rather, he spends months at a time living with his subjects. He comes to know their way of life, their circumstances, and builds trust that can only be assembled through deep observation and shared space. Yet for Juliano in childhood, his father was a frequently absent, mythic adventurer; there were costs to the life his father chose. One sees, too, that the work depends on support from Salgado's wife Lelia, who is an important presence in the film. These observations ground a sense of momentum, of calling, that drove Salgado to more than 100 countries in the furthest reaches of the globe.

Wenders, working in black-and-white, hints throughout at Lelia's importance in grounding Salgado's work. He also films Salgado discussing his art, often through a marvelous sort of dark room technique; Salgado appears in front of a screen, looking at the photographs and answering questions about them, with the camera behind the screen filming through the photographs, via a semi-transparent mirror. The effect is profound, conveying a sense of Salgado reliving his experiences of capturing the images. Often he is quite moved as he describes the humanity of his subjects; we see that he is an artist but also a seeker, whose photographic images arise from a true ministry of presence with his subjects.

Salgado's work has famously been criticized by Susan Sontag and others for conveying the pain of others with a beauty that dulls the conscience, and the film has been criticized for not examining Salgado's work from that more critical lens. I didn't miss such a perspective -- and, indeed, I think such criticism misses an answer that is contained in the film itself. Salgado's photographs are the product of weeks and sometimes months spent with their subjects, often in countries beset by war or famine or tragedy. The artist creates a relationship with the people he photographs that enable him to capture their humanity in a way that would not otherwise be possible. They respond to the emotion and empathy which so clearly guide him, and he speaks reverently of them and of a sense that they "give" him the photo. Salgado has indeed become famous for photographing suffering, yet he has equipped himself to offer a voice to those who suffer and to convey what is deeply true and beautiful in their humanity. The fact that many may not have the capacity to absorb the impact of the images is indeed troubling, but cannot be the fault of their beauty.

The film also captures something important about Salgado's own trajectory. Years of photographing human misery have taken their toll, and particularly after spending time in Rwanda during the genocide, Salgado experienced a profound depression and stopped working for a time. Around that period, Lelia's inspiration and vision prompted the couple to embark on the gargantuan task of replanting the forest on Salgado's family's former ranch. What began as a family project became a massive ecological undertaking of successfully planting 2.5 million trees, bringing life where there was devastation. The resulting Instituto Terra has become the leading employer in the region, and out of that project, Salgado's artistic work has moved in the direction of photographing landscapes, wildlife, and human communities that continue to live in accordance with ancestral traditions and cultures.

I was struck by the lessons contained in the journey of this artist and his family. Compelled by an adventurer's spirit; by an intense interest in what moves humans to seek, to work, and to destroy; by an artistic gift; and by an intention to observe deeply and empathetically, Salgado has created a body of work that challenges us to wrestle with the most profound questions of human existence. It makes sense to me that the trajectory of his work through death and devastation has moved him to engage in other acts of creation and to explore elemental expressions of life. And it makes sense that all of it contains beauty.

FULL FRAME REPORT

[A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/apr/21/sharp-focus-controversy/]

I see a lot of feature-length documentaries throughout the year, and the few that achieve wide release are not necessarily the best; some are overly slick or don't reflect the careful editing that enables the best docs to make plain a complex story.

The last 11 docs that I saw at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., this month represent a range of quality, too. None are in theaters or online yet, but several are worth watching for. My brief reviews rank them from best to least successful.

My favorite film of the entire festival was "Peace Officer," which I understand will be widely available sometime this summer. The picture won awards at both Full Frame and last month’s South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas addressing complex issues around the increased militarization of police.

Its co-directors, Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, weren't originally attracted to that topic, but rather to William "Dub" Lawrence, the relentless former sheriff who forms the backbone of the film. When Lawrence's own son-in-law was killed in a brutal show-down with the same SWAT team that Lawrence himself founded back in the 1970s, Lawrence's own investigation into the incident caused a major shift in his thinking about law enforcement, from trust to alarm.

Calling on his long years of experience as a sheriff and his particularly dogged skills as an investigator, Lawrence became concerned about the increasingly violent responses of police in making arrests and serving warrants. For him, it's a matter of the sacred trust officers owe to the public, which he sees getting lost in the escalation of assault weaponry and military gear that has become so prevalent.

Lawrence does indeed make for a compelling figure around which to build this film; he understands and respects law enforcement and appreciates the real dangers they face. He also credibly analyzes several incidents in which members of the public were killed or injured as a result of police conduct and presents convincing alternatives to the justifying narratives put forth by police.

Barber and Christopherson did not rest on the fact that they found a compelling spokesperson; rather they build a skillful narrative around Lawrence's concerns, filling in details of specific stories he has investigated and panning out to the larger issues around police conduct. They also give meaningful air time to the views of law enforcement. They have assembled an extremely compelling and nuanced approach to a topic that demands but rarely gets that kind of care. It's a first-rate piece of documentary filmmaking that I hope will attain a larger audience.

Another award winner that deserves a broader audience is "(T)ERROR." Also a co-directed first feature, it won prizes at Full Frame and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and provides a gutsy look inside an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. Filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe follow the story through the perspective of "Shariff," a former Black Panther turned FBI informant who irascibly narrates his justifications for and perceptions of the government's counterterrorism tactics. It would be hard to imagine more treacherous terrain to attempt to capture, and these filmmakers illuminate plenty of reasons for concern about how the war on terror is being conducted. The film will air on PBS's "Independent Lens" and on the BBC later this year.

On a lighter and quite delightful note, "Mavis!" explores the life and music of legendary vocalist Mavis Staples. Director Jessica Edwards was inspired after seeing Mavis perform and, taking her own advice to "make the films you want to see," cold-called Mavis's manager to begin the project, her first feature. Though the treatment here is standard, Edwards has assembled a wealth of wonderful footage of the performances of the Staples Singers and Mavis's continuing work with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and the film features artists like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan (who "smooched" with Mavis when they were both young) discussing Mavis's influence.

Mavis and the Staples Singers have long deserved a documentary celebration of their astonishing range of gospel, soul, and R&B and the inspiration they offered to the civil rights movement, and HBO recently picked up the U.S. TV rights to this film.

I saw "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon" late in the festival and, frankly, it was my last choice in its time slot; this brand of raunchy dominant-culture humor is not really my thing. But actually the film is a very smartly assembled history of the humor magazine that presaged "Saturday Night Live" and such feature films as "Animal House," "Caddyshack," and "National Lampoon's Vacation." It cleverly uses clips from the mag's own art to illustrate much of the history, and assembles interviews from a cast of mostly privileged white male contributors who are now in their 60s. It’s a worthwhile window into the history of American humor and culture -- though for all its wistful nostalgia, the film lacks any awareness that whole segments of American society (like, uh, women and ethnic minorities) never had a heyday in which their raunchiest humor found a dominant culture audience, and aren't likely to experience that heyday.

"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" really is more my cup of tea, and this film directed by venerable documentarian Stanley Nelson delivers a comprehensive look at the controversial organization's origins and legacy. I learned a lot, as I expected to, but I have to say that the National Lampoon film juggled its various story lines a bit more successfully; I got lost at times in Nelson's assemblage of stories and left with lots more questions, even after two hours. However, that would have been particularly hard to avoid in telling this piece of history; as the film points out in its opening scenes, each participant has his or her own history of the Black Panther party that they were part of -- and that doesn't even account for the popular culture perceptions of the group. Anyone interested in furthering her education on this important piece of American culture won't want to miss this film.

"How to Dance in Ohio" won an audience award, which surprised me a little, but the film is well worth a look. In Columbus, Ohio, a group of teens and young adults on the autism spectrum prepare for an American rite of passage that is the setting for untold agonies even for those of us not on the spectrum: a Spring Formal. They are all working with a kind and quite brave psychologist who prepares them for and stages the event as part of their work to practice social skills. The film particularly follows three young women in their journey of preparation for the dance, and its tender exploration of their ups and downs in experiencing this event that might otherwise have been inaccessible to them is not only illuminating about autism, but is also achingly familiar terrain for anyone. The film's subjects and particularly their relationships with their caring parents are often quite moving and this depiction gently affirms common experiences that we don't always perceive so accurately.

"Tocando la Luz" took home an award for the best first-time documentary feature, though I think others outshone it. It follows the stories of three blind women in Havana, Cuba and their parallel stories of struggling for the independence. Though each individual story contained interesting features, the film needed further shaping to establish a more defined link or purpose between them.

"3 and 1/2 Minutes" probes the story of Jordan Davis, an African American teen who was gunned down by a middle-aged white man who had confronted Davis and his three friends about their loud music. I so wanted this film to be better than it is, given the importance of its subject matter, but it seems the filmmakers were so intent on releasing a film about the trial of Davis's killer that they didn't take the time assemble a very careful analysis of the larger issues. They benefit from their compelling subjects, particularly Davis’s repellant assailant, but I am still wishing for a more nuanced examination of the escalating problem of gun violence against young black men.

The final three films are worth seeing for their specialized subjects. "Tell Spring Not to Come This Year" documents the experiences of one inexperienced and ill-equipped unit of the Afghan National Army charged with maintaining security after the departure of international forces. The filmmakers embedded with the unit and captured heartbreaking scenes of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by young men with few real other options. "Devil's Rope" artfully captures a sense of the legacy of barbed wire fences in the American West, including long, silent tracking shots and laconic commentary from barbed wire enthusiasts. Finally, "Love Marriage in Kabul" follows the efforts of a dynamic Afghan woman who runs several orphanages and seeks to help a young couple accomplish a love marriage against relentless social odds in an unyielding society.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

FIRST BATCH OF FILMS FROM FULL FRAME

[A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/apr/14/riveting-conflicts-uncomfortable-truths/]

Every April, I make a pilgrimage to Durham, N.C, for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the premier documentary film festival in the U.S.

Aside from last year, when my trip was interrupted due to the death of my life partner, every year at least one and often several of the films on my annual list of the best films of the year are films I spotted at Full Frame. Here's my report from the first day of this four-day festival; I'll complete my report next week

The best film of the day by far was "Best of Enemies," which is slated for a nationwide theatrical release at the end of July. The political party conventions of 1968 are primarily remembered for the unrest and political violence that occurred in the streets, but this canny documentary shifts focus to a surprisingly intense television battle that was being waged at the time that presaged today's culture wars.

In an effort to up its dismal ratings, ABC News enlisted conservative commentator William F. Buckley and liberal commentator Gore Vidal to address each convention day's events. The times were different in significant ways; television, still a relatively new medium, functioned as a seemingly neutral (though entirely white and male) center for American culture, and rifts between generations and communities were becoming deeper and more visible. Buckley and Vidal were both privileged intellectuals who staked out opposite ends of the political spectrum, and their debates were a marvel of eloquent bombast that changed television and American political discourse forever.

Filmmakers Morgan Neville ("Twenty Feet From Stardom") and Robert Gordon ("Johnny Cash's America") do a wonderful job of placing these television debates in their historical context and capturing the significance of these two intense personalities in setting the poles of a divide that still drives American politics. Watching their conflict from this distance is by turns hilarious and extremely sobering. This riveting window into American history and our present-day conflicts will leave you wrestling with fascinating questions about American culture and about how we fight.

"(Dis)honesty--The Truth About Lies" is less satisfying but still interesting. The film is framed around the work of best-selling author and Duke University professor of behavioral economics Dan Ariely, who studies irrational behavior and what compels people to make choices they know are unethical. Filmmaker Yael Malamede interviews a number of folks with interesting and often high-profile stories of dishonesty, and Ariely mines his research for analyses of what motivates unethical behavior. The film struck me as a bit too slick; most of the analysis doesn't go very deep, making it relatively easy for viewers to squirm away from any sense that the film might be describing them. Still, it's an interesting lens into human behavior.

"Iris" is a whimsical portrait of 90-year-old Iris Apfel, an interior designer whose unique style has made her into a fashion icon. Having assembled a vast collection of prints, chunky custom jewelry, and large, Coke-bottle glasses, Apfel savors putting together outfits that convey her eclectric sense of whimsy and individuality. The film doesn't travel anywhere deep, but savors this quirky personality and offers endless visual delights. It's a pleasure to watch an older woman who knows who she is and enjoys expressing herself.

"Monte Adentro" is the film that will likely be hardest to find, and is best enjoyed with a little context outside what is discernable from in the film itself. Most Colombians have migrated to cities, leaving behind peasant life in the mountains. Filmmaker Nicolas Macario Alonso sought to explore vestiges of a past that is disappearing, and follows a pair of brothers who may be the last generation of their family of mule drivers. The film captures a mostly silent connectedness between the brothers, and is most engaging when filming a typical but quite perilous journey transporting an unwieldy furniture load on a three-day journey up the mountain. The beasts themselves are a marvel, and the camera-work gives you lots of reasons to appreciate the hard, physical work that is essential to the character of these people.

Next week I'll report on eleven more films that I'll be seeing over the next three days, in most cases featuring discussions with the filmmakers. What could be more fun?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE AT OSF

[A version of this piece appears in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/apr/07/something-everyone/?page=1]

There's something for everyone at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, year in and year out. It's always worth a trip down to Ashland, for the high quality of the productions, and also because the plays themselves are so thoughtfully selected, produced, and cast to bring a variety of voices and cultures to the stage. I've seen four of this year's shows so far, and this season is no exception.

Even if you don't think you like Shakespeare -- and of course if you do -- this season's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" contains many delights. Shakespeare's comedy contrasts an older, mismatched pair, Benedick and Beatrice, with a younger pair of innocents; the shallowness of the younger pair's infatuation makes them vulnerable to the machinations of someone who wishes them harm, while the older couple's spark ignites from the differences that first repel and then attract them.

The best thing about this production are Benedick and Beatrice themselves, beautifully played by Danforth Comins and Christiana Clark. Their differences in culture and physicality deepen the delight of watching them spar and then fall in love, even while neither they nor we would put them together. The play's director, Liliana Blain-Cruz, packs the play with perhaps too many ideas (I didn't feel, for example, that casting the angry and villainous Don John as a disabled female soldier carried much impact), but overall it is a pleasure to watch this very diverse cast savor such rich material. And Rex Young's comic turn as Dogberry, the self-important enforcer of order in the second act, flanked by a sidekick who has been turned into his mother in this production (Eileen DeSandre), is genius.

I'm no big fan of musicals, but if you can't enjoy this season's production of "Guys and Dolls," there's really no helping you. The production is set in the particular time and place of gangsters and showgirls of 1930s New York City, but in the end the story is a kind of urban fairy tale, where gangsters are really decent at heart, where a showgirl nurtures the conventional fantasy of a house full of kids enclosed inside a white picket fence, and where a straight-laced street evangelist dreams of her Prince Charming.

Director Mary Zimmerman -- who has made a career of mining the stories and dreamscapes of a number of cultures for stories of transformation -- knows just how to elicit the kind of hopeful energy that this show demands. In this urban fairy tale, the races mix more freely than was possible in actual 1930s New York, affording us the particular pleasure of watching this mixed cast sing and dance the buoyant score and the special joy of watching Rodney Gardiner play Nathan Detroit, the comic gangster who loves the ditzy showgirl Adelaide but can't bring himself to marry her. Robin Goodrin Nordli disappears into a particularly endearing Adelaide as well.

"Long Day's Journey into Night" is a different kind of classic entirely. Eugene O'Neill's aptly titled descent into the darkness of his own family history is the ultimate in psychological realism. One couldn't ask for a better cast than this to capture the pain of successful Irish-American actor James Tyrone (Michael Winters), and his two sons, failed actor Jamie (Jonathan Haugen) and gentle Edmond (Danforth Comins), as they attempt to avert the deterioration of mother Mary (Judith-Marie Bergan) into drug addiction.

From the first moment of this production, one can see the trauma lodged in the bones of the three men as they hover around Mary, desperate to arrest her slide into madness. The production is set in the intimate Thomas Theater, placing us inside their haunting beachside home, and we can hear the faint echoes of Ireland in their speech and in their sorrow. Director Christopher Liam Moore's definitive production of "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" a few years ago left me quite undone, and once again here he has assembled a production of an American tragedy that goes so deep that it serves as a vehicle for exorcising one's own demons.

Finally, "Fingersmith" offers a world premiere production of Sarah Waters' elaborate novel set in Victorian England. This story is absolutely full of surprises, with an intricate plot involving a pickpocket raised among London's enterprising poor who becomes embroiled in a scheme to deprive a young woman of her fortune in a remote world of privilege and depravity. Lovers of this complex story of betrayal and social upheaval will savor this extraordinarily smart retelling, and those who come to it new, as I did, will be blown away by the story's continual surprises.

Waters is concerned with people at the margins -- how the poor survive and trade on the little lies we tell ourselves and hide in the spaces that we refuse to see –and she sets her story on the knife edge between love and betrayal. Alexa Junge's skillful adaptation brilliantly navigates the complexities of this story, and director Bill Rauch and the amazing design team transport you into an experience of Victorian England that manages to both astonish and to leave you in a space of reflection about how identity and love are forged even as we navigate our own blindness.

One of the best things about seeing plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the wealth of accessible information about all of the plays, available in lectures and in video discussions at www.osfashland.org as well as in written form, including in the literary program produced every year, Illuminations. I always leave with plenty to think about and savor.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

LIVING A LIFE THAT MATTERS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/mar/25/living-life-matters/.]

The heralded film “Whiplash” depicts—realistically, I expect—a world of hungry aspiring jazz musicians who are easy prey for a brutal, sadistic conductor who deliberately pits them against each other, feeds and then assaults their fragile egos, and continually moves success just beyond their reach.The conductor justifies his abusive methods as being necessary to the cultivation of true greatness; “There are no two words in the English language more harmful,” he opines, than “good job.”

Such thinking is certainly not limited to the worlds of music or the arts. But there is no better rejoinder than the beautiful documentary, "Keep On Keepin’On.” Primarily an exploration of the friendship between legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, who recently died at the age of 94, and aspiring jazz pianist Justin Kauflin, the film is also about greatness that teachers like the one in “Whiplash” can never hope to evoke or achieve. Because as Terry’s example illustrates, how you live your life matters. And it would be hard to find better instruction for how to live your life well than can be found in this film.

Terry, one of the most recorded musicians in the history of jazz, played with Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington early in his career. He grew up “dead poor” in a family of 11 children in St. Louis, and so longed to play the trumpet as a child that he assembled his first horn using scrap metal from a junkyard (a process beautifully rendered in an animated sequence). He recalls how hard it was to find anyone to teach him and help him find his voice as a musician, and says he determined as a young person that if he ever learned to play, he would not be stingy in teaching others what he learned.

Terry’s passion for carrying out that intention was apparently unlimited. As a young man, he took a boy named Quincy Jones under his wing, and the love between him and Jones, his first pupil, 70 years later is palpable. Over time, Terry mentored literally thousands more young musicians, including everyone from Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis, and several of them speak affectionately on camera of his life-changing effect on their lives. Herbie Hancock emphasizes the impossibility of calculating the influence that Terry has had on several generations of musicians; “it’s almost like being pulled by a magnet,” he says, and the film contains a wealth of footage demonstrating Terry’s unrelenting energy for investing in people and his unfailing good humor.

The film’s first-time director, Alan Hicks, is himself a jazz drummer who played with Terry and benefited from his tutelage. Though he doesn’t feature himself in the film, the film reflects his lived-in sense of Terry’s influence. He wisely finds in Kauflin’s relationship with Terry a worthy focus for the film, as it is such a good illustration of Terry’s approach to life.

Kauflin, who lost his sight at age 11, met Terry while a student at William Paterson University, and was among scores of students who worked with him there. The relationship between the two deepened over a period when Kauflin struggled to make it as a musician and Terry was dealing with significant complications from diabetes, including the loss of his eyesight. Over a five-year period, the film depicts a number of setbacks for both men: Kauflin is forced to abandon his dreams of forging a career in New York City and moves home with his parents in Virginia, and he struggles with stage fright at a major competition; Terry faces increasingly debilitating symptoms and the amputation of both his legs.

Through these challenges, the two serve as lifelines for one another. They stay up for hours into the night as Terry feeds Kauflin melodies and complex rhythms. The old man mumbles sounds that are unintelligible to the rest of us (though they are actually “doodle-tonguing,” a method of scat singing meant to convey fine points of rhythm and articulation)--and Kauflin picks up the nuance and translates the sounds into notes on the piano. There’s a kind of electricity between the two that both clearly find restorative; occasionally Terry asks Kauflin the time, and grins when he learns that it’s hours after midnight. Terry understands something about mentoring that few people do: the gifts go both directions. And both men approach their friendship with a kind of reverence. “Thank you so much, CT,” Kauflin says as he departs in the wee hours one morning—and Terry responds, “Oh, thank you, man. Thank God for you.”

Although Terry remains relentlessly positive, the way he responds to Kauflin’s challenges and his own conveys an expectation that struggles are to be expected. But the man often described as the creator of the “happiest sound in jazz” didn’t come by that sound by accident. As he explains, “They say that you can always sense through a person’s music the type of person he is … and there’s something to that because I know there’s some guys who are vicious, uptight, and evil, and they sound vicious, uptight, and evil. I would like not to sound vicious, uptight, and evil; I’d like to sound relaxed, and enjoyable, and even in some cases beautiful … Although I’m an old, ugly ham … I’d like to think of at least my soul as being beautiful.”

Terry clearly succeeded in that aim. And we owe him thanks for a lot of other beautiful music, too. His avowed aim was not to instruct people on how to play his way, by his own criteria of success, but rather to help them find their own voices. The film allows us to watch Kauflin struggle with that very thing, sometimes recognizing that he gets in his own way; that struggle felt so familiar to me—and deepened the pleasure of watching the many little ways that Terry calls him forth. “I believe in your talent, and I believe in you,” he tells the young man. Terry focused his energy on teaching people what they could do. “Most of the time,” he says, “they don’t even know what they can do till you get it out of them.”

What a staggering legacy to leave behind: thousands of voices who Terry coaxed into full and confident expression, and now a wonderful film that captures his inspiring example of how to bring others along.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A VAMPIRE TO CAPTURE YOU

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/mar/17/vampire-capture-you/]

Vampires are endlessly fascinating, and endlessly versatile. Something about the idea of a class of immortal beings, lurking in the shadows and choosing victims among the living because they must, persists in our collective imagination, fascinating terrain for exploring our own shadow regions. Some of what we find there is just silly--like the lessons of the so-called "Twilight Saga" (the best lover will leave you bruised but grateful, and even a very protective 105-year-old cannot be expected to have thought through the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy).

Two more worthy examples of the genre are "What We Do in the Shadows" (now in theaters), a mockumentary about three squabbling vampires sharing a bachelor flat in Wellington, New Zealand, which spoofs the genre to hilarious effect, and "Let the Right One In," which used its vampire story to probe ideas about bullying and outsiders.

The first feature film of Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," is arguably the most original and visually arresting of them all. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and drawing from Iranian and American/European pop cultures and from several different eras of cinema and music, Amirpour has assembled a compelling depiction of feminist agency and longing.

The mythical Bad City, where the film is set, feels straight out of a graphic novel. A bleak California-esque town, its hills seem crowded with a subdivision of oil wells, and a ravine on the edge of town is littered with corpses that appear to have been simply discarded. We don't know how they got there, or why.

It quickly appears that we are not in California--but it can't quite be Iran either. Though it takes awhile to orient, the spare dialogue is uttered in Farsi, and there are plenty of little clues that women are not in charge. The camera floats through this nether world, lighting on a handsome young man, a sort of Persian James Dean, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and driving a 1950s Thunderbird. He is hassled by a ruthless, drug-dealing pimp, to whom James Dean's addict father owes money. A prostitute past her prime walks the streets for the pimp, and absorbs his abuse with an air of melancholy. A rich girl toys with James Dean, who tends the garden on her family's estate. A tattered boy wanders about, watching and begging for money.

The film takes its time before introducing the girl who walks home alone at night. Early clues suggest that the town trades in danger and depravity--it is the kind of place where one could go missing and no one would look for you. The slight girl lurks in the shadows at night, wandering about in a chador, the dark, floor-length head covering that Muslim women sometimes wear. Why does she seem threatening, this slight girl in her dark cape, which we in the West read as a signal of women's oppression?

In Muslim culture, at least as popularly depicted, women are treated as though both dangerous and powerless. They must be covered because they are dangerous, yet they may be ordered about and controlled. The girl who lurks in the streets of this bad city later calls herself bad--but is she? She is a vampire, and is no doubt the most dangerous in a cast of dangerous characters--but does she also embody a kind of virtue?

Director Amirpour is less interested in plot than in what the girl's various encounters convey about her and her subjects. With the pimp the girl indulges a love of dark eyeliner and lipstick, and he mistakes her as an easy object of conquest. I noticed I felt most anxious watching the girl lurk around the tattered boy, but her encounter with him ends up being particularly satisfying. Is he a good boy? She persists in asking him this question, and we shiver at its urgency and wonder at his response. What does she mean to do with the information? By the time she encounters the drug addict father and the prostitute, she has taken to wandering the streets on the tattered boy's abandoned skateboard. By then we know the girl to be fearsome, but not to everyone.

The girl encounters the Persian James Dean in between other encounters, and finally takes him home one night when she finds him wandering, lost, after he has drunk too much at a costume party. He is dressed as Dracula, and he wonders if she is scared of him. She isn't--but should he be scared of her? He doesn't appear to be, and one begins to notice his relative innocence and its effect on the girl. In these scenes, the girl appears wounded, and full of longing. She says little, leaving you to wonder what intrigues her about the young man, whether she is lonely, whether she finds her vampire life confining.

Among other things, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is about women's power. Limited though their options might be by social convention and by the fears and expectations thrust upon them, all three women here seem more awake than any of the men, and to varying degrees--the vampire most of all--they act with a degree of intention, even assorting a sort of power. There is even a transgender woman lurking about, not really part of the film's thin plot and perhaps even invisible to others, but also conveying an appearance full of intention. I think Amirpour is playing with ideas about women's power in a context of oppression.

You can dwell on these questions, as you watch--or you can simply enjoy the beauty of her subjects, in their melancholy dark world, and savor the film's sly humor and its plundering of Middle Eastern fusion and underground Iranian rock music. Amirpour has assembled treasures from everything from Madonna to spaghetti westerns to David Lynch; these allusions may be simply playful, or she may be saying something sly about themes running through art in all its forms.

No matter how you choose to watch, if you surrender to a mood of appreciation and languor (a bit like that of the Persian James Dean), Amirpour's film, and the girl of its title, will capture you.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

RESILIENT HUMAN SPIRIT IN "TIMBUKTU"

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/mar/03/window-oppression/]

No film at this year’s Portland International Film Festival left a mark on me as indelible as "Timbuktu." Gorgeous, poetic, pointed, and profound, this story of a small African community's experience of jihad manages to tell a political story without polemics, to portray with depth and insight how its victims actually experience religious extremism, and, at the same time, to unforgettably illustrate how the human spirit resists attempts to crush it.

The film's opening moments telegraph the style and intention of director Abderrahmane Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and now lives in France. A gazelle hurtles across the sand, pursued by a barrage of gunshots from half a dozen AK-47s fired by young men chasing it in a pick-up. The gazelle runs and runs, as the men continue to shoot and miss it. "Don't kill it," the men say. "Just tire it."

More shots ring out, this time aimed at a line of idols, arranged in a row as targets. These are art objects, carved human figures presumably meant to evoke the local populace as ornamental and religious statuary. The men shoot mercilessly, destroying the side of a face, a breast, an arm, and shooting through a chest.

The actions of the shooters have a quality of intention, yet they feel crude, indiscriminate. All forms of artistic expression are forbidden in this extremist version of Islam; these objects will no longer be allowed. But it feels relevant that they are shooting at a rendering of faces and limbs that evoke the local population and its culture, traditions, and art. The targeted callousness of the shooters serves more than one purpose.

The armed invaders are not from the local culture. Rather, they are young men from Arab cultures; they speak Arabic, French, a little English, rather than the local languages. They shout orders through the streets: Smoking is forbidden. Music is forbidden. Playing with balls is forbidden. Women must wear gloves. Essentially all expressions of individuality, all evocations of feeling are no longer allowed.

Yet they mostly do not appear to be religious zealots, but rather bored young men, bullies here to do a job. We hear them talking about their favorite European soccer teams. One of the commanders regularly sneaks off to smoke. He drives all the way out to a married woman's house away from the town to flirt with her when her husband is away, and chides her for having her head uncovered.
The men always carry guns, even into the local mosque. They have brought jihad to a Muslim community. The local imam quietly but firmly pushes back: the mosque is a place for quiet prayer; their shouting and their guns are not allowed. Though they leave, they don't listen to reason. They have brought jihad, and they are now the arbiters of reason. In another scene, the imam, who has obviously been fielding complaints from the local population, attempts to reason with one of the leaders. Where is leniency? Love? Forgiveness? Why demand gloves without explaining their purpose? Is not jihad meant to happen inwardly? His words bounce off their target.

As in all wars, women's suffering is particularly acute. Many of the rules are directed at them specifically. A fishmonger is arrested after she complains about being required to wear gloves while handling, washing, and scaling fish. Another woman gets 40 lashes for singing and another 40 because she was in the same room as the male musician who accompanied her. The enforcers of female purity make a practice of forcing marriage on the women they find particularly appealing. Attempts at protest are easily rebuffed, even when the imam tries to assist. She has no reason to complain, they are told; the husband is "perfect" in the eyes of Allah.

The film is inspired by events that actually occurred in a city in Mali in 2012. Western reports focused on the jihadists' destruction of ancient manuscripts, which is of course terrible. But Sissako's focus is more local, more particular. He depicts the effects of religious zealotry on ordinary people with ordinary concerns. His film also offers a rare opportunity for Western audiences to sit with the experiences of Africans as told by Africans, rather than a story of a Westerner against a backdrop of Africans. It is a window into life and cultural richness that has been going for centuries, while we in the West defined Africans by ourselves. (The contrast brings to mind the comic depiction of missionaries in "The Book of Mormon," in which after a short time in Uganda, the young missionaries buoyantly sing that "We are Africa.")

Sissako's quiet focus on specific scenes of ordinary life portrays the brutality of fundamentalism with clarity far more devastating than polemics. It also offers a window into oppression that extends beyond the effects of jihad. Over and over he depicts the human spirit refusing to be crushed. The soldiers hear music one night and set to work to identify the offending house. "They are singing praises to Allah," one reports to their superiors. "Shall I arrest them?" The woman who is whipped for singing turns her crying into a song. A group of boys pantomime a soccer game, kicking an imaginary ball and running imaginary victory laps after scoring an imaginary goal, and then pretend to be doing calisthenics when two armed soldiers ride by on a motorbike.

Sissako's film is filled with such devastating images, and glows with the rich beauty of its desert setting. Though he is less concerned with plot, there is a small story at its center of a couple and the daughter and adopted son on whom they dote. They live in an open tent, their love for each other apparent from small moments of gesture and conversation. Their neighbors have left in the wake of the jihad, and the wife is worried for their safety. I know you are afraid, her husband observes. But it will be alright, he reassures her. Humiliations must come to an end.

Humiliations do come to an end for the couple, but not in the hopeful way he suggests. Sissako's poetic film is full of beauty, but does not spare us the devastation. For him, beauty and hope is contained in quiet acts of rebellion and in good people insisting on their own truth and goodness, in the face of bullies who insist that they are the ones who define truth and goodness.
See this lovely and devastating film on the big screen if you can. It's playing in Portland at the Living Room Theaters.

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.