Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"VIETGONE" OPENS EYES AND HEARTS

[A version of this review originally appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/apr/26/between-vietnam-and-america/]

Why do I know so little about the perspective of Vietnamese refugees to the U.S.? Why have I never seen a sex comedy involving two compelling Vietnamese immigrants? Why do I expect Vietnamese characters living in the U.S. to speak in broken English?
These are among the questions that rose for me as I experienced the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Vietgone," which opened this month and plays until late October. Based on the experiences of playwright Qui Nyugen's parents, who immigrated to the U.S. as refugees in the mid-1970s, the play moves back and forth in time between Vietnam and their early years in the U.S., including their meeting in a refugee camp and the steamy affair that began their relationship. Though Nyugen's parents told him most of his life that they had fallen in love at first sight in that refugee camp in Arkansas, they admitted to him more recently that the truth is a bit more coarse than that -- though also a tale of how they saved each other in a time when both were traumatized and longing for home.
Most of the few immigrant stories that make it into American popular culture involve people who were desperate to move here to make a better life for themselves; I suspect that, at some level, the experience of immigrants who came reluctantly and pine for home defies American expectations. Nyugen's father, Quang, was a pilot with the South Vietnamese army, and his mother, Tong, worked in the U.S. embassy in Saigon. They both escaped to the U.S. to avoid certain death when the South Vietnamese capitol was invaded; Quang left behind a wife and two kids who he had no way of retrieving, and Tong left behind a beloved brother.
The play's humor and raunchiness never obscures that these two 30-year-olds didn't want to be in the U.S. They were in anguish about the state of things at home, and folks in the U.S. saw in them only their Vietnamese enemy. The two refugees have left behind lives they cared about, and have traded respectability for places at the bottom of the social ladder.
As presented here, Nyugen's parents defy stereotypes. Quang (James Ryen) is tall and muscular and virile; Tong (Jeena Yi) is self-assured and irreverent. They utter their dialogue in perfect American slang, some of it in the form of rap music, while the occasional American who attempts to converse with them speaks in broken English. The fact that I required a few moments to adjust to this brought me up short and confronted me with my own unexamined expectations of Asian and immigrant characters. Of course the playwright realizes that the characters' current-day American diction is not historically accurate in one sense--but in another sense it is accurate, because it helps us to experience the characters much more as they likely experienced each other.
In the world of this play, Quang and Tong are brave and angry and frustrated and strong -- and hot. Americans are the other; Americans sound stupid and ignorant, often because they so relentlessly confuse their perspective for the truth without any curiosity about the perspectives they are missing. And importantly, in the world of this play, U.S. intervention in South Vietnam is not something for which these refugees believe they are owed an apology; in fact, it is the commonly held American view that the Vietnam War was a misbegotten adventure that wounds these war-generation Vietnamese people.
Playwright Nyugen recently won a major critics' prize (the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award) for this play, and has several more plays planned that will explore his parents' experiences. His work is a vibrant example of what a struggle it can be for artists from outside the dominant culture to find their voices, with so few models to follow--and of what unexpected gifts such voices can offer audience members. OSF's production hums with humor and physicality and raw emotion, and sparks overdue curiosity about the experiences of a long-neglected segment of the American community. It's one of my favorites of this OSF season, and well-worth a sojourn to Ashland to see it.

FULL FRAME REPORT

[A version of this set of reviews first appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/apr/12/documentaries-worth-watching/]

I just made my annual sojourn to Durham, North Carolina for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the premier documentary film festival in the U.S. It's a highlight of my year and gives me a chance to scope out some of the best documentaries to watch out for. I saw a terrific slate of films, all worth seeing. Here's what I saw, in order of my preferences--and where I can, I've noted distribution information.
  1. "Two Trains Runnin'" blew me away with its melding of several musical and civil rights' stories, all culminating in the events of June 1964. During the very time period that hundreds of college students traveled to Mississippi for what came to be known as Freedom Summer, a critical turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, two groups of young white men--musicians, college students, and record collectors--also separately traveled to Mississippi, but their interest was music, not activism. They came in search of Skip James and Son House, obscure country blues singers who had recorded magnificent music 30 years before and then disappeared. Through a deftly assembled collection of interviews, remarkable archive footage, and brilliant animated sequences, the film captures what a foolish thing this was for young whites to do at the time--only thinkable because most whites outside the South could not really comprehend the extent of the racial divide that severed their own country. And the thrill and danger of the search for musicians who had captured their imaginations (very much in the manner of "Searching for Sugarman") becomes a touchstone for the awakening of white Americans to the importance of the struggle of their black brothers and sisters and the beauty and truth that has long fought for expression in their music. The very summer--indeed, the very weekend--that Andrew Goodwin, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the police and the Ku Klux Klan, these other young men made a similar journey, discovered these two forgotten voices, and brought them to play at the Newport Folk Festival a month later to a thunderstruck audience of privileged folk fans. Watching their faces as they listen to James' gorgeous falsetto is like watching a spiritual awakening. This remarkable film captures the way in which music holds and carries the truths we are not yet ready to recognize in full, and the confluence of forces that came together at that time in our history through the voices of black Americans and birthed social action that we still desperately need today. The film had its premiere at Full Frame and features music from James and House as well as some of the greats who have covered them. You can follow the film on its website (twotrainsrunnin.com) and on Facebook to look for screenings; I am really hoping it will find a broad audience.
  2. "Presenting Princess Shaw" was my favorite film at the Portland International Film Festival this year, under its former title, "Thru You Princess." It holds up well on second screening, and at Full Frame Princess Shaw herself came on stage afterwards and performed a couple of songs and took questions (plus I caught her in the halls for a hug the day before). This genuine, open-hearted, and talented singer toiled in obscurity for so many years, posting songs and a video diary on YouTube (that is, into the void)--until a visionary Israeli musician and composer, Kutiman, built arrangements around her original acapella music and she became an internet sensation. In the meantime, the director of this film found her while making a doc about "YouTubers" and connected with Kutiman and found he had struck gold with this performer. This inspired film will get a theatrical release in late May--expect a longer review from me then. In the meantime, follow the film on its website (magpictures.com/presentingprincessshaw/) and on Facebook.
  3. "Weiner" is a surprisingly illuminating window into the political career of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who famously resigned his House seat after an embarrassing "sexting" scandal in 2011, and made a bid for mayor of New York City in 2013. One of the film's directors, Josh Kriegman, served as Weiner's congressional chief of staff before becoming a filmmaker, and the film benefits both from his perspective on Weiner--much more nuanced than the feeding frenzy around his stupidest mistakes--and also from the more distanced perspective of his co-director, Elyse Steinberg. They began filming their documentary when Weiner launched his mayoral bid and were along for the ride when new revelations about Weiner's former behavior restarted the media frenzy and derailed what had been a promising return to politics. What emerges is a very insightful portrait of a smart politician with good ideas that may well threaten those at the top of the power structure, whose failings bring out the worst in everyone else. If only the media were as relentless in investigating leaders who lie to Congress about the basis for war as they are about investigating salacious and stupid behavior like Weiner’s. He certainly suffers from the kind of hubris and narcissistic tendencies common to politicians, but actually also seems more self-aware and willing to own up to his mistakes. In the end, it seemed to me that this film, without ever directly saying it, reveals more about what is wrong with American politics and the media--including how much we love to have someone to judge--than it does about Weiner's well-documented failings. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and will have a limited theatrical release beginning in May.
  4. "Sherpa" focuses on the experience of the Himalayan locals who for decades have jeopardized their lives in order to literally power the ambitions of wealthy adventure junkies from mostly Western countries who are intent on summiting Mount Everest. These guides glean a relatively small slice of the economic benefit but assume as much as 30 times more risk than the tourists they assist, who scarcely notice the effort that goes into bringing them creature comforts and transporting all their equipment to the various camps along the route. In 2014, a major avalanche which cost the lives of 16 Sherpas brought these dynamics to a head in surprising ways, and the way the Nepalese government and Westerner climbers and expedition heads responded to the concerns raised by the devastated community of Sherpas as a result is shocking and very telling. The perspective of this marginalized community turns out to be both a literally and metaphorically important window into the many ways in which privilege affects perception. It has won documentary film awards in Australia and will, I hope get a limited U.S. theatrical release, given the critical acclaim that it has justly garnered. Follow it on its website (sherpafilm.com) and on Facebook.
  5. "Kiki" won a Full Frame Human Rights award, and was my favorite of the films in competition that we saw. It sheds a long-overdue spotlight onto a particular New York underground expression of ballroom, a flamboyant performance-based art form that has long been popular and life-sustaining among LGBTQ people of color. The Kiki balls offer a safe and empowered space for LGBTQ youth of color to enact modes of gender expression that often have not been safe for them to express elsewhere, and the Kiki community provides a haven for a particularly vulnerable youth population disproportionably susceptible to homelessness, violence, and HIV. The film offers windows into the scene and especially into the stories of seven people--their hopes, their struggles, and the beauty they each express on the runway and in the world. It's not an art form that I know well, and a lot of the joy of the film comes with the opportunity to appreciate the courage and tenacity it takes for these young people to find a form of expression that feels authentically theirs. Hearing their stories is important and enriching, and motivated me to continue to shake loose of the ways in which norms of gender conformity blind me and all of us from seeing and appreciating real beauty in the world. Hopefully the positive notice the film is winning at film festivals will help it snag a distributor; for now you can follow it on its website (kikimovie.com).
  6. "Hooligan Sparrow" tells a story of political awakening with remarkable parallels to "Two Trains Runnin'." After coming to NYU for school, filmmaker Nanfu Wang returned to her native China intent on making a film about a maverick activist, Ye Haiyan (known as Hooligan Sparrow), who had made a name for herself on the internet advocating for sex workers' rights. In the post-show screening that I attended, Wang explained how, like most Chinese, she had not been particularly awake to the oppressive tactics employed by her own government--but soon she found herself a target of government surveillance and intimidation along with Sparrow and her band of activist colleagues as they pleaded for justice for six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their school principal. All the activists' actions (including Wang's actions in filming) are technically legal--but the response of police and hired thugs who intimidate them, assault them, arrest Sparrow and others, and hold them for days without due process reveals a government absolutely intent on preventing any real accountability for official actions, even deplorable ones. The struggle of Wang and her subjects to document their experience--including using secret recording devices and hidden-camera glasses--and even to find places to shelter them in the face of black-listing and relentless surveillance is an important window into the stakes for the struggle for human rights in China--and, to my mind, a perhaps more visible look at the tactics used by the powerful everywhere to silence dissent. You can follow the film on its website (hooligansparrow.com) and on Facebook; it's currently making the festival circuit and hopefully will find a distributer.
  7. "Life, Animated" won the audience award at Full Frame and its director, Roger Ross Williams (who also directed the terrific "God Loves Uganda"), won a documentary directing award for this film at Sundance. It's a beautiful and moving depiction of a particular family's journey with autism. Owen Susskind was an apparently happy and normal child until, at age three, he stopped talking and began regressing in other ways. After years of unsuccessful attempts to reach him, Owen's parents discovered that they could converse with him through the Disney characters that he loved so well--and indeed, eventually they discovered that Owen had the entire Disney catalog memorized and, to a large degree, experienced life through the lessons he had learned from his beloved Disney films. Through a skillful blend of interviews and beautifully animated sequences, this inspiring film tells the Susskinds' story and illustrates an important breakthrough in recognizing that the passions of kids with autism can provide an important pathway to helping them make connections and build satisfying lives. The film will receive a theatrical release in July and, until then, you can follow it on its website (lifeanimateddoc.com) or on Facebook.
  8. "Kate Plays Christine" is a particularly fascinating Rubik's Cube of a film that wrestles with the complexity of finding a truthful vantage point for story investigation. Its writer-director, Robert Greene, who won a screenwriting award for the film at Sundance, builds it around actress Kate Lyn Sheil's preparation to play Christine Chubbock, a young news anchor who notoriously shot herself on the air in 1974, in a dramatic film about her life. We follow Sheil's attempts to transform her physical appearance and to learn more about Chubbock's life and relationships in order to try to understand her dramatic and inscrutable actions. As the film unfolds, both Chubbock's and Sheil's motivations remain elusive--even more so when you realize that there is no film actually being made except the one you are watching; the entire project is an inquiry into story-telling itself. We are being had--but, in a sense, we are always being had when someone tells us a story, including a true one. And what is a true point of view for telling a personal story, especially one like this one about a sensational act by a depressed person angry about, among other things, the sensational vantage point that makes television news inherently false? And how real are Sheil's struggles with playing her? This quirky film grapples productively with the craft of acting, the quandary of suicide, and the challenge of understanding another person's story.
  9. "The Bad Kids" is a moving cinema verite' examination of a Mojave Desert High School that serves "at risk" kids. The film, which won a special jury prize at Sundance, invites you to sit with the experience of these kids and the adults who try to help them--and without directly giving you much history, you get a sense of the social, emotional, and economic pressures that have pushed these kids to the edge. Indeed, their struggles often seem to be the fall-out from the struggles of their parents. The approach of this school and its principal is a moving example of love in action--of really dealing with these kids where they are, making genuine and concrete offers of help which sometimes can be accepted and sometimes, heartbreakingly, can't be. With these kids, a rigid approach just won't work--but loving limits and real investment in them as people offers hope that inspires. The film recently acquired a distributer and can be followed on its website (thebadkidsmovie.com) and on Facebook.
  10. "Trapped" explores the alarming effects of "TRAP" laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers), which since 2010 have achieved their aim of shutting down the majority of abortion clinics in southern states and have taken hold in other states as well. The regulations impose unworkable restrictions on abortion providers that have nothing to do with safe performance of the procedure and everything to do with forcing the shutdown of clinics and making abortions practically impossible for women by requiring them to travel expensive and unworkable distances, often for statutorily required extra visits. The film illustrates how a constitutional right has been essentially regulated out of existence in large swathes of the country, increasingly leading to an alarming return of dangerous attempts by women to end unwanted pregnancies. The treatment here is reasoned and comprehensive and focuses needed attention on a trend about which most people are not well-informed. It won a special jury prize at Sundance and is currently in limited release. It will also air on public broadcasting in June. You can follow it on its website (trappeddocumentary.com).
  11. "Starless Dreams" won the Grand Jury Prize and an Inspiration Award, and invites you to sit with the experience of young women living in an Iranian juvenile detention center. These teenagers have committed serious crimes like theft, drug trafficking, and even murder, but filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei (himself the father of a teenage girl) builds the space and trust necessary to gently coax from his subjects the stories of abuse and deprivation that appropriately broaden the picture of their actions. My own experience leads me to expect that one might hear similar stories from girls in detention here in the U.S; the filmmaker subtly raises questions about the world these girls can expect and the societal failures that have brought them to this place. I'm not sure it will get a U.S. theatrical release, but it is worth keeping an eye out for an opportunity to give these girls your ear.
  12.  "Sonita" won a filmmaker award at Full Frame and an audience award at the Portland International Film Festival. It follows the story of Sonita Alzadeh, an Afghan teenager living illegally in Iran and attending a school for refugees who desperately wants to be a rapper. Among the obstacles she faces? She lives in a culture that forbids women from singing publicly, that sees her as useful only for obtaining a valuable marriage contract that will help her desperate family, and that severely limits any kind of self-expression. The filmmaker ends up walking some interesting lines as Sonita enlists her for help in getting to the U.S. and in navigating her mother's disapproval--but it is a compelling window into Sonita's culture and into the ways that even the most oppressed teenagers struggle to find their voices. It is slated for a theatrical release in late May.
  13. "Behemoth" has garnered awards internationally and is a devastating depiction of environmental degradation wrought by coal mining in Inner Mongolia. The director takes a poetic approach to the subject, drawing a parallel to Dante's Inferno, and I must say, I did feel as though I was watching hell for 90 minutes. The director lingers and finds the scope and angles for depicting what is happening to a formerly lush landscape in a way that makes your heart ache, as does his focus on the exertions of the people who perform the agonizing and hellish work of moving coal and doing other senseless acts. You can almost feel their bodies breaking down--and sure enough, many such workers become very ill and are not well-supported by industry or the Chinese government. The power of the images here is best experienced on the big screen, and there is no mistaking the importance of bearing witness to this scale of human folly.
  14. "Call Me Marianna" has achieved awards recognition in Europe and at Full Frame, where it won a new filmmaker award, and examines the sex reassignment journey of a woman in Poland. Although its pace drags a bit and the accompanying music is more annoying than effectively portentous, the film is nevertheless an interesting window into one woman's experience, which involves the loss of relationships and even a court battle, as well as a cascade of health problems. I appreciated the opportunity to witness how a non-famous person in central Europe navigates these particular treacherous waters.
  15. "Raising Bertie" is the fruit of the filmmaker's six-year journey with three young black men in rural Bertie County in North Carolina, trying to launch independent lives in the face of limited opportunities, economic hardship, and a paucity of inspiration and hope from adults around them. The film started as an exploration of an alternative high school founded by a determined powerhouse of a local woman, but the school closed early in the filming for lack of funding. The young men themselves are certainly worthy of the filmmaker's attention, and they do manage to survive, but I would not call it thriving. The film is an opportunity to fill out some details of your picture of the challenges faced by young men in communities like these; if you are paying attention at all, the legacy of slavery is hard to miss.
  16. "Gleason" follows the story of Steve Gleason, a Spokane native and popular former player for the New Orleans Saints who was diagnosed with ALS at age 34, just as he and his wife Michel were starting a family. The couple is as genuine, courageous, and good-hearted as any two young people who have faced such unthinkable challenges could possibly be, and Gleason has led significant advocacy on behalf of ALS patients--but I also think the film could have benefited from a more mature directorial perspective and perhaps with a bit more time for the story to unfold. ALS is as brutal as it gets; I suspect it would be an unusual human being who could do this story justice as a director. That said, it won special mention from the Grand Jury at Full Frame, and Gleason and his family are the most sympathetic subjects imaginable. The film will be released theatrically in July.
    In addition to the feature-length films I saw, I caught excellent two shorts. "I, Destini" is an animated short co-directed by a Durham teenager who reflects on the differences between the experience of her African American family (including a brother accused of a serious crime) and her white classmates. Her parents helped her with the project, which began when she was 13, including by working on the animation itself. There is something profound about a family working through trauma by drawing together their response to what happened--and the film is quite powerful. If you're interested in screening the film, visit idestini.info, where you can also watch a clip of it. "The Black Belt" examines the after-effects of the Alabama legislature's decision in 2015 to close 31 DMV locations in predominantly black communities to save $100,000 for the state. Residents must now obtain voter ID cards from ramshackle mobile units that visit those communities very rarely. The film documents a particularly clear example of institutionalized oppression. Watch for it on the website for Field of Vision, theintercept.com/fieldofvision.

OPENING WEEKEND AT OSF

[A version of this review originally appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/apr/06/diversity-talent-unsurpassed/]

The first batch of plays in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2016 season have opened, and offer no shortage of reasons to make a spring trip to Ashland. For the first time in its history, the OSF acting company features a majority of actors of color (sadly, unusual for a theater of its size and type), and the company's diversity and talent, and its excellent programming, make for riches too good to miss.
My favorite of the first batch of shows does indeed require an early trip, as it only runs through July 7 -- but it is such a luminous story of love and risk that I hope to see it at least once more myself before it closes. "The River Bride," a world premiere written by Mexican-American poet and playwright Marisela Treviño Orta, is set in the Amazon and builds its story of love on Brazilian folklore about river dolphins who transform into men. Its six evenly-matched characters, all beautifully played, are the two daughters (Nancy Rodriguez and Jamie Ann Romero) of a fisherman and his wife (Triney Sandoval and Vilma Silva), the fiance' of one of the daughters (Carlo Albán), and a mysterious and well-dressed man (Armando McClain) whom they rescue from the river and who becomes a somewhat urgent suitor to the other daughter. Should she love or fear him?
Love is the concern of the play and its characters; one daughter is about to marry, and the other has lost the love of one man and is afraid to accept the love of another -- and indeed, all four of the younger characters are grappling with some aspect of the risk that always comes with love. The ways in which each of them gives in to fear taps into the deepest fears and longings of all of us; chances are, you will see yourself in at least one of these characters if you are courageous and honest enough to look.
The bravest of these six characters are the fisherman and his wife, but the play takes its time in revealing why. The ease of their relationship and the pleasure they take in each other after many years is the secret-in-plain-sight that the younger characters -- and most of us, I think -- miss; they embody a kind of hope and faith that is so rare that it is missed sometimes even by those who possess it.
Orta's use of folklore grounds the story, revealing the spiritual risk that holds each of the four younger characters back in some way. Like the best folklore, the play's mystical elements reveal truths that can't be captured any other way. The play offers a window into the vantage point of each of these four, floating back and forth among them, moving us deeper and deeper until we see more and still more ways that each grasps for a different kind of life and each lacks the simple faith it takes to achieve it. What a lovely, soulful gift these talented players are offering us--it resonated deeply with my own experience of the miracle of love and the dread that keeps so many people from finding it.
You'll have all season (till Oct. 30) to catch this year's excellent production of "Twelfth Night," which hummed with buoyant energy at opening and will just get better and better. Set in 1930s Hollywood, the production revels in the flamboyance of styles and emerging flexibility of gender roles (however incipient) that existed in that era, and turns the play's courtly kingdom into Hollywoodland, an apt casting choice.
The production delightfully casts two terrific black actors in significant roles, giving us a mixture of 1930s Hollywood as it was and might have been. Gina Daniels plays Olivia, the countess of Shakespeare's play, as a glamorous Hollywood starlet poised between reveling in her star power and feeling confined in its trap, which gives her attraction to the boyish Viola-as-Sebastian particular resonance. Daniels is delicious in the role, smooth and sly and determined and gorgeous as any good starlet should be. (Her costumes are particularly wonderful, too). And Rodney Gardiner plays the fool with just the right knowing air -- he glides through his scenes (quite literally at times) and captures how a person outside the social hierarchy often can class up the place and be the smartest person in the room.
The rest of the cast is also very fine, notably Sara Bruner as Viola/Sebastian, who moves between male and female with wonderfully jittery energy which seems to suggest that neither expression contains her wholly. A trio of comic characters (skillfully played by Daniel T. Parker, Danforth Comins, and Kate Mulligan) function to set various tops spinning throughout the play, and to torment Olivia's unctuous steward, Malvolio, who Ted Deasy manages to pitch at a delightful balance between annoying and sympathetic. A gorgeous set with a broad winding staircase a la Fred Astaire gives them wonderful spaces to dance and tousle. Director Christopher Liam Moore has once again choreographed a space that calls forth the best from the company and invites all of us to a first-class party.
Buoyed by the success of its 2011 production of "The Pirates of Penzance," OSF has enlisted director Sean Graney and his team of co-adapters to mount another Gilbert & Sullivan production -- "The Yeoman of the Guard" -- with Graney's characteristically playful style of updating and genre-bending. They have set this production in an eclectic country-and-western style, with a portion of the audience participating with the actors on stage. If all of that sounds intimidating -- it's really not. Whether or not you like Gilbert & Sullivan or country-and-Western music, there is good reason to hope that this production will keep you giggling and tapping your feet.
Finally, this season includes a staging of the beloved Dickens' novel, "Great Expectations," newly adapted by director Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper. I found this production a bit stolid and too much like a staged reading -- but nevertheless was quite touched by many of the performances, and expect that love of the source material will carry this production into the hearts of many audience members. Like "Yeomen" and "Twelfth Night," it also will run all season.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

MY LIST OF THE BEST FILMS OF 2015


[This post originally appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/feb/23/my-counterpoint-oscars-snub/]
The Academy Awards, which will air on Sunday, are gradually making themselves irrelevant, as they shamelessly overlook some of the best work and promote only a small and all-white cadre of performers. In keeping with my own tradition, I offer this list of the 10 best films of 2015 just in time to provide a counterpoint, with a bit of Oscar commentary thrown in.
I must acknowledge at the outset that this is a pretty heavy bunch -- not a single comedy, and some pretty dark themes. More than half are foreign films and half are not in English; I saw two at last year's Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) and would have included one more ("The President" from Georgia) except that it's not had a DVD release in the U.S. Still, all these films are rich with insights about the human condition and well worth plunging into their depths. The truth-telling here is beautiful and enriching.
To start, here is the list:
  1. Timbuktu
  2. Love and Mercy
  3. The Salt of the Earth
  4. Son of Saul
  5. The Revenant
  6. Tangerine
  7. Leviathan
  8. 45 Years
  9. Marie's Story
  10. Peace Officer
(1) "Timbuktu" is a devastating examination of lived experiences of jihad in a community in Mali. Director Abderrahmane Sissako focuses his gorgeous film on scenes of ordinary life in a Muslim village under siege by outsiders hired to impose religious regime change, impervious to the entreaties of even the local imam. Sissako portrays the brutality of fundamentalism with quiet clarity: Rules are imposed against music and sports and mixed company -- and yet, at every turn, the human spirit of the villagers fights being crushed. A group of boys assembles a soccer game with an imaginary ball; a woman whipped for singing in mixed company turns her cries into music; members of a small family savor their love for each other and dare to hope that humiliations will end. This is both a universal vision of human struggle against tyranny and a window into very particular aspects of an African culture that has not found its way onto Western movie screens. I saw this at last year's PIFF, and nothing has topped it since. You can read my full-length review here:
[Not rated; on at least 76 other critics' top 10 lists; in Arabic, French, Tamasheq and Bambara; nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015; available on DVD]
(2) I cannot for the life of me figure out how "Love and Mercy" got so totally shut out of the Oscars this year. It contains three of the very best performances of the year -- Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson, John Cusack as the middle-aged Brian Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks as Wilson's second wife, Melinda Ledbetter -- and provides a remarkably insightful window into an inscrutable life. For once Hollywood has given us a biopic that doesn't merely chronically recount events but gets at some deeper and more complex truths about Wilson, pointing you toward his essential mystery. The particularity of Wilson's intention and his enthusiasm for the act of creation come through in Dano's scenes with mostly older studio musicians and at the piano assembling the scaffolding of the wondrous "God Only Knows"--and throughout, the genius of Wilson's compositions come through as never before. And Cusack and Banks bring a remarkable sense of authenticity to their depiction of the love that grew between Wilson and Ledbetter under the most trying of circumstances. This wise and beautiful film sparks love and mercy for an unknowable person, and sends you back to his music for more of the secrets hidden there. You can read my full-length review here:
[Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content, and language; on at least 76 other critics' top ten lists; deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (John Cusack and Paul Dano), and Best Actress (Elizabeth Banks); available on DVD.]
(3) "The Salt of the Earth" is a cinematic spiritual journey via the photography of Sebastião Salgado, as curated by co-directors Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (son of the celebrated artist) and the great Wim Wenders. The photographs themselves are profound and other-worldly, charting the artist's immersive travels into cultures all around the world, particularly those suffering famine, war, and marginalization. Wenders elicits, among other things, perspective and wisdom from the artist in interviews filmed in dialogue with the photographs themselves, and the artist's son adds further insights from the perspective of his own journeys with his father. The trajectory of the artist's life, beginning with hunger and curiosity and through despair and then hope, is resonant and deeply inspiring. After three viewings, I still feel like this film has more to teach me. You can read my full-length review here:
[Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity; haven't seen this on any other critics' top ten lists for 2015; in French, English, and Portuguese; nominated for, and should have won, the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015; available on DVD and streaming.]
(4) "Son of Saul" got its theatrical release in Portland just in time to make it onto my 2015 list. This Hungarian film is not for the faint of heart; it immerses you in a day-and-a-half in the life of Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando -- prisoners whose job it was to assist with disposal of the dead--in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Nearly all of the film portrays Saul's own tight vantage point; he is always moving, moving, moving through unthinkable horrors, never and yet always responding. I expect that this is likely the most realistic depiction of Auschwitz ever assembled, and conveys a real sense of the hell that was part of every waking moment for prisoners there. In the film's first moments, Saul has an encounter that awakens in him a determination to bury a particular body, an essentially impossible task--yet that purpose activates his humanity. The cinematography and sound work is like nothing I have ever seen, and the perspective of the film is so specific that it manages to communicate things about this aspect of human experience that have never been attempted before. Obviously this is not entertainment -- but at times films offer an opportunity to bear witness that I believe is extremely important for those of us who have the will to endure it. This is that kind of film, and an extraordinary achievement for its director, star, and everyone involved.
[Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity; on at least 112 other critics' top 10 lists; in Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Russian, Polish, French, Greek, and Slovak; nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and, of the four I have seen, it should win; still in theaters.]
(5) "The Revenant" is the only film on my list to have received major awards' notice--and it deserves the recognition, though for more than the limited reasons you'll hear articulated in the media. Yes, the director, cast, and crew challenged themselves by filming in remote locations under extreme conditions, and the film assembles scenes of frontier life that are impressive for their harshness, realism, and violence. And yes, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance deserves an Oscar (though John Cusack and Paul Dano deserved nominations as well for "Love and Mercy"). But the reasons this film ended up so high on my list of the year's best films also include that it grounds this story in the indigenous cultures that peopled this continent long before European settlers and plausibly equips the main character with tools and spiritual will to survive that he could only really have gained from exposure to those cultures. Hollywood may have missed the best of this film's wisdom, but I didn't -- and I'm glad that its director hasn't let industry accolades distract him from shooting higher than the industry can appreciate. You can read my full-length review here:
[Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity; on at least 130 other critics' top ten lists; in English, French, and Pawnee; nominated for, and deserves, the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor (DiCaprio), Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, and Production Design; also received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy); still in theaters and worth seeing on the big screen if you are prepared for violence.]
(6) "Tangerine" deserved the critical attention it got; though the Academy didn't notice it, this underground project filmed on iPhones depicts rarely-noticed and even less understood aspects of Hollywood life with its focus on a day in the life of two transgender sex workers. The director and his co-writer did so many things right in crafting this story, including building on a foundation of genuine interest in the lives of the two actresses who carry the film and giving them significant say in how this story is told. The result zings with energy and humor to equip you for the ache of watching lives of unending struggle to survive and to express something true about oneself. You can read my full-length review here: Tangerine
[Not rated but definitely racy; on at least 137 other critics' top ten lists; in the language of the street; should have received Academy Awards nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay; available on DVD and streaming.]
(7) Though it doesn't appear to have found much of an American audience (it played only briefly in Portland last March), "Leviathan" is worth finding on DVD if you are interested in a brilliantly perceptive story of institutionalized brutality. I can't think of when I have seen corruption so insightfully portrayed, and though this is absorbing enough as a distinct Russian story, it is even more riveting metaphorically and as example, communicating much about dynamics evident throughout Russian history and, beyond that, in human history. The immediate story involves Kolya, a hard-drinking, small-town man who has resided in the same well-located house his entire life, but is engaged in a pitched battle with a corrupt local politician who wants the land for development. Everything deteriorates from there, and as the story plays out, we see how the law and the church prop up this system against which Kolya has no chance of prevailing. A conversation with the local priest late in the film is worth the price of admission--devastating. Kolya is no hero, and most people would more readily identify him as a flawed person than the people around him, making him an even easier victim; this film pans out to the broader perspective. Not rated; on at least 20 other critics' top ten lists for 2014, though not released in Portland until mid-2015; in Russian; nominated for an Academy Award in 2015 for Best Foreign Language Film; available on DVD and streaming.
(8) "45 Years" feels like an ironic addition to my top ten list, given that immediately after I saw it, I joked that I would not put it on my list. That is because it is a bit of a downer. But as I have reflected on it, this film has really stayed with me as an unparalleled and richly observed depiction of the thin line that separates many seemingly happy and connected relationships from total disintegration. The undeniably brilliant premise involves a long-married couple preparing to celebrate 45 years together -- disrupted by news that the body of his former lover has been recovered, preserved in the ice where she fell to her death 50 years before. That body, and the husband's and wife's evolving reactions to its discovery, bit by bit reveal a fault line in their relationship that neither knew was there, and his description of his prior love's sudden drop to her death begins to feel eerily current. Charlotte Rampling deserves her best actress nomination for her especially fine performance (though not for her ignorant reaction to the criticism of lack of Oscar nominee diversity). I'd take this film above any Hollywood romance, because it is so full of wisdom and truth.
[Not rated; on at least 101 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (Rampling), and deserved a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay; still in theaters.]
(9) "Marie's Story" stood out among the films I saw at last year's PIFF -- and though cynical American critics dismissed it as treacly and clichéd, I saw a patient and inspiring depiction of how it is possible to know in one's soul that one is called to do something important, and yet encounter an extended period of failure before succeeding brilliantly. This film lingers in that space of defeat and struggle longer and with deeper intention than I can imagine most American films doing--we're not fans of discomfort--and part of the reason I admired the film so much is because it caused me to feel so strongly the despair of Marguerite, the nun at the heart of this story, that I had a hard time hanging in there even with the watching. Marguerite answered her heart's call to teach a blind and deaf girl to communicate with the world around her, and it is because of Marguerite's faith and love and determination that Marie's story ever existed as a story. Watching this film is the best find of spiritual work. You can read my full-length review here:
[Not rated; not found on any other critics' top ten lists; in French and sign language; available on DVD and streaming.]
(10) "Peace Officer" is a well-constructed look at a topic that has begun to surface in the news: the rise in incidents of violence in citizen encounters with American police, and increased militarization of police forces. The filmmakers started with a compelling character -- Dub Lawrence, a white former sheriff from Utah whose own son-in-law was killed in an encounter with police -- and followed where their subject took them, into a very incisive critique of a slow evolution of police thinking toward viewing citizens as the enemy. It's not something most police forces want to acknowledge, but Lawrence is a good entry point, and using his personal story as well as cases to which he now applies his relentless skills as an investigator provides terrific windows into a charged subject. It both helps and hurts the film a bit that all its examples deal with white citizens, but the topic of race does come up naturally in the very good interviews that inform the film. Kudos to first-time co-directors Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson for assembling such a clear and cogent look at this subject, including interviews with many police officers. You can read my prior review here:
[Not rated; not found on any other critics' top ten lists; deserved an Academy Award nomination for best documentary; available on DVD and streaming.

FINAL PIFF POST

The regular schedule of the Portland International Film Festival runs through Saturday, Feb. 27, and encore screenings will occur on Sunday, Feb. 28. My favorite film so far has been "Thru You Princess," an Israeli documentary about a beleaguered New Orleans singer who is discovered by a genius composer in Israel via her YouTube posts; though its festival run is over, I am really hoping that one gets a theatrical release. A biopic about Hank Williams, "I Saw The Light," is also done with its festival run, but will get its theatrical release soon, and though it takes a pretty standard approach to telling its story, it's worth seeing for the fine performance of Tom Hiddleston as Williams and for its wonderful music.
Three of the other films I've seen will have additional screenings at PIFF.
"Dheepan" won the Palme d'Or award, the highest prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and expertly tells a tale of Sri Lankan immigrants to France. Its star was himself a child soldier with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka who immigrated to France and is now an acclaimed playwright, essayist, and novelist. In his first leading film role, he is riveting as a man whose departure from his home country depends on assuming an acceptable refugee identity as a husband and father on the other side of the conflict he is leaving. The film lingers with an appropriate sense of disorientation, gradually revealing pieces of his story along with those of the woman and orphaned child who enter France as his family members. All three are lost in so many ways, including with each other, and this film is a wonderful example of showing rather than telling; we struggle with the characters to learn what is expected of them, who each of them is, and how to read the signs of danger in the housing project where the title character is assigned work as a caretaker. An excellent and immersive window into experiences common to immigrants that will play on Thursday and Friday, Feb. 25-26.
I didn't approach "A War" with much enthusiasm, but this Danish film, nominated for this year's foreign language Oscar, has much to recommend it. Its first half was much what I was expecting, depicting the day-to-day challenges faced by soldiers in Afghanistan and specifically by a young commander, alongside scenes of his young wife at home with their three young children, struggling with the strain of his absence. What took the film beyond a standard exploration of war's costs for soldiers and their families is the trial in its second half, in which the commander stands accused of ordering an attack on civilians. That dilemma, coupled with what went before, illustrates well how easily civilian casualties occur during war, the challenges of meaningful oversight of such decisions, and how war turns even the best people (and audiences) into moral relativists. A cut-above most war films for its subtlety, this film plays on Thursday, Feb. 25 and Saturday, Feb. 27.
"7 Letters" offers pretty slight entertainment from a slight premise: seven writer-directors made short films marking Singapore's 50th birthday. The stories are sweet, set in different periods, and in most cases sentimentally depict interesting aspects of the mix of cultures in Singapore, the passing of generations, and changes brought by modernization. I gravitate toward films with more depth, but this one is a gentle way to spend a couple of hours, and plays on February 25 and 27.
Some of the best films don't ever get a theatrical release beyond PIFF, so jump in and see what you can before it's over!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

SECOND SET OF PIFF REVIEWS

[A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Observer here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/feb/17/strong-start-portland-international-film-festival/]

Normally by this point in my Portland International Film Festival itinerary, I would have seen something I didn't like! But so far this year's slate has been very strong. Of the films I've seen, here are the ones that will play again, in my order of preference:
"The Clan" tells the story of a notorious Argentine crime family whose patriarch, Arquimedes Puccio, worked for the police during the Videla regime in the 1970s, when kidnapping was used as a matter of state control. When the regime fell in 1981, Puccio continued the family business, switching targets to wealthy families who were often part of his own family's social set, holding his captives for ransoming and then killing them after receiving payment. As depicted here, he did so with a sense of entitlement -- he was above the law, and assumed democracy would never last. And indeed, he carried out these activities for several years before he apparently became expendable. With good psychological insight, the film depicts interlocking circles of cynical control; Puccio's control of his children and wife (who could not have missed what was going on in their own home--and who were even enlisted to help) operates under the guise of love and close family ties, yet leaves no room for question or negotiation. The day-to-day decisions of his wife and children (and especially his sports-hero son Alejandro) to alternately cooperate and participate and turn a blind eye are a curious combination of manipulated and chosen -- and the film offers little glimpses of the broader circles of manipulation and control necessary to enable the police corruption and wealth inequities that were Puccio's stock in trade. It's a fascinating window into a notorious part of Argentine history, with insights that go beyond its specific time and place. The film plays on Feb. 23 and Feb. 27.
Although "The Judgment" feels manipulative in spots, its two lead performances draw you into to the father-son conflict at its center. Mityo is about to lose his house near the Greek-Bulgarian border that he once patrolled as a young soldier in the 1980s. Back then the Soviet agenda was to keep people in -- but now the border issues involve keeping people out. His desperate economic circumstances (the cause of which is revealed in bits and pieces over the course of the film) have fed the growing resentment of his teenage son Vasko and drive Mityo to take on work with the same cruel colonel he served back in the Soviet era and who now cynically smuggles immigrants from Syria. The immigrants themselves don't figure much in the story; the focus, rather, is on Mityo's past, the idea of borders and debts that finally come due, and the fragility of life. The harsh landscape and the relationship between the father and son make this story compelling and, in moments, quite moving. The film plays again on Feb. 23.
Director Patricio Guzman's approach to documentary filmmaking is quite distinct--meditative, grounded in place, poetic, and willing to look deeply. His latest, "The Pearl Button," carries through some of the themes addressed in "Nostalgia for the Light," which was an examination of the search for meaning in the stars and the search for the disappeared in Chile. Using a similar ruminative approach, guided by his calm, deliberate narration, Guzman muses on how Chileans have become so disconnected from the water that surrounds them (the country has 4,000 miles of coastline), and uses water as his vehicle for exploring the soul depths of the forgotten victims of Chile's dark colonial past and more recent brutal dictatorship. This isn't a search for answers as much as a search for questions, sitting with stories of the lost way of life of Chile's original inhabitants, listening to the experiences of native peoples in their languages, and also lingering on the sounds and sights of the water that connects past and present together. It plays again on Feb. 20.
"Rams" depicts two sheep-herding brothers in the mountains of Iceland, each lovingly tending the sheep in their legacy breed but living adjacent to each other without speaking for 40 years. It's a stark and lonely life, with all the humanity of the two men invested in their animal charges. We are never told of the dispute that separates them, but gradually see differences between the two; one is a hard drinker and a more volatile personality, but the animosity between them is clearly shared. When an infection is detected among sheep in the area that requires slaughter of all the local herds, the stubborn brothers continue to fight the crisis and each other until a shared objective moves them together. Observant, funny, and at times quite moving, it garnered a top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Plays again on Feb. 17.
"Nawara" offers a subversive window into post-Mubarak Egypt. Writer-director Hala Khalil builds her story around the title character, a young woman from a poor Cairo neighborhood who has worked since childhood for a family who, as part of Mubarak's power machine, can take their wealth for granted. I'm sure I missed the import of many of the clues in the film -- but even from this distance, I appreciated how Khalil illustrated the contrasts in Egyptian society through details like Nawara's long commute through Cairo to reach the gated community where the family lives, her five-year-old marriage to Aly, a Nubian man (from a lower social caste), unconsummated because they cannot afford to set up a household together, her daily trips to fill jugs from a communal faucet for her grandmother, and her regular trips to the hospital where Aly's father, sick with cancer, camps out in a corridor for weeks awaiting a bed. These all contrast with her affable relationship with a family whose dog eats better than she does and whose matriarch eventually offers her enough money to live on for a year to guard the house and make it look lived in while the family flees abroad. The trajectory of this story finds subtle ways to underline how revolution doesn't necessarily unfreeze longstanding social inequities. The film plays again on Feb. 24.
"Heavenly Nomadic" offers a simple and atmospheric look into the life of a horse-herding family in the mountains of Kyrgysztsan. Three generations live under cover of the same yurt -- grandparents, mother, and a seven-year-old daughter -- and all feel the absence of the child's father, son to the grandparents, who drowned a few years before. The mother does all the heavy lifting that keeps the family in the horse-milk trade, and her in-laws fear the attention of a local meteorologist who is clearly sweet on their daughter-in-law. Her older son visits on holiday from his education in the city and, though the family way of life is prized by all, it seems unlikely to that he will return. This is an occasion to sink into a beautiful and unfamiliar world feeling the encroachment of change. Plays again on Feb. 20.
"April and the Extraordinary World," based on a graphic novel, is a science fiction story set in an alternative reality, in which human technological progress is halted with the steam engine. Its main character is an orphan who comes from a long line of scientists who sought to formulate a serum that would perpetuate forms of life; her great grandfather only got so far as to make animals talk, which is how she came by a very charming talking cat. It's an extraordinarily inventive premise rendered in charming, hand-drawn animation -- and if the plot bogs down in over-complication at times, it is in most ways a real treat. Its American theatrical release will likely be dubbed in English; I much prefer seeing films in the original language, and this subtitled French version including Marion Cotillard in the title role makes its alternative-Paris setting come alive. Plays again on Feb. 17.
"Landfill Harmonic" isn't necessarily a great film (though it's a perfectly fine one), but it is definitely a great story. A gentle and unassuming environmental engineer, Favio Chavz, went to work in a huge landfill in the capital of Paraguay, and was struck by the thousands of poor families who eke out a living sorting through the garbage for recyclable materials that they can resell. Children in these families, he saw, lacked the means to dream -- and he reflected on the role that music had played in opening his own soul. Chavez began teaching music to the local kids, but lacked sufficient instruments -- and in truth, a violin costs more than a typical house for this population. Then his genius led him to another gentle and unassuming local man with a talent for building things, and that man (also possessed of a dogged determination) found ways to build quite usable instruments out of scraps from the landfill. Thus was born a quite talented children's orchestra that eventually caught the attention of the world media and the band Megadeth, and gained opportunities to tour around the world. A more humbling and inspiring story would be hard to come by. Plays again on Feb. 20 and 21.
"Above and Below" takes as its premise that there are people among us who are already, in a sense, living in a post-apocalyptic world. It follows a handful of them -- a military vet participating in an experiment to simulate life on Mars in a remote part of Utah; a man who lives alone in an abandoned military bunker in Arizona; and a couple who take shelter in Las Vegas storm drains, a necessarily temporary existence that lasts only between rains. The director of this documentary takes a hands-off view of his subjects, mostly allowing them to talk about their day-to-day experience -- and I'm not sure the film adds much in the way of insight. Still, sitting with someone's story always has a purpose, and these folks on the fringes don't readily find an audience otherwise. Plays again on Feb. 24.