Thursday, February 11, 2016


[A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Observer here:]

Every year at this time, I am reminded of the range of stories I mostly don't get to see depicted in local theaters, because for a brief month in Portland, I get to broaden my palate. There really is a whole world out there beyond what Hollywood gives us -- and there is no better time to partake of that world than February in Portland when the Northwest Film Center gives us its Portland International Film Festival.
The festival opens Thursday night with "The Fencer," which is set in the 1950s and tells the story of a Baltic dissident who flees the Russian secret police for a quiet life in a small Estonian village. After he finds work teaching fencing to children, his commitment to that work brings him into conflict with his old life when his students are invited to compete in Leningrad. Based on a true story, the film provides a window into Soviet and sports history to which we in the States have little access.
The opening night film is always a packed affair, so if you miss your chance to buy an advance ticket, you'll still have access to another 96 feature length films and 62 shorts from 48 countries. Every year I revel at the opportunity to watch films with immigrants from all over the world who live here in Portland and are out for a rare chance to see a film in their native languages on the big screen.
A handful of the screenings will also feature visiting artists to answer questions afterwards, including two films that I saw in press screenings. First, the Feb. 12 screening of "Sleeping Giant" from Canada will feature its producer, James Vandewater. A coming-of-age story about a reserved teenage boy, Adam, who falls in with a couple of rougher boys during his family's annual summer vacation on a lake in Ontario, the film astutely depicts a type of recklessness common in teenage boys. Adam comes from relative privilege while his two friends, Riley and Nate, come from more challenging circumstances and pull Adam into a world of risk-taking and pushing against the rules. Their disdain for the little lies that adults tell leads all three boys into waters none of them are ready for, and will remind you to wonder how anyone survives adolescence -- and to question what kids unconsciously learn from adults. The show will run a second time on Feb. 16.
Both showings of "A Good American," a U.S. documentary, will feature the opportunity to dialogue with one of its subjects Diane Roark, formerly a senior staffer to the House Intelligence Committee. She and several other subjects of the film explain how the American of the title, Bill Binney, a crypto-mathematician and former NSA analyst (who is also interviewed on camera), devised a surveillance and analysis system that was low-cost, had built-in privacy protections, was operational in 2000, and was so effective that Binney and others are convinced that it "absolutely would have prevented 9/11." What happened instead is an all-too-familiar scenario of a small team of experts diligently creating something of great significance, while less talented but more self-interested superiors barely notice -- and when they do notice, they shut the program down because it would make them look bad. The film's story is a complex one, and what its delivery lacks in nuance it makes up for in clarity and importance. It plays Feb. 13, Feb. 15 and Feb. 17.
I caught two other films in previews that I recommend. "Magallanes," set in Lima, Peru, is named for its main character, a taxi driver who earns extra cash as a chauffeur for a retired colonel who, now senile, has no memory of his own brutal actions years before when Magallanes served under him. Magallanes remembers, and carries scars as a result -- and the old wounds trouble him afresh when a woman enters his cab whom he recognizes as a wartime captive of the colonel from years before. Magallanes sets out on a quest for redemption for his own part in the woman's suffering that reveals just how elusive true redemption can be when the systems that enabled the original sin remain untouched. This is a very sensitive story, carefully told and full of small details that make it feel more true than many films about the victims of war and atrocities -- and it is anchored by two especially fine performances, Damián Alcázar as Magallanes and Magaly Solier as Celina, the Indian woman whose life was forever altered all those years ago and whose power emerges in the course of this retelling. This is a fine first feature from director Salvador del Solar, and plays on Feb. 13 and 15.
Another one to make time for is "The Idol," a Palestinian film inspired by the true story of Mohammed Assaf, who emerged the victor of the 2013 season of Arab Idol. It's the first film to be (partially) shot in Gaza in decades and, though it follows the expected underdog formula (think "Underdog Millionaire"), it doesn't feel as manipulative as many in its genre -- perhaps because it is not a Hollywood product and feels consequently better grounded in the culture that it represents. This feel-good story also offers an interesting window into Assaf's childhood in a refugee camp and into what pop culture looks like in (and how it impacts) the Arab world. And Assaf sings like an angel -- he is an inspiring example of the inexplicable power of music to move and unite and elevate the human soul. The film plays on Feb. 20 and 25.
The festival runs through the end of the month, and you can find info and order tickets or a screening pass at or at the box office inside the art museum. Paper guides are all over town and the online guide contains links to previews of most of the films. It pays to show up at least a half hour ahead of every show with an advance ticket, as Portland shows every year what a great movie town it is by the enthusiastic audiences who come out in force. I'll have more reviews next week of some of the 40 films I plan to see. Come join the feast!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:
The critical reaction to the work of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu chronically illustrates how dominant culture bias affects what stories are told and valued on film. His most heralded work is "Birdman," which won him the Oscar for best director last year and is about a successful white Hollywood actor facing an identity crisis (and happens to be my least favorite of his films). Iñárritu is an inventive and original director, but his vision tends to be praised in relation to how closely it hews to Hollywood values -- for things like cleverness and ambitious technical feats (like the continuous shot in "Birdman") -- and criticized for ways it deviates (like the spiritual elements in "Biutiful," which were viewed as incoherent by many U.S. critics, but which made that film, for me, Iñárritu's best work to date).
The same problem is already evident in the critical reaction to "The Revenant," Iñárritu's latest film. It's inspired by the legendary true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman who in the 1820s was mauled by a bear and left for dead, yet survived and traipsed perhaps 200 miles alone to reach the men who had left him behind.
The film has been praised for its ambitious and intensely realistic approach to telling a story that involves harrowing physical risk and extremely harsh conditions, yet it has been criticized for having a "threadbare" story (The Playlist) and for "blowing it" with its inclusion of mystical and spiritual elements (New York Times). Even in describing the story, many critics give short shrift to or even omit any mention of its First Nations characters and elements, though they are central to the main character's motivation and to the way this story is told.
So once again I feel compelled to give Iñárritu his due where others haven't. He has indeed crafted an ambitious, vivid, and visceral depiction of life in the Old West that plows new ground in terms of its realism and stark beauty. The cast and crew endured subzero temperatures for months, filming in natural light under unusually harsh conditions and capturing like never before physical demands that we can scarcely imagine today. And you will never see anything like Glass's bone-crushing encounter with the mama grizzly bear, filmed in one long take; Iñárritu has captured the unendurable better than anyone ever imagined was possible.
But the best things about this film involve the care with which Iñárritu has imparted a vision of a world that Europeans (ancestors to most of us) destroyed. Never has the original way of life of First Nations people been portrayed with such specificity and dignity -- the clothes they wore, the houses they built, the languages that have all but disappeared. By filming in the wildest and most remote settings and duplicating so scrupulously the details of life during those times, the film captures the ingenuity it took to build civilizations that were destroyed in the name of -- well, civilized society and Manifest Destiny.
Little is known about the real Glass, and there is no historical record of his family circumstances. But Iñárritu and his co-writer Mark L. Smith took the guts of the known story and added real sense to it, giving Glass a marriage to a Pawnee woman and a son to whom he is devoted. This is more intelligent than the critical response would suggest; how else might a white trapper have acquired the skills to traverse hundreds of miles alone while grievously injured except by spending years immersed in a culture that had equipped its people over centuries to survive conditions now so unimaginable? Many of the early white settlers were involved with First Nations women, and the history books don't necessarily account for those who made actual families with those women and learned their languages and loved their brown offspring. The filmmakers' decisions to ground this heroically resourceful white protagonist in an indigenous culture, to equip him with cross-cultural perception and intelligence, and to identify him with Pawnee family members and spirituality makes for a more interesting and believable story, and certainly one that we haven't had much opportunity to see in American movies.
Those story elements also equip Glass with the motivation to make the inconceivably arduous journey at the heart of this film. His will to keep breathing, and moving, and surviving is not fueled by a mere desire for revenge for being left for dead (as many critics suggest), but rather by love for his son, by a determined quest for justice, and by a survival instinct implanted by a heart connection with his wife that continues beyond her death. For some cultures, including indigenous cultures, such a connection beyond death is vital to making sense of the world. The fact that Hollywood neither understands nor respects such connections does not render them "spectral banalities" (Variety).
I'm happy that the praise he won for "Birdman" helps to afford this Mexican director the heft it takes to produce a motion picture with this breadth of vision, even if most of Hollywood's dominant culture hasn't cultivated the perception to appreciate the intelligence and depth he offers us. I can't help but imagine that Iñárritu's own origins from outside that dominant culture are part of what equip him with the interest, curiosity, and will to hire First Nations actors to play First Nations people, to include them in the heart of this story, to engage experts who could help him get the First Nations languages and cultures right, and to ground this film in the real experiences of those who were engaged during this period of history in a losing battle to save their ancient way of life. The result is a rich and violent-yet-poetic rendering of a whole array of high stakes battles -- including an ambush in which arrows whip from all sides, brutal scenes depicting starvation and cold as manifest killers, and the journey of a canny and determined Arikara chief searching for his kidnapped daughter among French trappers who have proven to be faithless business partners. Iñárritu has used this celebrated fictionalized story of a heroic white frontiersman to broaden our conception of the truth as only great filmmakers do.

Thursday, January 7, 2016


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]
2015 has been lauded as a big year for films and television involving LGBTQ subjects -- with lots of awards buzz particularly for "The Danish Girl" (which I wrote about last week) and "Carol," the extremely stylish 1950s lesbian love story starring the very fine Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. While I found much to admire in both those heavily art-directed, big-budget films ($15 million and $11 million, respectively), the queer story that will end up on my list of the 10 best films of the year is the far grittier "Tangerine," which had its theatrical release in July and is now available on DVD and streaming.
Made on a tiny budget of $100,000, "Tangerine" is the quintessentially Hollywood picture. Shot entirely on iPhone 5s smartphones equipped with a special app and lens equipment, the story lives in a part of Hollywood just a short distance from the land of dreams we typically think of, but rarely featured or accorded such dignity and specificity, a world of sex workers and immigrants and others at the margins. Decisions necessitated by budget limitations required of the filmmakers ingenuity, flexibility, and humor very in-keeping with the qualities required of the two trans women of color at the center of this story, and the result is a bracingly realistic look at a community too few of us even begin to understand.
Director Sean Baker – a self-described cisgender white male -- makes social realist films about outsiders, and if this picture is any indication, he approaches those stories in the right way. Here, he set out to make a film about the unofficial red-light district of Hollywood, which was near his home but not part of his experience, and began by walking those very streets with his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, in search of a collaborator who could guide them into the world those streets contained. The two attracted mostly indifference and suspicion until they encountered Mya Taylor at the local LGBTQ center. She captured their attention, was intrigued by their ideas for the film, and eventually introduced them to her friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Baker enlisted the two trans women, both already interested in breaking into the entertainment business but having had little opportunity to show what they could do, to star in the film. Taylor and Rodriguez educated the filmmakers about "the block" and influenced the shape the story took.
Give a listen to a terrific interview that Taylor and Baker did with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air after you watch the film. Among other things, Taylor talks frankly about her own life as a former sex worker -- the oppression that drove her to that life and the unthinkable challenges of living it. She bravely participated in the film during her own transition, and it's clear that her lived experiences grounded this fictional story in ways we don't often see reflected on the big screen. I can't imagine that many people who have the privilege necessary to make a film even begin to realize and respond to their own ignorance as Baker did, which explains why we so rarely see films that even attempt stories as visceral as this one, or that succeed in telling them so truthfully.
The film is, at heart, a story of the friendship between these two women. It opens on Christmas Eve with Sin Dee Rella (Rodriguez), just released from serving a 28-day jail term, sharing with her friend the single red-and-green sprinkled donut she can afford. Alexandra (Taylor) lets slip what she thought Sin Dee already knew: that her pimp/boyfriend/fiancé Chester has been two-timing her with a "white fish" (a vulgar expression denoting a white woman who is chromosomally female). After Alexandra insists that Sin Dee "look at me in my eyes" and promise "no drama," Sin Dee nevertheless embarks on a full-tilt quest to find "Desiree or Destiny or Dee Dee" (it turns out to be Dinah) and to communicate in no uncertain terms to her and to Chester that Sin Dee will not be so disrespected.
The dreams of these Hollywood women drive the story. Though daily life requires both to field ridicule, harassment, and assaults, Alexandra (mostly) treats Sin Dee's hopes for Chester with seriousness, and Sin Dee (mostly) accords dignity to Alexandra's dreams of music stardom, even as Sin Dee knows her friend has paid for the upcoming nightclub gig advertised on the hand-made flyers Alexandra hands out to everyone she meets. Eventually, after Sin Dee stomps through the neighborhood in search of Dinah and then Chester, and Alexandra tussles with an errant john and encounters an Armenian cab driver who is clearly a frequent customer (and has his own back story), the various stories culminate in a cacophonous confrontation in the same donut shop where we began.
Along the way, each character has her or his moments of shame and triumph, though often neither is fairly won. Life on these streets is clearly full of just the sort of drama Alexandra sought to avoid; the stakes are always high and resources are spare or nonexistent. But on the advice of Baker's stars and collaborators, the tone is mostly comic; these women survive by their wits, and that includes a balance of taking themselves seriously and not seriously at all. It's a smart dramatic choice that pulls you just deeply enough into their chaotic world to help you marvel appropriately at their sheer guts. The very lives of these women depend on reaching for things that feel and even are impossible, and this film helps you both grieve for and admire them.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

I expect that most people will approach "The Danish Girl," as I did, with interest in learning a bit about the transgender pioneer who is its subject: Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. This fictionalized retelling, based on a novel of the same name, introduces Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), as happily married bohemian painters in Copenhagen in the 1920s, and follows their journey through Lili's awakening identity, culminating in the surgeries. The film works well as historical exploration, placing you in a time, less than 100 years ago, when there was no concept of transgender identity. And as you might expect from his other fine work as an actor (including playing Stephen Hawkings in last year's inferior "A Brief History of Time") and his androgynous beauty, Redmayne believably depicts Einar's physical transformation. Redmayne and the luminous Vikander have already begun to garner well-deserved award recognition.
But "The Danish Girl" succeeds best in conveying, with patience and care, a lived-in sense of a rare but essential human experience: that of undergoing, inside one lifetime, a transformation for which there is no roadmap and which encompasses an evolution in thinking that will take the rest of the world several successive generations. Not to minimize the obviously dramatic story of submitting to gender reassignment surgery when it was so untried -- let alone doing so now, 85 years later -- but these fine actors, screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, and director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") have managed to capture something important about the soul and the evolution of human consciousness. On lives such of these, our progress as a species depends.
In the film's early scenes, Einar and Gerda enjoy a playful and connected marriage. They share an artistic vocation -- he is a celebrated landscape painter and she has achieved more limited success painting portraits. Small signs of what we would now term Einar's "genderqueerness" go unnoticed by both -- until one day, while waiting for a portrait model to arrive, Gerda enlists Einar to pose in hose and a ballet dress. We see the subtle flickers of longing and recognition on Einar's face as he dons these garments and assumes a pose he identifies as female.
Gerda is unfazed when she later finds that Einar has commandeered one of her dressing gowns to wear under his clothes. She even encourages him to attend a public event disguised as a woman, for a lark, but Redmayne captures the subtle but insistent shifts in Einar's thinking; we see how he is more and more compelled to follow where this journey takes him -- until, soon, Gerda finds that it harder and harder to access the husband she loves.
The film lingers longer than most would dare with the shifts in Einar's perspective, and with Gerda's confusion, love, and loss. Director Hooper has the courage to push us to sit with the magnitude of what they experienced, at a time when there was no concept of transgender identity for either Einar or Gerda to grab onto. How does one manage when compelled toward inward truth for which there is no outward confirmation? We journey through visits to doctors who prescribe painful radiation treatment and diagnose insanity. With no one to offer Einar a way to process or analyze the truth that compels him, he forges ahead, transitioning into Lili before transitioning was a concept. Indeed, with no signposts to guide her, Lili tumbles to the conclusion -- which now seems heartbreakingly brutal and unnecessary -- that Einar must die in order for Lili to live.
A lesser film would have relied more on exposition to explain what is happening; this one admirably shows more than it tells. Redmayne conveys how Lili's fear competes with her excitement as she flirts with a man whose attention she has attracted, and then retreats; her schemes for studying how women shift their weight or ask a question; the small ways in which transitioning to female requires Einar to give up power. In a particularly affecting scene, we see in Redmayne's body and face how acutely it pains Lili to take off her wig, revealing Einar underneath. She has no access to a means for reconciling Einar as part of Lili, and her distaste for Einar becomes increasingly palpable.
The toll on Einar/Lili's relationship with Gerda is also thoughtfully portrayed. Einar is blessed with a spouse who genuinely loves him and is capable of making much of the journey with and for Lili. Indeed, Lili becomes a regular subject of Gerda's portraiture, earning Gerda professional notice and subtly assisting in Lili's transition. It makes sense that both of them were artists; only highly intuitive people could find a way to venture into and make sense of such complex psychological territory. Yet, increasingly, Gerda finds herself losing her formerly attentive partner, even at times finding herself rather cruelly abandoned. All of Lili's energies are absorbed in the task of becoming herself; her very idea of womanhood in 1920s Europe contains little room for Gerda.
No matter how much this portrayal may veer from the historical record about Einar/Lili and Gerda, it is profoundly true in the deepest sense. This film is a worthy window into early identity formation for a transgender woman -- indeed, Lili Elbe's journal eventually became important in that regard. But it is also resonates with wisdom and empathy for those important few whose lives call them to the lonely and confusing work of scouting ahead for where the rest of us must and will eventually evolve.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


[A version of this review first appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

It often takes a generation or more before we can grapple very honestly with our most complicated stories, especially if they involve people at the margins, or people who aren't in a position to control the dominant narrative. It takes even longer if the marginalized are the protagonists of the story. Think of how long it took, for example, for someone to make a feature film with Martin Luther King Jr. as its protagonist; how much longer will it be before we begin to see more plays and films that delve honestly into the experiences of, say, black schoolchildren in the segregated South, or undocumented immigrants in the era of fences at the U.S. border?
In many ways, we are still in the middle of the so-called economic restructuring at the center of "Sweat," Lynn Nottage's new play currently experiencing its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland -- and that is part of why it feels so bold. Commissioned as part of OSF's American Revolutions program, supporting new plays that focus on moments of change in American history, "Sweat" is set in the rust-belt community of Reading, Penn., formerly a manufacturing stronghold where a union card was the ticket to a solid living and middle-class respect, however modest. Now, however, Reading is one of the very poorest cities in America, with more than 40 percent of its residents living below the poverty line in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). "Sweat" explores some of how that transformation has been experienced by working class people, whose lives have changed course dramatically.
The play is constructed around an ensemble cast -- three middle-aged women who have worked in a particular factory for more than 20 years; the sons of two of the women, beginning what they fully expect will be the basis for a solid living if they want it; a bartender who worked for decades in the same factory before becoming injured on the job; a man who has been locked out of his factory job for an extended period; a probation officer; and a young man who hasn't been able to break into the union. The play moves back and forth in time between 2008, after two of the characters have served time in prison, and 2000, before all of the characters felt the impact of the NAFTA shifts.
Like many Americans, I have a passing awareness of economic upheaval over the past 15 years or so, as manufacturing jobs have increasingly moved overseas. But the specifics have largely escaped me; they are definitely not the focus of the dominant news stories. Nottage's new play goes there -- and not from the vantage point of folks with any say in such matters. Having spent two years engaging with members of the Reading community, Nottage has built a story around characters who begin (mostly) as friends, and end up at odds -- but like the rotating set of this play, she circles these stories. The play's movement swirls like a cyclone; in the beginning we know things went bd but we don't know how and don't understand the relationships between these characters. As we swirl back and forth in time and through the shock of lock-outs and increasingly draconian moves from management, we get a sense of the crisis closing in. When we finally reach the conflict that changes the life trajectory of several of these characters, we almost feel the punches ourselves.
One of the things I most appreciate about this play is that the characters occupy no one position. Too often in films and television and theater, working class people aren't portrayed with much complexity; not so here. For example, several white and black characters all have (or had) union jobs, yet the white characters speak with a sense of entitlement that the black characters don't quite share. All of them talk as though their union card is the ticket to their American dreams, yet the black characters speak as later entrants into that club; they are still aspiring, looking for ways to climb, or exploring other options. The characters also vary in their reactions to the loss of their hopes. And none of them notice that the American-born son of Dominican parents who cleans up after them at the bar they frequent can't break into the union no matter how hard he tries.
As the world of the union workers begins to crumble, we see how easily they can be pitted against each other. Their anger and powerlessness quickly becomes anger at one another; with no agency and no access to the real decision makers, they blame each other for betrayals that are varying degrees of real and imagined. These are folks we might recognize, good people struggling under extreme pressure. Their anger and fear is understandable and sympathetic, even if their responses to one another are far from heroic.
The reality for all these characters is messy. I must admit that I had not focused on the specifics that this play brings to light; the characters go from being able to save for a very nice vacation to working multiple menial jobs in order to pay the rent in a slum or falling into addiction. The uniformly excellent cast makes you live in the skin of these characters, and conveys a real sense of how quickly and cataclysmically their worlds shifted -- showing up to work to find that the machines have been sold; lockouts that lasted for endless months; contract offers involving paycuts as high as 60 percent; the pressures that lead a person to cross a union picket line.
This is not territory well-covered in American theater, and OSF is capitalizing on the opportunities for dialogue that this play presents with its "Living Ideas" series of discussions, some of which can be accessed online. ( Whether or not you join in on those conversations, this is a play to watch. It is playing in Ashland until the end of October, and then moving to Arena Stage in Washington, DC. I expect the play will live on, and will bring needed attention to the lives of many whose experience of the knife edge of what we term progress tends to be ignored.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

An especially complex life story both deserves and defies the telling -- which is why most biopics don't impart more than stick-figure truth. That and the additional problems that what often attracts filmmakers is the fame of their subjects, and that too many writers and directors lack the talent or will to tell a story that chooses its bits wisely and leaves room for the subject's essential mystery.

What I loved best about "Love and Mercy," the new film about Brian Wilson, the man whose genius powered the Beach Boys, is that it felt true -- deeply, complexly true, whether or not it is factually accurate -- yet also left me convinced that I don't and can't know the whole story of Brian Wilson's life. There is mystery here, as there is in every life (though maybe a little more so). This film delves, and educates, and points you toward the mystery, without pretending to solve it.

From everything I've read since seeing it, the film does get the essential facts right -- though you can stop reading if you'd prefer to be in suspense, as I genuinely was. Wilson rose to success as a very young man, writing music for and performing with the band made up of his two brothers, a cousin, and a family friend. His exceptional abilities now seem particularly evident during the period in the mid-1960s when he stopped touring with the Beach Boys and focused on producing their 11th album, "Pet Sounds," which was an artistic departure into more complex and melancholy territory and is now widely considered to be one of the best albums of its era. Wilson was ahead of his time, however, and, burdened by a troubled family history and by mental illness, he increasingly medicated himself with alcohol and a variety of drugs, including LSD. By the mid-70s he had sunk into a reclusive and dissolute existence that nearly killed him.

He came out of that period largely through the assistance of a psychologist, Eugene Landy, who assumed tyrannical control over Wilson's life and finances and even his career. It was not until the late 1980s – when Wilson met the woman who eventually became his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter -- that she and others eventually helped to free him of Landy's destructive influence.

Fortunately, the filmmakers did not attempt to capture those events in an episodic fashion. Instead, director Bill Pohlad cast two actors to play Wilson at two distinct periods in his dramatic life, and uses those two periods as windows into his larger story.

Paul Dano does his best work yet as the younger Wilson, who heard beautifully inventive musical arrangements in his head which he passionately brought to life in the recording studio. The usual stage focus of most music biopics wouldn't have worked for Wilson, because his genius was most evident in cramped studio spaces --yet the film captures something of the radical originality of the ideas that flowed out of him at age 23 by breaking down the creative process into elements that help you better understand the whole. We watch him directing each musician toward the specific sound that he intends, down to assembling bobby pins inside a piano to elicit a specific timbre and barking with his dog to evoke accompaniment for "Carolyn, No."

The particularity of Wilson's intentions 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." It turns out that I knew this music too well to know it at all -- these scenes made me hear it as though for the first time and set me in search of "Pet Sounds" for music I had not given the appreciation it deserves.

Those scenes of early Wilson also depict the incipient signs of the breakdown to follow. Dano captures Wilson's vulnerability, the anguish of interactions with his despotic father, his youthful ambition, the extent and the limits of his ability to communicate his drive to create sounds never heard before, how he exasperated and frightened those close to him. The wistfulness and sorrow underlying even buoyant songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" make a different kind of sense in this context; the film captures just how true it was that Wilson "just wasn't made for these times."

Director Pohlad 's choice to intersperse these scenes of early Wilson with scenes from 20 years later is such a brilliant stroke that it is hard to imagine doing Wilson's story justice otherwise. Rather than attempting to chart Wilson's unraveling, the film plays the two periods as complex countermelodies worthy of Wilson's own compositions, humming with the tension of how the two versions of this man can be the same person. John Cusack as the middle-aged Wilson doesn't resemble Dano--and, in a sense, neither did the middle-aged Wilson resemble his younger self. The film wisely avoids answering the question of how Wilson became the lost soul who was wealthy and famous but was not allowed to make the smallest decisions for himself -- yet it provides illuminating glimmers into a story beyond explanation.

The challenges of depicting the later Wilson equal those of depicting his youthful self. How to portray a lovely woman selling Cadillacs who falls for Wilson in the midst of her confusion and occasional alarm over his circumstances? How to make sense of a grown man so damaged and in bondage to a psychologist who controlled his every move? How to depict the difficulty of extracting Wilson from such inexplicable peril?

The scenes of Wilson's later life match the early-life scenes in richness and subtlety. Cusack paints a believable portrait of a man who is clearly damaged and terrified, yet who possesses a sort of beguiling genuineness. And Elizabeth Banks pulls off a miracle in her portrayal of Ledbetter, who grew to love Wilson under such trying circumstances. Her tenderness and courage make a remarkable kind of sense -- I was genuinely stunned by the authenticity of their interactions. Their scenes together resonate with emotional intelligence; almost everything remains unsaid, unburdened by the usual movie exposition that kills most depictions of genuine love.

Paul Giamatti likewise does chilling work as Landy, which was yet another kind of challenge. Because people as destructive as Landy are so difficult to understand, most films settle for cartoon villains that would never materialize in real life. Yet the elements of Landy's hold over Wilson make real emotional sense here. I was not surprised to read later that both Wilson and his wife have remarked that their real life experiences were much worse than in the film; the film convinces in part by not overplaying its hand.

What emerges resonates beyond Wilson's own story. The two parts of his life depicted here happen to contrast two eras of the California dream -- the relative optimism of the 60s, embodied by boys inventively crooning about waves only one of them had any experience cresting, and a later period when the drive to cash in on the dream seems more tawdry and even dangerous.

Pohlad, who has made his career producing an impressive list of films (including "12 Years a Slave" and "The Tree of Life"), establishes himself as an unusually subtle director. He has elicited a portrait of a soul who, though clearly damaged and burdened by the gifts entrusted to his care, turns out to be remarkably and mysteriously resilient. And 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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


[A version of this review first appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

It's a good thing that I saw "Marie's Story" at the Portland International Film Festival without paying attention to the judgment of American film critics. Reading those, I'd have expected a treacly and manipulative depiction of a clichéd hard-luck story with nothing to add to "The Miracle Worker," the 1962 film about Helen Keller. I likely would have skipped it, and missed an opportunity to be deeply moved and inspired.

The film is based on the true story of Marie Heurtin, born five years after Helen Keller in Vertou, France. At the beginning of the film's depiction, Marie has lived the first 14 years of her life with parents who love her but have not managed even to give her a bath or comb her hair, as they have no way to communicate with their blind and deaf daughter. She is brilliantly played by a young deaf actress who captures the sense of the crudeness of Marie's inner life, driven only by what she can sense and touch.

Her father has driven his feral daughter to a convent school for deaf girls in hopes that they will assume the burden of caring for her. He is disappointed when they refuse -- but one of the sisters, a consumptive nun named Marguerite, has an encounter with Marie that leaves an impression. Long after Marie's departure, the sister cannot shake the sense that she is called to unshackle Marie's imprisoned soul. I appreciated the care with which the film depicted how one experiences such a calling.

Like many who have experienced such callings, Marguerite is convinced of the call but has no real idea of how to achieve it. She also must overcome the perfectly logical objections of someone whose guidance she respects, her Mother Superior. When the Mother Superior finally relents in the face of Marguerite's conviction, Marguerite approaches her work with fervor and joy, only to experience long months filled almost exclusively with crushing defeats. Marie thrashes and flails and resists all attempts to direct her. It is obviously fear that drives Marie, but that hardly lessons Marguerite's mounting frustration and despair.

I can scarcely imagine an American film even attempting to tell such a story with enough patience to capture what this film conveys profoundly: That it is possible to have correctly discerned that one is called to do something of life-changing importance, and yet to experience nothing but failure in response to one's sincere and diligent efforts, and for a long enough time that there is a real possibility that you will not succeed. This film imparts Marguerite's struggle well enough that I practically had to persuade myself to not give up on watching it! Marguerite must endure not only Marie's blows but the knowledge that she is burdening her community for months on end, with no evidence that Marie is even reachable.

But as I told myself while watching it, Marguerite does succeed or there wouldn't be a film at all. And because the film has captured enough of Marguerite's struggle to make you feel actual gratitude, it also imparts how momentous Marie's breakthroughs are for both teacher and student. It struck me that work this important is frequently difficult in just this way -- it is persistently and relentlessly impossible, until it isn't.

Maybe that's why I wouldn't trust most American filmmakers with this story. Our culture doesn't have much patience for this kind of struggle, or this kind of truth. Watching Marie communicate with her parents for the first time -- clearly from a hard-won sense of who they are and what she means to them -- imparts comfort and inspiration that few films ever attempt, because they haven't grappled enough with the need for those things.

The latter part of the film contains some additional treasures. Early hints of Marguerite's ill health foreshadow the final problem of her death, but the film doesn't milk that for pure sentiment; rather, Marguerite's very human struggle with her own mortality becomes an occasion for Marie to become Marguerite's teacher. How should Marguerite balance caring for herself with caring for Marie? How much should Marie be told about what is happening? The first instincts of both Marguerite and her advisors are to put Marguerite's health first and spare Marie the details, understandable choices that damage both women. Marie's unchained soul -- which might have lived its life in prison if not for Marguerite -- now guides them both toward what is deeply true, that a good death for Marguerite must honor the connection that binds them.

To call this film a clichéd tearjerker, as did the New York Times, is to miss its resonant truth by a mile. Its final scene, in which Marie beautifully communicates (!) to the departed Marguerite, and to us, shows just how alert her soul now is, and brings tears more well-earned than just about anything Hollywood has ever produced. Perhaps in order to appreciate that scene, it helps to have attempted an impossible thing, or to have lost a person whose impact on one's life cannot ever be expressed, but to whom one owes the ability to express what one can.


[A version of this piece originally appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

Love. Loss. Longing. Hope. Treachery. Resilience. All are the stuff of human existence -- and also the stuff of theater. In real life, even as we suffer and struggle, it can be hard to sit with the depth of our experience. The feelings, even the good ones, may be too profound, too painful. Two shows now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, by different methods, plunge us there, offering the chance to feel what we may often only have the courage to give a sidelong glance.

"Pericles"--Shakespeare's tale of love, betrayal, loss, and recovery -- offers the way of poetry and song. "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" -- a beloved Taiwanese play that sprang from the seeds of a tragic episode in Chinese history -- offers interlocking pathways of humor and pathos.

"Pericles" isn't performed often, though it was quite popular in Shakespeare's day. Perhaps back then people were more receptive to a story that doesn't try to answer why bad things happen to good people, or why good things might just happen again. We expect answers to such questions now -- but in reality, life doesn't always offer them.
The protagonist is a young prince who embarks confidently on a journey to find a wife. He does, but only after having to run for his life when he stumbles into a nest of incest and treachery. Then, having righted his path and found love and family, he loses both for many years. He lives in exile, separated from the wife and daughter he believes are dead. His daughter then also encounters peril and treachery, before all are finally united.

There is no rhyme or reason for any of this. Neither Pericles nor his wife and daughter deserve the perils that befall them. They are buffeted about, shipwrecked, used, enslaved. Life is unfair -- yet without warning, things can be set right too.

Director Joe Haj, the son of Palestinian immigrants, brings to the play an enthusiasm for the mysteries embedded in life's unfairness. This is not a play that reinforces our wish to believe that everything happens for a reason, but that is territory immigrants know well. And among a uniformly wonderful cast, Pericles and his daughter Marina are beautifully played by African-American actors Wayne T. Carr and Jennie Greenberry; their heritage especially qualifies them to play characters whose family members are lost to them and whose control of their destinies is taken from them by brutal circumstances.

Father and daughter offer contrasting responses to the whims of fortune. Pericles begins his life with beauty and wealth and naively embarks on his life's voyage assuming that all will be well. When his fortunes are dashed, he is stripped of hope, and lives for many years isolated and defeated. Marina, never having tasted the bright truth of her heritage and with no more reason to hope, nevertheless approaches her life with unflagging determination, as though convinced that she is master of her destiny in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

The play doesn't answer why any of this should be so, and the artists yield to its mysteries. Director Haj and his artistic team have found inventive ways to convey that these characters are part of a larger story, filling the production with music and buoyant visual effects. The journey they take us on over these rough seas communicates on a soul level.

"Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" is also a tale of journeys and separations, and traveled quite a distance to land on the Ashland stage. It is perhaps the most famous play in modern Chinese theater, having been produced hundreds of times since the original Taiwanese production in the mid-1980s. It is directed and written by Stan Lai, who was born in Washington, D.C. to Chinese parents from Taiwan but who has spent most of his life in Taiwan. This is the first commercial production in the U.S.

The play is rooted in a particularly painful period in Chinese history. In 1949, when revolution happened on the mainland, many people fled China to the small island of Taiwan for what they expected would be a few months. Those few months stretched into decades when families and lovers and friends were separated and not allowed to communicate with one another. The resulting tragic ripples for both Chinese and Taiwanese people are profound, though little understood by people in the U.S.

"Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" builds off of those tragic ripples, with a story of two plays being rehearsed on a stage which has been double-booked by mistake. "Secret Love" tells the tragic story of two Chinese lovers about to part for what they believe will be a matter of weeks, and then reconnecting in Taiwan after 40 years. "Peach Blossom Land" is a farcical take on an ancient fable about a hapless cuckolded husband who is unhappy with his life and then stumbles on a mythical utopian place. "Secret Love" is direct and poignant; "Peach Blossom Land" is stylized and full of slapstick and buffoonery.

Watching the two stories take shape is chaotic, as the casts squabble and both productions fumble. An essential part of the play -- and perhaps part of what gives it such staying power -- is that each production makes use of its particular time and place, so the OSF production cleverly uses a multiracial cast and weaves in some Ashland in-jokes. It's a stretch for an American audience to grapple with material so distinctly Chinese -- and yet the payoff is immense. What emerges are several stories of love and loss, and a blurring of the lines between humor and pathos, between fact and fiction. The fictional stories help us experience our own stories in a new way.

This play touched me so deeply. I was lucky to see it with perhaps the most diverse audience I have ever experienced at OSF; behind me I could hear several people responding to Chinese elements in the play that flew over my head. The play ends on a very poignant note, and as I wiped away tears when the lights came up, I stood and saw behind me Chinese and white audience members doing the same thing, with the Chinese audience members commenting on how the production compared with their experiences with the material elsewhere. Watching a multicultural cast playing material that is specifically Taiwanese and Chinese was a particularly enriching way to experience those cultures. It also stirred the deepest parts of my own life experiences.

When Stan Lai first produced this play in 1986, Taiwan was still under martial law, and caginess was required. The play he produced was different than the one he got past the censors. Each time he has produced it -- and again in Ashland -- he has wired into its DNA conscious wrestling with the challenge of translation, from life into art, from Chinese to Taiwanese and back again, from traditional to modern, from pathos to humor, and now from Chinese and Taiwanese to American audiences. That chaotic act of creation, which always involves keeping some things and losing others, yields a rich liminality that contains the capacity to break past the audience's defenses to their deepest experiences of loss and love.

Both plays run through October and are well worth a trip to Ashland.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

For most of the last 40 years, acclaimed photographer Sebastião 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.


[A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

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.