[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/aug/16/art-social-justice/]
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Elizabethan stage features plays this summer and fall that are all are worth seeing, and together they advance the Ashland festival's work in practicing art as social justice.
The angst and seething undercurrents of "Hamlet" are conveyed not only through a fine performance by Danforth Comins in the title role, but also through music and smart casting. Not strictly tied to one time period, the production uses live rock guitar music (via an onstage heavy metal musician) to gird its moods and questions; the music broods over contact with the dead and also the accumulation of unaddressed mistakes and questions that undo all the characters in the end.
Meanwhile, Hamlet's blindness to his privileged social location is underscored by casting three fine African American actors -- Derrick Lee Weeden, Jennie Greenberry, and Tramell Tillman -- as Polonius (who has long served Hamlet's family), Polonius' daughter Ophelia (the sometime love whom Hamlet casts off so coldly), and her brother Laertes (Hamlet's friend and rival). The dynamic between this trio and their troubled relationships with Hamlet and his family resonates strongly with typical experiences of people of color, including the contrasting vantage points of different generations, and deepens this production's tragic sensibility.
"The Winter's Tale" is staged from the lens of Asian and Asian American experience, affording a too-rare opportunity to see folks from a variety of Asian cultures represent the range of humanity on stage. There are so many cultures left out of the way we are used to seeing Shakespeare; it is a joy to watch this production play with melding the beauty and relative rigidity of ancient traditions as embodied in the first act with a lighthearted mix of cultures washed up on a single shore in the second act.
Among this production's best assets are its strongly-embodied female characters: Amy Kim Waschke is a memorably noble and tragic Hermione; Miriam Laube (who herself played Hermione in OSF's last production of this play) as Paulina embodies courage and female power wresting transformation from folly; and Cindy Im floats and sings like an earthy angel as Perdita, easily inspiring love in all who encounter her.
My favorite of the outdoor shows this season is a rare opportunity to see "The Wiz." White audience members likely don't appreciate either the significance of "The Wiz" to African American audience members or the challenges of mounting a production in Oregon. So much of mainstream theater is written by white people, produced by white people, and tells stories from a white perspective.
As originally conceived in the 1970s, "The Wiz" took an icon of American musicals and reset it to be sung and played by and for African Americans. Its creators found a way to embody the hopes and humor and yearnings of African Americans in a setting that everyone could recognize, and to add a funky edge that celebrated the culture riches found among members of that community. They accomplished something almost unthinkable in 1975, building an audience for something new to Broadway, and garnering seven Tony Awards in the process.
That historical backdrop contains inspiration for OSF, a leader in the theater world set in a state with a troublingly racist history. Black exclusion laws existed here until the 1860s, and for long afterwards conveyed a message of unwelcome to African Americans, reinforced by Oregon's failure to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments for another century. Now OSF seeks to diversify its audiences in a state that is still one of the whitest in the union, and where most of its white citizens remain unaware of our state's racist legacy.
Where "The Wiz" built an audience and an appetite that didn't yet exist in the 1970s, OSF seeks to build new audiences and appetite in southern Oregon 40 years later. This production offers the perfect vehicle; it is a fitting embodiment of African American resilience and playfulness and badassness, adding a strong flavor of black gay pride as well. There is so much intention reflected in the casting, costumes, and choreography--piece by joyous piece, OSF has constructed a world that contains strong pieces of the cultural richness of African Americans.
Pulling that off, however, has included some challenges. White audience members often approach the play from a certain distance that alienates the players, and may evince annoyance with black audience members offering what the actors would experience as more appropriate enthusiasm. It's likely that white audiences may miss some of the richness that appears before them because they lack the cultural context -- though that doesn't mean that critics (who are rarely African Americans) haven't felt free to pronounce judgment on artistic choices from outside their own cultures. It is easy to miss how we allow certain voices more agency in defining good art.
Moreover, southern Oregon has much to learn about being truly welcoming to an influx of African American actors and artists; a bookstore near OSF has defiantly pushed a free-speech narrative as it persists in presenting a display of "Lil Black Sambo" books alongside "Wizard of Oz" books, deaf to the expressions of African American artists who find the display troubling and offensive. When OSF attempted to back the concerns of those artists, the local newspapers quickly rushed to the defense of the bookstore and quoted a chorus of local residents expressing righteous indignation about censorship. It is troubling to see such a lack of concern or even curiosity about the perspective of African Americans who found the display hurtful.
It strikes me as ironic that so many of those artists are performing in a story about a confusing and alien place, Oz, where a cast of loveable characters must struggle to think clearly and honor their hearts and locate courage and a place that truly feels like home. The talented cast of "The Wiz" pulls off that feat with such grace and guts and joy that they may yet succeed in easing the audience they are building down the road to a world they will help us to imagine. Whether "The Wiz" feels like your culture and your people or is a new journey for you, now is the time to head down to Ashland, cheer on these players as they deserve to be cheered, and build a theater audience that embodies a community that transcends our failures of imagination.
[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/aug/02/tender-love-story-resonates/]
What passes for love on most movie screens has always struck me as shallow: Movie love generally just "happens" to people (and may even "require" them to leave an existing relationship) and it usually involves an electric sexual connection between two unusually attractive people. That's about as far as it goes.
"My Love, Don't Cross That River," which set box office records in South Korea where it originated, is the antidote to all such movie romances, though unlikely to attract much notice here in the U.S. The documentary offers a tender examination of the last 15 months of a 76-year marriage. From watching the preview, I feared an emphasis on the cuteness of the elderly pair --and indeed, this small and sturdy couple (she nearing 90, he nearing 100) are adorable. But there is something much deeper happening here, and this depiction is best approached with reverence.
The film's opening scene is shot from a distance; we hear the woman sitting alone outdoors, sobbing softly. Having lost my own dearly loved life partner not long ago, the source of her sorrow immediately resonated. The camera lingers on her briefly, and then we flash back to happier times. The pair has returned after a brief time away to their small and tidy home by a river, a fair but walkable distance from the small town nearby, and she is fretting about the dirt and leaves that have accumulated in their absence. So much work to clean this, she complains. He offers to do it all, and she seems glad for the offer, though she keeps sweeping --until he starts tossing leaves at her. Why are you doing that? She complains, in annoyance -- but soon they are both tossing leaves at one another, he grinning and she still annoyed. Before long, he wanders off and gathers some flowers and easily wins her over by offering them to her, tucking them into her hair. She tucks some into his hair too, admires how handsome he is, and all is forgiven.
These sorts of playful scenes are not uncommon between them, and convey the affection and easy humor they share. The film observes them -- generally dressed in coordinated outfits that she has assembled -- gathering firewood, cooking and eating together, walking to the town to participate in a senior outing, enjoying the occasional visit from a smattering of their children and grandchildren, who cook and quarrel. It is obvious the pair takes great pleasure in each other's company. She nags and complains a bit, but he easily diffuses her. He revels in her cooking, accompanies her to the outhouse at night or to a doctor's visit, even when he isn't well himself, and sings to her when she is bored or afraid, and she always greets his voice with admiration.
I found myself wishing for photos of the two in their youth, particularly as they began to trickle little details of their lives together. She describes how they married when she was 14, but he refrained from touching her for several years because he didn't want to hurt her; they "really became husband and wife" only after she clearly signaled, with an embrace, that she was ready. I'm so grateful that he waited for me, she says. Later she mentions that she bore 12 children but only six of them lived to adulthood. That always made me so sad, she says in her understated way.
But the filmmaker resists our impulse toward youth; he clearly wants us to experience the couple in this period, weathered by the effects of age and struggle. We wince to hear his labored breathing and a worsening cough; watch them scramble precariously up to a likely familiar perch for viewing the river near their home; listen to her wistfully remind him of how strong he once was; watch him rub the misshapen knee that pains her or stroke her lined face as they prepare for sleep. There is a dawning sense that these two have suffered greatly; they have weathered many losses together, including the death of a dearly loved pet during the months of filming. They both weep as they manage to bury and mourn her -- a sure sign that they have continued to invest in love even knowing the inevitable pain of loss.
As I wept through so much of this film, I gradually recognized the significance of its depiction. I have often sensed that members of religious orders who live apart from society and engage in contemplative practice are performing some service that benefits the rest of us in ways we cannot see. I had the same sense about this couple; that in devoting 76 years to practicing and perfecting the art of loving each other, they have somehow managed to enrich us all in ways beyond what we can know. To watch and pay homage to such love is a worthy act of devotion.
This beautiful and wise film is in very limited release at the Livingroom Theater for a few more days, and will be available on iTunes at the end of this month.
[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/jun/23/riveting-take-abortion-divide/]
In 1971, a young woman named Sarah Weddington argued Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Then age 26, she is still the youngest person to do such a thing.) By the time she argued the case, Norma McCorvey (known for case purposes as Jane Roe) had missed the window of time to obtain the abortion she had sought -- predictable from the outset, though perhaps not to McCorvey -- and the two women could hardly have approached the case from social locations that were more different. From the very beginning, the case meant different things to the two women, an example of the many divides of culture and privilege that have fueled and followed the landmark decision.
More than 40 years later, the 1973 decision that the two women and their collaborators obtained persists in dividing Americans more than almost any other issue. Yet we arguably have evolved not at all in our understanding of the social forces that drive the rifts between those who support and those who oppose abortion rights.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as part of its American Revolutions cycle of plays exploring significant moments in American history, saw the opportunity to open up understanding by focusing on the remarkable stories of individuals engaged on all sides of this struggle -- beginning with McCorvey and Weddington, but not ending there. OSF commissioned playwright Lisa Loomer for the task, and she has found a way to grapple with a dazzling array of complex points of view on all sides of these issues and to accord them all dignity. The resulting production, beautifully directed by Bill Rauch and featuring a wise and stunning cast, plays in Ashland through the end of October.
The production is well-oriented to its times and places, beginning with Weddington's circle of second-wave feminist friends exploring "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and beginning to think strategically about how to advance issues of concern to women, concerns that men would never pursue. The play devotes some time to the social context in which Roe v. Wade arose, and the women leaders who drove it, many of whom, like Weddington, were just finding their voices in legal and political arenas that were hostile to women. The few women who had a shot at framing such efforts tended to be white and relatively privileged -- but they experienced such virulent marginalization that they did not consider themselves privileged, and often did not have much awareness of how burdens on reproductive rights might be experienced by women of color or other women who experienced more economic and educational disadvantages.
Of course, the case was decided by an all-male Supreme Court unaccustomed to addressing the dilemmas faced by women across the spectrum of relative privilege. Though not, strictly speaking, a courtroom drama, the play cannily stages a bit of Weddington's Supreme Court experience with recordings of the actual justices' questions, giving a flavor of how the decision came to be framed in a way that was subtly focused on the concerns of doctors and their medical judgments rather than the concerns and rights of women.
The play devotes equal time to McCorvey's interesting and circuitous story. A lesbian who sought an abortion when she was poor and lacking either a partner or family support, McCorvey was a survivor of trauma in her childhood and early adulthood. Though not well-educated, McCorvey displays a certain canny scrappiness that, at times, seems quite admirable; at other times, she seems a good example of the long-term effects of trauma and marginalization.
Both women are realized on stage with compassion and depth. Sara Bruner captures the ways in which McCorvey masks her suffering with bravado and can sometimes be blind toward her own and others' manipulations. The world has taught her one must grab for things, making her an easy target for people on all sides of the controversy surrounding abortion. Having met Weddington and heard her speak, I think Sarah Jane Agnew likewise has perfectly captured a mixture of strong will and reserve and a certain primness that characterizes Weddington and that makes sense given her social location. Where Weddington is poised and controlled, McCorvey is opportunistic and, though she can be rough around the edges, sometimes catches things that others miss. It is a mark of the skill of the writing and directing and acting on display that both women are portrayed with sympathy, even while we get a sense of their flaws and the limits of their perspectives.
The same is true for the rest of the cast, all of whom take on multiple roles. Particularly notable are Catherine Castellanos as McCorvey's steadfast longtime partner, a Latina who loves and adapts to McCorvey's many efforts to reinvent herself, and Jeffrey King, who invests a pastor prominent in Operation Rescue with believable conviction and dignity. Unlike so many conversations about abortion, this play proceeds with good awareness of the experiences of women of color, investing their particular concerns with significance, mindful of how rarely those concerns are reflected in conversations on either side of the issues.
The result is a masterwork of theater which keeps you riveted as it skillfully shifts, shifts, and shifts perspectives again and again throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time. For those of us who lived through these events, the play puts the pieces of memory together with illuminating angles on these stories, deepening your understanding of things you thought you already understood. And for younger audience members, this play offers context for understanding the historical and present-day stakes, awakening appropriate urgency and compassion.
[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/jun/01/tried-and-convicted-mistake/]
When the criminal justice system makes mistakes, why are we as a culture, and especially those of us inside the system, not more curious about what went wrong? While watching "Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four," which closed the recent Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival, I found myself sitting with that question.
The criminal justice system is made up of people, and people make mistakes. Popular culture brings stories of a small number of its more dramatic mistakes or potential mistakes to our attention from time to time -- "Serial," for example, or "The Making of a Murderer." But the energy we spend trying to understand how such mistakes happened hardly seems commensurate with the cost to the individuals involved, and to the potential for other mistakes we can't see.
The story of the San Antonio Four is an agonizing case in point. The late '90s marked the tail end of a period of what later was termed "moral panic" about supposed ritual Satanic abuse of children. Stories of such cases dominated the media and became a focus of prosecutors and police forces. It is thought that such fears fueled many criminal prosecutions, including the famously wrongful murder convictions of the Memphis Three, depicted in four excellent documentaries, including "Paradise Lost" and "West of Memphis."
Around that same time period, four young Latinas, all lesbians in their late teens and early 20s, were charged with ritual abuse of two young girls in San Antonio. The children involved were the nieces of one of the young women, Elizabeth Ramirez, and the girls told a bizarre story that became the basis of a celebrated case against the four young women, all of whom claimed innocence and none of whom had criminal records of any kind. All four cooperated fully, believing that they had nothing to fear because they were innocent -- and all four were convicted based on the testimony of the two girls and medical testimony that the shape of their hymens confirmed that they had been abused. The film's title means to draw a parallel to the Salem witch trials, and it's a compelling comparison.
Ramirez was tried first, having been arrested shortly after giving birth to her son, and after a trial characterized by homophobic slurs and innuendo about her lifestyle, she received a 37-year sentence. The three other women, Ramirez's former girlfriend Kristie Mayhugh and domestic partners Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera, were tried together and received 15-year sentences. All maintained their innocence and refused to plead out.
All of the women served significant time; Ramiriz was behind bars for the 17 years of her son's childhood, and Rivera had to leave her two children in the care of her mother for the remainder of theirs. One can scarcely imagine the trauma they all endured, and the impossibility of making sense of their experience. It was many years before a biologist in Ottawa took an interest in the women's cases and began visiting and corresponding with them. He eventually convinced others to look at the cases, and ultimately the Texas Innocence Project succeeded in getting them reopened based on discrediting the medical evidence submitted against the women. The cases crumbled further when one of the two alleged victims, Stephanie, fully recanted her original story.
The film walks carefully through the stories of the women and grapples with the perplexing senselessness of their lot. Stephanie, now in her 20s, recounts how her father and paternal grandmother coached her to tell the story she did at age 9; one can scarcely imagine the courage it would take to acknowledge such a thing. The women are still in the fight for exoneration; they had to present their exoneration case to the same judge who tried the group of three in the first place, and he ruled that they were entitled to a new trial but not exoneration, evincing more concern for the medical expert's professional reputation than for the grievous losses experienced by these four apparently innocent young women.
So what do we do with cases like this? The first thing we must do is sit with their stories; we must learn to listen well. This film left me with many questions, but it provides a careful window into a story that, in the end, can't be explained away. The filmmakers have spent the time needed to present this case in a way that honors its troubling complexity.
These events happened in Texas, but that does not give those of us outside of Texas any basis for consoling ourselves. Rather, this story is a window into how badly things can go wrong in our justice system, particularly when the defendants are from marginalized communities, as these women are. It depicts a dramatic example of how, once we have decided who is the perpetrator of a crime -- and that a crime occurred at all -- all of the energy goes toward proving that we are right, even in the face of significant evidence to the contrary. In these particular cases, it is very hard to see how a presumption of innocence was a robust concept.
We must sit with such questions if we have any hope of actually upholding, in any case, the values our justice system purports to serve. You can watch for release information at the film's website, southwestofsalem.com, and on its Facebook page.
[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.
[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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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).
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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).
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
[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.
[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:
Love and Mercy
The Salt of the Earth
Son of Saul
(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: