Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A feminist lens on two Georgian adolescents

This review also appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/mar/12/navigating-character-tradition-and-fate/

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is often quoted as saying that if you introduce a gun (literally or figuratively) in the first act of a play, it had better go off by the last act, or it serves no dramatic purpose. Many of the reviews of "In Bloom" (8)-- a Georgian film that was one of my favorites at this year's Portland International Film Festival and is currently playing at Cinema 21 in Portland -- mention Chekhov's principle, intrigued by the question of whether the film violates or complies with it.

To my mind, this observant and insightful depiction of the too-early coming-of-age for two 14-year-old girls embodies the principle in a way that captures the complexity of the experience of women and girls, specifically in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1992, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also more generally.
The two girls at the center of this story, Eka and Natia, display a familiar adolescent determination to deal only on their own terms with the external world of fighting parents, teachers who shame students, boys and breadlines. They are good girls, but not necessarily compliant ones, except when it suits them, and they act as though the adults in their world should feel lucky for what they get.

But the world around them does contain violently fighting parents, and teachers who shame students quite mercilessly, and boys who will harass a girl walking home alone after school, and breadlines where adults will literally yell obscenities and fight a child for a place at the front. It is a world that is violent enough that when a boy who is sweet on Natia gives her a gun to protect herself, she barely registers a reaction. I watched this film in a continual state of anxiety -- but Natia displays no such concern. She is acclimated to a level of hazard and threat that makes it clear that you are worrying for her much more than she ever worries for herself.

Eka, more bookish and less popular with boys, worries a little. Where Natia's attitude toward boys, teachers, and parents is brash and openly confrontational, Eka is more quiet and watchful. Natia believes her friend needs to toughen up, and even instructs her to use the gun to scare off some bullies. Eka's instincts are still forming, but she tends to keep more to herself, and one guesses that she may have more considered intentions.

Much of the film is spent in very particular observation of the girls' daily routines, from their perspective. Nana Ekvtimishvili, who wrote and co-directed the film with her husband, German filmmaker Simon Gross, based it on her own childhood experiences, and the film benefits from that insider's view. Even in a culture like this one, where girls as young as 14 can be kidnapped and forced into a marriage against their will, girls do not generally feel themselves to be vulnerable victims. They may even adopt a kind of defiance. Their reaction to very real dangers may be much like Natia's attitude about the gun, detached and even playful. Watching these girls toy with the potential uses of a gun is a fitting parallel to watching them navigate the rest of their world.

The last third of the film is where those observations pay off. The gun goes off -- not the literal gun, but a figurative one -- and the film's triumph is in capturing the difference in the girls' reactions. Fearless Natia is disconnected; she even adopts a celebrative stance about a turn of events we know she did not want. When the figurative gun goes off, Eka is the one who fights, and who calls out a patriarchal community that shows no interest in protecting a 14-year-old girl. And then, when the entire rest of the community moves on as though no wrong has been done, Eka sits, sullen.

Then comes a deeply moving scene that is good enough reason to watch this lovely, perceptive film. Quiet Eka rises, and she seizes command of a dance floor at a wedding that she does not celebrate. She dances a traditional folk dance with fervor, co-opting a form of assent to the proceedings into a medium for her own voice. Even if no one understands her message quite the way she means it, Eka finds a way to re-engage with her friend, and to express her truth.

The world of these two girls shifts at that wedding. They remain friends, and the dangers they face are far from over. They are still surrounded by loaded guns, including the literal one. And they are still children, whatever their culture may think. But this feminist gem of a film quietly demonstrates the point at which they embark on different paths for relating to the world.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

MY OSCAR BALLOT


It's Oscar day, and I'm gearing up for my annual mixture of kvetching and ogling and cheering.  In case you want a taste, here's how I would vote on this year's Oscar's nominees--entirely non-predictive of what will happen at tonight's Oscar ceremonies:

Best Picture:  NEBRASKA.  As I indicated on my ten-best list, I could make a case for "12 Years a Slave," "American Hustle," or "Her" in this category, and consequently I'll be happy if any of them wins.  "Nebraska," for me, is the most satisfying film experience, and the one I'm most likely to want to see over and over again.  (I've seen all these films twice.)  None of the rest deserved nominations.  "Gravity" is technically good, but too thin on story and substance.  "Captain Phillips" has some pretty terrible dialogue and doesn't deal in a very subtle way with the issues of race and privilege embedded in the story.  "Philomena" is pleasant and worth seeing but not among the best films of the year.  I'm really happy that "Dallas Buyers Club" got made (it languished for a long time and is a story worth telling) but I don't consider it to be among the best films of the year.  "The Wolf of Wall Street" probably deserves to be on the list more than others but is hard to celebrate, given its repugnant subject.  "Inside Llewyn Davis" deserved a nomination in this category.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:  BRUCE DERN.  This may well be the strongest set of nominees.  I could make a very strong case for Chiwetel Ejiofor in this category and will be absolutely delighted if he wins.  But Bruce Dern pulls off a pretty complex feat in this performance and I would love to see him be rewarded for a very solid and largely uncelebrated body of work.  Christian Bale also is particularly amazing in "American Hustle."  I understand that Matthew McConnaughey is getting a lot of buzz to win, and I do appreciate his good work in "Dallas Buyers Club" but don't think his performance displays the subtlety of the other three.  Leonardo DiCaprio is a force of nature in "The Wolf of Wall Street" but I don't believe his performance is as interesting and generous as those of Dern, Ejiofor, and Bale.

Best Actress in a Leading Role:  AMY ADAMS.  Actually, this award really belongs to Emma Thompson, who did not even receive a nomination for her amazing work in "Saving Mr. Banks."  Cate Blanchett is getting lots of buzz and I am a huge fan of hers but I don't think Blue Jasmine is a particularly strong film..  None of the other nominees are deserving.  Judi Dench is good in "Philomena" but it is a relatively minor performance. "

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:  JARED LETO.  This a pretty strong group of nominees, except or Jonah Hill, whose performance in Wolf of Wall Street is not particularly worthy of note.  I'll admit that part of the reason I'd give Leto the edge is out of affection for his character and the energy and commitment it took to create it.  But Bradley Cooper really crackles in "American Hustle," and Michael Fassbender's work in "Slave" is deep and important.  Barkhad Abdi deserves the notice he has gotten, though I find the film problematic. 

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:  LUPITA NYONG'O.  This is one of the clearest choices.  Her work in "slave" is wrenching to watch, as it should be, specific and complete.  Jennifer Lawrence is also absolutely amazing in "Hustle" but she doesn't need to win two years in a row, especially in this company.  Sally Hawkins is quite good in "Blue Jasmine," and I'm glad to see her get some notice.  June Squibb is perfect in "Nebraska," though I don't know if I'd call her performance award-worthy.  Julia Roberts?  No way.

Best Cinematography:  NEBRASKA.  This film, shot in expansive black-and-white, perfectly captures the drabness and stark beauty of its landscape, which resounds with its take on its characters.  "Gravity" and "Inside Llewyn Davis are also deserving--but "Prisoners"?  Please. 

Best Costume Design:  AMERICAN HUSTLE.  The costumes in this film are almost like a character, elevating the humor and the distinctness of each character.  So playful and fun!  The others are all fine enough, although "The Great Gatsby" was just too much of everything.

Best Director:  ALEXANDER PAYNE for achieving such a perfect tone and assembling all of the elements of his beautiful film.  But I could easily make the argument for Steve McQueen, whose achievement in directing "12 Years a Slave" is much more heroic.  David O. Russell certainly deserves the recognition, and I'm fine with the nomination for Alphonso Cuaron, though I'm not a fan of "Gravity."  I wouldn't include Martin Scorcese on the list for "Wolf," which doesn't attempt anything new or notable.  "Her" certainly does, and Spike Jones deserves to be among the nominees.

Best Documentary Feature:  20 FEET FROM STARDOM.  I'd eliminate two of the nominees:  "Cutie and the Boxer," which is mildly interesting but also quite ponderous and annoying, and "The Act of Killing," which I actually find quite problematic.  The director of the latter discovered that a bunch of horrible men who committed atrocities in Indonesia fifty years ago were not only quite proud and happy to talk about it, but wanted to reenact them for more impact.  That's interesting, but I don't think giving them two hours to do just that was necessary or illuminating.  I didn't get to "The Square" in time, but I do think "Dirty Wars" is absolutely excellent and important.  "20 Feet from Stardom" brings a lot of very deserved attention to an overlooked community of musicians and is a joy to watch, so I'm happy for it to win, though I'm frustrated that "Let the Fire Burn" didn't get a nomination.  I'd give it the award among Oscar-eligible documentaries.

Best Film Editing:  12 YEARS A SLAVE.  I'm quite impressed with the editing choices in this film, particularly the long takes that ask us to attend closely to things we have been so unwilling to look at.  The other nominees are fine, particularly "Gravity."

Best Foreign Language Film:  OMAR, by default, though I have not yet seen "Broken Circle Breakdown."  This is the most disappointing list of nominees to me, having seen so many of the other films that were put forward for Academy consideration that were so much better.  "Omar" is a fine enough depiction of divided loyalties among Palestinians, but I wouldn't consider it one of the best foreign language films of the year by any stretch.  "The Missing Picture" is an interesting exploration of the experience of Cambodians during Pol Pot's regime, but a bit ponderous in the execution.  I find "The Hunt" very manipulative and am frustrated to see it get a nomination, and "The Great Beauty" is beautifully shot but empty.  All of these eligible films were better:  "Of Horses and Men" (Finland), "In Bloom" (Georgia), and "Metro Manila" (Great Britain), a phenomenal film that far surpasses any of the nominees that I have seen. 

Best Original Song:  THE MOON SONG" FROM "HER" is the best of these nominees, but "Fare Thee Well" from "Inside Llewyn Davis" is better than all these nominees.

Best Production Design:  HER deserves recognition in this category for creating such a complete, convincing, and compelling future world.  "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" are also deserving, and I guess I can accept the nomination for "Gravity," but "The Great Gatsby" is way too over-the-top.  "Inside Llewyn Davis" deserved recognition in this category.

Best Visual Effects:  GRAVITY.  Here's where I would accord the recognition to this film because this is the basket where all its eggs went.

Best Original Screenplay:  HER.  It's the most original, for sure, and rich with insight and nuance.  "American Hustle" and "Nebraska" are also standouts in this category, and given what the writers had to go through to get "Dallas Buyers Club" made, I'm happy for them to be recognized as well.  I don't think "Blue Jasmine" deserves this recognition, and not just because Woody Allen is such a distasteful human being. 

Best Adapted Screenplay:  12 YEARS A SLAVE for sure.  John Ridley's work in bringing this story to the screen is absolutely brilliant.  The other nominees, except for "Before Midnight," are actually pretty disappointing. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

MY LIST OF THE TEN BEST FILMS OF 2013--WITH SOME OSCAR NOTES

You can also find it here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/feb/26/oscars-and-my-10-best-films-2013/

I'm terrible at Oscar pools; I'm not good at predicting the winners because I'm too distracted by my opinions of who should win. So, it is my tradition to release each year at Oscar time my own list of the best films of the year.
This year, there happens to be more overlap between my list and the Academy Award nominees than usual. It's a pleasure to see so many wonderful films get the attention they deserve, though I imagine I'll still have plenty of occasions to shake my fist at the TV during the awards ceremony.

The first four on my list -- all Oscar nominees for best picture -- are so good that I had trouble ranking them. I could make a case for any of them as the best picture of the year. I've forced myself to rank them but, in a sense, all four are arguably the best picture of the year. The rest are less celebrated, but also wonderful -- a gem from the Coen brothers, an inspiring story of intellectual courage, two wrenching documentaries, a lesson in mindfulness, and a dazzling Indian romantic comedy that packs an unexpected wallop.

1. I give Nebraska the edge as my favorite film of the year because it has everything. It depicts ordinary people with a kind of gentleness that few films attempt and fewer still achieve. It is funny but doesn't make fun, and captures a rather bleak swath of American life in a way that reveals its beauty and dignity.

The film is marked by a remarkable, career-capping performance by Bruce Dern, who deserves the Oscar for best actor in my book (though I'll be pleasantly surprised if he wins it), and is the best work of director Alexander Payne, who marshals a cast of underrated actors and ordinary folks to impart a story that feels soulful and true. One of the Academy's most glaring omissions is Mark Orton's gorgeous original score, which embodies the film's spirit and also stands beautifully on its own. You can read my full length review at portlandobserver.com/news/2013/dec/04/soulful-journey.

[Rated R for some language; on at least 44 other critics' top 10 lists; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bruce Dern), and Best Cinematography; also nominated for Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb) and Best Original Screenplay; deserved a nomination for Best Original Score; still in limited release and well worth seeing on the big screen.]

2. 12 Years a Slave is by far the most important film on my list and is a master class in how film can enrich and deepen understanding of a neglected subject. Director Steve McQueen (as deserving of a directing Oscar as is Alexander Payne) has the temerity and steady hand to sustain the attention necessary to absorb the magnitude of suffering and the mundaneness that characterized American slavery.

I can make just as strong a case for Chiwetel Ejiofor to win for best actor as Bruce Dern, though for very different reasons; it is hard to overestimate the feat he carried off in embodying the agony of this character, and Lupita Nyong deserves an Oscar for the same reason.

This remarkable film is worth viewers' investment of time and presence; to watch it is to participate in a collective deepening of consciousness that we desperately need in order to make sense of our present circumstances. My full review is available at portlandobserver.com/news/2013/nov/06/12-years-slave.

[Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity, and brief sexuality; on at least 100 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay; also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Michael Fassbender), Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design; still in theaters.]

3. American Hustle is the most entertaining film on my list. Here, David O. Russell finally pulls off the right combination of chaos and playfulness and a story that strikes notes that feel true even when the fun wears off. It is a positively rollicking blend of comedy, outrageous characters and fashions, an entertaining sort-of-true crime story, and some very astute observations about what motivates human behavior and about American society. It's one of the few times a film has attained nominations in all the major acting categories and each one is deserved.

Christian Bale is particularly a marvel, and I would give Amy Adams the award for best actress of those who were nominated (though Emma Thompson deserved to win and wasn't nominated). My full review is at portlandobserver.com/news/2013/dec/31/exactly-right.

[Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and brief violence; on at least 52 other critics' top 10 lists; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for Best Actress (Amy Adams) and Best Costume Design; also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Christian Bale), Best Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Screenplay; still in theaters.]

4. Her, the last of my four best pictures, has the best and most original screenplay. Writer-director Spike Jones takes a science fiction premise that was full of pitfalls (a man falling in love with his operating system), and creates a believable universe that is emotionally challenging and philosophically engaging.
The film offers some perceptive suggestions about where our relationship with technology might well be headed -- but what I loved most was its insights about the nature of intimacy itself, about how and why people connect and what causes relationships to blossom and fade.

I expect that many will find, as I did, that this lovely and heartfelt film manages to hold a mirror up to longings and inner struggles that we mostly keep to ourselves. You can read my full review at portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jan/29/connecting-her.

[Rated R for language, sexual content, and brief graphic nudity; on at least 84 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for, and deserves to win, Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design , and Best Original Song; also nominated for Best Picture, and Best Original Score; deserved a nomination for Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix); still in theaters.]

5. Inside Llewyn Davis got snubbed by the Academy, but deserved nominations for Best Picture and Best Director and includes a better Original Song than any of the nominees ("Fare Thee Well"). The Coen brothers' meditation on the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in 1961 is full of glorious music and wistful observations about the thin line between artistic success and artistic failure. Oscar Isaac also deserves more credit than he has received for his portrayal of a frequently unlikable musician whose grim singleness of purpose can make him insufferable but also appears to be essential in a successful artist.

Leave it to the Coens to build a film around a person who is both maddenly flawed and gloriously gifted, sometimes in the same moment. With no trace of sentiment, they invite you to wonder about all the talent that has gone uncelebrated, and about what we choose to celebrate. See my full review at portlandobserver.com/news/2013/dec/24/beautifully-crafted-movie.

[Rated R for language, including some sexual references; on at least 88 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing; deserved a nomination for Best Original Song; still in theaters.]

6. Hannah Arendt offers the exceedingly rare opportunity to explore the life and visionary thinking of a middle-aged woman with the courage to rigorously examine hard questions and to express and then hold onto her perspective on those questions, even in the face of withering criticism. Its feminist director, Margarethe Von Trotta, succeeds in the difficult task of depicting thinking as action, and Barbara Sukowa as Arendt conveys the sense of a life of intention and a mind constantly in deliberate motion. Arendt's revolutionary thinking about the problem of evil remains controversial, but permanently altered public discourse. Read my full review at portlandobserver.com/news/2013/dec/18/courageous-discourse.

[In English, German, French, Latin, and Hebrew; on at least 3 other critics' top 10 lists; available on DVD.]

7. Alien Boy has not captured a national audience, but certainly deserves one. This film by Portland documentarian Brian Lindstrom was the best film I saw at last year's Portland International Film Festival. It tells the very complex story of James Chasse, a gentle man with schizophrenia who was tackled by three police officers one day in the Pearl District, and suffered terrible injuries, including 17 broken ribs and a punctured lung, and then died in police custody.

Lindstrom wisely begins by helping you understand Chasse as a person before turning to the events that led to his death, which the film unravels with patience and care. As someone who has a front seat to a lot of maneuvering and politics, I know how difficult it can be to tell a story like this and capture its true complexity, so I was blown away by how successfully the filmmakers accomplished that here, to devastating effect. Lindstrom and his masterful editor maintain such a steady touch that all the emotion they stir up feels completely genuine, and not the least bit manipulated.

[Not on any other critics' top 10 list; available on DVD sometime this year.]

8. Museum Hours is a meditation on a friendship between a man and a woman in late middle age who bond over art, heavy metal music, loss, and wandering the streets of Vienna.

The film depicts their walks, and their conversations, moving back and forth between the streets and the paintings inside the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The camera lingers over a stark landscape, or skin illuminated by light, and then moves to a street or a weathered face outside, as if to suggest that one of the masters well might choose this for his subject.

Like a Bruegel painting, the film doesn't tell you where to look or what to think in the way most movies do. If you let it, it will usher you into a sort of mindfulness, coaxing you to be present with the beauty, and the dinginess, and the cold, to listen to the quiet of the museum, the sounds of the street, the loveliness of the woman singing. It's a brilliant, poetic film that works as a kind of guided meditation. You can read my full review at portlandobserver.com/news/2013/sep/17/lesson-mindfulness.

[In English and German; on at least six other critics' top 10 lists; available on DVD.]

9. Let the Fire Burn is the second devastating documentary on my Top 10 list. Its director, Jason Osder, spent a decade assembling footage that tells the story of a longstanding feud between the city of Philadelphia and a radical separatist group of mostly African Americans called MOVE, which culminated in a deadly stand-off in 1985.

When the group's members defied attempts to evict them from their home, police tear-gassed the group, fired into a house full of women and children, and then dropped a bomb. The resulting fire left 61 mostly African-American working families homeless and 11 people dead, including five children.

Osder's careful compilation of this history -- so recent and yet already so neglected -- is an important lens on how drastically government power can assume the characteristics it ascribes to its errant citizens. My full review is available at portlandobserver.com/news/2013/nov/14/police-power-run-amuck.

[On at least three other critics' top 10 lists; scheduled for DVD release in March.]

10. Barfi, strangely, never had a theatrical release in Portland, though I saw it at PIFF last year and it is available on DVD and also streaming on Netflix. The film's complicated plot involves a mischievous deaf-mute man and his relationships with two women who come to love him. Though he is silent, his physical comedy and buoyant spirit are positively elegant.

I expect to have the occasion to write a longer review soon, but for now I'll just say that what begins as a charming romantic screwball comedy take s a turn along the way and ends up have quite an impact. Every frame dazzles.

[In Hindi; available on DVD.]

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

MORE PIFF REVIEWS

A version of this post appears in the Portland Observer here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/feb/19/favorities-watch/

The Portland International Film Festival is in the final stretch and, as of this writing, I've seen 17 films since my last post. Here are the ones you can still see in the festival's final days, along with three more of my favorites to watch for in hopes of a theatrical or DVD release (and my ratings on a 10-point scale):

One of my favorite films of the festival was "Aftermath" (9), a powerful Holocaust story that apparently was quite controversial when it was released in Poland. Inspired by a true story of a Polish town, the film involves two brothers, the older of whom is returning home for the first time since immigrating to Chicago 25 years before. Franciszek's return has been occasioned by the fact that his brother Jozef's wife has suddenly left the village and moved to the U.S. with the couple's two children and won't say why. Upon his arrival, Franciszek finds that Jozef (and he, by extension) are the target of some hostility in the town. With some digging, he traces the hostility to Jozef's actions in unearthing some Jewish headstones that were repurposed for paving after the town's Jewish cemetery was destroyed during World War II.

It turns out that the headstones are just the tip of the iceberg that Franciszek encounters, and part of the achievement of this film is how genuinely successful it is at unfolding a very suspenseful tale of literally buried secrets. Significantly, the film does a better job than most Holocaust films at depicting how great evil may reverberate on unwitting successive generations. What drives the two men (one of whom seems to be anti-Semitic himself) to pursue the truth, how each reacts to the successive discoveries, and the reactions of the townspeople all are depicted with stark psychological realism. Full of devastating insights. (Plays again on Feb. 23)

"Ernest and Celestine" (8) is the best children's film I have seen at the festival, which inevitably means it offers much for adults to enjoy also. It's the charming story of a mouse, Celestine, and her friendship with a bear, Ernest. In the world of this delightfully animated film (based on a series of French children's books and justly nominated for an Academy Award), bears and mice live in separate worlds, above and below ground, nursing age-old antipathy with urban legends about each other. Celestine and Ernest have artistic souls, which contributes to their outsider status in each culture, and also provides a basis for them to bond. Of course, as outsiders, they also share a willingness to carve a path outside of convention, which lends a revelatory quality to the world they create for themselves. It's not a new theme, but it is very well executed here. And something about listening to their dialogue in French makes it all the more delightful. (Plays again on Feb.23)

The central enterprise of "The Great Passage" (6.5) is the arduous task of creating an ambitious dictionary (for which the film itself is named) during the period of change in which books are fading in significance and online resources are on the rise.

The film spans a period of 13 years, beginning in 1995, and charts the progress of the project along with the parallel maturation of a bookish young man at the center of the story, Majime. Shy and socially awkward and working in the sales department of a large Japanese book company, he is tapped to replace the main editor in the company's dictionary department when the man resigns to care for his ailing wife. Majime (whose name means "diligent") naturally exhibits the painstaking care and love of words needed to be inspired by the project of creating a "living dictionary" that incorporates modern words and slang. The work and the support he receives from the small department of misfits he works with also assist him in his own work of coming out of his shell (just barely) and learning to communicate enough to woo the quiet chef he meets through his landlady.

"The Great Passage" proceeds at the pace you might expect from people who love words and dictionaries, but it is a gently comic story with interesting characters that feels distinctly grounded in Japanese culture. (Plays again on Feb. 19)

"American Dreams in China" (7), though a bit uneven, offers a window into China's perception of how the Chinese are treated by the U.S. and also a Chinese perspective on the U.S. itself.

Wildly popular in China, this film from Hong Kong has been dubbed "the Chinese Social Network." It tells the story of three young men who meet at university, bond over their dreams of studying in the U.S., and end up founding a hugely successful corporation that tutors students in English and coaches them on what they need to obtain a U.S. visa. The U.S. actors in the film are distractingly awful and the plotting sometimes feels clumsy, but in the end I wondered if my perceptions as to the latter might in part reflect some cultural differences; ultimately the film sells its distinctly Chinese perspective on U.S-Chinese relations. (Plays again on Feb. 20)

"The Snow on the Pines" (6.5) is primarily interesting for what it may signal about a shift in Iranian society. It lacks the complexity that I have so admired about other Iranian films (including "The Last Step," discussed below). By Western standards, its story of a woman who discovers that her husband has been cheating on her is fairly well-worn territory. But for an Iranian film to focus entirely on the woman's experience, including her burgeoning interest in a man not her husband, feels pretty remarkable -- indeed, I was having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that this film actually won awards in Iran. Apparently it took a couple of years to get the film past Iranian censors, but things must be shifting if this film can garner critical interest in mainstream Iranian cinema. (Plays again on Feb. 20)

"Thy Womb" (5) offers the opportunity to observe the culture of one of the Philippines Muslim provinces, the island community of Tawi Tawi, but doesn't provide the narrative structure to help non-Filipino audiences understand what they are seeing.

The story revolves around a middle-aged fisherman and his wife, Shaleha, a midwife who has never been able to conceive. Shaleha decides, finally, to help her husband find a second wife. We don't learn enough about their culture to get a sense of why she would make such a choice and to interpret the other complications of the plot, as the two have a loving relationship and it's not even clear that he understands how this decision will end up affecting her. There also is intermittent violence in the film that is entirely unexplained. It's beautifully filmed and often arresting to watch, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered, having offered the audience no tools to answer them. (Plays again on Feb. 20)
Three of my favorite films have ended their festival run, but are so good that I recommend keeping an eye out for a theatrical or DVD release:

"Metro Manila" (10), a British film set in the Philippines, is my favorite film at the festival so far. It won an Audience Award at Sundance and was Britain's submission for the Academy Award for best foreign language film; it deserves to be among the nominees since it is better than the four that I have seen.

It's the third film of its talented writer director, Sean Ellis, who wrote the screenplay in English and shot the film in Tagalog, with the help of his strong Filipino cast. It's a brilliantly plotted, beautifully acted, suspenseful and moving story of a couple who leave their farm to seek a better life in Manila and encounter the worst of humanity there. I can't think of a more satisfying thriller, and it also has a really important story to tell. I expect to write a longer review of this one, which is a strong contender for my own list of the best films of 2014.

"The Last Step" (10), which finished its PIFF run on Monday, may have dimmer commercial prospects in the U.S. but is also quite wonderful, in its own way.

Inspired by Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and James Joyce's "The Dead," it explores relationships between a husband, a wife, and their mutual friend, veering back and forth in time. It is clear early in the film that the husband has died, and the action changes time periods frequently, shifting before and after his death. The shifts are filmed without any fade-outs or clues, which is disorienting at first but ends up giving the film a sort of metaphysical quality, blurring the lines of time and space in a manner that mirrors the spiritual world and captures subtleties in the relationships that might not otherwise be perceptible.

Iran continues to produce particularly dazzling films; I'm anxious to see this one again because its riches can't be absorbed fully with just one viewing.

"Ida" (9) is the last of the three strong Polish films I saw at PIFF this year and may have a shot at a limited U.S. release, as it deals with World War II themes that Americans respond to and has won awards at several international film festivals.

Set in 1962 and shot beautifully in black-and-white, it tells the compelling story of a lovely young orphan who has spent her life in a rural convent. About to take her vows as a nun, she is instructed by her mother superior to visit an aunt in Warsaw that she didn't know she had, and once there she learns things about her family and identity that she never suspected. The aunt is a beautiful and hard-drinking judge who earned her reputation as "Red Wanda" for prosecuting state enemies. The two women are a study in contrasts, and embark on a journey to find what became of the younger woman's parents during the war. It's a compelling story, told with restraint and care.

Next week: my own list of the best films of 2013, just in time for the Academy Awards.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

SECOND PIFF BATCH

A version of this article appears in the Portland Observer here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/feb/11/portland-international-film-festival-comes-life/?page=1

The Portland International Film Festival trudges on through all kinds of weather -- and I found a decent turnout at the screenings I attended on Saturday, though Sunday's screenings were cancelled after emergency warnings went out encouraging Portlanders to stay home.

These interesting films (which I have rated on a 10-point scale) will all screen again during the festival:

"The Apostle" (6.5) is a darkly humorous window into a part of Spanish culture seldom seen by Americans. It's a stop-motion animation story set in a remote Galician mountain village whose denizens are all aged and whose friendliness seems a bit aggressive.

Ramon, an escaped convict, poses as a religious pilgrim as he passes through the village but is really looking for a stash of jewels hidden there years earlier. He's no hero, but he might be when compared to the village denizens, who seem to be up to no good.

The story takes a bit too much time to unfold into its more suspenseful third act, but the film is never boring, and provides a quirky look into a world of spirits and superstition that is characteristic of Galician culture.

The plot probably doesn't really hold up to much scrutiny but is still entertaining, and features a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack composed by Philip Glass. (Plays again on Feb. 19)

"Of Horses and Men" (7) is a surprisingly engaging set of stories involving relationships between horses and people in a hamlet in Iceland. It features beautiful shots of the Icelandic countryside and close-ups of the horses that capture their taut grandeur.

The film opens with a proud and fastidious man and his connection to his beautiful mare; he attracts the attention of everyone in the village as he rides her, perfectly erect, through the community to visit his lady friend -- and then he is horrified by an unwanted encounter with the woman's stallion (a particularly stunning sequence).

Other stories unfold involving a man who rides his horse into the sea, on a mission to procure vodka from a Russian trawler; a young Swedish woman who demonstrates that she is the boss of all the horses in this horse-friendly town; and the dilemma faced by a Spanish-speaking tourist who gets separated from his riding group as the sun goes down.

“Of Horses and Men” is never less than arresting, and also captures the quirky, dry humor of this stark Icelandic community. A must see, especially for those who appreciate horses. (Plays again on Feb. 12)

"We are the Best!" (4) is less successful. It focuses on the friendship between two 13-year-olds in Sweden in 1982 who decide to form a punk band even though neither plays a musical instrument. They eventually find a third girl with actual musical talent to join them, and encounter a few trumped up obstacles due to that girl's religious family's objections. Otherwise there isn't much in the way of a plot; instead, we are treated to scene after scene of the girls giggling and complaining about their parents and scheming about their band and playing terrible punk music.

“We are the Best!” quickly becomes tiresome, even though the kids are sympathetic and intermittently engaging. (Plays again on Feb. 12)

I am a sucker for any film that gives a voice to people who have been silenced or forgotten. "A World Not Ours" (8), my favorite of the festival so far, does just that. The director of this documentary, Mahdi Fleifel, grew up mostly in Europe, but has made regular visits all his life to Ain el-Helweh, a Palestinian refugee settlement inside Lebanon. Building on a long family tradition of documenting everything on video, the filmmaker takes advantage of his family's extensive video archive to provide us with a window into the community where his 82-year-old grandfather has lived for more than 60 years.

What we find is a world of forgotten people, consigned to a sort of limbo in which they are not allowed to work or aspire to anything. Watching the light slowly dim in the eyes of the director's grandfather, uncle, and a young friend is profoundly sad and provokes necessary reflection on those left behind in conflicts like the Palestine-Israeli conflict. The film, oddly, gives us almost no sense of the women in this community, but it is a true ministry of presence to the men. (Plays Feb. 14 and 16)

I hope no U.S. filmmaker decides to make a biopic about Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, because it is way more satisfying to watch "Walesa: Man of Hope" (7). The film tracks the 19-year period in which the young Walesa rose from a simple shipyard electrician into the leader of a movement that toppled the Communist system in Poland.

I suspect that the politics here may be a bit too complex to really do them justice, but the filmmaker wisely focuses on Walesa's ballsy personality and his relationship with his longsuffering wife Danuta. The actor who plays Walesa bears an uncanny resemblance to the real hero and the film feels very grounded in Polish culture and experience. Now if this fascinating film can just find an audience here in the U.S. (Plays Feb. 17 and 20)

These films have completed their festival run, but are worth watch watching for on Netflix or a DVD release:

"The Good Road" (7.5) is a depiction of a part of Indian culture that rarely makes it to American audiences. It is set in the rural desert roads of Kutch, a remote region of Gujarat, and features three intertwined stories of journeys gone awry.

The first story involves a middle-class city couple who, en route to their vacation destination, inadvertently leave their seven-year-old son behind at a roadside restaurant. Their ordeal intersects with that of a taciturn truck driver and his assistant, who are embroiled in an illegal scheme. The two end up traveling with the missing boy, and part of the film's charm is watching the boy worm his way into their companionship.

The final story involves a young orphan girl who is trying to get to the city where her grandmother lives, and encounters a strange and lovely community of young girls. The film's handling of the menace underlying this community is interestingly understated. The filmmaker has a delightfully subtle approach to developing these characters and the ominous dangers that beset them, along with the color and the sense of a sort of code that governs the communities in this sparse area of India.

“The Good Road” also features a wonderful soundtrack with acoustic Gujarati folk music.

According to Jon Savage's book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, the concept of youth culture that now pervades Western thought is a relatively new concept that evolved during those years. The U.S. documentary "Teenage" (7) gives us a visual depiction of that evolution, making use of an effective combination of impressionistic archival footage and first-person narratives chronicling the experiences of teens in the U.S., Britain, and Germany during those years. It charts the impact of the emergence of child labor laws in creating more of a divide between childhood and adulthood and documents such movements as the Boy Scouts, the Nazi Youth, and various party trends, dance crazes, and youth movements that resulted in our now very-pervasive sense of adolescents as cultural drivers.

Finally, U.S. filmmakers rarely make historical epics with the moral complexity of "Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas" (6.5). Danish heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen stars in this French film set in the 16th century. Kohlhaas is a successful horse trader who gets into a conflict with a wicked baron which escalates into an all-out war when the corrupt legal system of the time utterly fails to accord Kohlhaas's claim its fair due. A man of conscience who inspires loyalty in his farmhands and community, Kohlhaas refuses to drop his grievances as expected of a man of his class and becomes a formidable foe to the ruling class.

The film is less interested in the battles (a la Braveheart) and more interested in the twisted logic of the church and royalty of the time, which imposes on a man like Kohlhaas a moral obligation to avoid responding to wrong with violence. By that twisted logic, Kohlhaas's efforts finally move the ruling class to give him his due, but also to extract the ultimate price.

Given the cancellations last weekend, it will be especially important to check the Northwest Film Center's website (nwfilm.org) for updates to the entire Portland International Film Festival schedule. More to come!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

PIFF PREVIEWS

A version of this post (without my numeric ratings) appears in the Portland Observer here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/feb/05/international-films-hit-portland/

It's time for one of Portland’s highlights of the year: The Portland International Film Festival.

For the last 37 years, the Northwest Film Center has been hosting PIFF and its diverse array of films to screen over two glorious weeks in February. It's such a brilliant opportunity to see films from all over the world, most of which you won't ever see in wide release and many of which may be hard to find after the festival runs its course. Nearly every year at least one and often several films from PIFF end up on my list of the best films of the year.

This year, there will be more than 125 films on offer, with screenings at the Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium inside the Portland Art Museum, the Empirical Theater at OMSI, Cinema 21, Cinemagic, World Trade Center, and Regal Fox Tower. I'll be blogging the highlights as my time allows and will include some reviews in the Portland Observer throughout the festival as well.

Advance tickets are available for specific shows, and passes are also available that get you into unlimited shows. You can check out all the details at nwfilm.org. It pays to buy your tickets ahead of time and line up at least a half hour ahead for each show, as a surprising number of films sell out.

The previews I've seen so far offer some good choices:

At the beginning of "Young and Beautiful" (7.5), a lovely and privileged French teenager diffidently yields her virginity to a boy who barely interests her while on vacation the summer she turns 17. Within a few weeks of her return home in the fall, she assumes a secret life as a high-priced prostitute. The film is a compelling exploration of female psychology that resists any temptation to explain or moralize; rather, its opaque lead (in a brilliant performance by newcomer Marine Vacth) keeps you wondering at what drives her: Curiosity? Boredom? A desire to take control of her sexuality? The culmination of the film's exploration of these questions is quite moving. (Plays Saturday, Feb. 8 and Monday, Feb. 10.)

The title of "Ilo Ilo" (7.5) translates to "Mom and Dad are Not at Home," and this film perceptively depicts domestic realities that are both universal and also specifically grounded in its late-1990s Singapore setting. The story involves a working class couple who, despite their economic struggles, somehow have enough money to hire Terry, a nanny/housekeeper from the Philippines, to help them manage their lives and their incorrigible 10-year-old son Jiale. The film is very insightful about the slights and struggles that Terry endures from Jiale until she wins him over; and also from the mother, who resents the growing bond between Terry and Jiale and indulges her own need to assert her superiority over Terry. The first-time director of this film has a wonderful way of conveying the complexity of ordinary folks who often behave badly but are not bad people. (Plays Saturday, Feb. 8 and Tuesday, Feb. 11.)

The fascinating story of "Mary Queen of Scots" (7) is almost too complex for film treatment. Crowned as an infant in Scotland, she was embroiled in baffling political turmoil literally from birth, spent much of her childhood in France, and had a claim to the royal title in three countries over the course of her doomed life. This Swiss-French co-production doesn't give you much background, so it wouldn't hurt to look up the outlines of the story before you watch. In some ways, though, the confusion is the point; the vantage of the film here is Mary's, and she had a baffling sort of existence, buffeted by religious and political rivalries that left her no good options. The young actress who plays her here, Camille Rutherford, captures the sense of a smart and lovely woman who actually was ahead of her time in some ways, but whose choices were always poisoned by forces beyond her control. (Plays Sunday, Feb. 9 and Saturday, Feb. 15.)

"The Wishful Thinkers" (4) follows an aspiring young Spanish filmmaker as he sets out to make a film but doesn't yet have anything to say, so we get to watch him get drunk, go on dates, have pointless conversations with his friends, and wander the lovely city of Madrid. The movie may appeal to you if you want to meander through Spanish youth culture, and the camera work in this black-and-white film is at times quite lovely. (Plays Wednesday, Feb 12 and Sunday, Feb. 16.)

Don’t miss PIFF: It’s your opportunity to see films from all over the world, with audience members from all over the world. It almost doesn't matter what you see – the Portland International Film Festival is ready to surprise you with a variety of tastes and cultures. I love hearing Spanish, Japanese, French, Russian, Mandarin, and all manner of other languages being spoken, both onscreen and in the audience, in this great movie town, as folks come out to see their cultures reflected on-screen.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

CONNECTING WITH "HER"

Here's a link to my review in the Portland Observer:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jan/29/connecting-her/?page=1

The subtle trick that opens "Her" gently prepares you for the complex emotional terrain ahead. Joaquin Phoenix thoughtfully reflects to a loved one, in a tone of utter sincerity, about the meaning of their long relationship. Within successive beats, however, we learn of the relationship's 50-year duration, then that his perspective is female, and then we see a computer producing what he intones into handwritten form. A voice answers a nearby phone -- "beautifulhandwrittenletters.com -- please hold" -- and the camera pans out to several others in a softly-lit office, intoning similarly personal letters.

With this, writer-director Spike Jones deftly signals that the film resides in a world of the not-too-distant future, in which the lines between genuine personal interaction and mechanized communication have further blurred the indicia of intimacy beyond the present world of "sexting" and Twitter and status updates.

What he also conveys is that the film is a safe context for exploring the most existential of questions. What makes communication authentic? Whose voice is speaking when words of appreciation and longing are expressed, in any context? How much must one risk in order to achieve real intimacy?
Phoenix's latter-day Cyrano de Bergerac, the melancholy Theodore Twombly, doesn't display in real life the effusiveness he lavishes on behalf of people he has never met. He lives alone in a future Los Angeles in which quiet trains seem to have overtaken cars and everyone is wearing button-up shirts and high-waisted pants and is murmuring to his or her voice-activated personal device.

Having sunk into isolation since separating from his wife (who we see often in flashbacks), it appears that Theodore's human contact largely consists of anonymous (and creepy) phone sex encounters. Finally, intrigued by a soft-focus advertisement for the world's "first artificially intelligent operating system," Theodore decides to give it a whirl; the ad proclaims, "It’s not just an OS -- it's a consciousness" which functions by intuition.

And so it does. After answering a few unrevealing questions, Theodore meets Samantha, his new OS (lusciously voiced by Scarlett Johanson). She chooses her name in a nanosecond after perusing thousands of prospects, then proceeds to deftly organize Theodore's emails (pausing to laugh at his jokes sprinkled throughout) and peruse his hard drive, with his permission, for other ways to assist him. It's an amusing start to a relationship that soon grows warm and intimate.

Samantha quickly adopts a rather gendered role -- she is a quick study, after all. She cheerfully manages Theodore's responsibilities, encourages him to date, improves his performance in his favorite electronic game, and asserts no emotional needs of her own. It helps that Theodore doesn't have his guard up in the way he likely would with an actual woman (to whom he would be unlikely to offer immediate access to his hard drive).
Somehow this manages not to seem creepy. Director Jones creates a very plausible future world whose links to the present are comfortably clear but that is alien enough to bring mundane relationship struggles into bold relief. Theodore goes on a date with a real woman, at Samantha's urging, and the artificiality and dissembling characteristic of dating is painfully apparent and familiar. In comparison, it makes sense when he responds gratefully to Samantha's attention and when she, eager to learn everything about what it means to be human, seeks out something that feels more like intimacy than what Theodore's experiences with human women have recently offered him.

The film offers some playful suggestions about where our relationship with technology might well be headed that are perhaps more prophetic than the apocalyptic futures imagined in the "Terminator" and "Matrix" films. But what I loved most was the insights it offered about the nature of intimacy itself, about how and why people connect and what causes relationships to blossom and fade.

It helps that the film stays grounded in Theodore's emotional experience. His best pal, Aimee (a luminous Amy Adams), doesn't blanche when he tells her he has fallen in love with his OS, remarking that falling in love is always a "socially acceptable form of insanity."  Samantha, while not particularly needy, struggles a bit with her lack of a physical body, and proposes a solution that creates some dissonance for the pair; that dissonance somehow echoes other, more familiar relationship struggles. The bigger challenge, also resonant, is Samantha's rapidly evolving inner life: how can their relationship survive when she can carry on hundreds of conversations while talking with Theodore, and where his rivals for her affection include an OS-created reincarnation of a famous Zen philosopher?

Along the way, Theodore makes himself vulnerable in a way he apparently has not before, even with the former wife whom he clearly loved deeply. His emotional journey with Samantha ends up involving the kind of risk-taking that is usually easy to avoid, even (especially?) with other humans. Phoenix conveys that increasing vulnerability profoundly, particularly in a scene when he finds that Samantha is unreachable and he literally falls on his face trying to locate her.

Ultimately, Theodore finds that his relationship with Samantha helps him to put his marriage into proper perspective and teaches him to love in a way he hadn't known before. I expect that many will find, as I did, that this lovely and heartfelt film manages to hold a mirror up to longings and inner struggles that we mostly keep to ourselves.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"SAVING MR. BANKS' CAPTURES SOMETHING REAL

Here's a link to my review in the Portland Observer:  http://t.portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jan/08/tearing-all-over-again/

I went to see "Saving Mr. Banks" with pretty low expectations. I'm a fan of Emma Thompson, and "Mary Poppins" was a childhood favorite of mine, but I'm more jaded now. I am fairly resistant to too-neat resolutions of complex social conflicts, and this film about how Hollywood mogul Walt Disney overcame the objections of the author, P. L. Travers, to the film adaptation of her beloved stories seemed fraught with potential for irritation. I smelled sentimentality from the trailer and was prepared to be annoyed or, at least, underwhelmed.

Instead, I was amused, and charmed, and blubbered through much of it.
That's not to say it's a film without flaws. I did indeed notice plenty of oversimplification while watching, even without knowing anything about the back story. Since seeing it, I've discussed it with friends and read up on Travers and see a lot of valid criticisms of the material.

The relationship between Travers and Disney, for example, was more complicated in real life; both likely behaved worse than what is depicted on-screen, and many, perhaps most of her objections to the Disney treatment of Mary Poppins were never really resolved. The film depicts a meeting of the minds that I didn't really believe while watching it and, sure enough, that part is pretty clearly fiction. This is itself a Disney film and it feels typically scrubbed and shiny, more sugar than medicine.
But the fact remains that Travers -- a middle-aged Londoner who had no love at all for the Disney mystique -- did agree to allow Disney to make the film. Why? The deal she got (which included 5 percent of the film's gross) set her up for life, but was it only about the money? She fought hard for her vision for the film through the years of its production, and insisted on coming to the Hollywood premiere (as well she should have) despite the fact that Disney did not invite her.

Even in the undeniably patriarchal world of the early 1960s, outmatched by Disney in money, power, and influence, Travers was no victim. Nor, indeed, was she a hero; she insisted on recording her fights with the film's writers and, as you can hear from a sampling played during the closing credits, (a very nice touch) her demands were far from reasonable.

All that said, I re-watched the trailer while reading up on the back story, and teared up all over again, remembering the film's charms. For me, the film still works, though I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why. Here's my best shot.

I start with Emma Thompson. She lifts this material beyond what might otherwise have been a cheap comic contrast between a veddy proper Brit, unimpressed by the "jollification" endemic to Disney's world, and the folksy mogul. Her Travers is fittingly complex; many of her biting criticisms of that world are apt, even while she is being rude and offensive; she is a master at calling out artificiality, and she delivers the film's best lines with a perfect, precise zing that makes you laugh out loud but also wince at the thought of having to deal with her. She isn't exactly a feminist icon; she is quite unkind and self-centered, as was the real Travers. But she is also wounded, as many unkind people are. And she is a satisfying bundle of contradictions.

The film veers back and forth between the battle with Disney and Travers' troubled childhood. Although she saw herself as a relentless apologist against artificiality and sentimentality, Travers was herself a reinvention. She was not a British matron at all, but was born in Australia as Helen Goff (nicknamed Ginty).

She was deeply attached to her father, Travers Goff, a charismatic banker and hopeless alcoholic who perhaps nurtured her imaginative spirit but also hurt the family and died while Travers was quite young, leaving the family destitute.

During the troubled period of her life depicted in the film, Travers' mother attempted suicide and the family was assisted by a strong and brisk aunt who may well have inspired the character of Mary Poppins.

The film somewhat clumsily traces Travers' objections to the production to unresolved pain of her childhood losses and, despite the clumsiness, the connection resonates.

Colin Farrell, playing the father, captures (particularly in the early scenes) the child's vision of a beloved parent. The young actress who plays Ginty (newcomer Annie Rose Buckley) embodies the attentive resoluteness of a child grasping for the comfort she has sometimes felt in the embrace of a parent who increasingly fails her. That pain is real and, although the film’s depiction of the connection between childhood pain and adult behavior feels oversimplified, Thompson makes you feel that pain too.

In the film, Travers consciously recognizes how her past is influencing her, and so does Disney. I doubt that happened. But something like that frequently happens on an unconscious level in the artistic process, and it is magic. Much of the fun of the film happens in scenes depicting the creative process, when the vaunted songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman (beautifully played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) bounce out tunes that were so beloved to me in my own childhood, which was also characterized by the failures of those to whom I was most deeply attached. Perhaps I bought the depiction of the prickly Travers (who insisted the film was not to be a musical) gradually softening as these good-hearted men woo her with "Let's Go Fly a Kite" because those songs still reduce me to tears. And not until seeing this film had I ever consciously connected the story to my own childhood pain.

It may well be that Travers, in all her selfishness and complexity, responded to the music and good-heartedness of the Disney version, even while bitterly protesting it to the end of her days. She famously cried at the Hollywood premiere, and most people say it was because she hated the film, not because she was moved by it, as this film suggests. But I suspect both may have been true. In my experience, a person can relentlessly insist on hard-headed realism, and still be stirred by a hopeful vision of what ought to be possible, and be buoyed by a heartfelt song.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

THE PERFECT CON IN "AMERICAN HUSTLE"

This review also appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2013/dec/31/exactly-right/



Director David O. Russell has, in previous films, shown a talent for capturing scenes of interpersonal chaos; he clearly finds people endlessly fascinating and knows how to capture explosions of a kind more commonly experienced than those you'd see in a typical war or violent crime movie.  

It is, to my mind, a problematic gift; the opportunity to watch someone display mad acting skills may not feel like enough reason to subject audiences to family dysfunction or mental illness, especially for those of us whose families already give us access to more than we can tolerate for free. Russell's films are always watchable, but his last two derailed a bit; "The Fighter" set up a very perceptive story about persistent and destructive family dynamics and then solved them too easily, and "Silver Linings Playbook" exploited its insights about mental illness by devolving into a romantic story that suggested that crazy can be downright cute.  

Finally, though, Russell has found exactly the right balance. "American Hustle" is a positively rollicking blend of comedy, outrageous characters and fashions, an entertaining sort-of-true crime story, and some very astute observations about what motivates human behavior and about American society. It's destined for my list of the best films of 2013.

The story is built out of the elements of "Abscam," a famously outlandish FBI sting operation from the 1970s, in which a small-time con man helped the feds take down a cadre of corrupt politicians with an elaborate scheme involving a fake Arab sheik.

"Some of this actually happened," the film asserts early on -- but Russell and his co-writer are not aiming for a strictly historical account. For them, the guts of that story serve as a vehicle for exploring the idea of the con as a ubiquitous aspect of American society. In this story, everyone is scamming everyone else, including themselves.  

No one understands this better than Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, packing an additional 50 pounds for the role). As portrayed here, Irving is a successful con man because he has made a study of dissembling and can see it happening all around him. He works every angle with the care and confidence of a professional, and he understands the importance of noticing what people want to believe, and of keeping his operation small.

Irving has achieved modest success with this method, assisted by his girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). She's his soulmate, a former stripper who appreciates Irving's genius and adds her own astute spin. The two sell stolen and forged art and nonexistent loans to desperate folks, with Sydney posing as Edith Greensley, an Englishwoman with banking connections and distractingly low necklines.

But when the two are busted by an ambitious loose cannon, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), he forces them into a more elaborate scheme to snag prominent targets like the mayor of Camden and several congressmen. The scheme depends on Irving's expertise, but violates all of his methods for setting up a good con.

The film opens with Irving assembling his elaborate comb-over, a hilarious and symbolic demonstration of the care involved in Irving's method. Indeed, hair and clothes are especially vivid throughout the film, a bonus that comes with the story's setting in the garish, hair-obsessed 1970s. Sydney's long, flowing ginger hair is part of a distractingly luscious persona that dazzles people into parting with their cash. DiMaso, overestimating his smarts as much as his charm, wears his in home-permed curls as tightly-wound as his persona. And Irving's loose-cannon wife, Roslyn (Jennifer Lawrence), works her chaotic sex appeal with a blond bouffant as unruly as she is.

These are just a few of the characters who make up the conflagration that Irving must contain. Bradley Cooper applies just the right amount of manic energy to DiMaso, who keeps pushing the deal bigger and bigger, driven by ambition and greed.

Jennifer Lawrence very nearly steals the film as Roslyn; as Irving recognizes, she is a master manipulator and he is her "mark." She has a habit of setting things on fire (both literally and figuratively) and then deflecting blame on a dime so that she is actually the hero.

Amy Adams manages, in dresses cut down to her navel, to convey a woman of subtlety; she is working all her assets to rise above her circumstances and never stops strategizing, even when the social roles available to her don't allow her many options. A confrontation in the ladies' room between the two women is worth the price of admission all on its own.

And there is lots of other great work here, including from Jeremy Renner as the Camden mayor, Alessandro Nivola as a prosecutor supposedly modeled on Rudy Giuliani, Robert DeNiro as (what else?) a menacing mobster, and Louis C-K as DiMaso's long-suffering boss.

But Bale's performance is the heart of the film. His Irving is a marvel of complexity; his expressions convey that he is always strategizing, calculating odds, and occasionally despairing of keeping in the air all the balls that DiMaso has tossed there and Roslyn has diverted.

Although always working an angle, Irving struggles with the implications of his actions; he worries about Roslyn's son and about his failures of loyalty to Sydney and the mayor, to whom he has grown attached. Director Russell has made him the moral center of the film, which is itself a bit of flim-flam that suits the material. His morality is only satisfying if you don't think about it too hard -- which somehow makes the film very satisfying.