Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ARTISTIC STRUGGLE IS WORTH IT IN "FAMILY ALBUM"

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/23/family-album/]

If you like your musicals upbeat and buoyant, with a linear plot trajectory, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's world premiere production of "Family Album" may be a stretch. It's messy, feels a little rough in spots, and grapples with some big themes in a very nonlinear way. But if you can set aside your typical expectations and simply go on the ride where this production takes you, it is a ride worth taking.

OSF commissioned this work from Stew and Heidi Rodewald, whose prior musical, "Passing Strange," garnered critical acclaim. They are rock musicians with an ear for popular culture and outsider voices, and theater could use a lot more attention to voices that don't enjoy dominant culture privilege.

One thing I have learned to love about people who feel themselves to be outsiders (having regular occasions to walk in those shoes myself), they often don't feel constrained to follow the unwritten rules for whatever setting or genre they have landed in. Perhaps those rules don't fit the stories they want to tell -- or perhaps they don't know they are violating any rules. I make a practice of listening to the stories of people who feel themselves to be outsiders and sometimes it can be disorienting and challenging. What are they trying to say? Is there a point here somewhere? Often there is a period of confusion or even irritation before I realize -- surprisingly often -- that this person has something to teach me, and the circuitous journey may well have been as important as the destination.

I thought of such conversations while experiencing "Family Album." It takes a while to wind-up. The cast members are all stretching beyond their comfort zones, either because they are musicians with little theater experience or actors with some uneasiness about performing in this rock-musical setting. No one is exactly in his or her wheelhouse. The story isn't overly complex -- a band led by aging rockers is about to play a major gig as the opening act to a popular young group in Madison Square Garden and stops in to crash at the posh Brooklyn home of two former bandmates who have found more conventional financial success, which rekindles old loves and old rivalries and big questions about the trade-offs of different kinds of success. But though the music is crisp and the cast is talented, the plot meanders and I occasionally wondered what edges we were walking and why.

But the payoffs did come. I found myself sinking into deeper questions about what a struggle it is to do anything really authentic. The characters' loyalties shift and all values are open to question: What kind of success can one really aim for as an artist? A large audience? An internet following? An idea that is truly original? A good brand? What is the point of having a family or a long-term relationship? Intimacy? The chance to replicate yourself? To shape another human being? Where is the room for artistic expression inside a family? Is that important? What is a family? What is an audience? Is an audience good for art? Or is your art better if it is underappreciated and misunderstood?

As the characters wrestle with these and other questions, a kind of energy builds around them. The songs begin to go deeper. By the time these lines are sung, I was all the way in: "She taught me a thing/about the balls you bring/and how it's probably worth it every time/ to hit the fucking stage/and free your poem from its cage/and you don't give a damn if it rhymes./ I'm sayin' if you're gonna take it/ to a place where we can make it/ we've gotta leave illusions behind. / And it might get us in trouble, or burst somebody's bubble / but it's probably worth it every time.'

Those lines are earned. What has played out on the stage is the struggle itself. The journey of this play is the struggle for authentic expression, in art and in relationships. It is hard work, and it is messy. It often doesn't feel successful. Except that the struggle itself is, in some sense, the point of the struggle.

It feels oddly right to embody that struggle in the context of a rock musical that doesn't quite fit into our usual ideas of theatrical genre, with a multiracial cast of people trying, in many cases, to work in a form that is a bit of a stretch. With each performance, I suspect it feels like kinks are being worked out, but it’s hard to say if they are even kinks or just part of the wondrous act of creation that is the very dilemma at issue.

Daniel T. Parker's performance as the Brooklyn couple's precocious kid especially blew me away, and the music, particularly the piercing lyrics by Stew, are funny and often surprisingly deep. I am waiting for a cast album, particularly so I can have another laugh at the kid's song about a Ken doll who likes men and resents always being stuck with Barbie ("I'd prefer G.I. Joe/ but any able-bodied man-doll would surely do/ just someone to love / cuz I am not set up to screw."

There is a lot to admire here and -- as with all conversations at the margins and playing with the whole idea of margins -- the struggle is, indeed, worth it.

“Family Album” plays through Aug. 31 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. For a full schedule, visit osfashland.org.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

CONNECTING, IN ALL ITS COMPLEXITY

[This review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/09/connecting/.]

There's nothing more important than family. I would never make the mistakes my mother made. People don't change. Much of what gets expressed about family and community in life and popular culture is full of absolutist thinking like that reflected in such statements. But the reality of community is much messier, less linear.

So is the world of family and community reflected in "Water By the Spoonful," a play by Puerto Rican-American playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes that played at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this past spring and resumes in September.
In the world of this play, communities (including families) are made up only of broken people. Young Elliot, recently returned from the Iraq war with a leg injury, is underemployed and caring for his aunt Ginny, who raised him when his biological mother (Ginny's sister Odessa) couldn't. Ginny is everything Odessa is not -- a true matriarch connected to place and community. Elliot seethes with nursed anger toward Odessa, a recovering crack addict living "one notch above squalor."

But the woman we meet isn't the one frozen in Elliot's memory. Odessa, who works as a part-time janitor, founded and administers a chat room for recovering addicts, and in that cyber world, she is a mama. Using the handle "Haikumom," she keeps the conversations safe, prods the participants to take care of themselves, and creates space for people at all stages of recovery.

Mother and son, however disconnected in life, are connected in ways neither recognizes. Elliot is wrestling with a secret addiction to painkillers, and is tormented by a brief missed connection during his time in Iraq that had tragic consequences. Odessa is five years clean, but her own pain over a tragic missed connection in Elliot's childhood jeopardizes her recovery, especially when Elliot refuses her grace that he needs himself.

Playwright Hudes, herself a musician, often finds musical inspiration for capturing the complicated rhythms of human interaction in her plays. Here she takes jazz as her inspiration--specifically the work of John Coltrane. His works, "A Love Supreme" and "Ascendance" feature a complex wall of sound that achieves a kind of transcendent dissonance. It's a fitting metaphor for attempts at connection among people who are in pain; who are worlds apart in age, geography, or experience; who are broken.

Elliot's cousin, Yaz, is a music professor who teaches about Coltrane. Disappointed in her life and relationships, she struggles with Elliot to care for an ailing Ginny and to make sense of her connection to the family, in the face of success that leaves her isolated in both the academic world and her home community.
The worlds and relationships in the play exist in a mixture of isolation and connection. Haikumom and her diverse chatroom family -- a young Japanese adoptee seeking to find her birth parents; a middle-aged IRS agent who has left behind any hope of reconnection with the family he failed, and an executive who minimizes his addiction -- reach, in fits and starts, to connect deeply. All have burned through relationships and long for a sense of belonging.

This production cleverly places the participants in these chatroom conversations on small islands on the stage, where they interact with energy but in isolation from each other. The visual captures a dynamic that arguably exists in all attempts at connection. The blood family of Elliot, Yaz, Odessa, and Ginny is an interesting contrast. How much does blood matter? Physical space? Is it easier to connect in the anonymity of a chatroom? Does that matter?

The play wrestles fruitfully with such questions. The characters -- addicts in all phases of recovery, the educated, the poor, the grieving, the unforgiven -- fail each other in small ways, reel from the pain of past failures, shut each other out, judge too harshly. But also, sometimes, they come through for one another. It's not didactic; there is no moral to the story. Rather, the play is a call to connection, and a depiction of just how messy and beautiful that can be.

You can catch "Water by the Spoonful" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland from September to November. Among the other terrific options at OSF this summer and fall are "The Cocoanuts" (a boisterous Marx Brothers' musical that feels hilariously contemporary); "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (delightfully staged with an all-female cast--what bliss to watch women sample the rich array of roles typically denied them!), and "Richard III" (featuring a wonderfully ruthless king with a biting wit).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF "IDA"

This review also appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jun/24/emotional-journey/

The Holocaust continues to be a popular film subject, but with ever more widely uneven results. To be sure, there are many worthy stories left to be told of courage and unrectified wrongs, and of the long-term effects of systemic evil on the human spirit. But many such films get derailed by complicated plots, or they plow old ground, thereby missing the universal questions lurking in stories of the Shoah.

"Ida," the first Polish-language film of British director Pawel Pawlikowski (a native Pole who has lived his adult life in the UK), avoids those pitfalls in part by keeping its focus particular. Its subject is an 18-year-old orphan, Anna, who has a lived a sheltered life in a rural convent and is preparing to take her vows to become a nun. It is 1962, and life in Soviet Poland is evidently austere, but especially so for solemn Anna. Her days are marked by work and quiet rituals, which she performs with devotion.

Anna is not happy when her Mother Superior tells her that she has one living relative, an aunt, whom she must visit before she takes her vows. The film demonstrates the confines of Anna's world, and her wish to remain inside them. Only duty could lure her outside the convent; she little imagines the duty to which she may be called once she ventures outside.

She travels to the city to meet her aunt, who is as different from Anna as it is possible to imagine. A former state prosecutor in the political show trials of the early 1950s, Anna’s only living relative came to be known as "Red Wanda," and presumably sent many people termed enemies of the Communist state to their deaths. Wanda is now a judge and a Communist party insider. She also is plainly as cynical as Anna is devout. After a brief encounter in which she bluntly tells Anna that she is a Jew, that her real name is Ida, and that her parents (including Wanda's sister) were presumably killed during the war, she sends Anna on her way, as though there is nothing more to be said.

At first ready to leave, Anna does so -- but soon turns back. She may lack the experience of her aunt, but she exhibits a kind of intuition that could well be assisted by years of spiritual practice. Wanda is ready for her. Anna strongly resembles the sister she lost 18 years before, and seems to have awakened something in her.
Neither woman displays any sentimentality, but Anna is curious. Wanda tells her of her mother's idealism and her artistic temperament. Anna wants to see where her parents are buried; Wanda advises her that it is unlikely there will be a grave to visit, but offers to take Anna to the home about which it seems she had not thought to be curious. They travel by car to the small community where Anna's parents lived, to find out what happened to them.

Soon, in encounters with local men who have succeeded in erasing members of her family, Wanda is demonstrating the ruthless interrogatory skills that she presumably honed as a state prosecutor. She needs them because, two decades after the war, no one is talking. It seems that all traces of Ida and her parents have disappeared--except Wanda knows different. Though she also has not been back in two decades, something about Anna's appearance on her doorstep has sparked in Wanda a determination as fierce as the energy she must have devoted to other pursuits.
 
Most of the film is devoted to the journey of the women to find what happened to Ida's parents. Wanda, rarely without a drink and a cigarette, is all hard edges, hardly a suitable protector. She is as devoted to materialism as her niece is to piety, invoking judicial immunity when she is arrested for drunk driving and attracting male attention more by habit than genuine interest.

The young woman clearly and frequently finds Wanda's behavior repellant, and resists her aunt's encouragement to seek out a little action since otherwise her chastity vows won't mean anything. Anna seems unaware of her effect on a young saxophonist, Lis, who Wanda picks up hitchhiking. But there are signs of a barely perceptible awakening in the understated novitiate, especially when she hears Lis playing John Coltrane.

There is, of course, a Holocaust story here, and it is a tragic one. The two women react to what they find with a shared determination to honor the memory of their lost family members. But in this spare film, the journey has its impact on each, deeply felt if not explained.

Pawlikowski shoots in black-and-white -- or, more accurately, luminous shades of gray. He uses long, still shots so carefully composed that they feel frameable, and often places his human subjects at the bottom of the screen, as if locating them within a larger expanse. We hear music only when the characters do, and it subtly conveys something of the spirituality of the setting; Polish pop music creates a hasty clamor to accompany the journey in Wanda's car, American jazz exerts its subtly subversive pull, and Wanda has a collection of classical LPs that provide glimmers of an inner life. Without seeming fussy, the film displays the subtlety and care of a Vermeer.

We sense huge shifts happening in both women, though this is more from the quality of the filmmaker's attention than from any overt psychologizing. If you let it, the film will leave you in a place of reflection -- about how a young person can unknowingly carry her family's history in her very bones; about what might drive a person to grab at power, even destructive power, in response to profound powerlessness. In a way, each woman has already been living in response to the deep losses she carries in her body.
The effect of the film's journey on Ida is unresolved. She attempts a return to take her vows, and finds that she cannot easily step back into her former life. It seemed to me that she had not so much lost her faith as found that it required her to struggle with different questions. Although perhaps without knowing it, Anna's mother superior has set her on a truer spiritual path.

[You can catch this lovely film at Livingroom Theaters in Portland, and it will be available on demand and on DVD in September.]

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

WORTH FINDING

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jun/04/finding-vivian-maier/]

Shortly after I wrote my last Portland Observer piece two months ago, I quite tragically lost my life partner, Stan Thornburg. (For those who are interested, I have written about Stan's passing on my blog at http://opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com/2014/05/complicated-grief.html). Among other things, my grief journey has given me occasion to reflect on the mysteries of the human soul -- and, also, on how remarkably uncurious people are about each other. So it seemed fitting, on my return to writing film criticism, to introduce you to a lovely documentary -- "Finding Vivian Maier" -- that probes those mysteries with vigorous curiosity that some have termed obsessive.
 
Five years ago, a young man from Chicago named John Maloof posted several hundred photos on Flickr that he had purchased in the form of undeveloped negatives at an auction. A veteran flea-market miner of discarded treasures since childhood, Maloof had an instinct that he had stumbled onto something, but cannily posed the question to the internet: "What do I do with this stuff?" The photos caused a stir, and quickly drew comparisons to important street photographers like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Helen Levitt.

Maloof -- who acknowledges that he is "obsessive about stuff" -- ultimately unearthed 100,000 negatives of the artist, Vivian Maier, along with a roomful of the scraps of memorabilia that she had collected over years of hoarding before she died in her 80s. Maloof missed Maier herself by a matter of months (though he stumbled onto her obituary), but he located many people who knew her, including the proprietor of a Chicago antique shop that she frequented who termed Maier "a real pain in the ass."

The documentary, which Maloof co-directed with Charlie Siskel (nephew of Gene), regards Maier with kindness, with wonder, with respect for her talent, but also for her individuality, for what she would have wanted, for what made her tick.

Who was this woman, really? Why did she take so many careful, beautifully crafted photographs, and never show her art? Did she recognize her talent? Was she lonely? Was her French accent real? Was she Vivian, Viv, Ms. Maier, or Miss Meyers?

"She was my nanny." Maier spent most of her adult life as a nanny to a string of families in Chicago's North Shore neighborhoods. The picture that emerges is inconsistent. Some of her now-adult charges describe her as playful and attentive. A certain quirkiness is evident. They remember the low-slung Rolleiflex camera that always hung around her neck. She took them on outings to the city -- but some of those outings included slums or even the stockyards. And some describe a woman who could be mercurial, or sharp, or even unkind.

Her employers worried about her. She was obsessively private, and seems to have shifted her identity slightly with each family. She demanded a lock on the door of her room and forbade any entry. One of her former charges remarks that she would never have allowed for the fame that has followed the release of her art.

Yet there is a kindness, an open-heartedness, even a capacity to connect that shines through in her photographs. The camera she used allowed her to photograph from her midsection, while she evidently maintained eye-contact with many of her subjects, and she poignantly captures their humanity. She was interested in the poor, the odd, the marginalized. Many of her subjects are people of color. Her pictures frequently inspire a rush of love.

Maier took a lot of self-portraits, and they are fascinating. They reveal a tall, somewhat awkward woman ("seven feet" says one of her former charges, before correcting herself), often wearing a long menswear coat and hat, yet also displaying a sense of style, an instinct for how to present herself. One wonders at this apparent loner's persistence in capturing arresting images that place her in the broader world.

The filmmakers don't attempt to sum Maier up, or resolve her contradictions. Instead, they attend to her. What some critics have called obsessive struck me as a quality of attention that is all too missing in the world, a sort of mindful curiosity and genuine regard.

Importantly, Maloof and many of his subjects display a willingness to reflect on (or at least to demonstrate) what their interaction with Maier's story says about them.

One of her employers seems almost to argue with Maier in the guise of arguing with the filmmakers. Another fusses a bit about her struggles to end Maier's time with their family. A friend expresses regret for having "dropped the ball" during an encounter with Maier late in her life, mindful of the family concerns that distracted her from loneliness that she might have addressed. Often you see a flicker of recognition of things missed.

The result is a film that applies a kind of reverence to reflecting on this person's life which not only honors her but, indirectly, offers some instruction on attentiveness.

Maier seems a particularly compelling mystery now, but in life she was by turns odd and ordinary, a quiet woman without money, family, or connections. Evidently she was damaged, and not well-adjusted by any conventional standard. But as the filmmakers discover, she had traveled the world, had relatives in the French Alps who still remember her, and displayed wit and a crackling intelligence. And a prodigious talent.

Maier's photographs reveal an inquisitiveness about human experience that is too often lacking in the world. And so does this lovely and remarkable film.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

COMPLICATED GRIEF

A month ago, my life partner, Stan Thornburg, passed away.  It was not a good death--in fact, I am not convinced (as most people seem to be) that it happened in a way that was simply to be expected.  I am convinced that his suffering, particularly during the last four years, and mine as I attempted to ease his, was much more traumatic and profound than it needed to be. 

This post is for people who care about me and want to know how to be helpful to me.  It might also be for people who loved Stan and want to know more about what he cared about.

Most people who know me knew something about Stan--but most of you, even those who know me well, did not understand completely what we meant to each other.  Our relationship was hidden, for complicated reasons. 

What you need to know is this.  When we met thirty years ago, it was love at first sight.  Not romantic love--neither of us was open to that, given our other commitments--but an immediate sense of connection and a strong desire to know each other.  That turned into eleven years when we were each other's special friend.  The five years that we lived in the same city, we met for breakfast weekly, watched movies together with friends, found lots of opportunities to be in groups together.  The six years that we lived apart we wrote letters, and spent whole days together in Portland and Ann Arbor during occasional visits.  Our deep conversations were something we both counted on; we saved up our best stuff for each other because that was where it found a home.

Nineteen years ago, when my marriage was ending, I went through a period of profound spiritual awakening.  I was spending a lot of time in contemplative prayer and feeling deeply connected to the divine.  During that time, I read a book--"Will and Spirit," by Gerald May--that helped Stan and me to find words to identify what we had come to mean to each other.  We both knew that despite our circumstances, the love between us was more profound than most people ever experience.  That was simply true. 

We both knew that, under different circumstances, the love between us would be the best basis for marriage that either of us could imagine.  And we both wanted that. 

But though my marriage was ending, Stan did not feel that he could end his.  His children were a big part of the reason.  The other was his ministry.  Stan loved being a minister and was the best minister I have ever known.  He loved people more intentionally and selflessly than anyone I have ever met.  He had the ability to be a helpful presence to a broad array of people, including people at their very worst or their most needy.  And he was gifted with prophetic insight that helped people and organizations become unstuck, even though this frequently got him in trouble.  Stan never stopped worrying that if he ended his marriage, all the careful work that he had done in the church would be lost. 

I never agreed with him on this.  We had countless conversations about it.  But it was his choice to make.  My choice, ultimately, was to follow what it meant to love this man.  I chose to love him in the ways that were open to me, though I never stopped wanting circumstances to be different.

I was not Stan's mistress.  We did not have an affair.  I was his partner, and he was mine.  For all the things that were denied to us, we were more connected than most married couples.  We talked about everything.  He helped me with my struggles dealing with my family of origin.  I made deep commitments to both his children.  We influenced each other's thinking about the church's place in the world, and about nurturing God at work in people both inside and outside the church, and about how the church's treatment of LGBTQ people needed to change.  I pastored youth in his last two churches.  He listened to my insecurities about my work and nurtured my desire to inspire people who are marginalized.  We talked through his sermon preparation and I edited his writing.  I talked through my own speeches and articles with him.  I planned worship services with him.  He taught me how to perform weddings.  We watched and talked about movies and he loved reading my reviews.

We knew people inside the church community would find our relationship threatening so we made sure that it never endangered anyone.  That cost us dearly.  And still, every few years someone would raise concerns about our relationship and he would be called to account for it.  (Sometimes I would too, though even then I was generally the last to be consulted, if at all.)  This hurt us both, especially since we were both quite aware of how much the church benefited from our connection and how much it cost us both to live with such a limited version of what we both wanted.  Aside from a very few close friends, I don't recall anyone ever showing concern for what Stan's marriage must be costing him, though it seemed to me that those costs were obvious. 

Six years ago, Stan's health began to fail.  I was and am convinced that this was due to the strain of all that he tried to hold together for the sake of his ministry.  Three-and-a-half years ago, this culminated in an eight-week hospitalization.  At the end of that hospitalization, Stan lost his ministry under circumstances that still make me heartsick.

The years since then have been a struggle for Stan, and for me.  Having lost his ministry and fighting constant health problems, he made known his intention to leave his marriage.  Doing so would have been difficult and complex under any circumstances, and Stan needed support that he did not receive.  The way that he spent his last years, in a way, confirmed the fears that had led him to make the choices he did.  He did not retire; he still had much to give, but his community did not support him in the way he needed in order to continue to give in the way that he still could.  My friends outside the church benefited because, even broken, Stan could not stop being a minister. 

I loved Stan and cared for him mostly without support, except from his daughter and a few friends.  His passing leaves a void in my life that will never be filled.  We talked nearly every day for 19 years.  He knew me better than anyone.  He was the one person with whom I could risk sharing my most unprocessed thoughts.  He listened to me and loved me and helped me be a better person.  I don't know how to process something as huge as my grief over losing him and over the trauma of these last few years without talking to Stan.  And that is all on top of the other losses I have suffered, including the loss of my own ministry inside the church.

I am a strong person.  I expect that I will find a way to survive because that is sort of my thing.  Before this loss I already took many opportunities to approach suffering with a determination to keep my eyes open for what is there for me to learn.  I am afraid and hurt and sad, but not afraid of being hurt and sad. 

You might guess, though, that being ignored and discounted is particularly painful for me.  My life with Stan has included a lot of that (though never from him) and the loss of him has included lots more. 

So even though it feels big and you probably can't think of what to say, it does help to hear that you are thinking of me and that you grieve with me, if you do.  If you ask me to let you know what you can do, it's unlikely that I will because I just don't know.  But it helps to be remembered in whatever small ways you happen to think of.  It helps when you ask how I am doing, even if I can't think of how to answer.  A couple of my friends explained that they had learned to just show up and do stuff--and I have definitely found that is the most helpful thing.

And ask me about Stan.  I love to talk about him, and about things we shared.  I still count myself lucky for having known him so well. 

LORRAINE HANSBERRY'S WISDOM

This post originally appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/apr/02/lorraine-hansberrys-wisdom/

In 1959, at the age of 29, Lorraine Hansberry achieved critical success with her play, "A Raisin in the Sun." The play, which depicted the experience (reflecting Hansberry's own) of a black family buying a home in a white Chicago neighborhood, had a successful Broadway run and is now considered a classic of American theater.

Five years later, during the final battle with pancreatic cancer which cut her life short at age 34, Hansberry's second play was produced for what turned out to be a much more limited and less successful Broadway run. The reviews at the time were mixed, and suggest that critics and audiences didn't really know what to make of the play. "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" has since rarely been produced.

This spring, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has mounted a production of "Sidney Brustein," 50 years after its Broadway debut, which makes a terrific case for Hansberry's wonderfully ambitious work. The play is so far ahead of its time that I wonder if we are ready even now for the prophetic insight of Ms. Hansberry, so famously young, gifted, and black. But I'm grateful that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has gone to the trouble to offer us this opportunity.

Mounting this revival was no mean feat. There are several versions of the script in existence, including some edits and rewrites completed after Hansberry's death by her ex-husband and collaborator, Robert Nemiroff, Director Juliette Carillo and her creative team carefully worked with the unwieldy collected text to capture Hansberry's intention and to hone the production to a story that will keep audiences engaged even as they are challenged. Those efforts, including the work of a very fine and sensitive cast, have resulted in a production that hums with authenticity.

It is an ambitious effort. Rather than remaining in the box created by her success with "A Raisin in the Sun," Hansberry dared to write a play that reaches beyond black experience to depict a more expansive range of perspectives, in service of a complex mix of ideas.

Her protagonists are a Jewish intellectual and his wife, Iris, living in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Sidney is someone you might recognize -- a liberal intellectual who has acquired the tools for higher thought, but who frequently neglects to self-apply his insights. His marriage to Iris -- an aspiring actress who can't summon the courage to audition -- is full of wit and affection, but also with the merciless barbs they lob at each other. Iris, is a product of her time -- intelligent and perceptive, but imprisoned within a limited set of options that affect her perception of herself.

He vastly underestimates her -- and she is losing patience with his penchant for pursuing ill-advised projects that exceed his resources and talent. Both seem immobilized, though the quality of Sidney's superior tone suggests that he would apply that description only to Iris. Neither can seem to light on a life purpose to commit to, and their commitment to their marriage is hampered by their illusions about each other.

Their community exposes them to an array of intellectual perspectives. Their cynical upstairs neighbor, David, is a gay playwright who is closeted outside their circle. Another friend, Walter, is running an underdog campaign that purports to provide a clean alternative to dirty local politics.

Alton, a light-skinned black man who passes as white, chides Sidney for his lack of political engagement. Alton is in love with Iris's younger sister Gloria, who he believes is a model but who Sidney and Iris know is a high-class call girl. Gloria is a heartbreaking mix of vulnerability, hope, and cynicism. Finally, Iris's older sister, Mavis, appears to be the most conventional of the three sisters, dropping by to offer provincial comments and judgments that strike Sidney as naive and, occasionally, dangerous.

Part of what makes the play so wonderful is that these characters are not just types, but believable, flawed human beings. Their struggles are presented deftly and with empathy -- yet no one gets off easy. Each character has moments that illuminate genuine suffering -- shockingly clear and nuanced moments for 1964, and refreshingly so even for 2014. Yet each character also displays small-minded impulses; each grasps for primacy in whatever form, be it the moral high ground or simply the power to get one's own needs met at someone else's expense.

This community of intellectuals -- relatively accepting for 1964 -- can converse about problems that occupy us still, with a level of insight that at times seems enviable even to current ears. Yet action consistent with their ideals often eludes them.

That anyone -- let alone a black woman in 1964 -- dared to assemble this cast of flawed characters and to struggle in such a nuanced way with the problems that occupy their existence is remarkable. But Hansberry attempted more. Her play grapples with what it means to be human, to take a stand and attempt to contribute to positive change, even when one's efforts seem unsatisfying or futile.

Each of the characters struggles uniquely with the problem of engagement –of whether and how to aim for something, and of what balance to strike between analysis and courageous agency. The mix of results is surprising.

For example, Mavis, whose assessments of others are chock full of conventional stereotypes, nevertheless displays a remarkable capacity for nuance. Compared to Sidney, Wally seems a man of action -- but his articulation of how he subordinates his principles in the name of expediency seems chillingly familiar. Meanwhile, Sidney and Iris are, by contrast, relatively stuck -- and one can question whether their principles are too robust or too inflexible.

Hansberry has no easy solution for these dilemmas -- and that is both a strength of the play and a problem for it. Sidney is rigid and often unlikable, and he undergoes a transformation late in the play that is not entirely satisfying. The conflicts in his marriage to Iris, too, are too thorny to find convincing resolution, although the final act offers something like one.

But the messiness in this play feels, for the most part, fitting. Hansberry, remarkably for her time and for any time, displays the courage of her convictions.

In the world of her play, intelligent, well-meaning people sometimes make decisions that add to the oppression of others. It can happen because they are distracted by their own oppression, or because they are closing their eyes to a piece of what's true, or because they are afraid to act at all.

Although the resolutions Hansberry chooses are not always satisfying, she commits to them. As a playwright, she models a life of compassion toward difference, an open-eyed commitment to the struggle for truth. She eschews apathy in favor of a struggle to live into one's ideals even if the options one can see for doing so feel unsatisfying.

This Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, which plays until July 3, offers a rich glimpse into the prophetic wisdom of a true visionary. It's worth a trip to Ashland this spring to enter Hansberry's world. (Visit osfashland.org for tickets and more information.)

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.