Wednesday, June 3, 2015

UNSHACKLING AN IMPRISONED SOUL

[A version of this review first appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/jun/02/unshackling-imprisoned-soul/]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OSF PRODUCTIONS OF "PERICLES" AND "SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND" PLUNGE US TO OUR DEEPEST PLACES

[A version of this piece originally appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/may/14/wrapped-humanity/]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"THE SALT OF THE EARTH"

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/may/05/journey-humanity/]

For most of the last 40 years, acclaimed photographer Sebastião Salgado has been traveling the globe and focusing his practiced photographer's eye primarily on the experiences of people at the margins -- the poor, the dispossessed, refugees, the starving, the homeless. The images he has captured, all in black and white, are startling; luminous and beautiful, though often stark and disturbing, they convey a profound sympathy and a deep appreciation for the humanity of his subjects.

This artist understands and is fully at home with what the 12th century philosopher Miguel de Unamuno termed "the tragic sense of life." His work evinces a mindfulness that, as Unamuno explained, life is characterized much more by exception and disorder than by total or perfect order, and that life is inherently tragic. The documentary "The Salt of the Earth" meditates on the images themselves, and allows their creator to speak from the experiences that brought them into being. The result is a kind of spiritual journey into the deep.

The film is co-directed by Wim Wenders and by Salgado's son, Juliano, and theirs is an inspired collaboration. Juliano Ribeiro Salgado had begun to travel with his father and had accumulated a wealth of footage of the elder Salgado at work among the Yali tribe in Papua New Guinea; among another isolated tribe, the Zo'é, in the Brazilian Amazon; and in an island in the Arctic Circle. The two Salgados recognized that the creation of a documentary would benefit from a third perspective, and enlisted Wenders, who had long admired the elder Salgado's work. Wenders' prior films -- notably "Wings of Desire," a black-and-white film about an angel who wishes to become human when he falls in love with a mortal, and "Pina," a documentary tribute to the late German choreographer, Pina Bausch -- display a facility with mystery and deep longing that makes Wenders a good collaborator with Salgado.

From Juliano, who films in color, we acquire a sense of his father at work and of the influence of his important relationships. The photographer does not merely drop into a place and snap pictures with a practiced eye. Rather, he spends months at a time living with his subjects. He comes to know their way of life, their circumstances, and builds trust that can only be assembled through deep observation and shared space. Yet for Juliano in childhood, his father was a frequently absent, mythic adventurer; there were costs to the life his father chose. One sees, too, that the work depends on support from Salgado's wife Lelia, who is an important presence in the film. These observations ground a sense of momentum, of calling, that drove Salgado to more than 100 countries in the furthest reaches of the globe.

Wenders, working in black-and-white, hints throughout at Lelia's importance in grounding Salgado's work. He also films Salgado discussing his art, often through a marvelous sort of dark room technique; Salgado appears in front of a screen, looking at the photographs and answering questions about them, with the camera behind the screen filming through the photographs, via a semi-transparent mirror. The effect is profound, conveying a sense of Salgado reliving his experiences of capturing the images. Often he is quite moved as he describes the humanity of his subjects; we see that he is an artist but also a seeker, whose photographic images arise from a true ministry of presence with his subjects.

Salgado's work has famously been criticized by Susan Sontag and others for conveying the pain of others with a beauty that dulls the conscience, and the film has been criticized for not examining Salgado's work from that more critical lens. I didn't miss such a perspective -- and, indeed, I think such criticism misses an answer that is contained in the film itself. Salgado's photographs are the product of weeks and sometimes months spent with their subjects, often in countries beset by war or famine or tragedy. The artist creates a relationship with the people he photographs that enable him to capture their humanity in a way that would not otherwise be possible. They respond to the emotion and empathy which so clearly guide him, and he speaks reverently of them and of a sense that they "give" him the photo. Salgado has indeed become famous for photographing suffering, yet he has equipped himself to offer a voice to those who suffer and to convey what is deeply true and beautiful in their humanity. The fact that many may not have the capacity to absorb the impact of the images is indeed troubling, but cannot be the fault of their beauty.

The film also captures something important about Salgado's own trajectory. Years of photographing human misery have taken their toll, and particularly after spending time in Rwanda during the genocide, Salgado experienced a profound depression and stopped working for a time. Around that period, Lelia's inspiration and vision prompted the couple to embark on the gargantuan task of replanting the forest on Salgado's family's former ranch. What began as a family project became a massive ecological undertaking of successfully planting 2.5 million trees, bringing life where there was devastation. The resulting Instituto Terra has become the leading employer in the region, and out of that project, Salgado's artistic work has moved in the direction of photographing landscapes, wildlife, and human communities that continue to live in accordance with ancestral traditions and cultures.

I was struck by the lessons contained in the journey of this artist and his family. Compelled by an adventurer's spirit; by an intense interest in what moves humans to seek, to work, and to destroy; by an artistic gift; and by an intention to observe deeply and empathetically, Salgado has created a body of work that challenges us to wrestle with the most profound questions of human existence. It makes sense to me that the trajectory of his work through death and devastation has moved him to engage in other acts of creation and to explore elemental expressions of life. And it makes sense that all of it contains beauty.

FULL FRAME REPORT

[A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/apr/21/sharp-focus-controversy/]

I see a lot of feature-length documentaries throughout the year, and the few that achieve wide release are not necessarily the best; some are overly slick or don't reflect the careful editing that enables the best docs to make plain a complex story.

The last 11 docs that I saw at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., this month represent a range of quality, too. None are in theaters or online yet, but several are worth watching for. My brief reviews rank them from best to least successful.

My favorite film of the entire festival was "Peace Officer," which I understand will be widely available sometime this summer. The picture won awards at both Full Frame and last month’s South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas addressing complex issues around the increased militarization of police.

Its co-directors, Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, weren't originally attracted to that topic, but rather to William "Dub" Lawrence, the relentless former sheriff who forms the backbone of the film. When Lawrence's own son-in-law was killed in a brutal show-down with the same SWAT team that Lawrence himself founded back in the 1970s, Lawrence's own investigation into the incident caused a major shift in his thinking about law enforcement, from trust to alarm.

Calling on his long years of experience as a sheriff and his particularly dogged skills as an investigator, Lawrence became concerned about the increasingly violent responses of police in making arrests and serving warrants. For him, it's a matter of the sacred trust officers owe to the public, which he sees getting lost in the escalation of assault weaponry and military gear that has become so prevalent.

Lawrence does indeed make for a compelling figure around which to build this film; he understands and respects law enforcement and appreciates the real dangers they face. He also credibly analyzes several incidents in which members of the public were killed or injured as a result of police conduct and presents convincing alternatives to the justifying narratives put forth by police.

Barber and Christopherson did not rest on the fact that they found a compelling spokesperson; rather they build a skillful narrative around Lawrence's concerns, filling in details of specific stories he has investigated and panning out to the larger issues around police conduct. They also give meaningful air time to the views of law enforcement. They have assembled an extremely compelling and nuanced approach to a topic that demands but rarely gets that kind of care. It's a first-rate piece of documentary filmmaking that I hope will attain a larger audience.

Another award winner that deserves a broader audience is "(T)ERROR." Also a co-directed first feature, it won prizes at Full Frame and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and provides a gutsy look inside an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. Filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe follow the story through the perspective of "Shariff," a former Black Panther turned FBI informant who irascibly narrates his justifications for and perceptions of the government's counterterrorism tactics. It would be hard to imagine more treacherous terrain to attempt to capture, and these filmmakers illuminate plenty of reasons for concern about how the war on terror is being conducted. The film will air on PBS's "Independent Lens" and on the BBC later this year.

On a lighter and quite delightful note, "Mavis!" explores the life and music of legendary vocalist Mavis Staples. Director Jessica Edwards was inspired after seeing Mavis perform and, taking her own advice to "make the films you want to see," cold-called Mavis's manager to begin the project, her first feature. Though the treatment here is standard, Edwards has assembled a wealth of wonderful footage of the performances of the Staples Singers and Mavis's continuing work with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and the film features artists like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan (who "smooched" with Mavis when they were both young) discussing Mavis's influence.

Mavis and the Staples Singers have long deserved a documentary celebration of their astonishing range of gospel, soul, and R&B and the inspiration they offered to the civil rights movement, and HBO recently picked up the U.S. TV rights to this film.

I saw "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon" late in the festival and, frankly, it was my last choice in its time slot; this brand of raunchy dominant-culture humor is not really my thing. But actually the film is a very smartly assembled history of the humor magazine that presaged "Saturday Night Live" and such feature films as "Animal House," "Caddyshack," and "National Lampoon's Vacation." It cleverly uses clips from the mag's own art to illustrate much of the history, and assembles interviews from a cast of mostly privileged white male contributors who are now in their 60s. It’s a worthwhile window into the history of American humor and culture -- though for all its wistful nostalgia, the film lacks any awareness that whole segments of American society (like, uh, women and ethnic minorities) never had a heyday in which their raunchiest humor found a dominant culture audience, and aren't likely to experience that heyday.

"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" really is more my cup of tea, and this film directed by venerable documentarian Stanley Nelson delivers a comprehensive look at the controversial organization's origins and legacy. I learned a lot, as I expected to, but I have to say that the National Lampoon film juggled its various story lines a bit more successfully; I got lost at times in Nelson's assemblage of stories and left with lots more questions, even after two hours. However, that would have been particularly hard to avoid in telling this piece of history; as the film points out in its opening scenes, each participant has his or her own history of the Black Panther party that they were part of -- and that doesn't even account for the popular culture perceptions of the group. Anyone interested in furthering her education on this important piece of American culture won't want to miss this film.

"How to Dance in Ohio" won an audience award, which surprised me a little, but the film is well worth a look. In Columbus, Ohio, a group of teens and young adults on the autism spectrum prepare for an American rite of passage that is the setting for untold agonies even for those of us not on the spectrum: a Spring Formal. They are all working with a kind and quite brave psychologist who prepares them for and stages the event as part of their work to practice social skills. The film particularly follows three young women in their journey of preparation for the dance, and its tender exploration of their ups and downs in experiencing this event that might otherwise have been inaccessible to them is not only illuminating about autism, but is also achingly familiar terrain for anyone. The film's subjects and particularly their relationships with their caring parents are often quite moving and this depiction gently affirms common experiences that we don't always perceive so accurately.

"Tocando la Luz" took home an award for the best first-time documentary feature, though I think others outshone it. It follows the stories of three blind women in Havana, Cuba and their parallel stories of struggling for the independence. Though each individual story contained interesting features, the film needed further shaping to establish a more defined link or purpose between them.

"3 and 1/2 Minutes" probes the story of Jordan Davis, an African American teen who was gunned down by a middle-aged white man who had confronted Davis and his three friends about their loud music. I so wanted this film to be better than it is, given the importance of its subject matter, but it seems the filmmakers were so intent on releasing a film about the trial of Davis's killer that they didn't take the time assemble a very careful analysis of the larger issues. They benefit from their compelling subjects, particularly Davis’s repellant assailant, but I am still wishing for a more nuanced examination of the escalating problem of gun violence against young black men.

The final three films are worth seeing for their specialized subjects. "Tell Spring Not to Come This Year" documents the experiences of one inexperienced and ill-equipped unit of the Afghan National Army charged with maintaining security after the departure of international forces. The filmmakers embedded with the unit and captured heartbreaking scenes of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by young men with few real other options. "Devil's Rope" artfully captures a sense of the legacy of barbed wire fences in the American West, including long, silent tracking shots and laconic commentary from barbed wire enthusiasts. Finally, "Love Marriage in Kabul" follows the efforts of a dynamic Afghan woman who runs several orphanages and seeks to help a young couple accomplish a love marriage against relentless social odds in an unyielding society.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

FIRST BATCH OF FILMS FROM FULL FRAME

[A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/apr/14/riveting-conflicts-uncomfortable-truths/]

Every April, I make a pilgrimage to Durham, N.C, for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the premier documentary film festival in the U.S.

Aside from last year, when my trip was interrupted due to the death of my life partner, every year at least one and often several of the films on my annual list of the best films of the year are films I spotted at Full Frame. Here's my report from the first day of this four-day festival; I'll complete my report next week

The best film of the day by far was "Best of Enemies," which is slated for a nationwide theatrical release at the end of July. The political party conventions of 1968 are primarily remembered for the unrest and political violence that occurred in the streets, but this canny documentary shifts focus to a surprisingly intense television battle that was being waged at the time that presaged today's culture wars.

In an effort to up its dismal ratings, ABC News enlisted conservative commentator William F. Buckley and liberal commentator Gore Vidal to address each convention day's events. The times were different in significant ways; television, still a relatively new medium, functioned as a seemingly neutral (though entirely white and male) center for American culture, and rifts between generations and communities were becoming deeper and more visible. Buckley and Vidal were both privileged intellectuals who staked out opposite ends of the political spectrum, and their debates were a marvel of eloquent bombast that changed television and American political discourse forever.

Filmmakers Morgan Neville ("Twenty Feet From Stardom") and Robert Gordon ("Johnny Cash's America") do a wonderful job of placing these television debates in their historical context and capturing the significance of these two intense personalities in setting the poles of a divide that still drives American politics. Watching their conflict from this distance is by turns hilarious and extremely sobering. This riveting window into American history and our present-day conflicts will leave you wrestling with fascinating questions about American culture and about how we fight.

"(Dis)honesty--The Truth About Lies" is less satisfying but still interesting. The film is framed around the work of best-selling author and Duke University professor of behavioral economics Dan Ariely, who studies irrational behavior and what compels people to make choices they know are unethical. Filmmaker Yael Malamede interviews a number of folks with interesting and often high-profile stories of dishonesty, and Ariely mines his research for analyses of what motivates unethical behavior. The film struck me as a bit too slick; most of the analysis doesn't go very deep, making it relatively easy for viewers to squirm away from any sense that the film might be describing them. Still, it's an interesting lens into human behavior.

"Iris" is a whimsical portrait of 90-year-old Iris Apfel, an interior designer whose unique style has made her into a fashion icon. Having assembled a vast collection of prints, chunky custom jewelry, and large, Coke-bottle glasses, Apfel savors putting together outfits that convey her eclectric sense of whimsy and individuality. The film doesn't travel anywhere deep, but savors this quirky personality and offers endless visual delights. It's a pleasure to watch an older woman who knows who she is and enjoys expressing herself.

"Monte Adentro" is the film that will likely be hardest to find, and is best enjoyed with a little context outside what is discernable from in the film itself. Most Colombians have migrated to cities, leaving behind peasant life in the mountains. Filmmaker Nicolas Macario Alonso sought to explore vestiges of a past that is disappearing, and follows a pair of brothers who may be the last generation of their family of mule drivers. The film captures a mostly silent connectedness between the brothers, and is most engaging when filming a typical but quite perilous journey transporting an unwieldy furniture load on a three-day journey up the mountain. The beasts themselves are a marvel, and the camera-work gives you lots of reasons to appreciate the hard, physical work that is essential to the character of these people.

Next week I'll report on eleven more films that I'll be seeing over the next three days, in most cases featuring discussions with the filmmakers. What could be more fun?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE AT OSF

[A version of this piece appears in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/apr/07/something-everyone/?page=1]

There's something for everyone at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, year in and year out. It's always worth a trip down to Ashland, for the high quality of the productions, and also because the plays themselves are so thoughtfully selected, produced, and cast to bring a variety of voices and cultures to the stage. I've seen four of this year's shows so far, and this season is no exception.

Even if you don't think you like Shakespeare -- and of course if you do -- this season's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" contains many delights. Shakespeare's comedy contrasts an older, mismatched pair, Benedick and Beatrice, with a younger pair of innocents; the shallowness of the younger pair's infatuation makes them vulnerable to the machinations of someone who wishes them harm, while the older couple's spark ignites from the differences that first repel and then attract them.

The best thing about this production are Benedick and Beatrice themselves, beautifully played by Danforth Comins and Christiana Clark. Their differences in culture and physicality deepen the delight of watching them spar and then fall in love, even while neither they nor we would put them together. The play's director, Liliana Blain-Cruz, packs the play with perhaps too many ideas (I didn't feel, for example, that casting the angry and villainous Don John as a disabled female soldier carried much impact), but overall it is a pleasure to watch this very diverse cast savor such rich material. And Rex Young's comic turn as Dogberry, the self-important enforcer of order in the second act, flanked by a sidekick who has been turned into his mother in this production (Eileen DeSandre), is genius.

I'm no big fan of musicals, but if you can't enjoy this season's production of "Guys and Dolls," there's really no helping you. The production is set in the particular time and place of gangsters and showgirls of 1930s New York City, but in the end the story is a kind of urban fairy tale, where gangsters are really decent at heart, where a showgirl nurtures the conventional fantasy of a house full of kids enclosed inside a white picket fence, and where a straight-laced street evangelist dreams of her Prince Charming.

Director Mary Zimmerman -- who has made a career of mining the stories and dreamscapes of a number of cultures for stories of transformation -- knows just how to elicit the kind of hopeful energy that this show demands. In this urban fairy tale, the races mix more freely than was possible in actual 1930s New York, affording us the particular pleasure of watching this mixed cast sing and dance the buoyant score and the special joy of watching Rodney Gardiner play Nathan Detroit, the comic gangster who loves the ditzy showgirl Adelaide but can't bring himself to marry her. Robin Goodrin Nordli disappears into a particularly endearing Adelaide as well.

"Long Day's Journey into Night" is a different kind of classic entirely. Eugene O'Neill's aptly titled descent into the darkness of his own family history is the ultimate in psychological realism. One couldn't ask for a better cast than this to capture the pain of successful Irish-American actor James Tyrone (Michael Winters), and his two sons, failed actor Jamie (Jonathan Haugen) and gentle Edmond (Danforth Comins), as they attempt to avert the deterioration of mother Mary (Judith-Marie Bergan) into drug addiction.

From the first moment of this production, one can see the trauma lodged in the bones of the three men as they hover around Mary, desperate to arrest her slide into madness. The production is set in the intimate Thomas Theater, placing us inside their haunting beachside home, and we can hear the faint echoes of Ireland in their speech and in their sorrow. Director Christopher Liam Moore's definitive production of "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" a few years ago left me quite undone, and once again here he has assembled a production of an American tragedy that goes so deep that it serves as a vehicle for exorcising one's own demons.

Finally, "Fingersmith" offers a world premiere production of Sarah Waters' elaborate novel set in Victorian England. This story is absolutely full of surprises, with an intricate plot involving a pickpocket raised among London's enterprising poor who becomes embroiled in a scheme to deprive a young woman of her fortune in a remote world of privilege and depravity. Lovers of this complex story of betrayal and social upheaval will savor this extraordinarily smart retelling, and those who come to it new, as I did, will be blown away by the story's continual surprises.

Waters is concerned with people at the margins -- how the poor survive and trade on the little lies we tell ourselves and hide in the spaces that we refuse to see –and she sets her story on the knife edge between love and betrayal. Alexa Junge's skillful adaptation brilliantly navigates the complexities of this story, and director Bill Rauch and the amazing design team transport you into an experience of Victorian England that manages to both astonish and to leave you in a space of reflection about how identity and love are forged even as we navigate our own blindness.

One of the best things about seeing plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the wealth of accessible information about all of the plays, available in lectures and in video discussions at www.osfashland.org as well as in written form, including in the literary program produced every year, Illuminations. I always leave with plenty to think about and savor.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

LIVING A LIFE THAT MATTERS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/mar/25/living-life-matters/.]

The heralded film “Whiplash” depicts—realistically, I expect—a world of hungry aspiring jazz musicians who are easy prey for a brutal, sadistic conductor who deliberately pits them against each other, feeds and then assaults their fragile egos, and continually moves success just beyond their reach.The conductor justifies his abusive methods as being necessary to the cultivation of true greatness; “There are no two words in the English language more harmful,” he opines, than “good job.”

Such thinking is certainly not limited to the worlds of music or the arts. But there is no better rejoinder than the beautiful documentary, "Keep On Keepin’On.” Primarily an exploration of the friendship between legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, who recently died at the age of 94, and aspiring jazz pianist Justin Kauflin, the film is also about greatness that teachers like the one in “Whiplash” can never hope to evoke or achieve. Because as Terry’s example illustrates, how you live your life matters. And it would be hard to find better instruction for how to live your life well than can be found in this film.

Terry, one of the most recorded musicians in the history of jazz, played with Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington early in his career. He grew up “dead poor” in a family of 11 children in St. Louis, and so longed to play the trumpet as a child that he assembled his first horn using scrap metal from a junkyard (a process beautifully rendered in an animated sequence). He recalls how hard it was to find anyone to teach him and help him find his voice as a musician, and says he determined as a young person that if he ever learned to play, he would not be stingy in teaching others what he learned.

Terry’s passion for carrying out that intention was apparently unlimited. As a young man, he took a boy named Quincy Jones under his wing, and the love between him and Jones, his first pupil, 70 years later is palpable. Over time, Terry mentored literally thousands more young musicians, including everyone from Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis, and several of them speak affectionately on camera of his life-changing effect on their lives. Herbie Hancock emphasizes the impossibility of calculating the influence that Terry has had on several generations of musicians; “it’s almost like being pulled by a magnet,” he says, and the film contains a wealth of footage demonstrating Terry’s unrelenting energy for investing in people and his unfailing good humor.

The film’s first-time director, Alan Hicks, is himself a jazz drummer who played with Terry and benefited from his tutelage. Though he doesn’t feature himself in the film, the film reflects his lived-in sense of Terry’s influence. He wisely finds in Kauflin’s relationship with Terry a worthy focus for the film, as it is such a good illustration of Terry’s approach to life.

Kauflin, who lost his sight at age 11, met Terry while a student at William Paterson University, and was among scores of students who worked with him there. The relationship between the two deepened over a period when Kauflin struggled to make it as a musician and Terry was dealing with significant complications from diabetes, including the loss of his eyesight. Over a five-year period, the film depicts a number of setbacks for both men: Kauflin is forced to abandon his dreams of forging a career in New York City and moves home with his parents in Virginia, and he struggles with stage fright at a major competition; Terry faces increasingly debilitating symptoms and the amputation of both his legs.

Through these challenges, the two serve as lifelines for one another. They stay up for hours into the night as Terry feeds Kauflin melodies and complex rhythms. The old man mumbles sounds that are unintelligible to the rest of us (though they are actually “doodle-tonguing,” a method of scat singing meant to convey fine points of rhythm and articulation)--and Kauflin picks up the nuance and translates the sounds into notes on the piano. There’s a kind of electricity between the two that both clearly find restorative; occasionally Terry asks Kauflin the time, and grins when he learns that it’s hours after midnight. Terry understands something about mentoring that few people do: the gifts go both directions. And both men approach their friendship with a kind of reverence. “Thank you so much, CT,” Kauflin says as he departs in the wee hours one morning—and Terry responds, “Oh, thank you, man. Thank God for you.”

Although Terry remains relentlessly positive, the way he responds to Kauflin’s challenges and his own conveys an expectation that struggles are to be expected. But the man often described as the creator of the “happiest sound in jazz” didn’t come by that sound by accident. As he explains, “They say that you can always sense through a person’s music the type of person he is … and there’s something to that because I know there’s some guys who are vicious, uptight, and evil, and they sound vicious, uptight, and evil. I would like not to sound vicious, uptight, and evil; I’d like to sound relaxed, and enjoyable, and even in some cases beautiful … Although I’m an old, ugly ham … I’d like to think of at least my soul as being beautiful.”

Terry clearly succeeded in that aim. And we owe him thanks for a lot of other beautiful music, too. His avowed aim was not to instruct people on how to play his way, by his own criteria of success, but rather to help them find their own voices. The film allows us to watch Kauflin struggle with that very thing, sometimes recognizing that he gets in his own way; that struggle felt so familiar to me—and deepened the pleasure of watching the many little ways that Terry calls him forth. “I believe in your talent, and I believe in you,” he tells the young man. Terry focused his energy on teaching people what they could do. “Most of the time,” he says, “they don’t even know what they can do till you get it out of them.”

What a staggering legacy to leave behind: thousands of voices who Terry coaxed into full and confident expression, and now a wonderful film that captures his inspiring example of how to bring others along.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A VAMPIRE TO CAPTURE YOU

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/mar/17/vampire-capture-you/]

Vampires are endlessly fascinating, and endlessly versatile. Something about the idea of a class of immortal beings, lurking in the shadows and choosing victims among the living because they must, persists in our collective imagination, fascinating terrain for exploring our own shadow regions. Some of what we find there is just silly--like the lessons of the so-called "Twilight Saga" (the best lover will leave you bruised but grateful, and even a very protective 105-year-old cannot be expected to have thought through the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy).

Two more worthy examples of the genre are "What We Do in the Shadows" (now in theaters), a mockumentary about three squabbling vampires sharing a bachelor flat in Wellington, New Zealand, which spoofs the genre to hilarious effect, and "Let the Right One In," which used its vampire story to probe ideas about bullying and outsiders.

The first feature film of Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," is arguably the most original and visually arresting of them all. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and drawing from Iranian and American/European pop cultures and from several different eras of cinema and music, Amirpour has assembled a compelling depiction of feminist agency and longing.

The mythical Bad City, where the film is set, feels straight out of a graphic novel. A bleak California-esque town, its hills seem crowded with a subdivision of oil wells, and a ravine on the edge of town is littered with corpses that appear to have been simply discarded. We don't know how they got there, or why.

It quickly appears that we are not in California--but it can't quite be Iran either. Though it takes awhile to orient, the spare dialogue is uttered in Farsi, and there are plenty of little clues that women are not in charge. The camera floats through this nether world, lighting on a handsome young man, a sort of Persian James Dean, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and driving a 1950s Thunderbird. He is hassled by a ruthless, drug-dealing pimp, to whom James Dean's addict father owes money. A prostitute past her prime walks the streets for the pimp, and absorbs his abuse with an air of melancholy. A rich girl toys with James Dean, who tends the garden on her family's estate. A tattered boy wanders about, watching and begging for money.

The film takes its time before introducing the girl who walks home alone at night. Early clues suggest that the town trades in danger and depravity--it is the kind of place where one could go missing and no one would look for you. The slight girl lurks in the shadows at night, wandering about in a chador, the dark, floor-length head covering that Muslim women sometimes wear. Why does she seem threatening, this slight girl in her dark cape, which we in the West read as a signal of women's oppression?

In Muslim culture, at least as popularly depicted, women are treated as though both dangerous and powerless. They must be covered because they are dangerous, yet they may be ordered about and controlled. The girl who lurks in the streets of this bad city later calls herself bad--but is she? She is a vampire, and is no doubt the most dangerous in a cast of dangerous characters--but does she also embody a kind of virtue?

Director Amirpour is less interested in plot than in what the girl's various encounters convey about her and her subjects. With the pimp the girl indulges a love of dark eyeliner and lipstick, and he mistakes her as an easy object of conquest. I noticed I felt most anxious watching the girl lurk around the tattered boy, but her encounter with him ends up being particularly satisfying. Is he a good boy? She persists in asking him this question, and we shiver at its urgency and wonder at his response. What does she mean to do with the information? By the time she encounters the drug addict father and the prostitute, she has taken to wandering the streets on the tattered boy's abandoned skateboard. By then we know the girl to be fearsome, but not to everyone.

The girl encounters the Persian James Dean in between other encounters, and finally takes him home one night when she finds him wandering, lost, after he has drunk too much at a costume party. He is dressed as Dracula, and he wonders if she is scared of him. She isn't--but should he be scared of her? He doesn't appear to be, and one begins to notice his relative innocence and its effect on the girl. In these scenes, the girl appears wounded, and full of longing. She says little, leaving you to wonder what intrigues her about the young man, whether she is lonely, whether she finds her vampire life confining.

Among other things, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is about women's power. Limited though their options might be by social convention and by the fears and expectations thrust upon them, all three women here seem more awake than any of the men, and to varying degrees--the vampire most of all--they act with a degree of intention, even assorting a sort of power. There is even a transgender woman lurking about, not really part of the film's thin plot and perhaps even invisible to others, but also conveying an appearance full of intention. I think Amirpour is playing with ideas about women's power in a context of oppression.

You can dwell on these questions, as you watch--or you can simply enjoy the beauty of her subjects, in their melancholy dark world, and savor the film's sly humor and its plundering of Middle Eastern fusion and underground Iranian rock music. Amirpour has assembled treasures from everything from Madonna to spaghetti westerns to David Lynch; these allusions may be simply playful, or she may be saying something sly about themes running through art in all its forms.

No matter how you choose to watch, if you surrender to a mood of appreciation and languor (a bit like that of the Persian James Dean), Amirpour's film, and the girl of its title, will capture you.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

RESILIENT HUMAN SPIRIT IN "TIMBUKTU"

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/mar/03/window-oppression/]

No film at this year’s Portland International Film Festival left a mark on me as indelible as "Timbuktu." Gorgeous, poetic, pointed, and profound, this story of a small African community's experience of jihad manages to tell a political story without polemics, to portray with depth and insight how its victims actually experience religious extremism, and, at the same time, to unforgettably illustrate how the human spirit resists attempts to crush it.

The film's opening moments telegraph the style and intention of director Abderrahmane Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and now lives in France. A gazelle hurtles across the sand, pursued by a barrage of gunshots from half a dozen AK-47s fired by young men chasing it in a pick-up. The gazelle runs and runs, as the men continue to shoot and miss it. "Don't kill it," the men say. "Just tire it."

More shots ring out, this time aimed at a line of idols, arranged in a row as targets. These are art objects, carved human figures presumably meant to evoke the local populace as ornamental and religious statuary. The men shoot mercilessly, destroying the side of a face, a breast, an arm, and shooting through a chest.

The actions of the shooters have a quality of intention, yet they feel crude, indiscriminate. All forms of artistic expression are forbidden in this extremist version of Islam; these objects will no longer be allowed. But it feels relevant that they are shooting at a rendering of faces and limbs that evoke the local population and its culture, traditions, and art. The targeted callousness of the shooters serves more than one purpose.

The armed invaders are not from the local culture. Rather, they are young men from Arab cultures; they speak Arabic, French, a little English, rather than the local languages. They shout orders through the streets: Smoking is forbidden. Music is forbidden. Playing with balls is forbidden. Women must wear gloves. Essentially all expressions of individuality, all evocations of feeling are no longer allowed.

Yet they mostly do not appear to be religious zealots, but rather bored young men, bullies here to do a job. We hear them talking about their favorite European soccer teams. One of the commanders regularly sneaks off to smoke. He drives all the way out to a married woman's house away from the town to flirt with her when her husband is away, and chides her for having her head uncovered.
The men always carry guns, even into the local mosque. They have brought jihad to a Muslim community. The local imam quietly but firmly pushes back: the mosque is a place for quiet prayer; their shouting and their guns are not allowed. Though they leave, they don't listen to reason. They have brought jihad, and they are now the arbiters of reason. In another scene, the imam, who has obviously been fielding complaints from the local population, attempts to reason with one of the leaders. Where is leniency? Love? Forgiveness? Why demand gloves without explaining their purpose? Is not jihad meant to happen inwardly? His words bounce off their target.

As in all wars, women's suffering is particularly acute. Many of the rules are directed at them specifically. A fishmonger is arrested after she complains about being required to wear gloves while handling, washing, and scaling fish. Another woman gets 40 lashes for singing and another 40 because she was in the same room as the male musician who accompanied her. The enforcers of female purity make a practice of forcing marriage on the women they find particularly appealing. Attempts at protest are easily rebuffed, even when the imam tries to assist. She has no reason to complain, they are told; the husband is "perfect" in the eyes of Allah.

The film is inspired by events that actually occurred in a city in Mali in 2012. Western reports focused on the jihadists' destruction of ancient manuscripts, which is of course terrible. But Sissako's focus is more local, more particular. He depicts the effects of religious zealotry on ordinary people with ordinary concerns. His film also offers a rare opportunity for Western audiences to sit with the experiences of Africans as told by Africans, rather than a story of a Westerner against a backdrop of Africans. It is a window into life and cultural richness that has been going for centuries, while we in the West defined Africans by ourselves. (The contrast brings to mind the comic depiction of missionaries in "The Book of Mormon," in which after a short time in Uganda, the young missionaries buoyantly sing that "We are Africa.")

Sissako's quiet focus on specific scenes of ordinary life portrays the brutality of fundamentalism with clarity far more devastating than polemics. It also offers a window into oppression that extends beyond the effects of jihad. Over and over he depicts the human spirit refusing to be crushed. The soldiers hear music one night and set to work to identify the offending house. "They are singing praises to Allah," one reports to their superiors. "Shall I arrest them?" The woman who is whipped for singing turns her crying into a song. A group of boys pantomime a soccer game, kicking an imaginary ball and running imaginary victory laps after scoring an imaginary goal, and then pretend to be doing calisthenics when two armed soldiers ride by on a motorbike.

Sissako's film is filled with such devastating images, and glows with the rich beauty of its desert setting. Though he is less concerned with plot, there is a small story at its center of a couple and the daughter and adopted son on whom they dote. They live in an open tent, their love for each other apparent from small moments of gesture and conversation. Their neighbors have left in the wake of the jihad, and the wife is worried for their safety. I know you are afraid, her husband observes. But it will be alright, he reassures her. Humiliations must come to an end.

Humiliations do come to an end for the couple, but not in the hopeful way he suggests. Sissako's poetic film is full of beauty, but does not spare us the devastation. For him, beauty and hope is contained in quiet acts of rebellion and in good people insisting on their own truth and goodness, in the face of bullies who insist that they are the ones who define truth and goodness.
See this lovely and devastating film on the big screen if you can. It's playing in Portland at the Living Room Theaters.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

MY OSCAR BALLOT

It's Oscar day, and I am expecting that my annual mixture of kvetching and ogling and cheering is going to veer a lot more toward kvetching, given that this is one of the most homogenous and least impressive (and whitest) slate of nominees in recent memory.  Why do I bother even commenting?  Because the Academy Awards purport to be about rewarding the best work, and winning leverages careers.  Having seen so much of the work that is eligible for that recognition, I continue to wish that those who deserve it more regularly had a shot at getting it.

Here's how I would vote on this year's nominees, such as they are--entirely non-predictive of what will happen at tonight's Oscar ceremonies--along with some commentary about glaring omissions from the nominations that are worth seeking out.

Best Picture:  SELMA.  As I indicated on my ten-best list, I could make a case for "Boyhood," but when all is said and done, I think "Selma" deserves best picture recognition because it pulls off something extremely important and difficult, and sets the bar for beginning to tell some of the scores of neglected stories of the American Civil Rights Movement.  As for the rest of the list of nominees, "Boyhood" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" deserve to be here, and I think the case can be made for "Whiplash," but "Birdman" is way overrated and I don't think either "The Imitation Game" or "The Theory of Everything" are best picture material.  "American Sniper" is an absolutely terrible film.  I would replace those films with "Calvary," "Metro Manila," "Ida," "Two Days, One Night," and "Dear White People."

Best Actor in a Leading Role:  DAVID OYELOWO, who isn't nominated.  This group of nominees makes me furious.  None of them comes near either Oyelowo's performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" or Chadwick Boseman's performance as James Brown in "Get on Up" or Brendan Gleesan's performance in "Calvary."  I would also add Ralph Fiennes for his pitch-perfect performance in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and Timothy Spall's performance in "Mr. Turner."

Best Actress in a Leading Role:  MARION COTILLARD, who is absolutely phenomenal as a woman fighting for her job in "Two Days, One Night."  Julianne Moore is also excellent in "Still Alice" and is more likely to win, because the challenge of playing someone with Alzheimer's Disease is more obvious.  The other nominees do not belong on this list at all, particularly Rosamund Pike, who is one of the least believable actresses working.  I'd replace them with Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Beyond the Lights" and Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska in "Ida." It strikes me that this year's roles for women are particularly underwritten.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:  ETHAN HAWKE for very thoughtful work playing the hapless weekend dad in "Boyhood"--though I can make a very solid case for J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash," who is riveting as an abusive music conductor.  I love Robert Duvall, but his role in "The Judge" is far too ridiculous to be award worthy.  I would replace Duvall with Chris O'Dowd in "Calvary."

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:  PATRICIA ARQUETTE all the way.  She is absolutely wonderful as a complicated mom doing her best and making loads of mistakes in "Boyhood."  I'm not really a fan of any of the other nominees; although fair criticisms have been raised about the way Coretta Scott King is portrayed in "Selma," Carmen Ejogo's performance surpasses those of all the other nominees.  Tilda Swinton also deserved a nomination for her iconic oppressor in "Snowpiercer."

Best Cinematography:  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, though I could also make a case for "Ida.  "Mr. Turner" is also a deserving nominee; not so "Birdman" or "Unbroken." 

Best Costume Design:  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL again, with its wonderful and quirky artistic vision. 

Best Director:  RICHARD LINKLATER, among these nominees.  He really did a visionary thing by using such an extended and spacious creative process for "Boyhood."  However, Ava DuVernay absolutely deserved a nomination, as did John Michael McDonagh for "Calvary" and Pawel Pawlikowski for "Ida."

Best Documentary Feature:  FINDING VIVIAN MAIER.  Only two of the nominees were released in Portland in time for me to screen them and, of those two, the exploration of the quirky nanny with a singular eye for capturing the downtrodden on film is the most deserving.  I'm glad that "Citizenfour" was made but don't find it a particularly well-crafted film.  I would add "Keep On Keepin' On" to the list of nominees.

Best Film Editing:  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL again.  "Whiplash" is another worthy nominee in this category. 

Best Foreign Language Film:  TIMBUKTU, which was my favorite film at this year's PIFF (though I didn't screen it in time to include it in my own top ten films for 2014).  "Ida" is another worthy nominee; "Wild Tales" is entertaining but a very slight film.  The other two nominees weren't released in Portland in time, but I did see several of the other films eligible in this category and consider "Today" from Iran and "Corn Island" from Georgia far worthier of recognition than "Wild Tales." 

Best Original Song:  "GLORY" from "Selma," which accomplishes what an original film song is supposed to do.

Best Production Design:  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL for sure.  "Mr. Turner" is an especially deserving nominee in this category.

Best Visual Effects:  INTERSTELLAR, out of this rather unimpressive group of nominees. 

Best Original Screenplay:  BOYHOOD, which Richard Linklater wrote over a period of a dozen years.  "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is the only other nominee worthy of nomination.  "Calvary," "Dear White People," and "Ida" belong on this list.

Best Adapted Screenplay:  WHIPLASH, among an unimpressive group of nominees.