Saturday, July 10, 2010


It's summer time, which means I am seeing more bad films than usual (including the foul "Solitary Man" (1), the insipid "Twilight Saga: The Eclipse" (1), and the unwatchable "Splice" (-2), which is one of the two worst films I have ever seen)). Oddly, all of these got fairly decent reviews--which makes me wonder about the state of film criticism at the moment (not to mention the state of filmmaking). Fortunately, I've seen several films recently that are worth seeing.

The best of these, "Raw Faith" (10), is, unfortunately, the hardest to find. The first feature-length documentary of Portland director Peter Weidensmith has screened several times locally but hasn't received a wide theatrical release. It deserves one--and I will do my best to keep you informed of a DVD release or other opportunities to see it.

I despair of describing the film in a way that will really convey its power. Its subject is Marilyn Sewell, a beloved minister of a large Unitarian congregation in Portland . As Sewell contemplated retiring from her post, a couple of her parishioners proposed the documentary as a way of shining a light on her prophetic perspective, which they greatly admired. What Sewell brought to the enterprise was her characteristic commitment to profound honesty, which enabled Weidensmith to find a story that goes beyond Sewell's compelling family history and her thoughtful approach to her ministry and retirement. What he finds is a portrait of transformation that is specific, and uncommonly rich with inspiration and insight.

The film really sneaks up on you. It begins by conveying Sewell's approach to her ministry, something I can't recall seeing done before. Effective ministry is not well understood, in my experience--but here the attempt to depict it is helped by Sewell's own clarity of intention and by her obvious and genuine love for her congregants. You see her dedication, and get an inkling of the focused energy it takes to do her job well. Her sermons are authentic and clearly spring from a life of personal devotion.

The film acquires power as it mines Sewell's troubled childhood and finds how the pain of her early life fuels her desire to experience love in the context of ministry. The losses she experienced feel fresh; one senses how grappling with childhood suffering can and sometimes must become the work of a lifetime. Most films, like most people, miss entirely the nuances of a lifelong journey and suggest instead that one's issues can be somehow solved like a math problem or tidied like a messy room. Here we see a life lived with intention, and how that intention regularly requires conscious and painstaking effort. Often when one attains a certain degree of professional success it becomes easier to focuses one's efforts on less challenging pursuits, especially for someone who can comfort herself in the knowledge that she devotes herself to doing good. But Sewell is unwavering in her devotion to seeking truth, not only for her congregants but for herself.

And here lies the film's real power: Sewell's choice to be honest and appropriately but courageously vulnerable in front of the camera ends up giving us a front-row seat to an experience of transformation. Her journey to retirement takes twists and turns that she and presumably the filmmakers were not expecting; she confronts her deep loneliness and loss, her longing for an intimate partner, her fear of the unknown. We see that goodness and devotion does not insulate one from genuine confusion and struggle. Sewell's navigation through these waters is powerfully instructive.

While you're waiting for an opportunity to see it, here are some others you can find more easily:

"Micmacs" (8) is the latest from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of such wonders as "Amelie," "Delicatessen," and "A Very Long Engagement." If you enjoy his captivating visual style as I do, this, also, is a must-see, though the story isn't quite as inspired as some of Jeunet's other work. Still, it's engaging, involving a man whose life is twice-wrecked by weaponry and who finds renewed purpose in devising an elaborate comeuppance for two unrepentent arms dealers. He is helped by an array of eccentric characters, including a contortionist, a human calculator, and a man who speaks only in cliches. Jeunet does so love specific details that bring characters to life and devising elaborate strategems for conveying something of the connections that make us human. Like his other films, he packs this one with imagination and wit and inventive details. It's still in theaters and worth seeing on the big screen.

There are a couple of excellent documentaries still hanging on at the Livingroom Theaters in Portland. "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" (8) is a fascinating exploration of show business and what it does to people. I used to admire Rivers back in the days when she was a regular on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson but in recent years have been put off by her freakish forays into cosmetic surgery and her seemingly bottomless need for attention. This film puts both into perspective and gave me a renewed appreciation for Rivers' talent and the barriers she broke down, even while some of her antics also made me cringe.

"Stonewall Uprising" (7) locates the events of 40 years ago as the beginnings of gays and lesbians claiming an identity for the first time. Using interviews with many of the participants (including one of the policeman who was first on the scene, several young men who had been inside in the Stonewall Inn, and one of the few women involved in the uprising), the film conveys what life was like for gays and lesbians before this event and how a cataclysmic shift in energy occurred at the moment of this uprising. What looked like a riot was really the only way then available to say "we are here, and we are claiming respect for our selves"--and some of what the film conveys is how this particular struggle for human rights had to look different from others because of how gays were viewed 40 years ago. (For example, nonviolent protest didn't have the same prospects for provoking attention when the culture believes you deserve to be punished.) Oddly, the Stonewall uprising was barely even covered in the media--that's how unnameable gay experience then was. This film is a powerful exploration of a still-unfolding story.

Finally, though its short run at the Hollywood Theater is finished, put "Daddy Longlegs" (8) in your Netflix queue if you are interested in an excellent, observant, and painfully realistic study of a train wreck of a father. Ronald Bronstein, who plays the dad, had never acted before when he created this vivid character of a man who loves his two school-age sons but doesn't have the first clue how to care for them. His brilliant, mostly improvised performance conveys how it is possible for someone to be both caring and uncaring at the same time--and how the children react to a dad who is always full of fun but frequently leads them into chaos. Their dawning discomfort is palpable, as is your own sense of dread as you watch the dad endanger them by making choices that are believably unbelievable. Excellent directing work by another team of brothers, Ben and Josh Safdie, whose work here is semi-autobiographical. The young pair, apparently still in their 20s, were at the screening I attended and literally talked over each other in their frenetic excitement about their film, which received favorable notice at the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. Their presentation may have been lacking, but their directing talent is evident and worth watching for.

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