Tuesday, February 12, 2013


I am seeing so many wonderful films!  Each day there has been at least one knock-out.  I'll eventually get to all of them, but for now here are some of the best I've seen so far.

ALIEN BOY: THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JAMES CHASSE (10) is the work of Portland director Brian Lindstrom, whose prior film, "Finding Normal" (about lifelong addicts trying to find a normal life in recovery) really impressed me a few years back.  He has turned his sensitive eye to another complex story, one that Portlanders will think they know.  James Chasse, a gentle man with schizophrenia who was tackled by three police officers one day in the Pearl District, suffered terrible injuries including 17 broken ribs and a punctured lung, and then died in police custody.  Although it was well-covered by local media, it is really a more complex story than could be gleaned from following that coverage--and of course, James Chasse was not merely a mentally ill vagrant in the wrong place at the wrong time, but a person with his own story.

So Lindstrom wisely focuses first on telling us something about the man, in the voices of those who loved him.  It turns out there is a lot of material to work with, since he was an artist and a whimsical soul, and had he not spent so much of his life battling the demons of schizophrenia, he might well have been a performer or a comic book artist.  There is a surprising amount of material to mine that Chasse himself created, including letters and drawings, artistically rendered here through animation.  The kindness and care that is evident in presenting Chasse's life is a painful contrast to the treatment he got from police, who do not even seem to have regarded him as a person.

As the film progresses, the focus subtly shifts to the events that led to Chasse's death. The filmmakers (including a soulful editor) have culled through an enormous amount of material to present the horrifying events that resulted in tragedy.  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.  Although only one police officer would answer questions from the filmmaker on-camera, there is a lot of footage from the various inquiries that followed the events, so most of the story comes directly out of the mouths of participants and witnesses. 

Director Lindstrom maintains such a steady tone that all the emotions he stirs up feel really genuine, not the least bit manipulated.  It's really a masterful piece of work, with relevance that extends far beyond Portland.  The festival will run just one showing, on Friday, February 15 at 7 p.m. at Cinema 21, but it will also have a five-day run at Cinema 21 February 24 to 28.  It's my favorite festival film so far. 

Another favorite is SHUN LI AND THE POET (8.5), a tender film about immigrants in a modern Italy.  Shun Li, newly arrived from China, is stoically laboring in an oppressive arrangement in which she is totally at the mercy of her Chinese handlers, who can move her from one menial job to another on a moment's notice and who will bring her young son over from China only when they decide she has paid her debt to them.  A transfer from a factory job in Rome to a cafe in a Venetian lagoon city requires her to emerge from her carefully cultivated isolation enough to interact with the rough local men who frequent the cafe; to them she is a curiosity.  But there she meets Bepi, a Slav who immigrated to Italy thirty years earlier and has recently lost his wife.  The two strike up a quite innocent friendship based on shared experience and sensitivity; the film quite beautifully depicts how their simple conversations open each of their souls.  It also unfolds insightfully how this lovely connection, not actually threatening to anyone, evokes suspicion and threats from both the local Italians and the Chinese; it's a common but little-understood dynamic, wisely rendered without undue explanation by the filmmaker.  A lovely score, melding elements of both Italian and Chinese influences, the beautiful seaside setting, and a moving and deceptively simple story make this a film to savor.  Its festival run is over but one can hope for at least a Netflix release.

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