Monday, February 28, 2011


 What to say about a horror movie starring a tire?  Unsurprisingly, Quentin Dupieux's Rubber was one of the most unique films showcased at this year's Portland International Film Festival, even among those relegated to the late-night PIFF After Dark screenings.  Despite a completely packed house at the Hollywood Theatre, it was a good call to schedule the film as a part of the newly minted after hours series, especially since it might not have had the same draw without the blessing of local Grindhouse Film Festival overlord Dan Halsted (who programmed all the PIFF After Dark features).

 As for the movie itself, it upended all my expectations of just being a slightly more wacky take on the tried and true splattercore genre.  Instead of riding that old pony to town, Rubber takes a decidedly more conceptual route, fixing its sights on nothing less than a playful examination of the act of observation.  The killer tire of the title ends up being really no more than a sideshow act to the ideas explored by Dupieux and his cast, which pits an in-film audience (watching the movie via binoculars) against the participants of the main narrative.  Those players acting out the narrative--tracking down the tire as it rolls from one corpse to its next victim--desperately want to rid themselves of the audience, 'cause without those eyes watching them they can just relax and go home.

Yes, it is super-meta material for a genre film.  And by the end of the movie, the concept has been stretched a little thin.  Still, Rubber rises above the standard horror fare through its dogged resistance to categorization and the reliance upon ideas rather than just cheap thrills.  Plus, it's wicked fun to see with an audience.

Hopefully, it'll make its way back to a screen in PDX soon, especially since I get the feeling that it just might connect with the same adventurous audiences that came out for last year's week long run of Hausu at Cinema 21.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 15: OF LOVE & OTHER DEMONS & WHEN WE LEAVE

Hailing from Costa Rica, Of Love and Other Demons is the quite promising debut feature by director Hilda Hidalgo.  Working from a text by Gabriel García Márquez, Hidalgo crafts a deliberately paced film that entrances as much as it provokes.  As far as Márquez adaptations go, this one is especially appropriate in its translation of the great Columbian writer's evocative prose to equally fascinating imagery, especially in the haunting dream passages that are revisited several times during the film.

The story concerns Sierva, a young girl born of nobility who is bitten by a dog presumed to be rabid.  Given that it's set in colonial times, this turn of events ends up being tantamount to a prison sentence, as Sierva's condition is read by the local Catholic bishop as a possible case of demon possession.  Accordingly, she's locked up in a convent and put under the observation of a group of nuns and one sympathetic priest.

Simply told and visually stunning, Of Love and Other Demons is a film that absolutely deserves a larger audience.  Being that it's not one of the more hyped films at the festival, it would be easy to miss it in favor of more high profile films.  I'd suggest catching this modest piece now, since it could very well be the only chance to see it on the big screen in Portland.

Of Love and Other Demons plays at the Cinema 21 on Feb. 25th at 9pm and Feb. 26th at 2:30pm.

Sibel Kekilli is quickly emerging as one of the most talented actresses out of Germany.  After making her feature debut in Fatih Akin's Head-On, she was rewarded for her efforts with the best actress award at the German film awards.  With her most recently acclaimed performance in When We Leave, Kekilli has solidified the impression that she's an actress worth following, as well as capturing the best actress award in her native country for a second time.

In Feo Aladag's directorial debut, Kekilli plays Umay, a Turkish-German woman who flees the violence of her husband with her young son in tow.  Arriving at the doorstep of her parents home, all hopes that Umay will find solace in the arms of family are shattered as the strongly patriarchal traditions of her Turkish upbringing trump any concerns over her safety or happiness.

Pitch-perfect performances and Aladag's emphasis on characters over design blend to make When We Leave a completely engrossing piece of cinema, capturing a world that feels entirely lived-in and real.  There's only one moment near the very end of the film that feels even the slightest bit contrived.  But even that slight misstep can easily be forgiven when taking into account the power of the film as a whole.

When We Leave plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 23rd at 8:30pm and on Feb. 26th at 8pm.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 14 pt.2: THE LAST CIRCUS

Álex de la Iglesia isn't likely to become a household name anytime soon.  Embraced by a certain type of film nerd, the director of 800 Bullets and La Comunidad tends to push the envelope when it comes to blending representations of violence, humor and sex in darkly unhinged ways, resulting in a concoction of pure crazy that resembles the work of pretty much no one else.  My personal favorite film by him, El Crimen Perfecto, ratchets up a fairly standard take on workplace competition to murderous and (possibly) demonic heights, disregarding all notions of taste or decency.

The Last Circus travels the same path as most of de la Iglesia's best work.  Basically, this means that the legibility of the plot is sometimes obscured by the action unleashed on the screen.  For a good deal of the run time, it hardly matters, since the sheer audacity on display substitutes quite nicely for more fleshed out characters and motivations.  At the same time, the tale of two killer circus clowns battling it out in post-Franco Spain for the love (or is it the hate?) of another circus performer doesn't really need to be strongly grounded in the real to play well with audiences accustomed to cult cinema.

Honestly, I'm surprised that this one didn't get picked up for the late night PIFF After Dark programming, as it would probably click best with the same audience that showed up for Friday night's screening of Rubber.  I enjoyed The Last Circus quite a bit while still acknowledging its weaknesses (a muddled third act drowned in endless and, eventually, numbing madcap action, for instance).

I almost feel like this sort of film needs a disclaimer for the uninitiated, indicating that its concerns are tied more into b-movie aesthetics than the average festival film.  To take it too seriously would be a mistake, drastically reducing one's chances at enjoying what actually does works about the movie.
To quote a friend after the press screening: that was a complete mess.  My take: yeah, it's a mess.  A beautiful, enthralling mess.

The Last Circus plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 25th at 8:45pm.  An additional screening is scheduled at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 26th at 5:15pm.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 14 pt.1: EVEN THE RAIN

This weekend is the busiest of the fest with additional venues (Hollywood Theatre, Cinema 21 & Cinemagic) joining the PIFF army.  Between working at the fest & my regular job, it's 3 full days of doubles for me.  So here's a quick 1/2 day posting on the first of the two films screened at last Thursday's press screenings.

A Spanish film crew arrives in Bolivia to begin a production about the exploitation of the natives by Christopher Columbus.  At the same time, the indigenous people who are being cast in the film are in deep conflict with the Bolivian government over water rights, which are controlled by interests from abroad.

Icíar Bollaín's well-intentioned film pushes this parallel between historical and modern forms of colonialism well past the breaking point, reminding us at every turn how little things have changed.  It's a frightfully valid observation but the repetition of this single point lessens the overall impact of the film, especially when it feels like the recurring reminders are meant to compensate for the stragglers in the audience who may have not caught on the first five or so times that the comparison is made.

Oh...and it's also difficult to figure out who our protagonist is until more than halfway through the film.  Which would be fine in a more experimentally (or even playfully) written piece but this is one exceptionally conventional narrative film.

Even the Rain  plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 24th at 9:15pm.  An additional screening is scheduled at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 26th at 8pm.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 13: BLACK BREAD & PASSIONE

I ended up skipping the press screenings on Wednesday.  Here's what I missed:

Agusti Villaronga's Black Bread:

and John Turturro's Passione:

Black Bread plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 6pm and again at 8:30.  An additional screening is scheduled on Feb. 25th at 3:15pm.

Passione plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 20th at 5pm and Feb. 21st at 7:30pm.

Portland International Film Festival preview day 12: MY JOY & THE DOUBLE HOUR

Set against the depressed landscape of the Ukrainian roadside, Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy hitches a ride with a young trucker, Georgy, as he hauls wheat to an unnamed destination.  Along the way, he encounters a young prostitute, an elderly war veteran, a gang of homeless robbers and no end of human misery.

And then a violent shift in the action and story occurs, leaving the audience stranded with a new and oddly inaccessible principal character, which is beyond confusing since there's very little in the way of a transition leading up to this change.  The only holdover from the first part of the film being a dark, malignant tone that never lets up.

My Joy plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 19th at 8pm and Feb. 20th at 6:45pm.  An additional screening is scheduled at Cinemagic on Feb. 21st at 2pm.


Guiseppe Capotondi's The Double Hour is an odd duck of a film, starting out as an exploration of one genre before hitting the brakes and setting off in an entirely different direction.  The first third of the film had me floored as it promised to be the most original, mature and honest love story since David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls

Alas, it wasn't meant to be, since the narrative quickly drops a bomb in the lap of the audience, sending the remainder of the film off onto a more conventional, thriller-based path, which is still very entertaining but left me wishing that the filmmakers had held true to the initial thrust of the story.  It's absolutely worth seeing for that first section but somewhat diminished by the decision to move away from a simple tale of connection between two lonely people.

The Double Hour plays at Cinemagic on Feb. 19th at 4pm.  Additional screenings are scheduled at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 21st at 2pm, Feb. 22nd at 8:45pm and Feb. 23rd at 9:15pm.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 11: HOW TO DIE IN OREGON & POETRY

Peter D. Richardson's second feature-length documentary, How to Die in Oregon, is the hot ticket at the 34th annual Portland International Film Festival.  Setting his sights on showing the real life beneficiaries of Oregon's "death with dignity" law, Richardson isn't as much interested in seriously debating the political aspects of that landmark voter approved legislation as he is in exploring the comfort that its options bring some of the terminally ill subjects of his film.  As many of those individuals express for themselves, their choice to partake in physician-assisted suicide represents a final reclamation of control in the face of illnesses that have denied them that ability in every other aspect of their lives.

Winner of this year's Grand Jury prize for the best U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, How to Die in Oregon is not an easy film to watch.  At the fore of the film, we're placed in a room with a terminal cancer patient as he ingests a prescription cocktail that will bring his life to a close.  At its center, the film tells the story of Cody Curtis, a woman in her mid-fifties whose recurrent liver cancer has brought her to embrace the idea of ending life on her own terms.  Cody's story is by far the most harrowing and persuasive in a film filled with difficult themes and heart rending moments.  As she and her family openly struggle with end of life issues, the film blooms into one of the finest documentaries I've seen in many years.

How to Die in Oregon plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 19th at 5:30pm.  Additional screenings are programmed at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 20th at 9:30am and Feb. 21st at 7:30pm.  
Advanced tickets for all three shows are sold out, so anyone looking to get in should arrive at least 1/2 hour early to take advantage of any rush tickets that may be sold.

Poetry, the newest film from South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong, is a slow-moving character piece built around a late in life awakening to beauty that is marred by a cruel and irresolvable tragedy.  The film follows Mija, an aging woman who enrolls in a poetry seminar.  Mija and her classmates are given the task of writing a single poem by the time the final session comes to a close.  Her instructor's advice for writing poetry involves opening up to one's surroundings, noticing the ordinary as if encountering it for the first time.  To this end, Chang-Dong places Mija into moments of discovery that resemble visual poetry--the first drops of a rainstorm scattering over a sheet of notebook paper, for instance--while simultaneously forcing his protagonist into a terrible awakening about the nature of her grandson, Wook, and his friends.

I really enjoyed Poetry even while acknowledging my impatience with its very deliberate pacing.  Chang-Dong's slow-movement through the plot of the film gives the viewer the opportunity to crawl into the skin of Mija, feeling the horror of the truths she must face, as well as the euphoria offered up in her embrace of the poetic.

Poetry plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 19th at 2:30pm.  An additional screening is scheduled at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 21st at 6:30pm.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 10: THE FOUR TIMES & THE HOUSEMAID

Every year 'round festival time, I tend to encounter at least one feature that I end up considering my little secret.  It's usually something that didn't get a lot of advance press and/or awards gathered from Cannes or Sundance.  A couple of years ago, my "secret" was Jens Lien's The Bothersome Man.  This time around, it's Michelangelo Frammartino's The Four Times from Italy.

Frammartino's second movie is an entirely dialogue-free investigation of the transforming nature of existence, featuring an almost completely unexpected and very original shift in both the narrative and subject about a quarter of the way into the film.  It's a picture that successfully captures the most mundane aspects of rural life in ways that I've never seen depicted on celluloid.  Imagine a movie that gives equal billing to an elderly gentleman, a goat, a tree and a pile of charcoal.  Can't quite picture it?  Well, that's why you should catch The Four Times, which along with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Certified Copy is one of my favorites playing at PIFF this year.

The Four Times plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 19th at 8:30pm.  An additional screening is scheduled at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 20th at 2:45pm.

Hailing from South Korea, The Housemaid is a melodrama featuring more than a small dollop of the extreme situations that cinema fans have come to expect of films from the region.  Psychosexual tension based around issues of class?  Check.  Spooky older backstabbing ladies?  Yes, indeed-y.  Ridiculously over the top endings that still kind of work due to their sheer audacity?  You betcha.

There are moments in Sang-soo Im's (The President's Last Bang) film that don't work.  Many of the salacious sex scenes have a straight from late night cable feel that reduce the impact of the impeccable design on display in much of the film.  And the meddling mother-in-law poised as an Iago-esque adviser pushes the tone of the melodrama past the breaking point at times.  But, all in all, you could do a lot worse than to include The Housemaid as part of your PIFF experience.

The Housemaid plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 18th at 8:15pm.  An additional screening is scheduled at Cinemagic on Feb. 19th at 8:45pm.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 9: LA PIVELLINA and THE WHISTLEBLOWER

Walking into the Whitsell Auditorium on Wednesday, memories of Uncle Boonmee still dancing in my head, I really had no preconceived notions about either La Pivellina or The Whistleblower, other than thinking that the synopsis of the second film resembled Norma Rae or Silkwood meets The Constant Gardener.

Hailing from Austria but set in Italy, Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel's La Pivellina revolves around the discovery of an abandoned child on a playground swing by Patty, an aging woman with a shocking red dye job.  Patty lives in a rundown trailer park with her husband, Walter.  She brings the child home, a decision that distresses Walter, as he believes that their class position will only add to any judgment that might be brought against them if the child were discovered by others.

This is a film that is, despite what I wrote above, absolutely not plot driven.  It meanders along in a way that resembles life, even if the decision made by Patty doesn't necessarily register as something that most folks would find themselves doing. 
The image quality of the digital transfer was problematic during Thursday's screening.  The page for the film claims that the original source material was 16mm.  What I saw at the Whitsell often looked like a consumer grade camcorder image that was falling apart.  Severely underexposed passages with jagged diagonal lines were common, as were moments where objects with strongly vertical or horizontal lines seemed to bounce in and out of the image.  These rough spots were contrasted with incredibly beautiful moments of well-lit cinematography, making it apparent that the theater's equipment wasn't to blame for the marred sections of the film.

Given that very little happens in the movie, it was a shame that these image problems occurred, since it made it difficult to become fully engaged with the meandering flow of the film.  I might have liked it more if there hadn't been so many moments where I was busy being critical about the overall look of it.

La Pivellina plays at Broadway Theater on Feb. 14th at 6:15pm, Feb. 16th at 9:15pm and Feb. 17th at 8:45pm.

Larysa Kondracki's debut feature, The Whistleblower, is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska police officer who takes on a position as a U.N. peacekeeping officer in post-war Bosnia.  After aiding the first successful prosecution of a domestic abuse case in the country, Kathryn is given the opportunity to work as a gender relations official.  It's not long before she discovers that what appears to be a local prostitution is actually a highly organized human trafficking ring, protected by the very people who are supposed to be aiding the Bosnian people.

The film is extremely heavy-handed in its storytelling.  Every bit of dramatic tension that can be wrung out of the story is exploited beyond its limits.  Each moment in the film seems to boldly exclaim its own significance, begging the audience to be moved by even the most minute of details.  Yes, producers and filmmakers of The Whistleblower we do realize that sex trafficking is bad.  We (and, yeah, I'm kind of speaking for the audience here) also think that a professional police officer from a major city probably would have heard of human trafficking before stumbling upon it.  We also think that Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn deserve better than the thankless roles they struggle to flesh out in this film.

The Whistleblower plays at Cinemagic on Feb. 18th at 6:15pm.  There are additional screenings at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 20th at 12pm and at Cinemagic on Feb. 21st at 5pm.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 8: UNCLE BOONMEE & IN A BETTER WORLD

The press screening at the Whitsell Auditorium was packed on Wednesday in anticipation of two of the more hyped up films at this year's installment of PIFF.  Susanne Bier's (After the Wedding, Brothers) newest picture, In a Better World, took the best foreign language film award at the Golden Globes and is nominated in the same category at this year's Academy Awards.  Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, besides winning the competition for the longest title in the PIFF schedule, is the first film from Thailand to receive the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Uncle Boonmee is the sort of film that will appeal strongly to a certain kind of filmgoer, while leaving the majority of viewers wondering why so much attention has been placed upon this curious Thai import.  One of the festival staff confessed that a passholder complained that he has had "a better time watching oil drip down a dipstick."  Having said that, Weerasethakul's film is among the best two or three films I've seen in the program thus far.  It's a movie that continues to clang around in your head days after you've seen it.  I'm already dying to see it again.

Weerasethakul keeps the narrative wide-open, blending everyday life and myth within a loose and experimental narrative that requires the audience to suss out much of the details for themselves.  Coming out of the film with a friend, we spoke about it in terms of lenses through which the film could be viewed, rather than the specifics of plot, ranging from the mindful juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces to representations of time.  None of which goes anywhere near describing what the film looks or feels like to a first-time viewer. 
What to expect: long (VERY long) takes of natural jungle settings, vividly life-like sound design, supernatural events, unexpected movements away from the primary narrative with little to no conventional segue (ex: hey, suddenly there's a princess being carried through the jungle by her, ok, I'll just go with it), etc.

I really don't want to talk too much more about the film, as I'd encourage potential viewers to go into it with as little preconception as possible.  But here's just a very basic overview of the plot:
Boonmee is a man dying of kidney failure.  One evening while dining, the spirit of Huay, Boonmee's late wife, appears at the table.  While having a conversation with Huay's ghost, their long-missing son, Boonsong appears in a greatly transformed state.  There's talk of shadowy figures called "monkey ghosts" and interspecies (or is it supernatural) mating.  Oh, and later there's an awe-inspiring and befuddling sequence involving a princess and a catfish.  Yup...a catfish.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 16th at 8:45pm.  There is an additional screening at Cinemagic on Feb. 18th at 9pm.

In a Better World is exactly the type of film you expect to see programmed in festivals and featured at awards shows.  Examining nothing less than the human condition and the phenomenon of violence as it cycles through the culture, it sets its sights on extremely lofty (and hyper-dramatic) goals that, although traveled by many other filmmakers (yeah, I'm lookin' at you Alejandro González Iñárritu), it mostly ends up achieving.

Centering on two young boys, Christian and Elias, who have come under the attack of school bullies, the film exhibits how (yeah, I's simplistic and obvious) violence begets more violence.  Parallel to the schoolyard squabbles, Elias' father, Anton, is bullied by a mechanic after Anton breaks up a fight between two kids at a playground.  Despite Anton's warnings that reprisals will only bring more trouble, Christian and Elias decide to teach Anton's bully a lesson, a decision that spirals out of control, as these things tend to do.

In a Better World plays at Cinemagic on Feb. 20th at 4:45pm.  There is an additional screening at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 21st at 7:15pm.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Opening Night

Things get kicked off in style this evening for the 34th annual Portland International Film Festival.  The newest feature from French auteur François Ozon (Swimming Pool, Water Drops on Burning Rocks), Potiche, starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, is this year's opening night film.  The festival schedule describes the film thusly:

"Updating a popular boulevard farce and employing a shrewd sense of its vintage camp elements, Ozon and his stellar cast poke fun at the foibles of French society and the war between the sexes. Set in the late 1970s in the provincial town of Sainte-Guenole, Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) lives a bourgeois life dutifully waiting on her philandering husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who seems to be managing the family umbrella factory into bankruptcy. Everyone thinks that Madame Pujol is just “une potiche”—a trophy housewife—but when labor troubles break out at the factory and her husband has a heart attack, Madame has to take over the business. Aided by her Communist ex-lover Babin (Gérard Depardieu), she quickly proves that she’s more than mere decoration, setting in motion a suitably complicated power struggle for control of the business."

Information about the opening night screening (and the accompanying opening festivities) can be found at the official PIFF 34 site.  The madness begins now.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 7: AFTERSHOCK & A FAMILY

I entered into the Whitsell Auditorium for Tuesday's PIFF press screenings expecting to begin the day with a Chinese take on the Hollywood disaster film.  After all, this is certainly what the trailer for Aftershock would lead most people to believe:

In actuality, Xiaogang Feng's film is a dramatic feature that takes place almost entirely after the events of the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, which, according to the film, claimed the lives of over 240,000 people.  We're given entry to this tragedy via a set of fraternal twins and their mother, separated by the disaster.

The first fifteen minutes of the film, in which we meet this family and get to see the natural disaster unfold, shows a lot of promise.  But when the post-earthquake rescue is followed by the first of many narrative leaps into the future, things begin to unravel quickly and the movie loses focus.  From there, the film slowly devolves into one long slog where it becomes increasingly difficult to care much about any one member of the family, due mostly to the director's stubborn resistance to providing the audience with a central protagonist.  Aftershock is almost 2 1/2 hours long (it feels longer).   And it's very apparent where the story is headed almost from the moment the post-quake rescue effort is summed up (at about the 15 minute point).

I should mention that Aftershock is the biggest domestic box office success in the history of Chinese cinema.  Go figure.

Aftershock plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 13th at 7pm.  It screens again at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 14th at 7pm and one last time at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 17th at 5:30pm.

Pernille Fischer Christensen's (Soap) newest film, A Family is a well sculpted piece of cinema concerned with the issues of duty, love and, you guessed it, family.  Ditte is the eldest daughter of Rikard, the proprietor of a bakery that's been in the family for three generations.  Rikard, whose health is failing him, needs an heir to the family business and looks to Ditte to assume that role.  Leading up to her father's request, Ditte's been offered an enviable position at a gallery in New York and, along with her boyfriend Peter, has made sacrifices in order to accept the job.

Audience members seeking a reprieve from the realities of life need not apply for a seat at this table, as what at first seems like a light chamber drama develops into a dark and mournful film.  However, the acting alone, especially from Jesper Christensen as Rikard and Lene Maria Christensen as Ditte, is worth enduring the expected Scandinavian heaviness.  Very highly recommended.

A Family plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 12th at 3:15pm and 8:45pm and again on Feb. 14th at 9pm.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Feed, links and more added to THE RAIN FALLS DOWN ON PORTLANDTOWN

I'm still fairly new to this blogging stuff, so the site is still somewhat under construction.  Just wanted to point out a few new additions to the page:

#1  I've added the ability for readers to subscribe to a feed for the blog.  If you find what's going on here interesting, go ahead and take advantage of that feature (found in the upper right hand corner of the page).  It's the easiest way to get new posts as soon as they're published.

#2 There's a short list of links for other blogs that I enjoy reading, including local blogger Anne Richardson's great Tall True Tales: Oregon Film A to Z site.  One of her more exciting recent posts?  An announcement that the Oregon Film Commission will be hosting a pre-release screening of Kelly Reichardt's (Wendy & Lucy, Old Joy) Meek's Cutoff (starring Michelle Williams) at the Elsinore Theater in Salem, Oregon.  Check out Anne's site for more info!

#3 I've added the ability to share via Facebook & Twitter, as well as the ability to perform a Google search through the posts.  Now you can share and search to your heart's content, people!

Hope these changes make it easier to enjoy the blog.  Keep an eye out for future posts...or subscribe to the feed and you won't even have to pay that close of attention!

Portland International Film Festival preview day 6: BOY

I was feeling pretty run down when Monday morning crept around and, as a result, only caught the first of the two features programmed for that day's press screenings.  The second one, Human Resources Manager from Israel, is scheduled for a dvd release in April via the Film Movement dvd label, so I'll likely get around to it sometime 'round then.

I've been looking forward to seeing Boy ever since the festival schedule was announced.  It's the second feature from New Zealand actor/director Taika Waititi, following the indie-cult success of Eagle vs Shark (2007).  Here's the trailer for that earlier feature:

Eagle vs. Shark gathered more than a few comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, which, if you watch the trailer above, seems fair.  Except, while I didn't much care for Napoleon D, I really dug its New Zealand cousin quite a bit.  Chalk it up to different strokes for different folks...or a love of NZ accents (maybe).

Waititi's new film is an ever slightly more mature product, inspired in part by his 2003 Oscar-nominated short film Two Cars, One Night:

Boy tells the story of a kid named, appropriately enough, Boy.  After his mother died giving birth to his younger brother Rocky (yes, it's a pop reference--watch out, there are MANY), their father, Alamein, was thrown in prison for robbery.  In their father's absence, the kids have been under the care of their grandmother.  That is, until shortly after the start of the film, when Alamein is released from prison.

Thus far, Waititi's characters have all been misfits and dreamers and Boy is no exception.  He's obsessed with Michael Jackson to an almost unhealthy degree, mentioning him no less than three times during the introduction.  He's friends with a goat.  And, to top it all off, Boy is pretty sure that his father is a war hero, rather than a convict.

Alamein's return proves him to be no less delusional than his son, smoking endless amounts of marijuana and drinking all day instead of taking proper care of his kids.  Nevertheless, Boy quickly transfers his hero worship onto his father, even seeing him take on the signature moves of Michael Jackson to comic effect.

Perhaps because the narrative is filtered through the consciousness of a child, Boy comes off as less self-conscious and twee than Eagle vs. Shark felt at times.  Although I enjoyed both films, I'm guessing that the second feature will likely pull in more viewers.

Boy plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 13th at 1:45pm, Feb. 17th at 6:45pm, Feb 18th at 6pm and Feb. 19th at 8:15pm.

Just in case anyone's curious about the second film that screened on Monday, here's the trailer:

Human Resources Manager plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 12th at 8pm, Feb. 13th at 2:45pm and Feb. 13th at 5:15pm.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Exceptional films from years past

I've spent a lot of time this week writing about the films that are about to play at this year's Portland International Film Fest.  Here's a short list of some of the best films I've caught at the annual fest (mind you, I've only been living in PDX for about 6 years now):

The Bothersome Man dir. Jens Lien from Norway:

Silent Light dir. Carlos Reygadas from Mexico:

Lights in the Dusk dir. Aki Kaurismäki from Finland:

The Edge of Heaven dir. Fatih Akin from Germany:

The Visitor dir. Thomas McCarthy from the United States:

Taxidermia dir. György Pálfi from Hungary:

Shotgun Stories dir. Jeff Nichols from the United States:

Afghan Muscles dir. Andreas Dalsgaard from Denmark:

Red Road dir. Andrea Arnold from England:

Fish Tank dir. Andrea Arnold from England:

Chronicle of an Escape dir. Adrián Caetano from Argentina:

Forever dir. Heddy Honigmann from the Netherlands:

Portland International Film Fest preview day 5: CERTIFIED COPY & IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE

I'm not even going to bother pretending that Friday's press screenings for PIFF need much vetting, since the festival programmers saved two of the most critically acclaimed films at the fest for the end of the week.  Along with Monday's screening of Silent Souls from Russia, If I Want to Whistle I Whistle and Certified Copy were the finest features of the week.  Whereas viewing the previous day's screenings had felt a bit like doing homework, Friday's films were an absolute joy to watch.

Florin Serban's If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle peers deeply into the world of Silviu, a teenage inmate at a juvenile detention center in the Romanian countryside.  Two weeks before he is to be released from the institution, Silviu is visited by his younger brother, who informs him that their mother has returned and has plans to abscond to Italy in one week with the younger brother in tow.  Being the damaged product of his mother's care, Silviu is shaken by this news and enters into an unsteady campaign to prevent their mother from realizing her intentions.

Romanian films aren't exactly known for their light and airy approaches to narrative and this one doesn't stray at all from that preconception.  Serban's camera places Silviu in an emotionally unforgiving and cold terrain that owes a debt of influence to the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, La Promesse).  Like those Belgian filmmakers, the director abstains from the use of unnecessary exposition to tell his story, preferring to observe behavior rather than explain it.  It's a strategy that pays off in dividends, as we are placed intimately into the spaces occupied by the young protagonist and forced to grapple with his frustrations and decisions.  If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is a great film by an emerging talent.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 11th at 7pm, Feb. 12th at 5:15pm and Feb. 15th at 9pm.

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (Ten, Close-Up) is without debate an established master in the contemporary cinematic canon, celebrated critically and at film festivals the world round.  Which, unfortunately, doesn't translate to most of his films being very accessible to the majority of film goers.  Experimental documentaries and narratives set almost entirely in automobiles apparently don't thrill the masses, regardless of how many film geeks gush at the mere mention of Kiarostami's name.  His new film, Certified Copy, starring French film star Juliette Binoche (who won the best actress award at Cannes for this performance) and the world-renowned opera baritone William Shimell, has more potential to draw in new viewers to Kiarostami's work than any of his films since the much loved 1997 feature, Taste of Cherry.

Which is not to say that Certified Copy is without its own experimental devices, as the film certainly blurs its narrative into an exercise wherein reality takes on the shape of the ideas being debated by the characters.  However, these unorthodox narrative tendencies are made entirely palatable by the sheer loveliness of the performances, the lush look of the film and the tireless wit of the screenplay.  I won't bother with describing the actual story, as it's best encountered freshly and without preformed notions about its plot.

At this point, there's still another two weeks (and twenty films) left in the PIFF press screening schedule.  For now, I declare Certified Copy the one to beat.

Certified Copy plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 12th at 3pm and Feb. 14th at 8:45pm.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 4: SON OF BABYLON & THE FIRST GRADER

Four days into these press screenings, I've seen five films (out of eight) that feature war torn landscapes.  Can't express just how much this makes me look forward to some of the comedies that are scheduled for next week.

Thursday's first feature was Mohamed Al-Daradji's Son of Babylon, essentially a road movie (on foot, bus, cart, etc.) set in Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein's fall from power.  A boy, Ahmed, and his paternal grandmother, Ur-Ibrahim, travel across a deeply scarred Iraqi terrain in search of the child's father, Ibrahim, who was reportedly imprisoned shortly after the Persian Gulf War of the 90s.

Admirably, the film narrows its perspective to reflect only the experience of the central characters, refusing to include too many explanatory details regarding the political tension of that time and place  Rather than attempting to present an historical overview, Al-Daradji places much import upon the personal loss that Iraq's conflicted past has wrought upon Ahmed and Ur-Ibrahim.  And it's the focus on the smaller details of their larger challenge that allows the film to succeed as much as it does in the end.

The First Grader tells the true tale of an elderly Kenyan man, Maruge, who wants to attend an elementary school that has recently opened in his village.  Maruge is a survivor of the fight against British colonialism, which provides ample opportunity for the atrocities perpetrated against the Kenyan people to be relayed via flashbacks from Maruge's past.  In addition to those flashbacks, we also get more than a few truncated nods to the rhetoric of tribalism (both past and present) in Kenya.

While the film succeeds greatly on a technical level (beautiful cinematography, good performances, tight editing, etc.), the actual treatment of the story is so lightweight and steered towards a "feel-good" response that it's hard to take the film very seriously at all.  To make matters worse, the dialogue is peppered with groan-worthy platitudes that the filmmakers seem to have intended us to read as heartfelt and deep.  An example: one character asks, "can't we just put the past behind us?"  Another responds: "the past is always present, never forget that..."

Essentially, what we have here is a formulaic and slickly presented piece built around the notion that an inspirational true story always yields an inspirational film.  In this case, the final product ends up serving as a strong challenge to that assumption.

The First Grader plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 11th at 6pm.  An additional screening is scheduled for Feb. 14th at 6pm at the Whitsell Auditorium.

Portland International Film Festival preview day 3: HIS & HERS and OF GODS & MEN

Wednesday's press screenings presented two films with very little in common other than their fixed focus on a single gender.  Even thought the title would suggest otherwise, the documentary His & Hers is made up entirely of interviews with women.  And, although a few women do show up in Of Gods and Men, the film places nearly all of its attention on a group of men and the uneasy decision facing them.

Ken Wardrop's His & Hers concerns itself with Irish women talking about the men in their lives.  As these women speak of their fathers, lovers, husbands and sons, the stories unite into a single and common tale of a life lived with men

Unfortunately, there's one glaringly big issue that keeps the film from blooming into something beyond a series of interviews on a related topic.  The choice to structure the film in a chronological order based on the age of the women, beginning with a baby and ending with a woman alone in a nursing home, is a great idea on paper that sadly doesn't bear as exciting of fruit as one might expect.  Instead, this editing strategy forms a film where the best interviews are delayed until the final quarter of the film, forcing us to wade through quite a lot of facile chit-chat beforehand.  While such a commitment to strategy is admirable, the actual application ends up producing a much weaker film than a non-chronological use of the interviews might have yielded.

I'm afraid I admired His & Hers more than I actually enjoyed it.  The final interviews with a series of widows are fantastic but cannot make up for the overall problems contained within the structure of the piece.  Pleasant enough but, ultimately, unsatisfying.

His & Hers plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 12th at 5:45pm.  Additional showing are at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 13th at 2:30pm and at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 15th at 6:15pm.


Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, winner of last year's Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, sets its sights on exploring the choice that a group of French monks in Algeria must make when war breaks out near their monastery.  Based on actual events during thee mid-90s Algerian civil war, Of Gods and Men masterfully establishes the pre-war peace of their monastic life, painting an admirable connection and ongoing dialogue between the Christian monks and the Islamic villagers who share the rural setting of the film.

The pivotal question that emerges when the danger of war draws ever close is this: does the threat of death negate the monks' obligation to God and the villagers?  Beauvois (Le Petit Lieutenant) explores that tension between faith, duty and mortal concerns via the daily meetings of the men and, most effectively, in the songs of faith that they sing throughout the film.  Those moments are supported by a gracefully elegiac pacing and tone that never ignores the dramatic circumstances of the characters but also resists being whipped into frenzy by them.

Of Gods and Men plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 12th at 8:15pm.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Portland International Film Festival Preview day 2: THE FIRST BEAUTIFUL THING & INCENDIES

Tuesday's press screenings paired two features involving adult children dwelling on the past history of their mothers.  Despite sharing interests in maternal themes, the films were strikingly different in tone.

The first film of the day came in the form of a sweet Italian melodrama.  Paolo Virzi's The First Beautiful Thing is a highly formal romp through the distant and messy past of a now much older and recently hospitalized woman.  Her son Bruno, a once promising poet turned teacher, has fallen into depression, drugs and drink, blaming his failures on painful memories of an unhappy childhood.  When the news of his mother's hospitalization brings him to her hospital bedside, he is forced to confront both the circumstances of his upbringing and the present state of his mother's health.

Refreshingly, the film doesn't try to exonerate the mother for either her poor parenting skills or the endless parade of unscrupulous men in whose beds she fell.  Bruno's remembrances of what he and his sister had to endure while in their mother's care are treated as objective renderings of their living conditions at the time.  These memories review and inspire some rather hilarious sequences in both the past and the present, such as when Bruno confesses being overcome by a feeling of emptiness and then attempts to fill it by ransacking his mother's home for any available intoxicants.

Overall, though, the film felt like a rather rote, by-the-numbers production, simply giving us what we've come to expect from this lighthearted genre of Italian film.  Everything is exceptionally pretty but none of the characterizations carry much weight--and that goes double for the predictable manner in which the story unfolds.  I left this early screening feeling more catered to than challenged, which is quite the opposite of why I usually go to the movies.  Still, I'm positive that many people will be amply satisfied by this meal.

The First Beautiful Thing plays at 8:45pm on Feb. 11th at the Broadway Theater.  There will be additional showings at the Broadway on Feb. 13th at 7:30pm and Feb. 16th at 6pm.

Next up was Incendies from Canada, the Academy Award-nominated film by director Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom).

When Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) dies, she leaves behind a will that stipulates that her children can only mark her grave if they carry out one last task for their mother's sake.  The mission involves the delivery of two sealed envelopes--one to a brother they never knew existed and another to the father they assumed was dead--in present day Lebanon.  The story deftly intertwines this journey with a harrowing retelling of their mother's life during the civil war of the 1970s

This is big, (capital "I") important storytelling that often teeters towards excess, without fully tumbling into the abyss of the sensationalistic.  Given what the final 15 minutes of the film hold for the viewer, this is quite a feat indeed.

Incendies plays at 8:30pm on Feb. 11th at the Whitsell Auditorium.  There will be an additional showing at the Broadway Theater at 4:15pm on Feb. 13th.
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