Tuesday, January 31, 2012


The Salt of Life is writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio's second film, after the charming surprise that was Mid-August Lunch, to follow the modest exploits of an aging Italian man named Gianni (played by Di Gregorio, naturally).  The first film had Gianni entertaining his elderly mother and her friends, cooking them elaborate meals while watching over them.  This time around, Gianni's on his own and looking for a little romance, despite the fact that he's a family man.

Di Gregorio places Gianni into a context that makes the moral aspect of Gianni's quest harmless, allowing the audience to be amused by his missteps, rather than concentrate on the infidelity.  We know early on that he's in a sexless marriage, broke, unemployed and endlessly called upon by his mother and others for errands and help.  In these relationships, he exudes a selflessness bordering on the masochistic, never really taking anything for himself, always accepting what comes to him, no matter how thankless.  So, when a friend keeps suggesting that Gianni seek a little pleasure for himself in the form of an affair, the logic of the world presented makes it seem a reasonable route, even if it takes a while for Gianni to come around to the idea.

The Salt of Life is the rare sequel that works, fully recapturing the magic that made Mid-August Lunch such a treat.  It's completely unnecessary to have seen the former film in order to appreciate it, although a quick look at Mid-August Lunch (it's a breezy 80-min. in length) will only deepen your joy when watching the new movie.

In the screening that I saw, there were numerous moments that evoked roars of laughter from the audience.  This is easily the funniest film I've seen in 2012, wringing humor out of even the most cliched of situations.  It's a rare treat and I'll probably still be talking about it as the year comes to a close.

The Salt of Life will screen for the public at the Lake Twin Cinema on Feb. 10th at 6pm and, again, at Cinemagic on Feb. 12th at 5:45pm.

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And here we go again: the press screenings for the 35th annual Portland International Film Festival began yesterday morning.  First up, a film about young love or, really, recovery from first love.

Goodbye First Love is Mia Hansen-Løve's (Father of My Children) take on the puppy love, gone awry film.  Young Camille (Lola Créton) is hopelessly taken with her boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky).  Sullivan claims to love her but also doesn't want to grow "too dependent," spending nights away from Camille at parties while planning a move to South America.  Predictably, it's not long before Sullivan is out of the picture, fracturing her immature view of what constitutes life.

The film spends an incredible amount of time focusing on Camille's emotional recovery, only to send her into the arms of her much older architectural studies professor, Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke), a move that, like the initial breakup with Sullivan, one can see coming from a mile away.  This relationship is also strained, although, this time, it's her inability to fully commit that threatens it.

Overall, Goodbye First Love is a perfectly fine distraction.  It's well shot and the performances are admirable.  If there is something to complain about, it's that Hansen-Løve focuses so intensely on Camille's post-breakup depression that there's little room for plot advancement during a very large chunk of the film.  Most of the time, when it's not bogged down by pacing issues, it's a fairly pleasant, though somewhat slight, film.

Goodbye First Love will screen for the public at the Lloyd Mall 5 on Feb. 12th at 2pm and, again, at Cinema 21 on Feb. 17th at 8:45pm.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Best of 2011: The Top 5

#5 How to Die in Oregon (dir. Peter Richardson):

A brave, even-handed look at Oregon's Death with Dignity act.  Rather than dwell on the law itself, Richardson goes directly to those who are affected by its provisions.

Hit the link to read what I had to say about it back in February.

#4 The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick):

Terrence Malick's newest vision split audiences wildly, some lapping it up while other viewers chose to turn their backs on it entirely. To be sure, this isn't your average, run of the mill entertainment, reduced to explainable phenomena and wrapped up with a tidy, little moralistic bow at its close; Malick is grappling with large philosophical issues, the answers to which are unreachable by any artistic medium.

Religion, science, special effects, personal mythology and the mysteries of connectivity are all employed but meaning is left to the viewer to discern. To some, this puzzle felt like homework. To others, a visually rich gift.

#3 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul):

A farmer dying of kidney failure is visited by long departed family members and a series of memories/visions reaching back to before he was born. Weerasethakul breathes new life into the cinema with this trance-inducing, experiential work that defies literal explanations.

One of the few films I've seen in recent years that bears an excessive amount of repeated viewings. Just thinking about it now makes me want to watch it again.

Hit the link to see what I had to say about it in February.

#2 Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino):

My favorite narrative film of the year was also the biggest surprise at the 2011 edition of the Portland International Film Festival, arriving with little to no advanced hype from other festivals.

Hit the link to read my thoughts about it in February (when it was billed locally as The Four Times).

#1 Nostalgia for the Light (dir. Patricio Guzman):

A documentary that blends parallel facts, concepts and viewpoints into a personal and historically-based meditation on time, memory and loss. Despite the dire truths being dealt with here, Guzmán infuses the film with a tactile sense of hope, refusing to give up on his native soil. A remarkable film that pushes boundaries without flash or pomp.

Hit the link to read what I wrote about it back in March.

Thanks for reading.  If you missed the previous "best of 2011" posts, they can be quickly reached here:

Best of 2011: #6-10 
Best of 2011: #11-15 
Best of 2011: #16-20
Best of 2011: The Runners Up

And remember, the press screenings for the 35th annual Portland International Film Festival begin tomorrow.  I'll be at those screenings and actively posting about them on the blog.  So keep an eye out for updates this week and throughout the festival!

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Terry Gilliam's new film--now on demand!!!

Briefly, I just wanted to note that Terry Gilliam's brand new film, The Wholly Family, is being hosted online by The Guardian.  The 20-minute short is available for streaming on demand here.  From the details present on the page, it looks like it will be around for a while, but you might want to jump on it, just in case it's a limited event.

Here's the trailer:

And an interview with Gilliam promoting the short:


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Best of 2011 --> six through ten

#10 The Future (dir. Miranda July):

I admired Miranda July's previous film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, but was still befuddled by the sheer amount of ink spilled on its behalf back in 2005.  After seeing her second feature,  I am absolutely drinking the Kool-aid now.

July dials back the more twee aspects of her art and finds herself capable of weaving the various ideas at play in The Future into a piece with far more cohesive center.

A thoroughly captivating, touching and relatable film with great insight into the disconnects and moments of stasis that plague every relationship.  Placing too much emphasis on the future, it seems to forward, can effectively poison both it and the present.

#9 Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols):

Michael Shannon exudes a helpless confusion bordering (and sometimes crossing into) manic violence in Jeff Nichols' follow-up to his phenomenal debut (Shotgun Stories). Shannon plays Curtis, a man reaching the age at which his mother began to manifest signs of schizophrenia. Cue the waking hallucinations and recurring nightmares, all of which deal either with an oncoming storm or a betrayal by someone close to him.

Nichols deftly directs his own screenplay, never allowing the material to get overtaken by the symbology employed throughout the story. The strain on the relationship between Curtis and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) is, appropriately, given more weight than the moments where Curtis is frozen in his tracks by the visions that plague him.

Although Take Shelter falls just short of possessing the power of Shotgun Stories; one of the best of the prior decade, both films are riveting testaments to the collaborative powers of Nichols and Shannon. Here's hoping their relationship continues to bloom onscreen.

#8 Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier):

A film that fully embodies the feeling of a cold, disabling depressive bout. Von Trier takes a gigantic risk by revealing his cards early on in the first several minutes of the film. After giving the viewer an idea of what to expect, via the seductively beautiful introduction, he leaves us to suffer through the long, emotionally-muted slog to a conclusion already foretold.

Despite the high demands it puts on the viewer, Melancholia is exceedingly difficult to look away from, punishing us as we engage with it.

#7 Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami):

Most movies define their characters early on, never straying far from those initial impressions of who it is we are watching. Certified Copy moves in an entirely different fashion. Kiarostami plays a shell game with the audience, telling us first who these people (Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) are before throwing us a long curve that lasts throughout the rest of the film.

In many ways, Certified Copy is reminiscent of pictures like Mindwalk and My Dinner with Andre, an odd duck of a microscopic sub-genre of cinema built around captivating conversations, rather than the standard focus on actions and scenarios.  Hit the link to read what I had to say about the film last February.

#6 Shame (dir. Steve McQueen):

Quite simply, the best performances I saw last year were on display in Steve McQueen's Shame. Michael Fassbender, reunited with his director from Hunger, stretches beyond himself, fully projecting the image of man hollowed out by sexual addiction. It's a layered performance that mixes compulsion with humiliation, all tempered with a strong dose of alienation.

Carey Mulligan is incredibly solid as well, mining the tension within several places to memorable effect. The extended moment in which she sings is probably the most exquisitely painful to behold; this in a film filled with difficult moments throughout.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

PIFF 35 site is up and running!

The 35th edition of the Portland International Film Festival is nearly upon us.  Just as we were beginning to crave more news about this year's festival, the official website just went live.

There aren't any listings for this year's lineup yet but there is info about how to buy passes, etc.  And, according to the site, the full schedule will be online by January 31st.

In related news, Shawn Levy of The Oregonian already spilled the beans about the locations that will play a part in the festival over a week ago.

That's it for now.  You can be sure that we'll have more posts about PIFF in the near future.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Best of 2011 -->> eleven through fifteen

#15 Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh):

The small victories of an aging English couple are contrasted against the miserable lives of their friends.  It isn't that Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) have everything; their successes are modest: occupations that feed them intellectually and spiritually, the emotional support of each other, and a adult son whose company they enjoy.  But placed against Mary's (Lesley Manville) complete inability to navigate the daily grind, theirs are lives that work.

A true actor's piece where everyone completely inhabits their roles.  This may be my favorite Mike Leigh film since Life is Sweet.

#14 Tabloid (dir. Errol Morris):

Errol Morris returns to the valley of the freaks with this one.  The film relays the exploits of Joyce McKinney, a woman who, after being dumped, assumed her boyfriend had been brainwashed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  So, what's a girl to do?  Allegedly, Joyce's solution was to kidnap, drug and rape the man out of his religious convictions.
Morris is a master documentary filmmaker; one of our best.  Here he plays both sides of the story, letting Joyce, her accusers and those caught in the fray the opportunity to tell their version of the truth. 

#13 Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog):

An admission: during first 15 minutes or so, I was disappointed that this film features none of Herzog's characteristically downcast narration. This, however, was before I understood what he was trying to craft here.  Simply put, this documentary is Herzog's most mature work to date.  Accordingly,  he keeps himself (mostly) out of the picture, choosing instead to focus on the story of a triple homicide and the people involved.

Herzog's version of Texas is one where everyone has experienced loss, often violently, leading us to believe that the central crime of the narrative is just a more heightened version of business as usual. Of course, post-screening, one must square the facts presented with Herzog's own notion of ecstatic truth, at which point the portrait of Texas does become questionable, as does the sequence where Herzog shows us the bullet-ridden cars that "testify" to various acts of violence. But the impact of the film remains.

#12 Senna (dir. Asif Kapadia):

The simultaneously thrilling and tragic tale of Aryton Senna, the best Formula One racing driver of his generation, is told almost entirely through frenetically-charged, archival materials. As such, it is a documentary of pure immediacy, a historical portrait that plays out in the present tense most of the time. A tension-filled masterpiece capable of captivating even viewers who know nothing (or care nothing) of the sport that its subject dominated.

#11 Meek's Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt):

Kelly Reichardt's third collaboration with screenwriter Jon Raymond finds the duo moving even further away from explanatory exposition than in their previous films. Meek's Cutoff is more about what is left unspoken.
Hit the link to read what I had to say about it in March.


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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Best of 2011 -->> sixteen through twenty

There is little that is more subjective than attempts to list the "best-of" any given thing or category.  Ranking artifacts of pop culture, especially in cases like this, when the items in question are fairly new to this world, deepens my own suspicion that the hierarchical ordering of one thing over another is a task belonging to false prophets and the self-deluded.

In the spirit of this election year, however, I fully endorse my inclusion of all the films on this list.  It's the ordering, especially the top 5 films, that troubles me.  Granted a different mood, a second viewing or, especially, the passage of time, I imagine the ordering of the list would be quite different.  So...take the following with a grain of salt.  Check out the films you may have missed and consider taking another look at those you've already seen.  I dug 'em all.

#20 The Names of Love (dir. Michel Leclerc):

This French gem is a work of biting sociopolitical critique masquerading as a romantic comedy. Remember that song from Mary Poppins about how "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down?" In this case, the familiarity of genre is the sugar that allows for an easier acceptance of what's being forwarded. 
The two leads, Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin, display an impeccable gift for this kind of material and their shared chemistry leaps off the screen.  It's also very likely the funniest film I saw this year.

#19 Win Win (dir. Thomas McCarthy):

Thomas McCarthy's semi-recent transition from an actor to an actor's director has continued to pay out in dividends. From the modest successes of The Station Agent and The Visitor, it became clear that McCarthy knew his way around story and character, anchoring both to an emotional weight that is hard to resist. 
Like those previous films, Win Win has heart aplenty and a cast made up of great American character actors like Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. The story, about a failing lawyer who coaches a high school wrestling team, barely registers this time around, since McCarthy places the focus on the lives of the people who populate it. In other words, it's not really about the wrestling.

#18 The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (dir. Werner Herzog):

This is probably the only 3d film where I felt the gimmick enhanced the viewing experience.  Herzog takes his audience deep below the earth's surface to question humanity's shared drive to leave behind testaments to our own existence.  The paintings found at the Chauvet caves in France serve as a springboard for Herzog's philosophical musings about why we create and what it means in the larger scheme of all things human.

#17 Of Gods and Men (dir. Xavier Beauvois):

I saw this one a second time when it came out on Blu-ray. It only deepened my appreciation of the acting on display here. Hit the link to see what I wrote about the film back in February.

#16 Bobby Fischer Against the World (dir. Liz Garbus):

The tragic tale of chess genius Bobby Fischer made for one hell of a tensely, dramatic documentary. Edited by the late Karen Schmeer whose cutting here resembles the intelligent pacing of her work on Errol Morris' films.


And that concludes this installment of "the best of 2011."  The next five on the list should be up on the blog fairly soon, so stay tuned for more.   In the meantime, why not check out some of the films on the list?

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Best of 2011: The Runners Up

Ah, 2011...we hardly knew ye.  Luckily, there's never a shortage of "best of" lists each year to aid us in remembering the good times (or, in most cases, to help us catch up...whatever that means).  With this in mind, what's the harm of one more, eh?

The compiled list of top favorites will have to wait for now, since I found it nearly impossible to limit myself to only 20 selections for the year.  As a result, I've put together this list of honorable mentions.  Think of them as films that were, for some reason or other, edged out of the top 20.

It's worth mentioning that on both lists there are a few films that were released prior to 2011.  My rationalization for including these films is simple: I didn't have the opportunity to see them until 2011.  An example?  One of the highest ranking flicks on the upcoming top 20 list screened at festivals all over the world in 2010 but didn't hit Portland until last February.

So, in no particular order, here are the runners up---->>>

Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen):

Just pure fun.  Owen Wilson hasn't been this likeable in years.  Meanwhile, Paris actually resembles a city you'd want to visit, rather than a picked over, tourist hell.  Probably the best film Allen's made since Deconstructing Harry, definitely his best comedy since then.  It also contains wonderful supporting performances by Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Michael Sheen as the kind of boring "pseudo-intellectual" that Allen (or his proxy in those pictures where he's absent onscreen) routinely lambasts in his movies.

Amer (dir. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani):

An edgy, experimental and provocative homage to Italian horror of the 60s and 70s, Amer transcended the horror genre (is it really a horror film at all?) by mixing the stylistic flourishes it grabbed from giallo cinema with a post-modern take on feminist film theory.  Hit the link to see what I said about it when it came out on dvd in October.

Poetry (dir. Chang-dong Lee):

It's hard to say which event is sadder in this one; the protagonist's discovery of the evil her grandson has wrought or the too little, too late opening up to the beauty of the everyday.  Either way, the delicate balance that is built between the two is fully fleshed out by the transcendent performance of Jeong-hie Yun.

Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade):

There are some who would try to convince you that this is just a less effective Wes Anderson film.  Sure, Anderson's conceits are in the mix, but so is James Thurber's short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", the temporal freedom of the French new wave, Hal Ashby's whimsical morbidity and the warped fantasies of Billy Liar (a film also in debt to Thurber's henpecked husband).  Hit the link to read what I had to say back in October.

The Strange Case of Angelica (dir. Manoel de Oliveira):

A magical film grounded in its own logic, detailing obsession and the passing of an era.  In The Strange Case of Angelica, photography, love and life itself is fleeting Oliveira's film possesses such a light touch that most of its themes wait until after the closing titles to surface; it's a film that stays with you.

Cedar Rapids (dir. Miguel Arteta):

Arteta's earlier films Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl were distinctive indie hits that bear repeated viewings.  His sadly forgotten debut Star Maps (still unavailable on dvd) was no slouch eitherThe marketing strategy for Cedar Rapids sought to draw in the massive crowds that flocked to The Hangover.  This one's far less broad than that hit film, though.  It's actually quite touching at times, patiently wading through the emotional struggle of its protagonist with honesty.  In the hands of a lesser director, the same material could just have easily mined the central character's failings for cheap laughs.  Cedar Rapids ends up displaying far more depth for resisting the easy road.

Silent Souls (dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko):

A beautiful meditation on loss, both personal and cultural.  Hit the link to see what I had to say about it during PIFF last year.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (dir. Florin Serbin):

A tough look at life in a Romanian prison for adolescent boys.  Here's what I wrote back in February about it.

Rocaterrania (dir. Brett Ingram):

A documentary portrait of scientific illustrator Renaldo Kuhler; a man who funneled his woes into the life-long creation of an imaginary country that rests between the U.S. and Canada.  Rocaterrania relays this story mostly through Kuhler's art and words.  The film came out in 2009 but was really difficult to see until last year's release on dvd.

The Trip (dir. Michael Winterbottom):

Michael Winterbottom's six episode British television series as distilled down into a feature-length vehicle for U.S. audiences.  Do I wish we yanks had been given the full thing?  Of course.  But you can't argue with something as fun as watching Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon riffing on their own personalities as they travel through the English countryside.  It's The Odd Couple grafted to some kind of meta satire of reality tv, travel-based cuisine shows.

Barry Munday (dir. Chris D'Arienzo):

An unreasonable premise--a man made sterile by a brass instrument--is only the teeing off point for this very funny comedy.  Even with the well-worn redemption through loss motif in play, Barry Munday distinguishes itself by not treating its characters as the comedic material.  Surely, the joke is on them but it's the circumstances that are funny, not the failings of the people being portrayed.  Like Roccaterrania, this one was made in a previous year but only came under my radar after its release on dvd.

And that's it for now...
We'll hit you up with the a chunk of the top 20 list sometime over the next few days.  Keep an eye out for that post!

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Welcome to the new year!!!

Happy new year everyone!!!  A belated best of 2011 list heading to the blog sometime in the next week.  Funny how a new baby and film projects can slow this stuff down to (less than) a trickle.  Looking back, the last time I posted was three days before my son was born.

I've already started compiling the list, so keep an eye out.  It should be hitting the blog in no time.  And speaking of blogging, PIFF 35 is happening next month.  I'm working the festival again, so expect to see more frequent posting during the month of February!

Until then, here's hoping everyone had a safe, happy holiday celebration and are on their way to a beautiful 2012.

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