Friday, August 31, 2012


Oslo, August 31st might be the most depressing film I've seen all year; an honor that last year went to Steve McQueen's unnerving meditation on addiction, Shame.  Plainly put, this Norwegian import isn't about to alter anyone's opinion that there's a strong proclivity within Scandinavian cinema to delve into dark territories; redemption isn't what this film is about, folks.  It'd be a crime if its downcast subject matter ended up denying it an audience, though.  While there's no doubt that this is an exceptionally bleak work, the film does far more in its 95 minutes than just gaze into the abyss.  Oslo, August 31st is a work of great filmmaking, offering an emotional experience that lingers far after the curtain closes on the tale it tells.

The film follows Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a recovering drug addict who is given a day pass from his rehab program.  Before he leaves the institution, he makes an unsuccessful attempt to drown himself by walking into a lake while clutching a heavy stone.  Shortly after, he visits his old friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) whose now domesticated existence runs counter to the days when the two men used to rage together.  Anders soon confronts Thomas with the plan he's been harboring: he's going to deliberately shoot a lethal dose of heroin.

Everything that follows that revelation becomes sharply divided into arguments for and against the decision.  Anders believes that it's too late to begin anew, despite only being in his early 30s; something that's reinforced by a botched job interview where his past seems to limit his future prospects.  Rebutting that perspective are the multiple meetings he has over the course of the day with friends and old lovers, as well as a brief, beautiful encounter that hints at the possibilities available to him, if only he can muster the will to seize them.

Director Joachim Trier understands the necessity for the debate to unfold organically, allowing very little hope that Anders will be turned from his stated objective.  We watch as he floats through Oslo like a disembodied soul, barely present as he listens in to conversations in crowded rooms, offering nearly the same presence when overhearing the interactions of others as he does in those exchanges in which he is actively engaged.  It's frustratingly sad to watch.  With all the reasons why Anders should choose life plainly on display, it's still impossible to shake the fear that he'll act on his grievous intentions.

With Oslo, August 31st, Trier gives us an incredibly powerful look at a dispossessed individual at the end of his rope.  He's crafted a humanely rendered depiction that motivates, instead of manipulating, the audience to care deeply for what happens to its protagonist.  It's moving, sorrowful trip through a city by a man who has given up on his life.  And as difficult as it is to watch as the film dives deeper into hopelessness, it would be far harder to look away from a film as perfectly conceived as this one.

Highly recommended.

Oslo, August 31st begins its run at Living Room Theaters on Friday, August 31st.  More info available here.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen) seem to believe that they're working at a very high level of collaborative storytelling with 360, a dreadfully dull, overly serious multiple arc piece that spends much effort moving its characters around a global chessboard without ever bothering to develop most of them into relatable or even interesting human beings.  Beginning with a voice over from Mirka (Lucia Siposová), a woman being photographed by the man who will become her pimp, the film announces its intentions (or is it pretensions?) to examine the rippling effects that choice has upon one's personal fate.

Mirka's entry into prostitution gives way to the story of Michael (Jude Law), a man looking to step out on his wife while away on a business trip.  So, of course, he's meant to be Mirka's first client, but it's not meant to be, so the film quickly transitions to a short passage about his wife Rose (Rachel Weisz), who is successfully engaging in an affair with a much younger man.  This is the pattern that the film sticks with for its entire running time; constantly flitting about from one semi-connected character to another, rarely allowing anything to stick other than the premise that life presents all of us with a series of "forks in the road."

Not too long ago, these kinds of stories involving interlocking characters connected through a series of coincidences and outlying forces were seemingly ubiquitous.  There have been a few great films (Nashville, Traffic, Magnolia) that illustrate how one might achieve this kind of narrative high-wire act, but alongside these successful takes stand many poorer examples (Babel and, especially, Fast Food Nation come to mind) of this particular mode of yarn spinning.  Regrettably, 360 has its foot mostly in the latter category. 

Like Babel, 360 takes itself far too seriously, but even Babel had the decency to treat its audience to a couple of fully fleshed-out scenarios (in Mexico & Japan) on the way to its overly high-minded and self-important observation about how "we" are basically all the same.  The best that 360 can muster is a halfway interesting interaction between a woman (Maria Flor) exiting a bad relationship and a grieving father (Anthony Hopkins) before abandoning those characters for yet another half-written story thread.  It's ironic that a film that wants to talk about the choices we make feels like the product of some very creative folks who were not able to choose only those stories that would best serve their work.  As it stands, 360 feels overstuffed and nonessential.

360 begins its run at Living Room Theaters on Friday, August 31st.  More info available here.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Portland can count the the Hollywood Theatre's monthly Grindhouse Film Festival events among its many blessings.  Where else but at these screenings are you gonna have the opportunity to see 35mm prints of b-grade & Euro-horror fare with an enthusiastic audience of folks willing to imagine a world where these films are equal, if not better than, the established classics of the cinematic canon?  Or more specific to tonight's screening: where else are you likely to be treated to a non-digital presentation of Douglas McKeown's 1983 cult-classic The Deadly Spawn on a big ass screen?  Nowhere else, that's where.

Take it away, Grindhouse press release:

The Grindhouse Film Festival presents a rare 35mm print of The Deadly Spawn! This is one of the great crowd-pleasing horror movies of the 1980's. The Deadly Spawn (1983) A meteorite crashes to Earth, bringing with it an angry three-headed alien beast. The alien hides in the basement of an old house, and starts devouring it's residents and giving birth to hundreds of eel-shaped shark-toothed spawn. Now it's up to a young boy and a small group of teenagers to fight the rampaging spawn, kill the alien beast, and save humanity. This film is a low-budget 80's horror masterpiece. 35mm 80's alien horror trailers before the movie!

The Deadly Spawn plays one-night-only at the Hollywood Theatre on Tuesday, August 28th at 7:30pm.  More info available here.

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Friday, August 24, 2012


Let's just get straight to the point:  Bart Layton's The Imposter is among a handful of must-see documentary features this year.  Relating the details of the 1994 disappearance of a child in San Antonio, Texas and, as the title indicates, the emergence some three years later of an individual claiming to be that missing person, the film winds in and around competing versions of the truth, employing dramatic re-creations, a clever editing scheme that delays reveals and heightens suspense, and intimate interviews with some of the most unreliable subjects this side of the Watergate hearings.  In The Imposter, the truth is never certain.

This is a maddening, fascinating watch, demanding an immediate post-screening breakdown with fellow viewers.  And, like the best mysteries, (much) more than a little ambiguity remains after the final shot hits the screen.  A mind-boggling treat of a film.  Do not miss it.

Highly recommended.

The Imposter begins its run at Cinema 21 on Friday, August 24th.  More info available here.

Bart (David Anders) hasn't been the same since he returned from Iraq.  You see, he didn't quite make it back alive but, then, he's not exactly dead, either.  The Revenant is a low-budget, horror comedy that embraces the campier side of Bart's unique problem.  Rather than adopting a gothic-inspired tone for this vampire-zombie hybrid, director D. Kelly Prior and crew play the situation for laughs, sending Bart and his best friend Joey (Chris Wylde) on nocturnal missions that revel in the more ridiculous end of blood-sucking pool.

The Revenant is at its best when it remains focused on Bart and Joey's adventures, which are generally cast as two guys up to no good during an endless series of nights on the town.  Whenever it moves away from this dynamic, the subplots that emerge (be they the one about the bereaved girlfriend or the expertise on the occult offered up by her Wiccan friend) end up feeling like needless filler.

To be perfectly honest, there's no reason why this film (or the majority of low-budget indie fare) needs to be two hours long.  There's enough good stuff going on here that one can imagine a much stronger version of The Revenant would exist if as much as a half an hour were excised from the overstuffed plot.  Still, fans of campy horror along the lines of Fido or Near Dark will find plenty to love here.

The Revenant begins its run at the Hollywood Theatre on Friday, August 24th.  More info available here.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012


Drugstore Cowboy was the first film I ever saw with a conscious awareness that it had been made in Oregon. It screens tonight as a part of the NW Film Center's Top Down series.  The following is an unused essay that I wrote about the film about a year or so ago.

Thurston Moore has spoken of Lou Reed’s tales of junk-addled characters as being especially seductive to people who, like himself, had a relatively sheltered upbringing, something to do with the kind of degradation and darkness that is appealing only to those who are fortunate enough not to experience it. It was my own fascination with such themes that set me up as an ideal viewer of Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature, Drugstore Cowboy. It’s a film that over the years, whenever I stumble upon it on cable, I end up watching the entire thing, dropping more immediate concerns as I’m drawn once more into the curious ebb and flow of its hazy and understated narrative.

The picture, centered around a crew of addict/thieves who go directly to the source, breaking into pharmacies and hospital storerooms for their fix, resists the urge to depict its characters in either clichéd moralistic or nihilistic terms, the usual gold standard for cinematic explorations of junkie experience (see Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm for the moralistic side of things and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream for the “scathing ride through a personal hell” flavor).

Instead, Van Sant positions his characters as willful rebels, thumbing their collective noses at a society that promises freedom but, more often than not, delivers safety in routine, something that becomes all the more ironic when one realizes that Bob (Matt Dillon) and his crew are merely trading one form of routine for another. Still, there is an enchanting rhythm that forms around the adventures of these people, blurring together the days and nights while placing emphasis only upon the events and cycles impacting this cloistered circle of comrades in track-marked arms.

Drugstore Cowboy is Robin Hood without the poor as beneficiary, Oceans Eleven without the organization. In short, it’s a study in self-involvement masquerading, somewhat sporadically, as a heist movie. It depicts a narcissism flowing out of Drugstore’s near singular focus on Bob, his more than healthy sense of superiority in the face of contrary evidence and, eventually, his instinctual attempt to save himself when the going gets rough. Though adapted from James Fogle’s novel of the same name, the film owes more than a small debt to the junkie prose of William S. Burroughs, whose presence in the film, inhabiting the role of Tom the priest as a slow-drawling giver of sage advice, hints at a connection between the piety infused within Burroughs own visions of users in a junk-filled universe and the worldview espoused by Bob throughout the film. There’s a holy center to both Bob’s belief system and junk use in general that neglects acknowledgement of and adherence to social norms, a near-religious fever managing to help Bob float above it all, enabling him to feel as if he’s the only one who understands the game.

And speaking of floating, Van Sant channels some seriously trippy and evocative imagery related to drug use  during several key points in the picture, pulling the viewer into a space of surreality without constantly poking us in the eye with these visual inventions every time someone shoots up in the film. There’s the repeated floating objects placed against the cloud-filled Portland skies, representing at various times the oncoming rush of a narcotized state, Bob’s worries about hats on beds and incarceration, and even a slight homage to the discombobulating weightlessness experienced by Dorothy Gale in her journey to Oz. Van Sant also switches up film stocks a few times, nostalgically channeling the good old days, brilliantly using grainy, color Super 8 footage of Bob and his crew as they cavort around the streets of Portland. The exaggerated use of space and tracking shots in the scene where Bob and his estranged wife Diane (Kelly Lynch) part for the final time also springs to mind as one of the many perfectly visualized moments in the film.

To the credit of the filmmakers, the visual technique rarely gets in the way of the storytelling. The universality of that story, the notion Bob forwards when saying that, “most people…they don’t know how they’re going to feel from one moment to the next,” becomes a reasonable, albeit dreadfully flawed, rationalization for the path he and his crew have chosen. We’re all emotional animals, supremely uncomfortable with the unknown, whether it lies outside us or within us. It’s this humane rendering of Bob's disease, posited as a cure for an entirely different and more common illness, that of uncertainty, that makes the film so compelling, ultimately allowing it to transcend genre and stand as a singular piece, not necessarily about addiction as much as life itself.

The NW Film Center's Top Down Rooftop Cinema series presents Drugstore Cowboy on Thursday, August 23rd at 8pm.  More info available here.

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Friday, August 17, 2012


A Todd Solondz movie is largely an in or out proposition.  He doesn't make family friendly fare; regularly interrogating social taboos in his films, and there's little to no effort on his part to dumb down or soften his stories for wider acceptance.  After scoring a cult following for divisive early works like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, there's been a noticeable drop off in audience numbers and critical support for his subsequent releases.  You'd be totally forgiven at this late date for writing Solondz off as a has-been miserablist taking out his angst on both his characters and viewers. 

Chances are, if you hold that opinion, you didn't see his last movie, the darkly, funny Life During Wartime, and probably plan on avoiding his latest comedy, Dark Horse.  That last move would be a mistake.  Straight up, Dark Horse is the best film Solondz has made in over a decade and, without hyperbole, I'd go as far as to label it one of the funniest releases of the year.

Dark Horse takes place, like most all of Solondz' films, in the suburbs.  Jordan Gelber plays Abe, a college dropout in his thirties, still living with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and (barely) working at his father's firm.  It's safe to say that Abe's a bit of a non-starter, an observation that is only reinforced when contrasted with his brother Richard's (Justin Bartha) success as a physician.  Very early in the film, Abe encounters Miranda (Selma Blair); a thoroughly depressed woman with a similar living situation, at a wedding and basically sweet talks a phone number out of her.

An uneasy relationship develops between the two, due chiefly to Abe's persistence and the absurdly positive facade that he adopts whenever Miranda is present.  Solondz explores Abe's mood swings through both simple observation and the relentlessly saccharine pop music that enters the soundtrack via Abe's cell phone and the stereo of his comically large, yellow Hummer.  This highly obtrusive music serves a dual purpose, working as both an obvious (and hilarious) punchline and as a counterpoint to Abe's unacknowledged and growing angry, depressive state.

As it proceeds, the film ends up moving into areas that aren't necessarily meant to reflect reality as much as comment on internal damage wrought from years of not living up to one's potential.  Some audience members might have difficulty taking the leap as the film transitions away from a more literal mode of storytelling.  Personally, I wanted to watch Dark Horse a second time as soon as it was over.  Solondz doesn't pull punches or make it easy to embrace his work but the humor he spins out of the wretched lives of his characters has a whiff of truth and authenticity that can't be denied.

Highly recommended.

Dark Horse begins its run at Living Room Theaters on Friday, August 17th.  More info available here.

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It's been 3+ years since locally-based animation house Laika released their first feature Coraline.  Since then, the studio and Coraline's director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) parted ways, causing many to wonder what shape their next feature would take.  Cue ParaNorman, another stop-motion animated children's film that retains the supernatural context of Coraline while chucking the pervading, overly serious tone of Laika's debut.

Co-directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, ParaNorman relays the story of Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young social outcast living in the New England town of Blithe Hollow who can, to quote a popular 90s thriller, "see dead people," much to the chagrin of his father (Jeff Garlin) who is frightened by his son's increasingly peculiar behavior.  It's not long before Norman and his only friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) are approached by Blithe Hollow's resident hermit Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) who's looking to recruit Norman's gifts in the fight against zombies and a witch's curse.

Visually, this is one heck of stunner, among the best looking stop-motion animations released by anyone outside of Aardman Animations.  The characters are all clean lines, loose-limbed and expressive.  Best of all, the backdrop of Blithe Hollow, a tourist town shamelessly trading in on its dark history (resembling Salem, Massachusetts in more than a few ways) is filled to the brim with witch-themed attractions, offering a colorful array of oddly named businesses ("Witchy Wieners," for instance) that catch the eye throughout the picture.

Story-wise, Norman's family life, supernatural abilities, and persecution by a school bully keep things lively and interesting.  But, once Norman and Neil set off to stop the curse, the film settles into a pattern embraced by far too many kids films nowadays: the plot points diminish in favor of something resembling a treasure hunt (a few of the Harry Potter films operated this way, too) with the characters needing to accomplish one goal before setting off on another.  Kids are unlikely to be bothered by this development but adults may find the thinly-veiled repetition monotonous.  Fortunately, there's always something visually arresting onscreen to distract whatever complaints one might have about the story.  All in all, this is a solid, fun film with better than average use of 3D technology.

Oh, and a side note: in a less than scientific study, I noticed during last night's screening of the film that kids don't really get artful fades to white.  During the three or four occasions that it happened in ParaNorman, many children in the audience thought something was wrong with the projection, eliciting questions to parents along the lines of "what happened?"

ParaNorman opens at several Portland area theaters on Friday, August 17th.  More info available here.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012


Way back in the early 90s, Nancy Savoca was making a name for herself as one of the rising directors in the indie film world.  Thanks to critical hits like Household Saints and Dogfight, a lot of attention was coming her way and then...well, not much happened.  Since then, Savoca has worked sporadically in television, producing only a few under the radar films (of which I've only seen the not so great Rosie Perez vehicle, The 24 Hour Woman).  Now nearly a decade and a half past her initial success, Savoca's got a brand new flick hitting screens this week.

Union Square pairs Savoca with fellow "what's she been up to" girl Mira Sorvino (okay, to be fair, Sorvino's IMDb page reveals that's she's been working a lot, just not in many high profile pics) for a tale of longstanding strife between sisters.  Sorvino plays Lucy, a chronically anxious and self-obsessed extrovert who arrives in Union Square with the misguided intention of spending some unscheduled time with her lover.  He shuts down her plans before they can even meet up, generating a outsized dose of public phone rage from Lucy.  Quickly formulating a backup plan, Lucy lands unannounced at the doorstep of her estranged sister Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) who lives with her fiance Bill (Mike Doyle).  Jenny's got her own issues, hiding her Bronx origins from Bill and swallowing her anger like it's going out of style.

Sadly, the script is severely myopic about how the audience should view these characters.  Instead of allowing us to observe their flaws honestly via their behaviors and interactions, the tone of the piece constantly modulates forcing the actors, especially Sorvino, to go from funny to sad and quiet to overblown repeatedly and without warning, dulling the overall impact of what actually works here.

In its favor, the first third of Union Square is incredibly funny and tense.  Sorvino delivers a great performance, close to her best ever, and cinematographer Lisa Leone's handheld camerawork offers a perfect balance of looseness and intimacy.  Ultimately, though, it is the writing that proves too histrionic, leaving me wishing that the same improvisational feel present within the look of the film had bled into the telling of its story.

Union Square begins its run at Living Room Theaters on Friday, August 17th.  More info available here.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Portland's own Filmusik is reaching outside our town's borders to enlist Boston's Bent Knee ensemble for a live music presentation of their score for Fritz Lang's Metropolis at the Hollywood Theatre this Friday.

I don't really have much to add to what I said about the film when it last played in PDX, except that when a Fritz Lang film, especially Metropolis, plays on a big screen in your town, you'd better get your ass in a seat for it.  A world class filmmaker's (arguably) greatest work matched with a live original score is an occasion worth leaving the house for, friends.

Here's the trailer:

And, as a bonus, a fascinating, 50 minute-long interview with Lang conducted by director William Friedkin:

Filmusik Organ Grinders presents Metropolis with Bent Knee at the Hollywood Theatre on Friday, August 17th at 8pm.  More info available here.

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Long before Peter Jackson's involvement in all things Tolkien made him a household name along the lines of Lucas or Spielberg, the man cut his teeth practicing the art of b-grade horror and cult cinema.  Early salvos such as Bad Taste and the uniquely wicked Meet the Feebles might have prepared the few that saw them for Dead Alive (released as Braindead in Jackson's homeland of New Zealand), but let's be honest here, most fans in the U.S. were directed to the early works after seeing Dead Alive for the first time.

What to say of Dead Alive twenty years after its release?  Time has shown it to be among the very best of a particularly humorous breed of splattercore cinema, the equal of (or possibly even better than) Sam Raimi's 1987 classic Evil Dead II and far above other pretenders to the throne such as Cemetary Man or even (and I know I'm gonna get some flack for this) the quite excellent Re-Animator

The film has plenty of guffaw-inducing moments on hand, from the crazy monkey-rat creature to the famous use of a lawnmower as a weapon, but it's also among the bloodiest of horror films.  Jackson gleefully doles out the gore like someone who just got a deep discount at the fake blood shop, enough so that it still retains the power to shock the uninitiated even as it simultaneously inspires convulsive laughter.  Oddly, the newly released, meta-rom-com Ruby Sparks (from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine) features a few choice moments from Dead Alive and, sure enough, the audience for that film recoiled when those bloody images filled the screen.

Combining the supernatural, a love story, and one hell of a Freudian obstacle (you thought Norman Bates' mother was overbearing) to its protagonist's happiness, Dead Alive has it all.  And whether you've heard it once or a thousand times, "I kick ass for the lord," remains one of cinema's funniest battle cries.  Dead Alive is a film that deserves to be seen again and again.  Don't miss the chance to see it with a packed audience at Top Down.

The NW Film Center's Top Down Rooftop Cinema series presents Dead Alive (aka Braindead) on Thursday, August 16th at 8pm.  More info available here.

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Monday, August 13, 2012


Carlos Osuna's Fat, Bald, Short Man occupies a rare space in animated, feature-length cinema.  Much like similarly-pitched works such as Mary and Max, Persepolis, and Fantastic Planet, it's a cartoon with adults in mind, one that seeks to grab viewers with an emotional maturity beyond what is normally forwarded within the medium.  But what distinguishes the film from those mentioned above is how easily its screenplay could have been filmed using live actors, such is the quiet, observational quality of the writing and the reality explored within the piece.  Basically, Osuna's made an animated film steeped in the cinema of the social outcast, somewhere along the lines of Punch Drunk Love or James Mangold's excellent 1995 film Heavy.

The story here revolves around Antonio Farfan (Álvaro Bayona), a lonely, middle-aged man working in a notary's office.  He lives by himself, has little connection with his co-workers, and only hears from his verbally-abusive brother when he wants to borrow money.  Out of the blue, there's a regime change at his workplace.  The new boss, who bears a strong resemblance to Antonio, befriends him.  At the same time, Antonio comes to the aid of an elderly neighbor in need.  These changes, along with being talked into joining a small group for shy folks at a local self-help center, slowly begin opening him up to new avenues of being.

Fat, Bald, Short Man is a film that understands that the safety of routine is often what keeps us from moving forward.  Antonio's plight isn't so much that he is incapable of living a full life; it's that he believes himself to be no more than what he is in the present, cringing against the possibility of rejection to the point of rejecting possibilities.  What we have here is a simple and universal tale rendered in a medium most often associated with telling fart jokes to kids (see most modern Disney works for further reference).  Hopefully, audiences will be able to look past their preconceptions about what animated features can be and end up embracing it for the nuanced and mature work that it is.

Highly recommended.

Fat, Bald, Short Man screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on Wednesday, August 15th at 7pm.  More info available here.

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Friday, August 10, 2012


Ahhh...Portland, she certainly loves her some Jim Henson.  While far from a scientific survey, I've wasted away enough nights working at a local video shop to have gleaned that, along with copious viewings of The Goonies and Breaking Away, the fair citizens of this burg enjoy pairing a heaping helping of Henson with their craft brews.  There's probably no other town in the world hosting late night, 21 and over screenings of Labyrinth, The Muppet Movie and The Dark Crystal, something I've noticed occurring perennially since moving to town eight years ago.

Well...get ready PDX, 'cause The Hollywood Theatre's got an extreme Henson hookup coming your way.  Organized into several discrete presentations, there's a wealth of Muppet-themed programing on the horizon, ranging from Henson's timeless work on Sesame Street to lesser seen early forays involving puppets and advertising.

You just wanna see Muppets singing?  Head on out to the showcases entitled "Sing! The Music of Sesame Street" (with guest stars Johnny Cash, R.E.M., etc.) or "Muppet Music Moments (featuring Harry Belafonte, Elton John, and many more)."  Are you looking for a little insight into Henson's creative process?  Check out "Muppet History 101."  Or, if you're an über-fan, the fun starts tonight and runs through Tuesday.  All in all, there's seven different programs on offer.  Are you happy now, Portland?

Muppet History 101 screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Friday, August 10th at 7:30pm and 9:30pm.  More info available here.

Jim Henson Commercials & Experiments screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday, August 11th at 7:30pm and 9:30pm.  More info available here

Sesame Street at 40 screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday, August 11th at 3:30pm and Sunday, August 12th at 3:30pm.  More info available here

Muppet Fairytales screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Sunday, August 12th at 7:30pm and 9:30pm.  More info available here

Muppet Music Moments screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Monday, August 13th at 7:30pm and 9:30pm.  More info available here

Jim Henson & Friends: Inside the Sesame Street Vault screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday, August 11th at 5:30pm and Tuesday, August 14th at 7:30pm.  More info available here

Sing! The Music of Sesame Street screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Sunday, August 12th at 5:30pm and Tuesday, August 14th at 9:30pm.  More info available here

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Thursday, August 2, 2012


Sometimes the problem is you.  It's not always a comfortable realization to arrive at but it's an observation that drives Ruby Sparks, the latest work by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine).  The film peers into the life of Calvin (Paul Dano), a former wunderkind author whose single great novel still has him on the speaking circuit, labeled a genius by adoring fans and academics.  Fast forward about ten years and, other than a few short stories, Calvin's been unable to follow up on that initial success.  In fact, he's fallen into a long dry spell with no writing at all.  Adding insult to injury, his last girlfriend left him shortly after the death of his father.

Out of nowhere, Calvin begins dreaming of a mysterious and beautiful woman.  The vision triggers something in him, kicking him out of his rut and, after being pushed by his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins to write about the woman of his dreams.  And then things get weird.  The girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan, doing double duty here as screenwriter), appears in his apartment, seamlessly picking up the role that he's written for her; she's his girlfriend.  It's a bit of a shock at first (Calvin tells his brother that it's like Harvey, except "she's not an eight-foot rabbit").  Before long, though, he relaxes into the idea, quickly becoming comfortable living with and loving a woman who is essentially the product of a first draft.

Ruby's transformation from a simple fantasy into something far more complex--gasp, a real woman with actual emotional baggage--throws a wrench into Calvin's initial joy over her appearance.  But, since Calvin wrote Ruby into existence, he assumes (correctly) that he can change her behaviors via a few rewrites.  Whether or not he uses or abuses that power and what it says about his own ability to connect with others soon becomes the central conflict that haunts Ruby Sparks.  When we finally get the opportunity to meet Calvin's ex, her insight on their failed relationship, paired with Calvin's choices regarding Ruby, lay his flaws bare for us to see.

This impulse to tinker with the basic ingredients of others has been explored before in films like S1mOne, Stranger Than Fiction, and, even VertigoRuby Sparks is far better than those first two films but, of course, has nothing on Hitchcock's masterpiece (recently declared the best film of all-time by Sight & Sound).  Outside of such comparisons, it's a fine diversion with good performances all around, even if it often feels episodic and can't quite figure out how to effectively resolve the tension of its third act as it heads towards the still satisfying conclusion.

Ruby Sparks opens at the Regal Fox Tower on Friday, August 3rd.  More info available here.

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One can be forgiven for labeling The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as nothing more than a live-action take on the animated Scooby Doo, Where Are You? mystery adventures.  There are certainly plenty of reasons to compare the two, since both favor cowards, ghosts, and dark mansions filled with cobwebs as storytelling devices.  And, yeah, I could point out that The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) precedes the Hanna-Barbera series ('69, dude) by a few years.  But the real reason to care about The G. & Mr. C. (as all the cool kids call it nowadays) is the presence of Mr. Don Knotts.  The dude is pretty much a genre unto himself, a b-grade Brando if Brando were all twitches, bug-eyed mugging for the camera, and a family friendly persona that steered clear of any project resembling reality in the slightest.

All jokes aside, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken may not be what you'd automatically toss on at home (unless you're looking for something for the kids to watch--it's great for that) but it is a film that seems perfect for an event like Top Down.  It's filled to the brim with small town humor, some of which has aged in mysteriously off-color ways.  And I can't imagine a more ridiculous sight than watching a 42-year-old Don Knotts trying to woo a 26-year-old Joan Staley, both of them acting as if they're blushing, virginal teens gone a courtin'. 

Bottom line: this film's ridiculous and so very right for a campy night of outdoor film viewing.  Add a few drinks to the experience and you're in for some fun.  And it doesn't hurt if you're already down with Mr. Knotts, either.

The NW Film Center's Top Down Rooftop Cinema series presents The Ghost and Mr. Chicken on Thursday, August 2nd at 8pm.  More info available here.

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