Marc Mohan

 

Act globally, view vocally: PIFF’s Portland ties

The Portland International Film Festival's second week is dotted with Oregon-sourced cinema

As the 41st Portland International Film Festival rounds the far turn and enters its second week, a mouth-watering array of cinematic flavors remain to be sampled. (We’ll even mention a few of them below.) But PIFF has always done an excellent job demonstrating that Northwest films and filmmakers can stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside their intercontinental kin—and that they can do so without losing their unique local charms.

Greg Hamilton has been a familiar figure in the Portland film firmament for years. He’s organized tributes to director Les Blank, single-handedly kept “Fast Break”—the classic documentary about the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers—in the public eye, and serves on the board of the Hollywood Theatre. Now he’s making his debut as a director with a portrait of another local institution: “Thou Shall Not Tailgate” profiles the Rev. Chuck Linville, an old-school Portland oddball who drives his elaborately festooned art cars around town when he’s not relaxing in his home amid equally eccentric decor.

Greg Hamilton, director of “Thou Shall Not Tailgate.”

The 25-minute film, screening as part of the shorts program “Made in Oregon 2: Wilderness,” lays interview audio with Linville over archival footage of his automotive exploits. Linville really is an ordained minister (Hamilton first met him at a wedding he performed), as well as a former Postal Service worker and an original member of Portland’s Cacophony Society. There’s a whole section devoted to him in Chuck Palahniuk’s myth-making Portland travelogue, “Fugitives and Refugees.”

One of the creations of the subject of the documentary “Thou Shall Not Tailgate.”

In other words, Linville and his Church of Eternal Combustion are the epitome of what we talk about when we talk about “Old Portland.” He’s not trying to create a personal brand, or exude some sort of cultivated weirdness. He’s just a guy who, as he puts it, gets bored easily. And who likes to glue hundreds of baby-bottle nipples to the top of his station wagon. “Thou Shall Not Tailgate,” though, isn’t meant as a simple nostalgic gesture, says Hamilton. Instead, it’s “paying witness to the transformation of Portland,” perhaps trying to inspire future kooks by spotlighting those who know how to do kooky right.

(“Shorts 4: Made in Oregon 2: Wilderness” screens at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Whitsell Auditorium.)

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41st Portland International Film Festival features hidden gems from Tunisia, Spain, Romania

Not every movie worth seeing at this year's PIFF stars Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert

I recently wrote a piece for The Oregonian listing the ten most anticipated films of this year’s Portland International Film Festival. This made sense because (a) people likes lists; (b) the early deadline for the piece meant there was precious little opportunity to actually see the films; and (c) it’s a relatively easy way to concoct a PIFF primer for casual movie buffs.

By “casual movie buffs” I mean folks who might dip their toes into subtitled waters once in a while if the film was made someplace they’d like to visit, but who won’t necessarily be trying to sneak chocolate bars into the latest Polish zombie flick or avant-garde effort from Iran. Don’t get me wrong: anyone who patronizes PIFF (or pays money to see a foreign-language film under any circumstances) is a cut or three above the typical American moviegoer in terms of sophistication.

But Portland’s true connoisseurs of cinema know a couple things that normal people don’t.

First, they know that most of those hotly “anticipated” titles, starring Juliette Binoche or Steve Buscemi or whoever, will most likely be returning to a local arthouse screen at some point in the next few months, whether it’s the Hollywood, Cinema 21, the Living Room, or (shudder) the Regal Fox Tower (a place I always refer to by its full corporate name just to invoke the image of a haughty vulpine monarch perched on the pinnacle of an antiseptic office building).

Second, PIFF veterans know that, quite frequently, the true joys of the festival come from those under-the-radar oddities you only go see because everything else is sold out, or because you lost a bet. It used to be that anything from outside Western Europe, Japan and maybe South America was officially cinema exotica, but these days the borders of middlebrow taste are drawn more along lines of genre than geography. For every familiar, universal story of familial reconciliation from Nepal, there’s a thrash-metal musical based on Joan of Arc. For every potent tale of a mother’s love and dedication from The Congo, there’s a button-pushing story about racial epithet-filled rap battles from California, USA.

With that in mind, I’ve started burrowing through the overwhelming number of advance screeners, trying to focus on the stuff that wouldn’t ordinarily jump out at me. I’m dying to see the final film from Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, or the new documentary by the indefatigable Alex Gibney, or the documentary about Mister Rogers, or (especially) the movie based on Willy Vlautin’s novel “Lean on Pete.” And I’ll get to all of them. (To be honest, I would have already watched those last two if they were available, but alas…)

One great example of a film worthy of discovery but at risk of getting lost in the vast ocean of PIFF is Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s fiction feature debut, “Beauty and the Dogs.” It catches the eye with an opening scene at a party that begins with two friends in a bathroom and ends with one, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), leaving with a guy she just met. This all unfolds over the course of one seven-minute shot, as do each of the next eight scenes in the film. The second chapter starts with Mariam and her new friend at a clinic trying to obtain medical certification of the rape she has just endured at the hands of the police.

From there, Ben Hania’s formal gambit pays off as it enhances both the tension and the dread of Mariam’s efforts to report the crime over one long night. “Beauty and the Dogs” depicts Tunisian society’s relative cosmopolitanism as well as its persistent misogyny, and features a powerful central performance by Al Ferjani. Ben Hania’s previous film, “The Blade of Tunis,” was a fake documentary in which she tried to track down a criminal infamous for slashing random women’s buttocks, so she’s clearly not afraid of engaging in critiques that require extra bravery even in the more Westernized parts of the Arab world.

Different in almost every way from “Beauty and the Dogs,” the Spanish animated feature “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children,” fairly matches it in intensity despite being a cartoon featuring a bunch of talking animals on a journey. This isn’t a family-friendly romp, though—it’s set in a dreary post-apocalyptic world, and in an early scene our young mouse-eared protagonist’s verbally abusive father accuses him of being on cocaine. But neither is it some Ralph Bakshi-esque exercise in raunchy subversion: there’s real pathos in the quest of Dinki and her friends, a rabbit and a fox, to track down her old friend Birdboy, a reclusive junky and quasi-folk hero who lives in the middle of a vast wasteland. Co-director Alberto Vázquez based this visually original, tonally unique tale on his own graphic novel, which he initially made into a short film that played at the Northwest Film Center in 2015.

For a more conventional experience, and one with at least a little bit less existential foreboding, check out “6.9 on the Richter Scale,” a Romanian romantic comedy (Romromcom?), centered on a seismophobic actor in Bucharest experiencing crises both domestic and professional. He’s terrified that the apartment he shares with his depressed, jealous-minded wife won’t survive the earthquake he’s sure is imminent. He’s playing Orpheus in a stage production opposite a pretty but talentless Eurydice. And then the father he hasn’t seen since he was five shows back up in his life, trailing carnal chaos in his wake. A far cry from the dour films (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) its home country is known for, this wry and charming movie culminates in a bizarre musical fantasia.

These options only scratch the surface, of course, of an event that includes nearly 90 features and eight programs of shorts. But they serve as a useful reminder that in Portland’s annual cinematic cornucopia, some of the most delectable treats can be found almost by accident.

 

“Beauty and the Dogs” screens at 8:45 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16, at the Laurelhurst Theater, and 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18, at Cinemagic.

“Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” screens at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at Cinemagic, and at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at the Empirical Theater at OMSI.

“6.9 on the Richter Scale” screens at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Whitsell Auditorium, and at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Regal Fox Tower.

For a full schedule and details, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/piff41/

 

PIFF XL preview: International Film Fest offers insight into global anxieties

The fest's 40th edition comes at a time when global perspectives have increased relevance

It’s that time of year again: February in Portland. The annual reminder that 37 degrees Fahrenheit is the worst possible temperature, that sacrificing small cute animals would be worth it for a small patch of blue sky, and that my own uncanny ability to conjure an Old Testament-style downpour simply by walking my dogs remains unrivaled. It’s also time once again for the Portland International Film Festival, which celebrates its fortieth iteration this year.

The festival, which runs through February 25, and takes place at theaters all over town, includes a typical mix of titles that will be returning to local arthouse screens over the coming months and those which may never pass your way again. (I’m still waiting for someone to release on disc or online the Austrian movie “The Unfish,” which played PIFF in 1999 and then vanished forever.) There are well-crafted middlebrow entertainments, ragged experiments, and a few inevitable dogs.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

Having attended and/or covered the festival for (creak! groan!) more than half of its life, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of trotting out clichés about its significance. Film, more than any other art form, allows viewers to experience quite directly the lives of people, fictional or not, in locales and cultures that would otherwise remain exotic and abstract. Even the most evocative literature or music can only, well, evoke the reality it’s depicting. When Iranian cinema began to gain worldwide cachet in the 1990s, for instance, it was the first time many Western viewers saw what an ordinary street scene in Teheran was like.

So, yeah, it’s always been true that international cinema helps to bind the world more closely together, helps to humanize The Other, and opens our eyes to how alike we all are despite and beneath our diverse and magnificent differences.

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Poetry and politics collide in “Neruda”

Director Pablo Larrain ("Jackie") depicts Pablo Neruda's run from the law in 1940s Chile

Poets don’t typically make for very engaging cinematic protagonists. Even such dramatic lives as those of Allen Ginsburg and Sylvia Plath haven’t resulted in especially gripping movies. But we’ve now had two films about poets—one fictional, one real—open in Portland in the last couple of weeks, and each has its distinct charms.

Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” stars Adam Driver as a bus driver who finds inspiration in the quotidian details of his daily life. It’s a testimony to the poet as ordinary guy, and we reviewed it here. Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda,” on the other hand, takes as its subject one of the most larger-than-life figures in 20th century literature, which allows it to be as much about Pablo Neruda’s political and hedonistic exploits as his aesthetic ones.

Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in “Neruda.”

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“Julieta” marks a return to form for Pedro Almodovar

The stunning Adriana Ugarte is the Spanish director's latest acting discovery in this satisfying melodrama

It’s been a little while since the arrival of a new film from veteran Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar could be considered a major cinematic event. In the 1980s, his racy, flamboyant sex comedies always seemed to be breaking a new taboo. In the 90s, he shifted to a more mature style, churning out a string of masterful melodramas that peaked with 1999’s Oscar-winning “All About My Mother.” Since then, though, he has plateaued, while still operating at a high level of craftsmanship.

His last two films have felt like efforts to break free of this rut. The twisted psycho-sexual thriller “The Skin I Lived In” was successful. The strained goofiness of the airplane comedy “I’m So Excited!” was not. With “Julieta,” Almodóvar executes a return to the color- and emotion-saturated genre that has served him so well, and comes up with his best work in it since perhaps 2004’s “Bad Education.”

Adriana Ugarte in a scene from “Julieta.”

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Adam Driver takes the wheel (sorry!) in “Paterson”

From HBO's "Girls" to "Star Wars" villainy to an ordinary Joe, a star evolves

Blockbuster movie franchises have a recent history of pilfering performers from the ranks of TV and independent films. Part of the reason is budgetary, of course: why pay Harrison Ford money when you can pay Daisy Ridley money? (Or just digitally resurrect a beloved but deceased screen icon—but that’s a debate for another day..)

The latest “Star Wars” films have been especially adept at this. To most moviegoers, “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” have been filled with unknown faces, but savvy cinephiles recognize John Boyega from “Attack the Block,” Felicity Jones from “Breathe In” and Ben Mendelsohn from “Animal Kingdom.” No actor, though, has better leveraged LucasFilm stardom into plum roles with legendary filmmakers than Adam Driver.

Adam Driver in “Paterson”

He emerged first on the HBO series “Girls” as the on-again-off-again paramour of Lena Dunham’s lead character Hannah, standing out as a straight-talking paragon of enlightened masculinity who didn’t put up with Hannah’s narcissistic bullshit, even though he clearly had some issues of his own. Driver’s unconventional, rugged physicality and emotional intensity, as well as his intriguing personal backstory (religious upbringing in Indiana, service as a U.S. Marine) made him an object of curiosity.

It was his talent and screen presence, though, that allowed him to snag supporting roles for directors Steve Spielberg (“Lincoln”), Joel Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and Clint Eastwood (“J. Edgar”), and then to land larger ones for Martin Scorsese (“Silence,” out now) and Jim Jarmusch, whose latest film, “Paterson,” opens this week.

“Paterson” is both a typical film for the minimalist veteran of indie filmmaking, and an evolution in Jarmusch’s art. The deliberate pace and dry humor go back to “Stranger Than Paradise,” which was released 33 years ago. (In other news, you are old.) But there’s an empathy for human imperfection and an appreciation of the power of routine that feel like the work of a middle-aged creator. And I mean that in a good way.

Driver plays a bus driver (not sure if that’s meant to be a joke or not) named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey. In his spare time, he writes poetry, and his spare blank verse recalls the work of William Carlos Williams, who Paterson admits is his idol, and who penned an epic piece of verse titled, you guessed it, “Paterson.”

Paterson has a wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and an English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). The film takes place over a one week span, and each day begins with Paterson waking up, reluctantly disentangling himself from his sleeping spouse, and heading to work. Inspired by things as mundane as a box of matched on his kitchen table, or a conversation between passengers, he writes poems in pencil in a small notebook he carries around. Each night, he takes Marvin for a walk, tying the dog up outside the local bar where he slips in for a beer or two before heading home.

That’s pretty much it. Laura eccentrically pursues various interests from home—cupcake baking, designing new curtains, aspiring to country music stardom. Paterson intervenes in a briefly serious lovers’ spat one night at the bar. And Marvin has a key role in what passes as the movie’s climax. But generally this is a portrait of an orderly and basically happy life. It’s demonstrably set in the present day, but a somewhat simplified, even sanitized version of working-class reality. Maybe it’s the world as Paterson, who doesn’t own a cell phone or use a computer, sees it.

Which is probably similar to the way Jarmusch sees it: prosaic, gently tragic, but with enough surreal moments to keep things interesting. There’s a recurring ‘twin’ motif that’s never really explained, and the movie’s final scene, featuring Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase (Jarmusch loyalists will remember him from “Mystery Train”), is a wry, uplifiting puzzler.

When Driver first reared his pasty mug on “Girls,” it seemed possible that he was a one-trick pony, relegated to being a hipster caricature and foil to the show’s female quartet. But now that he’s successfully played an evil space knight, a 17th-century Jesuit, and a regular guy from New Jersey, it seems safe to predict a broad and fascinating career.

(“Paterson” opens January 13 at Cinema 21.)

 

With “Silence,” cinema’s high priest, Martin Scorsese, returns to the pulpit

The greatest living filmmaker's passion project stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan

Cinema is a religion. It’s obvious, and I’m certainly not the first one to say so.

Its adherents gather at scheduled times in designated spaces, which can range from the boxy and merely functional to the grandiose and inspiring. There they sit in ordered rows, gazing in a common direction, contemplating things which don’t physically exist but which possess an enhanced reality all their own.

Why do they do it? They’re hoping for a transcendent experience, at best. Or maybe just a deeper appreciation of the human condition. Or an illustration of moral principles. Or to be distracted from their mundane and inevitably truncated lives. Or just to be alone together among like-minded folks.

And that’s just the parishioners. For those who craft the rituals, who write the script(ure)s, who spin the mysteries, it’s a calling–often a lifelong one. Of the many filmmakers who fit this description–the Tarantinos, the Truffauts, the Kurosawas–none exemplifies the notion of director-priest as much as Martin Scorsese.

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