Marc Mohan

 

FilmWatch Weekly: Queer Docs, fat Buddhas, and more

The week's notable films also include the latest from French star Juliette Binoche

As American society has taken steps—some halting, some confident—toward recognition and acceptance of a wider variety of gender and sexual identities, compelling true-life tales reflecting a previously stifled panorama of experiences have emerged. Each year, the Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival presents a thoughtfully curated selection of those stories, and its 2018 iteration, which runs from Thursday, May 17, through Sunday, May 20, at the Hollywood Theatre, is no exception.

The opening night selection looks to the past while providing hope in the face of a fraught future. “50 Years of Fabulous” examines the oldest gay and lesbian charity group in the country, The Imperial Council of San Francisco, which was founded in 1965 by José Julio Sarria, the first openly gay candidate for public office in American history. The film functions as a tribute to Sarria, who died in 2013, as well as a testimony to the group’s accomplishments and a recognition of the challenges it faces to remain relevant today.

“Fifty Years of Fabulous” leads off the Portland QDoc Film Festival.

Other highlights include “Every Act of Life,” an affecting and admiring portrait of four-time Tony Award winner Terrence McNally (“Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Kiss of the Spider-Woman,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” and so many others). Testimonials pour in from titans such as F. Murray Abraham, Angela Lansbury, and Rita Moreno. Audra McDonald, who was in the original cast of McNally’s “Master Class” and, coincidentally, will be appearing with the Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Tuesday, May 22nd, has some very nice things to say. And Nathan Lane, naturally, is irrepressible.

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FilmWatch Weekly: May it please the court

A film critic-turned-law-student looks at two new movies tackling legal matters

This week’s column necessarily begins with a personal aside. When it became clear to me in 2016, after years of writing about movies for The Oregonian (God rest its soul), that Portland’s daily newspaper was not willing to invest in regular local film criticism and movie reviews, I began to ponder other career paths. After the Events of November that year, I decided to see if attending law school was an option at my advanced age. It turns out that it was, and, long story short, I have recently concluded my 1L year at Lewis & Clark Law School.

That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my lifelong love of cinema, or my desire to help worthy works of art stand out amid the onslaught of mediocre mainstream moviemaking. Hence my efforts in this space, feeble as they may be. All this backstory is prelude to the fact that, less than two weeks after finishing spring semester exams, I find myself confronting a pair of films directly concerning the legal world, both fact-based and both opening the same weekend in Portland. Each has an agenda, to be sure, and each focuses on the Supreme Court, but other than that they couldn’t be more different in tone, quality, and entertainment value.

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FilmWatch Weekly: Transgressions then and now

Just to creep you out: "Belle De Jour," "The Untamed" and "The Endless"

A 65-year-old male director, world-famous, Oscar-nominated, a legendary auteur, makes a movie about a 23-year-old woman rediscovering her sexuality through masochistic fantasies and by working the afternoon shift at a brothel. In several scenes, some of them taking place in her imagination, the woman is subjected to sexual violence. She is tied to a tree and pelted with mud in another.

This is the stuff that Hollywood sexism is made of, right? What hath “Fifty Shades of Grey” wrought? Where does this geezer get off trying to “explain” female sexuality, anyway?

Except that, of course, this is the plot of “Belle de Jour,” a movie five decades old made by one of the most prominent members of the art house pantheon, Luis Buñuel, and starring one of the greatest movie stars of all time, Catherine Deneuve, in the role of Severine, which made her an icon. The film returns to the big screen this week at Cinema 21 in a newly restored, sure-to-be-gorgeous edition that will be as pleasant to perceive at as it will be problematic to process.

Curiously, the transgressions committed by “Belle de Jour” against the mores of its time are different from those aspects which might give pause today. The notion of exploring the inner carnal life of a female character, or even acknowledging such a thing existed, was even rarer on screen in 1967 than it is today—not that Buñuel was ever all that interested in psychological complexity, at least in a traditional sense.

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FilmWatch Weekly: Cinematic obsessions spring onto the screen

"You Were Never Really Here," "Ismael's Ghosts," and "Yakuza Apocalypse"

Obsession can take many forms, and at least a few of them are on display in films opening this week in Portland.

An obsession with justice, if not revenge, drives Joe, the haunted, brutal character played by Joaquin Phoenix in director Lynne Ramsay’s latest film, “You Were Never Really Here.” The bearded, stocky, steel-eyed veteran works as a hired gun (or, in his case, hired hammer) tracking down and retrieving abducted underage girls. In the process, he’s also working through the intense traumas he suffered both as a child and serving in the military overseas. When one job goes bloodily awry, Joe embarks on a violent quest to save teenaged Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov).

If that synopsis sounds similar to a range of “God’s Lonely Man” movies, in which a damaged, older male figure seeks redemption through the act of saving the life and/or virtue of a younger female figure, that’s because it is. From “The Searchers” to “Taxi Driver” to more recent movies starring Denzel Washington or Liam Neeson, the movies are full of these brutal icons of patriarchal wrath. The question here is whether Phoenix or Ramsay can bring anything new to this year’s model.

The answer is, essentially, not enough. The pairing of actor and filmmaker is enough to make fans of uncompromising cinema salivate in anticipation. Phoenix is known for going all in on a role, and here he puts on weight, allows his fraying, graying mane to run wild, and goes full Brando with the mumbling and unremittingly intensity. Ramsay, the Scottish director, has exhibited a similarly uncompromising streak in film ranging from her debut feature “Ratcatcher” to the parental nightmare of 2011’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” This is Ramsay’s first feature since then, largely due to her disastrous experience on “Jane Got a Gun,” a film she walked away from because of creative differences with its producers. Now that’s uncompromising.

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“Lean on Pete”: Horses and heartbreak in film version of Willy Vlautin’s novel

British filmmaker Andrew Haigh keeps true to the spirit of Vlautin's story about a horse and his boy

Willy Vlautin is a Portland institution, the author of five novels and the lead singer and primary songwriter for the band Richmond Fontaine.  Andrew Haigh is a rapidly rising figure in international cinema, having made a splash with his debut feature “Weekend,” in 2001, and steered Charlotte Rampling to an Oscar nomination in 2015’s “45 Years.”

For his third feature, Haigh has adapted Vlautin’s third novel, “Lean on Pete,” which centers on Charley Thompson, a teenager living in Portland with his less-than-perfect dad. Charley gets a part-time job at the Portland Meadows horse track, helping out a grizzled, ethically suspect trainer (Steve Buscemi) and befriending a jockey (Chloe Sevigny). When his home life grows intolerable, Charley takes off with Pete, a played-out old horse he’s taken a shine to, on a trip across the American West in search of family and stability.

Charlie Plummer in “Lean on Pete”

“Lean on Pete,” the book, is, like much of Vlautin’s writing, spare, heartbreaking, and utterly human, sparing neither its characters nor its audience from the cruel realities of life. It’s this stringent unsentimentality, though, that makes their hard-earned, potentially trivial triumphs so emotionally potent. Charley Thompson is played by Charlie Plummer, the young actor who also recently starred in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” and the relatively inexperienced Plummer handles a difficult role with astonishing skill. “Lean on Pete,” the movie, which is currently playing at Portland’s Living Room Theaters, captures the clear-eyed empathy that makes the book so impactful.

Haigh and Vlautin sat down recently for a wide-ranging discussion about the making of “Lean on Pete,” the experience of shooting in Oregon, and why there won’t be a sequel.

Andrew, you recently did a list of your top ten films from The Criterion Collection, and there were a couple titles that seemed particularly appropriate or influential in relation to “Lean On Pete.” One was Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” and the other was Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces.”
Andrew Haigh: “Ratcatcher” is one of my inspirations for wanting to make films to start with. It’s pretty grim and depressing, but really lyrical and tender, sweetly emotional without being sentimental. And I think Bob Rafelson is an oddly underrated director. I suppose there’s something about both of those films and their unsentimental depiction of the world, especially “Five Easy Pieces.” It’s set in the American landscape—I think some of it was even filmed in Oregon—but it’s about a person’s struggle to make their way through that landscape and understand themselves within that landscape without being overpowered by that landscape.

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Film Review: A Bosnian War epic emerges from “Underground”

Director Emir Kusturica's 1995 Cannes award-winner resurfaces in a restored edition

One of the most fascinating films of the 1990s returns to the big screen this week in Portland when Cinema 21 hosts a restored version of director Emir Kusturica’s 1995 historical fantasia “Underground.” The movie was a cinematic event when it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival 23 years ago, and it remains one today, both on its own terms and as a reminder of the conflict that shook the Balkan region during the first half of the decade.

The Bosnian War that raged from 1992 to 1995 claimed somewhere around 100,000 lives and resulted in the displacement of over two million people, and saw genocide practiced in Europe on a scale not seen since World War II. It was precipitated by the breakup of Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the existential re-evaluation of national and ethnic identities it laid bare was one of the most significant immediate consequence of the end of the Cold War.

It’s only natural, then, that more than a few memorable, harrowing films emerged from the region in the years during and following the strife. Bosnian director Danis Tanović’s “No Man’s Land” won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, while Serbian filmmaker Srđan Dragojević crafted pitch-black comedy from the horror in 1996’s “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame.” Hollywood’s efforts included Angelina Jolie’s feature directing debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” as well as Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo.”

But the most epic, memorable and problematic screen treatment of the dissolution of Yugoslavia was “Underground,” which may have been more appropriately titled in its five-episode television cut, “Once Upon a Time There Was a Country.” The version that won at Cannes and cemented Kusturica’s status as a global auteur is less than three hours, but it’s still a sprawling piece of quasi-nationalist mythmaking that follows the fates of two friends over five decades on a surreal historical roller coaster.

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Aaron Katz on his new thriller “Gemini” and popcorn problematics

Katz's fifth feature stars Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz in a Hollywood-set mystery

“Gemini” is a sleek, entertaining new thriller set in the glamorous world of Hollywood and drenched in celebrity culture. It’s also directed by Portland-raised Aaron Katz, and for anyone familiar with Katz’s previous work, that synopsis might come as a shock. “Sleek,” “glamorous,” and “celebrity” are not words one would typically associate with Katz’s films, which include the “mumblecore” (more on that loaded term later) landmarks “Dance Party USA” (2005) and “Quiet City” (2006) and the quirky Iceland-set buddy film “Land Ho” (2014, co-directed with Martha Stephens).

Katz experimented with the thriller form, sort of, in 2010’s “Cold Weather,” a reserved, Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery that was also the last film Katz shot in Portland. Relocated to Los Angeles, he’s made the city, as so many filmmakers do, a major character in “Gemini.” Without giving too much away, “Gemini” centers on Jill (Lola Kirke), the devoted personal assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). After Heather backs out of a big role at the last minute, she suddenly has plenty of enemies. It’s Jill, though, who becomes the prime suspect after stumbling upon a violent crime scene at Heather’s mansion. It’s up to the intrepid but somewhat hapless Jill to clear her own name and dodge the suspicions of a detective (John Cho) full of wry insinuation.

Lola Kirke in “Gemini”

I interviewed Katz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival when “Land Ho” screened there, but I didn’t have to go nearly as far when he returned to his hometown for “Gemini”’s screenings during February’s Portland International Film Festival. We chatted at a Southeast Portland coffee shop about the evolution of his filmmaking, life in L.A., and the evils of movie snacks.

You’ve been in Los Angeles for five years now. Is it mandatory for a director to make an “L.A. movie” and address the city as a subject once they’ve lived there for a certain amount of time?

I felt that way, for sure. I didn’t know what I’d think of the city when I moved there. Once we’d been there for about three years, it began to feel like I was going to write something about Los Angeles.

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