Marc Mohan

 

“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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Film picks: “Faces Places” and “The Death of Stalin”

Octogenarian Agnes Varda teams with young artist JR for a mobile art project while Armando Iannucci, the creator of "Veep," applies his satirical skills to Soviet Russia

Who doesn’t love Agnes Varda? Anybody who isn’t thoroughly charmed by the venerable, diminutive legend of French filmmaking probably isn’t worth knowing. If any 88-year-old can be said to be precocious, it’s her, and her latest (please, not her last!) effort, the Oscar-nominated “Faces Places,” is perhaps her most endearing and thought-provoking movie yet.

Some of the energy in “Faces Places” doubtlessly derives from Varda’s co-director, the visual artist known as JR. His signature project involves wheatpasting enormous photographs in public places, to incongruous effect. (He once made the Louvre pyramid seem to disappear.) In the latest iteration of this method, he and Varda drive around France in a van shaped like a camera and that serves as a giant photo booth: people climb in, get their picture taken, and a giant blow-up prints out from the side of the vehicle.

Agnes Varda, JR, and a goat in “Faces Places”/Courtesy NW Film Center

The title begins to make sense now, even if the rhyme is better in the original French: “Visages Villages.” In various hamlets, factories, and farms, ordinary folks are mythologized by having enormous images of themselves slapped onto the buildings they inhabit. Or used to inhabit–in one instance, a mural of long-dead miners transforms their onetime lodgings into a testament. In another, a giant goat head pays homage to the power of horns. Three woman married to workers at the port of Le Havre get their due by staring down at the dockyard from a stack of dozens of shipping containers.

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The Oscars are dying: So what?

To remain relevant, the Academy Awards need to re-examine what it is they're celebrating

The Oscars are dying. So what?On March 4, the Motion Picture Association of America held the 90th Academy Awards ceremony. You may not have heard about it, since reportedly nobody really cares about the Oscars anymore. As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.

This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20% from last year’s already dismal numbers. Since the Nielsen people began tracking viewership in 1974, this was the first time that fewer than 30 million people tuned in. That’s right, more people saw a naked man streak past host David Niven (and, in an even worse crime, “The Sting” top “The Exorcist” for Best Picture) than saw Frances McDormand’s stirring call for gender equity in Hollywood or Helen Mirren ride a Jet-Ski.

The proffered explanations for this phenomenon are legion. Televised events, from the Super Bowl to the Grammys, don’t capture eyeballs the way they used to. (This may be partially because of the difficulty cord-cutters have in actually watching plain old over-the-air television broadcasts.) The nominated movies these days don’t have the box office appeal of stuff like “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” or “Titanic” (which was the winner at the most-watched Oscar broadcast). Regular folks are turned off by liberal, America-bashing, rape-culture-critiquing, non-cis-white-male movie stars, according to some.

While the executives at ABC and the various movie studios fret about the increasing irrelevance of this once-iconic pop-culture ritual, the proper response from anyone who cares about film as art should be a hearty, “Who cares?” It’s not so much that I wouldn’t care if the Oscar completely vanished from the face of the Earth—that would be a genuine loss. But if “The Oscars,” as in the globally notorious spectacle, as long and glitzy as a limo with a hot tub, were to shrink back down to a life-size event, that would be a good thing, even if it ended up being shown on some third-tier streaming service instead of a broadcast network owned by the world’s most powerful media conglomerate.

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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/