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ArtsWatch looks ahead to the 38th Portland International Film Festival

The Vancouver International Film Festival gave us a great jump on the best films coming to PIFF and beyond

Film festivals are complex, multifaceted, logistical nightmares… (almost) as much for the audience as for staff. However, if one distills them down to their essence, an inherent bifurcation is revealed. They are the final bastion for a not insignificant crop of smaller, foreign, arthouse, documentary and independent films to be seen in a cinema with a crowd. They’re also an odd microcosm of all that’s wrong with the industry today.

I’m willing to bet almost every reader here already agrees with the former, but the latter? Not so sure. Perhaps it’s our dirty little secret. Gasp! There are just as many bad movies produced every year in world cinema as Hollywood, probably even more.

Which is why you, dear movie lover, need some guidance. Some good, old-fashioned curation. After all, Portland is rife with endless festivals. It has a deep bench of specialty, indie and arthouse theaters. We’ve got choices. Too many, perhaps. In a way, though, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s all too easy (and understandable) to take for granted such privileged access to films far and wide, strange and square, big and small, and nearly everything in between.

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Eyes bigger than your gallery

"Of Boldness and Subtlety" at Hap Gallery

I have seen some wonderful art at Hap Gallery, and have come close to writing a review of any number of exhibits, but have always resisted. Even now, as I am move forward with this essay, it is with some reservation, for while more often than not there is work worth serious consideration in any given Hap exhibit, there can be an overall unevenness to the shows that pulls me up short. So it is with the current exhibit, “Of Boldness and Subtlety,” but I’ve stayed quiet long enough.

Hap is a small space in the Pearl (916 NW Flanders), and as such, must take care to edit installations so that the individual pieces can either breathe, or, if in close proximity to each other, create a seamless dialogue. Granted, some curatorial decisions, whether salon-like or out of contrariness, will disregard such a strategy, which is all well and good in this multifarious world in which we find ourselves. Even so, one should expect some curatorial consideration and resolve to be evident.

This is the second exhibit at Hap curated by gallery artist Gabrielle Garland. Her first effort brought Scott Wolniak and Jeremy Coleman Smith to town this last September. The strength of that show rested not only with the work on display but also with the artists’ ability to collaborate in the space. However, even then the work came close to overwhelming the narrow gallery. With “Of Boldness and Subtlety,” the space is not the issue, for there was no crowding. Still, there was definitely a problem with too much work—or maybe just too many artists (there are six)—in the show.

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The Babadook is real

The emotional resonance of Jennifer Kent's new horror film gives it the power to do more than just scare.

(Note: this article contains spoilers for the plot of The Babadook)

In a house stunted by an old tragedy, a boogeyman comes a-knocking. He’ll make you afraid to go to sleep. And you can’t get rid of him…

After the untimely death of her husband several years ago, Amelia has had to raise their son Samuel alone. The boy is unhappy, acting out at school and anxiously preoccupied with monsters. One night, there appears in the house a mysterious picture book about a sinister visitor called “Mister Babadook,” who dresses all in black, with a top hat and a masklike face. Reading the book kickstarts a nightly campaign of terror that leaves them both tormented by fear and sleep deprivation, teetering on the edge of sanity.

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A debut feature from writer/director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is a horror triumph: story-driven, emotionally mature, vulnerable without sentimentality, unconventional but still firmly rooted in its genre. It’s rich in genre tropes but doles them out carefully, like Tarot cards that can unlock hidden meanings. William Friedkin, the director of the The Exorcist, has championed Kent’s film as a new classic to shelve beside the likes of Psycho and Alien. It’s playing now at the Hollywood and Living Room theaters and on VOD.

All the greatest horror films exist on two planes simultaneously. The monster is at once dangerously present and unmistakably symbolic. Kent understands this, and tilts her story on the ambiguity – what, exactly, are we watching? A troubled child acting out? The unraveling of a mentally unstable woman? Or is the creature real? The danger certainly is. Kent seems deeply indebted to the superlative horror trilogy of Roman Polanski, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and Repulsion. In his films, mental illness is always a possible explanation for the ordeal of his heroines, but a misguided and insufficient one.

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I find Polanski’s horror films deeply feminist. His notorious crime is all the more painful to consider when you appreciate the depth and sensitivity with which he portrays his female characters. Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion are women who shoulder abuse and exploitation, whose sanity is called into question by their peers but whose struggle is championed by the filmmaker. Even The Tenant, which stars Polanski himself, takes up the theme of a woman without allies, who is twisted and warped by her poisonous surroundings. The Babadook’s weary Amelia (Essie Davis) is a perfect Polanski-style heroine: pleasant and deferent on the surface, while cracking under the pressure of bearing much more than she should have to. Davis’ wide-ranging, fully embodied performance swings back and forth from fragile to vicious.

Pacing will make or break any film, but none moreso than horror. The Babadook simmers long on a very low flame. Like The Tenant, the first quarter or so of the film is staunchly non-supernatural, concerned only with the mundane misery of the protagonist. Amelia lives her life without extra money or romantic companionship or a creative outlet. Poverty and isolation are their own horror stories. Madness is drizzled in gradually, tinting the narrative until the whole screen is saturated.

The complete universe of mother and child is contained within their home, and most of the film’s action unfurls between three floors of a cold, gray-toned house. As things become more desperate, the house begins to crumble under the stress, the wallpaper peeling back to reveal a fissure in the drywall. Polanski fans will remember the chilling scene in the The Tenant when Trelkovsky finds a horrible souvenir from the previous renter: a human tooth tucked in a wall crevice. Like Trelkovsky, Amelia and Samuel are held captive not in their home, but by their home, and by the hypnotic draw of the history contained there. What is that history? When the monster begins to haunt Amelia with mirages of her late husband, the pieces fall into place: the Babadook is made of grief. Grief on its own is not deadly, but grief that goes unprocessed for too long (her husband’s death was seven years ago) ferments into something else, savage and frightening and unrecognizable.

When you think of a family held prisoner by the past, The Shining comes to mind. The Babadook has something else in common with Kubrick’s film: the haunting spectre of child abuse. Both films dive deep into the harrowing fear that plagues those who are dependent, that your caretaker could someday be your terrorizer. But in The Babadook, it’s the mother, not the father, who becomes dangerous.

The Babadook taps into the primal dread of a beast: the mother who harms her own children. Or who simply fears that she might. Like Rosemary’s Baby, it distorts dreams of maternal bliss into nightmares: as Rosemary’s Baby makes pregnancy into a hellish, energy-sapping disease, The Babadook presents motherhood as a yoke instead of a gift. Samuel’s volatility and aggressive behavior are too much for Amelia, who yearns for respite from the exhausting duty of being his mother.

Kent gives voice to some raw taboos about the ways that motherhood can fail women – the promised joy of parenting can’t distract Amelia from the void left by the loss of her husband, and at her most monstrous, possessed by the Babadook, she growls at her son, “Do you know how many times I wish you had died instead of him?” What’s truly horrifying about this statement is its honesty.

In one particularly gruesome sequence, Babadook-Amelia reaches into her own mouth and twists out a bloody tooth, the tooth that has ached all through the film (it has to be a hidden homage to The Tenant). Once he inhabits her, the Babadook insists that she do something to ease her own pain. Perhaps he is good for something, after all. The psychological lesson of the film is about the futility and danger of denying your painful emotions. It hurts terribly to confront grief, but the alternative, ignoring it, is much more perilous. And when it comes to mourning, temporarily becoming a monster may be part of the process.

Finally, you can’t get rid of the Babadook, you can only find a way to get along with him.

By LILY HUDSON

Every Christmas movie is set during the holidays, but not every movie set during Christmas is a holiday film. The action movie Die Hard has the most popular reputation as a holiday-film-that’s-really-not, an antidote to saccharine annual standards, a Christmas movie for people who don’t actually like Christmas movies (Zack Handlen offered up the term “Christmas-adjacent”). Here is a not-too-festive selection of worthwhile films that serve up only a faint flavor of the holidays.

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Film review: Transgressing women make good cinema

"Gone Girl" and "Wetlands" make the case for misbehaving women

By LILY HUDSON

How did women transgress on screen in 2014?

Jenny Slate refused to feel guilty or haunted about her abortion in Gillian Robespierre’s likable indie The Obvious Child.

Scarlett Johansson turned the predator-prey tables on some very unfortunate Scottish men in Jonathan Glazer’s austere, unnerving Under the Skin.

And the less said about Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, the better, but you do have to admire her determination to buck comedy’s entrenched gender stereotypes.

In movie circles, 2014 will likely be remembered as the year that Guardians of the Galaxy’s frat-lite humor dominated the multiplex, while the arthouse crowd was captivated by Richard Linklater’s a-young-man-comes-of-age tale Boyhood.But it was also the year of a pair of films that confronted taboos about women.

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Miguel Zenón interview: “Identity is a state of mind and a choice you make”

New York jazz master channels Puerto Rican roots in Portland performance this weekend.

By CLAIRE SYKES

Internationally acclaimed alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón celebrates his just-released CD, Identities are Changeable, at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s club at 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 14. Before the New York City-based Miguel Zenón Quartet performs, the Puerto Rican-born jazz master will talk about his Latin-music origins with local Cuban-American songstress and opening act, Jessie Marquez.

Then Zenón and drummer Eric Doob, pianist Luis Perdomo and bassist Hans Glawischnig will launch into compositions from Identities, originally featuring his quartet and a twelve-piece ensemble. They were commissioned by Montclair State University as part of a multimedia project that includes his interviews with seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent and a video installation by artist David Dempewolf. (The Portland concert features only music from the album, played by his quartet.)

Last month, OAW’s Claire Sykes talked to the 37-year-old San Juan, Puerto Rico-born-and-raised Zenón, who is a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim Fellow and multiple-Grammy nominee, about his upbringing and cultural identification, how he composes and why jazz matters—and the role music plays in connecting, shaping and changing lives.

Miguel Zenon performs with his quartet Friday at Portland's Jimmy Mak's.

Miguel Zenon performs with his quartet Friday at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s.

Claire Sykes: How did you get into music, and particularly the sax?

Miguel Zenón: I grew up around Puerto Rican music. It was a part of everyday culture, in the neighborhood and the house; my mom was always singing and my dad played percussion. But there were no professional musicians in my family. I started studying music formally at age ten or eleven from someone in the neighborhood who taught the kids solfège, or sight singing, and how to read music. Around age eleven, I was accepted at the Escuela Libre de Música [in San Juan, Puerto Rico], and went there for six years and studied music more formally.

The instrument I was attracted to early on was the piano, but I never studied it. The first day of school I was a little late, and the space for piano was full. Someone in my family had a sax sitting around and it seemed like the logical choice. At the time, I was more interested in music, as a whole, than a specific instrument. The sax was a vehicle for me to play music, and it just grew on me after a while.

CS: How did your music career develop?

MZ: The first four to five years at the Escuela Libre de Música, I wasn’t serious enough about music to think it would be my livelihood. I was also a good student in math and science, and thought a career in that would interest me. For the longest time, that was my goal. What changed for me was discovering jazz music. I was listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. But if I had to choose one that influenced me the most, it would be Charlie Parker because he played the same instrument [alto sax] as I did. I was trained in classical saxophone, and it was all about good technique. He has that in his playing, but also he improvised so freely, so naturally. It had a really big effect on me then, and even now. Jazz made me reconsider what music and playing it had meant to me in my life, and I fell in love with the idea of making music for a living. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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Celluloid Resurgence: Film is not dead after all

The unique release of Christopher Nolan's epic space tale "Interstellar" has our critic reevaluating the digital vs. film divide.

Actual, physical celluloid has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade. Surely you’ve already heard about it. Death to cinema they’ve been saying! Digital projection, “that’s just TV in public,” says Quentin Tarantino. You know, typical over-the-top, sky-is-falling bloviating from the sometimes tragically nostalgic cinephile crowd. Admittedly, I am one of them, but these days find myself more in the middle of this seismic change in movies. When a situation is this complex, it’s the best place to be. It’s where optimism is earned.

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However, before satisfaction would be mine… first things first: Christopher Nolan has a new film out, called “Interstellar.” You’ve no doubt heard about this too. Nolan is one of a handful of big name directors whose name even average moviegoers know. His place in the pantheon of great modern auteurs is well-earned. He consistently makes good, sometimes great, cinema (there’s even a masterpiece or two in his filmography). He is a bastion for going out to the movies, no mere conjurer of cheap tricks but one who instills all his work with honest-to-goodness movie magic.

I’d love to wax-poetic about “Interstellar” (believe me, I really could), but that’s not what I’m here to do (besides, everyone and their mother has already reviewed the damn thing, so there’s plenty of opinions to sift through). In short—set your hyperbole and critic-speak tolerance to high, please—I found it to be immensely enthralling and easily Nolan’s (a chilly director) most emotionally satisfying film to date. I laughed, I cried, I was honestly blown away at times. It’s a more complete, far greater accomplishment than even his last two (very good) movies, “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception.” I can’t recommend enough seeing it on the biggest screen possible, to take in the vastness of its vision.

The question becomes: in what format will you be seeing “Interstellar?” For those who don’t know—or much more likely just don’t care—Nolan has been a big proponent of shooting and projecting his work on film. He’s used his clout in the industry, of which he has a lot (thanks to an impressive box office run of massive hits), to ensure that folks in cities where cinemas still have working film projectors can see “Interstellar” on film, be it on the former standard 35mm or the gloriously huge 70mm IMAX. Most will see it on the new standard, DCP. In the end, all that truly matters is that people see it, feel something (good or bad) and hopefully are moved by the picture.

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