FILM

FilmWatch Weekly: Wrestling with God now and then

Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" arrives just as an Ingmar Bergman retrospective kicks off

On the off chance that you have managed to maintain an optimistic perspective on the fate of the human species, Paul Schrader is here to bring you back to Earth. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he’s here to lift you up into a position where a God’s-eye view of our species’ grand folly leads to a sensation more akin to disappointment than anger.

So, obviously, Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is not a feel-good summer hit. It’s not going to be a hit of any sort, frankly. But it is a towering return to form from the man who wrote and/or directed “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Mishima,” “Blue Collar,” “Affliction,” and more. Although Schrader intends to continue making films, this would serve as a fitting capstone were it to be the 71-year-old’s final feature.

“First Reformed” is also a triumph for Ethan Hawke, who brings all the hangdog weariness he exuded in “Before Midnight” and “Boyhood” to a midlife crisis of a much more existential bent. He plays Reverend Ernst Toller, the parish priest at a small Dutch Reformed church in rural upstate New York. The church is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, but continues to exist only due to the somewhat condescending patronage of a nearby mega-church headed by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a/k/a the comedian Cedric the Entertainer, in a very effective dramatic role).

Continues…

FilmWatch Weekly: Kubrick, Basquiat, Clouzot bring culture to summer

The beginning of summer movie season offers more than mere spectacle

Memorial Day Weekend was, until fairly recently, considered the start of the summer movie season. More refined fare would give way to popcorn entertainment for the masses. These days, the summer movie season feels like it runs from March through January, but fortunately it’s still possible to find movies that aspire, however imperfectly, to something more than blunt sensory spectacle and finely-honed witticisms. (Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things!) Playing this week in Portland are a pair of documentaries about the artistic process, a couple of British films set about 150 miles apart, and two gripping early efforts form the director known as “the French Hitchcock.”

Sometimes it feels, among the community of hardcore cinephiles, like there’s a competition to see who can live a life most consumed by movies. Bleary-eyed participants undertake film-fest endurance tests, watching four, five, even six movies in a day. (I know, I’ve been one.) Blogs and social media posts testify to the central, even borderline unhealthy, role the seventh art plays in the lives of its most dedicated cultists. But in terms of devotion to the art, and in particular to its most obsessive practitioner, no one can top Tony Vitali and his single-minded service to the vision of Stanley Kubrick, as chronicled in the compelling documentary “Filmworker.”

Continues…

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.

Continues…

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.

Continues…

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.

Continues…

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.

Continues…

the first and the last: An interview with kiki nicole and ariella tai

A new experimental film/video and new media arts project launches a series of programs by and for black femmes, women, and non-men

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name.

the first and the last, an experimental film/video and new media arts project germinating in Portland, takes its name from the epigraph above. It is spoken by the character Nana Peazant in the seminal film Daughters of the Dust, produced and directed by Julie Dash. In 1991, it became the first full-length film directed by a black, female-identifying director to be released in theaters across the nation.

Last week, I spoke with the first and the last curators, ariella tai (they/them) and kiki nicole (they/them), as they were gearing up for the Screening and Media Literacy Workshop with Melanie Stevens, taking place on April 19 and 20 at Ori Gallery. This will be the first of ten programs at various venues organized by the first and the last, including exhibitions and more screenings, skill shares, and workshops.

In a contemplative back-and-forth, tai and nicole—who are both black femme artists—articulated how the convergence of their experiences led them to create a series of programs by and for black femmes, women, and non-men in the context of the city of Portland, where the erasure of black communities and crisis of gentrification continue to propel dialogues and organizing efforts.

Continues…