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.”


“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.”


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.


Isabelle Huppert: World’s greatest actor

The French star vaults to the top ranks with recent performances in "Elle" and "Things to Come."

May as well just say it: Isabelle Huppert is the best screen actor working in the world today.

To support this somewhat bold contention, I present two pieces of compelling evidence, both showing in Portland theaters right now.

One, “Things to Come,” is, in outline, a fairly ordinary middlebrow drama. It centers on a French high school philosophy teacher (yes, they have those in France) whose orderly life is upended on numerous fronts. The health of her elderly mother (played by screen icon Edith Scob) is failing; she discovers that her husband her been unfaithful to her; and her career momentum stalls. We’ve seen this sort of midlife-crisis, “I Am Woman” story in the past–remember all those Jill Clayburgh movies?–but what elevates “Things to Come” is Huppert’s smooth, lived-in performance, which manages to communicate a controlled facade and a rich interior life without resorting to anything resembling acting (at least as we’re used to seeing it in Hollywood dramas).

Isabelle Huppert (Nathalie) and Roman Kolinka (Fabien) in Mia Hansen-Løve’s THINGS TO COME

The director of “Things to Come” is Mia Hansen Love, who based the main character on her own mother. Hansen Love, making her fifth feature, is part of a new generation of French female filmmakers who are demonstrating the wide range of stories women can contribute when allowed to infiltrate the typically male-dominated industry. And Huppert’s appearance in her movie is something of a stamp of approval, placing her in the ranks of other greats the actress has graced with her inimitable talents.


FilmWatch Weekly: “Evolution” director Lucile Hadžihalilović, interviewed

This eerie fable about adolescence and isolation returns months after its screening at PIFF

One of strangest and most memorable films from this year’s Portland International Film Festival makes a belated return to town for a regular engagement this week at Cinema 21. “Evolution,” the second feature from the French director Lucile Hadžihalilović, is set on a rocky, isolated island populated entirely by women and young boys, including Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his…mother?. It’s sort of a fable, sort of a horror film, and plays like a strange admixture of Jean Cocteau and David Cronenberg.

There are mysterious medical facilities, bizarre treatments and injections, and a raft of visual and narrative metaphors circling around notions of reproduction, birth and water. Mostly, “Evolution” is a sensory, sensual experience, moody cinematography and all-encompassing sound design transporting the viewer to a place that is both familiar on some limbic level and utterly alien at the same time.

A scene from “Evolution.”

I first saw “Evolution” as part of the Rendezvous with French Cinema event I attended in Paris in January of this year. At that time, I was able to interview Hadžihalilović (whose surname isn’t as hard to pronounce as you’d guess) in a hotel suite, where she proved to be a graceful, almost reticent presence. Nearly a year later, I’m very pleased that Portland audiences will have a chance to experience the film on the big screen. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

MM: The film has been described as a horror movie, which to me seems reductive. How do you feel about having that label applied?

LH: I think there are many kinds of horror movies. I really wanted the horror to be attractive, appealing. I wanted to be more elliptic, more allusive. I think it’s more playful to do it like that. It’s ok if people say that [it’s a horror movie], but I can see how that makes it a bit more narrow somehow. If people ask what genre of film it is, I don’t know what to say. In French we say “film fantastique,” which is more appropriate perhaps.


Home Movies: “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams,” “Lone Wolf and Cub” series, and lots more

A pair of Japanese releases from The Criterion Collection are among the reasons to stay home and watch movies.

With the Portland area still thawing out from what passes for a winter storm in these parts, this seems like as good a time as any to launch what will hopefully be a new weekly feature on movies you can watch without leaving the warmth and comfort of your home.

Even with Portland’s abundance of independent and art house cinemas, there are worthy films that never make it into local theaters. And between streaming services like Fandor, Hulu, Netflix, MUBI, and the brand-new Flimstruck, the options for discovering unseen classics are boundless. Plus, they do still make movies on disc, and a good Blu-ray edition remains the best way to watch a film in your pajamas.

The Northwest Film Center’s annual Japanese Currents series is wrapping up this weekend, but if you can’t make it down to the Whitsell Auditorium, a couple of recent Blu-ray releases from The Criterion Collection can help you satisfy that yen for Japanese cinema. One is a late effort from one of the nation’s grand masters, the other a chance to dive into the gloriously stylized, narratively compelling, and thoroughly bloody swordfight genre.

Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh in “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams”

“Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” came out in 1990. It was the first of Kurosawa’s movies I saw in a theater on its initial release, and it was the last of his films to approach greatness. (He only made two more features before his death in 1998.) It’s the sort of personal, impressionistic project only a legend could get away with. Literally based on the director’s recurring dreams, the movie is comprised of a series of vignettes, often imbued with a mixture of nostalgia, despair, and wonder. All are stunningly shot, but the most memorable features none other than American director Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh. It’s Scorsese’s most adept piece of acting (which isn’t saying much) and a testament to his admiration for Kurosawa that he appears at all.

“Dreams” looks astonishing on Blu-ray, and the Criterion release comes with enough extra goodies to get you through an entire snow day. First off, there’s a two-and-a-half hour documentary shot during the making of “Dreams” that provides as intimate a look at how a cinematic genius in full flower operates on a daily basis than you’re ever likely to find. Then there’s another fifty-minute doc, made in 2011,  featuring interviews with Kurosawa’s collaborators and colleagues, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Hayao Miyazaki, and Scorsese. A couple of freestanding interviews with the movie’s production designer and assistant director offer even more insight into its making. And, to top it all off, there’s a brand-new, full-length audio commentary track (a rarity these days even on Criterion releases) from film historian Stephen Prince. Prince, a Kurosawa expert, has contributed commentaries to past Criterion releases of nine other of the master’s works.

If “Dreams” is too artsy and respectable, though, Criterion has in its other hand the three-disc, six-film “Lone Wolf and Cub” set. No film industry could churn out genre series like the Japanese, and, other than “Zatoichi,” the “Lone Wolf and Cub” films might be the pinnacle of that trait. Made between 1972 and 1974, they follow the travelling adventures of Ogami Itto, an unjustly disgraced executioner in the Tokugawa Era who wanders the countryside pushing a perambulator containing his three-year-old son. Trouble follows them everywhere, so it’s a good thing Ogami has outfitted the baby cart to contain all manner of hidden weapons and deadly devices.

Tomisaburo Wakayama stars in the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series

Although the quality slumps a bit as the series goes on, the films are all stunningly shot, and star Tomisaburo Wakayama strikes the perfect tone as the curmudgeonly, ascetic, ultimately humane warrior who stands up for the little people and carves the bad guys into so much sushi.

The “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies are more than just samurai action flicks, with stories involving and complicated enough to hold your interest even before the blood and viscera begin to flow.

But, hey, maybe you’re just not in the mood for Japanese movies. It happens. Here’s a rundown of some other stuff that became available this week:

“Frank & Lola”: Michael Shannon is hot these days, by which I mean both that he’s a sought-after actor thanks to performances in films such as “Nocturnal Animals” and “Midnight Special,” and that he’s incredibly pissed about Donald Trump’s electoral victory. For some reason, no Portland theaters chose to run this relationship drama in which he plays a Las Vegas chef who falls in love with a younger woman (Imogen Poots, “Green Room”). She’s got secrets in her past, or at least claims to, as well as a dysfunctional mother (Patricia Arquette). He’s got anger issues and professional ambition. Writer-director Matthew Ross’ debut feature isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s involving enough to be worth a look. (available to rent via Amazon, Vudu, Cinema Now)

“Howards End” Blu-ray: The Cohen Film Colletion has made impressive strides in recent years to become an important player in the art house and repertory scene, and their biggest move yet was the recent acquisition of the Merchant Ivory film library. The first fruits of that deal came with the theatrical re-release of “Howards End” (locally at Cinema 21) and now its appearance in this luxurious Blu-ray release. It’s probably the most visually stunning film in the Merchant Ivory oeuvre, and there’s a making-of documentary, a Q&A session from earlier this year, and an audio commentary.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” Black & Chrome Edition: Director George Miller had initially intended to release the best action movie of 2015 in black-and-white, but obviously that ain’t gonna happen in today’s world. Now he’s finally been able to set his preferred version of the film loose on the world, and it’s available for streaming rental or on a Blu-ray. Can’t wait to check this out.

“Children of Divorce” Blu-ray/VOD: The company Flicker Alley is one of the unsung heroes of the film preservation movement. (Not that there are any terribly sung heroes of the film preservation movement.) Their latest effort is this 1927 comedy starring Clara Bow and a very young Gary Cooper. Judging from the trailer, it looks magnificently restored, and includes an hour-long documentary on Bow on the Blu-ray.

“The Exterminating Angel” Blu-ray: Another Criterion job, this Blu-ray debut of Luis Bunuel’s 1962 surrealist classic about a high-society dinner party that just won’t end includes the same supplementary material as their previous DVD issue, including a comprehensive, feature-length 2008 documentary about Bunuel’s career.