FILM

FilmWatch Weekly: Gus Van Sant talks about his biopic of Portland cartoonist John Callahan

"Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot" follows Callahan's journey to sobriety after being paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident

One well-known Portlander tells the story of another in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” Gus Van Sant’s new film based on the memoir by the late cartoonist John Callahan.

Van Sant has had his eye on Callahan’s life story for a couple of decades, with Robin Williams, who had optioned Callahan’s book, attached at one point to play the lead role. After Williams’ death, the project’s realization seemed unlikely. But Van Sant recruited Joaquin Phoenix, reuniting the two after Phoenix’s breakout role in “To Die For (1995),” and a fascinating supporting cast, and here we are.

If you lived in Northwest Portland in the 1990s, the spectacle of the orange-haired Callahan speeding down the sidewalk in his motorized wheelchair was a familiar one. Even if you didn’t recognize him on the street, however, you would have almost certainly been familiar with the outrage he frequently stoked with his squiggly, single-frame cartoons, which ran regularly in Willamette Week from 1983 until his death in 2010, and skewered race, gender, and other sacred cows (including disability) with politically incorrect impunity.

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan and Jonah Hill as Donnie star in DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT.

“Don’t Worry” focuses less on Callahan’s notoriety than his journey to sobriety, which began some time after the horrific car accident in California that left him paralyzed and bitter. Among the members of the Alcoholics Anonymous group that Callahan reluctantly joins are characters played by the likes of Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, and Kim Gordon, who’s especially convincing as a wealthy Portland housewife with a drinking problem. The group’s de facto leader is Donnie, a self-mocking sober hedonist played with impressive savoir faire by an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill.

The rest of the cast includes Jack Black as the drunk driver behind the wheel for the fateful wreck and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s almost too-angelic nurse/girlfriend. Newcomer Tony Greenhand deserves special mention as Callahan’s wry, stringy-haired caretaker, but the less said about Carrie Brownstein’s brief appearance as a bureaucrat the better.

Van Sant was in town last month for an advanced screening of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” held at Cinema 21, with proceeds benefitting the John Callahan Garden at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. I met with him the afternoon of the screening at a downtown Portland hotel, where he discussed the evolution of the movie, its visual aesthetic, and why he didn’t shoot it here in town.

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FilmWatch Weekly: OMSI goes avant-garde

Two members of Portland's cultural superstructure host visiting artists, while a third announces plans to leave town

A pair of veteran participants in Portland’s truly independent film culture will be back in action over the next couple of weeks, presenting the work of visiting artists, while another is on the verge of departing after over two decades spent laying the foundations of the city’s experimental film community.

The non-profit collective Cinema Project was founded fifteen years ago, its stated mission to promote avant-garde cinema from the past and present. In a shifting lineup of venues, from Produce Row warehouse spaces to chic photography studios, this dedicated group of true believers in the power of sound and image loosed from narrative shackles presented challenging, fascinating work from around the world, often with the filmmaker in attendance.

As one might imagine, this was a fairly thankless task, from a financial perspective, and in February 2017 the group wrapped up what had been billed as its final season of regular programming. Now, though, Cinema Project returns, at least for the moment, after an 18-month hiatus, with a screening of films by the Belgian artist and researcher Anouk De Clercq on Wednesday, July 11. This time, however, it won’t be in some drafty loft with the whirring of a 16mm projector as background audio (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but on one of the largest movie screens in the Portland metro area: the Empirical Theatre at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

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The highlights in Portland movie theaters right now range from a touching portrait of a beloved TV icon to a soul-searing portrait of family dealing with grief, insanity and terror. How’s that for range?

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: It’s safe to say that Fred Rogers would not be pleased with the state of the world today. It’s also safe to say that anyone who spent any time at all as a child watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and who feels anything but sadness at our society’s current dearth of decency and empathy simply wasn’t paying attention.

These sorts of poignant observations come easily to mind watching this straightforward, inevitably affecting portrait of the Pennsylvanian Presbyterian who became a cardigan-clad paragon of calm kindness for American kids of at least a couple generations. The fact that Morgan Neville’s movie is opening in Portland the same week that the federal government defends a program that cruelly separates immigrant children from their parents is just icing on the irony cake.

Any review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will inevitably result in a nostalgic appreciation of Rogers himself, but, to Spurlock’s credit, the movie doesn’t wallow in gooey platitudes. It doesn’t need to. Taking a clear-eyed perspective toward Rogers’ off-camera self reveals that he was anything but an idealist or an escapist. He saw that there was a glaring lack on the television landscape of programming that could improve the minds and lives of young viewers, and then he fought like Hell to correct the situation.

I’m not sure how compelling the movie would be for someone going in cold, unfamiliar with Mister Rogers, untriggered by the sight of Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Aberlin, untouched by his legacy. But I do know that for anyone who misses the humanity and moral clarity he embodied, this is probably the most bittersweet cinematic experience of the year.

(“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is currently playing at Cinema 21.)

Jewish Film Festival: The Northwest Film Center’s annual program highlighting films that explore the Jewish experience moves into its second week. For film history buffs, the most fascinating item on the docket is “The Ancient Law,” a 1923 German silent film about a rabbi’s son who leaves his shtetl to explore the world and become an actor. He winds up in Vienna, starring in “Hamlet” and catching the eye of the Archduchess. Eventually, though, he’s forced to decide between tradition and assimilation.

Long thought lost, the movie was partially restored in the 1980s. Then a German censor’s card containing a detailed outline of the film was discovered, allowing for this full, stunningly accomplished version to exist. (One of the few benefits of censorship is that censors have to write down everything they object to.) As a portrait of Jewish life in 19th-century Europe, reflected through a Weimar lens, “The Ancient Law” is a fascinating piece of cinematic and cultural history—and its archetypal narrative still packs a punch, too.

Other notable screenings include “An Act of Defiance,” a historical drama about the Afrikaner lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela at his 1963 trial in apartheid-era South Africa; “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a documentary portrait of the Rat Pack member whose incongruous qualities included converting to Judaism and speaking out in favor of Richard Nixon; and “Scaffolding,” in which a young man is torn between taking his place in his father’s construction business and pursuing his appreciation of literature. Some stories never get old.

(“The Ancient Law” screens on Saturday, June 16, at the Northwest Film Center. The 26th Portland Jewish Film Festival runs through June 26. For a full schedule, visit www.nwfilm.org.)

“Hereditary”: I finally caught up with the latest iteration in the quasi-artsy, indie-fueled horror film trend of recent years (see, previously, “It Follows,” “The Witch,” etc.). As with most decently scary movies, it’s best experienced with as little advance knowledge as possible. Toni Collette plays Ellen, an artist who creates elaborate miniature dioramas. She lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Charlie and her older pothead brother Arnie, in a suitably grand and isolated house in a forest. Ellen’s character’s mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship, has just died. Creepy stuff starts happening, most of it centered on Charlie, a morbid, odd-looking girl with a masklike face and deep, dead eyes. (She’s played by Molly Shapiro, making her film debut after winning a Tony for playing “Matilda” on Broadway. Molly doesn’t look nearly as disturbing in real life, you’ll be relieved to know.) So far, so good—dysfunctional family grief meets supernaturally-tinged scares. But first-time writer-director Ari Aster ratchets things up in both intensity and surreality, leading to a final half-hour that’s being justly acclaimed as one of the most riveting—if divisive—third acts in recent memory. If that vague promise whets your whistle, be sure to check this one out.

(“Hereditary” is currently playing at the Hollywood Theatre and the Regal Fox Tower.)

Spotlight On: The Portland Horror Film Festival

In its third year, the Portland Horror Film Festival and founders Gwen and Brian Callahan continue to subvert the dominant Hollywood Horror Paradigm

This weekend, the Portland Horror Film Festival once again will turn the Hollywood Theatre into a morass of thrills and chills and spills of blood. This is only the third year of the festival, but in that time it has grown from two nights to four days, showing more than 40 short films (varying from one to 24 minutes), five feature-length films, guests, shwag, awards and an ever-expanding audience of ghoul-and-ghost seekers.

It’s fun, but more than that, the Portland Horror Film Festival is a bastion of art, of independent spirit, of resistance to the corporate construct that dominates the American landscape. At the PHFF, you won’t find examples of what founders Brian and Gwen Callahan call Hollywood-style “committee filmmaking.” Instead, you’ll see the singular visions of auteurs, “pure” and unadulterated, without the the greatest common denominator or the almighty bottom-line hovering above it all.

In their mind, they’re providing a “service to the audience by exposing them to movies they might not otherwise see; and serving the filmmakers by putting them in front of audiences they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own.”

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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).

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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.”

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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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