FILM

FilmWatch Weekly: Isabelle Huppert is “Mrs. Hyde,” plus “Custody” and “Generation Wealth”

A pair of French films and a documentary about American plutocracy hit Portland theaters this week

There’s nothing absolutely earth-shattering splashing onto Portland’s arthouse screens this week (hey, it must be August), but that doesn’t mean there’s not an array of interesting titles worth keeping in mind. In fact, there is exactly that, including the latest from the always noteworthy Isabelle Huppert, a shattering French drama about marital discord, and a documentary look at the real price of being rich.

“Mrs. Hyde”: French director Serge Bozon worked with the iconic Huppert on his last feature, 2013’s “Tip Top,” a quirky, dark farce that was barely seen in this country. Their new collaboration, “Mrs. Hyde,” may face the same fate, but doesn’t deserve it. In an obvious nod to the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, Huppert plays Madame Géquil, a meek science teacher in a suburban Parisian high school whose id gets freed after a freak laboratory accident. Huppert is almost too perfectly cast as the initially meek, eventually dangerous protagonist, who finds herself supernaturally empowered to deal with her disrespectful, multiracial students as well as her supercilious principal.

However, she never really gets to dig into the implications and contradictions of this divided character, at least not as much as she has in such films as “The Piano Teacher” or “Elle.” “Mrs. Hyde” feels, at times, as if it can’t decide if it wants to be a commentary on the French educational system, a feminist parable, or an arty genre piece. It ends up being a less that totally satisfying mix of the three, with at least the unforced mastery of Huppert on its side. (playing at the Northwest Film Center, Aug. 3-5)

“Custody”: The ultimate child custody battle movie of all time remains, no doubt, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but this directorial debut from French actor Xavier Legrand gives that one a run for its money. (Insert alimony joke here?)

The film opens with a fifteen-minute court hearing between estranged couple Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet), their lawyers, and a family court judge. It’s probably less notable in France that it would be in America that Antoine is the only male in the room. It’s a gripping encounter, filmed and acted with a restraint that ratchets up the emotional tension instantly, and you may wonder if the entire film will unfold as a series of legal encounters. It doesn’t, as Antoine is granted weekend visits with his young son Julien despite some indications of past violent behavior. (The couple also have an older teenage daughter, whom Antoine doesn’t seem to care much about.)

From there, “Custody” proceeds like a slightly slicker version of the kitchen-sink dramas made by the Belgian filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“The Son,” “The Kid with the Bike”), until it succumbs to suspense-movie tropes in its final scenes. Ménochet in particular recalls the meaty, morally ambiguous male characters of several Dardenne films, and Thomas Gioria, who plays Julien, is reminiscent of the powerful juvenile performances in the brothers’ work.

Legrand, though, doesn’t quite yet have the easy mastery of form and emotional realism needed to make “Custody” a true standout. This is his first feature, a continuation and expansion of the story he told (using Drucker and Ménochet) in his Oscar-winning live-action short from 2013, “Just Before Losing Everything.” The acting is first-rate, as is the filmmaking craft, and once this director figures out how to infuse his work with a little more soul, he could be capable of great things. (currently playing at Living Room Theaters)

“Generation Wealth”: Photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield has been chronicling the lives of the super-rich for over twenty years, most notably in 2012’s “The Queen of Versailles,” which followed the quixotic efforts of Jacqueline and David Siegel to build the largest private residence in the United States. The Siegels (at least Jacqueline) pop up again in Greenfield’s new movie, which serves as a summation and revisiting of her life’s work. Some of the most fascinating scenes contrast footage Greenfield shot of students at an exclusive Los Angeles private school in the early 1990s with their now middle-aged selves. Some have moved beyond the shallow hedonism of their privileged teen years, others demonstrably have not.

Other subjects include the Oregon-raised porn star who gained infamy as one of Charlie Sheen’s paramours, a woman who travels to Brazil to undergo extreme plastic surgery, and a female Wall Street banker whose obsession with her income level is only matched by her obsession with her appearance. As those examples attest, “Generation Wealth” takes a long, fascinating, and disturbing detour into the ways in which hyper-capitalism has turned sexual appeal into just another marketable commodity.

Greenfield also turns the camera, both metaphorically and literally, on herself and her own family, in a way that seems unintentionally ironic considering the movie’s otherwise heartfelt condemnation of narcissism. Despite feeling at times like a promotional tool on behalf of Greenfield’s similarly-themed gallery show and coffee table book, and despite lacking the compelling singular focus of “The Queen of Versailles,” “Generation Wealth” still offers a degree of insight (often in the form of cynical commentary from writer Chris Hedges) on the societal sickness that contributed to the emergence of the Trump Era. (currently playing at Regal Fox Tower)

 

Repertory happenings of note, August 3-9:

“Polyester”: The Hollywood Theatre screens John Waters’ 1981 ode to bad taste, complete with scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards, as a tribute to the late Tab Hunter, the Hollywood Golden Age golden boy who reinvented his career with this campy role. (Friday, Aug 3)

“The Planet of the Apes”: The Hollywood also kicks off its “Marathon of the Planet of the Apes” series, which will include every film from both the original 1970s series as well as the more recent cycle of simian cinema (but not the terrible Tim Burton remake or, to my knowledge, the animated TV series). (Saturday, Aug. 4, followed by “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” on Sunday, “Escape from the POTA” on Monday, “Conquest of the POTA” on Thursday, and more in coming weeks…)

“3 Women”: The last great film Robert Altman made before the long creative and commercial drought that ended with 1991’s “The Player” was this enigmatic 1977 masterpiece starring Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek as co-workers at a health spa for the elderly in a small California desert town and Janice Rule as their landlord’s wife. It was inspired by a dream Altman had and owes a certain debt to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” and if that doesn’t make you want to see it, I don’t know what will. (Northwest Film Center, Monday, Aug. 6)

“Night of the Hunter”: The best film ever made by someone who never directed another film. Robert Mitchum, Lilian Gish, Shelley Winters. (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday & Sunday, Aug. 4 & 5)

FilmWatch Weekly: Brazil nuts rejoice

A pair of distinctive Brazilian efforts, "Araby" and "Good Manners" play at the Northwest Film Center

The Northwest Film Center has just wrapped up its epic, weeks-long centenary tribute to Ingmar Bergman. I was going to write “iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman” or “canonical philosopher of cinema Ingmar Bergman” but, you know, if you’re reading this column and need to have Ingmar Bergman identified for you, you might be in the wrong place.

Anyway, having concluded this remarkable service on behalf of Portland’s cinephiles, the Film Center is returning to its (ir)regular programming. Up this weekend, by chance or design, are a pair of Brazilian films with distinctly different vibes but some interesting commonalities.

“Araby” (no apparent relationship to the James Joyce story in “Dubliners”) is an intimate, class-conscious story about a working-class stiff for whom very little goes right, at least for very long. Co-directors Joao Dumans and Affonso Uchoa have constructed a two-tiered, bifurcated narrative, the first act of which focuses on teenaged Andre (Murilo Caliari). Under the opening credits, Andre steadily bicycles up a steep mountain road towards the ramshackle dwelling he shares with his younger brother and his aunt. As he does, the haunting lyrics of Jackson T. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” play behind him: “Wherever I’ve gone, the blues are all the same…”

That sentiment dominates the film. Andre, a few scenes later, happens upon the victim of an unspecified accident at a nearby factory. Told to fetch the man’s handwritten journal, Andre ends up sitting down to read it. And, twenty minutes in, we’re presented a title card for “Araby” as its main story begins. The journal’s author, Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), talks us in flashback through his journey across southern Brazil, working (mostly as a fruit picker), loving, singing, and frequently suffering. It’s never clear whether what we are seeing is a “real” flashback or simply Andre’s imagination, prompted by the increasingly lyrical diary entries he reads.

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Fragmentation in motion: An interview with Jaleesa Johnston

A free screening and animation workshop for black femmes, women, and non-men in Portland, hosted by the first and the last

This past April, I had the pleasure of interviewing artists kiki nicole (they/them) and ariella tai (they/them) about their work through the first and the last—an experimental film/video and new media arts project. This endeavor offers a platform to amplify and support the artistic work of black femmes, women, and non-men through screenings, skillshares, and workshops based in Portland. During our discussion, nicole cited the influence of another Portland-based black femme artist, Jaleesa Johnston (she/her), whom they were excited to curate into their year of programming.

Johnston will be facilitating a screening and workshop as part of the first and the last’s programming this weekend, July 28 and 29. I had the opportunity speak with her about her incisive body of work and conceptual process, and how all of the above will inform these upcoming events.

Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston describes her artist practice as interdisciplinary: The ideas and concepts come first, followed by mediums for their expression. “If I don’t know that medium, I just find a way to learn it or teach it to myself,” she said, reflecting back a sense of determination that nicole and tai emphasized when I spoke to them earlier this year about the work of various self-taught black femme artists.

“Pretty much all of the themes and ideas that I deal with have to do with black female subjectivity and understanding what it means to stand within this in-between space of being both the subject and object in my work, and historically being seen as both subject and object,” Johnston explained. She described how blackness becomes a “liminal space” that can be defined, in certain senses, but also remains undefined. “That actually can be very beneficial and very freeing,” she continued. “I can use that to harness and activate a radical space that allows me to expand beyond the confines of what blackness has conventionally meant or historically meant.”

On July 28, Johnston will screen an excerpt of the video “Compared to What” (2017) by Ayana V. Jackson. A US-born photographer and filmmaker, Jackson often references 19th and early 20th century presentations of black bodies through her self-portraiture. Her performative and photographic work calls into question the ways the camera has historically been used to construct identities.

“It’s an animated video piece, but through photography, stitching together different photos,” described Johnston, who first encountered the film when she was teaching a photography class at Pacific Northwest College of Art. That same semester, Jackson visited the school and came to speak to Johnston’s students.

“It was through seeing her piece that I started really thinking about what’s not said,” she remembered.

The film piqued Johnston’s interest in the difference between live performance and performance that is mediated by photography or video. “Watching her video piece, I just was thinking about the body…the body in fragments caught through snapshots,” she said. As she encountered the film, Johnston considered how live performative work is often presented comprehensively, from beginning to end in real time for an audience, while performative video or photography can sometimes allow for more discretion and choice-making around what is revealed and what is obscured.

In this sense, for Johnston, what is is not said and what is not seen becomes paramount.

“There’s this fragmented piece of body that is actually still finding a way to function and interact and come alive on the screen,” Johnston reflected of the film.

Following the screening, on July 29, Johnston will facilitate an animation workshop seeded by the notion of fragmentation, a concept that shows up in her own work as well, in pieces such as “Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” and her collage work, Between Contact. In this skill-building workshop, participants will have the opportunity to learn how to create a .gif through Photoshop and an animation through PowerPoint.

“Antique White and Flesh” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston expounded on the phrase “Fragments from the (W)hole,” her choice of title for this offering. “As people, we break off little bits of ourselves, and that’s what people get to see and interact with, but they all tie back to this part of us that is a larger, whole person,” she said. “There are moments where I feel whole, and then there are other times where I feel like a void, like an actual hole.”

Johnston spoke to the notion of fragmentation as a mode of moving through the world, the act of sharing pieces of oneself that connect back to a unique and complex human identity—yet, without revealing its wholeness. For her, there are a range of affective states evoked by this fragmentation, experiences of “feeling fully present and alive, and then moments of feeling like you’re not really here, not really there.” It is critical to consider, as she articulated, “what that means in terms of blackness, and what that means for how we [black folx] have constructed our identity, especially given the history of blackness as its constructed through photography.”

“My rat race of a mind has wired all these things together that I hope to communicate during the workshop,” said Johnston, musing over the marriage of concept with practical skill-building.

Ultimately, she hopes to give others, especially black femmes, opportunities to work with the camera and to create a kind of narrative—one that “allows for this complicated sense of being to exist.”

*****

Join the first and the last for a screening of Ayana V. Jackson’s work with Johnston on July 28 at 6 pm and an introductory animation workshop on July 29 at 6 pm. These events will be hosted at Alberta Abbey with the Black Life Experiential Research Group (BLERG). Both events are free and open to the public, and the animation workshop will be catered by Platanorising.

the first and the last is accepting donations for their projects and artists via Venmo @firstandlast. Follow @firstandthelast.blk on Instagram to learn more. 

 

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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