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Film picks: “Faces Places” and “The Death of Stalin”

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Who doesn’t love Agnes Varda? Anybody who isn’t thoroughly charmed by the venerable, diminutive legend of French filmmaking probably isn’t worth knowing. If any 88-year-old can be said to be precocious, it’s her, and her latest (please, not her last!) effort, the Oscar-nominated “Faces Places,” is perhaps her most endearing and thought-provoking movie yet.

Some of the energy in “Faces Places” doubtlessly derives from Varda’s co-director, the visual artist known as JR. His signature project involves wheatpasting enormous photographs in public places, to incongruous effect. (He once made the Louvre pyramid seem to disappear.) In the latest iteration of this method, he and Varda drive around France in a van shaped like a camera and that serves as a giant photo booth: people climb in, get their picture taken, and a giant blow-up prints out from the side of the vehicle.

Agnes Varda, JR, and a goat in “Faces Places”/Courtesy NW Film Center

The title begins to make sense now, even if the rhyme is better in the original French: “Visages Villages.” In various hamlets, factories, and farms, ordinary folks are mythologized by having enormous images of themselves slapped onto the buildings they inhabit. Or used to inhabit–in one instance, a mural of long-dead miners transforms their onetime lodgings into a testament. In another, a giant goat head pays homage to the power of horns. Three woman married to workers at the port of Le Havre get their due by staring down at the dockyard from a stack of dozens of shipping containers.

“Faces Places” is, then, a tribute to the working class and an effort to expand the range of subjects lionized by public art. It’s also a portrait of a glorious gross-generational friendship, as these two idiosyncratic souls, fifty-five years different in age but similar in temperament, criss-cross their nation. (You may never wish you were born French more than after watching this film.) Varda’s wizened, elfin charm rarely founders, even as she admits to encroaching physical frailties, and her two-tone pageboy haircut speaks volumes about her lack of pretension and youthful spirit.

“Faces Places,” also, then, becomes about the impermanence of art, and of life, a topic Varda knows well. Her beloved husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), died in 1990, and she mourns him to this day. One of the final sections in “Faces Places” involves an effort to recapture the past. Having noted JR’s resemblance to Jean-Luc Godard, especially the fact that he never removes his dark glasses, Varda decides to introduce her young friend to the notoriously reclusive New Wave icon. The trip doesn’t go as planned, but ends up providing a perfectly poignant finale for a film that provides a soupcon of hope for humanity even in the face of pettiness and mortality.

(“Faces Places” screens Friday, March 16, through Sunday, March 18, at the Northwest Film Center)

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The same cannot be said for “The Death of Stalin.” This dark political satire from Armando Iannucci, the creator of HBO’s “Veep,” provides very little in the way of hope or poignancy, and doesn’t stint in its depiction of self-serving pettiness. It’s still absolutely hilarious, and lets you channel your fury at the state of the world today while distracting you from it at the same time.

The movie’s about just what it says: the struggle for control of the Soviet Union in the wake of Josef Stalin’s sudden demise in 1953. If that doesn’t sound like the basis for a madcap, rapid-fire comedy, then maybe this does: Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. Take the bug-eyed, amoral desperation of Buscemi’s Mr. Pink from “Reservoir Dogs,” transplant it into the body of a balding Russian schemer twenty-five years later, and set the combination free in an ensemble that also includes Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, and Andrea Riseborough.

Tambor is exquisitely pathetic as Stalin’s right-hand functionary, and it’s great to see Michael Palin up there on the screen again–his last significant big-screen acting role was in “Fierce Creatures” over twenty years ago! But the biggest rival for Buscemi (and for Khrushchev) is an actor I hadn’t been familiar with previously. Simon Russell Beale plays Lavrenti Beria, the feared head of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, and the man best positioned initially to capitalize on the power vacuum. (Needless to say, it doesn’t work out that way.) The competition between Khrushchev and Beria is the heart of the movie, and in the same way “Veep” reveals the human foibles at the core of truly despicable characters, “The Death of Stalin” almost has you wishing that both of them could somehow make it through the film alive. (Needless to say, they don’t.)

I’m normally on the stickler-ish side of the spectrum when it comes to historical accuracy in movies, but this is one case were poetic license and comedic intent allow Iannucci to play moderately fast and loose with the truth. Any film where Stalin has a Cockney accent shouldn’t be assumed to act as a history lesson as well as an entertainment. And “The Death of Stalin” obviously has something to say about the current level of incompetence, greed, and outright evil emanated by certain world leaders in the year 2018. But at the same time, it’s an unfortunately timeless topic: we’re never going to run out of idiotic authoritarians to belittle, so we may as well stay in practice.

(“The Death of Stalin” opens Friday, March 16, at the Regal Fox Tower)

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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