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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘American Fiction,’ ‘The Crime Is Mine,’ ‘Monster,’ and the return of the Portland Jewish Film Festival

2024 kicks off with a French farce, a biting satire starring Jeffrey Wright, and a new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

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Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” An Orion Pictures Release Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“Representation matters” has become a mantra regarding the depiction of historically disadvantaged populations in popular culture. It’s usually taken to mean that a first step towards reversing the exclusion of races, sexes, and genders who have spent the last several centuries listening to stories by and about white men is to simply get them on the page or screen. Depending on one’s perspective, the sentiment works either to goad the culture industry into diversity or to provide it with the easy out of tokenism.

It’s an especially fraught issue at a time when the academic world is similarly searching for the appropriate balance between ostensibly objective standards of excellence and the need to redress eons of oppression and segregation by lifting up their victims, in the contexts of affirmative action in admissions as well as university leadership positions. All of which is to say that the sharp satire American Fiction arrives on the scene at kind of a perfect time.

Skewering both our national neuroses surrounding race and the pretensions of the publishing world, it follows novelist Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), who naturally goes by “Monk.” He teaches at a California college when he’s not trying to sell his literary (i.e. poor-selling) works through his beleaguered agent Arthur (John Ortiz). A common refrain is that his books don’t “speak to the African-American experience,” presumably because they are not set in the inner city or on a plantation.

When he’s told that publishers are looking for “a Black book,” he spits back, “They have a Black book. I’m Black. It’s my book.” (Wright masters a slow burn glare and a Roy Kent-esque growl in a very fine performance.) Conversely, when he finds his oeuvre shelved in the African-American Studies section of a bookstore, he’s apoplectic. His is the frustration of every author who finds themselves pigeonholed by some identity- or genre-based modifier or another. One recalls how Ursula K. Le Guin despised being referred to as a “science-fiction writer.”

When Monk’s aging, dementia-adjacent mother (the marvelous Leslie Uggams) needs to move into an assisted-living facility, and his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) meets a tragic fate, he finds himself more desperate than ever to churn out a best-seller. Inspired by the smash success of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), Monk tosses off, on a lark, a virtual parody of Black trauma porn titled “My Pafology.” His agent submits it to publishers, as a joke, using the pseudonym Stag R. Leigh. You can imagine what happens next.

In what may not be quite as screwball a turn as “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers, “My Pafology” (later retitled “Fuck” at its author’s insistence) is beloved by every white editor, marketer, screenwriter, and literary award judge who reads it. All the while, Monk poses as the streetwise, supposedly wanted felon Leigh while managing various family crises, which grow to include his brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), who has plunged into a hedonistic gay lifestyle after leaving his wife and kids.

These domestic attachments are invaluable in turning Monk into more than just a didactic mouthpiece for the commentary of writer-director Cord Jefferson, who makes a solid feature debut after a career writing for TV’s The Good Place and Watchmen, among others. Jefferson is working from the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, which, if anything, is even more bare-knuckled in its takedowns of hypocrisy.

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It also helps that Monk, who can be stuck-up, distant, and emotionally constipated in both his literary and familial worlds, gets a talking-to from Sintara Golden in a key scene late in the film. The question of how and in what ways representation matters, and what sort of responsibility individual artists have to “speak for their people,” is much more complicated than our flawed protagonist thinks, and the movie recognizes that a satire such as this necessarily flattens the issues it perforates.

Are performative white liberal guilt and the pretension of the academic literary set low-hanging fruit? Sure. But by constructing complex human figures as it whacks away at this obvious produce, American Fiction succeeds both as storytelling and conversation-starting. (Opens Thursday, Jan. 4, at Cinema 21, the Hollywood Theatre, and Regal Bridgeport Village)

Crime itself may not pay (although these days that’s debatable), but confessing to one she didn’t commit turns a nice profit for Madeleine Verdier (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), an aspiring actress in 1930s France, in Francois Ozon’s highly enjoyable farce The Crime Is Mine. After she’s charged with the murder of a famous film producer, Madeleine pleads innocence until she realizes that (a) her career could get a huge boost from the publicity and (b) her lawyer roommate Pauline (Rebecca Marder) stands a good chance of getting her off on self-defense.

Everything goes swimmingly, as both the courts and the public are swayed by Madeleine’s performance as a wronged woman who’s a victim of patriarchy. And then, naturally, the real killer shows up, which would be bad enough if she weren’t played by Isabelle Huppert. Huppert’s Odette wants in on all the material magnificence attributable to the deadly deed she in fact committed. Tereszkiewicz and Marder have an adorable Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (or, more recently, 2 Broke Girls) vibe, and Huppert effortlessly elevates every scene she’s in. The presence of sturdy Gallic veterans Fabrice Luchini (as the judge overseeing Madeleine’s trial) and Andre Dussollier also helps. (Opens Friday, Jan. 5, at the Living Room Theaters and the Salem Cinema)

Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda has always managed to blend the contemplative pace and lyrical style of fellow Asian masters such as Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul with conventional narrative of melodrama. The latest example of this is Monster, a Rashomon-reminiscent tale about the unexpectedly complicated relationship between a grade-school teacher and two of his troubled students.

We first meet Minato (Soya Kurokawa), who lives with his widowed mother Saori (Sakura Ando), on the night that a “hostess club” near their apartment goes up in flames. Over the next weeks, Saori notices odd behavior from her son, up to and including jumping out of a moving car. Minato indicates that one of his teachers, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), has subjected him to cruel taunts, such as calling him “pig-brained,” and is responsible for a bloody nose he suffered one day in class. Furious, Saori confronts Hori and the school administration, who offer only the most noncommittal, formulaic apologies.

Minato’s outbursts and disappearances continue, culminating on the evening a typhoon hits town and the boy can’t be found. From there, Kore-eda backtracks to the night of the fire and provides Hori’s perspective on the events we’ve already seen, which includes Minato’s close friendship with another boy named Yori (Hinata Hiiragi). And the final third of Monster does the same from Yori’s point of view. Each version adds both facts and nuance to what at first seemed a simplistic tale, and writer Yuji Sakamoto earned the Best Screenplay award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival for his work. (This is Kore-eda’s third Japanese-language feature in a row to take home a Cannes prize.)

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Monster also marks the final credited film score for the legendary Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who passed away in March of 2023. It includes two newly composed pieces as well as work from previous albums, and it’s a respectable swan song for one of the titans of film composition. (Opens Friday, Jan. 5, at Metro Cinemas in Eugene; Friday, Jan. 12 at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend; and Friday, Jan. 26 at the Living Room Theaters in Portland.)

After decades of being hosted by the Northwest Film Center, the Portland Jewish Film Festival has been resurrected by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, and its 2024 edition will run from January 9 through 14 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. The opening night film, Remembering Gene Wilder, commemorates the career of the unforgettable star of The Producers and Young Frankenstein (and still the best on-screen Willy Wonka). It will be followed by a discussion with former Oregonian film critic and current author and podcast host Shawn Levy. The other titles include a trio of documentaries about unconventional Jewish visual artists and a historical drama about a nurse in 1939 Warsaw who helps hide Jews from the Nazi invaders.

ALSO THIS WEEK

Burned: Free screening of a documentary about the perils of relying on woody biomass as an environmentally friendly energy source. (Monday, Clinton St.)

Sacred Alaska: Documentary about the Russian Orthodox community among Native Alaskans. Screens with the short film Amphilochios. (Monday, Cinema 21)

REVIVALS

THURSDAY

  • The Man Who Fell to Earth [1976] (Tomorrow Theater)

FRIDAY

  • Fantastic Planet [1973] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Forbidden Planet [1956] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Good Morning, Vietnam [1987] (Cinemagic, also Saturday, Monday, Thursday)
  • Killer’s Kiss [1955] (Eugene Art House, through Thursday)
  • Polite Society [2023] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Q: The Winged Serpent [1982] (Cinemagic, on VHS)

SATURDAY

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  • Aladdin [1992] (Cinemagic, also Sunday, Monday, Thursday)
  • Delicatessen [1991] (Hollywood, also Sunday)
  • Good Will Hunting [1997] (Cinemagic, also Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday)
  • Jaws [1975] (Cinema 21)
  • Koyaanisqatsi [1984] (Clinton St.)
  • Renaissance: A Film by Beyonce [2023] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • A Star Is Born [1954] (Hollywood, also Sunday)
  • Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour [2023] (Tomorrow Theater)

SUNDAY

  • Mrs. Doubtfire [1993] (Cinemagic, also Tuesday, Wednesday)
  • Streets of Fire [1984] (Clinton St.)
  • Valley of the Dolls [1967] (Tomorrow Theater)

MONDAY

  • Labyrinth [1986] (Hollywood)

TUESDAY

  • Beat the Devil [1953] (Darkside Cinema)
  • Shogun Assassin [1980] (Hollywood, on 35mm)

WEDNESDAY

  • Black Lizard [1968] (Church of Film at Clinton St.)
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off [1986] (Hollywood)

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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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