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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Amsterdam,’ ‘Hold Me Tight,’ and fall festival season

A historical comic puzzle in a conundrum in an eccentric Christian Bale; a smart tense mystery; festivals from Lovecraft to the mountains.

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Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington in “Amsterdam.”

Amsterdam, the new movie from David O. Russell, is a boisterous comedy about an unlikely trio who pursue a free-wheeling life in post-World War I Europe. Amsterdam is also a graphic and sobering examination of the damage war does to both bodies and minds. And Amsterdam is also a tragically relevant thriller about the fascism taking root in the good old U.S. of A.

That’s a lot of plates for one movie to keep spinning, and it’s a testament to Russell’s ambition and talent that they don’t instantly crash to the ground. But there’s a dangerous wobble throughout this overstuffed but undernourished movie, which puzzles at least as much as it entertains.

Things kick off in 1933 New York City, where one-eyed, wild-haired white doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and his best pal, Black attorney Harold Woodman (John David Washington) are hired by a mysterious blonde woman (Taylor Swift) to investigate the mysterious death of her father. Before you can say “Getaway Car,” the pair are on the run, suspected for a murder they didn’t commit.

There follows an extended flashback to 1918, where Burt and Harold met on the front lines of the war. Wounded in action (hence the missing eye), they’re tended to by Val (Margot Robbie), a compassionate nurse who makes art out of the shrapnel she recovers from bodies and falls madly in love with Harold. She’s also apparently a woman of means and connections, and, once the war ends, the three embark on a bohemian, idyllic existence in Amsterdam.

Back in 1933, Burt and Harold’s efforts to clear their names lead them to encounters with a bizarre, wealthy couple played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Rami Malek; a pair of intelligence agents played by Michael Myers and Michael Shannon; a retired general played by Robert DeNiro; and more. In the process, they stumble upon a (historically based) scheme to turn America into an authoritarian state.

So, yes, overstuffed. Amsterdam feels like one of those Miramax movies from the 1990s where Harvey Weinstein roped every au courant star into one role or another, regardless of whether it gave them anything interesting to do. (Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, Ed Begley, Jr., and Timothy Olyphant also pop up.) Bale hams it up as the twitchy, dark-humored doc who’s constantly popping his glass eye in and out of its socket. But it often feels like he’s in a different movie, one that’s even more divorced from reality than this one. Robbie is luminous, but doesn’t exude the chutzpah that Jennifer Lawrence has in her collaborations with Russell. (This is his first film in a decade without her in it.) Washington ends up more often than not playing straight man to Bale’s zaniness.

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Russell’s best films have focused on tight relationships among small groups of people: the soldiers in Three Kings, the misfit dance partners in Silver Linings Playbook, the con-artist couple in American Hustle. (And, yes, the incestuous mother and son in his debut, Spanking the Monkey.) If Amsterdam had stuck to exploring the dynamics of its central threesome, it may have ended up a more focused and memorable piece of work. But by letting his gaze wander too far afield (and indulging, once again, Bale’s eccentric acting choices), Russell ends up with a movie that’s never boring, but only intermittently engaging. (Opens on Friday, October 7.)

ALSO OPENING:

The Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps drew raves for her performance opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in 2017’s Phantom Thread, with many wondering just who was this previous unheralded performer who held her own, and then some, against one of the great talents of the age. Turns out she, like overnight successes, had been working in European films and TV for nearly a decade before her breakthrough.

Her more impressive work since then comes in Hold Me Tight, a blandly titled but intriguing drama in which Krieps plays Clarisse, a woman who, in the opening scene, abandons her seemingly happy family, driving off one morning and not looking back. She heads south and ends up in a Pyrenees village working as a translator for a tour guide company. There are signs of stress, though: She drinks too much, and loses her temper at odd moments.

Meanwhile, back at home, her husband (Arieh Worthalter) and two kids slowly acclimate themselves to her absence. As director Mathieu Amalric and editor François Gédigier dexterously shift between the two environments, it gradually becomes clear that what we’re seeing may in fact be Clarisse’s memories, or her imagination, or some combination of the two. Hold Me Tight presents a puzzle, but it does so in such a way that the literal question of what exactly is happening becomes secondary to the depiction of its effects on Clarisse. And when the real nature of what she’s running away from becomes evident, the entire film is imbued with an almost shattering emotional resonance.

Amalric is best known as an actor (Casino Royale, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but this is his sixth feature as a director. A film like this could easily have teetered into confusion or tottered into maudlin manipulation. Instead, grounded by Krieps’ precisely modulated work, it’s one that demands close attention, but rewards it with a unique experience. (Opens Friday, October 7, at the Living Room Theaters.)

***

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

AS THE WEATHER (slowly) turns more sweaterish, film festivals are becoming as commonplace as manically scavenging squirrels or leaf-filled gutters. There’s this weekend’s Bend Film Festival, which I wrote about here. The 27th (!) Annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival takes over the Hollywood Theatre in Portland this weekend as well, presenting five features and a Cthulhu-sized selection of short films, as well as screenings of the classic gorefests Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator with star and special guest Jeffrey Combs in attendance.

An equally specialized, less occult festival held its in-person edition in California in late September, but, like many such events, includes a virtual edition that kicks off on October 7 and runs until the 16th. The Mountain and Adventure Film Festival might sound like it’s just a bunch of Warren Miller ski movies and GoPro stunt footage, but in fact it includes a wide array of subjects that have nothing to do with adrenaline.

A Crack in the Mountain explores the efforts to balance ecological protection and economic exploitation of the world’s largest cave, a four-mile passage in rural Vietnam. On Our Own Two Feet follows a group of five amputees as they attempt to scale a 10,000 foot mountain in the Alps. Sheri profiles a woman who, at the age of 50, invented a new kind of lightweight inflatable raft that revolutionized the industry.

Even the more typical adventure-film subjects have depth: One is a champion Czech free climber dealing with the pressures of preparing for his sport’s Olympic debut, while another is a Swedish free skier attempting to duplicate, 100 years later, his great-grandfather’s ascent of one of Norway’s most challenging summits. The range of topics and styles is vast, and the level of craft is quite elevated.

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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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