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FilmWatch Weekly: Animation domination with Portland’s Laura Di Trapani, Oscar nominee ‘Robot Dreams,’ and Polish masterwork ‘The Peasants’

Plus: "Accidental Texan," "Cabrini," and "Kung Fu Panda 4."

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A scene from Laura Di Trapani’s “Exquisite Corpse”

Animation is, by its nature, the most flexible form of filmmaking. Which has always made it especially regretful that such a narrow slice of its potential has such an outsized role in its public and commercial perception. Three films opening this week demonstrate, from the ornate to the seemingly simple, and from the intimate to the universal, the vast range of emotional effect animation can have.

Portland-based filmmaker Laura Di Trapani will be screening her latest short film, Exquisite Corpse, on Saturday, March 9, at Cinema 21. Twenty years in the making, it was inspired by an email conversation Di Trapani had with Sujeet Bhatt, an acquaintance living in Mumbai, in 1999. This was the dawn of the Internet Era, and everyone was still trying to figure out how to communicate tone and nuance in written messages that were more casual than letters but lacking the social cues inherent in actual conversation. Emojis and memes had yet to cohere into a language all their own at this point.

Using a combination of surreal animation and still photographs, and incorporating both her own and Sujeet’s actual voices reading the emails, Di Trapani chronicles an exchange that includes discussions of the differences between Eastern and Western views of the world, the challenges of repairing a broken greenhouse window, and more. Only toward the end of the film’s fifteen-minute runtime does it become apparent that each participant has a different perception of the nature of their relationship.

Along with Exquisite Corpse, Di Trapani, whose career previously ranged from MTV to Sesame Street, will screen selections from her earlier work, such as the delightful We Three. She will also showcase work made by her students in animation and visual storytelling at Portland State University. In addition, her partner, Dennis Kuklok, will display some of his cartoon art and screen his short film, Pickleball, which posits an origin story for the trendy sport that goes beyond the Wikipedia page. (Saturday, 4 p.m., Cinema 21)

While Di Trapani’s work is almost Jungian in its imagery, and eschews traditional narrative, the Oscar-nominated feature Robot Dreams uses the basics of kiddie cartoons to tell an unexpectedly textured and moving story. In a 1980s-ish New York City populated by anthropomorphic animals, a lonely dog orders a robot companion he sees advertised on television. Once assembled, Robot becomes Dog’s best friend, but a fateful trip to the beach results in their lengthy separation. Using simple line drawings and no dialogue, Spanish director Pablo Berger, adapting Sara Varon’s graphic novel, tells a poignant and endearing story about friendship and the inevitability of change. There’s also a very charming raccoon in it. (Cinema 21)

In stark contrast to the innocence and simplicity of Robot Dreams, the Polish feature The Peasants revels in the luxurious imagery of its painted animation, which uses similar techniques to that of the married directing couple DK and Hugh Welchman’s previous feature, Loving Vincent. Here they adapt Władysław Reymont’s epic early 20th-century novel, which depicts a year in the life of a rural community. The story centers on a beautiful young woman named Jagna who marries, against her will, the wealthiest peasant in town and carries on a secret affair with his son. Perhaps needless to say, but being a female who refuses to surrender to her lot in life in early 20th-century Poland was not easy, and the film, despite its visual splendor, doesn’t stint on depicting the brutality to which she is subjected.

As in Loving Vincent, the film was made by filming live actors, then animating over the frames in a style mimicking the contemporary styles of European painting at the time of the events depicted. Even with technology’s assistance, this is a painstaking process, one made even more so by the fact that production of The Peasants was interrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine where much of the animation work was being performed, in 2022. The final result, however, is a breathtaking testament to the fortitude of art in the face of violence. (Salem Cinema)

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ALSO OPENING

Accidental Texan: A hotshot young Hollywood star (Rudy Pankow), fired from his latest movie, ends up stranded in dusty Buffalo Gap, Texas. There he meets a salt-of-the-earth oil driller (Thomas Haden Church) who enlists his acting chops and his Harvard smarts to help him avoid bankruptcy. Strong Doc Hollywood vibes from this one. (Regal Fox Tower)

Cabrini: This earnest biopic stars Cristina Dell’Anna as Francesca Cabrini, an Italian immigrant who arrived in New York in the late 19th century and works to improve the lot of the city’s downtrodden, work that would eventually get her canonized, the first U.S. citizen to be so honored by the Catholic Church. (various locations)

Imaginary: What if that adorable teddy bear you left behind as a child held a grudge? You’d be dealing with the situation depicted in this Blumhouse horror product, as a woman moves back to her childhood home, where her young stepdaughter finds said stuffed animal and, presumably, all hell breaks loose. (various locations)

Kung Fu Panda 4: Yes, you read that right. There are now three sequels to Kung Fu Panda, which explains why Jack Black is in such a splendid mood all the time. Isn’t animation great? (various locations)

DISC OF THE WEEK

Coming Home: Like most sensible folk, I’m a big Hal Ashby fan. Somehow, however, I’d managed not to see this 1978 landmark, which won Oscars for Best Actor (Jon Voight), Best Actress (Jane Fonda), and Best Screenplay. In 1968, Fonda’s husband (Bruce Dern) goes off to Vietnam and she starts volunteering at the local VA hospital, where she meets wheelchair-bound veteran Voight. Combining personal, sexual, and political awakening, Fonda’s performance is among her best, and the marvelous, gritty cinematography of Haskell Wexler (which somehow wasn’t even nominated?!?) grounds everything in reality. Recently re-released on Blu-ray, the disc includes a commentary track recorded in 2001 that weaves together remarks by Voight, Dern, and Wexler, the latter of which provides a veritable 200-level class in lighting. Voight’s comments are interesting, both in light of his increasingly conservative politics and the fact that he apparently recorded them mere days after 9/11. It’s a brash reminder of a time when cinematic realism could incorporate the biggest movie stars and a cast partially composed of real-life wounded soldiers to the point where the two are nearly indistinguishable.

ALSO THIS WEEK

Ruth E. Carter: Rescheduled due to January’s ice storm, the Tomorrow Theater welcomes Oscar-winning costume designer Carter for a sit-down interview with PAM CUT director Amy Dotson. (Friday, Tomorrow Theater)

16mm Nyback Showdown: A pair of 16mm programming teams will alternate projecting a variety of discoveries from the seemingly endless archive of the late Dennis Nyback, with each selection chosen live in response to the previous one. A truly unique cinematic event. (Tuesday, Clinton St.)

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Fatma 75: This feminist essay film was the first nonfiction film made by a woman in Tunisia. Naturally it was banned and has rarely been screened in the nearly fifty years since its creation. (Wednesday, Church of Film at Clinton St.)

THURSDAY

  • Black Panther [2018] (Tomorrow Theater, free screening, preshow music from Nojeem Lasisi and percussionists from Jujuba)
  • Clockwatchers [1997] (Hollywood)

FRIDAY

  • Lady Snowblood [1974] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Privilege [1990] (5th Avenue Cinemas, through Sunday)
  • Thelma & Louise [1991] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Thirteen [2003] (Hollywood, on 35mm)
  • The Wizard of Oz [1939] (Kiggins, through Sunday)

SATURDAY

  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1931] (Cinema 21)
  • Elevator to the Gallows [1958] (Clinton, free screening)
  • Girl, Interrupted [1999] (Hollywood)
  • The Goonies [1985] (Hollywood, benefit for disability support services provider ALSO)
  • Tokyo Pop [1988] (Tomorrow Theater, preshow singalong with Low Bar Chorale)

SUNDAY

  • Grey Gardens [1975] (Hollywood)
  • Ratatouille [2007] (Hollywood, benefit for Portland Food Project)

MONDAY

  • Clash by Night [1952] (Kiggins)
  • Dreamgirls [2006] (Hollywood)

TUESDAY

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  • 36th Chamber of Shaolin [1978] (Hollywood, on 35mm)

WEDNESDAY

  • Being John Malkovich [1999] (Hollywood, on 35mm)

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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 Nine Muses Law 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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