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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Beau Is Afraid,’ ‘Joyland,’ and ‘Polite Society’ fulfill filmmakers’ promises, plus much more

A packed movie week offers a little something for everyone, from nightclub dancers and familial rivalries to psychosexual depravity and revenge porn.

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Joaquin Phoenix, in one of the more upbeat moments in "Beau Is Afraid"
Joaquin Phoenix, in one of the more upbeat moments in “Beau Is Afraid”

“The child is father to the man,” someone once said. (It was William Wordsworth, I looked it up.) The sentiment applies to plenty of filmmakers, too: interests and styles that appear in early student work and short films can reverberate throughout a director’s career—think about George Lucas’ THX-1138 or Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (There aren’t nearly as many examples of this for female filmmakers since they have historically been severely underrepresented in film schools and rarely allowed to pursue personal projects within the industry.)

The phenomenon is certainly evident in the case of two new films, Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid and Saim Sadiq’s Joyland. In the former, Aster indulges (some would say overindulges) in nightmarish fantasies centered on personal neuroses, while in the latter Sadiq shines a light on an invisible population and a charismatic performer. In both cases, these concerns first appeared in shorts that are, thankfully, free to watch online.

Beau Is Afraid, Aster’s third feature, cements his status as a talented, depraved auteur, unafraid to go to visual and narrative extremes. Its nearly three hours are divided, essentially, between three distinct acts, before culminating in an unnecessary and reductive coda. Until that point, however, it’s a rollicking, gasp-inducing ride through a landscape riddled with psychosexual insecurities and Oedipal terrors.

It all begins as the meek, mumbling Beau (Joaquin Phoenix, operating at near-peak eccentricity), who lives in a bleak, violent urban dystopia, is preparing for a trip to visit his mother (Patti Lupone[!]). As he’s leaving his apartment, he ducks back inside to grab an item he forgot. He returns to find his keys, which he’d left in his front door lock, and his suitcase, which he’d set in the hallway of his apartment building, gone. This leads to his (unsuccessful) efforts to cancel his trip; the ransacking of his apartment by crazed hordes of street people; and his near-murder at the hands of a naked maniac. But Beau’s journey is only beginning.

The second chunk of Beau Is Afraid finds our hapless hero staying with a bucolic band of theater folk who live in the forest. (It doesn’t end well.) And the third shows us what fresh hells await Beau when he finally arrives at his destination and is reunited with his childhood sweetheart. (Needless to say, this also goes incredibly poorly.) Shocking, surreal, visually stunning, grotesque—there’s something for everyone, all of it doled out with verve and even artistry.

But when Aster pulls his final trick from his sleeve, it turns out to be an overly literal manifestation of themes that have already been tackled, and not subtly. It’s as if he wanted to let us all know that, yes, if you thought the rest of the movie was about overbearing mothers and the toxic stew of guilt and love that almost all adult children (not just the Jewish ones!) experience, then you nailed it.

These four largely self-contained set pieces could easily function as separate short films centering on Beau’s fear and shame, which would make sense considering that some of Aster’s antecedent shorts, all made before his breakout feature debut, Hereditary, presage his obsessions. The earliest, and raggediest of these, 2011’s Beau, contributes not just a name but an inciting incident to his latest, including the mysterious disappearance of Beau’s (here played by Billy Mayo) keys and suitcase while departing for a maternal visit. A smothering mother is also at the core of Munchausen, Aster’s 2013 short and a delightfully morbid, wordless fable in Sirkian Technicolor about one such woman (Bonnie Bedelia[!]) who resorts to the proxy version of its titular syndrome to keep her precious son from leaving the nest. For familial dysfunction (a motif in all three of his features) run amok, look no further than Aster’s thesis project at the American Film Institute, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. It’s a devilish take on domestic melodrama with Todd Solondz-level bleakness, in which the secret, unspeakable bond between a father (Mayo) and son festers for decades, ultimately leading to a violent face-off between the son and, you guessed it, his mother. (Currently playing in theaters. Ari Aster’s short films are available to stream at the Internet Archive.)

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Joyland is the first feature from Sadiq. Born and raised in Pakistan, he got his MFA in filmmaking from Columbia, then returned home to chronicle life in its patriarchal, but evolving, culture.

He made a short film, Darling, which centers on a burlesque-style nightclub in Lahore, and specifically on a transgender performer (Alina Khan) seeking a tryout. Sadiq told Variety that he was intrigued by this relatively risqué scene as a teenager when he realized that it existed in close proximity to his staid, middle-class neighborhood.

He returned to the same milieu for Joyland, which became the first film from Pakistan to screen at Cannes and the first to be shortlisted for the Best International Film Oscar. In what could be a sequel to Darling, Khan now plays a regular performer at the cabaret, though one still struggling to move beyond intermission gigs. The story initially focuses on Haider (Ali Junejo), a meek and somewhat hapless figure who lives with an extended family that includes his wife, his brother and sister-in-law and their children, and his cantankerous father.

When the long-unemployed Haider finds out about a job from a pal, it turns out to be as one of the male backup dancers for Bibi (Khan). Despite being, at first, a terrible dancer, he gets the gig and develops an increasingly intimate relationship with Bibi, one that of course he must keep hidden from his family. With real delicacy, Joyland depicts the ways that strict patriarchal codes both mandate and punish marriages like that between Haider and his long-suffering wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq).

Despite Haider’s desperation to keep his genuine self hidden from his family, Joyland demonstrates a social acceptance of trans people and culture that might seem surprising in a majority-Muslim country. In fact, Pakistan is one of the most legally tolerant places in the world for the trans community, thanks to the 2018 Transgender Persons Act, which forbids discrimination based on gender identity and allows people to change their gender in the national database at will. Yes, transgender people have more rights in Pakistan than they do in Florida, although the effectiveness and enforcement of Pakistan’s law has, to be fair, been criticized.

Sadiq demonstrates a precise and sensitive eye, with a vivid color palette and a knack for exquisitely framed close-ups. In this he’s aided by an impressive array of performances, most notably Khan. She exudes the brash confidence required to merely exist in the world, but lets the fragility underneath show when warranted. And she can vogue with the best of them. (Opens Friday, April 28, at the Living Room Theaters.)

Another feature directing debut that upends conventional wisdom about Muslims is Polite Society, and it also follows through on earlier work from its writer-director, Nida Manzoor. She’s also the creator of the TV series We Are Lady Parts, which follows the fortunes of an all-female Muslim punk band in London and has been renewed for a second season on Peacock.

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In Polite Society, the bond is familiar rather than musical, and the rivalries are of the age-old sibling variety. Teenaged Ria (Priya Kansara) aspires to a career as a stuntwoman, while her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) has moved back home after dropping out of art school. When Lena finds herself wooed by the highly eligible, wealthy bachelor Salim (Akshay Khanna), Ria thinks it’s too good to be true—and that Lena shouldn’t settle for being a housewife anyway.

Assisted by a couple of her nerdy, eccentric classmates, she sets out to investigate and, if necessary, sabotage the nuptials. It gives nothing away to say that she was right all along, although the way things transpire, Polite Society ends up feeling like a cocktail combining Monsoon Wedding, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Get Out. (All of which, coincidentally [?], were also released by Universal Studios or its specialty division, Focus Features.)

It may be a fairly disposable action-comedy in the end, but one that uses its genre stylings to inch up the representation of South Asians (and especially South Asian women) in popular cinema. (Opens Friday, April 28 at Cinema 21 and other area theaters.)

Another fairly disposable but enjoyable genre flick with an international aroma is Sisu, a Finnish action movie that evidences a remarkable purity of purpose. That purpose is to serve up the cartoonishly brutal slaughtering of Nazis, a feel-good crusade if ever there was one. It’s 1994, and our unrelenting hero (Jorma Tommila) has turned his back on the war to wander the tundra as a gold prospector.

Shortly after he stumbles across a mother lode, a squad of German troops engaged in a scorched-earth retreat stumbles across him. They think they’re in for an easy score, but they did not account for the fact that their prey was a virtually invincible (with the scars to prove it) warrior, nor that he would eventually enable their female captives to exact bloody revenge for their treatment. This is the Tarantino-esque version of revenge porn, full of inventively macabre methods of execution, inhuman levels of perseverance, and several pretty good explosions. It’s pretty damn fun. (Opens Friday, April 28, at the Laurelhurst Theatre and other area theaters.)

ALSO THIS WEEK:

Friday, Apr. 28:

Half-Sisters: This Oregon-made independent horror film has its Oregon premiere, with director Devin Fei-Fan Tau in attendance. (Clinton Street Theater)

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Saturday, Apr. 29:

Suburbia: Director Penelope Spheeris’s 1983 ode to L.A.’s runaways, misfits, and punk rockers screens in 35mm. (Hollywood Theatre)

Sunday, Apr. 30:

Kwaidan: This epic, surreal 1964 anthology of Japanese folk horror is a big-screen must, especially on 35mm. (Hollywood Theatre)

Monday, May 1:

Sorry to Bother You: Boots Riley’s off-the-rails satire of late capitalism, starring Lakeith Stanfield in an iconic role, screens for free, with all donations going toward Burgerville unionization efforts. Happy May Day! (Clinton Street Theater)

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 2-3:

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Sam Now: Portland director Reed Harkness’s years-in-the-making exploration of his and his brother’s search for their estranged mother returns for an encore screening before airing on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series on May 8. (Cinema 21)

Wednesday, May 3:

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: This highly entertaining and enlightening history of Cambodia’s rock’n’roll scene screens as part of Mississippi Records’ Music and Film series. (Hollywood Theatre)

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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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