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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ animates Haruki Murakami; Yogi Berra in ‘It Ain’t Over,’ and Pride Month at the Clinton Street Theater

Plus: The Understory Northwest Film Fest presents short films from three PNW directors, Edgar Wright's "Cornetto" trilogy at Cinemagic, and other flicks from "Ghostbusters" to "The Palm Beach Story."

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A scene from “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”

For a long time, Japanese author Haruki Murakami seemed averse to allowing his work to be adapted for film. Until recently, the most prominent attempts were 2010’s Norwegian Wood and 2018’s Burning. Following the well-deserved success of 2021’s Drive My Car, however, we’re blessed with another, very different, take on Murakami’s short stories in the form of the animated feature Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

Director Pierre Földes, whose father was a pioneer of computer animation, has woven six of Murakami’s trademark tales about prosaic protagonists probing the peculiar into an inventive, surreal fairy tale about modern-day anxieties. More specifically, the film explores, among other things, the lingering trauma from the 2011 Japanese earthquake that killed over 20,000 people.

The three main characters are a salaryman named Komura, his wife Kyoko, and his coworker Katagiri. Shortly after the 2011 disaster, Kyoko catatonically watches news coverage for days on end before disappearing without warning. Komura, distraught, is entrusted by his boss to deliver a mysterious black box to a woman in another city. Katagiri, in Dutch with his boss for failing to collect a large debt, finds a seven-foot tall talking frog in his apartment which promises to help him with his problem if he helps the frog defeat a massive subterranean worm that threatens to deliver another catastrophic earthquake.

So, yes, Földes leans into the quirkiness of the Murakamiverse. And he does seem to be drawing on the writer’s entire oeuvre, both for general tone and in some specifics, as when Komura finds himself brushing against the events of Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. The director, previously best-known as a composer and painter, uses a rotoscope-style technique to give his human characters smooth, natural movements, in contrast with the blandly stylized backgrounds and, of course, that Frog. Characters uninvolved with our trio’s stories are depicted as translucent, ghostly figures that emphasize either their status as dead victims of the quake or our protagonist’s narcissism. Or maybe both.

While Blind Willow doesn’t achieve the achingly human emotional punch of Drive My Car, it is in some ways a truer adaptation of Murakami’s style, an experience more like taking a trip inside the prolific author and T-shirt collector’s mind. As such, it’s a discursive and occasionally frustrating work. But it’s never boring, it provides plenty of visual interest, and you’ve never seen anything quite like it. (Opens Friday, June 9, at the Living Room Theaters.)

I like to complain about films that deserve a big-screen treatment getting relegated to home viewing. It’s only fair, then, to point out a movie that, while perfectly worthwhile, has no business taking up scarce theatrical real estate. A hagiographic portrait of all-time New York Yankee great Yogi Berra, It Ain’t Over seems to have been motivated by Yogi’s granddaughter Lindsay’s resentment at his being excluded from an event during the 2015 All-Star Game at which baseball’s four greatest living players (as voted on by fans) were introduced.

Lindsay Berra’s indignance reflects, perhaps, the same family trait that inspired Yogi to forswear Yankee Stadium for more than 14 years after being fired as Yankee manager in 1985. It’s the same force of will that led Yogi to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1943 and end up participating in D-Day. And that gave him the confidence as a batter to swing at (and connect with) a notorious array of pitches outside the strike zone.

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Most fans with even a cursory interest in baseball history will be familiar with the timeline. Modest boyhood in St. Louis, living on the same block as Joe Garagiola: check. Stellar career as a ten-time World Series champ with the unstoppable Yankees of the 1950s and ’60s: check. All the bumper-sticker Yogi-isms he ever uttered (and a few he didn’t): check. Don Larsen. George Steinbrenner. They’re all here.

Director Sean Mullin has assembled a Murderer’s Row of interviewees. Hall of Famers Bob Costas, Joe Torre and Derek Jeter, historian John Thorn, the late Roger Angell, even former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog all have glowing things to say about Yogi. And of course it’s illegal to make a movie like this without Billy Crystal’s participation.

The heart of the movie, though, is the Berra family, including Yogi’s son Dale, who recounts how his own substance abuse struggles in the 1980s kept him from being a better ballplayer. Yogi Berra’s story has the shape of a Hollywood fable, and when It Ain’t Over gets around to David Cone’s perfect game, on the day when Yogi returned to Yankee Stadium and caught the first pitch from Larsen, the chills are real. Even if this would play just as well on ESPN. (Opens Friday, June 9, at Regal Fox Tower.)

There are plenty of Pride Month offerings throughout June at Portland’s independent theaters, but the Clinton Street Theater has taken things to the next level, with the following on tap in just the next week:

  • Natasha Lyonne’s breakthrough But I’m a Cheerleader! comes complete with pre-film drag show courtesy of Violet Hex (Friday).
  • The founders of the landmark Chicago gay bar Sidetrack are profiled in the 2002 documentary Art & Pep (Monday)
  • The Portland German Film Festival’s Pride Month selection is Neubau, an acclaimed drama about a young man torn between caring for his aging grandparents in Brandenburg and the queer chosen family that awaits him in Berlin (Tuesday)
  • The Church of Film presents The Others (Le Altre), a 1969 French film about a very fashionable lesbian couple who embark on a journey to have a child. (Wednesday)
  • The 1986 American indie Desert Hearts chronicles the romance between a straitlaced professor and the younger woman she meets while in Nevada to get a divorce (Thursday).

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS:

The Understory Northwest Film Fest takes its cue from Richard Powers to present three short films about the precarious state of our region’s ecological treasures and the efforts being made on their behalf. (Wednesday, Kiggins Theater)

Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy gets a well-deserved big-screen shoutout this week courtesy of Cinemagic, which is pairing each hilarious genre spoof with a film that inspired it: Shaun of the Dead with Night of the Living Dead, Hot Fuzz with Point Break, and The World’s End with the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Friday-Wednesday; check website for dates and times.)

REPERTORY TITLES:

ALL WEEK: Ghostbusters (Hollywood); Phantasm (Hollywood); The Terminator (Academy Theater); Switchblade Sisters (Academy Theater)

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FRIDAY: Avant-garde titan Stan Brakhage’s 1964 opus Dog Star Man screens along with a collection of student-made 16mm films (5th Avenue Cinema, through Sunday)

SATURDAY: Preston Sturges’ all-time classic The Palm Beach Story (Cinema 21); RRR rrreturns again (Hollywood); Martin Scorsese’s last great mob epic Casino (35mm, Hollywood); 1984 cult classic Voyage of the Rock Aliens (Hollywood)

SUNDAY: The International Youth Silent Film Festival award show (Hollywood); Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle (Hollywood); John Waters’ 1988 classic Hairspray (Eugene Art House)

MONDAY: Bette Davis is Another Man’s Poison in the 1951 thriller (Kiggins); a music documentary profiles Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn: Brothers in Blues (Hollywood)

TUESDAY: Kung Fu Theater presents 1980’s Snake Deadly Act (35mm, Hollywood); Erich von Stroheim at his monocled best in 1929’s The Great Gabbo (Darkside Cinema, Corvallis)

WEDNESDAY: Star Trek: Insurrection finds the Next Generation crew rebelling against Starfleet to protect an Edenic planet (Hollywood)

THURSDAY: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most meta effort ever, The Last Action Hero, celebrates its 30th anniversary (Kiggins); Jackie Chan hits a career peak, with a strong assist from Michelle Yeoh, in 1992’s Supercop (aka Police Story III) (Cinemagic); Tina Turner gets a cinematic sendoff in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (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 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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