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FilmWatch Weekly: Cinema Unbound honorees, Tim Roth in ‘Sundown,’ Black History Month

The Film Center honors a "Portlandia" progenitor and other trailblazers; the Cascade Festival of African Films begins, Tim Roth quietly shines.

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Carrie Brownstein, one of the recipients of this year’s Cinema Unbound Awards

Since the pandemic shut down the 2020 edition of the Portland International Film Festival mere days after the presentation of the inaugural Cinema Unbound Awards, the Northwest Film Center has maintained, to put it mildly, a low profile. Even as other Portland film exhibitors came back on line, the Whitsell Auditorium has remained dark, while rooftop screenings and virtual reality exhibits have been the Film Center’s primary offerings.

Fear not, however, for, after 2021’s drive-in-theater version, the Cinema Unbound Awards are back, this time as an in-person event at the Portland Art Museum’s Kridel Grand Ballroom. The Awards align with, in the words of Film Center Director Amy Dotson, “the new ethos” of the institution, an ethos which emphasizes the groundbreakers and trailblazers of today and tomorrow over the exploration of cinema’s history and more traditional practitioners. That emphasis is evident in at least some of the choices of recipients of this year’s Cinema Unbound Awards.

The most recognizable name among them, at least to Oregonians, is Carrie Brownstein, the erstwhile Portlandia co-creator and someone who has determinedly transgressed the boundaries between film, television, music (as part of Sleater Kinney), and literature (as the author of the memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl).

Other recipients include the duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creators of The Lego Movie and, most recently, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, a front-runner for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar; Reinaldo Marcus Green, the director of the Will Smith-staring biopic King Richard; Arthur Lewis, the creative director of fine arts at the United Talent Agency and a leading promoter of Black artists; Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born artist and filmmaker whose third feature, Land of Dreams, is scheduled for release later this year; and Roger Ross Williams, the first African America director to win an Oscar (for 2010’s documentary short Music by Prudence), who is slated to direct and produce an adaptation of Ibrahim X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning.

The ceremony will be March 8, with individual tickets available for $250, and a program of screenings featuring the work of the honorees in the weeks leading up to the event will be announced in the coming weeks. For more details, visit https://nwfilm.org/cinema-unbound-awards/.

Tim Roth and ‘Sundown’

WAY BACK IN 1983, two young British actors appeared together in director Mike Leigh’s working-class TV drama Meantime. A few years later, the same pair starred in the film adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. One of those actors was Gary Oldman, who has become an Oscar winner for playing Winston Churchill, of all people, and a vested member of the franchise film club, playing Commissioner Gordon in the Batman films and, as most British actors must, a faculty member at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tim Roth in Sundown

The other was Tim Roth, who has maintained an equally fertile, if less commercially driven, career. He hasn’t avoided the comic book world, playing Hulk foe The Abomination in the MCU, but he’s only had one Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor in 1995’s Rob Roy. Roth has worked with Quentin Tarantino (repeatedly) and Michael Haneke, but he’s never really had signature roles that allow him, in his own low-key way, to shine. That might be changing.

Roth gave a stellar performance last year in director Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, and he does the same in Sundown, his second collaboration with the Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco, which opens this weekend at the Living Room Theaters and the Salem Cinema. Roth plays Neil Barrett, a wealthy Brit on vacation with his sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two teenaged children, in Acapulco. When word arrives that their mother, back in England, has died, the family rushes to the airport to head home. Neil, however, has misplaced his passport and is forced to miss the flight. Except that he hasn’t; he’s ditched them intentionally to embark on a decadent midlife crisis that involves plenty of alcohol and a sexual affair with a younger Mexican woman (Iazua Larios).

What motivates Neil’s abandonment of his family? Good question. This is clearly an entry in the “privileged but alienated white male” genre, where we’re left to ponder what exactly made our enigmatic protagonist reject his old life and surrender to existential hedonism. Neil dodges his sister’s calls, whiling away his days on the beach until she’s forced to come looking for him. In lesser hands, Neil could have been a singularly unsympathetic character, an emblem of spoiled, selfish masculinity. Roth, however, conveys a genuine sadness that makes his character’s dereliction of duty less reprehensible than it otherwise might have been.

Sundown isn’t a great movie—there aren’t, ultimately, enough answers for its main character’s misbehaviors. But it is a showcase for an actor whose understated, bravura performance fits snugly in his increasingly impressive resume.

Films for Black History Month

February is, of course, Black History Month, and the occasion is being commemorated both by Portland movie theaters and several streaming services.

The Portland-made documentary “Diatribe: From the Village to the Streets,” directed by AJ Wone, opens the Cascade Festival of African Films.

Most notably, the 32nd annual Cascade Festival of African Films kicks off on Friday, February 4, and runs through March 5. While there will be some in-person screenings at PCC Cascade and the Hollywood Theater, all (but one) of the 24 films will also be available to stream online. Prospective highlights include Jessica Bashir’s acclaimed, poetic documentary Faya Dayi, about the Ethiopian agribusiness behind khat, the euphoria-inducing plant that is the impoverished country’s leading export. Academy Award candidates are on the menu as well: Barakat, set in the Muslim community of Cape Town, is South Africa’s submission, while Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, an abortion drama set in Chad, is that country’s submission. The Portland-made documentary Diatribe: From the Village to the Streets, serves as an opening night screening at the Hollywood. For a full schedule and film details, visit www.africanfilmfestival.org.

Among the relevant screenings at the Clinton Street Theater are Paul Robeson’s The Proud Valley (Feb. 10), Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (Feb. 11), Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones (Feb. 12), Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (Feb 14), Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl (Feb. 17), Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (Feb. 19), and Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (Feb. 24).

The leading curated streaming services have also stepped up to the plate. The Criterion Channel, as usual, has a fantastically intriguing lineup. There’s a series devoted to reggae on film, from the iconic The Harder They Come to obscure treasures like Babylon and Babymother, and another dedicated to the screen career of Harry Belafonte, which spanned five decades and included landmarks such as Odds Against Tomorrow, Carmen Jones, and Robert Altman’s Kansas City. The channel also focuses on the work of contemporary artists including Cameroon-born documentarian Rosine Mbakam, Los Angeles based video pioneer Ulysses Jenkins, and multi-disciplinary artist Kevin Jerome Everson.

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In the same vein, the streaming service Ovid showcases for February seminal works including Bless Their Little Hearts, from L.A. Rebellion stalwart Billy Woodberry; Charles Burnett’s 1983 first feature, My Brother’s Wedding; and notable documentaries about tap-dancing and Ornette Colman. Programming like this emphasizes that, as much as we rightly celebrate artists and filmmakers who continue to push the envelope and demand their place at the table, there remains a vast wealth of accomplishment that, only in the age of limitless access to content, has begun to garner the audience it always deserved.

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 former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position 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, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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