FilmWatch Weekly: Cinematic obsessions spring onto the screen

"You Were Never Really Here," "Ismael's Ghosts," and "Yakuza Apocalypse"

Obsession can take many forms, and at least a few of them are on display in films opening this week in Portland.

An obsession with justice, if not revenge, drives Joe, the haunted, brutal character played by Joaquin Phoenix in director Lynne Ramsay’s latest film, “You Were Never Really Here.” The bearded, stocky, steel-eyed veteran works as a hired gun (or, in his case, hired hammer) tracking down and retrieving abducted underage girls. In the process, he’s also working through the intense traumas he suffered both as a child and serving in the military overseas. When one job goes bloodily awry, Joe embarks on a violent quest to save teenaged Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov).

If that synopsis sounds similar to a range of “God’s Lonely Man” movies, in which a damaged, older male figure seeks redemption through the act of saving the life and/or virtue of a younger female figure, that’s because it is. From “The Searchers” to “Taxi Driver” to more recent movies starring Denzel Washington or Liam Neeson, the movies are full of these brutal icons of patriarchal wrath. The question here is whether Phoenix or Ramsay can bring anything new to this year’s model.

The answer is, essentially, not enough. The pairing of actor and filmmaker is enough to make fans of uncompromising cinema salivate in anticipation. Phoenix is known for going all in on a role, and here he puts on weight, allows his fraying, graying mane to run wild, and goes full Brando with the mumbling and unremittingly intensity. Ramsay, the Scottish director, has exhibited a similarly uncompromising streak in film ranging from her debut feature “Ratcatcher” to the parental nightmare of 2011’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” This is Ramsay’s first feature since then, largely due to her disastrous experience on “Jane Got a Gun,” a film she walked away from because of creative differences with its producers. Now that’s uncompromising.

I’ve greatly admired Ramsay’s past work, and there’s a lot to appreciate in “You Were Never Really Here” as well. The mood is unrelenting, the sense of place is visceral, and the use of music—both Jonny Greenwood’s staccato score and ironically placed classic pop songs—is top-notch. But the primary enterprise here seems to be trying to get an audience inside Joe’s head, and that’s neither a pleasant nor (cinematically speaking) novel place to be. Again, the “Taxi Driver” comparisons, from scenes set in a greasy-spoon diner, to overhead shots of Joe’s violent progress through a series of hallways, to Samsonov’s vaguely Jodie-Foster-esque looks, are too spot-on to avoid comparisons. And if you’re gonna do a story about a hollow-souled, enigmatic dispenser of gory violence in an effort to protect one iota of purity in this messed-up world, it’s hard to top what Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert DeNiro did four decades ago.

(“You Were Never Really Here” opens Friday, April 20, at the Regal Fox Tower)

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Romantic obsession can be just as intense as any other sort—just ask the French. Or at least ask the title character in Arnaud Desplechin’s new movie, “Ismael’s Ghosts.” Ismael, played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man and on-screen correlative, Mathieu Amalric, is a filmmaker just beginning production on his latest project. He’s in a relationship with the very tolerant Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose equanimity bends but doesn’t break when Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), Ismael’s long-lost wife, suddenly re-enters his life with no warning whatsoever. That in itself could be fodder for a solid love-triangle drama, but Desplechin ladles on the layers of narrative, eventually to diminishing effect.

Ismael has never quite gotten over Carlotta’s disappearance twenty years earlier, and he continues to mourn her alongside her father, Henri Bloom (László Szabó). Also, the movie Ismael is making is about a spy named Ivan Daedalus, who is played by Philippe Garrel, whose father Louis is a veteran French New Wave auteur. And Daedalus shares a surname with Paul Daedalus, the autobiographical character played by Amalric in at least two of Desplechin’s previous films.

So, just to stop and check the score, we’ve got (a) self-reflexive storytelling, (b) characters named Daedalus and Bloom (Hi Joyceans!), and (c) an enigmatic woman named Carlotta (*cough* “Vertigo” *cough*). With all that meta-cinema going on, it’s not surprising that anything resembling a strong narrative through-line peters out by an hour in. “Ismael’s Ghosts” is still…interesting…mostly because it’s an excuse to watch Gainsbourg and Cotillard, two of the finest French actors working, engage in some meaty back-and-forth. For hardcore fans of them, and scholars of Desplechin’s oeuvre, this is a must-see. For others, maybe not.

(“Ismael’s Ghosts” opens Friday, April 20, at the Living Room Theaters)

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If you want to talk obsession, though, at least in a movie-related context, you can’t get much more extreme than the unstoppable tsunami of cinema that is Takashi Miike. The onetime “bad boy” of Japanese cinema (I guess by now he’s the “bad man”?) has made over a hundred features, and if you’re familiar with him at all, you’ll be amazed that none of them until now has been titled “Yakuza Apocalypse.”

Many of Miike’s films are intentionally transgressive, while others are positively family-friendly. “Yakuza Apocalypse” falls somewhere in the middle—it’s a cartoonishly violent saga about a yakuza boss who has quit the Syndicate and moved to a small town where he can do some good. Oh, it also turns out that he’s a virtually immortal undead bloodsucker. Yes, this is a story where vampire yakuza are the heroes.

When members of the Syndicate arrive in town and try to take out the boss, he ends up transferring his powers to a meek underling—and eventually, to a good portion of the local citizenry. Miike’s affection for bodily fluids spewing forth from unexpected orifices, his love of garish costuming, and his unlikely empathy for underdogs all shine through. Don’t try to make sense of the story here, just relax and enjoy all the weirdness, which only ramps up during the absolutely insane final thirty minutes.

(“Yakuza Apocalypse” screens Saturday, April 21, at 9:30 p.m. at the Northwest Film Center.)

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