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FilmWatch Weekly: Claire Denis’ ‘Stars at Noon,’ Lebanese rockers in ‘Sirens,’ plus the Portland Film Festival

A CIA-tinged tale of danger and lust; Lebanon's first all-female thrash metal band; a festival of 400-plus films, from Buffalo Soldiers to Storm Large.

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Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara in “Sirens.”

An up-and-coming talent pairs with a veteran auteur in the steamy, unsettling drama Stars at Noon, and if the whole is a bit less than the sum of its parts, it remains an intriguing, minor work from one of the world’s top directors.

The arrival of a new Claire Denis movie is always cause for sitting up and paying attention, and it’s been especially interesting to watch her move tentatively into the terrain of English-language films and recognizable Hollywood names. After teaming with Robert Pattinson for the bizarre sci-fi trip High Tide, Denis’ second such effort stars Margaret Qualley as a would-be journalist trying to get along in war-torn Nicaragua.

After her editor (John C. Reilly, in an amusing cameo) cuts her loose, Qualley resorts to turning tricks to make ends meet and, seemingly, to assuage her ennui. Her directionless existence is interrupted when she meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn, also known to some as Taylor Swift’s longtime beau). He’s a bedraggled mystery man, clad in a soiled white suit and looking something like a British Wyatt Russell.

They fall in lust, which trends toward love over a series of R-rated hotel room scenes. But Daniel remains an enigma, even more so after Benny Safdie shows up as an, ahem, “consultant” trying to track him down. It all culminates in a desperate run for the Costa Rican border, during which various hidden agendas see the light of day.

If all this sounds like it’s going down in the CIA-infected world of 1980s Central America, you’re not wrong. Denis has adapted the 1986 short novel by Denis Johnson, which was inspired by the author’s own travels in the time of the Contras. In the book, the female protagonist remains nameless, but here she’s called Miss Johnson, presumably in homage. That’s two Denises and two Johnsons for those keeping score. The movie’s also updated to the present, Covid-19 reality. Mask-wearing and border vaccination checks add to the sense of isolation and subterfuge, even if they make the overall narrative somewhat anachronistic.

Qualley’s quirky, knowing screen presence and dancer’s sense of physicality has infused her roles, whether in the best perfume commercial ever made, as a Manson girl in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, or in the Netflix series “Maid” playing a Northwest single mother toiling for a cleaning company. In Stars at Noon she resembles, more than I’ve seen previously, her mother, Andie MacDowell: an intelligent, brave, but vulnerable gaze paired with a long-limbed sensuality and truly epic hair.

For all that, there isn’t a ton of chemistry between Qualley and the oddly reticent Alwyn. And the three-plus-decade time shift ultimately distracts more than it enhances. Unlike so much of Denis’ oeuvre, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the POV is. Desperate souls are drawn together in desperate times, and tropical climates bring out the sexy in everyone. If love is a battlefield, this one is guerilla jungle warfare. (Opens Friday, Oct. 14, at Cinema 21.)

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YOU’VE HEARD THE STORY a million times. A group of young folks, misfits because of the music they like and/or who they are, decide to do the thing that kids have been doing at least since the garage was invented: start a band. What differentiates Sirens is that it profiles the first all-female thrash metal band from Lebanon.

Although the country is known as one of the more culturally tolerant in the Arab world, that doesn’t mean there aren’t particular challenges for Slave to Sirens, the full-throttle fivesome founded by guitar players Lilas and Shery. Director Rita Baghdadi became a fan, and then a friend, of the band, and captures intimate moments of casual banter, rehearsal, and disputes.

After releasing their own material online, the band is invited by a small label to play at the Glastonbury Festival in England, sparking dreams of success or even stardom. But the event itself, an early-afternoon slot in front of maybe twenty nodding spectators, proves underwhelming. Strains, professional and personal, develop between Lilas and Shery, leading to fractures within the group. Meanwhile, social unrest and the disastrous 2020 port explosion rock Beirut.

The details are unique, but the “Behind the Music” storyline is true to form, complete with a comeback that offers the promise of unity for the group and the nation. (Opens Friday, Oct. 14, at Living Room Theaters.)

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THE PORTLAND FILM FESTIVAL celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with a selection of more than four hundred (!) films screening between October 12 and 22. The event has always been peripatetic, and according to an article in the Portland Mercury, founder Josh Leake hopes to either acquire or build a home for the festival in the near future.

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In the meantime, the PFF is one of the many creative uses being made of the largely vacant spaces in the Lloyd Center Mall. Four screens will be in near-constant operation each day of the fest from 10 a.m. to midnight (and sometimes beyond). Spotlighted categories indicate the festival’s focus on underserved or marginalized communities: Muslim Voices, Indigenous Voices, Black Voices, Women’s Voices, Voices of Ability, and Asian Voices; as well as particular subjects such as Mental Health and Reproductive Rights. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for a few horror flicks, midnight movies, and a category called Wonderfully Quirky that includes documentaries on topics such as the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, Doctor Who fandom, and the Child’s Play movies.

It’s easy to get lost in this forest of film, but a few titles deserve special mention. The short film Mad/Woman, starring sonic powerhouse Storm Lange and directed by former Oregon Book Award winner Marc Acito, has its world premiere on Thursday, Oct. 13. It’s an impressively expressionistic look at a woman in an abusive relationship, fueled by Large’s primal songs and her riveting screen presence. Both will be in attendance, marking Acito’s first visit to Portland since moving to New York twelve years ago. So if he owes you money or something…

Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts chronicles the story of Black soldiers in the 19th and 20th centuries in a way that would make Ken Burns proud. Dreams of Daraa uses harrowing on-the-ground footage and abstract watercolor animation to tell the tale of a woman searching for her husband in war-torn Syria and beyond. Wonderfully Made — LGBTQ+R(eligion) explores efforts to repair the Catholic Church’s relationship to LGBTQ people. And Live Out Loud follows three unhoused Portlanders as they take a year-long filmmaking class.

There are surely plenty of hidden gems in this cavernous cinematic mine. And, hey, how often can you immerse yourself in independent cinema and stop by Sunglass Hut between movies? (No word on whether Cinnabons are allowed in the screenings.)

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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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