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FilmWatch Weekly: Disappointing ‘Drive-Away Dolls,’ hilarious ‘Hundreds of Beavers,’ Oscar nominee ‘Io Capitano,’ plus much more

Also this week: "Barbarella" remastered in 4K, and documentaries about the rise of Christian nationalism and the history of the Seattle Black Panther Party.

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(Left to right) Margaret Qualley as Jamie and Geraldine Viswanathan as Maria in director Ethan Coen’s “Drive-Away Dolls,” a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Working Title / Focus Features

The news officially broke last month that Joel and Ethan Coen, the two-headed genius that brought us wacky hijinks in Raising Arizona and an excoriating portrait of evil in No Country for Old Men and everything in between, would be reuniting for an upcoming project. This is especially welcome news after seeing Ethan’s solo narrative directing debut (he also made a documentary about Jerry Lee Lewis), Drive-Away Dolls.

It’s a dud. Despite boasting a pair of charming, quirky lead actors, Dolls is an overly ragged, juvenile caper flick that attempts to wring way too much out of the fact that its protagonists are (gasp) lesbians who (gasp) enjoy sex. (Of course, from the film’s trailer you’d never guess that the pair are anything more than good friends, and its very title is an erasure, as revealed at the end.)

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) just need to get out of town for a bit, the former to get over her recent breakup from cop Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), the latter because the former convinces her she needs to loosen up and have some fun. So they get a job transporting a drive-away car south to Florida, only the vehicle they’re given has hidden cargo, which a pair of bumbling hit men (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) head out after them to retrieve. (The movie is set in 1999, because said pursuit wouldn’t be very challenging in an era of cell phones and GPS tracking.)

To be clear, the film was written by Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke, who are married, and Cooke identifies as queer, so the cartoonish depictions are clearly intended winkingly rather than homophobically, but it still falls flat. One can sense the worthy intent to make a goofy, unapologetically horny B-movie with queer characters, but the scene in which our heroes spend an all-night makeout session with a college women’s soccer team isn’t the only wince-inducing one.

Coen’s cachet was able to net his film some theoretically amusing cameos, including Pedro Pascal, Oscar nominee Colman Domingo, and Matt Damon. But none of them are put to good use. It’s entertaining, in a fashion, to note the references to (or borrowings from) other Coen Brothers flicks: a dildo joke recalls the sex contraption in George Clooney’s basement in Burn After Reading; the mismatched criminal duo recalls Fargo; the mysterious suitcase recalls No Country (and, of course, Kiss Me Deadly). And so on.

The Coen film that Dolls reminded me most of, however, is one they didn’t even direct: the 1985 comedy Crimewave, directed by Sam Raimi from a script by the brothers. Despite that pedigree, the movie (which was edited without Raimi’s input) is a mess, combining noir homage, slapstick antics, and a spaghetti-at-the-wall approach.

Seen alongside Joel’s intense, black-and-white 2021 The Tragedy of Macbeth, Drive-Away Dolls makes two things abundantly clear. One is precisely which aspects of the combo’s oeuvre derive from which brother, and which of their films bear one imprint or the other. The second is that Joel’s seriousness plays better solo than Ethan’s rambunctiousness (or maybe that’s just a matter of taste). But these are clearly two great tastes who taste great together, and it’s exciting to know that will happen again. (Hollywood Theatre, Regal Fox Tower, and other locations)

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ALSO REVIEWED THIS WEEK

Hundreds of Beavers: Now here’s how you do goofy! This independently-made oddity from director Mike Cheslik and co-writer/star Ryland Tews is a silent, black-and-white slapstick symphony about a woodsman named Jean Kayak (Tews) who gets drunk on applejack and wakes up to find his still and apple orchards destroyed by, you guessed it, hundreds of beavers. He embarks on a quest for vengeance, which brings him into contact with the local merchant and his pretty, single, daughter. From these elements a cascade of inventive gags issues forth (there’s even a credit for “Gag Man”), embellished by extremely clever special effects and the adorable costumes worn by the people playing beavers and other woodland critters. The energy is Wile E. Coyote versus The Banana Splits, the visuals are a cross between Guy Maddin and the great Czech animator Karel Zeman, and the vibe is tremendous fun. The filmmakers are self-distributing, so catch it with a packed house while you can. (Friday, Feb. 23, Clinton St.; Friday, March 1, Kiggins; Saturday, March 23, Tomorrow Theater)

Io Capitano: All migration stories are, at their core, the same. But what makes a film like the Oscar-nominated Io Capitano so vital is the specificity of its protagonists, the sweep of its story, and the humanity that permeates it. Italian director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah) follows two Senegalese teenaged cousins, Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moustapha (Moustapha Fall) as they embark on the treacherous journey west and north across the Sahara Desert to Libya and, they hope, Europe. As with the Western Hemisphere’s corollary, it’s a harrowing trek filled with overpriced fake documents, unscrupulous traffickers, the risk of imprisonment or death, and slow walks across vast arid wastelands. Garrone crisply and lavishly films those sandscapes, drops in effective bits of magical realism, and elicits gut-wrenching performances from his novice lead actors. Authentic, and without a hint of condescension, it’s gripping without being grim. (Living Room Theaters; March 8, Eugene Art House)

DISC OF THE WEEK

Barbarella: More than an interesting test case for the proposition that camp can never be intentional, this 1968 cult classic about a space explorer who’s also a wide-eyed sexpot is a time capsule from an era that was just starting to wrestle with what sexual liberation should look like. It’s silly and wears out its welcome about halfway through, but Jane Fonda’s iconic performance has just enough smirk to it and the production design is the pinnacle of plastic psychedelia. This new Blu-Ray release from Arrow Video looks great and features, dare I say it, almost too much supplementary material. Veteran genre film historian Tim Lucas contributes an enlightening commentary track that’s anything but hagiographic, and he has a two-hour (!) video discussion with the equally well-informed Steve Bissonette on the film’s influences and its place within the broader cultural landscape. There’s also a nice batch of home-movie-style behind-the-scenes footage and tributes to the film’s costumes, producer Dino De Laurentiis, co-star Ugo Tognazzi, and more, all of it in Arrow’s typically handsome packaging.

ALSO OPENING THIS WEEK

Drift: A Liberian refugee (Cynthia Erivo) stranded on a Greek island forges an unexpected friendship with an American tour guide (Alia Shawkat) as she strives to overcome a traumatic past. (Regal Fox Tower)

God & Country: Dan Partland’s documentary looks at the threats posed by the rise of Christian nationalism and the growing population of self-identified Christians speaking out against it. (Living Room Theaters)

Menus-Plaisirs—Les Troisgros: The great Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary to dive deep into a social institution is this four-hour film about the celebrated French restaurant. It would make a good, if almost masochistic, double feature with The Taste of Things. (Living Room Theaters)

Ordinary Angels: Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars in this inspirational drama based on the 1994 true story of a recovering alcoholic who comes to the aid of a local widower whose young daughter needs a liver transplant. (multiple locations)

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Seagrass: A couple and their two daughters attend a therapeutic retreat on a secluded island in the hopes of repairing their relationship in this thoughtful drama from debuting director Meredith Hama-Brown. (Regal Fox Tower)

Stopmotion: A woman working on a stop-motion film finds that the laborious, disturbing process starts to threaten her sanity. Should be of interest to fans of the Quay Brothers, Jan Svankmajer, and Tool videos. (Cinemagic, Lloyd Cinemas)

ALSO THIS WEEK

Seattle Black Panthers Fight for Justice & Freedom: Documentary examining the formation and accomplishments of the first chapter of the Panthers to be founded outside of California, in 1968.

Fantasy A Gets a Mattress: The Seattle-based autistic rap artist stars as himself in this inspiring odyssey about a man just trying to find somewhere comfy to sleep. (Friday, Clinton St.)

Imprecise Words and Heartfelt: Personal Cinema from Gaza to the Pacific Northwest: As part of the Portland Diary Summit, these two collections of autobiographical, often experimental cinema will screen. (Saturday, Hollywood Theatre)

The Black Stars: Directed by 22-year-old Jefferson High School alum Twixx Williams, this production from Word Is Bond, a Portland nonprofit focused on providing mentorship for young Black men, follows one group of mentees on their capstone experience, a two-week trip to Africa. (Saturday, Clinton St., includes pre-show musical performance and post-film panel discussion)

Household Saints: Long nearly impossible to see, this is a new restoration of Nancy Savoca’s life-affirming indie classic about an Italian-American woman (a marvelous Lili Taylor) who attempts to find meaning in service. (Saturday, Hollywood)

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

Divinity: Stephen Dorff and Scott Bakula star in this trippy, black-and-white dystopian sci-fi centered on an immortality drug and its nefarious effect on a distant planet. Executive produced and presented by Steven Soderbergh, so it’s got that going for it. (Sunday, Tomorrow Theater)

Your Fat Friend: The premiere screenings of this documentary portrait of writer and activist Aubrey Gordon, with appearances by Gordon and director Jeanie Finlay, are sold out, but the film will be returning for a regular engagement in March. (Wednesday, Hollywood)

REVIVALS

THURSDAY

  • Bone Tomahawk [2015] (Hollywood)
  • Psycho Beach Party [2000] (Tomorrow Theater)

FRIDAY

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] (Eugene Art House, through Thursday)
  • Dirty Dancing [1987] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Runaway Train [1985] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Snowpiercer [2014] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection [2019] (5th Avenue Cinema)

SATURDAY

  • The Man Who Knew Too Much [1934] (Cinema 21)
  • Point Break [1991] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Stop Making Sense [1984] (Hollywood)
  • The Watermelon Woman [1996] (Clinton)

SUNDAY

  • Night of the Hunter [1955] (Hollywood, on 35mm)
  • Our Hospitality [1923] (Hollywood, with live pipe organ score)

TUESDAY

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  • The Circus [1928] (Darkside Cinema, with live score)
  • Undercover Brother [2002] (Clinton)

WEDNESDAY

  • El Grito [1968] (Clinton)

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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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