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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Dream Scenario,’ ‘Saltburn,’ ‘Napoleon,’ and much more

Nicolas Cage plays a biology professor who starts appearing in people's dreams, Barry Keoghan stars in Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature, and Joaquin Phoenix is Napoleon in Ridley Scott's latest historical epic.

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Nicolas Cage in Dream Scenario (courtesy A24 Films)
Nicolas Cage in “Dream Scenario(courtesy A24 Films)

Three new releases this holiday weekend feature male stars, two veterans and one relative newcomer, who each sport a unique appeal that has allowed them to stand out from the typically bland roster of Hollywood leading men.

From the moment he first drew notice as the punk rocker smitten with the titular Valley Girl in the 1982 cult classic, Nicolas Cage’s unique appeal was evident. But it would have been impossible to predict the surreal, branching path his career has taken over the last four decades.

From straightforward, Oscar-caliber performances (Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas) to flagrant goofiness (Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart) to action hero (The Rock, Face/Off) to sensitive indie lead (Joe, Pig) to horror freak (Mandy, Time Out of Space) to meme-ready in-joke (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent), Cage has seemingly done it all. His ubiquity and his eccentricity have made him, to borrow another of his leading roles, a national treasure, someone who has carved out a niche in our cultural subconscious.

All of this makes his presence in the absurdist comedy Dream Scenario chef’s-kiss-worthy. Cage plays, for once, an utterly ordinary dude. Paul Matthews is an evolutionary biology professor with a balding pate, a bulging gut, and a banal aura. He’d be sitcom-ready, complete with a tolerant wife (Julianne Nicholson) and a pair of teenaged daughters, if he only had more than an ounce of charisma and individuality.

But then, he starts to show up in people’s dreams. At first, it’s a smattering: one of his students, an attendee at a colleague’s dinner party. Soon, however, it becomes clear that he’s popping up in thousands, even millions, of REM states. He doesn’t do anything, other than shuffle by in the background of whatever surreal situation the sleeper imagines.

Once word spreads, Paul becomes a media sensation and, surprisingly, seems to enjoy the experience. He’s finally getting attention, appreciated rather than tolerated. But, as so many have learned, fame, especially of the viral variety, comes with a price. And if you happily accept a windfall of limelight, you better be ready for the scrutiny that ensues. Random fame can easily lead to random infamy.

Dream Scenario is the brainchild of Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, whose first feature, last year’s Sick of Myself, also dealt with the perils of celebrity. In it, a woman’s jealousy at her artist boyfriend’s rising profile leads her to fake a disfiguring disease. As a chronicler of the ways the attention of others can corrupt even the most mundane soul, Borgli should have no shortage of stories to tell going forward. And Cage may never have another role that so cleverly explores his own type of fame. (Playing at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre; opens more widely on Dec. 1)

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Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her scathing 2020 dark comedy Promising Young Woman, Saltburn provides a breakout role for another actor who seems intent on preserving his unique appeal. Barry Keoghan has impressed in supporting roles in The Banshees of Inisherin and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but this is his first major leading role. He plays the Dickensian-named Oliver Quick, a scholarship student at Oxford University in 2006 who finds it impossible to fit in with his rich and fabulous classmates.

One such classmate, Felix (Jacob Elordi of Euphoria and Priscilla), becomes an obsession of Oliver’s. When Oliver is able to come to Felix’s aid one day, a friendship sparks, and after Oliver tells Felix about his miserable home life, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his family’s estate, Saltburn. There he meets Felix’s parents, both expertly and hilariously drawn upper-class twits played by Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike. There’s also Felix’s somnambulant sister (Alison Oliver), his cousin and childhood pal (Archie Madekwe), and a hare-brained houseguest played by Promising Young Woman star Carey Mulligan.

If you suspect that Oliver has some manipulative motives hidden behind his aw-shucks, hangdog demeanor, don’t give yourself too many cookies. While the overall arc of Saltburn’s plot has been done before (fans of Ealing comedies may have a leg up), the particulars—and the panache with which they’re doled out—make this a wickedly fun ride. Frankly, I could watch Grant and Pike playact as aristocratic embodiments of the Peter principle all day long. When they’re discussing plans for a costume party, and Grant’s paterfamilias blurts out with childish glee “Elspeth, finally a chance to wear my armor!,” it’s just perfect.

Fennell could be accused of engaging in empty, stylish trickery (and has been by Wesley Morris in the New York Times), but I’ll take this brand of eat-the-rich wish-fulfillment over some blandly moralizing tract any day of the week. Keoghan is very good at engendering our sympathies, even when his deceptions threaten to become deadly, and in the film’s final scene he goes places most contemporary performers fear to tread.

Saltburn may not be Oscar-caliber like Promising Young Woman, partially because it’s a sophomore effort rather than a startling debut, but it still delivers the abrasive, addictive flavor its title promises. (Playing at Cinema 21, Regal Fox Tower, Salem Cinema, and other area theaters)

Yet a third uncompromising male star hits movie screens this holiday weekend, in a historical epic that proves to be an awkward fit. Joaquin Phoenix is Napoleon in Ridley Scott’s psychosexually-focused biopic of the French emperor and conqueror who, apparently, did it all for love. Or at least jealousy.

This is a Ridley Scott picture, so the battle scenes are big-screen worthy, even if the digital enhancements are sometimes a bit too evident. (After all, you can’t really drown dozens of horses in the icy lake at Austerlitz these days, can you?) But the course of Bonaparte’s rise and fall is charted in a disappointingly episodic fashion, a clunkiness that may be alleviated in Scott’s reported four-hour cut of the film, coming soon to Apple TV+.

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And, try as he might, Phoenix can’t muster the ability to convey exactly what it was that allowed this anonymous officer to become the savior of the royalist cause and the plague of Europe. For all of the script’s emphasis on the hold which Empress Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) had over Napoleon, his motivations remain otherwise obscure. That’s probably intentional, part of Scott’s ongoing project to demolish the “great man” theory of history and cement his position as perhaps the planet’s only gruff, cigar-chomping, octogenarian male feminist. But, in this case at least, it doesn’t lend itself to compelling storytelling.

Napoleon also gets bogged down in depicting a succession of secondary political and military figures, helpfully identified on screen but remaining a blur. Again, the entire momentous life of this ultimately pathetic figure might not be capable of reduction to a conventional feature-length film. Phoenix, who famously went full-Method for his bizarre 2010 project I’m Not Here, may have noted that both Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger have played Napoleon, so he may as well give it a shot. What he may not have noticed was that both of those films, 1954’s Desiree and 1970’s Waterloo, were failures and mere footnotes on their stars’ filmographies. This Napoleon, too, is something less than dynamite. (Playing at multiple theaters everywhere.)

ALSO OF NOTE

Bad Press: I caught this gripping and relevant documentary at October’s BendFilm Festival. It follows the efforts of crusading journalists covering the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma who find their efforts thwarted by a tribal government that resents scrutiny, and by the fact that the Nation’s constitution, like almost all Native American ones, does not grant freedom of the press. A frustrating and inspiring true story, and one of the best nonfiction films of the year. A post-screening discussion will feature the film’s co-director and a group of regional Indigenous journalists. (Sunday, Tomorrow Theater)

A Disturbance in the Force: For decades, The Star Wars Holiday Special was the ultimate nerd samizdat: after airing in 1978 on CBS, it was buried by Lucasfilm as an embarrassment and only surfaced on bootleg tapes and discs sold at fan conventions. These days, though it still hasn’t been officially released, it’s easy enough to track down on YouTube. Nevertheless, the story of how this abomination came to be is a fascinating one, apparently worthy of a feature-length documentary of its own. (Wednesday, Kiggins; the holiday special itself will screen on Sat., Dec. 2)

“Night of a Thousand Dollys”: PAM CUT provides a wholesome alternative to post-Thanksgiving consumerism and lethargy with a pair of evenings devoted to everyone’s favorite septuagenarian blonde bombshell and country-music legend, Dolly Parton. Coinciding with the release of Dolly’s new, acclaimed album Rockstar, the Tomorrow Theater will host screenings of some of her best-known big-screen roles. 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas pairs her (as the world’s most wholesome madame) with an in-his-prime Burt Reynolds (as one of her faithful customers), 1980’s 9 to 5 pairs her with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the iconic feminist comedy, and 1984’s Rhinestone sees her try to turn Sylvester Stallone into a country star. They’re joined by Seriously Red, a recent Australian comedy about a misfit realtor who finds her calling as a Dolly Parton impersonator. Each screening will be preceded by a short set from Portland-based musicians performing Dolly covers, and attendees are encouraged to dress the part. (Friday & Saturday, Tomorrow Theater)

Harrod Blank Comes to Town: The son of legendary documentarian Les Blank will be packing a lot into a Portland weekend. He’ll be on hand at the Clinton Street Theater on Saturday for a screening of his art-car documentary Automorphosis [2009] (accompanied by Portlander Greg Hamilton’s similarly themed short Thou Shall Not Tailgate!), then on Sunday at the Hollywood Theatre to commemorate his late father’s 88th birthday with a showing of Blank père’s loving look at zydeco music Jai Ete Au Bal (I Went to the Dance) [1989]. Finally, he’ll do a Q&A following the cult comedy Killer Klowns from Outer Space [1988], in which he apparently plays one of said Klowns. (Johnny Carson voice: I did not know that.)

You Look Pretty Up Here: Filmmaker Thom Hilton’s crisply shot, engagingly romantic short was shot entirely in and around a beautiful A-frame in Rhododendron, Oregon. Aspiring actress May (Monica Sanborn) arrives, intending to take a few days alone before a potential move to Los Angeles. It’s her ex-boyfriend’s dad’s vacation home, presumably empty, but she finds said ex-boyfriend, chef Elliot (Joshua Donohue) there. Currently streaming on Beyond the Short, Shorted, and Vimeo, and well worth a look.

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ALSO THIS WEEK

FRIDAY

  • Blood Rage [1987] (Hollywood)
  • Jingle All the Way [1996] (Cinemagic, also Sunday)
  • Joyland [2022] (5th Avenue Cinemas, through Sunday)
  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation [1989] (Cinemagic, also Saturday & Wednesday)
  • Neither Wolf nor Dog [2016] (Kiggins, through Monday)
  • The Princess Bride [1987] (Kiggins, through Monday)

SATURDAY

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920] with live pipe organ score (Hollywood)
  • The Cassandra Cat [1963] (Hollywood, 3 p.m., also Sunday)
  • Die Hard [1987] (Cinemagic, also Sunday & Tuesday)
  • Gremlins [1984] (Cinemagic, also Wednesday)
  • Home Alone [1990] (Cinemagic, also Sunday & Thursday)
  • The Thin Man [1934] (Cinema 21, 11 a.m.)

SUNDAY

  • Big Night [1996] includes a pre- or post-show cocktail hour presented by Vivienne Culinary Books (Hollywood)

MONDAY

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  • Beyond Walls is a collection of five short films that aim to explain the idea of the Prison Industrial Complex and explore the possibilities of the prison abolition movement (Clinton Street)
  • The Loveless [1981] (Hollywood)

TUESDAY

  • Charley Varrick [1973] (Hollywood, in 35mm)

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 29

  • Property Is No Longer a Theft [1973] (Clinton)

THURSDAY, NOV. 30

  • The 4th Annual Fungi Film Fest, “the world’s only film festival dedicated to the beauty, weirdness, and human influences of mushrooms, lichens, and micro fungi” (Cinema 21, also Sat., Dec. 3)
  • Mutiny in Heaven [2023] (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 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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