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FilmWatch Weekly: Escape from reality with anime ‘Belle’ and nature doc ‘The Velvet Queen’

In search of an avatar dragon and a very real snow leopard. Plus: Martin Luther King Jr. tributes, Coen Brothers & more.

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A scene from the Japanese animated feature “Belle.”

Movies have always been about escapism, but these days the prevalence of comic-book characters and cartoon crooners on theater screens, and the dearth of recognizable human beings, speak to how urgently we seek to avoid today’s realities. And who can blame us?

Getting away from everyday life is one theme that two otherwise vastly different films, each opening this week in Portland, have in common. One depicts a dazzling, hyperkinetic metaverse as a way out of one’s humdrum existence. The other sees paradise in isolation and the quiet observation of nature. Each has moments that hint at transcendence.

Belle is about a schoolgirl, Suzu, still mourning the death of her mother, who drowned while trying to rescue a child from a flooding river. She hasn’t been able to sing since that day. Fortunately for Suzu, there’s this vast virtual reality app called “U,” and after creating her anonymous avatar (soon dubbed “Belle”) there, Suzu rapidly becomes the cyberspace version of Taylor Swift, attracting huge crowds to her concerts.

There’s one fly in the silicon ointment—an unruly avatar known as The Dragon, who creates violent chaos wherever he goes and is resented by the rest of U’s population. Except for Belle, that is. Curious about this pariah, she sneaks into his isolated castle, where—hey, waitaminute, this is some sort of Beauty and the Beast business, isn’t it? Indeed, the midsection of Belle follows its inspiration a bit too closely.

Most of the time, though, director Mamuro Hosoda (a onetime Studio Ghibli animator who founded his own outfit, Studio Chizu) does two things extremely well. First, he presents a kaleidoscopic, hyper-detailed vision of U’s digital landscape, one that should be especially eye-popping on a big screen. Second, he explores the psychological and social impacts of living online and identity-switching in a way that’s thoughtful and rings true.

In U, Belle tries to get to the Dragon’s truth while keeping her own fleshly identity secret. In the physical world, Suzu and her best friend Hiro do typical teenage stuff. Eventually the two worlds converge as the source of Dragon’s angst becomes more evident, leading to a surprisingly tense climax. Not too many anime features have garnered American theatrical releases recently, but this is one that deserves an audience beyond animation buffs. (Opens Friday, Jan. 14, at Cinema 21)

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IF SENSORY OVERLOAD and pervasive technology are what you long to leave behind, however, you’ll identify more with the subject of The Velvet Queen, French wildlife photographer Vincent Munier. To be clear, he’s not the queen of the title—that would be the infamously reclusive snow leopard, which Munier, along with his companion, writer Sylvain Tesson, seeks in the wilds of eastern Tibet.

Look closely. The star of “The Velvet Queen” makes an appearance.

Director Marie Amiguet unobtrusively tags along as the two men venture into the frigid peaks and valleys, spending much of their time in glorious silence, observing and existing within utterly unspoiled terrain. The movie is about the quest to spot the elusive, perfectly camouflaged feline (spoiler alert—they do!), but it’s just as much about what drives these guys to tolerate such physical deprivation in order to do so. Munier (who’s credited as a co-director) speaks eloquently, if quietly, about how much he resents the ostensibly civilized world, and as you’re lured into sharing his serene respect for the world around him, it’s hard not to agree.

At first, the conceit of following someone like Munier on an expedition feels like it should be relegated to the sort of “making-of” documentaries that accompany National Geographic productions. But The Velvet Queen isn’t just about the logistical challenges and particular personalities that typify such endeavors. It’s about a way of perceiving and being in the world, a way that emphasizes stillness, patience, and humility. The movie’s strongest when it leans into these moments, letting us feel some small sliver of what it’s like to crouch in a blind at 15 below, waiting for hours to spot a truly wild animal. It’s a reminder that, even without terabytes of data at one’s disposal, it’s still possible to visit new and different worlds. (Opens Friday, Jan. 14, at the Living Room Theaters)

ALSO SHOWING:

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the struggle for racial and economic equality continues, highlighted as it is each year by the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This year, to commemorate the life of the martyred civil rights icon, the World Arts Foundation and the Albina Music Trust present Keep Alive the Dream, a documentary showcasing the ways that Oregon’s African-American communities have honored King’s legacy. The film screens for free at 3 p.m. Monday, January 17, at the Hollywood Theatre. The program will also include live music and a Q&A session involving community members. The same day, at 6:30 p.m., the Clinton Street Theater presents its annual screening of King: A Filmed Record from Montgomery to Memphis, the 1970 compilation that remains among the most impactful depictions of Reverend King’s power and impact.

If none of the new films parading across theater screens strikes your fancy, but you still want to experience the version of communal movie watching we’re stuck with these days, there are several options available. The Clinton Street, for instance, continues its Jim Jarmusch series with a screening of perhaps his magnum opus, Down by Law, on Friday, Jan. 14, followed directly by a screening of the Coen Brothers’ magnificent debut feature, Blood Simple. That might be the best double bill on tap all month.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood is screening 1936’s My Man Godfrey, a Depression-era story about the inanity of the 1% that surely has no relevance in 2022, as its weekend matinee, plus cult classics The Little Shop of Horrors (hello, Jack Nicholson!) on Tuesday night and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (hello, Large Marge!) on Thursday.

And if, nonetheless, you still long for some perceptual detour from the relentlessly rational, the indefatigable Church of Film has concocted The Shadow and Its Shadow: Nightmares of French Surrealism, a collection of short excursions into cinema’s dream realm that might be just the trick. It screens on Wednesday at the Clinton Street, if concrete notions of time and space can even be trusted anymore.

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Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

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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