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FilmWatch Weekly: Fire at the Roseway, ‘Emily the Criminal,’ PSU Film School Showcase

Hopes for revival after a beloved neighborhood movie house burns; a crime movie pays off; small gems to stream from student filmmakers.

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Aubrey Plaza in “Emily the Criminal.”

The biggest, and saddest news for Portland’s filmgoing community this week was the fire that consumed Northeast Portland’s Roseway Theater on the morning of Saturday, August 6. As the news spread through social media, many lamented the loss and recalled their most memorable visits. (For the record, mine was probably the time I raced from a screening of Hearts of Darkness at Cinema 21 across town to the Roseway to catch a savvily programmed Apocalypse Now the same night. Top 5 double bill of all time.)

The theater, which had been in continuous operation since 1925 at NE 72nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, was renovated and modernized by owner Greg Wood after he purchased it in 2008. Since then, it’s been one of the best and cheapest theaters in town, catering to the Parkrose neighborhood and beyond. The Brad Pitt action flick Bullet Train had opened there the night before the fire.

The Roseway Theater burns. Photo: Greg Hamilton

Although the cause of the blaze remains under investigation, the theater suffered severe damage including a collapsed roof. At first blush, it might appear to be a total loss, but according to the theater’s website, it is “temporarily” closed. As independent movie theaters struggle to survive in the current climate, here’s hoping the Roseway can get back on its feet.

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IF YOU STILL KNOW the actor Aubrey Plaza only from “Parks & Recreation,” you haven’t been paying much attention. (Which is fair—there’s a lot going on.)

As the dyspeptic intern April Ludgate, Plaza risked being typecast as a certain brand of terminally unimpressed, stiletto-witted millennial. She stretched a bit to play menacing, mysterious figures on the Marvel TV series “Legion,” and in the clever, darkly comic psychological thriller Black Bear a couple years back. But her most ambitious, least humorous performance comes in Emily the Criminal.

As an art school dropout with a felony conviction and massive student loans, Plaza’s Emily starts off in a much more humbled situation that her typical characters, working for a catering company and more than struggling to make ends meet. At the end of her rope, and frustrated by an unforgiving system, she follows up a tip from a co-worker and gets a gig as a “designated shopper.”

This means that she uses stolen credit cards to purchase big-ticket items for her boss Youcef (Theo Rossi), who then resells them. After an initial foray that earns her $200, she quickly develops a taste for this ostensibly easy money. Before long, Theo has set her up with her own card duplication system and a batch of hacked numbers, and Emily starts to think she’s found her calling.

As she continues her scofflaw ways, she develops an almost-romance with Youcef, a Lebanese immigrant who only wants to make enough through fraud to buy and develop an apartment building. There are no moral absolutes in Emily the Criminal, and Plaza excels at communicating just how unapologetic Emily is about the choices she makes. (This also comes through in a great early scene where she tells off a duplicitous, judgmental job interviewer played by Gina Gershon.)

Of course, things eventually go darker, after Emily fails to obey a couple of the basic rules of the business: never work out of your home, and never scam the same store twice in one week. The tense and violent third act this leads to is made less predictable due to Plaza’s believability as a woman who has been pushed into a corner one too many times.

This is the first feature from writer-director John Patton Ford, and it’s a promising one. The working-class desperation is real, the acting is uniformly authentic, and the inevitable action scenes are compellingly shot and cut. And, perhaps best of all, Ford understands the virtue of brevity—his movie clocks in at a brisk 93 minutes.

(Emily the Criminal opens on August 12 at area theaters.)

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STREAMING PICK: Portland State University’s School of Film posted its 2022 Spring Showcase online a few weeks back, and it’s an impressive array of student work.

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The first-prize winner was Seamus Coyle and Olivia Lee’s Harper’s World, a clever satire about a former child star who enrolls at PSU and immediately sets about trying to reclaim her former glory. My personal favorite was the second-place winner, Elias Lunsford and Jordan Rasmussen’s Seirina, a moody, haunting fable in the vein of Vertigo and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

But, frankly, there’s something to be impressed by in nearly all of these efforts, which range from two-minute exercises in montage to ten-minute mini-narratives to a documentary about Angora rabbit breeders. Naturally, there are some rough edges, but generally the production value and professionalism is pleasantly surprising.

For the true film nerds out there, the site also includes the winner of the school’s film analysis contest, Brian Berry’s essay on the 1948 Italian film Bitter Rice and its relationship to film noir. (The PSU School of Film Spring Showcase can be viewed at https://www.psufilmspringshowcase.com/films.)

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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