Now that most Portland-area arthouse theaters have reopened, what was a trickle of worthwhile cinematic fare has become a veritable flood. Of course, trying to keep up with a barrage of interesting independent and foreign releases is a good problem to have. Without further ado, then, here are some of this week’s standout offerings:
As a result of this unleashed backlog, some films more suited to, say, a Halloween-themed release are only now showing up. One example of this is The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the latest sequel in Warner Brothers’ horror franchise, which was originally supposed to come out last September, but has only recently debuted in theaters and on HBO Max. For those who prefer their scares to be subtler than those Hollywood typically serves up, a couple of other films are worthy of note.
The process of filmmaking itself, with all its inherent obsessions and doublings, has inspired more than a few disturbing thrillers, from Brian De Palma’s Blow Out to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. Like the latter of those (which you should really check out if you haven’t), director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature Censor uses horror movies themselves as a backdrop for a story about the thin line between reality and madness. It’s set during the “video nasties” moral panic of the 1980s in England, when the Thatcher government cracked down on gory flicks, banning some and threatening draconian penalties for providing them to minors. Enid (Niamh Algar), the censor of the title, spends her workdays watching disturbing movies and deciding which cuts must be made before their release.
That job would be unnerving enough, but one day Enid sees a film that reminds her of the day years earlier when her younger sister disappeared. It reminds her so strongly, in fact, that she begins to suspect that the actress in the film may be her now-grown sister, and she embarks on an investigation that takes her into a place where memories and movies mingle freely. (We’ve all been there, right?) Algar’s buttoned-down, tightly wound performance and the effectively drab cinematography are the highlights as Censor heads toward its own gory finale with the implacability of a slasher-movie killer stalking his prey.
Another sort of vintage fright arrives in the form of The Amusement Park, a fascinating relic from the career of horror maestro George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Martin, etc.). Made in 1972 as an hour-long public service announcement about elder abuse and financed by the Pittsburgh-based organization The Lutheran Society, the finished product was shelved by its appalled backers, and has remained unreleased until now. It’s a simple but effective allegory, in which an old man (Lincoln Maazel) enters an amusement park, where he encounters a variety of unpleasant scenarios illustrating how terrible it is getting old. Romero’s unsubtle but harrowing critiques of society’s exploitation of the elderly reach their apogee in a sequence where the man sits in on a fortune teller’s delivery of a grim prognosis to a young couple demanding to see their future, “all of it.”
The Amusement Park was made during a down time for Romero, before he rose to genre prominence with the 1978 release of Dawn of the Dead. But even in a work for hire like this one, he didn’t hold back in his effort to pair shocking imagery with a blistering take on America’s culture of narcissistic materialism. While it doesn’t rise to the level of Romero’s masterworks, it’s much more than a mere curio. (Censor opens June 11 at Cinema 21; The Amusement Park screens June 11-13 at the Kiggins Theatre.)
If you’re more in the mood to laugh than cower (and who could blame you these days if you are?), you couldn’t do much better than Shiva Baby, the hilarious first feature from director Emma Seligman. In it, twentysomething Danielle (Rachel Sennott) leaves the bed of her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) to attend the funeral of an old family friend with her parents (Polly Draper and the always adorable Fred Melamed). What ensues is a marathon of mortification, as Danielle unexpectedly runs into both her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and Max, who turns out to have a wife and a baby. Her two lives, and many lies, collide as she caroms from room to room trying to avoid one embarrassing conversation after another. Both Danielle and Max have deceived their families and each other, and watching them warily negotiate their way through this minefield in the middle of a somber gathering is wince-inducing. (Maybe this one is a horror movie too?)
Seligman, who adapted her NYU student film (also starring Sennott), makes excellent use of the one-house location, and the casting is impeccable. Underneath the spot-on humor of anxiety, there’s a substantive base of young-adult insecurity, and the ways it compels us to invent different roles for different people and situations. When these carefully constructed personae collapse upon each other, all you can do is laugh. Shiva Baby is an accomplished and promising debut. (Opens June 11 at Cinema 21)
Making yet another promising feature film debut is the Dutch-based Bosnian director Ena Sendijarević, whose archly titled Take Me Somewhere Nice also features a strong debut performance from Sara Luna Zoric. She plays the teenaged, Bosnian-born Alma, who travels from The Netherlands to her homeland to visiting her ailing, estranged father. After arriving in Sarajevo, she needs to travel to the city where her dad is in hospital, but the deadbeat cousin who picked her up at the airport flakes out at first. Eventually, Alma, her cousin, and her cousin’s smitten sidekick embark on a mishap-filled, deadpan slacker road trip via bus, train, and more than one car through the alternately beautiful and harrowing Bosnian countryside.
If that description reminds you of Jim Jarmusch’s classic Stranger Than Paradise, you’re not alone, and it seems like a clear influence on Sendijarević, though her film isn’t quite as unadulterated in its minimalism. She does, though, have the benefit of Zoric’s nicely pitched performance and compelling presence, reminiscent of early Scarlett Johansson not only in her physical resemblance but also in the way she communicates an interior life while remaining superficially imperturbable. (Available to stream on demand through the Kiggins Theatre.)
If you’ve been keeping score, you’ll notice that, apart from The Amusement Park, all of this week’s spotlighted films are first features. In addition, they were all made by female directors (which to be honest I didn’t even realize until I was writing this column). That trend continues with Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs, an acerbic look at the ways modernization and urbanization have threatened the traditional social bonds of Chinese life. Loosely inspired by a real event in which thousands of dead pigs were found floating in a river, it follows the connections between various characters, including a hapless small-time pig farmer (Haoyu Yang) and his sister (Vivan Wu), who refuses to sell their family home to make way for a modern corporate development project. Meanwhile, the spoiled daughter (Meng Li) of one of the corporation’s executives gets involved with a humble nightclub busboy (Mason Lee), and one of its American employees (David Rysdahl) gets lured into a side job as a sort of capitalist spokesmodel.
Yan keeps all these narrative plates spinning, while also taking short detours to explore the absurdities and contradictions of 21st century Shanghai, even including a musical number or two. While this is her first feature, it’s not her first to garner an American theatrical release: in a head-spinning development, she was tapped to direct the big-budget DC Comics adaptation Birds of Prey, which opened last year just before the pandemic shutdown. Yan has a fascinating backstory, having graduated from the Princeton School of International and Public Affairs and earned an MBA from New York University, then pursued a journalism career before transitioning into filmmaking. As with all the directors we’ve looked at this week, she is one to watch. (Available to stream on demand through the Kiggins Theatre.)