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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Hit the Road,’ ‘Inland Empire,’ ‘Firebird,’ and more

A fresh and poignant Iranian road trip, a David Lynch mind trip, an affair in Estonia, witchery on Clinton Street, decadent Berlin and mind games in a rural house.


Rayan Sarlak in “Hit the Road.”

With an array of noteworthy films dropping at Portland’s arthouse theaters this week, including several directing debuts and one of an iconic auteur’s most gloriously baffling efforts, there’s no time to waste. Let’s run down the offerings on tap:


Hit the Road: It has become almost a cliché that Iranian films take place largely in cars. From the first stirrings of post-revolutionary cinema the work of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and others used the tropes of the road movie as a way to work within the constraints of limited budgets and government censorship. Now, Jafar’s son Panah Panahi has directed his first feature, which follows a lengthy car journey taken by a family of four and their adorable but ailing dog.

Hit the Road nonetheless displays a level of humanism and insight that, like its predecessors, transcends the limitations of its genre. Reflecting universal family dynamics, this quartet consists of a father (Hassan Madjooni), confined to the back seat because his leg is in a cast; a mother (Pantea Panahiha) who rides shotgun and tries to keep the inevitable petty tensions from boiling over; an older brother (Amin Simiar), driving with a quiet intensity; and an impish six-year-old (Rayan Sarlak) who has managed to smuggle his cell phone on the trip in defiance of his parents.

They’re a modern, urban, ordinary middle-class family. Younger Brother loves superheroes. Dad is a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As they leave the city and head into the countryside, we (and the little brother) are led to believe that the destination is the older brother’s fiancé. But it quickly becomes clear that the real reason for the trip is something more fraught. (There’s a reason cell phones were to be left at home.)

This is a road movie, so there are plenty of detours and diversions along the way, including a very amusing encounter with a traumatized bicyclist. And there are countless genuine moments between the foursome, especially as the trip nears its conclusion near the Turkish border and both parents contemplate the implications of the decision their older son has made. Throughout, Sarlak, a natural ham who effortlessly conveys how annoying young kids can be, provides the comic relief. Sketched broadly, each of the family members would be one-dimensional stereotypes, but the specificity of the dialogue and the authenticity of the performances (Madjooni and Panahiha are both stage veterans) make Hit the Road fresh, vital, and ultimately poignant.

The senior Panahi continues to be persecuted by the Iranian government, forbidden from leaving the country and banned from filmmaking since 2010. (Despite this, he has completed four features in the last decade.) Panah Panahi learned his craft working on his father’s films (and Kiarostami’s), and it shows, although this is no slavish paternal imitation. Rather, it’s a film that builds on time-tested conventions and infuses them with a spirit and personality entirely of its own. (Opens Friday, April 29, at the Living Room Theaters.)


David Lynch promotes Laura Dern to the Academy.

Inland Empire: Remember that time in 2007 when David Lynch lobbied for Laura Dern to be nominated for an Oscar by sitting in a chair on the corner of La Brea and Hollywood Boulevard with a cow and a sign? Well, that was for this movie, which turned out to be Lynch’s last major work until the third season of Twin Peaks ten years later. It’s also one of his most bizarre, which is, of course, saying something.

Lynch has described the plot of Inland Empire as simply, “a woman in trouble.” Dern plays an actress who’s hired as the co-lead of a film which had to be postponed after the previous cast leads were murdered. Justin Theroux is the co-star with whom she begins a relationship despite the insane jealousy of her husband (Peter Lucas). Before too long, Dern’s character finds herself crossing into different realities, and even into the past. There’s also a very creepy TV show with anthropomorphized rabbits. So, your typically surreal Lynchscape, in an especially undiluted form. Familiar faces including Grace Zabriskie, Harry Dean Stanton, and Diane Ladd pop up, as does Jeremy Irons.

Inland Empire was Lynch’s first film shot on then-novel digital video, and was criticized on its initial release for its smeary, ugly visuals. Now he’s personally supervised the creation of a newly remastered edition, so we can find out to what degree that look was intentional. Either way, revisiting this three-hour excursion into a dimension of mind on the big screen is a can’t-miss event. (Opens Friday, April 29, at Cinema 21)


Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in “Firebird.”

Firebird: It’s 1977 in Soviet-occupied Estonia. Private Sergey Fetisov (Tom Prior) is heading into his final weeks of service on an Air Force base, passing the time with his best pal and Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), the pretty female comrade who seems to have eyes for him. But when a dashing new jet pilot named Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) is transferred in, it doesn’t take long before he and Sergey are conducting furtive romantic liaisons. This is a dangerous proposition, since homosexual conduct is punishable by five years’ hard labor.

This isn’t the first film to tackle a tale of forbidden same-sex love in an intolerant historical setting. Nor is it the best, although the leads acquit themselves admirably enough. The British Prior, who played Stephen Hawking’s son in The Theory of Everything, pulls off an impressive accent (and co-wrote the screenplay), while the rest of the cast (most of them Estonian or Russian) handle the English dialogue with facility. Zagorodnii is a Kyiv native who was last reported to be holding out there in the coffee shop he owns.

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This is the first feature for Estonian director Peeter Rebane, and if it lacks a distinct visual style, it remains a competently mounted effort. Based on a memoir by the real Fetisov, it also takes pains to acknowledge the pain of Luisa, who becomes the third wheel to Sergey and Roman. Most notably, it’s a timely tale given the continued hostility and intolerance toward the LGBTQ community in Russia. (Opens Friday, April 29, at Living Room Theaters)


Pagan May @ the Clinton Street Theater: Here’s one of the more inventive programming series in recent memory. The new owners of the Clinton Street Theater have lined up a series inspired by the ancient traditions surrounding May Day, and all of their attendant witchery. Highlights include Louis Malle’s Black Moon (May 5), George Romero’s Season of the Witch (May 6), and the psychotronic oddity Simon, King of the Witches (Friday the 13th)—plus, later in the month, the latest freakout from French director Gaspar Noe, Lux Aeterna.


To top this week off, a couple of notable streaming releases:

Saskia Rosendahl and Tom Schilling in “Fabian: Going to the Dogs.”

Fabian: Going to the Dogs: Emanating some vaguely Fassbinderian vibes, this three-hour chronicle of Weimar-era decadence and nihilism centers on Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), who works as an advertising copywriter for a cigarette company in 1931 Berlin, casting an ironic eye on the urban decay and political chaos around him. His best friend, on the other hand, leaps feet-first into the hedonism of the milieu, while the law student for whom Fabian develops an infatuation takes a similarly amoral approach to her life and career. Veteran German auteur Dominik Graf (The Invincibles) adapts the semi-autobiographical 1931 novel by Erich Kästner, which, even in an expurgated edition, was banned and burned by the Nazis, and was published in its original form only in 2013. (Available to stream via MUBI.com and KinoNow.com)


Ultrasound: This inventive indie mindbender stars Vincent Kartheiser (a/k/a Pete Campbell from Mad Men) as a hapless traveler who finds himself seeking aid from an isolated rural house one rainy night after he gets a flat tire. His benefactor (Bob Stephenson) offers a warm robe, a cocktail … and the opportunity to spend the night in the same bed as his much younger wife (Chelsea Lopez). That’s only the initial setup for a story that involves hypnotic suggestion, illusory pregnancies, and a secret underground medical research facility. Director Rob Schroeder, making his first feature, barely manages to keep the multifarious plot strands coherent, and the performances are sometimes stiff, but it all comes together in a pretty satisfying fashion. Or maybe I just imagined that … (Available to stream through a variety of providers.)

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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