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FilmWatch Weekly: Home viewing highlights include Richard Linklater’s ‘Hit Man,’ Dakota Johnson in ‘Am I OK?’ and three from director Nancy Savoca

In a relatively uneventful week for theatrical releases, a few straight-to-streaming indie flicks are still worth a watch.

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(Left to right) Adria Arjona as Madison and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in “Hit Man.” Cr. Brian Roedel/Netflix © 2024

Unless you’re a fan of unasked-for sequels to ’90s action flicks or nepo baby horror directors not named Cronenberg, there isn’t much new in theaters this week to get your motor revved. (There’s definitely some interesting older stuff, though—see below!) There are, however, a few interesting indies that would have been great to see in the cinema showing up on your local neighborhood streaming services. I’d rather light a candle than curse your darkness, of course, so let me draw your attention to the latest minor masterpiece from the increasingly canonical Richard Linklater.

Saddled with a generic title and a truncated big-screen run that did not include Oregon, Hit Man is nevertheless a sneakily smart comedy-romance-thriller that does the nearly impossible by redeeming Glen Powell after the execrable Anyone but You. Like that vapid box-office success, Hit Man exploits Powell’s sharp-jawed good looks, albeit much more slyly.

He plays Gary Johnson, a philosophy professor (more of these in movies, please!) who lives alone with his cats Id and Ego. (I guess “Superego” doesn’t fit as well on a pet food dish.) He also, as a side hustle, works with the local New Orleans cops as tech support on sting operations to catch dummies attempting to hire professional killers. If, as explained in the movie, there are no actual hit men in reality, this might constitute entrapment. But I digress.

Gary’s normally part of the crew that waits in the van while an actual undercover cop meets with the prospective, felonious client. But when circumstances force him to take on the role of the ostensible gunsel, he’s a natural. Emerging from his nebbishy shell, Gary finds he enjoys the process of courting his prey (who’ve called in to a number set up by the cops for just this purpose), creating an identity designed to appeal to each one.

So far, so good, until Gary meets Maddy (the stunning Adria Arjona), who’s looking for somebody to take out her abusive bastard of a husband. Gary’s immediately smitten, and before long he’s trying to (a) convince her not to do it, (b) shield her from the cops, and (c) win her affections, all without giving away that he’s not a professional murderer. It’s like the most twisted Three’s Company episode ever.

It is, of course, much smarter than that. While remaining constantly entertaining, the script (co-written by Linklater and Powell and loosely based on an awesome Texas Monthly article) manages to tease at deeper stuff. What constitutes an identity? How much control do we have over who we are? And what do the answers to those questions say about morality and free will?

But if you just want to watch two attractive actors ooze chemistry as a cleverly constructed narrative winds its way toward a genuinely surprising conclusion, then that’s fine too. Mark this one as exhibit #423 in the “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore because nobody can be bothered to go see them” exhibit. Or prove me wrong. (Streaming on Netflix June 7.)

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Another pair of straight-to-video titles each work in minor-key modes to tell stories of queer self-actualization. Anyone looking to flush the indignity of Madame Web from the increasingly textured resume of Dakota Johnson would be advised to seek out Am I OK?, in which the erstwhile 50 Shades of Grey star plays a 32-year-old woman who realizes that her lack of interest in dating men all these years derives from the fact that (duh) she’s a lesbian.

While that’s the movie’s saucy narrative hook, however, its core is the friendship between Johnson’s Lucy and her BFF Jane (Sonoya Mizuno). Their lifelong bond is put to the test when Jane’s corporate boss (Sean Hayes) offers her a promotion in London, which threatens to leave Los Angeles-based spa receptionist Lucy high and dry. At the same time, Lucy comes to a belated recognition of her sexual preference similar to the one that writer Lauren Pomerantz drew upon for her screenplay. What ensues is a predictably arced story in which Lucy awkwardly explores her newly Sapphic lifestyle (which includes a flirtatious co-worker) while panicking over her upcoming abandonment by Jane.

Am I OK? premiered at the Sundance Film Festival more than two years ago, and it’s hard to understand why it took so long to reach audiences. The direction, by comedian Tig Notaro and her partner Stephanie Allynne, isn’t much more than sitcom-level, but Johnson’s easy, self-deprecating charm steals the show and makes this a fully watchable, if not terribly memorable, addition to the library of coming-out tales. (Streaming on Max.)

In The Mattachine Family, coming out is not an issue. San Franciscan Thomas (Nico Tortorella) has been married to former child star Oscar (Juan Pablo Di Pace) for five years, one of which was spent foster parenting a young boy named Alex. Now that Alex has returned to his birth mother’s custody, Thomas finds himself pining for fatherhood, while Oscar, his acting career resuscitated, is off in Michigan shooting a new series. Thomas looks for guidance to the other members of his “family”—the title riffs off of the 1950s Mattachine Society, the first prominent American gay rights organization.

First among those confidantes is Leah (Emily Hampshire of Schitt’s Creek), who is pursuing parenthood with her own partner Sonia (Cloie Wyatt Taylor). The dynamics are familiar, but director Andy Vallentine and writer Danny Vallentine, who based the movie on their own experiences contemplating adoption as a same-sex couple, keep things grounded enough to create real emotional impact, helped by Tortorella’s infectiously earnest performance. (Available for rental or purchase on all major streaming platforms.)

It says something about the state of movies today that the most exciting film opening this weekend is 25 years old. Newly restored in 4K, director Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run is just as kinetic and inventive as ever. Franka Potente is certainly potent as the titular Lola, desperately trying to come up with a bag of cash in twenty minutes to save her boyfriend’s life. Tykwer gives us the same mad dash three times over, each time with small changes that have huge impacts on the ultimate outcome. And this was before every third movie or TV show had some sort of multiversal slant. Pure cinema, using a cornucopia of styles and modes, and nothing but fun. (Opens Friday 6/7 at Cinema 21, Kiggins Theatre, and Salem Cinema.)

NEW ON DISC

The filmmaker Nancy Savoca hasn’t made a feature since 2011, but she’s having a pretty good 2024 nonetheless. Her first three films, each groundbreaking in its own way, made between 1989 and 1993, have been belatedly released on Blu-Ray in recent weeks, allowing for a full appreciation of a directing career that, as with those of so many women, never had a chance to flourish in the indie boom of the 1990s.

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Her feature debut, True Love, following prize-winning shorts made as a student at NYU’s film school, stars newcomers Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard as a bride-and-groom-to-be from a richly detailed Italian-American clan in the Bronx. Authentic and empathetic toward its flawed characters, it depicts with rich humor the pressures to conform to traditional roles that can lead to unsustainable situations. It’s a nifty trick to fold this sort of social critique into such an affectionate portrait of a community and culture, but Savoca (drawing on her own experience) manages it, which helps explain why the film won the top prize at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and launched a promising career.

As she describes in the audio commentary on the new Criterion Collection edition of 1991’s Dogfight, Savoca was offered a plethora of similar ethnic romcoms in the wake of True Love’s success. Looking for something different, she took a screenplay from a Vietnam vet (Bob Comfort, who eventually retired to and passed away in Lake Oswego) about a contest to see which departing draftee could bring the ugliest date to a party and crafted it into a memorable vehicle for then-rising star Lili Taylor and then-major star River Phoenix. Apart from My Own Private Idaho, this is Phoenix’s best work. He deconstructs the chauvinistic surface of a callow youth and steers his awakening to the fact that other people (even women!) have feelings too without making his journey obvious or didactic. Unfolding over one evening, and mostly featuring just two characters, it’s a miniature near-masterpiece.

Savoca’s third feature returned to her Italian-American roots and reteamed her with Taylor for the unique, fable-esque Household Saints. It’s a cross-generational tale centered on three woman in 1950s New York. After Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D’Onofrio) wins his wife (Tracey Ullman, who’s marvelous) in a pinochle game, she eventually gives birth to a daughter, Teresa (Taylor), who somehow takes on the spirit of Joseph’s mother (Judith Malina) after she dies. Spiritual and earthy, the movie is a unique experience, and Taylor’s ethereal presence is a little miracle in itself.

Household Saints had become almost a lost film in the decades since its 1993 release, having never appeared on DVD or Blu-ray while also being nearly impossible to stream. It’s the first harvest from the Missing Movies project, which was founded in 2023 to rescue films that have fallen through the cracks. Others on their radar include Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (also with Taylor), Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, and Julie Taymor’s Titus. The resulting disc includes an excellent new hour-long documentary on the making of Household Saints, Savoca’s student short films, and archival interviews with Savoca, her husband and producing partner Richard Guay, producer Jonathan Demme, and others.

The discs for True Love and Dogfight each include an audio commentary track from Savoca and Guay, although the latter is much more informative, perhaps because it was recorded in 2012 when memories were somewhat fresher. Nowhere does Savoca express any bitterness over the fact that, despite making three well-reviewed (if not terribly commercial) films in a four-year span, she soon found herself mostly working in TV (back when that wasn’t necessarily a plum gig), with one notable exception being 1999’s The 24 Hour Woman, starring Rosie Perez. (True Love and Household Saints are available from Kino Video; Dogfight is available from The Criterion Collection.)

ALSO THIS WEEK

Chess of the Wind: A cinematic jewel from pre-revolutionary Iran, director Mohammad Reza Aslani’s 1976 film was screened only once before being banned following the establishment of theocracy. It’s a meticulously shot chronicle of a wealthy family’s conflicts following the death of its matriarch, claustrophobic yet visually stunning, and enhanced by genius sound design and a score that melds traditional melodies with discordant, modern rhythms. Long thought lost, the original negatives were rediscovered in a junk shop in 2014 and eventually restored. (Monday 6/10, Hollywood)

Psychotronic After School Special Volume 6: Programmer Greg Hamilton has assembled another all-new 16mm homage to misbegotten educational cinema. Teacher, leave those kids alone! (Monday 6/10, Hollywood)

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Queer 16: The treasures of the Dennis Nyback Archive continue to spill forth, this time in the form of a Pride Month-themed selection of 16mm ephemera. I’m guessing some of it may reflect pretty politically incorrect times, but there should be some fascinating surprises. (POSTPONED UNTIL JULY 2, Clinton)

Kid with the Golden Arm: This month’s Kung Fu Theater feature is a 1979 Shaw Brothers mainstay in which the heroes are hired to protect a shipment of gold to a famine-stricken village. On 35mm. (Tuesday 6/10, Hollywood)

Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers: Groundbreaking trans actor Holly Woodlawn, best known as one of Andy Warhol’s Superstars, plays a simple Kansas girl who moves to New York City and encounters all sorts of shenanigans at the Chelsea Hotel in this rarely seen 1972 camp classic. Presented by Church of Film. (POSTPONED UNTIL JULY 3, Clinton)

ALSO OPENING

Bad Boys: Ride or Die: Will Smith, attempting a post-slap comeback, and Martin Lawrence, reunite for the fourth film in the series that sprang from the brow of Michael Bay back in 1995. Like its predecessor, 2020’s Bad Boys for Life, it’s directed by the Belgian-born duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who in the interim had their $90 million Batgirl feature infamously shelved by Warner Brothers. Early reviews have been surprisingly positive. (Opens wide on Thursday 6/6.)

Songs of Earth: The stunning natural environment of northern Norway is the star of this meditative essay-style film by director Margreth Olin, whose father serves as a guide to the pristine landscape where he grew up and still resides. (Living Room)

The Watchers: After her car breaks down at the edge of an eerie forest, a woman (Dakota Fanning) wanders into the woods and ends up trapped in a shack with three enigmatic figures, observed by an unseen malevolent audience and forbidden to leave. 24-year-old Ishana Shyamalan’s directing debut is produced by her dad M. Night (must be nice) and looks to be very much in his high-concept, twist-dependent lane. (Opens wide on Thursday 6/6.)

REVIVALS

Friday 6/7

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  • The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert [1994] (Academy, through Thursday 6/13)
  • But I’m a Cheerleader! [1999] (Clinton)
  • Cinema Paradiso [1988, director’s cut] (5th Avenue, through Sunday 6/9)
  • Dazed and Confused [1993] (Academy, through Thursday 6/13)
  • Death Machine [1994] (Cinemagic, on VHS)
  • Howl’s Moving Castle [2005] (Academy, through Thursday 6/13)
  • Jaws [1976] (Eugene Art House, through Thursday 6/13)

Saturday 6/8

  • The Bad Seed [1956] (Hollywood, on 35mm, also Sunday)
  • Beat Street [1984] (Tomorrow)
  • Dirty Dancing [1987] (Hollywood, 1:00 p.m.)
  • Fargo [1996] (Cinema 21, 11:00 a.m.)
  • Pulp Fiction [1994] (Cinema 21, also Sunday & Tuesday)
  • Purple Rain [1984] (Tomorrow)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [2001, extended edition] (Eugene Art House, also Saturday 6/15)
  • Victor/Victoria [1982] (Hollywood)

Sunday 6/9

  • An American Tail: Fievel Goes West [1991] (Cinemagic, noon)
  • Ghost World [2001] (Tomorrow)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers [2002, extended edition] (Eugene Art House, also Sunday 6/16)
  • The Secret World of Arietty [2010, dubbed] (Eugene Art House, also subtitled on Tuesday 6/11)
  • Singles [1992] (Tomorrow)
  • The Witch [2015] (Hollywood)

Monday 6/10

  • Kansas City Confidential [1952] (Kiggins)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [2003, extended edition] (Eugene Art House, also Monday 6/17)
  • When Marnie Was There [2014, dubbed] (Eugene Art House, also subtitled on Wednesday 6/12)

Wednesday 6/12

  • Black Orpheus [1959] (Eugene Art House)
  • For the Love of Spock [2016] (Hollywood, director Adam Nimoy in attendance)

Thursday 6/13

  • Grey Gardens [1976] (Clinton)
  • Jewel Robbery [1932] (Hollywood)
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers [2009] (Eugene Art House)

Independent theaters included in these listings:

  • Academy Theater, Portland
  • Broadway Metro, Eugene
  • Cinema 21, Portland
  • Cinemagic, Portland
  • Clinton Street Theater, Portland
  • Darkside Cinema, Corvallis
  • Eugene Art House, Eugene
  • 5th Avenue Cinemas, Portland
  • Hollywood Theatre, Portland
  • Kiggins Theater, Vancouver, WA
  • Living Room Theaters, Portland
  • Salem Cinema, Salem
  • Tomorrow Theater, Portland

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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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