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FilmWatch Weekly: Julia Louis-Dreyfus shines in ‘Tuesday,’ plus a tribute to Harry Smith and the darkly comic ‘I Used to Be Funny’

Also this week: Jude Law as Henry VIII and Alicia Vikander as Katherine Parr in "Firebrand," and the latest film from "Fists in the Pocket" director Marco Bellocchio.

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Lola Petticrew and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Tuesday”

To say that Tuesday is a revelation is to undersell it. Writer-director Daina O. Pusic’s first feature is (at least) three revelations wrapped in one, starting with the deepest, most dramatic performance in the career of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. In a role that’s galaxies away from her sharply comic turns on Seinfeld and Veep, Louis-Dreyfus plays Zora, the mother of a terminally ill teenaged daughter, the Tuesday of the title. Deeply in denial, Zora leaves Tuesday in the care of her capable nurse each day and heads off to a job she no longer even has.

But wait! I forgot to mention the giant supernatural macaw that Death itself appears as when it visits Tuesday to escort her out of existence. Expertly voiced by Arinzé Kene with a seductively menacing rasp, the bird, as we see in the film’s opening scenes, does its necessary work by waving a wing over those who are about to die. But Tuesday manages to engage Death in a conversation, and when Zora enters the chat, she digs in against it with the sort of fury only a mother can muster.

This could, obviously, have been a laughable conceit, but Pusic, the London-based Croatian creator of a series of award-winning shorts and the movie’s second revelation, walks a tightrope between pathos and absurd humor. Scratch that—she dances along it with the sure touch of a born storyteller. It doesn’t hurt that the special effects manifesting Death (based on Kene’s physical performance) blend seamlessly with the human actors.

There’s a third revelation, as promised. That would be the unheralded Lola Petticrew, who carries the film’s heaviest load as Tuesday, a role that’s charged with being preternaturally wise while wasting away without slipping into some sort of teenage messiah trope. It’s hard to imagine a situation more perfectly designed to elicit parental tears than that of a child helping their mother come to terms with their own death. Adding in magical realism, refreshingly unexplained, ups the difficulty level. And yet, as Tuesday proves, sometimes a computer-generated giant parrot can make you cry. (Opens Friday at Regal Fox Tower, Living Room Theaters, Kiggins Theatre, and other locations)

ALSO REVIEWED

Louis-Dreyfus isn’t the only female comic actor who takes a dramatic turn this week. Following up on breakout roles in Shiva Baby and Bottoms, Rachel Sennott once again plays a sharp-tongued young woman in the aptly titled I Used to Be Funny. In fact, she’s a standup comedian. But, more relevantly to the story writer-director Ally Pankiw, a TV veteran making her feature debut, wants to tell, Sam (Sennott) is also the nanny to troubled teen Brooke (Olga Petsa), whose mother is dying and whose police officer father is frequently absent. Or, rather, she used to be a nanny. The movie shifts between the present, in which a traumatized Sam has stopped performing and Brooke has run away from home, and the past, as Pankiw gradually reveals the nature of Sam’s trauma and the cause of a violent rift between the previously tight pair.

There are times when I Used to Be Funny feels like its narrative has been fractured in an effort to make it more compelling, but instead ends up making it more confusing. And Pankiw’s staging of actors leaves something to be desired. But Sennott proves able to shift into a more intense mood, which isn’t really surprising. Like so many contemporary comediennes (from Broad City to Amy Schumer), there’s a righteous anger behind their cutting humor. Letting some of that bubble to the top makes for a rich and rewarding performance. (Opens Friday at Cinema 21 and Salem Cinema)

Henry VIII was a real jerk. This isn’t news, of course, which makes parts of Firebrand a bit redundant. Even played by Jude Law, he’s a diseased, debased, drunken slob. Which makes it all the more difficult to forgive him for all the wife-murdering and general bad behavior. But director Karim Aïnouz’s historical fiction isn’t about Henry, but his sixth and final spouse, the fascinating Katherine Parr (Alicia Vikander). Katherine was a potent enough figure to be named regent while her husband was off warring in France, and history suggests she was an independent thinker, a published author, and a savvy operator in the halls of power. She befriends a known heretic from the Anglican faith, and is unusually close with Thomas Seymour (Eddie Marsan), brother to one of Henry’s earlier wives. What history does not suggest, as far as I know, is—well, I don’t want to spoil the movie’s ending, but it moves the whole project from biopic to revisionist fantasy. Despite that disappointing finale, though, it’s a welcome look at a woman who, in at least some ways, transcended her time. (Opens Friday at Regal Fox Tower and other locations)

Sponsor

Seattle Opera Pagliacci

Another under-appreciated historical figure gets a big-screen airing-out in veteran Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio’s Kidnapped: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara. In 1858, six-year-old Edgardo was taken from his Jewish family in Rome to be raised by the Catholic Church. This was based on the testimony of the family’s former maid, who said she had secretly baptized the child when he was sick as an infant. The law at that time in the Papal States, ruled by Pope Leo IX, was that Christian children had to be raised in Christian households, and since there’s no way to un-baptize someone, the only way Edgardo’s parents could regain custody would be to convert to Christianity. Organized religion for the win, once again.

This travesty became a public scandal across Europe over the next several years, served to further isolate the church politically, and is seen as a key event in the eventual unification of Italy (and the reduction of the church’s territory to Vatican City) in 1870. Bellocchio, who’s been a reliable rabblerouser since his 1965 debut, Fists in the Pocket, uses a classical visual style to deliver a pointed critique of institutional inhumanity posing as benevolence. And despite the thicket of history surrounding it, solid performances and streamlined writing make sure the story’s emotional core remains vibrant. (Opens Friday at Living Room Theaters)

ALSO THIS WEEK

Harry Smith: Portland’s Prodigal Son: Although he was born in Portland in 1923 (we share a birthday!), there’s no reason a centennial celebration for Harry Smith can’t be held this year. Best known for his monumental Anthology of American Folk Music, Smith was also an experimental filmmaker of note. This three-day event honors the eccentric figure who has been claimed as an early example of Keeping Portland Weird (even though he spent his formative years in Washington State.) On Saturday, the Hollywood Theatre will screen a selection of Smith’s short films with live musical accompaniment; a seminar discussing Smith’s Northwest roots will take place at Turn! Turn! Turn! On Sunday afternoon; and a 4K restoration of his final, epic work, Film #18: Mahogany, will have its Northwest premiere on Monday at the Clinton Street Theater.

New Indigenous Short Films: The Portland EcoFilm Festival presents five new works that foreground indigenous stories, including two award winners. (Saturday, Hollywood)

Fast Break: The landmark documentary about the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1977 championship team, featuring priceless footage of the late, great Bill Walton. (Wednesday, Hollywood)

The Devil Queen: Be gay and do crimes. That may as well be the motto of the titular kingpin in this 1974 Brazilian crime saga. Queer, Black, and unapologetically violent, the Devil Queen rules Rio’s underworld, and any who suggests otherwise is likely to get cut. (Wednesday, Clinton)

I Heard It Through the Grapevine: In this 1982 documentary, novelist James Baldwin returns to the American South to revisit his time in the American Civil Rights movement and consider how much, if anything, has actually changed. A new 4K restoration. (Wednesday, Cinema 21)

Sponsor

Seattle Opera Pagliacci

Ghostlight: A construction worker with a troubled teenaged daughter and an inability to express emotions joins a local theater company that’s staging Romeo and Juliet. Maybe there’s hope for him after all. (Thursday, Cinema 21)

2024 Wild and Scenic Film Festival: The Cascade Forest Conservatory presents a “best of the fest” program drawn from the annual environmental-themed event held in Nevada City, California. The eight short films include portraits of a six-year-old aspiring mountaineer and an unconventional Dallas skate park, and a testament to the power of kelp. (Thursday 6/20, Kiggins)

REVIVALS

Friday 6/14

  • Back to the Future [1985] (Eugene Art House, through Thursday 6/20)
  • Battle Royale [2000] (Hollywood, through Monday)
  • Death Becomes Her [1992] (Tomorrow)
  • The Goonies [1985] (Living Room, through Thursday 6/20)
  • Hundreds of Beavers [2024] (Cinemagic, also Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday)
  • Jurassic Park [1993] (Academy, through Thursday 6/20)
  • The Lobster [2015] (Cinema 21)
  • Logan’s Run [1976] (Hollywood)
  • The Lords of Dogtown [2005] (5th Avenue, on 35mm, through Sunday)
  • Mortal Kombat [1995] (Cinemagic, also Saturday)
  • The Music Man [1962] (Kiggins, also Saturday)
  • Shiva Baby [2020] (Salem Cinema, through Monday)
  • Slacker [1991] (Academy, through Thursday 6/20)
  • Some Like It Hot [1959] (Academy, through Thursday 6/20)

Saturday 6/15

  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer [2017] (Cinema 21)
  • RRR [2022] (Hollywood)
  • Unforgiven [1992] (Cinema 21)

Sunday 6/16

  • Before Sunrise [1994] (Hollywood)
  • Love Lies Bleeding [2024] (Tomorrow)
  • Mrs. Doubtfire [1993] (Tomorrow)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation [1983] (Salem Cinema)
  • Tombstone [1993] (Cinemagic, on 35mm, also Monday)

Monday 6/17

  • Whisper of the Heart [1995] (Hollywood)

Tuesday 6/18

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

  • A Bucket of Blood [1959] (Darkside)
  • Daughters of the Dust [1991] (Eugene Art House)
  • Desert Hearts [1986] (Clinton)
  • Pump Up the Volume [1990] (Cinemagic)
  • Thunderbolt and Lightfoot [1974] (Hollywood, on 35mm)
  • X [2022] (multiple locations, includes sneak peek at the upcoming Maxxxine)

Wednesday 6/19

  • Devil in a Blue Dress [1994] (Hollywood)
  • Green Snake [1993] (Cinemagic)

Thursday 6/20

  • Hardware [1990] (Hollywood)
  • Moneyball [2011] (Cinemagic)
  • Showgirls [1995] (Clinton, benefit for the New Seasons Labor Union)

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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