All Classical Radio James Depreist

FilmWatch Weekly: Life after prison in ‘In the Beginning,’ the search for ‘The Lost King,’ and deadpan undead in ‘The Civil Dead’

This week's cinematic offerings include a Portland-made short film, the true story of an ambitious Ricardian, and a mumblecore horror flick.

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Joshua Bligh and friend in “In the Beginning”

Life can be hard in the inside. But for many formerly incarcerated people, rebuilding a life after being released from prison can be equally challenging. That’s the dilemma confronted by the protagonist of In the Beginning, a Portland-made short film that will have its world premiere on Sunday, March 26 at the Hollywood Theatre.

In it, a newly returned citizen (Joshua Bligh) longs to reunite with his daughter and give her the shell necklace he made in prison. Parole restrictions, however, prevent him from doing so, and the film concludes on an uncertain note: will he be able to find a reason to remake himself or will he risk everything for the one thing that matters most?

The film’s director is Prabu Muruganantham, a self-taught filmmaker who moved to Portland as an engineering student in 2014. Shortly thereafter, he attended a performance of Hamlet at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla that was staged by prisoners there under the direction of Johnny Stallings. This is the same program that was showcased in Bushra Azzouz’s documentary A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Prison, which had its belated world premiere at Cinema 21 last August. (Stallings has a cameo in In the Beginning, and the organization he founded, Open Hearts Open Minds, produced the film.)

“I was very moved by the impact and by how meaningful the production was for the inmates,” Muruganantham recalled. He was eager to do more for the organization, and when Stallings departed its board in 2019, Muruganantham joined it. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of programs inside the prisons, Open Hearts Open Minds decided to make a film. “I identified that life outside prison can be very challenging, sometimes people go back because they don’t have support,” he says. Deciding to focus on that issue, he set about writing the screenplay that would become In the Beginning. “My hope is that the film will serve as a platform to generate healthy discussion around the issues and challenges of post-prison life,” Muruganantham says.

Several individuals involved in making the film are themselves returned citizens, including lead actor Bligh. This was a condition imposed by the Open Hearts Open Minds board, and Muruganantham initially thought it might be a challenge. In fact, he says “working with them made the story more authentic and more impactful. Most of the scenes are fictionalized, but some are based on real experiences of the cast.”

For a first-time director working on a very limited budget, Muruganantham effectively captures the lyrical camerawork and dreamlike pacing of the director that inspired him to study film, Terrence Malick. Far from dialogue-heavy, the film allows its lead character’s experiences to show on his face and in his movements, in a way that helps highlight the universal nature of his struggles.

The screening on Sunday at 2 p.m. will be followed by a panel discussion with Muruganantham and several members of the cast and crew.

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Over five centuries after his death, the remains of England’s King Richard III were discovered, you might recall, beneath a parking lot in Leicester. It turns out that the story of how they were found is just as fascinating as how they got there in the first place.

The Lost King follows the true story of Philipa Langley (Sally Hawkins), the amateur historian who spearheaded the initially quixotic effort to locate and exhume the remains. In the film, Langley is an unhappily divorced mother of two boys who struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as ME) and an unsatisfying job. After seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, she becomes interested in the many disputed historical facts surround the supposedly wicked usurper.

Eventually hooking up with a local chapter of the Ricardians, a group with similar interests, her obsession starts to verge on the unhealthy, at least from the perspective of her ex-husband (Steve Coogan) and even the imagined figure of Richard himself (Harry Lloyd), with whom she occasionally converses. Eventually she makes an ally of an archaeologist (Mark Addy) and secures funding to begin a dig at the spot she suspects holds the royal bones.

While the outcome is never in doubt, director Stephen Frears’ typically reliable hand steers the story, through Hawkins’ typically endearing performance, to one about the persistence of an underestimated woman. Langley’s transformative arc turns her from a meek self-doubter to someone unafraid to stand up to institutions, like the University of Leicester, that try to steal the credit for her efforts.

Smartly made and refreshingly free of whimsy, The Lost King does justice to a story that seems too good to be true by telling it simply and straight. (Opens Friday, March 24, at Cinema 21.)

The Civil Dead might be the first mumblecore horror movie. (Actually, that was probably the Duplass brothers’ Baghead, but bear with me.) In deadpan slacker style, it initially seems to be about an unambitious photographer Clay (writer-director Clay Tatum) and his increasingly impatient wife (Whitney Weir).

One day, however, while his wife is out of town, Clay bumps into an old friend, Whit (Whitmer Thomas). Whit’s a miserable sort and a bit of a clinger, both of which make more sense when he reveals that he’s a ghost and that only Clay can see him. If this is starting to sounds like The Sixth Sense with a deadpan sense of humor, you’re on the right track.

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We’ve all had needy friends who we wish would just go away sometimes (and some of us have definitely been that friend at times), but Clay ends up being literally haunted by his. Without diving too deeply into the metaphysical implications of his setup, Tatum does stir some sympathy for the pathetic Whit, who has no idea how long he’ll be stuck as a phantom or whether he’ll ever be able to interact with another human being.

Still, The Civil Dead maintains an admirably black heart, never turning into the wacky buddy comedy it could have been in more mainstream hands. It’s a trifle, to be sure, but one that shows wit and style. (Opens on Friday, March 24, at the Living Room Theaters.)

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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 Vérité Law Company 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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