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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ and ‘Problemista’ showcase unique visions

Kristen Stewart and Katy O'Brian star in a stylish neo-noir, plus the feature film debut of writer-director-star Julio Torres of HBO's "Los Espookys."

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Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart in “Love Lies Bleeding”

At last week’s Oscars, the big Hollywood studios reasserted their presence with the one-two “Barbenheimer” punch that will be what 2023’s movie moment is remembered for. Oppenheimer, a marriage of old-school Great Man biography and postmodern storytelling, was the third-highest grossing Best Picture winner in history. Meanwhile, Barbie, a film that smartly exploited and subverted the appeal of its impossibly attractive megastars, dominated the ceremony in a way few films that only end up winning one award do. Each is the sort of movie that, even today, only deep-pocketed corporations are really capable of creating.

And yet, let us not forget that for every box-office smash that turns out to actually be a quality piece of work, there are dozens of street-level films out there that serve as an individualistic retort to algorithmic dominance. Without sacrificing their entertainment quotients, two such new films demonstrate perspectives so unique that it would be impossible for them to have been many by any other filmmaker. It’s no coincidence that they both come from the independent distributor that has shown the greatest ability to combine pop-cultural punch with auteurist sensibility, A24.

Speaking of that precise combination, Kristen Stewart has, since emerging from her YA, twilit cocoon, become an expert at moving between prestige projects playing Princess Diana or Jean Seberg to grittier fare working with directors like Olivier Assayas and David Cronenberg. Her new film, Love Lies Bleeding, is one of the latter: a lesbian bodybuilding noir that marks an impressive follow-up by writer-director Rose Glass to her 2019 feature debut, Saint Maud.

Stewart plays Lou, who we first meet cleaning toilets at the seedy gym she tediously manages in a dusty, late-1980s New Mexico hamlet. In iconic noir fashion, Lou’s listless life gets turned upside down when a dangerous dame saunters into town. Jackie (Katy O’Brian) is an aspiring bodybuilder with aspirations of getting to an upcoming competition in Las Vegas. The sparks fly almost immediately, but you can feel from Stewart’s performance the heartbreaking hesitancy to believe that something good has finally happened to her, the elusiveness of gratitude when you’re always anticipating the drop of the other shoe.

Lou’s not wrong, of course. Which brings us to the third member of this committed cast. Ed Harris, tag-teaming with an early candidate for Hairpiece of the Year, plays Lou’s reptilian pop, Lou Sr., who operates a rural gun range and has secrets in his closet bigger than Sue the T-Rex. Harris, unsurprisingly, is wonderfully evil, and his faceoffs with Stewart are as fun to watch as they likely were to film—two fearless performers just getting in each other’s faces.

Lou Sr. has another daughter, Meg (Jena Malone), whose abuse at the hands of her husband J.J. (Dave Franco) kicks off the series of events that turn this from a star-cross’d romance into a bloody tale of revenge and rage. All neon and shadows, cinematographer Ben Fordesman’s visuals capture the way Glass salts the story’s genre archetypes with self-awareness and style. The best neo-noir films flirt with, but never engage in, self-parody, a tendency echoed here by both Lou Sr.’s collection of enormous beetles and by the moments when Glass literalizes Jackie’s steroid-induced wrath. Those are just some of the quirks that might have been sanded down by Tinseltown groupthink, not to mention that at least one executive’s memo would have complained, “Does it have to be two chicks?” (Regal Fox Tower, Living Room Theaters, Salem Cinema, and other locations)

Problemista, the hilarious feature-film debut of writer-director-star Julio Torres, is every bit as idiosyncratic as Love Lies Bleeding, but it’s a heck of a lot more fun. Torres, a former writer for Saturday Night Live and the co-creator of the acclaimed HBO series Los Espookys, is a deadpan triumph as Alejandro, an El Salvadoran immigrant trying to get by in New York City and pursue his dream of being a toy designer. Faced with losing the visa he needs in order to apply for an internship program at Hasbro within 30 days if he can’t find a sponsor, he hooks up with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), the wife (or is it widow?) of a once-celebrated artist being cryo-preserved at the facility where Alejandro worked before he was fired.

Sponsor

Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Elizabeth is a gloriously maddening creation, an utterly self-entitled, self-involved, and self-deceiving monster whose sheer helplessness in the world prompts the only empathy one might muster. Behind dark bangs and emanating darker moods, Swinton is nearly unrecognizable as a woman whose behavior toward the service industry is practically a war crime, whose narcissism is boundless, and whose persecution complex is self-fulfilling.

And yet she can be an object of pity once you notice that the flashlight on her phone is always on, or (more poignantly) when we see flashbacks of her life with the husband (RZA) whose work she so valiantly wants to preserve and display for his posthumous honor. Still, Alejandro puts up with a lot while helping her prepare a gallery show in exchange for her visa sponsorship. Problemista is, of course, at its heart a wry, surreal, and potent take on the immigrant story, and Alejandro is a stand-in for all the unique, aspirational newcomers who are rendered invisible by bureaucracy and prejudice. Peppering its realism with flights of fancy such as an animated medieval battle, in a way not unlike that of Love Lies Bleeding, Torres keeps his feet on the ground and his head in the air, making an odd-couple comedy that’s so much more. (Hollywood Theatre, Cinema 21, opens March 22 at Salem Cinema)

STREAMING PICK

Roswell: Filmmaker Bill Brown has lived a peripatetic life, both geographically and creatively. He’s made a variety of offbeat, philosophical travelogues capturing odd corners of the American landscape. He’s made short, abstract films. He started a zine. His earliest work was released on DVD by Portland’s own Matt McCormick-run DVD label, Peripheral Produce. Now his first film, 1994’s Roswell, is being presented as part of the New York Times’ Op-Docs section. The title town is a predictable marker of eccentric Americana, but Brown goes beyond the usual UFO-centric observations to muse on things like time travel. It’s a great introduction to his work, apparently all of which can be viewed via his website. It’s a rabbit hole well worth descending.

ALSO OPENING

The American Society of Magical Negroes: Debuting writer-director Kobi Libii’s hot-button satire posits that the “magical Negro” trope in culture and literature is actually the evidence of a Black Illuminati who are called upon when white people need to be comforted or assisted. (various locations)

Arthur the King: A veteran adventure racer (Mark Wahlberg) needs the moral support of a scrappy street dog if he’s going to have any chance at the world championships in the Dominican Republic. Based on a true story. (various locations)

Knox Goes Away: Michael Keaton directs and stars as a veteran hit man dealing with an aggressive form of dementia who has only weeks to finish one final job. Co-starring Al Pacino. (Regal Fox Tower and other locations)

Molly and Max in the Future: In the future, a man (Aristotle Anthari) and a woman (Zosia Mamet) re-enact the When Harry Met Sally dance against an effects-laden backdrop of flying cars, space cults, and robot dating. (Kiggins Theatre, Friday through Tuesday)

Sponsor

Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

One Life: Anthony Hopkins plays the aging Nicky Winton, who five decades earlier had helped to rescue hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Prague. Now, he’s about to be reunited with some of those children on a British TV show. (Regal Fox Tower, Living Room Theaters, Salem Cinema and other locations)

Snack Shack: A pair of rascally best pals in 1991 mid-America get a summer job revitalizing the concession stand at their local public pool. Zany antics ensue until the hot lifeguard on duty threatens to come between them. (various locations)

ALSO SCREENING

The Short Films of Miranda July: A quarter of early work, made between 1996 and 2001, from the erstwhile Portlander who has gone on to direct features including Me You and Everyone We Know. (Thursday, Clinton Street Theater)

Unicorn Wars: This 2022 Spanish animated feature tells of the brutal war between teddy bears and unicorns, and is not for kids. Bizarre, phantasmagoric, and vulgar—in a good way. (Saturday, Tomorrow Theater)

The Art of Ecology: A program of five short films that tackle environmental themes and topics, including tree frogs and primeval forests. (Sunday, Hollywood)

Israelism: This documentary profiles members of a movement among young American Jews who have come to see Israel as the oppressor of Palestinians, often after their own experiences in the country. (Monday, Clinton Street Theater)

La Cordonnière: This Québecois production, which dramatizes the life of a pioneering female cobbler in 19th-century Québec, is being presented by Alliance Française Portland as part of the annual Francophonie festival. (Tuesday, Cinema 21)

Sponsor

Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

Video Witches: A collection of feminist video art made mostly during the 1980s and 1990s, some of it incredibly weird. (Wednesday, Clinton St.)

REVIVALS

Thursday

Friday

  • Citizen Kane [1941] (Academy Theatre, through Thursday)
  • Ms. 45 [1981] (Academy Theatre, through Thursday)
  • Rock’n’Roll Nightmare [1987] (Hollywood, with star John Mikl Thor in attendance)
  • Sisters with Transistors [2020] (5th Avenue Cinema, through Sunday)
  • To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar [1995] (Clinton St., with pre-film drag show)

Saturday

  • The Blob [1988] (Cinemagic, with special effects artist Nick Benson in attendance)
  • Dune [1984] (Tomorrow Theater, with sand art)
  • GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling [2012] (Clinton St.)
  • Gold Diggers of 1933 [1933] (Cinema 21)
  • RRR [2022] (Hollywood)
  • Scarface [1983] (Hollywood, in 35mm)

Sunday

  • Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan [2020] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Nothing Compares [2022] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • The Oregon Short Film Festival Spring 2024 (Clinton St.)

Monday

  • Certain Women [2016] (Hollywood, with director Kelly Reichardt in attendance)

Tuesday

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

  • Celine and Julie Go Boating [1974] (Clinton St., free)
  • The Host [2006] (Hollywood, in 35mm)

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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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