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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Past Lives,’ ‘Lynch/Oz,’ ‘Blue Jean,’ and a whole lot more

This week's cinematic highlights include the filmmaking debut of playwright Celine Song and the story of a closeted high school gym teacher set against the grim backdrop of Margaret Thatcher's England.

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Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in “Past Lives”

There’s so much hullaballoo these days about multiverses and alternate realities that it’s easy to forget the root of the appeal of those cosmic, quantum-physical concepts. We’re all programmed, it seems, to ponder the what-ifs of life, the roads (and shots) not taken, the way that decisions and fate combine to somehow make us who we are.

In playwright Celine Song’s controlled but powerful filmmaking debut, Past Lives, she conjures a scenario that explores those ideas on a human scale, folding in the complexities of the immigrant experience to boot. The movie begins with an offscreen observer commenting on the sight of three people, two Asian and one Caucasian, sitting at a Manhattan bar.

We then flash back to 24 years prior and half a world away, to meet 12-year-olds Si Young and Hae Sung, close friends whose relationship is disrupted when Si Young’s family emigrates to Canada. Twelve years later, the twin miracles of Facebook and Skype allow them to reconnect despite the fact that Si Young now goes by Nora (Greta Lee) and is a promising young playwright living in New York City. Their remote reunion evolves into a surprisingly strong emotional connection, so much so that Nora decides to take a temporary break from their intercontinental chat sessions, one to which Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) reluctantly agrees.

That break becomes potentially permanent after Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro) at a writer’s retreat. Flash-forward another 12 years: Nora and Arthur are happily married and professionally successful, when Hae Sung gets in touch to say he’ll be in the city and would like to see her. That meeting, culminating in the movie’s opening shot, makes up the last act of Past Lives, and gracefully subverts the idea that this setup can only lead to a romantic rivalry between the two men.

After all, this story isn’t about them. It’s about Nora, embodied by the breakout performance of Lee. She’s been seen in supporting roles in Russian Doll on Netflix and The Morning Show on Apple TV+, but here she demonstrates a centered maturity that’s in contrast to the deadpan humor of those roles. In a film that’s so visually and emotionally restrained, she has to do a lot of subtle work to convey the stew of emotions Nora experiences when her potential one true love wanders back into her life.

That restraint on the part of Song is Past Lives’ other compelling quality. Her simple but intentional framing and graceful, controlled camera movements mirror her character’s outward placidity and rationality. It’s possible that Song takes this warm formalism too far—everyone speaks in writerly dialogue and no one ever loses their cool. The film might have benefitted from a bit more messiness, but the release that comes in its final shots is nonetheless well and truly earned. (Opens Thursday, June 15, at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre.)

He’s Elvis, she’s Marilyn, and they’re on a nightmare journey down the Yellow Brick Road. That’s the most succinct description of David Lynch’s 1990 Wild at Heart (just finishing a two-week run at the Hollywood Theatre). That film may be the most explicit example of Lynch’s affection for The Wizard of Oz, but it is very far from the only one, as the smartly constructed essay film Lynch/Oz capably demonstrates.

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The film is directed, or more accurately assembled, by Alexandre O. Philippe, who stitches together seven mini-essays riffing on its theme. The broad thematic connections are clear: both Lynch and Oz frequently concern themselves with a naïf who stumbles into a hidden world, both more colorful and more dangerous, than the one they inhabit. Lynch himself, a onetime Eagle Scout who spent his formative years in the bucolic small cities of the Northwest before plunging into the underground film world in Los Angeles, could give Dorothy Gale a run for her money in the “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” department.

Our commentators include directors John Waters (a fellow traveler to the underbelly of America), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Destroyer), and David Lowery (whose career has shifted from lyrical Southern dramas to live-action Disney remakes). Documentarian Rodney Ascher has experience of his own in this specialty, having helmed the Kubrick deep-dive Room 237. And critic Amy Nicholson kicks the whole thing off with an insightful outline of the unexpected confluences between the nightmare vision of Blue Velvet and the Technicolor dreams of the Emerald City.

In case watching Lynch/Oz gives you a hankering to visit (or revisit) the movies it references, Cinema 21 has programmed a Lynch mini-festival composed of Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Dr. to screen during the week. Each one of them, it should go without saying, demands a big screen to be fully appreciated, and with the context provided by Lynch/Oz, that goes double. (Opens Friday, June 16, at Cinema 21.)

As Pride Month continues in a year when anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation has boiled up at a hysterical rate, the British feature Blue Jean serves as, among other things, a reminder of how warmed-over and redundant many of our current, manufactured, cultural “controversies” are. Set in Margaret Thatcher’s England, its title character (Rosy McEwan) is a lesbian high school gym teacher and netball coach who assiduously keeps her closeted work life separated from her personal life, particularly her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes), who is much more out and proud.

Jean’s delicate balancing act begins to wobble when new student Lois (Lucy Halliday) spots her one night out at the local lesbian bar. With shades of The Children’s Hour, Jean tries to provide subtle support for the underage and troubled Lois when she’s bullied at school. But when Lois’s attachment to Jean threatens to shatter the barriers between her two lives, Jean is faced with a morally fraught decision.

Blue Jean takes place against the political backdrop of the 1988 enactment of Section 28, a law that forbade the promotion or acceptability of homosexuality “as a pretended family relationship” by local schools. (Sound familiar?) The operative quote from Margaret Thatcher lamented that children who “are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay” are “being cheated of a sound start in life.” (Sound familiar?)

Gender politics aside, Blue Jean depicts the anxieties and quandaries forced upon anyone who tries to maintain a life bifurcated between an authentic self and a socially acceptable doppelganger. Viv pushes Jean to be more forthright in claiming and protecting the former, and an example to the next generation as represented by Lois. But writer-director Georgia Oakley, in her feature debut, acknowledges and respects the hesitancy of those who have walked that tightrope to take on any additional destabilizers. (Opens Friday, June 16, at the Living Room Theaters and June 23 at the Salem Cinema.)

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ALSO PLAYING:

You’d think that a film with one of the most celebrated actors alive playing one of the most famous artists of all time would get a pretty noisy release. Instead, Dalíland, in which Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley assays the dual role of both Salvador Dalí and his moustache, snuck into the Kiggins Theater in Vancouver without any fanfare, and otherwise is available to stream. Its fate, however, is not as unjust as it might seem.

A disappointing effort from director Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), Daliland has an Almost Famous-style structure. A fictional, naïve audience surrogate (newcomer Christopher Briney) is thrust into the decadent world of Dalí and his mercurial wife/muse Gala (Barbara Sukowa) in 1970s New York.

Dalí’s hangers-on at this point include Alice Cooper, early trans icon Amanda Lear, and Jesus Christ Superstar leading man Jeff Fenholt (who does not come off well). The best parts of the film have veterans Kingsley and Sukowa working off of each other; the worst have the other actors trying to keep up with them.

SPECIAL EVENTS:

The Tipping Point is a brand-new documentary chronicling the largest civil rights protest in American history, which occurred following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and the ways in which Portland, Oregon served as a synecdoche for the national movement. Produced in conjunction with We Can Listen, the social justice program of The Old Church, the film has its local theatrical premiere on Thursday, June 15, at Alberta Abbey.

Biographer Jimmy McDonough has chronicled the eccentric lives of figures as diverse as Russ Meyer, Neil Young, and Tammy Wynette. His latest opus tackles the Ormond family of Nashville, a threesome who churned out genre and exploitation films until a spiritual conversion that prompted a collaboration with Baptist fire-and-brimstone preacher Ernest Pirkle in the 1970s. The resulting “Christsploitation” pictures are a surreal, outsider, overheated depiction of the wages of sin. McDonough will be on hand to introduce a screening of a pair of those pictures and participate in a Q&A session afterward. (Monday, Hollywood Theatre)

For Father’s Day, the Cinemagic Theater has cobbled together an offbeat tribute to a relatively unheralded pair of paterfamilias pictures. George P. Cosmatos directed genre films like Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, Peter Weller’s Of Unknown Origin, and Kurt Russell’s Tombstone. His son Panos is responsible for more recent oddities such as Nicolas Cage’s Mandy and the truly inventive Beyond the Black Rainbow. It all makes for a delightfully random hodgepodge of cinematic treats. (Check website for days and times.)

REPERTORY TITLES:

FRIDAY: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Clinton St.); Labyrinth (Hollywood, through Sunday); Mystery Men (Hollywood)

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SATURDAY: Babe (Hollywood, also Sunday); Desperate Living (Hollywood); Midnight (Cinema 21); To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (Clinton St.)

SUNDAY: Big Fish (Living Room); Boyz N the Hood (Hollywood)

MONDAY: Beau Travail (Clinton St.); Purple Rain (Hollywood, also Tuesday)

TUESDAY: Director Frank Growe’s no-budget cult classic from 1997, Love God (Hollywood); 1975 Bollywood classic Sholay, complete with pre-show music (Clinton St.)

WEDNESDAY: Addams Family Values (Hollywood); Kinji Fukasaku directs Japanese drag legend Miwa Akahiro in 1969’s Black Rose (Clinton St.)

THURSDAY: Film archivist Mike Lastra will introduce a selection of films featuring Afrofuturism demigod Sun Ra and his Arkestra, in anticipation of the band’s return to Portland next month (Hollywood); Paris Is Burning (Clinton St.)

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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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