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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Poor Things’ is a rich delight, plus ‘Fallen Leaves,’ ‘Trees and Other Entanglements,’ and Cinema’s Female Future

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo give superb performances in the new film by Yorogs Lanthimos, plus the latest from Aki Kaurismäki and Portland filmmaker Irene Taylor.

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Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

It’s not quite time yet for the unveiling of the year’s best movies. (Here at FilmWatch we prefer to wait until the actual end of the year, not merely the beginning of December, for such things.) But I’ve known since I saw it a few weeks back that Poor Things would be at or near the top of that list. The Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos has done the nearly impossible by migrating to Hollywood and using the industry’s tools and stars to tell stories that spring from his own obsessions and imagination, and this latest example is his most impressive feat yet.

To call Poor Things a revisionist Frankenstein tale only scratches the surface. Here, the mad Doctor Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is the one with the stitched-together, grotesquely misshapen face. Baxter operates a clinic/laboratory populated by crude animal hybrids—a pig with the head of goose, for instance. His most recent, and most impressive, creation is Bella (Emma Stone), whom he has reanimated from the dead with a tabula rasa where her mind once was. With an adult body and an infantile mind, Bella proves gleefully nonconformist and, initially at least, vulnerable.

Baxter at first attempts to keep her secluded in his Victorian London estate, her existence known only to himself and his young assistant Max (Ramy Youssef). Max comes to realize that the doctor sees Bella as an experiment and little more and finds himself falling in love with her innocence and beauty. When an American cad named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) happens on the scene, he too becomes fascinated with Bella’s uniqueness, but in a baser manner. He spirits her off on a classic 19th-century world tour and introduces her to the joys of “furious jumping.”

It’s a testament to Lanthimos’s audacity, and the potency of his partnership with Stone, that this story of a woman’s intellectual and sexual awakening feels so true, despite the fantastical conceits and wild visuals surrounding it. (Then again, what do I know?) After teaming up for The Favourite, this actor-director pair go next level here. This is a career performance for the star on every level, from Bella’s peculiar physicality to the gamut of moods from grief to fury to slapstick that she catapults through.

All that said, hers might not even be the best performance in the film. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a dialogue delivery as I did at Ruffalo’s. His Duncan is a monstrous, chauvinistic character, but Ruffalo’s boyish simplicity and wounded pride make him more pathetic than anything else. And that accent deserves an award of its own.

I don’t want to give away more of the plot, except to say that both Jerrod Carmichael and the great German actor Hanna Schygulla pop up in fascinating supporting roles. Another holdover from The Favourite is cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who maybe overdoes the fisheye effect a bit, but otherwise perfectly captures the steampunk-on-acid vibe. Tony McNamara adapted Alastair Gray’s 1992 novel and wisely pared it down from multiple perspectives to Bella’s story and hers alone.

When I say that Lanthimos has been able to smuggle his individuality into the studio (or at least major indie) system, I mean thematically as well as cinematically. As far back as Dogtooth, the film that put him, and new Greek cinema, on the map, the director has been fascinated by the intersection of culture and nature, and the frighteningly, exhilaratingly thin veneer that custom is. In that film, a demented family raised children in isolation, teaching them surreal, grotesque lessons about how to behave. Here, another cloistered figure finds herself empowered and fulfilled by the dance along that line. This might be Lanthimos’s first movie with a happy ending—maybe he’s gone Hollywood after all. (Opens Thursday, Dec. 14, at multiple theaters.)

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ALSO OPENING THIS WEEK

Fallen Leaves

Thank fate for Aki Kaurismäki. In this turbulent, rapidly disintegrating world, we need something to hold on to—something that acknowledges the existential pointlessness of it all while giving you a reason to endure it. The terminally droll Finnish film icon has been doling out dolor since the 1980s. Folks might remember Leningrad Cowboys Go America, but Ariel is a nearly perfect film. (It, and many of Kaurismäki’s early shorts and features, are available to stream on the Criterion Channel.)

For his first feature in six years, and only his second since 2011, Kaurismäki sets a typically hesitant romance against the backdrop of a retro-tinged Helsinki and, via radio newscasts, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is fired from her menial grocery store job for giving expired food to a homeless man. Soon after, she meets Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a barely functional alcoholic who takes construction work when he can find it. When Kaurismäki’s at his best, as he is here, a setup like that leads not to a dreary proletarian melodrama, but an almost magically efficient romance that seems to conjure human connection out of almost nothing at all. (Opens Friday, Dec. 15, at Living Room Theaters and Salem Cinema)

ALSO SCREENING

Trees and Other Entanglements

If you enjoyed Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, this documentary from Portland filmmaker Irene Taylor is for you. (And if you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?) Trees and Other Entanglements profiles several individuals who have strong, even mystical connections with these sometimes majestic, sometimes delicate plants. Among the profiled with Northwest connections are forester Dirk Brinkman, who started a firm 50 years ago dedicated to replanting the terrain ravaged by clearcutting on Vancouver Island; timber baron George Weyerhaeuser, whose life story (and dedication to preserving bonsai art) are astonishing; and St. Helens-based fellow bonsai enthusiast Ryan Neil, who spent a six-year apprenticeship in Japan learning the art of bonsai. We also witness the filmmaker herself attempting to free old trees near her home from the clutches of English ivy, partially as a means of dealing with her father’s encroaching Alzheimer’s disease. Crisply shot, factually fascinating, and refreshingly free of both woo-woo leafgazing and ecological polemic, it’s another notch in the trunk of this Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s career. (Screens on Thursday, Dec. 14, at PAM CUT’s Tomorrow Theater, with the filmmaker in attendance. Also streaming on MAX.)

The Future of Film Is Female

The four female-directed films screening this weekend in a series curated by Caryn Coleman, founder of the advocacy group The Future of Film Is Female, are a diverse lot, but they have one thing in common: they’re fearless. All are 2023 releases that did not (so far as I’m aware) receive a theatrical release in Oregon.

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Jennifer Reeder’s Perpetrator uses horror tropes to tell a bloody tale of rage and empathy in which a new girl in town teams up with some new friends to take down the guy who’s been abducting young women. (Alicia Silverstone has a deliciously campy minor role.) Visual artist Ann Oren’s first narrative feature, Piaffe, is a surreal, sensual fable about a young woman forced to replace her sibling as a foley artist for an advertisement featuring a horse. She then starts to grow a second ponytail in addition to the one on her head.

The series continues with former Olympic volleyball player (!) Savanna Leaf’s first feature, Earth Mama, which centers on a young, single, pregnant Black mother trying to retain custody of her son. It premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by boutique distributor A24. It then concludes with Ellie Foumbi’s harrowing Our Father, the Devil, in which an African immigrant in France realizes that the new Catholic priest in town is the man responsible for the deaths of her family. (Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15 & 16, at PAM CUT’s Tomorrow Theater.)

ALSO THIS WEEK

THURSDAY

  • Intolerable Cruelty [2003] (Clinton)

FRIDAY

  • Eight Crazy Nights [2002] (Academy, through Monday)
  • Elf [2003] (Kiggins, through Monday)
  • The Far Country [1954] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol [1992] (Kiggins, through Monday)
  • The Shining [1980] (Eugene Art House, through Thursday)
  • Small Soldiers [1998] (Hollywood)
  • Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me [1992] (Clinton)

SATURDAY

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  • Animated Christmas Vol. 11 (Hollywood)
  • Hail Caesar! [2016] (Clinton)
  • Tombs of the Blind Dead [1972] (Hollywood)

SUNDAY

  • Batman Returns [1992] (Hollywood)
  • Beetlejuice [1988] (Living Room)
  • Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project [2023] (Tomorrow Theater, with pre-film poetry reading from Oregon’s poet laureate)

MONDAY

  • Blood Simple [1984] (Clinton)

TUESDAY

  • The Hudsucker Proxy [1994] (Clinton)
  • Silent Night, Deadly Night [1984] (Hollywood, on 35mm)

WEDNESDAY

  • “Christmas in Space” and A Black Adder Christmas Carol (Hollywood)
  • Church of Film: Russian Fairy Tale Animation (Clinton)

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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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One Response

  1. “The terminally droll Finnish film icon has been doling out dolor since the 1980s.”
    Terrific tag line for a wondrously fresh appreciation of Aki Kaurismaki’s very difficult to describe films. Kudos to the film reviewer who now supports his habit with a law credential working on protection of intellectual property rights. Can a line like the one above describing Aki K. of Finland and the dolorous world be trademarked? Bet yer bottom dolor on it….

    Also, a typo alert in the headline that does some damage to the name of Greek film auteur “Yorogs Lanthimos,” which might be an understandable Finnish pronunciation. This stuff happens between hemispheres all the time, not just during periods of climate change.

    One last request, can Mohan or anyone persuade the rep movie house lords to fete kindred spirit to Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki and show the similarly tough to describe films of Winnipeg’s cinematic loon, Guy Madden? Starting with My Winnipeg could give us in PoTown, Ore some fresh ideas on how to emerge from Zombieville….
    Health and balance,
    Dolorous holidays
    Keep on doing,
    Tio Mitchito\Paradigm Sifters, Code Shifters, PsalmSong Chasers
    Lay-Low Studios, Ore-Wa (Refuge of Atonement Seekers)
    Media Discussion List\LookseeInnerEarsHearHere

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