FilmWatch Weekly: Portland’s ‘Pig,’ plus ‘Roadrunner’ & ‘Mama Weed’

Nicolas Cage amid the truffles; a piercing documentary about Anthony Bourdain; Isabelle Huppert in a problematic but darkly comic tale

Nicolas Cage in “Pig”

There’s something about the combination of Nicolas Cage and Portland that just feels right. Each emanates a performative eccentricity that can sometimes obscure a genuinely artistic soul. Cage is probably known more for his cockroach-eating antics in Vampire’s Kiss and his twisted take on Elvis in Wild at Heart than he is for his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas. Portland gets more coverage for its naked bike rides and political passions than for its vibrant culinary and cultural diversity.

Which brings us to Pig, the shot-in-Portland story about a man (Cage) who lives alone in the Northwest woods with his 800-pound, truffle-hunting companion. As anyone who saw the recent documentary The Truffle Hunters knows, locating these treasured fungal delicacies typically requires the assistance of such an animal companion, and the owners of said critters often develop a strong bond with them.

Our protagonist, who we eventually learn is named Robin, is content to make a hermit’s living by selling truffles to Amir (Alex Wolff), a middleman who provides them in turn to Portland’s restaurants. But when his pig is stolen, Robin travels back to civilization (a/k/a the Rose City) to retrieve it, and in the process confronts his past. “I remember when your name meant something,” he’s told by the first person he meets in Portland. “But now you have no value.” Harsh, right?

With the initially grudging assistance of the urbane Amir, Robin ventures into the city’s (literally) underground restaurant scene, masochistically absorbing punishment in the course of his monomaniacal quest. What makes Cage so well-suited for the offbeat roles that he’s been drawn to over the years is his ability to approach absurdity with complete earnestness. There’s no winking, no irony in his portrayal of a bedraggled, bloody-faced mumbler whose mantra is “Who took my pig?” Eventually, it wins you over and you end up caring about someone who could easily have been a caricature.

Cage makes Pig worthwhile enough that the local shout-outs serve as icing on the cake. There’s a scene involving a server at a farm-to-table restaurant that gives the similarly themed Portlandia sketch a run for its money. There are a couple of nice tracking shots inside Huber’s. The word “Willamette” is pronounced correctly. The history of Pioneer Courthouse Square is used as a plot point. And Cage gets to utter what may be the film’s biggest applause line for local audiences: “Fuck Seattle.” (Opens on Friday, July 16 at Cinema 21)

***

SPEAKING OF RESTAURANTS AND TRAGEDIES, Roadrunner provides a captivating look at the life and unfortunate death of Anthony Bourdain, the chef-turned-author-turned-travel guru who took his own life in 2018. Directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), it kicks off with a scene in which Bourdain suggests that, after his death, his body should be fed into a wood-chipper and sprayed into Harrod’s during rush hour. Mordant wit or thinly veiled self-loathing? Is there a difference?

Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville’s documentary, “Roadrunner,” a Focus Features release. Credit Courtesy of CNN / Focus Features

Bourdain lived several lives, and Neville picks his story up just as he made the leap from culinary star to literary sensation upon the 2000 publication of his memoir Kitchen Confidential. It marked the birth of the bad-boy chef template, with its tales of heroin addiction and other raw revelations from the restaurant biz. From there, as most know, Bourdain went on to become the star of a series of travel shows, in which he would journey to distant lands and engage in extreme eating (such as a still-beating cobra heart). Gradually, he became a cultural connoisseur more than a galloping gourmand, to the point of sharing a meal in Vietnam with Barack Obama.

The public was stunned when it was revealed that Bourdain had hanged himself in a hotel room in France, but as Roadrunner shows, those closer to him were aware of troubling recent developments in his life. Numerous interviewees, friends and colleagues, relate their perspective on Bourdain’s relationship with Italian actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, which began a couple of years before his death. No one flat-out accuses Argento of being responsible for Bourdain’s suicide, but a common thread is how enthralled, even addicted, he became, and how distressed he was at the thought that she did not return that intensity. (Argento is not interviewed in the film.)

It’s to Neville’s credit that he goes there, at least nodding at the hard questions that inevitably emerge following a suicide. It’s even more to the credit that Bourdain’s family (including his ex-wife) and friends (including musician Josh Homme) are willing to go there with him. As someone who spent most of the last half of his life being filmed, Bourdain is a constant visual and auditory presence in Roadrunner, much of the time in unguarded moments. He’s as vibrant and peripatetic in this archival footage as he is in his shows, but there’s an added edge, the sort of vibe you get from someone who can’t slow down because he knows what might catch up to him. This fitting tribute doesn’t shy away from exploring what happens when it does. (Opens on Friday, July 16 at Cinema 21, Living Room Theaters, the Kiggins Theatre, the Laurelhurst Theater, and other area theaters)

***

IT GOES LARGELY without saying that Isabelle Huppert is one of, if not the, best film actors working today. At 68, she shows no signs of slowing down, and continues to choose challenging, complex roles for auteurs such as Paul Verhoeven, Michael Haneke, and Hong Sang-soo. Her role in Mama Weed doesn’t rank with that work, and the film itself verges on the problematic, but it’s still an engaging, darkly comic yarn.

Isabelle Huppert in “Mama Weed”

Patience (Huppert) works as a translator for a squad of Parisian vice cops, which mostly involves transcribing the wiretapped Arabic conversations among a group of hash smugglers and dealers. She’s also dealing with her aging mother, who lives in a memory care facility, and having a quasi-romantic relationship with her boss (Hippolyte Girardot). When she learns that her mother’s favorite nurse (and her son) are involved with the smuggling ring, she intervenes and (predictably) comes into possession of several hundred kilograms of fine Moroccan product.

Disenchanted with both the politics and the pay of her day job, Patience starts a profitable side hustle as “Mama Weed,” dolling herself up in Moroccan garb and large sunglasses and using her linguistic skills to their fullest. The tone veers between sly subversion and legit suspense as Patience’s gambit draws the unwanted attention of both cops and crooks. Eventually, this conceit—a white woman disguising herself as a light-skinned Arabic woman in order to participate in a drug trade that, in France as in America, disproportionately punishes people of color—starts to seem a bit less funny, especially since the film never addresses even humorously, the double standard that Patience exploits.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it certainly feels like an American film that centered the experience of a white lady who decides to get into the drug-dealing business by posing as a Black woman would draw some condemnation. Granted, it’s not exactly the same situation, but it’s close enough to give pause. To the extent that one can overlook this troublesome wrinkle, Mama Weed is a clever, well-acted crime flick, and Huppert certainly doesn’t disappoint. (Opens on Friday, July 16 at Living Room Theaters)

About the author

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 former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position 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, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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