The main character in the actor Randall Park’s feature directing debut, Shortcomings, will seem familiar to anyone who’s sampled American independent cinema of the last thirty years. Ben (Justin H. Min) is your typical film snob, the night manager at a Berkeley movie theater who abhors slick Hollywood product and spends his spare time swooning over Truffaut and Ozu. He scoffs at the inclusion of characters who are, like him, Asian-American, in glitzy mainstream fare such as the ersatz version of Crazy Rich Asians that opens the film.
Like most such characters in movies, Ben comes equipped with a more mature, more successful girlfriend who’s eternally impatient for him to get his act together. When Miko (Ally Maki) discovers that all the porn on Ben’s laptop features white women, it makes her all the more willing to accept an extended internship in New York City. While she’s gone, Ben spends most of his time with his queer, horny best friend Alice (Sherry Cola, also recently seen in Joy Ride), and their bickering, misanthropic dialogues are among Shortcoming’s highlights.
Not much else happens. Ben briefly dates a co-worker (the onetime tween fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson), then another young woman (Debbie Ryan, onetime star of the Disney Channel’s Jessie). Eventually he ends up in New York, setting the stage for a climactic encounter with Miko. Through it all, Ben remains stubbornly flawed, gratingly cynical, and fairly narcissistic. Still, we recognize him, if not in ourselves, then in folks we know. Min first gained notice as the android au pair in Kogonada’s After Yang, and this all-too-human character gives him a chance to show his range.
Shortcomings is adapted from the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, which captured Park’s attention by telling the stories of ordinary Bay Area Asian-Americans. (Tomine wrote the screenplay, and his work has also been adapted by the French director Jacques Audiard in Paris, 13th District.) Ben’s friction with the ordinary world, his conception of his own aesthetic purity, is as familiar in the world of indie comics as it is indie films. Park’s work on the TV series Fresh Off the Boat and as Jimmy Woo in the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t marked him as someone who shares Ben’s condescension toward broadly pitched entertainment, and some of Ben’s cinematic references only serve to remind you that the direction of Shortcomings isn’t distinctive or personal.
But it accomplishes what it needs to. As a pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half, and as further evidence of the film industry’s increasing openness to telling stories with diverse characters. If only the story itself weren’t so familiar. (Opens Friday, August 4, at the Living Room Theaters in Portland, the Broadway Metro and Valley River Center in Eugene, the TV Highway 16 in Hillsboro, and the Santiam 11 in Salem.)
ALSO OPENING: 3 NEW DOCUMENTARIES
Bobi Wine: The People’s President: It’s not news that American media coverage of events in Africa is barely an afterthought, but it was still surprising to learn about the story of this Ugandan pop star who became an unlikely leader of the political opposition to autocratic President Yoweri Museveni. I’d never heard of Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) before seeing this film, and, you know, I read. After a profitable career producing socially conscious Afrobeat hits, Kyagulanyi won a seat in Uganda’s parliament in 2017. Two years later, he entered the race to oust Museveni, whose party had altered the Constitution to allow him to run for an unprecedented fifth term.
Kyagulanyi, his supporters, and his family face threats, violence, and intimidation from government forces, much of it viscerally captured on cell phones or handheld cameras. Arrested without cause, beaten so badly he needed to seek medical treatment in the U.S., and being forced to send his children into hiding, Kyagulanyi perseveres. Will it be enough against the entrenched power of a head of state willing to do anything to stay one? You can Google the answer, but if you don’t, I’ll just say that these aren’t exactly boon times for the enemies of autocracy. (Opens Friday, August 4, at Regal Fox Tower)
A Compassionate Spy: The latest documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) serves as an interesting bit of Oppenheimer counterprogramming. It tells the story of Theodore Hall, the youngest physicist recruited to join the Manhattan Project team. He was only 18, and just a year later, he passes nuclear secrets to Russia. James’s film explores his reasons for doing so as well as the reasons he was never charged for his actions. (Opens Friday, August 4, at the Kiggins Theater in Vancouver)
Kokomo City: This raw, black-and-white documentary profiles four black transgender sex workers in New York and Atlanta. By giving uncensored voice to individuals so often stereotyped or ignored, first-time director D. Smith crafts a vibrant portrait that shimmers with cinematic vigor and features an outstanding soundtrack. (Opens Friday, August 4, at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend)
The Portland Festival of Cinema, Animation & Technology: The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry hosts this four-day celebration, in its own words, “embracing new and emerging entertainment technology not only in films, but also for the method of the screenings themselves.” With 119 films, including seven features, it’s impossible to summarize. Some expected highlights include Copyright Infringement, a documentary about the artist CJ Hendry and the viral scavenger hunts she creates; the twisty thriller Cognitive, which takes place, Memento-like, in reverse order; and the whimsical, stop-motion-animated Return to Kellogg, which looks to have been inspired by the delightful A Town Called Panic.
The festival’s vibe can be inferred from the awards it will bestow, which include “Best Object Animation in a Short Film,” “Best Use of Unreal Engine,” and “Outstanding Sci-Fi World Building.” Things kick off with a panel discussion on Thursday afternoon about independent animation which includes, among others, Portlanders Bill Plympton, Joanna Priestley, and Daniela Repas. Plympton will also present a retrospective of his work and a glimpse at his latest project on Friday. Things then wrap up with an awards ceremony on Sunday night. For a full schedule and details, visit https://pdxfestofcinema.com/.
Films to Make You Feel Some Type of Way: This screening series returns for a second round with a quartet of selections embodying the theme of Metropolitan Malaise, each set in a different East Asian city. 2017’s Ilo Ilo, screening on Sunday, August 6, depicts the relationship between a Filipino woman and the Singaporean family that hires her as a housemaid and nanny, set against the backdrop of the Asian recession in the ’90s. Future Sundays will feature 2018’s Dead Pigs (from China), 2019’s Nina Wu (from Taiwan), and 2020’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (from Japan). All screenings are at the Breathe Building, 2305 SE 50th Ave.
ALSO THIS WEEK:
FRIDAY: Zach Galligan (Gremlins) takes on the fascist televangelist who rules postapocalyptic America in 1989’s Rising Storm (Cinemagic, on VHS); Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme D’Or winning Shoplifters (Clinton).
SATURDAY: Addams Family Values (Champoeg State Heritage Area, at dusk); Eliot Lavine presents The Birds (Cinema 21); Stunning Japanese animation Children of the Sea (Clinton); From Here to Eternity (Hollywood, also Sunday); Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (Hollywood, also Sunday); Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (Clinton)
SUNDAY: The Big Lebowski (Living Room Theaters, FREE matinee); 2017’s animated Fireworks (Clinton); doc Queer Japan looks at LGBTQ+ life in Tokyo and beyond (Clinton)
MONDAY: Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi (Clinton); Lone Wolf and Cub in the Land of Demons (Hollywood, also Tuesday)
TUESDAY: The Portland German Film Festival presents German director Anna Pinske’s quiet drama Talking About the Weather (Clinton)
WEDNESDAY: Church of Film presents Enchanted Forests: Soviet Fantasy Animation (Clinton); Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (Hollywood, also Thursday)
THURSDAY: 2013’s The Congress stars Robin Wright in a story about Hollywood’s use of AI to replace actors [how timely!] (Clinton)