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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Shayda,’ ‘They Shot the Piano Player,’ and ‘Ennio’ vs. Godzilla and Kong

Plus: "Asphalt City," "Lousy Carter," and the latest Liam Neeson revenge fantasy "In the Land of Saints and Sinners."

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Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Selina Zahednia in “Shayda”

While Godzilla and King Kong stomp and roar through most of America’s multiplexes this weekend, here’s hoping a few human-scale films can manage to avoid being crushed underfoot. An affecting drama from Australia, a flawed animation from Spain, and a portrait of cinema’s greatest composer flesh out this week’s offerings. Hopefully they’ll fare better than Bambi.

Shayda: The title character of director Noora Niasari’s debut feature is an Iranian woman living in Australia in the 1990s. As the film opens, she’s just left her abusive husband Hossein and, with their six-year-old daughter Mona, moved into a shelter. Before they can start to rebuild their lives, however, a court awards Hossein (Osamah Sami) limited, unsupervised visitation with Mona. Despite this anxiety-inducing development, and the cultural inertia from her mother and others, Shayda perseveres.

As Nowruz (Persian New Year) approaches, Shayda strives to inculcate Mona in its traditions, while dealing with increasingly fraught interactions with Hossein, who’s a real creep. Throughout, she relies on support from the social worker who runs the shelter and the other women, including one from Vietnam and another from the U.K., staying there. Niasari based Shayda on her own (and her mother’s) experience, and her overwhelming love and appreciation for maternal heroism is evident.

There’s some rough going, narratively, early on, but once the film settles into its rhythms, it hums along smoothly. Niasari’s greatest asset is the lead performance of Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who was also a standout in 2022’s Holy Spider as a journalist on the trail of an Iranian serial killer. Here, she exudes just as much determination and humanity, in a role that could easily have devolved into a collection of clichés. (It must also be said that young Selina Zahednia is adorable and wise as Mona.) (Living Room Theaters)

They Shot the Piano Player: The Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior was a rising star in the world of samba jazz when he disappeared one night in 1977 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the age of 34. This was during the period of Operation Condor, in which the various repressive autocracies then prevalent in South America would do each other’s dirty work, such as kidnapping, torturing, and murdering jazz musicians. Tenório’s tragic fate, and how he came to be a target of these bastards, as well as his musical legacy, make for a fascinating tale, one that is squandered in this unnecessarily animated, too-cleverly-titled curiosity. The film is told from the point of view of American music journalist Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) as he digs into Tenório’s life while researching a book.

Why director Fernando Trueba, a onetime Oscar winner for Belle Epoque, chose to employ relatively crude, less-than-fluid animation to (presumably) try to capture a bossa nova vibe is beyond me. (Animator Javier Mariscal is credited as co-director.) And why he felt the need for a narrative middleman, one who turns out to be fictional—although you’d never know it from the film—is another mystery. Harris, who, again, doesn’t really exist and was never sent by his New Yorker magazine editor to research a book, interviews a number of Tenório’s friends, lovers, and musical collaborators, many of whose actual voices appear over what seem to be rotoscoped footage of them. Why go to all this trouble when the actual faces of these folks, some legends in the genre, would be so much more expressive? Why not use archival footage to take us into the musical and political landscapes of 1970s South America? Sometimes the best thing a storyteller can do is get out of the way of their story, something Trueba fails at here. (Regal Fox Tower, Salem Cinema, Darkside Cinema in Corvallis, and Eugene Art House)

Ennio: Sure, Bradley Cooper can call his Leonard Bernstein biopic whatever he wants, but any film fan worth their weight in salt can tell you that “Maestro” refers to one man and one man only: Ennio Morricone. Morricone revolutionized—indeed, he could be fairly said to have invented—the art of film scoring, from his iconic work with childhood classmate Sergio Leone to hundreds of other credits. Even at two and a half hours, this comprehensive documentary portrait from filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) is briskly paced as it moves in roughly chronological order through Morricone’s nearly 60-year career.

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Tornatore was fortunate enough to interview the maestro extensively prior to his death in 2020, and Morricone comes across as someone supremely confident in his ability, but always working in service to the film. More than once he recalls threatening to quit when a director wanted to incorporate other composers’ work into his scores. They always relented. He also isn’t afraid to voice his displeasure over losing an Academy Award (for The Mission) to Herbie Hancock (for Bird, which arguably shouldn’t have even been eligible in the Best Original Score category). Other interviewees run the gamut from Dario Argento to Bruce Springsteen, and from Quentin Tarantino to Joan Baez, plus a bevy of Italian composers and fellow travelers. There’s an element of hagiography, but also a welcome focus on the films and music rather than standard biographical stuff.

And what films! This is one of those docs that movie buffs should keep a notepad handy while watching. Beyond the well-known classics (Days of Heaven, the Leone films, The Untouchables), there are clips from many more obscure Italian titles from the 1960s and 70s. Personally, I’m about to go on a kick exploring the work of Liliana Cavani, the boundary-pushing director best known for 1974’s The Night Porter.

But I digress. Ennio is catnip for cinephiles, and as luck would have it, two of his vintage scores will screen theatrically in Portland this week as well. Cinemagic is showing Once Upon a Time in the West on Saturday and Sunday, while the Hollywood Theatre has For a Few Dollars More on 35mm on Wednesday. (Friday through Monday, Hollywood Theatre)

ALSO OPENING

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire: Everyone’s favorite urban renewal experts team up to confront a common foe. Actual human actors occasionally appear as well. (everywhere)

Nostalghia: The great Andrei Tarkovksy’s first film made (in 1983) outside the Soviet Union follows a Russian author as he journeys to Italy to do research on an 18th-century composer. Of course, no plot description can do justice to the dreamlike cascade of unforgettable imagery that illuminate the director’s true intentions. (Cinema 21)

Asphalt City: A young paramedic (Tye Sheridan) is partnered with a grizzled vet (Sean Penn) for a tour of duty on the mean streets of New York, leading to ethical dilemmas and divisions. (Regal Fox Tower, Bridgeport Village)

Lousy Carter: A misanthropic literature professor (David Krumholtz) learns he only has six months to live in this ramshackle dark comedy from director Bob Byington (Infinity Baby). (Broadway Metro, Eugene; also available for streaming purchase)

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In the Land of Saints and Sinners: In 1970s Ireland, a retired killer (Liam Neeson) gets drawn back into violence when a band of terrorists arrives and disturbs his peace. A somber tone and a skilled supporting cast (Ciaran Hinds, Kerry Condon, Colm Meaney) might elevate this above the usual Neeson revenge-fantasy stuff. (various locations)

ALSO OF NOTE

Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World: Documentary about New York City’s beloved Ukrainian restaurant and the challenges it faces when the longtime owner retires and his son takes over. (Thursday, April 4, Cinema 21)

Wild Zero: The Japanese garage rock trio Guitar Wolf star as themselves in this mega-gonzo cult classic. The band must contend with zombies, space aliens, and a manager who thinks that rock and roll is dead. (Sunday and Tuesday, Cinemagic)

REVIVALS

Thursday

  • In the Cut [2003] (Hollywood)
  • Showing Up [2023] (Tomorrow Theater, with sculptor Cynthia Lahti in attendance)
  • Tales from the Hood [1995] (Clinton St., with improvised live score)

Friday

  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992] (Cinemagic, also Thursday April 4)
  • Lady Bird [2017] (Clinton St.)
  • Poison Ivy [1992] (Hollywood)
  • Thelma & Louise [1991] (5th Avenue Cinema, through Sunday)
  • Wild Zero [1999] (Cinemagic, also Tuesday)

Saturday

  • Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn [2020] (Hollywood)
  • Bodies Bodies Bodies [2022] (Clinton St.)
  • Brokeback Mountain [2005] (Cinemagic, also Wednesday)
  • The Gospel of Eureka [2018] (Tomorrow Theater, with filmmaker Q&A)
  • Once Upon a Time in the West [1965] (Cinemagic, also Sunday)
  • Stop Making Sense [1984] (Hollywood)
  • Three on a Match [1932] (Cinema 21)

Sunday

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  • Born in Flames [1993] (Clinton St.)
  • Hero [2002] (Cinemagic, also Monday)
  • Midsommar [2019] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Titus [1999] (Hollywood, on 35mm)

Monday

  • Ratcatcher [1999] (Hollywood)

Tuesday

  • The Last Unicorn [1982] (Clinton St.)
  • Martial Law [1990] (Hollywood)

Wednesday

  • For a Few Dollars More [1966] (Hollywood, on 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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