MYS Oregon to Iberia

FilmWatch Weekly: Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla,’ ‘The Persian Version,’ and the Portland Queer Documentary Festival

Plus: Annette Bening and Jodie Foster in "Nyad," Jessie Buckley and Jeremy Allen White in "Fingernails," and William Friedkin's posthumous final film, "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial."

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Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in Priscilla
Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in “Priscilla”

Two of the week’s most interesting new films center on women trying to establish their own identities despite the oppressive environments in which they find themselves. One’s confinement is a gilded cage, the other’s an arid, hidebound patriarchy, yet they each eventually muster the courage to tell their own stories.

Priscilla serves as a counterpoint not only to last year’s Elvis, but also to the pop-cultural double standard that refuses to acknowledge the collateral damage of celebrity idolatry. The heretofore unheralded Cailee Spaeny delivers a star-making performance as Priscilla Beaulieu, the 14-year-old Army brat who’s selected to meet Elvis Presley and eventually becomes his wife. (This is all decades before she would co-star with Leslie Nielsen and O.J. Simpson in the Naked Gun movies. It’s a strange world we live in.)

After their initial connection in Germany, while Elvis was stationed there during his stint with the U.S. Army, a tentative courtship ensues. Elvis is played by Jacob Elordi, who’s known best for playing the reprehensible Nate Jacobs on Euphoria, and he makes for an Elvis who’s come to believe his own press but still possesses a modicum of humility and humanity. (This is going to be a fine year for Elordi, who’s also a standout in the forthcoming Saltburn.) Elvis resists going too far sexually with Priscilla while she’s a minor, but whether that stems from his own decency or his desire to safeguard his image is hard to tell.

The general narrative is familiar, although it’s still shocking that Priscilla’s parents agree to let her move to Memphis to be near Elvis, with his grandmother the closest thing to in loco parentis. She becomes a sidekick of sorts at the gatherings of the Memphis Mafia, and Coppola spends a bit too much time depicting their usually wholesome (if you ignore the pills) recreational activities. Now they go bowling. Now they drive bumper cars. Why, they’re just like us! (If you ignore the pills.)

Clearly, Coppola didn’t make Priscilla as an exposé or a revisionist take on the Elvis mythos. It’s, instead, a natural extension of her career-long interest in the isolation people (mostly women) experience even in the most cossetted environments. Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, Somewhere, and Marie Antoinette are just the most explicit of her investigations into the ways material comfort and personal connection can have an inverse relationship. In that sense, her latest film doesn’t break any new ground, but it remains well worth seeing, if only to marvel at Spaeny’s ability to believably embody a shy teenager and the tempered, self-possessed woman she emerged as fifteen years later. (Opens Friday, Nov. 3 at Cinema 21, Living Room Theaters, and other area theaters.)

Priscilla Presley had to deal with suffocating isolation, a philandering husband, and an inability to establish her own identity, but at least she got to do so at Graceland. The woman at the core of Maryam Keshavarz’s The Persian Version had those same problems in rural 1970s Iran. That woman turns out not to be the film’s ostensible main character, Laila (Layla Mohammadi), a lesbian Iranian-American writer in present-day Jersey City. She’s thoroughly Westernized, her family having ceased its trips back to Iran following the Islamic revolution. (Not right away though, as Laila recalls smuggling Cyndi Lauper tapes into the country by hiding them in her underwear as a child.)

Laila has the toughness you only get from being the only daughter among eight children, and she doesn’t take her mother Shireen’s (Niousha Noor) disdain for her sexual preference lying down. Their nearly estranged relationship is the real subject of The Persian Version. When Laila’s father (Bijan Daneshmand) enters the hospital for a heart transplant, Laila is sent to keep an eye on her grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), leading to an extended flashback in which Mamanjoon and Shireen relate hidden family history to Laila.

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The tone shift from a snarky, funny story about what it means to be a 21st-century Iranian-American lesbian to a fraught, troubling story about the circumstances of life in 1970s Iran takes a bit to register. But the appealing, convincing performances of the large (remember all those brothers?) cast make it work, and Keshavarz handles all the changes in mood, time, and place adroitly. This film, her third feature, clearly has autobiographical roots, and the story’s meaning to her personally comes through loud and clear. (Opens Friday, Nov. 3, at Regal Fox Tower, Salem Cinema and other area theaters.)

ALSO THIS WEEK

The Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival celebrates its fifteenth year as a source for true stories that celebrate diversity and commemorate the history of the LGBTQ+ community. This year’s programming includes the world premiere of The Letter League, about the pen pal network that was founded by queer artist Heather Spooner during the COVID-19 lockdown. Other highlights include portraits of a transmasculine journalist covering the Taliban in Afghanistan (Transition); lesbian author and poet Jewelle Gomez (Jewelle: A Just Vision); gay photographer George Platt Lynes (Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes); and iconic poet and activist Nikki Giovanni (Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project). The latter is as impressionistic and feisty as its now 80-year-old subject, and includes several riveting scenes from a televised conversation between Giovanni and James Baldwin in the 1970s.

The most fascinating offering, however, is 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted Culture. It chronicles the efforts of scholars and activists to publicize the fact that the Christian Bible did not contain the word “homosexual” until the Standard Revised Edition was published in 1946. Further, its inclusion then was very likely a mistranslation of a Greek word that more properly means “pedophile” or “sexual pervert.” The consequences of this (perhaps innocent) mistake have mushroomed into the sorts of blanket condemnation of loving same-sex relationships that issue with regularity from pulpits nationwide. Huge if true, and the film boasts an impressive array of ancient language experts who back up its theory. Leaving apart the absurdity of placing so much importance on what a two-thousand-year-old book that has been translated and modified innumerable times over the centuries has to say, it’s a fascinating hermeneutical puzzle. (Friday through Sunday, Hollywood Theatre)

STREAMING HIGHLIGHTS

Nyad: Annette Bening and Jodie Foster each give enthusiastic, weathered performances as the fabled swimmer, who attempted to swim from Cuba to Key West at the age of 60, and her best friend and trainer. But this is very clearly a movie based on its subject’s self-admiring memoir, one that ignores the significant pushback from the endurance-swimming community that has tarred Diana Nyad as something between a corner-cutter and an outright liar. It’s surprising that these accusations aren’t at least addressed in the film, considering that directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi made their names with documentaries about athletes who surpassed what was thought possible, including the Oscar-winning Free Solo. (Netflix)

Fingernails: It seems like one can’t go more than a week or two without bumping into another speculative look at the potential impact of technology on human love and/or sex. Here the premise is that a test has been devised which can determine whether two people are genuinely in love—all it takes is a fingernail from each. Of course, the vast majority of tests come back negative, but Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White, who I’d like to see with a different haircut one of these days) were among the fortunate. A few years later, though, things are starting to feel a bit stale for Anna, especially after she takes a job at the testing company and meets her supervisor, Amir (Riz Ahmed). Turns out, perhaps, that matters of the heart are not so easily boiled down into ones and zeroes. Who would have thought… (Apple TV+)

The Caine Mutiny Court Martial: Director William Friedkin’s final film is a bare-bones staging of the Herman Wouk play that formed the basis for 1954’s The Caine Mutiny, in which Humphrey Bogart played the sniveling, authoritarian captain of the titular Naval craft. Here, it’s Kiefer Sutherland as the strawberry-obsessed Queeg, Jake Lacy as the officer who relieved him of command during a powerful storm at sea, and Jason Clarke as the defense attorney trying to save his client from a conviction for mutiny. The incomparable Lance Reddick, who, like Friedkin, died before the film’s release, is perfect as the court martial judge. Lots of standing and pontificating, and definitely not for folks who hate courtroom dramas, but the text remains a fertile source of tension. (Paramount Plus)

Quiz Lady: The pairing of Sandra Oh and Awkwafina as sisters promises a better movie than we end up with, but this goofy comedy still produces its share of laughs. Oh is Jenny, the messy, extroverted, older sister; Awkwafina is Anne, the nerdy one who’s been obsessed with the long-running “Can’t Stop the Quiz” hosted by Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell, who can do this sort of blowhard in his sleep). When their mother runs off to Macao owing $80,000 in gambling debts, the sisters band together to get the camera-shy Anne onto the show, where she must defeat its pompous long-time champion (Jason Schwartzmann, also ideally cast). If she fails, she may never see her beloved pug Mister Linguini again. No surprises here, just a group of naturally funny folk going through their naturally funny paces. (Hulu)

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ALSO SCREENING

FRIDAY

  • Demonic Toys [1992] (Cinemagic, on VHS)
  • In the Court of the Crimson King celebrates 50 years of prog-rock legends King Crimson (Kiggins, through Sunday)
  • The Lost Weekend [1945] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Scarlet Street [1945] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Celebrate the 5th of November with V for Vendetta [2005] (Kiggins, through Monday)

SATURDAY

  • Graham Greene stars in the eco-thriller Clearcut [1991] (Clinton St.)
  • Goodfellas [1990] (Cinema 21)

SUNDAY

  • Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty [2013] (Living Room Theaters)

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MONDAY

  • Earthlings, the new feature from Portland director Steven Doughton. (Cinema 21)
  • William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet [1996] (Hollywood)

TUESDAY

  • B-Movie Bingo with Programmed to Kill [1987] (Hollywood)

WEDNESDAY

  • The Korean supernatural thriller Io Island [1977], presented by Church of Film (Clinton St.)
  • This Is Your Brain on 16mm is the latest batch of unearthed analog weirdness from Astral Projections (Hollywood)

THURSDAY

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  • Dario Argento’s Opera [1987] in a new restoration (Hollywood)

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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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