MYS Oregon to Iberia

FilmWatch Weekly: ‘The People’s Joker,’ ‘Sasquatch Sunset,’ ‘I Like Movies,’ and more

Plus: Guy Ritchie's "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare," Anthony Mann's "The Tin Star" on Blu-ray, and a few 4/20 highlights.

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Vera Drew in “The People’s Joker”

As an intellectual property attorney who moonlights as a film critic (or is it the other way around?), the backstory of The People’s Joker is just as entertaining as Vera Drew’s crowd-funded, semi-autobiographical, DC-Universe-themed film, which (among many other things) depicts Batman as a truly dark knight who has the sort of relationship with at least one Robin that far exceeds the boundaries of “ward.” How did they get away with it, given the litigiousness with which media conglomerates protect their branded content?

A few decades ago, the United States Supreme Court attempted to legally define parody. The case concerned a lewd remake of Roy Orbison’s classic “Oh! Pretty Woman” by the proudly vulgar rappers 2 Live Crew. (You may recall their biggest hit, “Me So Horny,” and if so, I apologize.) The owners of the copyright to the Orbison tune refused to license it for that purpose, and then sued Luther Campbell, 2 Live Crew’s mastermind, for copyright infringement.

Ultimately, the Court held that because a parody, by definition, is ridiculing, or at least commenting upon, a specific other work, it should be given wide latitude in using that other work to make its point. Ever since, artists and activists have been exploring the boundaries of that latitude. The independent film Escape from Tomorrow, shot guerilla-style inside Disney World; the stage show Who’s Holiday, which depicts the Seussian tot Cindy Lou Who as a bitter, middle-aged alcoholic; and the pop-culture-jamming artwork of Ron English are some others who avoided the wrath of copyright owners, and The People’s Joker only belatedly escaped that fate.

Following its premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Warner Bros. expressed its displeasure, and other festival screenings were scrapped. That was the beginning of a long road that has led to the film, protected by “fair use doctrine,” finally getting an official theatrical release.

So, how is it? The People’s Joker is very much a rapid-fire hodgepodge of styles, from animation to crude CGI to near-ubiquitous greenscreen. But this crazy quilt effect emanates the “it takes a village” ethos that enabled the movie to exist at all. Drew (and co-writer Bri LaRose) use the villanization of misfits and nonconformists in Gotham City as a metaphor for the trans experience.

In a dystopian future where comedy has been outlawed, The Joker (Drew) is an aspiring standup whose face has been frozen in a permagrin by the use of the forcibly prescribed drug Smylex. Cast out from the one government-sanctioned source of humor (run, of course, by Lorne Michaels), Joker opens her own comedy club along with fellow outcast Penguin (a very amusing Nathan Faustyn), attracting a rogue’s gallery of Batman villains and eventually attracting the attention of the fascist hero figure and creepy groomer himself.

Made on a wing and a prayer, The People’s Joker is more than just a takedown of superhero excess. It uses these corporate mythologies to question whether there can remain a place for the weirdos and culture cannibals to craft their own masterpieces. As long as unique cinema like this continues to find an audience, the answer to that question can’t yet be a definite no. (Opens Apr. 19, Hollywood Theatre)

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And yet, that’s not the strangest movie to open this week. If you’re not familiar with the work of the Zellner brothers (director David and producer Nathan), don’t feel too ignorant. They started out making some truly bizarre short films about twenty years ago, and their first features could be almost aggressive in their refusal to satisfy audience expectations. (One IMDb user called their 2008 film Goliath the “worst excuse for a movie ever,” while another praised it as “wonderfully strange and sublime.”

Over the years, they’ve been able to attract more well-known actors (including Robert Pattison in 2018’s Damsel), and their effort have slowly reached a relatively wider audience. Fortunately, despite featuring Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough as the leads in their latest, Sasquatch Sunset, the Zellners’ aptitude for divisively coloring outside the lines does not seem to have ebbed one iota.

Of course, without being told, you’d never know those two were in the film since they and the other two actors (Nathan Zellner and Christophe Zajac-Denek) spend the entire time encased in full-body Bigfoot getups. (Despite this fact, the movie is officially rated R for sexual content and full nudity. That’s how good the makeup is.) Sasquatch Sunset follows this family of four nonverbal cryptids over the course of one eventful year. There’s no dialogue, only a proto-language of expressive grunts and shouts. There’s no real plot, just an Attenboroughian examination of the creatures’ primary activities, which consist of eating, copulating, and defecating. I guess there’s some sleep in there too.

These pastimes are depicted explicitly, and at times perhaps excessively, as when the clan comes upon a manmade asphalt road running through their redwood habitat. Confronted with this foreign and frightening novelty, they do what any terrified animal would: they piss and shit all over it. If that makes Sasquatch Sunset sound like a juvenile gross-out experience, fair enough—there’s definitely a hint of threshold-hunting happening. But there’s also a subliminal reminder that we, like these other bipeds, are a part of nature, and that their urges and reflexes are, at their core, the same ones that humans obey in our own (generally much more sublimated) ways. (Opens Apr. 19 at Regal Fox Tower, Living Room Theaters, Cinema 21, and a surprising number of chain theaters.)

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: For craving anything but an original effort at the movies, the latest blandly nihilistic action flick from director Guy Ritchie is here to save the day. Claiming to be based on secret files kept by Winston Churchill during World War II, it essentially tells the story of Operation Postmaster, a British commando mission undertaken in early 1942 in the (officially neutral) territory of a Spanish-held island off the coast of West Africa.

I say “essentially” because the result is cartoonish mess that proves far less entertaining than a straightforward depiction (or even a documentary) about the operation would have been. Henry Cavill dons another in his endless series of facial-hair regimes to play Major Gus March-Phillipps, Ian Fleming’s ostensible inspiration for James Bond. (Fleming was in British intelligence and participated in the planning of the mission.) March-Phillipps and his handpicked crew (including muscular Reacher star Alan Ritchson), operating without clearance from official military channels, sail down the African coast and dispatch hundreds of German sailors with disconcerting ease. Similarly, Ritchie sleepwalks through a series of boringly staged action scenes and uses one character’s Jewishness as a cheap plot point.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with movies that have fun while killing Nazis. But to these admittedly jaded eyes, MOUGW ends up celebrating what are essentially war crimes committed by its laddish heroes. Sure, Hitler fights dirty, so the Allies need to as well. But that doesn’t mean callously shooting wounded (probably drafted) sailors who pose no further threat. If these incompetent fascist forces presented any danger, that would be one thing, but they, like everyone else involved in this simplistic exercise in desensitization, hardly even seem to be trying. (Opens Apr. 19, wide)

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I Like Movies: Neither the first (nor, certainly, the last) independent comedy to look back on the halcyon days of the Video Store Era, this amiable underdog effort from Canadian director Chandler Levack centers on socially inept movie nerd Lawrence Kweller (Isaiah Lehtinen), a high school senior who dreams of escaping his Ontario hometown to attend NYU film school. In a quixotic effort to save for his tuition, he gets a job at the local video store, Sequels. (Based on the titles on the shelves, it appears to be around 2002.)

Lawrence is a thoroughly unlikable person, cruel to his single mother, his best friend, and the cute Sequels manager who, against all logic, take a bit of a shine to him. Then again, who among us has not been frustrated by the inability of others to understand the brilliance of Punch-Drunk Love. Cinephiles will get their share of inside chuckles, and Levack’s screenplay ends up going deeper than expected, but to be honest I liked this more when James Westby made it as Film Geek. (Opens Apr. 19, Kiggins Theatre)

DISC OF THE WEEK

The Tin Star: Director Anthony Mann had one of the more interesting career arcs among his Golden Age peers. After mastering the film noir genre (Raw Deal, T-Men) in the 1940s, he moved on to a run of classic Westerns (Bend of the River, The Man from Laramie) in the ’50s, before setting the standard for historical epics (El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire) in the ’60s. That middle period is his more fertile, and 1957’s The Tin Star is an underrated gem from it. Newly released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video, it stars Henry Fonda in one of his cast-against-type roles as a cynical ex-sheriff now working as a bounty hunter. Delivering his latest victim to a small-town sheriff expertly embodied by Anthony Perkins, he realizes that the newbie lawman is in over his head and ends up becoming his mentor. Trivia note: Betsy Palmer, who plays Perkins’ girl, was also Mrs. Vorhees, the killer in the first Friday the 13th movie. The disc includes an informative audio commentary from one film historian that provides background information on all the major players and the film’s production, an in-depth interview with another that expands on that, and a frankly overlong interview with composer Elmer Bernstein’s son about his father’s overall career. ($40 MSRP)

ALSO THIS WEEK

Abigail: A band of kidnappers get more than they bargained for when their adorable captive turns out to be a bloodthirsty vampire. (Opens Apr. 19, wide)

Deep Sky: This 40-minute IMAX experience features awe-inspiring images captured by the Webb Space Telescope, telling a story that goes back 13 billion years. Narrated by Michelle Williams. (Opens Apr. 19, Lloyd Cinemas, Bridgeport Village, Cascade)

Remembering Gene Wilder: An affectionate but largely superficial remembrance of the actor whose classic roles for Mel Brooks included The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. (Opens Apr. 19, Kiggins Theatre)

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4/20 Programming: As usual, the arrival of April 20 brings a selection of film programming designed to take advantage of the licit nature of cannabis consumption these days. The 16mm collective Astral Projections is presenting the sequel to last years 4/20 Toketacular, appropriately subtitled Electric Bongaloo, at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday afternoon. Expect more weed-friendly selections from the Dennis Nyback archive and other sources. That evening, the Hollywood hosts a sure-to-be-stanky screening of The Big Lebowski in 35mm, preceded by a performance from The Bavannaires featuring Dude-friendly cuts. Meanwhile, PAM CUT’s Tomorrow Theater hosts a double feature of iconic 1980s After-School Specials, Stoned (starring Scott Baio!) and The Day My Kid Went Punk (starring Love Boat’s Bernie Kopell!), accompanied by a live score from Portland’s improv orchestra Party Killer.

Westermann: Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea: Ed Harris narrates this documentary about the artist G.H. Westermann, whose exquisitely crafted wooden sculptures were influenced by his experience serving in the U.S. Marines during World War II and the Korean War. (Friday, Apr. 19, Tomorrow Theater)

The Art of Burning Man: An encore presentation of Portland animator Joanna Priestley’s live show celebrating the unbounded creativity of Burning Man, along with two of her animated shorts and a post-program Q&A. (Saturday, Empirical Theater at OMSI)

REVIVALS

Friday 4/19

  • The Apartment [1960] (Academy Theater, through Thursday)
  • Best in Show [2000] (Academy Theater, through Thursday)
  • Blazing Saddles [1974] (Salem Cinema, also Saturday, Wednesday, Thursday)
  • A Crack in the Mountain [2022] (Hollywood, EcoFilm Festival)
  • Funny Girl [1968] (Eugene Art House, through Thursday)
  • Short Term 12 [2013] (5th Avenue Cinema, through Sunday)

Saturday 4/20

  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog [1927] (Hollywood, with live pipe organ score)
  • Something Wild [1986] (Cinema 21)

Sunday 4/21

  • The Fog [1980] (Hollywood)
  • Indigenous Voices: New Salmon Movies (Hollywood, EcoFilm Festival)
  • Princess Mononoke [1997] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Problemista [2024] (Tomorrow Theater, with a crash course in toy design)
  • The Sky Crawlers [2008] (Hollywood)

Monday 4/22

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  • My Best Friend’s Wedding [1997] (Hollywood)

Tuesday 4/23

  • A Goofy Movie [1995] (Clinton St. Theater)
  • Vigilante [1983] (Hollywood, in 35mm)

Wednesday 4/24

  • Lamps of the Underworld: Armenian Animation (Clinton St. Theater, Church of Film)

Thursday 4/25

  • Back to the Future Part II [1989] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • The Kid [1921] (Kiggins, with live score)
  • Son of the White Mare [1981] (Clinton St. Theater, with live score)

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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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