Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

FilmWatch Weekly: ‘The Teacher’s Lounge,’ plus Paleolithic horror, Greek beach parties, Bhutanese democracy, Coffin Joe and more

Also screening this week: "Lisa Frankenstein," "The Sweet East," and the latest 3D documentary from Wim Wenders.

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Leonie Benesch in “The Teachers’ Lounge”

Movies about teachers generally come in one of two varieties. You’ve got your inspirational instructors, as lauded in Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, and others. And then you’ve got your tales about the systemic dysfunction of educational institutions that drive even the most idealistic educators to the brink of despair. They’re not as common, nor generally as crowd-pleasing, but they include 1984’s Teachers, 2020’s Bad Education, and the 2003 German film The Forest for the Trees.

In a similar vein, the current Oscar nominee The Teachers’ Lounge, also from Germany, centers on a well-meaning 7th-grade teacher who tries to do the right thing but ends up as the center of an ugly controversy. Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is new at her school, and, one senses, to the profession in general. She begins each class with an upbeat call to attention that, her students rightly note, would be more appropriate in an elementary school. A pattern of repeated petty thefts has been plaguing the place, and the administration starts taking a hard-line approach, pressuring the student faculty advisors to name names and basically forcing the kids to offer up their wallets for a search.

After a boy named Ali (Can Rodenbostel) becomes a suspect, his parents, once summoned to the school, reveal that the extra cash in his wallet was for the purchase of a video game. This gives rise to charges of racism against the school, and bolsters Carla’s impulse to stand up for her students against these draconian tactics. She notices that the kids aren’t the only ones prone to snagging unattended valuables, and sets up a sting operation in the teachers’ lounge by leaving her own wallet unattended in front of her open laptop with its camera on. What she learns sets off a chain of events that threatens her relationship with a gifted student, pisses off her students’ parents, and might end up costing her her job.

The trope of a naïve young member of a calcified institution going up against the old-timers plays out in a wide variety of genres, so the general vibe of The Teachers’ Lounge isn’t anything new. But it’s an expertly executed piece of paranoia, from the claustrophobic 4:3 framing to the realism of its setting and performances to the way the smallest decisions have a way of subtly snowballing into life-altering mistakes. Writer-director İlker Çatak, inspired in part by his own experience as a student, doesn’t offer any easy answers. There are no real bad guys here, only the human messiness that rears its head when people do the wrong things for the right reasons. (Regal Fox Tower, Salem Cinema, and other locations)

ALSO OPENING THIS WEEK

Out of Darkness: 45,000 years ago, a small band of Stone Age settlers makes its way across a narrow sea in search of new territory. There are six of them, but not for long. On their first night in this new land, Heron, the young son of the group’s leader Adem, is snatched away by something from the darkness around their campfire. Tracking this unknown threat and learning its true nature form the backbone of this “Paleolithic horror” film that’s both gripping and apparently well-researched. The other characters are Adem’s very pregnant mate, Ave; his younger brother Geirr; an older, vaguely shamanistic type named Odal; and the adolescent girl Beyah, who emerges as the main character. The film’s press notes describe how director Andrew Cumming, making his first feature, relied on numerous experts to guide the depiction of Stone Age life, costuming, weaponry, and even a fictional language. I’m no archaeologist, but it certainly seems more authentic than, say, The Clan of the Cave Bear. (How it compares to Quest for Fire is hard to say.) This is no lazy high-concept B-movie, either—cinematographer Ben Fordesman takes the title seriously and isn’t afraid to wallow in the inky darkness that defines the characters’ world, and screenwriter Ruth Greenberg is adept at sharply defining characters without much context, and has concocted a surprising third-act twist. (Be sure to see it in a theater with good sound if you can; the audio should be much more impressive than it was on my computer speakers.) (Regal Fox Tower and other locations)

How to Have Sex: Despite its attention-seeking title, this is not a documentary. Rather, it’s a hedonistic cautionary tale in the vein of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, without the manic insanity of James Franco’s Alien or the ironic sense of excess, but with a more relatable set of protagonists. Three 16-year-old girls from the north of England—Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis)—arrive in the Cretan resort city of Malia, an Ibiza-esque fantasyland of 24-hour parties and endless oiled bodies. They’re looking to spend one wild getaway together before receiving their test scores and either heading off to college or not. Tara is also looking to lose her virginity, with the full support her mates, and, what do you know, the hotel balcony next to theirs is populated by buff dudes with names like Paddy and Badger. Writer-director Molly Manning Walker, who served as DP on last year’s underseen British gem Scrapper, captures the sensory overload and washed-out neons of a bikinied bacchanal in a way that makes you wish you regretted being part of it. The universally fit performers emanate naturalistic ease, despite most of them being in their 20s, and McKenna-Bruce, whose character’s coming-of-age this is, convincingly moves from hesitant sexual bravado to wounded confusion as required. Still, the morals of this story, including the power of female friendship, are a bit trite, verging dangerously close to “I guess you could say that was the summer everything changed” territory. (Living Room Theaters)

The Monk and the Gun: Now we move from the sybaritic coast of Crete to the serene plateaus of Bhutan. In 2006, when this film is set, the king of this Himalayan nation abdicated and declared that its new leaders should be elected democratically. Since television and internet access in the country had only been allowed in 1999, this rapid modernization does not go over completely smoothly. A van of election workers travels around attempting to educate rural residents and convince them to participate in a mock election coming up in a few days. A local lama, upon hearing the news, sends an acolyte on a mysterious mission to retrieve a gun, which brings him into contact with an American gun collector on a similar quest. Meanwhile, an ordinary family deals with the messiness of democracy, as followers of various candidates find their personal relationships strained by political differences. (Sound familiar?) Writer-producer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was Oscar-nominated in 2019, has made a beautifully photographed quasi-fable that, in his own words, “demonstrates the difference between innocence and ignorance,” and should be a crowd-pleaser for adventurous audiences. (Regal Fox Tower)

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Lisa Frankenstein: Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s latest feminist genre twist is about a teenaged girl who falls for a reanimated 200-year-old corpse. (It’s okay, she loved him when he was dead too.) Looks like it has an amusing 1980s vibe, and should make an offbeat V-Day date night, but wasn’t screened for critics. (various locations)

Anselm: Wim Wenders is, among other things, the master of the 3D documentary. (Sorry, Werner Herzog!) Following his breakthrough in this area with 2011’s Pina, Wenders returns with another immersive portrait of an unconventional artist, the German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer’s work, much of it centered on and transforming his 200-acre French estate, has been known to unflinchingly (too much so, to some) examine German’s historical crimes. Full disclosure: I had an opportunity to watch this in 2D on a screen at home, but passed it up to check it out the way it was meant to be seen. I strongly suspect you should do the same. (Cinema 21)

The Sweet East:  Ayo Edebiri (The Bear) and Jacob Elordi (Saltburn) co-star in this surreal-looking road-trip story in which a high-school senior (Talia Ryder) gets separated from her class during a school trip and gets a freaky tour of outsider America. Was not screened for critics. (Regal Fox Tower)

STREAMING PICK

The End We Start From: Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) stars in this effective climate-change thriller about a woman who gives birth just as catastrophic floods inundate London. She and her husband (Joel Fry, Our Flag Means Death) flee with their newborn to his parent’s well-equipped estate, but their luck doesn’t last long, and our unnamed maternal heroine ends up having to fend for herself and the child as society crumbles around them. Comer gives a powerful performance, and the depiction of climate refugees in a first-world nation rings uneasily true. After a perfunctory theatrical release last month, director Mahalia Belo’s first feature is now streaming on Paramount+.

BLU-RAY PICK

Inside the Mind of Coffin Joe: For some, Coffin Joe needs no introduction. For normal people, however, the output of the Brazilian director José Mojica Marins is one of the storied peaks of outsider cinema. Adopting the persona of Zé do Caixão aka Coffin Joe, a flamboyant undertaker who sports a top hat and a set of fingernails that would make Wolverine jealous, Marins debuted the character in 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, Brazil’s first horror movie. Coffin Joe is a bully, a sadist, and a lech who’s obsessed with passing on his blood to a worthy offspring. The film was a huge success so, despite Coffin Joe’s death at the end, he was resurrected for a sequel, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, featuring more of the same eugenicist plotting, but in color. From there, Marins spun an idiosyncratic career that included a pair of films in which he played a messianic stranger and a career-capping bit of sadism that fully indulges his Nietzschean obsessions. This comprehensive Blu-Ray set from Arrow Video includes 10 features spread over 6 discs, each with a liberal complement of supplemental material and a (subtitled, Portuguese-language) commentary track from Marins, who died in 2020. Was he a lunatic who somehow found a (relatively) healthy outlet for his mania, or a savvy showman who leaned into his public image and rode it for 40 years? Despite all the context provided here, your guess is as good as mine. But it’s fascinating to wade through.

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

REVIVALS

  • Dune [2021] (multiple locations)
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010](Academy)
  • Valley Girl [1982] (Academy)

THURSDAY

  • Clearcut [1992] (Hollywood)
  • Star Wars: A New Hope [1977] (Cinemagic, also Saturday & Monday)
  • Top of the Heap [1972] (Clinton)

FRIDAY

  • Electric Dreams [1984] (Hollywood)
  • The Empire Strikes Back [1980] (Cinemagic, also Tuesday)
  • The Fits [2015] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Spaceballs [1987] (Cinemagic, also Sunday)
  • Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory [1971] (Kiggins, through Sunday)

SATURDAY

  • The 39 Steps [1935] (Cinema 21)
  • Foxy Brown [1974] (Hollywood, with Pam Grier in attendance!)
  • Memphis [2013]
  • Return of the Jedi [1983] (Cinemagic, also Sunday & Wednesday)
  • Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song [1971] (Clinton)

SUNDAY

  • Ghost World [2001] (Clinton)
  • Mambar Pierrette [2023] (Tomorrow Theater, part of the Cascade Festival of African Films)
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [2016] (Cinemagic, also Thursday)
  • Sundance Shorts: A selection of seven titles from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival (Hollywood)
  • Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust [2000] (Hollywood)

MONDAY

  • Even Hell Has Its Heroes: A documentary about Earth, the slowest metal band on the planet [2023] (Hollywood)
  • Sorry, Wrong Number [1948] (Kiggins)

TUESDAY

  • Black Belt Jones [1974] (Hollywood, in 35mm)
  • Fat Tuesday Les Blank tribute: Dry Wood [1973] and Always for Pleasure [1978]

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

WEDNESDAY

  • Amelie [2001] (Cinema 21, Salem Cinema)
  • Designs for Living: A “disrespectful, disapproving collection of films depicting capitalist designs and their ignominious flops” (Church of Film at Clinton)
  • True Romance [1993] (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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