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FilmWatch Weekly: Viggo Mortensen in ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt,’ Robert De Niro in ‘Ezra,’ and more

Plus: Don Hertzfeldt's "Me," "In a Violent Nature," and the 2024 Portland Horror Film Festival.

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Vicky Krieps in “The Dead Don’t Hurt”

Following the massive disappointment that was the Memorial Day box office (can you believe we live in a timeline where Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga just barely edged out The Garfield Movie for the top spot?), the major studios seem to be largely taking this weekend off. Naturally, this clears the field for a few interesting indies, including a pair of works from actors-turned-directors that, while imperfect, are worthy of note.

The more experienced of the pair is Tony Goldwyn, who had directed four previous features and a plethora of episodic television prior to Ezra, a surprisingly effective and unsentimental story centering on the relationship between a Hoboken stand-up comic named Max (Bobby Cannavale) and his autistic son Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald).

Ezra’s a brilliant, sweet kid, but his behavioral issues present challenges that Max and his ex-wife Jenna (Rose Byrne) react to in different ways. When enrollment in a special school and a medication regime are proposed, Max, who lives with his equally emotionally stunted father Stan (Robert De Niro), proceeds to freak out. Max’s own anger management issues have derailed his career, but when he books a gig on the Jimmy Kimmel show, Max embarks on a cross-country road trip with Ezra illicitly along for the ride.

What could have been a treacly treatise on father-son bonding and the hidden wisdom of the autistic child benefits greatly from writer Tony Spiridakis’ (drawing on his own experiences) refusal to indulge in stereotypes. Max is a loving dad, but also kind of an ass, stubbornly insisting that he can cure Ezra of his eccentric behaviors through some sort of primitive exposure therapy. Ezra is well-meaning, and aware of how frustrating his outbursts and irrational aversions can be, but also a literal-minded handful, to say the least.

Twelve-year-old Fitzgerald, who is on the spectrum himself and was selected after an exhaustive talent search, impresses mightily. In fact, his performance might be the movie’s best argument that being autistic doesn’t have to be a limitation. Without his presence, Ezra would have fallen completely flat. It’ll be fascinating to see how his acting career proceeds if he chooses to pursue it.

An able supporting cast helps, too. Rainn Wilson is Max’s old buddy who now runs a summer camp in Michigan; Whoopi Goldberg is his agent; Goldwyn plays Jenna’s new husband; and Vera Farmiga shows up as an old flame of Max’s and a something of a deus ex machina. There are some plot holes and logical lapses that are hard to forgive, but by folding the generational trauma between De Niro’s and Cannavale’s characters into the conflict over Max’s relationship with Ezra, the movie has something new and interesting to say, and I’ll admit that its hackneyed finale actually kind of worked. (Opens Friday at Regal Fox Tower, Living Room Theaters, Salem Cinema, and multiple other locations)

Goldwyn’s first outing as a director was 1999’s A Walk on the Moon, which was a pre-Lord of the Rings career highlight for Viggo Mortensen, which is a good enough segue to a discussion of Mortensen’s second feature as witer-director, the Western The Dead Don’t Hurt. He also stars as Olsen, a taciturn Danish immigrant who falls in love with the French-born Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) and travels west to establish a homestead outside the California hamlet of Elk Flats in the years just before the Civil War.

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This backstory is revealed, rather confusingly, following an opening scene in which Vivienne dies from an illness, leaving Olsen to bury her and care for their young son. The mayor (Danny Huston) arrives to inform Olsen, who’s sheriff, that a shooting has left several dead in town. And when an innocent man is convicted of the killings and hanged, Olsen is spurred to a mission of vengeance the origins of which are revealed through layered flashbacks.

Mortensen aims to combine the old-school tropes of the genre with a more contemporary appreciation of the trial and tribulations faced by immigrants, and especially women, in the Old West. Krieps is, always, convincing as a strong-willed and capable woman left behind when her husband goes off to war. Having rejected a wealthy suitor, she gets a job in the local saloon to support herself, which means dealing with the unwelcome attention of the villainous son (Solly McLeod, effectively irredeemable) of a rich local ranch owner (Garret Dillahunt). When Olsen eventually returns, he finds a much different person, and situation, than the one he abandoned.

While skillfully shot, there’s a sheen of modernity to the movie, from its overly eloquent dialogue to its politics to its crisp cinematography, that tends to take you out of the place and time of the story. Regardless, it’s a solid piece of work with an effective score and widescreen visuals that merit the big-screen experience. (Opens Friday at Regal Fox Tower, Kiggins Theatre, Salem Cinema, and other locations)

Don Hertzfeldt, the uncontested master of stick figure-based animation, has a new short film out titled Me. Paired with it is his feature-length masterpiece It’s Such a Beautiful Day, in theaters for the first time since its 2012 release and not otherwise available to stream through ordinary channels. It’s a surreal, experimental triumph about an ordinary guy named Bill who’s dealing with a bizarre mental/emotional syndrome, the increasingly disruptive effects of which send him back to his childhood and the roots of his dysfunction. Herzfeldt’s deceptively simplistic visual style meshes and contrasts with live-action snippets, digital enhancements, and optical tricks to create a truly unique experience, one not to be missed. (Opens Friday, Hollywood Theatre)

The subgenre of “elevated horror” has boomed in recent years, as a cohort of filmmakers raised on scary movies has brought a sophisticated, often subversive slant to stories of murder, mayhem, and monsters. In a Violent Nature, the debut feature from director Chris Nash, attempts an original, if unsuccessful, variation on this theme. Many 1980s slasher movies drew justified criticism for presenting viewers with the “killer’s eye” view of brutal killings, with the camera peering out through the eyeholes of the masks worn by Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers as they slaughtered nubile teens. In a Violent Nature isn’t that literal—rather, it follows a similarly implacable villain as he rises from the grave to wordlessly and methodically dispatch the typical array of campers and forest rangers who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is all (mostly) depicted with a measured pace and distanced affect. I got a Gus Van Sant-remakes-Friday the 13th vibe even before I read Nash name-checking the director in the film’s press notes. It’s a curious experiment, much like Van Sant’s Psycho, worth making, but ultimately unsatisfying, especially when Nash abandons this reserved approach to focus in on the gross sadism of what can only be called his film’s protagonist. (Opens Friday at Regal Fox Tower, Kiggins Theatre, and other locations)

ALSO OPENING:

Summer Camp: If you liked 80 for Brady and Book Club, you’ll love this comedy in which oldsters Kathy Bates, Diane Keaton, and Alfre Woodard attend a reunion of their old summer camp and get up to all sorts of hijinks. Eugene Levy is the eye candy. (Opens Friday in wide release)

Young Woman and the Sea: Daisy Ridley (Sometimes I Think About Dying) stars in this true story about Trudy Ederly, who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the English Channel. I guess Young Woman and the Channel just didn’t have the same pizzazz. (Opens Friday at Regal Fox Tower, Clackamas Town Center, Cedar Hills, and Bridgeport Village)

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ALSO THIS WEEK:

The Cat and the Canary: The 1927 silent suspense classic screens with a new live original score performed by Seattle musician Corey J. Brewer. (Friday, Tomorrow)

Break the Game: After a high-profile Twitch streamer and record-setting speedrunner comes out as a trans woman, parts of the gaming world react with sadly predictable transphobic harassment. Narcissa Wright decides that the only way to restore their place in the subculture is to set a new record, the pursuit of which is chronicled in this documentary. (Tuesday, Clinton St.)

Portland Horror Film Festival: This year’s cavalcade of the macabre, gory, and/or ridiculous runs for five days at two venues, and features the world premieres of the Swedish chiller In the Name of God and Portland director Sean Whiteman’s VHS feature Hiding Henry, the US Premieres of features from Brazil and Kazakhstan, and more shorts than you can shake an amputated limb at. For a full schedule (including streaming titles) and ticketing options, visit www.portlandhorrorfilmfestival.com. (Wednesday through Friday, Hollywood; Saturday & Sunday, Clinton St.)

REVIVALS

Friday

  • Basic Instinct [1993] (Hollywood)
  • The Florida Project [2017] (5th Avenue)
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service [1990] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Mandy [2018] (Cinema 21, also Saturday)
  • Midsommar [2019] (Clinton St.)
  • Serpico [1973] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Slumber Party Massacre II [1987] (Academy, through Thursday)

Saturday

  • Paris Is Burning [1990] (Clinton St.)
  • Pulp Fiction [1994] (Cinema 21)
  • Some Like It Hot [1959] (Hollywood)

Sunday

  • The End of Evangelion [1997] (Tomorrow)
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service [1990] (Tomorrow)
  • The Muppet Movie [1979] (multiple locations, also Monday)
  • Trainspotting [1996] (Hollywood)

Monday

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  • The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension [1984] (Hollywood)

Tuesday

  • T-Force [1994] (Hollywood)

Thursday

  • Crimes of Passion [1984] (Clinton St.)

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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 Nine Muses Law 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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