Streamers: PIFF lineup, “What Happened Was,” and more

Marc Mohan's sneak peek at the Portland International Film Fest; the “Citizen Kane” of awkward first-date movies.

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44th Portland International Film Festival

When the emergent pandemic forced last year’s Portland International Film Festival, like the rest of the country, to abruptly shut down, the idea that this year’s festival would also be impacted by the coronavirus was so absurd that it hardly bore contemplation. And yet, here we are, contemplating a mostly virtual, socially distanced event, some details of which were recently announced by the Portland Art Museum and the Northwest Film Center.

A scene from Alicia Rose and Alicia Jo Rabins’ “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff”

The interruption of last year’s PIFF must have been especially frustrating for Amy Dotson, the Film Center’s Director, who was overseeing her first PIFF after taking over for longtime director Bill Foster. Dotson had overhauled the event in many ways, instituting the Cinema Unbound Awards and attempting to both expand the festival’s reach to incorporate nontraditional sorts of cinematic experiences, and to increase its regional focus by absorbing the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. An opportunity to assess how those changes work in the context of a real-live, in-person film festival will have to wait another year, but this year’s PIFF will still offer almost 80 films (including 45 features) over a ten-day period, March 5th to 14th, as well as the second annual Cinema Unbound Awards, the recipients of which will be announced next week.

When the Film Center first hatched the notion of using the empty Zidell Yards property, just north of the west end of the Ross Island Bridge, as a drive-in movie theater a few summers back, it was a pleasant lark. Now, it’s about the only way to watch a movie with a crowd of strangers, and it sparks a whole different kind of nostalgia, one more recent and raw. PIFF will drive-screen ten diverse features, most accompanied by a short, keyed to the theme “The Future is Now.” Attending a drive-in in Portland in March presents some weather-related risks, but the rewards range from the well-known (“The Matrix”) to the obscure (the 1997 low-budget time-travel indie “The Sticky Fingers of Time”) and from the sublime (opening night selection and Sundance Grand Prize winner “Minari”) to the ridiculous (David Lynch’s misbegotten “Dune”).

A scene from “A Machine to Live In”

Apart from “Minari,” new films will screen virtually, and while a full schedule won’t be released until February 14, here are five titles that, based on first impressions, are worth keeping an eye on:

  • “Air Conditioner”: In heat-stricken Luanda, Angola, as A/C units around the city mysteriously fall from windows, a repairman and a housemaid embark on a quest to retrieve a new unit for their boss.
  • “For Madmen Only”: This documentary about the legendary improv impresario Del Close, best known for his work at Chicago’s The Second City, is based in part on his semi-autobiographical comic book and features interviews with some of his many famous students.
  • “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff”: Portlanders Alicia J. Rose and Alicia Jo Rabins collaborated on this documentary hybrid based on the recollections of a musician and poet who had a front-row seat to the Wall Street apocalypse that the infamous scammer Madoff personified.
  • “A Machine to Live In”: What looks to be an offbeat, non-fiction tone poem examines the artificial, hyper-rational intentions behind the modernist metropolis of Brasilia, and what its existence reveals about people and their relationship to their environment.
  • “Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness”: The fate of an Iranian woman sentenced to death for the murder of her husband lies in the hands of a reality show audience. Their decision will rest in large part on whether or not the victim’s sister forgives the killer. A fictionalized story apparently based in reality.

As with last year’s fest, programming will also include multimedia elements, including “Spectral Transmissions: Ghosts of Futures Past,” billed as being in the style of a 1930s/40s radio drama. Check www.cinemaunbound.org for updated information, and check back here for coverage of what promises to be a unique festival.

In the meantime, local theaters continue to offer virtual screenings, with a portion of ticket prices going to help support these local institutions. They include:

“What Happened Was…”

Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas in “What Happened Was”

I’m not sure what prompted a 4k digital restoration of this intimate, two-character indie from 1994, but I’m glad it happened, since it allowed me to revisit what can best be described as the “Citizen Kane” of awkward first-date movies. It was the brainchild of actor Tom Noonan, probably still best-known for playing the Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter.” He wrote the screenplay (based on his own play), directed, and stars as Michael, a tall, awkward paralegal who has been invited over for dinner by Jackie (Karen Sillas), an administrative assistant who works at the same firm. What follows is a fascinating, expertly acted pas de deux between characters riven with insecurities. Special recognition goes to Sillas, who shifts from anxiety to flirtation to dark revelation (especially during a centerpiece scene in which she reads an ostensible children’s story that Jackie has written) in a performance that manages to be both raw and theatrical. Sillas got her start in the early films of Hal Hartley, and “What Happened Was” is the high point of a filmography that tapers off quickly after the mid-1990s to TV guest spots, yet another instance of the America film industry seemingly having no idea how to handle a female performer with intelligence and talent once she passes the age of 35. (Screens through the Northwest Film Center beginning February 5)

“Psycho Goreman”

(L-rR) Owen Myre, Nita-Josee Hanna, and Matthew Ninaber in “Psycho Goreman”

This might not be the sort of thing that Oregon ArtsWatch readers normally flock to, but for anyone who grew up on cheesy 80s sci-fi with juvenile leads (think “The Last Starfighter” or “The Monster Squad”), it’s a sly, endearing homage. Imagine if Troma Films had made “E.T.”. A feuding brother and sister, Mimi and Luke, dig a hole in their backyard and discover both a glowing amulet and the extraterrestrial warlord said amulet allows them to command. This ancient brute hails from the planet Gigax (get it?), and, if left to his own devices, would probably annihilate the human race. Instead, he becomes a plaything for Mimi, at least until the interstellar forces who imprisoned him on Earth eons ago become aware of his resurrection and head this way. The kids name him Psycho Goreman, “PG for short,” but this movie, unlike its ancestors, would not get a PG rating, thanks to its over-the-top splatter and the sometimes shockingly dark humor. But with inventive, mostly analog special effects and creature designs, and a tongue firmly in cheek, it’s a mixture of slapstick violence and smarmy pre-teen shenanigans that the whole (or at least most of) the family can enjoy. (Screening through the Hollywood Theatre and the Kiggins Theatre.)

“Some Kind of Heaven”

A scene from the documentary “Some Kind of Heaven”

If you’ve ever heard of the massive Florida retirement community known as The Villages, it’s probably in the context of the support ex-President Donald Trump received from its residents. The prospect of a documentary about The Villages, which has over 130,000 residents, raises one’s hopes that it will depict a microcosm of America’s collective, white-nationalist, nostalgic delusions. To the extent that director Lance Oppenheim’s film does so, however, it’s implicitly; partisan rancor doesn’t seem to play a role in the lives of the five individuals he profiles. The most interesting of these are two men. One is an aging Lothario who isn’t technically a resident of The Villages at all—he lives in his van and spends his days freeloading and hunting for a sugar momma to take care of him. The other seems happily retired with his wife, but has chosen to spend his golden years indulging in a variety of illegal recreational substances, even getting hauled in front of a judge after he’s nailed for possession of marijuana and cocaine. Oppenheimer humanizes his subjects, but doesn’t delve very far into the history, politics, economy, or psychology at play in the bigger picture. “Some Kind of Heaven” is interesting, but it feels like a missed opportunity. (Screening through Cinema 21, the Hollywood Theatre, and the Kiggins Theatre)

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About the author

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 former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position 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, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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