Cinema 21

FilmWatch Weekly: Four debuts, with frights and delights, and one long-lost relic

Oh, the horror (and more): As movie houses begin to reopen, a mini-flood of fresh new films arrives

Now that most Portland-area arthouse theaters have reopened, what was a trickle of worthwhile cinematic fare has become a veritable flood. Of course, trying to keep up with a barrage of interesting independent and foreign releases is a good problem to have. Without further ado, then, here are some of this week’s standout offerings:

As a result of this unleashed backlog, some films more suited to, say, a Halloween-themed release are only now showing up. One example of this is The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the latest sequel in Warner Brothers’ horror franchise, which was originally supposed to come out last September, but has only recently debuted in theaters and on HBO Max. For those who prefer their scares to be subtler than those Hollywood typically serves up, a couple of other films are worthy of note.

Niamh Algar in Censor

The process of filmmaking itself, with all its inherent obsessions and doublings, has inspired more than a few disturbing thrillers, from Brian De Palma’s Blow Out to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. Like the latter of those (which you should really check out if you haven’t), director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature Censor uses horror movies themselves as a backdrop for a story about the thin line between reality and madness. It’s set during the “video nasties” moral panic of the 1980s in England, when the Thatcher government cracked down on gory flicks, banning some and threatening draconian penalties for providing them to minors. Enid (Niamh Algar), the censor of the title, spends her workdays watching disturbing movies and deciding which cuts must be made before their release.

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Portland director’s ‘Hunger Ward’ earns Oscar cred; films in theaters?

Streamers: Skye Fitzgerald’s documentary short about the devastating war in Yemen chronicles two women's struggle to aid children caught in a war-caused famine

Better late than never (although some may differ), the Oscars are upon us. Expectations are that this year’s viewership on Sunday will continue its years-long cratering process, especially considering the lack of big-screen spectacles up for consideration. But for those who see award ceremonies as an opportunity for quality films without eight-figure promotion budgets to get a boost in visibility, this year’s Oscars are a boon. In a non-COVID year, a film like Munari or a performance like Riz Ahmed’s in Sound of Metal may have been overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Tom Hanks’ in Bios. So instead of bemoaning the lack of any Avengers, Transformers, or Jedis in the Best Visual Effects category, let’s appreciate the presence of Disney+’s The One and Only Ivan. (Okay, maybe not the best example.)

One category that regularly raises awareness of otherwise under-the-radar efforts is Best Documentary Short. Of all the films nominated each year, these five have the lowest box office prospects, and they’re not generally seen as auditions or springboards to more lucrative Hollywood work. No, these are almost always labors of love and, even more, of a burning need to capture and tell stories that would otherwise go untold. Among this year’s nominees, all of which meet that criteria, one stands out: Portland-based filmmaker and activist Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward.

Hunger Ward

“I don’t think of myself as an activist in the traditional sense,” Fitzgerald said when I spoke with him last week. And yet, he adds, “Cinema is uniquely positioned to move people, to bring a virtually unseen story to a much broader audience so they will care, so they will marshal resources to engage the problem.”

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Streamers: Portland theaters’ reopening plans, Oscar-nominated shorts, French ski drama

Ready or not, movie theaters are starting to open again in time for the Oscars and summer blockbuster season. Plenty is still streaming, too.

As vaccines continue to make their way into the arms of more and more Oregonians, and the state in general dares to look forward to the resumption of some version of normality, it’s a good time to check in on Portland movie theaters and their plans. It should go without saying that these plans are extremely subject to change: Both Clackamas and Multnomah Counties are moving from Moderate Risk back to a High Risk status on Friday, April 9, which means that maximum allowance at theaters will move from 50% of capacity back to 25%, while Washington County will remain in the Moderate Risk category for the time being. That said, here’s a rundown of announced reopening plans.

Several independent Portland-area theaters have already reopened, including the six-screen Living Room Theaters, Cinemagic, the Moreland, Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre, and the Liberty Theatre in Camas. Among the titles showing on their big screens are Oscar nominees Nomadland and Minari, as well as more mainstream fare such as the Bob Odenkirk action flick Nobody and the monster mash Godzilla vs. Kong. The venerable Clinton Street Theater is resuming its traditional Saturday night Rocky Horror Picture Show events, although at 9 p.m. instead of midnight due to county restrictions.

One mainstay of Portland’s movie scene, Cinema 21, recently announced plans to open to the public for the first time in over a year on April 23 with a pair of documentaries: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street and The Truffle Hunters. Another, the Hollywood Theatre, has yet to indicate a timeline, although it continues to offer remote programming, including an upcoming remote master class on the films of director Richard Linklater. The Northwest Film Center at the Portland Art Museum remains closed to the public as well, although it is opening experimental filmmaker Sky Hopinka’s poetic debut feature Małni—Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore virtually on Friday, April 9.

Two chains operate theaters in Portland. Century Cinemas have opened their multiplexes at Eastport Plaza and Cedar Hills Crossing, while the screens at Clackamas Town Center remain dark for the time being. Regal Cinemas is planning a phased reopening. Bridgeport Village will begin on April 23, with the bulk of its Portland screens to follow on May 14. (The Pioneer Place theaters will wait until the following week, May 21.) Obviously, the summer movie season beckons, and these places are understandably eager to welcome paying customers once again. Personally, I don’t plan on setting foot in an indoor theater until, at the very earliest, I’m fully vaccinated, but once it seems safe to do so, I plan on making up for lost time with a vengeance.

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A scene from the Oscar-nominated “Do Not Split”

IN THE MEANTIME, many Portland-area theaters continue to offer expansive selections in their virtual cinemas, and will presumably continue to do so for the foreseeable future. They provide a great way not only to help support exhibitors during this disastrous time, but also to keep abreast of exciting cinema that doesn’t necessarily get showcased on Netflix or Disney+.

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

A sneak peek at this year's Portland International Film Fest, plus the "Citizen Kane" of awkward first-date movies

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.

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Streamers: What’s Next for Movie Theaters?

Welcome to the brave new world of total confusion in the movie business

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned, or at least should have learned, over the least year or four, it’s that prediction is folly. As a calamitous 2020 comes to a close, and we take a moment, despite ourselves, to imagine what the coming 12 months have in store for cinema, about the only thing we can be sure of is that it’ll be better. Right? I mean, it kind of has to be better. Right?

In Portland, movie theaters have been closed to the general public since mid-March. The survival of one of the nation’s best exhibition infrastructures hangs in the balance.  Beloved independent venues such as Cinema 21, the Hollywood Theatre, the Northwest Film Center, the Clinton Street Theater, the Laurelhurst Theater, Living Room Theaters, and more have explored inventive ways to bring in at least a fraction of their normal revenue. These have included partnering with indie distributors to serve as portals for online rentals, renting themselves out for private, socially-distanced screenings, and selling concessions to go.

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Streamers: The end of movie theaters? Not so fast.

The movie theater is not dead: Long live the movie theater!

The big news in the film industry this week was the announcement by Warner Brothers that all 17 of the company’s feature films originally scheduled for a 2021 theatrical release would be debuting simultaneously on the company’s HBO MAX streaming service. While the studio is claiming that this is a unique, one-year arrangement made necessary by the pandemic-related closure of so many movie theaters, many are taking the move as something like a death knell for the big-screen, communal experience that has been the heart of cinema since its invention.

I’m reminded by these concerns of the agita surrounding the video rental industry in the 1990s, when I managed one of Portland’s many fine independent rental stores for several years and then owned another for several more. As high-speed internet (or what passed for it then) became more widely available, trade magazines were full of doomsaying. Once the masses can order up “Jurassic Park” from the comfort of their living room, after all, why would they traipse to the local Blockbuster and face the prospect of extortionate late fees?

Well, it took a while for the intertubes to get big enough that video streaming and downloading was an affordable option for the average household, but when it did, those Cassandras turned out to be correct. Impersonal, corporate chain stores such as Blockbuster and Hollywood went from cultural mainstays to bankrupt dinosaurs virtually overnight. I’d always thought that those places, which made their money by catering to customers who rarely ventured beyond the New Release wall, would be the most vulnerable to the technological shift. And, for once in my life, I was right.

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Streamers: Recapping the pandemic, reimagining Jack London

No, we are not stuck inside the bars of various online platforms. (Did someone say "bars"?)

Portland’s independent theaters continue to provide virtual programming, as the shutdown of in-person cinema-going enters its 437th month. (Some, however, are allowing members of the public in under certain circumstances—see below.) Here are some of the recent local “openings” (how long till those scare quotes disappear?) worth your digi-cash and quaran-time:

Martin Eden

Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy in a scene from Martin Eden, photo by Francesca Errichiello, courtesy Kino Lorber

This Italian drama, based on a 1909 Jack London novel, was initially scheduled to screen during March’s Portland International Film Festival. Now, it’s being offered as a streaming option online, with a share of proceeds going to the Northwest Film Center.

The story follows the evolution of the titular proletarian worker (Luca Marinelli) from traveling laborer to literary sensation, as he first ingratiates himself with a bourgeois family in 20th-century Italy and goes on to become a politically active iconoclast and disaffected celebrity. In the process, his romance with the daughter of said bourgeois family (Jessica Cressy) waxes and wanes, as does his proximity to the socialist ideals promulgated by his aging, radical mentor (Carlo Cecchi).

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