Erik McClanahan

Film critic, podcaster and writer residing in Portland, OR. I co-host and edit the film podcast Adjust Your Tracking. Lead film critic for Oregon Arts Watch. Columnist/podcast editor for The Playlist (on Indiewire). Co-host Over/Under Movies. Other work includes duties as projectionist, print traffic coordinator and manager for The Northwest Film Center and Cinema 21. My writing has also appeared on indiewire, Willamette Week, The Star Tribune, Vita.mn, Toledo City Paper and Pulse of the Twin Cities.

 

Film Review: “Men & Chicken” is a zany Danish comedy

Mads Mikkelsen is a long way from "Hannibal" in this bizarre tale of genetics and slapstick violence.

Most comedies that make it to movie theaters are content to do the bare minimum: set up an easy conflict, get a few laughs, keep it mostly inoffensive. Done deal. It’s not like the audience really expects or cares about cinematic ambition in this genre, and filmmakers seem fine delivering at that low bar.

“Men & Chicken” is not most comedies.

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Transcendent “Baraka” on the Big Screen

The gorgeous visual doc screens this weekend, along with "Lifeforce," on 70mm at The Hollywood Theatre

After a lengthy and extremely successful 70mm run for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” earlier this year (during which the director even stopped by to talk about the film before and after a screening), it’s safe to say the gorgeous analog projection system is here to stay in Portland, at least at The Hollywood Theatre. No further proof is needed than a glance at their schedule for this coming weekend, which sees two films on the grand format screening for audiences.

“Baraka,” a visual poem/doc from 1992, shows at 7:00 p.m. this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are still available for all shows, and highly recommended. 1985’s “Lifeforce,” from Cannon Films and director Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), shows once at 9:45 p.m. Saturday, but it is sold out already. (I’ve yet to actually see that film, which is why I’ve already got my ticket to see it, natch.) It’s apparently about a bunch of space vampires who attack London, so we’ll see. Should be fun.

Gary Busey stars in "Baraka." Sorry, my mistake, that's actually a Japanese snow monkey.

Gary Busey stars in “Baraka.” Sorry, my mistake, that’s actually a Japanese snow monkey.

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Review: “Take Me To The River” shows promise

Writer-director Matt Sobel's first feature is about a gay California teen attending a family reunion in Nebraska

Anyone who’s ever left home and came back for a family reunion gets it. In those unavoidably awkward (re)encounters with folks you haven’t interacted with in a long time, there’s that overwhelming sense you’d never actively seek out their company were you not related. Matt Sobel’s debut film, “Take Me To The River,” tells of one such trip. Its teen protagonist, Ryder, framed in the film’s opening shot directly between his parents, is clearly not excited for another reunion in Nebraska with his mother’s family.

Not the only awkward dinner-table conversation in Matt Sobel's film "Take Me to the River"

Not the only awkward dinner-table conversation in Matt Sobel’s film “Take Me to the River”

Ryder (Logan Miller, “The Stanford Prison Experiment”) has good reason to be leery of this trip. He wants to come out this extended family. He’s not afraid of his homosexuality, but his mother, Cindy, warning of (or, perhaps, hiding behind) her relatives’ close-mindedness, is terrified by this idea, and asks him to keep mum. She’s played by the great TV character actor, Robin Weigert (who killed as Calamity Jane on “Deadwood”), is a mass of contradictory emotions and subtle tics.

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Review: ‘Kill Your Friends’ Is Served Cold, But Not Exactly Fresh

We recommend it only if you've never seen any of the better movies it wants to be

Current movie trends and audience tastes seem to prefer, overall, a bright, shiny, redemptive and hopeful product, the rampaging box-office success of “Batman v Superman” notwithstanding. But those of us who are also attracted to stories at cinemas involving less noble examples of humanity have nonetheless been well-served over the years. So much so that “Kill Your Friends,” a confidently-made new British feature starring Nicholas Hoult (“X-Men: Days Of Future Past”) as a serial killing A & R record man, may provoke déjà vu in even the slightly adventurous moviegoer. 

The characters here mistake their insane levels of drug-taking and entitled positions in life for something of value, but unfortunately so do the filmmakers, who perhaps thought that by upping the nihilism and over-the-top nastiness in this adaptation of the 2008 novel by Scottish author John Niven they could gloss over their movie’s most glaring flaw: it has absolutely nothing new to say.

Kill friends

I can’t be sure that it’s any different from the source material, as I’ve not read it. the film follows Hoult’s journey through the British music industry, circa 1997, as that particular corner of the business was flush with pop success. His transition from vicious corporate ladder-climber to the titular killer of friends feels cynically amoral–the movie plays like a series of uninspired ‘why-nots.’ Hoult, the boy from “About A Boy,” quotes Conan the Barbarian as he murders and betrays anyone between him and the top job at his company.

Hoult has been on something of a mission in his mid-20s to seek out more adult roles. He clearly wants to be taken seriously as an actor, and for the most part, I’ve been pleased to see where his instincts have taken him thus far (His turn in last year’s Oscar-winning ‘Mad Max Fury Road’ was great but he was even better in the criminally underseen 2014 indie sci-fi “Young Ones.”). Here, as anti-hero Steven Stelfox, he leaves no line of coke un-snorted, no woman un-demeaned, no co-worker un-destroyed and no fourth wall unbroken. If he existed in the same cinematic universe as Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho,” they could easily create some kind of uber-douche Justice League of serial killer misanthropes who rule corporate hell (and by extension, all of us).

That’s all well and good. Hoult seems to relish the opportunity to go bad, and his performance makes “Kill Your Friends” watchable as hell, but that can’t save this film from being anything other than a B-squad “Wolf Of Wall Street.” Even HBO’s flawed but getting better new show, “Vinyl,” has more to offer. And neither the outstanding 90’s Britpop soundtrack nor the score by veteran producer Junkie XL (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Deadpool”) save it from being a lesser, rote version of the Mary Harron movie adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous bestseller (they got there first after all). Director Owen Harris makes his feature debut following several great episodes of the British TV series “Misfits” and one of my favorite “Black Mirror” episodes, “Be Right Back.” He does right by the material, even if it all seems hollow and uninspired while the running time, admittedly, whizzes by. I’m not faulting the film for being bad as it wants to be. It’s more that, once you’ve seen it done better so many times before (all hail Martin Scorsese!), there’s not much left to do but shrug with indifference. 

(“Kill Your Friends” opens Friday, April 1, at Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver, WA.)

Rated R (for bloody violence, nudity, lots of drug use and plenty of foul language), 103 min. Grade: C

INTERVIEW: Ciro Guerra, Writer/Director Of Oscar-Nominated ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’

The Colombian filmmaker talked with our critic about his films, what makes for great cinema, the amazing locations in 'Serpent', his Oscar experience and more

Ciro Guerra is having a good month. The Colombian-born filmmaker recently attended his first Oscar ceremony, where his newest film, “Embrace Of The Serpent,” was nominated in the foreign language category (it lost to “Son Of Saul”). Beyond being a personally momentous occasion for the young writer/director, who celebrated his 35th birthday in February, the Academy Award nomination was the first ever for his native country.

Describing his experience at the ceremony as “quite fun and quite crazy” during our interview on Skype, he says the Academy made them feel welcome and that he was thankful to meet so many people in the industry he’s admired for a long time. “We we’re kind of relieved we didn’t win,” he said. “There was a favorite going in and it’s great not to be the favorite. It can be a lot of pressure. Even winning can be a lot of pressure. So we just made the best of it and enjoyed it.”

I really can’t praise “Embrace Of The Serpent” enough. It’s one of those films that captures the imagination with a grip that doesn’t loosen until the credits have ended. Make sure to seek out the film when it opens exclusively this Friday at Living Room Theaters. Its two-pronged narrative ping-pongs back and forth (sometimes in the same unbroken take) between events 40 years apart in the life of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people. He encounters and travels with two scientists, one inspired by the other to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant. (While by no means a “true story,” much of the film is inspired by the diaries of German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes)

The black and white visuals, druggy hallucination sequences, performances, and a killer soundtrack—ancient tribal music mixed with the natural cacophony of the jungle—all make for an incredibly immersive, funny and beautiful rumination on dying, colonialism and being the last of one’s kind. It’s truly a film to go get lost in at the cinema.

Guerra, whose previous film, “The Wind Journeys,” is also highly recommended (I was able to rent the DVD at Movie Madness in fact), was generous with his time over Skype, talking with me for more than 40 minutes. Suffice to say it was fairly in depth, focusing mostly on his latest film and his work overall, but also making room to talk about what makes for great cinema (you know, the kind you see at an actual movie theater), the gorgeously epic Amazonian locations where they shot ‘Serpent’, and much more. Below are a few excerpted highlights from our chat. If you’d like to hear the entire interview, you can do so by streaming or downloading the embedded podcast below.

the-new-film-embrace-of-the-serpent-conjures-a-forgotten-indigenous-vision-of-the-amazon-1452186262-crop_mobile

one of many memorable images from “Embrace of the Serpent”

“Embrace Of The Serpent” is filled with so many great, memorable cinematic sequences. In particular, the moment when you link both storylines from different time periods in one fluid take.

In the early versions of the script, it was a very Western script in the way everything was explained and all the dates and locations were perfectly clear. Then I started working with the Amazonian people, and I realized their conception of time is completely different. Film is essentially a medium of time. That’s the clay we work on with cinema, it’s made up of fragments of time. I realized what would make the movie special and unique would be that it was told from that perspective. And that included this different understanding of time, that time is not a linear sequence, which is how we are taught to experience it. Amazonian people, and shamans especially, see it more as a simultaneous multiplicity. Which is funnily extremely close to the way quantum physicists define time.

So I wanted the film to be an expression of that. In Amazonian storytelling past, present and future intertwine and dialogues mirror each other. As the process of research went on the film became more and more imbued with this Amazonian spirit and way of storytelling. So I thought if we could create links between different times, to make them appear to be simultaneous, it would be close to the spirit of the Amazonian people. 

So the idea for the two-pronged narrative, is that also how that came about? To put the audience in the mindset of Karamakate? 

Yes. The main thing about the film is that the point of view is from the shaman. This story has usually been told from the explorers’ point of view. So we really needed to flip the story on its head. When you switch the point of view you realize that history has been told in a very one dimensional way. I think that is something cinema can do. It really can make you experience the world from a particular perspective. The perspective of Amazonian people is very difficult for us to understand and get into it. This film is an attempt to build a bridge between the storytelling that we know and can understand, and their storytelling which for us at first can be incomprehensible. This film needed to be accessible for anyone. It would have been dishonest to make this a cryptic film for a small [art film] niche.

embrace1

“Embrace Of The Serpent”

Watching the film is an incredibly immersive sensory experience. I think that’s really important for cinema today. Since most people are happy to watch everything on their TVs, computers or phones, it’s more important than ever that a film deserves to be up on a big screen to get people out of their house and going to the theater. “Embrace Of The Serpent” is truly a big movie and belongs there. 

I agree totally with you. I think the cinema should be an experience. The effect that cinema can have on the senses is something I think no other art form can come close to it. For me it’s always very important that the films… that you can really feel where you are. They have a strong sense of place. And the tools of cinema allow you to do that, to put you in there.

The sound design and overall look of the film is incredible. Can you talk about some of those sensorial elements and how you conceived and executed them? 

The sound design is the creation of Carlos García, a brilliant sound designer. We had this concept of creating a trance-like state through the sound. Using the sounds of nature and its frequencies in a way that would take the viewer in a trance like, or a spiritual state. It’s the state that Amazonian people use to tell their stories. You are sort of elevated by the sound. You do that only using the frequencies of the natural environment. That creates a feeling that can only be experienced completely in a cinema.

The look of the film [cinematography by David Gallego] is inspired by the images the explorers took during their travels. When I went there I realized it was not going to be possible to portray the colors of the Amazon on film. Especially what they mean to the people there. These are people who have 15 words for what we call green. I thought this way we could trigger the audience’s imagination. The Amazon that you see in the film is not the real one, it’s an imagined Amazon. But that imagined Amazon is certainly going to be more real than what we could portray.

“Embrace Of The Serpent” opens at Friday March 11 at Portland’s Living Room Theaters. Advance tickets are available now. 

FILM: Hollywood Theatre will get ‘Hateful’ this Christmas

The landmark Portland theater is already prepping its 70mm presentation for Quentin Tarantino's new film

As soon as the brand new lenses arrived in the mail there was a rush of excitement. Then came the anxiety. Hollywood Theatre head programmer Dan Halsted, already a near-mythological Portland celluloid purveyor, has been through this before. The theater’s brave, forward-thinking decision years ago to install 70mm film protection capabilities in its large downstairs screen, despite the format being near-death after the seismic industry shift to digital, has already borne three separate successful exhibitions with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Vertigo” and, just recently, “The Wild Bunch.” Even still, Halsted is nervous for the Hollywood’s upcoming two-week exclusive early run of Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, “The Hateful Eight.” For starters, he needs to test out those new lenses.

To accommodate the unique release and specific technical specifications to show the film properly, Boston Light & Sound made new lenses for every theater showing it on 70mm. Known as Ultra Panavision 70, and constructed for a unique look—the widest standard aspect ratio used today is known as scope, or 2.39:1; ‘Hateful Eight’ will be shown in 2.76:1, making the image significantly wider than it is tall—they were used occasionally in the ’50s and ’60s, on films like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Ben Hur,” but had to be made new because parts are more difficult to come by now. The lenses arrived at the Hollywood just last week. The film itself, one of some 100 prints struck anew on 70mm (the widest release on that format in more than 20 years), is not yet there. While Halsted and co. eagerly await its arrival, some other prep can begin.

these new lenses are much larger than normal

above: one of the new lenses from the Hollywood. They’re much larger than normal

To make use of the glorious large format (a subject that I’ve written about for OAW here and here), the Hollywood expanded its screen more than a year ago. All the better to make use of the high resolution, immersive depth, and gorgeously grainy imagery the format yields onscreen. But it will be re-formatted specifically to fit ‘Hateful Eight’s extreme wide picture, which, based on footage from trailers, Tarantino and regular DP Robert Richardson look to have taken advantage of its capabilities. Maybe even more impressive than the imagery, though, is the dynamic and layered sound found on 70mm presentations. The Hollywood will be the screening the film exactly as Tarantino intended, which can’t be said for most theaters in town in an era where multiplexes rarely even staff projectionists.

The ever chatty and controversial director (who’s been in the news of late attracting some cop hate for attending a rally where he spoke out against police brutality) essentially used his clout and ever-increasing box office success (his last two films, “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” were box office behemoths) to convince the Weinstein Company to release his latest on 70mm. Tarantino’s long been a proponent for shooting and projecting on celluloid, and the inspiration to release “The Hateful Eight” in this manner came from Paul Thomas Anderson’s and Christopher Nolan’s resuscitating of the format for “The Master” and “Interstellar,” respectively. These directors are film fetishists to be sure, but the way they’ve used their individual and collective power in the industry to keep it alive is to be commended. We should be so lucky as moviegoers to see more specialized presentations like this that remind why cinema is at its best in a big, dark room shown on a giant screen with the sound cranked up. Much as I’ve really come around on DCP projection, 70mm film projection is still the gold standard, no-doubt-about-it best way to watch a movie.

hateful 8 70mm

“The Hateful Eight” is another Western from Tarantino. He’s assembled a dynamic cast, most of them a who’s who of Tarantino regulars (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Zoe Bell, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins) and a few newbies (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum). Not much is known yet about the finished film beyond some enticing details: the run time will be about three hours, with an overture and intermission (the 70mm version of the film will also have 6 additional minutes of footage); genius Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who scored “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” (Tarantino’s favorite film of all time), made a new original score for the film; it’s set in one location, a haberdashery, where most the action takes place. It appears to be a nice bridge between the indie sensibilities of his early work like “Reservoir Dogs” and the big budget size and epic scope of his more modern work.

Any time Quentin Tarantino releases a new film it’s cause for celebration. But this special 70mm engagement, which will run two full weeks before opening wide in theaters across the county (mostly projected on digital by then), really gets to what he’s about as a filmmaker. Deeply nostalgic for bygone, lost eras of cinema—a time when people used to go out to the movies for their evenings, not just use it to kill two hours before moving on to the next thing—it’s exciting to see him double down on a near-dormant technology with the hope of giving it a life. It’s a risky proposition for him and theaters like the Hollywood to invest in a technology that’s been passed by and almost left for dead. Especially in this era of simplified, faster and cheaper digital presentations.

hateful_eight_poster

But that’s why going to the Hollywood is really the only place you should see “The Hateful Eight” come Christmas time. Why see it any other way? We’re lucky enough here in Portland to have that option, and to see it there well before most the country gets a chance. Take advantage of it, and see what all the fuss is about. If “The Hateful Eight” is a success (Halsted hopes to keep the print at the theater after its run, to revive through the years and continue showing the way it was meant to be seen and heard), maybe this long thought dead way of showing films can come back, even in a niche way.

Or maybe it’s already happening? King Vidor’s “Solomon And Sheba” was the first 70mm presentation screened at The Hollywood Theatre back in 1959. Thankfully, “The Hateful Eight” will not be the last. 2016 will be the Hollywood’s 90th anniversary, so the plan is to show many more classics on 70mm. “Baraka,” a visual nonfiction work from 1992 that’s a stone-cold masterpiece, will screen there in April. And look out for much more next year: Halsted is hoping for new restorations to happen, but also plans to show “The Sound of Music,” “Lawrence Of Arabia,” “West Side Story”—he’s even looking for “Die Hard,” which would just be amazing.

This is why it matters where you decide to see a movie. If you see “The Hateful Eight” this Christmas, choose wisely.

The 42nd Northwest Filmmakers’ Fest: A few highlights worth seeing

This year's Pacific Northwest-focused fest runs from November 12 - 18 and it's packed with several shorts programs and 16 features

For four decades, he Northwest Film Center has been at the forefront of supporting locally made, truly independent movies. The tradition continues with the 42nd annual Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival, starting Thursday and running through November 18. Made up of several short film programs, more than a dozen features, and a few offshoot, filmmaker-friendly gatherings and get togethers. All the better to enjoy locally made films from the Pacific Northwest and talk shop with other filmmakers.

Before we dive into our four main highlight feature films recommended by our own Lily Hudson, I thought I might chime in a little and throw out a few more recommendations of films that I enjoyed, and you just might as well. From Vancouver, BC, comes Hadwin’s Judgement, a straightforward documentary adaption of the wonderful nonfiction novel The Golden Spruce, by  John Vaillant. The novel is something of a cousin to Into The Wild, so make sure to check out the film and the book. A regular at the Northwest Film Center for the last few years, Zach Weintraub, continues to show his growth as a filmmaker with his latest, Slackjaw. And finally, a few shorts I really admired, playing in SHORTS II: Tracing Space program, Miles Sprietsma’s Spatial and Kurtis Hough’s To See More Light.

Make sure to check out our interview feature with programmer Thomas Phillipson for his tips and themes for this year’s fest. See you at the fest!

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