Cinema 21

Today seems a good time to introduce you to one of our newest correspondents, C.S. Eliot. When the movie Kedi: The Cats of Istanbul prowled into town (it’s landed at Cinema 21 after a couple of sold-out screenings at the Portland International Film Festival) we found ourselves looking for just the right sort of writer to respond to the film’s unusual subject matter, a writer with inside knowledge of the peculiarities of the feline world. And C.S. made a poetic plea to speak up.

Well, all right, it was a yowl. C.S., we regret to report, is an imperious sort, given to stark pronouncements and prone to making unseemly demands on the management. Thus, forthwith, C.S.’s first dispatch for us, ‘Kedi’ review: Turkish delight.

The streetwise cats of Istanbul.

To tell the truth, this partnership is a work in progress. We’re not sure C.S. understands the concept of objectivity at all. But C.S. makes no bones about his opinions (he prefers to leave the bones for the dogs), and C.S. will speak out. There’s no stopping him, really, although you can slow him down if you put out a bowl of tuna juice. Let’s stipulate that a good writer is not necessarily a saint.

In the case of Kedi, not only is C.S. an expert on the subject, he also has a talented collaborator, longtime ArtsWatch correspondent Maria Choban. She speaks Cat semi-fluently and is adept at translating the pith of C.S.’s opinions. We see their partnership as vital to our coverage of the next touring production of Cats to hit town (lyrics and original concept by C.S. Eliot’s distant relative T.S.), and to the Puss in Boots scene in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. And if someone in town will please put up a production of the musical Archy & Mehitabel, C.S. likely will be our representative in the reviewer’s box. We’ve tried, but we just can’t seem to come up with a literate cockroach who’ll work for what we can pay.

 


 

A GLIMPSE INSIDE THIS WEEK’S DATEBOOK:

 

Companhia Urbana de Dança at White Bird. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança. White Bird brings the energetic Brazilian dance troupe to the Newmark Theatre for shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Born in the shanty towns and suburbs of Rio, the company blends hip-hop, urban, and contemporary dance into an Afro-Brazilian stew.

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Isabelle Huppert: World’s greatest actor

The French star vaults to the top ranks with recent performances in "Elle" and "Things to Come."

May as well just say it: Isabelle Huppert is the best screen actor working in the world today.

To support this somewhat bold contention, I present two pieces of compelling evidence, both showing in Portland theaters right now.

One, “Things to Come,” is, in outline, a fairly ordinary middlebrow drama. It centers on a French high school philosophy teacher (yes, they have those in France) whose orderly life is upended on numerous fronts. The health of her elderly mother (played by screen icon Edith Scob) is failing; she discovers that her husband her been unfaithful to her; and her career momentum stalls. We’ve seen this sort of midlife-crisis, “I Am Woman” story in the past–remember all those Jill Clayburgh movies?–but what elevates “Things to Come” is Huppert’s smooth, lived-in performance, which manages to communicate a controlled facade and a rich interior life without resorting to anything resembling acting (at least as we’re used to seeing it in Hollywood dramas).

Isabelle Huppert (Nathalie) and Roman Kolinka (Fabien) in Mia Hansen-Løve’s THINGS TO COME

The director of “Things to Come” is Mia Hansen Love, who based the main character on her own mother. Hansen Love, making her fifth feature, is part of a new generation of French female filmmakers who are demonstrating the wide range of stories women can contribute when allowed to infiltrate the typically male-dominated industry. And Huppert’s appearance in her movie is something of a stamp of approval, placing her in the ranks of other greats the actress has graced with her inimitable talents.

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FilmWatch Weekly: “Evolution” director Lucile Hadžihalilović, interviewed

This eerie fable about adolescence and isolation returns months after its screening at PIFF

One of strangest and most memorable films from this year’s Portland International Film Festival makes a belated return to town for a regular engagement this week at Cinema 21. “Evolution,” the second feature from the French director Lucile Hadžihalilović, is set on a rocky, isolated island populated entirely by women and young boys, including Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his…mother?. It’s sort of a fable, sort of a horror film, and plays like a strange admixture of Jean Cocteau and David Cronenberg.

There are mysterious medical facilities, bizarre treatments and injections, and a raft of visual and narrative metaphors circling around notions of reproduction, birth and water. Mostly, “Evolution” is a sensory, sensual experience, moody cinematography and all-encompassing sound design transporting the viewer to a place that is both familiar on some limbic level and utterly alien at the same time.

A scene from “Evolution.”

I first saw “Evolution” as part of the Rendezvous with French Cinema event I attended in Paris in January of this year. At that time, I was able to interview Hadžihalilović (whose surname isn’t as hard to pronounce as you’d guess) in a hotel suite, where she proved to be a graceful, almost reticent presence. Nearly a year later, I’m very pleased that Portland audiences will have a chance to experience the film on the big screen. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

MM: The film has been described as a horror movie, which to me seems reductive. How do you feel about having that label applied?

LH: I think there are many kinds of horror movies. I really wanted the horror to be attractive, appealing. I wanted to be more elliptic, more allusive. I think it’s more playful to do it like that. It’s ok if people say that [it’s a horror movie], but I can see how that makes it a bit more narrow somehow. If people ask what genre of film it is, I don’t know what to say. In French we say “film fantastique,” which is more appropriate perhaps.

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“Aquarius” provides a career peak for iconic Brazilian star Sonia Braga

Forty-plus years into her career, Braga exudes dignity, panache, and sensuality as much as ever

Forty years ago, Sonia Braga starred in “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.” The Brazilian movie, a soft-focus but smarty skewed sex comedy, became an international hit and launched Braga’s career. (She was nominated for a BAFTA as Best Leading Newcomer.) Nearly a decade later, she became a familiar figure to American art house audiences in a double role opposite Oscar-winning William Hurt in “Kiss of the Spider-Woman.” In both roles, Braga exhibited an unapologetic, earthy sensuality and a self-conscious dignity, traits that don’t often easily mix.

Now, however, the 66-year-old Braga embodies them once again in “Aquarius,” a textured, impressive drama that provides the iconic star with her best role in decades, and puts the lie once again to the fact that great (or at least near-great) movies can’t be centered on performances from mature female actors.

Sonia Braga in “Aquarius”

Braga plays Dona Clara, a widowed, retired music critic living in a fantastic apartment across the street from the beach in the coastal city of Recife. Her apartment is, and has been for some time, the last remaining occupied unit in the building, but Clara refuses to sell to the development company intent on tearing it down and replacing it. This makes “Aquarius” sound like a straightforward social-issue drama, but it’s just as much a character study, as Clara reflects on her life while interacting with her adult children, her nephew, her friends, and her trusty housekeeper Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto, very endearing).

There’s a bittersweet nostalgia to much of “Aquarius,” but moments of sharp humor as well. When the developers decide to hold a blaring rave/porn shoot in the apartment above Clara’s to intimidate her, she fires up her phonograph and blasts them back with Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Clara, and Braga, both boldly embrace things that others might think them too old for, like relaxing at the end of the day with a joint or hiring a well-endowed male prostitute to ease a lonely night.

I’ve seen recent performances from Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”), Isabelle Huppert (“Elle,” “Things to Come”), and Braga that put Hollywood’s treatment of mature women to shame. At the same time, these films prove that the roles are out there, if you know where to look.

“Aquarius” was directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose work I hadn’t been familiar with (this is only his second feature). But he does more than just allow Braga to work her magic. He handles several group dialogue scene with clarity, conjures memorable supporting characters without taking up too much screen time, and imbues the locale–especially the all-important location of Clara’s apartment–with personality and depth.

The movie gained some notoriety when members of its cast and crew held up signs at May’s Cannes Film Festival protesting the then-suspension of Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff. Following Rousseff’s impeachment, “Aquarius” was initially slapped with the equivalent of an NC-17 rating, and was passed over by the country’s selection committee as its submission for the Best Foreign Language FIlm Oscar. (In an odd bit of irony, the committee was chaired by veteran filmmaker Bruno Barretto, who directed Braga way back when in “Dona Flor.”)

Perhaps inspired by their protagonist’s perseverance, the makers of “Aquarius” didn’t back down, and the ensuing controversy, as it so often does, has only helped the film’s domestic box office, turning it into a symbol of art’s willingness to stand up against political oppression. (Are you listening, Hollywood?) While it may not be eligible for the Foreign Language prize, there are whispers that Braga could be a dark horse candidate for Best Actress. That seems unlikely, especially considering the strong field this year, but should a nomination come to pass, it would be an honor thoroughly deserved for a performer of stamina and panache.

(“Aquarius” opens Friday, Dec. 9, at Cinema 21)

142 minutes, not rated, in Portuguese with English subtitles. GRADE: B+

 

FilmWatch Weekly: From “Certain Women” to “Computer Chess” and beyond

Movies playing this week can take you to from a back alley in 1980s L.A. to the slopes of a Guatemalan volcano

If you go by Hollywood rules, the only movies coming out this week are The New Tom Cruise Movie, The New Tyler Perry Movie, and The Latest Horror Prequel Based on a Board Game.

But we don’t play that way. We know there are so many cinematic options here in Portland it can make your head spin. (And not in a Classic Demonic Possession Movie kind of way.) What follows, then, is a daily guide to film consumption for the week of October 21-27:

Kristen Stewart in "Certain Women"

Kristen Stewart in “Certain Women”

Friday 10/21: “They Live”: John Carpenter’s sci-fi political allegory was released in 1988, a.k.a. the tail-end of the Reagan Era. It’s about a regular guy (played by the late, great, locally-sourced pro wrestling legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who discovers that alien overlords have been brainwashing humanity with subliminal messages designed to encourage consumerism and submission. Only with a special pair of sunglasses can he see the billboards, and the bad guys, for what they are. This is an almost perfect blend of Carpenter’s patented B-movie genius with a darkly satirical message that’s still relevant—and probably always will be. Also, it features the single best (and longest) back-alley fistfight in film history. (5th Avenue Cinemas, 9:15 pm, also screens Saturday & Sunday)

Saturday 10/22: “Computer Chess”: The year is 1980-something. The setting is a competition among some of the earliest (and nerdiest) programming enthusiasts to see who can create the best computer chess program. The weirdness level is rising fast. Director Andrew Bujalski had been known for his so-called “mumblecore” movies (“Beeswax” screens at the 5th Avenue Cinemas Friday and Sunday), but this 2013 effort takes that bare-bones aesthetic and dips it in mescaline. Shot in black-and-white on primitive video equipment, it follows an eccentric cast of characters through a weekend that eventually spirals into sublime surreality. Bujalski will be in attendance for this showing, held as part of Portland State University’s “Portland State of Mind” festival. (PSU, Lincoln Hall Recital Hall, Room 75, 1620 SW Park Ave., 7 pm)

Sunday 10/23: “Certain Women”: The latest film from Portland-based director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy & Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff”) adapts three short stories by Montana-based author Maile Meloy, each one focusing on a, you guessed it, certain woman. Laura Dern is a lawyer dealing with a chauvinistic, unstable client in the first; Michelle Williams is an affluent, conflicted wife and mother in the second; and Kristen Stewart is a night school teacher in the third, and strongest, segment. The film’s discovery is Lily Gladstone, playing a lonely, shy ranch hand who develops an enigmatic infatuation for Stewart’s character. Their delicate rapport is captivating, and “Certain Women” is another landmark in the career of one of America’s foremost independent filmmakers. (Cinema 21, opens Friday and continues through the week, multiple showtimes)

Monday 10/24: “The Idealist”: Several of the films in the Northwest Film Center’s annual survey of New Scandinavian Cinema are fairly routine examples of standard genres: family drama, romantic comedy, culture-clash sports movie, etc. “The Idealist,” while it doesn’t break any new ground cinematically, is an absorbing political thriller about a crusading journalist on a quest to exposes decades-old lies and secrets. In 1968, an American B-52 crashed near Thule Air Base in Danish-controlled Greenland with four hydrogen bombs on board. Twenty years later, a Danish reporter investigates a rash of illnesses plaguing workers from the base, and the story leads him to Washington, D.C., Texas, and the top ranks of his country’s government. The movie deftly weaves archival footage into its fact-based story for a nice documentary feel. (Whitsell Auditorium, 7 pm)

Tuesday, 10/25: “Here is Harold”: Why not make it a Scandinavian twofer and check out this dark Norwegian comedy about a put-upon furniture store owner whose business collapses after a giant IKEA store opens nearby. With his life in shambles, Harold decides to kidnap the founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad (who does not, unfortunately, play himself). Despite his ineptness, he manages to track down Kamprad, who turns out to be anything but a reluctant abductee. This isn’t the only film in the Scandinavian series to feature comical scenes of attempted suicide, but it’s the one that feels most in tune with the region’s particular brand of fatalism. (Whitsell Auditorium, 6:30 pm)

Wednesday, 10/26: “The Lost Arcade”: Portlanders eager for that retro gaming experience have places like Ground Kontrol and Quarterworld, but nothing can truly recapture the grimy camaraderie of New York City’s classic arcades. At least this affectionate documentary makes it seem that way. Focusing on a place called Chinatown Fair, which was preparing to close in 2011 after thirty years in business, it commemorates a subculture and an urban milieu that simply can’t compete in the era of Xbox and PlayStation. (Hollywood Theatre, 9:30 pm)

Thursday, 10/27: “Ixcanul”: The Internet Movie DataBase lists only sixteen films that were shot in the Mayan language, and two of them were made by Mel Gibson (“Apocalypto”) and Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain”). This one is set among the indigenous Kaqchikel people of Guatemala, and tells a surprisingly involving story about a 17-year-old girl sentenced to an arranged marriage by her parents. When she finds herself pregnant, and not by her fiancé, prayers to the local volcano may not be enough the resolve the situation. Entrancing cinematography and convincing performances from a non-professional cast make this a promising first feature for director Jayro Bustamante, and a film worth seeking out. (Living Room Theaters, opens Friday, Oct. 21, and continues through the week)

FILM REVIEW: “Our Little Sister” is a tender Japanese tale of sorority

Veteran director Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest follows three sisters who meet new family in tragedy's wake

If not the sole concern of director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s quarter century career, family life has nonetheless provided him with consistently rewarding subject matter. Through “Nobody Knows” (2004), “Still Walking” (2008), “I Wish” (2011), and “Like Father, Like Son” (2013), he has probed the tight bonds, painful absences, and changing definitions of family in contemporary Japanese society. With a screenplay adapted from Akimi Yoshida’s popular manga, “Umimachi Diary,” Kore-eda returns to the theme with the gently paced and open-hearted “Our Little Sister.”

Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho) are three sisters in their twenties who have shared their home in the coastal town of Kamakura since their father left for another woman and their mother all but deserted them fifteen years earlier. Traveling to the funeral of their estranged father, they meet their half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a sweet, if serious minded, thirteen year old who had already lost her mother and has now nursed their father through his final illness. Unimpressed by her incapable stepmother, they impulsively invite her to live with them.

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“Don’t Think Twice” takes improv comedy seriously

The new film from the director of "Sleepwalk with Me" is about a comedy troupe challenged when one member makes it big

Haven’t we had enough movies about comedians? Between documentaries like “The Aristocrats” and, well, “Comedian”; semi-autobiographical flicks like “Funny People” and “Obvious Child”; endless series of stand-up specials; and the entire oeuvre of Louis C.K., don’t we all get it? Comedians, despite their quick wit and giggle-inducing talents, are often—if not always—secretly miserable, lonely people. Tears of a clown and all that. For a while it was interesting to get a peek behind that ubiquitous brick-wall backdrop, but recently it’s felt like overkill.

Which is probably why “Don’t Think Twice” comes off as a relative breath of fresh air. By exploring the group dynamics among an improv troupe, and presenting characters who are more than merely the analogues of their on-stage personas, this smartly drawn and deeply felt indie mostly works. Which is just a long way of saying: “Don’t Think Twice”—it’s all right. (Sorry, Dylan fans.)

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