film review

Poetry and politics collide in “Neruda”

Director Pablo Larrain ("Jackie") depicts Pablo Neruda's run from the law in 1940s Chile

Poets don’t typically make for very engaging cinematic protagonists. Even such dramatic lives as those of Allen Ginsburg and Sylvia Plath haven’t resulted in especially gripping movies. But we’ve now had two films about poets—one fictional, one real—open in Portland in the last couple of weeks, and each has its distinct charms.

Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” stars Adam Driver as a bus driver who finds inspiration in the quotidian details of his daily life. It’s a testimony to the poet as ordinary guy, and we reviewed it here. Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda,” on the other hand, takes as its subject one of the most larger-than-life figures in 20th century literature, which allows it to be as much about Pablo Neruda’s political and hedonistic exploits as his aesthetic ones.

Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in “Neruda.”

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“Julieta” marks a return to form for Pedro Almodovar

The stunning Adriana Ugarte is the Spanish director's latest acting discovery in this satisfying melodrama

It’s been a little while since the arrival of a new film from veteran Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar could be considered a major cinematic event. In the 1980s, his racy, flamboyant sex comedies always seemed to be breaking a new taboo. In the 90s, he shifted to a more mature style, churning out a string of masterful melodramas that peaked with 1999’s Oscar-winning “All About My Mother.” Since then, though, he has plateaued, while still operating at a high level of craftsmanship.

His last two films have felt like efforts to break free of this rut. The twisted psycho-sexual thriller “The Skin I Lived In” was successful. The strained goofiness of the airplane comedy “I’m So Excited!” was not. With “Julieta,” Almodóvar executes a return to the color- and emotion-saturated genre that has served him so well, and comes up with his best work in it since perhaps 2004’s “Bad Education.”

Adriana Ugarte in a scene from “Julieta.”

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Adam Driver takes the wheel (sorry!) in “Paterson”

From HBO's "Girls" to "Star Wars" villainy to an ordinary Joe, a star evolves

Blockbuster movie franchises have a recent history of pilfering performers from the ranks of TV and independent films. Part of the reason is budgetary, of course: why pay Harrison Ford money when you can pay Daisy Ridley money? (Or just digitally resurrect a beloved but deceased screen icon—but that’s a debate for another day..)

The latest “Star Wars” films have been especially adept at this. To most moviegoers, “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” have been filled with unknown faces, but savvy cinephiles recognize John Boyega from “Attack the Block,” Felicity Jones from “Breathe In” and Ben Mendelsohn from “Animal Kingdom.” No actor, though, has better leveraged LucasFilm stardom into plum roles with legendary filmmakers than Adam Driver.

Adam Driver in “Paterson”

He emerged first on the HBO series “Girls” as the on-again-off-again paramour of Lena Dunham’s lead character Hannah, standing out as a straight-talking paragon of enlightened masculinity who didn’t put up with Hannah’s narcissistic bullshit, even though he clearly had some issues of his own. Driver’s unconventional, rugged physicality and emotional intensity, as well as his intriguing personal backstory (religious upbringing in Indiana, service as a U.S. Marine) made him an object of curiosity.

It was his talent and screen presence, though, that allowed him to snag supporting roles for directors Steve Spielberg (“Lincoln”), Joel Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and Clint Eastwood (“J. Edgar”), and then to land larger ones for Martin Scorsese (“Silence,” out now) and Jim Jarmusch, whose latest film, “Paterson,” opens this week.

“Paterson” is both a typical film for the minimalist veteran of indie filmmaking, and an evolution in Jarmusch’s art. The deliberate pace and dry humor go back to “Stranger Than Paradise,” which was released 33 years ago. (In other news, you are old.) But there’s an empathy for human imperfection and an appreciation of the power of routine that feel like the work of a middle-aged creator. And I mean that in a good way.

Driver plays a bus driver (not sure if that’s meant to be a joke or not) named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey. In his spare time, he writes poetry, and his spare blank verse recalls the work of William Carlos Williams, who Paterson admits is his idol, and who penned an epic piece of verse titled, you guessed it, “Paterson.”

Paterson has a wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and an English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). The film takes place over a one week span, and each day begins with Paterson waking up, reluctantly disentangling himself from his sleeping spouse, and heading to work. Inspired by things as mundane as a box of matched on his kitchen table, or a conversation between passengers, he writes poems in pencil in a small notebook he carries around. Each night, he takes Marvin for a walk, tying the dog up outside the local bar where he slips in for a beer or two before heading home.

That’s pretty much it. Laura eccentrically pursues various interests from home—cupcake baking, designing new curtains, aspiring to country music stardom. Paterson intervenes in a briefly serious lovers’ spat one night at the bar. And Marvin has a key role in what passes as the movie’s climax. But generally this is a portrait of an orderly and basically happy life. It’s demonstrably set in the present day, but a somewhat simplified, even sanitized version of working-class reality. Maybe it’s the world as Paterson, who doesn’t own a cell phone or use a computer, sees it.

Which is probably similar to the way Jarmusch sees it: prosaic, gently tragic, but with enough surreal moments to keep things interesting. There’s a recurring ‘twin’ motif that’s never really explained, and the movie’s final scene, featuring Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase (Jarmusch loyalists will remember him from “Mystery Train”), is a wry, uplifiting puzzler.

When Driver first reared his pasty mug on “Girls,” it seemed possible that he was a one-trick pony, relegated to being a hipster caricature and foil to the show’s female quartet. But now that he’s successfully played an evil space knight, a 17th-century Jesuit, and a regular guy from New Jersey, it seems safe to predict a broad and fascinating career.

(“Paterson” opens January 13 at Cinema 21.)

 

With “Silence,” cinema’s high priest, Martin Scorsese, returns to the pulpit

The greatest living filmmaker's passion project stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan

Cinema is a religion. It’s obvious, and I’m certainly not the first one to say so.

Its adherents gather at scheduled times in designated spaces, which can range from the boxy and merely functional to the grandiose and inspiring. There they sit in ordered rows, gazing in a common direction, contemplating things which don’t physically exist but which possess an enhanced reality all their own.

Why do they do it? They’re hoping for a transcendent experience, at best. Or maybe just a deeper appreciation of the human condition. Or an illustration of moral principles. Or to be distracted from their mundane and inevitably truncated lives. Or just to be alone together among like-minded folks.

And that’s just the parishioners. For those who craft the rituals, who write the script(ure)s, who spin the mysteries, it’s a calling–often a lifelong one. Of the many filmmakers who fit this description–the Tarantinos, the Truffauts, the Kurosawas–none exemplifies the notion of director-priest as much as Martin Scorsese.

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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: “Japanese Currents” run strong and swift at the Northwest Film Center

The annual harvest of cinema from across the Pacific is bountiful thanks to films by veterans Sion Sono and Kiyoshi Kurosawa

America may have the most globally popular cinema. Indian may take the cake when it comes to sheer quantity of films released.

But for innovation, quality, and sheer creativity, over a span of decades, it’s hard to top the output of the Japanese film industry. During the 1960s heyday of international cinema, the country kept pace with European hot spots such as France, Sweden, and Italy. And while the era of Japan’s grand masters–Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, etc.–has long passed, filmmakers with vision, craft, and chutzpah continue to carry the torch, as exemplified by the selections in this year’s “Japanese Currents” series at the Northwest Film Center.

assassination-classroom

 

A couple of names familiar to dedicated followers of filmdom pop up among the fourteen features screening at the Whitsell Auditorium between December 2nd and 11th. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) made his name as part of the New Japanese Horror movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s with films such as “Pulse” and “Cure.” Now he’s back with another foreboding single-word title, “Creepy.”

The star of this year’s “Japanese Currents” series, prime for broader discovery as a one-man cult-film factory, is Sion Sono. Active since the early 1990s, he also gained notoriety as a “J-Horror” auteur, before expanding his horizons somewhat with 2008’s four-hour-long “Love Exposure.” In recent years, he’s only gotten more prolific, and has nearly fifty films under his belt as a director, including five released last year alone in Japan.

The Film Center’s series includes a pair of those 2015 films, each bizarre in its own inimitable manner, as well as a documentary profile, “The Sion Sono,” which, frankly, makes him out to be a rather pretentious, difficult persona in real life. Energy, talent, and originality, which he possess in spades, can make up for a lot, but I’m glad I don’t have to work with him.

Sono is clearly the heir to a tradition of Japanese outlaw cinema that winds from 1960s renegades Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki through Kinji Fukasaku (“Battle Royale”) to the similarly productive and bizarre Takashi Miike. But his recent output has demonstrated a willingness and ability to move beyond the grand guignol of genre freakfests to someplace that, obscured perhaps by attention-getting shenanigans, there lies a soul.

Here’s a rundown of the five best titles, including Sono’s and Kurosawa’s, in this year’s “Japanese Currents” series:

“Love and Peace”: If you only see one Japanese film in the next 10 days, make it Sono’s bizarre fable about a failed punk rocker now stuck in a humdrum office job. When he gets another shot at the limelight, he won’t succeed without the help of the pet turtle that he flushed down the toilet and has now been enlarged thanks to a magical hobo who lives in the sewers. It’s all really rather heartwarming. (Wednesday, Dec. 7, 7 p.m.)

“The Shell Collector”: A blind old man lives alone on a remote island, perusing and studying the conches, bivalves, etc., that wash up on shore. One day a woman washed up on shore as well, suffering from a mysterious, incurable malady that’s apparently sweeping the globe. When one of his supposedly poisonous shellfish stings her an unexpectedly cures the disease, the old man’s life gets more complicated than he’d hoped. Based on a short story by American author Anthony Doerr (“All the Light We Cannot See”), this is an enigmatic and potent drama. (Saturday, Dec. 3, 5 p.m.)

“Creepy”: Kurosawa’s first out-and-out genre film in several years centers on a retired police detective, who now teaches criminal psychology but gets drawn back in to a six-year-old case about a family that mysteriously disappeared. Meanwhile, his wife encounters some, well, creepy neighbors, who of course turn out to be connected to the case. The movie lives up to its title, and then exceeds it with a third act that moves from creepy to downright disturbing. (Friday, Dec. 9, 8 p.m.)

“The Whispering Star”: Sono’s other film in the series is as spare and elegant as “Love and Peace” is extravagant and colorful. An android with the appearance of a human woman travels through the galaxy in her charmingly retro spaceship, delivering packages to some of the few remaining humans in the universe. One such planet bears an uncanny resemblance to the abandoned landscapes affected by the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and reactor meltdown; in fact, those scenes were shot there, as shown in the documentary “The Sion Sono.” (Sunday, Dec. 4, 7 p.m.)

“Assassination Classroom”: The misfit, delinquent teen students in class 3-E have a new teacher. He’s a yellow-bodied, sphere-headed, smiley-faced, tentacled monster who has destroyed the moon and plans to do the same to the Earth at the end of the school year–unless the kids manage to kill him first. Matching “Peace and Love” in absurdity, if not heart, this adaptation of a popular manga is chockablock with bizarre visuals, insane slapstick violence, and enough gun-toting, uniform-wearing moppets to put “Battle Royale” to shame. (Sunday, Dec. 11, 4:30 p.m.)

(Full disclosure: the new film from director Hirokazu Kore-Eda, “After the Storm,” wasn’t available for preview, and I didn’t get a chance to watch the five-hour drama “Happy Hour,” because you gotta sleep sometime. For a full schedule, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/japanese-currents-2/)

 

 
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