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FilmWatch Weekly: Love will find a way

"Loving" and "The Love Witch" aim to inspire and amuse with tales of noble and desperate hearts

Love may not be in the air these days, but it makes its power known in a couple of very different movies opening this week in Portland. Director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” tells the story of the couple behind one of the key legal decisions of the civil rights movement, while Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch” attempts a campy, feminist subversion of B-movie sauciness.

“Loving”: More love than outrage

In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were married in Washington, D.C. They had traveled there to tie the knot because doing so in their home state of Virginia would make them guilty of a felony. Richard was white; Mildred was “colored,” in the language of the day. (She was of African American and Native American descent.)

After being rousted from their bed in the middle of the night, the Lovings pled guilty to violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and sentenced to a year in prison. The sentence was suspended, however, on the condition that they leave the state and not return, at least together, for 25 years. Eventually, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lovings waged a legal battle that ended with a unanimous 1967 Supreme Court decision declaring anti-miscegenation laws nationwide to be unconstitutional.  (Such laws were still being enforced in 15 other states besides Virginia.)

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in "Loving."

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in “Loving.”

That’s the book-report version of the events depicted in “Loving,” and if a movie about the persistent, oft-postponed quest for a humane, tolerant society doesn’t seem relevant, then you haven’t been paying a lick of attention. Nichols, the rising talent behind “Midnight Express” and “Take Shelter,” takes an admirably low-key approach to the story. The focus is squarely on Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) and their durable, genuine, relationship.

This is a movie that could have been full of stem-winding courtroom speeches and sun-dappled paeans to equality and justice, especially after the ACLU attorney (Nick Kroll) gets involved. But Nichols, perhaps inspired by the fact that the Lovings didn’t even attend the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision, barely even takes us inside the halls of justice. Husband and wife are both depicted as soft-spoken and humble, the polar opposite of rabble-rousers or activists.

In fact, the movie almost goes too far in tamping down its righteous fury. Edgerton’s performance, in particular, feels reduced to a series of grunts and grimaces at times, whether he’s tinkering with a hot rod or meeting with a lawyer. That said, this is still, inevitably, a potent tale, if only because it reminds us that less than fifty years ago, across a decent swath of the country, it remained illegal for interracial couples to marry. (In fact, even though it ceased to be enforced, Alabama’s statute remained on the books until 2000.) And, for what it’s worth, if you’re reading this and imagining that these laws were a vestige of the Confederacy, know that Oregon’s anti-miscegenation law wasn’t repealed until 1951.

“The Love Witch”: Stretching the joke

But maybe you need a laugh. If so, you may consider “The Love Witch.” Anna Biller, who designed the costume and sets and composed the score in addition to writing, directing, and producing the movie, has crafted a sly homage to 1960s exploitation fare. It looks great, from the vibrant colors captured on 35mm to the stunning star, Samantha Robinson, who’s gorgeous and definitely in on the joke.

She plays Elaine, who flees San Francisco after poisoning her husband and lands in a small, northern-California town. There, she meets up with some other witches and uses her psychopharmacological acumen to make a series of local men fall for her in a big way. It has the feel of a Russ Meyer film, but with more of a “pussy power” undertone, with Elaine as a turbo-charged example of the woman who’s willing to trade sex for love.

“The Love Witch” is a one-joke movie, though, and trying to stretch it out to nearly two hours is a mistake. Halfway through, you get the point, only to have it belabored over and over. Biller also edited the film, and that’s the only of her many hats she probably should have let someone else wear.

(“Loving” opens Friday, Nov. 18 at the Living Room Theater and expands to other screens on Nov. 23; “The Love Witch” opens Friday, Nov. 18 at the Living Room Theater and the Hollywood Theatre.)

 

ALSO WORTH A LOOK THIS WEEK:

 

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: Before he donned blue body paint to play Yondu in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Michael Rooker earned horrified plaudits for his 1986 portrayal of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. For its 30th anniversary, director John McNaughton’s unrelenting look at pathological violence has been digitally restored. (Friday-Sunday, Hollywood Theatre)

Chantal Akerman: The Northwest Film Center’s intermittent retrospective of the work of the pioneering, feminist Belgian filmmaker, who died last year, continues with three programs this weekend. The most essential screening is Saturday’s: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” made in 1975, is a three-and-a-half-hour film that follows the quotidian domestic duties of a widowed housewife who lives with her teenage son. This is one of the ultimate stick-with-it movies in the history of cinema, and an immensely powerful statement on both dramatic and political levels.

FilmWatch Weekly: Vanessa Renwick, “Tower,” and “Valley of the Dolls”

Vanessa Renwick's new work, a documentary about a 50-year-old mass shooting, and a pair of camp classics on discs.

The screening of  Vanessa Renwick’s new program of short films has been scheduled for either the perfect night or the worst possible one.

On Monday, November 7, aka Election Eve, Renwick will present “Do You See What I See? No.,” which includes her deadpan, despairing take on modern life, “Next Level Fucked Up.” The 15-minute piece debuted as part of a multimedia installation at the Portland Art Museum earlier this year. It was inspired by Renwick’s increasing dismay at the relentless onslaught of negative media stories and images, on scales ranging from the local to the global.

Harbor Seal pup wearing a plastic id disk attached to its head, from Vanessa Renwick's "Next Level Fucked Up."

Harbor Seal pup wearing a plastic id disk attached to its head, from Vanessa Renwick’s “Next Level Fucked Up.”

The targets of the filmmaker’s wrath include people who bag up their dog’s poop but discard the bag on the sidewalk, Portland’s rampant gentrification, the force-feeding of baby seals, and the agribusiness giant Monsanto. It’s a scattershot but effective litany that collectively gets at the sense of apocalyptic anxiety many of us have been feeling during the last several months. Depending on how things go on Tuesday, “Next Level Fucked Up” may be a snapshot of existential anguish circa 2016, or (shudder) a reminder of the good old days.

Also showing are two new shorts by Renwick. “Strabismus,” which takes its title from the medical term for crossed eyes, recounts the filmmaker’s experience with ocular surgery, while “Eclipse” returns to one of her favorite subjects, wolves. Between the films, musicians who contributed to “Next Level Fucked Up”–Sam Coomes, Michael Hurley, and Marisa Anderson–will perform.

(“Do You See What I See? No.” screens at 7pm on Monday, November 7th, at the Hollywood Theatre.)

On August 1, 1966, gunshots rang out from the 27th-floor observation deck of the clock tower in the middle of the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. It was one of the first spree shootings in U.S. history, and certainly the first to make an immediate impact through mass media. The documentary “Tower” is, amazingly enough, the first feature-length fact-based film about the shootings, in which 14 people were killed and another 32 injured.

The perpetrator, Charles Whitman, isn’t the focus of director Keith Maitland’s movie. In fact, his name isn’t mentioned until nearly the end. Instead, Maitland uses animated recreations of the experiences of victims, using their own words, to take us through that traumatic day. Alternating between the animation and actual archival footage creates a fascinating dichotomy between documentary realism and the sort of dissociation that comes from looking back on a nightmarish experience.

These days, sadly, we know exactly how to respond emotionally when we hear about another mass murder involving firearms. Part of what’s fascinating about “Tower” is the way it takes us back to a time when random gun violence on this scale was simply unimaginable. The movie also serves as a potent reminder of the heroism that can emerge from utterly ordinary individuals at time like these. Altogether, it’s a remarkable and overdue piece of work.

(“Tower” opens Friday, November 4, at the Living Room Theaters)

As streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Itunes, and the brand-new FilmStruck (more on that next week) continue to proliferate, cinephiles would be well served to remember the permanence of physical media, namely DVDs and Blu-rays. And companies like The Criterion Collection (one of FilmStruck’s backers) continue to release some pretty impressive products.

Criterion’s recent releases include one of the best potential double features of all time: 1967’s camp classic “The Valley of the Dolls,” and its utterly warped pseudo-sequel from 1970, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” The former, of course, is based on Jacqueline Susann’s mega-selling novel about three young women who aspire to show-business stardom but find unhappiness and addiction instead. Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, and Patty Duke star, with Tate astonishingly wooden and Duke an over-the-top dynamo.

The film was one of many awkward attempts by studios, specifically 20th Century Fox, to cater to a youth audience, and it pushed boundaries by referring to things like drugs and abortion, and using profanities like “bitch.” Despite terrible reviews, it was enough of a hit for Fox to pursue a sequel, and they made the astonishing decision to hire softcore savant Russ Meyer (“Vixen”) to direct it. Meyer brought in then-fledgling film critic Roger Ebert to write the screenplay, and the rest is history.

It’s indicative of the rapid evolution (or erosion, depending on your perspective) of Hollywood screen standards that, in order to match the boundary-pushing of the original, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” had to go much further–nudity, transvestism, constant drug use, and a storyline that goes all over the place.

Both of these Criterion release feature a bevy of special features. Parkins and entertainment journalist Ted Casablanca (who took his nom de plume from a character in the film) make their gossipy way through an audio commentary on “Valley,” while Ebert speaks from beyond the grace in a commentary (originally recorded in 2003) for “Beyond.” In addition, each features so many cast and crew interviews, retrospective documentaries, premiere footage, and other tributes to satisfy any fan. While these aren’t exactly the sort of films you expect to find in the Criterion Collection, but they’re among the most fun.

(“Valley of the Dolls” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” are available on Blu-ray for $39.95 each and DVD for $29.95 each)

FilmWatch Weekly: DIY art is the order of the day

New movies from France, China, and Mars (sort of) hit screens this week.

Recycled TV shows may dominate this weekend’s box office numbers, but our focus is on filmmakers who utilize pre-existing materials in more literal ways, as well as those who explore recurring themes through constantly varying stories.

 

“Microbe & Gasoline”: French director Michel Gondry tells a low-key (for him) story about two misfits who become friends and build a tiny car which they use to escape their humdrum lives. (Living Room Theaters) READ MORE

 

“Mountains May Depart” and “Jia Zhangke: A Guy from Fenyang”: The newest film from the Chinese auteur, which takes place over a 25-year span, screens along with a documentary about the filmmaker, one of global cinema’s leading lights. (Northwest Film Center) READ MORE

 

“A Space Program”: Artist Tom Sachs has constructed several installation/performance pieces over the last several years that mimic trips to the moon or Mars, but with equipment made out of plywood, Tyvek, and other ordinary materials. This documentary chronicles his latest effort. (Living Room Theaters) READ MORE

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FilmWatch Weekly: Bette Davis eyes and tickling lies

A series devoted to a pair of Hollywood legends kicks off, and a diverse roster of documentaries come to town this week.

Hollywood divas, competitive tickling, and the terrifying prospect of cyberwar. Around here, we just call that Friday.

 

ARTSWATCH RECOMMENDS:

 

“Bette & Joan”: 17 films, screened over the next seven weeks, track the parallel careers of two of the screen’s greatest stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, from the 1930s through their only on-screen collaboration in 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (Northwest Film Center) READ MORE

“Tickled”: One of the strangest documentaries of the year follows a New Zealand journalist as he investigates the bizarre world of Competitive Endurance Tickling, only to find that it’s merely the tip of a much larger and more dangerous iceberg. (Hollywood Theatre, Living Room Theaters) READ MORE

“Zero Days”: Alex Gibney, the Energizer Bunny of documentary filmmakers, digs for the true story behind the 2010 cyberattack known as Stuxnet, which struck Iranian nuclear facilities but has never officially been acknowledged by the American or Israeli governments. (Cinema 21) READ MORE

“The Music of Strangers”: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded this sprawling, non-profit, global musical collective in 1998, and this documentary from the Oscar-winning maker of “20 Feet from Stardom” examines the diverse participants and the work they do to bring people together through music. (Regal Fox Tower) READ MORE

“Lawrence of Arabia”: The Hollywood Theatre continues its month-long 70mm extravaganza with screenings of David Lean’s 1962 epic to end all epics. Starring The Desert, with Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, and Omar Sharif in supporting roles. (Hollywood Theatre) READ MORE

 

 

ALSO OPENING:

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This week’s notable movies include a pair of unique buddy comedies, a portrait of testicular quackery, and one role each for Stellan Skarsgard and his son Alexander.

 

ARTSWATCH REVIEWS:

 

“Swiss Army Man”: Frontrunner for most bizarre comedy of the year, this debut feature from the directing duo Daniels stars Paul Dano as a suicidal castaway and Daniel Radcliffe as the washed-up dead body who comes to his rescue. (Hollywood Theatre) READ MORE

David Giuntoli and Flula Borg star in "Buddymoon."

David Giuntoli and Flula Borg star in “Buddymoon.”

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FilmWatch Weekly: Our Bodies, Our Selves

Losing control of your physical self is a primal fear that's examined or exploited by more than one movie opening this week in Portland.

Several of this week’s movies deal with bodies and our control (or lack of control) over them. Some characters obsess over their appearance, and that of others, while others find themselves prisoners in their own flesh. Not sure what this says about the global zeitgeist—probably nothing—but in a time when the body politic, at home and abroad, seems to be thrashing thoughtlessly about, maybe the fear of irrational behavior becomes especially sharp.

A scene from the Polish film "Demon," playing in the Portland Jewish Film Festival.

A scene from the Polish film “Demon,” playing in the Portland Jewish Film Festival.

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FilmWatch Weekly: Jews, Geniuses, Raiders, and Devils

The 24th Portland Jewish Film Festival goes into high gear, a documentary examines the greatest fan film in history, and more!

24th Portland Jewish Film Festival: The Northwest Film Center once again provides cinematic proof of the diversity of Jewish culture, with films ranging from raunchy comedy to sober documentary to unsettling drama. (Northwest Film Center) READ MORE

“Genius”: This star-studded drama tells the story of editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and his collaboration with novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney co-star, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) pop in as well. (Regal Fox Tower) READ MORE

“Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made”: In 1982, three 11-year-old boys in Mississippi started making a shot-by-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They didn’t finish it for over thirty years. This is their story. (Hollywood Theater) READ MORE

Chantal Akerman: An ongoing series, schedule to run sporadically for the next year, pays tribute to the groundbreaking Belgian filmmaker who died in 2015. The first program in the series, a documentary about Akerman, plays this Friday. (Northwest Film Center) READ MORE

“Ma Ma”: Penelope Cruz brings all of her star power to bear on this Spanish melodrama about a single mom, diagnosed with breast cancer, who meets a man in the midst of his own struggle with tragic fate. (Living Room Theaters) READ MORE

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