Hollywood Theatre

‘Queer Horror’ preview: season of the witch

Halloween installment in Hollywood Theatre's film series celebrates the infernal feminine

by ANTHONY HUDSON

The witches are coming. No longer are they meeting just in thunder, lightning, or in rain, dancing at the Sabbat’s fire and clothed only by its flickering glow. No longer do they tap their claws against bedroom windows hungry for a feast, tethered to the pagan holidays of old or the worship of Yahweh’s prosecutor-turned-nemesis. Witches today emerge from the dirt and the swamps, from your schools and grocery stores and homes; no longer green and hooknosed, they approach in all shapes, sizes, and colors. From Lady Gaga’s sorceress in American Horror Story to Kristen J. Sollee’s sociological text Witches, Sluts, and Feminists and a whole canon of modern women-centric horror films, the witches are here, and they are legion.

Lady Gaga in ‘American Horror Story.’

These witches aren’t exactly the “perfect love and perfect trust” neopagans who combine ceremonial magic with New Age appropriations like smudging while protesting “negative” stereotypes of witches. No, these are satanic feminist witches – and yet not entirely capital-S Satanists, either. Just as the horror genre is experiencing a retro-throwback in media like ItIt Followsand Stranger Things, so too is witchcraft – the satanic feminist earth witch is a resurrection of the classic witch-used-against-women, the haggard crone thrown to the fire and dropped from the gallows.

W.I.T.C.H. PDX at the PDX Women’s March. Photo: Leigh Richards.

The witches are even making their way to Portland, and they’re ready for justice. Recently the whitest city in America has been treated to pop-up rituals and protests by W.I.T.C.H. (or the Witches’ International Troublemaker Conspiracy from Hell), itself a reboot of a 1960s feminist protest group of the same name. First appearing at the Portland Women’s March in January, Portland’s W.I.T.C.H. chapter has spawned a resurgence of similar covens across the country, all acting anonymously and championing an intersectional feminist code of protest from behind black veils. And on October 27, Portland’s Hollywood Theatre and its bimonthly program Queer Horror will launch a short-film festival of satanic feminist films as a Halloween tribute to these wild women and a new order of witchcraft.

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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.

The best Halloween film fright: the Iranian-set chiller “Under the Shadow”

A supernatural menace loose in war-torn 1980s Tehran might be the scariest thing on theater screens this weekend

When they’re good, horror movies can be, pardon the phrase, scary good. The problem is sorting out the wheat from the chaff. They’re easy to make—just set a gaggle of hapless, horny teens loose in a spooky forest or abandoned house and you’re pretty much set. But they’re extremely hard to make well, and, to be honest, horror audiences sometimes aren’t the most discriminating of fans.

That’s why it’s helpful each year when Halloween comes around and cinema screens are awash in bloody (or just merely creepy) revivals. These titles are time-tested and fright-fan approved, and almost always more fun when seen with an appreciative crowd. Before we get to those, though, I want to spotlight what might be the best horror movie of 2016 (and, no, it’s not “Oujia: Origin of Evil,” although to be honest I haven’t seen “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and can’t imagine I will, so who knows…)

Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi in "Under the Shadow"

Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi in “Under the Shadow”

It’s called “Under the Shadow,” which, granted, is a pretty generic horror movie title. But nothing else about director Babak Anvari’s debut feature, which opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters, conforms to expectations. The movie is set in Tehran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. In an early scene, a woman named Shideh (Narges Rashidi) learns that, because of left-wing political activity during the Iranian Revolution, she will never be allowed to finish medical school. Back home, a frustrated Shideh spars with her husband and demonstrates impatience with her young daughter Dorsa.

When Shideh’s husband, a doctor, is called up for military service, he orders her to take Dorsa and flee the city, which is under frequent Iraqi missile attack. Fed up with being told what to do by men, she stays in their apartment, which is soon struck by a rocket and damaged.

That’s when things get interesting. Dorsa’s beloved doll goes missing, as does Shideh’s samizdat Jane Fonda workout videotape. The child blames invisible creatures she calls ‘djinn,’ and from here on out the movie shares some DNA with the 2014 Australian film “The Babadook.” Mom tries to figure out whether the kid is making stuff up, hallucinating, or actually engaging with some sort of supernatural badness. Things get creepier and more claustrophobic—the stultifying apartment block and perpetually cracked ceiling recall Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.”

By combining horror movie tropes with an explicit criticism of the repressive regime, Anvari makes you wonder exactly what the titular shadow is that Shideh must live under. (The film is actually a British-led multinational co-production, and was filmed in Jordan, since there’s no way the Iranian government would allow it to be shot in Tehran.) Anvari also makes excellent use of minimal special effects, imbuing duct tape and even a seemingly ordinary bed sheet with auras of real menace.

But back to those revivals. Tops on the list would be “Eraserhead,” David Lynch’s nightmarish ode to impending fatherhood and radiators. One wonders what his daughter Jennifer thinks of it. It’s screening in 35mm at the Northwest Film Center on Friday, October 28th. If one wanted to make a full weekend of frightful flicks, one might then return to the Whitsell Auditorium the following night for the classic 1962 ghost story “The Innocents,” which stars Deborah Kerr in an adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turning of the Screw.” On Sunday (and Saturday, in fact), the Hollywood Theatre has “Rosemary’s Baby” in 35mm, which makes a nice parental-anxiety bookend with “Eraserhead” if you think about it.

The most intriguing Halloween booking, though, comes on the night itself, as the Hollywood shows the 1981 Canadian B-movie “The Pit.” Having only seen the trailer for this one, I can say that it’s about a 12-year-old boy whose teddy bear commands him commit murders by tossing innocent people (including an old lady) into a monster-filled hole in the middle of the forest. It’s been accurately described as being shot like an after-school special, and appears to allow its juvenile protagonist to indulge in some pretty distasteful behavior, like trying to seduce his attractive babysitter.

If those choices aren’t sufficient, there’s always John Carpenter’s “Halloween” at the Academy Theater, the Swedish kid-vampire classic “Let the Right One In” at the Laurelhurst Theater, the 1982 version of “Cat People” with Malcolm McDowell and Natassja Kinski at PSU’s 5th Avenue Cinema, or the silent Lon Chaney version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” with live organ accompaniment, on Saturday afternoon at the Hollywood.

And if all that isn’t enough to send chills up your spine, next week is the election!

FILM REVIEW: Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society”

The director's 45th feature film revisits familiar themes through a story set in glamorous 1930s Hollywood.

For his 45th movie, Woody Allen has once again retreated to the safety of yesteryear, a simpler time when a man could have a girlfriend 20 years his junior without anyone noticing. “Cafe Society,” set mostly in Hollywood in the late 1930s, is typical 21st-century Woody: pleasant, though not particularly funny; a bit melancholic, though not emotionally affecting; likable though not memorable. Woody Allen is now our most prolific producer of cinematic shrugs.

Allen serves as narrator this time, using Jesse Eisenberg as his onscreen avatar, at least at first. Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx kid who comes to L.A. hoping to get a job with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a self-important, high-powered Hollywood agent. Uncle Phil has his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), show Bobby around town, and the two become friendly. But Vonnie says she has a boyfriend, a journalist who travels frequently, leaving Bobby to pine for her.

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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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Show, Business: “The Lost World of Industrial Musicals”

Author and collector Steve Young brings an odd corner of American musicals to light in a Wednesday show at the Hollywood Theatre.

The 1950s and 60s are often considered the Golden Age of American musicals, both on stage and film. A special confluence of innovation in storytelling, songwriting and choreography coincided with the last vestiges of pop-cultural naiveté to produce classics such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Oklahoma!,” and “West Side Story.”
But these years also saw the birth of a different sort of American musical, one that will be showcased on Wednesday, July 20, at the Hollywood Theatre, when author and collector Steve Young will present “The Lost World of Industrial Musicals.” These productions were designed for a very specific audience–attendees at corporate sales conventions—and were never intended for public consumption. Their goal was to introduce a new product line, or boost morale for the coming year, and the results are frequently surreal.

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Art transports us out of ourselves, allowing space for our imaginations, curiosity and connection with the larger world. With the daily barrage of horrible news, we need that right now. Look at the dance offerings this weekend as a prescription for the soul. Dancing (and witnessing dance) is healing, and offers new perspectives helping us disconnect from the daily grind. This weekend is full of experimentation and live music, trips back in time to visit artists no longer with us, and emerging choreographers and aspiring dancers. It is a full weekend. Full of talent, heart and energy to pull us through.

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