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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.

FILM IN BRIEF: Frank Zappa, “Weiner-Dog,” and more

Documentaries about a musical icon, an elderly Korean couple, and an autistic little boy, plus the latest dark comedy from director Todd Solondz

There’s an especially long lineup of films opening in Portland’s independent theaters, so here’s a brief rundown of notable movies not covered elsewhere:

 

“Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words”

Despite releasing several albums of instrumental music over his three-decade career, Frank Zappa was never at a loss for words. His songs that did have lyrics overflowed with rapid-fire verbiage, and his interviews and other public appearances were masterpieces of straightforward, uncensored truth-telling. The guy had one of the most sensitive bullshit detectors in history.

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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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FilmWatch Weekly: Just the facts, man–documentaries dominate

With Hollywood churning out glorified video games and unasked-for sequels, reality is better than fiction this week

Describing this week’s wide-opening movie releases feels a bit like eavesdropping in a Hollywood studio pitch meeting: it’s the same old story.

A special effects-laden mediocrity based on a video game franchise and two sequels that exist only because their predecessors outperformed expectations at the box office—that’s what America’s multiplexes will be serving up to content consumers, or what used to be called “audiences.” If these pallid excuses for narrative don’t float your boat, though, the week does offer an unusually diverse array of documentaries to devour. Dig in!

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ARTSWATCH REVIEWS:

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FILM REVIEW: “The Idol” is a Palestinian crowd-pleaser

This inspirational drama is based on the story of a Gaza Strip refugee who won the "Arab Idol" reality show in 2013.

Earlier this year, “Sing Street” chronicled the inspiring pursuit of musical glory by a kid from a disadvantaged background. Nothing against John Carney’s charming semi-autobiographical fable, but as far as barriers to success and happiness, 1980s Dublin ain’t got nothin’ on the Gaza Strip.

“The Idol” is also a fictionalized take on a true story, that of Mohammad Assaf, a Palestinian who emerged from the isolation and poverty of Gaza to win the top prize on “Arab Idol” in 2013 and became a hero to his nation. (Yes, there is an “Arab Idol,” which proves that people the world over, despite differences in race, creed, or culture, are all merely slaves to Simon Cowell’s evil genius.)

The movie begins in 2005, as young Mohammad (Qais Atallah) forms a band with his spunky sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) and his best pal Omar (Abd-Elkarim Abu-Barakeh). Omar decides that music is the devil’s tool, and Nour develops a serious kidney illness, so their musical dreams are put on hold.

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Film Review: In “Elvis & Nixon,” the King meets the Prez

Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon make for a slight but very amusing treat

No doubt you’ve seen the famous 1970 photo of President Richard M. Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands in the Oval Office, which was just about as incongruous a coupling of rock ‘n’ roll and the Establishment as anyone could have imagined at the time. What on earth did they have to talk about? Who arranged the meeting? And why?

Kevin Spacey stars as Richard Nixon (left) and Michael Shannon stars as Elvis Presley (right) in Liza Johnson’s ELVIS & NIXON, an Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street release.

Kevin Spacey stars as Richard Nixon (left) and Michael Shannon stars as Elvis Presley (right) in Liza Johnson’s ELVIS & NIXON, an Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street release.

Some of the answers to those questions are known, and the ones that aren’t, well, “Elvis & Nixon” — a jaunty, silly movie about a trivial event — makes ’em up, then has Kevin Spacey (Nixon) and Michael Shannon (Elvis) act them out. The casting alone is a delight. Were you even aware that you needed Michael Shannon’s Elvis impersonation in your life? Most likely not, and yet once you see it, you cannot live without it.

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