Living Room Theaters

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.


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!

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)

Interview: “Complete Unknown” director Joshua Marston

The guy who made "Maria Full of Grace" talks about the vagaries of an indie film career, his latest movie, and casting Robert Redford as Oral Roberts in his next.

I met Joshua Marston in 2004 in the lobby of a downtown Portland hotel. He was on a press tour promoting his acclaimed debut feature, “Maria Full of Grace,” accompanied by the film’s star, Catalina Sandina Moreno. It was a tough call which of the two was more charmingly fresh-faced: the 35-year-old, California-raised director living his cinematic dream, or the 23-year-old Colombian-born actress making a memorable film debut as a pregnant, reluctant, drug mule.

“Maria Full of Grace” was the sort of calling card that could have led to a profitable career toiling in the Hollywood tinsel mines, but by the time Marston’s second feature, “The Forgiveness of Blood,” was released in 2011, it had become apparent that he had other priorities. That film demonstrated his continued interest in using non-professional actors to tell stories with a global perspective—in this case, that of an Albanian family torn apart by a blood feud and an ancient code of honor.

Having paid the bills and honed his craft over the last decade with TV credits (including episodes of “Six Feet Under” and “The Newsroom”), Marston is back with a belated third film under his arm. “Complete Unknown” is a more typical American indie production, with a couple of recognizable faces (Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon) and a New York-set tale about a woman reconnecting with an old boyfriend fifteen years after she abandoned her old life and took up the art of serial identity re-invention.

I reconnected with Marston last week. Our phone conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Iranian drama “Fireworks Wednesday” soars

Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi's 2006 film receives a belated, but much deserved, American release.

With the release of his acclaimed, Oscar-winning 2011 drama “A Separation,” Iranian director Asghar Farhadi vaulted to the top echelon of global filmmakers. With the recent death of Abbas Kiarostami and the continued self-exile of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Farhadi has become, after the officially banned Jafar Panahi, the most important director working in Iran today.

One happy result of this exposure has been the belated American theatrical release of some of Farhadi’s earlier work. “About Elly,” the film he made just before “A Separation,” played at Portland’s Living Room Theaters last year, and now his 2006 effort, “Fireworks Wednesday,” which tackles similar themes, is opening there.


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


FILM REVIEW: Teens & tiny cars in “Microbe & Gasoline”

French director Michel Gondry's latest finds him in his low-key, moderately whimsical mode rather than overdosing on twee.

French director Michel Gondry is, at least sometimes, his own worst enemy. Ever since graduating from music videos to feature films with the Charlie Kaufman-scripted “Human Nature” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” he’s been strongly identified with a certain twee, handmade aesthetic.

And yet, when he’s given full reign to these cellophane-and-balsa-wood constructions, the results have been uneven, to say the least. “Be Kind Rewind,” “The Science of Sleep,” and even the obligatory, misbegotten Hollywood foray “The Green Hornet” each had their moments, but Gondry’s penchant for whimsical production design and cheeky conceits feels crepe-paper thin without the intellectual penetration that Kaufman brings to the table.


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