Portland International Film Festival

ArtsWatch Weekly: and all that jazz

Portland Jazz Festival joins the parade of arts festivals in town; a new "Swan Lake" flies at Oregon Ballet

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Festival Town. (And Valentine’s Day. Don’t forget Valentine’s Day.) Three film celebrations – the Portland Black Film Festival, the Cascadia Festival of African Films, and the big-kahuna 40th annual Portland International Film Festival – are still spooling out stories on screens around town.

And on Thursday the PDX Jazz Festival 2017 roars into action with a packed program through February 26 arranged loosely around an homage to jazz centurions Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Buddy Rich, each born in 1917. Things kick off Thursday with a blast of Branford Marsalis, a thump of bass virtuoso Thundercat, and more, and the festival continues with the likes of the fabulous Heath Brothers, The Yellowjackets, and more. It’s not all old-style and it’s not all new, but a healthy-looking blend of tradition and exploration.

ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell offers tips for this week’s shows, beginning with Thursday’s Marsalis quartet appearance “with the great jazz singer Kurt Elling, Maria Schneider’s orchestra and Ralph Peterson’s trio in separate shows Friday, the hip jazz-rock fusion band Kneebody and the old-school all-star band The Cookers on Saturday. On Sunday, you have a choice of pop jazzers the Yellowjackets with Mike Stern, avant jazz guitar deity James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, or rising piano star Aminca Claudine Myers (or see all three!).”

2017 PDX Jazz Fest honoree Dizzy Gillespie, at Deauville, France, July 1991. Photo: Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons

In his preview PDX Jazz Festival: Signs of Life, Campbell sets the table more completely, talking about the state of jazz in Portland and internationally. Here’s just a taste of what he has to say:

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PIFF XL preview: International Film Fest offers insight into global anxieties

The fest's 40th edition comes at a time when global perspectives have increased relevance

It’s that time of year again: February in Portland. The annual reminder that 37 degrees Fahrenheit is the worst possible temperature, that sacrificing small cute animals would be worth it for a small patch of blue sky, and that my own uncanny ability to conjure an Old Testament-style downpour simply by walking my dogs remains unrivaled. It’s also time once again for the Portland International Film Festival, which celebrates its fortieth iteration this year.

The festival, which runs through February 25, and takes place at theaters all over town, includes a typical mix of titles that will be returning to local arthouse screens over the coming months and those which may never pass your way again. (I’m still waiting for someone to release on disc or online the Austrian movie “The Unfish,” which played PIFF in 1999 and then vanished forever.) There are well-crafted middlebrow entertainments, ragged experiments, and a few inevitable dogs.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

Having attended and/or covered the festival for (creak! groan!) more than half of its life, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of trotting out clichés about its significance. Film, more than any other art form, allows viewers to experience quite directly the lives of people, fictional or not, in locales and cultures that would otherwise remain exotic and abstract. Even the most evocative literature or music can only, well, evoke the reality it’s depicting. When Iranian cinema began to gain worldwide cachet in the 1990s, for instance, it was the first time many Western viewers saw what an ordinary street scene in Teheran was like.

So, yeah, it’s always been true that international cinema helps to bind the world more closely together, helps to humanize The Other, and opens our eyes to how alike we all are despite and beneath our diverse and magnificent differences.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: film fest x 3

Grab your popcorn: PIFF, Portland Black Film Fest, African film fest fill the screens; 10 tips for a busy week onstage; Arvo Pärt, more

Film fanatics, this week is yours: You’ve just hit the trifecta.

The 40th annual Portland International Film Festival opens on Thursday.

The Portland Black Film Festival, featuring films about black life in America, is the newbie of the three, but arrives with some zing. It also opens on Thursday, at the Hollywood Theatre, with Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, and continues through February 22 with 10 features, including Pioneers of African American Cinema. The centerpiece, this Saturday, is the blaxploitation classic Coffy, with action star Pam Grier as special guest.

And the 27th Cascade Festival of African Films, which features films by African filmmakers from the African continent, kicked off on Friday and continues through March 7. It continues a grand tradition of bringing hard-to-find films to town – this year more than 30, including feature films and shorts. Coming up Friday is The Cursed Ones, from Ghana, about a pair of village outcasts accused of witchcraft. Every offering at the Cascade Fest, which takes place at the Cascade campus of Portland Community College, is free.

“I Am Not Your Negro” at PIFF and the Portland Black Film Festival.

PIFF, the granddaddy of the local festivals, continues through February 25 with more than a hundred movies from Afghanistan to Venezuela, in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. It kicks off Thursday evening with director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which arrives with a passel of admiring-to-ecstatic reviews and a nomination for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It’ll also be screened February 18 in the Portland Black Film Festival. Based on Remember This House, the final, unfinished novel of the great American writer James Baldwin, it explores “the absurd – and deeply tragic – relationship between the United States and skin color.” Some of the festival films will have broad commercial releases, and some will be available in art houses or on cable. The PIFF screenings will provide your only opportunity to see some others.

Spend a little time going through the schedules for all three festivals, then make your plans.

“The Cursed Ones,” directed by Nana Obirir Yeboah, at the Cascade Festival of African Films.

 

 


 

TEN TIPS FOR A BUSY WEEK ON THE BOARDS:

Pen/man/ship. Portland Playhouse takes on Christina Anderson’s acclaimed play about a ship at sea headed for Liberia in 1896 at a time when the American Colonization Society is campaigning to send African Americans “back” to Africa. Opens Saturday.

Marjorie Prime. Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer finalist has a top-notch cast at Artists Rep: Vana O’Brien, Chris Harder, Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson. It’s science fiction about aging, technology, and memory loss: O’Brien plays an 85-year-old woman whose memories are prompted by an artificial version of her late husband. Opens Saturday.

Swimming While Drowning. Milagro produces the world premiere of Emilio Rodriguez’ play about a gay teen who leaves home and his homophobic father and winds up in an LGBT homeless shelter in Los Angeles. Opens Friday.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Maiesha McQueen stars as the great gospel singer Ethel Waters in Larry Parr’s musical biography, performed in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. Opens Friday.

Trifles/Dutchman. Defunkt brings back a couple of old one-acts with contemporary inclinations: Susan Glaspell’s 1916 Trifles, a play with feminist overtones about a murder in the country; and Amiri Baraka’s 1964 Dutchman, about a young black man and a seductive white woman who meet on a subway. It was Baraka’s last play under his birth name LeRoi Jones, and coincides with his turn toward black nationalism. Opens Friday.

The Pillowman. The new Life in Arts Productions kicks off with Martin McDonaugh’s dark, brutal, chillingly beautiful drama about child murders and storytelling in a totalitarian state. Jamie Rea directs Bobby Bermea and others. Opens Friday at The Headwaters.

Interlude. Six dances by six choreographers, danced by six company members of PDX Contemporary Ballet, all in the intimate space of CoHo Theatre. Friday-Sunday.

Missed Connections and Other Love Stories. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Readers Theatre Rep brings readings of three short plays that offer a rueful look at love: David Ives’s Sure Thing, Peter Barry’s Sex with a Mathematician, and Brooke Berman’s Defusion. Friday-Saturday, Blackfish Gallery.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha. The latest edition in this adventurous series at Performance Works NW features dancers Mike Barber and Subashini Ganesan, oboist Catherine Lee, PETE’s Amber Whitehall in a piece “made of hungriness and failure,” and more. Friday-Saturday.

In the Blood. Victor Mack directs Suzan-Lori Parks’s contemporary adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, focusing on a woman with five “illegitimate” children who’s trying to break out of poverty. Opens Friday at Portland Actors Conservatory.

 


 

Composer Arvo Pärt

A WHOLE LOT OF PÄRT. The Portland choir Cappella Romana is undertaking an Arvo Pärt Festival that kicks into high gear Thursday through Sunday, featuring the music of the Estonian composer who is perhaps the most-performed living composer in the world. Oregonians have some deep connections with Pärt and his music, and ArtsWatch writers have taken note:

When Oregon met Arvo. Brett Campbell tells the extraordinary tale of Pärt’s 1993 agreement to compose a new work for the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene – a partnership that almost fell apart in a crisis of confidence, and ended in triumph the following year: “The ovation went on for a full 15 minutes, until, amazingly, the shy Pärt himself leapt up to the stage, a beatific smile beaming from the dark cloud of his beard, then embraced [conductor Helmuth] Rilling and the singers in turn.”

Arvo Pärt Festival: spirituality in sound. Daniel Heila explores the “holy minimalism” of Pärt’s devotional music: “The Eastern Orthodox composer’s departure from modernism was marked by an intense reexamination of all that he knew about music and an exploration and embracing of its sacred history.”

A Pärt pilgrimage. Oregon music student Justin Graff recalls his journey to Estonia to meet his musical hero and what he found, and shared, down a long rural road.

 

 


 

ArtsWatch links

 

Theater for Barbarians. Maria Choban gets on her ancestral Greek and goes to a bunch of Greek plays around town. They tell her more about contemporary America than ancient Greece, she writes: where’s the raw, wild passion?

Kill the NEA? What it might mean. The new presidential administration is taking aim at the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We consider what might happen if both federal agencies actually get the ax.

Fertile Ground reviews: Young Bloods. Brett Campbell takes in Broken Planetarium’s Atlantis and Orphic’s Iphigenia 3.0 and discovers theater made by and for a bold new generation.

Global Voices get a fair hearing. A.L. Adams drops in on the first weekend of Boom Arts’ mini-festival of readings of international plays (it concludes this weekend). The upshot? “Global Voices” is all over the map – and that’s a good thing.

Cappella Romana: choral conundrum. Bruce Browne, reviewing the choir’s performance of Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara’s All Night Vigil (Vigilia), argues that this music from the 1970s deserves much wider attention. And he praises guest basso Glenn Miller: “He is so modest and self-deprecating, you wouldn’t know his capabilities, except his vocal quality is that of the voice of God.”

 


 

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PIFF best bets for Friday & Saturday, Feb. 26 & 27

The festival's final two After Dark selections are a sly indie thriller and an endearing portrait of a video game champion

And now, the end is near…

The 39th Portland International Film Festival is drawing to a close, and if that leaves you feeling like Col. Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” don’t worry. There will still be plenty of marvelous movies coming our way, and ArtsWatch will be there to help you negotiate them. In the meantime, there are a couple more PIFF picks to draw your attention to. The final entries in the PIFF After Dark sidebar (one of the fest’s highlights, for sure) may not be terribly international, but they’re both mighty entertaining, perhaps serving as a bit of a palate cleanser after a couple of weeks dominated by some dark, depressing flicks. (There are also encore screenings on Sunday and Monday.) Enjoy, and with any luck we’ll still be here to commemorate PIFF’s 40th birthday next year!

The Invitation 2 copy (1)

“The Invitation”: There’s a new trend in American independent film, at least according to the adage that three examples equal a trend: the dinner-party-meets-genre movie. Low-budget auteurs have always liked the single setting and ensemble cast aspects of a story that revolves around the inherent drama of people getting together, eating, talking, drinking, and eventually baring their souls.

Now these movies come with a twist. “It’s a Disaster,” a weekend brunch is interrupted by a comical apocalypse. In “Coherence,” a get-together gets weird after a passing comet disrupts quantum reality. And in Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation,” a reunion of old friends grows tense as it gradually becomes apparent that the hosts are members of a malevolent cult. Or are they?

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi, who shines here and in the upcoming “Miles Ahead”) are driving through the Hollywood Hills on their way to the beautifully appointed home of his ex-wife, who Will hasn’t seen in a couple of years. A startling encounter with local wildlife gets their evening off to an unnerving start, but that’s nothing compared to what lies in store.

The gathering hosted by Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) features some faces familiar to Will and some that aren’t, including a mysterious older guy (John Carroll Lynch, who does banal yet foreboding better than almost anyone). As the night progresses, Will’s suspicions mount—or is he just paranoid and unnerved being back in the house he shared with Eden before the death of their young son drove them apart?

Well-acted and effective, this is a nice comeback for Kusama, who had a breakthrough debut with 2000’s “Girlfight” before, like so many female filmmakers in Hollywood, having trouble getting attached to worthy follow-ups. And it has a killer final scene.

(United States, 99 min., in English) Fri., Feb. 26, 11 p.m., Cinema 21.

Man Vs Snake 2 copy

“Man vs. Snake”: Not to be confused with “Men and Chicken,” also in PIFF, this offbeat documentary focuses on a battle for arcade video game supremacy. The game in question is “Nibbler,” a less-than-iconic Pac-Man rip-off in which players guide an ever-growing snake through a maze, trying to avoid eating their own tail. What made Nibbler unique in video game lore was that it was the first one to feature a nine-digit score readout, which meant a player could conceivably score one billion points.

The hero of “Man vs. Snake” is Tim McVey (not to be confused with Timothy McVeigh), who did just that as a sixteen-year-old in 1984. McVey grew up just down the road from Twin Galaxies, the arcade in tiny Ottumwa, Iowa that somehow became the repository of gaming’s official records. (The story of Twin Galaxies and its eccentric, obsessed owner, Walter Day, would make a great documentary on its own.)

Twenty-five years later, McVey comes out of retirement after it emerges that some Italian guy may have broken his Nibbler high score. Directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy, who worked together as editors on TV’s “Battlestar Galactica,” follow McVey’s training regimen (he’s not in great physical shape, and breaking a billion points means playing for at least 36 hours straight) and introduce us to his challenger, a punk-rock-loving, dreadlock-sporting Canadian named Dwayne Richard.

If all this calls to mind the 2007 documentary “The King of Kong,” that’s not surprising. (Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell lends expert commentary in “Man vs. Snake.” But the saga of Nibbler has its own rough charm, and you’ll be left shaking your head in admiration and/or befuddlement at the things people do for notoriety.

(United States, 92 min., in English) Sat., Feb. 27, 11 p.m., Cinema 21, with directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy in attendance.

 

PIFF best bets for Thursday, Feb. 25

Two award-caliber French films and a meditative film essay from Jem Cohen are today's picks

Welcome to the penultimate edition of ArtsWatch’s daily recommendations during the 39th Portland International Film Festival. (We’ll do one final roundup of the final weekend’s titles tomorrow.)

Today’s highlights include a pair of the most-nominated films at tomorrow’s Cesar award ceremony, a/k/a the French Oscars. Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” is up for 11 awards, while Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” has nine nods. There’s also the latest from experimental indie filmmaker Jem Cohen, whose previous winners have included the Fugazi documentary “Instrument” and the meditative “Museum Hours.” In other words, just the typical array of fascinating flicks we’ve come to expect from the Northwest Film Center.

 

deephan

“Dheepan”: French auteur Jacques Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “A Prophet”) is one of the most talented and exciting filmmakers working today, crafting one great film after another. (Even his last effort, the messy “Rust and Bone,” has its share of great moments.) So it’s a tad strange how little attention his latest film, “Dheepan,” has received since winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. It may not be his best work, but its mix of topicality and the director’s neo-realist genre aspirations packs a real punch.

This immigration tale, about a former Tamil soldier from Sri Lanka given a fake family and identity who flees to France with a fake family and a new identity, only to find more violence in his new home, is very au courant, but thankfully it never resorts to didactic speechifying or lazy melodrama. Instead, the film delivers a more experiential, immersive style that plays like Paul Greengrass (“Captain Philips,” the “Bourne” films) taking on “Taxi Driver.”

Dheepan is the new name given to the protagonist (Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who’s fantastic), this film’s version of Travis Bickle. He’s a broken man right from the beginning, but the film yearns for him and his ersatz family to make good on this opportunity. It’s not to be (or maybe it is, depending on how you read the final scene), and though the film is shot like a docudrama, certain sequences take on a kind of dream logic. But that’s nothing new for Audiard, who often adds touch of spiritual poeticism to his films. This is a great film that doesn’t deserve to get lost in the shuffle, but just might. See it if you can. [Erik McClanahan]

(France, 115 min., in Tamil, English, and French with English subtitles) Thu., Feb. 24, 5:45 p.m., Empirical Theater at OMSI; also Fri., Feb. 25, 5:45 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

counting1

“Counting”: I happen to like boring movies. Not “a story badly told” boring, but the kind of boring where narrative is pushed aside in favor of wordless reverie. Jem Cohen’s “Counting” is this kind of boring – relaxing-boring. It’s less like taking in a story and more like taking a bath.

Cohen’s camera crawls across the globe, from New York City to Moscow, to Istanbul and beyond, bookended by cryptic chapter titles. Nothing really happens, although a lot does: a radio plays, construction workers begin their day of labor, an open air market bustles with activity, a casket is carefully wheeled into a funeral home, political protesters chant in unison, a cat licks its paws. At times it evokes that touchstone of cult experimental film, “Koyaanisqatsi,” pulsing with the chaos and vastness of life on earth. At other moments it’s a humble traveler’s scrapbook, concentrating hard on little details like a paper cup of tea abandoned on a Turkish sidewalk.

To many readers, this will sound terribly boring, but fans of experimental filmmakers such as Chris Marker will appreciate its visual ebb and flow. (Cohen describes the film as a reaction to the passing of Marker and an attempt to channel his impressionistic cine-essay techniques.) [Lily Hudson]

(United States, 111 minutes, English) Thu., Feb. 25, 8:30 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium; also, Fri., Feb 26, 8:30 p.m., Regal Fox Tower and Sat., Feb 27, 3 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

My Golden Days

“My Golden Days”: The original French title of Arnaud Desplechin’s film translates as the more evocative and specific “Three Souvenirs of My Youth.” It’s both a sequel and a prequel to his 1999 breakthrough film, “My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument),” in Mathieu Amalric played Desplechin’s on-screen alter-ego, Paul Daedalus.

It’s nearly twenty years later, and Paul is preparing to return to Paris from Tijikistan after several years working there as an anthropologist. There are irregularities with his passport, however, and so he ends up in a room with a government employee (André Dussollier), to whom he relates the second of the “souvenirs,” flashbacks to Paul’s youth which take up the bulk of the film. (The first is a brief but potent memory of his tyrannical mother.)

As a teenager, Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) is enlisted in a slightly dangerous mission while on a school trip behind the Iron Curtain, back when there was an Iron Curtain. He and a friend smuggle travel documents to Russian Jews trying to emigrate, their low-grade spy antics presented with wry, youthful amusement rather than real tension.

In the third and longest segment, Paul pursues his studies in Paris, as well as relationship with the lovely Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), as the Cold War comes to an end in the background. Both the young, fresh-faced leads are fantastic, and they’re each responsible for one of the film’s 11 César award nominations, tied for the most this year with “Marguerite,” which also played during PIFF. The ceremony is tomorrow, so this is your last chance to get a head start on that César office pool! [Marc Mohan]

(France, 123 min., in French with English subtitles) Thu., Feb. 25, 5:45 p.m., Cinema 21; also Sat., Feb. 27, 5:45 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

PIFF encore screenings announced for Feb. 28 & 29

Film fest fanatics fearing the pangs of withdrawal will have two extra days to wean themselves of daily cinematic treats.

The Northwest Film Center has announced two days of encore screenings featuring films from the 39th Portland International Film Festival. The schedule is as follows, with all screenings at the Whitsell Auditorium:

 

February 28 – Sunday 12 p.m.
ADAMA

 

February 28 – Sunday 2 p.m.
ROAD TO LA PAZ

February 28 – Sunday 4:30 p.m.
SCHNEIDER VS. BAX

February 28 – Sunday 7 p.m.
BEST OF THE SHORTS
February 29Monday 6 p.m.
MARSHLAND

February 29Monday 8:30 p.m.
RAMS

Full program descriptions are available at www.nwfilm.org. I’ve seen “Road to La Paz” and “Rams” and can recommend both.

PIFF best bets for Wednesday, Feb. 24

A Turkish film about a boy and a dog and an Albanian one about a woman living as a man are today's international cinema highlights.

The 39th Portland International Film Festival is undergoing Balkanization. No, it’s not breaking up “into small, often hostile units” (thanks, Merriam-Webster!), despite the behavior of some of the wearier festival-goers. But our recommendations for today’s viewing hearken from Albania and Turkey, so it seemed appropriate to trot out the term. One is about a boy and his dog. The other is about a woman living as a man who decides to live as a woman again. Details below.

Sworn Virgin

“Sworn Virgin”: Slight and fine-boned, with dark cropped hair, Mark (Alba Rohrwacher) grew up in the Albanian countryside. When he arrives at his sister’s doorstep in Italy, his stroppy teenage niece asks him, “Are you a fag? Or a cross-dressing lesbian?” The answer is more complicated.

Laura Bispuri’s quiet but absorbing feature examines the fascinating Balkan custom of the sworn virgin. In exchange for a pledge of lifelong virginity, women are permitted to assume the name, dress and lifestyle of a man. For Mark, this voluntary social queerness has more to do with escape and less to do with following an inner longing; drinking whiskey and carrying a rifle sounded more appealing than being married off as chattel (who can blame him?). Scenes of Mark’s brutal upbringing in the frostbitten village are interspersed with his new, more spacious life in Italy, where his defenses begin to thaw and the burdens of an ill-fitting gender identity finally become too much to bear.

What does Mark really want? To wear a lacy black bra instead of a binder? To have sex with a man? “Sworn Virgin” declines to pass judgment on the political implications of Mark/Hana’s transition-in-reverse. Instead, it’s a sensitive exploration of the bodies we live in and the connection they have to our souls. [Lily Hudson]

(Albania, 90 min., in Albanian and Italian with English subtitles) Wed. Feb. 24, 6:15 p.m., Regal Fox Tower; also Fri., Feb. 26, 8:30 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

Sivas

“Sivas”: Call me corny, call me old-fashioned, but there’s something primally satisfying about a boy-and-his dog tale. That’s exactly what this Turkish drama is, but it’s a well-executed, sensitively acted, example of one.

The movie tells you right off the bat that no animals were harmed in its making, which both puts you at ease and warns you that some fake, but realistic-looking, animal violence is in the offing.

The setting is the windswept Anatolian steppes, where we met the adolescent Aslan. (His name means “lion” in Turkish, so when a relative refers to him as such, it’s not necessarily a Narnia reference.) The title critter is a burly sheepdog who loses a dogfight and is left for dead afterwards. The barbaric practice is presented by first-time director Kaan Mujdeci without any explicit moralizing, but Aslan’s rescue of the dog and ensuing friendship serve as an implicit but thorough critique of it.

Aslan tries to use his barely domesticated pet to impress a female classmate who’s playing the princess in an upcoming school play–he also tries to finagle the role of the prince for himself–and these efforts culminate in another dogfight, one that, despite the opening notice, may be tough for animal lovers to watch.

Simply but strikingly photographed and evocative of its place and culture, “Sivas” could have mustered more narrative satisfaction, but the charms of Aslan and his canine companion are enough to make it worthwhile. [Marc Mohan]

(Turkey, 98 min., Turkish with English subtitles) Wed., Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m., Empirical Theater at OMSI; also Fri., Feb. 26, 6 p.m., Regal Fox Tower

 

 
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