34th Portland International Film Festival

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Yes, it's almost here again: The Northwest Film Center's 34th Portland International Film Festival. Once more into the cinematic breach, dear friends. My freakish schedule of theatrically watching at least two films a day (four on the weekends) for two and a half straight weeks begins officially February 10th. But I'll be attending some of the advanced screenings starting this Monday.

This year there are one hundred and thirty films from forty-six countries over seventeen days. The most I ever maxed out on at a single PIFF was, I believe something like fifty-five films and two shorts programs. Get more than a little bleary-eyed and shell shocked by the last few days, but it is totally worth it.

Starting this Monday my mini reviews should begin. On the first day of the advanced schedule are Silent Souls (Russia) and Kawasaki's Rose (Czech Republic). Tuesday is the Oscar nominated Incendies (Canada). I'll update as quickly and as clearly as I can. I believe every single year I burn out on the review writing in those last few days, the last five or six movies usually don't get write-ups 'cause I'm simply too pooped to pop. Plus it usually dovetails right into Oscar night, with no break in between.

Oh, yes. I do love this town!



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__________________
"Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It bosses the enzymes, directs the pineal gland, plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to Film is more Film." - Frank Capra



Awesome. Can't wait to read your reviews again and I know it doesn't get said enough, but thanks for doing all these great write ups. I try to see as many of these flicks as I can get my fat little hands on.
__________________
We are both the source of the problem and the solution, yet we do not see ourselves in this light...



First day of advanced screenings...


Овсянки - Silent Souls
Aleksei Fedorchenko, Russia

A poetic modern fable about ritual and death, it has a lot of positives going for it but meanders a bit much with no real visual signature, and this is material that could benefit from more narrative ambition. The main character (Aist) begins in voice over narration with a description of his small northern town on the Neya River in Russia and the remnants of the Merjans, an ethnic tribe originating in Finland in the Middle Ages that has all but vanished in the centuries since. His peoples traditions are either completely lost or half remembered, but still observed by some. We witness one of their rituals when Aist's boss, Vesa, informs him that his wife, Tanya, has died in her sleep the night before. Rather than deal with undertakers and graveyards, they wash the body in ritualistic manner, wrap it, then pack it in the car and head for the riverbank where the two had their honeymoon. They build a funeral pyre, and commit the ashes to the water. But the two men's destinies don't end there.

Many of the ideas are interesting and the two lead actors are fine if intentionally muted, but these are supposedly myths being examined, and instead of anything very magical it is relentlessly mundane. Long shots of driving through the countryside add nothing but padding, and though the opening images are promising the cinematography is nothing special either. The last image relayed in voice over is of something out of Medieval fantasy, but instead of finding a way to visualize or abstract with any magical realism that it seems to be screaming for, the screen simply goes black. There's enough material for a short, not a feature, and a more inspired filmmaker might have made this something truly special and memorable instead of just average.

GRADE: C-

THE OPENING SCENES...




Kawasakiho Růže - Kawasaki's Rose
Jan Hřebejk, Czech Republic

Nicely layered examination of the cost of secrets, regret and revenge, with nicely drawn characters. Set in the modern day Czech Republic, we meet members of a family around an upcoming public honor to its patriarch. A documentary crew is profiling Pavel (Martin Huba), an elder and well-renowned psychiatrist who is going to receive a prestigious award from the government recognizing his courage in standing up to the Communist regime in the 1960s. Pavel's wife Jana (Daniela Kolarova) and daughter Lucie (Daniela Kolarova) admire him almost to the point of worship, painting the picture of a courageously moral man, which has transferred another generation to his teenaged granddaughter. His son-in-law, Lucie's husband Ludek (Milan Mikulcik), has always resented Pavel and his saintly status, and he also happens to be part of the documentary crew producing the profile. He's also cheating on his wife, who has been ill, with a young co-worker (Petra Hrebickova).

In the midst of those varying dynamics, documents are unearthed in the research that suggest Pavel was no saint, and collaborated with the Communists in their interrogations. Also uncovered is the true identity of Lucie's father, who is not Pavel but a former rival for Jana who was deported, with help from Pavel.

While it sounds like melodrama, it is wonderfully underplayed, and just when you think the narrative is going to go one way it goes another. Instead of using betrayal and secrets as simple plot twists to fuel screaming and violence, the nature of memory, self-punishment, fate and forgiveness are all examined in a very adult way with no pat answers but thoughtful questions, all through the prism of strong, interesting characters. It is always refreshing to see a film with serious themes not buried for the sake of plot machinations and lowered audience expectations.

GRADE: B+




Won't have time to do a write-up until later, but I saw Incendies this afternoon and it about knocked me on my ass. I think I've probably just seen the best film in the festival, and it hasn't even started yet.




Well, the Portland International Film Festival actually had its opening last night, and I feel like that old Hollywood joke: "We just yelled cut on the first shot of the movie and we're already three days behind." The Festival just started, and I'm already eight reviews behind. I've seen Potiche, Incendies, In a Better World, His & Hers, Boy, Human Resources Manager, The Whistleblower and If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. Will be seeing two more tonight (The First Grader and Good Morning to the World). Been Hella busy.

Will catch up this weekend, I hope.





Incendies
Denis Villeneuve, Canada

Extremely powerful drama about secrets buried in the past and their ability to overwhelm generations of the wounded when uncovered. In modern day Québec, two adult children, twins Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin & Maxim Gaudette), find in their recently deceased mother's will two mysterious sealed letters, one addressed to "the father" and given to Jeanne, the other addressed to "the son" and given to Simon. In that instant they learn that their father, who they were told died when they were infants thirty years ago, is alive and that they have a half-brother they never even knew existed. They are tasked with returning to their mother's homeland, Palestine, to find both men and deliver the letters before she will allow herself to be buried. Simon wants no part of this, but Jeanne dutifully and filled with much curiosity returns to Palestine to learn about her mother as a young woman in the 1970s, caught up in the war between Christians and Muslims in those turbulent years.

Through flashbacks we see their mom, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), from the ages of a teenager to her thirties, from a girl expelled from her village by her family to a student leaning toward revolution, then the way she is ground up time and again by the war, but always managing to survive...even as her humanity is stripped from her bit by bit. To say her children had no idea of her sacrifices and tragedies is an understatement, and as they uncover enough of the past and get closer to delivering their letters, they learn exactly how remarkable their mother was.



I can hardly wait to see this movie again. It's an ambitious opening up of a stage play by Wajdi Mouawad, and writer/director Denis Villeneuve weaves the narrative together seamlessly, juggling at least three different stories at once. The cast is very strong, especially Lubna Azabal (Paradise Now) as Nawal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as her daughter (they look very much alike, they could be sisters). Azabal has to play such an incredible range of the character's life, physically and emotionally, and is really quite magnificent. André Turpin's cinematography is top-notch, and two Radiohead songs are used more perfectly than I would have imagined mixed with a good score by Grégoire Hetzel (Christmas Tale).

GRADE: A





Potiche
François Ozon, France

Ozon's most playful and charming film yet, it is definitely unambitious in scope or satire but still very enjoyable just the same. Set in 1977, the legendary Catherine Deneuve, who is still a delight at the age of sixty-seven, stars as Suzanne Pujol, a bourgeois trophy wife who happily spends her days tending to the house and jotting down small poems. Even though it was her father's company, her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) runs the successful umbrella factory that lends them their very comfortable lifestyle. They have two grown children, the artistic Laurent (Jérémie Renier) who wants nothing to do with the business, and Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) who is married to an idiot who has been drummed out of the factory, leaving Joëlle to wonder if her destiny will be the same as her mother's.

Robert is a bit of a prick, and while he runs around having affairs with his secretary and prostitutes, he also rules the factory (and his home) with a bit of an iron fist. Suzanne is putting up with it, but it finally has him in trouble with the workers, who are on the verge of striking with support of the local labor leader Maurice Babin, played by the equally legendary Gérard Depardieu. He and Robert have been at odds for years, but as a young man he drove a truck for the company and also had a brief affair with the already-married young Suzanne. When the strike happens, Robert has a mild heart attack, sidelining him from the negotiations. Even though he and most everybody else don't take her seriously, the emergency status at the plant means Suzanne must temporarily take the reigns for the first time. Being the yet unliberated 1970s France, Suzanne is constantly underestimated, but almost immediately she shows a great passion and flair for handling the business in a profitable yet fair manner. Once her husband mends, she decides she will not relinquish her position, causing an interior battle among the family, as well as teaming her with old flame Babin.



The tone of this power struggle is like a farcical sitcom, but a truly fun and winkingly self-aware one. There is no real biting satire here and it never gets too dark or twisted, instead Ozon concocts a joyous and gentle spoof highlighting two great stars who, even at their advanced ages and increased weights, are still a treat to watch on the big screen, especially when they interact together. There are even a few musical moments dropped in, which coupled with the factory's product and the film's pastel color palate are a nice nod to Jacques Demy's 1964 classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. One of the many sequences that can't help but bring a big smile to your face has Deneuve and Depardieu shaking their booties at the disco, which may be worth the price of admission by itself. About as deep as a bucket, but almost impossible not to enjoy.

GRADE: B-





If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle
Florin Şerban, Romania

In the past five or six years, Romanian cinema has been breaking through to the international art house circuit, including such well regarded titles as 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective. Şerban's sophomore effort continues the surge. It finds a young man named Silviu (George Pistereanu) who is nearly at the end of a multi-year prison sentence. After his selfish and drug addicted mother abandoned him as an eight-year-old with his infant brother in tow, he was forced to fend for himself including criminal schemes, trying to do right by his little brother, all while making sure his sibling went to school and had a modicum of normalcy. Eventually it landed him in prison. Now just a couple weeks away from his release, he is tolerating the typical Hells and dehumanization that come with incarceration, knowing that the finish line is in sight. But his brother makes an unexpected visit, informing him that their mother has suddenly returned, and she intends to take him away with her to Italy. Silviu doesn't trust his mother even a little, with good reason, but he is in an impossible position because they are scheduled to leave the country a few days before his release, leaving him powerless behind bars and his imprisonment suddenly unbearable in a way it never was before. It forces him into drastic action in an attempt to save his brother from a similar fate.

The prison scenarios are pretty standard genre stuff, but the untenable predicament forcing his hand is well done, and the newcomer actor is very strong playing the shift from hopeful resignation to desperate anger. Nothing revolutionary here, but well made and an acutely observed main character.

GRADE: B





Boy
Taika Waititi, New Zealand

Fun and energetic coming-of-ager with an effective layer of sentiment. Boy is the name of the main character (James Rolleston), an eleven-year-old living in a small coastal town in 1984 New Zealand. Boy idolizes Michael Jackson, whose Thriller album is top of the charts. But in a close second place he idolizes his father. His mother died years ago during his brother's childbirth, and his Dad left not soon after, leaving Boy and brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) to be raised by his grandmother, along with a houseful of younger cousins, also parentless. In his father's absence, Boy has imagined his wayward pop to be a sort of dancing adventurer who travels the globe. He is slowly confronted with the reality of who he is when he shows up suddenly. His Dad, Alamein (played by writer/director Taika Waititi) is a handsome charmer, but really nothing but a small-time crook and loser. He has returned after so many years because he has gotten out of his most recent stint in jail, and he and two other degenerates from the slam are there only long enough to find a stolen loot of a few thousand dollars that was buried on the property one night in haste while making an escape from the cops. As Alamein digs and digs trying to find the spot, Boy and Rocky learn who their Dad is, and heroic adventurer doesn't come close.

This is Taika Waititi's second feature, following 2007's off-beat romantic comedy Eagle vs. Shark, starring Flight of the Conchords alum Jemaine Clement (Waititi also directed several of the "Conchords" television episodes). Boy is a nice mix of the frantically and hysterically off-beat and a sneaky poignant examination of family dynamics and disappointments. Plenty of big laughs, but heart as well.

GRADE: B+




And if you've never seen Waititi's Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night, check it out below. Similar sensibility on how children are depicted, but expanded for Boy...





Himlen är Oskyldigt Blå - Behind Blue Skies
Hannes Holm, Sweden

Another coming-of-age tale, this one lacking the original voice of Boy, but it is still well made and engaging enough, despite some cinematic familiarities. Set in 1975 Sweden, Bill Skarsgård (yes, he is the son of international actor Stellan Skarsgård) stars as Martin, a middle class kid who is preoccupied with his home life, due to his father's alcoholism, which at its nearly nightly apex results in bursts of hatred and violence, mostly directed at his mother. But he is given a summer respite: his best friend and rather well-to-do parents are going to the island Sandhamn, off the central coast of Sweden, known for its posh yacht clubs. They say Martin can come with them, and they've even found him a summer job, working at one of the hotels, first as a general gofer and then a waiter. After an I-Am-Spartacus moment, he is fired by the manager for something he didn't really do. But before he can leave the island, that manager, a middle-aged pudgy preening playboy named Gösta (Peter Dalle) offers him a lift, which turns into a series of odd tasks, and gradually the naïve teenager realizes Gösta has his fingers in many schemes, from slot machines and strip clubs to prostitutes and, most importantly and dangerously, the smuggling of cocaine. Gösta is an odd duck, not a typical crimelord, and he takes a genuine liking to the boy. He does employ a couple of real mid-level hoods on his payroll, but he doesn't trust them they way he does young Martin.

Even after he learns of the depths of the criminality, Martin sticks around, partially because the money is good and he has a sort of responsibility he's never enjoyed before, but mostly it is because of one of the young waitresses at the hotel, Jenny (Josefin Ljungman). Their burgeoning romance is the true pull, but predictably you can only run on the wrong side of the law for so long before it catches up with you. Tonally it's more Summer of '42 than Carlito's Way, and while nothing original is going down, Skarsgård is compelling, the recreation of the 1970s is lovingly detailed, and the tidy conclusion (the story is based on true events) is actually refreshing in its straightforward simplicity.

GRADE: B-





Hævnen - In a Better World
Susanne Bier, Denmark

Oscar nominee Hævnen also has a coming-of-age element, but extends to the parents as well. It attempts to posit some moral questions about the human condition, but while the film is well meaning and well made, ultimately it succumbs to a few too many clichés to be truly powerful. The film opens somewhere in Kenya, where a blond and blue-eyed doctor named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) treats as many people as possible in a remote aide camp. From there the narrative jumps to Denmark, a quiet town on the coast, and we meet two pre-teen boys, Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard). Elias is one of Anton's two sons, a quiet, timid boy going through a prolonged awkward stage made exponentially worse by some persistent and escalating bullying at school. The teachers and administrators are slow to act in any meaningful way, actually blaming Anton and his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who are inching toward a divorce. Christian is a new classmate, having moved to town with his father after his mother's recent passing due to cancer. Christian too is bullied, but he does not passively take it, instead attacking the bigger kid with such force and fury that he hospitalizes him. Besides being in the right defending themselves, the two boys form a quick bond and cover for each other with the school and police.

Soon two conflicting philosophies in dealing with aggression are at war, embodied by Christian's rage and Anton's pacifism, with Elias the swaying target not sure which reaction is appropriate. Even when confronted with some of the darkest brutality one can imagine while in Africa, Anton chooses to turn the other cheek. Christian sees that as weakness, and his experience has taught him to hit back hard and fast so you don't get attacked again. Elias' instincts pull him one way, but the power of violence is formidable, and the boys begin to manifest a cold anger in more and more dangerous ways.

It's all a little too pat, too familiar, too arch in some spots, and too pedestrian in others. It's well told and well acted enough that its flaws don't completely derail it, but it isn't nearly as complex or as important as it imagines itself to be. A noble attempt, but too contrived to fully work.

GRADE: C+






OK, still trying to catch up on the backlog, but I'm also adding more movies every day. Will be seeing another four today. You're still due write-ups for Human Resources Manager, The Whistleblower, His & Hers, Of Gods and Men, Barefoot Dreams, Good Morning to the World, Son of Babylon and, after today, Poetry, Aramadillo, Certified Copy and How To Die in Oregon.



I saw five movies yesterday. Could have scheduled in a sixth, but even I need a break every now and then. That brings my total to thirty-two so far. Geeze, only twenty-four reviews behind.



The Arbor
Clio Barnard, Great Britain

Rather ingenious and innovative documentary, bringing its subject to life in a very compelling way. Andrea Dunbar was a playwright who came out of the low income projects, writing sometimes barely veiled autobiographical dramas about herself, her family, and daily life on the Brafferton Arbor estate, known ironically as The Arbor, the title of her first critically acclaimed play in 1980. In addition to plays, her success got a screenplay, Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986), produced as well. Despite her celebrity status in the theatre world, her life continued to be fueled largely by alcohol, spending more time in pubs than anywhere else. Before the drinking could get her, she died suddenly at the age of twenty-nine, due to a brain hemorrhage. Besides leaving a handful of respected plays behind, she also had three children by three different men. Their lives on the same Arbor were not much better than their mums, especially her eldest, Lorraine, just eleven when Andrea died. But Lorraine's poison wasn't alcohol, instead the illegal drugs that came to dominate that neighborhood in the 1990s, eventually becoming addicted to heroin and turning to prostitution and a series of abusive relationships to feed her habit.

The look at these two young women and their struggles is presented in their own words, in Andrea's case mostly from a vintage BBC interview as well as stagings of selections from her plays. Lorraine, as well as Andrea's other two children, various family members, and others who knew them, are interviewed in the present day. But rather than a series of static talking heads, director Clio Barnard, making her feature debut, has made an odd and rather wonderful choice: actors are cast in the various roles and they lip sync to the audio interviews. It probably shouldn't work, but it does. As a viewer you're aware this is a gimmick and not "real", but the stylized artifice is dynamic, theatrical, and makes them truly characters in their own drama.

GRADE: B+





Der Räuber - The Robber
Benjamin Heisenberg, Austria

Adapted from a novel that was inspired by a true story, The Robber follows a man named Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), who as the film opens is already in prison, at the end of a seven-year sentence for an attempted bank robbery. A parole officer in the system has taken a liking to him and believes that Johann is determined to become a marathon runner upon release, even arranging for a treadmill in his cell for training. When he gets out of jail he does, indeed, run and win a marathon in Vienna, shocking the running world and collecting a handsome prize as well as a bit of fame. But before that he's already gone back to bank robbing, and this time his skills have improved, a series of bold and daring daylight hold ups where he is in and out quickly. He continues this double life as ex-con running star and efficient bank robber for many months. Eventually of course the criminality catches up to him, and his last escape may be his final exit.

Loosely based on the exploits of real-life amateur marathoner and bank robber Johann Kastenberger in 1980s Austria, Lust is very strong as the man mysteriously driven to push his adrenaline-fueled activities to the limit. No armchair psychology is employed to guess why, but watching him do his thing is an exciting ride, punctuated by some fantastic chase sequences, especially a robbery gone wrong that he improvises into a second hold-up just blocks from the botched one as the police are responding, and his daring jailbreak. It's basically the Dustin Hoffman movie Straight Time crossed with Michael Mann's TV movie "The Jericho Mile", but very well made.

GRADE: B

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Wow, it looks like the majority of flicks you've caught so far have been quite good. Incendies sure looks impressive. I was trying to think (it happens) back and I haven't seen a ton of Catherine Denueve films, but I sure as hell can't think of one with her in it that I hated or even disliked. Whatever IT is, she most certainly has it. If my heart didn't already belong to Helen Mirren then she would most certainly be mine.




Pleased to see that you saw and enjoyed The Arbor, HP. I've not seen it, but since I first heard about it I thought it was a great idea and a very interesting way of presenting a documentary. Thankfully it seems that, like you, most people think it works. I'd like to see it someday.