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Posts under ‘films’

Review: “American Hustle”

Reviews: “Philomena” and “The Broken Circle Breakdown”

Review: “Nebraska”

Review: “12 Years a Slave”

Review: “All Is Lost”

Review: “Escape from Tomorrow”

Review: “Captain Phillips”

Review: “Gravity”

Misfits (via MostlyMarilynMonroe)

Misfits (via MostlyMarilynMonroe)

Review: “Rush”

Review: “Salinger”

Review: “The Act of Killing”

Review: “Blue Jasmine”

Review: “Elysium”

Review: “Blackfish”

Review: “Pacific Rim”

Review: “The Lone Ranger”

Review: “Before Midnight”

Review: “Man of Steel”

Review: “Frances Ha”

Review: “The Great Gatsby”

Review: “Room 237”

Review: “Jack the Giant Slayer”

Review: “Alien Boy”

Review: “Django Unchained”

Preview: “Portland International Film Festival”

Review: “Amour”

Review: “Hitchcock”

Review: “Lincoln”

Lads: Ellington, Welles, Calloway (via Wandrlust)

Lads: Ellington, Welles, Calloway (via Wandrlust)

Review: “Wreck-It Ralph”

Review: “Cloud Atlas”

My review of “Argo” and “Seven Psychopaths” from KGW-TV

My review of “Frankenweenie” from KGW TV

Gone Fishin’…..

Film critic Shawn Levy is taking time off to write a book. Until he returns, movie reviews will be handled by able film writers Marc Mohan, Stan Hall and Mike Russell.

View full …

‘The Master’ review: a gorgeous, vexing and one-of-a-kind tale of psychology and power

Paul Thomas Anderson’s tale of a man drawn into a quasi-religious cult is puzzling and provoking, with remarkable performances at its heart.

The Master.jpegJoaquin Phoenix in “The Master”
“The Master” is cool and puzzling and almost feels more like a novel than a movie.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson came onto the scene as a brilliantly gifted scamp of a storyteller, with the portraits of underground culture “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights” and the web-of-life epic “Magnolia.”  But since then he has moved away from familiar narrative forms, first in “Punch Drunk Love,” then in “There Will Be Blood,” the last of which, in light of this new film, seems the dawn of a new phase in its maker’s art.
Like “Blood,” “The Master” concerns a strong, charismatic man determined to reshape the world no matter the personal costs.  Like “Blood,” it is a film in which big ideas are chewed over but not necessarily digested, in which the world is slightly distorted to accommodate large and even grotesque characters, in which the accumulation of episodes weighs more heavily than the ‘through line’ of a ‘plot.’  It vexes and dares, it frustrates and goads, but it is powerful and singular and doesn’t leave your mind easily.  It’s not as appealing, at least on the surface, as Anderson’s early films, nor does it wallop you like “Blood.”  But it is something, you must admit that.
Joaquin Phoenix, back from his bizarre decision to shut down his career, plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, emotionally troubled seaman who finishes his service in World War II and finds himself unable to reintegrate himself into society.  Adrift, he winds up aboard a yacht commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Anderson staple Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man of mysterious authority who is engaged in rethinking ideas of human psychology, history, and self-empowerment.  Quell, who, in fact, needs quelling badly, is drawn into Dodd’s world, seeking to silence the demons in his head and striving to gain status among the writer’s traveling cohort of family members and apostles.  But Freddie’s troubles may be too profound for any cure to avail, and Dodd’s work might not be able to offer him, or anyone else, credible answers.
Dodd is, plainly, a version of L. Ron Hubbard, author of “Dianetics” and founder of the Church of Scientology.  But “The Master” isn’t a critique or expose.  Yes, there are passages in which it seems that Dodd’s work is a sham, but there are also moments in which true believers profess their faith, and nothing that we see distorts the actual legal and doctrinal struggles faced by Hubbard and his followers during the period the film depicts.  There will (probably) not be lawsuits.
Besides, the focus isn’t on the spiritual movement so much as the relationship between off-kilter Freddie and grandiloquent Dodd, the itchy, gaunt acolyte and his robust and Olympian master.  Phoenix is almost perversely out of sync — gangly and twitchy, speaking out of one side of his mouth, hands on hips inside-out, arms akimbo like a scarecrow.  The forces inside him have gnarled and twisted his form.  Just seeing him on screen makes you shift back in your seat.
Hoffman, on the other hand, brings a grand Falstaffian quality to Dodd, a fondness for food and flesh and thrills and ideas, an outsized confidence camouflaging a sometimes thunderous temper, a blend of certainty and doubt, a need to control all of those around him while giving them the impression that they command themselves.  Orson Welles would’ve loved the guy.
These two herculean performances more or less wipe everyone else off the screen, and Anderson knows it.  He’s got Amy Adams as Dodd’s missus, and Laura Dern as a significant devotee, both small roles, really, and there are very few other faces you might recognize.  That lack of familiar faces makes it easy for him to immerse us in the post-war era of skirts and suits and big cars and no-tech living.  Like the blasted-out landscape of “Blood,” the sparsity of “The Master” allows the two lead actors and the various competing ideas to play out against a relatively clean backdrop.
In speaking of the novelistic quality of the film, I specifically refer to the sense that, like Tolstoy or Dreiser or Bellow, Anderson is deploying characters and events in an effort to give shape to ideas.  There’s nothing prosaic about the filmmaking, however, which is conceived in sequences of motion and light that sometimes recall the abstraction of Terrence Malick rather than the hopped-up energies of Martin Scorsese or the jazzy flow of Robert Altman, to name two of Anderson’s chief influences.  Gorgeously shot by Mihai Malimare Jr. (who has photographed Francis Coppola’s last few films), with a spooky and compelling score by Jonny Greenwood, it’s exquisitely made.  Anderson may be thinking like a writer, but his movies are movies.
But they are not always warm movies, and the aridity of “The Master” is, finally, its most lingering impression.  It’s a film you admire, with two powerhouse performances, but it’s aloof and self-involved and eccentric.  “Blood” was a head-scratcher, yes, but it galvanized, if only through the strength of Daniel Day-Lewis at its heart.  “The Master” doesn’t have the same magnetic power, but it does excite you at the prospect of Anderson’s future.  Once upon a time people talked quite seriously about the “Great American Novel,” a chimerical blend of intelligence, entertainment and import that would forever change and define literature.  Anderson, god love him, seems determined to make the “Great American Film.”  “The Master” isn’t it, but you come away from it with the sense that may be on the right path. 
(137 min., R, TBD) Grade: B-plus

‘Compliance’ review: a prank call turns into a real horror show

A based-on-truth tale about people manipulated into criminal acts by stranger on the phone.

Compliance.jpgAnn Dowd in “Compliance”
“Compliance” is a slice-of-life film that sneaks up on you nauseatingly, and not just because it’s set in a fast food restaurant.  
Writer-director Craig Zobel’s movie is based on the true story of a predator who phoned various businesses pretending to be a policeman and asking to speak to the manager.  When he hooked an unwitting victim, coerced the person on the other end of the line into performing degrading and even criminal acts on a subordinate: confinement, strip searches and worse.  
Zobel, whose previous film was the little-seen but worthy con man story “Great World of Sound,” is adept at finding actors who make the unimaginable seem completely real.  The restaurant manager (Ann Dowd, painfully believable) is harried and over her head; the target of her ministrations (Dreama Walker, also utterly credible) is frightened and confused; nobody in the film feels like an actor, which is a point of praise.
There’s a skin-crawling effect to watching it all unfold, and a sense of slowly falling into a hole without a bottom.  In large part that’s Zobel is less interested in the perverse motive behind the crime than the slow descent of the victims into its twisted logic.  We watch these dupes make choices, some of which we might have made ourselves, and then we’re sickened to see the consequences of those choices played out.  
Zobel isn’t a sadist about all of this as, say, Roman Polanski or David Lynch or Todd Solondz might have been.  There’s a humanity here, even for the restaurant manager.  But that still doesn’t make “Compliance” easy to ingest.
(90 min., R, Cinema 21) Grade: B

‘Hello, I Must Be Going’ review: fine performances can’t lift a wan film

Melanie Lynskey and Blythe Danner are fine in this small family comedy, but it’s a

Hello I Must Be Going.jpgMelanie Lynskey and Christopher Abbott in “Hello, I Must Be Going”
You want to root for “Hello, I Must Be Going,” a soft and heartfelt little film built on the backs of two all-in performances, but the film’s lack of credibility and flabby craft keep defeating your goodwill.  
Todd Louiso, the sometime actor who previously directed “Love, Liza,” is empathetic enough with his actors to draw good work from them.  But the screenplay by newcomer Sarah Koskoff is wan and sometimes even silly, and Louiso never finds a tone to sell it.  
The fault isn’t with his stars.  Melanie Lynskey is quite good as Amy, a newly divorced thirtysomething forced to move in with her parents in her childhood suburban home.  Listless, lifeless and self-pitying, she only emerges through the most unlikely of avenues: an affair with Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), the 19-year-old son of her dad’s business acquaintance.  As she navigates the various passages of life, she must endure the scorn of her mother (Blythe Danner), who dreams of a life that hasn’t quite come to her.
Danner is, in fact, the best thing in the picture:  brittle and frank and cool toward a daughter who has flat-out disappointed her.  She’s terrific.  And you can’t help but feel at least some sympathy toward Amy, at least at the start, particularly as embodied by the winning Lynskey.  But the script’s contrivances and the director’s lax handling aren’t enough to hold you.

Gere faces ‘Arbitrage,’ the ‘Desires’ of film noir and more

Reviews of this week’s new releases in Portland-area theaters.

Arbitrage 2.jpgSusan Sarandon and Richard Gere in “Arbitrage”

A slow movie weekend, with only a couple of reviews:  the Wall St-fatcat-in-trouble drama “Arbitrage,” with Richard Gere, and “Dangerous Desires,” a selection of film noir treats at the Northwest Film Center.  We’ve also got “Also Opening,” “Indie/Arthouse,” “Levy’s High Five” and “Retro-a-Gogo” to flesh out the week.

Levy’s High Five, September 14 – September 20

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I’d soonest see again.

Beasts of the Southern wild boat.jpg“Beasts of the Southern Wild”

1) “Beasts of the Southern Wild” A
dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an
island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis
stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral
community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even
though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer
storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his
feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence
Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work
pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you’ll never
forget. Hollywood, Living Room, Moreland, Tigard

2) “Moonrise Kingdom” Wes
Anderson films are such a specific taste that I’m a bit hesitant to
suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not
crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful “The Fantastic Mr.
Fox,” Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits
in a tale of young (as in ‘pre-teen’) lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared
Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and
Anderson’s muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by
Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It’s a
light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned
sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of “Rushmore” or
“The Royal Tenenbaums” (still his best non-animated films, for me), this
is likely to win you over. Cine Magic, Fox Tower, Hollywood, St Johns

3) “The Bourne Legacy” A dense, slick and thrilling spy movie that’s got as much brain power as brawn. Writer-director Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) turns the trilogy of films about Jason Bourne into the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner),
another souped-up intelligence operative on the run from the secretive
organizations which built him. The film cleverly integrates the story of
the previous three, but stands alone as a gripping story about a man
trying to extend the only life that he has come to know and depending on
a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) and his own abilities to stay alive. From the complex narrative to the thrilling final half-hour, it’s top shelf stuff. multiple locations

4) “Searching for Sugar Man” A truly remarkable documentary that demonstrates how big and how small this world of ours can be.  Rodriguez was
a Detroit singer-songwriter whose poetic and soulful music deserved a
much bigger career than the little blip it experienced in the early
’70s.  But, in fact, that bigger career did  exist: in South Africa,
where Rodriguez was a huge star and didn’t know it.  So obscure was
Rodriguez in his homeland, in fact, that his overseas fans long believed
he had killed himself in an baroque onstage apocalypse.  The Swedish
filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul tracks this amazing history and then
witnesses a third act that you simply have to see to believe.
 Mind-blowing, heartwarming and true. Fox Tower 

5) “Robot & Frank” Frank Langella is
a delight in a film about a curmudgeonly retiree whose children foist a
robot on him to monitor his diet, activities and housework.  The grumpy
old fella hates the little electronic buddy (whose voice is provided
by Peter Sarsgaard), then he realizes he has a use for it:  he
devises a means to use it to get back into his life’s work, which
happens to be burglary.  Debuting director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford nicely balance the mild sci-fi with human comedy, and a sharp supporting cast, which includes Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler, give the great Langella all the room he needs to be wonderful. Fox Tower

Shining a light on the shadowy world of noir

A series of little-known film noir titles crackles with energy and a sense of discovery.

Little festivals of film noir — ‘40s and ‘50s crime dramas starring Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan and their ilk — have been pretty commonplace over the past few decades.  

But “Dangerous Desires: Film Noir Classics,” a series beginning tonight and running through the end of September at the Northwest Film Center, stands out.  Curated by the Film Noir Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting the heritage of these dark little nuggets of post-war American angst, it’s filled with discoveries, including some films that aren’t available for home viewing in any form.

Only two of the dozen titles in the film — “The Glass Key” and “The Blue Dahlia,” both starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake — can be said to be familiar, and those play on a single night, almost as if being dealt with as an obligation.

The rest of the series peers more intently into the unknown corners of noir.  Tonight’s opening film, presented, by film noir scholar Eddie Muller, is a perfect example.  “The Prowler” is a 1951 Joseph Losey thriller starring Van Heflin as a cop obsessed with a lonely housewife (classic noir girl Evelyn Keyes). Like many of the films in “Dangerous Desires,” it deals with issues of men uprooted after the war, the threat of rupture to the traditional model of the family, and the fatal lures of sex and money.

Another of the opening weekend’s offerings, “The Hunted” (1948), about a woman seeking revenge, is among those in the series that can’t be readily seen elsewhere.  Also in that category is the remarkable “The Window” (1949), which plays on September 23.  Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it’s a story about a boy (the gifted and tragic Bobby Driscoll) who witnesses a murder but who can’t get anyone to believe him because of his long habit of telling tall tales.  Shot on location in New York by director Ted Tetzlaff, it’s tense and fresh and, at 73 minutes, remarkably taut.

“High Wall” (1948) is another treat, a very rare MGM film noir with Robert Taylor quite good as a man who admits that he strangled his wife and then comes to believe he may not have done so at that.   And in “Pitfall,” the lustful insurance adjuster in the middle (Dick Powell) is outshined by Lizbeth Scott as the object of his adulterous affections and Raymond Burr as the creepy crooked detective who wants the girl and won’t be told no.

Through the series we get exactly what we want from noir:  dark shadows, flawed heroes, mean little schemes, psychological dysfunction, fallen women, and a pervading sense of claustrophobic, paranoid fear.  The world of noir often looks normal, but the characters have just survived a horrific war and they know how easily ‘normal’ can vanish.  Their urges, longings, and fears drive them to places they never would have imagined visiting in their halcyon days — and their journeys make for deeply exciting viewing.
 
The Northwest Film Center presents “Dangerous Desires: Film Noir Classics” through September 30 at the Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave. Tickets are $9 general; $8 for PAM members, students, and seniors; $6 for NFC Silver Screen members and children.


SCHEDULE

“The Prowler” Friday, September 14, 7 p.m.
“The Hunted” Saturday, September 15, 9 p.m.
“Nobody Lives Forever” Sunday, September 16, 7 p.m.
“Pitfall” Thursday, September 20, 7 p.m.
“The Glass Key” Saturday, September 22, 7 p.m.
“The Blue Dahlia” Saturday, September 22, 9 p.m.
“The Window” Sunday, September 23, 7 p.m.
“Caught”
Friday, September 28, 7 p.m.
“High Wall” Saturday, September 29, 7 p.m.
“99 River Street” Saturday, September 29, 9 p.m.
“Loophole” Sunday, September 30, 5 p.m.
“The Naked Alibi” Sunday, September 30, 7 p.m. 

‘Abitrage’ review: with Gere in a familiar gear, a drama finds a spark of life

The silver fox plays another charming heel in a film about a financial kingpin in money and legal trouble.

Richard Gere in “Arbitrage”

The moral failings of Wall St. and its fa…

Kurosawa’s “Samurai,” a sacred “Camino,” a “Wild Horse” and more

New releases in Portland-area theaters not reviewed in this week’s A&E.

“Bachelorette” Comedy about high school mean girls asked to be bridesmaids to one of their former victims. Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher star.  (Hollywood Theatre)

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” David Lean’s
1957 Oscar-winner about British prisoners in World War II.  (Cedar Hills, Clackamas Town Center, Eastport; Thursday only)

“The Camino Documentary” Work-in-progress screening of Portland filmmaker Lydia B. Smith’s movie about the famed pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  (Northwest Film Center, Wednesday only)   

“Clue” The original murder mystery game as adapted for the screen in 1985.  (Laurelhurst Theater)   

“Icon Motosports Film Festival”
A night of noisy rides, with free admission.  (Clinton Street Theater, Thursday only)  

“Last Ounce of Courage” Drama about a family and community dealing with war-inflicted loss.  (multiple locations)  

“Queen Live in Budapest, 1986” Freddie Mercury and company rock you, as promised.  (Living Room Theaters, Thursday only)  

“Resident Evil: Retribution” It continues, this time in 3-D  (multiple locations)   

“Resonance” Snowboarding documentary.  (Hollywood Theatre, Friday only)  

“Sports, Leisure and Videotape” A selection of films from the oddest corners of the sporting world, as curated by the folks from Seattle’s Scarecrow Video.  (Hollywood Theatre, Wednesday only)   

“West of Zanzibar” Tod Browning’s silent potboiler about lust in the jungle, with Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore and Warner Baxter, with live musical accompaniment by Subterranean Howl.  (Hollywood Theatre, Thursday only)   

“Wild Horse, Wild Ride” Documentary about the taming of mavericks (the four-legged kind) in the American west.  (Living Room Theaters)  

Retro-a-gogo: classic films on Portland screens, September 14 – 20

Everything old is new again!

View full size”The Seven Samurai” (1954)”The Bridge on the River Kwai” The great 1957 World War II drama about British prisoners of war forced to bui…

This week’s last-chance movies: ‘Magic Mike,’ ‘The Ambassador’ and more

Catch ’em while you can!

Magic Mike McConaughey.jpgMatthew McConaughey in “Magic Mike”

Four pretty distinct films on their ways out of town after Thursday’s final shows. They include “Magic Mike,” Steven Soderbergh’s shadowy look at the world of male strippers; “The Ambassador,” a curious documentary about the African diamond trade; “2 Days in New York,” a charming little domestic comedy directed by and starring Julie Delpy; and “Red Hook Summer,” Spike Lee’s lastest visit to a Brooklyn neighborhood.

‘Kicking + Screening’ brings soccer to the big screen

A mini-fest of movies about soccer rivalries before the Portland Timbers play one of the biggest rivalry matches of the year.

Gringos at the gates 2.jpgfrom “Gringos at the Gate”
It only follows that the world’s most popular sport should have a lot of movies made about it. But perhaps because soccer is still something of a novelty game in the United States, Hollywood isn’t making them.
Fortunately, it’s not that hard to find soccer movies, and even more fortunately there are the good folks behind the traveling film festival “Kicking + Screening” making it possible to see them.
“K+S” is a three-year old endeavor marrying the love of cinema with the love of the beautiful game.  It’s been held in New York and Liverpool and Amsterdam and India, and it arrives here this week with a program built around Saturday’s  epochal match between the Portland Timbers and their eternal antagonists the Seattle Sounders. 
The theme of the program is, naturally, soccer rivalries, and the program consists of two nights of two films each.  On Thursday, there are two films about the passionate teams and fans of South America, the feature film “Argentine Football Club” about the great enemy teams from Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors and River Plate, and the short “Loucos de Futebol” about a lesser-known rivalry in Brazil.  On Friday, the focus is North America, with the feature film “Gringos at the Gate,” about the rivalry between the national teams of the United States and Mexico, and the short “A Most Improbable Life,” about a Mexican immigrant finding his love for the game in the USA.  
On each night, there will be post-screening discussions with one of the filmmakers or another expert, including, on Thursday, Portland Timbers (and former Seattle Sounders) forward Mike Fucito
Screenings will be held at Urban Studios (935 NW Davis) tickets for each night’s screenings are $13. 
The festival launches on Wednesday night with “K + S Word,” a literary event featuring readings and presentation by a variety of local and national writers (including yours truly) discoursing on the subject of soccer rivalry and passion.  The event is free, but donations are encouraged, with all proceeds — including those from a raffle of soccer collectibles and other goodies — going to Operation Pitch Invasion, a Portland not-for-profit charity dedicated to building, restoring and maintaining soccer fields in the parks and schools.  (Yet more full disclosure: I serve on the board of OPI.)

It was a dark and chilling night: the ‘Dangerous Desires’ of film noir

The curator of a Northwest Film Center crime film series talks about the hardboiled Hollywood movies he loves.

“All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,” quipped Jean-Luc Godard famously, and while there are girls and guns in westerns and war films, you can’t help but think that Godard had in mind the sort of movie that French critics called film noir.
Movies about cynical private eyes, crooked cops, scheming dames, and fallen angels, about double-crosses, botched capers, framed innocents and psychopathic kill sprees, movies shot in dark shadows and sweaty close-ups, with titles like “D. O. A.,” “Gun Crazy,” “Kiss of Death,” and “The Devil Thumbs a Ride,” and stars like Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Lizabeth Scott, Claire Trevor: that’s Noir.
Just before World War II, the traditional Hollywood gangster movie began to give way to a new strain of crime story, often inspired by the works of hardboiled novelists Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, often made, at least in part, by directors and screenwriters who had arrived in California from Europe as war-time refugees.  By the end of the ’40s, Noir was the essential American crime style, resulting in key works by such directors as Orson Welles, Otto Preminger, Raoul Walsh, and Jules Dassin and giving starts to the careers of, among others, Samuel Fuller, Phil Karlson and even Stanley Kubrick. 
The story of Noir has been celebrated in documentaries and film festivals for decades, but one of the most notable collections ever to grace Portland is being shown this month at the Northwest Film Center. “Dangerous Desires: Film Noir Classics” is an impeccably curated selection of a dozen titles, all but two of them fairly obscure, and some of them not available for home viewing in any format.  
The series has been mounted for the NFC by the Film Noir Foundation, which is, in its own words, “an educational resource regarding the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement.”  For the opening weekend of the series, Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller, author of several books about Noir, will be on hand to present two of the titles, both in 35mm prints:  “The Prowler,” Joseph Losey’s 1951 tale of a crooked cop (Van Heflin) lusting after a housewife; and “The Hunted,” a 1948 drama about an ex-con (the English actress Belita) out to seek vengeance against the people who sent her to prison.
In advance of his visit, Muller answered some questions about Noir in general and “Dangerous Desires” in particular via e-mail.
Eddie Muller.jpgFilm Noir historian Eddie Muller
In a sense, Noir is like jazz in that it was an American form first recognized as great in Europe.  But Noir also has deep American roots.  So is it an American art form or a European art form or something in between?
I was just using the jazz analogy with my fellow jurors at a film festival in Montreal. Slightly different context. I was suggesting that genre films — especially crime films — are like jazz in that the stories typically feature a familiar plot, the way many jazz classics derive from familiar structures and melodies, and we appreciate how different artists interpret the standard piece.  Generally speaking, the foundation of noir–the writing, the style of the language–comes from America, specifically that fresh American masculine voice that emerged post WW1, most famously in Hemingway. When his style was adapted to crime stories in the late 1920s and ’30s, most successfully for writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, the seeds of noir were planted. The visual allure of noir, however, the classic chiaroscuro lighting and heightened theatricality, largely came with the influx of European directors trained in Berlin: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger — even Alfred Hitchcock to some extent.  Noir is the result of a tough American attitude mixing it up with a sophisticated European style.
So many Noir classics were made at small studios or by second- (or third-) tier units at the big studios, which makes me wonder if there was, during the classic era, a size beyond which Noir could not go.  Could there have been (or are there any) A-movie Noirs?
Absolutely. Every studio produced “noir” on both A and B levels. Once “Double Indemnity” was a box office hit, and was nominated for five Oscars, films of that type became extremely popular. Alan Ladd was Paramount’s biggest box office draw, and he made film noir almost exclusively for awhile — “This Gun for Hire,” “The Glass Key,” “The Blue Dahlia,” etc. Bogart is almost synonymous with noir and he was Warner’s biggest draw of the 1940s. Over at Fox, films like “Kiss of Death” and “Nightmare Alley” were absolutely A-list films utilizing the studios biggest stars. At MGM, Louis B. Mayer HATED these kinds of films, but that didn’t stop the studio from making them — and MGM rarely made ‘cheap’ movies. In this series, “High Wall” is a classic example: Robert Taylor was one of the MGM’s biggest stars, and this film is almost definitive noir, and a definite “A” production. Poverty Row studios loved this type of film because it required so little in terms of locations, cast size, production. “Detour” is the obvious example. I always say: “All you need to have a good film noir is a man, a woman, and a locked hotel room.”
The Noir era was over when the Hays Production Code (Hollywood’s self-imposed system of film censorship) finally collapsed.  But Noir did so many great things in a kind of friction or dialectic against what the censors might’ve quashed.  Could the classic Noir have flourished had there been complete freedom of content and themes?
Excellent question! I’m not sure of the answer, but I absolutely believe that the existence of the Production Code and the rise of film noir are organically entwined. And I also believe that the Code made filmmakers — from writers and directors right through to editors and wardrobe designers — more innovative and creative. The goal was to tell more daring and adult stories without being ‘obvious’ about things like sex, addiction, abortion, homosexuality, you name it. But all that stuff is in there, albeit often in codified fashion. But that’s part of the reason the films remain timeless — they are rarely as simple as we believed them to be. I’ve had the advantage of watching many of these films with people who worked on them or acted in them and they left me with little doubt about what was being suggested. The filmmakers were often playing a game with the censors, seeing how they could get things into the films. We’re really just catching up.
Leaving out the US, France and Germany, which are its chief homes or the places of origin of so many of its innovators, what nations have Noir traditions worth exploring that might not leap readily to mind?
I’m investigating this right now. I plan to do a festival of International Noir. What’s obvious to me, having traveled abroad with just this notion in mind, is how wrongly Hollywood-centric the study of film noir has been. As far back as the 1940s there was a trans-Continental give-and-take going on, and not just between the U.S. and Europe. There is an extensive ‘noir’ history in Japan, in Britain, in Spain, in Mexico, Italy, Greece, in Argentina. I’ve recently seen some wonderful noir films from Buenos Aires, made contemporaneous with the late 1940s noir classics from Hollywood. Many of them have never been seen outside Argentina! Hollywood undoubtedly had the greatest influence on filmmaking around the world, and it’s thrilling to see how the noir style was adapted to, or reinterpreted in, different cultures. 
What films in this series do you reckon most people haven’t seen and should not miss?
All of them, frankly. I’m a true believer:  If you haven’t seen it on movie screen, projected in 35mm, then you haven’t seen the actual film. Some of these — like “The Hunted,” “Pitfall,” “Loophole,” and “Naked Alibi” — you simply cannot see right now anywhere else than in a series like this. There literally are single prints of these films, and many of them are in the Film Noir Foundation Collection at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.  We have funded the preservation of these titles, and the only way they get shown is with our say-so. So I’m glad the Northwest Film Center asked, because I like to spread the Noir gospels.
Where: The Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave. 
Tickets: $9 general; $8 PAM members, students, seniors; $6 NFC Silver Screen members, children
“The Prowler” Friday, September 14, 7 p.m. 
“The Hunter” Saturday, September 15, 9 p.m. 
“Nobody Lives Forever” Sunday, September 16, 7 p.m. 
“Pitfall” Thursday, September 20, 7 p.m. 
“The Glass Key” Saturday, September 22, 7 p.m. 
“The Blue Dahlia” Saturday, September 22, 9 p.m. 
“The Window” Sunday, September 23, 7 p.m. 
“Caught” Friday, September 28, 7 p.m. 
“High Wall” Saturday, September 29, 7 p.m. 
“99 River Street” Saturday, September 29, 9 p.m. 
“Loophole” Sunday, September 30, 5 p.m. 
“The Naked Alibi” Sunday, September 30, 7 p.m.  

‘Samsara’ and ‘The Ambassador’ roam, the ‘Words’ and ‘Summer’ crash, and more

Reviews of this week’s new releases in Portland-area theaters.

samsara 2.jpgfrom “Samsara”

Not a lot of new stuff this weekend, as movie distributors try not to get their opening weekends blitzed by the dawn of a new NFL seasons.  We have a handful of reviews:  a comparison of two fascinating documentaries, “Samsara” and “The Ambassador”; a look at Spike Lee’s back-to-the-old-neighborhood picture “Red Hook Summer”; and a slam of the inane literary drama “The Words.”  And, eternally, “Also Opening,” “Indie/ArtHouse,” “Levy’s High Five” and (under the old name that it once again sports) “Retro-a-Gogo.”

Levy’s High Five, September 6 – September 13

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I’d soonest see again.

Searching for Sugar Man 2.jpgRodriguez in “Searching for Sugar Man”

1) “Beasts of the Southern Wild” A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you’ll never forget. Hollywood, Living Room

2) “Moonrise Kingdom” Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I’m a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in ‘pre-teen’) lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson’s muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It’s a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of “Rushmore” or “The Royal Tenenbaums” (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. Cine Magic, Fox Tower, St Johns

3) “The Bourne Legacy” A dense, slick and thrilling spy movie that’s got as much brain power as brawn. Writer-director Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) turns the trilogy of films about Jason Bourne into the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another souped-up intelligence operative on the run from the secretive organizations which built him. The film cleverly integrates the story of the previous three, but stands alone as a gripping story about a man trying to extend the only life that he has come to know and depending on a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) and his own abilities to stay alive. From the complex narrative to the thrilling final half-hour, it’s top shelf stuff. multiple locations

4) “Searching for Sugar Man” A truly remarkable documentary that demonstrates how big and how small this world of ours can be.  Rodriguez was a Detroit singer-songwriter whose poetic and soulful music deserved a much bigger career than the little blip it experienced in the early ’70s.  But, in fact, that bigger career did  exist: in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a huge star and didn’t know it.  So obscure was Rodriguez in his homeland, in fact, that his overseas fans long believed he had killed himself in an baroque onstage apocalypse.  The Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul tracks this amazing history and then witnesses a third act that you simply have to see to believe.  Mind-blowing, heartwarming and true. Fox Tower 

5) “Robot & Frank” Frank Langella is a delight in a film about a curmudgeonly retiree whose children foist a robot on him to monitor his diet, activities and housework.  The grumpy old fella hates the little electronic buddy (whose voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard), then he realizes he has a use for it:  he devises a means to use it to get back into his life’s work, which happens to be burglary.  Debuting director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford nicely balance the mild sci-fi with human comedy, and a sharp supporting cast, which includes Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler, give the great Langella all the room he needs to be wonderful. Fox Tower

‘Samsara’ and ‘The Ambassador’ reviews: filmmakers with the world in focus — and in the crosshairs

Two documentaries of diverse style and aims show what can happen when first-world filmmakers take a look at other cultures.

Samsara.jpgfrom “Samsara”
Two films new to town open some fascinating questions about the nature of non-fiction filmmaking and the ways in which First World artists and journalists confront the Third World.
“Samsara” is a sumptuous film by Ron Fricke, who directed “Baraka” and was cinematographer of “Koyaanisqatsi.”  Like those films, “Samsara” is a non-narrative vision of the panoply of the world — people, animals, geological and meteorological phenomena, buildings, wastelands, metropolises — edited together to a musical accompaniment.  
The word ‘samsara’ means ‘continuous flow of life’ in Tibetan, and Fricke and company surely experienced that sensation in making the film, which took them to 25 countries in a span of five years.  They have put together a thoughtful and profoundly gorgeous film in which the works of humanity are celebrated and questioned, the colossal scale of nature is revealed, the cruelties and grotesqueries of life are laid bare.  It was shot in 70mm, and it’s one of the most immersive things the screen has shown us in years.
There’s a lot of immersion in “The Ambassador,” a documentary which ‘stars’ its director, Mads Brugger, a Danish journalist who, in an undercover expose of corruption in Africa, dives into the world of false diplomatic credentials, crooked governments and blood diamonds.  Buying, outright, the title of consul from the Liberian government, Brugger sets himself up in the Central African Republic as a businessman-slash-diplomat, pretending to be interesting in building a match factory but actually forming liaisons with diamond miners and using his diplomatic passport to remove the gems from the country illegally.
The Ambassador.jpgMads Brugger in “The Ambassador”
Brugger isn’t like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, puckishly tweaking a perceived ill in the world at the service of an agenda.  He’s more like a Graham Greene character or a sober (-ish) Hunter S. Thompson, diving into the darkness and taking an active role in it so as to shed light on it.  (With his cigarette holder, riding boots and combat glasses, he strongly evokes Thompson’s Raoul Duke persona.)  There’s a touch of whimsy to his misadventures, but the malfeasance he uncovers — often using hidden cameras and microphones — is anything but a joke.
The superficial differences between the films are stark.  Fricke and company set out to create a work of art and have an emblem for their efforts in a gorgeous mandala created by Himalayan monks.  Billions of grains of colored sand are used to ‘paint’ an extraordinarily complex image which, eventually, is wiped away into nothingness, a perfect metaphor for human life.  Brugger, on the other hand, provokes (albeit without much effort) specific acts of criminality and his subjects tumble into holes they themselves have dug.  In his wake, there’s something of a mess:  a lot of money changes hands, some illegal diamonds are in circulation, and no one is arrested or put out of business; the ugly little world he has detailed carries on.
It would be easy to point a finger at Brugger as a provocateur and hold up Fricke as a pure chronicler, but it’s not as simple as that.  Fricke has a point, too, and the way “Samsara” juxtaposes, say, overfed folks shopping at Costco with people picking the stuff of life out of a garbage dump in South America makes a case as damning as anything in “The Ambassador.”  Every edit in cinema has the potential to carry a moral argument, establishing equivalences or disparities between the subjects of two shots, and “Samsara,” for all its holism, isn’t free from the sort of specific contingencies and perspectives that “The Ambassador” explicitly embraces.
In a sense, too, both films present us with portraits of the world as seen from a vantage of privilege.  Brugger, as a white man in sub-Saharan Africa with bags of money and a diplomatic passport, is able to get people to say and do things as shockingly and disturbingly raw as anything Sacha Baron Cohen has ever managed.  He isn’t exactly preying on innocents, but he’s certainly engaging in subterfuge to make bad folks behave badly: a fairly obvious point.  And you strongly suspect that he’d have a far less easy time pulling off his elaborate hoax in a culture more familiar with his brand of journalistic stunts.
Fricke’s intent is, for the most part, nobler — a vision of the world as unified by the works and forces of humanity and nature — but he, too, puts people in a frame of his own devising.  The visions of “Samsara” can be breathtaking — a field of temples in ancient Myanmar, the sand-sculpted canyon walls of Utah, the neurological web of nighttime traffic in Los Angeles, the stupefying power of Iguazu Falls.  But when he focuses on people, the mask of aesthetic indifference drops and you sense yourself being pushed toward a point of view about sex, food, guns, labor, what have you.   Maybe you agree with him, maybe you don’t, but an argument is being made under the guise of objective revelation.  The extraordinary beauty of the work doesn’t change the fact that there’s some preaching going on behind the screen.
“Samsara” (102 min., PG-13, Fox Tower) Grade: B-plus