Category: movie (page 2 of 7)

Mike Birbiglia, writer/director/star of "Sleepwalk with Me," comes to Cinema 21 on Saturday

The comedian/filmmaker will barnstorm Portland on Saturday.

Sleepwalk with me.jpgMike Birbiglia in "Sleepwalk with Me"
The indie comedy "Sleepwalk with Me," about the struggles of a lovelorn comedian/monologist looks more than a bit autobiographical:  it was co-written and co-directed by its star, Mike Birbiglia, who is, you guessed it, a comedian/monologist who has made some comic/philosophical hay of his star-crossed professional and romantic ups-and-downs.

You'll get a chance to compare the on-screen fellow to the real one this Saturday when Birbiglia comes to Portland's Cinema 21 to introduce the film and participate in q-and-a sessions after some screenings.  Specifically, Birbiglia will chat with the audience after the 4:30 and 9:00 shows and introduce the 7:00 shows. Inbetween, he'll be participating in the live taping of an episode of the Live Wire radio variety show.  

Busy lad:  hope he has time to visit Powell's or take in a food cart....

This week’s last-chance movies: ‘Ai WeiWei,’ ‘Oslo,’ ‘Cosmopolis’ and more

Catch 'em while you can!

Ai WeiWei Never Sorry.jpgAi WeiWei in "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry"
You could make a couple of thoughtful double-features out of the films that are departing local theaters after Thursday night -- which, conveniently, gives you enough time to do just that.  The titles to catch up with are "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry," a documentary about the Chinese activist and artist; "Oslo, August 31," an intelligent drama about a recovering drug addict revisiting his old life; "Cosmopolis," David Cronenberg's ambitious adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel about a financier with his life in ruins; and "360," a multi-character drama starring Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and Anthony Hopkins.

Retro-a-Gogo: classic films on Portland screens, September 7 – 13

Everything old is new again!

Chinatown poster.jpg
"Batman" Tim Burton's 1989 revival of the Caped Crusader, with Michael Keaton beneath the mask, Jack Nicholson chewing the scenery as the Joker, and Cort and Fatboy presenting. (Bagdad Theater, Friday only)

"Chinatown" Whenever I'm asked what my favorite film is, I always say this one, even if, at that moment, it's really something else.  A perfect film which I happened to see at just the right moment of my cinema education. (Cedar Hills, Clackamas Town Center, Eastport; Thursday, September 13 only)

"The Devil, Probably" A despairing vision of teen ennui from Robert Bresson from 1977, marking one of the last films of his career. (Northwest Film Center, Sunday and Monday only)

"Pickpocket" Another Bresson, this one from 1959, echoing "Crime and Punishment" in its depiction of a thief whose heart turns toward the light.  A classic. (Northwest Film Center, Saturday only)

"Uncle Buck" The late lamented John Candy under the aegis of the late lamented John Hughes.  Bittersweet, in that light, for a comedy.... (Laurelhurst)

Black-and-white on Blu: an addict’s tale

A new medium makes classic movies come alive more vividly than ever before.

8 1-2 silhouette.pngView full sizeAn image from "8 1/2" that changed one critic's view of an entire technology.
I’m often asked if I ever watch movies for fun.  

It’s kind of an odd question, implying that the movies that I watch for my working life are somehow inherently toilsome.  But I get it:  most of the world thinks of watching a film as a leisure activity, whereas for critics moviegoing is, in fact, work.

Anyhow, whenever I’m asked, I always say ‘yes,’ but with two conditions.  The first is that I almost always go to the movies at least once when I’m traveling abroad; the experience of watching a film in another culture is always enlighteningly and excitingly odd.  And the second is that when I do watch movies for fun, it’s almost always at home, and it’s almost always classic films -- either the things that I grew up watching and that turned me onto cinema in the first place, or things that I’ve been meaning to see my whole life and am only catching up with now.

And as it turns out, that activity -- digging into the past for old favorites or new (to me) discoveries -- can be almost as expensive as traveling to another country to take in a movie.

You see, to put it bluntly, I have a problem saying no to Blu-ray releases of classic films, particularly black-and-white classics.  My name is Shawn, and I am addicted to black-and-white on Blu.

Blu-ray, as you ought to know, is a digital disc format with approximately five times the capacity of standard DVD.  That extra storage space means that there is more visual and audio information on a Blu-ray than on a DVD, which, in turn, means that they look and sound better on any TV and they look and sound really good on an HD-TV.  

Blu-rays have been on the market for about six years, starting out in a two-horse race with a format called HD-DVD. In 2008, that format was dropped by all hardware manufacturers and film distributors, leaving the field to Blu-ray as the newest -- and, truly, best-ever -- format for home viewing.  At first, Blu-ray players and titles were rare and pricey.  But that, inevitably, changed, and now Blu-ray is almost certain to pass DVD as the standard for home viewing, and soon.

Naturally, most of the action in the Blu-ray world has been in the release of blockbusters:  the “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” films, “Avatar,” “The Dark Knight,” some Pixar titles, and so on.  There’s also a very strong market for Blu-ray editions of TV series, if for no other reason then that the storage capacity of Blu-ray means you buy fewer discs than in a DVD version. 

But for a certain breed of cinephile, the most stirring innovation that Blu-ray brings is the enhancement of classic films to a clarity that they’ve never had since they first premiered in cinemas.  A well-mastered Blu-ray of an older film -- particularly a black-and-white film -- reveals depths of imagery that may never have been seen by any audience ever, given the vagaries of print projection in movie theaters and the relatively degraded quality of VHS and DVD versions.

Stagecoach cantina.jpgView full sizeThe cast of "Stagecoach" (1939): the flies are in there somewhere....
Consider: Last year, I watched a newly-released Blu-ray of John Ford’s 1939 Western “Stagecoach,” a film that I’ve seen perhaps a dozen times over the years.  One of its most famous sequences is set in a cantina and involves an intricate dance of manners, with a gambler finding a polite way to escort the wife of an army officer away from a seat next to a prostitute at the dining table.  

Watching the scene, which I know by heart, I was startled to see something I’d never noticed before:  flies!  Buzzing around the cantina, above the tortillas and frijoles and John Wayne and Claire Trevor and Andy Devine were a couple of ordinary houseflies.  I was giddy:  flies, decades dead, whirling about Ford’s nonchalantly but perfectly composed frames.  I felt like I’d figured out the plot twists in “The Big Sleep” that baffled even the film’s director, Howard Hawks.  It was a new world inside a world I felt I already knew inside-out.

Now, it’s possible that I’d been inattentive on previous viewings and not noticed those pesky flies.  But I’m convinced that it was the enhanced contrast of the Blu-ray -- the deeper and sharper blacks and whites -- that made them stand out.  “Stagecoach” had always had a slightly dusty cast to it in my mind, as, I’d imagined, Ford and his Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bert Glennon had intended.  This Blu-ray version, though, looked as clear and bright as any contemporary black-and-white photography I’ve ever seen.  Like all Westerns, “Stagecoach” is, in part, a fantasy.  But it seemed more realistic to me on Blu-ray than it ever had before.

A similar epiphany hit me while watching a Blu-ray of “Sweet Smell of Success,” another film I’d seen multiple times.  It’s set in the nighttime jungle of New York’s Times Square and thereabouts, circa 1957, and James Wong Howe’s photography is filled with gleaming cars, flashing neon signs, storefront plate glass, barroom mirrors, and so on.  The reflections and distortions these cause become overwhelming in Blu-ray; you almost feel at times like you’re underwater.  And the tiny details of newsprint -- so crucial to the story’s milieu of showbiz and gossip -- have a billboard-sized impact in the enhanced format.

In the last two years or so, I have acquired more than 25 black-and-white feature films on Blu-ray, ranging from “M” and “Modern Times” to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Buck Privates” (gorgeous, I swear) to “Breathless” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “On the Bowery” and “Wings of Desire.”  I’ve bought a collection of Buster Keaton short films, the complete works of the French master Jean Vigo, and a four-film box of David Lean directing Noel Coward.  And I have watched virtually all of them the very day they arrived in the mail, some more than once, all with immense pleasure.

On The Bowery.jpgView full sizeGlistening: Ray Salyer (l.) and Gorman Hendricks in "On the Bowery"
Most of these Blu-rays are, as those of similar affliction will have noted, released by the Criterion Collection, the home-viewing distributor that specializes in restored and remastered films with copious special features, such as scholarly audio commentary, attached.  That’s partly because Criterion happens to put things out that I particularly enjoy and, perhaps even more, because Criterion happens to hold half-price-off sales throughout the year, which is just about like offering half-off the cost of a bag of crack to a hopeless drug fiend.

In fact, it was a Criterion Blu-ray that started me on this costly slide.  A couple years back, I complained to a film critic friend that one of my favorite films, Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” was being released on a Criterion Blu-ray and that I felt that I was being tricked by a technological scam into buying yet another copy of a film that I already owned on VHS and DVD.  He suggested to me that Blu-ray would, in fact, be the last physical medium on which I would own the film, and that assurance -- desperate fool that I am -- was enough to convince me to go ahead.  

Came the Blu-ray in the mail, and I put it in the player and...oh my:  the dense and gleaming and smoky and cluttered frames Fellini and his crew devised looked vibrant and bold and screamed out at me as they never had before.  The black areas were deep and immersive; the whites shone strong against them; the lines between the two were definitive.  The film, which I truly adore, had never seemed lovelier.

In one very famous shot, a performing illusionist is seen, head and shoulders only, facing the camera in stark silhouette -- a mere outline of black against black, barely defined by gleams of white against his top hat, ears and collar.  It was always a striking image, but in this Blu-ray version, it was overwhelming.  I think I literally gasped to see it.  And I knew instantly that I would never watch my VHS or DVD copies of “8 1/2” again.

Now, to be clear, I own and continue to purchase contemporary and, especially, classic color films on Blu-ray; in the latter category, I can strongly recommend “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Red Shoes,” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” and I’m positively panting for the expected November release of “Lawrence of Arabia” on Blu-ray. 

But I am far more eager to get my hands on high-quality transfers of certain silent films and films noir and the early works of foreign masters and see them in the best possible fashion.  Because, as far as I’m concerned, I have seen the future of cinephilia, and it is black-and-white on Blu.


A ‘Killer’ diller, a wily ‘Robot,’ some ‘Lawless’ brothers and more

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

Killer Joe -- McConaughey.jpgMatthew McConaughey in "Killer Joe"
A nicely varied selection of films for this holiday weekend.  We've got reviews of the NC-17 black comedy "Killer Joe"; the low-fi sci-fi tale "Robot & Frank"; the brothers-in-bootlegging film "Lawless"; the slow-burn drama "Oslo, August 31"; and the multi-character web-of-life film "360."  And -- but you knew this already -- we've got "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and "Vintage Vault."

Levy’s High Five, August 31 – September 6

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

Beasts of the Southern wild chicken.jpgQuvenzhané Wallis in "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

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



‘Killer Joe’ review: a harrowing vision of greed and lust in a trailer park

Matthew McConaughey astounds and disturbs as a hit man preying on a wicked family.

Killer Joe -- Church McConaughey.jpgThomas Haden Church (l.) and Matthew McConaughey in "Killer Joe"
The NC-17 designation was devised by the Motion Picture Association of America to distinguish films with strong and pervasive adult content (read: sex, mostly, and violence) from outright porn, the producers of which had co-opted the similarly restrictive X rating, rendering it meaningless.

In the 22-odd years of its existence, the NC-17 has been slapped on approximately 120 new releases.  Most of them were recut and then resubmitted to the ratings board to obtain R ratings (major movie studios generally won’t release NC-17 titles, and lots of theaters can’t, because of lease restrictions, show them).  A couple dozen, including the likes of “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Requiem for a Dream,” were released unrated, their makers deciding not to cut them but, rather, to distribute them without the scarlet stigma of a restrictive rating.  

A handful of films, though, have gone into theatrical release wearing an NC-17 as a kind of badge of honor, a certification of their resolve to show and deal with themes, images and ideas that other films simply won’t touch.  These include “Henry & June” (the first NC-17 title), “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” “Happiness,” “Mysterious Skin,” and, now, “Killer Joe,” an inky dark comedy from director William Friedkin -- who might’ve garnered an NC-17 for “The Exorcist” or “Cruising” if it had existed when he made them.

“Killer Joe” isn’t the most violent movie in theaters right now, nor is it the most sexually provocative or the most profanity-laced.  But it is so focused on the depravity at its heart that watching it is like subjecting yourself to a nightmare that sucks the air slowly from your lungs.  Art of any sort should have the power to make us feel, and while you may not like what “Killer Joe” makes you feel, there is absolutely no denying that it has an effect on you.  It’s far more straightforward, but the only movie I can compare it to for immediate recognition is “Blue Velvet,” and I say that as praise.

The film is based on a play by Tracy Letts which was suggested by the true story of a Florida father and son who hired a hit man to kill their ex-wife/mother so that they could collect a small life insurance policy.  In Letts’ version, the events are moved to a Texas trailer park, the hit man is a police detective, and the greed, lust, callousness and animal stupidity of the characters is plain and unguarded -- base, unfiltered, animal humanity.  That, frankly, is the stuff of art:  Take these people out of their jeans and pickup trucks and give them togas or horse-drawn landaus and it could be a Greek or Jacobean tragedy.

Playing the detective, in a breathtakingly chilly performance that tops a fine year on screen, is Matthew McConaughey, snaky, lascivious, casually violent, wiser by half than the people on whom he’s preying.  Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church are equally good as Chris and Ansel Smith, the avaricious son and father, respectively, and Gina Gershon is raw and convincing as a truly wicked stepmother who helps spark the talk of murder.  In the middle, eerily still, Juno Temple is a strange and compelling blend of the innocent and the oracular as Chris’s sister, Dottie, who is given by the family -- just outright given -- to the hit man in lieu of prepayment for the murder.

Such is the fallen state of our world that reading the story, learning the details, and even imagining how it plays out makes “Killer Joe” seem no more shocking than something you might see on cable TV.  But Friedkin takes two scenes -- a dinner between Joe and Dottie, and another between Joe and the three conspirators -- and turns them into horrorshow scenes of perversity and terror.   There are laughs scattered throughout the film (Letts is a truly darkly funny fellow), but the two dining sequences inside that double-wide blast all the light out of the film.  On the strength of that pair of scenes alone, the film can boast its NC-17 rating like a combat scar.

To talk so much of the ratings board’s classification of “Killer Joe” slights the film somewhat, because it is a tremendously capable and assured work.  Friedkin, who has also directed an adaptation of Letts’s “Bug,” has never been an ostentatious director; rather, in the vein of Howard Hawks or Robert Aldrich, he’s a master craftsman of plain, solid American vernacular.  He has shown some baroque tendencies in the past (off-screen, he actually directs operas, for heaven’s sake!).  But here, as in “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L. A.,” he cedes center stage to a very strong cast and a compelling story, while getting captivating work from cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.   

If “Killer Joe” is, finally, too much for certain audiences to stomach, so be it.  In the hands of Letts, Friedkin and this cast, it feels, despairingly, terribly real, and you can’t blame artists for reporting what humans are actually like.


‘Robot & Frank’ review: a curmudgeon warms up to his mechanical pal

Frank Langella is exquisitely dry and crusty as a retiree who devises a unique use for his robotic househelp

Robot & Frank.jpgFrank Langella and chum in "Robot & Frank"
There’s a terrific balance between human comedy and just-this-side-of-science-fiction in “Robot & Frank,” the debut feature of director Jake Schreier and his writing collaborator Christopher D. Ford. 

Frank Langella is splendid as the irascible Frank, a small-town retiree whose absent children have determined that he needs a household robot to manage his diet, medication and lifestyle.  The little white gizmo (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) drives Frank nuts.  But then he is inspired: the obliging robot can help him keep a hand in his life’s work -- which happens to be burglary.  And suddenly Frank has a spring in his step and a purpose to his days.

There are other angles to the story involving the town library (and its librarian, played by Susan Sarandon), and those are nicely handled.  But the chief spectacle here -- and it’s a good one -- is Langella in gruff, curdled mode, an underappreciated master actor slipping seamlessly into a bespoke role.  

Other science fiction spectacles of the summer have offered us mind-boggling technologies, but there really is no better special effect in the movies than a fine actor given a wonderful part.  And for that alone (although it’s not all it offers), “Robot & Frank” is a real treat.


‘Oslo, August 31’ review: a painful, precise day in the life

A rehabbed drug addict traverses his home town in search of a new start in a compellingly quiet film.

Oslo August 31 -- 2.jpgAnders Danielsen Lie in "Oslo, August 31"
The generic quality of the title “Oslo, August 31st” couldn’t be less like the experience of watching the new film from the Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier. Adapting “The Fire Within,” a 1931 novel by Pierre Dieu La Rochelle (which Louis Malle filmed in 1963), Trier follows his 2006 breakout film “Reprise” with another careful, painful and precise meditation on human desire and confusion.

Anders Danielsen Lie (also of “Reprise”) plays Anders, a journalist who has been given a day’s leave from a suburban drug rehab clinic to interview for a job in the city.  In the span of a day, he visits old friends and colleagues, people-watches at a café, attends a party, meets a girl, reunites with his sister, and stops in at the family home, which his parents are selling.  

The actual incidents sound dry, and Anders isn’t exactly an easy fellow to read.  But the slowness and stillness in the film are, actually, a slow boil, and in Lie’s taciturnity there is pain and even horror.  The world is goes on without him, and the things that he has done to himself and the possibilities that might rise before him are tiny compared to all that is around him.  

That much we all know (or should); the challenge for Anders is to reinsert himself in the quotidian flow of life.  Without a note of sensationalism, Trier makes real drama of the question of whether or not he can do it. In a single day, through a single pair of eyes, Trier and Lie give us an emblem for the world.

(95 min., unrated, probably PG-13, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-plus

Portland animator lets you mess with her work in a fun new app

Joanna Priestley's "Clam Bake" is an interactive treat for you iDevice.

ClamBake_start.jpgView full sizefrom "Clam Bake"
Watching movies on tablet computers can be grand, but something about the devices makes you want to touch them, and most movies don’t exactly allow you to reach into the screen and, you know, do things.

Portland animator Joanna Priestley has, however, found a compromise with “Clam Bake,” a new app for Apple’s iOS mobile operating system for iPhones and iPads.  Kind of an interactive animated film, “Clam Bake” gives you a chance to get inside one of Priestley’s signature abstract films and make things happen -- even as there is something like a beginning, middle and end to it.

On launching the app, you’re greeted by a dozen or so rounded shapes and no text or instructions.  Eventually, inevitably, you tap one of them, and then it transforms and makes noises, and you tap another, and it transforms and makes noises, and so on.  Each object does multiple things after multiple taps, and ultimately, in a different order each time, you come to a final image.  

There’s no point, as such, to “Clam Bake,” but it’s playful, it’s witty, it’s soothing, it’s charming, it’s frivolous -- and, I suspect, it will be inspirational to other film artists who just new that there was a way to render their work specifically for tablets. 

“Clam Bake” was created by Joanna Priestley, with sound by Seth Norman and programming by Jed Bursiek. It sells for $1.99 on the iTunes App Store. 


This week’s last chance movies: ‘Bernie’ and ‘Your Sister’s Sister’

Catch 'em while you can!

BernieJack Black and Shirley MacLaine relax in "Bernie"
Two of the summer's most delightful little comedies are getting out of town before the Labor Day rush:  "Bernie," Richard Linklater's lightly morbid tale of a real-life murder starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, and "Your Sister's Sister," Lynn Shelton's tale of a muddled man finding himself romantically caught between two half-sisters, starring Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt.  

Vintage Views: classic films on Portland screens, August 31 – September 6

Everything old is new again!

Do the Right Thing poster.jpg
"Boyz N the Hood" John Singleton's stirring depiction of life in South Central L. A., with Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut. (Laurelhurst)

"Charisma" 1999 drama about a Tokyo cop who migrates to a rural community and gets involved with the fight to preserve an unusual tree. (Northwest Film Center, Wednesday September 5 only)

"Do the Right Thing" The astounding 1989 Spike Lee film about racial and social tensions boiling over on a Brooklyn street one hot summer day. (Hollywood Theatre, Friday through Monday only)

"Doctor Zhivago" David Lean's
lavish 1965 adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel about love and political conscience during the Russian revolution. (Cedar Hills, Clackamas Town Center, Eastport; Thursday, September 6 only)

"The Evil Dead" The inimitable Sam Raimi cabin-in-the-woods movie; often imitated, never equaled. (Hollywood Theatre)

"Rear Window" Alfred Hitchcock's treatise on voyeurism, sexual repression and murder; a great cinematic achievement and ravishing entertainment. (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday and Sunday only)

"Showdown in Little Tokyo" Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee chase down drug dealers in a dubious 1991 entertainment. (Hollywood Theatre, Tuesday only)

"Suzaki Paradise: Red Lights" 1956 drama by Yuzo Kawashima about a couple trying to survive life in the underworld in post-war Tokyo.  (Northwest Film Center, Saturday only)

"The 10th Victim"
Campy 1965 film with a "Hunger Games"-ish plot about televised murder-as-entertainment, elevated by the presence of Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress. (Northwest Film Center, Thursday September 6 only)

A moveable feast of food films for Southern Oregon

An 'eat local' week is built, in part, on a selection of films about where our food comes from.

Big River.JPGfrom "Big River" (2010)
Even by the standards of Oregon they do things a little differently in the Rogue Valley.  Witness the Food for Thought Film Festival, three nights of films about food and food resource management being held as part of Eat Local Week, a drive to get folks to feed on the bounty that grows around them.

Three screenings will be held in three different cities, each focused on daily issues surrounding how we eat and where the things we eat come from.  On September 9, "Mad City Chickens" will show at the Ashland Community Center in an afternoon dedicated to instruction and resources about keeping chickens in your backyard.  On September 12, "Food Stamped," a documentary about feeding a family a healthy diet on a budget of food stamps, will screen at the RCC Higher Education Building in Medford.  And on September 14, a pair of films about modern farming and its effects -- "Truck Farm" and "Big River" will screen at Summer Jo's organic farm and restaurant in Grant's Pass.

The event is sponsored by Thrive, which is an acronym for "The Rogue Initiative for a Vital Economy."  For more information about the films or the organization, visit their web site or call 541-488-7272 

William Friedkin, still pushing audiences at age 77 with ‘Killer Joe’

The director of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" is still capable of pushing us where we don't necessarily want to go.

friedkin.jpgWilliam Friedkin
“I view it as a piece of material that was challenging to me, and I thought would be challenging to audiences.”  

A statement like that coming from most moviemakers might leave you feeling dubious: ‘What do you know about “challenging,” fella?’

But this is William Friedkin talking, the man who made “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” “Cruising,” and “To Live and Die in L. A.,” among others.  So when he talks about taking moviegoers places where they’ve never been, well, you pay attention.

At nearly 77 years old, Friedkin has found new ways to dare and provoke in “Killer Joe,” a hair-raising and darkly funny film, which opens in Portland on Friday, August 31, and is based on a play by Tracy Letts which, in turn, says Friedkin, was based on a true story.

“Tracy originally read this story in a newspaper,” the director explains in a phone interview.  “A father and his son in Florida hired a hit man to kill their ex-wife and mother for a very small insurance policy. So when you ask what’s at the bottom of it, what it’s ultimately about, the answer is greed and the extreme lengths that some people will go to to get out of their unbearable situations.”

Letts transposed the story from Miami to Dallas, turned the hit man into a dirty cop, and turned it into something as horrifyingly and disturbingly human as a Greek tragedy about a morally corrupt family.

Friedkin saw the play some time ago, before directing the film of Letts’ play “Bug,” and then he heard from the playwright that he’d adapted “Killer Joe” for the screen.  Friedkin wanted immediately to make it, but there were problems.  The film is filled with blood, profanity and depraved sexuality, and would present real problems with the movie ratings board (who, finally, slapped it with an NC-17, its most restrictive designation):  how would you finance such a thing?  And who could play the seductive, sociopathic title character -- a cop who hires himself out for murders and has a taste for teenaged girls?

Money was the first hurdle.  “Obviously,” says Friedkin, “no major studio was going to do anything like this, no matter who was in it.  So I had to go to independent producers. I went to Nicolas Chartier, who produced ‘The Hurt Locker.’  And he’s sort of a courageous guy with a number of such projects.  And he does commercial sorts of things so that he can pave the way for things like ‘Hurt Locker’ and this film.  And he picked up on it right away.”

Killer Joe -- McConaughey.jpgMatthew McConaughey in "Killer Joe"
But that still left him with a hole in the middle of the film. One night, Friedkin was watching a TV interview show and saw, of all people, Matthew McConaughey, talking about his life.  “He wasn’t the first guy I thought of,” Friedkin confesses.  But I was very impressed with him.  I didn’t know too many films he’d made before.  I remembered him from (2001’s) ‘Frailty.’  And it occurred to me that he would be exactly the right sort of guy to play Killer Joe.  Not some gruff old grizzly bear, but a really charming guy, good-looking, and unexpected.”

Friedkin reached out to McConaughey, and was, at first, rebuffed.  “Matthew didn’t care for it at first at all,” he remembers.  “He had no interest.  But then he started to think about it, and after a lot of thought he realized the dark humor of it and the truth of it.  And so he said he’d like to meet with me.  We met, and we had about a two hour meeting, and we were on the same page, and we went ahead.”

As it happens, “Killer Joe” comes in the midst of what we might think of as the Summer of McConaughey, with the actor providing real energy, wit and strength in “Bernie” and “Magic Mike” prior to “Killer Joe,” in which he’s joined by Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon Thomas Haden Church, and Juno Temple. Friedkin says that he’s not terribly surprised to see an actor best known for light comedy turn out capable of something deeper.  It is, he explains, a matter of technique.

“A good actor,” he says, “has to be able to go inside himself or herself, into his or her own psyche, to find the character that he or she is playing inside themselves.  They’re not putting on masks, per se.  But even if they’re playing Quasimodo or Hitler, you have to find that character somewhere inside yourself.  You have to find those triggers which, when you use sense memory, will bring you back to those moments when you were angry or afraid or loving or threatening.  You have to find those emotions in yourself.”

Over the years, he continues, he’s developed a sense for when an actor is really probing and delivering something honest, as well as strategies to help an actor who isn’t going deep enough find something true in a performance.

“When I see an actor just putting on an act, so to speak, and not becoming the character, I’m out of the show, I don’t believe it,” Friedkin says.  “So before I cast someone in a film I’ll spend quite a bit of time with them, individually, and learn as much as I can about them, about the things that they’ve experienced that trigger certain emotions.  And then, if necessary, during the shooting or even in rehearsal, I’ll call upon those things, very casually.  I imagine it’s similar to the way a psychiatrist works.  You’re calling on emotions that you know the actor has experienced so that they can draw on those in creating the character.  And then, when you get on the set, you have to provide an atmosphere where the actors feel free enough to create, free enough to draw on their sense memories and not feel like they’re being judged.”

In a way, Friedkin speaks from personal experience when he talks about the freedom from being judged.  Along with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, he was a lynchpin of the generation of so-called movie brats who remade Hollywood in the early ‘70s, that golden era between the death of the old studio system and the rise of the blockbuster movie.

Killer Joe -- Hirsch Temple Friedkin.jpgView full sizeWilliam Friedkin directs Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple in a scene from "Killer Joe"
As Friedkin recalls, “I guess you’d have to say it was a special time, because so many people think that it was.  Having lived through it, I can certainly say that it wasn’t that we had a lot more freedom than there is today.  Several things were different.  The guys who ran the movie studios were interested in all kinds of films, not just one kind of film.  Not simply comic books or video games as movies.  They were interested in all kinds of stories, they would take chances.  And films cost a lot less money to make then.  A lot less.  So they could take those chances.”

At the same time, he says, it wasn’t like the keys to the studios had been handed over to a bunch of lunatic kids.  “We were all watched very closely,” he says.  “We weren’t given a totally free hand by the studios.  They were all over us, making sure we came in on budget, on schedule.  But they did allow us to undertake themes that were clearly different.  Nobody knew we would make hits going into it.  But studios were more interested at that time in challenging audiences.  They weren’t interested in sequels or remakes.  They were much more interested in, well, frankly, trying to replicate the success of ‘Easy Rider.’  They got the feeling that us young guys knew what the hell we were doing.  And, frankly, we didn’t!”


A sleek ‘Cosmopolis,’ a speedy ‘Rush,’ an unreal ‘Imposter’ and more

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

Cosmopolis haircut.jpgRobert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis"
A truly hectic week, as evidenced by the number of films to do with cars, bikes and travel.  To wit:  David Cronenberg's dark limo ride, "Cosmopolis"; the bike-messenger-on-the-run picture "Premium Rush"; and the darkly comic chase film "Hit and Run."  We've also got reviews of the culture-clash comedy "2 Days in New York"; the exes-trying-to-stay-friends film "Celeste and Jesse Forever"; and the unbelievable but true crime story "The Imposter."  Plus, like clockwork, "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and (the newly renamed) "Vintage Views."

Gus Van Sant pulls into the Oscar race with ‘Promised Land’

The Portland filmmaker, who contented for Oscars last with "Milk," is back in the award season-mix.

van-sant.JPGView full sizeGus Van Sant on the set of 2008's "Milk," for which he received an Oscar nomination as best director.
Portland director Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land," a drama about a shady salesman trying to capture the drilling rights to an economically troubled Pennsylvania town, will be released by Focus Features on December 28.  The film had originally been intended for a 2013 release, but the new date indicates that the distributors believe it can be a contender in the Oscar derby for the coming winter.

The film stars Matt Damon and John Krasinkski, who co-wrote the script, as well as Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook and Lucas Black.  Van Sant shot it near Pittsburgh.  It is not currently scheduled to play at any of the fall's film festivals, which often launch movies into awards season.  

Damon and Van Sant previously worked, of course, on 1997's "Good Will Hunting," for which the actor shared a screenwriting Oscar with his friend and co-star Ben Affleck and Van Sant received an Oscar nomination.

Levy’s High Five, August 24 – 30

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

The Bourne Legacy 3.jpgJeremy Renner in "The Bourne Legacy"

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, 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. multiple locations

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) “ParaNorman” The second feature from Portland’s Laika Entertainment is, like 2009’s “Coraline,” a gorgeously crafted stop-motion animation that blends a creepy tale with an impish wit, resulting in a smashing entertainment for tweens and their chaperones.  The focus is Norman, a boy whose ability to talk with ghosts is, unbeknownst to him, part of his legacy as a necromancer who must appease a witch whom his town elders executed lest she wreak havoc on the place.  With rich jokes about horror movies and teen angst, impeccable handmade craft, and nicely dense 3-D, it’s a pleasure throughout, even, I suspect, if you’re not rooting for your hometown team. multiple locations


‘Cosmopolis’ review: a sleek and airless limo ride with a cipher

David Cronenberg's adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel is an exquisitely built torture machine -- for its protagonist and, perhaps, for its viewers.

Cosmopolis gun.jpgPaul Giamatti (l.) and Robert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis"
There’s a fearlessness knit into the very core of David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” that you cannot help but admire, even if the film finally pushes you away.  It’s a movie of ideas, of talk, of resistance to the norm.  Even within the context of Cronenberg’s knotty oeuvre (think how dense and oblique he’s been in, oh, “A Dangerous Method,” “Crash” or “Naked Lunch”), this film is a tough sell.  But it’s never less than daring, poised or deliberate.  It doesn’t go down easy, but it clings.

The film, based on a Don DeLillo novel, is an odyssey through the streets of Manhattan in the back of a custom-built limousine.  Our protagonist, Eric Packer, is a young titan of finance whose empire is crumbling based on his misreading of global markets just as his psyche is unraveling because of his failure to connect coherently or significantly with anyone in his life.  

One by one, employees, lovers, doctors, and bodyguards enter his opulent world (or, in the case of his strangely remote wife, he hers), with each encounter serving to confuse or vex Packer further.  Under a credible threat of violence, through streets choked by anarchist rioters, a funeral cortege for a rap star, and a presidential visit to New York, Packer insists on being driven to his old neighborhood for a haircut.  It is, of course, also a rendezvous with meaning, fate, identity.

For Cronenberg, the sleek limo with its plush, high tech interior is a physical space, a mental space, an object of fetish, a challenge in filmmaking.  Sitting in the rear of his car like a paranoid king, amid moody lights and information-spewing screens, heavily guarded and yet desperate enough to step out into the world unprotected, Packer is like a film director who has lost control of a production.  Cronenberg invests his protagonist with an air of power and authority, but he constantly shifts perspectives on him; we never feel that Packer is fully settled, safe, or certain.  And eventually the dread that he feels creeps into the viewer.

In the center of this paranoid parade, Cronenberg has placed Robert Pattinson, the English heartthrob best known for the “Twilight” films.  He’s credible as a New Yorker, less so as a business genius, least of all as a man of iron will.  If he’s meant to be uncomfortably weak, as many of Stanley Kubrick’s protagonists were, it’s a successful bit of casting.  But that would undermine Packer’s status as a villain, so there’s a bit of a problem at the core of the film.  

There’s a problem at the end, too, when Packer’s journey ends in a muddled debate with the man who has been threatening him.  That encounter is one of a series that range from steamy (Juliette Binoche, Emily Hampshire), to creepy (Samantha Morton, Gouchy Boy), to icy (Sarah Gadon, playing Packer’s wife), to frantic (Jay Baruchel) to farcical (Mathieu Amalric).  They don’t quite add up as narrative, but they do create a series of moods that accumulate an increasing sense of despair and hopelessness -- which, too, is stifling.

It’s a credit to Cronenberg’s sheer strength as an artist that he makes “Cosmopolis” compelling:  Packer, after all, is a creep who lacks the magnetism of, oh, Gordon Gekko, and yet we are magnetized through force of craft and a sense of mystery at the heart of the film.  The journey on which he takes us may not satisfy in the ways we normally ask of movies, but if it did it wouldn’t be a Cronenberg, would it?
(108 min., R, Fox Tower) Grade: B-minus


‘The Imposter’ review: a story of personal identity too crazy not to be true

A man poses as a missing boy, even though he's nothing like him, and pulls off the hoax with the boy's family.

The Imposter.pngFrederic Bourdin in "The Imposter"
From the very start of “The Imposter,” we know that Frederic Bourdin is 1) a real person and 2) a fake; that is, he’s a con artist.  He himself tells us so.  

But director Bart Layton’s film takes us to such strange and emotionally-charged places that we cannot believe that what we’re seeing is real, even though it demonstrably is.

Some facts: In 1997, Bourdin was found by police in Spain, and, when they demanded to know who he was, claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a teenager from San Antonio, Texas, who went missing three years earlier.  Disposed to believe him, Spanish authorities contacted their counterparts in Texas, who called the Barclay family, who had long believed the worst about their missing boy.  Naturally, they were elated.

Nicholas’s sisterflew to Spain for the remarkable reunion, and even though she was confronted with a brown eyed man with a Mediterranean accent, rather than blue-eyed, Texas-drawling Nicholas, she accepted Bourdin as her brother.  She took him home, where the whole family embraced him, if somewhat tentatively, and he proceeded to integrate himself into normal life before having the truth revealed by a private investigator working for a tabloid TV show.

It’s an astounding story, truly, and Bourdin is the most chillingly sympathetic sociopath: frank, remorseless, matter-of-fact.  He’s kind of a titanic figure, easily capable of carrying a whole film.  It’s a shame, then, that Layton takes us on a macabre wild goose chase for the truth about the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, distracting us, for the most part, from an appropriate sense of outrage toward his central figure.  Bourdin is a heel, but, like so many people over the years, “The Imposter” lets him slip, by and large, away. 
(95 min., R, Cinema 21) Grade: B

‘2 Days in New York’ review: so I married a French woman

Visiting relations turn a Manhattan couple's life into utter chaos, comically.

2 Days in New York.jpgChris Rock (l.) and Albert Delpy in "2 Days in New York"
Slight but winning, “2 Days in New York” is a comedy about ambition and cultural conflict starring, directed by and co-written by Julie Delpy, which rather makes it an example of some of its themes.

As in “2 Days in Paris,” which she also handmade, as it were, Delpy plays a French artist with an American beau who comes into conflict with her French family.  This time, Chris Rock is the fella,  a journalist and radio talk show host, and, once again, Delpy’s actual dad, Albert, plays her cinematic père, Alexia Landeau plays her sister, and Alexandre Nahon plays her sister’s boyfriend.

During a weekend in Manhattan when both Delpy and Rock have big career moments pending, the visiting French relations create good-humored havoc with the neighbors, with bosses, with shopkeepers, and so on.  It’s a predictable sort of humor, but it’s played with intelligence, wit, charm and, blissfully, very little pretense.  

In its final movement the film forces itself a bit much, venturing into screwball comedy territory when it had been more like a slice-of-life before that.  But by then you may well be won over and agree that “2 Days in New York” compresses a mad weekend nicely into 90 or so minutes.


‘Premium Rush’ review: heck on wheels

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is riding against the clock and a dirty cop in an energetic, if ordinary, thriller.

Premium Rush.jpgJoseph Gordon-Levitt in "Premium Rush"
“Premium Rush” is a rather routine thriller that’s got two things going for it: the ticking of a clock and the clickety-click of bicycle wheels.  Both impart a sense of exhilaration to a thin and even silly story, engaging you when, really, you ought to know better.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a hotshot Manhattan bike messenger who rides a fixie like a bat out of hell.  One afternoon he makes a pickup and winds up with a dirty cop (Michael Shannon) on his tail.  There are subplots concerning Wilee’s girlfriend (Dania Ramirez) and the urgency of the delivery (it’s to do with a Chinese underground economy and illegal immigration).  But chiefly it’s a race against time -- and against cops on two wheels and on four -- on a bike.

Director and co-writer David Koepp (“The Trigger Effect,” “Stir of Echoes”) is wise enough to get out of the way, for the most part, sticking to chase sequences and stopping occasionally (maybe too often) for an expository flashback.  He allows Shannon to go a bit overboard, and he doesn’t get much out of Gordon-Levitt save his innate charm.  But the film doesn’t reach too high, and it keeps you involved so long as it keeps moving, which is most of the time.
(91 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: B-minus


Portland indie rental shop Video Verite to close

The closing of a N. Mississippi video store further marks the end of an era of movie-watching.

Video Verite.jpgView full sizeAdieu, Video Verite!
Sad news from longtime Oregonian contributor Marc Mohan, who is the owner of the very fine Video Verite rental store on N. Mississippi Ave.  "Barring a miracle," he said on Wednesday in a Facebook post, the store will close on October 15.  

Video Verite opened in November, 2003, as the first movie rental store in town that didn't stock VHS tapes, just DVDs (and, eventually, Blu-rays).  Mohan opened the store after his long years working at Trilogy Video in Northwest Portland, first as a clerk then as manager.  Sensing the population change in the Mississippi neighborhood near his former home Mohan opened one of the first new-style shops on the street, and he enjoyed a reasonably good run for an indie startup retail business.  

The fate of the store, like that of so many other video stores -- including the big national chains such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video -- was sealed by the trend toward video-on-demand, streaming video and video-by-mail.  Folks would rather not leave the couch, and with tens of thousands of options at their fingertips, they can't be blamed.

Those familiar with Mohan's writing wouldn't have been surprised to see the shelves at his video store.  Video Verite always carried the major studio releases and family-oriented fare you would find at any of the big video chains, but the real allure of the place was the many shelves devoted to foreign, independent, classic, cult and alternative movies and TV episodes.  From the day it opened it was one of the go-to spots for any serious cinephile in the city.  They even used their basement as a makeshift screening room now and again:  you could go to rent a movie and wind up watching one for free.

Speaking on the phone this evening, Mohan reflected that when the store closes -- after a sale of its inventory -- "it will be the first time I haven't worked in a video store since 1991."  

I have often joked darkly, with Mohan and others, that the video store clerk, a character immortalized in our pop culture mythology by Kevin Smith's "Clerks" and the legend of Quentin Tarantino's rise from the check-out counter at Video Archives to the director's chair, has been like the Pony Express rider:  if you were of a certain age, you saw a career appear out of nowhere, spread across the nation, and, now, disappear again.  The closing of Video Verite is further proof of that sad truth.

Portland still has independent video stores, notably the insanely great Movie Madness and, in my corner of town, the surprisingly deep and reliable Impulse Video.  But they're becoming like cobbler's shops or milliners -- outposts for devotees and those who wish to experience nostalgia with their movie-watching.

This week’s last-chance movies: ‘To Rome with Love,’ ‘Savages,’ ‘Hara-Kiri’ and more

Catch 'em while you can!

To Rome with Love Benigni.jpgRoberto Benigni in "To Rome with Love"
An eclectic collection of films is on its way out of local theaters after Thursday's final shows.  You've got, oh, 40 hours to catch Woody Allen's anthology film "To Rome with Love," Oliver Stone's drug-crime drama "Savages," the 3-D Japanese feudal tale "Hara-Kiri," and the French costume drama "Farewell, My Queen."

Vintage Views: classic films on Portland screens, August 24 – 30

Everything old is new again!

The Road Warriro.jpgView full size
"Alone Across the Pacific" Kon Ichiwara directed this 1962 film about a man sailing across the Pacific from Japan to San Francisco single-handedly.  (Northwest Film Center, Saturday only)

"Batman & Robin"
The dreadful 1997 Batman film with George Clooney as the Caped Crusader, presented in Hecklevision, which is, really, how it ought to have been made in the first place. (Hollywood Theatre, Friday only)

"The Deadly Spawn"
Creature-from-outer-space movie from 1983.  (Hollywood Theatre, Tuesday only)

"High Noon"
The classic Gary Cooper Western, with its themes of loyalty, betrayal and courage and its great Tex Ritter theme song, back on the big screen. (Cedar Hills, Clackamas Town Center, Eastport; Thursday, August 30 only)

"The Road Warrior"
The middle film of George Miller's "Mad Max" trilogy -- and the best, by a reasonably fair distance.  A great, great, great action movie. (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday and Sunday only)

"The T.A.M.I. Show"
The 1964 concert film featuring James Brown, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and more -- and the final Top Down film of the summer.  (Northwest Film Center, Thursday, August 30 only)

‘Hit and Run’ review: a raucous, crude and funny chase film

Dax Shepard writes, directs and stars, with real-life girlfriend Kristen Bell, as a man with a past on the run.

Hit & Run.jpgKristen Bell and Dax Shepard in "Hit and Run"
Spirited and saucy, “Hit and Run” is a small movie with big spirit, a Tarantino-ish sensibility, and a scattergun ethos that results in more hits than misses.  It’s continually funny and surprisingly tenderhearted, so much so that even when it runs into dead ends and confusions you stay with it.

Dax Shepard, who wrote and co-directs, stars as Charlie Bronson, a mystery man living in the witness protection program in rural California with his girlfriend, Annie (Shepard’s real-life sweetie, Kristen Bell.) When Annie gets a job opportunity in Los Angeles, Charlie determines to help her get there, even though it’s the most dangerous place in the world for him.  And the danger has been heightened by Annie’s jealous ex, who forces Charlie to reveal his true identity and deal with his past.

Along the way, there are outlandish visual and verbal jokes, fistfights and car chases, and some unexpected cameos (including a quite funny performance by Bradley Cooper as a gangster).  It can get sloppy and silly and gratuitous at times, but “Hit and Run” never feels tired.  Its energy and verve overcome its misfires.
(99 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B


‘ParaNorman’ runs a respectable third at the boxoffice in its opening weekend

A solid if not eye-opening boxoffice performance is accompanied by good-but-not-glowing reviews.

ParaNormanView full size"ParaNorman": not quite cleaning but, but still doing nicely.
"ParaNorman," the stop-motion-animated horror comedy by Portland's Laika Entertainment, earned an estimated $14 million in North America in its first three days of release, good for in third place in the weekend's movie boxoffice derby. 

The widely-predicted frontrunner, "The Expendables 2," which also premiered on Friday, took in $29 million for first place, and the spy thriller "The Bourne Legacy" added $17 million to its gross in its second weekend. 


"ParaNorman," which was made for a budget estimated at $50-60 million, earned an additional $5 million in limited release overseas.

In comparison, Laika's 2009 film "Coraline" opened to $17 million domestically en route to an eventual North American total of $75 million, with another $49 million earned overseas.

Critically, "ParaNorman" was well-received.  On the review-aggregating site "Rotten Tomatoes," it scored 87%, meaning that 83 out of 95 reviews were positive.  On another site, "MetaCritic," which applies a more analytical formula to reviews, it scored a 73 on a scale of 0-100: a solid if not spectacular 'yes' score.  And according to Movie Review Intelligence, yet another aggregating site, reviews for the film were 69.3% positive

David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis’: a master director tackles an odyssey of modern life

The master filmmaker describes the making of his challenging new film and praises its surprising star.

Cronenberg stare.jpgDavid Cronenberg
Film audiences have had 35 years to figure out David Cronenberg, and they’d be fools if they thought they’d managed the trick.  

Just when you reckoned you had the Canadian writer-director pegged as a master of sci-fi and horror (“Scanners,” “The Fly,” “Videodrome”) he turned to tales of sexual confusion (“Dead Ringers,” “M. Butterfly,” “Crash”), then to crime stories (“A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises”) and then, just last year, to a biopic about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (“A Dangerous Method”).

Now he’s back, very quickly, with “Cosmopolis,” an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel about Eric Packer, a financial tycoon riding in a limousine through a tumultuous Manhattan day as his fortune is buffeted by global markets and his state of mental well-being decays.  Ostensibly, the troubled fellow is trying to get downtown to get his haircut.  But like Odysseus’s voyage home in “The Odyssey,” there’s much more to it than that.

Describing the story in a telephone interview from his Toronto base, Cronenberg explains that “the barber shop is not just a place where you go to get a haircut.  It is his past.  He’s returning to his childhood, to capture or reconnect with something that in his young adulthood he has lost.”

Packer is an unsympathetic protagonist, a titan of finance at age 28 who browbeats his employees, cheats on his wife, and presumes (and often incites) the worst in every person and every situation he encounters.  It’s no wonder that he travels in an armored car, with a bodyguard, under constant fear of death threats.  And yet, Cronenberg, following DeLillo, finds a poignancy to his situation.  

“As the movie progresses,” he says, “he becomes more and more vulnerable and childlike, and he begins to confess that he doesn’t know how to interact, how to talk to his wife.  He says, ‘This is how people talk, isn’t it?’  Although he is incredibly powerful and successful in his abstract bond-and-money-trading way, he has disconnected himself.  Just as he has insulated his limo, he’s insulated his life from the vibrancy and human energy of the city.  And he’s trying to connect with that.”

There’s a terrific claustrophobia to “Cosmopolis” based simply on the fact that (again, following DeLillo), it’s predominantly set in the interior of the protagonist’s high-tech limousine.  Cronenberg, who confesses that “For me to just do what is normal is not that interesting,” was excited by the challenge of making a movie in such a confined space.

“I really like the structure,” he says.  “I showed my crew two movies.  I showed them ‘Lebanon,’ which takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank, and I showed them ‘Das Boot,’ which takes place almost entirely inside a German submarine.  And in some ways this limo of Eric’s is a tank and a submarine.  But it’s also a kind of vacuum tube or bell jar.  It’s his environment that he’s created. The limo becomes something surreal.  It becomes his moving environment that he forces everyone to come to, not just for conversations and business but for sex and medicine.  You come into my environment and I control the space.  Even the way he sits: it’s like he’s on a throne at the back of the limo.  And it gives you the sense that this is his place of power, and he’s created this environment to exercise and demonstrate that power.”

Cosmopolis shoot.jpgDavid Cronenberg (behind camera) directs Robert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis"
Given the heavy New York atmosphere of the film, it’s something of a surprise that Cronenberg should have chosen the British actor Robert Pattinson for the lead role.  Pattison is best known, of course, for the relatively featherweight demands of the “Twilight” films, which reveal little of the heavy, internal and intellectual stuff that “Cosmopolis” demands.  After declaring that “casting is a black art: there’s no rule book to guide you,” Cronenberg explains that he watched some of Pattinson’s non-“Twilight” work, especially “Little Ashes,” in which he played the young Salvador Dalí, and felt he’d found his man.  Still, he admits, there is, in all such matters, a leap of faith.  

“It’s just intuiting that he can do the role,” he says.  “Because you’re asking him here to do things he hasn’t done before.  But I was convinced by the time that I had done all my work that he was the right guy.  I knew he was good, and he surprised me by how good he was.”

One of Pattinson’s challenges was the sheer density of the dialogue.  “Cosmopolis” is filled with deep, thick, abstract conversations that can feel more literary than cinematic.  But Cronenberg says that it’s a mistake to think of cinema as a more purely visual than verbal art.  “If you ask me ‘What is cinema?,’” he says, “I would say that the essence of cinema is two people talking.  That’s the thing we photograph most in a movie: a person’s face, usually talking.  Even in an action movie you get a lot of that, percentage-wise.  I’ve never shied away from dialogue because, as I say, I find it innately cinematic. You find people who say, ‘That’s theatrical,’ because for them theater is dialogue. But to me that’s completely wrong.  Dialogue is innately cinematic, and when you think of something as ‘theatrical’ you’re thinking of something else, you’re thinking of something structural.”

Cosmopolis haircut.jpgRobert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis"
What’s more, he says, DeLillo’s dialogue uniquely lends itself to the screen.  “I think of Don’s dialogue in the way I think of David Mamet or Harold Pinter,” he explains.  “It’s based in reality, it’s the way people speak, but it’s also very stylized.  It has an askew kind of quality that gives it a heightened coherence.  And everybody in ‘Cosmopolis’ speaks in the same way; they understand this kind of talk.  And that only happens when you’re in a very enclosed community.  But in a weird way that’s what you get with Don:  a closed community of Don DeLillo.”

That said, Cronenberg continues, his “Cosmopolis” is not DeLillo’s. “My approach to adapting his book,” he explains, “was to accept the difference between the two media, and to be brutal about it and not to resort to voice-overs reading the book to you and so on.  I’ve said it many times: to be loyal to the book you have to betray the book.  And I did that with ‘Cosmopolis.’  Although in the case of ‘Cosmopolis,’ almost every word of dialogue in the movie is directly from the book.”

The finished film is a chilly look at this unstable moment in American culture, with unrest on the left and the right, a financial system seemingly on the verge of collapse, and all the traditional ways of understanding ourselves and our world challenged.  Cronenberg says that, as a Canadian, he feels that he’s got a front-row seat to the spectacle of a superpower in a state of change and tumult.

As he puts it, the Canadian cultural critic Marshall McLuhan believed “that not being in America but being in a kind of backwater and observing America gave him a perspective that an American couldn’t have.  And there could be some truth to that.  You can’t claim it as a triumph or victory; it’s just happenstance.  But in Canada we are uniquely positioned to observe America, because in one way we’re obsessed with America, and our destinies are very linked, and in another way we really are a very different culture. So I think that being a Canadian and living in Toronto gives me kind of a perfect perspective to do a New York story.”

("Cosmopolis" opens in Portland on Friday, August 24.)


An animated ‘ParaNorman,’ a lost ‘Sugar Man’ and a wee bit more

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

ParaNorman van.jpg"ParaNorman"
The widest national release this torrid weekend is "ParaNorman," which is, of course, of special interest to Portlanders as it's the second film by our local gang of animation wizards, Laika Entertainment.  We've got a review, an interview with directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, a brief history of stop-motion animation, the technique in which the film was made, and a roundup of other reactions.  We've also got a review of the remarkable musical documentary, "Searching for Sugar Man," the less you know about going in the better, frankly.  Plus:  "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and "Retro-a-Gogo."  Much more next week.

Building the world one frame at a time: a survey of stop-motion animation

A primal form of filmmaking finds its latest expression in Laika Entertainment's "ParaNorman."

Fox 2.jpg"Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009)
In a sense, every film is a work of stop-motion animation.

Think of it:  Alfred Hitchcock tells Cary Grant to walk across the set.  The camera exposes the film frame-by-frame, 24 still shots per second.  Later, the developed film is run through a projector at that same speed so that, as if paging through a flipbook, the hundreds of still images flipping past create the impression that someone is moving in front of us.

We know it’s an illusion: the two dimensions of a movie screen, even when augmented with 3-D technology, never look as entirely real as the action in a live stage play or opera or dance recital.  But the sense of motion through time and space in motion pictures is so convincing that we suspend disbelief.  We’re convinced we’re watching Cary Grant -- who might be decades dead, or at least not in the room with us or 40-feet tall -- walk.

Compare the work of stop-motion animators such as Chris Butler and Sam Fell, the directors of “ParaNorman.”  Like Hitchcock, they’ve got actors whom they can touch and move into whatever positions they require for a scene, all with the aim of creating that same sense of lifelike motion when the finished film is projected.  Their leading man, Norman, strides and stumbles and struggles before us just as if he were doing so right in front of us, the illusion of life complete.

Of course, as Norman is a puppet, the achievement is, in a way, more remarkable.  Every iota of motion we see in “ParaNorman” was not only photographed by Butler and Fell but actually manipulated by them and their team of animators, millimeter by millimeter, inch by inch, frame by painstaking from -- which is a lot more work than Hitchcock ever had to do.  And, what’s more, they had to build Norman, craft his clothes, render his every expression by hand and bit of body language and every wrinkle of his clothing and hair.  

Yes, it’s a ton of work.  But there are benefits, too, to consider: Stop-motion actors never think for themselves, never complain about retakes, never tire of long hours, and more or less do whatever is, in a manner of speaking, asked of them.  Hitchcock always claimed that he never said that actors are cattle (“I said, ‘all actors should be treated like cattle,’” he half-jested), but he never denied noting enviously of Walt Disney, “If he didn't like an actor, he could just tear him up.”  Hitchcock was never an animator, but he knew that, among filmmakers, only animators approached something like 100% creative control over their casts.

As Hitchcock would have known, stop-motion animation is virtually as old as the narrative cinema.  There were lots of short films made using puppets, cutouts, clay figures and ordinary household objects from the silent era on, and there were memorable bits involving puppets in such feature films as “The Lost World” (1925) and “King Kong” (1933), among many others.  

Still, it wasn’t until the mid-‘60s, when several successful television series and specials were made using puppets and stop-motion technology, that the prospect of full-length stop-motion features became easier to imagine for both filmmakers and audiences, culminating, in a sense, in the great, award-winning work done at Will Vinton Studios and Laika Entertainment, both, of course, of Portland, and Aardman Animations of Bristol, England.

The history of stop-motion is filled with iconoclasts, visionaries, crackpots, clowns and magicians -- in other words, it’s pure cinema.  Have a look.


KEY FILMMAKERS

Harryhausen.jpgView full sizeRay Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen No one has influenced the art and craft of stop-motion animation more than Harryhausen, who learned the ropes under Willis O’Brien, who animated “King Kong,” and went on to spend decades giving vivid life to fantastical characters out of science-fiction and mythology in such films as "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," "Jason and the Argonauts," “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” and “One Million Years B. C.” He never made a fully-animated feature film, but there isn’t a stop-motion animator in the biz who hasn’t been influenced by his remarkably lifelike creatures and inspiring imagination.





Vinton.jpgView full sizeWill Vinton
Will Vinton The Oregon animator help create and popularize the form of stop-motion animation that came to be called claymation, winning an Academy Award for best animated short film for 1974’s "Closed Mondays" (which he made with Bob Gardiner), reaping three more Oscar nominations in the category (“Rip Van Winkle” (1978), “The Creation” (1981), “The Great Cognito”) (1982)), directing the feature-length  "The Adventures of Mark Twain,” producing “The PJs” for television, and overseeing the creation of the famed California Raisins, all from a humble studio in Northwest Portland.










Svankmajer.jpgView full sizeJan Svankmajer
Jan Svankmajer If Czech animation is a world of its own, then Svankmajer is its most singular continent.  Best known for combining stop-motion with live action to peer into the souls of characters with various psychic and, especially, sexual neuroses, Svankmajer is that rarest of birds, a surrealist who has made a career in the cinema employing a technique most often associated with family entertainment.  His films "Conspirators of Pleasure," "Little Otik" and “Surviving Life” are must-sees for daring audiences, and his “Alice” shines a light on the darkest and most disturbing elements of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” stories.

Quay bros.jpgView full sizeThe Brothers Quay
The Quay brothers Like Svankmajer, Stephen and Timothy Quay employ stop-motion to explore the darker and more obscure realms of the grown-up mind and soul.  They’ve made just two features -- “Instituto Benjamenta” and “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” -- but their many short works (including music videos) and their productions for stage and art galleries have made them deeply influential for artists in a variety of media.








Park and Lord.jpgView full sizeNick Park and Peter Lord
Aardman Animations Along with Portland, Bristol, England is largely recognized as the other home of stop-motion because that’s where this studio, headed by Nick Park and Peter Lord, has created the likes of the "Wallace and Gromit" films, the feature "Chicken Run," the Oscar-winning short "Creature Comforts," and piles of memorable TV commercials.  The Aardman folks work in claymation and bring a breezy English-style sense of humor that derives jokes from such subjects as cheese and packaged holidays and eccentric inventions rather than fantasy or horror.


Selick.jpgView full sizeHenry Selick
Henry Selick When Portland’s Laika Entertainment was formed as a feature film company, the first person it chose to create movies was the man who had directed the operatic "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (often mistakenly credited to its producer, Tim Burton) and the charming "James and the Giant Peach." At Laika, Selick brought his painstaking craft and darkly whimsical imagination to the short film “Moongirl” and the hit 2009 feature "Coraline" before moving on.  






NOTABLE TITLES


Gumby.gifView full size
"Gumby" The great stop-motion animated star of 1950s TV was Art Clokey’s strange green creature who, with his orange horse, Pokey, had simple adventures in a spare (and never fully explained) animated world.  A massive hit, the show aired on network television for more than a decade, spun off millions in toy sales, and inspired later TV series and a famous Eddie Murphy gag on “Saturday Night Live.”




Rudolph.jpgView full size
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964) The animation studio Rankin/Bass achieved instant immortality with this holiday classic, a 47-minute made-for-TV film.  The studio followed up successfully with a series of similar works based on Christmas songs (“Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”), but was never quite so fortunate in branching into stop-motion feature films or TV series.



Davey and Goliath.jpgView full size
"Davey and Goliath" If you are of a certain age, you’ll recollect that the only children’s entertainment available on TV on Sunday mornings was this 1960s Christian show, created by Art Clokey of “Gumby” fame, about the moral and life lessons learned by Davey and his dog, Goliath (who, like Calvin’s Hobbs in the comic strip, could talk only to his owner).  The dozens of episodes were made with real attention to detail and, notably, featured African-American characters.



California Raisins.jpgView full size
The California Raisins Starting with a 1986 commercial in which they sang and danced to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” these claymation characters became the stars of a massively popular advertising campaign for raisins (featuring music by Ray Charles and Michael Jackson), appeared in award-winning TV specials, and became a brief but highly successful merchandising craze.  And all of it originated in Northwest Portland’s Will Vinton Studios.



Celebrity Death Match.jpgView full size
"Celebrity Deathmatch" A funny, irreverent MTV series which ran from 1998 to 2007 and combined the vogue for professional wrestling with a thick dose of satire aimed at the culture of celebrity.  Featuring a cast of regular commentators and such bouts as Charles Manson vs. Marilyn Manson, Hilary Clinton vs. Monica Lewinsky, Dean Martin vs. Jerry Lewis, and The Three Stooges vs. The Three Tenors, it used clay animation to comically gory and deliciously shocking effect.  



Corpse Bride.jpgView full size
"Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" (2005) A follow-up, of sorts, to Henry Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which Burton produced, it’s a creepy fantasy about a wedding proposal gone wrong.  Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter provide voices (naturally), and the whole thing is, ironically, more human than anything Burton has made in years.




A Town Called Panic.jpgView full size
"A Town Called Panic" (2009) Based on the Belgian TV series of the same name, this wildly dreamlike feature film used low-fi stop-motion to render the remarkably strange story of a horse, a cowboy, an Indian, an infinite pile of bricks, and an army of aquatic aliens.  None of it makes a whit of sense, but it was played with terrific verve and wit.  Bonus: most of the short films from the original series are online to enjoy.


Fantastic Mr Fox.jpgView full size
"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009) Director Wes Anderson has always been a meticulous tinkerer, so it almost seemed natural that he chose stop-motion animation (using puppets) to adapt Roald Dahl’s story about a felonious fox, his claque of collaborators, and the nasty farmers trying to stop their wave of pilfering.  Made with the most delicate and intricate of craft, it’s a pure pleasure.










‘ParaNorman’ directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell talk shop

The directors of Laika Entertainment's second feature talk of influences, rainy days and hard work.

Paranorman butler fell.jpgView full size"ParaNorman" men: Chris Butler (l.) and Sam Fell
Making an animated feature is a big job, and thus it’s not at all unusual to find a pair of filmmakers at the helm.  In the case of “ParaNorman,” that team is composed of Chris Butler, who wrote the script, and Sam Fell, his co-director.

The pair recently spoke about their fondness for stop-motion animation, the artistic vibe of Portland, and other matters “ParaNorman” in a conference call.  Their comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you point back to any stop-motion films that made you want to work in the medium?

Fell:  I’d have to say it was the films of Ray Harryhausen.  I’m too young to have seen them when they first came out, but they were in rerelease when I was young and I saw them on the big screen.  And then later, when I was in college and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I saw the films of Jan Svankmajer, the Czech surrealist, especially his version of “Alice in Wonderland,” which was mind-blowing.

Butler: I think I’d also have to say Harryhausen, with all those amazing creatures.  I really loved the “Sinbad” movies.  And then when I was a student I saw films by Ladyslaw Starewicz and Jiri Barta, and those really impressed me.

So many of the best stop-motion films have a dark aspect to them.  Is there something inherently creepy about the technique?

Butler: We’ve talked about this, actually, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a little bit magical and a little bit ghoulish.  In 2-D animation you’ve got a drawing of an object and in CG you’ve got a representation of the object, but in stop-frame you’ve got the actual object itself, and you’re manipulating it a little like a god.  It’s a kind of black magic.

Fell:  They would have hung us for this 300 years ago!

You’re both English, so I’m curious if you see any similarities between Bristol, the home of English stop-motion animation, and Portland, the home of the American brand.

Fell:  Well, it rains a lot in both places, so you might as well stay indoors playing with dolls!

Butler:  They’re both kind of hippie towns in the sense that they kind of nurture creativity and a kind of homemade scale of things.  They’re not too big and they’re not too pricey, especially compared with London or Los Angeles.  

Stop-motion seems like such an arduous process.  Wouldn’t it be easier to draw the film or render it on a computer?

Butler:  Well, it does seem larger than life when you see it getting made, because it involves so much physical effort.  You visit the set and it’s noisy and there are armies of people making things and shooting off sparks.  And if you visit another animation studio where they’re working in 2-D or CG then you just see people quietly working at their desks.

Fell:  There’s much more direct interaction with the material if you’re working in stop-motion.  You’ve got the models right in front of you and you can see what’s happening.  You wouldn’t dare touch it for fear of breaking it, but you can see it, which is a big help.  You have the ability to look at every single frame before you shoot it.  On 2-D or CG films, you have people emailing you their work, which is a different feel.

Butler: But it is ridiculously difficult.  I think that’s why it’s only done by people who are mad enough not to care about how hard it is.

Fell:  Our most productive week was two minutes of finished footage.

There’s so much wonderful craft in the film.  Do you have a favorite bit?

Fell:  I liked Norman’s little bicycle quite a bit.  It’s a lovely thing and it actually worked.  Like a tiny Swiss clock.

Butler: I really liked when we were able to see the light coming through Norman’s ears.  

There have been more stop-motion features on American screens in the past five or ten years than perhaps at any time.  Is the medium on the rise?

Butler:  I think it is.  Laika is gearing up to increase their output over the next few years.  And it’s not only the numbers of films but the stories are so different.  The medium is able to tell so many types of stories, and there are many more opportunities with each success.


Levy’s High Five, August 17 – 23

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

Searching for Sugar Man 2.jpg"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. Cinema 21, 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. multiple locations

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) “ParaNorman” The second feature from Portland’s Laika Entertainment is, like 2009’s “Coraline,” a gorgeously crafted stop-motion animation that blends a creepy tale with an impish wit, resulting in a smashing entertainment for tweens and their chaperones.  The focus is Norman, a boy whose ability to talk with ghosts is, unbeknownst to him, part of his legacy as a necromancer who must appease a witch whom his town elders executed lest she wreak havoc on the place.  With rich jokes about horror movies and teen angst, impeccable handmade craft, and nicely dense 3-D, it’s a pleasure throughout, even, I suspect, if you’re not rooting for your hometown team. multiple locations


‘ParaNorman’: the reviews start to roll in, and they’re good ‘uns

The second feature by Portland's Laika Entertainment garners kudos. And now we wait for the boxoffice results....

ParaNorman skull.jpg"ParaNorman"
So I've already weighed in on "ParaNorman," the delightful and beautifully made new film from the stop-motion animation wizards at Laika Entertainment, and I thought I'd surf the old intertubes and see what my colleagues are saying.

Over at MetaCritic, the film currently gets a 69 rating (out of 100, which means the low side of "go see it").  At Rotten Tomatoes, it's currently pulling an 82 (again, out of 100).  The two sites differ in that MetaCritic reads reviews, assigns them a number grade and then uses a secret formula to derive the final score; RT simply sees a review as a thumb-up  or thumb-down and counts them all accordingly, arriving at a percentage. It's a pretty good start, although still early; by this time Friday, I expect nearly 175 reviews to be up at RT and 45 or more at MetaCritic.

It's not the wall-to-wall raves enjoyed by Laika's 2009 debut, "Coraline," but it's good news. In all, like me, folks are more enamored of the filmmaking -- the handmade puppets, the painstaking animation, the 3-D, the voice talents -- than the script and story.  But few people, if any, are outright hostile (though some do wonder about whether the film is appropriate for pre-tweens).

Here are some passages to ponder:

"'ParNorman,'a dark and slightly dotty 3-D fable about a boy who communes with the dearly and not so dearly departed, sometimes gets a little out of hand, especially at the end. Even so, it may be the most fun you'll have with ghosts and zombies all year." -- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times

"Far more than Norman’s adventure, which takes him from home to a cemetery and deep into his town’s history, what pulls you in, quickening your pulse and widening your eyes, are the myriad visual enchantments — from the rich, nubby tactility of his clothes to the skull-and-bones adorning his bedroom wallpaper. When Norman pauses while brushing his teeth to make a scary face in the mirror, the foamy toothpaste dripping like zombie drool, you may find yourself tapping into your own inner monster and goofily grinning right back." -- Manohla Dargis, New York Times

"Unlike 'Coraline,' which focused intently on the childhood terror of suspecting your parents may not be who they seem to be, the story of ParaNorman sprawls in a dozen directions. There are zombie attacks (mostly funny, rarely scary), teenage antics (the kids drive around in a van that bears a faint resemblance to Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine) and a third-act revelation that changes the tone of the film from spooky to beautiful, gentle tragedy. None of this is all that engaging. But the art design of the movie makes up for the slack story." -- Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

"What works about "ParaNorman" is its subtle interweave of the stoical and the heroic. The voice work is inspired, without a lot of theatrical flourish. The low-key musical score by Jon Brion, one of the year's best, teases out the macabre humor in each new challenge faced by Norman. For all their painstaking detail, I never much took to the Tim Burton universe of stop-motion,"The Nightmare Before Christmas"or "Corpse Bride." But "Coraline" and "ParaNorman" are several steps up in terms of ... well, everything that makes a film successful and interesting. The stories seduce rather than bully. The throwaway gags are choice....And despite a heavy-going and not-great final 20 minutes, "ParaNorman" gets you in Norman's corner and keeps you there." -- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

"Like many of the Amblin' films of the '80s, "ParaNorman" has a kid as the protagonist, but the film doesn't speak down to its audience.  Instead, it tells a sometimes sad, often scary story about perception and institutionalized lies and the things that we are driven to do by fear, and it treats all of its characters, even the most cartoonish of them, with respect.  Whatever I expected from the film, it wasn't something this smart and mature." -- Drew McWeeny, HitFix

The most negative review so far has come from Marshall Fine, the longtime Gannett newspapers critic who now plies his trade at his own web site.  Even in dismissing the film, though, Fine declares appeaciation for the filmmaking:

"Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler from a script by Butler, “ParaNorman” is a marvel of stop-motion animation, built on a script of flat jokes and frantic, frenetic but uninvolving action. It wants to be a horror comedy, but the horror is mild-mannered and the comedy never ignites." -- Marshall Fine, Hollywood and Fine



‘ParaNorman’ review: brilliant craft and impish wit make for a charming horror tale

The second feature from Portland's Laika Entertainment is a grand romp for tweens -- and for those who appreciate fabulous filmmaking.

ParaNorman sunset.jpg"ParaNorman"
For its second feature film, Portland’s Laika Entertainment once again combines brilliantly crafted stop-motion animation with a cheekily dark tale to create a fabulous entertainment.  

“ParaNorman,” based on an original script by co-director Chris Butler, is the story of Norman Babcock, a small town boy who’s ostracized by everyone, including his family, because he claims (truthfully, as it turns out) to be able to talk with the dead.  It turns out that the town is, unknowingly, living under a curse cast centuries ago by a girl whom the Puritan founders burned as a witch.  Norman, it happens, is descended from a line of necromancers who are able to soothe the spirit of the witch to sleep and stay her from her vengeance.  But Norman doesn’t learn about his powers until it may be too late to stop the witch from wreaking heck.

Butler and his co-director Sam Fell have terrific fun with this material, using it as a springboard to poke fun at the conventions of horror movies, at school-age trauma, at modern family life.  The film is filled with gleeful humor aimed at tweens, spiced with just the right degree of horror to engage kids who’ve outgrown their “Goosebumps” books but are still too young for slasher films.  So few movies are pitched appropriately at kids (especially boys) in this age group that it’s a pleasure to see one at all, let alone one done well.  On the level of storytelling alone, “ParaNorman” is a delight.

But being, like Laika’s first film, 2009’s “Coraline,” a work of stop-motion animation, “ParaNorman” is at least as much about its texture as its story.  Butler, Fell and company have built a comically grotesque world of pear-shaped dads, muscle-headed quarterbacks, feral bullies, lumpy teachers and rubbery zombies amid whom Norman, with his affection for horror movies and nerdy mien, seems positively normal.  The tiny sets are brimming with witty details, the motion of characters and objects is rendered with flawless fluidity, the 3-D depth adds layers of richness, and the occasional computerized effects are meted out judiciously.  In its technique, “Coraline” was a genuine work of art, and “ParaNorman” succeeds it worthily in that regard.

Witty, too is the vocal work.  Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Road”) gives Norman the appropriately exasperated tone, rising toward a struggle between his heroic and frightened sides as the film moves along.  Beside him, Tucker Albrizzi is a fondly dim best friend, Christopher Mintz-Plasse makes a fine feral bully, Casey Affleck is particularly funny as a high school hunk, and Anna Kendrick is snippy and shallow as Norman’s older sister.

Being an entertainment aimed at those still of school age, “ParaNorman” is almost obliged to have a moral, and perhaps it’s guilty of banging on its theme that we should be accepting of those who are different from the rest of us a bit heavily.  But the overall cheekiness of the film far outweighs its preachy moments.  For the most part, it’s a brisk, funny and engaging movie that does genuinely exciting things with little bits of string and wire and such.  In a sense, stop-motion animation is the purest form of moviemaking, and this is a fine example of the genre, as well as another reason to be proud of the home team at Laika.
(93 min., PG, multiple locations) Grade: B-plus


Star-crossed ‘Misfits,’ a cynical ‘Horse,’ an ‘Unhinged’ rarity and more

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

Unhinged.jpgView full size
"Barfly" Celebrate the birthday of author Charles Bukowski with a screening of this Barbet Schroeder film and a selection of readings from the late poet and novelist's works.  (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday only)
 
“The Bastard Swordsman” 35mm martial arts goodness: a 1983 Wu Tang joint.  (Hollywood Theatre, Tuesday only)  

“Dark Horse” A darkly comic love story by world-class misanthrope Todd Solondz.  (Living Room Theaters)  

“Drugstore Cowboy” Gus Van Sant's
1989 breakout film, set in a Portland that seems only to exist in memory and being shown on a rooftop not far from where it was filmed.  (Northwest Film Center, Thursday only)   

“Factory of One” Premiere of locally-made documentary about one man’s elaborate plans for attending Burning Man.  (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday only)  

“Falling Overnight”
Drama about love between a young cancer patient and a photographer.  (Hollywood Theatre, Wednesday only)  

“Jaws” Steven Spielberg's
landmark summer classic, back on the big screen before school starts again.  (Clackamas Town Center, Eastport, Thursday only)

“The Jazz Singer”
Not the Al Jolson talkie but the Neil Diamond thingy  (Mission Theater, Wednesday only)

“The Karate Kid” The 1984 original, with the Oscar-nominated performance by Pat Morita.  Accept no substitutes.  (Laurelhurst)  

“Laura” A brilliant, glossy film noir directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney.  (5th Avenue Cinema, Friday through Sunday only)  

“Mad Max”
A young Mel Gibson stars in this blistering post-apocalyptic cop story.  (Tigard Joy Cinema, Friday through Monday only)  

“Metropolis” Fritz Lang's
silent classic, with live musical accompaniment by Bent Knee.  (Hollywood Theatre, Friday only)  

“The Misfits" John Huston's 1961 film of an Arthur Miller script marked the last work by Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Tin House hosts the screening to mark the publication of Adam Braver's Marilyn-centered novel, "Misfit."  (Hollywood Theatre, Sunday only)  

“Mourning” Iranian drama about parents trying to discuss their child’s future without his knowing about it.  (Northwest Film Center, Tuesday only)  

“Pegasus”
Drama from Morocco about a psychiatrist whose work with a complex case causes him to unravel a bit himself.  (Northwest Film Center, Wednesday only)  

“The Prize” A woman and her daughter flee the tyranny of the Argentine dictatorship.  (Northwest Film Center, Sunday only)  

“Project Youth Doc 2012 Screening” The works of this summer’s crop of student filmmakers premiere.  (Hollywood Theatre, Monday only)  

“’70s SciFi Double Feature”
Rarely-screened episodes of “UFO” and “Space 1999”.  (Hollywood Theatre, Thursday only)  

“Super Chill” Premiere of a made-in-Portland internet comedy series.  (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday only)  

“Unhinged”
Portland filmmaking pioneer Don Gronquist’s star-crossed 1982 slasher movie gets an ultra-rare screening.  (Hollywood Theatre, Tuesday only)  

“Voice Without a Shadow”
A 1958 crime drama by B-movie master Suzuki Seijun, based on a novel by Seicho Matsumoto and concerning a newspaperman investigating a string of murders.  (Northwest Film Center, Sunday only)  


Another Cronenberg tidbit: Why no Viggo in ‘Cosmopolis’?

A streak of films in which the Canadian director featured the daring star comes to an end.

Viggo Dangerous.jpgViggo Mortensen in "A Dangerous Method"
The Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg caused a ruckus in the blogosphere today by talking unfavorably about "The Dark Knight Rises."  But when I spoke to him the other day he made no such waves.  

Rather, he waxed fondly about his frequent collaborator, Viggo Mortensen, with whom he made three consecutive films -- "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises" and "A Dangerous Method" -- before breaking the streak with his new movie, "Cosmopolis," which opens in Portland on August 24.

Asked if he had tried to find a part for Mortensen in the film, in which the protagonist, a  financier driving through Manhattan, encounters a variety of people, Cronenberg responded, "I was looking for it, but, frankly, you don't do an actor a favor by miscasting him, and I would never do that to Viggo.  I literally could not find a role that worked for him."

Pressed about a few specific possibilities which would've required Mortensen to wear even more makeup than he had to in order to play Sigmund Freud in "Dangerous Method," Crnenberg replied, "Well, a you know, he's fearless and he's unafraid and his body is just material for the character.  He's not looking to be a star that way."

For my full interview with Cronenberg, see Sunday's Oregonian or check this blog late Friday afternoon.

This week’s last-chance movies: ‘Monsieur Lazhar,’ ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Take This Waltz’

Catch 'em while you can!

Monsieur Lazhar.jpg"Monsieur Lazhar"
Canada dominates this week's departures, with the Montreal-set Oscar-nominated schoolroom drama "Monsieur Lazhar" and the Toronto-set broken-marriage drama "Take This Waltz" vanishing from theaters after Thursday's showings.  Also bidding adieu, the '80s hair/glam/metal musical "Rock of Ages."

Retro-a-Gogo: classic films on Portland screens, August 17 – 23

Everything old is new again!

Laura.jpgView full size
"Barfly" Celebrate the birthday of author Charles Bukowski with a screening of this Barbet Schroeder film and a selection of readings from the late poet and novelist's works. (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday only)

"The Bastard Swordsman" 35mm martial arts goodness: a 1983 Wu Tang joint. (Hollywood Theatre, Tuesday only)

"Drugstore Cowboy" Gus Van Sant's 1989 breakout film, set in a Portland that seems only to exist in memory and being shown on a rooftop not far from where it was filmed. (Northwest Film Center, Thursday August 23 only)

"Jaws" Steven Spielberg's landmark summer classic, back on the big screen before school starts again. (Clackamas Town Center, Eastport, Thursday August 23 only)

"The Jazz Singer" Not the Al Jolson talkie but the Neil Diamond thingy.  (Mission Theater, Wednesday August 22 only)

"The Karate Kid" The 1984 original, with the Oscar-nominated performance by Pat Morita.  Accept no substitutes. (Laurelhurst)

"Laura" A brilliant, glossy film noir directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. (5th Avenue Cinema, Friday through Sunday only)

"Mad Max" A young Mel Gibson stars in this blistering post-apocalyptic cop story. (Tigard Joy Cinema, Friday through Monday only)

"Metropolis" Fritz Lang's silent classic, with live musical accompaniment by Bent Knee.  (Hollywood Theatre, Friday only)

"The Misfits" John Huston's 1961 film of an Arthur Miller script marked the last work by Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Tin House hosts the screening to mark the publication of Adam Braver's Marilyn-centered novel, "Misfit." (Hollywood Theatre, Sunday only)

"Voice Without a Shadow" A 1958 crime drama by B-movie master Suzuki Seijun, based on a novel by Seicho Matsumoto and concerning a newspaperman investigating a string of murders. (Northwest Film Center, Sunday only)

David Cronenberg says he hasn’t necessarily abandoned horror or sci-fi

The director of "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises" and the upcoming "Cosmopolis" says that he may still have some fantasy films in him.

DAvid Cronenberg -- semi profile.jpgDavid Cronenberg

For the first decade or so of his career, the Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg was a master of idiosyncratic horror and science-fiction films, whipping up the remarkable likes of "Scanners," "The Fly," "Videodrome" and "Naked Lunch."  But if you looked at his more recent output -- "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises," "A Dangerous Method" and his new film, "Cosmopolis," which opens in Portland on August 24 -- you would think he had foresworn his genre root for other avenues.

Not so he told me in a recent telephone interview.  Asked outright if he considered that he had completely left behind fantastical filmmaking, Cronenberg replied:

I've never felt that I was only a director of sci-fi or horror. "Dead Ringers," which was 1988, was based on two real guys.  "M. Butterfly" was based on a real guy.  And "Spider" was not exactly fantastical. It was a sketch of schizophrenia as seen from the inside.  So I've done that.   And the flip side of that is that I have not turned my back on any genre filmmaking.  After all, "A History of Violence"and "Eastern Promises" are genre films. So I don't feel that I've ruled out anything.  If there was a great sci-fi concept, a great fantasy or horror film concept, that I felt was fresh and new and I could bring something to it, I wouldn't turn my back on it.

There was a lot more interesting stuff in our talk.  It will run in Sunday's Oregonian and appear online sometime Friday afternoon.

A very big little film festival rolls into Vancouver, USA

The Fifth Annual Columbia Gorge International Film Festival takes over downtown with hundreds of movies and associated events.

Shouting Secrets.jpgfrom "Shouting Secrets," the opening night film of the Fifth Columbia Gorge International Film Festival
A massive film festival will be held this week and weekend in Vancouver, WA, and it takes a bit of detective work to find it.  The Fifth Annual Columbia Gorge International Film Festival is an event featuring some 200+ films (at least 30 of which are feaure length) from something like 36 countries and 30 of these United States.  It features script review workshops, guest speakers, an animation showcase and informal parties to go along with the scores of screenings, and it occupies some eight venues in downtown Vancouver.  

It's about as big a movie event as you can imagine occurring in Vancouver, and it's a bit of a mystery.  Originally mounted as the Washougal International Film Festival, the CGIFF seems to be the brainchild of Washington filmmaker and actress Breven Angaelica Warren and her Angaelica arts foundation.  It's a massive undertaking, involving volunteers and, obviously, tons of prep work, but very little in the way of media outreach, which is why I keep speaking about it so obliquely.

The festival runs Wednesday, August 15 through Sunday, August 19, and I'm very eager to hear more about it from anyone who attends.  Drop a note here if you can remember to after seeing all those movies.

Big city movie woes don’t affect Portland’s indie film scene

In Portland, the cult of alternative moviegoing is thriving while it shrinks elsewhere in the country.

Oslo August 31.jpg"Oslo, August 31"
A recent blog post by my pal Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr should make you feel sad and a little smug.  In it, Burr notes that the distributors of the Norwegian film "Oslo, August 31," which has won accolades at festivals around the world (including Sundance), have declared that the film will not play in Boston, the 21st most populous city in the nation and home to thriving college communities and arts cultures.  

The problem, the distributors told Burr, is that there are very few art movie screens left in the city and the majority of them are controlled by Landmark Theaters, an arthouse chain based in Los Angeles.  Landmark claims that their Boston screens are being taken up by a couple of this summer's arthouse hits -- "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Moonrise Kingdom" -- and that they have too many films queued up to save a spot for "Oslo."

This is actually a common condition in many cities even bigger than Boston.  The independent theaters where art and revival movies thrived in an earlier era have vanished, or been gobbled up by corporate chains based elsewhere, and the variety of films available on a given night is considerably less than it might be.  There are, arguably, more movies in theatrical distribution today then ever, but in most cities there are fewer places than ever where that multitude of films can be seen.

Not so in Portland, where the urban core -- a circle with a radius stretching from, say, City Hall to (pointedly) the intersection of 43rd and NE Sandy -- is home to more screens dedicated to art, indie, alternative, foreign, and experimental film than to Hollywood blockbusters.  In that area, you find the independently owned/operated Northwest Film Center, Cinema 21,  Living Room Theaters5th Avenue Cinema, Mission Theater, Clinton Street TheaterBagdad Theater,  Cinemagic Laurelhurst and, at the outer limits, the Hollywood Theatre, plus the Regal Fox Tower, the main corporate home of alternative movies in Portland.  All of those theaters almost always -- or at least regularly -- show stuff that's not in the multiplexes.  For that sort of fare in the same area, there are but three choices:  Regal's Pioneer Place multiplex and the two Regal multiplexes at the Lloyd Center.  I count 29 primarily indie screens and 24 mainstream screens.  I don't think there's another major American city where the downtown movie scene has a similar aspect.

That surplus of indie theaters in Portland has several implications.  For one, there are more screens to debut more films than most cities -- and that includes cities much bigger than Portland or Boston.  In any  week, the NFC, Cinema 21, Living Room, Clinton Street and Hollywood account for as many as a dozen premieres, some for a single night, most for a full week minimally.  As a result, and throwing in the annual film festivals that most often play at those theaters, Portland sees nearly 1000 new titles annually.  

Secondly, if an indie film does find an audience in Portland but has to move out of the theater where it debuted to make way for a new film, it has other screens to appear on, meaning it can stay in town for months.  Just last year, such films as "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," "Pina," "Drive," "The Guard" and "The Tree of Life" played in Portland for far longer than in other cities of any size simply because they were able to draw enough of an audience after months to make it worthwhile for the owners of various indie theaters in town to keep showing them.

The shame at the heart of Burr's story is that Boston once had the definitive alternative cinema scene in the country, with the famed Brattle, Coolidge Corner and Orson Welles theaters practically inventing the idea of the calendar movie house that mixed classic titles, new foreign releases and American indies on their schedules.  Now, sadly, that day seems to have passed the city by.  And, indeed, most other American cities as well.

It turns out that in movies, as in so many other things, tiny Portland has an embarrassment of riches to enjoy.

‘Bourne’ reborn, a scorched-earth ‘Campaign,’ a slow ‘Hara-Kiri’ and more

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

The Bourne Legacy 3.jpgJeremy Renner in "The Bourne Legacy"
A nicely varied selection for this getting-near-the-end-of-summer-movie-season weekend.  We've got reviews of Jeremy Renner as a spy in "The Bourne Legacy," Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell as political enemies in "The Campaign," Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as long-marrieds in "Hope Springs," and the French World War II drama "La Rafle."  And you know we've got "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and "Retro-a-Gogo."  Enjoy!

Levy’s High Five, August 10 – 16

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

Beasts of the Southern Wild"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. multiple locations

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. multiple locations

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) "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins has gumption, all right. He has crafted a 15-hour tour through the century-plus of cinema, all over the world, filled with cranky opinions, beguiling finds, glimpses of forgotten history and interviews with accomplished masters. Starting with Edison and the Lumière brothers and ranging to the modern day, touching on all continents, this is an informative, enlightening and remarkably entertaining history, in the vein of Martin Scorsese's "A Personal Journey Through American Film." Cousin's epic screens throughout August in five three-hour chunks, starting this weekend. This week's bit deals with the rise of the Hollywood studio in the 1930s and the international explosion of vital cinema after World War II. Visit the Northwest Film Center, which is presenting, for full details.

5) "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry" A documentary that feels as current as a news alert on your smart phone. American director Alison Klayman was granted remarkable access to the famed Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei, peering into his atelier and private life and traveling with him to exhibitions in Europe and public-interest investigations in Sichuan. She reveals a robust, lusty, bold, and playful spirit, a man with voracious appetites, fearless convictions, and a spry aesthetic. The film goes backward to tell the story of Ai's father, a noted poet crushed in the Cultural Revolution, and takes us to the brink of Ai's 2011 arrest on charges of tax evasion -- a matter which has only been (partly) resolved this summer. An invigorating and intimate portrait. Living Room Theaters

‘The Bourne Legacy’ review: a spy — and a movie franchise — finds thrilling new life

A new star and a new plot line are grafted onto the hit film series, and the result is exhilarating.

The Bourne Legacy 2.jpgRachel Weisz and Jeremy Renner in "The Bourne Legacy"
“The Bourne Legacy” is an absolute crackerjack entertainment: smart, taut, sleek, tense and unrelenting -- an ideal action movie and a truly exemplary sequel.

Tony Gilroy, who wrote the first three “Bourne” films, co-writes here (with his brother, Dan) and directs, as he did on the superb “Michael Clayton” and the underrated “Duplicity.” And he pulls off several impressive feats.

For one, he manages to move the “Bourne” series away from its initial star, Matt Damon, to a new protagonist, Aaron Cross  (played by Jeremy Renner), in one of the most audacious and clever strategies I’ve ever seen.  A fair bit of “Legacy” actually overlaps with 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” -- characters, plot lines, actual scenes -- so that, in effect, the new film dovetails into the old, creating a vivid sense of continuity.

Gilroy also expands his palate as director impressively, following Doug Liman, who launched the series, and Paul Greengrass, who made the energetic second and third entries, in mounting explosive and gripping action sequences. Lots of films ratchet up into non-stop kinetics in their final acts and lose coherence, both as storytelling and as cinema. “Legacy” maintains a very high level of craft and accomplishment in both, and Gilroy proves himself more capable of choreographing massive action sequences than a lot of folks who make them for a living.

Chiefly, though, “Legacy” places the “Bourne” movies on a par with the James Bond films as a franchise big and sturdy enough to absorb a change of protagonist without losing punch or momentum. The “Bourne”-iverse is more political, more human-scale, more vulnerable, and more paranoid than the world of Bond. But the films themselves are every bit as juicy and intense.

“Legacy” starts with two plot threads: Cross is out in the wilds of Alaska on a survival-course test that turns into something more than that while bureaucrats in Washington and New York confront the potential scandal that will hit them if Jason Bourne and his story become known.  

A decision is made to wipe out all of the operatives who, like Bourne and Cross, have been genetically altered into super-human agents. Cross survives and then, fearing that the physical and mental enhancements that turned him from a wounded simpleton to an ubermensch are temporary, makes his way to Maryland to track down the scientist (Rachel Weisz) who helped transform him.  All the while, cold-blooded governmental operators (led by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach), are trying to eradicate him and all evidence of the program in which he participated.

The script makes absolutely no concessions to explanation, prologue or backstory. If you don’t know exactly what’s going on at the start, you might never find out.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.  Just bear in mind that many, many bad guys -- some of them in elective office -- are out to kill off the one good guy, and you’ve got your bearings.  And after that, hold on for a heck of a ride.  The action sequences in Alaska, in a large house in Maryland, and in the streets and alleys of Manila are tremendous white-knuckle thrill rides.

Renner conveys human pathos beneath the potentially robotic veneer of the enhanced Cross, much as Damon infused Bourne with confusion and fear.  Especially compelling is a sequence in which, before his treatment, he’s a maimed dope agreeing to dangerous experimental treatment.  Weisz and Norton are sharp-minded and steely-willed on different sides of the chase, and there are appearances by a number of performers (including “Bourne” veterans Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney) who enrich the milieu and give weight to even the smallest moments.

There’s real fire in “Legacy,” but there’s human frailty and desperation, too, which is something that the Bond films have never had.  It doesn’t exactly offer lightness, and it can be exhausting to keep up with.  But there is no doubt that the “Bourne” series is in good hands or that the handoff from Jason Bourne to Aaron Cross has been successfully achieved.  The result is a newly revived spy movie franchise -- and the best big-budget action film of the summer.

(126 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: B-plus

‘The Campaign’ review: political animal planet

A crude comedy takes aim at the fallen state of American politics with scattershot results.

The Campaign.jpgZach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell in "The Campaign"
A fitfully funny mishmash of political satire and bawdy humor, “The Campaign” is an assault on the contemporary plagues of crooked electoral financing, issue-free political debate and credulous, sensationalist media.  Alas, it mixes its most damning barbs willy-nilly with frathouse humor and softens the whole thing with saccharine Hollywood storytelling.  The result is that some surprisingly biting commentary is lost amid predictable piffle.

Will Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, a smarmy Republican congressman whose professed values contrast starkly with his actual professional and personal lives. He’s running unopposed for a fifth term, but when a sex scandal hits, his financial backers, the billionaire Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), decide to stake a darkhorse candidate against him.  They recruit Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a well-meaning weirdo who sees the campaign as a chance to do good for his hometown. Little does he know, though, that the Motch brothers have darker plans.

The Motches, of course, are meant to be the Koch brothers, who have financially backed the Tea Party and a variety of super PACs.  But this film barely lays a finger on them; Aykroyd and Lithgow are cardboard villains with less life in them than, oh, Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in “Trading Places” (in which Aykroyd played, more or less, the Cam Brady character).

Similarly, the various attack ads and faux pas that the two candidates engage are occasionally hilarious (Ferrell and Galifianakis haven’t so resembled actual living humans in a screen comedy in years, which helps).  But wrapping the whole thing in a sentimental ending turns it into a fraud.  “The Campaign” might have been truly -- and appropriately -- scabrous in other hands; those of the “South Park” guys or Mike Judge, say.  But director Jay Roach and writers Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy play it safe and down the middle.  No actual political contributors or candidates need fear harm.

(A final sidenote:  a truly despicable thing occurs throughout the film, namely the repeated use of CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer appearing as himself and reporting on the events of the script as if they were real.  He’s joined by others -- Chris Matthews and the “Morning Joe” gang from MSNBC, most often.  But Blitzer is supposed to be a serious journalist, not an opinion-monger.  He has no place in something like this -- or, more to the point, on the air afterwards as a trustworthy disseminator of facts.)
    
(90 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B-minus


’48 Hour’ movies, a ‘Homegrown’ docs fest, a comic ‘Finger’ and more

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

FAt Bald Short Man.pngView full sizefrom "Fat, Bald, Short Man"
“Dead Alive” Peter Jackson’s hilariously bloody 1992 zombie movie, screening outdoors under the stars.  (Northwest Film Center, Thursday only)  

“An Evening with Leif Peterson” The Portland experimental filmmaker shares two new works which restage Bible stories in varied historical settings.  (Northwest Film Center, Sunday only)  

“Excalibur” John Boorman’s terrific Arthurian adventure film, with, among others, Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson.  (Laurelhurst Theater)   

“Fat, Bald, Short Man” Feature-length animated film from Columbia about the life and times of a beleaguered office worker.  (Northwest Film Center, Wednesday only)

“The Finger”
Black comedy about the coming of democratic reform to provincial Argentina.  (Northwest Film Center, Tuesday only)

“48 Hour Film Project” Two nights of screenings featuring films made during the annual hurry-up-and-shoot filmmaking contest.  (Hollywood Theatre, Wednesday and Thursday only)  

“Homegrown DocFest”
A night of locally made nonfiction films sponsored by the folks at NW Documentary.  (Mission Theater, Friday only)  

“Strange Days”
Kathryn Bigelow’s creepy depiction of the perils of interconnectivity still resonates long after Y2K has passed.  (5th Avenue Cinema, Friday through Sunday only)  


‘Hara-Kiri’ review: tale of samurai honor played as a slow burn

Takashi Miike's 3-D samurai movie is darker and slower than you might hope.

Hara Kiri.jpgEbizo Ichikawa in "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai"
Peacetime in feudal Japan means little work for samurai, and various ronin -- samurai without masters -- have begun to show up at great houses to request honorable places to commit suicide.  

Many of these desperate fellows are dead serious. Others, though, hope to be offered jobs, or just a meal and some pocket money.  These ‘suicide-bluffs’ have become a scourge, and when a bedraggled samurai shows up at the house of Lord Ii to request the honor of killing himself there, he is warned away by the story of the fate imposed on another man who made the same request in bad faith.  And he, in turn, has a story to tell.

This is the plot of Takashi Miike’s “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai,” based on a 1962 movie, “Harakiri,” which was, in turn, based on a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi. Unlike previous Miike films, such as “Audition” and, especially, “13 Assassins,” “Hara-Kiri” is low on blood and shock, emphasizing performance and atmosphere.

That can be a positive, in that Ebizo Ichikawa brings a rich sense of dignity, pain and quiet fury to his role as the desperate samurai.  But much of the power the dark, looming, poignant air of the film is lost in the 3-D in which Miike shoots it and the dark glasses the technology requires.  That, combined with the deliberately slow pace, make the somber “Hara-Kiri” drag when it really ought to kick.
    
(125 min., unrated, probably PG-13, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-minus


This week’s last-chance movies: ‘A Cat in Paris,’ ‘Klown,’ ‘Extraterrestrial’ and more

Catch 'em while you can.

A Cat in Paris "A Cat in Paris"
Three international films worth catching are on their way out of town come late Thursday night:  the Oscar-nominated animated feature "A Cat in Paris"; the Danish rude boy comedy "Klown"; and the Spanish alien invasion comedy "Extraterrestrial."  Also departing is the quite awful "Red Lights," which was made in Spain and stars Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver.  So if you can only see three of these, well....

Retro-a-gogo: classic films on Portland screens, August 10 – 16

Everything old is new again.

Dead Alive poster.jpgView full size
"An American Werewolf in London" The classic 1981 backpacker-turns-lycanthrope movie.  (Joy Cinema, Friday through Sunday only)

"Dead Alive" Peter Jackson's jaw- (and guts-) dropping 1992 zombie movie outdoors under the stars. (Northwest Film Center, Thursday August 16 only)

"Excalibur" Also from 1981, John Boorman's epic tale of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, et al, with, among others, Nicol Williamson, Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren. (Laurelhurst)

"Strange Days" Katheryn Bigelow's 1995 dystopian vision of a world beset with invasive technology, starring Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett. (5th Avenue Cinema, Friday through Sunday only)

"The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era"
A celebration of the centennial of Japan's Nikkatsu studio begins with this 1957 comedy about a man who has to pay off a debt by working in a brothel. (Northwest Film Center, Saturday only)

Steve McQueen and William Friedkin: missed connection?

The director of "The French Connection" and the star of "Bullitt" never quite made a film together.

Mcqueen driving.jpgThe one that got away: Steve McQueen
I had a chance the other day to speak with director William Friedkin in anticipation of the Portland release of his blistering, darkly comic drama "Killer Joe."  Friedkin is a vigorous 76 years old and discourses at length when asked a question, which makes for great copy. 

He was also very generous with his time, which meant I could as some questions that weren't specifically pertinent to the purpose of selling tickets to his new film.

So given the chance to chat at length, I asked him something that I'd wondered about in the past.  Back in his directorial heyday in the 1970s, Friedkin worked with such leading men as Gene Hackman, ("The French Connection"), Al Pacino ("Cruising") and Roy Scheider ("Sorcerer") but never Robert De Niro, who was, arguably, the dominant American actor of that moment and in many regards an archtypical Friedkin leading man.  What I was wondering was why the two had never worked together and if they'd ever missed an opportunity to do so.

friedkin.jpgWilliam Friedkin
And here's what Friedkin told me:

In the '70s I only made, like, three films, and if we talk about them -- "The French Connection," "The Exorcist," "Sorcerer" and, later, "Cruising." That had Al Pacino. It could've been De Niro. I liked his work in the '70s very much, but I only made those few films and they took up every day of my life! I would love to have worked with De Niro back then, without a doubt. It's not simply that you like an actor; you have to have a role for that particular actor. And I simply didn't do that many films. The guy I really wanted to work with other than anyone was Steve McQueen, and I almost did on "Sorcerer," but for a variety of reasons we couldn't get together. The script was written for him.

In fact, quick research confirms that McQueen was in extended talks with Friedkin about the film -- a remake of the Georges Cluzot drama "The Wages of Fear" about a truck convoy carrying wet dynamite through a jungle.  Why didn't it happen?  It came down to the simplest of matters:  Friedkin and Paramount Pictures insisted on shooting the film on location in the Dominican Republic and McQueen, newly married to Ali MacGraw, didn't want to spend extended time away from home. 

I am reminded that De Niro turned down key roles in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Gangs of New York" for similar reasons, and that on such small decisions, film history is made.

(Look for a complete interview with Friedkin in The Oregonian on Sunday August 26; "Killer Joe" opens in Portland on August 31.)


A ‘Recall’ reboot, a clueless ‘Queen,’ an ‘Ai Weiwei’ portrait and much more

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

Total recall 2012 2.jpgColin Farrell in "Total Recall"
Last week, the opening of the Olympics seemed to scare new films out of opening in theaters.  This weekend, we've got a massive haul of new stuff.  Towit: the scifi remake "Total Recall"; the dark romantic fantasy "Ruby Sparks"; the art world documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"; the epic movie history "The Story of Film"; the rich folks gone bad documentary "The Queen of Versailles"; the French historical drama "Farewell, My Queen"; the Danish gross-out comedy "Klown"; and the dreary psychic-investigation thriller "Red Lights."  And beyond that we have "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five," and "Retro-a-Gogo."
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