If there’s one lesson to be learned from Elaine May’s Ishtar, it’s that the road to $40 million hell is paved with good intentions.
The 1987 action-comedy started as payback of a debt owed to May, a comic legend who, alongside her partner Mike Nichols, was one of improv’s first stars in the 1950s and later a prodigious, Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Heaven Can Wait, Primary Colors). Ishtar co-starred Warren Beatty at his peak. He’d won an Oscar in 1982 for directing the historical epic Reds, to which May contributed a massive, uncredited rewrite. Beatty intended to return the favor by producing and starring in the globetrotting screwball comedy directed by May.
Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play two aging, low-rent singer-songwriters whose attempts to launch musical careers fall flat. When their agent, Marty Freed (Jack Weston), lines up a gig for the duo in Morocco, they end up embroiled in a power struggle between the despotic Emir of neighboring Ishtar, its resistance movement led by the mysterious Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani), and the CIA, represented by agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin). Not a bad premise for a late-’80s buddy comedy.
But Ishtar—which shows this week at Portland State University’s student-run 5th Avenue Cinema as part of a fall season that focuses on box-office flops worthy of revival—would mutate into one of Hollywood’s most notorious disasters. A cascade of production problems and ego clashes lost Columbia Pictures nearly $40 million and is likely to have played a part in the studio’s then-owner, Coca-Cola, selling it to Sony in 1989.
Peter Biskind chronicles the debacle in his biography of Beatty, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America. There are many stories, but here’s one that has since become Hollywood lore: Coca-Cola greenlit May to film Ishtar’s extensive desert scenes in Morocco, an impoverished country in a politically volatile region that had little apparatus for supporting a major Hollywood production. Animal trainer Corky Randall was tasked with tracking down a blue-eyed camel. At the camel market in Marrakesh. the crew found a perfect specimen for $700, but tried to find a second camel to get a better deal from the merchant. Little did Randall know that blue-eyed camels are rare, and a second one of reasonable quality couldn’t be found. When the crew returned to the merchant days later to buy the first camel, they learned he’d eaten it.
This was one of many disasters, and a comparably minor one. May and Beatty, both notorious perfectionists, fought a cold war over the direction of the film, with Hoffman having to act as intermediary at times. May quarreled with her cinematographer, the renowned Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Last Tango in Paris), having him shoot more than 100 hours of raw footage, more than three times as much as the average comedy.
Once the film missed it’s Christmas 1986 release date, critics caught wind that Ishtar was gearing up to be an enormous bomb. Scheduled to cost $28 million, the film’s final budget exceeded $51 million—compared to the average production budget in 1987 of $17 million. Before its release May 15, negative buzz about the movie was bountiful, and it was believed that the then-president of Columbia was leaking negative stories to the press.
A bomb it was, one of the biggest in history. Ishtar took in $4.2 million in its opening weekend, beating the starless, low-budget horror film The Gate by only $100,000. Reviews were mixed: Janet Maslin of The New York Times called the film “a likable, good-humored hybrid, a mixture of small, funny moments and the pointless, oversized spectacle that these days is sine qua non for any hot-weather hit,” while Roger Ebert excoriated it as “a long, dry slog. It’s not funny, it’s not smart and it’s interesting only in the way a traffic accident is interesting.” Ishtar grossed less than $15 million at the box office, not even recovering the cost of film prints and marketing.
Which is a shame, because Ishtar isn’t a bad ’80s buddy comedy.
Beatty and Hoffman both deliver incredible comic performances, deliberately cast against type, with Beatty’s rugged physicality transformed into bumbling insecurity and Hoffman’s tightly wound anxiety worked into blind confidence. They perform composer Paul Williams’ deliberately bad songs with the confidence of those too dumb to know they’re dumb.
The supporting cast is just as good. Weston as the sleazy agent embodies a kitchen garbage can that’s been left out a week too long. Grodin is as good a smirking government villain as you’ll see, and Isabelle Adjani maintains the ludicrous pretense that a stunningly beautiful woman can be disguised as a teenage boy with grace.
Ishtar isn’t perfect. Once the film moves to Morocco, the jokes are less consistent and the action scenes are wholly unnecessary. But what we do have is a rare instance of a deeply talented cast and crew, one of history’s great comic writers teaming up with a legendary cinematographer and two Oscar-winning actors to make an idiotic comedy in the middle of the desert. You aren’t going to find a shot of Hoffman screaming gibberish at Bedouin tribesmen more beautifully framed anywhere else.
SEE IT:Ishtar screens at 5th Avenue Cinema. 9:15 pm Friday-Saturday, 5:15 pm Sunday, Nov. 18-20.
Billy Lynn (Joe Alwayn) and the other soldiers of Bravo Squad are brought home from Iraq for a Thanksgiving victory tour, culminating in a halftime show appearance at a football game, after a terrifying battle. Based on Ben Fountain’s National Book Award-finalist novel of the same name, director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) contrasts chintzy, flag-waving patriotism with the horror of modern combat. Not screened for critics. R. Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport.
Bleed for This
It’s Oscar season, and you know what that means: Hollywood’s annual movie about boxing. This time it’s the story of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), the world champion boxer whose career was derailed in the early ’90s by a bad car crash. Will he ever fight again? My guess is that at least one montage will be devoted to finding out. R. Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Vancouver.
Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a young TV broadcaster in 1970s Florida, trying to get out of small-town Sarasota and into a bigger market. As she struggles with depression and a boss (Tracy Letts) who keeps pushing for more sensational news stories, her personal and professional life begin to spiral out of control. Not screened for critics. R. Living Room Theaters, Kiggins.
Edge of Seventeen
B+ The first we see of Nadine are her high-top sneakers booking down a high school hallway. The shot speaks loudly—the hard-charging teenager is going to own this movie, though it’ll be a lonely march. We see in flashbacks that she’s never fit in, and then her lifelong best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), begins dating Nadine’s conceited older brother (Blake Jenner). She was a curmudgeon already, but this betrayal opens the insult floodgates. As Nadine, Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Pitch Perfect) delivers one winsome tirade after another, often in a standout salty rapport with Woody Harrelson playing her bleary-eyed history teacher. She has a vocabulary of long-winded and existential “FML” synonyms beyond her years, but Steinfeld’s performance never sells short simple adolescent growing pains. It’s the best combination of well-written ranting and genuine alienation in a high school comedy since Easy A. Though Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut doesn’t break new ground in the genre, Edge of Seventeen has an admirable grip on the stakes of being this antisocial 17-year-old. It sucks to be the uncool kid in a Hollywood depiction of high school, and it hurts more to realize there could be normal, human reasons for it. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Vancouver.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
C J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga gets a retro makeover in this bland romp from longtime Potter director David Yates. The film begins in 1926, when Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City with an enchanted suitcase packed with strange creatures. He’s barely set foot in Manhattan when the beasts make a run for it, smashing and crashing their way through the Big Apple while the harried Newt tries to recapture them with the help of a blundering baker (Dan Fogler) and a magical cop (Katherine Waterston). Their adventures are meant to be spirited and suspenseful, but the cast has no chemistry, and the beast-induced mayhem looks so tacky that Newt’s menagerie might as well be a collection of cheap Christmas ornaments. Even the movie’s stab at social commentary deflates—a subplot about a tormented orphan (Ezra Miller) being abused by an anti-magic extremist (Samantha Morton) seems to be a metaphor for racism and homophobia, but offers only a superficial sheen of relevance. And though the movie was written by Rowling herself, it lacks the emotional pull that propelled the Potter books and films to the rafters of pop culture. Nothing in Fantastic Beasts rivals Harry’s journey from the cupboard under the stairs to the towers of Hogwarts. That brand of wizardry—the truest magic in Rowling’s world—has vanished. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bagdad, Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Lloyd, Pioneer Place, Roseway, St. Johns Twin Cinema & Pub, Tigard, Vancouver.
B The half-baked idea that America could ever win a war on drugs is fading away. Generation Found is a documentary focused on alternative means of treating drug abuse in young people in Houston that offers an insightful and hopeful glimpse at successful resources for kids and families struggling with addiction issues. Filmmakers Greg D. Williams and Jeff Reilly’s overall tone is inspirational, but they don’t shy away from addressing the tragedies associated with narcotics. A father details his son’s overdose and his most recent visit to the boy’s grave—a powerful reminder that there are real consequences to addiction. The film does not sensationalize, romanticize or politicize drug abuse, though it fails to explore the complicated relationship between race and drug policy reform. The audience is given just a few moments to hear anything about the particular struggles of POC kids grappling with drugs in the inner city. Despite dealing with prevalent and devastating subject matter, Generation Found finds a way to offer a few laughs while expressing all the optimism of the film’s tagline: “‘Just Say No’ was a slogan. This is a revolution.” NR. CURTIS COOK. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 7 pm Monday, Nov. 21.
Kate Plays Christine
C+ Christine Chubbuck, an unremarkable TV newscaster in 1970s Sarasota, Fla., got a lot more interesting the moment she shot herself in the head while on the air. But as the event has faded with time from Sarasota’s collective memory, so little else is remembered about Chubbuck that her story is defined by how it ended. This latest from documentary filmmaker Robert Greene follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards, Listen Up Philip) as she prepares to play Chubbuck in a never-to-be-made biopic (not to be confused with Antonio Campos’ Chubbuck biopic Christine, also showing this week). With the close-ups, dark colors and sparse, ominous string soundtrack of a psychological thriller, the basic tension is that Sheil’s envelopment in the role affects her psychologically, so much that she can’t go through with it. While meant to venerate Sheil’s artistic empathy, this ultimately feels whiny. Sheil stresses in interviews that she doesn’t want to “romanticize” or “fetishize” the complex reality of suicide. Sadly, since Kate Plays Christine necessarily focuses more on Sheil’s character work than on Chubbuck’s life (or suicide in general), the film does just that. By trying to be both a documentary and a biopic, the film fails to be either, and its central dual characters fall flat. NR. ISABEL ZACHARIAH. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 7 pm Tuesday, Nov. 22.
The Love Witch
Presented in 35 mm, the new movie by cult director Anna Biller (Viva, A Visit From the Incubus) follows Elaine, a young, modern-day witch who uses magic and potions to seduce men. But what happens when one of her spells works too well? Not screened for critics. NR. Hollywood Theatre, Living Room Theaters.
A- 2016’s post-election social apocalypse summons an inviting atmosphere for an optimistic period piece like Jeff Nichols’ Loving. As a filmmaker, Nichols is known to rotate between manufacturing Southern family dramas (Mud) and supernatural indies (Midnight Special). This time, he tackles a film set within a familiar geography, but with a newfound foreignness. Namely, this is Nichols’ first historical drama, bolstered by the true story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), the interracial couple who challenged U.S. miscegenation laws all the way to the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. In contrast with the stressed, verbose Loving legacy, Loving itself emits slow, relaxed scenes that rely on touch rather than dialogue to illustrate the Lovings’ palpable tenderness. In fact, the gravity of their relationship relies on the senses, whether Richard extends his hand over Mildred’s during a slow midday car ride, or is pried out of bed and violently shackled by police. Ultimately, Loving provides a timeline for the social evolution that would enshrine love, however blind, into law. Nichols’ true success is, in contrast with this rampant political change, in how he captures the unwavering love between Richard and Mildred like the rare tree that doesn’t shed its leaves during winter. PG-13. JACK RUSHALL. Living Room Theaters.
Monumental: Skiing Our National Parks
Powder magazine’s first feature film, made in cooperation with REI, is both a solemn ode to the graceful, ancient mountains of America’s national parks, and a solemn ode to all the sick-ass motherfuckin’ tricks you can do on two skis off of said mountains. A Q&A follows with featured athletes and filmmakers. NR. Laurelhurst Theater. 7 pm Wednesday, Nov. 16.
Screening as part of the Portland Latin American Film Festival, this new film from Rodrigo Guardiola follows Mexican alt-rock act Zoé on a two-year international tour. PG-13. Hollywood Theatre. 6:45 pm Thursday, Nov. 17.
A Fish Called Wanda(1988)
Charles Crichton’s award-winning final movie (co-written with Monty Python’s John Cleese) follows an Anglo-American gang of diamond thieves (Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin) who double- and triple-cross each other to steal the loot from a massive jewel heist. Laurelhurst Theater. Nov. 18-23.
The Mission celebrates the 20th anniversary of Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s 1950s period piece about two Italian immigrant brothers—the cringingly named Primo and Secondo—trying to save their restaurant as they should, with a classic six-course Italian feast culminating in a gigantic timpano, courtesy of the Zeus Cafe’s Warren Pinkston. Tickets ($110) include dinner and wine. Mission Theater. 6:30 pm Thursday, Nov. 17.
Church of Film is back at it, keeping things extra weird with a new series exploring the oft-overlooked world of Soviet and post-Soviet cinema. This week’s offering is Ukrainian director Oles Sanin’s Romeo and Juliet-style love story, but with Cossacks and Tartars replacing Capulets and Montagues on the steppes of medieval Ukraine. North Star Ballroom. 8 pm Wednesday, Nov. 16.
The Silent Partner(1978)
The Hollywood screens a 35 mm print of Daryl Duke’s rare Canadian heist flick as part of its Grindhouse Film Festival. When bank teller Miles Cullen (Elliot Gould) learns that his bank is going to be robbed, he hatches a plan to make a profit while pinning the blame on the robber. But his plan goes sideways when the psychopathic stickup man (Christopher Plummer) gets wise to Miles’ scheme. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Nov. 22.
Cléo From 5 to 7(1962)
With cameos from Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy, Agnès Varda’s existentialist tale of a young woman waiting for the results of a medical test is something of a who’s who of French New Wave cinema. Varda’s breakthough was one of the first New Wave films to tackle the movement through a woman’s perspective. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 3:30 pm Friday, Nov. 18.
5th Avenue Cinema: We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972), Nov. 18-21. Academy Theater: The City of Lost Children (1995), Nov. 18-24.Hollywood Theatre: Addams Family Values (1993), 9:30 pm Thursday, Nov 17; Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Nov. 18-20. Mission Theater: Hook (1991), Nov. 16-21; Jumanji (1995), Nov. 16-22.NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium: Rue Mallet-Stevens (1986), Hôtel Monterey (1972), Trois Strophes Sur le Nom de Sacher (1989), 7:30 pm Friday, Nov. 18; Saute Ma Ville (1965), Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), 7 pm Saturday, Nov. 19; The Commissar (1966), 4:30 pm Sunday, Nov 20; The Anonymous People (2013), 7:30 pm Sunday, Nov. 20.
Portland filmmaker Lara Jean Gallagher has no problem making something from nothing. After her first short film, American Gladiators (aka Tumorhead), garnered several awards on the festival circuit in 2014, her ability to churn out flashy, expensive-looking films for cheap has made her a favorite for independent record labels looking to capitalize on the modest promotional budgets allotted to their artists. Even a label as recognizable as Merge—home to indie titans like Arcade Fire and Magnetic Fields—call upon Gallagher when it requires large returns on minor means.
Concept and story take priority with Gallagher, even in a four-minute music video. Casting career indie punk Mary Timony and the members of D.C. power-pop act Ex Hex as characters from Lou Adler’s 1982 cult classic Ladies and Gentleman: The Fabulous Stainsprovided a clever, retro aesthetic showcasing the band as campy, but chic. In Mikal Cronin’s “Peace of Mind” video, Gallagher contrasts the quotidian dredges of a cheap motel with quick cuts of floating bedsheets and tumbling laundry, evoking a depth far beyond the modest setting.
This weekend, NW Documentary is partnering with XRAY.FM to showcase some shoestring-budget efforts by Gallagher and other local filmmakers who specialize in extracting results from measly resources. You should check it out, because Gallagher is poised to blow up any minute now.
Earlier this year, Gallagher traveled with her producer, Karina Ripper, to Italy for the Venice Biennale’s Cinema College—a 10-day intensive where filmmakers take script concepts and workshop their story with an international team of industry professionals. Their project was the only American submission selected from a field of hundreds of applicants.
Their submission is Clementine: the story of a heartbroken woman who heads to her ex-lover’s vacant lake house, where she becomes involved with a 16-year-old girl. “Our visual adviser, Alec Von Bargen, had us lie on tables in a darkened classroom,” Ripper recalls. “We’d describe the setting where Clementine takes place. It was incredibly focusing and helped us to better visualize the atmosphere of the film and strengthen the characters.”
Once the projects are drafted and honed, the Biennale awards £150,000 each to three films. Once finished, the films premiere at the Biennale the following year.
Gallagher and Ripper plan to shoot in Portland and elsewhere in Oregon once they scout their perfect lake house. Until then, they’re still waiting to hear which film concepts will be awarded funding.
“It’s part of being a filmmaker,” Gallagher says. “Using what you have because that’s what the budget allows. We’ll just cut it to whatever cloth we’re given.”
SEE IT: XRAY Film Collective presents We Heart Music Videos at NW Documentary, 6 NE Tillamook St., 503-227-8688. 6 pm Friday, Nov. 18. Free.
Andy Mingo—who’s currently co-writing and producing the film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Lullaby, has optioned Oregon Book Award-winner Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water.
The book has won a slew of awards and amassed a cult following for Yuknavitch’s intensity, rawness and depth of life, which includes early sexual abuse, addiction, swims with Ken Kesey and an exploration of bisexuality and S&M.
Yuknavitch is one of the few authors to receive the Oregon Book Awards People’s Choice Award for two books—Chronology of Water and The Small Backs of Children. The latter also won the Ken Kesey Award for best work of fiction published by an Oregon author. Local authors Cheryl Strayed, Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain—who all wrote blurbs for Chronology—are also big fans.
Yuknavitch and Mingo, who are married, are planning to write the screenplay together.
“If the memoir didn’t affect our marriage, I don’t think the film would. It’s totally fine,” Mingo says. “Lidia and I have written things together before, so this will be a really fun experience to collaborate. She doesn’t write screenplays, so it’ll be me bringing the structure and her brining the raw emotion.”
The film is in very early stages, especially because Mingo is currently in the middle of casting Lullaby, with production slated for 2017.
“The Chronology of Water has gotten some nibbles from agencies from L.A. for a while and nobody’s picked it up outright—and it seemed like perfect time to pick up the option, secure the rights and make this happen, especially since we’re having such a lot of momentum right now with Lullaby,” Mingo tells WW. “The Chronology of Water made so much sense because it’s a cult icon and people really love the story.”
As for who will play Yuknavitch, Mingo can’t yet say. He also hints that the film might have a female director.
“We do have a couple people in mind who are wildly popular and are also fans of the memoir,” he says. “I’m not exactly sure, but this is the type of story that may need a female director to bring in that perspective the story needs.”
Aesthetically, Mingo says he’s imagining a lot of art direction and 1980s and ’90s clothes.
“It’s a little bit of a period piece so there’s going to be that element to it and it’s going to have to be a little bit dated,” he says. “Oregon has some pretty great film incentives, so we would love to partake in that and look for every opportunity to film as much as possible.”
A In this unshakable odyssey of sadness and hope from director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), 12 slender spaceships hover quietly above Earth. People around the globe quickly discover that the ships are home to graceful, squid-like creatures who communicate using smoky-looking symbols, which shatteringly sorrowful linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) gradually begins to decode. Her quest to understand why these many-armed visitors have parked above this particular planet has a dreamy repetition—day after day, Louise enters one of the spaceships, gazes at the symbols conjured by the aliens and updates a squad of tense U.S. soldiers who guard the landing site. All of this is captured with extraordinary grace by cinematographer Bradford Young, who imbues the looming spacecraft and even the grass it floats above with somber beauty. Beyond the ship, the world is less tranquil—the aliens’ arrival rouses humanity’s ugliest impulses in both America and beyond. Yet Arrival inspires because of Louise, who enters the movie shrouded in grief but still has compassion for both the aliens and humanity. Her conviction is the movie’s gift to us, a reminder that the future of Earth depends on our capacity to love one another, no matter what’s lurking overhead. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Fox Tower, Lloyd, Tigard, Vancouver.
Peter and the Farm
This new doc from Tony Stone follows Peter Dunning, an isolated farmer in Vermont who came up as an artist in the 1960s counterculture movement and has since turned into a hard-drinking loner. Not screened for critics. NR. Hollywood Theatre. 2 pm Saturday, Nov. 12.
Naomi Watts stars as a psychologist whose husband is killed and teenage son is left brain dead by a catastrophic car accident. When a deadly winter storm hits her isolated home, she comes to believe an intruder is trying to harm her and her son. Not screened for critics. PG-13. Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport.
Portland documentarian Christopher LaMarca is a master of making rarely seen moments beautiful.
For Boone, his first feature film (it premiered at this year’s South by Southwest), LaMarca lived on a Southern Oregon goat dairy farm for an entire year. In a film with almost zero dialogue, no narration and no interviews, LaMarca uses pure photography to convey the grueling, and financially unrewarding, work that goes into converting a bucket of goat milk into a log of chevre for your dinner party.
Co-directed and shot with New York filmmaker Jessica Dimmock, The Pearl documents the trials and tribulations of an older generation of transgender women in the Pacific Northwest who are transitioning to womanhood after a lifetime of grease-coated, car-mechanic masculinity.
LaMarca and Dimmock bring warmth to the rarely told stories of transitioning women. As she clicks through a gallery of selfies, Nina shows the camera how in the early stages of her transition, her makeup application was awkward, with thick lipstick and eye shadow like a Rorschach test. In the most recent photos, she’s perfected the process, with smoky eyes and a subtle tone of lipstick. It’s a charming, humanizing depiction of the transition process that few cisgender people get to witness first hand.
The Pearl has already been well-received, winning the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2016 Dallas International Film Festival. “This is a part of [the transgender] community that’s completely underground, that no one knows exists,” says LaMarca. “There’s no services for them, they grew up with no internet, and they’ve been entrenched in masculinity their whole lives, trying to hide this.”
Originally from New York, LaMarca gained a love for the West Coast and environmental activism studying environmental science at the University of Oregon. LaMarca built a career as a photojournalist for publications such as Rolling Stone, GQ and Mother Jones, covering environmental stories like a toxic sludge spill in eastern Tennessee and natural gas production in Wyoming. In 2008, he released Forest Defenders, a collection of photographs documenting eco-activists attempting to stop logging in Southern Oregon.
LaMarca’s background becomes apparent as you watch his films. Whether it’s the sun peeking into a fog-laden Applegate Valley, or a middle-aged transgender woman changing from the masculine clothes she wears in front of her wife—who doesn’t know she’s trans—to a flowing blouse while ducking away from the eerie yellow haze of a Walmart parking lot, LaMarca’s command of light leaves you gobsmacked.
“At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing,” says LaMarca, “that it’s almost a physical experience for the audience.”
SEE IT: The Pearl screens as part of the 43rd Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival at NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium at 5 pm Saturday, Nov. 12, and 5th Avenue Cinema at 5:30 pm Sunday, Nov. 13.
We watched the entire lineup, and three of our five favorites were documentaries from Portland filmmakers. Whether they’re about trans women in small-town Oregon, murder in Wisconsin or the ethereal beauty of Mount Hood, a new crop of Portland documentarians are making some of the most compelling indie movies in the Pacific Northwest.
In 2014, two Wisconsin tweens made national news when they stabbed their best friend 19 times to please Slenderman: a faceless, tentacled internet bogeyman made famous in such miserable corners of the web as fanfic site Creepypasta. While the girls await trial for attempted murder, Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated Portland documentarian Irene Taylor Brodsky unravels their plot through police file footage and interviews with the girls’ families. Experts try to explain the children’s behavior, none bigger than Richard Dawkins. The originator of the term “meme,” Dawkins attempts to explain the viruslike spread of imagery and ideas though culture, but his cameo is cut short before his concept can be fully developed. Frustrating, considering what may be the spookiest insight of Beware the Slenderman isn’t the storybook monster, or the disturbed children, but the potential for hellish internet phenomena to climb out of the monitor and into the world. ZACH MIDDLETON. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 7:15 pm Monday, Nov. 14.
When a young couple’s daughter falls ill with what appears to be brain cancer, they try to find ways to ease her pain while attenuating their own mental health. The religious, rural town in which they live attempts to pull together to support the family, and a cop even lets the dad off after a suspected DUI. But as his daughter’s illness progresses, she (Olivia Martin) starts talking about space flight and the death of astronauts she has no way of knowing about. The father concludes she may be remembering past lives, and seeks to connect with the larger cycle of reincarnation to meet up with her in her next physical form. In his feature debut, British Columbian writer and director Connor Gaston shows narrative vision, resourcefulness (the few special effects are reminiscent of the cult sci-fi thriller Primer) and a great deal of potential. ZACH MIDDLETON. 5th Avenue Cinema; 2:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 12. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium; 6 pm Sunday, Nov. 13.
The Pearl is a documentary that focuses its magnifying glass on four trans women, all from Pacific Northwest blue-collar towns, in an effort to depict their subtle triumphs and deafening defeats—most of which manifest internally. Here, we see women who are forced to masquerade as men in both work and play unless they are joined by specific family or visiting Amy’s Outhouse, a sanctuary where they can “come in to come out.” Documentarians Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca’s main success is the film’s discussion of the gender politics of trans women: how and why they take pride in their femininity. In one scene, trans women attend a class that educates them on how to soften their voices. In another, the audience intrudes on an intimate dinner party that celebrates the distinctive bond of sisterhood. The Pearl isn’t some late-night infomercial selling transgender rights to an uneducated audience. It simply wishes to show trans humanity. JACK RUSHALL. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium; 5 pm Saturday, Nov. 12. 5th Avenue Cinema; 5:30 pm Sunday, Nov. 13.
Visions of Reality is a series of non-narrative shorts that play with sound and color to examine the way our senses shape everyday experiences. Animated pieces, like Joan Gratz’sPrimal Flux, offer a vivid exploration of the complexities of communication through color, while in Canned Fit, musician Christine Shorkhuber composes her works from the noises in the city around her, using nails, bells and really anything else she can find to single out the alien music amid the familiar chaos. The standout is Voice of the Hi-Line, an engaging look at Native-run radio station KGVA in Fort Belknap, Mont., serving the 35,000 residents of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes. Native sovereignty and identity are explored as pop hits are broadcast alongside traditional tribal music. CRYSTAL CONTRERAS. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium; 7:35 pm Friday, Nov. 11. 5th Avenue Cinema; 3 pm Sunday, Nov. 13.
Nineteen-year-old Oregonian Sadie Ford and her dog Scooter (who’s a very good boy) arrive outside Government Camp and set up a makeshift campsite so Ford can spend the snowboarding season on the slopes of Mount Hood. Ostensibly about snowboarding, Cambria Matlow’s documentary Woodsrider is a snapshot of fleeting youth amid the hum of the mountain. This film is awash in visual and aural stimuli—a scene of Ford starting a small fire on an aluminium tray in her camp is an almost trance-inducing swirl of color and sound. Matlow plays those quiet moments off of footage of youthful indiscretion: Ford’s friends performing snowboarding tricks off of a roadside transformer, or smoking cigarettes at a keg party. Matlow’s patient, unobtrusive camera and Ford’s magnetism as a subject makes Woodsrider one of the most intimate docs you’ll see this year. WALKER MACMURDO. Skype Live Studio; 7:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 12. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium; 3:10 pm Sunday, Nov. 13.
SEE IT: The 43rd Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival is at NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium, 5th Avenue Cinema and Skype Live Studio Nov. 10-15. For a complete schedule and tickets, visit nwfilm.org.
B+ Marvel Studios gets psychedelic in this likable lark. The story—or rather, the film’s flimsy approximation of a story—spotlights Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, slumming with panache), a crippled surgeon who becomes a disciple of a sorcerer named “the Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton). Under her tutelage, Strange blossoms into a scarlet-caped superhero and defends Earth from Dormammu, a malevolent entity that looks like a giant meringue. Thanks to director Scott Derrickson’s confidently superficial storytelling, Strange’s journey is cleanly shorn of messy and meaningful emotions—when it comes to movies, Marvel is no longer the House of Ideas. Yet the film’s imagery has a dizzying power, especially during a battle where skyscrapers fold in on each other like paper cranes and a trippy sequence in which Strange hurtles through a celestial dreamscape that recalls The Tree of Life. Derrickson also nods toward Batman Begins by sending a broody, bearded Strange to Asia. While Doctor Strange looks tacky and childish next to Christopher Nolan’s soulful epic, it’s hard to resist. It’s impossible to dislike a movie so buoyantly entertaining that you’re charmed, not irked, when it slips in some very noticeable product placement for jalapeño Kettle Chips. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Cinemagic, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Lloyd, Pioneer Place, St. Johns Twin Cinema & Pub, Tigard, Vancouver.
B- Iggy and the Stooges were a quartet of brilliant, savage artists who forged punk eight years early and blew it with bad behavior, losing the grace of their unsympathetic industry overlords until their eventual reunification proved them one of the most influential cult acts in rock history. With Gimme Danger, auteur director Jim Jarmusch tells one of the greatest rock-and-roll stories about one of the greatest rock-and-roll bands. But Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) leaves no fingerprints, making this documentary a rather straightforward, artless exercise. Nevertheless, the film is carried by its subject matter, the music and a handful of long interviews with Iggy Pop that largely serve as narration. This gives Jim Osterberg (Ig’s real name) the chance to continue painting his own myth—that he was a young Midwestern bluesman, simultaneously fascinated with Harry Partch, Sun Ra, and Soupy Sales. Though Jarmusch is clearly out of his element, it’s nonetheless entirely worthwhile to see and hear this story told by the men who made the music. Bands like Anvil were rescued from obscurity by a great documentary. The Stooges’ legacy was rescued long ago by three classic albums and the legends of the band’s unprecedented stage antics. R. NATHAN CARSON. Hollywood.
C A morally repugnant bloodbath from its shallow, sermonizing first act to its ferociously brutal finale, this would-be epic stares into the maw of World War II through the eyes of combat medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who rescued dozens of his comrades at Okinawa—without ever firing a gun. With the same daredevil grin he perfected while playing Spider-Man, Garfield sells Doss’ pacifism. Yet Hacksaw Ridge is so gruesome that it’s impossible to take its attempts to preach the gospel of nonviolence seriously—the movie’s lovingly detailed shots of mangled intestines and dead bodies covered in rats carry an unmistakable whiff of fetishism. And while there are moments when the film erupts with moral urgency—including a courtroom scene in which Doss defends his right not to bear arms—the stench of hypocrisy grows so pungent that when the film’s director, that bastion of virtue Mel Gibson, bathes Doss in a shower of angelic light, it’s difficult not to laugh at the incongruity. The real Doss once said that in battle he prayed, “Lord, please help me get more and more, one more….” Hacksaw Ridge strikes down that prayer in favor of a carnage-addicted director’s: Let me kill one more. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Vancouver.
B One bright, clear day in 1966, a man named Charles Joseph Whitman sat in the tower in the center of the University of Texas campus and began firing into unsuspecting crowds of students walking below. The new documentary Tower revisits this atrocity, combining archival video, interviews with people who lived through the shooting, and rotoscopic animation of key scenes. On one hand, some animations are effective, like the hallucinogenic visions of a pregnant woman bleeding out on the pavement, or the angular, adrenalized graphics of an officer sprinting for cover. On the other, turning these terrifying scenes into literal cartoons undermines some of the tension the filmmakers probably hoped to create. The bigger problem, however, is that without a core narrative or ideological framework on which to hang events, the story becomes effectively indistinguishable from dozens of other instances of mass murder perpetrated across this country in the intervening years. That’s not to say this story matters less, but based on the way the story is related, one might think this sort of shooting was just an act of nature. Hopefully, this documentary provides those involved with some sort of catharsis, but it’s asking a lot to expect the rest of the audience to ignore such a noisy elephant in the room. NR. ZACH MIDDLETON. Living Room Theaters.
B+ The troll world is covered in glitter, echoing in giggles, and it’s mandated by law that you must hug every hour. But this wonderful place is threatened by the trolls’ long history of being eaten by Bergens: terribly ugly giants that suffer from depression that they believe can be cured only by digesting trolls. Poppy (Anna Kendrick), the bubbly leader of the Troll community, and Branch (Justin Timberlake), a serial pessimist, must save a handful of their goofy friends from ending up as troll soufflé on the Bergens’ dinner table. Like every contemporary kid’s film, Trolls is rife with enjoyably nauseating life lessons like “no troll left behind” when outrunning Bergens, and that happiness comes from within, not from ingesting a troll. Every energetic scene is paired with well-known sing-alongs, for which Kendrick and Timberlake offer their talented vocals. And for an animated film built for short attention spans, the storyline stays pitch perfect, with modern-day pop culture references, whether they be the familiar voices of Gwen Stefani, Russell Brand or Zooey Deschanel or Auto-Tuned troll Guy Diamond (Kunal Nayyar). DreamWorks even delivers the psychedelic scene, perfect for parents nostalgic for their acid trips, and it will keep their kids entertained for at least an hour and a half. PG. AMY WOLFE. Bagdad, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Roseway, Vancouver.
A Humphrey Bogart-obsessed car thief kills a policeman and tries to go on the run to Italy with his American girlfriend in Jean-Luc Godard’s pioneering first feature film, one of the most influential in the French New Wave movement and widely considered one of the best movies ever made. Academy Theater. Nov. 4-10.
Dead Ringers (1988)
There’s creepy David Cronenberg, and then there’s Dead Ringers. Jeremy Irons stars as twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle, the former of whom seduces patients for the latter. When Bev falls for a famous actress, the twins’ relationship gets really out of hand. Part of the Wordstock: Film to Page series, a conversation with novelist Jonathan Lethem (A Gambler’s Anatomy) and Portland author Casey Jarman follows. NW Film Center. 7:30 pmFriday, Nov. 4.
Malcolm X Speaks (1971) & Angela Davis at Malcolm X College (1972)
In collaboration with Portland’s Black Creative Collective: Brown Hall, Cinema Project presents Black Cinema 2: two 16 mm films addressing race in America. Gil Noble’s Malcolm X Speaks is a documentary about the activist made five years after his 1965 assassination, and Angela Davis is a rare interview discussing the 1972 presidential election and her freedom after time in prison. Portland Community Media. 7:30 pmFriday, Nov. 4.
Let the Right One In (2008)
One of the best horror flicks in recent years is this Swedish tale about Oskar, a bullied adolescent who befriends a mysterious new neighbor girl named Eli just as a bunch of gruesome, unexplained murders start occurring across town. Who could be responsible? Laurelhurst Theater. Nov. 2-3.
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
Twenty years ago, the Hollywood District’s Grant High School was transformed into a film set to create this family drama about composer-turned-high school teacher Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss), who tries to share the importance of music with his pupils in the face of a hostile school administration. Portlanders who participated in the film’s production are encouraged to share stories in a discussion that follows. Hollywood Theatre. 7 pmSaturday, Nov. 5.
Do You See What I See? No.
Portland visual artist Vanessa Renwick—recent recipient of a 2016 Fellowship Award by the Regional Arts & Culture Council—presents three new short films interspersed with live musical performances from Portland musicians Michael Hurley, Sam Coomes (Quasi) and Marisa Anderson. The headliner is Next Level Fucked Up: a collection of shorts born from Renwick’s frustration with demoralizing news media, originally played as video installation at the Portland Art Museum. Strabismus, a short about Renwick’s experience with ocular surgery, and Eclipse, about wolves, also premiere. NR. WALKER MACMURDO. Hollywood Theatre. 7 pmMonday, Nov. 7.
Church of Film (North Star Ballroom): Olesya (1971), 8 pm, Wednesday, Nov. 2.
Hollywood Theatre:The Great Dictator (1940), Nov. 5-6.
Laurelhurst Theater:Memento (2000), Nov. 4-10.
NW Film Center:Gas Food Lodging (1992), 7:30 pmThursday, Nov. 3; Close-Up (1990), 7:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 5; Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990), 2 pmSunday, Nov. 6; A Face in the Crowd (1957), 4 pmSunday, Nov. 6; Contact (1997), 7 pmSunday, Nov. 6; Modern Times (1936), 6:30 pm Monday, Nov. 7; Letters Home (1986), 8:30 pmMonday, Nov. 7.
Moonlight is hardly a documentary. Its structure is a theatrical three acts, with three different actors playing the main character, Chiron (pronounced Shy-RONE), coming of age over two decades. And yet, its profound realism stems from director Barry Jenkins’ camera, always searching for Chiron on the rough Liberty City blocks of 1980s Miami. Even against an impoverished backdrop, Moonlight never goes out of its way to declare this black or queer American experience as brutal. Nothing is so fundamentalist here. Nor are any of the performances loud or Oscar-hungry, including the show-stealing supporting ones by Mahershala Ali and André Holland. Every piece of Moonlight is staged in service to a humanist question: What would love mean to a boy who’s been conditioned to hide?
We first spy Chiron at age 10, fleeing his peers. He’s eluding the rocks—but not the gay slurs—they’re hurling at him. Chiron hasn’t invited their hatred or his mother’s (Naomie Harris) with anything more than his passivity and slight build. Those qualities also draw sympathizers to him: his lifelong sounding board Kevin (Holland in the third act), the paternal neighborhood dealer, Juan (Ali), and Juan’s doting girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). The cast juxtaposes scorn with kindness and abuse with intimacy, but the time shifts reveal everyone is somewhere in cycle of atonement. Chiron’s introversion is the constant. By adulthood (Trevante Rhodes), Chiron is a product of questioning his sexuality and manhood in a world where personal security means not asking those questions.
Like its protagonist, Moonlight is artfully succinct, perhaps a little shy in its revelations. What becomes of the supporting cast as the acts turn over? Does Chiron really have so little to say on his own behalf? Granted, forced answers would ruin what Jenkins has so beautifully divided and arranged. You could compare it to Boyhood, but Moonlight is more an experiment in blank space than a gradual progression. The changes in Chiron—the vulnerability hardening into armor—happen mostly off-screen. Thirty-year-old Chiron doesn’t have to spell out being a monster or a victim; watching him grow up emotionally walled in, constantly driven inward, hits hard enough. Because every time Chiron ages out of a storyline, you feel a pang for having neglected him, too.
Critic’s Rating: A-
Moonlight is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.
Forty years on, All the President’s Men seems a little quaint.
The political thriller about the 1972 Watergate break-in, starring young, handsome Robert Redford and young, handsome Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, is still a top-notch procedural that renders the grind of investigative journalism righteously compelling through the seedy gloom of ’70s America. Which is why you should see it at the Mission Theater this week to mark the film’s 40th anniversary.
All the President’s Men comes from a time when a president—or in our context, presidential candidate—fucking up in a major way had a meaningful impact on American politics. In this interminable slog of an election, with a grossly unqualified candidate still seeing a fighting chance at the White House, it’d be nice to have a movie that reflects the asininity of our national predicament: Mike Judge’sIdiocracy if we’re playing it safe, or to better capture the current national mood, a mashup of hardcore pornography, CCTV footage of adults weeping in public and Liveleak streams of ISIS executions.
How will American cinema remember the current collective waking nightmare? Not with a dignified prestige picture affirming the goodness of hard work and the American press, but with something else entirely. Here are five film treatments of the 2016 presidential election.
In his gilded penthouse in Trump Tower, an elderly Donald Trump (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is on his deathbed. Holding a tattered Make America Great Again hat, he utters one final word, “pussy,” and dies. Trump’s death makes headlines around the globe. A reporter (Jake Gyllenhaal) is tasked with discovering the meaning of Trump’s mysterious last word, learning about the man’s life through his friends and associates.
Manafort and Me
A buddy comedy about Paul Manafort (Danny McBride) and ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (Seth Rogen). A three-day bender at Yanukovych’s opulent Mezhyhirya mansion leads to the two sleeping through the start of the Ukrainian revolution. The unlikely duo have three days to escape Ukraine to Russia before Euromaidan protesters led by young firebrand Vitaly (James Franco) and a mysterious American interloper (Craig Robinson) catch up and force them to smoke all of their confiscated weed out of a gravity bong made from a gold toilet.
Robby Mook (Jim Parsons) and Hillary Clinton (Meryl Streep) slowly bond over Mook’s frustrating attempts to market the presidential candidate to a woefully indifferent people of the United States. As Mook bumbles through each attempt to make the professional, steel-hearted policy nerd more appealing to a cynical, sexist America, he eventually discovers the secret to making Clinton the next president of the United States: run against Donald Trump.
Milo! The Movie
This mockumentary follows controversial alt-right journalist Milo Yiannopoulos (Sacha Baron Cohen) across battleground state America as he shocks and offends “regressive liberals” and “social justice warriors” with his edgy, transgressive antics. Note: Script may or may not be Cohen’s Brüno, with minor changes.
All the President’s Emails
In this riveting, eight-hour procedural thriller, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange (Martin Freeman) releases thousands of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Two young investigative journalists (Kristen Stewart and Kate Mara) race against time, combing through each and every one to get to the bottom of a deep, dark secret that threatens the very heart of American democracy: Clinton is employing a modern, professionally run campaign to get elected president.
All the President’s Men screens at Mission Theater. Nov. 2-7. $4.