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February 11th, 2009 WW Staff | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

The PIFF Exchange Rate

Get the best film for your $9 in the second week.

     
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NIGHTWATCHING [THE NETHERLANDS]

The biggest financial gamble of the Portland International Film Festival is on its way to a happy ending: After a swank opening-night soirée last Thursday, Laika’s $70 million cartoon Coraline is making bank at the national box office. (That’s because the jumping mice are awesome. See page 28.) But for casual consumers of PIFF’s gush of worldwide cinema, the real decisions are just beginning. With 50 movies opening over the next week alone, we’ve dispatched our team of investment advisers to keep you ahead of a volatile market.

Buy!

Hunger
[GREAT BRITAIN] I’m almost certain I won’t see a better film than Hunger at PIFF this year. First-time director Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen) makes the leap from video art to feature filmmaking with an unflinching account of IRA hero Bobby Sands’ 65-day hunger strike and the fraught months leading up to it. It is not easy to watch, nor should it be, but there is beauty in the horror, just as there is transcendent strength in Sands’ wasting shape. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 8:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Shall We Kiss?
[FRANCE] Mon Dieu, Virginie Ledoyen is a fox. The siren who tempted Leonardo DiCaprio on The Beach has only grown more alluring in a decade, and she’s irresistible as a cherubic cheater in director Emmanuel Mouret’s morality fable within a morality fable. Her charitable one-afternoon stand with her best friend (played by the director, lucky bastard) leads to logical extremes, ultimately incorporating a gigantic Schubert biography as a romantic aid. If this kind of throwback to Rohmer is your cup of tea—it’s mine—Shall We Kiss? is consistently funny (though Noah Baumbach actually guided a similar scenario to far more hilarious results in 1997’s Mr. Jealousy). Did I mention that Virginie Ledoyen is easy on the eyes? And that she’s occasionally topless? AARON MESH. WH, 6 pm Thursday and 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 12 14.

Under the Bombs
[LEBANON] In crafting a film about a mother searching for her sister and son in the wake of Israel’s 2006 bombardment of Lebanon, director Philippe Aractingi incorporates real footage from the attacks. That’s a crafty way to get great special effects on a tight budget, but Aractingi isn’t so concerned with explosions as he is the damage they inflict on innocence in the form of its heroine and the kindhearted taxi driver who guides her through the devastation. The nonviolent war film is a road trip through a war zone, a triumph of guerrilla filmmaking, and a heartbreaking examination of loss and determination. AP KRYZA. BW, 6:15 and 8:30 pm Thursday and 6:45 pm Friday, Feb. 12-13.

Of Time and the City
[GREAT BRITAIN] Director Terence Davies, best known for Distant Voices, Still Lives, looks back at his native Liverpool through the lens of a steady flow of archival footage in this, his first documentary. His droll narration, pitched somewhere between Chris Marker and Quentin Crisp, and threaded through with literary borrowings, guides us through an acerbic reminiscence, sometimes seeming to just riff on whatever happens to be unspooling on the screen. As the decades pass, Liverpool goes from a grimy industrial shell to worse, and Davies loves it like you would a parent you hate. Nostalgia has never seemed so tart. ANDY DAVIS. BW, 7 pm Thursday, Feb. 12.

Lorna’s Silence
[BELGIUM] Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) doesn’t look like a femme fatale. Then again, the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, with their dowdy handheld sensibility, don’t seem likely candidates to make a first-rate crime noir. That’s why we go to the movies: to shake our meager expectations. So Lorna, an Albanian refugee who could be Juno’s sister, turns out to be an unscrupulous heroine, bent on committing passport fraud by marrying and whacking a junkie, with the ultimate goal of opening a snack bar with her boyfriend (a nice Postman Always Rings Twice touch). Revealing exactly how far she’ll go is the Dardenne brothers’ masterstroke. Plus, they’ve arranged the saddest and hottest “I’ll fuck you so you don’t start freebasing again” scene ever. AARON MESH. WH, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 13. BW, 12:15 Saturday, Feb. 14.

24 City
[CHINA] Zhang Ke Jia follows up Still Life, which investigated the emotional toll taken by China’s Three Gorges Dam project, with another somber take on his country’s rapid modernization. Mussing the line between fact and fiction, Jia interweaves scripted monologues and traditional documentary interviews to fashion a hybridized history of Factory 420, a munitions plant being razed to make way for a ritzy housing development. 24 City can be chilly and distant, but with his trademark tracking shots gliding along Chengdu’s dusty streets, and his expert handle on both professional and amateur performances, Jia offers further proof that he is becoming one of the great poets of 21st-century tremors. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 6 pm Friday and 1:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 13 15.

Nightwatching
[THE NETHERLANDS] Cerebral Brit auteur Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract) takes on the Dutch masters, and proves more than worthy of the commission. In a riotously speculative account of Rembrandt painting Night Watch, Greenaway rejects the biopic formula of showing the world behind the canvas; instead, his movie becomes a canvas, with the actors as formally arranged and richly lit as inside a Golden Age frame. Does this sound stodgy? That discounts the director’s perversity: What kind of scamp turns his great-art movie into a Miss Marple murder mystery, while casting Martin Freeman as Rembrandt van Rijn, allowing the actor to deploy the knowing smirk he perfected as Tim on the U.K. Office? A stone-cold genius, that’s who. Nightwatching rivals Synecdoche, New York for theatrical daring and ruthless honesty. It’s the best thing in the festival. AARON MESH. WH, 8:30 pm Friday and 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 13 15.

The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab
[SPAIN] Yet another in a long line of formulaic, formally underwhelming, yet utterly irresistible competition documentaries, The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab follows lachrymose chef Jesús Almagro and his team of advisers as they prepare for the Bocuse d’Or, a haute cuisine cook-off that pits nation against nation in an Iron Chef-style throwdown. Like Spellbound, Word Wars, The King of Kong, etc., this film is at its best when its subjects fuss over the minutiae of their geeky subculture. The climactic tournament is more exhilarating than it has any right to be, and proves that cutting away to a ticking clock can make anything—yes, even garnishing—suspenseful as all get out. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 4 pm Saturday and 5:15 Sunday, Feb. 14-15.

Short Cuts IV: Sketched in Time
If you see one shorts program this year, make it Sketched in Time, a stellar round-up of experimental animation that features two of the most haunting films playing PIFF. Jim Trainor’s The Presentation Theme brings primitive scrawls to life in an unsettling creation myth that imagines cave paintings wandering through a Beckettian netherworld. This is a good thing. And Naoyuki Tsuji conjures dreamy menace with Children of the Shadows, a smudged masterpiece of charcoal animation that looks like something a stick figure might hallucinate after taking too much acid. This is a good thing—a very good thing. You’ll never look at doodles the same way again. CHRIS STAMM. WH, noon Sunday, Feb. 15.

Lemon Tree
[ISRAEL] As metaphors go, this one couldn’t be more heavy-handed: The new Israeli defense minister moves next door to a lemon grove on the West Bank border and deems it a security risk, threatening the livelihood of a long-suffering Palestinian widow. She refuses a token reparation, and instead pushes her case to the Supreme Court. But within these parameters is a lush, detailed study that is arguably more about feminism than it is a free state: On both sides of the fence, the women (widow or defense minister’s wife) are cowed into some form of surrender—political or social. Thankfully, director Eran Riklis allows them to stop short of martyrdom, instead creating story out of allegory and even-handedly acknowledging a seemingly irreparable situation. SAUNDRA SORENSON. BW, 7:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 17.

Risky!

Séraphine
[FRANCE] In the rural village of Senlis, dumpy housekeeper Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau) goes about her duties with the deep wisdom of the simple, but still finds time to generate preternaturally intricate paintings while singing Latin hymns to the Holy Virgin. True story. Communing with the creek beds and the cattle, Séraphine trudges over the pastures like a doughy Amelia Bedelia, until an encounter with art collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) reveals her primitive talent. The paintings are indeed quite something (and director Martin Provost wisely holds them in reserve until an arresting montage), but the surrounding story is an endless string of clichés, complete with a third-reel trip to the madhouse. AARON MESH. WH, 6 pm Wednesday and 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 11 15.

Empty Nest
[ARGENTINA] A midlife-crisis movie of the sort that Raul Ruiz might make. A famous playwright, solipsistic by nature (if not profession), further loses sight of anything beyond himself as, his children having moved away, his bond with his wife begins to break. The low-key, charming and lightly humorous scenario slowly reveals a subtle touch of the Borgesian (this is Argentina, after all) as even the stuff you think you know goes up for grabs and reality is given a lovely scramble. Unfortunately, the playfulness also leads to a few dreadful missteps, namely a few small bursts of musical numbers that fall quite flat. ANDY DAVIS. BW, 6:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 11.

In a Dream
[UNITED STATES] The world needs another miserablist documentary about a fucked-up family like I need another fucked-up family. Jeremiah Zagar’s fractured portrait of his dad, artist Isaiah Zagar, is a gorgeously photographed therapy session that was probably immensely satisfying and profoundly moving for all involved, but anyone with parents and a couple of thin walls has already experienced this a few times too many. In a Dream is most effective in the passages devoted to Zagar the Elder’s sprawling mosaics, reflective densities that provide the model for Zagar the Younger’s muralist approach to film form. Their conversation through images almost makes up for the self-aggrandizing soap opera that surrounds it. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 6:15 Friday and 1:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 13-14.

Short Cuts III: International Ties
A significant fraction of the short films in PIFF’s third display suffer from overheated passions—none more so than the most initially ingenious entry, The Apology Line. In an experiment right out of This American Life, director James Lees sets up a phone hotline for people to beg forgiveness. Beg they do, and it’s frightening. But the underlined alienation of the urban images raises questions about what’s fueling these dramatic revelations—until I began to suspect that it wasn’t purely remorse or despair, but a significant quantity of booze. AARON MESH. WH, 12 noon Saturday, Feb. 14.

Cherry Blossoms (Hanami)
[GERMANY] A Bavarian postcard from Japan: “Wish you were here! But you’re dead.” Middle-aged couple Rudi and Trudi (Elmar Wepper and Hannelore Elsner) visit their grown children—and when death comes calling, the surviving spouse turns to Butoh dancing to cope with vertiginous grief. Aesthetically, this movie is a nightmare, shot in dingy digital-video slop. But its narrative—writer-director Doris Dörrie’s nod to Tokyo Story—is distressingly accurate in its portrayal of familial disappointment. It’s a brutally effective tearjerker, even if it’s basically About Schmidt without the caustic jokes. AARON MESH. WH, 3 pm Saturday and 5 pm Sunday, Feb. 14-15.

The Garden
[UNITED STATES] South Central L.A.: bucolic? Panning over America’s largest city garden, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy makes an easy connection between this post-riot Eden and urban revitalization. When city subsistence farmers (mainly immigrants and the odd ex-Black Panther) are given their eviction notice after 11 years, they discover a shady closed-door land deal between the city and a private investor. But in Kennedy’s ardor, he pushes the Zapata comparisons a little too hard, committing one of the worst sins in documentary filmmaking: blatant manipulation. With issues of gentrification and immigration swirling in most major U.S. cities, he shouldn’t have felt the need even to nudge. SAUNDRA SORENSON. BW, 6:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 14.

Il Divo
[ITALY] The polar opposite of last week’s grim offering Gomorrah, Il Divo is a smooth, spectacular vehicle of heedless prowess, plowing through the byzantine details of an Italian P.M.’s corrosively corrupt life with more concern for bringing flash and wit to the biopic than for viewer comprehension. One might hunger for footnotes, except things get more confusing once they are explained (as with the absurdly dense pre-film “glossary”). Luckily, there’s a lot to sit back and enjoy. Scenes are distilled down to strikingly poetic visuals, indie rock often pounds along, and this is probably the first time you’ve seen a Vatican cardinal in a Reservoir Dogs-style group stroll. ANDY DAVIS. WH, 8:30 pm Saturday and 7 pm Monday, Feb. 14 16.

Snow
[BOSNIA] Director Aida Begic has conceived a modern-day postwar village, and it’s a sun-dappled place where poverty is so new it’s a shock to watch. SAUNDRA SORENSON. BW, 1:15 Sunday, Feb. 15.

Milking the Rhino
[UNITED STATES] Here’s a new perspective on safaris: The locals guiding the sightseeing feel like gardeners pointing out the aphids and weevils to astonished gasps. The Masai and Himba cattlemen view zebras, giraffes and elephants (especially those goddamned elephants) as crop-crushing pests, and they take to eco-tourism with some reluctance. David E. Simpson’s documentary charts their conversion with smooth public-television assurance. But it turns a blind eye to problematic cultural norms: One Masai warrior insults another with the quip, “He sleeps with uncircumcised women,” and everyone enjoys a hearty chuckle. AARON MESH. BW, 4:15 pm Monday, Feb. 16.

Sell!

Terra Nova
[RUSSIA] In a bleak future, prisons are overcrowded. The world’s governments take their most deranged criminals and get all Australia on their asses, shipping them to a desolate island as “colonists.” They run batshit at the whims of an alpha male, while a handsome lone-wolf archetype decides to bivouac it until his world of solitude collides with the others’ world of anarchy. We’ve seen permutations of this setup a million times, usually in B-movies (No Escape, The Condemned) or cult hits (Battle Royale). But not in Russian! Sadly, Terra Nova sucks all excitement out of the genre. It offers too many characters to generate any emotional connection as it attempts drama between redundant action scenes of convicts fighting and cannibalizing. It’s excusable to be derivative, but the crime of making a dull movie about madmen killing each should be punishable by deportation. AP KRYZA. BW, 9:30 pm Friday, 3 pm Saturday and 7:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 13-15.

Dream Weavers
[CHINA] The fact that state-sponsored propaganda managed to squirm its way into PIFF is troubling enough, but did it have to be so terribly dull, too? With a flat observational style that does little to mask her subservience to the party line, director Jun Gu puts a happy face on the seven years of preparation leading up to 2008’s Beijing Olympics. Dream Weavers amounts to a series of hollow reassurances from the Chinese government: Our SWAT teams are as well-trained as our athletes, the people whose homes sat in the path of construction were happy to be relocated, and our giant stadium will not fall on you. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 11:30 am Saturday, Feb. 14. WH, 1:30 pm Monday, Feb. 16.

Paper Cannot Wrap Ember
[CAMBODIA] And I cannot wrap my head around director Rithy Panh’s apparent disregard for ethics and his lack of empathy. Paper Cannot Wrap Ember is something entirely new: a feel-bad documentary about suffering humans shot in the manner of The Hills. Panh’s languorous portrait of Cambodian prostitutes on their days off is never less than ideally lit; its compositions are unfailingly balanced and beautiful; and the sad subjects regale each other with woeful tales in seamless shot-countershot setups. The fabrications would be fine if Panh paused to consider the troubling implications of making a documentary that treats wretchedness as a melodramatic act. Or, at the very least, he could have fed his subjects better lines—the film is as dull as it is phony. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 8:15 pm Friday, Feb. 13.

Kisses
[IRELAND] Two youngsters book it from their miserable burg to the big city, with things starting out in an agreeably profane, bracing way. But as they hop a barge into town, shades of L’Atalante are apparently not charm enough—the film quickly becomes cloying, and a gradual change from black-and-white to color signals the preciousness is just getting started. More abrupt, miscalculated switches in tone follow, including a thriller sequence and a close-up of the two preteens frenching. Romantic. You’re better off with the final Wednesday screening of Tricks, which manages to wrangle an affecting end product out of its kid’s-eye-view story. ANDY DAVIS. BW, 8:45 pm Friday, 5:45 pm Saturday and 4:45 Monday, Feb. 13-14 16.

Jerusalema
[SOUTH AFRICA] A kid named Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) rejects his dear mother’s Bible in favor of Karl Marx and, after stints as a carjacker and cabbie, hatches a scheme to forcibly redistribute ownership in Johannesburg’s low-income towers. Will he ever get into college? Will his cronies be able to resist the lure of drugs? Would you like to buy some stock in the Hillbrow People’s Housing Trust? The movie is Slumlord Millionaire, with director Ralph Ziman shamelessly ripping off the structure and speedball anti-style of City of God—it’s entirely possible he doesn’t hold a single shot for more than 10 seconds. AARON MESH. BW, 5 pm Saturday, Feb. 14.

Fermat’s Room
[SPAIN] This debut by directing duo Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña nicks the premise of House on Haunted Hill and squanders it on a run-of-the-Saw-mill exercise. Despite the creepy request to leave their cell phones at home, four eminent mathematicians accept invitations to a mysterious shindig in the boondocks. Soon enough, they’re trapped in a tight space and their lives are riding on the successful completion of a series of logic puzzles. A succession of convenient twists and coincidental turns resolves everything with all the verve of a math test. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 2 pm Sunday and 5:30 pm Monday, Feb. 15-16.

Karamazovs
[CZECH REPUBLIC] A group of Czech actors arrive in a Polish factory and began a rehearsal of an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with real life interceding on the sidelines. I’m not a big fan of theater, usually, but I enjoyed the similarly themed Vanya on 42nd Street and Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard. This starts out promisingly enough, and the play is not bad—until it becomes the sort of loathsome theater that makes you feel like maybe the actors and audience did not get enough childhood in. If you like a more nuanced sort of acting than mimes tend to offer, stay away, because the play’s the thing—95 percent of the movie. The main “real-life” plotline is merely insipid, but at least the actors are shown to be the grotesquely self-infatuated people this style of theater seems to require. ANDY DAVIS. BW, 3:30 pm Monday and 8:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 16-17.

Insider Trading!

The following movies weren’t screened by WW press time. Watch wweek.com for reviews updated throughout PIFF.

King of Ping Pong
[SWEDEN] A fat boy meets his deadbeat dad. BW, 6:15 pm Wednesday, 6 pm Thursday and 9:15 pm Friday, Feb. 11-13.

Burned Hearts
[MOROCCO] An architect visits his dying uncle. BW, 7 pm Wednesday and 8:15 pm Thursday, Feb. 11-12.

The Rest Is Silence
[ROMANIA] A pioneering movie director wars with his producers. BW, 7:15 pm Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Opium War
[AFGHANISTAN] American soldiers wander Taliban territory. BW, 8:45 pm Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Captain Abu Raed
[JORDAN] A janitor pretends to be a pilot, entertains local children. BW, 9 pm Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Tricks
[POLAND] A 6-year-old is raised by his teenage sister. BW, 9:15 pm Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Moscow, Belgium
[BELGIUM] A single mother takes a young lover. BW, 6:45 pm Thursday and 8:45 pm Saturday, Feb. 12 14.

Blind Sunflowers
[SPAIN] Children hide a schoolteacher from Franco. WH, 8:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 12. BW, 3 pm Monday, Feb. 16.

Loose Rope
[IRAN] Workers walk a cow to Tehran. BW, 9 pm Thursday, Feb. 12.

Treeless Mountain
[UNITED STATES] Korean children live with their alcoholic aunt. BW, 9:15 pm Thursday and 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 12 14.

As Simple as That
[IRAN] Housewife feels neglected. BW, 7 pm Friday and 4:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 13 15.

Wolf: The Laws of Wilderness
[SWEDEN] Peter Stormare herds reindeer. BW, 1 pm Saturday, 2:30 pm Monday and 6:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14 16-17.

Home of Dark Butterflies
[FINLAND] Healing in a boy’s home. BW, 3:30 pm Saturday and 3:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 14-15. WH, 9 pm Tuesday, Feb. 17.

Crossing
[SOUTH KOREA] A North Korean husband sneaks across the border for medicine. BW, 6 pm Saturday and 1 pm Monday, Feb. 14 16.

Cape No. 7
[TAIWAN] A rock band discovers old love letters. BW, 8 pm Saturday, 12:45 pm Sunday and 8:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14-15 17.

All Around Us
[JAPAN] A shotgun marriage hits the rocks. BW, 9 pm Saturday, Feb. 14.

Salt of This Sea
[PALESTINE] An oppressed woman robs a bank. BW, 4:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 15.

Love of Siam
[THAILAND] Teens find love in the wake of abduction. BW, 6:30 pm Sunday and 7:15 pm Monday, Feb. 15-16.

The Friend
[SWITZERLAND] A girl recruits a fake boyfriend, then dies. BW, 7 pm Sunday, Feb. 15.

Upstream Battle
[GERMANY] Oregon’s Klamath River tribes fight for river rights. BW, 7:30 pm Sunday and 6:30 pm Monday, Feb. 15-16.

Pressure Cooker
[UNITED STATES] Inner-city kids enter a cooking contest. BW, 1:30 pm Monday and 6:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 16-17.

Worlds Apart
[DENMARK] A Jehovah’s Witness girl is excommunicated. BW, 7 pm Monday, Feb. 16.

Loss
[LITHUANIA] Six people’s fates are enmeshed. BW, 7:45 pm Monday and 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 16-17.

Goodbye Solo
[UNITED STATES] A taxi driver befriends a passenger. WH, 6:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 17.


Portland International Film Festival Ticket Outlet:
Portland Art Museum Mark Building, 1119 SW Park Avenue, 276-4310, nwfilm.org
General admission $9, PAM members $8, children 12 and under $6, Silver Screen Club memberships from $250.
BW—Regal Broadway Cinemas, 1000 SW Broadway
WH—Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Avenue
Showtimes listed are for Feb. 11-17 only. Some of these films will show again next week; visit wwweek.com for more reviews.
 
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