For the 33rd straight year, the Portland International Film Festival looms over this city like a freshly docked steamer, filled with cargo from around the globe. As always, the passengers are a dangerous bunch—some are filled with galvanizing violence, others are oracles warning of mortality, and more than a few are ready to bore you to death. (This year's PIFF lineup seems especially preoccupied with the various ways one might kick the bucket.) That's why our crack team of reviewers has come armed with keen perception and a new rating system, grading each movie on a 1-to-100 scale. We'll steer you to clear viewing.
I Am Love
56 [ITALY, OPENING NIGHT] What looks at first like a coolly observed study of a Milanese textile family quickly heats up, until it's boiling over with operatic ridiculousness. At the axis of the camera's widening gyre is Tilda Swinton, whose character's ambivalence about her place as matriarch is one reason Luca Guadagnino's drama carries the aftertaste of last year's A Single Man. Another is the dramatic shifts in lighting and color saturation to reflect a character's feelings about, say, sautéed prawns. Haute cuisine is a preoccupation of I Am Love; is this the first time somebody has made a climactic suspense scene centered on the emotions evoked by fish stew? It's best not to think too carefully about the story, and instead slurp up the decadent imagery. AARON MESH. NT, 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 11.
15 [ROMANIA] Tedium rare. A Romanian cop named Cristi gathers evidence on some poor kid for smoking a little hash. See Cristi follow the kid to school. See Cristi pick up a joint. See Cristi eat lunch. See Cristi pick up another joint. See Cristi follow the kid home. Hear Cristi report all this in writing (not the lunch). See Cristi eat dinner. See Cristi drink beer. Hear people lecture Cristi about the Letter of the Law. Hear Cristi reply, "Even without drinking, I still wouldn't understand it." Filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu seems to think a police bureaucracy that wastes everyone's time demands a movie that does the same. I understand this, but even with drinking, I wouldn't enjoy it. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. WH, 6:30 pm Friday, Feb. 12.
29 [DENMARK] The outsider-arrives-at-kooky-small-town-and-kooky-small-town-befuddles-outsider-with-its-strange-ways movie seems to me to be the defining PIFF narrative. It is, at least, the kind of movie that wins encore screenings. Terribly Happy attempts to darken this familiar brand of safe European "arthouse" fare, but let's face it: There's a talking cat, a gang of bespectacled Danish curmudgeons and dudes who have drinking contests to square their differences. Kooky, I say! And, not surprisingly, as dull as Denmark. The outsider here is the new marshal. He has a dark past. There is a bog on the outskirts of town that is probably a graveyard for people the town did not find eccentrically lovable enough. Are you asleep yet? CHRIS STAMM. BW, 6:45 pm Friday and 4:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 12 & 14.
55 [GERMANY] Awakened by Japanese invasion from a contented life of managing a Siemens plant and being served Gugelhupf cake by his wife, German expatriate Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) becomes the humanitarian protector of Nanking, despite looking exactly like Elmer Fudd. An international atrocity-and-sentiment production, John Rabe breaks up its litany of 1937's horrors with diverting scenes of parlor comedy; my favorite has the increasingly conflicted Nazi joining tetchy doctor Steve Buscemi in an inebriated duet of "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball." This affectingly conventional movie is a Schindler's List for the Rape of Nanking, a parallel it both embraces (with a closing scene of grateful Chinese citizens calling Rabe's name on the docks) and accidentally confirms (in a counterpart to Spielberg's infamous water-in-the-showers scene, the one imperiled girl we meet is almost, but not actually, raped). AARON MESH. BW, 7 pm Friday and 6:45 pm Monday, Feb. 12 & 15.
34 [RUSSIA] "Every hipster is a potential criminal," comes the early warning from a Soviet apparatchik, but my hopes of vintage sunglasses crushed under Stalinist boot heels (Moscow does not believe in Sparks!) were dashed: The title would be more accurately translated as "hepcats." These warbling Russian youngsters defy the state by listening to jazz and teasing their pompadours into towering parodies of Harry Connick Jr. (They also dress in shades of Technicolor: I haven't seen costumes this garish since Dick Tracy. ) Valery Todorovsky's movie plays like Swing Kids directed by early Jean-Pierre Jeunet, with crude racial attitudes and a plot you could set your metronome by. It's an unintentional paean to conformity. AARON MESH. BW, 8:45 pm Friday, 5:30 pm Saturday and 8:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 12, 13 & 16.
Short Cuts I: International Ties
30 The pickings are slim in the international round-up this year, with a clutch of well-meaning and ably made shorts that aren't fully realized works so much as post-film-school calling cards. Alma is a Pixar-style burp about sinister dolls that goes nowhere, while Next Floor beats a single unfunny joke about a doomed dinner party to death. It's pretty, though, which leads me to believe its director will find a cushy job in advertising. In fact, everything I saw from Short Cuts I convinced me someone out there will be lucky to hire the filmmakers gathered here. Let's just hope they make interesting art once they start making money. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 12:30 pm Saturday and 1:45 pm Monday, Feb. 13 & 15.
93 [USA] It will be difficult, I can tell, to convince you the movie you must see at PIFF this year is a documentary about sheep—just as it must have been a challenge for Harvard anthropologists Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor to explain to their financiers they wanted to film in the grazing lands where Jack met Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, but concentrating exclusively on the herding. Let me try to corral you: Sweetgrass contains the most astonishing visions I've seen of genuine feats since Fitzcarraldo. Its juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime is brilliantly funny, as ranchers in Montana's Beartooth Mountains curse inventively at dunderheaded mutton, or laconically discuss whether they'd rather encounter a wolverine or a bear. But its fusion of intimate observation and vast scope creates a high romantic verité that would equally please Frederick Wiseman and Frederic Church. Above all, and despite the cacophonous bleating, Sweetgrass is immensely soothing. It restoreth the soul. AARON MESH. BW, 1:15 pm Saturday and 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 13 & 16.
Learning from Light: The Vision of I.M. Pei
54 [USA] Who'd have thought a documentary about architecture could be riveting? Bo Landin and Sterling Van Wagenen did. They were kind of wrong. The Vision of I.M. Pei follows a 92-year-old architect—he of the Kennedy Library and The Louvre's awe-inspiring glass pyramid—as he designs the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. Sassy and brilliant, Pei is a great subject, and the film presents breathtaking images of architecture ancient and modern. But Learning From Light plays out like a needlessly extended version of PBS's Man Made Marvels of Asia, and offers little beyond what could be found through a quick Google search. AP KRYZA. WH, 2:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 14.
The Art of the Steal
73 [USA] The sale of a family art collection provoked wistful regrets in last year's French drama Summer Hours. But upstart collector Albert C. Barnes left no heirs when he died in 1951, and the corporate feeding frenzy that followed was outrageous. Don Argott's talking-heads documentary belongs on television, where it could rival HBO's The Wire as a tale of municipal greed. Not because it appreciates Matisse paintings, but because it mourns a lack of human respect, for a man's will and for a neighborhood's privacy. This opens next month at Cinema 21, and how creepy to watch it at the Portland Art Museum, before passing the gift shop, culture turned commodity. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. WH, 2:45 pm Saturday, Feb. 13.
87 [IRAN] Set in a run-down beach house to the hypnotic and maddening soundtrack of crashing waves, About Elly is a simmering meditation on guilt. Proactive mother Sepideh (an electric Golshifteh Farahani) reunites her college buddies with the ulterior motive of playing matchmaker between a divorced friend and her daughter's teacher, Elly. But when Elly disappears and all assume her drowned, friends and families succumb to paranoia and stress. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi keeps his sparse eye trained on the tension, capturing excellent performances while avoiding suspense clichés in favor of grating realism. Farhadi's is a haunting film, one in which even the slightest deception seems a stark betrayal not only of the characters, but of the audience. AP KRYZA. BW, 3:15 pm Saturday and 1:45 and 7 pm Sunday, Feb. 13 & 14.
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls
67 [NEW ZEALAND] Part Prairie Home Companion, part Hee Haw and part Jack Benny, the Topp Twins are lesbian sisters whose yodel-filled country-western act incorporates comedy, political activism and sunshiny sweetness. And they're national treasures to everybody from artists to rednecks. A documentary follows the Topps from childhood into the spotlight, where they fought to end apartheid and anti-gay laws through kindness and humor. Unfortunately, director Leanne Pooley's film is nowhere as unique as her subjects. While twins Jools and Lynda are great company, it's hard not to think there's a less conventional way to tell such an unconventional success story. AP KRYZA. BW, 4 pm Saturday, 7:15 pm Sunday and 6:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 13, 14 & 16.
My Year Without Sex
61 [AUSTRALIA] The ghastly title had me limbering up for a jump onto a bandwagon already packed to bursting with self-absorbed middle-class filmgoers who think doing something quirkily outlandish for one year is the next best thing to watching Ira Glass adjust his tie, but this unassuming film by Sarah Watt is more than a prolonged joke about self-imposed abstinence. In fact—and this will come as no surprise to anyone who uses their brain immediately following orgasm—My Year Without Sex is actually about death, and the way our fragile little lives of temporary triumph and shaming defeat will eventually be devoured by the void. Like life, the film's not perfect, and it's been done before, but it's actually kinda fun while it lasts. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 5:45 pm Saturday, Feb. 13. BW, 7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 16.
A Shine of Rainbows
22 [CANADA] When wee Tomás (John Bell) is rescued from the orphanage by an iridescent new mum (Connie Nielsen), the stammering ginger has many questions. Will he be whisked away to an Irish island, and worry that adoptive dad Aidan Quinn doesn't like him, and hear the sound of chimes whenever something nice happens, and learn how to communicate with his dead grandmother by talking to seals? Aye. Och, fooking aye. If I didn't know better, I'd guess A Shine of Rainbows was directed by Donovan right after he recorded "Jennifer Juniper," but it is in fact a families-only effort from Vic Sarin, who once directed Cold Comfort and is now interested in very warm comforts. Almost worth it for the scene where Tomás' life is saved by seals. AARON MESH. BW, 6 pm Saturday and 1:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 13 & 14.
20 [ITALY] I ain't never been to Rome, but I imagine if you throw enough euros around, a charming old man will let you stay in his mom's apartment. That man is Giovanni (writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio), who accommodates his mother, then his landlord's mother, and eventually four emasculating crones, total. This one-note geriatric comedy is perfect for tourists—nice glimpse of the Colosseum—even as it insults tourists. Only momma's boy Giovanni would tolerate them. The opposite of Mozart's manly Don Giovanni, he deserves a movie with the same operatic fun. No matter how many glasses of white wine he wearily gulped down, the audience kept laughing. Not I. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. BW, 6:15 pm Saturday and 5:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 13 & 14.
79 [FRANCE] At its best when it considers the technical details of prison life—the problems inherent in training to hide a razor blade in your cheek, for example—Jacques Audiard's highly praised jailhouse movie doesn't quite cohere into an artistic statement. Fresh meat Malik (Tahar Rahim)—half Corsican, half Arab, so anonymous that his name isn't voiced for an hour—becomes the factotum for a behind-bars crime boss (Niels Arestrup, raging through the picture) while hosting a cellmate ghost and a latent talent for soothsaying. The supernatural implications don't work, and the underclass Prince Hal parallels were already wrung out by Gus Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho. Yet on a scene-to-scene level the picture is riveting—if never wholly persuasive. AARON MESH. WH, 8 pm Saturday and 7 pm Monday, Feb. 13 & 15.
35 [SWITZERLAND] Like many one-word titles, Home is less universal than it wants to be. A French-speaking family lives in rural harmony next to an unfinished highway, until suddenly the highway is finished and the madness begins. Imagine Franz Kafka's The Simpsons. Olivier Gourmet plays Homer Simpson, and it's no surprise he's married to Isabelle Huppert, the reigning queen of bourgeois hysteria. There's a mischievous son, a brainy daughter and a cute cat. The family's physical intimacy is beautifully acted, but filmmaker Ursula Meier seems attached to those Stages of Grief, and the result is…stagey. The same story feels more real in Fantastic Mr. Fox. The one with talking animals. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. BW, 8:30 pm Saturday, 3:15 pm Sunday and 8 pm Monday, Feb. 13-15.
38 [ISRAEL] Israeli Yaron Shani and Palestinian Scandar Copti have crafted a grim soap opera about angry young men in a Tel Aviv community of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, a melting pot that refuses to melt. The film works better as vague documentary than as drama: The constant ethnic confrontations are convincing and educational, but the camera stays TV-close on the local amateur actors, who need to give life to their macho rhetoric. Their faces aren't much more expressive than the sluggish cartoon animation of last year's Israeli hit, Waltz with Bashir. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. BW, 8:45 pm Saturday and 9:15 Tuesday, Feb. 13 & 16.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird
92 [SOUTH KOREA] Hyperkinetic and goofy as all hell, The Good, The Bad, The Weird blasts through the Manchurian desert like a bounty hunter gone bananas. Like Takashi Miike's labored Sukiyaki Western Django, the film cribs lovingly from Sergio Leone with its story of three very different, very violent brigands vying for a long-lost treasure map in the 1930s. Director Jee-won Kim recognizes the familiarity of his homage as an opportunity to forgo exposition in favor of impressive tracking shots and extended trains-vs.-motorcycles-vs.-horses clusterfucks lasting up to 30 minutes. It doesn't all work—CGI undercuts the film's stellar stunt work, while the tone shifts can befuddle—but the majority of the film is a rowdy joy. AP KRYZA. BW, 9 pm Saturday, Feb. 13. WH, 4 pm Monday, Feb. 15.
92 [CZECH REPUBLIC] When the Nazis occupy Prague, journalist Emil (Marek Daniel) is forced to become the Reich's Edward R. Murrow in order to protect his wife, Hana (Jana Plodková), a Jewish film star. But as Emil is seduced by the trappings of fame, his sacrifice becomes a springboard for deceit, while Hana's isolation leads her to drugs and radicalism. Marek Najbrt's Protector is a rare historical suspense film that seamlessly combines contemporary style without abandoning a period aesthetic. With sepia tones bleeding into vibrant color, his film resembles classic noir and becomes a tragicomedy in which loyalty is expendable and morals sell to the highest bidder. Fast-paced, funny and with style to spare, Protector proves historical dramas can stimulate the senses and still ring true. AP KRYZA. BW, 12:45 pm Sunday, and 2 and 7:45 pm Monday, Feb. 14 & 15.
For the Love of Movies
6 [USA] Gerald Peary begins his talking-heads documentary with an announcement: "Today, film criticism is a profession under siege." Sounds like a silly action movie. The impression is of Peary and his fellow critics giving themselves two thumbs up. We get a nostalgic history of America's movie writers, and an indictment of Internet hacks. But where's the scrutiny at the New York Film Critics' dinner, where a movie producer appreciates the press consensus that promotes his industry? The Critics' chairman David Sterritt affirms, "We're all playing the same game." Are these people under siege, or under a Hollywood spell? ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. WH, 4:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 14. BW, 4:15 Monday, Feb. 15. Director Gerald Peary will join WW Screen Editor Aaron Mesh, Shawn Levy, D.K. Holm and Erik Henriksen after the Sunday screening.
53 [USA] Trudging toward an African village with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzger declares, "He's here with a single objective: to make you care what's over the hill." Metzger himself has one job: to make you care about Kristof's job. He has mixed success. Too much of Reporter's buildup appeals to academic ninnies, with Susan Sontag quotes used as catnip, while Kristof's own pathos-heavy atrocity reportage skirts treacherously close to numbing cliché. But when the Oregon-native journo and his acolytes find a Congolese woman dying of starvation and try to move her to a hospital, that old "telling human stories" canard feels bitterly fresh. AARON MESH. BW, 4:30 pm Monday, Feb. 15.
The following films were not screened for critics by
press deadlines. Look for reviews on wweek.com.
[EGYPT] Lots of people in 1952 Cairo are unhappy. BW, 6 pm Friday, 7:45 pm Sunday and 6:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 12, 14 & 16.
[AUSTRIA] A wheelchair-bound woman makes a pilgrimage. BW, 6:15 pm Friday, 5:15 Saturday and 7:30 pm Monday, Feb. 12, 13 & 15.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
[SWEDEN] A reporter and a computer hacker solve killings. Based on some very popular novels. WH, 9 pm Friday and 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 12 & 14.
[INDIA] A Bengali man finds trouble when he decides to build a school window. BW, 9 pm Friday, 3 pm Saturday and 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 12-14.
Through a Glass, Darkly
[NORWAY] A dying teenage girl talks to an angel. BW, 1 pm Saturday, 4:30 pm Sunday and 5:15 pm Monday, Feb. 13-15.
Music on Hold
[ARGENTINA] A film composer and a pregnant single mom fall in love. BW, 2:30 pm and 7:45 pm Saturday and 12:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 13 & 14.
Short Cuts II: International Ties
A second collection of brief foreign films. WH, 12 noon Sunday and 8:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14 & 16.
[CZECH REPUBLIC] A documentary tracks down European military cooks. BW, 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 14.
[CYPRUS/GREECE] A cop investigates the death of the town drunk. BW, 5:30 pm Sunday and Monday, and 9 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14-16.
The Letter for the King
[THE NETHERLANDS] A teenage squire has an adventure. BW, 1:45 pm Monday, Feb. 15.
[EGYPT] A documentary follows teenage boys who live on trash. WH, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 16.
[IRAN] Forbidden love between an Afghan boy and an Iranian girl. BW, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 16.