This is the best week all year to go to the movies. Besides the additional tricks and treats of BAM (see here) and, just for the hell of it, a new Scorsese picture (we'll review Shutter Island on wweek.com as soon as the studio shows it to us), the next seven days bring us the mother lode of Portland International Film Festival showings. We've given you a shove of encouragement by appraising 36 of these premieres. (And thanks to our handy 1-to-100 rating system, you don't even have to be literate to know what to watch!) Now get out there and see something.
Image courtesy of PIFF
50 [USA] Tolstoy might have been right about fucked-up families of the 19th century, but these days, every unhappy family is alike—they all end up in middling documentaries. Now it's the Mosher clan's turn to publicly declare their brokenness, and it's the standard domestic horror show of abusive husbands, teen pregnancies, haunted patriarchs and dotty aunts. I already have a family like this, you already have a family like this, and film festivals have countless families like this, so do we really need another one? October Country is beautifully shot and skillfully cut, and the Moshers seem like decent folks who deserve a little happiness, but I hope they hide it from the cameras when they find it. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 6 pm Wednesday, Feb. 17.
80 [URUGUAY] It makes sense that Uruguay submitted Bad Day to Go Fishing for the Oscars instead of Gigante. Gigante is actually good. A naughty little poem about a lovable stalker, it's probably the first movie to do justice to the security guard, that most insecure of professions. Horacio Camandule plays Jara, who spies on his pretty supermarket coworker using the closed-circuit cameras. Camandule makes this infatuation moving, the boyish confusion of the big lug who had everything figured out. Filmmaker Adrián Biniez and his star have made a promising debut, a story told in simple pictures and anxious sighs. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. BW, 6:15 pm Wednesday, 1 pm Saturday and 9:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 17, 20 & 23.
62 [POLAND] A jet-black comedy about the hilarious topic of cultural subversion in 1950s Poland, The Reverse initially appears to be a somber anti-love story about a dowdy publications editor living with her overbearing mother and ailing grandmother. But director Borys Lankosz has Almodóvar on his mind, and things get twisted when a suspicious suitor arrives to court mousy Sabina (Agata Buzek). Switching from modern-day colors to noirish black-and-white, The Reverse bounds between serious drama and screwball sadism with mixed results. The nervous chuckles are rewarding, but the film takes its sweet time, climaxes early and peters out during the denouement. AP KRYZA. BW, 6:45 pm Wednesday and 8:15 pm Thursday, Feb. 17-18.
The Girl on the Train
86 [FRANCE] The only tricky reference in Andre Téchiné's great new movie (shot on film, though sadly, PIFF is projecting it digitally) is the opening music, bagpipes that sent knights off to die in Robert Bresson's Lancelot of the Lake. The death of chivalry is how Téchiné explains the modern phenomenon of the hate-crime hoax. His swift, summery drama is about a 21-year-old girl seeking the respect she cannot get from her deceased father, her protective mother, her would-be employer, and the boy who courts her in an Internet chat room. She's somewhere between riding the rails and coming of age. While Fish Tank despairs about sexual hip-hop, this film proves that romance isn't really dead, it's just out of season. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. WH, 8:15 pm Wednesday, Feb. 17. BW, 8:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 18.
54 [FRANCE] Immigration tension is a brave subject for any film, so it's always a bummer when the result opts for convention over daring. Such is Welcome, the story of a grumpy French swim instructor coaching a teenage Iraqi refugee who aims to swim across the English Channel to reunite with his sweetheart in London. Will the coach change his apathetic ways? Will the kid learn that kindness comes from unexpected places? Yes. Yes, they will. But, through the laughter and tears, Welcome is comfort food glossing over a larger predicament, and the film wastes an opportunity for insight in favor of sentimental goo. AP KRYZA. BW, 8:45 pm Wednesday, 8: 15 pm Friday and 6:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 17, 19 & 20.
65 [HONG KONG] The good news: Jet Li wears elaborate period costumes and hacks enemies to ribbons. The bad news: After a few incredible fights, The Warlords is a gratingly ho-hum battle epic, complete with the requisite betrayals, love triangles and rampant slow-motion shots of galloping horses. The film follows blood brothers Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro as they slice their way through war-torn Qing Dynasty China, and for a while it's a bloody riot. Then the sub-Braveheart melodrama kicks in. Li fans are better off renting Once Upon a Time in China again. AP KRYZA. BW, 9:30 pm Wednesday and 6:45 and 9:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 17 & 18.
85 [FRANCE] Catherine Breillat fractures the 15th-century folk tale of a wife-murdering lord into her unmistakable jam of pubescent terror and jealousy. Two tiny sisters read aloud the story of a barely older maiden (Lola Creton) who marries a sad-eyed nobleman (Dominique Thomas) four times her size—the couple memorably gnaws together on a leg of lamb, like two carrion birds. It's as if Chamber of Secrets-period Hermione Granger had shacked up with Hagrid the Half-Giant. (Stop looking at me like that.) Bluebeard is a love story inside a horror story and a horror story inside a love story, and Breillat has tapped into a vein of perversity far outstripping the sexual. AARON MESH. BW, 6 pm Thursday, 6:15 pm Friday and 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 18, 19 & 21.
The Wind Journeys
77 [COLOMBIA] The story is as well-trammeled and the travelers not very vibrant company, but who cares: The Wind Journeys has accordion rap battles! Technically, those are vallenato folk musicians dueling with their squeezeboxes, but the macho swagger and rhyming insults are the same as Supernat killing Juice. (Well, not quite the same: One faceoff begins when one bellow-slinger drops the challenge, "It smells like sorcery in here.") It's the Columbian accordion version of 8 Mile—though maybe it's more like 800 Mile, since the hero rides a burro from town to town, playing at festivals and providing a live soundtrack for a bridgetop machete fight. Director Cico Guerra's mountainscapes and endless blooming fields are worthy of the age of CinemaScope, and there's a trace of Peckinpah in the images of hard men cradling their loneliness like music. AARON MESH. WH, 6 pm Thursday, Feb. 18. BW, 12 noon Saturday, Feb. 20.
55 [MEXICO] Why didn't the distributors keep the original title, 5 Days Without Nora? Maybe they didn't want to acknowledge the absence at the center of this bereaved-family dramedy, set in the aftermath of a carefully planned suicide and featuring a galled widower (wonderful Fernando Luján) in tiffs with a series of rabbis even less helpful than those in A Serious Man. As with most movies focused on familial healing, I acknowledge the picture's emotional efficacy without quite understanding its justification for existing. Like life, I didn't think much of it, but I cried at the end. AARON MESH. BW, 6:15 pm Thursday, 8:30 pm Monday and 6:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 18, 22 & 23.
The Wedding Song
41 [TUNISIA] Did you know that it is a Tunis bachelorette-party tradition for a woman to dance with a pair of sheep's testicles tucked into her waistline? You will learn many intimate details from Karin Albou's feminine statement about two beautiful bosom buddies—one Muslim, one Jewish—whose impending marriages are imperiled by Nazi occupation. The movie very much reminded me of a 1980s Disney Channel production called A Friendship in Vienna, but with more patriarchal abusiveness and an extremely close-up scene of bikini waxing. Regardless of who rules, the demand for female blood is insatiable. AARON MESH. BW, 7 pm Thursday and 9 pm Saturday, Feb. 18 & 20.
Image Courtesy of PIFF
66 [CZECH REPUBLIC] The past invades, marching its memories across the Western front in this unexpectedly dynamic documentary about military mess sergeants. The cooks profiled here offer their recipes for blintzes, coq au vin and survival, whipping up batches of pancakes in tableside tableaus that are interrupted by gunfire and saltwater flooding. As a Hungarian sausage maker feeds pig pieces wetly through a meat grinder, the implication—none too subtle, but effective all the same—is that Europe in the past century was a butcher shop. AARON MESH. BW, 9 pm Thursday and 12:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 18 & 21.
70 [GREAT BRITAIN] As if unaware of her own considerable strengths as a keen realist, director Andrea Arnold embellishes this fluttery sketch of adolescent discombobulation with enough leaden symbolism to fill a teen poet's Moleskine, but a great film intermittently peeks out from Fish Tank's murk of metaphors. The crackling stretches of brilliance owe everything to Katie Jarvis, who stars as wannabe B-girl Mia, a hectic parcel of addled pride and resentment who tries to drink and dance and fight her way out of council flat despair. Jarvis' achievement is almost enough to forgive the dying horse (youth). And the dying fish (youth). And the heart-shaped balloon (duh, Mia's heart). CHRIS STAMM. WH, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 19.
64 [ICELAND] Following the tired formula of "reformed thug called back for one last job," Reykjavik-Rotterdam is a serviceable thriller that rises above cliché by employing grimy style and restraint typical of Icelandic potboilers like Jar City. Rotterdam has drug smugglers, fights, a few explosions, deceptions and tension, to be sure, but it's only slightly better than the other thousand or so similar flicks. It's so above par but slightly generic that Mark Wahlberg, the American king of above-par generic thrillers, is currently working on a remake. AP KRYZA. BW, 7 pm Friday, 5:30 pm Saturday and 4:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 19-21.
94 [ITALY] "Vincere" means "win." Young Benito Mussolini wants to rule Italy. His lover, Ida Dalser, wants to rule his heart. Guess who wins? This time, we do. Director Marco Bellocchio was born at the breakout of World War II, and he's been skewering Catholic repression since the Sexual revolution. Not for him the respectful drama of historical biography. Fifteen minutes in and we've already been ravished by Il Duce himself. Here's the spaghetti history we never got from Inglourious Basterds. Even the lighting is a dark parody of chiaroscuro, more oscuro than chiaro. Take the plunge into the narrow valley between church and cult, cinema and propaganda, romance and mania. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. WH, 8:45 pm Friday, Feb. 19. BW, 4:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 21.
30 [USA] "You're a grown man," says Stanless Steel's manager, "and you don't have to listen to me, but I think you need to get rid of the pigtails." Bold words to deliver to a strongman who can lift 400 pounds with his middle finger. But the manager's bones are in luck, because Steel's practiced response to everything—life, lifting, ladies—is a simple sigh of arrogant exasperation that communicates utter bafflement at a world that does not genuflect at the giant feet of a globular man who can lift a truck one inch off the ground with his legs. Steel is an insufferable hunk of muscle, and he is only fascinating for the five seconds it takes him to bend a penny. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 5 pm Saturday, Feb. 20.
90 [SOUTH KOREA] Following Memories of Murder and The Host, director Joon-ho Bong has joined Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) at the forefront of a South Korean film renaissance. Mother continues Bong's genre-defying approach, combining comedy, police-procedural drama, psychological horror and oedipal overtones into the strange story of a crackpot mom (an electric Hye-ja Kim) whose mentally deficient son is railroaded for a murder. Taking the investigation into her own hands, Kim embarks on a journey that forces her to confront realities unseen in her sheltered life, with kinky, Lynch-meets-Hitchcock results. Lesser directors would fumble so many elements. Bong, however, is a juggler worthy of Barnum & Bailey, and the funny, frantic Mother is further evidence of his oddball mastery. AP KRYZA. BW, 9:15 pm Friday, Feb. 19. WH, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 23.
Short Cuts III: Made in Portland
71 [PORTLAND] Let's take a field trip to the bus mall! Karl Lind's 122 Random Seconds is an experimental film turned into an accidental documentary when the shoot is interrupted by a man in a Randy Moss jersey, who denounces TriMet and the military before asking for a cigarette. Like most actual encounters with the homeless, it is sad and frightening, without the protective casing of artistic intent. These two minutes stuck with me more than the more considered entries here—though Don't Worry, It's a New Century includes an amusing, nude homage to Matt McCormick. AARON MESH. WH, 1 pm Saturday and 8:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 20 & 23.
Waking Sleeping Beauty
45 [USA] As a Disney-obsessed Pentecostal Christian child, I was cognitively disturbed by the death from AIDS complications of Howard Ashman, the openly gay lyricist of the still-roguish songs in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Even now, all wised up, I think Ashman's story has the arc of tragedy, and would make one hell of a documentary. This ain't it—it's got Ashman in it, but it's mostly studio vet and Lion King producer Don Hahn's Easy Flounders, Raging Belles tell-all (or tell-some) of ego collisions between Mouse House big cheeses Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney. The seaweed is always greener in somebody else's lake. AARON MESH. BW, 1:30 pm Saturday and 9:30 pm Monday, Feb. 20 & 22.
LEFT: Sons of Cuba IMAGE: Courtesy of PIFF. RIGHT: Wild Grass IMAGE: Christophe Jeauffroy
Sons of Cuba
79 [GREAT BRITAIN] Pushing pre-pubescent boys into the ring as symbolic champions of socialist strength and valor seems cruel at first, but dammit if the million-dollar babies in Sons of Cuba are not the most charming and pinchable and shockingly well-adjusted little band of brawlers I've ever seen. The diminutive pugilists in this British documentary compose a collective founded on mutual respect and deep empathy, and when they are not giving and getting concussions, they are like a litter of exhausted kittens who sleep in each other's laps and cry into each other's shoulders. Propaganda? Perhaps. But it's compelling and moving stuff. I didn't cry—I just had something in my eye. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 2:45 pm Saturday and 6 pm Monday, Feb. 20 & 22.
The Letter for the King
19 [THE NETHERLANDS] A Lord of the Rings knockoff right down to the title font. But take away Peter Jackson's budget for actors and music and makeup, and all that's left is Nords and swords. Plus the usual fondness for monarchy. Someone actually complains, "I don't like the way this place is run, by a mayor." ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. BW, 3 pm Saturday and 3:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 20-21.
26 [THE NETHERLANDS] Poor Peter Greenaway. This Welsh filmmaker invented his own movie genre, the sexy art-history lesson, but the class has fallen asleep (or graduated). Only an academic could love his gorgeous, bawdy productions. They look like paintings, move like theater, and never seem to be really happening. The latest one, Nightwatching, about the social satire behind Rembrandt's painting The Night Watch, was ignored at festivals and skipped to DVD with no theatrical release. Now Greenaway has recycled clips from this opus into Rembrandt's J'Accuse, an actual lecture delivered by Greenaway himself on the same subject. It's public television at best. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. WH, 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 20. BW, 5:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 21.
A Town Called Panic
95 [BELGIUM] I might end up having children for the sole purpose of plopping them down in front of the TV and watching their faces light up as their minds get blown by A Town Called Panic. This stop-motion whirligig about a horse named Horse and his troublemaking housemates, Cowboy and Indian, resembles the world I visit when I dream I am in Michel Gondry's head: a dimension of anarchic glee that finds a balance between antic madness and wide-eyed whimsy without stumbling into saccharine cuteness. It's the best animated film since WALL-E, and it could be PIFF's shining moment this year. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 3:45 pm Saturday and 7:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 20-21.
Dawson Isla 10
25 [CHILE] Terrorized bureaucrats are shipped to a concentration camp in the Tierra del Fuego after the 1973 Pinochet coup, and the direness of their situation is only somewhat undermined by everyone having Ron Burgundy mustaches. "What was our mistake?," one prisoner muses in voiceover. "Why are we here? Why is there so much hate?" Good questions—another is whether director Miguel Litton knows he's making a more literal, less interesting rendering of Terrence Malick's wartime mediations in The Thin Red Line. Once again, genitals are endangered: There's a pretty amazing scene where a soldier rips open his scrotum sliding down a wooden flagpole. AARON MESH. BW, 8:15 pm Saturday and 6:45 pm Monday, Feb. 20 & 22.
95 [FRANCE] Six decades into one of the most beguiling film journeys of our time, Alain Resnais has directed a film that is almost too odd to wrap words around. It begins when Marguerite loses her wallet, and goes completely haywire when Georges finds it and succumbs to dangerous fantasies of forging a cosmic connection with its owner. Wild Grass is a loopy and perplexing work, and it's suffused with the kind of illogical dread and elliptical silliness you might find bouncing around in your head in the auroral hour between sleeping and waking. To say anything more would spoil the joy of finding your way through the fog. Be brave and go forth. You're in good hands. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 8:30 pm Saturday and 5 pm Sunday, Feb. 20-21.
Woman Without Piano
3 [SPAIN] Last year, Woman Without Head (La mujer sin cabeza) treated us to pretentious scenes of an Argentine housewife sleepwalking in silence through the emptiness of modern life. Eventually, she dyed her hair black. This year, Woman Without Piano (La mujer sin piano) treats us to pretentious scenes of a Spanish housewife sleepwalking in silence through the emptiness of modern life. Eventually, she puts on a black wig. The motivating guilt is over the invasion of Iraq, to which Spaniards are indifferent because they are hideous and serve each other revolting sandwiches and aren't allowed to smoke anywhere or play the piano. Thanks, folks! She's here all night! ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. BW, 2 pm Sunday and 9:15 pm Monday, Feb. 21-22.
Room and a Half
70 [RUSSIA] Few films match literature's ability to render the tenebrous fog of a human mind caught between longing, living, remembering and dreaming. Words are simply more dexterous when it comes to mapping swamped consciousness. Although it's not entirely successful, Andrey Khrzhanovksy's fractured meditation on the life of poet Joseph Brodsky is a bold attempt at visualizing the dilatory movements of a fidgeting mind. A frayed quilt of animation, biography, fantasy and appropriation, Room and a Half is a necessary rejoinder to the raft of biopics that transmute the wonder and mystery of existence into a linear march of events. Life isn't like that, and nor should films be. Consider this experiment a step in the right direction. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 6:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 21. WH, 8:15 pm Monday, Feb. 22.
The Wild Hunt
4 [CANADA] It wants to be a comedy about medieval-fantasy roleplayers; an indie romance, wherein a crybaby slacker rekindles his relationship by dressing up as a knight; a family tragedy about a dying parent; and, in its forced final act, a thriller full of cringe-worthy sadism. The problem is, if you want to pull all that shit off, you need to maintain a tone. The Wild Hunt, however, tries to be a quirky comedy, emo drama and action fantasy rolled lazily into one. It's a total dud that, like its douchey characters, takes its stupid little game way too seriously. AP KRYZA. BW, 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 21.
City of Life and Death
50 [CHINA] So-called torture porn is a favorite punching bag for pseudo-sophisticates, but I'll take Hostel's cheeky bloodbath over an atrocity exhibition like City of Life and Death any day. Splitting the difference between the black-and-white bleakness of Schindler's List and the anxious battle ballet of Saving Private Ryan, Lu Chuan's rendering of the Rape of Nanking is a masterfully executed descent into hell. It's gorgeous and gripping filmmaking, but the sublimity of suffering as staged for our pleasure—and, make no mistake, this is thrilling pageantry—is a grotesque half-truth masquerading as edification. If nothing else, it underlines the importance of Inglourious Basterds and Atom Egoyan's Ararat, essential films that give the lie to such entertainment. I'm not saying you shouldn't enjoy it—just don't fool yourself into thinking it's anything more than an uptown version of Saw VI. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 21. BW, 8:15 pm Monday, Feb. 22.
Bad Day to Go Fishing
22 [URUGUAY] Bad day to go to the movies, especially if you ever thought Midnight Cowboy would be better as a whimsical fairy tale about wrestling. Sorry, but no. It's an amusing idea: A German strongman and his Italian promoter roll into a South American town to hustle one last, desperate fight. But it's played as drama, and the two leads, speaking English with each other, show no chemistry. If this Cold War setting is so jaded with the fantasy of the ring, why is everything so cheaply but adorably colorful? It's like some episode of a telenovela or ABC's Pushing Daisies. But less fun. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. BW, 7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 23.
The following films were previously reviewed in our Feb. 10 issue, or not screened for critics by WW press deadlines.
38 [ISRAEL] 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. ALISTAIR ROCKOFF. BW, 6 pm Wednesday, Feb. 17.
34 [RUSSIA] 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. AARON MESH. BW, 7 pm Wednesday, Feb. 17.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird
92 [SOUTH KOREA] Trains-vs.-motorcycles-vs.-horses clusterfucks lasting up to 30 minutes. AP KRYZA. BW, 9:15 pm Wednesday, Feb. 17.
Charlie Haden: Ramblin Boy
[SWITZERLAND] He plays a mean double bass. WH, 8:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 18.
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. AP KRYZA. BW, 6:30 pm Friday, Feb. 19.
[CANADA] Brothers gotta go on a road trip. BW, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 19.
Moomin and Midsummer Madness
[FINLAND] Tove Jansson's hippolike creatures get animated. BW, 12:45 pm Saturday, Feb. 20. WH, 12 noon Sunday, Feb. 21.
[TAIWAN] A girl tries to become an actress. BW, 3:30 pm Saturday and 9 pm Tuesday, Feb. 20 & 23.
[GERMANY] A couple's Sardinia vacation is lousy. WH, 5:45 pm Saturday, Feb. 19.
The Shock Doctrine
[GREAT BRITAIN] Governments and corporations sometimes treat people like shit. BW, 6:45 and 9:15 pm Saturday and 1 pm Sunday, Feb. 20-21.
Letters to Father Jacob
[FINLAND] A parolee helps answer a pastor's mail. BW, 8 pm Saturday, 7 pm Monday and 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 20, 22 & 23.
[EGYPT] A documentary follows teenage boys who live on trash. BW, 12:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 21.
55 [GERMANY] German expatriate Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) becomes the humanitarian protector of Nanking, despite looking exactly like Elmer Fudd. AARON MESH. WH, 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 21.
54 [USA] When Oregon-native journo Nicholas Kristof 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, 2:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 21.
[HUNGARY] A con man targets loveless ladies. BW, 6:45 pm Sunday and 6:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 21 & 23.
Short Cuts IV: International Ties
A third display of the world's briefs. They were screened, but (ironically) we ran out of time. Look for a review in next week's edition. AARON MESH. WH, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 22.
[GREAT BRITAIN] Father-and-son gangsters look for a stool pigeon. BW, 6:15 pm Monday, Feb. 22.
[CHINA] An opera singer's life is not easy. BW, 8:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 23.