We live in a difficult world. If you were not aware of how difficult it is, the Portland International Film Festival is here to remind you. Even by global cinema's glum temperament, the 2012 PIFF lineup seems especially forlorn, particularly focused on intractable problems. For example, many people of different ethnicities hate each other with deadly passion. Also, sometimes people of the same ethnicity hate each other with deadly passion. People—and here we are not specifically thinking of the audience at the Portland International Film Festival, but it did expand to Lake Oswego this year—get old and die.
We cannot solve these problems. And we won't be so presumptuous as to advise PIFF how to improve as a whole: It's doing pretty good in simply adjusting to the closure of the Broadway Metroplex, the longtime bedrock of its venues, by filling every spare screen in the city. But we can suggest how each film might be a little better. So we will.
What the world needs now is constructive criticism.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
[GREAT BRITAIN] A puzzlingly insubstantial opening-night selection (and not the first in recent years), this Lasse HallstrÃ¶m rom-com does manage fierce sparring between Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor as caustic, contemptuous partners on a photo-op project to bring the Middle East manâs favorite sport. Maybe it only seems ridiculous by dint of environs? But then again, no: This is a movie where McGregor saves a sheik from an assassination attempt by using his fishing rod like a bullwhip to knock a gun from a terroristâs hand. Accordingly, McGregorâs character is named âDr. Jones.â A dead soldier is brought back to life so Blunt can face a not-all-that-agonizing decision of the heart, and the love triangle is just like Casablanca, but the exact opposite.
It'd be better if: It weren't made by the Chocolat dude. AARON MESH. NT, 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 9.
Almanya—Welcome to Germany
Critic's Score: 60
[GERMANY] Ah, what's a festival without a comedic-melodramatic ethnic family film devoted to the notion that white people will find brown people endlessly cute? Almanya is the politically and morally charged story of Turkish guest workers in Germany, purged of all charge or edge or seriousness: a Purell-sanitized, treacly multigenerational identity fable with a bouncing-ball soundtrack. Which is not to say it isn't breezily likable; likability is, in fact, its only reason for being. So we can laugh when the newly emigrated children think that wiener dogs are giant rats, and feel mild nostalgic loss when their former homeland no longer feels like home. And then we can all eat Turkish street food with a newfound sense of fellow feeling.
It'd be better if: It weren't one giant middle-class whitewash. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WH, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 10. LM, 3:15 and 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. LT, 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
The Salt of Life
[ITALY] An enjoyably droll little satire about a retired Charlie Brown surrounded by football-pulling Lucys, when all he wants is his fair share of Berlusconiâs Age of Bunga Bunga. Director and lead actor Gianni Di Gregorioâwho also did the besieged Roman everyman routine in Mid-August Lunchâplays the abashed old goat, whose efforts to score a little strange on the piazza are undermined by his hesitancy, his mother (Valeria De Franciscis, same as in Mid-August Lunch) and his fondness for white wine. It is essentially a sophisticated Italian version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
It'd be better if: It had a riotous musical montage at the end. Oh, wait, it does? Then it's probably about as good as this sort of thing can be. AARON MESH. LT, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 10. CM, 5:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
[AUSTRIA] It sounds like a middlebrow wet dream: A juvenile in prison learns about life and mortality while on work release, tasked with transporting corpses from the scenes of their demise to the morgue. Yet Karl Markovicsâ Breathing is a anything but standard tear-duct exploitation, thanks largely to a wonderfully nuanced turn by Thomas Schubert, who layers his role with grief, anger and vulnerability, especially when an encounter with a womanâs corpse triggers his longing to reconnect with his estranged mother. Like PIFF darling Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo), Markovics knows how to find tremendous power in small moments. His freshman film is emotionally charged dynamite that, like life, offers no simple answers.
It'd be better if: Schubert's troubled relationship with the other kids on the cellblock received a minute or two more screen time. AP KRYZA. LM, 6:15 pm Friday, Feb. 10. CM, 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 12. LT, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.
A Cat in Paris
[FRANCE] This yearâs token hand-drawn nominee for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, A Cat in Paris is an eye-popping beauty, with a unique style employing elements of cubism. It helps that the story of a cat burglar and his feline buddy protecting a girl from mobsters is breezy fun, coming off as a kaleidoscopic combination of To Catch a Thief, Spider-Man, and Cassavetesâ Gloria, with our heroes bounding across Parisian rooftops while eluding bumbling goons and the fuzz. It may be too arty to grab the gold, but itâs certainly evidence that hand-drawn animation is an art form in dire need of preserving.
It'd be better if: An animated Cary Grant popped in for a rooftop cameo, striped shirt and all. AP KRYZA. CM, 6:15 Friday and 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 10-11.
[RUSSIA] In a not-too-distant Russian future of the Aldous Huxley variety, the youth-obsessed superrich descend on the countryside to connect with their roots and get a little wrinkle-release radiation in fallout zones. In between bouts of ultra-rapey sex, one man invents glasses that can visually identify good and evil. Naturally, as Targetâs small ensemble becomes more and more enraptured with their obsessions and lusts, its characters teeter on the rotten side of the naughty list with more frequency. Itâs a novel idea. Too bad director Alexander Zeldovich couldnât come up with a cool gadget to make any of it make any goddamned sense.
It'd be better if: The person in charge of subtitles had realized white text is difficult to read during a film bathed in glowing white. AP KRYZA. LM, 6:30 pm Friday, Feb. 10.
[SPAIN] A character study without a character, Amador ends up being just as lumpen as the infuriatingly passive, continually morose face of its protagonist, Marcela, a young Bolivian immigrant who wants everything in her life to effortlessly be different. Ennui is here registered as a potatoey, unsympathetic pout, and each scene is left equally uncooked. In order to earn her caretakerâs wage, Marcela must preserve the illusion that the old man sheâs looking after isnât already dead, while also hiding her pregnancy from the one person in the picture with any life (who is nonetheless treated with disdain): her flower thief of a boyfriend.
It'd be better if: The killjoy didn't stay in the picture. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. LT, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 10. LM, 5 pm Sunday and 8:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 12 & 14.
[FRANCE] A light-footed, almost fanciful film framed around a childâs battle with cancer, Declaration of War sounds like a Lifetime movie via Jacques Demy. Itâs a bit better than that, though. Actress-director Valerie Donzelli, who wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay with co-star and real-life baby daddy JÃ©rÃ©mie Elkaim, keeps the movie from devolving into a weepy disease drama. Like Mike Millsâ Beginners, War is about adults reacting to lifeâs tectonic shifts. Also like Mills, Donzelli doesnât trust her story. She gussies it up with New Wave-y quirksâthree different narrators, an ill-fitting musical numberâand relies on the performers (herself included) to salvage its heart. And they do, barely.
It'd be better if: It maintained the energy of the lead couple's punk club meet-cute, though I suppose the post-kid slowdown is the point. MATTHEW SINGER. 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 10.
Forgiveness of Blood
[ALBANIA] Nothing cramps a teenagerâs style more than a familial blood feud. Nik (non-pro Tristan Halilaj) is a scrawny Albanian kid growing up in a rural village. Just as heâs finally starting to charm the girl of his dreams, his dad kills one of the neighbors and goes into hiding, prompting the victimâs family to invoke centuries-old Balkan law and call for Nikâs head in retribution. Bummer. Quietly compelling, director Joshua Marstonâs first film since 2004âs Maria Full of Grace presents coming of age under the threat of sudden, swift death as not much different than any other adolescent trauma. Itâs unclear what inconveniences Nik more: the snipers waiting for him to step outside his house, or the fact that he canât go to parties anymore.
It'd be better if: There was just a tad more drama. MATTHEW SINGER. CM, 8:30 Friday, Feb. 10. LM, 5 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
The Extraordinary Voyage
[FRANCE] A dream from the 1890s is alive in color. Weâre lucky to be living in a 15 minutes of fame for Georges MÃ©liÃ¨sâ 15 minutes of wonder: The Parisian cinema pioneer gets a Ben Kingsley cameo in Hugo, and we get a color nitrate print of his 1902 phantasm A Trip to the Moon. Oui, color: The MÃ©liÃ¨s studio movies (other titles include The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship) were handpainted. The dazzling frames, with their Neptunes and dragons and dirigibles floating through, look like ambulatory gemstones, or those airbrushed T-shirts you buy at the beach. The attendant documentary is serviceable (trailblazing genius, lost works, found work, Tom Hanks). The restored short, with an eerie score by Air, is a candy shop of the sublime.
IT'D BE BETTER IF: Only it lasted forever. AARON MESH. WTC, 8:45 pm Friday, Feb. 10. WH, 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
[FRANCE] Whimsical and lighthearted in the grand French tradition of other shit your grandma loves, The Fairy contains some excellently goofy moments of physical comedy in telling the story of a lonely hotel clerkâs romance with an kleptomaniacal fairy. Co-directors/stars Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordonâs absurdist comedy sees the pair dancing underwater, encountering flying Frenchmen and traipsing through a world where people burst into song unprovoked. If this is your bag, youâll be enchanted. If its sounds wholly irritating, well, youâve been granted a wish to avoid it.
It'd be better if: Cirque du Soleil showed up halfway through and had a whimsical throwdown to see who is more magically French. AP KRYZA. LM, 8:45 pm Friday and 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 10-11. LT, 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.
It'd be better if: There was less, as one character puts it, "balls-ache." As a man, that's one of my general rules for art. MATTHEW SINGER. WH, 12:30 pm Saturday and 8:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11 & 14.
[CANADA] It might be the most startling image yet of this young PIFF: A boy peeks into his middle-school classroom, and through a sliver of doorway sees his teacherâs lifeless body hanging from the ceiling. Not a conventional way of starting a âmagical schoolteacherâ movie, but donât worry: It gets conventional pretty quick. The titular Mr. Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is hired as the dead womanâs replacement, and soon heâs not just teaching these kids...theyâre teaching him. Still, writer-director Philippe Falardeau keeps things simple enough, allowing the sincere performances from Fellag and the young Sophie NÃ©lisse and Ãmilien NÃ©ronâboth from the âso mature itâs unnaturalâ class of child actorsâto bolster the film beyond its clichÃ©s.
It'd be better if: Monsieur Lazhar was Mr. Laser, a former American Gladiator exiled in Canada and trying to make a difference. MATTHEW SINGER. LT, 3 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. LM, 6:15 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
Cafe de Flore
[CANADA] Pro tip: The best time to walk out on this faux-poignant jumblefuck of nonsense is during the opening credits, when hunky club DJ Antoine (Kevin Parent) fades into the background of an airport terminal as a slow-motion parade of Down syndrome patients marches into the foreground. Itâll save you from having to endure the cloying special-needs love story, the meta-spiritual âtwistâ that intertwines the concurrent narratives, and more than three minutes of director Jean-Marc VallÃ©eâs hyper-pretentious editing, which garbles his cosmic statement about love, music and happiness into vomitous arthouse slush. The only message that emerges from the muck is that Evelyne Brochu looks good naked. She is naked a lot, so thatâs a plus.
It'd be better if: Antoine got stabbed in a swordfight by the Beefeater Gin mascot he continually hallucinates as a symbol of his alcohol addiction (seriously). MATTHEW SINGER. LT, 5:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. LM, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
[BRAZIL] Iâm naturally resistant to magical realism, but the first 20 minutes of Julia Muratâs hymn to aging had an impressive effect: They had me moaning for something, anything mystical to occur. Repeated scenes of routine in the imaginary mountain hamlet of Jotuomba are like a rural Brazilian ad for Dunkinâ Donuts: Madalena (Sonia Guedes) rises in the wee hours, and itâs time to make the biscuits! Eventually, a photographer (Lisa Favero) arrives, and the ancient rituals are revealed in close-up as a kind of beneficence. The movie is very much an undergraduate shutterbugâs gothic fantasyâIâm surprised there arenât more pictures of shoesâbut it is entrancing.
It'd be better if: Things started not happening a little quicker. AARON MESH. LM, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. PP, 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
[FRANCE] Old filmic hand Robert GuÃ©diganâs subtle, soft-toned piece of working manâs sentimentality is way more pink-positive than the festâs film about breast cancer fundingâor more pinko-positive, anyway. The implausibly roseate situation it depictsâa sainted, laid-off union leader developing deep sympathies for his own violent houserobber out of cosmic solidarityâis made nonetheless workable by actor Jean-Pierre Darroussinâs gruffly sympathetic performance and GuÃ©diganâs patient craftsmanship in building the storyâs characters and central dilemma. Which is to say, the open-palmed earnestness of the film leads not merely to warm fuzzies but also a rewarding, intelligent moral complexity.
It'd be better if: It didn't nonetheless congratulate itself and its characters so heartily for being all such wonderful people. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. CM, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. LM, 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
[LEBANON] Director and star Nadine Labakiâs second feature proves notoriously dour Lebanese cinema can be downright whimsical. Until a kid gets shot, anyway. Before that happens, Where Do We Go Now?, about the women of a remote village attempting to quell a sectarian prank war from escalating into full-on Christian-on-Muslim violence, resembles one of those lighthearted English community comedies. Then a boy is killed, and the weeping starts. A delicate hand is needed to guide such tonal zigzags; jolting from a mother cursing the Virgin Mary to ladies singing about baking hash cookies, Labakiâs hands must be made of lead.
It'd be better if: Instead of telling the neighbors he's just sick, maybe the mother of the dead boy tried to convince the village he's still alive à la Weekend at Bernie's? MATTHEW SINGER. WH, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. LT, 6 and 8:30 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
[CHINA] In many ways a successor to the attentive, character-based neorealism of director Jia Zhangke (who produced it), debut director Han Jieâs Mr. Tree seems to nonetheless want to be expressionistic allegory. It succeeds wholly as neither, meandering waywardly through the half-fantasized life of equally wayward, drunken fool Shu (Chinese for âTreeâ), who eventually becomes mere metaphorical placeholder for the fate of traditional Chinese values in the wake of citified industrialization. The viewerâs sympathy lies, unfortunately, nowhere: When you make half your characters inarticulately metaphorical and the rest merely props, the humanity whose loss youâre lamenting is sadly lost from the start.
It'd be better if: It were a sweeping historical epic showing the bloodstained majesty of the inevitable Chinese Empire. Sad to say. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. CM, 12:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 12. LM, 6:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.
Goodbye First Love
[FRANCE] Another gorgeously assured reflection from Mia Hansen-LÃ¸ve (The Father of My Children), but this time with enough teen-girl pouting and drama that it could be a French version of Twilight. (No werewolves, better music, everybody gets shirtless.) Lola CrÃ©ton, the sprite from Bluebeard, plays a heroine not easily dissuaded from a boy (Sebastian Urzendowsky) more interested in world travel. The film, which has the pacific maturity occasionally brushed by Truffaut, recognizes that erotic obsession is like a recurring illness, and sometimes the best you can hope for is to have it go into remission.
It'd be better if: Well, maybe if there was one werewolf. Especially in the middle acts. AARON MESH. LM, 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
Tales of the Night
[FRANCE] Tales of the Night looks like precisely what it is: a French public television show adapted for the screen, depicting folk tales from all over the worldâsometimes faithfully, sometimes with âsassyâ updates to the endings and morals. The framing device used to bind these tales is awkward at best, the stories pedantically overexplained and the pacing painfully slow, but animator Michel Ocelotâs African-inflected, 3-D-dioramic, shadow-play animations are at least lovely enough to be distracting, should one want to bring a school group down for educational purposes.
It'd be better if: I were 6 years old. Even at 7, I would feel bored and itchy and patronized to. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WH, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
Turn Me On, Dammit!
[NORWAY] I would love this to become the Say Anything or Pump Up the Volume for a generation of young Norwegian teens raised on Internet pornographyânever mind that all the filmâs porn happens anachronistically on paper or over the phone. Even with its opening nubile masturbatory scene and a main plot point involving a teen boy surprising a (not unwilling) girl by poking her thigh with his turtlenecked penis, this is essentially a warm, goofily outsider coming-of-age storyâalbeit for a very horny 15-year-old girl (Alma, played with heartbreakingly tender naivetÃ© by non-pro actress Helene Bergsholm). The bawd and awkwardness all read largely true until a too-pat ending more at home in the smooth-polished John Hughes â80s than amid kids who spent the whole film cruelly appending a penis to the main characterâs name.
It'd be better if: It maintained adolescence's nervous, cruel ambiguities even to the end, rather than falsely resolve them all. Or maybe if it ended like Heathers. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WH, 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
Trailer (WARNING: Not safe for work):
It'd be better if: It actually found some of that assurance, and thereby also a lighter step. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. CM, 6 and 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
[BOSNIA] On the eve of the Yugoslav Wars, a rich asshole named Divko Buntic (Miki Manojlovic, looking like a puppet from Genesisâ âLand of Confusionâ video) returns to Herzegovina after decades in exile. He kicks his ex-wife out of her house, buys out the salon where she works and bequeaths it to his hot new girlfriend, and shows more affection for his cat than his son. Amid his tyrannical homecoming, an Oepidal soap opera breaks out between his fiancÃ©e and son, his beloved cat goes missing, then the bombs start to drop, and perhaps itâs all a metaphor for the ethnic tensions dividing Bosnia, but I really couldnât bring myself to care much about any of it.
It'd be better if: It involved an actual circus. One lone swing ride doesn't cut it. MATTHEW SINGER. PP, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
WW critics were unable to screen 22 of the films, but here's a little bit about each:
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
[UNITED STATES] A documentary about a sushi chef in the Tokyo subway. WTC, 6:15 Friday, Feb. 10.
Jose y Pilar
[PORTUGAL] A documentary about Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago and his wife Pilar. WTC, 12:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11.
[DOMINICAN REPUBLIC] A Haitian man seeks work abroad. LM, 1 pm Saturday, Feb. 11.
The Life of Fish
[CHILE] A man goes to a party, avoids discussing the past. LM, 1 pm Saturday, Feb. 11.
To Be Heard
[THE BRONX] Teens perform beat poetry. WTC, 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11.
[UNITED STATES] A documentary about abandoned architecture. WH, 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11.
A Bitter Taste of Freedom
[UNITED STATES] A documentary about an assassinated Russian journalist. WTC, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 11.
Hello! How Are You?
[ROMANIA] Retirees try online dating. WH, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. CM, 8:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.
[ISRAEL] A furniture salesman shines a piano. LM, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 11.
Beyond the Road
[BRAZIL] A love story on a road trip. LM, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. PP, 6:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.
King of Devil's Island
[NORWAY] Students at an abusive boy's school rebel. WTC, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. WH, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
[ARGENTINA] A truck driver hits the highway with a single mom. CM, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. LM, 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 14.
[GREAT BRITAIN] Welsh townsfolk have relational troubles. LT, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 11. PP, 8:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.
Short Cuts I: International Ties
An omnibus of short films. WH, 12:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
[ROMANIA] A fisherman finds a Kurdish immigrant. LM, 2 pm Sunday and 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 12 & 14.
[ICELAND] A retiring custodian grows suicidal. LT, 2:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
Abu, Son of Adam
[INDIA] An elderly couple wants to visit Mecca. CM, 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 12. LM, 8:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.
[FRANCE] Muslim freedom fighters hide Jews during World War II. LT, 5 pm Sunday, Feb. 12. CM, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.
Life Without Principle
[HONG KONG] Action director Johnnie To examines the financial crisis. WH, 8:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
[JAPAN] Love and protest, based on the Haruki Murakami novel. LM, 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 12.
Where Are You Taking Me?
[UGANDA/UNITED STATES] A documentary about the reverberations of civil war. WH, 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 13.
The Day He Arrives
[SOUTH KOREA] A professor experiences deja vu. WH, 6:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 14.