Don’t take this the wrong way: The second week of PIFF offers some very good movies, and even a couple of great ones. (It also promises the first weekend of the PIFF After Dark genre-film showcase, a recent fest high point, but neither Headhunters nor Let the Bullets Fly were screened by WW press deadlines.)
It’s just hard to read the program clearly when you’re helplessly weeping.
No way around it: PIFF 2012 is hellbent on selecting movies so gloomy they’ll make you long for the sweet release of Mayan apocalypse. But we continue, undaunted, on our quixotic and pissy quest to identify how each of these pictures might be slightly improved. Chin up. We have a lot of stages of grief to get through.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 15
Critic’s Score: 66
[ITALY] Filling a void left since 1991’s The Pope Must Diet, papal satire Habemus Papam is a rare film shot at the Vatican. It finally answers the burning question: What would a Top Gun-style volleyball tournament between the College of Cardinals look like? They’ve got leisure time because the newly elected Pope has gotten cold feet and fled. We follow His Holiness as he cruises around Rome for self discovery, and kick it with the Cardinals as they screw around and wait for him to return. It’s lighthearted fun, but tonal shifts toward the serious derail the film’s spirit.
It’d be better if: Father Guido Sarducci was among the reporters covering the story from outside the Vatican. AP KRYZA. LT, 6 pm Wednesday, Feb. 15. C21, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 17.
Critic’s Score: 56
[CHILE] A sad young literary man rogers his college girlfriend after reading her bedtime selections from Proust. Eight years later, he rogers another girlfriend while writing a Proustian novel surreptitiously about rogering the first girlfriend. Sorry to be so coarse, but the movie could use some puncturing. Its opening scenes have an affectionate irony that recalls early Noah Baumbach comedies, but director Cristián Jiménez believes this material is profoundly sad, or sadly profound, or something. Also, the hero (Diego Noguera) grows a bonsai tree in honor of his lost relationship instead of calling his ex, which: seriously, dude.
It’d be better if: The women had fully developed personalities—though if they did, they would not be sleeping with this guy. AARON MESH. LM, 6:15 pm Wednesday and 8 pm Saturday, Feb. 15 & 18.
Critic’s Score: 70
[NEW ZEALAND] Don’t let that “Made in New Zealand” stamp fool you: This is the first feature film ever made in Samoan, by Samoans, about Samoans. It is a languid film, steeped in loss, in which the main character, Saili—as a little person in a country of quite large people—has been denied his familial chiefly title and therefore also the ability to protect his land and family. The film doesn’t insult with easy redemption, and painstakingly maintains its integrity throughout. Also, there are rock and machete fights, and passive-aggressive yam mutilation.
It’d be better if: We maybe
got to smile once in a while, just a little. But if it’s all a bit
weighty, what’s the director gonna do? He’s Samoan. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. LM, 8:45 pm Wednesday and 2:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 15 & 18. PP, 2:30 pm Monday, Feb. 20.
Critic’s Score: 79
[CZECH REPUBLIC] Stop-motion sicko Jan Svankmajer claims a budget shortfall forced him to resort to a new medium—paper cutout animation, in the style of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python cartoons and the dancing Saddams of South Park—but his id remains unchecked. In this lark about a man hitting the psychoanalyst’s couch to summon more dreams about his mum, the director also indulges his longtime oral fixation: There’s plenty of thick, clotted food churning in and out of mouths; tongues entwined like snakes; and a woman blowing up a watermelon like a balloon. Its repetitions are soon a bit much to stomach (did I mention the teddy bears with erect, plush penises?), but Surviving Life builds to a bathtub swim as disturbing as anything Svankmajer’s ever done. And this is the guy who made a film called Greedy Guts.
It’d be better if: Oedipus were less complex. AARON MESH. WH, 8:45 pm Wednesday, Feb. 15.
THURSDAY, FEB. 16Patagonia
Critic’s Score: 82
[GREAT BRITAIN] Something about Spanish-speaking countries, especially in film, always makes the northern and pale go wild with deeply self-involved notions of the romantic. Patagonia brings a wonderful symmetry to this, however. Taking as its subject the utopian Welsh communities formed in 19th-century Argentina, the film sends Welsh-ethnic Patagonians back to their chilly roots and a pair of contemporary Welsh out to document a faraway past in Argentina. That love is found and lost and found again in these countrysides shouldn’t surprise anyone, nor that it’s all stirringly pretty. But the film is also believable and unforced and patient in its romance—much in the manner of an early Atom Egoyan film, but without ever seeming schematic.
It’d be better if: The viewer didn’t nonetheless see it all coming. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. CM, 6 pm Thursday, Feb. 16.
Critic’s Score: 66
[JAPAN] “The war has not ended!” screams a former soldier in Kaneto Shindo’s post-World War II melodrama, to no one in particular. At age 99, the director can’t be blamed for articulating his message so bluntly. Postcard is not his first antiwar film—he’s spent much of his six-decade career contemplating the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki—but it’s allegedly his most personal. Best known stateside for his ’60s excursions into supernatural horror, Shindo looks at war as a kind of evil spirit, taking up residence in the home of a widow whose husband died in combat. The movie doesn’t have the masterful atmosphere of Onibaba or Kuroneko, but it does feature an oddly slapstick-y fight scene in which one combatant busts out an old-school airplane spin, so, y’know, that’s pretty cool.
It’d be better if: It contained more of the elemental flair Shindo brings to his best films. MATTHEW SINGER. LT, 6 pm Thursday, Feb. 16. C21, 5:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 18.
Critic’s Score: 62
[POLAND] A familiar story of love blossoming amid horrific circumstances. In the days following World War II, the Masuria region becomes akin to an apocalyptic wasteland, complete with marauding bandits, deranged Russian soldiers who conduct daily public gang rapes, and conspiratorial former German officers exploiting the land. Amid this horrific violence, a soldier with a secret cares for the widow of a fallen comrade. It’s a compelling story, but director Wojciech Smarzowski’s decision to employ rapid editing and confusing chronological shifts frequently derail comprehension.
It’d be better if: Having shattered the record for most graphic rapes in a motion picture, the director had decided 40 was enough. Overachiever. AP KRYZA. WH, 6:15 pm Thursday and 7:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 16 & 19.
Clown: The Movie
Critic’s Score: 85
[DENMARK] This is a movie in which a man poses with a little boy’s micropenis as leverage for blackmail, and also ejaculates in the eye of his sleeping girlfriend’s mother as an attempted gesture of love. (She wears a patch now, and her eye’s healing fine, thanks.) Which is to say, this is a grotesquely comedic gross-out-with-a-heart-of-gold to shame the Brothers Farrelly and team Hangover into submission-dominance games—although this one’s filmed in grainy verité style and unflattering light suitable more for a ’90s Dogme film, which means every punch lands hard in the uncomfortable gut rather than sliding off the polish. If you have no shame whatsoever, you will nonetheless discover it while watching this film.
It’d be better if: …Oh, who cares? Quality is an almost unethical consideration here. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WH, 8:45 pm Thursday, Feb. 16. LM, 5:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 18. PP, 8 pm Monday, Feb. 20.
FRIDAY, FEB. 17The Kid With a Bike
Critic’s Score: 74
[BELGIUM] Another slice of lower-class life from the Dardenne brothers, The Kid with a Bike focuses on Cyril (Thomas Doret), an 11-year-old whose future abandonment issues we witness being seared into him. Disregarded by every male figure in his life—his father, his foster mother’s boyfriend, the slick-haired street tough who recruits him for a robbery—he is left to survive alone in a boy’s school until literally falling into the arms of a local hairdresser. International cineastes already know of the Dardennes’ warm, realist touch, but the revelation here is Doret. He plays Cyril as a bomb not waiting to explode but silently begging to be defused. I’ve already seen a few powerful performances from child actors at this year’s PIFF; his might be the best.
It’d be better if: It were a bit longer. These are characters you want to spend more than 80-something minutes with. MATTHEW SINGER. WH, 6:15 pm Friday, Feb. 17. LM, 7:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 19.
Woman in the Septic Tank
Critic’s Score: 26
[PHILIPPINES] It aims to provide a derisive antidote to fest-filler miserabilism, but this jape at callow filmmakers revising their slum-degradation epic never gets itself past the storyboarding stage. So the film inside the film opens in the style of a Sally Struthers infomercial, then warps (like the vulgarized death-row film Habeas Corpus inside Altman’s The Player) into a musical and a soap opera, each version featuring a mother selling her tiny son into prostitution. But the only shock is that a comedy this amateurishly lit, framed and acted is making the international rounds. Even the most outre gag—a singing pedophile—is a ripoff of that neighborhood perv in Family Guy, which isn’t funny either.
It’d be better if: Anything progressed beyond the initial joke. AARON MESH. WTC, 6:15 pm Friday, Feb. 17. WH, 8 pm Monday, Feb. 20.
The Silver Cliff
Critic’s Score: 41
[BRAZIL] Those whose hearts have been broken will recognize the anguish on the face of Violeta (Alessandra Negrini) when her husband leaves her: a mix of confusion, hurt, anger, introspection and hopelessness. If you don’t know it, well, spend 83 minutes with The Silver Cliff, which follows Violeta as she searches for her man in Porto Alegre. We spend no less than 14 minutes of the film’s short running time watching her sob in cars and cabs. She also cries at airports, in the shower, in her hotel and on the beach. Then she meets a down-on-his-luck man and his daughter. They brood together, then take a long, silent taxi ride. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being stuck next to a quiet, grief-stricken stranger on a bus.
It’d be better if: One of Violeta’s sob sessions became the most dour episode of Cash Cab ever. AP KRYZA. CM, 8:45 pm Friday, Feb. 17. C21, 2:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 19.
SATURDAY, FEB. 18
Critic’s Score: 76
[GERMANY] Corinna Belz’s documentary of iconoclastic painter Richter doesn’t dwell much on the backstory and the “Capitalist realism” that made him famous—he’s famous enough, we suppose—but rather submerges us into the day-to-day of Richter’s studio life and into the creation of the massive expressionist paintings he’s devoted much of his late career to. As such, it’s somewhat formless and opportunistic in its subject matter but also an important document of Richter’s working process, baroquely well-appointed studio, self-doubt, charm and barely concealed prickliness.
It’d be better if: It were at all possible to capture the textural qualities of Richter’s painting—especially the side-to-side trompe l’oeil of his black-and-white portraits—in film. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WH, 3 pm Saturday, Feb. 18.
How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?
Critic’s Score: 83
[GREAT BRITAIN] Filmed not only in the sonorously reverent tones but also the angelic color-clarity and oft-heavenly camera vantage of true hagiography, this documentary about legendary architect Norman Foster succeeds largely because its subject remains resolutely equal to the treatment he’s given. Aside from being the goddamned baron of Thames Bank, flying daredevil planes and skiing alpine marathons well into his 70s, the man came from working-class birth to help pioneer eco-friendly, monumental architecture and also to build London’s massively comic and beautiful Gherkin, the new German Reichstag dome and the world’s largest manmade structure (the airport in Beijing). Props where props are due, people.
It’d be better if: We got to see some chinks in the shiningly heroic armor. What is public here was already public, no matter how beautifully captured. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WTC, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 18. C21, 3 pm Monday, Feb. 20.
The Turin Horse
Critic’s Score: 75
[HUNGARY] Bela Tarr concludes his notoriously snail-like career with a 146-minute meditation on the eventual fate of the whipped horse that Friedrich Nietzsche hugged in the street just before going mad from syphilis. This death rattle is a black-and-white beauty, beyond Bergman parody, with a wind that pounds sand into the grimacing faces of the two doomed peasants who own the dirt-caked plow animal. There is a recognition that all life will be snuffed by darkness. There are several minutes of a woman just looking at potatoes. There are two positions you can take on this. “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes,” said Theodor Adorno. “Why would anybody want to watch a movie where a horse is just dying?” asked one of my passing co-workers. Why would anyone do anything?
It’d be better if: You wanted to watch a movie where everything is just dying. AARON MESH. C21, 8:15 pm Saturday and 7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 18 & 21.
Critic’s Score: 80
[ISRAEL] The academic-jealousy comedy is such a rare and delightful sighting (the last good one I can remember is Wonder Boys) that it magnifies the minor pleasures of this filial scuffle between Talmud scholars. (The dueling Shkolniks are basically the Archie and Peyton Manning of Jewish Studies, if Archie kept running back on the field during Colts games.) Joseph Cedar’s direction has the fluid ridicule of a Payne or Coen: The brothers would especially relish a scene of rabbinical sages packed into a filing room like it’s a clown car. The study in tiptoeing past obvious facts builds to two confrontations with a heavy named Grossman, a department chair with a forehead like a basket of pugs.
It’d be better if: Cedar had remembered to write a third act. The anticlimax here rivals that of the Torah. AARON MESH. WH, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 18. C21, 5 pm Sunday, Feb. 19.
SUNDAY, FEB. 19Pelotero
Critic’s Score: 72
[UNITED STATES] In the Dominican Republic, baseball players are a cash crop. Following two teenage prospects on their way to harvest—that is, the day they become eligible to sign with an American club—this doc isn’t exactly Field of Hoop Dreams. For decades, Major League Baseball treated the island like its own personal estate sale, picking up all-star talent at bargain prices. Now that young peloteros (Spanish for “ballplayers”) are finally wising up to their actual worth, teams are devising more creative ways to take advantage of their economic desperation. Devoid of much “for the love of the game” sentimentality, Pelotero is less inspiring sports doc than geopolitical allegory, presenting pro ball as not much different from America’s other favorite pastime: exploiting impoverished nations for their natural resources.
It’d be better if: It delved more into the subjects’ daily lives. Poverty is the backdrop, but it should be in the foreground. MATTHEW SINGER. WH, 2:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 19.
Critic’s Score: 47
[IRAQ] There are two narratives running through the post-war Iraqi drama Qarantina. One revolves around a family enduring constant abuse at the fists of its patriarch. The other involves a hit man whose crisis of self leads him back to the university and friends he left behind (some of whom he also wants to murder). Conveniently, these lives are connected, since the hit man is lodging with the family. What we get, then, is two clichéd, half-baked movies in one, both so enamored with depicting sorrow that nothing else—characters and motivations included—seems to matter.
It’d be better if: The hit man and his college buddies decided to lay down their guns and finally take that spring-break trip to Cancun. AP KRYZA. LM, 2:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 19.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Critic’s Score: 95
[TURKEY] If there’s any justice, this is the festival picture that will leave Portland awed and arguing. As the title hints, it’s a kind of western: A small-town posse (police chief, prosecutor, stenographer and coroner) drive by night through the Turkish steppe, trying to illuminate the shallow grave where a confessed murderer dropped his victim. Cannes darling Nuri Bilge Ceylan zooms toward his actors’ weathered, warped faces for Leone-iconic close-ups, but the showdowns are all internal. There’s a holy moment at the film’s center, with a candle revealing buried souls, but at dawn comes a grappling with how much truth any man should be forced to see before it stains him permanently. A monumental achievement.
It’d be better if: The subtitles offered more nuanced summary of the night’s stream of conversation. AARON MESH. C21, 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 19.
MONDAY, FEB. 20El Sicaro, Room 164
Critic’s Score: 76
[UNITED STATES] The most terrifying type of documentary: Director Gianfranco Rosi can simply point a microphone and a camera at his subject and make your blood curdle. Said subject is a black-veiled Mexican cartel hit man claiming responsibility for some 200 murders in two decades. He is filmed sitting in a hotel room, sketching his history coldly in a book as he describes scenes of mass murder like a high school football coach outlining a new play. Just a killer talking about his job like any other working stiff. The stoicism is jarring, the claustrophobic setting a vise. When the killer’s voice breaks while describing the sensation of strangling innocent women, it’s utterly suffocating.
It’d be better if: It weren’t real. AP KRYZA. C21, 12:45 pm Monday, Feb. 20.
Critic’s Score: 72
[RUSSIA] Class division is omnipresent in Russian cinema, but Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena excels in finding a unique intersection between the rich and working class. The film focuses on its titular character (the powerful Nadezhda Markina), a former nurse whose marriage to wealthy Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) is more indentured servitude than marital bliss. Love is there, but understanding is not. When Vladimir suffers a heart attack and decides to re-tool his will to prevent Elena from financially aiding her troubled grandson, she is faced with a daunting moral conundrum. This is a drama of quiet grief that succeeds due to its sympathetic performances and overarching sense of uncertainty.
It’d be better if: Philip Glass’ stabbing, Bernard Herrmann-inspired score was more present. AP KRYZA. CM, 5:15 pm Monday, Feb. 20.
Critic’s Score: 24
[ROMANIA] Director and star Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) deserves credit: Only a filmmaker wholly committed to his storytelling style could mold the tale of a mentally unstable man balancing his dull life with multiple murders into such an overlong, pretentious and dull effort. We watch Puiu walk around, take a shower, clean his apartment, go shopping, sit at his desk, kill a guy, walk around, talk to his kid, visit his mom, walk around, kill a couple, wander, visit a friend and talk to some cops. For three hours. This is part two of a planned six-part series that will become essential viewing for insomnia patients.
It’d be better if: It were 140 minutes shorter. AP KRYZA. LM, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 20.
TUESDAY, FEB. 21Life Without Principle
Critic’s Score: 71
[HONG KONG] Who’d like the global economic meltdown to feel more like an ’80s erotic thriller? Yeah, me too. So would bullet-symphony conductor Johnnie To (Triad Election, Vengeance), who has made a financial message movie that bemoans bank speculation and investor greed—until it gets distracted by the slaying of a loan shark with a greasy comb-over. It’s brassily lurid and characteristically overblown (the title pun could be Unnatural Interest or Toxic Assets), but that’s also its virtue: Instead of pious speeches about how “this country used to make things,” we get a broker screaming at the stock market to keep dropping, while he clutches the bejeweled fire poker stabbed through his heart.
It’d be better if: The soundtrack was all synth and Mario dying sounds. AARON MESH. LM, 6:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 21.