No subject should be off-limits for filmmakers willing to take a plunge. The degree of difficulty, however, tends to increase sharply with the weightiness of the premise. Dark Night takes an extremely provocative topic—a seemingly random mass shooting—and applies a heavy layer of arty artlessness to the material. Despite a number of striking images (Hélène Louvart’s camerawork is never less than severely beautiful), it rarely feels like it’s been thought through enough to really jell.
Okay, quick show of hands: Has sitting in the dark and temporarily saying goodbye to reality ever seemed like a better idea? Whatever your leanings may be, the Northwest Film Center’s 40th Annual Portland International Film Festival has you more than covered. Featuring over 160 features and shorts, this year’s PIFF lineup offers healthy, yuge doses of compelling fiction, strange facts, and pure escapism.
The positives begin on opening tight, with the terrific Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
In movies about relationships, the small details need to ring true. Emily, the feature length debut from director Ryan Graves, takes a tiny-by-design story and earnestly goes deep, exploring the destructive impulses, badly timed stabs at nobility, and increasingly mixed signals of a couple on the brink. Without showy declarations of intent or roof-raising histrionics, it captures how people can be perfect together, until they aren’t.
Visually depicting sightlessness is a tough task for even the most inventive of moviemakers. (Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue, in which Tilda Swinton and others talk over a hypnotically static shade of the title color, remains the experimental gold standard.) The re-created documentary Notes on Blindness takes a distinctly proactive approach to this dilemma, utilizing a steady array of clever effects to depict the rapidly deteriorating vision of its subject. While the film’s other device of having actors lip-synch from existing tape recordings may seem clunky in theory, the sounds and images come together beautifully in practice.
Paul Verhoeven’s American phase was too nasty to last, really, with movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers giving the audience what they initially thought they wanted, and then cranking up the vulgarity to hysterically uncomfortable levels. (Even Hollow Man, the Dutch director’s weakest project, had a main character who pervs out immediately upon receiving superpowers.) Verhoeven’s films outside of the states, however, tend to swap the 2×4 for a stiletto. Elle, his first feature since 2006’s Black Book, is a breathtakingly twisted piece of work, utilizing a tremendous central performance by Isabelle Huppert that bridges some markedly taboo fault lines concerning power and sexuality. And somehow the damned thing is also funny, usually at the least opportune moments.
Watching people simply go about their business can somehow be one of the most fascinating things in the movies. The Berlin Award–winning Ixcanul (Volcano), Guatemala’s entry for last year’s Oscars, is an absorbing, unpretentious look at a culture not often shown, whether capturing how the characters can carry a forest’s worth of firewood on their heads without missing a step, or witnessing them getting their pigs drunk on rum in hopes of speeding up the mating season. By the time someone nonchalantly remarks on the unpleasant smell of their snake repellant, the sense of transportation is complete.
Watching another culture’s horror movies can provide a fascinating glimpse into what makes them collectively tick. The Polish Demon offers an intriguing, deceptively comedic spin on the dybbuk legend, while also exploring an unthinkable whopper of a party foul. While the second half’s tendency towards small-scale conversations may occasionally betray the script’s origin on the stage, late director/co-writer Marcin Wrona’s talent for whipping up barely contained group hysteria is really something special.
American Honey, the first movie set in the States by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank), finds the director working with some fairly ludicrous self-imposed hindrances: a largely untrained cast, Shia LaBeouf at his most methody-bedraggled, and a nearly three-hour running time. That she makes these all meld together beautifully feels like some kind of weird alchemy, really.
As we slide into the late-summer multiplex doldrums, movies with neurons to spare are especially welcome. The clinical cautionary tale Morgan happily fits into the latter category, moving past some early familiarity to become a smart, sneakily ambitious thriller.
Set in the not too distant future, the story follows a no-nonsense corporate troubleshooter (Kate Mara) sent to a secluded forest compound to assess the status of a rapidly developing artificial humanoid (The Witch’s terrifically spooky Anya Taylor-Joy). As she and the swiftly dwindling team of scientists—including Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a perfectly assholish Paul Giamatti—soon discover, the experiment has some significant gray areas.
The trend towards perpetual remakes and reboots is a growing pox upon Hollywood. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, someone taking another crack at Ben-Hur isn’t the worst idea in the world. Although William Wyler’s 1959 Oscar magnet (itself a remake) certainly has its gargantuan virtues, it also features more padding than any unimpeachable classic can be expected to bear.
While this new version tightens things up, it unfortunately suffers from both a curiously passive central character and the faith-based dramatic flattening that seems to be a hallmark of producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. (Jesus, a compellingly enigmatic, barely glimpsed agent of change in other versions of the story, is a bit of a screen hog here.) The plot still has enough juice to work, but only just.
Spy movies come preloaded with expectations, promising many scenes of shadowy people doing shadowy things. The historical thriller Anthropoid thankfully knows the trappings of its genre well, telling a compelling, unexpectedly moving story that’s rife with secret knocks, signal mirrors, and hastily decoded messages.
Based on true events (the ungainly mouthful of a title is explained early), the plot follows two soldiers (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) who air-drop into Czechoslovakia in 1941 with orders to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the aptly nicknamed Butcher of Prague. As they make contact with the local resistance and attempt to shadow their target’s movements, they must also come to grips with the fact that their various plans are distinctly lacking in exit strategies.
Dear Lord, that voice. Any proper appreciation of Michael Ironside should begin with that voice, which fashions an entire Home Depot’s worth of gravel into something iconic and shivery, on-camera or off. (If DC doesn’t get him to reprise his animated role as Darkseid for live action, they’ll be making, well, yet another huge mistake.) Ironside’s supreme command of that infernal timbre makes him an invaluable character actor: Even when the movie is dreck—stand up and wave hello to the nice people, Highlander 2: The Quickening—Ironside can always be counted on to bring it. Just as he can be counted on to bring it to Portland this Saturday, for a screening of Scanners, with the Man Himself in attendance.
YouTube is bursting at the seams with horror shorts, the vast majority of which traffic in the same old jump scares and photoshopped demon faces. David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out, however, managed to distinguish itself from the lurching masses, brilliantly capitalizing on its limitations to present one indelibly shivery concept: namely, a silhouette that creeps closer whenever the lights go off. The James Wan-produced feature-length expansion can’t match the compressed primal frisson of the original, but it contains more than enough flickeringly lit yelps to justify its existence. How many variations can be successfully run on the same gag? Quite a few, as it turns out.
It may be impossible to completely screw up an undercover cop movie, with the very nature of the premise guaranteeing some vicarious hopscotching over the morality line. Judged on plot alone, The Infiltrator is a solid, mid-level walk on the seedy side, with enough based-on-fact dirty business to hold the interest. When you factor in a terrific-even-for-him lead performance by Bryan Cranston, however, it zooms up the ranks into something well worth leaving the couch for.
Few filmmakers had a more direct line to the viewer’s gag reflex than the late Lucio Fulci, who spent his entire career devising new ways to show people being taken apart. A Cat in the Brain (1990) may not be Fulci’s defining work—that most likely remains the Lovecraftian brain muncher The Beyond (1981)—but it may well be his most interesting. An ersatz 8½ with chain saws, it takes a deeply ambivalent look at the director’s films and methods, without skimping on any of the grody stuff that made him famous. Warning: The title is not just a metaphor.