The 26th annual Reel Music series runs through February 1 at the Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium. Not all films were screened for critics. For more info, see Film this issue, or hit nwfilm.org.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
A doc about Anvil, the "demigods of Canadian metal."
Bob Marley: Exodus '77
See Film, this issue.
Christmas on Mars
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
A doc about minimalist composer Philip Glass.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life
Steven Sebring's dreamy little film claims no allegiance to consistency: At times black and white, at times in color, it meanders among anecdotes, old photographs, spoken word, remembrances of long-dead friends like Robert Mapplethorpe and William Burroughs, excerpts from live shows, and images from Patti Smith's touring and home lives. There's no particular narrative here, save that of a woman moving through time—and whether she is surrounded by people, joking and laughing, or alone in a graveyard, feeding a stray cat bits of a sandwich she found in her pocket, Sebring presents exactly the vision of Smith that fans both hope for and expect. ALISON HALLETT
Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice
She dated Elvis, but more importantly, Wanda Jackson was the first female rockabilly singer, back in the day when rockabilly was simply called rock 'n' roll. Her cat-in-heat growl and undeniable early records spurred a meteoric rise, which leveled off quickly, although she's still cherished by rockabilly fetishists worldwide. This documentary—which includes interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Lemmy Kilmister, and Jackson herself—is pleasant but not particularly gripping due to its lack of typical rock star drama; in later years Jackson found Jesus, and the music got worse. Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice shows that, all in all, this old lady is entirely sweet. NED LANNAMANN
Throw Down Your Heart
See Film, this issue.
The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee "Scratch" Perry
Bedtime Stories is terrible. The promotional screening I attended was full of adults wearing footie pajamas; apparently, this was condoned and encouraged by the studio that made this movie. So I kind of hated it before it started, and then it started, and then I hated it more. LOGAN SACHON Broadway Metroplex, Various Theaters.
Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway play two best friends who've accidentally scheduled their weddings on the same day! OH NOES! Shockingly, this thing wasn't screened in time for press; hit portlandmercury.com on Friday, January 9 for our review. Various Theaters.
By day, sex addict Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) slaps on a goofy wig and works at a town that recreates what life was like for 18th century colonists; by night, he goes to restaurants, intentionally chokes on food, and takes financial advantage of whatever good Samaritan/sucker Heimlichs him. While Choke is fun, and while it thankfully retains Chuck Palahniuk's cynical, self-deprecating, hyper-testosteroned tone (this is, after all, the sort of film where heart-to-heart conversations are had over illicit handjobs), it also comes across as a bit self-satisfied, a bit too straightforward, and a bit overly neat. ERIK HENRIKSEN Laurelhurst Theater.
A Christmas Tale
It's fitting that France, the country that gave the world existentialism and Gauloises, should turn out a holiday family drama almost completely bereft of good cheer. Set in the days immediately preceding Christmas, A Christmas Tale takes a close look at a family that isn't so much dysfunctional, as it functions by a set of rules entirely its own. The film can be confusing, and few of its various plotlines resolve in any traditional sense, but as a clear-eyed picture of a contemporary family, it's an engaging, surprisingly funny success. ALISON HALLETT Hollywood Theatre.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
David Fincher movies are worth getting excited about. Sure, he's had his misfires—Panic Room, that Alien 3 business—but c'mon: Seven. Zodiac. Fight Club. Scrupulous, poised, and with a masterful control of tone, you'd think he'd be the perfect director for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which the titular character ages in reverse, starting life as a blind, deaf troll and gradually growing into the charming, handsome Brad Pitt. It's equal parts fantasy and drama, and at points, you can see Fincher's hand with moments that are surreal, strange, and heart-stoppingly sad. But the rest of the film... well, the rest of the film feels a lot like Forrest Gump, complete with goofy plot devices and banal cliches. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various Theaters.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
1951's original The Day the Earth Stood Still was a cynical, hardnosed tale: A friendly space hippie, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), and his robot buddy, Gort, warned humanity that if we didn't stop killing each other, the civilized races of the galaxy were gonna eliminate us out of self-defense. In 2008, Klaatu (an appropriately blank Keanu Reeves) and Gort... well, don't do much of anything, really. Here, humanity's destruction is already more or less a sure thing, but for different reasons: In 1951, America's fears were atomic bombs and pinko commie bastards; now, the environment is in shitty enough shape that Klaatu's become a sort of extraterrestrial Captain Planet, angry enough at our treatment of Earth that he's willing to scrub us off of it. It's not a bad idea for an update, and the first hour or so is solid—weird, silly, smart, and only occasionally nonsensical—but then the CG goes kinda overboard, and things get kinda boring. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various Theaters.
Doubt is not subtle. Despite the fact the film—which features a Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who (surprise!) may or may not have a boner for altar boys—is about deeds that go unsaid and beliefs that go unproven, it insists on holding your hand, guiding your eye, and, occasionally, smacking you over the head. This is strange, because playwright John Patrick Shanley's play, on which the film is based, favors the opposite tactic: Unsettling and ominous, Shanley's script leaves plenty of room for uncomfortable interpretation. But the film—which Shanley directs with all the nuance of a vaudeville act—seems built mostly for the purpose of begging for Oscars. It also earnestly attempts to reintroduce the oft-parodied gimmick—last seen in the Hammer horror films of the '50s and '60s—of thunder dramatically crashing whenever there's a Very Important Line of Dialogue. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various Theaters.
As with many dramatizations of events whose outcome is known, Frost/Nixon's version of the 1977 televised interviews between Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and David Frost (Michael Sheen) is interesting more for its window on a bygone era than for any inherent dramatic conflict. The film's most successful in its humanization of Nixon, fleshing out the "I am not a crook" caricature that, for many of us, is our only understanding of our 37th president. It's important, though, not to mistake fiction for fact: Playwright Morgan has stated that he took liberties with the historical record in order to create a compelling narrative. As a historical fiction, then, Frost/Nixon contributes much to an empathetic understanding of history, if not to a factual one. ALISON HALLETT Various Theaters.
"I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day." Laurelhurst Theater.
Poppy is the kind of irrepressibly chipper person who attempts to start conversations with random strangers; when they act standoffish, she says things like, "I won't bite!" When her bicycle is stolen, she merely laments she didn't have a chance to say good-bye to it. In short, she's the kind of person who is so goddamn cheerful you'd like to smack her in the face. But something happens over the course of Happy-Go-Lucky: Poppy wins you over. Poppy's happiness is something of a mystery; both her sisters are miserable, and her flatmate is snide and sarcastic. But Sally Hawkins' remarkable performance doesn't hit one false note. British director Mike Leigh improvises extensively with his actors before writing a script, and the film, as with all his work, feels spontaneous and true. NED LANNAMANN Various Theaters.
I've Loved You So Long
Kristin Scott Thomas gives the performance of the year as a woman just released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence for killing her own son. Upon her release, the watchful, withdrawn (and murderous?) Juliette moves in with her sister, a virtual stranger, and the two develop a tentative friendship. The ending is a letdown, but that's a small complaint in an otherwise sensitive and moving film. ALISON HALLETT Fox Tower 10.
JCVD is as wildly entertaining and daring as cinema comes, and that's something you don't necessarily associate with the train-wrecked career of the weathered action star. The premise: Jean-Claude Van Damme (played, appropriately enough, by Jean-Claude Van Damme) stumbles into a robbery and accidentally becomes the most famous hostage ever, kicking off a surreal journey into the wounded psyche of its namesake. JCVD joyfully dissects the global celebrity obsession and the awkward downfall of Van Damme's career (a running plot point involves him losing acting roles to Steven Seagal—who is now, apparently, willing to cut off his ponytail in order to steal his rival's parts), all the while flipping the tired genre of action films on its ear. EZRA ACE CARAEFF Laurelhurst Theater, Living Room Theaters.
Let the Right One In
This much-ballyhooed Scandinavian film is neither scary, teen angsty, nor spooky enough—but it is lovely, filled with austere, blue-hued snow and groves of haunting birch trees in the midst of Stockholm. And while Let the Right One In is by no means a poor entry in the vampire genre, it left me nearly as cold as the frozen landscapes, meting out little satisfaction on either a horror level or a character level. To be fair, the film doesn't pretend to scare you—it truly wants to succeed in an elegant, understated way, though it doesn't completely reach its goal. COURTNEY FERGUSON Living Room Theaters.
Marley & Me
Yes, the dog dies. MARJORIE SKINNER Various Theaters.
For a generation of gay and straight people who equate pride parades with binge drinking, whose gay heroes include Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper (he's gay, right?), and whose gay rights movement has just started, Gus Van Sant's fleshing out the story of gay politician and activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) in such a moving and humane way is as invaluable as the words Milk would bark through bullhorns. Sure, Van Sant can't resist putting in some treacly, melodramatic scenes that unfortunately stick out, but for the most part, Milk's story is simply real, which makes it that much more powerful and relevant. AMY J. RUIZ Various Theaters.
Not Easily Broken
A drama about a married couple dealing with the aftermath of a car crash, in which the wife is injured and the husband becomes attracted to another woman. Not screened in time for press. < a href=http://www.portlandmercury.com/portland/century_clackamas_town_center/Location?oid=783680>Century Clackamas Town Center.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
You may have thought you were paying attention to world news by closely following the American invasion of Iraq during the early '00s, but even if you did take a break to peruse another violence—that of the brutal Liberian civil war—you most likely still did not hear of the massive women's movement that enabled the peace talks that exiled evil dictator Charles Taylor. Pray the Devil Back to Hell tells that story, a film that begins like another one to file under "Africa is fucked," but is actually a tremendous testament to how powerful it is when nonviolent protest is effective. I only wish the trick to that effectiveness didn't seem to be having nothing left to lose. Screens as a benefit for West African arts organization Sébé Kan and POW Fest. MARJORIE SKINNER
Rachel Getting Married
Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is indeed getting married, but it's her sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway)—an ex-model, lifelong drug addict, and alcoholic who's been in and out of institutions since causing a family tragedy as a young teenager—who demands to be the center of attention. Jonathan Demme's latest is a difficult, sometimes tiresome film, but it's also emotionally ambitious, and it offers a modern portrait of family life that depends very little on convention. MARJORIE SKINNER Hollywood Theatre.
Kate Winslet is so dead set on winning an Oscar this year that she stacked the odds in her favor by virtue of sheer quantity. If the soon-to-hit-Portland Revolutionary Road doesn't do the trick, The Reader acts as a kind of B-string backup during this season of Extremely Weighty Filmmaking. But for all of its signifiers of substance (Hello again, Holocaust!), arty credibility (What up, Ralph Fiennes?), and Winslet's renunciation of Hollywood glamour in allowing herself to appear old and ugly, The Reader is at an odd, distant remove from its audience—failing to spark the emotional investment necessary to succeed. MARJORIE SKINNER Various Theaters.
See review. Fox Tower 10.
In a season overstuffed with Holocaust films, A Secret distinguishes itself by focusing on a French Jewish family who escaped the Nazis, and not in a particularly dangerous or dramatic fashion. A Secret, starring French homme du jour Mathieu Amalric, is more concerned with the living than the dead, and in particular the ways that secrecy and deception—required of Jews who would survive the Nazi occupation—affected relationships and families. The story, framed through a 15-year-old learning of his parents' experiences during World War II, is engagingly told as though a reverse flashback, with the past in vivid color and the present in dreary blacks and grays. ALISON HALLETT Hollywood Theatre.
The latest joint venture between director Gabriele Muccino and actor Will Smith, who also collaborated on The Pursuit of Happyness. As expected, Seven Pounds is another grand morality play in which Smith—here as a man named Ben Thomas—perseveres through great challenges with fortitude and strength of character. The problem is that while some may have been annoyed by the melodrama of Happyness, it was pretty unassailable on the morality front. Pounds' moral preaching, on the other hand, is kinda twisted, yet it's delivered up on the same kind of redemptive platter—swelling music, tears, and all. MARJORIE SKINNER Various Theaters.
A frantic, decade-spanning melodrama/romance/comedy, the latest from director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing if not overwhelming. Sometimes Slumdog Millionaire feels crassly exploitative—like a guilt-inducing parade of everything terrible that impoverished children in peril have to endure—but often it's nothing short of fucking exhilarating, a pounding, pulsing, urgent rush that jumpstarts endorphins and adrenalin. There are scenes of torture and abuse and murder alongside giddy triumphs of comedy and heart (not to mention a Bollywood-inspired dance number), and as Slumdog careens along as both a harsh drama and a hammy crowd-pleaser, it's tempting to write it off as a bit of not-particularly-subtle manipulation. But ultimately, one realizes that Boyle deeply cares about these characters—and that sympathetic core is the reason why the film is consistently, utterly, beautifully gripping. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various Theaters.
Among the comic book faithful, Will Eisner is practically a messiah—and perhaps rightfully so. As creator of The Spirit, Eisner laid the groundwork for nearly all of what's considered to be the modern comic form, from innovative graphic design to serialized storytelling. However, while fun enough for a cursory flip-though, the classic Spirit comics just don't have much to offer the modern casual comic reader—and, as it turns out, neither does Frank Miller's film version. It's boring from minute one, and even set pieces like Samuel L. Jackson goose-stepping around in a Nazi uniform confuse more than entertain. WM.™ STEVEN HUMPHREY Various Theaters.
Sukiyaki Western Django
Cartoony, funny, badass, and entirely inscrutable, Japanese director Takashi Miike's latest is all sorts of fantastic. A Japanese spaghetti western, Sukiyaki Western Django can probably best be described as Miike channeling Sergio Leone and throwing some Chuck Jones and Quentin Tarantino into the mix—and literally with the Tarantino part, since Miike's pal Quentin gleefully hams it up as a sukiyaki-eating gunfighter. ERIK HENRIKSEN Clinton Street Theater.
Tell No One
Eight years after losing his wife in the woods to a mysterious serial killer (no, not Jason Vorhees), a still-grieving pediatrician begins to receive emails hinting that the tragedy might not be as random as originally thought. Adapting a novel by US airport bookstore staple Harlen Coben, writer/director Guillaume Canet's confident, almost irritatingly taut thriller wastes no time in cranking the paranoia up to 11. The sheer amount of red herrings can be difficult to wade through at times, but Canet's sense of style makes even the more head-scratching moments enjoyable. A gratifyingly nasty whodunit with a healthy sense of its own absurdities. ANDREW WRIGHT Various Theaters.
A doc about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Not screened for critics. Hollywood Theatre.
Twilight introduces the floridly named high schooler Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart), who has just moved to a small town in Washington. The local boys are all over this hottie newcomer, but Bella finds herself drawn to the mysterious Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson, he of the Heathcliff glower and untamed eyebrows). At first Bella thinks Edward hates her, but it turns out he's only feigning indifference because he's a vampire, and wants to drink her. Edward is so drawn to the smell of Bella's blood that he can hardly control himself, but he also loooves her, so he knows he should keep his distance. Throw in some evil vampires who want to kill Bella, and it's all very romantic and tragic. (Alternately, it's an insidious parable about the dangers of premarital sex—but that's only my, er, humorless feminist interpretation.) For all the silliness of the storyline, Twilight makes a far better movie than book: Largely freed from author Stephenie Meyer's ponderous prose, the movie is surprisingly campy and fun, with a cheerful sense of humor about its own ridiculousness. ALISON HALLETT Various Theaters.
Wha? A crappy looking horror flick that wasn't screened for critics? Why, I never.... Various Theaters.
You know, for all his flaws—that "celebrity spokesperson for a cult" thing, his creepy marriage to Katie Holmes, that weird, arrogant-but-eager-to-please look he always has during interviews—I still kinda like Tom Cruise. As a person, the dude's 50 different types of insane, but as movie stars go? He's not half bad. Likewise, I can't say I'm a huge fan of Claus von Stauffenberg, the Nazi colonel Cruise plays in the based-on-a-true-story Valkyrie. I mean, von Stauffenberg was a Nazi, for chrissakes! But as Nazis go? Not half bad! I mean, he totally tried to kill Hitler! And he had a sweet eyepatch! ERIK HENRIKSEN Various Theaters.
Wendy and Lucy
Wendy and Lucy is not easy to watch. The follow-up to director Kelly Reichardt's critically adored Old Joy, it also takes the Pacific Northwest as its setting—this time a dingy, unnamed Oregon town where protagonist Wendy (Michelle Williams) is waylaid on her journey from Indiana to Alaska. Supremely under-funded, all Wendy has is a crappy Honda Accord, a small pile of quickly dwindling dollar bills, and her dog, Lucy. Reichardt's film could almost be called unkind as it slowly drags the viewer through the tedious realism of Wendy's worsening situation: her car breaks down, she gets busted shoplifting, and most anxiety-producing of all, Lucy goes missing. So we shift uncomfortably in our seats as we're made privy to the harsh lights of gas station bathrooms where Wendy gives herself bum-baths, long, cold, merciless shots of lost and orphaned dogs at the pound, and the furrow of Wendy's brow as she balances pragmatism and panic in the face of mounting car expenses. MARJORIE SKINNER Cinema 21, Hollywood Theatre.
Yes Man isn't good, per se, but it's also not nearly as terrible as you'd think. It also offers a couple of interesting questions for discussion: When, exactly, did Jim Carrey get that weird, haunted look about him—the one that's both vaguely desperate and smarmy? Is this movie promoting some sort of cult? And why does Zooey Deschanel have such a terrible agent? Oh, and another one: Remember that episode of Seinfeld where George does the exact opposite of what his instincts tell him? Good, because that's Yes Man's plot, but with Jim Carrey playing George. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various Theaters.