THIRTY-FIVE YEARS after its founding, the Northwest Film Center's Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) is looking younger than ever. The festival, which has been accused in the past (and more than a few times by this very paper) of blandly catering to an older demographic, has released a schedule of programming with a significant representation of films about, and appealing to, young people. Likewise, the festival boasts over 20 films by first-time feature filmmakers—which, hopefully, is less the hallmark of a well-established festival than evidence of a newfound experimental identity.
Either way, if you tend to write PIFF off based on stodgy stereotype, this is the year to plug back in—especially thanks to grandma-discouraging bonuses like the late-night PIFF After Dark series programmed by the Grindhouse Film Festival's Dan Halsted, which features films like the acclaimed Norwegian thriller Headhunters, the jarringly creepy British hitman movie Kill List, and the Hong Kong action flick Let the Bullets Fly.
Each year, our crew of Mercury film critics tackles as many PIFF films as humanly possible, ferreting out the slam dunks, hidden gems, and over-hyped selections in a programming catalog that can feel like a crapshoot. Not all films were screened for critics, but here are a few mini-reviews to get started; also see Film Shorts, blogtown.portlandmercury.com, and upcoming issues of the Mercury for our ongoing coverage. And for complete listings of the festival's 93 features and 46 short films, go to nwfilm.org.
• Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is this year's opening-night film, and it's easy to see why. Directed by Lasse Hallström and based on a bestselling novel by Paul Torday, its inoffensive tale of a wise but eccentric Arab sheik's quest to import salmon to his Yemeni homeland is exotic but uncontroversial, at least to Western audiences. Kristin Scott Thomas shines as a multitasking PR powerhouse, but the poor chemistry of leads Emily Blunt and Ewan MacGregor renders central plotlines bloodless. Thurs Feb 9, 7:30 pm, Newmark Theatre
• Declaration of War flirts, at moments, with the idea of becoming a musical in its overly melodramatic but ultimately triumphant portrait of an attractive, hip young couple's fight against their baby's life-threatening illness. Directed by Frenchwoman Valérie Donzelli, it cuts close to the skin with dashes of wit, heartbreak, resolve, and cathartic destruction. Fri Feb 10, 8:30 pm, Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium
• Breathing is a misleadingly bleak Austrian portrait of a teenage boy whose entire life has been spent in orphanages and juvenile detention. Slow burning and quirkily sentimental, we follow Roman's coming of age via a job transporting corpses for the city morgue. Fri Feb 10, 6:15 pm, Lloyd Mall 6; Sun Feb 12, 8 pm, Cinemagic; Tues Feb 14, 6 pm, Lake Twin Cinema
• Whores' Glory is a chilling, intimate look at the lives of prostitutes in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico from Austrian director Michael Glawogger. Surprisingly unguarded interviews with these women (and girls) are an education in the necessities, emotional bonds, and humor that shapes their lives. Too bad the Western soundtrack, featuring Tricky and PJ Harvey, is a distracting cultural clash. Thurs Feb 23, 8:15 pm, Cinema 21
• King of Devil's Island is based on the true, dark tale of Norway's sinister school for wayward boys, Bastøy Boys' Home, which underwent a violent rebellion when rampant abuse and nightmarish conditions brought its inmate-students to a breaking point. Tense, grim, and disturbing, Norway's Marius Holst channels a touch of Lord of the Flies into his twisted tale starring Stellan Skarsgård. Sat Feb 11, 8:30 pm, World Trade Center Theater; Mon Feb 13, 6 pm, Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium