It’s a dismal time of year. February is a dark, soggy slog—especially at the multiplex. It’s a perfect time, though, for snuggling into a seat in a cozy arthouse theater to watch something dark and alien.
Which seems to be the approach of this year’s Portland International Film Festival. Even the opening-night films on Thursday, Feb. 6, have overtones of melancholy and gloom: The Wind Rises (showing at both Cinema 21 and OMSI) is likely to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, and the British period drama Belle (screening at the Whitsell), for all its 18th-century luxury, takes slavery as its subject.
Beyond that, this year marks the return of PIFF After Dark, midnight-movie programming that tends toward the sinister and savage. And it doesn’t stop there: The rest of the schedule crawls with creepy Italian assassins, bodies going up in flames, mutilated corpses dangling from bridges, leering Nazi doctors, decapitated Scottish queens, bad teeth, murder in the Galapagos, escaped convicts, tombstone collectors and hellish traffic jams. Oh, and a mummified Marshal Tito.
Know what, though? Things might have gone dark, but they also look pretty good. Here’s what we found for Week One.
Critic’s Grade: B [POLAND] Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Aftermath tracks the tension between two brothers in rural Poland. After their father dies, elder brother Franek returns from America to reunite with the younger, Jozef, whom the villagers have deemed insane thanks to his collection of tombstones. Specifically, the tombstones of Jews murdered during the war, whose grave markers were repurposed as roadways. Jozef takes it upon himself to create a proper cemetery, but with each stone he uncovers more secrets about his town’s history—secrets that put him into violent conflict with his neighbors. Aftermath is a horror story at heart (and a fact-inspired one), but the monsters here are the legacies of evil embedded in the very fabric of a community. AP KRYZA. C21, 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. FT, 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11.
The Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas
Critic’s Grade: D [FRANCE] A young baron has stolen two steeds from horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas, and it’s up to Kohlhaas to get his fillies back and restore justice for the little people. On its face, The Age of Uprising has the potential to be an action-packed 16th-century revenge romp through the French countryside. After all, star Mads Mikkelsen (of NBC’s Hannibal) starts a peasant uprising with a broadsword across his back and his well-scruffed face radiating vengeance. Instead, the clouds above the beautifully shot green landscapes move faster than the plot. Arnaud des Pallières’ adaptation of this 1811 German novella is so plodding that by the end you don’t care who lives or dies, just that it be over. Except for the horses. You always have to root for the horses. ANDREA DAMEWOOD. C21, 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. CM, 8:30 pm Monday, Feb. 10.
Critic’s Grade: B+ [SPAIN] The Apostle is a wonderfully macabre blend of religious horror and biting satire, brought to life through glorious stop-motion animation. The very adult tale follows escaped thief Ramon, who disguises himself as a pilgrim on the road to Santiago to track down jewels his former cellmate claims he stashed in an elderly woman’s house. The instant Ramon rolls into town, though, it’s apparent from the grotesque locals, who seethe evil underneath their facade of hospitality, that something more sinister is in store. Based on artistic merit alone, The Apostle is a triumph, mixing eerie gothic artwork and creepy religious iconography with old-school stop-motion punctuated by an atypically chaotic Philip Glass score. While the story occasionally slows, this remains a decidedly dark and wholly original fairy tale. AP KRYZA. FT, 1 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. C21, 8:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 19.
Critic’s Grade: B
[THE NETHERLANDS] Chaos reigns in this unsettling, spellbinding story
of warped class warfare. Infiltrating an affluent family’s home by
posing as a servant, a vagabond bogeyman named Borgman (Jan Bijvoet)
soon proves the household’s undoing. Impish and malevolent, he corrupts
their dreams while transforming their waking world into the stuff of
nightmares, with the body count rising and the property increasingly
infested with malicious rogues. The pitch-black moments of comedy
perfectly complement the film’s dark impulses, and director Alex van
Warmerdam gleans much perverse pleasure from the surreal mayhem. You’ll
feel an overwhelming compulsion to laugh at the villains’ ingenious,
artful and extremely cinematic disposal of their victims—at one point,
they dip their heads in cement and leave them swaying underwater like
macabre aquarium ornaments. CURTIS WOLOSCHUK. C21, midnight Friday, Feb. 7.
The Butterfly’s Dream
Critic’s Grade: B- [TURKEY] A friend who lived in Turkey once described the country’s films as either “extremely maudlin or incredibly depressing.” The Butterfly’s Dream manages both. It’s based on a true story of two poor, aspiring poets with tuberculosis who fall for the same wealthy girl in the early years of World War II. The pair scheme to win her heart, compete to see their lines published and cough up blood. Despite the bleak outlook, there are moments of levity that keep the film from being a mopefest, and the costumes and cinematography truly transport. Just don’t hope for a happy ending. ANDREA DAMEWOOD. OMSI, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. C21, 5:45 pm Monday, Feb. 10.
Critic’s Grade: B [EGYPT] Sherief Elkatsha’s film offers a unique perspective on the Egyptian revolution: from the front seat of a car. The documentary starts out in 2009 as a lighthearted look at the hot mess that is Cairo’s roads—20 million people operating 14 million cars, buses, tuk-tuks, scooters and donkey carts in hair-raising organized chaos. The audience goes for a ride-along as drivers endure absurd commutes, attempt to navigate the country’s openly corrupt licensing system and endlessly honk their horns—oh, so much honking of horns. But the film takes a more serious detour when the uprising begins in 2011, police disappear from the roads and the nature of driving in the city is fundamentally changed. Not recommended for those who find traffic jams insufferable, but if you can endure the inertia, there’s a very entertaining and insightful documentary in here. RUTH BROWN. WTC, 1 pm Sunday, Feb. 9, and 9 pm Saturday, Feb. 15.
Critic’s Grade: B [ROMANIA] Romania is currently in the midst of a decadelong cinematic hot streak, and Child’s Pose won the prestigious Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. In the film, a 30-something layabout faces serious time after killing a child in a car accident, and his domineering mother can’t help but try to get him off the hook. It’s an unhealthy mother-son relationship, to say the least, and Călin Peter Netzer deftly examines loss, dependency and the delicate bonds that hold families together. As the mother, Luminiţa Gheorghiu gives what may be the best performance of PIFF—she’s restrained but powerful, breathing life and credibility into what could have been an overwrought role. MICHAEL NORDINE. WH, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. FT, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 15.
Critic’s Grade: B+ [IRAN] For the first hour or so, Closed Curtain, by embattled Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, is a movie about a man and his dog. Granted, even then it’s not that simple. An unnamed screenwriter (co-director Kambuzia Partovi) arrives home. He carries a duffel bag that turns out to contain a dog, referred to only as Boy. He draws every curtain in the house and shaves his head. Twenty minutes later, a young couple, on the run from unseen authorities, shows up at his door. It’s never clear why they’re there, or what the hell is going on. A little while after that, Panahi appears onscreen, as himself, and suddenly the film twists into a knotted, Charlie Kaufman-esque meditation on creative captivity. If the film is surreal in tone, the subject is painfully real to Panahi, who’s been banned by the Iranian government from making films. In that context, Closed Curtain—like This Is Not a Film, the 2011 chronicle of Panahi’s time under house arrest, smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive inside a birthday cake—becomes, for all its surface mundanity, an act of defiance, and a poignant rumination on artistic purgatory. If it’s a bit ponderous, that’s sort of the point. Also: best performance by a dog in the history of cinema. MATTHEW SINGER. WH, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. CM, 6 pm Wednesday, Feb. 12.
Cycling With Moliere
Critic’s Grade: B- [FRANCE] Nous parlons de pratique. That’s French for “We’re talking about practice,” a phrase coined by noted American philosopher Allen Iverson. There’s a lot of chatting about rehearsal in Cycling With Moliere—more than there is cycling, in fact. A popular soap opera actor (Lambert Wilson) travels to the Ile de Re off the coast of France to coax a prematurely retired colleague (Fabrice Luchini) to appear in a production of Molière’s The Misanthrope. It’s the role he was born to play, baby! Because he is a misanthrope, see. The two commence endlessly reading from the play (occasionally while cycling around the island), arguing over the performances, passive-aggressively flirting with an Italian divorcee and mentoring an aspiring porn actress. Mostly, it’s two middle-aged French guys hanging out and being French, which, for the intended audience, should make up for the relative shortage of bicycles. MATTHEW SINGER. CM, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 7. FT, 8:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 13.
Ernest & Celestine
Critic’s Grade: A- [FRANCE] This charming children’s film probably won’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. But with its storybook illustrations and wholesome, heartwarming story line, it’s a refreshing inclusion in a category stacked with slick DreamWorks and Pixar offerings. No oh-so-clever pop-culture references, no 3-D, no Happy Meal tie-ins, just a sweet story about an orphaned little mouse who befriends a bear. Hollywood is doing its best to change that, of course—the broader U.S. release next month will be dubbed in English with the voices of Nick Offerman and Forest Whitaker, so best take the kids to see it now in its original form. RUTH BROWN. WH, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 7. FT, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11.
Finding Vivian Maier
Critic’s Grade: A- [UNITED STATES] In our era of unparalleled self-aggrandizement, it’s difficult for us to comprehend why anyone, let alone a talented artist, might choose to keep her achievements to herself. But Vivian Maier, street photographer and Chicago nanny, did just that. When she died in 2009, penniless and alone, she left behind hundreds of thousands of negatives, as well as thousands of rolls of undeveloped film. The interviews with her former employers and child charges, while fascinating and at times disturbing, can’t hold a candle to her work, which is the real star of this documentary. The photos, particularly the self-portraits, appear on the screen like mini-revelations, flashes of genius from the best photographer you’ve probably never heard of. DEBORAH KENNEDY. WH, 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. CM, 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11.
Critic’s Grade: B- [CANADA] Gabrielle, with its story about a young woman with a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, could have been pure schmaltz. There’s not an ounce of misery to the narrative, which centers on Gabrielle’s first romantic relationship and an upcoming choral performance, and neither does writer-director Louise Archambault’s sympathetic depiction of her heroine feel condescending in the slightest. Rather than pasting a feel-good message onto the proceedings, the film favors an experiential approach that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. Unfortunately, it isn’t entirely free of sugar, and by the end loses sight of the qualities that initially made it so engaging. MICHAEL NORDINE. CM, 1 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. OMSI, 6:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 15.
The Galapagos Affair
Critic’s Grade: A- [UNITED STATES] It’s a story worthy of Agatha Christie: A heap of Europeans alight on a remote, rocky island in the Galapagos, all with their own harebrained notions of escaping the decadence of modern society and creating paradise in an exotic locale. Sexual intrigue, jealousy and betrayal flourish. Within a few years, several have disappeared under shady circumstances and others are dead, with at least one the victim of an apparent murder. This documentary recounts the deliciously pulpy events of 1934, drawing on home-movie footage from the time and an excellent voice-over cast that reads the letters and diaries of those involved, who include a Nietzsche-obsessed egomaniac and a horse-toothed, revolver-wielding baroness with a “pair of servile gigolos.” In the words of an American entomologist who often visited the island, “Go where you may, you cannot escape the problem of social adjustment.” There’s no Hercule Poirot here to piece together this still-unsolved mystery, but perhaps that’s all for the better. REBECCA JACOBSON. WTC, 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. CM, 8:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 13.
The German Doctor
Critic’s Grade: A [ARGENTINA] Lucia Puenzo’s is the creepiest coming-of-age film you’ll ever watch. Based on a true story, it follows an Argentine family that unwittingly plays host to Josef Mengele—one of the Nazis’ most heinous war criminals—during his postwar exile in South America. Twelve-year-old Lilith becomes very taken with Mengele and, unfortunately, the feeling is mutual: The doctor directs his medical curiosity toward her, to devastating effect. As Mengele, Àlex Brendemühl is thoroughly icy, and the ever-present tension between him and Lilith’s father—one man who strives for uniformity and perfection, the other who accepts human flaws—brings rich symbolism to the film. GRACE STAINBACK. C21, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 7. OMSI, 8:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 12.
The Good Road
Critic’s Grade: B [INDIA] The Good Road
is not a thoroughfare, a meeting area or an access point. It’s a
cross-section of Indian society where class and culture matter less than
mutual cooperation and respect. Seven-year-old Aditya is the son of
middle-class parents, who accidentally leave him at a distant gas
station. The hustler who owns the place sends him with Pappu, a
well-intentioned trucker who’s hauling something sketchy.
Simultaneously, Poonam, a young orphan trekking alone to her
grandmother’s, wanders into a boarding house that’s far more insidious
than it appears. The relationships are often as unclear as they are
unsteady, but the scenes of cooperation—barefoot pilgrims saving a
wealthy woman’s life—are touching. Along The Good Road, all are lost or sidetracked, until good human nature leads everyone home. MITCH LILLIE. OMSI, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 7. FT, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 8.
A Gun in Each Hand
Critic’s Grade: B+ [SPAIN] Adultery? Check. Divorce? Check. Psychotherapy? Yup. Erectile dysfunction? Yep, that too. No painful wound goes unsalted in Cesc Gay’s collection of vignettes charting the growing pains of men hitting middle age. They’ve all fallen victim to themselves and the wicked ways of love, and each story is more emasculating than the next. Together, the tales are funny, but in a self-deprecating sort of way. The evocative dialogue and superb acting by some of Spain’s best (Jordi Mollà, Eduardo Noriega, Javier Cámara) carry the film, offering a fresh look at shifting gender roles and trading the schmaltz of Hollywood love stories for soul-baring realism. GRACE STAINBACK. FT, 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. C21, 8:30 Tuesday, Feb. 11.
Critic’s Grade: B [MEXICO] As Heli opens, a mutilated corpse is strung up from a bridge, indicating the brutality to follow in Amat Escalante’s unflinching account of the collateral damage of Mexico’s drug war. Even the tenderest scene is a show of strength: a teenager lifting his fiancee as if she were a barbell. When the lovebirds’ idiotic scheme to make off with stolen cocaine predictably goes sideways, the girl’s protective older brother (Armando Espitia) endures trials that make the Stations of the Cross look like a cakewalk. However, the power of Escalante’s film comes not from its grisly carnage but rather its disturbing assertion that, when home is hell on earth, such ordeals are inevitable, and reprisals become a necessary evil. CURTIS WOLOSCHUK. CM, 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. FT, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 14.
Critic’s Grade: A [POLAND] In this black-and-white beauty from Pawel Pawlikowski, novitiate nun Anna is a week away from taking her vows when the mother superior tells her she must pay a long-overdue visit to her aunt Wanda, her sole surviving relative. Wanda, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking communist, informs Anna that her real name is Ida and that her Jewish parents were killed during the Nazi occupation. This is just the first of the surprises in store for naive Ida, who soon sets off with Wanda on a journey to find out where their family was buried. Ida is a sweet road-trip/buddy pic and a tender coming-of-age tale, while avoiding the clichéd trappings of such genres. It’s also flat-out gorgeous. DEBORAH KENNEDY. WH, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11. FT, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 16.
Critic’s Grade: C+ [SINGAPORE] Middle-class economic turmoil plays out microcosmically in Ilo Ilo, which focuses on a Singaporean family during the Asian financial crisis. Pregnant Leng types up termination letters all day at her company while Teck hides the fact that he’s been fired. Their young son, meanwhile, acts out as often as possible in response to the tensions at home. Once Filipina domestic worker Teresa enters, it’s only a matter of time before a bond forms between caretaker and child, and attendant race and class issues arise. But despite the carefully laid details, there’s just a single scene in which the sense of desperation is resonant rather than didactic: Picking up the laundry outside, Teresa is alerted to a man’s suicidal leap only when, on the swift journey down, his body disturbs a flock of birds. KRISTI MITSUDA. WH, 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. C21 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11.
Critic’s Grade: B [GREAT BRITAIN] There’s really nothing quite like self-indulgent baby boomers in hate. Toward the beginning of Le Week-End, Meg (Lindsay Duncan), the blonder half of a long-married couple on vacation in Paris, offers this assessment of her relationship with her husband, Nick (Jim Broadbent): “It’s not love. It’s like being arrested.” And in many ways that’s a perfect description of this movie from director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. It’s like being caught in the panic room that is love on its deathbed—at least until Jeff Goldblum, in the form of Nick’s old friend Morgan, arrives and does what Jeff Goldblum does best (i.e., spew slime and charm all over everyone). He also does what he can to salvage not only the movie but Nick and Meg’s marriage. He almost succeeds. DEBORAH KENNEDY. WH, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 7. C21, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 9.
Critic’s Grade: A [INDIA] The Lunchbox is set in Mumbai, where a fraternity of 5,000 men, the dabbawallahs, have been delivering hot lunches from the city’s housewives to their businessmen husbands for the past 120 years. According to a Harvard study, only one in a million lunches is delivered to the wrong person. Ritesh Batra’s charming debut feature tells the story of one such unlikely lunchbox and the even more unlikely bond that forms between an unhappy stay-at-home mother, Ila (the irresistible Nimrat Kaur), and Saajan (veteran Bollywood star Irrfan Khan), who begin a sweet exchange of notes. Batra allows the relationship to develop slowly, like an old photograph, and the tender humor adds the right amount of spice to what is already a delicious mix of melancholy and hope. DEBORAH KENNEDY. OMSI, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11. WH, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 14.
Critic’s Grade: B+ [THE NETHERLANDS] Jillian Schlesinger’s documentary follows a Dutch 14-year-old named Laura Dekker as she ventures around the globe solo on Guppy, her 40-foot sailboat. Laura knows the ins and outs of her boat, how to cook and care for herself and, most importantly, how to get where she’s going. Laura’s shaky footage of herself is cut with shots of the calm open sea, the white sandy beaches of French Polynesia, monkeys in the Galapagos and rough waters near Australia. Her independence and sense of adventure are astonishing, and what she manages to accomplish in 520 days is more than most of us do in a lifetime. SAVANNAH WASSERMAN. OMSI, 6:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. WH, 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Critic’s Grade: A- [NEPAL] For those tired of talking-head documentaries, offerings from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab—producer of previous PIFF entries Leviathan and Sweetgrass—feel like gifts from the gods. In this case, quite literally so: Manakamana focuses on trips to and from the titular Nepali temple, shrine to a Hindu goddess. The film includes 11 uninterrupted sequences, each contained within a cable car. Passenger interactions (young rockers taking selfies, women racing to consume ice cream before it melts, musicians passing time playing their instruments) and emergent patterns (the gentle swaying and creaking of the car, red clothing and green beads, exclamations about the area’s beauty) entrance. And lapses into tedium have a purposeful, lulling quality—it’s all journey here, no other destination. KRISTI MITSUDA. WTC, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8, and 3:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 15.
Mary Queen of Scots
Critic’s Grade: B- [SWITZERLAND] What would happen if Mary Queen of Scots met Roman Polanski on a foggy highland meadow? We now have the answer in director Thomas Imbach’s film about the woman who would be queen if only someone, namely her cousin Elizabeth I, would let her. Mary’s story of ascendancy and exile is full to the frilled collar with ready-made drama. Consider this description, from the movie’s blood-red promotional poster: “A queen who lost three kingdoms, a wife who lost three husbands, a woman who lost her head” (spoiler alert!). So why borrow from Polanski’s Macbeth and interrupt the action—including Mary’s first sexual encounter with her true love, the Earl of Bothwell—with shaky shots of the Scottish countryside set to discordant organ music? It seems unfair to point the finger at Scotland when it’s not here to defend itself, so I’ll just blame “art.” DEBORAH KENNEDY. OMSI, 6:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. C21, 12:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 15.
The Missing Picture
Critic’s Grade: B [CAMBODIA] Rithy Panh’s affecting documentary employs hundreds of clay figurines to tell an autobiographical story of Cambodia’s genocide of the ’70s. But this isn’t claymation—the figurines, painstakingly carved and painted, do not move. Panh, a French-Canadian director who’s made several other films about the Khmer Rouge, instead places these tiny yet haunting sculptures in elaborate dioramas of the killing fields. Alongside these tableaux, Panh splices in archival propaganda newsreels and occasionally superimposes the clay figurines into the action. Tying it all together is the preternaturally calm voice-over narration, which blends memories of horror with more abstract musings on “conquest through emptiness” and the revolutionary power of cinema. REBECCA JACOBSON. WTC, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 7, and Saturday, Feb. 15.
Critic’s Grade: A [PALESTINE] Passion becomes a weapon of war in the nail biter Omar. It’s a dystopian Romeo & Juliet set in the West Bank, except there is no Mercutio or Friar Lawrence or any friendly face to be trusted against the backdrop of an occupied, paranoid Palestine. Sensitive young baker Omar finds himself caught between manipulative Israeli authorities and his childhood friends who have, like him, become subversive freedom fighters. Omar continues to risk everything to protect his love, Nadia, despite a tangled web of secrets; the battlefield flips so often it’s difficult to track loyalties until the film’s final bloody moments. Although the suspense is the backbone of the film, newcomer Adam Bakri brings to the title role a rich combination of steeliness and sensitivity. GRACE STAINBACK. WH, 8 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. MC, 6 pm Thursday, Feb. 13.
Critic’s Grade: B [UNITED STATES] If you know nothing of the Large Hadron Collider, Particle Fever isn’t going to make you an expert. Essentially concerned with re-creating the conditions that led to the Big Bang (and, some blowhards insist, possibly obliterating the entire planet in the process), the LHC is a city-sized particle collider that—look, if you’ve made it this far, this is your kind of film. Surprisingly, though, Particle Fever strikes a nice balance between science and humanity: It’s just as interested in the science as in the hundreds of scientists who work on the project. The film focuses on six very different geniuses, allowing them to spell out their passions and the implications of their work in the plainest terms possible…which, to laypeople, aren’t particularly plain. But between graphs, gorgeous footage of the LHC and—for some awesome reason—nerds rapping (!), Particle Fever takes an extremely complex topic and manages to make it seem human. AP KRYZA. WTC, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. OMSI, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 10.
Remote Area Medical
Critic’s Grade: A [UNITED STATES] Remote Area Medical follows the titular nonprofit organization over a three-day period as it treats nearly 2,000 patients at a pop-up, free health-care clinic in Bristol, Tenn. The parking lot of Bristol’s massive NASCAR speedway transforms into a somber tailgate of working-class Americans lining up for their first medical exam in years. The film remains narrow in scope, forgoing the larger politics to focus on the stories of individuals humbled by rotten gums, poor vision and the nagging feeling they’ve long been forgotten by a country in which they cannot afford even the most basic health-care services. It’s a stark portrait of American life, the empathic viewpoint a refreshing alternative to partisan vitriole. GRACE STAINBACK. WTC, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 7, and 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 9.
Critic’s Grade: B+ [AUSTRALIA] In Ahlo’s Laotian village, luck is divided unevenly among twins, and his grandmother is certain that he, not his stillborn brother, is the unlucky one. After the government relocates their village and a family member dies, it seems she’s right—until the 10-year-old becomes obsessed with winning a makeshift rocket competition. It’s an obvious setup for a feel-good denouement, but director Kim Mordaunt integrates the themes of politics, tradition and family so smoothly that the film feels like a happy parable. Not even a character who believes he’s the James Brown of Laos can steal the stage from the adorable Ahlo (a relentlessly cheery Sitthiphon Disamoe), and his younger friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam, with the careful wisdom of someone 10 times her age). After studying the rocket makers carefully, Kia performs an impromptu dance while Ahlo swipes spare parts. Their strategy mimics Mordaunt’s: Be entertaining, predictable and shocking all at once. MITCH LILLIE. C21, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 8.
Critic’s Grade: B+ [ITALY] Those who question the continued relevance of movie theaters will find their answer here. An Italian hit man is tasked with killing an attractive blind girl, and finds he can’t. That is essentially the whole film. There’s minimal dialogue, and the story moves about as fast as IBM WebExplorer on a 28.8k modem. In the age of endless push notifications, it’s almost physically painful to watch the film on a small screen—you’ll look away to IMDB the hunky lead actor, and suddenly 20 minutes will have gone by without a word being spoken onscreen. But there is a reason it won the Critics’ Week Grand Prix at Cannes last year: It’s a truly gripping piece of cinema. You just need a pitch-black theater—and mobile devices turned off—to fully appreciate the creepy brilliance of an assassin wordlessly stalking his unseeing prey for 17 straight minutes. RUTH BROWN. C21, 2:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 9, and 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 14.
The Strange Little Cat
Critic’s Grade: B+ [GERMANY] “Is Clara crazy?” someone asks as a little girl shrieks for no clear reason. Indeed, there initially seems to be a low-grade madness gripping all three generations of kin coming and going from a compact Berlin flat. That said, wouldn’t our own routines look absurd if viewed from odd angles by a camera with a staring problem? Shifting between instances of ennui, anxiety and antagonism, Ramon Zürcher creates a compelling rhythm as he playfully charts the daily ebb and flow of a household. And should that sound a little stale, fear not: This delightfully deadpan film also features the sort of comedy that naturally occurs when family members trip over one another. Through Zürcher’s eyes, the mundane is something to behold. CURTIS WOLOSCHUK. C21, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 7. FT, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 10.
Those Happy Years
Critic’s Grade: B- [ITALY] Ah, a European film about narcissism, coming of age and the redemptive value of art: Where has this been all my life? Daniele Luchetti’s Those Happy Years is a capable take on the old-fashioned European arthouse film, aside from borrowed Hollywood tropes such as the too-cute kids who always say the right things. But it’s nonetheless a lovely, nostalgic look back at the heady 1970s, as a self-regarding philanderer of an artist is forced to respect his wife only in losing her, while his son, a young stand-in for the director, finds love on the beach and thinks about dust and memory. The moral fable about the Italian sexual revolution is a bit forced, but you leave in the same afterglow as the narrator-director: wistful, confused and convinced that after 1974 nothing will ever be the same. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. OMSI, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 7. CM, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 8.
Tito on Ice
Critic’s Grade: D [SWEDEN] The premise is irresistible: Two Swedish comics artists tour Eastern Europe toting a mummified Marshal Tito, the founder of Yugoslavia and famous Stalin snubber. OK, it’s not the real Tito, but their creation, stuffed inside a mini-fridge, looks pretty cool. Go ahead and Google it, because sitting through Tito on Ice requires 72 uncomfortable minutes of watching a film-school thesis project get by on gimmicks and pity alone. What makes it particularly unfortunate is that director Max Andersson and his partner Lars Sjunnesson are actually talented, in both their comics and the paper animations that pepper the film. But that doesn’t make up for a complete lack of story and editing skills, made all the worse by frequent references to “art films.” Put the benevolent dictator back in the fridge, Mr. Andersson, and tear down this film. MITCH LILLIE. CM, 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. C21, 1 pm Sunday, Feb. 16.
Critic’s Grade: B+ [CHINA] Especially given the Chinese government’s move to shut down the Beijing Independent Film Festival last year, it’s a wonder Vivian Qu’s Trap Street managed to slip by the censors. But here it is, a meandering love story that becomes a listless indictment of China’s bureaucratic menace—pretty much everything government-related is shady here. Li Qiuming, a young worker at a digital mapping company, falls for a girl who works on a street that doesn’t officially exist: Forest Lane steadfastly refuses to show up on any digital maps. But while he’s chasing—or borderline stalking—the girl, his presence on Forest Lane is considered suspicious by the powers that be. The film’s not a thriller, though it could have played that way. It instead portrays a slow war of attrition on the innocent, in which every action could be construed as evidence of a crime. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. CM, 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. WH, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 10.
Critic’s Grade: B- [GERMANY] From the first scene, in which our protagonist ducks into an airport bathroom to disguise herself in a brown wig, it’s clear not all is as it seems in Two Lives. Set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the drama follows Katrine (Juliane Köhler), who was born to a Norwegian mother and an occupying German soldier during World War II. Like many of these “children of shame,” Katrine was sent to a bleak east German orphanage, only to reunite with her mother well after the war’s end. It’s a knotty story of espionage, deceit and shame, and director Georg Maas lets the details of Katrine’s past trickle out slowly, cutting scenes of her present life in a frosty seaside Norwegian town with grainy flashbacks to earlier years. It’s a rather heavy-handed, overly solemn approach, not aided by the ominous string music that accompanies each revelation. Köhler, fortunately, avoids sentimentality in her emotionally demanding role. REBECCA JACOBSON. CM, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 7. FT, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 9.
Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)
Critic’s Grade: B [AFGHANISTAN] The subtitle is bittersweet. While Barmak Akram’s Wajma begins as a charming romance between young Wajma and a likeable waiter named Mustafa, skulking about at the fringes of societal rules, it quickly turns into something else entirely: a traditional pregnancy drama. Mustafa becomes an implausibly sudden louse, while Wajma’s honor-bound dad lumbers around like a prodded rhino. But however much wailing there is, and there’s plenty, the film’s actual interest is not in bathos, nor even in the all-too-apparent injustices inflicted on Afghan women. Rather, the film shows the tensions between the old and the new worlds, and between honor and compassion. The film is far from perfect, but it is a moving portrait that resists easy moralizing. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. FT, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 7. CM, 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 16.
What Is Cinema?
Critic’s Grade: C+ [UNITED STATES] Chuck Workman is the man behind numerous montages for the Oscars, so it’s not surprising that What Is Cinema?—a title that hubristically if lovingly harks back to André Bazin’s seminal film studies collection—plays like a feature-length version of the same. Interspersing iconic moments, from Meshes of the Afternoon to Titanic, and interviews with filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas (“My drug was movies!”), David Lynch, Kelly Reichardt, Yvonne Rainer and (natch) James Franco waxing poetic on the mysterious beauty of the art form, the documentary makes it easy to get swept up in the flow and glow of cinephilia. Segments are devoted to avant-garde, indie and documentary cinema, while mainstream modern Hollywood remains absent. Alas, as with most montages, once the music wears off, you feel betrayed. For a film focused on the complexities of the medium, it’s curiously unlayered. KRISTI MITSUDA. WTC, 1 pm Saturday, Feb. 8, and 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 14.
Young & Beautiful
Critic’s Grade: B+ [FRANCE] “Once a whore, always a whore,” the white-haired man chortles. He’s talking to Isabelle, a 17-year-old bourgeois Parisian belle he’s just paid 500 euros for a bareback blowjob. Isabelle (Marine Vacth) has picked up prostitution as a secret hobby, for reasons never fully elucidated in François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful. Like in his 2012 film, In the House, Ozon again tells a story of an adolescent rebelling in unusual, dangerous ways. This is a French film, so there’s lots of Vacth’s young and nubile flesh on display, but also plenty of saggy skin of her johns. It’s an unnerving study of teenage defiance, with just enough detachment from reality and prickling bursts of humor (as when Isabelle jokes with her shrink about his low rates) to prevent it from plunging into leering melodrama. REBECCA JACOBSON. C21, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. FT, 8:30 pm Monday, Feb. 10.
WW critics were unable to screen 16 of the films, but here’s a bit about each:
[HUNGARY] A family of circus artists flee Ceausescu’s Romania for a better life in the West. CM, 5:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11. FT, noon Monday, Feb. 17.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
[GREAT BRITAIN] Steve Coogan takes his ridiculous comic creation to the big screen. C21, 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 10. CM, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 14.
[NORWAY] A Kurdish boy follows his sister, who has just fled her wedding, from Turkey to Germany to Norway. CM, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. OMSI, 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11.
[GREAT BRITAIN] A biracial woman endeavors to end slavery in 18th-century England. WH, 7 pm Thursday, Feb. 6.
[HONG KONG] A wealthy housewife and her chauffeur build an unusual friendship. WH, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 9. FT, 6 pm Thursday, Feb. 13.
[FINLAND] In 1939, an orphan goes to work at a lighthouse, where he’s caught up in a local family’s fraught dynamics. WH, 8:30 pm Monday, Feb. 10. C21, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 16.
The Last of the Unjust
[FRANCE] The director of the legendary Holocaust documentary Shoah returns with a film about Benjamin Murmelstein, an Austrian Jew who was appointed by Adolf Eichmann to rule over Theresienstadt. WTC, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 9, and 1 pm Sunday, Feb. 16.
My Mommy Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill
[FRANCE] An animated, family-friendly film about a boy in ’70s France grappling with his mother’s death. CM, 1 pm Sundays, Feb. 9 and 16.
Of Horses and Men
[ICELAND] A comedy about, as the title suggests, equines and humans. FT, 3:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. CM, 8:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 12.
[UNITED STATES] Horror auteur Ti West’s latest film delves into the disturbing goings-on at a Christian commune in Mississippi. C21, midnight Saturday, Feb. 8.
[UNITED STATES] A lighthearted historical survey of teenagers from the late 19th century to the end of World War II. FT, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 7. CM, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 10.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear
[CANADA] Two women—lovers and former prison cellmates—reunite in the Canadian woods. CM, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. FT, 8:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 12.
We Are the Best!
[SWEDEN] A trio of Stockholm teenagers form a punk band in 1982. FT, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. C21, 6 pm Wednesday, Feb. 12.
The Wind Rises
In what Hayao Miyazaki has called his last film, the legendary animator follows an aeronautical engineer across decades of his life. C21, 6:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 6. OMSI, 6:45 pm Thursday, Feb. 6.
[UNITED STATES] A wordless, black-and-white film from Godfrey Reggio, consisting mostly of images of people’s faces. OMSI, 8:30 pm Monday, Feb. 10. WH, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 15.
The Zigzag Kid
[THE NETHERLANDS] A Dutch boy becomes a sleuth, tracking a criminal through the French Riviera. C21, 1 pm Saturday, Feb. 8. FT, 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 9.