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PIFF 2018: Take 6

Lean on Pete (United Kingdom, 2018) dir. Andrew Haigh (121 mins) Trailer

Based on a novel by Willy Vlautin. Charlie (Charlie Plummer) lives with his father who works in warehouses, takes up transitory affairs with women, and drinks a bit. Charlie's mother was given to fits of moodiness and depression, if I remember correctly and have not mixed this one up with another film, and left sometime in the past.

Father and son recently moved to Portland from Spokane, where 15-year-old Charlie was a runner and played football, quarterback and some wide receiver because he is too small for anything else. He runs in the mornings and intends to play football at his new school when it starts up in the fall.

A morning run takes Charlie past a race track where he makes the acquaintance of a cantankerous horse owner, Del (Steve Buscemi), and is hired at a low wage to help out. "You can't get attached to the horse," Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a jockey, warns him. Charlie gets attached to a horse named Lean on Pete, whose best days as a racehorse are behind him.

Charlie has no one to turn to when his father is hospitalized, then dies, after a beating by the husband of a woman with he enjoyed an overnight romance. There is only an aunt who fell out with her brother when he left Charlie alone for days after getting drunk and running off with a woman. He believes she would take him in, but he knows only that she lives in Green River, Wyoming, and the name of a bar where she worked.

When Del decides to ship Pete to Mexico, and Charlie knows what that means, Charlie sets out on an absurd odyssey to save the horse and find his aunt. Disaster follows disaster. He keeps on.

It is hard is to see how things can possibly turn out well for this lovely kid who somehow turned out well himself despite circumstances that made for no good reason why he should. And he is such a good kid, we hope against hope that he will survive his experiences and not be coarsened by them.

Lean on Pete like many films is longer than it needs to be. Things happen that strain credulity. The film gets a lot of buzz here because it was filmed in Portland and Burns, Oregon. While I was not as knocked out by Lean on Pete as some viewers were, I came away with warm feelings for it. That is not a bad thing to be able to say about a film.

Summer 1993 (Spain, 2017) dir. Carla Simón (97 mins) Trailer

Summer 1993 is a sweet film based on a true story. Frida is a six-year-old girl who is sent from Barcelona to live with her aunt and uncle in the country after her mother died from complications related to AIDS. Her father was already dead. She is a lovely little girl but terribly spoiled by her grandparents and aunts. She is also unhappy, stubborn, and unkind to her younger cousin. Her aunt and uncle are good people who become frustrated by their inability to get through to Frida. But they do not give up on her. Kind of heartwarming at the end but not as moving as it might have been, and I cannot pin down for myself why that is.

Oh Lucy! (Japan/United States, 2017)

dir. Atsuko Hirayanagi (95 mins)

I do not believe I give too much away with the revelation that Oh Lucy! has only one successful suicide, and that by a man who has no role in the story other than establishing a certain tone. The film opens with Setsuko on a crowded platform as a high-speed train approaches. A stranger behind her leans forward, whispers, "Goodbye," to no one in particular, and throws himself in front of the train.

I was iffy about Oh Lucy! after viewing the trailer. It turned to be pretty good despite moments that put to the test my willingness to suspend disbelief.

Setsuko is a quiet, reserved woman, an office worker who does not seem to particularly like her job or fit in well with her colleagues. As a favor to her niece, Mika, who desperately needs money but will not say why, Setsuko signs up for an English class taught by an American, John (Josh Hartnett), whose pedagogical approach is, shall we say, idiosyncratic. He gives his students English names, Setsuko is Lucy, has them wear wigs, and does a lot of hugging. I don't think it would have worked for me.

Setsuko is put off at first, not knowing what to make of it. Soon enough she develops an improbable crush on her teacher. She is shattered when she returns for her second class only to learn that John quit that morning because he suddenly had to return to America. A second shock comes when she receives a postcard from Mika in America with John.

What else would Setsuko do but set off for America, Los Angeles, to be precise, accompanied by her sister, an ill-tempered woman who does not get on with Setsuko or Mika? There is a priceless sequence on the plane where Setsuko has an aisle seat, her sister by the window, the two separated by a well-meaning American woman who tries to engage them in conversation. Finally, Setsuko, speaking in Japanese, asks her sister for the English word that means steal. She then says to the American woman in her halting but distinct English, "She steal boyfriend, and marry."

The sisters find John but no Mika, who split when she learned about John's wife and daughter. She will later tell her aunt, "He's a scumbag." That is about right. But Setsuko is in love. Mika's melodramatic reaction when Setsuko blurts this revelation sets up an unsuccessful suicide attempt, John's final rejection of Setusko, and Setsuko's final break with sister and niece.

Back in Japan Setsuko plunges deeper into the abyss. Upon returning to the office, she is humiliated by her boss when he unceremoniously informs her she has been transferred to another department.

Somehow through it all Setsuko wins me over. Her pursuit of John makes no sense. All right, she is terribly lonely. Sometimes we act irrationally. She is sweet but capable of meanness, as when she ruins a coworker's retirement party by telling the poor woman what others say behind her back. Yet there is something touchingly human about her loneliness and earnestness and confusion. I liked her.

Vazante (Brazil/Portugal, 2017) dir. Daniela Thomas (116 mins) Trailer

Brazil, 1821. Antonio is a land who marries his very young niece Beatriz after his first wife dies in labor. His farm is isolated and desolate. Beatriz has only her demented mother-in-law, the slave women who tend to them, and the slave children as companions. Vazante is filmed in black and white. There is an the ominous sense of foreboding from the outset as it plods toward a conclusion of horror and madness. Ranks right with Zama. Not a festival high point.

The Great Buddha* (Taiwan, 2017)

dir. Hsin-yao Huang

(104 mins)

Oddball comedy, inventive and profane, welcome lighter fare after many emotionally draining films. Belly Button hangs out with his old friend Pickle at the Buddha factory where Pickle is a night watchman. They amuse and arouse themselves watching video from the dashcam of the old Benz that belongs to the factory boss, Kevin, who saw a lot of action in that Benz.

The screen went black about an hour into the film. My first thought was a technical issue. Turns out the museum lost power. A museum security guy instructed us to go up to the lobby, where we milled around for a few minutes until the theater manager announced they had no idea how long the power would be out, so she was canceling the morning screening. If we wanted to, we could return at 1:30 to find out the status of the 2:00 p.m. screening. It was noon and I was iffy about the afternoon film, so I took the bus home and ate the peanut sandwich I had packed for lunch, whereupon I began having second thoughts about the afternoon film. I had time to get downtown and catch it. Fortunately, just before I left, an email announcing cancellation of the afternoon screening popped into my inbox.

I was left curious about the concluding forty-five minutes of the film but not enough to catch another festival screening. I may check it out if it has a regular theater run later in the year.

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