Portland International Film Festival preview

February 5, 2012 

Portland isn’t that far from Tri-Cities so if you’re an art film lover you may want to consider catching some of the 35th Annual Portland International Film Festival.

For buffs of excellent cinema, there is plenty to pick from. During the next couple of weeks, I’ll feature reviews and information on where to see those reviewed.

The festival runs Feb. 9-25 and features films from 36 countries. There are 140 films — 93 features and 46 shorts.

Festival officials are highlighting international award winners:

  • Las Acacias which won the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at Cannes
    Breathing that took Canes Best European Film.
    Jean Gentil, the Special Jury Mention at the Venice Film Festival.
    Elena, the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize winner at Cannes.

  • The festival kicks off 7:30 p.m. Thursday with a special opening night screening of Salmon Fishing in Yemen — reviewed here. If you want to go to the screening and party — and these things are always a blast — tickets cost $25 and are available now at http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff35/events/.

    Here is the festival schedule: http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff35/.

    Admission: $10 general; $9 Portland Art Museum members, students, seniors; $7 Silver Screen Club Friends.

    Salmon Fishing in Yemen shows just once, and that is opening night. Here is my review.

    The focal point of Salmon Fishing in Yemen is getting salmon to Yemen for fishing. Salmon — as you know — are not native to Yemen. Or anywhere in the Middle East. A sheik wants to bring prosperity to his little country. Those not knowing geography, or who do not pay much attention to Middle East news, Yemen is a real country. It’s south of Saudi Arabia and next to Oman.

    The country is real. The story — however — is not.

    The sheik has a castle in Scotland. That’s where he fell in love with salmon fishing and where he got his idea. He wants better lives for his people and has dreams of building a dam to bring water and jobs to his not-to-much-a-paradise desert. If you’re going to do a dam and all that, why not stock it with salmon?

    Damn good idea.

    But Salmon Fishing in Yemen isn’t totally about salmon. It’s a love story. And a pretty good one.

    Ewan McGregor — who for the first time in recent memory plays a Scotsman and does dialogue in his native tongue — is an expert on fish. He’s unhappily married and, on some level, also unhappily married to his job. McGregor’s Dr. Fred Jones gets an email from Emily Blunt’s Harriet Chetwode-Talbot. It’s about the salmon and the dam and all. He turns down the dam and cans the salmon. Dr. Jones would have stood his ground except for political pressure from the information guru of Britain’s prime minister.

    Bad press for the Brits over a faux paux in the Middle East demands a positive story as a counter. She uses her power, pressure and financial persuasion to get her way. By the way, the info guru is played nicely, and quite wickedly by Kristin Scott-Thomas.

    Back to the love story. Blunt’s Harriet is in love with a soldier who is missing in action. McGregor and his bride split. Political opponents fear Western influence in Yemen, but the sheik perseveres. And then there’s the fish.

    That’s a love story of sorts, too.

    McGregor, Blunt and the chemistry between them is pitch-perfect from scene one. Their interaction and the connection to Amr Waked’s (Syriana) sheik drive the movie. Love blossoms slowly, perfectly. McGregor and Blunt swap lines in an easy, real-life manner with respect and humor.

    By the way, Waked, like his co-stars, is also terrific.

    When he gets it right — or has the right screenwriter — director Lasse Hallstrom is a very good storyteller. Cider House Rules and An Unfinished Life prove that. And in my book, Salmon Fishing in Yemen lets us forgive him for Dear John and Chocolat.

    Simon Beaufoy of Slumdog Millionaire fame pens the story from Paul Torday’s novel. Like Hallstrom, when he gets it right — and he usually does — Beaufoy tells a great story, too.

    While it is a Middle East movie, and I agree building dams and having westerners bring salmon to the land could create a clash of cultures, it is nice to see a film about the area that doesn’t involve international intrigue, a focus on terrorism, language and violence.

    Unfortunately, neither Hallstrom or Beaufoy, have anywhere to take the story other than to a cliche crisis. The clash of culture at the climax — in the end — breaks the proverbial feel-good dam and manages to wash away what could have been one of 2012’s best.

    But love prevails over cliche. Love. Respect. Dignity. Deep, likable, multiple-dimensioned characters with real-life problems work.

    It is the love story that hooks you and keeps you hooked. The storytelling skills of Hallstrom and Beaufoy let the chemistry of McGregor and Blunt reel you in.

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