Mr. Movie

Coming to the Portland International Film Festival

These are reviews of what is happening this week and next weekend, which will give you time to plan to travel to Portland and purchase tickets if you are interested in attending.

The 34th annual PIFF runs through Feb. 26. Click here to see the schedule.

How to Die in Oregon

“Death is not the greatest of evils; it is worse to want to die, and not be able to” — Sophocles.

Warning. Peter Richardson’s documentary is hard to watch. Death sucks. Though we all face it, death can be ugly beyond description. Young, productive lives end in hideous, untimely ways. The same happens to older people who should be enjoying carefree retirement years with loved ones.

How to Die in Oregon will make you angry at death and sympathetic to those faced with that awful choice.

Euthanasia means good death. Really? Is there such a thing?

Three states allow death with dignity. In 1994, Oregon became the first to let a person with a terminal illness get the prescriptions necessary to legally take their own life. In 2008, Washington voters said yes to a similar law. Montana became the third state in 2010.

How to Die in Oregon opens with a man with a terminal illness ending his life.

Whoa. So not ready.

The scene is intense and difficult to watch. With family and friends standing by for support, the man drank a concoction to quickly put him into a coma and kill him. The decision was clearly his.

Richardson’s powerful documentary is getting critical raves and won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary competition at the recently completed Sundance Film Festival. He tells you what is right with death with dignity.

His movie asks all the correct questions. In the case of terminal illness such as cancer, is an extra three months of pain-filled, drug-addled life really living? Is it worth it to the victim? The family and friends of the victim?

Shouldn’t we all be able to choose the time and place and share the experience with loved ones in a more positive way? Shouldn’t a terminally ill patient be able to choose death when they have all their faculties and have more dignity because certain bodily functions are still intact?

Is it even fair to deny someone the right to die?

And then there is the expense of continuing treatment. We love our pets and don’t allow them to suffer and we don’t spend our life savings to keep them alive. Why do we force horrible, painful death upon humans?

And on the eloquent arguments go.

Richardson backs up his position with real life examples. You get to know, love and care about Cody Curtis and her family. She has liver cancer and has chosen to die with dignity. Her story is woven throughout Richardson’s emotional narrative.

In Washington state, he follows Nancy Niedzielski, who promised her late husband that she would push for a death with dignity law. He died an excruciating death from a rare form of cancer. The state would not allow him to end his own life.

There are brief glimpses of the lives of a few others and their personal dilemmas.

But Richardson’s documentary does have warts. He never digs into the other side of the issue. There is much to examine, many questions to ask. Moral concerns are not addressed. What about decisions made by those not quite in possession of all of their faculties? Could this eventually lead to death without a person’s consent?

Do laws as these lead government and health-care firms to deny expensive treatment to terminal patients? Richardson does ask that question in a brief story about a middle-aged man with cancer who wants more chemo. The state says no but does give him a list of options that includes ending his own life.

What?

And then Richardson drops it.

He does the same thing with faith. Only one person in the film talks about their faith and about what they think happens when they die. That comes from former Eugene broadcaster Ray Carnay, an acquaintance from my distant past, and a man with the voice of God.

He has throat cancer, is considering death with dignity and expresses faith in Jesus Christ and a glorious hereafter.

Richardson, the doctors and the people promoting death with dignity, and even the patients and families facing a loved one’s death, never call it death. Words "death," or "die" and "dying" are eradicated from all vocabularies.

We end life. We come to a conclusion. It is so sanitized.

The criticism is valid, but to give Richardson credit, none of the questions I ask are the purpose behind his documentary. Richardson believes people ought to be allowed to make their own decisions on when they die when faced with a terminal illness.

And he makes his point perfectly.

I have been reviewing films for this newspaper for 20 years and have been a critic for close to 22. Critics are a hard lot. We keep our emotions in check. Though I’ve come close a couple of times, in all that time just one movie actually made me cry.

Reports from Sundance and from other screenings of the movie say people sobbed out loud. Be prepared for that. This is gut-wrenching stuff.

I am glad I didn’t see How to Die in Oregon in a theater. Film festival officials gave me a screener so I was able to see it in the comfort of my living room. My wife watched it with me, and we were instantly in tears.

This tears continued to flow through the end of the credits — and after.

Mr. Movie rating: 5 stars

Not rated. Probably PG-13 or even an R for mature themes. It plays Feb. 19 and 21.

Go here for a schedule of times and theaters: http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff34/.

5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen

4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.

3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.

2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.

0 stars: Speaks for itself.

In a Better World

Denmark’s Oscar-nominated In a Better World follows two families in crisis with a focus on two 10-year-olds. Elias is bullied at school because of his buck teeth. Christian is the new kid at school.

Both kids are angry.

Christian beats one of the bullies senseless and threatens to cut his throat. That cements the friendship of the two boys.

Christian’s mom is dead, and he has no connection with his father. His dad is in business and is gone a lot. An almost-never-seen grandmother takes care of the boy.

Elias’ parents are divorcing. His dad is a doctor working at an African refugee camp. Mom works at a hospital.

The parents are focused on their own troubles and in spite of Christian’s violent explosion, miss important clues that something is seriously amiss and very dangerous in the relationship of the two boys.

While all of the performances are exceptional, William Johnk Nielson who plays Christian has dark black eyes. He’s a great actor already, and in places the anger he portrays seems to fill the theater. It is so real that it is hard to breathe.

You are definitely glad to not be on the wrong side of this kid’s wrath.

Director Susanne Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen who both did the exceptional film, Brothers explore how children view justice. It is extreme. Adults measure life in shades of gray and differing colors. Kids see everything in black and white.

Something is or it isn’t.

Bier’s exploration of the extreme nature of maturing children is also extreme. She is the best director you’ve probably never heard of. Her storytelling skills and ability to get you into the heads of her characters are superb. The film flows like events would naturally go. The people are real. The situations they face are real. Nothing in this film is rushed or manipulative.

And it is powerful, many times will take your breath away and is definitely Oscar-worthy.

Rated R for mature themes, language, violence. It plays Feb. 20 and 21. Go here to see a schedule and for theaters: http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff34/.

Mr. Movie rating: 5 stars

The Whistleblower

The Whistleblower is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac. She’s a policewoman from Nebraska who took a job in 1999 as a peacekeeper in Bosnia.

In real life, Bolkovac discovered that young women in the war-torn nation were being forced into sexual slavery. Refusal to cooperate led to beatings, starvation and — according to the movie — murder. All the while U.N. officials there to protect them either participated or turned their heads the other way and let the practice continue.

Some of those turning their heads or taking bribes were Americans.

Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz ( The Constant Gardner) plays Bolkovac as a straight-ahead, honest, fearless cop unable and unwilling to let a just cause go even when threatened with death.

Weisz is convincing. She’s a great actress and that’s her job. What isn’t so convincing is the directing and writing of Larysa Kondracki and her co-writer Eilis Kirwan. Weisz and her co-stars are cardboard cutout characters moved woodenly and in circles from scene to scene.

While you are appalled at the corruption and injustice that allows such events to occur, The Whistleblower fails to get you emotionally involved and connect you to the plight of the victims. Even the supposed-to-be-nail biting climax is a let down.

The real Bolkovac and the victims of these heinous crimes deserve better.

Not rated by no doubt R for nudity, sex, violence and mature themes. It plays February 18 & 20. Click here to see showtimes and theaters: http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff34/.

Mr. Movie rating: 3 stars

Some Days are Better than Others

Some Days are Better than Others follows three characters.

The first is a young woman obsessed with being on a reality TV show whose real reality crashes when she learns her boyfriend is cheating.

Next is a young man struggling to find work and get the money to finish college. He is good friends with an old man who married his late grandmother and has a huge crush on his lesbian roommate.

Last is a woman working at a Goodwill-like facility who finds one of the “donations” dropped off at her site is an urn containing the ashes of a young girl.

Writer/director Matt McCormick’s Portland-centered character study hooks you immediately. You like these people and can relate to their plights. And like all like-character studies, McCormick eventually tells you how these people connect.

The connection isn’t that interesting and — ultimately — neither is his movie.

He does get pretty good performances out of his mostly amateur cast, and the digital cinematography isn’t bad either. If you’re familiar with Portland, you will find the movie more interesting than if you are not.

The bottom-line: Some Days are Better than Others and some movies are better than others.

Not rated — probably PG-13 for language and mature themes. It plays February 20th only. Go to this link to find the theater and time: http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff34/.

Mr. Movie rating: 3 stars

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