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Your Weekly Roundup of New Movies: “Small Engine Repair” Is a Biting Meditation on American Manhood

What to see and skip while streaming or going to the theater this week.

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TOP PICK OF THE WEEK

Small Engine Repair

*** Small Engine Repair is mostly set at an auto repair shop in Manchester, N.H., but its characters aren’t able—they’re broken men made monstrous by trauma. After a dinner of barbecued steaks, Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham) are surprised when their childhood friend Frank (John Pollono) wants to buy ecstasy from Chad (Spencer House), the son of a successful lawyer. Yet Frank has more in mind than a high—the ecstasy is part of a dubious revenge scheme. Small Engine Repair is based on a play by Pollono, who directed the film and clearly struggled to adapt his writing. The screenplay has an excess of time jumps and tough-guy rants, but it also offers a biting meditation on American manhood. Swaino, Packie and Frank—all of whom were abused by their fathers—treat Chad like a human punching bag who exists to bear their vengeful fantasies. House is spectacularly hateful as an entitled evildoer who has no compassion for people who don’t follow him on Instagram, but the true villain of Small Engine Repair is the cycle of violence that consumes the bodies and souls of its men. In the war against toxic masculinity, they’re all losers. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Cinemagic.

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Big House

**** Big House answers the question none of us were asking: What if mumblecore met The Real World? The film opens on half-sisters Claire (Ellie Reed) and Ali (Paige Collins) arriving at their father’s vacation house. It’s Claire’s birthday weekend, and they’ve brought their boyfriends along to celebrate. As the couples unpack, we learn more about this odd, tiki-themed pad where the ladies have set up shop. They’re staying at their father’s “honey house,” the tropical beach abode where he once took his mistresses. Even juicier, we discover that history is repeating itself: Claire has a fiancé, but she’s left him at home while she cozies up with the nerdy, endearing co-worker she’s taken as a lover. Big House was shot in just two days with improv-heavy dialogue, and you can hear it in the mumblecore-style exchanges. Often shot at close—even claustrophobic—range, with audio that lingers even after the scenes change, the movie has a hazy, confined quality. It’s a tone that fits with the broader questions about monogamy and transparency that writer-director Jack Lawrence Mayer is raising through the sisters’ romantic arcs. The script is witty, and the acting is natural and often resonant, particularly Michael Molina’s turn as Claire’s awkward, unappreciated lover String. The finale does take a turn for the Real Housewives, but after shaking the proverbial soda can for 90 minutes, the explosion feels earned. NR. GRACE CULHANE. Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube.

CODA

**** Near the climax of CODA, audiences experience a much-foreshadowed concert from the perspective of a singer’s deaf family. It’s not just sound’s absence that seals the Apple TV+ film’s best scene; it’s how the camera registers Frank and Jackie Rossi gauging the crowd’s reaction to their daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) belting. That’s the moment you know why CODA (or Child of Deaf Adults) won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and why, despite playing on a clear inspirational formula and remaking a 2014 French film, it’s a smart and heartfelt portrayal of deafness in mainstream American movies. For one, there’s Ruby’s complex role as the only hearing member and de facto translator of her gruff yet charming New England fishing family. Playing her parents and brother, deaf actors Marlee Matlin (Oscar winner from Children of a Lesser God), Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant are grounded and multidimensional, signing with Ruby in rage, mockery, hubris and shame. While some of the supporting performances pale—Ruby’s fastidious choir teacher is more irritating than aspirational and her love interest a classic doesn’t-deserve-her wet blanket—try not to be moved by this loving, needy, overwhelmed and surprisingly horny family confronting change. The formula works for a reason. PG-13. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Apple TV+.

The Alpinist

*** This compelling profile of climber Marc-André Leclerc comprises a mountain of existential contradictions. Leclerc’s winningest attribute is his indifference to attention while The Alpinist pours it on. And against all odds, this is a gripping adventure documentary despite Leclerc defining his improvised solo climbs as completely solo, i.e., largely unfilmed. What’s more, can documentarians really tell an ethical nonfiction story in a retrospective present tense when the shallowest Google of the subject’s name transforms the story? In any case, The Alpinist is wise to invest so deeply in Leclerc that he can’t resist its affection and insights. The almost shamanistic British Columbian is depicted as a climber’s climber, practicing the purest expression of human movement and risk. Granted, some voice-over flourishes by directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen land as both pretentious and naive: “It’s hard to reconcile the ideals of his ascents with the tragic consequences.” Counterpoint—no it’s not. Maximal life and instant death dwell together in each of Leclerc’s fearless steps. And though audiences who like to stay on the ground and, let’s say, watch a lot of movies may deem The Alpinist in the shadow of Free Solo, climber Alex Honnold is here too, repeatedly testifying to Leclerc’s mixed-method supremacy on snow, ice, rock and in the undiluted philosophy of climbing itself. PG-13. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Bridgeport, Clackamas Town Center.

Reminiscence

*** Hearts yearn and minds cloud in Reminiscence, a futuristic film noir starring Hugh Jackman as Nick Bannister, a Miami-based dream master. Using virtual reality, Nick lets his clients relive their most cherished memories, from playing with a childhood dog to enjoying a tryst with a wealthy lover. Nick has a nostalgic obsession of his own—Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a singer who beguiled him with her lustrous voice and then vanished. Nick hunts for her across Florida and Louisiana, but the longer he searches, the more his quest seems like a romantic delusion. Reminiscence, which was written and directed by Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy, is burdened with a frantic pace and a Jackman voice-over that echoes Harrison Ford’s bored yammering in the original version of Blade Runner. Yet Joy has created a vivid dystopia and a poignant meditation on the seductiveness of distorted memories. Like her brother-in-law Christopher Nolan, she is fascinated with lies that consume men until they no longer believe in anything else. The images of Reminiscence—especially its shots of skyscrapers sticking out of a flood like drowning giants—are darkly beautiful, but when the film reaches its grim conclusion, Joy doesn’t flinch. Reminiscence may be flawed, but it is a deeply haunting portrait of a man too weak for this world. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Vancouver Plaza.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

*** In the 1970s, when a floppy-haired Bruce Lee lookalike named Shang-Chi first graced the cover of his own Marvel title, comic book crusaders seemed destined to follow radio cowboys and dime novel detectives into the dustbin of cultural oblivion. The struggling publisher responded by feverishly refashioning the heroes of trending genres (horror, blaxploitation, space opera) in the Mighty Marvel Manner, typically disappointing fans all around. But Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, forged an odd yet successful kinship with bloodless ultraviolence, pulp grandiosity and an inane origin story endlessly explained. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings completes the circle, bringing the dispossessed son of an alien-bracelet-empowered warlord to the big screen, and somehow, this latest iteration of a pointedly two-dimensional martial artist avatar reaches undeserved depths. Credit goes to the bulletproof MCU template, of course. But shove the equally athletic and comedic newcomer Simu Liu (as Shang-Chi) between the looming presence of legend Tony Leung Chiu-wai (playing Shang-Chi’s father) and comic relief Awkwafina (as Shang-Chi’s confidant/karaoke buddy), and you’ve got the makings of an excellent cast that propels the film to another level. True believers should be more than satisfied with the punch-’em-up choreography effortlessly pivoting from balletic bouts to Wick-ian technique to fated CGI spectacle. Somehow, still, director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, Short Term 12) finds space to let blossom a genuinely touching emotive backstory for our immortal archvillain and a (however fleeting) fresh perspective on a martial arts master. PG-13. JAY HORTON. Bagdad, City Center, Clackamas Town Center, Classic Mill Plain, Cornelius, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Division, Eastport Plaza, Hilltop, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Studio One, Tigard, Wilsonville.

Black Magic Live: Stripped

**1/2 Within Las Vegas exists a single all-Black male revue called “Black Magic Live.” The owner, Eurika Pratts, and CEO, Jean-Claude La Marre, have released a behind-the-scenes documentary about the production, which tracks its four-year journey that began with the fictional movie Chocolate City to current-day Vegas. Right away, you’ll notice the conflict of interest in having the film’s subjects also serve as executive producers. We’re told of their power struggle with actress Vivica A. Vox, who starred in their 2015 dramedy, but this fascinating conflict only gets a brief, one-sided explanation. Things get more interesting as Pratts and La Marre touch on America’s complicated racial history and the impact it has on their business. But again, we are only given the producers’ perspectives rather than a more complete evaluation of the historical challenges and their modern-day influence. The standout portion of the film comes when we actually get to meet the dancers and hear their accounts of letting go of past dreams in order to embrace the one they’re currently living. But overall, Black Magic Live falls short since the interview setups with a rotating cast are too clinical. So while this infomercial-style documentary successfully provides interesting details and lets the dancers share their stories, it would have been nice to see it and not just be told about it. NR. RAY GILL JR. On Demand, Virtual Cinema.