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Your Weekly Roundup of New Movies: Guillermo del Toro’s Decision to Remake of Studio-Era Crime Yarn “Nightmare Alley” Is an Odd One

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

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TOP PICK OF THE WEEK

The Power of the Dog

When Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) sees Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) watching him bathe outdoors in The Power of the Dog, he shouts and calls him a little bitch. It’s a terrifying moment, but it’s also the start of a twisted friendship that defines this triumphantly suspenseful Western directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, Top of the Lake). Based on a novel by Thomas Savage and set in 1925, The Power of the Dog takes place on a Montana cattle ranch where the stench of resentment is equal to the odor of manure. Seething over the marriage of his brother (Jesse Plemons) to a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil torments them both. His ultimate revenge on Rose? Grooming Peter, her teenage son, to be his protégé—and perhaps something more. Violence is inevitable, but Campion is more interested in the tragic erosion of Rose’s dignity and the anguish that Phil experiences as a closeted gay man in a tyrannically heteronormative world. By capturing Phil’s dangerous petulance and haunting vulnerability, Cumberbatch makes the character worthy of both our revulsion and our compassion. If you see the film, you may despise him, but like Peter, you won’t be able to look away. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Hollywood, Netflix.

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House of Gucci

When Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) learns that his reign over the fashion empire that bears his name is over in House of Gucci, he howls, “I’m dead! Dead!” It’s a scene that lets Pacino turn hamming it up into high art—a talent he shares with all the actors in this sleek and sumptuous melodrama directed by Ridley Scott. House of Gucci stars Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani, who in 1998 was convicted of ordering a hit on her ex-husband, Gucci heir Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). As Patrizia and Maurizio, Lady Gaga and Driver have scorching chemistry—when she yanks him into a bubble bath, their erotic energy nearly vaporizes the screen. Yet House of Gucci is less a love story than it is Frankenstein as a soap opera, with Maurizio as the monster and Patrizia as his creator. She ignites his ambitions, tragically sealing her fate—to be cast aside when he ousts Aldo and takes command of Gucci. With obsessive fervor, Scott drinks in the grotesque magnificence of the Gucci dynasty, savoring their elegant possessions and their operatic emotions. Maurizio Gucci may be dead, but thanks to the palpable enthusiasm of Scott and the cast, House of Gucci has hunger in its eyes, lust in its heart, and the sweet breath of decadence in its lungs. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Lake Theater & Cafe, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, St. Johns Twin Cinemas, Studio One, Tigard.

Citizen Ashe

Arthur Ashe may have broken tennis’s racial barriers in the early 1960s, but when it came to finding his place among the era’s activist Black athletes, he was a late bloomer. At its most insightful, the new documentary from Rex Miller (Althea) and Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI) infers that Ashe’s gradual discovery of his voice on civil rights was due to his internalizing a back-breaking perfectionism and respectability streak while thriving in America’s whitest major sport. In this way, Citizen Ashe examines an athlete who’s reduced, however ironically, to groundbreaker status. But what of the man himself? Sometimes even the film isn’t sure. The closing credits reveal Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, displaying the depths of his library. This evidence of an intellectual thirst stands out as one of the film’s few journalistic moments as opposed to straight biography. Mostly, Citizen Ashe functions and compels as your average 30 for 30-level sports doc. The details of Ashe’s ingenious gambit against Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975 are riveting, and activist Harry Edwards fascinatingly assesses the covert radicalism of Ashe’s anti-apartheid rhetoric. In the end, saddled with the inevitable details of Ashe’s tragic health issues, Citizen Ashe settles for the simple conclusion that he was a great man. It’s not wrong. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. CNN, HBO Max, On Demand.

Encanto

A dazzling swirl of color bursting with irrepressible joy in every frame, Disney’s 60th animated feature, Encanto, is a wonder to behold, but the story of a South American clan blessed with extraordinary powers becomes a struggle to endure. Even though glowingly introduced by fiercely envious Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), sole member of the Madrigals born without special abilities, the gifts bestowed on her family seem ones best returned. Ever-blossoming eldest sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) rides her ability to conjure up flowers toward de facto princesshood, while curative culinary prowess keeps Mirabel’s mom (Angie Cepeda) in the kitchen and super-strong middle sis Luisa (Jessica Darrow) relegated to nonstop labor. More creepily, shape-shifting has turned cousin Camilo schizophrenic, perfect hearing renders his sister Dolores an incurable gossip, Aunt Pepa always walks under a miniature rain cloud, and the prophecies laid out in emerald flat screen for Mirabel’s uncle effectively forced his banishment years ago. Details of the disappearance of Bruno (John Leguizamo), the black sheep in the family, begin to emerge via Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original score. We learn that his special ability is predicting the future—unwanted fates foretold that are becoming all too true. When powers begin to fade and cracks in the floorboards echo familial fissures, Mirabel embarks on a quest to piece together her uncle’s most recent visions. In other words, despite the supposed wonders of the mighty Madrigals, our heroine prefers to ditch her family and zone out watching new stories appear on a jerry-rigged iPad. Judging from the murmured dismay of a progressively less-enchanted young audience, she’s far from alone. PG. JAY HORTON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Lake Theater & Cafe, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Studio One, Tigard, Wunderland Milwaukie.

Encounter

Narratively and thematically, this sci-fi drama from Amazon Studios is one big backward walk into a corner. Soon after Malik (Riz Ahmed) initiates a surprise road trip with his two estranged sons and a massive conspiracy theory about alien parasites in tow, a showdown with law enforcement and an audience screaming, “Well, is it true?!” seems imminent. On the way to the painted corner, though, there’s plenty to appreciate. Morphing from exciting young actor to über-committed awards candidate with last year’s The Sound of Metal, Ahmed capably disguises himself with a roughneck accent and an ex-Marine’s twitchy defensiveness, and he’s compellingly unhinged while trying to play the cool dad. But the gestures toward elusive, Jeff Nichols-esque genre fare are often undone by miscalculated drama. With a script bent on Malik’s salvation and doom, up-and-coming director Michael Pearce gives Malik’s parole officer, played by Octavia Spencer, precious little to do and the child actors playing his estranged boys (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) far too much. No matter how much rubber they burn across the Nevada desert, they can’t outrun the film’s overwrought unpleasantness—a would-be family movie defined by fringe terror. That’s probably why The X-Files motto isn’t “regardless of whether the truth is out there, endanger your kids.” R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon Prime.

Nightmare Alley

As Guillermo del Toro’s sole feature between 2017′s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and next autumn’s long-delayed Pinocchio, remaking studio-era crime yarn Nightmare Alley seemed an especially curious choice for the fantasist auteur’s victory lap. The remake of the 1947 classic about traveling sideshow grotesques and predatory mentalist Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) who joins their act holds clear contempt for the supernatural. And, bereft of his usual tropes, even del Toro’s breathtaking visuals—lurid midway attractions and crystalline art deco interiors—threaten to overwhelm the wispy narrative and cavalcade of familiar faces fleshing out underwritten roles. Cate Blanchett alone seems sufficiently aware of the surrounding silliness to turn her psychotherapist co-conspirator into a femme fatale emoji, all cheekbones and gall, while our supposed antihero Cooper wanders through their scenes together with a slackjawed gawp of pained confusion. Although few modern stars could replicate the weaponized swagger fueling Tyrone Power’s heel turn as the original Stanton, Cooper’s hesitant, mawkish, perhaps concussed interpretation reveals a fundamental misreading of the material. Already burdened by clunky dialogue showcasing the era’s corniest catchphrases, del Toro and Kim Morgan’s leaden screenplay delves headlong into laborious exposition of the methodology employed for each telepathy routine and fixed séance. For all del Toro’s gifts, the leading monster sympathist of his generation evidently cannot understand the beasts men make of themselves. R. JAY HORTON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Cinema 21, City Center, Clackamas Town Center, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Eastport Plaza, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Hollywood, Movies on TV, Tigard, Vancouver Mall.

West Side Story

“You’re not thinking I’m someone else?” “I know you are not.” Those beautiful words were exchanged by Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) when they first met in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story. Yet Steven Spielberg, the latest director to adapt Leonard Bernstein’s musical riff on Romeo and Juliet, has apparently decided that banality beats beauty. With a surgeon’s precision, he has transformed West Side Story into an epic so bloated and unmagical that even its sublime dancing scenes can’t make it worth seeing. The overall story hasn’t changed—once again, the romance between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) is rocked by a showdown between white and Puerto Rican gangs in 1950s New York—but it’s burdened by Tony Kushner’s painfully literal screenplay. The new Tony and Maria don’t use the quasi-poetic verse of the original film—they trade excruciatingly obvious lines like “You’re not Puerto Rican” and “Is that OK?” It doesn’t help that Elgort is too insincere and uncharismatic to play an exuberantly optimistic character like Tony, but the real culprit is Spielberg. The entire film is steeped in his folly—the folly of a filmmaker who put his faith in a soulless leading man and who foolishly believed that a classic could be improved upon. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas Town Center, Cornelius, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Eastport Plaza, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Sherwood, Studio One, Tigard.