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Your Weekly Roundup of New Movies: “Red Rocket” Treats Even Its Most Flawed Characters With Nuance and Empathy

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

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TOP PICK OF THE WEEK

Red Rocket

*** Red Rocket opens in July 2016, as adult film actor Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), bruised from recent misadventure, returns to his hometown on the refinery coast of Texas. A compulsive con man, Mikey pries a fingernail of trust from his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her addict mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), hustling to get back on his feet in a brisk, comic opening act before the film reveals what it’s really about. Cinematographer Drew Daniels’ 16 mm photography conjures the sweat of an East Texas summer, and director Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine) excels at casting local nonprofessionals—although Mikey has somehow irrevocably code-switched himself into a SoCal boy. Baker treats even the most flawed of his characters with nuance and empathy. Less nuanced and more questionable are the glamorized sex scenes between 40-something Mikey and the high school junior he grooms, Strawberry (Suzanna Son, an adult at the time of filming). Nods to Trump’s looming ascendancy are a smokescreen—the relentlessly exploitative Mikey is no demagogue in the making and may instead be an avatar of Baker’s own instincts. How different is Mikey “discovering” Strawberry at a doughnut shop than Baker recruiting Son at a Gus Van Sant screening? How different is a director from a “suitcase pimp” after all? Mikey and Baker may not have the answers, but their struggle makes for compelling viewing. R. NATHAN WILLIAMS. Fox Tower, Hollywood, Laurelhurst.

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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.

The Matrix Resurrections

*** When the fourth installment of The Matrix franchise begins, we join white rabbit-inked hacker Bugs (Jessica Henwick) as she scrutinizes the epochal 1999 blockbuster’s still-breathtaking opening footage from wholly new angles just before inadvertently reanimating Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus within a faux FBI drone/sentient malware (Yahya Abudul-Mateen II). In the first feature directed without her sibling and lifelong collaborator, Lana Wachowski has a surprisingly droll touch and truly shines during trademark bursts of balletic shoot-’em-ups seemingly plucked from some near-future, zero-gravity fashion week. Now that the franchise has granted our heroes unlimited lives (and the world has proven itself to be all too eager to repurpose anti-authoritarian sloganeering for crypto-fascist ends), it’s hard not to notice the film drifting away from super-chic ultra-violence absent any semblance of consequence. In the weirdest way, though, the de facto immortality of Neo and Trinity renders their autumn romance all the more meaningful. However daft the narrative, which demands that Keanu Reeves, reborn as a celebrity game designer, spend each morning gazing wistfully at Carrie-Anne Moss’s latte order as a Bay Area supermom, his unconditional yearning echoes her eroticized devotion that defined the original. That should push the buttons of every aging cynic holding out hope that their first love might yet prove savior. There is spooning. Take the little blue pill. R. JAY HORTON. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas Town Center, Cornelius, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Eastport Plaza, Evergreen Parkway, Lloyd Center, Laurelhurst, Movies on TV, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Studio One, Tigard.

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?!” seem 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.

Licorice Pizza

** Imagine a teenage boy telling one of his parents about a woman he has a crush on. “She’s in her 20s,” he sighs. “I think I’m in love.” “It’s never going to happen,” the parent sternly replies. “Oh, I don’t know,” the boy says. “She did show me her breasts.” That conversation never happens in Licorice Pizza, but it could have. Set in 1973, the film rambles and roams through the San Fernando Valley, where 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sells water beds, opens a pinball parlor, and falls for 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim of the band Haim). While Gary and Alana never officially date, director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread) repeatedly presents them as a potential cute couple, unable or unwilling to admit he’s made a movie about an adult preying on a child. There may be debate among moviegoers about whether Anderson understands the sinister nature of their relationship, but there’s nothing in the film to suggest he does. Despite a gloriously strange subplot involving Sean Penn, a motorcycle and a wall of fire, Licorice Pizza isn’t cinema. It’s gaslighting on an epic scale. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bridgeport, Cascade, Cedar Hills, Cinemagic, Clackamas Town Center, Eastport Plaza, Fox Tower, Hollywood, St. Johns Twin Cinemas, Studio One, Vancouver Mall.

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 the 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, Cornelius, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Eastport Plaza, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Hollywood, Movies on TV, Tigard.

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, Cornelius, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Studio One, Tigard.