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Your Weekly Roundup of New Movies: “A Hero” Is a Leading Contender for Best International Feature at the Oscars for Good Reason

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

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TOP PICK OF THE WEEK

A Hero

**** Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi seems poised to become a household name among film buffs around the world following the release of this latest project. He’s already snagged two Academy Awards, most recently won the Best Director Award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in November 2021, and A Hero is now a leading Oscar contender in the Best International Feature Film category. It begins simply with the main character, Rahim, played with a quiet grace by acclaimed Iranian theater and film actor Amir Jadidi, walking out of prison and into the Iranian urban landscape. Over the course of two days, we learn Rahim was incarcerated because he couldn’t repay a debt and, upon his release, he attempts to start fresh and even performs a good deed. Of course, as the saying goes, such righteous actions never go unpunished. Farhadi never insults his audience with obvious exposition. The viewer is left to discover who Rahim is, the various characters’ motivations, and who the stories’ villains and heroes are. All of the film’s atmosphere and emotional drive is delivered with naturalistic faithfulness by the actors, and ambient street noise replaces a contrived score to emphasize that tone. The story unfolds exactly how it’s introduced by the main character. With a quiet grace. PG-13. RAY GILL JR. Amazon Prime, Living Room.

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The Tragedy of Macbeth

**** At once dignified and deranged, Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is just one of countless pleasures to be found in The Tragedy of Macbeth, director Joel Coen’s gorgeously austere adaptation of Shakespeare’s spooky saga about power and madness. The hurly burly is the same—once more, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) plot to murder the rightful king of Scotland—but with the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) and production designer Stefan Dechant (The Call of the Wild), Coen brings a fresh sheen of grim beauty to the Bard’s text, using stark shades of black and white and eerily barren sets to deliver a master class in menacing minimalism. Even better are the performances, with Washington playing Macbeth as a creepily affable chap—”if there’s power to be had, why shouldn’t I have it?” he seems to wonder—and McDormand singeing the screen with steely terror. She understands that Lady Macbeth’s defining characteristic is her impatience with her husband’s pesky conscience, which makes it all the more haunting when she discovers a conscience of her own. She, Washington and Coen comprehend the play through and through, which is why The Tragedy of Macbeth is more than a movie. It’s a proper Macbeth. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Cinema 21, Hollywood, Living Room, Studio One.

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, Eastport Plaza, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Studio One, Tigard.

Red Rocket

*** Red Rocket opens in July 2016, as adult film actor Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), bruised from a 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. Bridgeport, Cascade, Cinema 21, Clackamas Town Center, Dine-In Progress Ridge, Fox Tower, Hollywood, Living Room, Movies on TV.

Swan Song

*** When one performer plays identical characters in a movie, it’s often a contorted acting showcase: from Dead Ringer (1964) all the way to Dead Ringers (1988). But rarely, if ever, has it been done with the nuance and composure of Mahershala Ali in Swan Song. In this Apple TV+ sci-fi drama, the two-time Oscar winner double-embodies Cameron Turner, a terminally ill husband and father debating whether to clone himself (consciousness included) for his family’s benefit. In the frosty, minimal calm of Benjamin Cleary’s directorial debut, Ali’s performance sets the entire tone with each conflicted breath, working out the exact variation between the two Camerons. The original aches to control a process beyond his control (nod to Glenn Close as the preeminent should-we-trust-her cloning scientist), while the genetically unsick version pines to build on the memories of Cameron’s wife (Naomie Harris) and son (Dax Rey) they now both share. At a distance, Cleary has trouble balancing whether we’re watching an almost hokey tech-overreach thriller or almost maudlin memory piece (some discomforting mix of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Never Let Me Go), and it’s sometimes unclear from shot to shot with whom we should identify. But the genre particulars hardly matter. It’s a Mahershala Ali movie—twice over. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Apple TV+.

The Tender Bar

*** Ever since Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) flatly declared his little nephew hopeless at sports and pointed him toward a book-stuffed closet instead, J.R. Moehringer (Daniel Ranieri) was set on the path toward writerdom. And when The Tender Bar is about J.R. living a life worthy of its namesake 2005 memoir, the film is irresistibly charming. Abandoned by his radio DJ father, J.R. and his mother (Lily Rabe) move into the tough-loving extended family’s Long Island home, cramped with outsized personalities like Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) and Uncle Charlie. Helmed by George Clooney, who has been on a directing cold streak dating back to 2005, The Tender Bar wisely tunes itself to the avuncular wit that a nearly 50-year-old Affleck inherits from leading men just like Clooney—quick with a line, a wink and (in this case) a free round at the family bar. While Tye Sheridan (as college-age J.R., flirting quite well at Yale) is by no means to blame for the movie’s shortcomings, its homestretch unwisely fixates on J.R. planning to write The Tender Bar and—even more bizarrely—on the memoir’s industry viability. That self-reflexive turn is nearly soul-sucking, presuming we cared about J.R.’s book more than J.R.’s family. Luckily the soul-sucking isn’t fatal; this one’s all heart. 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 Philip 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 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.