Your Weekly Roundup of New Movies: Mahershala Ali’s Performance in “Swan Song” Sets the Entire Tone

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

TOP PICK OF THE WEEK

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+.

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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 and 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.

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

Salt in My Soul

*** If you plan to see Salt in My Soul in theaters, bring Kleenex. The heartwrenching documentary follows the life of Mallory Smith, a young woman who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a child. As a teenager, she contracted B. cepacia, a bacteria in her lungs that is often deadly for CF patients. The movie weaves together home footage, diary excerpts, and interviews with her friends, loved ones, and doctors to bring to life Smith’s remarkable story. The film is decidedly lo-fi, with long underwater shots of the sun filtering through ocean waves. It’s often gutting, from the revelation that an experimental phage therapy that attacks bacteria might have saved her life, if only she’d received it earlier, to home videos of Smith as a 4-year-old undergoing the exhausting and painful daily exercises necessary for her to breathe. Despite suffering from chronic pain, she was a star athlete in high school and went on to produce a book of poetry while studying at Stanford. She kept a 2,500-page diary from the age of 15 until her death at 25. The writing highlights in lyric and often wrenching prose the pain of her medical journey and the wisdom and zeal for life that she developed as a result of her experience with CF. I challenge anyone to finish Salt in My Soul with dry eyes. NR. GRACE CULHANE. On Demand.

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.

Parallel Mothers

** There’s little Pedro Almodóvar adores more than intoxicating accent colors, single mothers and Penélope Cruz. All three factor prominently in the Spanish auteur’s 22nd feature film, hinging on a soap opera plot treated with soulful seriousness. Cruz’s seventh collaboration with Almodóvar sees her play Janis, a 40-something magazine photographer who unexpectedly welcomes a baby after hooking up with the archaeologist helping locate her grandfather’s Spanish Civil War gravesite. Janis shares a delivery room with Ana (Milena Smit), a teen mother far less certain about her present and future. To keep it vague, their parental destinies intertwine in ways traumatic, erotic and emotionally confounding. Employing deep-focus close-ups, primary color splashes, and a score of weeping strings, Almodóvar begins experimenting with how humanely a filmmaker can treat a preposterously knotty story. Yet down the stretch, he becomes too enamored of themes like hereditary and historical trauma, painting over Janis and Ana in brushstrokes too sweeping, too neat and dragging audiences away from the characters they’d invested in. Respect to Cruz: She’s as stunning and self-possessed as ever. But in Almodóvar’s illustrious canon, Parallel Mothers is minor. Its heart shatters for mothers stranded by fate, men and nations, but surely it could do something more attentive with the pieces. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21, Netflix.