Your Weekly Roundup of Movies: Zac Efron Wields “The Iron Claw”

What to see and what to skip.

The Iron Claw (IMDB/IMDB)


*** Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the question of whether or not it was “real” dominated coverage of American professional wrestling. Were the rivalries genuine? Were the matches scripted? Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can recognize that not only was it always fixed but that obsessing over that aspect obfuscated the very real controversies endemic to the WWE that claimed the lives of Jeep Swenson, Owen Hart, and much of the Von Erich family, whose story is dramatized in A24′s The Iron Claw. Writer-director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) keeps this in mind, shooting the wrestling scenes with kayfabe (pulled punches and choreographed grapples that make the sport look more childish than intense) in full effect. But he doesn’t shy away from the very real physical toll that wrestling and steroid abuse had on brothers Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons) as they struggled to live up to the impossible standards of their domineering father, Fritz (Holt McCallany). Even knowing what tragedies befell the family doesn’t soften the blow as brother after brother is chewed up and spat out under Fritz’s reign. It’s harrowing to watch, particularly for Kevin, the only one with a support network outside the ring (thanks to his wife Pam, played by Lily James). Leaving his High School Musical and The Greatest Showman days far behind, Efron manages to convey earnestness and heartbreak while looking like a He-Man doll come to life. The Iron Claw can be agonizing, but it’s a well-crafted tragedy that puts you in an emotional headlock and keeps you there till the bell rings. R. MORGAN SHAUNETTE. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Cinema 21, City Center, Clackamas, Division Street, Eastport, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Lake Theater, Laurelhurst, Lloyd Center, Progress Ridge, Vancouver Plaza.


*** Somehow still the highest grossing stop-motion film of all time, 2000′s Chicken Run grounded its intricate set-piece gags and pun-baked silliness within a distinctly British worldview. Like the signature clay-based techniques Aardman animation studio developed for its beloved Wallace and Gromit shorts, the poultry POWs imprisoned at Tweedy’s farm always felt a step out of time, and the eventual triumph of their sheer bloody-minded determination never felt like the birth of a franchise. Nevertheless, this long-gestating sequel finds Ginger (Thandiwe Newton, replacing an aging Julia Sawalha to some controversy) and Rocky (Zachary Levi, taking the place of Mel Gibson to widespread shrugs) as parents of rambunctious tween Molly (Bella Ramsey), who’s chafing at the limits of the chickens’ hidden demi-paradise. When posters advertising the newfangled delights of a free-range industrial facility lure Molly away, the ensuing rescue mission has our reunited commandos going back over the wall and forces the filmmakers into the competitive stop-motion animation marketplace they helped spawn. While purists may quibble with the occasional CGI-aided flourish, this Netflix-financed romp blessedly preserves the original’s thumbprint-smeared, dad-joke-peppered charms and ignores recent trends toward bloodless kids’ fare in favor of another jerry-rigged thrill ride. Like the dip a fast-food magnate partner to Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) intends on pairing with her newly minted nuggets, it’s sweet and sour. But, as Mrs. Tweedy gravely intones, aren’t we all? PG. JAY HORTON. Netflix.


*** The coastal Massachusetts winter of 1964 is testing Eileen. The 24-year-old (played by Thomasin McKenzie) never intended to keep her penitentiary office job this long. Her car is fuming. Her mother is recently deceased. She lives with her father (Shea Whigham), an ex-cop who likes vodka and revolvers. This depressing tableau, with its underexposed lighting and searching woodwind score, pushes Eileen into an active fantasy life, with visions of impromptu sex and fratricide. Then into the prison strides new resident psychologist Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway)—blond, Harvard-educated, willowy, single, unflapped by the patriarchy. Eileen couldn’t have dreamt up a more enviable model of 1964 womanhood, and Rebecca immediately takes young Eileen under her wing. Hathaway’s ability to smoke while flirting (in a Katherine Hepburn-esque voice) juxtaposed with McKenzie’s wide-eyed youthfulness make Todd Haynes’ Carol the obvious comparison. Yet Eileen, based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel and directed by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), is a shiftier narrative than Carol to both exhilarating and wobbly ends. There’s a Hitchcockian streak at work, from the title-card typeface owing to Marnie (1964) to the psychologist stereotypes borrowed from Spellbound (1945). Eileen looks more forward than inward at the plot hijinks caused by playing God with traumatized people. Still, dimensionality be damned, there are worst sins than taking a wild left turn in a character study. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Bridgeport, Cascade, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV.


*** Tracking the absences in Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves reveals a lot about this love story’s autumnal flavor. Set in present-day Helsinki (with constant reports of the Russian military bombing of Mariupol on the radio), Fallen Leaves contains almost no digital technology. There are no careers, only jobs. No forward momentum. No children. Hell, there’s no one younger than 40 in the film, save for a synthwave duo that plays at protagonist Holappa’s local bar one evening. (The passion in their music stirs in him only the sadness to have another drink.) Even so, Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is interested in Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). They’re two townies firmly in middle age, wrapping themselves in the stoicism of a hard day’s work (industrial cleaning and shelf-stocking) and lonely beds. The emptiness of their lives and their city makes them seem destined to connect, but with Helsinki’s understated harshness, what vulnerability is left? The filmmaking mimics the characters’ stiffness with long static shots while costuming Holappa and Ansa in monochromatic reds and greens, as if suggesting that emotionality has to live somewhere, if only in vibrant dyes. To this end, Kaurismäki cuts a few corners in the film’s 81-minute runtime, using folk and pop songs to loudly express what Holappa and Ansa might feel. The audience can really hear the music. Can the characters? NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Living Room.


** From Thief (1981) to Heat (1995), Michael Mann’s best films hinge on men whose all-consuming expertise destroys their emotional availability. If Ferrari is the 80-year-old directing icon’s final statement on that theme, it’s more haunted than ever by families broken and jobs well done. This snapshot biopic of Ferrari founder and patriarch Enzo (Adam Driver) finds the “Commendatore” (as his employees call him) at a low moment. It’s 1957. His company coffers are bare. His grief-stricken wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), is fed up with his cheating, while his mistress (Shailene Woodley) has borne a secret heir to the Ferrari empire. The only antidote to this litany of human problems? Throw innovative aerodynamics and eager drivers into the meat grinder of the Mille Miglia. A win at this treacherous race, we’re told, would secure Enzo’s good fortunes. Ferrari is probably a better statement on Mann’s career than a standalone movie. Woodley and Cruz are cast in tough spots (with tough accents, too)—sad, angry women waiting to be recognized by an absent man—as the story roughly shifts gears from intimate drama to action that Enzo watches from the sidelines. Tougher still, liquid-looking visual effects mar the film’s most shocking moments. For both Michael Mann and Enzo, bodies of work overwhelm efforts. Boys and their toys to the last. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Opens Dec. 24 at Bridgeport, Cascade, Cedar Hills, City Center, Division Street, Eastport, Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Progress Ridge, Vancouver Mall, Vancouver Plaza.


** Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) experiences a feminist awakening in ways only a man could write, like making love to Mark Ruffalo and working in a French brothel. Shocker: We’re in the minds of director Yorgos Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara, the lurid stylists of The Favorite (2018). That film whipped up a soufflé of 18th century sexual intrigue, but Poor Things, based on Alasdair Gray’s novel, strides into Victorian England, where the automatonlike Bella is cared for/imprisoned by surgeon Dr. Godwin (Willem Dafoe) and his lackey Max (Ramy Youssef). Bella, jerky in movement and literal in speech, has a blunt innocence that inspires a wonderstruck Max to describe her as “a very pretty retard.” Few things betray shallowness of vision faster than a fetishization of the politically incorrect, but Lanthimos barrels on with his juvenile flourishes, blending Wes Andersonian whimsy with lame “witty” lines like, “Let us touch each other’s genital pieces!” By the time the director tacks on an extended homage to Freaks (1932), it’s excruciatingly clear that his affectations (monotone dialogue, steampunkish visuals) are a thin mask for his paucity of ideas. Only in the presence of Ruffalo, playing a sleazy and seductive lawyer, does the film vibrate with life. Adopting an English accent about as convincing as Spam packaged in a tin of Walker’s Shortbread, Ruffalo’s performance is the antidote to the artificial quirks of Poor Things. He’s so joyously fake that he’s scarily real. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Cinema 21, Hollywood.


* In this wearying portrait of University of Washington’s 1936 championship rowing squad, Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) proclaims eight-man crew to be the world’s most grueling competition, which may well be true. It’s generally understood that the tradition survives at prep academies and Ivy League institutions so that elites might legitimately dominate a team sport the poorer 99 percent consider too punishing, expensive and dull. But as this new George Clooney-helmed passion project aches to prove, ‘twasn’t always so. Composed of orphaned scholarship cases, ex-trust funders dispossessed by the Depression, and semi-autistic amateur pianists, the ‘36 JV squad thrills a regatta-attending, newspaper-reading, under-entertained nation by winning boat races again and again (and again-—at the Berlin Olympics!). This, aside from some wispy flirtations thrust upon a car-living coxswain (Callum Turner) and guest cameos from Jesse Owens and Hitler, is the film in its entirety. (To be fair, we’re also taught best practices: Keep the oars pointed in the same direction and exploit desperate strength born of generational poverty.) Even Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, another entry in the microgenre of New Deal-era athlete biopics directed by Oscar-winning heartthrobs, employed Louis Zamperini’s trip to the Berlin games as a mere prelude for wartime ruminations on eroticized torture. The appeal of lads propelled forward through laborious craft is obvious, but The Boys in the Boat fails to do more than skim the surface both literally and metaphorically. PG-13. JAY HORTON. Opens Dec. 24 at Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Century Eastport, City Center, Clackamas, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, Movies On TV, Progress Ridge, Vancouver Plaza.

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