Your Weekly Roundup of New Movies: “American Fiction” Is Much More Than “Bamboozled” in the Publishing Industry

What to see and what to skip.

AMERICAN FICTION

**** The trailers for American Fiction have been selling the feature as Bamboozled in the publishing industry, and while that’s certainly the crux of the story, it doesn’t get to the root of what makes the film compelling. Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, the movie follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a novelist pigeonholed into the African American studies genre. Looking to break out, Monk turns in an aggressively Black tale of criminality, drug addiction and absent fathers, which becomes a sensational hit despite his attempts at sabotage. Writer-director Cord Jefferson makes the most of the satirical premise, and there’s definitely some laughs to be had at the expense of would-be progressives who fetishize stories of Black suffering. However, the real meat of American Fiction is Monk’s personal relationships, particularly with his ailing mother (Leslie Uggams), self-destructing brother (Sterling K. Brown), and newfound paramour (Erika Alexander). It’s here that we understand the root of Monk’s issues and why he strives to set himself apart from what filmmaker Radha Blank once called “poverty porn.” All the actors shine, but Wright’s comedic chops and genuine heart hold the whole thing together. He’s been a reliable character actor for years now, and seeing his long-overdue star turn is hugely gratifying. American Fiction may make some audiences uncomfortable, but its razor-sharp satire and engaging family drama make it both a must-watch and a serious awards contender. R. MORGAN SHAUNETTE. Bridgeport, Cinema 21, Hollywood.

FALLEN LEAVES

*** 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.

THE IRON CLAW

*** 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, The Nest) 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. Cedar Hills, Cinema 21, Cinemagic, City Center, Eastport, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Laurelhurst, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Progress Ridge, Vancouver Plaza.

REBEL MOON: PART ONE – A CHILD OF FIRE

*** Divisive filmmaker Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) often makes cinematic junk food for teenagers. His latest offering, Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire, is derivative of previous films (notably Seven Samurai and Star Wars) and indefensible under close scrutiny, but it has sumptuous visuals and a game cast. Sofia Boutella leads the way as Kora, an ex-soldier living a quiet life on a farming planet. After a militaristic group called the Imperium shows up demanding shares of a harvest, Kora sets out to recruit warriors who will challenge them. A simple but entertaining sci-fi yarn that wears its influences on its sleeve, Rebel Moon includes everything from a robot voiced by Anthony Hopkins to a blacksmith flying on the back of a griffin. Being the first half of a two-part film, this entry contains a lot of story setup and expository dialogue, but Snyder can’t help himself when it comes to action, filling the fights with speed ramping and slow motion. His detractors won’t find anything to change their minds about him here, but Rebel Moon offers enough enjoyment for others seeking easy escapism. PG-13. DANIEL RESTER. Netflix.

FERRARI

** 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. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Eastport, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Lake Theater, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Pioneer Place, Progress Ridge, Studio One, Vancouver Plaza.

POOR THINGS

** 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. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Cinema 21, Eastport, Evergreen Parkway, Hollywood, Laurelhurst, Living Room, Studio One, Vancouver Mall.

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT

* 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 coxswain (Callum Turner) living in his car and guest cameos by 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. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Division Street, Eastport, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Progress Ridge, Vancouver Mall, Vancouver Plaza.

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