Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

FilmWatch Weekly: ‘The Iron Claw’ captures wrestling and woe, plus Lily Gladstone in ‘The Unknown Country’ and Argentina’s Oscar bid

Also this week: the Hollywood Theatre's year-end 70 mm extravaganza, and some joyful holiday favorites including "White Christmas," "Elf," and "Eyes Wide Shut."

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Zac Efron in “The Iron Claw” (courtesy A24 Films)

The relationship between pro wrestling and the movies goes back a lot farther than the first time The Rock or even Hulk Hogan showed up on the big screen. And, in its own way, The Iron Claw harkens back to the sort of 1930s Wallace Beery picture that Barton Fink was trying to write for Capitol Pictures. Those early cinematic tales of the squared circle were more melodrama than spectacle, and director Sean Durkin’s take on the real-life tragedies that befell the Von Erich family falls squarely in the “male weepie” category.

To fully detail the calamities that befall the four on-screen Von Erich brothers would constitute spoilers, but anyone going into this film expecting an affectionate tribute to the cheesy, pre-WWE days of turnbuckles and tights might be disappointed. (In fact, there were six Von Erich brothers in real life, but telling all of their stories would likely have made the film unbearable even for gluttons of grief.)

Raised by a domineering, Great Santini-esque father (Holt McCallany), brothers Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons) each follow him into the Texas wrestling circuit, using the signature move in the movie’s title as their trademark. The psychodrama is obvious: Dad hopes to achieve the grappling glory he never quite could through his boys, and his relentlessly toxic masculinity makes victims of them all.

That said, Durkin doesn’t seem interested in playing the blame game, content to half-heartedly endorse the notion that there’s a “family curse” behind the freak accidents, untreated injuries, and mental illness that runs in the clan. It’s no secret that, especially back in the 1980s, the wrestling biz was awash in steroids and, to judge from the vein-popping pre-match interviews, other more potent amphetamines. But The Iron Claw serves mostly as a simple lament, an appreciation of the fraternal bond, and an opportunity for its stars to bulk up and sport unfortunate haircuts.

Efron is genuinely impressive as Kevin, the most successful wrestler and the clearest head of the bunch. His physical transformation is impressive, and he gets a lot of mileage from a script that doesn’t delve very deep into his character’s soul. White, who seems to be taking full advantage of his buzz from The Bear, acquits himself admirably, but he has yet to show a ton of range beyond the soulful, handsome, tortured men he’s played so far. Maura Tierney, in her first significant big-screen role in a while, plays the boys’ devoutly religious, conflict-avoiding mother.

As someone who watched my share of vintage American Wrestling Association matches at my dad’s knee, it was fun to see folks like Verne Gagne, Ric Flair, and Bruiser Brody represented on screen. There are plenty of great stories from that era to be told, not all of them as depressing as this one. (Opens Friday, Dec. 22, at Cinema 21, Living Room Theaters, Salem Cinema, and other theaters)

ALSO THIS WEEK

The Unknown Country: Lily Gladstone is earning well-deserved praise for their Oscar-worthy turn in Killers of the Flower Moon, and demonstrates some of the same qualities in this fascinating fiction/documentary hybrid that provides as potent a look into the indigenous American experience today as Killers does for the 1920s. Gladstone plays a woman on her way from Minnesota to Texas following her grandmother’s death, with a stop-off to visit long-unvisited family on a South Dakota reservation. Director Morissa Maltz incorporates real people—an ebullient diner waitress, a convenience store clerk, and the family Gladstone visits—in a way that never feels forced and in fact generates a great deal of warmth and humanity. Keeping it all together is Gladstone’s luminous visage. She’s one of the great observers in movies today and through her we eyes can see something like hope. [NOTE: don’t miss the excellent hour-long Q&A with the filmmakers that’s included on the Blu-ray disc.] (Available on Blu-ray, to stream via MUBI, or to rent or own via Apple TV, Amazon Prime, and Vudu.)

Sponsor

Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

The Delinquents: Argentina’s submission for the Best International Film Academy Award starts off as a fairly ordinary heist movie. A bank employee (Daniel Elias) decides to steal enough money that he can live comfortably without working for the rest of his life. His plan involves giving the loot to a co-worker (Esteban Bigliardi) who will hide it for him while he serves a prison sentence after turning himself in. Then they’ll split the cash and each retire to a rural life of ease. What makes writer-director Rodrigo Moreno’s film special (and justifies its three-hour running time) is its exploration of just what it means to find your bliss. The men are named Morán and Román, and they eventually meet a pair of sisters named Norma and Morna. Who knows what it all means, but it’s a curiously affecting little epic. (Currently available to stream on MUBI.)

Napoleon and Malcolm X: What do these two epic biopics about two of history’s most iconic revolutionaries have in common? Not much, except that they’re screening as part of the Hollywood Theatre’s year-end 70 mm extravaganza. Also on the marquee are big-frame favorites such as Oppenheimer, The Hateful Eight (in all its Roadshow glory), and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bid a fond farewell to the year that was…something…with a reminder that cinema is best experienced as large and loud as possible. (See website for full schedule.)

THURSDAY

  • Beauty and the Boss [1932] (Hollywood)
  • The Big Lebowski [1998] (Clinton St., through Sunday)
  • Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World [2017] (Eugene Art House)

FRIDAY

  • Elf [2003] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Eyes Wide Shut [1999] (Eugene Art House, through Thursday)
  • The Hateful Eight [2015] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life [1946] (Kiggins, through Monday; Hollywood, through Sunday)
  • White Christmas [1954] (Kiggins, through Monday)

SATURDAY

  • Rare Exports [2010] (Hollywood, also Sunday)

SUNDAY

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

  • Die Hard [1988] (Hollywood)

WEDNESDAY

  • The Snow Queen [1986] (Church of Film at Clinton St.)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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