By Alex McPherson
Brooding, raw, yet ultimately uneven, directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s “God’s Creatures” is dripping with dread-inducing atmosphere and acting talent, led by an excellent Emily Watson.

Set in a coastal Irish fishing town — drenched in fog, dreariness, antiquated ideals, and a heavy sprinkling of impending doom — the film opens with the drowning of a young man. In this community, nobody is taught how to swim, so the villagers aren’t tempted to risk death themselves to rescue someone, a fitting illustration of the stiff norms that have remained for generations.

Aileen (Watson) works as a supervisor at the seafood processing plant (run entirely by women, except for one male manager), preparing oysters and fish caught by men in the village. She lives with her stern husband Con (Declan Conlon) and near-catatonic father-in-law Paddy (Lalor Roddy), who will barely move a muscle only to suddenly slap Aileen in the face, implying a violent past. 

Aileen dutifully goes through the motions — working long hours, quietly conversing with coworkers during smoke breaks, babysitting her daughter Erin’s (Toni O’Rourke) infant child, grabbing an evening drink at the pub — until the day her dearly beloved son, Brian (Paul Mescal), returns from a multi-year trip to Australia. Brian had left Aileen and company unexpectedly, not communicating with the family while overseas.

This left a gaping wound in Aileen’s heart, so his unexpected reappearance fills her with joy; Con and Erin are more ambivalent about Brian’s return. Brian is eager to resume working on his grandfather’s oyster farm, and Aileen has no qualms about stealing supplies from work to support him. In fact, Aileen is willing to sacrifice much to protect her child, even if he turns out to be a far different person than she imagines he is.

Soon enough, troubles arise. Brian is accused of sexual assault by a young woman and family friend named Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi), who works at Aileen’s plant and once had a romantic relationship with Brian years ago. Aileen provides an alibi in court for Brian without a second thought, thus saving him from further investigation. 

This decision, however, gradually eats away at Aileen’s psyche, as she sees Sarah’s subsequent ostracization from the townsfolk, and experiences a crisis of conscience. She’s torn between her maternal instincts and factual reality, slowly but surely recognizing the troubled traditions that control her community, manifesting in both subtle and blunt ways. The title “God’s Creatures” takes an ironic bent as Aileen comes to recognize the harmful dynamics at play, baked into the fabric of the land.

Suffice to say, “God’s Creatures” is quite a downer. A simmering menace persists from beginning to end — largely thanks to impeccable sound design and carefully calibrated performances — rendering this bleak drama practically a horror film. With a muted color palette and stark, wide vistas, Chayse Irvin’s cinematography is fittingly chilly. The score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, is full of discordant strings and startling percussion, complementing the clamor of oyster shells and the swoosh of lapping waves. 

Like a living, breathing monstrosity, the music builds upon itself as Aileen’s conflict intensifies, incorporating additional elements that, at one point, evoke the feeling of an unseen creature breathing heavily — an omnipresent threat that exerts control over anyone in its grip. Shane Crowley’s screenplay, while occasionally leaning into heavy-handedness, rarely feels out-of-place, its authenticity helped by thick Irish accents. 

Watson is, as ever, absolutely mesmerizing as Aileen, communicating multitudes without uttering a word. Although the film withholds detail of her past and her close bond with Brian, Aileen remains a believably conflicted protagonist. Her initial relief and happiness with her son’s return turns to rash protectiveness, doubt, anger, and instability. Watson sells each aspect of her character’s evolution (or de-evolution), the camera focusing on her during prolonged closeups where we witness the guilt, grief, and fire burning just beneath her stoic facade. 

Mescal’s charismatic screen presence suits the character of Brian, a shifty lad whose banality belies a violent, impulsive heart. Brian acts very differently when he’s being watched from when he’s alone, and Mescal expertly embodies that dichotomy, although the film leaves little doubt to Brian’s culpability. Franciosi almost steals the show, lending haunted gravitas to the role of Sarah, a woman alienated from the only place she’s called home.

Despite excellent fundamentals and ever-timely subject matter, though, Davis and Holmer’s film fails to explore its characters and the world they inhabit with the depth they merit. “God’s Creatures” prizes tone above all else, grounding us in a richly textured setting, yet neglecting to give its inhabitants the same care.

Indeed, Aileen’s grappling with morality does raise pertinent questions about love and loyalty versus truth and justice, but winds up wading through melodramatic waters. It’s a shame that, at arguably the height of her intensity, the film turns away from her, and undercuts both Watson’s performance and the contemplative storytelling that came before. 

In addition, the film’s focus on Aileen’s struggles takes attention away from Sarah’s experiences and the isolation she feels. Aileen is often relegated to observing her from afar, eventually recognizing the role she plays in Sarah’s suffering. This approach, while giving Watson loads of time to showcase her skill as a performer, lessens the emotional heft of Sarah’s story. 

Scenes where Aileen encounters Sarah tap into the insidious ways that casual misogyny and power imbalances manifest themselves, but only on the surface level. One searing monologue by Franciosi at the film’s conclusion alludes to a resilient, scarred, and complex character who deserves more than a few moments to get the spotlight. Davis and Holmer choose to merely acknowledge Sarah’s challenges rather than engage in insightful commentary, especially surrounding her treatment by others, and her own courage and strength despite it. By the time “God’s Creatures” finally centers her narrative, it proves to be too little, too late — deserving of a plot with wider focus, and one less centered on Aileen’s predictable (albeit undeniably well-acted) psychological turmoil.

Still, the formal elements of “God’s Creatures” shine, even when the drama takes jarring turns. This is an icy, chilly ordeal, which leaves a mark once the end credits roll regardless.

Emily Watson

“God’s Creatures” is a 2022 psychological drama co-directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, starring Emily Watson, Paul Mescal and Aisling Franciosi. It is rated R for language, and runs 1 hour, 40 minutes. It opened in select theatres in U.S. on Sept. 30 and is now available to rent through digital platforms. Alex’s Grade: B.

By Alex McPherson

A grueling, disorienting, and horrific reimagining of the life of Norma Jeane Baker, who became Marilyn Monroe, director Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” ultimately proves to be a case of excessive, at times exploitative, style over substance.

Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, “Blonde” isn’t a traditional biopic in any sense, instead plunging viewers into a hallucinatory, David Lynchian hellhole that never lets up for its whopping 2-hour-and-46-minute runtime. Viewers begin with the child Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher, effective in her few scenes), living in Los Angeles with her single, alcoholic, mentally unstable mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), while a fire rages outside in the Hollywood Hills.

Norma Jeane’s absentee father is apparently a bigshot in TinselTown, but she’s never met him, prompting trauma and insecurity that persistently haunt her throughout her life. Gladys, losing her mind and desperate to find him, then nearly drowns Norma Jeane in a bathtub, only to release her at the last second and let her escape to the next-door neighbors.

Flash forward a bit, and Norma Jeane is sent to an orphanage against her will. Flash forward again, and the “Marilyn Monroe” persona has been born, with Ana de Armas portraying our heroine with admirable, if misguided, fervor. Scarred by her horrible childhood, manipulated by devilish studio executives to advance her career, entering one corrosive relationship after another, being frequently underestimated, experiencing drug addiction, and remaining unable to separate her personal life from her public, hyper-sexualized persona, Norma Jeane’s life is tough, to say the least, and draining to watch unfold.  

Indeed, despite Dominik’s stylistic bravado and de Armas’ transformational performance, “Blonde” is difficult to recommend. This is an NC-17 rated film, and Dominik goes all-out depicting Norma Jeane’s abuse by practically everyone surrounding her. It’s too bad that far less attention is given to the character herself, reducing her to a victim sans agency, and robbing her of three-dimensionality that would have lent poignancy to the film’s onslaught of terrors. 

At least de Armas gives her all. A Cuban actor who’s left positive impressions in such films as “Knives Out” and “No Time to Die,” her impression of Norma Jeane’s voice and appearance is uncanny, particularly in Dominik’s painstaking recreations of iconic moments from Norma Jeane’s career.

De Armas’ commitment to the role overshadows the rest of the cast — though Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody stand out as Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, respectively. Her portrayal is especially impactful when we witness the moment she quietly shifts from the crumbling Norma Jeane into the confident, alluring Marilyn — a character that she can disappear into, if never remove herself from. 

But although de Armas has the acting chops to explore Norma Jeane’s multifaceted headspace — and the real-life woman’s successes and triumphs amidst the gloom — “Blonde” doesn’t give her much room to delve into her complexities. A romance with Eddy G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) and Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) marks one of the only times she actually feels companionship in the entire film, if only briefly and later upended — including a sex scene that seemingly warps and stretches the screen to pretentious effect.

Rather, more often than not, de Armas is reduced to hysterical outbursts and a performance defined by repetition, enduring violence against her (continually) naked body and her mind. Viewers aren’t granted any noteworthy insights into the dark side of Hollywood, being force-fed familiar points of misogyny, sexism, and mental illness. Even with fleeting moments here and there of Norma Jeane getting a chance to voice her opinions and demonstrate her intelligence, “Blonde” reduces her to a one-note, broken husk of a character, putting Dominik’s in-your-face filmmaking at the forefront. 

Speaking of, “Blonde” certainly doesn’t lack artistic creativity, for better and worse. Jumping between different aspect ratios and switching between black-and-white and color photography (seemingly with little reason), Chayse Irvin’s immersive cinematography is complemented by editing that’s alternately, woozy, ethereal, brutally uncompromising, and invasive.

Through this, “Blonde” effectively creates feelings of discomfort, irritability, and shocked hypnotism. The score, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, captures a melancholy that hints at the emotion lurking somewhere at the story’s core, begging to be released.

Still, for all the transfixion gleaned from the film’s flourishes, “Blonde” is chock full of scenes that dehumanize, violate, and demean Norma Jeane, bashing viewers over the head with the awful ways she’s treated, as well as the ever-present public eye, full of men whose mouths gape open as if to swallow her whole. From abortions viewed from the perspective of Norma Jeane’s vagina, to an absolutely vile fellatio scene late in the film that juxtaposes a spaceship crashing into the White House with reaching an orgasm, it all just begs the question… Why was this necessary?

And that’s the final takeaway from “Blonde.” Despite individual elements that shine, the overall piece is more confusing and maddening than satisfying, leaving me frustrated thinking of the powerful film that could have been.

Blonde. Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe. Cr. Netflix © 2022

“Blonde” is a 2022 drama-fantasy written and directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Garret Dillahunt, Julianne Nicholson, and Lily Fisher. It is rated NC-17 for some sexual content and the runtime is 2 hours, 46 minutes. It streams on Netflix beginning Sept. 28, and is in selected theaters Sept. 23 (but not in St. Louis). Alex’s Grade: C- 

By Alex McPherson

Bolstered by a towering performance from Mia Goth, director Ti West’s “Pearl” is a captivating, upsetting, and idiosyncratic horror drama that rivals the brilliance of “X” while standing on its own as a discomforting character study.

Described as a prequel to West’s “X,” released this spring, “Pearl” takes place in rural Texas during the height of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. A young woman named Pearl (Goth) lives on a homestead with her domineering mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), and her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland), who cannot move or speak and requires constant attention. Pearl’s husband, Howard, is overseas fighting in the first World War, leaving Pearl confined to the farm with only cows, geese, and one very hungry reptile to keep her company. She dreams of becoming a movie star and leaving her former life behind to chase fame and glory, to Ruth’s disdain. 

But all’s not well in paradise. During the film’s hyper-stylized introduction — complete with a sweeping orchestral score, title cards, and camerawork showcasing an idyllic environment bursting with vivid colors with the sun beaming above (the same farm from “X,” in fact, immediately prompting uneasiness) — Pearl dances before an audience of farm animals… only to be interrupted by a goose who waddles into the barn. She calmly stabs it with a pitchfork and feeds it to her “pet” crocodile in the nearby swamp, as one does.

Not allowed to leave the farm, except to pick up medicine for her father, Pearl nevertheless stops by the cinema in town and becomes enraptured by the dancers on screen. She bumps into the charismatic yet manipulative projectionist (David Corenswet), who insists that she’s got what it takes to be up there one day. Pearl’s sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), stops by with her mother to drop off a roast suckling pig — which Ruth refuses to accept, leaving the gnats to consume it on the front porch — and informs Pearl of tryouts for a local dancing troupe, potentially giving her the chance to finally prove her talent. With her heart racing and Ruth growing increasingly hostile, tensions continue to escalate, reaching a fever pitch that results in copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears, as Pearl most certainly will not take no for an answer. 

Eschewing the throwback ‘70s thrills of “X,” “Pearl” works as a poignant, legitimately disturbing drama, where viewers are encouraged to understand what drives its troubled heroine to murder, all while encountering three-dimensional characters that live and die in shades of gray (and red).

From the very beginning, West establishes an off-kilter world of juxtaposition and the harmless-turned-sinister. “Pearl” resembles a technicolor dreamscape popping with color and warm hues, belying a dark heart — grafting grotesque displays of violence, mental illness, and the absolute darkest humor onto bucolic surroundings. The glossy haze of Old Hollywood combines with sparkles of Pearl’s demented edges — lurid fever-dream hallucinations, victims’ faces reappearing unexpectedly — to chilling effect.

The true star of “Pearl,” though, is Goth (also a producer and co-writer), who imbues a devastating sense of humanity into the character — everything always seems genuine, from heartbreak to fearsome outbursts. Pearl, despite her exaggerated actions, still feels like a grounded human being, held back by her parents and destructive proclivities, attempting to seize a moment to break free from her restrictive world and essentially be reborn. Goth is astonishing, conjuring feelings of sorrow and disquietude in equal measure. One six-minute-plus monologue near the finale, for example, is one of the best acting showcases of 2022 thus far. Viewers witness Pearl experience an unpredictable storm of emotions, emerging as broken and as frightening as ever. Indeed, West isn’t afraid to plant the camera for extended dialogue-driven scenes, where viewers observe her transformation from jovial and upbeat to hurt and volatile first-hand. It’s both dreadfully suspenseful and darkly funny. 

The side characters are also given unexpected depth. Ruth, a German immigrant who’s had to sacrifice to provide for the family (caring for her sick husband, who she can never abandon, and guarding against the virus raging everywhere), is weathered by trauma — projecting her insecurities onto Pearl, while also being unsure how to ultimately keep her under control. One fraught dinner sequence in particular, largely lit by flashes of lightning, positions her as a villain — yet, here, again, “Pearl” eerily subverts expectations by putting us in Pearl’s headspace and breaking with a thornier reality. 

Sunderland does so much with his eyes alone as Pearl’s father — a man imprisoned by illness, unwillingly trapping others to be guardians, and existing at the whims of their crumbling psyches. Jenkins-Purro is similarly strong as Misty, a poor soul too naive and clueless for her own good. Corenswet brings both a charm and sly malevolence to the unnamed projectionist with questionable intentions.

Like with “X,” West interrogates ideas of how ambition, youth, and delusion can warp and fragment, as well as the connection between sex and violence. Sex becomes another facet of Pearl’s extreme rebellion against her “world” and everyone within it, paired with vicious carnage.

Although the last moments leave a few too many unanswered questions, “Pearl” is brilliant for its empathy, scares, stylization, and top-notch acting all around. It’s a different beast than “X,” but even more memorable, and I can’t wait to see how this trilogy concludes.

Mia Goth as “Pearl”

“Pearl” is a 2022 horror movie directed by Ti West and starring Mia Goth, Matthew Sunderland, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, and Emma Jenkins-Purro. It is rated R for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity and runtime is ` hour, 43 minutes. It opened in theaters on Sept. 16. Alex’s Grade: A+

By Alex McPherson

Wildly creative and packed with fascinating ideas, director George Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is uneven, yet never less than intriguing.

Based on the short story  “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A.S. Byatt, the film centers around Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), an all-business-no-pleasure narratologist who travels to Istanbul to give a presentation on storytelling. Alithea has convinced herself that she’s perfectly content being immersed in her work without much of a social life to speak of.

Additionally, Alithea sees visions of spirits from time to time — one older gent, clad in a white robe, angrily floats toward her during her talk and she promptly faints, for example — but blames the phenomenon on her imagination. After purchasing an antique bottle at a bazaar, she finds that she’s actually in possession of a Djinn (Idris Elba), who emerges as a hulking figure, complete with pointy ears and golden dust, that barely fits in Alithea’s hotel room. The Djinn, soon shrinking down in size, is a stoic, contemplative, and world-weary being that needs Alithea’s help.

Alithea learns that she must let the Djinn fulfill three wishes (her heart’s desire) to grant his freedom. Unfortunately for the Djinn, Alithea doesn’t have anything to ask for— her “desire” has been repressed by cynicism and a solitary lifestyle that she insists suits her just fine. She’s also highly skeptical of the Djinn’s intentions. In order to prove himself, the Djinn proceeds to outline how he became trapped in the bottle, and presents three subsequent stories of wishes gone wrong. 

It all begins with a love triangle involving the Djinn, the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum), and the vengeful King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad), who casts the fateful curse on the Djinn to take Sheba for himself. We’re then transported back to the 15th- and 16th-century Ottoman Empire in tales of magic, greed, madness, cutthroat machinations, and ridiculously bad luck, before one last story of the Djinn meeting a beautiful, intelligent Turkish merchant named Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), and the turbulent bond that followed. Back in the hotel room, Alithea’s emotional barriers begin to weaken, and love might be in the air.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is nothing if not imaginative, coming from the mind that created the “Mad Max” and “Happy Feet” franchises. Miller’s direction remains as energetic, out-there, and distinctive as ever, but the film remains irritatingly distant. There’s plenty to think about regarding the power of stories to connect, enlighten, and give meaning to our lives; however, the film’s illustration of that idea lacks punch — a theme in need of stronger characters and tighter pacing.

Fortunately, even though “Three Thousand Years of Loving” never achieves the swooning heights it aspires to, Miller presents such a bizarre, unorthodox vision that it stays engaging throughout. The film’s strengths lie in those aforementioned flashbacks, complete with violence, treachery, jealousy, heartache, and heartbreak, each highlighting different morals relating to power and desire. Cinematographer John Seale captures sweeping, vibrantly photographed palaces and their surrounding landscapes. This includes surreal touches like an instrument that plays itself, a sinister figure whose head erupts into spiders, and first-person-POV shots of the Djinn as he wispily floats throughout winding chambers, trying to lure someone back to the bottle he’s stuck in. It’s difficult to become attached to anyone specific in these sequences — largely due to Elba’s pervasive narration — but they’re still inventive, possessing Miller’s characteristic flair for the idiosyncratic and darkly comedic.

The happenings of Alithea and the Djinn are far less interesting. Swinton does a fine job portraying a reserved, closed-off individual, but her arc seems rushed, coming across as abrupt and awkward in the final stretch. Since most of the film takes place in flashbacks, the present-day drama is sidelined, and Alithea’s evolution isn’t given the attention it needed to earn the heavy-handed payoff. Elba is typically great, but his dry, stoic line readings (in keeping with his character) aren’t the most dynamic or attention-grabbing. His chemistry with Swinton is similarly hamstrung by the screenplay, making their romance difficult to become enraptured by.

All that being said, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is worth a look for Miller’s unconventional narrative and visual flair, despite a resolution that left me wanting — longing, in fact — for something greater. 

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a 2022 fantasy-drama-romance directed by George Miller and starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba. It is rated for some sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief violence and runs 1 hour, 48 minutes. It opened in theaters Aug. 26. Alex’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

Sharp and cynical with plenty on its mind, director Halina Reijn’s “Bodies Bodies Bodies” delivers an unpredictable, ruthless, and highly entertaining experience.

Taking place in today’s age of Twitter and TikTok, the film centers around a “hurricane party” that goes dreadfully wrong. Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), a recovering addict who doesn’t text much in the all-powerful group chat, brings along her new boo, Bee (Maria Bakalova), a soft-spoken immigrant who’s less financially well-off than the rest of the gang. They’re heading to a mansion owned by the parents of David (Pete Davidson), who is trying desperately to seem manly.

Also present are David’s insecure-actor-girlfriend, Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), gregarious and “woke” podcaster Alice (Rachel Sennott), Alice’s much-older boyfriend, Greg (Lee Pace), and the enigmatic Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), whose snide remarks invite suspicion early on. David, Emma, Alice, and Jordan — most with their own fraught history with Sophie — are weirded out that Sophie decided to show up to the party at all, setting the stage for plenty of tea to be spilled.

After most of the lot is sufficiently drunk and coked-up, the music blares, the storm rages, and Sophie suggests they play “Bodies Bodies Bodies.” First, everyone sits in a circle, takes a shot, and punches the person to their left — which, unsurprisingly, becomes emotionally charged, despite frequent reminders that they’re just doing it for funsies.

Then, they play a variation on the Murder in the Dark formula where a “killer” is selected, the lights go out, someone is tagged, and the players regroup to debate who did it. Unfortunately, the real bodies soon start piling up. With the wi-fi out, the Gen-Zers — plus 40-year-old Greg — revert to their dangerously self-absorbed tendencies, amplifying their petty conflicts into life-and-death stakes as they try to locate the true killer.

“Bodies Bodies Bodies” might not be for everyone, especially older folks, but Reijin’s suspenseful, layered, and memorable film expertly threads a needle where humor intertwines with tragedy. It doesn’t hurt that the entire cast absolutely nails their respective roles, bringing pathos to characters who often make narcissistic decisions to mask their insecurities. 

Indeed, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” doesn’t paint flattering portraits of any of them, but portrays them as lost souls so wrapped up in privilege and self-centeredness that strong communication is thrown to the wayside. Their dialogue — pervasively deploying topical buzzwords like “woke,” “ally,” “triggered,” “gaslight,” and more — provides plenty of laughs, but operates on a deeper metaphorical level as well.

Their exaggerated personalities represent a distillation of social media’s anti-social repercussions and their shelteredness from the outside world. They lack the skills, willingness, and intelligence necessary to evaluate the situation rationally, at the same time twisting those aforementioned buzzwords to apply to themselves, zapping them from meaning, and blowing up their “drama” so much that it turns to downright animalism.

That the film is still often hilarious is an achievement in itself, thanks to Sarah DeLappe’s screenplay and the whole cast. Sennott, memorable in “Shiva Baby,” once again shows her knack for comedic timing in several tirades that are simultaneously eye-rolling, gut-bustingly funny, and concerning, as this pressure cooker of a film continues to gain steam.

Davidson brings his usual off-kilter shtick with some genuinely uncomfortable moments sprinkled in, exemplifying the film’s tonal shifts from ridiculous to shocking. Pace is also great as Greg, a Gen-Xer more separated from the others’ worldviews.

Bakalova, who was so good in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” brings an air of mystery and maybe-innocence to the character of Bee, from whose perspective the film largely takes place. Bee, the odd one out, is essentially trapped with a bunch of crazy people, but has her own secrets nevertheless that paint a target on her back.

Wonders, as Emma, effectively conveys her cattiness and fragility. Stenberg gives a stellar performance, rendering Sophie one of the more multifaceted partygoers, her naivete creating more issues than solutions. Herrold is perhaps the standout of them all, lending a stern calculation to Jordan’s actions largely fueled by economic and romantic anxieties.

As the chaos ensues, Jasper Wolf’s claustrophobic, handheld cinematography, with many scenes lit by glow-sticks and smartphone flashlights, fits the proceedings like a glove, underlining the long-held resentments between the “friends.” The electronic-sounding score, by Disasterpiece, is fittingly paranoid and jumpy, reflecting the digital sphere turning into a figurative warzone. The soundtrack, including a track by Charlie XCX, is laced with irony. 

No spoilers here, but the final reveal is perfect, reframing everything that came before in new light that should benefit repeat viewings. Taken as a whole, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is far more than a mere cringe-comedy or a seen-it-before slasher movie. Rather, this is a satire with real bite, demonstrating a thesis that resonates in our increasingly divided reality.

“Bodies Bodies Bodies” is a 2022 horror comedy thriller directed by Halina Reijin and starring Rachel Sennott, Maria Bakalova, Pete Davidson, Lee Pace, Myha’la Herrold, Amanda Stenberg and Chase Sui Wonders. Rated R for violence, bloody images, drug use, sexual references and pervasive language, its run time is 1 hour, 34 minutes. It opened in theaters Aug. 5. Alex’s Grade: A 

By Alex McPherson

Director Dan Trachtenberg’s “Prey” is a lean, primal, nerve-wracking, and vividly shot underdog story smeared in glistening blood, featuring an expert performance from Amber Midthunder.

Trachtenberg’s film, unfolding prior to the events of 1987’s classic “Predator,” takes place 300 years ago in the Great Plains, focusing on Naru (Midthunder), a member of the Comanche Nation and warrior-in-training who is determined to prove herself. She’s frequently underestimated by men in her tribe, including by her brother, a skilled hunter named Taabe (Dakota Beavers). One day, however, Naru spots a bizarre object in the sky: a spaceship that just happens to transport the Predator (Dane DiLiegro) on its first visit to planet Earth. Believing this to be a divine sign to complete a warrior rite of passage, Naru insists on joining a team with her brother to kill a mountain lion that’s slain one of their tribesmen.

Before long, however, Naru is certain that something else is afoot. And she’d be correct. A formidable presence, complete with sharp tusks, chiseled abs, and numerous sci-fi murder contraptions, is able to brutalize any creature with ease, often cloaked in invisibility and emitting ominous click-clacking sounds that blend in amid the hissing wind and creaking branches. Continuing to be doubted, Naru and her trusty canine companion, Sarii (a true legend), venture out into the wilderness to protect her community and realize her potential that’s long been repressed by tradition. Battling the elements, colonizers, and the iconic spine-extractor itself, she must use her ingenuity and perseverance to survive, as the hunter becomes the hunted. 

While “Prey” has plot beats that could have used more time to breathe, Trachtenberg has crafted a hardcore adventure tale that conveys a grand sense of scale with a protagonist who’s easy to root for. 

Indeed, it’s unfortunate that “Prey” isn’t releasing theatrically — this film definitely deserves the big screen. Jeff Cutter’s cinematography is utterly spectacular at times, pulling back the camera to showcase vast rolling hills and gushing rivers bordered by dense forests untouched by technology, as Naru and Sarii bravely journey onwards, fending for themselves in an environment both liberating and fearsome. Complemented by Sarah Schachner’s pounding, percussive score, we feel like we’re on an epic adventure, the specter of death ever-present.

The film’s expansive setting isn’t just used as eye candy, though, as “Prey” calls back to a more classical form of storytelling, where dialogue is largely minimal, and Naru’s battles with Mother Nature and the Predator take center stage. Like her, viewers stay in-the-moment, which aids immersion but also limits how much we learn about Naru as a person. Thanks to Midthunder’s commanding, star-making performance, we see her will to live through her fierce gaze and body language alone, but our emotional attachment to both her and Taabe is limited due to the film’s uneven pacing, especially in the latter half. This isn’t helped by dialogue that occasionally leans clumsily blunt when subtlety could have added more texture to characters’ motivations.

That’s not to say the action isn’t spectacular, though. From barely escaping quicksand with her makeshift tomahawk-boomerang, to a close encounter with a bear, and going toe-to-toe with the Predator itself, “Prey” delivers set piece after set piece with aplomb, clearly framing the carnage to maximize suspense, bloodletting, and skin-of-your-teeth victories. One sequence late in the film within a burnt forest drenched in fog is pure cinematic bliss — the Predator vanquishing foes with cutthroat brutality, seemingly self-aware of its badassery, to both menacing and comedic effect.

Of course, the Predator itself delivers the grisly entertainment any reasonable viewer expects, with a few new gadgets thrown in that I won’t spoil. Although the creature’s fear factor is lessened due to its appearances early on — in several scenes showing the natural order derailed — the juxtaposition between its high-tech weaponry and the Comanche Nation’s comparatively low-tech, but nonetheless lethal tactics emphasize the fact that pure brawn doesn’t guarantee success. Rather, Naru’s ingenuity, upending of expectations, and skillset forged through her tribe’s teachings and personal experiences render the film a satisfying story of empowerment and cultural representation, without talking down to viewers.

Slightly ham-strung by its economical approach to narrative, “Prey” still thrills with beautiful cinematography, harrowing scenarios, and a memorable performance from Midthunder that places it right alongside the original. It’s high concept sci-fi that remains top of the food chain.

“Prey” is a 2022 action-drama directed by Dan Trachtenberg and stars Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers and Dane DiLiegro. It is rated Rated R for strong bloody violence and runs 1 hour, 39 minutes. It began streaming on Hulu on Aug. 5. Alex’s Grade: B+       

By Lynn Venhaus

Director Chloé Mazlo’s incredible “Skies of Lebanon” explores an idyllic life beset by war, as well as the power of the human spirit to shine through in seemingly hopeless situations.

Based on Mazlo’s grandmother’s experiences, the film centers around Alice Kamar (Alba Rohrwacher), who boards a ship to Cyprus in 1977, looking heartbroken as she pens a letter to Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), her husband she’s leaving behind . As Alice reflects, we’re transported back to the 1950s in the Swiss Alps, where she grew up in a strict household. This flashback is visualized through claymation — a quirky, effectively jarring way to illustrate Alice’s day-to-day existence, a routine she’s eager to escape from.

Alice eventually receives a letter inviting her to work as an au pair in Beirut, and she jumps at the opportunity to leave her homeland. She sees a Beirut brimming with excitement and peaceful co-existence, as well as a woman dressed as a Lebanese cypress tree. Alice calmly pushes a stroller superimposed against lavish, painted backdrops. She soon falls in love with Joseph, a charming scientist she meets at a café. We see a shot of Alice with her heart turning from blue to bright red. 

Alice and Joseph marry and start a family. Time speeds up. With the camera in one primary location, we watch their daughter, Mona (Isabelle Zighondi), grow up, and jovial celebrations in the Kamar household unfold, surrounded by family and friends. Alice cuts the roots of her past that were previously holding her back both literally and symbolically (one of the film’s most striking sequences sees Alice cutting off roots from her feet with giant scissors).

The world has other plans, however, as the Lebanese Civil War breaks out. “Skies of Lebanon” keeps the specifics of the conflict ambiguous, but never undermines the severity of the situation. Bombings, mass killings, and fear of the future grip Beirut, disrupting the tranquility that Alice and Joseph worked so hard to cultivate. Their romance is put to the test by forces beyond their control, and both must eventually choose between staying in the country and staying together.

“Skies of Lebanon” is, without a doubt, one of 2022’s most memorable, stylistically fascinating films thus far, supported by masterful performances, a beautiful score by Bachar Khalifé, and a storyline that pulls at the heartstrings from start to finish. Indeed, Mazlo has a clear directorial vision — with visuals that evolve from Wes Anderson-esque to something more grounded and tactile as the war rages on. 

While viewers have likely seen similar stories of families tested by external conflicts beyond their control, Mazlo infuses “Skies of Lebanon” with a humanism and artistic daring that sets it apart, finding a bittersweet middle ground that carries the film through to the end.

From the aforementioned opening sequences that unfold with a surreal, dreamlike haze, condensing large stretches of time into distinct, powerful moments of connection, to those showing the war’s toll — a person dressed as a skeleton does an impressionistic “dance of death” with the woman dressed as the cyprus tree; government officials with horse masks play musical chairs to see who’s in control — “Skies of Lebanon” pulses with passionate feeling. There’s an undeniable rage brewing underneath the satirical flourishes, and while they won’t be to all viewers’ tastes, their absurdity underscores the family’s sense of humanity and resilience; the contrast between hatred and love painted clearly.

Rohrwacher gives an outstanding, heartrending performance as Alice, a woman struggling to reckon with her desire to stay in Lebanon and not give up on her dreams with a reality that renders her day-to-day existence fraught with danger. Mouawad, perfectly portraying a deep-thinking, soft-spoken family man, lends true pathos to Joseph’s similar tug-of-war between dreams and reality (he and his engineers could be the first team to send a Lebanese person to the moon).

The rest of the extended family, who end up having to live in Alice and Joseph’s cramped apartment, is given plenty of development with limited screen time. Zighondi conveys a youthful energy with growing rebelliousness as Mona, while Mariah Tannoury, Hany Tamba, Odette Makhlouf, Ziad Jallad, and others are equally strong — their characters facing their own challenges as the struggle rips apart the happiness once shared.

Yes, “Skies of Lebanon” is certainly a sad film, but an important one, as Mazlo continues to find instances of whimsy and levity in the quiet moments, emphasizing the relationships at the story’s core that continue to endure, if only in spirit. There are few films of this year, or any year, that have such a profound emotional impact, and “Skies of Lebanon” is an essential reminder of war’s toll. It’s also an ode to humankind’s resilience in the face of catastrophe.

“Skies of Lebanon” is a 2020 drama from France, with English subtitles. It began rolling out in New York and Los Angeles on July 22, but there are no dates yet in St. Louis. Last November, it screened at the St. Louis International Film Festival. It is directed by Chloe Mazlo and stars Alba Rohrwacher and Wajdi Mouawad. It runs 1 hour, 32 minutes and it not rated. Alex’s Grade: A+

By Alex McPherson

A Rube-Goldbergian smorgasbord of grotesqueries, special effects guru Phil Tippett’s stop-motion passion project, “Mad God,” oozes with both incredible artistry and dispiriting nihilism.

A curving tower stretches into the red-scorched sky, grasping for freedom from the hellscape below. A scroll reads “Leviticus 26-27,” in which God tells Moses the curses he’ll bring down upon the Israelites if they’re disobedient. We’re then introduced to a humanoid figure, clad in steampunk-esque attire and a gas mask, who boards a diving bell and floats beneath the clouds.

Referred to as “the Assassin,” he’s sent on a fateful mission by a long-nailed overseer (Alex Cox, portraying the titular Mad God in one of the film’s only live-action performances). As the Assassin descends, he passes remnants of civilizations gone by and monuments to higher powers, until finally reaching the cracked, muck-covered surface.

He carries a suitcase with a bomb inside, as well as a map that seemingly crumbles every time it’s glanced at. En route to an ambiguous destination, the Assassin navigates a hostile environment filled with untold horrors. This includes a cleaver-wielding troll with huge teeth, disposable workers molded from excrement slaving away to a scabbed-mouthed supervisor screeching in babytalk, and surgeons engaging in extreme medical malpractice (to say the least). 

Indeed, Tippett’s painstakingly realized world is the real star of the show, and “Mad God” eventually shifts focus to showcase bloody vignettes within each circle of Hell, progressing closer towards the core of it all. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? 

Nope, but it’s damn-near impossible to avert your gaze from the darkness. “Mad God” is a work of such incredible devotion that the plot’s obliqueness doesn’t detract much from the experience on the whole — so long as viewers approach it as more of an artistic thesis statement on humanity than a traditional narrative.

Tippett’s film is, above all else, a display of one man’s staggering interpretation of a universe broken beyond repair, and each frame of this 30-years-in-the-making project is meticulously-formed — the gnarled beasts and industrial apocalypse surrounding them are lent tactility by the stop-motion approach. This renders them extra disturbing and, strangely enough, charming in a morbidly fascinating way, before they’re unceremoniously brutalized by their next-door neighbors.

The cinematography, by Tippett and Chris Morley, also rivals any live-action production released this year, with shots emphasizing the vast, imposing scale of a place stuck in endless cycles of war, exploitation, and utter hopelessness. 

Minotaurs, spider-legged aliens, a baby resembling that of “Eraserhead,”  a sentient doll wasting away, the camera exhibits them all, unflinching in its gaze, leaving immediate, searing impressions. Add to this a wistful score by Dan Wool — featuring a central melody gradually morphed over the course of the film — and “Mad God” is glorious to behold from a visual and auditory perspective.   

Story-wise, it’s a bit more complicated. As viewers are shepherded from one deranged situation after another like tourists, “Mad God” reveals itself to ultimately be an illustration of humanity’s worst instincts and the futility of existence when all is out of your control; survival is tenuous at best. Everything in “Mad God” feeds into the next, like a clockwork machine of suffering, suiting the needs of forces beyond our comprehension, forever churning onwards even through civilization’s extinction. 

The film eludes simple explanation, and “Mad God” stumbles as a result of the dour, sadistic tone maintained from beginning to end. Regardless of the relatively brief, 85-minute runtime, observing the same themes being repeating themselves again and again — albeit via different vessels — grows tiresome.

Additionally, we don’t spend enough time with any specific creatures to grow “attached” to them, which makes the appeal of “Mad God” centered around what unhinged sight Tippett has in store for us next. The most sympathetic entities, surprisingly, are those aforementioned shit-people, doomed to serve a tyrannical overlord without any agency of their own. It’s all a bit of a sensory overload, almost feeling overstuffed by the conclusion.

This relentlessness might just be the point, however, lending the film’s final psychedelic stretch a sense of existential release as we witness death and rebirth on a grand scale.

Perhaps the epitome of “isn’t for all tastes,” “Mad God” is a nevertheless impressive work of craftsmanship that intrigues and repels in equal measure.

“Mad God” is a 2021 animated fantasy-horror film written and directed by Phil Tippett. It stars Alex Cox and runs 1 hour, 23 minutes. It is is intended to be viewed by mature, adult audiences and is not suitable for children under 17. It is available on Shudder, AMC on Demand and Spectrum on Demand. Alex’s grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Director Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” surpasses the 1986 original to soar among 2022’s most satisfying efforts thus far.

Taking place over three decades later, viewers are reunited with Navy aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who has since avoided promotion to keep flying as a test pilot. Continuing to mourn and feel guilt over the death of his best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), there’s an air of melancholy surrounding Maverick, but his penchant for rebelliousness continues in full force.

Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (a scenery-chewing Ed Harris) informs Maverick that drones will soon replace flesh-and-blood pilots. Maverick, trying to once again prove himself and save his program, pushes a prototype jet beyond Mach-10, becoming the fastest man alive before plummeting back to the land of mere mortals in a violent fireball. Somehow he emerges to live, and fly, another day.

Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer, truly impactful in his short screen-time) saves Maverick from being permanently grounded and requests his return to the Top Gun school in San Diego to train a new batch of aviators for a “New Hope”-esque bombing run against an unnamed foreign enemy.

The group, mostly simple characterizations, includes a badass woman pilot “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), a soft-spoken lad with the call sign “Bob” (Lewis Pullman), and a macho show-off named “Hangman” (Glen Powell), echoing a young “Iceman,” among others. Maverick is constantly watched over by Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who’s none too pleased with Maverick’s unconventional methods. 

Miles Teller

Crucially, however, Goose’s son, “Rooster” (Miles Teller, with a mustache channeling Goose’s), joins the team, carrying palpable resentment towards Maverick, whom he deems responsible for his father’s untimely demise. Maverick reunites with a long-ago lover, the beautiful Penny (Jennifer Connelly) — with nary a mention of Kelly McGillis’s Charlie — and gradually begins to recognize the appeal of leading a more “normal” existence. Tensions are high, the stakes are real, and Maverick must confront the ghosts of his past to make it out alive and reach some semblance of inner peace before he signs off for good.

Quite unexpectedly, there’s far more thematic meat to chew in “Top Gun: Maverick” than viewers might expect. But those looking for a pure shot of cinematic adrenaline won’t be disappointed either. Kosinski achieves a near-perfect balance between tongue-in-cheek popcorn thrills, nostalgic callbacks, and deeper nuance — extending beyond Maverick to comment on Cruise’s own acting career, as well the state of big-budget filmmaking today.

“Top Gun: Maverick” features one of Cruise’s all-time best performances, capturing both the character’s courageousness and newfound fearfulness at his position in the world and with the treacherous mission he’s preparing to guide. The way he carries himself throughout his old hunting grounds lacks the upbeat bounce it used to — replaced by an awareness of his own age and mortality, the sense that this once-invincible daredevil can’t be around forever. Indeed, neither can Cruise as an actor: one of the last movie stars who literally risks his life for our enjoyment.

His conversations with Penny and Iceman, especially the latter, reveal a vulnerable soul unable to forgive himself and fully accept the passage of time — an unexpected narrative choice for a character originally drenched in macho masculinity. He’s still charming and capable of copious one-liners, but the added depth is much welcomed.

Val Kilmer as Admiral Thomas “Iceman” Kazansky

Maverick’s conflict with Rooster also hangs over the film, as Maverick deeply fears losing him to the same fate as his father. Teller’s performance conveys Rooster’s stubbornness, contempt, and own self-doubt. His arc, while predictable, hits home with force in the film’s absolutely electrifying final act.

Speaking of which, “Top Gun: Maverick” features some of the most mind-blowing set-pieces I’ve ever witnessed. Reportedly filmed in real planes with minimal VFX, cinematographer Claudio Miranda puts viewers right in the cockpit with the pilots, immersing us into all the high-flying maneuvers to staggering effect.

At one point, as Cruise flies straight upwards, we practically feel the G-forces along with him, our ears bombarded by thunderous engines. I cannot overstate just how incredible these sequences are, and how impressive it is that they’re filmed coherently. Whether or not stunt work like this can ever be recreated again — if we ever get away from CGI-infested superhero flicks — the craziness on display makes “Top Gun: Maverick” a spectacle that must be viewed on the big screen, preferably in IMAX. Similarly, the score by Lorne Balfe, Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, and Lady Gaga deserves to be blared as loudly as possible.

Yes, Kosinski’s film certainly has its cheesy, soap-opera-esque flourishes — it is a sequel to “Top Gun” after all — and the film’s militarism remains blatant, albeit neutered this time around. Where things wrap up isn’t exactly surprising, and the sweaty, crimson-hued world seems (intentionally) separated from gritty reality.

Regardless, this is a pure, balls-to-the-wall action film that contains thought-provoking undercurrents beneath its crowd-pleasing sheen. It’s an experience that I’ll be revisiting frequently and one that reminds me of the power of the summer blockbuster.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is a 2022 action-adventure directed by Joseph Kosinski and starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Monica Barbero and Val Kilmer. It is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some strong language, and runs 2 hours, 10 minutes. The movie was released in theaters and IMAX on May 27. Alex’s Grade: A-.

By Alex McPherson

Flawed and deeply unsettling, director Alex Garland’s “Men” emerges as one of 2022’s most thought-provoking films thus far — at once ambiguous and graphically blunt, absurd yet grounded in very real truths baked into society’s fabric.

The film centers around Harper (Jessie Buckley), who experiences the traumatic loss of her ex-husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), that may or may not have been suicide. She travels to the bucolic Cotswolds countryside to heal and process her grief in relative peace. The context around James’ death is left vague; further information is doled out periodically via flashbacks to that fateful day, but Harper remains plagued by the belief that she, in some way, is responsible for his death.

Upon arriving at the spacious cottage owned by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) — a quirky, slyly patronizing chap with huge teeth — she initially enjoys the town’s calming atmosphere and lush, verdant surroundings, but serious issues arise, and her emotional vulnerability is preyed upon by malevolent forces that stretch back throughout human history.

While out on a quiet walk in the forest, Harper is stalked by a naked man, who then tries to enter the house, only to be apprehended by the police and released soon afterwards. Townsfolk accuse Harper of overreacting. Unable to stop thinking about James and their last moments together, she visits a church and bears her soul to the vicar, who then gaslights her and blames her for James’ death.

To make matters even worse, all of the men Harper encounters have the same face (all portrayed by Kinnear with impressive range and technique), insidiously exploiting her tragic past to exert control over her body and personhood.

As the plot progresses further and further into bloody horror carnage, “Men” can’t wrangle its numerous elements into a fully cohesive whole, but Garland’s film is packed with so much craft — acting, cinematography, score, editing, gross-out body horror effects — that it’s difficult not to appreciate the effort behind it all.

The film’s points on toxic masculinity and the power structures that support it aren’t exactly “novel,” but Garland’s go-for-broke approach to the material renders it damn near impossible to forget, for better and worse.

Indeed, “Men” is a challenging film to review. From a stylistic perspective, the atmosphere Garland creates is transfixing, recalling folk-horror classics like “The Wicker Man,” preventing viewers from having a clear picture of what’s actually going on. The English countryside bursts with eye-popping hues that create a sense of heightened reality, of tranquility disturbed.

Despite the beautiful scenery, there’s always something off about Harper’s environment, whether a mysterious ripple in a pond or a lacerated figure lurking just off-screen. Similarly, flashbacks are bathed in red lighting, reflecting Harper and James’ raw, turbulent emotions. The editing — opting for patient long takes and dreamlike rhythms that weave together Harper’s present with memories she cannot stop reliving — is mesmerizing, accompanied by an off-putting, choral-inflected score that furthers the uneasy atmosphere.

Rory Kinnear in “Men”

Buckley and Kinnear are outstanding, although the latter is ironically given more to do than the former. Harper is a sadly passive presence acted upon by outside forces for much of the runtime, and we never learn much about her backstory except for her fraught relationship with James. Buckley’s passionate performance endears us to Harper from the get-go, but “Men” could have delved even deeper into her psyche, as it eventually eschews focus on her specifically to target larger societal issues.

Kinnear, chewing scenery to a pulp, inhabits each of his 10 characters with distinctive quirks and levels of menace, from a schoolboy with an awkwardly transplanted CGI face to a casually dismissive policeman. Whether or not all these men are, in fact, the same person remains up to interpretation, and it’s admirable how “Men” refuses to answer this question definitively.

What really matters, though, is that each of Kinnear’s characters emphasizes different facets of misogyny, entitlement, and insecurity — different sides of the same coin, coming together to form a monstrous whole. 

As the terror ramps up, the ideas “Men” presents are more compelling than the execution, which — for all its swing-for-the-fences gusto — undermines the more sobering points Garland’s trying to make, and becomes difficult to take seriously in the blood-soaked finale. Biblical and literary allusions abound — most glaringly, the Garden of Eden — along with blunt historical references to such figures as The Green Man, representing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

“Men” seems to be emphasizing the deep-rooted power dynamics running back millennia, but Garland’s conveyance of the idea is blunt, visceral, and difficult to take fully seriously. This is especially true regarding the ludicrously unforgettable ending set-piece, a sequence so over-the-top and drawn-out that it distracts from Garland’s serious, otherwise intriguing commentary.

“Men” is ultimately a mixed bag, with plenty to relish and critique in equal measure. Garland has created a work that will certainly get viewers talking, however, and at least spark some reflection on harmful gender dynamics that persist to this day.

Jessie Buckley in “Men”

“Men” is a 2022 horror-science fiction drama directed by Alex Garland and starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear and Paapa Essiedu. It is Rated R for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images and language.and runs 1 hour, 40 minutes. It is available in theaters beginning May 13. Alex’s Grade B.