By Alex McPherson 

Unrelenting and riveting, director Fran Kranz’s directorial debut, “Mass,” provides a complex meditation on grief and healing, as well as a mesmerizing showcase of acting talent.

The story largely takes place within a rural Episcopalian church, where the parents of two children gather to have a discussion concerning an incident that’s haunted them for six years. One of these children, named Evan, was slain in a school shooting by the other, named Hayden, who then killed himself. The parents attempt to gain greater insight and reach emotional catharsis after their lives were permanently changed. 

Following an opening where church employees Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright) anxiously prepare the sterile room for the meeting, all the while supervised by social worker Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) and a large crucifix on the wall, parents Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) arrive. Jay puts up a veneer of strength and stability, but there’s a simmering anger bubbling within that threatens to break loose at any moment. Gail is nearly monosyllabic and often requires Jay to speak for her, only growing more cagey when Hayden’s parents — uptight, sharply dressed Richard (Reed Birney) and deeply earnest Linda (Ann Dowd) — show up. As the conversation shifts from awkward pleasantries to burning anger, rage, sorrow, and compassion, we’re forced to sit with these people in their raw exchanges, authentic in their relatable contradictions. 

Indeed, “Mass” is a harrowing, bleak, and profoundly real story, unfolding at an almost real-time pace. Kranz’s first feature plays like a horror film. It leaves viewers with the ideas that grief can’t always be overcome, that fighting for clear-cut answers can itself victimize, that communicating anguish is a messy and unpredictable task, and that true empathy is all-but-required to make peace with a world that refuses to make sense.

Needless to say, “Mass” isn’t an easy watch, but it’s impossible to avert your eyes from the screen once it begins. We feel the parents’ claustrophobia and vulnerability in being molded from the horrific act of violence all these years later. There’s no tidy resolution to this meeting of four broken souls, presented with the best acting I’ve seen all year so far. Each of them approaches the situation with different attitudes and perspectives, which gradually erode and evolve as their conversation carries on. 

Isaacs brilliantly depicts Jay’s internal battle of impatience, lending the film considerable tension as tempers escalate. Plimpton shines as a mother who has experienced irreparable loss and who enters the conversation unsure of what exactly she wants to get out of it — retribution or forgiveness? Richard and Linda, the parents of the shooter, are just as layered. Richard’s initial defensiveness belies the guilt he harbors, blaming himself for Hayden’s decisions. Linda, gestures of goodwill notwithstanding, is also self-loathing — torn between her motherly love for Hayden and the act that forever harms his memory. Portrayed by Dowd with heartbreaking power, Linda at one point states that she continues to mourn her son even as her community doesn’t.

Kranz, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, excels in giving his subjects naturalistic dialogue that never once loses its authenticity. Hot button topics are brought up briefly, but the film doesn’t jam them into the narrative. Rather, by focusing on a small group of individuals confronting a deeply personal disaster, “Mass” handles its sensitive subject matter in a respectful manner without talking down to viewers. Additionally, religious aspects of the plot are used for subversive means. The difficulty of confronting the unspeakable and practicing forgiveness can’t be done through belief alone, after all, but through individual determination and perseverance.

Although “Mass” would likely work equally as well as a stage production, Kranz and editor Yang Hua Hu deploy cinematic stylings that, for the most part, amplify the proceedings. The editing gives Isaacs, Plimpton, Birney, and Dowd each their time in the spotlight, while the camera work progresses from static to handheld, and the aspect ratio condenses with new revelations. Kranz also brings the camera outside the church at brief intervals, emphasizing critical moments while not always feeling totally necessary.

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton appear in Mass by Fran Kranz, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy.

In the end, “Mass” is tough to recommend to general audiences, but a film that’s difficult to fault in any particular area. It’s a near-perfectly constructed drama, one that refuses to sugarcoat life’s uncompromising reality, and that remains all the better for it. 

“Mass” is a 2021 drama written and directed by Fran Kranz. It stars Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney and Jason Isaacs. It is rated PG-13 for thematic content and brief strong language, and the runtime is 1 hour, 50 minutes. In theaters Oct. 22. Alex’s Grade: A

By Alex McPherson

An ambitious historical epic with powerful performances, hard-hitting action sequences, and an intelligent condemnation of systemic injustice, director Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” approaches glory, but falls slightly short of achieving it.

Based on actual events and taking place in 14th century France, the film, broken into three sections, begins with Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, sporting an unfortunate hairdo), a valiant fighter serving under the cuckoo Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). De Carrouges, having lost his first wife and child from the plague, sees an opportunity to father an heir and inherit a large dowry, which includes a huge swathe of land. He weds Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a wealthy-yet-disgraced nobleman. However, through a series of political maneuvers, longtime friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) ends up possessing a large portion of de Carrouges’ new land, gets promoted to captaincy over him, and rapes Marguerite when she’s alone at home. De Carrouges files lawsuit after lawsuit, eventually requesting a last duel to the death. Retribution for Marguerite’s rape isn’t de Carrouge’s primary motivation — it’s his own pride and “honor” that’s at stake.

We then see the same events from Le Gris’ point of view: he observes as the handsome, fun-loving squire who parties with the Count and helps him improve his fortunes (Le Gris can read and handle basic accountancy). He betters his own lot in life by currying favors. In this version, de Carrouges isn’t a brave warrior, but a bumbling fool. It’s all rather smooth sailing for Le Gris who, after the assault, is reassured from the Count and the clergy that there’s no way that Marguerite’s claims will be taken seriously. 

Jump to section three, the most resonant of them all, and we watch the happenings unfold from Marguerite’s vantage point, getting a more intimate look at the horrible situation she’s become stuck in. She’s left feeling dehumanized and at the mercy of arrogant men whose final battle risks not only their lives, but her own as well.

Suffice to say, there’s plenty of anxious tension headed into the climactic confrontation, a bloody brawl that’s undoubtedly one of the best scenes of 2021. Beforehand, “The Last Duel” takes a creative approach to storytelling that fully fleshes out its subjects — the courageous Marguerite in particular. While Scott’s film isn’t especially profound in revealing that 14th century France was, in fact, horrendously unjust towards women, it slyly demonstrates how shifts in perspective can alter how we perceive the world, and the self-serving ways in which we might perceive ourselves.

Indeed, “The Last Duel” invites viewers to compare and contrast each party’s accounts of what took place, illustrating pertinent differences between them. Alterations in music, camera angles, and dialogue reveal the truth layer by layer, depending on who’s telling it, both serving to fill in narrative gaps and make the film feel decidedly stretched-out by the sword-clashing finale. The costuming and production design are incredibly detailed and period accurate, to be expected. The screenplay — co-written by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener — highlights the egomania of de Carrouges and Le Gris, while occasionally throwing subtlety to the wind.   

This episodic structure wouldn’t work if the actors weren’t in top form, and luckily, the whole cast delivers. Comer, bringing to life Marguerite’s kindness, trauma, and steadfast bravery in facing a system designed to subordinate her, is wholly deserving of accolades come awards season. Until the final act, she’s mostly relegated to the sidelines, but she conveys Marguerite’s weathered fearlessness through her facial expressions alone, infusing the film’s final stretch with true emotional gravitas. 

Damon and Driver are similarly effective, albeit portraying more straightforward characters. There’s little redeeming either of them, no matter if we’re seeing through their eyes or not, but “The Last Duel” takes great lengths to show the patriarchal structures that inform their worldviews. Affleck almost seems like he’s in a different film, but it’s entertaining watching him embrace a demented frat boy persona as the Count, drunk on power along with alcohol.

Where the film stumbles involves Scott’s lack of restraint. Witnessing Marguerite’s assault — twice — comes across as exploitative rather than necessary. On one hand, “The Last Duel” paints similarities of Le Gris’ monstrous actions to the “playful” nights he enjoys with women in the Count’s chambers. On the other hand, when shown again through Marguerite’s frame of reference, it serves little purpose beyond shock value, fueling our anger leading into the titular showdown. In this case,“The Last Duel” uses her violation to artificially amplify dramatic stakes.

Although the film is ultimately uneven in execution, there’s still enough compelling characters to carry it through to its squirm-inducing conclusion. “The Last Duel” succeeds in demonstrating how the past informs the present, and the importance of recognizing how a core issue of the time — viewing women as property rather than human beings — continues in various insidious forms today. It’s also just a bone-crushing, suspenseful medieval thriller that prizes at least some brains over pure brawn.

Jodie Comer in “The Last Duel”

“The Last Duel” is a 2021 drama directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer. The run time is 2 hours, 32 minutes, and it is Rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language. Alex’s Grade: B+

By Alex McPherson

Nothing can prepare you for director Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” — a profane, sentimental, horrific work of art. It’s also a film that benefits from viewers knowing as little as possible about going in. Rest assured, this gem is A+ quality, but if you don’t mind some mild spoilers, feel free to continue reading.

Set in Southern France, “Titane” focuses on Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), an erotic dancer with some peculiar kinks and murderous inclinations. As a child, she was in a car accident that required surgery and the doctors implanting a slab of titanium in her skull. This presumably explains her love for automobiles and all things metallic, as well as her aversion to fellow humans. The movie starts with an elaborate sequence leading to Alexia writhing passionately upon the hood of a flame-streaked Cadillac to the sound of “Doing It To Death” by The Kills. Later on, she’s summoned by the vehicle to, well, have unprotected sex. Alexia finds out she’s pregnant, and it’s only a matter of time before the police put her behind bars for some vicious killings.

She impulsively decides to assume the identity of a boy, named Adrien, who has been missing for a decade. She’s unexpectedly picked up by Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fire chief willing to overlook glaring implausibilities to achieve a sense of long-lost comfort. Alexia/Adrien, straining to conceal her identity, finds a purpose missing from her former way of life.

Indeed, “Titane” takes the cake as the boldest, most unforgettable film I’ve watched this year. When you wade through all the blood, guts, and body horror, the central plot winds up strangely wholesome and life-affirming. Just like with “Raw,” Ducournau’s previous masterpiece, shock value is paired with fascinating characters that yield layer upon layer of complexities, even as viewers avert their eyes in disgust.

And there are graphic images aplenty, particularly during the first 30 minutes or so. The film’s relentless introduction immerses viewers into Alexia’s no-holds-barred approach to living with visceral, at times stomach-churning impact. Bathed in vivid neon light and captured with smooth, mesmerizing long takes forcing us to view the brutality up-close-and-personal, “Titane” throws viewers into the muck with zero time to breathe. We don’t completely understand what’s motivating Alexia’s decisions, but Rousselle’s performance is so magnetic — forgive the pun — that she commands viewers’ undivided attention whenever she’s on screen. Her inhumane actions, to put it lightly, are based in a deep sense of discontent with the world at large, as well as with her own body, which the pregnancy impacts day by day.

When she encounters Vincent, though, “Titane” becomes a wholly different beast. We go from observing an abhorrent character in Alexia to spending time with a broken, haunted man. Leading a crew of hyper-masculine men, Vincent puts on the appearance of strength, but remains deeply vulnerable. He will grasp at anything to appease his grief-stricken psyche and is able to suspend his disbelief to feel whole once again. Lindon’s performance is soulful, earning our sympathy from the outset. As they grow closer, and as Alexia/Adrien navigates intense scrutiny from Vincent’s crew and beyond, “Titane” provides some surprisingly warm-hearted, tear-jerking moments — finding humor, beauty, and compassion in the grotesque and uncertain.  

Ducournau’s film is anything but static, gliding between genres and tones with such confidence that it’s practically impossible to predict what will happen next. In a sense, this refusal to be categorized extends into the themes Ducournau explores — largely revolving around agency of one’s body, the rigidity of societal norms, the fluidity of gender, and the messy, chaotic lengths some will go to feel love and belonging. The trials Alexia/Adren and Vincent endure strip them down to their base drive for connection, struggling against man-made machinations and preconceptions that seek to control their ways of being.

Add to this a perfect soundtrack and original score on par with “Raw,” along with minimalist dialogue that sparkles with darkly comic wit, and “Titane” emerges as a film that deserves to be cherished by anyone brave enough to weather the storm. Sure, some more insight into Alexia’s backstory could have fostered a greater emotional attachment early on, but by the conclusion, we’ve witnessed something special — brought to life by talented actors and a director in absolute command of her craft.

“Titane” is a drama-sci-fi-thriller in French with English subtitles, directed by Julia Ducournau It stars Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Mariller and is rated R for strong violence and disturbing material, graphic nudity, sexual content, and language. Its runtime is 1 hour, 48 minutes. It was released in the United States on Oct. 1 in theaters. Alex’s Grade:: A+.  

By Alex McPherson  

Director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s offbeat, poetic, and emotionally complex “Lamb” stands in a league of its own, adding yet another gem to A24’s ever-expanding oeuvre.

This bleakly twisted fairy tale unfolds within a secluded Icelandic mountain range bathed in thick fog that reflects the quiet gloom of our main characters, sheep farmers María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). One night, an unseen, heavily breathing presence startles nearby horses and farm animals, targeting one sheep in particular. Meanwhile, María and Ingvar go about their days, which involve maintaining crops and caring for their animals, with subtle detachment. Even though they enjoy each other’s company, an unspoken rift exists between them. Something’s missing in their relationship, casting a dark shadow over their household. 

When one of their sheep gives birth to an odd hybrid that has to be seen to be believed, María creates a motherly bond with this creature, whom she names Ada. Ingvar, initially shocked but determined to ensure his wife’s happiness, gradually slips into his new role as a father. Much to the dismay of Ada’s birth mother, who bleats outside their bedroom window every night, Ada has rendered both María’s and Ingvar’s lives more fulfilling. However, as Ada grows up and the film progresses through three distinct chapters in her life, a sense of dreadful anticipation looms — reaching a boiling point when Ingvar’s rowdy and unpredictable brother, Pétur () shows up on their doorstep.

A cinematic morality tale confronting humankind’s flawed connection to nature and the perils of motherhood, “Lamb” is difficult to describe, but an absolute treat to witness. The film takes viewers on a mesmeric trip through valleys of sadness, joyfulness, and fear. It’s utterly impressive that the plot’s crazier elements don’t hijack its dead-serious heart.

“Lamb” exudes patience, nearly to its detriment — in shot compositions, pacing, and vague nuances in character interactions — to set a disquieting mood. For the first 20 minutes or so, dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, letting us observe María’s and Ingvar’s ennui along with them. Jóhannsson forces us to sit in their melancholy, surrounded by their sheep and pets who seemingly question their decision to adopt Ada, providing some of the best animal acting I’ve ever seen. 

Neither María nor Ingvar question the creature’s origins — they have a new purpose in life and a chance to rekindle what they lost in the past. Guðnason beautifully conveys Ingvar’s transformation into a loving father, but this is truly Rapace’s film, and we can see through her eyes that she will not, under any circumstances, lose this opportunity to be a mother. As a result, her uncompromising love for Ada seems wholly believable, and even heartbreaking, for Ada’s arguably not hers to begin with. 

This dichotomy between nature vs. nurture fuels the drama, as we want this family to thrive, but recognize the moral ambiguity of rearing Ada away from her kin and robbing her of agency. Indeed, “Lamb” explores the humans’ connection to Ada more than Ada herself, but perhaps that’s intentional. She’s inhabiting two different, opposing worlds, and Jóhannsson emphasizes her inability to truly fit in.

Pétur’s arrival brings with it some welcome comedic relief, but “Lamb” soon slips back into a slow-burn dread leading into its inevitable but nevertheless shocking conclusion. In keeping with Jóhannsson’s folkloric inspirations, the film resembles a potent mix of the fantastical and the grounded, basking its absurdism in a cautionary reminder of nature’s colossal power and the extreme lengths some take to assuage grief, no matter the repercussions.

“Lamb” would have benefited from tighter editing here and there, particularly surrounding a somewhat unnecessary love triangle that Pétur initiates, shifting focus away from Ada, but this is a wild and wooly debut feature. If viewers give themselves over to the film’s unorthodox premise, they’ll find one of the most memorably unnerving stories of the year. 

“Lamb” is a horror-mystery-drama from Iceland, directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Rated R for some bloody violent images and sexuality/nuditym its runtime is 1 hour, 46 minutes. In theaters Oct. 8. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Alex McPherson

Director Maria Schrader’s sci-fi dramedy, “I’m Your Man,” presents multifaceted questions about love, humanity, happiness, and loneliness in a time when technology molds to fit our every need.

Based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky, the film centers around Alma (Maren Eggert), an anthropologist working for the Pergamon museum in Berlin, studying Sumerian cuneiform tablets for traces of poetry. She’s a closed-off workaholic leading a mundane life — getting along well with co-workers, but holding deeper sadness and resistance to anything resembling romance. In exchange for more funding for her research, Alma reluctantly agrees to participate in a three-week-long study where she’s paired with a humanoid “man of her dreams” named Tom (Dan Stevens).

This android is calibrated to match her personality and adapt over time in accordance with Alma’s reactions. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go smoothly at the beginning. From the moment Tom speaks the phrase, “Your eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into,” Alma isn’t impressed.

As the days go on, however, Tom grows more sensitive, relatable, and attractive to her. Alma slowly but surely starts falling for him, while simultaneously regretting her burgeoning feelings, and ends up confronting the roots of her melancholy. 

Although this android might develop like a person would, is Alma’s love authentic, or purely artificial? What is Alma willing to sacrifice to achieve satisfaction in a relationship, and should humanoids like Tom be available to the public in an increasingly isolated world? Schrader doesn’t opt for easy, convenient answers — which renders “I’m Your Man” a more contemplative watch than viewers might expect.

In large part, thanks to Alma’s complexity as a protagonist and Stevens’ poignant, drolly humorous performance as Tom, the film soars in both moments of light-heartedness and serious drama, with a story ripe for discussion once the credits roll.

Indeed, “I’m Your Man” isn’t so much a conventional science-fiction story as it is an exploration of desire and the befuddling mechanics of relationships. On top of that, Schrader’s film has comedic moments sprinkled throughout — mostly involving Tom’s flawed attempts at fitting in — that lend the proceedings a certain gentleness, not exploiting the premise for crowd-pleasing cheesiness. 

Eggert’s masterful performance conveys Alma’s yearning, resentment, joy, grief, and emotional growth in a way that ensures we always empathize with her as she navigates morally fraught waters.

The script — co-written by Schrader and Jan Schomburg — gives credence to multiple, contrasting perspectives regarding her situation, and encourages viewers to ponder some of the same topics themselves in their own lives. Does the end goal of true happiness justify the means, and is the pursuit of happiness something that makes us human to begin with?

Stevens, while giving a less naturalistic performance, is absolutely outstanding as Tom. For all his robotic, stilted movements and occasional cluelessness, Stevens imbues him with a tangible soul nonetheless, as he learns and evolves from his experiences. He veers further from his robotic roots into someone approaching a human, as well as a mirror for Alma to explore her own flaws and potential for change.

Funny, cathartic, and bittersweet, this intelligent love story rarely falters. The film’s slow pace is guided along by Benedict Neuenfels’ crisp, eye-popping cinematography — initially framing Alma behind glass, looking outside with her manufactured reflection standing beside her — and Tobias Wagner’s jazz-inflected score that becomes rather haunting by the final act. Some viewers might be frustrated by the plot’s low-key rhythms and somewhat ambiguous ending, but as a meditation on a plausible near-future, “I’m Your Man” whirs with life.

Dan Stevens and Sandra Huller

“I’m Your Man” is a science fiction romantic comedy that is in German with English subtitles. Directed by Maria Schrader, it stars Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens and Sandra Huller. Rated R for some sexual content and language throughout, the runtime is 1 hour, 45 minutes. It is in theatres Oct. 1 and digitally Oct. 12. Alex’s Grade: A.

By Alex McPherson

A nerve-shredding documentary spotlighting a one-of-a-kind athlete, “The Alpinist” cements itself as an imperfect, yet consistently moving watch.

The film, brought to us from “The Dawn Wall” directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, follows a fairly goofy, unassuming 23-year-old named Marc André Leclerc, who quickly and quietly rose through the ranks of professional climbers to become one of the all-time greats. Leclerc relishes the solo climb, preferably without much safety equipment or anyone accompanying him on his escapades.

Since childhood, Leclerc found climbing to be a welcome escape from the cacophony of daily life and an opportunity to embrace living in the moment, dangling from scarily high places where a single misjudged movement could cause his demise. 

Leclerc’s also not fond of media attention, residing with his girlfriend, Brette Harrington, in a tent in southwestern British Columbia. While it’s surprising that Leclerc agrees to participate in the documentary, the filmmakers proceed to capture his insane feats traversing huge geographic landmarks in Canada, Patagonia, and beyond, as much as they can, while seeking to understand his mindset.

Featuring camerawork sure to render viewers scared of heights clenching their stomachs in nausea, but leave everyone else completely awe-inspired, “The Alpinist” is chock full of staggering sequences where we observe a master at work. Cinematographers Jonathan Griffith, Austin Siadak, and Brett Lowell display Leclerc’s Spider-Man-esque abilities conquering sheer mountain faces — sometimes requiring adaptations from rock to ice, snow, and back again on a single climb.

They zoom out the camera to render him a miniscule speck amidst beautifully imposing surroundings. The truly memorable images, though, come from Leclerc himself, who records on a GoPro — the background music fading away as we watch him navigate his largely unrehearsed climbing routes with a shockingly calm demeanor, completely absorbed in his craft. It’s frankly spellbinding to witness.

“The Alpinist” balances these terrifying moments with a relatively cerebral approach to storytelling throughout. Indeed, Leclerc is filmed with an almost spiritual aura, a man full of enthusiasm following his own, insatiably ambitious path. Containing interviews with Leclerc’s loved ones and fellow climbing peers, including a grizzled climbing guru named Hevy Duty, we get a portrait of a reclusive, amiable individual who’s not in it for the glory, but for inner satisfaction and happiness. His love for alpinism and his personable nature make him a more relatable subject than most other famous athletes. He seems like a laid-back dude, who just so happens to crave putting his life on the line alone on a regular basis — much to the frustration of the directors when he goes AWOL about halfway through the runtime.

“The Alpinist” can’t quite escape the sense that we’re only breaching the surface of Leclerc’s personality, however. The collection of interviewees are fun to watch as they discuss Leclerc’s grandiose achievements, but they often shy away from addressing the perilousness of his lifestyle, scared to consider the dark possibilities that might lie ahead. If viewers go into the film knowing what transpires, some might take issue with the way this film invades Leclerc’s privacy in its finale, and hides the timeline of certain interviews for suspenseful effect later on.

Similarly, the overarching message of pursuing your dreams to the fullest, no matter how infeasible they might seem, doesn’t ring hollow by any means, but feels slightly superficial for such a distinctive subject as Leclerc. Still, Leclerc’s dedication deserves to be recognized, and “The Alpinist” triumphs in this respect. While he remains mysterious, this is a heartfelt piece of filmmaking. It’s an earnest tribute to a courageous, adventurous human being.

“The Alpinist” is a 2021 documentary directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, and starring Marc-Andre Leclerc. It runs 1 hour, 33 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief drug use. It opens in theaters on Sept. 10. Alex’s Grade:B+.

By Alex McPherson

Director Andreas Koefoed’s new film, “The Lost Leonardo,” thrills, chills, and raises salient points about the essence of art itself.

This documentary chronicles the tumultuous happenings surrounding an infamous portrait of Jesus titled the “Salvator Mundi,” which some people believe was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci. An idiosyncratic art buyer named Alexander Parish purchases the painting at a sketchy New Orleans auction in 2005 and shows it to a prominent historian and restorer named Dianne Modestini.

She ends up restoring a large portion of the piece, but determines — based on a barely perceptible stylistic choice — that it’s a work by Da Vinci or, at the very least, a student of his. Thus begins a globe-trotting mess of a story, where disagreements about authenticity abound, reputations are tarnished, and influential figures use the Salvator Mundi to further their dogged pursuit of money and power.

As the tale unfolds, “The Lost Leonardo” crawls under your skin, becoming ever-troubling as we get an inside glimpse into the shadier corners of the art world. Presented in a clear, carefully researched fashion that’s cut together like a bleak investigative thriller, Koefoed successfully renders initially dry subject matter into something altogether fascinating. He lets the material’s head-spinning happenings fuel the pacing, yet allows key players to retain their human complexities.

Featuring interviews with historians, critics, dealers, curators, reporters, and CIA agents, “The Lost Leonardo” does a praiseworthy job at presenting varying perspectives in easily digestible fashion. As outsiders, we can never be fully sure of some of the interviewees’ intentions — do they honestly believe that they’ve stumbled upon a hidden masterpiece, or are they just continuing a narrative to satisfy themselves and their bank accounts? Doubt and suspicion permeate the film, leading to several provocative moments when their words are juxtaposed against each other. Koefoed, however, doesn’t fully take one side or the other amid the chaos.

The cast of characters aren’t all the most transfixing of personalities, but there’s still enough to ensure plenty of surprises through to the disquieting conclusion. Memorable presences include Modestini, passionate about preserving art and displaying it for the public to see, and critic Jerry Saltz, who cuts through the increasingly convoluted plot to provide bursts of incisive, irreverent commentary that underline the ridiculousness of the situation. 

When you strip away the faux decorum and pretenses of professionalism, after all, the whole shebang reveals itself to be centered around ego and perceptions of superiority. As the painting is repeatedly bought and sold by various parties, what constitutes the actual “truth” of its origins gets distorted. Power-hungry forces get their hands on the Salvator Mundi and bestow it worth that draws international attention. 

“The Lost Leonardo” weaves a cautionary tale of how true appreciation of art can become morphed by greed, casting aside its inherent craftsmanship in favor of purely monetary value. What begins rather modestly evolves into an ambitious, wholly relevant story that paints a picture of the lengths some will go to maintain falsehoods for personal gain. Indeed, “The Lost Leonardo” urges viewers to look more critically at artwork of all kinds and to recognize the potentially corrupt machinations behind closed doors — supporting those who maintain their integrity and bravery in the face of tangible risks. 

Although the mystery loses some steam in its middle section involving discussion of the “free port” system and a legal battle with a Russian oligarch, “The Lost Leonardo” builds a haunting crescendo by the end credits. Koefoed’s film eschews simplicity in showcasing a real-life adventure that features patterns of behavior prevalent throughout human history. It remains one of the most enlightening films of 2021 so far, and a doc that both art connoisseurs and novices alike should give a look.

“The Lost Leonardo” is a 2021 documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. Directed by Andreas Koefoed, the movie runs 1 hour and 36 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for nude art images. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Alex McPherson

An allegorical horror film with more on its mind than gore-splattered carnage, “Jakob’s Wife” provides some thematically juicy morsels for viewers to sink their teeth into.

Directed by Travis Stevens, the gonzo film centers around Anne (Barbara Crampton), the wife of a small-town Christian minister named Jakob (Larry Fessenden). Anne’s not happy in her marriage, and Jakob is unaware of the ways he casually disrespects her. He frequently talks over her and seems content with maintaining rigid gender norms in their household. His condescending actions have nibbled away at Anne’s psyche, leaving her feeling depressed and quietly despondent.

A Nosferatu-esque creature has different plans for her. After a brief romantic rendezvous with an old flame (Robert Rusler), Anne is bitten by the aforementioned blood-sucker, and she soon adopts a very different, ravenous lifestyle. Possessing renewed confidence in her daily life, she refuses to put up with Jakob’s B.S. any longer. She risks throwing away her previous existence if she chooses to fully give herself over to the strange presence targeting her.

“Jakob’s Wife” has a rough start, indulging in tropes such as dooming the first Black character introduced and deploying easily foreseeable jump scares. To its credit, the beginning of the film establishes a monotonous rhythm that slowly but surely builds suspense as Anne’s malaise reaches a boiling point. Thankfully, after she’s bitten by “The Master” — a pasty, scabbed-up entity spookily portrayed by Bonnie Aarons — “Jakob’s Wife” really starts to pick up. Stevens deploys a more flamboyant style in keeping with Anne’s newfound boldness that keeps viewers on their toes, notwithstanding some formulaic plot points.

Crampton is perfect for her role, and viewers see her simultaneously experience fear and thrill from her urges with real pathos. Scenes of Anne twirling around her living room holding a lamp and tasting blood within a meat package at a local grocery store are off-puttingly hilarious, particularly when juxtaposing them with her initially mild-mannered demeanor. For all The Master’s promises of liberation, though, Anne still loves Jakob, and she isn’t immediately ready to throw her old life away. Her inner battle of temptation takes center-stage in the film’s second half, where we aren’t sure whose side she will ultimately take.

Viewers might expect characters like the titular Jakob to be promptly disposed of, but “Jakob’s Wife” renders him a more complicated presence capable of positive change, despite the sharp left-turn in his arc that’s difficult to buy. Yes, he’s still cartoonish, and his high-and-mighty insistence on being the hero is deeply ironic, but “Jakob’s Wife” provides a refreshing change of pace for how these sorts of stories usually play out. Fessenden is able to flex his comedic muscles as a “man of the household” encountering a shifting power dynamic.  

The more traditional genre aspects of “Jakob’s Wife” are less involving, but they get the job done with enough gruesome kills to satiate fans’ bloodlust. The film incorporates deliciously visceral practical effects and a large helping of gallows humor. Indeed, “Jakob’s Wife” loses some of its scare factor and emotional resonance through its tonal shifts, but the humor itself works well, for the most part — the kind of dry self-awareness that this tongue-in-cheek material benefits from. Jay DeVon Johnson is particularly amusing as a jaded police sheriff who wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen Brothers joint. 

It’s disappointing, however, that the themes are staked so heavy-handedly into viewers’ brains by the end. Stevens brings up prescient topics — sexism and what it means to live your life on your own terms among them — without reaching anything particularly illuminating. The satirical, B-movie qualities rub against its more serious implications, rendering both somewhat less biting by the other.

Most sins being forgiven, there’s still enough batty fun here to recommend “Jakob’s Wife.” Stevens’ film is a knowingly goofy, surprisingly multifaceted horror outing. It delivers fittingly violent set pieces, while also wrapping its ghoulish tale up in important, disconcerting societal truths.

“Jakob’s Wife” is a 2021 horror film directed by Travis Stevens and starring Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden. It is not rated and runs 1 hour, 38 minutes. It is available streaming on Shudder and on video on demand platforms. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Directors Stephen Daldry’s and Justin Martin’s new film set during the current COVID-19 pandemic, “Together,” is an intense, powerfully acted, and morally troubling drama.

The film centers around an unnamed couple in the UK struggling to maintain their sanity in pandemic lockdown. “He” (James McAvoy) is a self-satisfied, conservative Alpha Male who manages a boutique consulting firm. “She” (Sharon Horgan) is a left-leaning charity worker with an acid tongue of her own. They live a middle class existence, while neglecting to give their introverted son, Artie (Samuel Logan), much parental attention.

From the moment viewers lay eyes on them, He and She bicker incessantly, piling on the insults in semi-teasing awfulness. The two opposites are stuck together in dire times, developing some semblance of compassion toward each other and the world at large as they endure the COVID-19 emergency.

Daldry and Martin’s film, with a screenplay by Dennis Kelly, is timely to a fault — using current events that have impacted us all as a background for an irritatingly predictable narrative. Despite this, however, “Together” is still a captivating viewing experience, largely thanks to its theatrical presentation and the dynamism of the two leads.

Indeed, “Together” feels highly reminiscent of a stage play, as He and She talk directly to the camera from the first scene onwards, vying for the center of viewers’ attention. This cinematic technique successfully puts viewers in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they’re right in the thick of things with these two flawed “adults,” forced to view their chaotic conversations without a possible exit. As interactions oscillate between being mean-spirited and hopeful, smirk-inducing and devastating, “Together” is relentless during the full 90-minute runtime.

Horgan and McAvoy have tangible chemistry, and their fast-paced dialogue conveys a mostly believable relationship. They’re able to handle comedic lines effortlessly — including an embarrassing exchange about their sex life — while also nailing the more dramatic beats as the months drag on. McAvoy, likably hyper as ever, showcases the insecurities that bely his character’s cynicism. Horgan shines as someone firm in her “good” beliefs who retains her own selfish tendencies. Combined with the film’s fourth-wall-breaking presentation, He and She seem like real people viewers might know. They both dislike and, deep down, care for one another.

Still, “Together” can only stay afloat on acting talent for so long. The story, good intentions notwithstanding, plays upon real-world traumas to somewhat generic effect. A particular subplot involving She’s elderly mother is emotionally devastating but foreseeable from the get-go. It concludes with an impassioned speech from Horgan about the meaning of the word “exponential” regarding viral infection and the government’s fumbling of crucial facts surrounding the illness. In retrospect, it all seems pretty obvious for anyone who isn’t a devoted consumer of misinformation.

“Together” is packed with scenes designed to elicit tears from viewers, but it doesn’t add anything particularly new to the discussion surrounding the global health crisis, nor does it illuminate a perspective that needs to be illuminated. The protagonists are so privileged, all things considered, and their respective character arcs surrounding basic human decency and not taking loved ones for granted aren’t exactly revelatory. If films like “Together” set during COVID times become more common, filmmakers run the risk of using it as a gimmick to grab viewers’ attention, instead of exploring it from new, insightful angles. This film, unfortunately, falls into the former category.

For all its attempts at relevance and its first-rate performances, “Together” doesn’t sit particularly well amid our current climate, where there’s no end in sight regarding the virus’ evolving mutations. It brings together broad social commentary and standard plotting to end up with something above average, but markedly inessential.

“Together” is a 2021 romantic comedy-drama directed by Stephen Daldry and co-directed by Justin Martin and starring James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan and Samuel Logan. Rated R for language throughout, the movie runs 1 hour, 31 minutes. In theaters Aug. 27 and on demand and digital Sept. 14. Alex’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

A thoughtful, meditative, unabashedly far-out sci-fi gem, Edson Oda’s directorial debut, “Nine Days,” asks intriguing questions about the rollercoaster of life.

This quietly bonkers film centers around Will (Winston Duke), an individual deciding which souls get the privilege of being born in a human body. He watches present-day Point Of View footage from everyone he’s allowed into the “real world” from the comfort of his modest house in the middle of nowhere, a salt lake limbo, taking copious notes on their day-to-days in an attempt to understand humanity.

Sometimes accompanied by his good-hearted helper and friend, Kyo (Benedict Wong), Will takes pride in seeing them lead healthy, happy lives. One of them unexpectedly perishes, however, tearing Will apart inside as he struggles to make sense of what happened — vowing to never let it happen again. 

Thus, a vacancy opens that needs to be filled. Will meets a variety of applicants wishing to experience life. This archetypal group of souls includes the self-doubting Mike (David Rysdahl), the laid-back Alexander (Tony Hale), the hard-justice-driven Kane (Bill Skarsgård), the earnest, wide-eyed Maria (Arianna Ortiz), and the inquisitive, plot-altering Emma (Zazie Beetz), among others.

They are asked to watch the POV screens and to give answers to various questions examining their moral toughness over the course of nine days, with a victor announced at the end. Upon failing, some applicants get a chance to have a moment they’ve observed recreated for them before disappearing into nothingness. As the group winnows in the passing days, Will is forced to reckon with his own inner demons and consider the unknowable nature of life itself.

A captivating effort from everyone involved, “Nine Days” uses this bold premise to explore what it means to be alive. Oda’s unconventional allegory plays out in frequently powerful fashion — carried by excellent performances and an ethereal, at times mournful atmosphere pulsing with feeling. Along with methodical editing, arresting cinematography, and Antonio Pinto’s haunting score, the film brings viewers into this twisted median space in a manner mixing warmth with menace. 

Although the finer details of the film’s universe aren’t clarified (don’t think too much about how or why Will acquired his “job”), “Nine Days” sinks emotional hooks into viewers from the first frames onward. It’s somewhat of a downbeat watch, prizing patient reflection over bombast, but “Nine Days” knows when to strike lighter notes as well and occasionally poke fun at itself despite the bleakness.

Duke does sterling work portraying a mysterious man playing God who’s trapped by his own cynical worldview, his decisions rooted in a desire to protect the applicants from a reality he views as cruel and demoralizing. Thanks to Duke’s pathos and the script’s empathy towards Will, his troubled mindset remains easy to connect with regardless of his flaws. Duke, with wire-rimmed glasses and a reserved demeanor, conveys Will’s inner tensions with a subtle performance that brilliantly showcases his severe facade gradually being chipped away.

Similarly effective is Beetz, a compassionate critical-thinker who doesn’t view human beings in a simplistic manner. Rather, she realizes the importance of relishing the good in the world, not letting negativity or nihilism corrupt her worldview. Her conversations with Will, inquiring into his own troubled past and encouraging him to reflect on what it all means, feature some of the most moving moments in “Nine Days,” tying into overarching takeaways. 

Wong is a lovable, comforting presence as Kyo, helping Will recognize his faults and his potential to grow as a human being, providing the bulk of the film’s unexpected humor. The other characters, brought to (sort-of) life by a wonderful cast, get less screen time and aren’t as well developed as the main three, but there’s more to most of them than meets the eye. Like every human soul, they cannot be simplified to a few characteristics — rendering their passage or failure all the more heartbreaking. Their “Last Moments” are masterfully directed and difficult to forget. 

Heavy without being dour, intricate yet accessible, “Nine Days” builds towards a conclusion that contains one of 2021’s best scenes. All the emotions felt throughout the film coalesce into a marvelous, life-affirming, slightly convenient resolution that’s aware of its own bizarreness while remaining highly impactful. 

An assured effort from everyone involved, “Nine Days” satisfies both the mind and the soul. The world is full of darkness, but there’s still rays of hope bursting through the shadows. Oda’s film is a provocative reminder to appreciate the light where we can and strive to see another day in our beautifully inexplicable existence. 

“Nine Days” is a 2020 sci-fi fantasy drama written and directed by Edson Oda and starring Winston Duke, Benedict Wong, Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz and Bill Skarsgard, Rated R for language, its runtime is 2 hours, 4 minutes. The film is available in theaters beginning on Aug. 6. Alex’s Grade: A-