By Alex McPherson

Well, dear readers, the time has sadly come for the conclusion of director Leigh Janiak’s “Fear Street” series. Fortunately, “Part 3:1666” ends the trilogy in an emotionally fulfilling, adrenaline-fueled fashion.

Without going too far into spoiler territory, “1666” sees Deena (a wonderful-as-ever Kiana Madeira) being transported back in time in Sarah Fier’s body, originally played by Elizabeth Scopel, to witness the origins of the curse that’s haunted Shadysiders ever since. The film features a new cast of characters, but most of them are portrayed by the same actors from former installments, some of whom adopt similar dynamics. Most notably, this includes Olivia Scott Welch, who plays Sarah’s love interest in “1666,” as well as Sam, Deena’s lover, in 1994. Ashley Zukerman, who embodies Sheriff Goode in 1994, also makes a meaningful return as Sarah’s friend Solomon, who holds his own secrets.  

Although there are opportunities for hard-working Sarah to relax, her story is relentlessly grim — containing themes of superstition, intolerance, and hatred of the Other that have remained prevalent throughout human history. As Sarah finds herself embroiled in a web of deceit, misogyny, and fateful events that have long-lasting repercussions on Shadyside’s future, there’s little hope for escape. Once her tragic ordeal wraps up, Janiak sends viewers back to 1994 once again, as Deena, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), and janitor Martin (Darrell Britt-Gibson) attempt to rescue Sam from demonic possession and use their newfound knowledge to finally end the curse.

Tonal inconsistency notwithstanding, “1666” is a disturbing, intelligent, and rewarding finale that successfully ties up loose ends while enhancing what’s come before. Janiak delivers an experience with more layers than both “1994” and “1978,” capping off the overarching narrative with panache. 

“Fear Street” has progressively grown creepier with each entry, and “1666” is the eeriest of the bunch. Indeed, by bringing viewers back into such an antiquated period, the film is able to distill its horror into a more potent, disquieting brew. Most plot developments even feel scarily plausible on some level, drawing comparisons to the Salem Witch Trials. Along with convincing set design and a more immersive atmosphere than its predecessors, “1666” is able to conjure dread-inducing moments aplenty. Janiak’s serious-minded approach, at least for the first half, underscores the monstrousnesses of Sarah’s bigoted townsfolk just as much as the actual supernatural forces at play.

It’s initially jarring to be sent so far back in time and see actors we’ve grown attached to inhabiting different people, with questionable accents, but Janiak uses this dissonance for subversive effect. Throughout the films, for instance, the Shadyside curse inspires a sense of fatalism in many residents that they’re stuck in an endless cycle of death and alienation from the outside world. Seeing recognizable faces where it all began heightens viewers’ desire to see Deena and friends right the wrongs of the past in the present, attempting to break the pattern once and for all.

Additionally, forbidden love rests at the heart of Sarah’s flashback, and “1666” is able to use that connection to forge an attachment with her from the get-go, utilizing viewers’ investment in Deena and Sam’s relationship to heighten poignancy and encourage reflection on biases that carry over across timelines. Sarah remains an intriguing character on her own, and her plight is easy to become invested in as she gradually begins to doubt herself yet retains bravery in the face of humanity’s worst instincts.  

With an ever-mounting sense of hopelessness, Sarah’s tale isn’t easy viewing, replacing subtlety with visceral impact, but it leaves a chilling aftertaste. Then, however, “1666” takes a hard left turn back into the self-aware, occasionally cheesy tone of “1994” to wrap things up. The tonal shift is certainly jarring for a bit, but once viewers become acclimated, there’s pleasure to be had in watching the heroes make their triumphant last stand — not just for themselves, but for the future of Shadyside itself. 

Some elements, like the major plot twist, feel undercooked, and the second half resembles the largely scare-less final act of “1994,” yet it’s still oh-so-fun to see what happens to these courageous characters. For all the haunted-house-roller-coaster pacing, the revelation effectively adds a new layer to the previous films, encouraging viewers to rewatch them and examine how all the pieces fit together. 

Whether or not viewers can overlook the semi-fractured feel of “1666,” there’s little denying that Janiak and company have created an impressive whole, one that has matured over its duration to form an ambitious, albeit far-fetched, allegory targeting resonant societal truths. There’s definitely imperfections to be found in each film, but Janiak’s R. L. Stine-inspired project reaches its stride in “1666,” leaving the door open for future adventures in Shadyside.

“Fear Street Part 3: 1666” is the last film in a 2021 trilogy now streaming on Netflix, adapted from R.L. Stine’s book series. Directed by Leigh Janiak, it stars Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., Gillian Jacobs and Ashley Zukerman. Rated R for strong violence and gore, language, some sexuality and brief drug use, it runs 1 hour, 54 minutes. Alex’s Grade: A-.

By Alex McPherson

Director Leigh Janiak’s “Fear Street Part 2: 1978,” based on R.L. Stine’s novels, lacks the spark of the first installment, but still delivers a moderately engaging slasher throwback with bucketloads of gore.

After the ridiculous events of “Fear Street Part 1: 1994,” Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) meet up with C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), a survivor of the 1978 Camp Nightwing massacre, hoping to learn how to end Sarah Fier’s witchy curse.

As the traumatized woman recounts her experiences, viewers are transported back to Camp Nightwing to witness what transpired. The protagonist is Cindy Berman (Emily Rudd), an uptight, goodie two-shoes camp counselor who becomes aggravated when other supervisors prioritize drugs and sex over doing their jobs. Her sister, the trouble-making Ziggy (Sadie Sink), holds a nihilistic view towards life — remaining an outcast among fellow campers, but a friend of counselor and future Shadyside sheriff Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland), as well as being a victim to nonstop bullying from mean girl Sheila (Chiara Aurelia), who insists that Ziggy’s an actual witch. 

Just in time for the camp’s annual “Color War,” a capture-the-flag-esque event in which the vicious rivalry between Shadysiders and their stuck-up Sunnyvale neighbors rears its head in full force, things start to get creepy. After Nurse Lane (Jordana Spiro) violently confronts Cindy’s innocent boyfriend, Tommy Slater (McCabe Slye), suspicions arise as to whether Fier’s curse has returned. Cindy, accompanied by a few others including her ex-best friend, an irritating mumbler named Alice (Ryan Simpkins), attempt to find out what’s going on themselves. You guessed it, dear readers, all hell breaks loose, and the body count grows scene by scene. Can Cindy, Ziggy, and company make it out alive, or are they doomed to perish in a seemingly never-ending murder spree by an axe-wielding attacker?

Lacking the craftsmanship of “1994” regarding character depth and creativity, “1978” ends up being a fairly straightforward genre film that’s above average, but represents a downgrade from the trilogy’s opener. The second entry loses much of the adventurous fun of “1994,” coming across as rather dour, bleak, and unforgiving in comparison — full of cliches, yet promising better things to come in “Part 3.”

It’s clear that Janiak is attempting to tackle a different tone than “1994,” more akin to “Friday the 13th” than “Stranger Things.” In keeping with the change, “1978” begins rather generically once Berman begins her story, setting up the atmosphere of Camp Nightwing in a way that mostly doesn’t break from formula.

“1978” is a definite slow-burn compared to its predecessor, taking time to get underway, but effectively conveying a sun-drenched retreat with a dark heart and sickening future. Combined with a soundtrack of 70s era songs, Janiak once again captures the time period with a fitting attention to detail. In terms of camerawork, though, “1978” doesn’t feel as precise, featuring impressive tracking shots and spooky set design — enhanced by a sinister original score — but containing some dimly lit sequences and shaky cam that break immersion.

The batch of characters are decidedly inconsistent, but a few are explored meaningfully. Among them are Cindy and Ziggy, whose tensions are grounded in reality and easy to sympathize with. Living with a single parent and barely able to keep their house, the rift between them — with Cindy trying to support their family and Ziggy being increasingly pessimistic — is huge, but just like in “1994,” Janiak shows how frayed bonds can strengthen under shared threats. Rudd and Sink both give poignant performances and have solid chemistry with one another. Their dialogue is largely convincing, but interactions overall are missing the playful dynamic present in “1994.” 

The “Shadyside Curse” rests at the heart of characters’ conflicts in “1978,” creating a sense of existential dread in their fates seeming out of their control — accentuated by Alice’s character, a young woman who uses drugs to compensate for her mental struggles. Nick Goode’s character is also cleared up a bit from “1994,” as he gradually falls for Ziggy and considers what the supernatural events entail for his career in Shadyside.

The remainder of the characters adopt boringly plain archetypes — the attention-seeking leader, promiscuous hippie, etc. — and viewers don’t spend much time with them before they’re graphically murdered (younger campers are often slain off-screen). They certainly have a lot of blood to spill, on the other hand. Indeed, “1978” almost goes overboard here, rendering many saps expendable fodder for the big baddie.

Speaking of, Janiak’s film feels limited by only having a single main threat for the characters to face, relegated to using a single weapon. “1994” was far more unpredictable in its kills, and while “1978” never ceases to shock, the violence starts to feel repetitive by the end credits. At least the sequences surrounding the destruction are more suspenseful this time around, feeling more frantic and distressing than before, as the leads scramble to save their friends and loved ones while trying to figure out what’s really going on. 

With nearly as many flaws as strengths, “1978” fails to reach the heights of the original, but still offers its own gruesome, albeit unimaginative, pleasures. If nothing else, the film successfully builds hype for “Part 3,” which takes place in 1666 and details the background of Fier’s execution. There’s plenty more questions to answer and scares to be had, and I’m ready for the trilogy to surprise me once again.

“Fear Street Part 2: 1978” is part of a movie trilogy on Netflix, the first set in 1994 and the next one in 1666. Directed by Leigh Janiak, it stars Emily Rudd, Sadie Sink and Gillian Jacobs. Rated R for bloody horror violence, sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language throughout, its run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. The movie began streaming on Netflix July 9. Alex’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is an immensely enjoyable slasher flick with real heart beneath its ultraviolent set pieces.

Based on the “Fear Street” books by R.L. Stine, “1994” unfolds in the rural town of Shadyside, Ohio. Shadyside has a history of heinous murders stretching back hundreds of years, which some denizens believe involve possessions by a witch, named Sarah Fier, who was executed in 1666. Shadyside residents harbor an intense rivalry with the considerably wealthier neighboring city of Sunnyvale. Our protagonist is Deena (Kiana Madeira), an angsty, rebellious high schooler reeling from a breakup with her ex-girlfriend, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), who recently moved to Sunnyvale.

Sarah’s curse potentially rears its head again when a skeleton-mask-donning psycho goes on a rampage at a local mall. After a confrontation with Sunnyvalers along a roadway, Sam disturbs the witch’s burial ground and unleashes an evil that resurrects killers from Shadyside’s past to exact revenge. Together, Deena and Sam — joined by Deena’s brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), and friends Simon (Fred Hechinger) and Kate (Julia Rehwald) — must band together to lift the curse and live another day. 

With charming characters, palpable stakes, and high production value, director Leigh Janiak’s “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is a finely crafted horror film that represents a strong start for her “Fear Street” trilogy.

With hints of “Stranger Things” from the get-go, amplified by a brief appearance from Maya Hawke herself, Janiak’s first entry strikes an effective balance between self-aware fun and nerve-wracking suspense, with a couple of genuinely shocking moments. Indeed, this isn’t a sanitized, family-friendly romp, even though the high school melodrama is sometimes humorous. Blood flows freely, and while the film isn’t exactly “scary,” due in large part to exceedingly predictable jump scares, there are several moments where the carnage hits viciously hard.  

“1994” depicts its youthful characters without condescension, treating them as three-dimensional people with their own flaws, desires, and colorful personalities, portrayed with youthful verve by a pitch perfect cast. All these characters are familiar archetypes, but there are a few wrinkles that add texture, emphasizing their vulnerability in ways that are often amusing, but also build emotional attachment. Deena, skillfully portrayed by Madeira in a standout performance, has a troubled home life and is sent spiraling from her breakup with Sam, resenting her while also being unable to let go.

Sam is similarly layered, being forced to make difficult decisions later on. Josh, a nerdy, inquisitive chap with detailed knowledge of Shadyside’s history, is an instantly likable character who winds up essential for the group’s survival. The squirrely, immature Simon works hard to support his family, while Kate — a high-achieving student — hustles drugs to help pay for her future.

Less noteworthy are the killers themselves — referencing classic horror films such as “Scream” and “The Shining.” They’re over-the-top and not grounded enough to instill genuine fear, but they deliver in the film’s harrowing second half. Combined with fast-paced editing, atmospheric lighting, and a solid score by Marco Beltrami, however, the threats faced by the central characters work well enough to create an edgy, stressful feel to numerous sequences, where plot armour is certainly not guaranteed. 

Sure, the dialogue is a tad uneven and the story doesn’t exactly beg to be closely analyzed, but “1994” knows exactly what kind of film it is and leans into tropes while standing out on its own merits. This is a thrilling, nostalgic watch for fans of the genre and newcomers alike. Hopefully the next installments, releasing on Netflix July 9 and July 16, are equally as successful.

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is the first of a movie trilogy on Netflix, based on the with the others — 1978, to be released July 9, and 1666, to be released July 16. The first one, directed by Leigh Janiak, stars Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Fred Hechinger, Benjamin Flores Jr. and Julia Rehwald. It is rated R for strong bloody violence, drug content, language and some sexual content and runs 1 hour, 47 minutes. It started streaming on Netflix July 2. Alex’s Grade: B+   

By Alex McPherson

Director Jonathan Hensleigh’s new film, “The Ice Road,” is a solid, thoroughly predictable chunk of B-movie entertainment. 

The film centers around Mike McCann (Liam Neeson), a blue-collar mechanic and big rig truck driver struggling to hold a job while looking after his brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a war veteran with aphasia who’s also a skilled technician.

After an isolated diamond mine operated by Big Business “Katka” collapses in Manitoba, Canada, Mike and Gurty are recruited by fellow driver Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) to help deliver life-saving wellheads to a mining base near the disaster location. They’re joined by a young Indigenous woman named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) and a corporate actuary from Katka named Varnay (Benjamin Walker).

Together, the group must race to their destination before it’s game over for the miners, contending with all-powerful Mother Nature and greedy, cutthroat humans along the way.

Viewers likely know exactly what they’re signing up for with the “The Ice Road.” Indeed, Hensleigh’s film isn’t high art, but it remains an enjoyable diversion nevertheless. With Neeson embracing his action hero starhood once again, some likable characters, and a few stressful set-pieces, the film’s storytelling missteps and shoddy CGI don’t completely negate its charms.

Neeson does what he usually does here — portraying an aging badass with a short fuse willing to go to extreme lengths to protect those he cares about. While “The Ice Road” could have given his character more time to develop, he’s still a gruffly amusing lead, who’s fun to watch when let off the chain in the final act.

His brotherly bond with Gurty, well-portrayed by Thomas, is believable and surprisingly poignant, albeit heavy-handed thanks to the clunky script. Midthunder is underutilized but leaves a positive impression as Tantoo, an activist working for Goldenrod whose brother is trapped in the mine. Fishburne is primarily relegated to providing exposition dumps, but his grizzled mug fits in well amidst the snow-covered landscape.

The side-characters, on the other hand, don’t leave much of an impact. The backstabbing corporate heads of Katka are cartoonishly one-dimensional, and the sketchy Varnay has an arc that most viewers can likely foresee before the trek is even underway. The trapped miners are easy to sympathize with, but none of them stand out individually. Sure, we hope they get rescued, but “The Ice Road” could have done more to flesh them out as real people and not deploy them mainly as a plot device to heighten tension.

When our intrepid truckers embark on their treacherous voyage, “The Ice Road” presents some distinctive obstacles for them to overcome. Principally among these challenges are, you guessed it, the unstable ice roads they traverse. Hensleigh does an effective job at cranking up suspense when the ice could break beneath their feet at any moment. Watching them navigate their surroundings and evade deadly “ice waves” yields some thrilling moments, and scenes of Mike and company extricating themselves from sticky situations using their engineering skills are compelling to watch. 

Unfortunately, when “The Ice Road” becomes a more traditional action thriller in its second half, Hensleigh doesn’t quite deliver the goods the material warrants — using some fake-looking CGI and iffy hand-to-hand combat that lacks any real “oomph” factor, held back by the film’s PG-13 rating. Familiar tropes of last-minute escapes, heroic sacrifice, and the bad guy who absolutely will not die are present in full force. While those clichés aren’t glaringly bad, the film has neither the emotional stakes nor the visceral action necessary to forge its own path.

Still, despite all this, “The Ice Road” is an adequate, though forgettable, way to spend two hours, trucking along at a steady enough clip without totally spinning out.

“The Ice Road” is a 2021 action-thriller written and directed by John Hensleigh. Starring Liam Neeson, Laurence Fishburne, Benjamin Walker, Marcus Thomas and Amber Midthunder, it is rated PG-13 for strong language and sequences of action and violence. Run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. Alex’s Grade: C+ 

By Alex McPherson

“Without Remorse,” roughly based on Tom Clancy’s 1993 novel, is a serviceable yet forgettable action film elevated by a committed performance from Michael B. Jordan.

We follow John Kelly (Jordan), a Navy SEAL chief who finds himself immersed in an international conspiracy with a gargantuan body count. After rescuing a CIA operative in Aleppo, Syria, and unexpectedly encountering Russian military forces, all hell breaks loose. Three months later, Russian FSB operatives brutally murder two SEAL team members who participated in the mission. They also execute Kelly’s wife, Pam (Lauren London), and unborn child. While Kelly is able to kill three of the operatives at his house, one escapes.

Mean-spirited CIA officer Ritter (Jamie Bell) and Defense Secretary Clay (Guy Pearce) want to brush the situation under the rug for fear of starting an international incident, but Kelly takes matters into his own hands. Thanks to the help of his superior officer, Lt. Commander Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), Kelly gets the intel necessary to exact revenge without, well, much remorse or self preservation. After being arrested and branded a felon for his vengeful acts, he’s placed on a black ops team to eliminate those responsible once and for all. Copious bloodshed ensues, and Kelly eventually acquires the last name of “Clark.”

Worth watching if only for Jordan’s acting chops, “Without Remorse” ends up feeling predictable, dated, and shallow by the end credits — squandering an opportunity to give Kelly much depth, or present a storyline that isn’t swamped in clichés. That’s not to say there isn’t some entertainment value to be found here, however, as Jordan’s performance remains consistently engaging, and director Stefano Sollima knows how to stage punchy, visceral set pieces.

Indeed, even though “Without Remorse” fails to delve into Kelly’s psychology beyond the surface level, Jordan’s portrayal lends him a damaged, unhinged quality. Jordan convincingly sells the fact that Kelly has nothing left to lose and is ready to die for retribution over his family’s killing. He’s always a gripping presence onscreen, and we can infer deeper tensions from his body language alone, even if Taylor Sheridan’s script avoids any kind of real complexity in his character or the larger plot he’s embroiled in. 

Similarly, side characters, particularly Turner-Smith, turn in decent performances, but they end up feeling quite plain. There’s little to latch onto emotionally across the board, and “Without Remorse” fails to make any kind of meaningful social commentary. The plot twists are easy to foresee, ending with patriotic sentiments that caused me to roll my eyes.    

If only Sollima’s film had given us more time to grow attached to Pam before she’s unceremoniously riddled with bullets, or provided any unique spin on the “America vs. Russia” trope, then perhaps “Without Remorse” could have stood out from its military-obsessed competition. Alas, for all the film’s thematic failings, it still remains enjoyable, due to the slickly choreographed shoot-em-up sequences peppered throughout.

Jordan, ripped as ever, absolutely shines in these scenes. A brutal interrogation within a burning car, an underwater escape from a downed airplane, and a claustrophobic punch out in a jail cell stand out in particular. It’s too bad the final-act skirmishes feel repetitive and too video gamey to impress. They’re sometimes dimly lit and, reflective of other elements, feel generic.

As a precursor to more Tom Clancy films down the road, “Without Remorse” carries out its mission dutifully, but uncreatively. Jordan, holding the whole ordeal together with his jacked arms, deserves better. 

“Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” is a 2021 action thriller directed by Stefano Sollima and starring Michael B. Jordan, Guy Pearce, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Colman Domingo and Lauren London. Rated R for violence, the movie runs 1 hr. 49 minutes. Streaming on Amazon Prime beginning April 30. Alex’s Rating: B-

By Alex McPherson

Alex’s Picks and Predictions for the 2021 Oscars

Well, dear readers, the 2021 Academy Awards are nearly upon us. How unbearably exciting. Although most of my favorite films of 2020 were snubbed — “First Cow,” “Bacurau,” “Da 5 Bloods,” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” among them — there’s still a fine crop nominated this time around. Below are my picks and predictions for most of the categories. Please keep in mind that, as a recently graduated University student perpetually hunting for a paying job, I haven’t had time to watch every nominated film, and as such, I have omitted categories that I couldn’t weigh in on effectively. Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s begin.

Best Picture:

  • The Father
  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • Minari
  • Nomadland (prediction)
  • Promising Young Woman (pick)
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

My personal picks for “Best Picture” are “Sound of Metal” or “Promising Young Woman” — two thought-provoking, eminently well-crafted experiences supported by outstanding performances from Riz Ahmed and Carey Mulligan, respectively. I never officially reviewed “Promising Young Woman,” but the film’s genre-blurring style and controversial ending have stuck in my mind ever since I watched it. “Minari” is pretty damn good as well. Sheesh, I suppose that I enjoy all the nominees on some level. 

Anywho, director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” will most certainly take top honors. A well-acted, atmospheric, and resonant endeavor, Zhao’s film nevertheless became slightly too predictable for my taste in its latter half. 

Best Director:

  • Thomas Vinterberg
  • David Fincher
  • Lee Isaac Chung
  • Chloé Zhao (prediction; pick)
  • Emerald Fennell

In keeping with her film’s awards season spark, I predict Chloé Zhao to win for “Nomadland.” Zhao, who also wrote and edited the film, is a prime choice for this category. Lee Isaac Chung and Emerald Fennell also stand out among the nominees. However, I wasn’t on set for any of these films, so who am I to judge?

Best Actor:

  • Riz Ahmed (pick)
  • Chadwick Boseman (prediction)
  • Anthony Hopkins
  • Gary Oldman
  • Steven Yeun

Every nominated actor gave a superlative performance, rendering my personal choice an arbitrary one. Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Levee Green in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is undeniably powerful (my prediction to win), but I’d have to go with Riz Ahmed as Ruben in “Sound of Metal.” A complex and massively conflicted character, Ahmed imbues Ruben with a soulful edge that renders him one of the most memorable and empathetic protagonists in recent memory.

Best Actress:

  • Viola Davis
  • Andra Day
  • Vanessa Kirby
  • Frances McDormand
  • Carey Mulligan (prediction; pick)

I haven’t seen “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” or “Pieces of a Woman” yet (sue me), but I’m still confidently choosing Carey Mulligan’s performance in “Promising Young Woman” as the hopeful winner here. A shattered, sardonic soul fueled by grief, Cassandra is always a compelling presence. Mulligan’s portrayal captures her turbulent emotions with searing impact. Who will actually take home the Oscar, though? No clue, really. There isn’t a clear frontrunner going into the ceremony. 

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Sacha Baron Cohen
  • Daniel Kaluuya (prediction; pick)
  • Leslie Odom, Jr.
  • Paul Raci
  • Lakeith Stanfield

Good grief, what an outstanding collection of performances. Paul Raci’s portrayal in “Sound of Metal” is first-rate, but I’m picking Daniel Kaluuya’s masterful turn as Chairman Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” as deserving of the trophy. Kaluuya gives a dynamite performance — conveying Hampton’s authoritative grandeur, but also quieter moments of reflection and intimacy. There’s little doubt in my mind that he won’t walk out empty handed. He should have been nominated for the “Best Actor” category, though. Hmph.

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Maria Bakalova (pick)
  • Glenn Close
  • Olivia Colman
  • Amanda Seyfried 
  • Yuh-Jung Youn (prediction)

Besides the strange nomination of Glenn Close for her over-the-top performance in “Hillbilly Elegy,” this is a highly contested category. I loved Yuh-Jung Youn’s performance as the grandmother in “Minari,” but Maria Bakalova’s fearless work in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” deserves all the accolades. It’s a downright impressive feat of acting and bravery, and she is most definitely my choice for this category. Even so, I predict Yuh-Jung Youn to win due to her previous awards showings.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (pick)
  • The Father (prediction)
  • Nomadland
  • One Night in Miami
  • The White Tiger

I’d have to pick the zany, oddly emotional screenplay for “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” as my preference here. I can definitely see Academy voters going for “The Father,” because of its theatrical structure and the ways it attempts to subvert viewer expectations of what’s really going on in Anthony’s daily life. 

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Minari
  • Promising Young Woman (pick)
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 (prediction)

Academy voters will probably side with Sorkin’s quippy, rapid-fire dialogue in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” While that film’s script is definitely enjoyable, I find the incisive, darkly comedic screenplay of Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” far more compelling. Chock full of memorable sequences and shocking twists, it forges a path all its own.

Best Cinematography:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • News of the World
  • Nomadland (prediction; pick)
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

The cinematography of “Nomadland” is richly textured, conveying both the ruggedness of Fern’s lifestyle, but also utilizing her environment as a symbolic representation of her personal journey over the course of the film. “Mank” also features expert camerawork, but its presentation lacks the variety and thematic weight of the former.

Best Editing:

  • The Father (prediction)
  • Nomadland
  • Promising Young Woman (pick)
  • Sound of Metal  
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

There’s something to be said for all these nominees — each of the films has a different feel, and their editing accounts for that. Yorgos Lamprinos’ (not acclaimed director Lorgos Lanthimos) editing in “The Father” is especially noteworthy for the ways it manipulates and intentionally obfuscates the proceedings to immerse viewers into Anthony’s declining mental state. We never quite get our footing on reality in any given moment.

Best Production Design:

  • The Father (pick)
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank (prediction)
  • News of the World
  • Tenet

I admire how “The Father” manipulates Anthony’s environment to reflect his disorientation and the passage of time, but Academy voters will in all likelihood choose the meticulous attention to detail of David Fincher’s “Mank.” I wouldn’t be upset by that winning — the film has extremely high production value, but a lackluster screenplay supporting it.

Best Original Score:

  • Da 5 Bloods 
  • Mank
  • Minari (pick)
  • News of the World
  • Soul (prediction)

It’s difficult to choose a favorite here — I’ve frequently revisited “What This Mission’s About” from Terrence Blanchard’s score for “Da 5 Bloods” — but my personal pick is Emile Mosseri’s score for “Minari.” Incredibly emotional and moving, Mosseri’s compositions perfectly complement the film’s poignant story of the American Dream. I’m predicting Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross to win for “Soul” because of their previous awards momentum, as well as the musical contrast they create throughout the film. Side note: I bet “Soul” wins “Best Animated,” too, because it’s Pixar.

Best Original Song:

  • Fight for You
  • Hear my Voice (prediction)
  • Husavik (pick)
  • Seen
  • Speak Now

I don’t feel particularly strongly about any of these nominees, but I’m choosing “Husavik” from “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” as my favorite for its strangely poignant, multilingual lyrics, with in-your-face sentimentality that’s kind of infectious. “Hear My Voice,” from “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” will doubtless emerge victorious — it’s simple, blunt, and fits in nicely with previous winners.  

Best Sound:

  • Greyhound
  • Mank
  • News of the World
  • Soul
  • Sound of Metal (prediction; pick)

The sound design in “Mank” is impeccable in how it evokes films of the “Citizen Kane” era, but “Sound of Metal” should win this category, unquestionably. Utilizing innovative techniques to depict Ruben’s hearing loss, it becomes a character itself as his story unfolds.

Best Documentary Short Film:

  • Colette
  • A Concerto is a Conversation
  • Do Not Split (pick)
  • Hunger Ward
  • A Love Song for Latasha (prediction)

This category was, yet again, a frustrating decision. Each of these nonfiction gems are stylistically distinct, but deeply poignant and immersive in their own ways. I was particularly gripped by the raw, uncompromising “Hunger Ward” (about the ongoing conflict in Yemen), and “Do Not Split” (an up-close-and-personal look at the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong). “A Love Song for Latasha,” documenting the life and murder of Natasha Harlins, will likely win. Presented in a mesmerizing, vivid fashion. “Love Song” is incredibly moving and would absolutely be deserving of the Oscar. 

Best Live Action Short Film:

  • Feeling Through
  • The Letter Room
  • The Present
  • Two Distant Strangers (prediction; pick)
  • White Eye

An amazing collection of short films, I predict and really hope that “Two Distant Strangers” — about a young black man trapped in a time loop where he’s always killed by the same cop, no matter how he acts — wins the Oscar. A brilliant, heartbreaking film, it’s extremely relevant to today’s climate and remains absolutely essential viewing for anyone with a Netflix account.

Best Animated Short Film:

  • Burrow
  • Genius Loci
  • If Anything Happens I Love You (prediction; pick)
  • Opera
  • Yes-People

This year’s batch of nominated animated shorts was an eclectic one, filled with varying tones, styles, and subject matter. The inventive construction of “Opera” and the twisted, fever-dream beauty of “Genius Loci” stand out in particular. Alas, my personal pick is the heartbreaking gut-punch of a film, “If Anything Happens I Love You.” Focusing on two emotionally distanced parents reeling from their daughter’s death, the film is profoundly well-made, and a prime example of doing less with more. The topic of gun violence is, sadly, ever-relevant, and this film is unflinching in confronting the grief left in its wake.

By Alex McPherson

With shallow characterization and underwhelming action sequences, George Gallo’s new film, “Vanquish,” winds up being decidedly average.

This generic thriller stars Ruby Rose as Vicky, a former courier for Russian drug dealers, who’s become a caretaker for Damon (Morgan Freeman), a retired police commissioner in cahoots with crooked cops. When the operation Damon’s team is working on is nearly jeopardized, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Vicky can’t afford to pay medical bills for her young daughter, so Damon offers funds in exchange for her embarking on a dangerous task — completing five money pickups from criminals around town. When Vicky refuses, Damon takes Lily hostage and won’t release her until the job is completed. Vicky must utilize her particular set of skills to survive the night and rescue her child.

With a style reminiscent of the “John Wick” franchise, Gallo’s film neglects to make the most of its lead actors and only provides sporadic moments of enjoyment throughout.

Even with low expectations going in, I hoped “Vanquish” would provide a campy, suspenseful experience that didn’t take itself too seriously. Unfortunately, for such a simple premise, the film seems unfocused. In too often switching attention from Vicky to the larger drug-smuggling operations behind the scenes, the pacing suffers, and the film abandons its strengths in favor of bland storytelling with predictable outcomes.

There are faint glimmers of intrigue here and there, however, particularly involving the visuals. Employing thick contrast and color grading in practically every shot, “Vanquish” aims for the appearance of a comic book and is often striking to behold, if sometimes overbearingly so. One scene early on, for example, is bathed in green hues and features a camera angle from the perspective of a scurrying rat — an oddball decision, to say the least. More often than not, though, this threatening atmosphere is undone by hyperactive editing that muddles the intensity. The camera rarely slows down, constantly cutting between shots without precision or purpose. I see what Gallo was attempting in trying to create a hazy, sensory feel at certain points, but “Vanquish” needed a more restrained approach overall. 

This surface-level quality extends to Vicky herself.  Her backstory is relegated to clunky exposition dumps and rushed flashbacks that lack emotional impact. Rose does a passable job with dialogue that chugs along without nuance. We’re not given many opportunities to spend time with her outside of her immediate objectives — rather, we spend a lot of time with Damon and the slimy cops he manages. Portrayed with uneven acting, the officers come across as infinitely less interesting than Vicky. 

The film’s video-game-esque skirmishes aren’t especially memorable, despite some impressive gore effects. Except for one moment of cocaine-induced gun fu and a slick motorcycle stunt, they fail to stand out — they’re sometimes downright difficult to follow due to the aforementioned editing. 

Side characters don’t fare much better. Damon has an engaging history, but “Vanquish” sends him down a familiar arc as events unfold. Confined to a wheelchair for the entire duration, Freeman doesn’t deliver Damon’s lines with much emotion. Admittedly, this creates some amusing moments of deadpan humor, but Gallo misses an opportunity to give Damon a soul beneath his shady actions — Freeman’s presence is where the primary entertainment comes from. Cynical, calculating, and emotionally distanced from the carnage happening around him, Damon is an over-the-top character that deserves a more over-the-top depiction. 

Failing to embrace its B-movie potential, “Vanquish” isn’t the worst option for an action film, but viewers could certainly do better elsewhere. 

“Vanquish” is a 2021 action crime thriller directed by George Gallo and starring Morgan Freeman and Ruby Rose. It is rated R for bloody violence, language, some sexual material and drug use, and run time is 1 hour, 36 minutes. It opens in theatres April 16. Alex’s Rating: C

By Alex McPherson

Acclaimed French director François Ozon’s newest work, “Summer of 85,” is a nostalgic coming-of-age story that lacks focus and subtlety.

Based on the novel “Dance on My Grave” by Aidan Chambers, the film takes place off the sun-drenched coast of Normandy and follows a reserved, working-class teenager named Alex (Félix Lefebvre), who happens to be fascinated with death. After his boat capsizes, Alex is rescued by the thrill-seeking David (Benjamin Voisin), and the two boys become infatuated with one another. Like most queer love stories in cinema, though, tragedy strikes. Switching back and forth between two separate timelines — one in which Alex is under investigation for a crime; the other presented as a flashback — viewers experience the exhilaration of Alex’s first love, as he recounts the events of those formative weeks.

Despite expert performances, vivid cinematography, and a dreamlike flow, “Summer of 85” remains disappointingly sappy, especially during its latter half. There’s much to appreciate about Ozon’s film, however, and there are specific powerful scenes peppered throughout. This is largely thanks to the chemistry of the two leads, as well as the ways their characters reflect and contrast each other.

16-year-old Alex is unsure whether to remain in school or join the workforce. He’s soft-spoken and, in 18-year-old David’s eyes, failing to capitalize on the exuberance of his youth. Lefebvre convincingly portrays his obsession, childishness, and turbulent emotions in a manner that feels understandable for a boy his age — including a climactic dance sequence that’s fittingly over-the-top.

David, on the other hand, is constantly seeking excitement in his life and grieves the death of his recently passed father. Voisin gives David a flamboyant swagger that’s simultaneously alluring and insecure, conveying a character with additional layers beneath his outgoing demeanor.

“Summer of 85” showcases their bond while bluntly illuminating larger themes, such as the perils of fantasization. The beginning of their relationship, for example, is depicted in a jubilant fashion — the scenery is breathtaking, and the sense of adventure is palpable. These breezy sequences evoke the sense that David and Alex have been literally swept off their feet by each other, throwing their frets to the wayside. There’s a distinctive energy pulsing through these moments, particularly when Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” blares on the soundtrack as David and Alex chart a new course in their lives.

When extreme melodrama comes to the forefront around the halfway point, the previously brisk pacing sags, and “Summer of 85” proves too forceful for its own good. Combined with distracting comedic elements, side characters that are well-acted but underdeveloped, excessive narration, and a conclusion that feels thoroughly Hollywoodized — “Summer of 85” doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. 

Indeed, the film’s disjointed narrative structure ultimately detracts from the suspense Ozon tries to create, breaking from the story’s interiority regarding Alex. If “Summer of 85” insists on portraying the highs and lows of Alex’s passion, then why shouldn’t we experience those feelings along with him without knowledge of the future?

A flawed but consistently watchable effort, “Summer of 85” plays to convention when it could have become unforgettable.

“Summer of 85” is a 2020 French film directed by Francois Ozon and starring Felix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voison. Its runtime is 1 hour, 30 minutes, and not rated. This film is a selection in Cinema St. Louis’ annual QFest from April 16 to 25. Alex’s Rating: B-.

By Alex McPherson

Director Caleb Michael Johnson’s new film, “The Carnivores,” is a lurid and disturbing psychological thriller that actually prompted nausea at one point, which is no small feat.

This bizarre story follows Alice (Tallie Medel) and Bret (Lindsay Burdge), an amiable yet stressed couple contending with several unaddressed issues. They each work dead-end jobs and can hardly afford to pay vet expenses for their dog, Harvie, who suffers from a terminal illness.

Alice is particularly jealous of Harvie, who receives more attention from Bret than she does. Hungry for intimacy and sleepwalking on a regular basis, Alice barely maintains her sanity. She develops a newfound fascination with meat, having been a vegan previously. When Harvie disappears, Bret becomes increasingly paranoid, and their relationship encounters a veritable smorgasbord of challenges. What follows is a deadpan, sometimes shocking film about the all-consuming pull of passion and the lengths that some will go to satiate it.

With hints of David Lynch and the off-kilter humor of Lorgos Lanthimos sprinkled throughout, “The Carnivores” definitely won’t be for all tastes. Like it or not, Johnson’s vision is undeniably striking — providing richly conceived visuals, devoted performances, and a genre mashup that’s difficult to look away from, even if you want to.

Indeed, “The Carnivores” is a refreshingly unpredictable experience, with slow-burn pacing and a tone that swerves noticeably from one moment to the next. I’m kept in nervous discomfort, never quite sure how to feel about the craziness unfurling before my eyes.

Alice is a perfect vessel for the film’s absurdist leanings. Although “The Carnivores” begins with her already in a state of mental anguish, Johnson’s film does an exceptional job at establishing her malaise with her day-to-day life. Despite her character’s potential for violence, Medel’s performance and the script’s blackly comic dialogue generate empathy and occasional amusement from her situation.

“The Carnivores” excels at a particular kind of droll comedy that befits this twisted tale perfectly, creating an uneasy atmosphere that simultaneously prompts laughter and grimaces. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Johnson more or less pulls it off effectively, especially in scenes involving Alice’s chatterbox boss and her obsessive preoccupation with slabs of meat.

Bret’s character doesn’t receive nearly as much development, but Burdge still gives her a raw edge beneath her compassionate personality. Watching her take matters into her own hands, as Alice’s life seemingly slips away from her, is upsetting but grimly compelling — not always making much sense, but building towards a suitably ravenous climax.

Of course, much of the film’s strengths lie in its cinematography and score, which constantly keep viewers on edge as to whether or not scenes are taking place in reality, or merely within Alice’s mind. Sensual, vivid imagery of her yearnings and obsessions — including a particularly memorable shot of Alice and Bret making out from either side of a shower door — have a mesmerizing quality that, while sometimes too overt for their own good, are admirable in their confidence.

Unfortunately, however, this tonal mishmash ultimately lessens the film’s emotional impact. “The Carnivores” held my interest throughout, but there are some plot beats that don’t ring as poignantly as they could have, especially near an ending that feels oddly cut and dry.

The premise is also inherently difficult to buy into, and I couldn’t become much involved in the proceedings due to its blunt, in-your-face imagery, especially in the latter half. Perhaps I will grow to appreciate “The Carnivores” more upon repeat viewings, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly distanced from the characters and the peculiar journey we’re taken on.

An acquired taste, “The Carnivores” bites off slightly more than it can chew, but remains satisfyingly well done nevertheless.

“The Carnivores” is a 2020 comedy-drama-thriller directed by Caleb Michael Johnson and part of the 2021 Cinema St Louis Q Fest April 16-25. Starring Tallie Medel and Lindsay Burdge, it is not rated and runs 1 hour, 17 minutes. Alex’s Rating: B.

By Alex McPherson

Olivia Peace’s directorial debut, “Tahara,” provides an incisive look at identity, grief, and societal pressures.

Unfolding during a single day within a Jewish synagogue, the film centers on best friends Carrie Lowstein (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah Rosen (Rachel Sennott) as they attend the funeral services for their Hebrew school classmate, Samantha Goldstein, who was shunned by her community for her queerness. Carrie, a soft-spoken Black woman, quickly realizes the hypocrisy on display from her peers and instructors, especially during the “Teen Talk-back” session in which she and her classmates are forced to discuss faith in relation to Samantha’s death. They are enacting a performative ritual that contradicts how many of them treated Samantha while she was alive. 

Everyone besides Carrie is seemingly driven by selfish interests, especially Hannah — an impulsive, reckless individual. Hannah is solely focused on attracting the attention of pretty boy Tristan Leibowitz (Daniel Taveras), rather than on grieving the loss of her classmate. After she coerces Carrie into “practicing” her kissing skills, Carrie’s true feelings for her come to the forefront. Hannah is forced to confront her own insecurities, and Carrie must navigate the troubled waters of their friendship.

Although the topics broached don’t break the mold for the coming-of-age genre, “Tahara” makes a positive impression from its opening frames and remains compelling throughout. 

The film’s distinctive style is apparent from the get-go — utilizing a 1:1 aspect ratio that creates a confined atmosphere, enhanced through frequent long takes. Additionally, when the characters experience a euphoric moment, the picture widens to fill the entire screen. During the aforementioned kiss, for example, colors whirl from all directions while Carrie and Hannah become smooching claymation figures — briefly existing on a different plane of existence, only to return to the restrictive norm immediately after.

Indeed, the whole film revolves around Carrie and Hannah’s relationship, as their bond is put to the test. Carrie’s mild-mannered personality sharply contrasts with Hannah’s, but “Tahara” effectively conveys their years of friendship through dialogue that, while often sardonic, feels authentic. DeFreece gives a particularly noteworthy performance as an individual facing challenges from multiple angles who eventually recognizes the importance of asserting herself. 

While Carrie remains sympathetic, Hannah is practically unbearable. Her self-absorption makes her difficult to watch at times, and her stubborn resistance to change proves incredibly frustrating. Sennott’s masterful performance, though, renders Hannah more complicated than she initially seems — an individual deeply unsure of her future and grappling with the person she wants to become. Although the film’s condensed time-frame limits how much we can learn about Carrie and Hannah individually, “Tahara” does a commendable job at illustrating their tensions, rendering each deeply human. 

Overlooking a few exaggerated side characters, Peace’s film successfully peels back the layers of its subjects’ cynicism to reveal a tragic, at times heartbreaking situation with young adults weighed down by external expectations. Religion, mourning, regret, self discovery, social status, and toxic friendships are all explored to various extents in this microcosm of teenage uncertainty. 

Despite some jokes that fail to land and occasionally heavy-handed symbolism, “Tahara” remains engaging from beginning to end. I wish Peace’s film wasn’t limited to showing a single day in the life of these characters, however, as the conclusion remains frustratingly open-ended and fails to give one specific character the resolution they deserve. The film’s initially comedic bent gives way to straight-up drama by the end credits, not shying away from ambiguity and leaving the future unpredictable.

Multifaceted and surprisingly ambitious, “Tahara” is a coming-of-age film worth experiencing, as well as an impressive calling card for director Peace.

“Tahara” is a 2020 movie directed by Olivia Peace that runs 78 minutes. It is a narrative feature selected for Cinema St Louis’ annual QFest, which will take place virtually April 16-25. For ticket information and festival offerings, visit www.cinemastlouis.com/qfest. Alex’s rating: B+