By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Lynn Venhaus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

Miles Teller

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

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

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

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

Val Kilmer as Admiral Thomas “Iceman” Kazansky

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory Kinnear in “Men”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessie Buckley in “Men”

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

By Alex McPherson

A tender drama with plenty of gallows humor throughout, director Panah Panahi’s debut feature, “Hit the Road,” speaks to universal fears while slyly critiquing an oppressive political system.

The film centers around a family of four embarking on a road trip across the Iranian countryside. Farid (Amin Simiar), a withdrawn, soft-spoken 20-something, needs to leave the country for mostly ambiguous reasons. His grizzled father (Hassan Madjooni) has a broken leg and wry wit, occupying the backseat of their cramped van with Farid’s wildly energetic younger brother (Rayan Sarlak).

The little chap remains equal parts annoying and sweet — a shining beacon of optimism amidst the impending gloom of Farid’s separation. Farid’s brave, deeply worried mother (Pantea Panahiha) can barely contain her anxiety. Her momentary slides into hopelessness are alleviated by the strength of her familial bonds. There’s also a dying dog in the back of the van that the parents are trying to abandon, without telling the kid the truth about her condition. 

As the family members bicker, laugh, argue, and cry together, “Hit the Road” cements itself as one of 2022’s most confident, multifaceted, and tonally ingenious works thus far. Panahi, the son of legendary Iranian director Jafar Panahi (currently forbidden from leaving Iran himself), depicts a lovable group of characters navigating a situation which none of them are fully prepared for, illuminating complex human dynamics that are easy to relate to, no matter one’s culture.  

It’s striking how much nuanced character work Panahi packs into a 93-minute runtime. Dialogue, acting, cinematography, editing, and score combine to lend each interaction metaphysical weight. Indeed, the heaviness of their destination is counterbalanced by moments of often humorous connection — an equally powerful force that fights against the controlling hand of authority they’re quietly rebelling against.

With the parents providing deadpan commentary, music blaring on the speakers, and the youngest causing mischief, “Hit the Road” captures the group’s infectious energy to entertaining effect. Sardonic dialogue, particularly from the father, pokes fun at the absurdity of their circumstances yet never undermines the tragedy at the core of it all, even as viewers are left in the dark on the specifics. 

It’s also clear, however, that these moments of shared levity mask the adults’ grief. Panahi brilliantly illustrates this tension — the film can shift from hectic to profoundly melancholic in the blink of an eye, especially when characters are (briefly) alone with their thoughts. They frequently stare directly into the camera, a type of existential void, until jolted back into the present. 

Each of the central actors are astounding, with not a weak link among them. Simiar convincingly conveys Farid’s heightening fear and quiet suffering, his stoic facial expressions belying barely repressed sadness. Similarly, Panahiha is absolutely heartbreaking as his mother — vividly portraying her inner battle to maintain positivity while preparing to say goodbye to her eldest son.

Madjooni embodies his aging paternal figure with layered complexity, as his character struggles to disguise his concern through a veneer of gruff, amusingly deadpan masculinity. The real star of the show is Sarlak, whose imaginative personality and innocence becomes a grounding presence for the adults as they each gradually slide into depressed emptiness. Still, they can only shield him so long from the horrors of the world, and from changes that will permanently affect his life going forward.

Amin Jafari’s cinematography does a brilliant job at visualizing their descent into the unknown. The initially claustrophobic, tightly framed compositions take on additional meaning when the camera eventually zooms out during climactic moments — often framing subjects against expansive, fog-drenched mountain ranges that render them tiny specks in an intimidating environment; tiny specks, though, that are forever connected in the vast cosmos.

Although “Hit the Road” is occasionally too blunt in its symbolism, Panahi’s film expertly examines the psychological impacts of change, of leaving loved ones for an uncertain future, of the power of family bonds to keep us whole when others want to tear us apart. This is a story that needs to be told, and a directorial debut that bears the marks of a true master.

“Hit the Road” is a 2021 Iranian drama directed by Panah Panahi and starring Hassan Madjooni, Pantea Panahiha, Rayan Sarlak and
Amin Simiar. It runs 1 hour, 33 minutes and is in Persian with English subtitles, and is not rated. It opened in select theatres on April 22 and will be released on streaming July 19. Alex’s Grade: A.

By Alex McPherson
A snarling, fever-dream rampage of vengeance, director Robert Eggers’ “The Northman” can’t match its stunning attention to detail with an emotionally satisfying narrative.

Set during the Dark Ages, Eggers’ third feature is based on the text that inspired William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In the fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returns home from a long voyage and ordains his son, Amleth (first played by Oscar Novak, then Alexander Skarsgârd), to become the tribe’s future ruler in an elaborate ritual featuring crawling on all fours, farting, levitating, and Aurvandil’s innards morphing into a magical family tree.

Soon after, tragedy strikes. Amleth’s cold-hearted uncle Fjölnir (a menacing yet layered Claes Bang) assassinates Aurvandil, wreaks havoc on the populace, and kidnaps Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Young Amleth escapes via boat by the skin of his teeth, vowing to get revenge, restore honor to his family, and fulfill his destiny.

Decades later, Amleth has become a ruthless killing machine, raiding nearby villages with a band of like-minded berserkers. After torching a barn full of townspeople, a feather-laden seeress (Björk) reminds Amleth to rejoin the path to slay Fjölnir. Amleth then disguises himself as a Slavic slave en route to Iceland, to the farm where his uncle eventually fled.

Along the way, he meets another slave, the alluring Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who presents a different path to take — if he has the will to recognize the power of love amid chaos.

Ultimately, “The Northman” shines less in terms of thematic depth or provocative characterization than it does in Eggers’ pure, balls-to-the-wall style. If nothing else, the film viscerally immerses us into a specific time and place, where heinous violence is an accepted way of life, and strict traditions dictate one’s future.

Indeed, Eggers throws viewers into an unfamiliar land of rugged vistas and simple-minded cruelty. Amleth’s mentality seems out of his control, forced upon him by what society expects, leaving little room for personal agency and boundless space for blood-letting. 

There’s definitely merit in how “The Northman” unapologetically depicts its Icelandic setting and Viking cultural customs, visualizing the characters’ psychedelic visions in blunt, matter-of-fact fashion that doesn’t seem sanitized or toned-down for general audiences. Like his previous features, “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” Eggers depicts the mystical as co-existing with the ordinary, feeding into the characters’ archaic attitudes.

Bizarre rituals underscore their sense of “honor,” but also the traditions they are unable to break away from. The cinematography and editing emphasizes a mystifying and off-kilter world of gods and spirits they’ve devoted themselves to. 

During several extended action sequences, enhanced by Vessel and Robin Carolan’s pulse–pounding score, “The Northman” opts for long-takes, which break that spell, illustrating the grueling nature of combat and encouraging us to judge Amleth as he becomes a beast before our eyes.

The spectacle is enthralling, for a while, as the utter intensity of Eggers’ filmmaking allows us to feel like we’re right in the muck along with him.

The initial adrenaline-fueled carnage becomes repetitive in the film’s latter half, though, where the previously expansive action is restricted to one primary location, and Amleth’s single-mindedness devolves further into grotesque, blackly comic delusion that’s even harder to care about. 

Sadly, despite its spectacular style, “The Northman” doesn’t do enough to peel back the layers of Amleth’s damaged psyche. It follows a fairly standard revenge narrative, even resembling a video game at some points as Amleth receives instructions to “go here, get this item, and kill the bad guys.”

Moments of quiet reflection are few and far between, as Amleth — often saddled with clunky dialogue — goes about his murderous ways. His transformation from an innocent young man into a hardened killing machine is abruptly glossed over, as are the moments between the slaughtering where he starts to question his actions. He essentially remains a broken husk for much of the runtime, unable/unwilling to be vulnerable or consider the risks his acts of violence entail for those he cares about.

Skarsgärd does what he can with the material, roaring with gusto, but Amleth’s arc checks off archetypal plot beats without actually saying anything new about the price of revenge. Similarly, the ever-talented Taylor-Joy is given a simplistic love interest role that mainly serves to check off bullet-points on the way to an inevitable conclusion. The standout performer is Kidman, who lends Queen Gudrún an unpredictably unhinged quality that keeps viewers on their toes.

When the last drop of blood is spilled, “The Northman” lacks the heart and soul necessary to ascend into legend, but there’s enough achingly well–crafted filmmaking on display to declare it an honorable effort.

“The Northman” is a 2022 period action-adventure directed by Robert Eggers and starring Alexander Skarsgard, Anna Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe. It is rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity and runs 2 hours, 20 minutes. It is playing in theaters April 22. Alex’s grade: B

By Alex McPherson

“The Lost City,” directed by Adam and Aaron Nee, is a purely enjoyable action comedy with strong performances that provides comfort food for viewers seeking escapist fluff.

This wacky yarn centers around an archeologist-turned-adventure-romance-novelist named Loretta (Sandra Bullock), grieving her late husband and lacking excitement in her life, despite efforts by her publisher, Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and cringey social media manager, Allison (Patti Harrison), to support her career. Her newest novel, “The Lost City of D,” continues the treasure-hunting escapades of Dash McMahon, portrayed by cover model Alan (Channing Tatum) wearing a luscious wig. Alan, a classic Himbo, has a huge crush on Loretta and wants her to see him as more than just an attractive hunk.

After an unfortunate press conference, Loretta is kidnapped by wild-eyed businessman Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), who wants Loretta to help him find the actual treasure from her latest novel. Fairfax whisks Loretta away to a CGI-heavy, remote island in the Atlantic, leaving Alan and company distraught. They soon enlist the services of a chilled-out mercenary Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt) to help rescue Loretta, and real carnage ensues. Alan and Loretta end up fighting to survive, having the adventure of a lifetime and perhaps falling in love along the way.

Although “The Lost City” would likely play just as well on cable, the Nee brothers deliver a lighthearted romp that’s difficult to dislike. The cast’s comedic chops and some thrilling action sequences ensure it remains perfectly entertaining from start to finish.

Narratively, “The Lost City” doesn’t break any new ground — functioning mainly as a vessel to put Loretta and Alan in screwball situations that wind up bringing them together. With humor that aims for mid-level raunchiness, Bullock and Tatum have fizzy chemistry, adding a sense of vulnerability to their performances that gives their characters hints of depth. 

Loretta, donning a sequined jumpsuit for most of the film, is unable to live in the present, having been burned by a reality far separated from the fearlessness of her writing. She’s uptight, defensive, yet still thrilled on some level by her predicament, and Bullock’s sarcastic, typically spicy line delivery serves Loretta well as she breaks out of her shell. Tatum does what he does best, embodying a goofy muscle man with a heart of gold. Alan wants to be Loretta’s knight in shining armor, though it’s just as often him in danger. 

Certain scenarios — like Loretta removing leeches from Alan’s buttocks — use the exotic surroundings to mine some amusing moments and plenty of innuendos. Bullock and Tatum bounce lines off each other with solid comedic timing, even when some jokes don’t land. Indeed, the biggest laughs of “The Lost City” involve physical comedy, particularly involving Pitt, who fits the cartoonish proceedings like a glove and would give John Wick a run for his money. Calmly extinguishing bad guys with precision, he’s utterly hilarious, especially when contrasted with Alan, who aspires to meet Trainer’s badassery yet falls flat, desperately trying but failing to seem cool in Loretta’s eyes.

When “The Lost City” focuses on Alan and Loretta bumbling their way through crazy circumstances, there’s little to whine about — the group’s banter and slapstick comedy keep the momentum going. Unfortunately, Pitt aside, side-characters don’t leave much of an impression. An extended subplot involving Randolph’s Beth abandons the film’s strengths to rely on comparatively mundane, hit-or-miss dialogue that tries too hard to be current. Radcliffe is also maniacally effective, but Fairfax’s motivations — being ignored by his father — are pretty flimsy, and he remains one-note throughout. Additionally, the film’s swerve into eye-rolling sentimentality in the third act lacks any sort of surprise, falling back into a creatively stagnant formula.

That being said, “The Lost City” neither overstays its welcome nor blows your socks off. It’s a lightweight tonic for our cynical times.

“The Lost City” is a 2022 comedy directed by Aaron and Adam Nee. It stars Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, Danielle Radcliffe, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Brad Pitt. It’s run time is 1 hour, 52 minutes and rated PG-13 for violence and some bloody images, suggestive material, partial nudity and language. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Paying homage to horror classics like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” while also subverting clichés to surprising ends, Ti West’s “X” is one of 2022’s most brutally entertaining films so far.

The action unfolds during one blood-soaked day in rural Texas in 1979, focusing on a group of friends shooting a porno they hope will launch them into stardom. Maxine (Mia Goth) is a coke-snorting exotic dancer with a mysterious past and spunky spirit. Her enterprising fiancé, Wayne (Martin Henderson, doing a solid Matthew McConaughey impression), wants the world to appreciate Maxine’s talent, taking on the role of the project’s opportunistic “executive producer.” They are joined by well-endowed actress Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), Vietnam veteran Jackson (Kid Cudi), as well as director RJ (Owen Campbell) — who aims to inject some avant-garde cinematic techniques to the shoot — and his quiet, initially skeptical girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who operates a boom-mic.

They’re not especially intelligent, but their teasing camaraderie proves charming, even wholesome at times. Unfortunately, the crew winds up filming at a secluded guest house run by a crotchety old man named Howard (Stephen Ure), and his spindly, emaciated wife, Pearl (Goth, playing dual roles), who is simultaneously turned on and filled with murderous rage at the horny youngsters.

Although “X” isn’t an especially innovative horror outing, there’s practically nonstop fun to be had in West’s glorious comedy of carnage. Indeed, what could have been a simple, throwaway story in other directors’ hands is bolstered by stylistic verve, likable characters, and an antagonist given unexpected depth beneath the killing.

The central team includes some exaggerated personalities, but they wind up being refreshingly enjoyable to watch, genuinely believing they can break through in their industry while serving a valuable societal purpose. Maxine stands out as an ambitious woman with unspoken trauma, making her easy to root for as she finds herself in perilous circumstances. Goth — communicating as much through her eyes as dialogue — lends her a fierce determination along with her insecurity. 

The rest of the crew aren’t as well developed, but the actors’ chemistry with one another is excellent. West’s screenplay supplies numerous one-liners and some tender moments of bonding that gives enough emotional heft to the subsequent slaughtering. Much of this is due to the film’s sex-positive, open-minded views of its characters, villains included. Whereas other horror films seemingly punish characters for having sex, “X” flips the cliché on its head — using it as an empowering, liberating, enviable facet of the human experience, the deprivation and jealousy of which can lead to rage and violence. 

Without spoiling too much, the slasher in question, Pearl, who Goth portrays with a low-key viciousness despite her frailty, is given enough motivation that West almost wants viewers to empathize with her. The quieter, more melancholic plot beats involving Pearl and Howard — surrounding their aging bodies and repressed urges — lend “X” a more humanistic, unsettling edge, albeit disrupting the largely tongue-in-cheek tone previously established.

Regardless of the film’s more feminist leanings, however, West still adopts an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the rest of the material, capturing the isolated, bug-ridden, sun-scorched prairies and backwoods lakes with prudish televangelists blaring in the background. There’s a sense of voyeuristic claustrophobia from start to finish, complemented by an eerily wispy score by Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe and the occasional frustrating fake-out jump scare. West uses the film’s slow-burn pacing to effectively heighten suspense and make moments of violence morbidly gratifying, even funny, not skimping on gore or twisted laughs. The editing contains clever flourishes, such as screen wipes, split screens, and hallucinatory imagery that emphasizes the unlikely similarities between Maxine and Pearl — the contrasts between the young and the old.

By the time the third act rolls around, though, thematic richness takes a backseat to the slashing, leaving several threads not explored as much as they could have been. Fortunately, “X” still serves up no-holds-barred thrills with a decent helping of brains, exceeding expectations every step of the way.

“X” is a 2022 horror film directed by Ti West and starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega and Brittany Snow. It is rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language. It runs 1 hour, 45 minutes and opened in theatres March 18. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Alex McPherson

Patient, meditative, and pulsing with feeling beneath its calming atmosphere, the latest effort by video-essayist-turned-film-director Kogonada, “After Yang,” poses profound questions in quietly gripping fashion.

The film, based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein, is set in an unnamed futuristic city — presumably after a war or natural catastrophe — where slightly heightened technology has permeated daily life, and East Asian stylistic influences abound, cleanly melding the ecological with the manmade.

Everyone speaks in muted, passionless tones. We follow a family encountering a shattering loss. Jake (Colin Farrell) owns a tea shop lacking customers, going about his days with isolated remove. Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) is constantly busy as a corporate executive. Neither are as present as they should be with their young adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), who spends much more time with Yang (Justin H. Min), a “technosapien” they purchased to help educate Mika about her cultural heritage. Over time, though, shown in flashbacks, Yang becomes less of a “Chinese Fun Fact” distributor for Mika and more of a brother figure, rendering his untimely malfunction all the more traumatic. 

Trying to console a distraught Mika, Jake tries to get Yang repaired. Before long, a paranoid mechanic (Ritchie Coster) finds a box within Yang that contains memory clips of what Yang found meaningful while he was online. As Jake views the recordings — thanks to a museum curator (Sarita Choudhury), who provides him the ability to view them in exchange for permission to create an exhibit about Yang’s life — he begins to value Yang on a whole new level while neglecting to tell his wife and child the full truth.

Yang’s memories are visualized as stars comprising a galaxy, within which lie resonant snippets of time Yang chose to preserve. Jake also learns about his own flaws, imperfections, and potential to develop as an aimless entity in search of meaning in our chaotic universe. He eventually encounters a strange woman in Yang’s memories (Haley Lu Richardson), who unearths more of Yang’s secrets.

Although some viewers might find “After Yang” too subtle and ponderous for its own good, part of what makes Kogonada’s film so moving is how gentle it is — letting plot developments unfold with a dreamlike rhythm that percolates into a rich, textured whole upon later reflection. 

The opening, however, where the central family competes in an intensive dance competition from their living room, is bursting with infectious energy. The rest of the film’s melancholic tone underscores the void left behind by losing Yang, and a family dynamic that Jake and Kyra have difficulty recapturing. Despite their relative privilege and open, spacious house — with a large tree growing in their central courtyard — they’re missing something crucial and comforting, stuck in a sort of limbo not unlike the confusion Yang feels about his own being.

Indeed, although Yang himself possesses a warmth and compassion that’s instantly endearing, it’s much harder to connect with either Jake or Kyra — especially Jake, who isn’t by any means a bad person, but someone drifting through life not fully appreciating those around him. Farrell gives an incredible, understated performance, where viewers observe — through small, yet meaningful shifts in attitude and behavior — a man reckoning with his own memories, by viewing Yang’s, and recognizing the messy, conflicted entity bubbling beneath his programming.

We don’t spend as much time with Kyra, who wants to tell Mika the truth about Yang’s death and move on, but as the story unfolds, she too recognizes a trapped soul searching for more. “After Yang” also paints an emotionally affecting contrast between Mika’s current despondence and her happiness alongside Yang, who gave her attention lacking from her adoptive parents. Yang himself, basically forced to take on a particular Asian identity sans much free will, is performed expertly by Min, who movingly conveys the android’s heartache and yearning through simple, powerful line delivery and facial expressions.

In terms of visuals, Kogonada infuses “After Yang” with depth that perfectly complements the subject matter. The cinematography by Benjamin Loeb features wide, static shots of this plausible world, conveying the ennui faced by Jake and Kyra with effective chilliness. When watching Yang’s memories play out, “After Yang” takes a more documentary-esque, arty approach reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s films, where we get colorful snippets of the natural world and human connection that gradually form a grander portrait. Additionally, when Jake and Kyra look back on specific conversations with Yang, Kogonada repeats lines of dialogue with different tones and camera angles, illustrating how the simple act of remembering has unmoored them to an extent, adding dimension previously overlooked.

The score, by Aksa Matsumiya and Ryuichi Sakamoto, is at once relaxing and raw, elegiac while also accentuating the eeriness of not truly “understanding” technology, or even our loved ones, or ourselves. Within a world over-reliant on technology, “After Yang” depicts the ways that it can benefit our lives if used properly, and how confronting grief can ultimately prove liberating. 

Kogonada’s film isn’t perfect — expository dialogue and simplistic characterizations of certain side characters stand out — but it’s one of 2022’s most thought-provoking films thus far, and one that rewards viewers eager for the unexpected.

“After Yang” is a 2021 American sci-fi drama directed by Kogonada and starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Haley Lu Richardson, Ritchie Coster, and Sarita Choudhury. It is rated PG for some thematic elements and language, and the run time is 1 hour, 36 minutes. It started streaming on Showtime and its channels, and DirecTV on March 4. Alex’s Grade:: A-