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- 

By Alex McPherson

Crass and packed with enough blood to fill a swimming pool, director David Blue Garcia’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” leaves behind a bitter aftertaste, despite moments of hyper-violent enjoyment.

Taking place nearly 50 years after Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece — as well as retconning the seven other “TCM” films released since then — the latest entry finds a group of Gen-Z entrepreneurs venturing out into the remote area of Harlow, Texas, and having a grand ol’ time.

Dante (Jacob Latimore), Ruth (Nell Hudson), and Melody (Sarah Yarkin) want to gentrify Harlow and turn the ghost town into a hipster haven, or something like that. Melody brings along her depressed sister, Lila (Elsie Fisher), who recently survived a school shooting. 

As the naive younglings encounter various slimy locals, Dante and Melody find a woman inhabiting a former orphanage (Alice Krige), who refuses to leave. Being the cutthroat capitalists they are, they evict her, creating an unfortunate domino effect. Guess who else happens to be living there, in hiding from the authorities? Couldn’t be Leatherface (Mark Burnham), could it? The porky cannibal who’s since become something of a Texas celebrity?

Attempting to replicate the grungy, unforgettable thrills of Hooper’s effort, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” lacks the craft and inventiveness needed to carve a name for itself. Rather, Garcia’s film is woefully miscalculated, bringing in a huge swathe of cultural talking points only to toss them aside, providing only sporadically engaging genre thrills.

Topics of post-traumatic stress, liberal guilt, cancel culture, gun control, and more are treated with very little subtlety: they’re designed to provoke rather than enlighten or add any meaningful subtext, like Hooper’s vision attempted. The film’s 83-minute runtime limits how much time any particular theme can develop, so the overall impression is woefully tone-deaf and disgustingly offensive, especially in regard to gun violence. 

Indeed, it’s difficult to ignore just how profoundly mean-spirited the film is, painting its young protagonists as semi-antagonists from the get-go, reducing them to basic characterizations aggressively foregrounding their “wokeness” without any real soul. The actors try their best with the material, especially Yarkin and Fisher, but there’s only so much they can do with people making one bone-headed decision after another, playing into horror movie tropes that viewers have likely seen time and time again. 

To their credit, Garcia and screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin try to give Lila some development — it’s just pretty damn insensitive how the film uses her trauma as a set-up for her own acts of violence against the iconic face-wearer. Without spoiling too much, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” exploits America’s gun violence epidemic to gross, confused ends.

Similarly, the film’s most promising thread — bringing back Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré), the sole survivor of the 1974 bloodbath — is largely neglected until the conclusion. Even then it resembles a pale imitation of what director David Gordon Green achieved with Laurie Strode in his far superior horror sequel, 2018’s “Halloween.”

Fortunately, being a slasher film, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” doesn’t require anyone to latch onto emotionally, so long as they die in entertaining fashion. And on those merits, it delivers the goods. Although Leatherface’s scare factor is neutered this time around due to the film’s reliance on formulaic jump scares, Garcia stages some blackly comic set-pieces that leave a satisfyingly queasy impact.

One sequence involves a busload of social media influencers being graphically slain while livestreaming the whole ordeal on their smartphones after threatening to “cancel” Leatherface. It goes on for a ridiculously long time, and fits the tone well as a sick, apathetic joke.

Additionally, Ricardo Diaz’s cinematography contains several aesthetically pleasing compositions, albeit abandoning the documentary-esque stylings of Hooper’s film that helped give it such an uncomfortable atmosphere. Colin Stetson’s score features growling rhythms that add some welcome suspense when the scenarios themselves remain generic.

If viewers go into “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with the absolutely lowest of expectations, there’s enough flashes of sadistic slasher glee to briefly divert. For everyone else, however, there’s little here that stands out, and far better cinematic offerings to grab from the toolshed.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a 2022 film directed by David Blue Garcia and starring Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher and Mark Burnham. Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, and language, the runtime is 1 hour, 21 minutes. Streaming on Netflix beginning Feb. 18. Alex’s Grade: C-

By Alex McPherson

A glossy, warm-hearted romantic comedy that slightly exceeds expectations, director Kat Coiro’s “Marry Me” ticks all the necessary boxes while being elevated by the charming chemistry of its leads.

Based on Bobby Crosby’s graphic novel of the same name, the plot involves an unlikely romance between a celebrity superstar and an ordinary plebeian. Kat Valdez (Jennifer Lopez) is a pop music sensation, strutting her stuff onstage while singing basic, yet still kinda catchy, lyrics. She’s preparing to marry her bad-boy fiancé, fellow singer Bastian (Maluma), at a concert before legions of fans, mostly to promote their new single, fittingly titled “Marry Me.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s divorced dad and high-school math teacher Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson), who lives a mundane existence spending time with his daughter, Lou (Chloe Coleman), boisterous co-worker Parker (Sarah Silverman, delivering some toned-down raunch), and his trusty canine companion. He’s also preparing for a school mathalon with a group of adorably geeky kiddos unafraid to indulge in some blatant product placement. Having been accused of being “boring,” Lou reluctantly agrees to attend Kat’s concert with Lou and Parker.

Mere seconds before their big moment, Kat learns that Bastian’s been cheating on her with her assistant. In a defiant, impulsive leap of faith — after speechifying about the importance of following new paths when what’s assumed and expected fails — she picks out Charlie from the crowd, who happens to be holding a “Marry Me” sign, and asks him to marry her. Charlie, shocked, takes pity on Kat and wants to impress his daughter, so he agrees. Afterwards, even though both Kat and Charlie aren’t serious about starting a relationship, they somehow agree to keep the act going until the media storm dies down, with some encouragement from Kat’s manager, Collin Calloway (John Bradley). And guess what? They start falling for each other. Wow.

Although “Marry Me” has an opportunity to explore the tumultuous realities of celebrity culture, Coiro’s film largely bypasses nuance in favor of providing rom-com fans exactly what they hope for. Wilson and Lopez keep this decidedly old-fashioned narrative on-track, making the film’s shallowness easy to overlook.

Lopez and Wilson help buoy the film through its predictable framework, each giving just enough effort to lend their characters likability beneath the generic archetypes. Lopez — effectively playing a version of her real-life persona — slips into the role of Valdez easily, bringing some self-aware gusto to a person who secretly wants to follow her own path, away from the ever-present cameras and glow of smartphone screens. In elaborate concert sequences and numerous musical interludes — interrupting the action for some literal self-promotion — Lopez shines, even though she’s never really allowed to be vulnerable due to the film’s insistence on remaining upbeat above all else. 

Wilson is his expected, laid-back self, possessing an everyman charisma that nicely contrasts with Lopez’s initial bombast. There’s not really much to his character, and we never learn much about his previous marriage, but Charlie’s a simple man who wants to be there for his amusingly blunt daughter. Charlie has absolutely zero interest in Kat’s way of life, but as the two of them become friends and then, unsurprisingly, fall in love, their improbable romance ends up being relatively low-key and wholesome, even as Bastian tries to barge in to take back Kat. Indeed, it’s pleasing how the ludicrousness fades into wholesomeness by the conclusion, with a properly schmaltzy finale.

Regarding the omnipresent grip of technology, “Marry Me” depicts it aggressively, erratically framing scenes through paparazzi cameras and copious amounts of smartphone screens. It’s all a bit garish, and the film makes a few basic jabs at how little privacy celebrities like Valdez are given in their daily lives, where the music itself is sometimes an afterthought in the public eye. In these moments, we see the film that could have been, but who expects any sort of meaningful commentary in a story as absurd as this?

As far as rom-coms go, “Marry Me” isn’t revolutionary in the slightest, but it should fit the bill nicely as a Valentine’s Day watch, where love triumphs over all.

“Marry Me” is a 2022 romantic comedy directed by Kat Coiro and starring Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Sarah Silverman, John Bradley, Chloe Coleman and Maluma. It’s rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive material and the run time is 1 hour, 52 minutes. Starts streaming on Peacock and in theaters on Feb. 11. Alex’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

Overlong, goofy at some points and deadly serious at others, not even a star-studded cast can save Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” from mediocrity.

This true-crime drama, beginning in the late 1970’s, centers around Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), a confident woman born into a poor family in Northern Italy who profits generously from her stepfather’s trucking business in the present-day. She meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a glitzy party, and the two soon fall for each other.

Reggiani is attracted both to Maurizio and the Gucci company itself. Maurizio wants to distance himself from the spotlight and follow his own path. Soon enough, they’re married, to the anguish of Maurizio’s father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who’s aghast that his son would wed such a peasant.

Maurizio’s uncle, Aldo (Al Pacino), sees an opportunity to lure Maurizio back into the family business through Patrizia; he shuns his immature, resentful son, Paolo (an unrecognizable Jared Leto), who desperately wants to be recognized as worthy of the family name. As time progresses, Maurizio is reluctantly brought back into the fray, and Patrizia grows increasingly conniving as she seeks to make herself “successful,” no matter who gets in her way.

The soapy drama that ensues involves backstabbing, manipulation, and cold-blooded murder. Sadly, “House of Gucci” doesn’t develop its central players enough to make its narrative compelling from an outsider perspective, but there’s still some fun to be had in watching Gaga, Leto, and Pacino go all-out on their respective roles, cringe be damned. Contrary to what the film’s marketing indicates, though, this is a ponderous, disjointed, messy affair that — despite a few memorably over-the-top sequences — remains unfortunately dull.

At least the actors involved are up to the task. Gaga, carrying herself with gusto, lends a formidable power to the role of Patrizia, devolving into ferocious, animalistic mentalities as her greed envelops her. Frustratingly, Scott attempts to cover so much ground during the 2-hour-45-minute runtime that Patrizia’s arc is sped through, particularly regarding her infatuation with the Gucci brand early on and her slide into madness. With a thick Italian (Russian?) accent, eye-catching outfits, and a fiery temper, she’s entertaining to watch, but it’s difficult to ultimately care about what happens to her. Indeed, Patrizia is always dialed up to 11, for better and worse.

Carried by Gaga’s charisma, the other actors are seemingly unsure whether to ham-it-up or keep themselves down-to-earth. Irons has one delicious verbal takedown that wouldn’t be out of place in “Succession,” and Pacino exudes warm, fatherly vibes while scheming behind the scenes.

Driver’s Maurizio represents the voice of reason in most situations, and his emotional expression is considerably downplayed compared to the others. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is Leto, whose go-for-broke approach calls to mind Tommy Wiseau of “The Room,” to uneven levels of success (there’s a scene where he pisses on a scarf). Salma Hayek leaves a positive impression as an unhinged, upper-class psychic.

This inconsistency extends to the film’s screenplay, co-written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna. Highlight-reel lines like “Father, Son, and House of Gucci” are amusingly self-aware, but dry discussion of the company’s inner-workings is far less engaging. In terms of editing, “House of Gucci” also feels jumbled, cutting between scenes abruptly without giving each exchange a satisfying climax or providing viewers time to reflect as the film lunges forward. 

Stylistically, Scott misses an opportunity to capitalize on the peoples’ loony psyches. The image is often bathed in a muted, gray filter — perfect for Scott’s own, far superior “The Last Duel,” but out-of-place here — and only sometimes embraces the campiness inherent in the subject matter, inserting a few bluntly effective musical cues that put a smile on my face. 

Generally, “House of Gucci” seems unsure of what it’s trying to be. Brisker pacing, an hour-shorter runtime, and more focus on Patrizia in all her malevolent glory could have rendered it gleefully dark escapism. In its current state, however, viewers would be better off watching Scott’s criminally underseen epic “The Last Duel” instead.

“House of Gucci” is a 2021 crime drama directed by Ridley Scott and starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jared Leto, Jack Huston, Jeremy Irons and Salma Hayak. It is rated  R for language, some sexual content, brief nudity, and violence and is 2 hours, 37 minutes long. In theatres Nov. 24. Alex’s Grade: C

By Alex McPherson

An earnest tribute to St. Louis and the people who live there, St. Louis native Nate Myers’ “After We’re Over” is a beautifully filmed love story, featuring a star-making turn from Adrienne Rose White.

One year after a devastating breakup, social justice activist Zelzah (Adrienne Rose White) gets a call from her ex, an abstract artist named Sazerac (Chris Mollica), who moved to Long Island. She reluctantly agrees to meet up with him for coffee, and the duo wind up traversing St. Louis together — visiting iconic landmarks like the Arch, the City Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden — while reflecting on the highs and lows of their relationship.

As they visit their old haunts, the film turns back the clock to illuminate shared moments from their romantic past, creating a melancholic, trancelike flow throughout, as both characters evaluate the time they spent together, ultimately trying to determine whether or not to try again.

Although the central narrative is fairly standard, “After We’re Over” successfully captures the pulsing core of its central dynamic and shines as a love letter to a place that deserves more cinematic representation. For non-St. Louisans, there’s still universal themes at play, revolving around co-dependence and independence, the weight of societal expectations, the messy nature of memory, and the importance of authoring one’s own future.

With flashbacks galore, “After We’re Over” almost feels impressionistic, focused on conveying moods and feelings above all else. Indeed, while this approach robs the material of opportunities to sit with these characters during quieter scenes, the film plays like a dewy-eyed ghost story. Sometimes, Zelzah and Sazerac can literally see their old selves, fondly remembering those instances where all anxieties faded away and they just enjoyed each other’s company. As they slowly rekindle their old dynamic and explore a city with a troubled history but holding promise for what’s yet to come, we simultaneously watch them drift apart in the past, unearthing details about what happened between them.

Cinematographer Thaïs Castralli’s camera films the characters’ surroundings with an affectionate gaze. Stylized, red and blue lighting during key discussions provides an effective backdrop to the push-pull dynamics at play — a tug-of-war between comfort and fearful uncertainty.   

It doesn’t hurt that White and Mollica give strong, authentic performances as the two leads. White is downright wonderful as Zelzah — a deeply empathetic woman who wants the best for her loved ones and for St. Louis, but doesn’t have an adequate support system to weather doubt and anxiety. White is such an energetic, expressive performer that Zelzah radiates vitality and passion for what she holds dear. Myers wisely recognizes her scene-stealing ability, pausing the action to focus on her face as she delivers dialogue, slam poetry-style, regarding the city’s economic inequality and grief from her own difficult past. Mollica is also exceptional, but Sazerac isn’t as interesting as Zelzah, embodying the sort of “troubled artist facing an existential crisis” archetype that falls into convention. Mollica has solid comedic timing, though, and his chemistry with White is apparent from their first conversation onwards.

The pair’s dialogue — aiming for lyricism — is intermittently sappy and pretentious (cue eyerolls from phrases like “Do you think we leave energy wherever we go?”), but more often than not poetically apt, adding weight to the couple’s exchanges that symbolically stretches across St. Louis’ own turbulent streets. At times, it feels sensual, spoken by White with smooth, performative cadences that immediately capture attention, setting aside the words’ hit-or-miss impact.

As details about their breakup are gradually meted out, we see both characters adapt (or fail to adapt) in the present, which in theory should be compelling to watch unfold. Frustratingly, however, the 80-minute duration doesn’t always leave enough time for scenes to sink in, particularly during the emotionally fraught finale. A few flashbacks, like a scene involving a spaghetti taste test, aren’t essential to the tale at hand, adding levity to the mournful tone, yet remaining jarring.

Issues notwithstanding, St. Louisans owe it to themselves to check out “After We’re Over” whenever it finally finds a distributor. While Myers’ film doesn’t break the mold of similar romances, he has a keen cinematic eye, and White’s performance is so pure, heartfelt, and true, that it will win over even the most cynical among us.

After We’re Over” is a 2020 romantic drama directed by Nate Myers. It stars Chris Mollica and Adrienne Rose White and runs 80 min. It premiered at the St. Louis International Film Festival on Nov. 13. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Fueled by isolation, passion, obsession, and music booming with magisterial grandeur, director Gabriele Fabbro’s “The Grand Bolero” demands the biggest screen possible.

This genre-bending tale unfolds in Northern Italy during the early days of the COVID pandemic, and it primarily takes place in a single location — a massive church dating back to 1700. Residing within are a jaded pipe-organ restorer named Roxanne (Lidia Vitale) and Paolo (Marcello Mariani), who maintains the church, continually ringing “the death bell” as pandemic casualties increase. After Roxanne’s assistant dies, Paolo insists that Roxanne take on a 20-year-old, mute helper named Lucia (Ludovica Mancini) to nurse the aging instruments back to life in exchange for giving Lucia food, music lessons, and a place to sleep. Roxanne treats Lucia like a subhuman, strictly enforcing rules and waking her up each morning by blasting the organs with all her might. Still, Lucia is a bubbly, persistent soul, and she’s quite the musician herself, catching Roxanne off-guard and building a possibly romantic connection with her. As Roxanne’s attachment grows, “The Grand Bolero” evolves into something altogether more sinister — for each party has their secrets, bubbling to the surface in sometimes explosive fashion.

Although Fabbro’s film becomes unwieldy in its last act, “The Grand Bolero” captures a rich sense of place with intriguing characters brought alive by excellent acting and one of the best soundtracks of the year.

Indeed, “The Grand Bolero” thrives on mood-setting. We hear wind blowing through groaning walls, the tactile creak of floorboards baked in history, and boisterous organs creating fleeting moments of harmony and elation craved by Roxanne in particular, all while Fabbro skillfully guides us through the spacious yet claustrophobic structure. COVID is rendered more as a backdrop to the proceedings, but in the sequences where the characters leave the church, cinematographer Jessica La Malfa’s camera presents their environment as downright post-apocalyptic, with grey skies, thick fog, and ambulance sirens quietly singing in the background. 

The score — by Sean Goldman, Martino Lurani Cernuschi, and Paolo Sanvito — is adapted from works by classical composers, including Ravel, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, among many others, and is a splendid accompaniment to the onscreen drama, channeling the central duo’s burgeoning love for one another, as well as lending Shakespearean weight to the craziness in the latter half. This music is its own character in the film, capitalizing on the animalistic impulses of the characters as if, in some strange way, judging them.

In terms of characterization, “The Grand Bolero” doesn’t shine quite as brightly, but there’s some welcome complexity nevertheless. Roxanne remains a mysterious presence to the end, possessing a misanthropic view of humanity that lends itself both to moments of dry wit and immoral decisions. Vitale, a legendary Italian star, expresses Roxanne’s sassy demeanor and inner demons with a weathered, mysterious performance in which we’re never really sure what Roxanne will do to achieve her goals. Mancini, given less material to work with, also gives an impactful turn as Lucia, an energetic, upbeat young woman who’s somehow been able to survive while stripped of resources and the ability to effectively communicate with those around her. We don’t get much information about either characters’ backstories — ultimately to the film’s detriment — but “The Grand Bolero” renders their relationship satisfying to watch develop, always buoyed by their shared adoration of the pipe organs they look after.

It’s therefore disappointing that the slow-building, contemplative approach of the first half devolves into chaos that’s too melodramatic and self-serious for its own good. Without having enough grounding for Roxanne’s character especially, life-altering decisions come across as clumsy and overly exaggerated. No spoilers here, but the film’s detour into thriller territory is difficult to take as seriously as Fabbro and co-writer Ydalie Turk likely intended.

Gripes aside, however, “The Grand Bolero” is a technically impressive, thoughtfully put-together production. Few films this year have used music to such expressive heights, and there’s definitely merit in a narrative that doesn’t use COVID as a means to talk down to audiences. While the emotional core isn’t as strong as it could have been, there’s much to appreciate within this sensual, sensorial story for our times.

“The Grand Bolero” is a 2021 Italian film with English subtitles directed by Gabriele Fabbro and starring Lidia Vitale, Ludovica Mancini and Marcello Mariani. It is not rated and runs 1 hour, 30 minutes. It is available virtually at the St. Louis International Film Festival through Nov. 21. Alex’s Grade: B+

By Alex McPherson

Accessible and brimming with directorial skill, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s future awards hopeful, “Belfast,” is an affecting coming-of-age story set amidst civil conflict.

Taking place during the summer of 1969 in Northern Ireland, “Belfast” functions as a cinematic memoir for Branagh — looking back at a seemingly idyllic stage in his life beset by the brutality of The Troubles between Protestants and Catholics. Buddy (a revelatory Jude Hill) is a boy nearing adolescence, possessing a wide-eyed curiosity and playfulness in his small, mostly Protestant neighborhood. He’s surrounded by his courageous mother (Catríona Balfe), his father (Jamie Dornan) who works in England, brother Will (Lewis McAskie), his rebellious older cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell), his lovably sardonic grandmother (Dame Judi Dench), and his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds), who remains Buddy’s primary confidant.. 

As destructive riots begin to take place within and around his community, Buddy (a Protestant) struggles to make sense of what’s happening, if one can even make sense of it to begin with. What matters most to him is having fun and attempting to build up the courage to talk to his school crush (a Catholic girl). The adult world creeping steadily upon his doorstep threatens to permanently influence the person he will become — forcing him to grow up as his parents debate whether or not to leave the only place they’ve called home.

“Belfast” could arguably be faulted for not painting a comprehensive picture of The Troubles, but Branagh’s film remains both uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure. Seeing the story play out through Buddy’s eyes lends the proceedings a wistful edge, as we observe this young soul — full of life — navigate an increasingly perilous environment with loved ones by his side.

After an in-color introduction showcasing present-day Belfast, the film swiftly transitions to crisp black-and-white photography, evoking the sense of being transported back to an era both fantastical and menacing. The sequence that follows is one of 2021’s best. Buddy’s street devolves from safe and peaceful into utter chaos when a Protestant mob attempting to expunge any remaining Catholics from the neighborhood rounds the corner. The camera swirls around Buddy frozen in fear as the crowd approaches, and we’re launched into an intense situation not completely unlike a horror film. It’s reflective of Branagh’s fusion of tenderness and harsh reality that continues throughout, which makes each moment of grace between the characters all the more meaningful.

Composed largely of small conversations between Buddy and his family, “Belfast” gives the titular setting both a welcoming, lived-in feel, as well as the sense that unexpected violence could strike at any point. Indeed, thanks to the absolutely incredible cast and imaginative direction from Branagh, viewers can feel his passionate longing for those days gone by.

Even though the looming carnage casts a dark shadow over most scenes, there’s still plenty of humor to be found here, particularly in regard to Buddy’s heart-to-heart discussions with his grandma and grandpa about everything from the moon landing to how to woo girls to what to make of the outside world that’s seemingly falling apart.

Moments like these, given added texture through Hinds’ and Dench’s wise, knowing auras, pull at viewers’ heart strings and underline the fact that this resilient family can weather any obstacle if they stick together. Hill is a spectacular performer for someone 11 years old, conveying Buddy’s confusion, wonder, and eventual sadness in completely believable fashion.

The rest of the actors are just as excellent. Balfe is blindingly good as a beautiful, caring, deeply concerned parent who wants to protect her children and is strongly attached to her home base in Belfast. Dornan gives a rich performance as Buddy’s father, a man fiercely against viewing people in absolutes, who faces pressure from a radical acquaintance (Colin Morgan) to join a Protestant gang. The stressed couple fight over barely being able to pay rent and whether to move away, all while Buddy listens nearby, the sparkling glint in his eyes turning to tears.

Cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos does an admirable job depicting Buddy’s community as an interconnected unit teeming with energy where everyone knows each other, implementing tracking shots galore. Characters might be conversing quietly only to be interrupted by someone sitting in the corner of the frame, resembling a stage production. “Belfast” also reverts back to color photography when Buddy and company view a play or film together, likely emphasizing the profound impact that the arts had on Branagh as a child, but simultaneously feeling a bit on-the-nose.

With a soundtrack by Van Morrison accentuating moments of euphoria and tragedy among the characters, and a mournful, jazzy original score, “Belfast” depicts the city and Buddy’s family with a nostalgic glow tinged with sadness and regret. A few scenes feel too far separated from reality, and the film follows a relatively predictable framework, but the power of Branagh’s passion project is difficult to refute, and absolutely worth experiencing.

“Belfast” is a 2021 drama directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds Lewis McAskie, and Colin Morgan. Rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language and runs 1 hour, 38 minutes. Alex’s Grade: A-   

By Alex McPherson

Watching a nervous breakdown unfold has rarely been as fun as it is in Jim Cummings’ and PJ McCabe’s “The Beta Test.”

Set within a smarmy world of Hollywood agents willing to manipulate and asskiss their way to wooing prospective clients, “The Beta Test” zeroes in on one distasteful chap named Jordan Hines (Cummings) willing to spend thousands of dollars to do just that. Despite having a well-paying job and a beautiful fiancée, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), Jordan can’t help but feel that he’s becoming obsolete. The macho, alpha dog persona he once embodied pre-Weinstein can’t exist anymore, changing power dynamics in his personal and professional bonds. 

 Meanwhile, Jordan’s company (A.P.E.) is on the defensive from the Writers’ Guild of America, who claim A.P.E.’s use of talent “packaging deals” rips off writers while connecting them with industry higher ups. Repeating the same fake pleasantries minute after minute, along with planning for his wedding, Jordan is eager for a release from the colossal burden of his daily existence — a chance to indulge his entitlement. Soon enough, he receives a fancy letter inviting him to a no-strings-attached, blindfolded sexual encounter at a lavish hotel. Jordan, despite his early attempts to ignore the temptation, soon gives in, and has the time of his life. 

Afterwards, though, his actions start to gnaw at him: Who was the woman in the hotel room? Is he being blackmailed? Could Caroline have set him up? With his job and home life at stake, Jordan embarks on a farcical mission to uncover the truth — which holds far more paranoia and laugh-out-loud moments than viewers might expect. Plus, other people receiving the letters start turning up dead.

Indeed, Cummings’ and McCabe’s film is compulsively enjoyable, as we observe an abhorrent character get the reckoning he deserves, digging himself further and further into a Hell of his own making. Lampooning toxic masculinity, societal expectations of relationships, and the uncompromising access we permit online, sometimes unknowingly, “The Beta Test” excels in immersing viewers into Jordan’s crumbling headspace, all the while putting him in deliciously humorous situations that showcase just how truly pathetic he is.

Cummings — who previously directed the greenlit indie flicks “Thunder Road” and “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” — brings a finely calibrated chaotic energy to Jordan’s interactions. He tries to gain the upper hand through blatant lies, but more often than not winds up lashing out at those around him, brute-forcing his way to his goals. He’s extremely reluctant to appear vulnerable in front of anyone, including Caroline, only able to talk semi-honestly with his colleague, PJ (McCabe). In practically every scene, his pent up tension seems poised to explode at any point, but how long can he keep up the trickery and misdirection before it comes back to bite him? From posing as a detective to interrogating an innocent hotel clerk who refuses to take his frantic B.S., Jordan remains an aggravating presence from beginning to end, but a protagonist who’s so unlikable he’s almost endearing.

Similarly, the film’s editing, also done by Cummings, creates the sense that we can’t always trust what we see. A brief locking of eyes from across a room could spark Jordan’s suspicions, and the film lets us see the inner workings of his pervasive fixations. Absurd yet unsettling hallucinations, such as a Neanderthal-esque mating ritual, and dizzying montages ratchet up anxiety to a boiling point by the conclusion. Ben Lovett and Jeffrey Campbell Binner’s score expertly complements the heightening stress, while adding a touch of ironic melancholy at Jordan’s dying way of life, drenched in outdated workplace norms that, one hopes, will die off.

Side characters aren’t as well developed, but they add a welcome dose of groundedness to Jordan’s wild delusions. “The Beta Test” doesn’t spend much time at all with Caroline, probably by design, yet Newcomb’s acting effectively demonstrates her deep frustration at being constantly patronized and ignored. PJ, himself a successful agent who’s better able to pull off Jordan’s workplace schtick, is a loyal confidant, and his friendship with Jordan is easy to buy into. Jacqueline Doke gives a memorable turn as Jordan’s office assistant, Jaclyn, who is willing to maintain an illusion herself to advance her career.

The final reveals don’t pack as much of a cathartic punch as Jordan’s de-evolution, and some scenes of brutality aren’t necessary to get the story’s points across (particularly in a vicious opening that feels tonally separated from what follows). Still, “The Beta Test” is a scathing piece of work. My eyes were plastered to the screen, eager to see where the film would take me next. That “The Beta Test” is somehow able to remain comedically deft while tackling serious issues is undoubtedly impressive. So go ahead, I insist you give it a shot.

“The Beta Test” is a 2021 comedy directed by stars Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe. The film also stars Virginia Newcomb and Jacqueline Doke. It is not rated and runs 1 hour, 33 minutes. It opens in theaters and is available video on demand on Nov. 5. Alex’s Grade: B+