By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is an entertaining, four-hour superhero epic that greatly improves on Joss Whedon’s 2017 version. After leaving the first production due to a family tragedy, director Snyder is finally able to give fans what they’ve been craving. 

Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and another familiar face team up to take down a world-ending threat. This time, a horned monstrosity named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) seeks to eliminate humanity from Planet Earth via three powerful “Mother Boxes” and rebuild it under the leadership of Darkseid (Ray Porter), who wants to control the galaxy. Feeling partly responsible for the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Batman becomes a reluctant leader as he and Wonder Woman bring the squad together. Heroes both new and old undergo their own arcs, to varying degrees — involving the topics of grief, faith, hope, and unity in times of crisis.

Aiming to please those who willed it into existence, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is difficult to recommend to viewers who aren’t already fans of the DC Cinematic Universe. The film contains moments of emotional resonance and visual spectacle, but proves grueling by the final hour — reverting to predictable plotting and repetitive, CGI-reliant action sequences.

At least the central characters are given more opportunities to shine. From its opening frames, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” establishes itself as a slower, mournful affair, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, dour chapter titles, muted color palette, and a clearer sense of organization. Snyder has crafted an unarguably more coherent storyline than before, maintaining a grittier tone than the original cut and giving scenes more time to breathe. Even though the storytelling itself is clunky, largely thanks to hit-or-miss dialogue and frequent exposition dumps, I appreciate Snyder’s ambition. 

The added depth to Cyborg (a.k.a Victor Stone) is particularly noteworthy. After Victor and his mother are killed in a car crash, his father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton) uses a Mother Box to resurrect Victor in a robotic body. Thanks to his new abilities, Victor becomes an all-powerful presence, able to tap into the world’s technological web with ease, and representing the League’s key to vanquishing Steppenwolf. Despite his powers, Cyborg is gripped with resentment towards his father and deeply uncertain of his own future. Fisher’s acting is endearing and empathetic, the most convincing in the entire film. His character  — practically deserving of its own standalone installment — remains the heart and soul of the whole endeavour. 

The Flash (a.k.a. Barry Allen) is also further fleshed out, but his journey lacks the nuance and complexity of Cyborg’s. He is much more confident in his speedy capabilities and doesn’t spout as many cringey quips as in the 2017 iteration. Batman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, on the other hand, aren’t given much new material to work with under Snyder’s guidance, but we’re given more context for their actions. This helps create a stronger sense of flow from scene to scene than before, and all the actors give decent performances.

In terms of antagonists, Steppenwolf’s goals are more clearly outlined. Exiled from his demonic homeworld, he’s trying to prove himself to his master, Darkseid. Even though we understand where he’s coming from, Steppenwolf is still difficult to empathize with. Revealing more about his history doesn’t automatically fix his blandness or render him memorable. He’s big, powerful, odd-looking, and ready to slice and dice his way to victory.

Speaking of violence, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is rated R, allowing Snyder to indulge in bloody carnage that feels far more visceral than other cinematic comic book offerings. As expected, however, Snyder deploys an over-abundance of slow motion to present every shot as a work of art to be gawked at. Yes, there’s instances of beauty in his eye-popping, effects-heavy compositions, but they lose their thrill as the hours pile up.

Combined with an unnecessary epilogue that’s purely fan service, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” doesn’t quite justify its existence for casual moviegoers. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly support Snyder’s efforts to realize his vision. That being said, four hours is a huge time commitment, especially when viewed in a single sitting, and his film doesn’t differentiate itself enough to truly stand out.

A self-serious, over-indulgent, yet admirable effort, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” isn’t the masterpiece that some have touted it as, but it proves sporadically enjoyable. I just needed a long nap afterwards.

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a 2021 release from Warner Brothers that is exclusively showing on HBOMax, as of March 18. It stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill, Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller as the six superheroes in the DC Justice League. is Rated R for violence and some language. It has a run time of 242 minutes. Alex’s Grade: B –

By Alex McPherson

Anthony Scott Burns’ new directorial effort, “Come True,” is a flawed yet eerily effective horror film that explores the nature of dreams.

Burns’ film centers around Sarah Dunne (Julia Sarah Stone), a sleep-deprived high school student drifting through her day-to-day life. She refuses to stay at her mother’s house, possibly due to an abusive past, and relies on her friend, Zoe (Tedra Rogers), as her main support system. She has recurring nightmares where she flows through a post-apocalyptic wasteland containing shadowy figures, cavernous interiors, and a never-ending stream of passageways — always ending near a humanoid, cloaked in darkness, with glowing eyes and an imposing physique. 

Lacking a secure place to slumber overnight, Sarah enrolls in a sleep study run by a group of scientists with suspicious morals. The team, led by Dr. Meyer (Christopher Heatherington), is able to observe participants’ dreams as they’re experiencing them, thanks to some 80s-inspired sci-fi technology. Soon enough, the study goes off the rails as strange events start occurring. What ensues is a mind-boggling ride where Sarah’s life is thrown into turmoil. 

Suffice it to say, “Come True” is out there. Viewers expecting clear-cut resolution will be disappointed. Indeed, Burns’ film sacrifices plot coherence for atmosphere and mood. This style, however, ultimately overshadows some thematic missteps later on.

Eschewing the jump-scare-heavy tendencies of mainstream horror, “Come True” relies primarily on creating a sense of uneasiness and danger looming on the horizon. Burns’ precise cinematography — full of slow zooms and long, drawn-out shots of mysteriously empty streets and glossy, claustrophobic interiors — encourages us to consider more malevolent operations behind the scenes.

The proceedings are also divided into chapters with Jungian-inspired titles, such as “The Persona” and “The Shadow,” inferring a grander picture beyond Sarah’s immediate situation. Combined with the aforementioned nightmarish sequences and a score overly reliant on the synthesizer — it’s practically as if we’re experiencing a dream along with Sarah. 

Regarding her character, Stone gives a noteworthy performance that renders Sarah captivating from beginning to end. Although “Come True” withholds information from us regarding her past experiences, Stone empathetically conveys her exhaustion, fear, and disorientation as she’s sent down a turbulent path that keeps both herself, as well as viewers, second-guessing what’s real and what isn’t.

Her character arc, as well as the plot’s larger themes, aren’t spelled out to viewers, which heightens unpredictability and encourages reflection once the end credits roll. This is a highly metaphorical, bizarre coming-of-age tale of subconscious thoughts rendered conscious experience, targeting universal fears that the screenplay assumes many of us share. “Come True” takes some work to decipher, but holds rewards for viewers up for the challenge. At least, I think so. There’s some elements of the story I haven’t wrapped my head around yet.

That’s not to say the film’s ambiguity works entirely in its favor. When a young, creepy scientist named Jeremy (Landon Liboiron) shows up, “Come True” expects viewers to care for him, and his uncomfortable relationship with Sarah, without developing his character in a satisfying fashion. Saddled with occasionally clunky dialogue, he remains far less interesting than Sarah herself.

Additionally, the film’s final moments are unintentionally humorous and feel overly blunt in comparison to the slow-burn pace adopted previously. More than anything else, viewers will likely be left feeling befuddled and maybe even cheated.

Despite unfortunate detours into perversion and muddled storytelling in its latter half, “Come True” provides memorable visuals and a multi-layered plot that earn a recommendation.

“Come True” is an unrated sci-fi horror film from IFC Midnight that was released March 12. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns, it stars Julia Sarah Stone, Christopher Heatherington and Landon Liboiron, it runs 1 hour, 45 minutes. Alex’s grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Shot entirely via iPhone, director Anthony Z. James’ “Ghost” is a thought-provoking exploration of fatherhood, redemption, violence, and how the past informs the present.

The film takes place during a single day and follows Tony Ward (Anthony Mark Streeter), an ex-con re-entering society after 10 years behind bars. Emerging into an unforgiving world that’s moved on without him, Tony attempts to mend fractured relationships, including with his son, Conor (Nathan Hamilton), and chart a new path forward for himself.

Conor is psychologically scarred by his father’s actions and the direction his own life took as a result, but still cares for him nevertheless. Both men are forced to confront whether they will be consumed by their demons or work to overcome them. When Tony’s old boss, Dominic (Russell Barnett), shows up, complications arise. Can Tony escape the world he left behind, or is history doomed to repeat itself?

Even though “Ghost” dips into familiar territory, James’ film is a refreshingly subdued affair, with a pair of intriguing central characters and a strong sense of place.

From the opening frames, it’s clear that Tony feels alienated in the working-class streets of London. Streeter’s nuanced performance expertly conveys Tony’s regret, grief, and determination to turn his life around. He’s prone to brashness, but remains sympathetic. Hamilton is similarly effective as Conor — a youthful individual full of potential, yet held back by his own impulsivity that likely stems from his troubled childhood. Their scenes together, combined with James’ restrained approach, are where the film absolutely shines.

Shooting via iPhone lends a gritty, tactile edge to the proceedings, giving the film a documentary-esque feel at times. “Ghost” is more focused on small-scale relationships than anything else, willing to take an unhurried pace to tell a story that feels grounded in plausibility. Overlooking some occasionally shoddy sound design and awkward camera placements, it’s difficult to imagine “Ghost” being presented any other way. 

The majority of the film unfolds in prolonged conversations that feel true to life, for the most part — complete with awkward pauses and cinematography that creates a voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall quality throughout. During other moments, James presents shots reflective of characters’ mental states. Tony, Conor, and Dominic are often framed against borders, both literal and figurative, that illustrate their difficulties connecting with the world around them, as well the internal conflicts they individually face.

Despite the film’s success in these areas, however, “Ghost” resorts to predictable beats by its conclusion. While I appreciate how James ratchets up tension in confrontations later on, these scenes betray the naturalistic approach utilized previously — sending the film down a bloody path of genre convention that feels forced rather than organic.

Additionally, James crams too much plot into a short time frame. Coming in at only 85 minutes, I wish that he had given these characters more time to grow, rather than trying to condense their journeys into a single day.

 It’s also disappointing that the side characters surrounding Tony and Conor aren’t given much development. Conor’s ex-girlfriend, Kat (Severija Bielskyte), for example, is used primarily to demonstrate Conor’s misplaced anger, without being given an opportunity to leave much of an impression. Similarly, Tony’s ex-wife, Valerie (Emmy Happisburgh), only features prominently in a couple of scenes, and undergoes a rushed arc that defies believability. Heading into its suspenseful final act, Dominic also gets an exposition-dump-heavy subplot that’s too convoluted for its own good — albeit one that concludes in a darkly poetic fashion.

All in all, “Ghost” is worth recommending to viewers seeking a crime drama with a compelling relationship at its core. Although the final act lacks the finesse that came before, there’s much to enjoy in this promising debut.

“Ghost” is a 2020 film released last summer that is now available on Amazon Prime. Directed by Anthony Z. James and filmed entirely on an iPhone, the film runs 1 hour, 25 minutes. It starts Anthony Mark Streeter and Nathan Hamilton. Alex’s Rating: B

By Alex McPherson

Featuring an incredible lead performance from Rosamund Pike, “I Care A Lot” is a darkly comedic roller coaster ride from start to finish. 

Marla Grayson (Pike) bases her life around taking advantage of senior citizens through fraudulent guardianships. In an unforgiving world, she believes only the most cutthroat will succeed. Once she or her girlfriend, Fran (Eiza González), finds a well-off elder, Marla acquires court permission to install herself as their “legal guardian.” She then takes charge of their finances and imprisons them in a care facility where they’re cut off from the outside world — all the while draining the poor saps of their money and sense of self.   

Suffice it to say, Marla is a stone cold sociopath. She exerts a palpable influence on those around her and rarely loses control of any situation she’s in. When she targets Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), Marla garners the attention of Jennifer’s donut-loving son, Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), who also happens to be a sadistic drug smuggler. Marla and Fran must reckon with the deadly consequences. 

With shades of “Sorry to Bother You” and “Uncut Gems” sprinkled throughout, director J Blakeson’s film makes up for its lack of substance with memorable characters and an unpredictable plot.

Indeed, there aren’t many sympathetic folks in this story of greed, opportunism, and the American Dream. Viewers looking for people to root for won’t find any here. On the other hand, much of the fun of “I Care A Lot” comes from watching them destroy each other in a bloody battle of wits. As the stakes escalate for Marla and Fran, the film only grows more entertaining — not holding up to much scrutiny, but clever enough to leave a lasting impression.

Marla is a cunning, calculating, and compulsive individual. She’s able to shift personas on a whim to match different situations, always aware of her manipulative power and unflinching in the face of threats to her personal safety. These threats are usually toothless, until now. Pike absolutely dominates the screen, capturing her character’s heartlessness in a way that dares viewers to question her strength. Marla will snatch any opportunity to increase her wealth, always planning two steps ahead of her competition. It’s undeniably satisfying watching her pull strings for her personal gain — her razor-sharp dialogue simultaneously humorous and disheartening. 

 A troubled past is alluded to, but Blakeson doesn’t give Marla an involved backstory. Rather, she is an enigma who nevertheless cares deeply for her lover, Fran. This bond, though underdeveloped, gives Marla a shred of humanity despite her vile behavior.

The film’s clean, glossy shot compositions early on reflect Marla’s mastery of an amoral system disguised by artificial warmth. Later on, however, we’re able to see Marla stripped of her safety and command of the proceedings. The film’s style changes accordingly, evocative of a graphic novel and the volatile figure at the heart of it.

Marla’s a compelling antihero, earning some hard-earned respect by the film’s conclusion, but always remaining emotionally distanced. The other characters aren’t nearly as interesting, but there’s still a few standouts. Dinklage gives a scene-stealing performance as Roman, an unstable crime boss who, in a neat twist, actually has more sympathetic motivations than Marla does. Wiest is also wonderful, keeping viewers on edge regarding who Jennifer actually is.

Propelled by an eerie, synth-heavy score by Marc Canham, “I Care A Lot” moves along at a swift pace, but falters a bit by its heavy-handed finale. Plot holes abound, and Blakeson misses an opportunity to explore Marla’s psychology in more depth. Similarly, the film doesn’t add anything particularly unique in terms of social commentary — spotlighting a real-world issue of corrupt conservatorships, but adding little else to the conversation, launching itself into the firmly unbelievable.

Regardless of its missed potential, “I Care A Lot” is still a dastardly enjoyable film that fans of pitch black comedy should lap up.

“I Care a Lot” is a dark comedy thriller written and directed by J Blakeson, starring Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Dianne Wiest and Eiza Gonzalez. It is Rated R for language throughout and some violence, and the run time is 1 hour, 58 minutes. Alex’s Rating: B+. Available on Netflix as of Feb. 19. 

By Alex McPherson
Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s third feature directorial effort, “Crisis,” provides an ambitious and gritty look at America’s opioid epidemic.

Jarecki’s film centers around three individuals experiencing the issue from wildly different angles. Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman) is a biochemist and university professor testing a new “non-addictive” painkiller developed by Northlight, a large pharmaceutical company.

After running experiments on lab rats, Brower finds that the drug is, in fact, dangerously addictive. Unsurprisingly, both the company and Brower’s university aren’t too pleased with this conclusion. Northlight officials offer Brower’s university a large grant in exchange for falsifying the data — paving the way for its FDA approval. Brower becomes a whistleblower, and he must deal with the repercussions for both his personal and professional life.

Viewers also meet Jake Kelly (Armie Hammer, undergoing his own career in crisis), a law enforcement agent working undercover amidst Armenian and Canadian drug traffickers, the latter of whom is led by a burly sap named Mother (Guy Nadon). Kelly also cares for his unstable, drug-addicted sister, Emmie (Lily Rose-Depp). Pressured to make arrests by his newly hired supervisor, Garrett (Michelle Rodriguez), Kelly and his work partner, Stanley Foster (Jarecki), attempt to set up a sting operation by bringing the two rival groups together. Suffice it to say, complications arise, and the bodies start piling up.

But wait, there’s more! The film follows architect and former addict Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly), who seeks revenge after her teenage son, David (Billy Bryk), is suddenly found dead in broad daylight, after having died from an apparent drug overdose. Reimann soon uncovers a deeper, more sinister plot. She desperately seeks answers as her world crumbles around her.

Whew, and all that unfolds in a two-hour film?! Yes, dear reader, “Crisis” provides a lot to chew on, to say the least. Even though the film’s emotional impact is undermined by a jack-of-all-trades approach, these stories, inspired from true events, still hold a certain power. 

Indeed, I appreciate the topics covered — showing how ordinary people become enveloped in an epidemic pervaded by violence and the preying of those less fortunate. Even though the film’s condemnation of corporate greed and the ways addiction destroys lives isn’t anything particularly new, this is still essential information, packaged into an accessible (though at times bland) thriller/modern noir hybrid.

As the film alternates between these three characters, “Crisis” effectively puts a human face on the suffering inflicted by profiteers on the general population. Reimann stands out in particular. She’s wracked with grief and driven by a fierce, self-destructive determination. We really feel for her, and Lilly’s performance, uncompromising and vivid, stands out from the rest.

Brower’s plotline involves a lot of sitting and talking, but remains compelling throughout. Of course, the shadiness of some pharmaceutical companies has long been clear, and it’s impossible for a single man to stand up to them. It’s easy to see the trajectory of Brower’s story, but the film provides several moments of righteous indignation, where Oldman (always an endearing actor) raises his voice and argues for truth over lies.

That brings us to Kelly. Although Hammer’s portrayal is a bit muted at times, his underlying rage is apparent. It’s a shame, then, that “Crisis” doesn’t let us spend more time with him and his sister outside of his undercover operations. The scenarios he finds himself in feel similar to practically every other crime film I’ve seen. 

What results is a film painted with broad strokes rather than a more focused exploration of any particular character. These stories would have benefited from a television-style format, where specific episodes are devoted to specific characters. Bouncing back and forth between them, “Crisis” doesn’t leave much time for reflection. Add to that a Hollywoodized finale that breaks from reality and ties some characters’ arcs up into a neat bow, and we have a film that ultimately underwhelms.

Similarly, Jarecki’s filmmaking techniques are competent, but they lack flair or a distinctive style — clean and precise without remaining particularly memorable.

All this aside, “Crisis” is still highly watchable, and at times quite suspenseful. It’s a shame that recent revelations about Hammer will likely deter many viewers from watching it, as there’s much to enjoy, especially in regard to Reimann’s journey and Lilly’s heart-wrenching performance.

“Crisis” remains a solid recommendation, despite its overstuffed nature, and tackles subject matter that shouldn’t fade from public consciousness.

“Crisis” is a drama written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, starring Gary Oldman, Evangeline Lilly, Armie Hammer, Lily-Rose Depp, BIlly Bryk and Greg Kinnear. Rated R for drug content, violence, and language throughout, the run time is 1 hour, 58 minutes. It will be released in theaters Feb. 26 and on video on demand March 5. Alex’s Rating: B

By Alex McPherson

Studio Ghibli’s latest project, “Earwig and the Witch,” is a bland film lacking depth and imagination.

The story, based on Diana Wynne Jones’ book, follows Earwig (Taylor Paige Henderson), a young girl living in an orphanage in the British countryside. As a baby, she was abandoned by her mother (Kacey Musgraves), a witch fleeing powerful forces seeking her demise. Earwig, quite a bubbly individual, is content living there with her pal, Custard (Logan Hannon), and has zero interest in moving away.

Her fortunes change when she’s adopted by an imposing, scraggly haired witch named Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and her spindly, short-tempered husband named Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). Earwig becomes Yaga’s servant — mopping floors and preparing ingredients for her potions. She soon befriends a talking cat named Thomas (Dan Stevens). “Coraline,” much? As the days pass by, Earwig is trapped within this toxic household, unless she can find a way out.

Before all else, dear readers, we must address the film’s controversial animation style. Eschewing the hand-drawn techniques typical of other Studio Ghibli films, “Earwig and the Witch” relies entirely on computer-generated imagery. As a result, environments are rendered with striking attention to detail, but characters’ facial expressions lack nuance, leaving them lifeless and difficult to latch onto. Similarly, characters bluntly explain what they’re feeling at any given moment, perhaps attempting to compensate for their doll-like appearances. 

Director Goro Miyasaki (the son of legendary director Hayao Miyasaki) should be commended for breaking from tradition, I suppose. Regardless of the animation, “Earwig and the Witch” still ends up being a rather stale affair.

Unfortunately, Earwig remains irritating from start to finish. She’s fearless and perpetually optimistic. Miyazaki effectively juxtaposes her initial freedom with the repressiveness of her new environment, but she fails to grow in any meaningful way over the course of the film. Ironically, the life lessons we’re force-fed later on don’t apply to Earwig herself.

As she investigates her surroundings, the pacing slows to a crawl. Indeed, “Earwig and the Witch” extends the dullest aspects of her predicament to fill the entire runtime, becoming repetitive and mind numbing leading up to its exposition-packed conclusion. Nothing much of importance happens, as Earwig and her feline companion (primarily relegated to comedy relief) wander around aimlessly without a clear objective. Shouldn’t they want to escape? There’s no driving force to this plot, and little preventing me from watching something else.

Everything changes in the last 15 minutes, however. We’re bombarded with backstory that’s far more compelling than anything Earwig’s involved in, a sad reminder of the film that could have been. Additionally, the visuals stay frustratingly limited until the finale — providing fleeting moments of spectacle that the film should have embraced more consistently. Familiar themes are broached, including music’s communal power, but little stands out, and the end credits sequence leaves more emotional impact than anything in the main plot. 

At least the voice cast does an acceptable job with what they’re given. Grant stands out in particular, conveying Mandrake’s grumbling, volatile demeanor in an intimidating fashion.

Small children might enjoy the film’s simplistic narrative and cutesy, occasionally spooky vibes, but everyone else should steer clear and (re)watch “Coraline” instead. It pains me to write this, as a Studio Ghibli fan, but “Earwig and the Witch” just feels pointless.

“Earwig and the Witch” is an animated fantasy adventure film directed by Goro Miyasaki. It is rated PG for some scary images and rude material and run time is 1 hour, 22 minutes. Alex’s Rating: C-