By Alex McPherson

Featuring skillfully disorienting filmmaking, excellent performances, and wry charm, director Kenneth Branagh’s third Hercule Poirot outing, “A Haunting in Venice,” is reliably enjoyable, if undercutting its emotional beats through rushed pacing.

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party,” Branagh’s film moves the action from 1960s England to 1947 Venice, with the trauma of World War II still lingering fresh. The strikingly mustached, thick-accented Poirot (Branagh) is now retired, attempting to live an isolated life distanced from prospective clients. His Italian bodyguard, Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), is ferocious in warding off any sap who tries to get Poirot’s attention, knocking them into Venetian canals if need be.

Poirot is clearly worn down from his years of sleuthing, and the personal costs his work has rendered on his well-being are on full display. The detective is content to live out his remaining days in peace, until his old friend, the quick-witted, fast-talking author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows up and invites him to a séance with the goal of having Poirot deduce if the “medium,” a world-famous weirdo named Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), is a fraud.

The site is a labyrinthine palazzo that’s the rumored subject of a curse (and a playplace for children’s Halloween festivities with an accompanying puppet show). The séance is for a young girl, Alicia Drake, who fell off a balcony there and drowned a year earlier, either from suicide or murder.

The attendees include Alicia’s despondent mother, a former opera singer named Rowena (Kelly Reilly), the caring and religious housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Mrs. Reynold’s immigrant helper Desdemona (Emma Laird), Alicia’s PTSD-stricken doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), Leslie’s creepily observant son Leopold (Jude Hill of “Belfast” fame), and Alicia’s easily angered ex-fiancé Maxime (Kyle Allen).

Despite some aggressively irritating clangs and bangs — the jumpy sound design in “A Haunting in Venice” irritates as much as it immerses — things seem to be going pretty well on Poirot’s end, until, well, there’s another death on the premises.

Kelly Reilly

Potentially supernatural happenings are afoot — something that Poirot might not be able to reason his way out of before the dark and stormy night runs its course — as everyone reckons with ghosts and past decisions that haunt their psyches — just not to the level of, for example, “Talk to Me,” which released earlier this year. Branagh’s film is never exactly scary, but there’s much to appreciate about “A Haunting in Venice,” particularly regarding Branagh’s skills as a director.

The post-war time period is vividly realized with striking colors and production design;  the warmth of daylight flows into a stormy night with Haris Zambarloukos’ crisp cinematography and Lucy Donaldson’s snappy editing, wind buffeting aged windows and flashes of lightning illuminating danger, real or not. Branagh has fun deploying visual tricks to catch viewers off guard throughout, including ominous shapes/figures lurking in the background, as visual red herrings. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s string-filled score adds an extra layer of foreboding. 

Branagh and Zambarloukos frame the action in wide-shots and canted angles, playing around with camera techniques and points-of-view to reflect Poirot’s increasing discombobulation. Despite all this, Branagh reverts to surface-level shocks — plates shattering, doors blowing open, light bulbs exploding, etc. — that don’t fully capitalize on the setting, even though the actors were allegedly unprepared for some surprises on-set.  

Indeed, “A Haunting in Venice” is content to startle, rather than disturb, held back from showing anything truly shocking through the PG-13 rating and refusing to deviate all that much from Poirot’s detective story roots. This renders the film’s horror-inflected touches somewhat muted on a visceral level, if harmlessly entertaining. More notably, the approach plays into Branagh’s exploration of Poirot as a character and his place in the world.

Poirot, jaded in his profession and gradually losing faith in his own ability for rational explanation of what’s happening, is as off-kilter as the camerawork — unsteady and struggling for balance. But he never gives up, fighting for reason over superstition, and familiarity over the unfamiliar, not unlike the film’s comforting return to formula in its second half.

Michelle Yeoh as medium Mrs Reynolds

As a result, Branagh’s straddling of different genres reflects Poirot’s internal struggle. The palazzo’s creaks, groans, and apparitions dare our lovable detective to surrender to the madness, but he refuses to, ultimately discovering his reason for being on the other side of it all.

Branagh’s performance, as Poirot, remains thoroughly engaging, maintaining a self-awareness that strikes a fine balance between cartoonishness and seriousness. It’s an excellent turn, barring some muffled dialogue: a larger-than-life character in a larger-than-life situation. 

The remaining ensemble shines along to varying degrees — Fey, Yeoh, and Hill make strong impressions, with Hill perfectly embodying the creepy and erudite Leopold — each character reckoning with regret, trauma, and confronting their pasts to find new paths forward, morally corrupt though they might be. 

The mystery itself is compelling, albeit rather simplistic. Observant viewers will be rewarded, but Branagh aims for accessibility over nuance. Additionally, Michael Green’s screenplay lacks subtlety in revealing character motives and larger themes, streamlining the mystery so that threads don’t become overwhelming. What’s sacrificed is time spent developing any individual character, Poirot among them, on a more poignant level. At least there’s a shout-out to St. Louis!

“A Haunting in Venice” is more about the journey than the destination, with Branagh’s directing and haunted-house mood-setting taking center stage, but there’s little denying the pure entertainment value of Poirot’s latest case. It doesn’t take much thinking to deduce that “A Haunting in Venice” is worth watching on the big screen in a packed theater, everyone squirming during jump scares and embarking on a good old fashioned whodunit with a director and cast rising to the challenge.

“A Haunting in Venice” is a 2023 mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Branagh, Tina Fey, Keilly Reilly, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Michelle Yeoh, Camille Cottin and Kyle Allen. It is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements, and the run time is 1 hour, 43 minutes. It opens in theatres Sept. 15. Alex’s Grade: B+.

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

By Alex McPherson

Clunky and formulaic, but kept afloat by gripping performances and a vicious mean streak, director Andre Øvredal’s “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is a fun albeit insubstantial vampiric bloodbath on the high seas.

Inspired from a single chapter of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula titled “The Captain’s Log” and framed via flashback in epistolary fashion, “Demeter” recounts a grim tale of Count Dracula’s voyage from the Carpathian Mountains to London. He wreaks havoc upon a crew of hapless sailors who have absolutely no idea what they’re in for on an otherwise routine cargo-transporting trip across the Aegean.

Among the crew is Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham of “Game of Thrones” fame), an aged shipman embarking on one last assignment before leaving his seafaring days behind him; his curious, enthusiastic grandson, Toby (Woody Norman); the severe First Mate, Wojchek (David Dastmalchian, mostly one-note with some shoddy ADR); an earnest, Cambridge-educated physician named Clemens (Corey Hawkins); the ship’s superstitious cook, Joseph (Jon Jon Briones); plus a foursome of sailors (Chris Walley, Stefan Kapicic, Martin Fururland, and Nikolai Nikolaeff) who, not by the actors’ faults, don’t have much time to distinguish themselves. There’s also a strange woman aboard who rolls out of a crate, Anna (Aisling Franciosi), who’s lost plenty of blood but is able to hold her own as a confident badass. 

Oh, Dracula (Javier Botet) is aboard, skulking in the darkness and picking off unfortunate chaps in swift, jump-scare-laden attacks. It’s a battle for survival on the Demeter, as the crew try to vanquish the devil in their midst and make it to London alive before Dracula makes an all-you-can-drink buffet of their innards.

Javier Botet is Dracula

With hints of “Alien” and “The Thing,” “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” has the potential to be a taut, claustrophobic thrill ride with a horror icon uncaged. Unfortunately, Øvredal’s film doesn’t fully capitalize on its premise; rushed editing and trope-heavy frights hold it back, leaving its talented ensemble (especially Hawkins) to do the heavy-lifting, with reminders of a more emotional, immersive experience that could have been.

The ingredients are seemingly all there for a horror knockout: detailed production design, a claustrophobic atmosphere, committed actors putting in their all, and the opportunity to witness Dracula unleashing carnage on a fateful oceanic voyage — screams echoing through the ship’s winding corridors and stairways as waves crash against the hull under the cover of darkness.

Whether or not due to studio interference, however, “Demeter” refuses to slow down enough to allow its characters to develop, or allow its promising atmosphere to seep into viewers’ bones, turning the unpredictable to predictable through generic staging and framing.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t spend more time fleshing out its characters (both human and vampiric) early on, as most are reduced to archetypes that, despite some colorful dialogue by Bragi Schut Jr. weaving in occasional dark humor, feel like a missed opportunity for more stakes and dramatic depth. Hawkins, Cunningham, and Franciosi are the standouts — bringing pathos and groundedness to their characters that the screenplay only fitfully provides.

Hawkins, in particular, brings a fierce rage, compassion, and courageousness to Clemens that leads to some poignant moments as the body count rises. Denied opportunities because of the color of his skin and underestimated by his peers — Wojchek reeks of prejudice — Clemens seeks to make sense of the world, encountering a creature that’s the ultimate test of his resolve as literal Evil incarnate.

Corey Hawkins as Clemens in The Last Voyage of the Demeter, directed by André Øvredal.

The film’s attempts to weave these themes into the narrative are heavy-handed, for sure, yet driven home by Hawkin’s commanding screen presence. Cunningham, to a lesser extent, conveys the Demeter’s world-weary Captain with tangible sadness, while Franciosi shines as a wronged heroine eager to fight back against fate.

Dracula himself, as portrayed by Botet, is creepily rendered as the spindly, lightning-fast creature — undergoing physical transformations over the runtime that present new challenges for the sailors to contend with — but is otherwise reduced to a fairly standard movie monster, put in repetitive situations where viewers well-versed in horror rhythms will know beat-for-beat when he shows up to chow down on whichever unlucky sap is in his sights. 

Indeed, it’s a shame that Øvredal doesn’t put Dracula in more creative situations to torment the sailors, or take full advantage of the vessel’s enclosed spaces to ratchet up paranoia and suspense, although Tom Stern’s cinematography adds some stylistic flair though dutch angles and bird’s-eye-view shots that emphasize the feeling of always being watched.

The scare-factor is further lessened by Øvredal’s decision to show Dracula early on breaking from the crew’s perspectives to give away what they’re up against, appealing to short attention spans and not trusting viewers to use their imaginations, like the sailors, to speculate what lurks out of sight. Suffice to say, plot holes rear their heads too, as do illogical decisions (maybe Clemens and co. should fight back during the day, rather than at night when Dracula’s on the prowl).

Taken on its own, lower standards, “Demeter” is always watchable, and sometimes involving, thanks to some impressively grisly carnage (no animal or human is safe) and the aforementioned acting talent on display. There’s a comforting escapism in watching a gothic-inspired bloodbath unfold that doesn’t have high-minded ambitions and takes a cheekily confident approach in laying the groundwork for a future franchise, no matter whether it comes to fruition. Chills, suspense, and memorable characters are absent, but viewers could do much worse than “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” and on a rainy day, it’s tempting to hop aboard.

LIam Cunningham is the Captain.

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is a 2023 horror film directed by Andre Ovredal and starring Corey Hawkins, Javier Botet, Liam Cunningham, Aisling Franciosi, David Dastmachian, Jon Jon Brionis and Woody Norman. It is rated R for bloody violence and runtime is 1 hour, 58 minutes. In opened in theaters Aug. 11. Alex’s Grade: B-.  

 Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

By Alex McPherson

An immersive cinematic experience that isn’t quite as profound as it thinks it is, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is thrilling and overwhelming.

The film, based on the biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, centers around the titular Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the infamous, enigmatic, and enterprising physicist who led the secret weapons laboratory of the Manhattan Project in the creation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The bombs were believed to have ended World War II, but left unimaginable devastation in their wake: they released a monster that threatens to destroy humanity to this day. In typical Nolan fashion, “Oppenheimer” unfolds non-chronologically in dual timelines, spliced together non-sequentially, each playing with color schemes, aspect ratios, and perspectives. 

One, presented in color and labeled “fission,” takes place from Oppenheimer’s perspective and follows a 1954 security hearing in which Oppenheimer’s clearance is being questioned by a kangaroo court of politicians wanting to strip him of power due to his opposition to the H-Bomb program and his past leftist associations.

Flashbacks chart Oppenheimer’s career from an unruly yet “brilliant” student at Cambridge who has fiery, apocalyptic visions to his tenure as a popular professor at Berkeley; his tumultuous romantic life; his eventual recruitment as head of the weapons laboratory of the Manhattan Project, and the Trinity bomb test; and the grim aftermath of the bombs being dropped in Japan.

The other framing device, labeled “fusion,” is presented in black-and-white and focuses on the 1958 confirmation hearings for Commerce Secretary Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), former head of the Atomic Energy Commission and admirer-turned-bitter rival of Oppenheimer. Strauss’s past associations with Oppenheimer are questioned, and viewers observe the systemic and personal motivations that turned Oppenheimer’s country against him.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer

Nolan’s weaving together of time periods emphasizes a cyclical, pessimistic view of humankind and covers as much thematic ground as possible — far more (for better or worse) than a traditional biopic. In its fatalistic structure forever linking cause and effect, thought and execution, ego and ruin, “Oppenheimer” is ultimately a cautionary tale about invention and heroism, the perilous nature of advancement in pursuit of exceptionalism, the sacrifice of morality for power, and the perilous nature of science (and the public’s reaction to science) when it serves or doesn’t serve them.

Meaningful themes, for sure, but ones most of us have seen played out time and time again in media and our current political hellscape.

Anchored by excellent performances and Nolan’s bombastic, unrelenting direction, “Oppenheimer” is always engaging to watch on a purely technical and sensory level, if lacking the soul that creates a lasting impression. Indeed, the film’s three-hour barrage of information, characters, and stylistic showmanship lessens its intimacy. Nolan’s storytelling is too focused on being ambitious rather than letting us sit and reflect, disappointingly distant when it should be enveloping, rendering “Oppenheimer” more satisfying on an intellectual than emotional level.

Murphy, in his first time headlining a Nolan production, is captivating and mysterious. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera — capturing the halls of academia, sun-swept Los Alamos, and claustrophobic bureaucratic corridors in crisp detail, involving cinema’s first use of IMAX black-and-white analogue photography, enhanced by sterling production design and costuming — absolutely adores his peculiar facial structure, letting us observe this charismatic, arrogant, naive man become hollowed out by his own brilliance. Murphy is expressive yet measured, reflecting Oppenheimer’s contradictions.

Oppenheimer frequently seems pulled between various extremes, rarely committing himself to one point of view. He’s interested in leftist philosophies without ever fully aligning himself with them, he has difficulty navigating a turbulent love life with his alcoholic wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt, underused yet getting one crowd-pleasing moment near the end), and his troubled mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, also underused), while being simultaneously drawn towards and petrified by his own genius. Nolan depicts him as neither hero nor villain, but something in between, with Murphy commanding the screen with empathetic, tortured unknowability.

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss

Downey Jr., able to stretch his actorly wings in a role separated from his usual Tony Stark persona, also excels portraying Strauss, a power-hungry politician willing to throw his peers under the bus to come out on top. While Nolan’s zinger-heavy screenplay paints Strauss rather simplistically compared to Oppenheimer — there isn’t much ambiguity left regarding Strauss’s arc by the end, it’s a persona that, though based in truth, we’ve seen before — Downey Jr. lends power and malevolent dignity nevertheless.

Matt Damon, as Leslie Groves, the Army officer who recruits Oppenheimer to lead the Los Alamos laboratory, provides most of the film’s comedic relief in his plain-spoken, nationalistic differences with Oppenheimer, and the rest of the stacked ensemble — featuring such (perhaps overly) recognizable faces as Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, and Gary Oldman, among dozens of others, including Tom Conti as Albert Einstein — delivers the goods, some only with one or two scenes.

Nolan’s directing is typically strong, of course, with a booming score by Ludwig Göransson that keeps tension taut throughout, and bone-rattling sound design that effectively puts us in Oppenheimer’s fractured headspace. The Trinity bomb-test sequence, as previously mentioned, is almost unbearably suspenseful — the hellish plume of fire folding around itself in silence before surging with ear-shattering noise (thank god for earplugs), while Oppenheimer utters “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”

Some expressionistic touches (like Oppenheimer being stripped naked as his interrogators discuss his romantic past) are difficult to take seriously, and dialogue veers heavily between overly expository and Aaron-Sorkin-lite, but “Oppenheimer” still bears the mark of one of cinema’s greatest directors.

It’s unfortunate that Nolan isn’t able to merge these various elements into a truly impactful whole. With so much ground to cover, the film only sometimes pauses to let us sit and reflect with the characters. Jennifer Lame’s precisely propulsive editing zips us along like we’re watching a montage. I can’t help but feel that a more traditional telling of Oppenheimer’s story, taking place entirely from his perspective without jumping timelines and points-of-view, would have a more organic evolution of his dreams and struggles.

As it stands, there’s much to think about, but little that tugs at the heart save for a few brilliantly directed sequences of Oppenheimer’s guilt visualized, the aforementioned bomb-test, and a sobering gut-punch of an ending. Perhaps a rewatch will prove otherwise, but qualms aside, “Oppenheimer” is quite a beast of a film, if one that’s not as effective or groundbreaking as it’s being heralded to be.

Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy

“Oppenheimer” is a 2023 drama-thriller-biography written and directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., and Florence Pugh. It is Rated R for some nudity, sexuality and language and runs 3 hours. It opens in theaters on July 21. Alex’s Grade: B+

Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Matt Damon is Leslie Groves in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

By Alex McPherson

Featuring incredible stunts, timely themes, and an engaging, though imperfect balance between goofiness and sincerity, director Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1” is a reliably fun action-espionage blockbuster, if occasionally weighed down by inelegant plotting.

“Dead Reckoning,” the seventh installment in the “Mission” series, follows rebellious daredevil Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his loyal, idiosyncratic Impossible Mission Force comrades Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and love interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), as they embark on yet another death-defying mission to save humanity from itself.

They’re after two halves of a key that could allow them to destroy a rogue artificial-intelligence algorithm generically called “The Entity,” which has the power to upend civilization as we know it. Any and all global powers (including the CIA, led by Henry Czerny’s Eugene Kittridge, previously featured in the first “Mission” film) want to harness it for their own militaristic ends.

Despite its eye-rolling name, The Entity is an eerily prescient antagonist for Ethan and company to square off against — essentially the ultimate spy, able to infiltrate our always-online existence to control the nature of truth itself, plus, most likely, all the world’s weapons. Nowhere is safe from the Entity’s grasp.

The team’s plans are complicated with the unexpected arrival of courageous thief Grace (Hayley Atwell), walking a thin tightrope between friend and foe, who must eventually join sides with Ethan, along with the Entity’s human envoy, Gabriel (Esai Morales), a villainous ghost from Ethan’s past that contributed to him joining the Impossible Missions Force in the first place.

Also joining the fray is the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, both seductive and goofy) from “Fallout,” and two frustrated U.S. agents always one step behind (Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis), who might or might not eventually shift their morals.

As the team embarks on a globe-trotting adventure in locales such as Rome and Norway, everyone is put to the test, and Ethan must reckon with saving those he loves over succeeding in his goals, all the while dealing with an unpredictable adversary that can seemingly predict his every move and turn his own gadgets against him. It can’t quite account for human ingenuity, or Ethan’s/Cruise’s unwavering commitment to putting themselves at risk for viewers’ entertainment.

Indeed, “Dead Reckoning” is, at times, a glorious spectacle — the practical stunt work on display puts the recent “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” to shame. With McQuarrie’s energetic direction and solid performances across the board, from Cruise especially, the latest “Mission” film delivers on the action front, though the twisty narrative lacks the visceral punch of the thunderously memorable set pieces.

And lordy, are those sequences invigorating to behold — filmed with a clarity by cinematographer Fraser Taggart that lets all the practical stunt work shine; largely eschewing CGI to forefront athleticism, which lends a (relatively speaking) grounded feel to the proceedings.

Lorne Balfe’s blaring score adds additional oomph. The much-publicized motorcycle-to-base-jump off the steep Norwegian mountainside is suitably spectacular, but a frantic chase through Rome — with Ethan and Grace handcuffed to each other driving a Fiat while being pursued by authorities and a sadistic killer named Paris (a scene-stealing Pom Klementieff) — is possibly the standout set-piece: full of bombastic slapstick comedy and split-second decision making that feels dangerous and thrilling. 

And the train showdown, holy moly, does not disappoint in the slightest, featuring edge-of-your-seat filmmaking that consistently ups the ante moment-to-moment as gravity begs to differ. Add to that a considerable helping of bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat (one brawl taking place in a narrow alley), and all the gratuitous running from Cruise we’ve come to expect, “Dead Reckoning” is worth watching for these scenes alone, bolstered by the cast’s commitment to this self-aware, somewhat messy tech-paranoia plot.

Hayley Atwell, Tom Cruise

Cruise continues to shine as Hunt, an ”agent of chaos” (as one character calls him) who’s willing to throw himself into danger for the greater good, but being forced to make impossible decisions to protect his friends and loved ones. Cruise’s portrayal lacks the emotional weight of his efforts in last year’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” but he still excels, nimbly navigating the film’s ludicrous plot developments and comedic relief with comforting self-awareness.

Pegg and Rhames provide equal parts comedic relief and pathos (grappling with the Entity’s manipulation of their advanced technology, such as the Entity impersonating their voices), while feeling underused and relegated to the background for most of the runtime. Ferguson is badass as always, as is Atwell, who lends spunk to her character of Grace and has palpable chemistry with Cruise. Grace takes on a pretty standard backstory/arc, yet is always fun to watch thanks to Atwell’s energy and inherent likability.

Morales is solid but unmemorable as the Entity’s henchman (even though McQuarrie tries his darndest to make us care from some rushed flashback revelations), and Klementieff deserves more screen time as a scarily ruthless assassin. The ensemble is always enjoyable — fully committed to the screenplay’s occasionally screwball rhythms — when all we’re really waiting for is the next harrowing spectacle to unfold. 

“Dead Reckoning” isn’t an all-out action film, however, and McQuarrie’s just as focused on the espionage narrative, which can’t live up in comparison, and lacks the creativity of the set pieces. The Entity is certainly a timely antagonist, but it remains difficult to care about much in the “Mission” universe because of the screenplay’s need to over-explain and “tell rather than show” regarding its capabilities, barring a couple memorable situations.

Although the film’s exposition-dumping approach is a staple of the genre, it lacks much emotional impact; the frequent flashbacks similarly try (and only half-heartedly succeed) to churn up investment, and the film’s constant forward momentum leaves little time for reflection, or opportunities to meaningfully dig into the psyches of its characters — even with a nearly three-hour runtime. 

To the screenplay’s credit, in a meta-textual sense, Cruise has also been a fierce defender of the cinematic experience, so Hunt’s battle against an evil algorithm could extend to Cruise’s own defense of practical stunts, the “theater experience,” and the increasingly bloated streaming ecosystem. Looking at “Dead Reckoning” from this angle makes the labyrinthine plot a touch more meaningful.

Despite these shortcomings, what really stands out about “Dead Reckoning” is the chutzpah of its creators. By the end of its runtime, it leaves an indelible impression as an achievement in action filmmaking. Regardless of storytelling stumbles, this is a must-watch on the biggest screen you can find — let’s just hope “Part 2” can deliver more on the character front.

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Simon Pegg, from left, Ving Rhames, Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in “Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One.” (Christian Black/Paramount Pictures and Skydance via AP)

“Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I” is a 2023 action-adventure directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise, Haley Atwell, Esai Morales, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Cary Elwes, Henry Czerny. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language and suggestive material .and runs 2 hours and 43 minutes. It opens in theaters on July 12. Alex’s Grade: B+.

By Alex McPherson

With Harrison Ford lending emotional grandeur to an otherwise middling adventure, director James Mangold’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” provides an acceptable finale for the iconic character.

Indy’s latest outing begins in the mid-1940s, with the end of World War II in sight, as a heavily de-aged Indy (always looking “off”) and his trusty academic pal Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) attempt to recover stolen artifacts from Nazis. After Indy escapes capture due a conveniently deployed airplane bomb and KOs plenty of the monstrous chaps, he races onto a train (after a dimly lit, CGI-reliant car/motorcycle chase) containing the Lance of Longinus — a blade supposedly containing traces of the blood of Christ — and an also-captured Basil. 

Among the evildoers is Nazi physicist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelson), a nefarious soul aboard the train who’s in possession of one half of the Antikythera — a dial created by Archimedes that supposedly allows for time travel should both halves be combined. Bloodlessly bombastic violence ensues, concluding with a battle atop the train that results in Voller thwacking his head on a pole and Indy and Basil jumping into a lake below, Antikythera in hand.

Flash forward to 1969, and our titular hero is in dire straits. Grumbling around his messy New York City apartment after having recently separated from his wife, Marion (Karen Allen), and with his son, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) out of the picture, Jones is a shell of his former self, lacking purpose and direction as he prepares to retire from teaching archaeology at Hunter College. The Apollo 11 astronauts have just returned home, and society is looking to the future, rather than the past that Jones has devoted his life to. He’s become a curmudgeon, lacking the adventurous spirit he once had, both due to his age and regrets that torment his psyche.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, he soon runs into Basil’s daughter, Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who’s after the Antikythera and wants to continue Basil’s life’s work of finding the missing half (or so she initially claims: she’s a hardcore capitalist eager to make a buck). After tricking Indy, she runs off with the artifact, while also being pursued by the returning Voller and his cronies, including Shaunette Renée Wilson as a crooked CIA agent and Boyd Holbrook as a take-no-prisoners killer. 

Thus begins a globe-trotting romp from New York to Tangiers to Athens to Sicily, as Indy, Helena, and Helena’s youthful sidekick Teddy (Ethann Isidore) attempt to find the remaining half of the Antikythera before the Nazis get their hands on it and change the war’s outcome. Indy’s back for another go around, just like old times, with plenty of returning faces and fantastical shenanigans at play.

Indeed, “Dial of Destiny,” the franchise’s first installment without Steven Spielberg at the helm, leans hard into nostalgia at the expense of dramatic punch — although copious literal punches are thrown. Mangold’s film (at nearly 2.5 hours) is a strange beast: at once comforting in its embrace of old-fashioned thrills, but averse to taking any real risks with Indy himself. Ford’s soulful performance is still able to overcome the screenplay’s frustrating lack of focus, buoying what is otherwise a slightly-above-average experience featuring lackluster set-pieces and formulaic plotting.

A de-aged Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.

With his iconic whip, fedora, and witty remarks, Ford continues to excel in the role — conveying a wide range of emotions with lived-in gravitas. His portrayal deserves a stronger film to support it; we can see his sadness, guilt, and mournful reflection in pivotal scenes, along with his mischievous, daring old self bubbling back to the surface. Most everything between Indy’s scenes of introspection is fairly by-the-numbers — with little that stands out beyond a ludicrous conclusion, which, without spoiling anything, goes down a zany rabbit hole. It remains great to see Ford back in the saddle nevertheless.

While “Dial of Destiny” attempts to recapture the old-school thrill and “feel” of the series’ previous installments (complete with cameos, visual motifs, and eels taking the place of snakes), Mangold’s approach robs time from developing Indy as a character. Mangold’s reliance on nostalgia may well be the point, but reminding viewers (and Indy himself) of the series’ former glory shifts focus from the here-and-now: the antics in search of the dial (which could, theoretically, permit Indy to rectify wrongs in his own sad life) resort to familiar tropes and payoffs, neglecting to innovate on tradition to tell a consequential story about Indy’s place in the world today.

The film seemingly emphasizes the importance of not living in the past, but using remembrance as a means of personal growth. This might be meaningful to Indy, but the plot stemming from that idea is a workmanlike imitation on what’s come before — far from bad, but not making a lasting impact. 

Waller-Bridge, at least, shines as a brash, sarcastic, independent woman whose allegiances are often in question. She’s after the dial not only in the hopes of one day selling it for a boatload of cash, but also by a sense of wanting to continue her father’s lifelong work; the need to explore passed down from one generation to the next. By the end, her arc is a bit muddled, given her internal tug-of-war between cynicism and earnestness, but she’s still a worthy companion, and holds her own in the copious CGI-laden action sequences. Mikkelson’s Voller doesn’t stand out as particularly interesting, at no fault of the performance: he’s just a standard, franchise-typical baddie, accompanied by likewise generically sadistic goons.   

Speaking of action, the 80-year-old Ford obviously can’t do much stunt work nowadays, requiring computer wizardry to do the heavy lifting. It’s too bad the majority of sequences are so cartoonishly over-the-top and confusingly framed. Despite all the carnage on display (including during the intro, a horse chase through an NYC parade, and a frantic tuk-tuk pursuit through a Tangiers market), they’re often weightless, chaotic, and lacking the rhythm that Spielberg’s direction lent them, barring some amusing visual gags that remain a series staple. Yet again, “Dial of Destiny” tries to live in the past, altering reality to present scenarios that would likely have worked better in the animation medium altogether.

It’s a testament to Mangold’s competency and Indy’s sheer likability that “Dial of Destiny” is still an enjoyable watch regardless of issues. John Williams’ score delivers the goods (as always), and Mangold’s stylistic tributes to Spielberg give the film energy even when the story comes up short. Combined with Ford’s exceptional performance and fan service callbacks, “Dial of Destiny” is worth watching, if not something that significantly adds to the adventurer’s legacy.

“”Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” is a 2023 action-adventure directed by James Mangold and starring Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Mads Mikkelson, Karen Allen, Antonio Banderas and Boyd Holbrook. It is Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, language and smoking and runs 2 hours, 34 minutes. It opens in theaters June 30. Alex’s Grade: B-.


By Alex McPherson

A dramatically rich, sensitively told love story with an astounding trio of central performances, director Celine Song’s “Past Lives” is a near-flawless achievement — a small-scale film that packs an emotional wallop in its exploration of universal themes.

Song’s film begins with a slow zoom on three characters sitting at a bar, Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and Arthur (John Magaro), as a person from across the room speculates on their connections to each other. We jump back in time to when Nora (Moon Seung-ah), then going by Na Young, and Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min) were 12-year-old best friends living in Seoul, South Korea. They’re competitive, affectionate, and seemingly inseparable, until Na Young’s parents decide to immigrate to Canada, rendering Hae Sung confused and heartbroken as his companion leaves him behind.

Flash forward 12 years later, and Na Young (Lee), having changed her name to Nora, now lives in Toronto as an aspiring playwright, brimming with kindness and joie de vivre that lights up any room she’s in. Hae Sung (Yoo) — who finished his mandatory military service and is in engineering school — never forgot about her, and does some Facebook sleuthing to get in contact. Once he and Nora start chatting on Skype, their bond is rekindled, if only briefly, as Nora eventually decides they should stop talking because of the literal and figurative distance between them.

Twelve years down the road from that, Nora lives in New York City with her non-Korean husband Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer she met on a writer’s retreat. Hae Sung, having experienced personal and professional disappointments and still thinking about Nora, decides to visit her in NYC, setting the stage for a heartfelt reunion with plenty of discomfort for the concerned-yet-level-headed Arthur to contend with.

Nora and Hae Sung spend time together, having deceptively low-key conversations as they visit famous landmarks, each reflecting on past what-ifs and how their bond continues today, grappling with the sacrifices they’ve made personally and culturally along life’s winding path.

With a delicate, understated approach that never talks down to viewers nor mines the material to over-the-top ends, “Past Lives” transcends this familiar love-triangle setup to speak to truths both personal and all-inclusive. Song, in her feature film debut, takes a tenderly elegiac approach to this semi-autobiographical narrative that allows the ensemble — Lee, especially — to stretch their wings, and treats its relatably flawed characters with respect as they navigate situations with no easy answers.

John Magaro, Greta Lee

The film’s finely calibrated elegance is largely the result of Lee, Yoo, and Magaro working at the absolute peak of their craft. Lee, in particular, lends a subtly raw emotional power to Nora’s inner conflicts; content in her new life and unmoored by the arrival of her childhood sweetheart, who represents not only a possible romantic interest but one of her primary connections to her former life in Korea.

Lee communicates multitudes through glances, pauses, and body language, sometimes veering from happiness to sober realization in the span of a few seconds — conveying Nora’s tangled emotions in a manner far more engaging than traditional dialogue ever could. We see her confidence, warmth, and friendliness, along with her aching for a relationship and cultural identity she’s had to sideline to pursue her ambitions.

Thanks to Lee’s talent as a performer, we can follow Nora’s emotions based primarily on her mannerisms and facial expressions — Lee gives one of the single best performances of the year so far. It’s easy to understand why so many characters in the film gravitate towards her; Lee exudes an authenticity that’s a perfect fit, as we gradually see Nora becoming more vulnerable and honest with herself and those close to her, releasing her turbulent emotions in an organic way without resorting to melodrama. 

Yoo is incredible, lending real pathos to Hae Sung’s heartache and yearning, especially in scenes of him interacting with Nora face-to-face, exchanging brief smiles and pangs of regret that illuminate the push-pull between his heart and reality. Magaro, as always, plays Arthur with a gentleness and sly humor that makes him easy to empathize with; there are no villains in “Past Lives,” and Arthur’s just another human being caught in an odd circumstance.

The screenplay, by Song, finds humor and earnestness without launching into schmaltz or over-explanation. Much of the drama is based in the Buddhist-derived concept of inyun, which involves the idea of interactions signaling relationships in past lives and of destiny, which Hae Sung follows, perhaps misguidedly, in his continued longing for Nora.

While it’s true that Nora and Hae Sung spell out this concept more than once, “Past Lives” doesn’t overdo it, using it as a way for the characters to discuss the past, present, and future while coming to grips with the decisions they’ve made. Indeed, “Past Lives” is ultimately a poetic meditation on Nora and Hae Sung’s bittersweet acceptance of the present, something we can all relate to as we look back at choices made and opportunities missed in our own lives.

From a directing standpoint, “Past Lives” also excels. Song displays an incredible attention to detail — weaving together a tapestry of yearning, uncertainty, joy, and sorrow that spans decades without becoming unwieldy. The film’s slower pacing lets scenes breathe and provides ample time to establish the emotional backbone of Nora and Hae Sung’s bond, from playing in the park, to battling unstable Skype connections, to meeting in-person at last in adulthood, with all the awkwardness that ensues.

Song finds visual parallels and motifs across the story’s decades-long scope, including one particularly powerful image of Nora and Hae Sung as children on separate ends of a staircase breaking off in two directions. Song knows when to quietly pull the rug out from under us, flashing those memories back, both for viewers and the characters in pivotal sequences. Shabier Kirchner’s lived-in cinematography helps ground the story even more, as well as finding occasional wry comedy, like one particularly uncomfortable albeit meaningful restaurant visit with Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur all together.

Through Song’s direction and Kirchner’s lens, highlighting the minutiae of the characters’ expressions just as much as their surroundings, we see the joy, beauty, loneliness, and melancholia at play for Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur. The last shot, too, a long-take that’s deeply poignant and cathartic, continues to linger in my mind.

By the end, there’s not a single issue in “Past Lives” that stands out. Song’s debut is astounding, making the most of the film medium to tell a story that everyone can connect to and maybe fall in love with.

“Past Lives” is a 2023 romantic drama written and directed by Celine Song, in both English and Korean, starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro. It is rated PG-13 for some strong language and runtime is 1 hour, 45 minutes. It opened in theaters June 23. Alex’s Grade: A+

By Alex McPherson

Strikingly well-animated and loaded with ever-topical themes, director Peter Sohn’s “Elemental,” Pixar’s latest, lacks storytelling flair but remains a worthwhile experience for all ages.

Sohn’s film unfolds in Element City — a metaphorical New York City composed of humanoid incarnations of the fire, water, air, and earth elements — and follows Ember (Leah Lewis), a spunky, hot-headed fire woman being trained to take over her family’s bodega, the Fireplace. Her parents, the aging Bernie (an excellent Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi), a fortune teller with the ability to “smell love,” emigrated from Fire Land fleeing a natural disaster and were two of the first fire people to ever wind up in Element City: a land full of opportunity and also discrimination. Water (the most privileged), air, and earth people treat fire people as outsiders, creating a cycle of prejudice and segregation at both social and infrastructural levels.

Ember is expected to run the Fireplace once the ailing Bernie retires, even though she doesn’t truly want to. She puts on a brave face through her barely suppressed anger; feeling an obligation to live up to the sacrifices her parents made to create a new life in Element City and remaining held back from pursuing her own ambitions.

She’s also been told from a young age that “elements don’t mix,” arising both from handed-down prejudice and the admittedly reasonable fact that water could extinguish her. After one particularly harrowing day running the Fireplace by herself, Ember loses her temper and causes some pipes to burst, spitting out goofy city inspector Wade (Mamadou Athie) into her life. 

Wade, a bubbly (literally and personality-wise) water man, pictured like a translucent water balloon with a dad bod, along with a propensity to cry and be vulnerable, has to write-up the joint’s building code violations, risking the permanent closure of the Fireplace. Ember panics, but Wade — being the ever-kind, compassionate soul he is — wants to help her out.

He secures a deal from his cloud boss Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a feisty soul with a cotton candy texture and an obsession with “Air Ball” (a mixture of basketball and Quidditch?) to spare the Fireplace if he and Ember find the source of recurrent floods plaguing Fire Town. Along the way, Ember and Wade fall in love, but can their bond survive the weight of societal norms and cultural expectations, plus a constant barrage of eye-rolling puns?

Although most viewers will know exactly how this story concludes from the get-go, “Elemental” remains a gorgeously rendered, fittingly emotional story about tolerance, independence, love, and the immigrant experience. Ember and Wade’s adventure has enough heart to make up for an occasionally clunky narrative that sacrifices nuance for accessibility.

From a visual standpoint alone, “Elemental” is magnificent. Character designs are distinctive, adaptive, and clever, especially in their malleability and expressiveness. This is sometimes used for comedic effect (like an earth-being couple pruning each other’s fruit), but more often than not to emphasize characters’ personalities, like Ember’s explosive outbursts and Wade’s seemingly never-ending supply of tears.

The densely packed, Chinatown-esque corners of Fire Town contrast with the sharp, open-air skyscrapers of the city center, reflecting an economic and class disparity that informs the enmity between the various groups — presented with an obvious yet eye-popping touch. Thomas Newman’s dynamic score masterfully accompanies the imagery, taking cues from a number of global music traditions to complement this tale of cross-cultural romance and acceptance. 

Lewis gives a deeply-felt performance as Ember — a flawed heroine facing a real dilemma about the life she should lead while living up to her parents’ expectations — giving her more subtlety through her delivery than the oftentimes blunt screenplay affords.

Athie is even better; Wade is an instantly lovable goofball who displays an open-heartedness that’s infectious and sometimes hilarious without becoming irritating. Wade’s not especially complex compared to Ember, and comes from a much more privileged background, but he remains committed to her and their burgeoning relationship even when Ember claims it’s impossible.

It’s a commendable move that Sohn and company don’t give “Elemental” a traditional villain character; rather, the film’s primary antagonist is the idea of intolerance itself. Wade ultimately proves a vessel for Ember to unlock a part of herself she’s previously repressed, and a way to bridge cultural and societal boundaries, no matter how small-scale and unlikely it might be.

Indeed, these themes are familiar but profound, ever-relevant in our increasingly divided times. While the screenplay — by Sohn, John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh — can occasionally veer too far into heavy-handedness and exposition dumping (especially regarding Bernie and Cinder’s backstory and entrenched beliefs), there’s enough earnest truth here that “Elemental” still packs a punch.

Scattered within the obvious metaphors are poignant observations about assimilation, some of which are highlighted during a welcoming-though-awkward dinner party with Wade’s family that’s both cringey and true, along with moments in the second half that eschew dialogue in favor of pure visual storytelling.

“Elemental” remains a film targeted towards families, and in this sense, much of these narrative quibbles are excusable. Ambitious, relevant ideas are illustrated in a clichéd yet meaningful love story in a richly imaginative environment — a palatable way for younger audiences to consider these themes and apply them in their own lives, no matter how broadly “Elemental” paints them. 

It’s true that Pixar has conveyed equally layered stories in far more graceful fashion before (just look at the first 10 minutes of “Up” for reference) without having to spoon-feed us meaning, but “Elemental” still leaves an impact. It’s a (literally) solid recommendation. Don’t miss the amazing short “Carl’s Date” beforehand either.

“Elemental” is a 2023 animated romantic comedy feature directed by Peter Sohn and voice work by Leah Lewis, Mamadou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Shila Ommi and Catherine O’Hara. It is rated PG for some peril, thematic elements and brief language and run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. It opened in theaters June 16. Alex’s grade: B+.

By Alex McPherson

An eye-popping feast for the senses whose visual inventiveness can’t compensate for a restrictive middle-chapter narrative, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is consistently engaging but will play best for those already well-versed in Spider-Man lore.

Taking place 16 months after the events of “Into the Spider-Verse,” the film follows the exploits of 15-year-old Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who struggles to balance his superhero role as Spider-Man with the more traditional responsibilities (i.e., attending classes) expected by his strict yet loving parents, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and the soon-to-be-police-chief Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry), who are unaware of his alter ego.

Miles, a rebellious teenager experiencing loneliness and heartbreak from his (literally) “out of this world” spider-people companions, including badass crush Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), feels adrift and unable to fully express himself — yearning for freedom and belonging.

Gwen, in her own dimension, is similarly struggling to find acceptance and meaning; her father, George (Shea Whigham), a police chief, discovers her identity as Spider-Woman and blames her for the death of her timeline’s Peter Parker. After battling a monochromatic variation of The Vulture, Gwen is recruited by a team of Multiverse protectors — including the motorcycle-riding Jessica Drew (Issa Rae) and the brooding Spider-Man 2099, a.k.a. Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) — running from her now-perilous bond with her father. Soon enough, however, she’s called back into Miles’ orbit to tackle a new threat.

A bespeckled, self-deprecating foe named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) shows up in Miles’ reality — brimming with hatred for Miles due to a past wrong that left him covered with holes through which he can teleport across great distances. He’s champing at the bit to become Miles’ “nemesis,” getting stronger by the moment in his fierce desire for revenge. 

Things get even more complicated when Gwen shows up, reigniting her situationship with Miles, and prepares to leave once The Spot teleports elsewhere. Miles ends up following her into an interdimensional portal revealing a whole society of Spider-Beings, including the jovial Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), the unruly, punk rock Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), seemingly assembled from scraps of paper, and a hulking Spider-Tyrannosaurus, each manifested through different animation styles.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though, as not only has The Spot gained enough power to pose a tangible threat to the Multiverse as they know it, but Miles must continue to fight against fatalistic, predetermined beliefs that restrict his free will on a universe-altering level.

Indeed, “Across the Spider-Verse” certainly has a boatload of information to convey to viewers, and to be honest, some of it soared over my head. This remains the sequel’s greatest flaw: no matter how excellent it looks and how well the talented ensemble brings these characters to life, the film remains ham-strung by a desire to be bigger in the classic sense, leaving its most compelling thread dangling by the end as we wait for the next installment in 2024. 

Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, and Kemp Powers certainly have a keen sense of spectacle, seamlessly blending art styles together that reflect characters’ specific views of the world and their distinct, variably layered personalities. From a watercolor backdrop melting from mournful blue to hopeful pink with the thawing of emotions, to a brief detour into stop-motion animation straight out of “The Lego Movie,” and frantic action sequences throwing characters of all styles at the screen at once, packing in multitudes of nerd-culture references along the way, “Across the Spider-Verse” is equal parts mesmerizing and fatiguing by the end of its 136-minute runtime, boosted by a thumping, energetic score by Daniel Pemberton and a catchy soundtrack. The passion poured into this project by everyone involved is apparent from start to finish, at least from a presentation standpoint.

“Across the Spider-Verse” still falls prey to sensory overload in its second half, just like its predecessor, but is refreshingly focused on human relationships in its beginning stretch, particularly regarding Miles’ bond with his parents. Moore, Lauren, and Tyree Henry lend real pathos to their roles in these slower sequences, tenderly and believably navigating difficult choices along Miles’ transition into adulthood. Steinfeld is also excellent, particularly in early scenes with her alienated father: vulnerable and courageous, bitter and earnest. Gwen’s not defined by her will-they-won’t-they romance with Miles, but rather by her personal strength to confront her demons and fight for what she believes in.

It’s somewhat disappointing, then, that as Miles and company journey through the Multiverse, encountering bazillions of Spider-Beings, that “Across the Spider-Verse” reverts so frequently to exposition dumps and rushed characterizations that allow little time to be fleshed-out beyond the surface level.

Talk of so-called “canon events” (the expected happenings of each Spider-Man story) are interesting in a meta-textual sense, but the film leaves the concept’s thornier elements dangling, hopefully to be explored down the road, in favor of simplistic messaging. The Spot, too, idiosyncratically brought to life by Schwartzman, is sidelined for most of the second half, a Big Bad seemingly too big for the already overstuffed film to address.

No matter how likable the characters, or thrilling the animation, “Across the Spider-Verse” is unable to break free from the expectations of tradition: a story whose ideas of empowerment and individuality are only broached but not fully delved into, set-up for greater things in the future. Perhaps “Beyond the Spider-Verse” will rectify these qualms, but as it stands, “Across the Spider-Verse” can’t match its breathtaking presentation with equally strong storytelling.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is a 2023 animation-fantasy film directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson and starring (voices): Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Luna Loren Valez, Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Dratch, Brian Tyree Henry, Shea Whigham, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, J.K. Simmons, and Mahershala Ali.
It is rated PG for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements and the runtime is 2 hours and 20 minutes. It opens in theaters on June 2. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Breezy, funny, and insubstantial, director Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings” provides its ensemble ample room to flex their comedic chops, but remains emotionally limited by a low-stakes narrative aiming for profundity and arriving at something less than revelatory. 

Set within our dying planet in the bustling metropolis hellscape of New York City, “You Hurt My Feelings” revolves around Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a middle-aged author and teacher at The New School, who, all things considered, lives a pretty-damn-privileged existence. She has a new novel coming out — two years in the making — that she’s having trouble getting off the ground due to an unenthusiastic agent. It’s the follow-up to her moderately successful memoir that spotlighted her father’s verbal abuse, which instilled a huge layer of insecurity. 

She’s sarcastic and judgy, but enjoys a happy marriage with her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), a somewhat burnt-out therapist whose clients — played by real-life spouses Amber Tamblyn and David Cross, plus Zach Cherry in peak straight-faced hilarity — are becoming increasingly fed up with his lack of engagement and “results.”

Their 20-something son Eliot (Owen Teague) is an aspiring playwright working at a weed dispensary, frequently annoyed that he feels like a third wheel around his parents. Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), is a jaded interior designer with a sardonic wit. Her brother-in-law, Mark (Arian Moayed), is an actor with dreams of fame and fortune struggling to secure roles beyond a small part in a “pumpkin movie.”

Arian Moayed and Michaela Watkins

Suffice to say, everyone in this little circle is self-doubting, seeking validation and reassurance from those close to them. Our heroine, Beth, is particularly vulnerable. When she and Sarah overhear Don disclosing to Mark that he doesn’t like her newest novel and can’t stand reading draft after draft of it, Beth spirals — putting her marriage at risk as she grapples with this bombshell revelation.

Over the course of a 93-minute runtime, Beth gains greater understanding of how the “little white lies” we tell each other aren’t always that bad, along with how (shocker) we shouldn’t let our work or other’s reactions to our work define us and our well-being.

With Louis-Dreyfus inhabiting her character with an anxious, believable energy, “You Hurt My Feelings” remains an appealing watch, as Beth and company navigate rocky waters of communication and come to realizations that gently inform their existences going forward. This reflects life, in a sense, as some people change and some don’t, but the film still lacks heft. By the end, it takes a surprisingly light touch to its flawed characters, saying little of significance in the process.

That’s not to say the experience of watching “You Hurt My Feelings” isn’t enjoyable, though. Holofcener’s dialogue crackles with snarky wit, as Beth bumbles her way around NYC – casually critiquing plenty of people along the way, sometimes in offensive fashion. Beth herself, whether she realizes it or not, strategically deploys truths and little white lies in her day-to-day life — whether it’s half-heartedly volunteering at a church clothing giveaway to feel like a “good person,” to feigning interest in her students’ off-putting story ideas. 

Louis-Dreyfus sells Beth’s outwardly bubbly nature and conceitedness, friendliness belying a lack of self love and belief in her own abilities as a creative. Her mother, Georgia (the always excellent Jeannie Berlin), perpetuates Beth’s anxieties through humorous passive-aggressiveness.

Beth trusts Don more than anyone else, however, so his seeming “betrayal” hits her like a wrecking ball, which Louis Dreyfus neither undersells nor overplays; if anything, the film would have benefited from a more cartoonish expression of her panic. As it stands, it’s difficult to connect with her concerns: they’re monumental to her, but as outside observers, they seem trivial, and Holofcener never dives deeply into her background or creative drive to establish real pathos for her plight. 

She loves Don and Don loves her. Of course Don wants to be a supportive husband, of course he wouldn’t tell her his true feelings about her writing (which we’re never led as viewers to believe is actually praiseworthy), as he recognizes that his opinions are ultimately irrelevant: he’ll support her no matter what. This is evident from the outset, and, with some late-movie platitudes lacking nuance delivered by Teague (doing the most with a clichéd character), renders the core conflict of “You Hurt My Feelings” fairly shallow and predictable.

Aside from Beth’s unwarranted stressors, “You Hurt My Feelings” explores other facets of this idea, as people in her social bubble navigate similar waters of honesty and dishonesty, truth and lies, in their personal and professional bonds. Don, stressed about aging and exhausted from a string of demanding clients while putting on a brave face (which Menzies embodies with subtly-calibrated mannerisms), avoids admitting to his cataclysmic falsehood. This doesn’t pan out well, but guess what? Communication is key, as usual.

Sarah encounters her own challenges — her whole job involves appeasing finicky clients with artwork to adorn their homes, smiling and gritting her teeth, with plenty of unused insults at the ready under her breath. Mark struggles to find meaning and work as an actor, while Sarah stands behind him through thick and thin, notwithstanding she doesn’t think he’s all that good all the time.

Boosted by Holofcener’s zinger-filled screenplay and patient editing that zeroes in on expressions and awkward pauses, “You Hurt My Feelings” depicts these situations with a crowd-pleasing touch, but that doesn’t excuse that they aren’t all that compelling to watch in the first place. Indeed, the film’s muted style and inherent softness misses opportunities to critique its characters on a more foundational level, not fully selling their problems nor Beth’s gradual gaining of self-awareness. It’s not all that dramatic, or relatable, as we (im)patiently wait for the characters to catch up with reality.

Perhaps I’m the wrong demographic for this story, and perhaps the film’s lack of spectacle is the point, but it remains slight, less a meaningful story than a batch of gently amusing scenarios in service of relatable yet obvious messaging.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

“You Hurt My Feelings” is a 2023 comedy-drama written and directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Owen Teague, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, David Cross, Amber Tamblyn, Zach Cherry and Jeannie Berlin. It is rated R for language and runtime is 1 hour and 33 minutes. It opened in theaters May 26. Alex’s Grade: B-.

By Alex McPherson

Elevated by a magnetic performance from Halle Bailey, director Rob Marshall’s “The Little Mermaid” neither wows nor underwhelms — a film that’s far from essential, but one that provides light, comforting entertainment. 

Retelling the story from the 1989 animated version, this live-action iteration follows Ariel (Bailey), a courageous, rebellious mermaid and youngest of several sisters, who’s deeply curious about the surface world and dissatisfied with her life underwater. With her fish pal Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) in tow, Ariel collects human artifacts to store in her grotto among the coral — her collection is a reminder of a world she’s eager to explore and held back from reaching. Ariel’s father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), refuses to let her have any contact with humans. He instructs his right-hand-crab, the wry-yet-soft-hearted Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to keep her out of trouble (spoiler alert: he soon takes Ariel’s side). 

Ariel, with an adventurous spirit and desire for freedom, stumbles upon Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), the new leader of an island nation somewhere in the Caribbean who wishes to expand the kingdom and is discouraged by his mother (Noma Dumezweni). Ariel falls in love with him at first sight. After a violent storm ruins his raucous birthday celebrations, Ariel saves him, dragging him to safety on his island’s beach, singing her siren song to keep him alive.

“Kiss the Girl”

 Back underwater, Ariel can’t stop thinking about him (and vice versa), which attracts the attention of “the sea witch” Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), Triton’s sister who was previously exiled from the kingdom. Conniving and fueled by resentment, Ursula makes a deal with Ariel to transform her into a human for three days in exchange for Ariel’s siren voice. If she can share a “true love’s kiss” with Eric within those three days, she can remain a human permanently. If not, she’s under Ursula’s control, and will be used as ransom for Triton’s all-powerful trident. More complications arise, putting the pressure on Sebastian, Scuttle the seagull (Awkwafina), and, to a lesser extent, Flounder, to ensure the kiss comes to fruition, and help Ariel achieve her dreams.

Songs, romance, drama, and more songs ensue. Yes, this is certainly “The Little Mermaid,” so viewers expecting a massive departure from the previous film will be let down. Marshall’s film is another example of studios pandering to nostalgia rather than offering a meaningful reimagining of what’s come before. Taken on its own terms, though, the new “Little Mermaid” is still an amiably enjoyable watch — a story of love, independence, cultural understanding, and growing up that’s kept afloat by confident performances and directorial flashiness.

Bailey absolutely nails the role of Ariel — bringing to life her daring spirit and lovable stubbornness with an enchanting mixture of bravery and deep yearning for new horizons. Ariel is a (slightly) more layered protagonist this time around. She sees Eric as not only a good-looking hunk, but as a kindred spirit in search of freedom from tradition, which Marshall emphasizes through their nerdy, cute interactions with each other — they’re each fascinated with each other’s knowledge of the world beyond their homelands. 

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula

Bailey conveys Ariel’s longing and naivete in a fairly grounded fashion: the songs function as an extension of her inner thoughts, allowing for some impressively emotional moments, particularly during her renditions of “Part of Your World” and “For the First Time” (one of the several new tunes scattered throughout). It’s clear from the outset, however, that Bailey has the acting chops for a more dramatically rich take on Ariel’s story than Marshall’s film provides. She breathes exciting new life to the heroine nevertheless.

McCarthy is campily over-the-top as the fiendish squid Ursula, with her undulating tentacles and booming delivery, giving a no-holds-barred performance that’s both funny and menacing. Diggs is amusing as Sebastian (nailing his new-ish take on “Under the Sea”), sassy and witty. Awkwafina is serviceable as a seagull willing to rap if need be (Lin Manuel-Miranda’s writing hand is keenly felt), and Bardem’s talents are underused as King Triton — an oddly subdued performance conveying Triton’s anxiety and fear for Ariel’s well-being, albeit lacking gravitas.

Hauer-King is perfectly fine as Prince Eric, notwithstanding one ho-hum musical number, but “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t give him enough depth or personality to stand out among the others. The film makes an effort to more clearly paint parallels with his goals and aspirations with Ariel’s, yet the gesture comes across as more manufactured than organic — attempting to sand down the less-polished aspects of their bond from the 1989 film, as opposed to a true expansion.

Javier Bardem as King Triton

In terms of visuals, “The Little Mermaid” is hit-or-miss. Dion Beebe’s cinematography shines when gliding through environments in time to the music — bringing all manner of aquatic creatures to the stage during “Under the Sea” in a dazzling display of CGI-heavy showmanship — and during some impressively smooth scene transitions, such as one in which the camera travels through the eye of a moray eel into Ursula’s cavernous lair. What isn’t as successful is the look of the non-human characters themselves. Heads awkwardly sit on bodies and hair undulates distractingly; far easier to represent through animation than live-action. Regarding Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle, there’s an awkward tug-of-war between realism and fantasy, to middling effect.

Indeed, this reflects the film’s greatest flaw. “The Little Mermaid” is solid, family-friendly entertainment, but with a talent as strong as Bailey, it deserves to break free from its sanitized formula to become something fresher. Minor alterations aside, this is still the same story, where stakes are neutered and songs fly freely.

Yes, it’s great that Bailey’s casting speaks to a new generation of moviegoers, but they (and her) deserve a story less beholden to the past, as does the live-action medium itself, which pushes against the film’s fantastical elements. What’s left is a better-than-average Disney remake that has little more to say and boatloads of money to rake in.

Scuttle, Dingelhopper, Flounder and Ariel

“The Little Mermaid” is a 2023 live-action, animated musical remake of Disney’s 1989 classic directed by Rob Marshall and starring Halle Bailey, Javier Bardem, Jonah Hauer-King, Awkwafina, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay and Noma Dumezweni. It is rated PG for action/peril and some scary images and the runtime is 2 hours, 15 minutes. It opens in theaters on May 26. Alex’s Grade: B-.

Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Halle Bailey as Ariel roam the castle grounds.