By Alex McPherson

Inventively constructed yet saddled with an unwieldy plot, Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick’s screenlife thriller “Missing” undercuts its strengths by appealing to brash, exaggerated storytelling.

A standalone sequel to 2018’s “Searching,” which uses a similar format of taking place entirely via screens, “Missing” follows the 18-year-old June (Storm Reid), a rebellious, always-online teenager living in Los Angeles with her mother, Grace (Nia Long).

June’s father, James (Tim Griffin), passed away over a decade prior, and June continues to grieve — often lashing out at Grace’s protectiveness and constant need to check in with her. Grace and her boyfriend, Kevin (Ken Leung), are about to leave for a week-long vacation in Colombia, giving June free time to party it up at their security-cam-riddled suburban home.

When June arrives at the airport to pick them up, though, they’re not there. After being unable to reach either Grace or Kevin on their phones, June grows increasingly worried that they’re in danger. She takes the investigation into her own hands when authorities don’t act promptly. Time is of the essence, and June — a tech-savvy teen proficient at digital sleuthing— is on the case. 

With the help of their lawyer neighbor, Heather (Amy Landecker), a freelance worker June hires named Javi (Joaquim de Almeida), and June’s pal Veena (Megan Suri), June embarks down a labyrinthine rabbit hole of password hacking and web surfing. She makes discoveries that turn her reality upside-down.

By restricting the action to screens — the majority of the film unfolds on June’s computer, where she’s often video-chatting with someone and navigating an insane number of tabs — “Missing” effectively taps into the enormous digital footprints we leave behind, along with the ways in which technology can conceal, and illuminate, different sides of us.

Unfortunately, Johnson and Merrick, who edited “Searching,” neither fully play by the genre’s rules nor craft a compelling yarn to support the gimmick. By layering so many twists upon each other, especially in the third act, “Missing” obscures its most sobering aspects — leaning into schlocky developments that annoy, rather than thrill.

That’s not to say the central concept isn’t engaging, however, even though films like “Searching” and the (far superior) “Profile” have done it before. The format lends an immediacy and tangibility that ramps up suspense, as we observe June using familiar tools to uncover secrets supposedly hidden from view.

Johnson and Merrick aren’t fully confident in the idea — flashbacks, added camerawork, and shifting perspectives attempt to add cinematic flair, ironically breaking immersion — but it’s always nice to watch filmmakers buck tradition.

“Missing” is most successful when it shows how much personal information is accessible if we have the know-how to access it — from one’s immediate location to their online dating messages. The devices that “connect” us are themselves connected, able to communicate with each other like an omnipresent observer.

Although June’s Gen-Z detective skills lead to several satisfying “aha” moments, there’s no shaking the fact that these gadgets and services are violating, and a vessel for manipulation. They’re both helpful for June’s purposes and an extreme invasion of privacy. 

Additionally, when the public latches onto the case, and it becomes a viral obsession, we see how truth can be warped beyond recognition, as people capitalize on scandal for their own gain. Johnson and Merrick are obviously critical of true-crime entertainment, too — turning the events of “Searching” into an over-the-top Netflix show — which further complements this idea of corrupted reality. 

Reid makes the most of the somewhat cookie-cutter June, who doesn’t have many compelling traits besides her technical smarts. Her strained relationship with Grace provides some emotional grounding, but the script’s melodramatic beats are far from subtle.

Even so, Reid conveys her growing anxiety, fear, epiphanies, and anger convincingly — it’s fun to watch the mystery unfold, for a while, and feel like we’re solving it with her.

Long makes the most of a half-baked role — believable as a mother who, above all, wants the best for her child.

Almeida is the standout as Javi. He provides the bulk of comedic relief, and the film could have used more of his eccentric presence — especially when the story jumps the shark in the final act.

Indeed, despite its limited presentation, “Missing” shows little restraint in its narrative. Red herrings abound, and the film is constantly trying to one-up itself with bonkers reveals that require an absurd suspension of disbelief.

The constant attempts at subverting expectations distract from the most meaningful takeaways involving tech’s hold on modern life. “Missing” sacrifices the “human” element of its story for shock factor — sliding into unintentional comedy with threads that feel ripped straight from a soap opera. By the last “surprise,” the film ends up resembling the scandalous content the filmmakers critique elsewhere.

It’s a shame that “Missing” fumbles so egregiously in the end, since there’s much to praise about this paranoid thriller. At the very least, if you’re not too irritated when it’s all over, you might set up two-factor authentication on all your accounts.

“Missing” is a 2023 mystery thriller co-written and co-directed by Nick D. Johnson and Will Merrick. It stars Nia Long, Storm Reid, Ken Leung, Megan Suri and Amy Landecker. It is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, language, teen drinking, and thematic material and run time is 1 hour, 51 minutes. It opened in theaters on Jan. 20. Alex’s Grade: C+.

By Alex McPherson

Silly, messy, yet filled with provocative ideas and starring an already classic antagonist, director Gerard Johnstone’s “M3GAN” is one of 2023’s first great films.

Set in near-future Seattle, “M3GAN” centers around Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotics engineer working for a toy company called Funki developing flatulent, Furby-esque “Perpetual Petz.” Gemma, a workaholic bordering on a mad scientist, has higher aspirations — creating a lifelike artificial intelligence that can serve as a child’s loyal companion, assisting with parental duties for guardians unwilling or unable to put the effort in themselves.

After a prototype demonstration goes haywire, her brash, overeager boss, David (Ronny Chieng), demands Gemma and her team construct a less complex version of Perpetual Petz to fight the competition. All hope for Gemma’s obviously flawed passion project goes out the window… until a fateful circumstance gives her the opportunity to pursue her dreams.

Her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), is orphaned in a car accident involving a snow plow that kills both her parents. Gemma is called upon to assume guardianship of Cady, but she has absolutely no idea or willingness to interact with her on a meaningful level. Fortunately, or, rather, unfortunately, she finally has an excuse to build her Frankenstein once again — creating the titular M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android), a wry and viciously programmed android with the body of young girl, a mean side-eye, off-kilter movements, and a propensity to sing pop songs — to provide for Cady and give Gemma the freedom to go about her own, separate life.

Cady’s attachment to M3GAN grows quite extreme, however, as does M3GAN’s directive to protect her at all costs, definitely not above killing anything that inconveniences her. The bodycount builds, Gemma faces increasing pressure from David to show M3GAN off to the world, and she must learn to take responsibility for her creation and, potentially, for her own life.

Despite relevant commentary on humankind’s dependence on technology, companies’ ruthless exploitation of our personal lives to sell goods, and how mistreatment of a near-sentient AI can heinously backfire, “M3GAN” is, at its core, a batshit insane slice of PG-13 horror that never takes itself too seriously. This is a satirical comedy above all else, eschewing nuance in favor of putting its Mean Girl to savage work.

M3GAN, voiced with cheerfully malevolent gusto by Jenna Davis and physically performed by Amie Donald, mixing stiltedness with bursts of animalistic energy, is quite the character. She’s both creepy and hilarious, eliciting nervous laughter with practically every one of her sardonic quips. Johnstone, screenwriter Akela Cooper (who also wrote 2021’s off-the-rails “Malignant”), and story co-creator James Wan aren’t here to necessarily humanize M3GAN, but they emphasize the poor ways she’s treated in this morally bankrupt world. M3GAN’s merely following her programming — serving Cady to the best of her reductive, frightening abilities — and gradually developing self-awareness of her own, fighting for her independence and a misguided desire to control, rather than be controlled. M3GAN is often discarded as an “other” to reside among other toys, or literally powered down whenever push comes to shove. 

M3GAN, the viral dancing sensation.

Peter McCaffrey’s cinematography mines this idea to darkly comedic effect; one memorable shot at a school field day features M3GAN seated in the middle of a pile of stuffed animals, glaring at the camera as if to say how could you treat me this way? When she’s unleashed to wreak her (largely bloodless) havoc, you might almost root for her as she disposes of those who disrespect and use her for their own selfish advancement.

The more (traditionally) human characters aren’t nearly as engaging, but Williams and McGraw lend pathos even in the most ludicrous stretches. Williams excels at delivering the film’s deadpan dialogue — Gemma’s awkwardness and impulsivity almost feel robotic at certain points, as she struggles to navigate her newfound maternal role and care for the grief-stricken Cady. Her arc later on in the film seems rushed (gotta get back to M3GAN dancing, after all), but Gemma’s learned empathy hits home with surprising, albeit not exactly poignant, force.

McGraw shines as Cady, conveying ample dramatic range as proceedings unfold. M3GAN seemingly fills the void left by the loss of her parents, and Cady refuses to be separated from her. She can have any question answered, a playmate always by her side, and someone to protect her from harm. Despite M3GAN’s increasingly violent actions, Cady remains strongly loyal, addicted to a “solution” that, despite how it’s promoted, is a dangerous rabbit hole.

Side characters — with the exception of David, who gives Chieng plenty of opportunities to ham it up as a shameless executive who wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch — are mainly there as fodder for M3GAN, but that’s exactly what the film calls for. Although the PG-13 rating prevents Johnstone from fully cutting loose, there’s still a couple of wince-inducing moments (one involving not-quite-surgical ear removal) that won’t leave my mind anytime soon. Indeed, “M3GAN” pulls no punches when it counts.

The bombastic finale reverts to familiar tropes, and the combination of thoughtful commentary with goofiness doesn’t click together “smoothly,” but that adds to the charm. “M3GAN” remains an unabashedly fun watch, comfort food for those willing to update to its zany wavelength.

“M3GAN” is a 2023 science-fiction horror comedy directed by Gerard Johnstone and written by Akela Cooper. It stars Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Ronny Chieng, Amie Donald, and Jenna Davis. It is rated PG-13 for violent content and terror, some strong language, and a suggestive reference, and the runtime is 1 hour, 42 minutes. It opened in theaters January 6. Alex’s Grade: B+

By Alex McPherson 

Vulgar, shocking, but irresistible, Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a toxic love letter to cinema that’s impossible to look away from, even in its most extreme moments.

Chazelle’s three-hour extravaganza mostly takes place in Hollywood from the late 1920s to 1930s, following actors and below-the-line workers navigating a ruthless world of celebrity as the industry transitions from silent films to talkies.

We begin with Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant and aspiring filmmaker working odd jobs for studio bigwigs in the hopes of breaking into the industry himself, transporting an elephant to a party at a Kinescope executive’s mansion. While Manny and helpers try to push their oversized truck up a hill, the elephant proceeds to defecate all over them (the camera gives us an up-close look at the animal’s anus as it’s smeared in feces). Indeed, this outrageous moment accurately reflects the sort of gross-out humor prevalent throughout the entirety of “Babylon” — every type of fluid comes into play during the runtime.

The party Manny’s en route to is, unsurprisingly, completely insane, filmed in unflinching long takes by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Drugs are plentiful, lewd sex acts take place wherever you look, and enthusiastic partygoers dance as a jazzy band (led by the established musician Sidney Palmer, earnestly played by Jovan Adepo) blares Justin Hurwitz’s jaw-droppingly amazing score. Plus, there’s that elephant. 

Amid the chaos, though, Manny meets the love of his life, a brazen, New Jersey-born starlet named Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who crashes the gathering , and who — in between snorting a seemingly never-ending supply of cocaine — draws enough attention to herself that she scores her first film role (the original actor overdosed that night).

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva

Despite any and all red flags, it’s love at first sight for Manny — they’re both outsiders in search of something greater than themselves. In attendance as well is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an alcoholic, womanizing actor who’s made his career in silent films. Manny is tasked with driving him home the next day, and Jack helps him score some assistant jobs on sets. 

As the years tick by and these passionate souls experience soaring highs and cacophonous lows amid the changing tides of entertainment and mental health, “Babylon” refuses to slow down or give viewers time to process the crazy narrative on display.

By juggling so many characters — each encountering different facets of Hollywood’s less-than-glamorous side — the film can’t quite give each of them time to fully sink in, but the tonal whiplash ultimately works to its benefit. By the end, I felt beat up. But just like the ravenous cravings that drive the characters back to the silver screen, I wanted more.

As you can tell, “Babylon” isn’t for everyone. The full-throttle nature of Chazelle’s film will undoubtedly turn off many viewers — but lack of restraint is the point. With hectic editing jumping between characters and years, camerawork full of whip pans, zooms, and dolly shots (calling to mind the early work of Paul Thomas Anderson), and Hurwitz’s aforementioned dynamic music, the film is a near-overwhelming sensory overload.

Scenes of depravity and carnage are accompanied by those showcasing the movie-making process. We see Jack and Nellie shine in their element, all while film crews suffer in the background (some with injuries, or worse) — illustrating the blood, sweat, and tears going into the art we might take for granted. One extended scene featuring Nellie acting on a set that’s trying (and often failing) to record sound smoothly, is sweaty, intense, and darkly hilarious. 

Jean Smart as Elinor St John

The screenplay, by Chazelle, opts for broad satire most of the time, with humor that only sporadically lands. The skewering of studio bigwigs and working conditions is a bit much, to say the least. But again, the brutality serves to underline the idea of cinema being an art we’re drawn to through thick and thin — the power of images being an all-encompassing force of escape and transformation, visualized in the brilliantly trippy ending.  

These characters, with varying degrees of privilege, are swept up into a system that chews them up and spits them out as very different people. They’re shells of who they once were, having sacrificed their well-being for the purpose of entertainment. Manny ascends the corporate ladder, but loses part of his cultural heritage in the process, having to adapt to increasingly repressive policies.

Jack, crestfallen, struggles to accept his dimming star power, and Nellie (with Robbie fully in command of her craft), is chasing the next high (even if that means “fighting” a snake). She’s undeniably talented, yet deeply insecure stemming from a vague yet turbulent childhood and grappling with a misogynistic public sphere.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu and Jovan Adepo (back right) plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Palmer and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) contend with racist attitudes, forcing them to “change” to find success. It’s all rather depressing in the end, and it’s true that a more focused approach would have given “Babylon” additional emotional weight, but it effectively shows lives in flux, spiraling toward harsh reckonings.

Also worth noting are smaller turns from Jean Smart as an intelligent yet unhinged gossip columnist named Elinor St. John, a stressed-out Flea as a studio fixer, and Tobey Maguire as a skin-crawling mob boss James McKay. The whole ensemble — some heavily exaggerated, others more down-to-earth — perfectly fits this wild-and-woolly tale.

This is a maximalist, boundary-pushing, and meaty film to digest. Overstuffed though it is, “Babylon” is a thrill to watch, with assured direction and style out the wazoo. Fair warning, though: if you have a weak stomach, avoid at all costs.

“Babylon” is a 2022 drama written and directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva and Jean Smart. It is rated R for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language and the runtime is 3 hours, 9 minutes. It opened in theaters Dec. 23. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Alex McPherson

An exhausting film filled with compelling performances, director Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” exerts a vice-like grip throughout, reveling in both discomfort and emotional catharsis.

Adapted from a play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay, “The Whale” centers around Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a reclusive, morbidly obese English teacher giving remote lessons within a fetid apartment in Idaho during the 2016 presidential primaries.

Suffering from congestive heart failure, and refusing medical care, Charlie doesn’t have much time left — prompting this kind yet tormented soul to reflect on his mistakes and seek some semblance of inner peace. Above all else, he wants to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who prickles with rage and resentment at not only him, but the world at large. 

Eight years prior, Charlie abandoned Ellie and his then-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton) to be with his gay lover, Alan, who later passed away, leaving Charlie reeling with grief and practically eating himself into the grave. Charlie is looked after by his friend, Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who shares a past with him and who is battling her own all-encompassing demons.

As the days tick by, Charlie frequently refers back to an essay one of his students wrote about “Moby Dick” — a blunt interpretation whose honesty affects him to his very core.

The stage is set for in-your-face melodrama, and “The Whale” certainly tries to make viewers feel as much as possible. Yet, despite the script’s heavy-handedness and cinematic flourishes that detract from its noble messages, Aronofsky’s film soars on the undeniable power of its performances. Fraser is marvelous, bringing tenderness to a character too often put in extreme situations. 

Indeed, Charlie is seemingly at battle with the film itself — a tug-of-war between empathy and cruelty. Aronofsky — known as a boundary-pushing filmmaker — has no qualms about putting him through the ringer from beginning to end. Despite a dreary, limited setting (enhanced by a claustrophobic aspect ratio), the near-constant punishment from the outside world, and his untenable condition, Charlie remains hopeful that he can help Ellie restore some faith in herself to weather their harsh world, and thereby right the greatest wrong in his own tragic life. 

With a fatsuit and strong makeup work, Fraser’s first impression is startling (even played to “horror” lengths at certain points), but his earnest line delivery brings sensitivity and sly humor to a character otherwise harshly defined. It’s difficult to overstate just how effective Fraser is here — even the most clumsy, heavy-handed soliloquies feel impactful thanks to his raw skill as a performer and his ability to convey meaning that isn’t always there in the screenplay.

The rest of the cast is exceptional as well, particularly Chau, who brings much-needed groundedness to the film’s increasingly melodramatic plot developments. Liz is a high-strung, enabling, and grief-stricken person herself — doing what she can for Charlie, while also neglecting to appreciate his last wishes.

Sadie Sink

Sink, on the other hand, is downright scary as Ellie, a teenager warped by cynicism and insecurity. It often seems like Sink, and the script, have Ellie dialed up to 11, which lessens the character’s authenticity and leans into exaggeration. Still, in the few moments where Ellie isn’t verbally abusing Charlie (or worse), viewers get glimpses beneath the facade, where some warmth and compassion remain. 

Also worth mentioning is Ty Simpkins, who plays Thomas, a church missionary who keeps showing up at Charlie’s doorstep and wants to “save” him before the end-times. Like most of the people Charlie interacts with, Thomas doesn’t have his best interests at heart, and “The Whale” emphasizes Charlie’s personal salvation over prejudiced, preordained constraints.

Aronofsky’s film is far less successful, though, in its translation from stage to screen. This isn’t a subtle film by any means, and blunt symbolism abounds — notably in how Charlie’s weight can function as a metaphor for his regrets, and how the film paints parallels between his body and that of the White Whale in “Moby Dick.” Moments where Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique showcase the depths of Charlie’s desperation stand out as unnecessary and demeaning, inserted for shock value at his expense.

Ironically, the sequences where “The Whale” is most like a stage-play are where it works best — pleading for viewers’ sympathy, sacrificing emotional nuance, and giving the ensemble plenty of opportunities to loudly declare their awards-worthiness. Strange though this dichotomy is, it remains engrossing.

Less than the sum of its parts, albeit absorbing throughout, “The Whale” is worth watching as an acting showcase and an examination of ideas in a dramatic framework that’s seemingly, fascinatingly at war with itself.

“The Whale” is a 2022 drama directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Brenda Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau and Ty Simpkins. It’s rated R for some language, some drug use and sexual content and has a 1 hour, 57 minutes runtime. It opened in select theaters Dec. 21. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Moody, enigmatic, and unnerving, director Joanna Hogg’s “The Eternal Daughter” is a stylistically ingenious ghost story — featuring Tilda Swinton in dual roles — albeit one that doesn’t land all the emotions it aims for.

The film centers around Julie Hart (Swinton), a filmmaker traveling with her mother, Rosalind (Swinton, with a luscious wig), and her adorable dog, Louis (Swinton’s actual dog), to a countryside hotel in Wales to celebrate Rosalind’s 80th birthday and to surreptitiously write a screenplay inspired by Rosalind’s life.

Rosalind used to spend time at this sprawling estate as a child when her Aunt Jocelyn owned the building during World War II; she associates memories of both joy and sadness within the aged walls. Still, however, the hotel isn’t exactly the most inviting abode — surrounded by jagged woodlands and perpetually draped in a thick fog that threatens to consume anyone within reach. The blustering wind howls through the foundation like a spirit’s cry for help and release.

Upon arrival late one evening, Julie and Rosalind appear to be the sole guests staying there — with only a hilariously passive aggressive receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) to greet them. Julie has other things to worry about. These include being able to learn more about the woman she’s spent so much time trying to connect with, yet knows so little about, who she’s mining for her own creative endeavors.

Their usually banal interactions about Rosalind’s experiences, or what to simply order for dinner, allude to deeper anxieties and insecurities. Additionally, whenever Julie tries to focus and write, she’s interrupted by strange noises emanating from somewhere in the hotel, as if the building itself is a living entity trying to dissuade her project. 

A mystifying tale ensues, but Hogg (whose previous filmography includes the somewhat autobiographical “Souvenir” films) isn’t interested in scaring viewers. Rather, “The Eternal Daughter” uses its eerie atmosphere to explore themes of grief, acceptance, and the creation of art itself — of how it works as a preservation of memory and a means to confront life’s challenges.

“The Eternal Daughter” thrives off slow-burn paranoia that immerses viewers into Julie’s increasingly disoriented headspace. From ominous bumps on the floor above, to machines suddenly whirring to life, and doors literally groaning as they shut behind Julie, Hogg succeeds at creating an off-kilter environment that keeps viewers on edge. 

Jump scares are nowhere to be found. Rather, thanks to tactile sound design, distanced yet meticulous cinematography by Ed Rutherford dripping in gothic stylings, and a creepily melodic score by David Saulesco, “The Eternal Daughter” is a psychological chiller that has absolutely no qualms about alienating viewers with short attention spans. It’s deeply immersive from start to finish — letting viewers cautiously wander Julie’s unfamiliar surroundings with her, as she slowly searches for some unknown source that grips her thoughts.

Of course, Swinton’s performances (as both Julie and Rosalind) are exemplary: understated and subtle. Julie’s a tormented character — immersed in her filmmaking work, to the detriment of her social life, without children of her own, and grappling with the reality that Rosalind won’t be with her much longer. She also feels guilty about secretly recording their conversations, “intruding” where she feels she doesn’t belong. Swinton captures Julie’s high-strung demeanor while also showing the widening cracks in her facade. 

Rosalind, on the other hand, is concerned about Julie, but keeps her true feelings subdued — illuminated in brief remarks that, despite their plainness, hit the sensitive Julie like a truck. The bizarre nature of the casting decision quickly fades away, as Swinton fully inhabits both characters and renders them distinct, yet cut from the same cloth nevertheless. It underscores the idea of Julie being unable to separate herself and her well-being from her mother — for better and worse, she struggles to accept the inevitable. 

Hogg’s screenplay succeeds (for the most part) at weaving dark comedy and pathos into the proceedings — the aforementioned receptionist’s weirdly aggressive reactions provide much of the comic relief, as does Louis, one of the best canine actors in the business. A benevolent groundskeeper named Bill (Joseph Mydell), on the other side of the spectrum, exudes warmth and kindness. He stays in touch with his late wife via memories associated with each room in the big house, and tunes us into Hogg’s grand schemes. 

A central theme of “The Eternal Daughter,” in fact, revolves around the ways we stay connected to loved ones who pass, and the ways that self-expression can function as a way to free ourselves of regret and make peace with the past. Julie, in trying to finally connect on a deeper level with her mother, must also confront her own tormented psyche, and art provides a prime medium to do so.

Hogg isn’t a stranger to such themes in her work, but “The Eternal Daughter” feels distinct in the way she crafts a full-blooded ghost story out of (somewhat pretentious) themes. Indeed, by lingering so much on unusual, seemingly minute details, “The Eternal Daughter” is a puzzle box that begs to be solved. The editing, cinematography, dialogue, and music all contribute to an overarching narrative that’s quietly complex. Hogg encourages patience and close inspection — building towards a reveal that’s suitably bewildering. 

The film’s construction also works to its detriment, though. By seeming so impenetrable, at least on first viewing, “The Eternal Daughter” sacrifices heft that prevented me from becoming emotionally wrapped up in Julie’s ultimately small-scale story. The effort the film requires to unpack doesn’t quite equal the payoff, rendering it more satisfying as a conceptual experiment than a gripping narrative. Still, though, for arthouse-inclined viewers, “The Eternal Daughter” will captivate, confuse, and leave them hungering for whatever Hogg has in store next.

Tilda Swinton

“The Eternal Daughter” is a 2022 drama-mystery directed by Joanna Hogg and starring Tilda Swinton, Carly-Sophia Davies. It is rated PG-13 for some drug material and the runtime is 1 hour, 36 minutes. It opened in theaters on Dec. 2 and is available on Video on Demand. Alex’s Grade: B+

By Alex McPherson 
Visually spectacular and thematically rich, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a feast for the senses, a rallying cry for rebellion, and a reminder to cherish those we hold dear.

Utilizing stop-motion animation and updating Carlo Collodi’s 1883 story to 1930s Italy — during a scourge of fascism, with the threat of violence ever-looming — the film zooms in on an elderly carpenter named Gepetto (voiced by David Bradley, with ample tenderness), who tragically loses his young son Carlo (Gregory Mann) in a bombing.

Drunk, furious, and at the end of his rope, Gepetto chops down the tree growing from Carlo’s tombstone — which turns out to be the home of the erudite, self-absorbed Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) — and crudely fashions together our titular Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann) as a stand-in for his lost child.

A vibrant, yet ominous Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton, as cooly off-putting as always), with dozens of eyes peppering its wings, takes pity on Gepetto and brings his hurried creation to life, entrusting Sebastian to be Pinocchio’s moral guide. Suffice to say, Pinocchio’s first moments don’t go entirely smoothly. He careens across Gepetto’s cottage with gleeful abandon — destroying practically anything that gets in his way — as Gepetto watches, horrified, dodging incoming projectiles. 

Pinocchio’s a lively, rambunctious, and curious soul, but Gepetto’s constant need to make him behave and fit certain roles — most notably, that of Carlo — only ends up backfiring. Townsfolk, most of whom are religious, immediately label Pinocchio as an Other to be ostracized. A fascist official named Podesta (a menacing Ron Perelman) takes a keen interest in Pinocchio’s peculiarities, as does the slimy owner of a traveling carnival, Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), and his abused “assistant,” Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett, convincingly imitating a monkey).

What follows is a meditation on grief, freedom, childhood, and death that follows the general trajectory of Collodi’s vision and Disney’s 1940 iteration of the story, but with an extra helping of del Toro’s trademark empathy and political fervor.

Indeed, from a visual perspective alone, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is damn-near flawless. From the minute, tactile details poured into each and every character, it’s clear that the film is a labor of love from all involved.

Del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson (the animation director of Wes Anderson’s brilliant “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) imbue these hand-sculpted figures with expressiveness (both grotesque and enchanting, often simultaneously) that — paired with the impeccable voice cast — beautifully suits this tale of love and compassion amid suffering.

The occasional rough edges only strengthen the characters’ authenticity, each molded from a world that’s beaten them down, in one way or another, in attempts to maintain control and “order.” Frank Passingham’s eye-popping cinematography takes full advantage of the freedom of animation to present numerous shots that won’t leave my mind anytime soon — particularly regarding the freakishly unnerving sea beast.

Pinocchio himself feels right at home in del Toro’s oeuvre — charming, naive, ignorant — thrust into an unfamiliar environment and told to obey. This pressure put on him by Gepetto to be someone he’s not is mirrored by Podesta’s son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), who’s being forced to adopt a vile ideology forced on him by his father and by the larger authority. 

Mann brings an expert level of innocence and confidence to the character, delivering both heartwarming and heart wrenching dialogue throughout. Pinocchio’s coming-of-age is as poignant as ever as he fights his way out of heinous situations — including exploitative work conditions, for entertainment and in service of a tyrannical government — to finally be seen as more than the irreplaceable Carlo in Gepetto’s eyes and to be loved for who he actually is. In this regard, Gepetto has just as much to learn about himself as Pinocchio does, and del Toro renders him a flawed, uncertain, yet deeply caring person, capable of growth even at his old age.

On the lighter side, McGregor is often hilarious as the stringent, wiseass cricket, shouldering most of the film’s laughs. Del Toro and Patrick McHale’s script crackles with sly, dark humor, paired with plenty of slapstick comedy at Sebastian’s expense, that never insults viewers’ intelligence. Waltz’s iconic line delivery perfectly suits Count Volpe’s capitalistic deviousness, and Blanchett is incredible without uttering a single line in English — her vocal mannerisms as the poor monkey Spazzatula convey multitudes.

Even though “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” follows a familiar template, there’s boatloads of creativity on display in terms of storytelling and aesthetic grandeur. Setting the tale during Mussolini’s reign gives Pinocchio’s acts of disobedience even more weight, and the emphasis on mortality (and the afterlife, given a morbidly idiosyncratic spin) adds wrinkles that caught me off-guard in the end, nearly bringing me to tears.

Additionally, it’s, for some reason, a musical, and while Alexandre Desplat’s score is typically sublime, the songs aren’t exactly necessary to keep the plot moving. That minor quibble aside, this is a film full of joy, sadness, danger, and understanding of life’s great challenges — one that will prove to be a timeless achievement.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a 2022 stop-motion animated musical fantasy film co-directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson and voice-work is done by David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor, Ron Perelman, Christoph Waltz, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and Finn Wolfhard. It is rated PG for dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor and brief smoking and the run time is 1 hour, 57 minutes. It was released in select local theaters on Nov. 18 and will be streaming on Netflix Dec. 9. Alex’s Grade: A.

By Alex McPherson

Overstuffed and overlong, yet retaining a strong emotional core, director Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ultimately plays it safe, for better and worse.

“Wakanda Forever” faces the difficult task of paying tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman, while continuing the story of Wakanda and its people (along with, of course, setting up future installments and spinoffs). Indeed, Coogler’s film starts off on a solemn note and maintains a decidedly down-beat tone throughout.

T’Challa’s sister, tech-genius Shuri (Letitia Wright), tries and fails to save him, as he succumbs to an unnamed illness. This infuses her sorrow with a sense of guilt, responsibility, and rage. T’Challa’s sudden death casts a long shadow over Wakanda, catching everyone off-guard and sending their nation into a state of uncertainty. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, in a towering, fiery performance) leads the nation through a period of intense mourning. She navigates her own grief and contends with violent geopolitical pressures to share Wakanda’s precious resource, Vibranium — used to fuel Wakandan technology — with the outside world.

However, Wakanda isn’t the only civilization to possess Vibranium. The CIA and US Navy SEALS utilize a newfangled Vibranium-detector to locate some in the Atlantic Ocean — only to be attacked by a group of blue-skinned Mesoamerican warriors called “the Talokan,” who ride into battle on whales, singing melodies that lure victims to their deaths. They’re led by Namor (a formidable, albeit goofy-looking Tenoch Huerta), bare-chested and with wings on his ankles, who is furious that the surface world encroached on his territory. Wakanda is blamed for the attack, and Namor blames Wakanda for revealing the existence of Vibranium to begin with. He issues Ramonda and Shuri an ultimatum — bring him Riri (an amusing though somewhat one-note Dominique Thorne), the Gen-Z MIT student responsible for creating the Vibranium-detector, or Wakanda will be targeted by the Talokan.

All the while, CIA agent and ally of Wakanda Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) learns that the CIA is planning to seize Vibranium to develop weapons for the US military. 

As these various plot threads collide and intersect, the situation gets out of control — leading to plenty of action set pieces, a heavy sprinkling of exposition dumps, and a welcome dollop of melancholic reflection for good measure. “Wakanda Forever” is busy, to say the least, nailing some targets while missing others. Thankfully, Coogler honors Boseman’s memory and his larger cultural impact — foregrounding concepts of loss, acceptance, and hope that shine through otherwise formulaic beats.

Like 2018’s “Black Panther” before it, “Wakanda Forever” establishes a stylistic identity that separates it from other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wakanda is a vibrant, Afro-futurist metropolis, filmed with clarity and scale by cinematographer Autumn Durald. Inspired by various African cultures, Hannah Beachler’s astounding set design pops off the screen, as do the costumes by Ruth E. Carter, underscoring the characters’ regality and commanding auras, matching the mood of each scene, be it funereal or explosive.

The Talokan’s underwater kingdom is vividly rendered, although heavy on CGI. Still, the Talokan don’t look as formidable as the Wakandan Dora Milaje, led by a fearsome Okoye (Danai Gurira, thankfully given a more defined character arc this time around), who continue to showcase badass weapons and fight choreography like the first film. Ludwig Göransson’s score pulsates with booms and sharp vocals, beautifully complementing the numerous action scenes and lending further gravitas to the powerful, largely women-led ensemble. 

The film’s rich tapestry of sights and sounds is matched by effective performances that elevate the proceedings to new dramatic heights. Boseman’s loss is felt acutely here, as viewers can sense the sadness of not only the characters, but also the actors portraying them — particularly Bassett and Wright.

Bassett is the standout here, bringing a fierce, tormented energy to Queen Ramonda that emphasizes the character’s bravery and brashness, a leader facing tough decisions pitting her heart against her head. Shuri is coming to terms with T’Challa’s loss, becoming a valiant leader herself, and reckoning with what kind of legacy she wants to leave behind for Wakanda and the larger world — poignantly acted by Wright, who capably shoulders the film’s quieter sequences and the bombastic ones. Winston Duke provides the bulk of the comedic relief as M’Baku, a burly lad with more depth than expected.

Namor, played by Tenoch Huerta

Huerta gives Namor his all, bringing charisma and understated menace to the role. It’s too bad, however, that Namor’s backstory is relegated to rushed exposition. His motivations are understandable — colonial forces wronged him and his Mayan culture long ago, and he will do whatever it takes to protect his people and assert dominance — but don’t hit home with much force. By attempting to make him a sympathetic antihero in such a hurried fashion, “Wakanda Forever” sacrifices nuance, but at least Coogler’s trying to add some complexity to the character.

This issue extends to other elements, too. Even with a gargantuan, 2-hour-and-41-minute runtime, Coogler’s film doesn’t give its numerous plot points enough time to breathe — save for scenes dedicated to honoring and remembering Boseman’s portrayal.

The CIA thread involving Freeman lacks any sort of punch, and the film sidelines the more provocative topic of US imperialism in favor of superhero clichés in the deafening finale. Similarly, the action scenes — except for a thrilling vehicular chase — aren’t especially memorable, overusing weightless CGI and slow-motion to sometimes comical effect. This muddled approach makes “Wakanda Forever” exhausting when it should be thrilling.

But this is an MCU film above all else, and “Wakanda Forever” checks every box that its overcrowded genre dictates. There are glimmers of a truly special, meaningful film that isn’t realized, but Coogler succeeds enough where it counts, and provides a satisfying salute to an impressive world of warriors and a cinema icon lost too soon.

Danai Gurira and Angela Bassett

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is a 2022 fantasy action-sci-fi-adventure directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Tenoch Huerta, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Dominique Thorne and Winston Duke.  Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, action and some language, it is 2 hours, 41 minutes’ long. It opened in theatres on Nov. 11. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

A tragicomedy that packs a massive emotional wallop, writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” is a near-perfect film, balancing its blisteringly entertaining dialogue with sobering pathos. As someone who considers “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” to be one of my favorite films of all time, McDonagh’s latest effort certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Set on an idyllic island off the west coast of Ireland in 1923 — shielded from the nearby civil war, yet remaining its own microcosm of turmoil and pettiness —  “The Banshees of Inisherin” follows Pádraic (Colin Farrell), an contented, amiable dairy farmer who makes up for his lack of sophistication with kindness. Living in a cottage with his loving sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) and his beloved donkey Jenny, Pádraic is comfortable with his banal existence. Until, one day, there is a disturbance in the force.

Pádraic usually jaunts off to the local pub mid afternoon with his aging pal, Colm (Brendan Gleeson), but on this day in April when Pádraic stops by to meet Colm at his house, he’s completely ignored. In fact, Colm wants absolutely nothing to do with Pádraic anymore, declaring him, bluntly, to be too boring and dull to be worth hanging out with. Colm, suffering from “despair,” wants to leave a mark on the world through composing music, and is prepared to cut out anything that could possibly hold him back. Pádraic is utterly distraught, unwilling to accept Colm’s decision — which sets the stage for a typically McDonagh-esque comedy of errors, steeped with brutality, both physical and verbal, and leaving a tangibly potent impact.

Indeed, “The Banshees of Inisherin” blends hilarity with calamity, exaggeration with resonant, relevant themes. McDonagh explores the perils of ego, mental illness, isolation, mortality, and civil conflict with panache, imbuing the film with unpredictability from start to finish. 

Colin Farrell

The cast is stellar, especially the two leads, finally reuniting after “In Bruges.” Farrell brings yet another fascinatingly flawed character to life as Pádraic experiences a loss of innocence and of self amid the increasingly chaotic proceedings. While the initial setup is played for laughs, McDonagh understands the pain that Colm’s actions wreak upon Pádraic’s well-being — every sardonic quip and blunt takedown is tinged with melancholy. Farrell, as usual, gives a masterful performance, conveying deep wells of feeling through facial expressions alone.

Pádraic’s a sympathetic protagonist, despite his refusal to leave Colm alone. He wants to live a “simple” life and finds joy in the little things, like relaxing at the pub (essentially the town hall), and caring for Jenny. Colm’s actions, however, send him spiraling further and further from the person he thought he was, inching ever-closer to the despair that grips Colm’s soul, as tensions continue to escalate.

Colm’s motivations, despite his stubbornness, remain understandable. Gleeson, with a weathered visage and stern demeanor, lends sorrow to the character. Colm is experiencing an existential crisis, making a last-minute scramble to leave behind a legacy and become one of the greats, like Mozart (even though Pádraic’s never heard of him). His seemingly small actions have profound effects throughout the community, and his harsh decisions are rooted in self-loathing and misplaced pride.

This being a McDonagh joint, supporting players are given plenty of depth. Condon is superb as Pádraic’s sister, Siobhan, the wisest in the village who recognizes Colm’s absurd behavior, and struggles to rescue her brother from sinking to his lows. Wry, intelligent, and underestimated, Siobhan has a fantastic arc over the course of the film, and features in some of its most stirring sequences. Barry Keoghan is incredible as a foul-mouthed young man named Dominic — offbeat, enduring an abusive household with his sadistic policeman father, Peadar (Gary Lydon), yet searching for meaning, purpose, and belonging. Sheila Flitton is fittingly creepy as Mrs. McCormick, embodying a wiry old “banshee” who might, or might not, have some supernatural pull over the island — foretelling doom with a smirk. Who knows, maybe she just likes toying with people?

Colin Farrell, Kelly Condon

Oh, did I forget to mention that this film is funny? McDonagh’s screenplay keeps viewers on their toes, mixing earnest and sardonic, even cartoonish dialogue to thrilling effect. Particularly amusing is how wildly out-of-hand the whole situation gets. “The Banshees of Inisherin” walks a thin narrative tightrope — with over-the-top plot developments that segue into violence, tragedy, and reflection — but through it all, McDonagh ensures we’re in good hands.

The story and performances are the film’s main appeal, but “The Banshees of Inisherin” also shines stylistically. Ben Davis’ vibrant, lush cinematography captures the beauty of this fictional town, but paints a wryly misleading picture, as does Carter Burwell’s wistful score. The camera often frames Pádraic separated from Colm through doors and windows, highlighting the metaphorical chasm between them. Outside, the rolling green hills and bright sun belie an isolation that permeates the island’s residents.

For while a war rages across the mainland — neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend — a different, albeit not so different conflict ensues on Inisherin, between two friends questioning what’s truly important in life. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is, quite simply, unmissable, although viewers should be aware that it isn’t a traditional comedy in any sense of the word. It’s quite a wrenching ride at times, but one of 2022’s best.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” is a 2022 comedy-drama written and directed by Martin McDonagh starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. It’s rated R for language throughout, some violent content and brief graphic nudity, and the run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. It is in local theaters Nov. 4. Alex’s Grade: A+  

Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell

By Alex McPherson
A sexy, hypnotic, and intelligent drama, director Claire Denis’ “Stars at Noon” shines brightly, if viewers can get on its unusual wavelength.

Adapted from Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel of the same name, which takes place during the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1984, “Stars at Noon” unfolds in present-day and centers around Trish (Margaret Qualley), a supposed hard-news American journalist stuck in a politically unstable, Covid-stricken Managua. Lacking funds and a passport, she’s practically at the end of her rope when we first meet her, constantly drunk and turning tricks for wealthy men (including the Minister of Tourism) at the bougie Inter-Continental Hotel to scrounge up the means necessary to leave Nicaragua for good.

While on the prowl for a new client and some precious American dollars, Trish bumps into Daniel (Joe Alwyn), an enigmatic smooth-talker from London who claims to work for an oil company and casually admits he “commits adultery often.” They are immediately attracted to each other, and their transactional love-making evolves into a much deeper attachment. This mysterious white man in a white suit is being pursued by shady government operatives, and Trish’s own life is put at risk. Against their better judgment, these two spiraling souls are pulled together by desperation, romantic longing, and stupidity. They make a last-ditch effort to flee into Costa Rica, pausing frequently for sex, and causing plenty of collateral damage along the way.

Indeed, “Stars at Noon” thrives on mood and tone above all else — tedium mixed with an alluring, dreamlike haziness, offset by jolts of violence and a persistent sense of eeriness. Denis keeps plot details fairly sparse, choosing instead to let viewers bask in the sticky, humid environment, and observe the characters grasping for an escape.

The point is that they’re out-of-place in a foreign land destructively trying to remove themselves. Pacing is slow, conversations stretch on for long periods, and notwithstanding the mounting danger our central duo finds themselves in during the bloated 2-hour-and-18-minute runtime, “Stars at Noon” refuses to stomp on the gas pedal. Despite this subdued pacing, the film is mostly engaging, with a career-best Qualley doing much of the heavy-lifting.

Trish is a wonderfully flawed protagonist, equal parts cynical and helpless, prone to frantic decision-making, which often ends in trouble. Qualley brings a jumpiness that emphasizes Trish’s brash, headstrong personality, but there’s also an ever-present sadness that lingers over her conversations with Daniel and locals, self-loathing that manifests itself in impulsiveness.

While Trish isn’t an easy character to latch onto emotionally, Qualley’s performance — along with Denis’ patient approach to narrative — helps her feel like a grounded (literally) presence throughout. Her understated expressiveness brings additional layers to Trish’s interactions. Trish is trying to claw her way out of a predicament, likely of her own making, joined by a suave “gentleman” she’s both using and being used by, unsure of the kind of person she wants to become and — as Daniel’s goals become slightly clearer — what kind of impact she wants to leave behind. 

Éric Gautier’s camera follows her with a documentary-esque gaze, allowing us to observe her day-to-day efforts to leave Nicaragua, complete with strict Covid precautions. “Stars at Noon” thrives in tactile details, like the pitter-patter of rain against a windshield, and the warm glow of sunlight passing over naked bodies wrapped together in embrace. What’s sacrificed by this approach, however, is an immediacy that saps some of the intensity from pivotal sequences late in the film, as more traditionally “thrilling” elements come into play.

The soundtrack, by Tindersticks, brings a jazzy, noir-inflected touch to the proceedings, at once calming and uneasy — a dichotomy illustrated in Trish’s connection to Daniel. Sex scenes with Daniel are filmed with vivid eroticism — moments of togetherness that provide physical and emotional release while giving them both hope for a better tomorrow.

One incredible sequence on an empty dance floor, featuring a great song by Tindersticks, is irresistibly romantic, unfolding on a different plane of existence from the characters’ grim circumstances.

Qualley gets the most to work with, but Alwyn’s natural charisma and smooth line delivery helps make Daniel’s character a compelling question mark from beginning to end — mixing the profane with a cool, calm, and collected demeanor. It’s frustrating, though, that “Stars at Noon” leaves the specifics of his goals so ambiguous, rendering the film’s much more politically focused second half lacking the emotional impact it could have had.

It’s clear that Denis wants to illustrate the harmful effects of Western governments forcing themselves into outside countries, but the idea seems underdeveloped here. Trish doesn’t know why people want Daniel dead, hence we don’t know for sure either, only learning tidbits of information from Daniel and a creepy CIA agent (Benny Safdie). By the time we finally figure out what’s going on, the story nears its conclusion, leaving the narrative’s political bent neutered.

On the other hand, Trish and Daniel’s dash to the border does have subversive qualities, as their “love” for one another creates chaos for those they run into. Their heroism, as a result, becomes parasitic. For all the sweltering lovemaking and “adventure,” there’s a human toll, and Denis never lets us forget the pain left in their wake.

At the end of the day, “Stars at Noon” is an imperfect, yet strangely compelling watch, put together with a level of craft that’s easy to admire. Pacing and storytelling issues aside, the film only strengthens upon further reflection, as Denis once again demonstrates her mastery of the medium.

“Stars at Noon” is a 2022 romantic thriller directed by Claire Denis and starring Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn and Benny Safdie. It is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and some violence, and runtime is 2 hours, 15 minutes. It was released in select theaters Oct. 14 and began streaming on Hulu on Oct. 28. Alex’s Grade: B+      

By Alex McPherson
Brooding, raw, yet ultimately uneven, directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s “God’s Creatures” is dripping with dread-inducing atmosphere and acting talent, led by an excellent Emily Watson.

Set in a coastal Irish fishing town — drenched in fog, dreariness, antiquated ideals, and a heavy sprinkling of impending doom — the film opens with the drowning of a young man. In this community, nobody is taught how to swim, so the villagers aren’t tempted to risk death themselves to rescue someone, a fitting illustration of the stiff norms that have remained for generations.

Aileen (Watson) works as a supervisor at the seafood processing plant (run entirely by women, except for one male manager), preparing oysters and fish caught by men in the village. She lives with her stern husband Con (Declan Conlon) and near-catatonic father-in-law Paddy (Lalor Roddy), who will barely move a muscle only to suddenly slap Aileen in the face, implying a violent past. 

Aileen dutifully goes through the motions — working long hours, quietly conversing with coworkers during smoke breaks, babysitting her daughter Erin’s (Toni O’Rourke) infant child, grabbing an evening drink at the pub — until the day her dearly beloved son, Brian (Paul Mescal), returns from a multi-year trip to Australia. Brian had left Aileen and company unexpectedly, not communicating with the family while overseas.

This left a gaping wound in Aileen’s heart, so his unexpected reappearance fills her with joy; Con and Erin are more ambivalent about Brian’s return. Brian is eager to resume working on his grandfather’s oyster farm, and Aileen has no qualms about stealing supplies from work to support him. In fact, Aileen is willing to sacrifice much to protect her child, even if he turns out to be a far different person than she imagines he is.

Soon enough, troubles arise. Brian is accused of sexual assault by a young woman and family friend named Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi), who works at Aileen’s plant and once had a romantic relationship with Brian years ago. Aileen provides an alibi in court for Brian without a second thought, thus saving him from further investigation. 

This decision, however, gradually eats away at Aileen’s psyche, as she sees Sarah’s subsequent ostracization from the townsfolk, and experiences a crisis of conscience. She’s torn between her maternal instincts and factual reality, slowly but surely recognizing the troubled traditions that control her community, manifesting in both subtle and blunt ways. The title “God’s Creatures” takes an ironic bent as Aileen comes to recognize the harmful dynamics at play, baked into the fabric of the land.

Suffice to say, “God’s Creatures” is quite a downer. A simmering menace persists from beginning to end — largely thanks to impeccable sound design and carefully calibrated performances — rendering this bleak drama practically a horror film. With a muted color palette and stark, wide vistas, Chayse Irvin’s cinematography is fittingly chilly. The score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, is full of discordant strings and startling percussion, complementing the clamor of oyster shells and the swoosh of lapping waves. 

Like a living, breathing monstrosity, the music builds upon itself as Aileen’s conflict intensifies, incorporating additional elements that, at one point, evoke the feeling of an unseen creature breathing heavily — an omnipresent threat that exerts control over anyone in its grip. Shane Crowley’s screenplay, while occasionally leaning into heavy-handedness, rarely feels out-of-place, its authenticity helped by thick Irish accents. 

Watson is, as ever, absolutely mesmerizing as Aileen, communicating multitudes without uttering a word. Although the film withholds detail of her past and her close bond with Brian, Aileen remains a believably conflicted protagonist. Her initial relief and happiness with her son’s return turns to rash protectiveness, doubt, anger, and instability. Watson sells each aspect of her character’s evolution (or de-evolution), the camera focusing on her during prolonged closeups where we witness the guilt, grief, and fire burning just beneath her stoic facade. 

Mescal’s charismatic screen presence suits the character of Brian, a shifty lad whose banality belies a violent, impulsive heart. Brian acts very differently when he’s being watched from when he’s alone, and Mescal expertly embodies that dichotomy, although the film leaves little doubt to Brian’s culpability. Franciosi almost steals the show, lending haunted gravitas to the role of Sarah, a woman alienated from the only place she’s called home.

Despite excellent fundamentals and ever-timely subject matter, though, Davis and Holmer’s film fails to explore its characters and the world they inhabit with the depth they merit. “God’s Creatures” prizes tone above all else, grounding us in a richly textured setting, yet neglecting to give its inhabitants the same care.

Indeed, Aileen’s grappling with morality does raise pertinent questions about love and loyalty versus truth and justice, but winds up wading through melodramatic waters. It’s a shame that, at arguably the height of her intensity, the film turns away from her, and undercuts both Watson’s performance and the contemplative storytelling that came before. 

In addition, the film’s focus on Aileen’s struggles takes attention away from Sarah’s experiences and the isolation she feels. Aileen is often relegated to observing her from afar, eventually recognizing the role she plays in Sarah’s suffering. This approach, while giving Watson loads of time to showcase her skill as a performer, lessens the emotional heft of Sarah’s story. 

Scenes where Aileen encounters Sarah tap into the insidious ways that casual misogyny and power imbalances manifest themselves, but only on the surface level. One searing monologue by Franciosi at the film’s conclusion alludes to a resilient, scarred, and complex character who deserves more than a few moments to get the spotlight. Davis and Holmer choose to merely acknowledge Sarah’s challenges rather than engage in insightful commentary, especially surrounding her treatment by others, and her own courage and strength despite it. By the time “God’s Creatures” finally centers her narrative, it proves to be too little, too late — deserving of a plot with wider focus, and one less centered on Aileen’s predictable (albeit undeniably well-acted) psychological turmoil.

Still, the formal elements of “God’s Creatures” shine, even when the drama takes jarring turns. This is an icy, chilly ordeal, which leaves a mark once the end credits roll regardless.

Emily Watson

“God’s Creatures” is a 2022 psychological drama co-directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, starring Emily Watson, Paul Mescal and Aisling Franciosi. It is rated R for language, and runs 1 hour, 40 minutes. It opened in select theatres in U.S. on Sept. 30 and is now available to rent through digital platforms. Alex’s Grade: B.