By Alex McPherson

Bone-crunchingly violent and layered with social commentary, director Dev Patel’s “Monkey Man” is an action thriller that packs a real punch, in more ways than one.

Our unnamed protagonist (Patel), called the Kid in the credits, lives in the perpetually dark slums of Yatana (a fictional city modeled off Mumbai), where skyscrapers overshadow the have-nots below, and religion is used by those in authority as a tool to retain power above all else.

The Kid makes ends meet working as a fighter in an underground club run by the sadistic Tiger (a typically unhinged, scenery-chewing Sharlto Copley). Performing under the guise of a character named Monkey Man, the Kid gets paid when he loses matches and only receives his full fee if Tiger sees him bleed in the ring. 

It’s a bleak existence; a reflection of the Kid’s tortured soul molded with trauma, quietly biding his time to get enough money for a gun and find the moment to strike back. Kid’s fury stems from a tragic childhood, wherein the corrupt police chief Rana (Sikandar Ker, perfectly detestable) murdered his mother, Neela (Adithi Kalkunte), while Rana and his cronies, under guidance from a blatantly evil spiritual guru Baba Shakti (Makarande Deshpande), burned his forest-dwelling community to the ground to take their land. Kid’s hands are scorched and rugged: a reflection of his past and the vengeance he’s compelled to deliver against Rana one day.

When the Kid was little, Neela told him the story of the Hindu deity Hanuman, who consumed the sun (thinking it was a fruit), was stripped of his powers, and gradually reacquired them to lead an army against forces of evil. This story left a deep mark on the Kid, and helps further his desire for righteous payback.

The Kid finds a high-end nightclub/brothel called Kings, run by Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), that’s frequented by Rana and his cronies. The Kid swiftly gets hired as a kitchen worker via returning Queenie’s “stolen” wallet and returning it to her (depicted like a Rube Goldbergian system of handoffs among crowded city streets and rooftops). He befriends Alphonso (Pitobash), a gangster working for Queenie who owns a super-charged tuk-tuk and provides most of the film’s comic relief.

After helping Alphonso win a large bet on one of Kid’s matches in exchange for a promotion, the Kid is granted access to the VIP room, where Rana often makes an appearance. The Kid also meets the beautiful Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), a prostitute working for Queenie who shares the Kid’s deep-seated anger against authority figures.

The stage is set for maximum carnage, complete with a trusty canine who helps transport the Kid’s pistol of choice in a back alley handoff. Suffice to say, however, that the Kid’s machinations don’t go exactly to plan. Hyper violence ensues, the Kid is on the run, and unlikely allegiances form.

He fights resourcefully, and cartoonishly brutally, for the marginalized and to achieve some sort of justice for the wrongs committed against him and his community, starting from the bottom and willing to fight all the way to the top: taking no prisoners along the way as he gradually embodies the Hanuman of legend. 

Indeed, “Monkey Man” is an unrelenting thrill ride from start to finish, directed with sustained energy by Patel. It’s an abrasive, kinetic experience with rough edges that only add to its provocative charm. With balls-to-the-wall (and knives-in-mouths-to-throats) action sequences, cultural representation, and a tragic emotional core (unflinchingly detailing the horrors of India’s caste system and the cycles it perpetuates), “Monkey Man” effectively carves its own niche in the action genre while paying tribute to its cinematic inspirations, more “The Raid” and “Oldboy” than a mere “John Wick” knockoff. 

And boy oh boy, do those action scenes hit hard. “Monkey Man” is chock-full of gonzo, wince-inducing violence (which sometimes doubles as slapstick comedy) that lands with tangible force. Patel and cinematographer Sharone Meir find an excellent balance between clarity and chaos, throwing viewers into the action with dynamic camerawork that runs, flips, and swerves with each strike, putting us right in the thick of it, fighting to keep up with the carnage on display. 

Anything and everything at-hand is used at combatants’ disposal (microwaves, firecrackers, good ole’ chompers), and Patel most assuredly does not cut away from gnarly impacts. The flow of these sequences syncs with the Kid’s own arc, expertly reflecting his growth from an impulsive man seeking justice to someone fighting for a purpose beyond himself. 

Patel, lean and ripped, with expressive eyes that convey a man driven by self-destructive determination, brings pathos and frightening, live-wire energy to the role. We see a man wracked with trauma, guilt, and possessing a fierce desire for revenge, communicating multitudes through his haunted eyes alone as someone willing to go to any length to find some semblance of peace through violence. 

Patel’s performance would, by itself, sell the Kid’s rage and thirst for vengeance, but part of the thrill of “Monkey Man” is how the film brings viewers into his world and mind. Meir’s frenetic, grimy cinematography (complemented by a badass soundtrack and dramatic, percussive score by Jed Kurzel) flies through Yatana’s seedy underbelly and grows more controlled over time, evolving as the Kid evolves, hypnotic in its eventual singularity of form and vision. 

Scattered flashbacks mix in tranquil memories of Neela’s teachings with the shocking massacre of their village, forcefully emphasizing the thoughts that dominate the Kid’s every waking moment and sometimes becoming downright horrific. This establishes the grim momentum of a wronged man charting a path towards revenge and, likely, his own death. 

But later on, when the Kid is saved from near-death and subsequently trained by the hijra (a tribe of third-gender people marginalized by Baba’s government) to confront his trauma and follow in Hanuman’s footsteps, “Monkey Man” becomes almost euphoric. The jagged, at-times clunky film that came before morphs into something more confident, assured, and focused on what it wants to be.

We’re witness to a rousing training montage that’s electric in its musicality and depth of feeling – the claustrophobic intensity of what came before releasing in a kind of focused catharsis for the Kid, and by extension, us as viewers, as the film leans into hallucinogenic imagery and brings in actual news footage of modern day India.

The resulting film, while familiar in its revenge-genre-beats, is almost uncomfortably effective at putting us in the Kid’s psyche: religion and rage guiding him towards bloody salvation underneath the story’s deceptively simple “Eat the Rich” appearance.

It’s to the film’s credit that we’re with the Kid nearly every step of the way, stepping back once the end credits roll to examine what’s been gained and lost along his anarchic path – self-actualization or loss of personhood, and if his actions even mean anything for the future of Yatana. Patel, provocatively, leaves us to come to our own conclusions.

Whether or not the film’s commentary on the state of India today is particularly insightful, too, is up for debate (and something I’m not qualified to evaluate with my limited cultural knowledge), but as a crowd-pleasing action film that finds new avenues into a familiar genre, “Monkey Man” delivers the goods, albeit not for the squeamish. It’s an experience that deserves recognition (and the big screen treatment, thank you Jordan Peele), and signals Patel as a director capable of something truly legendary in the future.

“Monkey Man” is a 2024 action thriller directed by Dev Patel and starring Patel, Sharlto Copley, Adithi Kalkunte, Ashwini Kalsekar, Makarande Deshpande, Sikandar Ker and Sobhita Dhulipala. It is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use, and the runtime is 2 hours, 1 minute. It opened in theatres April 5. Alex’s Grade: A-.

By Alex McPherson

An ambitious vision bursting with magical-realist style and heart, director Julio Torres’ “Problemista” explores resonant themes of pursuing your dreams, finding unlikely friendship, and scrambling to get by in a hellscape of bureaucracy without betraying your true self.

Torres’ semi-autobiographical film, narrated by Isabella Rossellini, follows Alejandro (Torres), a sensitive soul from El Salvador, who is very close to his loving mother, Dolores (Catalina Saaverdra), who still lives there. Dolores, an architect, shielded Alejandro as a child from the outside world, creating for him an almost fairy-tale fortress in their backyard.

When Alejandro immigrates to New York City with hopes of becoming a toy designer at Hasbro, Dolores is supportive yet worried, frequently checking in and finding it difficult to continue her work.

Soft-spoken, sporting a prominent cowlick and an odd, childlike gait, grown-up Alejandro stubbornly, and admirably, refuses to give up on his “true calling” in the Big Apple. His ideas include twists on classic toys to teach kids what he deems as practical lessons (a slinky that doesn’t fall down the stairs, or Untrustworthy Barbie with fingers crossed behind her back). He remains frustratingly held back by the all-too-familiar “noreply” email rejections on his applications to Hasbro. 

Struggling to pay rent and with the expiration of his work visa looming, Alejandro begins working at a cryogenic center called Freeze Corp, where people store themselves hoping to be revived many years later when there’s a cure for whatever is currently plaguing them.

Alejandro looks after the body of painter Bobby (RZA), husband of frazzled art critic outcast Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton). Bobby has made a career of painting unsellable portraits of eggs, weirdly enough, and has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which he hopes can be cured in the future once he thaws and wakes up.

An accidental unplugging of Bobby’s “pod” leads to Alejandro being fired from the company and left without visa sponsorship, which spells his imminent deportation (visualized as an hourglass gradually running out of sand). Desperate to stay in America, Alejandro encounters the malcontent Elizabeth at Freeze Corp; she’s complaining about increases in pricing, and he soon after becomes her personal assistant. 

Putting on a brave face and enduring Elizabeth’s hilariously erratic mood swings and endless tirades against contemporary society, Alejandro is tasked with  curating a gallery show of Bobby’s egg paintings — the promise of visa sponsorship at the finish line.

Alejandro’s life in America depends on him getting the signature before time runs out, and jumping through all the baffling, dehumanizing hoops required to get there. He must also pretend to understand FileMaker Pro (“the Cadillac of spreadsheets,” according to Elizabeth), in order to satisfy her desire to catalog all of Bobby’s paintings and sell them to pay the fees at Freeze Corp. 

With a satirical approach that oscillates between being laugh-out-loud funny, suspenseful, heartbreaking, and life-affirming, “Problemista” expertly explores the challenges of surviving as an outsider in a world seemingly designed to hold you back. Not every idea Torres presents lands equally effectively, but “Problemista” soars.

Much of the film’s success comes from its mastery of tone that never loses sight of what’s ultimately at stake for Alejandro. For all the humor that comes from Torres’ wry screenplay, empathetic characters, and heightened style, the threat of deportation looms, and the film never lets us forget that his livelihood hangs by a thread.

The film’s surrealist flourishes – like visualizing Craigslist as a physical entity (Larry Owens) floating in the ether wrapped in junk, work visa requirements as a never-ending series of escape rooms stacked on top of each other, people literally disappearing in Alejandro’s immigration office, and certain high-stake arguments as battles between an armored Alejandro and monsters in a cave (one of which is a showdown with a Bank of America employee about overdraft fees) – always serve to illustrate graver realities despite their out-there depiction.

While often heavy-handed, Torres’ approach is inventive and surprising from start to finish, choosing to remain grounded in immediate reality during particularly queasy moments. Combined with excellent production design, editing, memorable cameos from Greta Lee, Laith Nakli, and James Scully, plus a sprightly, chorus-infused score by Robert Ouyang Rusli, “Problemista” is simultaneously funny and disturbing as Alejandro navigates this colorful nightmare. 

The film’s outward lightness is deceiving, belying an anger at America’s treatment of immigrants and outsiders struggling to find meaning in their lives who might not even get the chance to try in the first place. Still, “Problemista” maintains a sense of optimism and hopefulness that persists through the bleak circumstances.

The world can’t quash Alejandro’s, or Torres’, spirit, no matter how hard it tries. “Problemista” ultimately conveys a faith in humanity while condemning the archaic systems in which we operate.  

Torres presents Alejandro as someone with big goals and quiet perseverance. His reticence to stand up for himself stems from both his innocence and knowledge that his privileges can all be lost in an instant if he steps out of line. Torres’ peculiar body language and dryly funny line delivery makes Alejandro instantly endearing, amusing, and sympathetic.

Alejandro’s timid resolve ultimately comes across as an act of resistance against the larger systems that try to kill his aspirations, as he both endures and learns from his temperamental boss.

Speaking of, Swinton absolutely crushes the role, bringing fiery, live-wire energy to her art critic outcast nicknamed “The Hydra.” Combative, entitled, passionate, and grieving her cryogenically-frozen husband, Elizabeth feels left behind by the modern world, struggling to navigate technology (any customer service representative should beware) and getting her way through sheer force of will.

“Problemista” treats Elizabeth empathetically, though, painting her as someone looking for meaning in her life and searching for peace, no matter how much chaos she causes along the way – very human in her contradictions, and a perfectly unhinged character for Swinton to play. 

Her bond with Alejandro – running the gamut of emotions as she gradually sees him as a three-dimensional human being – is believable and rarely, if ever, overly sentimental. Torres’ screenplay skirts the edges of being twee without crossing the line – Alejandro and Elizabeth are lost souls finding kinship, and while their circumstances are vastly different on first glance, they share more in common than either of them thought possible.

Indeed, Swinton’s portrayal helps sell some of the film’s thornier takeaways: that of Elizabeth’s idea of finding success by creating “problems” and essentially harnessing your inner Karen. There’s something to be said for that, sure, but with some convenient, crowd-pleasing plot developments later on, it feels like Torres adding an easy platitude to a situation that’s far from black-and-white.

More poignant is the way Torres has repackaged his life experience into Alejandro’s story: creating his own art through past hardship and paying tribute to family and friends who helped him get to where he is today.

“Problemista,” then, remains an impressive achievement, especially for a first feature film. As an ode to outsiders, art, and friendship, there’s really nothing quite like it.

This image released by A24 Films shows Julio Torres, left, and Tilda Swinton in a scene from “Problemista.” (Jon Pack/A24 via AP)

“Problemista” is a 2023 comedy-drama written and directed by Julio Torres and starring Tilda Swinton, RZA, James Scully, Greta Lee, Catalina Saaverdra, and Isabella Rossellini. It is rated R for some language and sexual content, and runtime is 1 hour, 44 minutes. It opened in theaters March 22. Alex’s Grade: B+.

By Alex McPherson

A disturbing and technically accomplished horror film, director Robert Morgan’s “Stopmotion” packs its imaginative ideas into a frustratingly predictable template.

Viewers follow Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi), daughter of famed stop motion animator Suzanne (Stella Gonet). Suzanne, elderly and experiencing arthritis, can’t complete her final project on her own —  so she forces Ella to mold grotesque miniatures and set up shots under her overbearing gaze.

Ella is berated for every mistake and unable to embrace her independence, personally or creatively. Any attempt at expressing herself is shot down, and Ella’s toxic relationship with Suzanne has instilled a sense of deep insecurity about her own abilities as a storyteller and as a human being in general.

Early on, Suzanne suffers a stroke, which sends her to the hospital, and Ella is tasked with finishing the film (a symbolic story featuring an ill-fated cyclops) on her own. Her caring but clueless musician boyfriend, Tom (Tom York), who’s seemingly unaware of Ella’s deep-seated trauma, helps Ella find an abandoned studio apartment, and she attempts to finish production. 

She meets a mysterious, unnamed little girl next door (Caoilinn Springall), who expresses immediate fascination with stop motion animation but calls Ella’s current project “boring.” She proceeds to feed Ella a new story of a girl being chased through the woods by an amorphous “Ash Man” and pushes Ella to incorporate out-of-the-box materials for the characters — from raw meat to mortician’s wax and roadkill. Ella, continuing to feel as if she has no agency of her own, complies with Little Girl’s requests, all while experiencing visions of her gnarly stop motion creations coming to life in the real world, the Ash Man stalking her not unlike her heroine.

Tom and his sister Polly (Therica Wilson-Read), who also happens to be a professional stop motion animator for commercials, grow increasingly concerned over Ella’s declining mental health, but their efforts do little to prevent her slide into madness. Ella’s desire to create art is poisoned by trauma, repression, and self-loathing; a liberating and self-destructive force that she both controls and is controlled by.

With meaty (pun intended) ideas like this, and visual effects that never fail to unsettle, it’s disappointing that “Stopmotion” is so conventional in its narrative beats. Underwritten characters and a rushed setup hold it back from connecting on a deeper emotional level, neglecting to make the most of a committed performance by Franciosi and a tragic story that deserves an approach less beholden to tropes.

Morgan, a stop motion animator himself who previously directed short films, nevertheless has a striking voice in his feature-film debut, exploring the potentially destructive depths of his craft. Indeed, “Stopmotion” is a sensory treat, greatly enhanced by evocative mood-setting, crunchy sound effects, and Dan Martin’s outstanding creature effects work — seamlessly melding the real with the imagined as Ella’s sanity crumbles before our eyes and blood flows to a copious degree. Aurora Vögeli’s patient, at times hypnotic editing, combined with Léo Hinstin’s cinematography, contribute to a hazy disorientation, which the film maintains from beginning to end, catching us off guard with bursts of gory violence and off-brand arts and crafts.

Franciosi, too, is stellar, lending Ella tangible sadness, frustration, and volatility with her eyes and body language alone, far more effectively than the occasionally awkward screenplay by Morgan and Robin King. Ella is a damaged soul, traumatized and beholden to an artistic calling, driven mad by a desire to prove herself and “take control” of her own life, regardless of those she harms along the way. 

Springall effectively brings her alternately chilling and annoying character to life, guiding Ella down a path towards her base impulses for violence and repressed rage, encouraging Ella to succumb to her demons rather than craft a new narrative for herself and her fleshy armatures. After all, as Little Girl explains, “All good artists put themselves into their work.”

Ultimately, however, Ella’s deterioration is rendered less involving than it should be. Some of this is due to the flatness of supporting characters like Tom and Polly, who embody archetypes (the supportive yet emotionally immature boyfriend, the seemingly friendly back-stabber) that are both shallow and dull in comparison to our tormented protagonist, as is Suzanne — a villain painted in broad strokes. 

This contributes to a general lack of grounding and tangible stakes throughout “Stopmotion” that, combined with the one-note depiction of Suzanne and Ella’s relationship to begin with, makes Ella’s de-evolution less poignant than inevitable and schematic, no matter the film’s niche framing.

Sure, there’s plenty of memorably icky set-pieces and stylistic flourishes, but “Stopmotion” can’t escape a prevailing sense of predictability — any surprising or thought-provoking topics the film broaches are in service of a central arc that’s foreseeable from the outset. 

Perhaps that’s acceptable; this is a horror film, after all, with an obvious appreciation for body horror and pessimism about humanity, but Morgan’s film misses an opportunity to go beyond surface shocks to leave a lasting impression once the credits roll.

Formulaic though it often is,  “Stopmotion” still promises great things to come from the filmmaker in the future, if style and substance can be melded into a whole that truly comes to life.

“Stopmotion” is a 2023 British animation horror film directed by Robert Morgan and starring Aisling Franciosi, Tom York, Stella Gonet, Therica Wilson-Reed, and Caolinn Springall. It is rated R for violent/disturbing content, gore, some language, sexual material and brief drug material, and the runtime is 93 minutes. It opened in select theaters in the U.S. on Feb. 23, and will be available on video on demand March 15, with the digital release expected to be available on major platforms like Apple TV, YouTube Movies, and Vudu. IFC purchased the film and will likely stream it on Shudder in a few months. Alex’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

A taut, stressful, and grimly compelling watch with lots on its mind, director Ilker Çatak’s “The Teachers’ Lounge” resonates long after the credits roll as an allegory for society’s messy, complicated realities.

Çatak’s film follows Carla (Leonie Benesch), aka Ms. Nowak, a newly hired sixth grade math and gym teacher at a German middle school who cares deeply for her students’ education and well-being. She’s patient, organized, empathetic, yet naive — confident in her abilities as an instructor while largely ignorant of the paranoia and distrust bubbling within the school’s stark walls. 

Carla tries her best to avoid gossip among the faculty, which currently involves finding out who’s behind a series of petty thefts in the school. Carla’s antagonistic peers (who view Carla as an outsider, she emigrated from Poland) suspect the students. She’s summoned to a room where she, some other teachers, and the principal (Anne-Kathrin Gummich) pressure a couple of sixth-graders from Carla’s classroom into accusing a Muslim classmate as being the perpetrator.

After school officials search wallets in Carla’s classroom, the student is brought in for questioning, and the whole situation reeks of racism. Upset and seeking justice for her class, Carla takes matters into her own hands, setting up a hidden camera in the titular teachers’ lounge to clear up the situation once and for all. Or so she hopes.

Although Carla does, allegedly, locate the culprit, an administrative colleague, her discovery sets off a chain reaction of chaos involving rumors, vengeance, rebellion, and shredding of the already-uneasy bond between students’ families and school authority. Carla, thrown into the center, grapples with her own notions of right vs. wrong and which side to take; her good intentions yielding regrettable outcomes for everyone involved and innocents caught in the crossfire.

Leonie Benesch as new teacher Carla Nowak.

“The Teachers’ Lounge,” then, is quite a harrowing, immersive, and grueling watch, with few optimistic things to say about the human condition. Çatak keeps the tension high from beginning to end, refusing to let viewers catch their breaths as we observe one calamity occur after another — a microcosm of pluralistic society imploding on itself.

Benesch is magnificent, rendering Carla as a multifaceted character that’s at once admirable and frustratingly idealistic. We see Carla’s confidence radiate in the classroom, almost conducting the class like an orchestra in their morning greeting. She then transitions into quiet rage at her colleagues, shifts into determination as she acts on her gut feelings for justice, and crumbles before our eyes as the environment she cares so passionately about seemingly turns against her.

Benesch lends Carla a sense of authentic determination through subtle expressions and gradually evolving body language; Carla refuses to surrender her fight to do “the right thing,” pulled between her ideals and a dangerous atmosphere that she’s unwittingly cranked to a boiling point.

Indeed, Carla’s good intentions only exacerbate pre-existing tensions. Suspicions of prejudice, surveillance, and lack of transparency flood classrooms, parents’ group chats, and the teachers’ lounge itself. Both the school authority and the alleged culprit, struggle for control of the narrative, as does a bright, quiet student in Carla’s class named Oskar (an excellent Leonard Stettnisch), who, driven by love and loyalty, fights for what he believes in — rallying some classmates while alienating others.

Carla tries to restore balance, almost always handicapped by “ethics” that restrict transparency and forces beyond her control and the school walls that can’t be alleviated, no matter how stubbornly (and misguidedly, especially late in the film) she tries to manage them.

It’s all rather agonizing to watch unfold, like a train wreck we’re powerless to stop. “The Teachers’ Lounge” almost never leaves the school’s grounds — trapping us in this miniature society torn between different perspectives and beliefs, while reflecting a situation Carla is powerless to extricate herself from. 

Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann’s camera sticks close to Carla the whole runtime, never leaving her perspective. This in-your-face approach not only provides a suffocating, relentless quality to the film over its 98-minute runtime, but it also feeds into Carla’s burgeoning self-doubt and impulsive actions. Çatak helps viewers feel connected to and empathetic with Carla, observing her as she (sometimes stubbornly) follows morals, while never letting us forget that ambiguity abounds and everyone has different views on the ordeal. 

We observe cause-and-effect in motion from beginning to end, each well-intentioned action precipitating further conflict and confusion, no light at the end of the tunnel to be found. Marvin Miller’s throbbing score, too, accompanies the mayhem perfectly, sometimes mirroring the sensation of breathing, growing more labored and jagged as the action escalates. 

The film’s more stylistic flourishes (thematically resonant yet calling attention to themselves in overly “cinematic” fashion) don’t hit nearly as hard as the moment-to-moment drama, but are minor distractions in an otherwise airtight, wholly involving watch. Ultimately, Çatak’s film reaches outside its immediate setting to comment on the world at large. Unpleasant though it might be, it’s difficult to look away.

“The Teachers’ Lounge” is a 2023 drama from Germany, in English subtitles, directed by Ilker Catak and starring Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, and Anne-Kathrin Gummich. It is the German entry as Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It is Rated PG-13 for strong language and its runtime is 1 hour, 38 minutes. It opened in local theatres on Feb. 9.
Alex’s Grade: A-.

Leonard Stettnisch as Oskar in “The Teacher’s Lounge.”

By Alex McPherson

Layered with twist upon twist adding up to not much at all, director Matthew Vaughn’s “Argylle” is a plodding spy adventure that doesn’t fully commit to its unhinged potential. 

Vaughn’s film opens in green-screen-laden Greece, as Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) is on a mission to interrogate the alluring Lagrange (Dua Lipa) with the help of his sidekick Wyatt (John Cena) and tech wiz Keira (Ariana DeBose). After some flirting, sexy dancing, and a “Looney Tunes”-esque car chase defying all laws of physics through winding streets and rickety rooftops, Argylle and pals capture Lagrange. She says that she’s actually been taking orders from Argylle’s boss, played by Richard E. Grant. 

After this revelation, the camera zooms in on Cavill’s mouth, gradually morphing into Elly Conway’s (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s finishing a reading of her fourth Argylle novel in green-screen-laden Colorado. Elly, an insecure writer who cares more about her cat, Alfie, than having a social life, is currently writing the Agent’s fifth outing. She’s afflicted with writer’s block — ending on a cliffhanger where Argylle learns about a “master key” that can dismantle the rogue organization once and for all. Elly’s mother, Ruth (Catherine O’Hara), insists she write an additional chapter, and Elly boards a train to meet her.

On board, Elly bumps into an unkempt stranger named Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who informs her that there’s a whole bunch of professional killers out to get her. Apparently, Elly’s novels overlap with real-world espionage, and she can lead Aidan to the location of a flash drive that can bring down “The Division,” led by Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston). Bloodless carnage ensues as Aidan takes down the wannabe assassins — in a fun bit of editing, Elly sees Aidan’s visage switch with Argylle’s between blinks. 

Aidan and Elly embark on a globe-trotting adventure where the lines between reality and fiction blur, limits of good taste are breached, and convoluted plotting takes center stage, with plenty of star-studded cameos, cartoonish action sequences, and “cute” CGI cat close-ups to hold viewers’ interest, or at least attempt to. Can Elly become the courageous Agent Argylle she writes about?

Although displaying flashes of Vaughn’s enjoyable who-gives-a-damn attitude, “Argylle” is a disappointingly stale affair — full of generic characters and filmmaking that largely refuses to meet its story on its own goofy wavelength. It’s a peculiarly dull experience that elicits few thrills despite constantly trying to one-up itself narratively, forgetting to present engaging characters and abandoning the premise’s potential in favor of sandbox-level shenanigans.

Vaughn’s no-holds-barred bravado in the opening is infinitely more enjoyable than Elly’s story back in reality, where Vaughn’s excessive tendencies are held back by a bland protagonist. Indeed, Elly just isn’t all that compelling — she’s a reclusive, socially awkward loner rendered all the more dull by Howard’s seemingly disengaged performance and a screenplay by Jason Fuchs that gives her little of the charm or wit of the people we’re introduced to in her writings. To make matters worse, Elly’s arc over the course of the film isn’t just unbelievable, it’s actively irritating; going from one extreme to another as the latest exposition dump dictates. Howard’s unconvincing line delivery does her absolutely no favors.

Supporting players fare marginally better. Aidan is the sort of likably unstable role that Rockwell slides into perhaps too easily, quipping often and boogying whenever the opportunity arises, albeit held back by the film’s film’s family-friendly “tell don’t show” philosophy. A moment where Aidan lightheartedly instructs Elly how to stomp bad guys’ skulls is amusing though baffling — why not just go with an R rating to begin with? Who is this film made for exactly?

Cranston chews scenery as the Big Bad Ritter, and O’Hara brings chaotic unpredictability to Ruth. Cavill is both suave and awkwardly hilarious in his sadly brief screen time, while Cena, DeBose, Lipa, and the legendary Samuel L. Jackson (who doesn’t even get to drop the film’s only F-bomb) are wasted in glorified cameos — no matter what the film’s promotional materials want you to believe. 

As the 139-minute runtime drags on, Vaughn’s colorful bursts of action — bringing back lovely memories of his “Kingsman” days — are the only elements of “Argylle” that sustain interest. The crazy camerawork, needle drops, and stunts shine with an energy sorely lacking in other departments. Even so, these sequences aren’t allowed to reach their full potential by PG-13 limitations. 

More broadly, Vaughn’s decision to pull punches here extends to plot developments. There’s far too many instances of characters explaining backstory to each other, which viewers rarely get to see unfold. We’re just expected to take Vaughn and Fuchs’ words for it and go along for the ride; shoddy, sluggish storytelling makes that a difficult mission to accomplish.

“Argylle,” then, seems at odds with itself. This could have been a fun spoof on the spy genre if Vaughn and company had the freedom to embrace their strengths and not aim for sanitized zaniness that comes awfully close to insulting viewers’ intelligence. Several entertaining scenes aside, “Argylle” needs to find a new objective.

Rating: C

“Argylle” is a 2024 action-thriller directed by Matthew Vaughn and starring Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, Ariana DeBose, Dua Lipa, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Boutella, Richard E. Grant, Rob Delaney and Catherine O’Hara. It is Rated PG-13 for strong violence and action and some strong language and the run-time is 2 hours, 19 minutes. It opens Feb. 2 in local theatres. Alex’s Grade: C

By Alex McPherson
A lean, claustrophobic thrill ride, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “I.S.S.” can’t quite make the most of its premise, but satisfies as an enjoyably paranoid B-movie.

Cowperthwaite’s film unfolds aboard the International Space Station in the near future: a bastion of human cooperation and scientific advancement, at least until now. Scientist Kira (Ariana DeBose) — a newcomer to space travel, whose perspective viewers largely see the film through — and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.), who tells everyone, repeatedly, that he has two daughters back home, journey via the Soyuz spacecraft to the I.S.S. They are welcomed by their charismatic commander Gordon (Chris Messina), as well as Russian cosmonauts Weronika (Masha Mashkova), Alexey (Pilou Asbaek), and leader Nicholai (Costa Ronin).

Everything seems to be going well enough, despite the Station’s cramped workspaces, lack of privacy, and the group’s language barriers. Politics are off limits, a romance is obviously aflame between Gordon and Weronika, and the guarded, straight-laced Kira is able to go about her work (the effects of low-gravity regenerative medicine on mice) sans dealing with personal drama on Earth. Politics, as Kira soon learns during a tense exchange about the song “Wind of Change,” is taboo.

That is, until it’s unavoidable. While looking out the window, Kira notices large flashes of light on Earth’s surface. She initially thinks they’re erupting volcanoes — they are actually nuclear bombs dropped in a war between America and Russia. Before long, Gordon and Nicholai receive orders from their respective countries to take the I.S.S. by any means necessary. The I.S.S. will also burn up upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere if nobody in mission control assists.

Kira and company are certainly in a predicament. Chaos ensues as nationalism, selfishness, impulsiveness, and shifting allegiances reign supreme. Who will survive? Can these scientists avoid mutually assured destruction?

Cowperthwaite (perhaps best known for the documentary “Blackfish”) presents a cruel, occasionally clunky look at how easily peace can be shattered when the unprecedented occurs. With a capable cast and immersive cinematography, “I.S.S.” is a cynically entertaining descent into chaos. Simplistic characters and formulaic plot beats hold it back, though, rendering the film more a lightweight piece of popcorn entertainment than a disquieting thriller. 

“I.S.S.” is most effective in its first half, as Kira and viewers quickly get acquainted with the space station and its inhabitants, observing the confined corridors and amiable-yet-cautious interactions. Everyone is aware of cultural tensions and doing their best to push them to the side. Geoffrey Wallace’s production design feels authentic and lived-in, and stellar visual effects  believably simulate low-gravity, presenting stunning views of space and, later, the smoldering Earth below. 

This is a smart location to set a thriller, plus a plausible near-future scenario, and cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews makes the most of it. The camera drifts through hallways, untethered like the scientists to their prior bonds and routines. Nowhere is safe on the I.S.S.. Cowperthwaite keeps viewers on their toes as eavesdroppers lurk behind corners and conversations are suddenly interrupted. 

When the bombs drop and the orders come in, for example, Cowperthwaite effectively captures the awkwardness and simmering suspense within the group; Anne Nikitin’s jittery, ominous, slightly overused score cranks the dial even further. These quieter though no less impactful sequences — including a pulse-pounding outdoor repair — are gripping, largely thanks to Cowperthwaite’s direction and solid performances that elevate Nick Shafir’s screenplay.

DeBose gets a chance to show her range as the reserved, guileless Kira — a character wounded by a tragic and disappointing past throwing her all into her work. She’s more passive compared to the other crewmates, unsure who to believe and what to do once the situation spirals out of control. DeBose lends nuance to the role — letting the cracks shine through Kira’s façade early on that reflect her damaged past. Her performance is particularly effective in the first half, before Cowperthwaite reverts to narrative extremes that take precedence over character depth.

Messina lends charm and charisma to Gordon — the astronaut doing his best to keep everything under control — and Mashkova lends warmth, authority, and heartache as Weronika. Asbaek reveals hidden layers to the gruff Alexey, while Gallagher Jr. and Ronin are given less to work with and veer into cartoonish territory; paranoid, prideful characters who might or might not go off the deep end.

Indeed, notwithstanding a couple exceptions, the film doesn’t devote much time to developing these characters beyond who they are in their worst, most desperate moments. This could be due to the 95-minute runtime, but in its lack of cultural specificity (Cowperthwaite avoids delving too much into politics herself) and willingness to buck tradition, they’re reduced more to feelings than three-dimensional beings. They illuminate various elements of the human experience without giving us time or reason to get fully invested. As a result, they only rarely transcend archetypes.

Combined with some late-movie plot twists that take proceedings to preposterous levels, it’s difficult to become all that involved in the film’s drama. Nationalism and survival can certainly push people to act rashly, but “I.S.S.” ultimately feels too schematic for its own good. Some late-movie scuffles shift from harrowing to goofy, as Nikitin’s score blares and every actor tries to look as shocked as possible. 

Still, so long as viewers don’t think too much about the carnage on display, “I.S.S.” remains engaging. As typical January movie fare goes, it soars high above the competition.

“I.S.S.” is a 2024 science fiction-thriller directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and stars Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbaek. It runs 1 hour, 35 minutes and is rated R for some language and violence. It opens in theatres Jan. 19. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Here’s a list of my favorite movies of 2023, posted fashionably late.

10. “Barbie”

Let’s be honest here. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.” This box office sensation (superior to Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” by the way) is a sight to behold — packed to the brim with eye-popping visuals and amusing-to-hilarious jokes, featuring excellent performances from Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, and America Ferrera (among others in this star-studded cast) in a story whose emotional storyline leaves a lasting impression. Gerwig’s film tackles a ton of topics, delivering an incisive takedown of the patriarchy, a universal ode to self-actualization and empowerment, while also being a self-reflexive critique and celebration of the Barbie brand itself. Skeptical viewers should absolutely give this film a watch – “Barbie” is one of the most confident, well-crafted films of this year, or any year.

9. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

I held off watching director Kelly Fremon Craig’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” until just recently, but it’s absolutely essential viewing. Elevated by sensitive, lived-in performances from Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Benny Safdie, and Kathy Bates, Craig’s adaptation of Judy Blume’s 1970 novel is a relatable coming-of-age dramedy that takes an empathetic approach to all its characters. Growing up is complicated, messy, and full of unknowns, regardless of age, but the film emphasizes the importance of staying true to yourself and being your own person. Funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting, it’s a timeless story that’s been given a fresh coat of paint, in one of 2023’s most enjoyable films.

8. “Skinamarink”

A claustrophobic, intensely immersive experience from start to finish, and one of the year’s most polarizing films, director Kyle Edward Ball’s “Skinamarink” is a feat of experiential storytelling. The film centers around two children trapped in their family home as doors and windows mysteriously disappear. Their parents are nowhere to be found, with only Legos and public domain cartoons on a blindingly-bright analog TV to comfort them. As the situation grows increasingly trippy and terror-inducing, Ball eschews a clear-cut narrative for subjective manifestations of viewers’ own monsters lurking in the darkened spaces of empty hallways and ceilings. We rarely leave the kids’ point-of-view due to agonizingly suspenseful, static-laden editing and cinematography that dares us to fill in the voids with our own fears, maintaining a constant sense of anticipation as we wait for silence to be broken. “Skinamarink” is a demanding watch, for sure, and not for those with short attention spans, but there’s truly nothing like it.

7. “Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros”

The only documentary in my Top 10 list this year, director Frederick Wiseman’s “Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros” is an ode to cooking, to art, and the act of creation. It’s also four hours long, and I recommend watching it in two two-hour sessions when it becomes available. Wiseman’s film transports viewers into several restaurants in the idyllic French countryside run by the Troisgros family, letting viewers observe the meticulous brainstorming and preparation that goes into running such high-end establishments. Wiseman positions us as flies on the wall, sans narration or music, and creates a downright hypnotic spell. It’s fascinating and inspiring to watch artists at work, and seeing the passion that main chef Michel and his sons César and Léo have for the work. Viewers travel from the kitchen to various producers (including local winemakers, cheesemakers, and cattle farmers) as experts explain their crafts, as well as spending time with (occasionally pompous) restaurant patrons for whom the food is prepared. Through its patient rhythms and tactile cinematography, “Menus-Plaisirs” is captivating and inspiring, motivating me to embrace my own interests.

6. “Godzilla Minus One”

Emotional, invigorating, and full of rip-roaring set pieces while still having plenty on its mind, director Takashi Yamazaki’s “Godzilla Minus One” is one of the year’s biggest surprises. Kaiju movies aren’t necessarily known for the humans involved, but Yamazaki’s film takes time to present endearing, three-dimensional characters facing off against an unprecedented threat. Themes of PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and joining forces for a nation’s existence take center stage alongside sequences of incredible visual artistry and suspense. Ryunosuke Kamiki’s damaged pilot-turned-minesweeper Koichi Shikishima remains a compelling protagonist for this crowd-pleasing piece of popcorn entertainment that honors its rich legacy and doesn’t overplay its hand, balancing its weighty themes with some of the year’s most spectacular action.

5. “Past Lives”

Emotionally raw and artfully constructed with an astounding trio of central performances by Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro, director Celine Song’s “Past Lives” is a thought-provoking meditation on love, dreams, regret, and bittersweet acceptance of the present. Song’s direction is immaculate, giving scenes time to breathe, and Keith Fraase’s editing weaves together characters’ stories in a way that gives the film a dreamlike, ethereal quality. This deceptively gentle, semi-autobiographical story of connections renewed is both personal and universal. Song offers profound reflections on the immigrant experience that everyone can relate to: confronting what-ifs and paths not taken in a manner that shuns melodrama for pure, honest, empathetic truths that acknowledge the past while leaving the door open for an even brighter future.

4. “The Zone of Interest”

Jonathan Glazer’s horrific, experimental, and deeply moving film “The Zone of Interest” takes a disturbing look at the family of Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), who live next door to Auschwitz in their dream home. Only a wall separates them from the horrors therein. Gunshots, screams of agony, and roars of furnaces ring throughout the Höss residence, while Christian’s wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) tends the large garden and their children play in the yard, everyone ignoring the atrocities just beyond sight. Glazer’s film, greatly enhanced by Mica Levi’s outstanding score and haunting sound design, forces viewers face-to-face with the monstrous complicity of the Höss family, ultimately turning the camera back at us in its final stretch. Formally daring and enveloping, “The Zone of Interest” is unforgettable, lingering in the mind long after the credits roll and encouraging us to reflect on what we’ve shielded ourselves from for the sake of normalcy. Sometimes, films come along that have the power to shift paradigms and ways of being, and this is definitely one of them.

3. “Fallen Leaves”

Legendary Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki gives us another life-affirming gem with “Fallen Leaves,” a story of two lonely souls finding purpose and happiness with each other in a cold, seemingly uncaring world. Deploying Kaurismäki’s signature brand of dry, deadpan humor (with one of the year’s best scripts) that never loses sight of the characters’ humanity and capacity for change, it’s a lovely film — endlessly rewatchable and chock full of small yet meaningful moments of compassion that shine through amid bleak circumstances both near and far. “Fallen Leaves” isn’t a happy watch per say, but a hopeful one, with magnetic performances and Kaurismäki’s brilliantly efficient direction urging us to not succumb to despair and to embrace those we hold dear.

2. “The Killer”

Methodical, darkly comedic, achingly stylish, and yielding satisfying rewards for viewers willing to dig beneath the surface, “The Killer” is a mesmerizing masterwork from director David Fincher. This hyper-violent, slice-of-life portrait of an unnamed assassin (played with finely-calibrated precision by Michael Fassbender) experiencing an existential crisis might seem simple at first glance, but there’s far more going on here than meets the eye. “The Killer” is ultimately a deconstruction of toxic masculinity, a sardonic takedown of the gig economy, an indictment of our consumerist, always-online society, and a weirdly gratifying peek into an assassin’s day-to-day routines. It’s also streaked with irony, as viewers observe this “well-oiled killing machine” combusting from the inside-out; Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay delivers sharp jabs to our protagonist’s ego as his internal monologue tries to convince him everything is under control. Add to all this an incredible score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a whole bunch of songs by The Smiths, a scene-stealing cameo from Tilda Swinton, and an all-time great fight scene, there’s no doubt that Fincher’s latest ranks among the year’s best.

1. “John Wick: Chapter 4”

Director Chad Stahelski’s nearly-three-hour thrill ride “John Wick: Chapter 4” takes action filmmaking to new heights, presenting set piece after set piece of bone-crunching stunt work and dazzling cinematography. Keanu Reeves gives one of his best performances to date as the titular Baba Yaga, taking on “The High Table” in a last bid for freedom. Not even this year’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” rivals the balletic carnage on display here, matched by a storyline with stakes, heart, and great supporting turns from Donnie Yen, Shamier Anderson, and Scott Adkins. The last hour, in particular, is absolutely immaculate — the most skillful action filmmaking since 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” What “Chapter 4” lacks in thought-provoking themes it more than makes up for with sheer fun factor. It’s a modern classic in the action genre that deserves more recognition, and as such, ranks at the top of my all-powerful, anyone-who-reads-this-should-watch-these-movies-immediately list.

10 Honorable Mentions (I could keep going but needed to stop somewhere): “They Cloned Tyrone,” “Poor Things,” “Talk to Me,” “20,000 Species of Bees,” “Showing Up,” “BlackBerry,” “American Fiction” “The Holdovers,” “Robot Dreams,” “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.”

By Alex McPherson

A lightweight, enjoyable treat that leans into sports movie cliches while adding some wrinkles, director Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” doesn’t try to be high art, but succeeds where it counts, and offers a breath of fresh air in our cynical times.

Inspired by the 2014 documentary of the same name, and introduced by a priest played by none other than Waititi himself, the film follows disgraced coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) on a journey of personal growth. He’s sent by the American Soccer Federation – led by Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett), who’s dating Rongen’s ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss), also on the Board – to coach the American Samoan national soccer team to FIFA World Cup qualification. It’s really about punishment for his hot-headed behavior and a nudge to “help himself” while floating in career purgatory. When the Board delivers the news to Rongen, he experiences the five stages of grief, explained via a crude PowerPoint presentation by Waititi-regular Rhys Darby.  

Unfortunately for Rongen, his newly assigned team doesn’t have the best track record. They infamously lost to Australia 31-0 in a 2001 World Cup qualifying match: the worst defeat in international soccer history. The team lacks drive and organization, rendering Rongen’s assignment quite an uphill battle. The former coach, lovably goofy and earnest Tavita (Oscar Kightley), who works various odd jobs around the island, merely wants Rongen to help the team score one goal. “One goal,” Tavita repeats, as he slowly backs away from Rongen at a beachside restaurant, “One goal.”

It’s all infuriating for the temperamental, alcoholic, and close-minded Rongen – a fish-out-of-water in an unfamiliar culture with traditions and ideals that buck against his hard-assed attitude. In his view, nobody on the team takes soccer, or him, seriously, especially Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), a transgender woman whose identity Rongen refuses to accept and respect, while the rest of the team does.

It’s little surprise that Rongen’s hatred gradually fades away as he learns more about American Samoan culture and bonds with the players. Their patience, compassion, and kindness help Rongen conquer his demons and open his heart, which in return helps the team come together and try their best, no matter the outcome, delivering plenty of zany jokes along the way.

Indeed, “Next Goal Wins” follows a familiar template that yields few real surprises. Thanks to strong performances, Waititi’s signature brand of awkward-funny humor, and some emotional moments that (despite their predictability) hit with earnest impact, though, it’s an eminently enjoyable watch. Waititi’s preference for jokes over “dramatic” moments lessens their potency, and the focus on Rongen is less compelling than Jaiyah’s experiences, but “Next Goal Wins” still manages to score that elusive goal, no matter its faults.

Fassbender (coming fresh off his awards-worthy turn in David Fincher’s “The Killer”), fits the gruff, damaged Rongen well – often seeming at odds with the beaming, idiosyncratic people surrounding him on the island. Like Fincher’s nameless hitman, it’s another performance from Fassbender that mocks his character’s “masculine” refusal to be vulnerable and acknowledge his faults, consumed by his work and suffering past trauma to the detriment of everyone around him (except those laughing at his childish behaviors). Rongen’s arc is easy to foresee, but it’s heartwarming, particularly his eventual bond with Jaiyah, the film’s real MVP.

Rongen’s initially awful treatment of Jaiyah is difficult to watch – a scenario that, despite the film’s largely comedic atmosphere, seems plausible and disquieting. It’s thanks to Jaiyah’s refusal to view Rongen in black-and-white absolutes, though, that helps them connect. She won’t write him off or give up her dreams to play soccer. Kaimana brings warmth, pathos, and groundedness to her portrayal, leading to several tear-inducing scenes later on when the empathy she exhibits to others is returned. Her story is inspirational, and the most winning aspect of Waiti’s film.

The rest of the team (including performances from a pitch-perfect David Fane as assistant coach Ace, and Uli Latukefu as former goalie Nicky Salapu, haunted by past failures during the Australia match) aren’t given anywhere near as much depth as Rongen and Jaiyah. Waititi instead paints them in broad strokes – there for pun-filled, pop-culture-heavy punchlines over three-dimensionality. 

It’s an unfortunate choice, perhaps due to the film’s 104-minute runtime, which speeds through the story without lingering on gags or otherwise poignant beats. Rongen’s arc notably falls prey to Waititi and Iain Morris’s rushed screenplay – a short heart-to-heart can make him change his tune to an unbelievable, if crowd-pleasing, extent, and a late-movie plot twist with his character is easy to foresee.

This applies to the meat and potatoes of what Rongen and the team are actually doing, too. “Next Goal Wins” is less focused on the game of soccer itself (or the players’ reasons for participating in the first place), and more on the thawing of Rongen’s tough exterior and the formation of community and friendship above all else. Viewers shouldn’t expect many thrilling sequences of last-minute saves and goals. In fact, Waititi seems to actively resent it, shifting attention to relationships and team-building with comparatively small-scale (but important) stakes in the final stretch.

We’re left with an imperfect, tonally inconsistent sports film that aims to put a smile on one’s face and raise awareness of a culture’s, and team’s, continued striving and resilience. On those merits, “Next Goal Wins” wholeheartedly succeeds. It’s no masterpiece (and one yearns for the daring Waititi of “Jojo Rabbit” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), but sometimes films like this are needed, just to restore one’s faith in humanity a little bit more, because every bit counts.

“Next Goal Wins” is a 2023 Sports Comedy directed by Taika Waititi and starring Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Will Arnett, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, and David Fane. It’s rated: PG-13 for some strong language and crude material and runs 1 hour, 43 minutes. It opened in theatres Nov. 17. Alex’s Grade: B.

By Alex McPherson

Stylistically resonant with absorbing performances from Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi, director Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” is emotionally removed, eschewing a deeper dive into its subject’s headspace for dreamlike stasis with little payoff and, ultimately, not much of note to say.

Based on the book “Elvis and Me” by Priscilla Presley (who also executive-produced the film), Coppola’s adaptation charts the whirlwind romance between young Priscilla (Spaeny) and the insecure, hip-gyration-loving King of Rock and Roll himself (Elordi). We’re introduced to 14-year-old Priscilla (then Beaulieu) in 1959, when she’s a high school student living with her parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk) on a U.S. Air Force Base in Wiesbaden, Germany. A chance encounter at a diner leads to her being invited to a house party hosted by 24-year-old Elvis, who’s currently serving in the Army.

Priscilla is thrilled and, after battling her anxious, apprehensive parents, is allowed to attend. Once she arrives at the party in Bad Nauheim, which the film frames like a moody jazz club radiating from the powerful man at its center, Elvis (again, 10 years Priscilla’s senior) almost immediately falls for her; she reminds him of home. 

Thus begins their deeply problematic courtship. Elvis leaves Germany for The States, which tears the crestfallen Priscilla apart: she spends her days anxiously awaiting letters and calls, daydreaming through classes and growing increasingly jealous hearing about Elvis’s tabloid headlines involving other women. In 1963, she’s summoned to Graceland, indulging in extravagance (and prescription drugs, instigated by Elvis) with his posse of rowdy friends who became known as the Memphis Mafia. 

After returning to Germany, she and Elvis convince her parents to let her move to Graceland to finish her senior year of high school. Everything seems like a fairy tale in Priscilla’s eyes, at least at the beginning, but deep cracks begin to form in their relationship. Denied intimacy and manufactured to be Elvis’s porcelain doll of a wife, Priscilla is sapped of independence – trapped in a glossy cage with an emotionally unintelligent artist grappling with his own identity at the expense of hers, until she decides that she’s had enough.

Indeed, “Priscilla” is a depressingly bleak look at a relationship steeped in toxic behaviors and feelings of claustrophobia. While Coppola effectively conveys the story’s saddening atemporality, in which Priscilla’s lack of development reflects her captor’s attempts to mold her, the intentionally distant approach backfires. The film jumps erratically through time without meaningful buildup to Priscilla’s rebellion, or, oddly, real insight into who she is and hopes to be.

The performances, however, are difficult to fault, even when delivering Coppola’s occasionally clunky dialogue. Spaeny precisely embodies Priscilla’s wide-eyed youthfulness and growing maturity. We observe her longing, euphoria, and disillusionment with a celebrity she’s idealized and who has trapped her in cycles of loving and abuse, tenderness and chaos. “Priscilla” is largely framed through her eyes, as we watch her enduring situations where others talk at her and she, often nonverbally, emotes multitudes through subtle facial expressions and body language. Stacy Battat’s costume design further helps emphasize Priscilla’s separation from her past and from her true self, fashioned to appease Elvis’s demands. Her frustration and yearning is efficiently portrayed by an actor deserving of all the accolades (hopefully) headed her way.

Elordi is similarly effective, taking a far different approach than Austin Butler’s flamboyant (and highly entertaining) turn in Baz Luhrman’s 2022 biopic, “Elvis.” Elordi nails Elvis’s voice and physique, towering over Spaeny in an on-the-nose reminder of their age gap and power dynamic. Elordi’s Elvis is charismatic, trouble-making, and selfish, a victim of stardom grappling with his own image and expectations forced on him by people like Colonel Tom Parker. 

While “Priscilla” is more focused on his direct interactions (or lack thereof) with Priscilla, we infer outside drama and betrayal through conversations Priscilla overhears and headlines she reads. The victimization and mental struggles that Elvis experiences seep into his personal life. He might love Priscilla on some level, but sees her as someone to be controlled. Elvis holds her back to retain her purity, perhaps as a way for him to appease his own regrets and status as a sex symbol while he lives a life of stardom singing and acting in Hollywood (sleeping with many women along the way).

With such committed performances from Spaeny and Elordi, it’s a shame that “Priscilla” is such a cold viewing experience – which might be the point. This is a dark story of fantasy brought down to earth, less about empowerment than disempowerment. 

The film’s first half unfolds like a dream, hazy and ethereal, as Sarah Flack’s editing conveys the whirlwind romance with a sense of inertia that Priscilla finds difficult to break free from. What starts out as unexpected, surprising, and thrilling devolves into tedious cycles of mistreatment and placation. We feel for Priscilla, mostly thanks to Spaeny’s acting, but the film’s second half sags due to Coppola’s seeming refusal to dig deeper into Priscilla’s psyche; more based on vibes than genuine insight as the years tick by and Priscilla becomes a bride and mother. 

Frequent Coppola collaborator Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is murky and cloudy, echoing Priscilla’s stagnation – never drawing too much attention to Tamara Deverell’s period-accurate set design. Coppola frequently resorts to montages to depict the passing years, emphasizing how little has changed in Priscilla’s fraught situation.

This minimalist approach to Priscilla’s rebellion is muted to a fault. There’s little crescendo to her final decision, besides viewers knowing from the outset that she eventually divorces Elvis. As a result, Coppola’s restrained approach to the material seems like checking off boxes instead of organically telling a story about one woman’s resilience in the face of adversity. The reasons Priscilla continues to stay with Elvis are complex and worthy of exploration, though the film holds her at arm’s length. 

Combined with a jarringly abrupt ending and a soundtrack that too often tries to sell emotions through lyrics (with no Elvis tunes in the lineup), “Priscilla” stays afloat thanks to the magnetic performances of its two leads. For Spaeny and Elordi, especially Spaeny, “Priscilla” is worth a look, but it remains a missed opportunity for a filmmaker capable of greatness.

“Priscilla” is a 2023 drama directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, and Dagmara Dominczyk. It is rated R for drug use and some language, and runs 1 hour, 50 minutes. It opened in theaters November 3. Alex’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

Stylish, cerebral, and laced with pitch black humor, director David Fincher’s “The Killer” uses its deceptively simple narrative to uncover a thoughtful, albeit nihilistic, character study with a top-notch performance from Michael Fassbender.

Fincher’s film, based on a graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent, opens with a montage of various killing tools and settles on the titular nameless hitman (Fassbender), who is waiting for the right time to kill a wealthy target in Paris. He’s a cold, calculating, pretentious sociopath, who bides his time doing yoga, grabbing McDonalds, listening to the Smiths, reflecting on his craft, and waxing philosophical about the meaninglessness of existence, all while dressed (intentionally) like a German tourist.

His methodical elimination of targets is nothing personal; they’re little more than a speck in the pot of overcrowded humankind. He’s also devilishly resourceful, possessing seemingly limitless amounts of  I.D.s with the names of ‘70s and ‘80s sitcom characters, and making use of all the modern conveniences and technology of our time (Amazon delivery stands out) to seamlessly weave throughout our world sans detection. If you see him, it’s already too late. 

He’s set up in a WeWork space across the street from the target’s hotel room, since apparently (as his internal monologue explains) Airbnbs tend to have too many cameras. “Stick to the plan,”  “Anticipate, don’t improvise,” “Empathy is weakness” are common phrases The Killer repeats to himself, closely monitoring his heart rate via FitBit to ensure maximum efficiency. He’s a well-oiled killing machine, a true master in the art of assassination. Until, well, he misses his shot, and takes out a sex worker instead.

Tilda Swinton in “The Killer”

 The Killer makes a quick escape (thinking to himself “WWJWBD: What Would John Wilkes Booth Do?”), and the target gets to live another day. Goons are promptly dispatched to The Killer’s beachside house in the Dominican Republic — leaving his girlfriend, Magdala (Sophie Charlotte), within an inch of her life. Driven as much by revenge as by his own ego, our allegedly apathetic protagonist embarks on a globe-trotting mission to find out who’s responsible and murder them, plus any unlucky bystanders who get involved. But no matter what he tells himself, and his effectiveness at navigating our always-online reality, he’s still fallible: a monster thriving on delusion, insisting he’s above humanity while never being able to fully outrun his own. 

Oscillating between suspenseful, shocking, and (dare I say it) laugh-out-loud funny, “The Killer” thrills and provokes from start to finish. This isn’t a particularly new story, but Fincher’s approach mines poignancy from a familiar template, immersing viewers into the mind of a villain and cutting him down to size — a character that’s easy to root against, but impossible to look away from, brought to life with Fincher’s characteristic panache.

Anyone who’s seen a Fincher joint before (“Fight Club,” “The Social Network,” or the regrettable “Mank,” for example) knows his films overflow with style, and “The Killer” is no different. Erik Messerschmidt’s crisp cinematography frames The Killer’s routine with distant, precise remove, sometimes blending him into shadows, to reflect his “professional” demeanor. The largely static camerawork changes to handheld as The Killer’s improvisational instincts kick in and panic rears its head. 

Additionally, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score pulses like a heartbeat as The Killer weaves through his surroundings like a parasite, evading detection at every turn, buzzing with discordant rhythms at moments of peril, such as during a cartoonishly destructive brawl later on that rivals the brutality of skirmishes in “John Wick: Chapter 4.”

Ren Klyce’s sound design is absolutely impeccable, with diegetic sounds (like the ring of an employee check-in kiosk or the bang of a ferry’s ramp locking into place) turned up to the max: nuisances that momentarily distract our titular assassin from his quest for vengeance. Suffice to say, the film is a sensory treat.

Fassbender’s performance is brilliantly tuned into the character’s cynicism and deliberate procedures. His stoic facial expressions belie a seemingly soulless husk — someone who’s devoted his whole life to his career without any interest or care for humanity, at least as far as he tells himself, but Fassbender subtly conveys his cracking facade as the story progresses.

His narration (from a strong screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker) is sardonic, cruel, pop-culture-savvy, and at times very funny, but also reflective of his internal torment. His mantras are pushed to their limits, especially when interacting with unlucky bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has the skills to make it out of any deadly encounter, but at what cost? 

Indeed, much of the unpredictability of “The Killer,” despite its familiar setup, comes down to contrast and dissonance. There’s something darkly comedic, and compelling, about being immersed into the mind of such a straight-laced character, observing his pain-staking preparations for the next hit, and seeing reality coming back to bite him, daring and/or forcing him to break from routine. Fincher plays around with this idea, too: moments of levity and endearment traditionally found in these types of stories aren’t present here; opportunities for redemption are tangled tantalizingly close and unceremoniously (often graphically) dashed. 

Fincher barely spends any time with Magdala either — a non-issue because vengeance for her isn’t The Killer’s primary motivation. What really matters is maintaining his carefully cultivated lifestyle and self-image, scarred by his humiliating mistake in Paris that set this whole fight-for-life into motion. He knows the drill as well as anyone, but (through pride and desire to remain on the planet he has such apathy for) refuses to accept it.

This idiosyncratic approach ensures that even if we think we know where “The Killer” is headed, we really don’t, not unlike the protagonist’s own predicament. Memorable appearances from Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley, and Tilda Swinton underscore this, unfolding in ways running the gamut of emotions. 

Ultimately, “The Killer” is thrilling, amusing, and even moving to some degree, especially considering Fincher’s own reputation as a perfectionist. The Killer may have the tools to escape any situation, and maintain his own status, but can one really live without embracing life’s uncertainties? 

This is one of 2023’s finest films thus far, much deeper than it initially seems, and deserving of the big screen treatment. Stick to the plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise. And don’t wait for Netflix, if at all possible.

“The Killer” is a 2023 action crime thriller directed by David Fincher and starring Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell and Kerry O’Malley. It is rated R for strong violence, language and brief sexuality, and runs 1 hour, 58 minutes. It opened in selected theaters on Oct. 27 and will stream on Netflix starring Nov. 10. Alex’s Grade: A+