By Alex McPherson

Richly atmospheric and suspenseful, yet frustratingly conventional, director Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders” can’t quite connect its engaging performances and visceral thrills with a story that’s on the same level.

Nichols’ film is inspired by a book of the same name by acclaimed photographer Danny Lyon (a version of him is played here by Mike Faist). It begins in the mid-1960s and charts the story of the Vandals, a fictionalized Chicago motorcycle club of ragtag, chopper-loving misfits.

They come together to drink, fight, and assert dominance over their territory, like an idiosyncratic family that’s alternately affectionate and combative. As they ride down the open road, engines blasting in their ears, they’re in their own powerful element.

Led by the brooding and volatile Johnny (Tom Hardy), a truck driver and family man who was inspired to form the group after seeing Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” the Vandals aren’t an outright “gang,” although threats of violence are ever-present if anyone’s ego is threatened.

Rather, they’re  like-minded souls looking for a sense of community and freedom from what mainstream society expects of them. They’re just willing to engage in the occasional beat down and destruction of property if the mood or situation calls for it.

Their makeshift brotherhood simultaneously satiates a need for togetherness and an outlet to embrace their (often misguided) sense of “manliness.” The rough-and-tumble crowd includes, among others, a mechanic named Cal (Boyd Holbrook), a perpetually drunk outcast named Zipco (Michael Shannon), and a man named Cockroach (Emory Cohen) who prides himself on eating bugs.

There’s also the tatted-up, enigmatic, and stereotypically handsome chap named Benny (Austin Butler), who mild-mannered Cathy (Jodie Comer) – the film’s narrator – falls for after stumbling into him and the Vandals at a local bar and marries soon after.

“The Bikeriders” largely unfolds through photographer Danny’s interviews with Cathy and various members of the Vandals. Cathy, with a sarcastic, amused, but exasperated attitude, brings us into the Vandals’ orbit as an outsider.

Through flashbacks, she takes us through her experiences from her initial lusty courtship with Benny, to the group’s evolution and de-evolution over time, as a new generation — partly symbolized by The Kid (a frighteningly effective Toby Wallace) —  threatens Johnny’s reign and risks transforming the Vandals into a different beast altogether. 

Cathy also battles with Johnny over Benny’s soul, as Benny (a wildcard prone to impulsive behaviors) is forced to choose between his life as a Vandal and his future with Cathy. All the while, Nichols presents a nostalgic vision of the past, attempting to help us empathize with a troubled but misunderstood group on the margins of American society.

Indeed, “The Bikeriders” tries to tackle quite a bit during its 116 minute runtime — perhaps too much for its own good. For all the immaculate scene-setting, compelling performances, and armrest-gripping moments of suspense, Nichols’ film is ultimately a surface-level portrait of its subjects. 

Despite this, however, the film is consistently entertaining, coasting on the strength of its performances and  “Goodfellas”-lite conceit to deliver scenes of smoke-filled machismo, camaraderie, and wry humor mixed with bursts of startlingly graphic violence that keeps us on our toes moment-to-moment. 

Julie Monroe’s editing is alternately breezy and jagged, reflecting the film’s juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, confidence and vulnerability — letting us sit in on exchanges that could go from peaceful to shocking at any given moment.

These scenes are counterbalanced by Kathy’s narration that finds absurdity, childishness, as well as poignancy in the Vandals’ efforts to maintain a semblance of control over not only their territory but their individual lives.

Nichols clearly has a reverence for the Vandals, but he’s careful to not overly romanticize them; their fierce dedication builds a group identity that’s both freeing and limiting, should they ever decide to leave.

The actors, across the board, take big swings that almost always pay off, barring some questionable accents that veer into cartoonish from time to time. Comer definitely goes for it, and while her performance will likely prove divisive, her delivery and narration is a good fit for Nichols’ screenplay, which buoys its darker edges with sarcastic humor that effectively takes the Vandals down to size. Cathy, naive though she sometimes is, takes no bullshit, and is willing to stand up to Johnny to fight for Benny’s safety.

Butler provides the bulk of the film’s eye-candy as Benny, portraying the film’s mysterious rebel-without-a-cause. We don’t learn much about Benny or his past, but he’s clearly damaged, looking for a way to express himself and make his mark on the world, a troublemaker with a thirst for danger whose worldview is slowly shifting with the introduction of Cathy into his life.

Benny is pulled back and forth between fantasy and reality, danger vs. safety, the thrill of the unknown vs. the security of Cathy. Butler suitably commands attention even with his limited dialogue, brimming with pure, unadulterated star power that Nichols happily emphasizes, particularly in his sizzling first scenes with Comer.

Johnny, with a nasally drawl and intimidating physique that Hardy expertly embodies, lashes out against any threat to his power, partly because he knows the Vandals cannot last without his guidance, and that his reign is nearing its end. There’s much pathos to be found here, brought to life by Hardy, as Johnny fights (scarily, in some cases) to hold onto the group as it threatens to slip through his fingers.

Hardy gives the film’s standout performance, lending Johnny a melancholy beneath his tough exterior and communicating his inner turmoil in a much subtler fashion than the screenplay permits the rest of the characters.

Through Johnny’s arc, “The Bikeriders” reveals itself to be a meditation on masculinity, on the affectionate yet unsustainable bonds that hold these men together as they attempt to outrun their problems on the open road, motorcycle engines blaring, even as reality and changing times are right on their heels. 

With Nichols’ confident, classically-inspired direction in full swing — featuring freeze frames, time jumps, and tactile, lived-in cinematography by Adam Stone that admires the motorcyclists without shying away from their brutality — “The Bikeriders” is always engaging in-the-moment, but, when the sheen of star power wears off, the story’s ultimate simplicity is revealed. 

It’s disappointing that, in the rearview mirror, so many side characters are reduced to archetypes that function more as ideas and symbols than tangible human beings. This is made more frustrating by a screenplay that lacks the depth necessary to explore their psyches and help us feel their motivations on a more memorable level. 

It’s difficult, for example, to buy Kathy’s continued devotion to Benny. Framing the film through her perspective (at a remove) also misses an opportunity to explore the Vandals’ heights and struggles with more depth. The film claims to celebrate Lyon’s journalistic efforts (with a one-note performance from Faist that’s more irritating than involving) whilst cramming the diverse stories of its subjects into a neat, tidy, sub two-hour film for a mass audience. 

Viewers well-versed in crime film tropes can predict beat-for-beat where the plot is headed, sending its individually compelling (but largely underdeveloped) characters down a formulaic road, as well as zeroing in on a relationship that’s difficult to become fully invested in. This is all at the expense of a more balanced portrait of characters worthy of closer looks that wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed into convention in the first place.

These issues hold “The Bikeriders” back from greatness, and make it somewhat superfluous in the crowd of films of its ilk that have come before. But there’s enough directorial craft and potentially awards-worthy acting on display that it’s still difficult to resist.

‘The Bikeriders’ is a 2023 crime drama directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Tom Hardy, Austin Butler, Jodie Comer and Michael Shannon. It is rated R for language throughout, violence, some drug use and brief sexuality, and the run time is 1 hour, 56 minutes. It opened in theatres June 21. Alex’s Grade: B.

By Alex McPherson

Director Jane Schoenbrun’s “I Saw the TV Glow” is a dreamlike, thought-provoking, and emotionally gutting experience that’s at once personal and universal — an exploration of loneliness, art, escapism, and repression within a reality that’s its own kind of nightmare.

The year is 1996. We follow Owen (first played by Ian Foreman, then Justice Smith), a seventh-grader in a small, nondescript suburb that Shoenbrun frames like a dreary purgatory.

Owen lives a sheltered existence with his overprotective parents (played by Danielle Deadwyler and an exceptionally creepy Fred Durst). His father exerts a tight grip on the household, shunning Owen for his unconventional interests. Owen needs an escape, and he eventually finds it through a television set.

One evening, while wandering around his local high school (fittingly called “Void High”) waiting for his mother to cast a ballot for a local election, Owen finds ninth-grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) reading an episode guide for a TV show called “The Pink Opaque.”

The supernatural serial is an homage to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and features two girls, Tara and Isabel, who communicate via the astral plane. They fight various “monsters of the week,” with the all-powerful Mr. Melancholy pulling the strings and watching over them as a garish face on the moon. 

Maddy — wry, severe, and enduring a troubled home life— quickly strikes up a friendship with Owen, and Owen sneaks over to Maddy’s house for a sleepover to watch the show: he’s hooked. Maddy and Owen find “The Pink Opaque” to be an escape from reality: they’re outcasts who connect to the characters’ isolation, confusion, and eventual empowerment. They’re both stuck in a limbo that’s suffocating their developing minds and bodies, only finding solace via their heroes on the other side of the screen.  

Flash forward two years, and Owen continues to use “The Pink Opaque” as a way to cope with his trauma and gradually develop his sense of self, with Maddy leaving VHS recordings of each episode in Void High’s darkroom for him to take home.

Owen and Maddy’s obsession with the show grows, tragedy strikes, and the lines between reality and fantasy blur to increasingly psychedelic effect, as “The Pink Opaque” bleeds off the screen into Owen’s lived experience. He grapples with his true identity amid the weight of suffocating societal pressures and the rapid passage of time.

Indeed, “I Saw the TV Glow” is a disturbing and bleakly existential watch. Schoenbrun, in their second feature film, has a distinctive cinematic voice – presenting a story that’s both easy to become invested in and difficult to fully parse, evoking familiar themes in ways that prove constantly surprising, unsettling, and, at times, bewildering.

 It’s a film that refuses to explain itself and leaves the door open to different interpretations, particularly during its head-spinning conclusion. This is an obviously personal story for Schoenbraun, one that’s rendered in an uncompromising, polarizing style that says as much through its mood-setting as through dialogue.

Their approach allows us to feel what the characters are feeling as they drift through their nebulous environment, even as they themselves are unsure how to process what’s going on.

“I Saw the TV Glow,” in its patient, Lynchian rhythms, establishes a palpable sense of dread from its opening moments, as Schoenbrun and cinematographer Eric K. Yue thrust us into a wasteland where a sense of dreariness practically leaks off the screen – a dark, neon-infused, almost alien world that Owen and Maddy inhabit as outsiders unsure of life’s meaning.

Schoenbrun twists seemingly inviting spaces into symbols of malaise and menace despite their seeming banality, further emphasizing Owen’s alienation and perceived sense of “otherness.” This world represents an abyss that’s willing to swallow Owen and Maddy whole if they don’t fight to break free from its spell. 

The Pink Opaque, too – depicted in authentic detail with title cards, music, acting, and lo-fi effects from the era –- is both alluring and sinister. Owen and Maddy form a connection to another world that’s dictated by the whims of showrunners and networks; a dangerous reliance on an external source to find comfort in a place that’s all too willing to take it away.

Suffice to say, “I Saw the TV Glow” is quite a depressing watch, interspersed with moments of dry humor and supernatural imagery that may or may not be taking place in traditional “reality.”

We’re seeing the world through Owen’s eyes – portrayed by Foreman and Smith with a haunted melancholy giving way to mounting existential panic – and his truth is yearning to be embraced; the question is, will he realize it before his depression and dysphoria consume him? 

As the film progresses down its increasingly head-spinning path, “I Saw the TV Glow” maintains a grim momentum, as Owen wages an internal battle against prejudiced norms and his seeming lack of agency.

The evocative, thematically resonant soundtrack enhances the proceedings, furthering the sense that Owen and Maddy are living in a dream, and years swiftly pass while his conflict stays the same, visualized in sterling makeup work.

The real horror of “I Saw the TV Glow” is a battle of identity, of being reliant on technology and consumable entertainment for discovering who we are, rather than forging one’s own path in a dark, depressing world.

It’s a relevant message, if not an especially uplifting one – easy to connect to regardless of background. Owen’s, and Schoenbrun’s, stories may be unique to them, but few films in recent memory are as unsettling, poignant, or conversation-starting as “I Saw the TV Glow.” Whether or not you can get on board with its story and style, it’s an experience that won’t be easily forgotten.

“I Saw the TV Glow” is a 2024 horror-drama directed by Jane Schoenbrun and starring Ian Foreman, Justice Smith, Bigette Lundy-Paine, Danielle Deadwyler and Fred Durst. It is rated PG-13 for violent content, some sexual material, thematic elements and teen smoking and runtime is 1 hour, 40 minutes. It opened in theaters May 17. Was available Video on Demand on June 14. Alex’s Grade: A.

By Alex McPherson

Featuring excellent performances from Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell, but otherwise coming across as a surface-level retelling of singer Amy Winehouse’s tumultuous rise and fall, director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Back to Black” ultimately does little to justify its existence.

Taylor-Johnson’s film, which has the support of the Winehouse estate (unlike Asif Kapadia’s superior 2015 documentary “Amy”), is less an honest portrayal of the performer’s tragically short life than it is an attempt to rewrite history. It smooths over well-documented truths and packages them into rote drama that sacrifices nuance for miserablism.

“Back to Black” begins in Camden Town, London, in 2002, where the 18-year-old Winehouse – a rebellious, wry soul with a love of jazz – is a burgeoning talent, channeling old-school sounds to modern audiences and using music to express herself in the face of life’s challenges.

Her divorced parents Janis (Juliet Cowan, who gets a notably small amount of screen time) and Mitch (Eddie Marsan) recognize Amy’s undeniable skill, as does her loving grandmother Cynthia (a typically comforting Lesley Manville), who encourages her to pursue a music career. Before long, Amy does, thanks to her future band manager Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan) but, as Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay smugly foreshadows, her downfall will soon follow.

Funny, passionate, and strong-willed, with a distinctive 50’s-60’s inspired style to boot, yet also an emotionally unstable, bulimic alcoholic, Amy is a force to be reckoned with – even though Taylor-Johnson neglects to give viewers much context into why she is the way she is. She insists to record label suits that she “ain’t no spice girl,” refusing to compromise on her songs and performances.

But when she begins an on-again, off-again relationship with handsome scumbag Blake Fielder-Civil (O’Connell), Amy spirals into further substance abuse and codependency as her stardom rises. It all eventually proves fatal: she’s a victim of fame, drug abuse, and bad actors feigning support while exacerbating her decline.

Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell as Amy Winehouse and Blake Civil-Fielder

Addictions and personal life chaos aside, Amy was a one-of-a-kind talent that shouldn’t be reduced to a by-the-numbers biopic treatment. Unfortunately, Taylor-Johnson is not up to the task. What results is a puzzling experience that lacks insight, perspective, and purpose, other than to serve as an acting showcase and an attempt at whitewashing history into sanitized drama for the masses.

At least Abela gives it her all. She captures Amy’s inherent likability, volatility, and inner demons with an authentic attention-to-detail, commanding her every scene even when the script lets her down. Abela does her own singing for the film, too (with the standout being her titular “Back to Black”).

While Amy’s voice is impossible to recreate, Abela does a valiant job nonetheless, in the scattered moments that Taylor-Johnson actually foregrounds the music rather than Amy’s conflicts. Scenes of Amy’s creative process are half-baked – reduced to rushed, solitary brainstorming sessions – but Abela conveys a youthful, exuberant fervor that’s infectious and alluring.

O’Connell, too, is fittingly charismatic. Blake emanates bad boy vibes that Amy is immediately drawn to, despite the fact that Blake has a girlfriend when they begin their flirtation. Abela and O’Connell have great chemistry, and the early stages of their relationship are charming and playful, if tinged with the dark knowledge of the horrors to come. 

Still, the film’s rushed pacing makes it difficult to fully buy into their bond – especially since Amy’s impulsive behaviors and attachment issues aren’t given enough context for us to understand where she’s coming from. Since Taylor-Johnson’s film focuses on a “snapshot in time,” primarily the period between the release of Amy’s first album, “Frank,” and the grammy-winning “Back to Black,” we don’t get much insight into her troubled childhood.

This is likely to save face for Mitch, who the film treats gingerly; his well-documented enabling of Amy’s vices and mental health struggles is downplayed, as is the decade during Amy’s youth in which he had an affair and wasn’t present in the household.

Blake is depicted both as a victim and a victimizer – seemingly powerless to resist Amy’s charms, but manipulating her to fuel his own addictions; his unpredictable behaviors do a number on Amy’s fragile psyche as their relationship becomes increasingly public and destructive. But “Back to Black” still posits that Amy introduced herself to heroin – an odd choice on Taylor-Johnson’s part that feeds into the film’s view of Amy as an unavoidable trainwreck, a person who was doomed from the start and who lacks the will to change.

Indeed, Taylor-Johnson characterizes Amy as a hopeless soul experiencing an inevitable decline, a victim of her own heart, rather than foregrounding Amy the artist. The music itself is almost an afterthought, a consequence of Amy’s inner turmoil rather than a genuine expression of her craft, as the film erratically jumps through time to the next big crisis in Amy’s life.

The portrayal of the media storm surrounding Amy, too, is just window-dressing; Taylor-Johnson doesn’t effectively capture the way her music grips the nation or the celebrity pressure that propels Amy further into oblivion, relying on merely workmanlike direction. The film even pulls its punches in the end, letting its troubled “heroine” drift offscreen, as if the film is too scared to depict the depths of her suffering.

For someone who wanted to be known for her music above all else, it’s downright irresponsible to frame her story like this — Taylor-Johnson molds Amy’s trauma into accessible entertainment. With Kapadia’s excellent documentary providing a far more meaningful portrait, “Back to Black” begs the question: why was this biopic necessary?

“Back to Black” is a 2024 biopic directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and starring Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville and Sam Buchanan. It is rated R for drug use, language throughout, sexual content and nudity, and runtime is 2 hours, 2 minutes. It opened in theatres May 17. Alex’s Grade: C-

By Alex McPherson

Fun, charming, and heartfelt, albeit insubstantial, director David Leitch’s “The Fall Guy” is purely entertaining – letting us watch two hot leads sizzle up the screen in an action rom-com that’s an ode to stunt teams and behind-the-scenes workers.

Leitch’s film, very loosely based on the 1980s TV series of the same name, centers around Colt Seavers (Gosling), an outwardly confident yet insecure stunt double for the superstar Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, suitably obnoxious), who lies about doing his own stunts. Colt is in a fling with camera operator Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), and everything seems great:

Colt can do what he loves, impress Jody, and feel cool. At least, until it all falls apart. Colt breaks his back while redoing an aerial stunt — Tom claims that Colt’s face was visible on Take One — which makes him question his life choices. Colt (perhaps because of his bruised ego), pushes Jody away, and wants to abandon the profession altogether. Jody is heartbroken, and Colt begins working as a valet at a Mexican restaurant.

Eighteen months later  Colt, stuck in a rut and regretting his decisions, is contacted by the high-strung, Diet-Coke-addicted Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham), Tom’s film producer. Gail informs Colt that Jody is directing her first film — a mishmash of “Dune” and “Mad Max” called “Metalstorm” — and Jody wants Colt to come aboard. Colt is thrilled, seeing this as a chance to get back together with Jody. He heads to Sydney, Australia, to begin filming. 

Upon arrival, however, Colt discovers that Jody never actually asked for him. On the contrary, she’s highly resentful, at one point taking out her anger by making Colt repeat a painful stunt until her bloodlust is satisfied. But there’s still a flirtation between them, a flicker of the love that used to be, that shines through in their alternately combative and affectionate banter.

Before long, Gail reveals to Colt that Tom has gone missing and tasks Colt with finding him before time runs out and production shuts down on “Metalstorm.” This could be Colt’s chance to save Jody’s movie, redeem himself in her eyes, and rekindle their bond. Thus, the stage is set for an adventure that succeeds most if viewers sit back, let the increasingly convoluted plot wash over them, and go along for the crowd-pleasing ride.

Indeed, “The Fall Guy” is a breezily diverting experience, with pop culture references galore and an obvious appreciation for filmmaking and the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make it all a reality. It’s also an opportunity to bask in the star power of Gosling and Blunt, whose dynamic gives the film a sexy burst of energy that buoys a plot that becomes a little too unwieldy for its own good by the chaotic final act.

Aaron Tyler-Johnson as mega-star Tom Ryder.

Leitch’s film tries to simultaneously be a cheesy romantic comedy, a self-effacing send up of blockbusters, and a tribute to the tireless efforts of stunt crews, but it ultimately short-changes all of these threads, becoming far less than the sum of its parts. But damn, is it a likable ride nonetheless.

Over the years, Gosling has proven himself as a versatile actor, and “The Fall Guy” gives him yet another opportunity to shine. His performance as Colt won’t win any awards – Leitch doesn’t bother much with backstory or give Colt’s “serious” moments time to breathe without balancing them with self-aware humor or broad slapstick comedy. However, Gosling’s brand of goofy charisma works well here, as Colt becomes the lead star of his own action film.

Gosling’s always a joy to watch, whether engaging in Leitch’s creatively-staged action sequences (a psychedelic nightclub beat-down and a battle within a garbage-truck-turned-wrecking ball are the standouts), preparing for a particularly grueling stunt on a film set, or crying his heart out to Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” while reminiscing about his former fling with Blunt’s Jody. Much of the character’s appeal rests on Gosling’s shoulders, though, with him delivering sporadically eye-rolling dialogue with infectious sincerity.

Blunt is given less to work with here – and is largely sidelined for most of the film’s cluttered second act – but she has great chemistry with Gosling. Jody’s a passionate, career-focused woman, but can only hide her continued yearning for Colt for so long. Colt and Jody’s back-and-forth dialogue and will-they-won’t-they dynamic (elevated by Leitch’s perhaps overly self-assured direction) never loses its appeal, regardless of the story’s predictability.

Less successful is the satirical industry exposé element of the plot, which becomes too cartoonish, and almost becomes a parody of itself. It’s disappointing, in a way, since Leitch makes a lot of effort to immerse us in the thick of the “Metalstorm” film set early on, emphasizing all the coordination necessary to craft the perfect scene.

There’s an obvious reverence for the process that’s satisfying and immersive, but “The Fall Guy” ultimately doesn’t do much with this set-up. The peek-behind-the-curtain approach becomes window dressing for a film that leans into extremes, distracting us from otherwise relevant commentary on greed, fame, and AI.

  And that’s perfectly fine. As a summer blockbuster, “The Fall Guy” delivers, chock full of suitably crunchy fight sequences (Leitch’s background in stunts and action films is on full display), thrilling chases, quip-filled, reference-heavy dialogue, and a central romance that’s earnest and sentimental, carefully tuned for date-night-viewing.

But there are no stakes, which sits strangely, since the nature of stunt work involves performers putting themselves at risk for our entertainment.

There’s a lack of emotional engagement outside of watching beautiful people in a goofy lark that’s watchable without being especially memorable. Supporting turns from Winston Duke, Stephanie Tsu, and a dog that only responds to commands in French are amusing, but underdeveloped.

Footage of Leitch’s actual stunt crew on the film plays over the credits, too, and one can’t help but wish “The Fall Guy” paid more attention to the sacrifice and bravery that goes into the craft — rather than devolving into 80s-inspired ludicrousness.

The film remains consistently funny, however, and never boring. It deserves to be watched on the big screen with a lively crowd as a safe, reliable, mainstream experience accompanied by a large bucket of popcorn.

The Fall Guy” is a 2024 action thriller comedy romance directed by David Leitch and starring Ryan Gosling, Emily Blunt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Hannah Waddingham, Stephanie Hsu, Winston Duke and Teresa Palmer. It is rated PG-13 for action and violence, drug content and some strong language. It opened in theatres May 3. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Depicting a frightening near-future scenario, Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is a sincere ode to journalists, a chilling warning to take history seriously, and a stark reminder to never lose our humanity amid chaos.

Eschewing backstory to throw us right into the middle of the conflict, “Civil War” depicts an America where an authoritarian, three-term president (Nick Offerman), who has disbanded the FBI, leads an army of loyalists against the secessionist “Western Forces” of Texas and California. Florida has also formed its own breakaway faction, apparently.

The less one thinks about the logistics of Garland’s film, the better. What really matters is that WF forces are getting closer and closer to Washington, DC, with the President in their sights, and America has turned into a scorched battleground.

The clock’s ticking for our lead characters – celebrated war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Reuters print journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) – who are determined to snag an interview with the President before he’s killed, even though it may cost them their own lives. We first meet them in New York City, covering a gathering for water rations that ends in a suicide bombing.

Lee encounters Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young, wannabe photojournalist, on the scene. Jessie idolizes Lee and wants to follow in her footsteps, while Lee feels uncertain about encouraging Jessie to become a photojournalist —even as she recognizes part of herself in Jessie that has long atrophied into cold professionalism.

Lee has spent her career documenting overseas conflicts, becoming hardened and haunted by the atrocities she’s witnessed – continuing to put herself in harm’s way for a potentially misplaced belief that her photos will mean something.

Joel, hard-drinking and charismatic, is fueled by a thrill-seeker’s urge to capture the next Big Moment. His sociability, contrasting with Lee’s, masks his own trauma and desensitization; he’s holding onto a sliver of boyishness through the nightmare.

Lee and Joel reluctantly agree to bring along aging New York Times writer Sammy (an ever-comforting Stephen McKinley Henderson) on their trip from NYC to DC. Sammy, out of shape and vulnerable though he is, is still drawn to danger and his craft. He acts as a pseudo father-figure for the group – helping guide them (to a point) through the various predicaments they run into along their road trip from Hell.

Jessie also weasels her way into the group thanks to Joel, much to Lee’s annoyance. Thus, the archetype-filled press squad begins their voyage across the heartland – encountering numerous terrors along the way, documenting them for the future, and grappling with their work’s purpose (or lack thereof) as an already-scarred America continuously slashes new wounds.

Indeed, Garland’s film is an uncomfortable, eerily prescient, and strangely entertaining experience. It’s difficult to look away from this nightmarish vision of a war on America’s soil, particularly given America’s current political tensions and fresh memories of the January 6 insurrection.

However, Garland avoids delving too much into the specifics of the conflict, and “Civil War” isn’t concerned with examining what led America to this point, or giving us a clear side to root for or against. The film tackles grander ambitions than just capitalizing on partisan hatred that anyone with an Internet connection can witness every day.

Rather, he presents a possible future where complete dehumanization of the Other runs rampant, and any hope for peace is shattered by self-perpetuating cycles of violence. Seen through the eyes of our central journalists, the film succeeds at both depicting their heroic sacrifices, as well as issuing a grim warning to viewers without providing easy answers. 

Garland’s politically vague approach (he’s British, an outsider looking in) allows us to observe the horror without playing on or exploiting current offscreen tensions — an equalizing choice that renders the film’s graphic acts of barbarity all the more disturbing; startling and not sensationalized, every side is capable of cruelty.

Some viewers may decry the film’s both-sides-ism stance, but Garland’s film works better as a possible future taken to extremes, where negotiations and democracy have seemingly failed, and people have reverted to base instincts to cope.

As the characters variously become more numb, enraged, and even darkly energized by the situations they witness (massive shootouts, an idyllic Main Street patrolled by rooftop snipers, a bullet-ridden Santa’s wonderland), “Civil War” paints them as noble souls performing a necessary task, some of them mentally crumbling before our eyes.

Garland’s film, then, despite all its political side-stepping, stresses the importance of making their sacrifices and effort mean something, both within America and beyond it, within the film and outside of it. Garland puts the onus on us viewers to pay attention and to not merely let images wash over us as content to be consumed and forgotten, but rather as tools to be acted upon for change and action. 

It’s a provocative, somewhat self-important message, one that has faith in cinema’s ability to affect hearts and minds, and its effectiveness depends on whether viewers are willing to pick up what Garland’s putting down.

Still, “Civil War” works on a more basic level, too, depicting complex characters on a visually striking journey full of suspense and tragedy with an occasional glint of gallows humor, each stop a new opportunity for taughtly-directed drama.

Rob Hardy’s gorgeous cinematography finds beauty in the desolation of familiar spaces — abandoned vehicles strewn across empty highways, suburban neighborhoods morphed into warzones, a forest aflame, and once vibrant, buzzing cities becoming eerily quiet, with the threat of violence lurking around every corner.

Combat sequences — enhanced by stellar sound work — are jolting and involving, going from cacophonies to silence as we sometimes abruptly cut to watching Jessie’s pictures develop. 

The whole ensemble, too, is outstanding and has great chemistry, giving their characters a haunted gravitas. They embody, in distinct ways, a push/pull dynamic between documenting the truth and acting on innate empathy that might get them killed. Their contradictions only make them more compelling, rendering the film’s alternately cerebral and hectic rhythms powerful on both a large and small scale.

Dunst and Spaeny are particularly effective portraying characters that are seemingly mirror images of each other at different stages of their lives. Lee sees her former self in Jessie, a person who still has hope for the profession and for a better future, but witnesses first-hand Jessie’s growing desensitization — losing pieces of her youthfulness and, in some respects, her sense of self as she chases danger for the next shot.

Dunst gives an emotionally wrenching performance illustrating the shreds of hope and compassion that shine, if only briefly, through her tough exterior, while Spaeny sells Jessie’s arc without being melodramatic — Jessie bonding with the team as she comes into her own as the journalist she’s dreamed of becoming.

The film’s more memorable performance, though, is given by Jesse Plemmons as a member of a militia who’s as scary (if not scarier) than any recent horror movie monster, in a scene that’s difficult to shake.

Ultimately, “Civil War” is a gripping experience that will grow in power upon further reflection. It will no doubt spark heated debates — a feature that only great, necessary art can provide.

“Civil War” is a 2024 action science fiction film written and directed by Alex Garland and starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Sonoya Mizunoand Nick Offerman. It is rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout, and runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. It opens in theatres April 12. Alex’s Grade: A.

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