By Alex McPherson

A creative, darkly comic story of self-destructive ego and fame’s dehumanizing effects, director Kristoffer Borgli’s “Dream Scenario” is never less than engaging — with an outstanding Nicolas Cage performance — but can’t meld its timely ideas into a fully cohesive whole.

Borgli’s film follows Paul Matthews (Cage), a tenured university professor teaching evolutionary biology to disinterested students — he’s unfulfilled professionally and seeking recognition in his field. Paul wants to publish a book on his research and fumes that a former colleague (that he hasn’t seen in 30 years) beats him to the punch, allegedly stealing his theory of “Ant-elligence” for her own writing venture. It’s a critical blow to his ego.

At home, Paul has a loving wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and two daughters, Sophie (Lily Bird) and Hannah (Jessica Clement). By most accounts, Paul has a pretty privileged life, but he seeks more — quietly experiencing a midlife crisis within his self-loathing headspace. His seemingly simple yearnings belie a misguided sense of entitlement and ungratefulness.

Out of the blue, Paul appears in Sophie’s dream: he casually observes as random objects crash onto their outdoor patio and Sophie is lifted into the sky, making no effort to rescue her. Randomly, old connections, students, and, eventually, people all over the country he’s never met start seeing Paul in their dreams as well. Just like with Sophie, Paul awkwardly (and humorously) observes in the background as the dreamer experiences some dramatic event — such as crocodile infestation, tooth extraction, or a not-so-friendly neighborhood demon.

Paul is initially thrilled by the attention, albeit disappointed at his “inadequacy” within the situations themselves. He’s on the news, students line up to take selfies with him, and his family sees him in a new light. Janet, especially, sees glimmers of the confident man she fell in love with, yet grows increasingly jealous, since Paul doesn’t appear in her own dreams.

Paul is even contacted by a PR group (called “Thoughts?”), led by Trent (Michael Cera), who wants Paul to sponsor big brands so he can “dreamfluence” people in their slumber. At the end of the day, all Paul wants to do is get a book published on his scholarship, which he hasn’t actually started writing yet, and maybe get invited to dinner by a wealthy colleague.

Before long, Paul’s narcissism grows. His dream-world persona suddenly takes on a more nefarious role in peoples’ sleep states; he’s now a monster haunting with gleefully violent abandon. Thus begins Paul’s descent into the throes of Cancel Culture, digging his own grave as society ostracizes him — initially for forces beyond his control — reckoning with celebrity and his own self-absorption as his previously stable lifestyle falls apart.

Indeed, “Dream Scenario” certainly has a lot on its mind. Although the film doesn’t hit bullseyes on all its targets, Borgli crafts a trenchant commentary on society’s mindlessness — oscillating between hilarity, horror, and pathos that keeps viewers on their toes. And there’s no more fitting person than Cage to lead the way, in a role that gives him space to showcase his considerable range as a performer.

Cage — himself a celebrity who’s been “memeified” by the masses as an over-the-top cartoon character — lends both humanity and zaniness to his portrayal. He renders Paul (balding, with a nasally whine of a voice) a character that’s easy to poke fun at, but also to empathize with. Cage successfully portrays Paul as an irritating, sympathetic, fragile person, going effectively bonkers in the frightening and at-times shockingly violent nightmares. Whether unhinged or grounded, Cage clearly relishes the role as an opportunity to reject being pigeonholed into one acting style. Borgli, too, refuses to paint Paul in black-and-white absolutes.

Borgli’s screenplay encourages viewers not to root for or against Paul as the collateral damage piles up. Nor does Borgli vilify the masses who launch Paul into stardom and, subsequently, the cultural garbage bin. Rather, “Dream Scenario” depicts a world that abuses the idea of celebrity, simultaneously punishing Paul’s dependence on being seen and admired without taking responsibility for his own happiness. 

It’s also quite funny, containing one of the best cinematic farts to ever grace the silver screen. This tonal imbalance can be distracting, for sure, though maybe that’s the point, reflecting Paul’s separation from his modest beginnings. Paul’s world is crumbling before his eyes — the public plays satirical whack-a-mole with his feelings. This brings comedy and tragedy to the table, making laughs catch in viewers’ throats.

Additionally, by matter-of-factly depicting the film’s nightmare sequences, “Dream Scenario” dares viewers to separate the monstrous incarnation of Paul from his true self. As viewers weave in and out of “lived experience” (jumping into victims’ dreams, which cinematographer Benjamin Loeb frames as slightly-heightened reality), perhaps, the film says, we cannot. 

Overall, “Dream Scenario” reveals itself as an absurdist take on human folly that shares similarities with director Ari Aster’s  “Beau is Afraid” in manifesting its protagonist’s worst fears (Aster’s a producer on “Dream Scenario”) and punishing them for their cowardice and lack of accountability. 

The film’s fatalism, however, is a double-edged sword. Borgli sends Paul down a path with no easy exit or opportunities for redemption (throwing in on-the-nose cultural references meant to provoke). To its credit, what plays out seems plausibly true-to-life in terms of Paul’s reactions and how society treats him. This predictability also breeds hopelessness and lack of resolution, becoming less involving due to its inevitabilities. Once Paul’s life has been suitably demolished, the film seems unsure what to do with him — reflecting Paul’s own sad aimlessness, yet remaining incomplete as a story. 

Besides Paul, supporting characters of varying complexity are brought to life by an ensemble committed to the craziness. Nicholson brings warmth, sass, and heartbreak to her role as Janet, dealing first-hand with the fallout of Paul’s declining mental state and selfishness. Cera is excellent at delivering his dryly comedic dialogue, as are Kate Berlant and an uncomfortably hilarious Dylan Gelula as his associates. Tim Meadows steals scenes as Paul’s department head reconciling his friendship with Paul with the pariah he becomes.

Altogether, “Dream Scenario” is a bizarre, unconventionally compelling watch — calling out people like Paul and our social-media-obsessed, consumerist society at large — content to unsettle and leave threads dangling. Third-act clunkiness notwithstanding, it’s a one-of-a-kind work difficult to forget.

“Dream Scenario” is a 2023 comedy written, directed and edited by Kristoffer Borgli and starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Tim Meadows, Michael Cera and Dylan Gelula. It is Rated R for language, violence and some sexual content. and its run time is1 hour, 43 minutes. It opens in theatres Dec. 1.Alex’s Grade: B+.

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+

By Alex McPherson

A disturbing story of greed, prejudice, and the American Dream soaked in venom, director Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” raises awareness of heinous crimes committed against the Osage People, and contains outstanding craftsmanship, but remains limited in perspective. Scorsese’s film is a reminder of the hardships and resilience of the Osage framed largely through the eyes of White evildoers, to emotionally compromised effect.

Based on David Grann’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name, “Killers of the Flower Moon” centers around the “Reign of Terror” that befell members of the Osage Nation in the early 1920s. After being forced to relocate to supposedly desolate land in Oklahoma, members of the Osage Nation discovered that their new surroundings contained oil — rendering them the richest people per capita on Earth, but also targets for manipulation by those eager to strip them of all rights and privileges.

Such is the case of William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy cattle rancher and businessman, who feigns love for the Osage but seeks to take control of their oil-rich lands via any means necessary, including murdering them for oil rights.

Hale’s nephew, the infuriating and slow-witted Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), returns from working as a cook in World War I, looking to Hale for a job, unabashedly admitting his love for women and money. Ernest, having injuries that prevent him from doing much manual labor, starts working as a cab driver, where he meets Mollie Kyle (an incredible Lily Gladstone) — a beautiful, sharply intelligent woman quietly enraged at the ways she’s treated by White-dominated authority — and becomes smitten with her. 

DiCaprio and Gladstone as Ernest and Mollie

Hale encourages Ernest to seduce and marry Mollie, who also happens to be an heir to a large fortune in oil royalties held by her mother, Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal) — so long as Mollie’s sisters and their husbands aren’t around to inherit it first. Thus sets the stage for brazen brutality, as Hale and Ernest’s schemes grow ever more elaborate, and Ernest becomes a part of Mollie’s family — developing genuine love for her while simultaneously killing her family behind her back: infuriatingly ignorant and/or unwilling to reckon with his own bloodthirstiness and lack of humanity. Eventually, a J. Edgar Hoover-ordered FBI investigation gets underway, led by agent Tom White (Jesse Plemmons), but the grisly damage has already been done.

Indeed, “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells a sobering, insidious story that needs to be told, taking plenty of time to set the scene, emphasize the devilish machinations of its villains, and educate viewers on the hardships and resilience of the Osage Nation. What’s sacrificed by Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth’s screenplay, however, is a more intentional, meaningful focus. 

The film spotlights Ernest’s crisis of conscience (or lack thereof) above diving into the individual tragedies committed against the Osage — illuminating themes that, regardless of relevance, have persisted throughout American history. Scorsese misses an opportunity to explore new, informative points-of-view that have previously been sidelined in mainstream storytelling of this scale.

Stylistically, “Killers of the Flower Moon” excels, but viewers shouldn’t expect anything less from Scorsese. On a big screen, the film is unquestionably immersive, with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capturing expansive plains and claustrophobic interiors, blinding sun and menacing, pitch-black darkness, in beautiful compositions that rarely draw too much attention to themselves.

Longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker lets scenes breathe and marinate — giving the incredible ensemble, including numerous Indigenous actors, room to stretch their wings, with Scorsese taking a noticeably sparse directorial style that eschews flashiness for intimate contemplation: sometimes taking a more spiritual, matter-of-fact approach in depicting Osage customs.

Acts of violence against the Osage are depicted with cold remove — coming seemingly out of nowhere, shocking in their immediacy and grotesque without being gratuitous. The late Robbie Robertson’s score is particularly effective as an omnipresent heartbeat to the monstrous acts unfolding before our eyes.

DiCaprio delivers a characteristically engaging performance as Ernest, with a rough-hewn look, disastrous dentistry, and playful swagger that belies a dark heart of greed and moral bankruptcy.

Viewers going into “Killers of the Flower Moon” with expectations for Ernest to be “redeemed” won’t find that arc here, as his love for Mollie is always offset by the cruelty he exhibits behind her back: a buffoon resistant to the shred of goodness located somewhere deep within his corrupted heart.

As our primary vessel for this story, he’s frustrating, if not outright idiotic, being manipulated by Hale and giving into base instincts that cannot coexist alongside his life with Mollie, try though he might.

DeNiro is frighteningly unhinged as Hale, swerving between Hale’s public and private personas with precision. Hale enlists henchmen to do his dirty work for him, but he remains a powerful presence, and Scorsese’s film gives us plenty of time to observe him pulling strings and explaining his schemes, hiding his conspiracies behind seemingly benign smiles and a culture of complicity.

 Gladstone is, without a doubt, the film’s MVP, conveying warmth, quiet rage, crushing sadness, and persistent hope with minimal dialogue. Through it all, Mollie’s bravery shines through — her resistance to accepting Ernest’s betrayal is heartbreaking to watch.

It’s too bad that “Killers of the Flower Moon” fades her into the background after a certain point, though, as well as giving her siblings and other members of the Osage Nation — featuring powerful performances from Cara Jade Myers, Janae Collins, Jillian Dion, and William Belleau, among others — only a handful of sequences (in the span of a mammoth 206-minute runtime) to divert the spotlight from White evildoers.

That extended runtime exacerbates this issue, especially in the third act, full of legal histrionics and prolonged sequences where viewers watch Ernest and co. squirm under interrogation by the FBI; their incompetence and stupidity on full display, even as the “justice system” fails to live up to its name. 

A last-minute framing device at the conclusion paints the proceedings in a somewhat new light (commenting on the twisted appeal of true-crime stories to begin with and bringing attention to the limitations of Scorsese’s directorial viewpoint, ending with a notable shift back to the Osage in its closing moments), but perhaps “Killers of the Flower Moon” could have been better told by a filmmaker more willing to buck tradition.

It’s admirable that Scorsese takes on the challenge here, and will undoubtedly raise awareness to these real-life happenings, but “Killers of the Flower Moon” is also ham-strung by his own storytelling patterns. It’s an important film brimming with technical mastery and exceptional performances, but one that’s not nearly as enlightening or emotionally gripping as it believes it is.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a 2023 historical western true crime drama directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons. Cara Jade Myers, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow, Tommy Schultz
Rated: R for violence, some grisly images, and language, the run time is 3 hours, 26 minutes. It opens in theatres Oct. 20 and will stream on Apple TV+ at a later date, to be announced. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

Powered by enthralling performances from Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, director Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play” is an effective, if exhausting, thriller exploring gender politics and self-destructive ambition in a corporate world devoid of empathy.

The film follows Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich), who we first meet on the dance floor of a New York City wedding reception. They sneak away to the bathroom to have sex, and in the middle of it, Luke’s engagement ring falls out of his pocket. Turns out, he was planning on proposing to Emily. She enthusiastically says yes. Luke and Emily are happy, and everything seems nice and dandy — so long as, we soon learn, their shared workplace doesn’t learn about their romance, and Emily’s chatterbox mother doesn’t spill the beans to anyone else. 

Emily and Luke are both stock analysts at the same company, One Crest Capital, where inter-office romance goes against company policy, and sanity goes to die. Analysts work long hours in hopes of ascending the ranks of power, hungering at any opportunity for a promotion by the hand of coldly intimidating Campbell (Eddie Marsan). 

Suited-up workers (mostly men) live and breathe financial jargon; each decision to buy or sell is based on insider information they’ve plugged into with obsessive attention to detail, with plenty of toxicity to spare in their predatory glances and fake-nice banter. They’re opportunistic, skilled at their jobs, and always on the lookout for blood in the water like well-dressed sharks.

After OCC’s “PM” (portfolio manager) is unceremoniously fired — the frustrated sap smashes up his office with a golf club — rumors spread that Campbell is eyeing Luke to take over the role. Luke is thrilled, as is Emily; this is Luke’s big break, an acknowledgement of his hard work and dominance over his peers. Things don’t play out like Luke anticipates, though. Emily gets a late-night call inviting her for drinks with Campbell, who informs her that she’s going to be the new PM. 

Let’s just say, Luke is none too thrilled, despite his performative attempts at congratulating Emily. And thus begins the couple’s downward spiral, as deep-seated insecurities and OCC’s cancerous work culture seeps into their very beings — tearing them apart from the inside out. And we get to see it all for our entertainment.

Indeed, “Fair Play” is a striking, viscerally uncomfortable viewing experience unfolding like a train wreck we’re powerless to stop. With crackling dialogue, committed performances, and nerve-shredding editing, the film is an impressive feature debut from Domont, albeit one whose pedal-to-the-metal approach becomes numbing after a certain point. It’s a feel-bad, socially-aware thriller spiked with cynicism and fatalism.

Alden Ehrenreich as Luke

Gluing all this together are two attention-grabbing performances from Dynevor and Ehrenreich making the whole ordeal even more (intentionally) painful to witness. They’re both beautiful people, given plenty of time to enjoy each other’s bodies and exchange playful banter, but the shadow Emily’s promotion casts over their connection is keenly felt from the moment it’s revealed. Emily and Luke’s subsequent conversations take on a different tone entirely, from passive-aggressive to viciously confrontational.

Dynevor adeptly sells Emily’s hard-working mindset and gradual realization of her crumbling relationship — her efforts to cling to what’s left of her bond with Luke (mostly sex) are stifled by Luke’s unwillingness to reciprocate: it’s the one thing he has power over that he can spitefully refuse her. As Emily weaves between her personas to fit in with the “boy’s club,” her ability to maintain composure slips further and further, erupting in righteous fury in the harrowing third act, as her desperate attempts to hold onto the impossible backfire. 

Through subtle (and not so subtle) body language and dialogue, Dynevor imbues Emily with humanity lacking from the majority of male characters. “Fair Play” doesn’t necessarily endorse Emily’s drastic decisions later on, but she’s depicted as the far more three-dimensional, sympathetic character than Luke ever is. This isn’t necessarily an issue, but Domont’s attempts to be provocative fall somewhat short when Emily’s side of the conflict is so easy to latch onto compared to Luke’s, whose ingrained issues are apparent early on and irreversible.

Luke, by contrast, is a deeply insecure, jealous man schooled on problematic forms of masculinity where any threat to his ego and status hits like a sledgehammer: a sleight against his work-obsessed being that he’s worked hard to cultivate. Ehrenreich is excellent, as always, perpetually looking like a sad puppy behind Emily’s back — rendering Luke’s steep de-evolution into rageful hate all the more believable and chilling, albeit telegraphed early on. The further Emily climbs, the further Luke sinks into bitterness: both sides are unable to extricate their personal lives from their work lives, resulting in alarming sequences brought vividly to life by the actors, who deliver Domont’s acerbic screenplay with fanged precision.

Stylistically, “Fair Play” operates at a high level, too, enhancing the ferocity of the performances. Menno Mans’ cinematography is oppressively constrained, closing in on Emily and Luke as violent tension escalates. While not filmed in New York City, Mans’ camera, combined with jarring sound design (heightening sounds of a screeching metro or speeding cars to cold, uncaring, machinelike effect) beautifully conveys the treacherous world Luke and Emily have brought themselves into. Ominous skyscrapers loom overhead observing their every move. It’s almost like we’re watching a horror film.

By the third act, when things really go off the rails, “Fair Play” can be tough to stomach, and hopelessly pessimistic in its depiction of two characters losing their grasp on reality. But that’s exactly how we’re supposed to feel: stressed and panicked, with no room to breathe until the credits roll and we’re finally removed from this unpleasant conflict. The hysterics can be tiring, yet “Fair Play” is still compulsively watchable from start to finish, with ever-relevant themes that linger.

“Fair Play” is a 2023 drama-thriller written and directed by Chloe Domont starring Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, and Eddie Marsan

It is rated R for pervasive language, sexual content, some nudity, and sexual violence, and the run time is 1 hour, 53 minutes.

It opened in select theaters Sept. 29 and began streaming on Netflix Oct. 6. Alex’s Grade: B+.

By Alex McPherson

Visually sumptuous but thematically reductive, director Gareth Edwards’ science-fiction drama, “The Creator,” can’t match its awe-inspiring imagery with a well thought-out story.

Edwards’ film opens with a retro-style newsreel setting the scene. The year is 2055, and advanced AI robots (some with “Chappie”-like appearances and others, called “Simulants,” who resemble humans with hollow cylinders in their heads carrying the donated consciousnesses of deceased people) assist humans in their day-to-day-lives. Disaster strikes one day, however, and a nuclear bomb goes off in Los Angeles, with AI allegedly to blame.

The American government and its Western allies ban the technology, while the Republic of New Asia, a mishmash of various Asian countries, embraces AI. Thus a war is sparked between America and New Asia–in which the American military uses a massive Death-Star-esque weapon called Nomad, which scans landscapes like a photocopier and reigns down explosive, synth-heavy destruction upon any poor saps caught in its radius. 

We meet our protagonist, Joshua (John David Washington), who lost an arm and a leg in the blast, a decade later, as he works undercover as a military operative seeking to hunt down the “Nirmata,” an inventor who’s supposedly built something that will win the war for AI. Joshua is married to a pregnant robotics whiz named Maya (Gemma Chan), who’s lived among Simulants her whole life and will hopefully lead Joshua and his team to victory, without knowing his true intentions. After a raid goes badly, Maya is supposedly killed and Joshua is injured again – Nirmata is still out there.

Five years later, Joshua (depressed and retired from the special-forces) is pulled back into the fray, after the severe Colonel Howell (an unhinged Allison Janney) shows him recorded footage proving that Maya is still alive, and that they’ve located Nirmata’s creation. Thus, Joshua and his posse travel behind enemy lines, and chaos ensues, with Joshua eventually locating the earth-shattering invention: a childlike simulant (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who he dubs Alphie. Alphie has the power to shut down any technology with her mind, and her powers grow as she grows.

Will Joshua bond with Alphie or kill her? Will he learn the error of his ways and learn to accept the Other? Who are really the “heroes” of this story? They sure as hell aren’t Americans, or humankind in general. Could this film be any more blunt in its social commentary?

A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

For all its visual magistery, “The Creator” ultimately has little of substance to say about imperialism, acceptance, and the existential threat of AI. Cobbling together elements of “Apocalypse Now,” “Blade Runner,” “Avatar,” and “District 9,” among others, Edwards’ film lumbers down a predictable path beset by insensitivity and uneven pacing. The tactility of the world-building and visceral action sequences can’t make up for the fact that, at best, “The Creator” remains a simplistically watchable sci-fi war film, and, at worst, a tone-deaf story in support of AI, where humankind is the enemy, capitalizing on real-world horrors to support its obvious messaging.

It’s a shame, because Edwards and co. truly make the most of their modest budget to present visuals going toe-to-toe with anything else released this year. From rice fields to ramshackle fishing villages, neon-drenched cityscapes, isolated beaches, and valleys surrounded by saw-toothed mountains, “The Creator” admirably grounds its futuristic technology onto a tangible, physical canvas. Much of the film was shot on-location across such places as Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia, and the resulting visuals, captured by cinematographer Greig Fraser with grimy, at-times documentary-esque ruggedness, have an extra layer of authenticity that further lessens the divide between the film’s alternate reality and our own. 

Additionally, action sequences unfold with weighty, removed coldness. They’re often unpleasant in terms of the sheer number of casualties (human or otherwise), and don’t shy away from showcasing the might of the American military’s weapons on vulnerable targets, or the AI soldiers’ viciousnesses in return – even more effective when Hans Zimmer’s blaring score fades away entirely from the background.

The tech on display in “The Creator” largely seems within the realm of possibility with the way our current “advancements” are trending. Elements such as the aforementioned downloading-of-consciousness and robot soldiers are chilling, along with the fact that AI sentience doesn’t feel all that far off in real-life. It’s unlikely they’d all be as valiant and upstanding as “The Creator” depicts them, though. 

A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

More uncomfortable is the way Edwards and co. transpose iconography of the Vietnam War into this “futuristic” storyline. It feels problematic, to say the least, that this new “race” of beings largely stands-in for Asian characters, calling to mind cultural memories of actual atrocities, made even less tactful by the fact that the vast majority of AI characters – Alphie included, despite Voyles’ best efforts – are one-note and emblematic of the film’s unambiguous approach to storytelling; their literal inhumanity is sometimes the target of disturbing cruelty.

Indeed, perhaps the heavy-handed messaging and seen-it-before plot developments would be more excusable if “The Creator” had characters worth caring about. Washington, to his credit, tries his darndest to make us connect to Joshua, but the film’s messy editing kneecaps him, giving viewers only sporadic moments to slow down and feel his pain, anguish, and renewed purpose. Frequent flashbacks to Joshua’s time with Maya break momentum, as does the film’s confused sense of space and time itself. A character could be at the base of a mountain one moment and at the top of it the next, contrasting heavily with the otherwise naturalistic approach to world-building. It’s understandable that Edwards wants to show viewers as many sights and sounds as possible, but we lose crucial in-between moments as a result, where the characters are able to develop beyond their familiar archetypes. Voyles brings warmth, levity, and impassioned attempts at inducing tears in her performance as Alphie, but there’s ultimately not much that separates her story from other “special child” narratives.

(L-R): John David Washington as Joshua and Madeleine Yuna Voyles as Alphie in 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

What we’re left with is a film that’s an at-times impressive spectacle undercut by a self-serious, even queasy refusal to break tradition. The big screen might be the best way to watch “The Creator,” but viewers should leave expectations of the next great sci-fi masterpiece at the door.

“The Creator” is a 2023 science-fiction action film co-written and directed by Gareth Edwards and starring John David Washington, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan and Allison Janney. It is rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images and strong language, and runs 2 hours, 13 minutes. It opened in theaters September 29. Alex’s Grade: C+

By Alex McPherson

Less smart and invigorating than it thinks it is, but containing strong performances and comedic zing, director Craig Gillespie’s “Dumb Money” eschews the nuance of its recent-history narrative in favor of amiable watchability.

Gillespie’s film, based on “The Antisocial Network” by Ben Mezrich, dramatizes the tumultuous happenings of the Gamestop “short squeeze” of January 2021. A red headband-and- cat-shirt-wearing Redditor named Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a.k.a. DeepF*******Value on Reddit and Roaring Kitty on YouTube and Twitter, rallies an Internet army to fight back against The Rich and make it big.

After determining that the company is undervalued, Keith goes all in on GameStop — convincing his large swathe of followers on the subreddit r/wallstreetbets to buy GameStop stock and eventually make the price skyrocket to $500 a share. 

The uber-wealthy hedge fund managers betting on GameStop’s failure — Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio, sometimes accompanied by a CGI pig), and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman) — lose billions by underestimating the demographic they disparagingly refer to as “dumb money,” while still having some nefarious tricks up their sleeves that result in a Congressional investigation.

Paul Dano as Keith Gill, aka Roaring Kitty

Beginning at the peak of the squeeze, where Rogen’s Plotkin runs to make a phone call in sheer panic, the film jumps back and forth between five groups of characters showcasing various perspectives on the situation, each introduced with text indicating their net worth.

There’s Gill, whose genius (or luck) and expertise in online parlance helped start a movement — facing pressure to sell his skyrocketing stock from his loving wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley, mining some pathos out of a fairly simplistic role), his amusingly deadbeat brother Kevin (Pete Davidson, in top form), and his somewhat clueless parents, Steve (Clancy Brown) and Elaine (Kate Burton) — while never quite knowing when to call it quits.

There’s the down-on-his-luck Gamestop employee Marcos Barcia (Anthony Ramos), who’s passionate about the company but contending with a condescending boss (Dane DeHaan). There’s the indebted University of Texas undergraduates Riri (Myha’la Herrold) and Harmony (Talia Ryder), who follow Roaring Kitty religiously and feel compelled to hold their shares as long as he does.

We also follow Jenny (America Ferrera), a stressed, underpaid nurse raising two toddlers and listening intently to Keith’s instructions. Last, and certainly least, there’s the hedge fund managers, caught with their pants down and scrambling to recover their losses, with Vlad Tenev (an underused but smarmily effective Sebastian Stan), the head of day-trading company Robinhood, playing a skeevy role in the whole kerfuffle.

With so many mini-narratives taking place under one umbrella, “Dumb Money” lacks the focus and thematic depth necessary to make any individual subplot hit with the force it could have. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a breezy interpretation of a true story, but it feels like Gillespie is only scratching the surface of the subject matter here — combined with filmmaking that lacks energy or pizazz, coasting on the appeal of its performers and snappy dialogue.

The whole cast delivers, doing what they can with characters of varying degrees of dimensionality. Dano is as reliably committed as always — weaving in and out of Keith’s various personas with ease; his confidence and quirkiness before his viewers reverting to awkwardness and defensiveness in front of his family. We never doubt the passion and devotion Keith has to his mission.

Davidson, once again definitely not playing against type, delivers the film’s most successful comedic lines. Lauren Schiker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s screenplay mines dry comedy out of his laissez-faire approach to Kevin’s DoorDash job and his dumbfoundedness at Keith’s ever increasing ambition (and risk-taking) over not selling his stock. 

Ramos, Herrold, and Ryder are fine, bringing energy to their characters, even though we don’t learn all that much about them besides their participation in the short squeeze, and Ferrera sells Jenny’s anxiousness and desperation, putting her livelihood on the line and leaving her social life behind. 

Strength of the cast aside, though, one can’t help but feel like “Dumb Money” didn’t have to be an ensemble piece to begin with. What’s sacrificed by Gillespie’s approach is a deeper, more involving watch, where viewers fully understand the characters’ motivations rather than solely being told facts and being expected to buy into them.

Nick Offerman and Seth Rogen as hedge fund billionaires.

Viewers jump back and forth between the characters at various stages of the short squeeze, never spending enough time with them to fully appreciate their para-social bond with the man they’re risking their livelihoods over, relying on the heavy-handed screenplay to tell us how to feel in largely black-and-white clarity. 

Marcus, Riri, Harmony, and Jenny never meet Keith in-person — distanced yet hanging by his every word — and Gillespie misses an opportunity to explore the allure, compulsion, and righteousness they each feel by following Keith’s lead, besides bluntly stating that they feel certain ways before viewers cut away to a different character.

The hedge fund managers, brought to life with entertainingly snooty performances, are fun to sneer at, but one-note. It doesn’t help that Gillespie’s direction lacks energy, failing to capture the dynamism of directors tackling similar subjects like Adam McKay did with “The Big Short.”

Indeed, no amount of memes flashing on screen, Cardi B music drops, or amusing lines of dialogue can ever fully make up for the fact that “Dumb Money” is simplistic and devoid of true insight into the rigged game of stocks or wealth inequality. At least this David vs. Goliath tale remains an agreeable watch despite all this.

The screenplay’s preference for comedy — not dwelling on the stress or darker aspects of the story too much before reverting to laughs — undersells the stakes to a certain extent, but shines in moments separated from the Internet, especially involving Keith’s family and characters navigating mask-use during COVID. 

Additionally, it’s commendable that Gillespie makes all the stock-chatter mostly understandable and digestible. This approach, though — streamlining real-world events into accessible entertainment — applies to the film’s emotional element as well, rendering the attempts at both first-pumping and sobering moments all the more manufactured and lightweight, especially when the arguably more engaging epilogue is conveyed through on-screen text. 

At the end of the day, however, watching smug grifters get their just desserts remains satisfying to watch unfold, no matter how shallow Gillespie and company frame it. “Dumb Money” is too slight to linger long in the mind, but as a crowd-pleasing underdog story, it rises enough to the occasion.

Rushi Kota and Sebastian Stan as the Robinhood investors

“Dumb Money” is a 2023 comedy directed by Craig Gillespie and stars Paul Dano, Seth Rogan, Nick Offerman, Pete Davidson, Shailene Woodley, America Ferrara, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sebastian Stan, and Anthony Ramos. It is rated R for pervasive language, sexual material, and drug use, and the run time is 1 hour, 45 minutes. It opens in theaters Sept. 22. Alex’s Grade: B-

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly Reilly

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Yeoh as medium Mrs Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

Javier Botet is Dracula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LIam Cunningham is the Captain.

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

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