An action extravaganza delivering unforgettable set pieces while adding more layers to its damaged protagonist, director Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick: Chapter 4” is a masterclass in balletic bloodletting that rivals the likes of “The Raid: Redemption.”

Continuing the story from 2018’s “Parabellum,” “Chapter 4” sees our titular gun-fu master recovering after being “rescued” by the charismatic and street-smart Winston (Ian McShane), one of his comrades and manager of the iconic New York Continental hotel (a safe harbor for assassins, so long as they stay in line): that is, being shot in his bullet-proof suit by Winston, falling off a building, and tumbling to the ground with only an awning to lessen the impact. That’s life in the Wick universe, and believe me, there’s plenty more falls to be taken this go around. 

With the help of The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, relishing his over-the-top dialogue), an underground crime boss and ally, John sets his sights on the all-powerful “High Table” — an international network of contract killers and pompous overlords dressing up savagery in finely tailored suits. They’re governed by strict rules based around golden coins, blood oaths, and age-old traditions — ignored by traditional authorities and the general populace, possessing connections so deep that anyone could be a contract killer. Indeed, this “impossible task” is John’s most challenging yet.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick, a.k.a The Baba Yaga. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

After John executes a key figure of the High Table, they enlist the help of the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) — a ruthless, egotistical yet insecure enforcer with a questionable French accent. He brings Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin and former friend of John, reluctantly out of retirement to kill the titular ass-kicker once and for all, or else risk his daughter’s death. A haughty tracker named Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), accompanied by a trusty German Shepherd, is also on the prowl, waiting until the bounty on John’s head is high enough, creating further wrinkles for John and the Marquis to iron out. Osaka Continental manager and master swordsman Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), his equally capable daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama), and the aptly named Killa (Scott Adkins), a darkly funny crime boss with golden front teeth, join the party in limited but memorable appearances — as does Lance Reddick as the concierge Charon, whose presence is felt deeply throughout. Reddick passed away earlier this month.

“Chapter 4” zeroes in on the fact that John leaves a path of destruction in his wake wherever he goes, as he begins to question whether the killing will ever cease, and if he’s doomed to forever exist in its shadow. His last-ditch push for liberation has progressed beyond mere revenge for a slain canine, becoming an all-out fight against his seemingly inescapable past — a battle that, in spite of his perseverance, stubborn unwillingness to give in, and sheer force of will, destroys more than it saves. 

Notwithstanding this decidedly darker tone than previous installments, however, it’s also just a hell of a lot of fun — nearly three hours of practically unbelievable stunt work, heavily stylized worldbuilding, and cinematic bliss. Some story quibbles aside, every element comes together to solidify “Chapter 4” as not only the best of the series, but one of the genre’s greatest in recent memory.

And oh, what marvelous carnage it is. Even more so than previous “Wick” films, Stahelski consistently ups the ante from sequence to sequence — expertly pacing the mayhem so as to not overwhelm viewers and presenting new variables for John to navigate. As John shoots, stabs, kicks, punches, slices, runs over, and nun-chucks his geared-up opponents, Dan Lausten’s smooth, energetic cinematography follows the performers with precision, unafraid to creatively shake things up to jaw-dropping effect. Traveling to such locales as Osaka, Berlin, and Paris (the setting for a three-act, against-the-clock extravaganza of top-shelf badassery and mythic symbolism), “Chapter 4” never overstays its welcome. 

John prepares to pummel a poor, unsuspecting goon. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Scenes are bathed in vivid, neon hues: enhancing the lavish backdrops with evocative lighting that dances throughout each frame to complement combat so thrilling, and often laugh-out-loud funny (Caine has some hilarious tricks up his sleeve), that it’s an art form itself. Add to that a head-banging soundtrack from Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard blending familiar themes with violently rhythmic bass, along with pitch-perfect needle drops, and “Chapter 4” is a stylistic treat.

Despite the extended runtime, “Chapter 4” gives viewers space to breathe, occasionally pumping the brakes to establish more pathos than other films in the series. The first hour or so, for example, largely turns the camera away from John himself — focusing on how the fallout from his vengeful actions have consequences for his friends and those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Caine, too, is facing a moral crossroads — brought back into the fold to protect the person he cares about most, mirroring the struggle John faced with his deceased wife, Helen, brought authentically to life by Yen’s multifaceted performance. All of this combines to make “Chapter 4” a much more melancholic watch than expected — packing all the cheer-worthy mayhem viewers want and expect, while giving everything more weight, and, crucially, tangible stakes. 

Reeves continues to dominate the role, though speaking less than in previous entries (which says a lot). It’s clear the acrobatics aren’t so easy for the aging actor to pull off anymore, but in a sense, this lends each punch thrown and received additional impact. Previous films have shown John getting beat up and persisting to come out on top, and “Chapter 4” is no exception — we see his increasing frustration and self-destructiveness as he determinedly demolishes his adversaries, perpetually gearing up for the next onslaught. There’s still plenty of cheesiness in his interactions, thankfully, which brings levity to even the plot’s grimmest stretches.

Alas, “Chapter 4” has some drawbacks. Shay Hatten and Michael Finch’s screenplay crackles with dark humor and is tastefully self-referential, not overloading on quips like a Marvel production. But a bit more subtlety could have benefited “Chapter 4,” particularly in how a certain big twist is telegraphed early on, and is repetitively force-fed to us until the end. An after-credits scene is similarly unnecessary, lessening the impact of narrative decisions made earlier.

This is still an incredible watch — essential for admirers of masterful filmmaking. Amid all the bone-crushing ultraviolence, “Chapter 4” has heart and soul, giving this iconic character another action spectacular for the ages.

Courtesy of Lionsgate.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is a 2023 action film directed by Chad Stahelski and starring Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Shamier Anderson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, and Scott Adkins. It is rated R for pervasive strong violence and some language. The runtime is 2 hours, 49 minutes. It opened in theaters March 24. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Alex McPherson

Ambitious but held back by genre conventions, Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut “Creed III” features great performances and viscerally engaging boxing sequences, while sidelining its more thoughtful ideas to a fault.

Continuing the story of Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Jordan), the son of Rocky Balboa’s rival-turned-friend Apollo, “Creed III” sees our hero encountering ghosts from his past entering the literal and figurative arena. We begin with a flashback to 15-year-old Adonis (Thaddeus J. Mixson) sneaking out of his mother’s house to watch his best pal Damian Anderson (Spence Moore II) compete in a local Golden Gloves competition.

Damian, a boxing prodigy, dreams of one day becoming the world heavyweight champion. His hopes come to a screeching halt as Adonis starts an altercation with someone outside a liquor store. Damian is arrested in the ensuing scuffle, spending 20 grueling years behind bars, and Adonis gets away.

Seven years after the events of “Creed II,” Adonis announces his retirement from boxing to spend time with his wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who’s now a music producer; his deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent); and his adoptive mother, Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad).

A few years later, Adonis runs a boxing academy, training his new protégé, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), for a title shot against Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), with the help of the gruff, wise Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris). Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, such a pivotal presence in the previous “Creed” films, is nowhere to be found.

Everything seems to be working out quite nicely for Adonis. He’s rich, with a happy family, and has secured his place among the boxing legends. What he isn’t ready for, regardless, is a reckoning with his past. Damian (a scene-stealing Jonathan Majors) shows up outside his gym unexpectedly, looking to make up for lost time. Adonis and Damian’s interactions are awkward, mixing flashes of their former camaraderie with creeping unease and resentment. Damian, as it turns out, isn’t so thrilled about Adonis’ success, and wants to finally realize his goals through whatever means necessary.

Adonis — bottling up feelings of guilt, trauma, and diminishing self-worth — must confront this symbol of his past and make peace with it for good. This involves an eventual heart-to-heart (or, rather, fist-to-face) in the place most conducive to resolving conflict: the boxing ring, in front of boatloads of rabid fans.

Indeed, for all of Jordan’s high-minded aspirations, “Creed III” ultimately plays it safe, pitting Adonis against a frustratingly limited antagonist reverting back to a predictable formula, and using its layered themes as window-dressing for seen-it-before spectacle. It’s still entertaining, though — delivering the bruising set-pieces, extravagant training montages, and reliably solid performances we expect, albeit not breaking free of tradition to deliver a KO.

As a directorial debut, “Creed III” is impressive, with Jordan competently helming the action and giving actors plenty of room to flex their chops. The boxing scenes themselves remain the highlight; cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau puts viewers right in the thick of it, giving each punch a tactile sting. Jordan also uses slow-motion to emphasize their raw impact and the considerations behind each jab, while being unafraid to take a more “artistic” approach in visualizing the boxers’ inner thoughts during climactic showdowns. The film gets quite brutal at times, leaving viewers with both feelings of cathartic excitement and, perhaps, a bit of exhaustion. 

Outside the ring, “Creed III” is far less stylish, with muted color grading and conventional framing of dialogue-heavy scenes, interspersing flashbacks to that fateful day in Adonis and Damian’s history. Joe Shirley’s score is chock-full of memorable tunes and recurring motifs, which help propel the proceedings along and lend even the less successful moments a distinct identity.

Jordan continues to shine as Adonis — depicting his range as a loving father, devoted husband, yet someone whose ego and sense of “masculinity” affects his willingness to be vulnerable. Despite his lavish home and outward appearance of strength and happiness, Adonis is battling self-doubt regarding his accomplishments, exacerbated by Damian’s re-emergence and subsequent manipulation.

Having already watched Adonis ascend through the boxing ranks and manage his father’s legacy (a central theme of the previous films), it’s interesting, in theory, to watch him grapple with his fame, and recognize just how easily it could have gone the other way — although this introspection leads (unsurprisingly) back to the blunt boxing ring, the ultimate mediator. Majors proves a worthy foil in Damian, bringing a jumpy, volatile energy ensuring him and Jordan are always engaging to watch interact onscreen, ignoring the script’s clunkiness.

Thompson gives characteristic gravitas to Bianca, who plays an ancillary role to Adonis’ arc but faces her own challenges; having progressive hearing loss, she’s had to stop her singing career. Davis-Kent (who’s deaf in real life) holds her own alongside Jordan, Thompson, and Majors — making the most out of a role that’s ultimately setting the stage for a “Creed” spinoff down the road.

The bulk of the film’s issues stem from the framing of Damian as an over-the-top adversary. Damian’s a damaged man, looking for retribution against his childhood friend: they grew up together, but he took a vastly different life path, largely due to chance. With this backstory, Damian should be easy to sympathize with, but “Creed III” too often sways to extremes — depicting Damian as a taunting and merciless individual who, at times, seems less like a flesh-and-blood human being than a “big bad” for our (flawed) lead to vanquish.

By the end, “Creed III” largely eschews the moral ambiguity that was initially so interesting to deliver the usual thrills and avoid deeper insight into both Damian and Adonis’ psyches; in the end, it lacks the emotion that might take it to another level. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but considering the talent involved and a premise begging for more depth, the cast deserves better — especially Majors, whose versatility as a performer isn’t fully capitalized on.

For most viewers, however, “Creed III” will suffice, if not exceed expectations. The fundamentals are all there, but this story could have used another bout of training.

“Creed III” is a 2023 sports action-drama directed by Michael B. Jordan and starring Jordan, Jonathan Majors, Tessa Thompson, Mila Kent-Davis and Wood Harris. It is Rated PG-13 for intense sports action, violence and some strong language and runtime 1 hour, 54 minutes. It opened in theaters March 3. Alex’s Grade: B-.

Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed

By Alex McPherson
A gnarly B-movie that’s both messy and thrilling, director Elizabeth Banks’ “Cocaine Bear” delivers on the chaotic fun promised by its title.

Set in 1985, the film — inspired from true, albeit far less “entertaining” events — begins with a crazed drug smuggler named Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) dumping a large shipment of blow over the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest to be retrieved later. The drugs are soon ingested by an American black bear, who, hyped up on the substance, embarks on a path of destruction, not letting anything get between her and the good-good.

When trying to parachute out of his plane, Andrew knocks himself unconscious on the doorframe and falls to his death in Knoxville, Tennessee. He’s then identified by a local policeman named Bob (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), who links the drugs to a ruthless St. Louis kingpin named Syd White (Ray Liotta). Syd enlists his depressed son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who is mourning the loss of his wife, and his tough guy fixer, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), to find the cocaine. They’re unaware that Bob’s on the trail, but, more importantly, unprepared for the cuddly carnivore that awaits them.

Meanwhile, the 12 year-old Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince) and her best friend Henry (Christian Convery) skip school to paint a picture of a waterfall in the forest without telling her mother, Sari (Keri Russell). Before long, they find some bricks of cocaine, eat some of it (as one does), and wander into the vicinity of our titular bear. Sari, who happens to be a nurse, panics and goes out searching for them, accompanied by the raunchy, nonchalant Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and her tree-hugging crush, Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), whose love of nature isn’t exactly reciprocated.

As these disparate groups converge, mama bear joins the party, not caring one iota about their petty human affairs — they are prime meat for the slaughter. Indeed, when the bear is unleashed to wreak gratuitously bloody havoc, Banks’ film shines: creature-feature-slasher as tar-black slapstick comedy. The human drama doesn’t hold up in comparison, but “Cocaine Bear” remains briskly paced and wholeheartedly committed to the bit during its 95-minute runtime, while maintaining an earnest streak through the bloodshed that, for all its awkwardness, fits the proceedings like a glove.

As expected, “Cocaine Bear” doesn’t aim for high-minded social commentary (no pun intended), and never takes itself too seriously. Numerous criticisms can be lobbed its way in terms of structure and consistency, but, perhaps, that’s part of the point — the bear triumphs over all. Nearly every other element, no matter how lackluster, sets up scenarios for her to engage in gory goodness. Even though the film can be a scattershot affair, the payoff is always worth it.

By not anthropomorphizing the bear itself, Banks respects it as an animal hooked on a mysterious substance, instantly addicted and empowered with newfound boldness — unpredictable and dangerous, merciless in its pursuits and not to be trifled with by anyone idiotic enough to believe they stand a chance against it. Performed with impressive motion capture by Allan Henry, the bear is a source of both terror and hilarity, with Banks delivering some genuinely suspenseful set-pieces of it creeping up on and misdirecting its prey; priming viewers for some wholly effective jump-scares and viscera-laden carnage amid rustling foliage and sunswept fields.

One scene involving an ambulance is a masterpiece of dark comedy — fear and tension turning into shocked laughter that’s best viewed with a large crowd of like-minded souls. These sequences, thanks to Banks’ unflinching direction, John Guleserian’s dynamic cinematography, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s synth-heavy score, are memorable, and worth the price of admission alone.

What about the humans, though? “Cocaine Bear” doesn’t prioritize “raw emotion” in their respective arcs, but the ensemble capably shoulders the absurdity. Whitlock Jr. brings his characteristic deadpan dignity to policeman Bob, remaining cool and collected through his exasperation and increasing peril. With a small dog waiting for him at home, we’re rooting for him to make it out alive. Martindale and Ferguson are exceptional — essentially cartoon characters who, for what they lack in groundedness, make up for in charm. Russell convincingly brings out her own “mama bear” side to rescue Dee Dee, while Prince and Convery are hilarious as two rebellious youngsters in way over their heads who aren’t quite as brain-dead as viewers might initially expect. Ehrenreich and Jackson Jr. do what they can, but aren’t nearly as successful with standard archetypes bonding through their trauma bond and finally learning some self-respect. Liotta amusingly hams it up  as the real villain of the piece, rather one-note but enjoyable to watch nevertheless.

Even though “Cocaine Bear” is, well, “Cocaine Bear,” there’s some environmentalist themes that rear their heads, principally the importance of respecting the natural world. Like the shipment of cocaine that’s carelessly dropped into the wilderness, this batch of characters with wildly different life experiences are gathered within a space they don’t belong— encountering a drug-fueled apex predator ready to punish them for their intrusion. Whether or not they deserve their fates, the bear (as it mauls, stalks, and does lines of cocaine off severed limbs) is an equalizing force that removes preconceptions and shifts the humans’ focus to pure survival and self-preservation, at least if they’re smart enough to recognize it. The animal also illuminates their true values. But none of this really matters — it’s just appealing to watch a coked-up bear causing complete and utter chaos. 

Admittedly, there is too much going on plot-wise for “Cocaine Bear” to be as focused and satisfying as it should be. The film’s editing is occasionally clunky, with intermittently awkward transitions that break immersion. Similarly, the film’s jokes are hit-or-miss, with the general vibe representative of “there’s a bear on cocaine, oh no!” and punchlines via over-the-top violence. Cheesiness abounds, which fits with the film’s goofy, 80s-throwback style, but lacks emotional heft. The script’s brand of broad, gross-out humor won’t work for those who don’t find the concept giggle-worthy, or who are easily perturbed by excess gut spillage. 

Fortunately, for this viewer, “Cocaine Bear” is properly filling, meeting expectations and having (slightly) more to unpack than being merely a slasher flick. This is Cocaine Bear’s domain, and we’re just existing in it.

“Cocaine Bear” is a 2023 comedy-thriller directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Ray Liotta, Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Margo Martindale. It is Rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout and the run time is 1 hour, 35 minutes. I opened in theaters Feb. 24. Alex’s Grade: B

By Alex McPherson

With a wonderfully multifaceted performance from Emma Mackey, director Frances O’Connor’s “Emily” is a vibrant, poignant, heartbreaking, and somewhat reductive story loosely inspired by the life of Emily Brontë— full of contradictory elements that entangle in interesting ways, not unlike Emily herself.

Tracing the events leading up to Emily writing the seminal novel Wuthering Heights, “Emily” takes place during the mid-19th century among the blustery moors and pervasively overcast skies of Yorkshire, England, as our heroine experiences joy, sorrow, and self-actualization in an environment where she’s pressured to conform to restrictive ideals.

We first see Emily on her deathbed, as her sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling, bringing much more to the table than “mean sister” energy) scolds her for writing the book and demands she explain how she conceived it. The camera (helmed by cinematographer Nanu Segal, in one of the film’s prolonged close-ups), rotates from horizontal to vertical, as we face Emily head-on and dive into both her, and O’Connor’s, imagination to see how it came to be.

Flashback to some years earlier, and the Brontës are actively mourning the loss of their mother. The household consists of father, Patrick (Adrian Dunbar), a conservative priest unsure of how to deal with Emily’s idiosyncrasies, and sisters Anne (Amelia Gething, charming but underused) and the prim-and-proper Charlotte, who, studying to become a teacher, is envious of Emily’s talents and self-hating in her own alternate paths to achieve what’s expected of her.

There’s also the squirrely brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead, in a devastating turn conveying both playfulness and real hurt), an aspiring writer and painter who Emily feels intensely close to; their bond proves nervously liberating as Branwell indulges in vices and trouble-making.

Emily herself is reclusive, brash, creative, brave, and vulnerable all at once — described as “the Strange One” by locals — who finds solace among the natural world, crafting poems that illuminate her complex inner thoughts. While her siblings find success and failure in their pursuits, Emily remains at the family estate, sheltered and repressed from embracing her calling. The arrival of handsome curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who ends up giving Emily French lessons, sparks something fiery within her — launching a romance where both parties are pulled between their passion and practical reality — with fittingly melodramatic, and, as “Emily” posits, inspirational results.

Although “Emily” doesn’t fully embody the unconventionality of its brilliant subject, O’Connor’s film shines as a tribute to imagination itself, illuminating the ways in which it frees and isolates, wrapped up in a gothic drama alive with raw, sensual energy. What’s lost in the sometimes clunky screenplay is more than made up for by the ensemble’s power, especially Mackey, who brings a tangibly lived-in authenticity to her portrayal, resisting easy classification at every turn.

Mackey, recent winner of the Rising Star Award at this year’s BAFTAs, who starred in “Sex Education” on Netflix and Kenneth Branagh’s “Death of the Nile” last year, commands attention.

O’Connor (herself an actor in such films as “Mansfield Park” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”) often centers her in frame, letting us observe subtle, and not so subtle, shifts in mood. The film refuses to paint her in broad strokes and, as a result, packs a visceral wallop as we ride this roller coaster of feeling along with her. We see Emily physically shrink from social interactions and light up when immersed in her writing: moments of high-strung anxiety and euphoric release. 

She runs the emotional gauntlet over the course of the film — happiness, mischievousness, obsession, and crushing sadness — sometimes alternating between tones in the same scene, with Mackey helping ground even the most over-the-top developments. Her chemistry with Jackson-Cohen is sizzling, though their relationship is doomed from the start, and her sequences with Whitehead are similarly (uncomfortably) charged, creating a tragic love triangle that heads down a marginally predictable path for period dramas.

Accompanied by Segal’s lush, tactile cinematography, authentic costume design by Michael O’Connor, and an amazingly dynamic score by Abel Korzeniowski (mixing cacophonous strings with melancholy, sometimes removing and focusing sound entirely for dramatic effect), “Emily” is quite the sensory treat.

O’Connor incorporates magical realism throughout, bringing a near-supernatural tinge to Emily’s talent that deeply affects those around her. One pivotal scene, for example, involves a game where Emily, her siblings, and Weightman don a mask and pretend to be someone else. Emily pretends to be their late mother — disturbing everyone in the room to their core as the shutters blow open with a fierce wind, like a seance is taking place. It’s a frightening, though overcooked, instance of O’Connor’s stylistic bravado, illustrating storytelling as an immersive, unnerving force.

This memorable scene also ties into the competing forces that torment the characters, not just Emily, as they go about their lives. Emily refuses to conform to societal standards, while becoming isolated and othered as a result. She’s attracted to Weightman more as a vessel for her endeavors than traditional romance, but this dependence spells drastic consequences.

Weightman, himself a poet in his own way, albeit held back by religious expectations, is simultaneously drawn to Emily and petrified by guilt. Branwell battles addiction and self-doubt over his abilities as an artist, and Charlotte denies Emily’s worth, and her own interests, via deep-set insecurities. The film itself is torn between the more expected trappings of the genre and the fantastical, occasionally breaking free to present something surprising and irreverent. 

And the narrative, for all its success in humanizing characters, ultimately winds up undercutting Emily’s own creativity to declare that Wuthering Heights was written largely through lived experience. Who knows how much of “Emily” actually happened, but its final act — full of last-minute revelations, crying, and swooning music — feels rushed, giving tidy resolution and clear takeaways from such a layered character.

It’s unfortunate that “Emily” leaves this crucial element of her being, her creative process, so disappointingly half-baked and based primarily on her experiences with men. O’Connor had a vast canvas to work with thematically here, and in this sense, she doesn’t treat Emily’s legacy with the reverence she deserves.

Her film is still profoundly affecting, with Mackey giving what will undoubtedly be one of the year’s most captivating performances.

“Emily,” a 2022 biographical drama about writer Emily Bronte, her family and loves, is directed by Frances O’Connor and stars Emma Mackey, Alexandra Dowling, Fionn Whitehead, Adrian Dunbar, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Gething and Gemma Jones. It is Rated Rated R for some sexuality/nudity and drug use, and is 2 hours, 10 minutes. It opens Feb. 24 in select local theaters. Alex’s Grade: B+.

By Alex McPherson

Partly saved by excellent performances and technical skill, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Knock at the Cabin” has the bones of a solid thriller but lacks the soul necessary to take it to another level.

Based on the 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” by Paul G. Tremblay, “Knock at the Cabin” centers around a gay couple — the high-strung, defensive Andrew (Ben Aldrige) and the more contemplative, thoughtful Eric (Jonathan Groff) — and their young adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), who take a vacation at a secluded cabin in the woods. 

They’re having a grand ole time until a quartet of randos show up, led by the hulking Leonard (Dave Bautista), wielding makeshift medieval-esque weapons and insisting that they’re here to prevent the apocalypse. After a violent scuffle leaves Eric concussed, Eric and Andrew are tied to chairs and the intruders reveal their true directive. Andrew, Eric, or Wen must willingly give themselves up as a sacrifice, and the family has to kill one of their own, or else witness the death of humanity and be left to wander the scorched earth alone. 

Among the intruders are the aforementioned Leonard, a schoolteacher whose intimidating physique belies melancholy and earnestness; Redmond (Rupert Grint), a hard-edged ex-con; Adriane (Abby Quinn), a palpably nervous restaurant cook  and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse. They’ve each completely devoted themselves to the cause, despite being fearful of carrying it out. Eric, and especially Andrew, are shocked, confused, and doubtful, but their captors aren’t playing around. 

As time passes without a result, the unwelcome guests sacrifice themselves one-by-one, each death prompting large-scale catastrophes to unfold, from extreme weather events to a pandemic (ahem), which they watch on newscasts. The family must decide whether or not to believe their captors and to weigh saving humanity at large against the safety of their hard-fought unit. 

Thanks to gripping performances from the entire ensemble and a pervasive sense of claustrophobic tension, “Knock at the Cabin” is highly enjoyable in the moment, yet falters upon further reflection. The film’s various puzzle pieces haphazardly fit together, leading to toothless reveals that undercut the premise and have little new to say about “the apocalypse as moral dilemma,” especially when viewed as an allegory for climate change.

Still, there’s no denying the strength of the cast assembled here. Bautista is the obvious standout — both frightening and sympathetic. We can see each of the intruders wrestle with their compulsion, but Bautista is by far the most nuanced, embodying an antagonist whose devotion we never doubt, though his “reality” might be skewed. Grint, far separated from his portrayal of Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” franchise, chews scenery to a pulp as Redmond, dangerous and vulnerable. Quinn and Amuka-Bird are similarly solid — deeply uncomfortable in their shoes, but unwavering from their mission, with children they want to return to and secure a safe future for.

Aldrige and Groff are believable and endearing as the central couple, although the screenplay (by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman) doesn’t do them any favors, leaning into exaggeration and heavy-handed explanation that could have used a subtler touch. Andrew is, understandably, fuming with rage, accusing the group of being warped by conspiracy theories and targeting him and Eric because of their sexuality. A hate crime committed against him in the past has left him psychologically scarred and fiercely protective of Eric and Wen, unwilling to give them up under any circumstances and sometimes acting rashly as a result. While this character trait does lend itself to the film’s sense of anticipation and violent release, it’s off-putting how a fundamental aspect of Andrew’s identity is formed through an act of hate — a clunky, obvious plot thread to further the film’s pulpy pretenses. 

Eric, the more religious one, is apprehensive but thoughtful, unsure of what to think. Groff excels in these quieter moments, bringing pathos and emotional grounding to the increasingly ludicrous developments. Cui, as Wen, is wonderful, conveying youthful curiosity along with a wiseness beyond her years — a constant reminder for what’s (potentially) at stake if Eric and Andrew don’t acquiesce to the group’s demands.

It’s praiseworthy that a queer couple headlines a mainstream horror-thriller, and “Knock at the Cabin” certainly emphasizes the love they have for each other throughout. We get frequent flashbacks to pivotal moments in Eric and Andrew’s relationship — contending with homophobic parents, having to distort the truth to adopt Wen, and the attack — painting them not as having extraordinary or supernatural characteristics, but as regular people trying to exist together within a culture that questions their right to exist.

Stylistically, “Knock at the Cabin” is also strong. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke keeps the camera almost excessively close to the actors, heightening dread alongside Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s fitting score, and deploys dynamic flourishes (like tracking an ax as it delivers a killing blow), which hold the viewer’s attention from beginning to end. The film is energetically framed even when the plot takes eye-rolling swerves.

Indeed, “Knock at the Cabin” has all the elements of something special, but its frustrating reveals fall flat — ultimately saying nothing new or noteworthy about relevant (some might say too relevant, particularly regarding the various disasters that are triggered) topics that plague society to this day. What we’re left with is a narrative that takes concepts deserving of a serious approach — radicalization, the allure of echo chambers, what we are willing to give up to ensure a safer future, trauma, environmental calamity, alienation of the Other, faith as a blessing and a curse — and clumsily jerry-rigging them together, abandoning ambiguity to fuel a story that has no idea what to do with itself. The premise is taken to such extreme, albeit simplistic lengths that it’s difficult to take seriously, and the film’s views on “sacrifice” are altogether repellant when brought back down to earth. We’re all headed toward an apocalypse of our own making, and “Knock at the Cabin” renders a real-life concern of climate crises into a morality tale that winds up with a mawkish, superficial aftertaste.

All that aside, Shyamalan’s film is still fun to watch and let wash over you. The performances, formal craft, and atmosphere are top notch, but true meaning is left locked outside.

Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Jonathan Groff.

“Knock at the Cabin” is a 2023 horror, mystery thriller directed by M. Night Shyamalan and stars Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui. It is rated R for violence and language, and runs 1 hour, 40 minutes. It opened in theaters on Feb. 3. Alex’s Grade: B-.

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M3GAN, the viral dancing sensation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson 

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

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

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

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

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

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Smart as Elinor St John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadie Sink

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tilda Swinton

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