By Alex McPherson

Flawed and deeply unsettling, director Alex Garland’s “Men” emerges as one of 2022’s most thought-provoking films thus far — at once ambiguous and graphically blunt, absurd yet grounded in very real truths baked into society’s fabric.

The film centers around Harper (Jessie Buckley), who experiences the traumatic loss of her ex-husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), that may or may not have been suicide. She travels to the bucolic Cotswolds countryside to heal and process her grief in relative peace. The context around James’ death is left vague; further information is doled out periodically via flashbacks to that fateful day, but Harper remains plagued by the belief that she, in some way, is responsible for his death.

Upon arriving at the spacious cottage owned by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) — a quirky, slyly patronizing chap with huge teeth — she initially enjoys the town’s calming atmosphere and lush, verdant surroundings, but serious issues arise, and her emotional vulnerability is preyed upon by malevolent forces that stretch back throughout human history.

While out on a quiet walk in the forest, Harper is stalked by a naked man, who then tries to enter the house, only to be apprehended by the police and released soon afterwards. Townsfolk accuse Harper of overreacting. Unable to stop thinking about James and their last moments together, she visits a church and bears her soul to the vicar, who then gaslights her and blames her for James’ death.

To make matters even worse, all of the men Harper encounters have the same face (all portrayed by Kinnear with impressive range and technique), insidiously exploiting her tragic past to exert control over her body and personhood.

As the plot progresses further and further into bloody horror carnage, “Men” can’t wrangle its numerous elements into a fully cohesive whole, but Garland’s film is packed with so much craft — acting, cinematography, score, editing, gross-out body horror effects — that it’s difficult not to appreciate the effort behind it all.

The film’s points on toxic masculinity and the power structures that support it aren’t exactly “novel,” but Garland’s go-for-broke approach to the material renders it damn near impossible to forget, for better and worse.

Indeed, “Men” is a challenging film to review. From a stylistic perspective, the atmosphere Garland creates is transfixing, recalling folk-horror classics like “The Wicker Man,” preventing viewers from having a clear picture of what’s actually going on. The English countryside bursts with eye-popping hues that create a sense of heightened reality, of tranquility disturbed.

Despite the beautiful scenery, there’s always something off about Harper’s environment, whether a mysterious ripple in a pond or a lacerated figure lurking just off-screen. Similarly, flashbacks are bathed in red lighting, reflecting Harper and James’ raw, turbulent emotions. The editing — opting for patient long takes and dreamlike rhythms that weave together Harper’s present with memories she cannot stop reliving — is mesmerizing, accompanied by an off-putting, choral-inflected score that furthers the uneasy atmosphere.

Rory Kinnear in “Men”

Buckley and Kinnear are outstanding, although the latter is ironically given more to do than the former. Harper is a sadly passive presence acted upon by outside forces for much of the runtime, and we never learn much about her backstory except for her fraught relationship with James. Buckley’s passionate performance endears us to Harper from the get-go, but “Men” could have delved even deeper into her psyche, as it eventually eschews focus on her specifically to target larger societal issues.

Kinnear, chewing scenery to a pulp, inhabits each of his 10 characters with distinctive quirks and levels of menace, from a schoolboy with an awkwardly transplanted CGI face to a casually dismissive policeman. Whether or not all these men are, in fact, the same person remains up to interpretation, and it’s admirable how “Men” refuses to answer this question definitively.

What really matters, though, is that each of Kinnear’s characters emphasizes different facets of misogyny, entitlement, and insecurity — different sides of the same coin, coming together to form a monstrous whole. 

As the terror ramps up, the ideas “Men” presents are more compelling than the execution, which — for all its swing-for-the-fences gusto — undermines the more sobering points Garland’s trying to make, and becomes difficult to take seriously in the blood-soaked finale. Biblical and literary allusions abound — most glaringly, the Garden of Eden — along with blunt historical references to such figures as The Green Man, representing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

“Men” seems to be emphasizing the deep-rooted power dynamics running back millennia, but Garland’s conveyance of the idea is blunt, visceral, and difficult to take fully seriously. This is especially true regarding the ludicrously unforgettable ending set-piece, a sequence so over-the-top and drawn-out that it distracts from Garland’s serious, otherwise intriguing commentary.

“Men” is ultimately a mixed bag, with plenty to relish and critique in equal measure. Garland has created a work that will certainly get viewers talking, however, and at least spark some reflection on harmful gender dynamics that persist to this day.

Jessie Buckley in “Men”

“Men” is a 2022 horror-science fiction drama directed by Alex Garland and starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear and Paapa Essiedu. It is Rated R for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images and language.and runs 1 hour, 40 minutes. It is available in theaters beginning May 13. Alex’s Grade B. 

By Lynn Venhaus

“No Time to Die” is everything you want in a Bond movie, a super-spy thrill ride elevated by director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s flair for assembling dynamic action sequences and his attention to details.

And in a welcome surprise – assertive women show up in an impressive triumvirate of Ana de Armas, Lashana Lynch and Lea Seydoux.

For the fifth and final entry in the Daniel Craig era as the suave James Bond, our very human hero has left active service at M16 and is enjoying a tranquil life of retirement in Jamaica. However, his peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) from the CIA asks for help in rescuing a kidnapped scientist. The mission turns out to be far more treacherous than expected and leads Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain (Rami Malek) armed with dangerous new technology.

Fukunaga’s keen eye is well-documented in his unflinching 2015 film “Beasts of No Nation,” in which he was also cinematographer, and his masterful first season of the dark, hypnotic “True Detective” in 2014, for which he won an Emmy Award for directing.

He excels at moving this intriguing spy story along and the globe-trotting camerawork by Linus Sandgren, Oscar winner for “La La Land,” is dazzling. Even at 2 hours and 43 minutes, this slick yet gritty adventure keeps our attention, and satisfyingly wraps up Craig’s story arc as the British icon.

While most other Bond films can stand on their own, some 25 and counting over six decades, the five in the Daniel Craig era are connected. “No Time to Die” relies on viewers knowing that Vesper Lind was Bond’s first wife in the 2006 “Casino Royale” reboot and that tragic backstory, as well as familiarity with what happened in the last one, “Spectre” in 2015 – especially about his girlfriend Dr. Madeleine Swann, daughter of nemesis Mr. White, and sinister mastermind Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), Swann’s dad’s boss.

The script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as Fukunaga, is noticeably impacted by the contributions of screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge (heralded creator of “Fleabag”), who brings a refreshing female perspective to the well-documented male patriarchy of the Bond franchise.

This entry is far more female-forward than previous Bond installments – and there is a new 007, Nomi, and she is a feisty, ferocious machine, with Lashana Lynch in a dandy performance, the first black British agent in the film’s 58-year history. No, he may be legendary, but they did not retire Bond’s number, 007.

The iconic ID has been around since Ian Fleming’s first novel, “Casino Royale,” in 1953, and he went on to write 11 novels and two short story collections. Other authors have carried on Bond’s missions.

What direction the Bond franchise goes after Craig’s swan song is anyone’s guess – but post-credits, producers are emphatic: Bond will return in 2022. Debate rages over the possibility of Idris Elba or Rege-Jean Page, or even a female agent. Hmmm…anticipation grows.

In the meantime, Craig fans will enjoy his final emotionally charged performance. He’s been a fine Bond, one of the best, displaying an intensity about dedication to duty, a wily intelligence and a tiny chink in his reserved demeanor about feelings, which is endearing. His orphan roots and lovers’ betrayals have exposed his internal wounds.

While he might not be as memorable as some previous villains, Rami Malek is an interesting adversary as mad genius Lyutsifer Safin, warped by his father’s zeal for using chemicals as weapons.

As the other Bond villain, Blofeld, Christoph Waltz is far better here in one confrontation than he was in the entire “Spectre,” which was a disappointing film after the extraordinary “Skyfall” in 2012.

Not everyone is sold about French actress Lea Seydoux playing the love interest, a rare second appearance for a girlfriend, but it deepened the Craig finale.

This foray features a solid cast, with the always-exceptional Ralph Fiennes returning as a conflicted M, Ben Whishaw as tech whiz Q, Naomie Harris as loyal assistant Eve Moneypenny, Rory Kinnear as government wonk Tanner and this time around, Jeffrey Wright compelling as CIA pal Felix.

Besides a take-notice turn by Lynch, Ana de Armas is sensational as a rookie CIA operative helping Bond in Cuba. She is not given as much screen time as she deserved, and her captivating sequence had viewers wanting more, ushering in a new type of “Bond girl” in a changing era.

Bond may be a relic from a distant past, but the fact that filmmakers acknowledge that change is necessary, makes for a fascinating future.

The franchise, known for stylish escapism, may be forced to adapt to keep relevant in a brave new world, but viewers will always want engaging stories of right triumphing over might – no matter if it’s good girls AND guys.

And wow, are those car chases fun to watch.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in “No Time to Die”

No Time to Die” is an action-adventure directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and stars Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Lea Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomi Harris, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Jeffrey Wright, BIlly Magnussen and Ana de Armas. It is Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, brief strong language, and some suggestive material. Its run time is 2 hours, 43 minutes. It is in theaters on Oct. 8. Lynn’s Grade: A