Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

James Gunn | 2hr 29min

There is a sharp irreverence baked into the Guardians of the Galaxy series which goes beyond tension-diffusing quips thrown together in a writer’s room, or facile jabs at a super villain’s ridiculous comic book name – though no doubt it has featured its own fair share of both in the past. James Gunn’s greatest strengths are as a director of weirdos and misfits, often allowing him an escape from the typical studio trappings of restricted artistic control. His great success with The Suicide Squad in 2021 has rocketed him right to the top of the DC Films hierarchy just as his time with Marvel Studios is coming to an end, though with a farewell as playfully spectacular as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, there may be some concerns as to whether this move into producing might hold him back from a more hands-on approach. He might not be the next Terry Gilliam or Steven Spielberg, but his cartoonish eccentricity and creative reign over blockbusters certainly puts him in the lineage of both, injecting mainstream movie culture with his own colourful sense of humour.

What one might not be so prepared for when entering the most recent instalment of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise is just how painfully brutal it is, introducing a new group of ragtag oddballs in tragic counterpoint to Peter Quill’s team. While they set off on a mission to save a wounded Rocket, his comatose mind is reliving his past as an animal experiment. Gunn, being a self-proclaimed fan of the 1932 horror film Island of Lost Souls, wears his influences very clearly on his sleeve. The High Evolutionary is the Doctor Moreau of this story, cruelly mutating lower life forms into bizarre humanoid figures, and essentially positioning himself as their God. Lylla, Teefs, and Floor are the disformed mutants produced in the rejected Batch 89 alongside Rocket, whose extraordinary intellect makes him a reluctant accomplice to the High Evolutionary in his mad experiments.

These flashback sequences mark some of the most visceral scenes of Volume 3, turning Rocket into as sympathetic a character as a CGI raccoon can get. If there was ever a song to underscore his own self-loathing and trauma, then Gunn does well in expressing it through Radiohead’s acoustic version of ‘Creep’, accompanying him through a series of tracking shots in the film’s opening as he saunters through the team’s headquarters.

On an even broader level, Gunn’s development of his entire ensemble also deserves recognition. With an alcoholic Quill grieving the loss of Gamora, Drax getting in touch with his paternal instincts, Nebula completing her redemption arc, and Mantis finding new companions in a trio of unseemly monstrosities, only Groot is really left with little growth of his own in this film. Still, where each are left by the end of Volume 3 is perfectly fitting, lining up with the most gratifying needle drop of the series since ‘Come and Get Your Love’ and earning the shift from late twentieth century music into the 2000s.

More than just a talented writer of quirky outsiders, Gunn backs up his characters with a peculiar cinematic style that has always been well established in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, yet still competes with fellow Marvel directors Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi in terms of pure visual audacity. Perhaps the trademark slow-motion walk is a bit played out at this point, but the production design during the extended heist scene within the Orgosphere, the biotic headquarters of the High Evolutionary’s nefarious operations, is quite easily a stylistic highpoint of the film. As Quill and his gang descend in a technicolour assortment of spacesuits and explore its fleshy interiors, Gunn lets loose with a string of amusingly bizarre set pieces, turning everything from the staff uniforms to the vibrant architecture into warped, Cronenberg-adjacent visions of whimsical body horror. It is hard not to wonder what Gunn might be capable of should he craft an entire film around such daring aesthetics.

As it is, there is still a lot in Volume 3 which expands it to a bloated two-and-a-half hour run time, including the introduction of the largely functionless Adam Warlock. This has less to do with Will Poulter’s amusingly airheaded spin on the comic book character, and more to do with his relative disconnection from the narrative. That said, Gunn still finds ripe opportunities to centre him in visual gags, paying homage to Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ in one scene that clearly parallels Noah’s Ark, and later awkwardly hanging him on the edges of a group hug. For all its flaws, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 rarely lets its humour get in the way of its character drama, and vice versa. As far as storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes, this fine tonal balance and stylistic playfulness makes it a terrific send-off to the franchise’s most colourfully eccentric series.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is currently playing in theatres.


Infinity Pool (2023)

Brandon Cronenberg | 1hr 58min

When Brandon Cronenberg first lands us on the fictional Pacific Island of Li Tolqa in Infinity Pool, there is an eerily oppressive atmosphere running through its bright, luxurious settings. Much like Midsommar, we might assume that the horror of this location lies in some dark secret kept by the locals who wear grotesque masks and warn tourists not to leave the compound. Our introduction to the resort even comes through a series of upside-down tracking shots, tumbling us above pools, huts, and hotels with no sense of spatial orientation, and thereby evoking Gaspar Noé’s own dizzying camerawork. We are right to be unsettled about these vague suggestions of evil lurking on Li Tolqa, yet Cronenberg pulls off a chilling subversion of our expectations in his reveal of its true source – not the residents who are simply trying to live ordinary lives, but the tourists who exploit its laws and culture for their own destructive, hedonistic pleasure.

Among the most recent batch of visitors is James, an American writer who is on holiday with his wife Em, yet quickly grows attached to another guest claiming to be a fan of his work. Mia Goth continues her streak of brilliant horror collaborations here as the eyebrow-less, English-accent Gabi who sinisterly draws James deeper into a conspiracy that seeks to tear away his humanity, and who is gradually revealed to be a leader of sorts within a small cult of wealthy tourists.

Instrumental to her reign of terror on Li Tolqa is a local law protecting foreigners from capital punishment. If they are sentenced to death, then they can instead have a clone of themselves produced and let them be executed in their place. The first time James undergoes this process following an accidental hit-and-run, there is a spark of fascinated horror in his expression as he watches his double stabbed multiple times in the belly. From there, he finds his transition into Gabi’s inner circle an uneasy yet slippery slope, meeting a cabal of fellow vacationers who visit Li Tolqa every year to commit heinous crimes, and use the suffering of their own clones as a disturbing form of entertainment.

Cronenberg’s overarching metaphor may not be particularly subtle, but it is overwhelmingly visceral – the abuse of others inevitably leads to the dehumanisation of oneself, and once those self-preservation instincts are destroyed, a primal, deranged masochism takes over. Through its vacation setting, Infinity Pool even takes on a satirical edge in its depiction of Western tourists turning foreign destinations into their own personal playgrounds, holding reckless regard for local customs and citizens. In retrospect, perhaps those warnings to avoid leaving the heavily guarded compound aren’t there to protect the guests, but rather to contain them like wild animals.

Of course, with the science-fiction concept of cloning in Infinity Pool comes philosophical questions of identity, as several times we are led question whether it is actually the ‘originals’ being sacrificed rather than the artificial doubles who continue to live in their place. Cronenberg does not so much provide firm answers here than leave it as an uncomfortable possibility in the back of our minds. He especially uses this uncertainty to pull the rug out from under us in one scene when he leads us to believe the original versions of Gabi’s crew are being executed, only to reveal their actual selves in the audience cheering at their own demise – though even here, there are still doubts as to which characters are the ‘real’ ones.

On more formal level, the possibility that these tourists are copies of copies distance them even further from their humanity. At a certain point, the grotesque masks that they steal from locals and wear during their crime sprees become truer representations of their inner selves than their actual faces, transforming them into misshapen, demonic figures engaging in violent felonies, depraved orgies, and illegal drugs. Infinity Pool’s expressionistic visual style is fairly front-loaded with its vibrant neon lighting, but at the height of the hallucinogen-fuelled debauchery later in the film, Cronenberg lets loose on his nightmarish, mash-up montages, forcing us so deeply into James’ dazed mind that his and new friends’ contorted masks seem to come to life.

These frenzied nightmares of technicolour lens flares and surreal, unfocused imagery aren’t solely reserved for James’ drug-induced visions either, as the cloning procedure similarly warps his perceptions of reality through distorted visual sequences. In doing so, Cronenberg draws a formal connection between both dehumanising experiences, ripping James from his old life of stability and into a helpless, primal state. The appearance of one clone who has reverted to his most basic animal instincts supports this notion even further, and by the time James has completely submitted to Gabi’s Freudian mother figure, it is evident that he has hit the point of no return.

Much like Cronenberg’s previous film Possessor, there is a despairing cynicism which guides Infinity Pool through to its ambiguous end, dooming characters to meagre, joyless existences. Without the sweet release of death, this ongoing self-destruction becomes an endless loop of psychological corruption, as wretchedly consistent as the seasonal cycles that entice the same degenerate holidaymakers back to Li Tolqa every single year. For those who have already destroyed everything meaningful in their own lives, there is no such thing as home – just the invasion and obliteration of everyone else’s most sacred, personal spaces.

Infinity Pool is currently playing in theatres.

John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)

Chad Stahelski | 2hr 49min

Long before John Wick’s wife passed away, and even before his days as a professional hitman, death has been his most steadfast companion and cruellest enemy. It has bonded so close to his soul that oftentimes throughout this series he has become its literal personification, delivering swift ends to those who believe they can outmatch him. In this fourth chapter, Bill Skarsgård’s deranged villain, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont, even describes him as a ghost with nothing left to live, die, or kill for. He is only partially correct – the overwhelming desire for vengeance which motivates Wick to mow down waves of assassins often seems more a force of habit than anything else, though beneath that there is a much melancholier desire to meet his end with some humanity. Perhaps only then can he reacquaint himself with the peace he once knew during his short-lived marriage.

As a result, the purgatory-like settings that John Wick: Chapter 4 lands him in makes for a more darkly spiritual film than previous instalments, and instils the heightened stakes with an imposing formal majesty. This epic, globe-trotting narrative carries all the weight of his grand resolution to take down the High Table, which we have seen exert a divine authority all throughout the series, and which now fatefully draws him towards his final fight for freedom.

The scope of this narrative matches its enormous stakes and spectacle, spanning four separate continents and bringing magnificent visual style to each.

Just as significantly, director Chad Stahelski brings an astonishing creativity to each set piece along the way, delivering some of the finest action scenes in recent years. In one overhead tracking shot lasting several minutes, he slices the roof off a Parisian apartment complex and takes a gods-eye view of Wick’s violent conquest. Later as he fights his way through lanes of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, a graphic dissolve smoothly transitions from a helicopter shot into a scaled-down model of Paris, above which the Marquis looms menacingly. From this dominant position, the High Table effectively becomes the omniscient, omnipotent god of Wick’s universe, seemingly manifesting new threats from the shadows.

Stahelski holds on this overhead tracking shot for several minutes as Wick mows his way through a Parisian apartment building, delivering a gods-eye view of his conquest.

Skarsgård’s wealthy narcissist clearly possesses his own violent streak, most of all evident in one scene involving a vicious hand stabbing, but he is also far less likely than those below him to carry out the dirty work. Where Keanu Reeves operates best as a dynamic physical presence and relatively minimal dialogue, Skarsgård commands entire scenes with an unnerving aristocratic charm, at home in the most opulent of Parisian settings. Eugene Delacroix’s painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ forms a stunning backdrop inside the Louvre when the Marquis accepts Wick’s duel, drawing historical parallels to the lonely hitman’s revolution against the High Table, while the Palace of Versailles and the Palais Garner also lavishly host his nefarious operations.

This is more than great location scouting – the Palais Garnier already has immense architectural beauty, but Stahelski’s angles, lighting, and blocking makes it entirely cinematic.

Stahelski is not simply leaning on his location scouting for these incredible settings, but the way he lights and frames each with such vivid attention to detail makes for some tremendous scenic backdrops. The beauty of Barry Lyndon is specifically evoked in one Russian Orthodox cathedral which basks its ornate Renaissance architecture in the warm, golden glow of candles, and seems to expand its columns infinitely upwards towards the heavens. Within this holy sanctuary, Wick’s desperate prayers take the form of underground bargains, and personal atonement is found in the restoration of old relationships.

The cathedrals of John Wick are lit with warm, golden candles, and offer holy sanctuaries to Wick as he faces down his own mortality.

Historical tradition may run deep in this world, and yet in Stahlelski’s vivid lighting and futurist architecture he is also constantly reminding us of the modern culture which it must compete with. Here, the influence of Nicolas Winding Refn announces itself in a huge number of expressionistic set pieces, taking us from the neon-drenched Osaka Continental Hotel to a pulsating Berlin nightclub which cascades waterfalls down multiple storeys. If the success of other John Wick films can be narrowed down to a few superb sequences, then virtually every new scene in Chapter 4 is competing with the last in pure ambition and astounding visual style.

That Stahelski is capable of imagery and set pieces like this is only hinted at in previous John Wick films, and makes his future as a director beyond this series even more exciting.

Then there is the action choreography itself, transcending Stahelski’s passionate displays of mise-en-scène and infusing John Wick: Chapter 4 with a tactile, kinetic energy felt in every stunt and tracking shot. Nathan Orloff’s dextrous editing is certainly a highlight, but Stahelski is not afraid to sit with long takes during these fight scenes either. He and his entire cast commit to a level of practicality which is refreshing to see in an age of CGI spectacle, earning references to silent cinema genius Buster Keaton. Much like The General or Sherlock Jr, a film as brutally physical as this could have only ever been directed by an actual stunt performer who understands the incredible coordination of each set piece, creatively transcending mere back-and-forth blows between adversaries to incorporate fully interactive, constantly shifting terrains.

Clearly this is only the beginning of Stahelski’s love of cinema history though, with Chapter 4 going on to pay homage to noirs, westerns, martial arts movies, and even samurai films. These are more than just off-hand nods too, with the brand-new character of Caine playing on the trope of the blind, sword-wielding assassin, and refreshing it vibrant depth. That it is Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen in this part instils it with an even greater cultural authenticity as well, and further sets up an equal match for Reeves in physical combat.

There is real commitment to scenic backdrops all through John Wick, especially emphasising the dynamic lighting setups in virtually every set piece.

If the Marquis is God in Chapter 4, then Caine is often framed as a reluctant angel of sorts, fulfilling his obligations to take down Wick yet occasionally bending the rules to help him where he can. It is only fitting then that the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre offers a heavenly location for the final showdown, and that Wick must first fight his way out of the underworld and up several flights of stairs to reach it. The imagery Stahelski brings to this painstaking endeavour goes beyond Christian theology, and continues to take on the hopelessness of Sisyphus’ eternal, uphill struggle from Ancient Greek mythology. Stahelski is more than just a crafter of visceral action sequences, proving himself in astounding sequences like these to be a storyteller firmly in touch with formal structure and symbolism.

Inspired symbolism blends with brilliant action in this Sisyphean struggle up the stairs towards the Sacré Coeur, ascending from the underworld towards the heavens.

Given the modern trends of franchise filmmaking tending towards a decrease in quality with each new sequel, it is unusual and exciting to see a series like John Wick invert that and end on such a cinematic high. Stahelski has a talented team behind him, with the most notable of all being Guillermo del Toro’s frequent cinematographer Dan Laustsen, but at this point there is no doubting his credentials as an auteur who is fully engaged with refining his artistic voice and talent. With its staggering set pieces and consequential narrative stakes, John Wick: Chapter 4 is simultaneously a model of franchise filmmaking at its most effective, and a confirmation of Stahelski’s well-earned position among our great modern action directors.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is currently in theatres.

EO (2022)

Jerzy Skolimowski | 1hr 26min

If fate exists in EO, then it is not guided by some greater, divine being. Perhaps that is what most sets apart Jerzy Skolimowski’s animal road drama from its clearest influence, Au Hasard Balthazar, which roots itself far more deeply in religious iconography and symbolism. The only destiny that our aimless, drifting donkey is wandering towards here is the same as many other creatures he encounters along the way – cold, merciless death at the hands of humans.

To reach that inevitable endpoint though, EO must first undergo an odyssey across the towns, forests, and farms of Poland and Italy. It is tempting to personify the donkey as being more intelligent than he lets on, especially with those beautiful shallow focus close-ups which read into his dark, blank eyes, and those sporadic moments that see him take assertive action. Perhaps the trophy shelf he topples over at a stable isn’t really an accident, but rather his frustration at the clear inequality between him and the pampered horses he lives with. His violent attack of a man killing foxes at a fur factory could be an act of animal justice, carried out in the only way he knows how. Even his noisy braying at a soccer game might be interpreted as a playful sense of humour, given that its timing distracts the losing team during a penalty shot and hands their opponents the win.

It is impossible to talk about EO without mentioning Au Hasard Balthazar. The two films are incredibly similar, and so there is some originality sacrificed here, but EO still stands well on its own.
EO is brimming with gorgeous photography, especially as we move into the paddocks and watch the horses gallop in slow-motion through this obscure, blurred lens.

Or maybe it is all just animal instinct, reacting without thought to an unpredictable environment. When he is glorified as the winning team’s mascot after the soccer game and taken to a bar for celebrations, there is nothing to suggest he can comprehend his lofty veneration. Neither can he grasp the reason for his punishment when the losing team ransack the party and beat him close to death. It is far easier for us to identify with these humans who attach some grander meaning to this donkey’s life than the animal itself, disregarding a far simpler reality – perhaps EO is just a beast of pure instinct, offering a perspective through which we can study his surroundings.

Indeed, there may be no creature better suited to witnessing all sides of humanity as him, if only he could piece together these experiences into something greater. This is where Skolimowski’s introspective direction is gently imprinted on the story, drawing remarkable formal connections between the representation of humanity in the vignettes it effortlessly drifts between. Besides EO, not a single character gets more than a few minutes of screentime, and yet it is in these brief moments where they are faced with the world’s most common creature that their truest selves come out.

In the donkey’s original owner, Kasandra, we find nothing but genuine compassion, though the same cannot be said for the labourers, hunters, and protestors who see him as little more than a means to self-interested ends. It is evident that these attitudes extend past animals as well, as the driver of a truck he is being transported on late in the film meets a grisly end at the hands of a random, unidentified killer. Such cruelty is clearly not contained to interspecies relations. This is a dog-eat-dog world from the top down.

Particularly fascinating is the subplot that emerges in the final scenes, centred around a kind, young priest who takes the donkey back to his estate. The short glimpse we are offered into his life is more scandalous than anything else we have witnessed yet. His stepmother, played by the great Isabelle Huppert with chilly disdain, taunts him over his gambling addiction, and yet they also carry out an uncomfortable sexual affair away from prying eyes. In any other film this would carry enough weight to justify being the main story. To the donkey who passively stands outside, it couldn’t matter less. And so off he plods once again through the gate that has been carelessly left open, towards wherever his instincts guide him next.

A fascinating choice to bring in Isabelle Huppert and her stepson as the two most interesting human characters of EO, only to step away from their drama just as it gets interesting. These matters bear little significance to EO.

These scenes of the priest and the Countess are unusually populated with dialogue for a film which is otherwise so minimalist in its screenplay. Save for those times when people speak directly to EO like a friend, there is simply no need for speech to move this story along. Instead, Skolimowski’s elliptical editing keeps it progressing in almost dreamy manner, eroding our sense of whether this narrative unfolds over weeks, months, or years. It barely makes a difference in the end. Like the human drama he nonchalantly passes by, measures of time mean nothing to this donkey.

Beautiful use of natural light at dawn and dusk, traversing natural landscapes of Poland and Italy.

Rather than looking to the past or future, there is an emphasis on the sensory experience of each isolated moment in EO, rendered with visual majesty in long shots that shrink our protagonist against a variety of magnificent European landscapes. Vague paths are sketched out in gorgeous compositions of urban structures and expansive fields, and in one fairy tale-like interlude, we cut between the animals of a forest peacefully going about their business, temporarily undisturbed by the harmful activity of humans.

Every so often we get these formal interludes of deep, red tinting, sweeping us along in strobe lights and long, flying takes.

Though Skolimowski’s film frequently unfolds naturalistically, it is evident in sequences like these that he is not aiming for pure realism. At his most stylistically extreme, he even submits us to psychedelic, red-tinted dreams that could very well take place in EO’s mind, occasionally recalling his origins at the circus he might be trying to find his way back to, and at one point soaring through a forest in a glorious long take. His perspective is far from objective, and yet there is a tragic beauty in its lonely transience. Humanity has never looked as simultaneously kind and cruel as it does through the eyes of the world’s lowliest beast, through which EO unveils its profoundly graceful meditations on our most fundamental nature.

EO is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

The Quiet Girl (2022)

Colm Bairéad | 1hr 36min

The abuse that nine-year-old Cáit suffers at the hands of her parents is never specified in The Quiet Girl, but director and writer Colm Bairéad gives us all we need in one key scene, revealing the expectations she has of all grown-ups. Now under the temporary care of distant relatives Eibhlín and Seán while her mother is pregnant, she is brought to her new family’s well to collect water. “Is it a secret? Am I not supposed to tell?” she sheepishly asks. Eibhlín’s sorrowful reaction mirrors our own. “There are no secrets in this house,” she assures the young girl. The kindness and warmth they have to offer is entirely foreign to Cáit, revealing a softer side to the world which may at least partially alleviate her trauma before she is returned to her parents, though in this delicate surrogate relationship it eventually becomes clear that such emotional healing goes both ways.

The countryside that Bairéad envisions in this depiction of rural Ireland is clearly one that he recalls from his own childhood in the 1980s, its décor carefully curated to the era’s musty patterned wallpaper and bare wooden furniture. Within his boxy aspect ratio, actors are cropped into narrow spaces, emphasising a claustrophobia which his doorframe shots and shallow focus continue to restrict. Cáit’s frame is already tiny, and when Bairéad turns to wide angle lenses she is virtually swallowed up by her environment. This is a girl who treads lightly and makes her presence small as a means of survival, and is only now finding the love she deserves in the home of Eibhlín and Seán.

Even here though, there is still a vague air of sadness that lingers in its rooms and hallways. It may not be immediately evident to Cáit, but the train-themed wallpaper of her temporary bedroom and the boy’s clothes they dress her in highlight a tragic void left in this family that they cannot bring themselves to talk about. Even more painful is the awkward callousness which Seán carries around with him, hinting at a grief he has not yet learned to deal with. Bursts of irritability occasionally erupt when Cáit helps him on the farm, but her presence also softens him over time, as he opens himself up to the love and pain of being a father once again. Her encounter with a nosy neighbour later in the film confirms all our suspicions, bringing to light the devastating fate of Eibhlín and Seán’s son, though by this point the reveal is barely needed. Everything we need to know about their role Cáit fills in their lives has already been expressed with magnificent narrative economy.

Still, this plot beat does at least motivate a shift in Catherine Clinch’s understated performance of this shy, young girl. With a greater understanding of her surrogate parents’ past comes a comprehension of what she means to them, and a new self-confidence begins to bloom. As she starts to feel more comfortable, Bairéad moves gracefully through the images of her gradual integration into this home’s routine, as well as her liberating run through forests rendered in evocative slow-motion.

When the final minutes of the film roll around and he returns to this motif one last time, he lands it with even greater power. It is inevitable that Cáit will have to return to her neglectful family, but for what may be the first time in her life, she acts out in defiance. Memories of her time spent with Eibhlín and Seán flash by as she bolts into their arms, grasping at their warm affection one last time before it is ripped away. Just as Bairéad has resisted showing us the details of her terrible home life, he is also right not to show us what comes next. The Quiet Girl is not a film of hopeless misery but rather gentle repose, establishing a symbiotic harmony between broken children and adults alike, and letting them heal through each other’s simple, gracious presence.

The Quiet Girl is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

Scott Cooper | 2hr 8min

The resurgence of murder mysteries in recent years has been undeniable, especially with the popularity of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out series, Kenneth Branagh’s revival of Hercule Poirot, and several other standalone whodunnits gaining traction including Bodies Bodies Bodies and See How They Run. In The Pale Blue Eye, Scott Cooper jumps on the trend with a detective tale that at once calls back to the genre’s western roots in 19th century literature, and yet which also possesses more modern sensibilities in its historical revisionism.

Edgar Allen Poe is still a young cadet in the United States Military Academy here, not yet a famed writer of Gothic poems and short stories, yet still consumed by an obsession with the macabre. In effect, this is his fictionalised origin, laying out the pieces of inspiration which would later drive him to write about guilty consciences, cryptic puzzles, and grisly murders. He is not our primary protagonist though – Detective Augustus Landor is the one sought out by local authorities when bodies of cadets start turning up with their hearts mysteriously cut from their torsos. It doesn’t take long for him to join forces with a sharp-minded, inquisitive Edgar, who has taken a morbid interest in the cases. As the chilly mist clears across white, frozen landscapes, a mysterious conspiracy of occult horror and dark family secrets emerges, revealing a devastating anguish that resides in heroes and villains alike.

It is far easier to settle into the bleak frigidity of Cooper’s desolate style than his lethargic narrative, which often seems to oscillate between listless inertia and eerie intrigue. Most notably, the stray attempts to offer Augustus a pained backstory by way of distracted flashbacks never quite feels one with the film until the end, leaving us to wonder just how much of this 128-minute run time could have been shaved down to a tighter film. Even a drawling, scenery-chewing Harry Melling as Edgar and Christian Bale’s gloomy detective aren’t enough to pull us through these patches. That said, Cooper’s casting doesn’t go entirely to waste – both stars mix well in this ensemble of famous faces, making allies and suspects out of Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson, Charlotte Gainsborough, and Robert Duvall.

Regardless of how connected they are to the central murders, darkness infects the hearts of many of these figures, and radiates out into the frosty atmospheres that encompass them. Cooper often keeps us at a distance from his characters in his handsome long shots, emphasising the negative space left behind by snowy fields and foggy forests, and later he drives up the tension with an unnerving pair of high angles teetering us on the edge of an icy cliff. The only shelter from these harsh elements comes in equally cold interiors, lit by thick candles dripping with melted wax and bearing sinister Gothic designs.

Given that the film’s final act almost seems to be on the verge of fizzling out, it is particularly fortunate that Cooper manages to ultimately stick the landing. Just as the horror and evil of Edgar Allen Poe’s writing exists to conceal its deeper layers of melancholy, so too do the ugly actions of Cooper’s characters arise from their obscure emotional wounds. For them, the only way to fight a cruel universe is to arm oneself with even greater cruelty. As flawed as its storytelling may be as, The Pale Blue Eye does not hold back on its grotesque thrills, constructing the sort of enigmatic, disturbing world that we can only imagine gave birth to such a morbid literary imagination.

The Pale Blue Eye is currently streaming on Netflix.

Living (2022)

Olivier Hermanus | 1hr 42min

The mountainous structures of files that British bureaucrat Mr Williams has spent his life building is virtually a fort for him, keeping out those distractions he deems insignificant, and insulating him in a state of lifeless passivity. These paper towers crowd out his office in the local council’s Public Works department, forcing him to the edges of the frame and obstructing our view of him with Oliver Hermanus’ delicate shallow focus. The social etiquette and conventions which govern 1950s London’s middle-class may be rigidly defined, but Mr Williams’ grounding in a firm sense of self is not – that is until a terminal cancer diagnosis forces a personal reckoning. Perhaps it is this fresh setting and polished aesthetic which most tangibly sets Living apart from the film it is adapting, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, even if it is overshadowed in virtually every other aspect.

When remaking such elevated source material and deciding how faithful it will be, there is great risk along either path. Sticking too close to what already exists compromises creativity, as is often the case in Living’s familiar narrative structure. Straying too far on the other hand will almost certainly lose much of what gave the original film its power. Hermanus’ addition of the bland Mr Wakeling character serves little purpose, and his removal of several key flashbacks also incidentally develops Mr Williams into a less complex character than his counterpart in Ikiru.

Still, there is a revitalising novelty to Hermanus’ clean, polished direction, steering clear of Kurosawa’s deep focus photography and instead relying on his own filmmaking instincts. His production design’s period detail is as beautifully refined as his staging, sending slow-motion crowds of suited men across bridges and into office buildings against the elegant flourishes of a lush piano and strings score. “Not too much fun and laughter,” one of them warns their newest colleague, and it could almost be their motto. The melancholic joy of Living comes through when Hermanus loosens his style even further, breaking up his predominantly muted palettes with a flash of golden lighting in the bar where Mr Williams ventures beyond his comfort zone, or filling his home with memories that fade from monochrome into colour.

Most significantly though, it is Bill Nighy’s tremendously subtle performance that drives the pathos of the film, sinking into a weary depression when answers cannot be found in the hedonism of London’s nightlife, before letting a sly charm start to break through his lethargic demeanour. Maybe if Hermanus sat a little longer in his most spell-binding moments it would have been an even greater acting achievement, as we move on from Nighy’s impromptu, melancholic rendition of the Scottish folk song ‘The Rowan Tree’ just a little too quickly.

Living might be best appreciated as a standalone film, as although our protagonist’s last minutes onscreen pales in comparison to the marvellous dolly shot of Ikiru, it remains an affecting scene on its own terms. While Nighy sits in the children’s park he has spent the last few months of his life building, a bleak, powdery snowfall encases him in freezing temperatures, and yet not even that can dull the poignant spark in his musical reprise of ‘The Rowan Tree.’ Hermanus effectively carries out a cultural transplant in his adaptation, shifting this mid-century tale of one dying man’s passionate enlightenment from Japan to London, and imbuing it with a whole new context of soul-sucking social customs and routines. If anybody is only going to watch one version of this story, Kurosawa’s masterpiece is the clear winner, but as far as remakes of classics go Living holds up surprisingly well.

Living is currently playing in theatres.

Pearl (2022)

Ti West | 1hr 42min

Shot in a secret back-to-back production with Ti West’s grindhouse horror pastiche X, Pearl pulls back the curtain on its predecessor’s decrepit, murderous villain, and centres her in the shining spotlight of Hollywood’s earliest days. Set roughly fifty years before the events leading to her demise, this prequel couldn’t be more distinct in its saccharine tone and vibrant style. Pearl herself is essentially this movie’s darker take on Dorothy Gale, longing to escape the confines of her rural Texan ranch and fly somewhere over the rainbow – or at least to the Hollywood hills, where she can make a name for herself as a chorus girl. Much like the visible influences of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in X, West wears his inspirations on his sleeve in Pearl, inviting us into a Technicolor dream where traces of The Wizard of Oz sit alongside seedier references to silent, pornographic stag films.

These pulpy renderings of two very different eras of cinema are ripe for some rich cultural comparisons, as the wannabe independent filmmakers of X approaching their ambitions with greater grit, practicality, and compromise than Pearl’s blatantly unrealistic aspirations. What they do have in common is unabashed ego, setting them all up for inevitable disappointment. “One day the whole world’s gonna know my name,” proclaims the enthusiastic young woman, echoing the words of Maxine Minx from X. Like the aspiring porn actress, Pearl comes from humble origins, though with her husband away fighting in the war and her German immigrant parents destroying any notion of life beyond the farm, she is also more stuck in the weeds of tradition. How much of her derangement is bred by this conservative culture versus how much is instinctually ingrained in her psyche is something which West thoughtfully teases out, but Hollywood’s bright promises of the American Dream certainly plays a part in exacerbating it.

After Mia Goth’s remarkable dual performances in X, it should be no surprise that she entirely dominates the screen here, playing right into Pearl’s simple-minded naivety and merciless psychopathy. No doubt she also benefits from the film’s refined focus on its intensive character study rather than a larger ensemble, and clearly West knows the talent he’s got at hand with his long takes that linger on her pained expressions and monologues. This is especially evident each time Pearl lands a kill, whether against an animal or human, as he builds solid form in returning to the same low angle of her disturbingly emotionless face. Her journey here is layered with romantic desire, personal ambition, and murderous rage, and through Goth’s skilled handling of each arc we come to realise how much they are all part of a single descent into madness.

Not that Pearl’s true nature is evident to many of those around her. While mother and father deny the terror that lies behind her innocent façade, her sister-in-law Mitsy and the projectionist she flirts with at the local cinema remain blissfully unaware, feeding her idealistic fantasies. West too is fanciful with his visual stylings, building a similar tension between his stylistic impersonation of old Hollywood movies and the festering degeneracy which lies beneath. With his gaudy wipe transitions, black-and-white interludes, and a classic orchestral score that swells with sentiment, Pearl is just as much an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood as X is to the American New Wave of the 1970s.

Most accomplished of all though is West’s flamboyantly colourful cinematography, announcing itself from the very first shot that pushes us through a dark doorway not unlike Dorothy’s first steps into Oz, and into a picturesque composition of lush green lawns, a bright blue sky, and a freshly painted homestead. Recurring long shots of a withering cornfield frequently punctuates Pearl’s ventures in and out of town, and a particularly unnerving long take later in the film sticks us with one of her victims making a nervous, ill-fated getaway. Not only is this engrossingly stylish filmmaking from West, but by pushing well-worn genre conventions into direct conversation with cinema history itself, he layers his horror storytelling with a playful self-awareness. Pearl the film is just as much a warped product of the Hollywood dream machine as Pearl the aspiring actress, murderess, and housewife, relishing the superficial splendour that only barely conceals an uglier, malevolent truth.

Pearl is currently playing in theatres.

The House (2022)

Emma de Swaef, Marc James, Roels Niki, Lindroth von Bahr, Paloma Baeza | 1hr 37min

Across three eras of one house’s past, present, and future, a rhyming triplet is formed by their respective chapter titles, taking the form of an old English folk poem.

I – And heard within, a lie is spun

II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won

III – Listen again and seek the sun.

Irish screenwriter Enda Walsh infuses this verse with a dark, mystical ambiguity, hinting at forces in each self-contained story which amass power through deceit and manipulation. As The House teases these individual lines out further, an allegory of whimsical existentialism begins to unfurl in an arresting series of Kafkaesque tales. Bit by bit, this anthology traces the rise of modern consumerism from the class envy it was historically born from, through the image-conscious perfectionism of today’s society, and to its logical end as an apocalyptic, flooded wasteland.

Each chapter is credited to a different director, and yet their creative visions possess an abstract unity, following three sets of characters in the process of moving into, selling, or renovating the titular house, only to be confronted by a collection of outsiders who expose their inner corruption. Like Franz Kafka’s absurdist fables, there is little explanation as to where these disturbing figures come from, nor where they will end up when all is said and done. It is rather the effect they have on these poor, doomed residents which The House chooses to study through its rich metaphors, observing the evils they have welcomed into their home tragically erode their souls.

The first ensemble of characters we follow are a poor family given the opportunity of a lifetime when the inscrutable architect Mr. Van Schoonbeek offers to build them a house free of charge – the only condition being that they leave behind their old home and possessions. Family patriarch Raymond, wife to Penny and father of Mabel and baby Isobel, falls easily into temptation, compelled by his jealousy towards rich, condescending relatives. The sudden manifestation of his dreams in his new abode quickly descends into psychological horror though, drawing comparisons to The Shining in its imposing symmetrical patterns, maze-like interiors, and unsettling strangers lurking in unused rooms.

There is no questioning who makes the food or turns on the fancy electric lights at night-time, nor do the parents push back against the house’s strange hypnosis, forcing them to keep sewing drapes and fruitlessly try to light the house’s fireplace. Very gradually, an uneasy blurring of the lines between these people and their possessions unfolds, each absorbing the other until Raymond and Penny start wearing the upholstery and become part of the furniture. Mabel and Isobel make it out with their humanity still intact, and yet the generational cycles of toxic consumerism have begun, promising an even bleaker future.

With such precious virtue at stake, the stop-motion animation of needle felt puppets brings a childlike innocence to The House, freeing each director up to experiment with anthropological creatures and perverse body horror. In the close-ups of Part I, the detail of these human characters is extraordinary, as the camera sharply focuses on the thin felt fibres of their skin ruffling with each movement like homemade dolls. In the later chapters where animals take over, the character designs remain equally impressive, especially with entry of the creepy, disproportioned rats in Part II.

“We are extremely interested in this house,” they repeat in raspy, wheezy growls, and for a time the Developer struggling to sell it acquiesces to their odd behaviour out of desperation, letting them take up unofficial residence the very same day of the inspection. He is quite literally a part of modern society’s rat race, trying to get a leg up by creating the image of a perfect home, and yet the meaninglessness of such efforts is revealed as it falls prey to the filthy exploitation of these squatters and their unwelcome relatives. Eventually, even the Developer succumbs to the anarchic madness, reverting to his most primal instincts and mirroring the transformation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. An earlier overhead shot of him curling up within the fur beetle infestation doesn’t look so sickening anymore when compared to the absolute ruin which has now torn the house apart, seeing him succumb to the indulgent ruin of his materialistic dreams.

The warmth of Part I’s green and gold palette and the sleekness of Part II’s blues and greys are all but gone by the time the dirty, pale browns take over in Part III. The formal contrast between each setting in these colour schemes essentially tell their own story of the house’s evolution, while recurring shots connect us to the unchanging layout of stairwells and rooms across its lifetime. In this way, The House may even be described as an epic of sorts, covering a huge expanse of time in which the only constant character is that large, hulking construction which promises its inhabitants perfect material lives.

As Part III rolls around, it becomes clear that the squalid mess of Part II’s ending has taken over the world. The house has at some point become a block of studio apartments, sitting on an island in a lonely, flooded city that possesses a barren beauty. Surrounding the building is a light, beige mist creeping through windows, while below we notice crooked powerlines peeking above the surface of the dirty water. We may not notice this chapter’s character subversion right away, as landlord Rosa seems reasonable enough in her attempts to restore the building and secure rental payment from her two flaky tenants. And yet in the context of this apocalyptic society where money means nothing at all, she is the odd one out, believing that people will return to the flats if she were just able to fix them up.

Much like Mr. Van Schoonbeek of Part I and the squatters of Part II, wandering hippie Cosmos sails into the life of our protagonist as a disruptive outsider, though not as a sinister enigma. If anything, he appears frustratingly disconnected from reality, speaking of impractical New Age ideals and tearing up floorboards he needs to build a new boat. In this refreshingly inverted character dynamic, our protagonist has already reached the peak of their self-delusion, and the spell Cosmos casts over Rosa is not one which sinks her further into material obsession, but rather clears her mind to see its futility in a dying world.

With Rosa’s liberation and newfound inspiration to “Listen again and seek the sun,” this final chapter punctuates The House with a far more optimistic ending than those which drew Parts I and II into deep despair. Though disconnected in their narratives, aesthetic, and even character species, each absurdist fable builds on the others to arrive at a broader allegory exposing the lie of humanity’s self-centred, material ambitions. We are animals, The House poetically posits, submitting our minds and bodies to that which brings us immediate gratification. Perhaps only when those pleasures are ripped away from us by means of our own self-destruction can we return to a simpler, wiser, and more fulfilling way of life.

The House is currently streaming on Netflix.

X (2022)

Ti West | 1hr 45min

The divisive culture wars of the Southern United States in the late 70s does not form the primary conflict of Ti West’s slasher film X, but it does make for a fascinating backdrop to the insecure, sex-starved rampage of ageing ranchers Pearl and Howard. From the loins of its dogmatic religious puritanism springs a depraved rebellion, thirsting for the worldly pleasures their patriarchal leaders deny. This metaphor is partly literal, with a late reveal shedding light on the origins of aspiring porn star Maxine Minx, but the inescapable presence of televangelists all through X also weaves in an oppressive formal motif which pushes us to side with her fellow cast and crew against the mainstream. Like those bible-thumping preachers, they are seeking to exploit modern media trends in their own way, leaving behind older generations who have grown irrelevant. The scene is thus set for a reckoning with America’s rotten past that has been left to waste away on the fringes of society, empowering West to deliver on a series of pulpy, tantalising thrills.

The lynchpin that connects scream queen Maxine and the decrepit, homicidal Pearl is Mia Goth, who displays an incredible range and chameleon-like abilities in both roles. As Pearl, the layers of prosthetics all over her face and body render her virtually unrecognisable, but Goth also carries a frailty in her voice and movement which distinguishes her from the younger, saucier Maxine. The acting achievement is somewhat similar to Tilda Swinton’s trio of distinct characters in 2018’s Suspiria, though Goth’s dual performances serve a greater formal purpose than simply a portfolio of talent. “We’re the same. You’ll end up just like me,” Pearl moans to her younger counterpart, offering a warning of the miserable fate which inevitably wears away at the beauty and vitality of youth.

With as decrepit a villain as this haunting the rural farm which Maxine’s crew has hired out for their porn shoot, West pays direct homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, infusing X with the grotesque amorality of its cinematic precursor. More broadly, this is his tribute to that entire era of independent filmmaking, adapting its aesthetic with experimental retrospection. The flickering transitions of Easy Rider are revived here, blending the end of one scene and the beginning of the next in such a way that keeps us from immediately grounding ourselves in new settings. The effect is unsettling, and West keeps pushing his eccentric editing forward during an acoustic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’ where a split screen contrasts the young filmmakers’ warm comfort against Pearl’s silent lament of her grey, leathery skin.

Perhaps it is in the violently creative murders where West is most comfortable as a filmmaker though. The early setup of an alligator dwelling in a nearby lake originally arrives as a warning of the ranch’s lurking danger, but there is also great narrative economy in its return later, driving up the tension when Pearl corners one hapless victim to the water’s edge. As she hacks away at another in front of his getaway car, the headlights are doused in his blood, consequently drenching the entire scene with a vibrant red hue. Like so many great horror films of the 70s, X thrives in these moments of impossible artifice, pushing our suspension of disbelief in such a way that alerts and torments the senses.

West isn’t treading new ground in his grindhouse pastiche, and yet is a provocative consideration of a specific cultural turning point in American history all the same, pitting the bitterness of ageing against the arrogant idealism of youth. Even beyond Maxine and Pearl, this ensemble consists of well-drawn characters, carefully delineated as archetypes of both the horror genre and the amateur film industry at large. The art-driven cinematographer, the vain actress, the innocent sound recordist roped into her boyfriend’s project – these are people we recognise, and yet who also possess vivid inner lives that we see brutally snuffed out one by one.

X’s ensemble is almost quite literally in conversation with the culture of extreme religiosity that they live in, especially with the omnipresent televangelist punctuating dramatic beats through his own commentary. “Now that’s what I call divine intervention!” he feverishly proclaims when Maxine finally gets a bit of luck on her side, and she also begins indirectly quoting him as she stares down Pearl’s shotgun. Even in this isolated, rural death trap of “sex fiends” and “murderers,” there is no separating the rebellious outsiders from the strait-laced mainstream they have run from. Exploitation runs deep in both, while for those like Pearl though who have been sapped of youth’s greatest indulgences, all that is left is a tragic, vengeful resentment.

X is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.