Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)

Halina Reijn | 1hr 35min

Bodies Bodies Bodies delivers a perverse thrill in seeing its ensemble of cynical, self-sabotaging 20-something-year-olds tear themselves down over the course of one bloody, wild party. Among them, a killer lies in secret, waiting for the opportune time to claim their next victim, though at times we may wonder whether this person is truly worse than any of the two-faced narcissists who fall prey to the mounting body count. Halina Reijn is a couple of decades older than her cast, and yet her Gen Z twist on the classic murder mystery format packs a cynical punch its dry satire, stripping back the superficial buzzwords and layers of irony that these characters have built their superficial identities on to expose the fraught insecurities that lie beneath.

With a hurricane on its way to inevitably shut down the power of the grand mansion the guests are partying inside, all the conditions are ripe for a classic horror film to unfold. Throw in a flat car battery and a lack of mobile reception, and the setup of Bodies Bodies Bodies almost feels a bit too trite in its well-worn tropes, though fortunately we find richer material in the intricate web of relationships set up between all seven key characters. Bee is the audience conduit here, played by Maria Bakalova right off the back of her success in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and though we are tempted at times to suspect her given the mysterious backstory she offers, we believe that we can rule her out early on. She is the outsider in this group, and when the first death takes place, we can confidently confirm her alibi.

Among the rest of the cast, Bodies Bodies Bodies amusingly plays on recognisable archetypes of young, affluent adults, and finds the perfect casting for each. Bee’s girlfriend, Sophie, is played by Amandla Stenberg as the friend in the chat who lurks but never replies, while bringing a huge amount of baggage in her personal struggles. Pete Davidson is the insufferable asshole, threatened by the presence of other men in the group. Rachel Sennott builds off her success in Shiva Baby as a daft podcaster, standing out as one of the film’s greatest sources of comedy.

Further rounding out the ensemble is the older guy who lives vicariously through his younger friends, the aspiring actress with vanity issues, and an old friend of Sophie’s who is acting strangely hostile to the new couple. The first time we meet them, Reijn dips her camera underwater in the backyard pool where they are suspended in stasis, and though they are evidently competing to see who can hold their breath the longest, the visual foreshadowing of their eventual deaths is wryly delivered.

When we return to this shot towards the end of the film, the mood has significantly changed. No longer are these men and women sitting passively beneath its sparkling, blue surface – those who are still alive engage in a violent struggle, splashing through the now-muddy water. Even through the film’s darkest moments though, Reijn never lets go of her film’s dark humour. When presented with a choice to reach for either a gun or a phone containing damning secrets, it is clear which one these characters are going to fight over. They thrive in an economy of data, and so when there is a mystery killer on the loose, whoever holds the most information has the greatest advantage.

It is a thin line though between deducing the identity of the killer and cruelly calling out a friend’s flaws, and even at the height of the murders, these characters can’t help twisting the knife into each other. Awkward laughs and playful jabs barely mask the cold indifference that lovers hold towards each other, or the outright loathing between old schoolmates. Although the premise of awful people being killed one by one in an isolated location is clearly influenced by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Gaspar Noé’s aggressive nihilism can be felt even more in Reijn’s devastating disintegration of seven once-stable lives, calling to mind the devastating chaos of the party in Climax. All it takes a single push of a domino to topple the rest over, and soon this small group of friends, partners, and enemies are ripping themselves apart, stealing the spotlight from the actual killer.

Reijn continues lifting cues from Noé’s regular cinematographer, Benoît Debie, in her illumination of the mansion once the power goes out, accessorising her characters’ necks and wrists with glow sticks to offer a permanent light source wherever they go. It is a small but effective touch, subtly underscoring the manic frenzy with neon blues, greens, and purples, all of which stand out even more when they enter the mansion’s gym, now entirely washed in a red emergency light. Reijn’s finely executed suspense also mounts in an ill-fated attempt to escape, panning the camera 360 degrees through a car and capturing the panicked faces of the remaining survivors realising they are hopelessly doomed.

In true murder mystery fashion though, the real stinger is delivered right at the end of Bodies Bodies Bodies, and how could it close out any other way? The plotting to reach this conclusion is a little too conventional at times, but the work Reijn puts into building these characters earns the biting, final pay-off, leaving us to realise – perhaps there is a greater threat to these young adults than mysterious, violent serial killers.

Bodies Bodies Bodies is currently playing in theatres.

Prey (2022)

Dan Trachtenberg | 1hr 39min

In an age when endless reheats of cinematic intellectual property feebly cater to the most conventional audience expectations, this Predator prequel, Prey, is entirely refreshing to see, building a new world with its own rules around the deadly creature at the franchise’s core. There is no need to complicate the simple concept of an extra-terrestrial hunting humans for sport – for all intents and purposes, the only real twist here is that which blends the science-fiction premise with a historical time period, landing the monster in the Northern Great Plains of 1719. It is through the region’s fields, forests, and swamps that one Comanche woman, Naru, suspicious of some unfamiliar threat lurking in the wilderness, sets out from her village to prove herself a capable hunter.

This assorted blend of genres offers up some wonderful opportunities for director Dan Trachtenberg to flex his creativity, musically fusing tribal chants and percussion with electronic sounds to underscore the primary conflict at play here. Even more astounding is the enchanting beauty with which he captures the lush woodlands and grassland panoramas that Naru and her fellow tribesmen venture across, often caught in magnificent helicopter shots that offer up an awed reverence.

At times, Trachtenberg even seems to be drawing direct comparisons to The Searchers, not just in those shots which turn the entry of tepees into gorgeous frames separating darkened interiors from the bright outdoors, but it is even present in one scene which offers a gruesome twist on the field of bison John Wayne once came across in Comanche territory. In terms of more contemporary influences, The Revenant also looms large here. Trachtenberg skilfully manipulates natural lighting through campfires and ashy, grey fog in many scenes, but he also relishes those dialogue-free sequences which push his narrative forward, seeing Naru silently navigate forests and, at one point, even fend off a violent bear attack.

Above all else though, this film is a survival story built on the primal relationship between a hunter and its prey, developing the Predator as an otherworldly extension of the animal kingdom. When Trachtenberg briefly leaves Naru’s storyline to watch a mouse eat an ant, a snake devour the mouse, and the Predator spear the snake, he economically sets it up as a beast looking to assert its position atop the food chain by defeating whatever it deems the most dominant creature in an ecosystem. As others try to kill it, Trachtenberg uses our knowledge of this to suspensefully anticipate their downfalls – one man is marked for dead the moment he kills a possum, and we can see the clear flaws in the plans of some French voyageurs who believe they can tie up Naru and use her as bait. The Predator inadvertently saves her life more than once in situations such as these when she is under immediate threat from others, but in doing so it also inadvertently reveals its pattern of behaviour to her for easy manipulation later on.

After all, this is what it means to be a hunter, Prey importantly realises. It is not about being the strongest or possessing the most advanced technology, but as Naru proves, resourcefulness, patience, and an ability to scope out one’s enemies are far more valuable qualities for survival and dominance in the natural world. As we approach the climactic showdown between human and alien, Trachtenberg economically works back in elements of the environment that almost defeated Naru earlier, and true to her character, shows her cunningly use these against her target. Really, the film’s title could very well refer to the Predator itself as much as it does Naru, her tribesmen, or any number of animals we see slaughtered by more competent beings. Whether one accepts that position in a food chain or not ultimately comes down to whether they are capable and willing to force it upon others instead.

Prey is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

George Miller | 1hr 48min

If we are to view George Miller’s high-octane Mad Max films as a succession of dystopian legends, then it might seem that Three Thousand Years of Longing is merely an extension of his fascination in classic, culture-defining narratives. For lonely literature academic Alithea, such stories are indeed the very foundation of human history and identity, and on a more intimate level, the only love she has ever truly known. Relationships with those who take tangible form have never quite worked out, and so she absorbs herself in studies which send her to distant corners of the world in intellectual exploration. Her discovery of a Djinn within Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar might as well be a manifestation of that love, as with his promise of three wishes also comes three tales of his past, each one expressing a deep affection for this ancient tradition of expression and understanding. On their own, such fables are simply windows into other lives, though as Alithea elucidates, there is power in understanding the broader connections that form between them.

“Each story is a fragment in an endless, shape-shifting mosaic.”

On this level, Three Thousand Years of Longing takes a self-cognisant approach to its construction as a metanarrative, playfully examining the fundamental human desire to find some sort of wish fulfillment in our own imaginations. Alithea too carries the same awareness of narrative conventions that we enter this film with – “There’s no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale,” she warns herself – and yet Miller is not so interested in the consequences of wishing, and more in how our approach to wishes reveals our deepest insecurities. Those with blind ambition will not think them through. Those with narrow-minded terror will actively avoid them altogether. As for someone as educated and comfortable as Alithea, it is not until after she overcomes her initial reluctance that she is able to confront the discontent she has harboured for her entire life, finally accepting that she does indeed possess a desire for something more.

At its strongest, Three Thousand Years of Longing savours the lavish detail of its historical settings, flitting through Ancient Egypt, 16th century Ottoman Empire, and 19th century Turkey where the Djinn was thrice doomed by women he either served or loved. Certainly there are some beautiful flourishes of camerawork in the modern day, especially as Miller’s camera floats with ethereal wonder through the colourful Grand Bazaar, but the golden lighting, vivid costumes, and majestic architecture of the flashbacks are clearly where Miller most enjoys spending time as a visual artist. As the camera speeds across a dusty orange battlefield of Ottoman soldiers and horses, there is even a hint of Mad Max: Fury Road bleeding through, recalling the bombastic vigour that he has effectively built his career on.

With Idris Elba’s narration of these flashbacks contained within the larger framing device of Tilda Swinton’s wistful voiceover, both effectively take turns leading us through tales of confinement and liberation, offering up a collage of fairy tale motifs made personal by their rich characterisations. Still, even their performances aren’t enough to make Alithea’s first wish feel fully earned, and this only segues into a rushed final act which lacks the visual and narrative potency of the Djinn’s fables. The editing also takes a curious turn here away from its brisk pacing and slickly composed match cuts, and towards questionable transitions that dissolve to black between scenes, leaving a mysterious lack of resolution in their wake.

That Miller does not entirely stick the landing on some of his creative choices though should not scare off those looking for bold, ambitious cinema. Like Alithea, he is in love with the craft of storytelling, and the joy he takes in imagining its manifestation as a physical being is infused with the film’s own formal construction, layering fables on top of fables until we arrive at a greater understanding of the grand tradition he is taking part in. In effect, Three Thousand Years of Longing becomes that “endless, shape-shifting mosaic” that Alithea expresses immense admiration for, as within it Miller constructs an expression of ardent desire greater than the sum of its beautiful, mythological fragments.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is currently playing in theatres.

Crimes of the Future (2022)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 47min

Watching David Cronenberg pick up the scalpel to return the world of body horror feels a lot like seeing a surgeon re-enter their operating theatre after twenty years of exploring other interests. It is certainly exciting that he is once again engaging so closely with the enthrallingly fragile nature of the human body, but there is a certain rustiness on his part when it comes to calling back up those old talents. That Crimes of the Future never quite demonstrates anything close to the peaks of his finest work is disappointing, and yet the noir-tinted direction he takes his science-fiction narrative of twisted surgeries and clandestine politics is fascinating all the same. As we follow Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux’s experimental performance artists into the heart of a conspiracy involving radical evolutionists and genetic mutations, Cronenberg takes macabre pleasure in unfolding its dark mysteries, constructing a grotesque, futuristic society where physical pain has disappeared, and body modifications are commonplace among citizens.

If this is Cronenberg’s take on the neo-noir genre, then Kristen Stewart makes for a suitably offbeat, agitated femme fatale as Timlin, the fidgety government bureaucrat with a growing fascination in the artistic affairs of Saul Tenser. “Surgery is the new sex,” she whispers to him after one of his shows, where his partner, Caprice, operates on his body using a small, remote device. As its boney appendages slice open his skin and extract the vestigial organs which his medical syndrome causes him to routinely grow, she narrates the act like a theatrical performance, sensually drawing in her audience to this novel pleasure that removes bodily contact from sexual intimacy and replaces it with cold, sharp tools. Even through the prodding and picking of his tumorous, pink lumps, he willingly remains conscious, taking pride in this uniquely stomach-turning artistic expression that challenges its audiences to keep watching in fascinated horror.

If surgery is the new sex, then it makes sense that the “old sex” is something that many people in this mutated world have lost touch with, Saul being one of them. At home, he sleeps in a strange, organic mass that hangs from the ceiling by tentacles, and he eats in a chair of bones that grind and creak with his digestive system. Out in public, he is rarely seen without his black, hooded cloak, hiding him from the eyes of others. By his very nature, he lives in extreme discomfort, only barely managing to get by in this grim world made all the more problematic by the administrative regulations that demand he turns in his newly evolved organs for cataloguing and storage.

Enter Detective Cope, a police officer who uses Saul and Caprice as his way into the underground performance art scene, where he hopes to track down a group of progressive evolutionists pushing for the biological advancement of humanity beyond the government’s control. Their body modifications have allowed them to digest plastic, meaning that they can feed on their own industrial waste and consequently cut down on pollution. To them, this is the next logical step in human evolution, and the discovery that the leader’s son, Brecken, is the first to inherit this oddity as a genetic trait promises a significant shift in power for those bureaucrats at the top, threatening their attempts to hinder the natural development and adaptation of life.

As intriguing as this eccentric premise is, Cronenberg’s storytelling tends to lose itself at times, struggling to connect subplots and at times even letting them drop off entirely. Caprice’s personal exploration of modifications on her own body offers the broader narrative very little besides some truncated character development, and even Timlin’s arc is ended rather abruptly without so much as a conclusive final appearance of character.

Still, there is something to be said for the murky, uncomfortable atmosphere that Cronenberg crafts in his cinematography, lighting grim sets of rough stonework and industrial metals with a faint, golden light, suggesting a civilisation that is sophisticated in its ideals yet primitive in its implementation. Everything in its provocative visual design harkens back to the raw form of the human body, evoking muscles, bones, veins, tendons, and fluids in otherwise artificial props, while outlandish prosthetics adorning the faces and bodies of his actors bind the film even more tightly to its peculiar take on artificial evolution. Beneath it all, Howard Shore’s reverberating synths pound and drone to vague melodies, casting a new age hypnotism over his audience.

If Crimes of the Future feels as if it is trying to address too many political and social ideas at once, then there is at least some formal cohesion in the link between Cronenberg’s two most central contemplations – the government’s bureaucratic restrictions on bodily autonomy, and the use of that autonomy to challenge the status quo with provocative artistic expressions. Creations such as these are as personal to their makers as one’s own biological organs, he conclusively reasons. Onlookers who search for affirmations of their most positive feelings may criticise these sights as depraved and distasteful, and yet for artists like Caprice and Cronenberg seeking to reveal the anarchy of their minds, such spectacles ultimately serve a very real purpose in exposing the raw, primal nature of humanity’s physical and psychological existence.

Crimes of the Future is currently playing in theatres.

Kimi (2022)

Steven Soderbergh | 1hr 29min

It might have seemed that the plot conceit of “ordinary person inadvertently discovers evidence of a murder” ended in 1981 with Brian de Palma’s Blow Out, just as the paranoia of the Cold War started winding to a close. With the reframed narrative perspective of a modern-day tech worker though, Steven Soderbergh gives it a new life in Kimi, joining the short list of esteemed directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Alfred Hitchcock to play with this very specific brand of thrill and suspense. It is an unfortunate fact that Soderbergh simply does not belong in the same tier as those auteurs, and that Kimi comes off as a far more modest accomplishment in comparison to its classic counterparts, though none of this should take away from its superbly agitated camerawork or tight, gripping plot. In grounding it within the specific context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Soderbergh updates the decades-old narrative convention with contemporary concerns, playing on modern anxieties around data security, big tech, and the frightening prospect of simply leaving one’s home.

Zoë Kravitz is at the centre of it all here as Angela Childs, the blue-haired engineer employed by tech corporation Amygdala, which has recently released its newest product, Kimi, a voice-activated digital assistant. She is comfortable working from home in her spacious Seattle apartment, monitoring and improving Kimi’s search algorithm based on its user’s requests, especially given that virtually every facet of her life from medical appointments to therapy sessions can easily be conducted from her desk. Much like James Stewart in Rear Window, she is very familiar with her neighbours across the road thanks to her confinement, though instead of a broken leg, she is burdened by extreme agoraphobia exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns.

In making a COVID-themed film, Soderbergh treads a very fine line that far less talented filmmakers have clumsily stumbled across, awkwardly tying their stories to a specific moment in time for the sake of the gimmick. Although masks and hand sanitiser pumps are scattered through the production design, as well as the cultural climate outside Angela’s apartment being recognisably contemporary, he does well to simply use this as the backdrop to a more universal tale of social terror, playing on the anxiety of a world that is changing faster than anyone can keep up with.

Particularly impressive is the thorough world-building Soderbergh conducts from inside Angela’s apartment over the first forty minutes, never leaving its boundaries besides a few conjectured visions of the abuse and subsequent murder suffered by one Kimi owner, Samantha, cast in a sick yellow light. As we learn more about both women, similarities begin to emerge in their tastes and experiences, building a connection between the two that motivates Angela to seek justice. The narrative setup is patient but lean, dwelling only on those pieces of the puzzle which prove to be significant later down the line, whether it is the creepy man with binoculars living across the road or her upstairs neighbour’s construction work.

For many of these reveals though, we do not need to wait so long. We may linger on a close-up of a glass bottle left sitting on the edge of a countertop, but it still comes as a shock five minutes later when it suddenly smashes on the ground, sinking us even further into Angela’s uneasy, jittery mind. As she sits at her computer trying to decipher the mystery of the abused customer, Soderbergh’s camera nervously circles her, and elsewhere we can find it tracking through her apartment in long takes driven by a sense of intrigue. Matching this overwhelming restlessness is Cliff Martinez’s dramatic, orchestral music, calling back to an older style of Hollywood movie score that rejects subtlety in favour of bombastic expressions, and thereby nodding quite directly towards Kimi’s overt Hitchcockian influence.

By the time we reach the point that Angela is inevitably forced to leave her apartment to deliver evidence of Samantha’s murder, Soderbergh has formally set the stage for a dramatic shift in style that lifts the camera off its dolly tracks and follows her closely in rough, handheld movements. Everything it is doing here serves to disorientate us completely, not just in the high, low, and canted angles that throw the world off its axis, but even in the bright, angry colours fighting for our attention. Kravitz makes her way through this visual explosion with her head down and shoulders hunched up, walking in short, fast steps as if to minimise contact with anything but her end goal. It would be hard to miss anyone in a crowd who is sporting blue hair, an orange hoodie, and ugg boots, and with such kinetic, maximalist stylings absorbing her into its audacious aesthetic, Soderbergh evokes Tom Tykwer’s similarly fast-paced, madcap race through city streets that is Run Lola Run.

All through apartment complexes, office buildings, and train stations, Soderbergh weaves in his trademark low angles of ceiling lights, smothering Angela in a thick, oppressive yellow light that follows her to the depths of Amygdala’s corruption. The corporate executives here wear phony smiles and deliver false reassurances, though there is no doubt about the place they occupy in this narrative. Soderbergh favours sensationalised villainy over moral complexity in Kimi, and while this takes away from the richness of their characterisations, the threat they pose feels urgent nonetheless, as they use the abundant technology, wealth, and connections at their disposal to overcome Angela in her pursuit of truth.

Angela’s victory over her corporate superiors, their menacing henchmen, and her own agoraphobia is not just satisfying for the release of its tightly wound suspense, but also for the series of payoffs that see her effectively outsmart her opponents, using her knowledge of her apartment and Kimi’s technical capabilities to her advantage. Soderbergh does not seek to transcend the genre here, and he even willingly lets his narrative fall into familiar tropes, leading us down a thrilling storyline that would rather meet our expectations than subvert them. Yet in his vigorous camerawork and thoughtfully crafted tension, Kimi still becomes a gripping take on cyber-age insecurities, twisting our most personal social anxieties into a cynical vision of a society where the sacrifice of private lives at the altar of corporate greed and overreach becomes an unremarkable, everyday occurrence.

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

Nope (2022)

Jordan Peele | 2hr 15min

Jordan Peele’s dedication to reinventing familiar narrative conventions has seen him take inspiration from such historical horror films as Rosemary’s Baby and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even now with Nope’s staggering scale, speculative science-fiction, and monster movie conceit, new sources of influence just keep emerging. The high-concept supernatural mystery that unfolds in this rural region of California is part M. Night Shyamalan, though in drawing on the monstrous suspense of Jaws and the extra-terrestrial intrigue of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the presence of Steven Spielberg is felt even more acutely. Armed with a sharp wit and a penchant for intelligent subtext, Peele goes about examining the thread connecting humanity’s hunger for spectacle and its arrogant domination of nature in Nope, confronting us with a cosmic horror that dwarfs our tiny egos.

Daniel Kaluuya returns for his second collaboration with Peele here as horse trainer and handler OJ, paired with Keke Palmer as his much more outgoing, bubblier sister, Em. After their father, Otis Sr., is killed while out in the paddock by a coin inexplicably falling from the sky and landing in his eye, a string of strange, otherworldly occurrences begins to unfold on their humble ranch. Vanishing horses, an unmoving cloud, and peculiar, lurking creatures in the stable are initially minor concerns compared to their financial troubles, which have pushed them to strike an unfortunate deal with Jupe, a former child star turned Wild West theme park owner. Soon enough though, the presence of the UFO that lives in the sky above their ranch can no longer be ignored, and mere victory over it does not seem like enough. If one should come face to face with the supernatural, why not exploit it for all it is worth?

Making a spectacle out of the natural world is a tricky business though, and one that Peele considers carefully through his small ensemble of characters who make livings off the entertainment industry. While OJ hires out his show horses to Hollywood studios, he never treats them with anything less than utmost respect, seeking to understand their boundaries and triggers before making a profit off them. One can only ever make a deal with an animal, he believes, never fully control it, though this ethos is not shared by Jupe, whose experience as a child actor playing against chimpanzees in the 90s sitcom Gordy’s Home has left him with both uneasy trauma and false confidence.

In one flashback which displays Peele’s greatest manipulation of the camera, he quietly rolls in a long take through the sitcom’s backstage area, absorbing the tension that settles over the set in the immediate aftermath of one chimpanzee’s unexpected, violent outburst. A popped balloon is all it takes to set the animal off, and now as it beats up and chews on the flesh of its co-stars, we are stuck in the perspective of a young Jupe hiding beneath a table, watching it all unfold. While others try to calm it down, a stray shoe mysteriously balancing on its heel catches our attention – a “bad miracle” as OJ might call it, though one which in this instance is peculiar enough to draw Jupe’s eyes away from the rampaging animal. As has already been established, direct eye contact is considered a form of aggression in the animal kingdom, and this brief distraction ultimately proves to be enough to save the young boy’s life.

Whatever lesson Jupe has taken from this experience, it is not a particularly wise one, as the fact that his survival as a child was little more than pure luck goes right over his head. If trained chimpanzees and horses can make people money, he reasons, then why not take the next logical step with a flying, otherworldly monster that audiences can gawk and point at from afar? Never mind that avoiding eye contact was what saved his life last time, and would once again be the best course of action. When something truly spectacular captures our minds, the instinct to just keep watching overrides our better judgement, and the urge to put these wild, uncontrollable creatures on display for the entertainment of the masses is one that Nope’s characters indulge in to varying degrees.

And to an extent, Peele himself demonstrates a similar love and fear of spectacle in his own filmmaking, exploiting his audience’s desire to see something truly exciting with shots that at times tease us with tantalising glimpses, or alternatively deliver on large-scale set pieces, staging a battle between humans and the Lovecraftian monster that claims their land as its own. As OJ sets about recording the creature with a small crew, IMAX cameras simultaneously become props and the instruments through which Peele is shooting his film, enlisting Christopher Nolan’s regular director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema, whose mastery of large format cinematography does wonders here. No doubt Hoytema’s previous visual accomplishments are much greater in films such as Dunkirk and Ad Astra, though for Peele as a director, Nope is easily a step up in style from both Get Out and Us, as he gradually washes out his bright desert landscapes with grey clouds that keep us edgily waiting for whatever horror is about to appear.

Nope does not exactly come close to the narrative tightness or thrilling pacing of Get Out, especially given its occasional dawdling, but Peele’s talents as a storyteller remain evident nonetheless. The choice to split the film into chapters based on the names of the animal characters doesn’t just offer up a clear structure for us to follow, but it also formally ties together their tragic fates at the hands of other creatures, understanding each of them as organisms in a food chain fighting for survival. For the humans of Nope though, survival is overrated. To capture something truly marvellous that others can look at and be astounded by – that may be more valuable than life itself.

Nope is currently playing in theatres.

Elvis (2022)

Baz Luhrmann | 2hr 39min

For all his bombastic flash and glorious excess, Baz Luhrmann’s narrative fascination has always lain in historic tragedies, riding waves of frantic joy before extinguishing them with romantic poignancy. After taking on William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and concocting a lavish tribute to love stories in Moulin Rouge, Elvis Presley’s bright but truncated career only seems like a natural fit for as passionate a cinematic maximalist as the Australian auteur. His pacing through decades of his subject’s life is relentless, as much a rebellion against the restraints imposed by traditional artistic conventions as Presley’s own musical defiance, glancing off life events with the same zealous frenzy that defines his restless but magnetic stage presence. This kineticism infects every inch of the singer’s body, and even in one early scene that follows his discovery of blues music while overhearing Black musicians sing and dance, he undergoes a physical, full-body experience not unlike a possession, shaking uncontrollably. “He’s with the spirit,” one man declares to Elvis’ friend, and from this point on it seems that the spirit never leaves him.

Luhrmann’s camera hovers overhead as Presley is born into the world of music, as if being possessed by some spirit.

Intercut with this birth into the world of music, Luhrmann skilfully weaves in Presley’s birth as a celebrity, whereby future manager Colonel Tom Parker first recognises his potential for profit at a Louisiana Hayride performance. This sort of parallel editing across decades of Presley’s life is a stroke of brilliance from Luhrmann, and this is not the last time we see him pull it off in Elvis, later stepping it up in a performance of “That’s Alright” which effectively unifies his later career, an early studio recording, and his musical roots in African American blues, colliding them through dexterous cuts and split screens until they all merge into one. Between scenes, Luhrmann’s transitions glide through playful wipes, camera spins, and match cuts, at one point turning the clockwise motion of a Ferris wheel into a spinning vinyl record, which then becomes a circular neon street sign. In effect, he enthusiastically plays his editing like a rock ‘n’ roll song, harmonising separate narrative strands and effortlessly sliding from one set piece to the next with all the vigour of a rowdy Elvis Presley concert.

A marvel of creative editing, as Luhrmann composes these mosaics of screaming fans and live performances. A true cinematic maximalist at work.

This level of stamina is one that is quite unique to Luhrmann as a filmmaker, though Austin Butler proves himself to be an excellent fit in the pure energy he projects both on and offstage. What starts as an extraordinary impersonation with that deep, resonant voice, wiggling dance moves, and slow, suave mannerisms gradually evolves into a more rounded portrait of an exasperated musician, frustrated with the constraints that keep clipping his wings. As woefully miscast as Tom Hanks is as Parker with his poor Dutch accent grating ears in each voiceover, Luhrmann at least formally sets his character up in opposition to Presley’s unsatiable desire to keep expanding his horizons. Where Parker tries remodelling him in the image of a clean-cut, all-American boy, the music icon in turn asserts an individualistic mindset that refuses to sink to middlebrow culture.

Austin Butler is magnetic as Elvis Presley. His performance starts as mere impersonation, but much like Luhrmann’s take on the music icon, it eventually transcends history.

Still, for all his rebellious acts, Presley can’t quite bridge the gap from entertainment into civil rights activism. Luhrmann’s nimble editing once again comes into play as he cuts between a live musical performance and a political speech taking place elsewhere, separating Presley’s sphere of influence from the one which Parker holds him back from. In the battle for post-war America’s identity, these two characters come to represent either ends of a generational revolt – on one side, young, cultural innovators pushing for progress, and on the other, older conservatives looking to maintain the status quo, casting a heavy shadow over their idealistic children.

Even without looking at his screenplay, it is not hard to guess which side Luhrmann is behind. Along with his vivacious pacing is an active camera that eagerly flies through cities in long takes, and which punctuates Presley’s hip shakes with short, sharp zooms, as if overtaken by the same hysteria which sends the women in his audiences wild. Though at times it might seem that Luhrmann is trying to move a few steps ahead of himself with outrageous exaggerations, it remains remarkable how consistently in control he is over such vibrant chaos, refusing to submit to the same variation of any cinematic device more than once. Flashbacks to Presley’s childhood become newspaper comics that depict him as his favourite superhero, Captain Marvel Jr., and later when he tries breaking into the film industry, his own life becomes a 1960s Hollywood extravaganza. This constant reinvention of Presley’s image is vital to Elvis’ understanding of him as a dreamer, letting his creative ambitions flourish on film where he could not manifest them in real life.

Glitter, lights, and colours weaved through Luhrmann’s glossy mise-en-scène.

Further challenging the form of this historical biopic is Luhrmann’s integration of modern pop and hip-hop songs around Presley’s rock ‘n’ roll music, revealing the star’s extensive influence upon contemporary artists from Doja Cat to Kanye West. Curating such an anachronistic soundtrack is not unusual for Luhrmann who played with similar creative choices in Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, but it especially instils Presley’s cultural persona here with a universality that looks to both the future and the past. In piecing together artefacts of American history littered throughout the past century, Luhrmann effectively melds his music, camerawork, and imaginative editing together into a vibrant collage of immense artistic and political passion.

Luhrmann playing with his editing in so many ways, freezing frames and reconstructing archival footage.

Such intense excitement cannot live forever though, as Presley’s downfall into substance abuse and depression becomes just as much a tragic piece of his legend as his monumental musical influence. The final years of his life is also where Butler properly solidifies the complexity in his performance, running off on drunken tirades against his manager while sweating beneath bright concert lights, and offstage becoming a quiet, lifeless shell, dressing in glitzy imitations of the man he once was. In making selfish deals behind his client’s back and prioritising money over all else, Parker stands as an unsympathetic depiction of the pressures that brought this icon crashing down.

There is almost something cyclical to the nature of such cultural figures as this, and Luhrmann does not let the parallels to A Star is Born go amiss, especially given Presley’s near-casting in the 70s adaptation opposite Barbra Streisand. Reality might dictate that his rise and fall was not so straightforward as what Elvis depicts, but this film is not some fact-driven biography of one man’s life as played out in history books. In understanding this man through a retrospective lens of ardent appreciation, Luhrmann arrives at something uniquely sincere – a fervent, cinematic celebration adopting the form of Presley’s own creative expression, defying standard conventions to reach a wilder, more rebellious understanding of his ideals and impact.

Elvis is currently playing in cinemas.

Men (2022)

Alex Garland | 1hr 40min

There is little wonder that Alex Garland’s most recent dive into elusive, arthouse horror has been met with a polarising reception, given how far it departs from the realm of conventional plotting in favour of lush stylistic flourishes and absurdly puzzling imagery. Whatever flaws emerge in its unevenness can hardly be held against it given the cinematic ambition that runs deep in this nightmarish allegory, ever so gradually edging closer to a disturbing culmination of the patriarchal archetypes threaded through its fable-like narrative. In this way, there is a distinct flavour of European folklore that creeps into Men, haunting the green English thickets and cobbled stone roads of Cotson, the tiny rural village to which Harper retreats following the suicide of her abusive husband, James.

It becomes evident early on that there is something up with the men in this isolated town, being that they all share the same face. Perhaps Harper is just imagining this, warily holding them all with equal mistrust, though at no point in the film does she acknowledge this strange phenomenon. Maybe then they actually do all look alike, and she is failing to pick up on the red flags laid before her. Either way, the shared visage of the men in this seemingly womanless village is not mined so much for outright horror than it is for its eerie symbolism. We might initially believe them to be in some sort of clandestine fraternity, though later they manifest more as a shape-shifting ghost representing the many forms of toxic masculinity, from the repressed sexuality of a vicar, to a gaslighting police officer, and a young boy’s bitter reaction to rejection.

A great achievement for Rory Kinnear, shifting effortlessly between characters. Each one possesses their own voice, mannerisms, expression, and physicality.

As Garland intersperses flashbacks to the day of James’ death, we begin to pick up on these personality traits in his own narcissistic persona, drawing implicit lines between her past and present. Within their London apartment overlooking the River Thames, Garland fills the space with a burning orange light, almost apocalyptic in tone and contrasting heavily with the verdant greens of the present-day narrative. The minutes immediately preceding and following his jump from an upper-storey balcony play out non-linearly in her mind, but it is the vision of his plummet which stands out in devastating slow-motion, as he passes by the window at the exact moment Harper is looking through it. The split second that they make eye contact horrifyingly stretches into oblivion, but perhaps the most surprising thing about it is the fear and regret written into his expression.

Burning orange hues in the lighting for the flashback, paired with devastating slow-motion not unlike the very similar prologue of Antichrist.

With a catalyst as specifically gut-wrenching as this to motivate Harper’s getaway, and the darkly spiritual examinations of gender that follow, Garland evokes Lars von Trier’s Antichrist as a significant stylistic and narrative influence, right down to the twisted Adam and Eve parallels flowing through both films. At first, the symbolism in Men is exceedingly blunt with the forbidden fruit being written into the dialogue between Harper and the owner of the holiday house, Jeffrey. It may remain obvious as well when we move to Cotson’s forest that glows with green hues, like the Garden of Eden where man fell from grace and placed the blame on women. Nevertheless, the formal consistency is admirable, and only goes on to manifest in more grotesque visual representations from here. The hand that James ripped on an iron railing during his fall is echoed through the other men Harper encounters, bearing resemblance to the forked tongue of Satan’s serpentine disguise in the Garden. And finally, the pain of childbirth exacted as a punishment upon women climactically plunges the film into subversive, absurdist body horror, provoking equal reactions of revulsion and incredulity.

The pagan spirituality existing alongside the Christian symbolism also becomes a source of mythological horror in Men, indicating thorough research on Garland’s part into the iconography of ancient European cultures, particularly in the appearance of one naked, demonic figure who stalks her and becomes more treelike with each appearance. Similarly, rock face carvings are threaded through Harper’s stream-of-consciousness montages, calling back to legendary figures of folklore which seem to flicker with life as light and shadows move across their finely sculpted ridges.

The rock carving of the Green Man and Sheela na gig used as formal threads running through hallucinatory montages – and again, Garland moves his lighting over these surfaces like Lars von Trier does in the forest of Antichrist.

Given the large patches of Men which stretch on without dialogue, a great deal of storytelling is accomplished in its slow, meditative editing, blending the past, present, material, and symbolic worlds in a mesh of eerie rhythms that erode any clear grounding in reality. This, along with the unnerving vocalising and chanting in Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s otherworldly musical score, leads us to a reckoning with our primal, gendered instincts, moving deeper into a traumatised mind that sees these in their purest conceptual forms, divorced from anything remotely tangible.

Razor-thin focus, superbly shot and constantly isolating Harper.

A sharp, shallow focus thus becomes Garland’s primary visual device in depicting this immense loneliness and disconnection, aesthetically carrying Jessie Buckley through scenes that gorgeously soften backgrounds into obscurity and keep us firmly in her troubled state of mind. Minus a few dodgy pieces of CGI that transpose Rory Kinnear’s face onto the body of a young a boy, Garland wields impressive command over his visual compositions, particularly in those forest scenes that bounce reflections of the foliage off puddles and rippling ponds. The large, gaping arch that leads into a tunnel within this setting is a particularly effective set piece as well, framing silhouettes of Buckley and Kinnear as they enter the mass of darkness between them, and reverberating musical calls and responses in unnerving echoes.

A hint of Tarkovsky in these compositions, exquisitely duplicating large set pieces in the puddles of water that gather beneath them.
From one perspective, a black arch surrounded by green. From the other, a green arch encased in darkness. It is a gorgeous set piece that Garland uses in several stunning shots to frame Buckley.

Pairing such mysterious imagery with a sound design that offers warped drones and chants in place of dialogue consistently holds us in the grip of Garland’s disturbing tonal journey through Harper’s mind, crafting the sort of fever dream that invalidates questions of whether it is all real or not. The psychological space that Men inhabits keeps its terror just out of focus, refusing to offer justifications for its surreal mysteries and mythology, and it is ultimately all the more unsettling for it.

Men is currently playing in theatres.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Joseph Kosinski | 2hr 11min

Delivering a sequel for a beloved 80s action movie is no foreign concept in this era of collective nostalgia and intellectual property-based movies, so it is even more gratifying when one such film can stand on its own merits as well as Top Gun: Maverick. It is a little worrying at first when it opens with the exact same expository text as its 1986 predecessor and goes on to reheat the slow-build montage of jets preparing to take off on a runway at sunrise against the instantly recognisable ‘Danger Zone’. By the time we are up in the air though, it is evident that Joseph Kosinski is interested in pushing its adrenalising aerial sequences just a little further than what Tony Scott previously achieved. With fully transparent cockpits, the landscapes outside the fighter jets tumble around aviators in gravity-defying acts of grandeur, as sharply present as the actors themselves within the epic scope of its IMAX cameras.

While Top Gun: Maverick maintains a charismatic Tom Cruise at its centre, the film otherwise sees an almost complete turnover in its cast, filling in familiar archetypes with younger characters who never let their mere plot functions hold back their sheer charisma. It is this ensemble of fresh faces which Pete Mitchell A.K.A “Mav” is tasked with training for a stealth mission in a foreign country, after being pulled from his post as a U.S. Navy test pilot where he has willingly sat without promotion for decades. Though he has come to terms with the death of his wingman and friend, he evidently still harbours some guilt over it, and it is not long before we learn of the tension between him and Goose’s son, Rooster, following in his late father’s footsteps as an incoming Top Gun recruit. Around them, we meet pilots Hangman, Bob, Phoenix, and Payback among others, rising as the new generation to play beach volleyball, sing along to ‘Great Balls of Fire’ – and of course, deal with the life and death stakes of their dangerous line of work.

With a clear deadline guiding this narrative towards its thrilling conclusion, there is a tightness and direction to Kosinski’s storytelling that supersedes the original, and there is no doubt that his acute, dynamic editing plays a large part in this. In one training scene that sees the pilots run a simulated course, Kosinski skilfully intercuts between the failed run and the disappointing debrief down on the ground afterwards, detailing the team’s weaknesses both visually and verbally. Not only this, but here we also familiarise ourselves with the obstacles and steps of the key mission, foreshadowing some thrilling later developments that keep on driving up the suspense. Across all Kosinski’s aerial sequences, the precise coordination of the fighter jet stunts and communication between each pilot makes for some heart-pumping scenes that never lose sight of individual characterisations, least of all Maverick’s hubris which constantly pushes him just that little bit further than what convention dictates.

In combining its character work and action, Top Gun: Maverick’s energetic pacing flies by with ease, though at times to the detriment of Maverick’s redemption arc. Little time is spent dwelling on his lowest point before he quickly picks himself back up again and gets back in a plane, breaking rules with gleeful abandon just to prove a point. Still, there is otherwise a strong foundation to this emotional journey in his relationship with Rooster, with whom he shares a troubled personal history. There is a tension between them right from the start that keeps them from speaking to each other, but in the air this cold remoteness manifests as outright competition, each trying to get one up over the other.

The dynamic shift that takes place between them does not come easily, but in echoing the spirit of their departed friend and father, Kosinski does draw out a shared grief between the two, driving them forward in their careers. It is ultimately in this intersection of drama and sharply executed, thrill-seeking action that Top Gun: Maverick takes flight, building on the original and resolving its lingering threads of guilt with sensational, breathtaking vigour.

Top Gun: Maverick is currently playing in theatres.

Fresh (2022)

Mimi Cave | 1hr 57min

In a way, even knowing the title of this film is a spoiler. It isn’t until thirty minutes in that first-time director Mimi Cave transforms the rom-com thriller conventions of Fresh into full-blown horror, announcing loudly with its opening credits what exactly this story is going to be about. Up until then, the horrendous exchanges that Noa has had with men through online dating run an undercurrent of tension beneath the story, though not without some hope that she may eventually meet a more ideal match. Then, one day in a grocery store, she meets Steve. Perhaps he is a little odd in the way he phrases things – “I just don’t eat animals” could simply be a roundabout way of saying he’s a vegetarian – but unlike so many other men, he is funny, charming, and seemingly harmless.

By the time he tells Noa explicitly what his intentions are with her, the heavy foreshadowing has well and truly done its job. Close-ups on his chewing mouth, lingering shots on bared flesh, and his frequent conversations about food only barely conceal his covert cannibalism. Or perhaps industrial cannibalism is a better description, given his day job of kidnapping women, cutting them up, and sending the pieces off to wealthy men with perverse, ravenous appetites.

In his luxury home deep within a forest, he has cells for keeping his captives chained up, an operating theatre for taking pieces of their body, and cold rooms for meat storage. Within these walls, Cave crafts a visually sumptuous atmosphere of red lighting and production design, bleeding through the carpet, décor, and even large art murals against which she stages her actors in arresting compositions. There is a slight Italian giallo influence in this colourfully expressionistic imagery, consistent with the sensationalist gore that Cave savours with macabre delight. This disgust which she so effectively provokes goes beyond visceral reactions to the butchery, but develops further into a revolted moral outrage as she flicks through montages of Steve’s affluent customers dining on their gruesome deliveries.

Within Noa’s disorientated perspective, her prison is a sinister, upside-down dating game that she must play against her captor to stay alive. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan establish an alluring chemistry between both characters in their strange dynamic, with Noa playing the part of a compliant love interest to slowly earn his trust. Cave’s metaphor for abusive relationships is skilfully constructed in these interactions, particularly when Noa begins to adopt his dark sense of humour and share in his cannibalistic meals to reclaim some power for herself. As for Steve, Cave never lets the terror fade from his character even when he is at his most charming, turning his operating theatre into a funhouse of mirrors that fragment and multiply his intimidating figure all through the space.

From a narrative standpoint, there are several plot beats in Fresh where the Get Out influence encroaches a bit too far in on its own originality, letting it come off as derivative in those overly familiar horror conventions. It is partially this reason which makes the final act feel rushed in its execution, brushing over all the expected developments one might expect from a horror of this ilk while letting a handful of other narrative threads go unresolved. Cave’s immaculate crafting of atmospheric tension through her camerawork and visual design may exceed her ability to craft a wholly original story, but in the end that is all Fresh needs to succeed as a thrillingly feminist tale of subjugation and vengeance, pulling us along in its tight, repulsive grip.

Fresh is currently streaming on Disney Plus.