Friday, November 18

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Review

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Dir: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong'o, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Winston Duke, Martin Freeman, and Tenoch Huerta
2h 41m

It's been four years since the cinematic cultural phenomenon of writer/director Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther," a film that broke box office records but, more importantly, celebrated black culture, diversity, and inclusion. So much has changed in four years, both within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the vastly changed landscape worldwide. 

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" reflects the many changes felt throughout the world, the political power struggle, the desperation for advancement, and the grief for loved ones lost through the changing times. For fans of "Black Panther," the tragic death of actor Chadwick Boseman is an emotion immediately felt. All of these topics are examined within Ryan Coogler's nearly three-hour-long runtime. This sequel honors the memory of Chadwick Boseman and continues the celebration of cultural diversity but struggles to find its stride amidst a mix of new characters and diverging storylines. 

The film begins with Shuri (Letitia Wright) delivering a prayer to help her brother, King T'Challa, who is dying from an unknown illness. Shuri is unable to heal him. The kingdom of Wakanda mourns the death of their king while Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), T'Challa's mother, takes over leadership. At the same time, the rest of the world looks to take advantage of a resource-loaded country without its protector, the Black Panther.

As Wakanda stands strong, maintaining control of the valuable resource vibranium, a research team starts looking deep within the ocean for additional reserves. Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the ruler of an underwater kingdom known as Talokan, protects his people by aggressively retaliating against the researchers. Wakanda is blamed for the assault. Namor, an indigenous descendant of a group of people enslaved by colonizers, understands the danger of vibranium in the wrong hands. Namor hopes to enlist the support of Wakanda in conquering those who threaten their kingdoms, but Queen Ramonda refuses, leading to an ultimatum for Wakanda. 
Ryan Coogler does an exceptional job of weaving the narratives associated with the ever-changing Marvel Cinematic Universe, along with the emotion of paying tribute to Chadwick Boseman. It's an intricate balancing act that Coogler deftly accomplishes without depending on extravagant action set pieces. "Wakanda Forever" deliberately examines the emotional, political, and environmental changes in the absence of the Black Panther. And, refreshingly, allowing the weight of the story to be carried by the strong female cast. 

Letitia Wright does a fine job filling big shoes as the film's lead, Shuri, and Danai Gurira is still intimidating as General Okoye but also allows more emotional resonance in this film, offering their characters more depth and complication. Angela Bassett, who has displayed countless exceptional characters throughout her career, leads the cast with another powerful performance.

As "Wakanda Forever" moves away from examining grief for Shuri and Ramonda and the historical trauma for Namor and his people, the film begins to function like the recent batch of Marvel films. The conflict between Namor and Wakanda inevitably leads to a forgettable fight. While Namor is offered ample time for character development at the start, the final act provides a hasty one-note resolution. Shuri's plight is more complicated as the stakes grow more significant for Wakanda, but her journey also feels underdeveloped. 

"Wakanda Forever" soars when it provides the time to explore the characters and their connection to the powerful emotions that motivate their journey. While the pacing can weigh heavy at times, and the action sequences operate as a necessity for the genre, Ryan Coogler is still an exceptional filmmaker. The director composes more than a few great scenes, imbues characters with interesting emotions, and structures a unique vision of culture into comic book filmmaking. "Wakanda Forever" always had high expectations to meet, and in moments it exceeds and excels beyond them. 

Monte's Rating
3.50 out of 5.00

The Menu Review

The Menu
Dir: Mark Mylod
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Judith Light, Aimee Carrero, and John Leguizamo 
1h 46m

Search through the range of suggested videos on your social media platforms, and you are guaranteed to come across commentaries regarding the artistry of cuisine. The meticulously constructed, often decadent, combination of ingredients transformed into food unworthy of destruction with a fork and knife. Director Mark Mylod turns the cinematic lens onto highfalutin foodies with "The Menu," an entertaining and biting dark comedy about entitlement and food culture.  

New couple Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) wait impatiently for a boat that is transporting them to a private island for an exclusive dinner presented by the famed Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Other guests, who compose the top percentage of affluence, also wait in anticipation, mingling with their boastful opinions about the evening ahead of them. Upon arrival at the swanky kitchen, an obedient and highly-organized army of kitchen staff wait to serve a multi-course of curated cuisines.

Chef Slowik, who at the clap of his hands immediately receives a stand-at-attention and response of "Yes Chef" from his kitchen staff, has hand-picked the arrangement of menu items along with the specific group of guests in his dining room. No one is there by accident. The guests include a name-dropping movie star (John Leguizamo), a group of male social media influencers (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang), and a pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer), amongst other people who each occupy their own indulgent and arrogant place in society. Margot, who was added to the guest list at the last minute, is the exception. Chef Slowik has devious plans, and Margot has the potential to ruin his menu. 

Director Mark Mylod and writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy craft a tight mystery seasoned with a pinch of horror movie influences. The story is a clever mix of dark comedy setups and a self-aware examination of modern food culture. Much humor is sprinkled throughout the story; the best jokes come at the peak of tension-fueled moments, at unexpected times when the film diverges momentarily down a darker path. However, it's never scary; the characters, with their loathsome mannerisms and cynical commentaries, dictate the sarcastic and comedic tone established throughout the film. 

It's hard to empathize with the guests in Chef Slowik's dining room. Each is obnoxious to various degrees of tolerability. The food critic imposes negative critiques after every bite. The movie star is more concerned with his fading status than the food in front of him. And Margot's date, Tyler, snaps pictures of every course even after being told it wasn't allowed. Except for Margot, who could care less about the food, everyone is terrible. 

At many moments Chef Slowik, the obvious villain of the film, garners the most sympathy. That's all because of the talents of Ralph Fiennes, who is no stranger to villainous roles. The actor’s sad eyes and uneasy mannerisms cut through the more powerful emotions of resentment and arrogance for the character. Fiennes's exceptional performance is a skillful balancing act. Anna Taylor-Joy is also great; her honest self-worth and confidence counter nicely against the other guests and the challenge of the demanding Chef. 

"The Menu," in moments, makes unnecessary narrative shifts for the sake of drama that stalls the otherwise tight pacing. But that rarely distracts from the fun the film is having. Supported by great performances and the entertaining use of dark comedy, "The Menu" is the best pick for a "dinner and a movie" night. 

Monte's Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Friday, September 30

Smile Review


Dir: Parker Finn

Starring: Susie Bacon, Jessie Usher, Kyle Gallner, Robin Weigert, and Kal Penn

1h 55m

An unwanted stare and a sinister smile are used throughout cinematic history to evoke unnerving and discomforting fear. Norman Bates' final moments in "Psycho," Pennywise smiling with balloons in "It," and Freddy Krueger's deadly smirk in "Nightmare on Elm Street" are a few examples. In horror movies, the scariest monster often has the biggest grin.

There is much to smile about with writer/director Parker Finn's horror film "Smile," a simplistic, albeit creepy and fun, head trip of genre filmmaking. Utilizing characters with evil gazes and unnaturally forced, ear-to-ear grins, Finn crafts a horror film that startles, shocks, and scares its way through a story that utilizes trauma and mental health as a narrative vessel. While the film may not always succeed with its intentions of exploring trauma through a horror lens, it's evident that the filmmaking team understands how to establish an atmosphere and execute a scare. 

Rose Cotter (Susie Bacon) is a psychologist working at a treatment facility while carrying past childhood trauma concerning the suicide of her mother. Rose is called to assist a new patient, a young woman named Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who is having negative feelings while also being stalked by, what she believes, is a sinister force. During their consultation, Laura begins to scream for help. After calling for assistance, Rose witnesses Laura, who has a massive smile, kill herself. Rose soon discovers that whatever tormented her patient has now latched itself to her, blurring the lines between reality and a nightmare.

"Smile" takes a creepy setup and builds familiar scare tactics all around it. Sound effect stings push the jump scare level into high gear. The building of tension within a quiet house, with manipulation of dark corners and masked backgrounds, adds an unexpected element of surprise to the horror setups. It's an ingenious design, but nothing horror audiences haven't seen in other films. Still, these familiar elements all play supporting characters to some awe-inspiring imagery, a few that will be lasting nightmare fuel for some unsuspecting viewers.

Susie Bacon does a great job carrying the lead performance through significant emotional and physical changes. As her character experiences greater torments, the world around her begins to fall into deeper despair. Bacon composes a feeling that, at first, responds with a calm physical demeanor, finding answers based on the reality of her job as a psychologist. But, as the threat grows stronger, invading moments that blur reality and a dream, the character begins to unravel emotionally. The performance complements the story, especially as the film starts to regurgitate ideas and scares one too many times. 

"Smile" takes a creepy setup, retools some familiar elements from other films, and crafts a scary movie told with a focus on unresolved trauma and mental health concerns. The story suffers when the film functions solely as a scare device. However, as a scary movie arriving at the start of the spooky season, "Smile" is a fun horror experience.

Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00