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Movie Reviews
(Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, et al. | R | 1 hr 56 min | Paramount Pictures)

Overview: After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. As an overwhelming terror begins taking over her life, Rose must confront her troubling past in order to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.

Verdict: Writer-director Parker Finn’s feature debut, “Smile,” boasts the thinnest of premises based on a laundry list of horror movie trends and tropes, from the historical to the contemporary. Expanding on his 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept,” Finn inserts the latest hot topic in horror — trauma — into a story structured around a death curse chain, as seen in films like “The Ring,” “It Follows” and “She Dies Tomorrow.”

All that’s needed to pass along the curse is a mere smile, but it’s the kind of chin-lowered, eyes-raised toothy grin that communicates something far more devious than friendly.

That’s pretty much the movie right there, but Finn fleshes it out with some dizzying cinematography by Charlie Sarroff, a creepily effective score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, and a believably twitchy lead performance from Sosie Bacon. Oh, and jump scares, a whole lotta jump scares.

Back in 1942, horror producer Val Lewton pioneered a technique in the film “Cat People” that’s now referred to as the “Lewton Bus.” If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you know it: a moment of slowly building tension that culminates in some shrieking noise from a source that is revealed to be harmless but sends the popcorn flying nevertheless — a ringing phone, a home alarm system, the brakes on a bus. It’s a technique that Finn liberally abuses in “Smile,” almost to comedic effect.

In the way that “Smile” takes on trauma as a source of horror so literally, one wonders if Finn is skewering the trend of ascribing all meaning in horror films to “it’s about trauma” (see: every interview original Final Girl Jamie Lee Curtis has given in the past few years about the “Halloween” franchise).

The main character in “Smile,” Rose Cotter (Bacon), is a therapist who catches the curse from a young woman (Caitlin Stasey) in the throes of a debilitating mental health crisis after witnessing a suicide. The death curse is like contagious PTSD: Anyone who witnesses the suicide of the person compelled to kill themselves by this “evil spirit” catches the curse and has to pass it on.

Finn continually walks a line in “Smile” making us wonder if the movie is just dumb, or so dumb it’s looped back around to smart again. Finn casts Robin Weigert, the preeminent portrayer of therapists (see: “Big Little Lies”), as Rose’s own therapist, who speaks to her in soothing, infuriating tones that eventually take on a menacing quality. When Finn delves into the childhood trauma that Rose has yet to make peace with, it is visualized and rendered so literally it’s laughable.

But is “Smile” smiling with us as we chuckle at the on-the-nose dialogue, imagery and themes? That’s the biggest question in sussing out its quality.

Ultimately, that we never really know the answer to that question, and that the ending settles for a sequel possibility that betrays the film’s own interior logic, indicates that no, “Smile” isn’t entirely in on the joke, or at least willing to show that it is.

However, Bacon’s performance as well as Finn’s detailed craft manage to hold tension, and the audience’s attention, for the nearly-two-hour runtime of this horror curio, which is as opaque and somewhat silly as the smiles that drive it. [KW]

Black Adam
(Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Pierce Brosnan, et al. | PG-13 | 2 hr 05 min | Warner Bros.)

Overview: Nearly 5,000 years after he was bestowed with the almighty powers of the ancient gods - and imprisoned just as quickly - Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson) is freed from his earthly tomb, ready to unleash his unique form of justice on the modern world.

Verdict: “Black Adam”, the latest in our current reality of multiple CGI superhero spectacles per year, feels built on paradoxes. Some of those paradoxes are peculiar to this specific story, and others emerge from general recurring issues with the film’s relationship to the DC empire, and superhero films at large.

In this way, “Black Adam” is rarely as egregious an example of superhero malaise as much as the general response to it suggests. And yet, it’s instructive to think of all the way all the things that might work – and occasionally do work – in “Black Adam” feel compulsively neutered by the things that don’t work.

Even as competing conglomerates Marvel and DC feign progressive ideologies in their casting practices, the current slate of superhero cinema still feels hegemonic, whether in its whiteness or in its blinkered Americana. “Black Adam” offers a welcome rejection of both, at first a potentiality that the film finds itself grappling with to diminishing returns.

The story begins thousands of years ago, when a tyrannical king creates the Crown of Sabbac to attain power over the rest of the kingdom. A young boy resists and is given the powers of Shazam, becoming the champion to liberate the enslaved. In present-day in the same kingdom in Kahndaq (a fictional Middle Eastern country), the population is oppressed by Intergang, a crime-syndicate and neo-colonial force stripping the formerly noble country of its glory.

The country needs liberation, and Adrianna Tomaz (university archaeologist and resistor) along with three colleagues ventures in search of the lost Crown, for reasons that are somewhat vague.

They do find the crown, but they also find the tomb of Teth-Adam, supposedly the liberating champion from millennia before. When the search for the Crown is foiled by mercenaries, Adrianna calls on to Teth-Adam for assistance and he awakens.

But Teth-Adam is a vengeful and mercurial figure – laying waste to the country’s oppressors with glee. American agent Amanda Waller is troubled by the appearance of this seemingly unassailable figure and sends four superheroes of the Justice Society (not the Justice League) to capture him. From there things go awry. For the characters, but also for the film itself.

Even when it does, though, “Black Adam” is held together by the not unimportant reality of a superhero film that seems aware of, if not actively engaged in, an antiimperialist stance set primarily outside of the Global North. Yes, much of this is done vaguely in a way that ever so slightly avoids examining actual the complicity of contemporary superpowers in destroying Middle Eastern countries very similar to the fictional Kahndaq.

But it is an effort that feels complex on its own so that one can immediately recognize and even appreciate the potential political commentary even when “Black Adam” declines to do very much with it. A sharply specific tale of Kahndaq and the dynamics of its contemporary characters trying to liberate themselves feels like a visceral possibility for a superhero film, but then for “Black Adam” to justify its superhero existence it cannot be content with being sharply specific. It must look outward, because it must justify its existence with the larger lore of the DC context.

The screenplay (credited to Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani) justifies this by inserting the urgency of the Justice Society’s need to neuter Black Adam. These are consistently the worst parts of the film. Viola Davis’ return as Amanda Waller feels dispensable and each of the four members of the society – Pierce Brosnan as the wizened illusionist Doctor Fate, Aldis Hodge as the stern leader Hawkman, Noah Centineo as the obligatory young upstart in the form of Atom Smasher and Quintessa Swindell as the obligatory ingenue in the form of Cyclone – bring the film to a grinding halt with forced banter that feels unnecessary and particularly incongruous with the actual life and death dynamics in Kahndaq.

The story tries to confront that by some moments where the characters explicitly reject the presence of the Americans, but it feels counterintuitive. Even when the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) characters question the presence of the American superheroes, noticeably absent when the country was being oppressed, “Black Adam” is too bound to the larger machine of capitalism that is DC so it feels unable to really engage with the competing desire to be actually revolutionary.

Even “Black Panther”, a wholly better film that similarly engages with themes of anti-hegemony, is not wholly successful as an anti-imperialistic text. Coogler’s film, as good as it is, has its own messy politics that seems uncertain how to deploy queries of wealth without falling prey to empty capitalistic thirst.

And “Black Adam” is no “Black Panther,” for many reasons; many of them to do with craft. Editors Mike Sale and John Lee feel burdened with the conflicting plots and the film’s own convoluted structure. And Lawrence Sher’s vision of this fictional Middle Eastern country still feels too gauzily yellow in the way that American contexts of these places tend to be. And then there’s the way that the film doesn’t seem as exuberantly in step with the possibilities of its MENA representation. And it’s the MENA dynamic where “Black Adam” finds another unscalable paradox.

Dwayne Johnson, although conventionally and ambiguously Brown (he is half black and half Samoan) is not a MENA actor and although ambiguous ethnicities have been par for the course for much of contemporary cinema with brownness (whether from the Middle East, Pacific Island, Latin America) being an interchangeable currency, the casting feels unwieldy when the film so preciously contextualises Johnson’s Teth-Adam as the champion sent to deliver the specific of this specific country from the foreigners. This fact rests uncomfortably against the film’s central figure, Johnson. Johnson’s own dogged interest in this story has been key to its development but it feels like such an unforced error that the film which explicitly speaks of identity and heroic representation casts an explicitly non-MENA performer as this great figure of liberation.

It does not help that the performance is also not good. Johnson opts to play Teth-Adam’s return after a 4000-year entombment as a robotic figure. He is a Prehistoric God as Terminator. And in the face of Sarah Shahi doggedly devoting so much emotion to Adrianna, the leaden approach to characterisation from Johnson feels like a vacuum of emotion.

Why does Adrianna’s brother spend so much of his time listening to American oldies? Why does the film’s own understanding and valuation of its native culture feel so ambivalent? Why does Johnson’s characterization of Teth Adam feel confined to an American version of postmodern humour rather than something that feels meaningfully engaged with the film’s MENA context? There are too many questions that “Black Adam” shrugs at.

The much-vaunted cameo in the film which many know of doesn’t inspire me to confidence. No fault of the cameo performer but “Black Adam” is best when it turns in on itself. Keeping its story focused only internally. The revelation of Teth-Adam’s existence offers a moment of emotionality drawing a parallel across timelines to emphasise what parents might do for their children. But every attempt to tie it to larger plotty banalities of superhero urgencies feel clunky.

And yet it’s those ties that have assured that audiences are seated. It is compulsory entertainment. You can’t miss this if you want to understand the next and the next and so on. But what happens when their ouroboros approach to its effect end up robbing it of the faint profundity it might create otherwise? As I said “Black Adam” is trapped in a paradox. [A.K.]

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
(Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, et al. | PG-13 | 2 hr 41 min | Walt Disney Studios)

Overview: In Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Shuri (Letitia Wright), M’Baku (Winston Duke), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the Dora Milaje (including Florence Kasumba) fight to protect their nation from intervening world powers in the wake of King T’Challa’s death.

As the Wakandan’s strive to embrace their next chapter, the heroes must band together with the help of War Dog Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and forge a new path for the kingdom of Wakanda.

Verdict: A thoughtful and mature exploration of communal grief in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a fitting tribute to the legacy of Chadwick Boseman. The opening scenes thrust viewers directly into the open wound of that loss through the eyes of Shuri (played by Letitia Wright, whose career miraculously survived anti-vax conspiracies), princess of Wakanda and sister to T’Challa.

The people of Wakanda and the story are led by the grieving Queen Ramonda, played by a flawless Angela Bassett, anchoring the sprawling story with her gravitas and acting chops.

The first two-thirds of the movie are excellent storytelling, doubling down on the franchise’s commitment to grappling with consequences of colonialism, coupled with futuristic fantasies of untouched civilizations. It introduces the highly anticipated Namor (a perfectly cast Tenoch Huerta) using gorgeous Mayan and Aztec details to burnish his backstory as the most newly-minted mutant. The underwater sequences are beautiful and haunting, accurately reflecting the awesome hush of diving into the deep.

The last third of the film devolves into a predictable CGI battle where Wakanda makes outlandish tactical errors for no logical reason other than to push the story along, and there’s an unfortunate lack of well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat.

But hey, there’s plenty of cool water bombs and action sequences to make it worth your while! Despite this, old favorites like M’Baku (Winston Duke), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and token colonizer Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) successfully bring back the excitement of the original film, and it becomes clear that the charm of Wakanda truly is forever. [S.F.]

The Menu
(Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, et al. | R | 1 hr 46 min | Searchlight Pictures)

Overview: A couple (Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) travels to a coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises.

Verdict: Mark Mylod’s The Menu is set almost entirely within the sleek modernist walls of Hawthorne, an ultra-exclusive restaurant located on a small island accessible only by boat. There, the wealthy elite drop $1,250 a head to consume the culinary works of art produced by world-renowned American chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).

Only the menu that Slowik has in store for the film’s group of patrons—which includes the obsessive foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his apathetic plus-one Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy)—isn’t just a multi-course experience, but a series of violent punishments against society’s upper crust.

The Menu is a horror satire that draws plenty of fodder from the world of haute cuisine. Most notably, it’s obsessed with the worship of celebrity chefs and the inherent classism of rich patrons feasting on overpriced dishes laboriously prepared by underpaid staff—food which, as Slowik points out with malicious irony, will eventually turn to shit. But the ostensible critique of the culinary appetites of the one percent becomes increasingly hollow over each successive course.

As the torture of Slowik’s customers grows more elaborate, both psychologically and physically, the social issues that the script circles and takes aim at come to feel like nothing more than pretexts for mounting artfully staged but redundant set pieces.

It doesn’t help that The Menu never sees Slowik’s targets as anything other than easy representations of high-society types. Among them are a smarmy movie star (John Leguizamo), a pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer), and a trio of obnoxious business bros (Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr, and Arturo Castro) who, early in the dinner, make a toast to money.

To be fair, that’s by design, as Hawthorne’s guests have been targeted because of their almost hard-wired disdainful attitudes. “You will eat less than you desire and more than you deserve,” says Hawthorne’s scarily tranquil hostess Elsa (Hong Chau) at one point, knowing that the patrons will endure much violence if it means that they’ll at least get to taste more of Slowik’s creations.

That gallows humor, born out of satire, is effective in spots, especially when laced into the horror set pieces, most memorably during an early course called “The Mess,” where a shocking act of self-inflicted violence from one of Hawthorne’s staff causes some of the sycophantic customers, assuming the moment was staged, to marvel at the experience that Slowik has cultivated for them.

And all the while, the actors do their best to breathe life into their stock characters. McTeer, for one, plays critic Lillian Bloom with a reserved, calming demeanor that creates an amusing juxtaposition with the character’s abrasively snotty quips.

But for as potent as the film’s shocks can be in the moment, it’s difficult to shake off that the screenplay by Seith Reiss and Willy Tracy, both graduates of The Onion school of satire, lacks for the breadth of variety that’s necessary to make more than just a restaurant’s tasting menu take flight.

The film simply doesn’t deliver on its promising premise, and its clumsiness is perfectly, if unintentionally, represented by the moment in which Slowik suggests to Tyler that he whip up something to eat and the flustered fanboy exposes his inexperience in the kitchen by haphazardly throwing a hodgepodge of food into a skillet and producing an undercooked meal.

In conclusion, The Menu serves harrowing haute cuisine, but as the film increasingly spins its wheels toward a half-hearted conclusion, it also shows that coherence isn’t its strong suit. [W.G.]