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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

It’s hard to talk about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever without first discussing its missing whole, namely Chadwick Boseman. It was a shock when Boseman died during the summer of 2020 of terminal cancer, which he had kept hidden except for a small number of close confidants. I remember hearing the news and being in disbelief, figuring this must be another celebrity death hoax, but then the terrible news was confirmed. It’s one of those celebrity deaths that you remember when you found out, mostly I think because here was an actor in his prime and headlining Oscar-nominated movies and precedent-setting blockbusters. It felt too soon to be gone. It felt wrong. It’s that grief that the characters of Wakanda Forever are also wrestling over. Reflecting real life, the sequel to 2018’s hit Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entry elects to have T’Challa (Boseman) pass away in the movie as well, off screen, and from a cause more human than super, dying from a disease. The movie is knowingly channeling our grief for the loss of Boseman into a story about characters also mourning the loss of this good man. This loss hangs over the entire movie and provides it more gravitas and emotional depth it would have had otherwise. Wakanda Forever is a suitably exciting and expansive sequel, especially following the empowering cultural model writer/director Ryan Coogler followed with the first film, but it’s hard not to feel the loss of Boseman, both in presence and in storytelling.

We open with Shuri (Letitia Wright) diligently trying to save her brother’s life only to be out of time. The nation of Wakanda is in full mourning, losing their champion and king. In the wake of this loss, the outside world sees opportunity. Having come out of hiding, Wakanda is being pressured to share its valuable vibranium mineral resources with other nations, and some are eager to take them by force if necessary. This has inadvertently created a gold rush for vibranium, and the C.I.A. has discovered traces of the rare mineral on the ocean floor. This undersea incursion has provoked a heretofore unknown underwater community into action. Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is a super-powered mere mutant, able to fly with tiny wings on his heels, and able to breathe under the sea just like the inhabitants of Talochan. Namor has declared war on the surface world and seeks Wakanda to be an ally, and if not that, then their first conquest.

This is a movie dominated by the women of Wakanda, and they bring the fury. Everyone is processing the loss of T’Challa in different ways. Shuri is rededicating herself to her scientific research, as she blames her brother’s death on her inability to solve his ailment in time. T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has been appointed leader of Wakanda and must represent her nation’s interests while still grieving for her son. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) has retreated from the larger world of spycraft to open a school in Haiti. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is supposed to be the chief security officer for Wakanda, and she busies herself with new threats and armor rather than dwell on being unable to save her king. Each character feels the weight of the loss and opens up reflections of grief, as each knew T’Challa on a different level: mother, sister, lover, protector. The attention that Coogler allows for their and our grief allows the movie to work on a communal cathartic level (I teared up a few times myself). Wright (Death on the Nile) has some heavyweight emotional moments, and the movie is structured around her path of healing as well as the wayward detour of vengeance and hate. It’s a conclusion that hits upon the expected spectacle of superhero action but hinges upon, foremost, an emotional arc.

Coogler is two-for-two when it comes to creating dynamic, engaging villains who have strong perspectives that cause the heroes to better reflect upon their own roles. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is one of the MCU’s best villains, and I think it’s interesting that the first Black Panther ends with the hero realizing the villain’s perspective is right and adjusts from there. With Wakanda Forever, we get Namor protecting his people, and his reasoning sounds a lot like the Wakandan leaders who wished to remain separate from the larger world in the earlier film. The background for Namor is completely rewritten by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole and for the better. They’ve invigorated the character by attaching a rich Mesoamerican culture to Namor’s people and history. We have another hidden world of minorities that are super-powered and developed beyond the reach of colonialism. The flashback for Namor, dating back to the sixteenth century, is startlingly effective, establishing his strange origins, the great change for his tribe to being sea-dwelling, and what happens when he returns to the surface world to honor his late mother’s funeral wish. When he returns, the Spanish have built plantations and have captured the indigenous into being their chattel. Namor sees this exploitation in the name of a foreign God and swears off the surface world. This cultural angle imbues the character’s focal point but it’s also just plain neat to watch an ancient Mesoamerican culture given the big screen superhero treatment with reverence and awe. By providing a compelling villain, it also makes the emotional stakes more compelling. We’ll likely side with the women of Wakanda, but you might also be rooting for Namor too. I also think it’s fun that the underwater Atlantean prince character for DC and Marvel is portrayed by a Mexican-American actor and a Polynesian actor.

Where the movie doesn’t work as well is with its introduction of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorn, Judas and the Black Messiah) who is the human McGuffin. She’s a brilliant engineer who accidentally discovers a vibranium detection device, but why does nabbing her matter to Namor? With the device already created, the proverbial horse has left the barn. Kidnapping the inventor after her technology has already been utilized seems too late. There’s no real reason she could not be replaced with an inanimate flash drive except that this establishes the character up for her 2023 Disney Plus TV series. It’s this larger corporate portfolio push that I’ve always worried about with each new MCU edition, now 39 in total, that they will be forced to set up future movies and shows at the detriment of telling a focused and satisfying movie. The MCU movies I’ve generally liked the least are the ones that fall under this pressure the most, like Age of Ultron, Iron Man 2, and Multiverse of Madness. I found the character of Riri Williams to be fun, but her inclusion always seemed like a distraction to the larger story. I’m sure you can make thematic connections, a young brilliant black woman finding solace in Wakanda, but if you were looking to trim down an already overlong movie, I think Riri is the easiest to eliminate.

With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Phase Four of the MCU has officially closed and Phase Five will begin shortly with Ant-Man 3 in February, 2023. In the wake of the conclusion of the multi-phase Infinity series and 2019’s Endgame, this phase felt dominated by closure and exploration. The Disney Plus series provided little conclusive offshoots for many of the original Avengers characters. It’s also been a period of experimentation, with Marvel broadening its tone and scope from martial arts movies, spy thrillers, romantic epics, and familiarizing audiences to the concept of the multiverse with good movies (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and not-so good movies (Doctor Strange 2). And of course Wakanda Forever is the biggest edition yet on fulfilling a sense of closure, though it had never been intended to be before Boseman’s passing. It’s a sturdy sequel with a palpable emotional undercurrent and an engaging villain to boot. I called 2018’s Black Panther as agreeable, mid-tier Marvel entertainment, and I’d say the same for its sequel. However, with Boseman’s passing, it’s naturally elevated. Wakanda Forever is long and overstuffed but also emotional and engrossing and satisfying.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Smile (2022)

Smile was not initially intended for a theatrical release. The $17 million-budgeted horror thriller had been intended as a streaming exclusive for Paramount Plus, but after the movie tested so well, its parent company thought why not try a theatrical run? They even hired real actors to creepy stand still grinning outside Good Morning America or behind home plate for baseball playoffs. Then the movie made over $200 million worldwide and possibly began its own franchise. Not bad. After having finally watched Smile, I can understand why it became a word-of-mouth sensation. It’s thoroughly unnerving and a horror film that just knows its fundamentals.

Dr. Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon) is a clinical psychologist with her own trauma. As a child, she discovered her own mentally ill mother’s body after she had overdosed on pills, and this has spurned Rose to try and help others suffering from depression and mental illness as a career. She encounters one very frantic young woman, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who fears she is in danger. She says she keeps seeing… smiling people, people that aren’t there, and she was told today was her last day to live. Sure enough, the woman struggles and then stands, eerily smiling, and casually slices her own throat in front of Rose. While she tries to shake off the disturbing burst of violence, Rose is starting to see Laura again, smiling that same eerie smile, and this propels Rose to investigate the origins of this curse that leads each victim to take their own life.

There isn’t much in the way of deeper themes or social commentary here, though I suppose you could find some pieces about how we stigmatize mental illness or that the curse has to be spread through witnesses of trauma. Smile isn’t an example of elevated horror and instead it’s just a well-constructed, well-developed horror movie that knows what to do to properly get under your skin. The premise reminded me of the indie breakout in 2014, It Follows, where there is a curse with very specific rules for passing it along, and new chains can be created or broken depending upon the duplicity of the person (see also: The Ring). I liked thinking of the curse as a puzzle, and my wife was able to jump to a conclusion before the movie as far as how to possibly break the curse, going against the assumptions of Rose and her ex-boyfriend police detective, Joel (Kyle Gallner). Much of the second half of the movie is this discovery period, untangling the longer history of the curse, implicit with this is that each new occurrence involved a violent suicide and an observer. I suppose maybe there is some theme possibly attempted about the shared nature of trauma, how it unpredictably spills out before us and is tricky to be cleanly contained. After establishing the pattern with the curse, now it’s time for our protagonist to wonder if she can beat the odds. I appreciate that writer/director Parker Finn provides plausibility to make her efforts credible. My issue with the latter part of It Follows was why the beleaguered teens would have thought that they could electrocute an invisible phantom and kill it when it was otherwise unfazed by bullets.

As a straightforward horror thriller, Smile knows what it takes to make you squirm and jump. It taps into something universal: smiling, without careful context, is often very creepy. It’s not a world-breaking observation and yet its simplicity is part of what makes it all so effective. Very often, the movie will anticipate the audience’s dread, feeling out that something is about to go off the rails or a jump scare might be approaching, and it will deliver in a different direction. Much like James Wan’s Conjuring movies, the film also has a firm handle on setups and payoffs, establishing a situation and then letting the audience simmer in dread. There was one moment where Rose was instructed to turn around and look behind her by a voice that no longer seemed so helpful, and the drawn-out response was deliciously squirm-inducing. There was another moment that I knew a jump scare was coming, it was literally walking towards Rose, and I kept thinking, “Okay, here comes the startle,” and then the movie brought it but in a way that still surprised and elated me. Given the nature of the curse messing with its victim’s mind, you might start to anticipate what Rose sees and hears is not to be trusted, and there are a few fake-outs too many. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t just rest on one spooky trick. There’s a children’s birthday party that manages to tie a few plot elements together in a masterfully traumatizing manner. When Smile does start revealing more about the design of its monster, that’s when my wife started averting her eyes more often and muttering “No no no” to herself. Some of the imagery is prime nightmare fuel, and I applaud Finn’s innate ability to scare the hell out of an audience.

Some action movies and horror flicks are best described as thrill rides, an experience that exhilarates and delights and doesn’t offer much more by the end than the experience, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Not every movie has to be one with deeper meanings or breaking the mold in a way that no filmmaker has ever achieved before. Sometimes just having a good time from a well-constructed thrill ride is sufficient for a fun and diverting viewing. Smile is that film, a horror/thriller that is cleverly focused and developed to garner every goosebump. I will also say that I incorrectly thought that this movie was PG-13, and that was quickly disproven by the intensity and disturbing nature of its violence. I can’t say why I always thought that this was a PG-13 movie, maybe because of its instant box-office success, but it definitely doesn’t soft pedal its intense atmosphere and disquieting nature. It takes a lot to scare me, and Smile made me sit on the edge of my seat and perfectly dread the next moment, that is, when I wasn’t averting my eyes like my wife and trying to forget its nightmarish imagery.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Black Adam (2022)

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been eyeing a superhero costume for over eight years. He’s been attached to a Black Adam project since 2014. The character is best known in DC comics as a villain for Shazam, although the mythology and rules of that universe get some revisions under this new vehicle. Johnson plays a Middle Eastern godlike figure who shuns being a selfless champion of the little people. If you’re an easy sell for superhero movies, there’s enough visual bravura and smash-em-ups to at least sate your appetite for CGI fisticuffs. By the lowered standards of the DCU, this is a thoroughly average movie. It has a certain childlike Saturday morning cartoon appeal that doesn’t try too hard to be taken seriously and goes about its business with a workmanlike degree of efficiency. The action is easy to follow and the obsessive slow-mo style feel like comics splash pages come to vivid life. I liked the warm, golden color palate and Mid-East setting as distinguishing features. There is an audience for Black Adam, I am certain, but it’s also getting harder to just accept average superhero movies given the glut of superhero cinema. The hero’s journey of this would-be villain becoming more a grumpy antihero is rote and predictable, including a really lame villain to make Black Adam look less bad in comparison. I didn’t care about big CGI demon goon fighting for control of a magic throne. The character arc is supposed to be about agency and responsibility, but it gets reduced down to a morally simplistic “I guess I won’t kill all the bad guys all the time” re-evaluation. The plotting and structure is also misshapen; the entire first half of the movie feels like the second half of some earlier movie we missed out on. The fighting can also get annoyingly repetitious. The Justice Society has two major members, Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate and Aldis Hodge as Hawkman, and the rest are afterthoughts, as if the producers leveraged including more big screen debuts in case the central character wasn’t enough of a draw. Anyway, the Justice Society and Black Adam go through half a dozen fights and I just got bored by their bickering. The premise of a Middle Eastern superhero, a champion for the Muslim world, would be a radical idea worth exploring the geopolitical ramifications, especially the fears this could raise in conservative and twitchy Western societies that this could be seen as akin to a superhero arms race. That direction might veer away from the intent of the character but that’s also the far more interesting story. Still, it’s The Rock as a superhero, and his enormous charisma can carry even an ordinary action movie to greater heights.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio (2022)

When you have a catchy title like Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, you know you have to deliver the goods. This gleefully schlocky suburban satire horror comedy (how many more adjectives you want?) is the follow-up from director/co-writer Kyle Rayburn, an unabashed genre enthusiast. I was granted an advance copy to review this new Ohio-made indie and I’ll try to remain as objective as possible, dear reader, despite the fact that Kyle is one of the nicest men on Earth and even allowed me to film an episode of my rom-com Web series in his own home. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is more low-key than you may be expecting. Its chill vibes and relaxed, ironic humor are more indicative of a stoner hangout movie than something with demon figures and threats of damnation. I think plenty of viewers could latch onto the fun, weird wavelength of an undemanding silly comedy, although there are places I wish Satanic Soccer Mom had gone even further with its spirited sense of creativity.

Annie (Gracie Hayes-Plazolles) is trying to hold it all together in suburban Ohio. Her husband won the lottery and then vanished, and her suburban community is awash in gossip and speculation about what has happened to him. Annie is trying to raise her two kids alone, keep ahead of adult responsibilities like bills and soccer practice shuttling, and holding back from snapping at the clucking hens of the neighborhood, the Karens, lead by chief Karen Green (Valerie Gilbert). It all changes when she accidentally summons a horned demon, Balthazar (Brian Papandrea), who is willing to grant her three wishes at a price, as per proper Faustian bargains.

There is a breezy charm to Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, a casual, shoulder-shrugging amiability that invites you not to think too hard about the proceedings and just have fun, and if you can connect on that wavelength, then the meandering nature can also be part of that unexpected charm. It’s easy to see the works of Kevin Smith as a reference for Rayburn, but I was also reminded of the hangout cinema of Richard Linklater, where you adjust to the rhythms of characters and their daily lives and interactive camaraderie. Of course, nobody had their boobs literally fall off in Linklater’s world (though there’s still time yet), but it’s that same relaxed tone and feeling that permeates Satanic Soccer Mom. There’s something most amusing about populating your movie with fantastic creatures but keeping a deadpan sense of mundane reality. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the short-lived Adult Swim series Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, a workplace sitcom set in an office literally in hell. If done well, the surprising triviality of the fantastic setup provides its own sly sense of humor. I enjoyed that the movie didn’t have apocalyptic stakes but instead illuminated conflicts very relatable to many: getting over a painful relationship, struggling to juggle the responsibilities of adulthood, fitting in but also knowing when to push back and assert your independence. Having the duplicitous neighborhood Karens be a bigger pain for Annie than an actual demon is a fun reversal. Same as Annie wasting her magically granted wish on ordinary adult requests, like a never-ending cup of iced coffee. The unblinking, roll-with-the-punches attitude of the characters made the movie entertaining even when little was going on from a plot standpoint, and that’s a big boon for an 80-minute indie.

I consider Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio to be a silly buddy film, and it improves greatly once Balthazar becomes entwined in Annie’s domestic drama. This is also because Papandrea (Feaster Sunday) is the funniest performer in the movie. I loved the bickering dynamic between Annie and her demonic little helper. They reminded me of squabbling siblings, cemented even further during a contentious and competitive game of Mario Kart. This is also the key character dynamic for the movie, the ordinary in conflict with the extraordinary, the protagonist suffering and the relief with the strings attached. The movie is never better when these two are sharing the screen. Plazolles-Hayes (Night Work) has a spunky Parker Posey energy to her, an incredulity to her wide-eyed stares and eyebrow arches that feels earned. She’s the straight woman in a series of crazy developments, and Plazolles-Hayes doesn’t get lost in the craziness. Papandrea is a natural hell-raiser, a mischievous performer who makes the most of his material and elevates it with a grinning desperation that makes it all funnier, like a failing comic on stage. Balthazar is also highly engaging when he’s pretending to be a “normal human,” and his obvious, schticky delivery and mannerisms reminded me of Vincent D’Onofrio’s physical performance in Men in Black. I can still recall the moment he was trying to quickly hide from Annie’s children and just lifted whatever objects were near to badly obscure him (“What are you… four?” Annie berates him). The casual shade Papandrea imbues the line, “Okay… sinner,” is simply award-winning comedy. It’s also a diverting commentary that Annie gets along better with a demon than most humans, though I’m sure there are many among us who could relate. It endears Annie to the audience and proves how unflappable she is despite her troubles, worldly and other-wordly.

I also want to mention a few other performances that made the most with their screen time. Gilbert (Straitjacket) is so amusingly self-satisfied without becoming a full-blown suburbanite caricature of “Midwest nice.” I especially enjoyed the few moments she dropped the act and revealed the curdled reality behind her sweet-smiling facade. Virgil Schnell (Night Work) is hilarious with how transparently desperate he is to be with another woman, even willing to whip off his shirt to help a woman clean up a slight dab of spilled wine. Ellie Church (Harvest Lake, Jessie’s Super Normal Regular Average Day) is well-acquainted with low-budget horror and provides a welcomed sense of easy-going camaraderie for Annie as her lone friend in town.

As one of those who previously watched Rayburn’s first film foray, 2019’s Men in Black-meets-True Blood caper, Night Work, I can see definite growth as a filmmaker. Both movies were made on shoestring budgets (only $5,000 total) and filmed primarily on a iPhone camera, though the low-budget look isn’t a big point of detraction for either movie. You can’t judge a small indie movie made for $5000 and filmed on the weekends by the same technical standards of bigger movies. You have to accept some tech shortcomings, like the absence of dynamic lighting or polished audio or complex camerawork. There’s very little visual coverage in Satanic Soccer Mom, many scenes composed of a closed shot-reverse shot circuit of edit choices, but it took me out of the movie only sparingly. The rough-around-the-edges DIY aesthetic can provide its own micro-budget charm too, and Rayburn and co-writer Ben Reger (Night Work) are aware enough to write around technical limitations and emphasize ideas and quirky character interactions. He even has a character joke in narration, “That’s what we could afford to show you.” Rayburn is also smart to cast well and get out of the way of his actors. The ensemble feel like they’re gelling on the same comedic wavelength, which is harder to do than most would think, and thus each performer feels in concert no matter the wild turns. The makeup effects for Balthazar are stylish and effective on a budget, and his whole denim jacket and button-heavy attire and punk rock attitude reminded me favorably of Viv from the short-lived but brilliant British comedy TV series The Young Ones, formative to my own burgeoning sense of humor.

However, even with the emphasis on the ideas, there are enough moments that left me wanting more. I can understand some viewers feeling cold to its blase tone with its fantastical characters. Some viewers will not be able to get over the fact that a woman has a demon wish-granting service and the creativity only goes so far, mellowing in shallow waters for its own good vibes. With all the wish-granting, reality-altering possibilities that a demon represents, it can be something of a letdown for the wishes to be so mundane and minute. One of Annie’s wishes is for her (minor spoiler warnings) to be able to go out in town and pretend to be someone else, so she magically transforms into a different actress (Nickii Rayburn, the director’s wife, so good husband points there) for one raucous night. I can understand that this wish gets at Annie’s distaste for the oppressive negativity of her town, but couldn’t she just have gone to a different bar in a different town where nobody would know her? She could also just wish for the idiots in town to forget about her. It’s the same for why Annie even chooses to hang out with the Karens if she despises their company so much. I understand why the scene exists from a plot standpoint, as another contrast between Annie and the suburbanites she doesn’t fit in with, but then why even bother spending time with these women? There are engaging character aspects with Annie that feel only briefly touched upon, chief among them her complicated feelings about being abandoned by her husband. There’s a nice moment where Balthazar confirms her suspicions and Plazolles-Hayes gets to emote, finally able to process a key point of grief, and it’s one of the few genuine dramatic moments of the movie. However, without prolonged comedy set pieces, the movie would have benefited with more scenes like this for balance. The movie coasts a bit too long without a larger plot direction, so it can feel very scene-to-scene. Then the end includes multiple deus ex machinas, which can make the preceding problems feel too slight.

While I chuckled throughout, the comedy felt too subdued and too easily satisfied creatively. I’m surprised, given the premise, that there aren’t really comedy set pieces. I suppose there’s one, Annie and her pal getting stoned and attending craft night with the Karens, but that’s it. Much of the humor is ribald banter, so much will rest upon the quality of the dialogue writing. It helps having such sharp contrasts for conflict. I laughed throughout but kept wanting the movie to go further, to build off its gags and complications and peculiar turns. One of the dunder-headed Karens flippantly remarks about what could have happened to Annie’s husband, saying, “become a horse man,” and this would have made a fine opportunity to have her continue this weird fantasy tangent, accidentally revealing her own strange sexual kinks, something to separate her from the herd and then shame her back into social submission. That could have been a running gag. Or Bathazar’s one runty horn being a source of insecurity, something he has to defend (“I’ll have you know, plenty of lady demons have referred to my horns as ‘more than adequate.’”). There’s a truly wonderful random gag about the Karens raising money for “Saxophones for the Homeless,” and I was pleading for a visual representation of this concept, with a homeless man shrugging at the useless gift. I often wish there were comedy scenes and jokes that pushed beyond the first idea, taking one joke and finding a deeper, more belly laugh-inducing bit rather than settling for a passing chuckle. I’m talking about scenes where Annie gets stoned and giggles, or the inclusion of a record scratch sound effect to really ensure that a punchline landed and was meant to be unexpected. I wish Rayburn and Reger demonstrated as much confidence with all their jokes as they do their final gag involving an angel and the selected color of her wings (it’s definitely a memorable exit).

Two movies in and Rayburn is starting to establish a penchant for establishing weird and wild worlds with goofy, profane characters, rich in crude banter and crazy ideas, but worlds that I wish to explore further. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is an amusing and charming movie, especially if one can gel with its overall amiable tone and forgive the inevitable technical shortcomings. I’m far more forgiving of tech issues than I am with narrative and comedy shortcomings, because those are strictly on the creative brain trust fully developing their story potential and exploring the possibilities of their funny. It’s hard not to feel like Satanic Soccer Mom is a solid first draft of a story and could have benefited from a few more passes and polishes to really punch up the comedy and better explore the character dynamics. That stuff isn’t budget dependent. Again, it’s easy to feel the passion everyone had for this project and especially the good times. We need movies that can provide that level of entertainment, no matter their flaws, and Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is likely going to be the most feel-good buddy movie ever with this title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Black Phone (2022)

This is the movie that director Scott Derrickson made after departing Marvel over “creative differences” with the Doctor Strange sequel, differences I feel like I can agree with. Based upon Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone is a return to Derrickson’s horror roots, along with regular screenwriting collaborator C. Robert Cargill, and you can feel the director’s reflexes resetting. It’s like three movies in one, not all of them needed or entirely coherent. It’s about generational trauma and abuse, a survival thriller about escaping a psychotic serial killer, and a little kid trying to hone her nascent psychic powers. The stuff with Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber,” a kidnapper of children who imprisons them in a locked basement dwelling with a broken black phone attached to the wall, is great, and Hawke is fascinating and unsettling. Each mask he wears seems to come with a slightly different persona attached, so with each appearance we get another sliver of who this disturbed man may have been. The story of survival is made even more intriguing when our protagonist, young Finney (Mason Thames), learns that the past victims can communicate with him through the mysterious black phone. The scene-to-scene learning and plotting is fun and efficient and requires Finney to be a little bit of a detective, exploring his dank surroundings and the failed escape attempts of the other kids to utilize for his own hopeful plan. The ghost kids also have limited memory of their experiences, which is smart so that he isn’t given a clear advantage without limitations. The parts that drag are where Finney’s little sister tries to convince the skeptical police officials that her dreams are real and can help find her missing brother. There is one hilarious moment where she prays to Jesus for guidance and then profanely expresses her disappointment, but otherwise it feels like a Stephen King stereotype leftover (Hill is the his son; apple meet tree) that doesn’t amount to much besides padding the running time. It doesn’t even lead to big breakthroughs for Finney to be rescued. As a small-scale creepy contained thriller, The Black Phone is an engaging survival story with a supernatural twist that works as well as it does. It doesn’t have much more depth or meaningful characterization, it’s really just about a kid using the power of neighborhood ghosts to escape a crazy man, and that’s enough at least for a passably entertaining 100 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Northman (2022)

Consider writer/director Robert Eggers’ bloody Viking revenge movie as a companion piece to 2021’s The Green Knight. Both movies take mythical, supernatural-aided tales of heroics and medieval masculinity and feed into the spectacle while also cleaving the legend to make way for a sense of humanity. We follow Amleth (Alexander Skatsgard) who is a displaced prince who has sworn to kill his treacherous uncle and rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman). It’s a tale so old that it inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though that play could have benefited from a climax involving two hulking naked men dueling to the death atop an exploding volcano. The Northman reminds me a lot of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, a movie I described back in the day as “an art film for jocks.” It’s immersive and impressive down to the exact detail, and it doesn’t shirk on the blood and combat. It’s also unmistakably the work of Eggers, a very precise and idiosyncratic indie director whose prior movies felt like stylistic dares. The camerawork is often long with single takes, making all the visual arrangements and coordination that much more impressive. It’s staggering that a studio provided Eggers with $90 million to go make his version of Conan the Barbarian. At a lugubrious 140 minutes, there’s enough sticky carnage to satiate fans of brutish medieval action movies, but I appreciated how Eggers keeps his story purposely streamlined and simplistic until a few keen reveals force the audience and protagonist to re-examine the assumptions and fleeting honor of vengeance in this harsh, unfair environment of men out-killing one another. It’s a movie that provides the red meat and then makes you question whether you might want to go vegan. There’s more that can be unpacked but I wish Eggers had cut back at points. This is a slow movie, which does contribute to its mood and atmosphere, but I also wish Eggers had gotten to some of his plot points with a bit more haste and vigor. The Northman is transporting and bold and also more than a bit bloated. You could laugh at some of its over-the-top machismo but I feel like Eggers is inviting criticism of that very machismo, so enjoy the movie on one level where it indulges all the Old World violence, and then enjoy it on another level where it subverts and castigates the same Old World violence. Or you could just watch for the glistening muscles, famous faces, bad accents, bad wigs, guttural score, and weird imagery.

Nate’s Grade: B

X (2022)/ Choose or Die (2022)

Horror is likely the most forgiving genre out there for being derivative. Just about every modern horror movie wears its many influences, even the recent trend of elevated horror movies that are trying to say Big Things with equal amounts of arty style and bloodshed. There’s only so many monsters that can chase so many teenagers. Ti West (House of the Devil) is a director I haven’t fully enjoyed, though I would say X is his most accomplished film to date for me. It’s clearly going for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe and docu-drama aesthetic. It’s set in 1979 and we follow a ragtag film crew trying to make “a good dirty movie.” They’ve rented a guest house in the middle of nowhere Texas as their film site because who knows. The octogenarian couple who owns the farm property doesn’t seem to approve of these young folk, and the old lady ends up becoming the slasher killer that mows down the randy young adults. Turns out the old lady has her own urges that the old husband is no longer physically able to satisfy, so she seeks out solace one way or another with the newcomers, whether that be through her sexual satisfaction or through violence. To West’s credit, he has given more attention to his characters. These people are not going to be confused with three-dimensional figures but there’s enough character shading that made me more interested in spending time with them and a little more rueful that most of them will probably die horribly soon enough (Chekhov’s alligator). The slow burn is not wasted time or dawdling, and there are some very well-executed squirm-worthy moments of discomfort. I don’t think X quite works on that elevated horror level of late; it’s mostly a slasher movie with a dollop more complexity and style. The real reason to appreciate X is from the dual performances from actress Mia Goth (Suspiria), the first as a stripper-turned-ingenue that sees pornography as a path of possible self-actualization, but she’s also secretly the killer old lady under piles and piles of makeup. Her wild performances, including scenes where she is facing off against herself, makes the movie far more interesting. Goth goes for broke. I don’t think the X is as fun as it thinks it is, nor is it as thoughtful as it thinks it is, and I don’t know if I care about a prequel that was shot back-to-back that illuminates the killer old lady’s younger life. Is this character really that interesting to warrant her own movie? As a horror movie, it’s disturbing and bloody and surprising in equal measure even as it doesn’t do much with re-configuring the many conventions of its genre.

Netflix’s Choose or Die is one of those spooky horror movies that wants the audience to play its deadly games alongside the unfortunate characters, much like Saw and Would You Rather?, and I typically enjoy these kinds of movies and thinking what options or strategies I would undergo if I was in their place. The structure is pretty straight forward, with a young woman (Iola Evans) and her programmer friend (Asa Butterfield) coming across a cursed old school text-based computer video game that forces its users to make awful choices. The game turns itself on every 24 hours, so there’s a natural delivery of set pieces, each increasing in its personal stakes. There’s the amateur investigation of the history of this 80s video game and uncovering the possible owner who might be benefiting from all this cruelty and sadism. This is a movie built around its set pieces and they start strong. When the protagonist sees the game in action, with a poor diner worker force-feeding herself broken pieces of glass, it’s truly horrifying and the sound design makes it so much worse. The movie isn’t s gory as it could have been and implies a lot more than it shows. The problem with Choose or Die is that there are too many leaps in logic and characters doing silly things just for the sake of the plot. There needs to be an established system of rules or else everything will feel arbitrary, and eventually that is what dooms Choose or Die. Even while we get more of an explanation behind the makers of the game and their occult connections it never feels like we’re better positioned to beat the game. I will say the final act, the Boss Battle, is where the movie cranks things up and gets really intense and darkly humorous. There’s a showdown that involves a key concept of self-harm that plays out in moderately clever, bizarre, and surprising ways, and this splashy, silly finish made me wish the rest of the movie could have lived in this tonal space. I found the overall sound design to be very annoying as it cranked up the volume on lots of glitchy electronic noises that just made me want to turn it off. There are some good ideas here, like the criticisms of being too nostalgic to the past, and of misogynist men believing nobody else is deserving of being the hero of their story, but this is a movie that lives or dies on its killer set pieces, and those just fall flat after its unsettling first level. Watching someone vomit VHS tape is not scary. Watching people move their bodies like they have no control over them will inherently look goofy. Choose or Die wouldn’t be the worst choice of a movie to kill 85 minutes but it’s certainly not much more than the sum of its parts, and even those are overly derivative and been done better by its predecessors.

Nate’s Grades:

X: C+
Choose or Die: C

Turning Red (2022)

It’s fair to start to wonder whether Disney has some kind of grudge against Pixar at this time. The last three Pixar movies have been pulled from theatrical release and made exclusively available as part of their streaming war chest with Disney Plus. You can blame COVID for Soul being pulled, and the theatrical market was still recovering by the time Luca was scheduled to be released during the middle of summer 2021, but this didn’t stop Disney from releasing both of its own in-house animated efforts to theaters. Both Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto played in theaters in 2021 and both under-performed at the box-office, which is clearly not close to where it was pre-pandemic. No animated movie has earned over $100 million at the U.S. box-office since COVID, and maybe that’s the reason that Turning Red has become the third Pixar movie to go directly to streaming. There are rumors that this trend has been demoralizing for Pixar employees, and explanations by Disney brass that these movies move valuable subscribers to their service, but I guess we’ll see when the Buzz Lightyear movie comes out summer 2022. Regardless, Turning Red is a high quality movie that made me feel warm and fuzzy all over.

Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 12-year-old student trying to live her best life in Toronto circa 2002. That means she’s one way with her friends and one way with her domineering mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Mei is an overachieving student, devoted daughter to her family’s business caring for a Chinese temple honoring their ancestors and red pandas, and a fangirl in the extreme for the popular boy band, 4-Town (even though there are five members). Mei’s mother does not approve of her devotion to this band, or the influence of her friends, and doesn’t understand the new person her daughter is turning into. However, Mei also happens to turn into a giant red panda whenever she feels any strong emotion. She has to keep herself in check, which is hard to do with mean students, an embarrassing mother, and the prospect of scrounging up enough money so she and her three besties can see their favorite boy band live.

I had to consider what about Turning Red worked for me and what about Luca did not. They’re both relatively smaller scale movies about characters who transform into fantastical creatures, who have to hide their secret, deal with parental disapproval, and come of age while pushing their personal boundaries and re-examining who they are and what they felt was important. There are several points of comparison but I found Luca to be broadly lackluster and low in stakes. With Turning Red, I found the movie to be much more engaging and poignant. So what’s the difference where one feels shallow and the other feels personal and resonant? I think the difference is that Turning Red’s relationships feel more realized and complex. The mother-daughter dynamic is fraught with tension, as trying to live up to the standards of the prior generation is often a surefire way to disappointment. That stuff is relatable, and the drama is potent, but the movie doesn’t lose sight of the generational love underneath all the headaches. Both movies are in essence about growing up and finding your identity, relishing different parts of you that stand out as unique, and coming to terms with differences in perception, but I felt with Turning Red that the film embraced these themes, integrated them better, and also built a sturdier foundation of enriched character relationships.

The animation is irrepressibly gorgeous but I really enjoyed the added style of Turning Red. It had a more tactile physical presence that reminded me of the Aardman models (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run). The color balance also emphasized bright colors that popped with subdued hues as a background. I especially enjoyed playful little touches from anime that emphasized the overly dramatic nature of the personal stakes, like when Mei is sweating over whether her mom will find her notebook filled with pictures of a crush that she felt compelled to draw. There’s a definite energy to this movie that’s missing from plenty of other Pixar movies. It follows the perspective of its heroine, so it’s joyfully excitable and goofy at points and definitely over-the-top, like when she’s calling out her besties and we flash to a rotating mountain they’re all triumphantly scaling. It’s adopted her perspective in a way that makes the movie feel more personable, and I appreciated Mei’s character even more. Special credit should go to whoever was in charge of designing the fur textures for the red panda. When she fully panda’s out, Mei resembles a wonderfully realized version of a Totoro-styled demigod.

It was the third act where Turning Red went from amusing to surprisingly poignant for me. The central conflict is between Mei trying to be herself and the version her mother thinks she should be, which is naturally more deferential and devoted to the family at the expense of independence. This isn’t the first story to explore the difference between traditional families and their children becoming more influenced by Western pop-culture. It’s also not the first story about finding your voice and making a stand, or about parents coming to terms with the realization that their little kid isn’t so little any more. That’s fine. The supernatural elements are also pretty straightforward to follow and in service of the central relationships and metaphors. It’s the personal details that make this movie feel specific to its voice while still being accessible and relatable. It’s easy to cringe when Mei’s mother shares Mei’s private drawings with her fleeting crush. While many of us might not have been diehard fans of a boy band, we all had some phase where we felt more mature, more grown up, and dramatically different because of what this interest meant for us. I found myself battling genuine tears by the end. The end comes down to a conflict between mother and daughter, itself an echo of past conflicts, of overbearing generations being less flexible. It’s also ultimately about acceptance, but the idea that the aspects about yourself that you feel embarrassed or insecure about do not need to be expunged from your identity I think is a worthwhile message about growing up. It’s not about shedding parts of yourself, killing off things you dislike. It’s more about transformation and acceptance of self.

Turning Red is a briskly paced comedy with a precise, charismatic lead character letting us in on the pressures of her world and of being a teenage girl in the early twentieth century. It’s colorful and frenetic at points but feels completely in keeping with the personality of our plucky protagonist. The combination of puberty and monster transformation has been a ripe area for films especially in the realm of horror. This also might be the horniest Pixar movie to date, and a climactic confrontation involves shaking one’s butt, as they kids are wont to do in leisure. It’s got the substance I felt was missing with Luca and the simplified and streamlined world building that I felt could have improved Soul. In short, Turning Red isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s an irresistible urban fantasy that has plenty of heart and whimsy to enchant audiences no matter the age.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Encanto (2021)

2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Petite Maman (2021)

There are two things to know about the deeply heartfelt new French movie, Petite Maman. The first is that it’s the follow-up by Celine Sciamma, the writer and director of one of 2019’s absolute best movies, the sumptuously romantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That was reason enough to watch this relatively short movie. The next is a twist that I’ll save for the body of this review but that makes this childhood examination on loss, grief, and the future far more compelling and emotionally striking. It’s further proof to me that Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers out there and that her devotion to story and human emotion is paramount; just as I was enveloped in the romantic swell of Portrait, I was charmed and enchanted by this wholesome movie that’s so winsome that you could watch with the whole family, that is, if you can convince children to watch a 75-minute French drama with you, and if so, congrats.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is mourning the recent loss of her grandmother. She and her mother and father have camped to grandma’s old home to pack it up. Everyone is sad and one day Nelly’s mother leaves without warning. She doesn’t know when mom is coming back. In the meantime, Nelly makes a friend with a neighbor girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). She’s living with her mother and nervous about an upcoming operation to fix a genetic malady. However, in the meantime, these two little girls find solace in playing with one another, building a fort in the woods, and creating role play scenarios that allow each to hone their acting skills. Over the course of a few days, Nelly learns to understand her family more while learning to say goodbye on her own terms.

I’ll save the spoilers for the next paragraph because I feel like they are unavoidable to truly get at what makes this movie special. One non-spoiler merit of this movie is how persuasively it is told from the perspective of childhood. Our little eight-year-old heroine is the protagonist, and we see the world from her understanding. That doesn’t mean the movie ever leans on narration or a reality-bending imaginative framework; it’s simply told with the understanding of what it’s like to be a child with questions and emotions that you don’t quite know how to handle. There’s a beguiling innocence with the movie that makes it so wholesome and sweet. As an adult, it’s not too difficult to remember your understanding of the world as a child, let alone family relationships, especially in the aftermath of bereavement. Nelly is forlorn because she didn’t know her last exchange with her grandmother would be their final interaction, and that ache is relatable no matter the age. Nobody knows when their last interaction with a loved one could be, so it’s easy to feel that same lament that more wasn’t made to achieve a better sense of closure. There’s a sweet moment between Nelly and her mother where they role play what that final exchange could have been, and all Nelly wishes is to say goodbye one more time but with more forceful feelings behind the words, and it was a moment so pure and innocent. The entire movie is like this moment, a lingering earnest sensation that is universal and expertly delicate.

Here comes the spoilers, so dear reader be aware if you still want to remain as pure as this movie, although I would argue knowing this spoiler ahead of time will improve your movie-going experience by giving you a necessary part of the puzzle. Petite Maman translates to “Little Mother” and it’s more than simply little kids pretending to be adults. It turns out that Marion is actually the eight-year-old version of Nelly’s mother, and her house they retreat to after playing in the woods is an older version of Nelly’s grandmother’s home. There are clues early, like the same distinct wallpaper and interior design of the house, but you might be able to dismiss that as maybe there are just similar houses being built in this neighborhood. After a while, though, you start to realize there’s more going on here, and the movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Nelly flat out tells Marion that she is her child from a future. From there, the movie becomes a fully felt inter-generational bonding experience, where daughter gets to talk to her mother on her own level, answer questions for her curious young mother, and they talk about dealing with sadness as they know it. When Marion asks if Nelly was planned, she says yes, and Marion says, “That makes sense. I can’t stop thinking about you already,” and tears come to my eyes even typing the words. This twist brings so much more meaning to everyday activities; instead of Nelly staying one last night to make pancakes with her new friend, now it’s Nelly having only one more opportunity to bond with her mother when they’re both at the same age, saying goodbye while telling her how much she loves her, not knowing if when they part that she may even see her adult mother again. Wow, that is so much going on. Nelly even gets another shot to find that closure with her grandmother.

The two young actresses are twin sisters, and both are terrific. Given the gentle nature of the movie, neither is given any great moment where they tearfully break down, shout their feelings, or chew the scenery in general. These feel like real kids dealing with real emotions under some unique circumstances. Each of the Sanz sisters is a delight and realistically subdued and not just poor actors incapable of effectively showing emotion. When Nelly and Marion are play acting a scene, with one pretending to be an investigator interrogating the other as a suspect, they both have a twinkle to them as they admire each other’s acting ability, saying they should become an actress. It’s a nice moment for each of the Sanz sisters because they’re living their own dreams in the scene.

Petite Maman is a special movie and one that doesn’t feel like a frame is wasted. Even at only 75 minutes in length, its compassion and sweetness are eminently felt and appreciated. My only regret is that we could have had more time together with these two and to develop even more, but it almost seems like its own commentary on life and our relationships itself. We always are left wanting more, never knowing when one last hug or joke will be the last, and so savor the human experiences we have, the cherished memories earned, the gamut of emotions shared, and enjoy what we have.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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