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Movie Reviews
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.]





Me3gan
(Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, et al. | PG-13 | 1h 42m | Universal Pictures)

Overview: M3GAN is a marvel of artificial intelligence, a life-like doll programmed to be a child’s greatest companion and a parent’s greatest ally. Designed by brilliant toy-company roboticist Gemma (Get Out’s Allison Williams), M3GAN can listen and watch and learn as she becomes friend and teacher, playmate and protector, for the child she is bonded to.

When Gemma suddenly becomes the caretaker of her orphaned 8-year-old niece, Cady (Violet McGraw, The Haunting of Hill House), Gemma’s unsure and unprepared to be a parent. Under intense pressure at work, Gemma decides to pair her M3GAN prototype with Cady in an attempt to resolve both problems -a decision that will have unimaginable consequences.

Verdict: This silly, scary, tame horror film is outrageous predictable fun. It shows bad parenting personified, but is very entertaining. New Zealand Director Gerard Johnstone already knew it was hard enough working with kids and animals, but this time, he had to work with animatronic puppets and more.

  Atomic Monster Production creatives, led by Producer James Wan, dreamt up the idea of a killer doll movie during an after-work chat about films. To write the script, they recruited Akela Cooper who has written horror before. The task at hand was to make Me3gan somewhere between doll-like, human and creepy using puppetry, animatronics and visual effects.

It starts with tragedy. Cady (Violet McGraw) is the only survivor in a car crash with her parents. Her mother’s sister, Gemma, (Allison Williams, Get Out!) takes custody of the young traumatized girl, knowing that she has absolutely no experience taking of a child. Gemma has a big project coming up working as a genius in robotics. She’s been making perfect furry pets that respond to children and a already a favorite of Cady’s. But what Gemma really wants to do is make M3GAN, which stands for “Model 3 Generative Android.”

  Gemma works for real dick, David (Ronny Chieng). He’s puts a lot of pressure on Gemma to come up with more furry pets at a lower cost and now until she shows him her prototype of M3GAN. He pressures her to rush M3GAN to market which causes all kinds of problems. Gemma uses her grieving niece to bond to her project so she can create this expensive playmate and get it ready for market.

  Of course, along with M3GAN (voiced by Jenna Davis) being a fun friend, guiding Cady’s behavior, even reading her bedtime stories in character voices and singing, she is there to kill anyone or anything that she perceives a threat. But the big scene that everyone will remember is seeing M3GAN at her finest in an awkward, double-jointed, super creepy dance. This is the second iconic horror dance to come out recently, the other being, Wednesday in the HBO Max Adams Family spinoff. The magic ingredient, according to Director Johnstone, was their young New Zealand find, Amie Donald, who delivered movement and that dance as M3GAN on set.

Allison Williams continues her successful journey into this genre. And there are apparently more chats right now as a sequel is rumored. The filmmakers toned down the bloody gore to get a PG-13 rating. As robotics become prevalent, expect more kid friendly versions of M3GAN in person as well as on the big screen. Although this is a horror comedy, we were pleasantly surprised seeing this fun flick of 100 minutes dishing more laughs than gasps. [AL]





Avatar: The Way of Water
(Zoe Saldaña, Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, et al. | PG-13 | 3h 12m | 20th Century Studios)

Overview: Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water begins to tell the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.

Verdict: After beginning shooting in 2017 following a prolonged production period, James Cameron takes audiences back to Pandora for the sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time. Though it isn’t as revolutionary as its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water is nevertheless a visual marvel that’s made to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Outside of its special effects wizardry, however, the sequel suffers from a bloated script that overstays its welcome and weighs the action down with clunky pacing which re-treads familiar territory.

The feature kicks off with a narration from jarhead-turned-Na’vi Jake (Sam Worthington) bringing viewers up to speed with what’s transpired since the end of the last film. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have raised a family together and made a life for themselves in their new home. But their happiness doesn’t last long.

The “sky people” return once again, causing Jake and his family to flee to an island village for safety where the inhabitants live in harmony with the ocean. As outsiders, they must learn the villagers’ ways.

Like the first Avatar, Cameron’s sequel is visually outstanding. The use of 3D technology to underscore a sense of depth and scale is matched only by our last trip to the alien planet. The new underwater setting not only allows viewers to see more of Pandora, but the new biome is marked with its own aesthetic and colors, which give it a different flavor from the dense forests of before.

There’s no shortage of sequences designed to impress, but this is also to a fault. The scarce plot that’s there is interrupted all too frequently with miscellaneous scenes for audiences to look at things.

Another major stumbling point comes in Cameron’s need to cram as much as he can into the mammoth three-hour runtime. There’s so much going on at once that nothing has the necessary time to be developed. And when the sluggish climax comes to an end, a lot remains unanswered (undoubtedly those threads will be picked up in the coming sequels).

Gorgeous imagery aside, The Way of Water feels less like a sequel than it does a refamiliarization of the world and ideas of the 2009 blockbuster. There are simply too many ideas with not enough focus to justify its gigantic runtime. [AM]





The Pale Blue Eye (Netflix)
(Christian Bale, Harry Melling, et al. | R | 2h 10m | Netflix)

Overview: West Point, 1830. In the early hours of a gray winter morning, a cadet is found dead. But after the body arrives at the morgue, tragedy becomes savagery when it’s discovered that the young man’s heart has been skillfully removed.

Fearing irreparable damage to the fledgling military academy, its leaders turn to a local detective, Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), to solve the murder.

Stymied by the cadets’ code of silence, Landor enlists the help of one of their own to pursue the case, an eccentric cadet with a disdain for the rigors of the military and a penchant for poetry - a young man named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling).

Verdict: A sequel to the new film The Pale Blue Eye is not in the works. And yet, when you finish watching the film, the first thing on your mind might be: Could this be a backdoor pilot to an awesome Netflix detective show?

Set in 1830, the movie tells the fictional origin story of how horror legend Edgar Allan Poe — played brilliantly by Harry Melling — became so enamored and sympathetic to all things macabre. Based on the 2003 Louis Bayard novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye is a psychological horror movie masquerading as a period-piece police procedural. It’s a slow burn of a movie, with a great twist, which will ultimately leave viewers wanting more.

At West Point, in 1830, a young military cadet has been hung, and nobody knows why. Enter Detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a grumpy, yet brilliant investigator harboring a personal trauma intentionally hidden from the audience. Landor is quickly aided in his investigation by another young military cadet, Edgar Allan Poe (Melling). And this is when the movie gets good.

Christian Bale is solid in this film. There’s no question. He’s one of the greatest living actors we’ve got. Period. But, everything transcendent about The Pale Blue Eye belongs to Harry Melling. The novelty of The Pale Blue Eye promises that you’ll get some Poe action, but there’s no way you’re ready for how good Melling is in this part. Instead of imagining Poe as a moody, depraved goth kid from ye olden times, Melling does the unthinkable: He makes Poe naive, warm, forthright, and loving.

Poe’s interest in the macabre doesn’t make him a creepy person, instead, this interest is presented as a layer of intelligence few others possess. Melling presents Poe as the kind of guy you actually would want to be friends with, rather than a master of dark prose whom nobody understands. The performance here is sort of like the opposite of what Ben Whishaw did as Keats in Bright Star. You’re not afraid of Poe, nor are you thinking about how tragic his life will (eventually) become. Instead, you’re rooting for him.

In real life, Poe did really attend West Point, which, unsurprisingly, didn’t work out long-term. But mercifully, the movie doesn’t really dwell on Poe’s future too much. Sure, we see a raven lurking about here and there, but overall, the screenplay from Scott Cooper (who also directed) has a light touch with just how Poe-ish the whole thing is going to get. The story of The Pale Blue Eye is utterly fictional, so, in a way, it’s best to think of this version of Poe as fictional, too.

Part of why this all works is because Poe is basically not the main character. Instead, the background of Bale’s Detective Landor is the focus, with Poe basically as his detective protégé. In this way, The Pale Blue Eye derives its tension as a study of social class strife. Landor is an outsider brought in by an institution (the burgeoning U.S. military) that wants to project an untarnished, upper-crust air of superiority.

Landor isn’t one of those people, a fact which he’s reminded of frequently. And, the biggest twist in the film occurs specifically because of this kind of class divide; something in Landor’s past is connected with the impenetrability of certain social rules, rules which he both does, and doesn’t live by.

In this sense, Landor is a conservative mirror for Poe; somebody who is an outsider, but able to play by the rules, at least to a certain point. Of the two of them, Bale’s performance as Landor creates the darker character, which is what gives the film its true Poe-flair. As the film demonstrates, true darkness and true horror are often wrapped up in what appear to be everyday occurrences.

Poe learns from Landor that darkness and horror are everywhere. Toward the end of the film, during an intense (and lengthy) denouement, Poe tenderly tells Landor that he “shall cherish” the time he’s spent working on this gruesome murder case.

It’s in these scenes where you really wish this was all leading to a regular Netflix series starring Harry Melling as young Poe, dashing about and solving mysteries. The intent of the film is certainly not about fostering a backdoor pilot for the next Penny Dreadful, and yet Melling’s wide-eyed, charming and unique turn as Poe makes you wish he was on screen more as this character.

The Pale Blue Eye is not a perfect thriller, nor is it a perfect mystery. However, the performances in this unique and unsettling film will stay with you. And if there’s ever a reason why the world needs young Edgar Allan Poe to star in his own film again, or in a TV series, Harry Melling has just given the performance of a lifetime. [RB]





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