Tuesday, 27 December 2022

What I'm Watching: December 2022

A quick recap of my month in movies, media and streaming, including The Rock's superhero film debut Black Adam, Tim Burton's hit Netflix series Wednesday, foodie thriller The Menu, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special and more.

Black Adam (In cinemas)

You'd think that, given how much practice Hollywood has had with putting out decent superhero films in the last decade or two, that we'd never again see a truly abysmal one, on the level of Josh Trank's Fantastic Four or David Ayer's Suicide Squad. 

Well, think again, because DC newest and edgiest antihero Black Adam is a mind-shattering migraine in cinematic form, filled with weightless action and splashy visual effects from beginning to end and grade four narrative tissue to tie it all together. 

After years in development hell, Black Adam serves as The Rock's introduction to the genre – and, as someone who can't get hurt and only talks in skin-crawling one-liners that only he thinks are cool – it's the perfect superhero vehicle for someone of The Rock's celebrity stature and ego. 

Mix in some ham-fisted social commentary about a repressed vaguely Middle Eastern country and a swathe of supplemental superheroes (Aldis Hodge as Hawkman, Pierce Brosnan as Dr Fate) for The Rock to square off with, and Black Adam is a recipe for seriously offensive superhero schlock. Really do not recommend, one possibly two stars if you're feeling really generous. 

It should come as no surprise that incoming head honcho James Gunn hasn't already put this one out of its misery and all but ruled out a return to the world of Black Adam. Thank heavens. 

Wednesday season one (Netflix)

This show is all that anyone has been talking and posting about for weeks – and because I suffer from major cultural zeitgeist FOMO, we decided to give it looksie over the Christmas break. I know, not the most festive choice – but we decided to give the same five Christmas movies a miss this year.

Anyway, Wednesday is pretty good! Not great, but I can see why it's popular – it's easy and straightforward, working as both an active and a passive viewing experience whilst scrolling Twitter.

Both literally and figuratively, Jenna Ortega is far and away the star of the show – her performance as the titular Addams family teenager is wonderfully dry and dastardly, with the occasional wry glint of snark. The guest appearances from Catherine Zeta-Jones, Fred Armisen and Luis Guzman as Morticia, Uncle Fester and Gomez are good too – and Christina Ricci's curious botany teacher is a delight as well.

Stylistically, it's nothing to write home about – pretty conventional stuff. But like I said, it's decent enough without being super engaging or shocking. YA content can be much better than this, but also much worse.

The Menu (In cinemas)

Mark Mylod's The Menu is a sharp satire that delivers plenty thrills and spills, even if its theme of 'eat the rich' is served in a rather blunt fashion.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicolas Hoult play Margot and Tyler, a young couple who have forked out for an evening at high-end restaurant run by renowned chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). So exclusive is this restaurant, that you have to travel to the private island where is resides by boat, accompanied by only a dozen or so other patrons paying through the nose. 

However, all is not as it seems. Slowik demonstrates a disdain for his diners and bit by bit, the evening starts to unravel for Margot and her oblivious beau. 

Suffice to say, much like the food served at Slowik's restaurant, The Menu is a little unconventional and off-kilter. A mishmash of thriller, black comedy and some horror, Myold's film feels thematically of a piece with other recent 'eat the rich' films, like Ready or Not or Bodies Bodies Bodies. It's not subtle about its intentions either, so if subtext that is pretty much just text is your jam, The Menu is probably to your liking.  

Taylor-Joy continues to be an electric and captivating lead, and her interplay with both Hoult dim-witted fanboy and Fiennes' sinister yet somehow also a little sympathetic chef is probably the film's strongest suit. It looks like a million dollars too, with sleek production design and camerawork. The amusing title cards that tee up each course as they're plated up is a great recurring gag too. 

Beast (VOD)

First there was Sam Jackson versus snakes; then there was Liam Neeson versus wolves. And now the latest film in the 'man versus beast' subgenre is, well, Beast, starring Idris Elba as a widowed man who takes his two tween daughters to the South African savannah, to reconnect with their late mother's roots. 

Their expedition soon turns sour, however, when they find themselves stalked by a vicious lion with a vendetta against poachers, as well as any other humans unlucky enough to get in its way. 

Clocking in at just a smidge over 90 minutes, Beast doesn't outstay its welcome – it gets in, does what it says on the tin and gets out. It's a no frills, boots on the ground thriller where Elba and costar Sharlto Copley, who plays an old friend and the reserve's resident anti-poacher, have to both evade the fearsome lion who has a taste for blood, other nasties that roam the savannah and also armed poachers.

Director Baltasar Korm├íkur does add a little bit of flair here and there, with lots of long, winding takes that follow Elba and his daughters through the world, from abandoned villages to ramshackle schools. And the CGI on the lion itself is pretty impressive, even if it takes a bit of imagination to believe a lion would truly stalk and hunt people quite like this. Still, a serviceable three star thriller. 

The Black Phone (VOD) and Smile (VOD)

Scott Derrickson's The Black Phone and Parker Finn's debut feature Smile have been two of the horror box office success stories of the year, racking up $160 million and $215 million respectively. I'm not much of a horror fiend, but my wife is, so we sought these out when they were available for rent. 

First off, The Black Phone; in short, pretty good! Set in 70s Denver, Ethan Hawke gives a good performance as The Grabber, a masked man who snatches children off the street. Mason Thames plays Finney Blake, The Grabber's latest victim, who finds himself able to converse with previous captives via a black telephone in the soundproof basement where he's being held. 

I think Derrickson does a good job of evoking the era here, and Hawke is a really chilling villain, with a larger-than-life performance - the design of his mask is a memorable one. There's a mystical element to the story too, as Finney's sister Gwen sees visions of The Grabber and is able to help police track her brother down. Pretty good overall, but not as scary as you would expect from the man who made Sinister.

Meanwhile, Smile is a film in the same vein as It Follows, in that it centres around a supernatural force that passes from victim to victim, after they witness something traumatic or tragic. It's a more classically scary horror movie too, with jump scares galore – maybe a few too many for my liking, if I'm honest. 

It goes to some really creepy places as well, so maybe steer clear unless you have a strong stomach. There's a lot of gooey, gory stuff here for horror fiends – but I think it just a smidge too much for me.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (Disney+)

Marvel is really broadening its horizons of late, with TV shows about niche characters and now some 'feature presentations' that are the streaming equivalent of a single-issue comic book that may (or may not, who really knows or cares?) be canon. 

The latest is The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, which is little more than a 35-minute story about Mantis and Drax journeying to Earth to kidnap Star-Lord's favourite actor, Kevin Bacon, and bring him back to Knowhere as a surprise. 

In terms of plot, that's pretty much it - much of the runtime is dedicated to the shenanigans that Mantis and Drax get up to while on Earth, like taking photos with tourists outside the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, getting turnt in a LA bar, and chasing Kevin Bacon around his Beverley Hills mansion. Throw in a couple of musical numbers, some animated bookends that flash back to Star-Lord's childhood, and BAM! There's your whole runtime. 

Did I have fun with this one? Sure, but it was only on in the background while I cooked. Will I watch it again next Christmas, or the Christmas after that? No, of course not. Cheap, quick and easy, I doubt anyone will be revisiting this more than once - even if there's some sincerity and sweet sentiment in here, particularly between Star-Lord and Mantis. 

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