December is the busiest month of the year for me, as it’s when I have to catch up with as many movies as possible. I vote in several year-end awards and polls and I want to make good choices, though I always seem to be a few pictures behind. Here are my thoughts about some recent fare:

The Whale

I understand why Brendan Fraser has received so much attention and acclaim for his performance as a man who is morbidly obese. He’s completely convincing, but it’s difficult, if not downright painful, to watch him. What’s more, most of the characters who come to his apartment are unpleasant. The film is transparently based on a stage play, which is the last thing one would expect to see from director Darren Aronofsky.

The Menu

Here’s a film with an intriguing premise: a disparate group of people board a yacht that takes them to an island where a master chef (Ralph Fiennes) serves his invited guests a surprise dinner—and then some. I took the bait and waited patiently to see what the movie had in store. The answer is: nothing worthwhile. The Menu is a stupid film.

Empire of Light

Watching Olivia Colman is never a waste of time, and she is excellent in this original piece by director Sam Mendes. So is her young costar, Micheal Ward, as the newest member of the staff at a movie theater in a seaside British town during the 1980s. But there is no reason their fraught love story should take so long to resolve and the end result is a disappointment. Still, I will always cherish the scene in which a projectionist (Toby Jones) instructs young Ward on how to achieve a perfect reel change-over.


An almost unrecognizable Will Smith, sporting a Haitian accent, plays a slave who is determined to escape after hearing about President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Unfortunately, his only escape route is through a dense Southern swamp. What’s more, tracker Ben Foster is a grimly determined man. Antoine Fuqua delivers a gripping historical action movie with meat on its bones, and Robert Richardson’s widescreen black & white cinematography is exceptional.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

No one could have foreseen the death of Chadwick Boseman, but the creators of this sequel do him proud. Kudos to director Ryan Coogler and his screenwriting partner Joe Robert Cole. Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o up their game significantly to fill the vacancy he leaves behind, and newcomer Tenoch Huerta makes a vivid impression as the proud leader of an ancient underwater tribe that is pitted against the kingdom of Wakanda. This sequel has an uncommonly strong emotional pull, which sets it apart from other Marvel movies. My only complaint is that it is extremely long.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Writer-director Rian Johnson and actor Daniel Craig had such a good time making Knives Out that they decided to bring back the Southern detective character Benoit Blanc for another whodunit. The setting is a Greek island where an egocentric billionaire (Edward Norton) has invited a select group of friends to solve a real-life mystery: his murder. The cast seems to be having a good time and so did I, although this is yet another movie that didn’t need to be as long as it is.

I should add that I don’t share some of my colleagues’ admiration for Aftersun, by acclaimed novice writer-director Charlotte Wells, or Return to Seoul. Of course, one’s reaction to a film that’s been hyped is bound to differ from one that is discovered without any buildup at all.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024