Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve Runtime: 1 hr 56 min Rated: PG-13 Studio: Paramount Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer Based on: Story of Your Life, 1998 short story by Ted Chiang Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremey Renner, Forest Whitaker 

Arrival is a cerebral experience that delivers a compelling sci-fi story with novel ideas through minimal CGI, well-edited sound, and strong performances by the cast. 

Twelve alien crafts suddenly arrive on Earth in places all over the globe. Top translation linguist Professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is…requisitioned by the U.S. Army to help communicate with these beings and find out why they came. Dr. Banks is aided by Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist.  

Two key points I found refreshingly novel compared to other alien films involving the military were: they put in a woman in charge, and they listened. In many professions, women are not at the top or even respected for the work they do. Chiang’s choice for a female lead, believably, drives the story forward. The studio’s version could have changed that but did not. Second, the American military could have listened and taken a ‘we’ll take that under consideration’ mentality to Dr. Banks’s assessment. Instead, more or less, she was permitted to work without interference. 

The military wants answers as quick as possible before another country starts shooting. Knowing that and trying to communicate correctly with a species you don’t understand… is a lot of pressure. In numerous films, the military person in charge is a hard ass, which would not fit this movie’s tone. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is the man in charge of operations. Forest Whitaker naturally projects a strong authority of presence without trying. His calm assertiveness and respectful demeanor when things are explained to him is a great example of why patience in this film is so important. It’s one of the main themes. 

Amy Adams delivers a grounded performance that is nothing short of graceful. She (Dr. Banks) is learning an alien language, teaching English-under the military’s eye, while processing some intensely personal events. She never misses a beat.

Why is it that alien movies with potential global destruction are what it takes to make the world work together and share information? Teams like Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly’s are also in contact with their local alien ships. How and why all these teams choose to communicate the way they do should remind us that one way isn’t the only way. 

Forest Whitaker, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner in Paramount Pictures ‘Arrival’ via Vox.com

The subtle nods to the other teams and the world’s reaction to finding out aliens are real are very believable. It helps with scene transitions and story progression. Some of the scenes may be confusing as more about the aliens are discovered: how they travel, how they view time, their belief of the notion of fate, and language itself. I did say this movie is a cerebral experience. 

The authentic responses to the alien’s arrival are as intense emotionally as it is mentally. The alarms and subsequent evacuation of students from campus are relatable to me, as I’m sure it is for many. (It’s in the trailer, so I’m not spoiling anything). Who doesn’t remember how they felt when they learned the news of something huge? A war starting, a natural disaster wiping out places, the assassination of someone? For me, it was being in a college lecture hall on 9-11. It’s not the arrival of aliens, but there is a relatable sense of anxiety and dread. Scenes like this, created to resonate with the viewer, enable the filmmakers to craft a film with much less CGI than most sci-fi pictures.

Another cerebral form is physics. I’ve said in another review that I don’t do physics, it’s still true. However, when watching this film, pay attention to the comments about the ship’s design, how they move, and the energy they put out. For such a large object, my thought was, that’s one green ship! I don’t know if that was intentional. Still, I think it says a lot about this alien species and their intellect without explaining anything more. I reviewed the 2012 film Prometheus, and a ship in that film is similar to those in this one. Both are a nice departure from how other spacecraft are depicted. 

Amy Adams is Louise Banks in Paramount Pictures, ‘Arrival’ via Times.com

Ted Chiang created this alien language, and it was further fleshed out when adapted to the screen. It became a believably functional, artful, and original depiction of a language not based on our own. That takes immense creativity and understanding. When Dr. Banks learns enough of their language to understand their purpose on Earth, well, it’s absurd for real life, but for a movie? Sure. Go with it. 

If you don’t like to think when watching a film and want everything spelled out for you, this film is not for you. If movies like Alien and Independence Day are more your thing, this movie will disappoint you on multiple levels. If, however, you enjoy a great sci-fi story with good acting and original perspective, you should put this film on your watch list. 

—a pen lady

2-23-21

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin      Runtime: 2hr 10 min     Rated: R     

Studio: Netflix, Cross Creek pictures, Dreamworks     Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Rylance

The Trial of the Chicago 7 by Aaron Sorkin is one of those films that seeks to have the audience ask, ‘what do I feel?’ 

I wasn’t around back then, but the Vietnam war was raging. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated that year. The Chicago riots happened, and Nixon was elected president. 

Put aside your own political leanings for a moment. This movie follows, loosely, seven men leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, Illinois. They all start out trying to get permission from the city to assemble thousands of people from multiple states in the park across from where the DNC will be. Their various paths go from there, which the movie shows, to let the viewer see how and why they all end up in court for inciting a riot. 

Now, there was a real “trial of the Chicago 7” in 1969. This film is based on that. 

The seven on trial were:

1. Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) 2. John Froines (Danny Flaherty) 3. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) -Leader of the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (The Mobe).  4. Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) -Leaders of the Youth International Party (Yippies). 5. Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) -Leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The trial itself lasted almost five months. In all that time, an eighth man was attached to this trial for less than a month for no other reason than he was black, which would intimidate the jury. His name was Bobby Seal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the leader of the Black Panther Party. This whole section will have you exploring how you feel. The rationale for the eight being on trial was blood boiling enough, but the treatment Bobby Seal was subjected to and endured during the trial is a story of its own. Mateen does a great job in his portrayal, short though his involvement was. 

Netflix Offical Trailer for ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

So the film seems believable, being adapted well from actual events, as far as I can tell. The ensemble of defendants were activists from differing walks of life. People fed up with the system, racism, corruption, and the war in Vietnam. They wanted to peacefully march and protest with bands playing music in the park. While this film could have done a better job at highlighting the attempts at the “peaceful” components of the real-life events, you do see it. Each character has a bit of a moment to show you who these men were, though Weiner and Froines are hardly heard from, as they were patsies in real life. 

Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t just look like Abbie Hoffman; Cohen naturally comes off as him. Rubin and Hoffman were like performance artist-activists, or so I read, and it’s not a stretch to see Cohen standing on a stage and delivering pot-shot commentary on the trial. Rubin seems like a man of action in handling certain situations, and Jeremy Strong is believable as much. (I have good examples, but that would spoil things). The scenes with Hoffman and Rubin really help to break up the otherwise impertinent tone of events. 

In great contrast to Rubin and Hoffman was David Dellinger, a pacifist. He’s mainly quiet, and when you hear him, it reminded me of a parent chaperoning a field trip that no one listens to. 

Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden are the quieter, well-spoken of the group. Throughout the trial, Rennie’s actions weaved like a needle and thread. Serving as a reminder of why they all went to Chicago. Well-intended as Hayden might have been for taking his group, the SDS, to Chicago in 1968, he was kind of a tosser. While Eddie Redmayne is a talented actor, this is a static role for him and does nothing to highlight his abilities. 

To highlight something for my non-American readers, a person is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country. And yet, five decades later, the judicial system is still a stage for those with power who are corrupt, absolute. Judge Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, was the living embodiment of all the things you don’t want in a judge. Langella depicts Hoffman accurately (so I’ve read), which angers me but doesn’t surprise me that such a cankerous bigot would be in such a position. Especially in Illinois. 

Netflix’s ‘Trial of the Chiago 7’ image via the Chicago Sun-Times, 10/20

Frank Langella and Sacha Baron Cohen are the two characters who really make the film worth sticking around for, aside from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portions. Without them, the scenes of the actual riots, and the use of original footage, this film would be a snooze-fest. 

While this movie is undoubtedly watchable, it could have been better if Aaron Sorkin hadn’t written and directed it. Someone else should have directed it. Sorkin peppers in real-life quotes with his sharp writing, which works, if a bit unbelievable. 

The real trial of 1969 had people chanting, “the whole world is watching,” every day. At the time, there would have been no way to forget that this trial was about men opposed to the Vietnam war. When watching this movie, I was distracted from that. Distracted by the obtuse, bigoted, racists, arrogance on display in the courtroom. The overreaction of the Mayor of Chicago turning his city into a police state. All the events in response to the anti-war protests in Chicago in Sorkin’s dramatization overshadowed the Vietnam war itself. For everyone who wasn’t alive at the time watching this, it minimizes the seriousness of the national objection to the war in Vietnam. That is a disservice to history. 

It’s a good movie for a streaming service release; after spending only a few in actual theaters because of Covid. I don’t think this would have done very well at the box office. Still, it is a good introduction to a topic or about real-life moments in history to have a conversation on; to ask what you would do if you were the one on trial. For that reason, you could add it to your watch list.  

—a pen lady

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Directed by: Ridley Scott     Runtime: 2 hr 3 min     Rated: R    

Studio: 20th Century Fox     Screenwriters: John Logan, Dante Harper

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant is the follow-up to his 2012 Prometheus prequel of his Alien franchise. Set ten years later, in 2104, Covenant follows a crew of 15 onboard a Weyland Group colonization vessel bound for a planet still several years away. 

Micheal Fassbender reprises his role as a ship android, this time named Walter. He and “mother” the ship’s computer, watch over the crew and 3,100 colonist and embryos asleep in stasis pods. Things in space movies never go as planned, and Covenant is no different. Walter is forced to wake the crew early to deal with the instigating event. 

The Covenant characters’ dynamic is much different from Prometheus; right after waking up, they all work to fix problems. This cohesion was not in the previous film, nor was any semblance of rank, security protocols, or notion that anyone had ever been in space before. Right away, I appreciate these things because whether a mission is from a company or military group, things happen in space, and there needs to be guidelines and structure. 

It’s obvious that this crew has worked together before, and there is history. It is a colonization journey, so I can let go of the fact that almost the entire crew is paired off already with someone. I think of the Netflix show Lost in Space, and I know that dynamic can be done well. This isn’t as good as that, but it’s not terrible. That history, understanding, is what gets the crew off course from their intended destination. After spending a decade researching and verifying a planet can be colonized, I find it ridiculously unbelievable a crew would abandon that on a whim. They still have a job to do. This isn’t Star Trek. 

Still, the characters are performed well, considering the interaction and story you get with some in a thriller movie like this. Katherine Waterston plays Daniels, second in command of the Covenant. Waterston’s character reminds me of Sigourney Weavers Ridley from the original Alien films. She has a strong presence, good leadership, and the right mix of ‘I can handle this and be scared at the same time.’ 

20th Century Studios Offical Trailer for Alien: Covenant via YouTube

The film’s pace is better than the last, and the scenes flow well from one to the next. Scene transition gets really important in the latter part of the film when Fassbender and Waterston’s characters learn more about the planet they are exploring.  

While Ridley Scott answers the question of what brings the Covenant to this planet with sound logic and justification, that’s where it ends. The backstory provided only serves to raise more questions and frustrations stemming from Prometheus’s introduction to the “Engineers.” Don’t worry though Covenant brings out the egg-pods, the face-huggers, xenomorphs, blood, gore, and running like its founders. The film has the suspense and thriller aspect closer to the originals than Prometheus, so fans shouldn’t be too disappointed.

There are many unanswered questions between these first two prequels that I wish Ridley Scott had done more to answer in this film. The cliffhanger those unanswered questions leave- lingers too much after two films. Scott’s master plan was to have three prequel films to connect the Alien’s origins with the original franchise. The third film may never be made. Covenant’s box office sales were disappointing. Then, Disney acquired the Alien franchise in 2019, and 2020 obliterated the film industry. I hope the film gets made and that Ridley Scott finally answers the questions he has raised so far. The fans deserve closure. 

Despite all those issues and unanswered questions, Alien: Covenant is a good if under-appreciated film worthy of being put on your watch list. 

—a pen lady 

Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus (2012)

Directed by: Ridley Scott     Runtime: 2 hr 3 min     Studio: 20th Century Fox

Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof, Dan O’Bannon     Rated: R

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Benedict Wong

Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise he started in 1979 but with a different trajectory in mind. In the previous Alien films, the question of “where did they come from” never comes up. That’s okay, those films were designed for thrilling suspense and to scare you. They were never intended to answer big questions. Or ask them. Prometheus tackles these logical questions head-on to examine the storyline from a new lens while still connecting it to its predecessor. 

Prometheus doesn’t precisely answer any of the questions it raises, to the annoyance of many viewers. Still, life doesn’t always give answers—and neither does Scott. Strangely, I’m okay with it. While the pacing is sometimes slow, the Prometheus crew gets an answer to if man is alone in the universe. 

This quest for understanding originates from archeological findings on Earth in 2089. A “scientist” belief that mankind is being invited to go looking for their maker is all that is required. The Weyland Group privately funds a space expedition for this journey through the stars. In Alien, the Weyland Group is what the Umbrella Corporation is to the Resident Evil franchise. Though it’s not really apparent in this movie.

While the plot’s rationale for taking a journey through space is thin and scientifically absurd, as are the other scientists and professionals, the characters are still likable. There’s a biologist who acts like a kid at a zoo, a geologist who gets lost despite mapping equipment, a medical doctor, security personnel, and the bridge crew. Two archeologists (one who believes more in faith than science), a Weyland employee overlord, and an android with a creepy god complex round out the rest.

Half of the characters are barely developed. The ones that are are a mixed bag. I can’t understand the lack of rules and protocols of a crew on a spaceship. It’s like you stole your parents’ car and drove for the first time with friends, it’s aggravating chaos. Despite that, the performances are well done; not Oscar-worthy but enjoyable all the same. My two favorite characters are the ship’s Captain/pilot, Janek, played by Idris Elba. Hello, it’s Idris Elba. No other reason is required. Seriously, I like his level-headed demeanor. It’s in stark contrast to everyone else. The other is David the android, played by Micheal Fassbender. He depicts an android emulating a human without emotion with precision. 

Another depiction that is well done is the scene/set locations. There is this opening sequence that shows this harsh, beautiful landscape. You don’t know if it’s on Earth or when. The similarity to that setting and the one later in the film highlight how our planet is not unique in the universe. It indicates how small we are, and that’s not a notion we like as a species. 

In movies, there is this notion that space travel, ships, and equipment have to be either old and industrial or clean and futuristic with lots of technology. The original Alien films look very dirty and industrial, which is a sign of the times when they were made. Special effects were not what they are today. However, the vessel Prometheus itself and the land equipment are a great mix of the two. Additionally, the other technology used throughout the film isn’t so reaching as to be unbelievable. 

This movie isn’t for those who don’t want to think about it too hard. It will also not be loved by serious fans of the Alien franchise if all that is expected is low-lighting, suspense, and body cavity bursting. Prometheus is designed to show you how the body cavity bursting aliens come to be. It’s about their origins. Sometimes a good story is slow to set up, which this film is for many. However, it’s not the only movie Ridley Scott has planned as an Alien prequel. With this in mind, you should add Prometheus to your watch list.

—a pen lady

Backdraft (1991)

Backdraft (1991) 

Directed by: Ron Howard Runtime: 2 hr 17 min Rated: R

Studio: Universal Screenwriter: Gregory Widen

Cast: William Baldwin, Kurt Russell, Robert DiNero, Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay

Backdraft is a thriller/mystery film with action by Ron Howard. It follows the lives of two firefighter brothers who ride engine 17 for the Chicago Fire Department in the early nineties. 

This film’s setup and the subsequent character development between actual brothers Stephen and Brian McCaffrey and their fellow firefighter brothers happens early on. Howard shows effortlessly how trust and brotherhood matter through work, play, and training sequences. That new or experienced being a team is everything. 

A team is hard to keep together when funding cuts by the city close fire stations. 

Fires happen for many reasons, and the fire department gets called out to every one. For each one, there’s an investigation to determine what caused it. In Backdraft, Inspector Rimgale (Di Nero) doesn’t like what he’s finding. Arson. 

An arsonist creating more work with less backup is only one of the conflicts unfolding in this story. An alderman, who, like most politicians, have to stick their noses in where they don’t belong is another. Could the rationale be better? Yes. Some may find the pretext for this plot thin, as a former citizen of the Chicagoland area, it’s plausible. Everyone in the world has to endure or hear about someone at some point in their local government that can’t stay in their lane.

‘Backdraft’ trailer from Universal Pictures via YouTube

Brian (Baldwin), a new firefighter compared to his older brother, Stephen (Russell), jumps at the chance to get away from his judgmental supervision when the alderman offers him the opportunity to work with Rimgale. Brian is given a perspective about fire he’s never thought of before as they work to stop an arsonist. 

The personal dynamics play out with the right amount of cadence and energy and the actors’ responses to the action. There are flames, explosions, heat, and heavy gear to contend with, all while delivering lines at the correct time. All these components align to produce an engaging, captivating narrative. Or, it seems like that. The special effects of creating the fire and smoke scenes while creating the impression that the actors, or their stunt doubles, are in the middle of these hot, destructive sets are impressive. Maybe not by today’s standards but certainly for 1991. 

The attempts to show firefighters have a life outside the fire station in this movie is poorly done. In Brian’s case, his personal relationship is nothing more than a plot device to cobble one film component to the other. Stephen’s relationship with his estranged wife (De Mornay) touches on the fear spouses of actual firefighters might have. Still, without seeing anything else about their relationship previously, its execution is flat. 

Don’t be like my parents and let your ten-year-old watch it. Still, if you want a new thriller with action, like firefighters, or any of the actors in this film, it’s not a bad watch. You should put it on your watch list and appreciate the special effects of the early 90s. 

—a pen lady

Dead Again (1991)

Dead Again (1991)

Director: Kenneth Branagh Rating: R Runtime: 1 hr 48 min  

Studio: Paramount Screenwriter: Scott Frank 

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Robin Williams, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi

What if there isn’t a heaven or hell to go to when we die? What if we come back as something else, someone else? If it was all fate. Would you change how you live your life? In Dead Again, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in karma or not; it happens anyway. 

To appreciate a story like this, you need to be open to reincarnation as a plot vehicle. The story moves back and forth between two events in Los Angeles, CA, one in 1948 and the other forty-years later. It’s easy to follow along with the shifts because the past appears in black and white. While this wasn’t the original intent of the director, it works. Post World War II, the noir look is quite fitting. 

A married couple, Roman and Margaret Strauss, have issues with jealousy, money, and job security—those are attributes relatable to many marriages. The majority don’t end in murder, however. The ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions to be answered in this film are intertwined. It’s the unfolding of the past events and how they relate to the present that provides answers. 

How do you get answers about a past life? You get hypnotized by an opportunistic antique dealer named Franklin, played by the amazing Derek Jacobi. 

Roman Strauss/Mike Church, a musical composer/private detective, is played by Kenneth Branagh. Margaret/Grace, an orchestra player/artist, with amnesia is portrayed by Emma Thompson. Their depictions of their respective characters are well performed, infused with genuine chemistry.  

Robin Williams plays Cozy Carlise, an ex-therapist turned grocery clerk who gives advice from a walk-in cooler. His character provides Mike with insight and advice that allows viewers to follow the theme that karma plays. 

The well-developed characters, plot structure, pace, and tone of this film mesh together with Patrick Doyle’s musical compositions. It helps the entire film’s mood despite the vast differences in cultural tastes between the late 1940s and early 1990s. 

Some may find the premise behind the plot ridiculous. Many will not. It’s refreshing to see a non-Christian based religious-belief system represented. It reaches out to more than just the ideals of the West. I first saw this a few years after it came out, and I wasn’t more than thirteen. Before this film, I had never heard of karma, past-lives, or reincarnation, so it expanded my brain to other notions than what I had been taught. 

That insight is a positive takeaway. The downside is I probably shouldn’t have watched the end of this film, then. I was squeamish. As an adult viewer, the climax scene isn’t a shock, yet it’s not disappointing either. No one predictably says that “karma is a bitch,” but it’s certainly implied. 

If you like mystery or thriller stories and try to figure out the ending before you get there, this movie should make it on your watch list. It’s an under appreciated chestnut of cinema worth your time. 

—a pen lady

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1 hr 54 min

Studio: 20th Century Fox Screenwriter: Michael Green

Based on: The novel by Agatha Christie 

Everyone is a suspect in Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express, written for film by Michael Green. It’s not the first time this novel has been made for film or television, but it is the most recent. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen those others or read one of her thirty-plus novels; there is a first time experience for everyone! 

Agatha Christie’s works have sold over 2 billion copies worldwide in the century since her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920. Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934. All these years later, people love her work. The most iconic of all her characters, detective Hercule Poirot, comes alive again through actor/director Kenneth Branagh. 

Branagh is an iconic stage and film actor who ticks off all the mannerisms and peculiarities that make Poirot such an iconic and layered character. Minus the egg head Agatha Christie famously describes him with. 

The film’s opening is at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; it’s a short bit that sets up why he ends up on the train, yes. Most importantly, it shows, not tells, the audience who he is. How he operates as a detective and as a person. Hercule Poirot has been a staple in Christie’s novels for well over a decade by the time this novel is published, so those familiar with her work understand him. If you are not, this scene addition is essential for the viewer. 

As the title and trailer state, there is a murder on a train. With twelve main suspects on this train, stuck on a mountain bridge by an avalanche, casting Poirot was arguably the most critical casting choice. The others could have been filled with newcomers or unknowns, but Branagh filled this train ride with an all-star cast of talent. Their respective character portrayals do not disappoint.

It’s challenging to create atmosphere, character depth, structure, and pace for a story that doesn’t miss something with so many people. The filmmakers can bring to life this ensemble so effortlessly because the original material has already done these things so well. Additionally, the sets, props, costumes (period-appropriate clothing), and camera work capture the close quarters’ train ride. 

If, like me, you enjoy knowing tidbits about the process behind bringing a film to life, make sure to rent or borrow a copy of this film that has the “extras” section. I found the way they shot the landscape scenes outside the train fascinating! 

Near seventy-five years later, certain aspects of humanity and social constructs remain. A single serving mentality of meeting people you will never see again is especially evident on this train. Class hierarchy and discrimination are others. However, it is the aspect of the murder that is especially true. That murder has a ripple effect. That love, guilt, truth, and revenge are all components of the human experience that were true then and today. It’s human nature to want the guilty to suffer. 

Those aspects remain, but the overall intelligence of a reader has increased. Many find Agatha Christie’s work irrelevant because they don’t see her as challenging as newer mystery/crime writers. In a way, that is true, but so what? The story-telling process Christie used then is applicable today and still inspires a new generation every year. The importance of details, motive, character, plot, and story structure never changes. It’s why they are still in print, in libraries, in schools, and for sale in multiple languages. Part of her process is to allow the reader to know what the detective knows, so you feel a part of the story in a way. That process is not lost when adapted to the screen. 

On-screen, it’s almost more immersive. You are like the character, Monsieur Bouc, who follows Hercule Poirot around seeing and hearing what he does. It’s not often to find a movie where you can easily place yourself in a characters’ shoes. 

If you like crime, mysteries, or the game ‘Clue’, this is ideal for a movie night flick to add to your watch list. 

-a pen lady

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Promising Young Woman

Directed by: Emerald Fennell Runtime: 1 hr 53 min Rated:

Studio: Focus Features Screenwriters: Emerald Fennell

Promising Young Woman is creatively colorful as it is visceral in its exploration into double standards and accountability. Holding a light into the dark standards and practices of not just people but also institutions and their role in sexual abuse and rape. Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Cassandra is a revenge PSA (public service announcement) worthy of award nominations. 

Two lines in the trailer showing a heavily intoxicated Cassandra are:

“You know they put themselves in danger, girls like that.”

“You think you’d learn by that age, right?”

They are prime examples of the double standards and accountability this film is exploring. The existing culturally accepted norm that a girl or woman can be taken advantage of is her fault. 

Another set of lines are:

“I’m not the only one who didn’t believe it.” – Woman

“We get accusations like this all the time.” – Woman

These words coming from other women are equally disturbing because it highlights the denial and permission, by default, women give to men when women ignore or don’t speak up for others. Witnessing and staying silent helps no one, and Casandra is anything but silent in her mission to obliterate these accepted practices by so-called “nice guys.” 

Emerald Fennell and Carey Mulligan created and depict a beautifully crafted character with survivor guilt in Cassandra. In most movies, when a woman experiences this type of violence, it’s ignored, or a man gets revenge. It’s refreshing to see a woman take back control, even in the extreme. Cassandra going out at night like she does is dangerous. I’m not ignoring that. It’s also celebratory because it’s shown in a raw and honest manner with a pinch of humor. 

Promising Young Woman Official Trailer, Focus Features via YouTube

That humor, dark that it is, will not appeal to everyone. There were nine other people at the showing my theater had; five of those were men. A few women laughed a little; the men, unsurprisingly, did not. If anything, I was too loud when I laughed, and it had nothing to do with the empty theater. It just resonated with me, like it will for far too many. It’s not a film that only those who have survived rape will understand. This film is for the friends and family of such people. Those left behind after a suicide. The parents of every child. 

It’s an avenue into conversations about being a good person and what safe really means, and proper consent. Promising Young Woman really highlights the experiences women face in a centralized manner. It’s very to the point. Additionally, it shows how the process of acceptance and healing in the aftermath can take more time than many people are comfortable with. Cassandra’s parents don’t see it; they just see a 30-year old living at home.

Cassandra had been a medical student, that’s years of her life dedicated to a specific path. One event changed her course. She was a promising young woman full of potential, like many other women full of promising potential. I know it’s a movie review, but for context, in 2020, according to worldpopulationreview.com, there were 84,767 reported incidents of rape in the United States alone. So many, too many, are not reported each year. Al Monroe, played by Chris Lowell, says, “It’s every guy’s worst nightmare getting accused like that.” Cassandra replies, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”  

This film will anger people, specifically males, and that’s okay. Mulligan’s take on Cassandra is bright, fun, twisted, raw, smart, and unapologetic. It’s hard to come up with an ending to a film topic like this, and Fennell doesn’t disappoint. This film should be on your watch list for sure. 

-a pen lady

SHAZAM! (2019)

SHAZAM! (2019) Runtime: 2 hrs 12 min Rating: PG-13  Studio: Warner Bros

Directed by: David S. Sandberg Screenwriters: Henry Gayden 

I’ll be honest, Shazam or Captain Marvel, as he’s also known in the comics, was never one I cared to know. Billy Baston is a kid who transforms into an adult with powers by saying a magic word. Sounds kiddish, right? I just found him so whiney, or that his actual age showed too much as his adult self. That’s the beauty of the design of him, though, isn’t it? What kid hasn’t ever thought about being super? Made up what powers or abilities they would have. I’m an adult, and I still think about it! 

This hero first came to be in 1939 as Captain Marvel from Fawcett comics (currently published by DC Comics). Years later, after being out of publication for a time, Marvel grabbed the available trademark for “Captain Marvel” in the early 1970s. Doing so meant the DC character could no longer be published under the name, so the comic book’s name was changed to SHAZAM! and the title of “Captain Marvel” within DC Comics stopped in 2012 when the superhero name officially became SHAZAM! as well. 

A version of Billy Baston’s origin story has him living with his uncle. In the “new 52” version, he’s a foster kid. This works better for this character overall, I think. Asher Angel plays the role of Billy Baston, the teenager, while Zachary Levi plays the adult/hero version. Mark Strong plays the villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who has been around since the original comics debut. 

Unlike most hero origin stories where loss of some kind is close to the time they suit-up, Billy Baston’s is not. He’s minding his own business when he finds himself before “the Wizard,” played by Djimon Hounsou. I like Hounsou’s previous work; he has a nice range of projects under his belt. However, I cringed at his costume. It looked like a low-level, Halloween Express attempt at cosplay. Still, Billy comes before him via magic into this cave, the Rock of Eternity—the vibe is anything but kiddish. 

The Wizard is one of seven who’s combined powers keep the seven deadly sins away. He is no longer strong enough to hold back what can be described as a version of Pandora’s box and needs someone new to take over. Enter Billy. Billy doesn’t know about Sivana or the sins, who look like unfinished concept renderings Constantine would fight. No, he seeks help from one of his foster siblings, a die-hard fan of comics, to help him figure out the alternate version of himself. 

While the film attempts to merge teenagers and kids’ youthfulness with a conflict that means the end of the world, the conflict portion falls flat. However, there are jokes and laughs throughout the film that sort of make up for it.

Mixed in with those components to the film are Billy’s newest foster parents and the other kids who live with them. The family scenes seem so forced, like it’s normal for a new foster kid to get along so well so soon. Sivana grew up to be the very type of person he hated as a child, uncaring and unloving. That sentiment of not being cared about parallels most foster kids’ feelings, yet I don’t feel for Sivana. That the display of family and togetherness Billy’s new foster family portrays is the crucial difference between being good or evil. Sure…

This is meant as a movie for middle-school-aged kids and up. It’s not designed to be completely logical, just a light-hearted journey into the DCEU without the gritty, testosterone-filled displays currently at work. 

For a movie about a kid, who becomes a super adult, who goes back to being a kid, there needs to be room to grow such a character. To start, kids are already figuring out who they are in the world. On top of that, Billy has to get used to being an adult hero without anyone else finding out he’s a kid in the adult’s body. 

So, should this be on your watchlist? Yeah, go on and do it. It is a lighter super film than anything else out there currently. It can be a fun watch if you accept that it will take more than just this one film for Billy/SHAZAM! to be fully realized. 

-a pen lady

Wonder Woman 84 (2020)

Wonder Woman 84 (2020) 

Director: Patty Jenkins Screenwriters: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham 

Studio: Warner Bro. Runtime: 2 hr 31 min Rating: PG-13

Wonder Woman 84 was released on Christmas Day to the anticipation of many, myself included. It starts with a young Diana on Themyscria, with Lilly Aspell reprising her role with the same energy and dedication she had in the first Wonder Woman film. Viewers will get another look into a section of Paradise Island with visually stunning scene settings. The Amazons impress again with their abilities that make the Olympics look like a high school state gymnastics event. 

The opening scene has more to it than action, and while I won’t say what, it is the thread of rationale that Wonder Woman 84 is built around. 

Official Warner Bros. WW84 trailer via YouTube

Shifting from Themyscaria, the movie takes you to Washington, D.C., in 1984. 

Diana is out being Wonder Woman in an era where she can still show up, do her thing, and vanish. Why it had to be in the 1980s, I have no idea. Malls were huge then, and one of the scenes is shot at one, but it could have been elsewhere. Aside from that, the clothes and technology, there isn’t anything that cements a rational justification for choosing 1984. It’s in the title, but it has little relevance. Perhaps because cellphones (as we know them today) weren’t around to capture everything? The internet wasn’t even available publicly yet, so anonymity is her friend. 

Despite her 66-years of relative isolation, who she does befriend is Dr. Barbra Minerva, otherwise known as Cheetah. This iteration of the character sets her up as a cliche of films. She is fashionably stunted (a sharp contrast to the always put together Diana), clumsy, socially awkward, smart, and ignored by everyone she meets. Many of us can relate to that list, hell on most days, it describes me. The difference is that we don’t get to have a wish that gives us a glamor and personality makeover. 

Throughout cinema, animated or otherwise, we have been told that you only get one wish. Maybe three. That magic always comes with a price. Well, Maxwell Lord, played by Pedro Pascal, begs to differ. He’s the embodiment of a character in a magic lamp scenario where you want to trick him into the bottle; he’s so sleazy. In WW84, he is after the Dreamstone and will do anything to get it and everything else. 

After the stone comes to Diana’s attention, with the help of Barbra, they find out more about it. Like most people, Barbra can’t help but think about what she’d wish for. Diana, on the other hand, understands there is more at work than just a simple wish. 

The pace and set-up of this film are slow. Arguably the typical trap of a second film when you know there will be a third, but this wasn’t set up under that pretense. There are so many plot questions, holes, continuity errors that made me lose interest early on. This was not the movie I was excitedly waiting to see. There is little ‘wonder’ to be found in this film. 

While Gal Gadot reprised her role as Wonder Woman and certainly looked the part fantastically again, I wasn’t excited. Pedro Pascal pulls off a 1980s suit to accurately depict the scam artist, Max Lord. However, nothing in this universe will make me believe, magic or otherwise, that Kristen Wiig is as attractive as Gal Godot. Or Barbra to Diana. The Cheetah “costume” is okay until you get to her face. Her face makeup looks like it was stolen from Floki, the character on the History channels Vikings. Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift’s heads as felines from the movie Cats looked more believable. 

Warner Bro. Films photo of Kristen Wigg as Cheetah in WW84 via Flickeringmyth.com 12-15-2020

For a movie whose pretense is that “…the truth is all there is,” there couldn’t be a bigger lie than the one the filmmakers ignore in how they bring Chris Pine’s character, Steve Trevor, back. It’s absolutely disgusting, really. It goes against everything Wonder Woman is. That, along with the other issues I won’t go into, (spoilers) are reason enough to avoid this film. This movie should not be on anyone’s watch list. 

-a pen lady