Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Ghost Ship (2002)

Directed: Steve Beck  Rated: Runtime: 1h 31m   Studio: Warner Bros. Screenwriters: Mark Hanlon and John Pogue  Cast: Julianna Margulies, Ron Eldard, Gabriel Byrne, Isaiah Washington, Karl Urban, Desmond Harrington, Alex Dimitriades, Emily Browning

Horror/gore films are not my thing. Most rely too much on the gore or over-sexualization of female characters. Few can balance gore and thrills with the needed suspense to make it genuinely gripping. Even worse is when these types of films fall back on overused troupes that make the story predictable and unfun to watch. In 2002, at least Ghost Ship felt original.

Is it the most gripping, suspenseful, and entertainingly intense story of horror films ever made, hardly. It gives off the same vibe regarding storytelling, stunts, and graphics as Resident Evil (2002)the first film based on a video game of the same name. Both also have a cast centered around a female lead. 

In Ghost Ship, Maureen Epps (Margulies) is a member of a salvage ship, the Arctic Warrior. A young man hires the crew to salvage an abandoned cruise liner. Once they find the ship out on the Bering Sea, things take a supernatural turn. 

It’s a ghost ship; throughout the movie, what happened to it is fleshed out via flashbacks. Some people don’t like the use of these in cinema, but it fits in the context of this film. It also adds to the eerie feeling the salvage crew experiences while aboard. While many won’t care for the film stylings of early 2000s films, if you can look beyond that, for the time, it was normal. By today’s standards, it’s either cheesy or terrible. 

Alex Dimitriades, Karl Urban, Ron Eldard, and Julianna Margulies in ‘Ghost Ship’ from Warner Bros. Studios Image: via

Ghost Ship has intrigue, suspense, and believable enough camaraderie amongst the crew, even if none of them are profound. It’s just not that kind of film. Though the techno musical choices were par for the course for the time, it seems odd now. I’m not sure calling this film’ horror’ is accurate. A supernatural thriller with gorey parts, yes. 

Ghost Ship was released in theaters a week before Halloween. If you’re the kind of person who likes to have a Halloween movie marathon, then this film would fit right in. Even if you are not, it’s not so bad a movie that it can’t be watched once, so give it a place on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

The Forgiven

Director & Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh   Runtime: 1h 57m Rated: R   Studio: House of Un-American Activities Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Ismael Kanoter, Saïd Taghmaoui

Set in the middle of nowhere of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, a large group of rich white people attend a lavish weekend-long party. On the way, a local boy is run over in the dark, killing him. 

Ralph Fiennes is David Menninger, a jaded London doctor; and a drunk. Jessica Chastain is vastly underutilized as Jo Menninger, David’s malcontent wife and sometimes novelist. For that matter, Matt Smith’s Richard, the party’s host, is given little to work with too. It’s a shame because they both have fantastic acting chops. 

While Richard instructs David to be nice and seem sorry when the cops show up, he wonders why he should. The boy stepped in front of the car in the dark of night; how is it David’s fault? The boy is a nobody to him. But he relents as it’s Richard and his partner’s villa. No one wants the local cops looking too closely at the gay couple and their guest’s activities.  

Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones in ‘The Forgiven’ from House of Un-American Activities studio via

The trailer for The Forgiven implies way more drama and suspense than there is. That’s not to say the film isn’t filled with emotional subtext with gravitas and subtly. It is; coupled with racist, homophobic, and culturally inappropriate lines, which might be forgivable if the film’s story was more robust. After all, a story is all the events that, when appropriately arranged, show a straightforward plot. The plot is clear-ish, but it doesn’t answer the “why” about three prominent aspects of the film. Plot holes that ruin the whole point of a movie vex me. 

At one point, the dead boy’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), arrives at the villa with two other men, one a translator (Taghmaoui). It is customary (apparently) for David to come with Abdellah to bury the boy. David thinks it’s a shakedown, or that they’re ISIS, that they’re going to kill him—all of the above. Richard gets David on board, and off he goes into the middle of nowhere. Everyone else gives in to champagne-guzzling, cocaine-fueled frivolity. 

Ismael Kanoter in ‘The Forgiven’ from Roadside Attractions via

It’s when David leaves that the audience gets a clearer, more purposefully depicted show of the cultural divide between these Western elitist twats and the Muslim desert locals. 

The weekend-long guilt trip finally gets to David—showing he’s not just a drunken racist is asking too much of even an actor with Ralph Fiennes skillset. Why? For this established character’s character, it’s utterly unbelievable! More likely, he’s channeled his deep need for a drink (after going without for a few days) into something other than anger/contempt. He still thinks he’s going to die. 

Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Forgiven’ from Roadside Attractions via The Tribeca Film Festival

The ending doesn’t go with the rest of the film’s tone. The Forgiven is very much a juxtaposition of two cultures. Still, the film’s final act shifts too much to an artsy avant-garde feeling. That feeling does not blend well with the rest of the movie’s tone and established awful characters. 

The Forgiven had potential, but there are too many rough edges to make it worth watching, so skip putting it on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady 

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

The Founder (2016)

Directed: John Lee Hancock  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 1h 55m  Studio: TWC   Screenwriter: Robert Siegel  Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson

The Founder follows the life-changing meetup of Ray Kroc (Keaton) and the McDonalds brothers. Highlighting the rise of instant gratification, meeting consumerism, and the billion-dollar-a-year business it all gave rise to; under the golden glow of some arches. 

In 1954 Ray Kroc was a desperate, terrible salesman. He saw potential buyers as dollar signs, nothing more. His only sales pitch never connected to those he attempted to sell milkshake machines. Except for one place, it wasn’t because Ray was a good salesman. 

John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman, and Michael Keaton in ‘The Founder’ Image Credit: TWC via

That big sale was to Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) McDonald’s restaurant in Southern California, the co-owners of the legitimately first McDonald’s hamburger joint. They liked what they had, appreciated that it worked (with proper oversight), and were content with their creation. Ray, on the other hand, saw potential and lots of dollar signs. That’s part of the ‘American dream,’ right? Why be content when you can be rich?

In the film, Ray aims to get the brothers to franchise and to see things his way. But they always say no. Some see the brothers as stubborn fools, but they aren’t; greed wasn’t their thing. They were happy, and Ray couldn’t understand this because nothing satisfied him.

‘The Founder’ Image: TWC via

That’s what The Founder boils down to, an antagonist who didn’t understand contentment and protagonists who were blind to how deep ambition went, what Ray calls persistence.

The casting for The Founder is superb. Offerman and Lynch are so in-tune with their characters and how they play off one another. It’s seamless. Keaton does a marvelous job of playing well–the walking personification of a greedy dick. 

Michael Keaton in ‘The Founder’ Image: TWC via

Films based on a true story are only sometimes well done, let alone accurate, but the essence of the characters in this movie is spot on. It’s an excellent example of a cautionary tale of what happens to the “little guy” when legal loopholes, someone else’s vision, and manipulation play a role in a takeover. 

Cinematically this film is well-directed, edited, and flows logically from one part to the next. It’s easy to watch and compelling enough of a story to keep viewers engaged. I found it interesting, and I don’t even like McDonald’s. I haven’t eaten there in almost 20 years. Not every bio epic is done well, but The Founder is and is worth a place on your watchlist. 

A Pen Lady


Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Contagion (2011)

Directed: Steven Soderbergh  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 1h 46m Studio: Warner Bros.  Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow

Tell me if this sounds familiar; an animal, a virus, fear, global contagion, millions die, the military is involved, a run on goods at stores, and the entire world stops. So why isn’t this a review of Rise of Planet of the Apes? That’s what you were thinking, right? I understand your confusion. The plot of that film and Contagion is very similar, and Rise debuted in theaters a month before this one. 

Dystopian disasters and end-of-the-world films never seem to go out of style. In 2011, Contagion seemed like a dystopian reality that couldn’t actually happen. Then, a decade later, Covid-19 shut the world down. Life imitated art. To watch Contagion now, to sit and view an odd re-telling of a reality we’ve lived through, with its eerily similar accurateness in so many regards, is unsettling. 

A woman (Paltrow) travels home from a work trip in Hong Kong. She feels a bit off but chalks it up to jet lag. The C.D.C. and World Health Organization (W.H.O.) are involved within the next few days. 

Now, hindsight is a bitch. After living through COVID and watching a movie like this afterward, it would be difficult not to question how certain things are done in this film. However, some basic protocols and procedures, and policies have existed for a long time with groups like the C.D.C. and WHO, so how are they not used in this film? Like C.D.C. employees walking around sick people (especially before you figure out how the virus travels) with no masks on! It’s not like we will forget that actress is Kate Winslet or that actor is Matt Damon. 

Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, & Jennifer Ehle in Warner Bros. Pictures ‘Contagion’ Image:

This film also calls what’s going on an epidemic, when that’s not accurate either. It is, in fact, a pandemic. It’s like no one bothered to proofread medical terms. Dictionaries must have been so hard to come by for some reason in 2011. Digressing from that are the components of this film that resonate with real life (now) all too well. It has pure scientists, skeptics/conspiracy theorists/deniers, governments, angry crowds, looters, scavengers, and piles of dead people. With all that going on, there’s still a well-written script, acting, and set designs (such as they are). It also has a great, simple explanation for how a virus travels and how contagious (or not) it may be in a way I never heard someone say during the real-life pandemic. 

The overall atmosphere of Contagion is excellent, without taking itself too seriously despite the heavy subject matter. The cast is terrific, not just with the delivery of their lines but the emotional resonance behind them. Cotillard’s Dr. Leonora Orantes, Ehle’s Ally Hextall, Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears, and Fishburne’s Dr. Ellis Cheever get the lion’s share of the screen time, and they are all wonderful with the material they are given. 

Marion Cotillard & Chin Han in ‘Contagion’ from Warner Bros. Pictures Image:

Winslet and Cotillard play epidemiologists, and they both deliver a performance that makes me feel for those that do this job in real life. I was more interested in those characters than in Matt Damon’s. His character represents the average person’s reaction to such an event. Perhaps I’m jaded after the last few years, but as a viewer, I liked the informational perspective, mainly because that wasn’t my reality. With a film like Contagion, people will take away something a little different from others, and that’s okay. Soderbergh packs a ton into this film.

Alan Krumwiede’s (Law) denier mentality is tame compared to real life, yet his tactics via his blog and interviews are spot on. Jude Law doesn’t get as much screen time as the other characters, but his character’s inclusion breaks up everything else to help with flow. One might think his character is the antagonist, but he’s not; the virus is. You can’t yell, shoot, or negotiate with a virus, and its ‘agenda’ (if you will) doesn’t discriminate against whom it goes after.

Jude Law in ‘Contagion’ from Warner Bros. Pictures Image: via

This isn’t an action disaster film. There are no mobs hoarding supplies protected by large groups like in The Walking Dead; it’s a slow unfolding of events in a manner not usual for this genre. Yet it works. I particularly like how the film hops from one location to another around the globe to show how the virus is perceived by other cultures and how they handle it. 

The trailer for this film is well done too. It gives you enough relevant information to tell you about what you’ll be watching but gives nothing important away. The tone-setting music is perfect as well. It may not be something everyone wants to watch after the past few years, but at some point, Contagion is worthy of a place on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Causeway (2022)

Directed: Lila Neugebauer  Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry Rated: Runtime: 1h 32m  Studio: A24/Apple TV  Screenwriters: Ottesa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, Elizabeth Sanders

Causeway follows Lynsey (Lawrence), a woman from a crappy family who gets out of her Louisiana town the same way many in her situation do; she joins the military. When an explosion overseas leaves her with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), she’s sent home. She believes, as many service members often do that she’ll recover enough to return to duty. But to recover, she’s sent to the one place she doesn’t want to be; home. 

The filmmaker starts with the mundane—the part where Lynsey must learn how to be a person again. Cinematically the tone of the film conveys “the everyday person” and the settings that go with it. It’s subdued but thoughtful. The characters are silently driven by deep emotions, which reverberate in everything they do. 

Nothing exciting happens in this film. It’s the exhale between heartbeats, where the precipitating events already occurred, and what’s left is the aftermath. Being in the shoes of the broken is what Causeway wants from its audience. Usually, stories about returning war vets are male leads/perspectives and how it affects them and their families. It’s refreshing to see a female lead because women also serve and are affected by war trauma. 

Brian Tyree Henry and Jennifer Lawrence in A24/Apple TV’s ‘Causeway’ via

The script is well written. It considers the nuances of dealing with a TBI, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, guilt, and depression. The life-numbing psychological toll it plays on a person, with none of the loud, stereotypical bullshit. Lynsey is in her own private hell, so when she encounters James (Henry), who is living with his own pain and guilt from a life-altering event, the two become friends. Lynsey’s personality makes this new relationship difficult, but James mostly understands. 

Causeway’s script is a masterclass depicting people in their most vulnerable state. Showing the raw emotional parts of ourselves that we all have, but without the fluff, heavy exposition, and unnecessary buildup. The tone and flow of this film are spot on. Those involved did their homework on these topics or knew someone well enough to reflect accurately on them. 

Jayne Houdyshell and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Causeway’ from A24/Apple TV via

I wasn’t sure I wanted to review this film because, at first, I wasn’t sure how to articulate the nothingness I felt when it was over. Causeway didn’t make me consider the perspective of people with TBIs, PTSD, or guilt. And I appreciate serious films that make the audience think about the subject matter they’re watching. I felt nothing about how the movie ended. I’m not heartless, but I know people who have gotten TBIs. I have PTSD and a few members of the alphabet soup club, so I get it. I don’t have to put myself in the character’s shoes; in a way, I already have a pair. In this movie, the audience doesn’t see who Lynsey was before, only how she is now. The adulterated version of her is what there is now, despite whatever progress she makes for herself. 

Causeway is a looking glass into a subject, a reality for many that aren’t talked about enough and not understood enough by the average person. It depicts valuable insight into a reality many deal with and suffer through and is worth discussing. You may only ever watch it once, but Causeway deserves a place on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Moonfall (2022)

Directed: Roland Emmerich  Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 2h 10m Studio: Lionsgate Movies Screenwriter: Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser, Spencer Coen 

Cast: Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, John Bradley, Charlie Plummer, Michael Peña, Kelly Yu

Some movies are “so bad, they’re good,” which is a polite way of stating ‘it sucks, but not so much I couldn’t sit through it again.’ Moonfall is no such movie.

Watching the trailer for Moonfall, I cringed and snickered while the lines from a Britney Spears song popped into my brain regarding director and writer Roland Emmerich; “Oops!…I did it again!” 

In Moonfall, it’s not an all-out alien invasion, this time out to destroy Earth. No, it’s the ludicrous, deeply implausible manner in which the moon will swing around Earth until it smashes into it completely. 

Emmerich certainly has a genre type he likes to make, but his problem isn’t the genre; he can’t write anything original for it anymore. He suffers from the same issues as director/writer James Cameron; they recycle their past works with new packaging. It’s reminiscent of a bad copy-and-paste job for a word file. We, the audience, see it and the flaws, but why do we keep going to see these? Continuing to see these insults to cinema is (partly) why studios keep green-lighting these projects. We, the movie-goers, must stop this crazy cycle! Other filmmakers are guilty of this too, but it takes a certain level of arrogance and stupidity to keep letting it happen with high-budget projects. How many regurgitations of the same story from the same filmmaker do we need? 

Halle Berry & Patrick Wilson in Lionsgate Movies ‘Moonfall’ via

Besides Moonfall giving off watered-down Independence DayDay After TomorrowArmageddon, and Transformers vibes, in the weakest sense, plot and storyline-wise, is the terrible dialogue! Point of observation, if you, the writer, write lines so frequently, in a non-comedic attempt, that has viewers thinking, “no shit, Sherlock,” or “thank you, Captain Obvious,” so much you could get half drunk a third of the way in, you need to rewrite. Or burn the script and start again. 

Even a good cast couldn’t have saved Moonfall from this poorly-written script, even with a good director. Yet, with Moonfall, the writing is mediocre (I’m being kind), the plot/story is ridiculous…and the acting. They may be lovely people, but when Halle Berry and John Bradley are your prominent cast members, even next to Patrick Wilson, what about that casting choice implies this film won’t be an abject failure? Halle Berry is the top billing for this film; I know it’s going to suck before I ever watch the trailer (totally misleading, BTW) because she can’t act! 

Image from Lionsgate Movie’s film ‘Moonfall’ via

The characters are all just…there. You can tell who’s related, who can’t stand who (and why), and how others are connected. Cool. It’s the end of the world, so who wouldn’t want their families safe? Still, none of them have depth or develop into someone or a subplot you want to root for. Why bother watching if you’re not invested in the characters or the story? 

There are so many plot holes and basic scientific blunders; the moon might as well be real Swiss cheese! How many people are required to launch a space shuttle? Three? Five? Oh, and the arrogance factor! A global catastrophe is occurring, and America is the only country to act or have a say in what to do about the moon. And, of course, there are nukes. At least in Emmerich’s Independence Day, there was communication and cooperation, or attempts at it. Here, no one but NASA is in charge until even they say, “fuck it, I’m out.” It’s a wonder the writers of this film had the balls to think the sequel they set this film up for would ever see the light of day. That will never happen! 

John Bradley in ‘Moonfall’ by Lionsgate Movies via

If Independence Day 3 ever happens, I’d rather see that than watch this film again, let alone a sequel. Comparatively, Independence Day: Resurgence was a far superior film (that Emmerich only directed, thankfully) worth rewatching, or just about any other disaster/apocalyptic movie. 

Moonfall isn’t “so bad it’s good;” it’s a master class on multiple things not to do in a film. Ever. That’s nothing to waste your free time on, so skip placing this movie on your watchlist.

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Empire Records (1995)

Director: Allan Moyle Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1h 30m
Studio: New Regency (Warner Bros.) Screenwriter: Carol Heikkinen
Cast: Liv Tyler, Ethan Embry, Robin Turner, Johnny Whitworth, Rory Cochrane, Debi Mazer, Renée Zellweger, Coyote Shivers, Maxwell Caulfield

Adolescence is messy and confusing; adulthood doesn’t improve this, and Empire Records zeros in on this truth, though audaciously. 

Films set in ’a day in the life’ can be challenging to embody multiple points about movies that make them watchable. Character development is such an area. Several characters staff the store at Empire Records, but there isn’t just one main focus. This film is centered around the plot, with the characters woven in, telling the story (as they should be) even if none of them is deep or developed. There’s just this right mix, blending, to make it all right. 

Rory Cochrane in ‘Empire Records’ by New Regency via

Joe (Lapaglia) is the manager of Empire Records, who is beloved by his (clearly longstanding) employees. Lucas (Cochrane) learns that the owner, Mitchell, wants to sell the store to a big box chain music outlet. Doing so insults independent stores and expression and would see them all fired. So, he takes all the money from that day’s sales and heads off to Atlantic City instead of the bank. That doesn’t go to plan and helps fuel the main drive of the story. To top off learning he’s been robbed (the next day), Joe must contend with the has-been 80s pop star, Rex Manning (Caulfield), being in his store signing autographs. The filmmakers seemed to go for a mashup of David Hasslehoff and Fabio, wearing tight ass pants and a puffy pirate shirt. 

Forget the reality that the store is constantly full of people, and a large chunk of the film centers around most of the staff in the back or elsewhere. Those extras are off-screen; think of them as paused for these moments. In these moments, we see slices of each employee as people and friends. Professionally who wouldn’t want all their workers to jive well together? Who wouldn’t want to go to a job they enjoyed without worrying about co-worker goobers? I think it’s a great accomplishment writing-wise and shown cinematically because they are all very different people. But that’s what you should strive for in a business like a record store, a great blend of people who are going to know a bit about every music type so they can best interact with the customers. However, there are few interactions with the customers in this store. There’s still time to catch shoplifters, which is one of the funnier sequences in the movie. 

Maxwell Caulfield & Brendan Sexton III in New Rengecy’s ‘Empire Records’ via

The cast is full of many actors who were early into their careers and went on to do more significant and more notable parts. Liv Tyler for Armageddon and Lord of the Ring trilogy. Ethan Embry for Can’t Hardly Wait, Sweet Home Alabama, Once Upon a Time. Robin Tunny in The Craft and The MentalistEmpire Records is a fun story that needs to be enjoyed for the feel-good comedy of becoming an adult in the mid-90s. It’s not campy or cheesy and has a well-blended soundtrack that merges perfectly with the pace and tone of the overall film. Was it a box office flop? Hell yes! 

Empire Records is a film that knows what it is. It was never difficult to sell or market to the public, yet the studio utterly failed with the trailer for this film. They over-explained, gave away too many details, and left nothing to the imagination. If they had given this movie a proper trailer, more people would have gone to see it. Empire Records is on the list of films that bombed at the box office but rose to cult classic status, deservedly. 

Johnny Whitworth, Renée Zellweger, & Liv Tyler in New Regency’s ‘Empire Records’ via

If watching comedic movies without thinking about them seriously is your idea of a good time, Empire Records is a hidden nugget worth a place on your watchlist. Watch the trailer at your own risk. I dislike it so much that I opted not to include it in this post, but nothing I said was a spoiler, as it was in the trailer. Cheers!

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Director: James Cameron   Rated: PG-13   Runtime: 3h 12m

Studio: 20th Century Studios   Screenwriters: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang, CCH Pounder

After 13 years, director James Cameron finally released the second (of five planned) Avatar films. With Avatar: The Way of Water, what viewers get is catfished. 

Unlike the first film, there is no new CGI or motion capture technology to prop itself on this time. With a beaten-dead horse of a plot and story, there is nothing impressive about Avatar 2. This particular trailer is all the exciting bits of a three-hour film compressed into a two-minute trailer. That should tell you all you need to know!

Worthington and Saldaña’s performances as Jake Sully and Neytiri were not as strong in this movie, with Saldaña’s taking more of a backseat to her kid’s characters. I’ll talk about this a bit, but despite what I’m about to say, it’s not a spoiler for the film. One of Sully’s “kids” is played by Sigourney Weaver, whose original character, Grace, died in the first film. But Weaver’s new character, Kiri, is derived from the same logic of the Virgin Mary or Shmi Skywalker that a baby (Kiri) grew out of nowhere in Grace’s dead Avatar body. If you’ve seen the first film, it’s not a leap to connect ideas in your head. You still might go WTF, and who wouldn’t? Yet, there’s nothing about that in this movie. You can speculate how she came to be, but it’s an unimportant point now to the writers. It certainly would have added needed depth to the story. Still, perhaps in another decade or two, Cameron might enlighten us. 

Sigourney Weaver as Kiri in ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ from 20th Century Studios via

Cameron’s desire to show off his take on underwater shots as realistic after the shade he threw at Aquaman director James Wan is laughable. It’s all fictional; all of it relies on CGI. Yet Aquaman is watchable and entertaining as a sci-fi film. Avatar 2 is a pointless snooze fest that comes across for the first half of the film as a National Geographic reject. As non-fiction, a NatGeo special is more entertaining. At least I don’t want to leave those 45 minutes in, unlike Avatar 2, which I thought about. I must be a masochist because I stuck it out, despite checking my watch often and the headache I endured for hours. 

The first Avatar plot was a mashup of Pocahontas and Ferngully The Last Rainforest blended with colonizers. Or, basically, what English settlers did to America but on an alien planet. That was tenable for viewers because the CGI held the movie up for them. There is nothing redeemable about Avatar 2. Its plot, if you can call it that, is a resurrected Col. Quaritch (Lang) seeking revenge for killing him. You read that right. The universe forbid the writers come up with a new, compelling villain/foe for this film.

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ from 20th Century Studios via

Quaritch hunts down the Sully clan, so when fleeing, they end up near a version of the Na’vi who live in the water. But who wants to help them? They’re danger magnets and half-breed demons. Sound like something you’ve watched before? 

James Cameron took 13 years to craft a sequel full to the brim of overused tropes and plot devices, various levels of stereotypes, and the use of indigenous mannerisms with little to no symbolic references. Where the glass that holds it all in is uber-greedy white capitalists. If you’re going to borrow from all these things, at least make it interesting. Try to give it an original take. But he can’t. Instead, he uses a skelton frame from Terminator 2 to drive one ideal (revenge), with a bit of Titanic for the hell of it. They are in the water, so why not…

Kate Winslet & Cliff Curtis in ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ from 20th Century Studios via

I cannot fathom how someone at the studio said, ‘yeah, this is good, release it!’ It’s a terrible, joyless excuse for cinema, with a ridiculous budget, that earned a ridiculous amount over that! Catfished. Movies should have a solid plot and compelling attributes to move the story. Develop characters well, and (in a series) leave you wanting more. As a filmmaker, you fail when a film is so lackluster in every regard that viewers fall asleep, leave, would rather have a three-hour root canal, get another vasectomy, or watch fire ants engulf them.

No one is more to blame than James Cameron’s ego and the studio that paid him. Avatar: The Way of Water is an insult to cinema and never belongs on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

The Menu (2022)

Directed: Mark Fiennes  Rated:Runtime: 1h 47m 

Studio: Searchlight Pictures Screenwriter: Seth Reiss, Will Tracy  

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau

If you spend $1,200 to eat at the most exclusive restaurant in the world, accessible only by boat, you’d expect four-star service and food. You’d expect to be wowed and to go home full. Right?

The Menu is a film set up like a chess board, and I don’t know squat about chess. But, it has all the pieces in the form of the chef, staff, and varying levels of self-entitled, uber-wealthy elitist wannabes. The story moves with each clap of chef Slowik’s (Fiennes) hands. A new move on the board, a plot development, or character development (of sorts) is revealed, just like the courses of food served. 

The setting of The Menu is on a secluded island, the boat ride to said island and the dining room. It’s difficult to tell a compelling story when the cast stays in one room. Yet it’s not the setting that holds The Menu back; the plot does. 

Anya Taylor-Joy & Ralph Fiennes in Searchlight Pictures ‘The Menu’ Image: Via

At first, I was intrigued by the odd behavior of some of the characters because I had no idea where the story was going, but it didn’t bother me. It’s all part of the “wow” one would expect. Dinner and a show. Yet, every character is overly critical or thinks they’re gods gift to food bloggers. Was I watching a movie or actors performing a skit based on bits from Twitter posts or Instagram? I waited for the revelation of why events were happening, let alone in the highly bizarre way they were depicted. When it came, I was vexed by the premise. This was the springboard for the story! Irritatingly unoriginal. I want to slap screenwriters Will Tracy and Seth Reiss. 

The writers went through the effort of crafting a “horror/thriller” with a lavish tasting menu on a secluded island with “shocking surprises” and a talented cast. It was tagged as a “dark satire” film, but the satire doesn’t come through. The only thing that comes across is a control freak chef who’s lost the joy of cooking and takes it out on anyone who’s ever held him in high regard. Chef Julian Slowik is the pinnacle (fictional) example of a toxic disgruntled boss. Though Ralph Fiennes is an excellent casting choice for someone to play calm, composed one second, calm and menacing the next. He always exudes a commanding presence in his roles, and Chef Slowik is no exception. 

‘The Menu’ cast from Searchlight Pictures Image: via

There are a handful of other notable casting choices that round out the cast: Janet McTeer, John Leguizamo, Judith Light, and Paul Adelstein, to name some, who are all underutilized as actors in this film. But, some roles are supporting and nothing more. In this film, they’re pawns. Reflections of today’s YouTube “experts,” Instagram “influencers,” ego-driven money bags, and those that have seen one too many cooking shows. All of them are there for an experience that none of them actually stop to appreciate.

More than pawns are Hong Chau, who plays Elsa, one of Chef’s most trusted staffers, and Nicholas Hoult as Tyler, a self-professed foodie. Both are enamored with Chef and are prime examples of what happens when people adhere to blind loyalty. Sometimes we should never meet our heroes. Then there is Margot (Taylor-Joy), the exception to everyone else at this dinner from hell. A dozen people were invited to this dinner, and Margot was a last-minute fill-in. She did not factor into the painstakingly detailed menu Chef crafted for his guests. How will he adapt? After all, his menus are one of a kind. Works of art. 

‘The Menu’ from Searchlight Pictures Image: via the

I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Menu a horror film. A suspenseful thriller, yes. The movie is strange, intense, and at times a dark comedy. It had so much potential to be this dark horse thriller but fell short because the premise for the plot was too close to life imitating art. Again, we all have social media and cooking shows for that. That lacking foundation to screenwriting ruins what otherwise could have been a wonderfully dark, twisted display of ‘what the fuck!’ 

The Menu promises more than it delivers. It isn’t worth a place on your watchlist to fill your appetite for a positive cinema experience. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

American History X (1998)

Director: Tony Kaye    Rated: R    Runtime: 1 hr 58 min    Studio: New Line Cinema Screenplay: David McKenna Cast: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Ethan Suplee, Avery Brooks, Stacy Keach, Elliot Gould, Fairuza Balk

There are only a handful of reasons a film holds up over time, let alone can be labeled as excellent or a masterpiece of cinema. American History X holds up because of the topic, but is that a good thing? The parallels between this film, fictionalized as it is, since the 1990s and now are disturbing. This film centers around the four R’s: rhetoric, rage, racism, and a form of redemption. 

American History X’s story revolves around reformed neo-Nazi skinhead Derek’s (Norton) goal to keep his younger brother Danny from following in his lifestyle footsteps after release from prison. The timeline and events leading up to Derek’s incarceration (for three years) are shot in black and white, while the timeline and events following his release from prison are in color. This lends a sense of gritty gravitas to the storyline; cinematically, it works. The story flows well despite some underdeveloped sections. For only Edward Norton’s second major role, this film is still one of the top five of his work to date. For me, it really is one of the best performances of his career. 

It’s not just Norton; the entire cast performs well, considering their characters are horrible examples of humanity. Derek’s hate and buried humanity are balanced by Dr. Sweeny’s (Brooks) goals to mentor those everyone else would wash their hands of. 

Edward Norton in ‘American History X’ Image Credit: New Line Cinema via

This film is dark and violent, too much for some or a-typical for Americans, but it’s rooted in factuality, making films like this difficult to watch. At its core, American History X (tries to effectively) represents hate, rage, ignorance, and (part) of what fuels it. More than that, how it’s possible to move beyond the twists in information, hate, and ignorance. Something that’s not often depicted well in films. Movies like this can act as mirrors to how we see other groups or ourselves as we are in the world, making us ask questions that might not otherwise occur. I think those are some of the best examples of great cinema. 

American History X isn’t great, though; it’s a very good film, but not great. That’s because of the underdeveloped areas within the story. Derek’s time in prison is rushed and could have been better fleshed out to make us feel the shift in his personality. There’s a scene where everyone is at dinner, and Derek’s father is talking. You can see where the notions of racism might have taken root for Derek and Danny, but it’s so weak compared to Norton’s lines in the scene that it comes across as undercooked filler. Those are a few non-spoiler examples that could have done more for a film with so many turbulent themes taking place simultaneously. At just under a two-hour runtime, it could have been a little longer and done more for the main character’s arcs, but it’s not bad for what’s packed in there. 

Edward Furlong as Danny in ‘American History X’ Image Credit: New Line Cinema

American History X is intense, captivating, psychological, and savage. It deserves its R rating and is best viewed by those over sixteen due to the content. It may end up being a film you only watch once in your life, but at some point, it belongs on your watchlist.

-A Pen Lady