Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 1 hr. 58 min. 

Studio: Warner Bros. & Legendary Entertainment  

Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman

Kong: Skull Island is a reinvention of how the story of King Kong has been told before. Set at the end of the Vietnam war, a group of soldiers is tasked to babysit a collection of William Randa’s scientists (Goodman). They work for a secret government organization named Monarch. The rationale for this expedition is up there with the idea that the world is flat. Fact, the world is round, but to give you a sense of how nutty these scientists are to the government. Nevertheless, they go, not sure of what they’ll find. 

At specific points, I thought, “adventure is out there!” as the line from the movie UP proclaims. Or “Welcome to Jumanji” if the cast got sucked into the board game with Alan Parish from the 1995 film Jumanji. Other points had me thinking of “Welcome to Jurassic Park” because my mind is a bizarre place to be at times. Then again, so is Skull Island. 

‘Kong: Skull Island’ Official Trailer from Warner Bros. via YouTube

As bizarre as things on Skull Island are, it is also visually beautiful in terms of the things that live there. The sound editing was spot on for all the screaming, crushing, smashing, and gorilla noises that bellow from Kong’s behemoth lungs. Kong himself is well designed and looks, sounds, and moves without speculating that he’s CGI. 

The film’s pace moves well between the dialogue of the cast and interaction with the island or the other things they encounter that call the island their home. Kong himself is never far away and shows up early in the film and sticks around till the end. The film is named after him! Still, the story goes beyond a rock em’ sock em’ game of who can bash who first. There is meaning to the story, and that thread gives pace to the action. There is a lot of action. 

Maybe it’s because America has begun to leave Vietnam finally; that took a toll on Lt. Col. Packard (Jackson). Perhaps it’s because he’s naturally an asshole. Maybe he just cracked—you decide. Either way, Packards’ encounter with Kong gives the story a side agenda that reeks of American mentality of power, loyalty, and dominance. 

Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson in Warner Bros. film ‘Kong: Skull Island’ Image Credit: Chuck Zlotnick via Miami Herald

Other characters are WWII fighter pilot Hank Marlow (Reilly), who is the opposite of Packard. Mason Weaver (Larson), an anti-war photographer, and James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former British Special Air Service Captain. He’s the guide, on an island never been discovered before. While there is interaction with them and a sense of who they are, it’s not really important. Character development isn’t the focus in a movie designed to focus on the literal big guy, so it’s forgivable. There are many secondary characters, but remember I said this film reminded me of Jurassic Park, so that’s not worth focusing on. For such a large cast, everyone performs well given the locations and working against various things not in front of them to respond to. I give props to realistic emotions for that any day. 

Monster movies like Kong, any of them, or Godzilla have never been my idea of good movie watching. I will sometimes, but they don’t do it for me usually. With Kong: Skull Island, however, I was interested in the retelling of the story that didn’t involve him carrying a screaming blonde to the top of the highest building. I guess that’s a spoiler of sorts… whatever. The reimagined plot sets up Kong for other cinematic adventures. If the story for those is as decent as this one, then okay. For that, I’d give it a go. So, if monster films haven’t done it for you in the past, this one might. If you already love this type of film, you won’t be disappointed. 

Kong: Skull Island can go on your watchlist and is best viewed on a larger screen, ideally with more to offer than just your TV speakers. Also, stick around after the credits!

—a pen lady 

Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four (2005)

Directed by: Time Story    Rated: PG-13    Runtime: 1 hr. 45 mins. 

Studio: 20th Century Fox    Screenwriters: Mark Frost, Michael France, Stan Lee

Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon

When you’re too broke to go to space on a whim to research a cosmic event that might help improve humanity, where do you turn? Your old school mate to ask to borrow his space station. Even though you two can’t stand each other. What could go wrong when cosmic radiation is in the mix, and you’re too smart to ever be wrong? 

The Fantastic Four has had a horrible journey to the silver screen every time someone needs to put them there. Put them there? Yeah. It’s pathetic that each of the times this superhero team has been made into a film, it’s so some company wouldn’t lose their rights to create or distribute it. The two are not mutually exclusive. There was a 1994 Fantastic Four film made, but it should never be brought up in conversations. It was so awful it was never released. Marvel extended the rights to Constantin Films to make something better within seven years. Enter 2005s Fantastic Four

‘Fantastic Four’ trailer – Fox Home Entertainment UK via YouTube

While the introduction to the plot is rushed, it gets you where you need to be. There is a strong character setup right out the gate. It sets up the situations or circumstances that helped shape the purpose of the first scenes. It comes across as organic, which is something you should expect in people with history. 

Julian McMahon was a great choice to portray the villain, Dr. Victor Von Doom. In this iteration, he’s a massive company CEO, but he’s also a scientist. That’s not a spoiler, but it helps those that don’t follow along with comics because it’s not overtly stated in this film. Otherwise, he comes off as a rich guy who wants to live vicariously through others via a power trip when he goes to space. That’s in the trailer, so, also, not a spoiler. 

Dr. Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, played by Ioan Gruffudd, has a history with Von Doom. That is displayed decently in this movie. You get the gist of their history without getting too deep. Gruffudd was a good casting choice for Richards, one he can act (like McMahon), and he looks like the image depicted in comics. When you first start off with a franchise based on something, it’s nice to stay faithful to the source material. It is what the fans are used to. Tweaking stuff can come later, depending on the box office results. 

‘Fantastic Four’ still of Julian McMahon as Dr. Doom. Image Credit: 20th Century Fox Entertainment

Tweaking stuff is the most basic explanation for what happens to the characters in this movie. Again, cosmic radiation is at play. None of them was “tweaked” more than Ben Grimes, the Thing, played by Michael Chiklis. Seeing emotion on his rock face is critical to connecting him to the human being he started off as. Chiklis did a decent job of performing (stunts) and acting (his lines) in that suit. With most superhero films’ costumes, I wonder how easy it is to get out of when you need to use the bathroom? 

Decent acting is how Jessica Alba’s performance as Susan Storm/The Invisible Woman can be described. This is probably one of her better roles. She convincingly comes across as Reed’s irritated ex and Johnny’s annoyed sister. Her performance as The Invisible Woman was mediocre, but the script left her little to work within this area. Her character could have been developed better, but the movie itself was campy in many ways.

Campy, comedic-showboating, cheese describes many of the early 2000 films. However, in Fantastic Four, Chris Evans’s depiction of Johnny Storm/The Human Torch is gold. He’s cocky and impulsive with an obvious need for adrenaline. Yet, he also comes across as caring for Sue, Reed, and Ben. When he’s not annoying Ben like a little brother. Evans ability to bring to life this iconic character without going overboard is an aspect that makes this film fun to watch. 

‘Fantastic Four’ still via TOR.com Image Credit: 20th Century Fox Entertainment

Kerry Washington is a stellar actress who is in only two scenes in this film. I want you to seriously consider if she’s a vampire. She has aged so well since this movie. Short though her part was, it is a humanizing connection for Ben’s character. 

The movie moves at a pace that is balanced between the science and action sequences. At the time, this script’s casting choices were a fantastic mix (no pun, I swear) and performed better than this script deserved. 

Fantastic Four has never been done right on the big screen, and it would take some magic to make it happen. Until a time comes when someone does this team/family justice, this adaptation is the best by far. So, if you want a fun watch that’s not too heavy with expectations of greatness, put Fantastic Four on your watchlist. 

—a pen lady

Avatar (2009)

Avatar (2009)

Directed by: James Cameron  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 2 hr 42 min

Studio: 20th Century Fox  Screenwriter: James Cameron

Cast:  Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Giovanni  

Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore

Avatar smashed box office records in 2009 by earning 2.6 billion more than the budget the studio gave director James Cameron to create. That is an insane amount of ticket sales worldwide! Is it justified?

A decade earlier, The Matrix was released and hailed for its innovative story-telling because there had never been anything like it previously. Avatar’s hype is cut from the same cloth. The newer CGI and motion capture technology then enabled James Cameron to create and develop a movie that set a bar for what future films could do. 

‘Avatar’ Official Trailer by 20th Century Studios via YouR

In Avatar, humans seek out a mineral on the lush jungle alien planet of Pandora. The smallest amount sells for a fortune back on Earth. Their efforts are stalled by the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi. Earth scientists create avatars to move more freely on the planet, whose air is toxic to humans, and to aid in communication efforts. At first, the company that runs this operation wanted the help and cooperation of the Na’vi, another reason for the avatar program. 

Avatars are genetically created shells manufactured from human and Na’vi DNA. The human mind is essentially uploaded into the avatar body, becoming a life model decoy (to get Marvel on you). The head of the Avatar program is Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), an exobiologist.

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in ‘Avatar’ Image Credit: IMDB/20th Century Fox/Disney

Greed and impatientness win out, and the company plots to use their hired mercenaries, led by Col. Quaritch (Lang), to force the natives from their home. The Colonel enlists the help of avatar driver and former Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) to give him intel while learning the Na’vi’s ways. In this, the plot is tired. It’s a regurgitated mash-up of Pocahontas (1995) meets FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). Or any civilization that has been colonized or almost wiped out from a more significant, more powerful, outside force. 

That outside force also endangers the history preserved in the environment of Pandora in which all life is connected. The Na’vi refer to this as Ewya and revere this connection as sacred. It’s at this point that the plot is redeemed some. All the Pandoran creatures look alien, which creates this more believable sense of being far from Earth. Even plant life aids in this. What sells most viewers on Avatar isn’t the story but the visual. The stunning CGI is the lion’s share of the film. 

‘Avatar’ still Image Credit: 20th Century Studios via New York Film Acadamy

Neytiri (Saldana) is the daughter of her clan’s leader and is tasked to teach Jake Sully their ways. While Jake Sully’s character interacts with just about every other character in this film, it’s the interactions with Neytiri that show the acting depth. From the facial movements to the jumping from trees to interacting with the wildlife… it’s all motion capture. There is nothing else to play off of onset; it’s all added later digitally. It’s so well acted! Worthington and Saldana give such impressive performances emotionally and physically; it makes you forgive the central plot trope. Instead, focusing on the trope of environmentalism. 

Unlike previous films that single out corporate greed and human waste and consumption issues, Avatar is different. The action and character development move the film along at a pace that doesn’t make you remember you are watching an almost three-hour film. It makes its points without having to over-explain them. Which I find refreshing. 

‘Avatar’ still Image Credit: 20th Century Studios

If you can forgive, or don’t care, about the plot being built upon the same troupes as so many other films before it, have a go and watch this. If you like action/sci-fi or any of the thespians cast in this film, you won’t be disappointed. As a personal observation, mind what device you watch this movie on. I started watching this on my iPad before switching over to a TV. The colors on the iPad were terrible! So if you watch this understand the colors should pop and have a richness to them. If they don’t, watch on something else, or you will cheat yourself out of the essential experience people flocked to the theaters to see. Avatar should be on your watchlist regardless. 

There are two sequels for this film to hit theaters in the next few years. More than a decade later, will Avatar’s reliance on CGI still wow and impress? Time will tell. 

—a pen lady

Death to Smoochy (2002)

Death to Smoochy (2002)

Directed by: Danny DeVito  Rated: R   Runtime: 1 hr. 49 mins.  

Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures   Screenwriter: Adam Resnick

Cast:  Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart, Danny Woodburn

Every country has a form of children’s television shows that are loved and hated alike. In America, we had Lamb Chop, Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, The Bozo Show, and ugh….Barney, to name a few. Each of them garnered a lot of money from merchandise and events in their day. The performers/actors of each of these shows had to live within certain expectations too. They were the face of popular shows geared towards the youngest demographics, after all. (Yes, I know, Sesame Street is still on). It’s a satirical twist to those norms that Death to Smoochy comes from. 

That twist is totally believable! Greed is very much a part of any outlet that makes gobs of money. Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) is a foul-mouthed extortionist who headlines a popular children’s TV show in Death to Smoochy. His greed is his downfall. Leading the studio to replace him with Smoochy the Rhino (Edward Norton), a squeaky clean replacement who is ethically untouchable. 

Warner Bros. Trailer for ‘Death to Smoochy’ via YouTube

Robin Williams is a rut of an actor, which many people adore. Personally, I’d like to not think of Mrs. Doubtfire in my head while hearing him do his “voices” in this film at times, but I digress. Still, Williams gives a humorously outlandish and vulgar performance as Randolph, who tries to reclaim his status. In contrast, Norton’s take on Sheldon Mopes/Smoochy displays humor and wit, showing another side of his acting chops.

The film just dives right into the plot and continues in a way that no backstory is required. Thirty-seconds into the movie and you understand the setup and tone. 

The difference in tone and style between Randolph and Sheldon’s shows is a paradigm shift. Other greedy parties don’t appreciate when Sheldon/Smoochy become the new hit and take measures to get their slice of the action back. Those attempts parallel Randolph’s desire to dethrone Smoochy and get his time slot back. These outlets create tension and pace that moves the film along with dark humor along the way. 

Warner Bros. Pictures still of Robin Williams and Edward Norton in 2002’s ‘Death to Smoochy.’

There is an old clip on YouTube called “Rainbow” kids rude programme. I’m pretty sure it’s from the U.K. that was made and never aired, nor was it meant to be. Still, I wondered if somebody attached to this film saw it and got their inspiration for Death to Smoochy from it. Ideas for projects can come from bizarre places at times. 

In 2002 I saw Death to Smoochy when I was in college and remembered that I loved it, so I decided to watch it again for the first time in forever. I had to rent it from a streaming service, which is annoying when a film is this old. It cost $50 million to make and only earned around $8.3 million at the box office. It tanked! A-list casting can’t save every script, yet it got mixed reviews from those who saw it. Death to Smoochy was intentionally not marketed to any type of viewer demographic. 

Death to Smoochy is a dark comedy best watched, if at all, on one’s couch while working past a hangover. I liked it the first time around, and it was still watchable this time, but I laughed less. Maybe it’s me and my nostalgic moment, but I can’t recommend putting this movie on your watchlist as long as you have to pay to rent it. 

—a pen lady 

Push (2009)

PUSH (2009)

Directed by: Paul McGuigan   Runtime: 1 hr 51 min   Rated: PG-13  

Studio: Summit Entertainment   Screenwriter: David Bourla 

Cast: Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning, Camilla Belle, Djimon Hounsou

In 2009, “super” anything movies had not yet taken the world by storm, with enthralling special effects, CGI, costumes, and storylines that would play the long game with fans the world over. The original Fantastic Four movie came out a few years before this, also starring Chris Evans. And the MCU would begin the following year with Iron Man. For context. 

Nick Grant (Chris Evans) and Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) are two powered Americans in Hong Kong. Nick is hiding out from Division Agent Carver (Djimon Hounsou) after Agent Carver kills Nick’s father. Cassie shows up to help Nick find Division property and a missing woman (Camilla Belle). Division is a side organization within the U.S. Government that tracks down enhanced people with mental powers. That’s the gist of the plot. 

‘Push’ Official Trailer via Summit Screening Room on YouTube

In terms of believability, it’s a cliché of a story. Powered people are hunted to be weaponized or disposed of if they don’t comply. Yet, it transitions well from one scene to the next for a story with an unassuming premise. It has a pace that works with the B-grade camera style that is at times gritty and shaky. That with the low lighting of the streets and decor of Hong Kong it works. In a way, it helps set the tone because this sense of realism would be lost if it was clean and smooth. Between the camera delivery and the cinematography itself, mixed with the action, one can forgive the cliché. 

Evans and Fanning have the chemistry of siblings, but they aren’t. They work off one another so well it enhances their respective performances. Hounsou always has this gravitas about him in his roles. In Push, he is clearly the main threat without working at it or doing too much to assert his character’s ruthlessness. The most dangerous people tend to be the quieter ones who don’t yell but flex their power in other ways; that’s Agent Carver. Kira Hudson (Camilla Belle) is a vehicle for the plot. Still, Belle’s delivery of her character is as believable and entertaining as a wet sock. 

The issue that I find most at fault with this story is tying up loose ends. Cassie is basically an unaccompanied minor running around Hong Kong. The film addresses her mother but never explains how a 13-year-old American gets there. Push could have been a little longer and fleshed out a more satisfying ending, but it didn’t. It barely made more in the box office than it cost to produce- for a studio that qualifies as a flop. Flops don’t get sequels. Push ended with a setup to answer questions in a sequel that never came. Maybe if the story had been more original, it would have satisfied audiences more. Despite the lackluster box office earnings, the film still garnered mixed reviews. 

Summit Entertainment still from ‘Push’ via IMDB

Push isn’t the best movie of all time, but it’s a good watch for action and decent acting with a cast that makes up for an otherwise bland concept. Don’t go in expecting to be wowed. This movie is a fair way to kill two-hours without feeling like you’ve lost brain cells by doing so. Push isn’t so bad you couldn’t put it on your watchlist. 

-a pen lady 

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

Directed by: David Fincher Runtime: 2 hr. 19 min. Studio: 20th Century Fox Rated:

Screenwriter: Jim Uhls  Adapted from: Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club 

Cast: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham-Carter, Meatloaf

Flight Club is a well-directed original packaging of nuanced, layered themes crafted with satire and dark-twisted humor. It’s wearing an electric blue tuxedo to a black and white ball. It looks good on the one wearing it, but it still rubs everyone else the wrong way. 

In 1999, when this film came out, it knocked on consumerism, corporate greed, and the smothering of the human spirit. Companies never want to be singled out for their hypocrisy and ruin the status quo. It’s ironic enough that this is a Hollywood movie with A-list actors delivering this message. Though Brad Pitt and Edward Norton laughed their way through the critic’s contempt of this film. 

Part of that contempt stemmed from the “glorification of violence” months after the Columbine shootings. The start of school shootings making the news in America. A few years later, 9-11 happened, in part, to protest the ways of Western cultures. Timing is everything, and I don’t know if there would ever be “a good year” to release this movie. This film can still be appreciated by a new modern audience because the message still applies. That point will make sense if you see the film, but you won’t understand it from the trailer. 

20th Century Fox Official Trailer for ‘Fight Club’

For a film trailer Flight Club’s is good and an absolute misrepresentation of what this film is. Usually, that occurs when a movie sucks, but this time it was because the studio didn’t know how to market it. Honestly, it’s like they didn’t try. Instead, they framed it as a macho film where mostly white people beat the crap out of one another, cause destruction, and in all that, something is a woman’s fault. Choosing to do that pissed off director David Fincher. But, there is only so much he can say about that, and the studios own choice to do that probably aided the dismal showing at the box office.

The themes embedded into this movie’s layers show why the characters throw punches; it’s not just for the hell of it. Fight Club is actually very intellectual sophisticated in how it sets up and shows you what it is. The Narrator (Edward Norton) befriends Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap maker, after his life goes sideways. Within that friendship, they create a flight club. The logic for its creation and what it later becomes is one factor that gives this move good pacing. Along the way, they get tangled up with the hot-mess that is Marla Singer (Helena Bonham-Carter). Each of their respective performances shows superb depth and commitment. They really get into their characters. Developing them with raw, vulgar, and dark honesty enables the cast to deliver amazingly memorable performances. 

20th Century Fox image for ‘Fight Club’

When the audience starts to put some things together about the characters, it highlights an undercurrent to Flight Club. Really a central question that most can’t honestly answer. Not, ‘am I trapped by consumerism’ or ‘bogged down by a job I hate,’ no. It highlights that everyone has a breaking point and when they get to that point, do they realize it? Tyler Durden (Pitt) says, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” Such a statement can be taken in many ways. Those who have experienced a significant loss or hit rock bottom from addition know this all too well. If you have nothing left to lose, where do you go? How do you go? It’s a critical distinction from the notion that this film was framed to support toxic masculinity and wanton violence. 

Flight Club is this humorously dark and twisted reminder that people go to extremes to be heard. That they don’t understand how stress affects their health and when they need help. It is a representation of Jack’s last nerve. 

I broke the first rule of Fight Club. I talked about it. Tough. In the years since its box office letdown Fight Club has become a cult classic. 

Fight Club is not for you if you are easily offended. If you like any of the actors in this film you should see it. If satire dark humor with action is your thing, you should see it. After seeing this movie for the first time in over 15 years, it was still worth watching again. I say any film that can do that is worth a spot on anyone’s watch list. 

—a pen lady

The Way Back (2010)

The Way Back (2011)

Directed by: Peter Weir  Screenwriter: Peter Weir, Keith Clarke Rated: PG-13

Runtime: 2 hr 15 min  Inspired by: Slavomir Rawicz’s 1955 book ‘The Long Walk.’

Studio: Exclusive Media Group, Nat. Geographic Entertainment, Imagination Abu Dhabi

Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Gustaf Skarsgård, Saoirse Ronan

In The Way Back, a Polish man named Janusz is sent to a Russian Gulag in Siberia. To follow along and appreciate this film you must understand some things about history. In late 1939 Hitler invaded Poland from the West, and Stalin invaded from the East. As such, Poland becomes a communist state under Russia. A person could find themselves imprisoned or dead for many reasons at the time under their control. 

In the first few minutes, you understand this film’s tone through dialogue and the musical score. The gravity of the prisoner’s plight is further compounded by the sweeping displays of the frigid, barren, and enormous landscape around them. 

The prison is cramped and filthy. Looking at this replica of one of history’s most infamous prison types, it is obvious there is a small chance most live to see freedom again. Desperation, isolation, depravity, and starvation are on full display with minimal setup required. So, of course, someone will attempt to break out. In this story, several men do. Attempting the impossible, to make it to India, 4,000 miles away. Outside communist rule. 

‘The Way Back’ official trailer via YouTube

This movie is inspired by a 1955 book by Slavomir Rawicz, which was later disputed as a factual account. Or disputed as being actual events Rawicz himself participated in. Never the less the idea of the story and what it represents is something to consider. If a person could escape such a place, why wouldn’t they, if the alternative is to die in a place like a Russian Gulag? 

As you can tell from the movie’s trailer, some do escape. That’s the inciting incident, if you will that creates the purpose for the narrative. A script’s content is vital to how a film will shape up, but this is a visual account of a journey more than a story. While each of the actors portrays their parts with believability, they are a motley crew with little development—even Janusz’s (Sturgess) character, which has slightly more than the others. And yet, the humanity of the respective characters shines through. Since each role is skillfully portrayed, you get a view into these people in a way that draws you in.

There are some unanswered questions in creating a prison escape story that traverses some of the world’s most hostile terrains. How is it there wasn’t more infighting? Would the path they took really be so devoid of other people? If you were locked up for years, no woman in sight, you think one of them would make a comment about them. So, when they come across a young girl, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), on their journey, no one does. As odd as that can seem to many, I think it also represents that many people sent to Gulag’s were not criminals. Therefore, not the type of depraved people who would otherwise take advantage of such an encounter. 

‘The Way Back’ still via the BBC News 12/2/10, H. Levinson

The transition from one scene to another believably carries the viewer from one point to the next, never losing the film’s pace. The film’s settings are as much a character as the actors themselves or the villain or problem to resolve. Using these aspects of nature for the cast to interact or deal with is what moves the plot along. To make it past blizzards, wildlife, mountains, and the desert to freedom. The journey is the story. 

Nature is such a vital component to director Peter Weir’s process that it’s on location, not on some green screen in some building. This is important for two main reasons; one, it creates a gracious visual for the viewer. It lets them appreciate the scale of what these individuals are dealing with. Second, to go along with that is it’s essential for the actors. Which elicits a genuine response, acting in fake snow or real snow? Trekking through a lot filled with sand or actually scaling it under the hot sun? 

Apart from the desire to be free, the only component that really tethers this group together is respect for others’ desire to have a life again. That by working together, not individually, will they have a greater chance at success. Somehow that’s enough. It’s enough for them and for the viewer to stay until the story’s conclusion. 

Some viewers may not make it to the end of this film, but it shows itself for the type of movie it is upfront. A minor cerebral nudger. A film that makes you wonder if you, the viewer, could do what the group in this film did. Because let’s face it, the Gulags were real. The Way Back is a slice into a historical era from a rare perspective, true story or not. Either way, it is worth a place on your watch list. 

—a pen lady

Visual refrence via Google Maps of the journey taken in ‘The Way Back.’

The Informer (2020)

The Informer (2020)

Directed by: Andrea Di Stefano  Studio: The Fyzz Pictures and Thunder Road Films   

Screenwriter: Matt Cook, Rowan Joffe, Andrea Di Stefano  Runtime: 1 hr 53 min   

Rated:Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Rosamund Pike, Clive Owen, Common, Ana de Armas 

Adapted from: A novel by Börge Hellström and Anders Roslund titled ‘Three Seconds’

Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is a snitch for the FBI against the Polish mafia drug trade in New York. He is handled by Agent Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) and her boss, Montgomery (Clive Owen). Given the cast of this film, I expected better than it provides. I blame the script; it’s sawdust—a pile of uninspired blandness.

Joel Kinnaman does his best with his material, that is apparent. However, a snitch’s character is not original; going “undercover” in prison is not original or is selling drugs in one. Other films have done a much better job at recycling what amounts to a cliche. The only real save for this film is that it moves from one scene to another at a pace that makes it tolerable to watch in passing. 

When I look at the character development, it’s thin as ice, and you can see the cracks. There is an attempt at a family bond between Koslow, his wife (Ana de Armas), and their daughter. Still, the relationship is like fake furniture in a staged house. The mafia leader, his wife, and his head henchmen are devoid of any credibility in their respective roles, stereotypical or otherwise. For the latter, I can’t believe someone wrote characters that come across as such one-dimensional garbage. 

‘The Informer’ Official UK Trailer

Speaking of dimension lacking…Clive Owens character, Montgomery. This is a decent example of an actor taking on a project with little being asked of them while earning a paycheck. The opposite is true of Detective Grens (Common) of the NYPD, who has more to work with, but his position creates accountability questions. In an era where cops in America are disliked more than ever, I don’t know if Grens is meant to come off as a rogue cop or self-entitled, but it’s aggravating to watch. 

From start to finish, this film seeks purpose through an uninspiring story and an equally unsatisfying ending. The Informer is a B-level attempt at a crime, drama, thriller. That may be too gracious. For me, this film is an excellent example that just because I like the actors attached to a project doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy it. I’m glad I didn’t have to pay to see this movie. The only thing I lost by viewing it was my time and some brain cells. The trailer for this film is all you need to see. 

There are much better films out there to see if this type of genre appeals to you. Skip this one. You won’t miss out by leaving this off your watch list. 

—a pen lady 

KON-TIKI (2012)

KON-TIKI (2012)

Directed by: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg   Runtime: 1 hr 58 min   

Studio: Nordisk Film Production (released in the U.S. via the Weinstein Company)

Screenwriter: Petter Skavlan   Rating: PG-13

Cast: Pål Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebro  

*Released domestically in November 2012 and as an international release in the United States in April 2013. (The U.S. version is about twenty-minutes shorter). An interesting fact about this movie’s production. Its scenes were shot first in Norwegian and then in English. So the actors did everything twice! 

Movies like KON-TIKI are not action-packed blockbusters full of CGI and stunts to enthrall you. Its attraction lies in the story, the journey, and the wanderlust of times long gone, when things were still left in the world to be discovered. 

An explorer and adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Hagen) spend the 1930s in Polynesia immersed in research on the natives and their origins. The world had taught, up till then, that the Polynesian islands were settled by travelers from Asia who traveled from West to East, and it couldn’t be any other way. Thor tries to sell other explorers and scientific publications on his theory that this isn’t true, but they all wave him off. 

Kon-Tiki Offical Trailer (English version) via YouTube/Movieclips Trailers

Not to be discouraged, Thor believes that if he proves his theory, he will change history. So he decides to travel across the Pacific and do just that.

Thor attracts Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), a refrigerator salesman who offers to join him. Later, after hearing of his quest, Thor is approached by Bengt Danielsson, an Ethnographer (Gustaf Skarsgård), to go along and film the journey. The six-man crew is rounded out by Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro) as the radio guys, and Erik Hesselberg (Odd-Magnus Williamson). Erik is a lifelong friend of Thor’s. He’s also the only one to ever have been out to sea.

The film dramatizes the real-life Thor Heyerdahl’s attempt to cross the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft. So it is based on a true story. 

Watching KON-TIKI, the audience must remember that the story isn’t about character development (except perhaps Thor’s) or drama. There isn’t anything discernible that is learned about the crew. I have not read the book myself, so I’m assessing this just from a cinematic perspective. Usually, lack of character anything would bother me. However, it’s the relatively calm nature that is depicted that is so refreshing. No one acts like the sun has baked their brains for too long. It’s about the journey. How it will end, as all journeys do. Will they all make it? Will the raft hold up? The crew takes each day as it comes. As if they tossed a coin into the ocean of fate and left fear behind at the docks. I don’t know anyone who would be that insouciance about their lives. 

Kon-Tiki route. Image: The UK Times

Despite that, there is suspense in the film. They are in the middle of the ocean! With storms and wildlife to contend with, those external factors create natural obstacles and incidents which every story has. These factors enable smooth pacing to the days at sea and for the actors to actually do things. It’s done so well that the film never comes across as slow or uneventful. While watching, I never get the impression that something is overly done because it’s a movie, fictionalized though it may be. That’s important because it keeps with the fact that this journey really did happen once. 

This movie reminds me of something I might have watched in school after being assigned to read the book. Please, don’t let that put you off! This isn’t a typical movie or family movie night choice in America anyway. I was looking for other projects that Gustaf Skarsgård had done that I could watch here and came across this. It’s a good film to watch for movie night, a day off pick, or for a relaxing weekend stay indoors. Any well-crafted movie that enlightens me about something else in the world finds its way onto my watchlist. KON-TIKI is a perfect balance of entertaining, action, and real-life events that should grace your watchlist too. 

—a pen lady

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Directed by: George C. Wolfe Runtime: 1hr 34 min    Rated: R    Studio: Netflix

Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson    Based on: August Wilson’s play

Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts 

The play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson transitions to film through screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and stage director/playwright George C. Wolfe. 

While the music, locations, and clothes of the late 1920s transition well to screen, and why wouldn’t it, the plot to record a record in a sweltering recording studio one afternoon does not. It’s a pretext; this film is all about the characters. Every movie needs characters, true and well-developed ones, to engage a viewer’s interest. This project as a film fails at that miserably. 

Ma Rainey was a real-life woman that August Wilson based a 1982 play on. Ma became known as the “mother of blues” for her contributions and shaping of blues music during the early 1900s. Her sound and notable stage performance style made her the first known blues artist. For a woman during that time and a black woman, that was an accomplishment. Especially when the world had more issues with both those labels. She made a name for herself, a brand, and had a following. How this film presents her, however, is unflattering. 

Netflix Official Trailer for ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

It’s fair to wonder if this movie’s choice of focus, a day-in-the-life-of take on Ma Rainey, is an accurate representation of her character or just a bad day. I think this woman deserves a film that can flesh her out better and give a more rounded take on her life and music. A movie should not have the audience asking themselves if it’s accurate; it should show it.

The failure to show it is because Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson stick to August Wilson’s uses of speeches too heavily. They forego the needed camera movements with the acting to show, not tell what’s going on. Choosing close-up shots and framing the actors standing around or sitting like they are on stage waste a cinematographers’ talent. This is supposed to be a movie, not a play. The entire film is a slow drag (no pun intended) that makes the runtime feel twice as long as it actually is. It’s based on a play and feels like one. 

At the recording studio, all the audience is subjected to is heavy exposition. Talking. Lots, and lots, of speaking. The band members stand around, trash-talking, occasionally playing music, swapping stories, and being verbally abusive with nothing else to move the story along. It leaves the impression that Ma Rainey isn’t the mother of anything. Historically that’s not true, but this project doesn’t do much for the real-life person who earned that title. 

Ma Rainey’s band, in Netflix’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’

Viola Davis is an incredible actress with great depth and range. Still, the depiction of Ma Rainey makes me cringe as Ma comes off so unlikeable. Maybe she was in real life. I am left with the impression that Ma is always a bitch and learn little of consequence about her. Ma’s demeanor is understandable towards white people. Mainly because it’s useful to keep control and stay successful in a white, male-run world. Yet, she’s just as mean and snobby to the black people around her. 

Chadwick Boseman was undoubtedly a talented actor as well. His character, Levee, grates at Ma’s nerve. Levee is young, ambitious, and loves music like Ma and dreams of having his own band, so he doesn’t have to play the same old music anymore. He’s arrogant and misogynistic. Ma and Levee are so similar it’s obvious why they don’t get along, and it makes me wonder how he ever ended up in her band in the first place.

Wilson’s use of monologuing is where the viewer gets any relevant information about the characters. While there is a lot of information and perspective to be gained from these moments about Levee, Ma, and the rest of the band, it’s not enough. 

I enjoy a good play, and perhaps I would have gotten more out of this material if I had seen it as such. You can’t lose what you don’t have, and this film didn’t have cinematic structure story-telling. The interactions of the characters’ speeches alone are not enough; it makes the movie boring and does nothing for music or the blues in a memorable way. 

Viola Davis is Ma Rainey in Netflix’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Circling back to Levee’s character…as a devil’s advocate. Chadwick Boseman has been given so much praise for this role. He took on this project knowing he had cancer and didn’t tell anyone. Boseman certainly wasn’t the first actor/actress to work on a project with cancer or during treatments. So I’m conflicted as to if he has gotten this praise because it was a great job or because he died and his peers all loved him. That sounds terrible, I know. If an actor is saying lines that run parallel to their actual life, in an emotional state. Is it really acting, or is it life imitating art? If he hadn’t died, would the same praise be there? 

This film touches on important topics, like cultural appropriation, intellectual property rights and theft, sexuality, and multi-layered race issues. These could have been shown on film rather than talked about. It would have enabled the story with much need pacing.

Still, the trailer for this film was the best thing about it. It implied more about blues or music than is actually experienced. Due to its lack of effective adaptation to film, I would not recommend this for your watch list. 

—a pen lady