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

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Kimi (2022)

Kimi (2022)

Directed: Steven Soderbergh  Rated:Runtime: 1h 29m  Studio: New Line Cinema

Screenwriter: David Koepp  Cast: Zoë Kravitz, Byron Bowers, Rita Wilson

“What if every sound…what if every moment, was recorded?” The trailer for Kimi asks.

Around 3.5 billion people on this planet have some Andriod-based phone or an iPhone; it’s one or the other. How many have an Amazon device that uses Alexa? ‘Hey, Google,’ ‘Hey, Siri,’ and ‘Alexa’ are available digital assistants on those devices, respectively. So it’s no new idea that they can always listen in on us record us when we are unaware. In that, Soderbergh’s Kimi doesn’t bring up anything the public is in the dark on. In this film, such recordings are voice streams or data streams. 

Anglea Childs (Kravitz) is a work-from-home (WFH) tech analyst. Her job is to sift through logs of complaints/troubleshoot the voice activation interactions between digital assistant Kimi and a user’s requests. Effectively she’s the human component of AI advancement/diagnostics. Angela works as a voice stream interpreter, so Kimi will understand that reminding someone to buy more “kitchen paper” is slang for paper towels. Easy, right. What is easy about such a position when you hear something horrible in a data stream?

Kimi follows Angela as she attempts to reach out to her employer and others within the company she works for to handle such a situation. That’s not easy for Angela because she rarely leaves her home. Soderberg and Koepp leave her character to seem as odd to the viewer as she is to her fictional counterparts. There is nothing more than a few comments throughout the film that mentions why Anglea is the way she is. This marginalization of her mental health is stigmatizing. Worse because it’s a core feature of what propels Angela to do anything (or not), the main reason she works from home. It’s made light of, yet the lion’s share of this film’s setting is her apartment. 

Zoë Kravitz in HBO’s ‘Kimi’ Image: WB and New Line Cinema via

Anglea is agoraphobic, which in part means she’s afraid to leave places (like home) that are perceived as safe, but she will. Anglea is shown in small ways to make an effort to overcome her issues, which was nice to see reflected on screen. However, how the creators of this movie felt about the problems or bothered to research is sad. They gave her no support system, only a doctor, dentist, and mother who come across as ‘done with her attitude problem’ mentality. Their addition to the plot is filler and adds nothing to the story. 

Poorly intertwined into Anglea’s layers as a character is the film’s actual plot. When she suspects a crime has been recorded, her boss tells her to scrub it. To get rid of it. Part of the reason is for the love of capitalism, and Amygdalya’s CEO doesn’t want to be lumped into a privacy storm like Amazon. Being told to ignore something is one thing; being told to destroy potential evidence is another. It speaks to privacy concerns, certainly, but also to ethical and moral obligations to our fellow man.

A Kimi device in HBO’s ‘Kimi’ Image: WB and New Line Cinema via

Kravitz’s Angela isn’t stupid; she’s intelligent, healthy, and resourceful. So, when she’s not having a full-on panic attack or a bout of debilitating anxiety, why didn’t she call the FBI herself or email them with a file attachment? It’s understandable the compulsion Anglea has to help this stranger. Still, Anglea never needed to leave her place to do it. The plot devices to ensure she did are weak excuses to justify chasing her down in the first place. Ultimately culminating in nothing more than an aggressive show of…(no spoilers!). A better writer would have done justice to a plot like this, but this whole script stinks. 

The only thing that redeems Kimi in any way is Kravitz. She depicts neurotic, ritualistic mannerisms and behaviors with ease. She brings to life what it must be like to live and work with agoraphobia without coming across as a batshit crazy shut-in. It’s measured and not over the top, which allows the audience to see Angela as a person. 

Zoë Kravitz in HBO’s ‘Kimi’ Image: WB and New Line Cinema via

Sadly not even Zoë’s performance can make up for a cardboard ending. The build-up throughout the story is hollow when the “villain,” Brad, is backed by thugs. Where they come from and why they are involved is inconsequential. It’s eluded to as a glossed-over subplot that means nothing to the story beyond a tired plot mechanism. 

Kimi’s billed as a thriller, but there’s little. Instead, it’s an exercise in poor execution of ideas to a screenplay. Another half-hour or forty-five minutes to flesh out details left on the floor would have helped this narrative shape up into something worth watching. Kimi’s trailer makes this film’s tone and pace come off as more exciting and engaging than it was. There are far better thrillers out there and projects that don’t waste your time or Zoë Kravitz’s talents as an actress. Kimi isn’t worth a place on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Director: Anthony Minghella  Rated: R. Runtime: 2 hr 19 min

Studio: Miramax  Screenwriter: Anthony Minghella

Based on: Novel by Patricia Highsmith

Cast: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Jack Davenport,  

          Philip Seymour Hoffman

“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.”

-Tom Ripley

Sometimes it’s difficult to look back at periods and view a story through the lens of ‘that’s how it was.’ To accept that people were so gullible, to accept things flat out. And yet, that’s how author Patricia Highsmith wrote the characters for her book, the basis for this film. A viewer needs to understand this about The Talented Mr. Ripley and set their expectations accordingly. If you can go along with the story, you’ll find it more enjoyable. Usually, I can’t abide such things within a story or plot because I see it as a sign of lazy writing. Still, the acting by this phenomenal cast makes up for it. 

Tom Ripley (Damon) is tasked through a stroke of fortune, via a white lie, by a Mr. Greenleaf with going to Italy to bring back his son. The boat-loving playboy Dickie Greenleaf (Law). What single person passes up an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy? 

Once there, he, of course, must keep up the lie. Tom is adept at lying and convincing others of his wants and intent, which comes off as more unbelievable as the story progresses. Despite that, Tom comes off as smooth but vulnerable, exuding this innocence about him that he uses to get people around him to include him. Things unravel when he’s left out or stops feeling like he’s in control when others get in his way. Then-then the psychopath in him is viewable as if the mask falls away at times. Matt Damon does an incredible job of portraying such a character with all the nuanced layers required; he makes it seem effortless. 

Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Image: Miramax via

Dickie Greenleaf is a spoiled, temperamental scoundrel. Or a selfish American prick. Even with his womanizing, drinking, instant need to be amused all the time, Jude Law still makes him likable. He brings an energy to the character that is an absolute must. Law and Damon together are like tea and water; they belong together. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a presence in any film. As limited as Freddies’ role is in The Talented Mr. Ripley, you understand he’s not stupid. He and Dickie are tight, and he smells the bullshit coming off Tom from a mile away. Hoffman is a solid supporting character matched only by the always incomparable Cate Blanchett. As Meredith, Cate is effortlessly the embodiment of a jet-setting, fashionable American heiress of the 1950s. Meredith gets more character development for a film with little female presence than Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge (Paltrow). While Meredith is off doing her own thing, it’s easy to see she has an active social life that doesn’t appear to hang on the whims of men. Marge is either around Dickie, Tom, or Freddie. She interacts with no one else of consequence, making her seem shallow. When her world falls apart, it’s disgustingly apparent Marge has no one else to talk with or turn to. She’s a non-married woman in a foreign country depicted as naive and hysterical with no redeeming character arch. 1950s women were treated a certain way, with limited expectations; as such, Marge gets shafted as a character with too many female stereotypes. 

Hoffman, Paltrow, and Law in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Image: Miramax via The Mirror

So, within this mix of liars, brats, and sycophants, we have an intricate web of lies and deceit dressed up as the high life of the rich in beautiful Italy. When the police get involved, Tom’s lies become like a conman’s shell game to keep anyone secret of the moment in play. The question becomes can he keep it up? Will he get found out? While The Talented Mr. Ripley isn’t a full-on suspense film, it has those moments. The slow burn keeps you wondering how it will all play out for Tom, who will do anything to avoid going back to his own life. 

What I find to be more beautiful or satisfying than the stunning Italian settings is the ending. Noting about the film is neat, and neither is the ending, and it’s brilliant for that. The Talented Mr. Ripley is overall a well-told story with a good plot, depicted by a fantastic set of actors that is worth a place on anyone’s watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report (2002) 

Directed by: Steven Spielberg   Rated: PG-13   Runtime: 2 hrs. 26 mins

Studio: Dreamworks Pictures & 20th Century Fox   Screenwriter: 

Adapted: Short story “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick

Cast: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Neal McDonough, Max von Sydow

In the year 2054, there’s no murder in Washington D.C., and it’s been that way for six years with the use of Pre-Crime in Minority Report

Pre-Crime is a division of the police that arrests people before they commit murders. How is that possible? With the use of ‘pre-cogs.’ The pre-cogs are three people that were given birth to by drug addicts and, as such, caused the babies to have a severe mental handicap. A doctor who sought to cure them of their afflictions caused an unintended anomaly to manifest in some—the ability to see future murders. 

Dreamworks Pictures & 20th Century Fox ‘Minority Report’ Trailer via YouTube

Minority Report is an overly complicated story of a murder, the vehicle for the plot, but, to me, is secondary to the film’s themes. These themes ask things of the audience that are overlooked by most of the characters. What are the ethical and moral obligations of using technology in many avenues of life? Doesn’t it take away free will? How can due process be ignored? In America, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but what if we haven’t committed said crime yet? There is a line between thinking of doing something and actually following through. The story follows the philosophical logic that events are bound by causality. That past events/actions/choices are always the cause of future events. 

Yes, the movie is a melding of action and ideas while solving a crime, but it has a huge plot hole that isn’t recognizable until the ending. I’m not talking about the gigantic question about how Pre-Crime can work long term when it’s based on three people. What happens when they die someday? That’s not even the plot hole; that’s just a huge, logical question. 

‘Minority Report’ Image: Dreamworks Pictures & 20th Century Pictures

For 2002, the film utilizes the technology available to create visually impressive “future” tech vibes that twenty years later have worked their way into our lives. There are no spider drones, but we have drones. We don’t have manually powered cycling sonic guns or fly around in jet packs. Our streets don’t look that nice anywhere in America, but the self-driving cars are sleek and sexy. Eat your heart out, Tesla. I also had Westworld vibes! 

Minority Report moves along well enough but drags at times. Specifically, when the main character, Chief of Pre-Crime, John Anderton (Cruise), sinks into his depressed, self-loathing, and self-destructive habits. Cruise is in charge in this role, and runs, jumps, climbs, and gets shot at repeatedly. That just described ninety percent of his career. It’s an a-typical performance and nothing spectacular from anything else he’s done. His ex-wife Lara’s addition, beyond old videos, is a crutch and isn’t needed if only to satisfy Spielberg’s sappy cliché ending. 

Samantha Morton in ‘Minority Report’ Image: Dreamworks Pictures & 20th Century Fox via

While Colin Farrell (Danny Witwer) and Neal McDonough (Fletcher) don’t have as much screen time, they do bring great energy when on screen. Witwer is out to find the flaw in the system because he’s against over-reaching on people’s rights. Fletcher is second in command and is tasked to bring in John when determined he will commit a murder. 

Cruise may be the principal character, but it’s Agatha (Samantha Morton) who stole the show for me. Agatha is one of the three pre-cogs. All three live in a sterile room in a pool of specialized, nutrient liquid while constantly hooked up to provide a live, recordable feed from their minds of murders that haven’t happened yet. Sedated every moment of their lives, barely able to move or speak. A slave from the moment their minds opened up, unable to close again. At one point, she asks, “can you see?” and while Agatha is asking about something specific, it carries a double meaning for all of the themes presented throughout the movie. Her character is the most energetic and emotionally engaging in terms of performance. 

Tom Cruise in ‘Minority Report’ Image: Dreamworks Pictures & 20th Century Fox via

Minority Report is this oddly lit movie that highlights the depth some will go to circumvent the system. No matter how advanced we get, humans are still materialistic, dirty, emotional creatures of habit at our core. The movie is part crime-solving, part action, and mystery. If you like crime, action, or sci-fi films, Minority Report is worth a place on your watchlist, even if you need to rent it. 

—a pen lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

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 

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

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