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 Screenrant.com

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 NYTimes.com

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 LATimes.com

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 Vice.com

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

Spencer (2021)

Director: Pablo Larraín  Rated: Runtime: 1h 57m  Studio: Neon Screenwriter: Steven Knight  Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris 

Some (fictional) films are inspired by, based on, or adapted from other works or events. No matter the mild disclaimer, the audience understands that it’s still a work of fiction. Spencer doesn’t do that. It opens with “a fable from a true tragedy.” Like children’s stories that start with the words ‘once upon a time.’ We know they are made up unless you are a small child who hasn’t learned better yet. Steven Knight and Pablo Larraín set the tone for their film that the viewer will be as gullible as a small child. 

I’m not a royalist. I’m also no fan of Kristen Stewart. Yet I respect the humanitarian that Diana was, and her hands-on approach to parenting, as it was. So, I begrudgingly finally sat down to watch Spencer. 

Spencer is one of the most mind-numbingly dull waste of brain cells; time sucks, I have watched in years. If I had paid to see this in theaters, I would have gotten my money back. Instead, I kept skipping ahead (on Hulu) to see if anything more interesting would happen. It didn’t. A turtle could outrun the pace of this film; it drags with no redeeming waypoints along its runtime. I can’t fathom how chaotic it was to read the script for this film and why anyone would agree to such poor transitions from scene to scene. 

Kristen Stewart as Diana in ‘Spencer’ Image: Neon via Variety.com

In any one scene, Diana is depressed, frustrated, physically ill, and contemptuous. None of the grace of character attributed to her usual demeanor is on display in this slice of life holiday getaway. No one has their shit together one-hundred percent of the time, let alone behind closed doors. And yet, this depiction of her mindset after she and Charles (Farthing)decide to end their marriage is understandable only to a point. The rest of the cast, where the Royal family is concerned, was an ugly prop. A cold as ice implication that they hated Diana. There is nothing profound about any of them as actors. I think they may have been cast because they fit two criteria. First, they bear some resemblance to a royal family member. Second, they look like they could kill someone with a disdainful icy glare. 

The takeaway from Spencer is that Diana is ungrateful and is losing her shit. At the same time, everyone else micromanages her and watches the trainwreck in progress. Why? The royal family is an unyielding, un-empathetic lot trained in the archaic art of not feeling, speaking, or thinking. To do so is treason. Farthing’s Charles says there needs to be two of everyone, the real one and the one for photos. Yet, what is abundantly clear is that there isn’t one heart between the two versions of Charles or the Queen, and they’ve killed Diana’s along with her most of her soul. The only true glimmer of honesty in this movie is Diana’s warmth for her boys. 

From ‘Spencer’ a family photo. Image: Neon via People.com

It’s not a secret the English monarchy is detached from reality, but apparently, so is the director and screenwriter of Spencer for thinking this was a story worth telling. It’s one thing to take liberties with known facts about a famous/infamous person and frame what unfolds as a “what if” scenario. Spencer, however, plays out as a dull character assassination. This telling doesn’t tell the audience some facts it doesn’t already know about Diana or the royal family. So why make it? Billed as a biopic, there is nothing epic about this film. By definition, a biopic is about the life of a person, not a day in the life of one. The distinction is essential. 

Spencer is a tedious watch with disjointed scene shifts overlayed by questionable musical accompaniment, performed by a cast as engaging as watching paint dry on cardboard. Again, I’m no royalist, but good or bad, Spencer is an $18 million piss on Diana and the royal family. Nothing so unoriginal, poorly constructed, and boring should ever make 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 LAtimes.com

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 thecinemaholic.com

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 Dailymail.com

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 Red Sea Diving Resort (2019)

The Red Sea Diving Resort (2019) Directed: Gideon Raff  Rated: TV-MA  Runtime: 2h 9m  Studio: Netflix/Bron Studios Screenwriter: Gideon Raff  Cast: Chris Evans, Alessandro Nivola, Greg Kinnear, Haley Bennett, Michiel Huisman, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ben Kingsley, Chris Chalk, Mark Ivanir, Alex Hassell

The Red Sea Diving Resort is an inspirationally touted film that forgot to include anything inspiring. 

The film opens with a voice-over, narrating the scene and thus explaining the story’s point. The voice is Kebed’s (Williams), one of only three black characters who have a meaningful, yet minor, role. This opening scene highlights (immediately) two of the biggest problems with The Red Sea Diving Resort. First, Raff must explain every detail he thinks you won’t understand. Second, white people are the saviors of the black Jews fleeing Ethiopia. 

This movie is based on actual events. Mossad agents did spend years in Sudan using a previously abandoned seaside resort to smuggle black Jews to Isreal. Raff’s problem (as writer and director) is that he only told one side of the story. He included nothing of meaningful resonance of these Beta Jews (as they are known). And there were opportunities to do so. With a story as significant, meaningful, and layered as these missions were for all involved, it’s a repulsive display of systematic racism. To gloss over the black characters as much as he did, propping them up only to facilitate white characters is repugnant. How did Netflix find this a good screenplay? 

Michael Kenneth Williams and Chris Evans in ‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’ Image: Marcos Cruz/Netflix via polygon.com

Gideon Raff is Israeli but couldn’t find any of his people to star in this film? Did he look? Did people say no? That’s a red flag. So enter the American-sounding and looking beach chic Ken and Barbie (Evans and Bennett). Mixed with a British actor (Kingsley) who uses non-Jewish slang (calling people’ chaps’) all while not even trying to lose his own accent. 

Raff depicts Mossad as this spy agency with a cowboy mentality likened to the American wild west in a story whose premise is built upon the necessity of teamwork and planning. It’s okay when trouble pops up; Ari’s (Evans) got it. As if positive thinking alone will save anyone from certain death if they’re caught. There is a team of agents with Ari, but none are fleshed out, well-rounded, or have satisfying arcs. As members of the white savior club, you think they’d be important, but they’re not. 

Chris Evans and Haley Bennett in ‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’ Image: Netflix/Marcos Cruz via polygon.com

The third black character with any significant lines or screentime is Commander Ahmed (Chalk) that Ari refers to as Colonel or nothing. He’s the leader of the Mukhabarat, a “military organization” that terrorized Sudan. None of that information is touched on, or the underlying reasons the Beta’s flee in the first place. Nor the call to action that involved Isreal in the first place; you won’t learn about that in this film. So you must take at face value that Chalk’s character is the physical manifestation of why these people are fleeing Ethiopia. Yet it doesn’t do the depth of their reasons justice. For such an important character, you think it would have been easy to figure out the character’s name or the actor who plays him. You’d be wrong. I had to turn on my closed captioning feature to find out Chalk’s character’s name, which isn’t even uttered until near the film’s end. I had to look through articles on this movie for the actor’s name to find it. Chris Chalk’s part in this film is not included under a Google search for the cast of this film, nor on IMDb.com (I’m not affiliated with either). Chalk’s character is another example of Raff’s poor filmmaking skills or Chris Chalk’s wanting everyone to forget he was in this movie. It’s sad because Chalk’s performance was one of the few that displayed any effort or emotion. 

Ethiopian Jews fleeing Sudan in Netflix’s ‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’ Image: Netflix via digitalspy.com

Now Gideon Raff is the same man who gave the world Homeland and the limited series The Spy. Raff won awards for these; perhaps he should stick with just television.

The Red Sea Diving Resort is a grossly missed opportunity to take a story with two already entwined entities and tell a whole and compelling story. As it stands, the black characters were depicted as poor, desperate, violent, or greedy. This depiction may have been the reality of the time, but Raff gives none of these characters any form of agency beyond their choice to flee. Those missed opportunities for nuanced realism are tragic. It’s an injustice to those this story is supposed to also tell. 

A poorly written script with no character development and lackluster acting is worth no one’s time, especially one that systematically snubs half of this story’s reason for existing. The Red Sea Diving Resort isn’t worth your time or a place on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Official Secrets (2019)

Directed by: Gavin Hood  Rated:Runtime: 1h 51m  Studio: Entertainment One

Screenwriter: Sara Bernstein, Gregory Berstein, Gavin Hood

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri

How often do you follow a moral compass?

Our world is diverse in so many ways, politics in particular. Government structure varies by country, but in democratic ones, the people expect to have a voice. What happens when they don’t? What is the outcome when suppression and morality collide? 

Official Secrets is a well-shown re-telling of real-life events of that collision. Keira Knightley stars as Katharine Gun, a former analyst for the British government at the government communications headquarter (GCHQ). There she interpreted and transcribed information passed down to her. 

Matthew Goode and Matt Smith in ‘Official Secrets’ Image: IFC Films/Allstar via theguardian.com

In January 2003, her department received an email, a forwarded memo that openly requested that the United Kingdom aid the United States NSA in spying on members of the United Nations. Soley to obtain blackmail to use against specific smaller nations to secure votes at an upcoming UN vote to go to war with Iraq or not. 

Spying on her people was okay with Katharine because it could prevent a terrorist attack. Spying on others, for another country especially to use as blackmail to go to war-hard stop. 

Official Secrets is a well-written script, with outstanding direction of its talented cast. Everyone’s performances were on point, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen Keira Knightley do. Her measured emotional responses to each sequence are believable. It made me feel for the real-life Katharine. 

Keira Knightley in ‘Official Secrets’ Image: IFC Films/Allstar via theguardian.com

Even with the director adding original media footage, which added a layer of realism, this story is still illuminatingly powerful two decades later. That the need for transparency and morality exists so deeply within governments that people like Katharine Gun and publications like The Observer need to take risks, still, today keeps her story a relevant and cautionary tale. 

Gun’s human rights lawyer, Ben Emmerson, is played by the superb Ralph Fiennes. Opposite him is Jeremy Northam, who portrays Ken MacDonald, the director of public prosecutions. MacDonald was the one who decided to charge Katharine or not, to make an example of her or not. 

Keira Knightley in ‘Official Secrets Image: IFC Films/Allstar via filmgeeky.com

It’s Ken MacDonald’s position on Gun’s actions, his visceral disdain for her or those like her that personifies how petty and spiteful the British government is. The government established in the Queen’s name. That screams volumes. 

Official Secrets is an easily watchable film that shows you the most vital points in real-life events based on morality, lies, and suppression. Official Secrets belong on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Blue Bayou (2021)

Blue Bayou (2021) Directed by: Justin Chon Rated: R Runtime: 1h 52m

Studio: Focus Features Screenwriter: Justin Chon  Cast: Alica Vikander, Justin Chon, Mark O’Brien, Sydney Kowalske, Emory Cohen

Blue Bayou is a poignant film about love, family, and the ties that bind; in an unjust society full of bigots and legal loopholes. 

Antonio LeBlanc (Chon) was adopted as a toddler from Korea by a family from a small Louisiana town. Who gave him up after six months—left to be raised by the foster care system for the rest of his youth. After a lifetime of small-minded people, he meets Kathy (Vikander), the love of his life. He marries her, helping raise her daughter, Jessie (Kowalske). They’re his whole world. 

In Blue Bayou, Antonio struggles to make ends meet, like so many people with or without baggage. Yet Antonio’s obstacles are things he can’t check at the door or put in a closet. He’s a convicted criminal-worse in Louisiana; he’s Asain. Constantly asked, “where you from?” despite a thick Cajun accent. It’s the smallest example of racism his character endures. He’s always the outsider with no nuclear family growing up and nothing of pride to hold on to of his Korean heritage. 

Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalske, Justin Chon in ‘Blue Bayou’ Image: Focus Features via Vanityfair.com

Small-minded bigotry is as common as breathing in the deep South of America, and prejudice and authority make a terrible combo. It is this mindset that sets off the plot and story. 

A run-in with Ace (O’ Brien), Jessie’s father, and his police partner (Cohen) at a store ends in Antonio’s arrest and subsequent detainment by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). The legality of Antonio’s adoption from Korea is called into question and sets the wheels in motion for his deportation. 

Chon’s set locations, the lush, quiet bayou hideaway, and sunsets over the water juxtapose Antonio’s reality. That’s what this film is at its core, emotional resonance. The shared body language between Antonio and Kathy, or his honesty and bonding efforts with Jessie, all speak to the little moments we all have. For better or worse, those real human moments are layered with abuse and ridicule bubbling near the surface for Antonio, constantly. And now, through legal loopholes, he could lose it all-the only places he’s ever called home, through no fault of his own. 

Sydney Kowalske as Jessie in ‘Blue Bayou.’ Image: Focus Features via IMDb.com

Illegal immigration/entry into the United States is a very polarizing topic. Still, Chon has honed in on this overlooked slice of the issue. Despite anyone’s thoughts on immigration into America, one burning question is this: why are all adopted children from other countries not automatically citizens? The truth is illuminating. 

Blue Bayou is a realistic, raw look into a topic and people’s reality on the subject of international adoption, racism, and the strength of the vows “for better or for worse.” If ever an indie film deserved a place on a watchlist, this one does. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

Directed by: Michael Showalter  Runtime: 2h 6m  Rated: PG-13

Studio: Searchlight Pictures  Screenwriter: Abe Sylvia

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio

Throughout the 1970s and 80s in America, Jim Bakker (Garfield) and his wife, Tammy Faye (Chastain), were the Kardashians of Christian televangelism. Starting as humble and timid in their pursuits to bringing the love of god to everyone via a traveling church show, later making their way on to TV became so much more. In the end, Jim Bakker was trying to create a Christian theme park to give you an idea of his ambitions. After creating a tv network that reached over 20 million views worldwide at the time of his arrest. 

After escaping the brainwashing of a religious upbringing, as an adult, I stay clear of the subject, by and large. As a child of the 80s, I don’t need a trip down memory lane, except maybe I did. 

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were huge with adults for decades, a perspective I couldn’t understand as a child. Still, why should I watch a film on a topic I dislike? Jessica Chastain. She brings to life the layers, demons, and superficial complexities of the self-professed, big-hearted clueless wife. Her performance, depiction, and commitment to the role of Tammy Faye are nothing short of Oscar-worthy. 

Andrew Garfield and Vincent D’Onofrio in ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ Image: Daniel McFadden/Searchlight Pictures via nydailynews.com

Chastain and Garfield are energetic and believable together as this ever-changing couple, with clear character arcs. The script is all right, as it’s easy to construct one when based on two highly public figures/events. When a film must cover many time periods, the plot’s pace can get bogged down, but Showalter does reasonably well considering. An audience can easily see the conflict to resolution and the origins of these people/characters, which is needed in a bio-drama. Nothing feels missing as this story notes the rise and subsequent public fall of the Bakker’s. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a visual display of big hair, lavish outfits, materialism, and makeup. All while dripping with the love of god, asking people to open their wallets. Again and again and again. I adore Andrew Garfield as an actor. But if not for Jessica Chastain, I’m not sure another actress could have pulled me in to endure the recreation of the Bakker’s Christian televangelist propaganda. 

Jessica Chastain in ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ Image: Searchlight Pictures via latimes.com

If, somehow, you’re not a fan of Andrew Garfield or Jessica Chastain, take a pass on this embarrassing reminder of American behavior. Otherwise, I’m on the fence on whether or not to recommend it for your watchlist. It comes down to your tolerance of the 80s or religion. I saw it; Chastain is amazing, yes. But I’ll never watch The Eyes of Tammy Faye again. 

-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 Eonline.com

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

Dune (2021)

DUNE (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve  Runtime: 2 hr 35 min  Rated: PG-13

Studio: Legendary Pictures  Based on: Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’

Screenwriter: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Timohée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling, Sharon Duncan-Brewster

Dune is a science fiction saga layered with all the typical trappings of humanity. Rife with greed and civil unrest as a set of noble houses control planets for resources, wealth, and power. Often to the detriment of the locals. 

Not too far into the film, and I’m having a flashback to 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, which was marginally more exciting than this film. 

In Dune, the house of Atreides is given stewardship of planet Arrakis by the overlord of all the houses-the Emperor. House Atreides, people of a water planet, go to Arrakis, a desert world, to mine spice. It’s the only thing of value to the houses because though spice is a drug; they also use it to navigate space. Okay. Spice is only on Arrakis, with two other things: the locals, known as the Freemen, and massive sandworms. 

The Freemen walk in a certain way to not cause unnatural vibrations in the sand that would otherwise attract the worms. They also wear special garb to help them endure the intense heat of the surface. Freemen characters are Chani (Zendaya), Stilgar (Bardem), and Dr. Kynes (Duncan-Brewster). Dr. Kynes has the most screen time out of these three, and the trailers for this movie imply the other two have more significant roles than they do. So if you see Dune just because they are in it, you’ll have to wait for most of the film and will be vastly disappointed. 

Javier Bardem’s Stilgar in ‘Dune’ Image: Legendary Pictures via IGN.com

The previous stewards of Arrakis, House Harkonnen, mined the spice for 80 years and left abruptly. Houses Harkonnen and Atreides are sworn enemies but obey the Emperor’s decree of change. Still with me?

Paul Atreides (Chalamet) is the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac), next in line to rule his homeworld. Paul follows his father and mother, Lady Jessica (Ferguson), to Arrakis to learn how to lead more. Dune is billed as a sci-fi hero’s journey of a young boy born for a destiny he can’t grasp. A journey to provide safety for his people and family, all while not giving into fear. 

Frank Herbert originally published Dune in 1965. 

‘Dune’ Spice harvester Image: Legendary Pictures via WSJ.com

To get to my following observation, let me highlight some key phrases and notions about Dune. 1. An Emperor (really) 2. Mine spice (Kessel) 3. Planet of sand (Tatooine) 4. Massive worms (Sarlacc pit, or Jabba) 5. Walking a certain way (Sand people) 6. Wear special garb (Sand people) 7. Hero’s journey (Luke) 8. A Young boy(Luke/Anakin) 9. Destiny (Luke/Anakin) 10. Not giving in to fear (Jedi) 11. High council (Jedi)12. Superpowers (the Force) 13. Imperium (Empire). I could go on. Before seeing this version of Dune, I knew nothing about it. I had never read the books or seen the previous movies, so I walked into the theater with no pre-knowledge or conceptions. However, after only a few minutes into the film, I was beyond irritated. 

This irritation was because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much George Lucas poached from Frank Herbert. Not drew on as inspiration, full-on stole. George Lucas released the first of his Star Wars films, A New Hope, twelve years after Dune was published. Yes, the troupes of a young hero’s journey, saving one’s family, and the notion of destiny are all well used throughout cinema and literary works; but this is something else. 

Sandworm of Arrakis in ‘Dune’ Image: Legendary Pictures via Looper.com

My urge to slap George Lucas aside, Villeneuve’s Dune isn’t worth the hype. It’s dull, cold, and wastes its runtime with lackluster performances. This film should have had gravitas and more substance, considering the vast source material available. I saw the trailer like millions of others, but I was unimpressed. The movie, like the trailer, left me with no investment in the plot or the characters. Dune’s filmmaker expects the audience to care and follow along with this story, though there’s no satisfaction at the end. 

Why is there no satisfaction or excitement to find out what happens next? Imagine the following: you wake to strangers in your home, there’s shooting, fire, and death. Therefore you flee for your life through dangerous parts of town to seek shelter and help from people you barely know. All while not disturbing the gigantic sandworms and daydreaming about a girl. These people agree to help you- end film. Without actual spoilers, I just summed up Dune

Zendaya in ‘Dune.’ Image: Legendary Pictures via nerdist.com

Villeneuve cuts Dune off after two-and-a-half hours with no actual climax/resolution. Walking through worm-infested dunes isn’t a proper climax. It’s a bloody boring letdown. As an avid reader and fan of films, I know that movies rarely do their sourcebooks justice. Even though I haven’t read Dune, I don’t believe the first novel ended the way the film did. Please correct me if I’m wrong because Dune is one of the top 100 books of all time. 

How does such a popular novel make it to the silver screen with lackluster cast performance, pace, and lack of details? The most energy any character provides is Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, discounting Brolin and Bautista’s roles as gruff, angry soldiers. That’s not a stretch for them, so I hardly call it acting. 

Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen in ‘Dune.’ Image: Legendary Pictures via latimes.com

Stellan Skarsgård’s depiction of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen was said to be terrifying. I’m a big fan of Mr. Skarsgård’s work, and terrifying isn’t the word I would use to describe him in this film. Authoritative, vengeful, physically imposing (he’s a tall man in real life) who flies, which I find to be a weird ability, but not terrifying. Again I haven’t read the books; maybe he’s amazingly terrific as his literary counterpart description. 

The Lady Jessica is credited as Atreides but is referred to as the Dukes’ concubine in the film. If she’s his concubine, she’s not his wife. Either way, she is the mother of the Dukes’ son, Paul. The Lady Jessica is part of the Bene Gesserit, a political shadow group of sorceress with a breeding program. Again, I have that Star Wars connection in my mind. Breeding, cloning. Female sorceress’s, the Nightsisters of Dathomir. By and large, Ferguson’s emotional range is that of a brick wall. 

Chalamet, Ferguson, and Isaac in ‘Dune’ Image: Legendary Pictures via Screenrant.com

Ferguson is a brick wall, and Timothée Chalamet is a wet mop. Why is there hype around this kid? Harry Potter had more emotional responses about his dead parents, whom he’d never met than Paul does about any of the stuff happening around him. And Paul is a lot older than an eleven-year-old. For that matter, Harry’s dead parents in memory form or in moving magical photos conveyed more emotion for their son than Lady Jessica. 

It’s not fair that all I can think about is Star Wars when watching this; Frank Herbert really should have sued George Lucas at some point. Star Wars has plenty of other things that separate it from Dune. Still, so many of the broad strokes are not original, leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth about the franchise. Herbert crafted a sci-fi series in novel form, and had George Lucas never come along with Star Wars, who knows how popular the Dune series cinematically could have been long term. All it needed was a studio, cast, and director, along with an excellent screenplay to bring it all to life- a few decades too late. Instead, now, Dune is left seeming like recycled content. 

Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in ‘Dune.’ Image: Legendary Pictures via Vanityfair.com

The script and direction should be solid when watching a big-budget film with a solid cast based on a classic novel. The passage of too much time and George Lucas robbed Dune of its full potential. Try as Denis Villeneuve did to make a better version of the 1984 attempt of Dune; it still falls flat. The devil is in the details, and there were not enough of them for Dune to resonate as the larger-than-life story it’s branded to be. 

Hopefully, the next attempt at Dune on the big screen will better incorporate details about the Houses in general, the interpersonal connections, and the mystical components that were played up but meant nothing. The story isn’t compelling enough without energetic performances and more complete pictures of characters and story arcs. 

When plot mechanics are the backbone of a film with little emotional resonance (story), it shouldn’t be on anyone’s watchlist. That’s not a film worth anyone’s time.

-A Pen Lady