Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

The Menu (2022)

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

Studio: Searchlight Pictures Screenwriter: Seth Reiss, Will Tracy  

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Director: Sam Raimi  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 2hr 6 min  Studio:  Marvel Studios

Screenwriter: Michael Waldron Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a dark, trippy departure from the previous Marvel film template. It’s not quite as psychedelic as the first film but leans into a darker/horror-ish vibe attuned to director Sam Raimi’s style. 

While Raimi’s style is fully displayed in so many aspects of the film, a subtler undertone is trying to understand how Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) got to where she is as a character in this movie. So before viewing this film, you must watch the Marvel TV show WandaVision; first, it will answer things the movie won’t address. Once you’re all caught up, it’s a decent story and plot if you can overlook that Sam Raimi didn’t even watch all of WandaVision, just bits of certain episodes. It solidifies how Marvel Studios values its female characters, willing to sacrifice them for their prized goal of story continuity between projects. It’s a practice that truly needs to stop! The film starts with a leap right into the action and the introduction of a new character, America Chavez (Gomez), and a version of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange.  

While the audience doesn’t learn much about America as a character in this film, it’s clear her character is a bridge into the next phase of the MCU and shows new blood (and abilities) to work with as the original Avengers are all but gone. This was inevitable after Endgame, and while I thought Multiverse of Madness would play off of the events in Spider-Man: No Way Home, it takes the multiverse reality introduced in Spiderman and mashes it together with WandaVision. This opens up or gives room for a different Wanda/Scarlet Witch down the road (or any of the Avengers) because initially, Wanda/Scarlet Witch originated as a mutant in the comics. This fact is paramount because Marvel can finally introduce (let alone utter the word) mutants in the MCU. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange in Marvel Studios ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ Image: Marvel Studios via Slashflims.com

While Wanda has gone down the dark magic rabbit hole, thus pitting her against Dr. Strange, Olsen and Cumberbatch give excellent performances. They’ve both embodied their respective characters for a while now, and they are clearly comfortable with the mannerisms and energy that make them shine. But it’s not just the performances and the directing that work for this story; it’s the choreography, sound editing, CGI, costumes, and various set designs! In a multiverse, everything is the same, but somehow just a bit different. How many ways can you dress up a New York street? Revise the Sanctom? In these areas, I say, well played and well done. 

The area I’m hung up on is Wanda’s journey to her point in Multiverse of Madness. I think writers really did Wanda dirty. She starts off as this traumatized child who is studied and used and lost loved ones. She finds a new type of family in the Avengers, certainly with Vision, but after the events of Endgame, they’re all gone or abandoned her. She’s essentially a traumatized adult with no support or resources. She goes from hero to baddie in a deep breath (the blip) and is shunted aside for the sake of franchise development. It sends a terrible message about loss and mental health, a stark contrast to the support group Steve Rogers led in Endgame. That’s all without factoring in Wanda’s power upgrade she (clearly) doesn’t have a handle on. Power corrupts absolutely, indeed!

Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch in Marvel Studios ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ Credit: CinemaBlend.com

So while I’m not a fan of where the writers have taken Wanda’s character, Elizabeth Olsen certainly does a fantastic job of depicting a formidable badass. I look forward to seeing her character again and where Dr. Strange goes into the next phase of the MCU and America Chavez’s role within it. It’s not my favorite MCU film, but it’s not the worst and if you have time, make a place on your watchlist for it. 

  • 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

Jurassic World (2015)

Jurassic World (2015)

Directed: Colin Trevorrow  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 2h 4m  Studio: 

Screenwriter: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, BD Wong, Vincent D’ Onofrio, Judy Greer

Jurassic World is built on the foundations of the Jurassic Park Trilogy. “Welcome to Jurassic Park” is one of the most iconic lines in a movie in the past thirty years. Audiences’ love of this franchise has endured because it’s a solid, fun story. The bar was set high for Jurassic World.

Now, you don’t need to have seen the original films to enjoy this one, but some moments and scenes pay homage to them. This film dives right into a dinosaur theme park that’s been open for years. Thousands of people have come and gone. In this premise alone, this film exceeds its predecessor. Yet, it was the most logical place to continue this franchise. One of the attributes that work in this series favor is that no one has copied it or tried to reboot it in three decades. That makes the opening/title sequence of this film so smile-inducing. The music, imagery, and font are iconic and give the audience a taste of what’s in store. 

The Indominus Rex from ‘Jurassic World’ Image: Universal Studios via ILM.com

Viewers get to see this lush, detailed, rich island theme park environment with attributes that would absolutely pull in customers if it were real. Despite the obvious concerns of such a park, emulating the hallmarks of resort theme parks, visually and practically, makes it a huge step up from John Hammond’s original park. 

While it’s not essential, per se, to the plot, I have questions. What happened to the remains of the original dinosaurs, the first-generation ones that died out? How long did that take based on the lifespans of the varying breeds? Jurassic World has been open for years; how long is that? They needed time to survey, tear up old structures, build new ones, and create the new dinosaurs. With all the time involved, how did no one learn from the events of the last three films? 

Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins in ‘Jurassic World’ Image: Universal via thehollywoodreporter.com

A tremendous benefit of new technology and CGI advances is that the animals look much better! More realistic. It allows the actors to interact more efficiently with what ends up being added after the fact, all the things that chase them. BD Wong is back as Dr. Henry Wu, the curator/creator of the resurrected dinosaurs. Here his character is evolved, given greater scope. In the first film, he’s a younger lab man who’s not truly part of the plot. In Jurassic World, his inclusion is one of the story’s main threads, granting the franchise a more robust continuity. BD Wong is a talented actor with a range of characters depicted in his filmography, and I’m glad they could get him back to reprise this role. 

I love Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire, the director of operations of Jurassic World. She’s polished refined, but with grit. Her performance, energy, and presence as the work-a-holic auntie-in-charge of a workplace gone sideways are brilliant and fun. Her chemistry with Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady works too. He’s the perfect mix of sassy and ‘those things will eat you alive, keep your shit together’ employee you’d want to work with. Once upon a time, people wanted to dig up dinosaur fossils as a career with more earnest; now, in a world with living dinosaurs, you can train them, like Owen. Specifically, he trains raptors. The methodology behind this practice on-screen is believable enough not to be questioned, letting the viewer enjoy its idea. 

Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins in ‘Jurassic World’ Image: Universal Studios via insider.com

You can’t have a theme park without kids, so of course, Jurassic World has a few of its own. Claire’s nephews Zack (Robinson) and Gray (Simpkins) visit the park as everything goes wrong. They add a needed layer of youthfulness and extra characters to be at multiple places on the island. Their addition helps immensely with pace and permits more settings, dinosaurs, and action sequences. 

Jurassic World is an example of what happens when you ignore history-it will repeat itself. Denial may get you eaten. This installment of the Jurassic franchise has more people, more teeth, and more spectacle. It’s a fun movie 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

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Directed by: Garry Ross  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 1h 51m

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures  Screenwriter: Garry Ross, Olivia Milch

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Akwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter

What would you do for a cut of 150 million dollars? 

Debbie Ocean (Bullock) took five years, eight months, and twelve days to plan out the biggest heist of her life. Now that she’s out of prison, all she needs is to assemble the best in each area she needs to get the job done. First, she starts with her number two, Lou Miller (Blanchett), then moves on to a jeweler (Kaling). Next up, a street con (Akwafina), the mom next door (Paulson), a fashion designer (Bonham Carter), and a hacker (Rihanna). 

Ocean’s Eight is an action-comedy built upon its Ocean franchise predecessors. The lead of an almost all-male cast was Danny (George Clooney), Debbie’s brother. A nice attribute about this movie is that you don’t need to watch the previous ones for anything to make sense. Ocean’s Eight isn’t the first heist caper, nor the last-yet its all-female cast (of a solid group of actresses) gives it a welcoming freshness. This ensemble of seasoned actresses is an exceptional collaboration of funny, serious, and nuanced. I loved the fresh take on a museum theft. Plenty of places or people have been robbed in movies, but I’ve never seen anyone try to do so at The Met Gala. 

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Akwafina, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson in ‘Ocean’s Eight’ Image: Warner Bros. via nbcnews.com

The chemistry amongst the cast is energetic and makes the film that much more fun to watch. It’s cohesive and well-directed, with only a few plot questions about Debbie’s plan that jumped out at me. Ross utilizes music in the background to establish pace and tone throughout the movie. 

Ocean’s Eight isn’t overly serious or trying to reinvent this type of film, except for where it moved women from secondary characters to the primary ones. The playful nature of the setup to robbing The Met Gala is fantastic. It allows the audience to sit and enjoy a well-dressed movie with no other purpose than straightforward enjoyment. 

Sarah Paulson, Sandra Block, Rihanna, Cate Blanchett, Akwafina in ‘Ocean’s Eight’ Image: Warner Bros. Pictures via nbcnews.com

Every movie is meant to be enjoyed or appreciated; why watch otherwise? Ocean’s Eight is the confident, smooth reality break you didn’t know you wanted to see. A movie like that should be on your watchlist. 

-A Pen Lady