Directed: Steve Beck Rated: R Runtime: 1h 31m Studio: Warner Bros. Screenwriters: Mark Hanlon and John Pogue Cast: Julianna Margulies, Ron Eldard, Gabriel Byrne, Isaiah Washington, Karl Urban, Desmond Harrington, Alex Dimitriades, Emily Browning
Horror/gore films are not my thing. Most rely too much on the gore or over-sexualization of female characters. Few can balance gore and thrills with the needed suspense to make it genuinely gripping. Even worse is when these types of films fall back on overused troupes that make the story predictable and unfun to watch. In 2002, at least Ghost Ship felt original.
Is it the most gripping, suspenseful, and entertainingly intense story of horror films ever made, hardly. It gives off the same vibe regarding storytelling, stunts, and graphics as Resident Evil (2002), the first film based on a video game of the same name. Both also have a cast centered around a female lead.
In Ghost Ship, Maureen Epps (Margulies) is a member of a salvage ship, the Arctic Warrior. A young man hires the crew to salvage an abandoned cruise liner. Once they find the ship out on the Bering Sea, things take a supernatural turn.
It’s a ghost ship; throughout the movie, what happened to it is fleshed out via flashbacks. Some people don’t like the use of these in cinema, but it fits in the context of this film. It also adds to the eerie feeling the salvage crew experiences while aboard. While many won’t care for the film stylings of early 2000s films, if you can look beyond that, for the time, it was normal. By today’s standards, it’s either cheesy or terrible.
Ghost Ship has intrigue, suspense, and believable enough camaraderie amongst the crew, even if none of them are profound. It’s just not that kind of film. Though the techno musical choices were par for the course for the time, it seems odd now. I’m not sure calling this film’ horror’ is accurate. A supernatural thriller with gorey parts, yes.
Ghost Ship was released in theaters a week before Halloween. If you’re the kind of person who likes to have a Halloween movie marathon, then this film would fit right in. Even if you are not, it’s not so bad a movie that it can’t be watched once, so give it a place on your watchlist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The Prestige (2006) Directed by: Christopher Nolan Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2hr 10min Based on: Novel by Christopher Priest
Studio: Warner Bros. Screenwriter: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis
At one point in human history, societies believed in magic. The supernatural. To be wooed and wondered by those who would dare wield it in a wide variety of ways over time. As mankind grew more intelligent or less gullible, depending on the century, the notion of the mystic arts or magic tricks became a tradecraft of sorts—the art of illusions.
In Christopher Nolan’s Prestige, the art of illusion is on full display in London during the late 1890s. A pair of competing magicians professionally try to one-up each other to be the best. This civil rivalry turns sour after a performance goes sideways, locking them in a dangerous loop of who is truly the best, no matter the costs or consequences.
The Prestige is a detailed, dark drama ruled by magic, science, and obsession. It keeps you reeled in as you watch it. As you watch, you’re trying to figure out if you can see what’s coming, which is fair; this is a Christopher Nolan film. His films make you think, make you try and pay attention without missing that ‘it’ factor. That’s fitting considering the narrative that’s unfolding on screen.
Robert Angier (Jackman) is a magician with stage presence and lacks imagination. Alfred Borden (Bale) has nothing but imagination but can’t package it so that an audience will care. Their rivalry transcends professionalism; it’s a vendetta. Deserved or not-you understand why they act the way they do. Bale and Jackman’s energy into their respective characters is lovely; they play off one another so well. These performances are grounded by John Cutter (Caine) and Olivia’s (Johansson) additions.
Cutter is Angier’s manager, and Olivia is his assistant until she’s not. Michael Caine, as always, is a phenomenal addition to any cast. Johansson does a good job with her character despite the century where a woman in her profession isn’t anything more than an attractive assistant, with no other women to interact with truly. However brief, David Bowie’s depiction of Nikola Tesla is eerily spot-on. The always talented Andy Serkis assists his character.
Arthur C. Clarke said, “magic is just science that we don’t understand yet.” When watching a film like The Prestige or The Illusionist, which also came out in 2006, this statement is so fitting one might think that the screenwriters took it to heart when crafting these films.
In creating this movie, the ingenuity that went into the settings, the costumes, and the props/setup for the tricks themselves are impressive. All these things, mixed with the film’s pace, drive the story forward in a manner that is quite enjoyable to watch.
A well-acted story rooted in dark humor, drama, and the urge to know what happens next are what makes The Prestige worth a place on your watchlist.
Director: Robert Zemeckis Runtime: 2 hr 23 mins. Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox/Dreamworks Screenwriter: William Broyles Jr.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Wilson the Volleyball
FedEx executive Chuck Noland (Hanks) is an obsessively punctual, high-strung perfectionist of time. And an apparent workaholic. This film starts out days before Christmas 1995. Everyone who ships goods at that time of the year is probably temporarily high-strung. Except for Chuck, that’s his normal. Christmas night, Chuck sets out on a FedEx shipping plane bound for Malaysia when they get caught in a storm and knocked off course.
The plane crashes, and Chuck is the sole survivor. He washes ashore on a small island.
In Cast Away, Hanks gives an astonishing performance that displays a physical transformation and highlights the emotional and mental toll a person can suffer in isolation.
We all hear background noises every day, noise pollution, and become almost accustomed to it. In Cast Away, the background noise is the ocean. The waves, coconuts dropping, or the storms during storm season- that’s it. That lack of noise is something Hank’s Noland has to learn to endure. A lack of sounds is just one form of Chuck’s isolation. In that way, the sound editing in this film is vital.
At one point, Chuck makes it to the top of his island, and it is small. It highlights to Chuck, and the audience, how univocally screwed he is. How alone, and how little Chuck has in the way of resources. The shot emphasizes the ocean’s vastness and how utterly cut off he is. On top of the internal anguish, Chuck has to deal with, which is its own form of a co-star, he has the ocean and island. Both are his nemesis, along with time and the weather. That might be a bit deep for some, but it’s true.
Chuck isn’t the only thing that ends up washing ashore. Some of the FedEx packages do as well. This film is entirely fictional, so no real people lost goods to a guy named Chuck to utilize as he saw fit. That genius lies with the writer. Seriously if you were stuck on an island and could have one item, what would it be? I’d say the TARDIS. But screenwriter William Broyles Jr. was able to grant Chuck’s character multiple things that on their own are bizarre in a tropical island setting. That’s the beauty in it, how to be resourceful when you have little or nothing to work with from the start.
In that resourcefulness, Chuck befriends Wilson. Wilson is the brand name of a volleyball he finds. If you end up talking to yourself and answering too, it’s less crazy if you feel like you are talking to someone/thing. And Wilson helps Chuck move along this incredible journey of being lost at sea, marooned on an island, and surviving; to deal with the isolation. The attention to detail to make the story believable is well thought out. The editing crafts the progression of time, creating a good pace. For a two-and-a-half-hour film, it moves along nicely.
Tom Hanks gives an energetic, compelling, emotional performance in that allotted time. Part of that time is on Chuck’s attempts to escape the island. So the purpose of his character isn’t just how to deal with isolation, but can he escape it? Does his character find resolution from his conflict? The answer also ties in with what makes this film different from others in its genre.
What would you do if you were alone on an island? How would you endure? Cast Away makes the audience ponder these questions without directly asking. It’s a mark of a great film. Cast Away is an excellent film to add to your watchlist any time of the year.
Based on: The novel ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ by Michael Koryta Rated: R
Screenplay: Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, Taylor Sheridan Runtime: 1 hr 40 mins
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Medina Senghore
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a story that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be and therefore has no focus, no direction. While based on a novel by the same name, which I haven’t read, the film is forgettable despite the talented ensemble.
The intense opening scene choice is to engage the viewer and sets a tone for Hannah’s (Jolie) character. Quickly the audience figures out that what eats away at Hannah is never resolved; it’s never even explored. Given that Hannah is a smokejumper, she literally jumps out of planes to fight forest fires; it seems absurd she would still be working. Instead, she’s shunted off to a fire tower. I don’t know anything about firefighters within the forestry department (of any country), but that seems like it might be insulting to those that do staff such towers. Beyond that, she has no identification or uniform clearly indicating she is anything other than a backcountry camper/hiker.
Hannah’s lack of credentials brings me to Conner (Little), a 12-year old she encounters, randomly, among the acres of trees. The kid has reason to be afraid and just decides to trust the first person he sees. Given the reason he’s in the woods, to begin with, that is a huge ask. There is nothing special about Little’s performance. Literally, any kid could be plopped into this role. That point is a letdown because the film, ultimately, is about him, not Hannah or fires. No one actually fights fires in this film. You see the all-consuming blaze, but it’s never a critical factor to the movie until the last twenty minutes or so.
If you want a better story, conclusion, character development, and action that intimately involves fire, watch Backdraft.
Jake (Gillen) and Patrick (Hoult) Blackwell are a sibling team of hitmen for…who the hell knows. Some character played by Tyler Perry is as weak as the toss-away excuse for the plot of the story. Perry’s one scene adds nothing that couldn’t be conveyed over an angry phone call from literally any voice. The brothers are a well-oiled machine, working well together. There is no backstory for them; they just kill anyone that gets in the way of their objective. Their dedication to one another and the job they are hired to do is admirable, even if Jake is old enough to be Patrick’s father. However, there’s only one reason two well-known actors were cast. If throwaway actors had been used, the audience wouldn’t be as invested in the pursuit through the woods.
A movie where the main character is a smokejumper who doesn’t go near a fire can’t be shot in Florida, where part of this film takes place. No, you need a more remote state where people are less likely to care about toting guns around. Montana’s the ticket; it’s remote enough! Alaska would have been my choice…
Remote or not, every area needs law enforcement. Who better than Jon Bernthal to depict Ethan Sawyer, a Sherif’s deputy with survival skills? I mean that as a compliment, he really fits the bill for this role. Allison Sawyer (Senghore) is a treasure! As Ethan’s pregnant wife, she handles herself like I want a survivalist living in the woods against some dangerous circumstances too. In terms of action and suspense, she steals the show.
Everyone knows Jolie can handle herself in action sequences. She made her mark off of films like Salt, Wanted, and the Lara Croft Tomb Raider franchise. She knew what the script for this film asked of her, and she took on the role, understanding it wasn’t anything like those mentioned above. Some may argue this diminishes Jolie’s abilities. She chose to take on this new project after her absence, of sorts, from mainstream adult roles. Yes, Hannah essentially hikes and sits around the whole film, but it’s not about her. The story insults the notion and need of proper healing and mental health after a tragedy more than Jolie’s acting chops.
Those Who Wish Me Dead never evolves from the rationale that springboards the story into being. The film expects the audience to accept what’s happening because ‘it’s a thing that would happen’ and just go with it, despite some glaring questions that are never addressed or answered. Conner, Ethan, and Allison’s characters could have been more fleshed out and some backstory while dealing with the Blackwell brothers without Jolie’s character ever being part of the story. Or fire, for that matter.
The cast for this movie alone is not a reason to see it. The plot sure isn’t. Those Who Wish Me Dead suffers from false trailer expectations, like so many films. It frames it to be more action intense, including intense fire sequences, and it’s not. With a dry spell of content still plaguing online outlets and open theaters, you could watch this movie if you’re desperate, but don’t waste your money to do so.
Under traditional viewing standards, I would say don’t add this to your watchlist. There are better films out there that successfully tackle the ideas in this film.
Studio: Universal Pictures Screenwriter: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, John Hannah, Patricia Velásquez
Movies often hold up a pair of their characters, in the most trying of circumstances, and get them to the point of asking, ‘Is our love worth dying for?’ Well, that setup applies to stories in general, but let’s stick with cinema here. In Stephen Sommers The Mummy, that is the introductory sequence. The actions of High Priest Imhotep(Vosloo) and his love, Anck Su Namun (Velásquez), set a solid foundation for the plot. Less than five minutes in, and you’re hooked.
The Mummy has a strong plot and story about, well, a mummy who won’t stay dead and aims to bring his lost loves soul back from the underworld. To that end, there is action, mystery, light comedic touches, and suspense. It’s not a horror film, though kids 10-12 may find certain scenes momentarily graphic (it’s a movie about a mummy and not the bandaged groaning kind).
American Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is a French Legionnaire who is wrangled into taking Evelyn Carnahan (Weisz) and her brother Johnathan (Hannah) to a lost Egyptian city. A city guarded by the Medjai, decedents of the pharaoh’s guards, led by Ardeth Bay (Fehr). The trio has a map to this fabled city, and they’re not the only ones searching for it. Evelyn wants to prove herself to her fellow scholars; everyone else is in it for treasure.
This is the project that introduced me to Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, and Rachel Weisz. Despite his small role in this film, Fehr displayed a believable presence and talent as Ardeth.
Vosloo’s portrayal as Imhotep/The Mummy is fantastic! He has very few lines and none in English (there are subtitles), so his role is mostly hitting his mark. That is, being where he needs to be at the right time. Special effects took a giant leap forward in 1999 after this film came out. So props to Vosloo for pretending to be all that’s required of an actor that will later become a gooey mummy who unhinges his jaw in post-production.
The Mummy is the only film that I like with Brendan Fraser in it. His character isn’t a tomb raider or archeologist and yet comes off like a watered-down Indian Jones. Done poorly, it could have ruined the movie, yet it works. The same can be said for Weisz’s character, Evelyn.
Evelyn is a bookworm. A librarian in a museum. She scurries off on an adventure with no experience and no team. Rachel Weisz is a wonderfully talented actress, and she takes this character and makes her likable. Weisz explains things to the novice characters, as an actual museum worker might. Therefore Evelyn’s lines in many places come off as natural instead of condescending. Weisz depicts her in a way that doesn’t have me groaning at the glaring, unbelievably of the whole situation.
As moviegoers, we expect movies to be logical enough that we can see it happening or working out. Perhaps, even so, we could picture ourselves as specific characters. The Mummy doesn’t have all the logical bits to fill in the gaps, but it’s okay. It’s a lasting example of what movies were designed to do, entertain and distract.
In the decades since its release, this movie still holds up as a good story with watchability. I viewed this film digitally on a 4K TV with HDR. WOW! Some scenes don’t upconvert as nicely as others, but I was really pleased with the viewing quality. I expected the whole thing to be grainy (noisy) and the fact that it’s not made rewatching this so much better than pre-Blu Ray.
The Mummy is a great film to see and worth a place on your watchlist. Don’t forget the popcorn!
Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon,
Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Kathrine Langford, Christopher Plummer
When the patriarch of an eccentric, privileged family’s death triggers an investigation, no one is above suspicion in Knives Out. The film aims to be an ode to classic whodunit stories.
Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) works with local police to investigate the death of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). His estate is reminiscent of something from an Agatha Christie novel, with its distinctive and eclectic presence. Its grandeur can only be matched by the robust and self-centered family members.
Whether it’s the interviews with suspects to the story moving along in general, there is enough information to establish each character. To flesh out what makes them tick, and perhaps what would give them motive, is this effortless display of character development. The group is dysfunctional, what family isn’t, and yet they all have presence. Each respective role is depicted well, and that’s what a viewer wants from an actor; to do a good job. To be believable. The cast is layered, funny at times, and portrays a level of family tension that absolutely rings true.
Ringing true is Rian Johnson’s ability to create such a script. Movies are not made like this typically; they just aren’t and that’s a travesty. I’d take a great story with a pinch of violence and a dash of language over the way the majority of films are made in America any day. Really, who needs wanton violence, skin, and language if the story is fantastic and well-acted?
The details that went into ensuring the audience doesn’t figure out what really happened is pure genius. It was jarring to hear Daniel Craig with a Southern accent, and I personally hope to never hear again. Mr. Blanc needed an accent, or he would have come across as a hard investigating cop. Craig’s performance was reminiscent of Hercule Poirot at the end, with his break down of events and clues, with the accent, but Poirot is far superior.
At the mid-way point of the film, I was like, okay, I have all this information, and there’s an hour left in the movie. It felt like the pace needed to quicken to keep my interest, and I was not disappointed. From there, the story shifts gears, the viewer is equipped with all the details they think they need, yet the plot dives deeper still. The plot twists and creates new perspectives and questions that all weave together to strengthen the suspense of determining how Harlan died.
While this all-star cast gives good performances, Ana de Armas and Chris Evans really sell the later part of the story with Daniel Craig. It’s got laughs and begs you to try and solve it before the end.
Knives Out is a fantastic homage to classic whodunit stories for the modern age. With suspense, family drama, laughs, a compelling story that will leave you engaged from beginning to end, and an ending… Knives Out should unequivocally be on your watchlist! You won’t be disappointed carving out time in your schedule to see it.