Review: ‘Jurassic World Dominion,’ starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, DeWanda Wise and Mamoudou Athie

June 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Isabella Sermon and DeWanda Wise in “Jurassic World Dominion” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Jurassic World Dominion”

Directed by Colin Trevorrow

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and briefly in Malta, the sci-fi/action film “Jurassic World Dominion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Latinos and Asians) portraying scientists, business people and animal advocates involved in some way with the interaction of the dinosaur population that was first seen in 1993’s “Jurassic Park.”

Culture Clash: As dinosaurs and humans co-exist on Earth, swarms of giant locusts are eating crops and killing off Earth’s population, while a group of scientists and other people race against time to save the world. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Jurassic” franchise fans, “Jurassic World Dominion” will appeal to fans of the stars of the movie, as well as viewers who will tolerate a mediocre and jumbled story to see some familiar faces.

Beta and Blue in “Jurassic World Dominion” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Bloated and with a scatterbrained plot, “Jurassic World Dominion” is a disappointing, overstuffed mess with too many awkward jokes and not enough dinosaur action. Bringing back original “Jurassic Park” cast members will just remind viewers how superior the first “Jurassic Park” movie is to this “Jurassic World” sequel. Colin Trevorrow directed and co-wrote 2015’s “Jurassic World,” a spinoff to the “Jurassic Park” series that began with 1993’s “Jurassic Park.”

Trevorrow was set to direct 2018’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” but he was replaced by J.A. Bayona, although Trevorrow co-wrote the “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” screenplay. Trevorrow returned as a director of the “Jurassic” franchise by helming “Jurassic World Dominion,” which he co-wrote with Emily Carmichael. Unfortunately, it seems like the “Jurassic World Dominion” filmmakers couldn’t stick to an uncomplicated plot, because the movie (which is too long, at 146 minutes) goes off on some distracting and unwelcome tangents.

“Jurassic World Dominion” picks up four years after the destruction of the Central American island of Isla Nublar, the sanctuary-like domain of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs co-exist with humans all over the world—a prediction come true by Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum), who was shown at the end of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” testifying before the U.S. Senate that Earth would have dinosaurs and humans being able co-exist peacefully. But there would be no “Jurassic World Dominion” if things ended that simply.

The main cause of all of Earth’s problems in “Jurassic World Dominion” (as with most of the other “Jurassic” movies) comes down to one thing: human greed. And there’s yet another evil businessman who’s at the root of it. One of the more frustrating things about “Jurassic World Dominion” is that it lazily recycles and copies too many other things from previous “Jurassic” movies.

The beginning of “Jurassic Dominion” features a news report explaining that, once again, a black market has emerged for captured dinosaurs. As a result, the U.S. government has awarded the global rights to collect the world’s dinosaurs to a biotech company called Biosyn, which is located in the Dolomite Mountains valley. Not only is Biosyn now in charge of collecting all the dinosaurs on Earth but this mysterious company is also in the business of trying to eradicate world hunger by creating crops immune to pests and diseases.

Try not to laugh at the idea that one company has been given control over the world’s dinosaurs and possibly the world’s food supply chain. (The movie makes no mention whatsoever of what the United Nations would have to say about it, because apparently, the United States makes decisions for the entire world.) But “Jurassic Park Dominion” viewers are supposed to believe this flimsy premise, because it’s the basis of all of the conflicts in this movie.

With one company having this much power, corruption is inevitable. And the movie reveals early on who the chief villain is, which should surprise no one: Biosyn CEO Lewis Dodgson (played by Campbell Scott), who has several subordinates, but he’s really presented unrealistically as the only villain mastermind. Meanwhile, there’s a whole slew of heroes who zigzag around the world and eventually join forces for the predictable “we have save the world” part of the story.

“Jurassic World Dominion” is so disjointed and so caught up in introducing a new subplot every 20 minutes, it ends up being too jumbled for its own good. The beginning of the movie re-introduces former Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt) and dinosaur rescue advocate Claire Dearing (played Bryce Dallas Howard), who are now officially a couple, after trying to deny that they wanted to be a couple for the previous two “Jurassic World” movies.

Owen and Claire are living in isolation the Sierra Nevada Mountains and raising 15-year-old Maisie Lockwood (played Isabella Sermon), the orphaned daughter of Benjamin Lockwood (played by James Cromwell), the co-founder of Jurassic Park. Benjamin’s fate is show in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” which is why Owen and Claire are now Maisie’s guardians. As shown in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (mild spoiler alert) Benjamin’s daughter Charlotte died an untimely death, so in his grief, he controversially used Charlotte’s DNA to clone another daughter, who is Maisie, whom Benjamin presented to the world as his granddaughter.

This “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” plot reveal is talked about multiple times in “Jurassic World Dominion,” because Maisie knows she was cloned from her dead mother Charlotte’s DNA. Maisie is now in hiding with Owen and Claire, who both don’t want her to be captured by the U.S. government for experiments. This is all information that viewers need to know within the first 15 minutes of watching “Jurassic World Dominion.” It’s an example of how badly the movie is written for people who might not know anything about “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”

An early scene in “Jurassic World Dominion” shows that Claire (who is part of the Dinosaur Protection Group) has been fanatically rescuing dinosaurs from illegal breeders. The scene depicts one such recue at an illegal breeding farm in Nevada. Two of Claire’s dinosaur rescue colleagues—systems analyst Franklin Webb (played by Justice Smith) and paleo-veterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez (played by Daniella Pineda)—are with her on this successful mission, but they start to question Claire’s recklessness in putting them in increasing danger. Franklin’s and Zia’s appearances in the movie are really just filler.

Owen and Claire refuse to let Maisie interact with any other people except Owen and Claire. And now, teenage Maisie is starting to resent this control and is beginning to rebel. Expect to see several scenes of Maisie shouting, pouting and being resentful to Owen and Claire. But before Owen and Claire have much time to deal with Maisie wanting more freedom, this family has another more pressing problem: a dinosaur kidnapping.

One of the stars of the previous two “Jurassic World” movies was a female Velociraptor named Blue, who was rescued and adopted by Owen and Claire. Blue (one of the last-known Velociraptors on Earth) conceived a child on her own and gave birth to this child, which is named Beta. And now, Beta has been stolen by poachers, led by a shaggy-haired lowlife named Rainn Delacourt (played by Scott Haze), who works for the most obvious person possible. And then, Maisie gets kidnapped too. A sassy former U.S. Air Force pilot named Kayla Watts (played by DeWanda Wise) has been hired to transport Maisie by private plane during this kidnapping.

But wait, there’s more: Swarms of giant locusts have been causing terror on Earth, by killing people and eating essential food crops. And these giant locusts, which are rapidly spreading across the world, are only eating food crops that were not engineered by Biosyn. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s not a coincidence. But apparently, only a few people on Earth have figured out that it’s not a coincidence. And in this idiotic movie, that small group of people will to have to be the ones to save the world.

Meanwhile, original “Jurassic Park” characters Dr. Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern) are shoehorned into a clumsy plot where they reunite with Ian, who now works for Biosyn. Before that happens, paleobotanist Ellie meets up with paleontologist Alan, who is now living in Utah and making money offering paleontological digs for tourists. It’s a reunion scene that should be entertaining to watch, but it just looks so forced and uncomfortably written.

Alan has had a crush on Ellie for years—so much so, that he has a photo of her on his wall. He quickly hides the photo when Ellie suddenly shows up to visit him. Ellie is now divorced with college-age children. Alan is a bachelor who’s happy to hear Ellie is now single and available. And you know what that means later in the movie.

Ian has invited Ellie and Alan to Biosyn, where he is now the company’s in-house philosopher. It’s just an excuse for the movie to have Ian act like a New Age eccentric. Later in the movie, Ian makes this creepy statement: “I had a dog once. It humped my leg so much, I got a callous on my shin bone.” That’s an example of the awful dialogue in “Jurassic World Dominion.”

Biosyn’s head of communications Ramsay Cole (played by Mamoudou Athie) is open about his hero worship of Ian. Ramsay also professes his loyalty to Rasmay’s Biosyn CEO boss Lewis. Ramsay becomes the official Biosyn tour guide for visitors Ellie and Alan, who are both suspicious of Lewis. “Jurassic” movie franchise recurring character Dr. Henry Wu (played by BD Wong), who works for Biosyn as a genetic engineer, is in the movie for less than 15 minutes, where he spends most of his screen time looking stressed-out and worried.

With the reunion of old characters and the introduction of new characters, “Jurassic World Dominion” keeps throwing different subplots into the mix to separate the characters and then eventually bring them back together. There’s an unnecessary detour to Malta, featuring a cameo from Barry Sembène (played by Omar Sy), who was a dinosaur trainer in 2015’s “Jurassic World” movie. Barry’s only purpose in “Jurassic World Dominion” is to tell people that Malta is a gateway for people involved in illegal dinosaur trafficking, and so he can show Claire and Owen what an underground dinosaur fight club looks like.

And what about the dinosaurs in this story? They’re not in the movie as much as some viewers might expect. The dinosaur action scenes are not very terrifying at all. You never feel like the “heroes” are in any real danger. And when you see the lack of serious injuries at the end of the film, considering all the physical attacks that the characters experienced, it all just adds to the movie’s phoniness.

None of the acting in “Jurassic World Dominion” is special, because the cast members are just going through the motions reciting the often-silly dialogue that they have to say. (Expect to see plenty of cringeworthy comments from Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm character. ) “Jurassic World Dominion” is ultimately a “Jurassic” movie where the dinosaurs have lost a lot of edge, and the human drama is entirely toothless.

Universal Pictures will release “Jurassic World: Dominion” in U.S. cinemas on June 10, 2022. The movie was released in other countries first, beginning June 1 in Mexico and South Korea, and June 2 in Argentina, Brazil and Peru.

Review: ‘Black Box’ (2020), starring Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa and Troy James

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie and Phylicia Rashad in “Black Box” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Amazon Studios)

“Black Box” (2020)

Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/horror movie “Black Box” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed father suffers from amnesia because of the car accident that killed his wife, and he undergoes a radical scientific experiment to try to recover his memories.

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that blend science fiction with family drama and have unexpected twists.

Amanda Christine and Mamoudou Athie in “Black Box” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios)

At first glance, the sci-fi/horror film “Black Box” seems to be a story about how unchecked scientific experiments can wreak havoc on someone’s life. But beneath all the creepy and mind-bending scenes is a story about yearning for chances to start over and renew relationships with loved ones. Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., “Black Box” has some familiar influences (the 1990 film “Total Recall” immediately comes to mind), but the movie has its own unique elements that make it a worthwhile offering for people who like horror movies where a lot of terror can exist in someone’s mind.

“Black Box” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. The movie is the feature-film debut of Osei-Kuffour, who co-wrote the “Black Box” screenplay with Stephen Herman. It’s not a straightforward movie that is supposed to be told chronologically. Instead, viewers have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, just like fragmented memories that could become whole.

In “Black Box,” Nolan Wright (played by Mamoudou Athie) is a 33-year-old photographer and widowed father who is struggling physically, financially and emotionally. He is recovering from a car accident that killed his wife Rachel six months ago and left him in a coma. When he emerged from the coma, he found out that he has amnesia, and he is now coping with feelings for guilt over Rachel’s death and the stress of not remembering a great deal of his life.

Because of his injuries and ongoing recovery, Nolan hasn’t been able to work, and the bills are piling up. There’s a wall in Nolan’s living room that looks like it was punched in anger, and it’s later revealed in the movie that he punched the wall because he got frustrated over being hounded by bill collectors. This type of violence goes against Nolan’s mild-mannered nature. He’s also a kind and attentive father.

Nolan’s lively and very precocious daughter Ava (played by Amanda Christine), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, has become the “lady” of their household. She helps Nolan get ready in the morning, makes meals and helps him remember things, since Nolan as short-term and long-term memory loss. Nolan worries that the big chunks of his life that he doesn’t remember are memories that he’ll never get back.

In the beginning of the movie, Nolan is ready to go back to work at the magazine job he used to have before the car accident. He has a meeting with his former boss Cathy (played by Gretchen Koerner), who also used to be the supervisor for Nolan’s late wife Rachel. But Cathy tells him some bad news: She can’t rehire Nolan because her publisher boss doesn’t think that Nolan’s current work doesn’t reach the same quality level as his past work.

Nolan’s best friend is a doctor named Gary (played by Tosin Morohunfola), who offers to lend Nolan money to help pay Nolan’s bills, but Nolan is politely declines to accept this offer. Nolan tells Gary about being rejected by his former job, and Gary comforts Nolan by telling him, “You don’t need to change your career, Nolan. You just need to remember who you are.”

While Nolan is visiting Gary at the hospital where Gary works, Gary recommends that Nolan try undergoing some of the experimental memory treatments conducted by Dr. Lillian Brooks (played by Phylicia Rashad), who is considered a somewhat controversial visionary because not all of her experiments have been government-approved. And it just so happens that a video of Dr. Brooks giving an instructional lecture to an audience is playing in the waiting room where Nolan is sitting.

Feeling he’s got nothing to lose, Nolan makes an appointment with Dr. Brooks, who knows Nolan’s personal and medical history and decides he’s a good candidate for her Black Box memory recovery experiments. Dr. Brooks tells Nolan that the Black Box converts memories into an “immersive virtual experience, like a dream.” Therefore, when Nolan gets a Black Box treatment, he will have a virtual recreation of his memories.

Dr. Brooks puts Nolan under hypnosis, where he sees himself in a house with different rooms. Before he goes into the trance, Dr. Brooks tells him that the first room he will be in is a “safe room.” There are no safes in this room, but it’s supposed to represent the safest room in the house and the room that Nolan has to be in if he wants to emerge safely from the hypnosis.

Nolan can go from room to room by pushing down on the crown of an imaginary analog watch. However, he cannot open the doors in the safe room. If he wants to leave the safe room, he has to use the watch. And what Nolan sees when he goes under hypnosis would be enough for most people to completely call off the Black Box experiment.

While under hypnosis, Nolan has flashes of memories, but the other people in these memories have their faces blurred out and the rooms are usually very shadowy or dark. One vivid memory that Nolan relives is his wedding ceremony in the church where it took place. But what’s supposed to be happy memory turns into a nightmare.

An unwelcome guest emerges from a church pew. It’s an unknown humanoid creature that can contort limbs at sickening angles. The menacing creature is called Backwards Man (played by Troy James), and every time it moves, you can hear the sound of bones cracking. Just like everyone else in these visions, the face of Backwards Man is obscured. Every time Backwards Man sees Nolan, the creature rushes to attack Nolan, who then has to quickly find a way back to the safe room so that he can come out from the hypnosis.

The first time that Nolan has this terrifying experience, he’s hesitant to go back under hypnosis again. But his desire to recover his memories outweighs any fear that he has, so he goes back under hypnosis again. Another vision that he sees is of a bruised and crying woman in a kitchen. It appears that someone in the home has beaten her and she’s afraid of that person.

Nolan has never seen this woman before, but he later finds out that her name is Miranda (played by Charmaine Bingwa), and she doesn’t live very far from Nolan. He also sees in his visions that Miranda has a crying baby in another room. And once again, Backwards Man suddenly appears to try to attack Nolan.

Nolan begins to wonder if the visions he’s seeing are really memories or delusions. He asks Gary if he’s ever had a history of abusing women. Gary tells Nolan absolutely not and says that Nolan and Rachel were an ideal, loving couple. Gary only remembers bits and pieces of his marriage to Rachel, so he has to take Gary’s word for it. (There’s no mention in the story if Nolan has any other relatives. If he does, he doesn’t communicate with them and vice versa.)

The mysteries of Nolan’s strange Black Box visions are explained by the end of the film. Throughout the movie, “Black Box” writer/director Osei-Kuffour achieves a delicate balance between the Nolan who’s trying to keep things together in the “real world” to be a responsible parent and the Nolan who keeps getting pulled back into the dark and murky world of the Black Box memory experiments. Nolan isn’t quite sure what’s being done to his mind but he’s willing to risk everything just to get back his memories.

But the darker world of these memory experiments spills over into Nolan’s real world, as he has nightmares and blackouts that affect his ability to function as normally as he would like. For example, one day he forgets to pick up Ava from school (it’s not the first time it’s happened), and the concerned teacher who brings Ava home threatens to report Nolan to child protective services if it happens again.

As Nolan, Athie does an admirable job of portraying someone who’s torn between these two worlds, while Christine shows a lot of talent as a child who’s perceptive beyond the level of most children her age. Nolan and Ava’s father/daughter relationship is adorable and realistic. Rashad portrays Dr. Brooks as someone who is passionate about her work, but the movie doesn’t really go into details about other patients whom Dr. Brooks has treated. The only work with patients that Dr. Brooks is shown doing in the movie is her Black Box sessions with Nolan.

The Backwards Man in “Black Box” brings some chills, but this contortionist creature looks too human and familiar for it to become a horror villain that people will be talking about for years. (When the face of Backwards Man is finally revealed, it’s no surprise.) Ultimately, the message of “Black Box” is that no matter how advanced technology becomes and how many material possessions people can have, people’s human connections and memories have intangible value and are treasured the most.

Prime Video premiered “Black Box” on October 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Uncorked,’ starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked”

Directed by Prentice Penny

Culture Representation: Taking place in Memphis and Paris, the comedy-inflected drama “Uncorked” has a diverse cast of African Americans and white characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An African American man in his 20s is torn between wanting to become a master sommelier and his father’s wishes for him to take over the family’s barbecue restaurant business.

Culture Audience: “Uncorked” will appeal mostly to people who want to see a relatable drama about family relationships, as well as what it’s like to try to break into the competitive and elite world of master sommeliers.

Mamoudou Athie and Courtney B. Vance in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked” takes an authentic and sometimes humorous look at the journey a young man goes through in pursuing his dream to become a master sommelier, even though it conflicts with family obligations. In telling this unique story for the screen, writer/director Prentice Penny just happened to make the protagonist an African American. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t take the cliché route of making the movie about racism or about an underprivileged person of color who gets help from a “white savior.” Instead, the movie touches on universal themes of family tensions and self-doubt through the lens of African American middle-class culture.

The two conflicting worlds of central character Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie) are made abundantly clear in the opening credits, which alternate between montages of people making barbecue and people making wine. Elijah, who appears to be in his mid-to-late-20s, is holding down two jobs in his hometown of Memphis: He’s a sales clerk at a wine shop and a cook in his father’s casual barbecue restaurant. He’s a lot more passionate about his wine job, and he only works at his father’s place because he feels obligated to do it.

Elijah’s father Louis (played by Courtney B. Vance) inherited the barbecue place from his own father, and Louis expects to Elijah (his only son) to take over the restaurant someday. It’s truly a family business because Elijah’s mother Sylvia (played by Niecy Nash) also works there, as a waitress. Louis also has plans to open a second, more upscale barbecue restaurant in a “gentrified” neighborhood. Elijah’s close-knit family includes Elijah’s cousins, Elijah’s older sister Brenda (played by Kelly Jenrette), Brenda’s husband and their three kids,

However, Elijah’s passion is really for the wine business. It’s evident in how he lights up when talking about wine and recommending selections to customers at the wine shop. One customer in particular sparks more than just an interest in recommending wine. He meets a young woman named Tanya (played by Sasha Compère) when she comes into the store with a friend to get a bottle of wine for a party.

Tanya doesn’t know much about wine, but Elijah puts her at ease by asking her if she likes hip-hop. She says yes. In helping her make her choice, he explains that chardonnay is like the Jay-Z of wine, pino grigio is like the Kanye West of wine and riesling is like the Drake of wine. (She ends up getting riesling wine.)

It’s no surprise that Tanya comes back to the store on another day and takes Elijah’s suggestion to join the store’s wine club, which is how she gives Elijah her contact information. They begin dating each other soon afterward. (Their first date is at a roller-skating rink.)

Tanya encourages Elijah to pursue his dream to become a master sommelier—a title that, as of this writing, only 269 people in the world have ever held, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Elijah’s boss at the wine store, Raylan Jackson (played by Matthew Glave), also encourages Elijah and says he will put in a recommendation for Elijah if he ever wants to go to sommelier school. Raylan is a master sommelier, and Elijah looks wistfully at the sommelier diploma that Raylan has.

Meanwhile, there’s increasing tension between Elijah and his father Louis. When Louis tries to get Elijah to do things that will prepare Elijah to take over the barbecue business, Elijah makes excuses by saying he has other plans, usually related to his wine job. Over a large family dinner, Elijah mentions that he’s thinking about going to sommelier school. Louis then makes a snide comment to Elijah by expressing doubt that Elijah will follow through on that goal. He reminds Elijah that he’s had other career goals (including being a DJ) that Elijah eventually abandoned.

Elijah’s mother Sylvia, who’s completely supportive of Elijah, later scolds Louis in private for embarrassing Elijah in front of the family. The back-and-forth banter and conversations between Louis and Sylvia are some of the funniest parts of the movie. Their dialogue rings true for a longtime married couple.

What also rings true is the way that the movie shows that when it comes to pursuing a dream, sometimes people can get in their own way, through self-doubt and making excuses. Tanya essentially tells Elijah that’s what he’ll be doing if he doesn’t take a chance and apply to sommelier school. It’s the extra encouragement he needs to take the entrance exam. And he gets into the school—but not without a major sacrifice. The only way he can pay for the tuition is to use all of his savings.

Even though Elijah tells Louis he can still work at the barbecue restaurant while he attends school, both father and son know that Elijah is now on a path that will change their relationship forever. Elijah is a talented student and a quick learner. But it’s one thing to graduate from sommelier school. It’s quite another thing to pass the extremely difficult test to become a master sommelier. (Based on the small percentage of master sommeliers in the world, most people who take the test don’t pass.)

While attending sommelier school, Elijah meets the three other people who end up in his study group: neurotic and obnoxious Richie (played by Gil Ozeri); cocky and intelligent Eric (played by Matt McGorry), who’s nicknamed Harvard because he went to Harvard University; and sensible and sarcastic Leann (played by Meera Rohit Kumbhani). Another challenge comes when Elijah’s sommelier class goes on a trip to Paris that he can’t really afford. 

Will Elijah get to go to Paris? Will he pass the master sommelier test? And how is his relationship with his father affected by these sommelier ambitions? Those questions are answered in the movie, which has a few twists and turns along the way.

“Uncorked” is the first feature film by writer/director Penny, who’s a former writer/director for the HBO comedy series “Insecure,” starring Issa Rae. The movie is an admirable debut that shows Penny has a knack for entertaining writing and making the right choices in editing and casting. (All the actors adeptly handle the movies comedic elements as well as the overall drama.)

To its great credit, “Uncorked” doesn’t get bogged down in stereotypical tropes of an African American trying to break into a predominantly white industry. There are no racist villains in the story, nor does Elijah have a negative attitude about the extremely small percentage of African Americans who end up being sommeliers. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t water down the African American culture that’s shown in the movie. (The soundtrack is hip-hop and there’s plenty of realistic dialogue in the film.)

As the central character Elijah, Athie carries the movie with a significant deal of charm and empathy. He makes great use of facial expressions to convincingly portray the inner conflicts of someone who wants to please his father and yet be his own man. The father-son relationship is complicated, but there’s also enough respect between the two of them that they don’t deal with conflicts by having obscenity-filled shouting matches, which are over-used negative stereotypes in movies about African American families. “Uncorked” is ultimately about more than just pursuing a dream. It’s also about understanding that in order to stay true to yourself, you have to know you really are in the first place.

Netflix premiered “Uncorked” on March 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Underwater,’ starring Kristen Stewart

January 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Underwater”
Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” (Photo by Alan Markfield)

“Underwater”

Directed by William Eubank

Culture Representation: The movie’s characters are a predominately white, educated crew of underwater explorers (with one African American and one Asian) who are tasked with drilling for resources in the deep ocean when they come under attack and fight for their lives.

Culture Clash: Telling a story with an implied environmental message, “Underwater” shows what happens when deep-ocean creatures fight back against humans who plunder their territory.

Culture Audience: “Underwater” will primarily appeal to those looking for a suspenseful sci-fi/horror movie that won’t be considered a classic but will provide about 90 minutes of escapist entertainment.

Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” (Photo by Alan Markfield)

Kristen Stewart: action hero? Taking massive cues from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien,” Stewart goes from brainy, introspective crew member to kick-ass warrior, as she takes on deep-sea monsters in the sci-fi/horror film “Underwater.” After starring in the 2019 comedy reboot fiasco of Columbia Pictures’ “Charlie’s Angels,” Stewart (who’s been making mostly arty indie films for the past several years) has taken another step into major-studio action fare—but in 20th Century Fox’s “Underwater,” she’s going for scares instead of laughs.

During the opening credits of “Underwater,” there are flashes of media headlines and news reports about unconfirmed sightings of mysterious creatures in the deep ocean. According to the headlines, a major corporation named Kepler has been mining the deep oceans for resources, and hasn’t been giving full explanations for why employees have apparently disappeared from the underwater drilling sites. These elaborate, high-tech facilities (which are seven miles below the ocean surface) look like a cross between a factory, a spaceship and an underground bunker. They’re so high-tech that the Kepler workers living in these facilities for weeks or months at a time don’t need to wear oxygen masks or submarine suits when they’re in the building.

Within the first five minutes of the film, we’re barely introduced to Stewart’s mechanical/electrical engineer character Norah Price (who looks pensive as she brushes her teeth, muses about her isolation in a voiceover, and thinks about her broken love affair with her former fiancé) when the facility is hit with a massive explosion that kills many people in the crew and destroys the emergency equipment. Six of the surviving crew members, including Norah, find each other and agree to a desperate plan to walk across the ocean floor to an abandoned facility named Roebuck, in the hopes that Roebuck’s emergency equipment still works so they can escape or call for help.

The other five crew members are crew captain Lucien (played by Vincent Cassel), a take-charge Frenchman who has a 14-year-old daughter waiting for him at home; marine biology student Emily (played by Jessica Henwick), an inquisitive type who scares easily; operations expert Smith (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who’s in a romantic relationship with Emily; systems manager Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), a solid guy who has a dorky side; and wisecracking Paul (played by T.J. Miller, who can’t seem to break out of his typecast as a supporting character who’s socially awkward and talks too much). They soon find out what caused the explosion (Hint: It wasn’t faulty equipment.)

Because the frantic action begins so early in the film, the “Underwater” screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad doesn’t leave much room for character development. The actors do the best that they can with the generic characters and mostly forgettable dialogue that were written for them. The movie’s biggest asset, under the choppy direction of William Eubank, is the way it ramps up suspense, even if there are glaring plot holes the size of the ocean where these crew members are trapped. The visual effects for the sea monsters also achieve their intended impact, but the creatures’ very existence in the ocean (much like Godzilla) requires a huge suspension of disbelief. And cinematographer Bojan Bazelli serves up some compelling shots that might give some people the feelings of dizziness or claustrophobia if the movie is watched on a big screen.

However, the “Underwater” filmmakers don’t want viewers of this movie to think too hard, because then you’ll start to ask questions that unravel the plot, such as: “How could creatures of this size and quantity escape detection for so long?” Even if one company tried to cover up the existence of these monsters, their impact on the environment would be noticed already by too many marine biologists and people who work directly in the ocean. Monsters in outer space make more sense if they’re supposed to be undetected by humans on Earth. And at least in the world of Godzilla, millions of people in that world know that Godzilla is a creature that lives in the ocean. In “Underwater,” these monsters are a total surprise to the unlucky crew members who encounter them.

Just like a lot of movies whose plot is driven by suspense, “Underwater” also has a “race against time” element because (of course) the survivors are running out of oxygen. But this plot device is conveniently ignored when these so-called trained underwater professionals waste a lot of oxygen by talking too much. Paul, the annoying motormouth, is the chief culprit. In order to enjoy this movie, you can’t pay attention to the screenplay’s inconsistencies in how their underwater suits are supposed to work.

And since this is a horror movie, not everyone is going to get out alive. But there will be moments of further disbelief when certain characters go through things that would kill someone in real life, and then they survive, and you’re left wondering, “How are they still alive…and with their hair still neatly in place?” And—this is no joke—you can see freshly applied beauty makeup on one of the actresses’ faces after her character has supposedly gone through underwater hell. There must be some industrial-quality waterproof lipstick they have in that underwater bunker. There’s also a small stuffed animal that gets carried around as a good luck charm that somehow doesn’t get lost or destroyed during all the mayhem. “Underwater” is not a movie made for people who pay attention to these kinds of details.

“Underwater” is certainly not the worst horror film of 2020, and the movie’s ending should be commended for not being a total cliché. However, if you want a horror flick with memorable characters and a solid plot, then you’ll have to look elsewhere.

20th Century Fox released “Underwater” in U.S. cinemas on January 10, 2020.

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