The Beguiled

Based on a 1966 novel that was adapted into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled is a well-crafted moody Gothic psychological thriller set in the midst of the Civil War about a small isolated girls boarding school sympathetic with the Confederacy and an encounter with an enemy Union soldier. Played by Colin Farrell, Corporal John McBurney is discovered injured in the woods near a largely abandoned boarding school in a former Virginia plantation close to the front line and run by the stern Miss Martha Farnsworth, played by the spooky Nicole Kidman. Reluctantly, the headmistress along with another teacher and the five remaining young students decide to take him in to recuperate until he is healthy enough to be turned over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner of war. Over time, the girls who have been isolated for so long begin to fall for the handsome McBurney and compete with each other for his attention. The young and beautiful teacher Edwina Morrow, played by Kirsten Dunst, becomes particularly infatuated with him, and he appears to reciprocate the interest. Tensions rapidly escalate when Edwina feels betrayed by McBurney and one of the teenage students Alicia, played by the conniving Elle Fanning. The jealousies between the young women and even with Miss Farnsworth over the affection of the injured corporal eventually leads the women to commit desperately sinister acts to prevent him from leaving. At the helm of the talented indie director Sofia Coppola, the movie does a brilliant job of creating an extremely dark and suspenseful atmosphere. To underscore the story’s brooding nature and Civil War setting, the film itself looks like it was filmed on a old-fashioned camera with dark lighting and faded colors. Furthermore, the plot development’s slow and sometimes tedious pace in which not much action happens until the end reflects the confining nature of the boarding school and McBurney anxiously awaiting being turned over to the Confederates. Overall, I found the film extremely effective in conveying a very specific mood and atmospheric quality central to heightening the slow-burn suspense and viciousness of the story. The movie reminds me of 1990’s Misery in which a famous author is stranded after suffering injuries from a car crash in the middle of nowhere and is assisted by a seemingly friendly woman who eventually subjects him to psychological and physical torture.

The Big Sick

Based on the true love story of the movie’s writers Kumail Nanjiani who is best known for the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley and his wife Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a terrific fresh take on the romantic comedy genre that is full of so much humor and human emotion to be appealing to those who do not like conventional romantic comedies. Played by himself, Kumail is a struggling standup comedian living in Chicago who works part-time as an Uber driver and feels extreme pressure from his traditional Pakistani Muslim family to marry a Pakistani woman. However, he personally experiences the difficult cross-cultural divide between his traditional Muslim family and his desire to be a typical young American man. He begins a relationship with a young white woman named Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, after they meet at one of his standup routines. However, their blossoming romance starts to fall apart when Emily discovers that Kumail’s parents are forcing Pakistani women on him, and, therefore, their future together may never work. Following their tense breakup, Kumail receives an unexpected phone call that Emily is in the hospital and, as the only person there that knows her, makes the decision to allow the doctors to place her in a medically induced coma to prevent the spread of a mysterious and life-threatening infection. Soon after, Emily’s parents Terry, played by Ray Romano, and Beth, played by Holly Hunter, rush to the hospital and basically tell Kumail he is no longer needed despite possibly saving her life. He refuses to leave the hospital, and, initially, her parents are fairly hostile to him and constantly ask him why he is there since Emily already broke up with him. Over several hilarious encounters and heartfelt moments when there is a fear that Emily will not make it, Kumail develops a very close and heartwarming relationship with both Terry and Beth and come to understand each other’s cultures. At the same time, Kumail’s family becomes increasingly agitated with their inability to arrange a marriage for him. They even claim to disown him for finally admitting that he is in love with an American woman who is neither Muslim or has a Pakistani background. Overall, I found it to be one of the most enjoyable films that I have seen recently and is remarkable for being so funny and uplifting despite being about a young woman in a coma.

Baby Driver

Written and directed by Edgar Wright who is best known for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver is a fun and exciting action film that is complemented by high-octane car chases, a terrifically eclectic and energetic soundtrack, and quality acting performances. We first meet the protagonist Baby, played by the baby-faced Ansel Elgort, in the middle of a bank heist in which he is the extremely talented getaway driver in Atlanta. Later, we learn that the young Baby works for the criminal mastermind Doc, played by the always terrific and devious Kevin Spacey, who organizes various armed robberies with different crews but always with Baby as the driver. Baby is very much ready to stop being a criminal and is told by Doc that he only has to participate in one more heist in order to pay off his debt to Doc. Somewhat of a loner whose only true passion is music after developing tinnitus as a child from a car accident that killed both of his parents, he eventually meets a young and beautiful waitress named Debora, played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame, who works at a diner where he is a regular. His life finally appears to be back on track, and he begins dating Debora and planning a crime-free life. However, things become complicated after Doc threatens Baby to do one more armed robbery, and Baby must work with the wild Buddy, played by Jon Hamm, Buddy’s beautiful wife Darling, and the gung-ho and out-of-control Bats, played by Jamie Foxx. The planned post office heist goes awry after Bats impulsively shoots several police officers and later murders a security guard. At the same time, never really wanting to be part of the criminal underworld in the first place, Baby secretly plans an escape with his love interest Debora in addition to making sure his deaf foster parent is safe. Overall, unlike most big-budget Hollywood action blockbusters, the movie feels more like a nuanced indie that takes a wholly unique spin on the car chase thriller and makes for an exhilarating and satisfying cinematic experience. What really defines the film is the carefully crafted soundtrack with songs that fit perfectly with each and every scene, whether it be action or romantic, and contributes so much so that it feels like a character of its own.

The Hero

From the writer/director of 2015’s I’ll See You in My Dreams that also starred Sam Elliott as a love interest, The Hero is a quiet sentimental film, with an excellent performance from the golden-voiced Sam Elliott, that focuses on an aging Western movie star in the twilight of his career looking for meaning in his life. Decades past his prime acting career starring in wildly successful Westerns like a film called The Hero, Lee Hayden, played by Elliott, is looking for his big return to the movies but spends most of his days smoking marijuana with his former co-star and drug dealer Jeremy, played by Nick Offerman. After learning that he has cancer, he begins a relationship with a much younger stand-up comedian named Charlotte, played by That 70s Show’s Laura Prepon. His passionate love affair and his desire to reconnect with his estranged daughter Lucy, played by Krysten Ritter, are means to come to grips with his mortality and former success. As he is coping with his own personal demons and illness, Lee unexpectedly lands the opportunity of a lifetime to star in a new blockbuster movie that could revamp his dying career. Throughout the film, there are also the sequences of Lee as if he was the character from his most famous movie The Hero facing situations involving death. Although there are some light-hearted moments, particularly with Nick Offerman’s character, the movie slowly traces, in a somewhat melodramatic fashion, the daily routines of a sick man trying to get back up on his feet. Mirroring Sam Elliott’s own acting career in which he is in an emotional twilight phase, Lee reflects on his successful yet complicated past while still holding out some hope for his future through his invigorating relationship with Charlotte. Overall, I found it to be a well-crafted indie drama that is a somber and emotionally raw glimpse into the universal story of aging and facing mortality, brilliantly anchored by Sam Elliott.

My Cousin Rachel

Based upon the 1951 novel of the same name written by the British author Daphne du Maurier who is best known for writing Rebecca and The Birds that were adapted into successful films by Alfred Hitchcock, My Cousin Rachel is a well-crafted gothic mystery-romance that is noteworthy for Rachel Weisz’s powerful performance and beautiful cinematography that underscores the dark and foreboding nature of the story. Played by the English actor Sam Claflin, Philip, a young and handsome bachelor taken in by his older cousin Ambrose Ashley after being orphaned at a young age, is heartbroken to learn of his beloved cousin’s death in Florence, Italy where he was recuperating from an illness. Philip also finds out Ambrose recently married a mysterious woman named Rachel in Italy, and Philip becomes increasingly suspicious that she was somehow involved in his death. However, when Rachel, played by the deliciously enigmatic and devious Rachel Weisz, returns to Ambrose’s Cornwall estate that Philip just inherited, Philip’s attitude towards Rachel quickly changes. He soon becomes infatuated with her beauty and seductive charms and disregards his previous suspicions. Possibly poisoning Philip with her special blend of tea and with questionable ulterior motives in returning to England, Philip, in the throes of desire, decides to give all of his inheritance from Ambrose to Rachel. Eventually, Philip with the assistance of his godfather, played by Iain Glen from Game of Thrones, begins to realize too late that something is amiss with Rachel, and he may have been deceived. Besides the sublime acting performances, the setting in the English countryside in the early nineteenth century is effectively used to reinforce the dark and gloomy atmosphere; it is very remote and rainy with spooky candlelit rooms in dreary expansive estates. Overall, I found it to be an excellent mystery-romance period piece with stellar acting, terrifically moody cinematography, and well-timed elements of a slow burn gothic thriller. 

Transformers: The Last Knight

The fifth film in the Transformers franchise that started in 2007, Transformers: The Last Knight is what you would expect from a Transformers movie: it is a loud and over-the-top CGI-heavy action extravaganza with a silly plot based on a line of Hasbro toys and filled with eyeroll-inducing dialogue. It is the second movie starring Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager, an inventor now living in a junkyard in South Dakota, who is friendly with the good Transformers the Autobots at a time when all Transformers are oppressed by the government. Eventually, he joins forces with a young and beautiful British female professor (with the requisite tight clothing and excessive cleavage for the stereotypical female lead in a Transformers film) and later an English Lord tied to a lineage of secret Transformers protectors played by Anthony Hopkins. Humanity’s survival depends on their actions as the bad Transformers the Decepticons led by the evil Quintessa and the brainwashed Optimus Prime set in motion for the Transformers’ dead home planet Cybertron to destroy Earth in order to bring life back to Cybertron. With a connection to King Arthur readily apparent by the Medieval battle sequence at the beginning, the trio must travel the world to discover historical artifacts, including a powerful staff, that may help in their quest to save Earth and the human race. The best part of the movie is Anthony Hopkins for his perfect narration voice, but I was constantly thinking why on Earth would such a fine actor participate in such a preposterous action porn. Overall, I found it to be your typical Hollywood blockbuster franchise film that does not really add much to the genre besides showing off new ways to blow up stuff and lining the pockets of the movie studio. 

Beatriz at Dinner

A particularly relevant story during such a time of political divisiveness, Beatriz at Dinner is an incisive dark comedy with important social commentary about social class and income inequality problems facing contemporary America. Played by the Mexican actress Salma Hayek in a terrific performance, Beatriz is a humble and kind-hearted Mexican immigrant who works as a holistic healer and masseuse for cancer patients and wealthy clients like the characters Cathy and Grant. After a session with Cathy at her and her husband Grant’s palatial mansion in upscale Orange County, Beatriz’s car breaks down and Cathy offers her to stay for a dinner party while she waits for her ride. Eventually, two other couples whose husbands have business interests with Grant arrive and practically ignore Beatriz’s presence, which leaves her in a very awkward position. However, she becomes vocally appalled by one of the guests, Doug Strutt who is played brilliantly by John Lithgow and is an extremely wealthy real estate tycoon with questionable legal and ethical practices. After learning more about what he actually does, Beatriz, who comes from a poor Mexican Village and exudes positivity, argues with Doug and berates him for his smug contempt and sheer meanness in his misguided pursuit of wealth at all costs. She is particularly disgusted by his showing off to the dinner guests of hunting a large animal on a recent African safari. You also get the sense that the hosts and the rest of the guests are out-of-touch with the real world because they talk about petty things and the accumulation of wealth rather than expressing sincere personal emotion and passion for taking care of others like Beatriz. The film in the form of Doug’s character eerily reminds the viewer of Donald Trump who, like Doug, is a brash real estate billionaire on his third wife. Overall, I found it to be a remarkable movie that touches on so many of today’s important societal issues in a fascinating fashion by recreating a supposedly simple dinner party through the eyes of an “outsider.”