The Foreigner

Directed by Martin Campbell who is best known for the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, The Foreigner is a fairly typical yet entertaining action thriller significant for the dramatic acting performance given by the usually funny martial arts superstar Jackie Chan. The aging Chan plays Ngoc Minh Quan, a hard-working Chinese restaurant owner in London whose beloved teenage daughter Fan is killed in a bombing claimed by a group of terrorists sympathetic to the anti-British IRA movement in Ireland and Northern Ireland. After his wife and other children were murdered as they migrated to England years ago, the death of his only remaining family member sets Quan on a path to find those responsible and enact revenge. He approaches the Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, played by a dramatic Pierce Brosnan, who Quan believes knows the perpetrators. Hennessey is suspicious because he was once a powerful figure in the IRA who still has connections with active members despite his apparent allegience to the United Kingdom. Chan’s character rapidly escalates his anger at Hennessy by bombing his office in Belfast and systematically terrorizing him at his farmhouse. Throughout the entire conflict, Hennessy claims he has no knowledge about the bombing in London and actually investigates it himself to see if any of his former IRA associates were involved. As he tries to find the culprits and smooth over relations with the central British government, Hennessy tasks his bodyguards, including his ruthless nephew Sean, with hunting down Quan who we learn has a particular set of skills as a former Special Ops trained by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Towards the end of the movie, things get more complicated with surprising twists on who was really involved in the London bombing. As with any other Jackie Chan film, there are several well choreographed fight sequences in which Jackie Chan uses his martial arts skills to the fullest. However, I was surprised by the relatively few scenes involving Jackie Chan; the promotional material gives the impression that his character would be the central focus and that Pierce Brosnan’s character would be less of a major character. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable but fairly formulaic action thriller whose strengths include the dramatic turn of Jackie Chan and the uniquely fresh take on the IRA.

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The Mountain Between Us

Based on a novel of the same name written by Charles Martin in 2011, The Mountain Between Us is an interesting take on the romance genre by fashioning it as a survival movie and whose greatest asset is the always terrific acting performances of Golden Globe winner Idris Elba and Academy Award winner Kate Winslet. Both are strangers who find themselves chartering a small plane out of Idaho because they need to be somewhere after flight cancelations. Dr. Ben Bass, played by Elba, is a talented neurosurgeon who must be back in Baltimore to perform an emergency pediatric surgery, while Alex Martin is an acclaimed photographer who must be home for her wedding the next day. Piloted by Beau Bridges’ character and accompanied by his loyal dog, their small aircraft crashes in the extremely remote mountains of the High Uintas Wilderness somewhere in Utah en route to Denver. Both Ben and Alex, along with the dog, survive the crash but quickly realize that they are stranded because no flight plan was filed and none of the radios and cell phones are working. The more pragmatic and cautious Ben urges Alex who injured her leg that they must stay at the crash site in hopes that rescuers will come to them. Despite her condition, the much more adventurous and emotional Alex decides that it would be in their best interest to hike down the mountains to find civilization and survive. Eventually, they decide to venture through the increasingly brutal wilderness even with the full knowledge that it could lead to their deaths. Throughout the ordeal, they discuss fairly intimate details of their lives, including Ben’s wife and Alex’s engagement and marriage ceremony that she is missing. Their unique bond caused by the human desire to survive over time leads to a romantic spark, which puts their future lives into question if they make it out of the mountains alive. For better or worse, the movie is a relatively simple romantic story of two strangers coming together and finding love in the most unusual way possible. Overall, I was expecting more of a survival movie with thrilling adventures and came feeling like something was lacking to create a movie worthy of the immense talents of the two actors.

Battle of the Sexes

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris who are best known for the 2006 indie smash hit Little Miss Sunshine, Battle of the Sexes is a highly entertaining and inspirational film about the true story of the famed tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973. In one of her best performances to date, Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone portrays the feminist and sports icon Billie Jean King who we first meet fighting for equal pay for female tennis players and eventually helps form the all-female Virginia Slims Circuit with the promoter Gladys Heldman, played by comedian Sarah Silverman. The impetus for breaking off from the major tours was the chauvinism showed by the male-dominated sports community best represented by former number one tennis player and legendary tennis commentator and promoter Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman. Along with the other star women, King, the reigning number one female player and winner of multiple Grand Slam titles, has success on the female circuit and is depicted as having fun yet healthy competition with the other players. Eventually, the self-proclaimed male chauvinist and perpetual showboating former number one tennis player Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell, tries to reclaim the spotlight by proposing to play a female tennis player. Already way past his prime at the age of 55, Riggs is finally able to woo the 29-year old Billie Jean King to participate in the so-called Battle of the Sexes at the height of the feminist movement. While dealing with the pressures of the cultural phenomenon that the match has become, King grapples with her sexual orientation while being married to a man and must push back on the pervasive sexism in society. During the tour, she begins a relationship with a carefree female hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough, who encourages King to embrace being a lesbian at a time when it was taboo. Despite the serious issues raised, the film is able to keep audiences entertained as a result of the buffoonery of Bobby Riggs who does anything to promote himself and has a playful back-and-forth with King until the tides shift during the actual match. The movie does an excellent job of building up the tension to the much-hyped exhibition between man and woman, which takes place in Houston at the Astrodome on September 20, 1973. I came away from the film feeling even more the unpleasant truth that sexism was so pervasive at that time, and that it was normal for male commentators to make clearly chauvinistic comments in public without much rebuke. Overall, I thought the filmmakers were expertly effective in portraying the trials and tribulations of such a trailblazing figure in American history as Billie Jean King, all the while keeping the audience fully engaged with moments of humor and levity.

Victoria and Abdul

Directed by Academy Award-nominated British filmmaker Stephen Frears who is best known for 2006’s The Queen also about a famous British female monarch, Victoria and Abdul is the fascinating untold true story of Queen Victoria’s unlikely relationship with an Indian servant. Clearly, the film’s greatest strength is the magnificent acting performance from Dame Judi Dench, already well-regarded for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs. Brown and her Oscar-winning role as Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Celebrating her golden jubilee commemorating 50 years on the throne in 1887, the Queen is sent two Indian servants as representatives of British-ruled India and begins a fond relationship with one of the men named Abdul Karim, played by Indian actor Ali Fazal. Eventually, he becomes a close confidant of the lonely Victoria who lost her husband Albert many years ago and invites Abdul to palace functions and is even taught his native Indian language. Abdul also is given a house on Royal property and is able to bring his Indian wife and mother-in-law to England. The film does an excellent job of realistically depicting what it must have been like at Queen Victoria’s residences, mostly because it was filmed at the real Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where much of the movie takes place. As Abdul becomes increasingly closer to Victoria, the Royal household and Victoria’s successor and son Prince Bertie, played by Eddie Izzard, continue to get fed up with her unorthodox friendship to a man that they believe is racially inferior and a simple-minded servant unworthy of her attention. Her real deep connection with Abdul forces her to fight back against her own family and royal duties and defends him until her death in 1901. Apparent by the story of Abdul not being uncovered until only recently, there was a actual animosity evidenced by Bertie ordering the destruction of all records pertaining to Abdul immediately after he takes the throne. Overall, I was particularly intrigued by the film’s plot and especially struck by Judi Dench’s terrific performance; however, it was too full of cliches to transcend the genre and was much more of a sad story than the promotional materials lead the viewer to believe.

War for the Planet of the Apes

The third installment of the third movie series franchise that began with 1968’s Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston and was revamped in the current series starting with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes like the previous two films represents a dramatic tonal and quality shift, arguably for the better. The movie takes itself much more seriously and delves into the negative impacts of modern science and the oppression of the unknown other. Portrayed by the great CGI motion capture artist Andy Serkis who is best known for creating the Gollum character in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first real intelligent ape Caesar is the leader in hiding with the remaining faction of apes in Northern California. Caesar’s desire for peace is destroyed by a renegade unit of the American military trying to eradicate the Simian Flu that has decimated the human population and made the apes intelligent. Serving as a prequel to the original 1968 film before the apes take over the world, Caesar and his followers are portrayed as sympathetic downtrodden minorities that are brutally oppressed by mankind out of fear. The plot line follows Caesar who suffers a tragedy at the hands of the humans and tries to lead his group to safety in the desert far away from humans. To protect the other apes and avenge the murder of his family, Caesar breaks off into a small group to enact “gorilla” warfare on the barbaric human militia, including its ruthless leader simply known as the Colonel, played by the terrifically vicious Woody Harrelson. Along with a orphaned young girl suffering from a mysterious ailment, Caesar’s ragtag group discover that the Colonel has imprisoned the remaining apes that were supposed to escape to the desert. The apes who prove to be smarter than the humans must figure out a way to rescue those enslaved at the remote former military outpost on the California border. The Colonel’s forces are also faced with an attack from a different group of soldiers to the North that has a more sympathetic view of the apes. Although it may sound strange, the movie does an excellent job of humanizing the apes through the emotionally powerful script and the remarkable magic of CGI to create realistic human-like apes. Overall, I found it to be a very high-quality blockbuster that brings a certain level of seriousness and cinematic beauty wholly unexpected from a story about talking apes.

Ingrid Goes West

Winner of the screenwriting award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Ingrid Goes West is a dark comedy that glimpses into the societal ills associated with the rise of social networking like Facebook and Instagram. Ingrid Thorburn, played by the terrific Aubrey Plaza, is a mentally disturbed young woman who just lost her mother and is put in a mental hospital after stalking somebody on Instagram that she falsely believes is her friend in real life. After being released from the mental hospital, she decides to change her life and moves to Los Angeles in hopes of a better life. However, she becomes obsessed with an Instagram star named Taylor Sloane, played by the brilliant young actress Elizabeth Olsen, and she forces her way into a friendship with Taylor under false pretenses. A perpetual liar who is fully engrossed with being liked by popular society, especially on Instagram, Ingrid does whatever she can to impress Taylor and her cool friends. At the same time, she develops a relationship with her young black landlord Dan Pinto, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. best known for his role as Ice Cube in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. With the arrival of Taylor’s arrogant and obnoxious brother Nicky, Ingrid begins to lose favor with Taylor. Eventually, Ingrid’s sketchy past and questionable friendship with Taylor comes back to haunt Ingrid and possibly destroy her already fragile life. Overall, I found it to be an extremely incisive study of the problems perpetuated by the millennial generation oversaturated by social media and shows how today’s heightened societal pressures affect the mental well-being of individuals. In addition to its important social messages, the film itself can be highly entertaining and is especially well-crafted with excellent writing and acting performances. 

Dunkirk

Written and directed by the acclaimed Christopher Nolan who is best known for 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2010’s Inception, Dunkirk is a top-notch war movie crafted by Nolan at his finest and joints the ranks of the greatest war films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1998 modern classic Saving Private Ryan. The remarkable true story chronicles one of the most pivotal moments of World War II: the British surrender and massive evacuation at Dunkirk, France beginning in late May and ending in early June of 1940. Up to 400,000 mostly British soldiers representing almost the entirety of the British military were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with no real way of crossing the English Channel and reaching home even though it was within sight across the shore. With outstanding cinematography, greatly enhanced by the all-encompassing IMAX 70mm format, the film uses spectacular and often horrifying imagery to follow all the major aspects of the massive operation led by the British Commander Bolton, played by the Oscar-nominated actor Kenneth Branagh. The wide sweeping shots of the thousands upon thousands of war-weary soldiers waiting to be rescued while being constantly bombarded by the German air force reinforce the unbelievable scope of the evacuation. There are also mesmerizing dogfighting sequences between the strained British Royal Air Force, represented by a particularly heroic pilot played by Tom Hardy, and German warplanes and bombers targeting the vulnerable British troops. Further underscoring the horrors of war and the difficulty of evacuating so many men are the scenes showing jubilant soldiers finally getting on British Naval vessels after surviving the battle, only to be killed after many of their ships are torpedoed or bombed by the Germans. Throughout the film, Nolan is able to effectively recreate what it must have been like at Dunkirk and thereby engenders an anxiety-inducing cinematic experience. The visceral reaction is not only created by the stunning visuals but also by the simple yet effectual soundtrack, which is mostly composed of what sounds like a ticking clock to heighten the nerve-wracking situations the characters are facing. Besides speaking to the hell that is war, the film also presents the hopeful and inspirational aspect of the evacuation of Dunkirk: the massive flotilla of ordinary Brits using their fishing and pleasure boats who journey to Dunkirk in the face of danger to help evacuate the many thousands of soldiers and bring them back home safely. To develop a personal connection with these unlikely heroes, the film also follows a father, played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, and son and a local teenager as they venture their way on their civilian boat to pick up survivors from Dunkirk. They themselves face the harsh reality of warfare when they rescue a severely shell-shocked soldier, played by the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who is adamant that he must not return to Dunkirk. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing and emotionally powerful depictions of war and was nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece from the auteur filmmaker Christopher Nolan. His remarkable attention to detail and beautiful cinematography is probably the closest a filmgoer can get to experiencing war, both the horrific and inspirational qualities. The uplifting moments appeal to what many Brits still affectionately refer to as the Dunkirk spirit, the forces for good during times of adversity.