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 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. 

All Eyez on Me

Based on the true story of one of the most famous rappers, All Eyez on Me is a mediocre biopic that tells the story of revolutionary rap star Tupac Shakur through his struggles as a poor black youth living in the projects to his eventual rise to fame. Played by newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. who has an uncanny resemblance to the real Tupac, Tupac bounces around public housing in New York, Baltimore, and Oakland with his siblings and single mother who was a prominent member of the Black Panthers. After writing lyrics for himself, he debuts as a nationally recognized rapper in the early 1990’s, especially after signing and releasing his first albums with Interscope Records. Eventually, he joins Death Row Records run by controversial rap mogul Suge Knight who helped kickstart the massively popular group N.W.A. At the time, he is hailed as the next great gangsta rap star and rapidly becomes rich while also becoming the target of rival rappers, particularly the East Coast-based The Notorious B.I.G. Despite his success, he runs into legal trouble several times and is shot on one occasion at least five times before his early death. Tragically, in September 1996 at the age of 25, he is gunned down in the streets of Las Vegas in a car driven by Suge Knight. To this day, his murder remains unsolved. Even after his untimely death, his estate has released at least five posthumous albums, and he has sold over 75 million albums as of 2007, ranking him as the second best-selling rap and hip-hop artist in history. Overall, I found the movie to take an occasionally interesting look at arguably the greatest rap icon, but I came away disappointed in the overly confusing and rushed plot line that did not really delve deep into Tupac’s fascinating life story. Although lacking the high-quality script and powerful acting performances, the movie reminded me of the terrific 2015 film Straight Outta Compton about N.W.A. with its biographical depiction of an equally significant rap group and their rise to fame.

Megan Levey

Based on an inspirational true story, Megan Leavey is a well-crafted and emotionally powerful movie about war in addition to the bond between humans and animals. In a sublime performance filled with raw emotion, Kate Mara of House of Cards fame plays Megan Leavey, a troubled young woman who decides to join the United States Marine Corps as a way to escape her life. During her time training at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, she desperately wants to become a Military Police K-9 handler. Eventually, she becomes a corporal and is paired with a difficult-to-control bomb-sniffing military working dog named Rex. Never really having bonded with anyone in her hardship-filled life, Megan quickly develops a close kinship with Rex, especially when they are deployed into combat in war-torn Iraq. First serving in Fallujah in 2005 then Ramadi in 2006, she, as a woman not allowed in combat, and her best friend Rex are mostly posted at checkpoints looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that were wounding and killing so many American and Coalition troops. Everything changes when out on a rare mission outside Ramadi, an IED explodes and injures Megan and Rex. While recovering from her wounds and battling depression caused by PTSD, she is heartbroken to learn that Rex is returning to combat with a different handler and will be labeled unadoptable after his deployment and retirement. Herself retired from the Marines, she fights with her superiors to be able to adopt Rex as her own dog and even finds herself profiled in the media and appealing to Senator Chuck Schumer for support. Megan’s dogged determination shows just how important the human bond can be with animals; she is only able to effectively cope with her PTSD by being with Rex and Rex seems to only be happy with her. The film also shows the emotional impact that war has on people and the chronic PTSD problem among a large portion of war veterans. Overall, I found it to be an excellent movie, complete with a terrific performance from Kate Mara, about the horrors of war that also had a hopeful message about the important relationship between humans and animals. Additionally, I thought the film did an excellent job of shedding light on the mostly overlooked work of military combat dogs and how vital they are to protecting and saving so many soldiers lives.

Churchill

Based on the true story of one of the most pivotal moments in Winston Churchill’s life, Churchill tells a fascinating chapter of World War II history and is marked by a terrific acting performance from Brian Cox, but the movie’s impact ultimately falls short and feels more like a low budget TV movie. The film follows the larger-than-life British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played by the great Scottish actor Brian Cox, during the lead up to the massive invasion of Normandy, France on D-Day. We witness the pivotal days before June 6, 1944 through the eyes of the war-weary Churchill who is opposed to the plan because it reminds him of his fateful decision during World War I at the Battle of Gallipoli that led to thousands of Allied deaths and an embarrassing defeat. The stubborn and strong-willed political leader butts heads with the military leaders, including the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower who is played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame, and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. For such dramatic decision-making that turns the tide of the war, the movie never really builds up enough tension and is hampered by the stilted performances of the supporting cast. Much of the film wallows in the despair of Churchill who, at times, is unresponsive and must be encouraged by his emotional backbone, his wife Clementine Churchill who is played by Miranda Richardson. I was most fascinated by the deep depression that Churchill experienced and his resistance to such a bold action as D-Day, both surprising aspects for a great leader famous for his power and resiliency. Overall, I was disappointed by the less-than-stellar and oftentimes convoluted writing and narrative structure of the movie, which had so much potential. The remarkable story of an unexplored area of such a consequential man as Winston Churchill and his role during World War II deserved a better cinematic treatment.

Paris Can Wait

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Eleanor Coppola who is married to Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, Paris Can Wait is a light-hearted romantic comedy that takes the audience on a frivolous yet pleasant journey through the beautiful French countryside. Diane Lane plays Anne who is married to an aloof successful movie producer, played by Alec Baldwin, and unexpectedly takes a two-day road trip from Cannes to Paris with her husband’s suave and charming French associate. Jacques, played by the French actor Arnaud Viard, is an easy-going debonair aficionado of fine wine, food, and art who takes Anne on a wonderfully scenic tour of his favorite parts of France and stops at exquisite restaurants and quintessentially French landmarks. Initially, she wants to get to Paris as soon as possible and feels awkward participating in such romantic activities with a flirtatious bachelor while she is married. Over the course of the film, she welcomes Jacques’ suggestions after realizing that the trip provides a much-needed distraction from her secretly unhappy life and largely unfulfilled marriage with her busy husband, a typical Alec Baldwin character. The movie reminds me of several other Diane Lane movies, particularly 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun in which she leads a carefree existence in a beautiful foreign country. Overall, I found it to be a pleasing film full of joy and beauty that provides a welcome respite to the viewer’s dull daily life; it is a nice little movie that should not be taken too seriously.