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.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele who is best known as the co-creator of the hit sketch comedy series Key & Peele, Get Out is a surprisingly phenomenal film that expertly crafts the comedy and horror genres to create an incisive social satire about contemporary racism. The plot follows black photographer Chris Washington, played by Daniel Kaluuya, as he goes to the suburbs to visit the parents of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. Rose not telling her parents that her boyfriend is black makes Chris worried about their reaction when he first meets them. However, he is pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome of her father and neurosurgeon Dean, played by Bradley Whitford, and her mother and psychiatrist Missy, played by Catherine Keener. After spending more time with the family and meeting their black maid Georgina and black groundskeeper Walter who both act zombie-like, Chris senses there is something peculiar about the Armitages and their white neighbors. The film rapidly evolves into a horror thriller after Missy hypnotizes Chris, and he learns more about what is actually going on in the neighborhood. He relays his concerns to his black friend Rod who works for the TSA and serves as comic relief, with his exaggerated reactions and outlandish theories about what Chris is experiencing. Things get even weirder when Chris tells Rose about his suspicions and that they both must get out immediately. The film’s ending intensifies as plot twists abound and the audience finally figures out the sinister secrets of the neighborhood. What makes the movie so good is Peele’s ability to perfectly time scary and funny moments in order to keep the viewer engaged. By using the horror genre in which everything is not as it seems, Peele also cleverly devises a way to comment on society as a whole. He uses film to highlight the fact that racism still exists today even if people claim that we are in a post-racial society the result of Obama’s election. For instance, the Armitages, seemingly the epitome of white liberalism who say they would vote a third time for Obama, and their white suburban neighbors have a dark side that may counter their belief that they are far from being racists. Thereby, as evidenced by current race relations, actions and beliefs do not have to be overt in order to make somebody racist, but unrecognized subtle acts of prejudice can have a little-by-little detrimental affect on another race. Overall, I found it to be a highly entertaining experience, despite my general dislike of scary movies, that unexpectedly provides a profoundly important message about racism.
From Denis Villeneuve who directed 2013’s Prisoners and 2015’s Sicario, Arrival is a brilliantly crafted intelligent sci-fi film that heavily relies on terrific performances rather than over-the-top fantastical CGI. Played by the two-time Golden Globe winner Amy Adams, Louise Banks is a linguistics professor tasked with the unusual role of communicating with aliens who have mysteriously landed twelve spacecraft across the world. Not knowing whether they are peaceful or hostile visitors, a global panic ensues, and the United States government and other nations must figure out how to proceed without provoking war. Dr. Banks along with a team of experts, including a theoretical physicist portrayed by Jeremy Renner, are recruited by Forest Whitaker’s character, a U.S. Army Colonel, to unearth the extraterrestrials’ intentions. Working through her own personal issues, Dr. Banks must face the alien creatures and interpret their language with the aid of complex mathematical and scientific computations. The film underscores the mysterious circumstances by setting the floating crescent-shaped spacecraft that arrived on American soil in the eerily quiet Montana countryside where a temporary military outpost is established. It is smart sci-fi that delves into somewhat plausible scientific details and the often overlooked important implications of the linguistics academic field. Dr. Banks uses her esoteric knowledge to come to understand the aliens and try to prevent the world’s fearful militaries from embarking on a cataclysmic war possibly resulting in the extinction of the human race. Without spoiling the mind-blowing plot, the further along she gets in her extraterrestrial interactions the stranger things get for her. The movie’s thought-provoking material reminded me of such sci-fi films as 1997’s Contact and 2014’s Interstellar. Like those sci-fi flicks, the audience leaves the theater thinking about what really happened and tries to warp their mind around the deeply philosophical issues that it provokes. Overall, I found it to be one of the more noteworthy sci-fi films in recent memory because it went beyond simply providing mindless action like most Hollywood blockbusters. It was full of superb acting and masterful elements of mystery and intricate science fiction based on real science and fields of study.
Based on the runaway best-selling book published in 2015, The Girl on the Train is an entertaining psychological thriller whose greatest assets are the acting from Emily Blunt and the plot twists. Blunt does a superb job of playing Rachel Watson, a recently divorced woman who is mentally unhinged suffering from severe alcoholism and delusions. She becomes obsessive over a couple she sees from the train that she takes her on daily commute to and from New York City. Rachel soon learns that the woman, whose name is Megan, is actually the nanny to her ex-husband’s infant daughter from his new marriage. Her estranged ex-husband Tom, portrayed by Justin Theroux, and his new wife Anna also live a few doors down from Megan and her husband Scott. Not knowing whether Rachel is correct or simply crazy, the viewer becomes increasingly suspicious of her belief that the characters are involved in extramarital affairs or even more nefarious actions. Things get particularly intense after the mysterious disappearance of Megan, and the audience is left wondering if Rachel is somehow involved. Already accused of stalking Tom and Anna, the police led by a detective, played by Allison Janney, pin Rachel as the primary suspect. The film is particularly intriguing because what we came to believe was true in the beginning is completely thrown out the window towards the end. The viewer begins to second-guess all of the characters’ stories, particularly all the nasty things Tom has said about his ex-wife Rachel. Although I thoroughly enjoy movies with surprise endings, many parts of the plot are somewhat far-fetched and rely heavily on coincidences. For instance, what are the chances that Rachel from a fast-moving train could really see important moments at exactly the right time? Overall, I thought the film did a fairly good job of presenting the elements of a melodramatic psychological thriller, complete with unexpected events and not knowing who to trust, but fell short of transcending the genre like 2014’s Gone Girl.
Based on the 1969 French film La Piscine, A Bigger Splash is a very sensual drama that evolves into a slow-burn thriller full of seduction and deception. Tilda Swinton plays a famous David Bowie-esque rock star named Marianne recuperating from a throat surgery with her younger boyfriend Paul played by Matthias Schoenaerts on the Italian island of Pantelleria. Their tranquility is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of Marianne’s former lover Harry portrayed by Ralph Fiennes and beautiful young daughter Penelope portrayed by Dakota Johnson. What follows is a clash of personalities and love interests that starts amicably on the surface but eventually descends into darkness. A quintessential player with intoxicating energy and mischief, Harry stirs up the past, visualized through the film’s flashbacks to his troubled romance with Marianne. His intentions and reason for being there is left murky for much of the film. Further complicating things is Penelope, a Lolita-type character, who flirts with and tries to seduce the young and handsome Paul who has his own past demons. The movie creates a perfect atmosphere for the palpable tension percolating until literally splashing over at the plot’s climax. Pantelleria is a small volcanic island that, although stunningly beautiful, gives a rustic, almost ominous vibe with its dry and barren landscape. The rocky terrain reflects the increasingly rocky relationships between the four characters. As tensions escalate, the island is also beset by strong Sirocco winds and rainstorms. All at the same time, the score dramatically shifts into much more menacing music and finally with a operatic crescendo at the most intense scene. The film’s exploration of human desire and jealousy is accentuated by the terrific acting from the four principal actors. It is anchored by Tilda Swinton who exudes an otherworldly aura despite her character rarely speaking. Following his real life playboy reputation, Ralph Fiennes gives a raw performance as a hedonistic rabble-rouser living on the edge. The younger actors equally impressed, including Dakota Johnson who is ironically more sultry than her role in Fifty Shades of Grey. Overall, the film was a high-quality erotic thriller exhibiting the hallmarks of a foreign flick with a permissive attitude and emphasis on first-rate acting.