Based on a true story chronicled in a 2005 episode of the NPR radio show This American Life, Crown Heights is the heartbreaking tale of a young man living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York who spends many years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a homicide in 1980. The talented young actor Lakeith Stanfield plays an 18-year-old immigrant from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago named Colin Warner who leads a troubled life as a petty criminal. After a young man is shot to death in broad daylight, Warner gets caught up in the corrupt and negligent justice system eager for convictions in crime-ridden 1980’s New York. As a result of false testimonies given by predominately young immigrants pressured by the police, he is quickly ushered through the court system and sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of someone he had never heard of, along with a likely guilty co-defendant who is sentenced to less time as a juvenile. Disgusted by the injustice in which he was convicted and later lost appeals, Warner’s close friend Carl ‘KC’ King, played by former NFL Pro Bowler Nnamdi Asomugha, tirelessly makes it his mission to prove his childhood friend’s innocence and get him released from prison. The film does an excellent job of providing an intimate glimpse into prison from the perspective of an innocent man, including the difficult moments resulting in angered violence and coming to the harsh belief that he may be behind bars for the rest of his life for a crime he did not commit. King remains tenaciously hopeful even when Warner is despondent and spends day and night learning the legal system with the occasional help of a generous criminal defense attorney, played by Bill Camp best known for the 2016 HBO miniseries The Night Of. With his new knowledge, King investigates and interviews witnesses in order to create a compelling appeal for Warner’s exoneration. Over the course of the movie, the filmmaker expertly contextualizes the sometimes injust justice system in the United States by inserting newsreel montages depicting the government crackdown on crime for each decade Warner spends in prison. Overall, I found it to be a truly enlightening and emotionally powerful film about some of the problems with the criminal justice system, including the depressing statistic that up to 120,000 innocent people may be currently incarcerated.
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.
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.
An Israeli film with dialogue spoken in Hebrew, The Wedding Plan is a romantic comedy that is able to transcend the genre by providing a unique and creative twist and a charismatic performance by the lead actress. Michal, portrayed by the Israeli actress Noa Koler, is an Orthodox Jewish woman in her early thirties who is finally about to get married after so many desperate years but encounters a serious problem a month before the wedding when her husband calls it off. Adamant to not be single, she decides to leave her fate up to God by continuing to plan to get married on the day that was she was supposed to have her wedding. Despite the urging of her mother and sister not to go ahead with the quite unusual plan, Michal keeps the wedding hall booking in Jerusalem even though she does not have a groom because she has full faith that God will provide her a suitable match in time. Her outlandish decision leads to several comic moments as she employees two Jewish matchmakers who set her up on several blind dates with some fairly unusual men. At one point during the movie, she takes a pilgrimage to Ukraine at the tomb of a famous rabbi where she runs into a dreamy yet unsuitable famous Israeli pop star who eventually falls in love with her. Her family becomes increasingly nervous as the day approaches, but Michal remains confident that everything will work out due to her fervent religiosity. On the day of her planned wedding, the 200 invited guests, along with a now very nervous Michal, awkwardly wait and see if a man will show up to marry her. Everyone is eventually greeted with an unexpected surprise that makes the festivities possible. Overall, I found it to be an interesting and sometimes funny film that mixes religion and romance in unorthodox fashion and showcases the acting performance of an actress who must portray a sometimes contradictory and overly zealous character.
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.
Set in 1940 in the midst of World War II in London, Their Finest is an entertaining wartime film blending charming characters with the serious plotline of creating cinematic propaganda to help the British war effort against the Nazi. The vibrant and nuanced Gemma Arterton plays a young secretary who finds herself becoming a screenwriter for British films promoting the Allied cause. Although she is in a complicated relationship with a struggling artist, she develops a close bond with the main screenwriter, played by Sam Claflin. They are enscripted to work on a dramatic romance revolving around the massive evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. Greenlit by the British Ministry of Information, the film is able to add star power by encouraging an older and rather pompous actor, played brilliantly by Bill Nighy, who is struggling to find work after enjoying great success many years ago. Arterton’s character eventually falls in love with Claflin’s character while on location on the British coastline with a large group of witty and eccentric actors and crew members. Despite containing elements of comedy and endearing romance, the movie makes the audience aware that it is a story set during war by showing the tragic impact of the German bombardment of London and emphasizing the characters’ roles in creating propaganda to help defeat the Axis powers. Overall, I found it to be a thoroughly engaging film that highlights an often overlooked aspect of World War II and effectively develops sympathetic and charismatic characters, especially those of Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy.
Based on an incredible true story, A United Kingdom is a beautifully crafted film with strong acting performances that tells a remarkable story of forbidden love. Set in the late 1940s, the story follows Seretse Khama, the black King of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) and portrayed by David Oyelowo, and his controversial romantic relationship with a white British woman named Ruth Williams, played by Rosamund Pike, whom he met during his studies in London. To the chagrin of British authorities and his family and tribe back home, they eventually marry and move back to his hometown in Africa to officially become the king of his people. The British government fear that the interracial couple will interfere with politics, particularly the government’s relationship with South Africa, which just imposed apartheid criminalizing interracial marriage. It is believed that South Africa could use the marriage as a pretext to invade colonial Botswana, or the British could lose out on the potential for oil and other minerals in the region. Despite opposition, internationally, and from Khama’s own powerful uncle who served as regent, they steadfastly refuse to divorce, and they start their own family in Bechuanaland even though they are threatened with exile and a lengthy separation from one another. At one point during a meeting with British authorities, he is not allowed to leave England and cannot visit his wife who is still in Africa. Their case to be allowed to live in his beloved homeland as ruler makes its way all the way through the British Parliament and is even discussed by Winston Churchill. The movie is especially poignant because it tells a truly extraordinary story I have never heard of about injustice and race relations that feels particularly relevant in today’s divisive political climate. It is made even more powerful as a result of the terrific performances of the two main lead actors whose chemistry makes the characters’ profound love feel realistic. Overall, I found it to be a must-see film about how forbidden love due to unjust laws can be overcome, with brilliant filmmaking and acting to boot.