Category Archives: Film Reviews

Film Review: Romance, Deception, and Destiny in My Cousin Rachel

As the title of the film suggests, the plot of My Cousin Rachel centers on the character of Rachel Ashley, the recently widowed wife of a man whose cousin, Philip (Sam Claflin), suspects her of poisoning him.  His estate in Cornwall, England, passes entirely to him on his twenty-fifth birthday, by which time Rachel, played with soldering torch intensity by Rachel Weiss, has endeared herself to him, having come to live in Cornwall after Philip’s cousin dies.  Intriguing performances, masterful direction, and evocative cinematography enrich this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel.

Among Du Maurier’s other works adapted for the screen are Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Hungry Hill, Don’t Look Now, and The Birds, all films conveying a powerful current of suspense.  My Cousin Rachel begins by introducing the protagonist, and then his cousin’s mysterious wife whom he hears about through a series of increasingly ominous letters from Ambrose, accusing his new bride of murderous intentions.  Once Ambrose has departed, the presumed result of a brain tumor, and Rachel settles in at the estate in Cornwall, Philip can’t believe such a spirited, captivating woman could be guilty of so diabolical a crime.

Set in the late seventeenth century, the story was inspired by a portrait Du Maurier saw of a lady named Rachel Carew, and while the mystery unfolds eerily, almost dreamily, it also sustains an air of historical fiction.  Philip’s experience of falling for, then later suspecting, and finally, perhaps, despising his cousin’s widow, feels like a true story, vividly recounted by Philip himself with faintly dreadful undertones.  He strives for freedom and fulfillment, but his pursuit is obstructed by a cloud of impatience, youthful boldness, and lurking fear.

Award-worthy performances from Weiss and Claflin in the leading roles, as well as fusion zone supporting work from Holliday Grainger as Philip’s longtime friend and would-be fiancée, Iain Glen as his quietly protective godfather, and Pierfrancesco Favino as Rachel’s companion, Rinaldi, exalt this film to the realm of true greatness.  The question of whether or not Rachel poisoned her husband, Ambrose, remains unanswered throughout the time of her stay with Philip, leaving him, and the audience, torn between the elegant vitality of her character, and the possibility of a lethal darkness at work behind her eyes.

The question of Philip’s destiny plays a significant role, in his moments with Louise (Grainger), prompting us to wonder if she isn’t the one he should be pursuing.  Her love for him is unwavering and evidently more true than the hesitant affection of his cousin Rachel.  At the film’s conclusion, we have to ask not only what really happened when no one was looking, but also what might have happened if Philip had looked beyond his more compelling desires to find a more complete truth.


Film Review: Fear, Love, and Everything, Everything

Living the first eighteen years of one’s life without being able to go outside might sound torturous, and while Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) doesn’t appear too miserable amid her books, models, writing, and dreams, she craves a connection with someone besides her mom, her nurse, and her only friend, Rosa.  Her wish is granted when Olly (Nick Robinson) glides by on the street outside her window, beaming up at his new neighbor and readily fulfilling the role of the boy-next-door.  Immediately their love captivates them, but Maddy’s illness, SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency), makes getting together impossible.

Excellent performances from the two leads, as well as the supporting cast, combined with perceptive direction by Stella Meghie, brilliant writing from J. Mills Goodloe (based on the book by Nicola Yoon), and unbrazably solid work from the rest of the crew, create a fresh, engaging story for both teens and adults.  Maddy’s routine home life quickly escapes its dreary orbit as Olly courts her via text messages, through-the-window smiles, and a daring visit which threatens to debilitate her minimally functional immune system.  In a few surreal encounters with her longed-for boyfriend, dreamlike manifestations of their lovesick message exchanges, the partitioned lovers converse in bright white surroundings where Maddy’s childhood toy, a spaceman figurine, comes to life and drifts amicably around the room.

At the center of the story, the relationships between Maddy and her mother, her and her nurse, and her and Olly, have a lot to say about the transition from teens to adulthood.  As a physician, Pauline nurtures and fiercely protects her daughter from a world of potential hazards to her delicate health.  They spend time playing phonetic Scrabble and reminiscing about Maddy’s father.  She encourages her daughter’s interests as long as they don’t involve anything that could lead to her suffering down the road.  Carla stays with her while her mom is at work, and shows more compassion regarding the limited existence imposed by her illness.  Olly, concerned about the threat of Maddy’s immune deficiency, falls in love and above all wants to be part of her life.

Some of the film’s most beautiful scenes illustrate the triumph of love over fear, when the characters face the possibility of hurt and loss, yet overcome for the sake of life itself, for each other, and because their hearts insist they do.  “Where would you go, if you could?” he asks her.  “The ocean.  I’ve never seen it.”  The common viruses in the atmosphere outside her tightly sealed, thoroughly filtered house don’t prevent her from following this dream of living the perfect day, although perhaps they should.  A person with SCID could easily die after exposure to an environment that hasn’t been sterilized, air that hasn’t been purified, due to having little or no T-lymphocyte and B-lymphocyte cell function.  When Maddy comes face-to-face with a chance to fulfill her destiny, the germs don’t matter.

The second feature film for Meghie, the first starring role for Stenberg, Everything, Everything shines as a compelling film for young adults, that many parents can enjoy as well.  The protagonist never discovers the ability to see the future, regenerate her body in seconds, move objects with her mind, or command the elements of nature, but she’s a hero nonetheless.  What she does find is the strength to believe in who she truly is, and to walk by faith upon a path toward the woman she’s meant to become.


Film Review: King Arthur, the Legend Begins

The legendary Arthur Pendragon helped to defend Britain against the Saxons in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD, and as King, according to certain histories, established an empire over Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, and Gaul.  Various stories and poems evolved in which Arthur battles mythical creatures, repels enemy armies, and executes impossible feats of power and skill.  In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the new film from director, Guy Ritchie, the hero fights his way up from the streets of Londinium, only to clash with his villainous uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), once Arthur has liberated the stone-locked Excalibur and thus signified his place in the Pendragon bloodline.

Once withdrawing the magnificent sword, King Arthur, played with unmalleable toughness by Charles Hunnam (The Lost City of Z, Crimson Peak), embarks on a mission to regain his land from the shadowy hold of the hellish sorcerer Mordred.  Along the way he’s joined by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), the mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), Goosefat Bill (Aiden Gillan), and others who banter comically between action sequences where enormous beasts, brutal warriors, and lightning-fast weapon play tear up the screen.  When the chosen Arthur wields the sword its rumbling might begins to awaken, as the symbols on its blade shine forth a mystical white light.

Far from a typical action/adventure digital effects-laden spectacle, KA: LOTS rises on pillars of inspired camerawork, forceful acting, fast-paced editing, and a darkly imaginative visual world.  The story advances quickly, slightly detached from the linear progression of time, often flashing back to events being recounted by characters in the present, with rapid dialogue and voiceover tying scenes together.  When Arthur was an infant his father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), was slain by his uncle, who transforms into a scythe-wielding, ten-foot tall, demonic reaper at the moment any serious business must be done.  This tragedy haunts him as he traverses threatening landscapes, rallies his comrades, and prepares to conquer Vortigern’s kingdom.

While based on the legends surrounding the historical King Arthur’s rule, the film also incorporates imagery from ancient mythology, English folklore, and possibly sheer imagination, creatures like elephants as tall as skyscrapers, mile-long snakes, and cave-dwelling octopus-women who serve as oracles for Arthur’s nefarious uncle.  The mage employs a well-trained eagle and serpent to aid the bold king in his conquest, and each of his allies has a turn to protect and serve their fearless leader.  The hero himself charges on, although reluctantly at times, unconvinced of his royal destiny until his enemies surround him and the sword’s invincible power gets unleashed.

If this turns out to be a series, the second film will likely portray Arthur as the ambitious, resolute monarch he becomes by the end of the first.  The Knights of the Round Table don’t quite make an appearance in Legend of the Sword, however there may be the beginnings of a Camelot where everyone who sits down with the king is seen as trustworthy and equal.


Film Review: The Circle, and our Looming Synthetic Dystopia

Based on the novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle follows an ambitious young professional into her new job at a company endeavoring to fasten a socio-technological harness on the world.  The bright and driven Mae, played with quiet self-control by Emma Watson, adapts quickly to the slick synthetic world and shiny, happy faces of the corporate community that so enthusiastically welcomes her.  With the exception of Mercer, an isolated friend from her past, everyone seems thrilled about her winning this position, but shadows quickly start to form, spreading beneath the plastic surfaces of The Circle’s freshly constructed buildings and openly lighted offices and meeting rooms.

The warmly officious Bailey (Tom Hanks), introduces himself by declaring, “I believe in the perfectibility of human beings,” and the company’s mission seems to align with the vision of a safer, more unified, and healthier society.  Knowledge will be the key to this utopian future, where those presumably responsible enough to employ such authority will have the means to do so via inventions like multi-purpose eyeball-sized cameras, and programs like SoulSearch, allowing them to locate an individual anywhere on the globe in a matter of seconds.  An undercurrent of well-intentioned concern for the lives of others propels Bailey’s search for perfection, although a more powerful influence may be guiding his sleek, determined enterprise.

The film has a strong supporting cast, including Bill Paxton, Glenne Headly, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, John Boyega, and Poorna Jagannathan.  As Mae’s ailing father, Paxton contrasts his patriarchal Bill Henrickson character from Big Love with a more fragile dad who’s strength is waning.  Glenne Headly, as her mom, dutifully comforts and encourages both Mae and her father.  Her Circle-assigned best friend, played by Gillan (Doctor Who), gradually fades away as Mae rises to prominence in the company, while her old best friend, Mercer (Coltrane), gets forced out of her life by surveillance-mad coworkers from her office.  Oswalt, Boyega, and Jagannathan give distinctive performances as Bailey’s partner, a renowned hacker and fellow newcomer to The Circle, and the doctor in charge of caring for its employees.

The story progresses at a quick pace, involving subjects and themes such as appearance vs. reality, solitude/community, privacy, freedom, civil authority and technology, social responsibility and the ethical use of power, and both the necessary and the ideal conditions in which human beings may live, grow, and thrive.  Part of what the film does well is elucidate many dangers we’re dealing with as a society, and by applying pressure to some of those susceptible areas, it invites us to seek answers beyond the numbing patterns of techno-reliance, beyond indifference to the humanity and inherent freedoms of every living person on our planet.  Each of us has choices to make about whether or not we violate the rights of others in the course of our work, social, and personal lives.  As many of us know, those decisions will in turn measure the respect, liberty, and generosity that come back to us, sooner or later.

Avoiding clichés might be as challenging as ever for filmmakers, yet The Circle manages to create an experience that never feels familiar and keeps us in anticipation, guessing at the characters’ true motives, and eager to know what will happen next.  Ms. Watson portrays a digital age Red Riding Hood behind the scenes in one of Big Brother’s laboratories, excelling at a game she might despise, and like so many people in today’s evolving technological landscape, Mae adapts swiftly and forges ahead toward the luminous, indiscernible horizon.