Plan B

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Plan B was a pleasantly surprising recent release with elements of the classic coming-of-age story and modern comedy. Director Natalie Morales is a well-known comedic actress and has a few directing credits under her belt, but this is her feature film debut.

We are immediately introduced to our protagonists: best friends Lupe and Sunny, children of immigrants in a mostly-white suburban town. Even in the exposition, the film tastefully (although not subtly) explores the struggles that come with being minorities, young women, and blossoming sexual beings. Their average day at school includes digs about race and class from the mean girls, an awkward sex ed class, and hopeless pining over their crushes.

Lupe is a force to be reckoned with: a rebellious pastor’s daughter who wears dark makeup and punk fashions. She’s known to go through boyfriends like a wildfire and doesn’t take shit from anyone. Sunny is the perfect daughter: diligent student, goody-two-shoes, reserved and innocent.

The action starts after Lupe convinces Sunny to throw a party while her mom is away. Sunny loses her virginity to the token Christian nerd while Lupe is stood up by Logan. The morning after, Sunny realizes she needs a Plan B pill… but their local pharmacist refuses to sell it to her. This sends the girls on a wild 24-hour adventure: road-tripping to the nearest Planned Parenthood with 100% unplanned meetups with zany rest stop cashiers, strung out drug dealers, and both girls’ crushes.

I was impressed by the sharp dialogue, especially because of the way most made-for-teens content breaks down Gen Z’s colloquialisms into nothing but disjointed, insipid slang. The script was witty and fresh. The cast had great chemistry, with vibrant performances from Kuhoo Verma (Sunny) and Victoria Moroles (Lupe). Scenes between the girls and their love interests were genuinely romantic and felt very natural. Their various peers also added a lot of fun supporting work. Mason Cook certainly stood out as Kyle the Jesus freak. I admit I wasn’t laughing out loud, but the film made up for its low-key humor with touching moments of bonding, realization, and breakdown. I was especially happy to discover that Lupe’s newest boy is actually a girl—it was refreshing to see a heroine whose sexual identity wasn’t her only personality trait, but still appropriately important to her growth.

Plan B‘s message is simple and straightforward: the morning after pill should not be a big deal. And in the end, Sunny’s mother makes this explicitly known by going straight to the local pharmacy to rub the purchase in the antagonist pharmacist’s face. Sunny comes clean about the entire weekend with her mother which begins repairing their distant relationship, and Lupe is able to reconnect with her father, having seen just how unconditional his love is.

I honestly wasn’t expecting to like this movie as much as I did, and was really happy with its representation of today’s teenagers. Most coming of age stories that resonated with my parents didn’t do the same for me. Superbad, Dazed and Confused, and American Pie were funny, but always felt too raunchy, too out-there. Even more recent attempts like Booksmart or Lady Bird struck me as rather unrealistic. Plan B hit the sweet spot between funny, heartwarming, depressing, and honest for a perfect slice of life in modern America.

The Gunman

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Gunman is one of those films that tells you everything in the first five minutes. Apart from the predictable genre—action thriller a la Taken (even directed by Pierre Morel)—there is a pleasantly surprising level of new perspective in this movie. From the jump, you know what to expect: fistfights, black ops maneuvers, an honorable anti-hero, and flashbacks from his dark past. But the setting and elements of political conflict and butterfly effects add a level of sophistication that was completely unexpected.

The basics are the same as many other action-thrillers. Retired badass Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is roped back into his shady past, forced to face demons he ran away from and save the woman he loves. 8 years ago, after assassinating the Congolese Minister of Mining and triggering an era of chaos, Jim went into hiding. He left behind his girlfriend, NGO (non-governmental organization) doctor Annie, who of course is given no meaningful role in the entire 2 hours of film, despite being a seasoned medical professional and humanitarian.

In the present, Jim suffers from painful flashbacks and dizzy spells that nearly incapacitate him, allegedly a remnant of many head traumas he suffered as an operative. He now works as a humanitarian himself, building wells and pipelines to get fresh water into Congolese villages. On an average day, he is assaulted by a hit squad and discovers that there is a price on his head to do with his last mission—the assassination.

This sets him off on a whirlwind journey across 3 different countries to locate his old partners in crime and keep himself alive. In London, he and an old friend find out that his ex-boss has begun a private firm offering protection to government figures, and wants to eliminate everyone involved in the Congo assassination to keep his records clean. Now the firm’s hit team is chasing him around the clock, to Spain, where he reconnects with bitter colleague Felix and ex-girlfriend Annie.

This section of the movie is far too long. Annie is half-nude in every scene, and Jim spends at least half an hour pining over her and convincing her to cheat on Felix with him. This could be excusable, but Jim and Annie have no chemistry whatsoever, which makes watching it all incredibly painful. Javier Bardem does an excellent job playing the alcoholic and unhinged Felix, jealous and stuck in the past, but it all amounts to nothing as the hit squad kills him, leaving Jim and Annie free to carry out their old romance with no consequences.

Mark Rylance, however, who played Jim’s ex-boss Terrance Cox, made an incredibly unconvincing villain. He reminded me of a clown at Halloween—not scary, but deeply unsettling. The obviousness that he is the villain is clear from his very first scene, making the rest of the movie more of a how-dunnit than a whodunnit, and not a very interesting one at that.

Overall, The Gunman was very predictable, only vaguely interesting, and rather unsatisfying. I considered turning it off multiple times, but Javier Bardem kept stealing the scene. He was absolutely the hidden gem here, and part of the reason I’ve chosen two stars, not just one.

The Serpent

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I am an avid consumer of true-crime content in many forms, from documentaries to podcasts, and though I am usually wary of actor portrayals of real life events, The Serpent defied every low expectation I had for it. I blew through this series in a matter of days because of the captivating storyline and characters.

The first episode was a bit slow—a fair amount of exposition was necessary to introduce us to the large cast of key players. First up we have our principal antagonist: Charles Sobrahj. For most of the series he goes by the name Alain Gautier, and sometimes by the names of his victims, whose passports he steals to adopt new identities and travel across Asia and Europe under the radar. His accomplices, Marie-Andrée Leclerc (AKA Monique) and Ajay Chowdhury do the same at his instruction, helping him poison, murder, and burn bodies across the continent, under the guise of smuggling and dealing gems.

Next we meet the team of crime-fighters, a ragtag group who come together out of necessity and a sense of duty. Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch diplomat, and his brilliant wife Angela lead the charge against Sobrahj with fervor that threatens their careers and their marriage, to stop Sobrahj from killing more innocent people. Nadine and Remi Gires are a young French couple unlucky enough to find themselves neighbors to “Alain” and “Monique” in Bangkok, the reluctant champions of the couple’s many victims. Finally, we have Herman’s one true ally among diplomats: Paul Siemons. The Belgian attaché lends his expertise on the ins and outs of the Thai government and the embassies to subvert the system and find loopholes to justice. The forces of evil and bureaucracy oppose the five at every turn, making for a simultaneously devastating and inspiring story of perseverance and the ease of evildoings.

By nature of being a true story, The Serpent has an intensity that doubles down on the disturbing nature of Sobrahj’s crimes. But the stellar cast and vivid writing played an important role in creating rich, complex relationships that I felt I’d been following for years (and could follow years longer). Tahar Rahim embodies the serial killer with poise, charm, and an unbridled rage against the world—all the things that made Sobrahj so terrifying. Jenna Coleman delivers intricate layers of facade and inner turmoil, while Mathilde Warnier and Amesh Edireweera portray the fear and bravery that came with Alain and Monique’s “friendship.” But in my opinion, the most captivating aspect of the series was the small but stunning performances from every single victim, which made it impossible to stop watching until the serpent was caught.

You root for each one to triumph over Charles’ evil, even more so every time you remember they are all based on real people. You want them to succeed, escape, and make the right decisions that will lead them away unscathed, no matter how many times his manipulation wins. And the more lives he destroys, the more invested you become—like Herman, and Angela, and Paul—in the inevitable failure or slip-up that will get him caught and punished. In a few words? A must-see.

The Ritual

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As a lover of horror movies, I felt well-prepared for the plot of The Ritual: four friends with skeletons in their group closet venture into the Nordic woods for a hiking holiday, where brutality unfolds. The plot itself was nothing new—the forest is always full of dangers for young men stranded outside civilization—but the expert cinematography and stunning performances all-around made for a pleasant surprise. Without giving anything too important away, I can say for certain that The Ritual is a great addition to the genre, and a testament to the chops of director David Bruckner, writer Joe Barton, and stars Rafe Spall and Sam Troughton.

From the first moment, we can see the rifts within our group of heroes. They’ve known each other since university and growing up has pushed some of them apart. Luke, played by Rafe Spall, is our main man, racked with guilt over the death of old friend Rob in a robbery-gone-wrong. Dom (Sam Troughton), the nerdy family man of the group, blames Luke for Rob’s death. Phil takes a background role, staying mostly quiet, while Hutch acts as the voice of reason.

The trip itself is an homage to Rob, the only one who really considered hiking in Sweden fun. In past years, they’d gone on lads’ trips to Ibiza and Amsterdam, but in honor of their late friend, hiking it is. All is well until Dom hurts his leg and the boys decide to take a shortcut back to the lodge… off the trail… through the forest… I’m sure you see where this is going.

The forces of nature and things unseen join forces against the four, stranding them in the dense woods with limited supplies and willpower. Our motley crew is thoroughly spooked by the time they are first attacked and press on through the woods despite a gutted elk hanging in the trees and a spooky house that riddles each with nightmares. Cleverly, Hutch is the first taken out by the antagonist—an unseen force for much of the film. With their level-headed leader gone, the group begins a descent into madness, sped up by fighting, injury, and terrifying discoveries. The plot is well-paced and I was impressed at the flow of the dialogue and dream sequences, often weaving certain imagery or motifs into each scene.

A number of good scares made their way into the final cut, and I have to admit I flinched more than once. The antagonist is terrifying, even before it rears its ugly head, and its minions are creepy enough to at least stay in your head for a few days. I would put myself solidly in the middle of the “Easy to Scare” scale, and the gore and unease of this movie did not put me off. If you’re looking for a good scare and a good story, The Ritual is the film for you. On the surface, it evokes a classic horror premise. Deep down, it’s a story about becoming an adult and facing your fears. The ending isn’t necessarily a twist, but it does leave you satisfied with the character growth and movie lore.