REVIEW: The Big Sick

11 07 2017

I’m all about a good cross-cultural romantic comedy (I can probably recite every line of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” by heart), so “The Big Sick” was right up my alley to begin. Kumail Nanjiani’s true story ups the ante, though, by adding significantly greater dramatic stakes. An early dinner scene with his Pakistani family contains discussion of a relative who dared to marry outside the Muslim faith and have a mixed baby – “it’s like he’s dead,” someone says. “No one will visit.”

Despite half-heartedly entertaining his mother’s parade of eligible wives, Kumail (playing himself) falls for Zoe Kazan’s Emily after she gently heckles him during a stand-up set. She’s a stark contrast to the bland, eager-to-please Pakistani women, to say the least. Willing to push back on his requests and call out his good-natured mansplaining, Emily overwhelms him, as he does for her.

Like any relationship, Kumail and Emily’s faces setbacks … not the least of which being a mysterious illness that forces doctors to put her into a medically-induced coma. (With a chilling montage of Kumail walking through the hospital, director Michael Showalter immediately and effectively shifts the tone in a more somber direction.) This development puts him into contact with her parents, Ray Romano’s calmly neurotic Terry and Holly Hunter’s frazzled mama bear Beth, who do not exactly hold him in the highest regard. Over time, though, Kumail comes to learn from them and appreciate the geographic, cultural and gender hurdles they had to surmount to make their relationship work.

“The Big Sick” is not reinventing the wheel of the dramedy, but it’s still worth commending for a number of reasons. Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, his real wife (spoiler alert!), tell a story that’s specific and personal but never too precious. It’s distinctively theirs with a little something to offer all of us. And while a good chunk of the film deals with Kumail’s comedy career, Showalter’s camera is judicious. He knows the value of a quick reaction shot. The way he captures the full lay of the land in any given scene demonstrates how the non-verbal alchemy of an actor can enhance a great story beyond the words on a page. B+ /

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 24, 2016)

24 11 2016

meeks-cutoffWith “Certain Women,” Kelly Reichardt took a move back toward the kind of stories that made her career – the quiet routines that define and confine the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. But earlier this decade, Reichardt made some notable forays into the world of genre filmmaking with 2014’s “Night Moves,” an eco-thriller, and 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” a revisionist and feminist take on the Western.

I caught the former at the 2013 London Film Festival, which forced me to abandon all ties to the outside world and dive headfirst into her carefully constructed universe. I was not so lucky to see “Meek’s Cutoff” in a theater, however, which meant years of putting off watching the film since I knew it would command so much of my attention. I stopped and started the film several times, knowing that anything that took my brain out of the experience would make the viewing a wash. When I had the chance to interview Reichardt earlier this year, I knew I could wait no longer.

Once I finally plunged myself into “Meek’s Cutoff,” my latest selection for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I was rewarded handsomely for my patience and attentiveness. Reichardt does not subvert genre tropes, as many revisionist filmmakers do in a self-congratulatory exhibition of their own cinematic knowledge. Rather, she inverts them, ascribing the same respect and earnestness normally accorded to heroic white men to their muted female companions and Native American guides.

Reichardt tells “Meek’s Cutoff” from a woman’s point of view, which includes making certain information obscured or downright off-limits. When the men in charge are talking, she makes things intentionally hard to hear or keeps the camera at such a distance that we cannot help but feel entirely removed from the decision making process. When Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is privy to some information from her husband, Will Patton’s Solomon, she receives it in a whisper during the utter blackness of the prairie nights.

Tensions of all kinds flare on this 1840s journey along the Oregon Trail as the wagon caravan’s guide, Bruce Greenwood’s Meek, inspires doubts among the group. Amongst themselves, the settlers begin to wonder if he has intentionally led them astray to their demise. Supply begins to run as low as spirit, leading to rash decisions and some surprising assertions of authority. As survival instincts kick in, the clamor of wisdom from the women grows louder and harder to ignore. While an adjective like “thrilling” or “exciting” may not apply given the pace of Reichardt’s film, “compelling” sure does. Anyone willing to stop everything and simply live in the frame will find a textured, intelligent and unique take on the Old West.





REVIEW: Our Brand Is Crisis

21 02 2016

Admittedly, the circumstances under which I saw David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” might have exerted a particularly strong influence on my reaction. Had I gone to see it in theaters back in October, I could have done so with the luxury of writing off the candidacy of Donald Trump as a political sideshow. But now, watching at home in mid-February, that farce has become a force in American democracy with undeniable ramifications for our country.

“Our Brand Is Crisis” was conceptualized, shot and likely finished before the Trump phenomenon came about, so I do not wish to imply in any way that the film paved the way for such a demagogue. But given how few people saw it theatrically, most viewers will encounter the film with the presence or specter of the Donald firmly planted in the public consciousness. Cultural products may not substantially shape our society, but they can reflect its values in intentional or unexpected ways. “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels like a film in the latter camp.

Sandra Bullock stars as as political strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a character who is the polar opposite of Trump in many ways. She is a for-hire, behind-the-scenes operative, obsessively focused on the minutiae of getting her candidates into first place. Mixing intellectual prowess with practical problem-solving, Jane in her zone is truly a force to be reckoned with. For that precise reason, the campaign for a struggling Bolivian presidential contender brings her off the sidelines and out of retirement.

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REVIEW: What If

14 08 2014

What IfRomantic comedies have been all but abandoned by major studios since 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” leaving any filmmaker with an itching to tell a love story to develop their project with independent financing.  In that realm of moviemaking, the rom-com is either being outright lampooned (as in “They Came Together“) or struggling to escape the trappings of post-“(500) Days of Summer” ironically detached revisionism (like “Ruby Sparks“).

What If,” from director Michael Dowse and adapted from a stage play to screen by Elan Mastai, feels odd to watch in 2014 because it falls into neither predominant trend.  The film is unabashedly earnest as it tells the tale of Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace as he struggles with his romantic feelings for Zoe Kazan’s Chantry, a close personal friend who happens to be in a long-term relationship.

In other words, it’s the kind of film that might have seemed quite redundant if it were wedged between, say, “27 Dresses” and “Definitely Maybe” in 2008.  But in today’s moviewatching climate, it’s a refreshing reminder of the kind of movie that’s been largely pushed out of the market by tentpole comic book flicks.  Say what you will about “Guardians of the Galaxy” being fun, but you could probably use the lessons from “What If” in your daily life much more easily than anything from the aforementioned space caper.

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REVIEW: Ruby Sparks

3 08 2012

My second review on this site was for a movie I was quite high on three years ago, “(500) Days of Summer,” and remain a big fan of to this day.  Back then, it was the little indie that could, a summer sleeper that provided a smile and welcome relief to canned romantic comedies like “The Ugly Truth,” and a nice reminder of the acting prowess of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.  Then, it went mainstream, said the slightly bitter pseudo-hipster with a sigh.

Never could I have imagined that Marc Webb’s film could have been so influential.  Beyond just elevating Joseph Gordon-Levitt into major leading man status and turning Zooey Deschanel into the modern ideal of the “manic pixie dream girl,” the film made quirky a cool and acceptable facet for the genre.  “Ruby Sparks,” the sophomore film from the people that gave us the middling “Little Miss Sunshine,” attempts to dovetail the success of “(500) Days of Summer” by virtually replicating its emotional ride.

To be fair, “Ruby Sparks,” written by its star Zoe Kazan, is probably quite a bit smarter than its rom-com relative.  However, the film’s charms are far too easy to resist, namely because Kazan is a poor man’s Zooey Deschanel and Paul Dano is just a poor excuse for an actor in general.  They can sell the film on an intellectual level, but neither is particularly good at making us care.  Had it been Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel in the highly-strung emotional climax, I’m convinced I would have been riveted and moved.  Instead, I just sat there pursing my lips like Miranda Priestly.

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