THE BIG SICK: best American movie of the year so far

THE BIG SICK

THE BIG SICK

The Must See romantic comedy The Big Sick is the closest thing to a perfect movie this summer.  Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh in Silicon Valley) plays a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian whose parents insist on arranging a marriage with a Muslim Pakistani woman. He falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), who is neither Muslim nor Pakistani. Kumail is too cowardly to make a choice between Emily and his family, so he keeps delaying the decision by lying to both. At a critical moment in his relationship with Emily, she suddenly and mysteriously becomes very ill and is placed in a medically induced coma.   Kumail waits out the coma in the hospital with Emily’s out-of-town parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), whom he is meeting for the first time. The parents have relationship issues of their own.

How can Kumail and Emily’s parents weather the stress of an unconscious loved one on a respirator?  Will Emily’s parents accept Kumail?  Will Emily’s parents stay together themselves?  Will Kumail’s parents kick him out of the family?  Will Emily wake up, and what will she think of Kumail if/when she does?

The coma may seem contrived, so it’s important that you know that THIS REALLY HAPPENED to Kumail Nankiani’s real-life wife Emily V. Gordon.  Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote this screenplay, with support from producer Judd Apatow.

The Big Sick is hilarious (and not just for a coma movie).  The humor comes from the characters, and how they must individually deal with life’s struggles.  Kumail is cowardly delaying a choice between Emily and his own family by lying to both; we know that’s it’s only a matter of time before somebody finds out, and the clock is ticking.  The Big Sick is flawlessly directed by comedy writer and television director Michael Showalter.

Zoe Kazan, the very talented screenwriter (Ruby Sparks) and actress, makes us fall in love with Emily along with Kumail.  Kazan nails the heartbreaking scene when she finds out that Kumail hasn’t been straight with her.  It’s a pretty remarkable performance, especially given that she’s in a coma for most of the movie.

The casting of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily parents is inspired.  Each of them brings unusual depth and texture to their characters, the tightly wound mom and the conflict-avoidant dad.  Each has at least one of the Big Scenes that bring Oscar nominations

The Big Sick is the best American movie of the year so far and the best romantic comedy in years. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love.

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THE LITTLE HOURS: sex comedy from your Western Civ class

THE LITTLE HOURS

The amusingly naughty but forgettable comedy The Little Hours is based on the dirty fun in your Western Civ class, Boccaccio’s The Decameron.   A hunky young lad goes on the lam after cuckolding a local lord and hides out in a nunnery, pretending to be a deaf-mute.  He is then serially molested by the young over sexed nuns.  There is lots of sexual activity in The Little Hours, all played for laughs and none of it erotic.

It’s the 1300s but the potty-mouthed nuns speak as though it was 2017.  Aubrey Plaza is particularly funny as an unceasingly fierce nun with a knife-to-the-throat fetish and a secret life as a witch.

There are lots of low-grade laughs in The Little Hours, including an ancient nun so intent on her embroidery that she is oblivious to enthusiastic sex in the same room and communion made more challenging by a priest’s palsied hand.  Comedy stalwarts John C. Reilly, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon all sparkle.

Horny nuns, arise!

 

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San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: Al Gore in person, plus Hedy Lamarr!

sfjff

It’s time to get ready for one of the Bay Area’s top cinema events: the 37th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF37), which opens July 20, and runs through August 6 at five locations throughout the Bay Area. The SFJFF is the world’s oldest Jewish film festival, and, with a 2016 attendance figure of 40,000, still the largest.

Al Gore in AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER

Here’s an early peek at the fest highlights:

  • A pre-release screening of the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power with an appearance by former Vice-President Al Gore (the screening is currently at rush).
  • Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, the riveting biopic of a glamorous movie star who invented and patented the precursor to wireless technology; that’s amazing enough, but Bombshell delves deeply into how Lamarr’s stunning face, her Jewish heritage, and mid-century gender roles shaped her career, marriages and parenting. Top notch.
  • The especially strong slate of documentaries, always a rich trademark of the SFJFF.
  • Scores of feature films from around the world (I’ll be recommending movies from the US, Israel, Germany and Argentina).
  • And the always popular program of short films, Jews in Shorts.

One of the most appealing features of the SFJFF is that, wherever you live in the Bay Area, the fest comes to you. SFJFF will present film events at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the Landmark Albany Twin in Albany, the CinéArts Theatre in Palo Alto, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.

You can peruse the entire program and buy tickets and passes at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.  This weekend I’ll be posting my top picks for the fest.

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY

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DVD/Stream of the Week: LOCKE – a thriller about responsibility

lockeThe thriller Locke is about an extremely responsible guy (Tom Hardy) who has made one mistake – and he’s trying to make it right. But trying to do the responsible thing in one part of your life can have uncomfortable consequences in the others. The title character drives all night trying to keep aspects of his life from crashing and burning.

In fact, he never leaves the car and, for the entire duration of the movie, we only see his upper body, his eyes in the rearview mirror, the dashboard and the roadway lit by his headlights. All the other characters are voiced – he talks to them on the Bluetooth device in his BMW. Sure, that’s a gimmick – but it works because it complements the core story about the consequences of responsibility.

Locke is written and directed by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises). The story is actually a domestic drama – there are no explosions to dodge, no one in peril to rescue and no bad guys to dispatch. But it’s definitely a thriller because we care about whether Locke meets the two deadlines he will face early the next morning.

It’s a masterful job of film editing by Justine Wright (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland). After all, her cuts help keep us on the edge of our seats, despite her working with a very finite variety of shots (Locke’s eyes, the dashboard, etc.).

Hardy, who’s known as an action star, is excellent at portraying this guy who must try to keep his family, biggest career project and self-respect from unraveling at the same time, only armed with his ability to persuade others. It’s a fine film. Locke is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube abd Google Play.

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Movies to See Right Now

THE BIG SICK

THE BIG SICK

After a long and boring drought, there is finally an appealing menu of movie choices in theaters:

  • Baby Driver is just an action movie, but the walking, running and driving are brilliantly time to the beat of music.
  • The Journey is a fictional imagining of a real historical event and is an acting showcase for Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as the two longtime blood enemies who collaborated to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
  • Okja, another wholly original creation from the imagination of master filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, is streaming on Netflix and opening in theaters.
  • The delightfully smart and character-driven Israeli comedy The Women’s Balcony with a community of traditional women in revolt. The longer you’ve been married, the funnier you’ll find The Women’s Balcony.
  • The character-driven suspenser Moka is a showcase for French actresses Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye.
  • The bittersweet dramedy The Hero has one thing going for it – the wonderfully appealing Sam Elliott.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the darkly realistic Western Dead Man’s Burden.   Dead Man’s Burden is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Google Play.

Tonight on TV, Turner Classic Movies presents Raw Deal (1948), with some of the best dialogue in all of film noir, a love triangle and the superb cinematography of John Alton.

Later this week on July 11, TCM offers the very best Orson Welles Shakespeare movie, Chimes at Midnight.

And on July 12, TCM airs Days of Wine and Roses, Blake Edwards’ unflinching exploration of alcoholism, featuring great performances by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick (both nominated for Oscars) and Charles Bickford.

Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES

Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES

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THE JOURNEY: distrust and risk on a path to peace

Timothy Spall and Colm Meany in THE JOURNEY photo courtesy of SFFILM

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney in THE JOURNEY
photo courtesy of SFFILM

The Journey imagines the pivotal personal interactions between the long-warring leaders of Northern Ireland’s The Troubles resulting in the 2006 St. Andrews Accords, which set up the current power-sharing government of Northern Ireland.   Ian Paisley had lit the original fuse of the Troubles in the mid-1960s by igniting Protestant backlash to Catholic pleas for civil rights.  Paisley then obstructed every attempted peace settlement for over thirty years.  Martin McGuinness had transitioned to political leadership from chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army, resisting the violent repression of the british Army with a campaign of terror.  Paisley and McGuinness led the two sides in what was essentially a decades-long civil war, although Paisley would dispute that term.  You could fairly say that both had blood on their hands, McGuinness literally and Paisley morally.  Yet they did agree to share power in 2006.

The Journey uses an entirely fictional plot device to isolate the two of them on a road trip.  (The set-up is unlikely,  but you have to go with it.)  Then The Journey relies on the delightful work of two great actors, Timothy Spall, who plays Paisley, and Colm Meaney, who plays McGuinness.

Beyond the political differences and the blood grudge, the two make a classic Odd Couple.  Spall’s Paisley seems completely impregnable to charm.  The Journey is very funny as McGuinesss’ considerable charm and wit keeps falling flat.  In fact, there are plenty of LOL moments from the awkward situations, McGuinness’ quips and their seemingly clueless driver (Freddy Highmore).  Paisley seems utterly devoid of humor until an unexpected moment.

While The Journey is completely fictionalized, it is certainly true that the two had hated each other for decades, did reach agreement in 2006 and thereafter held posts in the same government and personally got along well, evolving an even affectionate personal relationship.  We also see Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams and an imagined MI5 character played by John Hurt.

Spall and Meaney took on a considerable challenge:  Paisley and McGuinness dominated the political news in Ireland for decades and are well-known to audiences in the UK and Ireland. Paisley died in 2014, and McGuinness died just last month.  The Journey’s screenwriter Colin Bateman, was born in Northern Ireland, and The Journey was financed by Northern Ireland Screen.

Achieving a sustainable agreement with a longtime blood enemy requires deciding which of your positions are sacrosanct principles and which have more flexibility. It requires risking the loyalty of your political base, which will revolt against leaders perceived as selling them out. It requires gauging the likelihood that your opponent will stick to his side of the deal. And, you have to focus on your outcome – the long-term goal, not just on defeating your enemy in the moment.  “Young men fight for the helluvit. Old men care about their legacy”, says Hurt’s character in The Journey.

I watched The Journey in April at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival).  To further explore this topic, here is my list of Best Movies About The Troubles.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: DEAD MAN’S BURDEN – times are hard and the women are harder

DEAD MAN’S BURDEN

I always welcome a new Western, and writer-director Jared Moshe’s impressive debut Dead Man’s Burden takes us to a darkly realistic Old West. The dry New Mexico landscape is beautiful but unforgiving, and the law is three days ride away. The times are hard and the women are harder. The Civil War ended five years before, but families are still reeling from losing a generation of young men.

As the film opens, a man rides away on horseback. A petite woman, young but worn, hoists an 1853 Enfield rifle to her shoulder, takes aim and fires. We later learn the identity of the man, his relationship to the woman and her reason for firing. It’s not what you might guess. And the villain is not who you expect it to be.

Moshe’s story reveals some characters to be bound by duty and others to be opportunistic. They are caught in the same web of circumstance, which funnels inevitably them to conflict. The movie’s final two shots echo an earlier moment, and neatly (if grimly) wrap up the tale.

The cast – Barlow Jacobs, Clare Bowen (Scarlet in ABC’s Nashville), David Call and veteran Richard Riehle – is uniformly good. Jacobs (Kid in Shotgun Stories) is especially well suited for a Western hero, with expressive eyes that narrow like Eastwood’s or Van Cleef’s.

There’s a gunfight that is more historically typical than the usual cinematic facedown in the street. These men, hunters and former soldiers, chase each other through the brush, firing from cover. It ain’t heroic. And Dead Man’s Burden is remarkably unsentimental.

DEAD MAN’S BURDEN

Dead Man’s Burden was shot on 35mm by Robert Hauer, and the look of the film brings out the isolating vastness of the land. Sadly, the sound is substandard, and I had difficulty comprehending some of the dialogue.

Dead Man’s Burden is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Google Play.

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BABY DRIVER: an action ballet on wheels

Ansel Elgort in BABY DRIVER

Ansel Elgort in BABY DRIVER

Baby Driver is an uncommonly innovative summer action movie with the action overtly tied to the rhythm of music.  The credit goes to writer-director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), who knows better than to weigh down his genre movies with pretension.  The beauty of Baby Driver is that it doesn’t aspire to be more than it is, but it delivers a surprising added dimension.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a professional getaway driver with preternatural driving skill.  The childhood vehicle accident that killed his parents has left Baby with tinnitus, which he covers with music from his ever-present ear buds and several pockets full of iPods.  This gimmick allows Wright to time his chase scenes (and this is a chase scene movie) to the beat of Baby’s music.  Even when Baby walks down the street, he walks musically, evoking the opening title sequence in Saturday Night Fever.

At one point, Baby loses his wheels and continues his escape on foot; his wild run turns into elegant parkour.  In an early vehicle chase, Baby creates a shell game for the cops by matching his car with two identical ones.  And Wright scores one musical chase with the 1971 song Hocus Pocus from the Dutch group Focus; you’ll find it funny – and, if you were around in the early 1970s – you’ll find it even funnier.

The story is pretty basic: Baby is working off a debt to a crime lord (Kevin Spacey), who pairs him with a differently configured set of  robbers for each heist.  Baby falls in love with Debora (Lily James – Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey) and plans to run away with her after One Last Job.  Of course, because he is partnering with a bunch of psychopaths, things don’t go well, and soon he is imperiled, along with Debora and his beloved deaf foster dad.  So there are lots of reasons for him to chase and be chased.

Wright has the perfect star in the baby faced teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort (Caleb in the Divergent/Allegiant/Insurgent franchise and the star of the teen melodrama The Fault in Our Stars).   Elgort’s mom is a ballet dancer (as is his girlfriend), and he tried on ballet before his acting career.  Elgort naturally moves like a dancer and can overtly walk, run and even drive like he’s dancing.

Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm light up the movie with their performances.  Foxx is terrifying as a murderous psychopath with a hair trigger.  Hamm’s bad guy is less flamboyant at first, but takes over the end of the movie with a relentless and lethal slow burn. Baby’s foster parent is played by CJ Jones, a deaf actor playing a deaf character.  It’s not a very textured role on the page, but Jones brings an unexpectedly deep humanity to his character.

The Mexican actress Eiza González, who has been appearing in action and vampire movies, plays one of the robbers.  Besides being beautiful and sexy, González has a magnetic presence and, in Baby Driver, she’s able to match up with Spacey, Hamm and Foxx.    She’s going to star in an upcoming James Cameron screenplay directed by Robert Rodriguez titled Alita: Battle Angel, which looks like a trashy franchise, but it just might make her a star.

Lily James is winning as a good girl with a wild side, in a much different performance than her good girl with a wild side in Downton Abbey.  The rest of the cast is good, too, down to the bit parts.  And it’s always fun to be surprised by a Paul Williams cameo.

The car stunts are first rate.  Baby Driver doesn’t claim to be a great movie, but it is a damn entertaining one and may well win an Oscar nomination for film editing.

 

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Best Movies of 2017 – So Far

Javier and Ricardo Darin in TRUMAN

Javier Cámara and Ricardo Darin in TRUMAN

Every year, I keep a running list of the best movies I’ve seen this year. I usually end up with a Top Ten and another 5-15 mentions. Here’s last year’s list. To get on my year-end list, a movie has to be one that thrills me while I’m watching it and one that I’m still thinking about a couple of days later.

The list so far includes some movies that you watch right now on video: Best Movies of 2017 – So Far.

I’m looking forward to many upcoming films that are be candidates for this list, including The Big Sick this weekend and A Ghost Story in July, plus all the Prestige Movies this fall.

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Movies to See Right Now

OKJA

OKJA

Current movie recommendations (Okja and Moka are both good – don’t get them mixed up):

  • Okja, another wholly original creation from the imagination of master filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, is streaming on Netflix and opening in theaters.
  • The delightfully smart and character-driven Israeli comedy The Women’s Balcony with a community of traditional women in revolt. The longer you’ve been married, the funnier you’ll find The Women’s Balcony.
  • The character-driven suspenser Moka is a showcase for French actresses Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye.
  • The David and Goliath documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the riveting story of an American family business bullied into a nightmarish fight for survival.
  • The bittersweet dramedy The Hero has one thing going for it – the wonderfully appealing Sam Elliott.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the geezer roadtrip comedy Land Ho!, available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.

This week Turner Classic Movies brings us three classics of film noir:

  • While the City Sleeps is a tale of boardroom backstabbing from the cinema great Fritz Lang. The killer cast is so deep (Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Rhonda Fleming), that noir leading man Howard Duff is stuck playing the cop. July 5 on TCM.
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is another film noir from the great Fritz Lang.  Seeking to discredit capital punishment, a reporter (Dana Andrews) gets himself charged with and CONVICTED of a murder – but then the evidence of his innocence suddenly disappears! Crackerjack (and deeply noir) surprise ending. July 5 on TCM.
  • Raw Deal features some of the best film noir dialogue, a love triangle and the superb cinematography of John Alton. July 7 on TCM.

Also on July 5, TCM presents Sam Peckinpah’s very underrated neo-noir crime drama The Getaway (1972) starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. McQueen and MacGraw are delightful to watch as they move between violent clashes and double- and triple-crosses. There’s a still-shocking but funny plot thread involving a sadistic villain (Al Lettieri – Sollozzo the Turk in The Godfather), a trashy bimbo (Sally Struthers) and her poor hubbie (Jack Dodson – Howard Sprague in The Andy Griffith Show). The wonderful cast is rounded out with Peckinpah regulars: Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, Dub Taylor, Richard Bright and Bo Hopkins.

Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw in THE GETAWAY

Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw in THE GETAWAY

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