DVD/Stream of the Week: THE BIG SICK

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 first half of 2017 and the best romantic comedy in years. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love. The Big Sick can be rented in DVD from Netflix and Redbox and can be streamed from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

DVD/Stream of the Week: DRINKING BUDDIES – an unusually genuine romantic comedy

Drinking Buddies

In Drinking Buddies, Olivia Wilde plays the only female employee of an urban craft brewery. She and her co-worker best buddy (Jake Johnson) eat their lunches together every day, kid around on the job and join the crew for beers after work. They really connect and share trust with each other, and the two have achieved an enviable level of interpersonal comfort. If this were the typical idiot Hollywood romantic comedy, we could stop watching now, because we would know that they would dump their current significant others (Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston) in the third act because THEY ARE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER.

But, instead, writer-director Joe Swanberg surprises us with an unusually genuine romantic comedy. The characters act and react – not in the way we’ve come to expect rom com characters to act – but as unpredictably as would real people. Real people can be complex. Real people can make choices out of short-term self-gratification – or they can make sacrifices for the greater good – you don’t always know what’s coming. Swanberg trusts that the audience isn’t demanding a tired formula – and it pays off for him and for us.

Swanberg has also made the first Mumblecore movie that I’ve liked. I was on the verge of writing off the entire cinematic genre because I don’t like to watch self-involved twits obsess over their own avoidable, First World problems. Although Swanberg’s male characters have the Mumblecore bedhead, he makes this movie about a situation that could happen to any of us – discovering a potential soul mate outside our existing relationship. And the characters don’t wring their hands and kvetch – they struggle through the untidy challenge and move on.

The cast is solid, and the glammed-down Olivia Wilde is especially very good here.

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.

PARIS CAN WAIT: female fantasy (disputed) and tantalizing food

PARIS CAN WAIT
PARIS CAN WAIT

Here’s an entertaining piece of fluff.  In Paris Can Wait, Diane Lane plays Anne, the neglected wife of movie mogul Michael (Alec Baldwin).   A show biz emergency has short-circuited their European vacation in Cannes, and the Michael’s French partner Jacques (Arnaud Viard) offers to drive Anne to Paris.   It should be a seven-hour drive, but Jacques stretches it out to take in as many fine dining experiences as he can pack in.

The flirtatious but gentlemanly Jacques is an expert gourmand and a militant epicurean.  And he has resolved to make Anne feel special in ways that her husband doesn’t, at least anymore.  Anne enjoys the attention, but she is anything but naive.  She and the audience are expecting Jacques to make a pass at any moment.

As the closing credits rolled,  most of the women in my audience applauded.  Above all, Paris Can Wait is a fantasy from a woman’s point of view.  That woman is director Eleanor Coppola, who, at the age of 81, has made her first fiction film.  Coppola had previously made what is perhaps the best ever “making of” documentary, the 1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which chronicled the making of her husband Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!.  Eleanor and Francis have been married since 1963, and their daughter Sofia just won Best Director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for her remake of The Beguiled.

The great and underutilized Diane Lane is such a masterful and magnetic actor.  Anne is an unchallenging role, but it’s still hard to imagine anyone better.   In the 1980s,  Lane started her run of The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and as Paulette Goddard in Chaplin.  Her most unforgettable role was probably as Lorie in the 1989 classic miniseries Lonesome Dove.  My own favorite Diane Lane performance was the one for which she was Oscar-nominated, in 2002’s Unfaithful.    I’ll watch her in anything.

Arnaud Viard, a French actor whose work, mainly on French TV, I wasn’t familiar with, is perfect as the debonair but vulnerable Jacques.  As we would expect, Alec Baldwin is excellent as the self-absorbed blowhard Michael.

Paris Can Wait is probably even more of a travelogue than a romantic comedy.  France is a beautiful country, and Jacques and Anne get to drive and picnic through the most scenic parts.  And then there’s the food – serious food porn!  This is by no means an excellent movie, but if you enjoy France, and if you enjoy eating anywhere, this is a harmlessly fun 90 minutes.

[NOTE: The Wife disputes a) that this is a widespread female fantasy and b) that is was the women clapping in the theater, and she finds my “female fantasy” characterization to be offensive.  On the first point, she says that the story here is NOT something that would appeal to all or most women.  I remain convinced that a story in which a woman is found desirable by a non-threatening man who lavishes attention on her does appeal to women, at least more than to men (who I believe prefer non-platonic screen relationships).  On the second point, it is true, as she points out, that I always have us sit in the very front of the theater, and, with our backs to the rest of the audience, I did not actually see who was applauding.]

Cinequest: CARRIE PILBY

CARRIE PILBY
CARRIE PILBY

The title character in the agreeable misfit comedy Carrie Pilby (Bel Powley) is literally a genius, a girl with such high intelligence that she enrolled at Harvard at age 14. That experience proved to be better for her intellectual development than for her emotional development. Now she’s 19, a year out of college and holed up in her Manhattan apartment pretending that she’s anti-social because no one is smart enough to engage with her. She emerges only to see her therapist (Nathan Lane), who assigns her some tasks to draw her out, and comic adventures ensue.

Carrie sequentially encounters three dreamy-looking guys and all of the male characters except one are very sensitive. But Carrie Pilby isn’t a Chick Flick that men won’t enjoy.

Powley is very good at making the audience relate to someone by definition very unlike us. She has mastered the comic take and has excellent timing.

I watched Carrie Pilby at Cinequest; at a screening with director Susan Johnson. Johnson says that the source material, a popular novel, “was about not judging a book by its cover”.  She continued, “Think about your own journey and not judging others – that’s kind of deep for a comedy”. Johnson, who shot the film in only 20 days, said that her favorite scene was the prayer scene.

Carrie Pilby is an enjoyable comedy. It opens theatrically on March 31, on VOD on April 4 and will be on Netflix in September.

DVDs/Streams of the Week: Three smart romantic comedies written by women

A dream girl comes to life in RUBY SPARKS

Just when I had branded the entire genre brain dead, several smart and engaging romantic comedies have popped up – all written by women. In Ruby Sparks,  a shy writer writes about his imagined perfect love object until…she becomes real. Yes, suddenly he has a real life girlfriend of his own design. Ruby Sparks takes this fantasy of a perfect partner and explores the limits of a partner that you have designed yourself. The biggest star in Ruby Sparks is its leading lady Zoe Kazan’s ingenious screenplay – funny without being silly, profound without being pretentious, bright without being precious. Ruby Sparks is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Also co-written by its female star, in this case Rashida Jones, Celeste and Jesse Forever is about a couple that is now working on an amiable divorce and are still best friends. Once you accept the comic premise that this couple is made for each other but not as a married couple, everyone’s behavior is authentic. Sure, he wants to get back with her when she isn’t in a place to do that – and, then, vice versa – but the characters resolve the conflict as they would in real life. Here’s a mini-spoiler – this movie is just too smart to end in rushing to the airport or disrupting the wedding or any of the other typical rom com contrivances. Celeste and Jesse Forever is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Flixster.

The grievously overlooked romantic comedy Man Up had a very brief US theatrical run  that did not even reach the Bay Area. British television writer Tess Morris weaves the story of Nancy (Lake Bell), who is on a four-year dating drought and has given up all hope when she inadvertently stumbles into a blind date meant for another woman. She’s intrigued with what she sees in Jack (Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead) and decides to impersonate his real date. As they get more and more into each other, the elephant in the room is when she will be exposed.  Morris authentically captures dating behaviors and female and male insecurities.  Man Up is available to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Flixster.

Note:  I posted about Man Up last month and I’ve received more appreciative feedback from my readers for that recommendation than for any other this year.

And here’s a bonus if you enjoy Lake Bell in Man Up. The very talented Bell wrote/directed/starred in the American indie comedy In the World…, which I really, really liked. It’s available to rent on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Flixster.

Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in MAN UP
Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in MAN UP

MAGGIE’S PLAN: Julianne Moore sparks a rom com with a twist

Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore in MAGGIE'S PLAN
Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore in MAGGIE’S PLAN

I only saw Maggie’s Plan because The Wife DRAGGED me to it, but I was surprisingly entertained by this amiable romantic comedy.  A typically floundering mumblecore Millennial (Greta Gerwig) finds herself in an affair with an older man (Ethan Hawke). When she awakens to his relationship-killing self-absorption, she decides the ease the breakup by handing him back to his overachieving ex-wife (Julianne Moore).

Hawke, of course, excels in playing the unreliable man (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Boyhood, Born to Be Blue).  Gerwig (the reason I didn’t want to see this movie) is not nearly as annoying and tiresome as she has been to date in her career. But it’s Julianne Moore who really elevates Maggie’s Plan, along with Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, who are hilarious in supporting roles. Aussie Travis Flimmer shows much promise in a very minor, but eye-catching role.

It all adds up to an amiable and satisfying rom com with a fresh twist.

Stream of the Week: MAN UP – our dating insecurities revealed

Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in MAN UP
Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in MAN UP

Here’s a delightful movie that you haven’t seen – the grievously overlooked romantic comedy Man Up. The British Man Up had a very brief US theatrical run last November that did not even reach the Bay Area. I suspect that’s because it doesn’t have any big name American stars. But it’s better than any other romantic comedy from 2015.

Nancy (Lake Bell) is on a four-year dating drought and has given up all hope when she inadvertently stumbles into a blind date meant for another woman. She’s intrigued with what she sees in Jack (Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead) and decides to impersonate his real date. As they get more and more into each other, the elephant in the room is when she will be exposed.

Like many of the best recent romantic comedies, Man Up was written by a woman, the British television writer Tess Morris. Again and again in Man Up, Morris authentically captures dating behaviors and female and male insecurities. Nervous at meeting Nancy, Jack just can’t stop talking; in a later date with someone who he’s not so much into, he checks off the same conversation points in a fraction of the time.  Everyone who has dated will recognize himself or herself at some moment in this film.

The very talented Lake Bell wrote/directed/starred in the American indie comedy In the World…, which I really, really liked. Simon Pegg is a comedy star, and he’s very appealing here, but Bell has seriously good comedic chops.

Rory Kinnear, who you might remember as persistent but sensitive detective in The Imitation Game and as Tanner in the James Bond movies, plays an outrageously inappropriate admirer from Nancy’s youth.

Man Up is available to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Flixster.

SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY: comic fluff from a master

Jennifer Aniston in SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY
Jennifer Aniston in SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY

The new comedy She’s Funny That Way from 75-year-old master filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich is a light-hearted diversion about the unlikely career path of an escort-turned-screen actress (Imogene Poots).  Bogdanovich is responsible for the screwball comedy masterpiece What’s Up Doc? and the grossly under-rated comedy romance They All Laughed.  So he knows knows how to choreograph mad cap moments.   There’s also an unexpected cameo at the very end, along with very funny end credits.

Along with Poots, Bogdanovich has attracted a top tier cast:  Owen Wilson, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte and Kathryn Hahn.   It’s especially welcome to see survivors of Bogdanovich’s 1970s oeuvre –  Cybill Shepherd, Tatum O’Neal and Austin Pendleton.

But the real revelation here – and the main reason to see the movie – is Jennifer Aniston’s turn as the most emotionally unhealthy therapist conceivable.  It’s written as an extreme character – absolutely no boundaries, utterly self-absorbed, dangerously resentful and completely unprofessional.  But Aniston’s performance is so full throttle that the audience delights every time her character comes on-screen.

She’s Funny That Way is just fluff, but it’s well-crafted fluff.  It’s is now available to stream from Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

DVD/Stream of the Week: WORDS AND PICTURES: an unusually thoughtful romantic comedy

words picturesIn the unusually thoughtful romantic comedy Words and Pictures, Clive Owen and the ever-radiant Juliette Binoche star as sparring teachers. The two play world-class artists – Owen a writer and Binoche a painter – who find themselves in teaching jobs at an elite prep school. As they spiritedly disagree over whether words or pictures are the most powerful medium of expression, they each admire and are drawn to the other’s talent and passion.

Words and Pictures contains the wittiest movie dialogue in many moons and reminds us that real wit is more than some clever put downs. Owen’s English teacher worships the use of language to evoke original imagery and also revels in pedantic wordplay – the more syllables the better. When his boss asks him, “Why are you always late?”, he retorts “Why are you always dressed monochromatically?”.

The reason that he IS always late is that he’s an alcoholic hellbent on squandering his talent and alienating his friends and family. This is a realistic depiction of alcoholism and of its byproducts – unreliability, broken relationships and fundamental dishonesty. In an especially raw scene, he expresses his self-loathing by using a tennis racquet and tennis balls to demolish his own living space. Top notch stuff.

Binoche plays a woman of great inner strength and confidence who has been shaken by the advances of a chronic illness. According to the credits, Binoche herself created her character’s paintings.

Words and Pictures sparkles until near the end. When the students make the debate over words vs pictures explicit in the school assembly, the intellectual argument loses its force and the tension peters out. So it may not be a great movie, but Words and Pictures is still plenty entertaining and a damn sight smarter than the average romantic comedy.

I saw Words and Pictures earlier this year at Cinequest. It’s available now on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Vudu and Xbox Video.