I, Tonya(1/7/2018)

I am old enough that I remember the O.J. Simpson controversy.  I don’t remember it very well as I was only about seven when the verdict was handed down and was mostly oblivious to its details and its social context, but it was something I knew was going on at the time.  I am not, however, old enough to remember the other scandal du jour of the early 90s: the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan kneecap clubbing affair.  In fact I first heard about the whole incident from a Weird Al Yankovic song called “Headline News” which was a parody of The Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” that described other tabloidy 90s news stories like that kid who got his butt caned in Singapore and that lady who cut off her husband’s wiener.   You’ll note that there was not a word about O.J. in that song, in part because that story involved a double-murder, but also because that delved into some pretty serious aspects of American society which wouldn’t make it terribly suitable for a song parody (dancing Itos notwithstanding).  The Tonya Harding case on the other hand was basically a joke from the beginning and was viewed by the public as little more than a cat fight writ large.  However, like the O.J. story this is being revisited recently in a number of documentaries and articles to see if there was actually something to be mined from it now that the dust has settled and we have some perspective and the latest manifestation of that is the new feature film I, Tonya.

I, Tonya begins with a title card saying that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” from it subjects.  The main subject is of course Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who the film follows basically from her first professional skating lesson at the age of four up through the duration of the scandal that would define her.  Throughout her youth she is being driven to succeed by her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), who paid for Harding’s lessons out of her modest waitress salary and supports her as she rose to the top of her sport.  That would be an incredibly inspiring story if not for the fact that LaVona is otherwise a horrible mother who constantly abuses Tonya verbally and sometimes physically.  As a teenager Harding is frustrated both by her mother’s craziness and the snobbery that’s preventing her from getting good scores at tournaments and this drives her into the arms of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who provides something of an escape for her despite also being physically abusive and just generally a loser.  She ends up coming in fourth place at the 1992 Olympics and thinks her career is over until she learns that because of a re-allignment the next winter Olympics will be held just two years later.  She believes she’s primed for a comeback… one that will soon be sabotaged by her scheming husband and his nutty friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).

I, Tonya takes the form of a dark comedy and is structured by a series of faux “to the camera” interviews with the various characters which often become voice-over and the on-screen characters also occasionally break the fourth wall and talk to the screen.  A lot of this structure is reminiscent of The Big Short or perhaps even 24 Hour Party People, especially when we get to scenes the characters stop, look at the camera, and says something like “it didn’t happen like this” during scenes where the testimonies of the various principals contradict each other.  But the movie that this most clearly wants to be like is David O. Russell’s American Hustle.  That movie, and other recent movies from Russell, deal with lower class families like Harding’s and have a similar pace and patter to them.  The film certainly paints the “incident” at the center of the film as a hustle gone wrong more than anything and there’s a largeness to all the performances here that certainly matches what we saw from Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  In fact I’d say it’s trying so hard to be like that movie and Goodfellas that it has an extensive soundtrack which mostly features music from the 70s even though the film is mostly set in the 90s, including certain songs that have become clichés of “70s soundtracks” like “Spirit in the Sky” and “The Chain,” which were both prominently featured in Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Derivative as the film may be it would be something of a lie to suggest that these techniques that the movie rips off don’t still more or less work.  As a comedy the movie does more or less function effectively with all the film’s colorful characters saying a lot of rather ridiculous things to one another and the film frequently cutting to them in interview form contradicting each other and commenting on certain things and occasionally even breaking the fourth wall.  That the film functions as well as it does as a comedy is surprising given that it covers some rather dark material, namely the domestic violence that occurred between Gillooly and Harding, which could easily come across as rather flippant.  The film has also been criticized for not being overly concerned with what Nancy Kerrigan went through in all of this, which seems a bit unfair as the movie is simply focusing on the more entertaining figures in all of this.  What’s more I’m not sure that the movie is as sympathetic towards Harding as people are making it out to be.  The movie certainly isn’t on Harding’s side when she makes goofy excuses or says wildly un-self-aware things like when she accuses Kerrigan of being the real bad sport in all of this.

There are a lot of movies that I respect more than I like.  They’re movies that I can clearly see doing new and interesting things but which I just don’t really enjoy watching.  This is the opposite of that, it’s a movie I like but don’t really respect.  Its director Craig Gillespie is a guy who can deliver professionally made movies like the Fright Night remake, but he’s clearly not an auteur with a vision and here you can tell that he’s just borrowing from other contemporaries and applying those techniques to a movie that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.  I don’t think it has a terribly clear message to deliver about wealth inequality, domestic violence, or tabloid culture but it sure wants you to think it does.  It does hit those funny notes when it needs to, it does move along at an impressive pace, it’s greatly elevated by its cast, and even when you’re cringing at how un-clever “Barracuda” is as a song choice you still sort of jam to it.  Winter is a time when movies like this get held to a slightly higher standard as we try to parse out which movies are deserve to have their legacies built immediately by awards, and with that in mind I feel the need to knock this thing down a couple of pegs, but it’s also a movie I suspect most moviegoers looking for a good time at a theater shouldn’t be dissuaded from.


Molly’s Game(1/6/2018)

As with most vices I’ve spent most of my life avoiding gambling as an activity in all its forms.  I don’t go to casinos, I don’t bet on sports, and I don’t even play the lottery.  That having been said in the last couple of years I’ve developed a fascination with the game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker.  I never play it mind you, not for money anyway, but I watch a number of Youtube channels about the game and when high profile tournaments are televised or are being live streamed I try to check them out.  This does not make watching movies that have poker scenes in them all that much easier because poker scenes in movies are often kind of ridiculous.  Most poker hands involve one dude with a pair and one dude with an ace high and end with one or the other folding because the other shows the slightest bit of aggression.  The poker scenes in Casino Royale are basically science fiction scenarios with ridiculously large hands showing up on the regular, but then the movies that actually seem to take the game seriously end up being these mediocrities like Rounders and Lucky You.  But my eyebrow still pops up a little when a movie involving poker pops up and I was particularly curious when I heard about the film Molly’s Game, which was going to tell one of the more famous stories in the world of poker and would be the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin to boot.

The film looks at the true events surrounding a woman named Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) who achieves fortune and infamy running underground poker games that were attended by movies stars, athletes, millionaires, and billionaires.  As the film begins Bloom, who has quit running poker games and wrote a book about her experiences, is being arrested as part of a wider crackdown on the Russian mafia under the belief that her games were part of a money laundering scheme, forcing her to seek out a high paid attorney named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).  From there we flash back to her childhood, where she was pressured to be an over-achiever by her father Larry (Kevin Costner) and became a highly successful skier before having that career cut short by an injury.  We then watch as she moves to L.A. and finds herself working as an assistant for an asshole Hollywood producer, and part of that job is to help organize his weekly high stakes poker night in the basement of The Viper Room which is attended by a number of big name directors and actors including one the movie calls Player X (Michael Cera) who is by all accounts based on Tobey Maguire.  Eventually things sour with the producer and rather than let him run things she simply starts up her own card game and poaches all his players.

One of the strengths of Molly’s Game is that it manages to not feel like a ripoff of Goodfellas despite basically having all the elements of one.  This is after all a movie telling the true story of the rise and fall of a crime empire of sorts through a briskly edited romp with voice over narration from the person at the center of it all.  Part of why this feels different might be the absence of anyone getting wacked and part of it might be its flashback structure or the lack of classic rock over the montages.  Really though I think it just comes down to the fact that it’s a movie that doesn’t exude machismo.  Unlike Martin Scorsese Aaron Sorkin does not come from “the streets” and he’s also a grown-up who isn’t terribly interested in seeming like a tough guy the way that most of the young filmmakers who are prone to ripping off Goodfellas are.  Also, perhaps more obviously, the person at the center of this movie is a woman and not one who’s trying to be an heir to Scarface.  Where most gangsters build their empires on being “respected” (I.E. feared), she built hers essentially on social skills, organization, and psychology.

Molly herself is pretty impressive as a person despite her flaws, and Jessica Chastain brings her to life with some clear star power.  This is also of course a film by Aaron Sorkin and you can certainly tell he wrote it though there a bit more restraint then there could have been.  The theory among critics is that Sorkin works best when his screenplays were interpreted by directors with somewhat icy directorial styles like David Fincher and Bennet Miller to dilute out some of his cornier ideas, but he seems to do a pretty good job of holding himself back while directing this one.  That said, he’s still clearly not a master filmmaker behind the camera.  There are certainly moments that are more visually ambitious than what he normally does with his television work but none of them really blew me away in their execution and the overall style here doesn’t really rise much above the level of “average.”  There also doesn’t ultimately seem to be much of a point to all this beyond the fact that it’s an interesting true story.  The things that make Molly tick ultimately aren’t all that deep or complicated, though that doesn’t stop them from outlining all of them via pop psychology in one rather on the nose scene towards the end, and the movie is also occasionally a bit too in love with her for her own good.  Her ultimate claim to sympathy is that she’s very intent to keep all the dirty secrets of the famous people at her games… which maybe explains why it’s as well liked as it is at industry awards shows in 2017… and that she isn’t a murderer.  At certain points it’s argued that it’s an injustice that Molly being prosecuted when white collar criminals who’ve done worse are often not prosecuted as vigorously, which is true, but there are also poor black kids who’ve done even less and get prosecuted even more vigorously so Molly’s position as an underdog in the legal system seems a bit dubious.

Ultimately, Molly’s Game is merely a good movie and that’s okay.  It used to be that dramas like this had a lot less pressure on them.  Hollywood would put them out regularly and they could serve as solid populist entertainment, but these days movies like this are immediately vetted to see if they’re Oscar-worthy and if they aren’t they get pushed aside.  I wouldn’t consider this movie to be high art but there’s certainly plenty of good in it.  Should you see this in place of all the other great movies that are out in theaters right now?  Probably not.  But if you’ve seen all of those or you’re in the mood for something lighter and this sounds interesting give it a watch.  And if you miss this in theaters, go ahead and give it a rental or catch it on HBO because it’s definitely the kind of movie that makes for a good casual viewing.

Thor: Ragnarok(11/8/2017)

The last couple of times a Marvel “MCU” movie came out I was surprised to see people talk about how all of Marvel’s films were “the same” and how they were tired of them having “too many cameos” and that they felt the films were acting as advertisements for each other.  Every time I saw a reaction like that I couldn’t help but think “where were you guys when I felt that way.”  While I generally gave a pass to most of their movies I definitely thought they were lame all through “phase one” and on and off again into “phase two.”  But Marvel is actually on something of a winning streak right now.  Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming were all winners, each probably better than the last.  Granted, even the best MCU movies aren’t “great” and at times I worry that I grade them on something of a curve but I didn’t have much in the way of major complaints about any of them.  If there’s one movie that I worried would derail this string of success it was almost certainly Thor: Ragnarok, which would be a follow-up to the MCU’s low-point: Thor: The Dark World.  That second Thor movie was a disaster; it’s probably the one MCU movie that I’d say was outright bad, a movie that seems to basically only exist because it was on their schedule to make another Thor movie at that point and which did little but tread water for two hours.  Still, I don’t see myself ever skipping an MCU movie in theaters so I was willing to give it a shot anyway.

The film picks up a few months after the ending of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and depicts what Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was up to while the people back on earth were going through the events of Captain America: Civil War.  It begins with him on one of many unsuccessful attempts to find infinity stones after his epiphany at the cave in that rather strange scene in Age of Ultron.  This particular adventure found him defeating an ancient force which claims that it will bring the Ragnarok apocalypse upon the Asgard.  For all his prophetic talk the guy is actually pretty easily defeated and his crown collected.  Thor then returns to Asgard with the crown and uncovers within minutes that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as was set up in the cliffhanger of the last Thor solo movie.  Thor demands that Loki show him where their father is and the two go to Earth, where Odin has been hanging out and contemplating his life.  Soon he dies, seemingly of old age or something, and leaves them a parting warning of the looming Ragnarok.  Shortly thereafter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, shows up and sends them off to a strange prison-like planet run by a guy called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) while she goes to conquer Asgard.  Thor must thus escape the odd prison he finds himself in in order to have a shot of saving his people.

The last three MCU films have been a bit disconnected from the wider Avengers storyline.  Doctor Strange had an infinity stone in it but was ultimately mostly about establishing a new character, Spider-Man: Homecoming was all about how Spider-Man wasn’t prepared to handle Avengers-caliber foes, and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are kind of off in their own corner of the galaxy disconnected from what the other Marvel characters are up to.  As such it seems that Thor: Ragnarok was in the position of having to pick up a lot of the burden of setting things up for the Avengers movie that’s coming in less than six months.  This becomes quickly apparent when we get an extended (and ultimately rather pointless) cameo by Dr. Strange, many references to previous films including Black Widow stock footage, and (as anyone whose seen the trailer has had spoiled for them) a fairly large part for The Incredible Hulk.  That would seem like a recipe for disaster but somehow some way the movie gets away with it.  Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that seemingly makes every mistake that an MCU movie can make and yet still works in spite of itself.

Most Marvel movies tend to have large and frankly over-qualified casts and this one is particularly impressive in that regard.  We have all the returning actors from the Thor series like Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba but also some newcomers like Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblume.  Blanchett is obviously someone who’s “above” doing a movie like this in many ways and could have easily done this villainess role in her sleep, but she does seem to have brought her A-game or at least her B+ game just the same and is almost unrecognizable here.  Jeff Goldblume is also fun even if he’s largely doing a riff on his usual persona and Tessa Thompson is a solid addition as well who seems likely to play a role in the series going forward.  As with previous Marvel movies including the original Thor there’s a lot of comedy to be found here, like, A LOT.  The movie seems to be following the lead of Guardians of the Galaxy is practically being a straight-up comedy at times but does wisely find a slightly different approach.  The film was directed by the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, an associate of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords who sort of shares a certain dry sense of humor with them.

Where most movies have comic relief one could almost call this a comedic movie with moments of dramatic relief.  At times this feels like a bit of a crutch to conceal some screenplay problems (like the immense coincidence of Thor and The Hulk finding themselves stranded on the same remote planet) and sometimes this abundance of yucks can lead to some odd dissonance, like the fact that it more or less forgives Loki for the many many murders he committed in previous movies just because it’s fun to treat him like a lovable rogue.  For the most part though the movie actually does a surprisingly good job of keeping the stakes of the story in place while subverting them at every chance.  Part of it is the film’s bisected structure in which the antics on the Grandmaster’s planet are separated from the slightly more serious peril going on in Asgard.  This format would probably lead to a tonal disaster if the plight of the Asgard felt just a little more grim or the escape from the Grandmaster was just a little lower stakes, but the balance does seem to work out just right so that the two parts can support each other rather than detract from each other.

Thor: Ragnarok is a movie I want to be careful not to over-rate but also avoid under-appreciating.  If the most you want out of a movie is to be entertained for two hours then this is definitely a movie that will leave you satisfied, but I also don’t consider it to be particularly special in any way.  It’s basically doing nothing that other MCU movies haven’t already done and it also isn’t the MCU movie I’d send anyone to if they haven’t already bought into what Marvel does.  I definitely think less of it than I do of some of Marvel’s other recent triumphs like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Doctor Strange which were better able to tell self-contained stories or Captain America: Civil War which managed to deliver even more in terms of fan service.  It is, however still part of a fairly triumphant string of Marvel films and is notably better than some of the more mediocre films they were putting out earlier including the first and second Thor movies.

Battle of the Sexes(9/30/2017)

I’m not exactly sure why it is that Tennis is the one sport where people seem to be genuinely just as interested in the female competitions as the male competitions, outside of certain Olympic events anyway.  The WNBA has a small fraction of the viewership of the NBA for example but at least there is a WNBA, I don’t even know if there’s a comparable league for female baseball players or hockey players and I don’t even know of any female football teams even at the collegiate and high school levels.  There’s some interest in female soccer in America, largely as a product of the U.S. female soccer team being noticeable better than the men’s team, but that also sort of seems to be a product of the European and Latin American markets that actually love soccer not really caring enough to build up competition for them.  As for other individual sports I know there are some female boxers and female MMA fighters, but again, they don’t seem nearly as popular as their male counterparts.  Clearly there must be something about tennis that leads to equal coverage, maybe it’s that it’s such a finesse sport that the difference in strength just isn’t apparent on TV… but then you’d think that female golfers would have more of a platform.  Maybe it’s just a matter of female tennis players having gotten a useful platform from early on in the sport’s history.  They play in the same Grand Slam tournaments at the same time as the men and tend to get coverage at the same time.  Whatever it was it was something unique and the new film, Battle of the Sexes is about (among other things) a moment where a major star in women’s tennis stood up to defend that one shard of relative gender equality in sports and managed to make a statement about gender equality in the rest of society as well.

Set in the early 70s, the film follows tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who is already more or less at the peak of her career at this point and has just won a major tournament which has netted her a hundred thousand dollar check.  News of this gets to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a 55 year old man who was a tennis champion in the 1940 and was old enough to actually have his career interrupted by World War II.  At this point in life he’s playing on the senior circuit and is having marital problems caused in no small part because of his compulsive gambling.  Jealous that King is able to get those kind of paychecks he starts to get it into his head that even in his advanced age he could still beat her and feels like he deserves to still be making that kind of money because of it.  He approaches her with the idea of doing a “battle of the sexes” exhibition match but King has a million other things on her plate at that time.  She’s in the middle of a boycott of the main tennis authority because their director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is refusing to offer them equal prize money with the men, and she’s also in the process of beginning an affair with a hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), unbeknownst to her future ex-husband (Austin Stowell).  However, when Riggs manages to win a similar exhibition match against the other female tennis great of the era, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) King decides that enough’s enough and accepts Riggs’ challenge.

Battle of the Sexes was directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who are probably still best known for having made the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of filmmaking you’re in store for with the film.  This is a pretty safe and pretty straightforward telling of this period of Billie Jean King’s life.  I’m sure some of the standard issue creative liberties have been taken (I think some of the events are compressed into a shorter period of time) but otherwise the film does not take too many risks in its format and aims.  Emma Stone does some of the best work of her career as King and does a good job of changing herself into this butch athlete and capturing the uncompromising but at times playful aura that King needed to take on through this whole episode.  Steve Carrell perhaps unsurprisingly emphasizes a lot of the over the top and comical elements Bobby Riggs’ persona and doesn’t need to go too far outside of his usual wheelhouse to do it.  The movie is a bit on the fence about how much of a sexist Riggs really was; on one hand it’s very clear that his main motivation for making this happen was money and that some of his “male chauvinist” bluster was not too far removed from the antics of a bad guy professional wrestler taking a heel turn.  On the other hand, some of his resentment does seem legitimate.  He sees himself as being equally talented to King (and given his performance against Court that might not have been completely irrational) and felt that because of this he was deserving of an equal amount of money and attention despite not being in the same league as younger male players anymore.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters too much what Riggs’ true motivation was because at the end of the day he was probably doing a lot of harm.  His trolling plainly brought out the worst in a lot of people (the number of people who showed up to the big match carrying signs like “Team Male Chauvenist” is kind of disturbing) and he also may well have done some real damage to the entirety of women’s tennis if he had actually won his big match against King.  At a certain point it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for greed, lulz, or genuine hate, the end result is still shitty and saying “I didn’t really mean what I said” just isn’t a good excuse.  That little observation is mostly something I’m bringing to the movie as the film itself is not overly hard on Riggs and instead largely just dismisses him as a clown rather than a truly insidious figure when compared to the real institutional sexism represented by Jack Kramer.  That would be easier to roll with if not for the fact that this country recently went through another battle of the sexes of sorts in which a vulgar self-promoting asshole challenged an over-qualified female to a contest of sorts in a cynical attempt to regain relevance in his old age, and unlike this event the heroine didn’t vanquish the unrepentant chauvinist.  Clearly this movie was already well into production before the final results of the 2016 election were known and had sanity prevailed during that contest I suspect that seeing the feminist kick the chauvinist’s ass would have had a lot more resonance, but the actual election results really just make the film’s “and then everything got better” ending ring kind of false despite obviously being historically accurate.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that won’t really leave you with many concrete complaints.  The performances are all solid, the look is appropriate, it gets exciting when it needs to, it’s hard to really place your finger on a single element that you want to change really and yet it also leaves you wanting more.  The movie takes a pretty safe approach that guarantees it will be warmly received by most audiences but never really rises too much above the level of average.  Then again maybe that’s the right approach for this particular story.  This was after all a silly exhibition tennis match whose ultimate effect was largely symbolic.  Hyping it up further might not have worked and taking a more overtly satirical approach might have cheapened it a bit too much.  Maybe the light prestige approach was perfectly suited to the story but I consequently my personal response to it was a bit muted.

Good Time(8/26/2017)

I feel like we need to stop being surprised when actors from disreputable YA adaptations suddenly turn out to be decent actors when given legitimate material to work with.  I can’t tell you how many people seemed to be downright gobsmacked when Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight franchise, managed to win a César Award the second she started working with a respectable director like Olivier Assayas.  Maybe if I’d actually seen one of those Twilight movies I’d be similarly impressed with how much she had to climb to get to respectability, but really it just seems unfair to judge someone’s whole acting career when they can’t spin gold from material like that.  Her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson has had similar difficulty getting respect has he’s moved on from that franchise.  In many ways he’s in the same position that Leonardo Di Caprio and Ryan Gosling were in recently: forced to prove that he’s a real actor and not just a pretty boy who’s famous because teenage girls swooned at him.  In my eyes he’s had a bit of a tough time doing this, in part because some of his first attempts at respectability came from his work in a pair of David Cronenberg movies that didn’t really work and were so weird in tone that they didn’t give Pattinson a lot of room to humanize himself.  Outside of that his most prominent roles have been in David Michôd’s The Rover and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, which both showed some growth but which weren’t quite fully convincing star turns. Of course those were ultimately supporting performances and he has a much bigger showcase in his latest high profile indie Good Time from a pair of upstart directors named Ben and Josh Safdie.

In Good Time Pattinson plays Constantine Nikas, a petty New York criminal who early in the film tries to rob a bank alongside his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but the two are captured in the process.  Constantine makes bail but Nick doesn’t and Constantine soon finds he isn’t able to obtain the funds to get Nick out from his upper middle class girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he planned.  When he learns that Nick has been beat up in jail and transferred to a hospital Constantine comes up with a scheme to break his brother out of his hospital room, and much of the rest of the film looks at how the aftermath of this plot plays out over the course of a single crazy night in New York.

Good Time is a bit reminiscent of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in that it’s a crime narrative that follows a criminal who’s kind of bad at his job but not so bad that he fails right away.  Unlike that movie, the protagonist isn’t a guy who’s been pushed to the edge by actual wrongs against him but is in fact a total bag of dicks with very little in the way of redeeming qualities.  I’m trying to put my finger on what it is about this guy that I despise so much but I was really disgusted by him.  It’s not that his actions are all that horrible, at least by the standards of movie gangsters.  He doesn’t kill or (successfully) rape anyone over the course of the movie and he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to hurt anyone.  I think what gets my goat about him is the total indifference he shows towards everyone else around him with the possible exception of his brother.  He’s like a sociopath who doesn’t feel compelled to kill necessarily but who will take hurt, cheat, or swindle anyone who gets in his way and gets downright offended whenever they resist.  He doesn’t really seem to be a “product of his surroundings” and doesn’t really have some twisted noble end he’s working towards, and the real kicker is that you can tell his plans are probably doomed and that he’s probably not even going to get much out of these schemes himself, it all just seems futile.

The film was directed by a pair of upcoming sibling directors named the Safdie brothers, whose previous project was a film called Heaven Knows What, which looked at the rather hellish life of a drug addict.  I didn’t really think the Safdie’s penitent for stylization really worked well for that movie and I especially thought that film’s Tangerine Dream style synch score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink seemed especially out of place.  That directorial style and the not dissimilar score by Oneohtrix Point Never make a bit more sense here given that the film has more genre elements than Heaven Knows What did and I do think they’ve improved a bit between movies and benefit from the film’s increased budget.  In fact I worry that they may have swung too far in the other direction.  This is a movie that walks and talks like a hard edged gritty movie with a lot to say about modern crime, but I’m not really sure that it has much of anything to say.  At times it will hint towards some kind of societal failure in the lives of these people but these things never really connect and the movie ultimately feels kind of pointless both as a statement and as a story.  After a night long romp the characters end up in the same place as they began and not in a way that’s particularly profound either.  Frankly I think the Safdie’s would do well for themselves if they’d just sell out and make something for Hollywood because making these hard edged indies doesn’t really suit them.  Still, I don’t want to come down too hard on this, it is a crime yarn that’s ultimately fun to watch and there are some well rendered scenes.

The Big Sick(7/16/2017)

If nothing else, 2017 has been a great year to learn about the lives of 30-something, male, 1st or 2nd generation American immigrants from the Indian subcontinent of Muslim origin who went on to become stand-up comedians. In May the second season of Aziz Ansari’s excellent Netflix series “Master of None” came out, a show that’s most about the romantic and professional life of a thinly veiled Ansari analogue but which also had a memorable episode about his childhood and his hesitance to tell his old school parents that he eats pork and has more or less abandoned his Muslim roots. Less than two weeks later Netflix also released “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” a strong one-man show from the titular stand-up comedian and Daily Show correspondent which focused largely on what it was like to be the only Indian and Muslim in town when he was growing up in Davis, California and about how difficult it could be to deal with his traditional and rather image conscious parents. And now, we finally get the much buzzed about and arguably most high profile of these projects yet which from Kumail Nanjiani, who is one of the stars of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Nanjiani is of course a little different from Minhaj and Ansari, firstly because he’s Pakistani rather than Indian and secondly because he was actually born abroad rather than in the United States and then emigrated in his teens, but based on the projects these various comedians have made I think there’s a good chance that all three would find some common ground in their experiences as his new film, the Sundance hit The Big Sick, looks at (among several other things) a by now somewhat familiar push and pull between American pursuits and traditional family norms.

The film is overtly biographical and follows Nanjiani (who literally plays himself, his character’s name has not been changed) during his pre-success years working in Chicago as an Uber driver while trying to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. Early I the movie we see Nanjiani hook up with a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan), who he meets at one of his comedy shows, and though both are a little leery about getting into a “real” relationship they do find themselves growing close over the next couple of months. Nanjiani is not, however, willing to tell all of this to his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff), especially after his brother (Adeel Akhtar) warns him that they will never accept him again if he marries outside the faith. As such Nanjiani ends up sitting by as his parents present a series of Pakistani women of marrying age to him in hopes that he’ll go along to get along. Eventually Emily learns about this and storms out and strongly suggests that it’s over between them. The next time Nanjiani sees Emily she’s in the hospital with some unknown lung infection and as the first person on the scene he’s forced to give the doctors permission to put her in a medically induced coma. Soon Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) show up, both of whom know about the messiness in Kumail and Emily’s relationship, and wonder why he’s sticking around as long as he is.

The Big Sick has been described as a romantic comedy, which is accurate insomuch as it’s a comedy and it’s about a romance of sorts but insomuch as “romantic comedy” has come to be shorthand for a very specific formula it might be a bit misleading.  In film the “romance” is usually suggests a plotline wherein the boy wants to get the girl (or vice versa), roadblocks are placed in the way of this, and by the end we know if he or she has achieved their goal and lived happily ever after.  In the broadest of strokes that’s true of this film as well, but with one of the participants spending the majority of the film in a coma things play out differently… and not in some kind of creepy Talk to Her kind of way.  In many ways the film is less about Nanjiani’s pursuit of Emily and more about his own reconsideration of what he wants in life and what he’s willing to sacrifice to get it.  Specifically he needs to decide whether he’s willing to alienate himself from his family in order to date outside of the traditions of the home country, where he sees his stand-up career going, and what he really thinks about Emily now that he’s in this strange situation related to her.

Joining the movie in its second half are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, and the movie does a pretty good job of making these two rather average people seem both interesting and likable.   Their presence serves as something of a “what if” scenario for Nanjiani and to make him consider the implications of monogamy and what he wants for his future.  Those two kind of steal the show when they show up but Nanjiani himself is no slouch either and Kazan is believably desirable as well. All told the romantic elements of this are pretty well thought out and interesting, it’s actually the comedy elements that disappointed me a little.  The film is intermittedly funny but for something with Judd Apatow’s name on it I maybe expected something that would be a bit more consistently hilarious than what I got.  Ironically given that complaint, I could have done with less stand-up comedy as well.  I know this is depicting a reality of Nanjiani’s life when this happened to him, but I’m sick to death of these insidery indie movies about struggling stand-up comedians and I just kind of wish they had turned that into some other career ambition.  Really there’s a lot of “autobiographical indie comedy” syndrome going on here and that’s not really a genre I tend to get too excited about unless it just so happens to hit me in just the right way.  It’s certainly an enjoyable little movie but is it one for the ages?  Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth a rental.

*** out of Five