THE BIG SICK (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language including some sexual references)
Released:  June 23, 2017 limited; July 14 expands
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler

It’s rare to have a romantic comedy barrel into theaters aboard the kind of hype train that The Big Sick arrived on. Given the genre’s dearth of quality this millennium (especially following the 1990s Golden Age), it’s easy to forgive a bit of gushing hyperbole. Except in this case, the hype is not overstated. It’s real.

This Sundance Film Festival sensation is not only the best romantic comedy in years – and probably of the young century – but it will be impossible to talk about The Best Films of 2017 without having The Big Sick squarely at the heart of that conversation.

The intriguing hook here is three-fold: the guy of the “meet cute” is Pakistani, the woman he meets then falls into a coma about halfway through, and it’s all based on the real love story of its two screenwriters. One of them, Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley), also stars.

These idiosyncratic elements certainly make the film something special in its own right, but here’s what renders The Big Sick as truly distinct: the characters are so rich, so honest, and so true that they’d stand out even without the Pakistani heritage or the Arranged Marriage curveball that comes along with it. The couple’s spark, and their romance, is so authentic and alive that it’d be unique even without the coma blindside.

In short, The Big Sick works on every conceivable level (and works in every conceivable trope) that you’d want from a romantic comedy, but then it goes somewhere further. By the end, it actually touches on ideas that are not only timely, but wise and challenging.

Set in Chicago, Nanjiani keeps his first name in this autobiographically fictionalized version of himself, as does the character of Emily, played here by Zoe Kazan in a deeply emotional performance that ranges from endearing to searing. After Emily playfully heckles Kumail during one of his standup routines, the two strike an instant spark and become blissfully obsessed with each other in short order.

Looming over their soulmate kismet is the fact that Kumail’s parents, as first generation immigrants, expect him to marry within their Muslim faith and to a fellow Pakistani. The prospects for an arranged marriage are presented to Kumail via regularly scheduled dinners that serve as auditions. Kumail goes through these motions with no intention to follow through, but he doesn’t have the guts to tell either his family or Emily about where he stands, let alone tell them about each other.

This tightrope scenario is further complicated when an unknown sickness hospitalizes Emily, requiring her to be sedated in an induced coma. Her North Carolinian parents (Holly Hunter, Ray Romano) fly in for support, but friction and suspicions between them and Kumail compound the circumstances.

As serious as all of that sounds (and it is), a plot description inaccurately undercuts how funny this movie actually is. It’s hilarious throughout, from the early stages of Kumail and Emily’s romance to the niche world of standup comedy and its backstage subculture (real-life comic Bo Burnham and SNL’s Aidy Bryant are standouts here).

The chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan is so vibrant, so effortless and organic, with flirting and banter so natural that it’s difficult to imagine the chemistry between the real Kumail and Emily being any more potent. Nanjiani and Kazan capture whatever he and his wife have, like lightning in a bottle.

Given how personal this story is for the screenwriters and its lead actor, it’d be easy to assume that director Michael Showalter is merely a facilitator. That assumption would be wrong, and grossly unfair. On the contrary, between this and his previous Sally Field indie Hello, My Name is Doris, Showalter has confidently graduated from sketch comedy roots to become a legitimate filmmaker, one with an insightful touch that elevates even top tier talent, bringing out the best of seasoned A-listers.

As circumstances turn, and the two leads bare their hearts and souls – along with Hunter and Romano – the screenplay still manages to deftly maintain its comedic wit, including the first credible 9/11 joke you’ve ever heard, earning the film’s biggest laugh (which is saying something). The humor, however, is not dark or gallows; it’s clever and appropriate, which is an even bigger feat.

And yet the dramatic stakes remain real, not just in regard to Emily’s health crisis but to the relationship barriers that must be confronted, regardless of her outcome. It’s in this that The Big Sick becomes more than a first rate Rom-Com. It’s honest and raw about how tragic events bring clarity to things we overcomplicate.

It’s also about Kumail becoming a man, growing a spine, acting like a man, and how life-and-death circumstances require maturation (not to mention wishing we’d had that maturity before life forced it upon us). Exercising character and integrity doesn’t instantly become easier, but it does become necessary. A man doesn’t avoid or run from these necessary decisions; he makes them, with resolve but also humility. For Kumail, the journey becomes unexpectedly formative.

It’s highly commendable too, and increasingly rare, that religious faith and tradition are not marginalized. They’re genuinely respected, as are their adherents. This is where The Big Sick offers up its timely wisdom.

Each of us holds true to certain values and, in good conscience, cannot bend from certain convictions. What Kumail’s, Emily’s, and their families’ story beautifully conveys is that, gasp, there’s nothing wrong with that. Being devout and pious doesn’t make someone inherently backwards or bigoted. Here’s what’s important: when we reach an intransigent impasse with the people we love, we keep loving each other anyway.

Love may not conquer all, but it does keep us united. That’s what The Big Sick is really about. In our toxically divisive times, I can’t imagine a more relevant or unifying virtue than that.


New LAST JEDI Photos In Big Entertainment Weekly Exclusive (IMAGES/LINKS)


Now they’re really teasing us.

Actually, it’s more than that. Depending on your aversion to spoilers, Entertainment Weekly’s new multi-article exclusive look at Star Wars: The Last Jedi could provide way more Episode VIII dirt than you’re looking for.

From Luke’s motives to Snoke’s backstory to Finn’s crisis of purpose, the EW scoop gives us more about then next Skywalker chapter than most people were likely expecting. If you want to dive in, click on the following links.

But if you just want a sneak peak at the new photos published in EW’s 2017 Fall Movie Preview (following these recent stills and behind-the-scenes video), you can see them in the gallery below.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on December 15, 2017.

Click on any photo for a larger image gallery.

New WONDER Trailer And “Choose Kind” Resources (VIDEO/LINKS)

Between this and Goodbye Christopher Robin, the fall of 2017 should be providing us with our welcome share of tears and feels.

Based on the New York Times bestseller and starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, and Jacob Tremblay as the boy with the deformed face, Wonder opens on November 17, 2017.

To learn more about the #ChooseKind movement, or access teaching resources related to the book and movie, click on the links below.

Choose Kind Tumblr
Choose Kind Teaching Resources


THE DARK TOWER (Movie Review)

**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action, and language)
Released:  August 4, 2017
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick

Forget what you’ve heard: as pulpy entertainments go, The Dark Tower is a pretty decent diversion.

Not having read Stephen King’s eight-book multiverse saga, I couldn’t tell you how much this brisk 90-minute adaptation butchers its source, though it’s safe to assume that it does. Taken on its own terms, however, The Dark Tower is a simple, sleek genre mash-up that should satisfy popcorn chompers just fine.

It’s impressive, actually, how director Nikolaj Arcel effectively distills the labyrinth narrative’s core premise, A tall, dark tower stands at the center of space and time, holding the universe together. As long as it stands so does existence, but if the tower falls then say goodbye to everything.

Legend has it that the mind of a child may be able to bring it down. A malevolent supernatural figure called The Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey) abducts children and brings them to his lair in another dimension to see if their brains can be the key to trigger his apocalyptic ends.

Standing against these schemes is the last Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a defender of the Tower. He comes to the aid of Jake Chambers, a boy whose psychic connection to this great beyond could be turned to cataclysmic means if the Man In Black gets to him first.

It’s your basic Good vs. Evil construct, told via a Western/Sci-Fi genre fusion.

To strip this down, Arcel’s movie is (by all accounts) not an adaptation of what King has written but, simply, a sequel to it of sorts, or at least a new story that essentially lives and exists in this same mythos. Whatever the depths of King’s multiverse are, they’re barely scratched here. This movie isn’t particularly obsessed with world-building.

That, understandably, should disappoint fans and even frustrate newcomers who’d be curious to see a full-fledged introduction to what King created, but the limited story told here stays within its means, and works.

Even so, those limits are obvious, most notably in how the Tower itself remains uncharted. It’s never explored, visually or narratively, reducing this crucial titular centerpiece to nothing more than a monolithic McGuffin. The climax, too, is so, er, anti-climactic that it’s a cheat, but the drop-off to that letdown isn’t very steep.

What’s left are the three central characters, and whatever sense of style director Arcel can bring to the material. All things considered, they all acquit themselves rather well.

McConaughey brings a more sinister authenticity to his evil archetype than the trailer’s scenery-chewing clips suggested, as Arcel leaves many takes seen in the promos on the cutting room floor in lieu of more restrained options. The Man In Black is still a creature of genre, but McConaughey calibrates him well. Tom Taylor is convincing, too, never obnoxiously precocious as the kid who gets caught up in this middle of this cosmic struggle.

Elba, however, is the hero in more ways than one, bringing a true mythic quality to his role as the Gunslinger. There’s a rugged swagger to his persona, from an Eastwood-like stoicism to a dry Ford-like sense of humor. He brings a great physical command to the role as well, brandishing his superbly designed and tailored costume – along with his weaponry – as well as anyone since Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

Arcel proves himself a solid stylist, never resorting to slow/fast time-ramping (that’s Zack Synder’s crutch) or chaotic (Michael) Bayhem. Clear, well-shot action cut together fluidly, with straightforward yet inventively slick slow-motion grandeur, Arcel’s direction is more than adequate. It’s legitimately satisfying.

The Dark Tower doesn’t do justice to the Tolkien-sized world that King’s books built. Shoot, it barely does justice to what Elba brings to the screen, and it won’t leave anyone hungry for more. But it should leave the average moviegoer thrilled by the time they spent, even if the ride is also instantly forgettable.

LADY MACBETH (Movie Review)

** out of ****
Rated R
(for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language)
Released:  July 14, 2017 limited; expands August 4
Runtime: 89 minutes
Director: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel

Shakespeare, it ain’t. Literally.

A 19th Century period piece set in rural England, this Lady Macbeth isn’t an adaptation of “Macbeth” from a different point of view, nor does it have any direct association to the infamous wife of the doomed would-be Scottish king. Confidently mounted though it may be, and executed with palpable dread, Lady Macbeth is not worthy of the source it references. To put it bluntly (as this movie does), it’s basically sick.

More nihilistic Brontë than Bard, Lady Macbeth is the story of a young English woman named Katherine who’s sold into marriage with an older abusive husband. Confined to the house and kept on a tight suffocating leash even within that, Katherine rebels against the stifling oppression by taking on a torrid sexual affair with one of the servants.

This triggers a path of obsession that goes to dark, unpredictable places as the spiraling journey corrupts her soul.

Much of the film’s first half is a raw look at Katherine’s life, one much more brutal than mere quiet desperation. It depicts the cruel privilege of pre-modern patriarchy, with Katherine as the victim.

She is, essentially, a house accessory by day and human sex doll for her husband by night. Katherine’s humanity is debased at every single moment. This paradigm expands to the servants as well, seen in a moment when Katherine catches the men abusing a maid for their pleasure.

The experience is unsettling to watch and it only gets worse, at times bordering on Art House Torture Porn, all to no thematic virtue. It’s as if director William Oldroyd graduated magna cum laude from The Michael Haneke School of Cinematic Sadism, and this is his thesis project debut.

It’s an exercise that’s pointlessly provocative, with a villain that’s nothing more than a melodramatic strawman, in which inhumane sexual tyranny is met with callous, twisted revenge.

The final act adds a layer that holds the potential of some humanity, even redemption, but Oldroyd takes it in the exact opposite direction, doubling down on the brutality, compounding it with selfishness, and turning Katherine into an anti-heroine unnecessarily, not to mention offensively. The climax will straight piss you off.

To the extent the title is valid, Katherine initially wields a strength to do what needs to be done, a resolve that the men around her lack. In the end, however, she never carries the guilt of this film’s iconic namesake.

The young Florence Pugh gives a powerhouse performance; so commanding is her turn in the titular lead that it appears destined to be the first of many in an instantly promising career.

But beyond being a showcase for a should-be future star, Lady Macbeth is, well, to quote “Macbeth”, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

New GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN Trailer Teases Winnie The Pooh Origins (VIDEO)

Winnie the Pooh and his adventures in the 100 Acre Wood have brought joy and comfort to generations. The new film Goodbye Christopher Robin dramatizes how those stories were a healing response to trauma and pain for its creator A.A. Milne.

After fighting in the trenches of World War I, Milne sought rural retreat with his family to focus on his writing. As this new movie portrays, his literary pursuit lead somewhere he wasn’t expecting, one that impacted the world.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as A.A. Milne, Will Tilston as his son Christopher Robin (yes, the namesake of Pooh’s human friend), Margot Robbie as Milne’s wife Daphne, and Kelly MacDonald playing Christopher Robin’s nanny, Olive.

Bumped up from its November release, Goodbye Christopher Robin now opens on October 13th, 2017.


LANDLINE (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for sexual content, strong language, and drug use)
Released:  July 21, 2017 limited; August 4 expands
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Gillian Robespiere
Starring: Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, John Turturro

The first half of Landline – a female-fueled comedy-drama set in the 1990s – plays like an HBO pilot that only scratches the surface of its potential but doesn’t fulfill it, a show more about its concept than its characters, relying too heavily on nostalgia kitsch. Thankfully, the second half is like the follow-up episode in which the series confidentially finds its voice.

The title is an inspired metaphor for a New York family of mostly women who, along with the lone male husband/father, are as lacking in communication skills as the pre-cellphone age is in communication technology. The phones are immobile, and so is the family.

Ali, the teenager (Abby Quinn), is exploring her sexuality and boundaries in general, the adult daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) is being tempted away from her fiancé by a cuter guy, and mom Pat (Edie Falco) shows little affection or respect for her husband Alan (John Turturro). When Ali suspects that her dad may be having an affair, it messes with both her, Dana, and what they’re each respectively going through.

With a glut of pop culture references and excessively jaded irony, Landline gets off to a contrived, at times clunky single-camera sitcomy start. Dialogue can be too clever for its own good, the narrative flow too loosely, the comedy aggressively crude, with jokes that feel pulled straight from a stack in a writer’s room. The net effect is a movie too self-conscious about the era it’s in, with its parts overcompensating for a lack of depth. Whatever moments it has, they involve Falco and Turturro.

It’s a generic regression from the bold, audacious debut of Obvious Child, the previous collaboration between star Jenny Slate and director Gillian Robespiere (her directorial debut), an “abortion” comedy that, regardless of your feelings about its message (I’m pro-life myself), marked the beginning of a fresh new unfiltered voice that was actually trying to be honest and not merely provocative. That voice is lost in Landline’s first half as it merely caters to late Gen-Xers with a “Hey, remember that?” entertainment value and little else.

But just when you’re ready to hang up on this movie’s dial tone (forgive the crass punny indulgence), Landline really starts to connect. It’s no coincidence that it occurs when this ensemble shifts its focus to Slate’s Dana as the lead. Clearly Slate and Robespiere are, as artists and storytellers, psychically simpatico, so it’s natural (and smart) that the film would gravitate toward their center. The more Landline evolves into Dana’s arc, the better the movie becomes.

This occurs when Dana begins to seriously examine her life, question her choices, take stock of where she’s headed, and if the life she’s choosing for herself is the one she wants. Oddly enough, as the other characters downshift into supporting roles, it’s then that they actually become richer, particularly the parents who stop living in denial about the trouble their marriage is in. There’s a confrontation between Falco and Turturro so raw that, even in its brevity, it’s one of the standout scenes of the year.

The superb cast also includes Jay Duplass who, as Dana’s fiancé Ben, elevates being “the safe choice” to a legitimate virtue.

Landline goes from slight to significant, dispensing of easy 90s wistfulness to grasp onto something more honest, vulnerable, and real (even while maintaining its humor, and amplifying it). If HBO, Netflix, or some other premium outlet would like to sign this whole troupe up to explore these characters and era even further in a limited series run, Landline’s ending provides a natural beginning.