Monday, June 26, 2017

"The Big Sick"


Film titles can mean a lot.  Consider Terms of Endearment, a movie about a mother and daughter learning about each other through the ups and downs of their lives.  It's not called Cancer Daughter, which is probably for the best.  Million Dollar Baby works a lot better than The Paralyzed Boxer.

But The Big Sick puts its big second-act plot twist right there in the title for all to see, which is odd indeed because the first half of the movie -- which is a  charming culture-clash rom-com that takes a little bit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and mixes it with Judd Apatow slacker heart -- does not even begin to hint at the "big sick" of the title.

For an hour, The Big Sick is about an ethnic protagonist who falls in love outside of his accepted mother-approved cultural boundaries.  The non-ethnic love interest, of course, doesn't really get the weird things the foreigner says and does, the restrictions placed on love by a well-meaning but non-America-conforming family.  There's even a big moment in which the romantic lead pleads with the family to understand that love does not always look the same across borders.

One of the ways The Big Sick twists that formula is by turning the protagonist into a male, a Pakistani who pursues a blond-haired American girl to the horror of his family.  These sweet and shiny elements of The Big Sick work well, even if they hold no surprises.  The mother is overbearing, the father understands the needs of the heart, there's a sibling who follows the rules.

One of the running gags in the film is how the family gathers for a weekly meal in their suburban Chicago home, exactly the kind that WASP-y Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore owned in Ordinary People, and just as they are getting to dessert the doorbell rings.  It's always a prospective suitor for the beleaguered son, who cannot bring himself to come out to his parents about his attraction toward non-Pakistanis.

This is tried-and-true stuff, and it works in The Big Sick because star Kumail Nanjiani is undeniably engaging.  Nanjiani based the film on his own life story, and wrote it with his wife Emily V. Gordon, who is the fair-skinned, blonde-haired American who shows up at a comedy club one day where Nanjiani is doing his act.  They meet, they have sex, they make plans never to see each other again -- and, naturally, they fall in love.  The movie might be based on real life, but it's got an unmistakably Hollywood gloss on it; Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as Emily are sweet, good-looking, clever and among the most adorable people in the world.

Nanjiani's thin voice and clever (but quite safe) sense of humor is matched by Kazan's wavering temperament.  They both seem awkward in their own skin, a sense of dislocation the filmmakers were probably going for.  But their wispiness also proves to be troublesome when the movie hits the brakes and makes a sharp but not unexpected (there's that title again!) turn toward maudlin.

Emily contracts a mysterious illness, which if it weren't finally named as a rare disorder might bear some striking resemblances to Ali McGraw Disease, in which a young, pretty girl is unfairly and melodramatically struck down in her prime.  Emily ends up in the hospital just a day or so after Kumail breaks up with her.  The juxtaposition of their angry and resentful break-up provides the contrast for the rest of the film, as Kumail comes to meet Emily's anxious, demonstrative parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

The second half of the movie becomes more about Kumail's relationship with the mother and the father.  It's good as far as drama goes, and Hunter, as always, raises the quality bar even higher.  Her presence lights up The Big Sick and provides a sense of purpose and drive that the younger actors never quite find.  If The Big Sick had focused entirely on Kumail's response to the crisis, it might have been unbearable -- the spark Nanjiani has on screen with Kazan diminishes in the film's second half, and his dramatic breakdown feels substantially less weighty on screen than perhaps it was in real life.

That doesn't mean The Big Sick isn't affecting -- it most certainly is, and has some timely and well-considered things to say (and ways to say them) about race relations and the world of white-on-brown suspicion in which we live.  The Big Sick also pulls off at least one seemingly impossible task: It offers up a joke about 9/11 that is not only painfully funny but manages not to be tasteless.  As for its its moments of mist-eyed melancholy, The Big Sick earns them fairly, even if it finds them a little harder to play and a little less satisfying than its romantic-comedy core.

Viewed June 25, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Wonder Woman"


Considering its title, Wonder Woman seems oddly uncomfortable with putting a female superhero front and center.  Its final title sequence, for instance, is the only place in the movie where the word "woman" appears on-screen, and even that is in relatively small print compared with a stylized "WW" that serves as the film's logo (see the poster above, which emulates what's in the movie).

Strange. To use the political buzzword, "optics" matter, so it's equally fascinating and disconcerting that throughout much of its running time, Wonder Woman (the pitch-perfect Gal Gadot) herself doesn't even seem to be the hero of her own film -- she's frequently trailing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who joins up with a couple of other male sidekicks to defeat the male nominal villain and the male supervillain, though to be fair there's also a female villain, who is disfigured and says comparatively little.

Could I just be too touchy or politically correct about this?  Well, maybe, but Superman, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman all stand on their own, they don't have women explaining key plot points, helping them understand what's going on, and taking them where they need to go.  The men in those films know what to do, even though none of them (well, maybe Superman) are as naturally heroic and physically daunting as Wonder Woman.  Think about it: They all need at least full-body tights if not impenetrable body armor to do their deeds -- Wonder Woman's barely got anything on, and to me the point of that is that she's naturally extraordinary, she needs no help.

That's certainly the point of the first third of Wonder Woman, which is one of the more well-told and visually rich "origin" sequences of any of the latest wave of superhero movies.   The daughter of the Queen of the Amazons on a lush, invisible island, Diana grows up in a harmonious society that seems entirely peaceful even though its only real function seems to be to train warriors.  It's an all-female society, and the film skirts some of the more obvious questions about their everyday life while simply avoiding others.  It's campy, silly fun that winks at itself more than a little bit -- something the rest of the movie would have been well to do.

Diana's mother, Queen Hipplolyta, doesn't want her daughter to become a warrior, which frustrates the young woman until finally, the queen relents -- but only if Diana will train harder and become better than any other Amazon.  It's about that time that Steve Trevor shows up as his German WWI airplane (don't worry, he's an old-fashioned American good guy) crashes through the invisible barrier.  Long story short, he reveals to Diana that the world is engaged in war, and she vows to leave the island to help it.

Their voyage to Western civilization is the movie's best sequence, a warm, funny, tender sequence directed by Patty Jenkins in a long take that lets the actors sparkle and the writing shine, and even though it takes place at night it's the brightest spot in Wonder Woman.  The highest possible praise is that, thanks to this scene, Wonder Woman comes, for just a brief moment, close to the never-again-matched superhero heights of Richard Donner's 1978 Superman.

The scene with Diana and Steve in the boat is everything you hope Wonder Woman to be, a pause in the action suffused with personality and humanity, and the movie even follows it up with a clever and funny scene in which Diana tries on early 20th century women's clothes.  It's Gadot, particularly, who makes the movie's colorful, playful first half work so well.

But when Wonder Woman gets down to action, something disappointing happens.  The movie takes on the desaturated, downbeat look of its DC Comics predecessors -- this being 21st century moviemaking, Wonder Woman can't have its own story, it must tie in to every other DC Comics film, both in story strands and in tone.  Around the midway mark, Wonder Woman becomes like all the rest, losing its unique feel and wonderful tone, replacing Gadot with a digital equivalent who can leap and run and move in ways that defy physics.

When the CG Wonder Woman takes over, Gadot's own energy seems to flag, especially in the too-many moments where she looks into Steve Trevor's eyes and seems to lose some of her strength.  She becomes reliant on him, and though Wonder Woman does finally realize this tactical error, it does so too late in the story, and its course-correction efforts don't quite work.  No matter what justification it uses for putting the man in the traditional role of the hero, that's still exactly what Wonder Woman does.

Yes, Wonder Woman herself does some spectacular things, and ultimately has to do battle with the two baddies (played by Danny Huston and David Thewlis), but she's only half of the equation, and when she finally does save the day the end result something happens that turns the ending unexpectedly dour and disappointing, and it's something that's hard to imagine happening to her male superhero counterparts.

Maybe it's just intended to add richness and depth to the character, and that's a fair argument, but it's a little perplexing, too, not because Wonder Woman can't have feelings but because Wonder Woman finds the beating, living heart that almost every other superhero movie has been missing, then squeezes the life out of it until the film behaves like all the rest.

There will be a sequel, not just because that's in the nature of superhero stories but because studio finances dictate it, and when that happens perhaps Wonder Woman can be both a wonder and a woman -- one who, like her forebears, needs nothing more than her wristbands, her lasso, her shield and herself, certainly not a man by her side helping her through it all.

Viewed June 3, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood