THE BIG SICK (2017) – Hilarious and Honest Take on Cross-Cultural Romance

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If you like to get emotional at the movies, then THE BIG SICK (2017) is the film for you.

It’s both hilarious and moving, a comedy that will make you laugh out loud, and a love story that will tug at your heartstrings.

THE BIG SICK is based on the real-life romance between actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon.  The film is a fictionalized account of their courtship.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a young stand-up comedian trying to launch his career in the comedy clubs in Chicago.  One night he strikes up a conversation with an audience member, a young woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) and after the show he joins her for a drink.  They hit it off instantly, and the next thing you know the two are involved in a romance.

Kumail, however, comes from a strict Muslim family from Pakistan, and as such, they practice arranged marriages and fully expect Kumail to marry a Pakistani woman. It’s a recurring event at Kumail’s home for there to be a knock at the door during dinner, prompting his mom Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) to say, “Look who just dropped in,” as she introduces these available  young Pakistani women to her son.  But Kumail just isn’t interested in these women or the idea of an arranged marriage.  He feels trapped, because his parents feel so strongly about arranged marriages that if he were to tell them the truth, that he was in love with an American woman, they would disown them, and this is something he doesn’t want to happen.

When Emily learns that Kumail has no intention of telling his parents about her, she flips out and tells him she cannot be in a relationship with him.  They say some pretty hurtful things to each other.  Shortly thereafter, Emily becomes very sick with an infection in her lungs due to some unknown virus.  She is admitted to the hospital where doctors are forced to put her in a medically induced coma in order to save her life.

It’s at the hospital where Kumail first meets Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who both know about the break-up and so aren’t too keen at first about having Kumail stay at the hospital with them.  But when Kumail decides he’s not going to leave Emily’s side, Beth and Terry relent, and the three end up spending time together.  They get to know each other as they deal with the unknowns and dangers of Emily’s decreasing health.

THE BIG SICK has a phenomenal script by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.  It’s witty, insightful, and refreshingly honest.  There are countless laugh-out-loud moments, like when Terry sits down with Kumail and starts asking him about 9/11.  The scene where Emily suddenly has to run out in the middle of the night to visit a diner is honest and funny.

The film does a nice job with how Kumail views his family.  He desperately wants them to approve of his American lifestyle, but they won’t, and he feels so torn by this that he can’t bring himself to tell them about Emily.  And the scenes during the second half of the movie where Kumail gets to know Emily’s parents are some of the best scenes in the movie.

The film is full of memorable characters, from Kumail and Emily themselves, to Kumail’s family, to Emily’s parents, to Kumail’s colorful comedian friends.

THE BIG SICK also sports a strong cast.  Kumail Nanjiani does a nice job playing a fictionalized version of  himself.  As depicted in the movie, Kumail is a likable character, and you want to see him achieve his dreams.

Likewise, Zoe Kazan (the granddaughter of acclaimed film director Elia Kazan) is excellent as Emily.  She’s exceedingly quirky and energetic.  She’s the spark which drives the first half of the movie.

And one of the reasons THE BIG SICK is such a strong movie is that when Emily goes into a coma and suddenly is removed from the action, the film doesn’t skip a beat. In fact, it gets better.

This is mostly because both Holly Hunter and Ray Romano nail their roles as Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry.  Hunter plays Beth as quirky as her daughter Emily, and at first she is openly hostile towards Kumail because she knows he has hurt Emily.  Terry is more open to having Kumail stay with them at the hospital, and as the three of them get to know each other, it makes for some of the better scenes in the film.  Romano and Nanjiani in particular share a bunch of humorous scenes together.

Hunter is perky and energetic, and Romano is laid back and lethargic, and you wonder how they got together in the first place.  They really do bring this troubled married couple to life.

Kumail’s parents are just as interesting. Zenobia Shroff is very good as Kumail’s mother Sharmeen, who is relentless in her pursuit to have Kumail marry a Muslim woman. Anupam Kher is also very good as Kumail’s father Azmat.  He has some particularly powerful scenes near the end when he desperately pleads with Kumail to honor and respect his mother.  Kher was also memorable as Bradley Cooper’s doctor, Dr. Cliff Patel, in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

Adeel Akhtar also stands out as Kumail’s brother Naveed, who is constantly sparring with his brother, trying to get him to see things his parents’ way, arguing for instance that Kumail needs to show his parents’ respect by growing a beard.

The film really showcases the cultural differences between this Pakistani family and their Americanized son.  Kumail’s pain really comes through, as you can see that he wants no part of his family’s beliefs, but he does want to be part of his family.  They are important to him.  He wants them to accept him the way he is, but because of their strong cultural ties and religious beliefs, it’s something they are not prepared to do.

Then there’s the whole stand-up comic scene in Chicago, which is also an integral part of this story.  Kumail has a colorful group of comedian friends, including his hopeless roommate Chris (Kurt Braunohler) whose Charlie Brown luck and awful comedy is the butt of many of his friends’ jokes.  For instance, he has the misfortune of calling on Emily’s parents in the audience, and he asks them what brings them to Chicago, to which Holly Hunter’s Beth replies, “Our daughter is in a coma.”  The audience goes silent, and Chris fumbles and hesitates, before awkwardly addressing someone else:  “So, what brings you to Chicago?”

THE BIG SICK has it all:  fine acting, perceptive writing, and solid directing by Michael Showalter.  It’s one of those movies where after it ends, you just want to see it again.

It’s funny, poignant, and refreshingly honest. It has a lot to say about relationships, cultural differences, and the lengths people will go to make a relationship work when they’re in love.

I loved THE BIG SICK.  It’s one of my favorite films of the year.

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) Reminds Us Atrocities Need Not Be Accepted

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman and tells the true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo hid, protected, and ultimately saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland during World War II.

The film opens just before the Nazi invasion, in the summer of 1939, and we are introduced to the couple who run the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain).  It’s a remarkable place, and the Zabinskis treat the animals like family.  Antonina in particular has a way with the animals that enables her to share a special bond with them.  We see this firsthand in a touching scene where she tries to save a dying baby elephant while its nervous and frightened parents stand nearby, ready to pounce on her, and yet, because of her sensitivity towards them, they allow her to treat their baby.

We also meet a German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who brushes off talk of an imminent German invasion, as he says he’s a zoologist and keeps out of politics.

But on September 1, 1939, the invasion happens, first with bombs which decimate the zoo, and then with soldiers, and once the Nazis take over, they herd the Jews into ghettos and force them into deplorable living conditions.  Jan sees these actions firsthand and is horrified by them.

The bombs destroy most of the zoo and kill many of the animals.  Later, their former friend Lutz Heck, now a prominent member of the Nazi party, informs Antonina that all the animals will have to be killed for food for the war effort.  However, he tells Antonina that with her permission he will remove her prize animals and bring them to his zoo in Germany where they will be safe, and she agrees.

However, Jan is outraged, believing that Lutz is simply stealing their animals, and when Antonina says that at least Lutz asked her permission, Jan testily answers that as a Nazi Lutz doesn’t need her permission.  And as winter approaches, the Nazis kill the remaining animals anyway.

Jan tells Antonina of the horrors of what’s going on inside the ghetto, and they decide they cannot stand by and do nothing.  Since the animals are all gone, there is plenty of empty space in the basement beneath the zoo, and they decide to use these empty areas to hide people.  With help, they come up with a system of removing people from the ghetto and secretly bringing them to the safety of the zoo, which is no easy task with Lutz and his fellow Nazis constantly on the prowl.

There no doubt will be comparisons between this movie and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) because they tell similar stories, and while SCHINDLER’S LIST is a more powerful movie, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is effective in its own right.

Beautifully shot by director Niki Caro, we at first glimpse the wonderful life the citizens of Warsaw experience before September 1, 1939, in particular the harmonious haven created by the Zabinskis at the  Warsaw Zoo.  And when things turn harsh after the invasion, the camera does the same.  Looking out their window, the Zabinskis see what they at first believe are snowflakes falling from the sky, but upon closer inspection they see that what is falling is ash.  The Nazis are burning the ghetto to the ground.

The screenplay by Angela Workman based on Ackerman’s book doesn’t overplay its hand.  The Nazi atrocities are well-known— or at least they should be— and the story  while not sugar-coating things does not go out of its way to show these horrors first hand either; hence the PG-13 rating.  Yet, there are still some jarring scenes, like when two Jewish women are shot in the head at point-blank range.

I’m a huge fan of Jessica Chastain, and I really enjoyed her performance here as Antonina Zabinski.  She especially captures the sensitivity Antonina possessed which allowed her to work so closely with the animals; they trusted her. Likewise, when it’s up to her to work closely with Nazi Lutz Heck, her skills once more come into play.  She has a way with him as well, and like the animals in the zoo, he trusts her.  This allows them to continue to hide the Jews under the noses of the Nazis.  For a while, anyway.

As much as I enjoyed Chastain, the best performance in the movie belongs to Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina’s husband Jan.  As Jan, Heldenbergh displays a wide range of emotions, from strength, to horror and outrage at what the Nazis are doing to his Jewish friends, to jealousy over his wife’s and Lutz’ relationship, even though he knows that its integral to the success of their efforts.  It’s a deep resonating performance, and while Antonina spends most of her time at the zoo working with Lutz, it’s Jan who’s active in the streets of Warsaw and who is personally responsible for whisking the Jews out of the ghetto.  As such, he sees much more of the atrocities than his wife does, and it takes a heavy toll on him.  The scene where he watches children being loaded onto the box cars of the crowded train is one of the more powerful images in the film.

Daniel Bruhl  makes for a sufficiently villainous Nazi, Lutz Heck.  However, since he’s for the most part “tamed” by Antonina, he’s nowhere near as despicable as some other movie Nazis.    His actions are somewhat muted because of his feelings for Antonina.

The rest of the cast does a nice job in support of these three main actors.  Iddo Goldberg is memorable as their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel, and Shira Haas stands out as a young girl Jan rescues from the ghetto after she is raped by Nazi soldiers.

Michael McElhatton is memorable as the Rabinski’s loyal employee Jerzyk who stays with them through the whole ordeal and risks his life for them on numerous occasions.  And while McElhatton appears on GAME OF THRONES, I just saw him in a horror movie I liked, THE HALLOW (2015).

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a potent movie about a horrible time in our world’s history, and it tells an uplifting story about bravery in the face of unspeakable horrors and says a lot about the human spirit.  In spite of the Nazis threat, the Rabinskis refused to stand by and do nothing.

As the world continues to be a sadly dangerous place, it’s a message people the world over should take to heart and remember.  Atrocities need not be accepted.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

JACKIE (2016) – Haunting Look Back at JFK Assassination

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JACKIE (2016) is the most haunting film I’ve seen in a while, and Natalie Portman’s extraordinary performance as Jackie Kennedy is a major reason why.

Even before the first camera shot, we hear Mica Levi’s dramatic and unsettling somber music, setting the tone for the entire movie.  Levi wrote a similarly effective score for the underrated Scarlet Johannson science fiction flick UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

A reporter (Billy Crudup) visits Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, shortly after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. He is there to write her story, to give her an opportunity to tell the world what she is thinking and feeling after the horrific events of November 22, 1963.

The interview begins with the reporter commending Mrs. Kennedy for her superior job the year earlier when she took part in a televised tour of the White House for CBS.  The conversation inevitably turns to the day of the assassination, as Jackie recounts what it felt like to be there in that car as her husband was murdered by her side.

The bulk of the story revolves around the aftermath of the assassination, how Jackie wanted JFK to be remembered, and it shows Jackie researching the Lincoln funeral and planning the services for JFK in a similar fashion.  Her idea for a long procession through the streets of Washington, D.C., are met with resistance by the Johnson administration, worried about security, as the feeling at the time was that the world had gone crazy.

JACKIE is a film filled with powerful little moments, from a quick glance by Jackie at LBJ as he is sworn in as President shortly after JFK’s death, to Jackie’s sadness and disillusionment at being asked to quickly move out of the White House because the Johnsons need to move in.

JACKIE belongs to Natalie Portman, and she is the reason to see this movie.  Her performance is so steeped with grief and pain you leave the theater nearly exhausted from the experience.  There are so many moments where she knocks it out of the park.  There is one quick shot in particular where we see her crying uncontrollably as the presidential motorcade races through the streets of Dallas on its way to the hospital where President Kennedy would be pronounced dead on that fateful day of November 22, 1963.  It’s gut-wrenching.

I’ve enjoyed Portman in lots of other movies, but I’ve never seen her as focused and as dominating as she is here in JACKIE.  Her performance as Jackie Kennedy is potent and powerful.

There is a strong supporting cast as well, but you hardly notice them as Portman is so dynamic here.  Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy, and he’s very good.  In fact, some of the better scenes in the film are between Sarsgaard and Portman.  The dynamic between Jackie and Bobby Kennedy is fascinating to watch.  At times, they are united, with Bobby fiercely defending Jackie and the legacy of his brother, but at other times they are at odds, like when Jackie flips out that Bobby kept secret from her the news that Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed, allowing her to take her two children out in public when such an action put them at risk.  Bobby declares that he would never put her and her children at risk, to which she blasts him, blaming both him and her slain husband for thinking they can control the world when obviously they cannot.  Bobby repeats his assertion that he would never put her at risk, and if you know anything about Bobby Kennedy and his sense of family, it’s a statement that rings true.

Sarsgaard has been in tons of movies and plays all sorts of roles.  He just played the villain in the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), he was also in BLACK MASS (2015), and probably my favorite Sarsgaard performance from recent years was his turn as Linda Lovelace’s slimy husband Chuck in LOVELACE (2013).  He’s solid here as Bobby Kennedy.

Billy Crudup is particularly good as the nameless reporter who in addition to writing Jackie’s story often trades barbs with her in the sometimes testy but always respectful interview.  Crudup was similarly memorable in the small role of Boston attorney Eric Macleish in SPOTLIGHT (2015).

Greta Gerwig adds fine support as well as Jackie’s social secretary Nancy Tuckerman, although if you really want to see Gerwig strut her stuff, see the quirky comedy MAGGIE’S PLAN (2015), in which Gerwig really shined.

John Hurt, who just passed away on January 27, 2017, enjoys some fine scenes as the priest who Jackie confides in.

And Caspar Phillipson, with a little help from the right haircut and  the proper clothes, is a dead ringer for JFK.

Chliean director Pablo Larrain has saturated this film with dramatic and melancholy images.  The entire film feels like a funeral.

The assassination sequences are particularly well-done.  Shown in several different flashbacks, often with the camera in close, sometimes at ground level with the racing motorcade, other times in the back seat with Jackie and her mortally wounded husband, these sequences are raw and real.

These scenes borrow heavily from the Zapruder film, that iconic 26 second home movie fortuitously shot by amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder who was just trying to film a home movie of President Kennedy, and instead captured the brutal assassination on film, providing a historic document that otherwise would not exist.  For instance, the image of the President reaching for his throat after being struck by the first bullet, you can’t see that image without thinking of the Zapruder film, and without the Zapruder film, we wouldn’t have that image.

The somber shots of the funeral procession, juxtaposed with earlier shots of the young Kennedy household in the White House, hosting parties which celebrated the arts, and with the young Kennedy children playing in the background, showing a time of unparalleled hope and promise, makes the finality of what happened, of what could have been, all the more disturbing.

For the most part, the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim is very good. It especially captures the point that Jackie through the elaborate funeral procession and through allowing her children to take part, was trying to make, that she wanted to show the world just what the murder of her husband meant, that a father of two young children had been brutally killed, that two young children were now fatherless, and for what?

We learn a lot about Jackie’s motives, which can be summed up by a fierce need to protect and even shape her slain husband’s legacy.  She wanted the world to remember her husband as a great President, as someone who accomplished much in his brief stay in the White House, because she believed he had.   This is in direct contrast to another moment in the film, where we see Bobby Kennedy lamenting that their time had been cut short, that they had so much more they were going to do, and now it was over, and he asks, what have we accomplished?

If there’s a weakness, it’s that the scenes between Jackie and the reporter never evolve into anything more.  I expected more from these scenes, either through the eyes of the reporter or through Jackie herself.  Their conversations remain the same throughout, and after a while their scenes together feel repetitive.

The film clocks in at an efficient 100 minutes, which is a good thing because this one is sad, depressing, and dark.

JACKIE belongs to Natalie Portman, and she is the main reason to see this movie.  It’s an extraordinary performance, one that will move you to tears.

Somber, reverent, and brutal, JACKIE is one of the more haunting movies I’ve seen in a long time.

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ALLIED (2016) Hearkens Back to 1940s Classics

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The best part about ALLIED (2016), a love story and thriller that takes place during World War II, is that it hearkens back to classic movies like CASABLANCA (1942) and Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946).  The worst part is that in spite of the nostalgia it evokes, it fails to rise to the levels which made those 1940s classics so memorable.

That being said, ALLIED is a solid film that is much better than the lack of hype surrounding it would lead you to believe.

ALLIED opens in 1940 Casablanca, where we meet Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) a British intelligence officer on a mission to assassinate a key Nazi figure.  He’s working with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) a French Resistance fighter, and the two are posing as husband and wife as they work to infiltrate the inner circles of the Nazi regime in Casablanca.  It’s a bold assassination plot, and their chances of survival are slim.

But survive they do, and as they make their escape from Morocco, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him and marry him, which she does.  The two of them, having risked so much to pull off their ruse in Casablanca, have clearly fallen in love.

The two begin a life in World War II London, even having a baby together, and life is as good as it can be for people being bombed regularly by the Nazis.  But things take a sinsiter turn when Max’s superior officer Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) informs him that British Intelligence suspects Marianne of being a Nazi spy, and that if proven true, that Max will have to kill her.

The final third of the film follows Max’s efforts to learn the truth about his wife- is she a spy or isn’t she, and if she is, then what will he do about it?

I really enjoyed ALLIED, although the film falls short of being something special.

I especially enjoyed the beginning of this movie.  It takes its time setting the stage for the assassination plot by Max and Marianne.  Lesser films would have begun with the assassination and jumped right into the marriage between Max and Marianne.  By inviting us into the stress and anxieties behind their ruse, the film really allows its audience to get to know Max and Marianne and to see just how it is that they fall in love.  It makes the second part of the film all the more painful because we see these two go through a lot and grow very close.

The scenes during this part of the movie involving Nazis are also very suspenseful and well done.  The opening third of the movie is compelling and tense.

The movie also looks great, fully capturing the period, which one would expect from a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  And it’s interesting that Zemeckis directed this movie, because you know he’s the guy behind such visual flicks as the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988), FOREST GUMP (1994), and THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004), but there really isn’t anything all that visual about ALLIED other than its period piece window dressings.  I mean, the film looks wonderful, but knowing that Zemeckis directed this one, I expected even more in terms of cinematic flair.  That’s not meant to be a knock on Zemeckis but simply an observation that knowing his resume I thought his work here was not all that reflective of his signature style.

The screenplay by Steven Night is as solid as the rest of the movie.  As I said, it does a nice job in the first act of allowing us to be a part of Max’s and Marianne’s love story.   The second act keeps things moving as the action switches to wartime London, and of course the final act turns things up a notch as the audience is eager to follow Max on his investigation, to help him learn the truth about his wife— is she a spy or isn’t she?

I thought the one place where the movie didn’t excel was its ending. Like the rest of the movie, it’s satisfactory, but it’s nothing special.  I had hoped that a phenomenal ending would put this movie over the top, but that was not the case.  It’s certainly not a bad ending by any means, but CASABLANCA it ain’t.

Night also wrote the screenplay for THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014), a wonderful film that was one of my favorite movies of 2014 yet seemed to fly under everyone else’s radar.

If Brad Pitt seems quite at home wearing a World War II military uniform, that’s because he’s already done so in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) and more recently in FURY (2014).  As Max Vatan, Pitt is just OK here.  I’ve seen him deliver far better performances— in MONEYBALL (2011), KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), to name just a few recent ones— than he gives here in ALLIED, where he seemed quiet and reserved throughout. For a man fearing that his wife is a Nazis spy, he never really shows the amount of angst one would expect from a man in his position.  It also doesn’t help that Pitt seems to wear the same blank expression on his face throughout the movie.  Sure, it’s the look of a man who is a covert intelligence officer, who is trained not to let others see his true feelings, so in terms of the plot of the movie, it’s fine, but in terms of letting an audience know what he’s thinking, it doesn’t fly.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard.  She nails Marianne’s persona.  In the opening act of the film, Marianne tells Max that she is successful at fooling people because her emotions are true and real.  She really does like the people she is infiltrating, and so her emotions are genuine and difficult to see through.  Which makes things all the more complicated for Max later when he’s trying to decipher if she is a Nazi spy or not.  Cotillard captures this duplicity brilliantly.  Because of her performance, the audience really believes that she is in love with Max, but like Max, we’re not so sure if these genuine feelings are legit or simply part of her job as a spy.

Cotillard is also terribly sexy in this role, and I enoyed Cotillard here better than in other Hollywood movies I’ve seen her in, movies like INCEPTION (2010) and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

Jared Harris, an excellent actor who has a ton of credits, and who I have particularLy enjoyed in such movies as SHERLOCK HOLMES:  A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) where he played Professor Moriarty, and the underrated Hammer Film THE QUIET ONES (2014), as well as the TV series MAD MEN (2009-2012) where he played Lane Pryce, is good here in a supporting role as Max’s superior, Frank Heslop.

For some reason, ALLIED has received almost no hype. I suspect, based on things that I’ve heard and read, that the powers that be had little faith in this movie.  It’s actually a pretty good movie, especially if you enjoy World War II period pieces.

Is it as good as those classics I mentioned at the outset of this review?  No, but then again, not many films are.  But it’s still a solid movie from beginning to end, worth the price of a movie ticket, and good for an enjoyable two hours at the movies.

—END—

 

 

 

SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) Extraordinarily Original

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SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) is a remarkable movie.

Any film that can have a corpse as one of its two main characters and still be taken seriously is really something extraordinary.

SWISS ARMY MAN opens with a young man named Hank (Paul Dano) about to hang himself on a deserted island.  But just before he completes the deed, he spies a body of a man (Daniel Radcliffe) lying on the shore.  Desperate for companionship, he is disillusioned to discover that the man is dead.

Just my luck!

But Hank suddenly hears strange noises rumbling from the corpse’s insides and figures they’re gasses built up within the body after death.  These noises lead to extreme flatulence, which gives Hank the idea to use the body as a jet-ski and ride it off the island, which he does in a hilarious pre-credit sequence.  It’s an extraordinarily lively and bizarre way to open a movie.

Hank and the corpse wash up on another shoreline belonging to a place that also seems deserted.  Dejected once more and ready to end everything, Hank discovers that rain waters have collected inside the corpse and if he presses on the corpse’s chest, fresh water pours out which enables Hank to survive.  Suddenly Hank realizes that there is something special about this body, which he names Manny.

He begins to talk to Manny, out of a desperate need for companionship, and to his astonishment, Manny begins to show signs of life and even begins talking, asking Hank questions about the meaning of life, since he can’t remember being alive.  As Hank teaches the very innocent Manny about life, we learn firsthand Hank’s view on life, especially on loneliness, as we come to learn about the very sad and lonely life Hank had led.

To say that SWISS ARMY MAN is an odd movie is an understatement. It’s one of the strangest movies you’ll ever see. But more importantly, it’s also one of the more uplifting films you’ll ever see, in spite of all the flatulence and other weird occurences involving Manny’s body.

The main theme of this movie is a dead man coming back to life, and it’s not only referring to Manny.  It’s referring to Hank, who spent his days before running away pretty much dead, and it’s now through his relationship with Manny that he’s coming back to life.

The performances in the movie are phenomenal.

Paul Dano is wonderful as Hank.   He plays a young man whose life has been anything but rewarding.  It seems all he’s ever wanted to do is connect with people, but he’s been a failure at it, which is why he ran away from it all, found himself on an island, and prepared to kill himself.   When he meets Manny and begins to teach him about life, it’s clear that this is the first time he’s ever spoken to anyone else about these things.

And they talk about everything, from relationships, to masturbation, to erections, to overcoming shyness, and it’s all handled with incredible honesty and sensitivity.  It’s an amazing script by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who also directed the film under the name “Daniels.”  This is their feature film debut, after having done shorts and music videos, and it’s a very impressive debut at that.

Dano has appeared in a lot of movies, but is probably most remembered before this movie for his role in THERE WILL BE  BLOOD (2007).  He’s every bit as good here.

And Daniel Radcliffe is pretty amazing as Manny the corpse.  I don’t know if they give out Oscars for actors who play corpses, but it would be cool if Radcliffe received a nod for his performance here.  Sure, Harry Potter fans probably prefer him in that series, but for me, this might be my favorire Daniel Radcliffe performance yet.  You have to see it to believe it.

I thoroughly enjoyed SWISS ARMY MAN, up until the ending at least, which I thought dropped the ball in terms of how the story plays out.

Just how does one interpret a movie like SWISS ARMY MAN, in which a young man spends the entire film with a corpse that slowly comes back to life?  One way, and it’s what I thought from the outset, is that the entire film is a hallucination.  The film opens with Hank about to commit suicide.  Certainly, all that followed could be imagined in his mind in the moments before his death.  This meaning makes a lot of sense.

Of course, one can also take the film literally and accept that all that happens on screen, as ridiculous and outlandish as it all is, really happens!  This is certainly another intepretation.  I give this one less credence because to do this you really have to suspend disbelief.

The ending does little in the way of helping resolve these matters, which for me is the reason I wasn’t crazy about the conclusion to this one.

I would have preferred this one better had the true fate of Hank been more clearly revealed.  I enjoyed the character, cared what happened to him, and wanted to know his fate.  The film doesn’t really tell.  One can make inferences based on what happens on screen, but writers/directors Daniels didn’t provide any solid clues as to how interpret the proceedings.  My guess is they didn’t really know either.

Still, SWISS ARMY MAN is an incredibly uptlifting film, which sounds strange when you consider it’s a story about suicide, loneliness, and flatutlence.  But somehow it all works.

It’s also a visual treat, as the antics between Hank and Manny, and how Hank uses Manny’s body in variouis ways to survive—like a Swiss Army Knife— are both cinematic and memorable.

Once experienced, SWISS ARMY MAN is not a movie that you will forget anytime soon, and that’s a good thing.

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Quirky MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016) Has A lot to Say About Relationships

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MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016), a new comedy drama by writer/director Rebecca Miller, has a lot to say about relationships, so much so that its story is richer in its poignacy than in its comedy.

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a young a career advisor for art and design students, and when the movie opens, she laments that she can never seem to remain in a relationship for more than six months.  She tells her friend Tony (Bill Hader) of her plan to have a baby and raise it on her own without the help of a father.  She has a plan because that’s what Maggie does- plan for everything. She’s arranged for one of their college friends, Guy (Travis Fimmel) to provide his sperm so she can artificially inseminate herself.  Tony is none too happy about this because he remembers Guy as a weird math major in college, but Maggie assures him that Guy is fine, as he is now a successful pickle entrepeneur.

Maggie’s plan gets derailed when she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke) an adjunct professor at the college, and the two hit it off immediately, especially since John is having a difficult time with his marriage, having to deal with his domineering wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) who’s a professor at Columbia University.  John feels trapped in the marriage, as Georgette is so focused on her career, he has to take a back seat with his, plus raise their two children pretty much on his own, and as such he cannot write the novel he’s always wanted to write.

Besides falling in love with John, Maggie also sees herself as being able to rescue him from his manipulating wife.  Since John has fallen in love with Maggie as well, he divorces Georgette and marries Maggie.  They have a daughter, John can now work on his novel, and they can enjoy their perfect life together, except that things are not perfect.

John soon finds himself focusing only on his novel, pretty much ignoring Maggie and their family, and before you can say “Jack Torrance,” Maggie finds herself wondering if perhaps her marriage to John has been a mistake.

If this plot sounds rather serious and sad, that’s because it is.  However, that’s not to say the film isn’t funny.  It has its moments.  There’s a light tone throughout, and the characters are quirky enough to keep things lively.  Just don’t expect to be laughing out loud.

The best part of MAGGIE’S PLAN are the characters and what their story has to say about relationships.  The acting’s not so bad, either!

I thoroughly enjoyed Greta Gerwig as Maggie.She makes Maggie such a sincere and well meaning character, you can’t help but like her.  She also possesses an adorable innocence about her.  At one point, Georgette questions Maggie’s personality and wonders if there isn’t something just plain stupid about her, but Maggie isn’t stupid.  She just wants to do right by people.  The trouble is, the more she tries, the worst things get.

Take her first plan, for instance, where her geeky math friend Guy agrees to provide her with his sperm.  The two characters are each so quirky you can’t help but chuckle when they’re on screen together, but the story keeps you from laughing out loud because it’s obvious that Guy likes Maggie a lot and wants to be more involved with her, yet he’s too awkward to do anything about it.  When he asks Maggie how much involvement she expects from him, she answers, “I was going to say none.”  She then offers to change her mind if he feels otherwise about it, but all Guy can muster is “None.  Yeah.  That’s great.”

Within seconds of seeing Maggie and John married on screen, it’s clear that there is trouble in paradise.  Gerwig does a terrific job showing us Maggie’s internalizations, and when she realizes that their marriage is doomed, that perhaps John really does belong back with Georgette, and she approaches the icy Georgette with a proposition, it doesn’t come off as manipulative or calculating, but completely sincere. Of course, Georgette doesn’t agree.

Yet, later, when the two characters find themselves liking each other, it plays out in a perfectly natural fashion.

Julianne Moore has an absolute field day as Georgette.  She’s never been icier.  As you would expect, Moore lifts the role above the cliche as she makes this seemingly cold-hearted character someone you actually like.

Only Ethan Hawke struggles to connect as professor-wannabe-author John, and he stands out because nearly every other character in the film does connect.  Part of it is John is something of a self-absorbed cold fish.  I understand why both Georgette and Maggie want to be with him.  For Maggie, she’s initially enthralled by his intellect and she feels she can save him from his wife and empower him in his life.  Georgette loves him because he defers to her dominance and supports her every move.  Yet, she’s smart enough to realize later in the movie that she was too selfish with him and should have been thinking about his needs.

But as a character, John is wishy-washy and noncommital, seemingly changing his mind every time the wind blows.   He’s a difficult character to like.  Yet Hawke does make him sympathetic-finally near the end- when he correctly realizes he’s being manipulated and doesn’t like it all that much.

The supporting cast is a good one and provides the film with its quirkiest characters and moments. Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s husband and wife friends Tony and Felicia come closest to being straight out funny.  Tony is brutally blunt, and generally has Maggie’s best interests in mind, even though she doesn’t always want to hear it.  Maya Rudolph’s Felicia calmly and  drolly puts up with her husband’s outspoken antics, and she’s more than capable and comfortable putting him in his place.Both Hader and Rudolph are alumns of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Travis Fimmel is charming in an oddball geeky sort of way as Guy, Maggie’s math genius turned pickle entrepeneur who’s ready to donate his sperm to her, and like Maggie, his character exudes raw honesty to the point where he seems a bit dumb, although like Maggie, he’s anything but.

The screenplay by director Rebecca Miller, based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, works more as a quirky drama than a comedy because the story is seeped with honesty and pain.  The characters in this movie are not calculating and cold-hearted, although Maggie likes to plan and Georgette has ice in her veins, but both characters come off as three dimensional and genuine.

Even when some scenes enter into comedy, laughter is difficult to come by because of the sincere tones of sadness underneath.

That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments in the movie.  The sequence where Maggie tries to inseminate herself is nicely paced as it goes from slightly awkward to full blown embarrassing.

And in a near perfect moment, it’s both ironic and telling that the liveliest and perhaps only laugh-out-loud moment in the movie comes when John and Georgette find themselves stranded together in a lodge in snowy Canada.  It’s ironic because Maggie is the liveliest character in the film, yet for the movie’s liveliest moment, she’s absent, and it’s telling because it’s what’s true about Maggie’s life:  she’s always trying to help, but things tend to work best when she’s simply out of the way.

Subtlety reigns throughout MAGGIE’S PLAN, and as such, you won’t find yourself laughing too much.  But that won’t stop you from enjoying this low-key tale of a love triangle that never seems to go as planned.

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MONEY MONSTER (2016) Tamed by Sentimentality

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MONEY MONSTER (2016), the new drama/thriller directed by Jodie Foster, and starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, has the right idea.  It tells a story about the “little guy” fighting back against Wall Street greed, but it takes the wrong approach, as none of what transpires on screen is all that believable.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a hot shot TV celebrity who hosts a show on the wheelings and dealings of Wall Street, and it’s a show that’s full of flashy pizzazz. His director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) is his right hand person and keeps him in line on the air.  However, unbeknownst to him, she’s in the midst of her final broadcast as she’s leaving for another network.

In the middle of the show, a man appears on stage and suddenly starts shooting.  He then forces Lee to put on a vest armed with a bomb, and he holds the detonator in his hand.  Anyone messes with him, and he’ll blow up the building, on live TV no less, and it’s being shown live because he orders the cameras to keep rolling.

We learn that the man’s name is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), and he lost all his money when the company Lee had told his viewers was a sure thing and a safer investment than a savings account goes belly up.  This company supposedly lost its funds due to a program glitch.  The man who runs the company, Walt Camby (Dominic West) was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s show that day but cancelled at the last minute.  Not only did he cancel, but he seems to have gone into hiding, just when his company misplaced billions of dollars.  Hmm.

As the police move in, Lee is advised to keep Kyle talking, and he does, but in the process Lee begins to listen to what Kyle is saying and he realizes that perhaps this deranged young man has a point and he decides to use his influence to get to the bottom of the financial disaster which took Kyle’s money.

Yeah, right.  Look, I know you have a gun pointed at me, and you made me put on this vest with a bomb which you could explode at any second, but I find your story compelling, feel bad for you, and want to help you.

Er— I don’t think so.

And therein lies the central problem I had with this film.  I just didn’t believe it.  For this story to work, you really have to suspend disbelief.  A lot.

For example, take the set-up.  Kyle walks onto the set so easily he might as well have been holding a printed invitation!  Sure, he’s disguised as a delivery man, but even a guy wearing a delivery suit and carrying boxes shouldn’t be allowed such easy access to the set of a live news program.  I mean, where is the security to this building?  Watching the broadcast, I guess!

Speaking of that live broadcast, one of the stipulations that Kyle makes once he forces Lee to wear the bomb suit is that the broadcast continue live.  He wants the world to hear his story.  To make sure this is done, Kyle is watching the broadcast on his phone.  With little choice, Patty agrees and the broadcast goes on.  So far so good.  I buy this.

I also buy that the broadcast needs to be shown to the world for the story to work.  My problem is I just don’t see this as really happening.  To me, once the police get involved, that broadcast is going to be shut down.  I just don’t buy that they would allow Kyle access to the outside world.

The police are terribly ineffective here. They decide early on to sneak some sharpshooters onto the set but it takes nearly the entire movie for them to get into position, and when they do, they come up with the brilliant plan of shooting TV host Lee Gates because by doing so they will knock out the detontator, rendering the bomb harmless.

At one point a whole slew of officers converge on the set and yet they still aren’t able to apprehend Kyle.

Also, George Clooney’s Lee Gates is way too sympathetic towards Kyle.  First of all, he seems to be the type of person- brash fast-talking TV host— who would not be sympathetic towards a man like Kyle.  But more than that is the situation itself.  I understand that audiences are supposed to identify with Kyle and his story, making Lee’s sympathy towards him acceptable, but the guy has a gun which he shoots frequently, has a bomb wired to Lee’s chest, and seems completely unhinged.  I just didn’t buy the sympathy, not as fast as it happened, anyway.  Perhaps after the fact, folks might have looked back and felt bad for the guy, but during an armed standoff and hostage situation?  That’s a stretch.

The acting is quite good, though.

I’m usually hit or miss with George Clooney, depending on the role and the movie.  I liked Clooney a lot here, and he gave his character Lee Gates lots of pizzazz and energy.  More importantly, he makes Lee likeable, which considering the character’s personality isn’t the easiest thing to do.

I also enjoyed Julia Roberts as his director Patty Fenn.  She and Clooney have an easy camraderie and their characters’ relationship— when you see how much they care for each other— heightens the suspense when things get rough.

And Jack O’Connell is very good as the desperate and deranged Kyle Budwell.  You definitely feel bad for the guy, although I would stop short of giving him the keys to the city and a platform on which to tell the world his story.  Lose the gun and the bombs and maybe I’d feel differently.

The supporting cast is solid.  Caitriona Balfe is good as Diane Lester, the spokeswoman for the company which lost all Kyle’s money.  At first, she defends her employer, but as she learns more about her boss, she questions that loyalty.

Both Christopher Denham and Lenny Venito stand out in smaller roles, Denham as one of Lee’s producers and Venito as a cameraman.

However, Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from TV’s BREAKING BAD as well as countless other roles) is somewhat wooden here as Police Captain Powell.  He showed more range just using his voice as Akela in THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016).  And Dominic West makes for a rather disappointing “villain” as Walt Camby, the man at the top of the “evil” company.  He looks like he walked off the set of an EXPENDABLES movie, ready to trade barbs with Sylvester Stallone.

I also enjoyed the direction by Jodie Foster, as a lot of the stand-off scenes generate the required suspense.

The best scene in the movie is when the police locate Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade) and connect her to a live feed in the hope that she will talk some sense into her boyfriend.  What she says is not exactly what the police were hoping for.  It’s explosive, brutal, and on live TV for all the world to see.

And while the suspense generally builds as the movie goes along, the ending does get a bit carried away.

The screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf is a mixed bag.  The story itself is rather contrived, but the dialogue is very good.  The humor is especially sharp.  That being said, it doesn’t quite  reach the same heights as THE BIG SHORT (2015)  which had a similar message but was more successful in making its point.  The message in MONEY MONSTER isn’t quite as honed, and it gets bogged down in sentimentality.

MONEY MONSTER has its heart in the right place, but it allows this heart to get in the way  of its storytelling.

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