Now Playing: The Big Sick

sick

When I write out Judd Apatow’s name in this space, it’s usually in conjunction with some grousing about his creative shortcomings, which have spread across the field of cinematic comedy like spilled Fresca. Apatow is a rambunctiously creative filmmaker, but he also lacks discipline in his craftsmanship, leading to lopsided works that compromise their own insights with wearying rambles. And his success has fostered a broader culture of similarly bloated comedies.

I stand by that assessment, because I’ve seen too many promising films collapse under their own teetering weight. But I also don’t give Apatow enough credit for the ways in which that same expansive nature manifests as a generosity that brings valuable voices in the current cultural sphere, specifically those voices that it’s difficult to imagine with a prominent platform if not for Apatow’s advocacy. In the latest example, The Big Sick would likely not exist if comedian Kumail Nanjiani hadn’t casually shared with Apatow the surprisingly fraught story of his courtship with his eventual wife, Emily V. Gordon, and if Apatow hadn’t responded with the specific encouragement the he’s capable of backing up with supporting action: “That should be a movie, and you should write it.”

Nanjiani did follow the advice to sit down and make the story a screenplay — crafting it alongside Gordon — and he stars as Kumail, an aspiring stand-up comedian in Chicago. One night, his on-stage equilibrium is disrupted when a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) offers loud verbal encouragement from the crowd during his set. He finds her afterward and explains that the “whoo-hoo” she lobbed from the audience technically counts as a heckle and was therefore rude. On the movie “meet cute” scale, it’s a more satisfying beginning than most. Kumail and Emily embark on a relationship of tentative escalation that nicely captures the common uncertainty of people coming together in their twenties, when a precariously solidifying sense of an adult self can collide with a desire to connect with another.

And then the film finds its way to the plot turn that gives The Big Sick its title. More valuably, the development gives the movie a greater weight. Since Nanjiani and Gordon are drawing on true events from their own life together, they avoid the sort of maudlin nonsense that might have sunk the film had it been dreamed up by some indie comedy Nicholas Sparks disciple. Without compromising the ringing, character-driven humor that drives the film, the story properly digs into the pinballing between fear and hope that defines that sort of situation.

There are shortcomings. While Nanjiani is consistently engaging, some moments are a touch beyond his capabilities as an actor, an issue that is simultaneously compensated for and accentuated by the sterling performances of Kazan, and supporting players Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. And Michael Showalter’s directing job is a little pedestrian, draining some of the impact from moments big and small. But the film ultimately pushes past the little problems. Combine the emotional honesty of the main plot with the insightful and welcome explorations of how Kumail’s background as a member of a Pakistani immigrant family impacts his ability to navigate an on-edge society, and it’s clear that The Big Sick offers an object lesson in something credited producer Apatow knows well: familiar narrative rhythms can get a boost from a specificity of voice.

Now Playing: War for the Planet of the Apes

war

As with its immediate predecessors, I admire the franchise film War for the Planet of the Apes for attempting to instill weightier themes into its high-concept hook. Also in accordance with the other offerings since the reboot was rebooted — Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — the new film isn’t quite as profound or moving as it aspires to be.

When War for the Planet of the Apes begins, the hyper-evolved simians led by a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis, continuing his reign as the master of motion capture acting) are still holding down their outpost in the woods, despite the fervent efforts of a human military unit led by a fuming figure known mainly as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). While Caesar insists he wants only peace — sparing a group of human soldiers who were taken captive after a battle, for example — his patience for detente is sorely tested when a raid on the ape camp leaves some of his loved ones dead. In a heartbreaking moment, vengeance asserts its appeal.

And the plot moves along with assurance if not urgency. There are unique twists here and there, but too much of the narrative is rigid enough to repel any deeper emotional attachment.  Perhaps the key example of this is a traveling cadre of simian soldiers becoming caretakers of a young human girl (Amiah Miller). What’s presumably meant to provide another layer of feeling to the proceedings — to up the stakes — instead feels mechanical, a way to set up the casting of a name twenty-something actress in a fourth installment someday.

About the only addition that makes a notable impression is the introduction of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo escapee chimpanzee who has the same facility for speech as Caesar, though equipped with a more limited vocabulary (which smartly align’s with the character’s history). In that instance, the main appeal is the comic relief the character provides, a highly welcome development in otherwise grim proceedings. Even the positive element calls attention to the clicking motors of the storytelling.

Director Matt Reeves – who handled the same duties on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — knows how to balance his visuals between the blessedly straightforward and grandly striking. He also manages to drive home the highly cynical themes about the ugliness of organized humanity without lapsing into the didactic. It’s not every summer blockbuster that’s going to include the sight of militarized Americans engaged in vicious oppression while “The Star Spangled Banner” plays over tinny speakers. I can’t deny that War for the Planet of the Apes has a backbone.

But I also can’t deny that War for the Planet of the Apes left me a little cold. It offers a reminder that injecting franchise filmmaking with heated intent doesn’t automatically stretch sturdy bridges over the built-in pitfalls of a cinematic corner more hungry for dollars than art.

Now Playing — Spider-Man: Homecoming

homecoming

We are now in the tenth year of the Marvel Age of Movies, and who can argue against the astonishing influence of the comic book publisher turned crafter of cinematic crescendos? All through that resounding success, it had to rankle that the most famed member of the mighty Marvel stable was under the lockdown control of another studio, effectively banned from being a part of their practically unprecedented interlocking landscape of big screen stories being spun like a shimmering web. So in the slender space where the commerce and art of film are decent bedfellows, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a big deal. It is therefore utterly reasonable that the whole production feels like a delighted victory lap from an upstart champion who wrenched the Olympic torch away from the appointed runner.

As opposed to the slew of other reboots — including the previous stab at taking everyone’s favorite wall-crawler back to panel one — Spider-Man: Homecoming has a tang of purpose that transcends the obvious money grab that is its truest creative motivation. The character is being put back in his proper place, among the other legacy costumed do-gooders that started tumbling forth from the House of Ideas over fifty years ago. Spider-Man hardly faced the onscreen abuse of Marvel’s founding family, the Fantastic Four, but there was a sense that he was being ill-served by rival studios who were incapable of reverse-engineering Marvel’s serialized success story, despite lots of desperate trying. (Being fair about this, it was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 that served as the clearest template for Marvel’s approach to the tone and tenor of individual films.) As the title says, it was time for Spider-Man to come home.

And his full-scale cannonball into the Marvel Cinematic Universe pool is a giddy delight, as was forecasted by Tom Holland’s winning debut in the role in Captain America: Civil War. It helps that this is first time Peter Parker and his arachnid alter ego isn’t being played by an actor ten years too old, no matter how many nice moments Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield had in their respective iterations. Holland brings a gee-whiz exuberance to the performance that conveys how freeing it would be to have these great powers, even if they came with great responsibility. He’s eager and innocent, beaming at the prospect of being a part of this strange new world where demigods streak across the sky.

Although this Spider-Man remains officially housed under the Sony/Columbia banner (rather than fully moved over to the control of Marvel’s benevolent entertainment corporation overlords at Disney), there’s no doubting that this is in the same universe as the other proper Marvel films, even aside from the presence of the principal cast of the Iron Man films in prominent supporting roles. This is maybe the first of the Marvel films that noticeably lives and breathes in an existence where super-powered beings are part of everyday life. Peter longs to be an Avenger the way a New York baseball nut might dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees, and heroes — and their exploits — are incorporated casually into the mundane conversations and interactions of people who’ve seen city blocks implode as titans clashed. When miraculous beings are constant, they stop being miraculous and start recording educational videos.

Jon Watts is essentially untested as a director at this scale, but he handles the whirring wheels of the narrative with charm and grace. Only when the movie pushes into especially thunderous action sequences does he sometimes bobble a bit. Overall, he balances the big moments with smaller sequences that give the movie a welcome dose of humanity. In particular, the film commits to Peter’s place in high school as more than a backdrop. Wisely sidestepping the established supporting characters in the Spider-Man canon, the film largely invents a new peer group that looks and acts more like the fellow teens Peter might encounter in a modern science-specialty high school. (Jacob Batalon and Zendaya give especially entertaining performances among the crew of classmates.) This aspect of the film is worthy of the influence of the oeuvre of John Hughes, who gets an overt and witty hat tip midway through. Spider-Man: Homecoming might be the first superhero film that could conceivably be just as engaging if never got around to the protagonist donning a costume and swinging into action.

There are a couple kinks in the plot — including a massive coincidence that makes for compelling melodrama, but strains credibility more than an irradiated spider conferring superhuman strength — but the film is mainly zippy, joyous, and thick with the sort of satisfying morality play fodder that is at the heart of the superhero subgenre. No matter how much the team behind Marvel Studios have proven themselves over the past decade, Sony was surely reluctant to cut whatever deal was required to get their input and thusly share the riches. But the value of the collaboration is right there on the screen. On the printed page or onscreen, Spider-Man has rarely been better. Face it, tiger, we all just hit the jackpot.

 

Now (and Then) Playing: The Beguiled

beguiled

The Beguiled, the new film from director Sofia Coppola, is based on a novel written by Thomas Cullinan, originally published in 1966. Realistically, though, it probably owes more to the first attempt at taking the story from page to screen: a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, released nine months before their famed collaboration on the hit Dirty Harry. In its timbre and bearing, the 2017 iteration feels more like a remake than an adaptation. That notion is given credence by Coppola’s stated intent to reverse the framing of the earlier movie, downplaying the focus on a fallen soldier (played originally by Eastwood and here by Colin Farrell) and instead giving greater consideration to the perspectives of the women who make up most of the cast of characters.

Usually, my preference is to labor against expending too much intellectual and evaluative energy towards comparing the two films. While I recognize the impossibility built into the policy, my goal is to treat every film as its own entity, at least somewhat free of expectations imposed by earlier efforts. There are instances, however, in which weighing one film against another can clarify shortcomings and strengths. Coppola’s The Beguiling doesn’t work, and Siegel’s The Beguiling provides the answer as to why.

Siegel’s version of the story is twisty and provocative from the very beginning. In his film, the U.S. Civil War is at an indeterminate point, but weariness has obviously replaced passion as the predominant mood. Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood) is a Union soldier gravely wounded in the woods, where he’s found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), who’s out collecting mushrooms to stock the pantry at the sparsely-populated all-girl boarding school she attends. The interaction between the two basically begins when John has Amy hide with him as Confederates trudge by. John claims the twelve-year-old girl is old enough for a kiss and helps himself to one, presumably in part because he knows his discovery by the nearby enemy will end in his execution and this might be his last chance for such an act of affection. It’s a creepy moment, but it serves a narrative purpose, setting up the slippery ethics of the character.

In Coppola’s rendering (she’s also the sole credited writer of the screenplay), the initial encounter is far more benign, with no nearby adversarial soldiers and no stolen smooch. Much as a modern echo of the latter infraction would have been extra skeevy with a few additional decades of accumulated progressive morality (even if that enlightenment hasn’t quite reached everywhere), it’s not the only part of the film that involves Coppola shearing away a nettlesome complication. From start to finish, nearly everything that was complex — and therefore interesting — in the original is absent from the newer film. Siegel’s film — with a screenplay co-credited to Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp  — features suggestions of incest, ugly male entitlement when coming upon supposedly helpless women, and a clearer depiction of the opportunistic lying of the wounded soldier to preserve his relatively safety among the women of the school. It is florid where the new film is sedate. The former ultimately works better, especially give the Southern Gothic trappings.

In restraining the storytelling, Coppola winds betraying the very characters she was supposed to empower. The school’s headmistress is awash in inner conflict, as played by Geraldine Page in the original. Nicole Kidman inherits a far flatter role, with the ambiguity and troubled impulses set aside in favor of a fragile, terse nobility. Similarly, the budding teen seductress played by Jo Ann Harris in the 1971 film becomes a scattered, motivationally incoherent figure in the role given to Elle Fanning. In Coppola’s hands, these are women without discernible inner lives, beholden to the creaking floorboards of the plot. Only Kirsten Dunst — playing a role originated by Elizabeth Hartman — offers hints of the loneliness and scuffed self-worth that could make her susceptible to the overtures of this dashing man who’s crossed into her lives. And even she, by the end, is made unduly passive, robbed of a moment of pointed choice as the film moves decisively into its endgame.

Maybe the most egregious cut is the elimination of a slave character named Hallie, played with authority and cunning by Mae Mercer in Siegel’s film. Coppola has been rightly criticized for this already. It’s especially perplexing given everything that drains from the film in the role’s absence. Not only are the women and girls of the school spared the realistic shadows of their own complicity in the sins of the South that stirred the war in the first place, but John loses one of his avenues for manipulation, slyly trying to elicit Hallie’s solidarity because he fights for her freedom.

But then there’s only the most meager of suggestions that John is fighting for his life, using every devilish psychological trick at his disposal in the battle. In the role, Eastwood is always thinking — maybe the only time I’ve ever felt that was the case in an Eastwood performance — surveying possible exit strategies like a nervous flyer at the first shimmy of a jumbo jet’s fuselage. Farrell is simply there. His stiff interactions with the residents of the school could be tactical or they could be gentlemanly politeness. It’s impossible to say, because Coppola shows no apparent interest in probing for the truth of any particular moment. She frames dimly lit rooms and hazy afternoons with a painterly loveliness, but finds no life within the images. Even if Siegel’s film could hardly be deemed perfect, it could never be accused of a similar dearth of spirit.

 

Now Playing: Baby Driver

baby

When I stop to really think about the state of modern movies, one shortcoming is perplexing above all others. How is it that there are so few creations that evidence an abundant, overwhelming, crushing love of moviemaking itself? We’re now deep into the era in which young, emerging filmmakers had the whole history of the form at their fingertips — if they’re young enough, quite literally. I’m aware of — and have occasionally snarled about — the need for major studios to buff away any complications from their products, a longstanding problem made worse by shrinking slates of releases. Even beyond that, though, a remarkably small number of films spark and shimmer with the exuberance of stress-testing the established grammar of cinema, finding bright, thrilling new avenues of narrative in the process.

All that preamble, of course, leads straight to a heap of breathless praise for Edgar Wright and his film Baby Driver. The film is kinetic crime epic, slipping into the passenger seat of a ludicrously skilled getaway driver known as Baby (Ansel Elgort). He’s mired in the malfeasance machinery of Doc (Kevin Spacey, excellent in a role that is, admittedly, right in his wheelhouse), an imposing figure who assembles ever-changing crews for bombastic heists. Baby is his sole mainstay, which makes Doc very possessive when Baby tries to go straight.

Wright’s screenplay is simultaneously dense and economical. Every detail is in place for a reason, either fleshing out the characters or establishing information that will eventually ping-pong back into the plot. It all means something, and it all feeds the film’s forward momentum. And Wright delivers it with an exacting directorial eye, piecing together the film with a kinetic clarity that is invigorating.

Perhaps the most riveting accomplishment of Wright’s construction is the way he unobtrusively cuts the film to the rhythm and flow of the nearly nonstop soundtrack. Baby keeps earbuds in while driving, substituting the radio only when necessary. Regardless, his existence is marked by constant music. In Wright’s rendering, the songs aren’t mere filler. The film is choreographed around them, whether its a long take of Baby retrieving a coffee order on a busy downtown street or a high speed chase with dozens of squad cars in pursuit.

The musical pulse of the film injects more adrenaline into a cinematic beast that is already zipping along with dizzying invention. Wright gives every indication of someone who has absorbed all manner of ancestral filmmaking and brought bits and pieces of it all to his own work. In that way, Baby Driver recalls the urgent, early work of Quentin Tarantino, before his primary affection was for the staccato redundancy of his own hyber-verbal nihilism. Wright is comparatively free, joyous, generous. Even when the narrative gets a little dark — the film has violence to spare — there’s a resounding sense of possibility backed up by the surging thrill of assembling sound and image and idea into one cohesive whole.

Movies are so, so great, Baby Driver insists at every curve. In the reflected light of Wright’s film, there’s only one reasonable response: They sure are.

Now Playing: Okja

okja

The title character of the new film Okja is a “super-pig.” In the bizarre, futuristic (though set in modern-day) vision of writer-director Bong Joon-Ho, an American corporation launches a publicity stunt competition to have odd, porcine animals — supposedly discovered in Chile, though that assertion is suspect from the jump — raised by individuals scattered all across the globe. After a decade, the creatures are to be evaluated in a glorified pageant before beings added to the assembly line of food production.

Bong renders his story at a mad careen that resembles an inability to entirely setting on a general narrative approach. At times it operates with a kindhearted empathy that allows the story of a magical creature to unfold without condescension, recalling David Lowery’s surprising and wise remake of Pete’s Dragon. Elsewhere, the film percolates with the energy of unhinged satire, but its most memorable personality thread comes in a depiction of the industrialized process of making sentient beings into consumable meat that accurate and unsparing enough to make the guy who created it convert to pescetarianism.

All that tonal wandering would usually be fatal, but it conforms to Bong’s creative worldview. He’s eagerly committed to making his movies be a little bit of everything at all times, the zing of whiplash-inducing shifts servings to imbue added unpredictability into the proceedings. Think the prevailing sweetness and cartoonish performance of Jake Gyllenhaal (as a wild animal show TV host) found in the first act means Okja might be a good option to click to on Netflix for the kids? Just you wait.

There’s just enough shrewd control to Bong’s freewheeling approach to mostly keep the material in balance. He’s not just throwing ideas at the screen with the hope that enough will stick. He has a pointed intellectual argument to make. He just makes it with the jabbering exuberance of a creator with more ideas than most could reasonably stuff into a single movie. That worked marvelously with his prior film, Snowpiercer, and it arguably works more than it doesn’t in Okja. The level of obvious talent on display is a convincing counterargument to any complaints about wobbly pieces.

Even so, Okja occasionally buckles under its own ambition. Admirable as it is that Bong doesn’t flinch as he carries the film straight into the slaughterhouse, it sometimes feels like he veers into a level of abusiveness to the characters that approaches the sadism of Lars von Trier at his most sadistic. Riding a narrow line between honesty and cruelty gets a little trickier when the vehicle of choice is a unicycle and objects of vastly different masses are being juggled simultaneously. The portions of Okja that are most haunting are also going to be unnavigable for viewers who aren’t made of the sternest of stuff. It’s an open question as to whether that’s truly a creative win.

Now Playing: It Comes at Night

comes at night

I feel compelled to write about the audience I was in midst of when I saw the film It Comes at Night. The second feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night is being positioned as a horror film for promotional purposes. That’s entirely fair. All the elements are in place, including a constantly mounting sense of dread, allusions to a devastating and unexplained phenomenon that has ravaged the populace, and a wary appraisal of the intrinsic darkness of desperate people. And yet the film is primarily notable for its colossal restraint more than its vivid shocks. In the movie house where I sat, that led to a lot of agitation and restlessness.

Even as I concede some amount of understanding of the idling disgruntlement of  my fellow ticket-buyers — Shults does occasionally play his narrative hand with more patience than is wholly advisable — the screening mostly served as a sad reminder of the sizable divide between what the typical horror movie fan wants and what the more artistically-inclined genre filmmakers are likely to give them. There is a lot to admire in It Comes at Night, but I found myself depressed by the overall experience

The film largely takes place in a large house, isolated in the middle of the woods. Some sort of highly contagious disease has taken its toll on society, leaving Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their seventeen-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) anxious in their remote homestead. Their precarious feeling of safety is disrupted by the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbot), who breaks into their house, claiming he thought it was abandoned and he was only looking for supplies for his own family that has thus far survived the outbreak.

With cunning psychological insight, Shults lays out the suspicions and tripwire high emotions that the characters have, with any slip in caution potentially leading to a terrible death. At its best, the script delivers scenes that raise doubts but ultimately reveal little. Nearly every potential infraction can be read as an innocent act. It’s a razor thin line between prudence and paranoia.

The pieces of It Comes at Night that the rest of the audience rejected are precisely what make it intriguing and fulfilling for me. Even though the communal experience of being in the movie theater can sometimes elevate a work — something that’s come through most clearly of late with the particular empowerment baked into Hidden Figures and Wonder Woman — my task is to assess what flickers in front of me, not the vibe generated by those seated in my vicinity. It Comes at Night is compelling, sly, and artful. To be fair, the evidence suggests that results may vary.