July 14, 2017

The Big Sick (2017)

Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano

If you're not tired of hearing about The Big Sick yet, you haven't been paying attention. The amount of hype this movie has been getting seems unprecedented for a romantic comedy. I went into this expecting nothing short of a complete revival of the genre.

I wasn't disappointed.

First of all, the movie lacks the cheesiness present in so many rom-coms, perhaps it's because the story is based on actual events. So instead of relying on contrived interactions or wacky characters for laughs, the jokes feel naturally funny. And by natural, I mean the jokes arise out of believable, awkward situations - just like real life.

In a way, it's a little reminiscent of My Big Fat Greek Wedding in that it centers around the strain of defying familial expectations and an unapproved relationship. Where it differs, however, is instead of amping up cultural stereotypes to a comedic degree, The Big Sick chooses just a few scenarios to highlight the innate humor in the difference between the Pakistani and American experience.

Secondly, this movie brings something revolutionary to the rom-com genre: an Asian male lead not named Keanu Reeves. More specifically, an Asian (not Asian-American) male lead. Asian men have been vastly underrepresented in movies, with their infrequent appearances often involving kung-fu, gangsters, terrorists, or other undesirable roles. They don't get to be the hero and they certainly don't get the girl at the end of the movie. I mean, Jet Li couldn't even end Romeo Must Die with a kiss - he got a hug from Aaliyah. So to see someone like Kumail not only have a non-gimmick-filled relationship with a [white] woman, but also be pursued by other women, really adds a narrative lacking in mainstream Hollywood. Asian men across the world are routinely considered romantically desirable and frankly, it's about damn time movies caught up with that fact. 

This may seem like a petty point, but I appreciated the appropriate cast pairing of Nanjiani and Kazan. Again, I know this is based on real life, and Kazan resembles Nanjiani's real wife, but too often we have been forced to sit through rom-coms written by men who pair themselves with women wayyyyyyy out of their league. (Think: any movie starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, or Jason Segal.) The fact that both Nanjiani and Kazan looks like average people you might run into on the sidewalk only makes the movie feel even more authentic.

Lastly, I feel the need to comment on the performances by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. I have not been shy in the past about voicing my dislike of both of their voices (in The Incredibles and Ice Age, respectively), and neither of them as actors really excites me, probably because of this fact. I'll just never understand how anyone could enjoy Everybody Loves Raymond. However, I think they are both fantastic in this movie. You like and dislike them both in the exact amount you need to make this story work. And for me, the gauge of how much I like a movie is whether or not my enthusiasm can be thrown off by annoying details. The fact that I enjoyed the characters played by actors I dislike is the ultimate endorsement for how good the movie is.

Final word: You're going to be hearing about this movie into awards season, I guarantee it.

July 7, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

I know I am quick to make sweeping, silly generalizations about entire movies based on nothing more than a stupid line of dialogue or the wardrobe of an annoying character, but I'm going to attempt a more nuanced look at this not-very-anticipated sequel. It might seem like a strange decision to devote this much brain power to something so insipid, but I think dismissing the entire thing as a silly movie is neither revelatory nor helpful to the general discourse. Everyone knows these movies are stupid, especially if you sat through the first one. So my pointing that out would make for a very short review.

Instead, I've decided it's worth discussing the progression of the story, characters, and acting in relation to the first. I briefly considered just writing a list of my faithful companion's and my comments throughout the affair to more accurately capture our horror and delight at the ridiculousness, ranging from "oh my God he's really IN there" to "that move seems like a lot of work," but alas, I shall attempt to be serious about the entire thing.

In some ways, this movie is less terrible. Maybe because my expectations had been properly calibrated, but I found the dialogue a huge step up from the previous installment. There was no more talk of lip biting and a lot less sexy talk. There was plenty of sex, to be sure (and still a lot of nipples), but less "we're trying to shock people with BDSM sex" and more things regular people might actually do. So, more relatable, I guess? 

The characters were also more believable. We saw Christian expand his possessive/abusive persona and while simpleton Anastasia was still going along with it, mistaking it for love, she was far less annoying. She seemed to have more of a personality, more of a backbone, and a lot less whispering and following him around like a lost kitten.

Where the movie lost me, however, was its reliance on party scenes and sex scenes. That's basically the entire movie: Christian and Anastasia go to a party. They leave partway through and have sex. They go back to the party. They go home and have sex. They go to another party. Then they have sex. Like, I know he's a billionaire, but surely he must have other things to do? 

Also, this one tries to delve deeper into Christian's history and how he turned into the sadist he is. Sadly, this seemed to be written by someone who's never actually been abused, as it involved a very awkward scene involving a tube lipstick and more sex. I would say more, but I don't want to spoil the big reveal. ;)

That headband!
I did, however, appreciate the introduction of new characters. If you're going to stretch this thing out, new blood was vital. And while I wonder if it was necessary to make Kim Basinger look as terrible as she did (were they just trying to emphasize the age difference between her and Christian?), it gave me a weird ray of hope, like the fact that they convinced an Oscar-winning actress to sign on board maybe means I'm not as pathetic for watching this as I initially believed? I mean, the last one was nominated for an Oscar itself. (Seriously. Look it up.)

All joke aside, yes, this movie is still as bad as you think it's going to be. It's still got ridiculous relationship cliches, cringeworthy sex moves, and a completely predictable plot. It's the equivalent of a trashy summer read, and hey, it's summer.

Final word: If Transformers can make another sequel, why can't this?