Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Big Sick


The Big Sick is the story of how Kumail Nanjiani, comedian and Silicon Valley co-star, met his wife Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan and called Emily Gardner here) and stood by her side during her serious illness early in their relationship. Nanjiani plays himself, he and Gordon wrote the script together and director Michael Showalter and producer Judd Apatow sublimate their own styles to serve this unusual story. There is also another story in the film, one about the balance between assimilating into American life and honoring one's own traditions. In the film Emily breaks up with Kumail when she discovers that he has been - against his will - meeting Pakistani women at his parents' insistence to enter into an arranged marriage. Kumail's parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) don't know about Emily and view marrying a Pakistani woman as Kumail's only option. We find out early on that Kumail has discovered his own values: told by his mother to go downstairs for daily prayers, Kumail sets the timer on his phone and waits out the time by watching YouTube instead.

The early scenes of Kumail and Emily together hit familiar meet-cute touchstones. Kumail flirts by writing Emily's name in Urdu, and she tells him she's too busy with graduate school to date but still takes his calls. Nanjiani and Kazan play well together though - Kazan is luminous and Nanjiani surprisingly charismatic when arguing with his parents about the future. When Emily is put into a medically induced coma Kazan's energy goes out of the movie and is replaced by that of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily's worried parents. There is no plot as such to this segment of the film, or it might be more accurate to say there are too many plots. We detour into the parents' marriage and into Kumail's comedy career, but a romantic comedy where one partner isn't awake couldn't do much better than these actors. Hunter, highly caffeinated, is a ball of worry and misplaced anger while Romano is very good as a conflicted man working out how he feels about his own marriage.

Judd Apatow leaves his mark on most projects he produces (Bridesmaids), but he also knows how to support a strong vision (Girls). The Big Sick isn't as loose and bawdy as other Apatow films, though Nanjiani and Apatow both share a love for scenes of comedians ribbing each other. (The denizens of Kumail's comedy club include characters played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and David Alan Grier.) There is also a very funny running bit about Kumail's one-man show about Pakistan that feels like it came from the ashes of something real. Anyone who has followed Nanjiani knows how The Big Sick turns out, but at the end the focus on adults making decisions is very welcome. There are no last scene of Trainwreck hijinks here. In a summer of the familiar, The Big Sick has found an audience and introduced new talent to the screen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dunkirk


Six soldiers are walking through an empty town. One tries to drink from a hose, another looks for a used cigarette. They do not speak. Gunfire from an unseen source erupts, and the soldiers try to defend themselves. Five men whose names we never learn are killed. Only Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) gets away. The previous six sentences are the opening sequence of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's visceral but supremely controlled film about the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. A title card tells us all we need to know: Germans have pushed Allied soldiers to the Dunkirk beach, where they are being pounded by air while the Allies hold on to a shaky perimeter. The British have no mechanism for evacuating 400,000 men. When Tommy makes it to the safety of the perimeter we get our first look at what is happening on the beach, a kind of organized nothingness. Soldiers queue up for ships that aren't coming - water conditions made it impossible to take men directly off the beach in large boats - while wounded men are evacuated at a ship docked at the "mole" (a large jetty). As the Germans continue to bomb, the officer in charge (Kenneth Branagh) can only contain damage and keep the mole clear for the next ship.Nolan cuts away from the beach to two other story lines. When the British Navy calls for civilian help to evacuate soldiers, a man (Mark Rylance) pilots his boat across the channel to see what he can do. Two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) engage with German fighters in an attempt to protect those on the beach.

Dunkirk breaks our idea of what a war film can or should be by fitting in to neither of the two models that we're accustomed to. There isn't a "mission" to accomplish here other than to survive, and though we keep returning to Tommy on the beach there isn't anything special about his situation or about the men (including one played by pop star Harry Styles) he eventually falls in with. Nolan wrote the screenplay for Dunkirk himself, and he spends no time in the script (reported to be only seventy-six pages long) making a moral case for the war effort and in fact never shows German soldiers. The most patriotic moment we get is a recitation of Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, but where Nolan places Churchill's words and the performance of the actor delivering them render them highly ironic. Yet Dunkirk isn't a critique of war either, this isn't Nolan's M.A.S.H.. It's a film about what it feels like when a torpedo hits the boat you're on - the film's most terrifying sequence - and the choice to sacrifice some so that others might live. Filmmakers have spent millions of dollars trying to evoke the emotions that Nolan gets here by just holding the camera on Kenneth Branagh's face for a few seconds. Tom Hardy's performance as the pilot Farrier is entirely behavioral - almost all of his dialogue is about fuel consumption - but the character's heroism doesn't need to be commented on. The one strand of Dunkirk that maybe shouldn't work but does is Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson. Rylance is essentially playing the Soul of the British People, a pillar of duty and rectitude who doesn't reveal his personal motives until the job is done. It's a role that in lesser hands could have been a delivery system for whatever message the filmmaker wanted to impart, but Nolan keeps the character on task and Rylance underplays gorgeously. Mr. Dawson's rescue of a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and the soldier's subsequent behavior are the closest that Nolan comes to a conventional examination of war's psychological effects.

The last section of Dunkirk ties the film's three plots together in ways that aren't entirely surprising. It's here that the film feels most constructed, as if the script were a problem to be worked out. I'm not sure that film needed this tidiness when what has come before was so experiential, but the economy of Nolan's choices creates a tension that otherwise might have had to be ginned up with speeches and back story. It's no accident that Dunkirk is Nolan's shortest film since his debut, it needed to be. Dunkirk is a major advance for both Christopher Nolan and the war film, and if Nolan keeps working in the non-fantasy space then it also points to fascinating work to come.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Beguiled


Virginia, 1864. A young girl named Amy (Oona Laurence) is picking mushrooms when she comes across a wounded Union Corporal named McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods outside her boarding school. Amy brings the Corporal to the school and their meeting is the beginning of Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, a drama of last chances and unspoken hopes made with Coppola's usual understatement and without an ounce of storytelling fat. Coppola is the second director to film Thomas Cullinan's 1960's-written novel, and while I haven't seen Don Siegel's 1971 version with Clint Eastwood it is hard to imagine Siegel elevating the emotional lives of women the way that Coppola does here. (A glance at the trailer for the Siegel version suggests a different take on the McBurney character.) In Colin Farrell's performance McBurney is whatever the women need him to be- he's a friend to young Amy, a conversation piece to Jane (Angourie Rice), and at first an irritation to headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) - but the woman who pins most of her hopes on the Corporal is the lonely teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).Coppola's screenplay never forgets that McBurney is a soldier in enemy territory, and Farrell's performance always carries the suggestion that McBurney is aware of what can be gained from each encounter with the women. When McBurney seems to achieve the upper hand after an act of violence the film points towards a bloody conclusion, but in the last shot Coppola reveals just where her priorities were all along.

Most of The Beguiled takes place inside the decaying mansion that now serves as Martha's school. Coppola puts all of the women in the same shot as often as she can, either in prayer or around the piano or at the dinner table. There is little camera movement until the film's last act, and the effect that Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd achieve is one of stasis. Martha and her charges are trapped with the war ending and the Union Army closing in, and the addition of McBurney to the household only pushes the women together further even as emotional fissures are exposed. Coppola and Le Sourd also chose to shoot in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which highlights the claustrophobia - we're always aware of how small the rooms are - and also evokes older films. As well-chosen as Coppola's visual strategies are, they wouldn't mean a thing if it weren't for her actors. Kirsten Dunst (who worked with Coppola in this) as Edwina achieves a moving plainness that I'm not sure she has ever been asked to play. Edwina, first seen teaching French to Alicia (Elle Fanning) and the older girls, sees McBurney as a way out and it's a tribute to Dunst that we're genuinely not sure she has ever imagined a different life before. McBurney seems to have feelings for Edwina, and when she begins to dress more boldly - wearing dresses that expose her shoulders - the effect is both touching and little awkward. Nicole Kidman plays Martha as a sharp knife under a blanket of good manners, and while I loved Dunst's performance I also wanted more of Kidman and Farrell together. The only performance I'm not sure of is Elle Fanning's as Alicia, who is moonstruck by attraction to McBurney but plays the character as a touch too pouty and modern.

The Beguiled ends with an image of Miss Martha and her girls together, having achieved a measure of freedom but still very much prisoners of the world around them. The shot probably carries more weight now than even Coppola intended, but it's also another strong choice by a director in superb control of her effects.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Baby Driver



In Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, style is a currency. The new crime film was shot in and supposedly takes place in Atlanta, but in Wright's conception the city takes on a sort of heightened flatness. It might as well be anywhere. The background is a dull mass of city streets so that the robbers pulling various jobs for Doc (Kevin Spacey) can pop and preen and zing each other while our hero known as Baby (Ansel Elgort) drives them away from the cops. The opening post-robbery chase is refreshing for how precise it is; we're right with Baby as he switches freeways and hides his car between two others of a similar make and color. Back at the hideout there's some figurative chest-bumping among the gang - I could have done with more from the robber played by Jon Bernthal - and we learn Baby's story. The accident that killed Baby's parents left him with tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that Baby drowns out by constantly playing his iPod. Baby also has a habit of recording the conversations of those around him and turning them into what the script generously calls "music", and if you're thinking that recording criminals might not be the smartest choice then this isn't your first time at the movies.

The character of Baby is anything the movie needs him to be at any given moment, but Edgar Wright forgot to write a person. Baby speaks less than any of the other major characters, but Ansel Elgort can't pull off the air of mystery required for Baby to win the heart of sweet-faced waitress Debora (Lily James). The robberies become more violent when Bats (Jamie Foxx) joins the crew, and Baby is upset by the violence until the film needs him to be able to commit violent acts to escape. (Baby Driver is very much a “last job” film.) Again, Elgort is too passive here. Even the celebrated wall-to-wall music – everything from Jonathan Richman to Young MC - is little more than a tic and a thing for characters to talk about. Baby’s musical taste is perfectly catholic and he seems to have almost no opinions about what he listens to. My favorite character in Baby Driver is Buddy (Jon Hamm), who robs to support a drug habit and his wife and fellow robber Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). Hamm – and Foxx too – both play their characters as if they know they’re in a genre movie, but Hamm adds a layer of worn-out menace. Buddy is the one character in Baby Driver who makes me believe that things are at stake. The energy and goodwill of Baby Driver are palpable, but Wright needed a better foundation below his shiny surface and an actor who could better hold the film’s center.