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Sundance London 2017: The Big Sick

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Released: 28th July 2017

Directed By: Michael Showalter

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Hannah Woodhead

It’s hard to find a rom-com that’s truly original nowadays – Hollywood seems to churn them out every single week, but by and large, they’re predictable and forgettable and don’t bring anything new to the table. Luckily for all of us, The Big Sick does manage to do just that, perhaps because it’s based on a remarkable true story. Written by real-life couple Emily V Gordon and Kumail Nanijani about their courtship in Chicago, the story concerns star-crossed lovers Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) and Kumail (…played by Kumail) who meet and fall in love, only to find culture and ill-health get in the way.

It’s not a rom-com in traditional terms – in fact, The Big Sick deals with a lot of heavy ideas, such as life-threatening illness and the pressure to conform in a religious family. It does so with remarkable wit and grace, avoiding sentimentality or slipping into cliché territory by being refreshingly honest and even ugly at times. Kumail, playing himself, isn’t afraid to show his flaws, and as the central character of the film, it’s important that he does so – the film feels more credible for it. Zoe Kazan is a delight as Emily, the ray of sunshine who falls ill with a mystery illness, but she spends most of the film in a hospital bed, so you connect with her character purely through the eyes of Kumail and her parents, Beth and Terry, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism, and certainly Hunter and Romano are delightful to watch, warm and wise and protective of their daughter, giving nuanced performances that show the human side of their characters – in one great scene, they go to watch Kumail’s stand-up comedy and Hunter ends up in an argument with a frat boy heckler. However, it’s hard to make a romantic comedy in which you only really hear one side of the story. There is an attempt to address this towards the end of the film, but it feels a little rushed. Even so, that doesn’t detract from the rest of the film. It’s a cast full of brilliant comedic talent, but there’s also a lot of love in the story.

As well as navigating the difficulties of dealing with love in the times of mystery illness, the film addresses religion and race – Kumail struggles to live up to the expectations of his family, and faces being cut out of the family if he refuses to obey their wishes. You really get a sense of the turmoil that affects many young people who come from households with strict religious beliefs, torn between what their family want and what they want.

It’s a charming, incredibly funny story, beautifully written and skilfully directed by Michael Showalter – a rom com for people who hate rom coms, but like stories about people.

Journalist who spends most of her time professing her love for Oscar Isaac and Jeff Goldblum. The female version of Jay Sherman.

Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★

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Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

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There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Beautiful Boy ★★★★

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Released: 18th January 2019

Directed By: Felix Van Groeningen

Starring: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

It was his tender infatuation with Armie Hammer’s sun-kissed research assistant, in the exquisite Italy-set romance Call Me By Your Name, which allowed Timothee Chalamet to emphatically march into many a cinema goer’s heart. Now he seems determined to shatter them in this affecting portrait of a young man torn apart by crystal meth addiction, based on the best-selling memoirs written by David and Nic Sheff.

Fusing the separate father and son perspectives into a singular vision. Felix Van Groenigen’s Beautiful Boy plays out like a slideshow of a photo album, leaping between various stages of Nic’s (Timothee Chalamet) upbringing in San Francisco, with the emotional pulse of the film quickening as his troubles deepen.

Applying significant strain on his relationship with his dad David (Steve Carell), who goes to remarkable lengths to garner a thorough understanding of this drug epidemic and how it tortures one’s self in both body and mind, whilst his son struggles to articulate his emotions. It only ripples throughout the family unit, slowly severing the ties with stepmother Karen (Maura Tierney) and Nic’s LA-based birth mom Vicki (Amy Ryan). Encompassing them all is a real air of desperation, as they look to salvage their home life and drag their eldest back from the brink.

Arguably intentional to mirror the often disorientating state of Nic. The narrative structure adopted by Van Groenigen allows heady highs of intimacy and unflinching honesty, making continuous leaps within the time frame. Yet it does hamper the film’s early attempts to build emotional momentum, surprisingly leaving you distant as you look to engage in this family’s plight. The musical choices seem intent to compliment this approach too and whilst some are inspired in their beauty, there is the occasional song that creates a sense of intrusion.

A theme that is prominent throughout Beautiful Boy is the perception of control, established by Nic’s growing discontent towards David and Van Groenigen utilises this visually in its confined and open-aired spaces. One fine example being through an intense cafe exchange, as Nic laments the great expectations placed on him, with both figures captured at a lower angle to emphasise their descent into hopelessness. What becomes clear and almost tangible is Nic and David are both addicts in their own way, unable to break respective habits and methods in order to move forward.

The great comedian who for me has become superior in far more dramatic works. Steve Carell is quietly impressive as David, remaining remarkably centred as he’s driven down a road he never envisaged for his son. With such a sharp focus on the father/son dynamic, Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are somewhat sidelined, but both provide moments of potent poignancy when called upon. Of course, the film truly belongs to a stunning Timothee Chalamet who is fearless in representing the true horror and heartbreak of such a debilitating condition.

Brimming with sensitivity in its handling of an admittedly brutal subject matter. Beautiful Boy is painstakingly brilliant in its sincerity and authenticity.

To quote the trailer. When Carell and Chalamet share the screen. It’s… everything.

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Movie Reviews

Bad Times at the El Royale ★★★★

Bad Times at the El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp.

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Director: Drew Goddard

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman

Released: 12th October 2018 (UK)

Bad Times at the El Royale has seemingly fallen foul of the particularly hectic October release schedule in the U.K. As Venom and A Star is Born dominate the box-office and with the London Film Festival in full swing, El Royale has not received the recognition it deserves.

Boasting an impressive cast, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers whose stories intertwine at the El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe. As each person’s agenda for being at the El Royale is revealed, tensions inevitably rises and the characters collide.

From the get-go, El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp. Director Drew Goddard, no stranger to managing madness following his debut A Cabin in the Woods, has crafted an immersive, intricately linked murder-mystery that feels like a grindhouse version of Cluedo. The violence is garish but necessary, the dialogue is short and snappy and the characters are most importantly, interesting. The hardest part of any film with so many moving parts, is making the audience actually bond with those involved. Goddard, who also wrote the screenplay, has nailed this – giving enough back-story for each, whilst holding enough back to keep us learning more.

Between Jeff Bridge’s bad-ass priest, Dakota Johnson’s kill-happy hippy and Chris Hemsworth’s dancing cult-leader, the wider cast have somehow managed to create a credible on-screen dynamic, despite the stark character contrasts. Cynthia Erivo’s soulful singer Darlene is the obvious standout and her interactions with Bridge’s Father Flynn provide some of the most film’s most satisfying scenes. Lewis Pullman’s unassuming concierge Miles is another strong performance deserving of a mention.

The film swaggers along accompanied by its killer soundtrack, which plays a crucial part in the films tonal change from chapter to chapter. It’s dark and violent, yet at times it’s engaging and even emotional. The sharp edits that mash-up the timeline don’t over-complicate the plot, but accentuate the frenzied feeling that Goddard is creating as we head towards the plot’s crescendo.

As expected there are some areas where a film with so much going on inevitably suffers. Jon Hamm’s Seymour is arguably the biggest victim of this, with his character perhaps not utilised as much as it could have been. The film also feels a little too fleshed out in parts, lingering on some of the less necessary aspects and leaving one or two plotlines unexplored as a result.

Bad Times at the El Royale really does feel like a Tarantino movie and that’s no mean feat, Goddard has taken his own style and applied tried and tested techniques to create a compelling, genuinely exciting movie and one that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

 

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