Category Archives: Biographical

“The Big Sick” Movie Review

Oh, come on. If I met someone as awesome and adorable as Emily, would I abandon my family and traditional ways of life just for her? You betcha. Produced by comedy legend Judd Apatow, this romantic comedy premiered to great reviews and accolades at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival before Amazon released it on June 23rd, 2017. It has earned back $25 million at the box office and rankings among several best-of-the-year lists by critics already. The R-rated story stars Kumail Nanjiani as a caricatured version of himself in a script that was co-written by him and his wife Emily V. Gordon. He’s a struggling stand-up comedian who is taken with a young white girl in Chicago. Coming from a conservative Pakistani family, he has to lie to them in order to keep them happy and also deal with tough love when Emily is put into a coma. Now he has to interact with Emily’s parents and wrestles with what he actually wants to do with his life. The romantic comedy has always been something of a hit or miss for me. For every 500 Days of Summer, we also get a stinker starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. If there were one genre in film that could be categorized as being the “easiest,” then I guess rom coms would probably take the cake. That being said, I am always willing to branch out and try new things, and in the case of The Big Sick, all of the advertisements promised me that it would be different. Thank God I listened. Previously best known for the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, Nanjiani is a wonderful discovery in this movie. He has a tender and wholesome presence that is punctuated by a rib-cracking sense of humor. He was funnier than Bo Burnham in this movie, which says something. One of his funniest moments is when he describes to an open-mic audience the “hierarchy” of jobs in Pakistan, with doctors at the top and comedian at the bottom- even below ISIS. Zoe Kazan is great as Emily, sharing great chemistry with her co-star and a strong personality. I mean really, anyone would ditch their loved ones just to spend time with her. Surprisingly, though, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter shine as Emily’s parents in their best roles in years. The only thing either of these two has done of note in the last 15 years were fun stints in animation; Hunter in The Incredibles and Romano in Ice Age, respectively. But here they give great performances as the parents, capturing the realism of a moment like this. In fact, I think it would be a fair bet to say that Romano qualifies for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. As far as technicality goes, there’s not much to say here. The soundtrack is filled with contemporary songs that feel appropriate to the moment. And some of Michael Andrews’ minimal score is fitting for some of the more emotional moments in the hospital. Most of it is just a bit of ambient strings and synthesizers. But what made me feel a bit warm inside was that the bits centered around the comedy club Kumail spends his nights at really felt real. Just the way the cinematography was shot and the atmosphere and even some of the hilarious routines made it feel as though I were sitting at a table watching an open-mic night. Kevin Hart tried to do this last year with the theatrical release of What Now? but it just came off as tacked on and commercialized. Here, director Michael Showalter uses those moments to help build characters and their quirky personalities. Where the film peaks, though, is the second act of the story when Emily gets sick and sent to the hospital. Normally, a romantic comedy, no matter how enjoyable or subversive it may seem, will ultimately subject to a formulaic structure that we’re all used to seeing. Guy and Girl meet for the first time, Guy and Girl hit it off, Guy and Girl have a nasty emotional fight, but in the end Guy and Girl get back together and live happily ever after. And this being a Judd Apatow production, it certainly seems like that’s how it’s going to go down. But the second act of The Big Sick dumps that structure down the drain and offers something highly original. It shifts the focus of Emily and Kumail over to Kumail and Emily’s parents and his parents as well. Even in 2017, cross-cultural relationships are still considered controversial, no matter how progressive your home may proclaim itself to be. Ever since 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, many auteurs of cinema have been trying to push the idea of interracial couples into the mind of the modern population. Even 2017’s Get Out had a similar sentiment on this issue, though that film had a bit of a more out-there premise that shook its head at realism. But even still, this film touches on that concept rather brilliantly. Kumail comes from a Pakistani from, a people who have the unfortunate distinction in America of heralding from the Middle East. While there are terrorist jokes abound in here, it mostly focuses on his unconventional home life. Arranged marriage is a common practice and you can’t argue against your family’s way of life. You have to become a doctor or a lawyer, and if you fail, you’ll be thrown out of the family and have all contact cut off from you. That’s tough. It’s not strictly speaking the best movie of the year, but The Big Sick is certainly the most original romantic comedy in years and one that packs some great laughs. It’s funny, relevant, different, and filled with some nice feel-good moments. What more could you want?

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“Dunkirk” Movie Review

Holy shit, that was so intense! This highly anticipated war thriller from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan was released internationally on July 21st, 2017, earning back $113 million in its opening five days. It is projected to gross even more than that and has the potential to do so. If the reports are true, Nolan wanted to make this film for many years but waited until he had enough experience in America to confront such a British topic. So in a way, it could be said that his entire career has been leading up to this movie when it finally entered production late in 2015. Based largely on a true story, (a first for the director) Dunkirk is set in World War II in 1940. 400,000 French and British soldiers have been trapped on a beach just 26 miles away from the coast of England. The Nazi army has completely surrounded them and is slowly encroaching on their position from every angle. But a distress call has been given out and now hundreds of pleasure yachts and fishing boats are riding across the English Channel in order to rescue as many of the soldiers as they can before it’s too late. To date, I have loved almost every single film Christopher Nolan has made, with The Dark Knight and Inception being among my all-time favorites. His storytelling is absolutely unparalleled by anyone else in Hollywood and consistently challenges wide audiences. So when I heard that he was making a thriller about one of the greatest miracles in human history, I was naturally excited to see what he would possibly put together. And now, Dunkirk can be added to the echelons of films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line of World War II films that can be studied and beloved for a new generation. That’s what this movie is. In fact, I’m convinced that it is a masterpiece. Let me just start off by saying that this film is not what you would call conventional filmmaking. It contains Nolan’s trademark of skipping around a timeline and providing little hints before coming back in a big emotional payoff. It is told through a triptych narrative, meaning that it is shown through three different perspectives. In this case, we get to see the action from the soldiers stuck on land, the destroyers and civilian boats rescuing at sea and the British fighter pilots from the sky. Often, a scene that occurs features a character that was previously seen in a different time of day, and can admittedly get a little confusing if you’re not paying close attention. In a way, it reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a plot structure so complicated that it doubles back if you don’t try and process everything. And the film looks and sounds gorgeous. Through the use of 65 mm IMAX cameras, the first-ever ones to be handheld, Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema really captured a wide, almost vérité-style look to it all. The color pallet is an interesting one as the focus on the beach, sky, and ocean creates a unique look at war, with one of my favorite shots being in the nighttime when a vessel is being burned asunder. I saw this movie in 70 mm, which created a bigger anamorphic frame. Much like Interstellar, this is one of those rare features which is perhaps best experienced at the theater rather than at home. Not to mention the incredible sound design. You can literally hear everything in each frame of the film, whether it’s the sound of a gunshot or that ticking clock. Whenever we went back to the beach and the German planes came swooping back in, you could hear them slowly screeching nearby. And unlike any jump scare from any horror movie, it was absolutely and terrifyingly effective. Continuing his long partnership with the director, Hans Zimmer composes the musical score for Dunkirk. And this soundtrack is so unlike any of his other work yet also strangely familiar. Combining electronic synthesizers with orchestral pieces once again, he does a great job at earning emotional responses without having to manipulate the audience. But he also uses diegetic sounds such as a ticking clock on a pocket watch and the waves of a beach. This effectively creates an immersive atmosphere. Much like his previous epics, this film features a large ensemble cast of great actors. Of them all, newcomer Fionn Whitehead is perhaps the one that can be called the lead, even in a cast that includes big names like Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Harry Styles. (Who was surprisingly good) But even so, he barely speaks a word of dialogue in the first half of the movie, hell, so do a lot of the other characters. It was intentional that this is almost like a silent film, but in doing so, many have complained about the character development or lack thereof. Nolan did, after all, warn his audience that they weren’t the concern for him, and I agree. This movie is about capturing a moment in time, a zeitgeist if you will. That moment was swift, horrific, terrifying, and almost hopeless. In war, a lot of people will die scared and alone, and do they always get satisfying arcs or a moment to shine or a time to get you emotionally invested in them? Not always. Instead, they do such a great job at immersing you in this moment and making you feel like you could be anyone of these characters. While some other war films have been greater at character development, Dunkirk is an immersive experience into the hell of war, and perhaps the most patriotic British film ever made. This is probably the best movie of the year so far, and now one of my favorite war films out there. Just be sure to manage your expectations.

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“The Lost City of Z” Movie Review

Sorry for the lateness. I just had to take a few showers after that war scene in the middle. Holy crap, that shook me. This biographical adventure drama from Amazon Studios made a splash at the New York Film Festival in 2016. After a run at a few more festivals, the film opened in the United States on April 17th, 2017, earning back rave reviews but less than half it’s $30 million. Written and directed by James Gray, and based on the nonfiction novel by David Grann, the PG-13 story follows the account of real-life explorer and British soldier Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam. After getting sent to Bolivia in 1901, he makes many more expeditions later to try and find an ancient lost city in the middle of the Amazon simply called Z. Essentially, this is a story about obsession and the consequences impending from it. The main protagonist is so determined to find this piece of civilization that may not even exist that he will sacrifice anything, including his marriage and relationship with his children, to prove its existence. But how do you show your fellow scholars that the indigenous people of the New World are capable of building foundations and structures infinitely more complex than those in England? What will you do if they ridicule your ideas and call your thesis a fraud? These are questions that James Gray poses in The Lost City of Z, but they’re not always answered. Rather, they show you these concepts and then leave you to discuss them on your way out of the theater. That kind of filmmaking is rare these days, as many directors are eager to share their interpretations of what it all means. Charlie Hunnam is masterful as Percy Fawcett. Beating out three other bigger names that dropped, he former Sons of Anarchy star shows a remarkable range with the complex protagonist, shifting from being an apathetic opportunist to a genuine man who cares about his crew and family. It’s not an easy transition, let alone to occur consistently throughout the picture, but Hunnam does it very nicely. In fact, I would dare submit his performance under consideration for Best Actor next January. By his side for a majority of the film are Sienna Miller as his independent wife and Robert Pattinson as a drunkard-turned loyal expedition partner, who are both great and relevant players. Their dichotomous relationship with Fawcett provided an interesting contrast to his split love: the jungle or his family. While several European character actors such as Angus Macfayden, Franco Nero, John Sackville, and Star Wars‘ Ian McDiarmid in key roles, Tom Holland felt some conflicted. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor and gives a good performance in this film. But as far as his character goes, being Fawcett’s oldest son, his relationship often felt contradictory and somewhat superficial. On a technical level, The Lost City of Z is visually stunning and gorgeous. The atmospheric shots of the jungle by Darius Khondji are contrasted by the stuffy and condensed space of the English socialite buildings. The fact that most everything was captured on film on location in South America is impressive enough for this epic. Speaking of film, one of the formats available for showing is in 35 mm print. I urge you, if possible, to see it in this format, as it adds to the immersion and overall feel of adventure. And boy, doesn’t it ever truly feel like one? The running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes notwithstanding, it’s clear that Gray takes some inspiration from epics of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Specifically, it looks like he took cues from the dramas of filmmaker David Lean and epics of his such as the amazing Lawrence of Arabia or earlier films like The Bridge on the River Kwai. From the massive amounts of extras for big set pieces to contemplative verbal moments, everything about this film feels old-fashioned, and that’s not a bad thing. James Gray has been dealing with subject matter he’s not familiar with before, so why not again? Despite all of these homages, there’s still something about The Lost City of Z that feels modern. One of those factors comes in the soundtrack, composed by Christopher Spelman. Unlike classic films, this one doesn’t feature a sweeping orchestral symphony in large scenes. Rather, it’s mostly based on a feeling of ambiance and nature. It felt very natural to the environment presented and added even more to the atmosphere of the Amazon. In fact, the sound design is so immersive, you will actually feel as if you are with Percy Fawcett and his expedition team in the jungle. Although the less patient and those wanting an answer may not find satisfaction, The Lost City of Z is still a sprawling piece of contemporary epic filmmaking. I think James Gray has crafted something very special here and Charlie Hunnam gives easily his best performance to date.

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“Lion” Movie Review

*I realize there are a plethora of December movies to review. This was just the first one I saw. More reviews will come out as they expand to wider releases. In any case, the Top 10 list will be posted by January 31st.*

So I have heard for a while now that a film about Google Earth has the ability to leave grown men bawling in the movie theater. Come to find out that even in the year 2016, the world can still surprise you. This critically-acclaimed emotional drama from director Garth Davis premiered November 25th, 2016, earning back just under $10 million as of New Years weekend. Don’t let the trailer fool you; this ain’t your typical, generic biopic that studios churn out every year. Based on the novel A Long Way Home, Lion tells the amazing true story of Saroo Brierley, a Lost Boy from India. In 1986, after falling asleep on an empty train car, he gets lost in the city of Calcutta before getting adopted by an Australian couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, respectively. 25 years later, adult Saroo still wonders about his real family’s whereabouts and discovers a brand new software program: Google Earth. And so he goes on a trip down Memory Lane, using this application to locate his biological family in India. That premise already sounds fantastic and is the primary reason I went to see it. However, the execution of the narrative is so brilliant and engrossing, you feel as though you are in the Jewel of Southeast Asia. Dev Patel plays the adult version of Saroo, and I cannot think of a better actor to play the part than him. Although his career has been relatively low-key since the release of Slumdog Millionaire, this is the movie that will get him more high profile attention. He plays a convincing young man who is just out of touch with his home and his family, desperately wanting to reconnect by any means necessary. Nicole Kidman really brings it as Saroo’s adoptive mother, who is desperately trying to keep her family strung together in the wake of Saroo’s discovery. There’s been buzz about her getting a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars later this month. When you watch it, it’s hard to tell who the better actor: her or Patel. Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka come together to give a great musical score to accompany the emotional tone of the movie. Though no particular track stand out in my head, it’s minimalist production of violins and piano melodies find the right balance between Western music and Bollywood music. Pop star Sia brings an original song to the table with her tune, “Never Give Up,” and after just one listen, you won’t want Saroo to do so. That and the movie looks absolutely gorgeous. Following up on his amazing work in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Grieg Fraser’s cinematography makes Australia and rural India look beautiful. Wide, birds-eye view shots of the big landscapes are contrasted well by intensely personal close-ups. In fact, I dare say that natural lighting was used for a few scenes, in the same vein as The Revenant. It seems crazy to think that this story really happened a few years ago, but it did and that alone is incredible. So many emotions swirl through the air as you watch this movie; hope, and despair, joy and sadness. It’s my personal opinion that the primary goal of Lion was to infuriate audiences at how often children in India go missing so that they may do something about it. In fact, at the very end of the movie, a text comes up on the screen explaining how 80,000 Indian boys and girls are lost every year. I would strongly encourage anyone who sees this movie to make a difference about that. And yeah, by the end of this movie, straight-up man tears. In case you didn’t catch it in the intro, this movie made me cry. It’ll make you cry as well, no matter how tough you say you are. If some people don’t at least WANT to cry by the time the story wraps up after 118 minutes, I feel bad for your robot state. In short, Lion is a super emotional ride of a true story. Not afraid to touch on themes of love, home, and finding your place in the world, this is one of the better made biopics I’ve seen in a while.

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“Jackie” Movie Review

Yeah, Natalie Portman. I see you going for the Oscar in this movie. Seriously, though, she should definitely get nominated for something. That woman is TALENTED! Pablo Larrain’s biographical drama earned critical acclaim and modest box office success after its premiere on December 2nd of 2016. Written by Noah Oppenheim, the plot focuses on the legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy, First Lady to the 35th President of the United States. Rather than showing her entire life over the course of three hours, this more or less concentrates on the media scrutiny she and her family fell under in the aftermath of J.F.K.’s assassination in 1963. Most of her story is told through an interview conducted by journalist Theodore White of Time Magazine.  And this story is both sad and very interesting to see unfold. Despite her brief stay in the White House, Jackie Kennedy is still considered one of the most famous First Ladies in the history of U.S. presidency. You really get the idea that the Kennedys were a highly publicized family, even after the horrible tragedy in Dallas. This is especially considering the new rise of television over radios in those days as the most relevant form of news and entertainment. In front of those cameras and on the screens most often was Jackie herself, putting on a graceful, beautiful, yet almost controlled appearance for the public. So now, after her husband has died, we get to see her when she isn’t so graceful and quite vulnerable. It makes her all the more human and genuine. I wasn’t lying in the beginning when I said that Natalie Portman could score an Oscar nomination for Best Actress this winter. In fact, if she actually won, I would be perfectly happy with the Academy’s decision. There is not a single actress they could have gotten to portray the titular character better, as she brings the right amount of warmth and sadness; not mention, she looks a lot like Jackie Kennedy. In one particular scene, she is on Air Force One wiping all of her husband’s blood and guts off her face while crying in front of a mirror. It felt totally genuine and I immediately sympathized with her. In the supporting cast, Billy Crudup is soft-spoken and understated as a patient reporter, John Hurt shines as a wise old Catholic priest, and Peter Saarsgard’s Robert F. Kennedy brings a bit of familial confliction between all of them. Everyone is relevant and believable in the story of this young woman’s struggle to cope with stardom and fame following a great tragedy. However, no one ever upstages Natalie Portman in this movie, no matter what. The camera work also deserves some commentary for its old school style and uniqueness. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography is very controlled and anamorphic, the most notable examples being when Jackie or another character are walking down the hallway in the White House. And that brings up another point worth mentioning: the costume design. One thing Jackie Kennedy is known for is that she revolutionized fashion for women in the 20th century, not just limited to the United States. And that influence is shown in this film; the costumes and outfits in Jackie are nothing short of beautiful and brilliant. Covering just about every color in the rainbow in the ladies’ dresses, the men have very polished dulce suits that make it really feel like we are in 1963. The biggest thing holding this movie back for me is the pacing. It felt pretty slow, uneven, and even choppy at times. The directing seemed to lack confidence at certain points in the middle act. I didn’t check my watch or anything, but about halfway through the movie, I started to yawn. Even though it was 99 minutes long, the pacing made it feel like just under 2 and half hours. I feel like this story could have been told a bit better if it were a miniseries on HBO, where you could also find excellent selections such as John Adams or The Pacific. But despite some pacing issues, Jackie is still a smart and compelling biopic about a historical figure who is often overlooked by her spouse. It features some great costumes, pretty camera work, and one of the best lead performances of the year. Natalie Portman will get nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards and will probably win.

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