Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Big Sick

The Big Sick

What to make of a romantic comedy that, on the surface, appears similar to a hundred other romcoms?  This critically acclaimed indie is a bit different.  Backed by (Judd) Apatow Productions, it has a strong pedigree, and it was written by stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, chronicling their courtship (at this junction, is it a spoiler to say it has a happy ending?).  The Big Sick also walks two tightropes.  First, it addresses Nanjiani's immigrant struggle to assimilate his young adult American lifestyle with his family's traditional Pakistani culture and do it without becoming preachy or political; second, as the title suggests, it faces Emily's mortal struggle with a life-threatening illness without becoming maudlin.  It mostly succeeds on both counts.

One night, as he is performing his stand-up act at a small comedy club, Kumail gets involved in a cute exchange about the nature of heckling with a young woman, who turns out to be Emily (Zoe Kazan).  They hit it off immediately, but such is the nature of romcoms, neither is in the market for a relationship at the moment.  She is a grad student in psychology at the University of Chicago and he is trying to get his comedy act off the ground while making ends meet as an Uber driver.  Yet they can't stay away from each other (and she always has a ride home).  As their relationship grows, so does their commitment.  But so does a secret Kumail harbors: his traditional Pakistani family wants her to meet a traditional Pakistani girl.  His dinner-time visits to his parents' home are as awkward as they are transparent, given his mother's "Look who just happened to drop in" matchmaking, but they also point up the cultural dilemma he faces, and it soon becomes a matter of choosing between family and love.  Kumail is afraid of telling Emily about his family, and he cannot tell them about her.  The time for an easy explanation long past, when the truth comes out, the secret becomes a lie Emily cannot tolerate, and she breaks off the relationship.

Time goes by, and both are moving on, but then the dilemma announced in the title occurs.  Emily is stricken by a puzzling illness, one that is life-threatening.  Kumail is the first to the hospital, but soon Emily's parents arrive.  Terry (Ray Romano), tact-challenged for a college English professor, and Beth (Holly Hunter), a straight-shooting Southern woman who was raised in a military family intent to pick up the baton from Kumail and have him go on with his life.  But Kumail won't go away.  It is here where the main course of the film is served, as Kumail, the man who broke their little girl's heart, tries to justify his presence, Beth vacillates between fretting and confronting, and Terry awkwardly plays peacemaker, trying to understand Kumail's position while trying to avoid Beth's underlying wrath directed at him.  This is also where the dual-tightropes converge: the journey from alienation to understanding even as Emily's life hangs in the balance--and to do it all with humor and grace.

The film started off slowly, and initially, only some of the jokes landed--it's hard to tell whether or not this was intentional because a significant part of the first act takes place in comedy clubs among comics, some of whom with greater aspirations than talent.  Nanjiani and Kazan are a cute couple, and they bring believable romantic chemistry, and his Pakistani family is as likeable as it is stereotypical: Azmat (Anupham Kher), the reasonable but henpecked father; Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), the no retreat, no surrender mother; and Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), the "good" brother who dutifully grew a beard and married a Pakistani girl.  But the scene--and movie--stealers are Romano and Hunter.  Like the comedy veterans they are, they inhabit their roles, making their line-delivery organic, thus taking a sometimes uneven screenplay to heights that might even earn awards.  Director Michael Showalter, a long-time comedy writer, takes on his biggest project to date and earns even bigger ones in the future.
8.0 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Will challenge for a number of Indie "Spirit" Awards; Possible Golden Globe - Best Picture, Comedy/Musical, Screenplay; AMPAS Original Screenplay a long shot)

The Little Hours

The Little Hours

When The Little Hours opened at Sundance, Catholic League president Bill Donohue flatly stated, "It is Trash. Pure Trash."  It is telling that Writer-Director Jeff Baena and Producer-Star Aubrey Plaza used the quote to highlight the movie's marketing campaign on their movie poster.  Such is the anarchic but good-natured irreverence emblematic in this little satire, loosely based on several stories from Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century work, The Decameron.

It is 1349, and in a remote convent in Tuscany we meet three nuns unlike any Catholic sisters you ever met: Allesandra (Alison Brie) is in the convent until her daddy can acquire the dowry that will fetch her a good husband, Ginerva (Kate Micucci) is a slightly deranged suck-up, and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) is the mean and snarky alpha-nun.  They spice up the daily tedium of embroidery and laundry duty by bullying the handyman, spying on each other, engaging in sexual fantasies, and other, more secretive, pastimes.  All of this occurs under the benign and clueless noses of Mother Superior Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) and the Father Tommasso (John C. O'Reilly).

When the handyman finally has had enough and quits, Tommasso lucks into a replacement: Massetto (Dave Franco), a servant on the run from the paranoid Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), who has discovered Massetto in flagrante delicto with his wife Francesca (marvelously sarcastic Lauren Weedman).  To protect the new handyman from the three sisters' abuse, Father Tommasso comes up with the dubious idea of having Massetto pretend to be a deaf mute.  The priest's plan, of course, goes awry when the sisters set eyes on the handsome young Massetto and realize the opportunity his inability to speak presents to their blasphemous machinations.  Things kick into high gear when Fernanda's friend, the wild Marta (Jemima Kirke) visits the convent, and peaks with the surprise arrival of Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen).

For a limited budget indie, The Little Hours has big budget production values.  Dan Romer's score establishes both period and mood while Quyen Tran's cinematography elicits a sunny, earthy pastoral beauty that belies the ongoing shenanigans.  Speaking of contradictions, the humor draws largely from an anachronistic pairing of characters using contemporary American dialect with a story set during the Middle Ages.  Adding to the fun, Baena has gathered some of today's most gifted comics and given them a script that is little more than a general outline then urged them to improvise, thus allowing each actor's idiosyncratic personality to emerge full-blown.  The end result is something approaching the subversive wit of Monty Python with nearly the same zany antics of the Mel Brooks gang.  To say The Little Hours falls short of those classic ensembles is not a put-down; quite the opposite, it is a compliment to its aspirations that it set the bar so high and then went for it.  We hope this group reunites for further efforts in the future.
8.0 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
5.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Cinematography a long shot possibility)

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