It (2017)

I wanted It to be scarier. It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve stumbled out of a theater with that peculiar joy of a good horror movie: the combination of gratitude that a film is over and satisfaction at having survived it. Maybe my expectations were too high. The original It always held a special place in my heart as the pinnacle of horror movies. When I was five, my cousin had me watch it during a family gathering, and I couldn’t take a shower for days without one of my parents standing guard at the door. Walking into It, I was hoping for even a fraction of that fear. Nothing has ever scared me as much as Tim Curry’s Pennywise the clown. Today, I can remember the fear, but I can’t feel it anymore.

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It is a film all about taking its audiences back to their childhood fears. Adapted from a Stephen King novel of the same name, the film follows a group of misfit preteens in the 1980s as they investigate the many disappearances of children in their small town. This search eventually brings them into conflict with Pennywise the clown, a sinister, supernatural character who abducts children. Even as they battle Pennywise, they must contend with the horrors of growing up among bullies and broken homes. It’s clear, with a plot like this, that the film is relying on the potent combination of nostalgia and fear to take adults back to the simpler fears of childhood. It tries to tap into our experience of hanging out with friends during an endless summer vacation in an effort to recreate the fears that we were on the cusp of growing out of at that age.

Our fears as children are fundamentally different from our fears as adults. As a kid, fear’s centered around the supernatural. There are monsters under beds. There are ghosts in the attic. There are witches in the dark woods. As we grow older, our fears grow rooted in the realities of our lives. I’m now terrified of cancer and failure and rejection, not sewer dwelling clowns with shark teeth. My fears now are, at once, less acute and more permanent. I don’t think that my job is going to pop out of my closet and kill me tonight, but a hug from my mom won’t make the persistent dread melt away either. In that way, just like any stimulus we experience too often, the fears of adulthood are enervating. The fears of childhood, on the other hand, are exhilarating and life affirming. The fear comes in a rush and lifts immediately, leaving a new appreciation for safety and life. That’s what I want from a horror movie.

              So, does It capture this brand of thrilling fear that adulthood has tossed by the wayside? No. There are creepy mansions, blood spewing from drains, and contortionist clowns with pointy teeth. Unless you have coulrophobia (a fear of clowns), the imagery is often macabre and entertaining, but fails to tap into a feeling of existential threat that was so commonly evoked in childhood. In fact, the most frightening moments are, instead, the real-world terrors of domestic violence and bullying inflicted on some of the young protagonists. There are certainly tense moments that will have you grabbing the arms of your seat, but these moments are more akin to the thrills in an action movie than the scares one wants in a horror film. In fact, it’s hard to describe It as a horror film at all. It has elements of the horror genre, but treads much closer to tween adventure movies of the eighties like Stand By Me or The Goonies, and modern retreads like Stranger Things.

When evaluated as an eighties inspired tween adventure, It is largely a success. This sub-genre depends almost entirely on the chemistry between a film’s young protagonists and It’s self-styled “Losers’ Club” succeeds in this respect. The banter between the seven members of this group is both charming and believable. In particular Finn Wolfhard, as the wisecracking Richie, Jack Dylan Grazer, as the anxious Eddie, and Sophia Lillis as the adventurous Beverly, stand out. Beverly, in particular, who is subjected to terrifying abuse at the hands of her father, displays great range as she veers from dramatic to comedic to action packed scenes throughout the film. Watching this group of kids horsing around and embarking on adventures helped me relive the joys of a part of my life, the details of which are growing increasingly hazy.

In fact, I could watch this group of kids embark on any adventure and come away feeling just like I did coming out of It. That’s the problem. The film is put together competently, but other than the kids at its center, nothing stands out. The story, although apparently much beloved, is pedestrian, at least in this version for the screen. Other than the Losers’ Club, the performances are predictable and uninteresting. Bill Skarsgard, who plays Pennywise, for example, must have been cast exclusively for his ability to curl his lower lip into an unnatural arc. The gang of bullies that torture the Losers’ Club is similarly bland, even though the film halfheartedly attempts to humanize them. The visuals, too, are standard horror fare. It relies on the kind of horror imagery that we’ve seen for decades.

It is competently made. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. At times, it’s tense. It’s certainly not a horror classic. I had hoped that It would remind me what it was like to be afraid as a kid. It didn’t. The horror elements of the film aren’t anything we haven’t seen a hundred times before. Instead, the film reminded me of the fun I used to have on long summer days as I biked around town with my friends. It is not a perfect film by any means, but it’s ability to evoke these fading memories is worth the price of admission.

Columbus

The foregrounds of our lives are so full of motion that we forget to attend to those things that aren’t constantly in flux. The assiduous buzz of work and obligation and society deflects our attention from the backdrop of life. And as we remain distracted, that background ossifies into a fixture, permanent and forgotten. The job, the family, the friends, the lifestyle. Our relationships to them become immutable beneath the stream of daily existence. We can’t even imagine a different life until a light is shone on its background, revealing that so much relies on what we’ve grown to neglect.

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Columbus, the directorial debut of video essayist Kogonada, is a film all about the backgrounds of people’s lives. Set in Columbus, Indiana, a small town widely recognized for its treasure-trove of modern architecture, the film follows Jin (John Cho), a Korean literary translator who’s visiting to care for his comatose architect father, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a bright, recent high-school graduate who works at the library and lives with her mom rather than attending college. Through a series of conversations, the two come to difficult realizations about their lives.

More than any movie I’ve ever seen, Columbus is about drawing the viewer’s attention to the background. Kogonada combines his eye for framing with the rectilinear lines of the modern architecture of the town of Columbus to create shots that have an unusual depth. In scene after scene, my eye strolled from plane to plane within the frame. While Jin and Casey discuss their lives in leisurely static shots, our gaze is encouraged to wander across the asymmetrical façade of Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church or get lost in the concrete grid beams on the ceiling of I.M. Pei’s Bartholomew County Public Library. While these buildings are striking, Casey, who loves the buildings, points out that the residents of Columbus rarely notice them. To most of the people who grew up among these treasures, these buildings are simply background. Through the discerning eye of Kogonada and his architecture-loving protagonist Casey, viewers are encouraged to meditate on these buildings instead of ignoring them in favor of action in the foreground.

At the same time, both Richardson and Cho deliver wonderful performances as people who feel stuck in their own lives. They’ve grown so accustomed to their lives as they are that they don’t realize what else their lives could be. Jin, in his chilly relationship with his father, won’t see that, even with his father in a coma, it’s not too late to take some time away from a grueling work schedule and make amends. Casey, on the other hand, feels unable to leave her mother and go to college on the East Coast because she feels obligated to care for her mother. Even with a bright future staring her in the face, she can’t imagine moving away to a different life. In both cases, the characters feel stuck because they keep ignoring the backgrounds. They don’t pay attention to the most significant parts of their lives because they’ve been that way for as long as they can remember. Instead they continue to deal with day-to-day distractions. Richardson and Cho, in a pair of restrained performances, communicate a sense of ennui that matches the perpetually ignored architectural masterpieces of Columbus, Indiana. As the film unfolds at a stately pace, it draws our attention to the things that ordinarily remain unnoticed.

In the end, though, Columbus isn’t a film about being stuck in the setting of one’s life. Instead it’s a movie about paying attention to what’s around us. Columbus, Indiana is a town full of architectural treasures that remain largely unappreciated; Casey’s life is one full of opportunities that are far more attainable than they seem; and Jin’s father is right there in a hospital bed, even if he’s felt so distant to Jin for so long. But a jolt can make us see the world anew. It can bring the background to our attention. It might be a crisis, like Jin’s father’s coma. It might be a chance encounter, like Casey’s improbable friendship with Jin. In Columbus, we see that sometimes all we need to move on in life is to direct our gaze at what we habitually ignore, for somewhere in that background, a new piece of the foreground is hidden in plain sight.    

mother!

Some movies are focused on plotting. Others are focused on character. mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest, is, instead, focused on a feeling: helplessness. The film centers around a couple living an isolated but seemingly bucolic existence in a beautiful old house. The woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is gradually fixing up the house while her husband, Javier Bardem, struggles to write a follow up to a successful book of poems he published years ago. When they take in a stranger for the night, their world begins to unravel. And boy does it unravel. As the film progresses, we’re presented with increasingly bizarre plot twists accompanied by increasingly grotesque and disturbing imagery. Some will walk out of the film, disgusted by what they’ve witnessed. Others will become fully immersed in the film, and puzzle over its significance for days. No one’s going to be leaving this film without some strong feelings on what they’ve just witnessed.

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Anyone familiar with Aronofsky’s work won’t be surprised that the film elicits a strong response. His films have often veered into the realm of nightmare as they struggled to depict challenging topics like addiction and mental illness. Throughout his body of work, Aronofsky has worked to develop a cinematic language for depicting the subjective experiences of characters as they experience psychological issues like paranoia, hallucinations, and depression. His films often feature careful sound design and surreal visuals in an attempt to use the inherently representational nature of live action cinema to portray the realities of people that don’t see things like the rest of us. mother! is no different. In this case, Aronofsky has decided to tackle the headspace of a woman who’s driven insane as she’s buffeted by forces outside of her control. Even as she rages against the progressively more preposterous string of indignities that she’s subjected to, she’s unable to do anything about them.

mother!, being so centered on the subjective experience of a single person, is uniquely dependent on its lead. The camera is focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s face for at least half the movie, capturing the minutest of details. For her part, Lawrence delivers a stellar performance in what must have been a grueling filming process. In a career that’s included some memorable roles, her performance in mother! is, without a doubt, her best so far. Her ability to subtly express a full range of extreme emotions is remarkable, and Aronofsky takes full advantage.

For much of the film, Aronofsky, too, takes full advantage of Lawrence’s performance. By having her face dominate the frame so often, Aronofsky effectively traps the audience with the character and her mental state. As the film grows increasingly chaotic, he intentionally places viewers within the same sense of confusion that Lawrence’s character is experiencing. Instead of relying on traditional establishing shots, for many of the most chaotic scenes, Aronofsky only shows us snippets of the action as the camera turns away from Lawrence for a split second to give us only a glimpse of what’s going on. He leaves the viewer intentionally frustrated, just like Lawrence’s character. In this way, Aronofsky, at times, is highly effective at getting the audience to see the world through the protagonist’s subjective experience. A combination of deft cinematography, sound design, and imagery combine to provide viewers with a window into insanity like none other.

Unfortunately, at times, the film crosses the line into indulgence. Aronofsky is at his best when he grounds the madness of his films in reality. He takes insanity, by definition impossible for a sane person to comprehend, and builds a bridge to it through his movies. The effect is emotional resonance between the audience and a protagonist in the grips of madness. Unfortunately, his love for surreal imagery leads to scenes which demolish this carefully built bridge in favor of symbolism and cinematic flair. At these moments, all the hard work put in by Lawrence to credibly portray her state of mind, crumbles beneath the weight of showy film making.

Many people, Aronofsky included, will talk about the symbolism present in mother!, but trying to puzzle through the meaning of this film is to miss the strengths of this film. Yes, the film does appear to be an allegory exploring modernity and religion and ideology and motherhood and creativity, but it has nothing new to say in those domains. It’s all second-rate rehashing of wiser social commentaries. It’s pretentious. The film, instead, at its heights, is the best entry yet in Aronofsky’s ongoing mission to portray the subjective experience of insanity. He still hasn’t gotten the formula right, but with each release that explores these themes, his film making matures. I have faith that someday Aronofsky will perfect his craft, as long as his ego doesn’t get in the way.

Logan Lucky

Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to the heist movie. With the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, he created a slick crime caper that reflected the ethos of the early 21st century. Before the current political rancor and the great recession, we lived in a world that felt like the good times would never end. Our home prices would keep rising. Our economy would keep growing. The Dow Jones Industrial Average would keep setting records. In Ocean’s Eleven, the criminals are smooth operators stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from millionaires and glitzy casinos. Everything is clean. Everything is crisp. Everything twinkles like a fine diamond. Nothing feels weighty or consequential. The films serve as a fantasy for a society that believes that it’s growing wealthier all the time.

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In Logan Lucky, Soderbergh returns to the world of elaborately planned heists. Only this time, he’s taken the fundamentals of the comic, team heist film he perfected in the Ocean’s movies and swaps out all the details. The suave career criminals are replaced with blue collar folks that are just trying to get by. Las Vegas and the gleaming capitals of Europe are replaced with West Virginia. Casinos are replaced with a NASCAR speedway. The riches accrued from gambling are replaced with the riches accrued from selling hotdogs and beer. The film centers around the preternaturally unlucky Logan family. When Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) loses his job as a construction worker due to bureaucratic indifference, he teams up with his one-armed bar tender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and his hair dresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to rob the local NASCAR speedway. They gather a team of misfits including Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a jailed explosive expert, and his two brothers and get to work. Through this change in setting, it’s clear that Soderbergh is trying to create a heist movie that’s a reflection of modern America rather than a paean to a lost past of excess. This is a fantasy for an America that’s lost its confidence rather than the America that saw riches stretching to the horizon.

At its core, though, Lucky Logan is still a heist movie that’s built upon the bones of Ocean’s Eleven. It’s slick, it’s entertaining, it’s clever, and it’s frivolous. You might puzzle for a moment or two about how they pulled off the heist as you walk out to your car, but the Logan family and their troubles will evaporate from your consciousness before you get home. It’s the kind of entertainment that you want after a hard week at work. At that level, the film works for the most part. Sure, there are some bizarre loose ends. I still can’t figure out why the film devotes any time to Seth MacFarlane’s British billionaire NASCAR owner Max Chilblain or his NASCAR driver Dayton White (Sebastian Stan). Their subplot, as far as I can tell, has nothing significant to do with the rest of the movie. The film also has an odd structure which has its action in the middle followed by an extended denouement that feels clumsy and aimless at times. Still, despite these problems, the film’s a good time.   

Unfortunately, while this formula is tried and true, it’s also the fundamental flaw of the film. It turns out that the kind of light weight fun that made the Ocean’s movies successful relies upon the relatively carefree spirit of their settings. They’re fun precisely because everything in them is so inconsequential. Who cares if a hundred million dollars goes missing from a casino? As long as we can see George Clooney looking suave in his thousand-dollar suit and concocting a Rube Goldberg machine for moving money out of a bank vault we’re all having fun. Transplant that attitude to a group of down-trodden folks in middle America and you have an awkward mismatch. There’s something uncomfortable about watching a movie where much of the humor involves laughing at people with difficult lives. In Ocean’s Eleven, I could laugh at the quirks of the various characters and feel okay about it. There was a sense that these people chose to live this life. Watching Logan Lucky, I worried that I may be laughing at West Virginians the way I might laugh at a bear riding a tricycle. Is this movie venerating these people or making fun of them? It’s one thing to assemble a motley crew of weird career criminals and laugh at their quirks. It’s another to assemble a bunch of down on their luck working people and laugh at their idiocy. Unfortunately, that’s what this movie does. While many of the characters ultimately turn out to be highly competent, much of the humor of the film is derived from playing on stereotypes of West Virginians. Nowhere is this more evident than with Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) Bang, the brothers of demolitions expert Joe Bang. Practically every scene they’re in invites the audience to laugh at the worst stereotypes of the West Virginian working class. You just can’t make a movie that’s thematically centered around the troubles of rural America while making fun of the inhabitants of rural America.

I stopped drinking Coke regularly years ago. Every time I drink one now, I enjoy the taste, but the sugar leaves a gross aftertaste that I desperately need to wash away with a glass of water. That’s how I felt about Lucky Logan as well. I was having fun as I watched the movie. Adam Driver’s weird affectation was charming. The Bangs, with their hillbilly accents and mores elicited a chuckle or two. The interaction between Jimmy Logan and his daughter (Farrah MacKenzie) warmed the cockles of my heart. I felt a twinge of discomfort here and there as I laughed at those crazy hillbillies. It was only upon leaving the theater that I noticed a twinge of guilt coloring my opinion of the film. I knew I had been laughing at people for not being as fortunate as me. I washed away my guilt with a Belgian-Style Beer with notes of Banana and Clove.

The Trip to Spain

Lots of movies explore teenage life. Plenty depict early adulthood. A fair number of movies focus on being old. Few focus on middle age. There’s just something inherently dull about the years between 40 and 65. You’re not falling in love for the first time. You’re not figuring out who you are. You’re not making your name. You’re not dying. You’re not trying to figure out the story of your life as you gaze at death. No. You’re going to work. You’re raising kids. You’re paying bills. You’re in the middle, between the exuberance and anxiety of youth and the reflection and uncertainty of old age. Life is more stable and predictable and boring. At least that’s how middle age is generally depicted in culture. Once in a while, though, someone will come along and make a movie that maps a little more of this territory. The Trip to Spain is one of these movies.

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The Trip to Spain is the third film in The Trip series, and reunites comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon with director Michael Winterbottom for another gustatory road trip. The set up for the film is identical to the previous entries in the series. Just like The Trip and The Trip to Italy, The Trip to Spain again sees Coogan and Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves driving around the countryside together while eating at fancy restaurants, bickering, and doing impressions of celebrities. Of course, everyone familiar with this series knows that the set up is simply an excuse to watch this duo interact.

Going into the film, I was concerned that the repetitive set up of the films would make the third entry stale. The first film felt like a fresh take on the buddy road trip film. The frenemy dynamic of these two whip smart comedians combined with an unusual level of depth in its protagonists created a fascinating character study of two successful men and their diverging paths through life. The film was at once hilarious, melancholy, and insightful. By the third repetition of this formula, it would be easy for a successful series to fall into a complacent pattern. Thankfully The Trip to Spain does no such thing. Central to the success of this film is the continuously evolving characters of Coogan and Brydon. These characters change between films just as they change in real life. By the start of this movie, Brydon is settling into a comfortable middle age, complete with the joys and struggles of child rearing. He’s comfortable with the state of his career as a comedian and television personality famous in Britain. Coogan, on the other hand, has found tremendous global success, particularly with the Oscar nominated Philomena. Unlike Brydon, he’s still living a bachelor lifestyle, although he’s yearning for something more, and is constantly looking for ways to advance his career.

These characters have come a long way since the original The Trip, from six years ago. In that film, the duo was on a largely equal footing career-wise, Coogan was a happy bachelor, and Brydon was still getting accustomed to being a new father. Similar to the Before trilogy from Richard Linklater, the Trip films serve as a check-in with their characters as they journey through life. By examining these characters and their interactions over and over again through time, we can see their lives unfold in all their messy complexity. Each entry offers a new vantage point from which to view Brydon and Coogan and life as a whole.

It’s a fun vantage point too. Brydon and Coogan, as they continually try to out-do one another, make for a hilarious duo. Spending a couple of hours in their company is a true pleasure. Sure, Byrdon is obnoxious and Coogan is vain, but the mixture of those personalities is part of the charm. Brydon is continuously needling Coogan, who in turn is perpetually trying to prove his comic superiority to Brydon. In the end, though, these films would feel hollow and lifeless if it were all about two bickering men competing to be funnier. The film succeeds because it intersperses and integrates this humor with genuine moments of humanity. It explores how these two men, of similar age but vastly different mindset, navigate life. Whether that means a compassionate glance, an awkwardly timed joke, or a private moment with a mirror, over the course of this film, we start to understand that the varieties of middle aged life are just as fascinating, varied, and active as the other, more commonly explored life-stages. I walked away from The Trip to Spain wondering how I’ll see the world when I’m middle aged. Will I be obsessed with my career? Will I be content with my life? Am I a Brydon or a Coogan? I guess I have twenty years to find out.

Wind River

There's something special about the desolation of cold, remote places. At once, they produce a sense of awe and alienation. Perhaps an expanse of snow under a grey sky creates a sense of standing in a vast nothingness. Or maybe it brings into focus the awesome, uncaring power of nature. Whatever the case, as I sat in a dark theater watching a murder mystery unfold in the vast wilderness of rural Wyoming, I was filled with melancholy wonder. How can people survive in a place that’s so cold that their lungs can literally freeze if they breathe too quickly? How can people live in place that’s hundreds of miles from the opportunities and amenities of the nearest city? According to Wind River, the latest film from writer-director Taylor Sheridan not everyone does survive this harsh environment.

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Taylor Sheridan has always been fascinated with the rugged and lawless hinterlands of America. In his last two outings as screenwriter, in Sicario and Hell or High Water, he explored the blazing hot desolation of rural Texas. For his first major outing as director, he shifts to the deep freeze of winter at the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. The film centers on animal tracker Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner). When he discovers the body of a dead Native American girl in the middle of nowhere on the rugged Wind River Indian Reservation, the FBI is called in to assist. Now, teaming up with rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) and Bureau of Indian Affairs Police officer Ben (Graham Greene), he must get to the bottom of a murder that shares disturbing similarities with events from his past.              

While Wind River begins with the circumstances surrounding the murder of a teenage Native American girl, it quickly broadens into something much larger. Why do some people give up hope while others continue to dream? Why do people continue to live when their lives are full of grief and suffering? The film uses the vast expanse of the winter wilderness of Wyoming and its largely Native American inhabitants to explore these weighty questions. As we follow the protagonists around the reservation, we see the many forms that life can take in these harsh hinterlands. Through these people and their stories, the quotidian struggle for life comes into stark relief. Some people shrink into nihilism in the face of the challenges of life. Others plod forward even though they may not understand why. It’s a challenge that all of us face at one point or another in life. The power of this film stems from its use of the harsh conditions of the Wind River Indian reservation to engage in a humanist exploration of the meaning of life.

Everything comes together perfectly to serve the film’s lofty themes. The acting, on the part of the protagonists as well as the wider cast, is uniformly excellent. When I first saw Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, back in 2009 I was expecting great things, but I haven’t been impressed since. Here, finally, he’s cast in the perfect role. His masculine confidence perpetually suffused with a patina of gloom reflects the ethos of the community he’s in. Elizabeth Olsen, too, captures the gradual realization of the true cruelty of life for some. The broader cast, too, creates a world that feels fully realized. The vast natural landscape that looms throughout the movie, also plays an important character. Here, cinematographer Ben Richardson, following his wonderful work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, captures the sublime winter landscape, effectively setting the overall tone of the film.

If Wind River has one flaw, it’s in the pacing of the plot. The film takes care to develop its characters and setting in the first two thirds of the film, but rushes its final act. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter too much. This isn’t a movie that’s constructed to keep you guessing. It’s not a movie that thrills with action sequences or thrilling moments. Instead, it’s a meditative film that elicits contemplation. As I left the theater after watching Wind River on a bright August day, I was left with the feeling that autumn was right around the corner. Before long, the leaves will fall away and the ground will freeze. It will be winter here in Chicago again, where I can get a small taste of nature’s indifference towards me. Of course, I’ll be sitting behind double-paned glass in a heated apartment drinking a warm cup of tea.

The Big Sick

The problem I have with most romantic comedies is that I just don’t give a damn. Two people meet, they get along but things are a bit rocky, and then in the end, they get together. What do I care if a couple’s personalities clash? The best romantic comedies aren’t really about whether a couple will get together or not. Instead they use that framework to highlight issues more universal than the quirks of an obscenely good-looking couple. Thankfully, The Big Sick takes this approach, and in the process, creates a unique romantic comedy that’s entertaining, illuminating, and strikingly modern.

The Big Sick is based on the real-life story of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan). Kumail, who immigrated from Pakistan when he was young, comes from a family that expects him to marry a Pakistani girl. When he gets together with Emily, who is white, this cultural difference causes significant tensions. When Emily falls into a coma, Kumail meets Emily’s parents and is forced to come to terms with the conflict between his love for Emily and the expectations of his family.

In a genre polluted by the worst kind of derivative garbage, this film feels fresh. Rather than focus on the foibles of a couple, the film zooms out to larger social contexts: family and culture. As I learned shortly after getting married, even a couple that’s truly in love can be put under extreme strain by outside forces. This is doubly so when families come from different cultural backgrounds. The Big Sick covers this dynamic with a startling degree of compassion. There aren’t any evil parents here. There are only parents who are trying to do right by their children. Kumail’s parents truly believe that marrying a Pakistani woman is best for him. Emily’s parents truly believe that Kumail can’t possibly be good for Emily if he gives in to pressure from his parents. The movie isn’t about who’s right or wrong. It’s about how Kumail and Emily navigate this surfeit of unwanted good intention from their families. Alongside the family dynamics, the film also captures the difficulties facing many Asian Americans who came of age in the US with parents who grew up abroad. The film lovingly explores how Kumail struggles to balance respect for his parents and culture with a more typically American lifestyle. All of these topics come together to create a romantic comedy that has a lot to say about love in modern America.

Of course, none of this exploration would be worth anything if the movie were a slog. That’s definitely not the case. This film oozes with wit, charm, and at times, pathos. Kumail Nanjiani, who you might recognize from Silicon Valley, shows that he’s not just a comedian but an actor with a broad range. He and Zoe Kazan show real chemistry as a couple. Beyond the central couple, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents and Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s parents, carry much of the weight of this film. While most romantic comedies rely heavily on the central couple, The Big Sick is unique in spending almost as much time with the parents of the protagonists. Without excellent performances from the parents, this film would not have been a success. The film isn’t perfect. From a visual standpoint, it’s completely unremarkable. You’d be just as well served watching this one on TV. In addition, at some points, transitions in characters seem a little uneven. These are minor quibbles for a film that truly warms hearts and opens eyes.

Some of my favorite movies let me live the shadow of another life for a couple of hours. This is where The Big Sick truly succeeds. This sweet love story is suffused with all the beautiful and complicated details of a modern relationship. Through the film, I could understand Kumail’s seemingly impossible choice. I could feel both his and Emily’s pain at having to break up a loving relationship due to forces out of either of their control. For a couple of hours, I was totally immersed in the details of another person’s life. What more could I ask for from a movie?       

War for the Planet of the Apes

There were several moments during War for the Planet of the Apes where the camera zoomed in on Caesar’s face. I was stunned every time. How was it possible that those lifelike eyes were digital? In fact, how was it possible that I was so enamored with a motion captured ape at all? As I watched the final film of the Planet of the Apes trilogy, I wasn’t thinking of any of these things. Instead I was fully invested in the fate of Caesar and his band of apes. Somehow, as he closes out his Apes trilogy, director Matt Reeves has created one of the most emotionally resonant, thought provoking, and thrilling blockbuster franchises ever. Before these movies, it never crossed my mind that the Planet of the Apes franchise could be anything but a goofy sci-fi adventure. Now, as the trilogy draws to a close, I’m stunned at just how much these films have accomplished. With War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves provides a fitting and deeply moving final chapter for his stunning franchise.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left off. The human population has largely been exterminated thanks to the Simian Flu, which also made apes smarter. Now, years later, a band of apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), is fighting a war with the surviving humans, led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is hellbent on killing the apes. As Caesar tries to lead his pack of apes to safety, he’s inevitably drawn into a final confrontation that will determine the fate of the apes and humanity.      

This franchise has stood apart from many other blockbuster franchises in that it has always treated its viewers with the respect they deserve. War is no different. Unlike many other action blockbusters, it never panders to the lowest common denominator. Instead it weaves a complex story with fully realized characters that covers some dark territory. Even though we’re watching a band of apes, it’s always clear that this movie has a lot to say about humans and their motivations. And yet, while the film is weighty and grim, it’s also a fun. Reeves and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback balance this material almost perfectly, preventing it from slipping into a grim slog while simultaneously maintaining spiritual heft.

While the script and editing do some of this work, much of it is done through impressive motion capture performances. Andy Serkis has become almost synonymous with this technology, and there’s no wonder why. In Caesar, he pulls off the feat of making the seemingly preposterous character of a talking warrior ape not only believable but deeply human. There were scenes in this movie where, just by looking at Caesar’s face, I could feel his complex emotions. And Serkis’ isn’t the only great performance. Steve Zahn, as Bad Ape, lightens the load of an otherwise unrelentingly dark movie without feeling out of place. My favorite ape is Maurice (Karen Konoval) whose reassuring presence gave me hope even as the movie grew increasingly dark.

Ironically, the film’s one major misstep is in its main human character, The Colonel. Compared to all the great character building that’s gone on with the apes, The Colonel is flat. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where the film clearly tries to give him some depth and fails miserably. During the scene, The Colonel goes on and on explaining his background and his motivations. It’s as though the screenwriters were too lazy to find a better way to explain The Colonel and his hatred of apes. These guys are great at writing within the limits of ape dialog but can’t make an authentic sounding human. Truth be told, I would have been happy if The Colonel had remained a more mysterious figure. I didn’t need to know his back story.

Still, despite its poorly conceived villain, War for the Planet of the Apes is a success. It serves as a fitting end to one of the best film franchises of my lifetime. I can only hope that other filmmakers, as they plot their own summer blockbusters, will look to this trilogy for inspiration.  

Detroit

Whenever I see a film centered around a highly charged topic, I’m worried I’m going to get a lecture rather than a piece of art or entertainment. I’m worried that the filmmakers are going to use their two hours to stick their views into the mouth of a noble protagonist. I don’t care if I agree or disagree with their opinion. It’s just that this approach doesn’t make for good movies. They’re boring and didactic and often insult the intelligence of their viewers. Thankfully, Detroit despite being centered around police violence against African Americans, never falls into this trap. Instead it offers a compelling narrative with a panoply of multi-dimensional characters and a big dose of context to create a nuanced view on a fraught topic. The result is an entertaining and thought-provoking film that deals with challenging subject matter by forcing viewers to stare directly into a tragic situation and come to their own conclusions.

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Detroit centers around the 1967 riots in Detroit which saw a largely African American community facing off against the national guard and the largely white police force. Much of the film centers on the Algiers Hotel Incident in the midst of these riots, where police humiliated and beat a mostly African American group of hotel guests in response to reports of sniper fire from the building. In the end, three teenage African American men were killed as a result. The event itself is covered in harrowing detail, as director Katheryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reconstruct the events of the night from a variety of first-hand accounts and police reports. The film portrays the way that psychopathic tendencies, racist attitudes, and high-pressure situations can combine with the psychology of human groups to create horrific situations.

And yet, despite focusing on the despicable actions of a small group of police officers, I never got the sense that the film was grasping for easy answers. Instead the film always focuses on individuals rather than the groups they belong to. It recognizes that, while humans are greatly affected by the groups they belong to, they are also individuals with their own motivations. Some of those people are heroes, others are psychopaths, and others are just scared and confused. In a story where it would be easy to paint characters with broad brush strokes, Detroit succeeds because it paints every individual with detail. While this film certainly has something to say about race relations and police violence, it approaches the matter intelligently, allowing room for viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Much of this is thanks to terrific acting. In particular John Boyega is terrific as a well-intentioned African American security guard caught between the suspects and the police at the hotel. His subdued performance effectively shows how even a well-intentioned and thoughtful individual struggles in navigating difficult moral situations in the heat of the moment. Algee Smith, in what I hope is a star-making turn, deserves a lot of credit for guiding viewers through the complexities of enduring and surviving a traumatic event. If anyone missteps, it’s Will Poulter as the officer who instigates the terrible behavior at the hotel. In a film full of nuanced and careful performances, he feels over the top. He plays the part like the classic Hollywood archetype of a psychopath. It’s just too much.

The film also benefits from its journalistic style that mixes an active camera with some actual footage from the event. This creates a real sense of urgency while also preserving a sense of being right on the scene. At the same time, deft editing allows the film to juggle the stories of multiple characters in many locations without feeling muddled or confusing.     

Despite covering a highly charged topic, Detroit never falls into the trap of telling viewers what to think. Instead, it serves its audience by populating its story with deep characters and placing them in a deeply explored context. These elements come together to weave a complex tapestry that explores the terrible events of those riots without ever grabbing for simple answers or solutions. In a time where we’re inundated by politicians and talking heads offering simple diagnoses and cures for our many social ills, it’s satisfying to see a film which encourages us to sit back and look at an event in all its complexity. Detroit is a deeply uncomfortable watch, but anyone that cares about what’s going on in this country today should watch this movie. It’s the movie that we need today.