Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano
The romantic comedy is one of the cornerstones of Hollywood cinema. It is comfortable. It is entertaining. It is delightful. But it is rarely insightful. It is rarely revelatory. It is rarely personal. First-time screenwriters and married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have drawn on their own incredible story of a most unconventional courtship to create just such a film in The Big Sick.
Low level Chicago stand up comedian and occasional Uber driver Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) meets psychology student Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows and they instantly hit it off. Over the next few months their romance blossoms, but Kumail, a Pakistani-America, keeps it secret from his family knowing his parents would never approve of his dating a non-Pakistani girl. Continue reading
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, Jacki Weaver
After being the most New York-centric of filmmakers for the first few decades of his career, Woody Allen continues his recent fascination with Europe by taking us to the French Riviera for Magic in the Moonlight.
Stanley Crawford is Europe’s most celebrated stage magician. As the Chinese mystic Wei Ling Soo he wows audiences all over the continent. But Stanley’s real passion is using his knowledge of the tricks of the trade to debunk phoney mediums and spiritualists. So when old friend and fellow magician Howard asks for his help exposing a young medium that has enchanted a wealthy widower and her son, he is only too happy to get involved. But in spending time with the lovely young Sophie, who catches Stanley’s eye as much as she confounds his intellect, this strict rationalist and vehement sceptic finds his worldview rocked by the notion that perhaps there is more to the world than meets the eye.
Like the incredibly successful Midnight in Paris, this light-hearted romantic comedy takes us back to the 1920s, a favourite era of Allen’s. But rather than just showing us a past world, the film actually feels like a movie from the 1920s. Magic in the Moonlight plays like an old screwball comedy; the kind made by Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch. The characters are larger than life. Their emotional changes are sudden and drastic. Their banter is sharp and witty. The situations are wonderfully silly.
While the storyline is not overly taxing or complex – I successfully picked the ending quite early on – it does allow for some surprisingly heartfelt thematic explorations. The possibility that Sophie might be the real deal opens up the possibility that there is more to this life than meets the eye. The film explores the important role that faith plays as a source of comfort and in helping people get by. While Allen is himself openly agnostic, he seems to encourage us to pity Stanley for his closed view of the world which cannot accept the presence of anything unknowable or unexplainable.
Colin Firth and Emma Stone are not an obvious romantic pairing, and theirs is not a natural chemistry (perhaps because we imagine Sophie’s mother to be a more age appropriate partner for Stanley), but it does seem to work. The butting of heads between this mismatched pair is fun to watch. Firth is full of arrogant bluster and pomposity as a protagonist who is, for once, not an obvious Allen-surrogate, but much more indebted to Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Stone is as enchanting and likeable as ever, and while she may not get the lines and zingers that Firth does, her comedic talents are still very much on display.
Woody Allen’s films tend to be broken down into either major- or minor-Allen – there are 44 of them after all – and there is no doubting that Magic in the Moonlight definitely falls in the minor-Allen category. It is never going to be part of a discussion of his most significant films. That said, it is none the less well performed, beautiful to look at and a nice piece of whimsical fun.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Magic in the Moonlight? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, John Magaro, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, Elizabeth Reaser
Plenty of films have been made about nostalgia for the glory days of college, but invariably they are most concerned with partying and responsibility-free living. Rarely do you find a film which considers the university years with the same level of earnest idealism as does Liberal Arts.
Jesse Fisher is a 35 year old liberal arts graduate who is working as an admissions officer in a New York college. He accepts and invitation to return to his alma mater in Ohio for the retirement dinner of one of his favourite professors from his time there. While back on campus he strikes up a friendship and romance with a 19 year old drama student named Zibby (short for Elizabeth), a relationship that at the same time manages to make Jesse feel young and remind him of how old he is.
At its heart, Liberal Arts is a film about growing up, and the college becomes a metaphor for youth, and all the opportunity and boundless potential that entails. Jesse is overwhelmed with excitement to get back to his alma mater and really wants to once again feel like he did back then. However, for all his excitement at getting back to college, we also get, as a contrast, the perspectives of two lifelong academics; one whose passion has been replaced by bitterness and resentment, the other who, facing retirement, is concerned that like a prisoner he has become an ‘institution man’ and won’t be able to function in the outside world.
It takes you a while to get on board with Jesse and Zibby’s relationship. Initially, it doesn’t quite seem plausible. You don’t understand her interest in him. It just seems to happen. But once it is established it starts to make more sense. With the sixteen year age gap being so prominent – there is a great little scene where Jesse tries to get his head around their age difference by working out how old she was or will be at different stages of his life – Jesse and Zibby’s relationship also ties into this theme of growing up. He sees her as a way back to the hopeful young man that he was, someone with whom he can have the lofty, intellectual conversations which were once so important to him but have since become absent in his life. For her, frustrated by the calibre of male in her peer-group, he is a chance to fast-forward into adulthood.
The film also contains a few subplots, the most interesting and authentic of which is Jesse’s relationship with a manic depressive boy he meets on campus – another relationship Jesse just seems to fall into. The two bond over reading, and Jesse becomes a surrogate father figure for this brilliant but troubled young man.
Liberal Arts is written and directed by its star, Josh Radnor. It is Radnor’s second film as a writer/director after 2010’s Happythankyoumoreplease, another film about growing up. Radnor would be most familiar to viewers as Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother, and viewers of that show will struggle not to see him playing a version of the same character here. Elizabeth Olsen – the younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley – is quite good as Zibby, and is definitely one of the young actresses to watch over the next couple of years.
At times Liberal Arts can briefly cross the line into pretentiousness, but no more than you would expect from a screenplay trying to capture the vibe of young, faux-intellectual liberal arts students. But despite this, the film is quite charming, will appeal to people who have had that particular experience of college, and does enough to suggest that Radnor could develop into quite an interesting filmmaker.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker
It’s not often that you encounter something truly original at the movies these days, particularly not in the ‘boy meets girl,’ romantic comedy genre, one of Hollywood’s most generic forms. But originality is exactly what we get from David O. Russell (director of Three Kings and The Fighter) in his latest film Silver Linings Playbook.
The originality starts with our unconventional, but incredibly engaging romantic pairing, Pat and Tiffany. Pat is bipolar and has just been released from a court ordered stint in an institution after he beat up a man he caught in the shower with his wife. He has moved back in with his parents and is determined to win back his wife, Nicki. Pat’s time in treatment has left him with a new outlook on life. He is all about positivity, “excelsior,” and finding the silver lining to the dark cloud that he is working through. Tiffany is a damages soul like Pat, though her scars are emotional rather than physiological, after losing her husband in a car accident. Both characters are frustrated, struggling to live with a support network that doesn’t understand them and a society that doesn’t trust them. But they understand each other, and they become friends.
We have never seen these characters before on the big screen, at least not presented in the way they are here. One of the great achievements of Silver Linings Playbook is that it removes the ‘otherness’ from mental illness. Through their characterisation, and some of the directorial choices of David O. Russell, the film encourages us to identify with Pat and Tiffany, rather than to identify with the other characters trying to deal with Pat and Tiffany – we empathise with them rather than merely sympathising. And in siding with the two supposedly “crazy” characters we start to see the insanity of the regular world. We notice the quirks, foibles and obsessions in other characters – some minor, some not so minor – which are deemed socially acceptable in a way that Pat’s and Tiffany’s are not.
Russell’s beautiful screenplay is brought to life by a series of really strong performances. In fact, Silver Linings Playbook became the first film in 31 years, since Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1982, to receive an Oscar nomination in all four acting categories.
Bradley Cooper is the real surprise. Cooper has been a movie star for a while now but has seldom been required to do much more than be charming and look handsome. His performance as Pat, a man struggling to deal with the unknown in himself, is a revelation, showing us something of his talent that I doubt many knew was there. Bipolar is all about extreme ups and downs, highs and lows. Pat alludes to the fact that even before he had been diagnosed, his mood swings had been something that had troubled and frustrated his wife. Cooper imbues Pat with a manic intensity, which makes his positivity every bit as intimidating as his moments of aggression. But the really impressive part of his performance is the way he, with the help of the director, manages to get you to switch between emotional responses very quickly. Pat doesn’t have a filter when he talks – as Tiffany notes, he says more inappropriate things than appropriate things – and this is the source of much comedy. But on a number of occasions you find yourself laughing at Pat and then, in a heartbeat, feeling really sorry for him, or defensive for him, or afraid of him.
As Cooper’s foil, Jennifer Lawrence is every bit as impressive as Tiffany. The film really comes to life the moment that we are introduced to her. Pat and Tiffany’s meeting at an awkward dinner hosted by her sister is a fantastic scene and a preview of what is to come as the writer/director has fun with these two characters not bound by social conventions. As I said above, Tiffany’s scars are emotional rather than physiological, and as a result she is not as confused as Pat, but she is much angrier. She contrasts a real strength and willingness to stand up for herself with an extreme vulnerability. She is a sharp and abrasive, but at the same time likeable character. Lawrence burst onto the scene in 2010 when she earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Winter’s Bone. In the couple of years since she has done some more popcorn-style movies with a supporting role in X-Men: First Class and, of course, her leading role in The Hunger Games. But this performance in Silver Linings Playbook really cements her standing as one of the best young actresses out there, and of the four Oscar nominated performers in the film, for mine it is Lawrence that is most likely to take home a statue.
But the real treat for me was the performance of Robert De Niro. One of the absolute greats of the American cinema, it seems like decades since we have seen De Niro in a film which is worthy of his prodigious talent – you probably have to go all the way back to the mid-1990s when he did Heat, Casino and Jackie Brown. In recent times he has been reduced to playing caricatures of his own persona, often in reasonably uninspiring comedies: there was the gangster in therapy in Analyze This and Analyze That, psychotic retired CIA agent in the Meet the Parents series and, the lowest point of all, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, where his role as Fearless Leader saw him spoof his own legendary “Are you talkin’ to me?” monologue from Taxi Driver. Finally, in the role of Pat Sr, De Niro has not only been given something he can really sink his teeth into, he has been given the chance to do something different. Pat Sr. is a bookmaker who is devoted above all to his favourite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. He is superstitious to the point of being obsessive compulsive. He is willing to do anything within his power to not disrupt his Eagles’ juju, whether it is making sure the remotes are facing the right direction or making sure he has his lucky handkerchief. He is a loves his son, but lacks the knowledge of how to engage with him outside of the time they spend together watching football. It is a fun character, but not lacking in depth, and you can sense that De Niro is really engaged by in a way that he hasn’t been for some time.
I’ll admit I even really enjoyed Chris Tucker’s work in this movie, and that is quite a leap to make.
I referred to Silver Linings Playbook above as a romantic comedy, but I feel that kind of pigeon-holing really undermines the complexity and depth of this film. It is wickedly funny and at its centre is a relationship between a man and a woman, but it is also at different moments sad, uplifting, concerning, charming and poignant. It has been a while since I’ve loved a new film as much as I did this one. It is a beautifully crafted film that will really stay with you.
Rating – ★★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean