The Big Sick : Laughing Through the Tears

Big Sick

In my eyes, comedy is always just a few steps away from pain. The things which really makes us laugh, which make the tears stream down our eyes and our bellies hurt and our lungs gasp for air, they’re always things which are only a few lines away from becoming a tragedy. Those hilarious bursts of misfortune, suffered by ourselves or by other people. Those moments of blinding ignorance which lead us into mistakes or faux pas’. Those stories which we tell to our friends years later, still slightly embarrassed. All these things which become “material” for comedians, and almost all of them are very near to veering into sadness.

Naturally then, when a film takes that in stride, in mawkish but honest sincerity, laughing at itself up until the point it needs to cry, it reflects that fact back at you. That things that are funny are sometimes quite sad, and sometimes things which are sad are quite funny.

The Big Sick (2017, Dir. Michael Showalter) is mostly based on a true story, of a Pakistani comedian who falls in love with an American grad student. On his side, he must deal with the potential consequences of revealing this to his traditional Pakistani-Muslim family, who want nothing more than for Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) to marry a traditional Pakistani Muslim girl. On her side however, he must deal with the potential consequences of Emily (Zoe Kazan) falling grievously ill and her parents, with absolutely standout and side-splitting roles played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. All while managing a fledgling comedy career and navigating his compatriots in the stand up circuit of Chicago.

So far, so rom-com, albeit with a cultural twist. The film’s ace however, is the fact that it is a true love story. The reason Kumail’s character name is the same as his real name, is because the events of the film are loosely based on his life experiences. And not only that, but Kumail and the real Emily, Emily V. Gordon (who is renamed Gardner in the film) wrote the script together, a script about their own coming together. What the film becomes then is a recounting of a romance, with I’m sure a few extensive moments of embellishment and lies, to make the truth a little funnier and a little easier to digest. After all writers don’t directly copy reality, they often edit out the bits in between to make a story flow easier.

So you end up with quite a different experience in the film. A film which becomes uniquely more funny in its jokes, due to two things. One, drawing from the well of cultural differences for humour, rather than anger. Ethnicity and racism has become such a contentious issue in many areas of modern life, that it feels so refreshing to witness it in such a down to earth, honest way. Not as an issue to be ripped open and painfully exposed, but as an issue to be acknowledged and joked about. You don’t have to be serious all the time, in fact it’s important to remember to find the humour in things which can cause pain, because that makes them a little easier to bear.

The other thing it draws from is the unique individual experiences we all go through, the characters and personas who inhabit our life who may not be as diverse as our media suggests. I am a white straight male, and while I’ve had a lot of experience of people outside of my sex, gender, ethnicity and more, I still live in a world where a lot of the people I predominately see reflect me in quite a similar way. What the film takes from that then, is that the world feels intimately real, in a very comforting way. Kumail’s friends are mostly stand-up comics, which makes sense in a film about a comedian. His family is quite insular and traditional and proud of their heritage, which I believe is quite common in families with Middle Eastern/Eastern heritages.

People do not always mix in complex diverse rainbows, even in big multicultural cities such as the one I live in. Communities often gather, and while hopefully they don’t consciously self-segregate, they still often find comfort in the familiarity of each other. What The Big Sick does is acknowledge those boundaries, and reflect on them, and how often people stay behind them or cross them. And in The Big Sick, they cross them for love. And the story doesn’t pigeonhole itself into a corner, launching into pointless diatribes about “love is love” and berating arranged marriages. Kumail’s more honest confrontation is to do with him wanting to forge his own path in a world where people are often trying to get him to take a different course.

In real life there are no Hollywood endings. The credits never roll until you close your eyes for the last time, and even then everyone else’s films are still playing. The Big Sick never allows itself to slip into schmaltzy, grotesque cliché’s that make chick-flicks so loved by many and repulsed by others. This isn’t a film which claims everything will be perfect, that relationships are things which are carried away by magic where they lived “happily ever after”. No one is ever happy all the time. But it’s very important to be happy, to find moments where you can be happy, even if things might not work out in the future.

Most importantly, you just gotta laugh at it all, even if you’re crying.

-Alex

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The Big Sick : Laughing Through the Tears

A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Stop Motion Wilderness

fantastic_mr_fox

Making a film charming is a tough task, and like comedy, can turn off just as many people as it attracts. Charming involves a level of care and obsession to appear nonchalant and easy-going, but to the point that others genuinely believe you don’t care. It also involves having your own idiosyncratic style, one which there is the potential to warm to. Finally you’ve got to have authenticity, that behind the carefully crafted layers you can see the genuine want of connection, of admiration and friendship.  It’s always about love, and charming people (or films) want to give love, but more importantly to receive it.

Wes Anderson will piss off just as many people as he endears. But there’s no doubt that his films come from a place of warm affection (and love), including this one, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, Dir. Wes Anderson).


Honestly I love heist films, caper films.  What makes this genre so special to me is two things: the thrill of the chase, and the awareness of almost every cog in the machine. The thrill of the chase involves the risks and constant danger the main people put themselves in as they paint targets on their backs to gain rewards (usually money but not always) under the threat of exposure, capture, even death. The awareness of the cogs is how in heist films, each stage of “the job” is crucial and has to be witnessed to be understood (mostly, Reservoir Dogs 1992 Dir. Quentin Taratino obviously comes to mind as an exception). You have to see the assembly of characters, understand their relevant skillsets, watch the planning as well as the execution, and finally, whether they can get away and not get executed.

This isn’t just a feature of heist films though. It’s in classic war capers such as The Great Escape (1963, Dir. John Sturges) or The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich), it’s in Westerns such as The Magnificient Seven (1960, Dir. John Sturges), you could even argue you find it in sci-fi in Ghostbusters (1984, Dir. Ivan Reitman). And yes these primarily male orientated fantasies are just that, fantasies. But then, what could be a better model for an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous book “Fantstic Mr. Fox”?

Far be it from an auteur to not put his own spin on all that cinematic history though. Not only does the film stray far beyond Roald Dahl’s story, but the film brims with the style and substance of Wes Anderson. There’s so much additional material here, so many flourishes and quirks.  Wild animals discussing the tree housing market. The word “cuss” replacing all expletives. Ash (Jason Schwartzman) desperately seeking his father’s attention and trying to emulate him, the curious question of why everyone cuts out their ransom notes in newspaper cut outs when they know who they’re speaking to, the invention of a ridiculously complex high school sport which becomes oddly central to the film. There’s so much going on here that I’ll confess when I first saw this film in about 2010, as a 13-year-old boy, I missed so much of what is going on.  That’s never a bad thing though, it’s important to have films you can return to and discover new things.

Talking of things to return to, the stop motion animation (shot at 12 frames rather than 24) in this film is nothing short of a delight. The painstaking detail involved in any process of animation is one I continually admire and respect, because it would take a far more patient person than me to ever commit to the agonising production of animation. The price you pay for complete control over your image, to be able to design every single aspect of it, is that it takes up your life. And the image here is in a tradition of animation which is rough, handcrafted and has its own aesthetic. Against the vein of super smooth, completely digitally modeled animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox instead handcrafts a stop motion masterpiece, wiry hair and glass eyes and painted backgrounds and real fabric costumes. I’m always impressed by stop motion animation, but when its done this well it’s something I just fall in love with.

And I can definitely continue raving about the other technical areas that I love in this film, its eclectic soundtrack, it’s wry characters, its tight script and its impressive colour design. All of its disparate elements which are united into one cohesive design. But honestly I just want to talk about my favourite scene. After Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has escaped from the farm after rescuing his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), he spots a wolf in the distance, something he’s actually afraid of. He tries to communicate with it, calling it by its Latin name, speaking French. He finally raises his fist in a moment of solidarity, and the wolf after a brief pause raises his fist in return.

It’s a moment which seems to pause the entire flow of the film, occupying an almost otherworldly space in the film. The serene score underpins it, but it’s a moment of clarity in the eye of its ramshackle tweed tornado. It’s a reconciliation of all the themes in the film, of wilderness and wild animals sometimes suffocated by the pressures of civilisation. It’s honestly just one of those rare marks of quality in a piece of art which contains a moment of reflection and emotional clarity. I’ll put it up here devoid of its context, but inside the film it’s in my opinion, the point which elevates the entire film into something far greater than just a children’s animation. Or maybe it just properly unveils and reveals the power that sometimes lies inside the stories we think are only for children.

I live in the city, and I’m surrounded by foxes here. And every time I spot them, they stop and stare at me. And there’s a kinship there, alongside the distance. We understand each other. It’s not full, and it’s not complete understanding. But it is there.

-Alex

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Stop Motion Wilderness

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

Guardians OF The Galaxy Vol. 2

It’s getting more and more difficult to imagine a time when sci-fi was seriously uncool. Not just slightly still uncool as it is to be obsessed with it, but in the it was something to be kept hidden from the world. It’s very ironic that of all the places that could have become synonymous with nerd culture, the stereotype that grew was in the basement. Even now as its exposed in the light of mainstream culture, with Hollywood’s biggest actors signing themselves up to play aliens and goblins and all sorts, it still retains some of its outsider, underground status. The biggest tentpole film of the year comes from an obscure run of Marvel comics which would have remained hidden in basements if it had not been resurrected.

Movies can often reflect the times you live in as well as the culture it came from. The ironic, sarcastic, self-deprecating and misaligned heroes of the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, Dir. James Gunn) are very much a reflection of today. It’s difficult to imagine Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Joker bickering like children at the dinner table, clever remarks and funny one liners matched only by characters trying to explain their unspoken romance with references to Cheers, a live-action US sitcom from the 80s. We carry our cultures with us, and in 30 years a new generation will understand these techniques even less. And while its impossible to say that any one person was responsible for what was in this film, it’s important to note its mix and remix of timeless themes and time specific aspects (songs, jokes) is what makes this series work.

One of the brutal facts involved in this sequel’s judgement is the fact that people are already in on the jokes this time. A large unspoken part of why people talk about the law of diminishing returns when it comes to returning to a franchise or story is because the director can’t get away with as much as when he’s introducing the world for the first time. This is why the jokes maybe fall a little flatter this time, why as I sat in the cinema I could predict a few of the one-liners a couple of seconds before they land. Humour always lands hardest when the balanced scales between the audience and the director/joke-teller are weighted heavily towards the latter. When you’ve already got a whole film’s worth of previous material in your memory, the film has to stretch much harder to ring laughs out of an audience who have, to put it bluntly, seen it all before.

That’s not to completely let Vol. 2 completely off the hook though. A style needs to constantly evolve to remain fresh and interesting. The first time you hear a joke its funny. The second time round its less so. A couple more times and it becomes downright aggravating. Even being ironic gets annoying, and Vol. 2 suffers from a constant struggle of trying to undercut itself in an attempt to balance its humour with drama. Honestly on multiple occasions I was trying to decipher whether a scene was meant to be serious or a soon to be joke, and only with the help of its dramatic orchestral score (not its 70s/80s jams) can you actually orient yourself and figure out whether a scene’s meant to be funny or not. It’s sad I guess that the film is being crushed under the weight of its own previous success, much like Joss Whedon experienced with his Avengers Assemble (2012)/Avengers:Age of Ultron (2015) projects. Lightning can’t strike in the same place twice.

So what’s left? Well there’s a serious amount of spectacle going on here. This is really the highest level of money in filmmaking, and as a result no expense is spared. The world is as fully realised as can be, the relentlessly good CGI covering for any of the practical sets and worlds built, all of which no detail or expense is spared. Really the set pieces in this film remind me of video games and their boss fights, worlds which simply up until now would be too inhumanly expensive to even attempt recreating on film. It’s strength also lies in its ability to actually have colour, to make it more of a fantasy and pull itself away from the brown-grey colour palette of “gritty realism”. It’s world feels tangible at time, and as a result a lot of its more technical parts can rely on tried and tested classic methods to get its point across, when its production design is doing most of the work for it. You won’t find any experimental editing or cinematography here, but then if you’re looking for that you’ve come to the wrong film.

So while its humour takes a beating and its spectacle is only a backdrop, what holds it in place? Well I found it in its core, the same place which made the first one catalyse so well; it’s characters. The film really stretches its legs in this department, and manages to keep its spectacle playing second fiddle to the character’s and their relationships. It’s coincidental that in a film where it’s villain is literally a giant brain, its primary concern and what keeps it focused is what goes on in the heart. From its ramshackle family dynamics, ranging from the explosive to the intimate,both of which don’t feel mawkish or cringe at all, to the introduction of a character who is an empath (can feel other people’s feelings) Mantis (Pom Klementieff). In all of the monumental CGI spectacle, Vol. 2 never loses sight of the grounding it desperately needs in just what these character’s feel, about themselves and about each other.

The messed up ensemble family dynamic was and always has been Guardians strongest pillar to stand on, and credit to James Gunn for managing to stay mostly on that track. I always rated the first installment of this series as the best thing to come out of the MCU, since it’s the film that’s least concerned with the “super” part of superheroes. As this film shows, it’s difficult to care about gods unless they’re human. I mean, its shiny aspects of irony and nostalgia and flashy soundtrack may stick out more, but it’s the very human heart which keeps the film from completely disintegrating into a very colorful vibrant mess. It’s strange watching it, because the film itself seems pulled in so many different directions it can be disorienting and overwhelming at times; family drama, heady concept film, mindless popcorn fodder, cheesy 80s mining of nostalgia, operatic violence and low-brow brutish humour. It really is a reflection of the times we live, of remix culture, the obsession with the 80s (which I’m still not on board with). witty bantering and CGI dream worlds.

I’m not saying its a perfect film. But it’s a film that reminds me why I go to the cinema. It was a film I got lost in, both ironically and un-ironically. Even in its weaker moments, its something to enjoy, cinema which does its best to make its audience actually enjoy themselves. It’s power lies in its ability to not take itself too seriously, and while not everything lands, does it really matter? Like your family, not every moment with them is the best or worst in your world. The point is that they’re there around you, their presence and their personalities more than enough comfort in what would otherwise be the empty black void of space.

-Alex

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans