Schultz reviews: ‘The Big Sick,’ ‘A Hard Day's Night’ & Miss Sloane’
Daily American correspondent
Now streaming on Amazon Prime.
"The Big Sick" Distributed by Amazon Studios and Lionsgate Films, 124 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 23, 2017:
In "The Big Sick," a stand-up comedian of strict Pakistani Muslim ancestry and a Caucasian psychology student conduct a cross-cultural American romance. Although the relationship eventually flounders, it’s inadvertently rekindled when the girl experiences a life-threatening illness and the comic to his own surprise finds himself drawn to her hospital bedside ... and bonding with her conservative family.
Written by comic Kumail Nanjiani and former psychologist Emily V. Gordon and based on their own real-life worlds-colliding romance, "The Big Sick" was one of the most well-reviewed films of 2017 and a real Cinderella story at the nation’s box office. Placed into a limited release on June 23 of that year, the picture opened to a wider pattern on July 14 because of audience acclaim, and continued adding more and more theaters until it was playing practically everywhere. Eventually the picture was chosen by the American Film Institute as one of the Top Ten films of the year.
Starring in the movie, essentially playing a slightly exaggerated version of himself, is standup comic Kumail Nanjiani, known for a confessional style of culture clash comedy which places an emphasis on irony. Nanjiani’s spouse and co-writer Gordon is renamed Emily Gardner for the picture, and played by the wonderful Zoe Kazan, familiar to some viewers from the old HBO miniseries "Olive Kitteridge." Both actors turn in performances which are terrifically endearing — always funny, sometimes infuriating, occasionally exasperating, but invariably and incomparably human, honest, and truthful. The picture itself, while flawed, rings just as true as the actors' performances.
About halfway through the movie, old pros Ray Romano and Holly Hunter turn up as Emily's parents. And one small problem with "The Big Sick" — if it is a problem — is that the always-reliable Romano with his mordant observations and hangdog delivery turns in the movie's most sidesplitting moments ... in what is essentially a straight dramatic role. Likewise, the Academy Award-winning Hunter shows the youngsters a thing or two about acting. And when the unlikely team of Hunter and Romano appears together onscreen, the picture really begins to zing and hum.
Produced for Apatow Productions by Barry Mendel and Judd Apatow — no slouch in the comedy department himself — and directed by Michael Showalter, "The Big Sick" is one romantic comedy which works beautifully in its entirety, through moments both heartwarming and heartbreaking. This is an authentic American romance, and viewers might well find themselves laughing and crying at the same time throughout the picture, early and often … and for all the right reasons. Despite the sometimes tragic nature of the drama, this is one romance — and one motion picture — you’ll find yourself rooting for.
Among Nanjiani’s standup comic friends are SNL regular Aidy Bryant and the multi-talented Bo Burnham, who earned impressive critical notices the following year as the director and writer of the coming of age comedy “Eighth Grade.” Playing Nanjiani’s traditionalist father is Bollywood superstar Anupam Kher, familiar to American audiences as Dr, Kapoor on television’s “New Amsterdam.” Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter collaborated again for the comedy “The Lovebirds,” originally set for theatrical release but now scheduled to premiere next month on Netflix.
Rated R for language concerns and some sexual references, “The Big Sick” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
“A Hard Day’s Night” Distributed by United Artists, 87 Minutes, Rated G, Released Aug. 11, 1964:
Once upon a more uncomplicated time, a quartet of young musicians from England burst like a meteor onto the world’s entertainment scene, infused rock ‘n roll music with pop and classical sensibilities, and made modern music trends palatable for not only rebellious teenagers but also older mainstream audiences.
Over the course of the next six years, the four young men not only changed the course of music history, but also influenced almost every other aspect of life on the planet — style, fashion, manners, politics, and even humor. Occasionally even their idle observations sometimes became front page news, and their impact caused cultural shifts which continue to affect us to this day. As a character in 2019’s hit movie “Yesterday” correctly observed, “A world without The Beatles is a world that’s infinitely worse.”
“A Hard Day’s Night” captures The Beatles — John, Paul, George, and Ringo, no last names needed — at the beginning of their career together, a fanciful snapshot of the four most famous young men in the world, still in their early 20s, living in the calm eye of a global storm of their own creation. Directed in a fast-moving quasi-documentary style by innovative filmmaker Richard Lester from a freewheeling script by writer Alun Owen that exaggerates the character traits of the group’s individual members, “A Hard Day’s Night” captures the viewer’s attention from its explosive opening chord until the final jangling note of its closing credits.
In “A Hard Day’s Night,” while the band has their hands full with a hectic schedule of personal appearances, concerts television performances, and travel from “a train and a room, a car and a room, and a room and a room,” the members of the group also find themselves babysitting Paul’s mischievous grandfather while simultaneously contending with an identity crisis in the hapless Ringo ... a problem provoked partially by a conversation between the drummer their “clean old man” temporary charge.
But the plot’s just an excuse for a breathless 87-minute blast of comedy, music, dancing, and singing, all swirling like a kaleidoscope around the most irreverently engaging entertainment personalities since the Marx Brothers during their 1930s prime. Besides their raw musical talents, The Beatles might’ve been the fastest and funniest comedy quartet since Groucho and company, and in this wonderful little picture they leave the viewer breathless with delight and exhausted with mirth. A major influence on both Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, seeing The Beatles in their prime might be a real revelation to some — they’re as quick with a quip or a droll observation as they are with a hit song.
“A Hard Day’s Night” shows the viewer the idealism and innocence of the early 1960s in all its optimistic glory, and rocks the beginning of the 20th century’s most turbulent decade with a half dozen or so classic pop compositions by band members John Lennon and Paul McCartney that’ll make even older viewers want to get up and dance. For younger viewers, this is how modern entertainment began. For those who are old enough to remember, watch “A Hard Day’s Night” once more ... and feel young again.
Streaming now on Amazon Prime, “A Hard Day’s Night” is appropriate viewing for the entire family.
“Miss Sloane” Distributed by EuropaCorp, 127 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 25, 2016:
Sometimes a problem or a complex situation can be clarified by examining it through the impartial eyes of people unaffected by the issue. And that’s both the primary strength and the major weakness of “Miss Sloane,” a political drama released by a combination of independent motion picture production companies, originally distributed in the United States by EuropaCorp USA, and now streaming on Amazon Prime.
“Miss Sloane” takes a quintessential and controversial American issue — gun control — and places it squarely into the hands of European filmmakers. And although the film’s producers insisted in 2016 that the picture was not intended as a tirade or a criticism of United States laws governing access to firearms, it’s nearly impossible to see the picture from any other perspective.
Set in the world of Washington insiders and political power brokers, “Miss Sloane” details the experiences of a fictional lobbyist, Elizabeth Sloane, described as the most formidable and sought-after political activist in the nation’s capital. Miss Sloane, we are told, is known equally for her intelligence, her cunning and ruthlessness, and her single-minded pursuit of success by any means.
When new legislation is proposed and gains traction in Congress which would increase accountability and background checks on gun buyers, Sloane is assigned by her firm’s director to work with the National Rifle Association to defeat the bill. But on a whim of principle, Sloane impulsively decides to leave the firm for a more sympathetic agency, and instead use her particular skills in an effort to have the controversial legislation enacted.
Written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, a British citizen living in South Korea, the genesis of the picture occurred when Perera happened to see a television documentary on Jack Abramoff, the former American lobbyist convicted and imprisoned in 2006 for mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials, and tax evasion. Perera’s completed script was optioned by Europe’s Filmnation Entertainment, where it attracted the attention of British filmmaker John Madden, best known at the time as the director of 1998’s Academy Award-winning “Shakespeare in Love.”
“Miss Sloane” is an extremely well-made little drama, with sterling production values and a customarily brilliant performance by Jessica Chastain in the difficult and vastly unsympathetic title role. Employing ruby red lips and an icy blue-eyed stare against her alabaster pallor, with dark power suits and fingernails lacquered black, Chastain’s characterization of Sloane is of a person so single-minded and focused that she seems barely human — a bloodless, pill-popping, bullets-for-breakfast Princess of Darkness preaching a gospel of trump cards, earthquakes, and accomplishment at any cost.
While supported ably by a cast including such old pros as Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, Dylan Baker, and Christine Baranski, Chastain is in firm control of the screen from the first frame of film to the last, although she’s nearly matched in power and intensity by British actor Mark Strong, sporting an eminently persuasive American accent as Sloane’s employer. The versatile Strong also appeared as Chastain’s CIA boss in 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“Miss Sloane” stakes its claim in what is nominally writer Aaron Sorkin’s territory, but with Sorkin’s signature rat-a-tat American vernacular dialogue filtered through the European sensibilities of screenwriter Perera. Where Sorkin could’ve made the words leap and soar, the rhythm of Perera’s phrasing is often labored and flat and the tempo plodding and stagey, like swing music played by a marching band. And the jaw-dropping denouement of “Miss Sloane” needs to be seen to be believed ... although in retrospect clues are scattered like crumbs throughout the picture.
Dating from the earliest film adaptations of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities” through “Schindler’s List” and up to the present time, a popular device of motion pictures has always been the amoral character who experiences an epiphany of conscience, and as a result becomes an altruist and an humanitarian. And that general description fits “Miss Sloane.”
But lying beneath the moralistic fiber of “Miss Sloane” is a rich vein of cynicism. The tone of the movie is uneven enough to unnerve the NRA and other opponents of gun control, who at the time of its original release unsurprisingly took to openly criticizing the picture, even in some cases without having even seen it. And with a debate in the United States as combustible as the regulation of firearms, any uneven handling of the issue, no matter how well-intentioned, will inevitably result in division, dissension, and heated disagreement.
Although director Madden at the time of the picture’s original release in late November of 2016 acknowledged candidly that he expected an enormously different and more sympathetic political climate to prevail in the United States — i.e. the election of a certain female U.S. president — the point remains the same: When a contentious political situation is presented in a manner which is more favorably weighted to one side of the debate, drama can run the inherent risk of becoming propaganda.
Although thematically relevant, sharply intelligent, deeply effective, and extremely well-crafted, “Miss Sloane” probably — and unfortunately — cannot be judged as anything other than a curiosity, and a fascinating failure in its intent. While it’s revealing to view the argument through European eyes, possibly in the hands of American filmmakers “Miss Sloane” could’ve found the moderation it needed to examine the issues more fully. “Miss Sloane” aims high, but ultimately misses its mark by pulling just a little bit too hard to the left.
“Miss Sloane” is rated R for adult language and some sexuality. The picture is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.