All posts by Brent Leuthold

It ***|****

Bill Skarsgård in It

Based on the 1986 Stephen King bestseller, the new film It opens with a scene that will be familiar to those who experienced the 1990 miniseries: young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is seen  chasing his paper boat down a flooded street until it falls into a storm drain. Upon trying to retrieve it, he encounters a sewer-dwelling clown figure who introduces himself as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and offers him a balloon before violently murdering him. It turns out that Pennywise is the manifestation of an evil that’s plagued their town of Derry for many years and after it terrorizes a number of children in the area, Georgie’s brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) forms a group called The Losers Club with other affected kids in order to avenge his brother’s death and put a stop to the malevolent force.

One of the most notable deviations from the source material is resetting the events from the 1950s to the tail end of the 1980s, which not only allows for pop culture references that range from Tim Burton’s Batman to New Kids on the Block but also puts the film in the same timeframe as the mega-hit Netflix series Stranger Things, itself largely influenced by King’s novel. It’s a smart move, given how popular this brand of nostalgia has become the past few years but it also strengthens the coming-of-age angle that sometimes gets upstaged by the clown-centric scares from the original story. With its focus on themes of friendship and loyalty, audiences may be surprised how much this movie bares a resemblance to something like The Goonies (there’s even a cruel variation of the Truffle Shuffle performed by one of the bullies) or Stand By Me as opposed to more traditional horror fare.

Having said that, the marketing of It still hinges largely on the menacing presence of its eminently creepy antagonist and director Andy Muschietti does not skimp on chilling scenes designed to send those with coulrophobia running out of the theater in droves. Skarsgård had some big clown shoes to fill when taking up a role that Tim Curry crafted with terrifying perfection in the aforementioned miniseries and if his work here is comparatively lacking, it has more to do with this update’s reliance on computer-generated effects to amplify his performance rather than a deficiency in Skarsgård’s abilities as an actor. For all of the flaws present in the 1990 version, the visual conception of Curry’s Pennywise and its use of simple, practical effects (the less spoken of the claymation, the better) remain first-rate to this day and I wish this 2017 iteration retained some of this more reserved aesthetic.

The rest of the young cast is generally filled with lesser-known actors, save Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as the hilariously foul-mouthed Richie, but the talented bunch of kids do a convincing job of conveying fear in ways that feel fitting to each of their characters. Standouts include Jeremy Ray Taylor as the overweight Ben and especially Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the lone girl of the group who’s a bit wiser and more mature than her male cohorts. Fans of the book won’t be surprised that this production team is planning a Chapter Two following this film’s impending success that focuses on the adult lives of the Losers Club members and I would be shocked if they don’t already have Amy Adams in talks to play Bev’s grown-up counterpart.

It’s no easy task adapting unwieldy source material like a 1000+ page paperback and while the common practice is to abridge or even omit large sections of a given plot, I was delighted with not only how much of the story remained in the film but how many minor details were included as well. Even with a second installment on the horizon, this first chapter clocks in at a hefty 135 minutes and while there obviously was room for more judicious editing, I have to give the creators credit for pushing towards a more thorough adaptation this time around. Their love and respect of the book shines through in their interpretation and makes It a spectacle of horror with no shortage of heart and humor too.

Good Time ***|****

Robert Pattinson in Good Time

Equal parts After Hours and Go with a bit of Rain Man in the mix, the new crime thriller Good Time by Ben and Josh Safdie unfolds at breakneck pace largely over one harrowing evening in some of the most desolate and seemingly forgotten areas of New York City. Yet no matter how empty these places seem, there almost always happens to be someone there, whether its an employee pulling an overnight shift or a vagrant searching for something that may not have even been there in the first place. Just like the protagonist, everyone is just doing what they can to survive in their corner of the world and by setting the film at the most desperate fringes of society, the Safdies incorporate the fury of their struggle into the narrative.

One of the film’s opening shots encapsulates this rage on the face of the mentally handicapped Nick (Ben Safdie), who is in the middle of a tense session with his therapist when his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) barges in and ushers Nick away. It turns out that he needs him for a bank robbery that he’s planned and while the stick-up initially seems to be a success, dye packs that are hidden in the stacks of money go off in their getaway car and Nick gets arrested during the ensuing on-foot pursuit while Connie barely manages to get away with the dirty cash. After multiple attempts to get the funds to afford Nick’s bail, Connie hatches a plan that involves retrieving a hidden bottle of LSD for a quick profit.

During interviews for the final season of Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan spoke about how his writing staff would intentionally paint his characters into corners that would seem impossible to resolve and then brainstormed the most satisfying but plausible ways to get them out of the situation. Good Time exhibits this same kind of think-on-your-feet type of narrative urgency as Connie battles against a myriad of contingencies and dead-ends over the course of his turbulent all-nighter. Though Connie is obviously someone who doesn’t have things in order, he asserts his street smarts in big and small ways (hanging a mat over a barbed wire fence in order to safely traverse it, for instance) that keep him one step of the law.

On top of the spontaneity in their storytelling, the Safdies also establish tension with tight close-ups of their characters that’s designed to give the audience any kind of respite from the manic energy that is often on display across their anguished faces. So much of Pattinson’s excellent performance as Connie can be summed up by the panic that is constantly present in the whites of his eyes, which are often wide open amid the dwindling opportunities that lay before them. When cinematographer Sean Price Williams is afforded the opportunity to implement some flourish, as he does with a beautiful tracking shot of a car rounding a corner and some deft aerial camerawork towards the finale, he makes great use of the expanded scope.

All of this harried paranoia is complemented by a lush and trippy musical score by Daniel Lopatin (known in music circles as Oneohtrix Point Never) that stands alone as one of the most memorably effective soundtracks of the year. The synthesized arpeggios chug along breathlessly with shady dealings that pervade Connie’s attempt to free his jailed brother but the music also goes into a more contemplative soundscape at times that can seem dreamy at one minute and then quickly turn into a nightmare the next. It’s a perfect analog for the dirty, neon-drenched visuals of Good Time that contrasts the far-flung hopes of its anxious characters with the mired reality that they can’t seem to escape.

Death Note **|****

Nat Wolff and Willem Dafoe in Death Note

Based on a popular Japanese manga and anime series, Death Note is an Americanized film adaptation that stars Nat Wolff as troubled teenager Light Turner, who discovers an ancient book with the title “Death Note” on its cover as it falls from the sky. Upon opening the text, he is encountered by an malevolent spirit named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), who explains that the magical book has, among other things, the ability to end the life of whomever Light chooses to write down on any of its pages. After a successful trial that gruesomely dispatches the school bully, Light teams up with classmate and burgeoning love interest Mia (Margaret Qualley) to purge the world of those whom the two teens deem undesirable.

The mysterious deaths of criminals and terrorists across the world sparks interest from international law enforcement as well as an inscrutable detective named only “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), who has managed to pinpoint the source of the killings to Light’s hometown of Seattle. Meanwhile, Light’s father (Shea Whigham), a local police officer, continues to work with L and a host of FBI agents to track down the killer while being oblivious to the fact that Light is responsible for the emerging pattern of murders. L soon narrows his suspicions on Light and after a coffee shop confrontation, Light races to discover L’s true identity so that he can be named in the book and removed from the equation.

Being unfamiliar with the source material, I went into Adam Wingard’s effort with an open mind about how he chose to adapt the sizable comic collection but it’s not hard to imagine that there was quite a bit of material that was lost in translation. There are no shortage of plot holes and pacing issues within this story, which starts out pretty well as a sort of twisted YA love fantasy but goes steadily downhill after a poorly conceived montage transitions the film into a more by-the-numbers police procedural. It’s a busy film packed with plenty of story details and arbitrary rules but every plot element feels like it was condensed down to its most basic form, largely devoid of nuance or subtext so as not to lose any couchbound viewers along the way (lest they get distracted by their smartphones during the movie).

Wolff and Qualley do what they can in their severely unwritten roles but too often they’re relegated to inhabit angsty teen archetypes, even from the opening scene when Light is seen sulking on a set of bleachers while Mia stands triumphantly blasé atop a pyramid of cheerleaders. In worse shape is Lakeith Stanfield, who has been brilliant in smaller roles so far this year (Get Out, War Machine) but is utterly lost in this twitchy, self-conscious role that is a flat-out terrible fit for his low-key charisma. By far the most memorable performer is Dafoe as the voice of the CGI creation Ryuk, who is basically reprising the cackling menace from his Green Goblin role in Spider-Man but nonetheless effective in doing so.

Despite the growing issues that I had with plot or performances, Death Note is not often a boring endeavor thanks mainly to the typically stylized direction from Adam Wingard that utilizes campy genre elements and cheeky 80s-inspired soundtrack choices to liven things up a bit. Sadly, the script credited to three writers (I’ll spare mentioning their names) is ultimately too leaden to lift as it favors an inelegant unpacking of its most basic narrative mechanics over character development or moral complexity. Perhaps the team here was too constricted by the feature film medium and a mini-series or full TV series would have been a better fit but as a standalone movie, I doubt it will reach any of the unconverted.

Logan Lucky ****|****

Adam Driver, Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum in Logan Lucky

This hoot of a heist movie marks Steven Soderbergh’s return to the caper comedy genre that he perfected with Ocean’s Eleven and it finds the director in excellent form after a brief hiatus from filmmaking that began in 2013. The stellar cast is led by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as Jimmy and Clyde Logan, two brothers with a seemingly cursed family name who look to turn their luck around by pulling off a big-time robbery at a Memorial weekend NASCAR event in North Carolina. To pull off the high-risk job, they recruit their spunky sister Mellie (Riley Keough) along with wily convict Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his dim-witted brothers, one of whom is a purported computer whiz who knows “all the Twitters”.

That line is just one of many that scored big laughs in the theater and while the screenplay by Rebecca Blunt (rumored to be a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself) is packed with well-crafted jokes, the humor that worked most for me centered around the comedic timing of the performers. Whether it’s the way Craig draws out the word “incarcerated” to describe Joe Bang’s situation to Driver’s nonchalant attitude while constructing a Molotov cocktail, it’s the small choices that the actors made that led to some of my favorite comedic payoffs. This is a film packed with one over-the-top performance after another but somehow I believed that all of these characters were plausible in this universe, which is a testament not only to the acting but to the direction as well.

As a veteran of the genre, Soderbergh revels in the mechanics of the mission as he depicts the random acts of preparation that the characters go through, whether it’s gathering seemingly innocuous props like bags of gummy bears or completing odds tasks like painting cockroaches with nail polish. Though he shows us many of these details before the big heist, he also strategically omits some of the most consequential bits of information the first time around so that we can piece things together on our own in the third act. At one point, Jimmy says of Joe Bang’s brothers “they’re gonna know what we want them to know” and Soderbergh applies that same degree of coyness to his storytelling.

While the Ocean’s series sets its breezily-paced action amid the glitz and glam of Las Vegas, Logan Lucky has a more loose and leisurely feel that fits right in with its southern setting. Soderbergh’s introduction of numerous supporting characters intentionally delays the big action climax that we’re waiting for but as we see how each of the players ties into the heist one by one, the reason for the seemingly convoluted setup becomes much more evident. I don’t doubt that there are plot holes that I may uncover upon repeat viewings of the film but the overall package is so clever and quick-witted that I didn’t have a chance to linger on those potential problems.

Being a tale of blue-collar brothers turned bandits, there are parallels to be made between this and last year’s excellent crime thriller Hell or High Water, although that film’s approach to the region’s economic anxiety was obviously more despairing by comparison. Things are pretty much always played for laughs here but Soderbergh is very wise not to condescend to his characters; even if they do end up as the butt of the joke, there’s still an embedded respect present. As a piece of crackerjack entertainment with loads of funny moments and audacious performances, you won’t find anything much more satisfying this summer (or maybe even this year) than Logan Lucky.

The Glass Castle *½|****

Naomi Watts and Brie Larson in The Glass Castle

Adapted from the best-selling memoir of the same name, The Glass Castle depicts the unorthodox childhood of writer Jeannette Walls (portrayed by Ella Anderson in flashback) as she moves from town to town with her parents and three siblings. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) seems to be full of inspiration and wisdom when speaking with his children but we soon learn of personal demons that manifest themselves through alcoholism and fits of anger that contribute to his inability to maintain a steady job. Her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), an aspiring painter, doesn’t fare much better in attempting to support her kids but still remains hopeful even as their financial situation gets increasingly dire.

This backstory is intercut with scenes of Walls as an adult (Brie Larson) in late 1980s New York, now a writer for a gossip column who is happily engaged to a promising financial analyst (Max Greenfield). Her attempts to expunge the memories of her painful past fail when her parents turn up, desperate as ever, in Manhattan and they seek to reconnect Jeannette with the rest of her family in a series of doomed meet-ups. Her parents don’t give up, however, and through continued exposure with them, Walls rediscovers the fleeting moments of bliss that occurred during her rocky upbringing and aims to find resolution with her struggling parents before it’s too late.

The film and its director Destin Daniel Cretton seem to contend that Rex and Rose Mary are worthy of such absolution but based on the two hours that I spent with them, I can’t say that I agree with that stance. These are more than flawed characters trying to make their best out of a bad situation; these are narcissistic, negligent, selfish parents who demonstrate time after time that they’re ill-equipped to handle raising one child much less four. Not only does Cretton often seem to give them a pass on their reprehensible behavior but he tends to double down on his efforts by attributing bits of noxious pseudo-philosophy to their actions, as when Rex repeatedly throws Jeannette into the deep end (literally) of a public pool and then has the gall to follow up with “I can’t let you cling to the side your whole life.”

Rose Mary gets in on the action too and early on as well, as we’re only a few minutes in when she tells her hungry child (probably 3 or 4 years old at the time) to make her own lunch since she can’t be bothered to take a break from her painting and Jeannette’s attempt to boil hot dogs results in horrifying burns. What, exactly, is the point of opening the story this way if I’m to have anything but utter contempt for a woman who would allow something so despicable to happen to her young daughter? In case this wasn’t enough, the plucky strings from Joel West’s cloying musical score are a distressing reminder that this movie thinks it’s a quirky dysfunctional family tale à la Little Miss Sunshine when it’s closer to something out of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre spin-off.

If there’s a saving grace, it’s in the high-quality cast that’s been assembled and the generally excellent work (inconsistent accents aside) that they showcase even with such problematic material at the forefront. Harrelson and Watts do a reliably solid job but it’s Larson that again proves she’s the real deal following her Oscar win for Room, as she navigates through complex emotional territory without losing the audience in the process. Even the caliber and conviction of the performances doesn’t change the fact that I spent so much time rolling my eyes during the events of The Glass Castle that it’s possible I saw more of the ceiling in my theater than what was taking place on the giant screen in front of me.

Detroit ***|****

John Boyega in Detroit

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams up with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal for a consecutive third time to create their most unflinching and unshakable material yet with this stark period piece. Detroit centers around the Algiers Motel incident that took place in the summer of 1967 when racial tensions and rioting were at an all-time high for the titular city and no one seemed to have a feasible solution to the problem. The film itself doesn’t provide any easy answers either and will no doubt generate a variety of impassioned opinions, both positive or negative, but it’s difficult to deny the skill and dedication that Bigelow has brought once again to her craft.

After some early scenes of context that outline the tumultuous setting, we’re introduced to several key characters who eventually converge at the Algiers Motel, including up-and-coming soul singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and local security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). When a man fires a starter pistol from the window of one of the rooms, the National Guard and local police overrun the building and round up all of its residents to seek out the potential shooter. Things turn from bad to worse when the officers led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) resort to intimidation and violence to find their suspect, which ultimately leads to multiple killings with dubious motives.

The film’s centerpiece is the hour or so that captures the horror of that event at the Algiers and while it’s grueling to watch and can be repetitive at times, every artistic and technical aspect comes together to make it an almost overwhelmingly gripping experience. The acting, especially in the case of Poulter’s sadistic policeman, is first-rate all around and does the most to contribute to the idea that everything we’re seeing is just how it was experienced by those who were there that night. The guerrilla-style camerawork from Barry Ackroyd (best known for his work with director Paul Greengrass) is fast-paced but always focused clearly during pivotal points of action both big and small.

Bigelow spends most of this long sequence at the motel to showcase the cruelty of men abusing their powers but she also takes care to assert the humanity of the victims before and after the event. For instance, we meet Dismukes as he settles a dispute in the street between a young black man and a white officer but in doing so, we learn of his personal dilemmas about keeping the peace when doing so was sometimes perceived as cowardly by those in his community. Reed is another character who gets a fair amount of screen time, most notably in the scenes where his singing is showcased and Smith’s performance is so good that his voice alone goes through its own narrative arc and informs the emotional state of his character.

If the film suffers, it’s due to the fact that neither the often clumsy build-up to the Algiers incident nor the generic courtroom follow-up reach the dramatic heights of that captivating stretch in the middle. I suspect that if Bigelow had focused more thoroughly on one character, as she did so well in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, it could have given the story a more personal framework and made things a bit more cohesive from a narrative perspective. Detroit is instead more a sociological study of a truly disturbing moment in American history that has a saddening amount of relevance to the current state of race relations even 50 years later.

A Ghost Story **|****

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story

David Lowery reunites his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for this idiosyncratic and indefinable work that has some touching meditations on the passage of time but is largely aimless and didn’t quite land with me on an emotionally resonant level. A Ghost Story begins by introducing characters credited as C (Affleck) and M (Mara) as they share a few moments of quiet intimacy and are later awakened in bed to loud noises in another room. The following day, C is shown in the aftermath of what proves to be a fatal car crash but after M visits the morgue to identify her late husband, he awakens on the table and his spirit seems to envelop the white sheet that covers him.

His ghost then saunters back to their home, wordlessly watching his former wife grieve her loss (which, in one instance, manifests itself in an audacious one-take scene of Mara binge-eating an entire pie) and try to land on her feet as she contemplates whether or not to move out of their storied house. When she does eventually move away, the ghost is left in the house as time then begins to progress rapidly and  he silently surveys future tenants unnoticed in his increasingly tattered outfit. In his isolation, C’s spirit wanders through space and time to search for answers and a way to move past the seemingly hopeless state of his quasi-existence.

Lowery settles on a more studied pace as he fixates on static shots centered around minimal bits action; one scene that depicts C lying lifeless on a body tray and then eventually rising up runs a little over 60 seconds, a lifetime by modern film editing standards. These long takes lend themselves to a more contemplative experience that allow us to take in every aspect of the frame (including the deceptively intricate costume design) and the patient storytelling juxtaposes poignantly against the fleeting nature of the ghost’s timeline, which seemingly can span years in a matter of “seconds”. To aid this effect, Lowery actually shot the ghost character at a different frame rate (33 frames per second than the traditional 24) than the rest of the scene and created a composite of the two for the final product.

Despite this low-key technical wizardry, A Ghost Story never fully landed for me and I chalk this up to the lack of emotional investment that I had in the characters and their struggles. We only spend a few moments with the central couple before one of them passes on and even in flashback, we’re not given enough detail into their lives together and the connection that they have to lead to some kind of eventual catharsis from their grief. After Mara’s M exits the story, we’re left with Affleck’s character as he sulks around his former house and tries to communicate with a neighboring ghost via subtitle, which probably wasn’t intended to be funny but had me laughing nonetheless.

There are ways in which this general story could have worked quite well but instead of making romance the centerpiece of the film, Lowery gets more existential and esoteric by taking a grander scope to the ghost’s tale and, in the process, loses the immediacy of the film’s earlier scenes. When he does eventually bring things to a close, the conclusion feels oddly unearned and a more saccharine send-off than the more ponderous narrative probably deserves. A Ghost Story showcases some well-honed artistic impulses but doesn’t have a compelling enough central story to make its flourishes come to life.

Dunkirk **½|****

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk

Dunkirk, the new World War II film from director Christopher Nolan, tells the harrowing story of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation from three different narrative perspectives with its primary focus on the beach area where thousands of troops including British  Army soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) are desperately awaiting rescue. We also follow the efforts of those who volunteered to travel across the English Channel to pick up as many men as possible, including a mariner named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). These stories are intercut with scenes in the air featuring Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) as he shoots down German planes while also trying to conserve enough fuel to make the trip back home.

This triptych structure unfolds at different rates of time (one week on land, one day at sea, one hour in the air) and is told in a non-linear fashion but unlike the tricky structures of previous efforts like Memento and Inception, Nolan doesn’t quite pull off the narrative acrobatics this time around. The stories do occasionally intersect in compelling ways — for instance, we see two instances of a downed pilot waving to his fellow airman with drastically differing contexts — but there aren’t enough of these payoffs to make the storytelling device work as well as it should. The timing of events also suggests that we should spend very little time in the air and much more on land but it felt to me that there was just as much footage of Hardy in the sky as there was following the action on the beach.

The most glaring difference in storytelling from the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre lies not in how it deals with sequencing of events but rather how little background and exposition we’re given as to what’s happening moment to moment, as the director instead decides to throw us right into the action with little context. Any detail that Nolan does give, as in the breathtaking opening scene where soldiers are walking aimlessly down an empty street as propaganda papers that demonstrate their helpless situation fly through the air, often gives us situational awareness but little personal insight to the characters. Nolan’s critics have often accused him of having characters over-explaining plot points within his own films and instead of finding a more happy medium, he goes completely the other direction and gives the audience very little to go on, which is a bold artistic choice but not one that paid off completely for me.

The biggest disappointment of Dunkirk is just how little dialogue Nolan, who has writing credits on all of his films excluding Insomnia, uses to not only set the scene but also to give us the character foundation necessary to be personally invested in what’s occurring on-screen. We’re barely able to learn all of the characters’ names before we’re asked to follow them into battle and we’re not given much more clarity into who these people are by the actions that they take; everyone fights for their survival and that’s about it. Again, I understand that this was a deliberate choice made for this film and I might not mind it if Nolan was a subpar screenwriter but he’s proven with his previous films that he has a great ear for clever and engaging dialogue and the decision to cut this aspect of his work out is a detriment to the final product.

Despite my misgivings, I was lucky enough to experience the film in the 70 mm IMAX format and there is no denying that Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have crafted plenty of indelible and unforgettable images within this film to make it as visually immersive as possible. The sonic package, also impressive but not mixed quite as effectively as it could have been, is filled out by the blending of a meticulous sound design along with Hans Zimmer’s pulsating and characteristically bombastic musical score. Dunkirk is as technically accomplished as anything Nolan has done up to this point but by denying himself the ability to utilize his most refined skills as a storyteller, he simply leaves too much unsaid.

The Big Sick ****|****

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick
Most married couples tend to have charming anecdotes about how they first met or what their first date was like but comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon have a bit more to bring to the table when it comes to discussing their early relationship. The unorthodox story of their courtship is the real-life basis for the new romantic comedy The Big Sick, an ambitious and often hilarious film that is also genuinely heart-warming and humane in a way that few companions of the genre can claim to be. Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote the brilliantly layered screenplay together and the two putting their heads together not only gave the script a balanced sense of perspective but also allowed them to pack in so many rich details that make this true story feel even more authentic.

Nanjiani plays himself as a struggling stand-up looking to break out of the Chicago comedy scene with his friends CJ (Bo Burnham) and Mary (Aidy Bryant) while also making some money on the side with a semi-regular gig as an Uber driver. One night, Kumail is accidentally heckled by a graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) and when they meet after the show, it’s clear that the two have an immediate connection and after a few dates centered around viewings of vintage horror movies, they officially become a couple. Things are going well until a misunderstanding and ensuing argument seem to derail their partnership but after an unexpected incident following their breakup draws Kumail back into her life, he forms a bond with Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) that gives him the clarity to renew the relationship.

Kumail’s family and their cultural ties factor prominently into his life and subsequently into the story, as their desire for him to settle down with a nice Pakistani girl and pursue a more serious career than stand-up comedy is antithetical to how he’d like things to play out for himself. Even with his differing perspective, Nanjiani writes the roles of his family members in incredibly mature fashion and treats their more conservative viewpoint with respect instead of just throwing them under the bus for easy laughs. There is a harrowing conversation late in the film between Kumail and his parents, in which their Western and Eastern philosophies collide and threaten to do irreparable damage to their relationship, that is likely the most heartbreaking and brutally honest scene I’ve seen so far this year.

Director Michael Showalter is probably best known for co-writing sketch comedy touchstones like The State and Stella along with cult classic Wet Hot American Summer but he shows considerable talent behind the camera as he effortlessly manages some drastic tonal shifts. There are so many shortcuts that he could have taken when translating this true story to the big screen and I really came to appreciate just how much thematic ground this movie covered from the persistence of young love to the uncertainty of trying to carve one’s path in the world. At two hours long, it seems like The Big Sick would have a tendency to drag or include more material than is necessary but the pacing is always right where it needs to be and no matter how heavy the story gets, Showalter proves that he can still get a laugh when you least expect it.

Much of the humor is there on the page but the credit for the film’s frequent source of laughs goes to Nanjiani’s lead performance, which showcases the comedian’s self-effacing style beautifully while also including tender moments of dramatic poignancy. Holly Hunter does excellent work here as she always does but the biggest surprise to me was Ray Romano, who I had a passing familiarity with based on his Everybody Loves Raymond success but with this role, proves that he’s graduated well past his sitcom roots to offer something more resonant. I’d love if all three were nominated for acting awards come Oscar season but even if they aren’t, I’d be surprised if The Big Sick doesn’t garner some attention in the major categories as a comedy this uniformly excellent doesn’t come around all that often.

Spider-Man: Homecoming ***½|****

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

After an auspicious cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man now has his own standalone feature in the MCU and and I’m happy to report that it more than lives up to the promise of his previous appearance. Spider-Man: Homecoming is the third on-screen iteration of the illustrious web-slinger, as directors Sam Raimi and Marc Webb previously had separate swings at the characters, but in many ways, this seems to be the first version that truly understands what makes the character unique and indispensible in the superhero realm. If Raimi’s trilogy exhibited an earnest campiness ripped straight from the comic book pages and Webb’s pair of films was brooding retort to the Dark Knight series, then this film casts a lively signature of its own that’s defined by soulful storytelling and perfectly pitched humor.

Tom Holland reprises his role as the young Peter Parker, who is desperate to become a full-time Avenger after the thrilling battle of Civil War but is told to lay low and not get into anything too perilous by his burgeoning father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) Eager to help his community, he ignores the advice and crosses paths with arms dealer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who harvests the alien technology brought to Earth during The Avengers to create advanced weapons for criminals all around the city. Parker also must balance this new conflict with the everyday dilemmas of teenage life, including a best friend (Jacob Batalon) who accidentally learns of his secret identity and a new love interest (Laura Harrier) who challenges him on the academic decathlon team.

The film’s subtitle is a nod to the fact that Spider-Man has “come home” to Marvel Studios after 15 years of Sony hoarding the character rights but it’s actually more telling that it refers to the big homecoming dance at Parker’s high school, as the movie tends to play out more like a coming-of-age teen comedy than traditional superhero epic. As opposed to the high school scenes of previous Spider-Man movies that mainly consisted of “kids” in their late twenties sitting around in room made to look like a lunchtime cafeteria, Midtown High School actually feels like a believable setting complete with awkward gym classes and dreadful detention sessions (there’s even brief chess club shoutout, for good measure). Homecoming understands that the stakes of the story are established by Parker’s interpersonal conflicts and are not just defined by the big showdown with Spider-Man’s villain of the week.

This emotionally grounded mentality extends not just to Parker but also to Toomes as well, whose evil plan isn’t to blow up the planet or take over the galaxy but rather to just stay under the radar peddling guns on the black market so that he can support his family. Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture (the Birdman jokes write themselves) is one that’s steeped in desperation and circumstance rather than sinister clichés that have infected many a Marvel villain in the past, which makes the character one of the more compelling examples in the category. When Spider-Man and Vulture do arrive at their final confrontation, the shared history between the two comes to the forefront and creates a poignancy that makes their airborne showdown that much more thrilling.

It may sound like serious business but believe me when I say that there are plenty of laughs along the way with loads of quick visual gags, ping-pong dialogue and some brilliantly conceived bits that reference other segments of this Universe (there’s a running joke featuring another MCUer that’s delightfully unexpected). Like The Lego Batman Movie, this is a film written by people who know how to get plenty of comedic mileage from riffing on aspects of their respective characters’ legacies but they do so respectfully, taking care to avoid mean-spirited jabs in the process. People are rightly skeptical of reboots, especially with franchises that have had as much recent activity as this one, but Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that a fresh vision on an existing property can sometimes have truly amazing results.