The Big Sick (B). This is a pleasant and affable little romantic comedy with a couple of twists. First, it’s apparently based on the star’s real life romancing of his wife. And second, the main plot point is that the female lead (Zoe Kazan, What If) gets a mysterious illness that puts her into a coma halfway through the movie. After that, it’s mostly about the fellow, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, Life as We Know It) having to deal with the girl’s parents (well-played by Ray Romano, TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, and Holly Hunter, Thirteen) while their daughter is in potentially mortal danger. Also, he’s juggling his would-be career as a stand-up comedian and his overbearing Pakistani parents’ attempts to push him into an arranged marriage. Not everything totally worked for me, but there were enough chuckles, and the leads were likable enough, that I enjoyed it.
The Edge of Seventeen (B-). This new tale of teen angst stars Hailee Steinfeld (Begin Again) as Nadine, a miserable and thoroughly unpleasant high-school student whose entire wardrobe seems to consist of barely-there skirts and shorts. Nadine doesn’t get along with either her mom or her older brother. To make matters worse, her only friend in the world starts dating said older brother, which only makes Nadine more miserable and, amazingly, even more unpleasant. Really, Nadine is so obnoxious and filled with self-loathing that I found it very hard to empathize with her, She seemed borderline mentally ill. The movie’s bright spot is Nadine’s friendship with her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, Management). Bruner’s dryly sarcastic responses to Nadine’s various crises had the whole theater laughing out loud. Basically, all the scenes involving Bruner are great, and the rest of the movie is so-so. And please note that the R rating for language and sexual content is well deserved.
Don’t Think Twice (B-). Two things drew me to check out this movie about six friends who perform together as an improv comedy troupe—its crazy high Rotten Tomatoes score (99%) and the fact that it co-stars Gillian Jacobs of my beloved TV show Community. Fact is, the movie is just OK. Most of the interest is provided by the rivalries, envies, and insecurities of the various members of the group. Everyone wants to break into a certain TV comedy show (a very thinly disguised Saturday Night Live), but of course not everyone can succeed. Additional interest is created when the father of a group member has a health crisis. And, of course, the movie shows how hard improv is. Not a bad way to spend 92 minutes.
Maggie’s Plan (B). I rather liked this little independent comedy, even though it chronicles the ongoing destruction (deconstruction? displacement?) of traditional marriage as the customary and assumed center of family life. Indie queen Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress) stars as Maggie, an unattached thirtysomething New Yorker who is on the verge of attempting to become a mother via sperm donation (but not from an anonymous donor; she picks a smart guy she knew in college who’s on the verge of great success as a pickle entrepreneur).
ARGUABLE SPOILERS FOLLOW.
But this whole plan gets derailed when she meets and falls in love with John (Ethan Hawke, Before Sunset), an anthropologist and would-be novelist. The feeling is mutual, but John’s married to Georgette (Julianne Moore, in full-out Teutonic The Big Lebowski mode) and has two kids. But then, lickety-split, John and Georgette are divorced, John and Maggie are married and have a little girl—and Maggie starts falling out of love with John and hatches a plan to get Georgette and John back together. As Maggie’s pal Tony (Bill Hader, Trainwreck) asks, why can’t she just leave John like a normal person? I guess it’s because Maggie is played by Greta Gerwig, and that’s not how a Greta Gerwig character rolls. Anyway, Greta Gerwig brings her usual charm to the proceedings, and I pretty much enjoyed it.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (B). Based on a true story, this is the story of Kim Baker (Tina Fey, Sisters), a copywriter for some TV network who impulsively accepts an assignment to report on the war in Afghanistan. Of course it’s a whole new alien world for her at first, but another female reporter (Margot Robbie, The Big Short) helps her get adjusted. She encounters other colorful characters, like a crusty but decent Marine colonel (Billy Bob Thornton, Friday Night Lights), the skeezy would-be attorney general of Afghanistan (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2), and a rascally Scottish journalist (Martin Freeman, The Hobbitses). And she finds herself enjoying, and even getting addicted to, the adrenaline rush of war reporting. IMDB puts it in the “comedy” and “war” genres, but I thought it played fairly seriously despite occasional comic moments. Anyway, it’s a pretty good movie.
The Lady in the Van (B). The redoubtable Maggie Smith (TV’s Downton Abbey) stars in the title role in this British import. An introverted playwright named Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings, The Queen) has bought a townhouse, and he soon meets neighborhood fixture Miss Shepherd (Smith). She’s an eccentric, excitable, and malodorous homeless woman who lives in a decrepit old van that she occasionally moves up or down the street. The neighbors, being normal people, don’t really want her around, but, also being liberals, they can’t bear to run her off either. Somehow she eventually gets Bennett to let her park in his driveway, and there she stays–for the next 15 years. And apparently this is based on a true story! We get bits and pieces of Miss Shepherd’s backstory, which, as to be expected, is not a particularly happy one. Good performances, but the story is a bit slight and certainly a bit sad.
Laggies (C). It seemed like this 2014 release was barely in the theaters at all, even though it stars the winsome Chloë Grace Moretz (Dark Shadows) and the toothsome Keira Knightley (Atonement). It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t very good either. Knightley stars as Megan, a 28-year-0ld Seattle woman who has failed to launch. She’s been dating her high-school boyfriend for 10 years, and despite having some sort of graduate degree she “works” by twirling an advertising sign in front of her dad’s accounting firm. She chances to meet some cool high-schoolers, and she winds up running away from her real life and staying with Annika (Moretz) and her divorced dad (Sam Rockwell, Moon) for a week. Not sure I’d let some stranger move into my house for a week on my kid’s say-so, but okay. Ellie Kemper (They Came Together) has a thankless supporting role as a humorless member of Megan’s old high-school posse. Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page) pops up in a tiny role. It’s not a very believable movie, and Megan isn’t a particular believable (or likable) character. Still, I liked this better than Your Sister’s Sister, also by director Lynn Shelton.