Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 3/15/19

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CREDIT: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

The Mustang

Arrested Development Season 5 Part 2 (Premieres March 15 on Netflix) – The final (?) episodes!
Shrill Season 1 (Premieres March 15 on Hulu) – Starring Aidy Bryant!
Turn Up Charlie Season 1 (Premieres March 15 on Netflix)

Amy Schumer Growing (Premieres March 19 on Netflix)

Sports on TV
-March Madness (March 19-April 8 on CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV)

This Is a Movie Review: ‘I Feel Pretty’ Mines Humor and Self-Confidence Out of Cognitive Dissonance

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CREDIT: Mark Schafer/STX Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in April 2018.

Starring: Amy Schumer, Rory Scovel, Michelle Williams, Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps, Lauren Hutton, Tom Hopper, Emily Ratajkowski, Adrian Martinez

Directors: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Strategically Filmed Nudity

Release Date: April 20, 2018

A friend who accompanied me to the I Feel Pretty screening remarked afterwards that Amy Schumer was the wrong fit for the lead role and that an actual plus-size actress like Nicole Byer or Aidy Bryant (who plays one of Schumer’s close friends) would have made more sense. Her point is salient, for while Schumer does not have a supermodel’s stereotypical rail-thin body, she is hardly anywhere near obese. But this movie, in which a cosmetics company employee suddenly starts believing that she is transcendentally beautiful, is about perception more than reality. What it requires in the lead then is someone with a body that can both convincingly cause self-esteem issues and be stunningly attractive. That is to say, it could be anybody, and that is the underlying message. I Feel Pretty is not about a fat girl who starts to believe that she is skinny, but rather, it is about someone with low self-esteem who transforms into the most self-assured woman ever.

Writing/directing duo Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein take their cues from the likes of Big (even featuring clips from that 1988 Tom Hanks classic to make the connection even more obvious), as Renee (Schumer) wishes at a fountain that she can be one of the beautiful people that commands the attention of any room she walks into. The next day at SoulCycle she gets knocked out after hitting her head, and when she comes to, she looks in the mirror, and voilà! Her wish has come true, and she proceeds to admire and shamelessly caress all her assets. But here’s the kicker: her appearance has not changed, and there is no indication that she is hallucinating an idealized version of herself. The audience sees the same body she has had the whole time, and presumably that is what Renee sees, too. It is only how she sees it that has changed.

I Feel Pretty walks an unceasing tightrope, as it is built on a foundation of cognitive dissonance. Schumer has to play a character who is insane enough that she has a sort of inverted body dysmorphia but not so insane that she cannot function in society. (Appropriately enough, one of the biggest laugh lines comes from her being assured that her company offers plenty of mental health services.) She gets away with it by maintaining a relaxed energy befitting the self-confidence she achieves. And besides, while constant confusion may not be the best formula for logic, it is a perfect formula for laughter, as the brain attempts to make sense of the nonsense of self-discovery.

Much of the humor derives from the reactions of those around Renee. Her best friends Vivian (Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps) humor her assurances of “It really is me” while subtly worrying that she has lost her mind. As for those who meet her after her “change,” Rory Scovel, as Renee’s love interest, and Michelle Williams and Lauren Hutton, as her co-workers, get a lot of comedic mileage out of just looking on in stunned amazement at this truly singular woman in their presence. What they are responding to has almost nothing to do with her body and everything to do with her self-assurance. (Williams, for her part, is unforgettable in her affectation of a breathy baby-doll voice that is supposedly her character’s natural way of speaking.)

The story falters a bit in the middle for the sake of fitting into the genre’s typical denouement. Renee initially remains as nice as she always been after her transformation, but after a taste of life on the other side, she starts displaying some casual cruelty that feels less like a natural regression and more a betrayal of character consistency. These conflicts lead to some sweet resolutions, but they are not quite satisfying enough to make the means of getting to that point easy to stomach.

I Feel Pretty’s message that self-confidence and self-acceptance are the keys to success and happiness is no great revelation, but that does not make it any less true or not worth repeating. But I am left wondering: would it have resonated more if the lead had a less normative body type? From a business standpoint, it would be positive if more starring roles went to those who are plus-size, queer, trans, and/or people of color. But the point is that self-confidence and self-doubt are both available to everyone, no matter how traditionally attractive they are or are not. So theoretically the lead of I Feel Pretty could have been anyone, but in practice it had to be one person. At least there is a genuine invocation of inclusivity with a conclusive speech. It is the sort of speech that has been co-opted to sell cosmetic products (both within and outside the film), but it is nonetheless worth holding onto its positivity and running with it.

I Feel Pretty is Recommended If You Like: Big, Laughing While Being Confused, Finding the Inspiration to Achieve Your Dreams

Grade: 4 out of 5 Diffusion Lines

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Big Sick’ is the Best Romantic Comedy in Years

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter

Director: Michael Showalter

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R for Adults and Comedians Talking Like Adults and Comedians

Release Date: June 23, 2017 (Limited)/Expands July 14, 2017

The Big Sick follows the classic rom-com template in a lot of ways despite not  resembling any other entry in the genre in any obvious fashion. But if you look close enough, that formula is there. There’s a meet-cute, a dramatic misunderstanding, and a climactic reunion. It is usually that middle portion when lesser rom-coms start to become annoying or even offensive, but when the miscommunications happen because one half of the central couple is in a coma, the struggles along the way to that happy ending become a lot more understandable.

Based on the real-life courtship of comedian Kumail Nanjiani (who plays a fictionalized version of himself) and his co-writer/now-wife Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is an astute portrayal of culture clash, modern romance tics, and the workaday stand-up comedy lifestyle. Kumail hits it off with Emily (Zoe Kazan) after she kinda, sorta heckles him, they go back to his place so that they can hook up and he can show her some cool obscure genre flicks like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (she teasingly takes him to task for testing her pop culture tastes). Soon enough they are basically inseparable. Alas, Kumail has been keeping Emily a secret from his parents because he comes from a traditional Pakistani family that practices arranged marriage, so any future with her comes with a risk of being ostracized. This would all be enough conflict on its own, but on top of that, just after they break, Emily succumbs to a mysterious illness that leads to doctors placing her in a medically induced coma.

Classic rom-com humor tends to spring from witticisms and oddball characterizations, but The Big Sick’s most hilarious elements come from its knack for outrageous joke-telling. This is called playing to your strengths. Nanjiani is one of the most top-tier funnymen around today, and the rest of the film’s core stand-up crew are played by some reliable comedic heavy hitters (Kurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham). The Big Sick wins you over because it goes broad and plentiful with its emotions. Every moment of worry over Emily’s health is counteracted with a big guffaw.

Nanjiani and company further distinguish themselves within the rom-com mold in how the make-up and reunion portion plays out. Kumail and Emily find themselves back to each other thanks mostly to the work he puts in with her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). Romano brings the soulful gravitas he has made his specialty in his dramatic roles, but his comic chops are just as sharp as the young guns around him, and Hunter is the same spitfire we have loved for so long (her confrontation of a racist heckler is one of the film’s best scenes). While Kazan is unconscious for much of the narrative, she does not get shortchanged in the deal (SPOILER ALERT that is kind of given away by one of the film’s co-writers being alive), as she and Kumail still have to hash everything out once she is awake, which justifies the fairly lengthy running time (right around 2 hours). Ultimately, you can feel that every element of the story is in the right place; surely some elements were fictionalized, but the emotional truth is always full-to-bursting.

The Big Sick is Recommended If You Like: Knocked Up, Master of None, Ruby Sparks

Grade: 5 out of 5 Drop Ins