The Big Sick (2017) starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, & Ray Romano

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the movie (now in wide release).

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The amazing part of this movie is that it deals with deeply serious complex issues, but does so with humor and grace. The screenplay is remarkable and nuanced…

The screenplay for this quirky, clever, and (sometimes) emotional rom com was written by its Pakistani immigrant lead actor (Kumail Nanjiani from Silicon Valley) and his American-born wife (Emily V. Gordon); it is based (partly) on their real-life love story. Emily is played by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the famed director, Elia Kazan); her character falls into a coma mid-way through the movie. Kumail’s love of video games and admiration of Hugh Grant (esp. his hairstyle) are noted; he mentioned these points in various interviews. This is NOT the typical rom com (thank goodness!)- it’s a LOT more realistic (“awkward” is a term used in promos), it includes people of color (POC), and is easy to relate to (esp. for second-generation desis and/or Muslims). 

Veteran actors, Holly Hunter (who I really enjoy watching) and Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) play Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry. Kumail’s father is played by a veteran Bollywood comedian, Anupam Kher, who also played the patriarch on the British film Bend it Like Beckham; he acts in both Hindi and English. Kumail’s friends from the comedy world get rather meaty roles for this genre; they are Aidy Bryant (SNL), Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunholer. Fans of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore may recognize Indian-born model-turned-actress, Shenaz Treasury, who plays Fatima, Kumail’s sister-in-law. 

One may be tempted to say Kumail’s family are the antagonists of the story. This might be true if one is trying to parse out this or that or the other with the characters, but this is over-simplification. They are an obstacle for Kumail, but really his biggest enemy is himself, how he views what his family has put on him, what his own culture has done to his mind, and at the same time reconciling with being a modern American given all the relative opportunities everyone else has. 

In the break-up scene, Kumail declares: “I’m fighting over 1,400 years of tradition! You were just ugly in high school!” after Emily finds the cigar box filled w/ pics of eligible women. Yes, indeed he is fighting something (baggage, anyone?)- he doesn’t believe in Islam (pretends to pray in his parents’ basement), drinks alcohol (a no-no for devout Muslims), and is hiding his relationship from his family (NOT healthy). I think that ALL of us in the desi diaspora have family, friends, or everyday acquaintances who have gone through something like this! Jhumpa Lahiri (who is an Indian-American/Hindu) wrote about some of the same themes in The Namesake; the film (which contains some Bengali language- cool) was quite good also. 

The tonal shifts might seem extreme at first, but they gradually cement a powerful narrative that makes for a lot of laughs, but also becomes bittersweet and endearing without resorting to a hint of sentimentality.

Now, a few of you may have read the criticism re: how “brown women” are portrayed in this film; I scanned over 3 opinion pieces so far. I was worried about this (before I saw it), however, a desi woman could NOT be the lead of this story b/c it was re: Kumail’s life. It’s obvious that Fatima and Naveed, Kumail’s older brother, have a loving relationship (which was arranged). Also, the single women who come to dinner are ALL of different looks and personalities, from a curvy Pakistani sci fi nerd, an American-raised waif (who speaks Urdu), and Khadija (Vela Lovell- who is Caucasian and Indian in reality). This American actress is part of the ensemble cast on CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a quirky comedy where she plays the slacker neighbor of Rebecca, the lead character. In an alternate world, Khadija and Kumail could have worked (as they have some chemistry), BUT he was already deeply in love w/ Emily. Are there stereotypes in this film? Yes, there are some present, BUT there are also subtle touches (where MOST of the characters are humanized).

Sure, there needs to be stories of desis/Muslims getting together, BUT we need artists to write those tales, funds to produce, and an audience which will be receptive to such stories. Remember that NOT all American desis (yes, even those here for decades) approve of dating and “love marriage.” Sometimes the singles (as adults, of course) need to find the inner strength to go after the type of relationship that they want and maintain it, even in times of adversity. Arranged marriage is NOT guaranteed to be a succes, BUT love doesn’t always last forever either. Let’s write our own stories OR support creative types from communities of color (NOT just our own)! Dwelling solely on negativity gets us nowhere. 

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Master of None (Netflix): Season 2

NOTE: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the latest season of the streaming comedy series.

Back in my NYC days, I used to hang out often w/ Bangladeshi immigrants (mainly grad students) and Bangladeshi-Americans (singles and couples aged 20 to 40). One young woman my age (raised in a Queens middle-class family) told me that her younger sister was attending college in Japan. Now, this is quite unusual for a female from an immigrant/Muslim/South Asian background. She went to Japan at age 18; she was VERY familiar w/ Japanese culture and nealry fluent in the language, thanks mainly to her best friend/neighbor.

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Aziz Ansari with his younger brother (Aniz) and parents (Shoukath and Nisha).

As a comedian, I can talk about anything, as long as I make it funny. So it’s pretty cool if I can get people thinking about immigration or feminism or the food industry at my stand- up shows. -Aziz Ansari 

In the second season of Master of None, you’ll find influences from classic Italian cinema, which Aziz Ansari (now 32 y.o.) greatly admires. Some disappointed viewers asked: “Why doesn’t he show India?” or “Why doesn’t he discuss his Indian-ness more?” or something to that regard. The actor/writer/producer is of South Indian/Muslim heritage, BUT was raised in Columbia, South Carolina. I hate to break it to you detractors, BUT one individual can’t show you ALL the sides of being South Asian, Muslim, and/or millennial in the US. (FYI: I know SOME who prefer the term “brown,” BUT I’m not a big fan of that word.) I’m VERY glad (proud even) that Ansari has achieved such a high profile at such a young age; it’s not like he had (conventional) good looks, height, or connections to get him where he is now. Like MANY other desis, he trained (NYU; The Upright Citizens’ Brigade) for several years and worked hard for his success.   

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Dev (Aziz Ansari) rides a bike in Modena, Italy in Episode 1: The Thief.

[1] Master of None does not seize the easy way out which lies ahead when it comes to comic relief, cliché plot twists or predictable character development. No, it truly touched me with its ability to pay intense attention to detail. 

[2] The second season is one of the most creative pieces I have seen for a long time. The smooth conversational style and the imaginative expressions relating to daily lives makes it easy to watch. 

[3] I love shows with this kind of humor… It doesn’t try too hard to be funny, it just is. The characters are like my own funny, silly friends! It’s also so refreshing to see a show with a main character being a POC! 

[4] Full disclosure- I’m not only brown, but Tamil, just like Aziz/ Dev, and actually was born in Chennai, so I may be a TAD biased…

…I have never written an online review- ever- but I felt I had to because I have never seen anything like this. Master of None just unassumingly starts like any other modern comedy (with a nice bang!) , but before you know it you are smiling, laughing, and all warm and fuzzy, all the while watching the characters in the show discuss and experience seemingly serious issues like racism, sexism, and modern social life. I think the beautiful thing about this show is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with messages or even try that hard. It’s just funny. The characters are just funny. It’s just natural and real.

-Various IMDB comments (re: S2)

Food is central to this season; the story picks up w/ Dev (Ansari) in small-town Italy making pasta. In Modena, Dev trains with a family, incl. Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), w/ whom he has great chemistry, BUT Dev is  single and Francesca has a boyfriend, Pino. In E1, Dev meets a cute British woman traveling alone on his birthday, BUT loses his phone to a thief, so is unable to contact her.

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Dev (Aziz Ansari) feeds Arnold (Eric Wareham) some freshly made pasta.
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Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Arnold (Eric Wareham) ride scooters through the countryside.

Dev’s BFF shows up in E2; Arnold (Eric Wareheim) is going to the wedding of an ex-girlfriend in the lovely countryside. The buddies chat re: dating (incl. a new app Arnold is enthralled w/), eat delicious food, and even get stuck in a VERY narrow alley w/ their rental car. Arnold convinces Dev to go to the wedding, gets angry and emotional, BUT it all works out in the end. 

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Dev (Aziz Ansari) at the BBQ festival with the Tickler’s mascot.

Dev returns home to NYC and we get reintroduced to his (hilarious) father, Ramesh (Shoukath Ansari- Aziz’s father). In the much-discussed E3, his dad and mom (Nisha Ansari- Aziz’s mother) tell Dev that he needs to pretend to be a pious Muslim while an uncle and aunt are visiting. Dev’s love of food clashes w/ the religion he eschews. Dev introduces his younger cousin (played by Ansari’s college-aged cousin, Haris) to pork and they end up going to a famous BBQ festival. What I esp. liked about this ep was that the religious elders were NOT one-dimensional. Sure, they planned to go to Mecca, BUT they were also big basketball fans. Dev (finally) read the Koran that his mom has given him when he went away from home! This ep was co-written by Ansari’s younger brother, Aniz. 

…“Religion” took me away from the Islam I see on TV and back to the Islam I’ve lived my whole life. The episode opens on a mother warning her son to abstain from finishing the bacon he’s holding: “Bacon is pork. We are Muslim. We are not allowed to eat pork,” she warns, adding, “That is our religion.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard this exact same phrase growing up. Pop-Tarts, Jell-O, gummy bears, marshmallows, almost anything at a Korean or Italian restaurant…

-Aymann Ismail (Slate)

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A young African immigrant cabbie and Dev (Aziz Ansari) watch Death Castle in Episode 6.

[1] Aziz presents us an episode so unique and incredible, yet barely involves him and his co-stars. It explores in a fantastic and diverse way the city of NYC through perspectives that we don’t take the time to appreciate and understand. The creative use of silence during the deaf portion of the episode was absolutely incredible and has such a powerful meaning.

[2] This was an especially excellent episode, I really loved the way it showed the views of different characters, really made you empathize with them. I really loved the minimalist approach, where you guys let the situations speak for themselves and did not overdo it at all. Achieved levels of empathy I have not seen in many other TV shows/movies.

-IMDB comments (re: S2, E6)

E6 is titled (like the 2008 film)- New York, I Love You. The film Death Castle is based on a rejected script written by Nicolas Cage, who also played the imaginary lead role. This is Ansari’s love letter to working-class immigrants and POCs (incl. a young deaf woman). If you loved this ep, check out the HBO film Everyday People.

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Episode 8: Thanksgiving is a must-see!

E8 is probably the crowning jewel of this season; it features a Hollywood titan (Angela Bassett) and a prolific comic/character actress (Kym Whitley). Much of Denise’s coming out story came from actress Lena Waithe’s real life; she co-wrote this ep w/ Ansari.  Do the Right Thing (1989) is the Spike Lee movie that Dev, Denise, and Nikki are watching during Thanksgiving 2016.  It features the scene where police kill Radio Raheem, paralleling their dinner conversation about Sandra Bland and Sureshbhai Patel.

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Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Dev (Aziz Ansari) on a NYC rooftop.

…even though Dev is a adult in his late 20s, this feels more or less like a high school girl next door crush. She is sweet, charming, beautiful and you guys have awesome chemistry together and you enjoy each others company, BUT… she is NOT available. -A viewer’s thoughts on Dev’s relationship w/ Francesca (the main love interest in S2)

The ladies Dev dates (thanks to a Tinder-like app) in E4 (First Date) are ALL different/interesting/unique! They include gorgeous Condola Rashad (daughter of Ahmad and Phylicia), quirky ramen blogger Stephanie (VA-raised comic Aparna Nancherla), and adorable/straight-laced lawyer, Priya (Tiya Sircar). These are ALL women of color who are coming up in Hollywood- VERY cool to see. Check out this show for yourself ASAP! 

Shots Fired (Fox): First Impressions

DOJ prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) and investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan)

NOTE: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the first three hours of the series.

[1] Shots Fired is at its best when raising legitimate questions about the criminal justice system and attempting to answer them. But I don’t know if there is an answer. The dark overtones that envelope the show at times feel real and appropriate. For a topic this serious, darkness may be the only way to truly shed light on the gravity of the situation.

[2] …I am not surprised by the haters in the reviews here. To me, these are people that are stuck in their ways and are not trying to see the world through different sets of eyes. Blacks and others have had to watch MOST TV through white people’s eyes and they expect us to be happy for it. Now you have a show like this that is finally putting Black people in a humane and more realistic light and they can’t handle it.

[3] I’m Asian male [Vietnamese] that grew up in a working class neighborhood and episode 1 gave me goosebumps because it aligns so much with our reality. You probably thinking how can I say that when I’m an Asian male. Truth is, many of our struggles are similar to blacks in America. You may not know, but there is an Asian gang culture in every major cities in America due to the same reasons that make it hard for blacks to succeed in America. Any law enforcement officers in major cities can confirm this.

-Excerpts from various IMDB reviews

Deputy Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds) is the young cop and family man who becomes an outcast on the police force.

Unnecessary police violence, particularly white cops against black offenders, is a topic that has everyone on edge. But, what happens when it’s a black cop that shoots an unarmed white kid based on racial profiling? 

The show centers on junior DOJ prosecutor, Preston Terry (Stephan James- who is Canadian and just 25 y.o.), and investigator, Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan- daughter of a prolific Hollywood producer), who are sent to a small North Carolina town to investigate a police shooting. It’s much better, if a black officer (Deputy Joshua Beck- played by 28 y.o. Mack Wilds)  is investigated and convicted by a black prosecutor, as one of Preston’s superiors in DC says in the first scene. Ashe and Terry dig deeper and find that an unarmed black kid was shot by a white officer not too long ago in the “houses”(projects) of this same town. 

Critics (and viewers) see a lot of potential in James; he definitely has that “It” factor (which an actor needs to get to leading man status). Don’t forget that a very young Blair Underwood played an attorney on L.A. Law in the ’80s. Wilds is doing pretty well in this role (never seen him before); the actor admitted that he never imagined himself in the shoes of a police officer before. He’s got an innocence and freshness about him- key for his role. What to say re: Sanaa Lathan?  Hmm… well, she’s got youthful looks (even at age 45); her acting is not terrible, but pretty one-note.

Governor Eamons (Helen Hunt) talks to press while her aide Sarah (Conor Leslie) and Preston (James) look on.

Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt) is the first female governor of the state; she was the one who decided to bring in the DOJ.  Local pastor Janae James (Aisha Hinds) points out, after all the shootings of unarmed black men, why is this the case where the feds decide to get involved? Hinds’ outspoken activist, yet also spiritual, character is unlike most preachers we’ve seen on TV- female, youthful, and putting faith into action. 

Richard Dreyfus is introduced (near the end of the second hour); he is a 1st gen American businessman looking to advance a new prison/educational complex. I’ve seen three hours so far, but  may keep w/ it (if the writing gets stronger and the veteran actors get more to do). So far, British actor Stephen Moyer (who plays Lt. Breeland) has just been a jerk. He may have brought some fans along w/ him from True Blood (never seen that show, so can’t judge).  I’m waiting to see more of Will Patton (who plays the sheriff); he has a way w/ ambiguous characters.  

Jill Hennessy at the Sundance premiere of “Shots Fired.” I was very happy to see her back on network TV!

We get to see Ashe and Preston in their private lives, unlike what you’ve seen in most Law and Order-type series. Speaking of that iconic TV show, the still stunning Jill Hennessy plays Alicia Carr, the heartbroken mother of the white college student. She gets a chance to shine in the third hour. Preston, who could’ve been a professional baseball player, is trying to earn the respect of his father (Dennis Haysbert) and older brother, (a pro football player). Ashe is a woman with serious anger issues, trying to keep primary custody of her daughter. Her Latino ex-boyfriend is planning to marry (a younger Latina woman) and raise their daughter full-time.