Quick Take: Phantom Thread


I approach all Paul Thomas Anderson movies with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Every one I’ve seen (the only one I haven’t is his first, Hard Eight) has been great, but challenging, and I guess I’m always afraid it’s going to go over my head. Phantom Thread definitely went over my head, but I’m still convinced it’s great. I think there are certain movies that don’t make sense until you’ve reached a certain point in your life, and I’m not sure I’ve been married long enough to appreciate the nuances at work in a movie that has Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Reynolds Woodcock, verbally abuse his wife (played by the sublime Vicky Krieps) who then poisons him (just a little) to make him sick and calm him down- and when Woodcock learns this, he kisses her! This is the most inexplicable scene in the movie, and it’s also the best. I don’t get it, but I love it.

Quicker take: What did I just watch, and why did I love it so much?


Quick Take: The Big Sick

If we have to keep watching Judd Apatow movies, I pray he continues embracing a diversity of voices. Trainwreck wasn’t much more than that, but at least it wasn’t a schlubby, white, male comedian telling the same story Apatow has been telling since The 40-Year-Old Virgin- essentially a romantic comedy from the perspective of a child stuck in the body of a man. Some of those have been worthwhile (Virgin, Knocked Up) and others have been not (Funny People).

The Big Sick, from Pakistani-American comedian and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, has more ground to cover than a man who can’t get his life together in time to hold on to the right girl (in this case, played by Zoe Kazan, who kind of runs away with the movie). Kumail is afraid his family will disown him if he commits to a white girl rather than one of the Pakistani girls his mother keeps trying to set him up with. Oh, and that white girl goes into a coma after a rare condition exacerbates an infection.

The movie is always more than its conceit. Meaning, it’s never just “that rom-com where the girl goes into a coma.” This is probably because the story is based on Nanjiani’s real-life relationship with his real-life wife and co-screenwriter, Emily V. Gordon. There are a lot of laughs, especially once Emily’s parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both pitch perfect) show up. But it’s the drama, not the comedy, that sticks with you. Like most romantic comedies, you’re never unsure of how it will end, especially since Kumail and Emily are still married. But unlike most romantic comedies, The Big Sick fills out its edges with who these characters really are. And, equally as rare, the movie uncovers some truths about the messy relationship between time, healing, and love.

TL;DR: Worthy of the upcoming sequel, The Big Sick 2: Bigger and Sicker (unconfirmed).

Quick Take: The 39 Steps (1935), or Before Hitchcock Was Hitchcock


Like most movie-lovers, I’m most familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s later work. I’ve seen his early movies Rebecca and Sabotage, but the movies I think of when I think of Hitch are The BirdsPsychoNorth by Northwest, and, my personal favorite of his, Rear Window. But those movies were a full thirty years into the legendary director’s career. The 39 Steps was Hitchcock’s first big hit and was the beginning of a run of rare form. There’s a reason Hitch is one of the few directors from early Hollywood that even the movie-illiterate have at least heard of, and The 39 Steps is the genesis.

Moody and atmospheric, the movie’s story, following a London man (Robert Donat) who gets caught up with an agent trying to foil plot to steal valuable British military intelligence, is the classic Hitchcock fable of an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. It’s also got Hitchcock’s typical deadpan humor. The combination makes for a stylish, classic spy movie that ranks up there near, yes, Rear Window.

Quick Take: Chi-Raq Is a Mess of Good Intentions


It’s not hard to see what Spike Lee is going for with Chi-Raq. He’s an outspoken dude, and he gave plenty of interviews about his desire for peace in the  black communities of Chicago on the movie’s press tour. Clearly the man has good intentions for this movie. But the result is tonally imbalanced and sort of insulting. On paper, a satirical musical performed all in rhyme about gun violence and gang life from the great Spike Lee sounds like a risk for movie newbies Amazon, but one well worth taking. Lee’s movies thrive on risk, on a hip-hop sense of thrill. But onscreen, while there are flashes of great filmmaking (especially in scenes that cede the floor to powerful performances from Teyonah Parris and Angela Bassett), most of it feels unfinished and haphazard. Maybe this is what happens when somebody who so clearly and vividly represents Brooklyn tries to capture the essence of a different city without the blessing of that city’s community.

Quicker take: If you want the best experience watching Chi-Raq, watch Do the Right Thing instead.

Quick Take: Sidewalk Stories (1989)


If you have something against black-and-white or silent movies, then no amount of effusive praise from me will convince you to see Sidewalk Stories. But you’d be missing out on a magical experience. With the sensibility of the Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character and the modern wit of The Artist (twenty years prior, I might add), Sidewalk Stories tells the story of a homeless man (Charles Lane, also the film’s director) who finds himself in possession of a child after he witnesses the stabbing of her father. Like City Lights before it, Sidewalk Stories finds the right tone to present a realistic experience of life on the streets while still making you laugh in every scene. The significant difference in this film is that nearly every major player is black, telling the kind of story that the movies of the silent era never deigned worthy.

Quicker take: It’s a 1989 movie, but it’ll still be one of the best silent movies you’ll ever see.

Quick Take: Winter on Fire (2015)


For all of the awful things that have happened in the United States over the past ten years, from the burst of the housing bubble to the events that have necessitated Black Lives Matter, it’s still impossible to imagine our government responding to citizens’ assembly the way the Ukrainian government did in 2013 and 2014. What began as a peaceful gathering of concerned students ballooned into a citywide revolution after the president’s peacekeeping forces turned live ammunition on citizens. The movie would be remarkable regardless of its ending, since director Evgeny Afineevsky has compiled startling footage recorded in the midst of the action as it’s happening, which makes Winter on Fire reminiscent of 2013’s The Square about Egypt’s part in the Arab Spring. You watch people die in that one too.

Quicker take: Sobering Exhibit A in the evidence that rioters don’t always start the riot.

Quick Take: Norte, the End of History (2014)

Norte, the End of History: a mere four hours long.

If you’re the kind of person who likes novels that are over 600 pages long, then a movie over 4 hours long should be a piece of cake. Imagine a 4-hour movie based on a 600-page book! How can you resist? The book is Crime and Punishment, and the movie is Norte, the End of History, which adapts the basic structure of Dostoyevsky’s plot and transposes it into the modern Philippines. Director Lav Diaz is like the Filipino Scorsese or the Coen brothers- somehow making artful movies into popular ones.  He’s made a 9-hour movie before, and the movie he made after Norte (which has yet to be released in the states) is 5 hours. It’s his thing, and he’s sticking to it. But Norte is so starkly violent, so committed to its themes of class privilege, the consequences of sin, and the failings of the Filipino infrastructure, that 4 hours ends up seeming like not enough rather than too much.

Quicker take: If you can watch a 4-hour sporting event, sitting down for one of last year’s richest stories should be easy.