“The Big Sick” (in theaters)
Kumail Nanjiani is a comic, a cast member of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and now the producer, co-writer, and star of this highly entertaining and enlightening romantic comedy. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl—that’s the formula, right? Nowadays, it’s not easy to pull it off with grace or wit or creative plot twists. “The Big Sick” manages it with room to spare, embracing as it does not only the odd pairing of Nanjiani’s charming, low-key Pakistani immigrant Kumail — Uber driver by day, comic by night — with Emily, an intense and eccentric young woman (played by the exceptional Zoe Kravitz), but also the close ties and traditional expectations of his family. His mother parades a series of lovely Pakistani women before him at weekly family dinners and waits patiently for him to choose one, all the while he is secretly seeing and falling in love with Emily.
The story also involves Kumail and his comic friends (played by a talented and funny lot) as they attempt the mostly hopeless climb on the ladder of success. Halfway through the film, a serious illness puts Emily in a coma, completely changing the dynamic but never descending into teary emotionalism or losing its sense of humor. This is when we meet Emily’s parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in a pairing that is sheer genius. Ramano’s character adores his daughter and his wife but tends to ramble on and on about this, that and the other, often to hysterical effect. Hunter’s character’s intensity (Emily inherited this trait, in spades) is fierce and funny; there is magic in how Romano and Hunter interact and how they come to embrace the man she is/was/is involved with.
“Okja” (streaming on Netflix)
You may not have heard of this one, but it needs to be on your list of do-not-miss films. Indeed, it is appearing on many critic’s lists of best films of the first six months of 2017. How best to describe this creation of brilliant Korean filmmaker, Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer”)? A fable for our time? Yes. A combination of live action and astonishing digital animation that is most definitely not for children. A fierce satire on genetically modified animals, the big business of automated slaughtering, animal rights activists who are nearly as ruthless as their enemies. A brilliant cast of character actors including Tilda Swinton (creative and weird as always), Jake Gyllenhaal (funny and vicious, scary as hell), Paul Dano (sensitive, dedicated and ruthless) and a young Korean actress named Seo-Hyun Ahn, around whom the story pivots. Because at heart, “Okja” is the classic tale of a girl, Mija, and her beloved pet, in this case a humongous and loveable pig with a flattened nose who farts and grunts, cavorts with her and supplies all the love she needs … until her pet is taken away and the journey to rescue Okja begins.
Locations are important in this film. We go from a huge New York factory and the announcement — with much hoopla and fanfare — of a new breed of pig that will lessen world hunger, be kind to animals and leave no footprint (yeah, right) to a remote Korean mountain top surrounded by verdant forests and clean, running streams where Mija lives with her grandfather and Okja. Then to Seoul to trace Okja, onto a slaughterhouse in New Jersey that is difficult to watch, then to the streets of New York. From the pastoral to the urban nightmare. From satire to physical buffoonery to strong emotion and back again. Shifting locales, shifting tones. And all the while there is a girl determined to get her pet back and nothing will sway her from her mission.