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Review: My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

As far as shameless excuses to rehash crowd-pleasing gags from the first film go, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 doesn’t particularly go about its duties cynically.

1.5

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My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2
Photo: Universal Pictures

Flash back to 2002, when the original My Big Fat Greek Wedding was still hogging up valuable real estate at art houses everywhere deep into summer. For months after its original release, every family member, every neighbor, every neighbor’s family member excitedly opened conversations by asking if I had finally seen it. Though I’m not proud of it, at the time I would often ask them how many films they’d seen in the theater during the previous 12 months, and would gloat when they admitted that My Big Fat Greek Wedding was the only one. Knowing that the theme of the film was that one should always follow their heart, despite the contradictive directives of family and community, I reasoned that refusing to see the biggest, fattest sleeper hit of our era was a show of solidarity with Nia Varadalos’s lovelorn character, Toula.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, and now having seen the harmless but unnecessary sequel, I recognize something else about all those interactions. Just as Toula’s sweet-natured, if overbearing, family ultimately mean well, similarly all those cinema-estranged baby boomers were only trying to have a nice chat with the resident film geek in their lives, eager to, for once, have a movie they were familiar with to talk about. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is, ultimately, a reflection of that sort of mental capitulation that comes with adulthood, seeing clouds, like Joni Mitchell, from both sides now. As Toula puts it early on in her “the story so far” narration, love and suffocation are tantamount. But of all the things you would want to be suffocated by, why wouldn’t good intentions be at the top of the list?

Still living next door to her parents (along with everyone else in her family) in suburban Chicago, Toula begins the film wondering how the time passed by so fast, and how it came to be that her daughter, Paris (Elena Kampouris), went from a cherub who called her “Mommy” to become the sullen, easily mortified teenager who calls her “Mother.” Toula is still conscious of her own fraught relationship with her helicoptering relatives, but can’t help herself from doting on Paris. Or allowing her daughter to move to a different city to attend college. Or putting a moratorium on her own father, Gus (Michael Constantine), insisting Paris find a good Greek boyfriend, even though that ship should’ve long ago sailed given Toula’s own convention-bucking nuptials to the xeno Ian (John Corbett). But even as Gus continues to harp on tradition like the Tevye knockoff his character ultimately represents, he discovers that his own spicy marriage to Maria (Lainie Kazan) was never actually finalized with a valid certificate. They are, in effect, living in sin. And therein lies the movie’s excuse to stage another ostentatious wedding.

As far as shameless excuses to rehash crowd-pleasing gags from the first film go (the omnipresence of Windex as a cure-all, a plate of mini boondt cakes on display at the family’s restaurant Dancing Zorba, an ill-timed tête-à-tête with a bottle of ouzo), My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 doesn’t particularly go about its duties cynically. As every fan of the first film would attest, there’s a generosity of spirit that seems almost paradoxical to Vardalos’s outmoded application of cultural stereotypes. It’s simultaneously brash and timid.

Take, for instance, the revelation that Toula’s cousin, Angelo (Joey Fatone), isn’t waiting for the right woman, but has instead already found the right man. Given the Portokalos family’s appetite for pairing girls up with guys, you would expect Angelo’s admission to come accompanied by dozens of scandalized hands thrown up in the air like some Fosse-esque flash-mob routine. But no, his mother, Voula (Andrea Martin, ever the scene-stealer) whispers with a wink, “I knew.” And yet, the film pointedly doesn’t show him dancing alone with his boyfriend, instead revealing them folded inoffensively within the gears of the encircling families, tolerance arriving mostly through invisibility.

Toula and Ian fret a lot about letting Gus and Maria act as matchmakers for Paris to ensure her attachment to a Greek boy, and worry about their lack of alone time compared to Toula’s time spent “fixing” her family. It may take two false endings to get there, but the sequel ultimately hands the win to the family elders. The lesson of the first film was that any rules laid out by your family are only meant to increase your chances for happiness in life, and that nothing will make you happier than to follow the path that makes the most sense to you. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 may recycle a lot of things from the original, but that sentiment isn’t one of them.

Cast: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Lainie Kazan, Michael Constantine, Andrea Martin, Elena Kampouris, John Stamos, Rita Wilson, Joey Fatone, Gia Carides, Louis Mandylor Director: Kirk Jones Screenwriter: Nia Vardalos Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2016 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Film

Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Sparks with Sensitivity and Gravitas

Chiwetel Ejiofor announces himself as a sensitive, shrewdly restrained filmmaker with his quietly assured directorial debut.

2.5

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Photo: Netflix

With his quietly assured directorial debut, Nigerian-born British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor announces himself as a sensitive, shrewdly restrained filmmaker. Based on the memoir of the same name by Malawian innovator William Kamkwamba (co-written by journalist Bryan Mealer), The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the remarkable story of how, as a largely self-taught techno-wizard, William (played by Maxwell Simba) saved his village from famine by building a wind turbine from scrap metal and bike parts.

It’s a tale that sounds ripe for a blandly inspirational film, but Ejiofor eschews overt sentimentality and adds gravitas by exploring more than just the optimistic William’s perspective. From the start, Ejiofor takes care to place the famine in a broader geopolitical context, while digging into the cultural specificity of the Malawian setting. A leisurely opening act establishes a society caught between the push and pull of tradition and modernity—as symbolized by the recurring presence of the elaborately costumed Nyau brotherhood, a local cult that survived British colonial rule by making concessions to Christianity. William’s parents, Trywell (Ejiofor) and Agnes (Aïssa Maïga), meanwhile, seem eager to reject all forms of religious superstition, refusing to adhere to the local custom of praying for rain when their crops begin to suffer, and prioritizing a broad education for their kids above all else.

But the Kamkwambas’ noble principles seem somewhat incompatible with the realities they face both as a family and as part of an increasingly beleaguered community. When droughts begin to decimate his income as a farmer, Trywell refuses to concede that he needs help providing for his dependents, even after he runs out of money to keep William in school. Glimpses of political corruption—including a sequence in which a dissenter is swiftly removed from a government rally and brutally beaten—make it abundantly clear that no benevolent deus ex machina is waiting in the wings. But in his stubbornness, and fixation on family hierarchy, Trywell fails to see that he might have something to learn from the younger generation, and that William may hold the solution to his woes.

Sometimes, Ejiofor’s understated directorial approach pays off handsomely. The action of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind begins in 2001, and the events of 9/11 (which play into later plot developments) are introduced via a radio news report, which William and friends swiftly tune out in their eagerness to listen to a soccer game. It’s a neat rebuttal to the Western-centric notion that the entire world came to a standstill during those fateful few hours.

In taking great care not to sensationalize the material, however, Ejiofor struggles to raise the dramatic stakes. Simba is charming as William, but the character is given few opportunities to emote; he mostly just processes the chaos unfolding around him and devours engineering books at the local library. There’s a few affecting final-act scenes in which a rift between father and son escalates, and Trywell is left seething with impotent rage, but Ejiofor never quite finds a way to sufficiently distract attention from the preordained feel-good climax.

In a similar vein, Dick Pope’s cinematography evokes an inherently dramatic landscape at the mercy of the elements, without resorting to poverty porn, or the clichéd chaotic vibrancy of Mira Nair’s Uganda-set Queen of Katwe. Aside from a hypnotic ritualistic dance performed by Nyau members, though, there are few truly memorable visual sequences. It all adds up to a film that’s unmistakably well-intentioned, if ultimately difficult to love.

Cast: Maxwell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lily Banda, Noma Dumezweni, Aïssa Maïga, Joseph Marcell, Lemogang Tsipa, Philbert Falakeza Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor Screenwriter: Chiwetel Ejiofor Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Features

Interview: Javier Bardem on Everybody Knows, Fatherhood, and the Politics of Guilt

The Oscar-winning actor discusses working with Asghar Farhadi and his thoughts on guilt, the power of fatherhood, and more.

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Everybody Knows
Photo: Focus Features

Even in his minor roles, Javier Bardem has a way of commanding your attention. It’s in the way he moves his body into the frame just so, giving you an instant sense of his character’s history. And the actor conjures the vastness of that history in the subtlest of ways, though often through the eyes of a tired man saddled by difficult memories. It’s a look that he vibrantly exploits as Paco, a Spanish vintner in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows.

The film unfolds in the wake of a girl’s kidnapping. Paco takes the lead in finding the girl, but his strained and mysterious relation to the girl’s mother, Laura (Penélope Cruz), complicates our understanding of his motivations. The unspooling revelations of the man’s history with the family bring heft to the film’s kidnapping arc. In tandem with Farhadi’s layered, shifting perspectives, Bardem bends Paco’s buried and uncertain emotions into a psychological maze.

I recently had the chance to speak with Bardem about working with Farhadi and his thoughts on guilt, the power of fatherhood, and more.

A lot of Farhadi’s characters are men who hide their true feelings. There’s always a difference between a surface-level motivation and a deeper one. Paco is no exception.

That’s a luxury of being in a film by Asghar Farhadi. If you’re an actor or an actress, you can get something similar in a best-case scenario, but you won’t get better than that. That’s a fact, at least in moviemaking. I love the performances he got from all those amazing Iranian actors—those powerful situations he put them in and the dialogue he gave them.

What kind of preparation did you do for this role?

I was simply present and allowed myself to be guided by one of the smartest, funniest, inspiring, and caring people I’ve ever met. We were shooting for almost four months and for me it was like, like, I don’t know, what’s the word in English? Like a game! Farhadi is so grounded and at the same time so high in his thoughts. He always feels like he’s in contact with something higher than him. It’s like he’s this vehicle of transmission for something very creative when he tells you where to go and how to get there.

Did he guide your understanding of Paco, then? Or did you come into the production with your own concept of who this man was?

No, Farhadi knew exactly what he wanted to do with him. He wanted to create this person who will sacrifice everything in the name of emotion, for a feeling of sensation. Paco isn’t sure what’s right and what’s wrong, or what’s true and what’s false. He feels something, and he really wants to be guided by that feeling because he knows that’s a real feeling. And in that sense, he’s the hero, but he’s also the victim. He’s very open to be manipulated, transformed, touched, harmed, and loved. So, he’s a very rich character. At the same time, he’s a very common man from this village, who works in this vineyard, and because he’s a nice, funny, normal guy, I wanted to get that right.

I might just be cynical, but I got the sense that Paco was mostly motivated by guilt, for his success with the farm, for his past with Laura. Did you see him in that light at all? You talk about him in very warm terms, but I had a different read on him.

Yes, there’s guilt in some of the emotions I played, but it’s not a guilt that has to do with religion. It’s more guilt from the feeling of being betrayed by someone. Also, he betrayed the woman he’s now with, and his vineyard. There’s a lot of guilt there, but I wouldn’t say that guilt is his most important motivation. Guilt is very religious, in my point of view. Spain is very connected to feelings of guilt, which is something I know lot about, by the way [laughs].

The film is a genre-infused work of psychological realism. It’s hard to balance Farhadi’s usual style with the conventions of a kidnapping story. Did you find it difficult to not lean in the direction of just being stuck in a crime thriller or a melodrama?

Some call it soap-operatic, and I guess it helps that I love soap operas! Listen, a quality soap opera or melodrama is nothing less than an opera. There’s a tendency to melodrama in everything around us: people’s reactions, affections, misunderstandings. All of those relationships go to a point where the reality we call reality isn’t real. Sometimes it looks like a movie, feels like a movie, feels too much. That’s what Farhadi captures in his movies: A Separation, The Salesman, About Elly. But he does it so beautifully, so delicately, so richly that you understand that, yes, life is a big fucking messed-up melodrama.

And funny.

Yes, thank God, there are funny moments, or otherwise we wouldn’t survive. But he really is a master of putting all of that into a frame and making us understand that we are creating all of that melodrama because we don’t want to face our responsibilities in life.

You often play father figures who have to suffer in some terrible way or they just fail to be a good dad. I’m thinking of this film, mother!, and in a certain sense Biutiful. Is there something that attracts you to that type of role?

I don’t think so. At this point, I don’t care who the character is or how he behaves or how he dresses as long as he’s rich inside. Of course, when you play such a strong figure as a father, it’s a very intense feeling, because you’re trying to construct a relationship with a son or daughter in something fictional that represents a very important relationship in real life.

Has having children changed your way of approaching that sort of role?

Before, when I was younger, I wanted to eat the whole world, jump into it unprotected. Now I’m almost 50 and, you know, I hate that. Now I understand more the importance of being a father, of being willing to die for a child. To have a family is to be in a room that’s sacred, meaning that I’m not going to let that go or let anything invade that room.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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