Descendants 2 (2017)

The VKs (Villain Kids) are back, wearing more leather than ever in this sequel to the explosive Disney Channel Original Movie Descendants. When we left them, the pack led by Mal (Dove Cameron) was accepted into the preppy Auradon fold with the children of fairy tale heroes and heroines, with the cliffhanger tease that “The story’s not over yet.”

Not over yet indeed, as the film opens with an epic opening number “Ways to Be Wicked,” in which the villain kids have spread their malice and thievery throughout the land, infecting the good with their evil. This (disappointingly) turns out to be a daydream of Mal’s, but sets the tone that something bad may still lie within these kids, and certainly within Mal. Overwhelmed by the pressure to conform and be good, she flees Auradon for her homeland the Isle of the Lost, where the exiled villains and their offspring live.

Mal’s boyfriend Ben and the remaining VKs head to the Isle of the Lost to bring her back, where the real meat and fun of the film kicks off. The first Descendants was a treat to watch evil kids in the world of good, so when it ended with the impression that all was well, I was worried the sequel would lack the original’s bite. I was so wrong; watching the VKs re-enter and re-embrace their homeland brings us one of the more delightful sequences of the whole saga: the groovy “Chillin’ Like a Villain,” where the VKs teach Ben how to act like one of them. Sofia Carson as Evie is particularly charismatic, with noticeably more poise and confidence in this go-around.

Meanwhile, Ursula’s daughter Uma (China Anne McClain, an enjoyable addition to the cast) is gaining power, accompanied by a pirate crew with the likes of Gaston and Captain Hook’s sons. There’s a hysterical rap battle face-off between Uma and Mal, building the rivalry up to a climactic cotillion-gone-wrong as Uma becomes a gargantuan octopus and threatens to sink a ship of teenagers.

I would be disappointed if Descendants 2 were anything but bonkers, and it miraculously meets the expectations set by the original. In fact, the sequel feels more sophisticated through its richer set design, more ambitious choreography, and even better music than its predecessor. It’s not going to join the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but Descendants 2 is a fun, musical treat that the whole family can enjoy.

The Big Sick (2017)

Silver Linings Playbook and Brooklyn are two contemporary films that completely engross you in their stories: boasting complex characters, layered thematic tones, with heartfelt and authentic snapshots of family. The Big Sick, a critical darling from this year’s Sundance film festival, would certainly fit in their company.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a stand-up comedian from Pakistan, who often finds himself at odds with his family. He lies about studying for the LSAT, hides his real personal life, and suffers through dinner after dinner with Pakistani women his parents set him up with.

Secretly, he’s been seeing Emily (Zoe Kazan), an American grad student. Through her he is able to share his true self, inviting her to his (lousy) one-man show, and shows her B-horror flicks to test their compatibility.

While the setup isn’t totally novel for a romantic comedy, what works so great about The Big Sick is the authentic chemistry of their relationship. It feels like we’re watching these two people fall in love before our eyes, and it makes the rest of the film all the more heartbreaking.

Shortly after they go through a rough breakup, Emily falls seriously ill, and is put into a medically-induced coma to stabilize her condition. Her parents come into town, not pleased to see Kumail in her hospital room, and he finds himself torn between his obligations to career, his ex-girlfriend, and now his ex-girlfriend’s parents.

The heart of the movie lies in this unexpected but touching relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents. He is unsure what his rightful place is as they endure this terrible ordeal, and they strike a balance of shared responsibility with helping each other cope through this tragedy. They come so far during Emily’s coma, that it’s easy to forget that for Emily, the last thing she remembers with Kumail is their breakup.

The Big Sick tackles very serious subject matter with the weight that it should. Emily doesn’t fall back for Kumail overnight, and the conflicts Kumail face with his family don’t go away that easily, if they even do at all. Its authenticity lies in this underlying tension, that things don’t wrap up quite so easily. This portrait of ordinary people enduring a horrible crisis is all the stronger for how believably, and warm-heartedly, it depicts the test and strength of love.