Blog Archives

Late Night (2019)

Late Night follows the fictional long-running TV talk show host Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) who has been informed by her network exec that his current season will be her last season. She will be replaced and the show will be retooled. Along comes Molly (Mindy Kaling), an aspiring comedy writer who works in a chemical plant. She’s hired on the spot to serve as a token and offer more diversity in Newberry’s all white, all-male writers room. She has to find herself, find her voice, stand up for herself, and try to get the show to change with the times if it’s going to potentially survive the eager network axe.

For fans of the inner workings of show business, and the ups and downs and push and pull of creatives, Late Night was made for you. I’ve always been fascinated by the nuts-and-bolts of creative ventures in the entertainment industry and especially a writer’s room where people hash out ideas, build out a storyline, and generally bring our TV to life. I enjoyed the short-lived show where Jim Rash would interview different TV showrunners about their writer’s room processes and how they would resolve creative decisions. It’s one reason I loved HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, a deeply satirical and self-deprecating look at the bowels of Hollywood. So if you’re like me and enjoy the inner workings of creative people working in tandem, then Late Night is already starting on fertile ground for you. Kaling’s world is informed by her years of television writers room experience, as well as running her own show, and that experience better informs the reality of Late Night, from the joke-writing process, to the wariness of content that may push away sponsors, to the means of staying relevant in a vastly changing landscape of how people get their media and entertainment. You feel Molly’s sense of triumph, and disappointment, when her first joke is placed into the monologue and then removed. The movie feels informed and real to its tiniest detail, which makes it all the more interesting.

The film is consistently funny because Kaling is writing with such a sharp grasp of her characters. Right away the dynamic between Katherine, a cynic with an acid tongue, and Molly, an idealist but a novice who is pushing for reforms, establishes so much wonderful conflict and eventual resolution. It’s universally enjoyable watching a character come into her own, transform the lives of others for the better, and to have characters who butted heads form a mutual friendship and understanding. That’s all present, but with Kaling’s command of writing the characters come first. They drive the story, and while the destination is rather predictable with this sort of thing, that doesn’t make the journey any less satisfying. The character of Katherine Newberry is interesting because she’s a woman who has established her own perch in late night, but she’s still older, white, and from an elitist, privileged bubble. She’s stuck in the middle, which makes her such an interesting character to explore and push into new territory. Kaling has mined some talk show headlines for her story’s drama and it doesn’t feel cheap. Past mistakes are given weight and force characters to reckon with them in a way that acknowledges the extent of the ramifications and the people that have been hurt. Kaling also has a generous sense of writing for her supporting players, giving many a small moment to make an impression and enough for serviceable secondary character arcs.

There’s a definite message afoot with Late Night and it goes about it in a way that makes it far more accessible — as entertainment. Rather than dragging out a soapbox, the movie does the smarter ploy by demonstrating why a homogeneous writers room of the same kind of voice/perspective can be limiting and potentially regressive. Molly is the long-overdue change agent to the show, to the characters, and to the old ways of thinking of what television, and by extension the entertainment industry, had to be simply because it had always been that way. The film’s sense of advocacy for representation is strong and a central tenet, but this doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story with enjoyable characters. By demonstrating through its tale, Kaling has smartly packaged her movie as an empathy test designed to expand the perspectives of its audience, to get them to think how difficult it may be for a woman, let alone a woman of color, to find work in her chosen field. It’s the kind of movie you could take your grandparents to and have them nod along in approval.

Allow me to get a little personal here as I reflect on the topic of representation. I think recognizing one’s self and one’s stories is a huge deal. The power of empathy is potentially endless but that doesn’t mean that all stories need to be told from the familiar template of a straight white dude encountering conflict and change. With good storytelling, anybody can feel for anybody’s plight, but that doesn’t mean that those in the industry should stop trying to give voice to others who have historically been marginalized. TV, and particularly late night TV, is something of a boy’s club and needing more women. A recent analysis on late night TV concluded, with the exception of TBS’ Samantha Bee, that the typical late night talk show writing staff is only one quarter female. More people deserve more opportunities to shine because we, as a society, benefit when we have a plurality of stories from a plurality of voices and perspectives. It makes us all better.

During the summer of 2018, I wrote a rom-com Web series (The Spirit Inside Me) that was told from the perspective of a bisexual woman and dealt with an eventual romance with another woman. You better believe I consulted with my queer friends to make sure every script didn’t feel like it had been written by a straight dude. Then we started to make it a real thing throughout the fall and winter of 2018/early 2019, and the mission statement of the series, and for me, was to try and get as many women involved in the production as we could. There were nine total episodes and I wanted to try and line up as many female directors as possible (if able all of them would be directed by women). Our show was from a feminine perspective, concerning an unorthodox LGBTQ relationship, and I wanted a feminine perspective to imbue as many facets of the production as possible. We put out notices for crew and emphasized that we were looking for women first. You would have thought I had just insulted people’s mothers the way some men responded back. They told me this was “reverse discrimination” and insulting and that the best talent should win out. I dismissed these whiny grievances and continued to seek and hire women. I know many women, even in our small community of filmmaking, don’t get as many opportunities as men. I wanted to give them those experiences. I felt it would make our series better and, personally, it just felt like the right thing to do because I could. With the show currently in editing (stay tuned!), it’s actually one of my happiest decisions as I really enjoyed seeing several women rise to their opportunity and shine. I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back or seek woke plaudits. This is such a slight example of mine over the overwhelming obstacles women face breaking through in a male-dominated industry that doesn’t want to share, but I felt it was worth sharing, dear reader.

Late Night was a movie that kept me smiling and feeling good all over. It warmed my heart, it made me laugh, and it gave me a group of characters to latch onto that earned my affections. Thompson is tart and witty and wonderful. Kaling is lovable and charming and hopeful. They make for a dynamic, combustible combination. Late Night is a fine example about the benefits of diversity, representation, and empathy, and it’s also a cute and funny movie that will make you happy by the time the credits roll. Tune in.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Advertisements

Devil’s Knot (2014)

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.inddIn 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys went out late one night to ride their bikes. They were never seen alive again. The ensuing media circus that erupted lead to the conviction of three teenagers (The West Memphis Three) who many believed were innocent of these heinous crimes. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It was the basis of three stirring, powerful, galvanizing documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, two men credited with saving the West Memphis Three. Now after their release from prison, here comes Devil’s Knot, the first fictional film about the notorious case, Hollywood’s first crack at well-tread material. Is there anything new to be found?

Director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) and his screenwriters do a credible job of distilling the complicated case against the West Memphis Three to its basics, relying on a modulated tone that shies away from the sensationalism that dominated the case back in 1993. With the benefit of time and hindsight, it’s easy for the movie to point out the erroneous thinking of the prosecution, the jump to conclusions, and the Satanic panic engulfing the community of Arkansas. We’re told by a police officer that they knew this “Satanic cult stuff” would hit town; they’ve just been waiting for the day. To its credit, the movie does a fine job of calmly and objectively pointing out the deficiencies in the police and prosecution’s case against the West Memphis Three. We’re told that from the twelve hours of interrogation with Jessie Misskelley, only 40-some minutes was recorded. The obvious mistakes in his confession, as well as the police coaching and coaxing him to their desired response, is made readily apparent. There’s “witness” Vicki Hutchernson (Mireille Enos of the oft-canceled The Killing) who says she say chief suspect Damien in a Satanic ritual, but the film cuts back from the imaginary to Vicki watching a movie on TV, the real source of her descriptive flourishes. Egoyan’s direction has a calm, objective overview that is reverent and respectful of the dead and the bereaved. It’s rarely boring and the facts of this case are such that any retelling would be somewhat compelling.

-1So that brings me to the ultimate question: why even make a fictional movie about this subject? Four lengthy documentaries have covered the intricacies of the legal story, the breakdown in justice, and the personal toll on all sides of the crime. The only thing a fictional movie provides is: 1) the fun/distracting game of seeing relatively famous actors play the real-life people we’ve previously seen, and, 2) as an option for people who hate documentaries. If you’re one of those people who dislikes documentaries and doesn’t view them as “real movies,” then Devil’s Knot is for you, you dismissive filmgoer. Otherwise, literally everything was handled better in the Paradise Lost films. With the West Memphis Three thankfully out of prison, the omnipresent sense of urgency from the documentaries is now absent, replaced with a Monday morning quarterback sensibility pointing out all the obvious bias, judicial hypocrisy, and flaws of the case. And as anyone who has plowed through the powerful and addicting documentaries knows, there are plenty of flaws to point out for harsh scrutiny and incredulity. Movies have a long history of showing us an example of judicial injustice, and this is a prime example. However, Egoyan has put the emphasis of his movie on two outsiders rather than people in the center of this case. The West Memphis Three themselves are barely supporting actors in their own movie. I suppose the filmmakers may have wanted to present a different angle to the case since the Paradise Lost films showed the accused up close and personal. The construction of this plot just doesn’t work under the perspectives of Pam (Reese Witherspoon) and Ron (Colin Firth).

Ron serves as a pro-bono adviser to the defense, but that doesn’t mean he has the same access inside and outside the court. He can gather evidence on his own but really this guy is meant to be a fly-on-the-wall for the planning and frustration of all the legal roadblocks thrown at the defense. Is an added body in the room necessary? Could not one of the defense attorneys have provided the same purpose? Instead, he gets to grumble in the court and out about all the legal shenanigans going on to railroad innocent boys. He is essentially spelling it out to an audience. Pam has even less narrative purpose in the film. Her perspective makes sense early on as the mother of one of the murdered young children. Her panic, her worst nightmare come to life, it all makes for the stuff of major drama, which is why you’d imagine Witherspoon was drawn to the part. But once the case against the West Memphis Three gets going, Pam transforms into our Chief Reaction Shot Provider. Whenever a curious moment happens in court, we cut back to Pam and Witherspoon cocking her head in dawning curiosity and uncertainty. It’s as if she is meant to symbolically represent the entire community that was so fervent in their beliefs that these boys were guilty… until they heard the shaky case and the questionable experts put on the stand. So Pam and Ron end up becoming signals to the audience on how to feel and what to think. The movie doesn’t have enough faith in its audience to keep up with the minutia of the trail, or even the lawyers’ arguments, reducing a complex legal trial down to two nonessential characters nodding or shaking their heads.

DEVILS-KNOT_STILL_33-620x400I’ll admit that I had some interest watching the actors inhabit the roles, and there are scads of people involved in this story. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) does a valiant job showcasing the head-scratching decisions of the trail judge, David Burnett, and his slimy dismissive nature. Stephen Moyer (TV’s True Blood) is particularly infuriating as John Fogleman, chief prosecuting attorney. Seth Meriwether (Trouble with the Curve) looks eerily like his character, the young and accused Jason Baldwin, and he nails his moral convictions and gentle nature. Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) gets to do his troubled youth thing he does so well. Kevin Durand is an actor I normally enjoy but even he can’t do justice to John Mark Byers, step-father to one of the slain boys, and easily the most memorable figure in the Paradise Lost films; the man is so theatrical and larger-than-life, and yet Devil’s Knot treats him like a featured extra, with many of his speaking scenes off camera. There isn’t a bad actor in the extremely large cast, though Firth’s Southern accent isn’t the most refined. If the movie lacks much reason for existing, at least the bevy of good actors respectfully bringing new life to these people, good, bad, and many somewhere in between, is the one credible quality to this movie.

What to make of Devil’s Knot, an example of a decent, modulated, and well acted movie that ultimately has no reason to exist in the wake of three excellent documentaries (Paradise Lost) and one other pretty good one (West of Memphis). The ground has been covered. However, that doesn’t mean that a well-told story can’t be told again, with a different angle, with a different approach, but Devil’s Knot hinges on two characters serving as metaphorical barometers to teach the audience what to think and how to feel. Then there’s the matter that the trail covers the entire 114-minute running time. There’s so much more that happens after the initial trial, so much that the last two minutes of this movie are almost a nonstop barrage of text updating the audience on many of the post-trial developments, including the West Memphis Three being released from prison in 2011. The movie feels too limited; there is so much more depth here, to the details of the case, to the personalities and human drama, to the story after the trial. Egoyan and his cast and crew have made a respectful fictional version of these sensational events, but the problem is that they don’t do enough to justify their own film’s existence. Unless you have an irrational hatred for documentaries, just watch those instead.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Win Win (2011)

After two stellar movies (The Station Agent, The Visitor), writer/director Thomas McCarthy has proven that he may be one of the greatest humanist voices working in cinema today. He writes wonderful stories about people who find connections via unorthodox family units. McCarthy can spin bizarre elements into deeply felt human dramas. Win Win is another hodge-podge of storytelling elements. It follows the life of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a midwestern lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to get by. Then a sullen teenager (Alex Shaffer in his acting debut) lands on his doorstop looking to see his grandfather in Mike’s guardianship. The kid also happens to be a gangly wrestling phenom. Things are going great for Mike, that is, until the kid’s mother comes looking for him and wants him back. Win Win assembles a great group of flawed, empathetic, relatable characters that make conflicted choices that they then have to abate. Giamatti is reliably fantastic as the center of McCarthy’s humanist universe. He can communicate so much despair and relief just with his expressions. Teamed up with a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, and Jeffrey Tambor, the movie works best when you can just sit back and take in great actors relishing playing great roles. Win Win doesn’t all come together in the end like other McCarthy films; there’s definitely a missing ingredient feeling to the movie. Shaffer’s limitations as an actor hamper some of the later dramatic moments. The end is satisfying, but I felt like I should have felt more. While it doesn’t strike the same seamless balance of comedy and drama as The Station Agent, this is certainly a film that should be winning for most audiences.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Green Zone (2010)

I have noticed that I’ve really been dragging my feet when it comes to writing a Green Zone review. I’ve prioritized it only to have something more necessary (catching up on VH1 reality shows) come to the forefront of my attention span. It’s not like the movie is bad. It may have been misleadingly advertised as Jason Bourne’s tour of Iraq, bringing back together Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), but it’s not bad. It’s a perfectly fine movie, except in this instance, given the politically explosive and monumentally relevant subject matter, “perfectly fine” sounds like a missed opportunity. This movie should be incendiary, shocking, aggravating, enlightening, and if it happens to be entertaining then that ain’t bad either. The subject matter –the false rationale for war, WMDs– deserves a sober examination. Green Zone is not that movie. Green Zone is about uncovering and righting the mistakes of the Iraq War, and I believe I figured out what keeps Green Zone from being a better, more powerful, more engaging movie — it fictionalizes a story that is already wroth telling. This is a true story that could have stood well on its own merits.

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is on the hunt for those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the chief argument for invading Iraq. His team investigates suspected weapons sites but they keep coming up empty. The intelligence appears to be in sharp contrast with the reality on the ground. Miller butts heads with shady government officials (Greg Kinnear) and finds aid in a state department realist (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter (Amy Ryan) who put her reputation at stake parroting the government intelligence as fact. The Iraqi army is disbanded and now the former generals under Saddam Hussein are conferring what the next steps should be. General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, who played Saddam in a TV mini-series) is waiting for the Americans to extend a hand, and if not then they will become an insurrection. Miller is racing to track down Al Rawi because he knows the truth in the lead up to the war, which is why those shady government officials are also trying to kill him.

Based upon reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Life Inside the Green Zone, the filmmakers have resorted to a fictional narrative informed by the real events. My biggest gripe is this: the true story is far more interesting, complicated, and relevant than concocting a story about one military man’s search for answers. The film is laid out like a conspiracy thriller, where our hero gains a small sliver of information that leads to another piece, and another and another, until finally a picture emerges. I get it. With Damon as a soldier, the audience has an obvious rotting point, a protagonist who we can easily be labeled as good. And then when he uncovers the truth, and alerts the media, it provides a tidy, satisfying end for the movie. Except that’s not what happened. In the real world, the hunt for those phantom WMDs carried on for months, and the news trickled drip by drip. There were no smoking guns, no white knights to shine the light of truth (Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame might be the closest in consideration), and there wasn’t anything as conclusive as a military officer writing a report and sending it the mainstream media.

Green Zone attempts to craft a satisfying close to the WMD hunt, and likewise the war itself. This is nothing more than revisionist wish fulfillment, wanting to insert a hero of conscious and ability during a time where we had a malaise of responsibility from those in the realms of higher command. And just to make sure they don’t make too many waves, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) wrap their crusading character in the uniform of America’s finest, making it difficult to criticize his noble hunt, striping away politics. The trouble is that the Bush Administration rarely made apolitical decisions; everything was steeped in politics, even the truth about weapons of mass destruction. So Green Zone does the audience a disservice by trying to play nice, setting up a villainous fictional straw man, and forgoing naming the names of those that led this country astray. Because of placing the film’s point of view squarely with Miller, we never get to examine the bigger picture, the manipulations and machinations that led to war. We are stuck in a very limited focus of finding the WMDs.

Now, I must ask whether or not I’m unfairly judging the movie. Hollywood has often taken fascinating and momentous true-life stories and redirected them toward fiction. Green Zone is certainly a technically proficient film. Greengrass’ trademark shaky camera is ever vigilant, always roving and looking for the action; although in a realistic war setting, the kinetic handheld camerawork can come across as potentially hyperactive. Conversations between two people can come across like intense linguistic battles. Walks down hallways can appear to be speedy jaunts brimming with purpose and anxiety. The tension just doesn’t materialize. Without a nervy story, the Greengrass visual staple can seem over the top, antsy, nervous, and also annoying. This is one narrative for Greengrass that could have improved by the dedicated use of a tripod.

Green Zone is not Bourne at all. The Universal marketing team was trying to hoodwink the public into seeing an Iraq War movie. Damon isn’t as polished and in command as Bourne. Those who argue that Green Zone is anti-American or anti-troops are grossly missing the point. Reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, without a wit of substance, is part of the reason the U.S. is currently in Iraq. You can argue against policy, including war policy, and still be considered a patriot. Patriotism is not synonymous with warmongering. It’s too bad that the filmmakers felt that the true story wasn’t good enough to be told, instead settling for a decent if unmemorable political thriller. This adaptation takes the most significant foreign policy event in modern American history, one where the ramifications will be felt for over a generation, and clears all the hard-boiled details to attach a conventional one-man-fights-for-truth tale. It’s hard to get self-righteous when the movie keeps trying to cover its own ass.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Ben Affleck doesn’t necessarily establish any gifted visual style with his directing debut, however, Affleck the Screenwriter and Affleck the Actor ensure that the movie succeeds swimmingly as a murky morality play. The film is an actor’s showcase and they get plenty of room to maneuver, with standout performances by Ed Harris as an embittered cop and Amy Ryan as the living embodiment of the worst white trash would-be mother on the planet. Where Affleck earns his artistic stripes is by asking hard questions with moral ambiguity and not dishing out easy answers. This is an above average crime thriller that uses its lower class Boston setting as an additional character. There are only a handful of relevant flaws, like Michelle Mongahan’s character being pointless except to cry, and a mystery that clever moviegoers will have figured it out early thanks to the economy of characters and some shifty glances. The missing child mystery allows Affleck to explore some very dark places and non darker than the human soul. Affleck may not dazzle with visual prowess, but the man sure knows how to tell a damn good story and direct actors to award-winning levels. Give this man another movie.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Sidney Lumet is 83 years old and still directing movies, God love him. The man is behind cinematic milestones and classics like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and 12 Angry Men, which goes back all the way to 1957 – 50 freaking years ago! The longevity of this man is admirable. He hasn’t pulled together a compelling film in some time, but Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a stirring, character-driven crime drama that reveals itself to be a first-rate melodrama.

The film is anchored by two huge performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, playing a pair of brothers both on hard times. Hoffman’s character, Andy, has been living well outside his means to keep up appearances and to sate his taste for a local heroin den. He’s in charge of company payroll and an internal review just discovered a pair of terminated employees still drawing checks, the source of Andy’s cash to pay for his lavish lifestyle. Hawke’s character, Hank, is behind on child support and belittled by his ex-wife. He’s having a hard time even finding the dough to pay the 100 bucks for his daughter to go see The Lion King in New York City. Andy hatches a scheme to solve both their money woes: they’re going to knock over a mom-and-pop jewelry store. It just so happens that the store belongs to Andy and Hank’s mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). The plan goes hopelessly awry and both brothers feel intense pressure in the aftermath.

Lumet and debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson really know how to ratchet up the suspense. The nonlinear timeframe keeps the audience on its toes and continuously rewriting what we think we know. Unlike movies like Babel and 21 Grams, the plot is actually assisted by skipping around time and telling the story out of order. We get the basics and then the details begin to take shape, but because of the prior knowledge the film packs an increasing sense of dread that builds in intensity. As the brothers sink lower trying to cover their misdeeds, Lumet and Masterson crank up the tension to a peak. The knotted and twisty narrative exposes the fragile dynamic of this family and keeps the audience alert and hungry for more.

Hoffman is at his sleazy, duplicitous best with this performance. His character is a man accustomed to getting what he wants and he knows all the manipulative tricks to get there, be it bullying or cajoling. He’s a pusher with so much anger and desperation just below the surface. Andy never feels respected or loved by his father, and he has a great scene where he breaks down in a fit of rage and tears in response to his father apologizing for the bad upbringing. Hoffman imbues great emotional complexity to a man whose world is crashing down. It is enthralling to watch.

Not to be outdone, Hawke puts forth his finest effort of his career. He’s the baby of one very corrosive family; he misplaces trust and admiration in his big brother. Hank isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he has a distinct weariness to his worries, living day-to-day with the knowledge that the world sees him as a loser or a screw-up, losing the respect of his own daughter. When things go bad he unravels rapidly while still holding to his secrets. It’s a performance brimming with nervous anxiety, mounting regret, and self-effacement.

The secondary characters don’t get nearly the attention and consideration. Marisa Tomei is more a plot device than a character; she’s Andy’s wife but has been having an ongoing affair with the more nurturing Hank. She spends most of her scenes in some form of undress and looks remarkably fit for her 43 years of age. I’m not complaining about the ration of her screen time to nudity, however, she feels more like another notch in the complicated relationship between the brothers.

Finney is fine with a rather small role that merely requires him to be aghast or incredulous with the slow police work. I don’t know if a suitable Finney performance can compensate for a staggering leap of character late in the movie, but I suppose I’d rather have any Albert Finney performance in a movie than none at all. Before the Devil places Finney’s character on a perch and just doesn’t give him much outside of his own dawning realization of who was responsible for the botched robbery.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a gripping family tragedy that takes on a Shakespearean quality as it comes to a somber, chilling close. The wordy titles comes from an Irish drinking toast that states, “May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you’re dead.” The message declares the inescapable consequences of our actions. This is a film about the disfiguration of one family; it’s bleak, tragic, but whole-heartedly entertaining and extremely focused in its aims. Lumet has returned to smashing form and reminds an audience that there’s still plenty of vigor left in this 83-year-old director.

Nate’s Grade: B+

%d bloggers like this: