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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+

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Hysteria (2012)

The birth of the vibrator doesn’t seem like a tale that demands telling until you realize that the most prolific sex toy of all time started during one of the most sexually repressive cultures, Victorian England. In 1880, the plague of the era was a malady known as “hysteria.” Half the women in London seemed to suffer from this condition where, as the doctors of the times believed, a woman’s uterus had become unaligned and needed to be properly readjusted; the readjustment produced a “paroxysm” of relief. To treat hysteria, these trained professionals would oil their hands, insert them inside a woman’s vaginal canal, and apply alternating pressure. They were getting these women off. Hysteria presents a charming document about the invention of the vibrator, a miracle of modern science. However, I wish the movie had taken a more mature approach to the material.

The alignment process was an arduous one, and Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) needs a new set of hands. Enter Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a crusading young doctor who butts heads with the medical establishment over things like washing hands and germs. Under Dr. Dalrymple’s tutelage, the practice is never busier, relieving upper class women of hysteria. It’s going so well that Dr. Dalrymple would like to eventually pass the practice on to his young protégé, as well as his proper young daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). Then there’s the doctor’s other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who clashes with authority, is outspoken about women’s suffrage, is critical of the limited role women play in society, and devotes her time to a lower-class shelter to provide refuge and education to those in need. She represents a brand-new kind of woman in time, and Mortimer cannot get a handle on her. Mort is suffering some pretty serious hand cramps from his line of work when he gets a splendid idea from his childhood friend and amateur inventor, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett). It seems with a quick fix, the electric feather duster may have other more scandalous uses.

Hysteria is short of being hysterical but it’s certainly charming and provides an interesting history lesson with a light touch. The very nature of women’s hysteria is a fascinating moment in history where men were bending over backwards to find medical assessments for what is, in essence, horniness. The fact that these women’s doctors were getting carpal tunnel from all the manually stimulation of their clients has got to be one of the strangest workplace hazards. In certain regards, the invention of the vibrator has saved lives, or at least the hands of medial practitioners. It’s probably also made a whole lot of women a whole lot happier. Feminine sexuality was just an obtuse concept to the well-educated men in charge. One character says, with absolute certainty, that women cannot achieve sexual pleasure unless through insertion. As another fun historical note of male ignorance when it comes to female anatomy, when Deep Throat was being banned in the U.S., the federal judge who deemed it obscene cited, in his writing, that one of the many dangers of the provocative flesh film was that it mistakenly exposed women to the idea of an orgasm without insertion. This is almost 100 years later and yet men in high places of power are still carrying on complete ignorance of something they very literally know very little about. In that regard, Hysteria is jolly fun as we watch women get their jollies. There’s always something fun about watching uptight characters cut loose, especially when they find pleasure that has been denied them.

Having a talented cast is also a benefit when you’re working in comedy. Dancy (Adam) plays our straight man with fine properness. He has a few moments where he gets to delightfully squirm thanks to bold women and bold topics. He’s got some solid chemistry with Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart), who is the feisty spitfire we expect in this sort of movie. Gyllenhaal is charming without being obnoxious, and her English accent is impeccable. Pryce (G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra) and Jones (Like Crazy) are funny in their understated, stuffy British formal way, while Everett (Stardust) provides a great comedic jolt as the self-possessed, blithe technophile, ready at a moment’s notice for a good wisecrack. Sheridan Smith (How to Stop Being a Loser) also deserves special mention as a maid who was formerly employed as a prostitute. Her randiness is a nice counterpoint to all that Victorian repression and she pushes the movie further into sex farce.

While amusing, I wish the filmmakers would have taken a, dare I say it, more mature approach to a very interesting subject of history. The structure and very aim of the movie is that of a typical romantic comedy, which is a shame given the atypical subject matter. It’s pretty much a romantic comedy transplanted to merry old England. Much of the humor of the movie is divided into two camps: 1) watching the uptight Victorian-era Brits cut loose with decorum, or, 2) self-aware humor about the ignorance of the age. The first is always fun since we’re watching people sneak their true feelings through the wall of social repression. Director Tanya Wexler makes sue of a lot of sight gags and heartily enjoys cutaway reaction shots of ladies going orgasmic. It’s enjoyable but the fact that Wexler has to keep going back to the reaction shots for jokes, it loses its effect. Then there’s the self-aware humor built entirely upon dramatic irony, where the writers tweak the knowledge of a bygone era with all of our clever foresight: “Oh those stupid Victorians, not believing in things like germs and female orgasms.” After a while, the self-aware humor becomes tiresome. We get it; these silly Brits did not understand female health and proceeded to rule in their ignorance. I wish the movie left behind the easy jokes for some stronger social commentary. To this very day, we have men legislating women’s bodies and their reproductive rights (see: Oklahoma saying life begins weeks before conception, or Virginia demands medically-unnecessary vaginal probes for no other purpose than to shame women, and so so much more…). Ignorance knows no end, and one imagines the rom-com that makes fun of our current social mores and understanding.

It’s during the last act where Hysteria really starts to come apart at the seams. Beforehand, it’s been a fairly light comedy with some punctuations of commentary from Charlotte and her idealistic desire for equality. But then, and spoilers will follow, the movie suddenly transforms into a courtroom drama with Charlotte on trial. Her very mental health is on trial and if she’s found to be a hopeless case of incurable hysteria, then she’ll be shipped to a sanitarium and have her uterus forcibly removed. Wow. That is some heavy stuff for a movie that spent an hour making sex jokes. The courtroom setting leads to some pretty transparent speechifying; any subtlety goes out the window and we listen to messages about women’s suffrage, equality, and empathy. This conclusion feels like it was ripped from another movie. It’s tonally jarring. Then, after our lead takes his moral stand and confesses to his belief that there is no such thing as hysteria, that women are just stuck in sexually unfulfilling relationships in a sexually repressed age, everyone goes home to think about life. Then, thirty days later when Charlotte gets out of prison, she’s met by Mortimer where he, I kid you not, proposes to her on the spot. For a movie about breaking misconceptions about women, tying things up with a marriage proposal seems almost hypocritical. It also marks a pretty big leap in the burgeoning romantic relationship between Charlotte and Mort. It seems rushed and a strange way to end a movie about female empowerment. The rom-com elements have won out over any higher messages.

Hysteria starts strong but goes limp. Hysteria runs out of juice. Hysteria is a pleasant experience but doesn’t deliver a proper climax. Hysteria is not the feel-good movie of the year. The very nature of the movie lends itself to all sorts of innuenduous critical blurbs. It’s a rom-com transplanted to Victorian England and I wish that it tried a little harder with the material rather than settling for easy jokes relying upon the ignorance of the age. The cast is superb and the movie is certainly fun, but it falls apart in the end when the messages overtake the narrative. So what is the best Hysteria blurb? I’ve had better.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Adam (2009)

It’s a romantic comedy with a quirk. Adam (Hugh Dancy) has Asperger’s syndrome, a higher-functioning level of autism that makes social interactions difficult. Lucky for him he?s handsome enough that his new neighbor (Rose Byrne) falls for him anyway. What follows is mostly standard romantic comedy stuff, with boy and girl feeling each other out, except Adam has trouble with figurative language and implied speech. The movie works on a low-key cuteness as it hits all the conventional plot destinations, but then it charts its own path for an ending. I give credit to writer/director Max Mayer for bucking formula and following his convictions, refusing to tie everything together so easily. With that said, the Asperger’s portrayal seems to go into an extreme, Rain Man-level of social disability. Adam is crippled with fear even to leave his home; he is a slave to routine. Dancy is a sympathetic lead, though he’s overly reliant on his character’s quirks. Adam isn’t a freak or some delicate flower needing to be protected from the rigors of reality, and I think the movie would have benefited from a broader look at Adam’s ongoing lifelong struggle with his brain. Mostly, audiences are served up a sweet if somewhat plain romance with an extra dash of eccentricity, but not enough to rock any rom-com sensibilities. It’s a non-threatening alternative to the genre.

Nate’s Grade: B

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

Releasing a romantic comedy about a woman plagued by credit woes in the middle of a global financial meltdown? Doesn’t sound like the best example of escapist entertainment, but Confessions of a Shopaholic is infectious fun, and it’s all thanks to the delightfully funny lead performance by Isla Fisher. She seems like she stepped out of one of the old Hollywood screwball comedies from the 1930s. There’s a terrific hunger in her eyes and the woman knows how to punctuate a joke. The movie itself isn’t too shabby either. As far as formulaic romantic comedies go, this is one of the better ones in recent years. It has a little dash of everything, from slapstick to farcical thriller to romance to even some mildly potent drama. Director P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) keeps the movie light and fun and even spruces up the flick with some interesting visuals, like animated CGI mannequins that come alive to tempt Fisher. Even though the movie holds onto a sitcom level plot for too long (mistaken identity), Confessions of a Shopaholic is a far worthier piece of entertainment than typically found in the rom-com genre, and Fisher is a comedian to rival the best.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Blood and Chocolate (2007)

A werewolf tale set in Europe where the remaining handful of werewolves hunt men for sport by night and swish around being Eurotrash by day. The film plays closely to the teens-as-super creatures formula that seems to be chiseled by the likes of The Craft, Underworld, and The Covenant. What’s kind of hilariously goofy is that these werewolves actually just turn into normal, White Fang-looking wolves; no hulking man-beasts. They tend to run, and in a feat of cheesy special effects, blur into a wolf thanks to a magical glow. But there are instances when they would be much better off staying as people than transforming into wolves, like for ridiculous wolf-on-wolf fight scenes. The whole concept seems rather uninspiring; would you feel a sense of power simply because you could transform into a medium sized canine at will? I can’t see many practical instances where this would benefit someone. What’s the appeal? Regardless, the peculiarly titled film is rather dim with plot and character and whimpers to a hasty yet predictable conclusion. Agnes Bruckner, that’s a talented and beautiful young actress. Someone out there find here something worthy.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Black Hawk Down (2001)

In the fall of 1993 Somalia was a nation being torn by civil war with feuding warlords and slowly being crippled by rampant hunger. The UN intervened to try feeding the starving nation but warlords like Mohamed Farrah Aidid cut off many of its shipments of food. The United States had plans to capture two top lieutenants of Aidid’s in the capital of Mogadishu. Over 100 Delta units and Army Rangers were sent into the heart of the Mogadishu market to execute the operation.

Things didn’t go well from the start as casualties began to pile up and first one, then two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down from ground fire. Medical vans and Humvees were continually blocked access to help the stranded soldiers by civilian roadblocks consisting of smoldering debris. It wasn’t supposed to take longer than 45 minutes. It ended up lasting over 15 hours. In the end 18 American lives were lost, over 70 were wounded, and over a 1000 Somalian lives were lost. What’s truly amazing is the courage the men displayed, and the fact that being surrounded by a sea of armed Somalians that more lives weren’t lost.

Black Hawk Down is essentially a two-hour action sequence. The emphasis of the film is on the stark recreation of the Somalia skirmish and it is indeed an achievement in grueling realism. You truly feel like you have been thrown into the middle of this firefight. With all the gunfire and chaos it leaves little time for getting to know characters. This is probably why they have names written on their helmets so the audience can attempt some semblance of who’s who.

The film is by no means for the faint of heart. Saving Private Ryan had some intense violence, but it was mainly condensed for the opening and closing 20 minutes. Black Hawk Down, on the other hand, is two straight hours of non-stop blood and gore. The violence and the intense realism are not gratuitous but indicative of the horror these men faced. If you can’t stomach a soldier plunging his entire forearm into the chest cavity of another to cut off a bullet wound – stay at home and read a good book.

Ridley Scott is on an ultra-violent hot streak after directing big name Hollywood tokens like Hannibal and Gladiator. His handling of Black Hawk Down is masterful, just for the simple fact of keeping the audience free from confusion. Throughout the duration we know who is where, where they want to go, and the general geography of the hot spot. The staging of the entire battle is beautifully filmed and the recreation of the Mogadishu market place is amazing in its fine detail. Some criticism has been projected at the film for portraying the Somalians as basically black people with guns. This is entirely true, but one must remember that the film is told from the American point of view.

The acting, as expected in a war film, takes a back seat to the heroic histrionics and the fireworks. Josh Hartnett is sullen in his duty as Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann but always a comfortable figure to see on screen amidst the chaos. Ewan McGregor plays a soldier promoted to action instead of desk work and adds some touches of humor to the fray. Tom Sizemore is the most recognizable person as the often-frustrated Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight who fearlessly strolls across the battlefield while bullets whiz by.

Black Hawk Down for some will be the right movie at the right time, though it was never intended to be. The riveting action is more than entertaining and worth admission price, but you might leave pondering on the sacrifice few know the full details. Just make sure to go to the bathroom before the film starts.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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