Movie Review ~ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Kazakh funnyman Borat risks life and limb when he returns to America with his young daughter to take on a pandemic as well as politics.

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Mike Pence, Rudolph Giuliani

Director: Jason Woliner

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s almost fitting that in a month where I’m running a series called 31 Days to Scare I’d also happen to screen a movie with a premise that makes me squirm more than any horror film out there.  There’s something about watching normal, everyday people being interviewed or at the center of an elaborate set-up where they aren’t in on the joke that makes me incredibly uncomfortable – it’s just not a space I like to live in, though I know it’s a sweet spot for a number of viewers.  Still, I watch through the kind of splayed fingers that I imagine many would screen a slasher film or gooey alien science fiction picture, feeling my blood pressure rise the longer the gag goes on.

Fourteen years ago, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought Borat Sagdiyev, his popular Kazakh journalist character that came to prominence on Cohen’s lightening rod program Da Ali G Show, to the screen.  That film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was made on a miniscule budget but was a runaway hit that saw its box office grow week after week and it’s title character’s quotable catchphrases enter the vocabulary almost instantly.  It also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, not too shabby for a film that featured large chunks of improvisation and introduced many audience members to the mankini.

Since that time, Baron Cohen has found ways to bring Borat back but he’s such a recognizable character that it was next to impossible to make a follow-up and capture that same innocence.  His subsequent attempts at new creations or taking the same route with other of his sketch eccentrics haven’t caught fire the same way, though Baron Cohen has gained some ground in feature films that allow him to stretch in other ways, most recently in The Trial of the Chicago 7 for Netflix.  Throughout the last year there had been rumors of Borat sightings and news of Baron Cohen’s run-ins with the law at key events gave the impression he might be up to something.

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, then, to have seen the announcement that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (shortened from, well, something longer) was not only a go but already done, edited, in the can, and ready for release on October 23 through Amazon Prime Video.  In the past, Baron Cohen said that if he did release another film that followed in the same footsteps as the original Borat it would be closer to an election to better highlight the failures of democracy and after viewing the sequel under a veil of steely secrecy I can see why.  No mistake should be made about the timing of this release, and if you’re reading this in the future remember that the third presidential debate is scheduled for October 22, the election is less than two weeks away, and someone in this film working for the Trump administration has been desperately trying to stir up trouble for the opposition in advance as a way to distract from an incident captured here that will surely come back to haunt him.

My first reaction to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that it’s missing the lightness that made the original have such near universal appeal.  In creating a character that was so misguided and culturally insensitive, Baron Cohen was able to represent a large swath of the world having their eyes opened at the same time – and in 2007 that still meant something.  Consider that since the first film was released the musical The Book of Mormon debuted to astounding acclaim and it covered similar ground using reverse satire and shockingly un-PC language to skewer topics of race and religion.  There’s an attempt to create a similar reaction in this sequel film but viewed through the 2020 lens it just doesn’t have the same impact because we’re not in that headspace of easy alignment, our division has grown too far and the message already conveyed via better methods.  So the abnormalities he’s shining a light on seem less vital and easier targets than what had once been interesting underground groups before.

Disgraced after his previous trip to America resulted in a film that embarrassed everyone in his country, Borat has spent the last decade breaking rocks in a grueling prison.  However, now that the government is pleased that “Obama’s reign of terror” is over, they are interested in making friends with their favorite supreme leader Donald Trump and, more importantly, Vice President Mike Pence and they decide to send Borat to offer a bribe of sorts to gain back the trust of the US.  Without his right-hand man (funnyman Ken Davitian is sadly missed here), Borat has only his stowaway daughter (Maria Bakalova) who becomes the back-up gift intended for Pence after the tragic demise of the first present. (Don’t ask).

Together, Borat and daughter move throughout America encountering locals who barely (unbelievably in some cases) bat at eye at the ludicrous situations a disguised Borat/Baron Cohen introduces them to and making over the daughter into a “Melania”.  A number of these sequences have the requisite effect of laughs but more than a few are in such poor taste even from a social commentary standpoint that you just feel awkward for everyone involved.  There are two people (women, naturally) that seem to take the antics seriously and, more importantly, to heart.  The time they take to have an actual conversation with the Bakalova and Baron Cohen are the most genuine moments in the film, the reinforcement of the good in our communities.  It’s worth nothing one of these women passed away after and the family is suing the producers for false representation, though I think she’s the one that handles herself with the most grace.

The moment that is sure to be talked about, though, and which I’m not going to spoil for you comes near the end of the film and it involves Bakalova’s interview with a certain former Mayor of a particular city known for its Broadway shows and Yankee baseball team.  It’s the part of the film I thought I was going to have to leave the room or not watch at all because it was too stressful…and then it takes things a step further and I was truly, completely, stunned.  If Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was looking to be part of the conversation leading up to the election…this is the scene that will make it happen.  And it should be talked about.  It’s right there on tope. That’s all I’ll say.

I still find the film lacking in an overall point, though.  The observations aren’t fresh and even the gags in the storyline (a whopping eight writers contributed to this) don’t feel that inspired.  Are period jokes, Holocaust deniers, and abortion riffs still the most shocking things that will get Americans going?  I hate to say that the production lucked out with the onset of COVID-19 but it definitely gave them more material to work with and exploit, not to mention it provided them with a key plot point that feels like the late-in-the-process script change it most certainly was.  What this feels like to me more than anything is Baron Cohen and his team having a thin idea for a plot but when they landed on something of importance within one of their typical ‘gotcha gags’ the rest was rushed to completion, forgetting to add the same creativity springing from curiosity into Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

Movie Review ~ Time


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Fox Rich fights for the release of her husband, Rob, who is serving a 60-year sentence in prison

Stars: Fox Rich

Director: Garrett Bradley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 81 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: There’s always that one person at parties that’s either snapping pictures or taking video constantly.  They aim to document the whole thing and I sometimes wonder why they aren’t there in the moment and watching what’s happening in front of them instead of seeing it all through a camera lens.  The way that social media works, everyone has photographic or video documentation of much of their lives and while that may be a bit of a nuisance now, in five or ten or twenty years we may look back and be thankful we have those artifacts to tell our story.  Just like we do now with the stacks of memory cards, movie files, DVDs, VHS, or 35mm films that families have taken throughout the past six decades, these are evidence of the way we’ve grown and thrived, lived and loved, won and lost.

That’s what I often think of when I see documentaries such as Time, new to Amazon Prime from director Garrett Bradley.  Using an incredible amount of footage gathered from author and motivational speaker Fox Rich who has spent the last twenty years trying to get her husband out of prison after he was sentenced to 60 years without parole for a failed bank robbery, Time chronicles her life as a single mother raising six children.  The black and white feature uses this footage and newly shot material from the latest appeal for the release of Rob Rich to give viewers an insight into where this family came from, how they got to be in the situation they found themselves in, and what they’ve done for two decades to turn things around.  Imperfections, frustrations, successes, steps forward, set-backs, difficult decisions, and forgiveness are all discussed in a powerfully compact run time that lays bare one woman’s truth and the children that have grown up in the shadow of a man they’ve never really known.

High school sweethearts, Rob and Fox Rich had dreams of opening their own clothing store but ran into difficult times keeping their business afloat.  With hungry mouths at home to feed and more on the way, the couple were part of an unsuccessful attempt to rob a bank that landed them both behind bars.  Accepting a plea agreement, Fox served a reduced sentence but refusing to plead guilty, Rob was given the maximum sentence without the possibility of parole.  The first five minutes of Bradley’s film are a dizzying blur of home video images showing Fox and her children when they still held out hope Rob would return in short order.  We see Fox talking to another mother and telling her that Rob is “out of town” when questioned and another showing her reminding her young son to behave in school.  Doing the double duty work of both parents, Fox is already on her way to raising the children on her own and the title card hasn’t even shown up yet.

Then we jump to now with Fox filming a commercial for her car rental business and we see she’s just as in control of the situation as she was twenty years prior.  The children are grown with some in college and others making successful strides in school.  Another appeal for Rob is looming and this is a big one.  This may grant him a meeting before the parole board where he could make a case for early release…and finally some hope returns to the Rich family.  Channeling her energy over the years into becoming a motivational speaker so that she can help others avoid the same path she found herself on, we hear Fox tell of her deep emotional connection with her husband and what the time apart has meant for their relationship.  Bradley also wisely includes more footage from the past where Fox makes amends at her church (a striking moment) as well as conversations with Fox’s mother.  The filmmakers interviews with the mother are some of the most telling in the film, make sure to watch her even when she isn’t speaking but only in the background of shots toward the end of the movie.  How she observes her daughter and grandchildren are revealing.

The movie does falter a bit anytime is strays into territory where it suggests Fox was somehow a victim and it skates a thin line at times in asking you to forget that she did in fact commit a crime.  Her mother is the one to bring it back to reality though, by reminding the director (and us in the process) that she did do it and we should remember that.  She’s done her time and should be able to go on with her life like she has, becoming a success story, but the focus feels better when it stays on her crusade on behalf of her husband and the strong bond they have that hasn’t faded over the years.  How it all comes out, you’ll have to see for yourself, but any resolution was bound to be some kind of emotionally jarring one Time leaves us with.

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Evil Eye & Nocturne

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It’s Week Two of Welcome to the Blumhouse, the October collaboration between Blumhouse Television and Amazon Studios meant to drum up some scares with four curated genre films released over the course of two weeks.  Week One saw the arrival of The Lie and Black Box, both of which I found entertaining and, in the case of Black Box, a film I’d advocate you add to your queue, post haste.  I was expecting another week of sturdy films that couldn’t quite justify a theatrical release but made sense to appear in this curio of tales presented by producer Jason Blum.  Heck, I even expected them to save the best for the second week…but sadly these aren’t any stronger than the first entries, though one highly outranks the other in almost every way.  Looking over these four features, I’m glad these two entities joined forces and hope it happens again, albeit with product that feels like it was made for it and not just shoehorned in.  For this first time around, I’d pass on to Welcome to the Blumhouse a qualified return greeting.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A superstitious mother is convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago.

Stars: Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati, Bernard White, Anjali Bhimani

Director: Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Okay, so maybe I should walk back my comments above when I said the movies this week weren’t the strongest.  Thinking about it more I did find myself enjoying this low-key (really low-key) thriller based on a popular podcast originating on Audible.  This isn’t the first time a podcast has been adapted for television.  Amazon’s popular Homecoming successfully brought that buzzy paranoid drama to life a year or two ago, but Evil Eye does have an interesting premise and a lead that’s strong enough to earn a recommendation based on that factor alone.  That is winds up feeling like one of those old USA Mystery films by the end is more to do with the glossy direction from Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani than anything.

Thirty years ago in India, Usha (Sarita Choudhury, Admission) was attacked by a former boyfriend who she claims put a curse on her unborn baby.  The events of that night will come back to haunt her grown daughter, now single and living in New Orleans on her own.  Superstitious Usha has kept her daughter’s best interest in mind these past years and is always checking up and checking in on her, with her latest quest to find her daughter the proper Indian husband.  Matchmaking from halfway around the world isn’t easy on the mother-daughter relationship but Pallavi (Sunita Mani, The Death of Dick Long) lucks out and meets a keeper on her own, the darkly handsome Sandeep (Omar Maskati).  The one drawback is that though they are moving quickly, Usha’s senses tell her something is off about the match and even though the signs and mystics she normally consults tell her otherwise, she’s convinced her daughter is in danger.  Eventually, she becomes convinced that not only is Sandeep not the right man for her only child, but he’s actually the reincarnation of the man who tried to kill them both years earlier.

I haven’t heard Madhuri Shekar’s podcast so can’t tell you how faithfully she’s adapted it for the screen but this is a premise that works on a higher level than you’d think.  Silly though it sounds, it’s one that has to be taken with a degree of sincerity for it to work and everyone is onboard with that approach.  Steeped in Hindu culture with their own belief in reincarnation and their theory of the spirit never dying, there’s validity to Usha’s feelings even if no one around her actually believes what she says is true.  We don’t even know either, though it wouldn’t be much a thriller without that mystery hanging over our heads for a least a little bit.  The main suspense is due to how long we wait for Usha to get that one true sign that Sandeep is the man from her past, come back to finish what he started.

What gives the film its surest sense of worth is Choudhury’s lightening rod performance, first as the typical meddling mother and then as the parent, unraveling at the fact that she is too far away to save her daughter from an evil she may have unleashed.  Most of the film, Usha and Pallavi are separated and communicate only by phone yet Choudhury and Mani capably develop their relationship above simple surface level conversations.  As has been the case with many of these films, the supporting cast is tiny but I found myself liking Bernard White (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Usha’s husband and Pallavi’s dad…the one who is often stuck in the middle between the women he holds close to his heart.  I only wish Maskati had been a more convincing maybe-villain…he lacks a command of the screen and there are times when he’s working hard to come across imperious but winds up robotic.

As for thrills, Evil Eye is fairly light on any, though there was one moment involving the purposeful reveal of a pair of earrings and the direct fallout after that gave me chills.  It’s the one moment in the film that feels like it sprang from something more sinister and supernatural and I wish there were more of them.  Ultimately, this plays like a family drama with traces of the mystical intertwined which feels like a missed opportunity.  All that aside, it’s well-made and short enough to not overstay its welcome.  Choudhury’ll never bore you and she’s in the majority of the film so that’s a plus right there.  Let’s just say, you won’t give it the stink eye….unlike the next film.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage pianist makes a devilish deal in a bid to outplay her fraternal twin sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.

Stars: Madison Iseman, Sydney Sweeney, Brandon Keener, John Rothman, Rodney To, Jacques Colimon, Asia Jackson

Director: Zu Quirke

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy, a good plot synopsis will trick me every time.  I mean, every time.  Out of all the films in the Welcome to the Blumhouse stable, the one for Nocturne sounded the most interesting to me, which is why I saved it for last.  There’s something wickedly voyeuristic to any film or program where you have artists competing against one another who have already scarified so much and are willing to go a step further (see Suspiria and its remake) to attain their goals.  Now, recently Netflix had their own classical music horror show with twisted musicians in The Perfection and I was curious to see if Nocturne would measure up with the same level of bizarre developments and truly boffo ending.  Unfortunately, Nocturne has a totally different movie in mind to emulate and can’t even commit fully to that either.

Fraternal twins Violet (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home) and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) are senior pianists attending a celebrated private music institute that has trained some of the best talent in the country.  Raised by their airy parents who seem to want their kids to succeed even if it means they step over each other while doing it, Violet is the one that has landed a spot next year at Julliard while Juliet didn’t measure up and now is facing the next year with no back-up plan.  In Juliet’s eyes, everything seems to come easy for Violet.  She’s the one with the boyfriend, the friends, the opportunities, and the sister the teachers appear to favor.  Or maybe she just doesn’t take it all so seriously.  Either way, Juliet wants what Violet has.

When a classmate dies under suspicious circumstances, it leaves an opening for a replacement to take her place in a pivotal piece at the culmination of the year.  Everyone knows that Violet will get it…but Juliet wants it.  By chance, she discovers the notebook of the dead girl and in it finds a strange link to the occult and through it finds a power that may unlock the key to finally rising to the top.  Each turn of the page leads to a new opportunity to move her forward at the expense of something in return.  What price will she pay to be seen for once as the better twin and who will suffer for it the higher she climbs?

In 2010, I was all about Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s truly unforgettable Best Picture nominee which won Natalie Portman as Best Actress Oscar for her chilling take on a ballerina that becomes obsessed with playing the lead in a production of Swan Lake after paying her dues in second place.  The more her obsession grows, the more her psyche and body morph into the character she is portraying onstage, leading to a haunting one performance only showstopper that sees her achieve her dream for a brief shining moment.  Nocturne is such a direct copy of that Black Swan mold it could almost have been labeled a sequel in some way.  It has the same chilly tone, color scheme, music, dreams that turn to nightmares and then back to reality…it’s just all the same but done at a watered down level and totally toothless.

Writer/director Zu Quirke never truly makes the argument for Juliet to be worthy of the kind of attention she craves.  At least in Black Swan we get the idea that Portman’s character was maybe unjustly overlooked.  Juliet seems to want the spotlight just because her sister has it and makes deliberate steps to unseat her because she’s selfish…and that doesn’t make for a compelling watch.  Obsession of this sort should come from neglect, not from petty sister squabbles.  The mythology behind the magic also is a bit of a head-scratcher, with it making precious little sense and failing to be captivating – at the end they just feel like pages in a book.

I thought I was saving the best for last but Nocturne turned out to be the worst of the bunch.  Even its finale is bungled, lingering long enough to come off as a joke instead of a shock.  A better editor would have cut that final shot down and left the audience with their heart in their throat.  There is great deal of discussion about how classical music is a dying form and one character argues for it’s necessity…but not when it’s the driving force behind poorly recycled plots like this.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – The Lie & Black Box

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You’ve got to hand it to über-producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse production company for creating a mini horror empire that is able to take a lot of lickings and keep on ticking.  Not unlike Michael Meyers, whom Blum had a hand in resurrecting in 2018 for a wildly popular and critically applauded continuation of Halloween, Blumhouse has taken its fair share of beatings by angry mobs but gets in a few nice stabs every now and then.  For every Fantasy Island there’s a The Invisible Man and while I thought a a female-helmed remake of Black Christmas was agreeably different, a bunch of horror fans (i.e. middle-aged men) disagreed.

With their planned sequel for Halloween as well as an intriguing new take on Candyman getting pushed out a whole year, other theatrically intended projects have either been delayed or moved to streaming like You Should Have Left (I’m also looking forward to Run Sweetheart Run, acquired by Amazon for a TBD release).  So Blumhouse has gotten creative with our at-home trappings and found an interesting way to ring in the chilly weather October brings.  Partnering with Amazon to premiere four new streaming films via Prime Video as part of their Welcome to the Blumhouse project, the first two movies showed up this week and fans were treated to a virtual premiere which could be enhanced by a mystery to solve after the film was over, depending on your level of desired interaction.

I thought the design of the premiere was fun and the puzzle to solve seemed to create engagement but I was here for the movies and was so curious to see if these titles were going to be also-rans Blumhouse was cleverly trying to get rid of or if they were quality that fit the theme.  With two down and two to go, I’d say Blumhouse has nicely curated their content for this platform and the audience which has come to watch – I don’t think either title would play particular well in the theaters but for a evening of entertainment, both films deliver.

 


The Facts
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Synopsis: Suburban parents fall into a web of lies and deceit when they try to cover up their teenage daughter’s horrific crime.

Stars: Mireille Enos, Peter Sarsgaard, Joey King, Patti Kim, Cas Anvar, Devery Jacobs, Nicholas Lea

Director: Veena Sud

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The first movie in my line-up is actually the oldest one of the group.  Premiering a full two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Lie has sat on the virtual shelf until now and while it isn’t exactly the kind of tone or temperament that comes to mind when you think of Blumhouse, it has a chill to it that makes it a nice addition to this group of films.   Based on a 2015 German film and adapted by director Veena Sud, it treads similar territory to Sud’s other translation of a foreign property for American audiences, the the popular crime drama The Killing.  Featuring the star of that show, Mireille Enos (World War Z), and Peter Sarsgaard (The Sound of Silence) as parents of a teenage girl (Joey King, The Conjuring) who commits an unexpected crime, there’s a high sophistication from all involved which helps elevate The Lie from being the NBC Movie of the Week-esqe parental drama it is at the core.

Most of the time, it’s a detriment to have characters that you don’t much care for but it works wonders for keeping The Lie afloat for as long as it does.  King is such a willful, spoiled brat (something her parents are all too aware of) that even after she does what she does and fully admits to it, you are begging for her to get caught.  Each time her act is covered up, first from Enos by Sarsgaard and eventually from neighbors, friends, and the police by both parents, you wonder why they’re actively protecting someone that is so awful.  She must get it from her dad’s side of the family, though, because Sarsgaard’s character seems to have some moral quandaries of his own going on.  Taking the stance of “It’s our daughter, we must protect her” against his ex-wife’s protests of turning her over to the police and letting them sort it out, he only makes things worse at every juncture and his lies force the family into increasingly dangerous situations.

The strongest reason to see the film is for the razor sharp performance of Enos.  Beginning the film an icy parental figure used to daily routine and mothering by enforcement of rules (she’s a former cop turned lawyer, after all), her gradual breakdown into a person that could betray the law she’s sworn to uphold startles her and us at the same time.  For all his bluster, Sarsgaard is a good match for Enos as well and you can tell why they work better as divorcees than as a couple.  King is two years older now than she was when she filmed this and she’s improved in that time, considering as well it’s a tough character play because you aren’t rooting for her in the slightest.  Of the small supporting cast, I greatly enjoyed Patti Kim as a former police colleague of Enos that she first turns to for help…until she realizes she’s gone to the one person that really is looking to solve the mystery that surrounds them all.

The final fifteen minutes of The Lie have some turns that I didn’t see coming and kudos to everyone for distracting me long enough to let my guard down.  This is a small film but it has an impact that resonates more than I had originally thought it would.  The performances are strong and while the plot may seem simple at first, it sits on top of something a lot more thorny.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: After losing his wife and his memory in a car accident, a single father undergoes an agonizing experimental treatment that causes him to question who he really is.

Stars: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa, Donald Watkins, Troy James

Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: We all can agree that 2020 has bit the big one, right?  Well, I think we can also try to find the positives along the way and one thing I’ve noticed is that this year has been a great one for horror/suspense films to find exciting new (or new-ish) voices that are getting some nice exposure because their smaller films are able to be noticed.  If we were only talking about big blockbusters and focused solely on the money makers, we’d be neglecting to give accolades to so many worthy films. Let’s remember Natalie Erika James for the creepy multi-layers found in Relic, the keen ear for creating character amidst nail-gnawing gore from Egor Abramenko in Sputnik, or the way Lane and Ruckus Skye make the retro themes in The Devil to Pay feel fresh.

You can add writer/director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour to that list of names to watch out for because if his first feature Black Box is any indication, this is a filmmaker who has hit the ground running.  You can easily see why Blumhouse Television snapped this one up and featured it in the inaugural slate of Welcome to the Blumhouse pictures; it’s a perfect blend of spooky horror and mind-bending mystery wrapped up in a surprisingly emotional family drama.  I was expecting it to get my pulse racing but wasn’t thinking it would make me get all misty-eyed, either.

Months after a terrible car accident robbed him of his wife and left him with amnesia, Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie, Underwater) still needs help remembering the name of his former boss and the way to his daughter’s school, not to mention the proper way to do their secret handshake.  Though still a small child, Ava (Amanda Christine, Miss Virginia) has taken on a lot of the household responsibilities for her father who often forgets to pick her up and cook dinner.  He’s convinced by his physician best friend (Tosin Morohunfola) to take part in an experimental study offered by Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad, Creed) who specializes in memory loss for patients with brain trauma.

Pioneering a new technology with her “black box”, she works with Nolan in one on one sessions to bring him back to previous memories as a way to restore the part of his mind that was damaged in the crash.  At first, the treatment seems to yield positive results, with Nolan remembering his wedding day and seeing his newborn daughter.  Yet there is an unpleasant quality to these visions: everyone he sees has a blurred face so he can’t identify anyone.  Worse, each time their faces begin to come into focus, another figure enters the remembrance…a quadruple jointed, backwards-walking, bone crunching, evil entity that is coming after him.  Dr. Brooks dismisses this as the part of his mind that feels threatened but as the presence grows more intense, Nolan grows more convinced the treatment may be doing more harm than good…and that these memories may not be his after all.

Osei-Kuffour and his co-writer Stephen Herman have worked out a fairly clever plot that keeps viewers engaged for most of the run time.  What’s really happening to Nolan and how it is related to the treatment is something experienced viewers may guess at but it’s not as simple an explanation as you may think.  I was impressed that for a film relying on high-tech medical gadgetry to sell us on the premise, it acquits itself easily by keeping things as unpretentious as possible.  It also helps immensely to have Rashad explaining things because when she’s selling it, you buy it.

That’s true for all of the performances actually; everyone is so convincing that even when things start to go slightly awry in the latter half it doesn’t feel like the movie has lost any points overall because everyone has been cast so well.  Athie is excellent in the lead, totally convincing as a man who lost everything trying to put his life back together and hold down what he has left for his daughter.  It’s so wonderful to see Rashad in this type of role that has more than just one-note to play and Charmaine Bingwa and Morohunfola are strong in their supporting roles.  The real star is Christine as Nolan’s daughter – what a strong performance by such a young actress!  There’s a scene close to the end that almost breaks your heart and it’s her convincing acting that makes it so believable.

I found Black Box to be an exciting watch, one that kept me comfortably leaning forward in my seat and wanting to know more.  It only dips in energy as it reveals more of its secrets but bounces back with an well-earned resolution and nicely done finale that isn’t your standard “gotcha” moment.  Check this one out and don’t be surprised to see a number of these actors and the director show up in more projects on the horizon.

Movie Review ~ Get Duked!


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Deep in the Scottish Highlands on a camping trip competition, four city boys try to escape a mysterious huntsman while the police trail behind, failing to provide assistance.

Stars: Eddie Izzard, Kate Dickie, James Cosmo, Kevin Guthrie, Jonathan Aris, Alice Lowe, Samuel Bottomley, Viraj Juneja, Rian Gordon, Lewis Gribben, Brian Pettifer, Georgie Glen

Director: Ninian Doff

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  A fun bit of movie trivia that always interests me is finding out the original titles of films that either went into production under a different name or saw their title get changed after their original festival run.  Most of the time, the change is for the better.  Would we still be talking about Alien today if it had been released as Star Beast?  How about imagining seeing Charlize Theron in Coldest City instead of Atomic Blonde?  Would Julia Roberts star turn in Pretty Woman had the same seismic impact if it came out as 3000?  Don’t even get me started with Warner Brothers desperately trying to get Tim Burton to swap out Beetlejuice for their preferred alternate House Ghosts.

A few months back, I reviewed and recommended The Shadow of Violence which was previously released and seen in its early film festival runs as the more interesting Calm with Horses and this week sees the debut of another film on Prime Video that’s had a title swap on its way to a wide release.  Filmed originally as Boyz in the Woods, Amazon Studios picked up the film after it played well at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and promptly gave it a new name.  While Get Duked! leans into the more playful aspects the viewing experience has to offer and steers clear from sounding like a sketchy film you may not want showing up in your queue, it also exposes some of the problems at the forefront of the movie that’s about as one-joke as they come.

Prior to firing Get Duked! up I had no awareness of the The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award which was started a half-century ago by the Queen’s husband and meant to attract youth that hadn’t yet found their group/club to join.  Designed to promote participation in volunteering, physical fitness, and an expedition to achieve the top rank, it has spread through more than a hundred countries since its inception.  So…clearly, it’s a big deal.  I’d imagine also, at least based on writer/director Ninian Doff’s wacky screenplay, it’s a program that draws some level of ribbing because the jokes at play in Get Duked! feel remarkably on pointe and specifically taking aim at several organizations throughout.

Doff gets things off on the right foot by staging an enjoyably cheeky first 1/3 that introduces us to the three slacker mates forced into participation for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award by their teacher Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Arias, Vivarium) and the one nerd-ish lad who was more than eager to volunteer.  While the three are hoping to find cell phone reception and a place to get high the moment the adult is out of sight, Ian, the sweet-natured fourth (Samuel Bottomley, Ghost Stories), just wants to make new friends and end the weekend with the Duke’s prize to top it off.  Ian learns quickly that Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben) and William aka DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja) have no outdoor experience (or many brain cells) and rely on him to get them through the terrain toward their final destination.

The four have more to worry about than mossy rocks and spoiled haggis though, because what they don’t know at first is that they’re the new prey for hunters out to “cull the herd” of the misspent youth in society and this weekend will be more about survival than they could have ever imagined.  Who is hunting them is a mystery that is solved fairly quickly – it’s a rather famous royal played by Eddie Izzard (The High Note) who has an even more famous wife as his accomplice.  At the same time, the local police led by Sergeant Morag (Kate Dickie, Prometheus) are attempting to apprehend a local bread thief (no joke) and somehow manage to get tangled up in the boys flight from their hunters, which only complicates matters in oddly decreasingly funny ways.  The more that Doff’s screenplay brings these disparate characters together, the funnier it should get, but to me it became less and less interesting instead.  It’s never as crackling as it is in those first 40 minutes and even brief moments of fun (a musical moment featuring DJ Beatroot and a crowd of blissed out country folk is gold) can’t quite drag the film back into alignment.

Now, I’m sure Get Duked! is going to play to crowds looking for that fun Friday night comedy like gangbusters and maybe it’s my problem for watching it on a late afternoon early in the week.  It’s one that has a bit of a party vibe to it, one that allows you to be distracted from the one-joke premise that gets old quickly and can’t hide that the endeavor would have worked better as a short or part of a larger anthology.  It must be said, though, that there’s no shortage of style or creativity in filmmaking and performers, especially Juneja as a freestyle rapper with flow but no show, are great.  Yet I never fully found myself loving it and that began to nag at me after awhile because it reminded me a lot of better movies like Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End, or Hot Fuzz.  Unlike those films, Get Duked! has a one-joke premise that it sticks to, for better or for worse.

Movie Review ~ My Spy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A hardened CIA operative finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family.

Stars: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Ken Jeong, Devere Rogers, Greg Bryk

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The last movie I had on my schedule to see in theaters before the pandemic shut everything down was My Spy and to be honest it was a film I was considering skipping all together.  Sometimes you just have to say no to movies you don’t think you’ll like, right?  I know that makes me sound less like the well-rounded critic I profess to be but if you are going in with some preconceived notion that predetermines you to not like the film, you aren’t going to give the movie a fair shot…and that’s almost worse, right?  I offer this up at the beginning of my review for My Spy because when the film was eventually snapped up by Amazon to be released via the streaming service and an opportunity to review it at home came up – I was desperate for a comedy to watch and accepted the mission with little reservation.

Again, dear reader, I say to you that The MN Movie Man is not infallible and I’m not sure if my craving for a laugh overcame my critical eye or what but I found My Spy to be the kind of easy to digest fun that is a rare treat to enjoy.  It’s a harmless endeavor that showcases the continued appeal of Dave Bautista and makes a stronger case for the wrestler turned actor to keep headlining projects that show him flexing not only his muscles but his comedic chops.  Further, bypassing a theatrical release and going straight to streaming was the best thing that could have happened to My Spy because it gives the film a fighting chance to be seen/enjoyed by more than just the target family audience…which it’s not even a great fit for.

Freshman CIA agent JJ (Bautista, Skyfall) biffs a major weapons trade as the film opens, a big blunder that doesn’t sit well with his boss (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians, in his umpteenth iteration of the perpetually annoyed authority figure role) who quickly busts him down to a low impact stakeout in Chicago.  Paired with nerdy tech Bobbi (Kristen Schaal, Toy Story 4) that has a fangirl crush on JJ’s agent status, the two are keeping an eye on the sister-in-law and niece of a French baddie trying to build a nuclear bomb.  What should be an easy and uneventful assignment gets complicated when wiser-than-her-years fourth-grader Sophie (Chloe Coleman) figures out what JJ and Bobbi are up to.  Blackmailing the CIA agent into being her friend, protector, and trainer in all things spy, Sophie puts the tough as nails JJ through the ringer and, not wanting to further get in trouble with the home office, he complies.  Visiting school for career day, ice skating in the park, and making a good impression on her mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley) are all part of the bargain in balancing his double life, even as the danger of Sophie’s uncle draws closer.

Though it has its moments of originality here and here, I couldn’t help but think that the script from Erich Hoeber (The Meg) & Jon Hoeber (Battleship) reminded me an awful lot of Kindergarten Cop.  Thankfully, it reminded of the good parts of that movie and director Peter Segal (Second Act) keeps things moving along with workmanlike efficiency.  It’s largely a predictable affair but then again you likely didn’t go into My Spy thinking you’ll be surprised by the plot – it’s best to just fire it up and let it roll.  It has some geniune moments of fun and they don’t all come at the expense of low brow jokes and gags — even the usually grating Schaal has a few potent zingers that land right on target.

The main thing that’s wrong with the film at the end of it all is that I’m not sure who the target audience is.  Carrying a PG-13 rating and justly earning it thanks to violence and other content behooving some parental caution, this wouldn’t be a movie for families to enjoy in line with their PG movie night.  It also wouldn’t be something I think would appeal to the Bautista base that know him from the Guardians of the Galaxy films.  That leaves it in a strange limbo place where the audience will have to find it on their own which is why I think the streaming platform was the best place for it to debut.  If you do choose My Spy (as a guilty pleasure watch or otherwise), do so with confidence because it’s far better than it looks and more entertaining than you’d think.

Movie Review ~ The Vast of Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator and charismatic radio DJ discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.

Stars: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer

Director: Andrew Patterson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  With all the technology, ease-of-access, and overwhelming intrusions we have in our daily lives, it can be easy to wistfully wish we lived in a more simple time.  Maybe it’s back in the 80s when music was more fun and movies were just…better.  Or how about the 70s when gas was cheap and we could invest in the big ideas of tomorrow?  You could go to the 60s if you wanted to witness a true time of change and advancement…the list goes on.  Yet to do that you’d also have to take all the bad things that existed then as well.  For a boatload of cultural reasons I can’t even get into here, while the 50s were a grand time for film and television I would never want to return to that period of history.

In the late 50s and early 60s, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were popular with television audiences and each week offered up a new story of the strange and unusual.  Oft-imitated over the years but never truly matched, these shows pushed the boundaries for storytelling in a smaller medium and have had great staying power over the years that followed.  Watching them now, they may seem quaint by today’s standards but it doesn’t diminish their overall impact and originality.  Inviting you in for tales of unexplained phenomena, it inspired generations of filmgoers.

You can clearly see that screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger have spent some time thinking about these shows because their new movie The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the home-spun tales of an era long-since passed.  Instead of feeling reverential to an old formula, however, director Andrew Patterson uses the film’s limited budget to his advantage and creates an unusual and entertaining little marvel.  Employing a clever opening device to suggest this might be just another episode of an on-going anthology, The Vast of Night takes its time to settle in but once it grabs you it doesn’t let go.

Charismatic teenager Everett (Jake Horowitz) is helping set-up for his small town’s big Friday night event: the high-school basketball game.  In the first of several long tracking shots Patterson uses effectively, Everett winds his way through the gymnasium fixing sound equipment, benignly tormenting a friend in the band, and making sure he can leave for his nighttime job as the town’s radio host/DJ with all systems go.  He’s soon snagged by the younger Fay (Sierra McCormick) who has a new sound recorder she’d like some help with, a perfect way to maybe get close to a boy she has a secret crush on.  She’s also on her way to work as the switchboard operator so Everett escorts her and the two discuss life in the town and plans for the future.

The talky first half hour or so of the movie may put off viewers coming to the film looking for immediate results but I’d urge you to stick with it.  I found myself shifting a bit in my seat, too, but establishing these characters proves valuable later when Fay overhears a strange noise through her switchboard and contact with the neighboring towns is cut off.  Enlisting Everett’s help and his listeners, the two are eventually led down an increasingly dangerous path that has roots in the town’s history.  As the truth is uncovered and an impossible explanation starts to form, the two teenagers will be faced with saving their town from an unnamed entity.

I could easily see The Vast of Night having been adapted from a radio play (ala War of the Worlds) from back in the day.  With it’s long stretches of dialogue and specific sound design, the movie feels more tuned to your aural senses than your visual senses at times.  There are moments when closing your eyes and just listening give you the feeling you are more in the scene.  While it’s light on what most would deem “scares” this has a handful of admirable “thrills” to it, scenes that will send that shiver ripple up your spine and make you bring the blanket further up over your nose.  Knowing this was the first time effort from the director and screenwriters, it’s an impressive debut.

The two leads are appealing and I felt they could have popped out of the time period, particularly  McCormick with her gangly gait and cat-eye glasses.  Horowitz also nicely avoids the pull to play his character as a smart-aleck know-it-all…even though that’s kind of what he is.  We have to like these two and it’s pretty much right from the beginning we are on their side and along for the ride.   While the majority of the supporting cast is either heard through the switchboard/radio or seen in brief, Gail Cronauer has a memorable scene as a townswoman Everett and Fay visit who may have answers to what is occurring this dark night.

In some parts of the country I know that The Vast of Night is playing at drive-ins and I would love to have seen it on a big screen like that when it was good and dark.  At a trim 89 minutes the film zips along and is best enjoyed all in one bite, resist the urge to take breaks because this one is all about the momentum that is built up. Especially after the first half hour when our heroine and hero get to work, you’ll want to buckle in for their nighttime adventure.

Movie Review ~ The Goldfinch


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A boy in New York is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Aimee Laurence, Denis O’Hare

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 149 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I was in school, I like to think I was pretty good with my homework. Sure, there were times when I wound up working late on calculus, having procrastinated my way into an all-nighter but for the most part I was on top of things. One thing I never failed to follow through on was doing any assigned reading.  However, I’m admitting now in this public forum that lately, in my advancing age, I’m getting bad at finishing books. I’ll start them all the time but then I get distracted and can’t make it to that final page. If a movie is based on a book, I do everything I can to read it before I see it and in these last few years it’s often come down to the wire to get in those last chapters.

I give you that brief backstory because it helps illustrate how disappointed I should have been with myself for not reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning 2014 novel The Goldfinch before the film adaptation was released. You know what? I got on the waiting list for the library and waited months and months for it to be my turn. When I finally got the hefty novel home, I took one look at it in all its 794-page hardback glory and decided on the spot I was going to give myself a well-earned pass on attempting it.

I feel no shame.

In fact, having seen the movie I’m wondering if I was better off with not having any pre-conceived notions going in. With nothing to live up to, the film could make a play for my attention without striving to be exactly what I had envisioned in my head. I purposely avoided delving too deep into the plot or matching characters to actors prior to seeing the film but rather let the screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn, Closed Circuit) have a crack at telling me a story. It’s a long story, though, and one that doesn’t quite shake off its creaky contrivances and some muddled performances.

Narrated by protagonist Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), we see how he lost his mother at a young age, when a bomb is set off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Barbours, a rich family with a son that attends Theo’s prestigious prep school, soon take in Young Theo (Oaks Fegley, Pete’s Dragon). Initially hesitant to get too close to this broken boy, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes) warms to his love of fine art and kind spirit that shines even during his most dark days. Yet Theo has a secret he’s keeping from everyone and it involves a priceless painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, and a mysterious man he meets in the rubble after the bomb goes off. Both will lead him on journey forward while shaping his future from a past he wants to forget.

Straughan has a challenge in parsing down Tartt’s epic into a watchable two and a half hours and it winds up working some of the time. Having to manage two timelines with the younger Theo and the grown-up man he becomes gets a little tiresome over the course of the film, only because Theo as a boy is so much more interesting than the enigma he turns into. Every time the action switched back to Elgort in the present there is a marked dip in energy and curiosity into the mystery at the center of it all. It helps that Fegley is an assured talent, steering clear of your typical child actor trappings and giving the impression he’s an old soul trapped in the small frame of a youngster. The same can’t be said for Elgort who labors mightily with the material, rarely letting go and totally losing himself in the role. Sure, there are Big Acting scenes where Elgort puts himself through an emotional ringer but there’s a thread of falsehood running through his work that lets the character and, in the end, audiences down.

It’s a good thing, then, that Crowley has filled the supporting roles with such unexpected (and unexpectedly solid) actors. As is often the case, Kidman is terrific as a WASP-y Upper East Side wife, rarely without her pearls and pursed lips. Even in old age make-up later in the film, she manages to give off a regal air. Kidman always gives her characters sharp edges yet the performance never lacks for warmth. Luke Wilson (Concussion) was a nice surprise as Theo’s deadbeat dad that brings him to Nevada to live with his new wife (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave, gnawing on the scenery like it was a turkey leg) but doesn’t seem to have interest in being a parent. Wilson so often plays soft characters but he gets an opportunity here to show a harder side and it works to his advantage.

I struggled a bit at first with Finn Wolfhard (IT, IT: Chapter Two) and his Borat-adjacent accent as young Theo’s bad influence best friend but he eventually won me over, though Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk) as the older version of Wolfhard’s character rubbed me the wrong way from the jump. Ashleigh Cummings gets perhaps the best scene in the whole movie as older Theo’s unrequited childhood love, I just wish her character was better conceived. She gets all this wonderful material and then pretty much vanishes. Also absent for long stretches is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), turning in the most memorable performance in the movie. Wright has long been a valuable character actor, never quite making it to A-List leading man status but showing here you don’t have to be the focus of the film to effectively steal the show.

Crowley’s best move was to get Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) to lens the film. Deakins is a master behind the camera and his gorgeous work here is another reminder that he’s one of the all-time greats. Everything about the movie looks wonderful and feels like it should work but there’s a curiously absent beating heart that holds it back from reaching the next level, one that I’m guessing would have pleased fans of the book more. For this audience member coming in blind, I found it to be a watchable but only occasionally memorable literary adaptation of a celebrated work.

Movie Review ~ Brittany Runs a Marathon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman living in New York takes control of her life- one block at a time.

Stars: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Sarah Bolt, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If you take a step back and look at the films released this summer and don’t consider the box office returns, it’s been a good year for female-led movies.  Finding their way to theaters (but, sadly, not always wide audiences) were Booksmart, Late Night, The Farewell, and maybe, if you’re feeling generous, even The Hustle.  All had strong points of view and boldly entered the arena, often in direct competition to highly anticipated and better advertised franchise blockbusters.  Aside from The Farewell, which continues to build on positive word of mouth, these movies suggested changing tides of appetite only to find themselves in discounted theaters within weeks of their release dates.  Destined to find their audiences when they hit streaming services, it doesn’t diminish the sting of feeling these should have done better.

The latest movie likely to fall under the same scrutiny is Brittany Runs a Marathon and it might just stand the best shot of breaking the cycle of summer underperformers.  Directed by Off-Broadway playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo making his feature film debut and inspired by the life of his best friend, this is a charming comedy that finds a nice balance between humor and drama.   I found a lot to laugh at within the movie but an equal amount of the time I was struck by how insightful it was into the inward struggle we all face when standing in front of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Approaching 30 and yet to shed the carefree lifestyle that worked for her in her early 20s, Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell, Office Christmas Party) works as a part time usher at a small NYC theater and doesn’t do much else.  Her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee, Wish Upon) is dating a handsome Wall Street-type and enjoys partying and late nights just as much as Brittany does.  Visting her doctor in hopes of snagging a prescription for Adderall, she instead leaves with a recommendation to lose forty to fifty pounds to avoid ongoing health concerns.  Having an “a-ha” moment, Brittany takes stock of her situation, where she is, and where she wants to be. Unable to afford a gym, she begins to run outdoors, eventually joining a running group on the suggestion of Catherine, (Michaela Watkins, Wanderlust) a woman in her building.  Teaming up with Catherine and another newbie runner Seth, (Micah Stock), the trio set their sights on training for the NYC Marathon, each with their own personal reasons for wanting to cross the finish line.

To earn extra money, Brittany becomes a daytime house/dog sitter, eventually meeting Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect) who takes over for her at night.  While the two squabble like brother and sister at first, it isn’t hard to see where the good-natured fighting will lead…though it does take an intelligent route getting there.  As Brittany continues to train and sees her body changing, she overlooks that it was never about an outward change that needed to happen but an adjustment from within that was necessary.  Unable to be vulnerable even with her closest friends or accept their support in the simplest of matters, Brittany may lose everything she’s worked for if she can’t knock down the walls she’s put up to defend herself.

On the surface, Brittany Runs a Marathon might look like your standard offering of girl makes a change to better herself and the wacky ways she does it but Colaizzo isn’t interested in doing anything the old-fashioned way.  Yes, the movie is packed with humor both smart and smart-alecky but there’s never a time when the script is out to make fun of its title character.  It doesn’t spare her, though, from being held to the same human decency standard as everyone else.  Just as we wince when low blows are leveled at Brittany, when she does the same to another person late in the film, we hold her accountable as well.  Kudos to actress Sarah Bolt for her small role being on the receiving end of a particularly nasty putdown from Brittany and for the way she responds — it’s easily a top highlight of the movie.

I’m used to Bell’s more raunchy and ribald performances, often broad and playing to the back wall of the theater next door to the one you’re in.  So, it’s refreshing to see her, not so much restrained, but offering up a different side that’s just as entertaining.  She’s in every scene so if we didn’t like the character or the actress the movie would be in big trouble, but Bell clearly was the right person for this job.  The performance is strong and arguably one of the best of the year.  I also liked Ambudkar as her comic and romantic counterpart.  There’s a chemistry in both areas and that goes a long way in keeping the less funny moments afloat.  Watkins and Stock do serviceable supporting work, though some late breaking efforts to bring their personal lives into the mix feels like Colaizzo biting off more than he can chew in 103 minutes.  I’d rather have learned more about Brittany’s backstory, the only information we get are in snippets from her brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and even those are sometimes hard to track.

I think it’s important to look at the movie not for what it’s putting Brittany through but what the ultimate goal is.  The point of the movie isn’t for us to watch her lose weight.  It isn’t about her running the marathon.  It’s a way to show there is value in everyone no matter what they are capable of or hope to achieve.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness and offering help is not a sign you don’t believe in someone’s ability.  That Colaizzo is able to weave that message in among a hearty supply of appealing situational comedy and lively performances is a real gift.

Movie Review ~ Late Night


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A late-night talk-show host suspects that she may soon lose her long-running show.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, Denis O’Hare, John Early, Max Casella

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you want to start your Oscar season early, it’s always a good idea to keep track of the film festivals that start to roll out in the first half of the year.  Though the more prestige films usually premiere at the international festivals in the fall, a few notable movies often will first see the light of day at South by Southwest in Austin and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.  This year, South by Southwest held the first screenings of Us and Booksmart while Sundance had, among others, The Mustang, Apollo 11, and Late NightLate Night turned out to be the big news coming out of Sundance, namely because it was purchased for distribution by Amazon Studios for an eye-popping $13 million dollars.

Quickly positioning the movie as a breezy summer comedy antidote to the ear-shattering blockbusters playing in the theater next door, Amazon has wisely learned from the mistakes of Booksmart’s too wide/too fast release and is releasing Late Night in waves.  This is helping to generate good buzz for the movie, bolstered further on the positive word of mouth it has received from audiences and critics.  Drawing justified comparisons to Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada, Late Night is a mostly entertaining film that plays off its formulaic skeleton well but also succumbs to the trappings of the genre more often than it should.

After nearly three decades as the only female host of a late-night television show, Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson, Beauty and the Beast) is seeing a steep drop in her ratings.  The new network head honcho (Amy Ryan, Beautiful Boy) has given her word her contact won’t be renewed and attributed it not just to the ratings but to how out of touch Katherine is with the rest of the world and the changing face of media.  Accused of not being an ally to other women, Katherine makes a last-ditch effort to save her show by hiring Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, A Wrinkle in Time) to come onboard as the first female writer on the all-male writing team.

Coming from working at a chemical plant as an efficiency expert, Molly has no experience in television, let alone a writers room.  Using her background to assess the shows weakness and strengths, she passes that along to Katherine and her fellow writers who don’t take kindly to the outsider telling them how to run their show.  As with all of these workplace comedies, there’s the typical hazing at the outset followed by gradual appreciation for Molly’s talent, and eventual acceptance as their equal.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it’s in the delivery that sets it apart from the rest.

Much of this credit goes to Kaling’s script which is sharp, insightful, funny, and obviously gleaned from her years as the only female writer on NBC’s The Office.  The relationship she creates between Katherine and Molly is genuinely interesting to watch and goes beyond the expected pathway of the dragon lady boss tormenting her meek staff member (though we do get a little of that in the beginning) and forms something more solid.  The movie really crackles when Thompson and Kaling share the screen, be it in arguing over a joke at the writers table or Katherine entering Molly’s territory to see what the lives are like for her staff when they go home.

It’s when the movie branches out to other characters that it gets a little unwieldy.  Kaling has a good track record with hiring her friends and it seems like she wrote parts for a lot of them in this movie.  This creates an overload of people, many of them serving the same purpose.  Though Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya), John Early (The Disaster Artist), and Max Casella (Jackie) make nice contributions here, I can easily imagine their roles being absorbed into other characters to help the movie not feel so weighed down with white guys angling for one-liners.

Though it’s positioned as a two-hander, the more I think about Late Night the more I feel this is really Thompson’s movie with Kaling as a supporting role.  To that end, Thompson is excellent as a woman of a certain age who was a trailblazer before becoming complacent.  We never do know why Katherine started to turn her back on her show (though, from what I could tell, it wasn’t that funny to begin with) but Thompson gives us an inside perspective into her initial shock at realizing she is being replaced and figuring out a way to move forward and reclaiming what is rightfully hers.  Kaling is a supportive co-star and, as always, abdicates the spotlight whenever possible to allow her fellow actors to shine.  While she has a great many funny lines, she doesn’t keep all the zingers to herself or Thompson but spreads them around the room generously.  More than anything, I was annoyed that Kaling felt the need to insert a love story into the mix of all of this because it’s so shoe-horned in.  I’m glad she was able to get Reid Scott (Venom) and Hugh Dancy (Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return) into the creative mix here but they feel like distractions from the story the movie is really wanting to tell which is the relationship between Katherine and Molly.  That the script continues to weave in other people becomes frustrating as the film progresses.

On a podcast I was listening to after seeing this someone wondered if this wouldn’t have worked a little better as a multi episode series on some streaming service and I couldn’t help but agree.  Too much of the movie felt compacted into the trim running time, leaving out key ingredients such as more of a backstory for Molly (a random cousin pops up for two scenes and is never heard from again) or more time to get to know the home life of Katherine and her husband (John Lithgow, Pitch Perfect 3).  Even with these nitpicks aside, this is a movie worth your time for Thompson’s performance alone.