Movie Review ~ Late Night


The Facts
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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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Late Night

Synopsis: A late-night talk show host is at risk of losing her long-running show right when she hires her first female who revitalizes her show and her life.

Release Date: June 7, 2019

Thoughts: Movie nerds like myself who keep their ear to the ground (or, more to the point, keep up to date with their podcasts) heard the buzziest film to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Late Night, the comedy written by Mindy Kaling and starring Emma Thompson. Snapped up by Amazon for a June release, Late Night features Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as an icy late night talk show host on the decline and Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time) as her new (and first) female writer.  There’s a little The Devil Wears Prada feel to this first look and I’m not hating it, but I can also tell the movie will have something more to say than just acerbic quips delivered with panache by Thompson.  I’m mostly hoping the movie can follow through with an awards-worthy performance from Thompson and make good on its festival buzz when larger crowds get a look in early summer.

Movie Review ~ The Judge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shephard, Billy Bob Thornton, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare

Director: David Dobkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I can imagine the script for The Judge came together by accident.  Perhaps a pair of screenwriters were both walking around a local coffee shop with two scripts, one was about a big city lawyer defending his estranged father on a murder charge and the other was about a hot-shot attorney who retreats home after discovering his wife was cheating on him.  Maybe the two writers stumbled into one another, sending their loose-leafed scripts up in the air in a flurry of white paper and when they picked themselves up they couldn’t discern what pages belonged to which script so they decided to just combine them and sell the unified work as The Judge.

I mean, that’s one theory right?  And it’s a lot more acceptable than knowing full well and good that The Judge was no accident, made with purpose. No amount of revisionist history can save this film from being one of the worst motion pictures in my recent memory, squandering the talents of its able-bodied cast for 141 of the most ghastly minutes you’ll spend in a theater this year.

Reminding me a lot of the equally awkward This Is Where I Leave You, The Judge miraculously ups the unpleasantness factor by offering not one moment that feels genuine; at least This Is Where I Leave You had a few redeeming qualities about it …and was forty minutes shorter.

Seeing early trailers, I thought The Judge held some promise considering the pairing of two Roberts in a courtroom drama.  Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3) seemed like the perfect actor to be matched with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies, The Paper) and sparks were expected to fly.  I’m not sure any combination of actors could have risen above the tone-deaf script that veers schizophrenically from comedy to drama, never succeeding in either arena.

Returning to his all-American hometown after his mother’s unexpected death, legal eagle Hank (Downey Jr., looking disturbingly skeletal…where’s the full faced lad from Less than Zero?) clashes with his father (Duvall), a respected town judge.  As he reconnects with his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and an old flame (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring, totally wasted though she’s miscast in the first place), he’s drawn deeper into the unresolved past with his dad after the judge is arrested on suspicion of murder and put on trail by a vengeful prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a Colonel Sanders wig and flashing his receding gum line every chance he gets).

Now I’m not going to deny that there’s a good idea somewhere in the plot and perhaps if director David Dobkin wasn’t so interested in wringing the ever loving emotional life out of every single scene then The Judge may have fared better overall, serving as a minor distraction for Downey Jr. between his Marvel superhero commitments.

Nearing the end of this folly, I turned to my companion and exclaimed “There are so many emotions in this movie!” and it’s the God’s honest truth.  No emotional well is left undrained by Dobkin and co. as they move us through self-serving scene after self-serving scene.  I began to wonder if the entire movie wasn’t some elaborate prank where every acting clip shown on the Oscars wasn’t recreated in one film. There are courtroom confessions, tender moments bizarrely played out in front of masses of people, tough good-byes, difficult hellos, old wounds reopened, and healing apologies delivered as one single tear rolls down a cheek.  It’s all simply too much.

It’s an ugly film too. When the backdrops aren’t horribly digitally inserted the film takes place in houses, bars, and courtrooms that have “natural” light coming through the windows by way of 1000 watt search lights, suggesting cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln) has shot the movie like a Christopher Nolan directed episode of Judge Judy.

Culminating in a borderline offensive finale that wears its manipulation as a badge of honor, I can’t recommend enough steering clear of this mish-mash of a missed opportunity.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Judge

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Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’ve seen the poster and the trailer for The Judge several times now, I still fight with telling myself that it’s not the latest adaptation of a John Grisham thriller…not that the preview doesn’t suggest something similar to Grisham’s sweaty courtroom dramas that were all the rage in the mid-90s. With a nicely meaty role, star Robert Downey Jr. (The Avengers) ,may have found a nice antidote to the Iron Man/Sherlock Holmes track he’s been on for the last few years. Paired with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), I’m looking forward to seeing the two generationally different actors work alongside one another.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

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Synopsis: 65 years after a masked serial killer terrorized the small town of Texarkana, the so-called ‘Moonlight Murders’ begin again. Is it a copycat or something even more sinister? A lonely high school girl with dark secrets of her own may be the key to catching him.

Release Date: October 16, 2014

Thoughts: I know, I know…another modern remake of a minor classic that will surely be gorier than the original, sacrificing mood for cheap thrills…ugh.  Right?  Still, there’s something about this one that has me wondering if a re-tooling wasn’t in order.  I only remember bits and pieces of the 1976 original but I do recall thinking it wasn’t anything to write to your horror pen pals about.  It does have that “We’re Going Retro” feeling to it and I’m a fan of a return to horror that’s less ‘torture porn’ and more ‘slow burn’ in the way it presents itself.  No doubt the film will feature copious amounts of flesh and blood but if it’s balanced with a strong narrative and decent acting it will all be worth it.  Bonus points for MGM resurrecting the Orion Pictures logo, something we haven’t seen for 15 years. 

Movie Review ~ Dallas Buyers Club

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Loosely based on the true-life tale of Ron Woodroof, a drug taking, women loving, homophobic man who, in 1985 was diagnosed with full blown HIV/AIDS and given thirty days to live.

Synopsis: Loosely based on the true-life tale of Ron Woodroof, a drug taking, women loving, homophobic man who, in 1985 was diagnosed with full blown HIV/AIDS and given thirty days to live.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Griffin Dunne, Steve Zahn

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I remember when A Time to Kill came out in 1996 and the then relatively unknown leading man Matthew McConaughey was heralded as an actor to watch.  For a time, that proved to be true as the actor had his pick of Hollywood directors and high profile film projects to choose from.  Then, as is often the case with success, the actor with so much promise began to make some bad choices and it looked like McConaughey was destined to be yet another forgotten star that hit big and faded out with an endless stream of forgettable romantic comedies.

Then a minor miracle happened.  McConaughey seemed to realize what was happening and instead of just taking the checks and sloughing off the sideways glances of those that knew his potential, he stepped back and took stock of what kind of actor he’d become.  And he decided to change things up…which led to McConaughey hitting on a string of films over the last several years (like Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Killer Joe, Mud) that showed the actor to be dexterous, intriguing, and willing to put his career on the line for projects he believed in.

Never more is that evident than in his career-high performance in Dallas Buyers Club.  As the rough Ron Woodroof, McConaughey doesn’t just physically transform into the man diagnosed with HIV that takes his life into his own hands, he goes deeper than he has before to produce a character that makes no apologies and still earns the affection of the audience…no small feat for playing a man that starts out so smarmy you can practically smell the cigarettes and cheap alcohol emanating from him.

After Woodroof was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, his doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) aren’t able to offer much hope for a disease at a time before the government admitted it was a problem and funded research to learn more about it.  Frustrated, confused, and unwilling to admit his time is running short, Woodruff loses his good ‘ole boy friends who only thought of AIDS as a gay disease.  Woodruff’s homophobia runs rampant and keeps him from attending any support meetings to help learn more about the disease that is ravaging his body.

Doing his homework, Woodruff learns more about available medical treatments and how the popular drug AZT may not be the life saving solution everyone thinks it is.  A chance meeting with a doctor (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico gives him the idea of how to combat this disease, buying him more time off of his death sentence.  In short time, he grudgingly partners with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite also dying of AIDS who possesses the street smarts and compassion that Woodruff is lacking.  Together they form the Dallas Buyers Club, a “club” that disperses non FDA approved drugs to the HIV community that may not otherwise have access to them.

For a movie with such a somber subject, there’s great life to be had in Dallas Buyers Club.  Aside from McConaughey’s committed performance, there’s the equally impressive transformation that Leto undergoes.  Maybe even more so than McConaughey, Leto truly gets under the skin of his character…resulting in a mighty powerful and vividly drawn character.  There’s good work from Dunne and supporting players O’Hare and Steve Zahn, all seasoned character actors that know how to stay out of the way of the leading actors.  It’s only Jennifer Garner that hits a few wrong notes…I’ve always considered Garner more of a television actress that occasionally pops up in movies and her work here only confirms that.  While her effort is better than other projects, she has a way of taking a serious scene and being a tad too invested in it, which sniffs of an earnestness that doesn’t ring true.

It’s McConaughey and Leto that you should be focusing on anyway and director Jean Marc-Vallee wisely keeps them front and center for the majority of the film.  Though as audience members we can do the math and probably know how the ending will play out, there’s more than enough surprising turns in the script from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack to fill out the two hour running length.  I like that the movie didn’t allow the characters to compromise or be compromised and let them act and react as people would in real life – it’s not a movie where everyone holds hands and realizes the errors of their ways by the final reel.  There’s no Hollywood ending to be had but a real-life ending that provides a strong impact and lasting message.