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 ~ Wonder Wheel


The Facts
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Synopsis: On Coney Island in the 1950s, a lifeguard tells the story of a middle-aged carousel operator and his beleaguered wife.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Debi Mazar, Max Casella, James Belushi

Director: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When I first heard that Woody Allen was setting his new movie (his 48th!) at Coney Island, I was expecting something a bit more…fun.  The first preview set me straight and I’ve spent the last few months waiting for it to arrive and wondering if it was going to be another bump in the downward slant slump or if the director was going to put some cinematic snowshoes on and start to climb back up.  While the shoes are definitely on, Wonder Wheel proves there’s little traction being made by Allen to get back to where he once was.  Perhaps, considering continued allegations against Allen’s personal life, that can never be.

Taking place in the summer months of the waning years of Coney Island’s hey-day, Wonder Wheel opens with an introduction by Mickey (Justin Timberlake, Inside Llewyn Davis), a lifeguard that has a literal birds eye view of the comings and goings of the tourists that visit the beaches and amusement park as well as the people that work there.  One such worker is Ginny (Kate Winslet, The Dressmaker) an unhappy woman approaching 40 raising her son with her second husband, a carousel operator named Humpty (James Belushi, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return).  Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple, Maleficent, Cracks) shows up out of the blue looking for a place to hide from her mobster husband that has marked her for death.  Adding another body to an already cramped apartment turns up the heat for the mixed family, bringing out old frustrations.  When Ginny starts up an affair with Mickey who soon becomes enamored with Carolina, the spark is lit for flames on the pyre Allen has built.

Yet…despite some fairly magnetic performances and strong technical merits, the film never manages to catch much heat.  It feels as if Allen (Magic in the Moonlight) had an idea for a beginning but no real inspiration for an ending.  It’s well-known the writer-director has a zillion half-finished scripts he’s hidden away in some old drawer and many of his recent works have been retrieved from the par-baked cave of wonders.  Wonder Wheel has elements to it that make me feel it started in Allen’s mind as a stage-play.  Lengthy scenes in one setting would seem natural for a stage-bound work but on the big screen it feels too claustrophobic and stilted.

While the script may be underdeveloped, the same cannot be said for its production design and cinematography.  Production designer Santo Loquasto (Radio Days) has outdone himself here, beautifully recreating Coney Island in all its swirling technicolor glory.  Rides I’ve long heard about but never seen are digitally recreated in background shots and the central Ferris Wheel from which the movie takes its title is spiffed up…though I was disappointed there are no shots on the actual ride!  Loquasto’s design elements are captured by Vittorio Storaro in a dazzling color palette that gives the film a vibrancy its words sorely lack.  Watching the film on mute wouldn’t be a totally bad way to while away 101 minutes, either.

Another thing that should be mentioned in the music.  Allen’s movies aren’t scored in the traditional sense of the word but instead are comprised of existing songs used in place of instrumental pieces.  That usually works well for me but Wonder Wheel repeats two songs repeatedly to the point that it becomes torturous.  That may be intentional though, as any person that’s worked in a theme park or near one knows the piped in music can cause early-onset madness in even the most milquetoast individual.

It’s a shame the movie isn’t overall a better experience because Winslet’s performance is tremendous.  Ditching her posh accent for the harsh edges of a New York one, Winslet comes alive with a fiery energy that has tinges of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill is actually referenced several times and Allen clearly is going for another Williams-esque tale, a la, Blue Jasmine.  She has two speeches in the film that are magnificent to watch, especially when you consider they are done in long takes. That doesn’t leave the actress with any room for a false note…and she largely has perfect pitch.

Winslet is surrounded by a crew of supporting players that don’t quite meet her in the middle, though.  Temple fares best as a wounded character that could easily have been sketched with a mean streak but ultimately has a kind heart.  Belushi goes outside of his comedy comfort zone as Winslet’s gruff husband that keeps trying to fall off the wagon before being caught by his beleaguered wife.  The real low point is Timberlake, totally miscast as both the narrator and love interest of the two women.  Timberlake’s line deliveries seem like first tries at the material and Allen does him no favors by not prodding the actor to take more risks.

So in the end, is this nostalgic trip back worth stepping up to the ticket booth for?  Yes and no.  It’s worth a watch for Winslet’s work and the excellent production elements, just don’t be too surprised if you find yourselves divested from interest in the overall plot.

Movie Review ~ Jackie

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ve found that the mention of the Kennedy clan is, at this point in American culture, met with either exhaustion or adulation.  Countless documentaries have been made over the years and it seems like a new and noteworthy book finds its way to shelves every other month.  That doesn’t even count the movies.  So, suffice it to say, the woes of the Kennedy’s are known and easily accessible to anyone that cares to investigate further.

So why Jackie and why now?  We’ve seen the first lady portrayed on screens big and small (and even on stage in a one-woman show) but we’ve never seen it quite like this before.  Taking a page from recent biopics that focus on one small window of time in the life of a historical figure, Jackie is an exceedingly engaging film that welcomes us to stare and gawk at the tragedy that changed the direction of our nation.

Jumping back and forth and around and through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay pulls the attention away from the president to focus on Jackie herself and how her grief revealed a woman bolder and stronger than even her closest allies realized.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín may be an out of the box choice for this American as apple pie film but perhaps being un-enamored with the legendary Kennedy family was needed to tell this tale with such uprightness.

As Jackie, Natalie Portman (Thor: The Dark World) gives the performance of her career and gets my vote for Best Actress of 2016 for the way she buries herself in the role.  The funny thing is, you always know it’s Portman but you see and hear Jackie through and through.  I was worried that her pronounced Kennedy accent would be a distraction and, honestly, it is but mostly because no one else in the cast rises to the same level of technicality in their work.  Even so, the performance is bravely honest when it shows Jackie at her most brusquely direct and emotionally powerful when she lets her guard down and her sorrow bleeds through. Here is a woman that knew the power of media (visual and print) and made a point to stay in the public eye in the days after the assassination so no one would forget the price she and her children paid.  Though Portman is featured in gorgeous costumes and is always pristine (even when covered in blood), the performance lacks any kind of vanity.  Truly exceptional work is on display here.

With a leading role sketched with such skill, the supporting characters need to be on point too and for the most part Jackie’s support staff get the job done.  Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) is nicely understated as a White House staffer/confidant, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) plays a fictionalized reporter Oppenheim uses as a framing device and serves as the voice of the people, and John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) turns up late in the film as a priest attending to Jackie’s questions of faith.  The only major disappointment is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) sonorously taking on Bobby Kennedy with neither the accent, looks, or charm that is profoundly needed.  Sarsgaard sticks out like a sore, unconvincing thumb…especially in scenes featuring him with Jackie and JFK.

Along with Madeline Fontaine’s glorious costumes and Jean Rabasse’s beautifully articulate production design, Mica Levi (Under the Skin) has composed a most unusual and original score that you’re either going to love or hate.  Nearly always conveying a mood that is opposite to what is happening on screen, it gives another layer of depth to feature film about a family possessing public vs private personas that often are in competition with each other.

Audiences going to see another recreation of JFK’s assassination or conspiracy surrounding it are advised to steer clear as Jackie is about the woman behind the president and the storm she weathered behind closed White House doors while she remained strong in public for a nation in mourning

Movie Review ~ Fading Gigolo

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Fioravante decides to become a professional Don Juan as a way of making money to help his cash-strapped friend, Murray. With Murray acting as his “manager”, the duo quickly finds themselves caught up in the crosscurrents of love and money.

Stars: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Liev Schreiber, Sofia Vergara, Sharon Stone, Vanessa Paradis, Max Casella, Bob Balaban, Aida Turturro

Director: John Turturro

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For his fifth time behind the camera, writer/director John Turturro brings to the screen another off-kilter slice of life dramedy that is advertised as being about one thing (man becomes gigolo) but is really about something totally different. Turturro is lucky that this other thing is actually more intriguing than the gigolo angle and while the film is enjoyable for the 90 minutes you’ll be in your seat, it fades from memory before your seat belt is in place for your journey home.

Let me back up – what made me most interested in Fading Gigolo was director Woody Allen making a rare appearance in a film that he didn’t write or direct. Moreover, Allen (who scored big with 2013’s Blue Jasmine) and Turturro (Gung Ho) aren’t familiar collaborators, with Turturro having a small part in Allen’s 1986 Hannah and Her Sisters and the two sharing some screen time in 2000’s Company Man. So what would draw Allen to the film?

Turns out, Turturro has given Allen a nicely Allen-esque role as a book dealer strapped for cash that winds up pimping Turturro out to a string of lonely NYC ladies that enjoy his services. It’s a peculiar film, to be sure, but one that feels based in some sort of reality and not the kind of reality that only seems to exist in NYC. At times, the film is so reminiscent of Allen’s work that I had to keep reminding myself who was responsible for the creation of the film.

Three stories are really told here. The first is Turturro’s burgeoning relationship with a Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis, coming across as Marion Cotillard lite) and how his presence in her life causes a ripple effect in her deeply traditional community. These quiet scenes between Turturro and Paradis are quite lovely in their simplicity with Paradis especially impressive as a woman torn between the rules of her faith and a need to feel love.

A very different relationship is found with Turturro and two women (Sharon Stone, Lovelace and Sofia Vergara, The Three Stooges) who want him for a ménage à trois. Stone looks like a million bucks and is granted some nicely bitter with a side of regret dialogue, though it’s really Vergara that has a breakthrough here…showing that she’s more than an overemphasized accent and nice boobs.

The final thread in Turturro’s cinematic knot shows Allen making a home with a black woman and her children. These scenes provide some nice comedic moments while giving Allen the chance to nervously hem and haw as only he can. Turturro’s set-ups are so richly interesting that they almost seem like a condensing of several scripts into this one film. I for one would love to see a full movie with Allen running around NYC with his brood of wise-cracking children.

Though its charm doesn’t extend past the closing credits, I found myself engaged and invested in Turturro’s tale of love in NYC. It’s not out to redefine the genre with snappy dialogue or contrived occurrences but is content showing characters that feel real to live their lives while letting us watch. A fine film with extra fine performances.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fading Gigolo

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Synopsis: Fioravante decides to become a professional Don Juan as a way of making money to help his cash-strapped friend, Murray. With Murray acting as his “manager”, the duo quickly find themselves caught up in the crosscurrents of love and money.

Release Date:  April 18, 2014

Thoughts: Making a rare appearance in front of the camera without also being the writer/director, Fading Gigolo finds Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine) as a nebbishly down on his luck guy that winds up pimping out his amicable friend, John Turturro (Gung Ho).  The film has the look and feel of a, well, Woody Allen film so I have to believe that director Turturro wrote the film with Allen and his influences in mind.  With Sharon Stone (Lovelace, Total Recall) and Sofia Vergara (The Three Stooges) on hand as oversexed vixens the film is ripe with possibility…but I’ve found Turturro’s previous work to be complicated and hard to warm to.  Perhaps a little Allen vibe will help smooth out his rough edges.