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.

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 ~ BlacKkKlansman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan and became the head of the local chapter.

Stars: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though he’s often scored high marks with critics, it’s been a long time since director Spike Lee (Chi-Raq) had an outright commercial hit and with the release of BlacKkKlansman Lee finally seemed to be in position to have a movie that would cross that line.  Though the box office for the movie didn’t catch on like it very well should have, BlacKkKlansman still represents Lee’s most commercial work in years and is entertaining as all get out.

The story behind BlacKkKlansman is almost too bizarre to be true.  In Colorado in the early ‘70s, black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) goes undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan with the assistance of his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, Midnight Special).  Through a unique and increasingly dangerous set-up, Stallworth communicates with the local KKK leaders on the phone while Zimmerman poses as Stallworth whenever they need to meet in person.  Stallworth even befriends David Duke (Topher Grace, American Ultra) the Grand Wizard of the KKK and the two engage in lengthy phone conversations before ever meeting face to face.

At the same time, Stallworth becomes involved with the president of the Colorado black student union (Laura Harrier, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and their relationship becomes entwined with the dealings not only with his undercover investigation with the KKK but within his own police force.  When Duke sets up a trip to Colorado to personally initiate Stallworth as a member of the KKK, Stallworth and Zimmerman’s investigation intensifies as suspicions within the hate group start to mount.

Lee’s cast crackles with energy and keeps the movie moving through a slightly slow first twenty minutes.  It takes that long to establish some characters and get Stallworth moving from new recruit to establishing himself as an undercover officer heading up his own investigation.  Once he makes that first phone call to the KKK and sets into motion the sting operation, the film moves like a locomotive toward its conclusion that propels us from a flawed past to a complicated present and uncertain future.

Movie Review ~ I, Tonya


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Mckenna Grace, Bojana Novakovic, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  As I triple-axel my way ever closer to middle age, I’ve started to notice something all-together irritating.  Recently I’ve begun to see that movies based on real events have become less of an educational opportunity for me but more of a memory-jogging excursion into my teenage years.  Yes, I’m getting so old that I can actually remember where I was when Princess Diana died, when O.J. Simpson took that famous joyride in the white Bronco, and I definitely, 100% remember where I was during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Like most of America, I was glued to the tube watching not just the stunning athleticism on display but wondering how the drama of the previous months was going to play out.  We’ll get back to that because while ardent fans will remember who skated their way to the gold, silver, and bronze this is, after all, a spoiler-free blog and the events leading up to these Olympic games are the climax of I, Tonya.

I’ll admit going into I, Tonya with a little prejudice not just toward its subject but also it’s star.  Over the years the name Tonya Harding was equated with the horrible attack on her colleague and competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  While the tabloids were busy painting Harding as an evil conspirator, the makers of I, Tonya (including star and executive producer Margot Robbie) are more interested in showing the genesis of the famed figure skater, her struggle to the top, and her mighty (and maybe ultimately unjustified) fall from grace.

Framed by a series of interviews inspired by the words of the actual people involved, I, Tonya takes a while to stand on its own.  At first the narrative device gives the film a cheapness that isn’t helped by stars Robbie (as Harding) and Sebastian Stan (as her ex-husband Jeff Gilloly) laboring under some troublesome make-up, wigs, and facial hair to age them into their early ‘40s.  It’s when writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) do away with the tell vs. show method and cease with the random breaking of the fourth wall that the movie scores major points and takes on a life of its own.

Skating through Harding’s early years as a child phenom pushed by her chain-smoking foul-mouthed domineering monster mother LaVona (Allison Janney, The Way Way Back) into her adolescence and early marriage to the abusive Gilloly, all of the standard biopic bases are covered.  Harding comes from less than ideal circumstances and soon learns that handmade costumes and skating programs set to rock music aren’t going to win her a place in the hearts of the judges.  Looking for a more wholesome specimen to represent the world at the Olympics, the judges score Harding lower than her peers even though it’s well known she could skate rings around them.  There’s two great scenes where Harding confronts the judges, one ends with Harding hurling a gem of vulgarity and the other that makes you feel even more sorry for the young woman that just wants to be recognized for her ability, not her perceived personality shortcomings.

Harding was surrounded by people that wanted her to succeed not for her benefit but for theirs above all else.  LaVona looks to her daughter to be the bread-winner and save her from her life as a waitress, Gilloly obsessively loved his wife but couldn’t handle her need for independence after being brow-beaten by her mother and abandoned by her father.  Then there’s Gilloly’s friend and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) who hatches a jokey plan for psychological warfare on Harding’s foes that ultimately became the plot to injure Kerrigan.

I’ve struggled mightily with Robbie ever since she broke onto the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and there’s always a feeling of potential that’s never fully embraced.  While she received much attention for her role as Harley Quinn in the odious Suicide Squad and biffed it earlier in 2017 with Goodbye Christopher Robin, here she made me a believer in the accolades she’s garnered for playing Harding.  Early scenes feel awkward as the Australian Robbie adopts a trailer trash slack drawl but she eventually finds her groove, leading to a supremely satisfying turn in the final ¼ of the movie.  There’s a short scene with her attempting to put on her game face (literally) in a mirror that alone should get her an Oscar nomination.

Robbie’s ably supported by Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Janney, the latter of which goes all out as a nightmare of a woman that doesn’t have a motherly instinct in her body.  Her justification of why she behaves the way she does toward her daughter is hysterical, enlightening, and very very sad.  Playing her first coach and one of her only true allies, Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is also a strong presence in the film.  Though Robbie and Janney are getting the awards attention, for my money Hauser’s dimwit bodyguard is the one that needs a bigger spotlight for his deliriously droll performance.  It may look easy to do but his excellent timing and perfectly pitched physicality is more memorable for me than anything else.

It’s not all rosy for I, Tonya though.  Relying on some wince-inducing soundtrack choices that are far too on the nose, Gillespie throttles into his audience with too many asides to cameras and leaps back and forth in time.  While Robbie can skate, the scenes where she’s recreating Harding’s famously difficult performances are done using a double with Robbie’s face unconvincingly digitally inserted over the stand-in.  This never, ever, looks good and too often produces laughs as it seems Robbie’s face and the skater’s body are playing two different emotions.

Yet for all its wobbly construction issues I was left reeling by the committed performances and that’s what pushes this one ahead into something worth seeking out.  I’m almost positive this is the best we’ll see Robbie for a while so I’d advise to strike while the iron’s hot and see what all the fuss is about.  While Janney is wonderfully acerbic, I’d favor Laurie Metcalf’s equally troubling mother in Lady Bird over this performance if I was forced to choose in an Oscar pool.  This one might not get a perfect score, but in uncovering more about Harding than most people have seen, it gets top marks.

The Silver Bullet ~ I, Tonya

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Release Date: December 8, 2017

Thoughts: Well this looks like a wild ride. The brouhaha surrounding the infamous conspiracy involving figure skater Tonya Harding’s involvement in the injury of her competitor Nancy Kerrigan was the stuff of tabloid dreams.  Over the years Harding has faded from the public eye but  I, Tonya aims to drudge up events that have been on ice for some time.  Directed by Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours), while the movie looks like a black comedy at its bleakest and darkest (I get shades of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, no?), I’ve already heard buzz that it’s one you’re either going to get a huge kick out of or feel like you need a shower after to wash away the mean grime the film leaves on you.  I’m still nowhere near sold on the overall impact of Margot Robie (Exhibit A: Goodbye Christopher Robin) but if the Oscar rumors are true about co-star Allison Janney (Minions) then all shall be forgiven…for now.