LATE NIGHT (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ”A woman who hates women”. That is how talk show host Katherine Newbury is described. Oh, and her show’s ratings have been declining for 10 years, she doesn’t even know most of her writers by sight (or name), and we are led to believe that her age has something to do with the new network executive wanting to replace her. Five minutes in, my opinion was that Katherine Newbury doesn’t like people (not just women), is basically a narcissistic jerk, and her age has nothing to do with her being replaced … it’s the fact that her show is lame, she’s not appealing to viewers, and advertising revenues drop with poor ratings. It’s called business – not sexism or gender discrimination. Never once did this seem like someone getting a raw deal. However, it’s only a movie, so I tried to play along.

Very talented actors fill the screen. Two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, the stuck-in-her-ways, Emmy winning talk show host hanging on based on reputation and longevity in the business. Her character reminds me of David Letterman towards the end of his long run … scandal and all. Mindy Kaling co-stars as Molly Patel, a factory, err, chemical plant worker, who dreams of being a comedy writer, but puts no effort into actually learning the craft. Instead, luck puts her in the right place at the time the show needs a token hire. Enter Molly, a woman of color in a writers’ room full of white men. The interesting dynamic here is that most of the men in the room probably got their seat thanks to connections, while Molly got hers based on gender. Talent and skill seem to play no part for any of them.

The story is basically Molly trying to find her true self by helping Katherine modernize her evil ways and save her job. There are quite a few little sub-stories – can’t really call them subplots – that mostly distract from the overall direction, but serve the purpose of allowing punchlines or supposedly insightful social commentary. John Lithgow plays Katherine’s wise, Parkinson’s stricken husband, and the writers’ boys club includes Hugh Dancy (“Hannibal”), Reid Scott (“Veep”), Max Casella (“Ray Donovan”), Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA), and Denis O’Hare (“True Blood”). Ike Barinholtz plays the hot young comedian being groomed as Katherine’s replacement, and it’s Amy Ryan (“The Office”) who really registers as the network President. More of Ms. Ryan’s character and more attention to the network perspective would have improved the film.

Director Nisha Ganatra (“Transparent”) is working from the script by Ms. Kaling, whose real life experiences as a token hire in the industry could have been better presented. A lame stab at a romance distracts from the reactions of the threatened writers materializing in a lack of respect towards Molly, and most of the comedy felt forced and obvious, rather than real and painful (the sources of the best comedy). It’s a shame that most any episode of “30 Rock” or “The Office” provides more insightful commentary and comedy than this film. It’s such a missed opportunity.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

HAMPSTEAD (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Were this not inspired by the true story of Harry Hallowes, finding something positive to say about the film might prove difficult. Hallowes was (sometimes) affectionately known as the “Hampstead Hermit”. The crux of his story is that he was awarded legal “squatter’s rights” for his many years living in a small shack on the vast land where the Athlone House (now foreign owned) sits. Director Joel Hopkins (THE LOVE PUNCH, 2014) works from a script by Robert Festinger (Oscar nominated for IN THE BEDROOM, 2001) to turn the story into a cutesy romantic comedy.

Diane Keaton stars as Emily Walters, widowed for more than a year by a man who left her in debt and with the added bonus of discovering he had been having an affair with a younger woman. Brendan Gleeson stars as Donald Horner, the gruff, well-read man from the shack. It’s an idyllic British community with quaint shops and leisure bicycle riders – the kind of place where locals mostly wave and smile while the generic background music plays. Emily, who lives in the luxury apartment she shared with her late husband, is trying to figure out how to dig out of the financial hole she’s in. The first idea should have been getting a job other than volunteering at a charity dress shop, but this is the type of movie where real world problems magically dissipate and we know things are going to be just fine.

The film is mostly tolerable when Brendan Gleeson is on screen, even when Ms. Keaton is annoying him with her usual quirks. Of course the two end up liking each other (it is a rom-com after all), and she helps him with his legal battle to keep his “home”, while he helps her find meaning in her days again. Ms. Keaton mostly wears her familiar turtlenecks and scarfs, and we even get an early beret visual punchline (later ruined).

The always fun Lesley Manville owns her role as Fiona, neighbor and quasi-rival to Emily. More of Ms. Manville would have helped. Other supporting roles are covered by James Norton, Adeel Akhtar, Simon Callow, Jason Watkins, and Hugh Skinner. Many familiar faces, each given little to do. Thanks to the real life Harry Hallowes, there is a message here about the difficulty in living life on one’s own terms – a near impossibility without somehow affecting on infringing on others. Otherwise, this is one that will only appeal to fans of Ms. Keaton and of movies that require little effort or thought from viewers.

watch the trailer:

 


THE TOMORROW MAN (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Noble Jones worked as the second unit director on David Fincher’s award-winning film THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and he has made quite a name for himself in music videos and commercials. This is his first feature film as director and he also wrote this interesting and original script. On top of that, he cast two premier veteran actors to bring the story to life: John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. At times it feels like we are watching a masterclass in acting and many of their scenes together have a live theatre feel.

Ed (Lithgow) and Ronnie (Danner) cross paths at the local grocery store where they each shop at an alarmingly frequent rate. It turns out Ed is preparing for doomsday and Ronnie is hoarder. As they spend time together, their fondness for each other grows, but we are never really sure if it’s loneliness or connection that inspires the relationship between these two oddballs.

Despite both having a very serious approach to life, there are many moments of levity and sweetness, but also doses of reality that keep us off-balanced – just as life tends to. Ed proclaims the world would be such a disaster with ball bearings … of course his view is a bit skewed since he spent 17 years on the business. Ronnie is brave enough to attend Thanksgiving dinner with Ed at his son’s house, and the explosive family dynamics drive home the challenges of co-existing with others at any age. Many of us have family members that comfortably fit into either Camp Ed or Camp Ronnie.

Ed tells the new checkout clerk that it’s “good to know your neighbor. You never know when you’ll need them.” His preparations for doom and gloom … or as he calls it, SHTF … are offset by Ronnie’s sweetness, and a yard sale leads to the surprise ending. I originally saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s always a pleasure to welcome a new talented story teller to the cinematic world. Additionally, watching two talented actors play off each other is usually worth the price of a ticket, and as an added bonus, filmmaker Noble has finally found a good use for the song “Muskrat Love”.

watch the trailer:


JULES OF LIGHT AND DARK (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the benefits of attending a close-to-home film festival is getting the opportunity to see the work of local people that we are familiar with. Writer-Director Daniel Laabs has been active in the Dallas film scene for years, and although he has produced short films, it’s his feature film debut that nabbed a prime spot at this year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival.

Tallie Medel stars as Maya, and she’s in an on-again-off-again relationship with Jules, played by Betsy Holt. Things never seem quite right with the couple, especially in a dance club scene where David (Johnathan Miles Howard) gets involved. Awkwardness, insecurity, and uncertainty follows. Not long after, oil field worker Freddy (Robert Longstreet) happens upon a car accident. Both Maya and Jules are injured, though Jules’ injuries are more severe. The David situation takes an odd turn, and so does the Maya – Jules dynamic … but it’s Freddy’s story that really connects or disconnects all of the personal story lines, depending how one views it.

Mr. Longstreet is a terrific character actor and it’s nice to see him with a more substantial role here. He seems to thrive on the complexity of, what on the surface, seems like a simple man … but wow, does this guy have issues and challenges (dogs, daughters, identity, regrets). In a way that’s difficult to explain, Freddy and Maya bond and seem to really help each other sort out some things. This happens even though we don’t see a good amount of discussion between them – it really goes to the point, that we all need someone we can depend on.

The film is very well acted, including supporting work from Liz Cardenas and Rafael Villegas. The score from Brent Sluder is spot on, and the film has a very grounded feel and look to it. The story may be secondary to the characters, but we find ourselves wanting each of them to find a glimmer of happiness.

(I couldn’t find an online trailer)


LIGHT FROM LIGHT (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Festivals are often programmed with many films that will never be screened outside of a festival environment … low-budget passion projects to be viewed only by those with an appreciation (bordering on obsession) of deep cut and one-off films. Writer-Director Paul Harrill (SOMETHING, ANYTHING) has possibly bridged the gap with a film that capitalizes on grief, while excelling in quietness and stillness.

Marin Ireland (“Homeland”) stars as Sheila, a single mom who plods through each day at her dead-end job as a rental car agent. We learn from a radio interview that Sheila may also have a connection to the afterlife, and she sometimes works as a ghost hunter or paranormal investigator – although, she has somehow lost her crew. Still, this doesn’t stop a Priest from reaching out to her in hopes that she can help Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a distraught widower who has reported strange occurrences in his farmhouse – occurrences that may or may not be related to his dead wife, and occurrences that he may or may not be imagining.

Sheila takes the job (even though she’s no Zelda Rubinstein) and recruits her teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins, so good in HELLION, 2014) and his friend-study partner-would be girlfriend Lucy (Athena Frizzell) to help set up cameras and recording devices at Richard’s house. It’s at this point where it should be noted that this is not a horror film. It’s not even a thriller. And even though Gaffigan co-stars, it’s certainly not a comedy. It’s not even really a ghost story or a romantic tale, although those elements do exist.

The intrigue is derived from these four characters. These are not special or extraordinary people – just normal folks trying to figure out life. We learn the inner struggles of each, and as viewers we are joined at the hip with them. It’s been a year since Richard’s wife died in the crash, and he’s still coming to terms with her death, and even more so, the affair she confessed.  Sheila is wondering where she fits in the world, and her advice to Owen proves the level of overprotectiveness she has for emotion. Owen likes Lucy, but doesn’t see the point in starting a relationship that will end when she heads off to school, and Lucy is confused by his reaction to her strong attraction to him.

Ms. Ireland and Mr. Gaffigan are both excellent here, and having recently seen the latter in THEM THAT FOLLOW, I’m not the least bit surprised that he can pull off such a dramatic turn. The film reaches a different level in their scenes together – especially a hike to the crash site located within the Great Smoky Mountains. Not much is said, and there is little action, but the scene solidifies all the emotions hinted at in the preceding scenes.

A film that might be characterized by some as slow and dull, may just strike a chord with enough folks to gain some momentum for an audience. David Lowery, the director of A GHOST STORY, 2017) is an executive producer, so he has a track record of success with stories that are understated and quiet. Are there ghosts among us – possibly even the living? Richard and Sheila come pretty close. Additionally, special recognition goes out for a practical effect that is the film’s crescendo … and it involves Tolstoy! So rather than view this as a bit of a downer, as the title suggests, we should let there be light.

(I couldn’t find an online trailer)

 


HAM ON RYE (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Should I stay or should I go? Only it’s not really your choice. Some bizarre ritual, or rite of passage (or no passage), is held to determine whether one is selected to venture into the world, or instead resigned to remaining a local forever.

We first see the teens clumped in their cliques, nervous energy palpable on the screen. Anxiety is prevalent but we aren’t exactly sure why. Slowly each of the young folks makes their way to Monty’s Deli – only, contrary to the title, it’s not for the ham on rye. The typical awkward teenage social event is underway, only there is more at stake here than who will dance with who.

Director and writer Tyler Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger have delivered a scathing commentary not just on the suburbs, but of the realities faced by high schoolers all over. In every home town, some kids head off to college or off into the world in some other manner, while another group gets “left behind”. What follows is a gap or void between those who leave and those who remain. In the film, the void even exists within families.

The film opens and closes with sequences in the community park. Young kids are quite normal – running, jumping and laughing. The older adults seem to be merely existing. There is an almost supernatural approach here by the filmmaker, but it does beg the question … how much control do we have over our fate at that age, and are we accepting of our lot?  Pretty interesting fodder for discussion.

watch the trailer:


THE MOUNTAIN (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s happened before and it’ll likely happen a few more times. A movie ends and I’m at a loss as to how to explain it. What should I tell potential viewers? Is it even possible to “spoil” a movie that is so purposefully downbeat – one that relishes its inability to be analyzed by conventional methods? Filmmaker Rick Alverson has previously knocked us off-kilter with THE COMEDY (2012) and ENTERTAINMENT (2015), and this time seems intent on ensuring our misery.

Tye Sheridan (MUD, 2012) stars as Andy, a functionally catatonic Zamboni driver at the local ice rink where his dad Frederick (a quite grumpy Udo Kier) trains figure skaters. When dad drops dead on the ice, an aimless Andy is taken under the wing of an enigmatic Dr. Wallace “Wally” Fiennes (a toned-down Jeff Goldblum). Wally previously treated Andy’s mother, which isn’t really a good thing since he specializes in lobotomies and electric shock therapy. Andy hits the road with the doctor, carrying his equipment and taking before and after photos with the Polaroid Land Camera. Oh yeah, the setting is 1950’s Pacific Northwest.

Goldblum’s character is based on a real life doctor, and he runs up against an industry that is transitioning to drug treatments, leaving Wally searching for patients. He clearly believes in his treatments, and that leads to Jack, an eccentric whose daughter Susan (Hannah Gross, “Mindhunter”) is in need of Wally’s treatment. Jack is played by French acting veteran Denis Lavant, and his tirades and wild speeches blend French and English to the point that we lose the point – if there ever was one.

Goldblum’s doctor enjoys a drink and the company of women while on the road, and Sheridan’s Andy is so ultra-quiet he often becomes nearly invisible in social settings. If there is a narrative foundation to the film, I do wish Andy’s Ouija board device had spelled it out for me. Instead, the haunting music contrasted with the use of “Home on the Range” left me understanding that the few words spoken carry little meaning, and we are meant to be disrupted by feelings. My hopeless feeling mostly left me asking “why?”, and a bizarre post film Q&A with co-writer Dustin Guy Defa added little context. Actually, that was likely the perfect ending to this film.

watch the trailer: