PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

December 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The protagonist in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s (“Killing Eve”) feature film debut is a woman on a mission to avenge not just what happened to her friend, but also change the mentality of predatory men … one “nice guy” at a time. She is a #MeToo heat-seeking missile.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, and when we first see her, she appears to be nearing blackout mode while drinking alone on a bench inside a bar. Most people have hobbies like crochet or golf. Cassie’s hobby, or maybe mission is a better word, is to lure men, with the appearance of a drunken easy score, and then scare them straight into respecting boundaries. She’s a non-violent vigilante (as opposed to Beatrix Kiddo) for morality and respect towards women.

As the film progresses, we pick up bits about what traumatized her to this extent. It turns out her best friend Nina was victimized by a group of men from their law school class. See, Cassie is the titular ‘promising young woman’ whose career dreams were dashed over what happened to her friend. Now, Cassie works in a coffee shop with a supportive and wise-cracking friend Gail (Laverne Cox, “Orange is the New Black”), who knows nothing of Cassie’s hobby … and neither do Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) who can’t help but wonder what happened to their bright, ambitious daughter, and why she still lives at home with them.

Cassie’s mission gets momentarily de-railed when former classmate Ryan (an excellent Bo Burnham, THE BIG SICK) pops in to the coffee shop and awkwardly proclaims his long-time distant crush on her. The two are clumsy and believable together, and their relationship has more ups and downs than a pogo stick. For most movies, this would be enough to hold our attention, but not for ambitious filmmaker Fennell who has much more to offer. There is a cleverness to the presentation with four specific segments: a friend who didn’t believe her (Alison Brie), the law school dean who didn’t want to ruin a boy’s future (Connie Britton), a regretful defense attorney who took the money (Alfred Molina), and a bachelor party that gathers those who make up her nightmare.

Ms. Fennell is also an actor (and has a cameo in this one), and it’s clear she has a real feel for putting actors in the best position to maximize a scene. Of course, Ms. Mulligan is an outstanding actor on her own, but the actors benefit from Ms. Fennell’s work. Other supporting work is provided by Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, and Sam Richardson. The color palette is similar to an early Tim Burton movie, and in fact, Cassie’s home looks like a museum or possibly a middle-class Liberace setting.

There is a lot going on here, and some of it is quite uncomfortable – and sprinkled with dark humor in unexpected moments. Advice like “move on” and excuses like “we were kids” ring hollow to Cassie, who carries some guilt over what happened to Nina, and remains focused on attacking a system that enables inexcusable behavior. Ms. Mulligan embraces a character who possesses raw nerves and emotions she sometimes hides, while other times flashes in neon. This isn’t about a guy here or there who takes advantage, but rather a faulty system that protects these guys at the expense of victims. The ending is unusual and unexpected, and kudos to an exciting new filmmaker.

In theaters December 25, 2020

watch the trailer


THE POST (2017)

December 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first time a movie marquee has read “Spielberg-Streep-Hanks”, so expectations are sky high – and rightly so. The result is level of cinematic preciseness we don’t often see. As an added bonus, it also features both historical and contemporary relevance – the type of relevance that forces us to consider where we stand and what type of society we prefer. So for the price of a ticket, we get Hollywood star power, a history lesson, and current societal commentary … now that’s a holiday bargain!

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (Kay) Graham, the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper, and she delivers her most nuanced performance in years … that of a conflicted woman coming to grips with her immense power at a time when many men believed she lacked the capacity for making such far-reaching and weighty decisions. Tom Hanks slides into the loafers of Ben Bradlee, the hard-charging editor of Ms. Graham’s newspaper, The Washington Post. The role fits Hanks like a glove, and he even brandishes Bradlee’s trademark growling speech pattern. Bradlee is laser-focused on what he believes is the right thing to do, and steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Of course, the dilemma faced by these two involved the Pentagon Papers scandal of 1971. The film kicks off with a quick timeline of the political maneuverings that led to, and escalated, the Vietnam War. When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked documents from the Defense Department’s study on decision-making during the Vietnam War, and the New York Times published some of the pages, the ramifications were numerous and the fallout was ugly. The complicated web of deceit and bad decisions spanned 5 Presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). It became obvious that those in power continued a war they knew we couldn’t win. The cover-up was widespread and the string of lies were delivered by many. The government lost the people’s faith, and then tried to crush the free press that had exposed its dirty secrets.

It’s only been a couple of years since SPOTLIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, and now that film’s Oscar winning writer Josh Singer teams with Liz Hannah on a script that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and crew. We get the real feel of the organized chaos of a newsroom, and it’s a thing of beauty. The clacking of typewriters, exuberant phone conversations, and a cloud of cigarette smoke all blend to create the fabric of an institution designed and intended to deliver the truth. As with all things, it’s never quite so simple. We learn of the historical collusion between press and politics, as reporters and editors commingled with politicians, only to draw the line when deemed necessary. Both sides have flaws, yet as citizens, we simply can’t tolerate the government manipulating and even quashing the free press – a free press designed to protect the governed, not those that govern (per the Supreme Court decision).

Steven Spielberg has delivered a master class of ethics vs legalities vs political power, touching on not just the responsibilities of all parties, but most crucially on the conflicting objectives of a free press (making money) and the government system (getting elected) it is charged with holding accountable. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (two time Oscar winner, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER’S LIST) captures the authenticity of the newsroom, the intimacy of private discussions, and the fascinating look back at typesetting machines and a newspaper delivery system that silently forces us to recognize the power of today’s internet.

As you would expect, the supporting cast is remarkable and deep. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Alison Brie (Kay’s daughter), Carrie Coon (reporter/editor Meg Greenfield), Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Jesse Plemons (attorney Roger Clark), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as NY Times publisher Abe Rosenthal) all bring realism to their roles. Two particular standouts are Tracy Letts (Ms. Coon’s real life husband) as Kay Graham’s trusted advisor Fritz Beebe, and Bob Odenkirk as The Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who meets with Ellsberg.

Gender inequality of the era is front and center for many scenes – sometimes even a bit too showy or distracting. The prime example is the scene where Ms. Graham is leaving the Supreme Court through a sea of silently admiring women – an unbelievably disproportionate crowd make-up. The gender point is made clearly through the position of Kay Graham and her actions, and no further proverbial slaps upside the head were required for the audience to “get it”. A rare Hindenburg joke is tossed in, and Bradlee is referred to as a pirate … two attempts to lighten the mood on a story that deserves serious attention. Composer John Williams’ score is never over the top, and perfectly complements the various conversations throughout. The film is quite clearly meant to impress how history repeats itself = those in power believing they are above all, while the free press tries to expose the abuses. It also makes the point that we as citizens must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, as all sides have an agenda … sometimes it’s as complicated as covering up bad decisions, while other times it’s as simple as driving up the stock price. With its cliffhanger ending, Spielberg’s film could be viewed as a prequel to the fantastic 1976 film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and that’s pretty lofty company.

watch the trailer:


THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)

July 13, 2017

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals (I saw this at Oak Cliff Film Festival) where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. This outlandish comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it is profane and at times mean-spirited.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned warped nuns played by Aubrey Plaza (the director’s long-time girlfriend), Alison Brie (“Mad Men”), and Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated “Saturday Night Live” skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Just as the characters begin to wear a bit thin, a new character is introduced, resuscitating our interest. Each of the actors deliver, but it’s Armisen and Micucci who are especially fun to watch, as is Riley’s tendency to turn communal wine into a community beverage.

Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch. However it makes more sense when you learn that Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. Expect an altar filled with f-words and blasphemy with a wink. If you are OK with that, you’ll likely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

watch the trailer:

**I could only find a red band trailer – and ‘nun’ of that is appropriate.


SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE (2015)

September 9, 2015

sleeping with other people Greetings again from the darkness. In 1989, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally hit theatres, and many described it as an updated/contemporary version of Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall.  It’s been 26 years since Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan debated whether guys and girls could be “just” friends, and now writer/director Leslye Headland shows us that same debate continues to this day.

Jason Sudekis (“Saturday Night Live”, Horrible Bosses) stars as Jake, and Alison Brie (“Mad Men”, “Community”) stars as Lainey. These two characters meet in college and promptly lose their virginity to each other. (It takes a little imagination to accept these two thirty-somethings as college kids) Twelve years later, they meet again by happenstance at a meeting for sex addicts. It turns out, Jake’s biggest phobia is related to commitment, and he’s a womanizer who has mastered the break-up (yep, he slept with your sister).  Lainey’s issue is commitment as well, only it’s her misplaced commitment to a married doctor (Adam Scott) instead of her boyfriend (Adam Brody) that causes problems.

Jake and Lainey quickly pick up their legendary (in their own mind) repartee, and it becomes a friendship comprised of rapid-fire one-liners. Yes, I used the F-word to describe their relationship. To protect their platonic bond, they go to the extreme of creating a safe word as an admission/warning if one is feeling overly amorous towards the other … it’s like a fire hose to extinguish any thoughts not related to being a good buddy.

While Sudekis and Brie are both talented and likeable, it’s the outdated pop culture references that create such an out-of-place feeling for the viewer. How many thirty-somethings these days reference Bobby Fischer, Anne Sullivan and Madame Butterfly during conversation? And the “Pontiac Aztec” line may be the best line in the movie, but how likely is it to resonate with most audience members?  There is certainly no shortage of dialogue committed to laughs, but so much of it seems out of step with the young adults it’s clearly targeting.

The obvious comparisons/tributes to When Harry Met Sally come in the form of the split screen during a text conversation (in contrast to Harry and Sally’s phone chats), and the uncomfortable scene featuring a glass tea bottle is the answer to Sally’s infamous diner scene. What’s lacking is the intellect and heart so prevalent in the 1989 film. It may be contemporary, but it’s missing any subtlety or nuance. Perhaps that’s the influence of Producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, both who specialize in laughs over nuance.

Additional support work is provided by Amanda Peet, as Jake’s boss and love interest; and Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, the married couple trying hard to help while delivering the film’s best and funniest scenes (the closing credits – wow!). Also contributing are Natasha Lyonne, Margarita Levieva, and Katherine Waterston (as the doctor’s wife).

Though they deliver some easy laughs (a good thing), if this movie and Amy Schumer’s recent Trainwreck are accurate social observations of the times, it’s difficult to have much hope for modern day relationships (not a good thing).

watch the trailer: