BOMBSHELL (2019)

December 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on true stories are increasingly popular these days. OK, not as popular as comic book films, but the appeal of tapping into ‘truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” is a natural, as viewers bring a sense of familiarity to the characters and/or events. On the flipside, this familiarity can create challenges for the filmmakers and actors as they must meet viewer expectations or risk being waved off as a flop. When tackling the story of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and the sexual harassment scandal of 2016, the folks associated with this project faced the added burden of an internationally reported story with faces and personalities recognized around the globe.

For the most part, director Jay Roach (TRUMBO, MEET THE PARENTS, AUSTIN POWERS), screenwriter Charles Randolph (Oscar winner THE BIG SHORT), and a very talented cast succeed in taking us behind the scenes of this unsettling story, so that we might better understand how 20 years of despicable behavior continued unabated. The film picks up in 2015 as the Presidential campaigns are underway. Megyn Kelly (a spot-on performance from Oscar winner Charlize Theron) breaks the 4th wall and takes us on a tour of the Fox offices – even pointing out Roger Ailes’ private and secure sanctuary. We then see the memorable moment where Ms. Kelly publicly questioned candidate Donald Trump about his history with women. It was a moment that shook the network, and elevated Megyn Kelly to worldwide notoriety.

Early emphasis is on Gretchen Carlson (played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman), and her declining role at the network as she is removed from the highly rated “Fox and Friends”, and placed on her own show in an unappealing time slot. Although her professional skills are presented in a way that has her appearing a bit amateurish, Ms. Carlson makes the case that she was unceremoniously removed due to her not going along with Ailes’ wishes behind closed doors. It’s Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes that kicks off the downfall of the network’s leader. She was the one courageous enough to be first.

Margot Robbie plays Kayla Pospisill, an ambitious producer who initially works for Carlson, and then moves on to “The O’Reilly Factor”. Kayla is a composite character written to represent many of the women who worked at the network. She is smart and working towards a shot at becoming an on-air personality. It’s that ambition that results in her sitting in Ailes’ office when he says “Stand up and give me a twirl.” His request (evidently not an uncommon one) is followed by his reasoning – “Television is a visual medium.” It’s Kayla’s interaction that allows us a glimpse at the systemic sexual harassment that became commonplace in the office. The toxic environment was not isolated to Ailes … as shown here, and proven later.

John Lithgow perfectly captures the elderly Ailes, who suffers from multiple physical ailments – none of which affect his ego or demented nature. He never sees the evil of his ways, as he’s been taking advantage of his power position for so long, the right comebacks and lead-ons have become second nature to him. What makes this even more frightening is that Ailes apparently used this harassment and manipulation as the first step in a form of mind control … to ensure the content of his network fit his ultra-conservative and closed-minded ideals. The message was clear: remain loyal to him or lose your career.

The ensemble cast is excellent, even if the leads dominate the story. Oscar winner Allison Janney portrays Ailes’ attorney Susan Esrcih, Connie Brittain plays his supportive wife Beth Ailes, Malcolm McDowell is Rupert Murdoch, and Kate McKinnon plays Kayla’s co-worker (and more) Jess Carr, who is forced to keep her private life in her desk drawer. Other supporting roles are filled by Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Stephen Root, Robin Weigert, Anne Ramsay, and Richard Kind. Some of the real life names and faces include: Bill O’Reilly, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren, Neil Cavuto, Geraldo Rivera, and Jeanine Pirro.

This place is crazy.” I don’t remember which character said it, but it could have been any of them. The politics of the network (and Ailes himself) are always hovering over every scene. What caused Fox News to become such a toxic work environment?  Having a despicable leader doesn’t seem like enough. Why were so many men treating it as a frat house, and so few women willing to speak up? The answer seems to be that these were talented and ambitious women who were determined not to lose what they had worked for. When one character states that women owe it to each other to speak up, it really brings into focus how much courage is required to do just that.

Showtime’s multiple-episode “The Loudest Voice” with Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson was able to go into greater depth with the longer run time, but director Roach tells this from the women’s viewpoint. Ms. Theron truly disappears into the role of Megyn Kelly, while Lithgow, Kidman and Robbie deliver in a way that we forget we are watching actors. Some of the best segments feature these women reacting in the moment … moments we hope are becoming extinct. By the way, I wonder how much a “Team Roger” t-shirt is going for these days – or if they can even give them away?

watch the trailer:


YESTERDAY (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. A world without music from The Beatles? It’s hard to “imagine”. It’s not as simple as never having their classics played on the radio, as the number of musicians influenced by their work is roughly the size of the list of every musician who has ever written or sang a song over the past 60 years. Of course, that’s a bit too much to tackle in a movie, so director Danny Boyle (Oscar winner for SLUMBDOG MILLIONAIRE) simplifies things by serving up a 12 second global power outage.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, “EastEnders”) is the epitome of a struggling musician. He plays kids’ parties and pubs where the only applause is from his small group of friends who enjoy busting his chops over his “summer” song. His lifelong friend Ellie (Lily James, BABY DRIVER, MAMMA MIA!, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) is also his manager and roadie … his only true supporter. There is an unrequited attraction between the two, and since the script comes from Richard Curtis (LOVE ACTUALLY), we know where this is headed.

When the global power outage hits, Jack is on his bicycle and a collision with a bus puts him in the hospital. During recovery, he stumbles on to the fact that he is the only person who remembers music from John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Quickly capitalizing on the opportunity, Jack frantically tries to recall the lyrics to the songs, and in short time is replacing his playlist post-it notes with the familiar (to us) song titles, and blowing people away with “his” formidable songwriting and incredible music.

Fortune shines on Jack and his new songs, and soon Ed Sheeran (playing himself) is helping Jack’s career, while at the same time being humbled by these songs. It’s at this point where Kate McKinnon joins in as the money-grubbing talent agent who recognizes a gold mine when she hears it. Additional comedy is provided by Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s new roadie; and a trip to Liverpool follows, as does a world tour and album recording session.

Danny Boyle is known best for his likeable, easy to digest films that are typically crowd-pleasers, but leave me wanting more depth and substance. This one fits right in. It’s funny (“Hey Dude”, Abbey Road is just a road) and has amazing music (of course). However, where Lily James plays her role perfectly, Himesh Patel – despite a fine singing voice – simply lacks the charisma and screen presence to carry the film. We rarely feel his inner turmoil in living this whopper of a lie, and the film never really clicks as a Rom-Com. In fact, the only thing we should be loving here is the Beatles music. The film plays a bit like Rod Serling decided to take “The Twilight Zone” into comedy. The real impact would be lost, but it would still likely draw a crowd.

watch the trailer: