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:


SLOW LEARNERS (2015)

August 19, 2015

slow learners Greetings again from the darkness. One of the staples of Romantic Comedies is that the two key players are the only ones who don’t realize they are “right” for each other. This is often accomplished through one of two methods: either two characters who “despise” each other, or as characters who are “just good friends”. This little film manages to blend those two approaches … and make us laugh in the process.

The first 15 or 20 minutes of the film are packed with very sharp comedy writing and acting. Adam Pally (“Happy Endings”) plays Jeff, and Sarah Burns (“Enlightened”) plays Anne. These two misfit adults get along very well together both as co-workers and friends who quote literature at (not to) each other. Anne’s opening visit to the doctor (played by Peter Grosz of Sonic ad fame) is outright hilarious, while Adam’s book club features some real zingers from Bobby Moynihan, Gil Ozeri, and Reid Scott (“Veep”).

It’s not until Jeff and Anne make a pact to change their public personas in an effort to be “cool” and more attractive to the opposite sex that the film takes kind of a nasty – well at least unlikable – turn. Becoming alcoholic d-bags does help them experience a summer of wild escapades, but predictably, neither is especially happy. Anne picks up pointers from some trashy reality TV show called “Prisoners of Love” … a knock-off of “The Bachelor” that deals with convicts and the women who would love them.

Adding to the comedic elements are quick scenes with Cecily Strong, Catherine Reitman (daughter of Ivan) and Kate Flannery, along with a couple of sequences with Jeff’s parents (Kevin Dunn, Marceline Hugot). More interactions with the parents would have been a welcome respite from the extended d-baggery of Jeff and Anne.

Mr. Pally is a master of the deadpan delivery, while Ms. Burns can best be described as a Kristen Wiig starter kit (that’s a compliment). Co-directors Don Argott and Sheena Joyce, and co-writers Matt Serword and Peter Swords lost sight of what delivered such a strong beginning for the film, and instead focused on reminding us to “embrace the darkness” and to “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken”. Good lessons indeed, but maybe not the comedy gold mine that was expected.

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BESIDE STILL WATERS (2013)

November 14, 2014

beside still waters Greetings again from the darkness. Director Chris Lowell co-wrote the story with Mohit Narang, and there is really no other way to describe it than a modern day redux of The Big Chill (1983). If you are familiar with that film from 30+ years ago, you remember the narcissism, strained friendships, and emotional turmoil that were offset by a best-selling soundtrack. Three decades later we witness narcissism run amok and a crumbled version of friendship, this time offset by the guzzling of alcohol.

Daniel (Ryan Eggold, TV’s “The Blacklist“) has organized a reunion of his childhood friends back at the cabin on the lake where they shared many a summer. Daniel’s parents recently died in a car accident, and none of his “friends” showed up for the funeral … hence, the crumbled version of friendship. As they begin arriving at the cabin, we immediately categorize each: Tom (Beck Bennett, “Saturday Night Live“) is the wise-cracking slacker, James (Brett Dalton) is the TV Reality Show celebrity, Martin (Will Brill) and Abby (Erin Drake) are the high school sweethearts stuck in a strained marriage, and Charley (Jessy Hodges) is the free-spirited chick with a lust-filled history. The arrival of Daniel’s old flame Olivia (Britt Lower) is offset by her fiancé Henry (Reid Scott). May the oddballs be ever in your favor.

Sounding like the old man I am quickly becoming, this generation of thirty-somethings left me quite saddened. What made The Big Chill work, was the actual bond that tied the group together. Remember, they all showed up for a funeral … rather than being summoned for skipping one. The original group had charm, personality and was interesting; whereas this group remains focused on their own problems – oblivious to the needs and feelings of others. They find the bottom of a bottle or drugging an adversary to be actual solutions, rather than resorting to the effort involved with intimacy or conversation. Yes, sad I am.

Despite my issues with the possibility of this being an accurate portrayal of this generation, there are plenty of positives with the film. Lovell truly has a photographer’s eye and uses it for much of the camera work … it’s beautifully shot. Also, each member of this ensemble jumps right in to their character and does a superb job (especially Reid Scott). There is also a terrific segment of three conversations edited together that play off each other like some kind of wonderful parlor game. It’s the highlight of the film.

While much of the film plays like a passive-aggressive expose’, the script leaves no room for interpretation or analysis … Daniel actually spells out his true misguided mission. Beginning a movie with references to Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway is often a good start. However, Hemingway’s theory that all generations are lost, doesn’t mean that some aren’t more lost than others. The game of Whisky Slaps works not just as a scene, but also as a metaphor for watching this movie.

watch the trailer: