Tag Archives: C

LATE NIGHT

Producer: Mindy Kaling, Howard Klein, Ben Browning and Jillian Apfelbaum
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Writer: Mindy Kaling
Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Amy Ryan, John Lithgow, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, Denis O'Hare, Reid Scott, Paul Walker Hauser John Early, Ike Barinholtz and Marc Kudisch
Studio: Amazon Studios

C

Perhaps the best thing you can say about “Late Night,” Mindy Kaling’s comedy about the planned phasing-out of a long-time network talk show hostess and the new writing-room hire who’s instrumental in improving her chances to survive, is that it’s modest in its ambitions. But in comedy modesty is not always a virtue.

The real star of the show is Emma Thompson, a positive bulldozer as Katherine Newbury, who’s been doing a late-night program for nearly three decades but is now suffering from anemic ratings. A pushy new network head (Amy Ryan) informs her this is her last year on air; she’s planning on replacing her with a young stand-up comic (Ike Barinholtz) who specializes in gross-out jokes.

Katherine isn’t a lovable sort. Snippy and brusque, she treats her all-male writing staff with disdain, not even knowing their names (or being aware that one died long ago). They respond by providing her with unimaginative material, and her own inclination is to do serious interviews with serious guests, authors and the like. That stuff is not drawing an audience, and others argue that she’s simply out of touch with today’s tastes.

Still, encouraged by her supportive husband (John Lithgow), an academic suffering from Parkinson’s, she refuses to give up. Her long-time assistant (Denis O’Hare) suggests that one tack might be to hire a woman for the writing staff, which leads her without much thought to choose Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a completely inexperienced efficiency officer from a Pennsylvania chemical factory who’s always dreamed of working for Newbury. She represents a twofer, diversity-wise, though she appears to bring few if any other useful attributes with her, apart from her general daffy sweetness.

After a clumsy start—made only a bit smoother by some gestures of friendship from a few colleagues from the writing room, including a handsome fellow (Hugh Dancy) to whom she takes a special liking, Molly writes some edgier new material for Katherine, but she’s reluctant to use it. And Newbury’s attempt to expand her guest roster to make it more attractive to younger viewers stumbles when an appearance by a YouTube star turns into a disastrous confrontation.

What really appears to doom the chance at a comeback for Katherine, though, is the revelation of a once-upon-a-time infidelity that endangers her marital happiness: the combination of scandal and sagging ratings seems too damaging to overcome. Happily, things change for the better when Molly’s commitment to a little charity comedy benefit is instrumental in turning things around—not very plausibly, it must be said, but then a movie like this requires an upbeat ending, however unlikely the devices employed to get there.

“Late Night” is, of course, a fantasy, so one must be willing to swallow all sorts of plot elements that are clearly pie-in-the-sky, from the long-time presence of a female talk-show host on network television to the ability of a gee-whiz industry outsider to transform the culture of a long-time show staff simply with gestures like bringing cupcakes to work. (Certainly Katherine’s resurgence cannot be ascribed to the quality of her new material, which frankly seems no better than the old.) One can imagine the movie’s premise serving as the basis for an acerbic insider satire—something along the lines of “The Larry Sanders Show”—but that’s not Kaling’s style. Her script is basically nice and gentle, with even the villains getting off easily.

The result is bland, especially since it’s so flatly directed by Nisha Ganatra. Thompson tries desperately to spice things up with her irascibility, but Kaling remains so sweetly laid-back throughout that her Molly Patel comes off like a watered-down version of Mary Richards. And the other actors follow her lead. One doesn’t want the supporting figures to be played wildly over-the-top, but it would be nice if they were invested with some real personality. But when even John Lithgow is totally becalmed in sickly sentimentality, you know the film is in trouble. And the technical aspects of the picture—Elizabeth Jones’s production design, Matthew Clark’s cinematography, Eleanor Infante and David Rogers’ editing—are nondescript too.

“Late Night” is an example of a comedy that apparently wants to address real issues in the contemporary workplace but proves weak-kneed in doing so.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE

Producer: Joshua Astrachan and Carter Logan
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Rosal Colon, Sturgill Simpson, Maya Delmont, Tallyah Whitaker, Jahi Winston and Tom Waits
Studio: Focus Features

C

The dead may not die, but Jim Jarmusch’s movie about them slowly expires. This late-in-the-game spoof of zombie flicks is so resolutely deadpan that eventually it comes to feel like one of the walking dead itself.

The cause of the outbreak of revived corpses in little Centerville is suggested by news reports delivered by TV anchorwoman Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez) about “polar fracking,” which has thrown the planet off its axis. The result, it quickly becomes apparent, is a change in the earth’s day-and-night rhythm, which somehow leads to a zombie apocalypse.

In this case, despite occasional news flashes that similar events are occurring elsewhere (complete with governmental assurances that the fracking is not responsible, part of the script’s feeble satirical edge), the event is kept to the small scale of Centerville and its residents. They’re an oddball bunch, headed by the three-person police force: over-the-hill Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), ultra-serious Deputy Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and, for diversity’s sake, rookie Deputy Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny). After a run-in with local hermit Bob (Tom Waits) over some disappeared farm animals, they’ll confront the first evidence of the undead infestation at the local diner, where the initial two zombies (Iggy Pop and Sara Driver) have disemboweled night workers Fern (Eszter Balint) and Lily (Rosal Colon) before walking off with what they most crave based on their past lives—in this case, coffee. The cops are also keeping the corpse of Mallory O’Brien (Carol Kane), the town drunk, in a cell awaiting transport, and Ronnie’s surmise that the diner incident involves zombies is confirmed when the elderly wino awakens pleading for Chardonnay.

Soon other citizens will be faced with the necessity of warding off hordes of the undead. They include Miller (Steve Buscemi), a curmudgeonly farmer with a racist streak; Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), the hardware store owner; Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), who runs the gas station where he also sells pop culture stuff, mostly about horror movies; Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden), who runs the motel; and three inmates at the local juvenile detention center—Geronimo (Jahi Winston), Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker) and Stella (Maya Delmont).

A few other people figure in the ensuing mayhem. One is Dean (RZA), a deliveryman tight with Bobby. Then there’s a trio of “hipster” travelers—Zoë (Selena Gomez), Jack (Austin Butler) and Zach (Luke Sabbat), who check into the motel. And finally, the new undertaker in town, Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), who turns out to be a real outsider, and somebody who can wield a snappy samurai sword, which she employs to behead the undead, who promptly re-expire in a puff of special effect smoke. Others achieve a similar effect by shooting the zombies in the head, as expert Bobby recommends.

This is obviously a crowded ensemble, but Jarmusch finds only sporadic ways of using them to good advantage. Most of the picture simply plods along at the ponderous pace zombies traditionally take, with great dollops of quirkiness dropped into the mix for the actors to clutch at like under-inflated life preservers. As usual, Jarmusch doesn’t bother directing them much, leaving each to his own devices, which vary considerably. Some get by; others simply drift. There are occasional moments when the picture breaks the fourth wall, as it were—having Ronnie inform Cliff, for example, that the song by Sturgill Simpson is so familiar because it’s the movie’s title tune, or that he knows that “things are going to end badly” (his mantra) because Jarmusch allowed him to read the script; these quips supposed to feel audacious but just come across as juvenile.

The physical production, of course, is cheesy—that’s pretty much a traditional part of the Jarmusch “charm”—but one would be remiss to overlook the deliberate klutziness of the big special effect that’s thrown into the final sequence, something that explains, as much as anything could, the weirdness of Winston, who’s a very peculiar character even for Swinton, an actress who has exulted in them.

You really have to wonder what drew Jarmusch, whose last film “Paterson” (also with Driver) was one of his best, to an idea that—given the number of zombie comedies in recent years—has already been done, so to speak, to death. In any event, his peculiar brand of whimsy does not breathe fresh life into a genre that would probably be best left buried.