Late Night (2019, Amazon Studios)
Director: Nisha Ganatra; Featuring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Amy Ryan, Hugh Dancy, Denis O’Hare and Reid Scott.
Late Night is a light comedy about the fading popularity of an opinionated host. She runs a late-night talk show, and along with her team of writers, she tries to get the show back on top. It’s a simple light-hearted romp with the odd ‘smile moment’ throughout. It has equally light but fair social commentary. Emma Thompson plays the straight talking TV host Katherine Newbury. She has an impersonal business relationship with her team of all-male white comedy writers, who are so ground down by her tough, no-bullshit attitude that they rarely suggest anything that they don’t already think she might agree with, for fear of abuse or maybe getting fired. At home, she is more human and more vulnerable in the presence of her supportive husband Walter (John Lithgow). Her producer tells her that she’s about to be replaced by a new host – a younger male comic, who harbours slightly crass and misogynist views. Katherine decides to fight for her job, and sharpen up the appeal of her show. She has been told that she doesn’t actually appeal to many female viewers, so she embraces ‘diversity’ to widen the shows appeal.
Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), an inexperienced writer of Indian-American ethnicity. Katherine hires Molly and puts in the middle of the decidedly weary writing crew. Partly out of naivety and partly out of a need to prove she is actually a worthwhile member of the team and not simply a ‘diversity recruit’, she soon pushes back when Katherine ignores her. Naturally Katherine is not used to being directly challenged, and therein lies the tension. But after a few hiccups, a new work relationship is forged. Molly encourages Katherine to be less judgemental about what she thinks are frivolous ideas of some of her female guests and to be more challenging of others – male or female – who make statements that gloss over more serious issues or attitudes.
Kaling wrote the script, as well as playing a leading role. It is partly based on her own experiences as a writer for the American version of The Office – she was also the only non-white, non-male writer on that show. The film is a little light on, but then it is meant to be a light comedy. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else. I enjoyed this film more than I was expecting. At first it seemed a little banal and cosy with a predictable plot, but I think because it is based on some of Kaling’s own experiences as a writer, the various situations that eventuate and the dialogue between key individuals carry an authenticity that makes it more interesting and more convincing as a story.
The cast is fine, though I think Lithgow was especially good. Seth Meyers, Bill Maher and Jake Tapper all have small parts playing themselves. In this way, it becomes a kind of ‘love-in’ of currently popular talk show/TV hosts. All other elements of the film are fine too, but it is nothing remarkable. It won’t be on anyone’s A-list of films but it is okay and fun, with a little relevant social commentary thrown in to give it some punch.
Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3/5
Joker (2019, Warner Bros. Pictures)
Directed by Todd Phillips. Featuring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen.
Joker is the origin story of the infamous comic book villain from the Batman series. But unlike all previous films in that montage of Batman characters, this film does not neatly fit with the comic book genre. Rather it is a dark drama – a stand-alone film – of the descent into madness of a deeply disturbed and forgotten member of society.
Set in the poorer, lack-lustre back streets of Gotham City in the early 1980s, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his ill mother (Frances Conroy), trying to get by on a modest income as a street performing clown, usually hired out through an agency for advertisers and Children’s parties. He is on several medications to combat his depression and various ailments. He wants to put a smile on the faces of others but it never quite works; his own out-of-sync humour doesn’t jell with others. He laughs when he shouldn’t, doesn’t laugh when others do. And he also has a nervous condition which compels him to laugh when he is distressed, which makes him a very obvious oddball to others. He makes notes about how other people respond to popular personalities on TV. Their little in-jokes and mannerisms, about what makes them immediately likable and accepted by the audience. He wants to be like them. He mimics people to find a way to be more accepted. And left alone in his own thoughts and daydreams he has strange movements, like a slow-motion butterfly emerging from a cocoon – but visually more like a dancer emerging from a straight-jacket. This film is about his transformation; his metamorphosis from tormented soul into care-free, chaos-motivating Joker. Muted soul – colourful spirit.
There are slight touches of the ‘creature’ in Frankenstein in this depiction of ‘the Joker’. A freak of nature that plays out a role of destruction and spite, not because they want to, but because society (or the flawed Dr Frankenstein) has made them that way. If they really are freaks, individuals never loved, incapable of being loved, then that is the role they will play for acceptance in a cruel world. And there are some scenes which almost parallel the anti-hero persona Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro, who also appears here) in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).
The entire cast are excellent, but Phoenix’ performance is exemplary. The script (Todd Phillips and Scott Sliver) is intelligent and as real-to-life as can be, given its comic book origins. The musical score (Hildur Guðnadóttir) and sound effects often merge. Both are superb, and add to the overall mood of the film; menacing or poignant or bizarrely comic. Cinematography (Lawrence Sher) is clever and impressive at all times. There are some wonderful high-angled portraiture shots, slow-dancing camera or stills to fit the scene. Actually, the technical aspects of this film are good all-round, and I have to credit the director (Phillips) primarily for getting the entire production team on side with the feel and look of the film. It is very dark, but award-winning material for sure.
My advice is to not compare it with other ‘Joker’ performances. This film is a different beast altogether. It is violent in parts, which some will find challenging, and its sombre overtones won’t appeal to some others. But I liked the summation that rests on a deeply flawed and badly harmed individual who, pushed to extremes, becomes the embodiment of the hell that is in his head.
Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 4.5/5