Late Night

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to deaths of parent and co-worker, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios
“Late Night” is a festival favorite written by and starring Mindy Kaling, who created just the right role for herself as an Indian-American woman who gets her dream job as a comedy writer, working for a tyrannical late night talk show host played by Emma Thompson. Kaling, who has often talked about her love for romantic comedies played a character in her television series who imagined herself as the heroine of one (understanding them only on the most superficial and self-involved level), has created what is in essence a rom-com about a work relationship between two women, one hopelessly optimistic, one relentlessly cynical.

Kaling plays Molly, a quality control specialist in a chemical plant who gets a one in a million shot at the job by winning an essay competition. Katherine (Thompson) has just imperiously ordered her long-suffering producer (Denis O’Hare) to add a woman to the all-male, all-white writing staff, so he gives Molly a chance. What the writers do not know is that the new head of the network (Amy Ryan), who likes to talk about “four-quadrant” audiences (males and females over and under 25 years old) and ROI (return on investment), thinks Katherine, despite her multiple Emmys and other awards, has become out of date and out of touch with her audience. Ratings are down, and Katherine is unlikely to boost them as long as she insists on having guests like Senator Diane Feinstein and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Katherine demands “excellence” from everyone around her, and that means total dedication. Her manner is abrupt and imperious and she fires staff like she’s the Queen of Hearts calling “Off with their heads!” She refuses to capitulate to what she considers the dumbing down of the media (and the world). When her producer persuades her to have a viral YouTube star who makes videos of her sniffing her dog’s butt on the show, the withering contempt she cannot hide alienates her shrinking audience further. She is pushed onto social media, but her first joke about Twitter bombs, perhaps because she calls it “Twittah” but also because she has not taken the time to understand what it is.

There are just two things she cares about, her husband (John Lithgow), who is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and her show. Both are being taken from her, and she does not have the resources to respond.

Katherine literally does not know the names of her writers, many of whom have never even met her. She has no interest in learning their names, and when she finally sits down in the writers’ room, she assigns them all numbers.

Kaling, who was both writer and actress on the US version of “The Office,” has a good feeling for the “He Man Women Haters”-Our Gang-style dynamics of the all-male writer’s room. They are so used to having no women around that they use the ladies’ room. And her being there doesn’t stop them. At first, she brings her quality control perspective, analyzing what’s missing from the show, until one of the writers gives her some good advice: write something.

Kaling has said that (until “Wrinkle in Time”) every part she has had is one she has had to create for herself. Her strength as a writer is giving us characters who are three-dimensional, vivid, and smart. Both Molly and Katherine filter Kaling’s experiences and perspective in writing for television, the relentlessness of sifting through jokes to put together a polished monologue of perfectly crafted comedy only to have to start over again the next day, the treacherous balancing act between giving enough of yourself to connect with the audience while keeping enough private to keep your sanity and sustain relationships, the even more treacherous challenge of staying on top while people who are every bit as ambitious try to topple you.

She shortchanges Molly a bit here, particularly when she lets herself get hurt by someone her character would be instantly wary of. We get the sense that it is the Katherine character who interests her more, and it gives Thompson one of her all-time best roles. In the first half, she effortlessly tosses off Katherine’s most devastating take-downs, a woman who insists on excellence in a world that does not seem to want it. But in the second half, when Katherine has to be unsure and vulnerable, Thompson gives a performance of exquisite depth and precision. “I hope I have earned the privilege of your time,” Katherine tells her audience. Kaling and Thompson make the privilege ours.

Parents should know that this film includes substantial strong language, sexual references, some potty humor, smoking, and infidelity.

Family discussion: Would you have hired Molly? Why didn’t Katherine change sooner? What was Katherine’s funniest joke?

If you like this, try: “Dancing in September” and “The Mindy Project” and “Larry Sanders Show” television series

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Ebertfest 2019

Posted on April 16, 2019 at 10:08 am

Copyright 2019 Ebertfest

The 21st Ebertfest (formerly Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival) was one of the all-time best. I was honored to be included on the panel of women critics and filmmakers discussing the opportunities and portrayals of women. It was a thrill to share the panel with so many women I admire, including “Bound” stars Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, Alliance of Women Film Journalists founder and director Jennifer Merin, Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, Stephen Apkon, actress/critic Carla Renata (known as The Curvy Critic), and writer/director/producer Rita Coburn, who was at the festival to present her marvelous documentary about Maya Angelou.

I was also invited to do the Q&A following one of my favorite films, “Rachel Getting Married.”

The festival closed with “Sideways,” and our discussion afterward included an appearance from Virginia Madsen, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role.

Join us next April in Champaign/Urbana!

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How Two 1994 Movies Transformed Screen Portrayals of Female Sexuality

Posted on March 11, 2019 at 3:58 pm

Copyright MGM 1994

For rogerebert.com’s Women Writer’s Week, I wrote an essay about how two films, both made 25 years ago, transformed the way female sexuality is portrayed on screen. Before these films, female characters either seemed unaware of sex or determined not to have sex until marriage. If they did, the consequences were usually terrible — an unwanted pregnancy, a nervous breakdown, loss of reputation, even death. There were sex comedies based on successful Broadway farces like “Sunday in New York,” “The Moon is Blue,” and the weirdest of all, written by Arthur Marx (son of Groucho), “The Impossible Years.”

David Niven (one of the failed seducers from “The Moon is Blue”) plays a psychology professor obsessed with his daughter’s virginity—in a sex comedy kind of way but still pretty creepy. Spoiler alert: She is safely married by the time she has sex (with her father’s young professional colleague/rival, hmmm, wonder what a psychology professor would make of that). And somehow the act of having sex instantly transforms her into a mature, thoughtful, responsible person as well, just in time for her dad to start worrying about her younger sister.

Other movies feature the tragic consequences of pre-marital sex. In “Where the Boys Are” Yvette Mimieux is not only raped but also hit by a car as the consequence for her decision to have sex on spring vacation in Fort Lauderdale. Worst of all, “they’re not even Yalies.” Meanwhile, Dolores Hart, who intellectually is in favor of sexual autonomy and freedom from shame for young women, maintains her purity and thus achieves the ultimate—an invitation to the spring dance from handsome Ivy Leaguer George Hamilton.

Copyright Miramax 1994
But the micro-budget “Clerks” and the glossy romantic comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral” both did something remarkable and revolutionary — they gave us female characters who were comfortable with sexual desire and expression, unapologetic because they saw no reason to be. And the men they confided in were not disgusted, disappointed, or contemptuous. They were impressed and intimidated. Compare this to Audrey Hepburn’s similar — except entirely fictitious — recitation of imaginary lovers to Gary Cooper in “Love in the Afternoon,” just one example of this era’s pretend to have your cake but don’t eat anything attitude during this era.

This idea that sexual experience was evidence of a healthy, confident ownership of sexual expression was an enormous shift, the foundation for later films like the raunchy but sweet-natured sex comedy “American Pie” (1999), also revolutionary in the female characters’ ownership of their sexuality, compared to “Porky’s” (1981) or “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Sixteen Candles” (both 1984), where the perspective is all about male sexual gratification including voyeurism, sexual assault, and a boy selling a look at a teenage girl’s underwear.

2018’s “Blockers,” like “The Impossible Years,” also featured parents who were way too invested in whether their daughters were going to have sex. But this time, the point of view of the movie was very much on the side of the girls and their ability to make their own choices. Series like “Big Mouth,” “PEN15,” and “Broad City,” have characters who may make some bad decisions and suffer the consequences, but they do not pretend that sexual desire is wrong or bad. They follow in the steps of “Clerks” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” as those two films provided a turning point for healthier depictions of women and our right to our feelings and our choices.

Where once slasher films almost made killing teens who had sex a given, after “Clerks” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” came “Scream,” with a heroine who only after having sex achieved the wisdom and power to defeat the killer(s).

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Women Writers Week 2019 on Rogerebert.com

Posted on March 6, 2019 at 9:54 pm

Copyright rogerebert.com 2014

I love the annual Women Writers Week on rogerebert.com and this year’s is especially dear to my heart because it is my first as an assistant editor. From my welcome/introduction:

We do not pretend that women have more empathy or indeed that it is possible to make any generalization about gender with one exception: every one of us has walked through the world as a woman and that is an experience only we can understand and reflect in our take on the films we write about. It may be less important in what we bring than our own particular points of view based on our individual experiences—whether we are old or young, hetero-normative or LGBQTIA, partnered or single, mothers or childless, baby boomers, Gen-Xers, or millennials, from the city or the country, from the US or international, white or a woman of color, whatever our level of education or amount of money, whether we are fans of Korean horror movies or anime or multiplex fodder or quirky indies, all of those elements are reflected in our writing, as they are for the male critics. But all of us understand what it is to live in a culture that has always been dominated by another gender, and review films that come out of a system that has been even more so.

This week, with every word on the site written by women, our readers of any gender will see the fabulous range of talent, insight, and perspectives of our female contributors. If you look closely, you may see something else—a consistent perception by writers who are at least in part outsiders to the stories overwhelmingly told by men. Sharing their perspectives creates an empathy machine of our own.

Some of my favorite past work is featured on the site, including my essay about Nora Ephron.

And there is some superb new content, including a “Captain Marvel” video interview, Carrie Rickey connecting golden age of Hollywood directors George Cukor and Mitchell Leisen to “Black Panther’s” Ryan Coogler for their sympathetic and nuanced portrayals of female characters, and a piece on “Killing Eve” by Kristy Puchko.

The table of contents.

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Horror is More than Scares and Carnage

Posted on February 27, 2019 at 10:20 pm

As we see in movies like “Get Out,” “28 Days Later,” and “Dawn of the Dead,” horror can be more than scares and carnage. It can reflect and challenge our assumptions. Two new articles provide some fascinating commentary on these themes.

Copyright 1976 Red Bank Films
Mary Beth McAndrews writes on Reel Honey about “reclaiming female exploitation” in horror. “Recently, female directors have been working to reclaim this exploitation by appropriating these tropes to create empowering horror narratives. These films are still violent, but they do not solely depend on the suffering and abjection of their female characters….These directors and writers are just a few of the women in horror working to change the trajectory of the horror narrative and how we view the female body on-screen. Yes, horror is a genre built on violence and gore. But these women are re-evaluating the use of that exploitative violence into something thoughtful, empowering, and equally gory. The monsters they construct are not so fantastical and the scenarios they portray are much more real, giving their violence more meaning and purpose. It is not just about reveling in women’s bodies in pain; it is about understanding their pain.”

Copyright Universal 2017
And on Medium, Marcus Benjamin writes about a new documentary: “Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror’ Makes The Case For Empathy In A Scary World.” Traditionally, he says, “Outside of dying, tending to the the main character’s need was our number one function. This was all done while doing a disservice to our own lives, which we may or may not have had on screen because no one cared enough to give them one. Or in the case of Rachel True’s character from The Craft, someone decided to cut out portions of the film altogether that explored her family life and other struggles….When you’re not surrounded by people of races other than your own, you don’t develop the empathy gene for them. How can you begin to comprehend how a black person feels about blackface if you don’t have any black people in your circle to tell you? Or if you’ve didn’t grow up with any black friends? Or if you grew up in a racist city or town? Despite all your efforts to learn, you’ll likely have a cultural blindspot or two. Similarly, when the history of cinema is filled with blackface or monsters and gigantic apes as stand-ins for black people, that means entire generations grew up believing black people were always lesser.”

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