Last Christmas

Probably everyone goes through a part of their life when every decision we make is a bad one, no good turn goes unpunished, or simply we string together a series of hardships that make our lives seem worthless. I’ve heard that the holiday season is also the season where there is the most depression, because in part, we are surrounded by good feelings that we don’t share in as much. Sadness about lost opportunities and relationships get magnified by the cheerful goings on around us and as a consequence, the down feelings get exaggerated. Now, imagine that you have some of that sadness and you are immersed in Christmas all year long. That is the premise of this romantic comedy/drama starring Emilia Clarke.

Kate (Katarina as her Mother prefers) works in a shop that sells Christmas items all year long. Everyday she is dressed as an elf and encounters people who are in a good enough mood that they will shop for unusual Christmas ornaments, even in the summer. The problem is, a year before, Kate had a medical emergency. We are not told exactly what it was in the early part of the film because that would tip off some of the turn that is coming at the end. Frankly, when it did get revealed, I started to immediately wonder how it was going to connect everything. I will admit I went in a different direction in my thinking than the script does, but not too far away, so the story does have a bit of logic to it. I do think it is a bit of a cheat but I am very forgiving of those things with a movie that wants nothing more than to make you feel good. Anyway, Kate’s medical procedure has left her an em optional wreck, capable of doing dumb things and completely ignoring the destruction that is left in her wake.

In a way, this is another retelling of a “Christmas Carol”, where the spirit of the holiday is called on to redeem a person who has lost their way. Henry Golding plays Tom, a man who appears in Kate’s life and seems to be pointing her in some different directions. His character is not exactly the opposite of hers but in a ying/yang way he compliments her needs. Tom is meticulous, graceful and always looking for the bright side in things. The mess that Kate is making with her life needs some of that direction. Kate has friends but she is burning through them as a way of avoiding her Mother, an overprotective and equally thoughtless woman. Emma Thompson plays the mother, she also co-wrote the script for the movie. Her character could be a villain but it turns out she is just as lost and depressed as Kate is, just in different ways.

The movie is filled with characters that we can enjoy in small amounts without taking away from Kate’s story. The crew and clients at the homeless shelter where Kate ends up spending time are probably a little “too Hollywood” homeless, but it is a Christmas movie and we don’t want to be confronted too much with drugs and mental illness. Kate’s boss is one of the great pleasures of the film. Michelle Yeoh is “Santa” the owner of the shop where Kate works. She appears to be flinty and judgmental of Kate’s life, but it turns out she has deeper thoughts about Kate than anyone else has managed to express. She also just needs to be prompted to let her soft side out, and when it does come out, it is a joy.

Every year we get holiday films that try to move us and inspire us to be better people. This movie wants to be “Love Actually”, but it does not quite reach those heights. It does however try in a sincere way to be that kind of movie, and it’s shortcomings are small enough to be forgiven. “Last Christmas” may not be a perennial film for everyone, but it is pleasant enough to start the holiday season with. It also manages to make the Wham/George Michael song tolerable for an hour and forty minutes, and that is some kind of accomplishment.

 

Men In Black International

I did not have high hopes for this film, the trailers did not seem very interesting and the concept feels a little old. I happened to be in Austin this weekend and I wanted to see a movie in one of the Alamo Drafthouse Theaters and this was the one that was starting at the right time so it ended up being selected simply because of lucky timing. As it turned out it was very entertaining and there is nothing the makers of the film should hang their heads about. I think the lack of success is mostly franchise fatigue and an abundance of similar products in the marketplace.

Chris Hemsworth is still trying to break out as a star outside of the MCU, and you can see why he might choose a part like this. Although I liked him very much in some of the other films he has made, his charisma is still stuck in the God of Thunder role he has owned for a decade now. Tessa Thompson is re-matched with him and they have pretty good chemistry but neither character brings the persona the two original stars did to their parts. It seems you need more than a black suit and a lot of CGI to make this concept work.

Fortunately, there are some funny bits of dialogue and some visual gags that will keep things interesting, but it can never match the charm that the first movie had. If I were ranking however, it would certainly beat MIB 2 which had very little going for it. The concept here suggests there is a traitor in MIB. The trailer makes it seem as if the “Hive”, the supposed antagonist in the story is replicating MIB agents and replacing them. That is misleading, although there is a pretty obvious character to suspect, not because of the script but because casting demands that you make use of someone of that stature in an appropriate manner. 

The shift of the story to Europe is fine and it allows for a few ethnocentric jokes at the expense of Americans, the French, and the British. There is also a sequence set in North Africa and the Mediterranean, so we get a pretty good travelogue as we go through the acts in the film. There may be a little too much of the cutie pie alien in the story, but I did not find him annoying, just a little obvious as to his role function as comic relief. Rebecca Ferguson, Liam Neesen and Emma Thompson are also in the film, and they have slightly better roles. Everybody seems to have a letter code name, which would leave you to believe that there can’t be more than 26 MIB agents at any given time, but that is clearly not the case. There must be some other explanation.men_in_black_international_ver8

So MIB International is not an important movie or essential to any comic book narrative, but it is an entertaining couple of hours that is not too taxing on the brain. If you still like all the CGI transformations, gadgets and aliens, then you should have a pretty good time.

Late Night

Before I talk about the film, let me discuss a subject that has come up recently for which this movie was used as a prime example. The claim is that comedy on the big screen is dying. There was some data analytics applied and shows that comedies in the U.S. went from 25% of the Box office in 2009 to 8% last year, with only one breaking the $100 million mark. Several recent misfires at the box office have also been mentioned, including “Long Shot“, POMS, and “Booksmart“.  The culprit according to the articles I have read, is on-line streaming. People have warmed to the idea that comedy is for home consumption and spectacle is for the theater. “Late Night” appears to be another in a line of failures to launch at the box office. I can’t dismiss the theory out of hand, but I can say that one of the reasons “Late Night” faltered is marketing. I saw no print advertising, or Television promotion for this movie and only spotty info on the web. If you want an example of how lazy the effort was to get people into a theater, look at the poster below.  Amazon Studios treated the film as one of their streaming productions that they deign to put into theaters. The new system of film releases and the rise of on-line film streaming may very well change the culture in ways we are uncertain about. This movie however is being written off and that’s a pity.

This is basically “The Devil Wears Prada” set in the world of late night comedy on television rather than in the fashion industry. That film features an older actress playing a stern figure who needs an assist from some new blood. Emma Thompson plays the Meryl Streep part and Mindy Kaling gets to be Anne Hathaway. Which is fine since she wrote the usually witty screenplay herself. Thompson’s character is stuck in the mud and does not seem willing to deal with it because of her difficult personality. She also has a home life that is complicated by an unwell souse and a lack of other friends and family. She tells the jokes well and conveys the gyro-scoping professional conflicts well. As the over confident and then overwhelmed neophyte writer on the comedy staff, Kaling gives herself a wide range of emotions to play but it is a little schizophrenic at times as to whether she is cock sure or cockamamie.

All comedies will have weak moments in them and this is no exception. The trash bag and trash can jokes you can see in the trailer are indicative of some of the weaknesses. This is not a slapstick and putting those in detracts from the more clever things that are working in the film. The near incestuous elitism of the writing staff is mocked very effectively both verbally and visually. The insular nature of the room does seem to be a problem in the late night shows woes but clearly the bigger problem is the attitude of the host. We are supposed to believe that a quarter of a century into the digital age of media, and all of the comedic life of the character, Kate, the host of the show, doesn’t make jokes or references to this environment. That is a big disbelief to overcome. It’s easy to see the perspective of Kaling as a comedy writer struggling in the monochromatic cultural canvas she has had to work in, but even old timers like Leno and Letterman understood that comedy has to flow from the events of the real world. Twitter, You Tube and Facebook are where that world is being consumed these days. So the premise is a bit smug to start with.

It is also a little inconsistent to mock a modern comedian for the use of poop jokes as you are in the process of making them yourself. Kaling is at least brave enough to include a reasonable retort to a feminist argument made by the host toward a member of the male writing staff, even though it gets dismissed not with an argument but by resorting to being in a position of power. The power dynamic is dysfunctional not because of anyone’s skin color or gender, but because of their accomplishment and that seems to undermine some of the themes that she is trying to make in the script. For a film with the goal of being subversive, it is conventional right down to the tacked on, though sublte romance in the conclusion.

If it sounds like I am being overly critical, I just want to point out those things that stood in the way of everything else that worked so well. Kaling’s character is funny as heck and the situations are usually humorous and accurate. Thompson is especially good and if Meryl deserved her nomination for “Prada”, then if there is justice, Emma will be getting her certificate of participation early next year as well. This is an experience that would be well served by sharing it with a theater full of strangers willing to laugh out loud. I did several times but it is hard for something to be contagious when the theater feels like an isolation ward with very few patients.