‘Late Night’ Worth Price; Hemsworth and Neeson Make It Work; ‘Shaft’ Still Dig-able

By BILL GEIGER | Jul 10, 2019

Surf City, NJ — Our films this week are dominated by two dynamic presences: the statuesque figure of British actor Emma Thompson and the looming presence of U.S. actor Samuel L. Jackson. While Thompson stars in two of our films, “Late Night” and “Men in Black: International,” Jackson stars as the iconic John Shaft in “Shaft,” and while he has some help battling the bad guys, versatile actress Thompson certainly could have lent her earnestness, kicking some butt and fixing that withering stare on some foolish henchman, left to be cleaned up and thrown out with the trash.

Such is Thompson’s power. If it’s true that Hollywood is not kind to women of a certain age, Thompson nearly proves otherwise, especially if she plays a person in authority. In “Late Night,” she’s the lead, a late-night talk show host and the star of that show; in “MIB: International” she’s Agent O, presumably the head of the alien inclusion agency. She dominates her scenes, the only requisite for a leading lady, and she has the imperious air needed for such domination.

Jackson likewise has an imperious air and, as Shaft, fully rules his scenes. Watching him next to either an aged Richard Roundtree (solid, but a bit too “elderly” to make it work), or a junior Shaft, played by Jesse T. Usher (not enough attitude, too “junior” and too inferior to Jackson’s ultimately superior rendering) is to see the authority of an assured presence at work. In his own profanity-laced manner, Jackson can command a room as surely as Thompson, and he’s got a pretty good withering look, too.

All of which leads us to “Late Night,” a Mindy Kaling film about a late-night talk-show fixture, Katherine Newbury, played by Thompson, who seems to be coming to the end of her tenure on television due to an indifferent audience and a hostile network head. In fact, she has been told she has until the end of her current network run, and then she’s gone. Her angry response upon hearing such news is to blame her staff of writers, who have been laboring in misery for some time.

When Molly Patel (Kaling) is hired, Newbury cuts her jokes, the other writers do not welcome her, and she is miserable after really wanting this job. Head monologue writer Tom Campbell (Reid Scott) resents her attempts at writing monologue jokes, does not use them, and treats her brusquely. So she is very close to packing it in when a major plot point – no spoilers here – throws the film off its axis for a bit. When it finally rights itself, Molly’s universe is a bit more in balance, and things begin to veer toward a happy ending.

Change is usually slow, but the turnaround of Tom’s attitude to Molly is a little too brisk for the film’s sake, and its verisimilitude is threatened. Nevertheless, and despite this, there is change afoot as Katherine tries to learn her writers’ names, she participates in their daily round-table discussions, and her ratings skyrocket. We might file this in the “All’s well that ends well” folder (to keep our Shakespeare references strong), but we also should remember some plot points are strictly superfluous and are used to further an idea along a path that the idea might not need to travel on. In other words, don’t believe everything you see.

A petulant late-night host on her last legs pulling out all the stops and turning her ratings around is a bit far-fetched, but can happen with the help of some good people. “Late Night” is better than average, and has the pedigree of proven star Emma Thompson, and another proven star, Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the script. That’s two for the price of one. You probably can’t get better odds for a summer comedy. Yeah, worth the price.

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For her encore, Emma Thompson also ran the show in “Men in Black: International,” but it was a different Thompson, Tessa, who stole that show. The elder Thompson, Emma, played Agent O, one of the big bosses in the super-secret Men in Black organization. Tessa, who as a child witnessed the MIB agents neutralize her parents, remembers befriending a cute little alien whom the Men in Black are looking for. She was not looking at the neutralizer and thus did not have any memory problems about the little alien whom she was harboring. She was able to show the alien out the bedroom window out back of her house.

From that moment onward, young Molly (yes, one of the main characters is also named Molly, but she eventually becomes Agent M) was obsessed with the secret organization, as an adult charting where its agents might be by looking for anomalies on her computer, which she has modified to locate such things. When she finally finds the elusive agents, she meets up with Agent O, who is impressed with her mental agility and decides to make her a probationary agent, eventually sending her to London.

There, newly minted Agent M teams up with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) as they discover some serious problems within the MIB organization. Somewhere in there is a mole. At first, H comes off as something of a loose cannon, and a rift has developed between H and his mentor, the commander of the London office of MIB, Agent High T (Liam Neeson). High T was one of the big heroes of earlier alien encounters, particularly when teamed with Agent H, as they were among the first to meet the alien entity known as the Hive. The two of them have developed some credibility over the years, but things are fraying around the edges now.

The situation developing around the Hive, a race of aliens who seem to be able to transform themselves into pure energy, is becoming very serious, as they intend to take over the galaxy. MIB has been working on ways to neutralize them, but they have proven difficult to subdue. An alien whom H was supposed to show a good time to was targeted by a pair of pure-energy aliens known as the dyad, easily thought of as belonging to the Hive, though in reality they are not a part of that group. Just before H’s alien succumbs to a poison, he gives Agent M a crystal, which she hides – and what the dyad wants – but which H eventually pickpockets.

Is there life for “Men in Black” after Will Smith? I think that’s affirmative, although his brand of humor is edgy, and he had Tommy Lee Jones to play off of. Chris Hemsworth is easygoing as agent H, and he and Tessa Thompson have a good rapport, as they did in “Thor, Ragnarök.” Hemsworth has proven himself in the Marvel Universe, but he also showed he’s a fine comic actor. He is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. Neeson has always been there; it’s good seeing him getting some heft in his roles. Together they make the film work.

Thompson (Emma, not Tessa) is there for the beginning and the ending, so it’s good seeing her again. She was much more vocal in “Late Night,” but all she must do is play window dressing here. Still, she lends some authenticity to the role of the one in charge. Plus, she has to show the other Thompson some of the ropes.

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When I think of the movie “Shaft” I have to smile. In truth, my recollection of the brown leather raincoat goes back to the beginning, to the Isaac Hayes score and the line “They say that Shaft is a bad mother …” and the chorus of girls singing “Shut your mouth,” and Hayes, “But I’m talking about Shaft,” and the chorus, “And we can dig it.”

Yeah, and we can dig it.

It’s easy to dig Shaft. He’s two-fisted; he knows all the angles, whom he can lean on, and whom he should leave alone. All the girls like Shaft, but he needs to give his heart to one girl. He does, and has one son as a result, but the mother, Maya (Regina Hall), in a recollection of the elder Shaft’s, feels the violence and gun battles are getting a little too close for the safety of both her and the little baby, so she leaves Shaft and decides to raise the child in the quiet suburbs.

This allows Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) to “play the field” but also to make lame attempts to be in his son’s life.

Young John Shaft Jr., or JJ (Jesse T. Usher) as he likes to call himself, went on to study at M.I.T., and then landed a job with the FBI as a cyber security expert.

It turns out JJ is investigating an area, and a mosque, that his father has been interested in for some time. The ambush that drove his mother away with their baby actually was set up by the head of a drug cartel that Shaft had been investigating, and this same cartel head, Gordito Carrera (Isaach De Bankolé), is running the show with some crooked Marines in Afghanistan, where all the poppies are coming from.

Shaft Sr. is living the good life, surrounded by enough armament to fund a small army, but the three of them, JJ, Shaft, and the original Shaft, in their matching leather raincoats, go after the crooked Marines who are doing all the drug importing grunt work, and then, for Shaft Jr., the ultimate prize, Gordito.

As with most movies starring Samuel L. Jackson, there’s violence, cartoonishly portrayed, and lots of profanity. Jackson, as we said earlier, can easily hold his own in this type of film; in fact, it could be argued he was made for them. He is Shaft. Roundtree, at 78, should probably not have been coaxed back into playing John Shaft again. Age has taken its toll. And for Jessie T. Usher, JJ is too different from Shaft. He tries hard to make the call that Shaft is outmoded, his ways are antiquated, and there are far better techniques to take down the bad guys than Shaft’s .44 Magnum.

But in the end the movie is entertaining, and Jackson is the reason for all the fun. It’s easy to anticipate what he’ll do or say next, and that makes it fun as well. So, go see “Shaft,” for if Jackson waits as long to make his next as he did from his last (19 years), he will be close to 90. But like the tagline from his 2000 iteration said, he’s “Still the Man.” And we can dig it.

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