‘The Assistant’ May Be The Most Horrific Film of 2019

The Assistant” features a music score by Tamar-kali, an American rock singer-songwriter and composer who is based in Brooklyn, New York. The interesting thing is, we only hear her score at the very beginning and the very end of this film. Truth is, “The Assistant” does not need a music score to highlight the endless tension of the working environment these characters we see here work in as the feeling of suffocating intensity is intensely palpable throughout. This is saying a lot because some filmmakers thrive on a music score to make the unbearable seem even more so, but like “The China Syndrome,” this film does not need it as writer and director Kitty Green shows how certain workplaces can be so toxic to where no further illustration is required to make this point clear.

“The Assistant” follows Jane (Julia Garner), a junior assistant at a film production company, through a single day at her job which has arriving at the office before the sun comes up, and leaving long after it has set. We watch as she performs numerous tasks which are menial at best, and it is no surprise to see the job leaves her endlessly stressed and exhausted as it consumes her life to where anything and everything outside of it plays a very distant second. She even forgets her father’s birthday, and her mother chides her for it. But perhaps the most shocking thing about this scene is how Jane manages to get the smallest amount of free time to make any personal calls while at work. During this moment, I kept thinking her boss was wondering where the hell she was and why she was not at her desk. Seriously, I have worked jobs which were similar to this one.

We quickly learn Jane has been working this job already for five weeks, so she has since been initially and brutally humbled by her boss who runs his company with an iron fist. Still, there is a bit of humanity left in Jane as we see her barely maintain her composure after her boss verbally abuses her for talking to his wife. From there, she is forced to apologize to him via email for her behavior, and her male colleagues (played by Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) instruct her in the best way to write such an apology. Through scenes like this, it does not take much to see these guys have long since been schooled by their bully of a boss, and they feel obligated to help Jane out when she is in a tough position.

Not once do we ever see the face of Jane’s boss as he is quick to pass by her on the way to his office, and we only get to hear his voice either behind closed doors or through the unsparingly vicious phone calls she has with Jane. There is no doubt this boss is meant to represent Harvey Weinstein, the man who ruled Miramax and The Weinstein Company through endless brutality and intimidation and is now in prison for his horrific offenses which include sexual assault and rape. Just the thought of this boss is enough to keep Jane and her fellow colleagues on edge throughout as any mere mistake can cause him to fall into a full-blown rage. He’s like the creature in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” as what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. Besides, this boss probably looks as appealing as Harvey ever did (that’s to say, not at all).

But the most brutal scene in “The Assistant” comes when Jane speaks with the company’s Human Resources director, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), about a new girl who has just been employed. Her name is Sienna (Kristine Froseth), and she has been put up in a room at The Peninsula, a high-end hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills. Jane never got this kind of treatment when she was hired and cannot help but wonder if Sienna is in some kind of danger. But instead of being taken seriously, Jane is instead berated by Wilcock for bringing this to his attention, reminding her of how many people she beat out to get the job she has (the number is in the hundreds). But as Jane leaves, Wilcock assures her she has nothing to worry about as, in a line which has long since been spoiled by the film’s trailer:

“You’re not his type.”

It is in this moment in which Green shows how the safeguards designed to protect employees from horrific abuse have long since failed them as those with all the power rendered them useless. As a result, you realize in a very depressing way how someone like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away with so much abuse for decades. Yes, karma did come around to kick him in the buttocks, but the fact it took so long to do so does not speak well of the world at large.

Green also shows how those employed in such a suffocating working environment get by even as they are micromanaged to such a blistering degree. Every character we see here has long since been indoctrinated into a situation which they have been led to believe will eventually move them up the show business ladder.

At the center of “The Assistant” is the unforgettable performance by Julia Garner. As Jane, she fully inhabits this character to where you see how she has since been indoctrinated into her position to where any abuses and humiliations from her boss have long since humbled her in ways no one should ever be humbled by. Still, the “Ozark” actress makes us see there is still some humanity left in her. The question is, will she have any of it left by the time the end credits begin to roll? We watch Jane as she observes a certain silhouette in her boss’ window, and her resignation to the things she is unable to control shows how this film was destined to end with a depressing climax. And in the end, how else could it have ended?

“The Assistant” would make an unforgettable double feature with “Swimming with Sharks,” George Huang’s 1994 film about a naïve young writer named Guy (Frank Whaley) who, just out of film school, gets a job as an assistant to influential movie mogul, Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), who quickly turns out to be the boss from hell. Both films show how this abusive behavior has been normalized for far too long as many industry hopefuls have been cruelly led to believe this treatment is a rite of passage into a realm which seemingly promises both wealth and power. It came out just after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predatory acts were revealed for all the world to see, so it plays like a documentary which has been smothered from public view for far too long. Now that people like Harvey are out of the picture, I wonder if things will change for the better. The sad fact is, this kind of behavior has been seen as acceptable for far too long, so who knows?

While “The Assistant” is a fierce indictment of Hollywood, it would be a mistake to think this abusive behavior is relegated to one industry. While Hollywood may be one of the main epicenters of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the abuses they address do not start and stop there as other business we know and have been led to believe are morally superior are as vulnerable to such abuses. Political commentator Tomi Lahren went out of her way to shame Hollywood for enabling Weinstein and people like him, but she did this from a news channel (in this case, Fox News) which went out of its way to pay millions to those who accused Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes of horrific abuse.

Simply put, judge not lest ye be judged. If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You will hit someone guilty.

* * * * out of * * * *

Beyond The Lights is Not Your Average Showbiz Movie

I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.

When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.

We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.

Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.

While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.

Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.

I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.

Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.

Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.

“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.

I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.

Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to check out the video interviews I did with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

Don’t Think Twice

Dont Think Twice poster

Don’t Think Twice” starts off with a black and white montage of improvisation groups at work onstage. The important thing to notice is how the actors work together as a group and accept the ideas given to them. It’s never about trying to be funnier than the other person because that just throws the whole dynamic off. You simply work together and let the scene you have created flow from one place to the next, and if you are lucky you will reach comedy nirvana for yourself and the audience. But there’s always that one rule you most follow the most during improv: don’t think. Thinking just screws you up.

This movie completely understands the improv dynamic, and it’s no surprise it was written and directed by an actor, writer and a comedian, Mike Birbiglia, who has been in groups like those before. Birbiglia plays Miles, the senior member of an improv group named The Commune which has long since gained a strong following in the New York area. All the group members care for each other very much like family and live in the same building together. As they continue to perform and develop their talents, they keep pursuing what they see as the comedy holy grail, a comedy variety show called “Weekend Live.” Clearly, this show is a not so subtle stand in for “Saturday Night Live” as it promises fame and fortune for all those lucky enough to be cast on it.

Then one day two of The Commune members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), get called to audition for “Weekend Live,” and we know this is going to change everything for everybody no matter what happens. Jack ends up getting cast and his friends are happy for him, but once they see him on the show their excitement fades as they begin to wonder why they aren’t as successful as him. Another Commune member, Allison (Kate Micucci) wears a t-shirt that says “Friends Forever” on it, but you quickly get the feeling that this won’t be the case as the movie goes on.

All the characters in “Don’t Think Twice” are wonderfully realized by Birbiglia and the actors he has cast. There are no good or bad guys here, just a group of friends trying to support each other the best they can. It’s great that they have this support group as show business is always fiercely competitive, and what keeps them going is their love of acting and especially improv. Still, a number of roadblocks are put up in their general direction as the theatre they perform in gets sold, and they move into a more expensive venue they are unable to fill up. Also, their biggest fans are more eager to see Jack back in The Commune than to watch a Commune show without him.

I love everyone here is genuine in following their passion, and you see the price they pay for pursuing such elusive dreams. They work day jobs that are demeaning to say the least. Bill (Chris Gethard) in particular has a job at a local supermarket handing out food samples to customers who are typically quick to avoid him. He later remarks at how he had all the lead roles in his high school plays and now feels like his father looks at him as a loser. Like the others in the group he has no real interest in a desk job or any other 9 to 5 job, but the time is coming where he may have to question whether it is worth it to continue on the path he has chosen for himself.

It’s no surprise that everything “Don’t Think Twice” reaches a climax as feelings of bitterness and resentment come right up to the surface. Jack has gained a lot of fame in a short period of time, and he tries to help his friends out by passing their writing samples along to “Weekend Live’s” Lorne Michaels-like manager who instead urges him to write for himself. Miles feels he is owed a spot on “Weekend Live” and thinks he has been cheated out of what is rightfully his. Everyone else comes to see what they have sacrificed to be a part of The Commune, and now they wonder if it was worth the price. This makes the movie more intense as you know these people will eventually explode at one another, and you hope the damage isn’t too great that it can’t be repaired.

Now many other movies like this one would have ended on a note of bitterness to where enemies are made and friendships are forever destroyed, but Birbiglia doesn’t do that here. While failure is not an option for many starving artists, for others it is. Or perhaps they shouldn’t look at this as failure and instead as a chance to redirect their energies. This could have been an infinitely pessimistic movie, but Birbiglia manages to soften the blow in a way that feels honest and genuine. He shows us people who start to wonder if it is time to move on to something, but they never lose their love of improv. They all may not be able to make a living off of performing, but they don’t have to give up on it either.

My hat is off to the actors who have clearly been through the various ups and downs of an acting career and been involved with groups like these. Keegan Michael Key is terrific as the breakout cast member who struggles to exist in a high-pressure showbiz world that is not as welcoming as The Commune. Gillian Jacobs is also a standout as one who is so committed to her group that the thought of leaving it feels so wrong to her. Birbiglia is perfect as the improv teacher who occasionally sleeps with his students who eventually find him to be a 40-something weirdo, and the fact that he is actually 36 doesn’t seem to help matters. Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard also have their wonderful moments as the supporting players who are desperate to validate their worth in the eyes of others.

I apologize if I make “Don’t Think Twice” sound like a depressing picture because I certainly don’t mean to. It’s a movie as moving as it is funny, and some parts of it are very funny. It has a lot of hope in it even as it deals with the increasing odds against making it in show business and how New York real estate has gotten far too expensive for any artist of any kind to live there. It also shows how your love for your art and your friends is undying and always helps you through the toughest of times. It’s a heartfelt movie that is genuine in its emotions, and its lessons on improvisation are true and to the point.

Don’t think, just go and see “Don’t Think Twice.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.