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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Breaking News in Yuba County, Review: Last one standing gets the millions

Breaking News in Yuba County, Review: Last one standing gets the millions

It’s genre-defying film, with a most unlikely protagonist, and several parallel tracks, all intertwined. Re-affirming the myth that, in America, anybody can get away with anything, and that killing and violence are about as common as pizza and burgers, Breaking News in Yuba County makes a messed-up attempt to say that amidst all this mayhem, loyalty to your wife and love for her are values worth cherishing. But it ends-up as a crime drama, with character after character getting bumped off, and a humungous booty awaiting the last one left standing.

Sue Buttons is a house-wife who has grown-up with a complex that she is not good looking (she is no stunner, to be sure). She lacks self-confidence and keeps listening to recordings, which she calls “affirmations”, wherein a female voice says, “You are important”, and continues with other such, morale-boosting, pep-talk. It is her birthday, and she orders a cake for herself, her husband, and her half-sister, expecting both of them to be home for dinner. Her sister Nancy, a TV anchor, says she is not sure she can make it, while her husband ignores her calls. Neither of them remembers that it is her birthday. She books a table for two in a restaurant, for the two of them. However, her straying husband, Karl, has other plans.

He is approached by two persons, the daughter and the chief hit-man of a local Chinese Mafia Don, who have traced him to his new office, in a bank, after he quit a similar job in another bank, mainly to avoid the gang. The two give him a bag filled with innumerable dollar notes and ask him to deposit the money in their account, thereby laundering their misbegotten fortune. He was forced to do it in his previous job, but this time around he decides to decamp with the money, taking his mistress with him. She is waiting for him in a motel, where the couple have sex, and suddenly, Karl dies. Sue has followed him all this while and manages to get a key to his room, where she arrives just as he is dying. She chases the woman out, digs a large hole nearby and buries Karl, with the bunch of flowers he had brought for his mistress, and the bag containing the treasure she is unaware of. Next morning, she reports to the police that Karl has gone missing.

Some pages on the web describe the film as a comedy-drama, while one wishes Nigerian-American Amanda Idoko’s script had manoeuvred it in that direction. In fact, whenever the film works, it is as a crime drama, and not a comedy. Having joined Cornell to become a doctor, halfway through her college career, Idoko changed her major to theatre arts. She has written for sitcoms like “The Mayor,” “The Goldbergs,” and “Imaginary Mary,” and Apple TV+’s animated comedy “Central Park.”. Breaking News in Yuba County is a 2017 Black List script. It derives its title from the fact that a missing person is big news on American TV channels, and having followed the disappearance of a girl named Emma Rose, she cashes in on the ‘disappearance’ of her husband, acquiring celebrity status in the process. There are some good touches, like the constant feed of the morale-boosting voice in her earphones, which she keeps repeating to herself, the scene in which she tries to confront the cake shop saleswoman and the back-story of the two sisters’ childhood. However, once Amanda brings in the Mafia and Karl’s reformed felon brother, it is hard to find anything to laugh about.

With projects like The Help, Get on Up and The Girl on the Train behind him, director Tate Taylor under-performs this time. A saleswoman in the electronic appliances store where Karl’s brother Petey works speaks and behaves like the quintessential black stereo-type, and even wields a gun. She collaborates with Petey when he burgles a jewellery store, to pay ransom for Karl, who, he believes, has been kidnapped by the Mafia. The burglary, like many of the killings and torture scenes in the film, happen with incredible ease and come across as mere happenstance. It’s nice to see two black women in major roles, one as the senior cop, Cam Harris, investigating the case, with a white man, Jones, as her junior, and the other as the saleswoman, above, but that might be attributed to Idoko’s script. A vital piece of evidence in discovered by Harris in CCTV footage at the motel, but did the camera not capture the rest of the action, including the dragging out of the body, the digging of the grave and the burial of Karl? And how was it that Sue acquired a shovel and nobody noticed the digging, which must have taken considerable time?

Allison Janney (The Girl on the Train, Bad Education, Bombshell; a friend of the the director) is convincing as Sue Buttons. How she acquires the mental skills for undertaking a massive cover-up and getting on to a TV show remains a mystery, for which, to give her due, the blame lies with the script. Mila Kunis (Milena Markovna Kunis; Black Swan, Bad Moms, A Bad Moms Christmas) as Nancy looks attractive as ever, with her eyes attracting magnetic attention, in an ill-defined role. Regina Hall (Girls Trip, The Hate U Give, Little) as Detective Cam Harris turns-in a powerhouse performance. Awkwafina as Mina, the Don’s daughter, is as menacing as the role demands. Jimmi Simpson as Petey Buttons looks more like a romantic hero than a felon. Keong Sim as Mr. Kim, the Don, needs only to bark out commands and remain poker-faced. Juliette Lewis as Gloria Michaels, the celebrity TV hostess, is a part caricature of real hostesses. Matthew Modine as Carl Buttons and T.C. Matherne as Officer Jones do their bits. Tate Taylor makes a cameo appearance as an Attractive Customer.

Music by Jeff Beal, cinematography by Christina Voros and editing by Lucy Donaldson are of a standard gauge, with the music contributing to the varying moods and situations. Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the producers, which might raise unfulfilled expectations from the film. Long-delayed, the film was released abroad on February 12 and comes to Mumbai a week later. It is only 97 minutes long, which is a saving factor. Given an Adults Only certificate by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification, it has also been subjected to cuts, most likely in the sex scene involving Karl and his mistress.

Breaking News in Yuba County has the germ of an idea that attempts to walk the twin paths of crime and comedy, but fails to germinate and develop the much-needed comedy track, emerging as an occasionally gripping crime thriller, littered with corpses, in which the last one standing gets the millions.

Rating: **


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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