Happy Times (2019)


Dinner parties can be SOOO stressful…

(2019) Horror (Artsploitation) Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, Iris Bahr, Alon Pdut, Stéfi Celma, Guy Adler, Ido Mohr, Daniel Lavid, Shani Atlas, Sophia Santi, Mike Burstyn, Kevin Thomas, Rigo Obezo.  Directed by Michael Mayer

 

What could be more civilized than a gathering of friends and family for a dinner party? Breaking bread with those we care about is one of the nicer parts of being human, something many of us have been missing during the pandemic. However, one look at this dinner party and we might want to embrace social distancing to a much more restrictive degree.

Boorish businessman Yossi (Mohr) and his elegant trophy wife Sigal (Chamami) are Israeli ex-pats living in Southern California. They host a post-Sabbath dinner at their McMansion in the Hollywood Hills, sending the kids away with a heartfelt “Good riddance!” (now, there’s my kind of mom) giving the adults room to party.

Attending the party is Yossi’s business partner, contractor Ilan (Adler) and his girlfriend Noya (Atlas), business executive Avner (Pdut) and his wife Hila (Bahr) who gave up a law career to start a family, and cousin Maor (Lavid) who came stag. Aspiring  actor Michael (Aloni) – Sigal’s beloved cousin who is essentially maligned by the rest of the group – arrives  last with his African-American girlfriend Aliyah (Celma).

Soon, long-simmering resentments begin to leak to the surface and despite Sigal’s best efforts to keep everything sociable, the addition of  black sheep Michael who seems hell-bent on irritating absolutely everybody brings things to a boiling point. Buttons are pushed. Punches are thrown. People are knocked out. Dick pics are taken. Panties are stolen. Accusations are hurled. Bullets fly. Cops arrive. Cops leave. Things get much, much worse.

There is a ghoulish pleasure in watching a dinner party of snobby, shallow rich people turn into a Tarantino climax and you can almost feel Mayer’s glee at staging it. None of the characters onscreen (with the possible exceptions of Aliyah and the rabbi (Burstyn) who shows up in the third act) have any redeeming qualities at all. None of the relationships here seem to be healthy in any way, shape or form except for maybe Sigal and Michael in which there seems to be at least some genuine affection.

There’s a lot of dark humor here, with writers Guy Ayal and Mayer injecting commentary on the shallow nature of Hollywood elites as well as the macho posturing of Israeli men. Even Israeli women don’t go unscathed as the Israeli women here are largely pretty nasty pieces of work with plenty of repressed fury.

There is plenty of blood and carnage, although the murders aren’t particularly inventive. Then again, most of them are crimes of opportunity and passion. Someone gets pushed to the breaking point and grabs whatever is at hand, be it a heavy blunt object or an antique crossbow. Someone even gets stuffed into a kiln.

The mostly-Israeli actors are extremely strong here, with Chamami and Aloni getting the lions share of the moments to remember. However, Pdut has his own share of moments as the businessman hiding PTSD from his time in the compulsory Israeli military service. The movie, though, falls in between niches; it’s not really the kind of horror film that is going to invite raves in the horror film community, and it is a little bit too genre for the arthouse crowd. It also forces the audience to sit through about 45 minutes of a dinner party of unpleasant people before getting to the good stuff, which may try the patience of many. Still, the last half of the movie does move at a pretty good clip, so those who like their mayhem with a side of Jewish gestalt will get their money’s worth here.

REASONS TO SEE: Skewers both shallow Hollywood culture and macho Israeli ethos. A stellar dark comedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a very long time to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, gore and mayhem, plenty of profanity, some sexual situations and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Host
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bliss

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Wish I Was Here


The kids both know who farted.

The kids both know who farted.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, Alexander Chaplin, Allan Rich, Ashley Greene, Michael Weston, Cody Sullivan, Donald Faison, Bruce Nozick, Matt Winston, Taylor Bagley, Jennifer Terry, Jackie Johnson, Bob Clendenin, Silvia Curiel, Nicole Galicia, Kevin Ho, Ross Ingram, Meli Alexander. Directed by Zach Braff

Growing up is a messy business. As we ride the crest of the wave that washes us from 20-somethings into 30-somethings, our lives have taken on a different cast. No longer are we carefree, without much responsibility. For most of us, that it the time of life where we find life partners, get married, have kids. Our focus changes from following our own dreams to becoming responsible for the dreams of our kids and sharing dreams with our spouses. It can be a scary, soul-churning thing.

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is in that spot. An aspiring actor whose aspirations have not yet been rewarded with actual success, his two kids Tucker (Gagnon) and Grace (King) attend a Jewish private school run by their local synagogue. Given the uncertain nature of his profession, normally he could never afford that kind of schooling for his kids but his dad Gabe (Patinkin) pays for their tuition. His wife Sarah (Hudson) works in a crappy cubicle job opposite a man (Weston) whose inappropriate behavior forces her to go to her superior (Winston) who basically tells her to suck it up. She hates her job – although given the wariness that most businesses have for anything that would leave them potentially vulnerable to a sexual harassment lawsuit, the way her boss reacts doesn’t ring true.

However, Aidan is forced to make some changes when his dad announces that he can no longer pay for the kids’ schooling. Gabe’s cancer which had been in remission had returned with a vengeance and the only thing that might save Gabe’s life is an expensive experimental treatment that isn’t covered by insurance. Aidan and Sarah decide that the only alternative is for Aidan to home school the kids.

At first that looks on the surface like an utter disaster. Aidan isn’t the most reliable and responsible of men although his brother Noah (Gad), a disappointment to his dad from whom he had been estranged for some time, makes Aidan look rock solid by comparison. However, a funny thing happens on the way to the rest of his life – Aidan uses the opportunity to experience life with his kids, reconnecting with them in a meaningful way. In many ways, Aidan has grown beyond his father in ways neither man could ever expect.

 

Eight years ago, Braff – then the star of the hit sitcom Scrubs – directed Garden State which was essentially the state of the union for Zach at 20-something. This in many ways fulfills the same function for him at this point in his life. Not that Aidan is Zach or vice versa, but one gets the feeling that many of the challenges that face Aidan aren’t unknown to Mr. Braff in real life; the dilemma of pitting one’s dreams against the realities of responsibility and life. Of how to put your kids ahead of yourself when it wasn’t long ago that you were a kid too. It is a time of life when the tomorrow you were putting things off for has finally arrived.

In many ways this is a very Jewish movie and this may resonate more with those of that faith than with others. However it must be said that Grace’s struggle to integrate her very strong faith with a more modern lifestyle is something plenty of young people of all faiths are grappling with and that particular subtext is done with a good deal of sensitivity and a refreshing lack of judgment. Sometimes Hollywood tends to take sides in that particular struggle.

Hudson, playing the patient wife Sarah, is at her most lustrous best. She has certainly become her own actress, separate from her mother over the years and this may well be her best role ever. Sarah has a heart of gold but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have regrets or frustrations. She hates her job but she endures it for the sake of her husband and her children. She never pushes him to give up on his dreams of being an actor but you get the sense that she isn’t far from her limits on that score. She has a scene with Patinkin – call it the matriarch scene – that is absolutely terrific.

 

Speaking of Patinkin, he is as low-key as ever and plays the role of a dad who is certain he is right about most things, including how to relate to his sons. He doesn’t realize how alienated his eldest son is, or how deeply his actions hurt him. Gad plays that son with a certain amount of humor and a goodly amount of pathos. Braff’s former Scrubs mate Faison makes a memorable appearance as a used car salesman.

The movie bogs down in cuteness upon occasion. Aidan and his brother had played as children, pretending they were heroes of fantasy who were the only ones who could save the world and this feeling that he needs to be the savior is played out in Aidan’s head as a kind of space knight, followed by a cutesy 70s-style robotic orb and opposed by a dark, menacing cloaked figure whose identity is eventually revealed. These tend to be distractions that appear to be there to sate the Comic Con geeks (a scene was filmed there) and at the very least are unnecessary. The children, who most of the time are played fairly realistically, sometimes descend into forcing their quirks as opposed to making their characters real. It’s a mistake many young actors make but it can be annoying nonetheless.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a deeply heartfelt project for Braff and I applaud him for getting it made in his own way rather than having a studio finance it and exert control in an effort to make the movie more marketable. Some have criticized Braff for going the Kickstarter route, questioning whether it was a good thing to fork over cash to a millionaire because he asked for it but I think that this kind of controversy is all Internet bovine crap. At the end of the day, Braff got the film made the best way he knew how and who really gives a rats tush how it gets financed as long as the film is of good quality?

In fact, this is a good quality film although the critics have been surprisingly ambivalent towards it. I think there is a good deal of insight to be had here if you don’t get hung up on the character’s hang-ups – Aidan and his dad are both fairly neurotic and there are some moments that you wonder if you can really get invested in either one of them, but at the end of the day if you are willing to hang in there you may find yourself really liking this, perhaps more than you anticipated.

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure it should be said that my son Jacob was one of those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign.

 

REASONS TO GO: Some tender and touching moments. Hudson has never been better.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the issues with faith may not necessarily resonate with everyone.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language (but not a ton) and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Braff was inspired by the success Veronica Mars had with their Kickstarter campaign; ultimately over 46 thousand donors raised over $2 million, some of which were given “thank you” shout outs in the end credits.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greenberg

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: A Most Wanted Man