Love & Taxes


Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

(2015) Comedy (Abramorama) Josh Kornbluth, Sarah Overman, Helen Shumaker, David Keith, Robert Sicular, Nicholas Pelczar, Harry Shearer, Robert Reich, Nile Acero, Misha Brooks, Menachem Creditor, Carrie Paff, Anthony Nemirovsky, Jeff Raz, Kay Kostopoulos, Jenna Davi, Katherine Celio, Lorri Holt, Amy Resnick, Patricia Scanlon, Cindy Goldfield. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth

 

The art of the monologue is somewhat different than the art of stand-up comedy. The latter is joke after joke after joke; the former is a story, generally a humorous one. Louis C.K. is a stand-up comedian; Spalding Gray is a monologist. You’re far more likely to get rich and famous doing stand-up than you are reciting monologues, but that doesn’t stop plenty of people from going the latter route.

Based on a semi-autobiographical monologue by Josh Kornbluth who is shown performing it onstage enhanced by re-enacted portions of it, the cleverly titled film (Death and Taxes mixed with Love and Death, a Woody Allen – clearly a major influence on Kornbluth – film) shows Kornbluth who admits to his tax lawyer boss that he hadn’t paid his taxes in seven years.

To make this further ironic, Kornbluth works for a corporate tax lawyer (Keith) to pay the bills while he struggles to get his career as a monologist going. When Keith finds out that his employee hasn’t filed, he immediately sends him to a personal tax lawyer named Mo (Shumaker). Holistic and a bit New Age, Mo sees his failure to file not so much a tax problem as a tax symptom. Josh has memories of his father (Sicular), a testy communist, refusing to pay his taxes. A revelation, perhaps?

And filing his taxes seems to have helped Josh in many ways. He starts getting bigger crowds at his gigs. He gets the attention of a cheesy Hollywood producer (Shearer) who has Josh living in L.A. five days a week to write a screenplay in hopes that a studio will pick it up. He also gets the attention of a groupie named Sara (Overman) who is nearly as neurotic as himself, but in a complimentary way. Soon they are living together and talking marriage – particularly when Sara gets pregnant.

But Josh’s tax struggles are far from over and soon he finds himself in a bigger hole than he could imagine. Sure enough, things go from blessed to cursed in a big hurry. It’s a condition known to most of us as life.

Josh is a charismatic and engaging personality. He’s a cross between a Berkeley liberal and a Brooklyn Jew which makes for an interesting personality. He’s no matinee idol but he nonetheless keeps your attention whenever he’s onscreen, something that some matinee idols have trouble with. His stage sequences make you want to run right out and catch his act, which I suppose is what he was after all along.

While the movie could have used a little more editing (it drags a bit at the end of the second and beginning of the third act) it still doesn’t ever really wear out its welcome. It’s not the kind of film that is going to have you screaming with laughter but instead elicits a quiet chuckle – a whole lot of them, in fact. The interweaving of stage monologue and ensemble film sequences works well together, keeping the movie humming along for the most part. Sometimes there is a little too much shtick but by and large this is an entertaining and funny movie that is an improvement on Haiku Tunnels, the first film collaboration between the Brothers Kornbluth. I hope the two of them continue to make movies if they’re going to come up with stuff this good.

REASONS TO GO: The weaving of the stage monologue and the acted re-creations is nicely done. Josh is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie runs a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity as well as some mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is adapted from a monologue that Kornbluth first staged in 2003 in San Francisco; he later refined it in the Sundance Theater Lab, San Francisco’s Z Space Studios and Washington DC’s Arena Stage.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Producers (1967)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Last Laugh

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Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

Iraqi Odyssey


A family outing in the Iraq that was.

A family outing in the Iraq that was.

(2014) Documentary (Typecast) Jamal al Tahir, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Suhair Jamal Aldin, Samira Jamal Aldin, Tanya Uldin, Samir Jamal Aldin. Directed by Samir

documented

Generally, when people in the West think of Iraq, the impression isn’t very good. We find savage religious war between Sunnis and Shiites, an army that turned and ran at the first sign of ISIS, a democracy in chaos. Of course, the United States bears a great deal of responsibility on that score when we’re talking about that last item, but still most people have a very negative opinion about Iraq in general.

However, people tend to forget that once Iraq was one of the most modern of Middle East countries, one in which the middle class was strong and education was valued. Once having thrown off the yoke of colonialism, the monarchy in Iraq was actually relatively progressive compared to other countries in the region. Women in Baghdad dressed as they did in Los Angeles and the universities in Iraq produced some of the finest doctors and engineers in the world.

That’s all changed now, and with all the upheaval that has been suffered by that country, from Saddam Hussein and the Baathist party’s brutal repression through the unnecessary Iran-Iraq war to the bombing of the Gulf War and it’s sequel to the American occupation, many of the finest citizens of Iraq have spread to the four winds.

This documentary is the story of one family, well-to-do and middle class and progressive (the daughters, for example, were allowed to marry for love rather than by parental arrangement) who can trace back their lineage back to the prophet Mohammed (but are mainly secular now) and whose own family mirrors the chaos in Iraq. The family for various reasons has scattered across the globe and while director Samir mentions a good many of them, he focuses on Jamal who now lives in Moscow, Sabah who now lives in New Zealand, Suhair who lives in Buffalo, Samira who lives in London and Samir himself in Switzerland.

In doing so we get a fairly detailed crash course on Iraqi history of the 20th century. We see the communist party in postwar Iraq ready to assume leadership but abandoned by Moscow after the Cuban Missile crisis, leading the way for the Baathists – who were founded as an outgrowth of the Nazi party – to take over.

Through home video and archival footage we get a sense of the closeness of the clan, the activities they took part in and the anguish that has overtaken them all, scattered across the globe as they are. To put it in perspective, think of your own family and imagine that every last one of them lived in a different corner of the globe. How would that affect your own happiness?

The film is amazingly informative and gives us a good deal of insight into the issues of the Middle East from a perspective most of us haven’t really been exposed to. The major problem here however is that the film is nearly three hours long and after awhile it’s like a university lecture that has gone on much too long. The interviews with the family members tend to take place against black backgrounds and are often in English, although they are also in German and Arabic and I believe, Kurdish as well, which doesn’t help audiences with attention span issues, i.e. Americans.

The use of graphics is nicely integrated into the film, with charts and graphs indicating the relationships between the various family members (very much appreciated) and the distance between family members geographically (not so much). The music, mainly comprised of traditional instruments of the region, from time to time playfully uses regional music of the region where the interviews are taking place (the Marseilles in France or the Star-Spangled Banner in the United States) and one gets a sense of the humor that these extraordinary people have had to have in order to stay relatively sane. We also get a sense of the loneliness and isolation many of them feel.

In many ways this may end up being the definitive work of the Iraqi Diaspora and academics may well want to study it. However for the casual viewer, this is quite a momentous undertaking and while chock full of admirable material, may be a little bit much for those who are easily bored. However, those who don’t mind binge watching 13 hours of their favorite Netflix show might benefit from putting that kind of discipline to work here.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely informative. Clever use of graphics and music.
REASONS TO STAY: Way, way, way too long. Very much like watching home movies.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over four million Iraqis live in Diaspora as of this writing..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outside the Law (2010)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Stink!

Trumbo (2007)


Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

(2007) Documentary (Goldwyn) Dalton Trumbo, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, Kirk Douglas, Helen Manfull, Mitzi Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo, Walter Bernstein, Kate Lardner, Peter Hanson, Emanuel Azenberg. Directed by Peter Askin

documented

One of the core values of the United States is the freedom of speech. Our forefathers in their wisdom decreed that nobody’s right to it would be abridged by congress or any other legislative body. That freedom is one we take for granted…until someone tries to take it away.

In the late 1940s we were riding high, but all was not perfect. The Nazis had been defeated, but we weren’t quite out of the woods yet; the communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were on the rise and we were fully certain that a World War III was just on the horizon and there was a fatalism that it would be nuclear.

At that time in Hollywood, Dalton Trumbo was also riding high. One of the most acclaimed and honored screenwriters in the business, he fell afoul of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC led by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy. The committee, attempting to root out what was rumored to be a heavy communist influence in Hollywood, went after Trumbo who was unapologetically a member of the Communist Party (although he would later leave it, disillusioned). When questioned as to his activities, Trumbo asserted his First Amendment rights and refused to answer. He was found in contempt of Congress and jailed for a year. When he was released, he discovered he was blacklisted by the major studios and had to make a living writing scripts under “fronts” – other screenwriters who were credited with the scripts that Trumbo (and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten) wrote. Two of them, The Brave Ones and Roman Holiday, would net Oscars for Trumbo which he couldn’t collect at the time.

Eventually Kirk Douglas enlisted Trumbo to write Spartacus, perhaps the most well-known of all his movies. Once that became a blockbuster, the blacklist essentially ended. and Trumbo resumed his writing career which lasted into the mid-70s (he would die in 1976 of a heart attack).

His son Christopher Trumbo created a play from the letters Trumbo wrote during the period of his trial before HUAC, his incarceration and the years he was blacklisted. Askin has skillfully weaved that into an unusual documentary, taking the elder Trumbo’s words read by a variety of socially conscious Hollywood actors skillfully interwoven with archival footage, home movies and contemporary interviews detailing Trumbo’s ordeal.

The readings themselves vary; some are very emotional, while others feel stiff. Clearly some of the voice actors connected more with the material than others did, and quite frankly some of the letters sound better in the mind read on the printed page than they do spoken aloud. However, the home movies and some of the archival footage is absolutely riveting, and Askin maximizes their effect. Editor Ken Engfehr is to be commended for his deft touch.

Through these readings, interviews and footage, we get a glimpse of Trumbo the man, a man of unique principles and courage. Standing up for his beliefs at a time when conformity was more the norm – well, I suppose that can be said of any time – but certainly at a time when rocking the boat when it came to communism was tantamount to treason. Trumbo, despite his disdain for capitalism, had a deep abiding love for the Constitution and despite the fact that he could have pleaded the Fifth chose not to and ended up going to jail because he did not. He felt that the First Amendment was precious and needed to be protected, no matter the cost.

We honor those soldiers who have fought to keep us free and justifiably so. They put their lives on the line to uphold the principles that founded this nation and made it, despite all its flaws, a great one, and that’s something that should be treated with respect. However, along with those who defended our nation on the battlefield, respect should also be given to those who fought for our liberty on different battlefields; in the courtrooms, in the halls of our legislature and in the hearts and minds of our citizens. It would take decades before Dalton Trumbo’s courage would be recognized and honored but better late than never.

The story is compelling enough that it has been made into a feature film, with Bryan Cranston starring as Trumbo. It is in the process of a staggered release and should be coming to a theater near you soon (it’s already out in major markets like Los Angeles and New York City as this is published). Cranston is said to be on the Oscar shortlist for Best Actor and wouldn’t it be ironic indeed if he won an Oscar for the role. I haven’t seen the new movie yet but something tells me it will be a sentimental favorite.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent use of archival footage. Some of the letters are really touching.  Important story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the readings sound a bit stilted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $109,057 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2015)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Documented concludes!