Band Aid


There are few things as musically authentic as a garage band..

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Majandra Delfino, Nelson Franklin, Kailash Banerjee Sukhadia, Vivien Lyre Blair, Colin Hanks, Chris D’Elia, Daryl Wein, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Jesse Williams, Gillian Zinser. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

 

Marriages are complex, fragile things that can sometimes be torn apart by the slightest of difficulties. We take it for granted that married couples will argue, sometimes in toxic ways. Relationship experts tell us that arguments are a healthy thing for couples. Experience tells us that they can also signify the beginning of the end.

All Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) seem to do is argue. The arguments are generated by life’s little annoyances – like a chronically full sink of dirty dishes and a leaky faucet that never gets fixed –  and often lead to big underlying issues. Both of these 20-somethings are suffering from failed expectations; Anna once had a book deal that fell through and now she’s an Uber driver. Ben, a talented artist, designs corporate logos when he can actually get his butt off the couch. There are moments that it’s clear that the two still love each other but those moments are becoming increasingly infrequent.

One early hint that things are terribly wrong between them is that when they are invited to a child’s birthday party, Anna has to get really high just to make it through the party for reasons that become clear later in the film. While she is blissed out, she and Ben give an impromptu rock concert on children’s instruments. Later that night, Anna hits on the idea of starting a band – and using their arguments as inspiration for songs.

Considering that their relationship counselor is moving to Canada (quite possibly to get away from the two of them), it seems like all the therapy they can afford. They locate their dusty guitar and bass and start searching for a drummer; they find one in Dave (Armisen), a neighbor and recovering sex addict who probably couldn’t be more creepy if the writer’s tried (and they did).

They play a couple of gigs and they aren’t half bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. Best of all, the impromptu therapy seems to be working; Anna and Ben are arguing less and the dishes are getting done. They seem to be more kind towards each other. A potential record deal is in the offing. Life couldn’t be rosier.

Then they have the mother of all arguments and at last some of their underlying issues begin to surface. Anna throws Ben out and he shacks up with Dave for a bit before running home to Mama (Essman). But there were things said that can’t be un-said. Can their relationship survive? Should it?

There’s a lot to like here. Lister-Jones, more familiar to viewers through her television work including her most recent stint on the CBS sitcom Life in Pieces, proves to be a promising director. She’s no Sofia Coppola – yet – but she has the wisdom to keep her touch light and the skill to pull it off. She also has a ton of chemistry with Pally; the two make a cute couple, too cute upon occasion but always believable. Their arguments hit the right notes and sound pretty authentic to these married ears.

The dialogue is hipster 101 in some ways; everyone talks like they’re in a sitcom pulling off snarky one-liners. The trouble is, I know a lot of people who talk exactly like Ben and Anna and it’s even more annoying in real life. Some people are also not going to be able to get past that both Ben but especially Anna use drugs heavily t get through the pain and have both become somewhat caught in a very deep rut. Go-getters might have trouble with the couple, as those who have issues with hipsters might.

Still, the movie is surprisingly insightful – the conversation between Ben and his Mom near the end on the nature of women had a lot to say and makes the whole movie worth it right there. I was also fond of the dirty dishes as a metaphor for the relationship; the dishes just stood there stagnant in a pile with the couple just piling new dishes on until one of them thinks to clear out the dishes from the sink. So it is with relationships (and Ben and Anna’s in particular); all the negative stuff gets piled on in the relationship and the heap just gets larger and larger until one of them decides to let go of the negatives.

The tone is pretty light and I liked that the humor which was pretty skewed in places kept things from getting too depressing, but some of the humor is a bit cruel and snarky; if you don’t like those sorts of jokes this movie might not be for you. Do look for the cameos of Uber passengers in Anna’s car. This isn’t going to be top ten material for the year but it is a breezy and engaging film that has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Definitely check this one out!

REASONS TO GO: There are a surprising amount of insights, particularly later on in the movie. The music is pretty decent and surprisingly varied..
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is almost unbearably hipster-friendly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little drug use, plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Decker, Delfino and Lister-Jones all star in the TV show Friends with Better Lives.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Past Life

The Last Laugh


Springtime for Hitler.

Springtime for Hitler.

(2016) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, Alan Zweibel, Etgar Keret, Carl Reiner, Robert Clary, David Cross, Lisa Lampinelli, Jake Ehrenreich, Zdenka Fantlova, Jeffrey Ross, Susie Essman, Abraham Foxman, Roz Weinman, Malala Sagal. Directed by Ferne Pearlstein

 

Humor is an intensely personal subject; everyone’s idea of what is funny and what is inappropriate varies, sometimes to astonishing degrees. There are always taboo subjects that even comics shy away from, but not all of them. There are subjects that some comics tackle that make even other comics a little bit uncomfortable.

This new documentary by Ferne Pearlstein tackles the interesting subject of what is inappropriate material for comics, concentrating on one of the most horrible events in human history – the Holocaust. More than 70 years have passed since Nazi Germany surrendered but there are plenty who think that jokes about it – even by Jewish comics – are wildly inappropriate. Even Mel Brooks, whose cult classic The Producers dropped jaws when it was released in 1967, says that there is a difference between jokes about the Holocaust and jokes about the Nazis.

Much of the film is devoted to Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor who talks about cabaret shows in the camps used to keep the workers entertained and about the gallows humor employed by the prisoners to help make the days bearable. Other survivors of concentration camps take the opposite tack – the Holocaust was no laughing matter and that the prisoners couldn’t even crack a smile, let alone a joke.

I tend to side with Renee – humor is a mechanism that many humans use to cope with stress and what could be more stressful than living under the constant threat of death? Still, six million Jews and others died in the camps – can we joke about them without trivializing them, or upsetting those who lived in them?

These are the kind of questions that are brought up by various comedians of different eras – old school like Brooks and Carl Reiner, mid-school like David Steinberg and Gilbert Gottfried and more recent vintages like Lisa Lampinelli and David Cross. There are also writers like Alan Zweibel, Malala Sagal and Etgar Keret as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League which monitors anti-Semitism in the media. Foxman has some strong opinions as to what is appropriate and what is not, some of which you may agree with or disagree with. I think it’s a telling point that when Foxman pooh-poohs the argument that some comics make that the jokes keep the Holocaust from being forgotten; Sarah Silverman ripostes that if we haven’t forgotten the Holocaust why do genocides continue to this day?

To the filmmaker’s credit, no side seems to be given advantage other than that of the Survivors themselves and particularly Firestone. She is the emotional centerpiece of the film and some of the most moving moments take place as she remembers being separated from her sister whom she never saw again and having to deal with the death of her husband much later in life. Robert Clary, who played a French prisoner of war in the comedy Hogan’s Heroes used his real-life experience in the concentration camps for his character and reveals almost casually of 13 members of his family to be arrested, he was the only one left alive by the end of the war. How does one survive that? Clary doesn’t say and perhaps it’s better that we don’t know.

Towards the end of the film other taboo subjects are tackled such as 9-11 and use of the “N” word but almost in so casual a manner that they might better have not been mentioned at all. Clearly the Holocaust is the big subject here and thus it should have remained. I suspect the filmmakers were aware that there might be some backlash “what, only the Jews have suffered?” which is completely unfair. Nobody’s saying that these other subjects aren’t important and shouldn’t be handled delicately but quite frankly, I think the filmmakers would have been better served sticking to the subject that brought them to the dance, as it were and use it maybe as a gateway to other taboos. Perhaps that was what they were trying to do but quite frankly I think it was a case of trying to do too much. That’s really the only issue I had with the film.

There are, of course, plenty of jokes here and quite a few of them will get you laughing. One of my favorite bits is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number from the 1967 version of The Producers and the audience reaction shots which might be how some modern audiences in this era of political correctness might react to some of the humor here.

I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and comics, as Mel Brooks himself observes are the conscience of the country. They allow us to look at ourselves and how we react to things that are controversial and uncomfortable; restricting them with political correctness is an absolute abomination and one of the most things that as a liberal I’m most ashamed of my left-leaning friends. It is a healthy thing once in awhile to be outraged.

There is some thought-provoking stuff here and no ready answers. Like everything else, it’s all up to how you perceive things and what affects you. You may be offended by some of the jokes here – or you might laugh your tush off. Is there a line that cannot be crossed? I don’t know; maybe. Should only Jewish comics joke about the Holocaust or gay comics about AIDS or African-American comics about slavery and racism? There are those who think so; I do not. At the end of the day, we are all humans and if we believe that, truly believe that, then all experiences are shared experiences. While the Holocaust was aimed mainly at those of the Jewish faith, we can mourn the loss of these people because we believe we are all brothers and sisters; the loss of even a single Jew makes all of us less.

Sure, that’s a bit simplistic (and sorry this movie review has appeared to become a rant) but the message is that it’s harder to hate someone if you feel connected to them. If there were fewer divisions between us wouldn’t there be fewer reasons to hate? I’m not sure if that’s the message that these comedians are trying to send by joking about the Nazis or even the Holocaust but it’s a message that can be inferred and wouldn’t it be a better world indeed if we all looked at the world that way?

REASONS TO GO: The subject is truly thought-provoking. Some of the jokes are hysterical. There are a few moments that are heart-rending. Brooks is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: Segments on 9-11 and other taboo subjects seemed a bit rushed and didn’t add anything to the film overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find plenty of profanity, humor that some might find inappropriate and a few images that are unsettling.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Freedom to Marry

Putzel


So long and thanks for all the fish.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Stouthearted) Jack Carpenter, Melanie Lynskey, John Pankow, Susie Essman, Jarlath Conroy, Armando Riesco, Allegra Cohen, Steve Park, Adrian Martinez, Fred Berman, Fran Kranz, Ashley Austin Morris, Sondra James, Robert Klein (voice), Elizabeth Masucci. Directed by Jason Chaet

 Florida Film Festival 2013

There are those who believe that the most Jewish place on Earth is Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Israel notwithstanding. There is some credence to that. It certainly remains the center of what most Americans think of as American Jewish culture and it is my understanding that most American Jews regard it with some fondness, even if they have never lived there.

Walter (Carpenter) lives there. Actually, very few people call him Walter – everyone calls him Putzel – little putz – and have done since he was a young kid. Walter has ambitions. Walter has dreams. He works at Himmelstein’s and everyone knows that for smoked fish, Himmelstein’s. His Uncle Sid (Pankow) is running the place but Sid has no kids and Walter wants to inherit the store so bad he can taste it and let’s face it, it tastes like lox.

Walter’s wife Willa (Cohen) has left him. She’s been cheating on him with the amiable Hector (Martinez) who doesn’t see the problem. Walter also has a phobia – he’s incapable of leaving the Upper West Side. When he gets to the boundary, he freezes up. It’s like an invisible force field that prevents his egress into the murky waters beyond. Here there be dragons.

Still, Walter is pretty sure things will eventually go his way. Sid is talking about retiring with his wife Gilda (Essman) to Arizona, and the good-hearted Gilda has always treated Walter like the son she never had, particularly as Walter’s parents both passed away when he was very young. Walter is determined to show he deserves to inherit the store – in fact, who else is there? Song (Park), the Korean blade man who cuts the fish and loves what he does but he isn’t family. Neither is Tunch (Berman) who loves the fish a little too much.

A monkey wrench is thrown into Walter’s plans with the arrival of Sally (Lynskey), a sweet and fragile barmaid who dreams of being a dancer. Sid promptly falls head over heels for her and suddenly his plans to retire with Gilda to Arizona are thrown into chaos. Walter realizes that if he is to inherit the store and achieve all his dreams, he’ll have to sabotage Sid and Sally’s relationship but the more he tries to get them to do the right thing, the more he realizes that he’s in love with Sally.

This is sweet-tempered and slightly neurotic. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear this is some lost Woody Allen movie from the 70s that was strangely transplanted into the 21st century. While not in the same league as Allen’s best work of the era, it is at least comparable and those who love Manhattan and Annie Hall will do back flips when they see this – at least those who aren’t using walkers these days.

The cast is solid and charming to a man (and woman). Lynskey, who has become a highly in-demand actress on the indie circuit, seems destined to break into mainstream success. She’s pretty, has terrific comic timing, and is able to convey strength and vulnerability with equal ease. She reminds me very much of Zooey Deschanel at a similar place in her career.

I’m not sure if Carpenter is Jewish or not but he certainly captures the idiosyncrasies of a nice Jewish kid from the Upper West Side nicely – the sense of humor, the romantic awkwardness – the sex scene with Walter and Sally may be the un-sexiest sex scene ever filmed and yet the most authentic –  and the inner decency. If he’s a bit neurotic, well, it kind of goes with the territory.

I was also impressed with the work of veteran actress Susie Essman who plays the kind Gilda – maybe the most level-headed character in the movie. She seems to be the soul of the family here and Essman, who has always been an actress who conveys warmth and caring, is tailor-made for the role.

Even if you don’t have lox running through your veins or a soul of gefilte fish you can still find plenty of reasons to love this charming, quirky movie whether it is for the moments of unexpected inappropriateness or the sweet charm that never gets cloying, like too much Manischewitz wine. Given the solid performances and the overall environment created, this can appeal to the Jewishness in all of us.

REASONS TO GO: Charming and gives a good sense of the Upper West Side. Funny and offbeat in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally inappropriate for younger audiences. May confound goyim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language and some sexuality, some of it with fish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lox is a fillet of brined salmon (although commonly confused with smoked salmon which is a different dish entirely) and the name is derived from the Yiddish word for salmon, laks.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Apprenticeship of Dudley Kravitz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: This is Where We Live and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Bolt


It's doggie deja vu.

It's doggie deja vu.

(Disney) Starring the voices of John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Diedrich Bader, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton. Directed by Chris Williams and Byron Howard

Sometimes the world we live in isn’t what we think it is. That can be because we tend to believe what we want to believe, and other times it’s because we see what others want us to see. There are only two things that we can really rely on. The first thing is ourselves; the second thing is love.

Penny (Cyrus) is the daughter of a noted scientist who has been kidnapped by the nefarious Dr. Calico (McDowell), the Man with the Green Eye (just one). In order to get the scientist to give up information about the classified project he is working on, the evil Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!) has decided to kidnap Penny to use as leverage. Thankfully, she isn’t alone. Before he was kidnapped, the scientist enhanced the family dog Bolt (Travolta) with super strength, super speed, heat vision and above all, a super bark. Despite all the black-suited minions on motorcycles, the high-tech weapons, the attack helicopters and fiendish traps set by the sinister Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!) the duo of Penny and Bolt foil his evil plans every time, getting closer to finding where Penny’s dad is being held and once and for all foiling the plans of the criminal genius Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!).

At least, that’s what Bolt thinks. The reality is that all of that is a highly rated television show. In order to get a more natural performance out of the canine star, the Director (Lipton) has gone to great lengths to make the dog believe that the jeopardy is real and that his super powers are genuine. Every night at the end of shooting, Penny escorts Bolt to his trailer where he rests, occasionally getting tormented by a pair of cat actors who play the pets of the cat-aleptic Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!). Penny is not thrilled about this; she would rather spend time with her dog, but her smarmy agent (Greg Germann) convinces her that this is best for her career. However, the network is becoming restless; the ratings are slipping and people are getting tired of the same old formula; girl gets in trouble, Bolt saves the day.

The Director comes up with an episode which ends with the maniacal Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!) successfully kidnapping Penny. Instead of Penny accompanying Bolt to his trailer, it’s a trainer in heavy padding looking not unlike one of the tyrannical Dr. Calico’s (BWAHAHAHA!) henchmen. In a moment of opportunistic synchronicity, Bolt escapes only to accidentally knock himself out and fall into a package filled with Styrofoam packing for a cross-country journey to New York.

Once in the Big Apple, he tries to find Penny but nobody seems to know who he is (New Yorkers are apparently too busy watching “Inside the Actors Studio”). A trio of clueless pigeons sends Bolt to Mittens (Essman), a feline con artist who has the pigeons giving her a cut of their food in exchange for not being clawed to pieces. Bolt, thinking that Mittens is an operative of the fiendish Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!) drags Mittens along for the ride back to California after a desperate Mittens, seeing “Hollywood, California” on Bolt’s dog tag (it’s a good thing cats can read) steers the heroic canine in that direction.

The two embark on a journey across country joined by an astonishingly obese hamster named Rhino (Walton) who does know who Bolt is but like Bolt believes that the television show is real. Bolt’s powers are mysteriously not working; Bolt blames it on the Styrofoam which he has reasoned has some sort of dampening power, obviously a product of the dangerous Dr. Calico (BWAHAHAHA!). The dashing dog must learn to be a hero as an ordinary dog.

This is the first Disney feature to be filmed in 3D and they use the technology wisely, making the 3D a more naturalistic part of the film rather than as a gimmick. Occasionally things come at you in flinch-inducing 3D glory but for the most part it simply adds some depth to the screen.

The voice actors are mostly unknown; only Cyrus and Travolta have any notoriety. Strangely, Travolta is a bit flat as Bolt. Bolt is determined to find Penny, but Travolta reads his lines almost in a monotone. Much better are Essman, who gives the abandoned and wounded Mittens street smarts and a curious dignity. Some of the most emotionally effective scenes are hers; even the climax doesn’t resonate as well as Essman’s work.

Now that Disney and Pixar have joined forces we might see the features from both animation studios start to look a bit alike, and there is definitely a Pixar stamp on this. It isn’t up to the quality of Pixar’s best work, not by a long shot. Still, it’s pleasant enough entertainment, sure to keep the kids happy and satisfied and while the adults might find themselves shifting in their chairs once in awhile, there’s enough here to make it worth their while as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The story never drags and carries a clear emotional center. Susie Essman is super as Mittens. The relationship between Penny and Bolt is heartwarming, charming and authentic. The Bond-like TV show sequences almost make you wish that such a show actually existed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Assuming your kids will let you pass on this, it doesn’t really stand out in a crowded field of animated features. Its pleasant entertainment, mainly aimed at kids but with little appeal to more sophisticated tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: Absolutely perfect for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The number on Bolt’s dog tag is actually the street address of Disney’s Burbank animation studios.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A 4-minute animated short starring the lovable hamster that must save the kidnapped Bolt and Penny in “Super Rhino.”

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Served the King of England