Category Archives: Comedy

The art of being: R.I.P. Harry Dean Stanton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2017)

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Harry Dean Stanton died on November 15. Who? You know…the guy who was in the thing. He was 91 years old, but that’s a moot point. He fell out of his crib careworn and world-weary. That is not intended to be a flip observation. He was timeless, and will remain so. Most people couldn’t pick him out of a lineup; but as soon as you put him in front of a camera, you could not miss the story in his eyes. It was the story of humanity.

He was born in Kentucky in 1926; his mother was a cook and his father a barber and tobacco farmer. He served in WW 2 as a Navy cook (he was on a tank landing ship in the Battle of Okinawa), and after the war cut his teeth as an actor working with the Pasadena Playhouse.

He made his screen debut in 1957 in a forgettable western, which nonetheless led to a fairly steady stream of small movie parts and television work. Still, he obviously stood out to casting directors, who started to get him progressively meatier parts from the mid-60s onward. He never stopped working; you may have seen him in David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks revamp on Showtime, and was quite memorable in HBO’s Big Love.

It didn’t matter whether he played a convict on a chain gang, a 1940s L.A. homicide detective, street corner preacher, repo man, crew member on a space merchant vessel, ranch hand, mysterious drifter, or Molly Ringwald’s dad in a teen comedy…from the moment his character popped on screen, there was something all at once familiar about him.

Of course he was a trained actor; but I’ll be damned if I ever saw him “act”. He simply “was”…and it worked. I don’t think he sweated the small stuff, and that was his secret. Like all the great actors, he just let it happen. That is not to say that he didn’t focus on the work. From accounts I have read, he could be “difficult” with directors; but not to appease his own ego, rather always in service of the character he was playing. He wanted to get it “right”. From my observation, he never failed to. Here are my top 10 film picks:

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Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist. Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor performance.

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Rancho Deluxe– This criminally underappreciated 1975 Frank Perry comedy-drama sports a marvelously droll original screenplay by novelist Thomas McGuane. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston star as a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers in Montana. Great ensemble work from the entire cast, which includes Elizabeth Ashley (her best role), Slim Pickens, Clifton James, and Harry Dean Stanton as a bumbling cow hand. Stanton’s part is relatively minor, but it showcases the fact that he had a talent for understated comedy.

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Farewell, My Lovely– This 1975 entry, one of a relative handful of films directed by renowned 1960s photographer/TV ad creator Dick Richards, is an atmospheric remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both films were adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). Robert Mitchum is at his world-weary best as detective Philip Marlowe, who is hired by a paroled convict (Jack O’Halloran) to track down his girlfriend, who has made herself scarce since he went to the joint. Per usual, Marlowe finds himself in a tangled web of corruption and deceit. Also featuring Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, and Sylvia Miles. Stanton is memorable as a perpetually pissed off homicide detective.

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Straight Time– Ulu Grosbard (The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions) delivers one of the finest character studies of the late 70s with this gritty 1978 portrait of a paroled burglar (Dustin Hoffman) trying to keep his nose clean. Unfortunately, his goading parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) is bent on tripping him up. One thing leads to another, and it’s back to a life of crime. Excellent performances abound, from the likes of Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, and Stanton (as one of Hoffman’s partners-in-crime).

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Wise Blood– One of director John Huston’s finer latter-career films, this 1979 comedy-drama was adapted by Benedict Fitzgerald from a Flannery O’Connor novel. Brad Dourif stars as a young dirt-poor Southerner who is desperate to make his mark on the world. He decides that the quickest shortcut to grab the public’s attention is to become a crusading, fire-and-brimstone preacher. Stanton is simply wonderful here as a veteran street corner proselytizer (and con man) who mentors the young man in the ways of spiritual hustling.

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Alien– Ridley Scott’s first (and best) entry in what has become a never-ending (albeit lucrative) franchise is the least bombastic and most character-driven of the series. This 1979 sci-fi thriller concerns the workaday crew of a space merchant vessel who are forced to deal with the, erm, complications that ensue after the discovery of an otherworldly stowaway on board. It’s a taut, nail-biting affair from start to finish, with outstanding production design. A great cast helps: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and of course, Harry Dean Stanton!

Escape from New York– John Carpenter directed this 1981 action-thriller set in the dystopian near-future of 1997 (ah, those were the days). N.Y.C. has been converted into a penal colony. Air Force One has been downed by terrorists, but not before the POTUS (Donald Pleasence) bails in his escape pod, which lands in Manhattan, where he is kidnapped by “inmates”. The police commissioner (ever squinty-eyed Lee van Cleef) enlists the help of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a fellow war vet who is now one of America’s most notorious criminals.

Imaginative, darkly funny and entertaining, despite an obviously limited budget. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle even slip in a little subtext of Nixonian paranoia. Also with Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes (the Duke of N.Y.!), and Stanton, who steals all his scenes as “Brain”. Carpenter also composed the theme.

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Repo Man– This 1984 punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by sage veteran Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto begins to realize that he’s found his true calling.

A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist on the run, driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix, and makes good use of L.A. locations. The fabulous soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.

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Paris, Texas– What is it with European filmmakers and their obsession with the American West? Perhaps it’s all that wide open space, interpreted by the creative eye as a blank, limitless canvas. At any rate, director Wim Wenders and DP Robby Muller paint themselves a lovely desert Southwest landscape for this enigmatic, languidly paced 1984 melodrama (written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson). With Shepard on board, you know that the protagonist is going to be a troubled, troubled man-and nothing says “rode hard and put up wet” like the careworn tributaries of Harry Dean Stanton’s weather-beaten face.

In what is arguably his career-best performance, he plays a man who has been missing for 4 years after abandoning his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. One day he reappears, with a tight-lipped countenance and a 1000-yard stare that tells you this guy is on a return trip from out where Jesus lost his shoes. Now it’s up to his brother (Dean Stockwell) to help him assemble the jigsaw. Stanton delivers an astonishing monologue in the film’s denouement that reminds us what a good actor does.

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Pretty in Pink– This may be damning with faint praise, but I have always found this 1986 film to be the most enjoyable and eminently watchable of the otherwise interchangeable slew of John Hughes teen dramedies that inundated theaters in the 1980s. Actually, Hughes did not direct this one (he handed that chore over to Howard Deutch)…but it remains very much a “John Hughes film”.

Molly Ringwald stars as a young woman from the poor side of the tracks who gets wooed by a “preppie” from a well-to-do family (Andrew McCarthy). Their respective peers are very disapproving. Much romantic angst ensues; but lots of laughs as well. At its heart, it’s a sweet story, helped  by excellent performances. Stanton (out of place as he may seem) lends realism to the proceedings as Ringwald’s father; the scenes they share exude genuine warmth.

 

…And here he is, doing what a good actor does. One for the ages.

The day the clowns cried: R.I.P. Jerry Lewis

By Dennis Hartley

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“Jerry Lewis is never just OK or adequate; he’s either very funny or he’s awful.”  – Jerry Lewis, commenting on his film oeuvre.

Yes, I used “Jerry Lewis” and “oeuvre” in the same sentence. “Ouevre” is a fancy French word that means “Hey, LAAY-DEE!”

I’m kidding. Mirriam-Webster defines  it as “…a substantial body of work constituting the life work of a writer, an artist, or a composer.”

Jerry Lewis, who died this morning in Las Vegas, certainly left behind a substantial body of work.  From 1949 to 2016, he acted in over 50 films; out of those he directed 23, and wrote 20 of them. And, as Lewis himself observed, some were very funny, others not so much.

Some of Lewis’ early, funnier movies include 1952’s The Stooge, 1955’s Artists and Models, 1959’s Don’t Give Up the Ship (those three co-starring his decade-long stage and screen comedy partner Dean Martin),  The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963),  and The Disorderly Orderly (1964).

Martin Scorsese gave Lewis a second wind when he offered him a juicy part in his brilliant 1982 show biz satire The King of Comedy (highly recommended). It not only introduced Lewis to a new generation of fans, but allowed him to demonstrate that he had chops as a dramatic actor (when he wasn’t pulling faces, that is). Two more post-Scorsese Lewis performances worth a rental are Emir Kusturica’s 1993 off-the-wall sleeper Arizona Dream, and Peter Chelsom’s 1995 dramedy Funny Bones.

While he had continued writing, directing and starring in films through the early 70s, Lewis floundered at the box office as his particular brand of shtick went out of vogue in Hollywood. “Hollywood” is the key word here; as everyone and their grandmother knows, it was the undying admiration by the French that ultimately kept Lewis’ rep as a film maker afloat during his wilderness years (they gave him the Legion of Honor award in 1983).

Despite all the joking and ridicule spawned by France’s love affair with Jerry Lewis, they were on to something. He was, by definition, an auteur,  having written, directed and starred in so many films. A lot of people are not aware that he was also an innovator. He essentially invented the “video tap”, a signal-splitting device that attaches to a movie camera and allows the director to share the  camera operator’s view in real time, via a separate video monitor.

I am aware that Lewis’ self-appraisal as being either “very funny or awful” as an artist could apply on occasion to his off-stage life. He didn’t always think before he spoke. That noted, stepping back to look at the big picture, this was a human being who devoted well over 70 years of his long and productive life to making people laugh.

And that’s a good thing. Going up?

Blu-ray reissue: The Loved One ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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The Loved One – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

In 1965, this black comedy/social satire was billed as “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” By today’s standards, it’s relatively tame (but still pretty sick). Robert Morse plays a befuddled Englishman struggling to process the madness of southern California, where he has come for an extended visit at the invitation of his uncle (Sir John Gielgud) who works for a Hollywood studio.

Along the way, he falls in love with a beautiful but mentally unstable mortuary cosmetician (Anjanette Comer), gets a job at a pet cemetery, and basically reacts to all the various whack-jobs he encounters. The wildly eclectic cast includes Jonathan Winters (in three roles), Robert Morley, Roddy McDowell, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Libarace, Paul Williams and Rod Steiger (as Mr. Joyboy!). Tony Richardson directed; the screenplay was adapted by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood from Evelyn Waugh’s novel. No extras on this edition, but the high-definition transfer is good.

Blu-ray reissue: The Last Detail ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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The Last Detail – Powerhouse Films Blu-ray

Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama set the bar pretty high for all “buddy films” to follow (and to this day, few can touch it). Jack Nicholson heads a superb cast, as “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, a career Navy man who is assigned (along with a fellow Shore Patrol officer, played by Otis Young) to escort a first-time offender (Randy Quaid) to the brig in Portsmouth. Chagrined to learn that the hapless young swabbie has been handed an overly-harsh sentence for a relatively petty crime, Buddusky decides that they should at least show “the kid” a good time on his way to the clink (much to his fellow SP’s consternation). Episodic “road movie” misadventures ensue.

Don’t expect a Hollywood-style “wacky” comedy; as he did in all of his films, Ashby keeps it real. The suitably briny dialog was adapted by Robert Towne from Daryl Ponicsan’s novel; and affords Nicholson some of his most iconic line readings (“I AM the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”). Nicholson and Towne were teamed up again the following year via Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. This edition sports a fabulous 4K restoration (the audio is cleaned up too, crucial for a dialog-driven piece like this). Loads of extras-including a sanitized TV cut of the film, just for giggles.

Blu-ray reissue: Being There ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Being There – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

For my money, the late director Hal Ashby was the quintessential embodiment of the new American cinema movement of the 1970s. Beginning in 1970, he bracketed the decade with an astonishing seven film streak: The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and this 1979 masterpiece.

Adapted from Jerzy Kosinki’s novel by frequent Ashby collaborator Robert C. Jones (who was not credited…a hitherto unknown tidbit revealed in an extra feature), it’s a wry political fable about how a simpleton (Peter Sellers, in one of his greatest performances) literally stumbles his way into becoming a Washington D.C. power player within an alarmingly short period of time. Only in America!

Richly drawn, finely layered, at once funny and sad (but never in a broad manner). Superbly acted by all, from the leads (Sellers, Melvyn Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart) down to the smallest supporting roles (a special mention for the wonderful Ruth Attaway).

Like Sidney Lumet’s Network, this film only seems to become more vital with age. The Trump parallels are numerous enough; but one scene where Sellers meets with the Russian ambassador (a great cameo by Richard Basehart) has now taken on a whole new (and downright spooky) relevancy. Criterion’s Blu-ray features a beautiful 4K restoration and a plethora of enlightening extra features.

Funny how: Can We Take a Joke? *** & Eat That Question ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” – George Carlin

In my recent review of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, I noted an observation by actress Joann Lumley (one of the film’s co-stars), excerpted from a Stylist interview:

[… ] And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in [the 1990s] were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything.

To which I added my 2 cents worth:

I’m going to risk crucifixion here (won’t be the first time) and heartily concur with [Joann Lumley’s] point regarding the intersection of P.C. and Funny these days. Now, I’m a card-carryin’, tree-huggin’, NPR-listenin’ pinko lib’rul, and I fully understand the subjective nature of humor. But speaking as a lifelong comedy fan (and ex-standup performer myself), I remain a firm believer in the credo that in comedy, nothing is sacred. I don’t always agree with Bill Maher, but I’m with him 100% on his crusade to counter a new Bizarro World Hays Code from segments of the Left that has even forced mainstream fixtures like Jerry Seinfeld to swear off playing college gigs.

Life is hard out on the streets for professional funny people. But don’t feel singled out, fellow liberals…for The Uptight Brigade is a non-partisan club, with members hailing from Left, Right, and Center. All you need to join is a sense of moral superiority and an active Twitter account. Consider the hot water that self-deprecating comic Jim Gaffigan got into in 2013 with a fairly benign “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” tweet:

(from Gawker)

So yesterday, stand-up-comedian-slash-fat dad Jim Gaffigan decided to make what he thought was a mostly harmless joke about women and their nails.

“Ladies I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices you got them done,” Gaffigan tweeted to his 1.6 million followers.

Ha! Women be getting their nails done, am I right fellas?

Anyway, commence TOTAL MELTDOWN:

“If you think I make my nails pretty for anyone other than myself, you are a fool,” replied @gesa “or maybe some women do things not to impress other people,” offered @oceana roll. “you’re such an asshole,” @phaserstostun. And the tweets kept coming. Dozens every minute.

“If you think people are overreacting to my edgy ‘nails done’ post here,” Gaffigan followed up a short while ago, “you have to see the anger on my Tumblr.”

And sure enough, since the joke was posted there yesterday, it has racked up over 100,000 notes, most of them far less subtle than those being made on Twitter. […]

For his part, Gaffigan did issue a worrying apology, telling those who were offended by his “edgy ‘nails done’ joke’ that he’s sorry and he’ll “attempt to be more sensitive in the future.”

Do people get irony anymore? Obviously (well, to me) he was making a point about how self-centered and clueless men are. Gaffigan got the last laugh, using the incident as fuel for one of this current season of The Jim Gaffigan Show’s best episodes. In “The Trial”, Gaffigan (who plays ‘himself’, a la Seinfeld, Louis, and Maron) is in a Kafkaesque alternate reality where he gets tossed into Social Outrage Jail (his cellmate Carrot Top has been doing time “since the mid-90s”) and tried in The Court of Public Opinion (presiding judge: comic Judy Gold) as a result of his offensive nail tweet. Jim is saved by the bell when shocking news arrives that Ricky Gervais just tweeted ‘Miley Cyrus has a dad bod’. Pitchforks are issued immediately, a mob forms and the courtroom empties out.

(*sigh*)

August 3rd marked the 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death; in my tribute, I wrote:

For years following his passing, he was arguably more famous for the suffering he endured for his art, rather than the visionary nature of it.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2003, after years of lobbying by members of the entertainment industry and free speech advocates, that New York governor George Pataki issued Bruce an official posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction. It is worth noting that no comedians have been jailed in America for telling jokes to roomfuls of drunks since Bruce died. […]

Of course by now everybody has jumped on the bandwagon and acknowledges the man’s genius and the groundbreaking nature of his material. But I can’t help but wonder how Lenny would have fared in the age of social media, or in front of a modern college audience (oy).

I’m not alone in that speculation, as evidenced by a new documentary called Can We Take a Joke? (available on VOD), throughout which Lenny Bruce frequently serves as a touchstone. Writer-director Ted Balaker’s film examines the impact of “outrage culture” on modern comedy. Balaker assembles a sizable coterie of comics who thrive on pushing the envelope, like Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, and Penn Jillette. He also invites opinions from social observers and free speech advocates.

The film’s underlying thesis (in so many words) boils down to that good old school yard chestnut: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.” As one interviewee puts it, “Along with the right to speak freely, comes a responsibility to have a thick skin. Words can be hurtful, but they are not the same as violence; and they can be countered with other words. And that’s our responsibility…the responsibility to put up with being offended.”

Balaker offers anecdotal evidence that seems to indicate not only that America’s skin is stretching ever thinner, but suggests something more threatening is occurring as a result. One of the interviewees offers this tidbit: “There was this huge study that’s done every year; and they ask citizens whether or not they think the First Amendment went too far. 47% of people between the ages of 18 and 30 said that the First Amendment goes too far. This is terrifying to those of us who care about free speech and the future of free speech.”

Is he just concern trolling? Consider this further observation: “One of the first things you know when a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

One of the more notable examples cited regarding this creeping trend of “chilling speech” occurred at the WSU campus in Pullman, Washington (where, oddly enough, I once did a comedy gig). African-American student Chris Lee created a satirical play (“Passion of the Musical”), which he admitted was designed “to offend everybody.” It caused such a ruckus that he earned the nickname “Black Hitler”. But that’s not the disturbing part, which is that WSU administrators comped students who wanted to attend for the sole purpose to disrupt it.

Again, is this a tempest in a teapot? How bad can it get? Two words: Charlie Hebdo. The Hebdo massacre is mentioned in the film, but only in passing; this is one avenue that the film glosses over. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity, especially in light of what’s happening in our current political climate, which begs some glaring questions. Namely, is there in fact, despite what the great George Carlin said, a “line” no one should dare cross?

Amy Goodman featured a rare interview with political satirist Garry Trudeau just this week on her Democracy Now radio program. She brought up a controversial piece he wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, called “The Abuse of Satire”. It’s a great read, and presents a flipside view to the thrust of Can We Take a Joke? Here’s a pertinent excerpt:

I, and most of my colleagues, have spent a lot of time discussing red lines since [the Charlie Hebdo massacre]. As you know, the Muhammad cartoon controversy began eight years ago in Denmark, as a protest against “self-censorship,” one editor’s call to arms against what she felt was a suffocating political correctness. […]

And now we are adrift in an even wider sea of pain. Ironically, Charlie Hebdo, which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. This is a bitter harvest. […]

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. […]

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

I’m aware that I make these observations from a special position, one of safety. In America, no one goes into cartooning for the adrenaline. As Jon Stewart said in the aftermath of the killings, comedy in a free society shouldn’t take courage.

There’s another twisty corollary that the film misses, concerning certain political candidates who cynically conflate themselves as if they were colleagues of professional humorists (as opposed to possible future leaders of the Free World, who should be choosing their words much more carefully). How many times now has Donald Trump gotten away with tweeting something incredibly offensive by backpedaling afterwards that “it was meant as a joke, folks”… thereby (disingenuously) positioning himself as a  ‘victim’ of the P.C. police?

Clearly, there are equally viable arguments for both camps of First Amendment interpretation (i.e., the constitutional “right” for offenders to offend and for the offended to condemn). But as Garry Trudeau cautioned in his piece in The Atlantic , “Freedom should always be discussed in the context of responsibility.” Can We Take a Joke?won’t break the impasse,  but it does succeed in prompting a dialog.

As Jim Norton notes in the film: “Everyone says ‘I love free speech, I love free thought, I love free expression’…but deep down they’re going: ‘Except for when, except for when.’ There’s always that little asterisk: ‘But that doesn’t apply here.’” So you see? Cracking wise is more complex than it is, erm, cracked up to be…especially in this current  political climate. As Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean (allegedly) said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

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“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.”      –Frank Zappa

If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art as a free citizen, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s new documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (in limited release).

Despite his massive catalog (62 albums released in his lifetime, 43 posthumously), Zappa, like Bruce, is probably remembered more for his fights against censorship, rather than for the actual material in question (which includes some pretty hummable stuff, I must say). Most famously, he took on Tipper Gore and the Parents Resource Music Center in 1985, joining fellow musicians Dee Snider (from Twisted Sister) and John Denver (!) to testify at a Senate hearing over the “Parental Advisory” sticker controversy.

One of the highlights of the film is a clip from a 1986 appearance Zappa made on CNN’s Crossfire. In an observation that now seems quite prescient, Zappa opines, “The biggest threat to America today is not Communism, its moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened under the Reagan administration is steering us down that pipe.” Of course now, I almost long for those “good old days”, when the Republican Party was but a tool for the Religious Right-in lieu of, uh, whatever it is now.

That said, I should point out that Zappa was not an artist who went out of his way seeking dragons to slay; it’s just that somehow, the dragons had a tendency to seek him out. While he definitely leaned Libertarian when it came to freedom of expression, he was otherwise politically…fluid. Through the course of the film (culled from archival interview/performance footage and contextualized via Schutte’s editing choices), Zappa dumps on the Left, the Right, Hippies, politicians, religion, pop music, record companies, consumer culture (his pet rant), corporate America, and even on his own most rabid fans.

As far as those rabid fans were concerned, the more curmudgeonly and autocratic Zappa’s stance became (regardless of whether or not it was just  show biz shtick), the more they loved him (in that narrow context, there’s a weird parallel with Donald Trump…the obvious difference being that Trump has never really created anything that is of  value to anyone but himself). Zappa was kind of an asshole, but in that Mozart kind of way, as he was an extremely gifted and prolific asshole (was Tipper his secret Salieri? Discuss). Like Picasso, he kept experimenting and creating until he expired (after a long battle, Zappa succumbed to cancer at 52 in 1993).

Let me be up front…this documentary will play best for members of the choir (guilty!). If you’ve never been much of a Zappa fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. This impressionistic approach can still paint a compelling portrait; if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb (consider 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which remains my favorite biopic, despite the fact that I had never even heard of him when I first saw it, and I still don’t own any of his albums).

There is genuine poignancy as well. In a Today Show interview, an obviously gravely ill Zappa is asked how he wants to be remembered. “It’s not important to even be remembered.” After an awkward silence that implies his interviewer did not see that one coming, he continues, “The people who worry about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush…these people want to be remembered, and they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is just terrific.” “And for Frank Zappa?” she presses. Without missing a beat, he replies “Don’t care.” Back to you, Katie.

I suspect you really did care, Frank. But I know if I ask, I’ll end up eating that question.

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In case you’ve forgotten what a lyrical player he was (when he chose to be)

Setting a bad example – Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2016)

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“The world has changed and strangely enough caught up with the Ab Fab women because in those days, it was shocking – women drinking too much, staying out, not caring, doing stuff like that. Social media didn’t exist. [ ] And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in those days were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything. “

– Joanna Lumley (from a Stylist interview)

While you may assume Ms. Lumley (above right), one of the stars of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is referring to the 1950s when she says “those days”, she is actually referring to the 1990s…which is when she originally assumed the character of “Patsy Stone” in the popular Britcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-1996, later revived 2001-2004). The BBC series was the brainchild of brilliantly funny writer/actress Jennifer Saunders, casting herself as the other half of this fabulous duo, Edina Monsoon.

Edina is a PR agent, whose biggest client is Lulu (yes, that Lulu, who played herself to amusing effect in the TV series and reappears in the new film). Patsy is a magazine editor, and Edina’s BFF. While they both have “jobs” (in a manner of speaking), we rarely see them “working”, in the traditional sense. They expend most of their time cringingly attempting to ingratiate themselves with London’s hippest taste-makers, fashionistas, pop stars, and hottest actors/actresses du jour. For the most part, they’re snubbed (or ignored altogether). Yet they persevere, when not otherwise busy imbibing champagne and/or any drug they are within snorting distance of. Patsy, in particular, is always on the pull; usually for younger men (there’s a switch). Bad behavior all around.

Back to Lumley’s observations for a moment. I’m going to risk crucifixion here (won’t be the first time) and heartily concur with her point regarding the intersection of P.C. and Funny these days. Now, I’m a card-carryin’, tree-huggin’, NPR-listenin’ pinko lib’rul, and I fully understand the subjective nature of humor. But speaking as a lifelong comedy fan (and ex-standup performer myself), I remain a firm believer in the credo that in comedy, nothing is sacred. I don’t always agree with Bill Maher, but I’m with him 100% on his crusade to call out a new Bizarro World Hays Code from a portion of the Left that has even forced mainstream fixtures like Jerry Seinfeld to swear off playing college gigs.

In light of today’s techy climate for comedy, another principal character in Absolutely Fabulous, Edina’s daughter Saffron (played by Julia Sawalha, also reprising her original role in the film) almost seems a prescient creation on Saunders’ part. Saffron, who progressed from secondary school to university through the course of the original series, was really the only “adult” character in the household. Dour, disapproving, and very P.C. (long before the term became so de rigueur) she did her best to keep her mother in line (rarely succeeding, to her chagrin). So here you have the child lecturing the parent to get home at a decent hour, lay off the drugs, be more financially responsible, etc. Patsy, as Edina’s longtime chief enabler, views Saffron as a party-pooper (ergo her mortal enemy).

The show was not for all tastes; personally, I loved it. “Bad taste”, in the right hands, can make for some grand entertainment (John Waters’ oeuvre comes to mind). It was pretty outrageous, and very British; which is probably why we never saw an American remake (would never work anyway). In a roundabout way, it was also feminist-positive; in this respect the world has in fact “caught up with the Ab Fab women”, as evidenced by the success of HBO’s Girls, plus a recent slew of Comedy Central originals like Inside Amy Schumer, Another Period, and Broad City (the latter program comes closest to Ab Fab in attitude).

And so it is that the big screen adaptation (written by Saunders and directed by Mandie Fletcher), despite being at least 20 years tardy to cash in on its TV legs, surprisingly manages to retain its original ethos without really seeming that anachronistic. That is not to say that you should expect it to be much deeper than a sitcom episode. Which it isn’t.

The plot, of course, is completely ridiculous; Edina and Patsy get a hot tip that supermodel Kate Moss has dumped her PR person, so they weasel their way into a chic soiree (which they naturally would never be invited to attend), and somehow the overly-enthusiastic Edina knocks Kate over a railing into the murky depths of the Thames. Assuming (along with fellow attendees) that she has just sent one of the world’s most famous models to a watery grave, Edina and Patsy panic and flee to the South of France.

Does hilarity ensue? I wouldn’t rank it with Some Like it Hot (which is cleverly referenced in the final scene), but it is colorful, campy, over-the-top, and yes, politically incorrect…and quite amusing. Perhaps it does have something to say about social media feeding frenzies and mob mentality. You may forget what you watched by the time you get back to your car, but it sure is fun while it lasts. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Plus ca change: Criterion reissues Dr. Strangelove ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2016)

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Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…The *Bomb*, Dmitri… The *hydrogen* bomb!…Well now, what happened is… ahm…one of our base commanders, he had a sort of…well, he went a little funny in the head… you know…just a little…funny. And, ah…he went and did a silly thing…Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes…to attack your country…

 –from Dr. Strangelove (1964)

That’s POTUS Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), making “the call” to the Russian premier from the War Room, regarding an unfortunate chain of events that may very well signal the end of civilization as we know it. It’s a nightmare scenario, precipitated by a perfect storm of political paranoia, bureaucratic bungling and ideological demagoguery that enables the actions of a lone nutcase to trigger global thermonuclear war. Sound familiar?

Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic 1964 masterpiece about the tendency for people in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why Kubrick and company bothered to make it all up. In case you skipped the quote at the top of this piece, it’s the movie about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues.

You rarely see a cast like this: Peter Sellers (playing three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up as Strangelove’s prosthetic arm seems to take on a mind of its own). There are so many great lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Vodka. That’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water? On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason. Water is the source of all life. Seven-tenths of this earth’s surface is water. Why, do you realize that 70 percent of you is water? And as human beings, you need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids. Are you beginning to understand? –Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), from Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (its full title) did not necessarily spring from a, you know, “funny” place. Indeed, Red Alert, ex-RAF officer Peter George’s 1958 source novel, was anything but; and did not even include the character of Dr. Strangelove, the ex-Nazi scientist who emerges from the shadows of the war room just in time to contextualize all that inspired madness of the film’s third act. “He” was the invention of Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern. In a 1994 Grand Street article called “Notes from the War Room”, Southern recounts Kubrick’s epiphany:

[Kubrick] told me he was going to make a film about “our failure to understand the dangers on nuclear war.” He said that he had thought of the story as a “straightforward melodrama” until this morning when he “woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner.” He said he could only see it now as “some kind of hideous joke.”

Kubrick had approached Southern as a collaborator on the basis of having read his social satire The Magic Christian (which was itself adapted for the screen in 1969). You have to keep in mind that while Kubrick’s film was in production, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of a nervous public. This was the height of the Cold War; few people found nuclear annihilation to be, you, know, “funny”…least of all studio suits. When Sellers backed out of the role of Major Kong (to Kubrick’s chagrin), it was first offered to Bonanza star Dan Blocker. Southern recalls (from the same article):

[Kubrick] made arrangements for a script to be delivered to Blocker that afternoon, but a cabled response from Blocker’s agent arrived in quick order: “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know, for that matter. Regards, Leibman, CMA.”

 As I recall, this was the first hint that this sort of political interpretation of our work in progress might exist. Stanley seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed.

But it worked out in the end. Could you imagine anyone but Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong?

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Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. –Major Kong prepping his B-52 crew

It was in the interest of possible “political interpretation” that a critical revision had to be made to that memorable monolog in post-production. In an eerie bit of kismet, Kubrick had scheduled the first test screening of Dr. Strangelove for November 22, 1963…the day of JFK’s assassination; in view of that zeitgeist-shattering event, the film’s originally slated December premiere was postponed until late January of 1964. But that wasn’t the spookiest part. Originally, the last line of the bit was: “Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff.” Pickens had to be recruited to re-loop the line as we now know it. If you listen carefully during the scene, you can pick up on the edit.

However it did manage to fall together is really moot; the final product stands the test of time as a satire that will never lose relevancy (one could say that about any Kubrick film, as each ultimately points to the absurdity of all these self-important hominids, scurrying about blissfully oblivious to their insignificance within a vast, randomly cruel cosmos).

Hell, Mr. President…I could do a 2,000 word dissertation on the Freudian subtext alone; from the opening montage of aircraft engaging in (decidedly coital) airborne re-fueling maneuvers, to General Ripper firing the .50 caliber machine gun from his crotch, not to mention his cigar and his monolog about why he denies women his “essence”, to the character’s names (Dr. Strangelove, President Muffley, Buck Turgidson, Mr. Staines), and of course all of that phallic weaponry, and montage of nuclear explosions at the end.

But I won’t.

https://cynicritics.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/strangelovebuck3.jpg?resize=474%2C322Oh…and uh, shug? Don’t forget to say your prayers!

Fans of the film will be glad to hear that Dr. Strangelove has been given the Criterion treatment, with the release of their Blu-ray edition. The restored 4k transfer is gorgeous; the best print I’ve seen of the film on home video (this is the third digital version I’ve owned…it’s a sickness, I know). They’ve really piled on the extras; there’s a plethora of archival interviews, as well as featurettes produced exclusively for this edition, like audio essays by film scholars and interviews with Kubrick collaborators and archivists. So fans can immerse themselves in the Strangelovian universe…if that doesn’t seem redundant.

Oh, when November rolls around…don’t forget to say your prayers.

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Previous posts with related themes:

Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle

Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate

There’s a Red’s house over yonder: Hail, Caesar! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 6, 2016)

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Not that Hollywood ever tires of making movies about Hollywood…but “they” really seem to be on a roll lately. Arriving on the heels of Jay Roach’s Trumbo (my review), which depicted the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the film industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant, we now have the latest effort from co-writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen…which depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (although in this case, its funnier side).

In fact, the Coens have gone into full “screwball” mode for Hail, Caesar! – leaving no gag unturned (think The Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother, Where Art Thou?). That said, it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film without its Conflicted Everyman Protagonist; for this outing it’s Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, (the ubiquitous Josh Brolin). Not unlike his (wholly fictional) contemporary counterpart “Ray Donovan” (who I wrote about recently) he’s a responsible family man on the one hand, yet earns his living in a twilight world where he is required to bend whatever rules he needs to (moral and/or legal) in order to clean up after his clients. Also like Donovan, Mannix is racked by Catholic guilt.

When Mannix isn’t in the confession box (which provides some of the film’s more drolly amusing scenes) he’s busy putting out fires; like the one that involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of Capitol Studio’s biggest stars. Whitlock has been snatched off the set of his latest picture (a sword-and-sandal epic bearing a striking resemblance to Spartacus) by an enigmatic organization called The Future…whose true identity I’m sworn to protect, in the interest of remaining spoiler-free.

In the meantime, Mannix has to stave off a pair of persistent gossip columnists (twin sisters played by Tilda Swinton, who through no fault of her own has to follow Helen Mirren’s recent bigger-than-life, Golden Globes and SAG-nominated turn as Hedda Hopper in Trumbo).

Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which the brothers can construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. 1950s musicals provide fodder for several set pieces; including an Esther Williams send up (with Scarlett Johanssen poured into a mermaid suit), and a takeoff of On the Town, featuring a nimble-footed Channing Tatum firing up a barroom full of hunky sailors and leading them in a winking, cheerfully homoerotic song and dance.

Singing westerns are parodied via Alden Ehrenreich’s character, a hick who hit the big time based not so much on his nominal acting abilities, but due to his looks and rodeo skills. The main plot cleverly mirrors 1950s Red Scare films like Big Jim McLain and I Was a Communist for the FBI (I also found the kidnappers’ hideaway suspiciously reminiscent of the antagonists’ digs in North by Northwest).

Brolin plays it straight, Clooney plays it broad, Ehrenreich is endearing, Johanssen is, uh, gorgeous, and Tatum proves quite adept at comedy (who knew?). Ralph Fiennes hams it up as a finicky “prestige” director, and you can have fun playing “spot the cameo” with the likes of Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert, and Dolph Lundgren.

This is far from the Coen’s best work, but the film has just enough of their patented “little touches” (like a Communist who has named his dog “Engels”) that make it unmistakably Coen. Oh-and a character is repeatedly told to shut up; undoubtedly this is a callback to the catchphrase “Shut the fuck up, Donnie!” from The Big Lebowski.

Which is what I will do now.

A peek at Oscar’s shorts

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  January 30, 2016)

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At the risk of having my critic’s license revoked, I will freely admit this, right here in front of God and all six of my readers: I’ve only managed to catch 3 of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture of 2015. Then again, you can feel free to ask me if I care (the Academy and I rarely see eye-to-eye). Funny thing, though…I have managed to catch all of the (traditionally more elusive) Oscar nominees for Best Short Film-Animation and Best Short Film-Live Action. And the good news is you can, too. The five nominees in each sub-category are making the rounds as limited-engagement curated presentations; each collection runs approximately the length of a feature film, with separate admissions.

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) And the nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

Bear Story (Chile) – A 3-D animation piece about a bear living a life of quiet desperation (no, seriously). Lonely and life-tired, he goes through his morning ablutions on auto-pilot, then world-wearily shuffles off to work. His job? Standing on a street corner with his custom-built mechanical diorama, offering a peek to passers-by for a nickel a pop. What his customers see is less than heartwarming. Sort of like Ingmar Bergman for kids.

Rating: ***

Prologue (UK) – Billed as “an incident in the Spartan-Athenian wars of 2,400 years ago”, this 6-minute vignette is handsomely executed, but a head-scratcher. A little girl watches in horror as four warriors engage in a gruesome death match. That’s it. I suppose it delivers on the title; it’s a prologue…but to what? More of an exercise than a narrative. Not suitable for kids; it’s last on the reel and a parental warning will be flashed on screen.

Rating: **

Sanjay’s Super Team (USA) – The inevitable (unavoidable?) Pixar nominee. I promise to be good here and put aside my general aversion to Pixar “product” (longtime readers understand…it’s probably just a chemical thing, can’t be helped). A first-generation Indian-American boy plants himself in front of the TV, whilst his dad quietly begins his Hindu prayers. Dad subtly steers his son away from the idiot box and into his devotionals. At first, the boy balks, but becomes entranced by the icon figures in his dad’s shrine, sparking a Sorcerer’s Apprentice-style fantasia. The usual Pixar overkill ensues. Still, the piece has its heart in the right place, and it delivers a positive message.

Rating: **½

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (Russia) – Two lifelong pals realize their boyhood dreams to become cosmonauts. It’s a lovely homage to the spirit and sacrifice of space explorers past and present, and to mankind’s quest for knowledge about what’s out there.

Rating: ***

World of Tomorrow (USA) – Don’t let the simple stick figures fool you…there’s a lot going on in this heady mixture of sci-fi whimsy and existential angst. A little girl is taken on a tour of her future, which is not the brightest (for Earth in general). Still, there are technical wonders to behold. But there is a catch; and unfortunately she’s not old enough to process her time-travelling guide’s buried lede (probably for the best that she stays happy for now). A clever mashup of Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and Douglas Adams.

Rating: ****

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And the nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action are:

Ave Maria (Palestine/France/Germany) – Five nuns walk into a bar mitzvah. Actually, it’s the other way around…three Israeli settlers (an elderly woman, her son and his wife) walk into an isolated West Bank convent after accidently knocking over their Virgin Mary statue (oops). Their car has stalled out on them and they need to use a phone. The nuns have taken a vow of silence, and the Jewish gentleman can’t touch the phone because it’s Friday after sunset. Yes, it’s a fabulous setup for some wacky interfaith hijinks, which do ensue. It’s a clever comedy of mores that gives you hope for humanity.

Rating: ***½

Day One (USA) – A neo-realistic, one-act microcosm of our country’s Middle Eastern quagmire, parsed through a day in the life of a newly-deployed Afghan-American military interpreter. On her first mission, she accompanies a squad closing in on a bomb-maker. As the soldiers secure their prisoner, his pregnant wife is discovered in a back room, where she begins to go into labor. Very similar in theme to Ave Maria, but more somber in tone. Even in the midst of conflict, there’s always room for a little compassion.

Rating: ***

Everything Will Be OK (Germany/Austria) – A divorced father picks up his 8 year-old daughter for their weekend visitation. Everything appears normal…initially (any further synopsis constitutes a spoiler). A well-acted character study, with a suspenseful build-up.

Rating: ***

Shok (Kosovo) – War is hell for anybody involved, but it’s particularly distressing and heartbreaking when filtered through the eyes of innocents who are caught in the crossfire. Such is this short, sharp, shock to the system (based on true events) about two Albanian boys who are best friends in Kosovo during the Yugoslav wars. It’s intense and affecting.

Rating: ****

Stutterer (UK/Ireland) – A character study of a young man whose complex over his speech impediment keeps him socially isolated. His sole ray of light is an online texting relationship that he has developed with a young woman. When she proposes to take it to the next level and arrange a face-to-face visit, he short-circuits over the dilemma. Borderline precious (with a predictable “twist”) but it only takes 12 minutes of your time!

Rating: **½