Category Archives: Show Biz

SJFF 2017: The Last Laugh ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one. How many Jews can you fit in a VW? No, seriously…you should stop me, even if you haven’t heard it. Because if you do know the punch line, and you think it’s funny, shame on you. Of course, if you’ve never heard it, and now you’re dying to know the punchline, then, shame on me for propagating this horribly tasteless joke, even in this strictly academic context. Because now you’re going to Google it anyway, and if you do, and think it’s funny, then, shame on both of us.

I’ve had people tell me that sophomoric joke over the years, having no idea that I’m Jewish. And every time, I am so tempted to completely destroy them with one simple sentence: “You know, I have relatives on my mother’s side of the family who died at Auschwitz.”  But I don’t. I take the high road; I give a perfunctory chuckle, glance at my watch and mumble something about being late for this thing I have to get to right away.

I think that’s the gist of this documentary, which is built around this rhetorical question: Can the Holocaust be funny? Now, I am by no means a prude, or a P.C. scold. As a former stand-up comic, I firmly believe that when it comes to comedy, no subject is taboo, including the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean that I find anything intrinsically funny about the Holocaust…because I don’t. I think it’s possible to cogently stick to my comedy credo as well my opinion that only a sociopath would find the Holocaust “ha-ha” funny.

But, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”, right? Anyone? Bueller?

Even Mel Brooks, who is one of the professional funny people on hand to opine on the topic, won’t “go there”. Remember, this is the guy who gave us “Springtime for Hitler”. However, as he astutely reminds us, he may have made fun of Hitler, the Nazis, and the very idea of the Third Reich in his classic film The Producers…but he wasn’t “making fun” of the Holocaust, or milking laughs from it in and of itself in any way shape or form.

And that’s the general consensus from nearly all the comedy luminaries who appear in the film, like Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Carl Reiner, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jeffrey Ross and Harry Shearer; that nothing is off limits in comedy, but everyone still reserves the right to draw their own line, and not ever cross it.

But what about those who actually lived through the Holocaust? That’s where the film gets particularly fascinating; when director Ferne Pearlstein invites survivors to weigh in. It is through their stories that the film ultimately finds not only its heart and soul, but critical historical context concerning a people who have developed a deep-seated cultural fatalism and sense of gallows humor purely as a survival mechanism to get through all the shit that’s been dumped on them for 5,000 years. Hey, quit laughing-that’s not funny.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

The man behind the ears: For the Love of Spock ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2016)

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Even the unflappable Mr. Spock himself (had he actually existed) might have arched an eyebrow at the prodigious outpouring of sentiment surrounding the passing of “his” alter-ego Leonard Nimoy last year. That, coupled with recent TV marathons and associated hoopla marking the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, makes Adam Nimoy’s heartfelt documentary about his father all the more timely (and touching). While careful to compartmentalize Leonard Nimoy the human being from his Star Trek character’s indelible legacy, For the Love of Spock still manages to maintain a fairly even tone between personal reflection and fan-pleasing celebration.

Like a lot of show-biz kids, Adam had to come to terms with having to “share” his famous parent with legions of adoring fans. In fact, between the ages of 10-13, Adam saw very little of his father, due to his involvement with the original run of Star Trek (1966-1969). While he doesn’t go into specifics, Adam refers to periods of their lives where he and his father had “issues” communicating with each other.

Undoubtedly, not having one of his parents around while he was weathering the raging hormonal changes of puberty may have been a contributing factor. Nimoy doesn’t sugarcoat the bad times, either; particularly in reference to his father’s career slide in the early 1970s (in the wake of the unceremonious cancellation of the series by the network), which led to some problems with alcohol.

Thankfully,  Nimoy avoids descending into the kind of navel-gazing that has sunk a few similar documentaries that deal with growing up in the shadow of a famous parent. He remains mindful of the film’s core audience, devoting the lion’s share to, well, the love of Spock.

There’s lots of archival footage, plus snippets Leonard Nimoy did for this film (which was still in production when he passed away). There are also observations by fans, cast members of the current Star Trek film franchise, and former colleagues like William Shatner, George Takei, Michelle Nichols and Walter Koenig (Koenig shares a little-told backstage tale about the voice casting for the Star Trek cartoon series that speaks volumes about Nimoy’s generosity of spirit).

If I have any quibbles, it would be with the syrupy music score, which is over-intrusive at times. The film might feel a tad overlong for some (especially if you’re not a Trekker). But its heart is in the right place; and for those of a certain age, it’s a pleasingly nostalgic wallow.

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.

Stage fright: Number One Fan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 24, 2015)

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Is it any wonder I reject you first?                                                                                  Fame, fame, fame, fame                                                                                                        Is it any wonder you are too cool to fool                                                                Fame (fame) 

-from “Fame”, by David Bowie

Back in the early 90s, I shared a train ride with David Bowie. It was the least likely celebrity sighting I’ve ever experienced. I was visiting my parents in upstate New York. During my extended stay, I took a side trip to NYC via Amtrak. On the return trip to Albany, I boarded the train at Grand Central. As I was settling in, I shot a textbook double take at the gentleman sitting across the aisle from me (I nearly gave myself whiplash). Could it be? No, that’s too weird. All by himself…no handlers, no entourage?

Why would David Bowie be taking a train to Albany? It had to be a look-alike. However, since it took several hours, I had ample time to (discreetly) confirm…yep, that’s him (the different colored eyes sealed the I.D.). Internally, I was freaking out (I’m a huge Bowie fan), but I always hold back and respect people’s privacy in such situations, because I dread coming off like the embarrassingly star-struck interview host Chris Farley used to play on SNL (“Do you remember when you were with the Beatles? That was awesome!”).

With the clarity of hindsight, why wouldn’t David Bowie take a train from NYC to Albany? There’s no law that says David Bowie can’t take a train to Albany, if he should so desire. For all I know, he was planning to shuffle off to Buffalo. And why would I assume a famous person never travels without handlers or an entourage? After all, he’s just another human being. He takes his pants off and puts them on the same way I do.

But “fame” is a funny thing; as Bowie himself once sang, it “makes a man take things over”. Among other things, it “puts you where things are hollow”, and if you’re not careful, “what you get is no tomorrow.” Apparently, in some cases, “to bind your time…it drives you to crime.” Which brings us to a twisty French thriller called Number One Fan (aka Elle l’adore), a rumination on fame, fandom, crime, punishment, and erm, wax jobs.

This is a film that is difficult to review without inadvertently divulging spoilers, so I will do my best not to. Sandrine Kimberlane stars as Muriel, a divorcee with two teenagers who works as a beautician. Muriel is attractive and outgoing, but a bubble off plum. She regales friends, family and co-workers with bizarrely concocted anecdotes (like the time she “recognized” one of her customers as Klaus Barbie’s daughter halfway through a treatment, and promptly sent her packing sans one waxed leg…under threat of revealing her identity to the other customers).

She is also a big fan of pop idol Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte). Her apartment is chockablock with Vincent’s CDs, collectibles, posters, and photos (one of them autographed “To Muriel, with love”). We see Muriel backstage after one of Vincent’s performances, hoping for a brief audience or an autograph. “Not tonight, Muriel,” his handler tells her, implying she’s a frequent lurker. You could say that she is…obsessed.

Imagine Muriel’s surprise when she answers her door late one night, and sees her idol standing there. While she’s still processing whether or not this is even really happening , he tells her he desperately needs her help. Vincent’s done a bad, bad, thing. It was an accident, but he needs a civilian to be his, you know, “cleaner”. I can say no more.

This is the directing debut for actress Jeanne Herry (who also co-wrote the screenplay, with Gaelle Mace) and it’s an impressive first feature, with excellent performances, effective atmosphere, and a unique piano score by Pascal Sangla. I detected a touch of Hitchcock  in the film’s central themes of obsession and duplicity (I believe it has been a rule since Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black that every French thriller is required to have a touch of Hitchcock). The film makers also make keen observations about the cult of celebrity. Most notably, there’s acknowledgment of the ever-odious duality of “justice” systems everywhere: the fact that there’s one for the rich, and one for the poor.

And here’s “number one fan” Chris Farley, in a classic SNL skit:

Here’s to bad taste: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 3, 2015)

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Not that anyone asked (or gives a rat’s ass), but if pressed to name the Holy Trinity of influences on my work over the years as a radio personality, stand-up comic and writer, I would cite The Firesign Theatre, Monty Python and The National Lampoon (gee…can you tell that my formative years were the late 60s thru the mid-70s?).

If there is one thing that members of the Trinity all share in common, it’s a strict adherence to the #1 rule of comedy: Nothing is Sacred. It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned flourished concurrently, in the early to mid-70s; if they were coming on the scene only now with original comic sensibilities intact, the P.C. police would have them all sitting on Death Row within a matter of hours.

Long before YouTube, we pawed through things called “humor magazines” for a laugh fix. They were made from trees, printed with ink, and purchased from comically tiny brick and mortar stores called “newsstands”. If I saw something really funny in the magazine that I had to share with my friends, I would have to literally share the magazine with my friends. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that the publishers of The National Lampoon developed the following formula to determine readership: the number of subscribers, x 12 (the number of people an average subscriber shared their copy with).

This is one of the fun facts in Douglas Tirola’s breezy documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. After a perfunctory preface about roots in the venerable Harvard Lampoon, Tirola devotes most of his film profiling the magazine’s original gang of editors and writers, which included Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, P.J. O’Rourke, Michael O’Donoghue, Chris Miller, Tony Hendra, and (future screenwriter/film director) John Hughes.

He does a nice job of tracing how the magazine’s subversive mashup of highbrow Ivy League irony and lowbrow frat boy vulgarity begat Saturday Night Live (many of that show’s first batch of writers and performers were recruited from Lampoon’s magazine, LPs and stage productions), which in turn begat Animal House; precipitating a paradigm shift in a generation’s comic id that resonates to this day. Whether that’s for better or worse depends on your sense of humor.

SIFF 2015: Best of Enemies ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2015)

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In their absorbing documentary, Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon recount ABC’s 1968 Democratic/Republican conventions coverage debates between William F. Buckley (from the Right!) and Gore Vidal (from the Left!), culminating in an apoplectic Buckley’s threat (live, on national television) to give Vidal a right, and a left (after calling Vidal a “queer”). You’ll witness not only the birth of TV punditry, but the opening salvo in the (still raging) “culture wars”. This one’s a must-see.

SIFF 2015: Tab Hunter Confidential **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2015)

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Actor. Pop star. Teen idol. Equestrian. Figure-skater. Closeted. It’s certainly been a long, interesting ride for Tab Hunter, profiled in this documentary from Jeffrey Schwartz. Using a wealth of archival footage and assembled in a visually playful manner recalling The Kid Stays in the Picture, Schwartz largely lets Hunter tell his own story (he’s quite the engaging raconteur), with co-stars, close friends and film historians cheering from the sidelines. The candid Hunter (now retired from showbiz) recalls his life, loves and career; it’s interesting to get his take on that “chalk running backwards” phenomenon of becoming a movie star before becoming an actor. The film ultimately leans  a wee bit toward hagiography (it was co-produced by Hunter’s long-time companion Allan Glaser), but Hunter (still impossibly handsome at 83) is so positive and self-effacing that it’s nearly impossible to not succumb to his charm.

Floating weeds: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2014)

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One of my favorite movies is the 1957 “show-biz noir”, The Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick’s portrait of an influential  New York newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster), who can make or break the careers of actors, musicians, and comics with the mere flick of his pen. One of my favorite lines from Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s infinitely quotable screenplay is uttered by Lancaster, as he sharpens his claws and fixes his predatory gaze down on the streets of Manhattan from his lofty penthouse perch: “I love this dirty town.” Now, I don’t know if writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu intended this as homage, but there is a scene in his new film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where a character looks down at the streets of Manhattan from a lofty rooftop perch (after accepting a “dare” to spit on a random pedestrian below) and gleefully proclaims, “I love this town!”

Inarritu’s protagonist, on the other hand, would seem to have more of a love/hate relationship with “this” particular town; to get more neighborhood specific, with the Great White Way. His name is Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), and he’s doing all he can to keep mind and soul together as he prepares for the opening of his Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. There’s a lot riding on this project; Riggan is a movie star who has gone a little stale with the public in recent years. His main claim to fame is his starring role in a superhero franchise centering on a character named “Birdman” (I know…rhymes with “Batman”, but I won’t belabor the obvious).

In the meantime, the Broadway locals are sharpening their knives and getting ready to pounce on yet another one of these hack Hollywood “movie stars” who thinks he can just come traipsing into their sacred cathedral, make a pathetic grab at street cred, then go gallivanting back to his Beverly Hills mansion. Locals like Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a powerful New York Times theater critic (with strong echoes of Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker) who tells him (in so many words) that she is going to “kill” his play… before she has even seen it.

Adding to Riggan’s stress is his strained relationship with his acerbic, fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), who he has hired on as his P.A., and his girlfriend/fellow cast member Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is less than pleased with his ambivalent reaction to her announcement that she is pregnant. An eleventh-hour replacement of one of his key players by a mercurial method hotshot (Edward Norton) exacerbates Riggan’s anxiety; especially after he deliberately derails the first preview performance by going off script and upstaging the star with manic improvisations. As Riggan cracks under the strain, he begins to receive advice and admonishments from Birdman (not unlike Anthony Hopkins and his dummy in Magic).

If you love tracking shots, you’ll have a dollygasm watching this film, as Inarritu and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki have seemingly conspired to concoct an extended 2-hour 12 inch dance mix version of Orson Welles’ audacious opening sequence in Touch of Evil. While this gimmick neither detracts nor adds anything to the story (aside from quite literally “moving things along” in the event you should encounter any lulls in the narrative), I felt it worth mentioning for anyone prone to motion sickness. The vacillating tonal shifts from Noises Off-style backstage farce to dark satire, with a light seasoning of magical realism and occasional forays into mind-blowing fantasy sequences, could be jarring to some; yet cozily familiar to fans of Terry Gilliam, or Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

While the central tropes of the film are somewhat dog-eared (Which holds more “truth”-stage or screen? If “acting” is, by definition, pretending, does a performance have to be “real” to be valid, or considered artful? And who gets to call it “art”…the critics? What the fuck do critics know, anyway? Did I just invalidate my entire review with that last rhetorical? Was that a wise move on my part? How do I now make a graceful egress out of this endless parenthetical? Why am I asking you?) Inarritu has framed them in an original fashion.

Most impressively, he has coaxed consistently top-flight performances from a sizable cast, which also includes Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan. Keaton has never been better (and the concept of such a great comeback performance by an actor playing a character who is an actor hoping for a great comeback performance is a veritable Matryoshka doll of super-meta). Oh, and you will believe a man can fly. Or not.

SIFF 2014: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2014)

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I kept telling myself “I’m not gonna cry…it’s just a documentary about a man who has made a career out of walking around in a silly bird suit. And spreading joy to the world (*sniff*) and…and making millions of (*sniff*) little children so happy (waterworks now fully engaged). Spinney is the man who has been wearing that silly bird suit (and giving life to Oscar the Grouch as well) for over 40 years now. There is so much sweetness and light emanating from the subject of Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker’s upbeat profile that he seems too good to be true. But even the film’s darkest Behind the Music interlude (a tragic incident when a murdered woman was discovered on his property) has a silver lining. The film left me feeling so positive that I can forgive its one rather distracting drawback: a cloying, overbearing music score.

Seattle Jewish Film Festival 2014: Hotel Lux **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 22, 2014)

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So Stalin and Hitler walk into a bar. Actually, it’s a hotel bar, and in reality, it’s a pair of German vaudevillians who have developed a musical comedy act based on their impersonations. Onstage, Hans (Michael Herbig) plays Stalin, and his partner Siegfried (Jurgen Vogel) portrays Hitler. Since this is Berlin in 1938, their act is becoming a bit risqué . Siegfried, a dedicated Communist, is the first to see the writing on the wall and decides to get out of Dodge, informing his partner that he’s going underground, dragging their mutual love interest Frida (Thekla Reuten) with him. Hans, who is apolitical, wants to keep his eye on the prize (he dreams of making it in Hollywood). He flees Berlin some time later via a forged Russian passport. Through a series of mix-ups, Hans ends up at the Hotel Lux (where the real Stalin and his inner circle are ensconced) mistaken for Hitler’s personal astrologer, with whom Stalin is eager to consult. At first, Hans ingratiates himself with Stalin, who likes the positive card readings. But Uncle Joe is mercurial, so Hans doesn’t know how long his charade will protect him from arbitrary execution. Much political intrigue (and hilarity) ensues. Sort of a cross between The Last Metro and The Court Jester, Leander Haussmann’s film is uneven at times, but carried by the winning performances.