Category Archives: Show Biz

Blu-ray Reissue: Tokyo Pop (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on Dec 17, 2023)

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Tokyo Pop (Kino Lorber/Indie Collect)

This 1988 film is a likable entry in the vein of other 80s films like Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains. Star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence helps to buoy the fluffy premise. Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine is stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lynn Grossman) later directed the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer and went on to serve as executive producer for the eponymous TV series. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

This one has been on my reissue wish list for a while. Indie Collect’s 4k restoration is sparkling, and the colors are vibrant. Regarding the audio…it is nice and clean, but be ready to ride your volume control, as the music has about ten times the gain over the dialog (a noticeable trend in remastered film soundtracks that makes me crazy). There are no extras, but you can’t have everything, and I am just happy that I can finally retire my VHS copy!

SIFF 2023: Being Mary Tyler Moore (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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Robert Redford recalls in this film, “I had a place in Malibu. I was sitting there, looking out at the ocean, and this woman walks by. What it looked like to me was that she was sad. I said ‘Oh…that’s Mary Tyler Moore.’ And we’d always seen Mary Tyler Moore as this happy, upbeat, wonderful, wonderful character who was full of joy and innocence.”

Famously, what Redford saw in Moore the day of that chance encounter led to him offering her the part of the insular mother in his critically acclaimed 1980 film Ordinary People (a very un-“Mary Richards” character). This dichotomy forms the nucleus of James Adolphus’ documentary, offering an intimate glimpse at a complex woman who, while undeniably  groundbreaking and influential, had her share of tragedies, personal demons, and insecurities.

SIFF 2023: A Disturbance in the Force (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 13, 2023)

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I missed “The Star Wars Christmas Special” in 1978…but after seeing Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s documentary, perhaps that’s for the best. Leaving viewers and TV critics aghast, the unintentionally kitschy one-off has since garnered cult status (George Lucas initially OK’d the project but disowned it following the broadcast). The backstory is recounted in a cheeky and entertaining fashion. Warning: this film may trigger nightmares about Bea Arthur tending bar at the Mos Eisley Cantina.

Jump down, stand up: Ride On (***½) & Out of the Loop (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 8, 2023)

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In my 2010 review of Sheng Ding’s Little Big Soldier, I wrote:

I will confess that I have not gone out of my way to follow action star Jackie Chan’s career. According to the Internet Movie Database, he has made 99 films; after a quick perusal of that impressive list, I’d guesstimate that I have seen approximately, let’s see, somewhere in the neighborhood of, oh, around…four.

So when I say that Little Big Soldier is the best Jackie Chan flick I’ve ever seen, you can take that with a grain of salt. There is one camp of Chan’s devotees who would tell you that you can’t truly appreciate his prowess as an entertainer until you’ve seen one of his Hong Kong productions; I think I understand what they are talking about now.

Of course, you could easily apply this caveat to any number of accomplished actors from Europe or Asia who, due to their broken English, give the impression of impaired performances when they star in Hollywood films.

For example, let’s say I was a (what’s a polite term?) casual ‘murcan moviegoer who had never heard of The Last Metro, The Return of Martin Guerre or Jean de Florette, and my first awareness of Gerard Depardieu was seeing him in 102 Dalmatians. “Loved the puppies, but who was that dopey fat French dude?”

So, while Chan’s latest Hollywood vehicle, The Karate Kid inundates 3700 screens, in the meantime this splendidly acted and handsomely mounted comedy-adventure-fable from director Sheng Ding sits in the wings, awaiting U.S. distribution.

Now, 13 years later, as of this writing, I can officially count the number of Jackie Chan films I’ve seen on one hand: Police Story, Police Story 2, Drunken Master, Little Big Soldier, and his latest starring vehicle, Ride On (in theaters only).

It’s interesting kismet that Ride On (written and directed by Larry Yang) opened in the U.S. on Jackie Chan’s 69th birthday (April 7th) because on a certain level the film plays like a sentimental salute to the international action star’s 60-year career.

That is not to suggest that Chan appears on the verge of being put out to pasture; he still has energy and agility to spare. That said, the shelf life of stunt persons (not unlike professional athletes) is wholly dependent on their stamina and fortitude. It’s not likely to shock you that Chan is cast here as (wait for it) Lao, an aging movie stuntman. Lao has fallen on hard times; movie gigs have become far and few between.

The good-natured Lao and his faithful horse/stunt partner Red Hare (who he has raised from a foal) have been reduced to working odd jobs and street performing to scrape by. When an attempt to seize Red Hare as collateral escalates into an altercation between Lao and a trio of thuggish debt collectors, a cell phone video of the incident goes viral and  puts Lao and Red Hare in the spotlight. Lacking the money to retain a lawyer, Lao swallows his pride and enlists his estranged daughter Bao (Liu Haocun) and her attorney boyfriend (Kevin Guo) to help him keep Red Hare. Father and daughter slowly rebuild their relationship.

While not saddled by a complex narrative, Ride On gallops right along; spurred by Chan’s charm and unbridled flair for physical comedy (sorry, I had a Gene Shalit moment). And the stunts, of course, are spectacular (in the end credits, it’s noted the film is dedicated to the craft). In one scene, Lao views a highlight reel of “his” stunt career; a collection of classic stunt sequences from Chan’s own films; it gives lovely symmetry to the film and is quite moving.

When he is enlisted to do a stunt with Red Hare on a big-budget film, Lao is aghast at the idea of CGI enhancement in post; he politely insists that the director allow him to perform the stunt au naturel. There are other self-referential touches; Lao laments that “jumping down is easy…stepping down is hard.” The film’s best line is surely a stunt man’s credo: “Action! Jump! Hospital!” I don’t know if Chan contributed that one …but he most certainly has lived it.

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This quiz is for non-Chicago residents only: If I say to you “Chicago comedy scene”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

If you answered, “Second City”, that’s understandable. Chicago continues to be the home of the longest running (and most famous) improvisational comedy troupe, which has served as the breeding ground for a healthy number of  notable actors, comedians, writers, and filmmakers.

However, ladies and gentlemen, the filmmakers behind the new documentary Out of the Loop (available on digital platforms starting April 11th) prefer to direct your attention to the Windy City’s stand-up scene, which not only boasts its own rich history, but continues to be alive and well, thank you very much.

Directed by Michael Alexander and edited and produced by Scott Perlman, the film is a fairly straightforward talking heads fest, featuring current and former Chicago-based performers like Hannibal Buress, Tom Dreesen, Marsha Warfield, TJ Miller, Megan Gailey, Jeff Garlin, Jimmy Pardo, the late Judy Tenuta, et.al. sharing personal anecdotes and giving their perspectives on Chicago’s comic voice, as it were.

What emerges is that Chicago comedy doesn’t necessarily have one identifiable voice, but rather a diversity of comedic sensibilities. This is due in no small part to distinctive “North side/South side” vibes that are delineated by cultural differences (e.g., a joke that “kills” with a predominately white audience might go over like a lead balloon with a predominately black audience, and vice-versa). While arguably, you could make the same observation regarding the comedy scene in any large metro in the U.S., Chicago also has a unique sociopolitical history. The film delves into this fascinating dichotomy a bit, but ultimately drops it.

Therein lies the problem with the film; it can’t seem to find its focus. It has its moments; the inevitable “hell gig” stories are always a hoot, and it was interesting to learn about the late Bernie Mac’s visionary impact on the scene (in fact, it felt like there was enough potential material there alone to warrant its own feature-length documentary).

Not required viewing, but I won’t heckle any avid stand-up fan who wants to give it a whirl.

Tribeca 2022: The Wild One ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Tessa Louise-Salomé directs this biography of theater and film director Jack Garfein. A Czechoslovakian-born Holocaust survivor, Garfein (who passed away in 2019) only directed two feature films, The Strange One (1957) and Walk on the Wild Side (1961); but each was notable for tackling then-taboo issues (homosexuality in the former and rape in the latter). Garfein tells his own story, with a wealth of archival clips and photographs woven throughout.

Most affecting are his recollections of the concentration camps, and how this harrowing experience informed his work as an artist. He also recalls his longtime marriage to actress Carroll Baker (which I was previously unaware of) and his involvement with The Actor’s Studio in New York (he later moved to Hollywood and co-founded Actors Studio West). An engrossing and intimate portrait.

Tribeca 2022: Chop and Steele ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

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Is a moonlighting gig still definable as “a moonlighting gig” if you don’t have a day job? Self-employed presenters Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are primarily known as creators (and curators) of the “Found Footage Festival”- the duo’s traveling roadshow of truly weird and wacky VHS-sourced clips. What began as a shared hobby for the long-time buds has turned into a years-long obsession with combing second-hand stores, garage sales and dumpsters for tapes…encompassing everything from commercially released special interest to obscure corporate training videos.

But that’s only half the story in Ben Steinbauer and Berndt Mader’s profile. Pickett and Prueher also have a second incarnation as elaborate pranksters. For a brief and shining moment, they became “Chop and Steele”, self-billed as “strongmen” (even if they certainly didn’t look the part). Almost unbelievably, they were able to book numerous appearances on locally produced “happy talk” TV shows, pushing the gag as far as possible before hapless hosts would catch on and immediately cue a commercial break.

They even finagled a taping on America’s Got Talent (although their bit wasn’t aired…and you’ll see why). Chop and Steele’s “career” abruptly ended when a media company brought a lawsuit against Pickett and Prueher. Entertaining, with thoughtful sidebars regarding the sometimes-tenuous relationship between comedy and the First Amendment. Howie Mandel, Bobcat Goldthwait and other admirers add their two cents.

Please rewind: 80s Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 22, 2022)

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I thought I might dust off my VHS collection (yes, I’ve hung on to a few), put on a skinny tie and curate an 80s sleeper festival for you this evening. Several of my selections remain criminally unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray (are you listening, boutique reissue studios?). Anyway, here are 10 gems from that decade that I think deserve a little more love…

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Dreamchild – This unique 1985 film from director Gavin Millar blends speculative biography with fantasy to delve into the psychology behind writer Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland. Scripted by Dennis Potter, the story is set in 1932 New York City.

Carroll’s muse, the now 80-year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Coral Brown) has traveled from her native England with her young assistant (Nicola Cowper) to participate in a celebration of Reverend Charles L. Dodgson’s (aka Lewis Carroll’s) centenary. Prim and proper Mrs. Hargreaves is perplexed by the fuss the Americans are making over her visit. As she gathers her thoughts for a speech she is to give in Dodgson’s honor, she takes stock of her childhood association with the Reverend (Ian Holm), which leads to a bittersweet epiphany.

Anyone familiar with Dennis Potter’s work will not be surprised to learn that there are some dark subtexts; yet there is also sweetness and poignancy. Amelia Shankley gives a nuanced performance that belies her age as young Alice, and the late Jim Henson works his magic with the creature creations for the fantasy sequences.

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Heartbreakers (VHS only)– In this 1984 drama, writer-director Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about a pair of 30-something pals going through transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as petulant man-child Blue, a starving artist who specializes in fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).

Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad boasting a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also emotionally unfulfilled. With his male model looks and shiny toys, he has no problem with hookups; he just can’t find The One (yes, I know…how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).

Just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a keenly observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on the sitcom Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).

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Light of Day (VHS only)– From off the streets of Cleveland comes…that rare Paul Schrader film that doesn’t culminate in a blood-spattered catharsis. Rather, this 1987-character study (scripted by the director) concerns a pair of blue-collar siblings (Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett) struggling to make a name for themselves in the music biz.

Jett, naturally, does her own singing and playing; but Fox and the other actors portraying “The Barbusters” do so as well. That fact, coupled with the no-nonsense performances, adds up to one of the most realistic narrative films I’ve seen about what it’s really like to eke out a living in the rock ’n’ roll trenches; i.e., these guys actually look and sound like a bar band. Gena Rowlands is a standout as Jett and Fox’s mother (she is the most “Schrader-esque” character). Bruce Springsteen penned the title song (“Born in the USA” was originally slated, but nixed).

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Liquid Sky Downtown 81 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this deeply weird 1982 art-house sci-fi film. A diminutive, parasitic alien with a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (the alien is a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score.

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One Night Stand (VHS only) – An early effort from filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens), this 1984 sleeper got lost in the flurry of nuclear paranoia movies that proliferated during the Reagan era.

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe (ahem). In an effort to quell their anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning from a portable radio, the quartet find creative ways to keep up their spirits.

Uneven, but for the most part Duigan (who scripted) deftly juggles romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an affecting scene where the group watches Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two young women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid  (VHS only)–What I adore most about this 1987 dramedy from director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts dread: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly (they don’t make ‘em like this anymore).

At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other).

In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches). When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple.

Fine performances abound in a cast that includes Claire Bloom and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift, buoyed by Frears’ direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.

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Stormy Monday – Sean Bean stars as a restless young drifter who blows into Newcastle and falls in with a local jazz club owner (Sting). About the same time, a shady American businessman with mob ties (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to muscle in on a land development deal, accompanied by his ex-mistress/current P.A. (Melanie Griffith). As romantic sparks fly between Bean and Griffith, the mobster puts the thumbscrews to the club owner, who stands in the way of the development scheme by refusing to sell. Things get complicated. Writer-director Mike Figgis’ tightly scripted 1988 neo-noir (his feature debut) delivers the goods on every front. Gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Tokyo Pop  (VHS only) – This 1988 film is a likable entry in the vein of other 80s films like Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains. The fluffy premise is buoyed by star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence.

Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine is stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lynn Grossman) later directed the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and went on to serve as executive producer for the eponymous TV series. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

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Wish You Were Here – David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama centers on a headstrong 16-year-old girl coming of age in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and was based on Payne’s later exploits).

Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose exhibitionist tendencies and sexual antics cause her reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

Bolstered by a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft blend of belly-laugh hilarity and bittersweet emotion. Excellent supporting cast, especially Thom Bell, who injects humanity into an otherwise vile character. Sadly, the talented Lloyd never broke big; she went on to do a few relatively unremarkable projects, and then dropped off the radar.

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Word, Sound, and Power – This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed reggae superstars like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and the recently departed Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

Where the wild things are: Surge (***½) & I’m an Electric Lampshade (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 2, 2021)

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Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.

Nick: What’s that?

Murray: People going to work.

– from A Thousand Clowns, screenplay by Herb Gardner

 

Jonathan Lute: [after Quint has terrifyingly smashed up his entire office with an axe]

Andrew, darling, you’re always threatening to resign…

– from I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name, screenplay by Peter Draper

 

Johnny: All right, listen. Does anybody mind if I scream here? Is that okay with you all? Cause I’d feel better for it. It won’t take long.

– from Naked, screenplay by Mike Leigh

 

It is clear from the outset that Joseph, the protagonist of Aneil Karia’s deeply unsettling yet curiously liberating drama Surge, would feel better for it if he could just …SCREAM.

As he wends through a busy Stansted Airport terminal to his gate security job, Joseph (a mesmerizing Ben Whishaw) displays all the tell-tale signs of a ticking time bomb. He’s relatively young but looks haggard beyond his thirty-something years. He’s twitchy and furtive, with a thousand-yard stare that suggests his soul vacated his body some time ago.

After a dreary shift patting down and scanning an endless parade of travelers, Joseph commutes back to his low-rent London flat, where he plops into his armchair, bathed in the sickly light of a droning TV while wolfing a bland microwaved dinner. He has odd eating tics; when he puts a fork in his mouth he reflexively chomps down as if attempting to bite it in half, and when he takes a drink, he looks as though he’s trying to chew on the glass.

He seems …tense.

Something has got to give, and the trigger is a belated birthday dinner with his elderly parents.  He appears to have a strained relationship with his cold and gruff father (Ian Gelder). His mother (Ellie Haddington, who stole the show in the recent 4-part PBS Mystery! miniseries Guilt) is more empathetic, but also shows signs of someone who has suffered years of bullying (verbal, emotional…or worse). After a joyless repast, mum serves the cake, and as dad continues to glower and scowl, Joseph finally breaks-literally.

“Don’t you get blood on my carpets!” mum screeches in shock and confusion as Joseph flees after finally succeeding in chewing through the glass (hey…practice makes perfect).

A warning-if (like me) you are prone to anxiety attacks, the ensuing 2/3 of the film has the *potential* to trigger one (telling myself “It’s only a movie” kept me grounded). Put another way, Joseph’s subsequent frenetic bacchanal of self-liberation is a “re-birthing” well outside the parameters of clinical supervision (and decidedly anti-social in nature), all rendered in a dizzying cinematic style reminiscent of Run Lola Run and Trainspotting.

While Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones’ screenplay does toy with sociopolitical tropes and character motivations that cross over with Taxi Driver, Naked, Falling Down, and the more recent Joker, Surge is anything but a rote retread of the well-trod “disenfranchised white male going off the deep end” narrative. I found it closer in spirit to Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, a film that, while equally unsettling, confounds your expectations at every turn.

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I’m an Electric Lampshade could be viewed as a kinder, gentler Surge, or perhaps a variation on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Billed as a “documentary-narrative hybrid”, writer-director John Clayton-Doyle’s film centers on a quiet, straight-arrow corporate accountant (Doug McCorkle) who surprises his longtime co-workers by using his retirement party to “come out” as an aspiring pop star. So much for golfing and fishing…

Doug brings down the house with a professionally choreographed and produced video featuring him singing and dancing. Actually, the latter part is perhaps best described as “undulating”, as Doug undulates in that oddly earnest yet arrhythmic manner that 60-year-old men tend to undulate on the dance floor at weddings and bar mitzvahs (that’s why I don’t dance at weddings and bar mitzvahs these days…as a public service).

A co-worker offers Doug a business card for a “finishing school for performers” in the Philippines, adding that if he is serious about giving this pop star thing a go, he should check it out. Casting his fate to the wind, and with the full blessing of his wife (Regina McCorkle) Doug embarks to the Philippines to pursue his dream. What his co-worker failed to mention was that all the students are drag queens (but Doug is cool with that).

There’s not much more to the narrative; Doug hangs out in the Philippines for a spell, gets his first professional singing and dancing gig doing a TV commercial for a Filipino yogurt company, and then heads back to the States to prepare for his concert debut in Mexico. The concert takes up the final 15 or 20 minutes of the film (it feels like 3 hours).

It’s all good-natured enough I suppose, but unfortunately, our aspiring “electric lampshade” McCorkle has the charisma of a night light. And the original music (which is critical, as it runs through most of the film) is duller than dishwater (generic EDM). I have nothing against pursuing one’s dreams …but sitting through this could be a nightmare for some viewers.

Tears of a clown: Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 11, 2021)

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Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.

― Lenny Bruce

Like many people of “a certain age”, I can remember where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. I was attending school (2nd grade) in Columbus, Ohio. There was a school assembly. The principal made some remarks, we put our hands over our hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and were dismissed.

I was not mature enough to grasp the historical significance of what had just happened, nor parse the sociopolitical fallout that ensued in the wake of this great national tragedy. All I got from the principal’s remarks that afternoon was “blah blah blah” and something about a magic ring and the end of the world. My main takeaway was that I got to go home early.

In May of 1963, a musician named Vaughn Meader picked up a Grammy award for Album of the Year…but he didn’t play a note on it. Meader was the star of an ensemble of voice actors who were recruited by writers Bob Booker and Earle Dowd to impersonate then-President John F. Kennedy and his family for a comedy album entitled The First Family.

It’s one of the first comedy albums I remember listening to when I was a kid, because my parents owned a copy (filed next to The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in the built-in storage cabinet of their stereo console). Meader had been doing his JFK impression on stage, but it wasn’t until the surprise success of the gently satirical 1962 LP (7.5 million copies sold-impressive even now for a comedy album) that his career really skyrocketed.

This was, of course, decades before social media existed. Consequently, it would take nothing short of an Act of God to “cancel” an entertainer’s career overnight. Unfortunately for Meader, whatever career boost God gave him with one hand, he took away with the other on November 22, 1963.

As a (possibly apocryphal) story goes, Lenny Bruce was booked for a gig on the night of November 22, 1963. Undeterred by the shocking murder of the President earlier that day, he went on with the show. Reportedly, Bruce went onstage, but said nothing for several minutes, finally breaking his silence with “Boy …is Vaughn Meader fucked.”

Which begs a question: Too soon? Regardless, as Bruce predicted, Meader’s comedy career effectively ended that day. As Oliver Stone said in JFK, “The past is prologue.”

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

― George Carlin

Fast-forward to the night of September 29, 2001. The nation was still reeling from the horror of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took the lives of over 3,000 people. The New York Friar’s Club was roasting Hugh Hefner. It was the first significant gathering of comedy heavyweights since the attacks.

The mood in the room that night was tentative. These were professional funny people, but like all Americans they were not in a jovial frame of mind. Nonetheless, the show went on. When Gilbert Gottfried took to the podium, his opener was a real doozy:

I had to catch a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight…they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Then someone yelled “TOO SOON!

Gottfried’s story does have a happy ending. Reading the room (correctly), he immediately switched gears and launched into a venerable joke that comedians have amused each other with offstage for decades. It’s known as “The Aristocrats!”  because…well, the punch line is: “The Aristocrats!”

It’s more of an improvisational exercise (or gross-out contest) than a “joke”, as whoever is telling it must embellish the setup, while assuring the premise and punchline remain intact. Long story short, Gottfried not only won back the crowd, but he also had fellow comics in tears as they all enjoyed a much-needed yuk.

Unlike the Lenny Bruce anecdote, this is not apocryphal…it’s on film. The footage originally popped up in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats but serves as an apt opener for Nick Fituri Scown and Julie Seabaugh’s documentary Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11, which premiered on VICE-TV this week (there is a commemorative showing at L.A.’s Chinese Theater September 11).

The directors enlist comics, Broadway players, late-night TV hosts, SNL cast members, and writers for The Onion to share how they reconciled with a newly sensitized sociopolitical landscape to eventually find a way back to just being, you know – “funny”.

For some, it wasn’t simply struggling with writer’s block or facing glum-faced audiences. Muslim-American performers like Ahmed Ahmed, Negin Farsad, Maz Jobrani, Hari Kondabolu, and Aasif Mandvi recall the Islamophobia they encountered, ranging from having racist epithets hurled their way to outright death threats.

Another phenomenon that arose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a pernicious purity test that entertainers (or anyone with a public platform) had to pass with flying stars and stripes, under penalty of becoming persona non grata.

The most well-known example (as recalled in the film) was what happened to comic Bill Maher. Just 6 days following the attacks, Maher was hosting his weekly ABC panel show Politically Incorrect. His guest was outspoken conservative Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza was commenting on President Bush’s characterization of the terrorists as cowards. ”Not true,” D’Souza said. ”Look at what they did. You have a whole bunch of guys who were willing to give their life; none of them backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete. These are warriors.” Maher replied: ”We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

While others in the media (including print journalists, like Susan Sontag) made similar observations, Maher took the most public flak. This prompted him to embark on something akin to an apology tour, appearing on a number of other talk shows to clarify his remarks.

In the meantime Politically Incorrect began to lose sponsors hand over fist, and in June of 2002 ABC pulled it, citing slipping ratings. Maher has contended he was essentially fired for the comments he made about the hijackers in September 2001.

Good times.

On the flip-side of that coin, what could be more “patriotic” than laughing in the face of adversity? What could be more “American” than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, dusting yourself off, and (in the immortal words of the late, great Chuckles the Clown), giving them “…a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”?

The filmmakers include three key clips that encapsulate this spirit and the healing power of laughter: excerpts from David Letterman’s emotionally raw yet inspiring monologue for his first show following the attacks (September 17th, 2001), John Stewart’s equally heartfelt opener for his first post 9/11 episode of The Daily Show (September 20th, 2001), and the defiant, rousing return of Saturday Night Live on September 29th, 2001.

I remember watching all three of those programs when they originally aired and being reminded of them again in the documentary was an unexpectedly moving experience. Speaking for myself there is now an added layer of weltschmerz in recalling these moments of national unity and shared compassion, because if there are two things we’ve lost over these past 20 years in America, it’s a sense of national unity and shared compassion.

Just pray we never lose our sense of humor. Because if we do…boy, are we fucked.

 

SIFF 2021: Too Late (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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I am not a big fan of gore movies, but despite my initial trepidation I ended up enjoying D.W. Thomas’ horror comedy. The Los Angeles stand-up scene provides the backdrop for this tale about a long-suffering talent booker and P.A. (Alyssa Limperis) who works for a demanding variety show host (Ron Lynch) who owns his own comedy club. He’s a real monster. No, seriously (I’ll leave it at that). Tom Becker (who is the director’s husband) wrote the frequently hilarious screenplay, which doubles as a clever metaphor for the dog-eat-dog world of stand up. As a former comedian, I have to admit they had me at “club owner who is a real monster”.