Sunday, June 24, 2018

LIGHTEN YOUR LOAD WITH ALL KINDS OF LAUGHS

Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Martin and Martin Short in the Netflix comedy special AN EVENING YOU WILL FORGET FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (2018).
It’s been an awful week in the news, depressing and demoralizing, and all the more reason to seek out some relief at the movie theater or your home theater. Four comedies I’ve come across recently have helped lighten the load, and perhaps they could do the same for you. Two of them are indie films that you’ll have to seek out on VOD or at film festivals, and two are comedy specials available right now on Netflix.

STEVE MARTIN AND MARTIN SHORT: AN EVENING YOU WILL FORGET FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (Netflix)

It’s hard to go wrong putting classic comedians like Steve Martin and Martin Short on a stage together, but what makes this special so well, special, is that the best highlights aren’t the skits and gags they perform with expertise, but instead, the personal stories they tell and the throwaway bits that show off their cynicism about Hollywood. 

Veterans of a collective 97 years in show biz (Martin – 51, Short – 46), these two have conquered stand-up, television, film, and even theater. "We thought you might like to get to know us a little bit," Short says early in the show, and with crackerjack timing, Martin deadpans, "And the reason we think that is because we’re egomaniacs." Throughout the show, they not only dig at each other the way only true friends can, but they delve into anecdotes about their experiences in Tinsel Town together. Their explanation of how the comedy THREE AMIGOS came about reveals the start of their lasting friendship, as well as that of a more complicated relationship with tempestuous costar Chevy Chase.

Short is the lesser known of the two, and he uses this vehicle to show off his myriad of talents. He sings, he does characters, he plays straight man and oddball. The Canadian comic also pulls on our heartstrings in surprising ways too. In between the schtick, Short tells of a few dark tales concerning his alcoholic father and how difficult it was for his large family to live with such a mercurial presence. There’s always been something solemn just under the surface with Short, as his acclaimed dramatic turn in the TV series DAMAGES in 2010 demonstrated so well, and here, his eyes and inflections darken on a dime. It makes the man all the more dangerous on stage. You never know what he might say or do, make you laugh or break your heart.

Martin has always projected a bit of the pickled pill, and here he delivers a lot of droll and snide gibes with aplomb. He teases Short with ease, commenting after a song, “I think you are underrated as a singer…which I totally get.” Short gives it back to his white-haired friend too, ribbing him mercilessly about his banjo playing. “It’s like DELIVERANCE,” he exclaims. “It’s all fun and games until the banjos come out.”

Martin does indeed play his banjo for a delightful musical interlude in the show with his band The Steep Canyon Rangers. For those of us who remember how well Martin played the instrument during his legendary 70’s stand-up shows or while hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, it’s great to see his Grammy-winning musical skills on display in this vehicle too. 

Towards the end, when Short reprises his Tommy Glick schtick, it feels a bit forced and the needling of Hollywood a bit too "on-the-nose," but these are small quibbles. All in all, it's utterly fantastic to see these two legends give such an animated show for over an hour, demonstrating verve and energy of comics half their age. Here's hoping that they do more specials together for a long time to come.  

Alycya Magana and Alex Serrato in THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING.

THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING (VOD)

Younger filmmakers love to tell stories about overgrown man-children, and a number have graced screens already this year. FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA was one of the better ones, and so is Nick Alonzo’s THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING. It tells the story of Carl, a quietly panicking doofus who's pushing 30 and searching for answers, in some very fresh and delightfully odd ways. For starters, most of his story takes place in a forest setting. More importantly, it has a wonderfully quiet, deadpan sense of humor to it all that will induce large laughs to those who discover the film's charms.  

Carl (Alex Serrato) has decided to seclude himself in the local woods to help with his soul-searching, and it's not going particularly well. As the movie opens, he’s tense and sweaty, trying desperately to masturbate to relieve his angst. Unfortunately, the bearded shlub can’t even bring himself to climax because he keeps getting distracted with thoughts of his angry girlfriend Gloria (Alycya Magana) who dumped him. The end of their relationship drove him into the woods to commune with nature and lick his wounds. It was a stupid decision as he’s wholly unsuited to 'rough it' in the wild. The forest is dangerous. It's hot as hell. And Carl barely has enough proper supplies to survive.  (He's lugging about cans of lychees for sustenance. Lychees?) As if that is not enough of a recipe for disaster, he hasn't even ventured that far away from civilization. He keeps getting distracted by car noises, planes overhead, and other connections with the real world a stone's throw away. 

Carl shuffles through the woods, sweating, swatting away bugs, s scratching his overgrown beard, and trying to learn things from his copy of the book How to Survive in the Woods. The film cuts back and forth between Carl's attempts to master nature and flashbacks to his troubled life back home. We see the painfully funny exchanges with his girlfriend and their lack of chemistry. Filmmaker Alonzo also shows us just how Carl is at odds with whatever his environment is. We see him toiling away at work in one of those colorless, cubicled corporations that sucks the life out of its employees. Carl may have a scant pint left, and he's a lost soul of the Buster Keaton variety. 

Of course, that makes it all the more amusing for us to watch.  Serrato earns laughs continually as Carl with his passive, doltish reaction to everything. Watching him try to navigate the trees, exercise in the woods, and keep his dignity throughout is a continual hoot. His woes reach their zenith when he eats some mushrooms that his drug-dealing neighbor gave him for the journey. Carl can't handle tripping and gets freaked out by the hilarious episode, all brought vividly to life by an amusing, animated interlude. 

We root for Carl as he remains more sympathetic than just pathetic. He's trying at least, though he really shouldn't be going overboard to demonstrate his willingness to take stock and grow up. Alonzo gets a lot out of his cast, as well as his below-the-line crew. The woodsy world is brought vividly to life by cinematographer Nicholas Daniel Sledge with camera work that alternates between eerie stillness and creeping around Carl to add to his angst. 

As he forges ahead, really making a go of it out there, his old flame Gloria seeks him out, but to reveal any more of the story would be to take away the fun of Carl’s unique spiritual journey. This is a  quirky film, a deadpan indie with a lot of heart. Carl is foolish, but at least he's trying. That means a lot in the world of man-child's.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Ali Wong in HARD KNOCK WIFE (copyright 2018)

ALI WONG: HARD KNOCK WIFE (Netflix) 

One of the very best stand-up comedians working these days is Ali Wong. Her first Netflix special BABY COBRA, released on Netflix on Mother’s Day of last year, was a huge success. Then, this Mother's Day, Netflix dropped her new special entitled HARD KNOCK WIFE. It's the hardest I've laughed at stand-up in a long, long time. 

As hilarious as she is, Wong may frighten some. Her delivery is bold and laden with harsh language. Even more discordant are her opinions about motherhood, her private parts, and divvying up duties between parents. She’s brutally honest about the highs and lows of raising a child and isn’t afraid to admit that sometimes she’d like to kick her toddler to the curb. Any parent will know such feelings, but it's an entirely different thing to express such bile in front of a thousand strangers. Still, Wong makes it all relatable and funny as hell, even when she’s raging. 

The 36-year-old talks about a host of topics that few would dare take on like the adverse side effects of breastfeeding and giving birth. She goes on for quite a while about her vagina and what having a baby did to her body. It’s pointed and political too, especially when she delves into the sexual politics of marriage, not to mention women's rights in the workplace, specifically regarding maternity leave. She is a ball-buster and apparently is having a ball in her take-downs.

In many ways, her scathing critique of society may be the most audacious since the likes of George Carlin or Sam Kinison. She roams the stage as those two did, jutting her head out towards the audience, getting in their face as best she can from her vantage point. And it's all even funnier because Wong is eight months pregnant here, wearing a tight Cheetah print mini, and ginormous rose-colored glasses that show off her expressive eyes. 

I suspect that Wong may very well become the next big thing in comedy. Don’t be surprised if she gets her own show soon, or starts to make movies. She should be a major star or at least a household name by Mother’s Day next year.

Illustrator Andrew Tarasov's poster for the movie HOUSESITTERS.

HOUSESITTERS 
(Dreamland Home Video) 

Film critic Jason Coffman has ventured to the other side of the camera to write and direct HOUSESITTERS, a dirt-cheap exploitation parody that riffs hilariously on the tropes of monster movie horror, as well as stoner culture. It looks like it was shot on a cellphone, and one in need of some serious upgrading for that matter, but it's all the better for Coffman to spoof the handheld horror phenomenon that still plagues far too many entries in the genre. Coffman is a connoisseur of horror, from the top of the line to the trash, and it’s one of the film’s best jokes that he never tries to make his effort look wholly professional, just like all those B-movies and worse that he's evaluated in his day.

When I was the horror film critic for the Examiner for five years, I saw a lot of subpar entries too. Coffman has seen even more and he wrote about the range of them in his vast tome The Unrepentant Cinephile: Collected Reviews of Cult, Exploitation, Horror and Independent Films. Here, he satirizes all the mismatched lighting he's encountered in those B-movies, not to mention the jarring sound edits, the overwrought music, and the cheesy puppetry. Coffman's villainous creature at the center of his horror spoof is a rather crude looking hand puppet. It's reminiscent of Joe Dante's GREMLINS if one of them had escaped Frances Lee McCain's microwave after a few seconds of heat. This is a flick that revels in its silliness, yet there's actually much more to it. Coffman has infused his parody with a lot of dark social commentary touching on everything from sexual politics to religion to the male, white patriarchy. 

He makes sly satire out of Millennials self-absorption with his two heroines. They are oblivious to most of the world outside their own needs, but at least the girls are sweet about it. Izzy (Jamie Jirak) is a small-time drug dealer, while her bestie Angie (Annie Watkins) remains unemployed. They amble through life with a devil-may-care attitude, happy enough to spend time with their friends, scarf down pizza, and jabber on about this and that. They’re like a female Bill and Ted, yet even more easygoing and guileless.

When Angie stumbles upon a housesitting job, she invites Izzy along to keep her company. They’re especially excited that the owner has lent Angie his platinum credit card and she plans to use it for munchies and booze. When asked who the house belongs to, the best that Angie can summon is “Some guy.” Of course, it's a deal too good to be true, because one there, the girls discover that there's a pentagram scrawled on the basement floor in blood. Still, they don't sweat it as there is pizza to be ordered.

In most horror movies, ignoring such warning signs would spell doom for them, but I think Coffman wants to do more than just satirize teens. He's actually admiring the girls as they don't judge or worry. Perhaps he's suggesting that their ignorance truly is a form of bliss. It certainly doesn't hurt them as Angie and Izzy seem to prevail throughout the film with their live-and-let-live attitude. 

Coffman's best conceit may be the homeowner character (Jay J. Bidwell). When he returns, the silver-tongued patron of Hell not only explains all the chicanery going on in the house in a dutiful Bond villain sort of way, but he delivers a shrewd dissertation on society, religion, the concept of good and evil, and various shortcomings of our modern society.  

The actors all are having a blast, and the chemistry between the two lead women is terrific. Bidwell impresses as he handles a lot of dialogue in an insinuating and elegant way not far from Vincent Price. Particular attention should be given to puppeteer Jeff Burnham too as he ensures the little monster is hilarious and even a little scary. And any filmmaker that employs pin-up artist Andrew Tarusov to do the poster art, well, he’s aces in my book.  

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