The Last Laugh – review

Last Laugh poster

As I sat in Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, munching my popcorn and sipping my soda, I started to get the sneaking suspicion I had accidentally seated myself in a Synagogue, such was the nature of the audience who slowly closed in around me.

And as the theatre lights dimmed, I realized that they were here to see a documentary about the Holocaust, while I was here to see one about comedy. We were both in the right place.

For me, the central theme of The Last Laugh is the question: Is there any topic that is off-limits to comedy?

For the others, it was probably more a question of whether any humour could be found in something as horrific as the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews.

Through a series of interviews with comedians—most Jewish—and Holocaust survivors, centering on the thoughts of Renee Firestone, The Last Laugh pivots back and forth between heavy discussions about survival under unreal conditions and light-hearted attempts to understand the dark humours arising from those conditions as expressed by the generations of comedians that followed.

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As Mel Brooks pointed out, if he had tried to produce “The Inquisition” sequence of History of the World, Part I back in the late 1400s, he probably wouldn’t have fared as well in 1981. Likewise, other comedians pointed out that when The Producers was released in 1968, the concept of “Spring Time for Hitler” was scandalous, whereas people seeing the Broadway musical now are apt to sing along with the music.

For many, it was a matter of timing. How much time had passed since the original horror? For others, it was a bit more complicated, and it was generations more than years that needed to pass, citing examples where the children of Holocaust survivors—people who themselves did not experience and therefore release the horrors—were more apt to get upset about Holocaust jokes than their parents.

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Interestingly, Brooks himself was quick to note that the Holocaust was a line he could not cross himself, but that if someone else made a funny joke, he could laugh at it.

Going back to survivor Firestone, it was very interesting to see her perspectives on this question and the various attempts by comedians like Sara Silverman to touch the subject. For Firestone, none of the jokes seemed to come across as funny, but some she acknowledged were very close to the truth of the experience or how society now thought of it.

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Writer/director Ferne Pearlstein (centre) with survivors Elly Gross and Renee Firestone

And she could see in hindsight the humour of some of the camp activities as the prisoners (I am at a loss for a better word to describe those held captive) tried to maintain a grip on sanity within the camps, whether it was preparing imaginary dinner parties or performing musical revues.

Countering opinions also entered the fray as people debated the merits of the film Life is Beautiful, most of the comedians considering it terrible and an ironic whitewashing of the horror, or bringing in other recent events such as Jim Crow racism or the events of 9/11.

Life is Beautiful

Ultimately, while I’m not sure the question of off-limit topics was ever really answered, everyone who watched the documentary was affected by it.

Where your heart was broken by a recounted memory, it was shortly thereafter mended by quip.

Where your breath caught in your chest at a recalled horror, it quickly burst forth in a gush of laughter.

After 88 minutes riding waves of conflicting emotions, the audience was neither depressed, nor bemused, but likely to a person, they had asked questions they had never considered before. Can’t really ask more of a documentary.

Artists I adore (and you should follow)

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Barnaby Dixon – puppetry

As many of you know, I am nutso for puppetry and have somehow managed to know some amazingly talented puppeteers. But as much as I adore my friends, one fellow blows me away not just for his skill as a puppeteer, but also as a puppet designer.

For a guy that looks like he’s 12—I’m over 50, so you all look 12 to me—Barnaby Dixon seems ancient in his craft and wisdom. From the very first YouTube video I watched, he has dazzled me with his love of the art form, his ability to bring the inanimate to life, and his presentation style that draws you in and makes you feel like this is a private conversation. Stellar!

Visit Barnaby’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter account

 

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Baram & Snieckus – comedy

I know, I know. I have to get past my addiction to these beautiful sketch and improv wunderkinds. But I can’t help myself.

Apart, Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are wonderfully funny and vulnerable and endearing, but together, they rocket off the charts.

As I have reviewed previously (see below), Baram & Snieckus are to the modern era what Stiller & Meara and Nichols & May were to theirs, people who express the challenges and wonders of social awkwardness, allowing us to laugh at the things that frighten us in our daily lives.

No one is more neurotic than Matt…until Naomi erupts in her own mental mushroom cloud.

And that this husband-and-wife team are beautiful, friendly, giving, caring people is an absolute bonus.

You can follow Matt & Naomi on their web site, Facebook page or Twitter.

 

See also:

You and Me Both – A revue review

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

 

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Filippa Levemark – visual arts

As a photographer, I adore nature. As a writer, I adore bizarre or interesting juxtapositions. Thus, I had no choice but to fall in love with Filippa Levemark’s work.

With the seemingly simplest of compositions, Filippa combines nature and human infrastructure to powerfully demonstrate that the two worlds are one and the same. Try as it might, humanity cannot hold itself as distinct from the wildlife that surrounds us, nor should it.

Her work is beautifully approachable and yet is rife with meaning, offering depths that may be missed at first glance.

Based in Sweden, my greatest hope is to find a way for her to bring her works to Canada.

You can follow Filippa on her web site, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Irene Carl Sankoff & David Hein – musical theatre

As a student at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre several years ago, I had the great fortune to meet and do improv with a gorgeous and talented actress named Irene Sankoff, a truly giving performer.

Years later, I heard that Irene and her husband David Hein had created the somewhat autobiographical stage musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which played to wonderful reviews in Toronto. What I didn’t realize was that the musical would explode in the theatre world both in Canada and abroad, setting these two up as a creative force of nature.

And just this past year, they have repeated (and likely surpassed) that success with a new musical Come From Away, based on events in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when hundreds of air passengers found themselves suddenly grounded.

The musical just completed a spectacularly successful run in Toronto and begins Broadway previews on Feb 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it is sure to sell out quickly.

But like my Baram & Snieckus comment above, what makes these two particularly special is that they are genuinely wonderful people and have such love for their craft and for the people who come see the show.

Recently, on a frigid Toronto morning, the pair brought coffee and donuts to fans waiting for rush tickets to their final Toronto performance (Toronto Star article). The pair and performers from the show entertained the small crowd, singing songs and chatting with the chilled throng. That is simply beautiful.

Follow Irene & David’s adventures on their web site, Facebook and Twitter.

 

Whither the losers

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History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

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Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

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Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

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And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

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See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

Lives of love and beauty – Kevin

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Kevin is the one on the left

Kevin Bruce Scott: son, actor, puppeteer, integrity trainer

The man I affectionately dubbed Sweetums on our first meeting in honour of his impressive size, hirsuteness and rolling voice has wondrously become a constant in my life, even despite his gregarious activities that see him crisscrossing the North American continent. I first met Kevin when he auditioned as a puppeteer and actor for a sketch comedy show I was helping another friend develop (Nicholas Lemon’s SomeTV!), and it was bromance at first blush.

To know Kevin even for a few moments is to experience an earthquake of enthusiasm and playfulness that has been rivalled by very few in my advancing lifetime. Quick of wit, clever of brain and charming of eyebrow (you have to see it), Kevin routinely explodes with volcanic laughter and excitedly joins any creative moment with love and insane bonhomie. To merely stand in Kevin’s presence is to experience unbridled love…but dive in for the amazing hug, if you get the chance.

I say without hyperbole that should Kevin reach out with any idea, I am an eager participant because I know that even if the idea amounts to nothing tangible, I will have had the best time working on it.

Thanks you, Sweetums, for going on that audition and making my face hurt with smiles.

 

See also:

12 Days of Gratitude – Kevin

Effortless Alpha (Kevin’s blog & mission)

Not too Bad Santa 2

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As a cynic, particularly around the holidays, it seems strange that I have never seen Bad Santa, but then I am not much of a fan of Billy Bob Thornton, the titular character. Thus, as I headed out to see Bad Santa 2, I had few expectations and simply held out hope that I wouldn’t be completely bored.

Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed myself while watching this seriously flawed but nonetheless funny movie.

I suspect the new edition seems very much a reprise of the original with the main characters Willie (Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox) getting together to pull off yet another caper; in this case, the robbery of a Chicago charity run by scheming Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen) and his almost pure wife Diane (Christina Hendricks). Complicating matters this time is the presence of Willie’s mom Sunny (Kathy Bates), the woman who raised Willie to be the miserable, alcoholic, criminal shit that we see today.

In many ways, the movie becomes one long series of double-crosses and opportunities for Willie to do the right thing, particularly by the doting man-child Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), but failing to live up to the moments.

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Mommy dearest Bates is guaranteed to let you down

To say that Bad Santa 2 is dark and cynical is to cope with a language that simply cannot catch the nihilism of these characters and their life choices. Thurman is the only redeeming character in this story and that is likely only because he is a clinical moron, incapable of guile and oblivious to sarcasm. As the title indicates, this is the anti-Christmas Christmas movie that would drive even Jesus Christ himself to suicide (likely some time around Easter).

And annoyingly, this is exactly why I liked this film. It was so dark and treacherous, so cynically funny, that I could not help but find the darkness endearing. This is a seasonal film for the purely jaded and given the language and adult scenes, should not be viewed with a broader family.

As no doubt in the first film, Thornton’s Willie continually finds himself let down by the people around him, feeding his suicidal neuroses. Bates is a delight as Kathy Bates under the pseudonym Sunny Soke, a woman devoid of tenderness except when it is part of a larger scheme to screw someone over. And Hendricks is the inveterate do-gooder who has her baser side, Christian charity coupled with carnal itches that need Santa’s attention.

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Hendricks allows her libido to cloud her better judgement

There are so many things about this story that don’t work as a story, and the ending is a complete waste of celluloid, the screenwriters Shauna Cross (who also wrote Whip It) and John Rosenthal in his debut feature film seeming to have simply typed until they ran out of toner. And yet, for all of the short-comings, you don’t really care because that is largely life. Nothing ends where it should and never satisfyingly.

If you aren’t at least intrigued by the idea of setting your nearest nativity scene ablaze or mounting Rudolph’s head on your front bumper, I am not sure you should see Bad Santa 2. But if you were not repulsed by either of those ideas, you may find some dark dark pleasure in this film.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Same old dirty tricks (The Guardian)

Bad Santa 2 works through mommy issues (New York Times)

Movie Review: Bad Santa 2 (Danny F Santos)

Colin Quinn kills w/ The New York Story

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I can only assume that Colin Quinn spends the hours before his comedy shows scarfing down industrial-scale oxygen tanks. This has to be true, if only to explain how he can spend an hour hilariously recounting the history of New York City without ever inhaling…although perhaps projectile vomiting the Big Apple’s history is more accurate.

Ask pretty much anyone who knows me and you will learn that I am a comedy snob. It takes a lot to make me chuckle, let alone laugh out loud.

I not only laughed out loud at Colin Quinn’s latest Netflix special The New York Story (trailer), I actually clapped while laughing out loud at several observations…and this was from my futon, not sitting with a theatre audience.

And before the laughter from one bit reached its crescendo (forget fading), you were already two bits behind, such was the ferocity with which Quinn delivered his perspectives of New York.

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The first two thirds of the show were the best, as Quinn explained and contextualized the arrival of each ethnic group to the city as a way of explaining why the attitudes of New Yorkers are unlike those of any other city in the world.

The last third, where Quinn took shots at political correctness and white guilt, was less funny but still had its share of laughs. This was the part of the show that seemed more like every other show I have seen that touches on race and ethnic relations.

But it is when Quinn becomes the people he describes, taking on mannerisms and recalling each culture’s absurdities, that he is at his best. His is less the vocal mimicry of a Russell Peters and more a distillation of their essence.

And his portrayals were made all the more engaging by the stage itself, which was decorated with settings familiar to New Yorkers—a deli counter, the docks, a front stoop, a corner bodega, an Irish bar—Quinn inhabiting each as he told the story of another group’s arrival in the city.

Colin Quinn Comedy Special

Quinn’s special was directed by long-time friend Jerry Seinfeld

This choreography makes The New York Story more a one-man stage play than a stand-up comedy routine. Not surprising, given the show first got its legs in a run off-Broadway.

In broader terms, whereas I have thought for several years that Quinn is funny—in particular, I miss his panel show Tough Crowd—I think he has really hit his stride in the last couple. What this special did for New York City, his last special Unconstitutional did for American politics, and with just as much humour and wisdom.

Perhaps, however, it is less that Colin Quinn is just now hitting his stride, and more that I have finally reached a place where I can appreciate him and his humours more fully.

Either way, I am glad we have reached this place and I hope we stay here for a while.

 

See also:

In The New York Story, Colin Quinn looks to stereotypes for wisdom—and finds some (A.V. Club)

Immigrants put the new in The New York Story for Colin Quinn’s newest Netflix triumph (Decider)

Mascots more a misscots

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After opening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary Mascots was released to Netflix this past week. As a fan of his many earlier efforts—from This Is Spinal Tap to A Mighty Wind—I greatly looked forward to his take on the surreal world of sports mascots.

Unfortunately, this might have been a mistake, as the bar set by those movies was pretty high.

Mascots revolves around the struggles of five teams competing for the Gold Fluffy, the highest achievement of the Professional Mascots Association. One team is a feuding couple, trying to maintain a brave face while on-camera, but killing each other behind the scenes. A second subplot involves a son trying to live up to his father’s and grandfather’s legacies in a hedgehog costume.

Then there is an aging dancer who sees this as her last chance to go all the way, as well as a solo act simply trying to up his game, and an Irish bad boy whose story never really fleshes out.

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Pretty much sums up some of the stories in this film

As these five subplots buzz around, we also get to see behind the curtain as competition organizers try to hold everything together while vying for a broadcast contract with a fourth-tier cable company, and two former champs feud while trying to judge the contest.

Still with me?

Now, throw in a few more secondary characters and cameos, and you have an ensemble of about 25 characters pushing for air time.

Now as confusing and thin as this might seem, Guest has been able to make it work before in pieces like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show, using many of the same amazing actors: Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, etc.

Unfortunately, things don’t seem to gel as nicely in Mascots, and the whole film seems to lack the heart of the earlier efforts. I mean, how do you compete with the simple love-story of Mitch & Mickey?

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Not really a fair comparison (Mascots, top; A Mighty Wind, bottom)

This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t poignant moments in many of the subplots or that the actual mascot performances during the competition weren’t spectacular. But rather than being more than the sum of its parts, this film was surprisingly less.

This is where I think my expectations are part of the problem.

Viewed through a virgin lens, Mascots is somewhat entertaining and not a bad way to spend 89 minutes. It would make a great appetiser to tease the palate for a main course of the other meatier films. But as a dessert, it is significantly lacking.

Of individual note, Parker Posey’s interpretive dance student is painfully poignant and outrageously funny. Chris O’Dowd’s bad-ass sex fiend is completely wasted, however, and largely amounts to nothing. And I found the bickering couple—Zach Woods and Sarah Baker—completely distasteful, and the longer I saw them, the worse it got.

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Perfectly pathetic (Parker Posey)

Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. were great but underused. Fred Willard was the only character Fred Willard has ever played. And the rest of the core ensemble barely managed more than cameos.

Mascots isn’t bad, but sadly could have been so much better.

 

See also:

Christopher Guest’s ‘Mascots’ fails to really cheer (Associated Press)

Latest from Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest does not go up to 11 (The Guardian)