SONG OF BACK AND NECK (2018)

December 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Paul Lieberstein is best known and easily recognizable as Toby, Michael Scott’s HR nemesis on “The Office”. Mr. Lieberstein also wrote and directed many episodes of that popular TV show, and now he turns his talents to the big screen: donning all 4 hats as writer-director-producer-actor in his feature film debut as a filmmaker. It’s a romantic-comedy of pain, and the featured pain comes in both varieties: physical and emotional.

Fred (Lieberstein) is a long-term paralegal at the law firm his dad co-founded. He’s a frumpy every-man suffering in silence with loneliness and back pain so debilitating that his morning ritual is often performed by sliding prone on the floor through his house. A long-awaited appointment with a back specialist (played by BRIDESMAIDS director and “The Office” producer Paul Feig) is comprised of numerous smart-ass one-liners from the doctor that result in no help for the patient and the dreaded diagnosis of “the trifecta of back and neck pain”.

In addition to this physical pain, Fred is miserable at work as he’s forced to take direction from a cocky millennial lawyer (Clark Duke), who is the firm’s new partner now that Fred’s protective dad is retiring. He’s also miserable in his personal life due to loneliness. While we see that all this pain is interconnected, it takes a fortuitous encounter with Regan (Rosemary DeWitt), who is in need of a divorce attorney, to start Fred on the path of discovery and recovery.

Regan refers Fred to her acupuncturist Dr. Kuhang (Raymond Ma), who is astounded at the musical tones the injected needles produce along Fred’s spine. The leads to one of the film’s more outlandish recurring gags in the movie – a quite unique and humorous situation involving a cello. Other supporting work is provided by screen veterans Sam Anderson, Robert Pine (Chris Pine’s dad) and Brian d’Arcy James as Regan’s husband. Ike Barinholtz also provides a brief comedic cameo as an orderly, and Scott Hutchison delivers a welcome musical interlude. Mr. Hutchison, founder of Frightened Rabbit, sadly passed away earlier this year.

This is a nice little low budget indie that shows how even a temporary interpersonal connection can provide a spark of hope and remind us of how important fulfillment in life can be towards our physical and emotional health. Since the film is based on Mr. Lieberstein’s own back pain, he provides a special thanks to John E Sarno, MD, author of “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection”. The film is wry and sad, while at the same time somewhat illuminating and hopeful. It’s a pleasant debut from filmmaker Lieberstein.

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BLOCKERS (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Teen sex comedies exploring new boundaries are a Hollywood tradition. ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), PORKY’S (1981), AMERICAN PIE (1999), and SUPERBAD (2007) all pushed the limits of decency for their era, and provided varying levels of laughter while doing so. In her directorial debut, Tina Fey protégé Kay Cannon (“30 Rock”, PITCH PERFECT franchise), offers up what has been called the first “Feminist teen comedy”, and the risqué humor is far more extreme than that of its predecessors noted above.

We have become quite accustomed to the all-too-common male-centric perspective in these types of movies, so kudos to director Cannon for taking a look from the other side: a Female-centric teen sex comedy. Co-writers Brian and Jim Kehoe unfortunately try to cram too much into what should mostly be a laugh-a-thon. We get the #SexPact2018 from 3 high school senior best friends who agree to lose their virginity on prom night. We get the far-too-involved parents trying to prevent that from happening. We get those same parents dealing with the pending empty nest syndrome, while those three friends are immersed in drugs, alcohol and sex talk. If that’s not quite enough, there is also a sexual identity awakening and a hotel party more extreme than you would find in Las Vegas.

Leslie Mann plays Lisa, the helicopter single mom to Julie (Kathryn Newton). WWE star John Cena is Mitchell, the overprotective dad and life coach to Kayla (an outstanding Geraldine Viswanathan); and comedian Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) is Hunter, the estranged/absentee/banished dad to Sam (Gideon Adlon). Julie envisions the perfect romantic encounter, while Kayla just wants to be done with it, and Sam is still trying to figure out why she isn’t so attracted to boys.

Riffing off of the “one wild and crazy night” theme, prom night is chosen by the three amigas, and what follows is outrageous and periodically hilarious. Most of the humor comes courtesy of the parents on the ill-fated ‘blocking’ mission. The story bounces from heartfelt emotions of parents to ‘butt-chugging’ at a party. There is also a car explosion, felony breaking and entering, and projectile vomiting. Perhaps there is an overuse of hulking John Cena crying, but that’s less cringe-inducing than the role-playing of Gary Cole and Gina Gershon (parents of one of the girl’s dates).

Setting the story in Chicago allows the filmmakers to take on the conservative Midwestern attitudes toward sex, while also providing a teenager with the “I’m getting as far away as possible” (UCLA) comeback. It makes sense that SUPERBAD co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are Producers, as this film often feels like the female cousin to that 2007 film. Hannibal Buress has a small memorable role, as does Jimmy Bellinger, as fedora wearing Chad. The real standouts here are relative newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan, and John Cena, who previously has excelled with less screen time (DADDYS HOME 2, TRAINWRECK). Many will be offended on numerous occasions, and certainly most parents will be uncomfortable with the drug use and sexcapades of teenagers. However, the theater was often filled with boisterous laughter, proving that this is what constitutes contemporary cinematic comedy. Only you can decide if you are OK with that.

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