Monday Movies: When Jews Were Funny and I, Frankenstein

Jewish comedy deconstructed with style in Zweig doc; I Frankenstein a poorly sewn together beast of a film

Kvetching about comedy

There’s a personal aspect to the films of writer-director Alan Zweig (I, Curmudgeon), and rarely moreso than with When Jews Were Funny. His documentary makes the claim that Jews have a special style of humour, and performers like Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and Rodney Dangerfield profoundly influenced comedy in North America. Things get off to a rocky start with Zweig’s first interview, as the legendary Shelley Berman, a bit confused and grumpy, repudiates Zweig’s thesis about the uniqueness of Jewish comedy. The pace then picks up considerably as more contemporary comics such as Gilbert Gottfried and David Steinberg flesh out Zweig’s notion with insights about how the oppression experienced by immigrant Jews was translated into passive-aggressive wit.

“Comedy was Jewish jazz,” explains Mark Breslin, founder of the Yuk Yuk’s comedy chain, explaining that the rhythm of Jewish comics was inherited from Yiddish. “And it was used as an expression of our frustration and powerlessness,” he adds. Many classic jokes are proffered throughout the film (as well as great archival footage, including some of Henny Youngman tossing off his signature quips). Most of the jokes are too long to quote, but here’s one that neatly captures the Jewish tradition of kvetching: “A waiter walks up to a table of older Jewish women and asks, ‘Is anything alright?’ ”

For Zweig, humour like that represents the uniqueness of Jewish character – which he fears is becoming terribly diluted now that Jews have become integrated into North American society. And as Zweig solicits nostalgic memories from his interview subjects, his questions about the meaning of Jewishness reach the proportion of an existential crisis. A few interviewees become concerned about his malaise, with one female comic half-jokingly suggesting he needs therapy. In short, Funny isn’t a laugh riot as much as it is an intriguing ride-along with a bunch of hilarious, smart, self-aware characters you’d love to visit a deli with.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

I, Frankfurter

Forget Rob Ford and Justin Bieber, the real bad boy last week was a dog of a movie called I, Frankenstein. This ponderous supernatural thriller stars Victor Frankenstein’s “monster,” that poor creature stitched together from spare body parts collected from the graveyard and “refreshed” with a few jolts of electricity. In this version, Aaron Eckhart plays the sullen outcast who, early in the movie, is set upon by a squad of demons. A scrappy street brawler with an impressive six-pack, he does an impressive job of defending himself. He also gets some help from flying gargoyles who – wouldn’t you know it? – are angelic intermediaries who spend most of the time sitting in stony silence on the roofs of gothic churches but occasionally fight their mortal enemies.

As the movie jumps two centuries into the modern day, it seems that the demons are still hunting “Adam” (as he was christened by the gargoyle queen), as he is the key to a dire plot to reanimate a corpse army and take over the planet. And Adam, after sulking for 200 years, has decided to team up with the gargoyles and save the human race – mostly because he’s found a sexy blonde doctor who thinks he’s kinda cute, notwithstanding all his stitches and that bad attitude.

So, after starting with this stunningly stupid premise, pilfering visual ideas from good movies such as The Matrix, making do with awful dialogue and tedious plot exposition, then electrifying the resulting shambles with endless jolts of CGI, Frankenstein was sent staggering towards the multiplex in a crude and joyless approximation of cinematic entertainment.

Rating: ★

(When Jews Were Funny runs Wed.-Thurs., Feb. 5-6 at UVic’s Cinecenta; I, Frankenstein continues at the Westshore & SilverCity)

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Blue Bridge Theatre
Stratford star teams up with Blue Bridge Theatre

A New Take on a Perennial Favourite

The COVID-19 pandemic had an effect on film production on central and north Vancouver Island, says Vancouver Island North Film Commission. Pictured here, production of TV series Resident Alien in Ladysmith earlier this year. (Black Press file)
Film commissioner says COVID-19 cost central Island $6 million in economic activity

Jurassic World: Dominion, Chesapeake Shores among productions halted due to pandemic, says INFilm

Chelsey Moore’s character Chloe in the upcoming virtual reality game Altdeus: Beyond Chronos. Screengrab
Vancouver Island actress finds success in a virtual world

Black Creek’s Chelsey Moore lends her voice to a new video game set for release in December

Ceramic artist Darrel Hancock working on a clay jug in his home studio in Qualicum Beach. (Submitted photo)
Qualicum Beach potter Darrel Hancock celebrates 40 years in business

‘It’s wonderful to do what you love and make a living at it’

Dennis and Jenny Shorty, from Ross River, Yukon perform with others as Dena Zagi – combining traditional Dena First Nations themes and lyrics with contemporary musical styles. (Courtesy West Coast Reach Association)
National names mingle with Greater Victoria talent for diverse, free concert

Virtual event commemorates Human Solidarity Day, International Day of Persons With Disabilities

The Chemainus Theatre Festival’s Playbill Dining Room reopened to host small musical performances. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Chemainus Theatre receives Island Coastal Economic Trust funding

Project will involve recording and live-streaming Playbill Presents series content

Nanaimo ballerina Jillian Vanstone is giving a hometown performance at the Port Theatre on Dec. 12. (Photo courtesy Karolina Kuras)
National Ballet of Canada principal dancer’s hometown return postponed

Nanaimo’s Jillian Vanstone will celebrate favourite choreographer at the Port Theatre at a later date

Stephen Laidlaw, prepator with Nanaimo Art Gallery, hangs a photograph of Anna Wong, a B.C. print maker whose works are on display at the gallery. The exhibit opens Friday, Dec. 4, and runs until Feb. 7. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo Art Gallery exhibit explores life work of overlooked B.C. printmaker

‘Anna Wong: Traveller on Two Roads’ features more than 70 art works and personal belongings

Nanaimo rappers Konfidential and Teus released their first joint album, <em>The Invasion</em>. (Photo courtesy Raymond Knight)
Nanaimo rappers Konfidential and Teus release first joint album

Duo plan elaborate live-streamed CD release for ‘The Invasion’

Next month Nanaimo musician Spencer Hiemstra releases his solo debut album, ‘Wildlife.’ (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo musician Spencer Hiemstra releases solo debut album

New record ‘Wildlife’ about taking chances and going through changes

Dover Bay Secondary School student Victoria Hathfield’s poem <em>Dear Santa</em> appears in<em> Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas is in the Air</em>. (Photo courtesy Darren Lee)
Nanaimo high schooler has first poem published in ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’

Victoria Hathfield’s ‘Dear Santa’ appears in new Christmas-themed edition of anthology series

Nanaimo graphic designer Amy Pye has written and illustrated her first children’s book, <em>G is for Grizzly Bear: A Canadian Alphabet</em>. (Photo courtesy Amy Pye)
Nanaimo graphic designer releases first children’s book

Amy Pye teaches the Canadian alphabet in ‘G is for Grizzly Bear’

Most Read