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Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s The Polka King is a frisky and energetic comedy with a snappy, screwball spirit, which isn’t exactly a given, considering the subject matter: it’s the true story of Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant and Pennsylvania polka bandleader who bilked fans and friends (most of them elderly) out of $4.9 million in an elaborate “investment” Ponzi scheme. He was a good con artist for one simple reason: he was a total charmer. He seemed like such a nice guy. And in many ways he was; this was a man who wanted to do right, but just couldn’t help himself. His longing for success and importance was just too great. Or, as he puts it, “You know I have dream. We’re gonna be big famous!”
Lewan is played by Jack Black, in one of those turns that reminds us of what makes him such an engaging presence: his pure joy of performance, both when he’s onstage (he goes for the gusto in those polka numbers) and off. It’s a broad character – the accent, the clothes, the spirit – but Black sells him. You believe this guy, and even like him; The Polka King is not dissimilar to Bernie, primarily in Black’s ability to make a bad person utterly sympathetic.
“Some things you say so you can make happen,” Black’s Lewan insists. “Nothing happen without you believe!” And that’s ultimately the out he gives himself: “I’m not a liar – I believer!” So yeah, it’s the story of a huckster who promised the moon to a bunch of working class people, nothing too timely or relevant there. But even if things had gone a different way in November, The Polka King would still resonate – it speaks to a drive and desire, in both its protagonist and those he takes advantage of, that goes back much further than this cycle. Or, as he sings in his big patriotic number: “Now I am an American/ I am just one of you!”
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The first scribble in my notes for Janicza Bravo’s Lemon reads, “WHAT A WEIRD OPENING.” I probably should’ve gone back after for an edit: “WHAT A WEIRD MOVIE.” Lemon is an aggressively odd picture, an absurdist piece of sprung storytelling, filled with odd little scenes, unexpected edits, and strange compositions. Its characters are inexplicable, and they spend most of their interactions talking past each other.
The main one is Isaac, played by the distinctive character actor Brett Gellman (who co-wrote the script with director Bravo). He’s an actor, sort of, an and acting teacher, but a very bad one; the funniest scenes are the borderline abusive scene work he does with poor Gillian Jacobs and Michael Cera, who’s spot-on as a wildly pretentious thesp who spouts nonsense like “I’ve been doing a lot of animal work.” But it’s mostly about Isaac’s breakup with his blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), his career woes, and a Passover dinner with his family that’s one of the oddest family gatherings I’ve ever seen, in a movie or real life.
It is, in other words, not a conventional comedy; in fact, it barely qualifies as a comedy at all, staking out a claim in its own, strange territory. But taken on its own bonkers terms, Lemon sort of works. Sure, it gets more than a little exhausting, too self conscious (or self-congratulatory) of its own peculiarity. I’m not even sure what it’s doing half the time. But in a festival where even the best films fit snugly into easily-labeled boxes, it’s refreshing to see this high caliber a cast at the service of such a singular, odd vision.
Stanley Nelson has become one of our most invaluable chroniclers of the black experience in America. His documentary credits, most of them for PBS’s American Experience, include Freedom Summer, Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till, and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (he also helmed the excellent Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple). His latest is Tell Them We Are Rising, a history and celebration of historical black colleges and universities, and as per usual, it is thoughtful, meticulous, and informative, if somewhat stylistically staid.
His story reaches clear back to the times of slavery, in which knowledge and reading (or “talking to books”) were seen as currency by slaves and a threat to a docile work force by white landowners and lawmakers. The film carefully traces through the first, post-Civil War black schools (and the logistical difficulties of getting them up and running), the vital questions of what kind of education African-Americans should receive (i.e., the long-running controversy over intellectual vs. vocational pursuits), and finally, the creation of campus spaces that belonged to black people, and offered an escape from the segregation of the rest of the world.
Much of this is fascinating, but the real power here is in how Nelson tells the stories that (to these eyes, at least) are lesser known: the riots of the “Red Summer” of 1919, following black soldiers’ return home from WWI; the Fisk University student protests of the mid 1920s; and most of all, the Southern University protests of 1972, which became a stand-off with police and then a shoot-out, leaving two students dead. (It’s strange how Kent State is always discussed in histories of the era’s protests, while this story is summarily ignored. I wonder why that is? I have a theory!)
In style and structure, this is very much at PBS documentary: chapter headings, archival film and photos, letters and other texts read aloud, talking heads galore. But it’s an excellent PBS documentary; after all, there’s nothing wrong with conventional form when the content is this compelling.
Somehow, we’ll have even more Sundance coverage tomorrow, with (if all goes well) mini-reviews of Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, and the documentaries Nobody Speak (on the Gawker/Hulk Hogan trial) and 78/52 (on Psycho’s shower scene). Until then…