Our resident critic, Allen Weiner, provides you with a curated list of videos/series/films you should (or shouldn’t) watch right now. Enjoy.
Somewhere, hunched over a TV tray having dinner with his pal Carl Reiner, the great Mel Brooks is rolling his eyes. Same goes for mockumentary master Christopher Guest.
“Understudies,” a well-meaning, snappily produced webseries about an actress who takes on the role of an understudy in a farcical vampire/romantic drama hybrid, oozes with overt, oddly replicated homages to “The Producers” and any one of Guest’s series of popular cinematic send-ups. A webseries aiming to punch well above the weight of the typical original YouTube satire, the result here (at least in the first three episodes), is an uneven comedy with a few clever bits surrounded by earnestly performed yet tired dialog.
The plot focuses on actress Astoria Bragg (Elisabeth Gray) who lands her dream part — the female understudy to “Twilight at Tiffany’s,” described as a vampire erotic version of the classic 1961 Audrey Hepburn film. Accompanying Gray are her narcissistic actress mother (Tony-Award winning Alison Fraser), worthless manager (David Pengilly), and misguided director (Henning Hegland) along with a surprisingly strong cast of extras including Mike Reiss of “The Simpsons” and Murphy Guyer (“House of Cards”) as a smarmy investor in the play. “My husband likes naked women,” Guyer’s web series wife admits.
With all of its derivative faults, there is a spark of entertainment in the first three episodes, which were shown exclusively on Broadwayworld.com until landing this week on the show’s own YouTube channel. The set-up presentation of Gray as a struggling actress, with a degree from a university in Saskatchewan, helps build a witty backstory and Fraser’s role as Gray’s former ingenue mother is dead on with the requisite amount of camera mugging. There also is reason to believe in the promise of the subsequent episodes (no telling how many) which will feature Richard Kind and the once-ravishing Elizabeth Ashley.
“Understudies” brings together the writing/producing talent of Gray (a BAFTA-award-winner who once appeared in a stage version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) and South African writer/director Daniel Zimbler.
One of the more common threads in the world of low-barrier-to-entry web series is the notion that the actors/writers/directors/producers and even the craft personnel want to escape the shackles of the “Hollywood system.” No more casting couch for those wanting to turn the world of TV and video on its ear.
“L.A. Beer,” a new outside-the-system web series, hopes to succeed in a disruptive, digital marketplace powered by consumer voice, social media influence, and viral uptake. Launching on May 11 in conjunction with American Craft Beer Week, “L.A. Beer” comes to online viewers with the claim of being the first show of its genre to be filmed in front of a live studio audience. As such, the promo copy says, laughs are real. The episodes themselves, while wildly ambitious, are a bit uneven, especially in the area of plot.
The setting is a small, craft brewing operation with an assortment of the usual sitcom-ish characters, although their individual tasks at the sudsery are a bit nonspecific save for the intern and accountant. We get the idea that the place is operating on a shoestring, hence an episode in which the team tries to raise money on Kickstarter (art imitating life here, as the show’s initial $28k of funding came from Kickstarter) to come out with a line of snazzy beer cans. The two episodes previewed showed some solid acting — most notably from Alicia Ying as Andrea and Arianna Ortiz as Michelle — but the storylines mostly wilt on the vine without reaching any fruition.
Even with the aforementioned shortcomings, “L.A. Beer” deserves attention for its sophisticated approach to the emerging web series genre. There’s a sense that, over time, many of the kinks will be ironed out to reveal a clever series. Like a good brew, sometimes a formula needs some extra time to be ready for consumpion.
With the Montreal Webfest coming in a few weeks, it’s worth noting the winner of this year’s Webfest Montreal Grand Prize at the recent LA Webfest. It’s as clear as mud how the two webfests and awards are connected, but for the sake of unearthing a great web series, let’s suspend disbelief and take a gander at “YidLife Crisis.”
Winner of the comedy slot of this rather obtuse award, “YidLife Crisis” is a series that has nothing to do with religion despite the fact that a) it’s done entirely in Yiddish (with subtitles) and b) our protagonists are of the Jewish faith and enter into deep discussions — well maybe deep is an overstatement — about those matters that touch our personal beliefs. Yes, such important topics as whether or not to order a smoked meat (that’s Montreal’s take on pastrami) with or without gobs of gooey fat. And then there’s a philosophical debate over the bagel, which leads to a battle between Montreal’s two best known purveyors of roundish breakfast breads.
While comedy (especially in the form of web series) often does lend itself to deep introspection, the universal theme of “YidLife Crisis” is about maintaining cultural and religious differences during turbulent times. It is also a glimpse into two friends (also the co-creators), Chaimie (Jamie Elman) and Leizer (Eli Batalion) and their freewheeling, somewhat off-center distributes about sex, food, lactose intolerance, women, and the Talmud. Well, less about the Talmud and more about food.
“Yidlife Crisis” is nominated as one of the six comedies at the upcoming May 15–16 Montreal Webfest.