Sundance 2017: 'The Polka King' + 'Band Aid'

Jack Black in The Polka King (2017)

Two films about very different musical genres -- from polka to sweet crooning to punk-rock screaming -- take center stage at Sundance Film Festival 2017.

The Polka King

Cast: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman
Directors: Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-01-22

Band Aid

Director: Zoe Lister-Jones
Cast: Adam Pally, Zoe Lister-Jones, Fred Armisen
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-01-24

There may be a sucker born every minute, but they don’t make dreamers like Jan Lewan, anymore. The story behind The Polka King must be true because no screenwriter could imagine a character like Lewan. Inspired by the 2009 documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky plug the electric Jack Black into a role he was born to play.

Jan Lewan immigrated to America from Poland with one simple goal: Create a polka empire! He eventually conjured the American dream through hard work, charisma, and larceny. Lewan so thoroughly believed in his polka destiny that he enticed his geriatric fans to purchase millions in promissory notes from him. By the time Lewan was accused of fixing the 1998 Mrs. Pennsylvania contest for his wife Marla (Jenny Slate), he had become a Grammy-nominated musician and a cultural icon.

Lewan isn’t a bad guy, he’s just gloriously ambitious. When Capitalism crawled from the primordial economic ooze, it was probably headed to Lewan’s house for dinner. There are only three things in the world that he loves more than money and fame: America, God, and Marla. Perhaps Lewan’s torturous downfall can be attributed to the basic opposition of these three masters.

Black’s infectious energy and halting Polish accent keep you firmly entrenched in Lewan’s corner, regardless of his thirst for petty cash. You’re happy when he succeeds, disappointed when he’s punished, and relieved when he emerges on the other side. Black thoroughly inhabits this tornado of a man, spinning around the stage and performing polka tunes in real time. Like Black, Lewan was dedicated to putting on a good show. This was the man, after all, who had both a dancing chicken and a dancing bear in his act.

Forbes and Wolodarsky (Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)) obviously have great compassion for their flawed hero, so they give him ample opportunity to do the right thing. When a SEC investigator finally visits Lewan about his illegal scheme, he’s startled to realize that this cherubic hustler has no concept of his own wrongdoing.

“I not liar, I believer!” Lewan insists.

Still, the filmmakers know that Lewan is a dangerous perversion of the American dream who duped his elderly fans out of millions, so they keep plenty of skeptics around the periphery. Chief among them is Marla’s mother (Jacki Weaver), who never misses an opportunity to communicate the idiocy of Lewan’s polka dreams and the inevitability of his criminality. It has little impact on Marla, who refuses to believe that her husband -- a man who works multiple jobs just to support them -- could be involved with such crooked enterprise.

Weaver is the true star of the show, and perhaps of the entire festival. The precision and ferocity with which she lands her vulgar barbs is truly astounding. She's a churning ball of aggression that destroys any poor soul crossing her path. She thinks nothing of berating a 90-year-old woman for being foolish enough to believe Lewan and then slaps her across the face for good measure.

The real issue with The Polka King is that it skimps on the big laughs. Things must move at a brisk pace to track Lewan’s entire career trajectory, which leaves little time to construct proper gags. Lewan’s trip to Vatican City to see the Pope, for instance, could be the basis for a much larger sequence, but the filmmakers are content to punch the jokes home and then move on. The third act, too, flags a bit as Lewan finally faces his judicial comeuppance.

The Polka King is a modestly ambitious film that wants only to entertain you. It marginally succeeds, thanks to the performances of Black and Weaver, and a bizarre mixture of polka and crime.

Fred Armisen, Adam Pally, and Zoe Lister-Jones in Band Aid (2017)

If The Polka King worries about the power to corrupt, Band Aid is more concerned about its ability to heal.

Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) like to fight. A lot. In fact, the only thing they seem to enjoy more than fighting is spending time together. They have one of those soulful relationships that allows them to complete each other’s sentences or share a good Holocaust joke (they’re both Jewish). After suffering a tragic loss nearly a year ago, their marriage became one long sparring match; each dealing with the grief in their own dysfunctional way.

Band Aid is a passion project for Zoe Lister-Jones, who also wrote and directed the film. Her sarcastic sensibilities permeate everything. She has no trouble mocking parenthood, relationships, or next door neighbors with weird sexual addictions. Finally, trapped in a cycle of blowouts and bitterness, Anna and Ben decide to deconstruct their frustrations through song. They form a band that quickly rekindles their passion for life and each other.

Granted, these songs won’t exactly be challenging “Stairway to Heaven” for airtime. Anna and Ben alternate between sweet crooning and punk-rock screaming about matters ranging from dirty dishes to lack of libido. When the couple sits down to compose their ‘Top Ten Fights of All Time,’ they quickly realize that ten slots aren’t enough. They recruit their sex-addled neighbor, Weird Dave (Fred Armisen), as both a mediator and drummer and begin jamming in the garage.

Band Aid is a film with lots on its mind about the ever-confounding gender gap, particularly when it comes to dealing with raw emotions. There’s not much new ground to conquer here; men compartmentalize until the emotions can no longer be ignored and women try to experience all the emotions simultaneously. It doesn’t take a power seminar with John Gray to diagnose what Anna and Ben are doing wrong.

This simplistic approach to complex problems means that Band Aid is little more than a glorified comedy sketch sprinkled with a few dramatic outbursts. It’s ironic that Armisen is here because Band Aid feels more like an outtake from Portlandia than a feature film. Yes, there are a few inspired gags, as when Ben accidentally steps into a mouse trap during an impromptu whoopie session in the garage (“Just power through!”), but there's far too much filler. Making fun of hippies in a drum circle might read funny on a script page, but it’s a momentum killer on the screen.

The amazing chemistry between Lister-Jones and Pally is almost enough to ignore these shortcomings. The film’s first act, especially, features such an impressive barrage of one-liners that you almost feel sad when the musical numbers begin. That most of these ‘songs’ are two verse ditties with meandering guitar hooks means the musical interludes are far from memorable. The premise, while clever, undermines Lister-Jones’ obvious gifts as a comedy writer, and highlights her lesser talents as a singer and songwriter.

Still, Band Aid is populated by likable characters, stinging dialogue, and a comedy team in Lister-Jones and Pally who should work together in the future. It’s a pleasant enough trifle, even if you won’t be demanding an encore.

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