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Catching Up On 2018: Josh Reviews Song of Back and Neck

Wait, what, I never got around to posting a review of one of my favorite films of 2018?  Time to remedy that immediately!  I’m talking about Song of Back and Neck, the small, sweet, funny, weird film written by, directed by, and starring Paul Lieberstein (Toby from The Office).  

Song of Back and Neck is a wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic movie about a sweet, mousy man named Fred Trolleycar (Paul Lieberstein) who suffers from debilitating chronic back pain.  His journey to deal with that pain leads Fred to some delightfully unexpected places.  The film takes some wonderfully weird turns that I don’t want to spoil.  But I will say that the film allows Fred to form a strange and surprising connection with music (the “Song” in the film’s title does connect to some of what actually happens in the film, though not in the way you’d probably expect) as he goes on this journey that results in his facing some of the psychological wounds that he had tried to bury.

The film is loosely based by Mr. Lieberstein’s own personal experiences with back pain, and how he addressed what he discovered were the psychological underpinnings of his affliction.  I’m not sure I quite buy any of that, but Mr. Lieberstein makes a strong case for the truth behind his own personal experiences in this wonderful, lengthy in-depth interview on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, which is where I first discovered that this movie existed.  (Mr. Pollak’s wonderful, and deeply missed podcast led me to a number of great little films last year that I never would have known about, such as Jenna Laurenzo’s Lez Bomb.)

I was taken by this film right from the wonderfully funny opening sequence, in which we see the crazy lengths that Fred has to go through in order to get dressed and out the door in the morning.  The story that follows is funny and sad and sweet and moving.  I wouldn’t call this film a comedy, per se, but it is very, very funny at times.  It’s not a straight-up drama, either, though the film has some touching and painful dramatic moments.  There’s a slightly fantastical twist that the film takes at one point, but it’s all very grounded in the reality of life for real, every-day people.  It’s weird, but it all works.

Mr. Lieberstein is terrific in the leading role.  I always loved his performance as sad-sack Toby on The Office, and it’s fantastic to see Mr. Lieberstein in the center-ring spotlight of his own movie.  I also knew, by paying attention to the credits on The Office, that Mr. Lieberstein was clearly a terrific writer, and it’s fascinating to see … [continued]

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From The DVD Shelf: Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

I have been really enjoying, recently, the work of Mark Duplass, both in front of and behind the camera.  As a writer/director, working with his brother Jay Duplass, he’s helmed some great films.  I thought Cyrus was good (click here for my review) and I thought Jeff, Who Lives at Home was spectacular (click here for my review).  I’ve also been very impressed with Mr. Duplass as an actor, in films like Greenberg and Zero Dark Thirty, but particularly in the wonderful Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review).  And so I was drawn to check out the indie film Your Sister’s Sister, also starring Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt.  I love all three performers, so I was interested to see what this film was all about.

The film starts in an uncomfortable place.  We see a group of friends gathering to remember someone who had died, a year previously.  When Jack (Mark Duplass) makes a bit of an angry mess of things, we understand that it’s his brother who they are remembering.  His friend Iris (Emily Blunt) strongly suggests that he take some time to get ahold of himself and try to find a way to move forward, and she offers to let her stay at her family’s isolated cabin.  When Jack arrives, he’s startled to find someone already there: Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt).  Jack is clearly in love with Iris — or at least, strongly attracted to her — a situation complicated by the fact that she is his dead brother’s former girlfriend.  Things get even more complicated when, that first night in the cabin, Jack and Hannah — both drunk and lonely — sleep with one another.  When Iris arrives unexpectedly the next morning, surprising both Jack and Hannah, things come to a head.

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, Your Sister’s Sister is a wrenching-at-times character study of these three people, each of whom is somewhat broken and lonely.  The film elapses over the course of just a few days, mostly time spent by the three together in the cabin.  It is extremely awkward and painful at times.  I was immediately rooting for Jack and Iris to find a happy ending together, and it’s tough watching them seem to drift further and further apart as the film progresses.

The central situation of the film — the complex romantic entanglement between the three characters — seems a little far-fetched and almost sitcom-y, but the film treats the story incredibly seriously.  As a result, the film has a naturalistic, honest feeling.  That set-up could have been the start of a farcical film filled with goofy mis-understandings and one-liners, but … [continued]