Tag Archives: Michael Mayer

Shabbat Shalom

Happy Times

by Cat McAlpine

Tensions at a Shabbat dinner party turn dangerous when a group of Israeli-American friends, family, and business partners boil over before coffee and dessert. Dangerous egos, backstabbing, cheating in love and money, and a struggle for social power all contribute to a brutal and increasingly absurd crescendo of blood and water.

You know, Happy Times.

Michael Mayer’s unique view as director and writer, with co-writer Guy Ayal, keeps the horror comedy from falling too flat. The stereotypes Mayer introduces don’t just create a thrilling sequence of clashes, but also bring out fun performances from the cast as a whole. A conceited struggling actor is moments away from losing it. A young man’s lust for a married woman is bound to get him in trouble. A shady business deal fails to get off the ground and clogs the works.

The characters in Happy Times are vibrant, and though largely unlikeable, you can’t stop watching their descent into chaos. Michael Aloni bristles with ego and rage as Michael. Liraz Chamami is captivating as Sigal, constantly trying to recorrect the course of the evening with hilarious timing and a casual brutality. Stéfi Celma is a lovely straight man to the madness that unfolds around her as the cultural outsider, Aliyah. The full ensemble brings a delightful sin and indulgence to the scene.

As Happy Times continues it starts to lose the plot a bit, with a snowballing bloodlust carrying the final third of the film. But the absurdity is baked in by the final moments. I was left shaking my head and thinking, “Sure. Why not?”

Though it is missing some sparkle at the end, there can’t always be a winner in a social situation as messy as this one. The slow burn of Happy Times perfectly builds the necessary tensions to support its later rampage.

The true success of this film is in the characters it creates, and those characters are what carry genuine laughter and shock. Whether you love or hate your family, Happy Times is a cathartic release of tensions anyone will recognize.

Love Stinks

The Seagull

by George Wolf

You love her, but she loves him, and he loves somebody else…

J. Geils may have rocked it up, but Russian playwright Anton Chekov was singing that tune in 1895 with The Seagull. Darker shades pepper the comedic take on unrequited love, and director Michael Mayer is the latest to bring that balancing act to the big screen.

He’s blessed with a wonderful cast. Saoirse Ronan shines again as Nina, a starry-eyed young woman who longs for a life on the stage. Nina’s boyfriend Konstantin (Billy Howle) dreams of writing plays for her, but things get complicated when the couple meets up with family, friends and servants at a country estate in the early 20th century.

Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, Corey Stoll, Brain Dennehy and Mare Winngham are customarily wonderful. There’s no denying everyone here is committed, but Mayer and writer Stephen Karam (adapting Chekov) can’t find the balance between comedy and drama, or stage and screen.

The setting is perfectly lush, and the material has certainly lost little of its relevance over the many years, but all the worthy parts are never assembled into anything more than serviceable.

The comedic barbs early on seem too restrained, and the later tragedies too melodramatic. Some staging seems lifted straight from a stage production, while other set pieces breath with more freedom.

Give the relatively inexperienced writer/director team credit for taking on The Seagull. Getting the competing themes to work in unison is no easy feat, and this latest film version is a well-intentioned testament to that very challenge.