Sunday, July 22, 2018

“KING COHEN” SHOWCASES THE MAVERICK AND PROLIFIC FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN

Original caricature by Jeff York of filmmaker Larry Cohen (circa 1975).
Few filmmakers have had as long a career, or as idiosyncratic a one, as Larry Cohen. He’s created TV shows, made classic horror movies, helped forge black cinema, and written high concept thrillers that percolated through each of the last four decades. He’s also one of those rarest of rare triple threats in Hollywood, a person who writes, directs and produces. And yet, despite having an IMDB.com page that lists 87 writing credits, 21 directing credits, and 20 producing credits, few know the name or face of this prolific artist. That’s about to change with the new documentary KING COHEN. It’s a tribute, as well as a chronicle of this maverick filmmaker. His work is well worth such a thorough examination, and even more worthy of being discovered anew by younger or unsuspecting audiences.

Documentary filmmaker Steve Miller tells the story here in a mostly straight-forward fashion, weaving Cohen’s personal history in sequence with the highlights of his career. It starts with his youth, when Cohen was a precocious whippersnapper, loving his family’s attention when he’d perform and displaying a distinct flair for what tickles an audience. He wanted to be a stand-up, adored the entertainment industry, and went to the movies 2-3 times a week for years. After attending New York city college, Cohen started writing scripts and soon was hawking them to producers down at Rockefeller Plaza.


It paid off. While barely in his 20’s, the tenacious and persuasive Cohen was writing scripts for hit shows like THE DEFENDERS and THE FUGITIVE. He penned dozens of them for almost as many series from 1964-1965, and then created his own four shows including THE INVADERS and BRANDED. He did all of this before he was 30. Miller blends terrific clips from these shows interspersed with Cohen’s anecdotes about each one, and the filmmaker is quite the raconteur being himself. One can see the Borscht Belt comedian he once desired to be there still in his impeccable timing with an anecdote and punchline.

Miller could’ve just let Cohen speak for two hours, and it would have made an excellent documentary, better than Brian De Palma’s uninspired blathering in the study of his films in 2015. The documentarian ups the ante considerably though by getting dozens of Cohen’s contemporaries to share their own stories, including Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, Joe Dante, Traci Lords, Fred Williamson, John Landis, Rick Baker, Michael Moriarty, Eric Roberts and Yaphet Kotto. 

It’s especially impressive to hear Scorsese discuss Cohen’s oeuvre, knowing that he came up at the same time. He’s a great admirer of the trailblazing daredevil that Cohen was, and he recognizes the importance of his unique contributions to cinematic storytelling and guerilla filmmaking techniques. Scorsese can relate especially to the total control Cohen desired as a filmmaker, responsible for all aspects of his products without studio interference.


Cohen was not only a wunderkind but an auteur who was obsessed with making sure what he wrote ended up on the screen. That’s why when he started making movies, Cohen insisted on getting final cut, as well as the choice of whom he would take on producing partners. Naturally, Cohen favored those producers who coughed up a lot of cash but remained silent partners throughout his shooting and post. He worked a lot with Samuel Z. Arkoff, the same producer who helped bring Roger Corman's work to the screen. He saw the same maverick qualities in Cohen and gave him lots of free reign. 

Some of the funniest stories in the documentary share how Cohen “stole” scenes for his movies, shooting in public areas, filled with real citizens as his extras, without ever getting permits. It saved tons of time and money. The scene from BLACK CAESAR where Williamson is shot on the street and people think he’s really been hurt is both hilarious and frightening. Cohen made them believe it was real and such “authenticity” gave his independent films the naturalism that helped come to define cinema of the 1970’s. 

One of the most admirable things about Cohen in his career is that he never looked down his nose at the pulpy genres he used to tell his stories. He loved a good yarn, no matter whether it was for B-pictures, blaxploitation, or kitschy monster movies. That love helped make more out of those genres, and he paved the way for many young filmmakers who followed to do the same. Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, and yes, Scorsese all owe a debt of gratitude to Cohen for his abilities to make horror thrilling, intelligent, and better than the average schlock being spit out for drive-ins and grindhouses. They learned well from the master.


Cohen, as the doc points out, also worked with an incredible array of talent who signed on to due to the power of his scripts. Classic film stars like Broderick Crawford, Bette Davis, Jose Ferrer, Celeste Holm, and Sylvia Sidney all signed up for his films, as well as future up-and-comers like Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, and Armand Assante. Cohen made a star out of Williamson and told African-American stories on the big screen when few were telling them. Cohen's films, like BLACK CAESAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, truly resonated in the black community as well as with general audiences. As Cohen knew, an entertaining tale would appeal to all, and indeed, almost all of his work found an audience.  

The lion’s share of the doc focuses on Cohen’s horror films. His output worked as both scream-fests and social satires. IT’S ALIVE, about a monster baby terrorizing the city, was written due to Larry’s distaste for the noise, mess, and neediness of infants. He bet that others would find such dislike relatable and he was right as the film became an (ahem) monster hit and mustered two successful sequels. 

He shot the B-monster movie entitled Q, about a winged dragon terrorizing New Yorkers, to play as both a schlocky send-up and a social satire as it commented on criminal rehabilitation, animal rights, and even urban renewal.


Many of his films were over-the-top, crude, or exploitative, like THE STUFF, a satiric frightener about a yogurt-type snack that starts to eat its consumers, but no matter how bombastic they appeared, there was also a lot of subtlety and nuance in the scripts. Cohen’s writing was always filled with layers, endless wicked wit, and very rich and distinct characters. He worked fast and cheap, but his screenplays were never rushed and inane. Hence, his resume stands the test of time and garners more respect with each passing year.


There’s almost too much career to discuss, and Miller’s doc barely touches on pulpy thrillers like BEST SELLER (1987), MANIAC COP (1988), and GUILTY AS SIN (1993) that Cohen did when he returned to his focus on screenwriting. His personal life after his childhood doesn't get a lot of screen time either, even though his first wife and early co-producer Janelle Webb talks extensively on camera, as does his current wife, psychologist Cynthia Costas Cohen. And it would’ve been great to hear about the numerous stories he provided for the classic TV series COLUMBO too. (He came up with the story "An Exercise in Fatality" concerning a fitness guru played by Robert Conrad. It was one of the rare COLUMBO episodes where the shrewd detective truly grew to despise his adversary.) 

Still, this terrific documentary covers a lot of ground. Cohen says towards the end that his long career could warrant a sequel to this doc. And something tells me that Cohen isn't finished as a filmmaker quite yet. Indeed, let's hope his career is just like that monster baby of his – it’s alive, it's still alive!

Friday, July 20, 2018

DENZEL WASHINGTON'S AVENGING ANGEL LORDS OVER "THE EQUALIZER 2"



There are few actors working today who completely dominate every scene they’re in like Denzel Washington. His steely gaze, his physical bulk, even his rack of teeth flashing the grin of a shark – they not only trump everyone else in a scene, but they also project power like few in cinema have ever exhibited. Morgan Freeman may have the “voice of God,” but Washington has the sheer presence of a deity. And in THE EQUALIZER 2, the bad guys, and evil in general, never stand a chance against his avenging angel. 

THE EQUALIZER 2, written by Richard Wenk, and directed by Antoine Fuqua, lets Washington dominate all the rock ‘em, sock ‘em action, as well as find plenty of time for his ex-CIA operative Robert McCall to share his Zen life philosophy with everyone within earshot. Right off the bat, McCall calmly lectures a sleazebag transporting his young daughter on a train bound for Istanbul after kidnapping her from her mother back in Boston. McCall follows the criminal into the bar car, pummels the man’s cronies in a matter of seconds, and then offers him a choice between “pain that hurts” or “pain that lasts.” Viewing the crumpled bodies around him, the kidnapper chooses wisely and lets McCall return to the States with the child. The girl’s bookstore proprietor mom never finds out that her favorite customer is the one who performed the miracle. He does it for free, out of honor, and because he likes all the old tomes she orders for him at the store.  

McCall himself is a bit of a relic himself. He not only reads out-of-print books, but he’s chivalrous to the bone whether it comes to neighbors or strangers. He is a gentleman who washes the dirty dishes without having to be asked after his old boss Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) brings him homemade soup. Everyone else around him seems jaded, but McCall sees a better way to be and will point the way. That way is one of discipline, principals, and morality.

McCall may be a secret fixer, leveling the playing field for the disenfranchised “little guy,” but his true public service is in the everyday codes he teaches. He shows neighborhood teen Miles (Ashton Sanders) how to take responsibility for his life and reject the influence of the street gang pressuring him. McCall advises his old partner Dave York (Pedro Pascal) to stay loyal to the Agency and the nation, even though he was unceremoniously dumped years back. Washington makes all McCall’s righteousness engaging rather than strident. Steven Seagal failed to achieve the same results in his films playing similar characters, coming off as little more than a smug prick, but Washington is a great actor and star who can sell it. 

What’s impressive is that McCall is essentially a vigilante, not too different from the vengeful, killing machine-types that Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis keep playing, but in Washington’s hands, even his character’s wildly violent actions seem ethical and even laudatory. At 63, the veteran actor carries such authority that we don’t question McCall’s methods as he breaks ribs, wrists, and collar bones of a group of one-percenter johns who abused the stripper he Ubered home. Why call the cops when you can teach such yuppie scum a lesson in a far more arresting manner? 

Yet, even with such displays of body-breaking, this sequel spends far more time emphasizing McCall’s relationship-building. He develops a paternal connection with Miles, and his friendship with Susan showcases a deep and decades-long friendship. Fuqua is an ace action director, but his ability to develop characters truly rises to the tops in scenes like these. He doesn’t rush these moments and ensures they never become dull. Instead, they help draw us even closer to McCall. Sometimes this film seems like a very different movie from its predecessor as there is more time spent mining McCall’s pain when he sees those he cares about threatened or harmed.

It’s almost as if Washington, Fuqua, and Wenk rejected many of the paint-by-numbers tropes of the genre and set out to make a second chapter that stirs the soul more than an audience’s bloodlust. That’s not to say that THE EQUALIZER 2 comes up short on exhilarating action because all the set-pieces play like gangbusters. Particularly riveting is a scene where an assassin tries to take out McCall while he’s driving for Uber, and the crafty ex-CIA operative swerves and spins his car around making the killer feel like he’s in a tumble dryer. The film also keeps a grip on its overarching plot about some rogue agents turning into a cadre of assassins, but that’s not where the filmmakers’ hearts are. They’re more invested in McCall’s time with his Miles or showing help him Holocaust survivor Sam Rubenstein (Orson Bean) reunite with his long-lost sister.  

The script isn’t even that interested in sorting out the logic and timelines regarding the assassin plot. Plot holes as wide as Washington’s grin pop up whenever the film returns to its main story, and York’s motivations are a bit flimsy when he’s revealed as the turncoat baddie. Is he still in the CIA? Is he freelancing for them now? For that matter, why is the retired Susan called in to counsel on the case? And if McCall is supposed to be ‘dead’ and in hiding, why does he appear all over Boston and D.C. without wearing a disguise? The script should’ve smoothed out such intellectual issues, but again, it focuses on the emotional stakes at play instead.  

And through it all, the noise and the quiet, Washington dominates, even surrounded by a group of terrific supporting players. He yields his words with the same power that his character handles automatic weapons. The film may end with a bombastic HIGH NOON style showdown between McCall and four baddies during a hurricane of all things, but in this sequel, the moments of solitude are the ones that speak volumes. The way McCall charms two little girls he’s just met eclipses any of his dispatching of a thug or henchman. All things being equal, it’s in the muted moments where Washington truly commands the screen. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

"UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB" PINS ITS CHARACTERS AND AUDIENCE TO THEIR SEATS


Despite being a horror film cliché so egregious that it was being ridiculed as far back as 1979’s WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, the clueless teen failing to evacuate a house under siege is still employed in far too many frighteners. It’s become especially irritating in genre entries where main characters spend the majority of the story online. In 2014’s UNFRIENDED the narrative struggled valiantly to try and justify why its five teenagers wouldn’t just log off and leave their homes to avoid torment from a vengeful hacker. Its sequel UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB deals with the trope and solves the problem with significantly more success. The villain here is actually an underground cabal with a reach that would envy the Illuminati. The persecuted young folk here have nowhere to run or hide so they might as well stay connected online and suffer together. 

The story starts with 20-something Mattias (Colin Woodell) hooking up his new laptop as he gets ready for an online game night with his friends. Lexx (Savira Windyani) is a hipper-than-thou DJ, Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and her girlfriend Nari (Betty Gabriel) have news about getting engaged, AJ (Connor Del Rio) is a conspiracy theorist with his own YouTube channel, and Damon (Andrew Lees) is a savvy computer expert living across the pond in London. Everything we see in the film is from the POV of Mattias’ new computer and every window he opens on his screen, we experience the same on our movie screen.  

Unfortunately, Mattias is dirt poor and barely has enough money to treat his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras) well, let alone afford a fancy new upgrade from the Apple store. That’s why he’s swiped this laptop from the Lost and Found bin at a local internet café. As he overrides the existing password of the owner to get in, he discovers the traffic history of the original guy and all the nefarious shenanigans he’s been up to. 

Meanwhile, game night awaits, and his unaware buds are pulled into the danger as Mattias lies about how he came by the new laptop and logs them all onto Skype. The handsome, but slow-thinking thief also wastes a lot of time trying to persuade Amaya to forgive him for giving up on trying to learn sign language too. But as Mattias fails to get the game night going smoothly and cajole Amaya into joining them, the original owner logs on from another computer and discovers what Mattias is up to. The villain can see all of Mattias' open windows too, and soon Amaya and all his friends, not to mention online history, are being shared. 

The original owner, monikered “Charon IV” (Douglas Tait), starts threatening Mattias to get his computer back and shows he means business by breaking into Amaya’s apartment as she showers. While there, to get Mattias quaking in his reboots, Charon IV murders Amaya's arriving roomie. Now, at this point, Mattias should log off, get his computer to Charon IV, and save his girl. He's not able to, however, as his friends have figured out some of what's going on, and Mattias needs their computer expertise to help him defeat Charon IV. Soon, they're opening all of the secret files and discovering that their stalker is deeply involved with a deep state online that is kidnapping teens and creating snuff. Worse yet, it looks like the evil undergrounders have members in all corners of the globe. 

This is where the film gets quite smart and eradicates lesser “get out of the house” films. These young Turks realize that they’ve tapped into a truly evil consortium, one with long tentacles across the globe, and they’re just smart enough to be able to hurt them too. Soon, they're hacking into Charon IV's data, downloading it, and identifying his kidnapping victims. AJ and Damon, in particular, prove invaluable as they not only know all the ins and outs of computers, but they have an understanding of the 'Dark Web' as well. (All that conspiracy stuff really helps A.J. fill in the blanks.)  

Mattias, as awful a hero as he is in endangering every one of his friends throughout, is wholly justified in remaining online hereafter as he needs their help to figure out how to best Charon IV. He’s also dependent upon staying online as he needs to keep in contact with Amaya as she is en route to his apartment, while under the constant gaze of the stalking Charon IV. 

As the stakes rise, and the creepiness of this cabal accumulates, especially when dozens of other members hack online too, the friends stay put in front of their computer screens exemplifying a “Hang together or surely hang apart” credo. The fun of the film is showcased with the back and forth between the good guys and the bad guys. Our hopes even raise when they force Charon IV to reveal himself, and he's little more than a spindly 20-something himself. Soon, all kinds of cell phones are being hacked, along with city grids, not to mention the many cameras throughout the city.

It’s refreshing to see characters only a few years past their teens portrayed in horror as being such smart cookies. Usually, they all have it coming from the get-go, but not here. These friends are truly savvy in trying to salvage their fates against enormous odds.  They don’t have quite the mad skills that the organization has, but they’re shrewd enough foils to give the firm a run for its money. It helps make this 88-minute game of “cat and mouse” feel fair, move swiftly, and deliver honest thrills and chills. Kudos to writer/director Stephan Susco for tightening the screws from the moment he starts his story, as well as cinematographer Kevin Stewart and editor Andrew Wesman for ensuring all the action is mean and blunt without being overly graphic. 

Susco does something almost miraculous here too by pinning us all to our seats with one of the most effective villains to appear in a horror movie in a very long time. If Russia can hack our elections, and identify theft can victimize thousands each year, why couldn’t a nefarious organization wreak all kinds of horrible havoc in the lives of everyday folk? This film’s power comes from reckoning that the World Wide Web is really the Wild, Wild, West, an unknown landscape with not nearly enough laws or accountability. 

It’s been a good year for horror with exemplary visceral thrills being delivered by A QUIET PLACE, UPGRADE, HEREDITARY, and now this one. And while UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB isn’t in the league of JAWS or PSYCHO, it does share with them the power to make us evaluate our behavior. How many of us still think about shark attacks when we wade into the ocean or maniacs with a knife when we shower in a hotel? I wonder if the next time we go online to share a selfie, or post something pissy on Twitter, will we wonder if a nefarious cabal is seeing it? And if so, will we unwittingly invite them to hurt us? The Dark Web awaits, people, log on at your own risk.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

"EIGHTH GRADE" IS AN A+ EXAMINATION OF MIDDLE SCHOOL, ZITS AND ALL


Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), the 13-year-old at the center of EIGHTH GRADE, is a teen with a YouTube channel. She has only a handful of followers, but the young girl wants to give others her pearls of wisdom. Kayla cajoles young girls, via self-shot videos filmed in her bedroom, to be themselves and act confident. Unfortunately, Kayla is hardly a role model. Instead, she’s utterly insecure and plagued with self-doubt. In other words, she’s entirely normal, like most other junior high girls who fret zealously over friends, school, and puberty. Such honesty in presenting a teenage girl makes writer/director Bo Burnham’s movie a superior coming-of-age story, and easily one of 2018’s very best films.

There have been many incredible coming-of-age sagas onscreen in the last few years, most notably LADY BIRD in 2017 and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN in 2016. The focus of EIGHTH GRADE is younger, taking place in junior high rather than high school, and its protagonist is not a bold girl like the characters that Saoirse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld played. Instead, Kayla is excessively demure, quiet and tentative, a wholly reactive character. In almost every scene she enters, she does so with uncertain footsteps and a stammering voice. Kayla also fidgets and slouches as her eyes dart about, not quite knowing where to look. Even home is a challenge for her as Kayla’s intrusive widower father (Josh Hamilton) is continually buzzing about, worrying about her. 

While he tries to understand her, Kayla attempts to overcome her fears. She wants to fit in and enjoy life, but she’s trying out different friends and attitudes like they’re items she’s trying on at the Gap. Navigating junior high school is less fun for her, and more an experiment, one that often finds her on edge, almost to the point of walking a tightrope. There’s a lot of pressure to make good grades, attract the right friends, and leave an impactful social media footprint. The fear of ostracization makes her second guess herself regularly, and her jitters are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious. 

We can’t help but be amused by her misguided and unreciprocated crush on Aiden (Luke Prael), a preening, 80-lb. weakling wholly unworthy of her adoration. Her battle to be noticed, but not be notorious is also quite funny, especially when she’s singled out for an award in school, but it’s for the less than stellar title of “Most Quiet.” And when Kayla reluctantly agrees to attend the birthday party of ‘cool girl’ Olivia (Emily Robinson), her embarrassed efforts to wade into the girl’s backyard pool makes for delightful physical comedy. 

Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in EIGHTH GRADE.
Burnham mines it all with a realism seldom seen in the genre. It feels authentic, lived in, almost like a documentary. It helps right off the bat that he casts kids who are age appropriate. His actors don’t have any of that fake Hollywood glamour or Disney Channel precociousness either. Burnham also writes teen dialogue in the way that kids actually speak, filled with plenty of awkward pauses and excessive “likes” and “ums.” It’s all recognizable, insightful, and funny as hell, even though Burnham seldom writes a punchline. 

EIGHTH GRADE can be quite serious too, and Burnham creates pathos and drama just as effectively. It’s sad that Kayla and her father have so much trouble getting on the same wavelength. Additionally, Kayla’s ride home from the mall with an older male classmate almost devolves into disaster when he stops the car and tries to pressure her to remove her top. The specter of assault hangs over the scene for several excruciating moments, but thankfully, Burnham has written a heroine in Kayla who does display some very shrewd self-preservation skills. We laugh with her, cry with her, and even cheer her when she overcomes such obstacles.

Throughout it all, Fisher manages to give one of the most accomplished youth performances ever captured on film. Her ability to make all of Burnham’s written dialogue sound natural, even adlibbed, is an incredible accomplishment for such a young actor. (She was only 14 when the film was made.) The Oscars rarely find room on their Best Actress list for those under 18, but Fisher should be included if there is any justice this awards season. 

Filmmaker Bo Burnham doing his stand-up comedy act.
EIGHTH GRADE is just as extraordinary, telling its story episodically, with no big climax, and few set pieces. Kayla’s arc is achieved in baby steps as she learns from dozens and dozens of smaller experiences, not dissimilar to the educational journey of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson in Greta Gerwig’s stunning film with a similar story last year. In EIGHTH GRADE, the most significant lessons that Kayla learns are the limits of social media and the extent of true friendship. She also comes to understand that even dorky parents mean well, even if they can’t help but stalk you at the mall.  

Interestingly, Burnham thrived in social media, making a name for himself on YouTube and throughout the web. He built up quite a following telling jokes, singing songs, and making short films. Now, at 27, he’s delivered a first feature that is as assured as those done by filmmakers twice his age. There’s an emotional directness to his work, a rare and raw realism like the indie cinema from the 60’s and 70’s. Burnham’s central character of Kayla ends EIGHTH GRADE still very much a work-in-progress. He, on the other hand, comes out as a fully-functioning artist who graduates with honors. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

FEMALE EMPOWERMENT CHARGES THE SECOND SEASON OF THE HIT NETFLIX SERIES "GLOW"

Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of the Netflix series GLOW. (copyright 2018)

On the surface, the first season of Netflix’s hit comedy GLOW was about the start of a women’s wrestling TV show in the 1980’s, but in actuality, it was all about the struggles of actresses. Lead character Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) was such a ‘starving artist’ that she briefly considered the world of porn to make a living before the wrestling opportunity came along. Like her, most of the women who showed up to audition to become one of the Glamorous Ladies of Wrestling were thespians with pitiful resumes. They reluctantly signed on to the show because it was all they could find, and while the new work may have been utterly exploitative, at least they were starring in something. 

The second season that just dropped on Netflix June 29 is still about the actresses trying to make a decent living, but the theme this year isn’t employment, it’s empowerment. The women of GLOW are now settled well into their jobs, but what they want now is more respect. That means better pay and a say in the program they put on the air. The women are all “woke” now, and there is no turning back for any of them. They’ve learned to fight in the ring, and now they’re fighting for better lives outside it. It’s as if all that glitter and hairspray they wear is their version of the “pussy hats” that protestors wore to the various marches these past two years. Indeed, this may be a period piece, but it has a lot to say about current women’s issues including #MeToo and #TimesUp. 

In fact, despite its 1980’s setting, this show is really all about today in so many ways. The concerns of the female characters in GLOW are the same as in this decade - equal pay, work/life balance, upper mobility, and a say in management. These issues are reflected primarily in the show’s two main characters – Ruth and Debbie Eagen (Betty Gilpin). As the second season starts, Ruth is enjoying her success as the breakout villain on the show, a snide Russkie named “Zoya the Destroya” she created on her own. Still, there’s a lot more creativity than that just bursting to explode. She has sharp ideas on how to improve the wrestling show’s storyline, as well as enhance its marketing campaign. Her ambition threatens showrunner Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), but by midseason, he starts to be swayed by her talents. The curmudgeon even finds himself attracted to her. In one of the better moves of the series, it’s her talents that lure him in, not how comely she looks in a leotard.  

Meanwhile, ex-soap star Debbie, AKA “Liberty Belle” in the ring, feels that her marquee value is worth a producer’s credit. Thus, she boldly negotiates her own contract and forces herself into the management of the show alongside Sam and financial backer Bash Howard (Chris Lowell). They’re threatened by her, of course, and Debbie is nothing if not brash. Still, her acumen starts to sway them to her side, and slowly but surely, she achieves her goals too. And while Ruth and Debbie were at each other’s throats most of last season, due to the former sleeping with the latter’s husband, in this one they find common ground. They finally become friends again, as well as power brokers striving for a better wrestling show. 

Ruth and Debbie don’t stomp all over the other women to gain their victories either. Quite the contrary, they bring the others with them, sharing the spoils of victory. Such bonding turns into an impenetrable sisterhood, and they all become stronger in supporting each other. Show creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch know that those that hold women back the most aren’t other women, but instead, those men who still blindly subscribe to old-school patriarchy. But in this series, time and time again, women will school such men, and they will all be much better for it.

The show’s secondary storylines this season let most of the supporting female characters come into their own. They too are taking more control of their lives and men be damned if they try to stand in their way. Tamme (Kia Stevens, one of the cast standouts) teaches her college-bound son about changing the game from the inside. Stacey and Dawn (Kimmy Gatewood and Rebekkah Johnson) change their old lady characters into feisty punk rockers for the ring without being given permission to do so by Sam. Carmen (Britney Young) teaches the women to be better athletes, exhibiting the same skills as male wrestlers. Even Sheila the She-Wolf (Gayle Rankin) manages to keep her cultish male fans adoring her, without ever having to worry about them turning into stalkers. Everyone is empowered and works wonders with it. 

One of the delights of the show this year is in how it deepens every character. Sure, Sunita Mani’s Arthie is saddled with an offensive Middle Eastern terrorist to play in the ring, but outside it, she is one of the sweetest and most endearing of the lot. And who figured she’d find true love in the arms of the tough, yet sensitive Yolanda (Shakira Barrera)? Ellen Wong’s Jenny becomes unapologetically ribald and sarcastic, not afraid to show her true colors at any time, and she’s a hoot. Even the wholly intimidating Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) gets to show sublime moments of vulnerability when she struggles to learn her lines on a network cop show. Who says Hollywood doesn’t write good parts for women? This show has a dozen of ‘em.

Thankfully, the show doesn’t turn Sam or Bash into villains. Yes, Sam is cranky and misanthropic, but he cares about his girls and helping them put on a decent show. He also is a decent dad to his long-lost daughter Justine (Britt Baron), and they develop a lovely bond over the course of this season’s 10 episodes. Maron is superb when playing crabby, but the actor is just as fantastic when letting light into those squinting, dark eyes of his. And while Bash is a sheltered mama’s boy, he grows up this season, aided by the women around him, and Lowell gives a nuanced and heartbreaking performance that gets stronger with each episode.

The show doesn’t forget it’s about show business too, especially in the plot development that finds Ruth becoming injured during a live show. Just as the dancers were asked about how long they could keep dancing when their bodies started to betray them in A CHORUS LINE, the specter of losing a paying gig through injury becomes a critical question in this show too. The actresses aren’t just playing parts, they’re risking physical ruin each time they step into the ring. It’s made all the more palpable as we can see that most of the stunt work is being done by the stars.  

It’s a testament to the series too that in its most political moments, like when a network executive tries to sleep with Ruth, the story doesn’t strain to drive home it’s #MeToo point. Ruth is crestfallen to find out that the schmuck didn’t invite her to dinner to talk to her about ideas for the show, but rather, to talk her out of her clothes. Still, she quickly sizes up the pending disaster and high-tails it out of his hotel room before he can physically harm her. Ruth may be brittle, and few actresses do brittle better than the brilliant Brie, but our heroine is one tough cookie. 

All of the women on this show exhibit such toughness, yet they never lose themselves or their femininity. If anything, they encourage the men to get in touch with their softer sides, and it leaves everyone better for it. Who needs a wrestling belt, when that’s the victory worth bragging about? 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

BOOTS RILEY'S “SORRY TO BOTHER YOU” IS THE MOST PROVOCATIVE FILM OF THE YEAR


Few feature film debuts are as daring and auspicious as Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. The rapper and music producer from The Coup has now written and directed such an assured and provocative dark comedy, it'll take your breath away. It’s not only a hilarious and pointed first film, but it’s a savage takedown of America’s racism, corporate greed, and social media obsessed culture too. Watching it, your eyebrows will be perpetually raised and your jaw, continually on the floor. Quite simply, Riley’s feature is the most provocative film of the year, and sure to create a stir. Let’s hope it succeeds at the box office as well. 

In an age when it seems little will rattle our cage – babies in cages, maybe – this is a film that genuinely provokes. The fact that it was greenlit and distributed, with a reasonably healthy marketing campaign behind it, is a very encouraging sign for movies that want to reach beyond the typical sequels, reboots, and remakes. This film aims to poke and prod us, and yet, while serving as a call to arms, it does so in a hugely entertaining way. 

The film’s theme is how African-American men are encouraged to conform to get along and succeed in a white patriarchal world that continually punishes them for not being white like them. Its central character is Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck black man from a beleaguered neighborhood. He's had it with part-time employment and is looking for a decent full-time job. He's forever behind in his rent, making excuses to his long-suffering girlfriend, and worrying about stability as he crests into his 30’s. 

Thus, Cassius decides to interview at a telemarketing company, knowing that there is a ton of turnover in that work, and to assure the HR hack that he’s a worthy hire, Cassius overcompensates. He brings trophies to show, along with his resume, to calm the white man's fears of employing a young black man. Even though his ruse is exposed, Cassius is hired anyway due to his derring-do.

Yet, despite getting the full-time gig, Cassius’ new job is just plain awful. The pay is almost non-existent, the benefits are the bare minimum, and most of the employees are marginalized Americans just like him. One of the misfit toys is an old-timer named Langston (Danny Glover, funny and touching at the same time) who advises the naïve Cassius that the way to persuade callers is to use a “white voice.” Cassius resists, arguing that he doesn’t sound “that black,” but soon he gives it a try to ensure some sales. The voice that he uses is actually that of actor/comedian David Cross, and it's daring of Riley to use such a trope instead of directing Stanfield to give it his best shot. The juxtaposition of two such different actors yields big laughs, and the satire becomes even more pointed when Cassius’s white employers prefer he use that voice all the time.


Soon, Cassius is the company’s top seller, and he helps his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) get a job at the company as well. She’d like to make a living as a performance artist, but it’s not exactly a stable and moneymaking profession, so she joins him. Cassius also manages to make some new friends at the office too. Steven Yuen’s Squeeze and Jermaine Fowler’s Salvadore become his new buds, and soon the four of them are pushing the company for better wages and decent healthcare benefits. 

Not long after however, Cassius’ sales success get him moved to the VIP floor where top sellers get their own comfy room to make calls. As his star rises, he starts to grow away from Detroit, as well as his buddies. He starts wearing expensive suits, moves into a swank apartment, and even get invited to exclusive parties hosted by the company’s very white and exceptionally arrogant CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Detroit pushes back on her lover's turn for the worse, questioning his values while starting to enunciate his name as “Cash is green.” Their row leads to her leaving, and soon Cassius is crossing the picket line she, Squeeze and Salvadore have created. This caring, young black man who once had so much soul is now on the verge of losing it all to the lure of upward mobility.

Riley adds layers to all his stinging satire by surrounding his players with other bits that savage our modern society. One of the running gags concerns a television show that is always on in the background entitled “I Got the S--- Kicked Out of Me!” On this game show, contestants earn prizes by allowing various participants to punch and kick them till they drop. It’s almost too vicious to watch, but then again, is it any more cringe-worthy than most of the humiliation found on your average reality TV program these days? 


Additionally, Riley satirizes religion throughout the film, along with our nation's acute tribalistic sensibilities, through a secondary story concerning a company advertising everywhere called “Worry Free.” From all we can gather, the company looks like a cult, what with the employees perpetually smiling, wearing the same clothing, and sleeping in bunk beds all in the same room. It's not that far off from the conformity that Cassius' company is asking of him, and it won't belong in the narrative before Riley draws a straight line from one awful career path to the other. 

From there, the film turns even darker. The last third of the film is so shocking, it has to be seen to be believed. Riley paints a very bleak future for humanity, particularly black men, and it doesn’t feel that far off from some of the dehumanizing actions going on right now throughout the USA, especially at our southern border. The timeliness is scary to the point of being prescient. 

Throughout, Riley shows a keen eye in all his tasks as a newbie director. His visual gags are as amusing as his dialogue, particularly when Cassius makes his calls and literally drops into the worlds of his recipients, desk and all. Riley is superb with actors too, coaxing sharp work from them all. Stanfield makes for a droll yet vulnerable everyman, Hammer oozes snake oil out of every pore, and Thompson’s girlfriend is smart, sexy, and fierce. Patton Oswalt and Lily James show up too as two of the other “white voices” and are hilarious as well.

Riley also sticks it to other ills of modern society like voice-activated elevators, the limits of white folks’ understanding of rap music, and the pretentious worlds of art and fashion. (Thompson’s oversized earrings are practically wearable billboards.) Most savagely, Riley indicts the masses who blithely let the one-percenters continually suppress them. Riley aims to shake us out of our doldrums, demanding that we stop sleepwalking through our lives, mindlessly staring at our cell phones. The nation is at stake, he's arguing, not to mention humanity, and he wants us up and ready to do something about it. How brilliant that he's made such a volley with this incredibly provocative and vital film.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

LITTLE THINGS MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE IN MARVEL STUDIOS' "ANT-MAN AND THE WASP"


Of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, Ant-Man is inherently the most comical. Tony Stark may be a glib smart-ass, and Thor, a vain-glorious beef head, but a superhero who can shrink down to the size of a dime immediately trumps all comers with physics. And despite the more serious tones in the MCU’s BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR earlier this year, it’s refreshing to see that ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is content to merely bring the funny. It aims small and therefore is a sizable success.

What’s especially rewarding about ANT-MAN AND THE WASP are its small chuckles. Of course, watching Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and his partner the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) give chase in Matchbox-sized cars elicits guffaws, but even funnier is the sight gag of the miniature vehicles stored in a Hot Wheels traveling carousel. Sure, Ant-Man’s inability to control his growth spurts is hilarious but losing his flying ant transports to a hungry seagull is even better. And you expect Rudd to be a hoot, but Douglas is too, even in his straight man role here. 

The screenplay is credited to five writers, and that’s never a good sign, not even when one of them is Rudd, but damned if they don’t all make it work here. The script by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari and Rudd keeps the action crisp, the banter swift, and the pacing buoyant. Director Peyton Reed is back for this one too, and he knows how to get laughs out of character, dialogue, stunts, and props. (An enlarged Pez dispenser earns a belly laugh.) His comic touch is expert, whether he’s lingering on a shrunken office building for a few beats more as it rolls away as luggage or directing everyone to wait a few seconds more before reacting to the energetic gibberish of Luis (Michael Pena). 

Even the plot, which touches upon themes of loss and regret never brings down the fun. That’s quite a feat considering the very first scene is a grave 1970’s flashback where Douglas’ Dr. Hank Pym loses his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the sub-atomic realm. But when the film shifts to the modern-day setting, the laughs never stop. Scott Lang (Rudd) is under house arrest for helping out the Avengers in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. It also explains his absence from INFINITY WAR. He’s going a little stir-crazy though, building elaborate forts and cardboard slides in his San Francisco three-flat to play with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).  

Soon enough, he’s called back into duty as Ant-Man because Pym invented some technology that he thinks can bring his wife back from that otherworldly limbo, that is, if she’s still alive. Thus, Scott and Pym’s daughter Hope (Lilly) suit up to shrink down and go retrieve her. However, a number of villains thwart those plans because they’re after Pym’s brainchild too. The greedy villains include black marketeer Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins, oozing sleaze), Pym’s one-time partner Dr. Bill Foster (a cool and calm Laurence Fishburne), and a cloaked villainess known as Ghost (the intensely physical Hannah John-Kamen). Ghost is actually Foster’s daughter, and her involvement with her father’s isomagnetic experiments has rendered her able to walk through walls and submit her very own lethal, electronic charges. 

Yet another foil is intrepid FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park). He has been assigned to ensure Scott doesn’t break his parole again like he did to help out Captain America in Europe. With that many plot threads, things could get complicated, but the film never lets its narrative threads kill the buzz. Instead, it goes out of its way to keep things funny, investing Fishburne’s jealous colleague with a wry sense of wit and giving Burch and his bad boys a “Keystone Cops” vibe. Even Woo’s nanny state machinations are a continual hoot, especially since he keeps coming that close to busting Hank outside the legal perimeter.

And the filmmakers find fresh and inventive ways to play with size, scene in and scene out. Enlarged to 25 feet, Ant-Man uses a semi-truck and its flatbed as a stand-up skateboard to motor down the city streets. Shrunk to the size of loose change, the hero plops into the ocean like a coin being tossed into a fountain. And while battling Burch and his cohorts in a hotel kitchen, The Wasp runs along the edge of a knife as if it’s a tightrope. 

Yet with all those big laughs, the shrewdest consideration of size in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is in its scope. The story stays small and tight, never leaving the Bay area, and never becoming a struggle to save the world. The only thing too small is Lilly’s screen time as Hope. She does a lot as the Wasp but missing is the Tracy and Hepburn banter between her and Scott. The film could use more of Pfeiffer too, but hope springs eternal for the next one.   

Are all the jokes and sight gags about size enough to sustain more films in the franchise? Very likely, but it would behoove the filmmakers to remember that Coke commercial starring Ant-Man and the Hulk a few Super Bowls back. Who else from the MCU could literally and figuratively be taken down a peg by the world’s smallest hero? What would Ant-Man do if he was caught in Spider-man’s web, or his ant minions built a home inside Groot? See, it doesn’t take five writers to create such storylines. But if five writers mean enormous returns like this sequel, then I say, “Go big!”