Summer of 84


Just a bunch of teenage badasses.

(2018) Thriller/Horror (Gunpowder & Sky) Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Grüter-Andrew, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer, Jason Gray-Stanford, Shauna Johannesen, William MacDonald, Harrison Hourde, Aren Buchholz, Susie Castillo, Reilly Jacob, Jaiven Natt, J. Alex Brinson, Patrick Keating, Patrick Lubczyk, Jordan Buhat, Mark Brandon. Directed by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell

We remember our childhood with a certain tinge of nostalgia. The era we grew up in – be it the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s or aughts – live in our memories with a sepia glow of comfort and warmth. Summer nights spent bicycling around the neighborhood with our friends, looking for whatever adventures might be found in the nooks and crannies of where we grew up are precious to us as we grow older, careworn and further away from our youth when anything was possible, before we found out that life isn’t always beautiful.

Davey Armstrong (Verchere) grew up in the 80s in a small Midwestern town which was about as suburban as it got. His dad (Gray-Stanford) worked as a sound man for the local TV news. His best friends were always around the neighborhood and summer was an endless time of hanging out, talking about girls and neighborhood games of manhunt.

It is also a troubling time for his parents who are fully aware that several boys around town have gone missing. Davey is a bit of a tabloid conspiracy nut and most of his friends and acquaintances have heard all about his oddball theories but at least this one is plausible; Davey believes his next door neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Sommer) is a serial killer responsible for the disappearances. His friends – leather jacketed punk Eats (Lewis), rotund Woody (Emery) and smart-as-a-whip Curtis (Grüter-Andrew) are skeptical at first but soon they come to believe in Davey and set out to proving it.

This will involve things like going through his garbage, staking out his house and eventually breaking and entering. But that’s not the only thing Davey is keeping an eye on; his pretty former babysitter Nikki (Skovbye) has a habit of undressing in front of her window which Davey’s bedroom window faces. Her parents are divorcing and she’ll be moving away from the neighborhood shortly; she is upset and Davey becomes her confidante, which ends up dragging her into their detective work. She is also skeptical about Davey’s theory since Officer Mackey is outwardly a very nice guy, but there is also a very creepy side to him. As summer comes to a close and the chill winds of autumn and school beckon on the horizon, Davey and his crew will come face to face with something truly monstrous.

The vibe here is a bit Hitchcock meets vintage Spielberg. While there is very much a tone similar to the hit Netflix series Stranger Things this isn’t exactly the same thing. There are no supernatural elements here and for awhile I had a real hard time convincing myself that this belonged among my Six Days of Darkness collection but then again there’s the last ten minutes which…well, I’ll get to that.

The synth-heavy score certainly sets the tone; the music is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s music from the era. There are also lots of visual cues, from the arcade to the G.I Joe walkie-talkies that the boys use. The parents here are generally well-meaning but clueless which brings in the Spielberg element. The idyllic nature of the environment adds not so much to the era but to the time of life of the protagonists. I think that’s a time of life that we all appreciate.

There are some clichés in the plot and characterization. Those who are familiar with Rear Window or Suburbia will feel like they’re on a well-trodden path and Davey’s group of friends are pretty much standard issue for these sorts of Hardy Boys-type films. Also, the identity of the person behind the disappearances is not that hard to pick out if you’re paying attention.

But then there are those last ten minutes. At a certain point, the movie kicks into overdrive and you will be sitting on the edge of your seat, jaw firmly resting on the floor as you watch these filmmakers whose previous film was the decent Turbo Kid absolutely come of age. The last ten minutes of Summer of 84 may be the best ten minutes of any film you see this year.

REASONS TO GO: The last ten minutes of this movie are as good as any you’ll see. The filmmakers keep you guessing.
REASONS TO STAY: There are more than a few clichés here and the killer is fairly easy to spot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including crude sexual references and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a variety of shout-outs to 80s movies including The Karate Kid, The Thing and the Star Wars franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stranger Things
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Three

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A Greater Society


This is what difference makers look like.

(2018) Documentary (Deranged Squirrel) Ruth G. Weber, Fred Genetti, Tamara Gussman Stine, Howard Finkelstein, Jack Mendelson, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Charlie Crist, Nan Rich, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mitch Caesar, Bruce Bandler, Ronny Sydney, Minerva Nazario, Karen Hoffman, Jack Shifrel, Tony Fransetta, Jeff Johnson, Ted Deutch, Ashley Walker. Directed by Stacy Goldate and Craig A. Colton

Down in Broward County in South Florida, just north of Miami is Wynmoor, one of many retirement communities in the area. California developers opened the facility back in 1973, marketing it mainly to residents of New York City and the Northeast in general, wooing residents with sunshine, modern amenities and sea breezes. Their advertising campaign worked; more than 4,000 residents live there now, many of them of the Jewish faith.

The Jewish community in New York City tends to be progressive; many lived through the depression and the New Deal of FDR. All of them lived through the 60s and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” which tried to address poverty, racism and rising medical costs. While the New Deal established Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the Voter Rights Act came out of the Great Society. In fact, the title of the movie is a play on LBJ’s ambitious program.

When Wynmoor opened, Broward County was largely a Conservative bastion although at the time it was mostly Dixiecrats that made up the voter rolls. Since then, Southern conservatives have moved to the Republican party as the Democrats became champions of civil rights and other things that the Old South was less than fond of. The arrival of large numbers of progressive elderly from the Northeast swayed the county from red to blue.

This fascinating documentary, which premiered at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is now making its way onto the Vimeo streaming service, looks at the residents of Wynmoor during the 2014 midterm elections when Rick Scott was running for re-election as governor. It starts with the primaries when former Republican governor Charlie Crist was running against Nan Rich, leader of the Democratic party in the Florida House of Representatives and a grandmother herself, which appealed to many of the voters at Wynmoor who saw in her someone who understood the needs of their age group but also their desire to provide the services they rely on for their children and grandchildren in the years to come.

Much of the emphasis focuses on the Wynmoor Democrat Club which true to its name supports Democratic candidates and makes sure that residents of that party get out and vote. The stereotype of the elderly is that they tend to be conservative and suspicious of change; nothing could be further from the truth and it is refreshing to see the liberal activism that goes on in a group of people who could easily just take a dip in the pool, play some shuffleboard and in general just enjoy their golden years. It means something when someone who has earner their retirement nevertheless gets out and appeals for people to vote.

There is a Republican club as well, led by the knowledgeable Jack Mendelson who has a sunny sense of humor and a propensity towards driving his wife crazy. Despite being such an engaging subject, he gets a whole lot less screen time than his liberal counterparts who are, to be sure, equally fascinating, particularly Fred Genetti, a handsome man pushing 70 at the time of filming who only reluctantly gets active in the election but proves to be very good at it, and Ruth Weber, a 98-year-old woman born during the Woodrow Wilson administration who is still sharp as a tack and as passionate about politics as anyone a quarter her age. Conservative viewers may well find the disparity insulting, but the truth is that the Democrats appear to be much more active at Wynmoor than the Republicans.

In fact, Wynmoor is so important to the Democrats that often luminaries of that party stop by the complex to campaign, including Joe Biden, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (then-chairperson of the Democratic National Committee) and both candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The documentary labels the activist seniors as kingmakers and they aren’t far wrong.

The pace of the film is a little bit slow, but it seems to mirror the lifestyle of the residents and is perhaps a nod at the target audience. The filmmakers certainly display the power of organization and that coming together as a community matters. The filmmakers engage in a lot of talking head interviews but not as much as you might think. They use political cartoons to set up the political history nicely and the footage of the seniors going about their day is genuinely interesting.

This is a different kind of political documentary. Although it leans a bit left, it is by no means out there to extol one side over the other. Red or blue, there is a lesson in what these seniors accomplish and in their genuine love for their country and its future. Every vote matters and these citizens are well aware of that fact. Particularly in a midterm election year where so much is riding on the outcome, it seems a particularly timely film that anyone who thinks their vote doesn’t make a difference should check out.

REASONS TO GO: Weber and Genetti are both engaging personalities. The filmmakers turn stereotypes of the elderly on their ear. The filmmakers give time (although far from equal) to both sides of the aisle.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace may be a little bit slow for some
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Goldate and Colton primarily work in the editing bay for other projects; this is their first project as co-directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Year
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bel Canto

American Animals


These aren’t your father’s Reservoir Dogs although they may look it.

(2018) True Crime (The Orchard) Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson, Drew Starkey, Lara Grice, Jane McNeill, Wayne Duvall, Gary Basaraba, Kevin L. Johnson, Whitney Goin, Jason Caceres, Gretchen Koerner, Elijah Everett, Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk, Betty Jean Gooch. Directed by Bart Layton

Everything looks easier in the movies. Real life is significantly harder. In real life, the hero doesn’t get the girl let alone ride off into the sunset with her, luck doesn’t side with the virtuous and crime never ever pays.

In 2004, Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky was rocked by the violent robbery that took place in their rare books section. It was further rocked when it turned out that the perpetrators were students attending the university (and the neighboring University of Kentucky). All of the criminals came from well-to-do or at least comfortably middle class families. None of them had a history of criminal behavior. So what happened?

Layton, a veteran British TV documentarian with one previous feature film (The Imposter) to his credit, fuses comedy and drama along with the documentary in this his first narrative feature film in a startling mash-up that moves at a frenetic pace like the best of Steven Soderbergh’s heist movies. He casts a quartet of talented young actors to play the leads and then utilizes the actual subjects themselves to insert commentary that is often contradictory as human recollection often is, and at times even interact with their fictional selves.

The mastermind is Warren Lipka (Peters), a young man who suspects that he will lead an unremarkable life, a fate worse than death in his opinion. If he doesn’t have the temperament or the skills to do something for the betterment of all, well it’s better to be infamous than un-famous. His childhood best friend is Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan), who while touring his university is shown the John James Audubon first edition Birds of America, one of the most valuable books in the world and one that happens to be housed at Transylvania University. When he remarks upon it to his friend, the wheels begin turning in Lipka’s mind as he sees it as the way to make his mark. He’s seen enough heist movies to know what is needed to make the robbery work.

At first the discussions are all very theoretical but gradually over time these discussions cross the line into planning an actual robbery. The two know they could never pull this off on their own so they rope in fellow students Eric Borsuk (Abrahamson), a mega-organized math whiz, and entitled jock Chas Allen (Jenner) who will drive the getaway car. Their only obstacle; the kindly middle-aged librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Dowd) who is physically present in the library at all times. The boys are confident they can overcome the security measures protecting the book.

While the movie doesn’t have the pizzazz, the flair or the star power of the Oceans franchise, it does have a tone all its own and a unique viewpoint. While the gimmick of conflicting testimony has been used in other movies before (notably and most recently I, Tonya) it is utilized brilliantly here and doesn’t seem gimmicky at all.

This was the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival; it was also at Sundance where it made a notable splash. There is good reason for both of those facts; this is a wildly entertaining and occasionally poignant film with enough teen hubris to choke a horse. It’s just now completing its theatrical run at the Enzian and will shortly be available on VOD although I would highly recommend that readers in Orlando check it out at the Enzian. While there is one brutal and shocking scene of violence that might be difficult for the sensitive, this is essential viewing and all efforts should be made to see this movie one way or another. The real crime is if you fail to do so.

REASONS TO GO: This is a refreshingly original take on the heist film. Layton mashes up drama, comedy and documentary into a new genre all its own. The pacing is perfect. Fine performances by Keoghan and Jenner.
REASONS TO STAY: There is one scene that may be a little bit too much for those sensitive to violence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug use and a scene of brutal violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set at Transylvania University in Kentucky where the events actually happened, the movie was filmed in North Carolina at Davidson College.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bank Job
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
A Quiet Place

Three Identical Strangers


Bros in triplicate.

(2018) Documentary (Neon/CNN) David Kellman, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, Ron Guttman, Silvi Alzetta-Reali, Adrian Lichter, Andrew Lovesey, Michael Domnitz, Howard Schneider, Ellen Cervone, Alan Luchs, Hedy Page, Elliott Galland, Alice Shafran, Ilene Shafran, Justine Wise Polier, Mort Shafran, Janet Kellman, Brenda Galland, Lawrence Wright, Paula Bernstein, Elyse Schein, Rachel VanDuzer. Directed by Tim Wardle

The maxim goes “Truth is stranger than fiction” and while that isn’t always the case, it certainly was in this story. Some of you who lived in the New York area around 1980 might remember some of it.

Bobby Shafran was attending a community college for the first time and knew nobody there – but a lot of people seemed to know him. They seemed to have a case of mistaken identity; they identified him as Eddy Galland. With a close friend of Eddy’s, he decided to meet this guy and was shocked to find out that they looked identical and like him, Eddy Galland was adopted. It turned out that they were twins who had been separated at birth.

But the story gets weirder. Their story appears in Newsday, the Long Island paper of record and is seen by David Kellman who is shocked to see two other guys who look exactly like him. It turns out that they were identical triplets, an incredibly rare occurrence to begin with. The three guys all had the same taste in girls, all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, all had the same bright smile.

As it turned out, the three boys had been placed into three completely different environments; one in an upper class home, another in a middle class home, a third in a working class home. One of the fathers was a disciplinarian, a second more laid-back, a third somewhere in between. Despite all the similarities between the boys (which would indicate that in nature versus nurture, the former trumped the latter) they grew up to be different individually speaking. So that nature versus nurture thing (a big theme in the film) may not be quite so settled after all.

The three young men became inseparable, moving in together in New York City and opening up their own restaurant, Triplets, in SoHo. They were regulars on the downtown club scene, and made the talk show rounds on such shows as Phil Donahue and the Today show. At first glance this might be one of those “whatever happened to” kinds of documentaries but then the story turned yet even weirder…and darker.

More than this I will not tell you. This is a story that will seem at first like a trip down memory lane for a feel-good story that grabbed the attention of New Yorkers in the early 80s but it will take you in a completely different and unexpected direction and it works best if you don’t know what comes next. Suffice it to say that you will leave the theater completely blown away.

The actual format of the documentary isn’t particularly different than most; lots of talking heads, lots of archival footage with the occasional re-enactment of scenes to heighten the drama. Nothing new here but the story itself is so compelling, so riveting that you won’t be able to look away let alone notice that the style isn’t particularly innovative. And you probably won’t notice that things slow down a little bit in the final third of the film, although I did. However the movie will come at you like a gut punch and leave you breathless as you leave the theater. It’s only playing in a few cities at the moment following a run on the festival circuit but you should pester your local art house to book this one; it’s easily one of the best documentaries of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The story gets more bizarre as you go along. The movie you think you’re going to see is not the movie you actually see. Nature versus nurture is a large part of the story. This is the kind of movie that will blow you away.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little bit in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
This is Congo

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

Borg vs. McEnroe


Competition can turn enemies into friends and friends into brothers.

(2017) Biographical Sports Drama (Neon) Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Leo Borg, Marcus Mossberg, Jackson Gann, Scott Arthur, Ian Blackman, Robert Emms, David Bamber, Mats Blomgren, Julia Marko Nord, Jane Perry, Demetri Goritsas, Roy McCrerey, Bjôrn Granath, Jason Forbes, Tom Datnow, Colin Stinton, Janis Ahern. Directed by Janus Metz

Rivalries are often the most fascinating stories in sports; the Yankees-Red Sox, Ali-Frazier, Seabiscuit-War Admiral, Palmer-Nicklaus. These sorts of stories tend to capture the imagination of the public, whether in the United States or elsewhere; there are always rivalries to fuel the fervor of the sporting public.

In the 80s, one such rivalry occurred in tennis. Bjorn Borg (Gudnason) was the top player in the game. He had won four straight Wimbledon championships and was about to try for an unprecedented fifth. His emotionless demeanor and absolute control earned him nicknames like “Ice Borg” and “The Swedish Machine.”

The polar opposite is John McEnroe (LaBeouf), a temperamental American who argues calls with umpires and often unleashing profanity-laced tirades against officials on the court and off, earning him the current titleholder of the Bad Boy of Tennis like none had achieved before or, to date, since. His game was a charging net game; Borg’s was more geared towards the baseline. They were both great competitors but they had little else in common; McEnroe dug the spotlight whereas Borg was tired of living in the media glare. Borg was cheered by millions; McEnroe was mainly booed. Borg had a stable fiancée (Novotny) while McEnroe played the field. It was truly a rivalry made it heaven.

And yet in many ways the two were not all that different. As a young man (Borg), Bjorn had a great difficulty controlling his anger. That is, until he meets trainer Lennart Bergelin (Skarsgård). He teaches Borg to harness his rage and channel it constructively, to hide his emotions in order to get in the heads of his opponents. Bergelin is the reason Bjorn Borg became Bjorn Borg.

The most prestigious tournament in tennis is Wimbledon and Borg is determined to make history. Standing in his way is McEnroe, who is just as determined to make history of his own. The year is 1980 and the two are on a collision course to play one of the greatest matches in the history of the sport. To this day many believe it is the greatest tennis match ever played.

The story is indeed a compelling one but I wish it would have been handled a little differently. This Swedish-Danish co-production focuses on Borg which would normally be fine but let’s face it – McEnroe is by far the most interesting character. Gudnason bears a striking resemblance to the tennis great and does a superb job channeling him but let’s face it – the man was kind of boring. I understand that Borg remains a revered figure in Scandinavia but I think the movie would have benefited by a little more McEnroe.

Metz utilizes a lot of flashbacks to tell his story and to be honest after awhile they begin to get annoying. The flow of the film becomes choppy and frustrating at times. What’s worse is that the tennis sequences are pretty poorly shot. The angles are all wrong and we don’t get a sense of the ebb and flow of the game. To be fair Metz does a good job of getting the tension up but when the tennis sequences in a tennis movie are sub-par, that’s troubling.

All in all this is a decent enough movie but it could have been better. It could have used a little of the humor displayed in I, Tonya to name one. As it is this is mainly going to appeal to Swedes and older tennis fans for the most part.

REASONS TO GO: The rivalry is a compelling one. Gudnason does a strong job as Borg.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks get to be annoying. The tennis sequences are poorly done.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor who plays Borg as a young boy is Borg’s real life son Leo.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle of the Sexes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Straight Into a Storm

King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen


Who loves ya, baby?!?

(2017) Documentary (Dark Star) Larry Cohen, Martin Scorsese, Jon Landis, Yaphet Kotto, Leonard Maltin, J.J. Abrams, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Traci Lords, Fred Williamson, Robert Forster, Michael Moriarty, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Cynthia Costas-Cohen, Mick Garris, Barbara Carrera, F.X. Feeney, Laurene Landon, Daniel Pearl, Eric Bogosian, Janelle Webb, David J. Schow, Megan Gallagher. Directed by Steve Mitchell

Back in the 1970s, B movies in many ways reached their nadir. Guys like Roger Corman, Joe Dante and Melvin van Peebles were cranking out low-budget (or no-budget) horror flicks, exploitation movies of all manner and of course the Blaxploitation films that changed cinema as we know it. Among the icons of that era was Larry Cohen.

Cohen remains active today in films, a career spanning now six decades (he sold his first screenplay at 17 and will turn 77 this summer). He is credited with creating the Blaxploitation genre with Black Caesar (1973) and wrote and directed three of horror’s most revered films: Q (1982), It’s Alive (1974) and The Stuff (1985).

This clips-and-interview documentary has made the rounds of genre film festivals around the world (and other festivals, including our own Florida Film Festival this past April) and is shortly going to get a brief theatrical run before hitting VOD in August. The list of those giving testimony to Cohen’s lasting influence on moviemaking include such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Jon Landis, Mick Garris and Dante; actors he worked with including Yaphet Kotto, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Traci Lords, Fred Williams, Robert Forster, Barbara Carrera,  Eric Bogosian, Laurene Landon and his close friend Michael Moriarty (who appeared in several of Cohen’s films) also appear.

The best part of the movie is Cohen himself. He’s a natural storyteller and his writing process is often unique. Around his house he has bits and pieces of ideas that he is busy turning into screenplays. H is a prolific writer, starting his career in television as one and working for live TV back in the 50s. He also created such shows as Branded and The Invaders. However, despite being the creator of these shows, the producers and studios generally wielded creative control of his own creations. This frustrated him to the point where he determined to make his own films his own way. Without millions of dollars to back him, he made films guerrilla-style, often shooting without permits in the streets of New York, staging certain stunts and then whisking his cast and crew away before the cops could arrive.

He is generally regarded with much affection even among those who are part of the studio system these days; Scorsese praises him as “the last of the maverick generation.” Cohen wasn’t (and isn’t) afraid to step beyond cultural mores and look closely at the darker side of life. While his films often had female nudity and much gore, his female characters were often much more than the standard victim or damsel in distress that most women in genre films were at the time.

One gets some glimpses of the inner Larry. He talks reverently about the great composer Bernard Herrmann (of the iconic Psycho score) and how they became close until his passing. One can see that his death hit the director hard. Those are the moments that elevate a documentary.

If I have any faults with the documentary it’s that it feels a bit hagiographic. In other words, this is more of a puff piece than a hard-hitting documentary but I suppose it doesn’t really have to be. If Cohen is presented without warts, who am I to complain? The man certainly seems nice enough. There may be those, like myself, who are not overly fond of talking head interviews and there are  a whole lot of them here. I grant you that this movie is really aimed primarily at those who are aware of his filmography and have seen many of these movies already. If you’re not that familiar with his work I’d recommend going to see some of his movies before watching this documentary. I think that would be much more edifying.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at grindhouse cinema and one of its greatest auteurs.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie fawns over its subject a little bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity in the various film clips from Cohen’s career.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cohen grew up in the Bronx and majored in film at City College of New York, graduating in 1963.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Borg/McEnroe