Ryan O’Connell’s Netflix show is very, very ‘Special’

Ryan O’Connell has crafted a great vehicle for himself. In Special – based on his memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves – he stars as a fictional version of himself, a young gay man, living with cerebral palsy, who is trying to assert his independence, develop a career as a writer, and find love. The show is a funny, sweet, tart comedy with some growing pains that need to be ironed out, but it has the potential of being a huge success story for O’Connell and Netflix.

The eight-episode first series has a number of plots that rush to come to some sort of conclusion (the show’s brevity is not only due to the small number of episodes, but also because each episode is a curious 15 minutes long) When we first meet Ryan (played by O’Connell who also writes the show), he’s living at home with his self-sacrificing mother, Karen (Jessica Hecht, luminescent) The two have lived with each other for so long, and depending on each other for so much, that they’ve developed a co-dependent relationship with each other that is obviously a little unhealthy. Ryan has an issue with empathy for his mother, at times taking her for granted, while Karen uses Ryan as an excuse for not living her own life.

Eventually, Ryan sees his relationship with his mother as a major cockblock and announces that he wants to move out. Initially terrified at the prospect of Ryan living on his own and leaving her alone, Karen comes around to the idea when she notices the handsome neighbour next door. O’Connell does a solid job in writing the relationship between his mother and him – both characters contribute to the somewhat toxic, needy give-and-take that they share. He’s fair in that he doesn’t make Karen into a monster of emotional suck – event though she’s a little much sometimes -and he’s even-handed by making Ryan a shit sometimes. And when they’re good, they share the kind of overly-familiar relationships that often define the kinds of bonds gay men have with their single mothers.

Moving to his own apartment is just one of the things Ryan does to strike out on his own. The other is interning at an online Buzzfeed-like site called Eggwoke for which he writes articles. At work, he passes off his CP as an injury from a car accident. His taskmaster of a boss (Marla Mindelle) wants to exploit his injury for a clickbait-y article that will get lots of hits. At Eggwoke, he also becomes fast friends with the site’s star blogger, Kim Laghari (Punam Patel), who encourages the bashful Ryan to come out of his shell. Kim proves to be a much-needed friend, advocate, and wing woman for Ryan, and the two share a beautiful friendship.

As mentioned before, each episode is about 15 minutes. That means O’Connell has got to cram a lot, and for the most part he succeeds. Unfortunately, at times, the ticking clock means O’Connell crams too much, and the dialogue becomes clunky with exposition and beats that feel unearned. This is never more true than when we see scenes with Karen and her elderly mother (Mj Vandivier). Their shared scenes stumble quickly as they cover the requisite “elderly parent proves to be a burden to her kid” tropes, and their exchange feels stuffed. O’Connell, Hecht, Vandivier, and director Anna Dokoza are more than up to the task of handling the storyline well, but they’re given so little time, that they have to sprint – hopefully the following series of Special will have longer running times. The brief episodes also short change Mindelle, who is, so far, reduced to a Miranda Priestly- Wilhelmina Slater hybrid, with little-to-no-shading.

But when Special clicks, it works wonders. O’Connell is a proficient comedian – both physical and verbal – and is an appealing lead. He wisely surrounds himself with wonderful performers, especially Patel, whose hilariously broad performance practically screams “breakout star!” She strides into her scenes with a warm and comfort, stealing the show. O’Connell also stays clear of making his show “inspirational” or “uplifting.” Too many times stories of queer people or disabled people (or the combo of the both) are written in a condescending matter to educate viewers. Because O’Connell is telling the story, he’s built a show that is hilarious and irreverent. Here’s hoping that when O’Connell gets more seasons, he’ll have space and time to expand his universe.

A look at Andrzej Wajda’s ‘Roly Poly’

Image result for roly poly andrzej wajda

As part of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, I attended a screening of Andrzej Wajda’s short film, Roly Poly (Przekładaniec), which is loosely based on the Stanisław Lem’s short story and radio play, Czy pan istnieje, Mr. Johns? (Are You There, Mr Johns?) The screening was part of a double feature that included Maska, a short film by the Quay brothers, which is also based on work by Lem.

Because I’m not a fan of science fiction normally, I’m not overly familiar with Lem’s work, aside from his classic text, Solaris, which was adapted by Steven Soderbergh in 2002 into a film. In Europe, Lem is known also as a philosopher and literary critic, and his nonfiction work is well known here, as well.

Roly Poly (1969) short comic film about lawyer (Ryszard Filipski) who is hired by a race car driver, Richard Fox (Bogumil Kobiela), to help his family out. During a race, Richard accidentally kills his brother Thomas (Marek Kobiela) in a horrible car crash, and in the hospital, he’s given roughly 50% of his dead brother’s organs. Because his brother’s organs are technically still “living,” the life insurance company refuses to pay out the full benefits to Thomas’ widow. As the lawyer is working to figure out how to help, Richard accidentally kills his sister-in-law, a couple women, and a dog in another car crash. He is given more organs to save his life, and in a visit, it looks like Richard has taken on the aspects of the women and dog.

Despite it being a Polish film, Roly Poly appears to have been filmed in Chicago. I lived in Chicago for over 30 years, growing up in the South Side, so I recognized some of the skyline (and there was a quick shot of the State Street sign) Chicago isn’t a surprising locale for a Polish film because the city is a huge part of the Polish diaspora in the United States (I am part of that diaspora) Poles make up a huge part of Chicago’s ethnic population, and there is a thriving Polish artistic culture in the city.

The film was made during the late 1960s at the height of the counter-culture movement, and Wajda includes nods to this. There are scenes of hippies – caricatures of hippies, who lounge at the entrance of the hospital, offering black market organs. The hippies are shown with contempt and mordant humour, their garish clothing and extravagant makeup (one had painted extra pairs of eyes to disturbing effect – but a neat call to the theme of donated body parts)

Wajda uses the incongruity and foreignness of the counter-culture movement as a sigh gag. Roly Poly is a slapstick comedy that works to satirize the kinds of regulated bodies which Lem found contemptable. When the lawyer is bantering with the life insurance company, we see a swipe at bureaucracy that purports to being about making lives easier, but does the exact opposite. The lawyer is left confounded when the insurance man refuses to budge on the claim because of the convoluted justification that Thomas Fox is 70% alive through his brother, so the Widow Fox is only eligible for 30% of the insurance policy. This plot point tumbles into an interesting aside in which the lawyer starts to muse about societal labels – he wonders whether a widow can be a widow even if her dead husband’s vital organs live on in someone else? Is Richard the father of his nephews and nieces because he possesses his brother’s body parts? All of this works as clever word play and think play.

As a satire, Roly Poly works well because it shows just how absurd the lawyer’s task is. He’s facing a byzantine system, knotted with rules, and he’s at the mercy of those in charge, whether it’s insurance salesman or glossy doctors. He simply trying to navigate his way through all this to make any sense.

When Roly Poly was filmed, Poland was experience great upheaval in its history. Protests, demonstrations, and government crackdowns made up the landscape in which Roly Poly was broadcast on television. In America, the late 1960s saw similar moments of unrest: protests of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights marches, Stonewall, women’s liberation demonstrations. Andrzej Wajda saw all this, and engaged with these events in his work – and though is work was often more serious and solemn, Roly Poly‘s comedy shouldn’t fool viewers into thinking that he was making light entertainment.

What struck me after watching Roly Poly was my initial reaction. When leaving the cinema, I thought “Huh, so not everything he did was science-fiction.” But then I stopped myself because I realized that even if Roly Poly didn’t feature robots, aliens, or space ships, it’s, at the very least, speculative fiction. Organ transplant surgeries were still be developed, and survival rates were, at that point, still much lower. And Lem’s script was able to play with issues of identity and personhood, by posing the question of identity and personhood when it’s attached to organ transplantation. We see Richard Fox’s identity become muddled, and eventually completely subsumed due to the increasing number of organs he’s received – a unscary Frankenstein, cobbled together by his accidental victim’s organs, after which, he starts to change and lose himself. But because Lem’s script is so quick and clever, none of this felt a stretch or out of bounds. He created a diagesis in all of this is acceptable and logical, despite its farfetched nature, once one looks at the story objectively, and outside the engrossing context of sitting in a dark cinema.

I liked Roly Poly far more than I thought I would because I admired Wajda’s way with presenting this strange and funny story. He’s made some interesting, stylized choices that I think fit into his playful approach: when the car crashes, we don’t see a gory scene of tragedy, but the screen is filled with onomatopoeic words like the fight scenes in the old Batman tv show. It’s a challenging film only after watching the film, when swishing the plots, and scenes in my had when taking the Tube home that evening. Wajda does a wonderful job in telling Lem’s story, creating a deceptively silly story with a very serious core.

‘The Spy Who Dumped Me’ is a silly – but violent – diversion

The Spy Who Dumped Me is a film that will suffer in comparison with the very similar (and superior) Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy. Like the Paul Feig comedy, Susana Fogel’s comedy takes on the tropes of the spy film and plays with expectations of the genre. It’s not a great film – the violence throws off the tone badly, and Fogel cannot braid the savagery with the comedy, which makes for some difficult watching. Fogel wrote the script with TV vet David Iserson, and it lurches from one scene to the next, derailing the comedy with lapses into long stretches of gratuitous violence. The film’s shaky execution is held up by the enthusiasm of its two stars Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon.

Kunis is Audrey Stockman, a cashier at a fictional version of Trader Joe’s, who has a terrible birthday: her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) dumps her via text. She doesn’t get too much time to nurse her wounds because quickly she learns that Drew is a CIA agent and he’s being pursued by other agents, and due to plot twists and machinations that I don’t want to reveal at this point, Audrey is en route to Europe with her best friend Morgan (McKinnon), a ride-or-die type BFF, and dive into a ridiculously convolute tale of intrigue, and yeah, more violence.

Moran and Audrey find themselves into terrible, dangerous situations that have them fending off murderous, doublecrossing agents, while they are trying to save the world. This is a stupid movie – it feels like Fogel and Iserson dumped a bunch of drafts into a machine that spat out a standard-issue action comedy – but Kunis and (especially) McKinnon make it work due to the sheer force of their performances. They have believable chemistry and no matter who ridiculous the circumstances get – at one point in the movie McKinnon’s Morgan pretends to be a Cirque du Soleil performer while battling a villainous gymnast on the trapeze – they’re committed, balls-to-the-walls.

It’s nice to see a movie like this with a female duo going toe-to-toe with the bad guys. Kunis and McKinnon are a great remake of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover -it’s always nice to see a couple game comediennes throw themselves in without abandon. Amidst all of the gunshots, explosions, and fights, they manage to rise above the mire and come out with some comic dignity. I’m hoping that Kunis and McKinnon will become our generation’s Hope and Crosby, and are given a more consistent vehicle that makes great use of their talents.

Jane Fonda tells her compelling story in ‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’

Though Madonna and David Bowie have been acclaimed for their innate ability to change, evolve, and reinvent themselves, actress Jane Fonda has had to do the same in her 60+ year career. Starting out as a child of a celebrity, she grew up to be a sex symbol, before morphing into an activist, while nurturing a critically-lauded film career. She then let acting lose precedence to her career as a fitness guru and exercise video pioneer, before settling for over a decade as the ultimate trophy wife, until finally embarking on an amazing late-career era a comeback queen. In the last decade or so, since her exit from retirement, Fonda has been able to do some of the most interesting and compelling work of her Oscar-winning career. All of this is chronicled in the excellent – and moving – documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts.

The Jane Fonda presented in the film is one of contradictions. Though a staunch feminist, she talks about deferring to the men in her life, and defining herself by her relationships, including the one with her father, Hollywood legend, Henry Fonda. And though she is unwavering in her commitment to social causes, she winces at the infamous photograph of her sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun on a visit to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The picture, in which we see Fonda grinning – the photograph condemned her to the epithet “Hanoi Jane” – a sobriquet that follows her to this day (just read the comment threads of any articles about her online…actually don’t)

A large part of Fonda’s screen persona and public image is that of a confident, beautiful woman – no shrinking violet. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the public Fonda with the unguarded woman that appears in the film. Though her past as an actress is unequivocally successful, the other parts of her life plague her with insecurity. She regrets a lot – she feels she failed at motherhood (her children are on hand to describe their unconventional upbringings) and her relationship with Henry Fonda is a source of a lot of angst.

For many viewers, it’s the Fonda family saga that will be the most affecting. Jane Fonda was a Hollywood princess, her father being a legendary movie star and her mother, a beautiful socialite. The perfect family is far from that – Fonda’s mother Frances Ford Seymour was a troubled and sad woman who struggled with mental health and would eventually take her own life. Father Henry wasn’t willing to provide the emotional support Fonda needed, and therefore their relationship was fractured and troubled. And Fonda recognizes that she’s repeated some of her dad’s mistakes with her own children, as well.

Her series of high-profile marriages also provide the film with heft. Her first husband was French film director Roger Vadim (with whom Fonda collaborated on Barbarella); her second husband was political activist Tom Hayden; and her last husband was billionaire businessman Ted Turner. Both Turner and Hayden appear on the film to talk about Fonda and overall, both men pay tribute to their ex-wife – Hayden, especially honours Fonda’s commitment to social causes. Her relationship with these men is interesting because despite Fonda’s strong personality, she allowed herself to be dwarfed by her husband’s personality. Her marriage with Hayden was especially fraught because she came off as an intellectual lightweight compared to his “important” work.

Director Susan Lacey is obviously in love with her subject – it’s not a hagiography, exactly, but this is told through Fonda’s point of view. She doesn’t shy away from the darker, unattractive aspects of her personality or behaviour, but any negative moments are shared on Fonda’s terms. It’s admirable that the actress is willing to open up and is frank and candid – she’s especially moving when she talks about her mother – but she’s also fond of clichés and has a propensity to sum up large chunks of her life in seemingly profound statements that tend to flatten and reduce a life that is complicated and exciting.

The parts of the film that truly click are when Lacey presents Fonda, the activist and artist. All her adult life has been marked by a desire for social betterment, and it’s interesting to see the span and breadth of Fonda’s interests. So much of her work and image has been reduced to simply exercise tapes and Hanoi Jane, but she’s a vital, compassionate woman who still marches for a fair wage, women’s rights, queer rights, anti-war rallies. What these last few years have shown is that she’s as passionate as ever about causes. Jane Fonda in Five Acts rallies beautifully at the end, when we see that despite the valedictory tone of a film like this, Jane Fonda is as alive as ever, not content on resting on her legend or iconic status. In the voice over, Fonda muses that she’s entering the beginning of her final stage – even if that sentiment sounds grim, it’s clear that Fonda’s not going gentle into that good night.

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