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GLOW Season 2

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And so we return to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and their ongoing battles within and without the ring. Netflix’s feminist underdog story, which traces the fortunes of a troupe of dreamers, wannabes and cynical veterans at the very fringes of the entertainment world as they try and carve out a place for themselves in the fascinatingly lurid milieu of professional wrestling, is such a vibrant, funny, and defiantly weird piece of television that it’s easy to forget that, under all the spandex and big hair, it’s actually doing serious cultural work.

At base, GLOW is about marginalised women fighting for self determination. The ace up its sleeve, the thing that makes it such a pitch perfect cocktail of comedy and drama, is that failure is built into the narrative model. Hell, most of the characters have already failed, from Alison Brie’s would-be serious actress to Betty Gilpin’s fallen soap star to Marc Maron’s cynical B movie auteur, and they expect to fail again. Moreover, the world expects them to fail. What this means is that every little victory, every incremental win, feels momentous. It means that even when we’re laughing at the excesses of the period and the setting, we’re cheering for our characters – it’s a heady emotional high.

Season 2 does lack the novelty of the previous run, although it still pops with vitality. Whereas the sheer audacious weirdness of the conceit could carry us through the first 10 episodes, now the show – like its characters – has to settle into the production groove. The sprawling ensemble means that there’s always something going on, even when it feels like, overall, we’re not making too much narrative headway. As we said, small victories, incremental steps. The focus remains more or less on Ruth (Brie) and Debbie’s (Gilpin) frenemy-ship, as the latter tries to flex her muscles by taking on a producing role on the show-within-a-show, while the former leans into her position as the wrestling franchise’s chief bad guy, the USSR-themed Zoya the Destroyer.

There’s more interesting stuff happening elsewhere in the ensemble, though, especially when the show grapples with issues of race and representation. Kia Stevens’  Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson has to deal with her college student son learning that she’s playing a damaging African American stereotype in the ring, while Sunita Mani’s Arthie struggles to shed her character “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, a role she finds particularly demeaning given that she’s actually Indian.

Meanwhile, Maron’s embittered Sam Sylvia tries – and largely fails, because, hey, he is who he is – to forge a meaningful relationship with his newly discovered daughter, Justine (Britt Baron), although the real meat of his arc is him dealing with his feelings for go-getter Ruth, whose talents he both respects and finds threatening. Men feeling threatened by talented women is a big theme in GLOW, and its embodied by guys we’re also positioned to like – mainly Sam and rich kid producer Bash (Chris Lowell), who spend a lot of time shutting down freshly minted producer Debbie just because they can.

Which sounds heavy, but GLOW‘s charm is that it channels these themes inside a bright, poppy, garishly candy-coloured package, and it never lets its thematic concerns bog down the action of the narrative, which nimbly skips along. For a show that concerns itself with failure and the fragility of dreams, GLOW is almost never not fun. It’s hard to see it lasting for too many more seasons – after all, what’s the end game here? – but while it’s here, it’s a must watch.

 
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The Disaster Artist

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Aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) suffers from a lack of confidence. His new friend Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, who also directs), a flamboyant eccentric of dubious origins, does not suffer from that issue, although he is hampered by a staggering deficit of talent and a strangled accent that he insists is from New Orleans. The two decamp from San Francisco to Los Angeles to try to make it as actors, but find tinseltown a tough nut to crack. Undeterred, Tommy resolves to write and direct his own movie, a melodrama in the mould of American classics like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, a searing psychological passion play he will pour his heart and soul into.

That movie is The Room, now widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Here’s the surprising thing about The Disaster Artist: it’s not mean. The cult that has gathered around Wiseau’s inept opus is a broad church, but for a lot of people the appeal is simply mockery – The Room is a singularly terrible work, failing on every conceivable technical and creative level, and it’s fun to laugh long and loud at this kind of unaware buffoonery.

However, working from Sestero’s memoir, director and star James Franco eschews the easy path and instead makes sure that we never forget the humanity of the people we’re pointing at. These are real folks with real aspirations, even though those dreams may exceed their grasp by a very long stretch. That includes the mercurial, often bizarre Wiseau, who remains a figure of mystery to this very day (although the documentary Room Full of Spoons, suppressed by court order, has a lot to say about Wiseau’s origins). We never get inside Wiseau’s head – good lord, imagine that! – but he remains a figure who elicits sympathy if not empathy. A lot of that is down to a fantastic performance by Franco, who leans into Wiseau’s outre mannerisms and tics – how could you not? – but still never forgets to imbue him with an inner life, even if that life might be completely unknowable to anyone outside his skin. Franco’s Wiseau approaches filmmaking like he approaches the world: with unfettered confidence and a seemingly alien set of axioms and assumptions. Asked whether he will shoot on digital or film, he boldly chose both, despite the technical impossibility that implies. Spying a big shot producer in a restaurant, Tommy just starts doing Streetcar at his tableside until security intervenes. An acting teacher (Bob Odenkirk, only one of a murderers’ row of cameos) tells the lank, scarecrow-like Wiseau that his shortcut to fame is to play monsters and villains, a la Lugosi or Karloff, but in Tommy’s mind he’s the romantic hero, and the world is at fault for not seeing that. He leaves everything out on the field in pursuit of his impossible dream – can we blame him?

It’d be an absolute tragedy if it wasn’t so funny, and yes, The Disaster Artist is straight up hilarious. Faithful fans of The Room will marvel at Franco’s nigh-perfect recreations (a side-by-side comparison crops up at the end to really drive it home) but even newcomers will be hard-pressed not to hoot at the goings on, with Wiseau’s antics anchored by the wry observations of crew members played by Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer, who act as a kind of jaded Greek chorus. Dave Franco’s Sestero gets fewer laughs, but functions as the heart of the movie: a modestly talented aspiring actor like countless others, both buoyed and hamstrung by his loyalty to the weird Wiseau. Sestero’s defining characteristic is that he’s a nice guy, endlessly supportive of his friends and loyal to a fault – a trait that ultimately sees him tied to the mast of the good ship Wiseau, come hell or high water. There’s a scene where Sestero shaves off his beard that, contextually, might be the saddest thing seen on screen this year this side of Lion.

Ultimately The Disaster Artist is about a friendship, albeit a strange and arguably damaging one. The received wisdom is to double feature it with The Room, which seems obvious, but Withnail & I might be a more thematically resonant running mate, detailing as it does a similarly cockeyed relationship (we’ll allow Ed Wood as well, obvious though it might be). In focusing on the emotional dynamics rather than the chaos, The Disaster Artist has managed a truly impressive feat of metatextuality: turning what was a one note joke into something much more nuanced and moving.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Disaster Artist

 

 
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GLOW

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Deep in the heart of ’80s Los Angeles, struggling actress Ruth Wilder is barely holding onto her dreams of stardom. Desperate for a job, she finds herself auditioning for hustling B-movie director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), who has put out a call for “unusual women”. But Sam isn’t putting together another SF schlockfest for the drive-in and grindhouse circuit; he’s been hired by a wrestling-mad trust fund kid (Christ Lowell) to create a new franchise, The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or GLOW.

GLOW was a real thing back in the day, and in the hands of creators Liz Flahive (Homeland) and Carly Mensch (Orange is the New Black) it becomes a framework to dig into issues of female empowerment, exploitation, friendship, and rivalry. Thankfully it’s also funny as hell and boasts a stunningly on-point eye for period detail (people who lionise the ’80s aesthetic too often forget how much spandex and hairspray that decade burned through).

What makes it special is the way the show acknowledges the garish, overblown and frequently ridiculous trappings of the ’80s wrestling scene, and yet somehow manages to make it all kind of awesome. That’s largely thanks to an ensemble of desperate and down on their luck women who are pretty much down to their last shot at some kind of stardom – they make this stuff amazing because they have to. Brie is, of course, front and centre as Ruth, a sparkly “serious” actress who dives into the task of creating a “heel” (wrestling bad guy – there’s a lot of lingo) with gusto. Her chief rival is her former best friend, Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a failed soap star whose suburban marriage crumbles, leaving her with nowhere to go but GLOW. Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) is the group’s de facto wrestling coach, worrying that she may miss her last chance at the spotlight, which is generally being hogged by Melrose (Jackie Tohn), a party girl whose “look at me” persona conceals deep insecurities.

They’re all deeply flawed, instantly likable people, and the show’s deft writing means they pretty much all come across as three-dimensional characters. GLOW doesn’t shy away from the ugly and problematic side of showbiz, and although the period setting may let the viewer pretend that things have improved with time and distance, you know deep down that the creative team are speaking from personal experience when the series tackles sexism (pretty much all the time), racism (Sunita Mani’s character gets forced to play a terrorist stereotype in the ring, while African American Kia Stevens’ persona is the “Welfare Queen”), the male gaze (again, all the time, but at least Maron’s is self-aware), infidelity, betrayal, and more. The large, diverse cast means the show can tackle these themes from a variety of angles, at the very least touching on a number of viewpoints and experiences even if the inclination to dive in deep is lacking.

But that would all be for nothing if GLOW wasn’t also a hell of a lot of fun, packed with crackling, arch dialogue, a fine line in self-deprecation, and a weird kind of Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show!” gumption. Honestly, there’s nothing else quite like it out there at the moment. Yes, ’80s women’s wrestling is a weird and often laughable milieu. But there’s magic in taking something ludicrous and finding the humanity in it, and GLOW knows that trick well.