By BRUCE DENNILL
We Are The Champions / Written by Matthew-Lee Erlbach / PG
Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine / Directed by Natasha Lyonne / 16
Death To 2020 / Directed by Al Campbell and Alice Mathias / 16LVP
Netflix documentary series We Are The Champions takes wonderfully quirky, offbeat subcultures – all centred around some sort of strange, niche sport – and gives them added warmth and humour. Rainn Wilson narrates with delightful, dry drollness, giving small-town stories and their normal working-class heroes the respect they deserve in their contexts even as what they are getting up to is gently satirised. Each of the six episodes looks at a competition that either is completely bonkers – chasing a cheese down a mineshaft-steep hillside or willingly chomping the world’s hottest chilis – or might be seen as such by onlookers more used to more traditional pastimes. This latter batch includes fantasy hairstyling, competitive yo-yoing, dog dancing and frog jumping. Around each of these competitions exists a community of eccentric, enthusiastic personalities utterly devoted to their particular, peculiar craft, and each script puts a handful of these experts in the spotlight, connecting viewers to what would have been entirely alien activities to most onlookers. Every episode is a complete journey, with excellent research providing a strong platform for the story while the interviews conducted and the top-notch filmmaking craftsmanship add rich texture and colour. Educational, even as it delights. Highly recommended.
Netflix special Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine is a showcase for a comedian many South Africans may not even be aware of. Sarah Cooper became a huge Tik Tok and then a Twitter star by lip-synching to Trump speeches, gaining such a profile in the US that she was tapped to guest host the Jimmy Kimmel Live! Late night show and then signed to a deal by Netflix, this handed a massive platform on which to introduce her material to a worldwide audience. Everything’s Fine is a series of skits ostensibly tied together as segments of the eponymous TV show of which Cooper is the increasingly harried host. It’s soon evident that the show is not designed to fit any comfortable TV format, cutting in excerpts that are by turns surreal, awkward, cringey and hilarious. Cooper coming slowly unwound is its own running punchline, and the format of the special makes it curiously – and wonderfully – akin to Monty Python skit collections, completely unapologetic about the tone or the weirdness of the material and likely to pop up later in your psyche, just when you least expect it. There is brutal satire, funny character work and stuff that is so utterly bonkers that it effectively distracts viewers from everything that is not fine – which must be at least one of its goals. Uneven, but worth it.
A pitch-black satirical review of arguably the most brutal year this generation has lived through? The general feeling might be “too soon”. But short (70-minute) Netflix film Death To 2020 works well on many levels, and wisely chooses to skirt one or two issues that it would be disrespectful (at best) to try and process via humour, however clever. Laurence Fishburne narrates a script that veers from the brutally blunt (introducing Donald Trump as an “experimental pig-man”) to the oddly affecting (everywoman Gemma, played by Diane Morgan, noting that her romantic prospects are similar whatever the situation with the pandemic in a scene reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’ After Life). Dubious “experts” with knowingly daft names (Samuel L Jackson’s newsman is “Dash Bracket”; Kumail Nanjiani’s social media mogul is “Bark Multiverse”; Samson Kayo’s scientist is “Pyrex Flask”) are interviewed, adding their perspectives to a chronologically arranged revisiting some of 2020’s most noteworthy events. Where the film is most effective is where the comedy in a situation and the kernel of unpleasant truth at its centre are shown to exist right alongside each other, perhaps most memorably in a scene where Cristin Milioti’s “self-proclaimed soccer mom” goes from sweet but naïve conspiracy theory advocate to hate-filled Nazi in the course of one smoothly-written sequence. The film is uneven – as with a stand-up comedy set, some gags either don’t land at all or feel as though they’re labouring for laughs – but in terms of meeting its likely mandate of poking all of last year’s sacred cows until they stampeded out of the corral, leaving an open area in which to (hopefully) build something new and interesting, Death To 2020 does well, underlining that if you really feel uptight about the onscreen angles of attack, you may be part of the problem.