Tag Archives: B

KING COHEN

Producer: Matt Verboys, Dan McKeon and Steve Mitchell
Director: Steve Mitchell
Writer: 
Stars: Larry Cohen, J.J. Abrams, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, Barbara Carrera, Cynthia Costas-Cohen, Joe Dante, F.X. Feeney, Robert Forster, Megan Gallagher, Mick Garris, Yaphet Kotto, Paul Kurta, John Landis, Laurene Landon, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Tara Reid, Eric Roberts, Martin Scorsese, Janelle Webb and Fred Williamson.
Studio: Dark Star Pictures

B

For a portrait of an unconventional moviemaker, Steve Mitchell’s “King Cohen” is about as conventional a documentary as you can imagine. But the subject is fascinating enough to make up for the rather bland, but definitely affectionate, presentation.

That subject is Larry Cohen, the prolific writer, director and sometimes producer who made some of the weirdest, most memorable genre movies of the seventies and eighties—and did so with a maverick’s mad methods, often of the guerilla variety. He cooperated eagerly with Mitchell, giving extensive interviews and offering giddy observations as cameraman David C.P. Chan followed him around convention floors, and he’s an endlessly engaging fellow, well worth listening to.

But of course that’s not all there is to “King Cohen.” Mitchell has also interviewed scads of others—actors who worked with Cohen, like Yaphet Kotto, Traci Lords, Eric Bogosian, Barbara Carrera, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, and his favorite leading man Michael Moriarty; family, including both his wives; fans and scholars; and other filmmakers like Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, John Landis and Mick Garris. They reminiscence about his limitless imagination, his facility in scriptwriting, and his absolute single-mindedness about bringing his stories to the screen, whatever chances he had to take in the process. And their comments are almost always warm and admiring, the only exception being Williamson, who gruffly rejects some of Cohen’s recollections about their work together.

Then there is the archival material. Mitchell and editor Kai Thomasian briskly get through Cohen’s childhood, marked of course by many trips to movie palaces, and his brief career as a standup comedian, which ultimately failed to satisfy him. They slow down perceptibly for his entrance into live television in 1958 at the ripe old age of seventeen. He wrote scripts for some of the finest early anthology series on the tube, before segueing into series creation with shows like “Branded,” “Coronet Blue” and “The Invaders.” The documentary dutifully covers it all, with Cohen’s recollections adding immeasurably to the parade of stills and clips.

In 1972 Cohen turned to making features from his own scripts, though he continued contributing to television (providing story ideas, for instance, for several “Columbo” episodes), starting with the remarkable “Bone,” which he shot at his own home, and continuing with the “It’s Alive” trilogy, a couple of blaxploitation pictures and such wonderfully zany fare as “Q” (1982), “The Stuff” (1985), and perhaps most extraordinary of all, “God Told Me To” (1976). His last directorial effort, “Original Gangstas” (1996) reunited him with Fred Williamson, who had starred in “Black Caesar” (1973), but this time around was also the producer, leading to some friction between them. Afterward Cohen turned primarily to writing; even at their worst, his scripts had an outlandish pizzazz.

A couple of major themes emerge about Cohen’s moviemaking. One involves the guerilla tactics he used, shooting without permits and sometimes causing a ruckus in the process. John Landis, as well as Cohen himself, remembers the consternation he caused when, during the filming of “Q,” he had guys shooting off blanks from the top of the Chrysler Building, panicking pedestrians and bringing the NYPD down on him. He obviously enjoyed “stealing” shots and prized the edginess the method provided as well as the monetary savings.

Another motif is Cohen’s appreciation—and employment—of older artists who were often dismissed as over-the-hill. The film offers touching portraits of the friendships he developed with the great composer Bernard Herrmann in his final years, and with director Sam Fuller, whom he cast in “A Return to Salem’s Lot” (1987), and Red Buttons, who co-starred in “The Ambulance” (1990). He was less successful in bringing Bette Davis back to the screen in “Wicked Stepmother” (1989), but still treated her walking off the project in a pretty gentlemanly fashion—while contriving a way to finish the picture with her footage that rivals, if it doesn’t surpass, what Ed Wood did with Bela Lugosi’s tests for “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”

Mitchell and Thomasian proceed doggedly down to the present, unable to cover every project but offering a chronological survey broad enough to leave you astonished at the man’s inexhaustible gift for coming up with ingenious ideas and his determination to see them onscreen. Throughout Cohen proves a deliciously deadpan raconteur, even if some of the stories he tells might stretch the truth as much as his plots often strain credulity. The result is a fine tribute to a moviemaker who definitely did it his way, even if one suspects that if he were making such a documentary, it would be a lot more inventive.

Don’t confuse Larry Cohen, by the way, with Lawrence D. Cohen, who adapted Stephen King’s “Carrie” for Brian De Palma. Larry is Lawrence G.

THE CAKEMAKER (DER KUCHENMACHER)

Producer: Itai Tami
Director: Ofir Raul Graizer
Writer: Ofir Raul Graizer
Stars: Tim Kalkhof, Sarah Adler, Roy Miller, Zohar Strauss, Sandra Sade and Tamir Ben Yehuda
Studio: Strand Releasing

B

There’s much to admire in Israeli writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer’s debut feature, but “The Cakemaker” is an uneven film, intriguingly offbeat and textured but also opaque and emotionally distant.

The titular character is Thomas (Tim Kalkhof), a Berlin baker who, as he will eventually reveal, was orphaned at a young age, growing up with his grandmother. He runs a small shop where his specialty cakes and cookies have become a favorite with Oren (Roy Miller), an Israeli man who often visits Germany on business. On one stop for the cinnamon cookies his wife enjoys, Oren asks Thomas for help in choosing a birthday gift for his four-year old son, and Thomas agrees to take him to a place that sells hand-made train sets.

Without further ado the two men are romantically involved, though we see only a brief glimpse of the time they regularly spend together in Thomas’ apartment. After one stay, Oren leaves for home, forgetting his keys and the cinnamon cookies, and when Thomas tries to call his lover about it, he finds that Oren’s phone is out of service. Going to Oren’s employer, Thomas learns that he has died—in, we later learn, a car crash.

Thomas then shows up in Jerusalem, where he finds the tiny café run by Oren’s widow Anat (Sarah Adler). He becomes a regular there, and Anat, who finds keeping the place going while caring for her son Itai (Tamir Ben Yehuda) a difficult juggling act, asks him whether he’d like a job. Naturally he accepts. He also uses Oren’s keys to access his locker at the local pool, where he finds a pair of the dead man’s swimming trunks and uses them himself. He also gradually gains the trust of Oren’s brother Motti (Zohar Strauss), who offers him an apartment, as well as kindness from his mother Hanna (Sandra Sade).

Most importantly, Thomas grows closer to Anat, particularly after he begins baking cookies and cakes that turn the café into a prosperous place. He begins to teach her the tricks of his trade, and eventually they have a passionate engagement in the kitchen. Itai begins opening up to him as well. Inevitably the truth about his prior relationship with Oren will come out, with results that are perhaps too predictable, though Graizer couches the ultimate outcome in ambiguity.

It’s fairly clear that for stiff, reserved Thomas, his Jerusalem experience is an attempt to recapture his closeness to Oren by effectively making his dead lover’s life his own by replicating even Oren’s lovemaking with Anat, down to the details of their lovemaking the dead man described to him. But Graizer layers other elements into the narrative. One is the matter of religious divergence. Motti—and Hanna too—are orthodox, and their practices are reinforced by the calls to Shabbat that echo each week through the streets. Anat, on the other hand, is agnostic, irritated by Motti’s efforts to influence Itai. But she must also be concerned with maintaining the kosher certificate issued for her shop by officials, without which her business might collapse; and Thomas’ cooking could endanger the café’s kosher status.

Another theme is the still tense feelings of Jews toward Germans. It is explicitly seen in Motti’s initial reaction to Anat’s hiring of Thomas. Yet in time Motti invites Thomas to attend Shabbat with the family, because, he observes, one ought not to eat alone on that day.

Graizer does not succeed in linking these various threads together into a perfectly integrated whole, nor is each of them treated as equal insight. But he, cinematographer Omri Aloni and editor Michel Oppenheim collaborate to create an elegant, refined film in which the strands reflect enigmatically upon each other. And Dominique Charpentier contributes a spare score that adds a further note of gentle rumination to the visuals.

Meanwhile, Kalkhof’s impassivity contrasts with Adler’s volatility, and the rest of the cast add incisive touches, with Sade’s melancholy striking an especially strong chord.

Like Thomas’ confections, “The Cakemaker” is a delicate thing that won’t appeal to all tastes. But if you’re willing to surrender yourself to its unusual vibe, you may find that it quietly builds a substantial effect.