Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Wolf of Pop Street: Paul Scheer's new pop culture-themed podcast network introduces a pair of movie talk shows that are worth your time

On Wolfpop's new show Movies on Maltin, movie characters get to pick apart the most baffling capsule reviews by Leonard Maltin.
Midroll Media's Wolfpop is a new sister network to the Earwolf podcast network, and its aim is to bring both plenty of production polish and big names (from the worlds of comedy, publishing and entertainment reporting) to a type of podcast format that's been around since podcasting's not-so-polished-sounding beginnings: pop culture talk. On November 4, Wolfpop--which is being curated by Paul Scheer, star of The League and co-host of his own movie talk podcast, Earwolf's How Did This Get Made?--launched 563,000 different pop culture podcasts. Even though I'm unemployed, I don't have time to listen to all 563,000 of them, but there are two Wolfpop shows that immediately caught my attention because of both the talent involved and the intriguing film-related subjects of their shows.

Maltin on Movies pairs up Leonard Maltin with comedian Baron Vaughn and gives the duo a different film-related topic to discuss each week (for example, episode 2 was about the unexpected rise of the McConaissance). Meanwhile, former Totally Biased host W. Kamau Bell and his fellow Totally Biased staff writer (and old Bay Area roommate) Kevin Avery make a case for why Denzel Washington is the illest on the succinctly titled Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period.

Adolph Caesar's ghost attempts to beat up Denzel for making him sit through Virtuosity.

Vaughn, Bell and Avery are terrific choices for Wolfpop show hosts. Besides the conversational skills they've honed as hosts of previous podcasts (Vaughn hosted the All Things Comedy network's Deep Shit, while Bell did a podcast with Living Colour's Vernon Reid and had another movie talk podcast with Avery, Siskel & Negro, before they reteamed for the new Wolfpop show), it's also always wonderful to hear comedians of color hosting weekly podcasts. Sure, there's also Aisha Tyler (Girl on Guy), Margaret Cho (Monsters of Talk) and Kumail Nanjiani (The Indoor Kids, The X-Files Files), but, um, that's about it. The L.A. comedy podcast community is so lily-white it pours mayo into its tacos. It's so white it thinks Dilla was that lady who used to always tell jokes about her husband Fang on Carson. It's so white it has sex to Mumford & Sons. It's so white...

As an animation historian and an expert on older periods of film, Maltin is phenomenal. When I was a kid, I loved leafing through Of Mice and Magic, Maltin's thick tome about the history of American animation, so much that I would repeatedly renew it at the public library. But as a reviewer of live-action American films, the former Entertainment Tonight film critic isn't exactly one of my favorites. He gave only two (or two and a half) stars to Taxi Driver, The Long Goodbye, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and Miller's Crossing, all movies I love. As long as Maltin doesn't talk about either Taxi Driver, The Long Goodbye, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid or Miller's Crossing on this new podcast, Maltin on Movies is worth a listen each week.

Despite some of his tastes in live-action films, Maltin is--like he's always been during his appearances on other podcasts--likable and level-headed in many of the same ways that the late Roger Ebert was. He may not agree with you about an unconventional indie flick you might adore, but at least he's not going to be a dick about it. He's never going to say something racist about your Korean friend like Rex Reed would do, and he's never going to boo you off the stage like Armond White rudely does to actors and directors he incomprehensibly dislikes.

Now if only the monster from Bong Joon-ho's The Host would do this to Rex Reed.
Maltin's friendliness and approachability ("The friendliest film critic I know," says DVD Savant author Glenn Erickson) must have been why Joe Dante let bygones be bygones after he was disappointed with Maltin's negative review of his first Gremlins movie, and he got Maltin to appear during Gremlins 2: The New Batch in a cameo as himself--delivering that same negative review of Gremlins. It's also why the L.A. comedy community likes to hang out with Maltin. Sarah Silverman memorably got him to pretend to be her date in the audience during her parody of award show acceptance speeches on Comedy Central's Night of Too Many Stars autism telethon ("Richard Roeper cannot hold a candle to you as a film critic or as an oral lover"), and Doug Benson frequently has Maltin on as a guest on Doug Loves Movies, which uses the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide app on Benson's phone to run the show's Leonard Maltin Game.

But does that same congeniality make for lively and entertaining discussions about film like the frequently contentious pairing of Siskel and Ebert did? Not very often. So this is where Baron Vaughn--who's actually as knowledgeable about modern-day cinema as Maltin but isn't quite as familiar with older periods of film like him--comes in. Vaughn's light banter with Maltin and his ability to keep their conversations engaging are why he's an ideal partner for Maltin. They're not contentious like the Sneak Previews and At the Movies hosts used to be, but fortunately, Vaughn and Maltin's congruent opinions about the three films they select for discussion each week (the first film is one they highly recommend, the second film is one they agree is an artistic failure and the third is a lesser-known title that they both wish had received more shine) haven't resulted in boring talk.

For the first time in his long career as a reviewer (and host of various film talk shows where, unlike in podcasts, the conversations have to be much shorter and snappier and completely edited down), Maltin is as interesting a conversationalist as either Siskel or Ebert, thanks to Vaughn. He's brought out some great stories from Maltin, like his recollection of the first time he taped a press-junket interview with the late Robin Williams, a famously energetic and laugh-inducing interviewee, for Entertainment Tonight.



Denzel Washington Is the Greatest is a less serious movie talk show than Maltin on Movies, but it's equally worthwhile. I was a fan of W. Kamau Bell's late, lamented Totally Biased and its progressive brand of humor about race (Totally Biased was as close as we got to a weekly TV version of one of my all-time favorite humor books, ego trip's Big Book of Racism!), so it's comforting to have a piece of that show back, even if it's just in the form of a podcast about Denzel movies starring two of its writers.

"Denzealots" Bell and Kevin Avery intend to analyze a different Denzel movie each week--I can't wait until they reach either Crimson Tide or Malcolm X, which are neck and neck as my favorite Denzel movie--and rate it in terms of "Denzelishness," like how often "Denzel does that thing with his lip." Because Washington has starred in so many movies since his big-screen debut in Carbon Copy, a 1981 comedy where George Segal co-starred as his newly discovered biological father, the size of his filmography is making me wonder if the run of Bell and Avery's new podcast will be as long as the decade-long run that's been estimated for Mission Log, the Roddenberry Entertainment podcast that's been reviewing every single episode of each screen incarnation of Star Trek in chronological order.

Even though it was closed by the time Siskel and Negro was on the air, this lobby looks so fucking much like Gould Cinemas, the most ratchet discount movie theater in San Jose during the '80s.
Whatever the case, I'm excited about where this Denzel podcast is going to go, especially because Bell says he wants to have guests on the show. I can't think of a more ideal guest than either Slate's Aisha Harris, who wrote a good piece about Washington's recent Liam Neeson-style career turns as a "geriaction" hero; stand-up comic Reggie Reg, who does the best Denzel impression anywhere; or Bronson Pinchot, who once said he hated working with Washington during the filming of Courage Under Fire--and due to Avery's current stint as a writer for the incredible Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, that has me crossing my fingers for Oliver himself to show up one day on Washington Is the Greatest. (That's mainly because Washington played a British military vet in 1988's For Queen & Country, and I want to hear Oliver evaluate Washington's accent in that film.)

Bell and Avery's entertaining podcast has also made me look back on the huge amount of terrific soundtracks or original scores in Washington's filmography, from Terence Blanchard's rousing Malcolm X score to Elmer Bernstein's work on Devil in a Blue Dress. Speaking of which, Bernstein's "Theme from Devil in a Blue Dress" and the Branford Marsalis Quartet's "Mo' Better Blues" can currently be enjoyed during "The Whitest Block Ever" on AFOS, while Hans Zimmer's "Roll Tide" from Crimson Tide and selections from Blanchard's Malcolm X score can be heard during "AFOS Prime." "Chaiyya Chaiyya," A.R. Rahman's classic tune from the 1998 Hindi film Dil Se, which is also part of "AFOS Prime" rotation, wasn't written for Inside Man, but that Spike Lee/Denzel collabo is the first place where most American moviegoers like myself vibed out to it (although in a slightly modified form with added trumpet riffs by Blanchard and newly recorded guest verses by Panjabi MC).




Best of all, Bell and Avery's discussions of why black people often leave movie screenings so early (Bell points out that it's most likely because they have to pick up their kids from school) or why Bell considers historical dramas like A Soldier's Story (Avery refers to the 1984 movie as "the thing that red-alerted a lot of black women to Denzel Washington") and Glory to be "black people homework" are imbued with the same insight and hilarious observations about life as a person of color that made Totally Biased such a keeper during its short life span. Here's hoping Wolfpop doesn't front on Washington Is the Greatest and abruptly put an end to it like FXX did to Totally Biased.

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