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Rumbles, Riffs and Riders 

Godzilla vs. Kong, Hysterical and Concrete Cowboy

click to enlarge Me once karaoke is safe again.

Godzilla vs. Kong

Me once karaoke is safe again.

GODZILLA VS. KONG. On the rarest of occasions, one receives an unexpected gift; something one would not have chosen for oneself, or even considered as a potential source of joy. Such, for me, was the arrival of Godzilla vs. Kong. We all knew it was coming and most were ready to receive it with adulation (see the world-crushing box office numbers). But I was, as in most things, trepidatious. As much as I reveled in the pleasant surprises of Kong: Skull Island (2017) and despite my almost-primal reverence for monster movies, time has made me wary even of simple pleasures. Additionally, Godzilla's just never been my guy. Both the 1998 and 2014 iterations left me cold, the former for its silliness, the latter for its overwrought drama. I skipped King of the Monsters (2019). But it would seem I've been subconsciously craving a big, dumb spectacle (beyond American political theater) as much as everybody else. Lights down, monsters up, I had a great time.

The primary achievement of G v. K lies in its refusal to take itself too seriously. While it is most certainly a gigantic, expensive undertaking, it is suffused with a sense of fun and discovery that strips away much of the cynicism with which it has become so easy to approach things. Director Adam Wingard (You're Next, 2011), having graduated from low to mid-budget horror to the big leagues of potential studio disaster, acquits himself astoundingly well. It is a titanic undertaking to bring together the countless elements that make up a movie of this scale; it only takes a couple of crucial mistakes for the whole thing to go sideways. And while no one could accuse Godzilla vs. Kong of changing cinema (except in a plague year), the fact that it remains watchable — read: fun — throughout is a testament to the novel idea that a mega-movie doesn't have to submit to stupidity or over-seriousness to succeed.

And, while it could create a rift between those of us on Team Kong (the good guys) and Team Godzilla (the other guys), the movie brings us together, ultimately, against the evils of technology. Hope springs eternal. PG13. 113M. HBOMAX.

HYSTERICAL. Stand-up comedy, a fascinating, roguish subculture, is also a troubling microcosm of the society upon which it comments. It distills the prejudices and inequities of contemporary culture, even as it ostensibly works to delineate and destroy them. Most pointedly, it has been and remains a boys' club, which is a euphemism for a toxically sexist, exclusionary milieu. While Hysterical, directed by Andrea Blaugrund Nevins, critically examines the challenges and imbalances inherent in the world of stand-up, it also strikes a decidedly hopeful tone, suggesting this may be a moment of critical change, a long overdue assessment of inherent bias and unequal opportunity.

Made up primarily of interviews with female comics, some multi-decade veterans and some already hardened new recruits, Hysterical presents a sometimes too-broad survey of women in comedy. It touches on the experiences and influence of trailblazers like Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers — legends and heroes all — but with its unusually brief running time, one cannot help but feel that history is being given short shrift. Additionally, there are some notable omissions from the talking head portion, likely due in part to the obvious impact of COVID-19 on the documentary's production.

For its minor faults, though, Hysterical is a hilarious, timely and crucial document. In the midst of a late-stage cultural wake-up call about equality and representation and legacies of abuse, who better to lead the charge than the comedians, with women as the standard bearers. TVMA. 87M. HULU, FX.

CONCRETE COWBOY scratches the surface of a number of heretofore woefully unexplored story wells: Black cowboys; the transformative power of a trust-based relationship with a horse; and north-Philly equine accommodations, among others. Directed by Ricky Staub, written by Staub and Dan Walser, the movie accomplishes much of what it sets out to with style and emotional investment to spare. So, even when it overreaches or the pacing falters or the feelings start to get saccharine, I am prepared to overlook those minor shortcomings.

After a last-straw fight and school expulsion, Cole's (Caleb McLaughlin) long-suffering mother stuffs his clothes into garbage bags and drives him from Detroit to Philadelphia to live with his semi-estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba). Cole is shocked to learn he'll be sharing an apartment with a horse and that's only the beginning. Harp is at the center of a longstanding community of Black cowboys, whose stable space — and cultural identity — is increasingly threatened by gentrification. Caught between the appeal of the street-life of childhood friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome) and the discipline and potential redemption of horsemanship, Cole struggles to establish his own identity.

While some of Concrete Cowboy's imperfections may frustrate, hinting as they do at a more perfect version of the story, there is more to admire than to criticize. R. 111M. NETFLIX.

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John J. Bennett

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