All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that "366weirdmovies" is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as "hetero" and his relationship status as "single," but Mr. Smalley's "turn-ons" and "favorite Michael Bay movie" were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

CAPSULE: THE RED AND THE WHITE (1967)

Csillagosok, Katonák

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Miklós Jancsó

FEATURING: Krystyna Mikolajewska, József Madaras

PLOT: During the Russian Civil War (1918-1920), the Reds and the Whites battle over a monastery on the banks of the Volga that keeps switching hands.

Still from The Red and the White (1967)

COMMENTS: The Red and the White begins with a regiment of horsemen, sabres and rifles raised, charging in slow-motion directly at the camera as a martial trumpet fanfare plays. This stirring sight creates an expectation of an epic about proud Hungarian volunteers coming to the aid of their Soviet brothers against the meddling, foreign-sponsored counter-revolutionary Whites. And that was, indeed, the propagandistic picture producers envisioned for this Soviet-Hungarian co-production, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. But Miklós Jancsó instead delivered a virulent anti-war/anti-authority classic, with only the slightest ironic hints of patriotic sentiment. (Some accounts say the completed film was screened in Russia only in a severely edited form, while others report it was banned outright).

It’s hard to tell who is who in The Red and the White. The Whites’ officers have more elaborate uniforms festooned with medals and insignia, but that’s about it for distinguishing the two sides. Perhaps contemporary audiences were able to identify the rivals more easily, but there’s every reason to think that the lack of clarity is entirely intentional, and contemporary confusion only heightens the effect. The movie is told as a series of vignettes, which play out to an individual climax but then follow a new character into the next story (five years before The Phantom of Liberty). Sometimes, characters will return in later episodes, giving the movie a mild sense of narrative continuity, but the general effect is to immerse the viewer into the fog of war. Time often seems to expand within a single scene, and fortunes reverse in an instant: a Red officer goes to investigate why his sentry isn’t responding and is suddenly ambushed, and when the camera circles back the Whites now control the territory. The narrative style and lack of characterization is disorienting, but forces us to identify more with groups than individuals. Soldiers on both sides spend more time bullying civilians and prisoners of war than they do fighting each other. (At one point, POWs are set loose to play a round of “The Most Dangerous Game“). Jancsó particularly loves scenes where the ascendant side forces their captives to strip as a way of asserting dominance. (Although we see nothing, rape is suggested as an inevitable offscreen event.) Due to the lack of an identifiable protagonist, our sympathies are drawn to the innocent pawns in these power games as a group: local farmers, a band of nurses who tend the injured of either side, and the poor conscripts and Hungarian volunteers, who are constantly being captured and liberated in an endless reshuffling of pieces. The Reds play the same cards as the Whites, and Jancsó’s vision conveys an implicit message of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” that could not have been pleasing to Soviet authorities.

The scenarios are repetitive in their cruelty, but purposefully so.  Jancsó invests each anecdote with its own level of suspense (captives are arbitrarily toyed with and freed or toyed with and executed, so you can never be sure who will live and who will die). Occasionally the adventures travel into the absurd, as when one group of interrogees are led into a white birch forest to perform a waltz accompanied by a military band. The rest of the time, the audience enjoys the spectacular long tracking shots that brought Jancsó renown. The flowing camera reinforces the sense of constantly changing front lines on a battlefield where an individual soldier never knows what is happening meters away: one man is executed on the banks of the Volga, while we can see his comrade hiding nearby in the reeds. One battle sequence has the outnumbered Reds singing “The Internationale” before charging a superior White position, only to be mowed down. It’s a maneuver only slightly more effective than lining up against a wall to be shot, but it’s the type of scene that could be sold to the Soviet backers as a portrait of heroic sacrifice. In full context, however, it’s just another example of how the common man finds himself cast into a no-win situation in service to one camp or another of brutes more united by sadism than divided by ideology.

In 2022, Kino Classics re-released its Jancsó catalog on Blu-ray for the first time. The Miklós Jancsó Collection includes The Round-Up, The Red and the White, The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm, and Electra My Love, along with a host of supplements and short films. About half of those had never been released on home video in North America, or were hard to find. If you just want the essential Jancsó, they released his two most popular films, The Round-Up and The Red and the White, in a separate 2-disc package, with the seven short films also included. Kino restored all six films in 4K for these releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…both masterful and absurdist, using cutting-edge cinematic techniques to show the chaos and pointlessness of war.”–Christopher Lloyd, Film Yap (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: APPLES (2020)

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Apples is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Christos Nikou

FEATURING: Aris Servetalis, Sofia Georgovassili

PLOT:  After falling victim to a syndrome that causes sudden memory loss, Aris enters an odd recovery program designed to create new memories for a new identity.

Still from Apples (2020)

COMMENTS: When a man snarls traffic by abandoning his vehicle in the road and sitting on the curb, then denies it was his car, a fellow passenger takes it in stride and calls an ambulance. In Apples, an incurable plague of sudden-onset amnesia is so common that people don’t get angry about the inconveniences it causes. When Aris forgets his name and where he’s going on a public bus, he is routinely sent to a hospital wing dedicated to amnesiacs. After no friends or family come to claim him, he is enrolled in an experimental new program designed to give amnesiacs a new beginning. The regimen involves the subject recreating a series of representative experiences—riding a bicycle, crashing a car, having a one-night stand—and taking Polaroids of themselves at the scene, which they place in a special memory album. With no other obvious options, Aris dutifully enters the program and sets about following the doctors’ instructions for creating a life. A few tantalizing memories of his old existence occasionally break through the fog: a dog’s name, a street address. But all we can be reasonably certain of from his previous life is that he loved apples.

Apples will necessarily be seen as a late entry in the Greek Weird Wave—launched by with the deadpan absurdity of 2009’s Dogtoothand I doubt debuting director Christos Nikou would disavow the influence. Apples is Lanthomisian in rhythm and style, but pared-down to its essential moods. The acting is restrained but subtle, as opposed to the in-your-face, disconnected-from-reality non-acting that inhabits much of the Weird Wave. Servetalis’ nondescript, bearded face forms the perfect blank canvas on which we can project our own anxieties and melancholy. The sense of humor is absurd—Aris on a child’s bike, a doctor suggesting patients’ make therapeutic Molotov cocktails—but never approaches the surreal heights of something like The Lobster. The world here is only slightly askew, with the unexplained amnesia plague and the low-tech setting (Polaroids and cassette tapes instead of cell phones) serving as the only clues we’re not in present day reality. The spare cinematic compositions are designed to reinforce a sense of isolation, even in urban settings, but they are classically framed. (A cemetery scene with bone-white tombstones set against a gray sky and Aris standing in a slumped silhouette is one of the sweeter shots of the year.) It all seems designed to be more audience friendly than usual for the genre, but that choice doesn’t feel like a calculated compromise; rather, Nikou locates a natural space between standard arthouse drama and experimental film where he’s comfortable exploring penetrating ideas.

Note that there are two parts to the program Aris enters: constructing false memories, and creating a new identity for himself. Apples‘ plot focuses our attention on the bizarre methodology of the first part, but thematically, it’s more interested the second part of the formula. Apples becomes an existential fable raising open-ended questions: is Aris’ amnesia a result of traumatic event? Is it, in some sense, a choice? How essential is memory to our identity—if I forget everything, am I still me? Does the hospital’s structured regimen help or hinder Aris to live authentically? Apples invites you to puzzle out these questions on your own. The ending is, ironically, memorable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all sounds bizarre on paper. But Apples, the first feature from the director and co-writer Christos Nikou, unfolds with an understated deadpan wit that makes even its weirder touches seem plausible, even logical. At times it reminded me of some of the brilliant absurdist satires, like Dogtooth and Attenberg, that have put Greek cinema on the map over the past two decades.”–Justin Chang, NPR (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: AFTER BLUE (DIRTY PARADISE) (2021)

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Weirdest!
After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paula-Luna Breitenfelder, Elina Löwensohn, Agata Buzek,

PLOT: On the all-female planet “After Blue,” an ingenue digs up a woman in the sand, who turns out to be the monstrous killer “Kate Bush”; she is tasked with killing it, under the supervision of her hairdresser mother.

Still from After Blue (Dirty Paradise) (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It may have its rough edges, but every post-apocalyptic sci-fi psychedelic lesbian acid western that comes down the pike gets automatic consideration as Apocrypha.

COMMENTS: Together with Katrín Ólafsdóttir, Bertrand Mandico has proposed a “Manifesto of Incoherence” for making films. If the notion of a set of rules designed to produce incoherence sounds a little, well, incoherent to you, then you’re not alone. After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is the kind of paradoxical work produced from a dogma of incoherence.

Incoherent, in Madnico’s sense, doesn’t necessarily mean inconsistent. The rules of the planet of After Blue may be insane, but the script adheres to them faithfully. There are no men on the planet because their hair grew inward, killing them. Shaving (of the neck and chest, with a glowing neon razor) is an important ritual for the women of After Blue; as a hairdresser, it’s part of Roxy’s mother’s regular duties. Outsider Kate Bush, by contrast, is known for her hairy arm. Is this making sense? Yes, and no. The shaving motif is a minor point, but it does illustrate how the world of After Blue operates according to its own dreamlike logic. The planet’s inhabitants, on the other hand, don’t always seem to act logically or consistently—at least not according to our understanding of human nature. Kate Bush promises to grant Roxy three hidden desires. In typical fairy tale fashion, these wishes rebound on the wisher; or maybe, her deepest desires Kate Bush grants are different than the wishes Roxy articulates. Or maybe Bush selfishly doesn’t grant them at all, but just does what she wanted to do anyway. It’s difficult to say. When you have a movie in which a blind manbot expels a goo-covered green marble through his nipple, normal behavioral rules may not apply.

The film’s surrealist assembly—part Barbarella, part live-action Fantastic Planet—is more consistent, providing the picture’s actual unity of purpose. We begins with shots of planets submerged in swirling rainbow nebulae, which dissolve into women’s faces as Roxy recites the history of the founding of After Blue to an unseen interrogator. Natural landscapes display After Blue’s strange geology and flora: penile crystals growing on the beach, giant fungi, coral growths, strange tentacled branches. Villages and other structures are built of stone in a ramshackle medieval style; despite the inhabitants’ professed disdain for high technology, they often feature neon lighting. Mandico shoots every scene through colored gels and filters: purples seem to be his go-to shade, but he cycles through oranges, greens, blues and yellows scene by scene. He also favors double exposures and other optical distortions. Oh, and the lithe women of his cast are frequently nude—and engage in a lot of flirtatious seduction, though no actual sex.

With such a lovingly created psychedelic playground to romp in, it’s a shame that Mandico gives his characters little of interest to do or say. After Blue is high on dialogue, low on action. The fairy tale quest structure mostly involves Roxy and her mother Zora traveling a lot, eventually encountering a mysterious character named Sternberg and her illicit cloned android (the only male on the planet). Sternberg seems vaguely threatening, but ultimately neither helps nor hinders our heroines. In fact, other than Kate Bush, the characters have little agency; the movie happens to them as they float through Mandico’s atmosphere. Zora trods through the film wearing a Navajo jacket and a constant expression of bewilderment, an emotion the audience can relate to. Since events on After Blue are self-contained, with no real relevance to concerns of the real world, the story begs for a dynamic and coherent self-contained presentation. Naming a character after an 80s cult songstress is not a strong enough joke to hold our interest for two hours. As it is, it’s like watching a beautiful surrealist slideshow; but your mind is likely to wander during the slow patches. This flaw makes it a missed opportunity for a crossover cult classic, but After Blue sports more than enough visual interest and general weirdness to make it a near-must-watch for this site’s readers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a fantasia perched somewhere between Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and the darkly surreal universe of William Burroughs’ books… there were moments when the fantasy locale Mandico conjures stopped giving me new things to look and marvel at, but the journey still crackles with a febrile excitement, a playfulness of moods and images that makes it easy to be lulled in all the bizarrerie.”–Leonardo Goi, The Film Stage (festival review)

28*. WALKER (1987)

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“I was seriously off the rails here.”–screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, on Walker‘s commentary

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ed Harris, , , , Peter Boyle,  Marlee Matlin

PLOT: Shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt hires William Walker, a mercenary and adventurer fresh off a failed campaign to establish an independent state in Mexico, to take a small army to Nicaragua to join their civil war on the side of the Democrats. Assembling a ragtag band of disreputable men lacking better prospects, Walker takes his army to Nicaragua, where he has unexpected success, driving back the Legitimist army and arriving in the capital of Grenada as a liberator. Initially accepting a position leading the army, Walker grows power mad and seizes the country’s Presidency.

Still from Walker (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Walker was a real historical figure and, ridiculous anachronisms and obvious fantasy scenes aside, Walker describes the general direction of his career. Many scenes were drawn from his diaries and letters and other historical sources. (One major change was the role of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who did not sponsor Walker’s original expedition, but was involved in his downfall.)
  • The practice of American adventurers invading Latin American countries with private armies was surprisingly common in the 19th century, so much so that it earned its own name: filibustering. William Walker was the most successful filibusterer of all time. He somehow took control of Nicaragua with an army initially comprised of a mere 60 men.
  • Rudy Wurlitzer’s previous screenplays included the bizarre post-apocalyptic Glen and Randa (1971), ‘s cult film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and the Western Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973).
  • Cox made Walker in the same year as Straight to Hell, a quickie scraped together after plans to film a punk rock concert in Nicaragua fell apart.
  • The movie was filmed while the C.I.A..-backed Contras were waging a guerilla war against the ruling Sandinistas. Cox filmed corpses from a Contra massacre and included the footage in the film’s end credits.
  • Universal Studios gave Cox his largest budget ever, six million dollars, to make what they hoped might be a prestige biopic, or even a hit. They did not expect the deranged, anachronistic, incendiary film Cox delivered, and after poorly-received test screenings they buried the film. Cox never directed in Hollywood again.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to cite one of the many iconic scenes of Walker, rifle in hand, striding confidently in the foreground in his smart Puritan-black suit while mayhem erupts in the background. We instead selected the surreal image of Walker striding confidently across the beach in the background, while in the foreground two of his men are being punished by being buried up to their necks in the sand with a tarantula crawling over one’s head, while their overseer enjoys a Marlboro and Coke.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Smoking during tarantula torture; 19th century helicopter evacuation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by (if he was obsessed with politics instead of sex and Catholicism). That’s Walker in a nutshell.


Original trailer for Walker

COMMENTS: Walker drops its strangeness on its viewers gradually. Continue reading 28*. WALKER (1987)

CAPSULE: INSPECTOR IKE (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Graham Mason

FEATURING: Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Matt Barats, Grace Rex, Jessica Damouni, Ana Fabrega, Anthony Oberbeck, John Early

PLOT: Inspector Ike investigates a murder at an avant-garde theater group.

Strill from Inspector Ike (2020)

COMMENTS: Inspector Ike is a parody of a very specific subgenre— 1970’s mystery-themed “movies of the week,” a la “Columbo”—from the nearly extinct Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker-Mel Brooks school of tomfoolery. Presented as a faux episode of a ongoing movie-of-the-week series, complete with animated intro with a magnifying-glass carrying, trenchcoated sleuth, the movie drops us into a world where Inspector Ike already exists, catching new crooks week after week with his signature finishing move: hiding handcuffs near some incriminating piece of physical evidence, then toasting the perp with a wink and a glass of champagne.

This “episode” (“Audition for Death”) follows an struggling actor who kills his mentor so he can take the lead in his troupe’s production of the one-man musical “Mannie.” In “Columbo” fashion, we see the murder first, and suspense comes from watching Ike try to put the pieces together, while the killer tries to cover his tracks. The theater world setting allows the film to poke some gentle fun at the off-off-Broadway scene (the mythical “Avant-Garde Alley,” where you find mimes and kabuki actors smoking on stoops in-between rehearsals); that milieu, after all, is not all that different than the world of New York’s underground comedy scene from which Ike‘s cast was drawn. Like a true TV villain, murderer Matt Barats hams the hell out of his part, all sideways glances and sly grins before the heat turns on, then big-eyed and twitchy, like a hack in the Scottish play seeing an imaginary drop of blood on his corduroy sleeve. By contrast, Ufomadu’s Ike is totally deadpan; suave and quietly competent whether he’s fixing a tilted picture with his shadow or cooking a pot of chili in a nervous suspect’s apartment. A wide range of always humorous supporting actors occupy the spaces between these two combatants, most notably scene-stealing Deputies Hawthorne and Dinardo, who can never seem to stay on topic during their consultations with Ike.

Inspector Ike gets the fond camp tone exactly right—possibly because there’s not a lot of well-worn tropes to overparody in this extremely specific subgenre, which allows the script freedom to simply wander in the direction of whatever joke it finds most amusing at the moment. Despite the minuscule budget, Ike seems like a relic of the era, based mainly on accurate 70s wardrobes (Harry’s mustard turtleneck, Ike’s powder-blue suit with wide striped tie) and appropriate touches like commercial fadeouts. The film was shot on the streets of Brooklyn, carefully avoiding anachronisms. Casting such a project with local stand-ups rather than full-time thespians was a wise choice; low-budget comedies often fail because the actors lack comic timing and instincts, which is never an issue here. I’ll confess that I rarely found any of the gags laugh-out-loud funny, but that wasn’t a problem, because the likeable cast carries the movie along on a pleasant current of low-key absurdity that never becomes either boring or upsetting.

So it’s fun, but is it a weird movie? Well, mildly so, in at least in its general conception. In his director’s commentary, Mason says that he was trying to create something that “nobody asked for,” an artifact that would leave the audience wondering “why does this even exist?” but glad that it does. He succeeds in this goal admirably, and I’d love to see more stuff from the Mason/Ufomadu team that I never asked for.

It’s a shame that Inspector Ike did not land a streaming deal so that more people could see it, but the Blu-ray package is well worth the purchase for comedy fans. It features a commentary track by director/co-writer Mason, and a booklet with more Graham commentary, an “Inspector Ike” episode guide, and a word search puzzle. Along with the memorable trailer, two comic Ufomadu/Mason short collaborations round out the package: “Words with Ike” (a “word of the day” TV parody) and “The Photos of Ana” (with “Detective Hawthorne” Ana Fabrega). Both shorts have the same underplayed, off-kilter comic sensibilities as Inspector Ike. The package even includes an official Inspector Ike recipe card, which you can use to jot down ingredients and directions for Ike’s detailed chili recipe when prompted.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As pop culture deep cuts go in 2022, ‘Inspector Ike’ certainly has the weirdest inspiration in recent memory… Ufomadu is terrific in the part, and the rest of the cast commits to the weirdness of the effort. Not every joke lands, or is even attempted, but there are spirited, dryly hilarious performances to enjoy throughout the endeavor.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: RADIO ON (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Petit

FEATURING: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer

PLOT: A disc jockey drives across the UK when he learns about his brother’s death.

Still from Radio On (1979)

COMMENTS: Radio On is well aware that its soundtrack is its strongest (or, at least, its most marketable) component. The movie begins with the sound of a radio dial quickly migrating through static and brief news snippets to fasten onto singing “Heroes” (the rare extended version where the crooner sings the lyrics in both English and German). The main cast are quickly credited, and then we launch into the soundtrack credits:  Bowie. Kraftwerk. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Ian Dury. A bunch of late punk/early new wave acts now forgotten. Devo. (Though not credited, a young Sting will also cameo, as a guitar-playing gas station pump jockey who sings Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven.”) Cinematic staple “Heroes” continues to drone as the black and white camera pans through a cluttered apartment to eventually light upon a body in a bathtub.

Unfortunately, the zeitgeist tunes and superior camerawork (by associate Martin Schäfer, one of several connections to the German director found in Radio On) are the movie’s only real draws. Made just as Thatcherism was taking hold in the U.K., Radio On is as dour and torpid as the mindset of liberal intellectuals of the period. That body in the bathtub belongs to our DJ protagonist Robert’s dead brother, who, after 25 or so minutes of dilly-dallying, staring off into space, and getting a haircut in what seems like real time, sets him off on a journey to find out what happened. The camera focuses on the ugliest examples of modern British architecture it can find—factories, tenement skyscrapers, freeway on-ramps—so that when we finally see the flat and bleak English landscape outside his car window, it looks pastoral by comparison. Newscasts blather on about crime and obscenity raids, until our expressionless antihero turns on some Kraftwerk in boredom. It’s all very esque, stylishly alienated and dispassionate. Once the journey gets afoot, Petit livens up the scenario (not a difficult task) with a few chance encounters: a Scottish army deserter, Sting, and a plot detour with a German woman (Wenders’ ex-wife Kreuzer) fruitlessly searching for the daughter her ex-husband has taken to England. Robert’s car deteriorates throughout the journey, until it ends up stalled out at a quarry by a beach. We never learn exactly what happened to the brother.

I’m sure Radio On accurately captures the mood of anomie among leftists in 1979 England. As a time capsule, it has some value beyond the soundtrack and cinematography. But the aggressively disenchanted pallor makes it a hard sell for people who weren’t there. Despite the Bowie tunes, most of the movie informed by long, ambiguous-but-sad silences.

Radio On was a surprise late 2021 release from Vinegar Syndrome (via partner label Fun City). The movie has a small but loyal British following, and among the surprising number of extras on the disc (including a Kier-La Janisse commentary track and multiple interviews with director Petit) is “Radio On (Remix),” a 24-minute experimental film composed of altered Radio On footage with a schizophrenic audio mix and lines of poetry appearing in subtitles. I’m personally much fonder of this abstract, dreamlike approach to the material, but it’s difficult to say how it would work as a standalone piece for someone with no knowledge of the feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an enigmatic and offbeat walk on the wild side.”–Rob Aldam, Backseat Mafia (Blu-ray)

CHANNEL 366: WONDER EGG PRIORITY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Shin Wakabayashi, Yūta Yamazaki, Yūki Yonemori, Yūichirō Komuro, Shinichirō Ushijima, Yūsuke Yamamoto, Maiko Kobayashi, Eita Higashikubo, Mitsuru Hagi

FEATURING: Voices of Kanata Aikawa, Tomori Kusunoki,  Shuka Saitō, Hinaki Yano, Yūya Uchida,  Hiroki Takahashi; Mikaela Krantz,  Dawn M. Bennett, Anairis Quiñones, Michelle Rojas, Brendan Blaber, Ian Sinclair (English dub)

PLOT: Four teenage girls buy eggs from mannequins in hopes of bringing suicides back to life.

Still from Wonder egg priority (2021)

COMMENTS: Episode 1 (“The Domain of Children”) is a promising start. We meet Ai Ohto, a hikikomori heroine with heterochromia, already inside of a dream. Following a brief orientation in Ai’s waking reality (a hermit existence with only her mother and a visiting teacher to relieve the self-imposed loneliness), we go into the following night’s dream, which brings schoolgirls with blurred faces, a talking toilet paper roll, grinning eyeless balls called “see-no-evils” (who will be recurring adversaries), a flashback inside the dream, a crying statue, and a resurrected firefly who offers Ai an egg that contains, he claims, the thing she really wants—a friend. It ends with the firefly revealed to be, in reality, a crash-test-dummy mannequin in a tuxedo who hangs out, along with a more casual mannequin wearing his baseball cap backwards, in a garden where the two sell teenage girls Wonder Eggs out of a vending machine. Each egg leads into a dream where the buyer must save a former female suicide from a metaphorical monster; succeed in enough of these missions, it’s hinted, and Ai will get her dead friend back.

Thrown into this scenario, the introduction is charmingly disorienting, although enough clues are supplied that, by episode 2, the outlines of the plot are comprehensible (aside from the overriding issue of how and why this oddly conceived suicide egg economy exists in the first place.) The series then falls into a “monster of the week” groove; in the second episode, Ai fights a demonic coach to save a gymnast worked into suicide, and in each of the next four installments a new Wonder Egg devotee comes on board, until we have a girl gang of four dream warriors. Each of the characters has a distinctive design and a nice character hook: Neiru is an pretty but emotionally-stunted girl genius, Rika is a peppy and mischievous former junior idol, and Momoe is an androgynous outcast. The missions the girls go on allow the creators to address an array of topics of interest to the target audience: bullying, unrealistic expectations, self-acceptance, molestation, gender identification, obsessive fandom, and, most prominently, suicide. In between battles, the girls bond, and a couple of subplots—Ai’s teacher and his relationships to much of the female cast, hints of Neiru’s backstory—start developing. A few new elements are also added, Continue reading CHANNEL 366: WONDER EGG PRIORITY (2021)