Tag Archives: Natasha Lyonne

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL” (2019)

There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten
We never thought it would end then
We never thought it would end

–Harry Nilsson

DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Natasha Lyonne

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley

PLOT: After dying in a car accident the night of her 36th birthday, video game programmer Nadia finds herself alive once more, back at her party; a series of sudden and violent deaths demonstrate that she is trapped in a time loop, and increasing complications make it more challenging and essential that she understand why this is occurring and how she can emerge with her life and soul intact.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “Russian Doll” is technically a TV series rather than a proper movie, and only slightly weird. It’s worth discussing, however, because it takes a shopworn premise and injects it with a combination of energy, quirk and unabashed heart that makes it feel fresh and worthy of the urge to jump into the next chapter.

COMMENTS: To even hear the plot to “Russian Doll” is to directly confront the woodchuck-shaped elephant in the room. Yes, it’s the recurring time loop, matched up with the repeated attempt to “get things right”. There may be hundreds of examples of the device across every medium, including some that ought to be listed somewhere. But one looms monolithically above the rest, the highest order of high-concept storytelling. The trope is even named after it. So if you’re gonna come at Groundhog Day, you best not miss.

It’s a measure of what a delightful experience “Russian Doll” is that not only does it not miss, it transcends this starting point to become very much its own clever, compelling creation. It does this through a combination of techniques and tricks, but the fulcrum of the whole enterprise is the impossibly-good Natasha Lyonne. With her Muppet-pelt hair, aggressively over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, and the attitude of a barely functional alcoholic with a permanent middle finger extended to the world, Nadia should not be tolerable even in eight compact episodes of television. But Lyonne has natural charm that quickly makes it apparent why her put-upon friends and rejected paramours remain drawn to her. She’s very funny (at a bar, her simple demand of the bartender is “More drunk, please”) and fiercely loyal, so much so that she frequently hurts others to spare them the greater pain she knows she tends to inflict. So once she realizes the nature of her predicament, we’re invested in her because we like her, not just because we’re eager to solve the puzzle. It helps that her redemption arc doesn’t shave off her sharp edges. (In addition to creating the show, Lyonne scripts and directs the final episode, putting her firmly in charge of her own story.) Nadia is still Nadia—sarcastic, impulsive, damaged at her very core—but she’s finding out how to be a better version of herself.

With the series’ focal point in strong hands, the show can invest in its other strengths, like a deep bench of interesting characters, a rich and absorbing lower Manhattan milieu to occupy, and a series of twists that compound the time-loop and lift the show out of the shadow of that Punxsutawney rodent.

The full shape of the streaming revolution is not yet clear, as shows have to hit a narrow sweet spot of buzzy and gimmicky just to hold on to the public’s attention. In some cases, this has resulted in series that rely on familiar brands, adapt controversial source material, or drop famous names into offkilter plots. (To say nothing of wild entries from across the sea.) What is has certainly done is inject a whole lot of why-the-hell-not bravery into a TV landscape dominated by procedurals, game shows, and rich people being awful. Streaming TV is making the tube safe for the weird, or at least the different, and while “Russian Doll” may not be the strangest thing you can find on Netflix, it goes a long way toward mainstreaming the fund of offbeat choices and audience challenges that have traditionally lived only on the fringes.

The series was co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. A second season has been promised, which will be quite a trick. Season 1 is a shining little jewel box of a show. Having seen what I’ve seen, I’m confident in Lyonne’s abilities. But the risk is out there that the delicate balance of weird and palatable will be upended. But if they screw it up… well, I guess they can always start over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes.”–Ned Lannaman, The Stranger (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ANTIBIRTH (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Meg Tilly, Mark Weber, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

PLOT: A hard living party-girl finds herself pregnant, without remembering how.

Still from Antibirth (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Antibirth is satisfying for horror fans looking for a few surreal thrills, but it’s more of an announcement of what Perez might be capable of in the future than it is a current achievement in weirdness. In the end, despite some bizarre plotting, Antibirth resolves itself as standard scare fare.

COMMENTS: Antibirth is a stoner version of Rosemary’s Baby, with a touch of Cronenbergian body horror and a dab of hallucinatoriness (and maybe a bit of Jacob’s Ladder in there, too). Disquieting dream sequences, paranoia, peeling skin, and a grossout birth highlight the horror; but what is perhaps even more surprising is that the film almost works best as a character study. When you’re in your twenties, wasting your weekends on joints, pills and whiskey at all night raves is adventurous. When you enter your thirties and you’re still chasing that buzz every day, it’s clear that you’ve given up on getting anything more out of life—including a family. This is where Lou finds herself, when she puts down the bong for five minutes of self-reflection. Hedonism has become a pleasure-free hassle for her, a hazy daily obligation. She takes the news that she might be pregnant with the resignation of someone who thinks she might be coming down with the flu. The news has no effect on her smoking, toking and drinking decisions, though perhaps some effect on her snacking choices.

Natasha Lyonne was absolutely the right choice for Lou; her defiant, almost principled refusal to take responsibility for the life growing inside her holds the film together while the plot is simultaneously spinning out of control and spinning its wheels. Traditional thinking might have been to cast the more glamorous Sevigny as the victim, putting the quirkier Lyonne into the wisecracking sidekick role; but having the heroine and the comic relief inhabit the same body works better in this context. Half of her dialogue is delivered while trying to hold in pot smoke, and she gets off some good lines: “I don’t talk about aliens when I’m getting high. I have a strict policy.” As Sadie, Sevigny gets a couple of involuntary zingers, too: “We need to accept this, every pregnancy is different,” she offers, when Lou’s already full-term after a week’s gestation.

The dream sequence featuring furry purple Teletubby mutants with expressionless porcelain faces presiding over an alien insemination is Antibirth‘s take-home vision, but there is enough oddness—a cleft-palette Russian urine slave, and the plethora of public access weirdos glimpsed briefly on antenna TV stations—to put the timid mainstream viewer off long before that pièce de résistance arrives. Overall, Antibirth is uneven, but highly watchable thanks to the compulsive trainwreck bad behavior of Lyonne’s anti-heroine. Some people just shouldn’t procreate.

We first met Danny Perez with 2010’s Oddsac, the psychedelic, feature-length “visual album” for freak-folkers Animal Collective. It’s something of a surprise that he had to wait six years before giving birth to his first feature; the material may not be mainstream, but the result is accomplished.

It is a complete, but happy, accident that this review is originally published on Labor Day.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird, messy and oddly fascinating, this low-budget horror movie parlays its ‘Rosemary”s Baby-to-the-nth-degree premise into a gross-out fever dream aimed at fans of the way, way out.”–Maitland McDonaugh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

73. THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE (2009)

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“It was smart and weird and different and exciting.  I was just curious to see how it would turn out.”–Actress Tania Raymonde on The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle script

DIRECTED BY: David Russo

FEATURING: Marshall Allman, Vince Vieluf, , Tania Raymonde, Tygh Runyan

PLOT: Dory has a good job as a data manager, but he throws it all away when he stomps a co-worker’s cellphone in a fit of sanctimonious anger.  Jobless and desperate, he takes up with a band of janitors led by Weird William, a transvestite Gulf War vet.  When the cleaning crew pilfer experimental cookies from the garbage can of a marketing research firm, they discover that the addictive treats have odd side effects: not only do they cause hallucinations, they also make men who eat them pregnant.

Still from The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Writer/director David Russo worked himself through college as a janitor.  He was deeply affected by an incident where he found an undisposed of miscarriage in a toilet bowl, and that sight became the genesis of The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle.
  • Dizzle is only cinematographer Neil Holcomb’s second feature film as Director of Photography, but since childhood he has worked on over fifty major movies and television shows as a gaffer, best boy, or grip.  At age twelve he got his second job in movies, working in the electrical department on David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet (1986) .
  • The film was distributed by Tribeca Film, in association with American Express.  It’s strange to see corporate sponsorship for an underground, anti-corporate movie, and it will be interesting to see if the trend continues.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A smear of fluorescent blue in a porcelain-white toilet bowl.  Other images are more arresting, but this is the one that recurs over and over: in hallucinations, hanging on the wall of a snooty art gallery, and as a “grade A blowout” discovered in a commode by the janitors on their appointed rounds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It may be a comedy about male pregnancy, but this is no obvious Hollywood yuk-fest like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Junior. There’s a minimum of morning sickness jokes, and a maximum psychedelic cookie freak-outs. About society’s outsiders and their skewed experiences in a society that’s more insane than they are, Dizzle is made in the underground spirit of Alex Cox’s Repo Man, but with contemporary digital visual gags reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. This is a movie that contains a cross-dressing, pot-smoking, ex-military entrepreneur named “Weird William”—and he’s barely a footnote in the catalog of the movie’s oddities.


Original trailer for The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle

COMMENTS: For about ninety minutes, Little Dizzle races along with an insane, kitchen sink Continue reading 73. THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE (2009)