Category Archives: Channel 366

CHANNEL 366: UNDONE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Hisko Hulsing

FEATURING: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay

PLOT: Following a car accident, underachiever Alma discovers that… well, I’ll let her tell you: “I’m seeing my dead father because of my big ventricles, and he’s training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered.”

Still from "Undone" (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we’ve previously discussed, TV is very much its own thing, and we probably won’t be inducting any ongoing series into the pantheon of weirdness. But Undone has legit weird chops, and deserves to be part of the conversation about the joys of entertainment that departs from the norm.

COMMENTS: Fans of s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly 1 will be familiar with the technique of rotoscoping, in which filmed footage is traced, colored, and enhanced, combining the benefits of actor-driven performance and real-world situations with the flights of fancy and reality-bending leaps of animation. It can be used to make animation seem more real (see almost any Disney fairy tale), but it can be used to arguably greater effect by lending surrealism and surprise to a concrete, grounded universe. You could conceivably throw animated techniques into a live-action movie (Speed Racer comes to mind), but when everything appears to be drawn, you’re actually starting out with a more comfortable sense of uncertainty.

This makes rotoscoped animation an almost perfect medium for a story that pertains to an examination of the mind and the possibility of mental illness. Undone, the tale of a young woman who is either developing extraordinary powers or is steadily losing her grip, may open with perfectly ordinary, even bland scenes of a heat-blanched San Antonio, but the slight wobble of the frame, the distinct outline of people and things, the trappings of animation start us off in an unsteady place. So when we go into Alma’s brain and watch those things start to deconstruct, we’re fully prepared for the journey, even as it leads us into stranger places. Form follows function.

“Undone” is the creation of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, two veterans of the popular, traditionally animated “BoJack Horseman.” That show has itself played with linear time and the inner workings of thought and memory (in particular, two episodes–“Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow”–seem to have directly informed this new series), but “Undone” has none of the blatant satire or absurdity of its predecessor. It manages to feel both more real and dreamier.

Like another streaming series I’ve reviewed recently, a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of one woman to sell both the likeability of her frequently unlikeable character, and the terror and wonder of confronting fantastic forces that feel beyond her control. In this case, that’s Rosa Salazar, who earned her chops in animation-enhanced acting in the title role of Alita: Battle Angel. Salazar’s Alma is by turns charming, selfish, independent, and righteous—but always compelling and deserving of empathy. We are given several opportunities to consider that we are putting our faith in a mentally unstable hero, but the urge for her to win out is consistent. Ably supported by a cast of supporting characters who could all headline their own show, Salazar is a true star.

It’s worth noting that one of the most delightfully weird elements of “Undone” is the way it mainstreams voices and cultures that are typically ignored, tokenized, or fetishized. Alma, for instance, is Latinx, Mestiza, half-Jewish, millennial, Texan (her rant about the Alamo is spot-on), but never any of these things exclusively to advance the plot or at the expense of being relatably human. Similarly, her father’s faith or her boyfriend’s home country are essential to understanding them and who they are to Alma, but they don’t feel like they came from a diversity checklist devised to maximize revenue streams. They’re interesting, they add complexity, and they make a surreal enterprise feel very real. If it’s weird, it’s because it’s finally not weird at all.

“Undone” is hardly perfect. The limits of the animation can be felt most in the “real-world” scenes, when actors walk awkwardly in and out of scenes like they’ve stepped out of the cutscenes from a 1990s CD-ROM game. Perhaps even more awkward is the basic limitation of the TV series itself. To spend time in a created universe is to ultimately need some kind of understanding; we’re gonna need to know how the transporter works, even if it’s just a device to get Kirk down to the planet. The more Alma begins to take control over time and space, the more invested we become in knowing what’s going on, and that can be incredibly dangerous for a series. Explain too much and you’re “Lost;try and pile on the mysteries for too long and you’re “Twin Peaks.” It’s a fine line, and with the prospect of a second season teased by this season’s finale, “Undone” is teetering right on the edge. But for now, the show is an easy-to-binge, well-balanced mélange of sober and strange.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages somehow to be both surreal and yet strangely hyper-real, a sensation enhanced by the technique of rotoscope animation, which traces live-action actors (all terrific) against oil-painting backgrounds to shimmering, hypnotic effect.”–Matt Roush, TV Insider

CAPSULE: THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE (2019)

Recommended

CREATED BY: Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews

FEATURING: Nathalie Emmanuel, , Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, , Donna Kimball

PLOT: For over 1,000 trine the Skeksis have ruled over Thra, and its Crystal of Truth, corrupting them both in their quest for immortality; Aughra, the guardian and incarnation of Thra’s spirit, emerges from a cosmic slumber when she hears the planet crying out, and goes about her way to save her world.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though Thra is teeming with bizarre creatures, wondrous magic, and sinister devices, this is an epic fantasy, and we expect those sorts of things. That said, the creativity and scope here are nothing short of monumental.

COMMENTS: Pity the poor Skeksis: all they ever wanted was to live forever. That’s about as much empathy as I can muster for them having watched (decades ago) the original Dark Crystal and (days ago) the Netflix series, Dark Crystal: the Age of Resistance. Thinking myself on a deadline that proved to be non-existent, I binged all ten hours over the course of a day without interruption. That alone, I feel, speaks to its quality. It appears that the prequel is at least partly based on print material made since the original movie. Still, it was fresh to me, but not entirely unfamiliar. Working with puppets, as Henson & Co. did for the first go-around, The Age of Resistance maintains the timeless feel of that movie I watched over and over as a child.

Cramming ten hours of epic fantasy plot into one paragraph is beyond my ability; suffice it to say, The Age of Resistance brings the modern viewer as much of the Skeksis, Aughra, and Gelflings as one could ever want. After opening narration hinting at the Skeksis’ origins and explaining the socio-ecological history of the planet Thra, it dives into some (very well executed) fantasy character-introduction, follows that up with some (very well executed) quests and side stories, before finishing with a (very well executed) climax and final confrontation between the Gelfling heroes and the Skeksis overlords. Of course, how “final” the confrontation is, to anyone familiar with the broader story, is doubtful; judging from the show’s byline and the beginning of The Dark Crystal movie, this series finishes at what I shall dub “peak Gelfling”. The story’s coda sets things up for the staggeringly dark chapter in Thra’s history that is (hopefully) doubtless to come.

But the show! My word, I had forgotten how impressive things could be when the Henson name is slapped thereupon. Thra’s ecosystem bubbles over (sometimes literally) with all manner of exotic creatures: woodland faeries that fly and spin along air currents, deadly carnivorous plant tendrils called “gobblers”, paper-eating library imps, and of course the landstriders and “fizzgigs“. The humanoid characters fill out the perquisites for fantasy adventuring yarns: the troubled soldier, the bookish princess, the knight-errant with humble origins. Obviously there are technical limits to emoting when we’re talking puppets (particularly, it seems, when talking Gelfling puppets), but the combination of voice acting (Mark Hamill and Simon Pegg are a real treat) and the puppeteers—each responsible for their own character (my apologies to those under-credited virtuosos)—made the whole world, at least by a few hours in, seem real, in its own special way.

My main criticism with a lot of fantasy I’ve seen and read (including that which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed) is the conflict seems to boil down to “infinite skill” (the good guys) versus “infinite resources” (the bad guys). Dark Crystal: the Age of Resistance does not suffer from this distillation. The Skeksis are pure sociopathic evil doused in cunning (they’ve been running the show for a millennia); the Gelfling (and their various allies) have passion, surely, and some have skill. But it never comes across as a close fight. Indeed, there was a pall over the whole affair as I knew what was coming. The Age of Resistance‘s narrative arc stops before that dark period, so things  end on a hopeful note. But for those in the know, the Gelflings have much more to fear than any “winter” coming; their story is primed for genocide, and you can’t say that about many PG adventure shows.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…quite simply, one of the all-time great fantasy epics, as well as the masterwork of puppetry most closely aligned with Jim Henson’s humanistic philosophy… Despite being rated TV-PG, ‘Age of Resistance’ never flinches when tackling the harrowing aspects of its subject matter. It is chockfull of nightmarish imagery guaranteed to frighten some young viewers and fascinate many others. Part of what appealed to those who grew up with The Dark Crystal was its sense of danger and conspicuous lack of sentimentality, giving kids the sense that they were embarking on territory more adult than the reassuring fairy tales of Disney.” –Matt Fagerholm, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE MIGHTY BOOSH (2003-2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul King, Steve Bendelack

FEATURING: Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Rich Fulcher, Michael Fielding, Dave Brown

PLOT: Throughout its three seasons, we watch the adventures of Howard Moon and Vince Noir who start as zookeepers with musical ambitions, become musicians with musical ambitions, and finish off as shopkeepers with musical ambitions.

WHY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Exceptions for a movie list, once made, have a danger of proliferating; so it is with heavy heart that I can’t recommend adding this series to the Apocrypha list. That said, its got weirdo merits aplenty: no narrative diversion is too outlandish, and at any moment a song or “crimp” can break out. Skating forever between idiotic and genius, it is unfailingly creative, absurd, and oddly charming.

COMMENTS: On the heels of my northern outing, I decided it was time to hunker down and crash through every episode of the famed cult comedy, “The Mighty Boosh.” I couldn’t resist its invitation at the start of each episode to join the troupe “on a journey through time and space,” and found myself neck-deep in a sitcom that veered recklessly all over the comedy spectrum. I’ll admit that the first few episodes left me both speechless and with a fixed raised eyebrow. Once I got onto the Boosh‘s twitchy wavelength, however, I just couldn’t stop watching, and discovered how quickly ten solid hours of weirdo comedy can whiz by.

Whatever the surrounding nonsense, the focus is always squarely on Howard Moon (Julian Barratt) and Vince Noir (Noel Fielding). The former is a middle aged, mustachioed neurotic whose character exudes constant worry about himself and his surroundings coupled with a paradoxical belief in his own merit and strength (imagine, perhaps, a more charismatic version of Arnold Rimmer from “Red Dwarf”). Vince Noir, whose bubbly mask of idiocy covers a friendly vapidity, is his only friend. Vince is obsessed with fashion to the same degree that Howard is obsessed with his self-image. The second tier characters of Bob Fossil (Rich Fulcher, utterly uninhibited as a bombastic zoo manager), Naboo (Michael Fielding, mysterious—and often stoned—as Howard and Vince’s shaman buddy/landlord), and Bollo (Dave Brown, Naboo’s not-altogether magical “familiar”) are joined from episode to episode by countless oddball guests ( among them).

While the first season is incredibly strange, “The Mighty Boosh” hits peak weirdness in the second season thanks to two episodes: “The Priest & the Beast” and “The Legend of Old Gregg.” In the former, Howard and Vince are in the background, as Naboo relates the story of Rudi and Spider (also played by Barratt and Fielding, respectively), two famed musicians in the Boosh universe. They are a “bongo brother” duo traveling the desert “in search of the new sound.” Rudi is contemplative and mystical, as symbolized by a door in his afro that, upon deep thought, can open up to dispense a relevant item of some sort. Spider is a sex-crazed drummer (like all drummers, apparently), so named because he has “eight of something.” They search for the new sound, sing about their quest for the new sound, and ultimately save a nearby village from the “Betamax Bandit,” a heartless desperado made up entirely of Betamax tape.

In “The Legend of Old Gregg,” the best known episode in the series, Howard and Vince escape an angry mob infuriated by the horrendousness of their latest gig to find themselves in a seaside tavern peopled exclusively by exaggerated fishermen (the house band are all clad in a three-person corded sweater). Howard stays out fishing and captures a merman, who after brief conversation exposes himself and his “mangina” to an unreceptive Howard before dragging him down to his lair for further seduction. Bailey’s Irish Cream, watercolor paintings (including one of Bailey’s “as close as you can get to it without getting your eyes wet”), and a snappy Motown/Funk dance duet ensue as Howard awaits rescue.

This is not typical sitcom fare—and those are only brief descriptions of one-tenth of the series. Each episode necessarily has a musical number in it, and many of them have a bizarre chanting referred to late in the series as “crimping” (described by Julian Barratt as something like “folk rap”). And beginning in the second season, there is the ever present danger of “The Moon” appearing out of the blue for a brief non-sequitur speech that will simultaneously infuriate and delight. Yessir, it’s all here, and all crazy. Whatever it is that Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding have created, it is singular and stupid, distinct and delightful, and mighty, “Mighty Boosh.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…after a few minutes of half-hearted setup, Barratt and Fielding are off, having surreal adventures that involve ancient legends, talking animals, elaborate costumes, and a few snappy musical numbers. Even when a Mighty Boosh episode isn’t fall-down funny, there’s always something happening.” –Noel Murray, The Onion A.V. Club

CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.

On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.

So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.

Still from Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, FrankensteinWhen it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spial Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.

It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck Continue reading CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

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)