Tag Archives: 2022

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL,” SEASON 2

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, , , ,

PLOT: Having escaped the time loop that imprisoned her in Season 1, Nadia now finds that she can visit her own past via the New York City subway system, and uses this power to try to salvage her family legacy of stolen Krugerrands—with troublesome and paradoxical results.

Still from Russian Doll, Season 2

COMMENTS: Just a few years after resolving the time loop that saw her killed nightly, Nadia steps onto the 6 train and finds herself transported back in time to 1982. Her smartphone is gone; in its place is a matchbook cover with a note scrawled telling her to meet one “Chaz” at the Black Gumball at 8. The Gumball turns out to be a go-go bar with a topless dancer gyrating on the counter, and when Nadia orders a bourbon, the bartender asks her if she’s sure. Launching into one of her typical raspy monologues, she responds, “It’s arguably the only thing I’m sure of. Basic concepts like time and space are suddenly eluding me. Last night this place was mayhem because the wi-fi went out, but in the new here and now, apparently gratuitous nudity is back in play. My past, your future. Begs the question: am I haunting you, or are you haunting me?”

Circumstances have changed, but Lyonne’s unflappable (or at least, very rarely flapped) Nadia—streaming’s quirky, acerbic breakout character of 2019—is a constant. She’s the kind of middle-aged arrested adolescent who grabs a cocktail first thing in the morning (after lighting a cigarette, of course), chooses both when offered a choice of uppers and downers, and impulsively sleeps with creeps from other eras she barely knows and likes even less. She acts drunk even when sober, but she’s grown into her identity: she’s permanently tipsy and supremely confident, with a mouth like Dorothy Parker if she been raised by a company of Jewish longshoremen. She’s a treasure, and the sole justification for reviving a series that successfully closed its loop back in 2019.

Lyonne puts her mark on the series, directing three of seven episodes this season (as opposed to only the finale of Season 1). She also becomes the only person credited with writing on every episode in the series: while the team of Lyonne and co-creators Leslye Headland and SNL-alum Amy Poehler wrote all of Season 1 together, Season 2 features a wider variety of scripters, with Lyonne the only constant. We suspect that her main contribution is Nadia’s dialogue, which remains as sharp as ever (“every time you compliment me, a cockroach gets its wings.”) Perhaps as a result of the larger writing staff, Season 2 is looser, almost reckless compared to the relatively tight focus of the debut season. The setting is no longer confined to modern day New York City, but ranges through time and space, from the crime-ridden city of 1982 (patrolled by red-bereted Guardian Angels) to Nazi-era Hungary and Cold War Berlin to an allegorical subway labyrinth of memory and regret.

Despite being as acerbic as ever, Nadia has become even more blasé about her dislocated realities, barely batting an eye (and definitely not dropping her cigarette) when she finds herself thrown backwards in time. This matter-of-factness reflects a thematic decision to never even hint why Nadia, and the similarly-situated but far more neurotic Alan, are the subjects of such wrenching temporal anomalies. This approach allows the story to focus purely on its symbolic meaning, which, in Nadia’s case, is coming to terms with her family’s dysfunctional past: she believes that if she can rescue the family Krugerrands, she can redeem her family’s legacy. Of course, things are never that simple, and in the series’ final two episodes the weirdness blooms as Nadia has created a series of paradoxes that throw her carefully laid plans into complete chaos.

It’s inevitable that Netflix’s “Russian Doll” will be compared to Amazon Prime’s “Undone“: two slightly trippy time-travel stories starring strong and sarcastic female leads, centered around the investigation of family histories. The main difference is cosmetic, if significant:”Undone”‘s uncanny valley rotoscoping versus “Doll”‘s traditional live action setting. “Doll” has more comedy (Nadia’s comebacks are a lot spikier than Alma’s); “Undone” takes its science fictional conceit more seriously, delving into time travel mechanics and hinting at some possible causes for the family’s gifts. I’ve tried, and I can’t pick a favorite between them. Stream them both, if you can.

The series’ nesting title is more apt this season (you’ll see why soon enough). Both seasons of “Russian Doll” stream exclusively on Netflix for the foreseeable future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages to pack in big laughs, real emotional moments, and an effective time-traveling plot that fits right in with what happened during the show’s trippy first season.”–Joel Keller, Decider (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PLAYDURIZM (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Gem Deger

FEATURING: Austin Chunn, Gem Deger, Issy Stewart

PLOT: Demir lusts after handsome auctioneer Andrew, Andrew lusts after blonde druggie Drew, and Drew has an intermittent death wish for Demir.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Taking his visual cues from Liquid Sky and his narrative cues from Videodrome, first-time filmmaker Gem Deger presents a hazy narrative teeming with homoeroticism, designer drugs, unnerving violence, tragic escapism, and the reliably cutesy presence of a house pig.

COMMENTS: With well over a century of cinema having come and gone, it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss a film for being “derivative.” Variations on themes is the only way to tell a story these days, and it is with that in mind that I judge Playdurizm, the directorial, screenwriting, and acting debut of Gem Deger. Deger puts forward his manifesto in the opening sequence, narrating that “[Francis] Bacon said there’s nothing apart from the moment… I believe in nothing,” over a pink-lit sex scene. Whatever pretentiousness may come across in his art-housey introduction is, against the odds, grounded by the surreal tragedy that ensues.

Demir (Gem Deger) wakes up to the sounds of a pig rooting around what may be his bedroom. It is unclear, as it is quickly established that Demir has lost his memory—suffered a “complete reboot”, according to his house mate, Andrew (Austin Chunn)—and sees little option but to follow the pet pig as it scampers across the purple- balloon-covered floor. Demir is awkward, soft-spoken, and ostensibly allergic to peanut butter, making Drew’s suggestion he try some on his breakfast bagel a bit too cutesy-sinister. But the “Drew problem” Demir faces (he lusts fiercely after Andrew) is solved quickly enough with a drug overdose. However, an improbable man with a genuine Malevich soon appears, and his ambitions aren’t entirely to do with selling a “Black Square” painting to Andrew.

Ambition and amateurism collide throughout, making for a twitchy viewing experience. Austin Chunn looks the role—presuming, of course, one is envisioning an impressively sexy auctioneer—but at times seems more like he’s playing the part instead of inhabiting it. On the other hand, Chunn’s dialogue delivery when suturing a nasty wound is spot-on; contemplating his sewing hook and floss, I believed it when he advised, “this is going to… be a little minty.” Gem Deger’s performance simultaneously benefits and suffers from his awkward, heavily accented delivery. Ultimately, though, the chemistry between Deger and Chunn is undeniable.

The sound design, set design, and prop choices (Goebbels’ belt-buckle gun, anyone?) carry much of the weight, weird-wise. If someone told me that Deger had never seen Liquid Sky, I’d say they were lying. Any excuse for neon tones and lighting is good enough; the Day-Glo vomit, wondrous in its luminescence, is an obvious nod to Margaret’s makeup. Beyond the direct Videodrome name-drop (Demir and Andrew get high watching it together while Drew is lying dead in a cupboard space beneath the sofa), there is a slow tilt toward body horror and twin-dom that is what the cumbersome term “ian” was devised for.

Those fine lines between amateurism and ambition, pretentious and tragic, and derivative and original all weave together by the finale, as the story’s actual events come to light.  Deger admits his plagiarism in the title. This cinematic exploration of the adversities that so often befall the queer community is melodramatic, vibrant, frightened, and determined—not unlike that wondrous community itself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…any film festival looking for a film that shirks conventional story telling with surrealism and puts danger and violence into romance and sex should consider it…”–Andre Mack, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CHANNEL 366: “UNDONE, SEASON 2” (2022)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Carlos Santos, Holley Fain

PLOT: Picking up where Season 1 left off, Alma continues to investigate the past, uncovering more family secrets as she travels through time.

Still from UNDONE, Season 2

COMMENTS: When we last saw Alma, she was sitting in front of an Aztec ruin in Mexico, waiting to see if her dead father was going to walk out of a cave. If he doesn’t emerge at dawn, it likely means she’s schizophrenic.

We can’t tell you if Jacob walks out of that cave, but we can say that in Season 2 Alma will go on more adventures through time, exploring other family secrets, and that this season forefronts a couple of characters—sister Becca and mother Camila—who played supporting roles in the previous series. We’ll also meet other members of the extended clan, both ancestors and newcomers, as Alma and Becca travel back further into the family’s past to uncover generational scandals and traumas.

Season 1 relied, to a large extent, on the ambiguity of whether Alma was going insane, hallucinating from a coma, or whether her dead father really was teaching her to harness the mystical powers hiding in her ancient Aztec blood in order to travel through time and create a new timeline where he survived his car crash. With that arc completed and that ambiguity no longer sustainable, it’s inevitable that some tension drains out of the series. Furthermore, Alma shares the spotlight this go-around, and the confused bursts of anger and sarcasm that made her character so endearing are greatly missed. (Here, she is too often relegated to playing the role of motivational speaker, trying to convince others to go along with her bold schemes.) Season 2 largely replaces that reality-or-insanity dynamic with a traditional mystery structure—with the twist that the investigation requires slippery, loosely defined time travel powers and confrontations with metaphors (an “unopenable” door is a key symbol). The demands of the narrative make a refocus necessary, but although Season 2 is less mysterious than the original, returning writers/creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg keep us invested as the saga takes a slight shift into melodrama and ancestral mystery. Returning animator/director Hisko Hulsing assures that the visuals keep up the high and distinctive standard set by Season 1, with the rotoscoped actors remaining oh-so-slightly uncanny even when washing dishes or plinking out a tune on the piano. And he conjures up more than a few trippy landscapes, with lots of fog-shrouded temporal voids and one impressive M.C. Escher inspired psychescape.

“Undone, Season 2” successfully solves its central problem of revisiting a scenario that, frankly, seemed perfectly whole in its original eight episode run. This story could easily have been refashioned into an independent project, but it is richer for continuing with the characters we’ve grown attached to (even if the most popular ones sometimes get shuffled to the background here). It’s not the revelation Season 1 was, but it does have more than enough magic, old and new, to make it worth a visit. It helps that the efficient eight episodes, barely exceeding 20 minutes each, make for a highly bingeable package. And fans need not fear: the second season’s ending leaves no doubt as to the creators’ intent to continue the story. The final episode is one long setup for a new plotline, one that has the bonus of returning star Rosa Salazar front and center.

“Undone,” Seasons 1 and 2, screen exclusively on Amazon Prime (Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With some new help, this time around, the show’s metaphysical trips examine the festering wounds in Alma’s family tree as well as within Alma herself, doubling down on its surreal premise on a new non-linear journey that creates puzzle pieces of their personal histories.”–Kambole Campbell, IGN (contemporaneous)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY ( and )

FEATURING: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong

PLOT: Evelyn Wang is barely keeping it together, running a business and raising a family while the threat of an IRS audit hangs over her head; as if that wasn’t enough stress, just before a last-chance appointment with her stern auditor, a visitor from a parallel universe tells her the fate of the multiverse lies in her hands.

Still from Everything Everywhere all at Once (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Based on the trailer, I had originally assumed this was going to be Daniels’ mainstream popcorn movie: a sci-fi/action/comedy not likely to be significantly weirder than The Matrix or the latest Marvel Phase 4 offering. And while there were plenty of wisecracks, kung fu free -for-alls, sentimentality, and CGI frippery, the makers of Swiss Army Man  snuck enough genuine weirdness and unpredictability into the formula that, as the credits rolled, a young theater patron was moved to loudly announce “bizarre is the only word that describes that.”

COMMENTS: Evelyn is a hot mess: a hot mess in a quiet, middle-aged matron kind of way, but a hot mess nevertheless. Harried and constantly distracted, she vainly tries to balance running her laundry business with an overextended social life. She also has to deal with the family members constantly vying for her attention: neglected husband Waymond, lesbian daughter Joy and her new girlfriend, and disapproving, ailing father Gong Gong. It’s no wonder that Evelyn’s 1040 was selected for audit, and that she’s having enough trouble filling out the forms correctly and collecting the proper receipts and documentation that the business is in danger. And so it’s also little surprise that, when told by an interdimensional emissary that the fate of the entire multiverse depends on her, her response is an exasperated “Very busy today, no time to help you.”

But of course, help she reluctantly does. After the setup, the movie reveals its relatively complicated mechanics about infinite universes that branch off at individual’s decision points (i.e., marry Waymond or don’t marry Waymond creates a new universe, as does eating eggs for breakfast instead of noodles), all leading to a network of bubble universes that are visualized as nodes on a smartphone app. A helpful avatar of her husband from the “Alpha” universe explains the evil force threatening all existence (which involves a “bagel of everything”) and how Evelyn can access the skills and knowledge of versions of herself from parallel universes to counter it. So she does, with both badass successes and wacky failures along the way.

With its focus on branching realities, the Canonically Weird movie Everything Everywhere all at Once most resembles is Mr. Nobody (2009) rather than Swiss Army Man. In fact, it’s Nobody to the nth degree: where ‘s cult classic confined itself to three main alternate histories (with notable detours like the argyle universe), Everything attempts to live up to its title with dozens upon dozens of alternate realities, from simple ones where Evelyn is a martial arts expert or a movie star to bizarre worlds where she’s a piñata, a sentient rock, or (the audience’s favorite) a lesbian in a universe where everyone has hot dog fingers. Adding to the eccentricity, the Daniels posit that it’s necessary to seed a jump to a new universe by performing an unpredictable action like eating an entire tube of ChapStick or—in another audience favorite scene—finding an unconventional use for a suggestively shaped IRS auditor’s award.

The script requires almost every actor to play multiple roles, and the ensemble acting is about as good as it gets. Everyone shines, although naturally it’s Yeoh who holds it all together with a performance that recalls (and references) her Hong Kong roots in wuxia films, as well as her recent turn to comedy with Crazy Rich Asians. And a special kudos have to be given to 93-year-old James Hong, for whom this would be an excellent cherry on the top of an incredible 450-role career (except that he still has more films coming out, and may be trying to hit 500 credits before he passes the century mark).

Ultimately, all the apocalyptic furor relates to events in Evelyn’s real universe—uh, the universe we started in, that is. My only slight reservation is with the ending, which gets a bit sappy in delivering its honorably intended “love yourself, faults and all” message. On the other hand, not everyone is a black-hearted cynic like me, and most audience members seemed as moved by the film’s pathos as they were invigorated by its action and amused by its comedy. In the end, this impressive feature comes pretty close to delivering Everything, with bizarre and imaginative conceits delivered at a hyper pace that does make it sometimes seem like they’re happening All at Once. Everything Everywhere all at Once is recommended for everyone everywhere as soon as you can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an explosion of creative weirdness that is equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming…  It’s ground-breaking because it allows a new perspective, but it’s also just blatantly weird. It’s not glossy or careful; the film is an onslaught of visual and thematic ideas… In an era of sequels and remakes, something this outside the box is a welcome alternate reality.”–Emily Zemler, Observer (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: ADAM BY EVE: A LIVE IN ANIMATION (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Nobutaka Yoda, Hibiki Yoshizaki, Yuichiro Saeki

FEATURING: Hanon, Ano, Eve

PLOT: A story about a friendship between two schoolgirls, Taki and Aki, and their shared dream of a one-eyed monster serves as a framing device for a series of songs by the Japanese pop singer Eve.

Still from Adam by Eve: A Live In Animation (2022)

COMMENTS: It begins with two schoolgirls discussing dreams in a diner. (Where would take that premise?) Taki relates a dream of a one-eyed monster, then leaves to get the girls a refill on their tea. Suddenly, Aki realizes she’s had the exact same dream.(Later, she will overhear people on a public bus describing an identical nocturnal vision.) Aki looks up and the diner is deserted; Taki is gone. Aki’s voiceover tells us she never heard from Taki again. A peppy guitar riff begins playing, Aki pines for Taki, and eventually a music video commandeers the screen.

And so it will go: little bits of story alternating with longer stretches of music by Eve. Eve is a camera-shy presence, commonly shot from behind so that we see only his shaggy blond mane, or seen in silhouette, or with his face hidden deep inside a shadowy hood, or with a bullhorn posed before his face as he shouts a particularly enthusiastic verse. The creativity required to constantly find new ways to shroud his identity is impressive. Musically, I suppose he’s competent; his tongue is fluid and precise as he drops cascades of syllables, with every song delivered in the same uptempo style, half-rapped, half-sung. Eve’s voice is pleasant but nothing special, although as a 53-year old American male who favors avant-garde jazz, I’m about as far away from his target demographic of teenage Japanese girls as possible. Despite the bubblegum sound, Eve’s lyrics tend towards the melancholic—not to mention the vague. (“It hurts, this restless center of a flower.”)

Those who aren’t fans in particular of Eve’s music will be tuning in for the animation, which doesn’t disappoint. First, a flock of animated white doves fly before the hooded singer. Then, brief inserts of anime characters pop in, happily hopping along to the beat. With each new song these characters and abstract whirligigs share more of the screen with the singer, overlaid on live concert footage, taking up more and more of the stage, swirling in patterns that obscure Eve almost entirely. The eye symbol, in various forms (e.g. briefly blinking into and out of existence on a skyscraper), begins to dominate the imagery, until we finally arrive at the film’s 6-minute all-animated centerpiece. A city of schoolgirls and schoolboys, equipped with happy-faced masks that flop in front of their real faces, share a city with tall, identical cyclopes: conformist youth flanked by fascist elders. But, using combat skills they learned from first person shooters, the kids revolt and slaughter their monster overlords, in a carnival of carnage recalling Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 scored to a techno beat. More music videos in the accustomed style wind down the action, and as a bonus, a second full-length animated short plays over the closing credits.

The title suggests the story of Adam and Eve, but aside from a few stray apples seen lying about, you won’t find much in that line of inquiry. Clearly, it’s Eve’s poppy music and the psychedelic anime routines that are the draw here. But the thin narrative does at least suggest themes of teen love, teen alienation, teen sexuality, and teen suicide, with a sly queer slant. Good stuff for the young, but even us crusty Gen-Xers could screen a lot worse entertainment in an hour.

Adam by Eve: A Live in Animation currently streams exclusively on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… simply looking at its fluid, fascinating collision of dreams with reality, it’s a satisfyingly bold adult animation project, one interested less in clear narrative, and more in visual expression for its own sake.”–Kambole Campbell, Polygon (contemporaneous)