Tag Archives: Comedy

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)

26*. THE WARPED FOREST (2011)

Asatte no Mori

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“…an ‘idiot’ or a ‘comedy’ The Thing….”–director  describing his stylistic aspirations for The Warped Forest

DIRECTED BY: Shunichiro Miki

FEATURING: , , Yoji Tanaka,

PLOT: Nine people are vacationing at a Japanese hot springs resort; some of them have disappeared for three days and reappeared without explanation. In an alternate universe, these nine pursue an existence in a village inside magical forest of sexualized fruit, miniature people, and brothels stocked with nipple-sucking creatures. The alter-egos supplicate before a monolith in the forest, seeking for a way to warp their dreams and find a happier existence.

Still from The Warped Forest (2011)

BACKGROUND:

  •  Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005) was a surreal anthology film from three directors ( , Aniki, and ) with no real plot, although it was themed around the idea of alien contact. This spiritual sequel was made by , whose monstrous, -on-laughing-gas creature designs were arguably the most memorable part of the original.
  • Although Miki has a segment in another anthology film and some TV episodes to his credit, this is his sole solo feature. He mostly directs commercials; he saved the money he made over the years and spent his entire life savings to fund this film himself.
  • The Warped Forest only had a short festival run and was never released to cinemas in Japan or elsewhere. In 2022 it was released as the co-feature in the Funky Forest Blu-ray set.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cute-as-a-button Fumi Nikaidô holding an ornately carved rifle, which charges up with an advancing series of lights and a crescendo of whirs when she grasps it and, when fully operational, flips the compartment in the barrel to reveal… a tiny wiener, which emits a thin stream of white fluid.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hypertech jizz gun; genital fruit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Shunichiro Miki melds the weirdly organic and the comically absurd into a singular pocket of dreamspace, presenting a completely personal and unduplicatable vision that is simultaneously shocking, angularly erotic, and heartwarming.


Original trailer for The Warped Forest (2011)

COMMENTS: In 2011, Shunichiro Miki released a short trailer for Continue reading 26*. THE WARPED FOREST (2011)

*25. SAINT BERNARD (2013)

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“I proudly slam my flag in the sand that Saint Bernard is not for ‘them’— whoever ‘them’ is, but you and I know who ‘them’ are— and I don’t want ‘them’ seeing the film.” —Gabriel Bartalos

DIRECTED BY: Gabriel Bartalos

FEATURING: Jason Dugre

PLOT: An orchestra conductor travels through an increasingly bizarre milieux while carrying a dog’s severed head in a bag.

BACKGROUND:

  • Gabriel Bartalos only directed two features, the bizarro slasher film Skinned Deep (2004) and this one. He was, however, much in demand as a practical special effects and makeup expert, working on many popular horror movies (including several projects). He also provided effects and makeup ‘sCremaster” films (2, 3, and 4).
  • The film is dedicated to Benoît LeStang, a French make-up/special effects artist involved in, among many other projects, Brotherhood of the Wolf.
  • Saint Bernard was shot on 35mm film over the course of 10 days in a screen ratio of 1.78:1; standard dimensions in France—a country somehow on the hook for producing this.
  • The movie is only known to have screened once—at the San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival—before being released to Blu-ray in 2019.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as this story is chock-full of unsettling and grotesque sequences, the whimsical emergence of young conductor Bernard from a sweet-dreams variant of the Něco z Alenky mansion stands out for its sunny magical surrealism. The smiling lad in a crisp white suit and bow-tie ably batons through a classical performance amplified from an iPod for a receptive audience of his peers.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Doggie bag; Uncle Ed the Music Monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDSaint Bernard is intensely cryptic, but always engaging—even as the symbolism (or, perhaps mere randomness) is slapped on without mercy. Our cursèd conductor endures the unfathomable: liberation by chainsaw-wielding Frenchman; a run-in with a deformed wino police chief; a would-be escape through a fecal puddle emitted by Static Boy. Is it all meaningless? Perhaps; but this is Goremeister Arthäus . It may waste your time, but it does so with gooey gusto.

Original trailer for Saint Bernard

COMMENTS: “Hey, um, I need help,” admits the film’s protagonist at Continue reading *25. SAINT BERNARD (2013)

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)