Tag Archives: Fantasy

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)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALADDIN (2019)

One has to wonder about the mindset of studio executives. Disney handed the live-action Dumbo remake over to , who hasn’t made a good movie in twenty years. Then, they assign Aladdin to Guy Ritchie, who has never made a good movie. On top of that, there’s the utter pointlessness of “live action versions” of animated classics. This one is no exception. Unless the original fell short some one way or another, why remake it (except to improve on it)? It’s especially futile when the original was so damned good.  Aladdin (2019) is just a piece of crap, and the only actor who survives this embarrassment—and smells like roses, comparatively—is Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, the handmaiden of Jasmine (Naomi Scott).  Why does Aladdin (Mena Massoud) prefer the personality-bankrupt Naomi over Nasim? Oh, because that’s in the script. And, Aladdin is a braindead jackass.

Still from Aladdin (2019)The original Aladdin (1992) came at the tail end of a brief Disney resurgence that began with Little Mermaid (1989) followed by Beauty and the Beast (1990). This revival came crashing down with the saccharine, run amok Lion King (1994), which of course has a live-action (sort-of) version in the works. Why does Disney keep doing this? Because fans don’t give a hoot. Aladdin has already made a zillion dollars and the undemanding Disneyphiles, who actually crave more of the same, are singing its praises all over social media.

The changes Ritchie makes are hardly worth mentioning, with two  exceptions. First, he manages to solicit a dull performance from Will Smith, which is not an easy task. Understandably, Smith does not attempt to copy the fiery performance of the late , but Ritchie slaps a harness on Smith—which echoes the film itself, because the director sucks every ounce of color and fun out of the original.

Clunky, clumsy, and gray, Aladdin was an endurance test, and likely the briefest Summber blockbuster write-up I’ve given. Instantly vapid and unmemorable, it does not deserve more of my time. It does not deserve yours ether. If you’re craving the story, go back to 1992.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MFKZ (2017)

Recommended

Mutafukaz

ムタフカズ

DIRECTED BY: Shôjirô Nishimi, Guillaume “Run” Renard

FEATURING: Voices of Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Michael Chiklis, Dino Andrade, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA (English-language dub)

PLOT: Angelino leads a dead-end existence with his flaming-skulled roommate Vinz in a city without hope until a truck accident leads to some freaky superpowers and crazy violence against an unstoppable invasion.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because there’s no other home for a Jhonen Vasquez/Ralph Bakshi-style mash-up from the studio that brought us Tekkonkinkreet in alliance with some subversive Frenchies.

COMMENTS: Through some twist of fate, 2019 has been shaping up to be “The Year of the French Film” for me. Whether bearing witness to psycho-dream bombast, bracing myself against existenti-o-action chicanery, or enduring millennialist tedium, I have fallen quite firmly into a pulsating realm of Gallic sensibilities. Add to these titles something offbeat, exciting, and abbreviated: MFKZ. Before diving into the creamy center of this review, let me first assert the following: I am not, and have never been, on the pay-roll of Canal+, StudioCanal, or Société des Cinéromans. To paraphrase a famous North-of-France poet, I was neither born French nor achieved Frenchness, but somehow seem to have had Frenchness thrust upon me.

Having managed to hold down his pizza delivery job for almost three weeks, Angelino is forced to hand in his delivery scooter after getting smashed a bit by an oncoming truck. What distracted him? Why, the lovely Luna, who shows up in his life just enough to screw it up. Not that he needs any help with that. He’s constantly in fear of the omnipresent psycho gangs, he’s two months behind in his rent for his crummy apartment (though at least the cockroaches are friendly), his roommate and best friend Vinz (Vince Staples) is even less employed than he is (possibly owing to the fact that his head is a flame-crowned skull), and his other friend is a conspiracy-theory-spouting spaz of a cat (or something). Still, after a bad headache from his concussion and a nasty encounter with S.W.A.T.-y police goons, things start looking up as he discovers he’s suddenly got powers of strength, speed, and stamina quite beyond the norm. Good thing, too, because ‘Lino and his pals uncover a sinister plan from outer space.

For some reason I feel compelled to preemptively defend the “Recommended” label. I didn’t feel this way while watching it—it was an absolute hoot, combining lots of neato visual gimmicks (the high-speed chase by some “Men In Black” guys pursuing a hijacked ice cream van is a great bit, mixing gritty Bakshi with Grand Theft Auto), clever visual references (keep an eye out for “El Topo‘s” bodega), and recurring sci-fi/noir craziness that kept me elated throughout. The plot-line is just about as ridiculous as you can have without becoming incomprehensible, and the protagonists are wedged seamlessly into their urban milieu. And there’s a Shakespeare-spouting mega-thug, voiced by none other than RZA. But I digress.

I’ve read a number of reviews for MFKZ, and most of them are pretty down on the whole thing. This might simply be a case of a love-it/hate-it divide, with the majority falling in the latter category, but I’m almost certain I detected an undercurrent of sneering dismissiveness. MFKZ is full of life: never-say-die heroes, never-seem-to-die villains, and never-have-I-seen-such-detail backdrops. Nishimi and Renard have together created a beautifully realized genre classic: slacker-everyman saves the world and oh yeah, there are a bunch of tentacle monsters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding, ‘What the F*** is Going On?’ in a mid-film graphic. Enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.”–Mike McCahill, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BORDER (2018)

Gräns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ali Abbasi

FEATURING: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren

PLOT: Tina is a Swedish customs officer with a super-human ability to detect when travelers are hiding something; her monotonous existence is upended when she meets Vore, who is hiding something far stranger than mere contraband.

Still from Border (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Ali Abbasi’s film unflinchingly depicts “the other” in a low-key manner that forces the viewer to constantly question how well they can handle those who are very different from them. The mounting discomfort breaks mid-way through a reveal that is as surprising as it is relieving.

COMMENTS: Working for a site such as this, one often (and, indeed, hopefully) stumbles across strange and unsettling things that one cannot un-see. The carnage of Greenaway’s chamber drama; the nightmare of Lynch’s take on parenthood; or the sheer unpleasantness of von Trier’s rumination on couples going through a rough patch: all grab the viewer with an aural and visual assault through a strange, strange lens. With Border, director Ali Abbasi joins this crew of unrelenting visionaries. For its first half, his film defies categorization; for its second half, it pulls the viewer into a fairy-tale macabre whose supernatural elements are belied by their matter-of-fact depiction.

Tina (Eva Melander) is ugly, anti-social, awkward, but undeniably skilled at her job. With an almost feral sniff at passersby, she is able to determine if they are carrying something dangerous or illegal across the border into Sweden. Being able to sense shame, guilt, and a gamut of other emotions, she spots underage boozers, would-be traffickers, and even a well-heeled traveler with something dreadful on a hidden memory card. When a comparably ugly, antisocial, and awkward man (Eero Milonoff) passes her post, she knows something is “wrong” about him, but a thorough search of his luggage (and his person) reveals nothing. She’s never failed before, and feels compelled to learn more about this mysterious man. While aiding the authorities in breaking up a child pornography ring, she bonds with this stranger and ultimately learns two unsettling truths.

Without giving much more away, I felt a very strange sense of relief after the big reveal. The first hour of Border goes by without any explanation for the uncomfortable goings-on: uncomfortable for someone like me, at least. The continuous kind of “normalcy” on display became very trying, and my sense of comparative ease when Abbasi finally showed his hand made me wonder: would this movie have been better without that release valve? As it stands, it is a very good, and very strange, viewing experience. Had he gone completely without explanation, it would have been a much more difficult movie to watch, but perhaps a much more salient one. Having been pushed to the edge of an uncomfortable frisson, the pull-back allowed me to think of it more cinematically; and I was able to then better view it for its narrative and thematic merits. In the end, Border‘s greatest achievement is providing the viewer with a believable, optimistic finish to its strange tale of deformity, love, and human cruelty.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strangeness in this film writhes like bacteria.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BETWEEN WORLDS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Maria Pulera

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, , Penelope Mitchell, Garrett Clayton, Gwendolyn Mulamba

PLOT: Joe, a down-on-his-luck trucker, drives Julie to the hospital to visit her comatose daughter, Billie; when he helps Julie travel to the “other side” so she can guide her daughter’s soul back to this world, the spirit of Joe’s dead wife takes the opportunity to hijack Billie’s body.

Still from Between Worlds (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Twin Peaks, Washington meets Small Town, Alabama in a heart-warming-turns-disturbing tale featuring a possessed teenage girl and a frazzled Nicolas Cage-as-truck-driver who has a history of reading the erotic remembrances of… Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: When Maria Pulera watched “Twin Peaks” while growing up, I’m sure she said to herself, “I can do that.” And so she does, with the great Nicolas Cage front and center (and the great Angelo Badalamenti noodling musically in the background). Cage’s performance as a burnt-out trucker plays like a B-side to his Mandy animalism; and while I wouldn’t say he goes off the deep end, he’s about as close as any realistic scenario might allow. At least as realistic as the “dead-wife’s-soul-steals-comatose-girl’s-body” plotline can be expected to be. Everything comes crashing together in an Alabama melodrama ripped from a ’90s-drenched Tales from the Crypt episode, culminating in something altogether bizarre.

Pity poor Joe (Nicolas Cage). We meet him, boot-first, as he’s trying to convince his boss that he’ll get his truck payment settled next month. No dice, the truck is to be repossessed, and Joe, with his mountain of worry, takes comfort in a gas station foot-long. Hearing strange thumps from the restroom, he charges in and beats down a man strangling a woman. The woman, another trucker named Julie (Franka Potente—yes, that one) is nonplussed at this ostensible rescue, as she was trying to meet up with her daughter’s soul. Joe can’t help but try to do the right thing, so he drives her to the hospital where her daughter, Billie (Penelope Mitchell), rests coma-style. His spiritual baggage comes with him, unfortunately, so when Julie tries again to reach her daughter, Joe’s dead wife uses the opportunity to sneak back into this world.

Between Worlds‘ first act plays as a bizarre resurrection of Nicolas Cage’s more lamentable ’90s comedy stylings as funneled through a David Lynch fan-girl’s love letter to them both. I suspect (hope) virtually none of you have heard of (and, even less, sat through) the 1994 rom-com It Could Happen to You, but I was having flashbacks to Cage’s cop character, but now having been dragged through the ringer after losing his wife and daughter in a fire and forced to wash “NoDoz” down by the mouthful with swigs of whiskey. The sweet, lovey-dovey first act where Joe bonds with Julie goes by quickly, in its oddball way, before the reality of the situation sinks in that this isn’t a romantic comedy.

Frankly, I had a great time watching this1)Others didn’t. Amazon’s display of Between Worlds shows a 2.5-star rating for the Prime Video, a 4-star rating for the Blu-ray, and a 1-star rating for the DVD., and the expression I had on my face by the end confirmed my suspicion that what I was watching, though perhaps derivative, was quite strange. A smooth jazz score keeps prodding you (like in “Twin Peaks”), creepy evil is made manifest through possession (like in “Twin Peaks”), and there’s even a bad boy Bobby Briggs character (like in…). If you don’t like Cage, you will not like this movie; but if you do like Cage, then I recommend you hop in your truck and take a spin through Maria Pulera’s Alabama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you saw ‘Mandy,’ and wished more Nicolas Cage movies were dark, weird, and personal: watch ‘Between Worlds’ and be careful what you wish for.” –Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Others didn’t. Amazon’s display of Between Worlds shows a 2.5-star rating for the Prime Video, a 4-star rating for the Blu-ray, and a 1-star rating for the DVD.

CAPSULE: THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984)

aka Gwendoline

DIRECTED BY: Just Jaeckin

FEATURING: Tawny Kitaen, Brent Huff, Zabou, Bernadette Lafont

PLOT: The precocious and beautiful daughter of a lost explorer follows his footsteps into the wilds of darkest Asia, stumbling upon a distaff cult that has harnessed the power of a volcano for their own nefarious ends.

Still from THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF YIK YAK (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gwendoline is going for a Barbarella-meets-Indiana Jones vibe, which means a lot of silliness and comic book-style strangeness. Ultimately, it’s all empty calories, neither compelling enough as a story nor strange enough as a concept to earn a spot here. Softcore eroticism is all it has to offer.

COMMENTS: This is undoubtedly a politically incorrect thing to say in this day and age, but for a teenage boy in the mid- to late-80s, premium cable was an absolute godsend. Before the internet gave us way too much access with more excitement and variety than the average copy of Playboy could offer, softcore cinema on TV was a treasure to any puberty-stricken manchild who had no concept of how to relate to the opposite sex but still longed with piquant desperation to see a bare breast. So many spring breaks and fraternity vacations and sorority car washes captured on celluloid seemingly for the exclusive enjoyment of these sad bubbling cauldrons of undirected testosterone… and if the movie had a nerdy theme or a B- to C- list star, so much the better.

The Perils of Gwendoline is an almost perfect exemplar of the form: a goofy adventure with shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring the only real reason for its existence—a frequently naked Tawny Kitaen. Before her hood-sliding appearance in Whitesnake videos (and well before her unfortunate turn as domestic abuser and troubled soul), Kitaen was probably best known as Tom Hanks’ smokeshow bride in Bachelor Party. With fiery red hair and a girl-next-door smile, she had all the makings of a star. Gwendoline is one of her few starring roles, and watching it… well, it quickly becomes clear why her career didn’t exactly take off. Kitaen is beautiful, but pouty and whiny. Yes, we expect our heroine to be shallow at first, as she wanders innocently into the wild world in pursuit of the rare butterfly that became her father’s obsession. But Gwendoline goes well past naïve and arrives at annoying, so much so that you wonder why her faithful maid Beth doesn’t ditch her at the first opportunity.

Gwendoline meets her match in the mercenary Willard, played with equal parts stupidity and obnoxiousness by Brent Huff. This relationship is clearly meant to sparkle with witty repartee, and perhaps the dubbed version of this French film achieves that goal. Alas, in English, not so much. Together, it’s a contest between Kitaen and Huff to see who can be the more irritating. But since we’re treated to several not-remotely-subtle excuses for Gwendoline and Beth to strip or writhe in ecstasy, it’s a burden we just have to bear.

Fortunately, once our adventurers escape from a tribe of cannibals of dubious racial sensitivity, we get to where the movie really wants to go: the hidden city of Pikaho (no, seriously), populated exclusively by women who fight and race chariots in leather shoulder pads and thong bikinis. This ups the weird quotient significantly, with complex explanations for how this society prospers, strange medieval-futuristic design mashups, and the all-important minimum justification for women to take off their clothes. It’s as though the filmmakers took their jungle adventure-pastiche as far as they could go, and then just started indulging every other fetish they had.

A movie like this can be enjoyably dumb, even beyond its usefulness as fantasy fodder. But Gwendoline is more often just dumb. For exotic locales and copious nudity (both specialties of director Jaeckin, as seen in his magnum opus, Emmanuelle), the movie delivers in spades. But for coherent story and decent acting, you should not have come here in the first place. It mainly serves as a relic of a far off time, back when one could turn to HBO after midnight for a glimpse of the forbidden.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Perils of Gwendoline is a movie I saw way back when I was probably too young to appreciate it, and time has only made it more wacky. Half a low-rent Indiana Jones rip-off, half a French tittie flick, The Perils of Gwendoline is bad to be sure, but it’s so bizarrely and charmingly bad that you simply have to see it to believe it really exists. Fans of bad acting, sets literally made of cardboard, and action sequences bordering on the surreally amateurish will have a ball with this one.” – Scott Weinberg, eFilmCritic

(This movie was nominated for review by Bob Barfield. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian Continue reading 356. NOVEMBER (2017)