This advertisement for Meow Wolf’s new installation, a “totally normal supermarket in Las Vegas,” features many of the commodities you can find there, and a deepfake of Willie Nelson.
DIRECTED BY: Matt Shakman
FEATURING: Elizabeth Olsen,, Kathryn Hahn, , Randall Park,
PLOT: Sorceress Wanda Maximoff and her husband, the strong and flight-capable synthezoid Vision, settle down in the idyllic burg of Westview. However, their peace and comfort are regularly disrupted by nosy neighbors who are constantly seconds away from discovering their secret, outside forces threatening their safety, and the fact that their reality is constantly changing to reflect the evolution of the American situation comedy over several decades.
COMMENTS: For their debut on the Disney+ streaming service, the bigwigs at Marvel Studios bypass their usual flights-and-punches formula in favor of parody, satire, and psychological paranoia. “WandaVision” turns the mystery of what is happening to our protagonists on its head by filtering the drama through the pastiche of laugh-tracked comical antics. So it’s not quite what you might expect from the box office wizards at Marvel. On the other hand, it’s still mainstream entertainment, and the patient will soon be rewarded with explanations for all that transpires.
When last seen on the big screen, Wanda Maximoff (AKA Scarlet Witch) was doing battle with purple mega-Malthusian Thanos, while Vision was dead at selfsame villain’s hands. For those who have diligently followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe through 24-or-so big screen adventures, the sight of the pair crossing the threshold as (1) married, (2) very much alive, and (3) stepping onto the set of an ersatz “Dick van Dyke Show” must surely provoke a cocked eyebrow.
But if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ve noticed that part of Marvel’s success has derived from its willingness to borrow beats and tropes from other genres to keep the overall superhero vibe fresh. You’re as likely to get touches of 70s paranoid thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as you are an 80s macho-buddy flick (Thor: Ragnarok). Sometimes the films even shift tone within their own running time (see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s lurch from heist comedy to haunted requiem). So the left-turn into sitcom territory is not totally off-brand.
Considering that they’ve been reduced to mere cameos amidst the cinematic cavalcade of superheroes, Olsen and Bettany seem to relish finally getting the spotlight to themselves for a little bit. Their chemistry, teased out in stolen moments in the big-screen omnibus, is genuine, and if their transformation into broad comedians still feels awkward, it’s not for lack of trying. The same Vision who triumphantly hoisted Thor’s hammer in the cinema is here reduced to belting out “Yakety Yak” as a wild distraction—but the spirit says to just go with it.
That’s surely why “WandaVision” is on our radar. It feels wrong. These characters shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, these comedic styles should not be on our TV screens in the 21st century, and for three episodes, the show resolutely refuses to explain just what the heck is going on. Of course, this puzzle box is part of what draws viewers here in the first place. Something strange is going on is Heroville, and we’re gonna try and figure out what.
And sure enough, episode 4 begins to unpack the mystery, as agents from the “real world” try to understand the mysterious goings-on. It’s hardly a coincidence that FBI agent Jimmy Woo is scribbling down the very questions that are in our own heads: “Why hexagonal shape? Why sitcoms? Same time & space? Is Vision alive?” For any viewers shaking their heads and despairing at the many unanswered questions, the plot cops are here to sort things out.
“WandaVision” represents an interesting attempt to incorporate some different flavors into the Marvel mix. Director Shakman and creator Jac Schaeffer fully commit to their odd premise, with credit sequences, theme songs, and commercial breaks to match each new setting. (In particular, episode 5 ends in a wild twist that manages to riff on sitcom tropes and inside-baseball Hollywood at the same time.) In other words, it’s weird and it knows it. But the show also wants to reassure you that everything’s going to make sense in the end; it’s weird for a reason. When you’re a multibillion dollar content factory, you probably don’t want to leave that kind of thing to chance.
Roger Ebert famously summarized the shortcomings of 2010, the belated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, by quoting the verse of e. e. cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance”. Similarly, “WandaVision” soars when gleefully vivisecting expectations for a comic book adventure series, but the needs of the franchise, and the demands of mainstream entertainment, keep it firmly tethered to the ground.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The best parts of the first three episodes are when WandaVision unapologetically leans into its weirdness… the more unexplained moments the show throws at us, and the more it pushes up against what feels like horror, the more it allows the sitcom device to really hammer home its uncanny artificiality. The result is that the sitcom beats feel even stranger, maybe even more menacing — in a way that goes beyond “these characters sure are acting unnaturally.” It makes you realize the intense desperation for these characters to be “normal,” and the tragedy that “normal” is the one thing they’ll never be able to be. When the characters sink back into their comedic shtick, then, it feels even more unnerving.” – Alex Abad-Santos, Vox
In what is presumably the last episode of the children’s show, the gang seeks to put an end to the sun.
DIRECTED BY: ,
FEATURING: Matthew Kennedy, Gilles Degagne
PLOT: A Divorced Dad and his even sadder-sack co-host, Gilles, produce a public access TV show that continually goes off the rails.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The format—cancelled web series repackaged as a home video release—rules it out from consideration as one of the weirdest movies of all time. It’s more of a supplemental oddity for weird movie fans (even more specifically, for fans).
COMMENTS: Served papers by YouTube after only five official episodes, Canadian comedy troupe Astron-6’s “Divorced Dad” (based, as the opening credits to each episode explain, “on a dream had by Divorced Dad”) never really got the chance to find its footing. Star Divorced Dad and co-host Gilles were developing a classic abusive, co-dependent comedy duo dynamic (if Divorced Dad was as passive-aggressively condescending to his wife and children as he is to the admittedly annoying Gilles, it might explain why he finds himself single). After Divorced Dad’s dreams were shattered for a second time when his mock public access webseries was yanked from the platform, Kino Lorber came to the rescue with this home video release of the show’s complete YouTube run, plus two completed but unaired episodes, and some odds and ends to pad out the disc.
The episode that got the show pulled—“My Sis,” in which Divorced Dad accidentally signs up the Islamic State as beneficiary of his charity bingo show—is hardly the hot stuff one might have predicted, given how quickly the heavy fingers at YouTube corporate pushed the ban button. Ironically, “My Sis” may also have been their most conventionally structured comedy, and could have been a breakout episode. The series’ other sources of mirth were more conceptual bits like Gilles demonstrating less-then-delicate bedroom techniques on fruit, Divorced Dad getting into it with a female “restler,” and the “Treasure Man” parody, a microbudget attempt to create an “Indiana Jones”-style adventure series. Most notably for us, in three episodes he suddenly finds himself lost in existential netherworlds: one where he’s driven mad by the show’s bad sound, one where he overdoses on blue slushies, and one where he zones out while Gilles is misbehaving in the supermarket. The sly surreal comedy in these segments would have been a bit abstruse for the average YouTube surfer.
The visual aesthetic is a drunken take on early 90s cable access TV shows, with vertical hold issues, wandering picture-in-picture effects, and strange lo-fi wipes. Divorced Dad’s video board operator doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the show, instead spending his time checking out what happens when he spins the various knobs and dials before him. The end result is a show that looks like something you might find on antape, with the absurdist comic sensibilities of an live-action one-off.
Kudos to Kino Lorber for preserving this chunk of pop-culture flotsam, but… content-wise, it’s a little thin, as the main attraction takes up less than an hour of running time. Commentary tracks for the five original episodes beef up the presentation a bit. Besides the two previously-unseen episodes, extras include unaired footage (most notably, a hilarious faux-promo for “Treasure Man.”) There are also two “Merry Christmas” dispatches from a very depressed Santa (no one wants to hear that jolly old elf pleading “pray for me”). The disc’s hidden treasure, however, is “Chowboys,” a 9-minute short about cowboys on the range who contemplate cannibalism while hallucinating from hunger one chilly Christmas Eve. It’s described (sad spoiler ahead) as “the final film from Astron-6.” This is obviously a must-have release for Astron-6 fans; casual viewers might want to see if they can borrow a copy before shelling out a double-sawbuck, however.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
The biblical story of Isaac is portrayed through Dean Fleischer-Camp’s deadpan style in a short that likely won’t be used in any Sunday school lesson anywhere.
Content Warning: This short contains violence.
DIRECTED BY: Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, John Landis, Robert K. Weiss
FEATURING: “Lots of Actors”, including Arsenio Hall, , , Steve Forrest, David Alan Grier, B. B. King, , Steve Guttenberg, , Kelly Preston, , , Andrew Dice Clay, Griffin Dunne
PLOT: A collection of sketches parodying late-night TV content, anchored by a specific parody of goofy 1950s space operas.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The sketch film has always been rare enough to merit a double take when one appears in cinemas, but this particular example of the form isn’t especially unusual, with nothing particularly outlandish or shocking, and the majority of sketches being of the one-joke variety.
COMMENTS: Although anthologies have been a recurring genre since early cinema, the heyday of the “sketch film” variant was the early 1970s: The Groove Tube, TunnelVision, and king-of-the-form Kentucky Fried Movie all parodied television’s challenge to attention spans. The form was also fairly economical, providing quick work to underemployed actors and aspiring comedy writers alike. None of these were box office bonanzas, though, so when Amazon Women on the Moon came along more than a decade later, it was fair to ask if it was a bold attempt to refresh the formula, or a last gasp for a format that had never truly lived.
Let’s go with B. First and foremost, Amazon Women is a comedy, but while it has quite a few solid jokes, it reveals time and again that it doesn’t have much else. Let’s consider one of the film’s best sequences, a vivid re-creation of 1930-era Universal horror movies starring Ed Begley, Jr. as the son of’ Invisible Man. The black-and-white atmosphere is rich, and Begley even gets to repeat the famous bandage-removal scene. The catch: he’s not invisible at all. It’s a funny joke, as he obliviously cavorts about the room in the nude. The problem is, the sketch has another two minutes to go, and so we get more variations on the same joke, searching for an end.
This happens a lot. Scenes have a funny premise at their core, but then they have to keep going to justify their presence in a Hollywood motion picture: David Alan Grier sings in a super-white way—then he does it some more. A funeral turns into a Catskills roast—and we get the whole roast. Other sketches are shorter, but their jokes are smaller, too, and the scenes still feel stretched and padded. Amazon Women on the Moon has a tight five minutes; it gets an hour-and-a-half.
The film is not without its charms. The parodies have a clever eye for their sources, such as a 30s-era scare propaganda film that subtly re-dresses the same set over and over. Several performances capture the desired anarchic spirit, such as Griffin Dunne’s incompetent doctor and Carrie Fisher’s gullible ingénue. And every now and then, the film manages to tap into something sublimely silly; my personal favorite is an In Search Of/Unsolved Mysteries amalgam that manages to mashup the sordid deeds of Jack the Ripper with a more supernatural tale. But Moon’s a film that earns smiles more than laughs.
Ultimately, Amazon Women on the Moon is “Saturday Night Live” with slightly better production values: the jokes are hit and miss, and there’s a lot of work to get to the end of each sketch. It’s not the worst of its kind (that would be the execrable Movie 43), but it’s far from the finest. That honor probably belongs to Kentucky Fried Movie, and the filmmakers know it; references to fictional producer Samuel L. Bronkowitz mark Moon as Movie‘s spiritual sequel. But bad news, Sam: Amazon Women on the Moon is no Fistful of Yen.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by roastphoenix. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
The legendary blind samurai Zatoichi must face his strongest enemy yet in this mock film trailer.