Tag Archives: Satire

CHANNEL 366: I’M A VIRGO (2023)

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“I’m a Virgo” streams exclusively on Amazon Prime (subscription required)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jharrel Jerome, Olivia Washington, Walton Goggins, Kara Young, Carmen Ejogo, Mike Epps, Brett Gray

PLOT: Cootie, a 13-foot tall black man, tries to find a purpose in Oakland, while idolizing a real-life superhero/media sensation known as “the Hero.”

Still from I'm a Virgo (2023)
Jharrel Jerome (as ‘Cootie’), Olivia Washington (as ‘Flora’). Copyright Amazon Studios, Courtesy of Prime Video

COMMENTS: How do you find shoes for a 13-foot tall teenager? And how do you support him without him eating you out of house and home? If you care about the answers to these stupid questions, then “I’m a Virgo” is not for you. If, on the other hand, you’re curious as to how giant Cootie is going to carry on a romantic affair with the normal-sized Flora—who experiences time at about ten times the speed of other people—then have I got a series for you!

“I’m a Virgo” is, on the one hand, a charming story of a sweet, naive man-child coming-of-age in a world that’s not always kind to the differently-heighted. Since this is a Boots Riley joint, it’s also a left-wing political allegory, with a citizen-led rent strike occupying a major subplot. The series is, unexpectedly, also a satire of superhero culture; in Riley’s eyes, these icons of law-and-order are nothing more than propagandist for the status quo . Cootie, meanwhile, is the ultimate image of the Other; he’s a minority of one even within his own minority group. And there are ample, literal lectures about the evils of capitalism. Most of the time, these are far too on-the-nose, as compared to the subtler satire seen in Riley’s debut feature Sorry to Bother You, where such critiques arose naturally as an organic part of the plot. But I can at least say that these lessons are far livelier (and more hallucinatory) than the similarly didactic Marxist monologues that occasionally pop up in ‘s Dziga Vertov movies of the late 60s and early 70s.

And, since this is, again, a Boots Riley joint, it’s also a work that explores these weighty issues by diving into a deep well of absurdist satire. If you thought the premise of a 13-foot man roaming the hood was enough madness for one series, Riley disagrees. We also get the story of the Hero, a homegrown Oakland version of Batman, who runs a comics empire during the day and fights crime at night from his headquarters, and whose elevator moves the building up and down instead of shuttling people between floors. He and Cootie aren’t the only remarkable humans on the block: about half the cast has hidden superpowers which are gradually revealed. The series also features a group of tiny people about as big as your finger, as well as a religious cult devoted to Cootie (who is indifferent to them). Remarkably, Riley ladles out the insanity with a steady hand, sprinkling his twisted creation with bold, surreal flavors, but never overwhelming the core story or making his characters seem anything less than psychologically real (regardless of height).

The extended length of the series format is both a blessing and a curse here. On the plus side, Riley has plenty of time to explore numerous oddball cul-de-sacs without taking time away from character development; for example, the smidgen of crazy grace that comes with a pirate broadcast of an animated series-within-the-series, a digression that would feel too far afield in a feature. Almost an entire episode is devoted to the Hero’s bizarre lifestyle; there’s so much richness here, in his fear of assassination by ninjas, his relationship to his subordinates, and his search for the perfect mate, that a spin-off series devoted to this complex character would be most welcome. On the other hand, it’s always troubling when the first season of a series like this wraps up awkwardly, tying up some loose ends but leaving others flapping in the breeze. Unfortunately, “I’m a Virgo” falls prey to this syndrome in the final episode; it’s particularly disappointing that the Hero ends his too-short arc in anticlimactic fashion. Overall, however, this is a small complaint for Riley’s extraordinary sophomore effort, and one that Amazon can easily make moot if they decide to pick up “I’m a Virgo” for round two. This bizarro Oakland neighborhood has too much craziness left to explore to leave after a mere seven episodes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an epic and surreal story that is part fairy tale, part parable, and utterly unique. Evoking the same off-kilter filmmaking style as his feature film debut, Riley has delivered one of the weirdest streaming series in recent memory that pulls together statements on unemployment, racial bias, exploitation, and class warfare within the guise of a comic book-themed superhero adventure. I’m A Virgo is weird and weirdly wonderful.”–Alex Maidy, JoBlo (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: PRAYER OF THE ROLLERBOYS (1990)

DIRECTED BY: Rick King

FEATURING: Corey Haim, Patricia Arquette, Christopher Collet, J. C. Quinn, Julius Harris, Devin Clark

PLOT: In a dystopian near-future where greed and widespread drug addiction have reduced the United States to third-world status, a cult of white-supremacist rollerbladers seeks to consolidate power; a lone skater, Griffin, infiltrates the gang to scuttle their operations and save his little brother.

Still from Prayer of the Rollerboys (1990)

COMMENTS: The brave new world of Prayer of the Rollerboys would seem to be a breeding ground for satire. The schools of the Ivy League have been carted off to Japan brick-by-brick. Mexican troops are repelling American immigrants at the border. Germany has conquered Poland once more, this time with its checkbook. Oh, and there’s rollerblading. Lots of rollerblading. But don’t laugh: screenwriter W. Peter Iliff (from whose pen Point Break and Varsity Blues will soon spring) wants you to be alarmed about even the most outlandish projections for America’s doomed future. There’s darkness coming, and only one thing can save us: Corey Haim.

Poor Corey. The prospective viewer of today might see the presence of the more tragic half of the Coreys in rollerblades as a guarantee of solid so-bad-it’s good entertainment. But it doesn’t turn out that way. It’s no secret masterpiece, but Prayer of the Rollerboys turns out to be a passable action flick, bringing low-budget grittiness and late-80s ethos to a familiar tale, with just a hint of eye-rolling over the near-future mise-en-scene.

After establishing his rollerblading bonafides in the opening credits, we properly meet Haim wearing a barbershop quartet’s striped jacket and boater and slinging an AK-47 for his job as a pizza delivery boy. (His boss: “If anybody messes with the van, [singing] kill ‘em.”) He’s trying to stay out of trouble and take care of his younger brother Miltie. Griffin’s just a good man in a bad world, you see; this world’s version of Marshal Will Kane.

There’s a lot out there to make him wary, like the vast amount of homelessness, the preponderance of populace-pleasing entertainments like nude women wrestling, and of course the narcotic du jour, an phosphorescent inhalant called “Mist.” But the biggest threat comes from the Rollerboys, an organized gang of skating thugs who deal Mist on the downlow while publicly sponsoring food drives and handing out their fascist literature to indoctrinate the masses. They occupy the Venn diagram intersection between Nazi Youth, the Proud Boys, New Kids on the Block, and the cast of Starlight Express. The film luxuriates in the sight of them cruising down the sidewalks of Venice Beach on their inlines, and the image of a dozen pretty rollerbladers decked out in flowing ecru trenchcoats and skating in a uniform flying-V is… well, not cool, exactly, but certainly memorable.

The film works best when it fully commits to the outlandishness of its premise. Griffin’s old grade school buddy Gary has grown up to lead the Rollerboys, and Christopher Collet gives it his all as a low-rent, roller-skating James Spader, a grinning crocodile who is fairly fit to burst into violence. (He even has a pet Komodo dragon to stroke malevolently.) No subtlety here; Gary’s plan to sterilize the population is literally called “the final solution.” His henchmen also bring the barely contained insanity, including Mark Pellegrino as a Jake Busey-wannabe strongman and the perpetually simmering Morgan Weisser, who even bites into an apple with repressed rage.

Against this, Haim does a creditable job, keeping an even keel as a guy who just wants to rollerblade in peace and now finds himself embroiled in chaos. He and Collet have genuine chemistry, engage in a rather effective fight scene, and bring authentic gravity to their final showdown. No, in our topsy-turvy world, the worst performance probably belongs to future Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette, zipping through the film in an admittedly weak role as an undercover cop in a series of joyfully ridiculous outfits (special consideration for her Dale Evans getup) and very little indication of the terrific acting career that lay ahead.

Once you get past the nightmare future of rampaging young white supremacists (all too believable) and full combat on skates (somewhat less so), there isn’t really anything wrong with Prayer of the Rollerboys. It’s derivative and a little silly, but the biggest problem is that the film is punching well above its weight. There are some intriguing ideas lurking in the movie: the allure of fascism, the impotence of our protectors, the weaponization of youth… but it’s all still riding on the shoulders of a Corey Haim rollerblading movie. It has to rehabilitate a teen heartthrob, create a credible future, call out the foibles of society, and do it all while embodying a youth culture that always seems to be just a step out of Hollywood’s reach. It would be a stretch for any movie to pull this all off. This is not the movie to do it.

Prayer of the Rollerboys isn’t bad enough to satisfy the snark-watchers, but not good enough to step out of the bin of forgotten B-movies. It does hint at an alternate universe where Corey Haim was able to realize his potential as an actor, and where we as a society anticipated the dangers of ceding power to pretty people who would co-opt it for nefarious purposes. Alas, in both cases, that stretches credulity just a shred too far.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The impact of screenwriter W Peter Iliff’s distinctly weird and intriguing premise is gradually eroded by the eventually unsurprising developments in its interestingly outlandish storyline and also by the over-familiarity of the usual, regulation futuristic setting of a chaotic, dystopian  tomorrow’s world.” – Derek Winnert, derekwinnert.com

(This movie was nominated for review by Lovecraft in Brooklyn, who says the film “features characters that somehow predict the modern alt-right.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: INFINITY POOL (2023)

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Infinity Pool is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Jalil Lespert, Cleopatra Coleman,

PLOT: A foreign couple on vacation accidentally run down a local while driving drunk and learn of that country’s strange legal arrangement: in death penalty cases, for a generous monetary donation, they can substitute a clone for execution.

Still from infinity Pool (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Cronenberg fils continues his plunge into the deep end of human darkness with Infinity Pool, a feverish nightmare of sin and excess spiked with hallucinogens.

COMMENTS: Infinity Pool takes place in an uncertain locale—an island paradise that might be in some Adriatic outpost of Eastern Europe (where it was actually filmed), or the Muslim world, or Oceania. Detective Thresh, tourists’ point of contact with the otherwise unseen government, has a vaguely Nazi-ish aura about him. Street signs and license plates are written in an alien language unknown on this planet. The time is also uncertain: for all intents and purposes the story is set in the modern day, except that this unknown backwater inexplicably possesses cloning technology, including complete personality and memory duplicating, that must be centuries away from realization. In short, Infinity Pool contains within it exactly what it needs to enact its parable, nothing more or less. The insular reality of the setting is as isolated as an all-inclusive resort protected from contact with the populace by huge fences and armed guards, where only a filtered simulacrum of authentic culture exists.

Cinematographer Karim Hussain, who has shot every B. Cronenberg film so far, uses disorienting techniques—vertical 360 pans, extreme closeups of lips and eyelashes, a strange shot where Thomas Kretschmann‘s silhouette turns into a pinheaded alien—to remind us that we’re in an exotic land defying norms and expectations. These stylistic excesses are capped by two epilepsy-warning, -styled psychedelic montages—one deployed to the depict the psychological effect of the doubling process, one the result of an orgy sparked by an indigenous hallucinogen—featuring swirling lights, disco balls, nude women, and, most disturbingly, a nipple oozing… something. These heavy techniques magnify Infinity Pool‘s weighty mood of moral doom.

Skarsgård is good as James, a writer who reveals less and less character as the film progresses. His decline is inevitable and believable: who among us would have the courage to defy the devil’s bargain Thresh offers to escape permanent oblivion? Still, Mia Goth dominates the film, cementing her position as horror’s nonpareil femme fatale of the moment. The ginger domme grows larger as Skarsgård shrinks. She has a wine-guzzling blast as a depraved seductress peeling away masks to reveal what seem to be infinite layers of evil.

The events of Infinity Pool work as pure moral horror, but also operate on a two-tiered satirical layer. As a social critique, the film illustrates first-world exploitation of poorer countries, while on an individual level it plumbs the perverse depths of self-destructive behavior. The rich selfishly appropriate local culture by stealing grotesque ceremonial masks for a disguise to perpetrate additional crimes. Meanwhile, sinking into hideous hedonistic excess, James finds himself engaging in shockingly literal self-abuse. The rich treat the poor as expendable, and James objectifies himself to escape responsibility for his own crimes. The premise naturally invites speculation about the nature of identity: an exact clone of myself with all my memories isn’t exactly me, but what is it? A mystery and a horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’re willing to surf on the wonderfully weird and wild wavelength of ‘Infinity Pool’ it is indeed a singular, and unforgettable, ride.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)