Tag Archives: Superhero

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)

CAPSULE: FREAKS VS. THE REICH (2021)

AKA Freaks Out

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Freaks vs. the Reich is currently available for VOD rental.

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DIRECTED BY: Gabriele Mainetti

FEATURING: Aurora Giovinazzo, Claudio Santamaria, Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martini, Franz Rogowski

PLOT: In 1943 Nazi-occupied Rome, Matilde, Fulvio, Cencio, and Mario are the stars of the Half-Penny Circus; Franz, a Nazi with oracular abilities, wishes to get all twelve of his fingers on the troupe of freaks in the hopes of averting disaster for the Reich.

Still from Freaks vs. the Reich (2021)

COMMENTS: In a world saturated with superheroes, I say, “bring on the Super Freaks.” Gabriele Mainetti’s feature-length debut has rip-rollicking adventure, charming humor, concerts, explosions, Nazis, swarms of bugs, and—and everything I’d be looking for in a big-screen period piece. Having been lucky enough to catch this at Fantasia last year, it nearly pained me not to treat it with the full writeup it deserves. My fond recollections of this film are best captured with my remarks jotted down immediately following the screening:

“Come one, come all, to the Half-Penny Circus. Witness the aerial insect artistry of Cencio the albino! Giggle at the pratfalls of Mario the magnetic clown! Behold the raw strength—and ample fur—of Man-Beast Fulvio! And delight in the electrifying acrobatic artistry of Matilde, who powers light bulbs with the touch of her fingers!”

Freaks Out deftly walks a thin tight-rope while simultaneously pulling off an impressive hat trick (I shall now dispense with the carnival metaphors). Mainetti quite obviously, and quite unashamedly, dips into several buckets of influence: superheroes, Nazi baddies, buddy comedies, and action movie razzle-dazzle. These are all reliable, if perhaps well-worn, sources, but the alchemical combination makes the concoction shine. Just in the opening scene featuring the Half-Penny Circus, we witness whimsy, true magic—and a shell-blast of stark, wartime realism as the performance is interrupted by the surrounding carnage. The four freaks all feel fleshed-out, and fresh, as they follow their mentor-cum-manager through the blasted streets and hillsides of Rome under Nazi occupation.

But the coup de grâce comes, as it so often does, from the villain:  mild-mannered, six-fingered, future-glimpsin’, ether-huffin’ Nazi Franz, who wants to save the Fatherland while simultaneously being denigrated by his countrymen’s allegorical stand-in, his older brother. Rogowski brings gravitas, tenderness (the performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” by twelve-fingered piano-man is an early show-stopper), frustration, machination, and, against all the odds, sympathy to his performance. In one scene Franz liquidates “sub-standard” freaks, and in another mutilates his body to conform with the able-ist standards of Nazi knuckle-beaks.

I’m repeating myself from before, I realize, but my nostalgia for Freaks Out hit me to a degree I was not anticipating. That in mind, I will leave you with some words of advice, and hearty request. Stand by your friends, say “No!” to Nazis, and find the time to watch Freaks Out on the biggest screen and through the biggest speakers you can find. Mainetti has obviously set this troupe up as a franchise, so get the word out about Freaks Out. I want to see them smash the Nazis again. (And again…)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A strange and complex muddling of X-Men and The Shape of Water, with an abundance of Nazi’s, Freaks Out will have you crying, laughing, wincing, and smiling as it tells its epic story of belonging and embracing your weirdness.”–Kat Hughes, The Hollywood News (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SMOKING CAUSES COUGHING (2022)

Fumer fait tousser

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Smoking Causes Coughing is currently available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gilles Lellouche, , Jean-Pascal Zadi, Oulaya Amamra, Vincent Lacoste, voice of

PLOT: A Power Rangers-like group of heroes goes on a team building retreat and tells campfire stories; will the world end before they can solve their issues?

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A group of avengers named the Tobacco Force destroys their enemies by shooting them with smoke and giving them cancer. A large fish tells a story about a young man who, after being involved in an industrial shredder accident, becomes a pair of lips in a pail of gore. For these and many more absurd instances, Smoking Causes Coughing could be a shoo-in for Apocryphal status.

COMMENTS:  Quentin Dupieux’s newest film, Smoking Causes Coughing, is superficially about the Tobacco Force, the “coolest avengers in the world,” according to one of their in-film fans. Power Rangers meets Danger 5, the Tobacco Force regularly saves the world from rubber-suited monsters. Recently, however, they have been having problems with insincerity and individualism. To come together as a team before meeting their ultimate nemesis, Lézardin, their boss (a rat puppet who constantly drools green slime) assigns them to a team-building retreat. There they tell stories around a campfire, and the movie becomes an anthology, returning to the Tobacco Force between stories.

As the team sits around the fire, a young girl appears and tells a story. Later one of them catches a barracuda in the lake and, yes, the barracuda tells a story. The stories are the highlight of the movie. They are inventive, twisted, existential jokes. They are also often gory.

Dupieux does not stray from his absurdist existentialism. For instance, in the first story a woman puts on a “Thinking Helmet” that promises to purify the mind. A few minutes later we are in a deadpan slasher, as if to say that if a person knows the truth, they will not be able to abide the way things are.

The pace throughout is steady but not quick. Scenes that seem too long or even pointless add to the sense of ennui and to questioning life in general. Some elements are completely unexpected—absurd, silly, and sometimes mind-boggling.

Their boss, the Chief, is the only puppet in the film; he would feel right at home in ’s Meet the Feebles. He’s utterly disgusting and also unbearably attractive to every woman in the movie. Perhaps a comment on power? Perhaps simple absurdity.

This movie is not going to change anyone’s mind about Quentin Dupieux. If you enjoyed his previous films, you’ll likely enjoy this one. If you didn’t, well… you get the point. But if you haven’t seen anything by him, and you’ve made it this far into this review, then maybe you’ll dig it. It isn’t revelatory; it’s just an existential absurdist good time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Trying to explain ‘Smoking Causes Coughing’ is like recounting a dream: The person listening might not care, and it might not mean anything to them, but it leaves a weirdly unforgettable impression on the spectator.”–Ryan Lattanzio, IndieWire (contemporaneous)

ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE: JUSTICE IS GRAY (2021)

‘s Justice League: Justice Is Gray (2021) is four-hours (!) of sullen macho masturbation that drains away whaever minuscule color and joy were left in the DC deities. The title is half-apt; look elsewhere for justice, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more epically gray landscape of Fascistic mediocrity.  While the Snyder/Whedon Justice League (2017) was an understandably lopsided affair, it at least had a few affecting moments.

Zack Snyders Justice League: Justice is Gray (2021)Like the Mango Mussolini cult, Snyder’s fan base heaps their rabid obsessions on the least deserving object of adulation. While HBO Max’s Justice League had strong viewership on its premiere, it eventually got knocked out of the public consciousness when the ape and lizard started strutting their stuff. In a 2 plus 2 equals eight moment, a faction of Snyder disciples made like QAnon (or like Snyder’s Taliban, or Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door—take your pick) to review bomb Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) on IMDB, revealing their barrel-dwelling lunacy. Snyder himself came out of his narcissistic closet, mantling his best Dotard impersonation, thanking his believers for sharing the dream.

Snyder epitomizes macho movie-making for low-demanding pubescents. There’s nothing authentically masculine or aesthetically competent in his Triumph of the Will for the funny papers. Some critics have heaped praise on it, pontificating about its better sense of depth. No, that’s merely excessive exposition from characters that have gone from symbolic (and vulnerable) heroes of justice to two-dimensional combatants, straight out of a soulless Transformer movie, who will eventually team up against a big black shiny villain named Darkseid (Ray Porter) who makes for one of the most personality-bankrupted antagonists in all of cinema.

Wonder Woman () is portrayed in sharp contrast to her character in ‘ films (and although WW 84 is flawed, it’s considerably better than this excrement). She’s merely a video byte here and the only time she manages to emit any light is when she kills (yup, she kills).

The Flash (, who pales next to Grant Guston) provides the 7th grade humor. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) provides the yawn-inducing macho one-liners, variations of quips we’ve heard in hundreds of action pics. Batman (Ben Affleck, delivering a white trash portrayal of the Dark Knight, repeatedly seen riding a horse) channels Terminator‘s talk of “the looming war” in a banal landscape that literally zaps out all the color that Whedon infused into it. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, as a digital blob) compete with Darkseid for dullest characterizations. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) waxes wide-eyed, hand-wringing desperation awaiting the resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill). One would think a literal resurrection would be accompanied by bells, whistles, and a jubilee. Nope. You see, these mother boxes… just don’t ask.

Our “heroes” (i.e., nationalist deities), step down from a Nintendo Mount Rushmore and stand in the drab, ashen horizon. Checking the watch here, one might be thankful for the finale. Nope. That was just a teaser, because there’s epilogues galore to come, all of which practically announce the sequels (which apparently are not not going to happen and/or will be Hack Snyderless).

This four-hour masturbation orgy doesn’t offer anything vital that we didn’t receive in its 2017 forerunner. That one was no great shakes, but it’s tolerable compared to this sadomasochism dictated by mob rule. While the Snyder cultists didn’t physically storm the Capitol, they did storm the studio demanding their prophet the chance to spew his unabridged sermon. Now, they’re toxically flooding social media demanding a “restoration of the Snyderverse.” You can’t make this shit up.

12*. JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (2019)

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“I think we’re living in a world that in fifty years we’re not going to recognize, because now we produce real objects. But with augmented reality… we’re going to transform the world.” -Miguel Llansó

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Miguel Llansó

FEATURING: Daniel Tadesse, Guillermo Llansó, Gerda-Annette Allikas, Solomon Tashe,  Lauri Lagle

PLOT: Agents D.T. Gagano and Palmer Eldritch must enter the CIA-created alternate reality, “PsychoBook”, in order to investigate a sentient computer virus, Soviet Union. Abandoned within the virtual reality, Gagano finds himself in _Beta Ethiopia, where strongman/president/superhero-villain BatFro conspires with Soviet Union to distribute a VR byproduct known as “the substance.” Gagano’s reality-side fiancée, who hopes to open a kick-boxing academy, must now live with the prospect of him being trapped in a portable television display.

BACKGROUND:

  • An Estonian computer museum provided inspiration for the hardware aethestic in Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, but the machines on screen were mostly Apple products from the early 1990s.
  • Solomon Tashe,  who plays the African strongman dictator “Batfro,” , is a much-loved Ethiopian media personality.
  • The unusual name “Mister Sophistication” was lifted from John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. However, like other characters in Llansó’s films, he was based on a regular at the Club Juventus, a gathering spot in Addis Ababa for Italian ex-pats and other larger-than-life clientèle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Take your pick. Perhaps it’s stop-motion Richard Pryor and Robert Redford investigating a house infiltrated by a computer virus assassin. Perhaps it’s the “Jiminy Cricket” CIA AI spouting knee-high advice to Agents Gagano and Eldritch. And perhaps it’s the melodramatic conversation between a super-sweetie BBW kick-boxer and her television-bound lover. For the record, however, the official “Indelible Image” is cross-dressing super-spy, Captain Lagucci, sprinting off a roof to save a portable television. Much like Miguel Llansó, Lagucci just… runs with it.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coked-up Batfro to the rescue!; CIA Man trapped in a TV

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Llansó manages to make an “anything and everything” approach to imagery, symbolism, dialogue, and scenario gel into a unified whole. Obviously the plot for JSYtWttH is bonkers, and that’d be enough, but its mountain of antiquated tech, dizzying opening credits, vibrant colors, bug aliens, MIT conspiracizing, Cold War derring-do, and… You get the picture; just about everything in this movie makes it weird.

Trailer for Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

COMMENTS: “Loading. Please wait.” Not a typical beginning for a Continue reading 12*. JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (2019)