PLOT: Guillermo del Toro curates eight short tales of supernatural horror, mostly from young directors.
COMMENTS: At the start of each episode, Guillermo del Toro waddles in from a pool of darkness and stands before his prop cabinet, pulling out a small item relevant to the plot of the upcoming feature and a figurine representing the episode’s director. In heavily-accented, hard-to-understand English, he chokes out a few stiff sentences about the story. Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock he is not; but fortunately, del Toro proves a much better curator than host.
Other than the esteemed Vincenzo Natali, del Toro and the producers choose mostly up-and-comers to script and direct the eight episodes. Although perhaps it shouldn’t, given del Toro’s Hollwyood pull, it comes as a small surprise that these short features are largely acting showcases. The series standout is Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham as a clever but understandably-weary coroner in “The Autopsy.” Tim Blake Nelson, lending an earthy believability and even a little sympathy to his bitter xenophobic caricature in “Lot 36,” is also worth a mention, while “The Outside” is entirely built around Kate Miccuci’s nerdy-but-secretly-sexy persona. Essie Davis, as a bereaved ornithologist, also carries “The Murmuring,” Jennifer Kent’s marital-drama-cum-ghost-story. Then, there are a couple of cameos to appeal to cult movie fans: Crispin Glover in “Pickman’s Model” and Peter Weller in “The Viewing.” The relative star power on display here lends respectability and brings in viewers from outside horror fandom: mainstream critics were particularly drawn to the “The Murmuring”‘s realistic depiction of a husband and wife tiptoeing around their issues while burying themselves in their studies of bird-flocking behaviors on a Bergmanesque island.
When we first saw the names attached to direct, we were salivating over the inclusion of Ana Lily Amirpour and (especially) Panos Cosmatos (as well as the prospect of Crispin Glover in an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation). Those two directors do deliver both weirdness and quality, but the other episodes are all worth watching. Even the least of them have something to offer, usually in the acting department. The Glover episode is “Pickman’s Muse.” As previously mentioned, it’s a Lovecraft adaptation of the “man is driven mad by peering into the Beyond” variety that is eerie and atmospheric, but Continue reading CHANNEL 366: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (2022)→
FEATURING: Voices of Kanata Aikawa, Tomori Kusunoki, Shuka Saitō, Hinaki Yano, Yūya Uchida, Hiroki Takahashi; Mikaela Krantz, Dawn M. Bennett, Anairis Quiñones, Michelle Rojas, Brendan Blaber, Ian Sinclair (English dub)
PLOT: Four teenage girls buy eggs from mannequins in hopes of bringing suicides back to life.
COMMENTS: Episode 1 (“The Domain of Children”) is a promising start. We meet Ai Ohto, a hikikomori heroine with heterochromia, already inside of a dream. Following a brief orientation in Ai’s waking reality (a hermit existence with only her mother and a visiting teacher to relieve the self-imposed loneliness), we go into the following night’s dream, which brings schoolgirls with blurred faces, a talking toilet paper roll, grinning eyeless balls called “see-no-evils” (who will be recurring adversaries), a flashback inside the dream, a crying statue, and a resurrected firefly who offers Ai an egg that contains, he claims, the thing she really wants—a friend. It ends with the firefly revealed to be, in reality, a crash-test-dummy mannequin in a tuxedo who hangs out, along with a more casual mannequin wearing his baseball cap backwards, in a garden where the two sell teenage girls Wonder Eggs out of a vending machine. Each egg leads into a dream where the buyer must save a former female suicide from a metaphorical monster; succeed in enough of these missions, it’s hinted, and Ai will get her dead friend back.
Thrown into this scenario, the introduction is charmingly disorienting, although enough clues are supplied that, by episode 2, the outlines of the plot are comprehensible (aside from the overriding issue of how and why this oddly conceived suicide egg economy exists in the first place.) The series then falls into a “monster of the week” groove; in the second episode, Ai fights a demonic coach to save a gymnast worked into suicide, and in each of the next four installments a new Wonder Egg devotee comes on board, until we have a girl gang of four dream warriors. Each of the characters has a distinctive design and a nice character hook: Neiru is an pretty but emotionally-stunted girl genius, Rika is a peppy and mischievous former junior idol, and Momoe is an androgynous outcast. The missions the girls go on allow the creators to address an array of topics of interest to the target audience: bullying, unrealistic expectations, self-acceptance, molestation, gender identification, obsessive fandom, and, most prominently, suicide. In between battles, the girls bond, and a couple of subplots—Ai’s teacher and his relationships to much of the female cast, hints of Neiru’s backstory—start developing. A few new elements are also added, Continue reading CHANNEL 366: WONDER EGG PRIORITY (2021)→
PLOT: Captured by a human magician, the entity Dream escapes after a century and sets about reclaiming his tools to rebuild his realm.
COMMENTS: This Sandman is no “candy-colored clown.” Dream is more of a contemplative type, deathly pale, darkly haired, and pursed-lipped. But then, when we meet him, he has considerable reason to be. Roderick Burgess, dark sorcerer extraordinaire, has captured the ruler of the dream lands, and, with his son taking over the guardianship upon the wizard’s passing, kept him incarcerated for a century. So begins Netflix’s chronicle of “The Sandman,” an effects-filled, symbol-heavy, and, yes, dreamy vision of Neil Gaiman‘s much beloved comic book series.
Dream is one of seven godlike entities collectively known as “the Endless,” and his realm (“the Dreaming”) is laid out in full splendor as we travel through it while he softly narrates the introduction. Tom Sturridge’s performance as Dream is well up to the task (even accounting for his excessive habit of pursing his lips). The first episode chronicles his capture, hinting at the world’s characters as we observe the Dream trapped in a glass-and-steel orb nestled within a summoning circle. There is a sad twist from the get-go, for we learn that it was not this particular Endless that Burgess was after—he intended to capture Death, to bargain with her to return his dead son.
Kirby Howell-Baptiste, as the friendliest Death this side of the divide, and Gwendoline Christie, as a prim-and-proper-and-not-ever-to-be-crossed Lucifer, shine in their roles. Dream’s early encounter with Lucifer in Hell hints of some nastiness to come (in season two, presumably). You see, having escaped his cage, Dream is weakened not only by the long-separation from his realm, but also from the loss of his regalia: a bag of sand which allows him to travel the dream world (as well as summon it); a helm, which allows him to travel freely through the waking world; and most importantly, a ruby amulet which allows him to craft dreams—and destroy them.
The fifth episode is the best. I give nothing away by telling you that Dream does collect his accessories, and it is in the pursuit of the final element—the ruby—that “The Sandman” experiences its strangest turn. Set almost entirely within a diner, the episode explores one man’s dream of a better world: a world in which lies cannot exist. The antagonist, and the man with this dream, is one John Dee (David Thewliss, providing the best performance of the series), the civilly unhinged son of the woman who stole Dream’s gear from Burgess all Continue reading CHANNEL 366: THE SANDMAN (2022)→
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.
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.
PLOT: Picking up where Season 1 left off, Alma continues to investigate the past, uncovering more family secrets as she travels through time.
COMMENTS: When we last saw Alma, she was sitting in front of an Aztec ruin in Mexico, waiting to see if her dead father was going to walk out of a cave. If he doesn’t emerge at dawn, it likely means she’s schizophrenic.
We can’t tell you if Jacob walks out of that cave, but we can say that in Season 2 Alma will go on more adventures through time, exploring other family secrets, and that this season forefronts a couple of characters—sister Becca and mother Camila—who played supporting roles in the previous series. We’ll also meet other members of the extended clan, both ancestors and newcomers, as Alma and Becca travel back further into the family’s past to uncover generational scandals and traumas.
Season 1 relied, to a large extent, on the ambiguity of whether Alma was going insane, hallucinating from a coma, or whether her dead father really was teaching her to harness the mystical powers hiding in her ancient Aztec blood in order to travel through time and create a new timeline where he survived his car crash. With that arc completed and that ambiguity no longer sustainable, it’s inevitable that some tension drains out of the series. Furthermore, Alma shares the spotlight this go-around, and the confused bursts of anger and sarcasm that made her character so endearing are greatly missed. (Here, she is too often relegated to playing the role of motivational speaker, trying to convince others to go along with her bold schemes.) Season 2 largely replaces that reality-or-insanity dynamic with a traditional mystery structure—with the twist that the investigation requires slippery, loosely defined time travel powers and confrontations with metaphors (an “unopenable” door is a key symbol). The demands of the narrative make a refocus necessary, but although Season 2 is less mysterious than the original, returning writers/creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg keep us invested as the saga takes a slight shift into melodrama and ancestral mystery. Returning animator/director Hisko Hulsing assures that the visuals keep up the high and distinctive standard set by Season 1, with the rotoscoped actors remaining oh-so-slightly uncanny even when washing dishes or plinking out a tune on the piano. And he conjures up more than a few trippy landscapes, with lots of fog-shrouded temporal voids and one impressive M.C. Escher inspired psychescape.
“Undone, Season 2” successfully solves its central problem of revisiting a scenario that, frankly, seemed perfectly whole in its original eight episode run. This story could easily have been refashioned into an independent project, but it is richer for continuing with the characters we’ve grown attached to (even if the most popular ones sometimes get shuffled to the background here). It’s not the revelation Season 1 was, but it does have more than enough magic, old and new, to make it worth a visit. It helps that the efficient eight episodes, barely exceeding 20 minutes each, make for a highly bingeable package. And fans need not fear: the second season’s ending leaves no doubt as to the creators’ intent to continue the story. The final episode is one long setup for a new plotline, one that has the bonus of returning star Rosa Salazar front and center.
FEATURING: Voices of Tom Larson, Charis Michelsen, Richard Spore
PLOT: Mid-orgasm, two birds crash into Grant’s satellite receiver, whose redirected beam gives him super powers.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: When the line, “Have you ever tried to tell a 50-ton tank to stop having sex?” makes perfect sense in context, it stands to reason the surrounding film is peculiar. Plympton’s surrealist animated comedy is fit to burst with caterpillar daydreams, organ juggling, and boobs big enough to fill the house.
COMMENTS: The word “strange” is right in the title, along with an appropriate exclamation mark. The film opens with a bit of duck sex, replete with tongue-chomping, teeth-shattering lust (literally, figuratively speaking). And as a flight-of-fantasy indictment of network television’s pervasive malignancy, it’s somewhat ironic that the hero—Grant, the “strange person” of the title—received his phenomenal powers from that very danger. But perhaps it’s not ironic so much as appropriate. If this movie is at all suggestive of Bill Plympton’s views, he finds the human mind far more nonsensical than any invention yet made manifest.
On the topic of manifesting, that is just the power our hero develops. After the amorous anatidaean opener, we meet Grant, an accountant (or something) with the squarest jaw and doublest chin this side of Hollywood’s heroic age. With a pulsating boil on the back of his neck, his day-dreamy outlook changes his reality: the insects his mother-in-law fears appear from her clothes and swarm into her mouth; his chirpy, lawn-mowing neighbor ends up pursued by a giant, psychotic blade of grass with a vendetta; and mid-coitus his wife’s boobs grow to ginormous size, crashing through rooms and smashing through windows. All this does not go unnoticed, neither by the witnesses of his visions-made-real, nor by SmileCorp studio’s Machiavellian overlord, Larson P. Giles.
But back to the sex. It is with a modicum of surprise that I found this film to be R-rated. Granted, it’s animation: a medium in which one can get away with a lot more than any live action equivalent. Bodily explosions, a man hog-tied with another’s intestines, and so on: these are kinds of things that could not get a live action theatrical release, R-rated or otherwise. And there are plenty of “these kinds of things” in Strange Person. In one long-form example, Grant’s friend Solly, a comedian on the cusp of failure, saves his act through sheer force of showmanship by self-dismantling in front of a live studio audience.
But back to the sex. I have seen few non-pornographic films with more sex than I found in I Married a Strange Person! That is not to say any of it was erotic. Plympton’s style doesn’t bend that way; instead, it bends as far away as possible from mundane concerns—like sex. It’s there, but presented on the very edges of acceptable taste (much less “good taste”, a concept decried in an opening quotation from Picasso), smashing like a pastel hammer into the viewer’s consciousness. What truly tips the scale, with weirdo-violent aplomb, is the film’s sweetness. The musical interludes (“Would You Love Me If…?” and “How’d You Get So Cute?” among them) and the overarching theme of love and forgiveness add a saccharine spike of whimsy to the absurd and violent reverie. Rest assured, I Married a Strange Person! ends on a happy note… of sex.
DIRECTED BY: Alice Mathias, Akiva Schaffer, Zach Kanin, Mike Diva, Zachary Johnson, Jeffrey Max
FEATURING: Tim Robinson
PLOT: A series of characters confront a world that does not welcome their honesty, bluntness, or failure to comprehend simple-yet-unspoken rules of social interaction.
COMMENTS: It’s hard to imagine a sketch show opening with a more fully realized statement of purpose than the one that kicks off Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s smorgasbord of cringe comedy. Having completed what looks to be a successful job interview in a coffee shop, a man makes his exit. However, he mistakenly pulls on a door which clearly swings out. Desperate to save face, he continues to pull, in the face of gentle correction from his interviewer and the increasing stress and strain from the effort. Ultimately, the fear of humiliation gives him the strength to break the door’s hinges, forcing it to swing inward. It’s a huge relief. Anything, anything to not be wrong.
That combination of aggressive awkwardness and interpersonal incompetence struck a nerve. Season 1 of “I Think You Should Leave,” in particular, proved to be a goldmine for viral jokes, especially in an age when our leaders seemed similarly inclined to do whatever damage was necessary in order to not be thought a fool. Meme-able highlights include a woman who fails to comprehend the subtleties of Instagram snark, a dabbing old man who derails a car focus group with absurd complaints, and a man in a hot dog costume who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the wreck of his encased-meat mobile. Combined with the binge-friendly 15-minute running time of each episode, Season 2 was almost certainly inevitable.
That season has arrived, and fans of the first set of episodes will be pleased to know that Robinson’s taste for the ridiculous and the bizarre has not abated. If anything, he’s doubled-down on the bad behaviors and convention-flouting characters that made an initial splash. To be sure, some formulas are repeated: a spot urging cable viewers to demand they carry a channel devoted primarily to a funeral blooper show evokes an earlier commercial for a personal injury law firm with a very specific area of expertise. A shirt with a built-in tugging rope pairs nicely with a new garment that sells for upwards of $2,000 based entirely on its garish and increasingly complex patterns. Robinson’s fellow Detroiter Sam Richardson even returns in a new twist on his “Baby of the Year” appearance, this time hosting a misguided corporate entertainment that invites executives at a management retreat to pick the champion “Little Buff Boy” from a selection of preening pre-teen boys in muscle suits.
But new twists abound, frequently revolving around men who have reached the limits of their ability to cope with a world they don’t understand. A video explaining ear-piercing to young girls is mashed-up with a gruff old man’s lifelong regrets. A diner customer seizes on a white lie as a chance to fictionalize a life where he collects multiple versions of the same car. A devoted husband is wrecked by the betrayal of joining in his friends’ sexist jokes about their wives. Robinson himself is overcome with ennui immediately upon donning ill-fitting old makeup for a prank show. If most of the show’s characters are scorned for their refusal to follow social convention, the ones who play by the rules don’t seem any happier.
The essential elements of “I Think You Should Leave” are all in place: People behave awfully, and then blame others. They flout the rules of convention, and then forcefully reject society’s disapproval by championing themselves as bastions of freedom and justice. How dare you ask Santa Claus about his holiday gig when he’s here to promote his new action-revenge thriller? Where do you get off firing a man just because he tries to eat a hot dog hidden away in his sleeve, denies doing so, and then chokes on the link and throws up on a co-worker’s luggage? Doesn’t the recipient of a multi-million dollar personal injury award deserve a place as one of the rough-and-tumble investors on a “Shark Tank”-style show as much as some by-their bootstraps entrepreneur? Even a child’s doll lies to deflect shame. “I Think You Should Leave”’s characters are consistently awful at the job of being decent human beings, and they absolutely blame you.
Nothing may typify Robinson’s comedy more than a sketch about a haunted house tour in which the guide unwittingly trumpets the adults-only hour and encourages the guests to “say whatever you want.” Robinson’s tourist, taking the instruction literally, seizes the opportunity to bellow off-color (and seemingly unrelated) references to horse anatomy. But while the joke may end there, the sketch continues as Robinson tries with increasing despair to get it right. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, he is booted from the tour, and he leaves to the tune of a sad piano, utterly perplexed at his fate. The show’s title may reflect to message we convey to those who don’t fit in, but Robinson offers pity to all those rejects, no matter how much carnage they leave in their wake.
“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” streams on Netflix.