TV Good Sleep Bad #42: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Ulysses 31”

Elwood and Lackey bring you another no-singing, no-dancing TV Good Sleep Bad extravaganza! This month it’s the musical cult classic Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (it happens to be what Lackey’s girlfriend watches!) and the obscure French-Japanese animated series Ulysses 31.

TV Good Sleep Bad: Episode 23

TV Good Sleep Bad #23: “Community & Pee-wee’s Playhouse”

Hello! Our names are Elwood and Lackey! What’s yours? Welcome to our special twenty-third episode and third annual Christmas special, starring us! Elwood and Lackey! And Pterri! Conky! Globey! Floory! Cool Cat, Chicky Baby, and Dirty Dog! Chairy! The flowers! The fish! Clocky! Mr. Kite! Annette! Penny! Randy! Countess! Magic Screen! Say hello to Mr. Window! The Ants! The Dinosaur Family! Billy Baloney! Mycroft the Cat! And the food in the refrigerator! Also starring Cowboy Curtis! Miss Yvonne! Ricardo! Mrs. Rene! The King of Cartoons! Reba the Mail Lady! And Jambi! And our special special guest stars! Frankie Avalon! Charo! The Del Rubio Triplets! Annette Funicello! Whoopi Goldberg! Magic Johnson! Grace Jones! k.d. lang! Little Richard! Joan Rivers! Dinah Shore! Oprah Winfrey! And Princess Zsa Zsa! And extra special guests Joel McHale! Gillian Jacobs! Danny Pudi! Yvette Nicole Brown! Alison Brie! Donald Glover! Ken Jeong! Jim Rash! John Oliver! And Chevy Chase!

Pee-wee's Playhouse!

Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (season 2 episode 11, 2010): Abed believes that the world has become a stop-motion animated cartoon, and must seek out the true meaning of Christmas to return everything to normal. (Asterisk.)

Pee-wee’s Playhouse, “Christmas at Pee-wee’s Playhouse” (season 3 episode 3, 1988): Pee-wee ends up with more fruitcake than he bargained for when his friends come over for Christmas.

Next month: Danger 5 and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

TV Good Sleep Bad episode 22

TV Good Sleep Bad #22: “Daria & Eerie, Indiana”

On today’s episode of Sick Sad World! (Um, I mean TV Good Sleep Bad.)

Eerie, Indiana, “The ATM with the Heart of Gold” (episode 3, 1991): Simon befriends the town’s new AI-driven ATM, which dispenses money indiscriminately to help him become popular, resulting in a complete economic breakdown in Eerie.

Daria, “Anti-Social Climbers” (season 4 episode 2, 2000): Daria and Jane reluctantly participate in a camping field trip which takes a turn for the worse when they become stranded with no provisions in a blizzard.

Next month: Community and Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Part Three

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Offenders / Have a Nice Day

My third and final clump consisted of two World Cinema offerings: Offenders and Have a Nice Day.

Offenders

Offenders (Izgrednici)

Serbia. Directed by Dejan Zecevic. 107 minutes.

The CIFF program described Offenders as a “Serbian Pi” and certainly the film shares a few stylistic elements with Aronofsky’s début: the black-and-white presentation, the menacing EDM score, an academic discipline used as the basis for a thriller, the portrayal of an obsessed mind in free-fall. But Offenders is very much its own thing.

Using the classic video game Tetris as a metaphor for how ordered systems inevitably descend into chaos, a maverick sociology professor guides his three master’s candidates through a bizarre project: introduce chaotic elements into the Belgrade cityscape—a swastika spray-painted on a wall, bags of garbage deposited in a pedestrian tunnel—and observe the decay these elements incite. However, the arrival of the mythical “Statistanislav” triggers entropy in the experimenters as well as in the experiment.

It’s a fascinating study, but what made the film for me is its sharp monochrome cinematography, rendering Belgrade as a character unto itself, vivid as any human in the film. Great stuff, but then again, I could probably spend entire days watching footage of Cold War-era European architecture.

Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day (Hao ji le)

China. Directed by Jian Liu. 77 minutes.

A duffel bag containing one million yuan serves as the McGuffin in Have a Nice Day, a Chinese neo-noir in the Coen Brothers tradition: think Fargo, except animated, in Mandarin, and much shorter. The bag starts off stolen from a crime boss by one of his low-level couriers, who wants to use the money to pay for his girlfriend’s cosmetic surgery, and from there it makes its way through the usual assortment of fools, thugs, dreamers, or combinations thereof.

The plot drags a bit—I didn’t feel the story contained enough incident to justify its scant 77 minutes—and it never feels like there’s much going on under the surface (possibly the result of my ignorance of Chinese culture), but the characters entertain and engage and the animation, while not done in a style I much care for, fits the material well.

Overall I think there was a lot here that got lost in translation for me, but I still enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone who might think it’s their type of thing.

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: In the Fade / Mutafukaz / The Endless

My second “clump” of screenings included one World Cinema entry, In the Fade, and two After Dark offerings, Mutafukaz and The Endless.

Apropos of nothing, I can’t express how good it made me feel to walk up to the Advance Tickets counter at the theater and ask the festival volunteer to sell me a ticket to see Mutafukaz. Mutafukaz!

In the Fade

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Germany/France. Directed by Fatih Akin. 106 minutes.

Here in “Trump’s America,” we’re gradually coming to terms with the realization that the racist, neo-fascist element in our society has spread a lot wider than we wanted to believe. But white supremacist movements are certainly not confined to North America; German writer/director Fatih Akin’s latest effort, In the Fade (German title Aus dem Nichts, or “Out of Nowhere”), takes an unflinching look at the personal cost of racially-motivated domestic terrorism.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the film follows Katja, a German woman whose Turkish husband Nuri and five-year-old son Rocco die in a nail-bomb attack executed by a neo-Nazi couple, as she navigates the waters of grief while seeking justice from the German legal system. Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year for her performance. It’s not hard to see why. While the film delivers many fine performances (especially Denis Moschitto as Katja’s lawyer and Ulrich Tukur as the repentant father of one of the killers), Akin’s screenplay and direction focus squarely on Kruger. She takes the audience through the stages of grief and brings new meaning to phrases like “steely determination.”

In the Fade is a grim and tragic film from start to finish, and in its final moments (some light statistics on racist terrorism in mid-2000s Germany), acknowledges that the only way to get true justice for the Nuris and Roccos of the world is to prevent such acts of terrorism from occurring to begin with. Over here in America, we’re going to have to wrestle with that as well.

Mutafukas

Mutafukaz

France/Japan. Directed by Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume Renard. 90 minutes.

Based on the comics by Guillaume “Run” Renard—who also co-directed and wrote the screenplay—Mutafukaz mashes up anime, West Coast gangsta culture (as seen through a white Parisian’s eyes), Lovecraftian horror, the bande dessinée tradition, and I don’t know what else. Angelino (usually just “Lino”) and the flame-headed Vinz live in squalor in “Dark Meat City” (or maybe “Dead Meat City,” the film’s not entirely clear on that point), a thinly-veiled caricature of mid-’90s L.A. The two—along with their annoying associate Willy, a cowardly talking bat whom no one seems to like much—find themselves at the center of a bizarre alien invasion plot. Which, somehow, also involves a team of luchadores.

It’s overstuffed with ideas but it’s entertaining enough—usually. The action sequences and meta moments aren’t quite as impressive as Renard seems to believe they are. This English-language dub (which may have replaced a subtitled version at the last minute) suffers from bland dialog and awful voice performances. Most of the cast seems to have learned their accents from old Cheech and Chong skits; the main second-string villain sounds like a bad impersonation of a bad impersonation of Sylvester Stallone; even the nominally white characters say “cock-a-roaches.” And the film’s only significant female character—a parody of the stereotypical anime schoolgirl, complete with gratuitous upskirt shots—could have been removed from the plot entirely without much effect, never a good sign.

However, I doubt the target audience will see these as flaws. Mutafukaz could be the next classic animated midnight movie, its posters replacing Akira and Ghost in the Shell in dorm rooms across America.

The Endless

The Endless

United States. Directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. 112 minutes.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the team behind Resolution and Spring, are back with another excursion into cosmic horror and its effects on those who come into contact with the infinite. The Endless stars Moorhead and Benson themselves as a pair of brothers named (wait for it…) Aaron and Justin, who return to the “UFO death cult” they grew up in and escaped a decade earlier. They find that the truth about the cult is much, much weirder than they’d thought.

I have been critical of Moorhead and Benson in the past—Resolution maddened me and Spring, while much better, suffered from some typical indie-cinema issues—but The Endless delivers the goods. The pair understand that the power of cosmic horror comes not from the monster, but from how the monster distorts the world around it. This can be visual—a “freak atmospheric effect” is blamed for doubling the appearance of the moon in the sky—but it’s often psychological as well: think of the rising paranoia in Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Similarly, the brothers’ return to the cult forces them to confront some unpleasant truths about themselves and each other.

The pair use special effects sparingly and subtly, focusing chiefly on character and atmosphere. I was a bit dubious when I learned they play the lead roles, but they do well. The most memorable performance, however, comes from James Jordan as the perpetually angry Shitty Carl, who has perhaps the clearest grasp on what’s going on, and has suffered for it.

While it’s earned a good deal of festival-circuit buzz, it’s a bit early to tell whether The Endless will end up one of the “can’t-miss” horror films of 2017-18. It does share a reliance on atmosphere with It Comes at Night and (going back a couple years) The Witch, so hopefully it will reach those films’ audiences as well. At any rate, highly recommended.

Roger Waters: The Wall

Roger Waters stars in ROGER WATERS: THE WALL.

United Kingdom. Directed by Roger Waters and Sean Evans, 2014. 132 minutes.

Roger Waters, the famously megalomaniacal former bassist, songwriter, and creative generalissimo behind Pink Floyd, spent the early 2010s touring the world with The Wall, the Floyd’s 1979 magnum opus. Waters updated the legendary stage show (so complex and expensive in 1980 that the band could afford to perform it in only four cities) for a new generation. He added a renewed focus on the tragedy and injustice of war and the corruption of government and the media, the topics that have dominated his work over the last three decades. This wasn’t the work of an irrelevant classic-rock dinosaur milking his back catalog for a quick buck. Waters (for all his faults) has never lacked passion and fury, and the performances crackled with a vitality surprising for a sixty-something artist touring a thirty-year-old record. He even managed to get his former bandmates Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason to join him for a night.

You had to be there, as the saying goes, but if you weren’t—or if you were (like I was, in 2010, at the United Center in Chicago) and want to relive the memories—Roger Waters: The Wall is an acceptable substitute for the real thing. It doesn’t possess the artistry of the top rank of concert films (Stop Making Sense, for example), it does approximate the experience with a minimum of fuss. The politicking is heavy-handed even by Waters’s standards. And I’m not sure why Waters and co-director Sean Evans think we’d rather watch Rog sing “The Trial” instead of watching the film projected on the Wall behind him.

But the band is in top form (although, really, would it have killed anyone to include the performances with Gilmour and Mason in the film proper instead of relegating them to DVD special features?) and the show contains many fine moments: dancing schoolkids banishing a giant teacher puppet; Waters performing a duet with a recording of himself from a 1980 gig; the “fascist” song sequence that leads up to the story’s climax. And let’s not forget Gerald Scarfe’s animations, grotesquely psychedelic yet timeless. It won’t be the last time you watch some blinkered authority figure talk out of his anus, I guarantee you that.

But the most compelling footage doesn’t document the performances. Interspersed between the concert sequences are scenes of Waters taking a road trip across Europe to visit the gravesites of his father (who died in Italy during World War II) and grandfather (who died in France during World War I). Waters’s songwriting has always been haunted by his father’s death, a loss he has often mourned through bombast. The sight of the seventy-year-old rock star blowing the funereal notes of “Outside the Wall” at a memorial in Anzio could be the most powerful artistic expression of that grief, due to its intimacy.

And what could be more appropriate? After all, the central theme of The Wall is the importance of reaching out and connecting to others instead of living “comfortably numb” but isolated lives. One hopes that Roger Waters: The Wall represents one more brick removed from its creator’s wall.

Roger Waters: The Wall

TV Good Sleep Bad, episode 13: "Cyber City Oedo 808 & Danger Mouse"

TV Good Sleep Bad #13: “Cyber City Oedo 808 & Danger Mouse”

London, England*. And in a basement in moneyed Mayfair** lives the greatest guardian of cult television the world has ever known. Yes, Elwood Jones, the secret agent so secret that even his code name has a code name. And with his trusted assistant Daniel Lackey (code-named “The Jigsaw,” because whenever he’s faced with an episode of Buffy, he goes to pieces), he has delivered the thirteenth terrific episode of TV Good Sleep Bad!

* He actually doesn’t live in London.

** And if he did, he certainly wouldn’t live in Mayfair.

Special appearance by "that bloody duck."
Special appearance by “that bloody duck.”

In this episode, we discuss:

Cyber City Oedo 808 episode 1, “Memories of the Past” aka “Virtual Death” (1990): In the twenty-ninth century, three ruthless, hardened criminals are given the chance to reduce their sentences by taking on missions too dangerous for regular police. It’s up to these three antiheroes to save the 50,000 occupants of a massive skyscraper when the structure’s central computer puts the building on lockdown. But who’s controlling the computer?

Danger Mouse season 2 episode 6, “The Four Tasks of Danger Mouse” (1981): Baron Greenback kidnaps Penfold and issues an ultimatum to Danger Mouse: collect the ingredients for a powerful ritual the Baron wants to enact, or the hapless hamster gets it in the neck. But can even the world’s greatest secret agent claim a piece of the legendary Fog Monster of Old London town? And is television ready for a certain showbiz-obsessed vampire duck?

Next month: Bottom and Kindred: The Embraced.

Best English-Language Feature

Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up

Ah, Fantastic Fest! It’s kind of like a comic-book convention, except with Elijah Wood instead of cosplayers, and there’s always some guy right in front of you in the line to the men’s room singing “we are the flesh” to the tune of “We Want the Funk”. (That would be me.) The Critics’ Code requires an end-of-festival writeup, including a complete list of films ranked by personal preference. In that spirit, I bring you this:

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up”