Binge-r #124: Russian Doll + Velvet Buzzsaw
RUSSIAN DOLL S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All eight episodes streaming tonight
A wild metaphysical comedy that makes the chaos heartfelt, Russian Doll opens with the 36th birthday party of Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), a sardonic freelance coder whose evening involves a questionable joint, picking up a sleazy academic, and then being killed in a pedestrian accident. When she finds herself back in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment a few hours prior, ready to venture into the party once more, the take no prisoners New Yorker is bemused. “Do you know when menopause starts?” Nadia asks a partygoer, and that seam of droll, self-deprecating enquiry runs deep through this delicious universal snafu, where staying alive is subordinate to figuring out what the point of your life might actually be.
A bracing, binge-worthy eight 25 minute episodes, the series was created by Lyonne – a perpetual supporting player finally getting the lead role her talents deserve – filmmaker Leslye Headland (Sleeping with Other People), and actor/producer Amy Poehler. The female troika shape the show in manifest ways – usually a Groundhog Day scenario makes for urgent science-fiction complete with rules and a race to escape inexplicable confines, but Nadia goes with the flow, projecting theories and testing the boundaries while refusing to be overly burdened even after a deathly slapstick sequence involving stairs. “It’s been a while,” her married ex-boyfriend, John (Yul Vazquez), declares after they once again meet at the party. “I guess for you it has,” Nadia deadpans in reply.
The deaths are never dwelled on, but with acerbic banter – amplified by Lyonne’s fragrantly raspy voice – and back and forth revelations the parameters of Nadia’s life are opened up; the real struggle here for Nadia is not understanding the situation but dealing with what it reveals about herself through conversations with acquaintances and friends. Nadia refuses to believe she is crazy, which connects to her memories of her late mother and her own surprise at making it to 36, and a subsequent episode reveals a fellow traveller who she has to school on the failings of moral absolutism.
Like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, another downtown New York journey through a loopy night, the show is a low-key thriller, a comic philosophical quandary, and a romantic comedy satire – every genre that it alights upon it twists into an ingenious but still recognisable form. Existential dilemmas and the consolation of grief bubble to the surface, tied together with terrific technique. The die and start anew format might suggest a video game, but Russian Doll is clearly the first essential new streaming series of 2019.
NEWLY ADDED MOVIES
Velvet Buzzsaw (Netflix, 2019, 112 minutes): In this unequal but entertaining splatter of high-end trash, the satire of the luxury art scene works better than the horror film where its participants are bloodily killed. Writer-director Dan Gilroy, who made such an unnerving impact with 2014’s Nightcrawler (also on Netflix), gives his horrid Los Angeles denizens vicious jibes and appalling privilege: “I further the realm I analyse,” declares Jake Gyllenhaal’s make or break critic, Morf Vanderwalt, while Rene Russo’s punk rocker turned predatory dealer, Rhodora Haze, strokes and suborns the talent. When Rhodora’s desperate underling and Morf’s side-piece, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), purloins a trove of outsider art from a dead neighbour that becomes an international sensation, the money flows before the possessed artwork starts to take revenge on those who profited from it. Gilroy isn’t a particularly inventive horror filmmaker, with simple frights instead of sustained terror and a kill list that takes out the supporting cast first, but he skewers the rapacious art world with ease. You’ll end up cheering on the possessed paintings.
New on Netflix: Cynical enough about the American legal system to be entertaining, The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, 113 minutes) was the first step in Matthew McConaughey’s comeback, playing an L.A. lawyer defending a wealthy accused murderer; Dumplin’ (2018, 118 minutes) is a slight but enjoyable Texan pageant coming of age tale, with Jennifer Aniston as the demanding mother to Danielle Macdonald’s determined daughter.
New on SBS on Demand: A skewered retelling of American frontier life, Slow West (2015, 111 minutes) mixes savagery and longing in the story of a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) pursuing his love and the bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) he falls in with; Tony Ayres’ Cut Snake (2014, 94 minutes) is a 1970s crime drama about uneasy masculinity where a former prison inmate (Alex Russell) is visited by his cellmate (Sullivan Stapleton).
New on Stan: The fascinating documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017, 89 minutes) reveals a golden era Hollywood star who never got the recognition she deserved for wartime inventions that paved the way for today’s digital world; As a cowhand who can’t embrace his sexuality, Heath Ledger remains heartbreaking in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005, 129 minutes) alongside Michelle Williams and Jake Gyllenhaal.
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