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Review: Napoleon Dynamite: Season One

Why make cartoon characters out of a cast whose greatest comedic virtue is their natural ability to appear cartoonish?

1.0

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Napoleon Dynamite: Season One

One could be forgiven for thinking that the film Napoleon Dynamite, though released in 2004, was actually made in the ‘80s. There’s the film’s aesthetic, of course, which seemed culled from some woebegone strip mall of that era, but there’s also the sense that the film has always been a part of our cultural landscape, like Abraham Lincoln or Lassie. The characters and the swamp of irony/anti-irony that they inhabited felt instantly iconic and soon enough, they were omnipresent, their faces staring lifelessly out at us from dolls, postcards, and shot glasses. Very quickly, they were a kind of code for the hipster’s eternal battle between sarcasm and sincerity. Jared and Jerusha Hess, who as a team wrote and directed Napoleon Dynamite, had managed to flatten magical realism into a kind of dork surrealism, creating a film that was the antithesis of, say, Amélie.

This is all to say that Napoleon Dynamite achieved a cultural penetration that we still can’t escape. The latest evidence is Fox’s new animated series, Napoleon Dynamite, produced by the Hesses and featuring the original cast voicing the very same characters from the movie. Which raises the question: Why make cartoon characters out of a cast whose greatest comedic virtue is their natural ability to appear cartoonish? The very idea seems like degradation, like watching a pixilated avatar of Roger Federer playing tennis. Listening to Jon Heder’s idiosyncratic voice—indignant, over-confident, and breathless—emanating from an animated character is like being forced to watch an animated version of Celebrity Rehab. On the other hand, now the creative team behind the enterprise can give full range to their imaginations, embellishing brilliantly on a movie that was the stylistic progenitor of a bunch of awesome Skittles ads.

Following the template of every animated Fox show, Napoleon Dynamite is laden with cultural allusions for a savvy audience used to devouring pop culture. It’s one of those insider situations where the pleasure comes from recognizing what the joke references rather than in the joke itself. The monkeyshines come fast and furious, designed as sight gags and one-liners for an audience that’s likely drifting in and out, not fully committed to an entire half-hour episode. Not surprisingly, no new comedic ground is carved out in either of the first two episodes. Acne cream transforms Napoleon into a fierce warrior in one, while a computer program sets up students with their perfect romantic match in another. It’s not that these ideas are bad or even poorly written; it’s just that it’s well-trod ground.

The film embodied style over substance. How things were expressed was more important than what was expressed, and in rebooting the characters for the TV show, they’re simply delivering old material. The catchphrases that captured our imagination nearly 10 years ago now have as much comedic snap as hearing somebody shout, “Who let the dogs out?” or “Where’s the beef?”

The characters are readymade jokes unto themselves, and the plots unfolding around them seem like little more than scenes found on the film’s cutting room floor. The show seems more worthy of a Saturday-morning slot, where it has the chance of appealing to a child’s delight in the pointlessly absurd, rather than on Sunday night where appetites are a little meatier.

Cast: Jon Heder, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Sandy Martin, Jon Gries, Diedrich Bade Airtime: Fox, Sunday @ 8:30 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: Amazon’s Hanna Quickly Exhausts the Novelty of Its Premise

The series fails to uphold, subvert, or otherwise comment on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

1.5

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Hanna
Photo: Amazon Prime

Like the 2011 film upon which it’s based, Amazon’s Hanna follows the eponymous teen (Esme Creed-Miles) as she embarks on a revenge mission against a shadowy spy agency. The series milks visceral thrills from Hanna’s fight skills as she kicks, punches, shoots, and kills burly adult men. But where Joe Wright’s film was distinguished by its thumping Chemical Brothers score, bluntly filmed and brutal action scenes, and strikingly lensed locations, the series neither carves a unique path for itself nor upholds, subverts, or otherwise comments on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

After an opening sequence that sees Hanna’s parents fleeing for their lives from the spy agency, the series flashes forward to regard Hanna training with her ex-military father, Erik (Joel Kinnaman), in the woods where they live in solitude. When the duo is eventually forced to flee their safe haven, Erik reveals to Hanna that he’s actually been preparing her to hunt and kill a villainous C.I.A. agent named Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos). While Marissa is shown in flashback to be nefariously connected to Hanna’s childhood, Erik tells Hanna nothing else about her target. Consequently, the central mystery of Hanna’s origin, and Marissa’s role in it, is predicated on the secrets that Erik keeps from her for reasons that are never made clear.

Every episode of the series more or less follows the same format, as slow-burning cloak-and-dagger spy games eventually yield a few more revelations about Hanna’s past before leading to an eruptive and often incoherently filmed climax. The season’s middle stretch is particularly dull, as Erik and Hanna’s first attempt to kill Marissa goes awry and the teen finds herself stranded with a vacationing English family. Hanna attempts to use the relationship which emerges between Hanna and the family’s daughter, Sophie (Rhianne Barreto), to yoke a violent revenge plot to a coming-of-age teenage drama—which doesn’t work, chiefly because it’s impossible to understand why the otherwise unremarkable Sophie would be suddenly obsessed with Hanna, who’s nearly feral and prone to extreme violence.

Of course, Sophie’s fascination with her new friend is mysterious in part because Hanna herself is purposefully difficult to know, with Creed-Miles uses her open face and wide eyes to portray Hanna with a faraway look and a curious intelligence. The girl is inscrutable by Erik’s design, but less understandable is why the adults in the series, particularly Marissa, are similarly vague. Throughout, Hanna goes to great lengths to make its villain, who’s shown committing heinous acts, more sympathetic to the viewer. Certain plot twists suggest that Marissa may be ready to deal with her guilt over the nature of Hanna’s being, yet Enos’s severe, unsmiling performance and the season’s hectic third act go a long way toward muddying our sense of whatever change of heart the woman may be experiencing.

This muddled depiction of Marissa’s ostensible moral transformation, along with the introduction of a cabal of more menacing villains operating alongside her, rob the season finale of catharsis—which is about the only quality otherwise still preserved in the vicious retributions doled out by Hanna. Just as the series struggles to define Marissa’s motivations, it doesn’t hint at what might eventually happen to the rest her shadowy organization. The season’s conclusion asks as many questions as it answers, appearing to exist only so that Hanna may sustain itself, offering more henchman bones for Hanna to snap without wondering whether the character should, or even wants to, keep snapping them.

Cast: Esme Creed-Miles, Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Khalid Abdalla, Rhianne Barreto, Benno Fürmann, Sam C. Wilson, Félicien Juttner Airtime: Amazon Prime

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Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAcftIUE6MQ

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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Review: What We Do in the Shadows Struggles to Carve Out Its Own Identity

The series struggles to find a distinct voice that isn’t beholden to the original film.

2.5

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What We Do in the Shadows
Photo: Byron Cohen/FX

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows seems like a natural fit for episodic television. The film was somewhat episodic itself, less an ongoing story than loosely arranged chapters of modern vampire life: going out on the town, having virgins over for dinner, dealing with the cops when there are bodies in the basement. For their FX adaptation, Clement and Waititi mostly succeed in translating the film’s comedy into half-hour chunks, albeit sometimes to a fault, as frequent echoes of the film leave the series feeling like it’s still in search of its own identity.

Both the characters and the New York setting of the series are new here, but the setup is the same, with a documentary crew filming the lives of a group of vampire roommates. All of the vampires are hopelessly behind the times, their shared house a dimly lit den adorned with antique furniture, old-timey portraits, and clothing that’s centuries out of fashion. Though the vampires still maintain the otherworldly allure that guides mortals to their demise, vampirism’s sheer flamboyance hardly meshes with the most banal facets of the present day: The local supermarket doesn’t take ancient coins, and one junior member of the Staten Island Borough Council can’t quite hack it as a vampire’s doom-saying herald.

It’s familiar material to be sure, but going back to the film’s bloody well still yields plenty of goofy, memorable personas. Matt Berry’s commanding presence as Laszlo sells the vampire’s oblivious pomposity when he insists on wearing a cursed hat or says something like, “You are a credit to the women’s suffragette movement.” Human servant Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) carries out his grim work with an excitable verve, insisting, “I’m not a killer. I find people who are easy to kill.” At its worst, though, that same familiarity leaves some scenes feeling like they were lifted from the film’s outtakes reel. Certain traits of the film’s characters seem to have been divided among Laszlo, Nandor (Kayvan Novak), and Guillermo, which can lead to the actors seeming to outright channel Waititi and Clement’s performances.

The acerbic Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) adds a more observant dynamic to the general buffoonery of her housemates even as she’s still prone to similar moments of profound silliness, like stalking someone with an old camera that uses a vintage flashbulb. Elsewhere, Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) emerges as the show’s most memorable creation: a caricature of a milquetoast, nasally desk jockey who’s revealed to be a day-walking psychic energy vampire. Colin, a sentient mound of dull khakis and sweaters, roams the cubicles of his day job, absorbing people’s boredom and irritation, which he amplifies with mind-numbing small talk. When he feeds, his eyes glow and his mouth gapes in an orgasmic snarl that would be frightening if it weren’t hilariously juxtaposed with Colin’s unassuming appearance.

The vampires’ goal is to conquer the “new world” of the United States (or maybe just Staten Island), which opens comic possibilities like a meeting at the aforementioned city council. There are other bits of continuity between episodes, like LARPing enthusiast Jenna’s (Beanie Feldstein) ongoing transformation into a vampire after Nadja took pity on her, but the series isn’t burdened by a serialized plot. For one, the third episode covers a werewolf feud totally unrelated to the group’s fumbling attempts at conquest of America.

Even with such departures, however, these episodes can struggle to find a distinct voice that isn’t beholden to the film. The series certainly offers some amusing additions to this occult universe, but the comedic value of its more familiar material has begun to diminish now that the concept must sustain not only a feature-length movie, but multiple episodes of television.

Cast: Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch, Beanie Feldstein Airtime: FX, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.

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