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On DVD: “4,” Lubitsch in Berlin

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “4,” Red Envelope/Genius]

Chances are, you never got a chance to see first-timer Ilya Khrjanovsky’s film “4” when it was ever so briefly, ever so tentatively “released” earlier this year in a handful of cities for a single week, and to a largely dumbfounded critical community. It’s difficult to blame the tabloid reviewers for being clueless — this is a raging, unsettling, rule-incinerating monster of a movie, treating the rules of orthodox narrative like toilet paper and engaging in irreverent structuralist hijinks that’d be hilarious if in fact the film wasn’t chilling to the bone. The screenplay is by notorious avant-garde novelist Vladimir Sorokin, who has been attacked and censored in Russia by neo-nationalist groups looking to suppress “dangerous” culture. Even “dangerous” isn’t too strong a word for “4,” which begins with the static shot of a nightened street where four very tense dogs are sitting, when from outside of the frame, giant hydraulic demolition hammers — four of them — attack the asphalt and send the dogs fleeing. The dogs, in fact, never stop wandering for the rest of the film.

But then we cut to an after-hours bar in which a hooker, a meat wholesaler and a skinhead piano tuner meet (the film does have the structure of a prolonged joke) and proceed to spin fabulous lies to each other; one extraordinary thread involves cloning. But who’s lying? At home, the hooker gets a cryptic message and embarks for the post-Soviet frontier, back to a prehistoric village where dolls are made of chewed bread, pagan burial chaos still reigns and only two of the hooker’s three identical sisters are still alive.

And so friggin’ on. Only 30 during filming, Khrjanovsky is fearless in his devotion to ridiculous ambiguity, possibly meaningless metaphor and long, breath-holding takes. However berserk and bedeviling it might seem on first viewing, “4” has a way of implanting itself in your reptile brain and haunting your daydreams for months afterward. I’ll go out on another limb: if you don’t face up to the film’s quadripartite patterns, betraying subnarratives, drunken techno-dread and derelict Russian wastelands, you have little idea what world cinema is up to lately.

Flashback to Weimar Republic-era Germany, where everyone was nursing the monumental losing-side wounds of WWI and soused with joy over its ending, and where Ernst Lubitsch, future Hollywood studio manager and master-director of American screwball comedies, strode from German theater into the light of world cinema. The new Kino set “Lubitsch in Berlin” contains five films on four discs, each as beautifully designed and wittily executed as the next. This is what comedy looked like during the era of German Expressionism — positively Burtonesque (split the difference between “Beetlejuice” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), satiric of Art Deco and teeming with startling compositions, none of which ever impedes on the yucks. The famous Lubitsch “touch” hits you in the eye in the best films, which are acted with a distinctly unsilent eloquence, and which may be the funniest silent movies made anywhere without a central clown-star to carry them.

“The Oyster Princess” (1919) — a year before “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” — and “The Wildcat” (1921) are masterful home runs, each set in a slightly off Ruritanian nowhere and each bristling with screwball nuance and sex-farce outrageousness. (Lubitsch always made movies for grown-ups.) The former, a rip on both nouveau riche Americans and Old World royalty, features what must be the greatest musical-comedy number in the history of silents. The latter is set in a militaristically absurd frontier fort beset by a girl-magnet playboy lieutenant (the impossibly deft Paul Heidemann) and a marauding band of bandits led by a wild-haired Pola Negri. “I Don’t Want to be a Man” (1920) is a contemporary cross-dresser in which a pissed-off teen (Ossi Oswalda, zaftig queen of Weimar burlesque) puts on a tux and experiences the world as a man. The remaining two films, both made in 1920, are ostensibly serious, though epic and silk-smooth: “Sumurun” is an Arabian-harem dramedy in which Negri plays a renegade sex slave and Expressionist icon Paul Wegener is the seedy old sheikh, while “Anna Boleyn” is a straight-out, big-budget historic tragedy that gives Emil Jannings the destiny-designated opportunity to portray Henry VIII. They may have been the most fecund two-plus years of his career, but in 1922, Lubitsch went to California, and never looked back.

“4” (Red Envelope/Genius) will be available on DVD on December 12th; “Lubitsch in Berlin” (Kino) became available on DVD on December 5th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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