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DID YOU READ

“Home of the Brave,” “Venus”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: “Home of the Brave,” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2006]

All the words we like to think apply to our nation’s servicemen — honorable, noble, courageous — can also be applied to Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave,” a coming home drama about a group of National Guardsmen back from a tour of duty in the current Iraq war. But plenty of other, less desirable words — patronizing, heavy-handed, clumsy — apply as well. The film’s heart is in the right place. Its mouth, not so much.

The four combat-shocked veterans Winkler follows upon their return to Spokane, WA seem cast less for their performances than the potential for metatextual irony. Samuel L. Jackson, the only contemporary actor whose screen presence is super-heroic enough to believably survive a bout with snakes on a plane, plays a battlefield surgeon devastated by his inability to fix his patients. Jessica Biel, an actress with an entire persona based around her complete physical perfection, plays a driver who loses a hand after a mine explodes under her truck. Cheekiest of all, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, a rapper whose reputation rests on the number of gun battles he’s survived, plays a character who loses his mind after accidentally shooting a civilian in a botched raid. That’s great stunt casting for sure, but not great acting; none convincingly bring to the screen a sense of real emotional or mental trauma.

The entire ensemble is loaded with pretty people who don’t look, sound, or act like real soldiers, let alone ones crippled (both literally and figuratively) by their experiences. The crucial Guardsman who dies “over there” is played by “One Tree Hill”‘s Chad Michael Murray, and the final major character is played by actor Brian Presley, who looks like Jim Caviezel but prettier, with perfectly mussed hair (particularly impressive in the oppressive, moisture-destroying heat of the Iraqi desert).

Winkler wants his audience to acknowledge there is more to being involved in the Iraq War than simply remarking that you “support the troops” when someone asks you your stance on it. These soldiers we’re so supportive of with our lip service sympathy return from this brutal war where, arguably, no amount of good work can undo the bad that’s already been done, shattered by what they’ve done. They deserve better, from the war and from us.

But they also deserve better than a film like “Home of the Brave” which exploits their pain by turning Iraq War veterans from real people to mouthpieces. “You want us to come back like nothing happened!” one of the veterans remarks at one point. The key word there is “us” — the screenplay by Mark Friedman doesn’t even attempt to disguise its didacticism by trying to personalize the experiences of its protagonist. So it’s “us” who come back, not “me.”

The sour taste of such blatant sermonizing is accentuated by Winkler and Friedman’s holier-than-thou attitude, most noticeably in a scene where Presley’s character bumps into Biel’s at his new job, selling tickets at a Spokane multiplex. After comparing anti-depressants, Presley launches into a thinly veiled anti-Hollywood rant. “I sell these stupid tickets to these stupid movies!” he grumbles and Biel agrees. “It’s like they don’t care what’s going on over there!” she replies. A fair point, but the potential accuracy gets lost in the utterly tactless storytelling. It’s difficult to successfully educate people when you’re actively and openly insulting their intelligence. More importantly, should the director of “At First Sight” and “The Net” really be pointing fingers at bad moviemaking?

Jackson’s triage unit is a far cry from Altman’s in “MASH” and 50 Cent’s combat shocked meltdown doesn’t even rate with Sylvester Stallone’s in “First Blood.” The first really great fictionalization of the Iraq War experience, at home and abroad, is yet to be seen.

“Venus” is a movie both sweet and sour, one likely to warm your heart at times and chill you to the bone at others. Rarely I have been so equally touched and repulsed by a film. Basically a British “Grumpy Old Men” with a heaping dash of “Lolita,” the new film by director Roger Michell offers aging superstar Peter O’Toole a showcase for his chops, both comedic and dramatic, and whatever else you think about it, there’s no denying the 74-year old actor still has a spring in his step and a mess of charisma.

In a storyline eerily similar to the much less heartwarming and somewhat less creepy “10 Items or Less,” O’Toole plays a famous actor who chances into a life-affirming pairing with a younger woman. But “Venus” diverges from that path in the details of the relationship between O’Toole’s Maurice and teenage Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), which takes on an additional sexual dimension. Initially, lonely Maurice takes up with Jessie simply to get her away from his good friend Ian (Leslie Phillips), the uncle who can’t stand her. But he’s quickly entranced by Whittaker’s sad, beaten-down beauty. He takes to calling her Venus after the painting the two discuss during an afternoon at the museum.

Though the screenplay by Hanif Kureishi (working with Michell a third time following “The Buddha of Suburbia” and “The Mother”) plays their partnership for laughs, the pairing strikes me as an altogether disturbing one, and not simply for the vast gulf between their ages. Once Maurice reveals his feelings for Jodie, “Venus” settles into a rhythm of his lecherous glances and her demurring rejections; that is, until she wants something from him, whereupon she humors him until she draws out whatever it is she desires. The she treats him poorly again, then asks for more. Her comment by way of a hello upon missing one of their dates, “I’m sorry I didn’t come and meet you. You can smell my neck,” characterizes a lot of their interactions. Despite “Venus”‘s air of wistful nostalgia, the material strikes me much darker than Michell implies. If Maurice and Jodie’s story is superficially one of education and happiness, it’s not far removed from one about a kindly old man whose ill-advised attraction to a young, callous woman proves his undoing.

In a way, that makes O’Toole’s performance even better. No matter how discouraged you are by the film or his character’s behavior, you want to keep watching where O’Toole will take you. To call the performance fearless is cliché and understatement: the physical stunts O’Toole is called upon to do are remarkable all by themselves, without even taking into consideration the Maurice’s erotic appetites. He and “Venus” are both at their best when they’re not bogged down by his obsession with Jodie. A brief, wordless scene where Maurice visits an outdoor theater covered in fallen leaves and silently returns to some moment in his past says more about him than all his monologues put together. O’Toole, standing there alone with the cold and his memories is a window into a far better movie than the one Michell wound up with.

“Home of the Brave” (official site) opens in limited release December 15th; “Venus” (official site) opens in limited release December 21st.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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