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DID YOU READ

Throwing Out the Book

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: “Yaji + Kita: Midnight Pilgrims,” Media Blasters, 2006]

“You know,” editor Alison Willmore said to me when I told her about “Yaji + Kita: Midnight Pilgrims,” the self-proclaimed “gay samurai biker” film that had a nanosecond-long release in New York and is now available for your pleasure and befuddlement on DVD, “that’s actually based on a classic Edo-era story.”

No, actually, I didn’t know that, but keen as I am on Japanese culture, my knowledge of source materials is spotty — particularly if that material doesn’t somewhere incorporate a teenage girl in a tight uniform. No surprise, then, that “Tokaidochu Hizakurige,” the actual inspiration for director Kankuro Kudo’s manically comic adaptation, was way beneath my radar.

The original novel, written in the early 1800s, follows the comic adventures of two rogues avoiding their wives, debts and responsibility by taking off for a trip down the main road between Edo and Tokyo. Kudo grabbed author Jippensha Ikku’s ball and pushed toward the end zone, turning the travelers into gay lovers; plunking them on a motorcycle; peppering the proceedings with song and dance numbers; throwing in references to video games, dinner theater, and cocktail lounges; and breaking the fourth, fifth, and sixth walls in his narrative (at one point, one of the characters winds up in a screening room complaining about the very story he’s participating in).

At 124 minutes, it’s almost too much weirdness, but Kudo’s zeal in breaking past the constraints of his inspiration is infectious. Faithfulness may be fine for human relations, but it’s generally murder for films — there’s no point in adapting a work if the adapter can’t bring his/her own insights, skills and outright quirks to the proceedings. People steadfastly attached to a book have the book, after all — why shouldn’t they get out of the way of those who might turn the material into something bigger than the original and better suited for the screen? (Here’s looking at you, J.K. Rowling.)

A filmmaker boldly following his/her muse can be a good or a bad thing, but it at least makes for lively conversation as the closing credits roll. Consider:

“Forbidden Planet” (1956): Well, if you’re going to do “The Tempest,” why not recast Miranda with Anne Francis (she talks to animals!), get your Caliban courtesy of Walt Disney, and turn Ariel into the coolest damn robot what ever clumped across the silver screen? Turns out the Bard cozies up quite comfortably with 1950s spaceships and ray guns, even if the ending speaks more about Cold War anxieties than Elizbethan fantasy.

“Zatoichi” (2003): Original actor Shintaro Katsu turned the adventures of a blind, yet quite lethal, Edo-era traveling masseur into a franchise as dependable (and predictable) as a Big Mac. When Takeshi Kitano took over both acting and directing chores, it was to turn the project into a tightrope act that salted a standard, Ichi-cleans-house scenario with transvestite geishas, a half-naked samurai wannabe, and liberal doses of Three Stooges mayhem. Hang in for the last half hour, when Kitano completely throws caution to the wind, unraveling a key element of the Ichi mythology, intercutting the final defenestrations with a way-anachronous tap-dance number, and orchestrating a final pratfall for the noble warrior.

“The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000): Hard to tell whether director Robert Redford was being too respectful to the original novel by Steven Pressfield, or just wanted to forget that the tale of a depression-era Southern golfer counseled by a mystical, black caddie was actually based on Hindu text the “Bhagavad Gita” (the DVD’s supplemental material, which consistently references a generic mythology, suggests the latter). But if Redford had engaged one-tenth the wit that Pressfield did in naming his protagonist Rannulph Junah (R. Junah — get it?), this film might have risen above its crushing sentimentality to become the golfing movie that even non-golfers could groove on and meditate over.

“The Company of Wolves” (1984): It isn’t as if director/co-writer Neil Jordan and writer Angela Carter were the first to discover the psycho-sexual aspects of “Little Red Riding Hood” (you think Tex Avery and Friz Freleng kept dipping into that well because kids would like it?), they just dared to lay it all out in its nocturnal, bestial glory. Setting a fairy tale within a werewolf myth within a fever dream, Jordan just keeps pushing the unhinged imagery (a wizard shows up in a Rolls Royce; bird eggs crack open to reveal tiny, weeping, stone fetuses) until it all seems as wild and instinctual as the adolescent urges the film seeking to portray.

“Yojimbo” (1961) Kurosawa always claimed that his story of a canny samurai pitting two crime clans against each other to deadly results was based on the film version of Dashell Hammett’s “The Glass Key.” You can’t convince me (and many others), that he wasn’t also lifting liberally from Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” which tells almost the same story with a private detective as its protagonist and rum-runners as his targets. Kurosawa was the master of throwing source material into medieval contexts, showing how everything from Shakespearian treachery to hard-boiled violence could easily balance upon a katana blade. There’s not a motorcycle or cocktail lounge in sight, but in the cross-fertilization of periods and ideas, the director managed, as do all those who successfully dare to reach beyond the bonds of their inspirations, to show how universal and pertinent a story can become.

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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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