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“Lunacy,” “Apartment Zero”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Lunacy,” Zeitgeist Films, 2006]

It could be said that movies get closest to being fabulous art not when they are at their most self-consciously “artsy,” but when they reflect an obsessive visionary’s perspective and personality as purely and expressively as a painting or a poem. If this is so, then Jan Svankmajer’s films belong on the highest shelf, because it’s quite possible that no moviemaker’s oeuvre is as uncompromised and as hermetically sealed as his. When you watch, you’re uneasily shaking hands with the man’s unexamined, fecund imaginative power source, with no intermediaries present. Famously a die-hard Surrealist who still “belongs” to recalcitrant Surrealist federation in the Czech Republic, Svankmajer has been exploring the anxiety of everyday objects for over 40 years, and in a vast variety of forms (including poetry, sculpture, painting, ceramics, collages and cabineted creations fashioned largely from taxidermied animals). Of course he is predominantly a stop-motion animator, inheriting the Czech puppet tradition and forcing it down the gullet of his own noxious id. His filmography is basically one long smash-up of subconscious fears, cultural recyclings, socio-sexual commentary, food used in ways it shouldn’t be, things that shouldn’t be food but are, and a crystalline faith in the desire of objects.

His new feature, “Lunacy”, is quintessential Svankmajer — not quite the textual acrobatics of “Alice” (1988) or “Faust” (1994), but, as the title suggests, closer to the Freudian craziness of his many shorts and “Conspirators of Pleasure” (1996). The “story” is an almost abstracted play on nightmare logic — our hero Jean (Pavel Liska) has reoccurring dreams about being mugged in his sleep by asylum attendants, a situation that proves sympathetic to a cackling maniac called, simply, the Marquis (Jan Triska), who has more than a whiff of Sade about him, and who dresses 18th-century style and lives in a castle performing outrageous black masses. Needless to say, Jean’s singular nightmare returns again and again, the Marquis’s sanity is hardly to be trusted, and a climactic visit to a Charenton-style nuthouse leads us to question if there’s any significant difference between the patients and the staff.

Throughout, Svankmajer interpolates his narrative with parallel visions of rogue flesh on the animated march — literally, perambulating cow tongues (a motif he first explored in 1969’s “A Quiet Week in the House”), eyeballs, moist calves’ brains, self-slicing steaks and bleached bones, all roaming over the film’s interior landscapes like escaped lab mice. (In one appalling sequence, chickens pecking at self-grinding beef lay eggs that hatch more meat, which jump into the grinder…) Svankmajer’s political thrust here is too wacky to parse — the Reign of Terror is explicitly evoked, but who exactly the aristocrats, the revolutionaries and the madmen are is impossible to figure. Perhaps this is how Sade saw it from behind his asylum walls: an anarchic exchange of one organizational derangement for another. Who knows — it’s Svankmajer’s little universe to command. We’re just tourists.

A far more reasonable take on insanity, Martin Donovan’s “Apartment Zero” (1988) made one of biggest indie splashes of the late ’80s, co-opting primal Hitchcockian ingredients and going for broke. Set, evocatively, in Buenos Aires, the movie tracks the unsettled but budding friendship-cum-codependency between two immigrant roommates — a boisterous, hedonistic, semi-educated American (Hart Bochner) and a socially inept, nervous British movie geek (Colin Firth). A serial killer is meanwhile terrorizing the city, and suspicions fly just as social virtues are exchanged and each man begins to leech off the other. Naturally, an imbalance is reached, personalities imperfectly swap (kinda), and blood spills. The actors have a revving ball, while their characters introduce a pre-Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon moviehead parlor game, which my wife and I long ago dubbed the “Apartment Zero” Game. Simply, one person names three actors from a film, the other must name the film. Firth’s neurotic dweeb beats out Bochner’s rangy hotshot every time, but the game quickly established an extra-cinematic life all its own.

“Lunacy” (Zeitgeist) and “Apartment Zero” (Anchor Bay) will be available on DVD on February 20.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.