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The week’s critic wrangle: “Amazing Grace,” “Gray Matters,” “The Wayward Cloud.”

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How sweet the sound.+ "Amazing Grace": Michael Apted may have earned his place in the canon with the "Up" series, but his career as a narrative filmmaker is far less irreproachable, encompassing the highs of "Coal Miner’s Daughter" and the lows of "Enough." "Amazing Grace," a biopic about British abolitionist William Wilberforce (played by tasty slice of Welsh rarebit Ioan Gruffudd) (we have no idea what that’s suppose to mean, but so rarely get to bring up rarebit on this blog), seems to be falling somewhere in the middle of the scale. Stephanie Zacharek at Salon writes that "In the first 10 minutes, I feared the picture would be dull and earnest — until, about a half-hour later, I realized it was lively and earnest, and also refreshingly, unapologetically movielike." Though she dislikes the bombast of the score and admits that there’s an awful lot of expository dialogue, she contends that "even when it’s slightly clumsy, the conviction behind it keeps you from laughing at it."

Nathan Rabin at the Onion AV Club is also won over by the film’s passion and sense of humor, finding that Steven Knight‘s screenplay "nicely undercuts the project’s inherent preachiness with dry wit and an engaging depiction of the British parliament as a vicious realm where debate is a treacherous blood sport." At New York, David Edelstein calls "Amazing Grace" "a beautifully chiseled blunt instrument. No, it’s not subtle, but how subtle was slavery?", while Ed Gonzalez at Slant declares that "Amazing Grace is proof that liberal filmmakers can make movies that aren’t desperate manifestations of their political guilt."

Over at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis summarizes the effect of the film as "part BBC-style biography, part Hollywood-like hagiography, and generally pleasing and often moving, even when the story wobbles off the historical rails or becomes bogged down in dopey romance." She goes on to writes that "[i]t would be easier to dismiss ‘Amazing Grace’ for its historical elisions if it weren’t also filled with so many great British actors larking about in knee breeches and powdered wigs; if it weren’t, in other words, an entertainment." Armond White at the NY Press salutes "a courageous sense of social propriety and cultural mission in Amazing Grace, backed-up by Apted’s tasteful intelligence."

Not entertained is Michael Joshua Rowin at indieWIRE, who finds that in the film "[e]verybody wins, it seems, except those wanting their middlebrow fare to display, at the very least, the semblance of a spine." Ella Taylor at LA Weekly calls the film "[m]orally irreproachable and flat as a pancake," and writes that while Wilberforce certainly deserves heroic treatment, "[w]hat he doesn’t deserve is to be deified, sanctified and so thoroughly bleached of human blemish that hardened highwaymen and exhausted horses quail before his goodness and mercy. And that’s just in the first 10 minutes."


Heather Graham, now with bowling ball.
+ "Gray Matters": "Is it coincidence or a minitrend?" wonders Stephen Holden at the New York Times, addressing not the terrible name/title affliction that this film shares with a certain television drama, but the fact that, like "Puccini For Beginners," which flickered through theaters earlier this month, Sue Kramer‘s
"Gray Matters" is the story of a upscale New York love triangle with
twists both Sapphic and screwball. Kramer’s film does offer slightly
more star power in the form of lead Heather Graham, playing, yes, a character named Gray who falls for her brother’s fiancée. "If ‘Gray Matters’ follows the standard screwball comedy format, the two halves of its hybrid style — part early ’40s romp, part ‘The L Word’ lite — don’t mesh. Compared to ‘Gray Matters,’ even a Nora Ephron bonbon has the weight of urban neo-realism," concludes Holden. Ed Gonzalez at Slant calls the film "the most inexplicable comedy about delayed homosexuality every made," but adds that "the film at least understands that the buildup toward losing one’s gay virginity can sometimes feel like a colossal farce." And at the Village Voice, Michelle Orange calls the film "execrable" and sighs that "Heather Graham seems resigned to mugging and shrugging out the remainder of her thirties through a series of undercooked romantic comedies."


How not to eat your watermelon.
+ "The Wayward Cloud": Tsai Ming-liang films don’t often grace US theaters, and "The Wayward Cloud" isn’t getting a theatrical release, it’s just bobbing up at Anthology for a weeklong run two years after its premiere at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival. The critical consensus is that it’s not his best work, though we’d say it’s still a spectacle worth seeing, if you have the opportunity. "Sad to say, but the only thing more unfortunate than a Tsai Ming-liang film that fails to get a theatrical release is one that eventually does and sucks dick," sighs Nathan Lee at the Village Voice, who we are oft-tempted to put on sex metaphor watch ("the film’s belated New York release…comes (all over your face!) as something of a mixed blessing"?). He writes that "The Wayward Cloud’s sexual explicitness goes hand in hand with a shift from nuanced melancholy and stealth monumentalism toward garish, befuddled negativity." Keith Uhlich at Slant is conflicted:

The Wayward Cloud includes some of Tsai’s most risible work (never thought I’d feel so embarrassed for Chiang Kai-shek) alongside some of his best (the highlight: Lu Yi-ching‘s flames-and-spiders musical number, initiated by a gooey cum facial), but in action it all falls apart, and I’m uncertain, even after two viewings, if this is entirely a bad thing.

At the New York Press, Armond White writes that the film "is a self-conscious musical about dislocation—an, at times ingenious, at times, enervating variation on Tsai’s usual unhappy theme," but concludes that "[h]is anti-musical is, finally, equivalent to joyless sex." And of the infamous ending scene, A.O. Scott at the New York Times declares that "the display is less shocking for its sexual frankness than for its aesthetic crudity."

It feels willed, aggressive and unconvincing — clammy rather than cool — in a way that suggests artistic frustration rather than discovery. The water shortage may be a metaphor for the director’s creative desiccation, which his admirers can only hope is temporary.

Tsai’s newest film, "I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone," will be getting a small US theatrical release from Strand this year.


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.