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The week’s critic wrangle: Lives, souls and a nice chianti.

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I always feel like/Somebody's watching me.
+ "The Lives of Others": We’ve battled back a perverse urge to hate on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s debut more than it deserves solely because of the overwrought praise it’s being showered with ("overwrought" because we don’t agree, natch — otherwise it would be "well-deserved"). No less than Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, supreme ruler of the Review As Excuse For Witticisms of Varying Quality, is moved to sincere acclamation:

You might think that “The Lives of Others” is aimed solely at modern Germans—at all the Wieslers, the Dreymans, and the weeping Christa-Marias. A movie this strong, however, is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist für uns. It’s for us.

On the other hand, Armond White at the New York Press…well, also likes it, finding it "surprising that a new German film would teach Americans about human faith at a time when acclaimed movies like Borat lack faith."

The forces of dissent are lead by Scott Foundas at LA Weekly, who writes that the film "gave me the creeps":

Donnersmarck is the sort of director who knows a good deal more about filmmaking technique and dramatic structure than about human behavior, and his impeccably well-made debut feature is the sort of movie that often gets wildly overpraised by audiences (including film-school grads, studio executives and some critics) who believe a good movie is one where the heroes and villains are clearly demarcated, every plant has a payoff, and the moral of the story is as obvious as skywriting.

Also less enthused: Fernando F. Croce at Slant, who finds that it’s "the director who ultimately clips the picture’s wings by insisting on a trite feeling of uplift that inexcusably oversimplifies a nation’s social struggle and grappling toward unification." Chris Wisniewski at indieWIRE calls the film "fairly workmanlike," well made but clunky.

J. Hoberman at the Village Voice declares the film "a compelling thriller but an unsatisfying character drama.," faulting the "increasingly squishy humanism" that builds at it goes on. At New York, David Edelstein calls it "a cunning piece of construction—a Kafkaesque tearjerker, a tragic farce." He likes the film’s moral complexity, in that "[w]e fear for the freedom of the vulnerable couple, yet on some level it’s a kick to spy on them along with Wiesler—to listen in on mundane conversations in a culture in which there’s no sphere of privacy"; he does take issue with some of the heavier handed moments.

Noel Murray at the Onion AV Club dislikes von Donnersmarck’s "stolid" direction, but finds that the plot and performances are enough to warrant a "B."

And the rest is exaltation: A.O. Scott at the New York Times writes that

There is a bracing, old-fashioned quality to Mr. von Donnersmarck’s film, which supplies us with good guys to root for and villains to despise. But it also shows, with excruciating precision, the cruelty with which a totalitarian state can exploit the weakness and confusion of its citizens. And even as they are, to some extent, enacting a morality play, the actors also seem like real, vulnerable people forced into impossible choices.

Dana Stevens at Slate lauds "The Lives of Others" as "intricate, ambiguous and deeply satisfying movie," and concludes that "Von Donnersmarck’s film is set in a world where freedom isn’t an abstract concept to be taken for granted—it’s a distant promise that is enough to make bureaucrats in headphones weep." At Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum calls it "utterly riveting." And at Salon, Stephanie Zacharek writes that
"[t]his isn’t just a story about the oppressiveness of the GDR, but about the way even imperfect human beings can tune in to their best impulses, and make choices that will allow them to live with others, as well as themselves."


+ "The Decomposition Of The Soul": This 2002 documentary about the Stasi from Massimo Iannetta and Nina Toussaint opened in Film Forum this week as a nicely timed counterpart to von Donnersmarck’s film. Some make the claim that it’s the better film — Ed Gonzalez at Slant calls it "the first essential documentary of the new year," and writes that "unlike The Lives of Others, its study of social conditioning never veers toward cuteness." At the Village Voice, J. Hoberman calls the film "[m]ore tough-minded and even poetic," and notes that "The Decomposition of the Soul is a deliberately confining movie, but unlike The Lives of Others, it offers no closure."

At New York, David Edelstein also salutes the film as "poetic," but does add that, for better or worse, "there is something about the movie’s pacing—the silences, the drone of the narration (‘The name of your enemy is hope … ’)—that wears you down." Michael Joshua Rowin at indieWIRE compares the film to 2003’s "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine," as does Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. Rowin praises the filmmakers for their ability to "create a vivid, harrowing testimony from a bare minimum of visual evidence." Rabin points out that the film is "an intentional ordeal," and that it "bears powerful, uncompromising witness to man’s inhumanity to man, which is one of the most important things any documentary can do, though, it’s also one of the most grueling."

At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir suggests that the film "might be too slow and morbid for American viewers without an existing interest in the subject." And at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis goes further, writing that in comparison to "The Lives of Others," "The Decomposition Of The Soul" "is a tougher sell partly because it offers no palliatives, though partly because it’s a bore."


We hear 1999 was a good year for Tuscany.
+ "Hannibal Rising": Few of our go-to critics bothered to review Peter Webber‘s prequel addition to the Hannibal Lecter franchise, which is probably more telling than anything anyone could write. But a quick look: Jeannette Catsoulis at the New York Times sighs that "[a]lmost everyone involved seems deadened by the literalness of the material, especially [Gaspard] Ulliel, whose lanky, effete avenger may snack on the cheeks of his victims but never hardens into a genuine horror. He’s like Anthony Hopkins’s brain-damaged sibling." Scott Foundas at LA Weekly writes that "[b]y the end of two full hours, it’s only [writer Thomas] Harris’ head you long to see on a plate." And Jeremiah Kipp at Slant concludes that "This film exists to further the cash cow legacy of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and create a nifty deluxe DVD box set containing ‘Hannibal’s Legacy of Evil.’ One hopes there are better reasons for making films than this."

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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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GIFs via Giphy

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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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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