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DID YOU READ

“300,” “The Host”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[“300,” Warner Bros., 2007]

“300”

Once the big battle of civilizations begins, it’s easy to see why director Zack Snyder and his fellow filmmakers thought “300” would make a great action movie. The Spartans were basically the only society in history built entirely on a foundation of badassitude: in Sparta, economy, politics, agriculture and education were all minor concerns compared to looking good in a loincloth and stabbing many people with pointy things. Basically, they were good-looking and dumb and it stands to reason they’d make a fine subject for a good-looking dumb movie.

But even though “300”‘s visual style moves beyond simply looking good into a stylishness and pictorial beauty rarely equaled in genre pictures, its dumbness overwhelms its prettiness. If battle footage can be beautiful, some of it in “300” certainly is, but, oh how stupid everything surrounding it is.

“300” is, in some ways, a silent movie. In some ways, it would be better as one. Silent movies share “300”‘s outlandish (and outlandishly) stereotypical villains and its emphasis on movement. But silent movies didn’t weigh down their narratives with endless slow motion techniques and they didn’t ever have dialogue this bad, because they didn’t have any dialogue at all.

“300” runs two hours, but it’s only about eighty minutes of plot stretched by an extra hour/hour-plus by the rampant over use of slow-mo; there isn’t a moment too unimportant that it can’t be given an inflated and unearned sense of grandeur by some thunderclaps, the operatic choral score and a few hundred frames a second (“Must… bend… down… to… adjust… boot… strap!”). Taking the action very, very (very) slowly is at odds with “300”‘s (and the Spartan’s) dedication to badassness: with very few exceptions, Snyder’s slow-mo makes its heroes look about as cool a fighting force as a gimpy elephant. Maybe Snyder got drunk on the admittedly beautiful visuals his blue-screen technique was yielding (his actors were filmed in a big empty stage; all the golden-hued skies and roiling seas were added in post). There will be no need to wait for a DVD and a pause button to soak in Snyder and his animators’ visual accomplishments; he built those pauses into the actual film for us, at the expense of “300”‘s pace and entertainment value.

That may have something to do with the movie’s origins in the world of comic books. Graphic novelist Frank Miller — who co-directed one of my favorite movies of 2005, Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of his “Sin City” books — turned the tale of the 300 Spartans who fought impossible odds against the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae into a five-issue mini-series for Dark Horse Comics in 1998. Comics distill action into specific moments; the artist essentially acts as writer, director and editor by selecting, designing and drawing those images. In focusing in with his slow-motion camera, perhaps Snyder intended to turn cinema into a sort of moving comic, a series of connected still images.

Unfortunately for him, what makes movies different and special is their ability to present motion, and that is something that is, as a result of Snyder’s slideshow technique, in short supply in “300.” Aside from a very dramatic long take of Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) mowing down a battlefield full of Persians, most of the fight scenes are indistinguishable snapshots of carnage that in their complete interchangeability show Snyder hasn’t mastered Miller’s knack for moving the narrative along panel to panel.

It’s like something to be admired on the wall of art gallery, not on the wall of a dark room with seats in it. Despite all the artistry, I kept wanting something exciting to happen, and it never really does. For all the posing and rippling muscles and occasional decapitations, “300” doesn’t quicken the pulse or pull the viewer to the edge of the seat. Like a guy rejected from playing one of the 300 Spartans, it’s too dumb and not good-looking enough.

“The Host”

[This review originally ran as part of IFC News’ coverage of the 2006 New York Film Festival]

The creature at the middle of this feature is a mutant: a freakish mixture of fish, lizard, monkey, and Godzilla that devours its victims and then, if it chooses, regurgitates them whole to enjoy their delicious succulence at a later date. “The Host” is a mutant too, a pure pulp concoction with a library of horror quotations, enough brilliantly absurd satire for a stand-up comedy special, and a family at its center that makes the Hoovers from “Little Miss Sunshine” look like the Cleavers. You will laugh and cry; certainly in the way a frightened child cries, because this movie is absolutely terrifying, but also in the way a sissy blubbers when Bambi’s mom eats lead, because the thrills are supported by a compelling story and moving characters.

Like all effective monster movies, “The Host” starts from a place of reality to signal a warning about man’s callous attitude toward nature. In the chilling prologue, based on an event that really happened in Korea in 2000, an American scientist orders his Korean underling to dump hundreds of gallons of formaldehyde down the drain and into the Han River simply because the bottles are a little dusty. Six years later, the chemicals have spawned a truly gruesome beast, who launches an assault on sunbathers by the Han River. Dopey Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is an unfortunate bystander, and though he survives, his daughter seemingly does not. Gang-du and the rest of his neurotic family (senile father, preppie brother, professional archer sister) barely have time to mourn when they’re quarantined after the Korean government announces that the mysterious creature is also host to a deadly virus. When things look their bleakest Gang-du gets a fuzzy phone call from his daughter. Somehow, she is alive. But how will he rescue her?

A review this short doesn’t have enough space to contain all of my enthusiasm about this movie, or to share even a sample of its unforgettable scenes, both scary and silly. It is, in a deep sense, indebted to the happy horror aesthetic pioneered in the 1980s by Sam Raimi in his “Evil Dead” trilogy. It’s hard to imagine the scariest movie of the year might also be the funniest, but “The Host” nearly pulls it off. When it’s not setting the audience squirming with suspense, its satire of the American war machine and its Orwellian modus operandi is sharper and funnier than anything any we’ve seen from stateside filmmakers (of the government’s treatment of the virus, one character succinctly observes, “If the government says so, we have to accept it.”).

Bong Joon-ho made a quiet but powerful impression on American arthouse audiences last year when his melancholy police procedural “Memories of Murder” finally made its U.S. debut. Though both films feature a general distrust of authority and a bleak worldview, the two are strikingly dissimilar in tone, in scope, and in style. That’s a good thing, suggesting that, good as he is already, Bong is still exploring his possibilities, still coming into his own. He may yet grow into one of the finest directors of his generation, mutating every genre to suit his delightfully fiendish purposes.

“300” opens wide on March 9th (official site); “The Host” opens in limited release on March 9th (official site).

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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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