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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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SO EXCITED!!!

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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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.”

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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. 

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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.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.