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Fight to the Death!

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By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

Pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s first turn as a leading man, “The Condemned,” sank like a stone at the box office this past weekend, netting out a paltry $1,732 per theater. Could it be that, so soon after the terrible events at Virginia Tech, audiences weren’t ready for a film whose unfortunate tagline of choice is “10 people will fight. 9 people will die. You get to watch”? Or maybe people were just hip to the fact that “The Condemned”‘s premise of people fighting to the death for entertainment purposes (that of the audiences both within and watching the film) is hardly new. Movies have used the contrivance of the death-tournament as a vehicle for commentary on our violence- and voyeurism-obsessed culture, as its own excuse for copious violence and voyeurism, or, sometimes, both. Here’s a look at some notable entries in the genre.

“Battle Royale”
Judging from films on the subject, high school in Japan can be the eighth circle of social hell — “All About Lily Chou-Chou,” “Suicide Circle,” and “Blue Spring” paint portraits of breathtaking nastiness and overwhelming pressure to conform. Kinji Fukasaku’s cult favorite “Battle Royale” takes the idea of high school as social Darwinism to a literal level, plopping an alternate-universe ninth-grade class onto an island for an annual government-sponsored free-for-all that’s intended to leave only one student standing. The prolific Fukasaku’s been a longtime national chronicler of violence spawned by social ills, and “Battle Royale” is no different — it combines operatically heightened high school dramas (crushes, rivalries, grudges) with graphic violence and a pervasive theme of youth alienation. Given its content, it’s no surprise that “Battle Royale” met with controversy both in Japan and in the US, where it never received a theatrical release — a planned American remake is still listed as in development.

“Enter the Dragon”
Though this 1973 chop socky classic is the prototype for so many other fight to the death movies set in illicit martial arts tournaments, “Enter the Dragon” isn’t a fight to the death movie, per se. Han (Shih Kien), the evil drug kingpin, private island warlord and dude with a bear paw for a fist who invites Lee (Bruce Lee) to participate in his kung fu invitational, doesn’t lay out any specific rules for the battles. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to kill your opponents to be victorious, but pretty much everyone does anyway: even our hero, who RSVPed for this little game of death to avenge his sister’s murder, offs his opponent after he comes after him with a couple of broken bottle necks. We remember the movie more for those intense moments when Lee snaps his victim’s neck in close up, his eyes bulging and his face quivering with power, than the occasional moments when he shows a little mercy.

An unusually thoughtful take on sweaty men slaughtering each other, “Gladiator” dares to question the morality of drawing entertainment from the suffering of others. Russell Crowe’s Roman general-turned-slave Maximus is initially reluctant to participate in barbaric sports for the appeasement of bloodthirsty audiences. In the most famous sequence, he single-handedly slaughters a half-dozen armed men without any pretense of showmanship or suspense, and then bellows to the disappointed crowd, “Are you not ENTERTAINED?” Unfortunately, director Ridley Scott’s moral posturing is somewhat undone by his glossy staging of the gladiatorial action: the Romans may not be entertained, but modern audiences certainly were by the spectacular sequences that included tigers and Amazonian women on horseback. Maximus’ owner and fight promoter tells him, “Thrust this into another man’s flesh, and they will applaud and love you for that.” And they certainly did: “Gladiator” won the Academy Award for the Best Picture of 2000.

When you’re an immortal who will live forever and can’t conceive children, there’s apparently very little else to do but wander the earth killing other immortals. So in “Highlander,” men chop each other’s heads off and absorb their bioelectric energy in a slightly goofy looking special effects sequence called “The Quickening.” They are fighting each other because they are told they must and because the last immortal standing will receive “The Prize” a vague reward whose parameters are not entirely explained but which includes the ability to die, a pretty crappy compensation for a guy who’s tried his damndest not to die for centuries. On the DVD commentary, director Russell Mulcahy says, “When this film came out it was viewed by certain people [as] a little out there,” as if it all makes perfect sense. But no one’s yet come up with a reasonable explanation as to why the Scottish Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) sounds French and the Egyptian Spaniard Ramirez (Sean Connery) sounds Scottish, or how there could then be three movie sequels, two television series, and an animated cartoon after Macleod becomes the last immortal and receives his sucky Prize. “There can be only one,” except when it comes to movies. Then there can be lots, especially if revenue streams from the after-market stay strong.

“In Hell”
You may not be familiar with the recent career moves of the Muscles from Brussels — Jean-Claude Van Damme’s last few films, including his two most recent collaborations with Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, have gone straight to DVD. Which is where, admittedly, they belong — “In Hell” has Van Damme playing an American sentenced to life in a corrupt Russian prison in which the inmates are forced to battle for the amusement and profit of the cruel warden. These shocking developments are overshadowed by the fact that Van Damme is playing a regular schmo — not, like, a regular schmo who happened to study kickboxing during his hardcore military years in Thailand — and so spends the first half of the movie resisting violence and getting pummeled until a stint in solitary and a visit from a CG butterfly symbolizing his murdered wife give him a new desire to live…and kill! With his teeth, even! Lam ankled his follow-up film with the actor (2004’s “Wake of Death”), possibly due to lingering trauma from making a Van Damme film that relied more on the action star’s emoting abilities than his martial arts ones.

“Mortal Kombat”
The young realm of video game movie adaptations has so far run the gamut from bad to really, really bad, but this 1995 film from Paul W.S. Anderson (who went on to make grander, gooier game adaptation “Resident Evil”) achieves a kind of B-movie bliss that can mostly be chalked up to Christopher Lambert’s hammy appearance as a thunderbolt-hurling, straw hat-sporting godling. A movie star, a Shaolin monk and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras are but a few of the contestants who convene on a mysterious island to fight in a mysterious tournament in which Earth’s fate mysteriously lies in the balance. When you’re working with source material best known for its inclusion of the ability to rip your opponent’s head and spinal cord out and hold them, dripping, aloft, you’re not jostling with Shakespeare for a place on the cultural pantheon. Fortunately, “Mortal Kombat” has no such delusions, and the film takes campy pleasure in less-than-spectacular special effects, Wilson-Sampras’ dreadful line-readings and the occasional addition of a phrase directly out of the game — which means that when evil sorcerer Shang Tsung kills someone, he intones, for the enlightenment of audience: “Fatality.”

“The Running Man”
Loosely based on a Stephen King novel, this Arnold Schwarzenegger adventure of his post-“Terminator” period plays the “Gladiator” idea — a fascist society maintains control over the populace with blood-drenched entertainment — in a dystopic future. And Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards, like Crowe’s Maximus, is a prisoner of the state forced to fight for his own life in the middle of a game he can’t possibly win (and, naturally, does anyway). Of course, in “Gladiator,” Crowe fights legitimately dangerous threats. In “The Running Man,” Schwarzenegger battles a serious of super-powered “Stalkers,” each more laughably dumpy than the last. Professor Sub-Zero is a big fat guy with a knife-edged hockey stick; Dynamo is a bigger, fatter guy with a Lite-Brite vest and a fiber-optic mohawk. And so on. It’s an incredibly dumb treatment of a seemingly serious topic; any similarity to actual social commentary (like the collusion of corporations and government) or prescient thinking (like the digital manipulation of imagery) is purely coincidental. After all, as Richards himself says, “I’m not into politics, I’m into survival.” And, of course, making witty remarks while you kill people (“Here’s Sub-Zero! Now: plain zero!”).

“Series 7: The Contenders”
While its satirical point is nothing new (see “The Running Man,” above, or “The Tenth Victim,” below), Daniel Minahan’s low-budget, Sundance-favored indie about six randomly chosen Americans duking it out in a televised kill-or-be-killed competition gains some sharpness from its “Survivor”-on-crack angle. While similar films pick a near-future setting and imply that such institutionalized awfulness could only be the product of a dystopia, “Series 7” skips overt sci-fi references, choosing instead to mimic the conventions of current reality TV — the interviews, quick-cut backstories, clumsy reenactments of scenes that weren’t caught on camera and an awesomely hackneyed narration by “Arrested Development”‘s Will Arnett. Dawn Lagarto, “Series 7″‘s memorable heroine, is the show’s gruff reigning champion who’s also, in a vicious turn, eight months pregnant and fighting not just for her own survival but for that of her child. When Melanie Lynskey showed up as a recent mother and abused spouse competing for a new life in Fox’s toothless (and quickly canceled) series “Drive,” it wasn’t hard to find the character’s inspiration.

“The Tenth Victim”
Before “Battle Royale,” before “Survivor,” even, there was Elio Petri’s loopy and seriously 60s “The Tenth Victim,” which stars Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress as competitors in The Big Hunt, a government-sponsored game intended as an outlet for those with violent or suicidal tendencies. (“A killing a day keeps the doctor away,” an announcement proclaims.) If Andress’ Caroline Meredith can take out Mastroianni’s Marcello Polletti, she’ll will a million bucks — but Marcello’s well aware that someone’s coming for him. On top of this, both have complicated things for themselves by picking up corporate sponsors who’d like their kills to happen in front of the camera — and then, they have to go and fall in love. The most revealing thing about Petri’s overpacked film (beyond Andress’ outfits) is that it ventures into screwball comedy — none of the films that followed took such a light tone for what’s become such a pointed subject.

“13 (Tzameti)”
In 2005’s “13 (Tzameti),” Sébastien (Georges Babluani) stumbles into an underground fight club where the players stand in a circle and aim a pistol (first with a single bullet, then progressively more as the game progresses) at the back of the head of the person in front of them. When a light is switched, they pull the trigger until their target is dead or they are. This perverse sort of Russian Roulette is performed for the delight and gambling potential of the very wealthy (in fight to the death pictures, rich old people have nothing to do but delight in the death of poor young people). What separates “13” from other fights to the death is also what makes it especially chilling. In most instances of cinematic mortal combat, the participants control their own destiny; their fate is determined by their own skills and fighting ability. In “13,” Sébastien wins or loses by a simple twist of cruel, laughable fate and victory isn’t as glorious as most fight to the death movies make it seem. If he survives, how will Sébastien live with what he’s done?

[Photos: The Condemned,” Lionsgate, 2007; “Battle Royale,” Toei, 2000; “Enter the Dragon,” Warner Bros., 1973; “Gladiator,” DreamWorks, 2000; “Highlander,” 20th Century Fox, 1986; “In Hell,” Sony Pictures, 2003; “Mortal Kombat,” New Line Cinema, 1995; “The Running Man,” TriStar Pictures, 1987; “Series 7: The Contenders,” USA Films, 2001; “The Tenth Victim,” Embassy Pictures Corporation, 1965; “13 (Tzameti),” Palm Pictures, 2006]



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.


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…


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.


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 ’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?”


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).



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.


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