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“Year of the Dog,” “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Molly Shannon in “Year of the Dog,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]

Year of the Dog

Mike White’s characters are all cut from the same swatch of alienated cloth: prone to obsession and often a little touched in the head, they struggle to live within the norms of adult society. Even the most innocuous of White’s characters — like a Nacho Libre, or Dewey Finn from “School of Rock” — are, at best, lovable eccentrics. Not for nothing was White a writer and supervising producer on the beloved television show “Freaks and Geeks.” He’s practically American film’s foremost authority on the subject.

His latest tour into personal peculiarity is also his directorial debut. “Year of the Dog” follows a particularly Whiteian heroine: a spinster named Peggy (Molly Shannon) who lives in perfect utopia with her darling beagle Pencil. But when her dog dies suddenly (of mysterious poisoning), Peggy’s life spirals into chaos. She tries to fill the void with a new dog (a much less cute, much meaner German Shepherd named Valentine) and with relationships with two diametrically opposed men: a schlubby part-time hunter named Al (John C. Reilly) and an animal shelter employee and vegan named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). We can relate to Peggy’s pain — Pencil’s every glance is like a dagger to the heart of unadulterated cuteness — but at a certain point grief gives way to scary, even dangerous behavior.

White’s produced more mainstream films, like his Jack Black collaborations, but “Year of the Dog” is a lot closer in tone to his breakthrough screenplay, 2000’s “Chuck & Buck,” in which an emotionally immature man reconnects with a childhood friend with stalkerish results. Both films begin with the sudden death of character that upends the apple cart that is the hero’s existence (in “Chuck & Buck,” it’s Buck’s mom that croaks) and both films start with humor that gives way to more uncomfortable chuckles until you’re fidgeting in your seat. Though “Year of the Dog”‘s trailer sells the film as a sweet romantic comedy, be forewarned: this film goes to some dark places.

That’s not a criticism, mind you, merely an observation. Grief can do terrible things to people, and it certainly does to Peggy. That’s not to discount the obvious affection White has for her, and really all of his characters, which never wavers, even when the audience begins to: he loves them for their flaws, not in spite of them. As “Year of the Dog” progresses, it becomes more clear that Pencil’s death didn’t cause the problems in Peggy’s life, it merely uncovered them. When she becomes a vegan in response to her growing obsession with protecting animals, Peggy tells her sister-in-law (Laura Dern), “It’s nice to have a word that describes you. I’ve never had that before.”

As a first-time director, White’s technique is relaxed and assured, and he pulls good, understated performances from Shannon and Reilly (and an appropriately exaggerated one from Sarsgaard). I particularly liked his use of close-ups in dialogue scenes that aren’t as close as they should or would typically be. As a result, Peggy is put at a distance, not only from the audience but from the other characters in the film. She is always at a remove from people, who, she remarks on more than one occasion, always let her down in ways that animals don’t. Once Pencil is gone, no one can get close to her.

The movie has a few good laughs (particularly from Peggy’s excitable co-worker Layla, who announces her engagement with the line, “I guess all my whining paid off — and I’m not even pregnant!”) but this is White undiluted by collaborators who might want to push him more towards the mainstream. Here, he’s allowed to be as prone to obsession and as touched in the head as he wants.

“Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis”

“Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis,” also opening this week, is another portrait of obsession. Smith was a member of the New York avant-garde art scene in the 1960s and 1970s who became infamous when his film “Flaming Creatures,” an orgy of glitter, chiffon and orgies, was deemed so obscene that public screenings were raided and prints confiscated by the police. Smith hated the notoriety and what he considered the monetary exploitation that followed in its wake, when cinephiles like Jonas Mekas started hosting screenings of “Flaming Creatures” without consent or compensation. As a result, he never truly finished another project for the rest of his career.

Most artists have their share of quirks, but Smith was a flat-out iconoclast, a rabid anti-capitalist with a fervid love of trash (literally — one friend recalls a story where the pair were walking down the street and Smith stopped to rearrange garbage in the gutter to make it more aesthetically pleasing). Throughout the 70s and 80s, Smith held endless improvisational plays in his loft; as the story goes, one night no one showed up and Smith went on and performed all night anyway (don’t ask me how they know that if no one showed up). In the years after “Flaming Creatures,” Smith kept his work in a constant state of flux. At the only public showing of one of his later films, he was editing the raw footage in the projection booth in the middle of the screening. “I want to be uncommercial film personified,” Smith said, and he meant it.

Mary Jordan’s doc includes tons of great Smith material, which, per the artist’s nature, has been difficult to see for years, even before his death from AIDS in 1989. Still, at 95 minutes, without any discussion of his life outside of his art, “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” is a little thin on material, and by the second hour it falls into a bit of a sour grapes rut. (For someone who was so uninterested in ownership, Smith was sure obsessed with other people’s money). I felt like I learned a great deal about Smith the artist, and only a little about Smith the man. Perhaps Jordan’s point is that to Smith, the two aspects were one and the same.

“Year of the Dog” opens in limited release on April 13th (official site); “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” opens in New York on April 11th (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.


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…


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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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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