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“I Am Cuba,” “Manufactured Landscapes”

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By Michael Atkinson
IFC News

[Photo: “I Am Cuba,” Milestone Films]

Though only recently exhumed from the neverworld abyss of forgotten cinema — it was 1992, in fact — it does seem as if Mikhail Kalatozov’s “I Am Cuba” (1964) has always been with us, always staking out its small, idiosyncratic turf as Communist agitprop’s most unrestrained diva hymn, and one of the most visually titanic works in the century of movies. If you’ve managed to avoid it up to now, Milestone’s new bells-&-whistles DVD release is your present to yourself this Christmas — newly struck from the original Russian master, and coming gift-wrapped in an almost absurdly lavish cigar-box case, accompanied by two supplementary documentary discs and a thorough booklet of explicative material. Still, in my experience, the movie bedazzles regardless of its condition or format — there’s just no acclimating to, or being blasé about, the famously superhuman cinematographic stunt work and the unearthly white-wheat-dark-sky exposures (achieved with infra-red stock), all of it mated to an unfettered revolutionary outrage that abstractly details life before and during Castro’s rebel war, from decadent tourist pool parties to police brigade atrocities to guerrilla righteousness in the mountains.

The resulting assault seems at this remove to be less about Cuba per se than about the fusillade of movement, shadow, light and landscape on the viewer’s tender optic nerves. Indeed, this rare co-production between Mosfilm and Castro’s new state-run ICIAC tanked with its intended Communist audiences, proving too languid and impressionistic for the Cubans and too tropical-exotic for the Russians. No one else saw it. I’ve had suburban college students, otherwise prone to dozy dismissiveness at the very notion of a black-&-white, subtitled movie, weep openly at “I Am Cuba.” Once you’re confronted with the famous, two-and-a-half-minute one-shot funeral march sequence, in which seemingly the entirety of the city of Havana is participating, and in which the camera climbs buildings, passes over rooftops and through windows and finally flies out over the crowd in mid-air, without a single cut, you’ve begun to understand how the film certainly represented a kind of cinematic frontier for filmmakers like Miklós Jancsó, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov and Theo Angelopoulos, and still does, in many ways, today.

It’s propaganda, of course, and fascinating for that — but still, naïve as it seems, the film (co-written by poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko) makes a feverish case you can’t argue with, for the people and against state power. Kalatozov, a veteran from the silent days, made his global mark in 1957 with “The Cranes Are Flying” (an award-winner at Cannes), and along with “I Am Cuba” and 1959’s “The Letter Never Sent” (imagine a film that looks like Cuba butthat was shot entirely in the Siberian wilderness), his work with levitating cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky had a still-unacknowledged impact on international art cinema. (Note that before “The Cranes Are Flying” hit the festival circuit, Antonioni and Bergman were still making visually orthodox films.) Each Kalatozov/Urusevsky take is a trapeze stunt, an athletic exercise in seeing how much life can be crammed into a single, breath-holding camera take, and “I Am Cuba” may be their premier achievement (there’s at least one other we haven’t seen, 1955’s “The First Echelon”; Urusevsky also shot with Pudovkin, Donskoi and Grigori Chukrai). Once you’ve steeped yourself in the film’s magical waters, go to Vicente Ferraz’s “I Am Cuba — The Siberian Mammoth” (2005), a new and addictive chronicle included in the cigar box, which returns to the places and personnel from the production, and tells us perhaps too much about how the film achieved its transcendent grandeur, amid the lingering vapors of the 1962 missile crisis — the imported cranes, suspended cameras, chemical infusions, camera-operator relay races and a shooting period that lasted almost two years, lengthened by days spent waiting for “interesting” clouds. Kino, kino, kino!, as Guy Maddin has said.

Hunting little-publicized mammoths in its own way, Jennifer Baichwal’s “Manufactured Landscapes” is the year’s most chilling horror film, a cold-stare portrait of planetary waste that makes “An Inconvenient Truth” look like, well, an Al Gore lecture. Baichwal simply follows photographer Edward Burtynsky, documenting his process, showing his work and often dollying through the locations he’s studying — which are all unimaginably huge, unfathomably grotesque and morally nauseating arenas of human industrial destruction, from dumping sites to decommissioned mines to dehumanized manufacturing operations to poisoned landscapes glowing with radioactive colors. Properly, Baichwal uses Burtynsky only as a guide into these circumstances; his art stands for itself, and so does Baichwal’s unnarrated footage, leaving it less a movie about an artist — fine and good — than about the world he struggles to depict. Numbers can bounce off of us, but these images don’t, resonating with guilt and culpability, and breathtaking in scale. It’s a new, freshly-sharpened effort to jostle us from our it’s-a-shame middle-class complacency, but that becomes part of the film’s subject, too, questioning without a word why some areas of the world sit under a billion tons of our industries’ toxic refuse and some don’t.

“I Am Cuba” (Milestone) and “Manufactured Landscapes” (Zeitgeist) will be available on DVD November 20th.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



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.