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“Sicko,” “Basket Case 2”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Michael Moore in “Sicko,” Weinstein Company, 2007]

Here’s the thing about Michael Moore, beyond which all critical discourse has the import of self-entranced flatulence: he is an unsubtle slob with no respect for the ethics of discourse, but he is absolutely imperative. He routinely backloads his arguments, slants reality, makes unfair mockery, ignores mitigating material and draws simplistic conclusions, but he is virtually the only public figure in America who puts his movies where his mouth is in terms of believing in a few simple truths: that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to fuck us and our resources, that government should serve us and not vice-versa, that the self-serving lies politicians tell shouldn’t be indulged as “spin,” that capitalism is no excuse for exploitation, that economic equality is not only desirable and viable but necessary, that the citizen comes first, not the dollar. In other words, he’s a full-on, pragmatic, new-world-order socialist, and he’s not afraid to say so. As he says so plainly in “Sicko,” our fire departments and police forces and schools and libraries, socialized public services everyone loves, uses and is thankful for, are “free.” Why can’t our medical care be as well? Why isn’t everything socialized?

Well, because we live in an oligarchy, and the oligarchs, 1% of the population controlling 80% of the wealth, as a retired British Parliament member intones in the film, would lose their fortunes, and since they control the mainstream media and, essentially, all three branches of government, they will do whatever they need to do to insure that doesn’t happen. “Sicko” skims the surface with this basic reality, but the moments when the film matter-of-factly exposes the real machinery — the insurance company lobbyist payouts to supposedly moral politicians, the ex-claims reviewers who confess to having knowingly killed people by denying care, the same ex-Parliamentarian who shruggingly asserts that if England’s national health service were to be abolished by politics, “there’d be a revolution” — are holy-shit enough.

“Sicko” is of course required viewing, presenting case after case of honestly, seriously sick Americans reamed and often sent to their graves by insurance companies, whose sole evident purpose is to absorb as much in premiums as possible while resorting to any means necessary, even de facto homicide, in order to prevent having to pay out claims. Along the way — a trip that ends up with claim-denied 9/11 rescue workers in Cuba, yet another socialized-medicine nation far higher up than the U.S. on every health standard scale — Moore loads his dice mercilessly, painting a Shangri-La picture of free medical care life in Canada, France and England (and, in the DVD’s supps, Norway, routinely number one among the world’s nations for health, happiness and crime prevention). Even a sympathetic viewer knows Moore is leaving out the gray — France, say, has a good deal of trouble with medical care in rural areas (as every country does), and doctor visits, though quick, readily available, proficient and unencumbered by bureaucracy, aren’t quite free (they’re just cheap, much cheaper than the most modest U.S. annual insurance premium). Ambivalences are discarded; why are no poor people interviewed in the socialized countries, and only the poor in the U.S. are? It’s easy to assume why: because the relative situations are complex, probably too complex for a mere feature film to unentwine. But that’s Moore’s peculiar position in the public sphere: he’s an activist (not, please, one in the practice of “propaganda,” which should, by my lights, be redefined as persuasive media designed by state power, not individuals acting in resistance to that power). Moore isn’t interested in fighting fair or attempting a “balance”; he’s scrapping with Karl Rove, Rupert Murdoch and Sean Hannity on their own terms, and movies like “Sicko” aren’t freestanding essays on social issues, but fireball volleys hurled across the landscape. Inciting social change — Moore’s real target — is more important than the integrity of cinema, and who could argue? So, the films tend to shoot low, beneath the eye level of the educated audience who commonly see documentaries and more directly at the brain pans of Americans for whom passionate criticism of Fox News would come as a shock. The movies might suffer, but the country might benefit.

Shooting low was never an issue for psychotronic legend Frank Henenlotter, whose 1990 Bosch-on-sweet-air triumph “Basket Case 2” has emerged on DVD — as potent as metaphoric discomfitures as his films all are, Henenlotter’s narrative-visual style can accurately be described as yowl-slither-splooge-splat. A giggly, New York alley-trash cousin to Cronenberg by way of E.C. Comics and sideshow taboo, Henenlotter made his first film, 1981’s “Basket Case,” so cheaply the lights are rarely turned on, but the parable about a Times Square inhabitant plagued by his separated-at-birth, basket-dwelling “half-brother” is so loaded with urban-Gothic family dread that the subtext is barely sub-. The sequel hyperextends the Tennessee Williams-with-slime-monsters scenario away from fraternal angst and toward social conflict, happening upon an entire commune of ludicrously distorted freaks with which Belial the throat-ripping mound with arms and his “normal” twin Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) become intimate, as the evil world of ordinary humans threatens the secret community’s respect for “differences” from the outside. Henenlotter knew some of us were wondering if Belial was sexually active, and so he showed us. Acted terribly but with wild-eyed zest, Henenlotter’s magnum opus remains biting for the outrageous subtexts (biological, sexual, racial, you name it) worming around not far beneath the even more outrageous surface. After this and the same year’s “Frankenhooker,” the filmmaker only managed to straight-to-video his trilogy capper, “Basket Case 3,” in 1992; since then, what’s happened? No matter; Henenlotter is polishing up his first film in 15 years (“Bad Biology”), and it should be hitting some kind of daylight next year.

“Sicko” (Weinstein Company) will be available on DVD November 6th; “Basket Case 2” (Synapse Films) is now available on DVD.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

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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