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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.


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.