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Straight Outta Digi: The Best Non-Theatrical Debuts of ’07

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Nao Omori and Shinobu Terajima in “Vibrator,” Kino Video, 2007]

So, here’s the return of the Revenge of the Straight-to-Video Best-of muster roll because, as we should all know by now, fewer films can be (or at least are) affordably shown theatrically than ever before, and as a result, scores of worthwhile movies see their first “release” in the U.S. on DVD every year. But where are the kudos? A film that premieres on disc can’t qualify for inclusion in critics’ polls and award systems, despite the fact that the receipts are often higher than a specialty theatrical run would garner since the rentable/buyable indie or import in question is far more accessible (Amazonable, Netflixable, etc.) and can be seen by more people. Of course, some of this year’s standouts are decades old, so blame and shame cannot be laid solely upon contemporary distributors; perhaps, instead of kvetching, we should declare a toast to the digital video formats we have and ones to come, which as they keep people home and from tossing a ten-spot at the newest tripe, also democratize and egalitarianize the history of cinema. Skol!

1. “Vibrator” (Dir. Ryuichi Hiroki, 2003; Kino) [Amazon link]

Japanese ultra-naturalism-cum-subjective plunge, tracing the ersatz romance between an unstable bulimic girl (the amazing Shinobu Terajima) and a slack but sweet-natured truck driver (Nao Omori). Urban cool, until it sneaks up to your soft side with a sledgehammer.

2. “Pitfall” (Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962; Criterion Collection) [Amazon link]

Teshigahara’s feature debut: A miner and his son, escaping from slave-like employment, wander into the remains of a deunionized coal mining town, followed by a company assassin and faced with the town’s population of company-murdered ghosts soon after. “Pitfall” was the most impressive film debut of 1962, beating out, I dare say, even Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood.”

3. “Wooden Crosses” (Dir. Raymond Bernard, 1932; Eclipse) [Amazon link]

Arguably the greatest of the early talkie WWI antiwar sagas, beating out Milestone’s revered “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Gance’s “J’Accuse” (partly because the film is peerlessly cynical about military life and its purpose), this lost and found resonator follows a ramshackle regiment of French trench soldiers in a seemingly pointless undulation between irreverent downtime camaraderie and combat experiences that are tantamount to running into a plane propeller.

4. “FIVE dedicated to Ozu” (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2003; Kino) [Amazon link]

On one hand, AK’s mega-minimalist experiment is the antithesis of everything we take movies to be — momentum, speed, energy, character, story, glamour, visual saturation. On the other, it’s so winnowed down, so pure in its affect that it comes close to being distilled cinema — nothing but the ping-pong between images, your eyeballs, time, and your cerebral cortex acting and reacting, observing the film and itself in the process.

5. “Green Chair” (Dir. Park Chul-soo, 2005; ImaginAsian/Genius Products) [Amazon link]

A tempestuous, achingly lovely, slightly batty and overwhelmingly horny Korean romance that begins with a familiar news item: A thirty-something woman caught and persecuted for having a sexual relationship with an underage teen. But the upshot is much more complex — the two vrooming lovers fit together like ragged puzzle pieces; they have fun as they gamble everything that society holds dear to be together, and have more spirited, moving and realistic sex than I think I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie.

6. “On the Silver Globe” (Dir. Andrzej Zulawski, 1987; Polart) [Amazon link]

Torrential, notorious, incomplete, scary crazy Polish sci-fi — canceled in mid-shoot and reassembled after the fall of communism — by Europe’s reigning hyperbolist.

7. “Radio On” (Dir. Christopher Petit, 1979; Plexifilm) [Amazon link]

Rich in zeitgeisty goodness, Petit’s debut freeze-dries England on the dusk of the punk era in the backseat of a sullen roadtrip, during which the landscape does most of the talking.

8. “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (Dir. Catalin Mitulescu, 2006; Film Movement) [Amazon link]

The Romanian New Wave’s generational anthem film, returning yet again to the Ceauşescu regime and its downfall, but with a tempestuous high school heroine (Doroteea Petre, a trophy winner at Cannes) lost in the burgs who defies categorization. Might hit theaters in ’08.

9. “The Castle” (Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997; Kino) [Amazon link]

Haneke’s Austrian TV version of Kafka’s novel is so lean and wintry and moldy and claustrophobic, it may be a definitive adaptation.

10. “And Quiet Flows the Don” (Dir. Sergei Gerasimov, 1957; Kino) [Amazon link]

This five-and-a-half-hour epic is famously regarded as the “Gone With The Wind” of Soviet cinema — a rambling, episodic, and muscular peasant melodrama based on a novel by Nobelist Mikhail Sholokhov that follows two extremely unlucky lovers as they face untold tragedy before, during and after the October Revolution. But actually, it’s all about sex and the struggle between traditional agrarian-social values and the messy reality of sex desired, refused, consummated, forcibly taken and child-productive.

11. “Moscow Elegy” (Dir. Alexander Sokurov, 1987; Ideale Audience) [Amazon link]

Sokurov’s salute to his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky one year after the master’s death is personal without getting personal. Spare on biography, the film is an unaccented eulogy, a melancholy portrait of the man at work (on “Nostalghia” and “The Sacrifice”) and at repose. Typically, Sokurov finds reason to eulogize Russia as well in the mix of footage (some rough and small gauge, some old and found); being quintessentially Russian, he rarely abandons an opportunity to examine the mournfulness of the landscape that surrounds his subject.

12. “The Freethinker” (Dir. Peter Watkins, 1994; New Yorker Video) [Amazon link]

Watkins’ four-and-a-half-hour essay on the life and legacy of the famed Swedish playwright August Strindberg, the controversial misanthrope, notoriously disastrous family man and self-destructive genius, is no mere mock doc, but a collage of formal ideas that mixes faux-documentary elements with cohesive dramatization, archival footage, photos, huge chunks of Strindbergian text, direct camera address, group discussions, documentary footage of the making of the film itself, texts by Watkins about Strindberg, the film and Watkins’ outrageous, but indisputable, summary evaluation of modern media, and so on.

13. “Black Test Car” (Dir. Yasuzo Masumura, 1962; Fantoma) [Amazon link]

Running neck and neck with notorious auteur maudit Seijun Suzuki as the most outrageous and breakneck Japanese pulp force of the ’60s, Masumura is only now being revealed to us, one DVD at a time. This ridiculously feverish and visually elegant thriller about industrial espionage is another brick in a distinctive wall.

14. “The Doll” (Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1919; Kino) [Amazon link]

Midway through his German period, Lubitsch knocked out this cardboard fairy tale answer to “Lars and the Real Girl,” a year before “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Still witty as hell.

15. “The Call of Cthulhu” (Dir. Andrew Leman, 2005; Microcinema DVD) [Amazon link]

An “all-new silent” film, scrupulously faithful to H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal 1928 tale, that runs only 47 minutes but packs enough storytelling and energetic incident to fill out a mini-series. Leman et al. cut every corner and freely employ obvious miniatures to tell the tale within a tale within a tale, from the Providence streets all the way to the mid-Pacific night and the stop-motion appearance of the Old God himself. Manages to be creepy in a cheap, unstable, kids-pretending-in-the-woods kind of way.

Runners-up: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (Dir. David Lee Fisher, 2005; Image Entertainment), “Able Edwards” (Dir. Graham Robertson, 2004; Heretic Films), “Isolation” (Dir. Billy O’Brien, 2005; First Look Pictures), “Horrors of Malformed Men” (Dir. Teruo Ishii, 1969; Synapse Films), “Casshern” (Dir. Kasuaki Kiriya, 2004; Paramount Home Video), “The District” (Dir. Aron Gauder, 2004; Atopia). Special mention goes to the long-unseen and largely intolerable anti-film Jean Isidore Isou’s “Venom and Eternity” (1951), presented in Kino’s “Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema from 1928-1954” set, and a historical freak you need experience only once.

[Additional photo: “The Way I Spent The End of the World,” Film Movement, 2006]

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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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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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