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Feature: Bush Movies in Obama’s America

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01122009_quantumofsolace.jpgBy Matt Singer

President-elect Barack Obama doesn’t take office until January 20th. His effect on foreign policy, the economy, and the environment won’t be known for months, even years after that. But before he’s even set foot in the Oval Office, Obama’s election has already had an impact on the world of film.

Movies, at least the ones made by the major Hollywood studios, are enormous undertakings. They take hundreds of millions of dollars and several years to envision, produce and distribute. The world they’re released into is often a very different one from the world in which they were conceived. A movie made for an America run by President George W. Bush could look very different in one that’s just voted for Barack Obama.

Take, for instance, the latest James Bond adventure, “Quantum of Solace.” The 21st century 007, played by Daniel Craig, bears little resemblance to the one played by Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan. He doesn’t sleep with a lot of women; he falls in love with one, then obsesses over her when she’s murdered. He doesn’t quip, he questions; and particularly in “Quantum of Solace,” he’s beset by all sorts of moral quandaries that the Bonds of the past were too busy shagging and shooting to ponder: Should he seek revenge against the people who killed his lover? How far should he go to find them and hurt them?

As President Bush’s foreign policy decisions came under greater and greater scrutiny, even the typically escapist world of action films began to address, however obliquely, the feelings of a country growing ambivalent about its involvement in wars around the world. Heroes like Craig’s James Bond, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne and Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne struggle with finding the appropriate response to loss. To varying degrees, they all have to decide whether punishing the guilty is enough to alleviate their own guilt. But the “Bourne” trilogy ended last year while the President was still firmly ensconced in Washington; “The Dark Knight” was released this summer and the film served, in some ways, as a final summation of various Bush-era attitudes on terrorism. “Quantum of Solace” came to U.S. theaters on November 14th, just 10 days after Election Day and its accompanying vote for change. Even though he would have felt right at home a few months earlier, with the nation’s mood turning more upbeat, a dour, moody Bond suddenly felt out of place. Intended to be completely of the moment, he wound up hopelessly out of date.

01122009_w.jpgA similar problem was faced by Oliver Stone’s “W.,” which sped through the production process during the summer to ensure its release less than a month before the election. But regardless of the circumstances behind the scenes, no sense of urgency actually made it into the finished product, a surprisingly toothless apologia for the Bush presidency. A superb lead performance from Josh Brolin notwithstanding, Stone’s intentions and ambitions remain unclear: if you’re going to have the audacity to make a movie about the flaws and mistakes of a sitting president disapproved of by three-fourths of the country, why do it to take pity on him? Audiences weren’t too sure either; the movie made less than $30 million at the box office.

Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” took pity on its presidential subject, too. Howard’s Nixon, like Stone’s Bush, is flawed but not without redeeming qualities. Though he suffers from a martyr complex, and still refuses to acknowledge his hand in the Watergate scandal, Nixon, as played by Frank Langella, is witty, charming and fiercely intelligent. The image of a deeply unpopular president belatedly fessing up to his mistakes after years of stonewall denials in “Frost/Nixon” calls to mind President Bush and his repeated insistence of a justification for the war in Iraq. But if Howard intended the film to serve as wish fulfillment for a frustrated country, the current president himself provided his own shocking anticlimax when, on December 1st, during the very week “Frost/Nixon” went into limited release, President Bush told ABC News’ Charles Gibson that the intelligence failure in Iraq was his “biggest regret of all the presidency.”

Some activists expressed their own regret that Gus Van Sant’s biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, didn’t arrive in theaters before voters got to cast their ballot on California’s Proposition 8, the initiative that restricted the state constitution’s definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and which passed on the same day of Obama’s election. But “Milk,” which would be a touching and powerful story in any political climate, seemed bioengineered to serve as the first movie of the Obama presidency. Milk, like Obama, got his start in politics as a community organizer. When he campaigned for his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he articulated a message that would be echoed on the popular Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster that became the unofficial image of the Obama campaign. “We’ve gotta give ’em hope,” Milk says. “Without hope, life isn’t worth living.”

01122009_milk.jpgAs we see in “Milk,” some of the man’s best work was done in reaction to the efforts of his enemies, as when he led the demonstrations through the Castro district in reaction to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, the guiding force behind Proposition 6, a California ballot initiative that would’ve made it legal to deny housing and jobs to openly gay people in 1978. While the parallels between the political climates of the two eras are striking, “Milk” is ultimately not about what happens on Election Day, but about the positive change that can happen as a result of adversity. Instead of looking back over what has been lost in the past, like the James Bond of “Quantum of Solace,” “Milk” teaches us to look to the future. What changes will come over the next four years under President Obama remains to be seen, as will the nature of the films that are produced during them. The best we can hope for are heroes as relevant to tomorrow as Harvey Milk is to today.

[Photos: “Quantum of Solace,” Columbia Pictures, 2008; “W.,” Lionsgate, 2008; “Milk,” Focus Features, 2008]

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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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