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“Kilometre Zero,” “Lubitsch Musicals”

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03032008_kilometrezero.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

The idea of a “national” cinema, expressive of a particular and coherent cultural esprit, is a standard of most cinematic intercourse — until you confront the real map, in which Kosovar cinema is now primed to forge an identity of its own (as the Serbs and Slovenians have done), the ex-Soviet nations of the Silk Road are struggling to differentiate themselves from Russian film and the nationless movies of the Basque, the Romany and the Palestinians still hunt for footing and voice. Add to this gray zone the films of Kurdistan, a non-country standing nevertheless with its own army, government and debatable borders, and a nascent cinema rising with the ascent of the Iranian new wave and from the crater of the American occupation. Even within this context, Hiner Saleem is filmmaker on the roam — an Iraqi Kurd long expatriated to France, Saleem has made seven features, two in France, two in Armenia and three, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in Iraqi Kurdistan. But he’s a Kurd first and only, and if Saleem and compatriot Bahman Ghobadi are any indication, Kurdish films exude a distinctive sort of mordant comedy, a rueful folky toughness and ardor for luckless absurdity born out of centuries of persecution and only a few years of reasonable hope for legit nationhood.

Saleem’s fifth film (the second to be seen here, after 2003’s superb and acidic Armenian farce “Vodka Lemon”), “Kilometre Zero” (2005) is his inaugural return to Iraq, and in 86 lean, sand-blasted minutes he takes on the memories of the Saddam regime as experienced by a luckless Kurd during the Iran-Iraq War of the ’80s. Ako (Nazmi Kirik) is a Kurdish husband with a luscious wife (Turkish-Kurd cover girl Belcim Bilgin, no hint of Sharia law here) who gets arrested and shanghaied into serving in the war with Iran on the other side of the country. Kirik is a gawky, googly-eyed nebbish, the perfect silent comedy foil for Saleem’s threadbare depiction of life at the front, comprised of random explosions, crazy Saddam propaganda, summary executions and disciplinary beatings. Eventually, during a siege, Ako takes to jutting his foot into the air out of his foxhole, hoping to have it shot off. His wish of disengagement comes true when he’s assigned to accompany a hired taxi driver back across Iraq with a KIA coffin strapped to the roof. The journey back is Saleem’s masterstroke — traversing a barren landscape with corpse, Ako and his irate Arab driver (Eyam Ekrem) are constantly being halted at checkpoints and told to park until nightfall, lest the civilians get upset at the sight of their flag-draped cargo. Along the way, as identically laden taxis proliferate to form a caravan on the highway, the two men face off and confront their ethnic animosities, but settle nothing. Saleem’s style is never wishy-washy, exhibiting visual confidence, subtle screwball rhythms and deadpan compositions, making “Kilometre Zero” a discombobulating jaunt for anyone expecting any kind of definitive Kurdish-state-of-mind movie, much less an “Iraqi” film made amidst an ongoing occupation and civil war. But belying expectations seems to be in the Kurdish DNA.

03032008_onehourwithyou.jpgExpatriation suited Hollywood legend Ernst Lubitsch well enough, when he came off a string of fiercely witty silent farces in Expressionism-era Germany and arrived in 1923 Hollywood to direct one lavishly praised and audience beloved hit after another. He even jumped to sound with uncanny ease a few years later, and virtually invented, in his own Teutonic-vaudeville way, the movie musical. Today, the new Criterion Eclipse set of early Lubitsch films for Paramount is not only a four-step lesson in how Hollywood was taught by Lubitsch to make a stiff and unforgiving technological handicap into a feather-light form of audio-visual confection; the four movies — “The Love Parade” (1929), “Monte Carlo” (1930), “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931), and “One Hour With You” (1932) — are also entrancing gray heavens of impish élan, barely disguised sex talk and the toast-dry comic timing Lubitsch had already made famous back home. The goofy songs are secondary, though adorable for their antique joy, and the performers are front and center: In three out of four, Maurice Chevalier could be unctuously dopey when allowed to stage-leer, but watch him do chagrined and exasperated and you see Lubitsch’s fine-tuning at its most essential. (He is substituted rather adroitly by song-and-dance stalwart Jack Buchanan in “Monte Carlo.”)

Also in three out of four (Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins are required to replace her in “The Smiling Lieutenant”) is Lubitsch discovery Jeanette MacDonald, who’s still famous for the enervatingly pious and stuffy musicals she made in the ’30s with Nelson Eddy, but who is a discovery here, ridiculously sexy and game and saucer-eyed. Her bratty grin might’ve been the filthiest in Golden Age Hollywood. The films are variations on the Ruritanian royalty romance template (“One Hour With You” steers clear of fake peerage aristocracy, but it’s also, naturally, the most assured of the bunch), and all are, with their silk nighties and vaguely veiled innuendo, absolutely pre-Code. These were movies made not for some mythical dull-minded Depression-era innocents, but for sexually active grown-ups brimming with spunk and irony and attuned to Lubitsch’s approach, which could suggest entire unshowable scenarios with a shrug or a smirk or a raised eyebrow.

[Photos: “Kilometre Zero,” First Run Features; “One Hour With You,” Paramount Pictures, 1932]

“Kilometre Zero” (First Run Features) and “Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals” (Criterion Collection) are now available on DVD.

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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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