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“Lars and the Real Girl,” “The Dragon Painter”

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04152008_larsandtherealgirl.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

One of 2007’s breakout indie hits, “Lars and the Real Girl” was just high-profile enough, profitable enough, acted-by-Ryan-Gosling- within-an-inch-of-its-life enough and conspicuously life-affirming enough to, in the end, warrant a substantial backlash. But a backlash descends every year on overpumped movies as naturally as autumn comes to summer, inevitably, and we need to keep in mind that backlash is as irrelevant to the movie in question as is the hype and popularity that spawned it. In an ideal world, we’d see movies in a vacuum unpoisoned by publicity plague dogs and self-aggrandizing bloggers and clueless critics. Instead, we’re inundated with cant that is predominantly interested in itself and its opponents, not in the movie as it would be seen, by itself, a year or ten down the road. We need to remember, for instance, that while “Juno” didn’t deserve any sort of Oscar, and was far too irritatingly snarky in its dialogue, and bordered on racism in its conservative narrative set-up, the film was still witty and sharply acted and made even Jennifer Garner seem like an actress.

Craig Gillespie’s “Lars” deserves better than backlash, despite — and I’ll say this up front — being finally too sentimental by half, and mysteriously oblivious to the issue of mental illness. Written by Nancy Oliver, who put in her years in the “Six Feet Under” writers’ room, “Lars” more or less begins with a Buñuelian idea (shades of “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”): a mentally impacted man, grieving for his dead mother, solves the problem of his lonely neurotic existence by ordering a life-sized, anatomically correct sex doll, and then puts her forward to his family and close-knit Midwest community as his new, wheelchair-bound girlfriend. What comes of that for us, in the endurance of scene after scene, is a queasy balance between ghastly comedy and devastating melancholy — we’re never instructed by the movie to react one way or the other about Lars’s blank-eyed insistence on the doll’s humanness, so every sequence is an undulating bout of subjective seasickness, a feat achieved solely through the concept and its sincere execution. Every shot featuring “Bianca” is a masterpiece of painful surrealistic farce. But then the film becomes something else; the focus imperceptibly shifts away from Lars-as-problematic-protagonist and onto the busily populated neighborhood around him, who for their own reasons accept Lars’s doll as a real person, and end up inadvertently allowing Lars to find an emotional escape hatch out of the impossible corner into which he’s painted himself.

That “inadvertently” is a key to the shapeliness of Oliver’s story. True, someone in such a cohesive community would think to get Lars professional help, and the movie’s ultimate resolution is a little hard to swallow. But along the way, Gillespie’s film begins at a unique spot, balancing cataclysmically hilarious social unease and beautifully wrought family tragedy, and then, as an answer to both, paints one of the most convincing and generous portraits of small town American life that audiences have seen in years. It’s an easy movie to be cynical about (though impossible to ignore the performances; even Gosling’s characteristically leveling portrayal was overshadowed, I thought, by Paul Schneider as Lars’s guilty, exhausted brother and Emily Mortimer as his relentlessly proactive sister-in-law). And if only the film arrived at its pathos and affection cheaply, unoriginally and/or dishonestly, then I could understand why.

04152008_thedragonpainter.jpgAn antique sample of outsider cinema also produced within the American system, William Worthington’s “The Dragon Painter” (1919) comes to DVD as if returning from the underworld, where lost films are ordinarily consigned to flames. A gentle, unpretentious fable about a crazy hermit artist in the mountain wilds of Japan who, when he finds true love, loses his genius, the film is a historic remnant of a bygone age of specialized-audience moviemaking, when films (silent, and therefore without language barriers) were made with ghetto markets in mind. So, alongside the Yiddish cinema, the silents dedicated to Eastern European immigrants and the post-slave culture barnstormers of Oscar Micheaux, there was a subgenre of melodrama made in Hollywood exclusively for expatriated Asian viewers. Naturally, “The Dragon Painter” may therefore be the only American film we’ve seen from the first 60 years of the medium’s existence that treats Asian characters with respect and dignity. That is, until any of dozens of other films featuring its star Sessue Hayakawa emerge from the darkness — Hayakawa became famous again in 1957 with an Oscar win as the camp captain in David Lean’s “The Bridge On the River Kwai,” but in the silent years, he was enough of a Hollywood star to warrant the formation of his own production company, Haworth Pictures, under which auspices “The Dragon Painter” was made. (With the advent of sound, he moved his career to Japan.) The DVD comes with a bonus feature, 1914’s “The Wrath of the Gods,” multiple DVD-ROM texts, original scripts, and a 1921 comedy short in the “Screen Snapshots” series, co-starring Hayakawa and Fatty Arbuckle.

[Photos: “Lars and the Real Girl,” MGM, 2007; “The Dragon Painter,” New Yorker/Milestone]

“Lars and the Real Girl” (MGM) and “The Dragon Painter” (New Yorker Video) 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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