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List: The Recession Jam

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By Michelle Orange

A right-minded woman from England once said, “I write about love and money. What else is there?” And if Jane Austen were alive and running a movie studio today, she’d find her two-pronged sensibility more sensible than ever — particularly that second bit. Long a plot lynchpin for any number of genres — heist, noir and western in particular — money and how to get it has been the focus of a fistful of this year’s films, suggesting a niche of their own for these tough times: The Recession Jam.

Whether it be by dint of timing or more prescient design, several films either touched on or took as their central focus the plight of Americans living on the economic edge, and what lengths they will resort to to make ends meet. The following is a list of films that provide a little company for your misery, a little escapism for those that prefer it, and a couple of laughs, if you can manage them through your broke-ass tears.

12292008_frozenriver.jpg“Frozen River”

Recession Jam: Shafted by her husband just before Christmas, Ray (Melissa Leo), a mother of two working for minimum wage in upstate New York, doesn’t have the money to pay for the new double-wide trailer she has promised her boys.

Resort: Human smuggling

Courtney Hunt’s debut may go a little pear-shaped in the end, but Ray Eddy is like a Mildred Pierce for the new millennium — you get the feeling she would have taken the waitressing gig Mildred worried was beneath her, but the job just isn’t there. When Ray’s old beater of a car is stolen, she tracks it to the trailer of a Native American woman and becomes involved in a racket of trafficking illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence river, a portion of which is on the reservation and therefore out of state jurisdiction. Ray’s elder son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) lets his own consumer lust lead him into credit card fraud, and eventually the whole family is on the brink of homelessness.

“Wendy and Lucy”

Recession Jam: On her way to Alaska, the only place in the country that seems to be offering employment, Wendy (Michelle Williams) pulls into a Walgreens parking lot in an Oregon town, only to be unable to restart her car. Jiggling every morsel out of an econo-sized bag to feed her dog Lucy, Wendy crunches her meager numbers and finds that shit is just not adding up.

Resort: Shoplifting

It’s impulsive, an almost unconscious act of resistance more than that of desperation, but when Wendy boosts some dog food from a local supermarket, a chain reaction is set off: she is caught by an overzealous stockboy who calls the police, and while the cops take their time getting Wendy’s fingerprints at the station, Lucy remains tied up in the supermarket’s parking lot. Director Kelly Reichardt suggests Wendy’s world is unbearably fragile, so quickly reducible to the tiny, broken down car she sleeps in; with a couple of exceptions, everyone and everything outside of that sanctuary is indifferent or frustratingly out of reach. Reichardt’s style has been compared to that of the early neorealism of De Sica, with Wendy as a modern-day Antonio in “The Bicycle Thief.” To me, she has more in common with little Bruno, who calls in terror and disbelief as his humiliated papa is hauled away. Fatherless on an epic scale, Williams’ hoodie-clad waif, huddled into the open car of a freight train in the final scene, wears the face of a child without a country.

12292008_zackandmiri.jpg“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”

Recession Jam: Roommates Zack and Miri are 28-year-olds barely getting by on their service industry wages when several bills come due.

Resort: Pornography

When the water, heat, and electricity are finally turned off in the dead of winter and they can no longer live by the warmth of their unrequited sexual tension, Zack and Miri decide the only surefire way to get by is to join one of the biggest economies in the country: porn. Director Kevin Smith is firing on all working class cylinders — from the vintage candy-colored iBook and maxed out credit cards to the setting of Pittsburgh, PA, where it’s always grey and slushy — and provides the rare example of a desperate solution actually leading to a happy (ergh) ending.


Recession Jam: Well, the film centers on 30-year-old living with a roommate — that’s close enough for me.

Resort: Pathological cheerfulness

Mike Leigh makes a recession jam out of North London, where the damp air and the
large urban sections resemble Michigan at its greyest, a place where you can always find a recession if you look hard enough. This time Leigh casts his lens on Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a schoolteacher who frugs obliviously on the brink of the disappearing middle class. She isn’t necessarily struggling to get by, but with her thrift store clothes and penchant for window shopping and binge drinking, Leigh seems to suggest that under similar circumstances, one with a temperament less disposed to make the best of absolutely everything would be feeling more pain.

12292008_babymma.jpg“Baby Mama”

Recession Jam: Located deep within the existential recession that is white trash-hood is Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), a Philly skid on the make.

Resort: Surrogate motherhood

Dudes have been donating sperm for beer money for decades, and girls soon got into the act with the even more lucrative business of egg donation, but the true mother lode is renting out your womb to the highest bidder, which is part of the premise for the Poehler-Tina Fey comedy. The most obvious of the many disparities between Fey’s corporate shill and Poehler’s shiftless homegirl is that of economic class, and yet without it, they never would have met. Interestingly, a plot point here matches that used in “Zack and Miri”: real estate being hijacked by corporate vultures (Fey’s organic food company encroaches on an independent smoothie store). We’re back to the land, it seems.

“Burn After Reading”

Recession Jam: Yes, all of the Coen brothers’ films are about money and greed, and their most recent is more directly in the vein of the black farce/heists amok they love, but the plight of gym wallahs Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) edge it in. They work for peanuts and they want more.

Resort: Blackmail

Chad and Linda think they’re onto something huge when they come across some largely indecipherable documents on a CD left at the gym by a former CIA agent’s (John Malkovich) secretary. They attempt to extort big money from the CIA agent in return for the disc and their silence about its contents so that Linda might be able to afford an obsessive course of plastic surgery. While Chad has the happy-go-lucky approach to relative disenfranchisement, Linda, chafing under economic restraint, has channeled her frustration into irrational dissatisfaction with her appearance. Black hilarity ensues.

12292008_madmoney.jpg“Mad Money”

Recession Jam: It seems even a government job doesn’t cut it. Three employees of the Federal Reserve are facing dire straights: Bridget (Diane Keaton) is in debt after her husband is laid off, while the others (Queen Latifah, Katie Holmes) work at a more menial level and can’t quite take care of business.

Resort: Embezzlement

This is a terrible movie notable mainly for the most blatant depiction of effing The Man on the list. We are meant to root for the three characters, all female, to get away with stealing millions from the government with a scheme of pocketing old currency destined to be destroyed. They’re absolved of the crime, but then the IRS becomes the enemy when they’re forced to deplete most of the loot for taxes. Never fear, a hidden stash is revealed in the final act. Hooray for embezzlement and tax evasion!


Recession Jam: Greed. Eyes bigger than wallets. Everything. We’re doomed.

Resort: Credit card debt; overspending; borrowing in general

This documentary (which I referred to elsewhere as “An Inconvenient Truth” for the economic crisis) illustrates, in terrifying detail, the exact depth and viscosity of the shit this country is in. Indebted to other countries for trillions of dollars and with a trade deficit that could threaten to sink us at any moment, large scale fiscal irresponsibility finds its counterpart in the tyranny of individual credit card and mortgage debt, a problem touched on here and more fully explored in the 2006 documentary, “Maxed Out.”

12292008_slumdogmillionaire.jpgHonorary Mentions/Satellite Jams: “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Trouble the Water”

One — a fable about an Indian slum boy who wins big on a game show — is feel-good but doesn’t deal with the United States, the other — a documentary about one woman’s experience of Hurricane Katrina in poorest New Orleans — is feel-bad, then feel a little better, and all too close to home. Unlike the films on the list, which focus mainly on white folks (because you know things are bad when they are suffering), these two films deal with brown people living in extreme poverty. Both are instructive: it’s important to remember that good things still happen, even if for now it’s only at the movies; and that things could always be worse, even when they’re worse than you ever remember them being before. I knew it before the recession, and before I saw these movies, but I know it better now: the best way to take care of yourself is to remember to look out for someone else. Happy New Year.

[Photos: “Frozen River,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” Weinstein Co, 2008; “Baby Mama,” Universal Pictures, 2008; “Mad Money,” Overture Films, 2008; “Slumdog Millionaire,” Fox Searchlight, 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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