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American Earnestness and a French Soufflé

American Earnestness and a French Soufflé (photo)

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A cursory look at the filmography of writer-director Ramin Bahrani — and by “cursory,” I mean one not involving actually viewing any of his films — will suggest to many that he’s the kind of filmmaker who specializes in the oft-dreaded Movie That Is Good For You. His films invariably deal with cross-cultural exchange, or lack thereof; his characters are strangers in strange (albeit torn-from-today’s-headlines) lands. They are immigrants looking for ways of belonging, foreigners trying to make peace with their obscure pasts and other species of societal outcasts. A possible précis for Bahrani’s latest picture, “Goodbye Solo,” wouldn’t have to try terribly hard to make it sound like a cross between “Driving Miss Daisy” and Kiarostami’s “A Taste of Cherry.” The picture, set in Winston-Salem (where Bahrani himself was born) tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a cheery Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and a super-gruff, aged ex-biker named William, who Solo insists on calling “Big Dog” (Red West). William appears intent on offing himself on a particular date in a particular setting, and that’s something the big-hearted Solo can’t bring himself to understand at first. So he puts in some effort.

So far, so social-problem-served-up-with-moral-uplift-sounding. But those who’ve seen and enjoyed Bahrani’s prior features — the most recent were 2007’s “Chop Shop” and 2005’s “Man Push Cart” — know that the filmmaker offers quite a bit more than celluloid platitudes. His pictures teem not just with remarkable characterizations and performances, but have a visual acuity and sense of place that’s increasingly rare in any genre today. “Goodbye Solo” is his most directly engaging and moving film yet.

What makes Solo such a terrific screen concoction is that while he’s, shall we say, magical, he is not, to put it another way, Magical. Yes, he’s unusually big-hearted, and in his dealings with everybody — his smart, sassy, but hardly uber-cute stepdaughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), his no-nonsense, pregnant wife Quiera (Carmen Leyva), even Roc, the surly drug dealer who’s a regular cab client and who doesn’t think much of Solo’s ambitions to give up driving and become a flight attendant — he always takes a generous, life-affirming stance. But he can be hopelessly, stupidly naïve, which explains why he’s got a drug dealer as a regular client in the first place. “I’m a very curious person,” he tells his interlocutors when he goes for the flight attendant exam. Curious to a potentially intrusive fault, as it happens. His way of understanding William and his past is the way of a pest; a stalker, even. This is, we understand, a function of Solo’s essential innocence, but it doesn’t make things any less occasionally creepy.

The performances here are of the type that critics like to call miraculous. Savane’s easy smile finds a fascinating counterpart with his deep, searching, entirely serious eyes. And West, a former Elvis bodyguard (he can be seen on the peripheries of “Viva Las Vegas,” “Kid Galahad” and nearly a dozen other lesser vehicles of the King) and stalwart character player, doesn’t show an actorly or sentimental bone in his portrayal of William. No, he is that crusty old bastard at the far end of the bar, the one who can be a lot of edgy laughs when he’s in the right mood but whom you’d best keep the hell away from when he’s not. Pulling everything together is the blessed eye that Bahrani shares with cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and how it particularly illuminates everything it presents to the viewer. The blue gleam of Solo’s flashy-cheap car radio, the warm, seedy glow of the bar where Solo heedlessly shoots pool with some playas of his acquaintance, the glorious autumnal forest to which Solo drives Big Dog, in accordance with his wishes, at the film’s climax. All that and everything else.

03252009_spinningintobutter3.jpgSpeaking of Movies That Are Supposed To Be Good For You, boy, is director Mark Brokaw’s “Spinning Into Butter,” adapted by Doug Atchison and Rebecca Gilman from Gilman’s stage play, a particularly ripe example of such. Here, Sarah Jessica Parker plays a dean at a tony New England college, where she’s horrified to discover that a shy African-American freshman has been targeted with racist threats. The tone-deaf and ineffectual administration of the school reacts by staging a few lame “Focus on Race” symposiums. These wind up looking like open calls for a production of “Rent,” wherein the ethnically diverse participants fail to find a common cause, and fights break out. Parker’s dean, and, I suppose, the prospective audience, are educated as to why “Nuyorican” does not equal “Puerto Rican” and sure as friggin’ hell does not equal “Hispanic,” although this parsing of the intricacies of identity politics did not so much generate sympathy with this viewer so much as it led him to wonder whether latter-day anti-affirmative-action activists might not have a point after all.

The pejorative phrase “like a TV movie” has lost a lot of its currency in recent years, as produced-for-television movies and series have, for some, started outstripping “real” movies in terms of both pertinence and craft; for all that, “Spinning Into Butter” embodies pretty much everything that was once meant by that characterization. Zero visual inspiration, thoroughly flat lighting and writing so tediously on-the-nose that it makes Haggis’ “Crash” sound like Samuel Beckett — that sort of thing. Oh, and just you wait until you find out who’s behind the notes, and, later, the noose hung from a tree. Wholly crap!


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.