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From Russia With Obviousness

From Russia With Obviousness (photo)

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Somewhere between the 40- and 60-minute marks of Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12,” a sparrow flies through a window into the school gymnasium that’s serving as an ad hoc jury room for a supposedly routine Moscow homicide case. This is unusual for one or two reasons, the most obvious of which is that it’s the dead of winter. (The window isn’t open, mind you; it’s broken, as is forcefully pointed out by one juror who sees the gym’s sorry shape as emblematic of “40 years of running in place.”) This ups the ante for what’s already shaping up to be an overstuffed socially conscious allegory with its roots in the American, um, classic “12 Angry Men.” “This is it,” this viewer thought, a trifle giddily, remembering an old song by King Missile; “this is mystical shit.”

Because, really, if you’re going to make a self-aggrandizing quasi-allegorical modern epic (160 minutes!) about the state of contemporary Russia, encompassing not just the Chechen problem but the Communist problem, the Jewish problem, the gangster problem, the entrepreneurial problem, the drug problem, the building corruption problem, the culture problem and every other damn problem, why not have a sparrow fly into the proceedings and provide occasional chirpy commentary before setting up an explicitly religious punch line? “12”‘s conceit is, initially, every bit as simple as that of the Reginald Rose/Sidney Lumet drama; after a disorienting montage of what we’ll later learn were scenes from the defendant’s childhood, the director places 12 putatively representative types, all male in this case, into a makeshift jury room in order to deliberate over a seemingly simple crime. An orphaned Chechen adolescent is accused of murdering the Russian Army officer who adopted him and brought him back to Moscow. Of course he did it, the first line of thought goes. These Chechens are all animals, one of the smirkiest of this group of middle-aged guys notes. But wait! A soulful engineer (Sergei Makovetsky) stands up and tells his sad life story, building up to the conclusion that, you know, the quality of mercy is not strained. Then an elderly Jew (Valentin Gaft) takes up that theme. He gets a lot of guff from the smirky guy. And then a surgeon from the Caucasus (Sergei Gazarov) waxes profound, albeit in shaky Russian, on cultural rifts. And so on, and so on. And then they get around to actually considering the evidence. And then all of the jurors but one — no, not the smirky guy, who turns out to be a cab driver with major women issues (Sergey Garmash) — gets to undergo a dark night of the soul. It’s only after all this that the jury foreman — played by director Mikhalkov, very probably as himself, articulates the conundrum that will be the young Chechen’s fate regardless of the verdict.

03042009_12movie2.jpgAnd if that isn’t enough…well, while the Rose/Lumet film stuck to the confines of the jury room — that was part of the whole formal challenge of the piece, to keep within boundaries without seeming stage-bound — Mikhalkov throws in a whole lot of bombastic flashbacks to the war that the Chechen child was caught up in. These are, admittedly, executed with some brio. Of particular distinction is a truly harrowing firefight that breaks out in two seemingly blasted-out, deserted buildings. Then there are the frequent shots of the defendant pacing in his cell, and eventually breaking out in a Chechen dance that made this viewer wish for Russia to reinstate its death penalty, just for this guy. That sounds glib, but you watch it. Mikhalkov also frequently cuts to a flashback shot of a smoky battlefield, homing in on a dog trotting towards the camera, in blurry focus, with a large object in its mouth. The reveal of the large object is saved for the very end — the better to contrast with that sparrow, you see, but it won’t surprise anybody who’s seen “Yojimbo.”

The polish of the filmmaking here collides with a crudity of thought so staggering as to make “12” something of a unique object. If you, like myself, found the Rose/Lumet film schematic, heavy-handed and well-intentioned to a fault, well, Mikhalkov’s take on the material may cause your mind to split open. As ridiculous as this will sound, it’s the truth: this bombastic film is to its inspiration what the “1812 Overture” is to “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”


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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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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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.