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Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime (photo)

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On stage with the cast of her latest movie at the Toronto Film Festival last September, Kathryn Bigelow leaned in closely to the microphone to dramatically proffer this greeting to the audience right before the lights went down: “Welcome…to ‘The Hurt Locker.'”

The invitation suggested that we were about to enter both a specific physical place (Baghdad in summer 2004) and psychic space (traumatized warrior masculinity). Once in, there would be no over-explanation, little backstory, no maudlin psychologizing; Bigelow’s film, written by Mark Boal, who spent several weeks embedded with a U.S. Army bomb squad in Iraq, is an assiduous re-creation of rituals, an accrual of tiny details. Calling “The Hurt Locker” the best of the films about the second U.S.-Iraq war — which it is — may sound like damning it with faint praise. More laudably, it is an undeniably visceral experience.

“The Hurt Locker” wastes no time in establishing its sweaty tension, opening with a detonation and a death. Three members of the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal — Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and squad leader Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) — have a little more than a month left in their rotation. Eldridge, the most fragile of the trio, is suffering from PTSD and checks in occasionally with the squad’s shrink (Christian Camargo). Though he has a steelier constitution, Sanborn cannot wait to get back home — unlike James, who thrives on defusing IEDs and whose recklessness often puts Eldridge and Sanborn in danger. Sanborn initially calls James a “redneck piece of trailer trash,” but soon the two come to respect each other deeply — a love that’s expressed by beating the hell out of each other.

As James shucks his 100-pound protective suit to figure out the best way to disentangle a trunkful of IEDs, Renner plays the character as inscrutable: Is he a psychopath? An imperturbable professional? Is his character named for the father of American pragmatism, who once famously said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to”? Bigelow’s film is not interested in judging, but observing: how Sanborn sips from a juice box while never taking his eyes off his target in the desert, the kite in the sky after a man blows up in the middle of the road, the use of saliva to clean blood off ammunition. “War is a drug,” a title card states at the beginning of the film. What “The Hurt Locker” shows so well is what happens to those who keep upping their dosage of the narcotic and to those who just say no.

06242009_AfghanStar.jpgOther coping strategies for life during wartime are uncovered in Havana Marking’s documentary “Afghan Star,” which might have been subtitled “Dance, Dance Revolution.” In 2004, the Taliban-enforced ban on music and dancing was finally lifted in Afghanistan; the next year, the war-torn nation began broadcasting its own “American Idol”-like TV show. Viewers vote for their favorite Afghan Star by mobile phone — the first experience for many Afghanis with the democratic process (even if that includes stuffing the ballot box). Marking’s film follows four finalists, including, remarkably, two women of vastly different sensibilities: the steely yet pious Lema, a 25-year-old from Kandahar (“May God be merciful so that people vote for me”) and 21-year-old convention-flouting Setara from Herat (“I always act according to my emotions”).

“The bend of your eyebrows is like the sting of the scorpion,” Setara sings in one of the semifinal rounds; with lyrics like that, you wish Marking had included more performance footage. The director does show, however, the stunning moment when Setara, swaying innocuously to the beat onstage, unveils her hair: restrictions on dancing may have been loosened, but not for women on national TV — especially those who let their headscarves slip. Marking interviews men who say the singer should be killed; Setara must go into hiding in Kabul before she can return home.

Lema gleefully announces that the Taliban (predominantly Pashtun, like her) are SMS-ing for her to win; a title card at the end of the film announces that she would later receive Taliban-sponsored death threats. The two male finalists, Rafi and Hameed, are intriguing enough onscreen presences, but they can’t compete with the harrowing drama facing the women competitors. “If someone held a knife to my throat, I wouldn’t cry!” Lema, voted off, proclaims backstage to a cameraman who’s goading her to turn on the waterworks. “Afghan Star” may ultimately be too scattershot in its approach, but the story of its unlikely heroines definitely puts obsessing over whether or not Adam Lambert is coming out or the number of times Susan Boyle’s been smooched into perspective.

Melissa Anderson is our guest critic for the month of June.

“The Hurt Locker” opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 26th before expanding on July 10th; “Afghan Star” opens in New York on June 26th.

[Additional photo: Contestants Rafi Naabzada, left, and Lima Sahar, center, in “Afghan Star,” Zeitgeist Films, 2009]


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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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.