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]


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.