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War of the Words

War of the Words (photo)

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For weeks now, I’ve heard fellow critics recommending Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” a film about a verbal blunder that leads to an international crisis, as a pinnacle of screwball satire, a treasure trove of absurd situations and quotable lines, a “Dr. Strangelove” for the new millennium. I understand the fuss: the state of movie comedy is so generally dismal that when one demonstrates any wit at all, we tend to react like desert travelers who’ve stumbled upon an oasis. But while I agree that “In the Loop” is a breezy, amusing, committed movie — writer-director Iannucci was responsible for the BBC’s “This is Alan Partridge,” the brilliant Steve Coogan vehicle that takes the early Albert Brooks school of miserable jerk comedy as far as it can go — I wasn’t bowled over. It’s good, very good, but visually and rhythmically unremarkable and ultimately pretty thin. And there’s a disconnect between the film’s style and tone (laid-back to the point of triviality) and its subject matter (a series of gaffes and opportunistic schemes that turns the possibility of war into probability) that condemns it to be diverting instead of revelatory.

Like a less dire cousin of “Strangelove,” which showed how aggressive words and mindless posturing could spiral into genocidal brinksmanship, “In the Loop” finds humor in the sight of smart people putting ego and appetite ahead of common sense. During a radio interview, a British government minister named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) bumblingly describes the possibility of war in the Middle East as “unforeseeable,” a word that his colleagues, the press and the public micro-analyze in much the same way that people used to pore over former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s adjectives, adverbs and body language, hoping to discern what he was really getting at. The central joke — and it’s a good one — is that the word “unforeseeable” was just a placeholder, something to say in lieu of actually saying something. But in such an anxious environment, people want to be reassured that war is either (a) not inevitable, or (b) probable, thanks to Factors A, B and C, all of which the government is doing its best to address. The world needs its politicians to be vague at the same time that it despises their vagueness; public servants are under continual pressure to stand for something in particular and to be all things to all people. So far, so good.

07152009_intheloop.jpgBut the film shoots itself in the foot early by adopting a faux-verite style that seems more a go-to filmmaking cliché (via Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries and both versions of “The Office”) than an organic expression of the story and themes. (It’s like how every freaking animated feature released these days has to be three-dimensional CG, in Pixar style.) And although Iannucci’s screenplay tries to highlight the characters’ self-involved twittishness (alternating political encounters with potentially grave implications and silly private dramas, such as one-night stands between junior staffers and huffy disputes between functionaries), the end result feels somehow off, not to mention weirdly retro — a relic of the “Nothing really matters, politics-is-all-image” school of comedy that reached its zenith in 1997’s ‘Wag the Dog.”

I realize that, strictly speaking, realism isn’t the first thing one should look for in a satire, but there is such a thing as internal logic, and “In the Loop” could use more of it. I’m willing to buy that Simon would make an innocent gaffe, dig deeper into his verbal hole, then drag his baggage to Washington, where his department is taking part in a “War Council” (which insists on being called “The Committee for Future Planning”). “I’m standing my ground on the verge,” Simon says at one point, the film’s most devastating, mealy mouthed equivocation.

The most incisive subplot concerns a paper written by Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), the talented young assistant to the US Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy). The paper’s title is “Post War Planning: Parameters, Implications and Possibilities,” and its existence unfortunately seems to confirm some people’s suspicion that Simon’s “unforeseeable” means “inevitable.” When Clarke, speaking at a government meeting, spinelessly IDs her aide as the person who wrote the paper that she commissioned — a paper that’s already being referred to in political circles by the acronym “PWPPIP” — it’s the film’s most casual and stinging example of bureaucratic ass-covering, of a boss cravenly sloughing responsibility onto an underling.

07222009_intheloop8.jpgIf only the rest of “In the Loop” were so subtle. It too often relies on sitcom-style misunderstandings and awkward silences that are nicely timed but not special. And it’s too enamored with its “star” character, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minster’s Director of Communications, a Mamet-style bull-in-a-china-shop who seems meant as a hardened professional with an impeccable bullshit detector, but who struck me as a blustering phony — a man who has styled himself as a harsh truth-teller so that he can be an asshole 24/7. (Everybody knows at least one person like this: a sociopathic narcissist who describes him- or herself as someone who “just tells it like it is.” Divest yourselves of these people immediately.) Malcolm’s screeds are destined to be the film’s most-quoted lines of dialogue — viewers tend to power trip on their hatefulness — but Capaldi’s performance, while frequently hilarious, has no depth. Hearing him fume and curse, I kept thinking how much more complex and striking Richard E. Grant would have been in the role, thanks to Grant’s knack for letting you see the self-loathing beneath the hostility.

And I don’t believe that the junior-grade staff members, all of whom presumably dreamed of one day working to avert an international crisis (even one they helped create), would spend their time in D.C. grousing that there’s nothing to do, and debating whether to stay in their hotel rooms or go out on the town. We’re not talking about Dunder Mifflin employees on holiday here. The characters in “Strangelove” and “Network” and “Black Adder” and other dark-hearted satires — and the “Partridge” characters, for that matter — were troublemaking navel-gazers, too. But their decisions, no matter how seemingly minor, had serious personal and professional implications, and they knew it — and they were so wound up by this knowledge that they walked around with their veins bulging, sweating and babbling and losing sleep. Funny as “In the Loop” is, it would be sharper if its characters took their circumstances more seriously. If you were in their situation, that’s what you’d do.


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.