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A Head Without a Heart

A Head Without a Heart (photo)

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When each successive film from a new, audacious talent seems richer and more rewarding than the one before, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether the director is steadily improving or it’s simply taking you some time and effort to learn how to watch his/her movies. Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel arrived on the international film scene eight years ago with her unique style already fully formed; as much as I admired “La Ciénaga”‘s exactingly off-kilter compositions and oppressively incestuous tone, though, I couldn’t find much of interest lurking beneath that surface mastery. It took two viewings for “The Holy Girl” (2004), Martel’s sophomore effort, to win me over, and even then I didn’t fully understand why certain oblique, uninflected shots were doing such a harrowing number on my nervous system. Now along comes her magnificently confounding “The Headless Woman,” and I officially surrender. Maybe she’s finally put it all together, maybe I’m just slow — either way, this is one stunning piece of work.

Still, it’s tough to articulate precisely what’s so discomfiting about it. Martel begins with what for her amounts to a high concept: On the way home from an outing with friends, a middle-aged, bottle-blonde woman, Véro (María Onetto), runs over something with her car. We’ve previously seen a couple of kids playing with their dog in that general area, and Martel shows us the victim — or at least a victim — in Véro’s rear-view mirror. (Some critics claim this image is ambiguous, but on the big screen, at least, you can clearly see what’s lying on the road.) Véro sees it, too, but simply drives on, betraying no particular emotion. And as we follow her around for the next few days, watching her interact with family and co-workers, it becomes evident that she’s entered some sort of bizarre fugue state, to the point where it’s not clear that she has any recollection whatsoever of who she is or what she does. Eventually, however, as she regains her bearings, one key memory emerges: She thinks she may have killed a child.

As pure filmmaking, “The Headless Woman” is indisputably superb and non-stop evocative; there’s scarcely a shot that doesn’t throb with ambiguous menace or portent. Indeed, there’s a strong genetic resemblance to David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” another tale of a wealthy middle-aged woman who tumbles down an unexplained rabbit hole. (Laura Dern and María Onetto, it turns out, are almost exactly the same age.) But where Lynch’s overt surrealism and Dern’s mannered mutations set my teeth on edge — “golly, ain’t this bizarre?” — Onetto’s aimless journey as She With No Noggin is truly the stuff of nightmares, if only because the lady will not stop smiling. The rest of the world chugs along as if nothing has happened, but Véro has come unmoored — a sensation that we fully share, because Martel cannily stages the accident mere seconds after introducing the character, so that we know absolutely nothing about her. She’s surprised to discover that she’s a dentist, and so are we. Who is this man now suddenly kissing her? Beats her; beats us. And yet her reaction to each successive jolt is identical: vaguely warm indulgence. Nor is there a moment anywhere in the film where she identifiably regains her sense of self, though it’s clearly happened by the time she makes her confession.

In truth, what Véro actually hit with her car doesn’t much matter. It’s her dissociated reaction that interests Martel — that, and the way Véro’s bourgeois circle both fails to notice the change in her and methodically covers up any evidence of the crime she may well have committed. On second viewing, I became more conscious of a pointed socio-political undercurrent: The kids we see in the opening scene are dark-skinned — part of Argentina’s sizable racial underclass — and oblivious, porcelain Véro spends the rest of the movie moving amongst a baleful, barely glimpsed chorus of silent workers and servants, her amnesia symbolic of a larger, more willful ignorance. But that’s a purely intellectual response, and it can’t compare to the inexplicable feeling of anxiety inspired by, say, an apparently mundane shot of Véro as seen through the windshield of her car, wandering in a daze as fat raindrops begin to fall from the clouds overhead. Martel’s ideas are plenty cogent and provocative, but they tend to register only afterward, when you try to work out what you’ve seen. It’s her buzzsaw mise-en-scène that threatens to decapitate you.

08182009_InglouriousBasterds1.jpgNo heads roll in “Inglourious Basterds,” as I recall, but if you’ve always longed to see a pissed-off Jew beating the shit out of a Nazi with a baseball bat, Quentin Tarantino’s goofy, long-winded, deliberately misspelled exercise in vicarious wish-fulfillment is for you. Over the many years that this project was in some form of gestation, QT generally made it sound like his version of “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Guns of Navarone” — an action-heavy, dudes-on-a-mission war flick — and that’s how it’s being sold in the trailers and commercials. Be advised, however, that Brad Pitt and his crew of Semitic “basterds” (including “Hostel” director Eli Roth and “The Office”‘s B.J. Novak) play a surprisingly small role, often disappearing for entire reels. Nor is there much in the way of kinetic mayhem, for that matter. This may be the first war movie since “The Wannsee Conference” to consist almost entirely of people just sitting at a table, talking.

Of course, Tarantino has always been able to bring the rococo dialogue, and he’s even more adept at providing a showcase for little-known or long-forgotten actors. Austrian-born thesp Christoph Waltz, who deservedly won a prize at Cannes last May, walks away with the movie from its superbly tense 25-minute-long opening scene, in which his Nazi “Jew hunter,” Col. Hans Landa, interrogates a French dairy farmer who’s hiding a terrified family beneath his floorboards. And there are a handful of other entertaining gabfests throughout, many of them touching on film-buff trivia — Tarantino’s absurdly touching goal here is to rewrite history so that cinema saves the world (with an assist from pissed-off Jews). Still, this is the first film he’s directed in which it feels like he’s coasting a bit, doing lazy riffs on genre favorites without any real sense of urgency or purpose. At two and a half hours, it’s the longest, most discursive B-movie programmer Tarantino’s ever made — an epic footnote in a storied career.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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