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“Ride with the Devil” and “Ex Drummer” on DVD

“Ride with the Devil” and “Ex Drummer” on DVD (photo)

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Fanatically eclectic as he is, Ang Lee seems destined to eventually make a Judd Apatow raunch comedy, simply because he hasn’t made one yet. You name it: sci-fi comic book, wuxia pian, “Classics Illustrated” costume romance, gritty bromance indie, earnest family schmaltz, woozy rock musical (sort of), and oh yeah, a war film, easily the most ambivalent battle epic ever made about the Civil War, “Ride with the Devil” (1999), which came and went with barely a whisper of notice.

In several ways, it’s not surprising that this lavish, big-country saga was overlooked (“Like, six people saw it,” co-star Jeffrey Wright says in an interview included in Criterion’s special features). It takes place exclusively in the war-fringe arena of Missouri and Kansas, where North/South, good/bad dichotomies were so muddied by South-sympathizing Northerners and ex-slaves fighting on the rebel side and immigrants being targeted for their nationality alone that it amounted to a free-kill zone, and clear narrative propulsion would therefore be hard to come by. I’ve seen “Ride with the Devil” several times, and I’m still not clear on the characters’ motivational politics, or at least what they’re supposed to mean to the film’s thrust, and this despite an ample amount of expository chitchat.

04272010_RideWithDevil3.jpgToday, 11 years after its release, this historical ambiguity seems to be the point that Lee and producer/writer James Schamus were making — to take the most tribal and ethically fraught conflict in American history and open it up beyond the cable TV thumbnail sketches, so that whether we are good slavery-hating, Lincoln-loving liberals or unreconstructed reactionary bigots, we don’t know exactly how to feel about the carnage.

The film’s heroes, as in Buster Keaton’s “The General,” are Union-hating rebels, but in Lee’s film, the boyos — including lovable farm-boy Bushwhackers played by stars Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich — also slaughter innocents and raze homesteads. If they sound like terrorists, that’s because they are — the climactic decimation of Lawrence, Kansas stood as the bloodiest homegrown terrorist act in U.S. history up until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and in this film, it’s a wanton act of impulsive fury, little else. What are we to make of it? The textures of Lee’s film are classically stirring and sympathetic, oozing with heroism and tearful sympathy, but the politics of what goes on is another story. We’re not supposed to suspend judgment, are we?

Hence the title? While we’re wondering, the details of “Ride with the Devil” are seductive — the constant letter-reading, the twisty slangy-slash-schoolhouse patois of the era, the relentless confrontation with teenage boys mutilated and converted by fate into homicidal maniacs, the galloping battle scenes that rival Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” for playing-war-in-the-woods excitement. Much of the time “Ride with the Devil” acts like an ordinary, bombastically scored period film, with Maguire and Ulrich rather beautifully limning out a boyhood friendship and cultivating our sympathies despite their guerrilla warfare, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers occupying the opposite ground as a nasty Bushwhacker with so little conscience he’s on the verge of killing his comrades as well. (We meet no Union characters in any depth.)

But it’s not ordinary, in that its ideas about war and the Civil War and terrorism are not expressed on the surface of the film, but somewhere beneath, implicit but always mysterious. It does no good to say, as the filmmakers might, that they were just focused on the characters’ coming-of-age and historical plight – especially as those protagonists are joyfully, enthusiastically blowing civilians’ heads off and betting human scalps in a campfire card game.

04272010_RideWithDevil4.jpgIt remains a grand, gorgeous pickle of a film, perpetually fascinating for its determination to resist ethical categories. It’s also narratively sludgy — bushwhacking per se had no overriding purpose other than to haphazardly bushwhack, and so Schamus’s script does a good deal of wandering and waiting and then impulsively fighting. Even so, Maguire became a star here, though most people didn’t see it — his cute-crackling delivery of the old dialect (much of it from Daniel Woodrell’s source novel “Woe to Live On”) and huge guileless eyes consistently disarm you, and ground the film with conviction. (There’s never a moment where you catch Maguire trying to be cool, which of course the entire cast is, in their woolen waistcoats, trail-beaten dusters and Metallica haircuts.)

But despite Maguire and the stunt casting of the perfectly adept, butter-almond-ice-cream visage of Jewel as a rural love interest (Rhys-Meyers’s absurdly swishy sociopath doesn’t fare as well), the real prize is Wright, as an ex-slave dragged into fighting against the Union by a childhood friendship, cagey and glowering and slowly discovering what his next step must be as an emancipated man. Lee’s film is large but its small things are what catch you, like Wright’s guttural, secretive concept of how to deliver his ex-slave’s shrugging speech patterns, which fall out in such distinctive rhythms that you suspect that the actor had somehow learned it firsthand.

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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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GIFs via Giphy

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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