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Cannes Review: “Fair Game.”

Cannes Review: “Fair Game.” (photo)

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Reviewed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

As has been said of robbery, so it is for espionage: You can do a lot more with a fountain pen than with a gun. “Fair Game” tells the story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), a Washington couple like any other — kids, money woes, marital strife — and unlike any other, with his past as an ambassador and diplomat and her covert work as a CIA operative working in nuclear non-proliferation.

In the lead-up to the Iraq war, Wilson was asked to travel to Niger to see if there was any truth to the suggestion that the struggling country had sold, or had been asked to sell, 50 tons of “yellowcake” uranium ore to Iraq. Wilson found no evidence to support that claim and relayed his conclusions to the White House. The White House deliberately ignored his take, and, when Wilson made his conclusions and his anger at the White House’s distortions public in a New York Times piece, struck back not only challenging his assertions but naming his wife as a CIA operative, blowing her cover, ending her career and endangering anyone she’d ever worked with.

05142010_WattsFairGame2.jpgAfter delivering genre excitement with varying degrees of success in “The Bourne Identity” (excellent), “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (glossy trashy fun) and “Jumper” (a blatant sellout no one wanted to buy), Doug Liman tries to bridge the distance between run-and-gun excitement and solid, serious drama with “Fair Game,” premiering as the only film from an American director in competition at Cannes. It’s a well-made and stirring movie, on the level of both the personal (How will this marriage survive?) and the political (How will this nation survive?). “Fair Game” is nicely shot, written in a blunt and brisk style that assumes you’re capable of following along, a rare pleasure in the modern American cinema.

Liman’s casting choices work; Watts is finely-tuned as Plame, a woman who tells lies for her country with ease but agonizes over speaking the truth for her own benefit. Penn’s Wilson is a bull-headed blowhard who, even more annoyingly, is often right; at times Penn’s acting seems less like a performance than a spin on his public image. At the same time, Watts conveys how much of Plame’s work involved baffling, bluffing and bullying people, and Penn shows Wilson’s quieter moments of doubt between his shouts of anger.

Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, adapting both Plame and Wilson’s memoirs, fill the film with leavening humor and matter-of-fact realism about the paper-shuffling nature of modern spycraft. After she’s exposed as a CIA operative, one of Plame’s friends can’t hold back her curiosity about the John le Carré cliché’s: “Do you have lovers all over the world? Do you have a gun? Have you killed people?” After his trip to Africa culminates in him drafting a lengthy memo, Wilson notes, “I’m not feeling very 0-0-7-ish…”

05142010_WattsFairGame4.jpgAnd that is the greatest challenge “Fair Game” faces; it’s a movie about the fact we don’t live in a movie, a drama about how the thousands of lives and millions of dollars wasted on the war with Iraq affected one couple’s marriage. “Fair Game” works, and works well, as high-class well-intended entertainment for grown-ups, but when it ends with Wilson driving the point home to a crowd and Plame being driven to testify to Congress, you can feel Liman straining to bridge the gulf between the happy ending movies are supposed to provide and the unhappy reality of the world outside the theater.

Detractors will suggest that “Fair Game” feels like someone took the stiletto-sharp satire of “In the Loop,” turned it around and cudgeled you with the blunt handle. But “Fair Game” doesn’t want to succeed as satire; it wants to remind us that the joke’s on us, and the joke’s not funny. Others will sneer that if you took the Oscar-caliber actors out of the lead roles and opened the camera up two stops to let some light in, “Fair Game” would be revealed as a TV-movie, but I think Liman’s film specifically succeeds as ambitious and engaging cinema because there’s something hard and unyielding at “Fair Game”‘s core that can’t be mocked or dismissed: We were lied to, and we live in the consequences of that lie.

“Fair Game” will be released by Summit Entertainment later this year.

[Photos: “Fair Game,” Summit Entertainment, 2010]


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.