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“A Town Called Panic” and Loads of Noir on DVD

“A Town Called Panic” and Loads of Noir on DVD (photo)

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There seems to be no exhausting the raw eyeball pleasure to be had from old-fashioned handmade (or semi-handmade, or whatever) animation, and we may be well living through a pop renaissance of it.

The eruptions below the Pixar/Dreamworks budget tier have been spectacular and international, beginning perhaps with 2003’s “The Triplets of Belleville,” learning from Miyazaki, Oshii, Aardman and the Quays, moving on to Kim Moon-saeng’s “Sky Blue,” machinima, “The Corpse Bride,” “A Scanner Darkly,” “Persepolis,” “Coraline,” “Waltz with Bashir,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Mary & Max,” “Sita Sings the Blues,” “Fear(s) in the Dark,” “The Secret of Kells,” and now the Belgian nonpareil “A Town Called Panic.”

The variety of toolboxes and styles at work seem limitless (the seductive but uniform look of pure 3D computer animation is getting tiresome just as other approaches proliferate), but it’s the personal engagement that makes most of the films sing.

Many of the recent films naturally take the frame-by-frame scale of animation to eulogize the lost universe of childhood, but the wry obsessives behind “Panic” (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar) go one step further — their free-associative, lunatic mini-landscape is peopled by toys, and the only thing missing from every shot is the presence of real kids’ hands manipulating the figures.

The filmmakers admit in the DVD supplements that they found materials at flea markets; the characters and props vary in sizes and provenance, as if the film emerged spontaneously from a ramshackle junk drawer. “Toy Story,” Schmoy Story — this is the movie that takes make-believe play as its form. It’s a giddy litany of foolishness, about almost nothing but its own good times, and its textures and sensibility are as high-spirited and zippy as a grade-schooler’s imaginings after a few bowls of Cap’n Crunch.

07202010_TownCalledPanic2.jpgHorse, Cowboy and Indian — often complete with green plastic patch attached to their feet so they can stand — live together in a house amid a tabletop farming community where the animals brush teeth, read and run errands. It’s Horse’s birthday — the realization of which initiates a catastrophic Rube Goldberg adventure for his roommates involving 50 million bricks, a family of frogmen, a romance with a horse piano teacher, a visit to the earth’s core, a giant robot penguin run by evil scientists, a war fought with flying swordfish and catapulted cows, and so on.

There’s a Gumby vibe happening, and a Wile E. Coyote inevitability rules the action, but forget the very idea of “story” — the point of the film is to embody the inspired runaway-train nature of juvenile make-believe. If you have ever spent substantial time in the company of miniature figures of any kind, this movie will infiltrate your memories.

The movie ignites a great deal of childlike good will — amid the chaos, there is always an unalloyed urge to rebuild and clean up. Life is good and no bad news matters if you can still get lost in play. But for the most part, “A Town Called Panic” is beguiling because of the speed, timing and eccentricity of its textures — like all good animation, its movement and visual panache spellbind in ways that cannot be articulated, and perhaps shouldn’t be. Just keep your eyes open.

07202010_Pushover.jpgIn another universe, the last few weeks has been witness to a deluge of DVD’d film noir, with no less than 16 films released by Warner, Sony and Olive, and so noiristes can revel yet again in America’s favorite die-hard film genre instead of trying to find satisfaction in new Hollywood. Just a few highlights:

“Pushover” (1954) — Richard Quine’s urban espionage chess game stars Kim Novak in her first credited role as a bank robber’s girlfriend, fucked and surveilled by Fred MacMurray’s wasted cop, “Rear Window”-ing her and eventually deciding to usurp the thief, grab the money and the girl, and fatefully tripling up the body count of “Double Indemnity.” Only in noir does death signify a happy ending, and movies end with lines like “We didn’t really need that money, did we?”

“Deadline at Dawn” (1946) — Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay from a Cornell Woolrich book, and theater master Harold Clurman directed (his only film), and Susan Hayward is a cynical whore/taxi dancer with a go-die look that decides to help dim sailor Bill Williams find out who really killed a woman in a flat somewhere in Manhattan. Clurman’s late-night spatial layouts are gorgeous, but the show here is Odets’ dark-poetic dialogue in the mouths of a superbly directed cast. Someone is said to have “a face like the back of a hairbrush,” and when Hayward and Williams are hiding in the corpse’s apartment, she hisses, “Do you hear anything?” “Your breathing,” he whispers back; “Is that what that is?” she replies…

“Union Station” (1950) — Rudolph Maté’s concise and character-packed kidnapping policier features Nancy Olson as a dame pulling into Chicago who sees a gun she shouldn’t have, and William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald as Windy City cops looking to foil a kidnapping plot. The titular station is captured in its mid-century glory, even if footage was also shot on New York and L.A. trains.

07202010_HumanDesire.jpg“Human Desire” (1954) — Fritz Lang remakes Renoir’s “La Bête Humaine,” with Broderick Crawford, Glenn Ford and of course Gloria Grahame, and it’s less paradigmatic noir than Zolaesque tragedy.

“Armored Car Robbery” (1950) — Richard Fleischer, an unsung noir champ, directed this crime thriller, which almost wastes Charles McGraw as a happy cop until his partner is gunned down in the titular heist (performed by lizardy sociopath William Talman with assistance from, among others, Sam Fuller buddy Gene Evans). After that, look out — McGraw could eat the entire cast of “The Expendables” in a single yawning bite. This double-biller is a brisk 67 minutes long and not a minute is squandered.

“The Phenix City Story” (1955) — A based-on-fact Phil Karlson corruption screed about the eponymous Alabama town, its controlling crime syndicate, the assassination of its attorney general and the martial law that followed. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who grew up in Alabama and was nine at the time, has always said this lurid, full-throated pulp is, in fact, how it was.

“Crime in the Streets” (1956) — A lesser known Don Siegel, introducing John Cassavetes as a street thug intent on killing a neighborhood snitch, despite social worker James Whitmore’s efforts to steer him clear. A good example of a noir sub-branch: the Actor’s Studio bell jar melodrama, on TV show sets and performed like a circus act (especially by Mark Rydell’s fey delinquent). Still, the portrait of Cassavetes’ miserable, poverty-beaten ghetto family is tough for the day.

07192010_brothersrico2.jpg“The Brothers Rico” (1957) — Karlson again, but not hyperbolic so much as novelistic, this Georges Simenon-based saga follows legit businessman Richard Conte as he gets dragged back into The Organization by his two brothers, both of whom are on the run after a hit. A dense web of familial and criminal alliances slowly reveals itself as Conte’s haunted player bounces across the country in search of his brothers, and the sense of America you get is as one huge criminal enterprise. The moral bullet in the heart of all three “Godfather” films is here, too, as is wads of untranslated Italian, an uncommonly brutal climactic shootout, and Harry Bellaver as an Arizona scumbag steering the movie into fatalistic waters.

“A Town Called Panic” (Zeitgeist Films) is now available on DVD; “Pushover,” “Human Desire” and “The Brothers Rico” are now available as part of “Columbia Film Noir Classics, Volume II” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), “Deadline at Dawn,” “Armored Car Robbery,” “The Phenix City Story” and “Crime in the Streets” are now available as part of “Film Noir Classics Collection, Volume 5” (Warner Home Video) and “Union Station” (Olive Films) is now available on DVD.

[Additional photos: “Pushover,” Columbia Pictures, 1954; “Human Desire,” Columbia Pictures, 1954; “The Brothers Rico,” Columbia Pictures, 1957]

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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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