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“Countdown to Zero”: Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World?

“Countdown to Zero”: Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World? (photo)

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Can Al Gore’s global warming documentary become shorthand for a genre? (The scareumentary?) That’s what Participant Media’s Jeffrey Skoll implied when introducing the new film “Countdown to Zero” at its New York premiere Wednesday night. He noted that they’d been in search of the next topic to do “‘The Inconvenient Truth’ of,” and what we were about to watch was the result. “Countdown to Zero,” in other words, aims to be “The Inconvenient Truth” of nuclear warfare. If you feel a little short on global concerns, it offers plenty to add to your plate.

Taking its structure from an excerpt from JFK’s “nuclear sword of Damocles” speech to the U.N. in 1961, “Countdown to Zero” examines the various way we could arrive at nuclear annihilation via “accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.” “Accident,” as in the incidents when nuclear missiles were erroneously loaded onto bombers that then flew over the country, or dropped, with failed parachutes doing nothing to cushion their fall. “Miscalculation,” as in the apparently many times we almost escalated to nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. over misidentified scientific research rockets or faulty computer chips. “Madness,” by far the most troubling, as in terrorism.

The first two angles are almost incidental compared to the last. “Countdown to Zero”‘s most potent points are how easy it is to manufacture a nuclear bomb, how much nuclear material is floating around for sale in crumbling nations, and how slight the chances would be of that material getting discovered as it was smuggled into our country.

07212010_gorbachev.jpgWho would be so desperate, so ruthless as to deal in enriched uranium? How about a factory worker who just wants to buy a stove? Such was the case of one man who stole small amounts of uranium from the manufacturing plant that employed him. He ended up with one and a half kilos — enough to do some serious damage. No one noticed anything was missing.

Narrated by Valerie Plame and directed by Lucy Walker (“Devil’s Playground”) “Countdown to Zero” compiles at a usual ratio archival footage, animated sequences and interviews, a few surprising — like the one with Mikhail Gorbachev, who reflects on the perceived failure of his 1986 meeting with President Reagan in Reykjavik.

But it rarely manages to confect any memorable visuals to accompany its avalanche of information — a recurring device of laying a five-mile or two-mile impact ring over maps of major cities doesn’t actually help conceive of the potential destruction it’s attempting to illustrate, and the combination of Times Square New Year’s celebrations, with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” playing in the background, and images of bombs exploding just seems like a cheap shot.

What does resonate are the moments with Robert Oppenheimer, a sad-eyed Cassandra figure weighed down with the implications of what he’d helped unleash on the world. But it’s that sense of Pandora’s box being irrevocably open that also works against “Countdown to Zero.” The film opens with a series of man-on-the-street interviews in different cities around the world, on how often people think about nuclear armament. Most don’t.

07212010_countdowntozero2.jpgIt ends with a push toward change, the global elimination of nuclear weapons, the banning of production of nuclear materials, the elimination of keeping nuclear missiles on high alert. But instead of sending me out onto the sidewalk energized to help, I felt a lot like those initial interviewees — like I wanted to put these things out of my mind.

If the technology to destroy the world is already out there, how can we possibly take it back? The many steps toward nuclear armament seem less pressing at this point than dealing with the reasons people would desire that kind of catastrophic power.

“Countdown to Zero” opens Friday in New York and Washington, D.C., with additional markets to follow.

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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.


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…


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.



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 and the IFC app.

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