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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.



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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.