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“The Expendables,” Reviewed

“The Expendables,” Reviewed (photo)

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For Sylvester Stallone, action films aren’t just escapist entertainment: they’re a venue for personal expression. His biggest rivals in the 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis — who, by the way, both make memorable cameos in Stallone’s new film “The Expendables” — couched their ballets of napalm and testosterone in heavy doses of irony and sarcasm. They made silly movies that they knew were silly. Stallone, in contrast, was always defined by his total and complete sincerity. As ludicrous as they are, movies like “Rambo III” and “Over the Top” are grounded in genuine beliefs. I truly believe that Stallone thought he could single-handedly win the Vietnam and Cold Wars which, when you think about it, is a lot funnier than anything in the work of his more comedically gifted peers. “The Expendables” bears that same mark of earnest stupidity. It may look like a crass cash grab — and it definitely is that too — but it’s simultaneously so shallow and yet deeply felt, it could only have come from the idiosyncratically macho mind of Sly.

The movie takes place in an alternate reality from our own, where men are men and women are nothing but beautiful walking props that need to be rescued. In this world, the simplistic good guys-vs.-bad guys and more-is-more, logic-be-damned action aesthetic of the 1980s never ended. Amongst the stranger quirks of the “Expendables”‘ universe: motorcycles are the most popular form of transportation, kerosene and hand grenades are apparently popular building materials, and gunshots appear to have curative effects on both the body and mind. This place is so foreign to our own that the film may as well have begun with a title card that reads “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

But who can blame Stallone for trying to recapture the 1980s? Everybody else in Hollywood is doing it. From “Transformers” to “G.I. Joe” to “The A-Team,” nostalgia is the operating mode of most Hollywood blockbusters these days. Mining his own legacy is, absurdly, the only way for Stallone to stay current. In fact, the title of Stallone’s ’80s animated series, “Rambo and the Forces of Freedom,” would’ve made a better title for this film than “The Expendables” since none of these men view each other as expendable.

08132010_expendable2.jpgReally, they’re more like The Unkillables: rippling leader Barney Ross (Stallone), right-hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), cranky martial arts expert Ying Yang (Jet Li), gun fetishist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), other guy who’s extremely good at killing people Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Dolph Lundgren…err Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). Other than Christmas, who gets dumped by his girlfriend in the first reel, none of The Expendables have any family, or personal lives, or friends, or hobbies, or even houses they go to to sleep when they’re not murdering people for money.

They spend all their downtime at a tattoo parlor named Tool’s, which is run by a former mercenary and current babbling philosopher, played by Mickey Rourke. A mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) offers them a job taking down the dictator of a small Caribbean island. A reconnaissance mission helps Ross decide to turn the job down: it’s too dangerous and not worth the money. Then, of course, he realizes there are things in this world more important than money. How much money do you think Stallone got paid to “learn” that lesson?

All of “The Expendables”‘ themes are that fascinatingly paradoxical. Much is made of the Expendables’ code, the rules that govern when it is appropriate to kill someone and why; you’re supposed to take a life for a reason, and you should never hurt a woman. Lundgren’s even booted out of the group for being too bloodthirsty. And this is from a movie about violence for violence’s sake that includes some of the most gruesomely splattery cinematic deaths outside the torture porn genre since Stallone’s last ode to his own manliness, 2008’s “Rambo.”

08132010_expendable3.jpgGiven the title, the fact that all of the scenes that don’t involve gunplay or explosions are about craggy dudes talking about how things have changed since the good ol’ days, and that Stallone himself is now 64 years old, this movie should really be about a man coming to grips with his mortality. Instead, “The Expendables” is about a man — Stallone or Ross, take your pick — pretending mortality doesn’t exist.

Statham and Stallone’s characters have a friendly rivalry throughout the film about who is faster and deadlier with their weapons. Statham repeatedly reminds Stallone he’s not as young as he used to be and Stallone repeatedly insists he’s still just as good as ever. And when Stallone’s character shoots his pistols at bad guys, he fires and reloads with the speed of a robot. No question Stallone looks good for guy who’s about to start collecting Social Security, but wide shots and scenes that demand Stallone to run show he ain’t as spry as he used to be (probably a big reason the film has an inexplicably large number of close-ups).

“The Expendables” will never join the pantheon of great cheesy Stallone action vehicles. It certainly can’t hold a candle to “Rambo: First Blood Part II” or “Rocky III.” On an emotional level, it’s a failure; on a technical level, it’s a mess. Its characters are nonexistent and the action scenes are confusingly chaotic, though I did like the one where Statham gets on the hood of a seaplane and blows up a dock while big baddies Eric Roberts and Steve Austin leap out of the way of the explosion. But there’s something completely compelling about watching an old guy try very hard — and frequently fail — to look really young.

“The Expendables” is Stallone’s mid-life crisis movie. Some people buy sports cars to reclaim their youth. Sly’s already got a lot of cars. So he made this defiant slap in the face of Father Time instead. It’s unnatural but kind of remarkable. It’s “Viagra: The Movie.”

“The Expendables” is now open wide.

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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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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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