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“Convento,” Reviewed

“Convento,” Reviewed (photo)

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Unorthodox subjects demand an equally unorthodox documentary — an “unortho-doc?” — like “Convento,” a quiet and curious film about a quiet and curious family living in a former monastery in Portugal, the Convento Sao Francisco de Mertola. They’re the Zwanikkens: mother and former prima ballerina Geraldine, animal and nature lover Louis, and Christiaan, the “kinetic artist” who spends most of his time designing bizarre sculptures, like the one above, that fuse animal bones and remains with working robotics to create moving (practically living) works of art. In this former house of God, Christiaan gets to play God himself, giving life to these weird little robo-beasts.

Little attention is given by director/producer/cinematographer/editor Jarred Alterman to the creative impulses that first gave birth to this very strange passion. Rather than looking into the minds of the Zwanikkens, it attempts to replicate how the Zwanikkens look out at their world, through the careful observation of their daily lives and the lush grounds of the Convento Sao Francisco. Alterman’s camera is constantly gliding around his subjects, and its smooth, constant motion echoes the robotic movements of Christiaan’s artwork. The beauty of simple images like water rushing through an antique well or flowers rustling in the wind help us to understand the Zwanikkens’ unusual living arrangements: growing their own food and recycling the junk they find in a nearby dump into gadgets they can use to power their home.

I would have loved to learn more about how Christiaan’s work has been received by art critics, how much interaction the Zwanikkens have with their neighbors (and what those neighbors think of them), and the exact particulars of how this Dutch family came to own this Portugese monastery. But for 50 brief but captivating minutes, I was invited into their strange, occasionally disturbing, and frequently lovely world. This unortho-doc ultimately doesn’t need to explain much more about its subjects’ motivations because its images provide their own explanation. The perpetually flowing visuals create such a sense of serenity that you don’t want them to end. They make it easy to understand why no one would want to leave this mystical, magical place.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

“Win Win,” Reviewed

“Win Win,” Reviewed (photo)

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We’ve seen “The Bad News Bears” formula trotted out so many times but never quite like “Win Win.” Director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”) gives us all the cliches from the down-on-his-luck coach to the troubled-but-talented star — but buries them deep in the background of a touching and relevant story of a family man struggling to balance his books and his ethics amidst our current recession. It’s sort of “The Bad Financial News Bears” and it is outstanding.

Paul Giamatti stars, in one of his best performances in years, as Mike, a small town New Jersey lawyer whose meager earnings from his almost exclusively elderly clientele aren’t enough to keep his practice afloat. The bills are piling up; Mike can’t afford to fix the office boiler that clangs all day long and keep food on the table for his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and 2 kids. With insolvency a real possibility, Mike compromises his morals. When he learns that the estate of one of his senile clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), pays its guardian $1500 bucks a month, he has the court assign him Leo’s guardian, stashes him in a nursing home against his wishes, and pockets the $1500 all for himself.

There’s just one problem: Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who’s been sent by his deadbeat mom to live with his grandfather and whose surprise appearance threatens to expose Mike’s entire scheme. While he tries to ship Kyle back to his mother, though, Mike discovers something: his new charge is a former champion high school wrestler, so good he might be able to prop up the local high school wrestling team, which Mike just happens to coach.

As you can see, the plot is complicated and littered with coincidence. But McCarthy is less concerned with the story than its moral implications for his characters, who are uniformly fascinating. McCarthy’s story is small — we’re talking about a whole lot to do about a couple thousands dollars — but its stakes are huge. And so are the questions it raises: what should a man be willing to do to support his family? How should we care for our society’s elderly? How do we determine who is the most qualified parent for a troubled child? But rather than than drown us in speeches about what’s right and wrong, McCarthy’s witty, nuanced screenplay, written with his friend and New Jersey lawyer Joe Tiboni, reveals all of the answers through the frequently difficult choices his characters make.

“Win Win” is one of those movies about good people with bad luck who make worse decisions. When their luck begins to improve, we cheer; when their worse decisions come back to bite them on their ass, we care. Giamatti and Ryan are one of the most believable married couples I’ve seen onscreen in a while, and I was particularly impressed by the subdued but utterly believable performance of Shaffer, a non-professional actor and former New Jersey state wrestling champion, as lost soul and wrestling phenom Kyle. His growth under Mike’s coaching, and the team’s growth under Kyle’s influence, has some fun with inspirational sports team cliches without completely abandoning the things we love about the genre either.

“Win Win” isn’t the most visually stimulating 90 minutes you could spend at arthouses this spring, but it might just be the most emotionally stimulating. The characters are so rich and their bland New Jersey world is so real, that I found myself completely caught up in their struggles and successes. As Mike’s busted boiler kept clanging away — as the pressure literally rises before our eyes — I found myself leaning foward in my chair, gripping my armrests in a way I don’t do often in movies. It was like I was watching a spy thriller, not a movie about a crummy, ethically-challenged lawyer from New Jersey. Pretty good for a “Bad News Bears”-style inspirational sports film.

Pegg, Frost, Mottola, and “Paul”

Pegg, Frost, Mottola, and “Paul” (photo)

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Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are basically the most entertaining interview subjects on the planet. They make my job very easy: no matter what I ask, their answers are always funny. Pegg and Frost stopped by the Crossroads House at SXSW 2011 with Greg Mottola, no slouch in the comedy department either, the director of their latest collaboration, the upcoming alien road trip comedy “Paul.” As usual, they did not disappoint. Our conversation touched on their inspirations for the film, why they wanted Mottola to fill in for their usual collaborator Edgar Wright, and whether or not “Paul” represents the end of a trilogy along with their previous films, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.”

Part 1:

Part 2:

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