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“13 Assassins,” Reviewed

“13 Assassins,” Reviewed (photo)

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A samurai doesn’t fear death; he welcomes it. What the samurai does fear is obsolescence, and that is precisely the peril that faces the heroes of “13 Assassins.” They live in the mid-1800s, a few decades before the end of Japan’s Edo period and their way of life. When the leader of the assassins, a samurai named Shinzaemon, is presented with his suicidal assignment, a sort of black op hit for feudal swordsmen, he is pleased. “As a samurai in this era of peace,” he tells the governor who orders him to kill, “I’ve been wishing for a noble death.” Like Western gunslingers, particularly the ones from the films of director Sam Peckinpah, are out of place and out of time.

Shinzaemon’s mission, based on a historical battle and previously told in the 1966 film of the same name by Kudo Eiichi, is to assassinate the powerful and despicable Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). As the brother of the Shogun, Naritsugu is untouchable through official channels. But his behavior — raping, murdering, torturing, and not necessarily in that order — threatens a delicate peace. So Sir Do (Mikijiro Hira) secretly tasks Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) with Naritsugu’s murder. The plan calls for Shinzaemon and his samurai to ambush Naritsugu during his next trip home from the capital city. Success is a longshot at best: Shinzaemon eventually recruits a dozen samurai to his cause; Naritsugu has hundreds of swordsmen in his employ. The odds against him don’t faze Shinzaemon. As he tells his men, “he who values his life dies a dog’s death.”

“13 Assassins” was directed by Takashi Miike, the incredibly prolific Japanese director who has made almost 50 films in 18 years. Though he’s directed everything from westerns to childrens’ fantasy, he’s best known in the United States for ultra-violent horror and gangster pictures like “Audition” and “Ichii the Killer.” Fans looking for a violent Miike film won’t be disappointed by “13 Assassins,” which culminates with a 40-minute sequence of blood and blades. The scene is a triumph of escalating tension and a bravura fusion of complex action choreography and stylish camerawork, but its orgiastic celebration of death also seems to glorify the same values the assassins are working so hard to destroy.

Contradictions like that one linger as much as “13 Assassins”‘ unforgettable visuals (flaming cattle stampede, anyone?). The critic in me wants to analyze the film’s depiction of women (victims, one and all) and its attitude toward violence (a total massacre for a total massacre, as it were) while the dudely action fan in me must acknowledge the scene where a samurai swats arrows out of the air with his sword because it’s just so freaking cool (on the Scale Of Ultimate Movie Coolness, deflecting arrows with a sword ranks just between fedora hats and James Dean). “13 Assassins” is cool all right, maybe too cool. After an intensely emotionally charged opening, it devolves into pure spectacle, bloody and bloodless all at once.

Miike himself doesn’t seem entirely sure whether, as in the words of the one assassin, “samurai brawls are crazy fun!” or whether, in the words of another, “being a samurai is truly a burden.” “13 Assassins” raises such provocative questions about duty and honor and violence that it challenges the morality of its own undeniably outstanding action sequences. The massive battle is exhilarating but the images of its aftermath throw Shinzaemon’s philosophy into relief: these men died honorably, but it’s hard to see the honor in a hacked up corpse covered in blood and mud. True, they died for ideals. But those ideals may already be obsolete.

“13 Assassins” is now available On Demand. It opens in limited release on April 29.

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SO EXCITED!!!

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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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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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