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Tribeca 2011: “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” Reviewed

Tribeca 2011: “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” Reviewed (photo)

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The phrase “The American Dream” calls to mind certain images. When I hear those words, I visualize small but comfortable suburban houses in bucolic surroundings. Yards, fences, kids playing in the street. Basically, I imagine what Camp Lejeune looked like in the middle of the last century. Lejeune is the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast. In archival footage from “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” Lejeune looks the way we want America to look. But that simple beauty hid a horrifying secret: Lejeune’s water was tainted with industrial chemicals. For thirty years. And the military knew about it. Instead of trying to correct it, they covered it up.

“Semper Fi: Always Faithful” is a documentary about the one man who almost single-handedly exposed one of the largest incidents of water contamination in our nation’s history. His name is Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger. He lived at Camp Lejeune during the contamination, and one of his daughters died of leukemia at the age of nine. Despondent over her death, he vowed to find its cause. His search eventually turned up evidence of toxins leaking into the drinking water at Lejeune and, much later, of efforts to keep this information secret. But even after he discovered the truth, and found that his daughter’s cancer was merely the tip of an iceberg of disease and tragedy, he would still need to spend years to bring that information to the government’s and the public’s attention.

If a private company had polluted and poisoned as many people as the Marine Corps did at Lejeune they likely would have been sued out of business. Ensminger can’t even get the Marine Corps to warn the families that lived at Lejeune during the contamination. In one hearing, their representative has the temerity to claim they don’t know who exactly lived at Lejeune during that period. When a Senator rightfully calls bullshit on that, their response, and I’m paraphrasing here, is “Well, yes, we could do it. But it would be extremely difficult.” I haven’t served in the military, but I’ve seen a lot of movies about it. Doesn’t the Marine Corps pride itself on its ability to accomplish extremely difficult tasks?

In fact, the only guy who’s really living up to the values of the Marines in “Semper Fi” is Ensminger himself. Ironically, the very values the Corps taught him — to continue a fight until you win it or you die in the process — are the same values that fuel his quest to disprove the Marine Corps’ lies.

Directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon follow Ensminger as his efforts to expose the truth finally begin to pick up steam. The film assumes the structure of an investigation. Ensminger and his allies interview victims and epidemiologists, compile data, deliver testimony at Congressional hearings, and uncover shocking deception in a sort of “All the Commander-in-Chief’s Men.” It is true that “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” is a visually and structurally pedestrian documentary (and since semper fi translates to always faithful, it has one hell of a redundant title). But there are elements of Libert and Hardmon’s film that are superb. Note how many scenes open with establishing shots that include images of water, that most important of substances and the subject upon which the entire film rests. A lawn sprinkler has never looked quite so sinister as in this movie.

Libert and Hardmon’s film is far-reaching and comprehensive, though it would have been nice if they could have convinced someone from the Marine Corps to sit down for an interview. The topics of government corruption and military malfeasance can be just as unpopular with film investors as they are for Ensminger in Congress. It couldn’t have been easy to make this movie. Neither is it easy to convince battle hardened soldiers to let down their guard in front of a movie camera. It is not often you see Marines openly weep. It makes an impact. These men fought for our right to pursue our own American Dreams. And as thanks, they had theirs ripped away from them.

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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.

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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…

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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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