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“Take Shelter,” reviewed

“Take Shelter,” reviewed (photo)

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There were plenty of horror movies at Fantastic Fest 2011, stories of ghosts and aliens and human centipedes. But far and away the scariest film of the festival was one that hit much closer to home, with no monsters at all save the ones inside the dark corners of our own minds. It’s called “Take Shelter,” and it’s not just one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in quite a while, it’s also one of the best.

The film is literally nightmarish. Soon-to-be Oscar nominee Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a construction worker living in rural Ohio with his wife Samantha (“The Tree of Life”‘s Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter. He is a good man with a good life until a bad night’s sleep brings him a terrifying vision. In it, he sees an oncoming storm of immense proportions. It’s pouring weird, brown, oily rain. The next night, the dream returns and intensifies; the night after that, it happens again.

Curtis becomes convinced these dreams are a real warning sign of something terrible coming. Maybe a storm really is headed his way. Or maybe the dreams portend something else. At around the same age Curtis is now, his mother suffered a mental breakdown. Is he headed for one of his own? Ever the pragmatist, Curtis begins to prepare for the worst on two fronts: since all his dreams revolve around awful storms, he builds out the antiquated storm shelter in his backyard. And since his mother’s illness could be hereditary, he seeks psychiatric counseling. The one thing he doesn’t do, at least at first, is tell Samantha about either.

What follows is a haunting and moving illustration of President Franklin Roosevelt’s old adage that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, as Curtis’ anxiety about an uncertain future quickly proves just as destructive to his life and his marriage as any hurricane could be. If you’ve never suffered from a panic attack, and want to know what it feels like, watch “Take Shelter.” This movie is a panic attack in cinematic form. Because Curtis’ nightmares are so vividly real, it’s not always immediately apparent whether you’re watching dream or reality. And when they happen, the dreams are so truly unsettling that you watch the movie the way Curtis lives his life: constantly in dread of their return. Even in seemingly calm scenes, your pulse quickens and your palms sweat. This movie played me like a fiddle. A quivering, covering-my-eyes-because-the-movie’s-too-scary baby-shaped fiddle.

Michael Shannon, quickly becoming his generation’s Christopher Walken — makes strange and unpredictable career movies, shines in smart, uncommercial independents, enlivens crummy mainstream projects with wild performances — is absolutely perfect as Curtis. He’s restrained when he needs to be and full-on crazysauce when the scene demands. Chastain, though, might arguably have the tougher role. She inarguably has the less showy role, since she has to react to a man who is incredibly guarded about his emotions. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the part’s limitations she’s better here than she was in “The Tree of Life,” particularly as she watches Curtis’ sanity slip further and further away. By the time the family is hunkered down in that storm shelter, she’s stealing scene after scene from Michael Shannon. That’s no easy task.

But then nothing is easy about “Take Shelter,” which was written and directed by Jeff Nichols. I’ve never met the man, but watching this nakedly personal film, I feel like I know exactly who he is. Like Nichols — and like Curtis — I’m a man in my thirties with a young family. I’m lucky enough not to come from a family with a history of mental illness, but I do know what it’s like to freak out about the future, to worry that global warming is going to kill us all, or to feel like there’s absolutely nothing any of us can do about it. I might be a little nuts myself — don’t think the thought hasn’t crossed my mind — but if I am, I don’t think I’m alone. I think Nichols has tapped into something much more powerful out in the cultural zeitgeist.

Some movies hit us on an emotional level. Others stimulate us intellectually. The best movies do both, and that’s what “Take Shelter” does. It speaks to anxieties that a lot of us feel about our lives and the world at large without resorting to cheap horror movie tactics. Moments terrified me until I was gripping my armrests, and other moments moved me to tears (the ending is perfect too). Maybe the movie was blessed by good timing, opening a few weeks after Hurricane Irene became the first storm to blow through the New York City area in years. Or maybe Nichols is a good enough — and prescient enough — filmmaker to be the first guy to see the writing on the wall and make a movie about it.

“Take Shelter” is now playing in limited release. If you see it, we want to hear what you think. Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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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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