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DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on “Elena,” the film you need to see this month

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Summer movie season usually means “big” — big blockbusters, big sequels, big action sequences. But the summer also brings with it a wealth of smaller art house films, and a great one from Russia will be arriving in New York on Wednesday before making its way across the rest of the country over the next few months. It’s called “Elena,” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. In its own intimate way, it’s rather epic.

The film tells the story of Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a matronly woman in her 60s who’s a couple years into her marriage to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a rich man she met when she was his nurse. They both have children from previous marriages, but they live alone in his impressive, chilly Moscow apartment, sleeping in separate bedrooms. Not the most vibrant of lives, to be sure, but things could always be worse.

Elena doesn’t require much from her husband — in some ways, she’s still his nurse — but one day she comes to him asking a favor. Her adult son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) has a family of his own, and they don’t have nearly the financial resources that Vladimir has. (Partly it’s because Sergey is a bum, but Elena loves him anyway.) Elena asks Vladimir if he’d be willing to give Sergey’s teen son the money he needs for college. Vladimir refuses, contemptuous of Sergey’s laziness and unconcerned about his plight. Dutiful Elena obeys — it’s not like she has the money herself — and has to decide how else she can help her son.

Elena’s eventual plan, sparked by a surprising visit from Vladimir’s scornful daughter, shouldn’t be spoiled so as not to diminish its shock value. Even more unexpected, though, is how comfortable Elena becomes with her unlikely scheme once she goes about completing it. But what’s most powerful about “Elena” is how, really, the movie’s twists aren’t twists at all. Without ever realizing it, we recognize that all along we knew what Elena was going to do, even if we didn’t quite want to believe it.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (who previously made the gripping father-son drama “The Return”) specializes in slow, thoughtful dramas in which his characters’ true nature takes time to be revealed. With that in mind, one could almost approach “Elena” as a mystery, watching the characters’ actions for clues into what they might be capable of doing. Making it all the more intriguing, Zvyagintsev never really shows his hand about where his sympathies lie. Elena is a loving, loyal caretaker of her older husband, but is she right to be upset with Vladimir when her son really is a layabout? Even if Vladimir is right about her son, shouldn’t he still show compassion to those less fortunate than he? As “Elena” enters darker waters in its second half, these questions continue to reverberate — along with other, more upsetting ones — and Zvyagintsev doesn’t provide answers.

In his homeland, Zvyagintsev has become known as a chronicler of the state of modern Russia with its economic inequality and generational divides. But one needn’t know a thing about Russian politics to see that “Elena” is actually a distressingly universal tale of haves and have-nots, not to mention an apt reminder that morality and ethics can be slippery propositions when other interests drive us. More often than not, we go to the movies to escape the realities of normal life: Up on the screen, the good guys vanquish evil at a comfortingly consistent rate. Such certainties don’t exist in “Elena,” particularly because nobody in the movie would consider him or herself evil. These moral ambiguities are not always easy for an audience, nor are they easy for a filmmaker and his cast to execute. But in this case, they do beautifully. Even days after seeing “Elena,” I’m not sure how to feel about any of the characters, which I consider the highest compliment. Life isn’t simple. To capture it in all its complexity, “Elena” is heroic.

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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….

E.coli-class-

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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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