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Looking Back at the Cold War Fever Dream of Red Dawn

Red Dawn

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Legend has it that Walter Sobchak, John Goodman’s iconic character from The Big Lebowski, was based on John Milius, director of ’80s classics such as Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. He was very fond of his guns, and was known to show off his pistols to studio executives during meetings. Milius never served in Vietnam, and didn’t watch anybody die face-down in the mud, but boy he wishes he did.

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I feel like knowing this is integral to truly appreciating Red Dawn.

Almost 30 years after its release, MGM decided to remake Red Dawn in 2012, an odd choice considering that Red Dawn is about as “of its own time” as it gets. The Cold War’s over. Who’s invading us now? China? (Answer: kind of. Sort of. Not really.) The original Red Dawn was a gritty, dour, proselytizing polemic piggybacking on the anxieties of an increasingly conservative culture during the twilight of the Cold War. Its remake was a typical, mid-budget actioneer piggybacking on the anxieties of nostalgia and brand name recognition.

There is no reason to remake Red Dawn other than a general sense of a recognizable property, as unless we’re replacing the Soviets and Cubans with, say, aliens, the tale of a group of salt of the earth teenage guerrilla fighters fending off a land invasion of the United States doesn’t make too much sense. But who cares? I’m going to compare them anyway. Let’s take a look at what happens when one tries to remake a Cold War fever dream for the modern age.

(c)MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

(c)MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

Even with the original, one must suspend a metric fuckload of disbelief to accept that, even if the entire population of the rest of the world allied against the United States, a successful land invasion would be possible. This whole conceit would be hilarious if there weren’t so many people who considered this situation in any way viable. The Sobchaks of the world, if you will.

Patrick Swayze (who was thirty-two-years-old in 1984) plays young Jed, who with his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and some of their classmates manage to escape into the wilderness when their small town in Colorado is suddenly invaded by paratroopers. The invading force appears to be Cubans and Central Americans backed by the Soviet Union, but it might as well be the United States government who’s invading to round you up into FEMA camps and take your guns.

Fortunately, Jed and his brother were raised by a father who taught his boys the joys of hunting and the importance of responsible gun ownership, as well as to suppress un-manly things like human emotion. When they see their father for the last time, rounded up in a “reeducation camp,” he tells his sons never to cry again, as long as they live. In fairness, Swayze makes some rather unpleasant noises when he cries in this movie.

The bad guys in the original Red Dawn are portrayed in a much more unsympathetic light than in the remake, forcing citizens to dig their own graves before being lined up for mass execution as the Soviet anthem blares. Jed and Matt witness their father killed in one of these mass executions. Before the triggers are pulled, the condemned start defiantly singing an off-key “America The Beautiful” in an attempt to drown out the Soviet anthem. It would be the stuff of beautiful pastiche if it weren’t shot with such gruesome sincerity. Milius is not going for camp here. Oh no, son. This director has a vision.

An awful lot of movie goes down before these kids decide to militarize, unlike in the remake where they decide to fight back almost immediately. How these kids, brought up on hunting and fishing, learned how to use all this military equipment better than the Russians and the Cubans I’m not sure, but then again this is a Cold War revenge fantasy.

But if you thought the combined might of the Soviet Union and Central America was a stretch, get ready for North Korea. Let’s look at the remake.

©Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

©Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

“North Korea?” says a Wolverine early on. “It doesn’t make any sense.” Indeed it doesn’t, as the film was originally shot with China in mind. Because anxiety, sure, but mostly because it’s the more, uh, feasible scenario?

(In a hilarious twist, China appears to be on our side in the original. And yet the combined might of China and the United States still have a hard time fending off the Soviets? Still?)

I must assume the studio had eyes on a younger audience, casting Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth, who starred in The Hunger Games and Thor, respectively. Once again the invaders land in suburbia instead of, you know, military targets. But then again it would be pretty hard to make a story about a citizen militia if that were the case. Where in the original they invaded America because they wanted our crops, here they appear to be invading because fuck you. However, the remake isn’t straining so hard to reach some form of ideological purity, mostly because it seems wholly uninterested in ideology– look at how easy it was to change the bad guy from China to North Korea. The lack of conviction almost makes you miss Milius.

Hemsworth’s character is a Marine, so it makes sense that he’d actually be trained in how to be useful, unlike Jed Prime and Matt Prime, who only know how to hunt and build campfires. “When I was overseas, we were the good guys. We enforced order,” Hemsworth tells his guerilla troops, deluding himself. “Well, now we’re the bad guys. We create chaos.” Huh?

It’s a bit of a stretch to discuss theme in the Red Dawn remake, because that implies they were going for one, but we’re going to try to do it anyway. There are some scenes where speakers propagandize against the American greed and corporate irresponsibility that lead to the bad economy. So, like all Obama-era everything, this invasion is somehow about the economy.

This is probably at least partially a result of the PG-13 rating, but the remake also pulls far more punches. None of the Wolverines murder any prisoners of war, or one of their own. In the original, the Wolverines execute one POW and one friend-turned-traitor. The POW reminds Jed that the Geneva Conventions exist. “I ain’t never heard of it!” Jed shouts, shooting his prisoner.

There is no Benedict Arnold character in the remake like in the original Red Dawn — one of them does have a tracker, but hey, he doesn’t know about it (and therefore nobody has to execute him). It keeps everyone’s hands clean, and carries zero emotional punch, despite it leading to Hemsworth’s inglorious headshot. It’s an odd inclusion, frankly, since it comes about four minutes before the movie ends and doesn’t build to anything other than, hey, it was in the original (sort of).

The remake did keep the scene where Thor makes Peeta drink deer blood, although in this version, it’s not out of some reverence to some made-up Native American mysticism, but because they’re fucking with him.

There is a certain charm to the original Red Dawn, the gritty “war is hell” realism baked into cake made from the finest ingredients of batshit insanity. Say what you want about the Swayze/Sheen Red Dawn, at least it had an audience, and boy if it didn’t speak to it. Aside from the aging fans of the original, itself a teensy niche market, few theatergoers in the younger demographic are interested in war dramas. Why remake Red Dawn when you have no Red Dawn-worthy adversary to rail against? When you can’t even commit to an adversary in the first place?

I’m not sure who the audience was for the remake, other than the evergreen audience of brand name recognition and retaining film licenses. What do you think, Walter?

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Click here to see all upcoming showings of Red Dawn on IFC.

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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.