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“The District!”, “Chameleon Street”

“The District!”, “Chameleon Street” (photo)

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A filthy, confrontational, sophomoric animated feature from Hungary, Áron Gauder’s “The District!” (I prefer the less prosaic, more punctuative Hungarian title, “Nyócker!”) has a surplus of borrowed hip-hop attitude and proudly lowbrow ghetto texture. But it’s Gauder’s absolutely distinctive visual docket that is ceaselessly arresting. Call it a smash-up between faux 3-D digital fluidity and cutout cartooning and rotoscoped realism and Ralph Steadman-esque satiric caricature — the upshot is hypnotizing, even when the film’s wigger material tends toward the idiotic. Gauder captures his actors in a broad variety of facial poses and then animates the characters using these images (much as each character found expression via the interchange of dozens of different heads in the stop-motion “The Nightmare Before Christmas”). But he also embellishes them graphically, distorts them digitally, and then folds them into hectic, multilayered urban tableaux, all of it seething and brawling and swarming like a real city neighborhood as seen through the scrim of very strong microdots.

Which would all make only a scintillating short, not a feature, if Gauder’s timing and deftness with multiple action weren’t precise and hilarious; watching the background characters’ expressions change on the offbeat, from deadpan to rageful to joyous, is often more fascinating than the foreground business, which often devolves into Magyar hip-hop music videos (and accomplished farces of the form, at that). Seeing these 2-D digi-puppets meet gazes is alone funnier than the last five CGI penguin movies. The plot, which moves like a driverless car, involves a gang of Budapest street kids, many of them Rom, deciding to get rich by traveling back to the Stone Age, killing and burying mammoths where their city block will later be, returning and digging for oil. Which they do (they’re even inadvertently responsible for continental drift), and the consequences naturally spiral out into an international debacle that ropes in Osama bin Laden, the Pope and Bush II, all of them given a rightful satiric flogging in the process. “The District!” began as an Adult Swim-style series-within-a-series and might represent the most inventive use of digital animation anywhere, and certainly rules the hard drive work being done elsewhere in Europe.

One of the key films of the indie “new wave” that roiled through the 1980s and resulted in, among a great many other things, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith and IFC itself, Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s “Chameleon Street” (1989) fetched a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance before Sundance was Sundance (the soirée’s maiden name was the Utah/US Film Festival). It remains a troubling and pioneering piece of work, if somewhat less forgivable today for its grandstanding, its clumsy amateurish filmmaking and its fuzzy thematic hustle. Harris did all but hold his own boom for this micro-budgeted interrogation of American race relations, which in a desultory way biopics the story of one William Douglas Street Jr., a Detroit-born inveterate con man whose compulsion it was to pass himself off in professional identities he wasn’t qualified for: a surgeon, a corporate lawyer, a French-speaking exchange student at Yale (without actually knowing how to speak French), etc. (In fact, several players in Street’s real life play themselves, including Detroit mayor Coleman Young.) In Harris’ purview, Street was a hopeless self-aggrandizer as well as a low-rent autodidact, and his purple, rhyming, R & B narration belittles everyone he meets as relentlessly as it puffs up his own plumage as the smartest man for miles.

But taking the Harris/Street persona at face value — as an empathetic protagonist — is a mistake. Harris turns Street’s odyssey into a kind of arch, bohemian vaudeville as the rich-talking dude foolishly begins to consider himself a pretentious “artist” of identity and manipulation. Of course, the real subject is the black man’s need and desire, in late-century America, to adopt and swap out identities so he might fit within the white hierarchy; the sense of genuine self is a casualty of latent racism, while at the same time, Street can “pass” for anything as long as he occupies largely white environments where he is essentially as “invisible” as Ralph Ellison. The film’s crude, cheap visuals also wield a sharp double edge — take them either as botch work or as the opportunistic parody of blaxploitation filmmaking and those films’ disturbed sense of empowerment and social dynamics. Burdened by tons of Street’s seriously witless summary judgments and smooth romantic seduction-chat, “Chameleon Street” remains probing and singular, and perhaps, an opportunity for a less indulgent, more thoroughly conceived remake.

“The District!” (Atopia) will be available on January 15th; “Chameleon Street” (Home Vision) is now available on DVD.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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