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“Walker,” “The Draughtsman’s Contract”

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By Michael Atkinson

British cinema would’ve been a far more dire prospect in the Reagan-Thatcher years if it hadn’t been for Alex Cox and Peter Greenaway, two wildly disparate but brilliantly rebellious and, you could say, slightly insane independents — insofar as you could categorize them as filmmakers working in some kind of English tradition. Mostly, you couldn’t — Cox, for his part, always considered himself more of a punk without a country than a British voice; only his second film, the magisterial “Sid & Nancy” (1986), is set in the U.K. His quick arc after the tireless indie success of “Repo Man” (1984) is a study in the punk-artist paradigm — first, drop your pants at the establishment, then get brought into the system, then quickly reveal yourself to be an ungovernable brat, and get dumped like a sizzling isotope. Cox’s moment of truth was “Walker” (1987), one of most viciously prankish and politically outrageous fireballs ever to hurl out of Hollywood. It was only Cox’s fourth feature and it summarily ended his ascension in even semi-mainstream cinema. (In interviews, Cox remembers being astonished that he didn’t receive a single call or offer after the film was released.) Needless to say, it’s a movie that demands our respect and reverence.

For all of his snot-nosed impishness and drunken élan, Cox is a die-hard leftist, and “Walker” is his wickedest, angriest rocket launch, a historical “drama” documenting the late career of William Walker, a polymathic doctor, writer, adventurer and filibuster who, in the mid-1850s, was sent to take over Nicaragua by Cornelius Vanderbilt (played like Nero by Peter Boyle). Which he did — Walker ruled the tiny, colonialism-beset country as a dictator for two years until he went completely mad, revoked Nicaragua’s progressive abolitionist laws, fought for his throne with a coalition of other Central American armies (and Vanderbilt’s forces), and was eventually executed in Honduras in 1860. Tiny as his niche in history is, Walker has always served as a striding, bellowing symbol of American corporate imperialism (Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!,” with Marlon Brando, was a loose version of the story). At first, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer treat Walker’s saga as merely tongue-in-cheek history, but gradually the film descends into madness itself, crazed with genre movie allusions, boozy slapstick, meticulous period flavor, satiric anachronisms (the film climaxes with a helicopter drop of ’80s-era Marines), moments of raw Grand Guignol and a pervasive sense of lysergic mayhem.

A toked-up fusion of Godard, Altman, Peckinpah (remembered here on a gravestone) and Monty Python, “Walker” doesn’t in the end have the weight and wisdom we’d like to have in our dreams, but at the same time, it’s as close as any major ’80s film came to Ionesco. Of course, Cox’s sights were actually set on the Reagan administration and its expansive program of destruction in Central America. (The film was shot in Nicaragua during the period when the Iran-Contra Affair was becoming news and just as the Tower Commission Report came out — with the full cooperation of the Sandinistas.) Cox always had an eye for the revelatory iconic, and his movie seethes with mysterious signifiers, from Ed Harris’s bright-eyed performance as Walker to Joe Strummer’s hilariously satiric score to moments of “Wild Bunch”-ian slo-mo and fascinating prophecy. (“We were welcomed as liberators!” Walker intones, when in fact they weren’t welcomed at all.) The Criterion edition comes with a plethora of predictably irreverent video documents, commentaries and interviews, and a beguilingly period-appropriate booklet full of documents and a new essay by Graham Fuller.


Peter Greenaway, on the other hand, is very British from toe to nose, but there may not be another filmmaker in the U.K. as defiantly untraditional and perversely idiosyncratic. A hyper-structuralist of the old school (on whatever planet that old school might be), Greenaway is a cinema-maker intoxicated by patterns, tableaux, narratives based on theoretical systems, and mythical histories — in other words, he’s always wanted to be God. Greenaway’s long passage through his own formal obsessions — his amazingly homogenous career began in the ’60s — has taken him to some odd and repulsive regions of late, but his first feature, “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982), stills hums with high wit and delirious pleasure in its fusion of pop-baroque music (Michael Nyman’s score is a head-shaking triumph), lavishly composed imagery, fecund Brit-speak and the farcical yet accurate reinvention of the 17th century. The bounce of intellectual game-playing never ceases, from the first bon mot-clotted frieze to the active engagement of the story, which has the wife and daughter of a repellent landowner, while he’s supposedly away, persuade a draughtsman (Anthony Higgins) to draw the estate in 12 careful sketches, a process that involves sexual intrigue and, in a “Blow-Up”-esque twist, the recorded evidence of a murder plot. Greenaway lent the film a uniquely waxen quality, arranging his ludicrously bewigged, candle-lit cast in flat art history tableaux and filling their mouths with absurdly thick Thackerayan verbiage, all of it so arch and masterfully delivered that the very idea of a British aristocratic tradition begins to feel like a sour joke. It’s not a movie likely to be savored by your average miseducated new release-renting trog, but for those with the palates and background, it’s a banquet.

“Walker” (Criterion Collection) and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (Zeitgeist Films) are now available on DVD.

[Photos: Bruce Anderson, Richard Zobel, John Diehl in “Walker,” Criterion Collection; ]

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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

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

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.


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…


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.


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).


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.


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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