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03072008_frownland.jpg[A variation of this review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2007 SXSW Film Festival]

"Frownland", the first feature of New York-based projectionist-turned-director Ronald Bronstein, is the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It was also my favorite film at the last year’s SXSW Film Festival, one that dares you to walk out until you, perhaps out of spite, find yourself totally drawn in and so in its strange headspace that you harbor concerns for your sanity. When I first reviewed the film, I suggested you shouldn’t expect to see it in a theater near you anytime soon — one year later, Mr. Bronstein has secured, while not a run of the nation’s cineplexes, a solid one-week NY run for “Frownland” at the IFC Center. If that does happen to be a theater near you, I highly suggest you make your way down there.

Bronstein’s main actor, Dore Mann, plays (or is — one suspects his role in the film is a mixture of performance and unadorned existence) Keith, a man who lives in the kitchen of a shared one-bedroom apartment and works as a door-to-door salesman fund-raising for a multiple sclerosis charity. Everyone in his life, including his roommate Charles (Paul Grimstad), his ostensible friend Sandy (David Sandholm) and his sister? cousin? girlfriend? Laura (Mary Wall) treats him with thinly veiled or open hostility, which sounds unfair, except that Keith is possibly the most irritating human being on earth. A chain-smoking, wet-lipped bundle of incoherence, he quivers under an unending struggle to force what he’d like to say out from under a nervous stutter, crippling hesitation and a hopelessly circuitous style of speaking. His inability to get his point across is matched only by his need to do so; he’s constantly, preemptively apologizing while also refusing to acknowledge any social cues. Minor confrontations like his asking his bullying musician roommate to pay the electricity bill escalate almost instantly into open animosity. Keith is like no character I can recalls having seen in a film before — whatever sympathy he amasses as we follow him through the miserable routine that is his life erodes as soon as he opens his mouth.

The thing is, everyone in "Frownland" seems caught up in their own kind of misery, and Keith is such an easy punching bag. Midway through the film we abandon Keith briefly for Charles, and see that he’s not better off, jobless and broke, out-cynical pseudointellectualized by someone he meets testing for the same tutoring job, who declares, in a line for the ages that "I’m nostalgic for a Kafkaesque universe."

When we wander back to Keith, it’s only to watch the one person he’s so far been able to make sit still and listen to him finally crack and shoves him away. He’s left to stagger through a New York that’s made up to be the worst kind of urban hell — one that’s malevolent and that offers absolutely no respite or space to call your own.

"Frownland" was shot on film, a rarity on the festival and indie circuit these days, and the sound design recalls the industrial assaults of David Lynch. At a Q&A after the film’s SXSW premiere, one audience member informed Bronstein that she had tinnitus and that the last 20 minutes had been agony for her, and then looked to him expectantly, as if he were suppose to promise to make his future films with sufferers of tinnitus foremost in mind. It was one of the stranger Q&A moments I’ve ever witnessed, but also seemed weirdly appropriate to the film.

[Photo: Dore Mann in “Frownland,” Frownland, Inc, 2007]

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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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