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Getting Versed in Versus Movies

Getting Versed in Versus Movies (photo)

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There has to be no easier movie pitch than unveiling a “versus” in the title. Everyone, even studio heads, has at one time or another dwelt on the existential question of “who would win in a fight?” The conflict is clear, the characters are established, the action implied — all they have to do is sign on the bottom line. Sci-fi has especially benefited from the built-in allure of this most savage of titling decisions — from the endless “Godzilla” fight cards to the recent “Alien vs. Predator” franchise, mano y mano monster throwdowns have made a mint at the box office, especially when established geek properties square off. Often a sign that a character has run his or her course into camp (“Freddy vs. Jason” or “Dracula vs. Frankenstein”), the more resourceful of these films exceed their built-in limitations. DreamWorks is trying to milk that “versus” mojo for their animated 3D spectacle “Monsters vs. Aliens,” now in theater. The filmmakers can only hope it has a shelf life as long as most of the films listed below, a broad cross-section of showdowns both physical and emotional.

03242009_WifeVsSecretary2.jpg“Wife vs. Secretary” (1936)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Winner: Wife

In pre-code Hollywood, Jean Harlow’s secretary might have bedded Clark Gable’s dashing ad exec. But after the enforcement of the code started in 1934, Myrna Loy’s wife was destined to retain his many valuable services. More of a softball than screwball comedy, this breezily entertaining love triangle still maintains some charm. Most of it comes from its players acting against type, with the normally stoic Gable in happy-go-lucky mode and Harlow eschewing glamour for his-girl-Friday pluck. Only Loy maintains her usual screen persona as a cold aristocrat. The conflict is not a result of a full-on catfight for Gable’s favors, but rather one of slowly escalating jealousies that result in a cascade of misunderstandings.

Harlow never unloads her seductive charms, but her pert presence in the office gets the gossips squawking. After the co-workers close a business deal in a cozy Havana hotel, Astor believes the lies and sues for divorce. It is only then that Harlow senses her opportunity, eagerly tossing over her earnest traditionalist boyfriend (a young Jimmy Stewart) for the chance at the more progressive (and richer) Gable. Marriage prevails in a cleverly staged finale, however, when director Clarence Brown utilizes the off-screen sound of approaching high-heel footsteps as the overture to reunion. Harlow shrugs her way back into Stewart’s car, a disheartening future clouding her downcast eyes.

03312009_freddyvsjason.jpg“Freddy vs. Jason” (2003)
Directed by Ronny Yu
Winner: Freddy

Having long since been reduced by their respective franchises into comical parodies of their formerly frightening selves — a devolution that began sometime around 1985 — Freddy and Jason sparred off in “Freddy vs. Jason” with little reputation left to lose. And true to form, this face-off didn’t further sully their already tarnished legacies. In the final tally, it’s Freddy who emerges triumphant, despite the fact that the story’s climactic showdown ends with Jason decapitating his knife-gloved adversary. Though both indestructible — and thus incapable of definitively defeating the other — Freddy’s jokey, one-liner-spouting personality was far better suited for this lame-brained story, which eschews any serious attempts at generating tension in favor of tongue-in-cheek terror and cheesy gore. There’s no doubt that the “Friday the 13th” series was epitomized by corny inanity, but “Freddy vs. Jason” is goofy supernatural nonsense of a distinctly Elm St. strain (made, unsurprisingly, by that series’ studio, New Line), and thus offers up a battle inherently skewed in the charred child murderer’s favor.

03312009_kramervskramer2.jpg“Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979)
Directed by Robert Benton
Winner: Ted Kramer

Blessed with the autumnal glow of Néstor Almendros’ cinematography, the otherwise middling “Kramer vs. Kramer” pits hardworking ad-man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) against his women’s libber ex-wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) in a child custody court battle. Joanna, in an attempt to “find herself”, had fled their marriage and their boy, only to return a year later to reclaim motherhood. Streep plays her with a childlike passivity, not wanting to cause harm but acting with unthinking narcisssim. Hoffman is excellent: jumpy, unraveled and raw after her departure, falling apart in a memorable breakfast scene in the kitchen, taking his rage out on an uncooperative oven. There’s a lot of talent on display here, but the central drama is so unbalanced, with Joanna such a flimsy, unlikeable cipher, that the film’s “realist” aesthetic collapses. The dramatic courtroom sequence, in which Hoffman gives an impassioned speech about fatherhood, is moving on its own merits, but in context seems like a scared patriarchy circling the wagons against a feminist takeover. The finale is even more absurd, a bizarre wish-fulfillment fantasy in which Joanna capitulates to Ted in giving up their son, despite her victory in the courtroom. Ted wins, women lose.

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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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