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Heavy Cargo

Heavy Cargo (photo)

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The unaccented, matter-of-fact tone of Aleksei Balabanov’s “Cargo 200” is deliberately disarming. The plain Jane approach leads us to expect story complexity, nuance, social relevance — anything, really, beside what we eventually get, which is a cold-eyed slide into the human hellpit. Based on “true events,” somewhat embroidered, Balabanov’s movie is a poison-pen letter sent to the heart of the failing Soviet society circa 1984, and you can appropriately read its sneaky, scalding tribulations as a face-slap to the Russians, young and old, who nostalgize the old regime. What’s often lamented is the passing of a sense of enforced order and control; Balabanov is here to remind everyone that bloodthirsty chaos ruled, and you forget that at your peril.

Context is applied lightly: we meet two middle-aged brothers — one an Army colonel, the other a “scientific atheism” professor — having lunch on a veranda, then the colonel’s daughter and her black-market smoothie of a boyfriend, whose alarming thirst for vodka is the first sign of trouble. Haphazardly, vectors cross: the professor’s car breaks down in the northern country outside of Leningrad, and he seeks help at a farmhouse, where the central figure seems to be a bellicose, gun-cleaning brute brimming with anti-atheist passion and a vague dream of building a Christian utopia. This odd, ramshackle home also harbors a Vietnamese worker and a skinny, seemingly mute man of untold provenance — and it’s this inexpressive sociopath who becomes the story’s agent of desolation, once the tanked black market hood shows up a little later to buy booze, accompanied by a girl he picked up at a roadside disco. What ensues is all step-by-step minutiae — and an undramatic rape with an empty vodka bottle is just the beginning.

From there, “Cargo 200” (which is the military euphemism for soldier coffins coming back from Afghanistan, a salient plot integer) becomes a feral ordeal, but Balabanov is careful not to overplay the hysteria and suffering; the filmmaking is cool, unemphatic, unhurried, and the tone is low-amp jaunty. The lack of explicit textural cues — music, close-ups, reaction shots, etc. — often and deliberately leaves us with a chuckle stuck like a bone in our throats. Balabanov, for his part, does not dictate response, and he leaves a good deal unsaid, under the film’s icy surface. I had to watch it twice to see the ligaments between plot threads and how they connect to subterranean statements about Russian life under Communism, and their subtlety, amidst this mayhem, is a thing to behold. Still, it’s hard to overlook the climactic series of tableaux, unselfconscious masterworks of grime, proliferating flies, pooling blood and Boris Yeltsin. I haven’t been a big fan of Balabanov (“Of Freaks and Men,” “Brother”), but this is the best and richest Russian film American screens have seen since Ilya Khrjanovsky’s “4.”

04282009_AndyWarholScreenTe.jpgNot being much of a Warholite, either — that is, not belonging to the cultural tribe that believes everything Andy Warhol touched is, by default, a masterful piece of postmod art simply because his insulating meta-irony deems it all so — I wouldn’t make great claims for his hundreds of one-reel “screen tests” by themselves, but no one really does. By being Warhols, they are seen as having an intrinsic meta-value that has nothing to do with aesthetics or “experimentation” or visual glamour or anything else, really. In the new compilation “13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” the creation of which is attributed only to Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, a baker’s dozen of Warhol’s full-frontal one-shots (which he used to show arbitrarily in public shows in groups of 13) are scored with drowsy, “shoegazing” songs by the duo Dean & Britta. The upshot isn’t art but homage, a new, semi-permanent context for pieces of film Warhol never would’ve contextualized himself.

Warhol’s methodology was so simple — just sit and stare — that the primal voyeuristic attraction of cinema lands in your lap, and there’s no denying that many of the impassive portraits here — Nico, Mary Woronov, Paul America, Edie Sedgwick — are surpassingly beautiful. (Lou Reed, drinking a Coke in shades, not so much, but Jane Holzer’s energetic teeth-brushing is oddly invigorating.) But here’s why they’re beautiful now — like the first Lumière films, moviemaking is its own nostalgia machine, its own documentary about cultural history and its own inherent lament for a vanished past. Warhol just let the sadness roam free, without constriction. Whatever the thoroughly un-arty artiness meant in the mid-’60s (which doesn’t seem to be a very much; impish emptiness, self-mythologizing poseur cool, and that’s it), today it thrums with melancholy — so much gorgeous youth, just waiting to fall under time’s bulldozer. I don’t take that to be a minor chord to strike. The songs are agreeably ambient, if forgettable, though Britta Phillips herself, seen in the DVD supplements to be simply the most gorgeous 45-year-old bass player on Earth, seems ready even at her un-Warholian age for a loving close-up.

“Cargo 200” (The Disinformation Company) and “13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” (Plexifilm) are now available on DVD.

[Additional photo: Jane Holzer brushing her teeth in “13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” Plexifilm, 2009]

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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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