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The Mundane Fantastic

The Mundane Fantastic (photo)

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In this summer’s most spectacular features — from CGI-driven live-action movies to 3-D animated fare — the real star has been the camera. It’s as lively, confident and versatile as any lead actor, taking any opportunity to get into character for a particular shot or sequence, doing whatever it needs to do to sell a moment. Much of the epic run time of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is shot with a wobbly handheld camera, following its heroes through a series of burning, crumbling, exploding landscapes as giant robots scramble along in the background or duke it out like boxers; the action is framed and shot to suggest that we’re seeing a documentary event — a catastrophic or miraculous occurrence that just happened to be captured for posterity. Ditto “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” When the cybernetically enhanced soldiers soar through the air, the camera shakes, and the backgrounds (and sometimes the combatants) blur out. In certain shots, the camera seems to be struggling to keep the participants in frame.

One can chalk this tendency up to the “Bourne”-era craze for jittery handheld camerawork, or merely to clever, purposeful filmmaking — to directors, cinematographers, editors and special effects technicians going the extra kilometer to add believability. But with cinema in the final stages of its digital evolution — the production process evolving from one that used to be entirely analog, with component pieces (film, tape) that one could literally hold in one’s hand, to a digital process wherein almost every stage is created electronically, and the bits don’t physically exist in quite the same way — it’s worth asking where this craving for “believability” comes from and how it’s being expressed via the camera. I think it has to do with the subliminal knowledge (on the part of filmmakers more so than the viewers) that reality is imperfect, and that to make a moment seem real, one must present it somewhat imprecisely, to counteract the meticulous, slightly inhuman slickness of CGI.

The alien apartheid parable “District 9” has more than a touch of this approach, not just in its opening section (a “documentary” recap of the story thus far, complete with shaky helicopter shots of the alien ghetto), but in the action-packed third act. An assault on a corporate lab, the doomed flight of a prawn drop ship and a protracted showdown between human mercenaries and a robot-armor-suited adversary are less reminiscent of “Alien Nation” (the movie’s unacknowledged predecessor) than the D-Day sequence in “Saving Private Ryan.” The camera whipsaws between combatants, often arriving a split-second after a shanty crumbles or a head explodes. Even quiet, iconic moments are dirtied-up: when the persecuted hero stands on a ridge overlooking Johannesburg, desperately trying to make a cell phone call while the alien mothership looms in the sky behind him, the shot is handheld, the composition good enough for government work. Grubby equals real. [Click the images to see them larger.]

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Another striking example of this aesthetic can be seen in an early shot from the big-screen reboot of “Star Trek”: an image of a gigantic Romulan ship passing over the camera, an homage to the famous, much-imitated opening shot of “Star Wars.” The camera is vibrating a bit, as if reacting to the sheer, mind-boggling immensity of the behemoth moving so close to it, and there’s a flare on the lens, further selling the idea that we’re seeing a photographic record of something that really happened. There are gratuitous lens flares throughout “Star Trek,” of course, but their presence in the outer space sequences seems more than an instance of visual consistency. The interior sequences, after all, involve actual performers, sets and lights positioned to shine right into the camera (and there was, in fact, a camera). The space scenes are purely digital creations. There are no miniature ships, and no light.

Then there’s the crowning touch in that shot of the Romulan ship: the flare reveals a patch of dirt in one corner of the lens. Because the entire image was created in a computer, the shot takes the word “gritty” to a surreal new level. The ensuing Romulan/Federation space battle is similarly down-and-dirty, taking its cues from SyFy’s “Battlestar Galactica,” the first TV space opera shot like a documentary. That series’ handheld images of human interaction are complemented by space battles that might as well be shot by panicked Colonial Signal Corps cameramen who refocus, pan and zoom from moment to moment, expending so much energy just keeping the damned ships in frame that they can’t afford to worry about whether the compositions are pretty.

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Compare the current crop of special effects-driven spectacles to ones made in earlier eras, and the grubbing-up of entertainment becomes more apparent. Analog-era special effects were more visually sedate; they knew they were special and didn’t feel as much of a need to seem “real.” From the matte paintings of “Citizen Kane,” Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and the original “Star Wars” trilogy to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures and monster-suited Toho performers romping through scale models of Tokyo, the images took their cues from painting and theater, prizing composition and texture over restless energy, occasionally adding a bit of movement for the sake of a visual punch but more often just sitting still and letting us have a good, long look at the splendors unfolding onscreen.

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Give Back

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.

via GIPHY

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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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