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Head Games

Head Games (photo)

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Bearing a snarky, double-take title and a premise like a glazed pig on a platter, Grant Heslov’s “The Men Who Stare at Goats” can’t help but get us salivating — be it Chayefskyian satire or schizoid paranormal headtrip or Coenesque destiny farce, we’ll gobble it down, especially if it is, as this movie is, based on reported fact. American military new age telekinetic absurdism! The brown-acid substance of reporter Jon Ronson’s book by the same name is the dizzying crucible at hand — too ludicrous and all true to resist, and yet so much the sum of its chortlesome vignettes that filming it would require either the cargo-cult undergroundism of a Craig Baldwin or the imposed narrative arc of an over-punctuated Hollywood biopic. Regrettably, Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan and producer/star George Clooney have opted for the latter. Which is to say, the madness has been dressed for dinner, and clear soup is served.

The film’s true-story baseline is seductive: after the Vietnam War ended, the Department of Defense and the CIA began various covert “alternative methods” programs that generated, in theory at least, something called the First Earth Battalion — a group of officers and soldiers dedicated to investigating forms of “psychic warfare,” including invisibility, curses, “remote viewing,” “sparkly eyes,” telepathy, autosuggestion and so on. Ronson corralled scores of tangentially related stories into his book, which even in synopsis scans like a fanged, Strangelove-style satire on the desperate irrationalities of militarist Cold War culture.

The film’s tone is goofy and chiffon light, and is as familiar with war as your average Whole Foods-shopping, Obama-sticker Clooney fan. Our surrogate into this nonsense vortex is Ewan McGregor’s Bob Wilton, a stand-in for Ronson who, as a small-paper journalist, stumbles onto stories of the “New Earth Army” and its star warrior Lyn Cassady. Sometime after, when his marriage dissolves, he’s deployed to Iraq to cover the war. There, he stumbles (again) into the retired Cassady (Clooney), who agrees to take him into the desert on a “secret” mission, and in the process, we bask in digitally de-wrinkled flashbacks of the CIA program’s outlandishly dubious history, orchestrated by Jeff Bridges’s Lebowski-ish ‘Nam-vet guru.

So, strainingly abetted by McGregor’s tell-us-about-it narration, Heslov’s film hops from one slapsticky New Age debacle to another for comic relief against Wilton’s arcing discovery of purpose in his wayward life, which is, frankly, four-day-old fish no one will care to buy. But that’s only the largest and dullest problem on the table; much as in Charlie Kaufman and Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” the comedy dares itself to be unfunny half the time, and the frequent evocation of the “Jedi” in and around McGregor’s fresh-faced innocent does little to respark the fizzle. (The two men lost in the desert are out-bantered by memories of C3PO and R2D2 on Tatooine.)

This might be the silliest movie about Iraq made so far, but a problem inherent in Ronson’s fables of idiocy nags when all is said and done: is the paranormal activity “real,” as the characters believe, or is it horse feathers? The film indulges in dramatic “evidence” for both conclusions. Bawling that a movie isn’t fish nor fowl is as old as the medium, but here it’s inescapable: if the psychic phenomena are genuine, then the film is not a comedy. If they’re bogus, it is. If it’s a little bit of both, the confused chuckles die on take-off and then vanish altogether.

11042009_MenWhoStareatGoats2.jpgSome nonfiction books are not intended by the god of commercial culture to be turned into mainstream films, and Ronson’s book, like Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” appears to fall into that club. (“Adaptation” remains, of course, a sacrilegious miracle.) Nobody wants to beat up on “Men/Goats,” because it’s made by Hollywooders who conscientiously buck trends and follow their passion and decide against all reason to make films, well, like this. Not that there isn’t a Dan Brown tincture at the heart of the material’s attraction, searching for the hidden metaphysical whatzits beneath the banality of history. (If it’s an itch that needs scratching, look for Richard Stanley’s 2001 doc “The Secret Glory,” an archival montage detailing the rise and fall of SS officer Otto Rahn, the troubled Nazi in charge of searching for the Holy Grail.) But without going crazy deep into the pathologies or the politics, or even deciding whether or not men could pass through walls given the concentration training, the film’s as slight as an unconvincing card trick.

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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.


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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