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Mississippi Blues and Embarcadero Clues

Mississippi Blues and Embarcadero Clues (photo)

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There’s little point in attempting to figure why Lance Hammer’s “Ballast,” the best American film of 2008, was whisked in and out of so few theaters so quickly, in contrast even to minimalist imports and special-interest video docs in the same span, and despite universal critical hosannas. Good films get tossed by the wayside all the time, particularly in the contemporary state of distribution, but the good news is that movies never truly disappear anymore, they just tumble into the digital slipstream and become universally available.

Hammer’s uneasy, seething, oblique sojourn to the wintry Mississippi midlands is surely the best American “art film” about African-American life since Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” except it might also be the only such film in 25 years. But “Ballast” is also a piece of work that stands outside social context — it’s as specific as a scar and as approachable as a blues growl.

Famously, the film’s tense visual strategy is reminiscent of the Dardennes, which is nothing if not an overdue and bracing thing — finally, an American indie that respects perspective and realism and time and off-screen space. That’s not the whole story, though, because Hammer’s film dodges around the Belgian brothers’ “issue film” schema, and his stormy palette and imagery are deep-dish and unforgettable, never merely rough-&-ready.

The action, set in a gray and damp section of bitter Mississippi countryside, begins with a suicide, and the pond ripples of that act, as well as its immediate circumstances, are left for us to cobble together gradually as we go, tying up in knots the lives of the dead man’s nearly catatonic twin brother (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), ersatz common-law wife (Tarra Riggs) and her 12-year-old son (JimMyron Ross). Exactly who the boy’s father is remains a question mark, but there’s no wondering about the tensions on the table, once the situation begins to unfold, revealing local drug dealers, a handgun, a closed-up grocery store and the ownership of a desolate couple of houses on an overgrown slab of nowhere land.

11102009_ballast04.jpgHammer’s framing and phrasing are always heart-attack unpredictable, but at the same time, a large part of the film’s suspense emanates from the simple fact, as with the Dardennes and Jia Zhang-ke and Lucretia Martel, et al., that we never know enough about these characters to guess what they’ll do next. That’s realism (if we’re to believe a film, we cannot feel omnipotent, a very simple fact that the richest filmmakers in the world haven’t grasped), where a fiery gaze or something heard but not seen can make you hold your breath, and it almost goes without saying that American indie film is still pretty naïve about this kind of storytelling.

It helps in the course of “Ballast” that Hammer is a deft handler of non-professional actors: Smith is an unforgettably internalized figure, hulking about his homestead padded with flannel shirts and avoiding eye contact, while Ross’ weary, tentative demeanor seems to almost stem from his distrust of the film project itself; when he suddenly produces a loaded gun, apropos of nothing, it’s as if the whole movie is in the unknowable control of these people. Still, it’s Riggs’ wild-eyed mother, trying to prevent her son from vanishing into crime and destruction and herself into homelessness, that torches the place, and it’s no surprise to learn that Riggs has been busy finding work since.

This is, I dare say, the future of American independents, if we want it badly enough as an audience and don’t instead succumb to the idea that the programmatic, video-game bloat of Robert Zemeckis or James Cameron represent the future of anything except the death of the medium as we’ve known it and loved it.

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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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