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“Ride with the Devil” and “Ex Drummer” on DVD

“Ride with the Devil” and “Ex Drummer” on DVD (photo)

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Fanatically eclectic as he is, Ang Lee seems destined to eventually make a Judd Apatow raunch comedy, simply because he hasn’t made one yet. You name it: sci-fi comic book, wuxia pian, “Classics Illustrated” costume romance, gritty bromance indie, earnest family schmaltz, woozy rock musical (sort of), and oh yeah, a war film, easily the most ambivalent battle epic ever made about the Civil War, “Ride with the Devil” (1999), which came and went with barely a whisper of notice.

In several ways, it’s not surprising that this lavish, big-country saga was overlooked (“Like, six people saw it,” co-star Jeffrey Wright says in an interview included in Criterion’s special features). It takes place exclusively in the war-fringe arena of Missouri and Kansas, where North/South, good/bad dichotomies were so muddied by South-sympathizing Northerners and ex-slaves fighting on the rebel side and immigrants being targeted for their nationality alone that it amounted to a free-kill zone, and clear narrative propulsion would therefore be hard to come by. I’ve seen “Ride with the Devil” several times, and I’m still not clear on the characters’ motivational politics, or at least what they’re supposed to mean to the film’s thrust, and this despite an ample amount of expository chitchat.

04272010_RideWithDevil3.jpgToday, 11 years after its release, this historical ambiguity seems to be the point that Lee and producer/writer James Schamus were making — to take the most tribal and ethically fraught conflict in American history and open it up beyond the cable TV thumbnail sketches, so that whether we are good slavery-hating, Lincoln-loving liberals or unreconstructed reactionary bigots, we don’t know exactly how to feel about the carnage.

The film’s heroes, as in Buster Keaton’s “The General,” are Union-hating rebels, but in Lee’s film, the boyos — including lovable farm-boy Bushwhackers played by stars Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich — also slaughter innocents and raze homesteads. If they sound like terrorists, that’s because they are — the climactic decimation of Lawrence, Kansas stood as the bloodiest homegrown terrorist act in U.S. history up until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and in this film, it’s a wanton act of impulsive fury, little else. What are we to make of it? The textures of Lee’s film are classically stirring and sympathetic, oozing with heroism and tearful sympathy, but the politics of what goes on is another story. We’re not supposed to suspend judgment, are we?

Hence the title? While we’re wondering, the details of “Ride with the Devil” are seductive — the constant letter-reading, the twisty slangy-slash-schoolhouse patois of the era, the relentless confrontation with teenage boys mutilated and converted by fate into homicidal maniacs, the galloping battle scenes that rival Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” for playing-war-in-the-woods excitement. Much of the time “Ride with the Devil” acts like an ordinary, bombastically scored period film, with Maguire and Ulrich rather beautifully limning out a boyhood friendship and cultivating our sympathies despite their guerrilla warfare, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers occupying the opposite ground as a nasty Bushwhacker with so little conscience he’s on the verge of killing his comrades as well. (We meet no Union characters in any depth.)

But it’s not ordinary, in that its ideas about war and the Civil War and terrorism are not expressed on the surface of the film, but somewhere beneath, implicit but always mysterious. It does no good to say, as the filmmakers might, that they were just focused on the characters’ coming-of-age and historical plight – especially as those protagonists are joyfully, enthusiastically blowing civilians’ heads off and betting human scalps in a campfire card game.

04272010_RideWithDevil4.jpgIt remains a grand, gorgeous pickle of a film, perpetually fascinating for its determination to resist ethical categories. It’s also narratively sludgy — bushwhacking per se had no overriding purpose other than to haphazardly bushwhack, and so Schamus’s script does a good deal of wandering and waiting and then impulsively fighting. Even so, Maguire became a star here, though most people didn’t see it — his cute-crackling delivery of the old dialect (much of it from Daniel Woodrell’s source novel “Woe to Live On”) and huge guileless eyes consistently disarm you, and ground the film with conviction. (There’s never a moment where you catch Maguire trying to be cool, which of course the entire cast is, in their woolen waistcoats, trail-beaten dusters and Metallica haircuts.)

But despite Maguire and the stunt casting of the perfectly adept, butter-almond-ice-cream visage of Jewel as a rural love interest (Rhys-Meyers’s absurdly swishy sociopath doesn’t fare as well), the real prize is Wright, as an ex-slave dragged into fighting against the Union by a childhood friendship, cagey and glowering and slowly discovering what his next step must be as an emancipated man. Lee’s film is large but its small things are what catch you, like Wright’s guttural, secretive concept of how to deliver his ex-slave’s shrugging speech patterns, which fall out in such distinctive rhythms that you suspect that the actor had somehow learned it firsthand.

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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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