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DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on “Elena,” the film you need to see this month

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Summer movie season usually means “big” — big blockbusters, big sequels, big action sequences. But the summer also brings with it a wealth of smaller art house films, and a great one from Russia will be arriving in New York on Wednesday before making its way across the rest of the country over the next few months. It’s called “Elena,” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. In its own intimate way, it’s rather epic.

The film tells the story of Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a matronly woman in her 60s who’s a couple years into her marriage to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a rich man she met when she was his nurse. They both have children from previous marriages, but they live alone in his impressive, chilly Moscow apartment, sleeping in separate bedrooms. Not the most vibrant of lives, to be sure, but things could always be worse.

Elena doesn’t require much from her husband — in some ways, she’s still his nurse — but one day she comes to him asking a favor. Her adult son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) has a family of his own, and they don’t have nearly the financial resources that Vladimir has. (Partly it’s because Sergey is a bum, but Elena loves him anyway.) Elena asks Vladimir if he’d be willing to give Sergey’s teen son the money he needs for college. Vladimir refuses, contemptuous of Sergey’s laziness and unconcerned about his plight. Dutiful Elena obeys — it’s not like she has the money herself — and has to decide how else she can help her son.

Elena’s eventual plan, sparked by a surprising visit from Vladimir’s scornful daughter, shouldn’t be spoiled so as not to diminish its shock value. Even more unexpected, though, is how comfortable Elena becomes with her unlikely scheme once she goes about completing it. But what’s most powerful about “Elena” is how, really, the movie’s twists aren’t twists at all. Without ever realizing it, we recognize that all along we knew what Elena was going to do, even if we didn’t quite want to believe it.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (who previously made the gripping father-son drama “The Return”) specializes in slow, thoughtful dramas in which his characters’ true nature takes time to be revealed. With that in mind, one could almost approach “Elena” as a mystery, watching the characters’ actions for clues into what they might be capable of doing. Making it all the more intriguing, Zvyagintsev never really shows his hand about where his sympathies lie. Elena is a loving, loyal caretaker of her older husband, but is she right to be upset with Vladimir when her son really is a layabout? Even if Vladimir is right about her son, shouldn’t he still show compassion to those less fortunate than he? As “Elena” enters darker waters in its second half, these questions continue to reverberate — along with other, more upsetting ones — and Zvyagintsev doesn’t provide answers.

In his homeland, Zvyagintsev has become known as a chronicler of the state of modern Russia with its economic inequality and generational divides. But one needn’t know a thing about Russian politics to see that “Elena” is actually a distressingly universal tale of haves and have-nots, not to mention an apt reminder that morality and ethics can be slippery propositions when other interests drive us. More often than not, we go to the movies to escape the realities of normal life: Up on the screen, the good guys vanquish evil at a comfortingly consistent rate. Such certainties don’t exist in “Elena,” particularly because nobody in the movie would consider him or herself evil. These moral ambiguities are not always easy for an audience, nor are they easy for a filmmaker and his cast to execute. But in this case, they do beautifully. Even days after seeing “Elena,” I’m not sure how to feel about any of the characters, which I consider the highest compliment. Life isn’t simple. To capture it in all its complexity, “Elena” is heroic.

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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 IFC.com

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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

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…