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WILD THING

Comedian T.J. Miller may be best known 
as the one behind the video camera in J.J. Abrams’s Cloverfield, but, with any luck, you may soon get to see much more of him (he’s been cast in Mike Judge’s new comedy pilot, Silicon Valley). Until then, you’ll have to catch the Second City alum—named one of Variety’s “Top 10 Comics to Watch”—at Gotham Comedy Club, where he’ll be performing for two nights. The star of the hit comedy short Successful 
Alcoholics (see it on Funny or Die immediately) and the cohost of the podcast 
Cashing in With T.J. Miller on the Nerdist Network will regale with you stories on a range of his favorite subjects, such as terrible pickup lines, “creepy” everyday hand gestures, and his medical marijuana prescription.

Fri., Feb. 8, 8 & 10 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 9, 8, 10 & 11:45 p.m., 2013

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The Animation Show 4

Less hit-or-miss than the long-running Spike & Mike packages of drawn-to-the-dark-side filth, this touring animation program curated by Mike Judge (this time without co-founder Don Hertzfeldt) has hit its stride, emphasizing niceties such as craft alongside reliable crowd-pleasers like the ultraviolent deaths of cute little creatures and a self-explanatory something called “Yompi the Crotch-Biting Sloup.” Faster and funnier than the somewhat lugubrious Volume 3, the new program features a decided international bent; whether from France, Germany, or closer to home, the 20-odd selections mesh with Judge’s skewed sensibility. Standouts include Smith and Foulkes’s This Way Up, a Corpse Bride–esque CGI fantasy with two cadaverous undertakers seeing more than they ever wanted of the underworld; Georges Schwizgebel’s Jeu, with its furiously morphing Escher perspectives; and Steve Dildarian’s Angry Unpaid Hooker, the ultimate unexplainable domestic crisis rendered in scratchy line drawings and deadpan conversational hilarity. (It bodes well for Dildarian’s upcoming HBO series.) The technique alone can be dazzling, as in PES’s Western Spaghetti, two minutes of stop-motion magic tricks that convert pincushions into tomato sauce and Post-It notes into butter pats. Or it can be so minimal that visual crudeness becomes part of the joke—as in Grant Orchard’s Love Sport—Paintballing, in which tiny cartoon rectangles enact an arms-race Armageddon on the field of pellet-splatter combat. For older kids only.

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Meet the Spartans

Mike Judge predicted this bullshit would happen in his dystopian satire Idiocracy, in which Americans had become so dumb that the multiplex headliner was something called Ass: just two hours of a naked, farting rump. Depressingly, he was off by about 500 years. Here and now, the writing-directing team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (see also: Date Movie, Epic Movie) water down their own blend of pop-comic diarrhea in this witless, tasteless, formless spoof of 300‘s homoerotic box-office warriors. So infuriatingly lazy that its leads don’t even earn Mad Magazine–clever nicknames, the movie pits King Leonidas (Sean Maguire) and his chest-waxed army of 13 against pierced Persian Xerxes (Ken Davitian), stopping every 30 seconds to make random media references from 2006 through summer 2007: Heroes, Britney’s vagina, Ugly Betty, Paris’s vagina, Spider-Man 3,
Lindsay’s vagina, repeat ad nauseam. Carmen Electra proves herself a national treasure as our highest-priced whore, Kevin Sorbo makes a Herculean fool of himself, testicles are bitten, penguins defecate, the countless man-on-man gags land every time with a “gay is gross” eww response, at least six corporate products are placed—and, at its most offensive, a death cry of “Say hello to Anna Nicole.” I’m moving to Europe.

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Counter-Strike

The year: 2505. Your viewing choices tonight: an oldie but a goodie—a picture called Ass, a feature-length screensaver of butt cheeks punctuated by the occasional fart—or the hit TV show Ow! My Balls, a connoisseur’s compendium of nutsack whacks. Thanks to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, we have seen the future of entertainment 500 years from now, when the world is run by genetically shortchanged knuckle-draggers. And it’s, it’s . . . well, it may look uncannily like next year’s network-TV slate and major-studio lineup if the WGA strike continues.

This time next year, we may be sitting in front of the tube glued to CBS’s What’s in Katie Couric’s Colon? or watching Celebrity Poker Showdown: The Movie on 2,512 screens. So start stockpiling some of the many films in 2007 that were distinguished by strong, distinctive writing.

The movie of the moment, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, is a model of careful adaptation: It honors the twangy palaver as well as the taut silences of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, finding the tough, cold heart of a book that sometimes reads like a classroom assignment in Hard-Boiled Lit. Screenwriting isn’t just filling space with words: One of the movie’s strengths is its ability to convey the inner workings of taciturn people in mere scraps of dialogue.

By contrast, the garrulous characters in Juno practically gesture off-screen to first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody every time they open their mouths: The movie’s early scenes contain an emptied notebook’s worth of hoarded quirks, slang, and catchphrases, as if a touring company of Heathers had moved into the 7-Eleven. More impressive is the way Cody flips the script on the adoptive yuppie couple played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, reversing our sympathies for the chilly Garner and catching the juvenile self-absorption behind Bateman’s Joe Cool affability.

Given the collaborative pile-on of filmmaking, though, getting a script to the screen with your authorial voice intact is a coup. In that regard, add Cody to a list that includes Aaron Sorkin—whose unmistakable rat-a-tat conversational rhythms convert the weapons stats and anti-Communist chicanery of Charlie Wilson’s War into a globe-tilting His Girl Friday—and Noah Baumbach, who hones his gift for verbal vivisection to a cutting edge in Margot at the Wedding. This was the year that Knocked Up‘s DVD-extra looseness and clubby guy’s-guy riffing made Judd Apatow the hottest brand name going in screen humor, elbowing aside effects-driven comedy for the spitballing tone of a writing session.

Only one screenwriter, however, gave a mostly female cast the kind of talky latitude that Apatow, the Coens, and Paul Thomas Anderson in There Will Be Blood allowed their male protagonists—and that feminist’s name was Quentin Tarantino. His Death Proof segment of Grindhouse may be the most surprising script of the year, from its bifurcated structure to its deliberate subversion of psycho killer Stuntman Mike’s machismo. If the strike has an upside, it’s that the battle may give Tarantino, Cody, the Coens, and others lots of time to polish new scripts. The bad news is that we may find ourselves, like the viewers of Ass in Idiocracy, longing for the days of “great films, with plots! Where you cared about whose ass it was, and why it was farting!”

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The Future is Now

The Stupid Movie Controversy of 2006 draws to a close this week with the DVD release of Idiocracy, the orphaned brainchild of writer-director Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill). Proving its proposition that America is getting dumber by the day, this feel-bad satire opened on September 1 in a half-dozen North American cities cloaked in a total PR blackout: no press release, no advance screenings, no trailer. The existence of a poster was rigorously investigated. Calls to Moviefone in Austin were rumored to announce showtimes for Untitled Mike Judge Project. New York, with its dense concentration of influential critics, was pointedly not one of the theatrical markets. Local bloggers were quick to smell a rat.

As extensively reported, rumored, and speculated on by Bilge Ebiri, editor of thescreengrab.com, Idiocracy appeared to be the target of deliberate suppression by Twentieth Century Fox, the same studio that had previously watched Judge’s Office Space go from big-screen flop to home-video hit (and with whom Judge retains a relationship though Fox channel mainstay King of the Hill). Word of poor test screenings and brutal studio cuts — common enough indignities — were soon followed by reports of more anomalous neglect: industry-mandated trade screenings cancelled at the last minute, print requests by festival programmers ignored, stingy theatrical bookings. A profile of Judge in Esquire was plotted around the arrival of a phone call from Fox granting the filmmaker permission to screen an Idiocracy trailer for the journalist. The call never came.

Stupid is as stupid does, and the dumping of Idiocracy was, to speak its own language, totally fucking retarded. Set in the 26th century, the film imagines a dipshit dystopia where corporate mendacity and consumer apathy have merged in apocalyptic symbiosis. Judge is bracingly specific in his targets, daring to name names, punk ad campaigns, desecrate corporate logos. A Costco the size of Calcutta sprawls in the shadow of a 50-story garbage heap. Couch-potato shantytowns cluster near Starbucks, now in the business of grande hand jobs and “full release lattes.” The Carl’s Jr. star wears a permanent snarl, and Fuddruckers has been rechristened Buttfuckers. Even Fox News comes in for a roasting, anchored by a shirtless muscleman and zaftig ├╝ber-bimbo.

Judge doesn’t just bite the hand that feeds him, he barfs all over his audience. Language has degenerated into a slur of grunts, insults, Ebonics, and Valleyspeak. Slumped on La-Z-Boys equipped with built-in toilets, feeding tubes dangling from their slack jaws, the dirtbag citizenry gawk at the latest episode of Ow! My Balls! on the Violence Channel. Ass, the No. 1 movie in the nation, consists of a single, sustained butt shot with occasional flatulence on the soundtrack. (In granting Best Picture and Screenplay Oscars to this Warholian stunt, the Academy, at least, has smartened up in the five centuries since Crash.)

Luke Wilson stars as Joe Bowers, an Army slacker cryogenically frozen by the government in 2006, who wakes up 500 years later when the experiment goes awry. Maya Rudolph co-stars as a hooker named Rita, on loan from Upgrayedd (Brad “Scarface” Jordan), her pimp (“the double D stands for a double dose of pimpin’ “). The casting of these two boobs is the film’s maddening masterstroke: Wilson’s generic, low-wattage charm and Rudolph’s shallow SNL affect barely register in the onslaught of Judge’s future schlock. Offering up such mediocrities as audience surrogates may be the film’s most cynical gesture. Corrosive pessimism is the true hero of Idiocracy.

America — fuck, yeah! Not since Team America has a studio picture dared such irreverence. And not since Office Space has a studio reject so eagerly awaited its cult? Snide, caustic, and uproariously rude, Idiocracy rivals Borat for fury, Fast Food Nation for outrage, and, at least in the DVD cut, Phat Girlz for sloppiness (to name three other 2006 Fox releases).

But for all its searing indignation, Idiocracy trips on a conceptual level by loading its satire on the consumer end of the idiot equation rather than addressing those who shrewdly capitalize on dumbass passivity. There’s an intelligent design to the dumbing-down of America, but Judge largely conceives the devolution of civil society as an inexorable law of nature. Considering how far up the collective ass he’s put his foot, that’s a forgivable misstep.

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Rack Focus

Beavis and Butt-head: The Mike Judge Collection—Volume 1
(Paramount)

Few pop-cultural artifacts seem more emblematic of that decade of collective TV-induced stupidification known as the ’90s than MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head. This three-disc set (according to creator Mike Judge’s liner notes, the first of two volumes compiling the two-thirds of the series “that didn’t suck”) collects 40 cartoons, 11 music videos with B&B commentary, a Thanksgiving special featuring Kurt Loder, the boys’ VMA appearances, and much more. As Butt-head himself might put it, “These are the moments you live for.”


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
(Warner)

Depending on one’s point of view, Johnny Depp’s bizarre interpretation of Willy Wonka as child-hating sociopath either makes or ruins Tim Burton’s controversial Roald Dahl adaptation (I’d vote for the former). The two-disc “deluxe edition” comes loaded with extras. Among the highlights: a featurette depicting the transformation of actor Deep Roy into an army of Oompa Loompas and a behind-the-scenes look at the dubious art of training squirrels.


High Tension
(Lions Gate)

This French slasher flick largely lives up to its name, with even the by now de rigueur “twist” ending failing to negate the preceding suspense. This unrated DVD restores the minute or so of gore deemed too much for American audiences, and also allows viewers to choose between the U.S. English-dubbed version and the original French-language director’s cut.

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Film

Expertly programmed by Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt, the second go-round of “The Animation Show” features 12 films from five countries. Among the best is Oscar nominee Guard Dog, in which a deranged canine fantasizes about threats to its owner from apparently harmless sources. Another paranoiac vision, the Australian Ward 13 follows an accident victim’s attempt to escape from a demented hospital through a maze of bad-acid imagery. Other highlights include a pair of Canadian entries, the Faustian The Man With No Shadow and the lyrical When the Day Breaks, a tale of urban interconnectedness played out by anthropomorphic farm animals. Closing the program on an enigmatic note is Hertzfeldt’s own The Meaning of Life, a minimalist epic that conjures its cosmic vision from crudely drawn stick figures and a Tchaikovsky soundtrack.

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Dumb and Dumber

Less genuinely disturbed than developmentally arrested, the latest “Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Animation” omnibus (early champion of Beavis and Butt-head and South Park) lives up to its name about as well as any eighth-grade boy with access to cable and porn mags. Let’s call him Ike: an angry, sullen sort who likes to draw and set things on fire. Ike has recently discovered gutter-mouthed gangster movies, yet remains attached to the fables that pleased him as a child (hence Walter Santucci’s Pussy da Rednosed Reindeer). Ike channels his nascent homophobia through superhero comics (Nick Gibbons’s Radioactive Crotch Man). Ike likes to torture his younger sister by forcing her Barbies to engage in s&m and alien anal probes (Roy T. Wood’s Wheelchair Rebecca). Ike has watched enough Aardman films to infer a material kinship between Claymation and most bodily excretions (Sloaches Fun House, from Chicago’s Clayboy Enterprises). Ike is working at sublimating his urges toward animal abuse (Dave Lipson’s Stinky Monkey).

Ike has three similarly inclined buddies: One’s a sensitive sort who might grow up to be Mike Judge, the other two are lithium candidates who will definitely grow up to be Al Goldstein. Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is a stick-figure pileup of non-sequitur “advertisements” that catalogue the spiraling nervous breakdown of a blocked animator named Don Hertzfeldt. (The film rivals Chocolat as the year’s most improbable Oscar nominee.) And Jeff Pee and Chris Graphenberg’s Birth of Abomination, with its incongruously cheery Crayola palette, documents one night in the life of two brothers born joined at the mouth; separated in a botched surgery, lanky Mute sports a scar where his yap should be, while stout Motormouth has a pelican rictus he uses to swallow pizza slices whole. A chance meeting with a very pregnant junkie ‘ho results in low-key, casually racist mayhem. Blowjobs coincide with childbirth. Babies are eaten. Babies are vomited up. Umbilical cords are employed as crack conduits. For what it’s worth, Birth of Abomination is the only truly sick and twisted entry here—not least because the credits thank both “Our Families” and an apparently vengeful “God.”

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Prole Playing

It’s nine o’clock on a weekday morning— do you know where you are? If you’ve ever stumbled into work more than a few minutes late, bleary-eyed and defeated, desperate to avoid the boss, here’s a fine excuse to sneak out of the office for an early afternoon movie. But don’t expect your special chair or favorite stapler to be there when you get back.

Office Space, the first live-action feature by Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-head and cocreator of King of the Hill, is a surprisingly good-natured comedy about the suppressed rage and paranoia of unappreciated employees. Every irritating character found in corporate culture is well represented here, from the ever-perky receptionist who blathers on about having “a bad case of the Mondays,” to a senior VP, played by the fabulously unctuous Gary Cole, who greets his employees with a sneering “So . . . what’s happening?” before reprimanding them, for the eighth time, for using the wrong cover sheet on a report. There’s even a demonic printer that seems to require a blood sacrifice before it will work properly.

Judge’s earliest animated shorts, which ran on Comedy Central, followed a middle-aged office peon who suffers endless indignities at the hands of a tyrannical corporate vice president. Ordered to move his desk farther and farther away from a window, he eventually ends up seething in a basement storage room. Though the muttering, eccentric Milton reappears in Office Space, he exists as a counterpoint, an example of what can happen in the minds of workers who cling too tightly to their lousy jobs. The movie follows three guys in their twenties, all programmers at a high-tech company in a bland, nameless city, who are still rebellious enough to see a way out of their dead-end jobs before they crack up or get laid off. That their screw-the-company scheme is inspired by the plot of Superman III should be ample evidence of just how naive they are about white-collar crime. The ringleader is Peter, a likable bum whose dream isn’t really wealth or revenge, but the chance to lounge around watching reruns of Kung Fu with a friendly waitress (Jennifer Aniston).

Peter’s not a terribly dynamic hero, particularly after a fateful visit to a hypnotherapist who treats stress, but it helps that the actor who plays him, Ron Livingston of Swingers, has the most insanely expressive eyebrows since Vincent Price. Peter’s office mates include Samir (Ajay Naidu), a dapper, scrupulous immigrant from the Near East, and the unfortunately named Michael Bolton (David Herman), a squirrelly-looking outsider who decorates his cubicle with toy soldiers and posters of Navy Seals, and seems to live his life with a gangsta rap soundtrack running through his head. Unlike most stories of paranoia and revenge in the workplace, Office Space manages to find room for a happy ending that doesn’t involve ripping anyone off, including the audience.

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Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation

Like it or not, Spike and Mike’s festival of animation, the annual anthology of cartoons that play human cruelty and decrepitude for locker-room laffs, is on animation’s cutting edge. Showcased amid the festival’s deliberate crudeness have been many future giants in the field, including Bill Plympton, Nick Park, Mike Judge, John Kricfalusi, and John Lasseter. The current edition contains two legendary proto–South Park shorts by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (The Spirit of Christmas, in which Jesus fights Santa, and the little-seen Frosty, in which Jesus trounces an evil snowman). Unfortunately, the distinction between genuine subversiveness and calculated disgust may not be readily apparent, just as in live action, where partisans of There’s Something About Mary and Happiness argue over which film is seminal and which merely, um, seminal. Moreover, the culture absorbs the shocking with alarming speed, as the careers of Judge, Kricfalusi, and Parker and Stone indicate. Which among this year’s crop are ‘toons for the ages?

One way to spot the artists is to note homages to avant-gardists past. Steve Margolis’s gutter meditation Animalistic Times evokes Bukowski, while Scott Roberts’s Monica Banana is both an obvious topical gag and an arcane parody of Warhol’s short film Mario Banana. Pete Metzger’s The Rise and Fall of Coco, the Junkie Pimp was reputedly inspired by Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” (This short and three others were unavailable for preview.) There’s evidence of higher thought even in the wall-to-wall violence of Mad Dog Films’ Boris the Dog, whose extravagant bloodletting is interrupted by its canine protagonist’s cosmic Nietzschean reverie, and Brian Bress’s Karate Dick Boys, a Freudian kung fu melee among naked cherubs, each with five lethal limbs. These shorts stand out from the more crassly exploitative ones, including the in-house efforts Sick and Twisted Special Games, a pointlessly politically incorrect poke at disabled athletes, and How To Get Pronged, a Plympton rip-off. It seems even the festival curators can’t tell the difference between transgression and trash.