DID YOU READ

The week’s critic wrangle: “Amazing Grace,” “Gray Matters,” “The Wayward Cloud.”

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How sweet the sound.+ "Amazing Grace": Michael Apted may have earned his place in the canon with the "Up" series, but his career as a narrative filmmaker is far less irreproachable, encompassing the highs of "Coal Miner’s Daughter" and the lows of "Enough." "Amazing Grace," a biopic about British abolitionist William Wilberforce (played by tasty slice of Welsh rarebit Ioan Gruffudd) (we have no idea what that’s suppose to mean, but so rarely get to bring up rarebit on this blog), seems to be falling somewhere in the middle of the scale. Stephanie Zacharek at Salon writes that "In the first 10 minutes, I feared the picture would be dull and earnest — until, about a half-hour later, I realized it was lively and earnest, and also refreshingly, unapologetically movielike." Though she dislikes the bombast of the score and admits that there’s an awful lot of expository dialogue, she contends that "even when it’s slightly clumsy, the conviction behind it keeps you from laughing at it."

Nathan Rabin at the Onion AV Club is also won over by the film’s passion and sense of humor, finding that Steven Knight‘s screenplay "nicely undercuts the project’s inherent preachiness with dry wit and an engaging depiction of the British parliament as a vicious realm where debate is a treacherous blood sport." At New York, David Edelstein calls "Amazing Grace" "a beautifully chiseled blunt instrument. No, it’s not subtle, but how subtle was slavery?", while Ed Gonzalez at Slant declares that "Amazing Grace is proof that liberal filmmakers can make movies that aren’t desperate manifestations of their political guilt."

Over at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis summarizes the effect of the film as "part BBC-style biography, part Hollywood-like hagiography, and generally pleasing and often moving, even when the story wobbles off the historical rails or becomes bogged down in dopey romance." She goes on to writes that "[i]t would be easier to dismiss ‘Amazing Grace’ for its historical elisions if it weren’t also filled with so many great British actors larking about in knee breeches and powdered wigs; if it weren’t, in other words, an entertainment." Armond White at the NY Press salutes "a courageous sense of social propriety and cultural mission in Amazing Grace, backed-up by Apted’s tasteful intelligence."

Not entertained is Michael Joshua Rowin at indieWIRE, who finds that in the film "[e]verybody wins, it seems, except those wanting their middlebrow fare to display, at the very least, the semblance of a spine." Ella Taylor at LA Weekly calls the film "[m]orally irreproachable and flat as a pancake," and writes that while Wilberforce certainly deserves heroic treatment, "[w]hat he doesn’t deserve is to be deified, sanctified and so thoroughly bleached of human blemish that hardened highwaymen and exhausted horses quail before his goodness and mercy. And that’s just in the first 10 minutes."

 

Heather Graham, now with bowling ball.
+ "Gray Matters": "Is it coincidence or a minitrend?" wonders Stephen Holden at the New York Times, addressing not the terrible name/title affliction that this film shares with a certain television drama, but the fact that, like "Puccini For Beginners," which flickered through theaters earlier this month, Sue Kramer‘s
"Gray Matters" is the story of a upscale New York love triangle with
twists both Sapphic and screwball. Kramer’s film does offer slightly
more star power in the form of lead Heather Graham, playing, yes, a character named Gray who falls for her brother’s fiancée. "If ‘Gray Matters’ follows the standard screwball comedy format, the two halves of its hybrid style — part early ’40s romp, part ‘The L Word’ lite — don’t mesh. Compared to ‘Gray Matters,’ even a Nora Ephron bonbon has the weight of urban neo-realism," concludes Holden. Ed Gonzalez at Slant calls the film "the most inexplicable comedy about delayed homosexuality every made," but adds that "the film at least understands that the buildup toward losing one’s gay virginity can sometimes feel like a colossal farce." And at the Village Voice, Michelle Orange calls the film "execrable" and sighs that "Heather Graham seems resigned to mugging and shrugging out the remainder of her thirties through a series of undercooked romantic comedies."

 

How not to eat your watermelon.
+ "The Wayward Cloud": Tsai Ming-liang films don’t often grace US theaters, and "The Wayward Cloud" isn’t getting a theatrical release, it’s just bobbing up at Anthology for a weeklong run two years after its premiere at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival. The critical consensus is that it’s not his best work, though we’d say it’s still a spectacle worth seeing, if you have the opportunity. "Sad to say, but the only thing more unfortunate than a Tsai Ming-liang film that fails to get a theatrical release is one that eventually does and sucks dick," sighs Nathan Lee at the Village Voice, who we are oft-tempted to put on sex metaphor watch ("the film’s belated New York release…comes (all over your face!) as something of a mixed blessing"?). He writes that "The Wayward Cloud’s sexual explicitness goes hand in hand with a shift from nuanced melancholy and stealth monumentalism toward garish, befuddled negativity." Keith Uhlich at Slant is conflicted:

The Wayward Cloud includes some of Tsai’s most risible work (never thought I’d feel so embarrassed for Chiang Kai-shek) alongside some of his best (the highlight: Lu Yi-ching‘s flames-and-spiders musical number, initiated by a gooey cum facial), but in action it all falls apart, and I’m uncertain, even after two viewings, if this is entirely a bad thing.

At the New York Press, Armond White writes that the film "is a self-conscious musical about dislocation—an, at times ingenious, at times, enervating variation on Tsai’s usual unhappy theme," but concludes that "[h]is anti-musical is, finally, equivalent to joyless sex." And of the infamous ending scene, A.O. Scott at the New York Times declares that "the display is less shocking for its sexual frankness than for its aesthetic crudity."

It feels willed, aggressive and unconvincing — clammy rather than cool — in a way that suggests artistic frustration rather than discovery. The water shortage may be a metaphor for the director’s creative desiccation, which his admirers can only hope is temporary.

Tsai’s newest film, "I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone," will be getting a small US theatrical release from Strand this year.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.