DID YOU READ

The week’s critic wrangle: “The Lookout,” “Killer of Sheep.”

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+ "The Lookout": Much love for Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s turn as a young man recovering from a serious head injury in "Out of Sight" screenwriter Scott Frank‘s directorial debut. He’s "convincing as one of cinema’s most difficult archetypes: the reactive protagonist whose complex emotions are visible to the viewer but invisible to his fellow characters," writes Matt Zoller Seitz at the New York Times, who finds that there’s a lot to like in the Kansas City-set neo-noir, even if it doesn’t like up to its hype as the product of "one of Hollywood’s great unproduced scripts." Robert Wilonsky at the Village Voice calls him "worth the admission all by his lonesome. He allows that there are moments when "The Lookout" "feels like an early screenplay from a veteran writer… but when considered as a whole, when appreciated and absorbed from hypnotic start to thrilling finish, The Lookout works." Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club laud’s Gordon-Levitt’s "magnificently subtle piece of work." He notes that "there’s nothing terribly original about The Lookout," but lauds the fact that its thriller elements are "ultimately in service of a better understanding of the characters. Usually, it’s the other way around."

"’The Lookout’ is so refreshingly straightforward that at first you may not know what to make of it." writes Stephanie Zacharek at Salon. She’s very fond of the film, comparing it to "a well-made garment turned inside-out: The structure, the dialogue, the characters — these aren’t just part of the movie. They are the movie." Ella Taylor at the LA Weekly speculates on what the film would have been like in the hands of one of the other directors who’d been attached to the long-gestating project:

In Sam Mendes’ hands, the movie would have been too clever and referential by half, while David Fincher would have sucked the warmth out of it. Either of those directors would have made shorter, snappier work of the heist than does Frank, who does a perfectly competent, if unremarkable, job.

She does like the film, declaring it "funny, tender and littered with elegantly written characters played by actors cast for goodness of fit rather than star wattage." At New York, David Edelstein finds the writing "razor-sharp" and the filmmaking "whistle-clean":

As a fan of sharp razors and clean whistles, I enjoyed The Lookout—yet I did feel let down by the climax, which ought to have been blunter and messier and crazier and more cathartic. It sounds churlish, I know, but a thriller with a hero like Gordon-Levitt’s Chris should be more of an act of sympathetic imagination. The payoff needed to be more brain-damaged.

A writer at Slant (the byline was left off) praises the authenticity of Gordon-Levitt’s performance while finding the heist elements of the film "something of a standard-issue, sub-Elmore Leonard caper." Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly is one of the few who doesn’t like the acting, writing that Gordon-Levitt "comes up with such a moody Method assemblage of twitches, tics, and guilty Memento mannerisms that he’s not much fun to watch." Nick Pinkerton at indieWIRE is scornful:

Veteran screenwriter Scott Frank’s directorial coming-out is a bricolage of screen-tested "indie" junk — a "smart, complex" performance from Gordon-Levitt, a beardy Jeff Daniels, exhaustingly competent filmmaking suffused with low-key melancholy — which is to say it risks absolutely nothing, and never threatens to be unexpected.

And Armond White at the New York Press is more so, sighing that "The Lookout is so fatuously contrived it is the first movie that actually made me pine for the loss of Robert Altman; fearing we’ll never see real-life observation on the screen again," and adding in typically combative fashion that "[t]t takes a highly naive, cynical performer—or a doltish film critic—to find this nonsense interesting or surprising."

 

"And if my life is like the dust..."+ "Killer of Sheep": Charles Burnett‘s legendary 1977 student film, a portrait of a family getting by in Watts, finally comes to theaters in a restored 35mm print, and sets the critical community thumbing through its thesauri for appropriate superlatives. "I think the writer and filmmaker Michael Tolkin was right when he said that if ‘Killer of Sheep’ had been made 20 years earlier in Italian, it would be dissected and argued over and memorized in every film-school classroom," muses Andrew O’Hehir at Salon. "But the world Burnett captures on the streets of Watts, circa 1976 — this was his thesis film at UCLA, shot on weekends, over the course of a year, for about $10,000 — is at least as distant to most contemporary viewers as the postwar slums of Rome or Naples." "[T]here is more to neo-realism than formalist gestures; context counts too, and much like the characters in Rossellini’s ‘Open City,’ Stan and his family are casualties of war," adds Manohla Dargis at the New York Times. "This may be Mr. Burnett’s most radical truth-telling. In ‘Killer of Sheep,’ the characters’ identities as African-Americans are material and existential givens, while poverty is the equal-opportunity destroyer."

J. Hoberman at the Village Voice digs up the paper’s original coverage of the film, a blurb "filed by a callow part-time third-stringer" (Hoberman himself). He adds:

In retrospect, it can be seen that the two great independent features of the late ’70s were Killer of Sheep and Eraserhead. Perhaps when someone writes the reception history of American independent cinema, it will be explained how and when  Killer of Sheep—which had its original screenings at museums and underground showcases—came to be considered not just a good but a great movie, placed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1990. 

Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader calls the film "conceivably the best single feature about ghetto life that we have," while David Denby at the New Yorker writes that "the movie itself has the bedraggled eloquence of an old blues record."

At Slant, Ed Gonzalez declares that "What distinguishes Killer of Sheep from films like Do the Right Thing and Clockers is its absence of malice despite its acknowledgment of the oppressive forces of a white capitalist society. Music plays an important role in the film. But while Burnett’s musical choices often address the plight of black people in America, the music is drunk on hope and reinforces the joy of Burnett’s sad images." Chris Wisniewski at indieWIRE is reluctant to heap more praise on the film and overraise expectations, "not that it doesn’t deserve it, but because the film’s brilliance is so singular and modest." Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly calls the film "one of those marvels of original moviemaking that keeps hope of artistic independence alive."

And Armond White at the New York Press, one of the film’s longtime supporters (he’ll be appearing with the film’s Saturday New York screening), writes that:

[T]he political biases that favor Italian Neorealism (and Iranian films and Army of Shadows) don’t work in favor of African-American filmmakers who dare to claim serious artistry. The life on view in Killer of Sheep can neither be fetishized nor sentimentalized. It’s a one-of-a-kind, quietly powerful American masterpiece.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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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.