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DID YOU READ

“Black Book” and “The TV Set”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: “The TV Set,” THINKFilm, 2007]

“Black Book”

After seven very quiet years, Paul Verhoeven returns from moviemaking exile with “Black Book,” his first feature since disappointing invisible rapist movie “Hollow Man.” Or, perhaps, Verhoeven’s exile continues: “Black Book” is also the first feature the talented and controversial Dutch filmmaker has made in his native Europe in over twenty years. Whether Verhoeven’s return home was offered or imposed upon him, there’s no denying he revels in the accompanying creative freedom. “One day you’re singing, the next you’re silenced,” someone says in “Black Book,” and no doubt, Verhoeven, pigeonholed in Hollywood as a director of sci-fi trash, can relate. “Black Book,” a picture bursting with the director’s signature mixture of bleak wit, brutal violence and sexual depravity, is his most accomplished, entertaining and truly “Verhoevian” work since “Basic Instinct.”

Like “Basic Instinct,” “Black Book” is an erotic thriller, but unlike Joe Eszterhas’ epochal boobies-and-butchery wankfest, Verhoeven’s latest is set in the past, in occupied Holland at the tail end of WWII, where a buxom woman — and aren’t they all in Verhoeven’s cinematic universe? — named Rachel goes undercover in the Nazi regime in order to help the Dutch Resistance and extract revenge on the men who murdered the rest of her Jewish family. She uses her feminine charms to slink her way into the confidence of Müntze (“The Lives of Others”‘ Sebastian Koch), a powerful Nazi officer but, like so many movie heroines before her, lets herself fall for her prey.

The full definition of that “Verhoevian” tag is elusive, but the director’s obsessions (or maybe fetishes is a better word) are not. “Black Book” shares a host of thematic echoes with the rest of the director’s oeuvre. Like “Total Recall,” it features a group of Resistance fighters nearly torn apart by a mole within their ranks (it’s worth mentioning that Verhoeven’s “Soldier of Orange” is also about the Dutch Resistance). Like “Basic Instinct,” its female lead is an untrustworthy blonde, though, in this case, she’s using her irresistible gams for good instead of evil. Like “Hollow Man” and “RoboCop,” “Black Book” is about someone who undergoes such an extensive physical transformation that they’re not only physically unrecognizable, but emotionally as well. And like so many of Verhoeven’s movies, there are numerous homages to Hitchcock: if “Total Recall” was his “North by Northwest,” “Black Book” is his “Notorious,” if only Ingrid Bergman had wiggled her naked butt on camera for the delight of Cary Grant and the rest of the audience. Add in a dash of Dietrich and her sex and espionage (or “sexpionage,” if you will) picture with von Sternberg, 1931’s “Dishonored,” (where Dietrich plays a spy so sexy she seduces herself along with her target) and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie in a nutshell.

In other words, the material is as old as World War II, if not time itself, but Verhoeven makes it sing. Nazis are dependably scary movie villains, but they’ve rarely been whipped into such an unstoppable, horrific force: appearing out of nowhere, crashing through walls, guns a-blazin’ they’re like an army from hell, more akin to the bad guy in a slasher movie than a war film. The movie is paced like an endless sprint: it goes and goes and never lets up.

You can love him or hate him, but you can’t deny Verhoeven’s fearlessness, which borders on recklessness. He pushes himself and his audience. He tries an erection joke. He literally covers a character in shit. He humanizes some of the evil Nazis (who ultimately come to Rachel’s aid) and vilifies some of the heroic Resistance (who cover a character in shit). The most crucial line of dialogue may be the phrase “everyone has unknown depths”… except maybe for Verhoeven himself, whose darkness is up there on the screen for all the world to see.

“The TV Set”

A producer and director of a show as good and as mishandled as the short-loved cult classic “Freaks and Geeks” can speak with some authority on the madness that is the network pilot season. And so writer/director Jake Kasdan does in his funny and insightful comedy “The TV Set,” a movie short on huge laughs but long on authenticity and insight. I have no evidence that the shenanigans Kasdan portrays are based on real ones he has experienced or heard about from friends in the business, but his film looks, sounds and feels genuine. Some of it is so bat-crap insane it has to be true. I don’t want to believe that a head of programming would say something like, “Original scares me a little. We don’t want to be too original,” but I do.

Kasdan’s story follows a television pilot script called “The Wexler Chronicles” (named, no doubt, to recall the original title of another iconoclastic television show that was ultimately renamed “Seinfeld”) from casting through production through the climactic moments when executives decide whether or not to put the show on its fall schedule. Its writer and director is an aging, fattening man with a bad back and a growing family named Mike Klein, played by a perfectly understated David Duchovny. His arch-nemesis is Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) a tenacious exec who lets her 14-year-old daughter make her casting decisions for her and whose latest smash hit is a reality show called “Slut Wars” (which sounds totally absurd until you watch an episode of a real show like “Pussycat Dolls Presents: The Search for The Next Doll”). Everyone agrees “The Wexler Chronicles” is the best script the network has, but whether it makes good television is another matter altogether.

A movie like “The TV Set” makes it very clear why a network like HBO, whose artists are only limited in their creative endeavors by their imaginations (and possibly their budgets) has made such tremendous leaps and bounds in viewership while traditional outlets have floundered. If “The TV Set” is to be believed, its remarkable any quality programs are made at all. The system seems designed to encourage failure. Consider the testing process completed pilots are sent through before the networks put them on the air. A group of people are placed in a room and given a device with a dial; they’re instructed to turn it one way at any moment they’re enjoying what they’re watching and the other way when they’re unhappy. How can you possibly judge the quality of anything that way? Are these numbers based on the acting? The writing? The lighting? The judges’ stomachache? During this show’s testing, the ratings spike when the attractive female lead flirts with her co-star. “The boner factor,” Lenny nods approvingly.

Kasdan debunks two different myths about the Hollywood creative process: that productions are works of authors with a singular vision or, conversely, that they are the work of talented artists working in collaboration with nothing but the best final product on their minds. From the creators to the executives to the cast to the assistants to the grips, everyone is looking out only for themselves. Even Mike, who wrote “The Wexler Chronicles” in response to the suicide of his brother, gives in to the network’s ultimatums: the choice between maintaining his integrity or feeding his family is a relatively easy one. And in this kitchen, everyone is the cook: the lead actress (Lindsay Sloane) changes her costume because it’s not “sneaky sexy” enough; when left to his own devices, the assistant director choreographs a lengthy panning shot from the show open that takes all of the focus away from the dialogue and actors because he thinks it’s more “cinematic.”

With projects like “Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared” and his first feature film “Zero Effect,” Kasdan’s maintained his own creative integrity and worked on projects whose quality speaks for itself. But he’s never had a commercial hit of “Slut Wars” proportions. I doubt “The TV Set” will be that hit — it’s sort of a more cynical “Get Shorty” with a lot more inside baseball — but I also doubt Kasdan much minds.

“Black Book” opens in New York and LA on April 4th (official site); “The TV Set” opens in limited release on April 6th (official site).

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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.