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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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