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DID YOU READ

“Stephanie Daley,” “Everything’s Gone Green”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Amber Tamblyn in “Stephanie Daley” Regent Releasing, 2007]

“Stephanie Daley”

As I watched “Stephanie Daley,” I was overwhelmed with the notion that I was watching a “Sundance movie.” I’m not sure if such a concept has been fully delineated yet within the critical community; if not, it may be time. The closing credits indicate that writer/director Hilary Brougher workshopped her film at the Sundance Institute, and the finished product won a screenwriting award at the 2006 festival, which sort of feels like someone giving themselves a pat on the back, but never mind. From a purely technical standpoint, this is a “Sundance movie,” but even before I knew that concretely, I could feel it just by watching it. So what is a “Sundance movie?”

Author and scholar Thomas Schatz wrote in his book “Hollywood Genres” that as we watch more and more similar movies, “we develop expectations which, as they are continually reinforced, tend to harden into ‘rules.'” A few pages later he adds, “A genre, then, represents a range of expression for filmmakers and a range of experience for viewers.” And as I watched “Stephanie Daley,” I could feel those rules hardening around me.

If there is such a thing as a “Sundance movie,” then, and “Stephanie Daley” is such a picture, these would be the elements that apply. The basic plot is intensely melodramatic, but it is not played for melodrama: it is played for character study. The screenplay is very serious and almost totally free of any humor. The cinematography, by David Rush Morrison, is absolutely gorgeous, but it is also absolutely minimal, with a limited number of colors in the palette and a heavy emphasis on natural, realistic lighting. One could argue that the range of expression, both emotionally and visually, is somewhat narrow.

“Stephanie Daley”‘s raw narrative materials could quite easily make a very traditional Hollywood film. Its title character (Amber Tamblyn) is first seen leaving bloody footprints as she stumbles through the snow; we soon learn her condition stems from the fact that she’s just delivered a baby in a public bathroom stall. Months later, a pregnant forensic psychiatrist named Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton) is assigned Stephanie’s case and tasked to uncover whether she murdered her newborn, as prosecutors claim, or whether the baby was, as the accused claims, stillborn. As a construction, it’s just about perfect and it’s easy to conceive of where a major studio would have taken the material, possibly as some kind of psychological thriller that would have turned Lydie into an investigator uncovering her subject’s dark secrets (think “Fargo” with more hot button-y birth rights issues).

Brougher takes an entirely different tack. Her “Stephanie Daley” is a mystery story that’s not really about its mystery — it’s rather a presentation of an air of suburban malaise and a certain kind of moral relativism (traits that also struck me as particularly “Sundance movie”-like). I will not say what Lydie learns about Stephanie or herself, but I will observe that whatever that might be is less important than what both characters ultimately come to see about themselves. Their own truths are more important than ours.

The range of experience for the viewer depends largely on that viewer’s own knowledge and expectations of Schatz’s rules. I certainly can’t fault the filmmaking craft involved. “Stephanie Daley” is powerfully acted — Tamblyn was justly nominated for a Spirit Award for her performance — and shot with a sort of cool, gloomy beauty. Me? I enjoy a good soapy melodrama now and then, and would have preferred a slightly more passionate take on the material. Ironically, such a movie would probably feel fresher now than Brougher’s, which was born of a place designed as an alternative to the mainstream that has now become a sort of mainstream all its own (if we called it “alternative” filmmaking instead of “independent,” a comparison to rock music in the 1990s would be particularly apt).

There was a certain disconnect between what I wanted the movie to be and what it actually is, but that doesn’t mean others won’t feel different (the rest of the crowd at the screening I attended seemed a good deal more enthralled than me). And anyway, criticizing what a movie isn’t is kind of dirty pool. No doubt Brougher made exactly the movie she wanted. It is a “Sundance movie.”

“Everything’s Gone Green”

When I spoke with author Douglas Coupland about “Everything’s Gone Green,” his first work as a screenwriter, at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, he interrupted our interview and asked me how old I was. When I responded “26,” he grinned and told me, in all seriousness, that I was headed for “The worst year of my life.” Though I’ve (so far) found this not to be the case personally, Coupland clearly believes this statement to be true, because I just watched “Everything’s Gone Green” and there it is again. After he’s lost his job, his girlfriend, a potential fortune in lottery winnings, all in one day, Ryan (Paulo Costanzo), who is only a couple years my senior, is told by a buddy, “Your twenties suck, the worst period of your life. You’re lonely. You feel like your head’s being blowtorched from the inside. And you don’t even know what it is because we were never even taught the words to describe it. So you feel like an idiot and a loser.”

Listening to “Everything’s Gone Green”‘s dialogue, and judging from my brief but very amusing interview with Coupland himself, it appears that a lot of the characters are speaking for the author. All of the major characters go off on rants about their surroundings and their inherent flaws and idiosyncrasies, though they are almost entirely of a very laid back “D’ja ever notice?” variety. As such, the film, directed by Paul Fox, doesn’t adhere to the popular show-don’t-tell rule of filmmaking, but a lot of these mini -lectures about bacon-wrapped scallops or summer office cruises are very funny, at least in a very laid back “D’ja ever notice?” way.

After he loses his job and most of his financial and sexual prospects, Ryan winds up working for the lottery itself, where his job is to interview winners for the free circular the company has to provide to prove that the whole operation isn’t just one big Ponzi scheme. And so the relatively broke Ryan gets to document financial success of a kind with which he will almost certainly never find himself up close and personal. It should go without saying that the movie will ultimately prove (over and over again) that the happiness brought on by massive influxes of undeserved cash is hollow and very short-lived.

Ryan’s love interest is an intriguing woman named Ming (Steph Song) who works as a set decorator on the many American film productions that roll through their hometown of Vancouver. Her job ultimately comes down to disguising British Columbia so that it looks like Anytown, U.S.A., which gives Coupland the opportunity to poke fun at American movies as well as to observe how after a while they all become completely interchangeable. And, to an extent, “Everything’s Gone Green” is sort of an anti-movie. There is a plot, but it is not pushed forward with any sort of muscular intensity, and any deterrents that stand in our heroes’ paths are deflated for big laughs before they can actually do them any harm.

The artwork on the wall of Ryan’s apartment in the beginning of the movie — the one he gets kicked out of when his girlfriend dumps him — reads “small, manageable dreams,” an idea echoed by a road sign that Ryan drives past in the closing shots that says “choose not to lose.” Ryan doesn’t really grow, then, he finds his earlier beliefs tested and then affirmed. He should aim low, why the hell not? Coupland certainly obeyed his own dictum here: “Everything’s Gone Green” is far from revolutionary, but it is light and fun and won’t tax you too much in exchange for ninety entertaining minutes. Ryan comes out the other side of the worst year of his life in pretty good shape. I hope for my sake I do the same.

“Stephanie Daley” opens in New York on April 20th (official site); “Everything’s Gone Green” is currently playing in New York opening wider on April 20th (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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