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DID YOU READ

The week’s critic wrangle: “Grindhouse,” “Black Book.”

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The feet have it.
+ "Grindhouse": How to parse Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino‘s double-feature homage to le cinéma d’exploitation? Most critics are heaping superlatives on the film; a few detractors aim careful barbs intended to deflate the expected praise, and yet "Grindhouse" seems to evade solid insights. Is it possible to analyze a film that so valiantly

Samples from the big fans: Nathan Lee at the Village Voice gleefully observes that "Rodriguez, Tarantino, and Co. aim for nothing more noble than to freak the funk, and it’s about goddamn time. Go wasted, go stoned, go without your parents’ permission. In paying homage to an obsolete form of movie culture, Grindhouse delivers a dropkick to ours." "Growing up in the ’70s, I spent my share of time in grind-house theaters, and I can testify: This is exactly what it felt like," declares Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly. "Grindhouse wants to give you a ticky-tacky good time, and does, but it also taps the wild, jagged spasms of aggression that gave [grindhouse] films their primitive outlaw style." At the LA Weekly, Scott Foundas compares "Death Proof" to… "Inland Empire"? "Like Lynch’s movie, I suspect that Death Proof will throw some of its director’s admirers for a loop, though it may be the most revealing thing Tarantino has yet done — a full-throttle expression of a singular artistic temperament disguised, like so many gems of grindhouses yore, as a glittering hunk of trash."

At Salon, Stephanie Zacharek wonders if the Kurt Russell character in "Death Proof" isn’t an echo of Tarantino himself, in that he’s a devotee of pop culture that’s passed from the memory of his target audience. She adds that the film is "also recklessly joyous and deeply affectionate, a celebration not just of an all-but-lost approach to moviemaking but of the nearly lost experience of communal moviegoing." David Edelstein at New York echoes these thoughts:

There’s another reason that Grindhouse is, for some of us misfits, such a happy trip. It affirms our sense of community. No one at the time wrote much about grindhouse fare. It was mostly too sexist and lowbrow for the Voice, and way too lowbrow for the Times. (In her review of Dawn of the Dead, the sequel to the sixties’ most seminal horror film, Janet Maslin boasted about walking out in the first fifteen minutes.) It’s true that most of these films were depressingly bad. But there was something vital, something electric about the liveness of that culture. I’m sad that most people will see Grindhouse on video. It should be consumed (or, depending on your perspective, endured) in a theater full of shrieking, gasping, cheering, borderline-ashamed exploitation junkies. Nowadays, people smoke dope and drink and jerk off in front of TV screens in the privacy of their homes. They really need to get out more.

Dana Stevens at Slate compares Rodriguez to "a fourth-grade boy trying to elicit the biggest ‘ew’ possible from his audience," and finds that "Death Proof" "is a reminder of what there was to like about Tarantino in the first place." Keith Phipps at the Onion AV Club thinks that "Planet Terror" "could more easily pass as the genuine article" than Tarantino’s film, which will have "no mistaking it for anyone else’s work." He points out problems in both films, but also writes that "the film has a Russian-nesting-doll quality: Unpacking it steadily reveals more, both in the ways the two halves tie together, and in the substance beyond the scratchy surfaces."

Dennis Lim, popping up over at the LA Times, points out that "Grindhouse" is "an exploitation bonanza in which the most effectively exploited element is the marketing concept," but goes on to write that "setting aside the dubious coherence and suspect nostalgia of the enterprise, ‘Grindhouse’ is a fascinating exercise in genre reinvention, a showcase for two radically different approaches to homage." Over at the New York Times, A.O. Scott (who likes "Death Proof" and isn’t a fan of "Planet Terror") is another who sees the film as a salute to moviegoing. He suggests "when viewing ‘Grindhouse’ at home skip the commentary track and bring in a few drunks off the street to mutter and snore."

Not as fond: Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader, who perhaps misses the point when observing that "these two full-length features are each 20 minutes longer than they need to be, and neither one makes much sense as narrative." Jeremiah Kipp at Slant writes that the film is "disaffected and campy, but unlike a lot of those sleazy exploitation movies that stood the test of time, it lacks any real anger, machismo, or even sleaziness. In other words, it’s difficult to invest in anything that’s happening beyond regarding it as one big gooey lark." And Armond White at the New York Press, is, naturally, pissed off:

The entire experience is a throwback to Neanderthal cinema—not Pauline Kael “trash” or Manny Farber “termite” movies but worse: films without social responsibility, that are extravagantly disreputable—a decadent, rich culture’s wallow. There’s no way around this film’s junky, self-annihilating compulsiveness except to meet it head-on, call it crap and defy it."

His memorable conclusion: "It’s an Abu Ghraib action extravaganza." So, by our rough count: Rodriguez 2, Tarantino 8. We’d like to add that we think Rodriguez is joshing everyone who’d see something timely or meaningful in "Planet Terror"’s bin Laden reference, which is so ludicrous it is, if anything, is a jab at critical claiming of the zombie-as-metaphor movie. Sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.

 

"It's about surviving in a world populated by assholes."
+ "Black Book": But it is art? Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker who wallowed in Hollywood making shiny, ballsy trash for decades, has lately been taken up by certain members of the cinephile community and granted auteur status. "Black Book," his first Dutch film since 1983, is being presented as an art house effort — Sony Pictures Classics is handling this release.

Liking it: Noel Murray at the Onion AV Club writes that the film is "a rollicking wartime movie-movie, replacing awards-bait clichés with a strong dose of two-fisted action, frank sexuality, and coal-black cynicism… In the end, Black Book may be one of the most fun movies ever made about how people basically suck."  David Edelstein at New York muses:

For all the moral upheavals of the first days of the post-war era, something is kerflooey when you’re rooting for the Jewish girl to end up with the nice Gestapo fella. In spite of my cavils, I urge you not to pass up Black Book, especially on a wide screen. It’s a marvelous movie-movie, with a new screen goddess. [Carice] van Houten has a soft, heart-shaped face on top of a body so naturally, ripely beautiful it has its own kind of truth.

J. Hoberman at the Village Voice similarly salutes the film’s heroine: "Cool,
courageous, free-spirited, totally affirmative, and loyal to a fault,
Rachel is compared at various points to Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo;
she’s pure life force as well as a star—late in the movie she hurls
herself off a balcony as if into a mosh pit."Armond White‘s a fan of the film’s Nazi-movie reinventions, describing it thusly: "Imagine a Fassbinder movie, deliberately self-conscious for the new century. Rachel suggests Maria Braun or Lili Marleen only not simply transplanted to The Netherlands (lewd name for a Verhoeven location) but to the realm of comic books—oops! graphic novels—to use a term that implies Verhoeven’s Pop Art boldness."

Manohla Dargis at the New York Times cautions against those who’d overintellectualize the film, which, she allows, is "pretty much a hoot": "Designed for distraction (the frequently timed gunfights suggest as much), ‘Black Book’ works only if you take it for the pulpiest of fiction, not a historical gloss, its stated claims to ‘true events’ notwithstanding." Andrew O’Hehir at Salon writes that "One of the knocks on Verhoeven has been that his disposition is so ironical and he’s so pathologically addicted to ambiguity that his films have no moral bottom line. It’s not an inherently stupid reading of his work, but it’s also not quite fair."

Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly suggests that "Black Book may be the looniest use of the Holocaust as a playground since Roberto Benigni served up his infernal clown act in Life Is Beautiful." She finds "there’s little collective value to the assembled transgressions." Nick Pinkerton at indieWIRE likes the film, though he writes that "this is far from the Verhoeven’s most dexterous filmmaking," Ed Gonzalez at Slant is also fond but disappointed:

Based on true events but not a true story (at least according to a sly Verhoeven), the film imagines Nomi Malone’s vagina dentata laying waste to the Nazis. This is an enticing proposition, except this voluptuously directed epic crumbles beneath the weight of its well-oiled but mechanical plot.

Ella Taylor at the LA Weekly writes that the film is "a viscerally effective thriller ends up a repugnant exercise in moral relativism, delivered with the grandstanding swagger of the self-styled provocateur." And at the New YorkerAnthony Lane is also grossed out: "This is trash pretending to serve the cause of history: a ‘Dirty Dozen’ knockoff with one eye on ‘Schindler’s List’":

At one point, the sanitization is literal: Rachel, arrested as a traitor, is stripped to the waist and drenched in human excrement. There may be grounds for showing such maltreatment, but there are none for what happens next—a shot of our heroine, scrubbed and untraumatized, leaving the scene with her rescuer, a Resistance friend, and walking out into the sunshine. Is that how Verhoeven thinks that individuals, let alone countries, emerge from humiliation?

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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.