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Cannes Dispatch 1: “Blueberry Nights” and Ian Curtis

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By Dennis Lim

“My Blueberry Nights” is turning out to be the worst-reviewed film of Wong Kar-wai’s career, but Cannes attendees who were counting on an opening-night triumph had better luck last night — at the Directors’ Fortnight, which kicked off with Anton Corbijn’s “Control,” an electrifying biopic of Ian Curtis that delivers everything Wong’s film promised and more: pop-star glamour, knockout cinematography, tragic-romantic grandeur.

A tribute to the late Joy Division frontman, the Dutch-born rock photographer’s debut feature is as loving as a fan’s mash note and as laconic as its doomed hero. (The title of the source book, “Touching From a Distance,” by the singer’s widow Deborah Curtis, nicely sums up the film’s approach.) Curtis’s story, briefly outlined in Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People,” is well known to many and intimately familiar to Joy Division devotees — he killed himself in 1980, at 23, on the eve of what would have been his band’s first U.S. tour. “Control” doesn’t exactly shed new light on Curtis’ life and death, but it’s a dream match of filmmaker and subject. Corbijn got his break working for the NME in the late ’70s, shooting Joy Division and other seminal British post-punk acts, and his trademark aesthetic — angsty achromatic chiaroscuro — perfectly fits the band’s.

In the central role, Sam Riley nails Curtis’s awkward, hostile intensity both off and especially on stage: the possessed messianic figure with the thousand-yard stare and the windmill arms. (Riley played Fall leader Mark E. Smith in “Party People,” which occasions a wry in-joke here.) Beginning with his adolescence — as an intense, introverted kid in grim Macclesfield, closely studying David Bowie and Lou Reed in his bedroom — the film ticks off the milestones in Curtis’s short life: He marries teen sweetheart Debbie (Samantha Morton) at 19, gets a job at the unemployment office, is diagnosed with epilepsy (which the film implies was psychosomatic), has a baby daughter, grows distant from Debbie, plunges into an affair with Belgian fan Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), and endures the surprisingly rapid and painful ascent of Joy Division (assorted music-biz Mancunians, including the ubiquitous Tony Wilson, played here by Craig Parkinson, provide comic relief).

The film takes pains not to assign blame for the suicide, but without presumptuous psychologizing it gets into Curtis’ head. At any rate it conveys the crippling nausea he apparently felt whether on stage before a screaming throng or in the stifling, guilt-inducing domestic nest (you can hear in his baby’s gurgling and his wife’s gentle offer of a cup of tea the rumblings of a panic attack). Shot by Martin Ruhe in crisp, Corbijn-style black and white, “Control” isn’t as adventurous as “Last Days” in attempting to circumvent the limiting conventions of the rock biopic — the rock-suicide biopic at that — but from a fan’s point of view, it’s more satisfying. For one thing, there are songs: Most of the greatest hits are here, many of them credibly performed by the actors in live or studio settings. For another, it’s a bold and touching feat of empathy: without diminishing his mystique, “Control” makes a mythic figure life-sized.

As for “My Blueberry Nights,” Wong’s first English-language film is — to repeat the consensus — slight to the point of frivolity. English-speaking critics have griped that Wong has a tin-eared grasp of the language; it’s perhaps more honest to admit that his dreamy/mundane pop philosophy was more attractive, even exotic, in subtitled Cantonese. (As Norah Jones’ character notes, explaining to David Strathairn’s why she’s writing letters and not calling: “Some things are better on paper.”) There’s also a problem of repetition and overfamiliarity (which in “2046” registered as self-examination). Wong devotees will be able to trace a web of correspondences that don’t always flatter the new film. Jones and Jude Law, for instance, are simply a gender-flipped version of the “Chungking Express” pair: she has Tony Leung’s doe-eyed sadness while he’s inherited Faye Wong’s quirky hyperactivity. Speaking of “Chungking,” Cat Power’s drowsy “The Greatest” stands in for “California Dreaming,” but here the repeated pop song seems less a romantic talisman than a soundtrack cost-cutting measure.

Perversely interior given its cross-country premise, “My Blueberry Nights” is less about the romance of the road than the romance of the countertop: the mythic site, in the diners and bars of Wong’s America, of solitary meals and too many drinks, where the kindness of strangers is likely to apply. The New York segments, set largely within a small glass-fronted cafe, are the loveliest. The scenes resolve into a pleasant blur of closing-time conversations and D.P. Darius Khondji, shooting through glass whenever possible (a Windexed pane, a cake dish), cultivates a fishbowl intimacy. Even off his peak, there are things Wong does better than almost any filmmaker on earth: shooting physical intimacy, for instance. The first Jones-Law kiss is simplicity itself — a few extreme close-ups, a lingering overhead shot, total silence — but it’s a real time stopper, up there in the swoon pantheon with the taxicab snuggle in “Happy Together” or the back-alley last goodbyes of “In the Mood for Love.”

[Photo: “My Blueberry Nights,” Weinstein Company, 2007]

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

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.


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…


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.


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).


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.


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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GIFs via Giphy

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.


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.



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 and the IFC app.

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