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Cannes Dispatch 2: Olivier Assayas’ Hong Kong and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Paris

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By Dennis Lim

Continuing the festival’s directors-abroad trendlet: Olivier Assayas’ Hong Kong and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Paris are, without question, more credible, lived-in locales than, say, Wong Kar-wai’s Memphis. (We’ll get to Michael Moore’s Canada, Britain and France later.)

These relocating directors seem to be operating on a broadly similar midcareer impulse, a desire to snap out of old habits, or wed them to new perspectives. Assayas’ lurid, invigorating thriller “Boarding Gate” is less a transition than a stopgap, an attempt (after “Springtime Past,” a project about provincial life in France, was put on hold) to take his place in what he terms “the new order of film finance.” Accordingly, it’s a scaled-back, quick-and-dirty production — the opposite of “Clean” (in several ways), a B-movie mutation of “demonlover” and “Irma Vep” with a few unavoidable nods to “Scarlet Diva,” the globe-trotting, ass-kicking calling card of its inimitable star Asia Argento.

Half the film takes place in the anonymous industrial outskirts of Paris, the other amid the distinctive urban chaos of Hong Kong. At the heart of the rote action-plot double-crosses are the Argento character’s relationships, rooted in mutual duplicity and power struggles, with two men she has worked for and loved (Michael Madsen and Carl Ng). Much of the first half is given over to two long sequences — all rough sex talk and mindfucking role play — between Madsen’s thuggish entrepreneur and Argento’s Sandra, an ex he used to pimp out to his clients. Encouraged to improvise, Madsen pushed things in a direction that, per Assayas in the press kit, “scared both of us, Asia and me.” (“MAD-sen,” Argento said when asked about her co-star at the pre-screening reception.)

The second half, as propulsive as the first is claustrophobic, takes Sandra to Hong Kong, where she must elude a host of obscurely motivated captors (through a food court, a DVD bootlegging office, a karaoke lounge). Kim Gordon, as some kind of crime boss, makes quite an impression, barking out orders in phonetic Cantonese. The finale packs the tough-tender jolt of a first-rate HK genre flick, and Argento’s instinctive, force-of-nature performance is worthy of the emerging queen of the festival (she has two more movies yet to screen: Abel Ferrara’s “Go Go Tales” and Catherine Breillat’s “An Old Mistress”).

Assayas filmed in a city he knows well, but before he started work on “Flight of the Red Balloon,” Hou had only visited Paris as a tourist. He was commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay to make a film that incorporated the museum, read up on Paris (he says he found Adam Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon,” another outsider’s take on the city, particularly useful), spent time there and immersed himself in French film. He eventually settled on a curious starting point: Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short “The Red Balloon.”

Juliette Binoche, in perhaps the best and certainly the most eccentric performance of her career, plays Suzanne, a frazzled, bottle-blond single mother who puts in long hours rehearsing at her puppet theater company and has just hired Chinese film student Song (Song Fang) as a nanny for her young son Simon (Simon Iteanu). Obvious echoes of “The Puppetmaster” notwithstanding, it more strongly evokes “Café Lumière,” Hou’s previous foreign film, which likewise dealt with family rupture and had a similarly discreet yet evocative feel for daily, street-level urban existence.

There’s a clear parallel here with the Wong Kar-wai — both Hou and Wong are moving on from self-consciously retrospective works (“Three Times” and “2046”) — but Hou’s sensibility, grounded in concrete specifics of time and place, travels better.

Hou has not adapted “The Red Balloon” so much as borrowed its iconography: boy, balloon, cityscape. The director and his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing alternate between generally untouristy Paris exteriors and immaculately framed interiors (mostly in Suzanne’s cramped apartment). The film is more ambience than plot — set to a constantly tinkling modernist piano score (replaced, amusingly, by actual piano tuning in one long scene) — but there are a number of interpolated narratives, among them the Lamorisse film, which is explicitly referenced (Song is making her own somewhat experimental version).

This is one of Hou’s most sublimely bittersweet films — “a bit happy and a bit sad,” as a kid at one point remarks of “The Balloon,” a Félix Vallotton painting that hangs in the Orsay — and it also happens to be one of his most ambitious and complex. “Flight of the Red Balloon” opened the Un Certain Regard section, but a third of the way into the festival, it eclipses all the competition titles I’ve seen — further reflection has made the film seem richer, stranger, more indelible. One can imagine what repeat viewings will do.

[Photo: Olivier Assayas’ “Boarding Gate,” Wild Bunch/Margo Films, 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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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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