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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]



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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GIFs via Giphy

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.”


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. 


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.


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…


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.


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 ’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?”


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).



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.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.