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“Broken English,” “The Young One”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Broken English,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]

This is the way it’s done, U.S.-indie-filmmaking-wise: Zoe Cassavetes’s “Broken English” is so far 2007’s reigning small Ameri-movie, by simple and lonely virtue of the mature intelligence and respect it pays to its characters and life at large. If we had a dime for every indie that tries and fails to nail down the nutty texture and sad comedy of being a single, lovelife-troubled woman in Manhattan, we’d be in Paris Hilton’s hot tub, but Cassavetes’s film leaves us no spare change, just the truth. Parker Posey is Nora, a swanky hotel concierge (a beautiful choice of employment, both a respectable earner and a dead end) whose path through her 20s and 30s and stampeding to her 40s is littered with the refuse of ruined relationships and disappointments. Everybody’s got advice (that includes Gena Rowlands, Mama Cassavetes, as her mother, and Drea de Matteo as her irately married girlfriend), and every idle conversation turns quickly toward Nora’s crisis-mode status as a never-married, manless spinster. The movie’s all about character; Cassavetes (honoring her father’s memory as her brother Nick never has, despite his straining efforts) and Posey never project and emphasize when they can play it subtle, cagey and close to the vest — as Nora herself does by the time we meet her, bruised and bitter about her seemingly inevitable loneliness. When she spontaneously cries at lunch with her mother, it’s not a big acting show-piece — it just is, and life goes on.

But it’s a comedy, rife with deadpan New York dryness and performance tidbits (Justin Theroux, as an actor with a Mohawk, “playing Choctaw” in a movie, is so sly you hope that everything he says isn’t a lie, but you know it is). It may also be the first movie to bring the full personality of Posey to bear since her dynamite supporting riff in 1994’s “Sleep with Me” — and this despite “Broken English”‘s overall restraint and bullseye accuracy. Despite having worked so much she runs the risk of being an overfamiliar presence in American movies, Posey has, it seems, been drastically underused, and so perhaps for the first time you get to see this wondrous woman of the al-dente-noodle limbs and wide sarcastic smile act like a whirlwind, making more out of a single reaction shot (watch her after her date to Film Forum gets shanghai-ed) than she’s been able to make out of entire screenplays in the past. (Not that it’s ever been truly her fault.) Nora’s neediness, caught in a middle-shot as a seemingly sweet and honest Frenchman (Melvil Poupaud) sits on her bed and admits he has to leave, is positively rending.

Posey-triumph and single-chick indie miracle that it is, “Broken English” may also be the most eloquent portrait of its subject demographic ever made, despite changing two-thirds of the way through into a slightly ditzy French-movie version of itself and robbing a little, in the end, from Linklater’s “Before Sunset.” While “Sex in the City” reruns are merely the idiot’s guide to lonely-girl anesthetization, Cassavetes’s feature-film debut is the true gem.

Indies of another day and age: Luis Buñuel’s “The Young One” (1960) is an unarguable freak amidst one of cinema’s greatest filmographies — it’s the only film Buñuel shot in English (it’s a Mexican co-production); the last he’d make in relative anonymity, after years of toil in Mexico, before “Viridiana” (1961) would reawaken the world to things Buñuelian; the only Buñuel film written by a certified HUAC blacklistee (Hugo Butler); and the first of only three films, over a 50-year span, adapted from the fiction of powerhouse Peter Matthiessen. In fact, “The Young One”‘s swampy white trash vibe suggests Matthiesen’s later bestseller “Killing Mister Watson” more than most of Buñuel’s other movies, but the fact is that Buñuel wrote the screenplay from the ground up. Matthiesen’s short story “Travelin Man” had only two characters, a black man on the run from erroneous rape charges, and the bigoted white hunter who stalks him through the Southern swamps. That’s far too lean and neat for Buñuel, who gives the bigot (Zachary Scott) a game warden compound (he’s also a poacher) where his dead partner’s uneducated 14-ish wild-child daughter (Key Meersman) also lives. The appearance of a desperate black man on the run (Bernie Hamilton, brother to Chico Hamilton) sets us up for a Stanley Kramer-ish lesson in civil-rights-era race relations.

Would that it were so simple: as usual, Buñuel is fascinated by sexual impulse — his characters’ and his audiences’. Ignore the wooden acting (Buñuel was so frustrated, reports have it, that he had to ask Hollywood pro Scott to act worse, so some semblance of uniformity could be attained), and scout for the Buñuelian discomfitures. Witness the scene in which Hamilton’s renegade exchanges dialogue with Meersman’s clueless babe while she stands naked in an outdoor shower — Buñuel shoots them from the thighs down, summoning up antsy prejudices in the 1960 audience even as the characters act as if nothing is odd. White vs. black dictates the plot, but the primary concern is for the body of that underage girl (Meersman is a double for the young Liv Tyler): who will rape her first, who will find out about it, and, finally, how the issue might resolve itself in a hillbilly wedding. In many ways, “The Young One” fits thematically right alongside “Las Hurdes,” “Los Olvidados” and even chunks of “Diary of a Chambermaid,” with its vision of humankind living on the level of predatory animals (there’s lovely footage of a raccoon eating a chicken alive, amid the doomed tarantulas, crabs, bees and rabbit cadavers). A must-have for Buñuelians, this rarely-seen detour is now officially DVD’d alongside his truly forgettable debut in Mexico (and his first full-on feature), “Gran Casino” (1947); both come with explanatory commentaries by cinema historians.

“Broken English” (Magnolia) and “The Young Ones” (Lionsgate) are now available on DVD.



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.