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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.

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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.


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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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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