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“Romance & Cigarettes”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: John Turturro’s “Romance & Cigarettes,” 2007]

In his unorthodox new film, “Romance & Cigarettes,” director John Turturro takes an unconventional approach to the musical, one of the most conventional of genres. Deeply felt, but not especially deep, it works best at its most passionate, which could probably be said of most other musicals as well. But most other musicals don’t also include shockingly vulgar language, dancing garbage men, pencil-thin mustaches and the most sexualized fire hose in cinema history.

The road to American theaters has been a hard one for “Romance & Cigarettes,” as it often is for movies this eccentric. Owned by United Artists, it premiered at the 2005 Venice Film Festival, but found itself in a Miramax-esque purgatory for two years following Sony Pictures’ acquisition of UA. Though the film has an incredible cast of bankable stars, including James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken, it’s never gotten any sort of domestic distribution. Even now, it’s opening in just one theater, New York City’s Film Forum, after Turturro convinced Sony to allow him to release the picture himself.

Despite its charms, it’s easy to see why “Romance & Cigarettes” might make a conglomerate a bit skittish. Though audiences have shown a renewed interest in Hollywood musicals, those films tend to be made of glossier, less confrontational stuff than this. They also tend to return the genre to its earliest cinematic form, as chronicles of backstage dramas taking place around the making of a show or concert. The characters in “Romance & Cigarettes” aren’t performers: they’re salt-of-the-earth types like construction workers, police officers and homemakers. And when they burst into song to reveal their innermost desires and fears, they don’t sound like performers, either. This is not a Jennifer Holliday-esque coming out party for the mellifluous vocals of James Gandolfini, I can tell you that much.

Gandolfini, whose casting and vocal range bring to mind the sight of Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” plays Nick Murder, an unhappy family man living in Queens with his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) and his three daughters. The casting of said daughters is one of Turturro’s weirdest choices: he’s got the age-appropriate Mandy Moore, but he filled the other two parts with Mary-Louise Parker, who’s just three years younger than Gandolfini, and Aida Turturro who, you may recall, played Mr. Murder’s sister on five seasons of “The Sopranos.” And so Nick must deal with typical teenage rebellion coming from the atypical form of a middle-aged woman.

Nick’s having an affair (with a fiery-haired Kate Winslet) and his relationship with Kitty is in trouble. “Marriage is combat, soldier,” he tells another character. “And not clean combat.” In other moments, he’s less philosophical. He talks about “wet vaginas” and even drops the t-word into conversation (that word’s so dirty, even I won’t type it here, but it rhymes with a movie starring Colin Farrell and Samuel L. Jackson).

Most classic musicals are about the way people fall in love. “Romance & Cigarettes,” with its obsession with coarse language — sample dialogue from Steve Buscemi’s character: “I like to fuck a woman with a behind as big as the world!” — and infidelity plotline, is more about the way people cope with the reality of a world depressingly lacking in love (hence the particular appropriateness of the Engelbert Humperdinck tune “A Man Without Love,” which serves as Nick’s theme). Other musicals, from “West Side Story” to “The Blues Brothers,” have forsaken the traditional confines of a soundstage for real city streets, but Turturro has stripped off whatever remaining varnish still coated those frames. The language, the visuals and the literally cancerous ending all burst with raw reality. Yet Turturro juxtaposes all of that with over-the-top musical numbers featuring backup dancers who writhe for the camera with wild abandon. It’s like a John Waters version of Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York.”

There’s no denying the visceral pleasure one gets from the incongruous sight of a mustachioed Gandolfini belting songs in between trips to the urologist, or of Kate Winslet performing a number underwater like a mermaid trollop. But this is not the sort of pleasure that’s going to transmit widely and to all people. You kind of have to be as nutty as John Turturro to appreciate it. “Romance & Cigarettes” is unique; but then so was “Myra Breckinridge,” and that nearly killed the studio that released it. No wonder Sony didn’t want to touch the thing.

“Romance & Cigarettes” opens in New York on September 7th (official site).

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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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