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Rotterdam Dispatch #1: Enigmas and Insanity From Japan and Thailand

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Ploy,” Fortissimo Films/Five Star Entertainment, 2007]

As I sit in the crowded hall of the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s main building, I’m drowning in an atmosphere of harried conviviality. At the table next to me, three ladies promoting “Lucky 7,” an omnibus Thai film, are exchanging information with a charming Texan whose short film is premiering at the fest. This is the scene all over this wet and windy city, as independent filmmakers the world over are making contacts and crossing their fingers for that one good Variety review that could lead to financing for their next project (or at least a future festival life for their film).

In its 37th year, this festival defines itself by its independence — specifically its focus on young filmmakers, many of whom are from developing nations. (As a result, Rotterdam devotes the Tiger Awards Competition to a group of 15 first or second time filmmakers lucky enough to make the main selection.) This maverick spirit was instilled by Hubert Bals, the festival’s founder, who encouraged an idiosyncratic mix of ambitious unknowns and experimental pioneers, and programs of high-wire genre freakouts and rare retrospectives. His legacy lives on through the Hubert Bals Fund, which gives money to young filmmakers in the developing world, helping to produce such films as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates” and Carlos Reygadas’s “Japón.”

This year, the festival has a new director in Rutger Wolfson, but according to veterans of the fest, it seems little has changed. The Tiger Awards Competition is still the centerpiece of Rotterdam, but there’s an embarrassment of cinematic riches behind every program, including the auteur-driven Kings & Aces section, the midnight movie shenanigans of Rotterdammerung, and a raft of options I haven’t delved into yet, including the retrospective of fourth-generation Chinese filmmakers and the avant-garde Exploding Cinema sidebar (complete with a theater designed to ape Tsai Ming-liang’s Taipei cine-palace from “Goodbye, Dragon Inn”).

So far, I’ve seen five of the Tiger contenders, and the most impressive is “Waltz in Starlight,” directed by noted Japanese still photographer Shingo Wakagi. A shambling reminiscence about his witty grandfather and the lazy tempo of their beachside town, “Starlight” nimbly mixes documentary techniques with fiction to create the impression of a fine-tuned home movie. Koishi Kim, a veteran manzai performer (a stand-up comic in his native Japan), plays the acerbic gramps with studied cantankerousness and glimpses of grace beneath. The others competing for Tigers are less accomplished, including “Go with Peace Jamil,” a head-scratcher that reduces the Sunni-Shiite conflict to shopworn action film clichés.

Curiously placed in the Sturm und Drang section for up-and-coming filmmakers, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s latest work, “Ploy,” was another early highlight. Known stateside for his 2004 release “Last Life in the Universe,” Ratanaruang has been making the festival rounds for a decade and would certainly seem more at home with the more established folks in Kings & Aces section. Regardless, his dreamlike reverie of marital breakdown (which premiered at Cannes in 2007) deserves to be seen. A couple who emigrated to the U.S. return to Thailand for a funeral and check into a modernist Bangkok hotel, where their somnambulistic mind games begin and banal jealousies erupt into violent revenge fantasies. With puzzle-like complexity, Ratanaruang infuses everyday objects, including a necklace, a cigarette lighter and an expensive suit, with the paranoias and euphorias of erotic couplings, creating an impressionistic, demanding, and entirely enigmatic ode to the mysteries of love.

After catching up with some New York Film Festival titles I’d missed (Ken Jacobs’ rapturous investigation into pre-cinema, “RAZZLE DAZZLE the Lost World,” and José Luis Guerin’s superb “In the City of Sylvia”), I sat down to the most purely entertaining title of the fest so far in Matsumoto Hitoshi’s brilliantly eccentric “Dai-Nipponjin” (or, “Big Man Japan”). A popular comedian on Japanese TV, Hitoshi’s persona is fully honed — he speaks with a halting delivery so deadpan it reaches beyond comedy into the realm of psychosis. He plays Dai Sato, the last remaining employee of Japan’s Department of Monster Defense. Employing a faux-documentary style, Hitoshi is questioned about his adoration of folding umbrellas (they get big only when they’re needed) and his distrust of America, giving plenty of room for long pauses. He leaves you hanging for the punchline, the humor arising from the lack of one.

The true insanity begins when Hitoshi begins fighting the monsters, with such evocative names as “The Strangling Monster” and “The Stink Monster.” Jacked up with electricity and standing inside of a giant pair of drawers, Hitoshi is super-sized and battles the beasts with a steel rod and a mightily hairy back. With surprisingly effective computer effects, Hitoshi dispatches the freaks with aplomb, but the TV ratings for his show are in the pits — so much so it airs at the prime slot of 2:40 in the morning and his agent splashes ads across his chest. The story takes a number of wild turns, eventually ending on a note of surreal televisual bliss — Hitoshi finding the answer to his depressive state in the rubber suits of old.

[Additional photos: “Waltz in Starlight,” Youngtree films, Tohokushinsha Film Corporation, 2007; “Dai-nipponjin,” Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Ltd., Realproducts, 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.


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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