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Rotterdam Dispatch #2: A Luminous Masterpiece From Chile

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: “The Sky, The Earth, and The Rain,” Jirafa Films/Charivari/Peter Rommel Productions, 2008]

It’s a week into the Rotterdam Film Festival, and the one title that keeps popping out of the mouths of inebriated critics is “The Sky, The Earth, and The Rain,” a world premiere Chilean film directed by José Luis Torres Leiva. Part of the main Tiger competition for first and second time filmmakers, and by far the best of the bunch, Leiva’s contemplative debut captures the misty beauty of Valdivia, an isolated island town 1,000 miles south of Santiago. Blanketed in fog and constantly beset by rain, it’s a fetid landscape of soggy stumps, weighted down apple trees and placid swamps — you can almost smell the decay. Shot luminously on 35mm, the location is the star, but Ana is the solitary young woman who navigates these dense, dripping spaces. She takes care of her ailing mother and pays the bills by working as a maid for a local recluse, Toro. Her fraught relationship with him provides the main action, as they quietly circle each other in their own pockets of alienation. Their words are blunted and opaque, their emotions flashing in quick bursts before they return to the day’s chores.

Leiva and his DP, Inti Briones, told me the film was five years in the making, with most of the actors involved during that entire process, forging a tight bond. After discovering the area around Valdivia, Leiva re-wrote the script to fit its scenery, emphasizing its importance as a character. They selected locations surrounding Valdivia and into Bolivia to create a composite town that only exists in the hazy netherworld of the film. Ana does the ambulating through this fictional space, and Leiva captures these movements with long, elegant tracking shots, often holding the take even after Ana leaves the frame. This emphasizes the impassive grandeur of her environment, and sets up a secondary character’s impulse to annihilate herself in nature. Her death-drive haunts the rest of the small cast — the hypnotic nothingness of the landscape preferable to the daily grinds of civilization. Impeccably composed and edited, with oft-overwhelming sound design, “The Sky” is the major discovery of the festival.

Another Tiger entry with a strong sense of place is the lovely “Wonderful Town,” from Thai filmmaker Aditya Assarat. Set in the tsunami-ravaged Takua Pa area on the southern coast of Thailand, the film adapts Western genre tropes to examine the psyche of a small village recovering from tragedy, while also managing to be a convincingly tender romance. A Bangkok architect, the civilized outsider, comes to town to work on rebuilding a beachside hotel. He stays at an out-of-the-way motel where he is soon besotted with Na, the local virginal beauty. Her brother is the heavy, suspicious of the outsider and resentful of his incursion into this makeshift frontier. Beginning and ending with placid shots of the ocean that belie its monstrous force, the tender love story slowly shifts into a tale of class resentment that escalates into an act of shocking violence. The tonal shift is rather jarring, but it carries an ambiguous force and acts as an effective allegory about the psychic scars still remaining from the tsunami of 2004.

Another work concerned with a city’s spirit following disaster is Garin Nugroho’s “Teak Leaves at the Temples.” His producer, a jazz aficionado, persuaded Nugroho to throw a Nordic free jazz trio together with Indonesian folk groups, and had them perform improvisations in front of ancient Hindu temples at Borubudur and Prambanan, as well as at a Yogyakarta arts center after an earthquake hit the city. These concerts, experiments in controlled chaos shot in one take, are intercut with profiles of local artists and their communities, making this playful documentary more than just a multi-cultural gimmick. A follow-up to Nugroho’s epic Javanese musical “Opera Jawa,” “Teak Leaves” shows him examining similar themes in a lighter mood. Both films delve into issues of national mourning and Indonesia’s cultural history, using local art forms to investigate modern problems. “Jawa” used gamelan music and shadow puppetry, while this film utilizes stone sculpture, contrapuntal drumming, and ancient architecture. And at a sprightly 70 minutes, it gave me plenty of time to sprint to the next theater.

For those still harboring romantic thoughts of the Soviet Russian regime, Alexei Balabanov has some vitriol to send your way in the form of “Cargo 200.” The title refers to the caskets being sent back from the 1980s war in Afghanistan, but Balabanov is concerned with the horrors at home. Set in 1983, it’s a pitch black comedy featuring the most sadistic commie in film history. Moscow is filmed as an apocalyptic pigsty in washed-out greys and browns, presaging the moral degradation to come. Filmed with barely repressed rage, “Cargo 200” is often revolting in the depths of its violence, but it is also unforgettable, seared by authentic outrage at nostalgia for the old USSR.

To cleanse my palate, I took in Serge Bozon’s “La France,” an utterly unique WW1 film that contains four musical numbers. A group of French deserters are wandering through an endless no man’s land when Sylvie Testud, dressed as a boy, joins up with them to search for her husband. Shot in soft blues and highly diffused light, the image is ethereal and delicate, appropriate for the ghostlike visages of the male group. In the midst of their epic wanderings, they pause and sing a few songs, whipping out handmade instruments and crooning ’60s style psych-pop. Honoring the tunes that used to flood American genre pictures like “Rio Bravo,” Bozon’s bold and deeply romantic film risks looking foolish in order to reach for the sublime, and it succeeds beautifully.

Previous dispatches:

#1: Enigmas and Insanity From Japan and Thailand — Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Ploy” is dreamlike reverie of marital breakdown, while Matsumoto Hitoshi’s faux-documentary “Dai-Nipponjin” is brilliantly eccentric.

[Additional photos: “Wonderful Town,” Pop Pictures Co. Ltd., 2008; “Cargo 200,” CTB Film Company, 2008]

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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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