“Rocket Science,” “Right At Your Door”

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By Michael Atkinson

Though it’s never been acknowledged, the teen comedy has evolved substantially from the odiously primitive ape it used to be, and today stands as a fiercely intelligent, unpredictable, insightful higher class of creature. The chasm is huge between the idiotic froth and exploitation crudities we saw in the 1950s through to the 1980s, and the eccentric, inspired, brave and crazy films we’ve seen come out of the indie scene ever since “Heathers” broke the mold for good in 1989: “Dazed and Confused,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Rushmore,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Loser,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Ghost World,” “Juno” and even lowbrow hooey like “American Pie” and “Road Trip.” Jeffrey Blitz’s “Rocket Science” takes its seat comfortably on the dais. Seethingly articulate yet lyrically at a loss, the film chronicles a very particular high school tribulation, and yet it’s so finely and generously observed that it feels universal. The milieu isn’t many football fields away from the subculture Blitz explored in his breakout documentary “Spellbound” — swapping out spelling bees for high school debate competitions, Blitz unceremoniously allows his characters their own hyper-learned way of speaking as his hero, a beleaguered nebbish with a disastrous stutter.

His father abandons the family, and he fails to choose pizza for cafeteria lunch because he can’t get the word out, but Hal (Reece Daniel Thompson, in a masterfully constipated performance) sees a way up out of the mud after being “recruited” for his high school’s debate team by a go-getter Type A-student (Anna Kendrick). Hal naturally falls for the girl, ramrod or not, just as he becomes seduced into thinking he can win at tournament debating. That could be the plot for a dumb feel-good Hollywood movie, but Blitz’s film (which features absolutely no slumming guest stars) always sidesteps and dodges the clichés; rarely, if ever, do the characters — from Hal’s problematic mom to a voyeur neighborhood kid to a deposed debate king — behave in a predictable fashion or speak as if they only have one thing on their minds. (Hal’s cultured-simian big brother, played by Vincent Piazza, seems perpetually on the verge of exploding from unexplained teenage fury.) This approach sometimes forces things to fizzle — many scenes that seem to be leading up to an easy joke end with none at all — but most often, the movie feels spontaneous, thoughtful and hard to pin down. There is also, not very incidentally, the best use ever of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” But having spent so much time already observing the lives of smart kids, Blitz brings no preformulated thematic ideas to the table about teenagers and high school. It’s just life, lived by people too young to understand it.

A few inches farther down on the indie-budget docket, Chris Gorak’s “Right at Your Door” is an active demonstration of what can be accomplished with little more than a potent idea. We’re in the childless home of an economically static L.A. couple, office worker Lexi (Mary McCormack) and unemployed musician Brad (Rory Cochrane), and not long after she disappears to work, the all-too-imaginable happens: the city is hit by multiple dirty bombs, and suddenly one’s location — out and working downtown, or safely ensconced at home? — becomes a matter of life and death. Ash falls on everything, fallout could be anywhere, transportation becomes impossible, panic runs riot around the film’s edges and Brad and Lexi undergo the ultimate test of a modern relationship: who would you die for? Masculine guilt and post-feminist resentment lurk at the film’s dramatic heart, when it isn’t otherwise limning the sense of your neighborhood becoming irretrievably terrified and bestial in a matter of minutes. Gorak, a busy art director who’s worked with design mavens David Fincher, Terry Gilliam and the Coen brothers, optimizes his low-budget options, capturing the scrubby L.A. suburbs better than any other film I’ve seen, getting sweaty, vein-popping performances from his cast, and focusing on the minutiae — which here boils down to an ever-shifting barrier of duct tape and plastic sheeting. Less is more — Gorak’s film out-hyperventilates every atomic attack movie since Peter Watkins’s “The War Game.”

“Rocket Science” (HBO Home Video) and “Right At Your Door” (Lionsgate) are both now available on DVD.

[Photo: “Rocket Science,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2007]



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.