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Rotterdam Dispatch #3: The Prizewinners

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

The 37th edition of the Rotterdam Film Festival is kaput after a low-key closing ceremony this past Friday night. The big prize was for the VPRO Tiger awards, which hands three first or second time filmmakers $15,000 towards future projects. The jury, headed by ace Iranian director Jafar Panahi (“Offside”), handed the prizes to the Malaysian underage comedy “Flower in the Pocket,” the Thai post-tsunami drama “Wonderful Town” and the Danish Sunni-Shiite thriller “Go with Peace Jamil.” “Wonderful Town” looks to be the breakout title of the three, with almost universal acclaim from critics (including myself in the previous dispatch), an award in hand from the Pusan Film Festival, and a slot in the upcoming Berlin Fest’s Forum section. With its subtle romance wedded to an undercurrent of post-disaster violence, it’s a haunting piece of work and a deserving winner.

The others had a more tempered reception. “Flower” director Liew Seng Tat belongs to a much-heralded, but little seen group of Malaysian directors who formed their own production company, Da Huang Pictures. A straight-up comedy effectively using the intimacy of DV, “Flower” gets strong performances from its child actors (latchkey kids with a mannequin factory workaholic father) and has an eye for the bizarre detail. Liew concocted the funniest scene I saw in the festival, involving an overly jolly doctor, a misplaced lock and key and a wayward X-ray. It’s this eye that keeps his story about outcast kids from descending into cliché, and turns it into an aggressively likeable piece of entertainment. It also nabbed a spot in Berlin.

“Jamil”‘s selection was a surprise, to put it mildly. A rather reductive tale of Sunni-Shiite violence in Denmark, director Omar Shargawi’s handheld opus stirred little support, and its selection suggests a compromise vote between two opposing titles. I hope one of them was Jose Luis Torres Leiva’s “The Sky, The Earth, and the Rain,” which ended up winning the FIPRESCI prize, selected from the Tiger competition films (I was a member of the FIPRESCI jury as part of a program for young film critics — six of us whippersnappers were given one combined vote). To wrap up the festivities, the Dutch Film Critics gave their award to Alexei Balabanov’s incendiary “Cargo 200,” and NETPAC, an institution promoting Asian film, awarded veteran Taiwanese actor Niu Chen-zer’s debut “What On Earth Have I Done Wrong?”.

If there were any trends to emerge out of this eclectic festival, it was simply to confirm that Asia is still the undisputed artistic center of the film world, with new talents emerging (“Wonderful Town”‘s Aditya Assarat) and the old masters still going strong, with Hou Hsiao-hsien (“Flight of the Red Balloon”), Jia Zhangke (“Useless”) and Tsai Ming-liang (with his excellent installation “Is it a dream?”) all in town. There’s one Japanese filmmaker questioning his own importance, however, and that’s Takeshi Kitano, in the midst of the mid-career crisis that began with his self-flagellating portrait in “Takeshis'” (2005). The same tendency continues in “Glory to the Filmmaker!” (2007), an often uproarious sketch comedy collection about what film Kitano should make next. Structured like a madcap clip reel, “Glory” makes use of a sarcastic narrator to lead us through a variety of failed projects, including an absurd parody of Kitano’s gangster films, a spot-on Ozu imitation, the self-explanatory treacle of “The Chauffeur’s Romance,” and, of course, “Blue Raven Ninja Part 2.” A sarcastic deconstruction of every plaudit tossed his way, the film reveals that Takeshi just wants to play the clown. It has the feel of a transitional work — but it’s one to revel in.

The last bits of celluloid I took in were of Abdellatif Kechiche’s epic about the North African community in southern France, “La Graine et le Mulet” (The Secret of the Grain). Kechiche uses streams of overlapping dialogue to track the lives of the Arab community in the southern French port of Sete. Kechiche has a wonderful ear for the textures of speech — his characters talk in the associative, digressive manner of families with decades old in-jokes and feuds. Arguments build and crescendo with operatic power — and Kechiche gives his actors plenty of room to perform, in every meaning of the word. You’ll know what I mean when you see the final scene — a tour de force which contrasts sex and death with startling equanimity.

[Additional photo: “Glory to the Filmmaker!”, Office Kitano Inc., 2008]

Previous dispatches:

#2: A Luminous Masterpiece From Chile — Chilean director José Luis Torres Leiva’s “The Sky, The Earth, and The Rain” is the title that keeps popping out of the mouths of inebriated critics.

#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.

[Photo: Liew Seng Tat’s “Flower in the Pocket,” Da Huang Pictures, 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.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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