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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]



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.