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Asia Argento: A Life in Film

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03202008_asiaargento.jpgIf last year’s Cannes Film Festival had designated a queen in addition to the usual prizes, the crown would without a doubt have gone to Asia Argento, who made one hell of an impression with unforgettable roles in three films. The daughter of influential Italian horror movie filmmaker Dario Argento, Asia has appeared in several of her father’s movies, but has carved out a career and a persona all her own. Standing at the intersection between B-movies and the arthouse, Asia — slightly slurry, famously tattooed, somewhat goth and often unclothed — is a fearsome and fearless actress, not to mention a published novelist and the director of two features. Not one to underplay a part, she’s made a career out of her willingness to go to sometimes off-putting and strange extremes and her ability to remain hypnotically watchable, if not so safe for work, in the most unusual of roles. One thing’s for sure — she’s no simpering ingenue. Here’s a look at some of our favorite moments from a few of her films so far (along with a few spoilers, so watch your step).

03202008_boardinggate.jpgBoarding Gate (2007)
Directed by Olivier Assayas

“Boarding Gate,” which opens tomorrow, is a woozy, jet-lagged thriller that seems to take place in the same ruthless universe as Assayas’ 2002 “Demonlover.” Complicated corporations, illicit and legitimate, continually require pitiless and sometimes violent acts from those working under them. In the first half of the film, that violence is mostly verbal — Asia plays the shady Sandra, who pays a visit to her former lover Miles (Michael Madsen), a one-time hotshot whose business empire is crumbling, and who’s only interested in getting her back into his life. They duel in his office over their past S&M-tinged sex life, a sharp-cornered push-and-pull war of words that’s stepped up a notch when Sandra heads over to his house at night. The film’s iconic image is of Asia stalking around Miles’ expensive pad in spiked heels and black lingerie toting a Luger, but there’s a earlier bit that tops all of that. While battling it out with Miles in his office and reminiscing about their old, semi-abusive times, Asia hikes up her dress and caresses her crotch. It’s a move she’s repeated in at least one other film — as signature gestures go, it’s certainly an unexpected alternative to, say, twirling your hair or batting your eyelashes.

03202008_scarletdiva.jpgScarlet Diva (2000)
Directed by Asia Argento

“It’s terrible to be an actress in Italy,” says Anna Battista (Argento). “I said enough of this, no more sexy Italian film star, I want to become an artist.” And so Anna sets out to make a movie of her own called “Scarlet Diva,” and since we’re actually watching “Scarlet Diva,” it’s quite safe to assume that Anna is a thinly veiled version of Argento herself (although if Argento was really so sick of her image as a sexpot, she probably should have cut at least a couple of “Diva”‘s parade of totally indulgent soft-core porn scenes). As a coherent movie, it’s basically a mess; as a fragmented glimpse into a young woman’s fucked-up self-image, it’s kind of amazing. And if it is all just autobiography then it’s fun to consider how crazy off-camera Asia must be. Did she bang a hash dealer for kicks? Has she had multiple abortions? Does she often get into random lesbian trysts with unfamiliar large-breasted women who swear they’ve met before?

Two scenes belong in the pantheon of Great Moments of Asia Weirdness. In the first, an assholish Hollywood producer convinces Anna to sign onto his movie (a Gus Van Sant script called “Cleopatra’s Death!”) and then tries, with limited success, to upsell a back massage into some oral sex (“Suck my balls! Is it too much to ask?” he indignantly barks at the reticent starlet). In the second, Anna disrobes in her bathroom mirror, and primps herself in the nude for three fascinatingly bizarre minutes. She shaves her pits while smoking a cigarette as a prelude, then smears makeup all over her face as she breaks down in tears, then licks her armpit, recoils in horror, and licks it again. Is it indulgent hogwash or nakedly honest filmmaking? Like the rest of “Scarlet Diva,” it’s kind of both.

03202008_xxx.jpgxXx (2002) / Land of the Dead (2005)
Directed by Rob Cohen / George A. Romero

Argento’s had two flirtations with the mainstream; ironically, she played just about the same role in both. In “xXx” she’s Yelena, a prostitute with a preternatural gift with weapons (turns out, Yelena’s only posing as a hooker, she’s really an undercover agent for FSB Russian Intelligence). In “Land of the Dead” she’s Slack, a prostitute with a preternatural gift with weapons (turns out Slack’s a character in a George Romero movie, where everyone is deadly with a sidearm). In both, she serves to satisfy the target teen male audience’s appetite for edgy eye candy, but her chemistry with her leading men (Vin Diesel and Simon Baker, respectively) is pedestrian at best. In “xXx” she shares a smooch with Diesel so tentative it looks like she’s never kissed anyone before in her life (which makes you wonder how Yelena passes for a hooker) And she puts a lot more passion into her big introductory fight scene with a couple zombies than anything that with Baker, who Slack follows around like a scared puppy. It’s easy to see why Romero and Rob Cohen cast Argento in roles that are, on paper, right in line with her hypersexed persona, but neither character affords her the opportunity to take any real chances or do anything truly outlandish. Where’re the taboo-busting love scenes? She’s mostly a damsel in distress with a penchant for fishnet stockings. It’s like casting Michael Winslow and then not having him do any kooky sound effects with his mouth.

03202008_stendahlsyndrome.jpgThe Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Directed by Dario Argento

Now I’m not a parent, but if I were, I have to believe I wouldn’t even want to think about my daughter getting sexually abused. Well, not Asia’s dear old daddy Dario; the “Suspiria” director cast his daughter in the lead of his 1996 “The Stendhal Syndrome” and then proceeded to torture the hell out of her for the amusement of audiences everywhere. In one particularly disturbing scene — meaning particularly disturbing even if the star wasn’t biologically related to the director — Asia’s character, a police officer with a condition that causes her to be physically overcome by hallucinations anytime she sees great works of art, is attacked by the criminal she’s assigned to track down. He rapes her and slices her mouth open with a razor blade; Argento, striving for nothing but cinematic clarity, shows it all in close-up. She passes out, but wakes up just in time to watch the guy shoot another victim in the mouth (the shots of the bullet slowly piercing the poor woman’s cheek and traveling ever-so-gracefully through her mouth and out the other side are amongst the first uses of computer generated imagery in all of Italian cinema). Allegedly Argento had several other actresses in mind for the role but eventually settled on his daughter, which kind of makes the situation both better and worse (better because, hey, at least his daughter wasn’t his first choice for ritualistic torture, worse because when no one else would do it he apparently figured, ah, what the hell, she’ll do). Does the fact that Asia’s character eventually turns the tables on her abuser, stabs him, shoots him, bludgeons him and tosses him off a cliff make the whole sordid affair any less unsavory? If you’re the kinda guy who’s comfortable filming your daughter getting raped, I guess the answer is yes!

03202008_phantomoftheopera.jpgPhantom of the Opera (1998)
Directed by Dario Argento

Argento has always had a thing for Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera. His last great masterpiece, the 1987 film “Opera,” was clearly inspired in some way by the tale — dewy understudy lands the lead in a play after the star is injured, only to then be forced to watch her friends be slaughtered by a mysterious killer with connections to her childhood who sticks pins under her eyes so that she can’t close them. (Well, that last part is all Argento’s.) Unfortunately, he also created a slightly more direct 1998 version of the tale that even hardcore fans of his work shake their heads at. In “Phantom of the Opera,” Asia plays Christine Daae as Leroux would never have imagined, catching the attention of the “phantom” — played by Julian Sands, deformity-free and kind of hunky, if in need of a good shampoo and blow-out — right off the bat, either with her voice or her habit of going braless under sheer white dresses. And, with his telepathic powers and ability to talk to rats, he strikes her as quite a catch, too — to the point where she tells her wealthy baronial suitor she’d rather just be friends, and trysts instead with her rodent-defending lover in his candlelit subterranean lair. “Phantom of the Opera” is hopelessly hokey, equal parts cheesy period piece, cheap slasher flick and Skinemax saga, but it does have one memorable moment. The baron, heartbroken by rejection, runs off to a bathhouse orgy to indulge in a lot of opium, and hallucinates that his love is there and willing. Asia dribbles wine down her dress, strokes her own heaving bosom and waggles an impressively long tongue at him. It may be the least erotic supposedly erotic display even filmed, but there’s an impressively scary frisson to it, as if Asia were flaunting all conventional ideas of what could be considered a turn-on. [Check it out on YouTube.]

03202008_heartisdeceitful.jpgThe Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)
Directed by Asia Argento

This adaptation of JT Leroy’s first novel came out a few months after the supposed 20-something former male prostitute turned writer was exposed as a fraud. An endless fantasia of white trash child abuse, of trailer parks and seedy strip-clubs, the film finds Asia playing Sarah, a meth-addicted hooker who retrieves her young son Jeremiah from idyllic foster care to drag him around the country while she does drugs, sleeps around, lets her boyfriends beat and rape him and periodically abandons him in cars and other people’s houses. Asia, gamely trying to layer a Southern accent on top of her heavy Italian one, channels a very rundown Courtney Love, with bad skin, bleached hair and tops that slide off her shoulders as she and Jeremiah eat out of the trash. Soon she’s putting makeup on the boy and curling his hair, putting him in a slip and telling him “We’re beautiful girls, aren’t we?” All dressed up and no place to go, he shimmies out and seduces her boyfriend while she’s at work. It sounds twisted to sell the scene as a highlight, but it’s actually “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things”‘s one shining display of restraint — Asia only puts herself in, standing in for the underaged actor playing the son supposedly channeling her. And so, what could have been an unwatchably disturbing and legally dicey moment of exploitation becomes merely a fantastically uncomfortable one.

[Photos: “Boarding Gate,” Magnet Releasing, 2007; “Scarlet Diva,” Media Blasters, 2002; “xXx,” Columbia Pictures, 2002; “The Stendhal Syndrome,” Troma Entertainment, 1996; “Phantom of the Opera,” Allumination, 1998; “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” Palm Pictures, 2006]


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



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.