“Kilometre Zero,” “Lubitsch Musicals”

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03032008_kilometrezero.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

The idea of a “national” cinema, expressive of a particular and coherent cultural esprit, is a standard of most cinematic intercourse — until you confront the real map, in which Kosovar cinema is now primed to forge an identity of its own (as the Serbs and Slovenians have done), the ex-Soviet nations of the Silk Road are struggling to differentiate themselves from Russian film and the nationless movies of the Basque, the Romany and the Palestinians still hunt for footing and voice. Add to this gray zone the films of Kurdistan, a non-country standing nevertheless with its own army, government and debatable borders, and a nascent cinema rising with the ascent of the Iranian new wave and from the crater of the American occupation. Even within this context, Hiner Saleem is filmmaker on the roam — an Iraqi Kurd long expatriated to France, Saleem has made seven features, two in France, two in Armenia and three, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in Iraqi Kurdistan. But he’s a Kurd first and only, and if Saleem and compatriot Bahman Ghobadi are any indication, Kurdish films exude a distinctive sort of mordant comedy, a rueful folky toughness and ardor for luckless absurdity born out of centuries of persecution and only a few years of reasonable hope for legit nationhood.

Saleem’s fifth film (the second to be seen here, after 2003’s superb and acidic Armenian farce “Vodka Lemon”), “Kilometre Zero” (2005) is his inaugural return to Iraq, and in 86 lean, sand-blasted minutes he takes on the memories of the Saddam regime as experienced by a luckless Kurd during the Iran-Iraq War of the ’80s. Ako (Nazmi Kirik) is a Kurdish husband with a luscious wife (Turkish-Kurd cover girl Belcim Bilgin, no hint of Sharia law here) who gets arrested and shanghaied into serving in the war with Iran on the other side of the country. Kirik is a gawky, googly-eyed nebbish, the perfect silent comedy foil for Saleem’s threadbare depiction of life at the front, comprised of random explosions, crazy Saddam propaganda, summary executions and disciplinary beatings. Eventually, during a siege, Ako takes to jutting his foot into the air out of his foxhole, hoping to have it shot off. His wish of disengagement comes true when he’s assigned to accompany a hired taxi driver back across Iraq with a KIA coffin strapped to the roof. The journey back is Saleem’s masterstroke — traversing a barren landscape with corpse, Ako and his irate Arab driver (Eyam Ekrem) are constantly being halted at checkpoints and told to park until nightfall, lest the civilians get upset at the sight of their flag-draped cargo. Along the way, as identically laden taxis proliferate to form a caravan on the highway, the two men face off and confront their ethnic animosities, but settle nothing. Saleem’s style is never wishy-washy, exhibiting visual confidence, subtle screwball rhythms and deadpan compositions, making “Kilometre Zero” a discombobulating jaunt for anyone expecting any kind of definitive Kurdish-state-of-mind movie, much less an “Iraqi” film made amidst an ongoing occupation and civil war. But belying expectations seems to be in the Kurdish DNA.

03032008_onehourwithyou.jpgExpatriation suited Hollywood legend Ernst Lubitsch well enough, when he came off a string of fiercely witty silent farces in Expressionism-era Germany and arrived in 1923 Hollywood to direct one lavishly praised and audience beloved hit after another. He even jumped to sound with uncanny ease a few years later, and virtually invented, in his own Teutonic-vaudeville way, the movie musical. Today, the new Criterion Eclipse set of early Lubitsch films for Paramount is not only a four-step lesson in how Hollywood was taught by Lubitsch to make a stiff and unforgiving technological handicap into a feather-light form of audio-visual confection; the four movies — “The Love Parade” (1929), “Monte Carlo” (1930), “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931), and “One Hour With You” (1932) — are also entrancing gray heavens of impish élan, barely disguised sex talk and the toast-dry comic timing Lubitsch had already made famous back home. The goofy songs are secondary, though adorable for their antique joy, and the performers are front and center: In three out of four, Maurice Chevalier could be unctuously dopey when allowed to stage-leer, but watch him do chagrined and exasperated and you see Lubitsch’s fine-tuning at its most essential. (He is substituted rather adroitly by song-and-dance stalwart Jack Buchanan in “Monte Carlo.”)

Also in three out of four (Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins are required to replace her in “The Smiling Lieutenant”) is Lubitsch discovery Jeanette MacDonald, who’s still famous for the enervatingly pious and stuffy musicals she made in the ’30s with Nelson Eddy, but who is a discovery here, ridiculously sexy and game and saucer-eyed. Her bratty grin might’ve been the filthiest in Golden Age Hollywood. The films are variations on the Ruritanian royalty romance template (“One Hour With You” steers clear of fake peerage aristocracy, but it’s also, naturally, the most assured of the bunch), and all are, with their silk nighties and vaguely veiled innuendo, absolutely pre-Code. These were movies made not for some mythical dull-minded Depression-era innocents, but for sexually active grown-ups brimming with spunk and irony and attuned to Lubitsch’s approach, which could suggest entire unshowable scenarios with a shrug or a smirk or a raised eyebrow.

[Photos: “Kilometre Zero,” First Run Features; “One Hour With You,” Paramount Pictures, 1932]

“Kilometre Zero” (First Run Features) and “Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals” (Criterion Collection) are now available on DVD.



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.