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“Lars and the Real Girl,” “The Dragon Painter”

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04152008_larsandtherealgirl.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

One of 2007’s breakout indie hits, “Lars and the Real Girl” was just high-profile enough, profitable enough, acted-by-Ryan-Gosling- within-an-inch-of-its-life enough and conspicuously life-affirming enough to, in the end, warrant a substantial backlash. But a backlash descends every year on overpumped movies as naturally as autumn comes to summer, inevitably, and we need to keep in mind that backlash is as irrelevant to the movie in question as is the hype and popularity that spawned it. In an ideal world, we’d see movies in a vacuum unpoisoned by publicity plague dogs and self-aggrandizing bloggers and clueless critics. Instead, we’re inundated with cant that is predominantly interested in itself and its opponents, not in the movie as it would be seen, by itself, a year or ten down the road. We need to remember, for instance, that while “Juno” didn’t deserve any sort of Oscar, and was far too irritatingly snarky in its dialogue, and bordered on racism in its conservative narrative set-up, the film was still witty and sharply acted and made even Jennifer Garner seem like an actress.

Craig Gillespie’s “Lars” deserves better than backlash, despite — and I’ll say this up front — being finally too sentimental by half, and mysteriously oblivious to the issue of mental illness. Written by Nancy Oliver, who put in her years in the “Six Feet Under” writers’ room, “Lars” more or less begins with a Buñuelian idea (shades of “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”): a mentally impacted man, grieving for his dead mother, solves the problem of his lonely neurotic existence by ordering a life-sized, anatomically correct sex doll, and then puts her forward to his family and close-knit Midwest community as his new, wheelchair-bound girlfriend. What comes of that for us, in the endurance of scene after scene, is a queasy balance between ghastly comedy and devastating melancholy — we’re never instructed by the movie to react one way or the other about Lars’s blank-eyed insistence on the doll’s humanness, so every sequence is an undulating bout of subjective seasickness, a feat achieved solely through the concept and its sincere execution. Every shot featuring “Bianca” is a masterpiece of painful surrealistic farce. But then the film becomes something else; the focus imperceptibly shifts away from Lars-as-problematic-protagonist and onto the busily populated neighborhood around him, who for their own reasons accept Lars’s doll as a real person, and end up inadvertently allowing Lars to find an emotional escape hatch out of the impossible corner into which he’s painted himself.

That “inadvertently” is a key to the shapeliness of Oliver’s story. True, someone in such a cohesive community would think to get Lars professional help, and the movie’s ultimate resolution is a little hard to swallow. But along the way, Gillespie’s film begins at a unique spot, balancing cataclysmically hilarious social unease and beautifully wrought family tragedy, and then, as an answer to both, paints one of the most convincing and generous portraits of small town American life that audiences have seen in years. It’s an easy movie to be cynical about (though impossible to ignore the performances; even Gosling’s characteristically leveling portrayal was overshadowed, I thought, by Paul Schneider as Lars’s guilty, exhausted brother and Emily Mortimer as his relentlessly proactive sister-in-law). And if only the film arrived at its pathos and affection cheaply, unoriginally and/or dishonestly, then I could understand why.

04152008_thedragonpainter.jpgAn antique sample of outsider cinema also produced within the American system, William Worthington’s “The Dragon Painter” (1919) comes to DVD as if returning from the underworld, where lost films are ordinarily consigned to flames. A gentle, unpretentious fable about a crazy hermit artist in the mountain wilds of Japan who, when he finds true love, loses his genius, the film is a historic remnant of a bygone age of specialized-audience moviemaking, when films (silent, and therefore without language barriers) were made with ghetto markets in mind. So, alongside the Yiddish cinema, the silents dedicated to Eastern European immigrants and the post-slave culture barnstormers of Oscar Micheaux, there was a subgenre of melodrama made in Hollywood exclusively for expatriated Asian viewers. Naturally, “The Dragon Painter” may therefore be the only American film we’ve seen from the first 60 years of the medium’s existence that treats Asian characters with respect and dignity. That is, until any of dozens of other films featuring its star Sessue Hayakawa emerge from the darkness — Hayakawa became famous again in 1957 with an Oscar win as the camp captain in David Lean’s “The Bridge On the River Kwai,” but in the silent years, he was enough of a Hollywood star to warrant the formation of his own production company, Haworth Pictures, under which auspices “The Dragon Painter” was made. (With the advent of sound, he moved his career to Japan.) The DVD comes with a bonus feature, 1914’s “The Wrath of the Gods,” multiple DVD-ROM texts, original scripts, and a 1921 comedy short in the “Screen Snapshots” series, co-starring Hayakawa and Fatty Arbuckle.

[Photos: “Lars and the Real Girl,” MGM, 2007; “The Dragon Painter,” New Yorker/Milestone]

“Lars and the Real Girl” (MGM) and “The Dragon Painter” (New Yorker Video) 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.