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“The Ice Storm,” “Mélo”

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04012008_theicestorm.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

On its surface, Ang Lee’s career has been distinguished by a seemingly aimless ricochet between nations and milieus (Taiwan, New York, Wyoming, Devon, Shanghai, Connecticut, etc.), and between adapted disparate source materials (Jane Austen, Rick Moody, Annie Proulx, Wang Du Lu, Stan Lee) — and from both perspectives, you can find something to carp about. Indeed, Lee is rarely considered in serious debates about contemporary heavyweights, and his cultural rootlessness (read: opportunism) and dependence on literature may well be the reasons. We commonly like our auteurs to come packaged as purebred cultural expressors, and as artists largely independent of old narrative voices. But Lee’s case can also demonstrate, movie by movie, the irrelevance of location, and the depth-finding force of deft adaptation.

“The Ice Storm” (1997), newly Criterionized, makes the point with a cudgel: Lee may have been Taiwanese, but his first all-American movie couldn’t have been more American. Neither did its attentive filmization of the Moody novel ever seem archly literary, or uncinematic. Bizarrely underrated and unawarded in its day (not a single Oscar nomination, though it did net a Cannes trophy for screenwriter James Schamus), the film on its face is a melancholic but bemused Mona Lisa portrait of a very particular time and place: wealthy Connecticut bedroom communities in the early ’70s, when polyester suits were in, Nixon haunted the airwaves, cocktails flowed like monsoon rainwater, and the sexual revolution began to sour the lives of restless suburbanites. Focusing humanely yet sardonically on the implosion of a prototypical upper-middle class suburban family, it’s the kind of scrupulously adult, deeply imagined piece of work Hollywood should be able to generate regularly (and used to, in the ’70s); as it is, and despite the big name cast, it was pure indie. The time capsule details are formidable — from the leisure suits to the “Fantastic Four” comics to the old fashioned levered ice trays, “The Ice Storm” is a masterpiece of anthropological reincarnation. (Give it points, too, for the most convincing bong hit in film history.) What unfolds amid the martinis and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” paperbacks is less of a story than a multiple character study: the affable dad (Kevin Kline) equally bewildered by his affair with a trendy neighbor (Sigourney Weaver) and his slowly disintegrating family, the mom (Joan Allen) lost somewhere between girlhood and disillusionment, the rebellious daughter (Christina Ricci) experimenting with shoplifting and mock sex with the neighbor’s boys (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd), the sweet-natured son (Tobey Maguire) impassively grappling with puberty. It’s Thanksgiving weekend 1973, when Watergate rages on the TV and the worst ice storm in 30 years hits the East Coast, a metaphoric arena for the family’s eventual rendezvous with tragedy.

Lee is adept, as few other directors are today, at limning inexpressible emotional tumult, which here pertains to every character, creating a frustrated web of incident and cross purposes that culminates, in more ways than one, with Kline and Allen’s unhappy attendance of a suburban-roulette swingers’ party. The key to “The Ice Storm”‘s ambiguity and unexpected depth is the fact that the events of the story mean wholly different things to different characters — there’s no moral, just life sliced like a loaf of bread. What sticks most clearly to your skull are the lyrical moments, from Ricci impulsively donning a rubber Nixon mask for her first awkward dry hump, to the awful silent slide of a boy’s prone body down the ice-covered street. Of course it’s an actor’s movie, giving Kline one of his genuine opportunities to really etch out a character, but from the moody opening of the night train spinning its wheels on the frozen track, it’s the peaceful, pensive gaze of Maguire, still only a mysteriously hypnotizing teen star-to-be, that pulls the strands together into a single poetic statement about family, about the ’70s, and about America.

04012008_melo.jpgAnother neglected auteur, French New Wave vet Alain Resnais has crafted a career that few critics and cinephiles know how to approach — he began as the movement’s fashionable philosopher, with years of high-culture shorts, and then the epochal smart-cool splash of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959) and “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961). But then Resnais, always inquisitive and original, pursued theatrical intellectualism and metaphoric science fiction, and quickly used up the collateral he’d established with international art film audiences. The ’80s saw a Resnais renaissance, insofar as the director’s touch got lighter and less pretentious, and his attraction to movies-as-gameplay became clearer. Kino has released four of this unpredictable and energetic master’s ’80s films, two of which — “Love Unto Death” (1984) and the Gerard Depardieu-starring “I Want to Go Home” (1989) — have never been released in this country, even on video. The burning heart of the set, though, is “Mélo” (1986), a four character proto-melodrama (hence the title) based on a 1929 French play that in itself appears intent on boiling down the basic elements of romantic tragedy into a three-act iconography. There’s Marcel (André Dussollier), a famed concert pianist, visiting the domestic home of his conservatory-era pal Pierre (Pierre Arditi) and his young, elfin wife Romaine (Sabine Azéma). Marcel is a heartbroken loner despite his success, while Pierre is content and devoted. It’s Romaine that transforms, in the space of one long conversation, from a devoted spouse into a manipulating femme fatale, and from there, the sexual and emotional entanglements of the three (Fanny Ardant shows up later as the fourth, less crucial wheel) careen through betrayal, mental instability, marital espionage, suicide and even attempted murder. It’s an enveloping experience, filthy with rich talk and fascinating performances (you underestimate the cyclonic Azéma, and then you don’t), and Resnais captures it in breathtakingly long, fragile takes, emphasizing the play’s theatrical nature only enough to suggest the theater’s quaint inadequacy in truly conveying the firepower of romance and agony on display.

[Photos: “The Ice Storm,” Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1997; “Mélo,” Kino, 1986]

“The Ice Storm” (Criterion Collection) and “Mélo” (Kino) are now available on DVD.

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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.


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…


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.



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 and the IFC app.

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