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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.



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.