DID YOU READ

Wrapping Up Cannes 2008

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05292008_hunger.jpgBy Matt Singer

It wasn’t just the weather that was gloomy at the 61st Cannes Film Festival. By the time the skies above southern France briefly cleared for a few days during the second week of the festival, the international press corps had been infected by a mass plague, not unlike the one portrayed in this opening night selection “Blindness,” done in reverse — instead of losing their sight, hundreds of journalists stumbled around in a fog, obliged to do nothing but look, and after 12-plus days of looking at a selection of tasteful, well-made and entirely bleak movies, society’s rules were breaking down into sweaty anarchy. Those waiting in line for press screenings, always ready to devolve into contentious, multilingual shoving matches, were especially cranky. The traditional applause during a film’s closing credits was muted at best, nonexistent or drowned out by boos at the worst. Walking out of a screening on the second Friday morning of Cannes 2008, a colleague turned to me and sighed, “I’m tired, I’m sick of movies, and I’m trapped here.” That sense of imprisonment was no doubt fostered by a Cannes slate that included plenty of people wasting away behind bars, including the opening night selections, Fernando Meirelles’s “Blindness” and Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” respectively from the competition roster and the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Of course, no movie held audiences captive longer than “Che,” Steven Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half hour epic about the Latin American revolutionary. Technically two different films, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla,” (though since neither screened with any opening or closing titles, no one’s quite sure which is which), they played together at Cannes with a brief intermission. Each half informs the other — in the first, Che Guevara (played by Benicio Del Toro beneath an assortment of grotty beards) helps lead Cuba’s revolution; in the second, he dies at the helm of a failed one in Bolivia — but even in concert, neither seems to give a full portrait of the man.

There’s an urge to call any movie, particularly one about an important historical figure, an “epic,” but Soderbergh’s approach is micro in every way except its length. No attempt is made to explore Cuba or Bolivia or their political realities beyond the parts of it that Guevara sees trudging through their jungles; nor is any attention paid to Guevara’s personal life or those of the thinly fleshed out supporting characters who make up his armies. Though Soderbergh originally intended to depict just the Bolivian segment of the film, before deciding later that the Cuban portion was needed to add the proper context, it’s the first half, with its complex blend of time periods and visual styles, that feels the most fully formed. Though the second film opens with a particularly dramatic flourish of Guevara sneaking into Bolivia through the use of forged papers and an amazing disguise, the rest of it is almost stridently undramatic, a series of sad things happening without warning or context to a bunch of people we don’t know very much about, with Guevara himself largely absent from several longer sequences. The film’s running time is in gross excess of the insight it gives into its subject or his doomed campaign or the questions it raises or the emotions it stirs.

05292008_waltzwithbashir.jpgA more favorable ratio in a similarly themed film could be found in the “animated documentary” “Waltz With Bashir,” in which the director, Ari Folman, investigates his loss of memory about his time serving in the Israeli army by interviewing the people who knew him then and who shared similar experiences during the Lebanon War of the early 1980s. A little bit “Apocalypse Now” with a dash of “Citizen Kane” (if Kane himself had visited Mr. Bernstein and Jed Leland), told with a visual style somewhere between the psychedelia of “A Scanner Darkly” and the heightened realism of “Chicago 10,” the film manages to explore dark material without getting weighted down by it, and is enriched with a human component that felt missing from many of the competition films I saw. Its haunting ending proved a far better meditation on the sin of inaction than Meirelles’s “Blindness”

Equally cartoonish but without the requisite animation was Jennifer Lynch’s “Surveillance.” Screening as a midnight movie out of competition, Lynch’s first film since 1993’s “Boxing Helena” went directly to cult status without ever passing through mainstream channels. Its midnight movie flavor is enhanced by its blend of dissonant genre notes and oddball casting (Cheri Oteri as an obnoxious mom? French Stewart as a douchebag cop? Michael Ironside as an obnoxious douchebag?). Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond play FBI agents who piece together a couple of serial killers’ latest escapades through the varying testimonies of the crime’s three survivors (viewed, simultaneously, by Pullman on a high-tech video rig). If “Surveillance” appears superficially interested in exploring “Rashomon”-ish themes and, yes, the effect of invasive video recordings, it quickly abandons it to become an increasingly trashy thriller with a twist ending both so ludicrously obvious and so endearingly silly as to seem like something from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman’s tasteless screenwriting brother Donald in “Adaptation.”

The real Charlie Kaufman had his own screenplay at Cannes — in fact, his first stab at directing his own script with “Synecdoche, New York.” Once again, he picks an artist as his subject, this time, a floundering regional theater director named Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is left by his wife (Catherine Keener) and given a “genius” grant with an unlimited budget, which he uses to create a play about truth in his own life and the rest of the inhabitants of New York City as the focus, all performed on an enormous 1:1 mockup of Manhattan inside a giant derelict warehouse.

“Synecdoche,” whose title was derived from a figure of speech used when a part of something is used to describe a whole, bursts with all the cleverness we’ve come to expect from a Kaufman creation — from Keener’s art shows (paintings so miniaturized they must be viewed with magnifying glasses) to the box office girl Hazel’s house, which is always on fire but never burns down. But the film is terribly messy, and while that may be a way of emulating the play-within-the-film (or the play-within-the-play-within-the-play-within-the-film, since Caden’s project quickly begins to fold in on itself), it also forces the audience to view it at an emotional remove. Tellingly, perhaps even ominously, the Cotard theater piece never has an audience, even after its cast has been working on it for more than a decade. As “Synecdoche” left Cannes, it still hadn’t found a U.S. distributor.

05292008_twolovers.jpgIt wasn’t the only one. Like “Synecdoche” and “Che,” James Gray’s “Two Lovers” came to Cannes courtesy of independent financing and without a clear path to American theaters. Like Gray’s “We Own the Night,” which premiered in competition at Cannes last year, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a young man living in Brooklyn trapped between his own confused desires and his familial responsibilities. In “Night,” he played the lone drug-running fuck-up in a family full of cops; here he’s Leonard, the suicidal son of a successful pair of Jewish immigrant dry cleaners (underplayed with quiet humanity by Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini). Moving back in with his patient parents hasn’t done much for Leonard’s self-esteem, but it reaps immediately dividends for his love life. His father’s new partner introduces him to his available daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), yet Leonard becomes much more interested in his sexy-flighty neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Audiences were decidedly mixed on “Two Lovers” and many, particularly those in the con camp, compared the film dismissively to “Marty.” We’ll have to save the discussion on when it became fashionable to hate on Paddy Chayefsky for another time; instead, let me just note that the film, my favorite from Cannes, is small in scope, but perfectly executed within its means, with some superb touches in the areas of camera work and sound. Above all, the film is one of the single finest examples of the eternal dilemma best voiced by Chris Rock: “It’s always the same [with] two women: the one you love, and the one who loves you.” And as Rock points out, and Leonard ultimately learns, “nothing will bring you down harder.” Except maybe spending two weeks in the south of France in the rain.

[Photos: “Hunger,” IFC Films, 2008; “Waltz With Bashir,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; “Two Lovers,” 2929 Productions, 2008]

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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…

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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. 

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.