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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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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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