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On DVD: “Variety,” “Come Drink with Me”

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06032008_variety.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

One of the pioneering wagon-train movies of the inaugural, New York-based independent film movement, predating Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise,” Bette Gordon’s “Variety” (1983) comes off in retrospect as a veritable time capsule of post-punk downtown coolness. Just read the credits: screenwriter Kathy Acker (experimental novelist), star/photog Nan Goldin (famed shutterbug and model for the Ally Sheedy role in “High Art” 15 years later), soundtrack composer John Lurie (of Jarmusch movies and The Lounge Lizards), cinematographer Tom DiCillo (director of “Living in Oblivion,” etc.), producer Renee Shafransky (Spalding Gray’s longtime girlfriend), co-star Luiz Guzman, bit players Spalding Gray and Cookie Mueller (veteran of John Waters’s universe), production assistant Christine Vachon, and so on. Where is Cindy Sherman? The grungy vibe of “Variety” is itself a window on the past — only at the nascent launch of a DIY indie wave in the post-’60s period could you, or would you, set an interrogatory neofeminist psychodrama like this in a Times Square grindhouse devoted exclusively to cheap Euro-porn.

Gordon’s heroine is Christine (Sandy McLeod, who later went on to co-direct the 2003 Oscar-nominated short “Asylum”), an unassuming out-of-town girl who takes a job selling tickets at the joint out of desperation. Of course, she begins to brush up, sometimes literally, against the men that used to attend those theaters, becoming vulnerable to deranged masturbatory phone calls and even falling tentatively into the orbit of a wealthy middle-aged mystery man living a shadowy criminal existence at night, after spending his days watching porn. All the while, Christine tries to maintain her relationship with a reporter (Will Patton), but the more she talks about the movie house and its clients, the more he’s repulsed. Acker and Gordon’s simple masterstroke here is to make Christine hard to nail down — she’s good-natured but not sweet, attitude-free but not naïve, more curious than shockable, and not overtly political in any way. As “Variety” presses on, Christine nonjudgmentally explores the possibility of being a sexual object — we’re meant to read into her blankness, Rorschach-style.

“Variety” is smart but strangely, even beguilingly off-putting. It’s also profoundly depressing; the lack of proactive energy on Christine’s part is both the film’s overriding message and the source of its hopelessness. (The dialogue and acting — excepting Patton, who was already perfecting his think-one-crazy-thing-say-another persona — tends toward the arch and stiff, but this is back when “indie” meant “without professional training or infrastructure of any kind,” not “slumming stars taking a pay cut.”) But historically, it speaks volumes: this is one of the first American films with a true feminist docket and an unalloyed female perspective, in a Reagan-era New York of lingering Forty Deuce smut and all-night luncheon counters and cultural warfare in the streets between the old-guard desires of men and the newfound sexual self-definitions of women.

06032008_comedrinkwithme.jpgWe were, of course, behind the times — female fighting machines, for instance, are de rigueur today, but Hong Kong cinema was putting them front and center decades ago, as in the seminal, long-time-coming-to-video HK classic from legendary director King Hu, “Come Drink with Me” (1966). This is where “Kill Bill” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and the latter movie’s far too many candy-colored imitators, came from. King’s epic is many times more arresting because the razzle dazzle and vaulting combatitude is arrived at not via digital effects but with old fashioned stuntwork, snap-crackle editing and simple filmmaking savvy.

Fans of the utterly psychotic wuxia pian fantasias Tsui Hark pushed to their limit in the ’80s and early ’90s know where we are: the amorphous period of medieval dynasties, where a bandit clan with big grudges has kidnapped an official, and Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei; think of her as the Sandra Dee of spine-shattering kung fu) is sent to the rescue…whatever. The plots of Shaw Brothers movies from the ’60s onward were clotted, preposterous and often simply abridged for the sake of action. This is, in a sense, cinema in something close to its rawest form. In fact, the film’s first major set piece — when the harmless-seeming Golden Swallow arrives at a country inn in bandit country, and soon has to take on dozens of bad guys alone, using the tables and rafters and everything else — is visual explosiveness and high-flying breathlessness almost completely sans narrative. You can get whiplash trying to keep up with the flurry of perspectives and lightning-fast shifts of physical activity, but you won’t ever accuse the movie of playing to the cheap seats or telling you something twice.

[Photos: Bette Gordon’s “Variety,” Variety Motion Pictures, 1983; King Hu’s “Come Drink with Me,” Shaw Brothers, 1966]

“Variety” (Kino Video) and “Come Drink with Me” (Genius Products-Dragon Dynasty) are now available on DVD.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



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.