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On DVD: “My Blueberry Nights,” “The Free Will”

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07012008_myblueberrynights.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Nobody seemed quite capable of dismissing or faintly praising, then dismissing “My Blueberry Nights” (2007) fast enough when it wandered into American theaters this April — it was as if the collective unconscious had decided to make Wong Kar-wai pay in little cuts for both the demanding ordeal he put us all through with “2046” and for the hubris he subsequently displayed by daring to shoot his next film in the U.S., in English, and casting an inexperienced pop star (Norah Jones) in the lead. Fortunately, the film press one-upmanship has already faded into the disposable past, and the movie remains with us, nothing less than a blessing, a quintessentially Wongian daydream of romantic suspension and sweet lyrical conceits. If you require the Hong Kong context and the Cantonese-with-subtitles with your balladeering Wongness, you’re just an import film slummer — “My Blueberry Nights” plays like a trip-around-the-world continuation of “Chungking Express,” “Fallen Angels” and strands of “2046,” just roaming into a new milieu, the differences of which are minimal compared to the universalities.

From the very first extended sequence — when the lovably relaxed Manhattan diner owner Jeremy (Jude Law) modestly regales heartbroken nowhere girl Elizabeth (Jones) about the jar of keys on his counter (left by wrecked lovers but never retrieved), and how he, heartbroken as well, stays at the restaurant waiting for his girl’s return because his mother taught him to simply remain in one place if he were ever lost — you know you’re seeing the world in Wong’s terms. He’s one of the few filmmakers working that gets away with virtually anything — sentimentality, story hopscotchings, soundtrack repetition, characters implausibly defined by their deranged obsessions, barroom drowsiness — because he approaches his fanciful, poetical narrative ideas with the conviction of a penitent. He may seem in some ways to be the young Jean-Luc Godard’s dream director, intoxicated by iconic images and movie-movie essence, but the difference is, Wong means it. Godard had his romantic genuineness and ate it, ironically, too, but Wong is the patron saint of lovelorn storytelling, the Piaf of new-millennium film.

Typically, Wong didn’t know if Jones could act (he’d just heard her music) or if novelist Lawrence Block could write screenplays (Wong had only read his crime novels), but both could, making me wish this is the way every movie was made, motored by romantic impulse and intuition. As Elizabeth spirals out away from the diner and its comforting late-night servings of otherwise untouched blueberry pie, running away from her pain to Tennessee and Vegas, she encounters twin lost souls, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman (the three could be sisters), and gets involved in their self-destructive stories, as if passing through funhouse mirrors and seeing alternate versions of how her life could’ve turned out. There’s an effortless sense built in here that whatever story we carry around with us, it mixes with and collides into other stories — a terribly mature vision in the modern movie sphere for which Wong is rarely given enough credit. Every mundane thing, like a wrong number Jeremy calls looking for Elizabeth, is an occasion for a quiet swatch of poignancy.

“My Blueberry Nights” is, characteristically, a stew of sublime eloquence, overripe dramatics, smudge-edited mood, jukebox jouissance and raw gorgeousness, and picking it apart seems akin to insulting a beautiful woman for her tear-streaked mascara. It’s a refreshingly sexless movie, but nonetheless world-weary. Likening it, and Wong’s project altogether, to contemporary poetry is not stretching too far — the work is a battle waged against everyday complaisance, frustration and bitterness, everything that prevents us from seeing the lovely, life-valuable nature of a broken heart, a romantic obsession, a symbolic devotion (in Wong, it’s often a devotion to food), a gesture of warmth. Frankly, I don’t understand what it is about movies that I’m supposed to love if it isn’t this.

07012008_thefreewill.jpg“Love” isn’t a word you’d apply to Matthias Glasner’s “The Free Will” (2006), a nearly three-hour German film that won a Silver Bear at Berlin and which opens with a 10-minute rape scene that’ll make mold grow fast on your swoony pie-eating. Temperamentally restrained if not structurally remarkable, Glasner’s unblinking sojourn follows the balding, bulky, hollow-eyed perp Theo (co-writer Jürgen Vogel) out of prison years later, and into a halfway house and the free world, where every social moment pulses with the possibility of indulged compulsion and recidivist disaster. (He routinely stalks women into the subways and does nothing, like a recovering addict still unable to resist a tiny taste of dope.) He’s virtually mute from fear and awkwardness, but, unlikely as it seems, he meets a woman practically as socially immobilized as he. Nettie (Sabine Timoteo) is his factory boss’ daughter, and a willowy, squinty wastrel who, it’s obvious without us being told, has been the exploited sexual plaything of every man she’s ever known, including her father.

Glasner maintains a relentless focus, and has some inspired ideas — the magnificent, almost five-minute one-shot scene in which the new couple wordlessly spars in a jiu-jitsu gym accelerates into a revelatory crescendo, all of it happening on Timoteo’s body and face. But Glasner’s primary weapon here is the shock of counterintuitively positioning his very serious film, and its web of empathic effects, around a helpless sociopath. The wonder and relief we muster when Theo enters into a caring relationship against all odds is poisoned when he impulsively rapes again; it’s realistic enough, but does Glasner have a point? Is there a thematic point to be made about compulsive sexual violence? There is if you see the film as being a critique of a masculinized society, and Theo as being a walking metaphor for every man’s inner ape. But I’m not sure — Glasner is very specific and very intimate with his character. Our sympathies are put under even more dire stress later in the film, when Nettie confronts Theo’s victim; the most appalling scene in the film doesn’t involve Theo directly, and also borders on misogyny so intense it makes your eyes burn. What would’ve happened in this movie if it’d been made by a woman? (It might not have had the basic plot shape of “An American Werewolf in London,” which is in any case hardly a drawback, even to a film this grim.) You get the feeling Glasner was lighting house fires for the sake of raising questions about motivation and viewer complicity and social responsibility, an agenda that could make him, with some seasoning, the next generation’s Michael Haneke.

[Photos: “My Blueberry Nights,” Weinstein Company, 2007; “The Free Will,” Benten Films, 2008]

“My Blueberry Nights” (Genius Products – The Miriam Collection) and “The Free Will” (Benten Films) 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.