On DVD: “Sunflower,” “Carosello Napoletano”

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07082008_sunflower.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

As the Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema squander their seriousness trying to out-“Crouching Tiger” each other, the subsequent “Sixth Generation” has raised the bar without going ancient-era historical or relying on the hotsiness of Gong Li. Namely, Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye and Zhang Yuan have favored a kind of philosophical realism, and if the films haven’t hit the mass audience sweet spot like the feminist/liberal melodramas of the ’90s did, they’ve nevertheless made the films of Zhang Yimou look like a new brand of orientalism and painted life in contemporary China as despairingly as the gorgeous Gong movies used to portray the past. Meanwhile, a subgenre has emerged — the traditional family saga/bildungsfilm-as-haunted-by-the-Cultural-Revolution film, à la Zhang Yimou’s “To Live,” Gu Changwei’s “Peacock,” Xiao Jiang’s “Electric Shadows,” etc. Zhang Yang’s “Sunflower” (2005) is a paradigmatic example, with its 30-year span, its timeless father-son battle of wills, and its intersections between family life and the dragon-writhe of Chinese history as it tried to poison the peoples’ lives for decades and did not quite succeed.

It’s a conventional film in many ways, and that has its benefits: your knowledge of the characters grows as they do, you get to see the past reflected in the present, you get to dally with the minor experiences as well as the thunderous traumas. Zhang’s tale is filled with ironies he doesn’t emphasize — when the titular little boy’s father returns from a six-year stint in the work camp, he comes with his painter’s hands broken, but with a set of construction skills that helps the congested, Casbah-like community survive after an earthquake. The boisterous communalism of the weekly movie defiantly offsets the staid propaganda being shown, but Zhang zips along, trusting us to make emotional connections.

Mostly, though, “Sunflower” is the story of a close-minded, old-school shithead Dad (Sun Haiying), whose disciplinary streak and bitterness continue to cause riffs as his boy grows from a precocious nine-year-old brat to a married artist in his 30s, tortured by his parents over whether to have a child or not. The mother is played, gently, by Joan Chen, who apparently pulled a De Niro-esque plumping regimen for the role (compare her here to her role in last year’s “Lust, Caution”), leaving us wondering if this could in fact be the same actress that made crazy gay love to Anne Heche in Donald Cammell’s “Wild Side.” One late, unexplained shot — of Chen’s aging matriarch scrubbing the floor of a yuppie-ish condo, when all she’d been used to doing her whole life before that is tending her own electricity-free kitchen — speaks articulately about the changes China’s seen since the Mao days. “Sunflower” isn’t particularly daring or inventive, but it takes a slice from a universal pie, and I’m glad I saw it.

07082008_carosello.jpgAs film history comes rocketing down the DVD flume, you could get lost in the stacks of each month’s releases, but you can also unearth a bygone sapphire from the heap. Lionsgate’s series of multi-disc Euro-sets (Godard, Bardot, Delon, Deneuve, etc.) are symptomatic, using their star’s rep to package the lesser and perhaps justly neglected films in their lengthy canons, a methodology that almost always, maybe inadvertently, saves a rarely seen beaut from the archival darkness. I’m getting around to Ettore Giannini’s “Carosello Napoletano,” a banquet-sized fried-sugar confection from 1954 that’s been smuggled into the new, largely negligible Sophia Loren set. The other films in the box are, naturally, among the scores of Italian movies of Loren’s that got international play on the strength of her eyes, lips and hips alone, and then were summarily forgotten.

But Giannini’s swirling “city symphony” featured a young Loren only amidst a fiery ensemble; the movie, which played here to presumably thankful Italian-American urban audiences in 1961, sells itself on nothing more than Italian élan. Incarnated as a kind of Neapolitan answer to “An American in Paris” and “The Red Shoes,” the movie is an expressionist, ambitious scramble of commedia dell’arte, opera and interpretive ballet, predominantly celebrating the canzone Napoletana, the city’s traditional ballad form (reaching officially back to the 1830s) most famous for overfamiliar songs like “O Sole Mio” and “Funiculì, Funiculà,” both of which are in the film in what might be definitive versions. The Pathécolor ambience belongs to the postwar urban peasantry still immersed in traditional art (street theater and Pulcinella figures are everywhere) and the timeless sagas of their fishing-folk ancestors. There’s a thread of a story (a street minstrel and his family search for lodgings on Christmas Eve), but there are scores of stories within the story, often tales of tragic love that make for high-octane Italian songs, all played out in an elaborate theatrical Naples with a painted Vesuvius in the background. “Carosello Napoletano” won a prize at Cannes back when “International Prizes” were dished out, one to every contributing nation, but beyond that minor notation, it’s slipped off the grid of film history. Just for the raw showmanship it delivers, here’s to welcoming it back.

[Photos: “Sunflower,” New Yorker Films, 2007; “Carosello Napoletano,” Lux Film America, 1961]

“Sunflower” (New Yorker Video) and “Carosello Napoletano” (included in the Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection; Lionsgate) are now available on DVD.


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.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

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.


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.


Forget Public Wifi

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



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.


Self Defense

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


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