On DVD: “Irma Vep,” “Flow: For the Love of Water”

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12092008_irmavep1.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

In the years since “Irma Vep” (1996), French iconoclast Olivier Assayas has become more of a high-profile and international filmmaker, and at the same time a less interesting one; “Alice and Martin,” “Les Destinées Sentimentales,” “demonlover,” “Clean” and “Boarding Gate” have all been films bristling with dramatic ideas that have been, at the same time, often half-baked or unoriginal. His yen for high-nicotine, antisocial coolness seems by now a reflex he should outgrow, but in “Irma Vep” it made perfect, hilarious, seamless sense, because the film is actually about the chaotic life of “art film” production (a swollen balloon waiting for a satiric pin), and because his star, Maggie Cheung, is the paradigmatic fish out of water, a sweet-natured Hong Kong movie star lost in the absurd nonsensicalities of post-post-nouvelle vague French cinema culture.

In many ways, the film — still Assayas’ best — is a crazy matrix of inside baseball; when a crew character, working on remaking Feuillade’s “Les Vampires” (1915), is seen watching a clip of the Group Medvedkine’s radical, post-May ’68 documentary portrait “Classe de Lutte” (1969) on TV, in which the unionist heroine plays a swatch of what is probably one of Chris Marker’s brand new “Cinetracts” on a Moviola, you’ve already stumbled into a Gallic moviehead’s ardent skull. But the legacy of the New Wave haunts the film in more ways than one: “Irma Vep” is a run-like-hell, semi-improvised farce detailing a doomed contemporary Parisian remake of Feuillade’s legendary serial — authentically a French culture staple — by an aged and unstable New Wave giant (Jean-Pierre Léaud, doing perhaps a Godard schtick). This sputtering, neurotic hulk decides to make the film silent and in black and white, which hardly bodes well, but then he casts a bewildered Cheung as the arch-villainess Vep (a French movie icon with no counterpart in this or any other country) after only seeing her in the cheesy HK actioner “The Heroic Trio.” (“That’s not me, that’s a stuntperson,” she quietly objects when he shows her the tape.) Not unlike Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express,” Assayas’ breathless and supercool movie was made as a break between more ambitious (and duller) projects, and he employs a similar garage-band style of moviemaking: pick up the equipment and don’t look back.

12092008_irmavep2.jpgLéaud’s psycho-mess tells Cheung, who’s playing herself for Assayas, to just “be herself” — but Assayas clearly views himself as the new generational voice here, the torch-bearer for the future. Cheung, playing her non-French-speaking self wandering through a labyrinth of crew squabbles, logistical impossibilities, gay crushes (the costume designer has a meltdown over her) and the director’s eventual nervous breakdown (after the first rushes — “it’s shit!”), is an enchantress, with the face shape and complexion of a newborn, and the film balances precariously on her smiles and modest equilibrium. Her most triumphant scene, and the film’s creepy, mysterious heart, has Cheung attempting to connect with her role as the night-lurker Vep by going on a midnight prowl across the Paris rooftops alone, stalking through the shadows and down hotel corridors in skin-tight black leather and heels, eavesdropping on strangers and even thieving their jewelry. It’s mesmerizing — a visual bridge of urban anxiety and poeticized voyeurism — and because Cheung is so sympathetic, it’s suspenseful, too. Soon thereafter, Léaud’s meta-Godard is replaced by Lou Castel’s laconic meta-Chabrol, and the entire affair explodes into a visualized seizure, the literal effect of movie-drunk psychosis on celluloid. Kudos across the board. The new Zeitgeist DVD comes packing a new Assayas commentary and a short film about Cheung (the two got married, and then divorced), behind-the-scenes footage, rushes, trailers and a new booklet of Assayas’ observations.

The new globalism is taken far more seriously in Irena Salina’s “Flow: For the Love of Water” (2008), “the scariest film at Sundance” this year, according to many, and a lefty doc about an apocalyptic problem we didn’t know we had: the ruination and depletion of drinkable water sources on this planet. It can an abjectly terrifying screed, pursuing two main threads that complement each other like Groucho Marx’s joke about bad food and such small portions — the destruction of water with pollution and residual chemicals, and the privatization of water, for pure World Bank-commanded profit, and to feed the bottled water industry, destroying entire ecosystems and leaving the globe’s cholera-prone extreme poor without. There’s nowhere to hide: Salina visits every continent but Antarctica, and finds one devastated crisis after another, indigenous peoples in South Africa or India or Michigan whose natural sources for potable water are being quickly wrecked.

12092008_flow.jpgAnd why? It’s not a global warming issue, for once; the red-handed varmints are the same silk-suited, prevaricating corporate bastards we see burned in cinematic effigy in film after film, or any discourse that seeks to explain why the poor starve, why the environment is toxic, why the economy is bleeding, and why war machines bomb civilian cities. Here, a large part of the blame goes for the first time in protest doc history to the Swiss, who manufacture Atrazine (a pesticide that finds its way into more bottled waters than not, alters the genetic structure of exposed frogs and is illegal in Europe), and who own Nestlé, which bottles cheap water all over the world to be sold to upscale consumers, despite the fact that the natives in India et al. need that water, and despite not being subject to any health oversight whatsoever. There are other villains in Salina’s passionate, polished, statistic-crammed rant, and plenty of irate citizens sacrificing themselves in dissent (including a village of Indian women who have been staging a sit-in protest for two solid years). But however full the film is of viable solutions and finally overdone uplift, the overall gist of “Flow” is perhaps simpler than Salina might have supposed: we know who the criminals are, right? The men (always smug, overfed, wealthy white men) who have earned millions by destroying the poor. It’s not you or me, innocent drinkers of Poland Spring-tainted-with-gene-fucking-compounds. It’s them. Make them pay. Make them pay.

[Photos: “Irma Vep,” Zeitgeist Films, 1996; “Flow: For the Love of Water,” Oscilloscope Pictures, 2008]

“Irma Vep: Essential Edition” (Zeitgeist Films) and “Flow: For the Love of Water” (Oscilloscope) are now available on DVD.



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.


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.