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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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…


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.



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 and the IFC app.

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