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Opening This Week: This year’s ’60s music biopic, Ron Howard’s Oscar bid and one last superhero movie

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12012008_theblackballoon.jpgBy Neil Pedley

Providing the requisite stopgap between showy Thanksgiving distractions and award season stragglers, female directors and assorted indie debutantes are making a strong showing this week.

“The Black Balloon”
‘What’s Eating Elissa Down?’ is the question to ask as the award-winning director of Aussie shorts makes the jump to features with this semi-autobiographical tale of a frustrated adolescent on the verge of manhood weighed down by his responsibilities to his autistic younger brother. Daytime soap star Rhys Wakefield takes the role of the Gilbert Grape-esque Thomas, a burdened army brat charged with his brother’s care while his parents drag the two up and down the country until he meets Jackie, a free spirit who teaches him how to shed his bitterness. The always impressive Toni Collette anchors this teenage ensemble as the boy’s mother, Maggie. Luke Ford and Gemma Ward co-star.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles.

“Cadillac Records”
These days, it’s safe to assume that an Oscar season without a music industry biopic set circa 1960 can be taken as one of the signs (along with an indie film winning a golden guy for anything besides best screenplay) of the coming apocalypse. Making us safe (at least for this year) is writer/director Darnell Martin’s portrait of hugely influential record executive Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and his Chicago blues label, Chess Records. While Chess was also the subject of the recent Toronto Fest entry, “Who Do You Love,” with Alessandro Nivola playing the famed producer, Martin’s film focuses less exclusively on Chess and finds time to pay homage to some of the great musicians who helped put him over the top, including the likes of Muddy Waters (Jeffery Wright), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and soul icon Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles).
Opens wide.

Malaysian-born filmmaker Yen Tan directs this tale of love and mourning about a man who receives a visit from his best friend’s Italian boyfriend, whom he’d met and only known online, a few days after that friend’s death.
Opens in New York.

At a time when 24/7 cable news networks and the Internet have rendered political scandal as almost passé, leave it to director Ron Howard to transport us back to a time when the country was still innocent enough to be shocked. In an adaptation by “The Queen” scribe Peter Morgan from his own stage play, Howard recreates the infamous 1977 televised face-off between two titanic egos. Fresh off a Tony win for playing the disgraced but prideful former president, Frank Langella reprises his turn as Richard Nixon alongside his stage adversary Michael Sheen as David Frost, the wily, opportunistic British broadcaster who brings him down.
Opens in limited release; opens wide on December 25th.

With a big question mark still hanging over the future of Guantánamo Bay, British helmer Steve McQueen’s poignant debut is a timely reminder of the harrowing story of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who starved himself to death in a British prison in 1981 in protest of the denial of his political status. In an unflinching retelling of one of Britain’s most shameful hours, McQueen chronicles the rampant prisoner abuse and widespread political apathy that caused Sands (Michael Fassbender) and nine other prisoners to sacrifice themselves to bring light to the desperate hopelessness of their situation.
Opens in Los Angeles for a one week Oscar-qualifying run; opens in limited release on March 20th.

“Let Them Chirp Awhile”
There’s an unwritten law in the script business (Hey! Pun!) that every struggling young screenwriter must churn out at least one script about a struggling young screenwriter (after all, a slightly older Charlie Kaufman got an Oscar nom for it). Choosing to get his out of the way early, writer/director Jonathan Blitstein debuts with the dilemma of Bobby (Justin Rice), an aspiring Dalton Trumbo who realizes he’s too terrified to get a real job and too happy to be a tortured artist. While sweating out his latest script, Bobby gets caught up in a blackmail scheme involving his best friend (Brendan Sexton III) and a pompous theater director (Zach Galligan — Billy from “Gremlins”! One-time blogger!) — who wants to steal Bobby’s ideas for his own play.
Opens in New York; opens in Chicago on December 12th.

“Local Color”
Before entering into a successful career of writing buddy action comedies such as “Midnight Run” and “Bad Boys,” George Gallo was an aspiring painter, an experience that is the basis for this latest life-affirming, coming-of-age offering. Financed entirely on the goodwill of his friends, Gallo’s autobiographical story stars “Off the Black”‘s Trevor Morgan as John, a headstrong teen with a talent for the brush who tracks down an eccentric artist (Armin Mueller Stahl) at his idyllic Pennsylvania retreat in order to pester him for an apprenticeship and a few life lessons. Samantha Mathis, Ray Liotta, Ron Perlman, Charles Durning and Diana Scarwid co-star; check your cynicism at the (screen) door.
Opens in limited release.

“Nobel Son”
Following their feel-good underdog comedy “Bottle Shock,” Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman and Eliza Dushku reunite with husband and wife writer/director team Randall Miller and Jody Savin for this darkly sardonic kidnap caper. Rickman delivers another trademark Grumpy Gus performance as Eli Michaelson, a self-absorbed Nobel Prize-winning chemist whose newfound notoriety leads to unwelcome knocks on his closet crammed with skeletons. Armed with only his unflappable narcissism, Michaelson must juggle a host of enemies with their eyes fixed on his $2 million in prize money, including his blackmail-minded students and the kidnappers of his only son (Brian Greenberg), while fending off the suspicions of his forensic detective wife (Mary Steenburgen) and her partner (Pullman).
Opens in limited release.

“Punisher: War Zone”
Hit-and-miss factory Marvel Studios proves once again that while they might be able to put together a digital fireworks show to compete with the best of them, their so-called “darker characters” have all the psychological complexity of an emo kid’s Halloween costume. After the universally panned Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane editions, Ray Stevenson slips into the skull-emblazoned T-shirt of psychotic vigilante Frank Castle for The Punisher’s third go-round on the big screen. With the cheery disposition of the Terminator and a fraction of the personality, Castle turns his guns on Dominic West’s mob boss Jigsaw under the direction of Lexi Alexander, the “Green Street Hooligans” director and a former world champion in both kickboxing and karate, who hopefully knows how to stage an action sequence or two. Otherwise, this could be a late but worthy contender for worst film of 2008.
Opens wide.

[Photo: “The Black Balloon,” NeoClassics Films, 2008]



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.