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Dueling with Stephen Frears

Dueling with Stephen Frears  (photo)

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Stephen Frears burst on the scene in 1985 with his cheeky “My Beautiful Laundrette,” igniting a winning streak that included “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters” and “The Queen.” Though famously hard to pigeonhole, the genre-spanning filmmaker gravitates toward folks struggling on the social margins or engaged in emotional gamesmanship. Frears is also, famously, a royal pain to interview. He almost defies you to extract responses from him, looking simultaneously gleeful and contrite, so you somehow empathize with him. In a sit-down for his new film “Cheri,” he was reliably armored — perhaps because his antennae are exquisitely attuned to pick up what he might call a “dodgy” reaction to his latest project.

More than two decades after “Liaisons,” “Cheri” reunites Frears with ace screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Michelle Pfeiffer. Set in Belle Époque Paris, the saucy tragicomedy centers on the sumptuous world of courtesans — demimondaines — banned from polite society, yet another of Frears’ fringe groups. Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, a retired, still-seductive courtesan who’s ambushed by love for boy toy Cheri (Rupert Friend), the wayward son of her former rival played by Kathy Bates.

To date the critical consensus on “Cheri” has been mixed. The coifs, costumes, and art deco interiors of Hector Guimard are to die for, and Rupert Friend makes a dishy Cheri. But Kathy Bates is incongruous as a Grand Guignol grotesque who resembles a former courtesan about as much as Mrs. Thatcher. And Pfeiffer is a bit of a tease. Though you could be forgiven for expecting an Anglo-Saxon breakthrough film with a 50-year-old heroine as an object of desire, most of the time Pfeiffer looks, well, 30-something. Her Lea is more about cosmetically contrived youth than the earthy, sensual and maternal temptress of Colette’s novella. Maybe it’s Brit reserve, but “Cheri” never nails this very Gallic, very naughty world of women who have parlayed sexual savoir faire into gemstones — or conveys Colette’s knowing take on the intersection of desire and love. Fresh off a cigarette he’s been sneaking on the terrace, Frears greets me with, “You rather look like Colette.” So far so good.

How is Colette’s “Cheri,” published in 1920, relevant for viewers today?

It’s about rich people. It all comes tumbling down in the end. [laughs]

How about the love story of an older woman and a much younger man?

I can see it would have been more subversive when she wrote it. It’s unremarkable now.

06232009_cheri2.jpgSo you see it primarily as a story about rich people?

[Irritably] Well, I’m not sure that’s how I see it, but it’s one of the things that I liked about it.

The film is gorgeous to look at, but the display of wealth is also a bit disturbing.

Yes, one man stood up and was appalled, absolutely apoplectic about it. “Why do you make movies about such worthless people?” Well, of course, they’re not worthless — their values are just different. Then it all comes crashing down.

Are you drawing a parallel in the film to what’s going on in the global economy now?

Well, you’re trying to force me into some position that I’m not sure is entirely mine. [laughs]

How would you put it then?

I don’t know, I don’t ask those questions. I just liked it when I read it. I thought, “This is rather wonderful.” I don’t sit around thinking is this relevant or is that relevant. I mean, how is “The Queen” relevant? It’s a preposterous institution in Britain — it’s not at all relevant. So I don’t really think about relevance. You’re more obsessed with this business of speaking to people today than I am. I’m probably rather unworldly.

What is “Cheri” saying about the male/female dynamic?

People say to me, you always make movies about strong women.

Okay, what does the Lea/Cheri romance say about men and women?

That the unconscious is more powerful than the conscious.



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.