Mississippi Blues and Embarcadero Clues

Mississippi Blues and Embarcadero Clues (photo)

Posted by on

There’s little point in attempting to figure why Lance Hammer’s “Ballast,” the best American film of 2008, was whisked in and out of so few theaters so quickly, in contrast even to minimalist imports and special-interest video docs in the same span, and despite universal critical hosannas. Good films get tossed by the wayside all the time, particularly in the contemporary state of distribution, but the good news is that movies never truly disappear anymore, they just tumble into the digital slipstream and become universally available.

Hammer’s uneasy, seething, oblique sojourn to the wintry Mississippi midlands is surely the best American “art film” about African-American life since Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” except it might also be the only such film in 25 years. But “Ballast” is also a piece of work that stands outside social context — it’s as specific as a scar and as approachable as a blues growl.

Famously, the film’s tense visual strategy is reminiscent of the Dardennes, which is nothing if not an overdue and bracing thing — finally, an American indie that respects perspective and realism and time and off-screen space. That’s not the whole story, though, because Hammer’s film dodges around the Belgian brothers’ “issue film” schema, and his stormy palette and imagery are deep-dish and unforgettable, never merely rough-&-ready.

The action, set in a gray and damp section of bitter Mississippi countryside, begins with a suicide, and the pond ripples of that act, as well as its immediate circumstances, are left for us to cobble together gradually as we go, tying up in knots the lives of the dead man’s nearly catatonic twin brother (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), ersatz common-law wife (Tarra Riggs) and her 12-year-old son (JimMyron Ross). Exactly who the boy’s father is remains a question mark, but there’s no wondering about the tensions on the table, once the situation begins to unfold, revealing local drug dealers, a handgun, a closed-up grocery store and the ownership of a desolate couple of houses on an overgrown slab of nowhere land.

11102009_ballast04.jpgHammer’s framing and phrasing are always heart-attack unpredictable, but at the same time, a large part of the film’s suspense emanates from the simple fact, as with the Dardennes and Jia Zhang-ke and Lucretia Martel, et al., that we never know enough about these characters to guess what they’ll do next. That’s realism (if we’re to believe a film, we cannot feel omnipotent, a very simple fact that the richest filmmakers in the world haven’t grasped), where a fiery gaze or something heard but not seen can make you hold your breath, and it almost goes without saying that American indie film is still pretty naïve about this kind of storytelling.

It helps in the course of “Ballast” that Hammer is a deft handler of non-professional actors: Smith is an unforgettably internalized figure, hulking about his homestead padded with flannel shirts and avoiding eye contact, while Ross’ weary, tentative demeanor seems to almost stem from his distrust of the film project itself; when he suddenly produces a loaded gun, apropos of nothing, it’s as if the whole movie is in the unknowable control of these people. Still, it’s Riggs’ wild-eyed mother, trying to prevent her son from vanishing into crime and destruction and herself into homelessness, that torches the place, and it’s no surprise to learn that Riggs has been busy finding work since.

This is, I dare say, the future of American independents, if we want it badly enough as an audience and don’t instead succumb to the idea that the programmatic, video-game bloat of Robert Zemeckis or James Cameron represent the future of anything except the death of the medium as we’ve known it and loved it.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

Posted by on

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.

Posted by on
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.

Posted by on
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.