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“35 Shots of Rum” and “Mammoth” on DVD

“35 Shots of Rum” and “Mammoth” on DVD (photo)

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Just as most intelligent critics already said last year, the kind that know their Wong from their Bong and can find their Warhol with both hands, Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum” is a lovely, ruminative, impressionistic, elusive, sensitive beaut, rich in the director’s signature brand of elliptical hodgepodge and brimming with the-state-of-us-now immediacy. The problem is, I’m not sure there’s much to it.

What I’m coming up against is, I think, the gray zone in film criticism, between recognizing a film’s intelligence and artfulness, and wanting it to correspond in some meaningful way with what we as individuals conceive to be substantial or original or resonant cinema. Every time you read a critic saying “it just doesn’t work,” or, equally, praising a film in evasive ways that don’t fit with your idea of a good movie, then you’re in the zone. Some filmmakers speak to our inner ear with a confidante’s whisper, while others rock ‘n’ roll around in ways we don’t respond to, and who can blame us for taking the former as a kindred spirit? It’s a common no man’s land that few writers dare to acknowledge, but we’re all liable to get lost in it occasionally. What do we expect from a film? What do we need from a film?

Of course, what distinguishes a critic is the breadth and depth of his or her expectations of the medium’s possibilities. The worst critics, and viewers, like movies that assault them in a narrow, formulaic way, whether that way be James Cameron-esque or Pedro Costa-ish. The best are catholic in their perceptions, but no one is immune to their own ideas of what’s rewarding and powerful about the medium. And oh, how I’d like to wax testily on the idea of what a “bad viewer” is. Some other time.

04202010_35ShotsofRum2.jpgThe zone between desire and reality becomes especially broad and inhospitable when you’re dealing with the modern “art film,” which is lately all about elision and stylized emptiness. However savvy a viewer you may be, there will be for you, eventually, a filmmaker that simply goes too far into non-communication and nothingness, and comes out the other end, into vapidity or, worse, pretension.

We all have blind spots, and Denis seems to be one of mine. Her films, from “Chocolat” (1988) to “L’Intrus” (2004), always seem to me to be gorgeous, visually inventive contexts that flirt with substance and invention but never consummate the relationship. Is there a there there, I keep wondering? I’ve had friends show serious disappointment with me when I shrugged over “Beau Travail” (1999), a disarmingly centerless film the supposed greatness of which no critic’s review could clarify (I read them all).

It’s not a matter of one critic being immune to the wonders of form over content — I am reliably entranced by the sludgy, style-heavy films of Aleksandr Sokurov, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lucrecia Martel, etc. — and this may be where my gray zone differs from so many others’. Denis has a characteristic way of shaping her characters’ lives around an idea but never, it seems to me, targeting the idea itself.

“35 Shots of Rum” is essentially an Ozuian love story between a working father (the great brooder Alex Descas) and his commuter-student daughter (Mati Diop), as they live happily together in a rather comfortable apartment but naturally sense a teetering toward the inevitable moment of separation. She attracts men (including far-too-cool nomadic hipster Grégoire Colin), he resists a neighbor’s romantic pressure, and eventually their co-existence suffers from enough unspoken feelings that the two are compelled to drive together to Germany, and visit the dead mother’s family.

04202010_35Shotsofrum3.jpgOzu this is not — the Japanese master’s films are bustling with information as well as strict eloquence — but Denis is masterful at laying out a place and time via fragments coalescing into a whole. We get an acute sense of life on the Paris suburb rail lines (on which Descas’ Gibraltar of a man works, amidst a crowd of mixed émigré compatriots) and in the characters’ unremarkable banlieue, which seems to be completely free of crime or conflict.

Large swatches of the film are taken up with life, not story — a central set-piece involves the whole group heading to a concert in the rain, only to have the car break down and the evening salvaged in a local café, where everybody gets a little drunk and jealous glares fly like boomerangs. That’s it for incident, and the texture is paramount — most of what we know about the characters is expressed in silent looks, not dialogue.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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