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“The Secret of the Grain” and “Living Room Cinema Vol. 1” on DVD

“The Secret of the Grain” and “Living Room Cinema Vol. 1” on DVD (photo)

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Nobody ever said movies were easy to make. Still, I don’t know anyone who isn’t more or less reliably dissatisfied with what they see on contemporary screens — all nostalgia for past golden ages aside, most new films, even when they’re dazzling or rigorous, feel undernourishing, gimmicky, ephemeral.

There are all kinds of accomplishments possible in cinema, and some do not brand the memory or trouble your heart, and they can be accomplishments all the same. (I’m thinking of certain schools of Asian neo-minimalism, and high-end Hollywood auteurism.) But where’s the Renoir banquet film, the mega-novel social saga, the hypertrophic state-of-the-age melodrama? It’s the kind of movie you’d hope film pros could make regularly, to fill our empty, sugar-shocked bellies, but they’re difficult and rare, and by the time Abdellatif Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain” (2007) hit U.S. theaters a few years back, we may’ve forgotten that it’s what we’ve needed all along.

Shot like a Dardenne brothers’ film in the immigrant dockside French community of Sète, Kechiche’s family epic seems simple and in your face on its surface — the members of a long-acclimated Arab family, and their myriad of in-laws, babies, cohorts and lovers (there are at least 20 significant figures in play), are not complicated people, and their dilemmas are familiar as both the stuff of classic lit (Tolstoy, Balzac, Zola) and life down the block, where you can hear the neighbors yelling from behind closed doors about money, infidelity, respect and betrayal.

But Kechiche’s ultra-realist, handheld style and gritty characterizations belie the real meat of what’s going on — the dense chemical combustion in action inherent in any expatriate population. France, of course, is filthy with dudgeon over its Africans and Arabs in ways that make our border-crossing arguments feel tame, and Kechiche limns the tensions so adroitly it’s as if he caught them by accident.

07262010_SecretoftheGrain2.jpgForget the title, which sounds like an old Pare Lorentz documentary about farming — the French title translates in spirit to “Couscous and Mullet,” and the movie is nothing if not a genuflection toward the bonding agent inherent in family meals. As in reality, the family doesn’t center on any one individual, but the story’s axle is Slimane (Habib Boufares, who like most of the cast are non-professionals), a solemn, divorced boatbuilder currently on the fringes of his extended family’s bustle.

Slimane’s layoff from a job he’s had for decades is just one tumbling domino; others include his hesitant relationship with his landlady (whose daughter, played by the saucy, relentless Hafsia Herzi, is his most loyal comrade), a philandering son’s ruinous marriage to a Russian immigrant, the ex-wife’s love/hate regard for Slimane, the vagaries of bureaucracy surrounding docking rights, Slimane’s plan to open a North African restaurant using a dilapidated ship and his ex-wife’s cooking, and the question of couscous, made, praised, maligned, eaten, lost, and restored.

At over two-and-a-half hours, Kechiche’s film covers an enormous amount of cultural territory, but it never rushes. Rants and ordeals and meals are experienced in more or less real time, with the first late afternoon family meal lasting an extraordinary 20 minutes of laid-back, jabbering, mouth-stuffing conversation.

07262010_SecretoftheGrain3.jpgThe movie has no shortage of life energy, honestly come by, and characters are matter-of-factly introduced midway without context or trouble — it’s a real world, Kechiche is saying, and there are people in it you don’t yet know. We become intimate enough that when the film boils down to prepping and staging Slimane’s introductory special dinner -= meant to impress the locals and grease the bureaucratic wheels — the suspense dripped in, as we anticipate something going horribly wrong, is almost unbearable.

The final half-hour is crucifying in its anxiety and ironies, and lends what could’ve been in less ambitious hands a gritty ethnic street drama a sense of tragic grandeur.

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SO EXCITED!!!

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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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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.