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Todd Solondz’s Latest War

Todd Solondz’s Latest War (photo)

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“Exploitative,” “mean-spirited” and “misanthropic” are just three of the many severe adjectives that tend to pepper discussions about the acidic work of Todd Solondz. The New Jersey-born indie filmmaker arrived on the scene in 1995 with the bitterly funny “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” courted critical accolades and controversy with 1998’s sharp-fanged “Happiness,” and further established, with 2001’s “Storytelling” and 2004’s “Palindromes,” his status as one of American cinema’s most idiosyncratic voices.

This week, he returns to theaters with “Life During Wartime,” a featured selection at 2009’s New York Film Festival which revisits the characters of “Happiness” using an all-new cast. The film’s less a true follow-up than a quasi-sequel in which Solondz, employing a more melancholy, elegiac tone, twists and bends his familiar characters in new and unexpected ways. It’s a meditation on man’s capacity for change and forgiveness, defined by the director’s trademark blend of the caustic and the compassionate. I got a chance to talk with him about the reasons behind using new actors for established roles, the difficulty of getting movies like his funded in the current economic climate, and why O.J. Simpson fled to Florida.

Like “Palindromes,” “Life During Wartime” features different actors playing characters already established by other performers in “Happiness.” What drove this casting device?

Recasting the movie gave me the freedom to not be so beholden to the literalness of what had been established earlier. I could take more liberties in playing with the storylines, and find new meanings and shading and colorings with what different actors could bring.

For example, Paul Reubens, like Jon Lovitz, I love. He’s a very funny actor, but he also has a kind of history that the audience is well aware of, and that lends a certain pathos and poignancy, a sorrow to his performance that I don’t think would otherwise be possible. Also, it was exciting for me to be able to share with an audience what Paul Reubens is even capable of doing. I think that it may surprise people, what he’s capable of.

07212010_LifeDuringWartime2.jpgThen, for example, I love Dylan Baker [who played the pedophilic role of Bill in “Happiness”], but I wanted a certain kind of gravitas, a heaviness that Ciarán Hinds seems to embody. This sort of husk of a shell of a spent soul, that’s kind of a dead man walking, ghost-like, that I don’t think I could have achieved in the same way with Dylan.

I wanted someone who would also not evoke Philip Seymour Hoffman, and so I found Michael Kenneth Williams, and I could get kind of a variation on that story, and it would be fresh for the audience as well. So it gave me all sorts of liberties to play and explore things that I don’t think I would have been capable of had I kept the actors the same.

Was it difficult to re-envision these characters in both a conceptual and visual way?

Everything’s a challenge — it has to be, if it’s to be fresh or interesting. But that’s why I love casting, the idea of finding what would be interesting — what I don’t want, what I want to keep the same, what I want to be able to change. So that’s all part of the pleasure of the process.

At the outset, what was it that you wanted to further explore, or elaborate upon, with these characters?

After I had finished “Happiness,” I never imagined that I would ever revisit these characters or storylines. I had no interest at all. And yet ten years later, I found myself writing the first scene of the movie, and I paused. I liked what I had written, and I wondered if there was a movie here, and was there stuff I could further explore. I thought about it obviously, and felt there was. This was a more politically overt film, a post-9/11 film. It just goes to show that my imagination is just not as fertile as I like to think it is.

07212010_LifeDuringWartime3.jpgIn a pseudo-sequel project like this, how worried are you about repeating yourself? And how do you guard against that?

You have to keep it fresh for yourself, and hope that if it’s fresh for you, it’ll be fresh for others. Like the first scene of the movie, I like the audience to actually think, “Oh, he’s doing a kind of almost remake of ‘Happiness’ with different actors.” And just as they’re getting comfortable with how they think the scene is playing itself out, you pull the rug from under them. You throw them a curveball. And you have to do that, because audiences are smart and you have to be ahead of them. That’s my pleasure — when I go to the movies, I want the filmmaker to be much smarter than me.

Were you ever concerned that, by recasting these familiar characters, and thus directly calling attention to their inherent artificiality, you might reduce them to something less than fully developed humans?

Gosh, you’re so meta! You know, it’s tricky. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, because the movie does stand alone. You don’t have to have seen any of my prior work to follow the narrative here, and take it on its own terms. That said, I almost wonder… there’s a plus and a minus to knowing “Happiness,” and having seen it.

On the one hand, if you know “Happiness,” you can take pleasure in the way this movie subverts some of the characters and storylines that have been established earlier. But on the other hand, it can also make you more self-conscious of the ways in which things are being subverted.

I like to look at the film on its own terms, and that’s ultimately what it is — it’s its own movie, with its own life, and I think it has a very different feel from “Happiness.” It’s a more mournful film, and perhaps a less acid one.

07212010_lifeduringwartime1.jpgGiven the somewhat notorious reputation of “Happiness,” how hard was it to get the greenlight for a follow-up?

It took a long time to get this movie rolling. I was ready to shoot this a few years ago, but the financing fell apart, it came together, it fell apart. Ultimately, it’s about the economics of things rather than the subject matter or anything like that. It had, as a double-edged sword, the fact that it was a quasi-sequel — the advantage of familiarity, but then the stigma of that particular familiarity. So I think that kind of evened out there.

But it costs money to make these movies, and it’s certainly much grimmer today, much grimmer than ever before, it seems, to get a project like this together.

You’re obviously known for New Jersey stories. What drew you to shift some of “Life During Wartime”‘s action to Florida?

To me, South Florida, where it takes place, is a land where people like to go for a kind of tabula rasa, to reinvent and recreate their lives and erase the past. That’s where O.J. went after the trial. And I felt that lent itself perfectly to Trish, who goes there to forget the past, but of course is doomed by her failure to acknowledge the past, and how tragic the outcome is for how the ghosts of the past don’t let go of you.

Considering what happens to the characters in the film, do you think change is possible? Or does it depend on one’s capacity for introspection?

Change — it’s always happening, and not happening.

“Life During Wartime” opens in New York, Los Angeles and will be available on VOD on July 23rd.

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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.