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On DVD: “Sunflower,” “Carosello Napoletano”

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07082008_sunflower.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

As the Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema squander their seriousness trying to out-“Crouching Tiger” each other, the subsequent “Sixth Generation” has raised the bar without going ancient-era historical or relying on the hotsiness of Gong Li. Namely, Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye and Zhang Yuan have favored a kind of philosophical realism, and if the films haven’t hit the mass audience sweet spot like the feminist/liberal melodramas of the ’90s did, they’ve nevertheless made the films of Zhang Yimou look like a new brand of orientalism and painted life in contemporary China as despairingly as the gorgeous Gong movies used to portray the past. Meanwhile, a subgenre has emerged — the traditional family saga/bildungsfilm-as-haunted-by-the-Cultural-Revolution film, à la Zhang Yimou’s “To Live,” Gu Changwei’s “Peacock,” Xiao Jiang’s “Electric Shadows,” etc. Zhang Yang’s “Sunflower” (2005) is a paradigmatic example, with its 30-year span, its timeless father-son battle of wills, and its intersections between family life and the dragon-writhe of Chinese history as it tried to poison the peoples’ lives for decades and did not quite succeed.

It’s a conventional film in many ways, and that has its benefits: your knowledge of the characters grows as they do, you get to see the past reflected in the present, you get to dally with the minor experiences as well as the thunderous traumas. Zhang’s tale is filled with ironies he doesn’t emphasize — when the titular little boy’s father returns from a six-year stint in the work camp, he comes with his painter’s hands broken, but with a set of construction skills that helps the congested, Casbah-like community survive after an earthquake. The boisterous communalism of the weekly movie defiantly offsets the staid propaganda being shown, but Zhang zips along, trusting us to make emotional connections.

Mostly, though, “Sunflower” is the story of a close-minded, old-school shithead Dad (Sun Haiying), whose disciplinary streak and bitterness continue to cause riffs as his boy grows from a precocious nine-year-old brat to a married artist in his 30s, tortured by his parents over whether to have a child or not. The mother is played, gently, by Joan Chen, who apparently pulled a De Niro-esque plumping regimen for the role (compare her here to her role in last year’s “Lust, Caution”), leaving us wondering if this could in fact be the same actress that made crazy gay love to Anne Heche in Donald Cammell’s “Wild Side.” One late, unexplained shot — of Chen’s aging matriarch scrubbing the floor of a yuppie-ish condo, when all she’d been used to doing her whole life before that is tending her own electricity-free kitchen — speaks articulately about the changes China’s seen since the Mao days. “Sunflower” isn’t particularly daring or inventive, but it takes a slice from a universal pie, and I’m glad I saw it.

07082008_carosello.jpgAs film history comes rocketing down the DVD flume, you could get lost in the stacks of each month’s releases, but you can also unearth a bygone sapphire from the heap. Lionsgate’s series of multi-disc Euro-sets (Godard, Bardot, Delon, Deneuve, etc.) are symptomatic, using their star’s rep to package the lesser and perhaps justly neglected films in their lengthy canons, a methodology that almost always, maybe inadvertently, saves a rarely seen beaut from the archival darkness. I’m getting around to Ettore Giannini’s “Carosello Napoletano,” a banquet-sized fried-sugar confection from 1954 that’s been smuggled into the new, largely negligible Sophia Loren set. The other films in the box are, naturally, among the scores of Italian movies of Loren’s that got international play on the strength of her eyes, lips and hips alone, and then were summarily forgotten.

But Giannini’s swirling “city symphony” featured a young Loren only amidst a fiery ensemble; the movie, which played here to presumably thankful Italian-American urban audiences in 1961, sells itself on nothing more than Italian élan. Incarnated as a kind of Neapolitan answer to “An American in Paris” and “The Red Shoes,” the movie is an expressionist, ambitious scramble of commedia dell’arte, opera and interpretive ballet, predominantly celebrating the canzone Napoletana, the city’s traditional ballad form (reaching officially back to the 1830s) most famous for overfamiliar songs like “O Sole Mio” and “Funiculì, Funiculà,” both of which are in the film in what might be definitive versions. The Pathécolor ambience belongs to the postwar urban peasantry still immersed in traditional art (street theater and Pulcinella figures are everywhere) and the timeless sagas of their fishing-folk ancestors. There’s a thread of a story (a street minstrel and his family search for lodgings on Christmas Eve), but there are scores of stories within the story, often tales of tragic love that make for high-octane Italian songs, all played out in an elaborate theatrical Naples with a painted Vesuvius in the background. “Carosello Napoletano” won a prize at Cannes back when “International Prizes” were dished out, one to every contributing nation, but beyond that minor notation, it’s slipped off the grid of film history. Just for the raw showmanship it delivers, here’s to welcoming it back.

[Photos: “Sunflower,” New Yorker Films, 2007; “Carosello Napoletano,” Lux Film America, 1961]

“Sunflower” (New Yorker Video) and “Carosello Napoletano” (included in the Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection; Lionsgate) are now available on DVD.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

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.


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…


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.


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).


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.


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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