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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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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

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