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Leave the Kids at Home: The Rebirth of Arthouse Animation

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Mickey Mouse first ripped off Buster Keaton to impress the kiddies in 1926’s “Steamboat Willie,” and it wasn’t long after that that Bugs, Elmer and the merrie melodymakers were sketching out more sophisticated yuks for little ones and adults alike. Nowadays animated films in the U.S. have largely devolved into cheap babysitters, too cloying for parental consumption. It’s a step in the right direction that the Hollywood machine has absorbed high-quality ‘toon houses like Pixar and Aardman Studios, but for every acclaimed “Finding Nemo” or “Wallace and Gromit,” three more strident “Madagascar” knock-offs have barreled down the pipeline. Is there any hope for grown-ups and older kids with refined tastes to appreciate the art of animation without a squealing farm/zoo/wildlife animal in sight?

You betcha, and the key word there is “art.” Finding life along the major festival circuit and even some noteworthy theatrical releases across the country, a fresh crop of animated features are demonstrating darker, more mature, and downright arthouse sensibilities. First, let’s not forget (even if its buzz has long waned) this past spring’s “A Scanner Darkly,” Richard Linklater’s lysergic, quite literate adaptation of sci-fi demigod Philip K. Dick’s paranoid drug-noir classic, which utilizes a rotoscoping technique to transform Keanu’s scruff and Winona’s breasts into vibrant surfaces with wiggly contours. That it barely left a box-office dent is probably attributed less to its queasy illustrations than to its high-brow plottings, an alienating no-no in the stupidity-embracing sociopolitical climate we seem to be living under. (Maybe part-time animator Mike Judge should make a movie about said idiocracy? Nah, that would never get released.)

Less bubbly but just as hyperstylized in its motion-capture renderings, Miramax’s gorgeous French import “Renaissance” opens this weekend in New York and L.A. Sold to its producers based on a four-minute screen test, director Christian Volckman’s cyberpunk conspiracy-thriller takes place in the labyrinthine sprawl of Paris, 2054, a daunting tech-tropolis as bleakly expressionistic as it is 19th-century retro. Critically speaking, neither its McGuffin-lite intrigue nor A-list voiceovers (led by Daniel 007 Craig) are half as fascinating as the film’s stencil-sharp palette and virtuosity, which manage to convey visual depth and human emotion with only the colors black, white and nary a delineating shade of grey. Forget about “Sin City” — this is what a two-tone Frank Miller graphic novel might actually look like transposed to the big screen.

It seems impossible to bring up inventive pixel-making without invoking the name Hayao Miyazaki, but the Japanese master was too busy building “Howl’s Moving Castle” to add his ink-and-cel genius to “Tales From Earthsea” (a/k/a “Gedo senki”), which premiered earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival. Still, Studio Ghibli lives on through the family line as Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s eldest, mildly estranged son) makes the leap from a background in forestry and museum design (?) to helm his feature debut. Largely sourced from the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s popular fantasy series, this somber-faced parable of Japan’s youth culture chronicles a bloodstained prince’s journey through a realm of wizards, dragons and alt-medieval tropes. Rumors say that what this potentially G- or PG-rated fable lacks in capriciousness, it makes up for in family-friendly crossover appeal, so expect a celeb-redubbed American version to entirely negate it from this round-up in 2009. Oh yeah, that’s the soonest the film can play in the U.S., after the Sci-Fi Channel’s copyright on their own “Earthsea” series expires.

Coming ’round the bend next is the 44th New York Film Festival, whose notoriously snooty selection committee somehow found it in their elitist hearts to include the Japanimated “Paprika” in their programming schedule. Directed by the always-interesting Satoshi Kon (“Perfect Blue,” “Tokyo Godfathers”), this heady exploration of perception, memory and the controlling powers of the subconscious focuses on the titularly nicknamed female detective and an experimental device allowing shrinks to enter their patient’s dreamscapes. Those familiar with Kon’s past work (especially his crackerjack “Millennium Actress”) should expect shifting realities, identities and logic systems, but what’s to make of the baffling NYFF synopsis that describes it as a “head-on collision between Hello Kitty and Philip K. Dick?” Most will have to wait and see after fest reviews roll in over the next few weeks, or check it out for yourself when Sony Pictures shakes out its spices in early 2007.

Most decidedly not for kids of any age, Danish first-timer Anders Morgenthaler’s “Princess” is a sex-industry psychodrama that avoids the label “exploitation film” because it’s, um… actively against exploitation? A guilt-ridden priest returns home after his porn star sister dies of a drug overdose, then goes on a brutal crusade with his abused five-year-old niece to rid the world of all pornography involving his sibling’s likeness. Deeply distressing and yet deliriously entertaining, this anime-inspired commentary on the consumptive evils of commercial smut is a paradox of themes as well as form: though 80% of the film is animated, the remaining 20% consists of live-action flashbacks, and all 100% opened the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight program at Cannes this year. Can it be, two decades after “Akira” began America’s love affair with anime, that the medium is capable of intellectually and emotionally transcending its fanboy pegs? At the very least, Tartan will prove they’ve got a pair when “Princess” opens in U.S. theaters next year.

On a final related note, the most gonzo animated feature yet heard of has to be Joe Bum-jin’s “Aachi and Ssipak,” a futuristic South Korean comedy that takes place in a world powered by human poop and anally surveilled by a government that rewards everyone with addictive popsicles. No word yet on when this MTV-licensed insanity will be unleashed upon us, but the official recipe looks to be a mix of one part “Rugrats” (stay with me on this), two parts “Akira,” and cooked under a Ralph Bakshi glaze. Official site here, if you dare.

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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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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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