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DID YOU READ

“Rocket Science,” “Right At Your Door”

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By Michael Atkinson

Though it’s never been acknowledged, the teen comedy has evolved substantially from the odiously primitive ape it used to be, and today stands as a fiercely intelligent, unpredictable, insightful higher class of creature. The chasm is huge between the idiotic froth and exploitation crudities we saw in the 1950s through to the 1980s, and the eccentric, inspired, brave and crazy films we’ve seen come out of the indie scene ever since “Heathers” broke the mold for good in 1989: “Dazed and Confused,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Rushmore,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Loser,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Ghost World,” “Juno” and even lowbrow hooey like “American Pie” and “Road Trip.” Jeffrey Blitz’s “Rocket Science” takes its seat comfortably on the dais. Seethingly articulate yet lyrically at a loss, the film chronicles a very particular high school tribulation, and yet it’s so finely and generously observed that it feels universal. The milieu isn’t many football fields away from the subculture Blitz explored in his breakout documentary “Spellbound” — swapping out spelling bees for high school debate competitions, Blitz unceremoniously allows his characters their own hyper-learned way of speaking as his hero, a beleaguered nebbish with a disastrous stutter.

His father abandons the family, and he fails to choose pizza for cafeteria lunch because he can’t get the word out, but Hal (Reece Daniel Thompson, in a masterfully constipated performance) sees a way up out of the mud after being “recruited” for his high school’s debate team by a go-getter Type A-student (Anna Kendrick). Hal naturally falls for the girl, ramrod or not, just as he becomes seduced into thinking he can win at tournament debating. That could be the plot for a dumb feel-good Hollywood movie, but Blitz’s film (which features absolutely no slumming guest stars) always sidesteps and dodges the clichés; rarely, if ever, do the characters — from Hal’s problematic mom to a voyeur neighborhood kid to a deposed debate king — behave in a predictable fashion or speak as if they only have one thing on their minds. (Hal’s cultured-simian big brother, played by Vincent Piazza, seems perpetually on the verge of exploding from unexplained teenage fury.) This approach sometimes forces things to fizzle — many scenes that seem to be leading up to an easy joke end with none at all — but most often, the movie feels spontaneous, thoughtful and hard to pin down. There is also, not very incidentally, the best use ever of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” But having spent so much time already observing the lives of smart kids, Blitz brings no preformulated thematic ideas to the table about teenagers and high school. It’s just life, lived by people too young to understand it.

A few inches farther down on the indie-budget docket, Chris Gorak’s “Right at Your Door” is an active demonstration of what can be accomplished with little more than a potent idea. We’re in the childless home of an economically static L.A. couple, office worker Lexi (Mary McCormack) and unemployed musician Brad (Rory Cochrane), and not long after she disappears to work, the all-too-imaginable happens: the city is hit by multiple dirty bombs, and suddenly one’s location — out and working downtown, or safely ensconced at home? — becomes a matter of life and death. Ash falls on everything, fallout could be anywhere, transportation becomes impossible, panic runs riot around the film’s edges and Brad and Lexi undergo the ultimate test of a modern relationship: who would you die for? Masculine guilt and post-feminist resentment lurk at the film’s dramatic heart, when it isn’t otherwise limning the sense of your neighborhood becoming irretrievably terrified and bestial in a matter of minutes. Gorak, a busy art director who’s worked with design mavens David Fincher, Terry Gilliam and the Coen brothers, optimizes his low-budget options, capturing the scrubby L.A. suburbs better than any other film I’ve seen, getting sweaty, vein-popping performances from his cast, and focusing on the minutiae — which here boils down to an ever-shifting barrier of duct tape and plastic sheeting. Less is more — Gorak’s film out-hyperventilates every atomic attack movie since Peter Watkins’s “The War Game.”

“Rocket Science” (HBO Home Video) and “Right At Your Door” (Lionsgate) are both now available on DVD.

[Photo: “Rocket Science,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2007]

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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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.

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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…

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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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