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DID YOU READ

Putting a Fine Point On It

Putting a Fine Point On It (photo)

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Twelve years ago, Paul Verhoeven, ever the cynical prankster, turned Robert A. Heinlein’s jingoistic ’50s sci-fi novel “Starship Troopers” into a plug-ugly satire of homicidal xenophobia, making his whitebread human “heroes” even more grotesque than the giant insectoid creatures they regularly slaughtered. Trouble was, mainstream America didn’t really get the sick joke, even when Neil Patrick Harris turned up in full quasi-Nazi regalia to conduct sadistic experiments on the captured bugs. Perhaps mindful of that film’s commercial failure, South African director Neill Blomkamp dispenses with subtlety altogether in his similarly subversive debut feature, “District 9,” crafting a political allegory so blatant and in-your-face that even the congenitally dimwitted can’t possibly fail to get the point. Blunt doesn’t necessarily mean ineffective, though. “District 9” eventually devolves into a fairly conventional buddy action movie, but its lengthy, remarkably detailed set-up addresses bleak truths about the plight of the dispossessed in ways that might well be unbearable — or at the very least seem too preachy — if not swaddled in genre.

Structured as a fake documentary recounting world-shaking events some years after they occurred, the film takes place in Johannesburg, where a city-sized spacecraft experienced the warp-drive equivalent of engine trouble 20 years ago, hovering motionless for months a few miles above ground. Eventually, its starving, frightened occupants, who resemble huge bipedal prawns, were evacuated by humanity and given what was meant to be temporary shelter in a hastily constructed shantytown that looks pretty much exactly like (and was, in fact, filmed in) modern-day Soweto.

Two decades later, they remain tenth-class non-citizens, and it’s the task of Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to serve the aliens eviction notices, informing them that they’re to be moved to the new District 10, which amounts to a concentration camp. While searching one particular shack for weapons, however, Wikus accidentally sprays himself with an alien fluid that somehow triggers a genetic mutation, transforming his left arm into a prawn claw that can fire the aliens’ ray guns. With the South African government eager to harvest his organs for bioweapons research, Wikus has little choice but to hide out in D-9 and seek help from the very beings he’d previously treated like refuse.

Admittedly, that’s a tad heavy-handed, and certain aspects of the scenario (written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell) aren’t terribly plausible. Humans and aliens have no trouble understanding each other’s language, for example, and that’s a huge stretch even given 20 years of cohabitation. (I often have no idea what the people in Ken Loach films are saying, and they’re speaking English.) On the whole, though, “District 9” pulls few punches in depicting the sorry legal status and the (literally) subhuman living conditions of these intergalactic refugees. As Wikus travels from one dilapidated hovel to the next, addressing the inhabitants with brutal condescension and cheerfully incinerating their nurseries (which are slaughterhouse-repulsive to human eyes, but still), our sympathy shifts so decisively to the aliens’ side, despite their hideous appearance, that we can’t help but feel shameful about belonging to such a noxious, unfeeling, destructive species — precisely the visceral gut reaction that Verhoeven was going for, I imagine.

08122009_district97.jpgWhat held “Starship Troopers” back from greatness, alas, was its monotonously repetitive second half, in which the film made a dispiriting shift from knowing satire to mindless shoot-’em-up. “District 9” doesn’t tumble nearly as far (in part because it hasn’t scaled such a great height), but it loses much of its rough-hewn, mock-doc energy once Wikus teams up with a prawn named Christopher Johnson and his ugly-cute shrimp of a son. (That the aliens have been allotted generic human names, picking up where Ellis Island left off, is just one of the film’s numerous sly gags.)

The trajectory of the film’s second half is pure buddy-flick formula sprinkled with gratuitous explosions and lens-smearing gore — though there are still details to savor, like the constant view of the gigantic mothership in the background of exteriors, as apparently ineradicable a part of the landscape as a mountain range. And I’m not sure what to make of a subplot involving bloodthirsty, superstitious Nigerian gangsters, though it’s hard to believe that a film so ardent about decrying prejudice would stoop to regional xenophobia. In any event, genre efforts this bracing are sufficiently rare that it’s hard not to treasure them even when they’re somewhat compromised. And I look forward to having conversations about this one that won’t involve the phrase “No, don’t you get it?”

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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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