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Doing It to Death

Doing It to Death (photo)

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Smooth criminal or fragile humanitarian? Eternally childlike or mortally flawed? Black or white? Might not the late Michael Jackson have been all of the above? As for Kenny Ortega, the longtime MJ associate entrusted to whittle three-and-a-half hours of rehearsal footage down to less than two, he was obviously never going to be Barbara Kopple or Albert Maysles, much less Pedro Costa or Frederick Wiseman. But at least Ortega’s “This Is It” allows us to see the self-anointed King of Pop as a moonwalking mass of contradictions right to the end, which is about as much as one could reasonably want from a posthumous cash-in whose printed prologue rushes to praise MJ’s “passionate gift,” a work of literal deadline journalism whose stated responsibility is to “the fans.”

Still, for some — that is, roughly a smidgen of the zillions who’ll flock to “This” — as much as one could reasonably want will be more than they can bear. Driven to protect their late idol even after he’s gone, a subset of die-hards have boycotted the movie for presumably rewarding those close collaborators who didn’t do enough to save their heavily medicated and rail-thin boss between early March and June 25. As if addressing this very constituency, Ortega includes himself in the film asking Jackson — perturbed by a pesky headset whose sound is “like a fist in my ear” — whether there’s anything the crew can do for him, gently reminding the superstar that all he needs to do for help is ask.

However unintended, “This Is It” testifies to a truth older than “HIStory”: Faced with the untimely death of a loved one, the grief-stricken can find it more comforting to pin the tragedy on others (in this case, Ortega, et al.), even or especially when, on some level, the deceased could be said to have done it to himself. Another thing is more certain still: Fist in his ear, machine-gun blazing for “Smooth Criminal,” a digital army at his command in “They Don’t Care About Us,” the MJ of “This” is a man whose metaphors are exceedingly violent — at least until the world-healing finale, wherein we learn that the King of Pop loved trees, too.

Those teeming undead of “Thriller,” ordered by Jackson to terrorize the concert crowd in 3D, are nothing if not the artist’s personal demons, resurrected more or less intact from their first appearance in 1982 — when, it must be said, they appeared a helluva lot fresher. Supernatural energy he had, indeed, but the vision of nostalgia MJ mustered for his comeback shows looks exceedingly tired. No wonder his other notable metaphor — issued as an instruction to his keyboardist — likens the obligatory opening of “The Way You Make Me Feel” to “dragging yourself out of bed.”

So yeah, despite its salutary intentions, “This Is It” works plenty well as a psychological study of a pop star at or near the end of his microphone cord. The film’s unmistakable high point — it gave me goose bumps, to be honest — is MJ’s pained falsetto on a rough run-through of “Human Nature”: The singing is unspeakably beautiful, for starters, added to which is the poignancy of the lyrics, as human nature is obviously something the perfectionist performer often found difficult or impossible to emulate.

Beyond that haunting passage, no longer than a minute or two, “This Is It” generously accommodates one’s desire to view Jackson’s self-described “final curtain call” as, well, overwhelmingly pathetic — weird but never kinky, downright tacky in conception as well as costuming, and, above all, extremely familiar. Reprising even Bob Giraldi’s line-dance choreography for the “Beat It” video, Jackson seems to want to have shown that, at 50, he could do it exactly the same as he did it at 25 — as if art is an exercise in taxidermic (or surgical) preservation rather than a natural evolution, what you and I would consider human nature.

10272009_thisisit2.jpgIn all fairness to Ortega (or maybe it’s an insult, I don’t know), it should be said that his work on “This” had largely been done even before he entered the editing room. If Entertainment Weekly‘s recent curtain-peeling cover story is to be believed, a “team of editors” (or lawyers?) selected Ortega’s usable material from a whopping 120 hours of footage. A countless number of radically dissimilar films could’ve been sculpted out of that mountain; one can only fantasize about, say, Nick Broomfield’s brilliantly bottom-feeding cut, wherein the fans camped outside L.A.’s Staples Center are somehow implicated in the “murder.”

Maybe it’s even fairer to say that the great MJ documentary had already been made more than a decade ago — that is, “Living With Michael Jackson,” the prime-time network special-cum-all-access shocker that Martin Bashir amazingly delivered with at least some degree of his subject’s consent. The ultimate measure of Jackson’s combustible mix of vulnerability and control, resolved only through his death, “Living With Michael Jackson” (check the Internet for “showtimes”) stands as a pricelessly rare rebuttal of the formula by which celebrity docs amount to little more than products of carefully controlled PR. Maybe MJ, in that screening room in the sky, could begin to forgive Bashir for his guerrilla infiltration of Neverland and see “Living” as something valuably closer than “This” to the real deal.

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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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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.


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.



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 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….


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.


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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