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Pushing Richard Kelly’s Buttons

Pushing Richard Kelly’s Buttons (photo)

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When “Donnie Darko,” writer-director Richard Kelly’s ominous sci-fi tale of teen angst, premiered at Sundance in 2001, its oddball ambitiousness was generally dismissed. When it was eventually picked up for distribution, it had a weak theatrical run, but grew into a massive cult hit on DVD, paving the way for a double-disc director’s cut and Kelly’s even bolder follow-up, “Southland Tales.” Similarly panned at its 2006 Cannes premiere, that pitch-black sociopolitical (and yes, sci-fi) satire about the end of the world was edited down, but still polarized critics and audiences, which proves that you can’t set out to make a cult classic — only the test of time has that power, meaning the film might still find new life in years to come.

In a fascinating career leap, Kelly has taken his penchant for logic-bending science fiction from Indiewood to the Big Show, as Warner Bros. has produced “The Box,” his enigmatic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button.” In Kelly’s 1976-set thriller, a NASA engineer (James Marsden) and his high-school teacher wife (Cameron Diaz) are financially strapped Virginia parents who have been gifted with a curious wood box, topped by a cherry-red button. Soon after, a man named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives unannounced, missing half his face due to a burn and some killer CGI, and imposes a moral dilemma on the couple: push the button, and they’ll earn a million dollars in cash, tax free. The catch, however, is that a complete stranger will also die as a consequence. Less than an hour after seeing this dizzying new film, I spoke with Kelly about his favorite movie of 2009, why most Philip K. Dick adaptations suck, and what I believe is his one criminal misdemeanor against cinema.

Come on, admit it. You’d push that button.

[laughs] Listen, it’s easy to be self-righteous and say, “Oh, I would never push it.” I look at it more from the logical point of view of a scientist. I’d see this little contraption and be like, “Okay, this thing has no technology in it. Whoever built it is playing a trick. If they want to give me a million bucks to come into my life, annoy me, and freak out my wife, I’m going to push it as an act of defiance, to call their bluff.” The violence isn’t on me unless this thing has some sort of computer chip that’s going to shut down someone’s pacemaker, you know? I’d push it out of curiosity.

It’s appropriate that this is a period piece. In this age of instant gratification, it seems like people are far more inclined to push a button for the sake of ease today.

Absolutely. Now we have all this technology that we didn’t have in 1976, the way computers and the internet have transformed our way of life. We’re so much more cynical today. That was one of the reasons why I couldn’t set the movie in present day. I didn’t want to have that scene where Norma goes onto the computer and Googles Arlington Steward. For half the movie, the characters would be sitting in front of laptops. That wasn’t really dramatic for me, and it made it implausible. It’s an absurd premise. Part of what I love is that it’s mischievous.

There’s a rug-pull in the film’s second half that’s far more otherworldly and ambiguously plotted than the naturalistic chain of events leading up to then. Were you ever concerned that mainstream audiences might find that maddening?

We tried to set the film up as science fiction. There’s a text crawl at the beginning that refers to NASA and the Mars project, and we tried to lay the groundwork. There’s discussion of the potential for intelligent life on another planets, so we planted the seed pretty clear to people. My hope is that audiences will take the ride, be intrigued by the mystery and try to put the pieces together. The magic in this movie, in reference to the Arthur C. Clarke quote about an advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, that’s the button unit. This little contraption that appears to be just a piece of wood has some sort of magic attached to it. When you deconstruct the movie, it doesn’t work without that component.

11052009_thebox02.jpgYour father was a NASA engineer, your mother had a similar physical affliction to Diaz’s character, and you grew up in the area where the film takes place. What was most exciting about recreating the 1976 of your youth?

Obviously, my production designer Alexander Hammond and my set decorator Tracey Doyle deserve so much of the credit for reaching back into the past, not only in the home décor, but the laboratories, and what the communication scientific technology looked like then. Big mainframe computers that helped send the Viking to Mars. You know, your Blackberry has a hundred times more power in it nowadays then those computers had. I tried to put in a few sitcoms and programs on the TV, Johnny Carson and stuff, because this is a story that has its root in serialized science-fiction, where Richard Matheson got his start. It’s an old-fashioned film, and I wanted it to have that nod, like the slight absurdity of seeing a promo for “What’s Happening?” That’s a bit of an inside joke: it’s a question a lot of people ask while watching one of my movies.

I know you were born in 1975, but do you have any memories of that decade?

I barely remember the ’70s at all. I have a few memories of moving to my new house, but I think my cognitive memory switch didn’t get flipped on until 1981 or ’82. [laughs] It’s all kind of a blur.

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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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