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Flying tanks are sinking action movies.

Flying tanks are sinking action movies. (photo)

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In his podcast review of “The A-Team,” the A.V. Club‘s Scott Tobias articulated something I’ve been trying to put my finger on recently regarding my frustration with a lot of recent action movies. Though Tobias liked “The A-Team,” he took some time to critique the film’s extravagant use of CGI, which he argued “has harmed action movies [in general]:

The you-can-do anything possibility of CGI has allowed for things to happen onscreen that maybe are not that entertaining. The original ‘A-Team’… was limited by stunts and by practical effects and what you can do with what budget you have for a TV show in the 1980s. [The film ‘A-Team’] is a splashy, nine-figure Hollywood action movie in 2010, so the various plans that come together in this film are so completely crazy that it insults the intelligence too much.

If I understand Tobias’ argument — and if I don’t, forgive me, I’m going to turn it into my own — the problem with CGI in this context is that it permits the A-Team to do things that move beyond the realm of the highly improbable into the world of the totally impossible. If the TV “A-Team”‘s action sequences were limited by what they could practically do and physically accomplish, that was a good thing because the characters themselves were limited by what they could practically do and physically accomplish.

If, as Orson Welles believed, the absence of limitations is the enemy of art, there’s a certain artfulness to the raw ingenuity of the original “A-Team” (and a certain lack of artfulness to the decadence of the new one). Hannibal might think it would be really cool to fly a tank through the air and use it to kill a plane, but if he can’t actually pull it off because it violates the laws of physics, it’s sort of a moot point.

06182010_persia1.jpgCGI has rendered moot points moot. Like Patton Oswalt’s line about reckless science, modern CGI is all about coulda, not shoulda. Instead of operating as a filmmaker’s tool, it becomes the entire machine. And while CGI can look beautiful, inspire awe, and even move us in the right context, it divorces action from the things we like about it: the element of risk, the feeling of danger, the thrill of knowing someone’s actually attempting the things we’re seeing onscreen. Watching the A-Team fly a tank is like listening to someone sing through an Auto-Tune. It might be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s not impressive.

CGI action can be entertaining, and it certainly has its place in films with more fantastical and supernatural elements, but in more grounded, real world fare, it levels the action playing field in a way I don’t like. There’s a Darwinian quality to great stuntmen and physical comedians like Chaplin, Keaton or Chan: they got to where they were because they were more gifted, more talented, and more daring than anyone else.

None of that applies to actors performing in front of a green screen with tennis balls on strings as scene partners. Anyone with a good enough computer and some decent cinematography skills could turn themselves into a stuntman these days — hell, I could be the one in that flying tank. But instead of making those stunts more appealing, it has the opposite effect. There’s no awe, just bemusement. Action shouldn’t be relatable. I’m reminded of the lesson of “The Incredibles”: when everyone’s special, no one is.

I started thinking about some of these ideas while reviewing the thoroughly pleasing “Undisputed III: Redemption” recently for my straight-to-DVD column. There you have some gifted physical artists, men like Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror, doing some really impressive stunts. But the filmmakers still felt obligated to slow down their work with needless camera tricks and slow-motion. Every one takes us further away from the actors, and gives us a reason to think something is fake or staged or aided by hidden wires.

If guys like Adkins and Zaror don’t need the help, don’t give it to them. No so-called “special” effect will ever be as special as that tingle you feel up your spine when a real person attempts something really dangerous. Does CGI ever make your palms sweat the way mine do when I watch Chaplin on his rollerskates? The closer an action film gets to a documentary, and the further it gets from quick cuts, camera tricks, and even slow-motion, the better. Call me old-fashioned if you want. In my day, tanks didn’t fly.

[Photos: “The A-Team,” 20th Century Fox, 2010; “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Disney, 2010; “Undisputed III: Redemption,” Warner Bros., 2010]

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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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