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“Little Big Soldier,” Jackie Chan’s other newest movie.

“Little Big Soldier,” Jackie Chan’s other newest movie. (photo)

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Reviewed at the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival.

You’d have to be ghoulish to want to see Jackie Chan, who’s now (a plenty spry) 56 years old, still trying anything like the hanging-off-helicopters, 100-foot-jump-without-a-net stunts that made him an unparalleled action star. But that raises a philosophical question: what’s a Chan movie without jaw-dropping Chan-style action sequences?

Of late, it’s been the “The Spy Next Door” and a handful of other studio films that have a whiff of mugging desperation, as if no one involved really believes audiences would want to see Chan in a role that doesn’t involve him dangling from the side of a speeding city bus. In between, there’ve been scattered Asian features that scarcely seen the light of a movie projector Stateside, if at all.

Chan’s achieved some recent multiplex redemption instructing Jaden Smith in the ways of kung fu and honorable living in “The Karate Kid,” but it’s his other new film, the China/Hong Kong coproduction “Little Big Soldier,” that showcases he’s absolutely capable of carrying a movie on the strength of his beaming, unpretentious charisma. (And, okay, occasional and more restrained feats of acrobatics.) Chan’s never going to be the most nuanced of actors, but he can be a immensely engaging leading man, capitalizing on that almost silent comedy-inspired charm he’s made his own.

06222010_littlebigsoldier2.jpgFor now, here in the U.S., you’ll only be able to find “Little Big Soldier” on the festival circuit. Specifically: at the New York Asian Film Festival, an annual celebration of East Asia’s finest genre films, blockbusters, indies, oddities and none of your more typical type of exported cinema, which programmer Grady Hendrix catchily sums up as “the occasional boring art film about lonely Chinese people eating mud and being exploited by the State.”

And “Little Big Soldier,” written by Chan and directed by Ding Sheng, certainly doesn’t aim to be an art film. It’s a poke in the ribs of ultraserious Chinese historical battle epics like “Red Cliff” and “The Warlords,” in which giant armies try to kill each other in meticulously choreographed, CGI-enhanced ways. Set in Warring States-era China, “Little Big Soldier” stars Chan as a Liang conscript who survives a giant battle (over by the start of the film) by playing dead.

Picking himself up and scavenging amongst the corpses, he comes across one other survivor — the general of the opposing Wei forces (Wang Lee-Hom), a prize prisoner for a low-level soldier. If he can manage to get his captive back home to Liang with him, Chan’s former farmer (who remains nameless) will be given a reward of land and, more importantly, exemption from service.

06222010_littlebigsoldier3.jpgWhile battles are being fought (sometimes literally) in the background, the little soldier and the big one embark on a road trip/buddy comedy with a kingdom hanging in the balance, dealing with hostile locals, angry fauna and your standard fey/sadistic conniving prince (Yoo Sung-jun). Wang’s general is disdainful and obsessed with an honorable death, while Chan’s soldier is happy to throw dignity away for survival: “As long as you’re alive, it’s marvelous,” he insists, even as they trudge through a land decimated by decades of war.

Do the two come to respect each other and reach an understanding? Sure. Does it get a little sentimental? You betcha. Is there a “Hero”-like salute toward the end to the necessity of the violent unification of the Chinese state? Yes, and it’s totally weird! But Chan’s truly enjoyable throughout, whether jabbing the general’s leg wound in order to win a fight, or carrying a gag about his skill at rock throwing to a giddy conclusion, or coming to the rescue on the back of a buffalo.

His character’s wistful, unassuming dream of owning his own farm, visualized by his joyously walking through a field of canola flowers, is slyly devastating, as is the film’s insistence that it’s a privilege to be “a little man.” That seems like condescension, given it’s those little men that end up strewn, forgotten, across the battlefields, but “Little Big Soldier” is less tolerant of the “big men,” who seem so eager to die, and whose conflicts and power struggles are sketched out as meaningless even to them. In that context, playing dead and running off to live another day seems like a pretty solid idea.

“Little Big Soldier” does not yet have US distribution. It screens July 1st and 3rd at the Walter Reade Theater in NY.

[Photos: “Little Big Soldier,” Bona Entertainment, 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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