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Hey, someone’s gotta come to the defense of M. Night Shyamalan.

Hey, someone’s gotta come to the defense of M. Night Shyamalan. (photo)

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Before we all had Lindsay Lohan to beat up on, there was M. Night Shyamalan, Hollywood’s very own prodigal son. Master of twist endings and cursed with less modesty about his directing gifts than even Quentin Tarantino, Shyamalan’s fall from grace was swift and almost karmically vengeful. At least — if you buy the overall narrative that after “The Sixth Sense,” every movie he made was a case of increasingly diminishing returns and financial failure, culminating in the rock-bottom nadir of “The Happening.”

The truth, as always, is more interesting and complicated.

Shyamalan’s complacency about himself has been a factor from the start. Talking up “Unbreakable” to Time in 2000, he noted his long-term career goals as being “just say my name, and it represents a body of work.” On the cusp of the disastrous release of “Lady in the Water,” he’d upped his shit-talking game: “If you’re not betting on me, then nobody should get money. I’ve made profit a mathematical certainty. I’m the safest bet you got.”

He was, at that point, correct — but no one likes to hear that kind of thing even if it’s true, and it certainly didn’t help when “Lady” came more-or-less packaged with “The Man Who Heard Voices,” an inadvertently hubristic account of the making of the film, with Shyamalan coming across as the fragile visionary willing to pitch a fit if an executive delayed reading his script to take her son to a birthday party.

This was on top of the three hour-long (with commercials) Sci-Fi mockumentary for “The Village” — which was admittedly hilarious, but only to the 1% of the audience that realized that Nathaniel Kahn was basically parodying the indulgences of his last film, “My Architect.” To everyone else, it just looked like one stupid joke about how Shyamalan really does see dead people.

06282010_unbreakable.jpgTarantino does this kind of thing all the time too — but he’s got the movies to back it up, so most people are able to separate his work from his persona. And it’s not like Shyamalan intentionally set out to be dubbed “the next Spielberg” — it’s a thing that happened, and then fell apart with a speed gratifying to anyone who’d found his work insufferable.

There was reason for that: with “The Sixth Sense” and (especially) “Unbreakable,” Shyamalan made some of the slowest genre movies on record. “Unbreakable” creeps like a Taiwanese art film. That’s barely an exaggeration — if you’re into the style, it’s hypnotic, but otherwise you’d be hard-pressed to wonder why the subject matter deserved quite that much gravity.

Shyamalan then entered what might loosely be deemed his Lars von Trier phase, in which he made didactic allegories (given that the blank-faced Bryce Dallas Howard starred in “The Village” right before replacing Nicole Kidman in “Manderlay,” the link is less tenuous than it seems). “Signs” is a cool, effective thriller that morphs into a stupid religious tract at the last second, while “The Village” is like the recently released “Dogtooth” without the intellectual bona-fides.

Both are, despite their flaws, interesting — “The Village” certainly has one of the ballsier premises you’ll find in a recent summer film, even if it’s not as provocative as it’d like to believe and features the unappetizing sight of Adrien Brody playing developmentally disabled — but they ultimately don’t work because Shyamalan subsumes what he’s good at (narrative, pacing, framing) for a Higher Concept.

06282010_lady.jpgHaving (presumably) learned from these errors, Shyamalan graced the world with the incredibly goofy “Lady in the Water.” This is a movie in which Paul Giamatti has to get a milk mustache and curl up in the fetal position on a couch so that an old Korean woman can tell him a mythological fable that makes no sense whatsoever.

For consumers of the consciously absurd (and no movie this messed-up yet carefully filmed could be an accident), it’s a treasure trove. The public and critics hated it, although most reviews focused on the hubris of Shyamalan casting himself as a prophetic story-teller and/or the fact that Bob Balaban’s film critic characters gets gleefully slaughtered (even though he gets all the best lines).

That’s a decade’s worth of work that, for all its flaws, is strenuously idiosyncratic, something not to be despised in this summer of woe. (And even if “The Happening” is horrible, it actually turned a profit worldwide — Shyamalan’s only lost money once during his career in the majors.) Expensive perversities are rare (though the “Toy Story 3” reviews suggest we’ve got at least two this summer, along with “Inception”).

Whatever his flaws, Shyamalan may be complacent, but he’s not lazy. Even if “The Last Airbender”‘s just a bad sell-out (early word is, to put it mildly, devastating), he’s earned this one. If all his formal skills haven’t completely atrophied, he still has something to offer, even it’s mostly just having one of the strangest blockbuster minds around.

[Photos: “The Last Airbender,” Paramount, 2010; “Unbreakable,” Buena Vista, 2000; “Lady In The Water,” Warner Bros., 2006]

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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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