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The Worldbuilding is Not Enough

The Worldbuilding is Not Enough (photo)

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I have two New Year’s Resolutions for 2011.

1. Eat fewer donuts.
2. Stop giving films credit for worldbuilding.

I am sick of worldbuilding. For too many filmmakers it is no longer an aspect of their job, it is the only aspect of their job that matters. The growing emphasis on worldbuilding, the invention of elaborate, fantastical settings for films, speaks to the worst impulses in modern Hollywood and to some directors’ backwards approach to their work. They put the world before the people in it, and spend more time crafting background imagery than foreground characterization. They create the mythology before they create the story. That approach simply cannot work. And if audiences and critics keep giving passes to films that put all their creative eggs in the worldbuilding basket, we will never be rid of them.

The reasons for the rise of worldbuilding are the same as the reasons for the rise of 3D. Movies are under assault from television and ever improving home theater experiences. To put asses in theater seats, movies have to offer something that television (or movies watched at home) can’t, and that’s spectacle. I get all that. And I enjoy a good spectacle as much as the next guy; who doesn’t love watching Paris fold in on itself in “Inception,” or a dragon take flight in “How to Train Your Dragon?”

But the pleasures of spectacle are incomplete: without a character to follow through a spectacle, the entertainment value of that spectacle is cheap, hollow, and easily forgettable. The Death Star’s explosion at the end of the original “Star Wars” is a great image but what makes it memorable is Luke Skywalker’s perspective on it. Without “Use the Force, Luke,” that scene is nothing. If you don’t believe me, try to remember the Death Star explosion at the end of “Return of the Jedi.” Luke, Han, and Leia were elsewhere. So you don’t remember it as well even though the actual explosion was way cooler.

With television drama — and television characters — growing ever more sophisticated, I have begun to wonder whether many filmmakers have simply ceded character-driven storytelling to television. A 100 minute movie can’t really compete with a 100 hours of television for sheer depth of exploration of character. So why try?

You try because otherwise you get “Tron: Legacy,” a movie whose adventures inside a dazzling computer world are limited by the vision of its blank, stupid characters. That includes a hero who can’t bring himself to have a meaningful conversation with the father he’s been searching for for decades, and a villain who wants to take over the world by dropping a couple thousand guys with glowing frisbees into an arcade in Los Angeles. You try because otherwise you watch as the delightful “Iron Man” become the tiresome “Iron Man 2.” While the former focused on a complex character and his quest to create something amazing, the latter shoved him to the side to introduce plot threads from future movies like “Thor” and “The Avengers.” The creation of that Marvel movie world was kind of impressive to watch on a technical level, but totally boring to watch on an entertainment level, and it came at the cost of our connection to Tony Stark.

In 2010, I found myself marveling at the worlds created by movies like “Inception” and “Alice in Wonderland” while feeling totally disconnected from the characters inhabiting them. And while I applaud the ideas and the visuals in both movies, I can guarantee I won’t be returning to them very often in the future. Because characters are what bring me back to the movies I love. Sure the ghost effects are cool, but I’ve watched “Ghostbusters” a hundred times because I love Peter Venkman and Egon Spengler and Louis Tully, not Slimer or Marshmallow Man or Ghost With Claws #2.

And just compare those guys — Venkman, Spengler, Tully — and the idiosyncratic actors who played them with the guys in these recent worldbuilding exercises. Men like Sam Worthington and Garrett Hedlund are chosen, I guess, for their good looks, and for their nondescriptness. Just give an audience someone to imagine themselves as. After all, it’s not about character; it’s about projecting yourself into another world (3D and worldbuilding go together all too well in this regard). But you know what I think when I see one of these bland actors? I think nothing interesting is going to happen to them to make me want to imagine myself as them.

Worldbuilding can be, and still occasionally is, done well. Look at “Toy Story 3” or the recent “Star Trek” remake. But we love those movies as much for the characters as the worlds. As technically impressive as it is, the prison break finale of “Toy Story 3” is worthless if we don’t care so much about Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toys. It’s the same reason that moment when all the toys take each other’s hands inside that trash incinerator is so powerful. Similarly, look how much energy and screentime director J.J. Abrams invested in the relationship between Kirk and Spock in his “Star Trek.” It’s as much or more than he gave to the fights between the Enterprise and the Romulans. Abrams and the Pixar guys know the audience cares about the action only when they care about the characters involved in the action.

So I’m starting 2011 fresh. No more validating the dumb pretty ones. Because watching one of these movies is the cinematic equivalent of eating one of my donuts: the immediate pleasure of a big fat sugar rush followed by an overwhelming sense of self-loathing. A couple of cheap thrills aren’t enough. It’s time to stop making the movie donuts.

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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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