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Ebertfest, Days Three and Four

Ebertfest, Days Three and Four (photo)

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The movie beat can be a lonely job. Even in a theater with hundreds of people, the film critic is alone in the dark. But personally, I find that the real joy of movies come from sharing them with others. Host Chaz Ebert asserted several times from the stage of the Virginia Theatre that Ebertfest is “all about the movies.” But after my first trip to the festival, I would say it’s an event as much about a community of movie lovers as the movies themselves.

As Tilda Swinton, star of Ebertfest selection “I Am Love” noted during her Q&A, festivals are about “the collective experience.” It’s even more true at Ebertfest than at most other film festivals I’ve attended. Bigger festivals sprawl over numerous venues with dozens of movies: two people could spend the same amount of time at Sundance or Toronto and have two entirely different experiences. At Ebertfest everyone from the filmmakers to the critics to the fans spend the entire week in one room watching the same movies. At night, you go to a bar or a restaurant or somebody’s house and talk about what you’ve watched. Maybe ironically, maybe intentionally, the ideas of loneliness and community were present in many of this year’s Ebertfest lineup. Several were about isolated characters on literal or metaphorical journeys of self-discovery, like “Natural Selection,” “Umberto D.,” “Only You,” and “Tiny Furniture.”

Swinton’s “I Am Love” is another perfect example. She plays Emma, the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family. Emma comes from Russia where she met her husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who brought her back with him to Milan. Many years later the couple has three children and an impossibly opulent mansion (for fans of pocket doors, this movie is borderline pornographic). But Emma’s life, though well-appointed, is cold and hollow. That changes when she meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a talented young chef who’s a friend of her son. His cuisine kickstarts her long dormant passions, and reconnects her with the glorious people and natural beauty of Italy.

Emma’s transformation is similar to the one undertaken by Edward Norton in “Leaves of Grass,” which preceded “I Am Love” on Saturday night at Eberfest. Norton actually plays two roles, twin brothers who lead vastly different lives; classics professor Bill has the Emma-ish part. Bill’s dedicated himself to a life of temperance of the kind advocated by the ancient philosophers he studies. But when his pot dealing brother Brady calls him back to their hometown in Oklahoma, Bill is forced to confront many of his ideas about the correct way to life your life.

I’d seen both “I Am Love” and “Leaves of Grass” before Ebertfest and I admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of either film. Of the two, “I Am Love” improved the most on second viewing. During the Q&A, Swinton joked that she believes cinema went downhill when people in movies started talking to one another. That emphasis on visual storytelling is clearly present in the film; now that I knew the essential outline of its plot, I found myself paying less attention to the subtitles. I still remain dubious about some of the twists in the final act — a character receives an implausible death as a convenient way of pushing Emma to complete her metamorphosis from rigid Italian housewife to free-spirited lover — but that feels like less of a weakness after you stop thinking about the words and simply give in to the film’s dreamlike atmosphere.

“Leaves of Grass” is a more curious film. On second viewing, it’s clear how frequently and how early writer/director Tim Blake Nelson foreshadows the shocking developments that suddenly flip the film from genial Southern comedy to dark crime story (you can read my original review here). The word that comes up a lot about Brady’s pot growing business is “hybridization,” because he’s created this amazingly potent hybrid pot varietal. Obviously “Leaves of Grass” is a hybridization as well. But Brady also makes mention that his pot is the seventh generation of that hybrid; it’s gone through this lengthy and rigorous trial and error process to arrive at this THC masterpiece. Maybe the problem with “Leaves of Grass” is that it doesn’t feel like it’s been tested quite so rigorously. There are prominent subplots about Judaism and anti-Semitism that don’t really connect in any way to the rest of the film, other than the fact that Nelson himself is Jewish and was speaking from a personal place about his life experiences. Everything he feels deeply about, from poetry to marijuana to crossbows, is in this movie, for better and for worse. If ever a film could be too personal for its own good, “Leaves of Grass” might be it.

Also personal in a far more profound way was my favorite film of Ebertfest, the documentary “45365” from brothers Bill and Turner Ross. A modern, small-town version of the city symphonies of the 1920s, it’s a survey of the people of the Ross’ home of Sidney, Ohio. The cops and criminals, the elderly and the young, they’re all presented in incredibly detail. There’s no narrative, just a series of small observational sketches about the various constituents of Sidney, all connected through brilliant visual and aural transitions like trains and music played on various car stereos from the local radio station. Though this is a film about a community, loneliness plays a role here as well, most movingly in the scenes about a high school girl who spends all of her time on the phone with a jealous boyfriend who never seems to be around when she needs him.

“45365” uses unlicensed music from Sidney’s local radio station, which means the film can only play at non-profits, museums, and festivals like Ebertfest. It is a shame the movie can’t reach a wider audience, since it is one of the most beautiful and relatable films about small town life that I’ve ever seen. At least we lucky few at Ebertfest were able to see it and share it with one another, discussing it after the screening and comparing our own stories of life in our own hometowns. I hope I get to go back to future iterations of Ebertfest, both for the great films and the great people. The films are there to restore out faith in cinema; the people are there to restore our faith in the love of cinema.

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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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