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DID YOU READ

“Louder Than a Bomb,” Reviewed

“Louder Than a Bomb,” Reviewed (photo)

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I own hundreds of books and not a single one of or about poetry. I have no favorite poets or poems. I can’t and don’t write poetry. Basically, there are few things I enjoy less in this world than poetry, something that will probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the assortment of poop jokes, “Seinfeld” references, and comic book-isms that I call writing. I am such a Philistine, I may as well be from Philistia. I say this not to boast (I’m frankly a little ashamed), but so you understand my approach to the documentary “Louder Than a Bomb,” a film about high school poets. And that approach was this: an open mind and complete and total disinterest. So if this movie can win me over, it can win anyone over.

This movie won me over.

And, yes, much of these kids’ poetry is good; some of it very good, some of it transcendently good. But even before I connected with their words, I connected to their struggle, which is a universal one for kids of a certain affliction, namely awkwardness, sensitivity, empathy, a love of art, and all the assorted other characteristics that make certain kids outsiders. Some of the teenagers in the film come from privilege, others from poverty. But they all share the same passion to find their voice and their place in the world. I could relate to that. I never wrote poetry in high school — other than that really awkward one about Spider-Man written from the perspective of his identical clone — but I could relate to that.

The film’s structure will look familiar to anyone who’s seen “Spellbound,” “Wordplay,” or any of the other recent documentaries about the fascinating and sometimes eccentric personalities that coalesce around unusual intellectual competitions. In this case that competition is Louder Than a Bomb, the world’s largest high school poetry slam contest. Directors Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs focus on four students from four different high schools battling for top prize, exploring their lives and motivations and then follow their journey through said competition. I don’t know how they found this topic or selected their subjects, but they did a phenomenal job. These kids are brilliant, charming wordsmiths, passionate performers and wise beyond their years.

My favorite was Nate Marshall, who truly embodies LTAB’s philosophy that “the point is not the points; the point is the poetry.” Marshall, from “as South as you can possibly be” in South Chicago, in a neighborhood where he can stand in one place and point out the places where he’s been jumped, has spent six years competing in poetry slams, not for the adulation or thrill of victory, but for the sheer love of the art form. Now in his senior year of high school, Marshall worries less about his chance to finally win Louder Than a Bomb than instilling his passion for and knowledge of slam in the next generation of poets at his school, Whitney Young Magnet High. In the way that he generously gives to others, cares for his family, acts as surrogate father or big brother or uncle for whoever needs him, and expresses himself with beauty and clarity, Marshall is an mensch. I’ve got maybe a dozen years on this kid and sat watching him in this film, jaw dropped, eyes moist, thinking to myself, “I want to be Nate Marshall when I grow up.”

I would bet that most people who see this film will feel a similar way. My only critique of Siskel and Jacobs’ work would be their time management. Any slam poet knows pacing is key, and Siskel and Jacobs’ isn’t always ideal. They follow four high schools, but they lose a couple of them for long stretches of the film. Their clear favorites are Lamar Jordan and the rest of the team from Steinmetz High, who channel their experiences living in a rough neighborhood into poems of startling ferocity. I suppose the Steinmetz team is the most cinematic — they suffer from the worst bouts of writers’ block and have the most intense battles with their coach — but they also seem to unbalance what begins as an ensemble film. The young men and women of Steinmetz are fantastic, but I would have liked to have seen more of Nate Marshall, Nova Venerable from Oak Park and River High (who uses poetry to release all of her rage about her alcoholic father and to share all of her love about her diabetic, autistic brother), and Adam Gottlieb from Northside Prep (an ebullient personality with another wise-beyond-his-years perspective on life).

A full half of this 100 minute movie takes place during the various rounds of Louder Than a Bomb. Siskel and Jacobs’ approach isn’t overtly cinematic — there aren’t tons of angles or quick cuts or elaborate camera movements — but the poets and poems themselves are. As I listened to these teenagers express themselves, I realized how rarely you get to hear a poet read their own work outside the world of poetry slams. Even for someone as allergic to poetry as I am, it felt like a privilege to get to witness that, and to see young people take the disadvantages they’ve been handed by life and flip them into advantages.

That’s what Nate and the rest of his peers do. And they do it not to win, but to inspire and be inspired. Some of the characters are more obsessed with winning than others, but by the end they all realize the friendships they’ve made and art they’ve witnessed transcends where they placed in the competition. Remember, at Louder Than a Bomb the point is not the points, the point is the poems. In “Louder Than a Bomb,” poems aren’t the point either. The point is the poets.

“Louder Than a Bomb” opens Wednesday in New York City.

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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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