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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “The Arbor”

Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “The Arbor” (photo)

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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11 is a column with one simple goal: to help you decide what films you need to see before making your end of the year top ten list. Each installment features my thoughts on a critically acclaimed 2011 movie, a sampling of other critics’ reactions, the odds of the film making my own list, and the reasons why it might make yours.

This time we’re covering “The Arbor,” an unusual blend of documentary and fiction techniques. But is it more than the sum of its unique formal parts? Let’s find out.

Movie: “The Arbor”
Director: Clio Barnard
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Plot Synopsis: A documentary about the life of English playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died at the young age of 29, and the children she left behind.
What the Critics Said: “Ingenious,” Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
“Tough, worthy stuff,” Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
“Make[s] us wonder if the art was worth the suffering,” Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
Were They Right? Yes, there is art here. And suffering, too. “The Arbor” may not be the best movie of 2011, but it might the best movie you won’t want to see again anytime soon. It’s in the great tradition of movies like Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” or Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” — great films that are almost too brutal for their own good, and certainly too brutal to sit through multiple times.

Actually, “Crumb” is a good point of comparison: both films are portraits of artists and their deeply dysfunctional families, along with the coping mechanisms developed by siblings to deal with the abuse or neglect of their booze and drug addicted parents. In this case, the artist is Andrea Dunbar, a kid from the mean streets of Northern England. Her first highly autobiographical play, “The Arbor,” was written when Dunbar was just fifteen years old; it went on to play the Royal Court Theatre in London. Her second play, “Rita Sue and Bob Too,” was turned into a film by Alan Clarke. But success didn’t solve Dunbar’s personal problems; she descended into alcoholism and died of a brain hemorrhage before she reached the age of 30, leaving behind three children fathered by three different men. One of those kids, Lorraine, would grow into an equally troubled woman, with her own addiction and parenting problems. One life that sad would make any film troubling. “The Arbor” has two of them.

What separates “The Arbor” from other effed up family docs like “Crumb” is its use of an unorthodox technique called “verbatim theater:” actors play the subjects of the documentary, lip-synching to audio recordings the real subjects gave during interviews with director Clio Barnard. So instead of seeing Lorraine talk about her heroin abuse, we see an actress (Manjinder Virk) mouthing Lorraine’s words precisely, down to the last breath, pause, and stutter. It sounds potentially distracting because you expect you’ll be focusing all your attention on the accuracy of the lip-synching. But in action the effect is surprisingly immersive: verbatim theater opens up the visual side of the documentary format and allows for a more poetic interpretation of the events. Instead of a series of bland sitdown interviews, the actors, shot on location in Dunbar’s hometown of Bradford, are free to address the camera directly or to look away when they’re embarrassed or contemplative. It makes you feel more like a participant than an observer, and it draws you even deeper into the drama.

Barnard also splices in old documentary footage of the real Dunbar and her family and stages scenes from Dunbar’s “The Arbor” in the open air square in the middle of Bradford, where the town’s current residents and some of the lip-synching actors gather to watch in the background. Dunbar used the form of a fictional play to tell true stories of her life and her community. Barnard uses verbatim theater to do much the same thing on film: the people we’re seeing are actors, the setups and angles are carefully composed, but the stories are 100% real. I would not be surprised if Werner Herzog, who admits to occasionally massaging the facts in his own documentaries in order to achieve a higher “ecstatic truth,” would envy the truths “The Arbor” possesses.

Those stories of abuse — drug, sexual, and child — are so gut-wrenching they can be hard to endure, but there is unexpected beauty in “The Arbor” too, particularly in the sight of the actors as they wander the streets and houses of modern Bradford like spirits haunting the current residents. Though the actors don’t technically speak a word, their performances are outstanding, with Virk especially devastating as the traumatized, world-weary Lorraine. Can a performance in a “documentary” win an Oscar? Probably not, but in this case, maybe it should.

Was the art worth the suffering in the case of Andrea Dunbar? I don’t know. But in the case of “The Arbor,” the suffering is worth it to appreciate the art.

Worthy of an Oscar Nomination For: Best Documentary, Best Supporting Actress (Manjinder Virk)
Chances of Making My Top Ten: Almost as good as the chances of me running into the other room and hugging my wife and telling her I love her after surviving the emotional ringer that is this movie.
It Might Make Your Top Ten List If: you’re interested in documentaries as an art form; you’re not put off by grim tales of bad junkie behavior; you like British accents that are so thick they come with their own subtitles.

Previously in Countdown to Top Ten 2K11
“Cold Weather,” directed by Aaron Katz
“Meek’s Cutoff,” directed by Kelly Reichardt
“Margin Call,” directed by J.C. Chandor
“Bill Cunningham New York,” directed by Richard Press
“Hanna,” directed by Joe Wright

Have a movie you wanted covered in a future installment of Countdown to Top Ten 2K11? Let me know on Twitter.

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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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