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DID YOU READ

“We Bought a Zoo,” reviewed

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What happened to Cameron Crowe? This is the guy that made two of the greatest movies of my lifetime — “Almost Famous” and “Say Anything…” — and wrote maybe the greatest high school movie of anyone’s lifetime, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Now he returns to fiction filmmaking six years after the underwhelming “Elizabethtown” with another disappointment. “We Bought a Zoo” features all of the worst parts of Crowe’s work — overwritten dialogue, mopey characters, empty sentimentality — and very few of the best.

Crowe seems to have lost his way in his work, a trait he shares with the protagonist of “We Bought a Zoo,” Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon). They’re both struggling storytellers, too: Benjamin works as a reporter, but ever since the recent death of his wife he hasn’t felt the same passion for of journalism. All he wants to do now is spend time with his kids, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and prepubescent Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Feeling bad about keeping a job from someone who deserves it more, he quits to follow his bliss. So a newly single father with two kids and no other prospects in the midst of a horrific economic recession quits the last secure newspaper job in America because of personal guilt? Hooooookay. I saw this movie at a press screening; during this scene, I swear you could hear several dozen film critics simultaneously angling for Benjamin’s job.

Looking for a fresh start, Benjamin goes househunting. Unfortunately, the only place he likes also happens to be part of Rosemoor Animal Park, a working but dilapidated zoo. Possibly because he believes it will bring his broken family closer, and possibly because the name of this movie is “We Bought a Zoo,” Benjamin impulsively takes over the Rosemoor. Now he needs to get the place cleaned up, repaired, and up to code before the start of the summer season with the help of Rosemoor’s skeletal staff, which includes zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), her niece Lily (Elle Fanning), and Robin (“Almost Famous”‘ Patrick Fugit), whose only apparent responsibilities consist of standing around with his hands on his hips and a monkey on a shoulder. (Seriously. It’s all he does.)

Rosemoor is supposed to be a dump, but Crowe inexplicably chose to film every single scene at the zoo at magic hour, bathing the whole compound in rays of sparkling sunshine. Everyone keeps asking Benjamin why he bought the place, but it’s pretty obvious to me: Rosemoor is absolutely gorgeous. Okay, so it’s nine miles to nearest Target, as the Mees frequently joke. But it’s also located in an edenic valley surrounded by lush, unspoiled mountains. Everywhere you look, you see perfection. And forget rain; it’s never even cloudy at Rosemoor, at least not until the third act needs some drama to spice things up.

The overly warm cinematography might be related to something Benjamin’s brother Duncan’s (Thomas Haden Church) tells him early in the movie. “You need to let a little sunlight in,” he warns his depressed sibling. Thanks to Crowe’s super-saturated photography, there’s plenty of light to be found; Benjamin just needs to notice it’s there. He and his staff face a couple of minor crises, including a grouchy wildlife inspector played by the inappropriately hammy John Michael Higgins, but Benjamin’s only real problem is one of perception. If he could just change his perspective, and maybe listen to some classic Tom Petty tunes while he did it, things would be okay.

Too bad Crowe’s optimistic message isn’t a particularly dramatic one. And too bad the film’s comedy, most of it involving wacky animals or cute little Rosie and her wise-beyond-her-years witticisms, isn’t particularly funny either. The only way to describe most of the roles in this film is thankless. Higgins has the thankless role of the wacky comic relief villain. Fanning has the thankless role of the manic pixie dream girl who inspires Dylan (ironic, since Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” inspired A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin to invent the term manic pixie dream girl in the first place). Johansson has the thankless role of the person who explains to Benjamin and the audience how to run a zoo. Even Damon, an actor at his best in more acidic material, feels miscast as a guy who’s just a couple of few church visits shy from sainthood. It says a lot about “We Bought a Zoo” that its best moment is one in which Damon pours out his heart to a dying tiger.

Thought most of “We Bought a Zoo” is pretty maudlin, Crowe and Damon manage to wring a few genuine emotions out of the film’s big “Field of Dreams”ish climax. Some of Damon’s big speeches are well-written and well-delivered, and he and Johansson have just enough chemistry together to suggest they’d be great together in a better movie. But it’s still way too little, way too late. We always talk about Cameron Crowe movies in terms of musical moments, of boom boxes hoisted to the sounds of Peter Gabriel and young women deflowered to the sounds of Jackson Browne. So let’s talk about “We Bought a Zoo” in musical terms. If this movie was a pop song, it would be the most clichéd, sentimental love ballad you’d ever heard in your life. You might catch yourself humming along to the soaring sing-along outro, but you wouldn’t feel good about it. A few pretty harmonies don’t make up for a lot of sour notes. But hey, you know how these rock and roll stories always go: the early highs, the crashing lows, then the sudden third act comeback. I’m still looking forward to Crowe’s.

“We Bought a Zoo” opens this Friday. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and 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…

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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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