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Reality Bites: Tim Grierson on “Act of Valor” and the problem with authenticity

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For an industry that makes its money selling make-believe, Hollywood sure gets hung up on authenticity from time to time. Whether it’s the stars of “Saving Private Ryan” going through a modified boot camp to prepare for their roles or the producers of “Moneyball” casting real baseball scouts to appear alongside Brad Pitt’s GM character, studios will occasionally trumpet the lengths they go to make their movies as believable as possible. (Or, in the case of the found-footage genre, the lengths they’ll go to make a fictional horror film look like a documentary.)

The latest film to make a virtue of its realism is the action movie “Act of Valor,” which features actual Navy SEALs in the main roles. And while that decision has some benefits, I couldn’t help but keep thinking one thing while watching “Act of Valor”: Do people really care how authentic movies are?

As you may have heard, “Act of Valor” started out as a Navy recruitment video from commercial directors Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh before morphing into a feature film about a team of SEALs who have to stop a terrorist plot within the U.S. The directors, who got permission to use official military hardware like submarines and helicopters, decided they had to have SEALs and not actors as their protagonists. As Waugh explained to the Los Angeles Times, “My analogy to them was, ‘Take “Top Gun,” pull Maverick out, and put in the real Maverick.’” If all that’s not enough authenticity for you, they also used real ammo during the fight scenes, and there’s no CGI in the movie.

When you’re making an historical drama, it’s understandable that you’d want the events you’re depicting to be as close to what really happened as possible. (Although as last year’s Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech” demonstrates, you can fudge a fact or two and most people won’t mind.) But with action flicks, does it matter? Lots of producers think so: Many movies cooperate with the Department of Defense to gain access to military equipment or information. But with “Act of Valor,” the filmmakers wanted to go a step further by showing what the lives of the clandestine SEALs are really like. But even then there’s some secrecy: The two main characters, Chief Dave and Lt. Rorke, are played by SEALs named Dave and Rorke, although their full names are never revealed. (Their real-life wives and kids are also in the film.)

Incorporating actual soldiers and their families is a decent way to drive home these heroes’ reality. (We see them as they say goodbye to their loved ones, who know nothing about where they’re going, other than it’ll be someplace incredibly dangerous.) Nonetheless, “Act of Valor” can’t help but suffer because, well, these guys are Navy SEALs. They’re not actors — that’s not their job. Consequently, when it comes to making us care about them as people in the context of a piece of entertainment, it never quite works because they don’t have the dramatic faculties for it. As has been noted in a few reviews, the weird irony of “Act of Valor” is that because actors play the bad guys — casting real-life terrorists might have been a little difficult — they’re a lot more compelling than the good guys. It’s the downside to that need for authenticity: Fiction films are, ultimately, about pretend, which requires skills that go beyond being the actual person that you’re playing. (Plus, no matter how convincing the producers want things to be, some artificiality is inevitable — unless all the baddies we see shot in the head by SEAL snipers really were killed, of course.)

That said, there are advantages to the filmmakers’ quest to keep things real. While I hope it doesn’t inspire would-be Spielbergs in the audience to film their action scenes with live ammo, a couple firefights in “Act of Valor” have a spark to them simply because of the fact that you’re seeing what genuine gunfire looks like in a battle. And because of their training, the film’s Navy SEALs have a brutal, steely efficiency in the action sequences that’s less showy than what you normally see in war movies. You get the idea that these guys don’t mess around and that they’re total pros — even if no one’s told them that if they really want to be movie stars, they ought to come up with witty lines whenever they kill the bad guys.

But in the end, those moments of realism don’t add a lot to what makes people supposedly want to see movies in the first place. “Act of Valor” doesn’t have great characters, and its story is a pretty dull globetrotting race against time. So why did the film do so well commercially this past weekend, easily surpassing insiders’ box office predictions?

The answer may lie in the trailers I saw before “Act of Valor.” In trailer after trailer — whether it was for “John Carter” or “The Raven” or “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” — I was struck by how effects-heavy and, honestly, fake they all seemed. They could all be great films, but with our current obsession for CGI, we’re inundated with action movies in which everything is possible but not much looks real. “Act of Valor” is a forgettable film, but its success this weekend is a reminder that there’s always an audience craving something that feels a little truer. We all love the escapism of movies, but sometimes the illusion of authenticity can seem pretty appealing as well.

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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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