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Tim Grierson on “John Carter” and the Value of Failure


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Pixar has been the envy of Hollywood for a long time, and one of the reasons for that is Andrew Stanton. A head honcho and guiding light of the commercially and critically successful animation studio — along with John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and others — he co-wrote the first two “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life,” and “Monsters, Inc.” Even more impressive, he was the director of Oscar-winners “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo,” two of Pixar’s best films, in part because they’re among the company’s most emotionally sophisticated, brilliantly balancing sentiment and darkness to arrive at astoundingly poignant finales. All Pixar films are put together by a large creative team, but “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo” feel personal in a way that many of their other movies don’t. If anyone in the business has a Midas touch, it might be Stanton.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Pixar whiz kid would eventually turn his attention to live-action movies, making his debut with “John Carter.” Sure, I’d heard the bad buzz: lengthy reshoots, a title change, a reportedly ballooning budget. And, yes, I’d been turned off by the initial publicity stills and trailers, just like everyone else. But, still, it was Andrew Stanton, the Pixar golden child. It was gonna turn out fine, right?

Unfortunately, no. Though ambitious, “John Carter” is a big mess that resembles a lot of other garish, plodding big-budget blockbusters. Perhaps worse for Stanton and Disney, which released the film, it’s almost certainly going to be a box office disappointment. For the first time, one of Stanton’s films is going to fail — and probably fail spectacularly. Can there be some good in that?

It’s been clear for months that “John Carter” was having problems. When Tad Friend from The New Yorker visited the set a year ago, reshoots were happening and new scenes were being added to help the story. Stanton insisted it was all fine, though: “Reshoots should be mandatory,” he proclaimed. “Honestly, if we had the time and everyone was available, I’d do another reshoot after this one.” But this was a guy who had never made a live-action feature, and his very first one cost anywhere from $250 million to more than $300 million, depending on who you believe. And it didn’t help matters that Stanton seemed pretty arrogant about the whole thing:

“We came on this movie so intimidated: ‘Wow, we’re at the adult table!’ Three months in, I said to my producers, ‘Is it just me, or do we actually know how to do this better than live-action crews do?’ The crew were shocked that they couldn’t overwhelm me, but at Pixar I got used to having to think about everyone else’s problems months before all their pieces would come together, and I learned that I’m just better at communicating and distilling than other people.”

If you’re James Cameron and able to prove the disbelievers wrong — not once (“Titanic”), but twice (“Avatar”) — you can get away with saying stuff like that. But Stanton’s defensive posturing in the article only helped create an impression that he was a cocky kid way out of his depth. Consequently, rather than simply being a noble misfire, “John Carter” has been hit with a thunderstorm of schadenfreude, and the film seems destined to become one of those high-profile disasters that will be used as an example of what not to do in Hollywood.

You could say that Stanton’s own hubris brought this on himself. But the problems with “John Carter” also underline just how difficult it is to make great event movies. Part of why Pixar was so beloved was because it seemed like all they did was produce great films. But as Stanton pointed out in The New Yorker piece, those movies often took years of painstaking trial-and-error to get right. “We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best,” he recalled, “and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.”

Live-action blockbusters don’t have that luxury, of course: A lot of those have release dates before they have finished scripts. But the hope was that Stanton would take the lessons of Pixar and apply them. That didn’t happen.

While it’s impossible for me to know what specifically doomed the making of “John Carter,” it’s hard not to consider Stanton’s New Yorker profile as a cautionary tale about believing your own hype. All those Oscars, all that commercial success, all that acclaim — Stanton probably felt that as long as he put in the work, he could make anything terrific. After all, as Friend points out, celebrated Pixar movies like “Toy Story 2” and “Ratatouille” were in such bad shape at different stages that new directors had to come onboard to save them. But as Pixar learned recently with the critical drubbing “Cars 2” received, no formula is foolproof. And while another Pixar alum, Brad Bird (“Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles”), successfully transitioned to live-action with “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” that was no guarantee for Stanton doing the same thing.

Pete Doctor, who directed “Up” and “Monsters, Inc.,” once described the Pixar creative process like this: “Everyone holds hands and jumps out of the airplane with the promise that they’ll build a parachute before they hit the ground.” For Stanton, “John Carter” was the first time he wasn’t able to build the parachute in time. Everybody eventually fails — even the whiz kids. In a very high-profile way, the debacle of “John Carter” is a cruel reminder for him — and for us — that nobody in this business has the Midas touch. Next time Stanton gets ready to jump out of the airplane, hopefully he won’t be as cocky about it.

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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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