Which Flight?

October 5, 2009

And now for the next installment of “Four People Slowly Review a Show They Did a While Ago”

Which Flight by Benjamin Glickstein

The Anagram: Which Flies? = Lick my taint! – Ben G. Nigh BJ

My Thoughts: There is very little to say about this: It’s a simple joke well-executed. It could have been performed with a little more energy and maybe (maybe) one exchange could have been cut in the script but overall this is a totally solid simple gag.

Fun Fact: This totally bombed when we performed it for the Macalester International Organization’s talent show.

Other Fun Fact: So did everything else we did, aside from the part where we wore a lot of sport coats at once.

Deduction: Foreign people hate us, but love sport coats.

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I Continue with Bad Comedy Reviews

October 4, 2009

Consent Doesn’t Come in the Form of Silence: or A Deeply Veiled Lesson in Statistics

The Anagram: Nisse: Tots see evil stoic non-co-ed children’s date-rape folly! Cost – one stone! Feminism?

The Context: At the time of its founding, and for at least the first six years of its existence, Bad Comedy was as much about frightening confusing and offending people as it was making them laugh.  As such, we tended to go for the weird, shocking and innovative, sometimes even at the expense of things that were funnier but more straightforward. We were all broadly liberal arts anti-hegemony fight-for-the-rights of the downtrodden types, so trying to tackle really offensive topics such as rape, terrorism, genocide etc. in non-offensive ways (or at least ways we didn’t think were really offensive) was interesting to us. This sketch is firmly within the category of “how can we make this subject funny in an acceptable way.”

My first draft of this was heavily influenced by my annoyance with Nisse’s review. I’ve decided not to go the internet-flame-war route with this post because 1. that route is usually pretty pointless 2. I’ve done it recently 3. I’m now less annoyed by the initial post. 4. who am I to complain about someone being annoyingly self-aggrandizing or obsessively/nonsensically theoretical and 4. as I said in my initial draft:

“To say that Nisse is annoying, or self-obsessed is like pointing out that balloons don’t weigh very much or that pencil sharpeners sharpen pencils. Being annoying and self-obsessed is Nisse’s intended function. He’s spent years finely crafting himself into the human equivalent of a “kick me” sign and when one gets irritated by things he says does or writes one is just feeding into the narcissistic masochism that drives him. Which is all to say: congratualtions Nisse, you’ve bested me again. That was really annoying.”

Anyways, my point is that I may have been harder on this sketch than was justified due to that initial annoyance.

My Thoughts: The first thing to adress with a sketch dealing with a topic this fundamentally touchy is “does it get away with it?” and I’d say for the most part, it does. Lara, here playing her stock character of “slightly neurotic woman to whom horrible things happen” is clearly the point of audience identification. She plays the role beautifully, and the audience can recognize that she is more-or-less expressing the progressive point of view on sexual violence, so we can understand that the author’s attitudes are in the right place and sympathize with her character. If there is an object of ridicule in this sketch, it is the Creepy Children, here lead by Emma, playing her stock role of “somewhat unsettling automoton” who continually invalidate Lara’s experience. Of course, this does fall into the vein of humor that goes “ha ha, look at these people oppressing these other people, just like they do in real life” which is arguably also really offensive. I feel like this sketch generally diffuses this offense through the surreality of the direction and performances. It’s hard to see these characters as anything but distant abstractions and thus hard to get very emotionally worked up about anything that happens.

The pleasure of this sketch comes from the fantastic performances all around and from watching the Creepy Children slowly unfold their cold, insensitive logic. It doesn’t have all that many big laughs, (especially in comparison to its running time) but it is consistently enjoyable and interesting. I am also always hugely appreciative of humor that feels genuinely new to me, and the fact that this feels fundamentally unlike most sketch comedy I’ve ever seen makes me like it quite a bit despite my issues with other parts of it.

My three biggest issues with the sketch are the ending, the pacing and the line “when I took the fatal actions that caused my rape”. As I said one of the most appealing things about the sketch is its novelty, but then comes the ending with Ye Olde Drawn Out Pause and Ye Olde Non-Sequitor Prop Joke both of which were done-to-death tropes in Bad Comedy, particularly by this writer. The ending feels out-of-place. The world of the sketch is very well defined and this ending doesn’t work for me thematically, tonal or in terms of pacing. In this regard, the screaming audience member (here played by Mandy, in her stock role of “Screaming Drunk Girl”) is a godsend, because she changes the tone of the sketch and distracts from the disconnect caused by the ending and makes the proceedings a lot less blase.

But perhaps I’m burying the lede: this one-joke sketch is eight fucking minutes long. I see almost no reason it should be longer than five minutes given that really it only has one joke – Creepy Children use logic and statistics in an emotionally innapropriate way – even if that joke is somewhat complicated. It could be four minutes and not really lose much. I kind of like its sluggish pace, and its refusal to go the standard offensive joke route and just barrel through before anyone can think about it, but, Christ, eight minutes? This is punishingly long and slow in a way that rolls past “interesting choice” into “sort of boring”.

And finally, the sketch is walking a delicate tightrope act throughout, and it really falters with one line “when I took the fateful actions that caused my rape”. That comes perilously close to victim-blaming, which a sketch like this can’t afford to do. It recovers with the lines “you should be talking to our boyfriends” and “like forest fires?” which both undercut the Sex Ed Teacher, making her victim-blaming position also ridiculous. If those lines weren’t there, that one misstep could have killed the sketch.


In Which I Review Myself, Sort of

September 22, 2009

Nisse, whose blog is inextricably linked with mine, has kicked off a weeklong-plus orgy of self-obsession in which I now participate.

The first sketch from my old comedy troupe we will be looking at is…

…Lara Blackwood Avery and C N Rhett duPont’s Castrato in the City!

The Anagram: R.D. prattled on – or – Ha! Adversity can’t beat wacky Catholic no-nuts!

The Context: We didn’t really explain the historical phenomenon of the castrato within the sketch so I will endeavor to here. The Catholic church (here symbolized by me in more-or-less the same outfit I wore as Dancing Zombie Lincoln in the same sketch show) used to routinely castrate young boys in order that their voices not change durng puberty and that they grow into men with unique and beautiful choral singing voices (here symbolized by earsplitting tuneless shreiking). After castration these boys/men were called castrati (singular: castrato). Given Lara’s sketch-comedy obession with the Catholic church and her equally abiding comedic obession with fruedian psychology, it was only a matter of time before she decided to write a sketch about these historical oddities created by both Catholic power structures and the removal of testicles by father figures. (Note: Wikipedia makes no mention of the Catholic church in their entry on castrati, although the church has been central to my understanding of them. Either I was misinformed or there is a Papist conspiracy afoot on wikipedia. I choose to believe the latter).

Lara approached our troupe with the idea of a sketch about an out-of-work castrato and I volunteered to work with her on it. We opted for a sitcom format about a plucky castrato and his search for acceptance in the big city.

Additional context: If the audience seems to be laughing too much during the strained interaction between the title castrato and his platonic roommate, it is because many audience members are friends with the actors and perceive their real-life relationship to be equally as awkward as their onstage one.

My Thoughts: I remember this sketch as a clumsy attempt in a show where my contributions as a whole weren’t all that spectacular (aside from my performance as Dancing Zombie Lincoln, which was spectacular). I was therefore surprised to realize that there was a lot I really liked in this sketch. In chronological order –

– The “Alf” theme song (plays during the introduction “montage”). Seriously, none of us can really take credit for this but the “Alf” theme song is both totally over the top and utterly generic. “Alf” as a show is a little too kitschy for me, but the theme song hits a total sweet spot.
– Matt’s impression of a heterosexual on a date.
– The ultra-sitcommy confrontation with the landlord.
– The completely inhuman stylings of the bar creep.
– The goofy, unrealistic fight choreography. (I saw that as a feature rather than a bug, although Nisse complained about it in his post. On a related note, I was shocked to see him use “awkward” as a negative twice in one entry)
– The fact that I have no memory of what I did and didn’t contribute to the script. I suspect the best lines were Lara’s but can’t prove it to myself.

I have mixed feelings about how much the sketch sidesteps storytelling fundamentals. When is it set? The 1970s? Now? The 1700s? I have no idea and never did. Nor did we, as Nisse points out, bother to introduce many of the characters (The early introductions should have at least featured the landlord and the barkeep). The characters motivations barely make sense and the plot is completely contrived. Much of this is semi-deliberate as sitcoms frequently use formula to cover the inconsistencies in character behavior and plot holes. It could also be argued that the nonspecificity of setting is a comment on the fact that most sitcom’s settings are either ultra-generic (“Family Matters”, “Full House” etc.) or set in a real city that bears absolutely no resemblance to the world of the show (the gigantic apartments and total-lack-of-minorities in the New York seen in “Friends”). But the truth is, we were lazy.


I am Part of the Machine!

August 17, 2009

About a year and a half ago I wrote a review of a book called Spaceman Blues for a class called Literary Publishing. Because of the professor’s connections (and my incredible reviewing prowess), my review was published in Rain Taxi Review of Books. I never actually got a copy of the periodical in question and this led me to recently google “rain taxi spaceman blues” last night in an attempt to prove to myself that I hadn’t deluded myself. The result was surprising.

I had expected my search to yield a handful of results, the first of which would be Rain Taxi‘s website and the rest of which would be unrelated situations where those words appeared together by some happenstance, such as the track listing for a Jamiroquai album or self-published erotica about a steamy encounter in a blue space-taxi in the rain or something. Instead I found my words quoted as part of the “praise for Spaceman Blues” press copy on various websites and a somewhat awkward interview exchange with the author. My words are being used as part of the promotional machine behind this book! I may well be quoted somewhere on the dust jacket of his second novel! Eat it Nisse! Remember when you said that it was pretentious to assume that anyone would care about my opinions on pop culture? Well Brian Francis Slattery’s press agent cares! Yeah!


My Thoughts on a Movie I Saw Whilst Utterly Intoxicated

August 11, 2009

I return from my nearly month long hiatus to comment on the not-screened-for-critics “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”. I was going to put this blog down after the slowing of posts and the apparent waning interest on the part of it’s readers, but goddamn it, I will not allow a movie starring Joseph Gorden Levitt to go uncommented upon! Especially given that my last entry, nearly a month ago, consisted of an advance review of a very different movie in which he was featured in a much larger role.

Perhaps the most germane entry point to discussion of my experience of The Hasbro Toy Company’s second multimillion dollar feature-length toy commercial in almost as many months is the rules to the drinking game we (my most action-movie loving friend in the Cities and I) came up with. Listed in descending order of how frequently they occurred:

1. Explosions (Good lord, these were well into the triple-digits. Without the explosions I probably would have still been capable of rational thought by the third act)

2. Inadvertant “Team America” references (Dozens, what with the stereotypical establishing shots, the amount of foreign real estate destroyed, the talking-about-feeling-at-inappropriate-moments, the Dennis Quaid, the hidden bases, etc. – Preparody is an odd thing.)

3. Joseph Gordon Levitt appears in a scene (more frequently than I expected but still not very frequently – about which more later)

4 (rough tie). Campy references to G.I. Joe PSA’s, marketing taglines or internet memes, (a handful, but this was no “Snakes on a Plane”) Egregious ethnic stereotyping (this peaked early, with Scottish future-Destro making a caber-toss reference)

5. “What just happened? Seriously? Whatever, let’s drink.”

In short, G.I. Joe is a movie that meets most expectations and far exceeds the ones involving the sheer number of explosions. While most films dole out the action setpieces sparingly, director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) seems to have reasoned that it’s not worth his while to make the special effects believable when nothing else will be, so he might as well make a movie with an hour or so or bargain-basement special effects rather than twenty or so minutes of good ones. If there is a five minute segment of this movie that didn’t include wildly implausible violence I certainly didn’t notice it.

An while the gloriously silly explosionfest was certainly appealing to my addled senses, the presence of a vaguely sensible plot (by toy commercial standards) and half-competent actors (according to the standards set by Ms. Fox, Mr. LeBeouf, and their ilk) was certainly a plus, as was the reasonable attempt at fidelity to the nostalgic source material. Somehow, in between the time a cobra superplane takes out an entire battallion of US Troops, the time our heroes wantonly charge through downtown Paris in their off-brand Iron Man supersuits- destroying a staggering amount of Parisian pavement and cars in their attempt to save the Effiel Tower and the time a whole lot of exploding fireballs happen underwater even though that doesn’t make any sense, six major characters are given significant (if cliched) emotional subplots that allow us to at least vaguely invest in them. Unlike a certain other feature-length toy commercial, the script for “G.I. Joe” competantly moves us from fight scene to fight scene with little wasted time and presents us with a plot lacking in holes big enough to be detected by a reviewer with ten or so shots of whiskey in him. Villian Christopher Eccelson and his terrible fakey Scottish accent are a pleasure to watch, as is the ever lovely Gordon Levitt in his brief scenes as a Darth Vader/Dr. Doom ripoff. Even sentient woodblocks Channing Tatum and Seinna Miller manage not to screw up their characters, an especially surprising trick in Miller’s case given that her character is perhaps the best defined character in the entire G.I. Joe cartoon/comic book world.

BaronessHer ability to carry off the Baroness’ brainy ruthless dominatrix powerful woman fetish-object persona certainly qualifies her as a good movie star if not necessarily actress.  Admittedly, both she and Tatum are saddled with overwrought backstories which needlessly complicate a pleasurably stupid plot. Fans of the ever-present cinematic male gaze (which for this viewing included me given that I was too drunk to feel my usual detachment and mild disgust at such things) will also enjoy the various ways in which the camera lingers on Miller’s assorted body parts in the time honored manner dating back to Marylin Monroe or Jayne Mansfield.

Although the movie is definitely campy, it is decidedly low on yay America jingoism or imperialist justifications. It’s moral message doesn’t extend far beyond “It’s bad to set off warheads in highly populated areas. It is also bad to convert living breathing human beings into mindless soldierdrone meatbeings, even if they can do cool stuff like continue fighting even after they are set on fire.”

My level of intoxication only required that the movie appeal to my primative lizard-brain and my deeply imbedded nostalgia for TV shows I watched before I was literate. The movie succeeded on these terms and I’m fairly certain that’s as deep as its ambitions went. Its lack of glaring deficiencies may even make it appealing to the sober.


(500) Days of Summer

July 15, 2009

“(500) Days of Summer” is in theaters this weekend but I got to see a free advance screening the other day”. Before I launch in to my review of this indie romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, I should be open about my biases:

1. As I mentioned elsewhere in this blog (incompetently and in a overly self-aggrandizing way) I have a total genre aversion to romantic comedies. The only romantic comedy which is indisputably a romantic comedy that I really enjoyed was “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” – which I also saw for free in an advance screening then recommended to a lot of my friends, none of whom saw it. (For what it’s worth, my top ten romantic comedies would include “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “High Fidelity”, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, “Casablanca”, “A Bout de Souffle”, “Gold Diggers”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers movie who’s name escapes me, if any of those count)

2. I’m not too big a fan of overly quirky indie movies, or movies about Manic Pixie Dream Girls who lure tortured soulful men out of their shell and help them learn to embrace life. For this reason, I am suspicious of Zooey Deschanel even though I think she’s a decent actress.

3. I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Every movie I’d seen him play a lead role in before this one (“Brick”, “Mysterious Skin”, “The Lookout”) was mindblowingly good and featured an absolutely riveting performance on his part. He is my favorite dramatic actor and I am almost considering seeing the terrible-looking G.I. Joe movie just to see what he brings to the role of Cobra Commander.

Anyway.

“(500) Days of Summer” is the type of movie that starts out with gratuitous voiceover narration explaining that this is not a typical love story and then spends the next three quarters of its running time gamely trotting through every imaginable genre cliche. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in the Zach Braff role as an incurable romantic with an impossibly optimistic take on love who is in search of “the one” who really likes Radiohead and has an artistic soul etc. Zooey Deschanel plays a Zooey Deschanel type with an equally intractable romantic outlook who wanders into his life and has a meet-cute with him about their shared love of the Smiths and probably a lot of the other accepted indie canon bands that pepper the soundtrack then proceeds to spark up an unconventional relationship with him and so on. The supporting cast consists of Gordon Levitt’s two “comic relief” neanderthal male friends who make him always appear cooler and more enlightened by comparison and his younger sister, a small child who is wordly beyond her years in a way that will no doubt feel lovably quirky and unconventional to some viewers and whatever you get it.

Which is not to say that the film is a coldly robotic enterprise. For one thing, Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt manage to eak out a handful of moments where they share genuine chemistry and I really felt for them, despite the best efforts of the script and the director. For another, “robotic” implies a level of precision and consistency and other than the uniformly awesome warddrobe (I want every single suit Joseph Gordon-Levitt wore in this movie, and not just for stalker-fan reasons) there is little to nothing in this movie that operates on a consistent level. In parts the cinematography is lovely; carefully controlled shots with coordinated color palates artfully convey what needs to be said about the scene. At other points it feels like a hastily-thrown-together, let’s-just-point-a-vaguely-in-focus-digital-camera-at-Zooey-Deschanel-and-hope-for-the-best, mess. The characters are similarly sketchily drawn, occaisionally caricatures, usually not, with motivations and central conflict that seem to shift drastically from scene to scene.

One of the chief causes of these inconsistencies, as well as the movie’s frequent lurching tonal shifts, is the bewildering array of gimmicks first-time feature film director Marc Webb piles on. Some of them, like a completely unexpected over-the top musical number featuring Star Wars archive footage or a split screen depicting the protagonist’s expectations on one side of the screen and the actual events on the other side, are pretty neat. Others, like a fake educational film strip (or something) about how Zooey Deschanel is really hot and everyone thinks she’s hot and look at how hot she is, are nails-on-chalkboard painful. Of course the movie is also centered around a gimmicky framing device where we are shown a series of numbered vignettes, each of which represent a day of Summer (Summer is the name of Deschanel’s character) in achronological order. The fragmented nature of the vignettes greatly contributes to the lack of a sense of character or real narrative through line, and its achronology brings up unfavorable comparisons to “Eternal Sunshine”.

“(500) Days of Summer” almost redeems itself in its final act, which actually attempts something fairly original and surprising, and reveals a few earlier scenes as bits of clever misdirection. Also to the movie’s credit are the performances that Deschanel, Gordon-Levitt and child actor Chloe Moretz manage out of unpromising material. Deschanel manages to portray more humanity and inner life than her male-fantasy character really seems designed for. Gordon-Levitt is reasonably funny when he’s called upon to be funny and almost frightening when he’s called upon to be upset: for all of Braff’s moping and brooding in “Garden State” and the like, he has never seemed like he might be a danger to himself or to others. Moretz is convincingly precocious and like Gordon-Levitt (and occaisonally Deschenel) says enough funny things in funny ways that I would have laughed if they’d happened in a less annoying movie.


Video!

July 6, 2009

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to see it yet, this is the video we made in the 48 Hour Film Project:

And these are the deleted scenes:

The required elements were a sandwich, Kathleen/Kevin Schnabel (Expert) and the line “I hope they decide soon”