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A great many of the films—like the festival itself—grew out of improv roots.

An ambitious slate of comic films closes N.C. Comedy Arts Festival 

Improving films

click to enlarge TJ (right) and Dave in a scene from "Trust Us" - PHOTO COURTESY OF B-SIDE ENTERTAINMENT
  • Photo courtesy of B-Side Entertainment
  • TJ (right) and Dave in a scene from "Trust Us"

N.C. Comedy Arts Festival
Varsity Theatre
Feb. 25–27

The ever-expanding, nearly monthlong N.C. Comedy Arts Festival is entering its stretch run.

After three weeks of sketch comedy, improv and standup, the new addition for this year's fest is a week of film and video, and NCCAF founder Zach Ward has assembled an intriguing set list. It opens with Trust Us, This is All Made Up, an improbably effective documentary on improv, and closes with a double feature from director Brant Sersen, starring some of the leading lights from New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

A great many of the films—like the festival itself—grew out of improv roots. Most highly recommended is Trust Us, which shows the legendary long-form improv duo TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York. Director Alex Karpovsky used a small army of camera operators to get up close to the performers, and his illuminating pre- and post-show footage and interviews aptly set the stage for the uninterrupted performance that's the centerpiece of the film. It's fitting that this screening follows on the heels of NCCAF's improv week. Those improvisers still in town who haven't had the privilege to see TJ and Dave perform live would do well to sit in on this master class.

The two Sersen-directed closing night films, Splinterheads and Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story, are also derived from improv. The star of Splinterheads is UCB Theatre stalwart Thomas Middleditch, in his feature film debut. Middleditch's performance is lively and natural, due to his skill and ease at riffing, but he's surrounded by the dreary trappings of the conventional modern comedy: formulaic plot, ostentatiously wacky supporting characters, got-there-first fashionable signifiers and trends (in this case, carnival workers and geocaching). It's admirably light on the genre's obligatory fat jokes, ethnic jokes and gross-out humor, but that's faint praise.

Blackballed, Sersen's directorial debut, is practically a UCB side project, featuring a who's who of past regulars, including The Daily Show's Rob Corddry. The subject is paintball, which puts the film in the company of another 2004 comedy about an easily mocked sport, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Another UCB-related offering is Mystery Team, created by the improvising and prolific Web-video-creating group Derrick Comedy. The plot—overgrown Encyclopedia Brown-type neighborhood sleuths are enlisted to solve a murder—is off to a good start, and it was well received at Sundance in 2009.

Rounding out the lineup are some films with a local connection. Carrboro's Indy Arts Award winner Nic Beery will show his short, "Ben Pickle"; Wilmington's Superkiiids!, a UCB-trained comedy duo, bring their sophomore feature, Americatown, which was a highlight of last fall's Cucalorus Film Festival; and a recent project by Wilkesboro native Zach Galifianakis, Visioneers, a dark, Orwellian office-culture comedy, features UNC School of the Arts graduate Missi Pyle.

Throw in a couple of promising-looking documentaries—Laughology, which delves into the nature of this peculiar reflex, and Nerdcore Rising, about an unlikely but often very entertaining brand of hip-hop—and Ward gets props for assembling a diverse and respectable lineup in his freshman outing as film festival programmer. Let's hope it's the start of a fashionable trend.

Tickets are $10. See www.nccomedyarts.com/film/schedule for schedule details.

  • A great many of the films—like the festival itself—grew out of improv roots.

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