Sunday, 28 September 2014

Slurms McKenzie and the Ultimate Sacrifice

“Party on contest winners, party on.”

Slurms McKenzie gave everything a giant slug had to offer. He partied on, and he partied out. He died as he lived, lost in the hedonistic buzz that can only come from boogying on down.

Slurms McKenzie and his 'party girls' in happier times.
I am, of course, talking about the moment in the last episode of Futurama’s first series where Fry, Bender and Leela visit the Slurm factory, only to discover the drink company’s dark secret. The Slurm corporation’s groovy mascot, Slurms Mckenzie, saves the gang by blocking the evil Slurm queen from the last escape route. Alas, it was to prove a suicidal mission.

As the heroic Slurms dismisses his ever-faithful bikini-clad party girls, we are reminded of Futurama’s most special qualities. That is, in a matter of nanoseconds, it can twist its audience’s emotions from laughter, to sadness, and return to hilarity without a line of script out of place. Indeed, Futurama is as poignant a comedy as there has ever been on television, film or the theatrical stage. On occasions, Matt Groening and his team of writers made Checkhov and Mamet look like happy-go-lucky types. Any fan of the show who says they have not welled up at least once with tears is a bad liar.

Who could forget the heart-breaking epilogue to Jurassic Bark (S4 ep7), where we see Fry’s loving pet dog, Seymour, live out his last years waiting in vain for his master’s return? Or how about the moment Zoidberg misses his only chance to find a mating partner and witnesses his species perish on his home planet’s shallow shores? If I wanted to bore you, and depress your sensitive souls, I would list the plethora of similarly elegaic points in the animated show’s fifteen years of existence. Yes, you heard that right; it’s been fifteen years since the world was introduced to Bender and Professor Farnsworth! They have certainly aged well.

Aside from Slurms McKenzie’s last stand, my most abiding memory of Futurama’s hidden emotional depths is from The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings (S5 ep15). Fry attempts to impress Leela by playing an instrument which projects story images into the air. To master the musical device, the buffoonish everyman steals the hands of the robot devil. But when the devil threatens Leela, the treachery is revealed and Fry is forced to return the limbs and lose his rhythmic gift. Our defeated hero is dejected, until Leela insists Fry finish his romantic song. Without the devil’s skilful hands, the resulting tune is basic and childish. Nevertheless, Fry’s love for Leela is achingly clear in his sincere projection, stripped to its basic tenderness, and free of flashy gimmickry (see below).  In the context of the show, the sentiment is a truly beautiful summary of Fry’s ceaseless goodness. Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane: none had a moment in their long flirtations which match this bittersweet note. It was to be a fitting dampener to end the show’s original run – the next new episode was not aired for five long years.

For a show that started out as a spin-off to The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s second child has achieved more than anyone could have expected, even arguably surpassing its older sibling over the last decade. For a cartoon too, it has led the field with pathos-driven stories, suffused with broad humour and relatable characters, even if they are some of the biggest freaks in science-fiction.
How did Futurama reach this level of brilliance? Well, it used the same techniques as Shakespeare, obviously. Inverting the usual genre tropes, their comedies are stuffed with tragic characteristics. As Jack Lemmon said in his interview with the Actor’s Studio, it is easier to make audience’s cry than laugh, but the biggest challenge is to inspire both reactions at the same time. As I hope you will agree, I believe Futurama found that magic time and time again.


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Ingmar Bergman: Wild Persona

Over the summer I started filming a new joke trailer, this time parodying Ingmar Bergman in his 1950s heyday. The finished film can be viewed below or through my Youtube account. I hope you enjoy watching it.


Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Guest: Top 6 Home-Invasion Films

Without the ominous soundtrack, Halloween setting and knowledge that horror-specialists Adam Wingard and Simon Bennett have written and directed the film, there’d be little reason to suspect any malice in David Collins (Dan Stevens), from this week’s new release The Guest. He’s polite, charming, has a genuine back-story upon arriving at a family’s household about knowing their recently deceased son from the Afghanistan war, and never imposes himself on their hospitality.

But the foreknowledge that something is amiss lends every one of David’s smiles a sinister undertone, every glance the hint of calculated menace.

He may have been invited into the mourning family’s home, but David is immediately cauterized as one cinema’s many home-invaders. The idea of the supposedly private and safe environment of the home being intruded upon is a particularly distressing scenario to witness on the big screen, the fear of which has been exploited many times by filmmakers, particularly in horror - Wingard and Bennett’s previous film You’re Next is an especially pertinent example.

More specifically, David belongs to what is perhaps the most sinister subcategory of these home-invaders – the charming stranger who does not break in but is naively invited into the hitherto benign domestic space. Here are some of cinema’s other great terrorising guests:

6. Killer Joe
David Collins may have been partly inspired by Mayhew McConaughey’s similarly handsome, smooth-talking titular character from 2011’s Killer Joe, although he functions more as a sort of angel of death come to punish a depraved family for their sins than a purveyor of violence towards unfortunate innocents.

5. Shadow of a Doubt
Just as the daughter of the family is the person least willing to accept the stranger into the household in The Guest, Charlie (Teresa Wright) is the character who unveils the true identity of her initially admired visiting uncle (Joseph Cotton) as a murderer, in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Fortunately he is disposed of before causing any harm to the family.   

4. Let the Right One In
‘Be careful who you let in’ runs the tagline of The Guest, which seems to be referencing the title of Thomas Alfredon’s acclaimed Swedish puppy-love vampire story. In that film, the ‘right one’ refers to the vampire, who can only enter her boyfriend’s home if invited in – her survival of killing and feeding on blood depends upon the aid of a companion, who is doomed/blessed (depending on which way you look at it) to this drastic change in lifestyle upon letting her in.

3. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers
Whereas most unwanted invaders in horror films are clearly identified as monsters, the twist in Invasion of the Communists Bodysnatchers is that the antagonists look just like us. Depending on how much you trust the sanity of the protagonist and which ending you see, the invaders are either a surreptitious force taking over the world unnoticed, or the deluded invention of a paranoid madman.

2. The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton’s masterfully rendered and beautifully shot masterpiece pits two young siblings against serial killer Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Powell enters the family through marrying the children’s recently widowed mother, but – in keeping with the pattern in The Guest – is mistrusted by the eldest child, who correctly exposes him for being after the family’s secret stash of money.

1 Funny Games

Bourgeois angst of homes being intruded upon is a frequently repeated motif in Michael Haneke’s films, and is most comprehensively dramatized in Funny Games. Two initially friendly-seeming neighbours invite themselves in for a favour, and soon have the family held hostage in their own home. Haneke may have set out to critique what he sees as gratuitous violence in similar home-invasion films, but ended up making what is the most terrifying and effective of the genre. 


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Klute (1971)

"For an hour I'm the best actress in the world..."

Not many people have heard of Klute. That reality is a grievous injustice, ignoring the grown-up intelligence of a superb psychological thriller. Alan Pakula’s dark analysis of urban immorality has all the essential qualities of a 1970s crime classic: grime, sex and ambiguous characters. Before Martin Scorsese took a bite out of the Big Apple with similar themes, Klute paved the way towards darker American filmmaking with a female protagonist that makes Katniss Everdeen look like a Barbie doll.

Serpico, Midnight Cowboy and The Conversation are just a few of the relics from this ‘metropolitan misery’ sub-genre which remain famous and revered among film buffs. So why is Klute not one of them? With career-defining performances from Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, this unique film deserves to be recognised alongside its peers.

One explanation might be the dated and relatively weak twists of the psycho-thriller plot. Too much is revealed at an early stage to tease enough suspenseful rumblings for a gripping climax, in contrast to the constant uncertainty of, for instance, Network. Nevertheless, the script benefits from distinctive women’s lib and Freudian borrowings to produce a riveting study of human beings, devoid of attention-seeking melodrama or cheap insincerity.

Sutherland plays a private detective sent to New York to track down Bree Daniel (Fonda), a call girl with information related to the disappearance of a businessman. Having already gained critical credibility after They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Fonda gives an incredible performance in the unconventional leading role. Her characterisation avoids the reckless stereotypes trotted out by lesser Hollywood scripts - particularly in the case of sex workers, often categorised as ‘heart of gold’ or femme fatale types. Bree is smart, unsentimental and a stubbornly reluctant victim. She remains dispassionate until the very end, at which point Fonda reaches a whole new level of acting perfection, adding tiny details to her role which defy succinct explanation.

In the face of Fonda’s stiff competition for the viewer’s applause, Sutherland also raises his game with a marvellously subdued presence as the solemn investigator. It is a quality he would prove again two years later in Don’t Look Now, albeit with a scene-stealing moustache and perm combination. In the case of both stars there is no ostentation or trickery in front of the camera; just character acting at its very best.

The interplay between the two eventually forms a believable romance, but one in which there is no straightforward reasoning. A question of exploitation is raised after every scene: who is playing who in this total mismatch? Like all the greatest thrillers, character motives remain murky until the tight conclusion and there is enough ugly human behaviour to please even Hobbes. That nastiness is primarily embodied in Bree’s pimp, played by Roy Scheider – another magnificent character actor of the decade.

Alan Pakula’s melancholic directing proves that American pessimism predated Watergate. It is an appropriate accolade, therefore; considering he would go on to make All the President’s Men. His shots have a sad beauty to them, particularly through the way he frames Bree’s lonely seductions. It’s dark, sweaty and a little too honest for comfort. His use of noise is also especially effective when it comes to building suspense. Note the central use of tape recorders by the story’s goodies and baddies, a full three years before The Conversation was released.

Despite its few flaws, Klute represents a historic moment in mainstream cinema. It may have been largely forgotten in modern memories but that does not mean it isn’t worth watching.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Iggy Azalea and the Clueless Question

"I'm so fancy, you already know, I'm in the fast lane, from L.A. to Tokyo..." Fancy by Iggy Azalea et al.

You will have heard the song, you might have watched the video, but how many of you highly intelligent readers (take the compliment) wondered at the brazen deja vu effect of 2014's trendiest pop music hit?

The answer will be a lot clearer to those from a particular generation, specifically that of the mid-1990s. Nineteen years after its initial release, Clueless, the tale of a Beverley Hills brat loosely based on Jane Austen's Emma, has been given a new lease of life in contemporary culture through the painstaking shot-by-shot recreation of its visual identity in the Fancy music video. With the costumes even serving as identical fits, you might be forgiven for thinking the tune were part of the official soundtrack.

If you have not already seen the critically-acclaimed film I advise you to do so. At the time of its creation the portrayal of wealthy Californian image-driven divas was both topical and sooo original. Like, totally!

Amongst other accolades, it sparked Paul Rudd's rise to prominence and inspired a flurry of lesser teen films after the genre had suffered a decline following its 1980s heyday. But considering Amy Heckerling's movie is nearly two decades old, it seems an odd choice to connect with the fashion-obsessed immediacy of the modern pop charts. Nevertheless, the decision goes a long way towards highlighting the new common ground across the entertainment business.

A promotional video to glamorise, even dramatise, a new release is a strategy shared by both the music and film industry. These trailers typically last less than four minutes and try to hook their prospective audience with the same advertising ploys, almost always combining visual and audio stimuli in their pandering to us hungry cultural consumers.

By making reference to Clueless so openly, the production team behind Fancy are effectively associating themselves with a rival piece of entertainment. But perhaps this is to their mutual benefit. Igniting the memory of a seemingly forgotten film will inspire nostalgia in those old enough and, in return, the musician presents their work as a classy, established and prestigious product. The situation is almost like a direct merchandising tie-in. Both benefit financially from each other's reputed credibility within a certain market of fans.

More importantly, the themes of the song match the ironic lampooning of teenage 'plastics' which were later reiterated in their full monstrous beauty by Tina Fey's incredibly witty Mean Girls (no doubt partly inspired by its 1995 predecessor). Rather than relate to a John Hughes chick-flick, the video directors are deliberately, although somewhat mischievously, latching onto Clueless' sardonic tone.

And yet, nobody seems to have noticed the consequent irony caused by making a music video which pays tribute to an unmistakably biting satire of the MTV generation. Judging by the 250 million views on Youtube, the pop community does not appear to have made that insight. Or maybe they just don't care.

In a recent interview Iggy Azalea (AKA Amethyst Amelia Kelly) said of her video, "Growing up, Clueless to me was that stereotypical L.A. Valley Girl movie, and it was very hard for me as a kid to know what was real and what wasn't real. 'Is that really how people in L.A. dress? Do they really all talk like that?' The line was very blurred, I really wasn't sure. I wanted to do something unexpected, but still very L.A. and West Coast as a tribute to, sonically, how it sounds."

So, on those terms, the rhythm and lyrics were the key factors in dreaming up the aesthetic vibe of the video. Does this mean that we might see more film-related music videos in future where, as Iggy says, "sonically" appropriate ? Perhaps a world-weary rock group might take on Apocalypse Now? Or how about Adele singing with a piano to a 12 Angry Men pastiche?

Even if it does not harken the emergence of a new trend, Fancy is an intriguing case of entertainment cross-over, even more so than the appearance of Madonna in the otherwise decent Shadows and Fog. If you have not seen the polished homage before now, take a look below.