Monday, 22 September 2014

Twenty Years on... The Top 10 Friends Episodes (10)


On September 22nd 1994, the pilot episode of Friends was screened in America. It is twenty years since that fateful moment Rachel walked into Central Perk, wearing her wedding dress. Looking around, she finds her old best friend from school, Monica. The first jokes were slightly twee, but some clumsy slapstick (Ross’ umbrella bursting as he greets Rachel) and a self-depreciating joke (Monica is the only one Rachel could turn to. Monica is the only one she didn’t invite) began Friends - the TV series we all fell in love with.

I was introduced as my older sisters watched it in 1995 on a Friday night on Channel 4. I recall the complete shock when Ross says "I take thee.... Rachel...". I sat with my best friend watching the closing minutes of Series 4 and sat with him again to watch the aftermath. I watched the entire series when it first came to DVD. Then I watched it again when I first started a girl who became my wife (a rite of passage in many ways, considering Friends taught me so much about the trials and tribulations of ‘dating’). Recently, with the new BluRay boxset release, I watched it all again. All ten seasons within three months.

With this in mind (and split over the next fortnight), here are my Top 10 Friends episodes to mark the twentieth anniversary of one of the best American sitcoms in history …

10. The One with Russ (Series 2, Episode 10) -


Trying to balance the funny episodes, and the deeply-serious (but-still-funny) episodes, is always a challenge. This episode is an example of a whole plot structured around a single gag. Rachel starts dating a character called Russ, who is virtually the same person as Ross (both are played by Schwimmer). High-jinks ensue as Russ and Ross meet each other – and immediately despise each other. Additionally, it also includes the perfect ending with a cameo from Julie (Lauren Tom) who inevitably falls for Russ.

The countdown continues tomorrow ... 

This article was originally written for Flickering Myth on September 22nd 2014

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Das Cabinet des Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

The history of cinema harks back to few films that are as important and iconic as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. An expressionist masterpiece, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is, for a limited time, back in the cinema. Re-mastered and screened from August 29th, the cinematic experience is a rare treat as the hand-painted backdrops and subtle face make-up can be seen up-close and appreciated in the way it was intended (perhaps even better). As filmmaking was finding its feet, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari makes use of the theatrical manner of stage and sets, but toys with the narrative device of flashback to tell its story. Like an old man telling us a tale, the mysterious narrator with his wide eyes, has his own backstory – and a memorable finale reveals all.

Almost a legendary fable of cinema already, Das Cabinet des Caligari begins as two met sit on a bench. A young man, Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells a story to an old man (Hans Lanser-Rudolff) and we are transported to see the events unfold. A small village is introduced. Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) are to go out on the town, and visit the fair, but not before they banter about their love of the local girl Jane (Lil Dagover). Unknown to the boys, amongst the glowing lights of the fair, Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is due to perform with his somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt, who would go on to play the trumped up Nazi in Casablanca). As the two enter the tent, it is revealed that Cesare knows the past, present and future. Cesare, expressionless with piercing-eyes, tells Alan that he will die before the morning and as predicted, Alan is murdered in the night - by Cesare. Francis immediately seeks support and holds his suspicions towards Caligari himself. Even magic appears to be at play when Cesare kidnaps Jane, while Francis spies on both Caligari and the sleeping Cesare – how can he appear in two places at once? Though Caligari is the villain of the film, it seems that all is not what it seems for Francis either. 

Released in 1920, and directed by Robert Wiene, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari has become the subject of many essays, books and articles of cinema. At 77-minutes long, this is a short film that, broken into six-parts, is easy to watch and a pleasure to re-watch now it has been fully restored. Silent cinema has never looked so good, and the colour-tints and painted-sets, with their fake-shadows and sharp lines, only serve to establish the film as a work of art.

So much has been inspired by the film, such as Murnau’s Nosferatu two years later, but it has continued to this day. Danny DeVito’s Penguin in Batman Returns is clearly the villainous Dr. Caligari himself; glasses, top hat and cane included. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, an underrated homage to psychological thrillers of the era, pays a huge debt to the plot and doctor-patient dynamic seen in Caligari. The jagged edges, and diagonal lines, would go on to influence Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which would in turn influence Spike Lee. In fact, the bizarre setting is perhaps the most memorable element. But it is worth remembering how, within a few decades of the invention of cinema, a film like this was made. Haunting and innovative, Das Cabinet des Caligari is the horror film every cinema goer needs to watch. And if you’ve seen it before? Watch it again.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable/Anthony Stacchi, 2014)

Despicable Me has a lot to answer for. Not only has it spawned a sequel, with a “”spin-off” later this year in Minions, but it has manufactured the specific creature that little kids will die imitating (perhaps loudly shouting “bottom”, as you walk through the supermarket). But The Boxtrolls, looking like an uglier, gothic cousin to the minions, is nothing to apologise for. Looking like Aardman animation meets Abe’s Odyssey, The Boxtrolls contains much more than empty crates and annoying little creatures. More creative and considerably more profound, The Boxtrolls is much more than a Despicable Me imitator.

Boxtrolls lurk underground. They mess up the streets at night and, with their muddy boxes and cluttered manner, are feared by the community they live beneath. Stories claim they are responsible for kidnapping children and carnival-performances are played out to ensure the public know how dangerous they are.  Of course, they are no threat. Introducing Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) as the villainous, desperate older gent who seeks a place at the table amongst the upper-class (termed as the “white hats”), the boxtrolls are his sworn enemy – despite their cheeky, playful manner. Indeed, the boxtrolls themselves are creatures with love to give and we see, akin to Monsters Inc, the raising of a child in their company. Named after the boxes they wear, “Fish” adopts human-in-a-box, “Eggs” (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright, aka ‘Bran’ from Game of Thrones, and looking a little like one of The Riddlers). In an innovative twist, it is the daughter of the esteemed ‘white hat’ Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), Winnie (Elle Fanning), who clashes into Eggs one night. This forces the two to confront their differences while taking down the evil Mr Snatcher.

Of course, the synopsis could be as simple as “boxtrolls have to defeat snatcher”. But The Boxtrolls is more nuanced than that. Amongst the ramshackle underground home and steam-punk world they inhabit, there are revolutionary and bold statements made. Other than the greedy, cheese-obsessed Archibald Snatcher, very few others can be simply-defined baddies. The snooty white-hat wearers are arrogant, but considered misguided. Even the two henchmen (voiced expertly by Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost) are confused by Snatcher’s actions, as it slowly dawns on them that they are indeed “henchmen” (By the same token, the final gag during the credits goes even further as they muse on their existence, becoming one of the most intelligent and inspired jokes in animation.)

The winding tracks and creaky buildings that we walk down is a feast for the eyes. Tim Burton would surely get a kick out of the long-legged and bulging-bellies of the humans. The British tone of Aardman animation shines through, and the boxtrolls even seem to channel the trolls from Frozen a tad. But, unlike the cookie-cutter morals of most Disney and Dreamworks fare, the “makers of Paranorman and Coraline” tell a story that clearly draws parallels to our modern world. In a moment of frustration, boxtroll “fish” becomes incredibly angry, almost living up to the horror stories that we were told. It is brief and inconsequential, but a sobering moment as the parallel between anger and victimisation is drawn. In the final confrontation between Snatcher and Eggs, Snatcher tells him “they’ll never accept us…” What connects these two vastly opposing characters? Who does Snatcher believe “they” are? All is revealed when watching The Boxtrolls.

The ballooning abscesses as allergic-to-cheese Snatcher forces himself to eat brie is gross, colourful and guaranteed to make you laugh. The comedy is intelligent, the animation expert and the story is thoroughly engaging. The Boxtrolls is poignant and inventive and as much fun as it is bold in its statements.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Night Will Fall (André Singer, 2014)

It is difficult to digest the truth behind the Holocaust. The pictures in books, reconstructions and cinematic depiction of the events seem to detach us from the truth. It can feel like a nightmare that exists only in dreams and on screens. Night Will Fall manages to directly connect the nature of the truth in documentary with the horrors witnessed in 1945. Director André Singer (Producer of The Act of Killing and Into the Abyss) connects them in a manner that sharply forces history into focus. The collective efforts to murder a group of people by a brainwashed militia, consciously accepted by the citizens in surrounding villages that could smell the death, is too difficult to comprehend. Yet this definitive moment in history was captured on camera, and tasked to Sidney Bernstein and his team, to ensure that it was not lost and proved how despicable humanity can be.

Night Will Fall documents the attempt at capturing, editing and releasing the footage filmed when concentration camps were liberated (the unreleased film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, has been painstakingly restored by the Imperial War Museum to be released later this year). But this is a moment that changed the world. Camera-clad soldiers marched, within lines of German soldiers, towards Bergen-Belsen, unaware of what they would see. Alfred Hitchcock was involved as a supervising director, recommending the location of the camps – and their surrounding towns – are shown in the film, to highlight how close others were to the death camps. He suggested that wide, slow pans were to be used to add an air of authenticity. There was no room for anyone to imply the footage was doctored in any way. Colour film was used in some instances, footage that brings the reality closer to home. But at a time whereby millions of victims were refused entry to the surrounding countries, the rolls of film and editing that had been put in place to bring this news to the fore, was shelved. The worry was that a public outcry would mean Britain and America would be forced to take these refugees into their own country – something that, after World War II, they simply couldn’t afford to do.

Prior to watching Night Will Fall, I visited the Imperial War Museum, and specifically the Holocaust exhibition. The information contained across two floors was too much to take in during one visit, but the history of Jewish discrimination that began so much earlier that the breakout of WWII is crucial to where it ultimately led. Stories of German Jews who fought alongside their nation in WWI only to be reviled little more than a decade later, embedded itself in my memory. The fact that Night Will Fall exclusively deals with the aftermath is important. The camps and their liberation only took place in 1944. We learn from our mistakes, we’re told. In the case of genocide, it is not an event whereby we want to liberate a country and find out afterwards the mistake was made again.

These camps were in action for years, with the loss of life in the millions. Eisenhower, shown visiting the camps, surely never believed he would ever see such horror. Billy Wilder’s use of the footage, in Death Mills (as Night Will Fall documents) focuses the attention on the crimes committed by the Nazi’s. But this documentary is about the truth and the consequence of inaction. The opening moments of Night Will Fall show the bodies in piles within camps. SS Guards were ordered to move the bodies to mass graves. Their faces are real. Despite the sunken eyes and gaunt cheeks, the faces are real. The bodies are rubbery and heavy. The footage gives you a sense of the weight of the corpses, and the guards who drag them over the rubble clearly show no remorse as they appear to move them like animal carcasses. But these are lives, hundreds and thousands, of innocent lives. I have never seen such explicit and shocking film from the concentration camps. Night Will Fall coincides with the release of the originally-intended film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, but it is a masterpiece unto itself. Rather than explaining and recalling the events, Night Will Fall highlights the importance of film. Akin to diaries of photographers and journalists in war zones, Night Will Fall is unflinching in its intention to hold onto the mistakes we made, so that we learn from it. And in a time whereby YouTube captures every political decision (and indecision) and news crews attempt to capture every side of conflicts in Iraq and Israel, surely Night Will Fall reminds us that we need to make a change before it’s too late. Otherwise, like the cameramen in Bergen-Belsen, who knows what we will find in the aftermath.

Originally written for Flickering Myth

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Best Episode of The Simpsons? Season 10: Mom and Pop Art

In an attempt to get completely up-to-date on one of my favourite TV-series The Simpsons, after I watch each season, I will choose my favourite episode...

It appears that the last time I wrote a "Best Episode..." post was in October 2012. That can't be good if, in nearly two years, I have only watched one season. In any case, with the FXX marathon everywhere, I missed watching the show. I scrolled through the Season 10 guide. I read over the episodes I watched intermittently in the past year and a few happy memories came to mind. Ralph tasting the snow in Lard of the Dance, the make-up shot-gun in The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace and Pinchy in Lisa Gets An "A" are all memorable moments that make Season 10 such fun. And I'm sure Viva Ned Flanders is, pretty much, The Hangover nearly a decade before. It's fair to say that despite these highlights, Season 10 wasn't as memorable as the previous seasons. 

But, I'm an art teacher so choosing my favourites wasn't too difficult. The references, talking points and fun in Mom and Pop Art won me over. The enormous rubber that "erases" Homer after he criticises the art of (Simpsons-creator) Matt Groening only to reveal two workmen holding a large (Claus Oldenburg-like) pencil, with a rubber on the end, hitting Homer in the face is funny on multiple levels. The perfect "it's funny for the whole family" joke, as the situation looks funny it appeals to children, while we know the art reference and the play on an old animation-trick we've seen as long ago as Disney's Saludos Amigos in 1943.

For something as mainstream as The Simpsons, it maintains it's ambiguously open-stance. While it's critical of contemporary art and it's elitist buyers ("Smithers, years ago I blew the chance to buy Picasso's Guernica for a song. Luckily that song was 'White Christmas' and, by hanging on to it, I made billions!"), it is also appreciative of the nature of ready-made's and art as a way to express oneself. Indeed, "Outsider Art" is a real movement that focuses on artists outside of the art scene - "mental patients or a hillbilly or a chimpanzee" could fit the criteria. The incredible art-dream referencing Warhol, Dali and Leonardo Da Vinci, and the surrealist finish as Springfield becomes a lake unto itself, are moments that whatever your opinion on art, is simply unique to the show. Even a Jasper Johns cameo is a nice touch. Chris Barsanti of wrote it best, saying "the episode concocts a knowing satire – but also warm appreciation – of modern art".

Favourite joke? It comes in the episodes closing moments as Springfield wakes up to Homers final art piece...

Ned Flanders: What the flood?! Maude, it's a miracle! The Lord has drowned the wicked and spared the righteous.

[Maude gasps as she see's Homer row by on a raft]

Maude Flanders: Isn't that Homer Simpson?

Ned Flanders (annoyed): Looks like Heaven's easier to get into than Arizona State...