After more than a year stuck indoors, this never-ending bastard lockdown is (hopefully) showing signs of fucking right off. While we all look forward to pints, cinema trips and eating meals somewhere other than the bum-grooves in our sofa, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate some of the movies, TV shows and cool pop-culture bits that literally helped me stay sane during the darkest hours of the pandemic. While the past twelve months have shown us some dark stuff, they've also showcased how healing, therapeutic and necessary a steady hit of escapism can be. Without it, all we’d be left with is reality - and right now, reality is shit. So with that in mind, here’s a few (but not all) of the lockdown lifesavers that have kept me going through this viral nightmare...
Binged before but always worth a revisit, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s tale of blue ruin was one of the first things I ducked into when the shit hit the fan. It’s a show that’s become so big, a mere mention of how good it actually is has, in turn, become a bit of a worn out cliche. I don’t care though. It is good - fucking well good - and that bears repeating. Watching Walter White transform from doormat dad to crack kingpin is one hell of a nail biting and joyous high that struggles getting old. Despite knowing exactly what dangers lurk around each of its corners, it amazed me just how fresh and tense the show remained throughout my second run through. Essential viewing.
Like all good shows, Succession’s elevator pitch sounds boring as fuck: Super-rich 1%-er family desperately struggles to hold on to their super-rich 1%-er lifestyle. However like all good shows, the real joy lies in its subtle character interactions and rapid-fire dialogue. Produced by smart silly man Adam McKay and created by Peep Show hero Jesse Armstrong, Succession was, simply put, one of the most enjoyable twenty hours of lockdown. Brian Cox’s prick patriarch Logan Roy gives Rupert Murdock a run for his money; his scorned successor Kendall is played to painful perfection by Jeremy Strong; Matthew MacFadyen’s executive idiot Tom left me giggling for ages at a stupid egg-based name-pun and Kieran Culkin’s irresistibly weird Roman Roy beat them all while still only giving a tiny amount of fucks. Stop reading, go watch.
It’s the TV show that changed TV shows. At its core, The Sopranos is James Gandolfini's finest hour. His three-dimensional performance as mopey mob boss Tony Soprano is staggering; making us love, hate, emphasise, sympathise and root for someone who's essentially a brutal killer. However beyond Tony, the experience of losing yourself in The Sopranos really is like joining a family. From the inevitable tragedy of cousin Christopher and the wing-tipped eccentricities of Paulie Walnuts, to the tight-lipped excellence of Silvio Dante and constantly conflicted conscience of Carmela. By the end of its six season arc, you’ll be questioning your own moral compass when it comes to just how much you care for these terrible people. Truly the Godfather of lockdown entertainment.
Some unfiltered stupidity was exactly what 2020 needed and Stath Lets Flats delivered it in droves. The mark of a good comedy surely comes in its ability to create quotes that unconsciously worm their way into your every-day vocabulary, and writer/creator Jamie Demetriou - together with comedy king Robert Popper - created some gems that became instant convo classics. Essentially, it’s a show about the world’s worst letting agent, his wannabe singer sister Sophie (Jamie’s real-life sibling Natasia) and their painfully polite pal Al (Alastair Roberts). However much of its funny comes from the broken phraseology of Greek-born-London-lad Stath and his hopeless family, alongside a peek inside the bizarre world of small-time residential lettings. Lockdown delivered the standard Zoom-reunion - but a third series can’t come quick enough.
When I’m not stuffing colourful content stuff into my eyes, I’m ramming music into my ears - and recently, we’ve needed an abundance of both to drown out the sorrow. I sort of feel like BBC 6 Music should get some kind of post-pandemic award for their unrelenting dedication to distracting us from the flaming poo-heap that took control of early 2020 and refused to let go. Their DJs have clearly been under strict instructions never to mention the terrible reality of the outside world under any circumstances and if it wasn’t for the depressing dirge of their a-bit-too-regular news updates (this just in: everything’s still shit), you’d likely never know that the world had ground to a halt. Who knew hearing Shaun Keaveny share details of listeners' lunch options could be so important for my mental health?
I was late to Taskmaster. Admittedly, I was initially put off by the mainstream, panel show look of it. Then, all ten seasons hit 4OD (and I ran out of things to watch), and I realised just how wrong I had been to judge it so prematurely. The secret to Taskmaster’s genius is its stupid simplicity. Each season pits a new (and varied) group of comics against an increasingly ridiculous set of tasks - some easy, some sneaky, some near impossible - and all of which can be tackled in an infinite number of ingenious ways, as long as they stay within the predetermined rules set by series creator and task-thinker-upper, Alex Horne. Once complete, they’re judged by the Taskmaster himself, Greg Davies - who’s clearly having loads of fun lording it up as the high and mighty point-giver. Ingenious and frequently hilarious, it’s like lockdown medicine.
One of the most enjoyable things about living through a time where entertainment is key to survival is sticking something on that genuinely blows your socks off. I’m talking about the things you had little-to-no expectation for going into them that literally emerge as one of your new favourite things by the time you're on the way out of them. Bong Joon-Ho’s barrier-shattering award winner Parasite was that movie for me during the early days of lockdown. When you start out watching this family of highly-skilled con-artists slowly worm their way into a wealthy home, you stupidly assume you know where it’s headed - only for it to pull the rug out from under you time and time again. Most people will have seen this already - so I’m not saying anything new - but if you’re among the few that haven’t, hit play blind.
Released during the dark days of the second wave but only just making its UK debut in April 2021, Palm Springs is a time-loop comedy that flips the format on its head. You may not think that a movie set in a world where every day is literally the same as the one that came before it is the ideal viewing experience to help you through our own personal Groundhog Day - but you’d be wrong. Starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and JK Simmons, the cast's positive vibes and the bright and peppy aesthetics of Palm Springs are more than enough to lift your mood. Throw in some great gags, touching unexpectedly performances and an overall ethos that re-enforces the importance of appreciating what you have - and suddenly being stuck in the same situation day in, day out doesn’t seem so bad.
If ever there was a time where we could ALL use a Jeff Winger motivational speech, it’s been during the past twelve months. Throughout Community's troubled six season (and hopefully a movie, yeah?), it was these uplifting monologues, delivered by star Joel McHale, that helped Greendale’s weirdo study group find order in the chaos - no matter how dark (or meta) their situation. Unfortunately, while we haven’t had the same calming quotes to help us through COVID, we have had all episodes of Dan Harmon’s much-loved cult-hit. Packed with throwaway gags that are funnier than the A-game material from most mainstream shows, Community's reliable humour certainly helped keep spirits high - but it’s the show’s heart and warmth that assured us that things ultimately can, and will, get better.
Have a movie or a TV show that you treat like comfort food? Something you stick on in the background purely because you just enjoy its rhythms and familiar sounds? For me, 30 Rock is that show. Set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-esque late night variety show in New York City, 30 Rock is literally bursting at the seams with one liners that are not just brilliant - but smart, multi-layered and packed with a level of hilarity that seems to improve with age. These aren’t just ordinary jokes - they’re Airplane level rib-ticklers. The type that force a unfiltered belly laugh out of your face before you’ve even had chance to comprehend exactly what it is you’ve heard. No matter how shit things get, 30 Rock is guaranteed to lift my mood.
One of the best bits of early lockdown was getting to binge Broad City in its entirety. I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of this show much before my amazing fiancée recommended we watch it. As a huge fan of wandering around New York City, its urban, street-worn look was enough to lure me in but it was creator/star duo Ilana Glazer and Abbie Jacobson that kept me glued to its five season journey. Their brand of outlandish yet painfully relatable comedy made the show more than just one of the best comedies I’d seen in the past few years. Instead, it transcended into a kind of coming of age ode to leaving your wild twenties and facing up to the (sometimes harsh) realities of adult life.
If - like me - you enjoy feeling smarter than the people around you whilst knowing deep down that you’re really a complete moron that doesn’t even know words good - then listening to science podcasts is a great way of maintaining the lie. Of all the brainy conversations currently out there in the pod-verse, I found myself drawn to the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage Podcast mainly thanks to its mix of intellectual brains and low brow humour. Led by razor sharp comic Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox - it’s one that I’d listened to quite a bit before the pandemic hit. However when things really started to look bleak, being reminded how pointless and insignificant everything really is suddenly took on a new level of importance.
You can’t stop Saturday Night Live. The weekly variety show that has helped forge the foundations and future of modern alternative comedy has survived almost five decades and when the pandemic hit, they were among the first to push forward in whatever way they could. Thankfully, those live-streamed audiences didn’t last long - and when they’d finally worked out the kinks and repurposed the show to safely resemble a familiar shape, its ability to puncture the ever-constant stream of stress bubbles caused by COVID and politics was hugely therapeutic. Combating the unpredictable craziness of an out-of-control year with a hit of irreverent humour is a much needed reminder that sometimes, you’ve just got to laugh.
Making the transition to live streamed living may have been an awkward for most - but for Scottish comedian Limmy, it’d long been his bread and butter. After earning his place in the all-time alternative comedy Hall of Fame a few years back with his slightly psychotic Vines and viral videos and three series of the weird and wonderful Limmy’s Show for the BBC, Limmy had since turned his attention to Twitch and was making a healthy living live-streaming games, telling jokes and dreaming up improvised stories based on fan-suggested titles. Limmy’s humour has always edged on the dry and dark side of life - which is something I personally love - so listening to his meandering and strangely specific improv stories quickly became a nice end-of-the-day decompressor. The guy’s a constant content generator too - so this is one piece of escapism that’ll hang around long after COVID stops trending.
Every time I interview someone I still get really nervous. You’d think it’d get better the more you do but it never seems to go away, for me at least. When discussing encounters with famous folk, some say: ‘Well, they’re just people, right?’ Like regular social encounters aren’t also tricky to navigate situations peppered with the potential for world-ending embarrassment. When it comes to talking to someone who you know full well has absolutely no good reason to be talking to you, that acute anxiety is amped up to the max. Before my phone rings or I punch in someone’s number, I take steps to give my energy levels the necessary caffeine-boost or chamomile-calm required to let me sit somewhere between peppy and personable, and twitchy and indecipherable. It’s a weird science.
Then there’s the wees. On average, the pre-chat jitters result in anywhere between one to five bathroom breaks as anxiety manifests itself in urine-form. The bigger the name, the more wees I can usually expect. They don’t teach you that in journalism school. All this nonsense and we haven’t even touched upon the chat itself. Basic stuff like making sure you’re clued up, don’t say anything stupid or accidentally come over disinterested during a particularly rambly anecdote. Can they tell that was a fake laugh? Sure hope not. With that in mind, here’s a few interview tips that I’ve learned the hard way so you don’t have to…
Do Your Research
It should go without saying — but do your research. There’s nothing worse than speaking to someone and knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re supposed to be talking to them about. You can’t hide it. It will become clear and you’ll both feel awkward. If someone with some clout has taken time out of their schedule to speak to you, the least you can do is watch their movie, binge their series or read up as much as you can on the project they’re trying to promote. Stars will usually roll out the same old anecdotes when prompted — but they still need prompting. Doing your research will help ensure you get the best out of your interviewee.
...Know When To Stop Researching
Contrary to what I’ve just said, it’s also worth remembering that, as a journalist, it’s your job to find the story — and by definition that requires you to not know everything. Don’t confuse this with not doing your homework — do your homework — but realise that you’re not as involved in a project as the person you’re talking to and as such, it’s impossible for you to know everything about it. In fact, you shouldn’t know everything about it. It’s your job to translate their product into a story that’s accessible to the average person on the street who knows zilch about the topic at hand. Being a little unaware helps you see things from a different angle and if, during your interview, you find something odd that’s worth pursuing — pursue it. Your finished article will thank you for it.
Remember To Breathe
Just like public speaking, a surge of adrenaline can make it all too easy to speed through your interview questions and make a twenty minute chat last a whirlwind five minutes. Don’t let this happen. Remember to breathe and take your time. There’s plenty of additional factors that can heighten the situation: a publicist listening into your call, the need to get a specific set of quotes from an interviewee within a limited time frame — try not to focus on these and go with the flow instead. Take time to get comfortable. Ask your interviewee how their day has been. Thank them for taking the time to talk to you. Go slightly off-piste. When time is running out, odds are those small niceties you dished out earlier will encourage your interviewee to to stick around a little longer.
Add A Little Structure
While you often can’t predict how your interviews will go, you can certainly try to add some structure to ensure they hit all the beats you’d like them to hit. Planning and pacing your interview questions will do wonders in keeping things on track and ensuring you don’t accidentally gloss over avenues that may lead to meaty stories full of flair, humour and snappy quotes. Try to structure your conversation as you would your finished piece. Settle into the introduction and let your interviewee set the scene. Spend some time digging into one or two interesting subtopics related to your subject’s career or project. Then, when your time is running low, try to find a natural closer that’ll end your conversation on a well-balanced, natural high-note. If you’ve done your research, this should be quite easy to implement — and should hopefully lead to a more fruitful chat.
And Be Polite!
It sounds obvious but manners go a long way — use them. If you’re speaking to someone who’s half-way through a day-long junket and you’re nestled right in the middle of their back-to-back interview schedule, then they might — understandably — be a little low energy. The last thing they need is to come face-to-face with someone who’s prickly or a little short. Be polite and peppy. In an industry that’s (for better or worse) based around connections, recommendations and contacts that can help you secure a commission in a spot, a smile and a little levity go a long way to ensuring you can continue doing what you love for the foreseeable future.
"We were going to make fun of the fact you came to see it," - Dir Joe Dante & Prod Mike Finnell Celebrate 30 years of Gremlins 2: The New Batch
“The approach was to try and make a picture about why there shouldn’t be a sequel to Gremlins,” laughs Director Joe Dante, recalling the thought process behind 1990’s gloriously meta sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch. It took Dante and his Producing Partner Mike Finnell six years to start work on a follow-up to 1984’s original, itself an unexpected sleeper hit and the first movie released through Steven Spielberg’s burgeoning production company Amblin Entertainment. As Executive Producer, Spielberg entrusted Dante to bring Screenwriter Chis Columbus’s ambitious small-town monster movie to life - and when audiences went wild for the result, sequel talk quickly began. But with Dante drained from the mammoth task of creating a feature-length puppet movie, he wasn’t exactly keen to return to the world of Mogwais, mysterious rules and creature chaos.
“Gremlins was an extremely difficult movie to make,” he tells SciFiNow. “It started in Spielberg’s mind as a low budget horror but it quickly became apparent that it couldn’t be done convincingly on a low budget. We were inventing technology as we were going along - nobody had ever done a puppet film on that scale before so we were constantly experimenting. We even shut down production for a while just so we could do pure puppet footage, which was exhausting. I was pretty burned out,” he admits. “Once it was done the studio said ‘let’s do another one’ and I just couldn’t face it.” Undeterred, Warner Brothers soldiered on, determined to extend the franchise yet unable to crack the code. “They diligently applied themselves to trying to figure out a way to make a sequel but because they never really had any faith in the film in the first place, they didn’t understand why it was a big hit - so they couldn’t replicate it.”
It wasn’t until Dante received an offer too good to pass up that he eventually considered returning. “After a number of efforts that didn’t pan out, they came back to me and said ‘If you give us one of those Gremlins movies next summer, we’ll let you do whatever you want - you can make any kind of movie as long as it’s got Gremlins in it.’ That’s a very rare opportunity.” Like any sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch was bigger in scope and scale - transporting the action from the sleepy Kingston Falls to the Big Apple. It’s here where we find our hero Billy (Zach Galligan) working as a struggling concept artist for the synergy-focused businessman Daniel Clamp (John Glover). When one of the Clamp Building’s unlikely tennents - a genetics lab operated by the gleefully over-the-top Dr Catheter (Christopher Lee) - stumbles upon Billy’s Mogwai BFF Gizmo, it’s only a matter of time before a new gaggle of Gremlins have taken control of this gadget-filled building-of-tomorrow.
And yet, Gremlins 2: The New Batch became so much more; a film crammed with deliriously wreckless in-jokes and self referential humour that tested the limits of what audiences would accept from a studio sequel. “We wanted to raise the stakes,” says Producer Mike Finnell, recalling the brief he and Dante set screenwriter Charles S. Haas. “I don’t even know if the word ‘meta’ was in use back then, but that was the idea - to do a lot of self-referencial stuff, like the scene where they make fun of the rules and what happens if you’re crossing a time-zone and there’s something caught in your teeth. Charlie just ran with it.” According to Dante, nothing and no one was safe: “The 90s were going to be upon us and there were a lot of interesting things going on in the world. My concept was: this was like a giant Mad Magazine parody of the first picture, which means not just making fun of movie tropes but also making fun of society.”
For Dante, the decision to play fast and loose was not only fun - it was creatively necessary: “The studio would have been happy with a repeat of the first picture but that didn’t interest me and I don’t think it would have satisfied the audience,” he reasons. “We decided to make fun of the whole concept of Gremlins - and that we’d asked the audience to suspend their disbelief long enough to buy the idea that there were certain rules you had to follow. I thought: ‘Let’s throw caution to the wind and do crazy stuff to remind people it’s a movie. Let’s let them know it’s a sequel and that we know it’s a sequel. We were going to make fun of the movie and the fact you came to see it,” he chuckles. “The original drafts were way too ambitious because they had Gremlins running around New York City - and these were the days before CGI effects,” adds Finnell. “Charlie came up with the idea of keeping it all inside this high-tech building - which allowed us to still do lots of New York City jokes. It was the perfect solution.”
With their location set, Dante and Finnell set the gears in motion for a new array of Gremlins to wreak havoc, with practical effects pro Rick Baker inheriting VFX duties from part one’s Chris Walas. “Chris wanted a Directing career and Rick didn’t want to use Chris’s designs,” explains Dante. “So we came up with the idea of the gene splicing lab to create different kinds of Gremlins that Rick could design. That was what got him on board,” he reveals. “Rick did a fantastic job,” says Finnell. “He did the Vegetable Gremlin, Brain Gremlin and the Bat-Gremlin - and of course we did the Batman joke because Batman had just came out,” he smiles, referencing the Bat-Gremlin’s flawless bat-symbol window escape. “Rick actually did designs for Gremlins that we didn’t even use because there was only so much space in the movie. There was an Elephant Gremlin and a Gremlin that turned into Albert Einstein,” teases Dante. “I’m surprised we were able to cram in as many as we were.”
Technological advances also opened up a new world of opportunity for Dante and Baker. “I was very glad I didn’t take them up on doing another Gremlins right away,” admits the Director. “In the intervening years, the tech changed drastically to a point where things we could never get the Gremlins to do in the first movie were now easily accomplished. We could make Gizmo walk, dance and see his whole body - and we were actually able to make the Gremlins talk with a device called the Gilderfluke, which allowed us to play back a pre-recorded voice,” he adds, referencing the tech responsible for bringing the Brain Gremlin to life. “It was my idea to cast Tony Randall,” smiles Finnell on finding the right Gremlin voice. “I thought he had the perfect slightly upper-crust diction.”
Gremlins aside, there are aspects of Dante’s sequel that remain oddly resonant: “At the time we had then billionaire - or at least he said he was - Donald Trump, who was in the news in New York. There was also another mogul called Ted Turner who had just bought the news station CNN,” explains Dante. “Daniel Clamp was a combination of Trump and Turner,” confirms Finnell of Glover's character. “He has a TV station with all these different channels - some of which were parodies and now they really exist. Trump’s The Art of the Deal had just come out and we parodied that with Clamp’s book I’ll Take Manhattan,” he smiles. “He’s one of the funniest things in the movie,” admits Dante. “There was also a character played by Haviland Morris named Marla and it turned out Trump’s mistress was also named Marla - which we didn’t realise when we were making the movie. When the picture came out everyone said ‘this is so pressient!’” he grins. “It was just an accident!”
It wasn’t just the Clamp Building that fell victim to the Gremlins’ reign of chaos - the fourth wall took a thrashing too. “The scene where the film seems to break and the Gremlins take over the projection booth was very controversial with the studio because they thought if people think the film is broken, they’ll leave,” remembers Dante. “They let me go to the preview with it and of course it worked great - but when it came to doing it on home video, that joke didn’t work anymore. They let us shoot a separate version for the VHS with the Gremlins messing up your VCR and changing channels on the TV - and instead of Hulk Hogan chasing the Gremlins away, it was John Wayne. That was very nice of them to do.” Finnell adds: “The studio’s reaction was not tremendous enthusiasm because anything that was too far out there, they weren’t crazy about - but I don’t remember any big arguments.”
A frequent fixture in countless ‘Best Sequel’ lists, time has been unexpectedly kind to Gremlins 2: The New Batch - unlike 1990 audiences. “I don’t think people were ready for it. I think it was a little ahead of its time,” reflects Finnell. “We hoped it would be something that, if people didn’t get it then, they would eventually get it. It’s become a touchstone for the kind of movie a studio would probably never allow to happen nowadays.” Dante shares his thoughts: “We didn’t make as much money as we could have and it put the kibosh on plans for an animated Gremlins series which they already had in the works,” he says. “They basically didn’t do anything with the property after that and I think the same issue may apply: they really don’t understand these pictures.” That said, the movie still holds a fond place in Dante’s heart: “Gremlins 2 is special to me because it’s so personal,” he smiles. “It’s a movie where my ID was unleashed and I got to do whatever I wanted and it wasn’t second guessed. There was nobody to say no,” adds the Director. “They were true to their word: they let me do the movie the way I wanted and I’ll always be grateful for having that opportunity.”
This piece was originally published in SciFiNow Magazine.
Earlier this week movie history was made as Director Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy Parasite became the first foreign language film to take home the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a moment that marks a long overdue transition - especially when contrasted against Green Book’s win for the very same accolade just a year ago. It also signals a key wind change when it comes to how the Academy is starting to consider these innovative international gems whose subtitles so often hold them back from achieving mainstream success. As the ceremony’s biggest award, the ripple effect of this big win is sure to be felt for years to come - however amid all the celebration, back slapping and fizz it appeared to be business as usual when it came to the Oscar’s other awards - especially the stale and repetitive way it rewards animation.
2020’s gong for Best Animated Feature went to Toy Story 4, the colourful Pixar sequel that saw Tom Hanks and Tim Allen reprise their plastic counterparts Woody and Buzz for a largely formulaic fourth outing. The win gave Pixar its thirteenth Oscar, making them the most award-laden animation studio in the world, despite their increasing reliance on sequels and recent internal strife following allegations against its founder and CCO, John Lasseter. More noticeable however were the films that it beat out. Sure, there was the usual spattering of mainstream fare with Dreamworks lush threequel How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World - but 2020’s shortlist also included powerhouse works like Laika’s beautiful stop-motion adventure Missing Link, Spain’s rich 2D Christmas comedy Klaus and the heart-wrenchingly poignant French feature I Lost My Body. With the latter three in this category containing more depth, diversity and originality than anything in Pixar’s latest toybox, is it time the Academy looked at something other than mainstream success when it comes to celebrating feature animation?
“It’s all too predictable,” says Steve Henderson, Director of Manchester Animation Festival and Editor of Skwigly Animation Magazine. “Toy Story 4 was just one great film among some incredible works of art. Until the Academy takes animation seriously as an art form, it’s just going to continue handing out awards to Disney films that are already incredibly well publicised. We did a poll on my magazine Skwigly.com and just 2% of those voting there voted for Toy Story 4. There’s a massive gulf between Academy voters and the animation community. I Lost My Body is a masterpiece - a real work of art. Klaus was also an amazing achievement. In an ideal world, animated films wouldn't just be restricted to animation categories,” he reasons. “I Lost My Body could have contended with Best Picture.”
Pixar’s undisputed track record when it comes to the Oscars proves that this is nothing new. Last year’s win for Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse undoubtedly marked a step towards honouring fresh animation styles - but it still gave mainstream studios a win over independent features like Japanese fantasy Mirai. In 2018, Pixar’s Coco topped the social political message contained within Nora Twomey’s warmly animated The Breadwinner and the painstakingly created Loving Vincent, while in 2017 the star-studded Zootopia somehow emerged victorious against the tender French childhood drama My Life as a Courgette and Michaël Dudok de Wit’s stunningly crafted Studio Ghibli co-pro The Red Turtle. With so many animated features left in the wake of Disney, Sony and the like, it’s no wonder the animation community is paying less and less attention to the Academy’s praise.
“If you look to BAFTA and the Golden Globes where Klaus and Missing Link won, you get the impression more care was placed in the voting system - but the Oscars don’t seem open to change,” says Henderson. “There have been some amazing animations this year that didn’t even get nominated - The Swallows of Kabul, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles, Weathering with You, Funan and This Magnificent Cake didn’t make the nominee list but we’re all incredible works of art. Maybe if they were only to give animators the opportunity to vote we would see a change. Viewers who want to open their horizons and see something unique should take a chance on some of the lesser-known animated films that you can find on home streaming platforms, animation festivals or in independent cinemas,” he adds. “Don’t rely on the Oscars to act as a barometer of quality when it comes to animation.”
Do you think Toy Story 4 deserved to win Best Animated Feature at the 2020 Oscars? Let me know in the comments section below!
Kevin Smith knows his brand. After all, he should. He’s spent the better part of three decades making films that are so singularly tailored to his own specific audience it makes you wonder how much head scratching the uninitiated must do while watching some of his later work. Smith was world-building and character-linking long before the spandex-clad Marvel made it commonplace and cool - and yet his latest work, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot - a return to the foul-mouthed, pop-culture obsessed View Askewniverse that he spent the majority of the 90s creating - feels very much the cumulative work that Avengers: Infinity War was for Iron Man and friends. Everyone from the Director’s back catalogue returns and we mean everyone - however oddly shoehorned or randomly placed - in a film that’s both chaotically messy yet somehow still enjoyable - if you’re in on the joke.
Plot-wise, Smith doesn’t stray far from the formula that framed his titular characters in their last headline outing, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2001. In fact, he doesn’t change much at all. On discovering the movie studio that once owned the rights to the comic book that they’re the basis of has reclaimed its stake - taking ownership of the duo's names in the process - New Jersey street rats and local weed dealers Jay and Silent Bob must head to Hollywood to stop stoner superhero movie Bluntman and Chronic from being made, taking their names back in the process. As they hit the road, a host of familiar faces emerge from the woodwork - alongside a wide array of new guests including Chris Hemsworth, Val Kilmer, Joe Manganiello and countless more.
Smith’s latest undeniably has a swan-song vibe to it as the director calls upon all the famous friends he’s made over the years to help collectively lift Jay and Silent Bob Reboot from bargain bin fodder to something with a little more shine. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Smith has become a commodity unto himself - larger and more successful in many ways as a media personality than he ever was as a Director. His latest isn’t blind to this fact either, as the film treads deeper and deeper into meta-territory with nods to the Smith's ‘too fat to fly’ fiasco where he was wrongfully booted off a plane in 2010 and prods at his fascination with putting family members into his work. Ben Affleck’s Chasing Amy alter-ego Holden McNeil sees the cameo fan-service reach its peak in the film’s most touching sequence - but even that cumulative moment can’t resist the opportunity for a bit of fourth wall breaking fun.
Overall, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is a bit of a conundrum. From both a technical and storytelling perspective, it’s far from a great film - enough so that it makes you wonder where the Director might go next now that he’s called his cameo favours all in one go. What’s more, a good 90% of its references, in-jokes and overall humour will zoom over the heads of newbie Smith fans like a fat Batman in a New Jersey mall. That said, is this issue really any more difficult to deal with than Marvel’s episodic movie strategy? They’re a company that plays to their fans and their fans alone - and so is Smith - and if you count yourself a True Believer in the worlds and characters that he’s spent decades creating, then you’ll likely find just as much to like in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot than in any Avengers outing. Snoogans.
Interview: Muppet legend Caroll Spinney on Jim Henson, Sesame Street and changing kids tV as Big Bird
Caroll Spinney was a puppeteering legend. He was there for the birth of the Muppets alongside Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Kermit Love and worked on the beloved kids' show Sesame Street from its inception until his retirement, helping us all with our ABCs and 123s.
Through his close friendship with Henson, Spinney met a big yellow bird and a grumpy green grouch; two characters that would ultimately change his life and career forever. As Big Bird and Oscar, the Muppeteer and voice actor travelled the world, appeared in a staggering 50 seasons of Sesame Street and became an instrumental figure in the childhoods of a generation. In 2014, he was the subject of the documentary I Am Big Bird, which delicately detailed the impact this unusual career choice has had on his personal life.
Earlier this month, Spinney passed away at the age of 85. His final performances as Big Bid and Oscar The Grouch were recorded shortly before his retirement in 2018 and aired during Sesame Street's landmark 50th anniversary show which aired earlier this year. In honour of Spinney's life and work, enjoy an exclusive Q&A in which he discusses his relationship with Jim Henson, the show's impact on little (and big) kids and what Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch would say about working with him for so long...
You’ve had such a long and successful career. What was your first impression of Jim Henson and his idea for The Muppets?
I saw his stuff long before I met him. He did sensational little things - he loved little characters that looked a little bit like frogs. Actually, Kermit wasn’t even a frog when he began he was just a ‘Frosh’ as Jim called him. He did 8 second commercials and they were the most devastatingly funny things I ever saw. One was a little guy standing beside a short stubby cannon aimed off to the side and over there is a fat little version of the same puppet and he says ‘Do you drink Wilkins Coffee?’ and the other character says ‘No’ and he blows him away with the cannon. Then he turns the canon to face us and he says ‘do YOU drink Wilkins coffee?’ and that’s it – it’s so quick and succinct, it was just amazing. I said, ‘now that’s puppets!’ and nine years later I got to work for him.
Did you have any idea then how much that relationship would impact your life and career?
Well I kind of thought it’d go a long way because it was Jim Henson. Everything I’d seen him do was incredible, original and really right on and so when he hired me and told me he was going to have me play two characters I said ‘I think this is going to be a wonderful opportunity that I’m being given’ and it’s certainly proven to be that.
Did Jim have any future plans for Big Bird that he may have discussed but didn’t come to pass?
Well yes, in a way. I said to him ‘What is this bird going to be like?’ and he said ‘I think it’s like a goofy country local’ so that’s how he was when I started but we were doing that for a little while and I said ‘you know, I don’t think this character has any real merit for this show, I think it’d be far better if he was a child that happens to be a big 8ft 2 bird’. The producers readily agreed and over the period of about a week I lightened his voice and dropped the yokel sound as I didn’t see why a yokel was even on a city street. From then on he was a surrogate child and he was learning the alphabet just like the kids at home.
It must be tricky playing one character for so long. How has Big Bird’s personality changed?
Once I changed him to a child he’s been pretty consistent to what I thought he should be. Jim gave me a lot of leeway with character so I think he’s been pretty consistent. He’s a child but of course, in our story, he’s always six years old. He’s the only one for which time stands still since so many of the people on the show are still on the show like Bob McGrath, he’s a year older than I, so you can see everybody ageing, including children. Once, a child was with us from the time she was six years old and I think the last time she was on the show she was 25 and married! People say ‘Well, how can Big Bird stay six years old?’ and we just say ‘because we say he does!’. Since I’m 81 that makes me the world’s oldest child star.
What about Oscar the Grouch - has his character changed along the way? Wasn’t he was originally orange?
He was orange, yes, and lately people have been asking me how come he turned green. Well, the answer is because Jim felt like making him green just because he could! Often when I’m doing Oscar I seem to know how he thinks because it’s exactly the opposite of what I think should be proper and good but one time he said - and I didn’t plan it - ‘Well people ask why I’m orange, actually I’m still orange, this is moss and algae mostly. If I took a bath I’d be orange again!’
You’re very well known for Oscar and Big Bird and those characters are huge fan-favourites - but what are some of your favourite characters on the show?
Well I’ve always thought that some of the other characters were very funny. I don’t know which one I like better, Oscar or Big Bird. As a person I like Big Bird better but Oscar is kind of cool which I never was very much at school and so I think I just love the two characters I play. I’ve been asked ‘I bet you’d really like to be a director as well?’ – No, not at all. I love to act and I love to act these two characters and I love the fact that I get to have this opportunity. I’ve just finished taping the 46th season of the show and to keep playing the same characters for literally decades is very exciting.
What do you feel you’ve taken away from your time on the show?
Well it’s fun to know that he’s still liked and now because of this movie Big Bird and Oscar are having a great resurgence of interest and that’s wonderful as far as I’m concerned. People say ‘why is the movie being done now?’ – it’s the first time I was asked if they could make a documentary about me and of course we co-operated every bit, like all those inserts are videos that me and my wife Deb, who is also prominently in the movie, filmed. We didn’t realise when we were making all of those videos and movies that they would actually make it to the big screen!
It must be quite a surreal experience…
Yeah it’s quite strange seeing your life up there on the big screen. Of course, that’s just the surface of it, there’s so many facets to people’s lives but I must say that I like their interpretation of it because one of the most pertinent things to me is my wife – I like to put it this way: becoming Big Bird is the second greatest thing that ever happened to me and, of course, she is the best thing that ever happened to me.
You must get approached by so many children but also an increasing number of adults. What’s the most common thing you get asked by older fans?
Well when people meet me they say ‘I never thought I’d be speaking to the person who voices Big Bird.’ He’s not a regular character because he’s had a life with happiness, sadness, frustrations, successes. So many people say, particularly a lot of people in their 40s, ‘You’ve really meant so much to me during my childhood’ and now they have children themselves and they like the fact that the same fellow is still doing this character decades later. I think that’s a really satisfying thing.
Was there any other character that you would have loved to have voiced if you were given the chance?
I can’t think of one. I work with some awfully clever puppeteers and I love what they do with them. Frank Oz, his stuff was devastatingly funny and Jim himself, he was a marvel to work with because he was friendly and nice and never critical but if he didn’t like something he’d be like ‘Hmmm’ and if he said ‘Hmmm’ it meant ‘Maybe you could do better’ and if did like something he’d say ‘Lovely, lovely…very nice!’ Actually he sounded a lot like Ernie; it was a very pleasant and very nice ‘Hmmm’. Some builders would bring a puppet to him to see if he liked what they were interpreting his drawings like and if he said ‘Hmmm’ tears would flow because they wanted to please him but if he said ‘Oh good!’ you knew you were in - but he was never cruel, I must say.
Everyone must be asking you about working with Big Bird and Oscar for so long but what do you think they’d say about working with you for so long?
Well Big Bird is very polite and he often looks at me and calls me Mr Spinney, actually he’s sort of like my child - but Oscar, if I have him on my hands and he’s talking and being humorous in his manner, I have him turn around with his great big eyes staring at me. He’s never liked me, he’s always very intimidating. I kind of get a kick out of that, that he’ll put me down sharply. It’s probably my own fault but I figure that’s what he should be doing!
Culture Dump: The Creative Glass Ceiling - Dealing with the Geographical Drawbacks of a Creative Career
When it comes to work, the sky’s the limit these days. The rocket growth of the internet has removed many of the decades-old barriers that once stood in the way of you achieving your dreams. If you can muster up enough determination, will power and focus it feels like you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. At least, that’s what we’re told. On the surface, it looks like we live in the most opportunity-laden generation ever - but maybe it’s just the most frustrating. Open up any device and the potential for success is dangled so close we can almost touch it. All the puzzle pieces are there, if we can just figure out what order they go in…
Any yet despite this fluidity, there still appears to be a glass ceiling when it comes to career growth. Obviously each field of work is different and comes with its own specific opportunities and limitations - however when it comes to film journalism, location still seems to dictate how far you can push your professional prowess. I can only relate to this issue through the experiences I’ve encountered first hand - and while I’ve certainly been able to achieve a lot more than I ever thought would be possible without caving in and moving from Manchester to London - I still feel the limitations of my surroundings impacting my career potential every day, working as part of an industry that rarely looks further afoot than Leicester Square.
Seriously. If I had a quid for every commission or great gig I’ve had to miss purely because I’m not based down South or I can’t swing the £60+ train fare to see the necessary film screening before a PR team will let me near an interviewee - my freelance career would be booming. It’s as if those in charge are aware of the necessity for regional coverage but unable or unwilling to enable its growth. It’s not just missed opportunities either - the real kicker (and the one that goes largely ignored) is just how much harder the people who want a pop-culture oriented career, who are based outside of London, have to work. Over the years, I’ve had to do countless full time day-jobs alongside the often 24/7 task of trying to pursue my creative passion, against the odds.
‘If you’re so bothered, just move’, most of you will no doubt think - but that’s not the point - and If anything relocating would only reinforce the vicious cycle of geographical restrictions. Instead, I’ve quietly decided to wear my Northern proximity as a badge of defiance. One that says, ‘No - you don’t need to pick up and move or choose between leaving family and friends or dipping into your personal savings - if you want a shot at achieving your dreams.’ Even if it means working a side-job or watching those who happen to be in the right place quickly rise up the ranks ahead of you or missing out on the occasional amazing opportunity. I’ve learned to love my Northern heritage and position, despite its mild drawbacks and periodic frustrations. I’ve worked it into my writing style and editorial tone of voice. It helps make me unique. Should I really have to abandon that in order to succeed? I don’t think so - so I won’t.
Remember the saying ‘too much of anything is bad for you’? Apparently no one told pop-culture. When it comes to our collective love of movies and TV, literally anything goes. Need proof? Just look online. Audience appetites can’t seem to be quenched, forcing the already prevalent reboot and sequelisation culture to evolve yet again, this time to include a brand new format: the long-dormant continuation. Just recently word broke that The Wachowski Sisters are planning to jack back into The Matrix to further a franchise that was neatly wrapped up over 15 years ago. Not only that - but we also learned a Breaking Bad movie is on its way with the secretly-filmed El Camino - meaning we’ll get even more life from a series that was instrumental in paving the way for a new golden age of telly. Good? Maybe. But perhaps the risk outweighs the reward. After all, their very existence will render all those think-pieces, out-there fan theories and, dare we say it - content feelings - associated with these finale, irrevocably mute. When it comes to more, too much never seems to be quite enough.
Perhaps that final point is the real kicker. What happens when too much messing with the formula ruins our cherished memories of the original product? It’s happened before. Crafting a worthy follow-up to something millions hold dear and strongly identity with is a mercurial science with no guarantees - and sometimes it’s not even worth it. By serving up more, creators effectively un-write the carefully crafted endings they spent so long perfecting. Ricky Gervais transporting his pompous alter-ego David Brent to the big screen is the perfect case in point. Sure, 2016’s Life on the Road has its moments - and it certainly has its fans - but it hardly packs the same emotional punch and funny-bone tickle of the all-but perfect final moments of 2003’s Christmas special. That tender (and surprisingly noble) small-screen conclusion for Brent? Poof! Gone in an instant as soon as the opening crawl of Life on the Road appeared. Bye bye, lasting memory. Hello, more story!
It’s not just TV that’s at risk either. This same greed almost split the Star Wars franchise in two with Rian Johnson’s sandwich-filler trilogy instalment The Last Jedi in 2017. Johnson’s bold strokes and gleeful abandon during his time spent in a Galaxy Far, Far Away were praised by many - but it’s hard to ignore the rift they caused among die hard fans who were less than pleased with the direction he took their beloved characters. Heck - they even set up a petition to remove the film from official Star Wars canon. Whatever your thoughts on Johnson’s work, or continuations in general, our feverish need for more from our pop-culture cornerstones undeniably changes our relationship with the very thing that made them special in the first place. To paraphrase Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom, Hollywood seems so preoccupied with whether or not they could - they didn’t stop to think if they should. Good quote, that. Here’s hoping we don’t come to hate Malcolm in Jurassic World III, due June 11 2020.
Freelance life is great. There’s something about the unbridled freedom that comes with being able to manage your own time, pick the projects you want to work on and - if you’re lucky - make a living doing something you genuinely enjoy doing. I mean, who doesn’t want to be their own boss? So long someone else telling you what to do and how to do it - you’re the Manager now and guess what? You’re going to watch a bit of Frasier while you work and that’s just fine. Embarking on a career where you call the shots is an appealing and rare notion - and glimpsed through the rose-tinted frame of social media, it can certainly seem like a pretty cushy lifestyle, but like most things it comes with a side you’re not always that eager to shout about.
It’s this downward swing of freelance that you won’t hear much about from your self-employed friends. Freelance is a pendulous existence. You’re either having the best time ever, struggling to fit in all the commissions and exciting work you’ve secured or sat staring into space, wondering what exactly you’ve done with your life as everything slowly closes in around you. It’s at low points like these where the thought of crawling back into bed for a good old wallow feels the most appealing. Turns out, the hidden cost of having unchecked flexibility is actually having unchecked flexibility. As the person who calls the shots, you only have yourself to blame when things are going well and when everything feels lost. Yaay… (sigh)
Having endured both situations, I’ve noticed a few things that are worth bearing in mind whenever the work dries up and commissions feel few and far between. Firstly, try to stay focused. Whenever my inbox is looking sparse, it can be easy to lose direction and resort to a scattergun approach in order to secure more work. While one or two carefully planned pitches can certainly help, it’s often not worth tampering with your professional reputation by shooting off some half-baked ideas just because you want to feel busy again. Instead, put your precious time and energy to practical use and focus on the areas of your career that are within your reach to develop. Completing exciting briefs is only one aspect of the freelance lifestyle and while it may be the main one, there are plenty of other parts of the package that need nurturing to ensure the longevity of your work.
Giving your website, social media presence and portfolio a bit of a facelift is background task that can pay off in the long-term. Yes - even giving your LinkedIn profile a bit of attention can help during these quiet moments too. A fully optimised and regularly populated page can increase your visibility and maybe even attract new clients, and by keeping your portfolio updated with all your latest work you can be ready to showcase your most recent achievements whenever you need to introduce yourself to a new editor in a hurry. Most importantly though, as a writer I’ve found that it’s key to try and remain sharp and keep moving forward during these periods of drought. Head to your blog and write - just for the sake of it. Hone your craft and create something new. Independent working can either be all over the place or scarily quiet but when it boils down to it, the best tool you have in your arsenal is yourself, your drive and your creativity. No one’s going to hand you anything on a platter - so with things get quiet, it’s time to get busy.
Reader beware: The long-awaited conclusion to Marvel’s sprawling cinematic universe arrives this week with heroic hype-machine Avengers: Endgame - and spoilers are everywhere. Of course, having your viewing experience tarnished by an overly-blabby punter is nothing new - but in today’s chatter-obsessed digital world it’s become something that requires staggering amounts of vigilance to shield yourself from. Social media sites have even started using bespoke filters to help protect your peepers from potential plot points - and yet with the pure excess of information gushing through our newsstreams, it’s still possible to encounter a spoiler before you even realise you’ve seen it. First world problem? Sure. Annoying? Definitely.
It makes you nostalgic for the days where movie cliffhangers really carried some weight. However Cap and co counteract that infamous Thanos click, it’s hard to ignore the countless ads, teases and announcements we’ve already had for future instalments of Marvel’s supposedly dusted heroes. Our insatiable need for literally any shred of movie information or newsworthy nuggets has all but sapped any of the peril Infinity Game’s open-ended climax had - and in turn, it’s robbed us of the full potency of the Russo Brothers’ master plan. Undoubtedly the internet and all of its connectivity, opportunity, cat gifs and fail videos has done a lot of good - but for movie-fans, it’s irrevocably changed the viewing experience.
In a pre-web world, this wasn’t the case. It may seem like an eon ago - but cast your mind back and imagine what it must have been like to watch a movie cliffhanger when there was nothing - literally nothing - you could do but wait for the ending of the story to materialise. No shoddy set pictures shot on camera phones from street corners, no accidental plot leaks from sweaty-palmed crew members rolled out for interviews whenever the stars were unavailable - not even any unsubstantiated think-pieces or geeky ‘things you didn’t notice’ scene analyses on YouTube to dissect. All you had was time. Plenty of time. It’s a hard scenario to picture these days but it definitely existed.
Now put yourself in the cinema seat of a moviegoer watching The Empire Strikes Back for the very first time in 1980. Imagine seeing it come to a close: Luke bested by Vader and missing a hand, mysterious rumours of another Skywalker hiding somewhere in the galaxy, Han imprisoned in carbonite and sold off to a bounty hunter - and then: credits. What would you have thought as you stared at the screen, mouth agape, pondering the pure WTF-ness of it all whilst knowing that you wouldn’t get any answers or closure at all until Episode VI arrived in three years time? It goes without saying that the internet has given us a wealth of information right at our fingertips - spoilers and all - but sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
Do you think decent movie cliffhangers are gone for good? Let me know in the comment section below!
Author: Simon Bland