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Robert Downey Jr.’s “The Route” and the Lost Art of the Long-Form Car Commercial

Robert Downey Jr.’s “The Route” and the Lost Art of the Long-Form Car Commercial (photo)

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Last week, the Internet was abuzz with a new stop-motion ad for Planters that featured Robert Downey Jr. as the new voice of Mr. Peanut, but it was actually a commercial featuring a pre-“Iron Man” Downey Jr. that caught my eye when I came across One Cool Thing A Day‘s selection of “The Route,” a 12-minute ad produced by Volvo for its line of V50 station wagons. Produced by the Swedish carmaker in 2004, “The Route” does indeed show off all the amenities of the V50, but also functions as a surreal, elliptical piece of noir, courtesy of “The Grifters” director Stephen Frears, wherein Downey Jr. confronts himself as a not-so-compatible travel companion for himself in his search for a town called Confidence. The first part is here (and the link to part two is here):

At the time, Martin Buckley, a strategic planner from the ad firm that produced the short, said of “The Route,” “If you want people to come to the Internet and spend their valuable time to view your film and product, you better make it worth their while. We know the true Volvo prospect is highly curious and appreciates advertising that is both creative and intelligent.”

Whether “The Route” can actually be appreciated as something beyond advertising is up for debate, yet besides being a quick payday for its creative team in between films, it was notable for being a rare moment when the auteur theory made its way into marketing. While big-name directors make commercials all the time while waiting to direct their next feature, it’s far less often that they get to helm something longer than 30 seconds. And for car companies looking to make an impression on the Internet, the mid-’00s was a prosperous enough time to throw millions at burgeoning area of viral marketing.

“The Route” was actually the less successful follow-up to “The Mystery of Dalarö,” Volvo’s eight-minute 2004 ad that seemed like an undercooked BBC report about the strange occurrence of 32 people buying the same sedan in a Swedish village at the same time and even calls upon Karl Jung expert to explain the meaning. (“We all born with collective unconsciousness,” says the expert.) The ad campaign, which never targeted the U.S., caused something of a sensation in Europe where many speculated about the film’s credited director Carlos Soto, until it was revealed that “Soto” was really a pseudonym for Spike Jonze, who continued to play tricks on the public by questioning the initial ad with a director’s cut.

In an interview with The Internationalist, Volvo’s director of global advertising at the time said “Dalarö” was a product of having an ad budget half the size of other car companies and needing to be creative. However, Volvo wasn’t alone in pouring money into these mini-movies. “L.I.E.” director Michael Cuesta helmed a softly-lit 15-minute promotional film for Lexus in 2003 called “Three Journeys,” following three couples as they made their way to the California coast, that was handed out at auto events around the country on DVD and have now become collectibles.

However, they are not nearly as prized as the granddaddy of the form, BMW’s “The Hire” series, which was launched in 2001 to hawk Beemers and showcase Clive Owen as an elusive chauffeur simply known as “The Driver.” The ads were spearheaded by David Fincher, who never actually directed one of his own, though it’s probably no coincidence that “Se7en” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker penned the first installment “Ambush” for the late John Frankenheimer to direct. Shorts from Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ang Lee, John Woo, Joe Carnahan, Tony Scott and Guy Ritchie followed, not to mention my personal favorite, Wong Kar-Wai’s moody, introspective “The Follow” with Forest Whitaker and Mickey Rourke:

Incidentally, it was Whitaker’s involvement that was reported to have kept the DVDs of the Web series in limited supply since his contract required “The Follow” to only be shown online. BMW ultimately decided to end the series after 2002 because of cost, instead putting out a comic book that continued the adventures of the Driver. Though “The Hire” is widely seen as changing car advertising for good, it was a pioneer of a trend that was short-lived. Still, its influence can be seen today even in shorter car commercials directed by less famous names like Ivan Zacharias, who lensed this 2009 Audi ad featuring Jason Statham.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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