Tuesday, 30 July 2013

This American Podcast

Something which I really enjoy is the good old fashioned podcast. Much maligned, I think it’s an unappreciated art form and perhaps surprisingly therefore one of the most readily accessible. You can get hours upon hours a week of entertainment from these little undiscovered gems and the best part is that more often than not they’re free. To me it’s crazy that some people have never even listened to one. The motivating factor for me writing this article is one show in particular, This American Life. This is a podcast that a friend of mine introduced me to a couple of months ago and is something I’ve devouring voraciously ever since.

Presented by Ira Glass for WBEZ 91.5, a public radio station in Chicago, and with over 500 episodes, this is a show I find almost impossible to categorise. Every single episode is about a completely different topic (titles of the shows ranging from Small Scale Sin to Kindness of Strangers and Running After Antelope) and combines interviews, music, radio plays and much more. It is, perhaps, through the interviews though where I feel this show is at its strongest. What I really enjoy about these is the way the sound-bites are interspersed with insightful and a lot of the time witty musings from Glass.  This is a show that provides a truly authentic and unpretentious slice of Americana but goes beyond that, exploring themes that resonate with people throughout the world. I have found myself absorbed by topics as esoteric as growing up in the Jehovah Witness faith to computer hacking.

In a country that is so dependent on the power of advertising, a public radio station such as WBEZ thriving is a testament to the strength of its programming. This American Life is perhaps at the core of that programming and subsequently has become popular not just as a result of syndication across the United States, now with over 1.8 million listeners, but podcasts and the Internet has given this show a global audience with it being downloaded by 900,000 fans worldwide.

I strongly urge you to give it a try and immerse yourself in This American Life. Episodes are available weekly, and are downloadable from iTunes (other stores are available) but if like me you listen to one and have the compulsion to listen to them all you should consider buying the This American Life app from the iTunes store. This awesome piece of software will give you access to all of the 500-plus shows for the ridiculously good price of £1.99. Further details can be found via the website, www.thisamericanlife.org, if you need any more convincing

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Hollywood’s Relationship Reality Check

Ok so with this column I’m going to attempt to not let it turn into another one of my rambles (but I’m promising nothing). Something has been on my mind recently and that’s the portrayal, in Hollywood, of relationships since the 90s. You only need to look at posters of movies starring Matthew McConaughey from this era. These would usually find him smiling and leaning dreamily against an object or a person (Yes I’m referring to Failure To Launch and How to Lose a Guy In Ten Days).
These films genuinely give you the impression that relationships are easy, lack depth and follow a formula. The plot goes as follows: Guy meets girl and they are effortlessly happy (to the point they are giddy) until one overly dramatic setback leads to them separating, only for some overblown gesture to reunite them and for everything to end happily ever after. This is just not the case in reality. Now don’t get me wrong I don’t subscribe to the whole self-indulgent Sex and the City approach of cast over-analysing the trivial and I’m not a pessimist when it comes to relationships but to say that any long term liaison is without struggle is just naïve!

OK, so I’m single at the moment (surprised?), but many of my friends have girlfriends or boyfriends (or both) and are very happy I might add and I feel I have been in enough relationships to know that this idealisation is poppycock. Yet, modern day screenwriters and directors have consistently propagated this myth. The truth is in order for a couple to be successful there are many factors which are pivotal and people’s attitudes can and will change over time.

The two movies I mentioned previously, Failure To Launch and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, in addition to having ridiculous movie posters are also riddled with clichés and with contrived plots. I should point out I am not bashing McConaughey, I think he’s starred in some great movies since (such as Mud and Killer Joe) and has proved with the right material he is a genuinely a talented actor but his work from this period was that of someone on autopilot. Failure To Launch sees McConaughey’s parents hire an expert (can you call Sarah Jessica Parker that?) to pretend to fall in love with him to motivate him to move out of their home but shockingly she falls in love with him for real and in the end they by a boat to live on and sail away together. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days sees McConaughey paired with Kate Hudson. In this Oscar worthy script Hudson’s character is a journalist trying to write a column about getting a man to break up with her in, yes you guessed it, 10 days and ironically (oh the irony) McConaughey’s advertising executive makes a bet with his colleagues that he can make any woman fall in love with him. I know what you’re thinking an astonishing plot.

All that said there are some recent movies out there which I think genuinely do justice to the complexities of modern day partnerships. Three of my favourites are 500 Days Of Summer, One Day (based on the David Nicholls book of the same name) and High Fidelity. In the case of “500 Days of Summer”, the couple, (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel) fall in love but their relationship doesn’t work out in the end and that’s life because sometimes things just don’t! In the case of One Day we have two people who genuinely love each other but are victims of circumstance because despite being compatible relationships have a lot to do with timing (well plus the fact that Jim Sturgess’ character acts like a moron for a large portion of the film). High Fidelity I pick because if girls genuinely want to know how many guys think and feel in a relationship watch this movie. John Cusack’s character’s journey of self-discovery, reflecting on exes, really makes you think about the way your former partners can be romanticised and idealised.

If you watch some of the classic movies made prior to the 90s (Casablanca or Gone with the Wind?), the central relationships are full of depth and pathos but also don’t work out. Key to any convincing screen relationship is having three dimensional characters (Just look at Scarlett O’Hara and Rick Blaine) who go through genuine turmoil and whom you invest. The majority of modern romantic comedies fail to achieve this.

I guess what I’m getting at is relationships are tough. Sometimes they’re successful, rewarding and life enriching but they don’t always last forever. We all need escapism from time to time but Hollywood needs a relationship reality check.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Why is style an under appreciated art form?

Recently I was having a discussion with a very good friend of mine. I made the statement that style was not considered at art form which was ridiculous. She disagreed strongly with this, saying that it was not because it was not a skill or something that you could study, or even something that was very creative as it is often dictated to us by the high street or fashion houses.

I disagreed strongly. Style is a form of self expression, and is that not what art is? Something that expresses what you feel? That brings joy or evokes strong emotions from the creator and the audience. Something that takes time to develop which is constantly evolving, and growing into the next thing.

It defines cultural and political history as much as a painting or style of music. It contributes to movements in culture whether that be the hippy movement, punk, the rave scene.

It speaks out against the politics of the time and defies what people think are the "rules" as much as a controversial installation in a gallery.

Not only this but it is accessible to anyone, regardless of class, race, nationality or whatever. Good and bad style is something that you can view anytime, any place  which makes it an art form which therefore is available to anyone. We can use it to create a statement at any point we choose. Or we can just tired and want to wear pyjamas!

My friend text me the next day and said she had been thinking about what we had debated and now agreed with me, just because she didn't appreciate it in that way didn't mean that it was not a vital form of expression.

So what art will you make today? All you have to do is get dressed.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Rich's Televisual Ramblings - Archer

In my second column I am going to feature the show, Archer. It is an animated series that is similar to other animated shows such as American Dad or Family Guy and is extremely funny. Like these shows it is also episodic in that if you miss one episode you’re not going to sit there pulling your hair out as you contemplate working out what key plot points you might have missed. It is a show which I have been shamelessly plugging to friends for a long time. The show has currently just finished its fourth season airing in the US on FX and in the UK on 5*. It is a co-production between Floyd County Productions, Georgia Entertainment Industries and FX Productions.

Creator, Adam Reed, is a man whose previous efforts Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo are shows that I enjoyed immensely but felt were definitely unpolished gems. With Archer, however, he has created a program which hammers you relentlessly with jokes throughout its twenty-something minute runtime and is much more accessible to the casual viewer (compared to his previous shows). The premise is most noticeably a parody of James Bond, The Man from U.N.C.L.E and a plethora of other 1970/80s espionage shows. These are all comedy tropes to which anyone can relate but the comedy geek in me loves all the off-the-cuff references to obscure pop culture. These take inspiration in everything from Kenny Loggins (the writer of the song “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun), who is referenced numerous times to Gator (the 1976 sequel to Burt Reynolds movie White Lightning).

Archer tells the story of International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) and the eponymous character is Sterling Archer (who from here on out I’ll refer to as Archer). He is a super spy, who is proficient at all of the skills synonymous with that profession, including weaponry, driving and hand to hand combat but is conversely cursed with a laundry list of character flaws, including, but not limited to, being an alcoholic, a narcissist and a chauvinist. To be fair it’s amazing that Archer is as well-adjusted as he is. To begin with ISIS just happens to be run by his mother, Malory Archer, an overbearing and emotionally cold woman who spends’ her entire time using the company’s resources in the pursuit of one self-satisfying goal or another. To compound matters Malory spent much of Archer’s childhood off on spying missions alternating between leaving him with her butler Woodhouse and some boarding school. Secondly, his partner, Lana Kane, is his ex-girlfriend and despite being the most competent agent ISIS has she is riddled with insecurity due to the fact that Archer’s mother is the boss. This sees her constantly confronted by nepotism and Archer’s own oedipal complex. In addition, there are a litany of supporting characters that are equally idiosyncratic.

There is an astonishing pool of talent providing the voices to the shows characters. H. Jon. Benjamin who plays Sterling Archer is known for voice acting on a number of other cartoons and animation but is perhaps best known for playing Bob Belcher on Bobs Burgers and guest starring on Family Guy manages to make a character who looks like the quintessential chiselled looking spy and through voice alone manages to make him into an obnoxious character. The primary cast is rounded up by Aisha Tyler (Friends) who plays Lana Kane, Jessica Walter plays Malorie Archer, a role reminiscent of her role Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development , Judy Greer (Arrested Development) as secretary Cheryl Tunt, Chris Parnell (30 Rock) plays comptroller, Cyril Figgis. The rest of the cast is rounded off by show creator Adam Reed who plays gay intelligence analyst Ray Gillette, Amber Nash who plays human resources director Pam Poovey who and Lucky Yates who plays Mr. Doctor Algernop Krieger.

Archer is a show that will have you literally crying with laughter and even weeks or months later you will find yourself quoting lines from this show. So in this humble man’s opinion take Kenny Loggins’ advice, “ride into the Danger Zone” and watch Archer.

Below I have linked to a video to some of the shows highlights from the first season: