One of the things that has defined pop culture and especially music in the 21st Century is the atomization of the music industry. Aside from the major labels and their vanity plate sublabels, the music industry is dominated by perhaps millions of independent artists online and tens of thousands of micro labels based online or in local scenes. The ability to make music and record music and release music is largely open to anybody who has a computer or tablet and an internet connection. This combined with the declining importance of radio means that major labels can really only guarantee wide physical release as promotion and other forms of influence just aren’t the guarantors of success they way they used to be. The trade-off of sacrificing some artistic liberty for a huge pile of cash and a road paved to eventual stardom isn’t as lucrative as it once was, as labels become increasingly unable to secure sure-fire success for their artists. Commercially or critically. The end result is that pretty much anybody can make music and pretty much anybody can release music. There’s just tons of music out there! There’s too much music out there! Nobody will ever hear all of it, and most will hear lots that they don’t ever remember.
Where this really starts to matter is when you factor in the fact that the vast majority of people don’t even buy music anymore. Most music heard today is streamed or downloaded from blogs, file hosts, torrents, peer-to-peer, you name it. The ability of a band to make money off of record sales isn’t as important as it once was, bands make money off of merchandise and live shows. This is important to remember moving on. Bands and music are part of an ongoing trend after the age of information towards an age of curating. With all the worlds music at your fingertips whenever you want it, what becomes important is showing others your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. What becomes important is showing others what you’re into, because what you have access to is practically limitless and no longer limited to what you find in HMV or what you hear on the radio. Chris Ott covers this to an extent in Shallow Rewards #17: The Hiding when he discusses how teenagers in particular “stake a lot of their identity in the things that they enjoy.” He also covers the nature of limited editions and obscurity in an internet connected world.
In an age when people aren’t performing a transaction for the things they consume and they can freely consume almost anything they want of a certain thing, in this case music, personal taste becomes the religion. Individualist as it may be, the idea of you defining yourself through likes and dislikes of movies, music, games, books, cultural capital in general, takes on an important role in forming communities. With all of this it becomes pressing to ask: “So what of the critics? And what of critcism?” Why bother discussing something as “good” or “bad” when i’m not paying any money for it and at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is whether I enjoy my experience with it? As a critic and as critics we need to have an answer for this question: Why?
In the film 24 Hour Party People, Steve Coogan, as Manchester music deity Tony Wilson, remarks that with the advent of rave and house music people were applauding DJs. He comments on the fact that with this new dance music, people were cheering for the medium the music was being played on. People were cheering and enjoying the record player and mixer playing music that had already been recorded and mixed elsewhere. The act of playing music had become entertainment. Criticism these days is largely the same, a reflection on the original entertainment and creation that becomes entertainment in itself. Still; Why?
As I mentioned before with curating and personal taste becoming increasingly important, sorting through the impossibly large amount of information and material available to you whenever you should want it is part of the act of creating a taste and finding things you enjoy. Finding things you enjoy is the ultimate goal. Finding things you can be passionate about is the ultimate goal. If you’re a critic or you talk or write about music you should talk about things that make you want to write about them. This is the why: to show something that has compelled you in some way to feel about it. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s something to take time out of your day and at least experience. The important thing as someone who talks about music in any way becomes to let people know about things you’ve found that maybe they’d like to find. It’s to expose stuff that people may have overlooked, like post-punk from Russia or shoegaze from Pakistan. To critics and journalists, exposing acts that are overlooked by people and giving them an audience that they’ve been trying to reach is really what, ideally, happens.
Criticism and the idea of “good” and “bad” music is less important than it used to be and that’s not a bad thing. People having the ability and means to find things they like regardless of what the media-sanctioned “big thing” is is, in my opinion, a positive thing. Someone liking it and ordering a physical copy from the band or going out to a store and picking up the album if it’s in stock is better, and maybe they’ll buy a shirt too. If bands can get the exposure they want and get some money circulated back their way and play to bigger crowds because someone somewhere wrote about them and got people to give their music a chance, that’s a good thing. If people can get connected to things that they enjoy, that’s what we’re here for. If people can find something they don’t like that at least presents interesting ideas or concepts or themes, that’s another plus. You don’t hit them all out of the park. I got that new Watter album after hearing that it was a Slint/Rachel’s/King Crimson/The For Carnation collaboration. I ended up not enjoying it, but at least I’m aware it exists and I gave it a try. Who knows how many others did the same.
Take the word of journalists and critics and writers with a grain of salt. The important thing is that you discover new stuff and support artists you like so they can survive and make more good stuff. Some write because they love music. Some write to pay the rent. A bunch of shameless plagiarizers with a scattershot discography correctly pointed out that it’s “only rock and roll, but I like it.” There isn’t much else to take away.
The Blair Witch Project will be the yardstick for the found footage film for probably all of eternity. The lo-fi, low budget horror was hardly the inventor or most pioneering of found footage films, but undoubtedly the most iconic and most successful, inspiring a decade and a half’s worth of similar shaky-cam scares. Its dual cameras and genuinely bone-chilling plot were truly the most effective tools in making it a cult classic horror and massively profitable film (it was budgeted to the tune of $750,000 and grossed over $248 million worldwide).
If you consider a horror film as a ninety minute joke or a series of jokes over an hour and a half, the punchline is part of the payoff of the film - it may not be worth telling the joke if you don’t get to the punchline. Some horror films suffer massively for this, losing so much steam in the third act that everything that came before is a distant memory by the time the film trundles to a halt. Blair Witch has, in my opinion, the finest plot punchline in any horror film, with the mythos of the Blair Witch brought crashing back to reality in a night-vision sequence in the abandoned house, peppered generously with screaming and shaky camera.
It’s a marvellously simple film in concept, both a mockumentary and a horror although the latter is in slightly more equal measure than the former, though the mockumentary elements are crucial to the film’s effectiveness and sense of mystery. The cast of essentially just three characters go around their local area asking about the town’s dark history - on their travels hearing stories of murdered children, witchcraft, and kidnapping. All of the stories are taken in a sort of detached urban myth state of mind and this is why Blair Witch is so effective. The scepticism of real world paranormal events coupled with the realism of the film’s plot makes the events in the forest that much scarier. Not many can doubt the vastness of the wilderness in which they’re lost, though when they are continually frustrated with their ability to navigate, and when one goes missing, weird stuff starts happening and the scepticism is gone.
The trio of characters could be any friend group, and as the cracks begin to show they deliver powerful performances of being lost and stuck in the woods, pretty much consigned to certain death.
For me, The Blair Witch Project is the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen -mostly because it steps out of horror tropes and jumps and instead unnerves the audience, feeding them a rich pallet of spooky information before taking that away and drip feeding tiny, creepy bits of plot until the final, and devastating punchline.
For those lucky enough to see Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore effort and decade-defining Pulp Fiction in cinemas back in 1994, it’s probably hard to believe that the flick is 20 years old this year. As I’m not much older than that, I first saw the film closer to 2004, or a couple of years after at the latest. Pulp astonished me when I first saw it. I was only beginning my, what continues to be, life-long education into the world of film, and having seen and heard about the film for what seemed like an eternity, I finally managed to catch it on TV late one night.
My 13 or 14 year old self surely didn’t appreciate the film on the same levels as I would later upon numerous rewatches, but there was still something about it that really hit home for me. It was pure cinema; a film grounded in gritty violence and believable dialogue, but still somehow so much larger than life, it could never really feel like anything other than a movie. And I guess that’s why I love it so much, still to this day. While I’m not quite the major QT fanboy I once was in the late 2000s, I will never not be an admirer and fan of his work. Pulp Fiction is Tarantino on the top of his game in both writing and directing, with an unprecedented script of wit and thrills comprised in an intertwining, non-chronological tale that would become known as the ultimate “cool” film.
In my journey to become educated in all things film, I have come to realise that there are certainly better writers of dialogue out there than Tarantino. Richard Linklater, for one, can pen a script chocked to the fullest with what seems like mundane chit-chat, but still feels incredibly engaging and there always seems to be something more meaningful beneath it all. Linklater surely puts a lot of his own personality and experiences into the dialogue he writes and it comes through with an emotional punch. That’s where QT’s writing style differs the most. His films are not as personal, not as emotional, not as meaningful on that level. But then again, he never pretends that they are. Pulp Fiction is the greatest example of this. It’s not easy to make an engaging film that relies so heavily on conversations about the likes of Big Macs and foot massages, but QT’s wit and pop culture references aplenty go down a real treat when delivered by such an inspired cast. He really must be credited for not only putting together such an incredible cast (including John Travolta, putting him back on the map, and Samuel L. Jackson in a role that would ultimately become his most well-known in a ridiculously extensive filmography), but for getting the best out of them too. Yes, it’s downright pretentious at times, but when the performances and the directing is this good, you can get away with it. Say what you will about Tarantino, but the man knows how to make a film. There are very few filmmakers out there who can stand toe to toe with him on the subject of film, and so being so up his own hole is almost warranted.
With no fancy special effects or CGI, visually the film holds up very well. Some of the references and the soundtrack could’ve been in danger of feeling outdated, but for the most part, they really don’t. The soundtrack in particular still remains on plenty of “best” lists, boasting a great array of classics and what would eventually be (because of the film) classics. There’s no question that Pulp Fiction is style over substance. Very few people will argue that there is more to it than that, but when it comes to stylish flicks, it’s up there with the most inspirational films of all-time. It’d be pointless for me to list out the films since that have been evidently inspired by Pulp, some of them so terribly obvious and some of them, less-so. QT himself will never live down the film in his own work, and is a real devil for essentially “plagiarising” his own work, if you want to call it that. There will almost always be comparisons made between Pulp Fiction and QT’s other films, and I suppose they are warranted. It’s his most iconic film, and the one that really gave him a place on the map. Some may well argue that it is this film that boosted his ego in a way that would prove negative in his future work, and perhaps that may be so, but there is no denying that Pulp Fiction is a genius at his all-time best. Avant-garde may be the incorrect word to use, especially for a film that in it’s own right inspired by countless other films, but it is certainly one of the most important and seminal indie films ever made. Pulp Fiction will undoubtedly remain a classic unto the ages.
For the first time in what feels like an age, the Emmy voters have managed to shake up the nominations for the 2014 awards, but only by a little bit. But, hey, isn’t a little bit of a shake up better than having pretty much the same nominations year in, year out? I don’t envy the Emmy voters. Even as a regular punter who just watches TV for fun, and occasionally for work, I find it extraordinarily difficult to keep on top of all the shows going on that might have a chance at grabbing themselves an Emmy nom. I’m pretty far behind on Boardwalk Empire, I still haven’t even started the latest season of Hannibal, and I’ve only just caught up with Trophy Wife, so goodness knows how the Emmy voters try and cram everything in to make a decision.
But there are still some problems with the Emmy nominations, and they’re blatantly obvious this year. Of course, TV is now moving into completely different realms, with the non-traditional viewing methods of Netflix and Amazon Prime (which, no doubt, will be accepted more willingly thanks to the successes of the likes of Orange Is The New Black) and with network TV finally being considered as worthy as their cable siblings thanks to stellar seasons of The Good Wife and (apparently) Hannibal, but there are some nominations placed in the oddest categories. It is a common phenomenon, moving a show or an actor into a less crowded category to give them a bigger chance of winning, but it does also make it look like the Emmys have no clue what a show actually is. But before we get on to more specifics, let’s break down each of the main categories, shall we?
Let’s start with the big guns, Outstanding Drama Series. There’s not much surprise in this category, the biggest being that apparently people are still giving a shit about Upstairs, Downstairs…I mean…Downton Abbey. Even the people that are still watching it don’t seem to care that much about it. Homeland has finally been given the boot after a pretty awful last season to be replaced by True Detective which, from the outset, was always going to be a shoe in for a nomination with such big names on board. It is odd, however, that True Detective has wormed its way into the Outstanding Drama Series category despite it essentially being a miniseries. Both Fargo and American Horror Story, which follow the same anthology style True Detective is set to follow, have been submitted as miniseries. It makes the Drama series category pretty crowded and has also led to a fair few big snubs. The Good Wife had one of its best seasons yet, The Americans had an incredibly strong start and has only grown since its first season, as did Hannibal yet all have been passed over in favour of the kind-of-blotchy second season of House Of Cards. Christ, if you want a schlocky political drama, chuck Scandal in there. There’s definitely a lot of squatting going on here, keeping much better shows out, but that’s just how the Emmys work. Although Mad Men has had a pretty brilliant last season so far, the real race is probably between Breaking Bad and True Detective; the veteran finally throwing in the towel and the rookie already making a scene. Whilst I did enjoy True Detective, for me, it just doesn’t stack up to the final season of Breaking Bad which was as intense as the tracking shot in True Detective but spread out over a whole half season of edge of your seat tension.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, aka, which actor is going to beat Jon Hamm to an Emmy is also pretty typical. Jeff Daniels is a pretty weird nomination seeing as, although he makes a decent effort of trying to make a pretty poorly written character interesting, The Newsroom is pretty damn awful. Swap him out for Matthew Rhys and his terrible disguises (but great acting) in The Americans or even Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal and I’d be happy. Jon Hamm, at this point, probably just goes along to the Emmys for the booze and food (although he might have a shot at it next year if they submit the final half season what with Cranston finally out and no Harrelson and McConaughey). Again, as with drama series, it seems nicest to give it to Cranston as a final hurrah for his role as one TV’s greatest characters but then again both Harrelson and McConaughey brought their big screen acting chops to the small screen and did it with great aplomb. Even though True Detective’s story was a bit ropey, it was the chemistry between those two that kept it so interesting.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series is also pretty standard fare with yet more nominations for Claire Danes’ cry face and Kerry Washington for getting shit done while having sexy times all the time. It also features a nice nod for Lizzy Caplan who blew everyone away in Masters Of Sex, though it is the only major nom for a brilliant show which came along nicely as Breaking Bad finished, working as almost a palate cleanser for the intensity of Breaking Bad’s final half season. Julianna Margulies is my pick for this category because, even in the worst episodes of The Good Wife, she’s always been utterly captivating, particularly recently. My only major issue with this category is the complete lack of Tatiana Maslany in her half a dozen roles on Orphan Black. Even from that first season, she was the reason why the general absurdity of Orphan Black worked, because she managed to flip from one clone to the next with such ease, each clone as interesting and complex as the last. It’s kind of understandable why she, and Orphan Black in general, was mostly passed over given the Emmys not being too big on sci-fi, particularly on a channel such as BBC America.
It’s kind of getting a bit samey now, you guys. Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series is basically last year’s selection with Jon Voight thrown in for some reason. Peter Dinklage has a pretty good chance in this category this year, particularly if voters are considering this past season which was packed full of scenes that are perfect for an Emmy sizzle reel (the end of Tyrion’s trial being one of the major ones in which he spits his words out with such venom and loathing, it’s electric). But, then again, as with Cranston there’s always the chance that they might give it to Aaron Paul who already has two awards to his name to see him home and making him suffer with people asking him to say “bitch” in the street for just a little bit longer. The biggest omission here is another Breaking Bad alum, Dean Norris, who had always been Breaking Bad’s secret weapon that was finally brought out in this final season with superb results. Maybe he’ll get something soon for Under The Dome and we can pretend it’s for Breaking Bad? Nah, probably not.
Lena Headey finally being given some nod for her fantastic work in Game Of Thrones makes the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series category actually pretty good. Maggie Smith is obviously there (because duh!) and both Christina Hendricks and Christine Baranski return after respective stellar seasons, particularly for Hendricks in Mad Men. The real winner here, though, is going to be Anna Gunn and we all know it really. You just need to watch Skyler through one episode of Breaking Bad’s final season, “Ozymandias” especially, to know this is basically on lock for her.
Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series needs to go to Reg E Cathey who was actually given something to do in the last season of House Of Cards and was, without a doubt, the best thing about the otherwise patchy season. I would be happy, however, with Dylan Baker taking it home for The Good Wife seeing as he is consistently my favourite guest star on the show to the point where I get overly excited when I see his name in the opening credits. He’s so brilliantly slimy and loaded with black humour, transforming the show into a whole other beast for an episode. Similarly, Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series has a pretty obvious winner in Diana Rigg who swooped into Game Of Thrones and added so much sass and shade it was like watching a medieval special episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Eye rolling, sarcasm and just out-and-out disdane for people, Diana Rigg transformed the Queen of Thorns into the most fascinating character who stole any scene she was a part of, especially when paired with Charles Dance and the two chewed away at the scenery like hungry termites.
Outstanding Comedy Series is where things start to get a little interesting, and also a little bit weird. Of course we have The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family because do you even fucking follow this damn awards show? But then we also have Silicon Valley of all things. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed its first season but it did definitely feel like it was still trying to find its feet. Still, more to Mike Judge et al for making such an impact straight away. Veep gets a nod too, particularly after its frankly incredible last season which was just packed with incredible jokes and fantastic performances, and even Louie gets a shout out, though I feel that it’s more of a “look at who arty we can be. It’s not gonna win, we just want to you to know that us Emmy lot are cool too!” nomination than anything else, though it’s nice to see it get a nod for an interesting last season. The confusion in this category comes from the placement of Orange Is The New Black. Sure it can be funny as hell but it can quickly turn into something altogether very bleak, particularly post-the Tricia incident in its first season. Although, being placed in the comedy category it might have more of a chance of the victory it rightly deserves for being one of the best damn shows of probably all time. Overlooked in this category, though, is the stellar Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which came out running creating what felt like one of the most confident premiere seasons in a long time. It already surprised by taking home the Golden Globe so it seemed like a sure thing that it would grab an Emmy nod but apparently not. Broad City also managed to get overlooked despite being one of my favourite comedies of this past year but, then again, I don’t decide these bloody things, do I?
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series is a pretty awful category by most accounts. As with Orange Is The New Black, Shameless is apparently now being classed as a comedy but I suppose it does move William H Macy out of the pretty hefty Lead Actor in a Drama Series category, making it a bit easier for him. Jim Parsons is back, obviously, and will probably run away with it again but I would like to see Louis CK win it just so he’d go up in stage in his signature black t-shirt instead of a fancy suit.
With Amy Poehler, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Lena Dunham, and Edie Falco, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series is a pretty strong category with all pretty deserving of the award, but I would quite like to see Poehler take home the Emmy despite the last season of Parks & Recreation being neither here nor there. Julia Louis Dreyfus is probably going to take it, though, and I’m pretty OK with that. Taylor Schilling for Orange Is The New Black is pointless, though, because she definitely is not a lead in that show. OITNB is an ensemble show through and through and is held up by its stellar supporting cast.
Andre Braugher or we riot! Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series is a pretty great category too, with yet more Tony Hale who really does deserve any praise he gets for his role in Veep, but Andre Braugher is the true stand out here who showed that the once hard-boiled detective in Homicide: Life On The Street had some proper comedy chops in Brooklyn Nine-Nine as the deadpan police captain who is a constant highlight. His nomination kind of makes up for the snub of the show itself but only a little bit. Adam Driver might also have a shot, given that he actually had a fair bit to do in this last season of Girls, though nothing will really beat the Adam-centric episode, “Boys”, which was a highlight of Season 2. Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series does see a fair bit of shaking up occurring, with both Sofia Vergara and Jane Lynch being replaced by Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live’s real MVP, and Kate Mulgrew. I have never seen Mums but I really just want Alison Janney to win it because I love Alison Janney! That’s a good enough reason to want someone to win something, right? Of course it is!
Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series is a pretty unexciting category, though Steve Buscemi’s nom for his role as a man tasked with making celery cool again in Portlandia is truly inspired. I would, however, like to see Gary Cole take this home for Veep who, although didn’t have much to do this past season, was always a treat when he popped up on screen. Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series this year should just be renamed “Which OITNB star is going to win it” because, let’s be fair, they pretty much all deserve it. If they could do a Sports Personality of the Year 2012 and just an award to the entire cast like they did the entire GB Olympic team, then I’d be more than happy, but it definitely is a tough fight between Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, and Laverne Cox.
Having True Detective in another category has hopefully made things much easier for a Fargo Outstanding Miniseries win. It doesn’t have much competition, its main rival probably being American Horror Story who pop up every year to no avail. The White Queen and Bonnie & Clyde aren’t likely to put up a fight and Luther’s last season wasn’t exactly amazing compared to its previous two, so I have my fingers crossed for Fargo which is one of my favourite shows of 2014 so far. I don’t know much about the Outstanding TV Movie category, but apparently one episode of Sherlock counts as a TV movie? Crazy Americans!
Martin Freeman sees himself with a nomination for both Oustanding Lead Actor and Oustanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for Fargo and Sherlock respectively. Though his dodgy American accent in Fargo might let him down in the Lead Actor category, as well as facing off with his co-star Billy Bob Thornton whose performance was a highlight of that show for me, he might have a chance as John Watson, though there is such a glut of nominees from The Normal Heart (nope, no idea) that law of averages means one of those will probably win. Colin Hanks does get his first nom for Fargo which is nice (cause he definitely wasn’t going to get it for Dexter now, was he?)
Today I learned that Kristen Wiig was apparently in a miniseries. The Oustsanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie category is slightly lost on me because I haven’t seen any of the shows in it but I like Jessica Lange and she always looks pretty frightening in AHS so I’ll plump for her. Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie is all about Allison Tolman in Fargo, though, who came along and just stole everyone’s hearts. She is, however, facing up against some big names such as Kathy Bates and Julia fucking Roberts but I have every appendage crossed that Tolman wins this one so she can give a no doubt adorable speech.
To finish off, we need to talk about the biggest snub of this Emmy season. Forget The Good Wife, forget Orphan Black, forget Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s an absolute travesty that RuPaul’s Drag Race was passed over for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. My first experience with RuPaul’s Drag Race was this past season when I finally decided to take the plunge into the sequin and shade filled pool and became well and truly obsessed. I have since become an ardent supporter of the show and so to see it ignored in favour of Top Chef (which also managed to knock out Masterchef US as well!) is terrible Emmy news.
It is pretty difficult to try recognise every show equally (love you Broad City, you’re a winner in my heart) but this year’s nominations have some pretty crazy omissions and it does find itself stuck in a bit of a rut despite being open to new entrants. Still, come August 25th, we will still all watch it and complain when our favourites won’t win and I’ll just be sat in the corner waving my Broad City flag in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, some last minute surprise might occur and they win. Maybe.
I could definitely sit in a circle of people and announce that “Hi, my name is Megan and I am a binge watcher”. I binge watched all of Arrested Development in a month to get ready for the new season last year, the time I binge watched season one ofOrange Is The New Black in time for season two, the time I binge watched and binge drank through an entire series of Workaholics in a night for a drinking game with friends. One summer I got as addicted to Breaking Bad in the same way you imagine people got addicted to Heisenberg’s blue crystal, and was managing an episode before work with breakfast and three episodes in an evening. This isn’t even uncommon behaviour; chances are if you’re in your late teens or early twenties and taking the time to read this, then you too are binge watcher. There’s even a verb for this activity now: netflixing (as in “sorry, I won’t make it to the party tonight. I’m netflixing”).
The way we watch TV now is different to the way we watched it twenty or even just ten years ago. As it was explained to me in an early first year university lecture, the way that programmes are set out in the TV guide is strategic to keep hold of an audience member’s viewing, which media scholar Raymond Williams termed as the “flow”. The “flow” of an evening’s viewing was essentially chosen by the viewer (for example, Emmerdale on ITV followed by Eastenders on BBC if you’re a soap lover), but was heavily influenced by the channels and networks. Back in the dark ages, when there was only a choice of three or four channels, keeping a certain flow of an audience member was relatively easy, and there were very limited possibilities as to what an evening’s viewing could look like. But this “flow” model of viewing has significantly changed; it was managed not only by limited channels but by time: you used to only be able to watch something that was on at 8:30pm at 8:30pm on those specific nights (bar repeats). A growing number of channels meant an increase in option, but since the growth of satellite and cable services in the 1990s and the emergence of TV-on-demand services, when we watched television and for how long became less in the power of the networks and channels and more in the power of the viewer. An evening’s viewing that once was a linear and chronological flow was gone, as viewers could pause, rewind, skip ahead and watch a show from an entirely different day, week, month or even year. On Demand viewing is now becoming an increasing thorn in the paw for broadcast television, especially the BBC, whose revenue comes from TV licensing fees as opposed to advertising, as you don’t need a TV licence if you’re watching TV on demand as opposed to live.
That covers the emergence of viewer control and on-demand that changed traditional TV, but what about the ‘culture’ of binge-watching? To that, I point the finger at box sets. At some point around the early 2000s the idea of spending a night in with a boxset of TV series began, and so did consuming it as quickly as possible. Even box sets are becoming somewhat obsolete now, because when you think about it, other than flimsy special features, what is the point of shelling out £20 or more for a load of DVDs of a show when you can find it on streaming site like Netflix for £5 a month or (not condoning this, if the authorities happen to be reading this) on line for free off illegal streaming sites? All those Friends DVD cases you have piled up somewhere begin to feel a bit pointless.
Then, of course, there is Netflix. Ah, Netflix. The streaming service that for a small fee practically encourages you to binge-watch instead of going out to see your best friend or have some kind of human interaction. They even queue up the next episode for you after you’ve finished the last, so you don’t even have to bother with tiresome clicking. I have a love/hate relationship with Netflix, and a strange fascination of how streaming sites have changed our viewing of film and TV. Recently, Netflix have begun a new strategy of releasing all their original content programming (the foremost of which are the very popular shows Arrested Development, Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards) a whole series at a time. Because of Netflix’s net-based format (unlike the BBC or other public broadcasters) they can do that. And it’s an excellent idea for generating a few weeks of sudden frenzy around the programme as binge-watchers do their best to get through the show as quickly as possible. I’m going to start calling this the “new Harry Potter book effect”, after memories of powering through JK Rowling’s final novels in the wizardry series on very little sleep beginning the day of their release. It works short term, and creates a massive buzz, but it does not give you the slow-burning narratives and in-depth weekly discussion of a TV show, which accompanies the likes of Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, amongst others.
Ultimately, binge-watching is not inherently bad. Some may argue that it is convenient and inevitable in the increasingly fast paced society that everyone likes to point the finger at. But, to use the very loose analogy, it’s like your grandma giving you a bag of sweets and telling you to “when they’re gone, they’re gone” and “not eat them all at once because you’ll ruin your dinner”. If something is quick to access, gives you pleasure and you have lots of it at your disposal, then it is up to the individual to use self-control. The problem is, I’ve “ruined my dinner” of TV for myself thanks to binge-watching. Going back to Breaking Bad; when I was watching episode after episode, I began to notice patterns in the plot of each one and started thinking that they were all basically the same. Which isn’t at all true, the episodes of Breaking Bad are diverse and complex in plot, and if I revisited the series at a slower pace I’m sure I’d appreciate it more. Series that I have been raving about to my friends a few weeks before never get finished, because I got bored with them. My gripe with binge-watching is “this isn’t how TV was supposed to be consumed”. Call me a traditionalist if you must, but I’m not rushing to cancel my Netflix subscription. I will however be trying to get back on a balanced diet of weekly TV, with an occasional binge watch… that is, until Netlfix releases the next season of Orange Is The New Black.
2011 was a strange and exciting time for hip-hop. Although what is now often dubbed “alternative hip-hop” had been slowly bubbling in the underground for a while, certain groups were starting to permeate the mainstream. The collective leading the charge was Odd Future. Their leader, Tyler, The Creator, had just dropped the stylish, iconic, yet uncomfortably weird video for “Yonkers”, and it understandably went viral. In spite of the fevered anticipation for a full length, Goblin proved to be something of a disappointment.
It was through watching a video review of that album that I discovered Death Grips. Hip-hop critic Myke C-Town was getting increasingly pissed off throughout the course of the video, and in his desperation to prove his point, he repeatedly claimed that if Tyler was really trying to be shocking, he would be Death Grips. Reeling from my disappointment in Goblin, I decided to see what this ominously named project was all about.
Nothing could really prepare me for what I found in the video for “Guillotine”. There were some similarities between “Yonkers” and this song, but everything had been given a near lethal injection of steroids. The video was stylised to mostly black and white, but instead of a decidedly cool Tyler rapping nonchalantly, there was MC Ride: an odd, homeless-looking guy who’s moves were limited to awkward arm waving . Even the music had similarities: both tracks relied heavily on a deep, rolling bassline to carry the track. However, “Yonkers” sounded sleek, whereas Guillotine sounded like your stereo was about to break.
C-Town was right, and I wasn’t sure if I even enjoyed it. I imagine morbid curiosity had something to do with me checking out Ex-Military. Although it was initially a difficult listen, the hookier tracks kept drawing me back, until I was frantically yelling along to "Blood Creepin’" and waving my arms like a loon. It has some weird parallels with The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, in that it’s a collage of samples that shouldn’t work together, yet somehow do. Everything from Black Flag to Pink Floyd is woven into the impenetrable tapestry that is the beats on this album. All of this provided a perfect backing for MC Ride’s cryptic lyrics and maniacal delivery.
Ex-Military garnered a lot of attention from blogs, as was expected for such a well put-together, yet purposefully niche project. Everything, from its cover to its memetic quotable choruses screamed “cult-classic”. But then, an unlikely development occurred. Death Grips announced, in early 2012, that they had signed to major label Epic Records, the home of Avril Lavigne, Michael Jackson and Nicole Scherzinger. Death Grips now had the backing of one of the biggest labels in the world, and no one knew what to make of it. There was the sheer bafflement at a man covered in satanic tattoos being signed to the same label as Sean Kingston, but there was also fear that Death Grips would tone it down now that they were working for a multi-national cooperation. Boy, how wrong we were.
The Money Store was, admittedly, a much glossier affair than Ex-Military: however, it was still an intense listen. Highlights included the impossibly catchy "I’ve Seen Footage" and the fidgety funk grooves of "Hacker". It was proof that Death Grips could appeal to a slightly wider audience without losing the manic spark that drew people to them in the first place.
Then, shit got real. First, Death Grips cancelled their international tour to focus on recording their next album, the infamously penis-covered No Love Deep Web, which they wanted to release by the end of 2012. This marked the beginning of the deterioration of their relationship with Epic, which culminated in the band leaking the album online themselves. Unsurprisingly, this saw Death Grips being swiftly dropped by the label.
From there on, Death Grips continued down the rabbit hole of controversy and Sex Pistols-like stunts. The band played alternative reality games with their fans, and ditched shows to display what appeared to be a suicide note over a projector. It was becoming apparent at that Death Grips were intending to be more than a band, instead aspiring a sort of multi-media collective intent on provoking everyone in interesting ways, from the hype-thirsty blogs who covered them to their own fans. There may have been a point to it all, but it often seemed as if Death Grips were fucking with people just because they could. It was fascinating to watch from the side-lines, but probably annoying as hell if you were caught up in it.
Even after all this, Death Grips still managed to kick up a shitstorm with the release of their next album, Government Plates. The band decided to release the project with absolutely no warning at all to anyone. The internet-obsessed fanbase lapped this up, and the tape was promoted for free by people eager to share it with their friends, and websites that attempted to be the first to cover it for the hits. Amongst the buzz, it was easy to forget that this was somehow some of the most extreme material Death Grips had released yet: from the opening of shattering glass and Ride spitting demonically fast on the ludicrously-titled “…Pillbox Hat” (I’m not typing the whole thing, because fuck that), they had managed to outdo themselves on the abrasiveness front, and it was beautiful to hear.
This trick was repeated with the first part of their double album The Powers That B. It seemed less aggressive than its predecessor, yet more experimental and impenetrable. And then, before we were even had time to properly absorb it, the band announced their break-up in a typically Death Grips way. Without any prior clues or news to it happening, announced their break-up via a picture of a napkin on Facebook.
In all honesty, I probably shouldn’t be this upset about an relatively obscure industrial hip-hop group breaking up. However, whenever I saw the Death Grips name appear on my laptop screen over the last few years, I always knew that something interesting had happened. The band were great provocateurs, who managed to continually inspire shock in numerous creative ways. In spite of this, I think it’s important that we look behind the smoke and mirrors of their media manipulation and remember that Death Grips were a band that made great music, and that should be remembered above all else.
You can understand why JJ Abrams and Disney have decided to overlook the 15-year anniversary of The Phantom Menace in favour of releasing the first of a new Star Wars trilogy on a more neutral year. I can’t think of a film I’ll more blindly defend from derision and criticism, like a friend who’s horrible to everyone but you keep reminding them “but he’s really a nice guy, deep down,” even though you know he’s probably not.
I’m not saying that The Phantom Menace isn’t a nice film, deep down. Far from it - I think it’s a nice film on face value and has more than enough merits for me to consider it a good film. But, to stick with my extremely threadbare analogy, imagine if the horrible guy had three older brothers who were nice to everyone. That’s kind of where The Phantom Menace went horribly wrong. I often make the case for the defense of The Phantom Menace, saying, “If it had been the first Star Wars film, you people would’ve loved it!”, though upsettingly it’s hard to imagine a further five sequels coming from Star Wars if they’d released The Phantom Menace in back 1977.
Episode IV is the first film, and always will be. The Phantom Menace is the fourth, and probably ranks even lower in terms of quality. Being the fourth film allowed for certain aspects which lacked in the original trilogy; the CGI was, naturally, much improved (despite Yoda looking somehow even older and more puppet-like than he did in Empire and Jedi) in most respects. There was the opportunity for a clean slate for location and character, and let’s not forget this is the film that cast Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman and brought back Ian MacDiarmid, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker. It sounds a lot like a 1998 version of the Episode VII wishlist that we truly got when they announced the first round of casting for the new trilogy this year.
McGregor, Neeson and Portman play their parts superbly - largely curbed by a partly dull script and terrible dialogue, though some will argue that Phantom Menace trumps Attack Of The Clones for overall quality and the reality is that story-wise, the prequel trilogy was overflowing with promise. Who wouldn’t want to know what drove Obi-Wan Kenobi into the hovel on Tattooine? A Darth Vader origins story with Anakin Skywalker as the main protagonist? The galaxy before the Empire - it spelled out a fascinating and compelling prequel trilogy, and in almost all accounts it fell flat.
The beauty of The Phantom Menace is its innovations in Star Wars' universe itself - the Sith as two shadowy figures making manipulative Game Of Thrones-esque moves to reinstate the Sith to their former powers; Darth Maul’s double ended lightsaber; the Jedi council; the list could keep going maybe forever. The locations are cool, the CGI is naturally an upgrade on the original trilogy and the story is cool.
Where The Phantom Menace falls mostly flat is its need to rely on ’90s era gimmicks. The beauty of Star Wars was that it didn’t really need gimmicks to get fans of a younger age interested, though R2-D2 and the Jawas maybe appealed to that younger audience, they were a far cry from Jar-Jar Binks, a weird, probably racist, definitely terrible character universally hated by everyone born before the films were released. There was the pod-racing, which on paper looked really cool and on screen looked really cool, but by and large it was unnecessary to have devoted so much screentime to the race which ultimately felt like a space battle without the thrill of the battle. And Sebulba was weird.
But, The Phantom Menace will never be wilfully erased from the memory of Star Wars fans, because like that kid who was an asshole to everyone, it makes up the numbers. It was a fifth player to the five-a-side football team, he took part, he played football. The Phantom Menace ultimately fell prey to the high standards set by the original trilogy, and on its own, would be a pretty thrilling, high concept - if a little bubblegum - sci-fi action movie. A sort of Fifth Element-level sci-fi with no great prospects. Thank god they didn’t axe the entire prequel trilogy though.
In all honesty, my discovery of The Smiths was, like many others of this generation, thanks to the film (500) Days Of Summer. This in itself is a controversial statement and I can hear the “true” Smiths fans weeping into their gladioli and doubting my dedication to the band. In retrospect, that film is sorely overrated, and so often misinterpreted as a indie love story, when in fact it is a somewhat satirical vision of the “manic pixie dream girl” idea the infests so many young minds today. But to be quite honest, my love for the band wasn’t immediate, and when I heard the haunting, melancholy, unique voice of Morrissey drone about double-decker buses and love and death and stuff, I wasn’t sold. It wasn’t for several years until maybe my fourth viewing of (500) Days… when I thought, “Hey, maybe I should check out the soundtrack.” It was, of course, entirely predictable and reflected the film’s seemingly intentional satire, mocking the modern-day indie romcom. But it was this all-important second listen of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" that planted the seed of love for Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce, and I unknowingly had let myself in for years of sobbing to live videos and spending unreasonable amounts of money on memorabilia. That seed soon grew into a forest.
However my focus isn’t on the band’s huge hits, or rather, every indie kid’s typical answers when asked “what’s your favourite Smiths song?”, I’d rather talk about the forgotten ones. Those songs that slipped between the cracks, went unnoticed, yet still managed to incite some feeling or have significance to me. So whilst we skip the obvious "This Charming Man", I’d like to mention "You’ve Got Everything Now" which sat idly on the same debut album but got outright ignored and was categorised as somewhat of a filler. In my eyes, the lyrical genius of Morrissey outshone itself in this particular song, and on first full listen of the album, I found myself singing already along with him. As always, Moz sang less than complimentarily of his hometown Manchester, with the lyrics "the old grey school" recalling his bleak days in ’60s education. He’s clearly bitter in this song and yet still, with the help from Johnny Marr’s exquisite melodies, manages to stop the song from descending into four minutes of self-pity, but rather a slice of pop you can jive to in your car after a bad day. Certainly, if you’ve had a bad day, shouting the lines "what a mess I’ve made of my life!" in that ridiculous, infamous falsetto would make you feel that tiny bit better.
There are certain times I can pinpoint listening to their music and I can feel a change occur somewhere deep inside of me. Whilst on holiday in Turkey, I found myself listening to The Smiths as I enjoyed a cool bath after a day in the sun. “Wonderful Woman” played as I lathered my hair with shampoo and I dunked my head underneath the water, Morrissey’s voice sounding like a distant memory and Marr’s guitar weeping eerily into my ears. I closed my eyes and lost myself in visions of thoughts and in ideas of pictures, no specifics, mostly just feelings. But I enjoyed the echoing music making waves through the bathwater, and allowed my body to simply sink away. I was truly transported by this sound, and although I doubt any of The Smiths intended for a 19 year old girl on holiday in 2014 to discover it, their song sounds even better underwater. However, my definitive Smiths experience has to be watching Johnny Marr play at Reading Festival in 2013. At the time, I was in a serious relationship with a boy and had been for nearly a year; he too was a fan of The Smiths so we watched Marr together, holding hands and enjoying his solo stuff when suddenly the mood changed and the sweeping opening riff of “How Soon Is Now” filled the tent. In those five minutes that I spent slow-dancing and swaying with my boyfriend at the time, I felt myself crying and I didn’t know why until the end of the song. The Smiths had made me realize that I was in love and that, to me, was a hugely significant thing at the time.
Although things have changed since my first discovery of The Smiths, since watching Johnny Marr play and since introducing them to other friends of mine, their music remains the same. Despite being active for little more than five years in the ’80s, their legacy lives on. Saying that, I find myself discovering new thoughts and feelings whenever I revisit their music, and interpret their lyrics in a different light depending on my personal situation. I can say with certainty that I will forever enjoy listening to their music, and yes, you most certainly can ask me if I’m still a fan of The Smiths when I’m old and stuck in a retirement home - I assure you the answer will be a resounding yes.
Prior to 2013, Comedy Central was very hit and miss with the shows they were commissioning. If you were asked to name any Comedy Central show from before last year that wasn’t any of its mainstays of South Park, The Daily Show (both which arguably made a name for Comedy Central way back in the mid to late 90s), or The Colbert Report - the Stephen Colbert-hosted Daily Show spin off - how many could you actually remember? The most I could come up with were Reno 911, Jon Benjamin Has A Van, Chappelle’s Show, and the 2008 reboot/adoption of Futurama. It’s probably fair to say that Comedy Central was a channel that relied heavily on its comedy specials and the three long-running established shows already mentioned above.
Comedy Central used to be the channel for taking risks while piling on the laughs. Letting Trey Parker and Matt Stone loose with their ridiculously controversial foul-mouthed eight-year olds was something no other network would’ve been willing to do back in 1997. South Park was the anti-Simpsons, full of toilet humour, swearing, and gore. The fact that the channel picked the show up on the back of animated shorts that went viral on the internet in the early ‘90s gave you some indication that this was a channel ready to do things differently. Dave Chapelle’s sketch show, Chappelle’s Show, which debuted in 2003, was unafraid to touch right at the heart of issues facing the African American community such as drugs, gun violence, and racism with a real aggressive humour, poking fun at the stereotypes the media was laying at their door. It felt fresh and raw, hitting nerves and aiming right for the controversial targets, something you can’t say about many sketch shows full stop, never mind those in the 21st Century.
Outside of the occasional blips of brilliance though, such as the hilarious mockumentary Reno 911 which spoofed the likes of Police, Camera, Action, or the audacious The Sarah Silverman Program, Comedy Central settled into a bit of a rut. Sure the shows might be funny, but none of them really hit at anything new. Drawn Together, which utilised old stock cartoon characters and put them in a Real World type scenario, was something Adult Swim had been doing for years already, most successfully with spoof chat show Space Ghost: Coast To Coast, which used the 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Space Ghost as the host of an absurdist late night talk show, and the less said about fantasy spoof Krod Mandoon, the better. 2012, however, brought sign that things could may just be getting better and Comedy Central was on the verge of reclaiming its former glories. A revolution began, led by two former cast members of MADtv.
MADtv was, like Saturday Night Live, one of the major springboards for anyone wanting to make it in the American comedy world. Although the cast members on MADtv probably never gained the crazy success that the likes of Julia Louis Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, or Chevy Chase had as a result of Saturday Night Live (exploring why would need a whole other piece but it ultimately boils down to SNL becoming an established unopposed sketch show on a major network long before MADtv arrived on the scene), the talent to come from it includes the likes of Andy Daly (more on him later), Ike Barinholtz, Nicole Sullivan and current SNL player Taran Killam. It also gave the starts to Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key (although I’ll admit that I know Key more from his stint hosting Planet’s Funniest Animals). Though Fox only planned on hiring one black cast member, the two ultimately being cast against each other, they noticed the electric comedic chemistry between the two and hired both. It was a friendship that continued after MADtv wrapped up its fourteenth and final season in 2009. The result of this friendship, now with the freedom to do whatever they wanted, became Key & Peele, which debuted on Comedy Central in 2012. It does owe a lot to Chappelle’s Show, a spiritual successor in its exploration of race relations and general African American culture, but where Chappelle would relentlessly jab at his targets, Key and Peele prefer to prod the sore, giggling, equally willing to poke fun at themselves as well as society as a whole. The thing about Key & Peele, other than it having an extraordinary high hit-to-miss ratio in terms of sketches (the great benefit of sketch shows is that, if you don’t like a sketch, another one will be along pretty shortly that you might enjoy. With Key & Peele, you more often than not get a lot more great sketches than duds per episode), is their commitment to getting the feel of each sketch just right. Their attention to detail, particularly when spoofing ’80s TV shows in which the reference is generally pretty outdated, is near enough perfect. The ‘80s PSAs are shot with the wonky editing, grainy VHS footage, and warped sounds and visuals, whilst the college football squad rundowns look like actual NCAA pre-game squad round-ups. Even with the stellar start they did have, they’ve only become more confident as performers and as creators, willing to take more and more risks with each series on a channel more than happy to give them that creative freedom.
Little did we know, but Key & Peele was the start of a glut of sketch shows on Comedy Central the following year, each as good as the last. Maybe Key & Peele was a litmus test to see if audiences still wanted sketch shows and the end result was commissioning even more. 2013 saw Comedy Central commissioning more sketch shows than you could shake a stick at. The first of these came from Nick Kroll, a man with plenty of sketch show experience under his belt, having worked as a contributing writer to both Chappelle’s Show and MTV’s Human Giant (the show that made a real name for its central trio, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, and Aziz Ansari), as well as being pretty recognisable as part of fantasy football sitcom The League. Kroll Show used many of the characters he developed on cult comedy podcast Comedy Bang! Bang! but transplanted them to spoof reality show settings. Lampooning the likes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Laguna Beach, Dr 90210, and even a take on Degrassi High, what started a little disjointed, ended its second season this past March as a whip-smart satire of these shows, so in tune with the DNA of what they are spoofing that they could quite easily pass for that sort of reality trash TV you’d find on nearly every channel going. Storylines appeared from nowhere and deftly merged with other reality shows creating spin-offs that seem like they could genuinely exist. It sits in such a weird place that it’s hard to not admire it. Plus it brought one of my favourite non-Paul F Tompkins Comedy Bang! Bang! characters, the Kroll/John Mulaney duo of old New York Jews, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland, to the small screen.
Kroll Show was swiftly followed by Inside Amy Schumer, led by Amy Schumer, who was mostly known for her stand-up. To my knowledge, female-fronted sketch shows are pretty rare in the US, especially when compared to the UK who can count the deliriously funny Smack The Pony amongst its pretty regular output of this kind. But women finally do seem to be becoming more accepted in television comedy, with an increasing number of sitcoms being developed and led by women (New Girl, Don’t Trust The Bitch In Apartment 23, The Mindy Project, and even Orange Is The New Black to a degree, to name but a few), whereas before, sitcoms about women were often developed and written by men, going all the way back six decades to I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. For this fact, it did seem a bit of a risk to give Schumer a show of her own given that you still see cries of “women aren’t funny” online and at a surprising amount of comedy clubs. Inside covers much of the same ground that Smack The Pony did, being open and honest about dating, sex, sexism, and the general life of a single women in her early 30s, but with a more “Instagram generation” spin to it, including sketches about meticulously-crafted sexts and day-long preparations to look and act effortlessly blasé yet still sexy for a booty call. But in amongst these more lighthearted ideas come sketches loaded with biting satire that bring to mind the best moments of Chappelle’s Show; one sketch in particular uses an army simulation video game to critique the treatment of female soldiers in the army. The main thing about Inside is that it is extraordinarily frank while also being very very funny. Gone are the days that women used to avoid doing jokes like these because they were “too vulgar” or “too graphic” and good ridden to those days if we get the quality of jokes Inside Amy Schumer is bringing to the table.
It’s the same kind of frankness that makes Broad City so appealing too. I’ve already written a heck of a lot about why I love Broad City, particularly the absurdity thrown in to an otherwise real world, but it is that frankness and willingness to talk about things women actually talk about as opposed to some polished up version you might see on Sex & The City or Girls that gives it a real edge. The one scene that always comes to mind when explaining why Broad City is in an entirely different league to those similar shows is one that simply sees central best friend pair Abbi and Ilana sat on the stoop of their flat talking about which celebrities they’d love to be eaten out by. Everything about it feels so real, especially when the two wear outfits they’ve already worn; it’s a world that feels lived in. Broad City was perhaps less of a risk for Comedy Central, mainly because they were able to gauge the potential success from the original webseries the show is based on, but it’s still extremely rare to find a show about women, be it drama or comedy, that is so willing to dive headfirst into the “real issues” rather than daintily treading water on the surface and occasionally dunking its head in, which I would argue Girls does a lot, as much as I enjoy it.
We’ve jumped ahead a little in talking about Broad City, which debuted this year, and we’ve missed out possibly my favourite show of the 2013 bunch simply for how ridiculous it is: Nathan For You. Nathan Fielder was always someone who stuck to the background, doing the odd writing job here and there or guesting on other shows in bit parts, but his improv history (he used to be in the same improv group as Seth Rogen) is what makes him shine in this spoof of DIY reality TV shows that often feature a smarmy know-it-all that comes in and revamps a failing business. Nathan For You has shades of Beadle’s About, mainly due to the unwitting nature of the people he is “helping”, mixed with a pitch perfect spoof of shows such as DIY SOS and Supernanny. His pranks are often ridiculous and unnecessarily ostentatious but everything is played with a completely straight face, Fielder’s dry expression and monotone voice often bringing to mind Steven Wright at his best. It’s a fresh and utterly ridiculous show, bewilderingly over the top yet still grounded, which shows that Comedy Central is still willing to try something new and weird that hasn’t got the same broad humour as, say, Workaholics.
Review, which debuted this year, is another such show. Great in and of itself because it finally gives the superb Andy Daly his own show to play around with, it’s a show that seems formulaic at first but then completely pulls the rug out from under you and sends it spiralling from a lighthearted comedy into something really quite dark; something that’s rarely seen in comedy. To say anything more, other than the basics, would spoil the experience of seeing it transform and blossom in a very clever way, but that premise is that Andy Daly’s Forrest MacNeil, a mildly less awkward Alan Partridge-esque figure, hosts a review show in which he reviews real life things such as being a racist, having road rage, or eating lots of pancakes as requested by viewers. It all seems very simple and, for a few episodes, it is, until one review request sets off a chain of events that leads to a pretty interesting finale, the show slowly revealing its true colours as the season goes along. Even with the comparison to the many adventures of Alan Partridge, I struggle to think of any show quite like Review (other than, of course, the Australian show on which it is based, but this Review goes even further than just the darkly funny “reviews” the host is sent on).
It’s become clear that, in the past two years, Comedy Central has gone back to its risk-taking ways and it’s paid off. Giving John Oliver the keys to the Daily Show chair while Jon Stewart was away last summer was something I couldn’t imagine the Comedy Central of late ’00s doing, probably preferring to just air repeats, and it’s a risk that paid off well for them, giving the show a refreshing new feel to it, and for Oliver, who now has his own Daily Show-esque gig on HBO no doubt off the back of his superbhosting duties. With a number of other interesting sounding shows in the pipeline and pretty much every single show mentioned here being renewed or with another season starting pretty soon, I really hope that this is a sign of the old Comedy Central no longer resting on its laurels and getting out there to really do something fresh and funny.
Robert Rodriguez is the godfather of Mexican-American indie films; a man who never ceases to amaze cult audiences and mainstream audiences alike with what wonders he can achieve with small budgets. A man who is 100% passionate about his films, and film in general, and it really shows. It says a lot about a filmmaker who wants to do as much as he can in the production of his films, and Rodriguez really gives himself a lot to do, often being the writer, director, composer and editor of his flicks, and the results are almost always dazzling with indie charm. He’s got quite a sizeable filmography stretching from his first feature, El Mariachi, in 1993, to this year’s imminent Sin City sequel. Here’s a guide to help all you beginners get started with him.
Start With: Desperado
Although far from my favourite Rodriguez flick, I feel that Desperado is as good a place as any to introduce new fans to the his world. The film is strictly a sequel in Rodriguez’s “Mexico” trilogy, but it serves actually more like an English-language remake of his first feature film, El Mariachi (which was filmed in Spanish). An obvious difference is the language, making this film infinitely more accessible to wider audiences already, but the main difference is budget. The original was made on a shoestring budget of just $7,000, while Desperado upped that amount ten-fold! This budget allowed Rodriguez to stay true to his cultural roots and keep the film as “Mexican” as possible, and gave him an interesting cast including Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Steve Buscemi. The plot follows Banderas as El Mariachi (The Guitarist) who seeks revenge on the drug lord who killed his lover. It’s balls-to-the-wall action, hilarious and an excellent first taste of Rodriguez’s wild style.
Then move onto The Essentials:
From Dusk Till Dawn
From Dusk Till Dawn is a beast of an indie film, and had cult status written all over it from the get-go, with the dream team of indie golden boys Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the first fruits of what would soon become a long term partnership. QT penned the script that, for the first half at least, feels classically Tarantino. But it’s the back end where things a very left turn indeed, and it feels tenfold more like a romping Rodriguez flick. The film is American-made, but again maintains Rodriguez’s Mexicano vibes, and stars a bizarre-but-brilliant cast including Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis and the two most unlikely brothers in film history, George Clooney and QT himself. It’s a gangster-cum-Mexican vampire flick, and if it sounds nuts, it’s because it is. A ’90s classic.
Sin City is probably Rodriguez’s most mainstream adult-oriented film to date, and he tried something very new with it. The source material for this one isn’t his own, and he shares co-directing duties with author of the cult graphic novel Frank Miller (with one scene shot by Quentin Tarantino), but the resulting film is something truly awe-inspiring. It can be classified as a neo-noir crime action thriller anthology film, which is a total mouthful, but totally brilliant. The decision to stylize the film as close as possible to the source is totally unique and inspired, and the film is slick, funny, violent and super cool. A must-see for film fans.
A personal favourite of mine is 2007’s Planet Terror, one half of RR and QT’s double feature throwback to ’70s exploitation movies, Grindhouse. Compared to Tarantino’s contribution Death Proof, Planet Terror performed quite poorly in the box office, but it’s a cult horror fan’s wet dream. Rodriguez’s segment is certainly the stronger of the two, and the more fun. It’s a zombie film that feels like it so perfectly belongs in the era it’s paying homage to (film scratches and all) but has a self-awareness that makes it feel very modern at the same time. It is an utterly hilarious and gory, fast-paced flick chocked full of guts and one-liners. Any movie in which Bruce Willis claims to have killed Osama Bin Laden is an instant classic in my books.
If you liked those, move onto:
Obviously if you liked Desperado, the film that started it all will be to your taste as well. As previously mentioned, El Mariachi was Rodriguez’s first feature film, had to deal with a tiny budget, and employed a mostly amateur cast. Although the film was originally just intended for VHS, Columbia picked it up, and eventually spent several times more than the original budget on 16-to-35 mm transfers, promotion, marketing and distribution. The film won multiple awards and put Rodriguez’s name on the map, allowing him to produce the sort of films he wanted to make with more money in the future. If you like indie films and don’t mind subtitles (or understand Spanish), give this a watch and see how much can be accomplished with hard work and inspiration.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico
The final installment in RR’s “Mexico” trilogy is the biggest, boldest and most successful in the series. It ups the budget of the previous instalments considerably, and has an impressive cast including Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, and Rodriguez regulars Salma Hayek, Danny Trejo and Antonio Banderas. The film maintains similar vibes to Desperado, but is definitely a bit of a mismatched affair. It is however totally packed to the brim with awesome action sequences and when it’s on form, it’s a lot of fun.
What started out as one of a number of fake trailers which preceded Planet Terror, the idea of Machete was so popular with film fans that Rodriguez couldn’t resist turning it into a feature film. The trailer promised everything you could want, with “Action. Suspense. Emotion.” and was brilliant crafted to feel (just like Planet Terror) like something straight out of the VHS bargain bin. The film had a lot to live up to, and as it turned out, too much, but it’s still a crazy amount of fun, with leading man Danny Trejo knocking it out of the park with a hilariously serious performance in a film that’s anything put. The cast is batcrap crazy (just look it up for yourself, the list is too long) and just about everything in the script is too. The promised sequel, Machete Kills was out last year and looks like more of the same, but I’ve yet to get around to it myself.
Something A Bit Different:
Four Room is an anthology film from 1994 with four segments, directed separately by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. As expected with so many cooks around the broth, it’s a bit of an inconsistent flick, with the tone feeling both a bit too silly or serious at times and never really striking the right balance. Rodriguez’s segment, entitled “The Misbehavers”, is certainly one of the better of the four, in which two kids are left in a hotel room while their parents go out, and they, well…misbehave. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not bad.
The Faculty is another of Rodriguez’s films that feels a bit out of place among his filmography. That being said, it’s actually a decent sci-fi horror flick, penned by Scream writer Kevin Williamson (who I think is rather brilliant) and it’s perhaps RR’s most “American” film to date. Set in a high school where aliens start popping up, it delivers nothing truly original, but is still a nice little b-movie. The cast is cool too, with Josh Hartnett, Clean DuVall and Elijah Wood.
For The Kids:
Rodriguez is a father of five kids (named, I shit you not, Rebel, Racer, Rocket, Rogue and Rhiannon), and he claims they’re the reason he’s made so many kids films, alongside his violent gangster pictures. The ones I’ve actually seen are few and far between. The Adventures Of Shark Boy and Lava Girl is not really for me (Editor’s note: It’s a genuine contender for the worst film I’ve ever seen), whilst Shorts seems fun, but I never got around to it. Spy Kids is the most well-known and loved franchise he’s done and I have seen the first three of the four films. My honest opinion: the first is great, the second is watchable and the third is tripe. Make of that what you will.
Keep an eye out for:
Sin City : A Dame To Kill For
Rodriguez and Miller are back this year, finally delivering the long-awaited sequel to Sin City, nine long years after the original. A lot of the cast are back, and the new additions - Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin and Lady Gaga - are brilliant. The source material is excellent too, so there’s big expectations for this one.