On reviews, reviewers and reviewing things

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This week one of my favourite writers, Nicole Cliffe from The Hairpin, has been discussing what makes a good review.  As a guest reviewer of the ‘Critical Hit Awards’ at Electric Literature, she wrote: 

I believe it is very difficult to succeed with a book review if you lack generosity of spirit and a genuine love of books. There are plenty of terrible books, there are far more mediocre books, there are many good ones, and there are some that are great. Books that are terrible or mediocre are rarely worth your time to review. Which is not to say that a negative review has no place in your arsenal, but when I am reviewing a book, I try to imagine that I am speaking to the author, that that author wants to have written a good book and has proceeded with that desire in good faith.

Linking to the article on The Hairpin, Nicole reflected:

But then, when I think about some of the book reviews which have really stayed with me, some of them are mean and brilliant. And I greatly prefer Anthony Lane’s more withering movie reviews to ones that are all, oh, Jessica Chastain is a revelation. So, hm, who knows?’

For me, the distinction isn’t between positive and negative reviews.  Whether it’s affectionate yet clear-slighted love like Nicole’s Cliffe’s own Classic Trash, where our heroine takes us on a personal journey through her experiences with the best trashy literature through the decades, or vicious slamdowns (there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t shed a tear for the untimely hiatus of Videogum’s ‘Worst Movie of All Time’ reviews), I believe that the best reviews are highly personal and passionate ones.

We all have different experiences and worldviews and different reasons for loving what we love, and hating what we hate.  When I used to write about music for another site, the editor would send me singles and albums to review.  My biggest problem was never not liking them, but being able to acknowledge that they were good, but just not to my taste.  How do you critically assess something like that?  All the noises sounded good in my ears and everything, but once the review was written, I would never listen to them again.  I was never particularly proud of those reviews – I would much rather write about something that provoked a strong response in me, one way or another.    

I think that there’s a huge gulf between loving something and acknowledging that something is very good with few, if any, flaws, and not a lot of traditional reviewers cover that space.  How often does Roger Ebert write reviews like “Terrence Malick’s new film is a profound and stunningly accurate examination of the human experience with a first-rate script, career-best performances from the world’s greatest actors and flawless direction, but I could have watched White Chicks twice during its 280 minute run time, and would much rather have done so”? (and he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, so he should know the joys of great trash better than anyone). 

That isn’t a problem – that is where bloggers can come in and win hearts and minds with their ‘OMFG guys, you just have to watch this movie right now’ views.  (To quote John Cheese from Cracked.com: ‘If I have to explain who Leslie Nielsen is, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and go watch the Airplane and Naked Gun movies, and the Police Squad! TV show. Call in a sick day to work or school, explaining that you just discovered his body of work. They’ll understand. In fact, the only punishment you might receive would be a dock in pay or grades for not having done it sooner.’)  There are a huge number of reviewers out there, in print and online, so what can set you apart is having a unique perspective and a story to tell.  What can you see that no-one else can?  Do you still love a much mocked movie because it came along at just the right time in your life when you could appreciate it?  Do you love Freddy Got Fingered and hate The Godfather?  Tell me why! 

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The Big Reunion on ITV

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“When we’re on stage, we’re going to rock the shit out of it.  Fact” boasted Scott from Five at the beginning of last night’s  The Big Reunion on ITV.  And rock the shit out they did, which must have been a welcome relief to Michelle from Liberty X, who informed us at the beginning of the show (twice!) that she hadn’t vacated her bowels in three days.  After a shaky start, the programme has found its feet, and it looks as though the live shows, featuring performances from Five, Atomic Kitten, Liberty X, Honeyz, 911, B*Witched and Blue, are shaping up to be a big success.  I would do anything, anything, ANYTHING to go and see it, except actually pay £40 for a ticket because that is a lot of money.

In his introduction to the live show itself, Andi Peters said “the acts you see tonight are going to impress you and make you wish that today was ten years ago all over again”, but did it?  Should it?  Huge portions of the programme are devoted to each former pop star talking about the dark side of fame and how they have struggled since their band split up.  Ten years ago doesn’t sound like a tonne of fun from their perspective.

Having so many people speak only about their experiences with mental illness on primetime TV can only be a positive thing, but the constant criss-crossing between bands and sob stories can be awkward: for example, when one person is crying over being bullied as a child for having cancer (seriously, can you think of anything more horrible?) when others are complaining about being called a ‘flopstar’, or having told the press that killing elephants and whales is worse than 9/11, or having a ‘phobia’ of stairs.

There are a few real stand-outs for me – people who may not have been setting the charts alight over the past few years, but should feel very proud of themselves nonetheless:

Kerry from Atomic Kitten – three years’ clean, whoop whoop!  And she can actually sing!  Who knew?!

Michelle from Liberty X – whether it is having an elective double mastectomy, turning Duncan from Blue gay or being best friends with Katie Price, Michelle takes all the troubles life throws at her on the chin with a smile, and admirable openess and a well-chosen onesie.

Keavy from B*Witched – while working as a wedding singer and professional stilt walker may not be many people’s idea of post-pop stardom success, she seems to have conquered her demons now and that is an achievement worth more than a thousand Smash Hits awards.  I can’t even imagine how depressed you must be to not enjoy your sister’s wedding.  B*Witched’s sibling drama makes me want to give my sister a big hug the next time I see her (also: because I owe her money).  And Keavy is training to be a counsellor and volunteers for Make a Wish Foundation, which is wonderful.

Everyone from Blue – these late arrivals have been a fantastic addition to the show, bringing new energy and a rich source of gossip for the others.  Duncan is a personal favourite for having the courage to come out and for being so adorably self-satisfied, all the time, always.  While most of his Big Reunion castmates have been hit hard emotionally by the fall from fame, in terms of self-esteem Duncan is still partying like it’s 2001, and why shouldn’t he be?  He’s Duncan from Blue!

Abs from Five – always my favourite Fiver, the the second baddest boy from the baddest boyband in pop now lives on a farm on Lincolnshire (nuff love to the East Midlands massive), where, from what I can tell, he divides his time between cotching, flexing and keeping it real.  Also, his name is ‘Abz Love’ now, because of course it is.  Country life seems to have mellowed the artist formerly known as Richard Breen (was that tweed he was rocking when they were auditioning rappers?)  He appears to provide a calming influence on the group, particularly on troubled bandmate Sean.

Special recognition goes to Scott from Five, for suggesting that Rich wear crotchless chaps on stage.

Best song/most disappointing video of the week: Robin Thicke featuring Pharrell and T.I. – Blurred Lines

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My favourite song of the week – of this year so far, possibly – is Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke featuring Pharrell Williams and T.I.  As my boyfriend pointed out, it sounds a lot like Got to Give it Up by Marvin Gaye, but hey, that’s a great song!  Let’s all make more of them!  It’s the kind of track that everyone wished Justin Timberlake would release to knock The 20/20 Experience out of its slumber and into our hearts. 

Two versions of the video have been released: in one, our three heroes cavort with very young and very pretty women against a white background while huge red hashtags with the word ‘#THICKE’ flash across their faces; in the other, exactly the same but with exposed breasts.  I only came across the topless one because dozens of YouTube commenters were saying how much better the ‘unrated’ version was.  Personally, I am not a fan. 

I am not saying that bare bosoms have no place in music videos generally.  A few boobs bobbing around in the background of Pharrell’s Lapdance didn’t change that video much.  But for me, in the case of Robin and T.I. especially, their personal lives are a big part of their public personas, and in this instance they overshadow the video.    

Pharrell, Robin and T.I. are now 39, 36 and 32 respectively (for contrast, that is about 1,857 maturity years older than Chris Brown is) and have been releasing singles since the early noughties: experienced enough to not have to resort to jiggling jugs for a few extra page views.  Pharrell is engaged and has a child now, while the other two enjoy long-standing high-profile marriages with lovely, famous and talented women of respective Precious-starring and No Scrubs-writing fame.  (Not wanting for one second to disparage any of these topless video ladies; one day these young women might go on to write classic rap songs that you scream at two in the morning on your way to the club with your friend who thinks that a scrub is a guy who thinks he’s fly and is also known as a bus stop.) 

This is not to say that all of their videos need to be of Robin rolling around under the sheets with his real life wife (he already did that with Love After War) or outtakes from Tiny and Toya of T.I. raising his million kids (slight exaggeration).  I can tell the difference between music videos and reality.  Justin Timberlake isn’t really Elton John, Michael Jackson wasn’t really a zombie (or was he?) and Taylor Swift doesn’t have any trouble getting boyfriends (slight understatement). 

Add this behind-the-scenes context plus three handsome famous men pulling facial expressions like they’ve never seen a pair of tits before and times it by flesh-coloured g-strings for the ‘ooh she’s naked/oops, she’s not’ factor and the effect is very Carry On RnB.  This is not to mention how cowabunga dude! the hashtags are probably going to look in ten years’ time.   It feels desperate.  They have taken a modern Stevie Wonder or vintage JT-level song and paired it with a video that looks like it belongs on Channel AKA at 4am.  Would Stevie Wonder’s videos be much improved by the addition of a breasticle or two?  (This one, perhaps?) 

But no matter: the clothed version will get airplay, and the unrated version can stay lurking on YouTube, waiting to be found by people who love great pop songs and/or breasts (so, everyone, basically).

Portlandia – beyond the ROFL

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I have recently started watching Portlandia.  In case you have never seen it before, it’s a sketch comedy show made by and starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein set in Portland, Oregon, which affectionately mocks the people who live there and their hipster ways.  I like it.  Is it the funniest thing I have ever seen?  No.  It doesn’t make me ROFL.  It barely even makes me PMSL.  But I really enjoy it.

If you watch a new comedy in stony-faced silence, waiting for the big laughs to come, and then swear to never watch it again when they don’t, there are a lot of great shows that you will miss out on.  There will always be a place for highly creative, beautifully crafted comedy shows which offer so much more than laughter.  I don’t think that it’s always right to favour shows which give you a new gag every couple of seconds (Family Guy for example) over ones with jokes which take longer to develop.  How can you compare subtle humour which captures the spirit of the time and place with a well-timed pratfall or fart noise?

That isn’t to say that Portlandia doesn’t have both in abdunance: it serves up the cheap thrills of cross-dressing, silly voices and fart patios alongside its more intelligent mockery.  “Every time you point, I see a penis” (as Carrie Brownstein’s feminist bookseller tells a hotpant-clad Aubrey Plaza) is a great cock joke.  The irrepressible joy of “thank you, Nance, for dialling your bitch down a little bit” is like picking up one of Tina Fey’s first-rate Mean Girls cast-offs at a smelly vintage warehouse for under a fiver.

It inspires feelings of “oh god, this is just like that thing that happened on that programme we watched last week”, even when you live thousands of miles from Portland and don’t frequently come across canoe dancing, or men unicycling down streets while playing bagpipes dressed as Gandalf.  Every single element of what goes on screen appears so carefully and lovingly crafted, I feel as though the scent of oolong tea and mutton chop wax is wafting through my living room as I watch it.  The show is so visually lush and vivid it makes me want to climb into the screen, and the endlessly catchy soundtrack haunts my dreams.  Portlandia has hypnotised me harder than Jason Sudeikis’ sex cult farm, and holds me captive for longer than Kristen Wiig’s homicidal cat-napper ‘Gathy’.  Portlandia has pierced an iron stud through my heart.