Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Top 7 TV Opening Credits

Every TV show has opening credits – some are flashy, some are entertaining and most are downright boring. Watching the new Aussie comedy/drama Offspring the other week (which I am enjoying by the way), I was struck by how much I didn’t like their opening credit sequence. As a cutesy bubble-pop song plays, the main actors jerkily spin in a myriad of poses as if they are characters seen through a viewfinder. The whole thing just seemed a bit too twee. To me, a good opening credit sequence is one that does more than just slap-bang a few clips of the show together with a current pop music fave – it’s a gilded invitation to join the show’s universe. It’s one where no matter how many episodes I watch in a row while DVD marathoning the show – I will always watch the opening credits.

These are a few of my favourites:

An awesome homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Mad Men’s opening credits are almost dreamlike – the slow, languid pace of the businessman falling surrounded by skyscrapers with reflections of period advertising posters and billboards.  We can all relate to those dreams of falling which are meant to express our suppressed anxieties, our feelings of being out of control and overwhelmed.  This is what Mad Men is all about – that loss of control and identity – and in a decade where everything about the world was changing.   Plus they can’t go wrong with a final image of dreamy Jon Hamm’s shoulders casually slung across the back of a couch can they!

Definitely the best set of credits for a currently running program; True Blood’s have even been nominated for an Emmy.  Created by Digital Kitchen, the production studio also responsible for the awesome credits for Six Feet Under and Dexter, True Blood’s opening sequence is steeped in Deep South imagery and plays around with the contradictory ideas of innocence and menace that go hand in hand with the themes of the show.  The whole thing really just leaves you with a feeling that things just ain’t right – sex, violence, horror, life, and death all wrapped into one.  And those maggots!  Shudder!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sprucing up the place for Oprah

So Oprah is coming Australia and if you haven’t already heard, you’ve been living under a rock.

The excitement in the media from Tuesday’s announcement verged on mass hysteria. Time the break out the fake tan and slap a shrimp on the barbie Australia – we’ve got an important visitor coming!

I love Oprah. I am somewhat of a closet fan. I love that she is on a first name basis with the whole world. I do find some of her episodes a tad on the preachy side occasionally, but even then I still find it hard to switch the channel.

But do we really need to be ‘sprucing up the place’ as I heard one radio station suggest today? I guess on the bright side, we’ve now got a Prime Minister and government sorted – an earlier visit from Oprah, Queen of Talk Shows, and it might not have been so pretty.

I’m all for giving a good impression of our country, but I really think Tourism Australia (the organisation behind securing the massive opportunity) need to go steady with the preparation work which will go into showing the 'best' of Australia to Oprah, her audience of 300 coming on the trip, and her audience of 40 million Americans (not to mention the 145 countries and 215 TV networks the show in syndicated on). Australia is great already – otherwise, why would Oprah say it’s been one of her long time dreams to come here? We already have a great reputation amongst Americans for having a beautiful, pristine country, populated with friendly people.

It would be great if our country could be promoted the way it is – without the outdated Australiana and clich├ęd (but effective back in the day) imagery of the Paul Hogan ad campaign.

Oprah announced on her show that she and her 300 audience guests will be travelling to Australia and experiencing different parts of the country. Some will be heading to the Great Barrier Reef in far north Queensland, some will be indulging in shopping in Melbourne and some will be heading to New South Wales wineries. It will all culminate in a mega-show at the Sydney Opera House, which will apparently be dubbed the ‘Oprah House’ for the event.

The figure being thrown around for the cost to taxpayers is $3 million and Tourism Australia will be contributing half of that. It is a lot of money, and sounds a bit ridiculous at first mention, but to be fair to Tourism Australia, what the promotion will do for Australia in the US and countless other countries is probably worth the money. Oprah really is the most powerful woman in television. And apparently they spent $180 million on the ‘Where the Bloody Hell Are You’ campaign and that didn’t exactly go down a treat. That makes Oprah look like a bargain!

Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson said Oprah's visit was a major win for the Australian tourism industry.

"This truly represents an amazing opportunity to showcase Australia, the warmth and hospitality of our people and the depth and breadth of everything our country has to offer visitors from around the world," he said. 

"Tourism Australia is finally getting it together.We as a nation will win as a result of this coup."

So come on Tourism Australia - lets go au naturel when Oprah gets here – that’s our best side anyway. Aussies are down-to-earth and genuine people. That’s the way we should showcase our country. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make a big deal, but let’s do it without the outdated Australiana.

If you’d like to get into the spirit of Oprah’s visit try Oprah-fying yourself here. Just to get you started, my effort is below! But let’s not Oprah-fy Australia. It would be great if she and the rest of the world could see our beautiful country for how it really is.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Best of Broadway: West Side Story

Among my friends and family, it’s a well-known fact. I’m not ashamed to admit it. So, here goes. I am a huge musical theatre nerd. I’ve even shared this nerdiness with the internet. I am rarely happier or more content than when I’m sitting amongst a theatre audience, watching insanely talented performers sing, dance, and act on stage, live in front of me.  It started a long, long time ago, my love of musicals. I’ve said before that all my favourites movies as a kid involved people bursting into song at random and inopportune times. C’mon! What a perfect way to express emotion: love, hate, happiness, sadness, a song for every feeling. I know I can’t be the only one who shares this musical obsession, so, now’s the time to show yourselves! I’m going to talk about some of my favourites, and I’d love to hear what you think too. Let’s start at the top, with West Side Story. 

West Side Story is my favourite musical, and its pedigree is simply without peer. A legend is behind WSS at every turn. The book? By Arthur Laurents. The music? Leonard Bernstein of course! And those lyrics? Why, that would be the incomparable Stephen Sondheim. Let’s start with the story, based on Romeo and Juliet. Set in the 50s, The Puerto Rican Sharks and the working-class white Jets rule their turf on the West Side of Manhattan. Tony, a former Jet, is trying to grow up, but Riff, the Jet’s current leader, pleads with Tony to come to a dance at the gym, where the Jets will challenge the Sharks to a rumble. Bernardo, the head of the Sharks, has a younger sister Maria, and when she and Tony meet, it’s love at first sight. At the rumble, a knife is pulled and Riff is killed by Bernardo, and Tony kills Bernardo in a moment of blind rage. Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita runs to tell Tony that Maria wants to meet him, but the gang harasses her, and she tells them that Maria has been killed by Chino. Tony goes to find Chino to be killed himself, since his life is meaningless without Maria, only to find her alive. The shocking and heartbreaking end has Chino shoot Tony dead. Phew!

Amongst the melodrama, the love and hate and dancing and emoting, are some of the most gorgeous songs Broadway has ever produced. Somewhere, Maria, the sublime One Hand, One Heart, I Feel Pretty, Tonight, the hilariously pointed America; the dreamlike quality of Bernstein’s music lifts the cruelty of the story, giving it an almost otherworldly quality. The tension of songs like Tonight Quintet, just before intermission, is almost unbearable. There's no doubt something bad is going to happen here. Performed live on stage, that anxiety is both palpable and irresistible. But despite the raw naturalism of the narrative and setting, the romanticism of Tony and Maria’s love is undercut perfectly by a poetic tone, lifting West Side Story to a level of musical theatricality that is so rare. 

Dance played a major part in the development of West Side Story, with the show originating with choreographer Jerome Robbins. To see West Side Story onstage is a rare treat, and one that every musical fan should take if given the opportunity. If staged effectively, it is unmatched as a production. I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway revival in 2009, and left the show with a tear in my eye. It was perfection on stage, aided by the interesting choice to have the Sharks often speak in their native Spanish, and the brilliance of Karen Olivo's Tony-winning portrayal of Anita. Most valuably, with all the elements working together (performance, staging, music, book), we remain completely invested in the story. This, for me, makes West Side Story the ultimate musical. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Keeping the Spotlight on Pakistan

To quote St George Clooney at the 2010 Emmys in Los Angeles earlier this week –

It's important to remember how much good can get done, because we live in such strange times where bad behavior sucks up all the attention and press.

And the people who really need the spotlight: the Haitians, the Sudanese, people in the Gulf Coast.. Pakistan, they can't get any.

So here's hoping that some very bright person right here in the room or at home watching can help find a way to keep the spotlight burning on these heartbreaking situations that continue to be heartbreaking long after the cameras go away.

George is spot on there. And that’s the good thing about celebrities like him. With the news industry a slave to the relentless pace of a 24 hour or less news cycle, it’s hard to keep the spotlight on a disaster situation in a developing nation, and celebrities can actually help.

Hopefully most people (who aren’t living under a rock) would have heard about the flooding disaster in Pakistan by now, and also be aware that it is on a monumental scale.

Here's just a few of the hurdles Pakistan is facing...

-       One of the big issues is the health of survivors. Diseases which can be spread by water include diarrhoea, respiratory infections and skin disease. In a developed country, none of those things by itself would be life threatening – but in a country like Pakistan, even simple illness can turn serious quickly.

-       According to the United Nations about 72,000 children are affected by severe malnutrition.

-       It’s estimated around one-fifth of Pakistan is under water.

-       According to UNICEF Australia so far 900,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. More than 7000 schools are partially or completely damaged and around 5000 schools being used as accommodation for 81,000 families.

-       The entire length of the country is affected – amounting to almost 20 million people.

This disaster would be an incredible challenge for a country like Australia or the United States to deal with, but Pakistan was already a country struggling. With a population of around 160 million, the average life expectancy for men is 62 and for women it’s 63. That’s almost 20 years less life than the average Australian. The gross national income per capita in Pakistani is around $2,400; in Australia it’s almost $34,000.

About 15 years ago, I was given the opportunity of a life time to visit Pakistan. I had a family member posted there with the Royal Australian Air Force, and I lived and travelled the country for four weeks. While it was an amazing experience, even as a teenager, I could see that Pakistan was a broken and struggling country. Corruption was rife; it was nothing to bribe a police officer in public to avoid arrest or a traffic fine, road rules were basically non-existent and cars drove on whichever side of the road they wandered to.

The people were, and remain, very poor. In the capital Islamabad we would be swarmed by children as young as four while stopped at traffic lights. They would tap on our car window and beg for money. My first reaction was to wind down the window and give them 5 Rupee (equivalent to six cents in Australian dollars) but it was too unsafe to do so. The majority of these children were working as part of begging rackets and would take the money back to a ring leader, and not see a fraction of that amount. A lot of children were deliberately disabled so as to appear more shocking while they begged.

Pakistan's Swat Valley
I also visited Pakistan before many significant and debilitating events in the country’s recent history, which have made it virtually impossible to travel for ordinary tourists; a military coup, the nuclear stand-off with India, September 11 and the beginning of the war in border country Afghanistan. One of my favourite areas, the Swat Valley, where we stayed in a amazing hill top hotel, surrounded by cultural markets and fields of cannabis, is now basically under the control of militants. It was a dysfunctional and poor country even when I was there, so the destruction from flooding of this magnitude is twice as devastating, if you can even comprehend it.

However, while the country seemed broken and dishonest, I also noticed the people in the cities and towns I visited were not that different to me. People were trying to make a living, support their families and just live life as best they could. These are the people now suffering in the aftermath of the worst flooding the country has ever seen.

So given the inherent tilt towards corruption in Pakistan– how do you know your money is getting through if you choose to donate? The answer is do your research and choose to donate to organisations which have contacts on the ground.

The hundreds of charities vying for your money to fund Pakistan flood relief can be overwhelming. If you don’t have time for research, no problem. I’ve tried to do it for you...

Medecins Sans Frontieres also known as Doctors Without Borders has teams currently on the ground in Pakistan. They were there prior to the disaster and so were able to assist when the flooding unfolded. The easiest way to make a contribution to them is online here. One of the best things about this organisation is their transparency with donating; their website clearly states where your money goes and even has tangible examples of what certain amounts can buy.

UNICEF Australia is a reputable organisation with local access into Pakistan. So far the organisation says it’s raised more than $4 million for flood victims and its water and sanitation program is helping around 1.9 million people. You can donate online to UNICEF here.

Children of Swat Valley
Oxfam Australia is another organisation which is transparent in the way it uses donations. It has a funding breakdown on its website donation page – and it's user friendly as well. You can donate here to Oxfam.

These are just a few options...I’m sure there are many more out there which can allow you to make a difference. I’d also encourage you to keep talking about Pakistan and the current disaster to your friends; at work, on Facebook and Twitter. If everyone keeps talking, then we can keep the issue in people’s minds and hopefully keep them reaching into their pockets.

If you have any ideas/suggestions for great charities to donate to for the Pakistan flooding crisis, please comment below!