Pop Culture Highlights 2012

It’s hard to believe that another year is almost in the books. Time seems to be speeding up the older I get – when I was a kid, a year felt like forever. Now I blink and it is almost 2013. I guess time does indeed fly when you are having fun.

2012 was a very good year for me in many ways – professionally, personally and of course in the realm of pop culture. After what many considered a lackluster 2011 in cinema, 2012 rebounded and had what has turned out to be a pretty fantastic crop of film offerings (though to be fair, 2012 also brought us Battleship and John Carter, so it wasn’t all spectacular – especially if your name is Taylor Kitsch). Television continued to be strong in 2012, reminding everyone that some of the best storytelling is happening on the small screen. It was a good year for movies and concerts and I personally had many of the best pop culture experiences of my life this year.

So without further ado, here are some of my pop culture highlights for 2012. And before you get mad that your favorite didn’t crack the top five, please remember that these are the best of what I’ve seen. Even a person who consumes as much pop culture as I do can’t see everything. So if something doesn’t make the list, it may simply be because I didn’t have time for it. And of course it goes without saying that taste is subjective; what speaks to me may not necessarily speak to you. I’m not saying these things are the definitive best things that 2012 had to offer – just the things that I enjoyed the most.

Top 5 movies

  1. Argo
  2. The Avengers
  3. Skyfall
  4. Django Unchained
  5. The Dark Knight Rises

Honorable mention: Wreck It Ralph and Bernie

Top 5 Television Shows

  1. Breaking Bad – This was really only a two show race for the top and I gave a slight edge to Breaking Bad because I think that they had a harder level of difficulty than the show I put at #2. The stakes continue to be high and just when you think Walter White can’t break any “badder,” he somehow finds new depths to sink to. Though it was an abbreviated season this summer, the season ended with a big revelation and has set things up nicely for the final episodes of the series. Brilliant acting all around and my adoption of Jesse’s penchant for adding “bitch” to the end of sentences has certainly made my conversations much more colorful.
  2. Mad Men – This should really be 1a and 1b, as I can’t think of two shows that made me happier in 2012. While some people were not on board with the increased focus on Mrs. Draper, I loved it and thought it introduced some interesting dimensions to characters that we thought we already knew everything about. Any time Don and Peggy share a scene, you are watching something pretty special unfolding. They just work so well together. The fact that Jon Hamm has never received an Emmy for his portrayal of Don Draper will never not bother me. Great cast, great look, great stories. It’s pacing may not be for everyone, but it really doesn’t get much better than this.
  3. Community – This show is constantly a surprise, in the best way possible. It’s ability to play around with genres and homages to other pop culture phenomena, while staying true to the characters has really been a pleasure to watch. NBC hasn’t done right by this show and I’m guessing the season that debuts in 2013 will be its last, but it is still the best comedy on TV right now.
  4. Game of Thrones – I’m so glad I took a chance on this show; it’s outside of what I normally watch, but I was hooked almost instantly. It’s the first time in history I have stopped reading a book because I don’t want it to ruin the TV show. I’ll admit that the show’s large cast and myriad relationships often confuse me; I have often joked that I want to put a white board in my living room so I can diagram all that is going on. But even if I have to occasionally rewind the DVR to give myself some clarity, it’s worth the added work I have to put in. Very much looking forward to the new season in March.
  5. Happy Endings – This quirky little comedy has so many jokes crammed in that I often don’t catch all of them until a second viewing. The show always manages to make me smile and I hope that it finds its audience soon. I’ve rewatched the recent Christmas episode more times than I’d like to admit.

Honorable mention: Parks and Recreation, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Girls, Justified, Bob’s Burgers

Top 5 albums

My musical taste is admittedly not the best, so take these recommendations with a grain of salt. But all 5 of these albums found themselves on heavy rotation on my iPod and on Spotify throughout 2012.

1. The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter – One of my biggest regrets of 2012 was not going to see The Avett Brothers when they rolled into town in April. Though less famous than Mumford and Sons, I actually think that The Avett Brothers are slightly better. I really enjoy their combination of many different musical inspirations.

2. Mumford & Sons – Babel –I’ve become very frustrated that Mumford & Sons have become so popular because now it is nearly impossible to get tickets to see them. Plus I felt much cooler when no one else had heard of the band and I had; I’m rarely on the cutting edge musically. Their folk rock sound on Babel is the soundtrack to many of my days in the office.

3. Jack White – Blunderbuss –I was more than a little upset when word came that my beloved The White Stripes had called it a day in 2011; I just loved their sound and was looking forward to many more albums from the duo. However, with Blunderbuss, Jack White’s first solo album, I found that sound was still alive, though it was melded with all sorts of different inspirations. Jack White is just an incredible musician and I look forward to whatever he does next.

4. Fiona AppleThe Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do – I will admit that I was not the world’s biggest Fiona Apple fan; I’d loved her debut album Tidal back in college, but had kind of lost track of her over the years. When I decided to go see her this year in concert, it was kind of a lark. People who know far more about music than I were very excited about her shows and I kept hearing raves for her new album.  I walked out of the concert with my fandom renewed and with a deep appreciation for The Idler Wheel…. I even made a play list on Spotify that mirrors her play list from the concert that I attended so I can relieve it.

5. Bruce SpringsteenWrecking Ball – Springsteen may be in his sixties, but with Wrecking Ball he proves that he is still The Boss. Another great album that speaks to our times; “We Take Care of Our Own” was used as both a campaign song and a moving tribute to those who lost everything in hurricane Sandy. Like a fine wine, Springsteen only gets better with age. If he rolls into your town with the E Street Band, I highly recommend going to check him out. You’ll be exhausted after watching him on stage.

Honorable mention: Frank Ocean, Agent Orange.

Top 5 favorite posts

This is the 196th post that I’ve written this year – holy cow! That’s a lot. Over 2012 I’ve written a lot of stuff that I’m proud of – and a few that I wish I could re-do – but even though I claim to love all my posts equally, I do have some favorites.

1. T.V. Theme Songs – This was one of those posts that felt like it just wrote itself. It was nice to find out that other people love a good theme song as much as I do.

2. Bruce Springsteen – I think this may have been the best thing I ever wrote on the blog and it was certainly the most personal. I got a lot of positive feedback from this post and I’m glad that sharing something so close to my heart was so well received.

3. Review of Liz & Dick – It’s great when I like something, but the posts that are the most fun for me to write is when something is just straight up terrible. Liz & Dick fits the bill; it was so bad. I had to use the thesaurus to remind myself of other words that mean the same this as “sucks.” Turns out, I enjoy being a mean girl every once in a while.

4. Jim Jefferies – This was such a crazy and hilarious night that I was glad I got to relive it writing up this post. Jim Jefferies earned himself a new fan that night – I’ll be tuning in to his new show Legit on FX this January – and it was a good lesson on how to handle a heckler. It also reinforced how much I love going to comedy shows. I already have 4 shows lined up for early 2013.

5. Jersey – This actually wasn’t one of my favorite posts when I wrote it, but someone at WordPress liked it enough that it was featured on their web page and directed a lot of traffic my way. I picked up a lot of new readers that day and it was a good reminder that sometimes you just have to trust what you write; sometimes simple is better.

Honorable mention: Being a Bills Fan, which was cathartic to write on many levels and Anchorman 2, which is when I realized people were actually reading the blog based on the number of friends who said that they found out about the new movie from reading me.

Top 5 Pop Culture Experiences

1. The Blog – Of all the amazing things I did in 2012, by far the best was my decision to start writing this blog. It has been so much fun for me to share my thoughts and opinions on all things pop culture and it has really pushed me to try new things and make more of an effort to go to shows and movies. I didn’t even realize I needed this creative outlet until I started writing again. It is a constant surprise to me that anyone other than my mother reads this; I honestly thought that I’d write this for a few months and then quit when no one read what I had to say. So thank you to each and every one of you for stopping in to listen to me ramble on about pop culture. I’m looking forward to blog’s first anniversary in January!

2.The Mixtape Festival – While there were some obvious problems with this weekend in Hershey, PA, the good far outweighed the bad. I was able to see all sorts of fun bands – Kelly Clarkson stands out in particular – and got to fulfill a childhood dream by meeting New Kids on the Block. And honestly, the whole experience was worth it for the people watching alone. This weekend may have marked my retirement from boy bands, but I’ll admit that I smile every time I hear The Wanted on the radio. A great weekend with a great friend, rain and disorganization be damned.

3. The U.S. Open – One of the things that I am most proud of myself in 2012 was that I stopped waiting around for other people and started planning and doing things that I wanted to do. Toward the top of the list was going to a golf tournament and I finally was able to do that this year when I attended the U.S. Open in 2012. It was a really fun day, even if it started out stressful because I had trouble meeting up with my friends. It was a great workout – you spend a lot of time walking – and I got to see some of the best golfers in the world do what they do best. And nothing is quite like seeing the “Tiger Wave” live and in person. I had so much fun that I’m hoping to go to the PGA Championship in Rochester this year.

4. MLB Playoffs – I was lucky enough to go to two playoff games this year at Yankee Stadium and they were exciting and dramatic. I feel so fortunate that I was at both games when Raul Ibanez decided he was going to homer the team into the next round or die trying. I was also there for the night that Nick Swisher turned on Yankee fans (as much as I love him, I still think he was being a baby about the whole thing) and I heard an eerie silence fall over the Stadium when Jeter fell to the ground with a broken ankle. And, most importantly, I was able to have a deep fried Twinkie before those become a thing of the past (R.I.P. Hostess). It was an exhausting week, but worth every penny.

5. Broadway/Christmas in NYC – This was another thing that had been sitting on my to do list for quite some time and I was so glad I could finally cross it off my pop culture bucket list in 2012. It was such a fun day and I got to do so many little things in NYC that I’ve always wanted to do (thanks to Amanda for being such a good sport and letting me be a tourist). My next trip to Broadway is already in the works for 2013. Plus I had my first random celebrity sightings in over 10 years, which was exciting.

So there you have it – my pop culture highlights for 2012. What are some of yours? Sound off in the comments. As tremendous as this year has been, I have a feeling that 2013 is only going to be better. Thanks for sticking with the blog this year. Best wishes for a healthy and happy 2013!

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Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Snow Day edition

Well, it was too good to last. We finally got some significant snow here in Albany; up until this point we’ve just had a dusting or two, but we had several inches by the time I left for work this morning with more snow and sleet on the way. I am miserable. I live in the totally wrong part of the country as I hate winter. I could handle it being really cold, but once the precipitation starts to fall I am not a happy camper. If I didn’t love my friends and family so much – and wasn’t kind of lazy – I would have taken off for a warner climate long ago. Now I’ll just pout until I go to Florida in March.

While I’m sulking at my desk and watching the snow fly, enjoy your (slightly delayed) bi-weekly roundup of pop culture stories you may have missed.

  • It was a sad Christmas as we lost two actors – Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple, Quincy) and Charles Durning (a prolific character actor who was Doc Hopper in The Muppet Movie) both passed away. Rest in peace.
  • If you need a Star Trek crash course, here’s a chart of all the character names and roles.
  • As a Seinfeld devotee, I ate up this New York Times Magazine piece on Jerry.
  • Grantland has a conversation with Quentin Tarantino. If you missed my review of Django Unchained, that’s here.
  • Frank Ocean’s song didn’t make the Django Unchained soundtrack, so he released it on his own. Take a listen:

 

  • Last Django Unchained reference (promise!) – check out this mashup with Blazing Saddles

 

  • Someone dressed up their dogs to look like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad. I wonder if my cat would tolerate that?

breakingbad-dogs

  • Perhaps the third time is the charm: Kate Winslet married Ned Rocknroll (Best.Name.Ever) earlier this month. I’ve always really liked her, so I hope this works out for her. Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio gave the bride away.
  • UGH! CBS has renewed How I Met Your Mother for a ninth season. I used to really like this show, but it has had a serious drop off in quality the last two seasons and I finally stopped watching it a few weeks ago. Damn you, Jason Segel, for not refusing to come back. It would have been a mercy killing.
  • Here’s the trailer for the new Gossling/Cooper movie that was filmed locally and got everyone in such a tizzy (not that I blame them).

 

  • Another story with a local twist – Brewery Ommegang has teamed with HBO to bring us a Game Of Thrones themed beer, Iron Throne. Ommegang is a brewery in Cooperstown, NY (home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) and is pretty close to Albany. I’ve sampled many of their beers and they are all tasty – I am partial to Three Philosopher – so I am definitely trying Iron Throne when it debuts in March. Might be reason enough to take a trip to the brewery for a tour.
  • Wheel of Fortune is getting a lot of attention for this decision. Watch your pronunciation people! It may cost you $4,000.

 

  • I’ve always been a fan of Legos, so I’m pretty psyched for this Back to Future inspired set. And as a side note, when are MLB and Lego going to get together for licensed baseball stadium sets. I would absolutely buy that.
  • The Walking Dead has been renewed for a 4th season, but show runner Glenn Mazzara is leaving the show over a difference of creative direction. That’s too bad, as I thought he fixed a lot of the problems that I had with the show in the second season. AMC is now getting a reputation as a network that doesn’t work well with creative types; there is a lot of turnover and prolonged disputes.
  • Arsenio Hall is back

 

  • Steve Carell and Jim Carrey play rival magicians in the new movie The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I don’t see any way this movie will not be fantastic.

 

  • File this under terrible ideas – Vin Diesel (remember him?) may play Kojak.
  • A moment of silence for Nick Swisher, who has signed with a baseball team that is not the Yankees. Right field will not be the same without him. Perhaps I will now move my seat location.
  • For those of you that miss Community as much as I do, hopefully this video of Alison Brie and Danny Pudi freestyle rapping will tide you over until new episodes (allegedly) debut in February

 

  • The League (FX) and Psych (USA) have both been renewed for their 5th and 8th seasons, respectively.
  • Yeah, this isn’t at all creepy. Larry Hagman will appear posthumously on an episode of CBS’s reality show I Get That A Lot.
  • NBC will also host a mini Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip reunion when Bradley Whitford stops by Matthew Perry’s sitcom, Go On.
  • Michael J. Fox’s new show just got a lot more interesting; The Wire and Treme’s Wendell Pierce has joined the cast.
  • The Rock+ Mark Wahlberg+ Rebel Wilson = Heather’s all in. I want to see Pain and Gain NOW!

 

  • I don’t care your political leanings – this photo of President Obama playing with a staffer’s son is fantastic

Obama spiderman

  • Speaking of Spider-Man, the latest issue has fans all riled up. (Contains spoilers)
  • And finally, it was probably inevitable. Here’s The Hobbit/The Hunger Games mashup, The Hobbit Games.

Django Unchained – A Review

Last night, many children across the land drifted off to sleep, dreaming of all the goodies bestowed upon them by Old Saint Nick. Parents sat down to relax after a long night of wrapping presents, only to see their hours of preparation and assembly rendered moot in a ten minute haze Christmas morning. Families enjoyed reuniting with loved ones, near and far, who came together for some eggnog, cookies and to participate in myriad traditions.

And in Albany, NY, Heather had visions of killing some slave owners.

Because despite the fact that I had a wonderful Christmas with my family, the present I was most looking forward to receiving was coming from a man that I had never met but had long admired. The long wait was over – Quentin Tarantino’s newest film was finally opening. While other people anticipated the arrival of Santa, I have spent the last few months counting down the days until Django Unchained would arrive. And even though it was Christmas, I had no doubt in my mind that I would find myself at an opening night screening.

To say that I am in the tank for Tarantino is an understatement; I am an avowed Tarantino disciple and his films are heavily represented in my favorite movies of all time. I love his snappy dialogue and innovative storytelling. It’s pretty hard for him to do anything wrong in my eyes. But even I was a little concerned about Django Unchained. My first reservation was that I had built this movie too much in my head and it would never live up to my expectation; months of following every casting change and production rumor may have made me a little too invested in the film. He had yet to really disappoint me – though I will admit that Death Proof isn’t one of my favorites – but that could just mean that he was overdue for a misstep. I don’t particularly like Jamie Foxx; I think he did a fine job as Ray Charles, but that performance seems more of an aberration. I haven’t been particularly impressed with anything he has done before and since. His performance in Ray was more about impersonation than anything else. I find Foxx the person kind of annoying and insufferable; he has a swagger that I’m not sure he has really earned. So a film with him in the lead wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk for me. I’m also not a huge fan of spaghetti westerns, which was the genre du jour for Django Unchained; this in and of itself wasn’t a huge issue, as I generally am not as enamored with the various film genres that he has played with over the years. I can’t say that I had even seen a grindhouse film before Death Proof/Planet Terror and I had only a basic knowledge of Kung Fu films before Kill Bill. Tarantino had incorporated elements of spaghetti westerns in some of his earlier movies, but with Django Unchained he was more fully embracing the motif. I was less worried about the subject matter per se, though any time a movie is about race there is the potential for controversy or misinterpretation if it isn’t handled just right. Director Spike Lee had announced that he wouldn’t be seeing the film because he felt it was “disrespectful” to his ancestors.

And while I don’t know that Django Unchained is going to ever go down as one of my favorite Tarantino movies – it’s going to be hard to ever displace Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs – but I did enjoy it immensely. It wasn’t always easy to watch, but I don’t think a movie about slavery should be. The acting was spectacular across the board and even with an almost three hour run time, I was constantly entertained. Perhaps not the most traditional way to spend my Christmas evening, but it was still a jolly good time.

Django Unchained is the spiritual sister to Tarantino’s last movie, Inglourious Basterds. Both are revenge fantasies where a mistreated group is able to exact vengeance on their enemies; In Basterds, a troop of Jewish soldiers were able to kill a bunch of Nazis and in Django Unchained it is a former slave (Foxx) that is able to seek retribution against slave owners. Django is able to get into the revenge business when he is purchased by a German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christopher Waltz). Schultz needs Django to help him identify a trio of slave owners that he is currently pursuing; in exchange for Django’s assistance, Schultz will give him his freedom. The two form an unlikely friendship and Schultz agrees to help Django free his wife (Kerry Washington) from a particularly brutal plantation, run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing against type).

Tarantino films are always pretty brutal; this is the guy, after all, that made his bones as a director with a film that includes this scene

and his films have only become more violent with time. But there were a few scenes in Django Unchained that I had a tough time sitting through, and I’m not shrinking violet when it comes to on-screen violence. I have seen more than one movie where a person cuts out their own tongue.  But at least twice I found myself very uncomfortable with what I was watching. I think that unlike the usual mayhem that appears in Tarantino movies, the brutality that I was watching was based in history. Slaves were treated like animals and often received inhuman punishments at the hands of their owners and overseers. Most films about this era tend to shy away from being this graphic; allusions are made to the violence, but it is rarely actually depicted. So even though there were scenes in Django Unchained that I struggled with, I am glad that they were there. I should have to struggle with them. Tarantino used them sparingly so you didn’t become desensitized to them. I think that they were an essential component to the film; if you want to truly identify with Django and his rage, you need to fully comprehend what he has witnessed and had to endure. These scenes are meant to be horrifying and they in no way are glamorous or gratuitous; if you find them to be so, that says more about you than the film.

Django Unchained does not shy away from the use of the n word. In total, it must be uttered over 100 times. That also took some getting used to for me; it’s a repugnant word that always makes me bristle, but it was historically accurate in its usage. Slave owners wouldn’t have hesitated to use it. It was unfortunately a common word in the lexicon of the 1850s. It’s harsh and hateful and it is meant to be.  I don’t think he could have made this film without it; paired with the violence, it sets the tone of the time period and is a reminder that no matter how much we think we understand how bad things were, we really have no idea. I had expected the word to be used a lot, but it still made me feel ill at ease. The violence and terminology don’t make Django Unchained the most accessible film, but if you can see past them it really is quite outstanding .

The acting in Django Unchained is superb. Jamie Foxx won me over almost immediately. He is a suitable hero for this film; he has rage, but he also has a heart. He is driven by the love of his wife and though he has been given little reason to feel any empathy for the men who he and Schultz are chasing, killing one of the men in front of the man’s son gives him pause. He is not a monster, but he also doesn’t shy away from taking another person’s life. Waltz continues to appear to be born to work with Tarantino; he was phenomenal as a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds and his performance in Django Unchained proves that was no fluke. Waltz just has a way with Tarantino’s dialogue. It’s really a pleasure to watch and I hope that they continue to partner in the future. They bring out the best in each other. DiCaprio was outstanding as the amoral and cruel plantation owner Candie. While I have long been an admirer of DiCaprio’s work, I wasn’t 100% sure if he could pull off this role. He’s not usually the straight up bad guy. I needn’t have been concerned as DiCaprio turns in a fabulous performance. He is truly awful and he managed to disappear into the role once I adjusted to seeing him in this light. Samuel L. Jackson is a revelation as Candie’s loyal house slave. If anything, Jackson’s role is even more unexpected than DiCaprio’s. Jackson gets to utter his trademark “mother-er” on more than one occasion, but seeing him play a man who assists the slave owners in their brutality and cruelty was a shock.

Though there is no doubt that Django Unchained is a rough film, it is also very funny. Tarantino mixes the tones very well and the audience was laughing so hard at some points in the film that it was difficult to hear the next few lines. There are moments of silliness and some of the violence is so pulpy that it isn’t as hard to sit through. There is also some kind of vicarious thrill in seeing the bad guys get their deserved comeuppance. After making it through some of the harsher moments of the film, there is real catharsis in the resulting carnage. You wish that some of the characters could die multiple times for the sins that they have committed. Somehow death just doesn’t seem like punishment enough.

Some other thoughts:

  • I was really surprised at how many people were at the theater on Christmas night. I knew that this was a big release, but the cinema was packed for the 8 pm show. Mostly a male crowd, but one of the more racially diverse audiences that I’ve seen in a long time.
  • It’s always a pleasure when Walter Goggins shows up, even if he is playing a terrible person. He’s always good in whatever he’s in and I look forward to Justified returning for its fourth season in January so I can see him on a weekly basis.
  • Don Johnson also has a minor role as a plantation owner named Big Daddy; he may not be on screen that much, but he is really fantastic in his limited time. Tarantino has a knack for knowing how to use actors and Django Unchained is no exception.
  • I was unaware how long the film was before I got to the theater; when I looked online the run-time was listed as 2 hours and 15 minutes, but it clocks in much closer to 3 hours. That being said, it didn’t feel like three hours. The time flew by and I can’t think of much that should have been edited out of the film. There aren’t a lot of wasted moments in Django Unchained.
  • Look for Jonah Hill to turn up in a very unexpected place.
  • There is some beautiful cinematography throughout the film.
  • Tarantino has said that Django Unchained is the second installment in an unofficial thematic trilogy that started with Basterds. I am curious what the final chapter will feature; I’d be interested in seeing his conception of some suffragettes opening a can of whoop ass on the men who have oppressed them.

I really enjoyed Django Unchained and while it is ultimately a mash-up of a spaghetti western and a revenge film it still had some very interesting things to say and was filled with really fantastic acting. Tarantino continues his winning streak with this film. While it is occasionally difficult to watch, I think it needs to be in order to be effective. The film is in no way a downer; there are more than enough laughs to keep things light when needed and seeing people get what they have coming to them never felt so good. If you like Tarantino’s filmography, especially Inglourious Basterds, than I don’t think there is anything in Django Unchained that you can’t handle; if you don’t like his other movies you probably weren’t going to see this one anyway. You kind of either like Tarantino or you don’t. I was more than satisfied with Django Unchained, even if it was perhaps the most un-Christmassy movie ever released.