2014 Pop Culture Resolutions

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The beginning of a new year brings with it the promise of a clean slate and the opportunity to start over; while it really is just another day on paper, there is something symbolic about New Year’s that makes this the time of year that people make resolutions and try to change. Granted, most of these promises fall flat, but we keep making them. I didn’t do particularly great with my pop culture resolutions last year – I only went to two new MLB stadiums instead of three and I was clearly a complete failure on the “go to fewer concerts” front – but that doesn’t mean I won’t try again this year and hope to do better. Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well then, call me crazy because here are my pop culture resolutions for 2014:

  • Finally watch Raiders of the Lost Ark – There is no real reason that this hasn’t happened yet other than my stubbornness. 2014 may be the year to finally see what all the fuss has been about.
  • Stop buying so many DVDs – I think I may have a legitimate problem; even though I am very consciously trying to downsize and de-clutter my life and home, I seem to not be able to stop myself from buying DVDs. I’m definitely slowed down from my heyday, but I still have work to do. The sad thing is, I don’t even watch half the DVDs that I have. It’s like I buy them as a sign of approval, but then never get around to re-watching what I purchased. So in 2014 I hope to curb this impulse and only buy a few select DVDs. Friends and family – you may want to get your intervention plans underway.
  • Go see a film at the Alamo Drafthouse – It may seem silly to go all the way to Yonkers to see a movie, but this is a theater that is made for cinema lovers.  I have long been a fan of their strict no texting, talking or cell phone policy and the fact that I can reserve my seat AND have a cheeseburger and a beer while doing it sounds like heaven to me. Plus, going to Yonkers looks a lot more likely than making the trip to the mothership theaters in Austin, TX.
  • Watch fewer mindless re-runs – I’ve noticed that I can plop down on the couch and put on old episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Everybody Loves Raymond, Roseanne or The Golden Girls and the next thing you know, three hours have passed. That’s time that could have more productively been spent doing other things. So in 2014, I’m going to try to cut down on watching things that I’ve seen 100x times before and make better use of my limited free time.
  • Re-watch The Wire – It’s been a long time since I’ve sat through The Wire in its entirety and I’m curious whether I still consider it the greatest TV show in the history of the world now that Breaking Bad has ended its run. There may be a new sheriff in town.  Either way, revisiting the show is a long overdue (and I’ll have the time to do it if I follow through on the resolution above).
  • Finally see The Book of Mormon – I have been trying to see this Broadway show since it was in previews and have been foiled by the high ticket prices and the limited availability. A touring production is coming to my backyard in 2014, so fingers crossed I can finally cross this off the list.
  • Check out more podcasts and webseries – I have a handful of both that I am a loyal consumer of, but there has been a proliferation of podcasts and webseries over the last few years. I’d like to branch out more and see what else I discover.
  • Finish Deadwood – Yup, this made the list last year and I managed to get to about the same point in the series before I got waylaid by other things. I must have some mental block over the last half of this show. I have now seen the first few episodes of this series multiple times. Need to get over the hump and make a real effort to finish this show that I really enjoy.
  • Visit the Anchorman exhibit at the Newseum in Washington DC – I may not have loved the sequel as much as some people, but I’m still an overall Anchorman fan. Hopefully I can pair this trip with a Nationals game and knock another stadium off my list.
  • Visit at least 3 new MLB stadiums – I’m slowly creeping my way toward my ultimate goal of all 30; only 14 more to go!
  • Go to the Film Columbia Festival – The last two years I have planned to check out this very good local(ish) film festival, but have gotten myself sidelined and never made it. This year I am determined to make this happen – 18 movies in 5 days sounds like my own personal heaven.
  • Take more random pop culture road trips – I’d love to hit up some of the locations from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives or just go on the road to see more big concerts or exhibits. I did a pretty good job with this this year, but I could always do more.
  • Do a meet and greet with one of the New York Yankees – I’ve done celebrity meet and greets before with NKOTB and Steve Burton from General Hospital (that one’s a long story), but I’d love to be in the same room with Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte or Paul O’Neill and have my picture taken with one of them. I have a friend who is keeping me updated on the events with Steiner Sports in NYC, so it may happen sooner rather than later.

Honestly, it is tough to come up with ways to improve on my 2013, which was pretty spectacular on almost every front, but especially related to my pop culture consumption. I got to do some really cool things over the last year, so if that could just continue I’d consider myself very happy.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2014! As always, thank you for your readership!!

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2013 Pop Culture in Review

Any critic with their salt is obligated to write a piece selecting their best and worst movies/albums/TV shows/plays/webseries for the previous year; it’s something of a rite of passage that most critics despise doing to hear them tell it (and tell, they do, on Twitter). It may be a tedious task that doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance and forces critics to compare apples and oranges, but as 2013 slowly eases into 2014 it makes sense to pause and reflect on the year as a whole.

So with that in mind, I’m looking back at the things that I loved and hated over the last twelve months. Overall, I think 2013 was a pretty strong year for pop culture, especially films. We said goodbye to some favorite shows and some exciting newcomers entered the scene. As always, there were horrific missteps and some dreadfully ill-conceived artistic expressions, but on the whole I think this was a pretty good year to be a person obsessed with all things pop and I’m already looking forward to many things in 2014. The pop culture machine is always pumping out something spectacular and I’m curious to see what is on the horizon.

But as we put 2013 in the books, here’s a quick look at my highlights and lowlights of the previous 365 days. As always, my choices come with this disclaimer that even I don’t see or listen to everything. I cover a lot of ground considering that I have a full time job that is not at all related to the entertainment business, but you can only squeeze so much into your free time. So if you don’t see your favorite on the list, I simply may not have gotten to it. Or you might just have terrible taste 🙂 It’s OK – we can still be friends.

Top movies of 2013

  • American Hustle – It’s been almost a month since I’ve seen this film and I’m still pretty obsessed with it. Outstanding performances and an exciting story helped solidify its position in the top spot. The most fun that I’ve had at the cinema all year.
  • Mud – I’m still a huge champion of this little film that not many of you saw and it was my favorite film for most of the year (until I saw American Hustle). Do yourself a favor and rent this little gem; a beautiful coming of age film that features one of Matthew McConaughey’s stellar performances of 2013.
  • 12 Years a Slave – A powerful film that by telling one man’s terrible story tells the tragedy of thousands of other nameless men and women. Amazing performances throughout and a film that I’m glad that I watched but will probably never see again.
  • This is The End – This is easily the hardest that I’ve laughed at a movie all year. An unexpected surprise.

Honorable mention: The Wolf of Wall Street and Gravity. I didn’t love the latter as much as the critics did, but it is still a pretty cool movie. I need more time to reflect on The Wolf of Wall Street; I may not love it as much when I am farther removed from seeing it.

Worst movies of 2013

  • The Lone Ranger – just spectacularly awful; don’t waste the nearly 3 hours of your time. Johnny Depp – heal thyself; Armie Hammer – you seem like a nice guy, but you can’t carry a movie.
  • Girl Most Likely – Despite my general affinity for most of the cast, this Kristen Wiig vehicle was pretty dreadful. Too many quirky characters and a weak story.
  • Pain & Gain – I hated this movie, which wasn’t a surprise given Michael Bay’s involvement. Just dreadful.
  • Honorable mention: The Hangover III – my expectations were so low for this that it didn’t crack my top 5 – and A Good Day to Die Hard (partially saved because I still think Bruce Willis is super attractive).

Must See TV – Best TV shows of 2013

  • Breaking Bad – I am well aware that this is not a controversial selection; I’m going to miss this show so much.
  • Orange is the New Black – Netflix proved that they were in it to win it with this new original series that totally captivated me. I binge watched the whole first season in just a few days. I enjoyed the memoir that the show is (loosely) based on as well.
  • Mad Men – The merger of firms and the disillusionment of Sally Draper made this season great.
  • Game of Thrones – As a person who hasn’t yet read the books, the Red Wedding took me completely by surprise. I’m not as interested in all of the story lines – I’d be happy with a show that just focused on the Lannisters and the Starks – but I’m dying to know what happens next.
  • Broadchurch – I was completely infatuated with this BBC series about the murder of a child in a small town where almost everyone seems to have something to hide; I’m hoping the upcoming American remake isn’t just a pale imitation.

Honorable mention: The Americans, Justified, Top of the Lake and the new episodes of Arrested Development (uneven, but still a lot of fun).

It’s Not Me, It’s You – TV shows I broke up with in 2013

I knew enough to stay away from some of the dreadful new shows that debuted in 2013 – Dads, I’m looking at you – but this year I also gave the heave ho to shows that no longer worked for me.

  • How I Met Your Mother – I finally bailed on this series, which was a long time coming. Even the promise of the current season being the last could woo me back.
  • Once Upon a TimeOnce upon a time I was charmed by this show, but the magical spell was eventually broken. I decided to jump ship after the second season finale; I couldn’t stomach another season of Henry (a terrible thing to say about a kid, but he’s not good).
  • The Walking Dead – Unlike the rest of America, I never thought that this was a particularly good show; sure, the zombies are cool, but the actors are wooden and the characters are poorly drawn. After I let five episodes pile up on my DVR, I realized I didn’t miss the show at all. Sorry Darryl – you were awesome, but I’m sticking with the comics instead.
  • The Michael J. Fox Show – I gave this one the old college try but my childhood affinity for Fox just wasn’t enough to conquer the poor writing and silly story lines. Too sitcom-y for me and squanders the always great Wendell Pierce.
  • Boardwalk Empire – I’ve been pretty meh about this show for a while; I started watching this season’s first episode and realized I really didn’t care about any of this. I’ve heard, however, that the season got really good so I may have to eventually jump back on board.
  • The Following – I was really excited by all the nuttiness of this serial killer drama in the beginning, but the show completely fell apart for me pretty quickly. I finished the season but won’t be back for the next one. Poe should be annoyed his good name was sullied with this foolishness.

On the bubble: The Vampire Diaries (I may have finally outgrown this show on the CW)

Top Pop Culture Experiences of 2013

  • Seeing Mariano Rivera throw the last pitch of his career – As a die-hard Yankee fan, I am so glad that I plunked down the extra money to see this historic moment at the Stadium. It was the perfect ending to a perfect career and I was far from the only person sobbing as he walked from the mound.
  • The Daily Show taping – Only a select number of people got to see John Oliver host The Daily Show and I’m glad that I’m one of them; awesome experience and I’m planning on going to see Jon Stewart in action in 2014.
  • The Boys of Summer tour – We may have had to deal with oppressive heat, a trail derailment and getting pulled over by the police, but none of that could minimize the fun of seeing Jay Z and Justin Timberlake at Yankee Stadium. Awesome show.
  • The Yeezus Tour – I couldn’t let 2013 pass without checking out Kanye West on his first tour in five years. He didn’t disappoint; it was as artistic and insane as I had hoped – and a ton of fun.

Honorable mention: Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon at NJPAC and The National Museum of Play

Favorite Posts of 2013

In addition to the posts above, these posts were among my favorites of 2013:

  • Song(s) for the Dumped – I got a lot of good feedback for this playlist of my favorite break-up songs; look for the companion post on favorite love songs in 2014
  • Pop Culture Teachers – I had fun coming up with my favorite educators from television and the movies
  • 2013 MTV Video Music Awards – My running diary of this “awards show” reinforced two things: 1) I am way too old to be watching this stuff and 2) Miley Cyrus killed Hannah Montana once and for all.

What were your favorite pop culture things in 2013? Let us know in the comments below.

The Wolf of Wall Street – A Review

In a lot of ways, The Wolf of Wall is in many ways similar in spirit to my favorite Scorsese film, Goodfellas. Both take the viewer into a world that is unfamiliar to most (the mafia and Wall Street, respectively) and the different codes of behavior that apply to participants in these realms (unsurprisingly, there is more law and order in the mafia than on Wall Street). Both feature narration by the lead character and both lament the idea of being an ordinary person living an ordinary life. Both men rose from humble beginnings and stressed the importance of loyalty over honor. They both run with a crew of guys “from the neighborhood.” Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort may swim in different pools, but they really aren’t all that different.

It’s a credit to the fantastic performances, as well as the direction and cinematography, that The Wolf of Wall Street is so fun to watch with such a slimy unlikable character like Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name, the film is full of a lot of unlikable people doing a lot of terrible things. This is ostensibly a film about Wall Street brokers, but it is really a film about excess. While Goodfellas had plenty of violence, The Wolf of Wall Street is all about sex and drugs – especially the drugs. The amount of narcotics that these characters consume on a daily basis would kill a horse. All the while, Belfort and his pals are making money hand over fist through their predatory and aggressive method of trading and selling stock. Through in some money laundering and securities fraud and you have another day in the office at Stratton Oakmont. The traders engage in the kind of debauchery that would make most fraternity parties look like a tea party; this behavior is not only encouraged but is financed by Belfort and his cronies at the top. Their behavior is repulsive and yet you can’t look away; The Wolf of Wall Street manages to make these men alluring and disgusting at the same time. The fact that I didn’t tire of these characters and their terrible antics over the nearly three hour runtime means that Scorsese and company have put together an entertaining film. The film doesn’t celebrate this behavior; Belfort is not held up as any sort of aspirational ideal.

DiCaprio is great as Belfort; he displays a sort of swagger and bravado that I haven’t seen him possess before. Often when a director and actor pair up for multiple projects, there are eventually diminishing returns (see Johnny Depp and Tim Burton – the latter has pretty much ruined the former); that isn’t the case in the DiCaprio/Scorsese pairing. The duo continues to bring the best out of each other and I would be happy if pair continued to make films together ad infinitum. DiCaprio really brings Belfort to life and while he doesn’t necessarily make you feel sympathy for Belfort – nor do I think that is the intention of the movie – but you aren’t necessarily rooting for him to get his comeuppance either. Belfort as portrayed by DiCaprio occupies the same awkward space as many of the antiheros that have dominated the small screen the last few years – you don’t condone their behavior, but it is also a lot of fun to watch such reckless disregard for decency and laws. DiCaprio’s pretty boy appearance doesn’t automatically conjure up images of him as an alpha male, but he seamlessly transforms himself into a showboating and dominating personality that can rile up an entire company with one of his speeches. He’s never been so heartless and so cold; perhaps he is free to go for broke with this role because there is no effort made to make Belfort to be redeemable or likable. He has to hold nothing in reserve because this man never changes; there are no teachable moments for Belfort. Even when I don’t necessarily like the films that he is in, I generally like DiCaprio, but his work in The Wolf of Wall Street is among the best in his career. My only knock on his performance is that he doesn’t consistently get the accent right.

As Belfort’s schlubby and deranged right hand man Donnie Azoff, Jonah Hill also turns in a hilarious and wonderful performance. Belfort is a terrible guy, but Azoff is somehow even more unbalanced. Hill completely commits to his performance and the unlikability of his character. A lot of the big laughs in the film derive from Azoff’s lunacy; while Belfort occasionally can turn off his bad behavior, Azoff has no such off switch. He is all impulse with no control. Hill and DiCaprio play extremely well off each other and their friendship is completely believable.

The supporting cast is uniformly great as well – Australian actress Margot Robbie isn’t required to do much except be gorgeous (which she is), but she brings depth to her role as Belfort’s trophy wife Naomi; she also does a better job with the Queens accent than DiCaprio. Blog favorite Kyle Chandler (aka Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights) plays perhaps the only likable person in the whole film as the FBI agent that is trying to bring Belfort’s band of merry thieves down. Chandler does his usual solid job, but while morally you are rooting for him to be successful, you know that if he succeeds all the fun comes to an end. Matthew McConaughey turns up in a small but pivotal role early in the film as Belfort’s mentor when he first arrives on Wall Street. He knocks it out of the park as expected and creates a memorable role in his limited screen time; he’s really the catalyst for Belfort’s transformation from a quiet by-the-books guy to the Caligula-like man that he becomes. Jon Favreau and Rob Reiner also turn up in small parts.

Unsurprisingly, The Wolf of Wall Street is gorgeously shot and bares many Scorsese trademarks. The camera angles are used to illustrate points or exasperate behavior and they play with the film speed to simulate some of drug fueled binges. One Quaalude induced scene in particular is memorable; I’ve never taken the drug, but I imagine that they pretty successfully simulate its effects with their camera work. Scorsese and his team are able to make a film about really ugly behavior beautiful to watch. Even if you somehow got nothing out of the acting or story in the film, I think you would still be impressed with the aesthetic that they have put together. I’m always impressed with Scorsese’s choices behind the camera.

Some other thoughts:

  • I knew the guy that played Brad, the Quaalude King of Bayside, looked familiar but couldn’t quite place him; he’s played by Jon Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane on The Walking Dead.
  • Yup – that’s Academy Award winning Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as the Swiss banker. This film is seriously littered with talent.
  • She has a limited role as Belfort’s first wife, but Cristin Milioti is having a pretty great year as well. On the heels of her 2012 Tony nomination for Once, she lands the prized role of the mother on How I met Your Mother and gets to work on a Scorsese film. Not too shabby.
  • I really liked the use of music in the film; the used many familiar songs, but not the version that you are necessarily familiar with.
  • If my review hasn’t convinced you to go see The Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps this GIF of DiCaprio dancing will seal the deal:

leonard-dicaprio-dancing

  • While the film kept my attention for most of its 180 minute run time, I do think that this film would have benefitted from a bit more editing. All of the scenes are good, but I don’t know that all were essential. As excited as I was for this movie, a 3+ hour time commitment (with previews) was a bit daunting.
  • Tis the season to go to the movies with family, but this probably isn’t the film to go see with your parents (unless you want an awkward car ride home).
  • Belfort is a despicable person, but odds are pretty good that I’ll now read his memoir after seeing the film. I’ll just get it from the library so he doesn’t benefit at all financially.

I really had a lot of fun watching The Wolf of Wall Street; DiCaprio is fantastic and is surrounded by a ridiculously talented supporting cast of characters. Jonah Hill continues to show his versatility as an actor; it is impressive that his two big films in 2013 were the very different This is The End and The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese in many ways has given us Wall Street for this generation; with the recent shenanigans on Wall Street and the benefit of hindsight, Belfort is not held up to be celebrated as a hero but to be reviled. “Greed is good” is no longer the mantra of our times. The Wolf of Wall Street impressively makes all this bad behavior immensely entertaining, but it is never sugarcoated as acceptable behavior. Definitely one of my favorite films of the year.