Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Christmas Eve Edition

Tis the season of giving and I could think of nothing better to give my dear readers than an extra jam packed stocking of pop culture links. There is a lot in here, which will hopefully keep you entertained as the blog takes a mini-holiday hiatus for a couple of days. If all goes according to plan, I should be back Friday with a Wolf of Wall Street review.

And now, my gift to you: more pop culture knowledge than you can shake a stick at:

  • You can now watch Metallica’s entire concert in Antarctica:

 

  • Lifetime has also announced dates for their Flowers in the Attic and Lizzie Borden movies.
  • Kate Winslet has picked a name for her newborn son and yes, it’s unusual (though kudos for NOT giving the kid his father’s last name of Rocknroll).
  • STOP THE PRESSES – a Tom Hiddleston/Benedict Cumberbatch dance-off:

I think the Internet just exploded.

  • I do love me some touchdown celebrations, so I appreciate the Wall Street Journal analyzing all 1,150 in the 2013 season:

They also created this fancy chart.

  • Watch Ron Burgundy perform “Ride Like the Wind” on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

 

  • Paul Rudd told Letterman about the time he tried to break up a drag queen fight while in his Anchorman 2 costume:

THAT should have been added to the movie!

  • Put Conan, Ice Cube and Kevin Hart together and watch the magic happen:

 

  • Conan also visited The American Doll store.

I think Conan has just earned his way to a season pass on my DVR. He’s killing it lately.

  • Watch a Jeopardy! contestant do his best Bane impression:

 

  • I enjoyed this Cougar Town ad created from thousands of corks. The Cul-de-sac crew loves its vino!

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  • Cracker Barrel pulled, then restocked, their Duck Dynasty merchandise after Phil Robertson’s controversial GQ interview.
  • Justin Timberlake photobombed some people at his concert:

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  • Ha! Watch Michael K. Williams (OMAR!) promote the Chalky White line of children’s books:

 

  • I’ll be on the market for a new car within a year; perhaps I should look into this LEGO car.

For your holiday perusal – a tone of trailers:

  • A new teaser for Community (January 2! Can’t wait!)

 

  • A teaser trailer for the new season of Orphan Black:

 

  • Anne Hathaway and Jamie Foxx in Rio 2:

 

  • A promo for Patton Oswalt’s new standup special:

 

  • A longer look at HBO’s Looking:

 

  • An animated trailer for Community:

 

  • Did the Oscars always have trailers?

 

  • Ha! Netflix did a trailer for their streaming Yule Log:

 

  • A trailer for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel:

 

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:

 

 

  • A red band trailer for 22 Jump Street:

 

  • The Other Woman starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Upton:

 

  • The Expendables 3 teaser trailer:

 

  • Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore team up for what I’m already predicting will be one of the worst movies of 2014:

 

  • Jon Hamm + Baseball = Heather’s wheelhouse. I will see Million Dollar Arm 100 times.

 

  • A third season trailer for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee:

 

  • I have never seen Kanye as happy as he is in this photo, eating ice cream:

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There has been a sudden proliferation of oral histories;

A few quick Mashups and Supercuts

  • Check out this illustrated mashup of memorable pop culture events in 2013:

 

 

  • I try to keep you guys up to date, but if you want a real crash course, here’s a three minute video on 2013 pop culture:

 

  • Watch Jeff Winger and Dean Pelton’s relationship on Community reimagined as a psychological thriller:

 

And finally, we end with a bunch of holiday stuff:

  • A holiday themed Billy on the Street featuring Amy Poehler:

 

  • For those of you who feel a little grinchy, an “I hate Christmas” supercut:

 

  • This never gets old – the Happy Endings Hip Hop Santa dance-off:

 

  • A Peanuts flashmob? Outstanding!

 

  • Watch Elf re-enacted with pugs:

 

  •  Whoa – check out this gingerbread Optimus Prime:

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  • A song made only from Christmas tree ornaments:

 

  • Some guy named Paul inserted himself into Home Alone:

 

  • In honor of Festivus, a supercut of Seinfeld characters airing their grievances:

I’ve got a lot of problems with you people.

  • “Defying Gravity” as sung by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer:

 

  • And finally…..Conan reveals a terrifying twist for Elf on the Shelf:

 

Wishing you all a very happy holidays – however you choose to celebrate, I hope you are smiling.

Nebraska – A Review

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I think everyone, even the most sensible among us, has at one point or another dreamt of winning the lottery. It’s a fantasy that everyone indulges in; even if you don’t enter sweepstakes or pick lucky numbers, at some point you have allowed yourself the luxury of indulging in “what if” scenarios should you come into a large sum of money. Would you still work? What would be your first purchase? How would you provide for your family? For most of us, this is nothing more than idle daydreaming – a momentary distraction from the humdrum beat of everyday life.

In Nebraska, director Alexander Payne’s latest film, Woody (Bruce Dern) believes that this dream has become a reality, thanks to a sweepstakes letter that he received in the mail. A lifelong alcoholic with the early stages of dementia, Woody refuses to listen to the objections of his wife Kate (June Squibb) or his two sons, David and Ross (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk), that this is all a scam to sell magazines and that there is no million dollar prize; in Woody’s mind, if the prize company wrote it, it must be true. He makes several attempts to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska from his home in Montana to collect his prize, only to be repeatedly foiled by his concerned family. Kate and Ross are ready to put Woody in a home, but David decides to accompany his father on this quixotic journey. The somewhat estranged pair hit to road, stopping in Woody’s hometown for a family reunion, with Woody steadfast in his belief that he is a millionaire and David placating a father that he doesn’t really know.

Gorgeously shot in black and white, Nebraska is a small story that seems large thanks to the wonderful performances of its cast. Dern, who has made a career out of being the heavy in films, is cantankerous and hard as Woody, but there is an undercurrent of regret and disappointment that is bubbling just under the surface. Dern doesn’t try to make Woody likeable and by all accounts it seems like he was a less than ideal father and husband, but you can’t help but feel sadness that he is hell-bent on a fool’s errand. I’m at the age where my peer group has had to address the prospect of our parents’ mortality and as ornery as Woody is, I couldn’t help but feel a little pull at the heart with his diminishing faculties and dependency on his children. He’s a broken man who has lived a broken life and Dern delivers a fantastic performance.

I was curious how Will Forte would do in a more serious role; many a comedian has dipped his toe in the world of drama with mixed results, but Forte was actually very good. His MacGruber heritage made me skeptical, but he gives a sweet and patient performance in Nebraska. David hasn’t had a great life either, but he has enough compassion for his distant father that he can understand that this quest means more to his father than simply the promise of a million dollars. Woody’s dignity, pride and squandered life are all in play here and though his relationship with this father is strained, he wants to help Woody see this thing through. It is a quiet and restrained performance that I didn’t know that Forte was capable of.

As Woody’s long suffering and loud mouthed wife Kate, June Squibb threatens to steal just about every scene that she’s in. Woody wasn’t the easiest man in the world to live with, but Kate didn’t necessarily make their situation any easier with her complaining and frank observations. Kate has no patience for this foolishness that her husband had gotten involved in and has no problem broadcasting her opinion. She’s hilarious and terrible all at the same time. A great supporting performance. Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach also provide a solid foundation for the movie in their smaller roles, as does the interesting cast of characters that compromise Woody’s family and friends in his hometown. David’s two cousins Cole and Bart in particular are fantastic.

Nebraska is not your typical holiday film and there aren’t necessarily any real happy endings; the film ends on a somewhat happy note, but it is a fleeting one. Woody is a frustrating man and remains so until the final frame, but David and the viewer feel like they understand Woody a little bit better over the course of the journey. The decision to release the film in black in white is a smart one; this is a stark story and the contrast helps illustrate the rawness and simplicity of the story. It takes a hard and real look at family dynamics that does not try to soften the edges with sentimentality. To put this in Seinfeld terms, no one hugs and no one learns a lesson.  These people are who they are, but Nebraska poignantly doesn’t ask them to change or improve. The film is simply a quiet look at one dysfunctional family that has a real sense of place and character. It’s a road trip worth taking.

Saving Mr. Banks – A Review

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Alcoholism. Suicide attempts. Special needs children. Child Abuse. Who knew that Mary Poppins brought so much baggage with her?

Saving Mr. Banks tells the story behind how Disney’s beloved Mary Poppins was made. For twenty years, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has been trying to acquire the rights to Mary Poppins so that he can turn his daughters’ favorite book into a movie. The problem is that author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) has been loath to give the rights up; she has serious reservations about what will happen to her beloved characters once they are in Disney’s hands. She finally agrees to a meeting with Disney after she is given script approval and the promise that the film will not be animated; her dwindling funds also make her slightly more receptive to the idea, though once she arrives in Los Angeles it is clear that she is still not convinced that this is a good idea. A total fussbudget, she hates pretty much everything that the team working on the project (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) has assembled and continues to put more and more restrictions on the process. She is even immune to Disney’s charms, as he puts on a full-court press charm offensive to try and sway her. The labored creative process is interrupted by flashbacks to Travers childhood and her relationship with her adored, but troubled father (Colin Farrell).

I need to make two disclaimers upfront: I am certainly not the target audience for this movie and I have never seen Mary Poppins in its entirety. A Disney film about the making of a Disney film is on paper way too sentimental and potentially schmaltzy for my personal tastes. If the film hadn’t received a Golden Globe nomination and general critical acclaim, I’m not sure I would have even checked it out. On the latter point, it didn’t even dawn on me until I actually went in to see Saving Mr. Banks that I might not have seen Mary Poppins. I am familiar with the songs and have seen clips of the big musical numbers, but it turns out that I never actually sat down and watched the film from start to finish; they referenced plot points in Saving Mr. Banks that I had no idea what they were talking about. Given my checkered history with Disney, not seeing Mary Poppins really isn’t all that surprising and I don’t think it hindered my enjoyment of Saving Mr. Banks. The few references that I didn’t get weren’t a handicap; they were adequately put into context so that my unfamiliarity with the source material wasn’t an issue. But I don’t have a built-in affinity for Mary Poppins that some of the audience might have.

Given these limitations, it is not surprising that I only liked, but didn’t love, Saving Mr. Banks. I thought it was well acted, but I found the story to be very shallow, despite the complex emotional backstory. Thompson in particular was very good; they load down P.L. Travers will so many unpleasant qualities that it is a miracle that you find her likable or sympathetic at all. That’s a credit to Thompson, who finds the humanity in Travers and the inner anguish that her brusque and uncompromising exterior covers. Thompson finds depth that I’m not sure existed in the script and does a nice job showing the damage that was done from the events that we see through the prolonged flashbacks to her childhood. It’s difficult to balance annoying and sympathetic, but Thompson does it. Hanks does his usual solid job as Walt Disney; though he doesn’t physically look much like the famous man behind the mouse, Hanks is able to catch Disney’s spirit and general demeanor. Because this is a film that is done by the Disney Corporation, there is a definite idealization of Disney the man. They certainly make him seem like the world’s greatest boss and father and though I don’t necessarily have any reason to doubt that he was great, you naturally have to assume that some characteristics have been amplified and that the man has been somewhat romanticized.

While the interactions between Travers and the team trying to make Mary Poppins is the main thrust of the film, I actually enjoyed the flashbacks quite a bit as well. Farrell was quite good as Travers’ doting father who whimsical and fun, but who was irresponsible and damaged his family due to his alcoholism. I am often charmed by Farrell – I think it’s his accent – and this role was no different. I would have liked a little more nuance and subtly in his character, but that was a general problem I had with the movie over all. Farrell had very good chemistry with the young actress that played his daughter; there was a definite sweetness to all their interactions and you could understand why Travers adored him despite his flaws.

Saving Mr. Banks was not nearly as saccharine as I feared it would be; there are some heavy issues in the film that are addressed, though in a very cursory way. Everything is addressed in a very family friendly way, which is not unsurprising. Even so, this was a lot darker than I expected the film to be and it did lend some gravitas to what could have been a pretty fluffy story. The Disney veneer to events was too neat and sentimental for my dark and twisted preferences, but at least they didn’t completely whitewash the story. I would have preferred a screenplay with a little more finesse and complexity, but that’s just me. I’m sure a lot of people will like Saving Mr. Banks just fine. Like I said, it just isn’t for me. I’m not a spoonful of sugar type of girl.

Some other thoughts:

  • Luther fans: Ruth Wilson (Alice) plays Travers’ mothers in the flashbacks. Seems weird to see her without her red hair (and not plotting someone’s demise).
  • Paul Giamatti is also good as the driver with infinite patience that is tasked with shepherding Travers around L.A.
  • Walt Disney was a smoker? That’s a surprise!
  • Also unexpected – the woman behind Mary Poppins was Australian, not British. Mind blown.
  • While Bradley Whitford and Jason Schwartzman disappeared a little bit more into their roles, but that just never happened for me with B.J. Novak. Every time he was on screen, my brain went “Look! It’s Ryan the temp from The Office.”
  • If you stay through the credits, you can see photos of the real people that the film is based on and hear some of P.L. Travers recorded conversations with the creative team.
  • Seriously? Travers talked some smack about Dick Van Dyke? That man is a national treasure!
  • The Chicago Tribune has an interview with Valerie Lawson, who wrote Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, on the movie and how it differs from real life.

Saving Mr. Banks is a fine movie that just doesn’t gel particularly well with my personal aesthetic. It wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea (pun intended) but I enjoyed it more than I thought it was. The acting was uniformly very good, unsurprising given the cast, but I found the story overall a little slow and too sentimental. I’m not sure that the film actually earned the big breakthrough between Travers and Disney; since we know that there is a Mary Poppins film, the stakes are significantly lowered since it is not a question of if the film will be made, but when. Saving Mr. Banks is really the story of a woman fighting for artistic control while confronting her personal demons. It’s less Disney than I anticipated, but Disney enough that the film didn’t completely win me over. It may, however, have convinced me to finally watch Mary Poppins. That in and of itself is something of an accomplishment.

 

Saving Mr. Banks opens nationwide today.