Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Goodbye 2014 Edition

We are in the last moments of 2014 and I have to say that overall it has been a pretty good year for pop culture. There have of course been some low water marks – I’m still annoyed by the How I Met Your Mother finale – but overall there have been plenty of great shows, movies, music, webseries and books to consume in the last 365 days. Thank goodness for that or I’d be out of business.

I’m not doing a traditional end of the year post – there are plenty of those out there to be found – but since the links are a little light this week because of the holidays, I thought I’d pause to highlight some of my favorite pop culture of 2014.

Favorite movieGuardians of the Galaxy. Considering I have not one but two Groot bobbleheads in my office and the Guardians of the Galaxy mixtape had been in heavy rotation much of 2014, this was a no-brainier. There were better and more important movies that came out in 2014, but Guardians is the movie that was the most fun that I had in a theater all year. I’m so happy for all of Chris Pratt’s success; couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Honorable mention: Birdman, Wild, 22 Jump Street, The LEGO Movie, Chef, Gone Girl, The Imitation Game

Dishonorable mention: Let’s Be Cops, Sex Tape, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Bad Words.

Favorite TV ShowGame of Thrones

Honorable mention: The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, The Colbert Report, An Honorable Woman, Mad Men, Orange is the New Black, True Detective, The Americans

Favorite ConcertBeyoncé and Jay Z

Honorable mention: Bruno Mars, Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and the Deep Canyon Rangers, Boston Calling (which I meant to blog about but never got around to)

Favorite Stand-Up Show: Jim Jefferies

Honorable mention: Comics Come Home, Kids in the Hall

Favorite Pop Culture Experience: The Wire Reunion

Honorable mention: Central Perk, Kevin Smith, Serial

Favorite Blog Posts: Peter Pan Live, Drinking Songs, American Horror Story: Freak Show, Robin Williams, Your Cheating Heart

Thank you for following my pop culture adventures with me this year; I am truly appreciative of all the support the blog receives. And now….on to the pop culture roundup……..

  • John Oliver’s show will return next year, but he popped by with a video to remind us why New Year’s Eve is the worst (he’s not wrong):

 

  • Christmas is over, but it’s never too late to enjoy The Rock doing Christmas karaoke in a onesie:

 

  • Actually, Maury Povich pretty much won Christmas:

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  • Some New Jersey pranksters were inspired by Christmas Vacation:

 

  • Before he was killing zombies walkers, Daryl Dixon was in a Radiohead video:

 

Trailers

  • The Longest Ride, yet another Nicolas Sparks movie:

 

  • Kevin Costner in McFarland, USA:

 

  • A promo for the Oscars:

 

  • A look at the second season of Penny Dreadful:

 

  • Kat Dennings in To Write Love on Her Arms:

 

  • Jackie Chan in Dragon Blade:

 

  • Here’s a trailer for Wolf Hall:

 

  • Selma Hayek and some guns in the trailer for Everly:

 

  • There was a mini-Scrubs reunion:

Reunited and it feels so good.

A post shared by Zach Braff (@zachbraff) on

 

  • See Nicki Minaj in her high school acting class:

 

As always, we end with the mashups and supercuts:

  • Here’s a Miami Vice cocaine supercut:

 

  • The best news bloopers of 2014:

 

  • A supercut of movie explosions:

 

  • Taylor Swift is apparently “obsessed” with this mashup of two of her songs:

 

  • And finally, The Big Lebowski meets True Detective:

 

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and pop culture filled 2015!

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Into the Woods – A Review

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When I was younger, I was mindlessly flipping through the channels one day (as I was wont to do) when I came across a staged version on Into the Woods on PBS’ American Playhouse. I was instantly enchanted; I’d been lucky enough to be exposed to theater from our high school theater group and the occasional traveling production, but I’d never seen Broadway caliber talent before. My high school peers did a hell of a job and for a school in upstate New York we had pretty stellar production value, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Bernadette Peters belting out a tune. Not only was the talent way better than I was used to, but I was immediately drawn into the story; the idea that Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood could all co-exist in the same world was a completely novel and revolutionary idea to me. Into the Woods most certainly sparked my love of mashups and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the short story that I wrote that first convinced me that I might have some skill at writing involved playing around with the perspective in fairy tales and a bridge between Snow White and Jack in the Beanstalk. So Into the Woods was kind of seminal moment for me – it began my interest in Broadway musicals and inadvertently was part of the origin story for my lifelong interest in writing that culminated in this blog. So y’all should be sending a thank you note to Stephen Sondheim. Everyone else might have been falling over themselves of Les Miserables, but I was an Into the Woods girl. #teamSondheim Oddly, I have no recollection of ever mentioning my affection for Into the Woods to anyone; I think I was partially convinced that I was the only person who watched that episode of American Playhouse and I kind of liked it being my little secret.

Though watching Into the Woods was a fairly important experience for me, I wouldn’t call myself a fanatic. I never got the soundtrack and I never saw the musical performed live. In fact, I don’t think that I saw Into the Woods ever again after that initial viewing until recently and it was only in the last few years that I realized that it was available on DVD. So as much as I enjoyed Into the Woods and it made a distinct impression, I was a little fuzzy on some of the details. I knew the basic plot and remembered some of the songs, but I wasn’t going to win any Into the Woods trivia contests and most Sondheim purists would be unimpressed with my commitment to the classic.

Still, when I heard that they were making a big screen adaptation of Into the Woods, I was very excited and a little bit apprehensive. There were a lot of rumors flying around about what would make it into the film version and what would be cut, as well as the inherent challenge of moving a story from the stage. On the one hand, without the limitations of a stage production, the director of a film has a lot more options on how he or she wants to present things. On the other hand, sometimes what works well with the intimacy of the stage just doesn’t translate to the more removed medium of film; I’m sure that the fights in August Osage County were much more dramatic and raw on stage, but in the movie they were overdone and annoying. Figuring out how to keep the spirit and essence of the musical while making the transition is a difficult one. The fact that Disney was involved didn’t do much to allay my fears, as I worried that they would want to whitewash some of the darker elements of the musical to protect the images of characters that they have coopted and made their own to the tune of a hefty profit. Johnny Depp was also something of a wild card; I knew that he could sing, but he sometimes makes choice that result in it feeling like he’s in a very different movie than the other actors. Would his weirdness work or would it be too campy? I had similar concerns about Meryl Streep, who is obviously a great actress but who lately I have found edges toward being too big in her performances, especially when given the freedom that the role of the witch would provide her. There had been attempts to adapt this play for nearly twenty years and I was sincerely hoping that now that it was finally happening that the whole thing wouldn’t go off the rails.

Thankfully, Into the Woods really worked for me and I really enjoyed the movie. Overall, the changes that were made basically worked for me (more on that) and the actors all did a really great job with their performances – especially the actors who are not necessarily known for their singing. Nearly a week after seeing the movie I still have several of the songs running through my head. I think even those that are more devoted to the original production will be pleased. After how much I hated Les Miserables, it was nice to enjoy a big screen musical again.

In talking to people who have seen Into the Woods without the benefit of knowing the Sondheim original, there are a few things that you need to know going in:

  • This is a musical. You might think that is obvious, but I know several people who went to see Into the Woods without knowing this. I blame the early trailer and clips of the film that were used to advertise the film, since they tended to downplay the singing. Even the versions that did incorporate some of the songs did so in the background, so if you don’t know the film’s background I could see how you might not realize that Into the Woods is a full blown musical. But they start singing pretty much from the jump in this movie; so if you don’t dig musicals, you may want to mosey along.
  • Despite the focus on fairy tales, Into the Woods gets dark. Real dark. If you are you are expecting your typical take on Cinderella and company you are going to be shocked; the first hour or so sticks more closely to the traditional arc of a fairy tale, but Into the Woods looks at what happens after the “happily ever after” and spoiler alert – it ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Into the Woods may feature familiar characters like Cinderella, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, but it also features murder, adultery, multiple people going blind (some more permanently than others) and death. So don’t go into this expecting all sunshine and rainbows just because you think you know the characters and their journey. The stage musical is actually darker, but Disney allowed the film to be messier than I anticipated.
  • This is not a Johnny Depp movie. Sure, Depp is in the film, but his role is really small despite what the ad campaign may try to tell you. So if you are going in expecting a whole lot of Depp, you might want to prepare yourself to be disappointed.

Now that that’s out of the way, Into the Woods brings several favorites from fairy tales into the same universe; the story begins with several characters longing for things – Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to the Prince’s (Chris Pine) festival, the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) want a child, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wants his cow and best friend Milky White to produce milk so he and his mother (Tracey Ullman) won’t starve and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) wants bread to take to her Granny (hey – they can’t all be high stakes wishes). The Baker and his wife discover that their barrenness is the result of a curse put on them by a witch (Meryl Streep) as retribution for the Baker’s father’s sins. They can break this spell if they obtain four objects: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold. This sets the characters on a collision course with each other in the woods as the Baker and his wife try to procure the necessary objects, Jack sets off to sell his cow, Cinderella flees from the Prince and Red Riding Hood fends off the advances of the Wolf (Johnny Depp). To say much more would be to ruin the fun of discovery, but just when they the characters think that they have everything they want, things go to hell in a hand basket thanks in no small measure to the arrival of a Giant.

Overall, the cast did a really great job; there wasn’t an off performance in the bunch. My minor concerns about Streep were unfounded and she pretty much killed it as the witch. Like, she was legitimately great in my opinion. I was also pleasantly surprised by Emily Blunt, who I really like but I wasn’t sure what she was brining to the table for a musical. She was fantastic as well and I really liked her delivery of some lines. She’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. But the true revelation was Chris Pine who was just amazing. The Prince is supposed to serve as comic relief and be a charming douchebag, and man Pine knocked it out of the park. I think I actually liked his version of “Agony” better than in the original, simply because his performance was so unexpected and they picked a hilariously ridiculous location for the number to be performed. I honestly didn’t think he had it in him to pull off this role as well as he did and he had me cracking up almost every time he was on screen. I also want to cite the moxie that Lilla Crawford brought to Little Red Riding Hood; the audience that I saw Into the Woods with was especially taken by her, calling her a “little bad ass.” I presume they meant that as a compliment.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Depp’s interpretation of the Wolf until I rewatched the original Broadway production and was reminded that the Wolf is supposed to be giving off something of a sexual predator vibe in his interactions with Little Red Riding Hood. If anything, Depp’s Wolf has toned down the innuendo a bit – I’d forgotten that the Wolf in the Broadway play had his genitals featured as part of the costume (the Wolf’s, not the actor’s). With that context re-established, I was more pleased with Depp’s performance and his choices. His lecherousness is toned down, partially I’m sure at the behest of Disney and partially because unlike the stage production, there are actual children playing the roles of Jack and Little Red Riding Hood and the song might be off the charts creepy when song to a young woman.

Some songs from the original production were cut, though in all honestly they weren’t really missed. “No More” is an important song in the stage production, but made little sense given other changes made in the film. The mysterious old man is not in the film, which frankly was an improvement in my book and made an already complex narrative a little les muddled. I was bummed that “Agony (reprise)” was cut, not because it was essential to the story – it certainly isn’t – but because I would have enjoyed more singing Chris Pine. The song reinforces the cad that the Prince is, but I understand their decision to eliminate it. There was also an original song for Meryl Streep that was written for the movie and filmed, but it ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor as well (though it will be on the DVD).

My main issue with the film adaptation is the changes that they made to Rapunzel’s story line. This is where I suspect the fingerprints of Disney are the most apparent, though I wish that they had stuck with the original story. The film version changes how her story is resolved and the result is a weakening of the overall story; the witch’s reaction and the song “Children Will Listen” don’t really work thanks to the edits that they’ve made. Her story has little to no weight in the film and she just abruptly disappears from the narrative. If you don’t know how it was supposed to go, you’ll still notice that something about her arc feels unresolved and the resolution feels tacked on and rushed. This is the one change that I wish they hadn’t made, not out of bling loyalty to the source material, but because I think that the edits made are detrimental to the film as a whole. If executed better or with more explanation it might have worked, but as is it was the one misstep in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. Though, for what it’s worth, I always thought Rapunzel’s storyline was one of the weak points of the stage version as well.

Some other thoughts:

  • Christine Baranski and Lucy Punch have small roles as Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sister, respectively. Always nice to see both of them. Cinderella’s father doesn’t make it into the film adaption, but I don’t think anyone will miss him.
  • Giants are surprisingly easy to deal with. And that means that the big climax of the film doesn’t really deliver. That was a problem that I had with the stage version as well, but the problem is only exasperated in the film. It’s all a lot of buildup to nothing.
  • I really like the decision to move the location of where the song “On the Steps of the Palace” is sung. Makes more sense, is visually more interesting and is just one example of the movie having more flexibility than the stage play.
  • Did everyone else know that Chris Pine’s dad was on CHiPs? I just found this out thanks to The Tonight Show and it blew my mind.
  • My favorite line of the entire movie/play may be “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

Into the Woods is a very enjoyable adaptation of a fairly beloved Broadway musical; it’s relatively faithful to the original and most of the changes made were fairly minor and helped to streamline the story. If you liked the play, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the execution of the film; the cast all do a fantastic job in bringing these characters to life. If you aren’t familiar with Into the Woods but enjoy musicals or creative takes on fairy tales, I think you’ll be satisfied. If you don’t like musicals, I’m not sure why you’re going to see Into the Woods. Reevaluate your decision making process. Into the Woods is a fun movie that kept me entertained and rekindled my love for the stage version. I only had a few quibbles with the film, primarily that I can’t get these songs out of my head.

Into the Woods is currently in wide release.

The Interview – A Review

The Interview

I saw The Interview and lived to tell about it.

Much has been made about the new Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview and the fact that it may or may not have set off an international incident. I had wanted to see the film before the brouhaha, but I was more adamant about seeing it after Sony initially cancelled the film’s premiere and its Christmas release over concerns about threats to the movie houses that showed the film. I thought that pulling the film was misguided and would have a chilling effect on future projects. I was very happy that Sony reversed their decision and decided to release the film after all, both in independent theaters willing to show the film and on-line. I would have preferred to see the movie on the big screen and support the theaters that were willing to show the film, but unfortunately none of the independent theaters in Albany stepped up to show the film. I would have driven to Hudson is possible (about 45 minutes away), but that logistically didn’t work out. So instead, I rented the film from Google Play, popped some popcorn and settled in on my couch to support freedom of expression.

Because 'Murica.

A post shared by Heather Trela (@htrela) on

 

Anyone watching The Interview solely out of some sort of patriotic duty who is not normally a fan of Seth Rogen movies was probably sorely underwhelmed with what they watched. The Interview is not any great satire of the North Korean ruler; this is not a film that will topple any regime. Rather, this is a typical Seth Rogen film, full of jokes about shoving things up your butt and other lowbrow humor, that just so happens to have the potential assassination of Kim Jong-un as a backdrop. This was a movie that simply wanted to incorporate real-life into one of their ridiculous movies; if you like Seth Rogen movies overall, you’ll probably like The Interview. If you aren’t a fan of his brand of comedy, the implied patriotism associated with watching The Interview won’t be enough to make you think this is a great film. This isn’t a great film, though I did chuckle several times. It may not be a movie that is worth going to war for, but that’s not the point. The issue was never the quality of the film – the issue was their freedom to tell the story that they wanted to tell.

The plot of the film is pretty straight forward: Dave Skylark (Franco) is the host of a popular show that focuses on interviewing celebrities. Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) is the producer of the show and though he is responsible for the show’s success, he is not fully satisfied with the show’s frivolous content and dreams of turning the show into something more serious. When word comes down the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan of Skylark, the duo seize the opportunity to obtain the interview of a lifetime. They are then approached by CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) with one simple request for their trip to North Korea – assassinate Kim Jong-un. Though Dave and Aaron are not particularly qualified to pull off such a caper, they agree, though Skylark begins to have second thoughts once he spends some time with the Supreme Leader. Things escalate and comedy ensues as Aaron and Dave try to convince the other of the right course of action.

Though a lot of the funniest parts of the movie are indeed featured in the trailer, there were still plenty of laughs to be found in The Interview. I really like the easy chemistry between Franco and Rogen, so I may very well be a soft sell for any type of movie that features them. The Interview isn’t necessarily the most sophisticated movie, but sometimes you just need some silly laughs and this film has them. I was entertained throughout the course of the movie, even while listening for the sound of missiles aimed at my apartment (I kid, I kid). I liked The Interview more than I liked Anchorman 2 and I’d put it right in the middle of my enjoyment of Rogen movies – it wasn’t nearly as clever or funny as Superbad, but I did like it more than Pineapple Express.

That being said, I think that Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg need to branch out into some new directions. While I generally enjoyed The Interview, it felt very familiar. Rogen and Goldberg know what kind of jokes work for their audience, but at this point the enjoyment is tempered with the vague feeling that this has become formulaic. The idea for a movie that features two Americans charged with assassinating the leader of another country was creative, but most of the jokes in the film failed to live up to the originality of the premise. A lot of the jokes that they used could have been in any movie, and many of them have been used in other movies in some version or another. I just wish that the creativity that they have for the plot would trickle down to the actual execution (ha!) of the actual comedy in the film. I guess if it ain’t broken you shouldn’t fix it, but we’re nearing the point of diminishing returns. I’m not above some sophomoric humor, but don’t be lazy about it. I think that they can do better than running jokes about the sexuality of liking a Katy Perry song. Silly humor that is actually smart is possible.

Regardless of the above critique, I did laugh out loud several times during The Interview, which is all that ultimately matters. I sincerely hope that the term “honeydick” enters the common lexicon, which will make a lot more sense after you’ve seen the movie. I can understand why Kim Jong-un might not be thrilled with a movie that is centered on killing him, but in all honesty his character comes off as pretty likable for a lot of the film. Kudos to Randall Park for his performance which is actually way more nuanced than you would have thought; while ultimately Team America: World Police is a much better satire, The Interview manages to make Kim Jong-un a more three-dimensional character than how his father was depicted in Team America. He’s still obviously the bad guy, but he’s also kind of a baller which is an amusing juxtaposition. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the awesome wardrobe that Franco gets to wear as Skylark in this film. It’s not necessarily worth seeing The Interview simply to check out his ensembles, but I will say that his cardigan game is pretty strong.

I am glad that I got the chance to see The Interview, though ultimately this is a film that can’t quite live up to the hype that surrounds it. I still think it’s worth seeing if you are a fan of Seth Rogen comedies and if you want to support artistic freedom, but this is not a film that will change the world – nor did it set out to do so. If not for the big deal made about the film, I think it probably would have come and gone without much fanfare. It’s a silly film that is fine, but it’s right in the middle in term of quality and hilarity; it’s not the best that Rogen and Goldberg have come up with and it’s not the worst. My expectation were kind of low based on some of the buzz that I heard prior to release, so the film was actually much better than I thought it was going to be. This wouldn’t have been the film that I would have gone to the mattresses for if I was picking a film to defend, but you don’t always get to pick which battles to fight. I’ll always defend the right of people to make the movie that they want to make and I’m against censorship – let the marketplace decide – but I just wish that The Interview was a slightly better film – not because of the controversy, but because I like good comedies. Stripping away what The Interview has become, it’s a perfectly acceptable and amusing film that fans of Rogen and Franco will probably appreciate but won’t be blown away by.

The Interview is currently in limited release at independent movie theaters and can be streamed through Google Play, iTunes, YouTube and Xbox live. If you can, support your independent theaters.