Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Happy Holidays Edition

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After months of build up, the holidays are finally here. The run-up to Christmas started so long ago that it almost feels anticlimactic now that it has arrived. I’ve kind of struggled with getting into the spirit most of my adult life and this year is no different; I even took two trips to NYC in December to try and kick start something in my cold, dead heart, but my attitude toward this weekend’s festivities is generally meh. Part of that is that my family is all local, so there is not great reunion coming. For now, our Christmas celebration is all adults, which is kind of boring; hopefully things will be a little more exciting when we have a new baby in the family next year.  I’m not really a Grinch, I just wish I felt more excited about the holidays. Hopefully the rest of you are a little more enthused, whatever you celebrate.

I may not be all that jazzed about Christmas, but I am always jazzed to bring you the pop culture roundup. This week there was a lot of pop culture goodness out there in the ether. Get yourself caught up on what you might have missed with this installment of the week in pop.

Television

 

 

Movies

 

Trailers

  • Dunkirk:

 

  • Snatched:

 

  • Despicable Me 3:

 

  • Unforgettable:

 

  • Sneaky Pete:

 

  • Blade Runner 2049:

 

  • Taken (the TV series):

 

  • The Good Fight:

 

  • Arsenal:

 

  • Sense8 – A Christmas Special:

 

  • Riverdale:

 

  • Homeland, season 6:

 

  • The Path, season 2:

 

  • Billions, season 2:

 

  • Going in Style:

 

  • Truth and Lies: The Menendez Brothers:

 

  • John Wick: Chapter 2:

 

  • The Boss Baby:

 

  • The Bronx Bull:

 

  • The Bye Bye Man:

 

Music

Books

Theater

Stand-up

 

Best of 2016

 

Odds and Ends

Supercuts and Mashups

  • 2016 Live TV News Bloopers:

 

  • “All I Want For Christmas” Carpool Karaoke:

 

  • An acapella cover of the Westworld theme song:

 

  • A Christmas Carol supercut:

 

  • Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, Paul McCartney, and the cast of Sing perform “Wonderful Christmastime”:

 

  • Hamildolph:

 

Stephen Colbert gives “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” a 2016 remix:

 

  • Fargo as a holiday comedy:

August: Osage County – A Review

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret: everyone’s family is a little dysfunctional.

Now of course, these familial flaws aren’t all the big juicy issues that are the hallmark of real dysfunction. Every family doesn’t have a history of drinking or drugs, child or sexual abuse or extreme neglect. But peel back the layers of any family unit and you are going to find some sort of issues, even if they are smaller scale one like sibling rivalry or a child that didn’t feel like they got enough attention (real or perceived). It could be something as simple as in-laws that just don’t like each other. Humans are fallible people so it isn’t surprising that any collection of them will be imperfect.  On some level, everyone thinks their family (however defined) is a little messed up – even the families that look pretty spectacular to the outside observer. Some hide it better than others, but it still exists. You may have to expand the circle out to include extended family, but I have yet to meet anyone whose family didn’t have a little bit of baggage.

However, the family at the center of August: Osage County has enough baggage for a cross continental trip. The Westons are some deeply screwed up people.

An adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film focuses on an unhappy reunion at the family homestead of Beverly (Sam Shepard) and Violet (Meryl Streep) Weston. A crisis has forced their three daughters to make the pilgrimage to their childhood home in Oklahoma, where the oppressive heat, close quarters and tragedy are a poor mix for family tranquility. Violet’s prescription drug habit and mean streak doesn’t help either.  Barbara (Julia Roberts) brings her problems with her from Colorado in the form of her estranged husband (Ewan McGreggor) and sullen teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin). She is the only one of the sisters that can go toe to toe with their mother (but not without consequence). Shy Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has sacrificed her own happiness to stay closer to home and help her parents. Flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) searches for her happiness in a string of men and turns up with a sleazy new fiancée (Dermot Mulroney). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her quiet brother-in-law Charles (Chris Cooper) round out the family gathering, along with their meek son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is forced to live with constantly disappointing his difficult and derisive mother. Family secrets and long simmering resentments can’t be contained and bubble to the surface in explosive confrontations and revelations.

Sounds like a fun group, huh?

You can’t argue that this is a stellar cast; I think I counted six Oscar nominees among the bunch and this is really an actor’s movie. Character is a lot more important than plot in a lot of ways. Streep chews all the scenery in her over the top performance of family matriarch Violet. She completely commits to the performance which allows her to really go for broke with Violet’s addiction to narcotics and her seeming need to share her misery with her offspring. This is a showy role and could easily become cartoony, but Streep does her best to temper the performance. She is mostly successful, which is no surprise given Streep’s stature and her widespread acclaim. I don’t think that this is Streep’s best performance – it can sometimes just feel like too much – but she’s mesmerizing in the role.

What was utter astonishing to me was that Julia Roberts completely steals this film from Streep. I had honestly forgotten that Roberts can really act and her role in August: Osage County is definitely her best work in over a decade, if not the best work of her career. While Streep benefits from the role that has more to dig your teeth into, the role of Barbara is far more nuanced and allows Roberts to beautifully illustrate the bitterness and hardness that has taken over Barbara. All of the daughters bear the battle scars of growing up in this toxic household and have each developed their own survival strategies. For Barbara, this means slowly becoming the woman that she hates; her ability to go to war with Violet means that in the process she has become just as cold and unforgiving. There is not an ounce of vanity in her performance and in a movie where she is surrounded by some over the top characters and plot points, she manages to feel the most real and authentic. It is notable that Roberts’ trademark giant smile in largely absent; Barbara has no joy and happiness.

While everyone in the cast is uniformly excellent, some are certainly given more to do than others. This is really the Streep and Roberts show – both in focus and in screen time – though Martindale, Nicholson, and Cooper are giving enough work with to turn in memorable performances. Lewis, Cumberbatch, McGregor and Mulroney largely wind up taking the back seat; they each have an individual moment or two to shine, but their characters are largely undeveloped and secondary. It’s a shame that there was simply more talent in this movie than there was material. And I never got over the shock of hearing Cumberbatch speak with an American accent.

This is a very dark film, but there are still a number of laughs within August: Osage County as long as you count gallows humor. The hits keep coming in this film – there is one tragic revelation after another – and despite what the trailer may try to tell you this isn’t an uplifting film. But given how inherently unpleasant a lot of these characters are, it is less depressing than you would think. It isn’t all sunshine and roses, but when there were laughs it was a much needed release. There are definitely times in the film when you envy the person who was smart enough to die to get away from these people. This isn’t a film where people grow and change, so if you are looking for a real happy ending (or any concrete ending, really) this probably isn’t the film for you.

August: Osage County is a good movie, but not a great one. That’s unfortunate given the caliber of the talent assembled, but I am skeptical that this story works as well on the big screen as it would in the more intimate setting of live theater. In a lot of ways this film reminded me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in tone and in subject matter (and I’m not the first commenter to say so). I tend to like my drama a little more on the subtle side, so while I wasn’t overly impressed with the story I was impressed with what the actors did with it. It’s rare that Streep isn’t the best performance in a movie, but this is one of those cases. Streep is solid as always, but it is Roberts that really shines in this film. It’s a shame that she’s been relegate to the best supporting actress category (at least for the Golden Globes) because August: Osage County is just as much her film as it is Streep’s. It is worth seeing this film simply to be reminded that Roberts can be quite the actress.  It’s a great ensemble and the story has potential, but I ultimately didn’t think it fully delivered. Still immensely enjoyable to watch actors go to town with these colorful characters, but it is a step below many of the other probable Oscar contenders.

Oscar Death Race Update – Some Quick Reviews

This weekend, I once again didn’t have much on my agenda. Usually I can look to Sunday as my saving grace as I go out every weekend to watch football with the guys, but with no real football on (I don’t count the Pro Bowl as “real”) I didn’t even have that to fall back on. Thankfully I have a jam packed few weekends coming up or I would be worried that I was losing my touch.

However, a free weekend that was also bitterly cold gave me a chance to do some damage to what remains outstanding on my Oscar list. As I’ve mentioned, I’m trying to see everything that is nominated – not just the major awards, but literally everything that received an Oscar nom. I’ve accepted that I’m probably not going to do it this year as some of the foreign films have proved difficult to locate, but I still want to see how close I can get to 100% completion. In between watching episodes of Deadwood (I’m almost done with season one), I managed to knock three more movies off the list. I don’t know that I have enough to say about them individually to warrant their own posting, so I rolled them all into one.

The Impossible

This film’s nomination for Naomi Watts (Best Lead Actress) was a bit of a surprise as I didn’t even realized that this film had been released to be eligible for consideration. I had only just begun to see previews for it, so I thought it would be in the race for next year’s Oscar nominations. I’ll admit, I was a little bummed that this film did receive a nomination; it wasn’t that I didn’t want to watch the film, but just seeing the trailer made my eyes well up with tears. I was hoping to have the opportunity to watch the film on DVD, where I could bawl my eyes out in the privacy of my own home.  There’s nothing more embarrassing then silently weeping in a room full of strangers.

The Impossible is based on the real life story of a family that was separated in the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand and their struggles to survive and find each other amongst the chaos and destruction. The family is on holiday and at the pool of the resort when the Tsunami suddenly hits. The father (Ewan McGregor) and the two youngest sons are swept in one direction while the mother (Naomi Watts) and oldest son Lucas are thrown in a different one.  The special effects were absolutely astounding; you felt like you were right in the middle of the Tsunami as it was happening and you had a taste of just how terrifying that experience was. It was impressive.

Naomi Watts really was quite fantastic in the film; the mother is severely injured during the Tsunami and Watts is so convincing that you have to remind yourself that she isn’t actually hurt. The pure panic and terror that she has when she realizes that her family is missing is probably very recognizable to any parent. It’s an emotionally and physically demanding role and Watts is able to handle both parts beautifully. Kudos to the make-up team that aided the transformation throughout the film.

The acting in The Impossible is universally very good, but I think that Tom Holland, who plays oldest son Lucas, should also be singled out. The role of Lucas also required a lot of emotion and Holland handled the range artfully. Though he starred in the musical production of Billy Elliot in London, The Impossible was his feature film debut, though you wouldn’t know that from the way he carried himself in the movie. He really was a pleasure to watch.

I managed to hold it together for most of the movie; I may have teared up a few times, but I was able to refrain from outright crying in the theater. That’s something to be proud of.

Searching for Sugar Man

This is the type of documentary that I am especially drawn to. While many of the other films that are competing for Best Documentary focus on big topics (Israeli/Palestine conflict, the formation of ACT Up in response to the AIDS epidemic, sexual assault in the U.S. Military), Searching for Sugar Man is a much smaller story. This is not to diminish the importance of the other documentaries, but I’m always more impressed when a filmmaker can make something compelling when there are much smaller stakes. Searching for Sugar Man absolutely achieves this; I’m not sure if it will win come Oscar time, but it may be my favorite documentary of the year.

The film focuses on the elusive musical artist Rodriguez, an American singer who became tremendously successful in South Africa in the 1970s. Though a commercial flop stateside, his music became the soundtrack for the revolution against apartheid and he obtained something of a cult following. Rodriguez was rumored to have killed himself on stage during a show in America, though the method of his demise was debated (some said he lit himself on fire, while others said he shot himself in the head). Rodriguez never played a show in South Africa and his mythology continued to grow over time. Two fans of his music decided to embark on a journey to find out whatever they could about him and they were astonished at what they discovered.

I was completely fascinated with this story as it continued to unfold and it introduced me to Rodriguez’s beautiful music in the process. As soon as the film was over, I downloaded the soundtrack. I’m always interested when an artist or performer becomes particularly popular in one particular foreign nation – it boggles my mind that David Hasselhoff was an extremely popular recording artist in Germany, while at home he’s just known for Knight Rider, Baywatch and being cheesily awesome and drinking too much. In some ways, Searching for Sugar Man could be a sad story because Rodriguez was unaware of his popularity in South Africa and seemingly was not financially rewarded for his success. My only complaint with the film was I wish that they had pressed the record company harder to see what they did with the residual money that was sent from the record companies in South Africa. It is possible that there was a lot of bootlegging, but still – where did the money go?

 

SPOILER ALERT

 

However, Searching for Sugar Man isn’t a sad story because they discover that Rodriguez is alive and well in Detroit, completely unaware of the fame that he has in a foreign land. He doesn’t seem to trouble himself with what could have been; though he lives a simple life and is not materially rich, he seems content. Even when he makes his first trip to South Africa and plays six sold out shows, he gives most of the money away to family and friends. He’s seemingly content with his meager life and is totally at peace when on stage. He’s kind of remarkable and magical.

END SPOILER ALERT

 

An excellent documentary that I recommend checking out; making a smaller story seem so big is really a testament to the filmmakers involved. I’m glad that people appear to be watching the film, as Rodriguez’s only two albums, as well as the soundtrack, currently appear on Amazon’s list of bestselling albums (all three are in the top 15).

 

Mirror, Mirror

Even after watching Mirror, Mirror, I’m still a little confused as to why it was nominated for Best Costume Design. Nothing  in the film really struck me as all that innovative or creative; in fact, I had to look up why exactly I was watching this movie to begin with as I couldn’t remember what category it was actually nominated for.

This film came out around the same time as Snow White and the Huntsman and I really had no interest in ever watching it; it seemed too silly compared to the much darker Kristen Stewart/Charlize Theron vehicle. Julia Roberts as the wicked queen held potential, but after a series of poor movie selections on her part, I no longer trust her instincts in what she signs on for.

That being said, after I dutifully sat down to watch Mirror, Mirror, it was not nearly as terrible as I thought it was going to be. It’s not great cinema, but it was entertaining enough and if taken with a grain of salt, entertaining. Full disclosure: I watched this film at one in the morning, so my expectations were already lowered and I may have been easier to charm at that late hour. It was silly, but it was also fairly funny. The cast isn’t taking themselves too seriously and I appreciated that unlike the other Snow White adaption, this film used actual little people actors rather than using technology to shrink down full sized actors. I mean really – with what I’m assuming is somewhat of a dearth of roles for little people, it seems kind of obnoxious to not cast them in one of the few roles that actually calls for little people.

Julia Roberts seemed to be having a lot of fun as the Wicked Queen and I thought that Armie Hammer was particularly good as Prince Alcott (though his name is kind of ridiculous). Hammer was best known to me as playing both of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, but in Mirror, Mirror he was better able to showcase his comedic chops and he was fairly charming. He’s up next co-starring with Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger this summer (as the title role) and I think he’ll be very good, based on this performance.

 

Three very different films, but all enjoyable in their own way.  I’m not sure that Mirror, Mirror really belongs in the Academy Award discussion, but I don’t think it really has much of a chance to win regardless.  This may not have been the weekend that I envisioned, but I can think of worse ways to spend my time than watching a bunch of movies and inching closer to my goal.

The Impossible is in theaters now; Searching for Sugar Man and Mirror, Mirror are available on DVD. Mirror, Mirror is also currently available on Netflix streaming.