These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things – 2016 Edition

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I didn’t think we’d make it, but 2016 is almost in the rearview mirror. This has been a weird year in a lot of ways, including the world of pop culture. While there were definitely things that I really loved this year, I feel like overall this was an off year for the entertainment industry in general and the film industry in particular. I didn’t go to the movies nearly as much this year as I have in the past, partially because the offerings were not that great. Of course, I’m just embarking on the end of the year movie binge when a lot of the best films are released, but overall there were a lot of clunkers. Television shined more brightly again this year, a trend that I hope continues. I went to fewer concerts in 2016, partially because of a reallocation of financial resources, but also because at this point I’ve seen almost everyone that I really want to see. I had an uptick in going to the theater in 2016 and I traveled more, perhaps a prolonged effect of having spent the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 cooped up at home with a broken ankle and its recovery.

So without further ado, here are my favorite pop culture items from 2016. As always, they come with the caveat that these aren’t necessarily the best selections for the year; even I can’t see/listen to/read everything, so my selections are limited to those things that I’ve actually experienced and enjoyed.

Television

Atlanta

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I wasn’t even going to do an end of the year roundup this year since I felt like this was an off year, but I felt compelled to do so simply to tell people how freaking great FX’s new series Atlanta was. This show, my friends, is the real deal and deserves all the accolades that critics have heaped upon it. The series is the brainchild of Donald Glover and while I certainly knew that he was talented thanks to his role on Community and his musical career as Childish Gambino, I had no idea that he was capable of a show like this. Atlanta is a breath of fresh air and perfectly balances being both thoughtful and absurd. The show follows Earn (Glover) as he attempts to help his cousin Alfred aka “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry) cash in on his minor success in the Atlanta rap world. This cast is so ridiculously talented that while Glover is probably the well-known cast member, the show is confident enough to focus entire episodes on the supporting characters, including Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and Alfred’s wonderfully weird pal Darius (Keith Stanfield). This is one of the few series that deals with the realities of living paycheck to paycheck and I appreciate the diverse viewpoint; some of the ideas on Atlanta have been addressed on other shows, but Glover and company provide a new perspective. I was in on this show from the pilot, but what completely sold me was an early episode where in this universe Justin Bieber is a young black man. This is presented without overt comment or explanation and while it is silly, it is silly it is also thought provoking. I love, love, love this show and can’t wait until its second season.

 

O.J.: Made In America

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The biggest debate over this five part ESPN mini-series is whether this should be considered a television event or a movie. Otherwise it is generally accepted that this look at the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial and the context for its controversial verdict is riveting and exceptional. I wrote about it at length when it debuted, but if you haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, I strong recommend it. Really good stuff.

 

American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

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Further proof that 2016 was an odd year is the fact that O.J. Simpson has something of a moment this year. Not only was his trial examined in depth in the mini-series O.J.: Made In America, but it was also the subject of Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series American Crime Story. The acting in American Crime Story is off the charts fantastic; there is a reason that they cleaned up at the Emmy Awards this year. Even though I lived through the O.J. Simpson trial, American Crime Story was must-see TV for me this year and is a wonderful companion to O.J.: Made in America. Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Paulson become Chris Darden and Marcia Clark, respectively.

 

Westworld

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 I will admit that I am not quite as enamored with this show as a lot of people that I know, but it makes the list because it was fun to have a watercooler show that let the viewer at home hypothesize on what was going to happen next. I hadn’t realized that I missed the fan theory aspect of shows like Lost until Westworld returned and while I definitely think that the show has some flaws (like focusing too much on the mysteries over character or plot development), it was nice to know that this was a show that was going to spark discussions. You can read more about my thoughts on the Westworld pilot here.

 

The Night Of

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HBO’s long gestating crime drama finally debuted in 2016 and it was instantly captivating. You couldn’t look away from the talented performances of John Turturro and Riz Ahmed and while there were some narrative missteps – especially related to the character of Chandra – I was excited to tune in every Sunday night at see how the story would unfold. I’m not sure that The Night Of totally broke through the cultural zeitgeist as I predicted, but it certainly made for some interesting viewing.

 

Horace and Pete

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Louis CK is always full of interesting surprises and his out-of-nowhere debut of Horace and Pete was no exception. Closer to a stage show than a TV series, Louis CK brought together a dream cast to tell the heartbreaking and hilarious story of Horace, Pete, and their family bar. This is so well done from beginning to end and it worth watching just for Laurie Metcalf’s mesmerizing performance in episode 3. She is a gift to us all. I wrote about the series previously here. The series is now available on Hulu, so you have no excuse for not watching.

 

Stranger Things

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Like the rest of the world, I was completely charmed by this wonderful Netflix series. It doesn’t hurt that it channels plenty of nostalgia for the movies of my childhood, but Stranger Things works even if you don’t have the same 80s point of reference. The casting director deserves some sort of medal for assembling such a stellar cast of young actors; it’s hard enough to get one good kid in a movie, let alone a whole bunch of them. I’m both excited and a little trepidatious for the second season; the first season was great but it was also an unknown quality. I’ll be interested to see how the series fares under the pressure of expectations. Read my thought about the series here.

Honorable mention to returning shows Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which all had great seasons.

Movies

The Nice Guys

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This was an unexpected treat; you don’t necessarily think that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are going to be a great comedic team, but here we are. Not enough people saw this movie so sadly I don’t think it will get a sequel, but it was an enjoyable ride. Check out my full review here.

 

Captain America: Civil War

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I’m always a sucker for a Marvel movie and the Captain America films are among the best that Marvel has done. Civil War did a nice job of both giving loyal viewers payoff from watching all the previous films as well as a relatively seamless introduction of a bunch of new characters; I am now way more excited about the forthcoming Black Panther and Spider-Man reboot than I was previously. Read my full review here.

 

Deadpool

This is the movie that won me back over to liking Ryan Reynolds again. It’s nice to have a fun superhero movie again; I knew basically nothing about Deadpool prior to the movie, but this was a delightful and dirty trip. Finally a rated-R superhero film. It’s about time. This is probably the most fun that I had at the theater in 2016. My full review can be found here.

 

The Hateful Eight

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Yeah, technically this movie was released in 2015, but I reviewed in 2016 so I’m counting it. It’s always a good year when Quentin Tarantino has a new movie. Violent and challenging, The Hateful Eight is a welcome addition to the Tarantino canon. My full review can be found here.

 

La La Land

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Look for a full review next week

 

Music

Lemonade – Beyoncé

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This is easily my album of the year, not just because it is full of phenomenal songs and has a compelling visual component, but because no other album dominated the culture quite like Lemonade. In the weeks after its release, everyone was talking about Lemonade; I walked down the streets of NYC and every outdoor café I passed, people were analyzing the songs and debating who “Becky with the good hair” might actually be. In my mind, Beyoncé can do no wrong, but Lemonade may be her most triumphant work yet. Socially aware, raw, and damn catchy – Lemonade has it all.

This pretty much sums up 2016

This pretty much sums up 2016

 

Adele – Madison Square Garden

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I turned 40 this year, which sucked on many levels, not the least because while I spent the last three years celebrating other people’s 40th birthdays, no one planned much of anything for mine. But if one thing can soften the blow of not getting a party, it’s seeing Adele live and in concert. Seeing Adele wasn’t even on my bucket list because I didn’t even know if the opportunity to see her would ever arise. I dared not to dream that big. But thanks to my friend Kristin, it happened. And it totally lived up to expectations. It was a magical evening. She doesn’t plan to tour again any time soon, but if the chance to see Adele presents itself, you must take it. Read my post about the concert here.

 

Garth Brooks – DCU Center

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I’ve wanted to see Garth Brooks forever; despite being a casual country music fan at best, I’ve always like Garth Brooks’ songs and have long heard that he’s great in concert. I missed in him 2015, but managed to make it happen in 2016. He was great and the show was a lot of fun. No one can quite crank out the hits like Garth. Read my post about the concert here.

Odds and Ends

In the Dark podcast

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My true crime obsession showed no signs of letting up in 2016 and one of my better finds to scratch that particular itch was the podcast In the Dark. What I particularly liked about the case that was examined in the podcast was that it wasn’t unsolved; instead of focusing on trying who committed a crime or in exonerating a person who was wrongfully imprisoned, In the Dark could instead focus on the process and why it took so long for the case to finally be closed. What they uncover is disturbing and probably all too common – failure to follow basic police procedure and tunnel vision. Well researched and thoughtful, I looked forward to each weekly installment. Read my post about the podcast here.

 

Hamilton

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I was lucky enough to see Hamilton for a second time this year and it was just as good the second time around. Read my review here.

 

Museum of Ice Cream

I don’t know what people were more of jealous of me for this year – seeing Hamilton again, seeing Adele, or visiting the museum of ice cream. It was a fun day that didn’t totally live up to the hype, but swimming in a pool of sprinkles is easily a highlight of the year. Read about the trip here.

 

Biden Memes

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The 2016 election seemed to last forever and showed just how divided our country has become. But one of the best things to come out of the election was the proliferation of memes celebrating the friendship of Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama. Regardless of your political affiliation, these memes were funny. “Uncle Joe” has always been a source of comedic relief, but never have we needed that so badly as we did this year.

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Now it’s your turn – what were your favorite pop culture things in 2016? Share with the class in the comments section. Happy New Year!

The Hateful Eight – A Review

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, it’s pretty clear that I’m totally in the tank for Quentin Tarantino. He’s one of my favorite directors and Pulp Fiction is easily one of my favorite movies of all time. I look forward to the release of a Tarantino film like most people look forward to Christmas, which has worked out for me recently since his last two movies have been released on Christmas. People think I’m happy and giddy about the holiday, when really I’m looking forward to some violence and stylized dialogue. You have your thing, I have mine. I was tremendously disappointed that The Hateful Eight roadshow wasn’t coming to a city by me on Christmas day, so I wasn’t able to see the movie on opening night, breaking my streak that started with Kill Bill Vol. 1. For some reason my family didn’t love the idea of me blowing off Christmas to go to the city to see The Hateful Eight; we all have our crosses to bear. I had to wait a whole week to see the movie. The horror!

Compared to a lot of Tarantino movies, the scale of The Hateful Eight is relatively small. This is another genre pick, this time in the style of a Western. Most of the action in the film takes place in a one room lodge where a snowstorm has stranded eight colorful characters: bounty hunter O. B. (Kurt Russell) and his fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); former Civil War Major turned bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson); a sheriff (Walton Goggins); a hangman (Tim Roth); a cowboy (Michael Madsen); a former Confederate general (Bruce Dern) and “the Mexican” (Demián Bichir). Forced to interact with one another given the limited confines, tensions begins to bubble up to the surface. There is a sizable bounty on Daisy’s head and O.B. wants to make sure that he is the only one that collects it, by any means necessary. Though the Civil War has ended, a lot of the tension and animosity from the conflict is still very much alive. Preexisting relationships come to the surface. Violence ensues in a spectacular fashion. People die.

The Hateful Eight is perhaps the most violent and challenging of all of Tarantino’s films, which if you are a fan you know is saying a lot. Though everyone gets part of the abuse, the lion share of the violence is directed at Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, which brings its own set of issues. The pacing is very slow and deliberate; The Hateful Eight clocks in at close to three hours and Tarantino has no interest in rushing his story. There is liberal use of the N-word throughout the film, predominantly used by the white characters. While there are definitely elements of revenge in The Hateful Eight, the heroes are not as clear cut as they were in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. In fact, there really aren’t any obvious heroes in this movie – when Tarantino titled this movie The Hateful Eight, he wasn’t joking. There are some pretty terrible people populating this movie. All of these elements make the movie something of a challenge. Immediately after finishing the movie, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it; I liked it, but didn’t immediately fall in love with it. But as the days passed, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about The Hateful Eight and my admiration for what Tarantino had pulled off continued to grow. Now I’m just trying to carve out another three-hour block of time to watch the movie again. That being said, this movie is absolutely not for everyone; if you’ve struggled with Tarantino movies in the past because of the violence and use of language, The Hateful Eight is most definitely not a film that you’ll enjoy or appreciate. There are scenes in Django Unchained that are difficult to watch; there are more of those scenes in The Hateful Eight. Some have accused the film of misogyny, given the brutality directed at Daisy, and though I don’t necessarily agree with that interpretation, it is very uncomfortable to see her battered the way that she is (though that’s kind of the point). This is a divisive film and while it absolutely worked for me, your personal preferences will dictate a lot of how you feel about The Hateful Eight. So proceed with some caution (and for the love of God, leave the kids at home if you see this. The R rating is legit.)

Given the time period and setting, Tarantino’s trademark banter about pop culture is completely absent; there are no monologues about tipping or burgers and there is also no surface commentary about slavery or Nazis. The Hateful Eight definitely has some things to say, particularly about racism, law enforcement and justice, but it presented differently than in other Tarantino films. Some might suspect that parts of The Hateful Eight were written in reaction to recent events involving police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement, but thanks to the script being leaked prior to production we know that Tarantino was dealing with these issue well before any of these issues came to the forefront of the American conscious. The timing is fortuitous and I think gives even more meaning to some of the idea that Tarantino is wrestling with. The Hateful Eight isn’t limited to being a political statement; the film is also an interesting character study as he slowly turns these characters, who could easily have been just caricatures, into fully realized and complex individuals. When you first meet Goggins’ Chris Mannix, you think you have him all figured out. But Tarantino is not one who is satisfied with black and white, preferring to wallow in shades of grey, so the more you learn about Mannix, the less you can pin down how exactly you are supposed to feel about him. This applies to all the characters, who are a study in contrasts. Depending on the other character that they interact with, new facets of their personality emerge and the viewer is constantly reevaluating their perceptions. Tarantino’s occasionally frenetic style is completely neutered in The Hateful Eight. He takes his time, slowly revealing information and peeling back the layers of these characters. At its heart, this film is a mystery that shares some common DNA with works from Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie – with a lot more blood and cussing. As people start dying, you are continually asked to adjust your perceptions of what this movie is. Where The Hateful Eight ends up is at a very different location than I would have expected when the film began. I really enjoyed that unpredictability and I look forward to watching the film again, knowing now what I didn’t know then. I think it will put a whole different spin on the experience.

Some other thoughts:

  • While a certain famous movie star does in fact have a role in The Hateful Eight, I think it’s better if you know as little as possible about his involvement. His role is minor in screen time, but pivotal. I kind of wish that they had used a less famous person, as when he finally shows up, it kind of takes you out of the movie experience briefly.
  • Jennifer Lawrence was reportedly approached to play the role of Daisy, and though I think Lawrence makes everything better I’m kind of glad that she ultimately didn’t take the role. Jennifer Jason Leigh does an amazing job and I think that the character works better played by a slightly older woman. Plus there is no way Lawrence’s agents would have let her take this role, given the level of brutality and venom involved.
  • Also largely missing from The Hateful Eight is the use of obscure or reimagined pop songs. For the most part, the soundtrack is that of a traditional Western.
  • Tim Roth does a fine job and it’s good to see him resurface in the Tarantino universe, but it’s hard not to imagine that his role was written for Christoph Waltz (who would have KILLED IT).
  • Speaking of killing it – there is no situation in life that Walton Goggins does not make better. He is spectacular in everything and The Hateful Eight is no different.
  • Samuel L. Jackson is also brilliant. Hell, the whole cast knocks this one right out of the park.
  • Though there is a lot of awful stuff going on in this movie, it is also occasionally very funny.

The Hateful Eight is not Tarantino’s most accessible film, but it may be one of his best. The cinematography is gorgeous and this is a film that idles in the back of your brain long after the final credits have rolled. He has assembled an amazing cast that manages to bring these hateful characters to life in such a way that there is nuance and layers to their performances. This is a classic Tarantino film, minus some of the trappings and trademarks of his previous movies. While the violence and language will presumably turn some people off, The Hateful Eight may in fact be Tarantino’s most mature movie to date. The pacing is slow, but if you are willing to sit back and let Tarantino and his merry band of sociopaths take you on their journey, you ultimately won’t be disappointed.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – The Force Awakens Edition

 

Tonight, millions of people will flock to the theater to see the new Star Wars move. After months of speculation and tracking every scrap of news about the film, fans will finally get to see if The Force Awakens is closer to A New Hope or The Phantom Menace. I’m sure many people are absolutely giddy with anticipation.

I’m not one of those people, of course; I probably won’t even see The Force Awakens unless I have to as part of my Oscar death race. Star Wars ain’t my bag, probably because I didn’t see the original trilogy for the first time until I was in my thirties. I wasn’t super impressed and I never bothered to watch the second trilogy. I won’t complain about all the hoopla surrounding The Force Awakens – Just because it isn’t for me I won’t deny others their fun – but I’m kind of relieved that all this build up is over. I’ll probably be at the movies tonight, but that will be to see the movie that I’ve been looking forward to for months: Sisters with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I’ll wave to the Star Wars fans in line as I stroll into my probably half empty theater.

But now on to the delayed pop culture roundup. It’s been a crazy week this week for me – you’ll hear more about some of that next week – so I apologize for falling behind. Hopefully it is worth the wait.

Let’s kick things off with a little Star Wars related news……

  • An a cappella tribute to Star Wars:

 

 

  • Bad Lip Reading tackled Star Wars:

 

 

Happy-dance

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  • John Krasinski and Jimmy Kimmel continued their long running Christmas prank war:

 

 

  • Colbert also learned Jonathan Groff’s King George walk from Hamilton:

 

Merry Christmas from the Blackstock clan! @gameofthrones #gameofthrones #winteriscoming #riverisnotworried

A photo posted by Kelly Clarkson (@kellyclarkson) on

 

Time for some trailers……

  • Star Trek Beyond:

 

  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

 

  • X-Men: Apocalypse:

 

  • House of Cards:

https://twitter.com/HouseofCards/status/676958648069840896?ref_src=twsrctfw

 

  • Netflix’s Making a Murderer:

 

  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:

 

  • The Legend of Tarzan (starring Alexander Skarsgard’s magnificent abs):

 

  • Disney’s The BFG:

 

  • Independence Day: Resurgence:

 

  • Sherlock: The Abominable Bride:

 

  • High-Rise:

 

  • Some teasers for WGN’s Underground:

 

 

  • Season 2 of Lip Sync Battle:

 

  • Unravel:

 

  • Whitney Cummings: I’m Your GirlFriend:

 

  • Comedy Central’s Idiotsitter:

 

  • Misconduct:

 

  • Anesthesia:

 

  • The season 3 trailer of The 100:

 

  • Martyrs:

 

  • A red-band trailer for FX’s Man Seeking Woman:

 

  • Eddie the Eagle:

 

 

As always, we end with the supercuts and mashups…..

  • A tribute to John Candy:

 

  • What if Woody Allen directed Star Wars:

 

  • Who knew the Twin Peaks theme and Britney Spears would go so well together?

 

  • This dog has some sweet moves, but terrible taste in music:

 

  • The Captain America/Team America mashup we didn’t know we needed:

 

  • A cover of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” in the style of Sinatra:

 

  • Adele’s “Hello” set in the Star Wars universe:

 

  • A Storm Trooper auditions for Blue Man Group:

 

  • Celebrities do a dramatic reading of “Hotline Bling”:

 

  • President Obama is also a fan of Drake’s hit song:

 

  • And finally, Sesame Street meets Game of Thrones: