Things I Loved This Year: Leslie Jones Never Backs Down

Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: Leslie Jones triumphs over the haters by being who she is.

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The first monologue of this current season of Saturday Night Live began in fairly typical fashion. Host Margot Robbie looked ecstatic as she smoothly navigated her first few jokes and an appearance by Kenan Thompson, who joked that he’s been on the show for so long that he “slept like a baby” the night before the premiere. (Actually, I doubt that was a joke. Side note: I hope Kenan never leaves SNL. He’s a treasure.)

Then Leslie Jones arrived onstage, and the crowd exploded.

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The M&M Report: “The Edge of Seventeen” and “Manchester by the Sea”

On this episode of The M&M Report, Devin and I discuss two movies we both really enjoyed — well, perhaps that’s a strong word. Both tackle tough subjects in unsentimental fashion. But we found plenty to recommend in both.

Timecodes

The Edge of Seventeen: 0:00-12:55

Manchester by the Sea: 12:55-End (Spoilers a few minutes in)

Listen here. And please subscribe!

PROGRAMMING NOTE: We’ve made a behind-the-scenes change. If you haven’t done so already, you need to RE-SUBSCRIBE to the podcast on iTunes or the podcast provider of your choice in order to receive new episodes in your feed. We know this extra step is, but we’re excited about what it means for the future of the podcast. Tell your friends! (And if you’ve already done it once, no need to do it again.)

Things I Loved This Year: Pop Stars Behind the Curtain

Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: three of the year’s most influential artists who stayed silent at just the right moments.

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Three of the biggest stars on the planet — Rihanna, Kanye West and Beyonce — released three of the most popular and acclaimed albums of 2016 in the first few months of the year. At least one of them is virtually certain to earn a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year tomorrow. In all three cases, only a few weeks’ notice and a few confusing bits of teaser information preceded the unveiling of these sprawling works of art, which spanned musicals genres and technological platforms.

The surprise nature of pop stars’ latest artistic statements no longer carries the electric charge of spontaneity that accompanied the release of 2013’s Beyonce. We’ve come to expect the unexpected. What’s more notable, to me, is how little we’ve heard from the artists behind these works about their approach to creating them. Beyonce has granted a grand total of zero interviews about their creative processes this year — no magazine spreads, no newspaper features, no television spotlights. Silence. West, meanwhile, afforded a few minutes of his time to a phone call with Vanity Fair’s Dirk Standen, during which he exclusively discussed the intent behind his lightning-rod music video for “Famous.” And Rihanna talked to Vogue for its April cover, saying a fair amount while revealing almost nothing of substance.

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Things I Loved This Year: Dazzling Single-Takes on “You’re the Worst” and “Better Things”

Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: two episodes of half-hour shows that pushed the boundaries of the form.

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One of the most talked about TV moments of 2015 came at the end of the fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective: a violent and visceral eight-minute raid scene, presented in a single uninterrupted take. Some observers praised director Cary Joji Fukunaga for the technical virtuosity required to pull off a filmmaking feat of such complexity, while others dismissed the sequence as a visually dazzling distraction that lacked narrative weight or thematic depth. The blatant showmanship of the camerawork in that scene served only to flatter the audience, not to deepen its experience of the unfolding story, those critics argued.

I saw two sequences on TV this year that reminded me of that True Detective debate, but neither one got the same attention, and neither one inspired a similarly vigorous discussion. FXX’s You’re the Worst devoted most of an episode to an uninterrupted shot that carried the camera across a wedding party venue to several overlapping conversations. One night later, Pamela Adlon’s FX star vehicle Better Things dedicated a third of its first season finale to a scene showing a typical whirlwind morning in the household of Adlon’s loosely autobiographical character Sam Fox — three daughters hollering and whining; multiple visitors cluttering the messy front foyer; flirtatious messages distracting Sam from her hustle. Both of these sequences showcased their respective shows’ most appealing qualities, and both employed a technically challenging stylistic technique in service of an idea and an impact. Both were a joy to watch, even at their saddest moments.

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Things I Loved This Year: A Worthy Tribute to a Soul Legend

Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: a documentary that foreshadowed the death of its subject and offered a moving tribute in the process.

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Anyone who sees Barbara Kopple’s documentary Miss Sharon Jones after reading this recommendation will have a very different experience with it than I did in August. The movie’s title subject, an unflappable soul singer and cancer survivor, died last month from another bout of pancreatic cancer. Her perseverance, like everyone’s, had limits.

You might not get that sense from seeing the movie, though. Jones is energetic and ebullient throughout, even when she’s waiting on pivotal news in a doctor’s holding room or lying on the couch recovering from surgery. On stage, she’s a beast, backed by her band and proto-family of Dap-Kings. Offstage, she’s fiercely opinionated, never failing to speak her mind when she feels her bandmates are neglecting her or offer thanks when family friends help ease the pain of her illness.

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Things I Loved This Year: “Drive It Like You Stole It” from “Sing Street”

Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: a showstopper from Sing Street that doesn’t stop the show, but deepens it.

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Enjoyed on its own, “Drive It Like You Stole It” is a rollicking slice of 80s rock-tinged power pop, complete with an opening blast of synthesizers, a mid-song guitar breakdown and passionate vocals. It’s as catchy as actual songs from that time period, thanks in part to its credited writer Gary Clark, the frontman of 80s band Danny Wilson and a veteran producer.

Paired with visuals in writer-director John Carney’s exuberant musical Sing Street, the song takes on an even grander sweep. The scene pays loving homage to the finale of Back to the Future, in which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) straps on a guitar and introduces a crowd of unsuspecting 50s kids to the raw power of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” In this movie, lead singer and recent public school convert Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has a simpler goal in mind than reversing the decline of the time-space continuum: He wants to impress a girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton). The spectacle of Cosmo and his band of diminutive but prodigal teens seems like a no-brainer route to romance.

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Things I Loved This Year: Jeannie Berlin in “The Night Of”

Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: Jeannie Berlin’s performance on HBO’s The Night Of.

Berlin.pngEven if you’ve never seen Jeannie Berlin — and given her slim IMDb resume, it’s quite possible you haven’t — you instantly feel a connection with her when she appears onscreen. She’s a character actress in the most widely accepted use of the term, someone who inspires the reaction, “Oh, her!”

She only appears in seven of the ten episodes of The Night Of, a “limited” series (maybe) created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price that unspooled on Sunday nights this summer on HBO. Her character, veteran prosecutor Helen Weiss, is a tough nut to crack. She carries herself with dignity and poise, but also sneers at her conversation partners and appears unmoved by appeals to her emotions. For a few episodes, she’s a background player, visible in one or two scenes only to disappear for most of the main action.

And then the trial of our protagonist, maybe-murderer Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed), begins, and Helen Weiss shines.

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