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Athens, Ohio, United States
"Art and love are the same thing. It's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you."

Thursday, December 31, 2009

All You Need is Love 2009

My personal pop culture experience is all about love.

Every year I fall in love with music, television, books and movies. It is a blind, burning love that I can't always explain. Try to engage me intellectually on Lost, Harry Potter or My Chemical just can't be done. I love them so much that I can't always articulate why (and will probably get upset when you differ on their level of perfection).

So instead of developing a list of the Best of 2009, I will present you with a near-comprehensive list of everything I truly loved in 2009. I'll try to explain why but it will probably end up sounding like I am gushing over my son's first soccer goal.

In no particular order:

Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley in District 9)
"Fook you, man!"
Was there a better hero for 2009? In a time in which we are coming to terms with both a globalized world and beauracracies that seem to pop up like acne (and about as pleasant), Wikus was the most appropriate protagonist in Neill Blomkamp's alien yet familiar universe. Wikus is really nothing more than a fast-talking South African nerd and a slave to the white men in black suits he works for. Sharlto Copley (who came out of fucking nowhere in this flick) plays his decent into the alien and bizarre marvelously and realistically. Hearing him pronounce "fuckin' prawns" in his thick South African accent is nearly worth the price of admission for District 9. Pleeeease 2010, bring me more Sharlto Copley.

Allan Hyde (True Blood)
"I am full of joy, I want to burn."
I can't remember the last time an actor has captivated me so much with so little screentime. For those of you saying Allan Who? never fear. Up until about 3 minutes ago, I knew Allan Hyde merely as "that kid who played Godric in four episodes of True Blood." In one of the strongest seasons of television this year, Hyde stands out among the excellent True Blood cast. His Godric, is a 2,000 year beast residing in the body of a Nordic teenage hottie. Hyde plays the most powerful creature in the New World...and you buy it. He also plays the gentlest and most non-violent creature in the New World...and you buy it just as much. Such is the power of his performance that I nearly (NEARLY, I said) cried at his decision to make a deadly date with the rising sun...despite the fact he only had around a half-hour of screentime overall. *Fun fact* Apparently, Allan Hyde does the Danish dub of Ron Weasley's voice in Harry Potter. Wikipedia don't lie.

"I wish I had a boyfriend..."
I'm not referring to the actual biologically distinct section of humanity known as "females" when I say "girls" (they could make this list every year), but rather the San Franciscan indie band. I dare you to listen to "Lust for Life" and not dance or grin like an idiot. As a matter of fact, give it a try. Then watch the NSFW video..

John Lithgow (Dexter)
"Hello...Dexter Morgan."
Who knew you had it in you, John? After doing his time on Third Rock for the Sun, Johnny Lithgow had garnered a reputations as a comedian first, actor second. Well mark my words: that Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama series soon to be on his shelf will make people think otherwise. Lithgow's Arthur Mitchell a.k.a "The Trinity Killer" in season 4 of Dexter might be the most exciting thing to come out the year in television. Trinity is absolutely horrifying...but more horrifying than his actual deeds is our favorite serial killer protagonist's fascination with him. Dexter's own insecurities regarding his ability to be a father and a husband lead him down a demented path in which he thinks he can learn from Trinity and his relationship to his family. But every Dexter spends trying to learn from Trinity is a second spent NOT killing Trinity. This of course leads to....something very, very bad.

Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds)
"You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece."
Inglorious Basterds is the best film of the year. There, I said it. It is also Quentin Tarantino's second best the very least. I have nothing more to say on the matter.

Lady Gaga
"I want your psycho."
Stefani Germanotta a.k.a Lady Gaga might just be the smartest person in America. Here is a woman that understands what Western pop culture wants more than anything else: celebrity. And that's what she made for us. Lady Gaga is a simultaneous parody and celebration of American celebrity culture and we all love her for it. Of course it doesn't hurt that she knows how to churn out exciting pop hits like a mofo. "Bad Romance" in particular nails the concept of an aggressive, all-consuming love and infatuation so perfectly that I couldn't say it better myself. Though I did try. And don't think because she embraces the kitsch and poppy side of music that this gal can't sing. Exhibit A:

David Yates (Director, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
"Severus, please..."
Believe it or not, Harry Potter movies are not very easy to pull off. David Yates, himself can attest to that. His first Potter effort was the fifth film. Order of the Phoenix, the book was a sprawling epic tale of political repression, coming-of-age angst and the thin line between good and evil. Order of the Phoenix, the film...was just a film. Apparently, Yates learned all the lessons he needed from the fifth film, however, because his direction of the sixth was about as close to perfect as I believe a Harry Potter movie can be. The story ran as smoothly as any cinematic adaptation of a semi-episodic novel can and Yates added little quirks to clue in the audience as to what they should and shouldn't be watching for (loved Malfoy's little experiments with the birds). If Yates improves this exponentially in the final two Potter films, we might have something very special on our hands.

Zach Galifinakis (The Hangover)
"I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolfpack."
Thank God this dude finally got a breakout role.

"Last name Ever, first name Greatest."
I love Drake this year for several reasons. First, he is perpetuating the new trend in popular music of starting on the Internet, gaining some dedicated fans, then busting loose on mainstream America. Second, "Best I Ever Had" was stuck in my head for 37% of the entire year. Third, it confirms to us that Jimmy from Degrassi is a-okay and out of his wheelchair

Sin Nombre
“A psychic once told me: you’ll make it to the U.S.A. Not in God’s hands…but in the hands of the devil.”
This was the only Indie film I saw all year that was actually worth watching. Read my review, then go find it.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
"Flip, flip, flip-adelphia!"
Have you ever wondered what Seinfeld would look like if it were written by anarchists? Wonder no more! It's Always Sunny is the most consistently funny thing on TV right now.

"Sometimes being special sucks."
I'll be the first to acknowledge that the first season of Glee was rather uneven and disappointing at times. But the show has two things going for it: Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester and mind-blowingly amazing performances. In the iTunes and Youtube age, Glee is a godsend. There is no reason that it can't last as long as the Internet does. If that's the case, I only ask Ryan Murphy that he continually recasts and finds new kids. Here is my favorite song from the first half of the first season. Try not to weep.

Airborne Toxic Event - Sometime Around Midnight
"And the piano's this melancholy soundtrack to her smile."
Speaking of things that make me this video. Lord knows, I can't or I'll destroy my MacBook with the cascade of bittersweet tears that will undoubtedly fire out of my eyes like sprinklers. The Airborne Toxic Event really only has 3 or 4 solid songs, but this might be the most beautiful and genuine thing I've heard all year. And for an indie band from Los Angeles, "genuine" is not something one would expect.

Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad)
"737 down over ABQ"
The second season of Breaking Bad was almost indescribably good. Part of this can be attributed to the remarkably patient storytelling about one man's decent into...evil/selfishness/practicality? But even more can be attributed to the phenomenal acting duo of Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn a.k.a Walter and Skylar White. Cranston has received his fair share of acclaim and awards and rightfully so. His Walter is a fascinating character study of what a man thinks he needs to do to be a "man." Less heralded, but no less important, however, is Anna Gunn. How does one's spouse react to a cancer diagnosis followed by a sharp and suspicious change in behavior. Anna Gunn acts her ass off to give the audience a compelling depiction of just how a spouse does act. Breaking Bad.

Kid Cudi
"Please save a kid that needs some help."
I dedicated a whole blog post to Dat Kid from Cleveland but one point bears repeating. In a genre known for false bravado, Kid Cudi deserves credit for letting his "I can be an insecure pussy" flag fly. Of course, it doesn't hurt that "Man on the Moon" is simply a sick album.

Cast of Community
"I have to plan in advance how to live in the moment."
I've noticed something about the state of comedy recently. No, not that it sucks. Comedy is no more or less funny than any other time that I can remember. Comedy is, however, much less conflict based than I can remember. Most of the comedies of television right now, and all of the comedies on NBC are based on the interactions between friends and peers and not the inherent conflict between those same peers. The American version of The Office originally tried to follow its British father's example by putting its characters in awkward scenarios. By its second season, however, The Office had transitioned to humor based off its characters hanging out and interacting with each other. It was basically Cheers set in a paper company. Parks and Recreation went through a similar (and successful) transition from its first to second seasons. Here is what gives me hope for Community's survival. Community understood from episode one onward that people want to see friends on television comedy. How else did Friends go for a mind-numbing ten seasons? The characters of Community fight and bicker, but the audience never doubts for a moment that deep down they are still a mini-community (har har) of their own.

21st Century Breakdown (Green Day)
"Red alert is the color of panic, elevated to the point of static."
One of the best kept secrets of the year is that Green Day's follow up to 2004's widely acclaimed "American Idiot" is actually slightly better than its predecessor. 21st Century Breakdown listened to Jay-Z's pleas for American music to "get violent," and did him one better. This is an album about revolution. Not the music revolution or the love revolution but the revolution where shit gets set on fire and people die. What are we rebelling against? No fucking clue. All we know is that Christian and Gloria are our youthful guides into destruction and that our little revolution is probably going to fail. But that can't stop the listener from screaming and throwing Molotov cocktails along with the album's protagonists.

House: Broken
"Successes only last until someone screws them up. Failures are forever."
House has followed a strict formula for five seasons. Patient comes in, patient exhibits bizarre symptoms, House fixes patient while undergoing some type of life lesson...which he will inevitably ignore. The formula works but unfortunately formulas are by their very definition: boring. House broke its own formula in grand fashion for the season six opener of the show titled "Broken." The result could have been excellent...or disastrous. By its inclusion on this list, you know I believe it to be awesome and you certainly should too. "Defiant mental patient" storylines are generally overdone but the House crew makes this one work like gangbusters. By putting him away in a mental health clinic, the viewer better understands what it's like to be the frustrating ball of madness that is Dr. House. And by giving House a worthy intellectual adversary (a cool-as-hell Andre Braugher), House also better understand what it's like to be the frustrating ball of madness that is Dr. House. Kudos to the House team for getting their character healthy...and still keeping him interesting.

Mark Pellegrino (Lost)
"It only ends once. Everything that happens before that is just progress."
The character of Jacob was doomed to fail on Lost. His name has been whispered for two seasons and his eventual arrival had been greatly anticipated. He had been built to be a God. Anything short of a 5-story dragon shooting fire out of its eyes would be disappointing. Merely one little-known actor should have been disappointing. Someway, somehow, Mark Pellegrino pulled Jacob off and he wasn't disappointing in the slightest. He was extraordinary and one of the bright spots in the best season of Lost yet. Pellegrino oozes sophistication and mystery, whether he's in the back on a taxi in, sitting on a park bench in front of a tall building, or wearing a tunic and speaking pedantically on a mystical Island. Simply put: Mark Pellegrino nailed an un-nailable role. Who knew Paul from Dexter had it in him?

Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z and Alicia Keys)
"Don't bite the Apple. Eve's caught up in the in-crowd."
A World Series Championship and the year's best song? The Empire State did very well for itself in 2009.

Kristen Stewart's Cautious, Awkward Smile
Happy New Years, everyone.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Moment of the Decade #5

This will be the last of my "Moment of the Decade" series.

It certainly has been a wild ride, readers. Years from now, when I am accepting a cherished writing award in the church basement of my local community, I will look back fondly to my Moment of the Decade series that I wrote way back at the stunning age of 19. By then, I will have had tasted multiple professional successes, have nine models for wives and an 11-inch penis (they still grow, right?).

Likewise, I am sure you will remember this hallmark of modern cultural analysis when you are off solving the problems of the world, yourself (sorry for taking all the hot wives, by the way). But as they say: "all mediocre attempts to catalogue a decade of complex ideas and experiences by a third-rate entertainment pop culture blog must come to an end." And so this too ends.

I had a couple of more things I wanted to write about but literally couldn't justify them due to obscurity. One was the self-less sacrifice of Blackwargreymon in the second season of Digimon Adventures and the other was the release of Sugarcult's song "Memory" as the most underrated pop song of the decade. The goal of this whole shindig was to highlight some of the less obvious moments of the decade but even those were too obscure for the guy who once wrote about K.A Applegate's Remnants series.

So enjoy, your last moment of the decade. We've come full circle back to the land of cinema.

Sarsgaard Flips Out - Jarhead

I talked to an old friend recently. At this point in my life, it blows my mind that I have such a thing as an "old friend." I experienced seven years of secondary education in the same town and had no choice but to have the "same friends", nobody knew, nobody old, just the same, day in and day out. But now I'm no longer in that same town and as such I have old friends.

This old friend had joined the army. We were talking about his experiences in basic training, what it's like to shoot a gun and of course how the service effects one's "female situation."

At some point in the conversation he seemed to struggle with how to explain it. Then he said:

"Remember that movie Jarhead that everyone was convinced sucked?"

I was.

"It doesn't suck. The army is exactly like that...nothing happens. Remember when Peter Sarsgaard says something like 'I never even fired my rifle?'"

I did.

"Yeah, that's what it's like."

I have never been in the armed services, nor have I ever fired a gun at another human being. But I do understand a little bit about pop culture, movies and the way things work, and I have no choice but to admire a war movie in which nothing happens.

Jarhead was not very well-received by critics. It got a lukewarm 61% on Rotten Tomatoes and was featured on very few end-of-the-year top ten lists. I didn't even really know how I felt about it after I saw it. I had this vague notion that it was a good film, maybe even a great film...but still I didn't like it.

Those of you who have seen it probably know why. It is a slow, tense build up from boot camp through Operation Desert Storm but a dramatic release never seems to come. Private Anthony Swofford and his merry band of U.S Marines just kind of stroll around a horrifically boring Iraq landscape, waiting for something to happen. Jarhead puts its characters through basic training hell, trains then to be killing machines, winds them up and lets them go nowhere and kill nothing.

And the more I think about it: maybe that was the point.

Whatever the movie was trying to say, the slow build up with no release leads to one of the most effective and disturbing scenes I've seen in five years.

While trying to fight boredom in the desert, the sniper team of Private Swofford (Jake Gyllenhall) and Private Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) receive the assignment to assassinate a crucial Iraqi official in a guard tower. Swofford and Troy are all too happy to put their training into effect and do something other than sit around talking about women or masturbating.

Troy lines up the shot perfectly and gives Swofford the go ahead to take another human being's life. Just before Swofford can take the shot, a military higher up (Dennis Hayesbert a.k.a President David Palmer from 24) burst into the tower and tells the boys that the Air Force will be taking out the enemy instead. Why kill one with a strategic sniper-shot when you can take out the whole farm with a napalm bomb?

Private Troy doesn't quite see the wisdom in that.

Troy yells that he and Swofford had the shot and begs President Palmer to just let Swofford shoot the man in the head before the Air Force wipes it all out. He doesn't ask...he literally begs. He screams "we had the shot!", falls to the floor, begins to weep and literally rocks back and forth.

It may sound like a bit much when I write it, but when Peter Sarsgaard acts it, it is just simply astounding. This man really wanted nothing else in the world to see the red mist spray out of the back of another man's head as his bullet tore apart his brain.

The tragedy of Jarhead (and perhaps the two Iraq Wars, themselves) is that a collection of young Americans wanted to spill blood...and didn't get to.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Moment of the Decade #4

Release of the Gray Album

Believe it or not but there was a time when record companies were worried about mash-ups and digitally downloaded music.

2004 was a time shortly after Napster had collapsed and shortly before iTunes had become the musical juggernaut it is today. In short - it was a brief window of time when the fate of the record industry hung in the balance.

Enter DJ Danger Mouse.

Danger Mouse would later team up with Cee-Lo to craft the consensus best pop song of the decade, but for now he was working by himself trying to turn The Beatle's White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album into a musical masterpiece.

The Beatles are the undisputed pop music kings for all time, while Jay-Z is the probable pop music king for our time. Still, common sense says that a mash up of light, breezy guitar 60's guitar riffs and aggressive, fast urban-flavored verses shouldn't go together. Danger Mouse somehow made it work.

"What More Can I Say" teamed up with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Encore" flowed over "Glass Onion" and in my personal favorite "Change Clothes" gently played over "Dear Prudence".

The Grey Album would eventually be honored as Album of the Year by Entertainment Weekly and received praise from several other publications. But it left a longer legacy than traditional good music. The Grey Album is a significant cultural moment of the decade because of its continuation of the theme of electronic civil disobedience.

If it exists and its online...then we all have a right to it. Forget what EMI, Paul McCartney or the U.S Constitution says! Nothing says 2000s more than that ethos.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Moment of the Decade #3

Omar's Death - The Wire

The single best piece of entertainment from the decade had to show up on this list at some point. And it is with the death of it's most popular and celebrated character that The Wire makes an appearance in the best moments of this past decade.

There's really no way around it: Omar Little was a Bad-Mother-Fucker.

Omar was a man who represented a complete break from all institutions and commitments. On a show where everyone lost a piece of their identity to their surroundings (gang members, dock workers, police officers, public school teachers, elected officials), Omar was able to remain Omar: nothing more, nothing less.

Homeboy lived by a code. He followed the traditional rules of the street...with some revisions. Omar never swore, Omar never stole from anyone but drug-dealers and criminals and Omar gave that money to those in need. He was a gay, ghetto Robin Hood. And he deserved the death of a King. He deserved a death scene much like Harry Potter got (even if that one didn't quite stick): purposeful, honorable and touching.

But this is The Wire we're talking about here.

In the fifth and final season, Omar sought revenge against Kingpin Marlo Stanfield for torturing and killing his homie, Butchie. And Omar's path for revenge took him to the streets where naturally he stole money from a drug stash. Then, in a long, uniterrupted shot - Omar takes money from said stash to a convenience store to buy cigarettes. Omar walks up to the counter and the camera focuses on his blank expression and nothing else. The bell rings, indicating that someone has entered the store. Omar glances over and then back - apparently he doesn't feel threatened by whatever he sees...


The a bullet hits Omar in the side of the head, tearing apart his brain and killing him instantly.

Omar's death scene was not what he deserved. It was quick, brutal and humiliating....much like death in real life. Omar may have felt like a larger-than-life character to us all but The Wire deals with reality, and in reality no one is larger-than-life. In reality - we are all just glorified meat-marionettes whose strings can be unceremoniously cut at any moment.

Sorry to sound grim here - but The Wire just gets to me like that.

Another interesting aspect of Omar's death is that it reveals the true artistic restraint that David Simon and Co. displayed in crafting the 5-season epic story of The Wire. Way back in Season 3, Omar and his crew were engaged in a firefight with members of the Barksdale crew (much love to you if you recognize the names of all these people and organizations) in broad daylight.

At its conclusion the police showed up and witnessed a group of kids re-enacting the fight using their hands for "guns." One young little hoodrat whines that is his turn to be Omar.

Two years later, that prepubescent terror, Kenard, would be the one who would shoot Omar Little in the head.

I love that show so much.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Moment of the Decade #2

The Forest Again - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Remember when Harry Potter died?

Oh wait a minute.....let me go ahead and put up that SPOILER ALERT tag.

Anyway, remember when Voldemort wasted The Boy Who Lived (for a while at least) with a Killing Curse to the face? I do. I've actually re-read that scene about 47 times. It is "The Forest Again", the 34th chapter, and third-to-last chapter in the finale of the epic tale of Harry Potter. And it Rocks. So. Hard.

Back in the summer of '07, I was a young, promising 17-year-old student - much like the protagonist, himself. But unlike that bespectacled hero, I was not seeking out the world's most dangerous wizard. My brother and I were in Myrtle Beach and instead of lounging around on the beach, counting Double-Ds, we were inside reading The Deathly Hallows.

Somehow my brother was a full chapter ahead of me, even though he had stopped to take a quick catnap and I had not. Around 7 in the morning (we had received our books at midnight, like any self-respecting nerds), my brother looked up at me from a across the room with tears glimmering in his eyes and simply said:


"Will I know what you're talking about when I get there?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

And I did. And that is why the chapter "The Forest Again" from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is my Moment of the Decade #2.

The moment in which young Harry uses the Resurrection Stone to summon the spirits of his father, mother, Sirius Black and Remus Lupin is the moment that my brother was referring to. It is also the moment that almost makes me weep like a little bitch every time I read it. The dialogue is absolutely brutal.

Harry Potter asks his Godfather, Sirius if dying hurts. To which Sirius replies: "Not at all, it is painless and easier than falling asleep." Harry apologizes to his former teacher, Lupin, because he will not be able to see his infant son grow up. Harry's parents tell him that they love him and are proud of him.

Harry Potter has more in common with the living than the dead, "The Forest Again" reveals that his story, from the beginning, has been about death more so than anything. The most prolific series of books of our times opens with a double murder and that looms over every plot detail for seven books until in reaches that emotional climax in this close-to-final scene.

And some people say Twilight is better...