Sunday, August 12, 2012

Late Summer Pop Culture Round-Up

What am I loving this August? If there's a theme, it's: let's be grown ups and enjoy grown up entertainment.

Photo courtesy of Showtime.
Sunday night is a HUGE TV night this summer - so much so that I find it takes me two or three nights to get through everything on the DVR. When I open the list of Sunday-night recordings, one of the first things I find myself watching each week is Episodes, the Showtime comedy in which Matt LeBlanc plays a wily, washed-up (yet still ridiculously-wealthy) version of himself.  This Matt LeBlanc manages to wreak havoc on everyone around him, particularly on the lives of Beverly and Sean, the two British writers who have crossed the pond to create an American version of their British boarding school comedy. As you might imagine, their show becomes a different animal in the U.S. Episodes may sound high concept, and it is. But it's hilarious, grown-up fun even if you're not into all the meta-ness. But if you are, it's even better.

Knowing some of you readers personally, I'm pretty sure that there's a segment of the readership that will be thinking: Spotify? That's old news. And there's another portion that will be thinking: what the heck is Spotify? I've never even heard of it. Well, Spotify is an app for your phone or computer that basically makes all of the music in the world available to you. That'a a bit of exaggeration. But it's not far off. The free app allows you to listen on your computer with occasional ads. If you pay about $10 a month, you can listen on your phone and computer, and make playlists available offline. You can also share playlists, and there's a radio feature just like on Pandora. It's as easy to use as iTunes, and it allows you to sample much more music than you would if you had to pay per track (I still often buy tunes I really like.) Spotify feels like one of those things that's going to change everything about the way you interact with media. Of course, Europeans have had it available for years.

The Bourne Legacy
See, a ponytail and hoodie are very practical fashion
choices when on the run.
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.
I get a little thrill at the end of every Bourne movie, when the trills of Moby's "Extreme Ways" wind up. It's a movie moment that's becoming as iconic as Bond's "shaken, not stirred."  The Bourne Legacy takes those iconic Bourne elements and mixes them up with a new special agent and a new director. The result is the perfect late summer movie. As agent Aaron Cross, who is trying to figure out why the government is gunning for him, Jeremy Renner is a bit like an Everyman Daniel Craig - he's got the brutal features and economy of movement, but there's a twinkle in his eye that brings him down to earth. Cross is aided in his personal mission by Marta, played by Rachel Weisz. She's the kind of heroine women can actually see themselves in. Of course she's beautiful, but she's also incredibly freaked out by what's happening around her - but in a smart, practical way. She needs a secret agent to help her, but he needs her too.
Director Tony Gilroy gets all the notes just right, including the love story (pulling back from action movie cliches), the frakking awesome motorcycle chase, and the camera angles. We can all be happy that he's abandoned one of Bourne series' icons -- nausea-inducing super-close jump cuts of violence. Owen Gleiberman has said that Bourne movies are really about nothing, but I think he's wrong. We flock to the Bourne films because they aren't about an idea, they are about a feeling: the existential panic of living in a world where we are watched and tracked every moment. These movies give us the sense that if we're very clever, we might slip under the radar for just a few moments.

Broken Harbor, by Tana French
I anxiously await every one of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad books. If you haven't read any of them, I recommend starting with In the Woods, which remains the best. Anyone could jump into the series at any point, however, because the linked mysteries work as stand-alone stories also. Each successive book is told in the voice of a minor character from the previous books. With Broken Harbor, French takes a risk by choosing a character who was a huge jackanape in the last story - "Scorcher" Kennedy is an egotistical jerk. But as we get inside his mind, we begin to see that his exterior is a tightly-controlled defense mechanism (isn't that always the way?) The mystery, about a murdered suburban family, is genuinely creepy, and French is such a good writer that you can pretend that you're not reading a beach book.

And here's one for the kid in all of us...

Curiosity's shadow
on the red rocks of Mars.
Photo courtesy of NASA.
Mars Rover Curiosity
As I mentioned recently, I'm not really into the Olympics. But I am excited by the Nerd-lympics going on right now -- the landing of Mars rover Curiosity, and the subsequent pictures that Curiosity has been sending back to Earth. As a child, I was fascinated by the space program. Then, there didn't seem to be doubt in anyone's mind that pushing further toward the stars was our human destiny; it was understood that exploration was in our DNA. But now, space travel feels old hat and politicians are debating whether we should spend money on expensive science programs (mostly people who don't accept a lot of what science has to tell us). We can only hope that the children today who see those pictures sent by Curiosity are dreaming of casting their own shadows on the soil of distant worlds.

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