Tag Archives: Pop-Culture Connoisseur

Pop-Culture Connoisseur: How Media Portrayals of Masculinity Are Hurting Men

-Brianna Huber

Before now, I hadn’t given much thought to the idea of men being viewed in society as the “more violent sex.” It’s one of those things that I took for granted as just being part of the way things are. Men are physically stronger than women by direct comparison, so that makes them more capable of overpowering people of either sex. It took seeing Jackson Katz’s 1999 documentary, Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity to make me question and see that the idea of male violence is something a lot of people take for granted.

We live in a culture that tends to place blame on the female victims of rape and that downplays male violence in the media. I was surprised to learn that TV and movie portrayals of “masculine” men and “feminine” women have grown narrower over the past several decades given that I always thought society was supposed to be progressing for the better as time goes on. I guess I was being idealistic. Just look at the differences between these two action figures of Luke Skywalker. Masculine men used to be imagined as figures like the Godfather (Marlon Brando) and earlier incarnations of James Bond (Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton). Now the ideal is exemplified by characters like Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) and the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Even James Bond has bulked up (Daniel Craig). Use of guns in movie violence has grown more pronounced over the years. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 1980 to 2008, 90 percent of murders were committed by men, and 70 percent of the victims were men.

The traditional American idea of masculinity says that men need to be strong, aggressive, and emotionally withheld to be considered “real men.” Women need to be petite, passive, and reliant to be “real women.” I find it disheartening to see how our beauty ideal has moved from full-figured women like Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s and ‘60s to the waifish figure we idealize today. I feel like women who are strong and powerful are seen as a threat to the male-dominant status quo. People don’t give a second thought to male violence in films, but when Thelma & Louise came out in 1991, it caused quite a stir because the two stars were women engaging in violent behavior toward men. The movie was criticized by New York Daily News columnist Richard Johnson as “degrading to men.” For all the times I’ve seen movies be degrading to women, that’s hardly an effective argument against the film to me.

I realize I may sound like I’m “male-bashing” with some of my criticisms, but I assure you that it is not my intent. I am tired of seeing people of both genders be put into boxes. Being overly emotional can be a bit overbearing no matter who it’s coming from, but otherwise I’m always happy to see a man who isn’t afraid to cry if he’s touched or deeply saddened by something. If anything, I see that as a form of strength rather than a weakness. That says to me that he is comfortable enough with himself that he’s willing to express what he’s feeling, even if it might mean appearing vulnerable. I find that open-mindedness and strength of character are attractive, and I’m sure I’m not the only woman who feels this way.

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Pop-Culture Connoisseur: Love "Downton Abbey?" Check out ‘Parade’s End’

-Brianna Huber

I’ve reached the point where I feel like everyone’s seen Downton Abbey except me, which is slightly ironic given the love I have for all things British. There was a recent point when I honestly heard the show referenced on a daily basis.

Given the current popularity it’s attained on this side of the pond, I must recommend the miniseries Parade’s End.

Based on a four-part novel of the same name by Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End is the story of Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Yorkshire man with strong moral convictions who becomes caught in a love triangle between his beautiful but manipulative wife Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall) and an adoring young suffragette named Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens). The story takes place against the backdrop of World War I.

The series starts the night before Christopher and Sylvia’s wedding and we immediately see Sylvia sleep with another man. Christopher learns of Sylvia’s infidelity, but being the honorable man that he is, refuses to divorce her or condemn her for her actions in order to protect her reputation. In the world of Parade’s End, reputation is everything and the wrong rumors can ruin a person.

Sylvia is an interesting character in that she torments her husband, but does so because deep down, she really does love him and wishes he would give her some sort of reaction that shows he genuinely loves her. She wishes he would get openly angry with her for cheating on him and the fact that he doesn’t drives her mad.

Valentine crosses Christopher’s path on a golf course when she interrupts a cabinet minister’s game with a protest for women’s suffrage. It’s clear that Christopher is immediately taken with her, but he refuses to show or act on those feelings.

Parade’s End is part love story, part war story. When The Great War begins, Christopher is called away to serve on several occasions and is ultimately sent to the front lines. The story isn’t so much about the war as it is about what goes on around the war and how it affects the people back home.

All of the characters in this series are complex and multi-dimensional. Sylvia is manipulative and callous, but she also loves her husband despite their completely different worldviews. Valentine is sweet and modest, but she is also Christopher’s mistress in a sense. For a while, I couldn’t decide who I wanted Christopher to end up with. I read the first part of Ford’s book and hated Sylvia then, so I was surprised by how sympathetic I sometimes felt toward her in the TV adaptation. I even grew to like Potty Perowne (Tom Mison), one of the men Sylvia had an affair with. He fought alongside Christopher in the war and was honorable in his own way. Christopher’s best friend and confidante, Vincent MacMaster (Stephen Graham) is overall good-natured, but is willing to take credit for calculations Christopher did at work. He also starts an affair with Edith Duchemin (Anne-Marie Duff) who is otherwise married to a deranged clergyman. Initially vulnerable and timid, Edith takes on a more malicious streak as time passes.

At first, I didn’t think of myself as someone who would be one for English period dramas, but I easily grew attached to these characters and caught up in their stories. After enjoying this series so much, I’ve decided I just may have to make the time to check out Downton Abbey after all.

Parade’s End originally aired as a five-part miniseries on BBC Two in the UK and HBO in the US. The series will re-air with one episode per night on HBO2 West starting on Monday, March 4 at 8 p.m.

My grade: A

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Image from the BBC Media Centre.

Pop-Culture Connoisseur: An Oscars Recap

-Brianna Huber

The winners are in, and I feel like overall, 2012 was a pretty great year in film. From Argo, to Les Miserables, to Zero Dark Thirty, this was the year of the historical drama. We also had both our youngest and oldest nominees ever for the category of Best Actress—9-year-old Quvenzahné Wallace and 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva. Oscar night was filled with noteworthy moments, but there were several in particular that I found especially memorable.

I’m having a hard time thinking of one word to sum up Seth MacFarlane as host of the evening’s ceremonies. He actually kept things classier than I expected given what I know of his work, but he still managed to be a bit over-the-line offensive for me on numerous occasions. Some of the moments I found most distasteful were when he described Zero Dark Thirty as a “celebration of every woman’s innate ability to never let things go,” when he commented while speaking about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in Lincoln that “the actor who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth,” and when he took an ethnic jab at Penelope Cruz, Salma Hayek, and Javier Bardem by saying, “We have no idea what they’re saying but we don’t care because they’re so attractive.” MacFarlane is a skilled comic, so it’s a shame he had to tarnish his overall performance with some of his gags.

I was very happy to see Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway win Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Anne Hathaway has grown so much as an actress since I first saw her in The Princess Diaries back in 2001 and gave an amazing performance is Les Miserables.  Jennifer Lawrence strikes me as someone who’s very dedicated to her craft, but also very down-to-Earth as a person.  She doesn’t play the Hollywood game, even if refusing to do so sometimes causes her to put her foot in her mouth, and I love that about her. I have to ask what it says about the world we live in that as soon as I saw Lawrence trip on her way to the stage to accept her award, I knew it would be all over the internet in a matter of seconds. Yes, she tripped. Yes, I’m sure it was embarrassing, but she handled it gracefully. Now get over it.

I thought it was cool that Amour was nominated for Best Picture as a foreign film. I feel like it isn’t too often that I see a foreign film make it onto that list, so I’ll definitely have to see that one later.

Given the success of his film Argo, it was a surprise to see Ben Affleck left off of the nominee list for Best Director (actually, it was a surprise to see Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty left off of the list too), so it was a perfect end to the night to see Argo win Best Picture. Affleck gave the best acceptance speech of the night, thanking everyone from his wife, actress Jennifer Garner, to Canada and the people of Iran, before taking a moment to note that he never thought he would be on that stage again after winning his 1998 Oscar for Good Will Hunting. “You have to work harder than you think you possibly can,” he said, addressing what he’s learned from others in the film business during his career. “You can’t hold grudges. It’s hard, but you can’t hold grudges. And it doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life, because that’s going to happen. All that matters is that you’ve got to get up.”

Now that this year’s Oscars are over, I’m already looking forward to next year. Each year brings new talent, or simply talent that has gone unrecognized, and allows its possessors to shine. This year, I feel like Bradley Cooper, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and even Ben Affleck were a few people who had their careers bumped to the next level by their Oscar nominations and wins. I can’t wait to see who will get that opportunity next.

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Graphic background from http://www.officialpsds.com

Pop-Culture Connoisseur: Five Reasons You Should Know and Appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch

-Brianna Huber

My love affair with British actor Benedict Cumberbatch began when I saw him in the BBC’s Sherlock about two years ago. Even though he had roles in fairly well-known films like Atonement and The Other Boleyn Girl before then, Sherlock is what really launched him into the stratosphere. He’s a pretty big star in the UK now, but still fairly unknown in the US. That should change soon though. This year he is going to play significant parts in at least five different films, including Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’s next installment in his reboot series, where Cumberbatch will be playing a villain named John Harrison; the next Hobbit film, where he will inhabit the role of Smaug the dragon through voice and motion capture as well as that of the Necromancer; and The Fifth Estate, a biopic in which he will star as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. As we head into what’s sure to be a great year in film, let me take a moment to tell you why I think Mr. Cumberbatch is so awesome and worthy of recognition.

#1 He’s a genuinely brilliant actor.

This is what originally drew me to him in Sherlock.  Whether he’s playing a genius detective on TV, an underdog airline pilot in a radio sitcom, or Frankenstein’s monster onstage, Cumberbatch brings a nuance and attention to detail to each of his performances that’s truly captivating to watch. He doesn’t just play parts; he inhabits them to the point where I see him disappear as an actor and only see the character he is portraying. He also has amazing versatility in the roles he takes on.

#2 He’s beautiful.

He isn’t exactly the conventional sort of attractive. I thought he was odd looking the first time I saw him—I suppose he’s an acquired taste. He’s tall and elegant, has amazing cheekbones, and his eyes seem to be a different color every time I see them. I’ve never seen anyone like him, and I appreciate people with that unique sort of beauty. Also, the fact that he doesn’t understand why people find him attractive makes him incredibly endearing.

#3 His personality is just as beautiful as his face.

He’s incredibly intelligent, articulate, humble, hardworking, and dedicated to his craft.  He regularly works with a charity called The Prince’s Trust, but stays relatively low-key about it, which makes it obvious he isn’t just in it for the publicity.  When asked what his greatest achievement is so far, he said that he wished he could say his children.  “I’m building a home at the moment and it would be nice to fill it with love and life and children,” Cumberbatch said in a 2012 interview with The Big Issue.  “That has long been an ambition of mine. I think I have been waiting to do it since I was twelve, really.”

#4 He survived a carjacking in South Africa by talking his way out of it and the experience gave him a new-found lust for life.

“I became very impatient and insist[ed] on living anything but a normal life, because that experience made me realize two things,” Cumberbatch said in an interview for Public Radio International’s Bullseye. “One, you die alone.  No matter who you are and who you’re leaving behind, you have to face death alone.  And also, the fact that I was too young to die; it made me angry to live.”

#5 He’s really good at keeping secrets.

Don’t bother trying to get him to give away plot points or details ahead of time for any project he’s working on. His responses to those attempts usually involve some combination of wit, sarcasm, and playful teasing that will ultimately tell you nothing and probably leave you more curious than you were before.

Now that you’ve been through “Benedict Cumberbatch 101,” you can consider yourself ahead of the curve when all those movies of his come out. With his talent, there may even be an Oscar in his near future.

Star Trek Into Darkness hits theaters on May 17, The Fifth Estate is expected for November 15, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is due on December 13.

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Pop-Culture Connoisseur: The Return of Fall Out Boy

-Brianna Huber

A large part of my high school career involved a fanatical love of the band Fall Out Boy that I shared with my friend Jessica. We drew silly fan art, had ridiculous jokes, went to their concert, bought t-shirts, spent way too much time on the band’s internet message boards, and collaborated on a work of fan fiction so great that nothing I’ve written in that genre since has come close to touching it.  When we graduated in 2009, the band announced that they were going on an indefinite hiatus to work on solo projects, and from that point they fell onto my back burner.  I still liked their music, but had come to terms with the idea that they wouldn’t be releasing any more new material as a group.

During the band’s time apart, lead singer Patrick Stump started a solo career and released an album titled Soul Punk in 2011; bassist and lyricist Pete Wentz started an electronic duo known as Black Cards; and guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley jointly formed a metal band called The Damned Things.

Stump’s career was the only one I really looked into during the hiatus, and while his soulful voice is a huge part of what makes Fall Out Boy special, he just didn’t seem quite as amazing to me on his own.  It was the marriage of his vocals with Wentz’s brilliant lyrics that created real magic, and without the energetic pop-punk backing of Trohman and Hurley, Stump’s music just didn’t feel the same to me.

While each member of Fall Out Boy is talented on his own, the four of them are better together than apart, which is why I was thrilled when they announced on February 4th that their hiatus had come to an end.

Fall Out Boy came together in 2001 but didn’t achieve mainstream success until they released their 2005 album From Under the Cork Tree, which spawned the hit singles, “Sugar We’re Goin’ Down” and “Dance, Dance.”  After that, they released two more studio albums, Infinity on High and Folie à Deux, before parting ways.

The band announced their return with word of a new album, Save Rock and Roll, which is due out on May 6th and 7th.  Their first single off of the new album is titled, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light em Up).”  One of the things I liked about the band pre-hiatus was their long, clever (often unrelated) song titles, so I’m glad to see that they may continue with that tradition on their new album.

Hearing the new single brings a sense of nostalgia. It reminds me of my early high school days spent geeking out with Jessica, but it also brings the potential for something new and different. I’ve changed in a lot of ways since my high school days, and I’m sure the band has too, so I’m curious to see where this reunion will lead.

The video for their new single features rapper 2Chainz and two women unloading band equipment from the back of a van and throwing it into a bonfire, along with past Fall Out Boy albums. At the end, 2Chainz opens the back of the van to reveal four men tied up with bags over their heads (Gee, I wonder who they could possibly be) before holding up a match with a grin. The video then cuts to the album title, “Save Rock and Roll.”

The most common interpretation of the video that I’ve read so far is that 2Chainz represents “bad music” and the members of Fall Out Boy represent “good music” in danger of being stamped out. It makes sense when considered along side the album title.

I’ve seen complaints online from some fans that Fall Out Boy has “sold out” and that their new song sounds too mainstream pop-y and too far removed from their earlier pop-punk sound, but I don’t necessarily have a problem with that.  All musicians should grow over time and an evolution of their sound is to be expected.  The true skill is to evolve as artists, but without losing touch with your roots completely.  Do Stump, Wentz, Trohman, and Hurley have the ability to do that?  I think so, but we’ll know for sure in three months.  To quote the front page of the band’s freshly redesigned website, “The future of Fall Out Boy starts now.”

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Pop-Culture Connoisseur: BBC’s Sherlock vs. CBS’s Elementary

-Brianna Huber

When word that CBS was planning to create their own modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes reached the creators of BBC’s Sherlock, they did not take the news well. Sue Vertue, an executive producer of Sherlock, told the press that CBS was interested in doing a remake of the BBC series; but after their interest came to naught, CBS went their own route, and Elementary was born.

When news of Elementary first appeared, I worried that it would be an Americanized rip-off of the BBC series. To add to the drama, CBS cast Jonny Lee Miller as their Sherlock Holmes. Miller was already friends with Benedict Cumberbatch, the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, after the two actors starred together in a National Theatre production of Frankenstein.

While I worried about developments with Elementary, I was also undeniably curious. When the show’s pilot aired on September 27th last year, I tuned in. It’s been almost a whole season now and I’ve actually grown to like the show. It’s completely different from BBC’s Sherlock and for me, the two are able to peacefully co-exist.

Sherlock begins when Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (Martin Freeman) are introduced by a mutual friend because they’re both in search of a flatmate. They move in together at 221B Baker Street in London and adventure inevitably ensues. A lot of characters from the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are around – including Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), and of course, the nefarious Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) – but there are also new ones, like lab tech Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) and Anderson (Jonathan Aris), whose sole reason for existing seems to be to annoy Sherlock.

Sherlock and John are now on a first-name basis. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is often bitter and aloof, with moments of genuine affection here and there. If Sherlock lets his warmer side show, it’s usually only around John. When he makes deductions, he talks so fast it’s hard to keep up, but that works well in giving the viewer a sense of what it might be like inside his head. Freeman’s John is a retired army doctor who’s recently returned from Afghanistan. Where Sherlock’s the brain, John is the brawn and the heart. When Sherlock goes overboard with his deductions or insults someone, John is the one to smooth it over and bring him back into line. As in the ACD stories, John acts as a “reflector of light” for Sherlock to bounce ideas off of.

Elementary is different from Sherlock in almost every way. Instead of London, it takes place in New York; and instead of having a white, male Watson, the show has Lucy Liu as Joan Watson.

The set-up is that Sherlock is just out of drug rehab and Watson has been hired by Sherlock’s father to be his “sober companion” and prevent him from relapsing. Watson is a former surgeon who left medicine after one of her patients died on the operating table. Both Sherlock and Watson have their own emotional baggage and aren’t as quick to take to one another as their BBC equivalents, but when they do, their dynamic is wonderful.

Compared to Cumberbatch’s interpretation, Miller’s Sherlock has a much softer side. He’s nicer. He still comes with plenty of eccentricities and a dark side that comes out on occasion, but his sarcasm has a more lighthearted vibe to it. He’s more open to input from others, as well as the possibility that he can sometimes be wrong.

Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is tall, svelte, and wears suits and dress shirts while Miller’s take on the character is a bit scruffier, covered in tattoos, and wears jeans and ironic t-shirts.

In Elementary, Watson’s role in Sherlock’s life is a lot more hands-on. In Sherlock, Sherlock and John are best friends and would each die for the other if necessary, but Sherlock does most of the deducing and John’s sort of along for the ride. With Joan Watson, we get to watch her grow. With each new case, she learns more about how Sherlock operates, or draws from her medical background and makes her own intellectual contributions to solving the mystery at hand.

While Sherlock has a large number of ACD characters, Elementary has very few. For a while, I worried that the show didn’t feel “Holmesian” enough and too much like another police procedural, but after seeing the most recent episode, I have a newfound hope. Right now, with our first hint toward Moriarty, there are a lot of possible routes for the show to take.

When Elementary first aired, it created a great schism within the Sherlock Holmes fandom–BBC fans on one side, CBS fans on the other. Since then, things have settled down. It’s clear now that Elementary is nothing like Sherlock. It’s possible to be a fan of both shows at the same time.

If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes and haven’t yet seen either of these two shows, I recommend checking them out; and if you like them both, don’t worry about picking a side.

Images used in illustration from BBC Press Office and http://fempop.com

Pop-Culture Connoisseur: It’s That Time of Year Again – Awards Season

Pop-Culture Connoisseur is an entertainment column.  Here you will find reviews, recommendations, and my take on some of the latest happenings in the world of books, music, TV, and film.

-Brianna Huber

As the daughter of a life-long movie buff, I have come to look forward to awards season every year, especially since starting my journalism classes back in 2009 and developing a greater appreciation for the creative process that goes into media production.  I consider the Academy Awards (a.k.a. “The Oscars”) the pinnacle of the awards season, and just last week this year’s nominees were officially announced.

Unfortunately, as is the case almost every year, I haven’t seen even half of the films that have been nominated for awards.  I have a feeling this is the case for a lot of people, at least once we venture outside of the standard categories of “Best Picture,” “Actor/Actress,” “Music (Original Score),” etc. and into the land of “Foreign Language Film,” “Animated Short,” and “Short Film.”  I feel accomplished if I’ve seen even one of the nominees in a “Documentary” category.  This feeling of cinematic illiteracy led me to wonder how Oscar nominees actually get chosen in the first place.  I had always imagined they were chosen by a small, elite group of bigwig executives sitting together in a closed room.  That isn’t exactly the case.

Nominees are voted on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is a professional honor society for members of the film industry, not the fancy governing body that I had assumed.  Membership is by invitation only, but I was surprised to find that AMPAS members include the very actors, directors, producers, and technicians that are hoping to be nominated for the awards.  To qualify for nomination, the film must meet certain requirements.  Nominees are selected for each category by their peers – film editors nominate film editors, and directors nominate directors – but everyone gets to vote for the category of “Best Picture.”  Members can vote for five nominees in a category.  Once the votes are in, the results are tabulated and nominees are announced.  About a week later, final ballots are mailed to Academy members who then have two weeks to make their decisions and return their ballots.  The votes are tabulated in absolute secrecy and then sealed until the moment the envelopes are opened on-stage at the awards ceremony.  For the category of “Foreign Language Film,” a country is allowed to submit one film for consideration each year.

So put simply, the Oscars are awards given out for achievement in film by peers within the industry.  Those who are the best at what they do choose who to recognize within their own field.  That sounds like a good plan to me.  After all, who else is more qualified to say what outstanding costume design is than someone who has studied and become highly skilled at costume design?  As elitist as it may sound, I don’t think the general public is always qualified to decide who should be recognized for achievement in the field of entertainment.  The public sometimes gets it wrong.  Fans will often band together and boost the vote for someone they consider to be the ‘hottest’ actor or the nicest person.  While those qualities have their place, I don’t think they should be deciding factors in all awards shows.  I trust Oscars to be awarded based solely on talent to those who are best at what they do.  Sometimes though, people that I feel deserve an Oscar go unrecognized, and that sucks, but I can’t have my cake and eat it too.  In the end, now that I have a better understanding of it, even though I’m sure it has its own set of internal biases, I generally trust the process of the Academy, which is why in film, I feel that the Oscar really deserves the prestige with which it has been bestowed.

The Oscars will be hosted by Seth MacFarlane and air at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, February 24th on ABC.

Image from http://oscars.org