My Semi-Annual Pop Culture Report

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No one turns to me for tips on pop culture. Well, too bad! Like it or not, here they come.

rooney_mara-620x412.jpg1) On the latest long-haul plane trip, I ended up watching a movie I would never have talked my wife into going to see in a theater. It was Side Effects, by Steven Soderbergh and with Rooney Mara (right).  From seeing the trailers I had assumed that, like Soderbergh's previous Contagion, it would be some kind of dystopian technology-gone-wrong cautionary thriller, part of the tradition so well pioneered in books and movies by the late (and underappreciated) Michael Crichton.

I assumed wrong. Side Effects is far more elegantly creepy and memorable than that. I won't say more, except (a) I am relieved to see that the Atlantic's own film expert Christopher Orr reacted in the same way, and (b) you won't regret making time for this. (And, before you ask, this originally R-rated movie was not being shown overhead to all passengers; it was on the little personal screen.)

2) For reasons that will be evident if you see Side Effects, I found myself thinking about The Usual Suspects; which of course led to thoughts of Kevin Spacey; which in turn led to thoughts of Netflix's House of Cards, in which he stars with Rooney Mara's (less elegantly alarming) sister Kate Mara.

Here's one thought about Kevin Spacey: I contend that for many American men he holds a place similar to Jack Nicholson's a generation ago, and maybe Humphrey Bogart's before that. He comes across on screen the way you imagine the idealized tough-guy version of yourself coming across, in some fancified other existence in which you were an idealized tough guy. But I digress. Anyone who eats up the serialized dramas of today's golden era of Dickensian/Tolstoyan TV -- from The Sopranos and The Wire (still the best) to Mad Men and Breaking Bad and the rest -- has to consider this a worthy new entry.


Thumbnail image for michael-gill-president-walker-house-cards.jpgWith one exception: the guy they cast as President of the United States (right) just is not plausible in that role. No offense to the actor, Michael Gill. I assume he's doing what the director wants. But real-life presidents, whatever their oddities and limitations, display some edge of seriousness, intensity, cunning that lets you understand how they got where they are. Even ones that don't start out that way unavoidably become different and weightier-seeming people in office -- in part because of the nonstop flow of choices only they can make. You see a similar transformation in the character of Raymond Tusk in the final episodes of House of Cards. At first, he is an amiable sage of the prairie. Then, you see the edge.

There is none of that in "President" Garrett Walker. He's an assistant secretary, maybe a Senator. This is a great series, with one odd casting hole.

Or, maybe it's that next to Kevin Spacey, everyone else seems edge-less.


the-americans-keri-russell-matthew-rhys-fx.jpg3) FX's The Americans: Yes! More please! I noted with approval the great use of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk at the end of the pilot episode. (Yes, it's just coincidence that I am saying "Tusk" twice in three paragraphs.) Then I worried that -- also like some early episodes of House of Cards -- this show was relying too much on sex scenes to maintain momentum. But it got stronger as it went on, and its three main actors are a match for any of the other Golden Age lineups. 
 
4) I'm not just some low-brow. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is fully in the Quality Lit genre, and very much worth reading.

life_after_life.jpg


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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