Mud contains many likable things: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew McConaughey shirtless, nature, southern accents, Reese Witherspoon, and Michael Shannon. It bums me out to say, then, that it was a total misfire of a film.

It had flashes of greatness, of course. McConaughey’s transition from clean-cut rom-com stud to rugged, mysterious, quirky outdoorsman has been well-documented on this blog, and everywhere on the internet. It makes sense that he chose a role like this as he was making his resurgence into the world of serious acting. And I don’t know that I could have seen anyone else playing this role, either. Mud is a bad guy, but even after I found out he was bad, I never changed my view of him. I can’t not trust McConaughey. It’s just that as this lovelorn, forelorn, worn out guy, he looked too good. He was too tan, his shirt was too white, and his teeth were too shiny for me to be convinced that he had lived the life I imagined he led. And not only did Mud look too good, but he was too complicated for his own good, as well. At some point in the past he committed a murder, because the girl he on-again-off-again loved, Juniper (Witherspoon), got involved with the wrong guy for a second. At some point in the past he knew Sam Shepard, or whoever Sam Shepard was playing in this movie; it’s irrelevant. At some point in the past he lived in the riverlands of Arkansas. He’s got all the makings of a Southern bohemian, but he’s not even an ounce jaded. He still believes in love, enough to wait for his girl before skipping town, enough to mislead two innocent boys into thinking love is perfect and real and unchanging. None of it lined up for me.

The scene between Witherspoon and McConaughey that you might expect, given the plot line, never happens. They barely see each other from across a parking lot. It’s so disappointing. These two should have been in a movie together long ago, and they basically still haven’t. Witherspoon is in this movie for maybe seven minutes, also. What a waste of talent! And speaking of wasted talent, I had a hard time believing Michael Shannon in the role of Galen, surfer-bro uncle to Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Shannon is too dignified, too crazy-eyed, to portray someone that chill and misfitted. But he tried.

Lofland, though, and Tye Sheridan as Ellis, were great and understated in their roles. I like when kids support each other, and don’t create rifts over nothing. Maybe it’s unrealistic, but it bodes well for the future, at least in my head. Neckbone–I struggled to type that character name with a straight face–has Ellis’ back no matter what, as Ellis experiences the breakup of his parents, the discovery of love’s fickle nature, and what it means to be a man who lives in the woods eating beans out of a can. They’re good pals, and it’s sweet.

I have to applaud writer-director Jeff Nichols for at least trying to tell a different story, even though he didn’t get very creative with his dialogue. We’ve seen these types of tales before. Kids get inspired by some mystical guy in the forest, and it changes them forever. It’s interesting that this guy inspires them, but they figure out his ruse and call him on it. I just have a hard time combining the mystical element with the romance, and the adventure, and the tweendom. Too many genres, too little time. The music didn’t help, either; there were upbeat montages, dark ambient sounds, and a completely jarring inclusion of “Help Me Rhonda!” over the end credits, which took me out of the rather poetic and beautiful ending to the story. It’s almost as if this movie didn’t take itself seriously enough, which is a shame, because it could have been so great.

But if I really need my fix of McConaughey in the swamplands, I can just go back and rewatch True Detective. His arm tattoo is better on that show, anyway.

21 Jump Street (the movie)

I’m not big on big blockbuster comedies or reboots, but dammit! This one was kind of funny. I did laugh. I laughed! I did. Especially because they put in a joke, within the first 10 minutes, about how bullshitty it is that reboots even exist. I appreciate and applaud that level of meta, and I allow it to proceed entertaining me.

Besides the obvious, casual chem-bro-stry between Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, and the subsequent excellently-written banter that they delivered with aplomb, this movie was astoundingly well-edited. The storyline involved a lot of flashing-forward and quick-cutting, in a way that would make a lot of similar comedies look instantly cheap. But the awesome team of Lord and Miller made it look pretty darn seamless, and thus a little more respectable than other aforementioned big blockbuster comedies.

I’m not going to get into the minutae of the plot, because it doesn’t really matter, and it’s just more fun to watch it not knowing what’s going to happen. What I am going to get into, however, is the theme of generational differences that was very well-handled throughout. See, Tatum and Hill played these two 26-ish cops going undercover at a high school, and you’d think that with their youthy youthfulness, they’d blend right in. Makes sense to me. But even for someone 10-ish years out of their freshman year in high school, the differences are astounding. I’ve always prided myself on calling out my peers when they say they’re old, because they’re not. We’re not. We’re not yet 30. The technology we grew up with is truly not old. It’s just outdated, and we live in a world where “outdated” happens very quickly now. But seeing that newfangled teenage mindset portrayed on screen — exaggerated as it was, with Dave Franco’s perfect bro encouraging composting and kicking homophobia to the curb — made me realize that so much has changed in the last 10-ish years since I’ve been in high school that it might be okay to embrace the things I’m familiar with as… old.

The scene that really stood out to me was when Doug (Jonah Hill) calls Molly (Brie Larson) and she picks up, only to reveal almost instantly that she never talks to people on the phone unless they’re her grandparents. All of her communication with her friends is either in person (at school), or via text. TEXT! To me, that is truly terrifying. If language were still upheld on its proper pedestal, I might be okay with texting being the prevalent form of communication. But it’s not. Kids, teenagers, even early twentysomethings, interact in a completely different way now. And those habits have bled into my age group, and the one above me, and the one above that. I barely talk to my friends on the phone anymore. I text. There’s text etiquette replacing phone etiquette. There’s no more room to call. I didn’t start watching this movie expecting to have all of these Big Thoughts, but here they are, laid in front of me and strewn between occasional dick jokes. I’m not old yet, but I’m definitely older.

And so are the actors that I still consider vibrant and innocent — Jake Johnson played the school principal, for god’s sake, and Ellie Kemper one of the teachers. I’m not saying either one of them isn’t an authoritative figure, but I consider them to be sort of in my age group, and I don’t consider myself to be an authoritative figure, so by the transitive property, none of us should be in charge of anything.

Except comedy. In the comedy realm, I think we’re set.

Breaking Bad, Season 4

Last time I checked in on this show, I said I was compelled to watch the next season. If you note the time stamp, it was a year and a half ago. Apparently I’m not normal; binge-watching Walter White’s escapades isn’t at the top of my pop culture priority list.

It bothers me kind of a lot that it’s taking this long for me to watch this show. From all the hype, all the chatter, all the ear-plugging-to-avoid-spoilers, I feel like I should have been absolutely smitten with New Mexico, and I should have lost sleep in order to finish the show faster and engage myself in all the finale talk. But I can’t bring myself to binge-watch anything, and I still can’t bring myself to declare this the best show on television. I have no explanation, or even conjecture, for why. I just want to state it, and that’s all.

I really, really liked Season 4. It’s my favorite so far. It toyed with my emotions, and it finally made me care about the characters I was seeing, rather than just root for them to do something wildly irresponsible and thrilling. I feel like I’m finally starting to “get” Vince Gilligan, and especially trust his bizarre aesthetic. He takes a stark, naturally beautiful landscape, and distorts it in a way that prevents the viewer from ever being comfortable watching the show. That’s dark and brilliant.

I began the season hating Hank (Dean Norris) and his shitty attitude with a fiery passion. I wanted nothing more than for Marie (Betsy Brandt) to flush all his medication down the toilet and remove all his extremity props from his medical bed. (I also love her unconditionally after watching The Michael J. Fox Show and wishing she were my aunt.) He surpassed dickweed levels of rudeness and went straight into toolnotch douchebag–and then, somewhere in “Problem Dog,” he started figuring it all out, Gus-wise, and he regained his confidence, and he smiled a few times, and he earned back a portion of my respect. Maybe it was validating at first, seeing him get shut down by his own former employers as he tried to pursue an investigation of Gus’s operation, but then it became impossible not to root for him. I’ve never really been pro-Walter White, but I’m definitely not anti-Hank anymore.

You know who I’m pro, though? Skyler. I’m so pro-Skyler. I have no idea why I kept hearing Skyler hatred surface a few years ago, because Skyler rules. As Walter spins downward, Skyler soars. She could have done a million things wrong with the confidential information she was given, but she didn’t. She’s in on Walter’s secret, and she’s helping him keep it better than he possibly could. Anna Gunn forces you to respect her when she’s on screen–she’s tall, and stoic, and difficult to break–and that confidence has bled into Skyler even more this season than in previous ones. I suppose we always knew she was just as fucked up as Walter, but this season, we truly know why they got married in the first place. They’re a demented team. Maybe even more demented than Walter and Jesse (Aaron Paul), whose interplay was downplayed this season. I pined for more yos and bitches, but the temporary separation of big W and little J only set up something far greater, I imagine.

Speaking of big W… actually, what am I supposed to say here? Bryan Cranston won three Emmys in a row. Clearly he knows what he’s doing. All I’ll say is, “Crawl Space” is one of the most superbly directed, and scariest, episodes of TV I’ve ever watched, and the only scary thing I’ve seen that made me grin from ear to ear after it was over. At least until I saw the image of Gus “Harvey Dent” Fring. Good riddance, chicken wang.

I’m looking forward to bringing this thing home… in a year or so. I’ll take my time.

Obvious Child

I’d like to watch this movie over and over again, thanks.

It’s got everything I could ever want in a movie, really. Jenny Slate’s adorable, wrinkly-smiled face beautifully holds all the ranges of emotion that her character, Donna, goes through in getting dumped, having a one-night stand, and deciding to go through with an abortion. As Donna, she carries herself differently, more confidently and richly, than she has in her other (brilliant) work. Slate isn’t a standup comedian per se, but she sells Donna’s stage presence so well, while also selling the crippling insecurity that most standup comedians have. She is an “everygirl” without being generic; Donna is relatable, in the sense that her crisis is normal, but she’s weird enough to stand out, and to make you realize that you’ve never met anyone quite like her. Oh, and her standup is fucking hilarious. If I remember correctly, from various Obvious Child-related interviews I’ve heard her do, the comedy bits were mostly written by the writer/director, Gillian Robespierre, but punched up by Slate herself. I’d mention some of the lines, but I want you to laugh out loud as hard as I did.

Onto Jake Lacy, now. I’d say I’m afraid of him getting typecast as the new John Krasinski, but (a) that “fear” is actually a reality and (b) he’s so incredibly good and likable that it shouldn’t matter. I want a Jake Lacy for myself, just like I want a John Krasinski for myself. Both actors are so facially subtle and physically nimble, and honestly there’s not a hatable bone in either of them, and also they’re both gorgeous, duh. Lacy’s chemistry with Slate is sweet without being overbearing or saccharine. Maybe he’s an ideal (and therefore nonexistent) male archetype, but he’s also a little boring, too, and that’s what makes his character, Max, completely acceptable in the world that this movie creates. Max is normal, he makes reasonable grand gestures rather than rom-com grand gestures, he thinks about sex and then also thinks about the consequences, and he wears khaki pants sometimes. He’s a very, very easy guy to fall for. (Can you tell I fell for him?)

The rest of the casting in this movie was nearly flawless. Gaby Hoffmann, as Donna’s female best friend Nellie, may as well have played her sister, because the two are slightly-frizzy-haired, big-eyed, peaches-and-cream mirror images of each other, and I’d be surprised if they weren’t at least somewhat close in real life. Gabe Liedman, as Donna’s male best friend Joey, is Slate’s actual real life best friend, and while I’m convinced he didn’t do a lick of acting, he was still damn funny. My only fault with the movie was with the parents — Richard Kind and Polly Draper, as Jacob and Nancy Stern respectively — who were also accurately cast. I wanted to see more of them, and more of them with Donna. Their divorce, and their subsequent complete acceptance of her choice to have an abortion, was almost too casually handled. I appreciate that this movie didn’t make a big deal about either topic, because it’s a modern world, dammit, and the first step towards actual modernity is having these types of issues portrayed normally and reasonably in the media. But the fact that her parents led normal divorced lives, and that they weren’t at all offended by their daughter’s normal choice — that’s something to make a slightly big deal of. If only to wave a hand at the portion of the audience who may be uncomfortable with it, to highlight the fact that it’s okay in even brighter yellow marker.

Or, maybe it’s obvious enough that it’s perfect.

Web Therapy, Season 1

Watching this show, I couldn’t help but think of my second-favorite clip from Friends:

Lisa Kudrow’s character in Web Therapy isn’t exactly Posh Phoebe, but she’s almost her. Fiona Wallis is a pretentious, snobby, self-centered bitch who makes each web therapy session she performs about her. It’s amazing to watch, especially given Kudrow’s lightning-fast improv skills. I have to admit, though, it’s not as hilarious as I want it to be.

I think the reason why I’m not laughing out loud at this show is because it’s too real. Fiona is this completely messed up person, speaking as a normal person would–I mean that in the sense that, because it’s improvised, there are uhs and ums and likes strewn about; Fiona herself is not normal–and so her personality is extremely hard to take. It’s almost frustrating to see this person’s life in little chunks, basically recorded for us, all while knowing that she herself will never watch it and figure out how screwed up she is. She’s also very one-dimensional until about midway through the season, when she finally gets the chance to assert her intelligence and talk back to a particularly sassy client.

I get the sense that this show improves with time, because the character gains dimensions and the story twists and turns. I also think that the quality of the show is dependent on the actors working with Kudrow. Dan Butakinsky, the co-creator (along with Don Roos) and one of the co-stars, is a darn good improviser, and while his character isn’t particularly interesting, his banter with Kudrow is fun to watch. It’s clear that they’re creative partners, and that they work well together. Alan Cumming’s guest spot is particularly bright, too, as he warms to Kudrow quickly and makes her character very comfortable on screen. Victor Garber and Courteney Cox, however, aren’t as quick on their feet as Kudrow. Though it’s exciting to see Garber as her husband, and Cox as her psychic, they’re just no match.

I think I’ll give the second season a shot in some time, and maybe also try out The Comeback, but I hope it’s so much more than this first season. Kudrow is so talented and likable, which maybe is part of the reason why it’s so hard to watch her play a cold-hearted shrew. I want her to have another outstanding role, to really prove to the world that she (and Matt LeBlanc) were the true talents of Friends. Maybe she already has and I’m a few seasons behind. Fingers crossed.

Everything Is Illuminated

About 30 pages into this book, I realized I couldn’t do my usual compulsive thing, which is to write down quotes that I like, because I was going to have to stop every other page or so to write things down, and then I’d both annoy myself with my stop-start reading, and I’d also do something redundant, which is essentially rewrite the book that I was currently reading. What I’m trying to say is, Everything Is Illuminated is a masterpiece.

The bevy of superlative quotes on the first few pages, as well as the myriad reviews that came out when the book actually came out, will all tell you this as well. I’m not sure I can say anything more interesting than what’s already been said, nor can I offer more detailed critiques or praises than the professionals. In fact, some of the plot points went over my head, but in a way that just makes me want to visit the book in a little while to get more out of it. Jonathan Safran Foer might be the Mitch Hurwitz of novels — he leaves gems that just get more sparkly with every new media excavation.

Sorry, I’ll stop with the bad metaphors. But that’s basically all I have at this point, because I don’t want to give away too much about this book, and I’m having a hard time putting my feelings about it into words. It’s manic and creative and sad and inspirational, all at the same time. It’s written in a way that makes me question Foer’s sanity — there are three simultaneous, intertwined narratives, all with their own linguistic structure and sense of cohesiveness, which leads me to the “creativity” aspect. The way the narratives lay and fold over each other is so beyond meta that it’s hard to understand, but like I said, it invites a re-read in a completely non-frustrating way. It’s sad because Foer himself is a character, and so despite it being labeled “fiction” prominently on the back corner, it’s impossible not to draw immense truths from it. The family tree traced in this book leads to some amusing, delightful branches, and some horrid, painful ones, too. Either he did a lot of painstaking, impressive research on shtetls in Ukraine in World War II, or he talked to his own grandparents about their experiences — and either way, he had to go through much emotional turmoil, I’m sure, in order to pen this detailed narrative. Which leads me to the “inspiration” portion. All that research, all that creativity, all that emotion bundled up into a debut novel; he was 25 when he wrote it! If that doesn’t kick my Great-American-Novel-writing-ass into gear, I don’t know what will.

Despite this book being written about a world I know nothing about — the aforementioned shtetl, the insanely loopy family tree, the exploration of one’s past into the depths of Ukraine — I felt incredibly close (and extremely loud, ha, great joke!) to all the characters in this novel. I’ve heard the movie is not up to par with it, because how could it be, but I intend to watch soon, to see what these people look like to Liev Schrieber’s inspired mind.

I’ll leave you with an out-of-context quote I did write down, courtesy of the amazing, hysterical translator character, whose thesaursized English is something to be treasured. See page 69. The translator, Alex, speaks first, then Jonathan.

“Why do you want to write?” “I don’t know. I used to think it was what I was born to do. No, I never really thought that. It’s just something people say.” “No, it is not. I truly feel that I was born to be an accountant.” “You’re lucky.” “Perhaps you were born to write?” “I don’t know. Maybe it sounds terrible to say. Cheap.” “It sounds terrible nor cheap.” “It’s so hard to express yourself.” “I understand this.” “I want to express myself.” “The same is true for me.” “I’m looking for my voice.” “It is in your mouth.”

Morrissey: Autobiography

I did it. I tackled 450+ pages of stream-of-consciousness, packed-with-meaning, ultra-moody pages writted by Morrissey, maybe even more for Morrissey himself than for his fans. I struggled to like him, I often hated him in fact, and other times I wanted to, quoting my boss here, “hug the shit out of him.” I think it turns out that I love him.

Steven Morrissey, the person, is at least half-full of shit, and maybe he’d admit that, too. He wrote his whole memoir in mostly the present tense, and without chapter breaks, and he had to know that that would drive people nuts. He also had to know that his complaining about record deals and interpersonal relationships and fame would come across as whiny and spoiled. But it’s his story, told without a super-clear timeline or a super-clear motive, and yet despite its haziness, the whole lot of his stories paint a very clear picture of him. It all comes down to the fact that, really, he’s just a very sensitive boy.

I often find it difficult to take very emotional, deep passages from recent memoirs seriously, because I feel like I’m too connected to the current world for it to hold any weight yet. The past is unknown, and thus its meaning is much heavier and more powerful. In the present day, give or take 50 years, nothing’s had time to settle yet. The effects are still hard to measure. Morrissey’s way of crafting his story, as pretentious as it may be, provokes such a strong image of suffering, as he saw it, that it’s hard to deny the intensity of his experience. Here’s an example:

p. 11 // “There is no gentle therapy for these deprived and confused inner-city slum kids, and there is no response to anything they say other than violence and more hurt. It piles up. This is the Manchester school system of the 1960s, where sadness is habit-forming, and where shame is cattle-prodded into kids who are in pursuit of bliss amid the unrelenting disapproval. Look around and see the gutter-bred – all doing as well as they can in circumstances that they are not responsible for, but for which they are punished. Born unasked, their circumstantial sadness is their own fault, and is the agent of all their problems.”

See, that’s beautifully written. It’s too long, of course, because Morrissey either had no editor or a yes-man who pretended to be an editor, but it’s so poetic. Despite his selfishness, he is constantly thinking and writing about the plights of others. Maybe he’s projecting his own suffering onto these others, but at least he’s not saying “I” all the time. And he taps into a world I know nothing about, a world that maybe some but definitely not all of his fans know about, that of slummy London and growing up knowing you wanted to be an artist and being largely uninterested in other people and feeling frustrated with the limited resources at your disposal. Thinking about it that way, his story is quite admirable, and the fact that he has gone through his career as an underdog (except in Los Angeles!) is a little baffling.

Then again, it’s not. He shoots his mouth off. He’s a militant vegetarian. He says one hilarious charming thing about getting punished for innocently dying his hair as a teen (p. 83 // “‘Yes,’ snaps Miss Power, ‘and YOU’RE another one not content with the hair color given to you by Christ.’ Baffled, I immediately imagined Christ setting my hair beneath a blow-dryer, but of course this is in fact Miss Power’s boorish way of drawing attention to my 14th-year adventure of hair of canary-yellow streak.”) and then on the very next page, dismisses his love for a great band (p. 84 // “Roxy Music will drop quickly from the emotional radar soon, as singer Bryan Ferry announces that his favorite food is veal – second only to foie gras in savage cruelty.”). I think the only proper response is to roll one’s eyes and soldier on, unless you’re David Bowie (p. 245, to Morrissey // “Oh, you must be HELL to live with.”) or a comedic genius. I assume comments like these alienate most people, and I get it.

And yet, even though he proclaims and admits and scoffs and regularly disapproves of these aforementioned most people, he’s still got it. Morrissey has softened in his middle age. As the book wore on, he got less sour, probably because he was finished writing about the long post-Smiths legal battle, and could focus on writing about his insanely triumphant solo career, and the part of his life that has contained the most love and acceptance. He also began to lose people he truly cared about, and perhaps lost a bit of the ego that kept him so isolated. His emotions seem freer to spill out outside of his gorgeous voice and his deeply personal music. Here are two passages that I found particularly beautiful:

p. 210, on the loss of his Nannie // “The soul is not everything. Her face, her arms, her hands, they need us still, and they are what we know of someone, and all of these have gone. The soul is said to be somewhere, but the soul has only ever been visible through the eyes.”

p. 363, on the decline of his aunt Rita // “You catch yourself lying, and you are choking on your own in-built censorship, and you are only able to watch as Rita becomes less and less present in the body that she had meticulously maintained all her life.”

Once he let his readers get inside his head about a topic that we’ve all thought about, it’s easier to identify with him, and to read his sensitivity differently. Yes, he’s a misunderstood artist begging simultaneously to be understood and ignored, but after so many years, he’s found his audience, and they’ve found him. Passages like these below no longer feel like complaints; they’re truths in his grand, artistic, stark world, one that on some level, we all relate to.

p. 171 // “Never do we hear of an artist who rips off a firm of accountants; never do we hear of the artist who embezzles the record company; never do we hear of the artist who defrauds the lawyer; never do we hear of the artist who fleeces the management – but the ferocity of such situations reversed is characteristic of how the music industry works, and why it works.”

p. 397, on marriage // “I wonder why they even bother with the ceremony. It seems like such a great deal of trouble for everyone, and merely because two people have found themselves sexually compatible – but with no suspicion that their feelings might change with time.”

p. 417, whilst touring in Italy // “Italians are blunt, but this is because they are relaxed, whereas in Los Angeles a sickbed politeness permeates all conversation – rendering it not conversation at all. The very proximity of people happily walking so close to one another in Rome is in itself a revelation to most Americans, who live their lives at yardage distance from one another lest a slight brush instigate court action.”

What I’m trying to say is, Morrissey, I love you, you handsome, wretched weirdo.


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