Friday, April 26, 2013

His Name is Mud

"Mud" offers a simple premise: two boys in rural Arkansas stumble onto a fugitive murder suspect hiding out in a swamp. But "Mud" is anything but a simple movie, and it has anything but a simple message. It is a brooding drama that is dark and funny and sweet at the same time, which is maybe just another way of saying it feels like real life.

It reminded me of Rob Reiner's 1986 coming-of-age tale "Stand By Me," partially because one of the boys (Neckbone, played by Jacob Lofland) is a buzz-headed hick who channels River Phoenix. The other (Ellis, played by Ty Sheridan) is the hopeless romantic I remember being at 14 and the tough-nosed punk I wish I had been at 14. Often the best characters remind you of who you are and who you wish you were.

The first plot point was a surprise. Maybe I've seen too many episodes of "24" or too many spy movies that use the old hostage cliche, but I assumed that the fugitive (named Mud and played by Matthew McConaughey) would feel threatened by the boys' discovery of his hideout and immediately threaten them with harm. Ellis and Neckbone seem to anticipate this during their first meeting. Instead, Mud recruits them to contact his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) and help with his escape plan, and the film becomes a study of the nature of trust, love, and role models.

The film is built of echoes:
  • The boys look up to Mud, who they see as a fount of world-weary seasoned wisdom. But later we meet Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepherd), the "old assassin" fount of genuine wisdom who makes Mud seem like a 14-year-old boy. 
  • Mud recruits Ellis to manage his communication (and thereby the relationship) with his girlfriend. In the meantime, Ellis' parents' marriage is coming apart. And in the meantime meantime, Ellis scores his own girlfriend and gets a nasty lesson in love of his own. 
On the one hand, Ellis looks to Mud and gets a tortured mix of hopeless romance undermined by self-sabotaging dishonesty. On the other, Ellis sees Gaylen, Neckbone's uncle (played by Michael Shannon), who spends most of his day in an ill-fitting wet suit, uses the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" as both his "doin' it" song and his philosophy for life, and offers Ellis the most critical message of the film via a river garbage metaphor. His comic relief is the highlight of several strong supporting performances, and it saves "Mud" from sinking into the bayou under the weight of its own melancholy.

"Mud" is an interesting foil for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," another film set in the swamp that looks at its world with the wide-eyed wonder of child, and struggles to maintain its innocence when harsh reality gives its protagonist a swift kick in the Private Idahoes. It's the kind of movie that stifles your impulse to crack jokes about Matthew McConaughey going shirtless or Reese Witherspoon's (in?)conveniently timed arrest record. You want to point out that it feels a little long, but then you have to acknowledge that its deliberate pacing and mood is critical to its effect, and that you are probably just too used to movies that offer quick editing and a fast pace because they have nothing important to say. "Mud" isn't the kind of movie you watch with a group of friends on a Saturday night. It's the kind of movie you watch on your own in the middle of the week when you want a film to give you something to think about. It's beautiful and profound and well-worth a watch on the big screen, but you can see it on DVD and be just fine. In fact, the best endorsement I can offer is that two-thirds of the way through the movie I started to consider whether I would buy a copy of the film for my permanent collection.

"Mud" is rated PG-13 for consistent profanity, some vulgar dialogue, scattered violence, and the sight of Michael Shannon in a wet suit.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Mailman's McDonald's

There is an abandoned McDonald's on Highway 89 in Bountiful. Six months ago the Golden Arches opened up a new building around the corner, and so far no one has moved into the old location.

Normally I'm not all that bummed at the prospect of a vacated McDonald's, but I actually had a history with this place. Years ago, before it was remodeled with a two-story enclosed Playland, the Highway 89 location had an outdoor patio ringed with an iron gate. Among its impressive features was a 10-foot plastic Grimace mounted on industrial strength springs and a Mayor McCheese tower you could climb around inside. I probably visited this fast food wonderland dozens of times as a kid, but none was so memorable as the time I dropped in to meet a brand new Utah Jazz rookie named Karl Malone.

The image is as vivid as any from my childhood. It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and the Playland was completely empty save for a 6'9" black man sitting alone at a table in the far corner, about 10 feet from Mayor McCheese. He was equipped with a sharpie marker and a stack of glossy 8X10s that featured an enlarged action shot from a recent game, and there wasn't a PR rep or security person in sight.

My dad and I approached Karl, and five minutes later we walked away with personalized 8X10s for all four members of my family. Each one was personally addressed and signed with the following:

"To: Josh, Karl 'The Mailman' Malone, #32, Utah Jazz."

The memory makes me smile for a multitude of reasons, but it also makes me sad, because it reminds me of how much I miss Karl Malone.

After the Jazz were eliminated from playoff contention last week, I was reminded of a feeling I have often encountered as a teacher. It's the feeling of frustration and heartbreak that occurs as you watch a student do just enough work to not pass your class. You never feel all that bad for the students who go up in flames, but when someone attends regularly, turns in most of their assignments, and still comes up short...well, it's just a waste.

That feeling perfectly describes my last two months as a Jazz fan.

As I've watched the 2012-13 squad stumble and fight all year, only to fall short of playoff qualification, I've started to wonder if I was holding them to unreasonable expectations. Maybe I took the Stockton-to-Malone years for granted. Maybe having two top-50 all-time players on my team for more than 15 years and a 50+ win contender on the court every year was more out of the ordinary than I realized.

Every once in a while something will jog my memory of the glory days. Karl Malone will call in as a guest on a sports radio talk show. I'll stumble on an old YouTube clip that takes me back. Or I'll just drive by an old abandoned McDonald's. It's easy to look at the past and point an accusing finger at the present, but we also need to realize that we were pointing fingers back then, too. Maybe bad decisions have been made, and maybe potential is not being realized, but I think we're a lot better off taking stock of the fun times than fretting about the frustrating ones.

I've been a basketball fan since the 5th grade, but I'm not dumb enough to think that I know whether the Jazz should fire Ty Corbin or play Derrick Favors. I can barely keep track of my own crap from day to day, and ultimately the Jazz need to take care of their business just like my students do. That's not to say that I haven't let a loss get to me, especially when that loss gives the NBA's entry in the Pro Sports Axis of Evil a ticket to the playoffs. I'm just saying that I should know better. Unless your financial livelihood depends on the success of the Utah Jazz or whatever team is causing you stress, being a sports fan should be fun. If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.

Even Mayor McCheese could tell you that.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dating and Driving, No. III

When asked to share my most embarrassing moment, I have a variety of options to choose from. There was the time I stalled a brand-new Mazda Miata five times in front of a half-dozen used car salesmen, and there was another time when John Stockton asked me if I was a girl.

But the winner took place inside a maroon 1983 Honda Accord back when I was still in high school. I was on a date with a girl I had known for a little over a year. We'd been out a handful of times, including a couple of school dances, and I'd decided it was time to "make a move." This decision stemmed from the fact that one of my best friends had just taken her to Prom, and another best friend had just spent a week kissing her on stage in the school play.

We were parked at the Redwood Drive-In out in West Valley, because if seventeen years of pop culture had taught me anything at that point, it was that drive-ins were built for romance. I had pre-determined that at the most romantic point of the film, I would put my arm around my date, thus communicating my "hey baby, I'm yo man" intentions. This seemed like an airtight plan, save for two problems:

1. We were watching "Grumpy Old Men."
2. My car had headrests.

I was able to overcome problem #1 by waiting until the fish and tackle shop owner played by Ozzie Smith died. It was as sensitive a moment as I was going to get, so I took it. I casually stretched out my right arm and tried to drop it behind my date's head. But she was leaning back against the headrest, so instead my arm wound up jammed in the gap between the top of her head and the top of the headrest. It was like my arm was one of those striped tollbooth arms and she was a car that tried to pull out of the parking lot without paying.

Slowly, with my arm still propped up on top of her golden-haired head, she turned and stared at me with a look of confusion that justified any fear I ever had about making a move on someone of the opposite sex.

I tried to address the situation with a non-verbal gesture, meaning I started pushing down with my right arm to try to force it behind her head. Another half-second of confused awkwardness followed, then when my date finally realized what on earth I was trying to do and leaned forward a bit, my arm fell over her shoulders. Then we sat there silently for another forty minutes while Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau worked out their differences--I can't remember which of them wound up with Ann-Margaret--and I took her home. Or maybe we stopped at Village Inn. The other details are a little hazy.

While we remained friends, we never went on another date. After I returned from Chicago a few years later, a mutual friend told me she married a guy she'd met on a blind date*. I don't know if she ever told anyone about my mishap at the drive-in. My guess is no, since compared to the horror stories I usually hear from my female friends whenever we get around to comparing dating notes**, my little mishap comes across as utterly harmless.

I do remember seeing her at our 10-year-reunion, but I can't remember if I talked to her or just kept an awkward distance. Once a girl I've dated gets married, even if we are on good terms, I don't go out of my way to stay in touch. I'm pretty much content to fade into their personal history as one of those "other" guys they met along the way.

The day after that date I took the headrests off my car, and they stayed off for eighteen months until I left on my mission. Never let it be said that I don't learn from my mistakes.


*Reason #34 I hate blind dates.

**Reason #18 I am grateful to be a man.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Remembering Roger

In about a year's time, I was able to shake hands with two of my most important creative influences. My encounters with Ray Bradbury and George Lucas in 2007 and 2008 only lasted a few seconds, but meeting them in person added a human element to relationships that would never have felt as genuine otherwise. You spend enough time reading a person's books or watching their movies, you start to feel like you know them. Bradbury and Lucas still wouldn't know me from Adam, but meeting them at least partially validated those relationships.

As of Thursday, I'm never going to have that opportunity with Roger Ebert. After a long bout with cancer that robbed him of his jaw and his ability to speak and eat for the last several years, Ebert finally passed away at the age of 70.

Of those three influences, Ebert is the only one I might be able to consider a colleague. He wrote film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times for nearly 50 years, though like most people, I first got to know him as the the tubby Costello to Gene Siskel's Abbott on TV back in the '80s. Sometime between the year I spent as the film critic for my student newspaper in grad school and when I started writing reviews for the Deseret News in the fall of 2010, I discovered his website and have checked in with him regularly ever since.

Often I've clicked over to his site only seconds after submitting a review of my own, curious to know what he thought of a film, wondering if I had completely missed the boat. Which is funny, because I disagree with Ebert's reviews as often as I concur. The deeper truth is that whether I agree with him or not, I admire Roger Ebert primarily as a writer. Most film reviews (including many of my own, unfortunately) come across as formulaic and distant, cold analysis of inanimate celluloid. But Ebert put his heart into his reviews, composing efforts that felt more like personal essays. Instead of write about an obligatory checklist of things that make movies good or bad, he wrote about the experience he had watching a film, and in that sense, he could never be wrong.

In doing so, he tapped into the joy of watching great movies. And more famously, he tapped into the comic rage that can come from being victimized by an unholy pile of garbage. When we cover reviews and evaluations in my English courses, I often have my students read Ebert's review of "Transformers 2," and assure them that it's a lot easier to write a review of a movie you hate than of one you love.

Ebert also had a knack for modern media. Robbed of his speaking voice, and in spite of being in his '60s, Ebert was more than happy to jump headfirst into modern social media outlets like Twitter, and his exploits often landed him in the middle of mini-controversies. I disagree with him on matters of politics even more than I do on films, but I never felt like I had to abandon his writing for it.

Late in January of this year, I started making weekly appearances on the "KJZZ Movie Show" as part of an opening segment roundtable with host Melanie Nelson and Steve Salles, who writes for the Ogden Standard Examiner. It's a long way from "At the Movies" or "Sneak Previews," but it has been a great experience. One I'm sure I never could have had if it wasn't for Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert.

With that in mind, I think it would be fair to give him the last word. So here's a quote that perfectly describes the moviegoing experience, taken, appropriately enough, from his review of "Star Wars:"

"Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them."