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S-Town podcast review

s-town

S-Town is the new podcast from Serial and This American Life (I highly recommend both shows, especially season 2 of Serial) that chronicles… well, I’ll let them tell you:

JOHN DESPISES HIS ALABAMA TOWN AND DECIDES TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. HE ASKS a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.

spoiler alert

I am putting aside the question of whether or not reporter Brian Reed should have made this podcast (i.e., did John B. McLemore realize he was giving Reed permission – or did he give permission at all – to reveal details about this life given that this was not the context under which they began recording together) – Reed did make the podcast, so the genie is out of the bottle.

Or, I guess a more appropriate analogy would be, “The shit is out of the bowl.”

So I’m not coming at this from the perspective of “John didn’t ask for a profile,” although that is true.  My real issue is that S-Town makes promises it doesn’t keep and bizarrely switches from engaging mystery to plodding profile without explanation or apology.

And it seems that pissed me off.

john-b-s-town

John B. McLemore

S-Town leaves too many dangling threads.  Well, they’re not exactly threads, they’re GIANT F#$%ING LARGE DIAMETER LOAD BEARING CABLES!  For example:

  1. We’re promised that John’s body exposes S-Town, but that never happens.  We never learn if John was right or wrong about Woodstock, Alabama.  I guess you could argue that he was wrong, but since this was presented as a thesis statement, the lack of conclusion on this topic is problematic to say the least.
  2. We know Faye lied about the phone calls to the people on John’s list, but this is cast aside.  Brian even gave her an out, suggesting that her grief made completing the task too difficult, but she doubled down, insisting she made the calls.  Maybe there was nowhere else to go (Brian may have it a wall on this issue), but he never mentions it again, never expresses frustration.  This is presented as a key point and a lot of time is spent on this issue, but it just falls away like the ticks of a clock.  (See what I did there?  You get it.)
  3. Brian also promises a treasure hunt that never goes anywhere… Right? I suppose the “Switch that thing off” segment is supposed to tell use that Tyler found the gold, but the point just doesn’t land.  It seems like an aside, which is frustrating because after John’s death, the fate of the gold is a major focus of the podcast… until it’s not.  What happened to the gold bars in the freezer Faye mentioned?  I don’t know, and Brian doesn’t really mention it again…

These are the major issues that are bugging me.  It’s frustrating.  Maybe there are no answers, but it seems to me that Brian probably should have said so instead of just letting what was initially the premise of the damn show disappear in a labyrinth never to be seen or heard from again.

john-b-mclemores-hedge-maze-from-s-town

I’m makin’ it rain analogies and metaphors all night long!

You could argue that John and Brian got together to investigate a death (well, a murder, but I won’t split hairs) and that’s what Brian ultimately does, but since John’s death is not in dispute (John committed suicide), the why of it (why John took his own life) is stretched into oblivion.   I can see that some might feel that the explanation answers the question – John was wrong, Woodstock is not a shit town… but I don’t buy that argument.  There’s just too many unknowns:

  1. The cousin’s theory that Tyler had something to do with John’s death
  2. The resolution of the conflict between the cousins and Tyler
  3. Why Faye lied/why were John’s friends (the people on the list) not notified in time to attend the funeral or not notified at all
  4. Did Tyler find the gold and (wisely) not tell anyone?
  5. What happened to the gold in the freezer?

What is really sticking in my craw is the genre shift that occurs.  Episodes 1-4 are this exploratory mystery and episodes 5-7 are a character portrait that I’m not sure needed to be told.  My wife and I were discussing why hearing from the other clock makers and collectors was so compelling and why hearing from Olan in episode 6 (as an example) was not.  For me, this is because the clock makers and collectors illustrated who John was through examples – before this, I wasn’t sure if John was talking out of his butt about clock repairing, but here, it’s revealed that John is a true master.  Meanwhile, I’m not sure it’s important to learn that Olan was able to get John the Brokeback Mountain short story and John did come around to like it.  Lot’s of people like Brokeback Mountain, but almost no one is a clock master.  Even other clockmakers were awed by John and this was a topic John spoke about passionately – he was interested, so I’m interested.  I can’t ever remember John mentioning Olan, so in my mind, he comes out of nowhere and interprets John’s feelings and while I have no reason to doubt him… Having someone evaluate someone else’s feelings after the fact is problematic. And not especially compelling.  It’s nice to know John had someone like Olan in his life for a time and that Olan wanted to kiss him that time (that was sweet), but I don’t think I needed forty minutes of this.  I’m glad Olan knew John, I’m glad Olan likes Brokeback Mountain, but it goes on.  The Olan stuff is just an example of episodes 5-7 and it’s unnecessary depth.  These three episodes could be edited down into a single one hour story that would have been far more effective.

But is this podcast worth a listen?  I kicked this off by saying I recommend both Serial and This American Life, but do I recommend S-Town?  Rrr… yes?  The first four episodes are magic.  The colorful characters (I thought John was the king of the personalities, but you just can’t make something up like Tyler’s Uncle Jimmy), the stories, the vivid descriptions… This is amazing stuff.  The thing is, S-Town doesn’t really go anywhere.

And yet, it’s a fascinating journey.  I’m not sorry I took it.


this post was updated on 4/13/17

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An Abbreviated Look at the 2017 Oscar Nominees

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Ah, the Oscars.  It’s the proverbial mixed bag that I’ve finally figured out how to approach in the way that works best for me.  It’s great that people pay attention to film and maybe some movies that otherwise wouldn’t get attention do (thank the lord they nominated Avatar in 2010), but I am not sitting through another three and a half hour snooze fest.  Look how bored James Franco was, AND HE WAS HOSTING!  AND THIS IS JUST THE FIRST FOUR MINUTES!

So I would say to use the nominees as a watch list rather than worrying about who wins, because you never know – you could wind up sitting there for 200 minutes and they give Best Picture to Return of the King instead of Mystic River. Anyway, the 89th Academy Awards is nearly upon us and while I didn’t get to see everything, here’s my take on what I did see.

Best Picture
Hacksaw Ridge – Bill Mechanic and David Permut
Uhm… this is a difficult movie to talk about.  It’s cliche, it’s kind of three movies in one, the tone kind of waves around… but I still found it really compelling.  Depending on how you feel about Mel Gibson, you may not want to give this movie your money, but all things being equal, I’d say it’s worth seeing.

Hell or High Water – Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn
I think this is the most well rounded movie on the list:  acting, directing, editing, cinematography, etc… very impressive.  I find this to be the best movie on this list.

Lion – Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, and Angie Fielder
This movie has some pacing problems, and I think some of it is intentional, but there’s also some editing issues in the sense that they left stuff in they didn’t need, there’s a seriously underdeveloped character in there… but man, that kid is MAGIC.  There’s a lot of compelling stuff in here – I managed not to cry in the theater.

Moonlight – Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner
I think everybody should see this flick as there’s a lot of life experience in here that may be beyond a lot of people’s experience.  Great acting, but I think this movie suffers a little from its desire to be stylistic… it’s a great movie, but there are definitely things could be trimmed and choices they made that are a bit pretentious for my taste.

Best Director
Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
This movie looks like it was a monster to direct, and whatever my issues are with Gibson or the movie in general, I can’t deny that he’s doing good work here.

Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
I think Jenkins might have gotten carried away here and there, but his directing voice is strong and this movie is great.

David Mackenzie wasn’t nominated for Hell or High Water, so I’ll go with Jenkins here.  Gibson did a fine job, but he’s only turning up the volume rather than reinventing the wheel.

Best Actor
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge as Desmond T. Doss
I really like Garfield and this is his finest performance.

Best Actress
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins as Florence Foster Jenkins
I’d say she’s a victim of her own success this time – she’s great, the control she shows as a singer here is amazing and I haven’t see the other actresses in those flicks, but she doesn’t need to win for this one.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight as Juan
Ali turns in a great performance, but his role is small and probably not award worthy.

Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water as Marcus Hamilton
Hey look, it’s Rooster Cogburn!  Again, great performance, but I’d pass.

Dev Patel – Lion as Saroo Brierley
THey should have nominated Patel’s counterpart, Sunny Pawar – he was amazing.  Pawar is my pick.  FU, Academy!

Best Supporting Actress
Naomie Harris – Moonlight as Paula
She was great.

Nicole Kidman – Lion as Sue Brierley
Also great.

This is a tough one.  I refuse to pick.  I reminded of a scene from In and Out where Matt Dillon says that performers are artists and they shouldn’t have to compete like dogs.

“Then why are you here?”

“In case I win!”

I couldn’t find that scene, so enjoy this clip instead:

Best Original Screenplay
Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan
I really appreciated the writing here, especially the ending.

The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
“A lobster is an excellent choice.” I think I have to pick this one – there’s some great, totally unexpected stuff happening here.  This movie deserves more attention than it got.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Lion – Luke Davies from A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose
This movie has some pacing problems and I don’t know who to blame – but the first hour is so good, who cares?

Moonlight – Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney from In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney
I think the screenplay pushed this movie in the right direction. I guess I’d pick Moonlight over Lion, but I’m splitting hairs.

Best Animated Feature Film
Kubo and the Two Strings – Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner
Zootopia – Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Clark Spencer

This is tough, I loved both of these movies and they’re SO different.  I’d say share it.

Best Original Score
Lion – Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka
Moonlight – Nicholas Britell

The score from both of these movies made no impression on me, so I guess I don’t have a pick.

Best Sound Editing
Hacksaw Ridge – Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
These guys had a ton to do for that last hour or so and they did a great job.

Best Sound Mixing
Hacksaw Ridge – Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie, and Peter Grace
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio, and Stuart Wilson

I’m going Hacksaw Ridge again – Rogue one is fine, but I don’t think it’s on the Hacksaw Ridge level.

Best Production Design
Hail, Caesar! – Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh
Man, this movie was disappointing.  Not bad, I was just expecting more.  Good production design, though.

Best Cinematography
Lion – Greig Fraser
Moonlight – James Laxton
I’ve got to go Lion on this one – I felt like the cinematography got in Moonlight’s way at times.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Star Trek Beyond – Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo
Suicide Squad – Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini, and Christopher Nelson

Star Trek.  No question.

Best Costume Design
Florence Foster Jenkins – Consolata Boyle

Sure.

Best Film Editing
Hacksaw Ridge – John Gilbert
Hell or High Water – Jake Roberts
Moonlight – Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

Hell or High Water – no question.  One of the tightest movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Best Visual Effects
Doctor Strange – Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli, and Paul Corbould
Kubo and the Two Strings – Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean, and Brad Schiff
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel, and Neil Corbould

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So here’s the thing:

George Foreman went on Fox and Friends and voiced his support for President Trump.  On February 4th.  After he took office and… you know, did many awful things.  I’m not the world’s biggest George Foreman fan, and maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised that the guy who had five sons AND NAMED THEM ALL AFTER HIMSELF let me down… anyway, I took to Twitter to let him know how I feel.

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