Growing Pains

Watching GIRLS with one’s father is very strange. Particularly if much of the episode deals with the uncomfortable reality of a newly-uncloseted dad, and a twentysomething daughter trying to cope. My dad isn’t gay (I asked him, just to be sure). That’s not awkward. The tough moments are those like the recent restaurant confrontation between Hannah and her father, where she admonishes Tad for his immaturity—and in response, he dares her to produce her wallet as the bill arrives. Yeesh.

I am approaching a birthday that could well mark the end of my mid-twenties. Well, I probably have one year left before I cross into “late”—it’s kind of a judgment call. Regardless—I do not foresee a time in the next year or so when I will bring anything other than my ID (with which to order fancy drinks that I could not usually afford) to dinner with my parents. I can mock them all I want about their insistence upon arguing with Google Maps and their constant need to redecorate. The reality is, they are grown-ups. I am not. Even though the numbers tell a different story.

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This is typical of my generation. Man, do I hate talking about my generation. From what I can tell, nothing good comes of lumping oneself in with all people born within a certain span of years. As the group grows up, it is uniformly resented (I’m looking at you, Baby Boomers), and accused of self-absorption, shortsightedness and laziness. I get it: my job prospects are doomed. My children will be born onto an imploding planet. This is fate: I can’t choose when I was born, and I can’t change my (terrible) circumstances. I’m stuck—but also welcome to the digital age, so I had better move really, really fast anyway.

You’ve heard this kind of thing before. Back to GIRLS.

This past Sunday, the season four finale aired on HBO. It’s been four seasons, you ask? Yes, it has! For casual viewers like my dad, who have only seen snippets of the show (another one of his favorite moments being Hannah’s declaration to her parents, “You said it was cheaper for YOU if I was on the family plan!”), it’s easy to recap each character’s trajectory during a quick commercial break. Because the primary foursome, like myself and Alison and our similarly-aged readers, seem to be frozen in time. Things happen to them, but nothing ever seems to change.

GIRLS takes this the extreme, following four young women so totally and ludicrously immobile that nobody cares what happens to them. They are, however, amusing to watch—as overblown stand-ins for our own paralyzing anxieties.

I still like GIRLS—but have noticed recently that Lena Dunham’s world reflects less upon my own. Many friends of mine are ready to move forward. Not toward the Capital F Future (parents still treat, and help us with our taxes), but they are considering real-life career changes, cross-country moves. Graduate school. Marriage.

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So I’m starting to wonder where GIRLS can go, and how much longer I will continue to watch. Even a glimpse into the six-months-from-now future isn’t much of a hook – is a new relationship all it takes to fix the broken people? How much longer can I laugh along with characters who refuse to acknowledge reality, instead of simply being victim to it? It’s getting a little old. You know?

–Elise

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Have Culture, Will Travel

It’s here! Spring Break!  Enough of this tease we call Chicago spring; take me to the snow! (…what was I thinking…) In a few short days, I’ll be bleary-eyed on a 7am flight to Colorado, trying to decide whether I should nap or have too much coffee and soldier through. I’m spending my first time off in 2015 skiing with a mish-mash of college friends and total strangers, whom I assume are all my new BFFs-in-waiting.

But, spoiler alert, the Midwest is flat as hell, and I have to make it to those pristine mountains first. So, for those of you with extended traveling coming up, here are some things to Watch, Read, and Listen To on your way.

A preliminary note: I prefer my Pop Culture for Travel to be on the lite side—engrossing, easily digestible, and funny (usually). If you look forward to a seven-hour train ride for the opportunity to make a serious dent in American Pastoral, this list is not for you.

WATCH

Like the average impoverished twentysomething, I fly Southwest. I have a laptop whose battery dies within forty minutes, so I’m unable to enjoy the Wi-Fi-accessible DISH Network programming provided by the airline. It’s been a while since I watched a movie on a plane, but maybe you have an iPad that works. Or you’re using your parents’ miles to fly first class or something.

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Picking something to watch in a public place requires some delicacy. It can’t be too sexy or too murder-y, lest an old lady or a child sits next to you. And it must have a quick pace—otherwise you become distracted by the discomfort of your chair, and the fact that you and your seatmate have been playing elbow-footsie for three hours. (If we can’t share the armrest, than neither of us should have it!) I really enjoy animated movies or action flicks while traveling. Anything Pixar should do the trick. Same goes for the Bourne trilogy or The Avengers. Also, Sherlock. That doesn’t fit into either category, really, but whatever. Whatever, I say!

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For something a little more off the beaten path, I highly, highly recommend Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, streaming on Netflix. Anyone familiar with his comedy or his This American Life appearances knows Birbiglia’s signature stand up/storytelling style. His special is funny and heartfelt and bittersweet. I watched it while I was still working in my obituary call center job, and the fact that it was still enjoyable while in that pit of despair is testimonial enough.

READ

If you’re unfamiliar with the blog Hyperbole and a Half, please educate yourself. Start here. Allie Brosh’s MS Paint illustrations enliven her stories, which range from whimsical, childhood antics to darker issues like depression. She tackles them all with humor and vulnerability, and she has made me cry with laughter many times. Her graphic novel (also titled Hyperbole and a Half, published November 2013), includes new pieces as well as old favorites from her site. Read it in hardcopy or on a color tablet—you don’t want to miss any of the graphics.

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I love a good mystery. Like, actually good—one that is both gripping and well-written is rare. I would like to recommend I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, but as I am a third of the way in, I cannot yet, in good conscience. I’ll keep you posted. So instead, I’m going with an old standby: In the Woods by Tana French, the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series. If you know me even remotely, I’ve recommended this book to you—so I won’t carry on. But if I haven’t, please read it! It’s an excellent example of the genre, which has been relegated, unfortunately, to “beach and/or airport reads.” It’s not just a good mystery novel; it’s a good novel.

Or just read Bossypants again.

LISTEN

I’ve been devouring audiobooks lately, thanks to both the public library and the website Audible. The key is finding the right book with the right narrator. Listening to a book and knowing you’d be enjoying it more on the page is The Worst. To start, I heartily recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, or any of his titles, all of which are read by the author. His sardonic delivery is just right for all who regard interacting with other humans as….complicated. Fair warning: you’ll be That Guy/Gal with your headphones in, smiling idiotically into the middle distance.

Fans of Buttercup and Wesley will enjoy As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, narrated by author Cary Elwes and the cast and crew of the film. It’s an oral history of sorts, and while there’s no real conflict, per se, the warmth of the stories complements the nostalgia of the movie.

I assume you have listened to the podcast SERIAL, so I shan’t waste my breath. Instead I’m recommending the Fast & Furious 6 episode of How Did This Get Made?, a comedy podcast from the Earwolf network. The regulars Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas—whom you might recognize from The League, New Girl, or Burning Love—break down the worst movies out there. This particular episode features my ideal mate, Adam Scott, and the best part about it is how much they all LOVED the movie. They discuss it with such unmitigated glee that I went out and paid actual money to see it (only $5, but still). DO NOT WORRY IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE. This episode is still thoroughly hilarious, even out of context.

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That should be enough to get you there and back again, mon petit chous. Now go traveling!

—Alison

Urethra!

Kimmy Schmidt For President

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No surprises: Netflix is having a busy couple of weeks. Or rather, Netflix users are having a very unproductive stretch of days.

House of Cards, season three dropped first—more than a week ago, so if you haven’t finished the season yet, don’t even bother talking to people. You have violated the most basic modern-day social contract.

On Friday, March 6th, Netflix released season one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, fresh from the Tina Fey and Robert Carlock go-team of excellence.

I choose Kimmy. (I’ve obviously already watched full seasons of both.)

The very basics: Kimmy is rescued from a bunker, where she has been living for fifteen years with three other women—all “wives” to an apocalyptic doomsday preacher. She emerges a buzzing ball of optimism and decades-old cultural references. Crazy, New York-based antics (chock-full of amazing cameos) ensue.

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Not-hot takes (the show has already been covered by most major pop culture and television critics): Kimmy Schmidt is funny and friendly without the goo. Where Parks and Rec was sometimes saccharine, and Modern Family is screechy and annoying, Kimmy Schmidt is just—smart. Its dark premise is leavened by a 30 Rock sensibility and relentless gags. There are forty hilarious throwaway jokes per show.

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Meanwhile, new episodes of House of Cards are basically boring (also the consensus in the Twittersphere)—except for one terrifying “sex” scene that I really don’t want to think about anymore. With nowhere for upward-looking President Underwood to climb, the show tumbles down like a house of cards (terrible, I’m so sorry).

Actual, original things I want to say (though I too observed the previous items upon watching, I don’t think-and-type fast enough for the Internet—also, I do work, have a few hobbies and at least one friend named Alison): Kimmy is not all that naïve. As the show reminds us every once in a while, she was abused and enslaved for more than a decade—that she retains a sense of wonder is a mark of her strength and spirit, not stupidity. The girl is often confused, but never overcome.

Coming of age stories are everywhere. In many of these, experience is distorted by a simultaneous “journey of self-discovery”—kissing a boy for the first time while also trying to understand your feelings about it. Kimmy is coming of age at thirty, and filtering our insane world through her intelligent, sexually and (mostly) emotionally mature gaze. She knows she wants to kiss a boy. Go on a date. Be the center of attention on her frigging birthday (I, too, am insane about my special day). She’s spent fifteen years getting to know herself—there was nothing else to do down there! She’s not worried about it, like the rest of us are all the time.

So Kimmy is actually a lot freer—and more powerful—than Frank Underwood, sad Claire, really sad Doug and inexplicably poor hacker, Gavin. Kimmy is ready to do, throwing her whole heart and self into everything she thinks, feels and sees. With often hilarious results.

You can binge-watch season one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. The show has just been renewed for a second season!

–Elise

Fifty Shades of Grey: A Pretty Boring Movie

As Elise wrote in her last post, she and I spent a romantic Galentine’s weekend together in Chicago—brunch, PureBarre: Beyonce Edition, lots o’ wine, and of course, Fifty Shades of Grey.

You might be asking: “As two staunch feminists (it’s all we ever write about), how could you two pay $12.50 each for this hot garbage?”

Well, keen reader, we were duty-bound to watch with a critical eye for gender tropes and abuse masked as love. Also, we only paid matinee prices.

This movie was very dumb; I’ll say that right off the bat. Jamie Dornan (playing the richest mannequin on earth, Christian Grey) had all the spark of an Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bag. He said things like “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” which made me laugh and throw up simultaneously.

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“I’m…complicated.”

Dakota Johnson played the mostly-mousy, teensy-bit-spitfire Anastasia Steele with some human emotion, which was both surprising and refreshing. In her most charming scene, Ana is tipsy at a bar with her friends, drunk dialing Christian (been there, gf). He somehow shows up, although he has been given no information about her location (of course). She proceeds to puke her brains out on the sidewalk. “I will launder this item,” she says, using Mr. Moneybags’ handkerchief to wipe the bile away. “We would be friends,” I thought. Johnson has a nice breezy earnestness about her, and after watching her host SNL last Saturday, I can safely say that in Fifty Shades she’s pretty much playing herself.

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The sex was….fine? Honestly, the straight-laced stuff was sexier to me than any of the kinky business. Even the soundtrack got me going more than the peacock feather. Maybe that’s more about my preferences, but also, I’m pretty sure there’s more to BDSM than extreme tickling.

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Side note: Rita Ora was in this. America’s Sweetheart, Rita Ora!!! No? Feat. on Iggy Azealea’s “Black Widow”? The most overshadowed musical guest at the Oscars? Rob Kardashian’s pre-weight gain bae? Still nothing?! Fair enough. You’ll just have to trust me: it was very confusing to have a minorly famous person in this movie for three minutes tops. Could not have been worth the paycheck.

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Similarly confusing was ANASTASIA’S FUCKING FLIP PHONE THAT IS NEVER ADDRESSED. For real, though. This bajillionaire stalker buys her clothes and a computer and sells her car without her knowledge, but the man can’t get her on a data plan?!? Dude: you know you can easily monitor her movements through smartphone GPS, right? The phone is so distracting, and the most infuriating part of the whole movie.

Frankly, I have no regrets about seeing Fifty Shades. Yes, it was bad. And if I had had on my feminist clogs 100% while watching, I would have been sincerely appalled by the film’s take on healthy relationships and self-worth. But I knew it would be atrocious—I told several of my friends they shouldn’t see it because it would make them too mad. I was not watching for the message. I wanted ridiculous, campy B.S. to laugh at with my Galentine. And I got it.

On Oscar Sunday, I was on the phone with my Gramma talking about what movies we’d seen this year. She told me that she and her friend Betty were thinking of seeing Fifty Shades. But then they saw Paddington instead. Good move, Loretta. Good move.

—Alison

“Nobody Tells The Whole Truth”

The first TV series Alison and I binge-watched: Veronica Mars. Then Damages, Six Feet UnderThe West Wing. Now, though we live apart, there isn’t much that at least one of us is not watching, reading about, encouraging or discouraging the other to get into.

So, when I visited Alison in Chicago a few short weeks ago and we found ourselves with a few empty hours, a problem: what to watch while we chatted, drank wine and were generally adorable together in-person? Oh hey, I heard that Andrew Jarecki’s new HBO documentary miniseries The Jinx is pretty good! Cut to the two of us ignoring each other for a full hour, terrified, enthralled and holding hands for comfort.

The Jinx follows the freaky and barely believable story of Robert Durst—wealthy since birth, young witness to his mother’s suicide, twisted and entitled as all get-out. Durst has been a high-profile suspect in three murder cases since the 1980s. As the series unfolds—a series Durst himself suggested be made, and cooperated fully to produce—it becomes clear: Durst totally killed those people, and has totally gotten away with it!

I won’t trouble you with the details of each case. Watch the series. The storytelling and primary storyteller, Robert Durst, are the draw–though he doesn’t appear on-camera until the second episode. Durst is a master manipulator, made powerful because he completely believes he is innocent. The dude is bloody, brilliant, sociopathic and deluded. He blinks constantly on-camera and contorts his arms and torso for emphasis. You can’t take your eyes off of him. He speaks in a monotone, precise and without emotion. He is mesmerizing.

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The miniseries is artful, cutting between real-life footage and interviews (many with Durst himself) and re-imaginings of events as they are described by the probable killer, friends and family of his victims, experts, lawyers and jurors. Shots linger on locations—long, dusky shots of the lake house where first wife Kathy Durst was last seen alive, and the creepy apartment where unfortunate curmudgeon Morris Black was killed and dismembered. Jarecki layers in interviews he himself conducted with the real-life Dexter, where both are beautifully lit, clean and well-dressed. The production design is formal, based in fact but slightly fantastical and always creepy. This is Durst’s world. Here, he controls all of us.

“I felt like he was speaking from the heart,” one juror admits, after she and eleven of her tragically naïve peers acquit Durst of the Black murder in 2003. WHAT HEART?! asked the rest of the world, completely flabbergasted. Sadly, I get it. Durst is almost certainly a huge murderer. But watching him talk about the “love of his life” Kathy and “best friend” Morris is compelling, if not uncomfortably impressive. I truly believe his sheer force of will could will lies into truth.

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The “happy couple,” Robert and Kathy Durst

Alison and I love soap opera-style, crazy serial-killer television in the style of The Fall, Luther, The Killing, etc. The Jinx is REAL LIFE: a troubled, sheltered young man grows into a (alleged!) maniac in need of much therapy who (allegedly!) kills a bunch of people. That’s scary enough—then add the reality of the series itself, which exists as a testament to our willingness to ignore fact because of the merest whisper of doubt.

That’s what Jarecki’s re-enactments do. The closed-door shots of houses and apartments and boats and random limbs call into question our certainty—because we can never really know what we can’t see. The picture is fractured and shadowy and spooky.

In the final minute of the fourth episode, we see a Durst-Jarecki interview break for a few minutes. Durst sips water, his mic still hot. He mumbles to himself, over and over again: “I did not knowingly and purposefully lie. I did not knowingly and purposefully lie. I made…mistakes…”

Then his lawyer walks into the frame and, in effect, tells him to shut up.

Durst’s story has lived in the public eye for many years. He’s still around—soliciting reporters and documentary-makers for the chance to speak his piece. This guy doesn’t care about setting the record straight. He cares about hearing his voice out loud, convincing himself, and making our world into the one he lives in. He could probably do it, too. So I kind of wish this series didn’t exist—but at the same time, can’t. Stop. Watching.

The Jinx airs Sunday nights on HBO, 8pm ET.

–Elise