Mickey Mouse, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Earle, Maurice Sendak, and Swedish death metal

Mickey Mouse, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Earle, Maurice Sendak, and Swedish death metal

NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at worthwhile releases, some recent, some not.

Disney Shorts
Anyone who’s exhausted the sparse summer TV offerings and tired of watching Cheers on Netflix, can fire up the YouTube app on the moving-picture machine of choice and head to the Disney Shorts channel. The main event here is the series of brand-new Mickey Mouse cartoons, each of which runs about four minutes. For decades, Mickey has existed in a strange limbo of pop-culture characters. He’s recognized everywhere, but, because he serves mostly as a corporate mascot, he has almost no personality. These shorts restore some of the zaniness and mischief that characterized Mickey in Walt Disney’s early work, and they carry on the Disney founder’s tradition of craftsmanship, too. Lavishly animated, the videos follow Mickey on his world-girdling travels and travails, from the Atlantic City boardwalk to the Tokyo bullet trains. The best of the Mickey shorts is the virtuosic “Mickey Mouse In Yodelberg” (seen below), but they’re all excellent, with sharp gag timing and an impressive attention to detail—not to mention plenty of little Easter eggs for Disney aficionados. The Disney Shorts channel also serves as an entry point to other great short-form animation on YouTube, by way of the handpicked gems in the Disney Favorites listings. It’s there that I discovered, for instance, the Simon’s Cat shorts, which together with the Mickey adventures made for a delightful cat-and-mouse affair. [John Teti]

Mud
Jeff Nichols’ excellent 2011 film, Take Shelter, told the tale of an increasingly paranoid Michael Shannon, whose disturbing visions threaten to rip his family apart. Last year’s Mud—also directed by Nichols, and just out on DVD—is compelling in a much more traditional way: It’s an almost quaint story about a pair of scraggly Southern boys who encounter a stranger—snaggle-toothed Matthew McConaughey—on the run from the law. On the surface it’s pretty Twain-y, though with the modern twist of mobsters, but it ends up gripping, mostly due to fantastic performances from the two young leads. There’s a funny nod in the plot to McConaughey’s penchant for shirtlessness, too, and a solid supporting turn from Sam Shepard as a crotchety neighbor with a secret past. Mud won’t ricochet around your head for days the way that Take Shelter did, but it’s solid and almost refreshingly old-fashioned. [Josh Modell]

Steve Earle, The Warner Bros. Years
It took a road trip from Denver to Albuquerque with an old friend to get me into Steve Earle. There’s something about hearing that gravelly voice while rolling down cracked blacktop that makes Earle’s songs that much more eroded and earthy. That was a good dozen years ago; 2000’s Transcendental Blues was Earle’s most recent album at the time, so naturally we listened to that a lot. It’s still my favorite disc of his—but on that road trip, we also played the hell of out El Corazón. His final album for Warner Bros. before moving on to E-Squared and then New West, El Corazón came out in 1997 and captured the grizzled country-rock vet about to peak, still on a hot streak following a jail-and-rehab stint in the mid-’90s that nearly knocked him out the game for good. The first leg of that streak is captured in The Warner Bros. Years, which collects three stellar studio albums—1995’s Train A Comin’, 1996’s I Feel Alright, and El Corazón—as well as a solid live album from ’95 and a live DVD recorded in ’96 in Cold Creek Correctional Facility in Tennessee (a nod to Earle’s hero Johnny Cash, who’d been known to play a concert or two in prison). The box comes with a beautiful book of lyrics; poignant, roughhewn liner notes from Earle; and a lengthy essay by David Simon, who cast Earle as the consummately Earle-like character Walon in The Wire. Mostly, though, I love the box because it gives me another reason to crank El Corazón’s “Taneytown,” a blistering, harrowing duet with Emmylou Harris, and pretend I’m being blown away for the first time all over again. [Jason Heller]

Watain, The Wild Hunt
Black metal can be a hard nut to crack, especially when it’s encased in foot-long metal spikes and corpse paint. In spite of that, it’s gotten more attention in recent years due to acts that lean post-rock (Deafheaven, Wolves In The Throne Room), and also because of some its forefathers’ notable exploits (the batshit insane Varg Vikernes has heightened its profile for all the wrong reasons). Watain is notable for its ability to progress without diluting the dark, murky wells from which it’s drawn. The Swedish band’s fifth album, The Wild Hunt, at first seem to be serving more of the same, but with enough forward motion to avoid stagnation. Instrumental opener “Night Vision” starts things on an ominous note before Watain kicks in with full force on “De Profundis,” a song that shifts tempos without ever losing focus. At its most progressive, the album sees the band embracing slower, Black Sabbath-inspired passages and triumphant Iron Maiden power-solos, proving that there are ways for black metal to advance without bastardizing its bite. Watain’s not slowing down, but it is looking back, and realizing that metal’s roots remain just as evil as they ever were. [David Anthony]

Maurice Sendak: A Celebration Of The Artist And His Work
It’s never a bad time to revisit Maurice Sendak, but it’s a particularly fitting time for a celebration: Where The Wild Things Are turns 50 this year. Though most of us can count the adventures of Max and the wild things among our favorite childhood bedtime stories, Sendak did plenty else, like creating children’s TV shows and adapting a children’s Holocaust opera (!) that later became a bestselling illustrated book. Now there’s a coffee-table book for Sendak fans (and who isn’t a Sendak fan?) with the serviceable title Maurice Sendak: A Celebration Of The Artist And His Work. Collecting work from private collections alongside his better-known characters, the book intersperses more than 200 pieces of artwork and other visual ephemera with 12 essays. Neil Gaiman once described Sendak as “wise [and] magical,” and so is this book. It’s more interesting and relevant than that tome about Monet’s Water Lilies you’ve been lugging around since college, and something houseguests might actually want to flip through and read. [Laura M. Browning]

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