Archive for August, 2012

Let’s begin with a disclosure statement, shall we? My day-job employer, KSL,  recently decided to not air NBC’s new fall comedy “The New Normal,” saying the show is inconsistent with the company’s brand. This review is NOT commentary on that decision, it is a review of the show based on its pilot episode, which was recently made available by NBC for online streaming, based on the same critical standards that I apply to everything I review.

Now, moving on.

New Normal is the latest TV offering from controversy-courting and boundary-pushing creator Ryan Murphy, who previously gave us Nip/Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story. The show follows Bryan and David (The Book of Mormon’s Andrew Rannells and National Treasure’s Justin Bartha), a successful and loving gay couple who decide the time has come for them to expand their family. Georgia King plays Goldie, the skinny blond woman they choose as the surrogate to carry their child. The remainder of the cast is rounded out by Glee carry-over NeNe Leakes as Bryan’s assistant, Bebe Wood as Goldie’s daughter and Ellen Berkin as both Goldie’s grandmother and the Sue Silverster-esaue white-woman-who-says-crazy-things character.

The pilot is straightforward, showing Bryan and David’s decision to pursue parenthood after Bryan sees a baby while shopping and decides he wants baby clothes and baby to wear them and, in parellel, the shattering of Goldie’s status quo after she walks in on her husband having an affair and decides to make something of herself (with the financial boost that surrogacy provides). The rest of the pilot is spent establishing character as we learn quickly that Bryan is the stereotypical feminine half of the relationship (because he wears skinny jeans), David the masculine (because he watches Football) and Berkin is an offensive, bigoted, racist.

It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff and despite being on The Peacock the show looks and feels as though David and Bryan once guest-starred on Glee and got their own spinoff. The directing is clean, the presentation is polished, the dialogue is zippy and while the 22-minute introduction is low on deep chuckles, it sets up the potential for a show with legs, much like the pilot for New Girl did last year.

The show’s strength is actually the charming fun of Bartha and Rannells. Their yin-and-yang relationship is derivative like a lost episode of Will and Grace: The Will and Jack Story, but (so far) they walk the line of caricatures and character with a better sense of humanity than the cliche-robots the Glee cast has devolved into.

Ultimately, Normal is surprising in how un-surprising it actually is. From this limited peak, a viewer is likely to assume that the show could go a number of ways with equal possibility landing on utter disaster and limitless success. Besides showing a same-gender kiss in the pilot (I’ll have to look it up, but that HAS to be a record) and  the stream of rude and outrageous comments by Berkin’s character, the show is mostly void of Murphy’s modus operandi of daring and shocking material.

The KSL decision also offers little precedent to make assumptions of success. The most recent shows banned by the local affiliate (The Playboy Club and Coupling) didn’t make it through a full first season. On the other hand, Saturday Night Live (which continues to be shown in Utah via the alternate KUCW) is one of the longest-running shows on television.

So, Mr. Murphy, let’s see what you can do. B-


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Dear Mr. Sorkin,

Let me begin by saying that I love “The Newsroom.” As a contributor to, and consumer of, the greater news media, the themes of journalistic integrity, ethics, truth and accountability pursued by your characters is something too often flippantly disregarded in the ever-adapting and ever-changing landscape of our profession.

I also thank you for your portrayal of a sensible, critical-thinking Republican in the form of Will McAvoy. As a registered member of the party myself, I have watched in abject horror as radical interests and uninformed masses have drug the Grand Old Party through a quagmire of our own making. I too value compromise in government, reason in debate and the benefit of additional and fact-based information in the decision-making process. Many people say they are “Reagan Republicans.” I, Mr. Sorkin, am a “McAvoy Republican.”

I am writing to you today to offer my services as a writer for the upcoming second season of The Newsroom. With the nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican Party’s candidate for president, it behooves you — if you don’t mind my saying — to have a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on your staff. Even better would be a practicing Mormon who is a political moderate, has a background in news reporting and an interest in creative writing.

I, Mr. Sorkin, am your man.

My name is Benjamin Wood. I am a 25-year-old journalist based out of Salt Lake City Utah. I am a newsman, a lover of film and television, an avid reader and a published and award-winning film and entertainment reviewer. I have worked at small community newspapers, metropolitan media outlets and one national entertainment magazine.

Now, I want to work for you. And I’ll do it for free, because it truly would be an honor to join you and your staff on a mission to civilize.

Best regards,

Benjamin Wood

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The Wood-Jeppsen clan is having a bit of a Ukulele revolution. As it stands currently, my mother, brother, niece, and two cousins have taken up the 4-string beauty.

I’d like to think I was the one that tipped the first domino but in reality it’s because of my grandfather, a life-long Ukulele player and self-adopted son of Hawaii, who recently passed away.

Next was my mom, who just bought a second, “cheap,” Uke that she can take camping and to the beach and completely destroy without worry.

Like I said in the video, a Two Wood Uke and maybe even Three Wood Uke video is coming soon. We had a great jam session at my brothers house this last weekend so good things are on the way.

This song rightly belongs to my cousin Tony. I had made another video doing a Temper Trap song but it sounded terrible. I’m experimenting with the sound so let me know if the audio on this is better/worse than others.

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About halfway through Ruby Sparks, you forget that you’re watching a fantasy. Sure, the hilarious and superbly-acted sequence when literary wunderkind Calvin (Paul Dano) first encounters the corporeal Ruby — a woman he created with his mind and his typewriter — is fresh in your mind, and the film’s central premise is not lost to you, but after so many scenes of understated simplicity you simply forget that Ruby’s very existence is an inexplicable phenomenon.

You find yourself, instead, watching a rom-com not unlike many others. Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy and girl meets boys parents, complications ensue and boy and girl’s relationship strains.

Unlike most rom-coms, however, and unlike actual love stories, in Ruby Sparks boy is able to control girl — literally — a power that he sets aside once the beautiful waif appears in his kitchen, cooking eggs in her underwear.

Sets aside, that is, until desperation, loneliness, jealousy, and petty insecurities drive him to sit back down at his typewriter and “tweak” the girl of his dreams. A sentence here, a personality trait there, until finally the very dark implications of “reality” come crashing in on the light “fantasy,” culminating in an emotional, difficult-to-watch, yet fascinating climax that suggests in all-to-real visuals the error in trying to control and change another human being.

That is the film’s central theme. You can’t change the ones you love, you can only change yourself. It’s a theme that directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) achieve masterfully with a script by Kazan through implicit metaphor and explicit demonstration. It’s a heavy thought, wrapped up in a light, fluffy shell of playful whimsey and dusted with a delicious yet ultimately unsatisfying finish.

But while the film’s conclusion may leave you wanting, everything up to that point delivers in spades. The casting is superb, with real-life couple Dano and Kazan providing all the hipster-chemistry you could ask for, backed up by a impressive bench, including Antonio Banderas as a Big Sur free spirit, Elliot Gould as a supportive therapist, Steve Coogan as a Steve-Coogan-dirtbag and Chris Messina as Calvin’s big brother and confidante. The set pieces are such that you’ll want to hop in a convertible and make for the coast as soon as the credits role and the soundtrack and score perfectly support the emotion and imagery.

I would have traded one less “I Love You” montage in favor of a peak at Calvin’s maturation. Instead we are left to assume that he has learned his lesson and are given what feels like a throw-away catharsis in the final moments. That said, the film delivers and left me re-thinking its scenes long after I had left the theater. B+

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In short: I hate my hair. Always have.

Sure, the color is fine, a mysteriously-alluring dark brown. But the goods stop there. It’s thick, untamed when left to its own devices, too curly to lie straight and too straight to bounce curly and worst off all, there are two competing cowlicks at the crest of my forehead that shoot off in opposing directions.

For most of my rearing I, like everyone else in the late-80’s-early-90’s, was the boy with the bowl cut. It was simple: party on top, business on the sides. It required minimal effort and always looked essentially the same.

I have no doubt that right now, female readers are seeing these pictures and thinking “OMG, that is a-DOR-able.” Yes, in my younger years I was a darling-effeminate child with long curly eyelashes and rosy cheeks. It certainly isn’t lost on me that I will never look as good to the opposite gender as I did when I was 4. C’est La Vie

But, the styles began to change. Suddenly everyone around me decided that “The Buzz” was THE look. If you weren’t buzzed, you weren’t cool. What’s worse, if you still were rocking the bowl cut you were unequivocally NOT cool. It’s like that time around 7th or 8th grade that guys discover boxer shorts and you do NOT want to be the last kid in whities. (For the record, boxer briefs, the best of both worlds).

My mother was hesitant to give me the #1. Ever since my birth I have had a large, star-shaped scar on the back of my head and the bowl cut was more than just an esthetic choice; it was also functional. To buzz would mean to display my bald spot to the world, something my mother feared but eventually, upon my insistence, relented.

And so began the buzz days. You can kind of see the cowlicks in this picture. Face-left (think stage left) shoots straight down, face-right shoots back and swoops to the side.

This is one of my all-time favorite pictures. It’s me and my cousin Nick at the Ogden 24th of July parade (to the non-Utah crowd, that’s “Pioneer Day”). Remember Silly String? How much fun was THAT?

This picture also captures a time of innocence. A time of reckless abandon before I entered a very dark, depressing, disturbing hair faze.

The part-down-the-middle.

I can’t explain what motivated me to do such a foolish thing. I think at the time I was trying to emulate my big brother, who had a similar hairstyle when he was around my age. The fact that styles had changed in the 9 years between us didn’t exactly occur to me.

I remember I used to carry a cheap, switch-blade-style comb in my pocket to touch up on the left and right flanks of this monstrosity. I didn’t have a lot of friends.

That’s how I spent 6th and 7th grade and believe me, these pictures are very generous. I hate my hair now but I despised my hair back then, and yet I felt trapped by it. Change is terrifying and when you’re in Jr. High, even a decision that would only last 3-4 weeks feels like a cataclysmic, destiny-defining choice.

Eventually, however, a combination of shame and disgust motivated me to cut my hair and join the new trend of “Spiked” that was infiltrating youth around the country.

The problem was, I had never spiked my hair before. You think all it takes is running some gel through your hair but it takes planning, it takes finesse. Without a demonstration in the basics you end up with something like…this.

Unsymmetrical, unkempt, chaos. This picture was taken the day I got my braces on (LOOK AT THOSE TEETH!) Which yes, means that I was undergoing a one-two punch of adolescent social pariah, metal mouth and bad hair. To make matters worse, my orthodontist decided that my palette was too narrow and thus, obstructing my sinuses. I was outfitted for six months with a medieval torture device known as an “Expander” that hung just beneath the roof of my mouth making it difficult to eat and speak and which had to be cranked each night with a special key.

I remember Kyle McClofsky would make me say things in social studies to make fun of my slurred speech. His favorite was “Tree Trunks” which came out like “Dwee Dunks.”

I hated Kyle McClofsky. I hated my expander. I hated my hair.

Slowly, with practice, I was able to swallow hard food, enunciate words with only minimal slurs and arrange my mane with a degree of subtlety. I realized that my hair was too curly to spike “up” so instead I would spike it “forward” into the standard gelled crew cut popular with middle class Caucasians. My cowlicks still gave me a lot of trouble, and my $1-a-bottle L.A. Looks super hold gel just made my head slimy, especially if I got rained on. It would be another 10 years before I realized the benefits of using a decent hair product.

But alas, the winds of young fashion are ever changing. And so it was that in my freshman year “The Shag” saw a surge in popularity. Finally, a trend that I could succeed at. My hair, after all, grows freakishly fast and freakishly thick.

Depending on how recently I had a trim, I was told that I looked like Shia Labeouf (circa Even Stevens), Bobby Brady, or Ringo Starr. I don’t think people quite understood how insulting that last one is.

One day, while working as a host at a mom and pop restaurant, a customer referred to me as “Miss.” I cut my hair that night.

And so we entered, the Modern Era.

Things, hair-wise, were calm then. Sure, I still had the cowlicks (which you can see pretty well in the above picture) but as long as I kept things low profile and didn’t attract any attention, nobody seemed to notice.

Except me. I’m sure its this way with everyone but I could spot from a mile away the subtle, glaring, imperfections in my follicular appearance. Most men have terrible hair, it’s true, and for generations our gender has been given a pass by the fairer sex because “we just don’t know any better.” But I know better, I know what great hair is, and yet try as I may I’ve never been able to attain it.

Things have stayed pretty much the same over the last few years. I abandoned the “spike” and went for the “messy,” shaking things up before shooting most everything over to the side. In Brazil I coined the term “The Spartan” as in a Spiked-Part, but over the years I’ve gotten less spiky and more part-y.

Sidenote, that picture above is me and Andrew McMahon, the lead singer of Jack’s Mannequin. His hair is awesome: carefree, artistic, casual and yet structured. My hair sucks: generic, boring, lopsided.

For years my hair would just bounce back and forth between lengths. As it got longer, it would drift toward the shaggy and unkempt side of the spectrum.

Shorter, it would look somewhat droopy and dead.

I would let it get much too long before a cut and would look like a well-dressed transient.

And then, sometimes, without warning, it would just become pure and utter chaos.

But then, a combination of factors combined to produce the best hair I’ve ever had.

First, my brother began working as a salesman of salon-quality hair products. Second, medium-length styles became trendy (think “The Adam Scott” or “The Dominic Cooper). And Thirdly…Hipsters.

Why Hipsters you ask? Because a key part of being a real hipster is looking as ugly as possible. Ugly clothes, ugly glasses, ugly mustaches and beards and, of course, ugly hair.

It’s the perfect crime. Sometimes, when the stars align, my hair looks like F-ing Don Draper’s. But when it doesn’t, when I emerge from the bathroom bruised and defeated by my un-yielding locks, I throw on a pair of khaki pants, suede shoes, and over-sized shades and walk down the sidewalk with my earbuds in, listening to something that’s so indie you KNOW you’ve never heard of it before.

Because obviously, no one would have hair this bad, with the receding hairline and ocean-wave bangs, unless they were totally over having good hair.

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*The following grades refer ONLY to premiere episodes. In addition to a letter grades based on the quality of the single episodes, I will also suggest — based on what those episodes suggest of the season to come — that you “Subscribe” on Hulu, “Keep your eye on” for the odd episode here and there or “Kill and Bury,” which should be self-explanatory.

Because of NBC’s hard-to-understand decision to premiere its fall shows at awkward times scattered throughout its Olympic coverage, we get to start the Fall TV Scorecard a little bit early this year. Starting with:

Go On (NBC)

In Matthew Perry’s third attempt at returning to TV since Friends — the first being the good-but-not-great Studio 60 On Sunset Strip and the second being the good-but-not-great Mr. Sunshine — he plays a sports radio host in the good-but-not-great Go On. The premise surrounds Perry’s character who is recovering from the death of his wife by joining a support group of Community-esque  misfit toys and, as the pilot makes abundantly clear, his “I’m above this” personality will eventually give way to genuine catharsis while his charm and energy helps the rest of the group confront their own personal demons. We’re also provided with the will-they-won’t-they couple in the form of Perry’s group counselor, played by The Playboy Club’s Laura Benanti.

The supporting cast is something of a who’s-who of failed tv show survivors, from Benanti to Flash Foward’s John Cho and Terra Nova’s Allison Miller. Everybody Hates Chris’ Tyler James Williams is also on board as Perry’s grieving kindred spirit and presumptive surrogate son. Based solely on the pilot, Go On is already better than all of those shows (Chris was actually pretty good but let’s be honest, no one watched it).

Assuming the writers can keep the write balance of funny and heart there’s no reason that Go On can’t evolve into something unique and entertaining. On the other hand, since this is NBC it could be the best show on television and still not survive a full season.

Grade: B+

Class: Keep an Eye On

Animal Practice (NBC)

If you’re the kind of person that thinks animals (especially monkeys) are funny you might like this show. I say “might” because I, personally, hate animals (especially monkeys) and find this show to be completely obnoxious and derivative. In a nutshell Justin Kirk plays George, a House-like veterinarian who loves animals and hates humans. He practices at the clinic owned by JoAnna Garcia Swisher’s Dorothy, who (obviously) is a former flame of George’s. Man, if it weren’t for all the crazy animal hijinks, the sexual tension would be thick enough to cut with a knife! What a zany concept for a primetime television show!

Throw in an unpleasant menagerie of supporting players (none of whom look like they have any business being on television) and contrived plot devices (George refuses to put a dog to sleep despite the owner’s wishes. He breaks the rules like JACK BAUER!) and you have the mediocrity that is Animal Practice. It would not surprise me at all if America eats this show up.

Grade: C+

Class: Kill and Bury

Grimm (NBC)

After a season of ups and downs, Grimm found its footing and ended with a string of great, plot-deepening episodes. Season 2 picks up literally right where the show left off as Nick [season one spoiler] grapples with the realization that his mother is still alive while still trying to clean up the messes left by Adalind and Kimura. Oh, and there’s a saber-toothed monster that just arrived in a freighter full of dismembered and decapitated corpses. Welcome to Portland.

I’m made several pitches for Grimm in the past so I won’t pretend to be objective here. As far as the premiere is concerned, with so many moving pieces the plot is split into a somewhat frustrating 2-parter where a lot of plot lines seemed to be temporarily forgotten until the very end. The tradeoff, however, is a lot of great answers about the Wesen world provided by Mamma Grimm and a deeper look into the scheming of Capt. Renard, the Verat and the Seven Royal Families (who we get a glimpse of in a particularly dastardly scene).

From the looks of this episode, great things are in store for season 2, and something wicked Nick’s way comes.

Grade: B+

Class: Subscribe

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When filming began on TQOV, director Lauren Greenfield thought she would be chronicling the construction of the largest single-family private residence in the country. Inspired by the french palace of King Louis XIV and modeled loosely after the top three floors of the Paris hotel and casino in Las Vegas, the 90,000-square-foot, $75 million home of time share mogul David Seigel and his family would have a bowling alley, a wing for the children, and kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms that would require two hands to count, each.

Would have, that is, if it had ever finished being built.

In one of those magical whimseys of life that can not be planned, Greenfield’s camera was perfectly in place to capture the economic collapse of 2008, and the devastating shock-wave that it sent through Siegel’s company, Westgate Resorts. Because time shares, like car or home purchases, operate on a money-down-and-monthly-payment format, Siegel found himself with the wold’s largest time share company hemorrhaging what little liquid assets it had by the minute. To make maters worse, they company had just finished completion of the PH Westgate Towers in Las Vegas adding one more lump sum into the accountants’ ledgers that couldn’t be used to pay his staff or his electric bill.

What was intended as a documentary of the wanton excess of a self-made member of the 1% instead pivots after 30 minutes into an examination of what happens when the tables are turned, even if ever so slightly. We watch the stagnation and fat-trimming of Siegel’s business and personal wealth as employees are laid off, planes and limousines are put up for sale, properties are foreclosed and then, closer to home, housekeeping staff are let go.

The question then becomes “How do you live within your means when you’re not accustomed to your means having limits?” and the personification of that question is Siegel’s wife, former beauty queen Jackie Siegel, the Queen of Versailles.

It’s hard to not feel an overdose os schadenfreude as you watch Jackie squirm in her new life. It’s almost surreal to watch the dumbfounded reaction of the Hertz rent-a-car employee when Jackie asks “What’s my driver’s name?” or the ineptitude of the family at keeping a tidy home after the staff are let go. General litter and droppings from the family near-dozen yippee dogs cover the home’s entire floor and at one point Jackie says to the camera, without the slightest hint of sarcasm or irony “I wouldn’t have had so many kids if I couldn’t have maids.”

At first it’s bizarre and funny but it quickly becomes something else as David Siegel seems to age right in front of your eyes, weighed down by the burden of keeping his company and life afloat as he struggles to hold on to his two prized possessions: the Las Vegas towers and his unfinished Versailles. You watch him wincing in pain, pleading with his family to cut back as his wife continues to live the remnants of their lush lifestyle, pillaging 6 carts worth of christmas presents from Walmart and stopping in at the doctors for a quick injection of botox.

It’s impossible to feel sorry for these people, even though they are, all things considered, very decent human beings. Both husband and wife grew up in poverty and despite their successes you can still see that trace of their former lives (like when Jackie takes the limousine through the McDonald’s drive in) but just when empathy begins creeping in, the director interviews the family’s loyal maid who is overjoyed to claim an unused play-house as her private space and sends the majority of her wages home to help her family. The director never quite lets you escape the knowledge that even with nothing, this family has more than you could ever dream of.

In the end we watch as patriarch David, who not so long ago was boasting of single-handedly getting Bush 43 into the white house (he doesn’t elaborate because his actions may or may not have been illegal) and building the country’s largest resident “Because I can.” In the end, he talks about how his story is a Riches to Rags, expresses his exhaustion and asks the interviewer if they can “wrap things up” already. It is a fascinating look at just what money can buy, and just how much it can cost. B+

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