Archive for May, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Seth MacFarlane is a man prodigious of voice but rarely seen. Most known for his animated FOX series Family Guy and American Dad – for which he plays a plethora of characters – the writer/actor/director has a knack for slipping into unexpected places.He voiced the ectoplasmic agent Johann Kraus in Hellboy 2, hosted the Oscars in 2013, dropped a big band album in 2011 and if you watch carefully you’ll see him get shot in the short-lived ABC drama Flashforward – not that you’d really want to, since that show was terrible, but fortunately for us the clip is on youtube.

But despite being a truly prolific talent in Hollywood, his sophomore directorial feature A Million Ways To Die in the West is the first time audiences will have a chance to see MacFarlane on the big screen, in corporeal form, in a starring role. And true to form, MacFarlane sticks the landing.

It’s a crime to compare anything to Blazing Saddles, and yet I just can’t help myself. Although inferior to Saddles, with West, MacFarlane has crafted a politically incorrect, laugh-out-loud funny, pseudo-western full of biting satire, shocking gags and a dash of heart. It inhabits a world between fantasy and history, with characters possessing a dissonant sense of self-awareness about the horribly archaic conditions of the Western Frontier.

MacFarlane plays Albert, a caustic sheep farmer living in Old Stump, Arizona who would rather run than fight and has had it up to here with the perils of the 1880s west, in which everything that is not you is trying to kill you. He gets tossed by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for being ‘yellow’ and is ready to hot foot it to the coast when his life is interrupted by the arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron).

Unbeknownst to Albert, Anna is the reluctant wife of legendary outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (played in all his Irish glory by Liam Neeson) who has dropped his wife in Old Stump while he and his men lay low after a stage coach job.

Albert and Anna bond over their mutual disdain for frontier living and plot to win back Loiuse’s heart, but the inevitable occurs, setting up a showdown between Albert and Clive when the gunslinger rides into town.

The movie follows MacFarlane’s typical style of trading 100-gags-a-minute chaos with ambling tangents that weave their way back into the plot – as well as one of the best cameos in the history of film comedies. With so much mud thrown on the wall, not all of it sticks – and at least two moments pushed beyond my squeamish tolerances – but West benefits from having a plot structure to invest in rather than the increasingly common comedy practice of setting up a premise as an afterthought that is largely disregarded for a 90-minute joke machine.

West is at its best when it’s focused around Albert and Anna, and loses steam when it drifts toward the secondary characters. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman seem particularly underutilized as engaged friends of Albert’s, whose characters exist only to perpetuate a running joke about Christians saving themselves for marriage – despite the fact that Silverman’s character works as a lady of ill repute.
But despite its flaws it’s a winning creation, confirming that Ted wasn’t a fluke and suggesting that MacFarlane might have a lot more to show us as he grows comfortable revealing himself.

Grade: B

 

*A Million Ways to Die in the West opens nationwide on Friday, May 30. 

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sushi class

I love food. LOVE it. I suppose the argument could be made that everyone loves food since it provides the energy necessary to sustain life, but a respect for the machinations of human survival is not the same as truly appreciating the creation and experimentation of taste and flavor.

I do not possess the talents of culinary greatness, but I do enjoy cooking. I’ve lately been on a bit of a cornbread kick – not to brag, but my vanilla raspberry cornbread muffins were the talk of the latest family get-together – and once farmer’s market season kicks back into gear I’m planning on getting into homemade soups.

It’s very satisfying, because the act of preparing and eating a meal is the perfect marriage of both working with your hands to create and also stuffing your face with tasty treats.

sushi class

So for this month’s Treat Yo Self, I decided to take a cooking class and learn how to roll my own sushi, and invited my friend Kasie to come along.

Kasie and I met as undergrads at Utah State University, although she went on to complete a master’s at Columbia University whereas I chickened out of enrolling at Columbia after being accepted because I have debt-aversion ingrained into my DNA (the paltry salary I command as a journalist didn’t help either). We share a love of New York City and film, although her cinematic choices are sometimes swayed by the prospect of a shirtless Chris Pine.

She’s ok.

sushi class

For the class we went to Harmon’s Neighborhood Grocer at City Creek, which operates a charming little cooking school. The class was overseen by Chef Aaron, who walked us through the types of rice, fish and knives to buy as well as some practical tips for rolling, cutting and serving rolls.

sushi class

We donned our aprons and got to work, spreading rice and fish over seaweed for about three rolls each. Chef Aaron also taught us how to Julienne a cucumber – essentially shaving it into thin sheets rather than cutting circular slices – which is probably the only skill from the class that I’ll ever use at home. Not that the rest of the class wasn’t useful, I just don’t have many occasions – or the budget – that call for sushi-grade Ahi tuna.

We ate ourselves full on sushi during the class, which included dessert in the form of chili-chocolate gelato and sake sipped from traditional square wooden bowls, and decided to conduct our interview in the car during our drive home. This was my first experience with sake, and although Chef Aaron assured me we were sampling “the good stuff” with notes of licorice, I found it unpleasant, like taking a shot of very pungent rice vinegar.

sake

Wood’s Stock: Who are you and what do you do?

Kasie Barger: What do you mean ‘who am I?’ Like, what’s my name?

WS: Yeah. It’s not an existential question. Who are you, and what do you do?

KB: My name is Kasie Barger and I’m a social worker at the University of Utah Hospital.

WS: How do you like that?

KB: I really love it, a lot. It’s exactly the job that I wanted. Dream job.

WS: So sushi class, what did you think?

KB: I loved it.

WS: Elaborate. What did you love?

KB: I really liked the chef man, named Aaron, and I don’t know, I’m not a seasoned sushi eater but I really enjoyed it and I thought it was delicious.

WS: Tell me about your culinary history. On a scale of 1 to Domestic Goddess what are you?

Sushi class

KB: I hate that, “domestic goddess,” I’m not a domestic goddess in any sense of the word. You mean, like, cooking?

WS: Yeah, do you often cook or do you go out for most of your meals?

KB:  I would say I enjoy cooking when it’s not for just me. I hate just cooking for myself because I feel like it’s a lot of work. But I do enjoy cooking and I think I’m decent at it but I don’t make fancy exotic things.

WS: Walk me through the class: what it entailed, what it was, what you did.

KB: We got there and the teacher gave us a brief history of Sushi – where it came from, all of that – showed us how to make the rice. What you do is you have the rice that you make in a rice cooker and then you put rice vinegar and, what was the other thing?

WS: Sugar and salt?

KB: Sugar and salt or something. You mix that together and that makes the rice. Then he walked us through how to make it. You have these cool mat rolling things and you put the seaweed on that and the rice on that ,like a grain or two thick, and then you just put whatever fish on there you want and you do this cool rolly-up thing and you have your sushi.

sushi class

WS: Sushi is a polarizing food. Are you squeamish about your food, are you picky?

KB: Yes, I am picky. Pretty picky.

WS: But you’re ok with seaweed and raw fish?

KB: I’m picky when it comes to certain things. I don’t like tomatoes. That is one thing that I do not like so I feel like that makes me seam really picky because a lot of stuff has tomatoes in it.

WS: It’s a fairly common ingredient.

KB: But I love fish, all sorts of fish. I haven’t had a lot of sushi but everything I’ve had I’ve really enjoyed. So I’m picky on some things but not picky on others.

sushi

WS: What did you put into your sushi?

KB: I think I had one with Tuna, I can’t remember which kind. I had some lobster and imitation crab and I liked them all, I think the tuna was my favorite though.

WS: Anything that surprised you from the class?

KB: They had these, were they fish eggs?

WS: Flying fish eggs.

KB: These flying fish eggs that were bright orange and I was really hesitant about them at first but they really were delicious. They were a little crunchy and a little sweet and I couldn’t get enough.

WS: But you weren’t down with the Beluga?

KB: No. I tried the beluga caviar which they had, which is apparently really expensive, but it just tasted like salt to me. Like pure salt because I’m no fancy lady so apparently I don’t have a refined palate for things like that.

sushi class

WS: Let’s talk about food generally. You’re on death row, what’s your last meal?

KB: Oh gosh. Like I could have any food from anywhere?

WS: Any food from anywhere, before you die.

KB: This is so hard. I recently, in the past couple of years, have kind of been obsessed with Indian food and there’s an Indian place in Queens, New York called Jackson’s Diner which, don’t let the C or B health rating sketch you out because I ate there a couple of times and I did not die so that’s something. They have the best Indian food I’ve ever had. So I would say maybe that.

WS: Like a tikka masala?

KB: No they have this chicken korma that’s coconut based with cashews and chicken and it’s so good, and garlic naan.

WS: I think it’s amazing that you like Indian food, you’re ok with raw tuna, but you draw the line at tomatoes.

KB: It’s a texture thing with the tomatoes. It just makes me gag. I don’t like them. I can’t do it.

WS: Anything else you can’t do?

KB: I don’t like onions. I’m fine with the flavor and if they’re cooked in things but I don’t like raw onions.

WS: Yeah, I fancy myself to be a very open-minded eater but raw onions are tough.

KB: My main thing with food I don’t like is a texture thing. I don’t like cooked broccoli or cooked cauliflower but I really like it raw.

WS: You don’t like it mushy?

KB: If it’s cooked perfectly to where it’s not mushy I’m fine, but I don’t know what it is, it’s a texture thing.

WS: So what were you doing in Queens?

KB: We went for the Indian food. We and a couple of my friends had been hearing about how wonderful Jackson Diner was so we went to check it out.

WS: Did it live up to the hype?

KB: Obviously. I just said I want it for my last meal.

WS: Does it really have a B or C health rating?

KB: The last time we went I think it had a B and now it has a C.

WS: Would you still go?

KB: I don’t know, probably.

WS: I remember those ratings, it’s a big stigma in New York to have a low health grade.

KB: Oh it really is so I don’t know, maybe if I wanted it badly enough I would. It might be worth death actually so yeah, I would go back.

WS: Especially if it’s your last meal. Nothing to lose.

KB: Oh totally. I’m gonna die anyway. Might as well die happy.

WS: And well fed

KB: Yes

photo 1(6)

WS: Any other thoughts from the class today? Did you learn anything you might use in your own kitchen?

KB: No. I will say right now that I will never make sushi on my own.

WS: Why not?

KB: Too much work and I’m too scared to pick out the fish on my own, even though he explained how to do it, and you need all these fancy things. I just know myself well enough to know that I would never go through all that work to make it myself.

WS: Had you ever done a cooking class before?

KB: No I had not, actually. But I would definitely do one again.

WS: Why?

KB: I feel like I like cooking but it’s nice having a step-by-step guide and sushi is something I never would have made on my own, so I would take cooking classes more for things that I don’t know how to make and want to learn how to make.

WS: Prestige meals?

KB: Yes, prestige meals, to impress people. Now I can brag that I know how to make sushi.

WS: Even if you never do it again.

KB: Even if I never do it again, but I have the pictures.

WS: Facebook official.

KB: Yeah. Facebook and Instagram official.

WS: So you’d recommend cooking classes?

KB: I would. Can we talk about something else really quick?

WS: Sure

KB: That one girl who was there and then her…

WS: The super young girl with the super old man?

KB: YEAH! I thought that was her dad and then they were all over each other.

WS: Definitely not her dad. I thought the same thing. How big an age gap do you think that was?

KB: I don’t know. She looked maybe like 30?

WS: Yeah.

KB: Like 30ish, I’m horrible with ages so I don’t know, and then he was at least 50. He was old.

WS: As soon as they started snuggling with each other I thought…I bet she’s closer to 40 than she looks. But maybe not.

KB: I feel like she’s probably a gold digger.

WS: Love is blind, and all that.

KB: Yes. And now I sound super judgmental but I was like ‘oh. That’s happening.’ And they were just attached at the hip.

WS: They’re a great couple for the “Girlfriend or Daughter” game.

KB: Whatever makes them happy though. What are your thoughts on older men with younger women?

WS: What are my thoughts? Like, am I for or against?

KB: I don’t know, I’m just curious.

WS: Once women reach a certain age they can date whoever they want. What creeps me out though is when girls in their 20s are with the super old guy. I had a friend who literally as a 24 year old was dating a man in his 60s and in no world is that ok. Once you’re older, do what you gotta do, but if you’re still in your 20s I get a little creeped out.

KB: So I’m 24, what’s the oldest age that is appropriate for me to date?

WS: You’re 24?

KB: Yes

WS: 32

KB: All right, I’m on board with that.

WS: And that’s just when it starts to be weird. If he was 33 it wouldn’t be, like, atrocious. We’d still be friends.

KB: What about the reverse?

WS: The reverse is a whole different ball game. For one thing it’s so rare. You so rarely see an older woman with a younger guy. I don’t know.  I’ve never dated anyone older than me, I’ve barely dated anyone at all, so who knows.

Anything you want to promote?

KB: That I’m a strong smart sensual woman.

WS: Are you on twitter?

KB: Nope

WS: Instagram?

KB: Yes, @KasieBarger

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*This review was first posted in February during coverage of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Much has been said about America’s obesity epidemic: from the rising rates of obesity and diabetes among children to the growing health-care costs related to our swelling waistlines. Even First Lady Michelle Obama, with her Let’s Move campaign that encourages children to stay active, has contributed to a national conversation on the need for diet, exercise and the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which had the audacity to try to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables during school lunch (the horror!).

But the argument that ‘Fed Up‘ makes is that our national focus on fitness and calorie balance fails to address the elephant in the room; namely, the food industry that increasingly pitches high-sugar processed foods and a national diet that sets individuals up for failure.

Produced and narrated by Katie Couric, Fed Up makes a number of well-articulated and at times alarming points. It describes the biological science, the historical events and the private industry motivations that have combined into a sinister cocktail. It lambasts the “diet food” market, which shaves off marginal amounts of calories while maintaining the same – if not higher – sugar levels of their traditional counterparts. And it points a big, accusatory finger at soft drinks, labeling them as the cigarettes of the 21st century and suggesting that a warning label from the surgeon general on a bottle of Coke may be a necessary first step in demonizing the junk food industry.

Informative and empowering, Fed Up is the kind of documentary that sends you home considering what you’ve seen and checking the nutritional labels on your groceries.

Grade: A-

*Fed Up opens in Utah on Friday, May 16

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Locke-640x364

The one-man show, a relatively common construction on the live stage but few and far between at the cinema, is a tricky beast to pull off. Great writing and editing are always required, but great acting is what divides the one-men, since it falls to the quality of a single actor’s performance to sustain audience interest.

There are some excellent films in this category, like last year’s ‘All is Lost,’ which saw an Oscar-caliber Robert Redford adrift at sea, or ‘Moon,’ which followed Sam Rockwell as a time-card punching astronaut nearing the end of a 3-year contract.

But then there’s the not-so-excellent films, in which a scant plot and dearth of gravitas result in audience attention wearing thin. ‘Buried’ made a clever go at putting Ryan Reynolds underground and ‘Castaway’ gave Tom Hanks a volleyball to wax philosophic with, but neither performed particularly well (Castaway has its defenders, which I’ve never fully understood).

That’s a long lead-in but it brings us to ‘Locke,’ which doesn’t quite reach a soaring height but still rises above it’s central guy-in-a-car gimmick to deliver something nuanced and interesting.

On the eve of a major construction project, meticulous foreman Ivan Locke (The Dark Knight Rises’ Tom Hardy) receives a message that sends him on the road to London. His decision to make that drive initiates a string of phone calls as Locke is forced to finalize preparations for the next day’s work from his car, dodge the anxieties of his employer and explain his absence to his family.

That set-up – man in car on phone – is all there is to ‘Locke,’ with plot details being doled out piecemeal with each chime of the ringtone. But a surprisingly tight script and a convincingly conflicted Hardy keep things moving at a fast clip.

All things considered, the stakes aren’t particularly high. But to say more would deprive the movie of its palpable tension. Grounding all of it is Hardy, playing up an understated everyman quality that has largely been ignored in favor of casting the actor as a big-budget villain or superspy in bad McG films. It’s actually a bit of a treat to hear Hardy speaking so freely after playing a string of brooding mumblers in Warrior, Lawless and of course TDKR. As Locke, he is weighed down by the burdens of loyalty, integrity and family and yet there is an hushed excitement within him as he seizes his fate and drives (literally) headfirst into an unknown future.

It’s an intimate and inventive film that marries emotional heft with beautifully minimalist imagery. It invests in the everyday drama of difficult choices and their consequences, getting a lot of mileage out of a 90 minute drive in a BMW.

Grade: B

*Locke opens in Utah on Friday, May 16

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