Archive for July, 2014

*Note: This review was originally published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Writer-director Joe Swanberg isn’t one to hit you over the head with plot. His films, of which there are many but particularly 2013’s “Drinking Buddies” and now “Happy Christmas,” tend to be more naturalistic portrayals of everyday drama and humor that come across as minimalist and largely improvisational.

In Happy Christmas, Swanberg reunites with Buddies’ Anna Kendrick to tell the story of Jeff and Kelly (himself and the perpetually underrated Melanie Lynskey), a young couple who take in Jeff’s sister Jenny (Kendrick) after her break up with a boyfriend. Jenny is a charming (it’s Anna Kendrick so, natch) albeit stunted and self-interested person who is acting out and prone to moments of immaturity, which makes Kelly nervous about her presence in the house.

But as the advent calendar on the mantel ticks off the days to Christmas the family bonds and Jenny’s presence prompts a series of small evolutions within Jeff and Kelly and their already-strong but novice marriage.

The film is filled with moments of simple delight, particularly in the form of Swanberg’s real-life infant son Jude, who steals every scene that he’s in. There are character arcs and conflict and resolution but the film is largely a peek into the life of three people who feel as real as any person you might pass on the street. It comes to an abrupt ending, making loose ends of otherwise minimal plot points, but provides a refreshing portrait of marriage and family without the cynicism or pandering of most similarly-themed films.

Grade: B

*‘Happy Christmas’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, August 1.

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Ukulele

The average high in Salt Lake City for the last week was 96 degrees. It hit triple digits on Wednesday (102) and at night we’ve been lucky if the low gets down into the low 70s. I have a window box air conditioning unit in my living room, but the cool air doesn’t quite make it to my bedroom before being beaten down by the oppressive heat.

That’s my long-winded way of saying I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately. And what is an amateur ukulelist with insomnia to do besides stare at the ceiling and will his eyelids to surrender to blissful slumber?

Record a cover song, duh, which is what I decided to do last night. I’m not a huge Pearl Jam fan, their heyday was a little before my time, but ‘Just Breathe’ holds a secure spot on my “I love this song so hard” Spotify playlist. I also like that it gives me a chance to work on my finger-picking skills on the Kamoa pineapple soprano.

As you can see by the clock in the video resting on top of my couch (it fell off the wall the other day and I haven’t gotten around to hanging it back up) it was about 10:30/11p.m. when I put this together. Between late night uke-ing and all the coconut curry I cook, I’m 100 percent sure that I’m my neighbors’ favorite neighbor. It could be worse, I could have a crying baby or a dog.

Oh, and to explain the header photo, I fastened my “official busker” pin and returned to the Salt Lake City farmers market this morning after an extended absence. It was a good day, but apparently my callouses had healed, which made for a painful afternoon.

Here’s the video, and as always you can download a free copy of the song on bandcamp.

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*Note: Portions of this review were first posted during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Roger Ebert — a man whose name is as associated with film as are Hitchcock, Fellini and Spielberg — was the premiere voice of film criticism in America and the first movie reviewer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, he passed away after a yearslong fight with Thyroid cancer, leaving behind a legacy that will never, and truly can not, be matched.

In “Life Itself,” the documentary based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, filmmaker Steve James paints a comprehensive portrait of the man. With Ebert’s full collaboration — or rather, encouragement — James’ camera captures the struggles with alcoholism, the contentious relationship with longtime colleague Gene Siskel, as well as the ego, the poise, the drive, the romantic. We see Mr. Ebert’s final weeks in the hospital leading up to his death, expressive and jovial, cracking wise and energetically describing his favorite films as well as the low moments in physical therapy when the frustrations boil beneath his voicelessness.

But in telling the history of a man at the movies, James’ also produces something of a love letter to the history of film criticism. We watch Eberts’ evolution from a beat reporter in Chicago to a nationally-recognized expert on film and along the way James’ presents us with Eberts’ famous philosophy of film serving as a machine for empathy, uniting diverse minds and presenting an audience with a peek into the world through another person’s perspective.

At one point late in the film Mr. Ebert, speaking with the assistance of his computer, remarks that he does not fear death as it is a part of life and would have felt cheated if his time had come abruptly as a result of an accident, cheating his life out of its poetic arc.

“This is the third act and it is an experience,” Ebert says.

The film is a must-see for any film fan and an insightful portrait of a legend whose life was, in many ways, a living tribute to the power of cinema.

Grade: Two thumbs way, way up

*Life Itself opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 25.

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*Note: Portions of this review were first published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

The always-enjoyable Philip Seymour Hoffman is deliciously sour in “A Most Wanted Man,”  but unfortunately he’s about the only intriguing part of this disappointingly lifeless adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy thriller.

The story follows Hoffman’s Gunther Bachmann, who heads up a covert anti-terrorist unit in Hamburg on the trail of a suspected terrorist who literally washes up on shore. Bachmann hopes the man can lead him upstream to bigger fish, but he’s under pressure from his superiors to act fast before any bombs go off.

A stellar supporting cast — including Rachel McAdams with a laughably bad German accent, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl and an Underwood-esque Robin Wright — are largely wasted as the plot tip toes forward in an attempt at slow-burn tension that ultimately fizzles.

Le Carre’s work has been proven to be fertile ground for low-fi psychological spy games on the big screen with 2011’s excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But while A Most Wanted Man shares some of Tinker’s DNA, the former plays like going to the senior prom with the quarterback’s quiet, gangly, acne-faced little brother.

With it’s 93 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I appear to be in the minority in not recommending this film. While I respect the difference of opinions among my colleagues, I also wonder if the tragic passing of Hoffman has lifted AMWM in the eyes of critics out of respect for one of Hollywood’s most truly gifted and versatile performers.

Hoffman is superb, to be sure, but the remaining elements of ‘A Most Wanted Man’ result in a thriller that nearly lulls you to sleep.

Grade: C+

*‘A Most Wanted Man’ opens nationwide on Friday, July 25.

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*Note: This review was first published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

 

Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff’s diretorial follow-up to “Garden State” was under scrutiny long before its premiere in Park City. The “Scrubs” actor drew the ire of many by asking his would-be audience for help through the fundraising website Kickstarter, with many feeling that it was inappropriate for an established star with Hollywood connections and several year’s worth of syndicated sitcom money in the bank to be asking regular folk to turn out their pockets.

But his fans jumped on board, and now the question is whether “Wish I Was Here” delivers their money’s worth.

WIWH, like Garden State before it, tells the story of a struggling actor (Braff) at a crossroads in life. In this case, Braff’s Aidan Bloom is a 30-something father of two who is in a professional rut. He hasn’t worked since “that dandruff commercial,” leaving his wife (Kate Hudson) to shoulder the bulk of the family’s financial burdens.

Aidan gets hit with another blow in the form of his ailing father (Homeland’s Mandy Patinkin) whose cancer has returned and spread throughout his body. Their relationship is strained, with Patinkin’s character incessantly voicing his disapproval of Aidan’s career choice, but more intact than that of Aidan’s brother (Josh Gad) who we presume has barely spoken to his father in years.

The movie is more mature than much of Braff’s earlier work, with a surprising amount of tenderness between Aidan and his two children (played by Looper’s Pierce Gagnon and White House Down’s Joey King). But there is a disconnect between the characters and the material that stands in the film’s way. Braff and Hudson have little, if any, chemistry onscreen and Gad has even less with Ashley Greene in a side-plot awkwardly inserted into the fray. There’s also a significant portion of the film devoted to religion that never quite materializes into something impactful.

In the end, Wish I Was Here is a pleasant film with a sufficiently emotional voice. But the movie likely will not live up to the expectations of Garden State fans who waited 10 years for Braff to get back behind the camera.

Grade: B

*Wish I Was Here opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 25.

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European Facial

Last month’s Treat Yo’ Self was not entirely pleasant, so as a new month rolled in I was ready to get back to an activity of a more relaxing nature. I briefly considered doing something patriotic to coincide with Independence Day, but then it occurred to me that I spend the bulk of July with a persistent sunburn and my skin could use a little TLC.

So I settled on a European Facial, which combines a deep cleansing with steam, exfoliation, and an upper body massage before culminating in a chemical mask that hydrates the skin, and I invited my friend Chelsey Gensel to come along.

Chelsey and I met in the journalism program at Utah State University, and more specifically at USU’s independent student newspaper, The Utah Statesman.

When I was named editor in chief I hired Chelsey as my second-in-command, meaning that she made sure everything was spelled correctly while I engaged in ill-advised spitting contests with the school’s student government and Greek Row (which were pretty much one and the same).

In 2011, we both moved to New York City and were basically neighbors in that we were separated by a couple subway stops and were two of the only seven white people in Queens. She’s an extremely loyal and supportive friend and is passionate about the things she loves.

She’s OK.

photo 2(8)

We checked in at Skinworks School of Advanced Skincare for our 2 p.m. appointment and had a few minutes to fill out a questionnaire in an phenomenally-aromatic lobby. The sun is really bad, guys, as our pages made clear by repeated inquiries into our regular levels of exposure and warnings against venturing out into the cruel harsh light except for the most exigent of circumstances.

From there we were taken into our private rooms, Chelsey by a woman and myself by a nice man named Mike who reminded me of Little Richard without the mustache.

My preconception of facials was largely based on television comedies, where groups of women sit together and gossip about their love lives with a green paste on their skin and cucumbers over their eyes. I assume that option is out there, but my facial was a very matter-of-fact affair, with the first 30 minutes or so consisting of the applications of various creams during a dialogue with Mike about my individual skincare needs and then 30 minutes of quiet relaxation while Mike applied a translucent mask and massaged my face, neck, shoulders, arms and back.

Mike told me I have great skin (I bet he says that to all the guys) and warned me repeatedly about wearing SPF since I’m a “Fitzpatrick II,” which is skin-industry-speak for “Pasty white Irish boy.”

Properly pampered, Chelsey and I headed to Oh Mai to conduct our interview over some Báhn Mì sandwiches and toasted coconut water.

Oh Mai Salt Lake City

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

Chelsey Gensel: I am Chelsey and I am a nanny in New York.

WS: Have you ever had a European facial?

CG: I’ve never had a facial of any kind before today.

WS: What did you think?

CG: I was pleasantly surprised with what a process it was. I thought you would just sit in a chair and they would put some gunk on your face and then wipe it off and moisturize you. But it was kind of like getting a massage. You’re in there for an hour, you have a bed and it was quite involved. And the mask was clear, I was not expecting that.

WS: Neither was I.

CG: You expect it to be like green or blue or mud colored or whatever.

WS: Walk me through it. What was it they did, you did, and so on.

CG: They had a lovely terry cloth dressing gown. A massage table bed. A warm toasty blanket, which was good because it may be summer and you think you’re not going to be cold but when they’re taking hot and cold washcloths off your face for an hour you get a little bit of a chill.

European Facial

They started with some kind of a cleanser, lotion-y stuff. They wiped that off. Exfoliant – wiped that off. Mask, moisturizer, whatever the last one was. Toner? I think. And then a sort of upper body massage in between. Oh and the lamp, the check-your-skin-to-make-sure-you’re-healthy lamp.

WS: With my guy, the first half was a lot of questions and conversation and then the last half was mostly massage. Is that how yours went?

CG: Actually no, she was not talkative at all at first. I explained to her that I had my freshly-inked tattoo so I couldn’t have my arm rubbing against the blankets and moved around. The questions were very business-like, just about what was going to be happening. She asked what scent I wanted. But she never asked what I did, where I was from, anything like that. It was very little conversation.

WS: Do you remember which scent you chose?

CG: Lemongrass

WS: Mine was an East Indian Patchouli Oil and he said I had good taste.

CG: Patchouli Oil is nasty.

WS: I agree, but this was apparently differently.

CG: Yeah it was that or lavender or lemongrass. It was a toss up between lemongrass and lavender but there was no way I was going Patchouli.

WS: Was there anything else that surprised you or that you didn’t expect?

CG: No I don’t think so. I’ve been to salons before. I’ve read the service menus and kind of knew what to expect from a facial. I just didn’t know that it was like an hour-long process.

WS: How does your skin feel?

CG: Refreshed and glow-y, although a little bit wet. I keep waiting for the moisturizer to all soak in but every time I touch my face it feels a little oily.

European Facial

WS: So let’s talk a little bit about New York.

CG: It’s still there.

WS: You’re a nanny there, how long have you been doing that?

CG: Three years.

WS: How do you like it?

CG: I still like it most of the time. I figure it has its challenges like any job but it’s something I generally enjoy doing and can still learn from doing and let’s me live the way I would like to and be comfortable and do the things I like to do.

WS: What was the motivation behind New York. Why that place?

CG: New York is my mistress. I’m just in love with it. I can’t explain it, it’s like it’s own little universe. I hated Salt Lake City growing up and I never would have figured myself for a city girl but I was nannying in Pennsylvania after my freshman year of college and visited New York on a weekend and just from the second I stepped off the subway I wanted to come back.

WS: I think most everybody, whether they vocalize it or not, wants to live in New York. Or they at least want to be able to. Do you ever find yourself surprised that you’re actually there?

CG: No, not really.

WS: You never have that moment where you realize “Oh right, I live in New York”

CG: I guess sometimes I do take a step back and think “aren’t I lucky to live in a place where I have all these opportunities and can do all the things I want to do, basically when I want to do them.” But that’s not happenstance, I did it on purpose, so it’s not like it’s a surprise to me. I picked New York because I wanted to be in New York for those reasons: to be able to do those things and go those places and have those experiences.

People always say “You’re so brave” or “You’re so adventurous.” It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. I went where I wanted to go to do what I wanted to do.

WS: So you don’t automatically feel cooler than the rest of us because you live in the Big Apple.

CG: Oh yeah. I totally do. But it’s not for everybody and I get that. I’m not like a New York missionary.

WS: What’s the best thing and what’s the worst thing about living in New York?

CG: I’ll probably have a different answer in a few months but right now it’s the smell.

WS: Yeah, the summertime…

CG: Summer in New York, it doesn’t matter where you go, it’s smells like hot garbage and body odor. That’s just the way it is. It’s hot and you think like you’re never going to be dry again. It’s like in Harry Potter when they play that quidditch match in the rain and Fred and George say “We haven’t been properly dry since August.” That’s how I feel starting in about May in new york.

WS: What about the best thing?

CG: (Takes a sip of toasted coconut water) I don’t like it. Not New York, I don’t like the coconut juice.

Bahn Mi

WS: You don’t like the coconut?

CG: It’s got chunks in it.

WS: Yeah it does! I love it. I absolutely love it.

CG: Texturally that’s not a thing that I am interested in doing. I’ll sip it. You should have told me there were chunks.

WS: You wouldn’t have gotten it if I had.

CG: That’s true.

WS: You need to be a more adventurous eater.

CG: That is totally untrue.

WS: OK I take that back, you still do like ethnic food and all sorts of things.

CG: As evidenced, I’ll try almost anything. Usually taste is not bothersome to me, it’s texture.

WS: Well I do feel like you put too much of a dealbreaker status on texture.

CG: I can’t help my brain chemistry. I’m sorry.

WS: You were born this way, is that what you’re saying?

CG: Yes I was. Actually I may have been born this way but I’m probably more adventurous than I would otherwise have been if I didn’t spend four years as a vegetarian.

WS: Yeah, that makes you experiment with food.

photo 1(10)

CG: What was the question?

WS: Best thing about New York?

CG: My head is swimming, I don’t know how to define it. If I get asked this question in a conversational setting I’ll either give a stock answer that makes no sense or I’ll wax philosophical for days because I love it so much.

It sounds super corny, but it always amazes me that as a city that is so connected to everywhere else in the world it can be so isolated. I feel like it has it’s own heartbeat. You can be isolated and find your niche and never leave or you can go 100 different directions and experience anything you want to experience and never see the same person twice for 10 years if you don’t want to.

WS: I know what you mean. I remember when I was living there I would tell people how I felt kind of alone and isolated and people would say “how is that possible?” but there’s so many people that you are just in a sea.

CG: And it can be really hard to meet people because it’s not like you just go to the park or it can be kind of an ordeal to go anywhere you’re going to go so you have to be purposeful about it. So if you’re not part of an office culture where you meet people at work or a church group where you meet people of your faith or you’re going to school and you meet people in class, it can be very difficult because not everyone wants to necessarily meet the people they would meet at a bar on a night out.

WS: And without those groups there’s just millions of people…

CG: …who never really intersect. Although you see dog walkers and dog owners pass each other on the street and strike up a conversation. I have started talking to people on the subway because I notice they’re listening to a band I like or reading a book I know.

A couple weeks ago I started hanging out with these four kids on the subway who were playing a word game where you start with the last letter of the previous person’s answer. This one kid kept using World Cup players and I caught on to it 3 or 4 rounds in so I interrupted on his turn and said “another World Cup player?” He was like “Dang, I’m caught” and I joined their game. For 20 minutes on the subway I played a game with these four strangers and will never see them again. But you can put yourself into wherever and whoever and whatever you want or remove yourself just as easily.

WS: I do miss that, that is a cool aspect of the city.

CG: And a simplistic one but I really like being in proximity to everything I want to do like concerts and stuff.

WS: Is there anything you miss about Utah?

CG: The mountains and my family and friends who are still here. When I come back it’s nice for about 3 days but everywhere I go I run into someone I know and can catch up and don’t really have to put effort into it. But then after a little while I’m over it and ready to go back to the city.

I’ve seen enough plaid cargo shorts, tank tops over t-shirts and crocs to last me a lifetime. I don’t claim to be high fashion or anything but I’ve had about enough.

European Facial

WS: Would you recommend a European facial to others?

CG: I would say “provisionally.” It’s very nice but I imagine it can be quite pricey depending on where you go and unless you have skincare needs or issues I don’t know whether it would be worth it to do often. It’s certainly worth trying once, but I’m not sure it would be cost effective to do just for fun.

WS: Anything you want to promote?

CG: Ed Sheeran’s new album just came out. Go listen to it.

WS: Are you on Twitter?

CG: Yes, @ChelseyJane

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"Weird Al" Yankovich

I never saw the video for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Eat It” on MTV. Or “Amish Paradise.” Or “Like a Surgeon.” Or “Fat” for that matter.

That’s because when I was a kid, enjoying a picturesque childhood in rural Utah in the late 80s/early 90s, my family didn’t have cable. And we weren’t alone.

Back then subscriber television hadn’t reached levels of omnipresent ubiquity. My neighbors had it, and it was always a thrill to scroll through the endless list of channels at hotels during family vacations, but once we were home I was limited to the Big 4 and PBS, assuming I could hold the antennas in the exactly right position.

I was still a passionate “Weird Al” fan, resulting from my love of all things Star Wars in 2009 that led me to obtaining my own copy of the album “Running With Scissors” — which included a Star Wars-themed parody of “American Pie” along with such hits as “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi” and an 11-minute spoken word tribute to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which I memorized and would perform at family functions.

But MTV is where Yanky made his bread and butter, and the reason why is obvious.

You don’t listen to “Weird Al” for the music. Nobody puts “Living with a Hernia” on the playlist for their wedding video. You listen to “Weird Al” because he has a gift for pairing clever wordplay with satirical videos shot with surprisingly impressive production quality.

His appeal — and his biggest hits — have always stemmed from a knack for multi-media showmanship, which is exactly what makes his current internet domination so interesting.

As of the writing of this post, Al was on day 5 of an ambitious strategy of 8 daily music video releases ahead of the release of his 14th album. The “project,” for lack of a better word, has done gangbusters online, flooding my twitter feed and Facebook as friends and acquaintances discover “Word Crimes,” “Tacky” and “Foil.” ( 6 million, 2 million, and 6 million YouTube views, respectively).

He has stated in interviews that part of his digital release strategy is due to the decline of MTV and cable, and he’s right. MTV’s much-discussed failure as “Music” television aside, research group TDG found that cable subscriptions in the U.S. peaked in 2011 with 100.9 million households and has declined ever since (and is projected to continue keep falling).

tdgchart

But where most articles have suggested that Yankovich is “adapting” to the internet age, I would posit that the internet is precisely what his career has been building to. Yankovich has been here all along, he was just waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

Social media, and the “viral” sensations it creates, has fully supplanted primetime television programming as the most effective way to reach a mass audience. But consider this, A Yankovich video like “Word Crimes” is the perfect Facebook post: a funny, inoffensive video that pleases both political ranters and baby-picture-sharers with its blend of winking high-brow and low-brow comedy. Take, for example, the blink-and-you-miss-it innuendo of “a cunning linguist” tucked into a debate over the Oxford Comma in “Word Crimes” (hey-hey-hey!).

The songs are familiar, prompting us to turn up the volume to hear the differences that derive from similarity, and the videos are packed with gags that blend both sight and sound (the backup singers who materialize to croon the word “Fooooooooooil” will never not be funny).

All week long we’ve been stumbling upon these videos, we’ve had a good laugh, we’ve maybe re-watched to see if we missed something on our first run, and then we clicked the share button to let our friends in on the joke. From there, we went about our lives never to really think about or listen to it again.

That type of catch-and-release audience engagement has always been central to “Weird Al’s” creations, but until now we’ve never had the appropriate mechanism to make full use of its potential. Fourteen albums later, Yankovich has seized upon the perfect storm of technology and clickbait attention spans to produce the best work of his career. Bravo.

And in case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video for “Word Crimes.”

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