Archive for January, 2015

The-Experimenter

Experimenter

Midway through “Experimenter,” Michael Almereyda’s biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, a morose Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) enters a classroom and tells his students that President John F. Kennedy has been shot in Dallas.

They don’t believe him, so a woman pulls out a portable radio and the classroom listens to news reports about the assassination. It must be a radio play, the classmates whisper to each other, like War of the Worlds.

It’s a bit of dark humor that encapsulates “Experimenter,” which chronicles Milgram’s controversial career using deception (or “illusion” as he prefers) to study human nature. You’ve already heard of his experiments, even if you don’t remember his name. That famous study that asked people to administer electric shocks to a man screaming in pain? That was his. Six degrees of separation? He had a hand in that.

The movie draws Milgram as a brooding yet playful mind, sending his students out into the world to disrupt people’s lives so he can observe the result. It also borrows shades from House of Cards, with Sarsgaard frequently staring through the fourth wall to address the audience directly, offering insight into Milgram’s brilliant and quizzical brain.

Throughout all of this is a healthy dose of academic think-speak, kept at an accessible vernacular that lets the audience feel as though there in on a trick, smarter than those people who don’t know Milgram’s story or, more so, the subjects of his famous studies. It’s an impressive bit of sleight-of-hand that adds some levity into what could have been a dull history lesson.

Grade: A-

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The Hunting Ground

With the infamous Rolling Stone article about campus rape still sending ripples through the academic community, it’s easy to see Kirby Dick’s “The Hunting Ground” as especially timely.

But what the documentary makes uncomfortably clear is that the epidemic of campus sexual assault is not a recent evil to hit our college and university campuses, nor is it limited to the prestigious upper crust of academia. It is a nationwide plague that has been thriving in  for decades, reaching one out of every 4 or 5 women who set foot on the campus of an institution of higher education.

The statistics are damming and well-documented, but what “The Hunting Ground” makes clear is the insidious circumstances that lead universities to downplay or even cover-up the criminal acts taking place under their noses. They know where the problems are, with a minority of student predators accounting for the majority of assaults and statistically higher rates of violence among student athletes and fraternities. But higher education runs on money, and it’s easier to shame a victim into silence than take on the powerful booster-check-writing parents of football stars and frat house presidents.

It’s impossible to watch “The Hunting Ground” without becoming angry, hearing first hand accounts of women and men who describe the treatment they received at the hands of campus officials as worse then the actual crimes committed against them. We see them describe, in choked-back tears, how they were ostracized from the campus community while their attackers are allowed to thrive, attack other students and, in one high-profile case, win the Heisman Trophy ahead of a likely first-round draft pick in the NFL.

Grade: A

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Sembene!

Ousmane Sembene is known by many as “the father of African film.” His books and movies challenged the power structures of Africa, including the political corruption and religious traditions of the region.

In “Sembene!” directors Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman present a largely biographical take on the Senegalese filmmaker’s life. They explore his early years as a dock worker in Marseille through his controversial and internationally acclaimed filmography to his death in 2007.

The reverence for Sembene is clear in the film, while still showing some of his rough edges. But for a figure largely unknown to the Western world, “Sembene!” never quite transcends what feels like a museum audio track to become something truly engaging.

Grade: B-

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Sleeping With Other People

Director Leslye Headland showed her chops for raunch R-rated comedy in 2012’s Bachelorette, but in her follow-up, Sleeping With Other People, the filmmaker shows she can balance the belly laughs with a surprising amount of heart.

More than a decade after meeting and losing their virginity together at college, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) reconnect at a sex addict support group. Neither are true addicts, but both are in a bit of a rut and they form a platonic relationship over their mutual taste for romantic self-sabotage.

That their friendship evolves into something more complicated comes as no surprise, but the way that the film handles the emotional evolution of its comedic stars is surprising. Sudeikis, in particular, dials down his typical schtick to deliver a pseudo-dramatic and genuinely nuanced performance as a man looking for something in all the wrong ways.

The result is a charming and spirited portrait of modern romance that defies genre and isn’t afraid to poke at big ideas without sacrificing laughs.

Grade: A-

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Mississippi Grind

I’m largely agnostic toward Ryan Reynolds. He’s a charming lad and easy on the eyes who, despite several woefully awful films, has made a few films that go down smooth on a Friday night.

But in Mississippi Grind, Reynolds approaches something that almost makes the case for the erstwhile sexiest man alive as a leading man. Playing a nomadic extrovert with a penchant for Woodford Bourbon, he bursts into the life of down-on-his-luck gambler Gerry and the two take off on a cards- and dice-fueled road trip down to New Orleans.

It’s a retro story, two gamblers on the road living day by day, that makes for an interesting character study of its two leads.

Grade: B+

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The D Train

Remember that guy in high school? The guy all the girls wanted and all the guys wanted to be? For alumni committee chairman Dan (Jack Black) that guy is Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) and getting Oliver to come to the school’s 20-year reunion is Dan’s master plan at saving the event and establishing himself as one of the cool guys.

Of course, convincing Oliver to make the trip home requires Dan to take things a little too far, and the bulk of The D Train consists of Black as humble schlub, trying to keep cool while his personal and proessional life unravels.

It’s a relatively simple premise that stretches into increasingly bizarre territory. The result is a not-unenjoyable film that plays more odd than funny.

Grade: B

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Stockholm, Pennsylvania

Nikole Beckwith’s film “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” functions as a sort of intellectual exercise, looking at what happens after an abducted child is reunited with her family. In it, Saoirse Ronan plays Leia, who was taken as a child and returned to a family she no longer remembers after almost two decades in the basement of her captor.

Beckwith approaches each moment with an academic curiosity. Leia’s parents struggle to bond with a daughter they don’t know, arguing over whether it’s best to salvage the past or forge a new future. At the same time, Leia has no reference point for what constitutes a normal family, with normal relationships.

The movie at times hits the nail a little too hard on the head, like one scene where Leia can’t decide whether she’s sad that her whole life was spent with her captor or that the rest of her life will be spent without him. But for a movie that poses more questions than it asks, Stockholm gives plenty for the mind to stew over while swimming through moral ambiguity.

Grade: B

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Pervert Park

To commit a sexual crime is to be labeled forever as a sexual offender, with limits imposed on housing, employment and travel. The system is set up to protect the public at large but what about those individuals who have done their time and are now working toward rehabilitation under the burden of a scarlet letter?

Pervert Park looks at crime and punishment from the perspective of the criminals, focusing on a small community of sex offenders in Florida who reside in a trailer park set up to house them. The crimes range from very disturbing serial abuses to comparatively minor offenses, all told with heavy emotional weight in a series of one-on-one interviews.

It’s an effective storytelling device, showing the humanity behind sometimes inhuman acts of violence and directors Frida and Lasse Barkfors manage to show sympathy to their subjects without absolving them of wrongdoing.

Grade: B+

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The Bronze

The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch stars as Hope Ann Greggory, an Olympic gymnast who captured the nation’s heart only to see her star fade into obscurity when her career is cut short by injury. The film picks up 12 years after Greggory’s third place finish at the games, with the former athlete having devolved into a petulant, crass and maladjusted woman-child who clings to the memory of her former glory.

Rauch, as the caustic and off-putting Greggory, is almost unrecognizable in the role, the complete opposite over her doe-eyed and chipper-voiced Bernadette on Big Bang. Most of The Bronze consists of overly-long, profanity-laden monologues delivered by Greggory at the expense of whatever foolish soul has stumbled across her path.

The movie contains glimpses of comedic brilliance — most notably an unforgettable sex scene that incorporates the pommel horse and other acrobatic acts — but The Bronze is ultimately a case of inconsistency, with maybe 30 minutes of good jokes stretched across two hours.

Grade: C+

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The Summer of Sangaile

Sangaile plays like a one-stop-shop for all of your Sundance Film Festival cliches. It’s a European coming-of-age tale full of lilting visuals, melancholy and female sexuality.

Centered on Sangaile, a quiet and brooding teen who cuts her arms and dreams of flying despite a crippling vertigo, the movie functions as a less-exploitative Blue is the Warmest Color. She meets the extroverted and comparatively agressive Auste, and their slow-burn relationship eventually turns sexual and pulls Sangaile out of her shell.

It’s quiet and introspective to a fault, laying the mood on thick while the drama, and stakes, are stretched thin.

Grade: B-

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The Overnight

Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling star as a married couple, recently relocated to Los Angeles and struggling to acclimate to their new community while navigating their own personal and marital issues. While playing with their son at a park, they meet Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), a bon vivant Californian who invites the pair over for dinner with him and his wife.

After the couples’ children are asleep, the adults relax into a booze-filled evening that ebbs and flows in increasingly awkward and revelatory ways as Scott and Schilling’s buttoned-up suburbanites slowly give in to the free-spirited je ne sai quois of their hosts.

It’s a unceasingly enjoyable film that plays into your assumptions, flips them around and hands them back to you in delightful ways. Every laugh is earned, not by pandering with loud, obvious jokes but by a series of spot-on deliveries by Scott, Schwartzman and Schilling.

Grade: B+

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I Am Michael

It’s a bit of perfect timing that I Am Michael premieres in Park City, Utah this month, just a few short weeks after TLC’s controversial “My Husband’s Not Gay,” which features four Mormon men living in Salt Lake City who live heterosexual lives despite being attracted to other men.

Franco stars as Michael Glatze, the poster child of reparative therapy and the Pray The Gay Away acolytes. Once a prominent LGBT rights activist and founder of Young Gay America Magazine, Glatze publicly denounced his own homosexuality before embracing religious conservativism and pursuing a life as an evangelical pastor and heterosexual.

It’s a subject ripe with narrative drama but I Am Michael, like its protagonist, seems uncomfortable in its own skin. It tip toes cautiously through the shopping list of Glatze’s life events with all the warmth and emotion of a Wikipedia page.

Zachary Quinto shines as Glatze’s longtime boyfriend, but Franco never seems convincing in any of his character various personality iterations. The result is a controversial topic rendered inert by too delicate a touch.

Grade: B-

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Most Likely To Succeed

Decrying the failures of the American public education system is practically a national past time, and every year brings several new voices to the chorus of cries that we must think of the poor, poor children.

The search for a silver bullet continues with Most Likely To Succeed, the latest documentary by “Mitt” and “New York Doll” director Greg Whiteley.

In MLTS, Whiteley does the obligatory ground work by interviewing half a dozen experts who raise red flags about the ed-pocolypse already at our door. From there, the film pivots quickly to a shiny charter school in San Diego where there are no bells and the teachers do crazy things like have their students arrange their desks in semi-circles. =

If I sound cynical it’s because I am (I’m an education reporter by day, full disclosure) and because it’s an argument we’ve all heard before, filled with buzzwords like “innovation,” “critical thinking,” and “engagement.”

Most Likely To Succeed adds very little to that conversation. Much like he did in “Mitt,” Whiteley seems more comfortable watching difficult questions from a safe distance rather them poking them with a stick, let alone getting his hands dirty. The film functions really well as an promotional ad for a charter school in California but offers little of use to schools looking to serve their students.

Grade: B-

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*Ratter – Slamdance

In the world of cybercrime there are programs called RATs, or remote administration tools, that allow you to seize control of another persons computer and access their files, camera and passwords.

In Ratter, Ashley Benson plays Emma, a woman who has fallen prey to a cyber stalker using a RAT to watch her every move. He peeks at her through her laptop, ogles her from her cell phone and searches for her through her video game console.

And everything he sees, the audience sees, because the movie is told entirely from his point of view, which is squarely fixed on Emma.

It’s an unnerving technique, reminiscent of the first Paranormal Activity film but with an added layer of unease because the viewer is an unwelcome and unknown presence. The films patiently builds to a boiling point, ending on a perfectly ambiguous and chilling note.

Grade: B+

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AMERICAN-SNIPERThere’s a tricky balancing act at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper,’ the Bradley-Cooper starring biopic adapted from a memoir of the same name by Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history.

On the one hand, Chris Kyle did his job and did it well, answering the call to defend his country and diving headfirst into conflict along with his fellow soldiers. But on the other hand, war is a dirty business, a last-resort necessary evil to some and an unconscionable waste of human life to others.

It’s that balance where Eastwood shows his earned-expertise as a director, and where ‘American Sniper’ excels while other saccharinely star-spangled films fall into obscurity. It has its moments of fist-pumping American exceptionalism, personified by the fine-tuned precision of our armed forces, but it also bleeds with the hubris of our national identity, an Uncle Sam aggression that leads young men, confident of their invincibility into the lion’s den.

At the heart of Sniper is Chris Kyle (Cooper) a true-Texas patriot prompted into battle by a deep-seeded desire to defend. He commits fully to his training, quickly rising through the ranks of Navy SEAL snipers before going on to serve four tours of duty, during which he earns the moniker “Legend” from his brothers in arms and is credited with at least 160 enemy kills.

And we see many of them, with long swathes of Sniper seen through Kyle gun scope, the cross-hairs passing over men, women and children as Kyle assesses their threat level. It’s an eerie and impactful directorial choice, evoking the visuals of a first-person shooter video game but never losing the heft of human life. With each pull of the trigger, we see a little more weight placed upon Kyle’s mind thanks to the delicately emotional performance of Cooper, who perfectly blends the outward bravado and internal conflict of his character.

It’s a conflict that Kyle isn’t able to simply cast aside when he hangs up his gun. Each time he returns home between tours he’s a slightly more broken man, pulling farther away from his wife (Sienna Miller) and children before rushing back to the familiarity of the battlefield.

Criticisms are already mounting that Eastwood brushed aside some of the uglier aspects of Kyle’s story. But watching ‘American Sniper’ is not the white-washed orgy of patriotism that we’ve seen in recent years. It’s a film that stares down the ugliness of war, point blank at the end of a gun barrel, filled with expertly crafted battle scenes and centered on a terrific performance by Cooper. And in its final frames, forced into a dark place due to real and inescapably tragic events in Chris Kyle’s life, it strikes a tone that is simultaneously hopeful and hopeless.

Grade: A-

*American Sniper opens nationwide on Friday, Jan. 16

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photo 1(1)Welcome to a new year here at Wood’s Stock! As always, January brings with it some changes to the site, most notably the updates to the archive now that last year’s long-term project is over.

First the bad news.

Normally I would use this space to announce my new ongoing project for the year but after A Quarter Century, My Life Online and Treat Yo Self I’m sorry to report that I will not be launching a new venture…yet.

I was considering a few different ideas but I didn’t feel 100% about any of them. And with my new gig as a contributor to the EW Community and my work with the Utah Screenwriters Project only about halfway done I was worried about having the time to fully commit to a new project (there’s also the issue of my day job, which takes up a fair amount of time. Gotta pay dem bills.)

So I’m hopeful that before long we’ll get something up and going for 2015. But fear not, because there’s still going to be plenty of new content dropping here on Wood’s Stock, including new movie and television reviews, free Ukulele music, photo collections and other scattered nonsense.

Now for some shopkeeping items. If you look at the top of the Wood’s Stock homepage you’ll notice that the My Life Online tab is no more. I love that project and I hate to get rid of its visibility, but I needed to make space for the new Treat Yo Self tab, which provides a nice one-stop shop if you want to catch up on any of the posts you missed or read the whole adventure from my barbershop shave with Adam to my sugar body scrub with Liz.

And as always, under the Articles tab you can find links to the A Quarter Century and now the My Life Online project. And don’t forget to check out the latest One Wood Uke music (including a brand new cover of The Head and The Heart’s Fire/Fear) and if you haven’t yet, make sure to read the excerpt from Committing, which turned 1 year old last month.

Thanks for reading guys. I appreciate your support and feedback.

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o-INHERENT-VICE-facebookUnder normal circumstances, a film would earn demerits for being a haphazard, befuddling mess.

And yet in the hands of director Paul Thomas Anderson, the confused state of Inherent Vice never detracts. In fact, its what makes the film so enjoyable. In many ways, watching Vice was like watching really good opera. I had little to no idea what was happening at any given moment, and yet I was awestruck by the quality of what was reaching my eyes and ears.

Here’s the plot, as best as I can describe it.

Set in the groovy, drug-soaked streets of 1970’s Los Angeles, Inherent Vice follows Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix in glorious mutton chop sideburns) a hippie private investigator with a notepad in one hand and a joint in the other. He’s asked by an ex-girlfriend to look into the disappearance of her new squeeze, a real estate titan, and in the process the girlfriend disappears, a few people are murdered and at least one man comes back to life.

There’s also smuggling ships, trampoline accidents, prostitution rings and one angry, hippie-hating cop, played by Josh Brolin with a flat top.

The movie unfolds less as a narrative than a kaleidoscope, with a constantly shifting display of shapes and colors that are only loosely identified and all obscured by an omnipresent drug-fueled haze, held in place by an expansive and incredible cast of A-listers from Owen Wilson to Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro.

It’s an atmospheric period piece, gleeful in its self-prescribed freedom for exploration, like a saxophone solo or interpretive dance. It’s ebbs and flows for more than two hours, perhaps a touch too long, bouncing along to its own rhythm but held together by Anderson’s firm directorial hand.

If you’ve seen The Master, you’ll have an idea of what kind of abstract experience to expect form PTA’s latest. But while Master was heady and played in a minor key, Vice is light and undeniably funny, with an effervescent retro-pop charm that slips past you unnoticed.

It’s the lava lamp of movies, a hypnotic visual treat that effortlessly demands your attention.

I can dig it.

Grade: B+

*Inherent Vice opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 9.

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10553410_10204449416380343_7121517607838412198_nAnyone want some free ukulele music for the new year?

I know I haven’t posted much by way of One Wood Uke lately, but some things just can’t be rushed. I actually started working on this song in September while I was busking at our local farmers market (I’m also drinking Kombucha while I type this — hipster overload!!!) but then I got busy with my new job and before I knew it, it was the holiday season.

Fire/Fear (by The Head and the Heart) just didn’t seem right for a Christmas release, with its pining lyrics and lilting mood, but it’s absolutely perfect for January, the worst month of the year.

I mean, right? I’ve lived most of my life in Utah where January is a seemingly interminable tedium of inversion-bogged, dreary lifelessness. It doesn’t help anything that it’s also my birth month, since birthdays fill me with a creeping dread of mortality and a sense of wasted potential. Time: that unstoppable monster that devours all things.

But even if you’re not, like me, in the throes of seasonal affective disorder, this song is still for you 🙂 Sure it’s about heartbreak, but it’s also about hope. Right? I don’t know. I just like it.

The other reason it took me until January is because when I left my old job in October, I left behind the company-issued MacBook that came with it. Now, I’m not an Apple absolutist like some, but my personal computer was a rather dismal Asus that I had purchased on the cheap in 2012 and barely used since then. It wasn’t up to the task.

But now I’m back on a MacBook and it feels (and hopefully sounds) so right!

As always, head on over to bandcamp for a free download of the song. And if you can tell me in the comments the two places where I messed up you get a special prize.

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