Posts Tagged ‘Park City’

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*Update: As of January 18, Mosaic is available for desktop users.

There has long been talk of applying the choose-your-own-adventure format of children’s storybooks to cinema. Various attempts have been made, largely by blurring the dividing lines between video games and movies, but none that have made significant splashes in the pop culture pond.

And that is what makes “Mosaic” — the new smartphone app-slash-television miniseries by Steven Soderbergh — all the more interesting; not for what it accomplishes but for what it suggests for the future of the medium. Having made my way through most of its episodic chapters and arrived at one of its two conclusions, I would say the story “Mosaic” tells is simply OK — perhaps 3 out of 5 stars if I’m generous — but its structure is fascinating to a degree that elevates the otherwise thin plotting.

The comparison to choose your own adventure books is incomplete, but fair. As a viewer, you’re not able to dictate shifts in plot the way a reader can; instead, you select the perspective of a character to follow through the next sequence of events. I’ve seen other critics describe it as “choose your own *protagonist*,” which is more accurate, as you travel through a static story and ultimately arrive at the same conclusion, albeit with certain pieces of information arriving out of sequence or simply alluded to as off-screen occurrences depending on the route you choose.

 

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But the presentation is also jarring, particularly in the early stages. By way of synopsis, “Mosaic” is a murder mystery, concerned with the whodunit after a celebrated children’s book author, played by Sharon Stone, vanishes following a New Year’s Eve party at her rural estate in “Summit, Utah” (a barely-veiled Park City, which in real life is the county seat of Summit County, Utah).

“Mosaic” doles out its exposition late, and then awkwardly. You start on your path by meeting Stone’s Olivia Lake, and are then presented with a choice between two characters at the end of each chapter — various flashbacks and additional scenes that add clarity are offered as optional detours within chapters — and if you primarily follow Garrett Hedlund’s Joel, as I did, you won’t even know who died, when, or how until quite late in the series.

And because the audience still needs critical information independent of their protagonist selection, Soderbergh is obligated to write in lengthy, momentum-killing monologues that state on-the-nose what has happened just in case you missed it the first time through.

There’s a lot of talent on screen here. In addition to Stone and Hedlund the cast includes Paul Reubens and Beau Bridges in non-POV roles. But no one really does much of anything, as the central gimmick of “Mosaic” means making 15 episodes (roughly 30 minutes each) out of story that can be told in 7.

Soderbergh plans to release a more traditional tv-format through HBO early next year, and I think the actual content of “Mosaic” will be better served that way. But I still wouldn’t recommend watching the show. I would, however, recommend downloading the free “Mosaic by Steven Soderbergh” app for exploration of the selective perspective model.

Why bother? It’s a reasonable question to ask since I don’t think the content is particularly good television. But while the recipe may not have worked out right, there’s no denying that Soderbergh has cooked up something special with “Mosaic.” And with more and more of our television viewing habits shifting away from live broadcasts and toward a binge-able, steaming model, it’s not to much of a stretch to imagine a future where you choose to dwell on the shenanigans of a supporting character a little longer before rejoining the main plot. Or what about a future season of Stranger Things in which you have the option of watching the show in its entirety from Eleven’s perspective, or Mike’s, or a demogorgon?

When the next episode in a series is just a mouse-click away, why limit audiences to a linear progression? In any movie or tv show there are scenes and footage that end up on the cutting room floor. Why not let viewers choose their own 13-step path to the finish line. We’ve already scene this is some DVD and Blu-Ray releases, where a click of the remote inserts a previously-deleted scene. “Mosaic,” in essence, is the natural evolution of the extended cut, in which there is no definitive “version” of a story.

Maybe I’m overreacting, and the many failings of “Mosaic” will put an end to this type of experimentation. I doubt it. I think Soderbergh, and others like him, are just getting started. So download the app, and check it out.

Grade: C+

Mosaic by Steven Soderbergh is currently available as a free download on iOS and Android devices.

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Weiner

It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe in which Anthony Weiner successfully repented of his sins (or never committed them in the first place) and won an unlikely victory in the race for mayor of New York City. In that universe, one can only speculate on what could have been in the embattled politician’s future.

The contrast between that once-bright future and Weiner’s corresponding fall from grace, is made all the more Shakespearean in this searing, at-times-uncomfortably intimate documentary, which tracks the meteoric rise, fall, resurgence and final explosion of an American political career.

“Weiner,” the film, is shot with astounding access to Weiner, the man’s, inner circle. That access was no doubt expected to produce a much different, and much more positive story, and it makes the inevitable trainwreck all the more daunting as it approaches.

But the film also succeeds at humanizing a man who became a national punchline. Weiner is shown here as passionate, energetic, sympathetic and deeply, deeply flawed. The film juggles the laugh out loud humor of a campaign in crisis with the profound sadness of watching a family and marriage nearly torn apart by scandall.

That no other politician would allow this level of exposure, combined with the singular drama of Weiner’s personal story, creates a documentary experience with few equals.

Grade: A

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Joshy

After his wedding is canceled, Josh (Thomas Middleditch) and his friends meet up for what would have been Josh’s bachelor party.

Boasting a strong ensemble of those-guys-you-know-from-tv (Adam Pally, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, etc.) Joshy is an ambling, improvisational dramedy that, were it not for the charm of its actors, would likely fall flat. But the energy from the ensemble manages to keep the aimlessness on the rails and distract from the otherwise thin goings-on.

Grade: B-

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Sand Storm

Set in a Bedouin village in southern Israel, “Sand Storm” is a quietly powerful story about women trapped in a suffocatingly patriarchal community. The film is centered on Layla (Lamis Ammar) and her mother Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), separated by a generation that overlaps traditional and modernism. Layla is allowed to study, but is hiding a boyfriend from her father, who has recently taken a second wife while ignoring Jalila and her children.

The authenticity of the culture depicted in “Sand Storm” is elaborately but not showingly detailed. But much of the film’s tension relies on social constructs that could benefit from more explanation for an international audience. It’s apparent that there are deeply rooted customs at play, which threaten the livelihood and happiness of these women, but without knowing that those customs are, its difficult to gauge some of the stakes.

Grade: B

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The Hollars

The quirky family dramedy is a perennial staple at Sundance, and the genre’s demands are thoroughly satisfied by “The Hollars,” directed by The Office’s John Krasinski. This is a film where an aloof son (Krasinski) is summoned home due to the ill health of a parent (in this case, character actress Margo Martindale) and the reconnection to his past jars him out of a rut so he can face his future.

It’s a familiar formula, but one that is successfully executed by the incredible ensemble cast, which includes Charlie Day, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Josh Groban and perfect human Anna Kendrick. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it goes down smooth.

Grade: B+

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Jim: The James Foley Story

James Foley, a freelance war correspondent, was the first American citizen killed by ISIS. His 2014 death, a grueling videotaped beheading after almost two years in captivity, was a watershed moment for the nation, and one that is given the weight it deserves in “Jim: The James Foley Story.”

Both a tribute to Foley and conflict journalism, “Jim” follows Foley’s work in Libya and Syria, before transitioning to his capture and the failed attempts by his family to negotiate a release. The story benefits greatly from first-hand interviews with Foley’s fellow captives, which are dramatized in understated, quasi-abstract vignettes that keep the emotion right where it belongs: the harrowing account of torture, resilience and camaraderie among a group of international journalists.

The film captures the anger and frustration of Foley’s family, openly critical of the U.S. government’s response to his abduction, and also blend of pride and regret they feel out of love for their brother and son and the weight of his absence. Both intimate and sprawling, told in quiet moments and scenes of explosive horror, “Jim” is the kind of documentary that takes days to shake off.

Grade: A

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Sleight

Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a street magician by day and drug dealer by night who gets in too deep with his criminal employer and has to rely on his illusions to get his family out of a jam.

Written and directed by J.D. Dillard, “Sleight” has a winning combination of playful charm and a dangerous edge. His protagonist is sympathetic and flawed, a balance capably handled by Latimore, whose career appears to be full of potential.

There are echoes to last year’s Sundance darling, “Dope,” albeit with a tone that plays like a superhero origin story. And while there’s plenty of familiar beat’s in Dillard’s script, the director carefully builds to well executed climax that stays just this side of fantasy.

Grade: B

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The Birth of a Nation

Writer-director-star Nate Parker blew the doors off Sundance with this historical epic, which netted a record $17.5 million pickup. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a violent slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, and is filled to the brim with commentary on America’s past, present and future.

While limited by a independent budget, Parker’s camera captures plenty of stomach-churning horrors. Prior to his rebellion, Turner visits neighboring plantations as a preacher-for-hire, providing a window into the disparate treatment eked out by slaveowners reacting and adapting to economic downturn.

The film seems perfectly poised to drop into the current national conversation on race in America. Its rough edges could slow it down in the mainstream market, but it’s a meaningful, boldly-made film with plenty to say.

Grade: B+

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The Bad Kids

Set in an alternative high school in California, “The Bad Kids” is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about empathy in education.

The school at the heart of the film is the proverbial one where the bad kids go, only directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe are more interested in how a dedicated educator, in the case the school’s principal, can have a profound effect on an otherwise neglected child’s chances for success.

The stories in the film are intensely personal, and Fulton and Pepe handle them with care. But that same focus on a single school and its students has a myopic quality, making it unclear how the lessons learned would be applied elsewhere.

Grade: B

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How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change)

The subject of climate change has been treated by many documentary filmmakers, to varying degrees of success. “How to Let Go of the World” is one of the more effective examples, showing the physical effects of a warming world, from families displaced by major storms to island nations vanishing under rising seas and air so polluted by fossil-fuel dependency that children can’t play outside.

Director Josh Fox (“Gasland”), banjo in tow, globe-trots while documenting the creeping environmental crisis and the steps both made and ignored as danger. The film runs unnecessarily long, buoyed by distracting insertions of Fox into the story, but the overall portrait is sufficiently alarming while also clinging to hope that mankind can save itself from the edge.

Grade: B+

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White Girl

After moving from Oklahoma to New York City for school, Leah (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) embraces the freedom of adulthood through nonstop partying and drug use. That leads her into the arms of Blue, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, who is promptly scooped up by the law, leaving a heartsick Leah with a bag of cocaine and the drive to rescue Blue from America’s arcane mandatory minimum laws.

“White Girl” is aggressively non-puritanical, but it’s still challenging to look past what amounts to Bad Decisions: The Movie. Leah’s quest to free Blue is dogged by a consistent stream of failures that are either the result of everyone in the world of the movie being a disgusting creep or the result of our heroin insisting on snorting one more line.

There’s a commentary here about our modern times, drug laws and racial privilege. But any nuance is buried under layers of exhaustion as an unsympathetic protagonist stumbles from one disaster to the next.

Grade: C

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Jacqueline (Argentine)

Imagine a documentary in which nothing happens, and what little does happen is made up. That’s Jacqueline (Argentine), the difficult-to-describe film directed by The Daily Show’s Bernardo Britto.

Ostensibly about a French government employee living in exile in Argentina because she unearthed a CIA assassination conspiracy, the film spends it’s first half unconvincingly pretending to be real before fully revealing itself as fiction in part two. The cracks begin to show as glaringly rehearsed embellishments give way to recognizable actors like Richard Kind playing “real” people. All of which is drowned under the incessant, monotonous and ham-fisted narration of Britto who waxes philosophical about benign details in an attempt to hide that there is nothing to see here.

Grade: C-

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Christine

Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck, the real-life Florida newswoman who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television. The film follows Chubbuck’s final months, as loneliness, social anxiety and mounting pressure from work pull at her fraying nerves.

Hall is excellent, convincingly playing the barely-contained eruptions behind her character’s fixed expressions. Her Christine is simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic, perpetually getting in the way of her own happiness, which seems just one good day away but always out of reach.

Beyond Hall, however, the film is thin. Aside from her infamous death, Christine Chubbuck was an otherwise uneventful person, a small-market television reporter who lived with her mother and focused on her work. Director Antonio Campos attempts to compensate with a pleasant ensemble of coworkers (played by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Veep’s Timothy Simons) but the end results feels undercooked.

Grade: B-

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Newtown

The community of Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and 6 adults were murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, is ripe for documentary attention, and in “Newtown,” director Kim Snyder proves she is up to the task. A comprehensive examination of community grief, with dozens of subjects interviewed over the space of three years, the film paints a picture of collective tragedy, mourning, resilience and, ultimately, resolve to move forward.

Grade: B+

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Under The Gun

Stephanie Soechtig and Katie Couric, the team behind “Fed Up”, 2014 searing takedown of the sugar and soda industries, return to Sundance this year with “Under the Gun,” a searing takedown of the nation’s gun laws.

Some of those laws are (relatively) well known, like the loopholes that allow individuals to sell and purchase guns without background checks. Others, however, have flown under the national radar, like the prohibition against the ATF digitizing its innumerable amount of paper records or the restrictions on gun research by the CDC.

“Under the Gun” dissects those laws and their histories, as well as turning the camera on  the mass shootings that have overturned American communities and the ongoing and largely overlooked gun violence in cities like Chicago. But more than a simple crusade against guns, the film looks at the broad consensus (including majorities within NRA membership) for closing background check loopholes and excluding suspected terrorists from gun purchases.

America, according to “Under The Gun” is a nation ignored by its leaders while citizens are hurt and dying.

Grade: A-

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Southside With You

During the course of an extremely long first date, future president Barack Obama won over a disinterested Michelle Robinson, despite several biting arguments, by demonstrating his oratorial prowess and sneaking a kiss over some dessert. At least, that’s the version shown in “Southside With You,” the Before Sunrise-esque origin story of the First Couple.

Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Tanne’s script lacks the depth and subtlety of Richard Linklater’s classic. “Southside With You” is bogged down by the weight of its characters’ futures and so concerned with what is to be that it forgets that its actually telling a story set in the present tense. What should be a love story between two young and promising adults in Chicago is instead a pseudo-mythic Obamas: Origins story, as if at any moment a radioactive spider will jump out and transform them into their full potential.

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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And so ends another festival, and a very successful one at that. In all I saw 20 films, breaking my personal record, and also managed to catch at least one screening on each of the 10 days of Sundance (including the big winner Whiplash, which was a highlight of the week.) If you haven’t already, you can read my capsule reviews of this year’s films here, here, here and finally here.

I was busier than usual with work-related activities and I also made the executive decision to not lug my camera around unnecessarily. The result is a smaller crop of photos but since every Q&A looks the exact same, that’s not necessarily a problem.

That first image above is of the historic Egyptian Theater on Main Street. As part of this year’s New Frontier, every night the facade was lit up with a series of adaptive images projected from across the street. It was great having New Frontier back on Main Street and I wish I had more time to explore it, particularly the Oculus Rift installations that I hear were pretty trippy.

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This year’s festival closed with William H. Macy’s “Rudderless,” a very good film about a man mourning his son’s death who finds some direction by covering his son’s music. It was Macy’s directorial debut and very promising, with one of the best-handled “twists” I’ve ever seen.

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The best Q&A award goes to “They Came Together,” which saw director David Wain joined by stars Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd and Max Greenfield. The film is essentially one long satirical sketch about romantic comedies (imagine a feature film version of the movie-within-a-movie sequence of Don Jon) and the cast was fittingly sarcastic during the panel. Here’s a video I shot of the Q&A but fair warning, there is some adult-ish sexual language.

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And here is director Lynn Shelton and the crew of “Laggies” taking questions in the MARC theater.

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That’s Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth) taking questions after a screening of his film “Young Ones,” which was another one of my favorites. Directors have a tendency to be very vague when asked about the artistic choices they make while making a film (not wanting to undercut the poetic ambiguity, I suppose) but Paltrow’s answers were all surprisingly direct.

Young Ones stars Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning. Watch for it.

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Speaking of Elle Fanning, she performed a reading during this year’s Celebration of Music in Film Event.

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As did Glenn Close.

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I didn’t make it to any of the musical acts at ASCAP this year, but I was able to catch a series of performances at the Celebration of Music in Film. Above is the performer Jetta, who killed it and whose music you can find here.

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Another of the evening’s performers was Rae Spoon, who was the subject of the documentary film “My Prairie Home.” I wasn’t able to catch the movie, but Spoon had a great sound at the celebration event.

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And of course, Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, joined a small jazz number who are no doubt renowned in jazz circles but whose names unfortunately aren’t as memorable as “Flea”. I was going to post a picture of Flea’s face but I just couldn’t pass up this one of him in power stance. (And unlike the Peppers’ Super Bowl performance, his guitar was plugged in this time.)

I only had to attend one red carpet this year, which was fantastic because red carpets are the absolute worse. People often mistakenly think they’re glamorous. You’re wrong. As a journalist you’re packed into a space considerably smaller than your physical body where you wait for an hour for “the stars” to arrive. When they finally do, it becomes a gauntlet challenge where they try to pass through as quickly as possible while reporters literally climb on top of each other, thrusting cameras and microphones in order to ask extremely asinine questions.

But here’s Mitt Romney, arriving for the Salt Lake Gala premiere of “Mitt” which is now available on Netflix (it’s also not meh).

Lastly, I didn’t want to bombard ya’ll with instagram photos but I had to share this. I attended the Sundance Awards Ceremony for the first time this year and was assigned a table with other journalists. Now, most people know already, but journalists are notorious booze hounds, particularly when the booze is free.

I personally don’t imbibe, but even without my contributions we had a couple dozen bottles of Stella on the table by the end of the night (full disclosure, a few passers-by added to the collection, but only after it had already become formidable).

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Whiplash

I like Miles Teller. I liked him in The Spectacular Now, I liked him in the Footloose remake and I liked him in the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be 21 And Over. But his performance in Whiplash is what I like most.

In Whiplash, Teller eschews his typical Gen-Y Vince Vaughn cool guy to play a drummer named Andrew so singularly-driven by his desire to be the best that he is misanthropic, abrasive and willing to undergo what can only be described as emotional torture at the hands of his director, a terrifyingly volatile and terrific J.K. Simmons. Insulted and occasionally assaulted, Andrew only hunkers down further to practice until his hands literally bleed.

It’s hard to explain exactly how he does it, but (the shockingly young) director Damien Chazelle portrays a series of jazz music performances with the same pulse-pounding tension of a Paul Greengrass film. In J.K. Simmons he creates a true villain, sneering and dangerous, and the cat and mouse between teacher and student escalates to a fever pitch typically reserved for thrillers where lives are at stake.

The movie is not seamless. Outside of the central duo the supporting characters serve mainly as placeholders. Paul Reiser as the father figure is never quite established as supportive or discouraging and a throwaway plot with a romantic interest is introduced in what could only be a design to illustrate just how myopic Andrew’s interests are.

But those critiques are minor, as Chazelle has crafted a film that is ambitious in its simplicity and utilizes sound to an at-times uncomfortably visceral level. Whiplash will leave you exhausted in the way that a runner feels after a sprint, pulsing with adrenaline and perspiring.

Grade: B+

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