Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Movie Review: 'The Drop' a fitting, familiar send-off for Gandolfini

The Drop Movie (5)

Many actors are drawn to similar characters throughout their careers, but perhaps no one is as symbiotically fused to an onscreen identity as the late James Gandolfi, who captured every class of criminal during his career from the mob boss to the corrupt politician to the assassin to the neighborhood tough and every shade of low-life in between.

It's fitting then, in a poetically nostalgic way, that his final film role is not the tenderhearted divorcee Albert in last year's excellent Enough Said but instead Cousin Marv, the down-and-out Brooklynite who oversees a watering hole for the mob and watches the last shades of his rambunctious skull-cracking youth fade away.

Although "The Drop" is technically a film about Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy, adopting yet another vocal tenor in his ever-expanding chameleon gallery of on-screen affectations) Gandolfini's Marv is the commanding presence when he's on screen and the haunting shadow when he's not. The bar where the action is set has Marv's name on the door, and the methodical, slow-burning story creeps forward on the back of Marv's past sins.

As explained by Bob, a night in Brooklyn is one where clandestine money is constantly changing hands. That money eventually reaches its final destination, a "Drop Bar," selected seemingly at random, where all the dirty bills of the burough are collected for final delivery.

One night while closing up, Bob and Marv are ripped off for five grand by a couple of punks casing the bar as practice for a later Drop night when they can net the big score. But money is money and the mob wants their five grand back, so the family starts turning the screws on Bob and Marv to make amends.

Bob's got other problems too. One night while walking home he notices an injured dog discarded in a seemingly random garbage can, leading him to adopt it as his own with the help of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), whose ex-boyfriend doesn't take to kindly to the interest that Bob is taking in his girl.
And there's John Ortiz (Silver Linings Playbook) as Detective Torres, who in the process of investigating the robbery begins to think that there might be more foul deeds connected to Cousin Marv's Bar.

That may sound like a lot of disparate elements, but The Drop exists in a pulpy crime world where everyone in the neighborhood and all their baggage are at least partially aware of and constantly running into one another. There's a lived-in history to the story, as though the audience has arrived late to a movie that's been playing for years and leaves well before the action truly ends.

These are characters for whom a different set of rules apply, where wrapping a severed arm is plastic is treated with mute indifference and where acts of violence are expected but still leap out unannounced.

Hardy's Bob is a particular and engaging enigma, a man for whom past is past and the present is handled one decision and crisis at a time. His chemistry with Rapace's Nadia is probably the weaker link in The Drop's chain, but neither seems out of place as blue collar Brooklynites.

Much like Hardy's previous film Lawless, the individual performances are perhaps better than the actual material. But the combined effect of Hardy, Gandolfini, Ortiz and Rapace, who all play it cool while subtly tweaking expectations, takes what could have been a bargian airport-novel whodunit or a campy-grit Guys and Dolls and instead delivers a rich character piece that hums with moral ambiguity.

Grade: B
*The Drop opens nationwide on Friday, September 12.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Movie Review: Frank

*Portions of this review were first published during the 2014 Sundance Filme Festival
frank-michael-fassbender

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring musician plinking away at his keyboard in a frustrated attempt to write a hit song. He feigns sincerity, but in his incessant appeals to social media and his inability to create even mainstream drudge it is clear that he is motivated by a pursuit of fame and not by any deeply-held artistic vision.

But in a bit of dumb luck, he crosses paths with a band fronted by Frank, an experimental musician whose face is perpetually obscured by a large paper-mâché head and for whom music is an end in itself.

Frank invites Jon into the band as keyboardist, whisking him away to a secluded cabin in Ireland to record the new album, despite a cold reception from the other members of the band, including Maggie Gylenhaal as a cold and volatile theremin player.

The film eventually strays from a story about a quirky Euro-band recording in Ireland to one about mental illness and expression with a backdrop at the South by Southwest festival. But the central question of the movie, "Who is Frank and why does he wear the head?" is left largely unanswered even as the band collapses and Frank’s mental state deteriorates. One would assume that if you cast Michael Fassbender in your movie and spend the whole movie hiding his face that you would've done so for a reason. Right?

Frank was a buzzy film at this year’s Sundance festival and certainly has it's moments of charm. The actors commit fully to the gonzo setup, particularly Gylenhaal who is delightful while threatening to stab our protagonist and, later, making good on her threat.

But in this critic’s opinion, the film is one that perhaps had grand things to say if you could just hear them from underneath a muffled mass of paper mâché.

Grade: B-
*'Frank' opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, August 29.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Treat Yo' Self: Chest Wax with Cody Titmus

Chest Wax 1
When I was a teenager my sister, a cosmetologist, talked me into letting her wax between my eyebrows. I remember sitting in her salon, surrounded by women who likely waxed various body parts on a regular basis, and screaming in agony over the horrendous sensation on my forehead.
I drew a lot of skeptical glances steeped in thinly-veiled mockery, as if the entire female population of that salon was collectively thinking "this kid has no idea."

They were right. I did not.

Even now, with a greater understanding of the art of waxing, I can only begin to imagine the pain associated with waxing some of the more delicate areas of the human form and I have no intention of ever finding out.

As I write this, one day after my chest and stomach wax at the Garden Day Spa & Salon in Bountiful, my torso is in a uniform state of discomfort and covered in ubiquitous red sores that give me the appearance of a person with Rosacea. This is extra fun since I'm going to a pool party and barbeque later tonight.


Good planning, Ben.
Chest Wax 2

But I'm getting ahead of myself. For this month's Treat Yo Self I invited my good friend Cody to join me for a little manscaping and his wife Kelsey to join us afterward for some dinner.

I met both Cody and Kelsey in college, though they did not start dating until we had all graduated and moved to Salt Lake City. The three of us and our friend Krista formed a nice little group of four who would meet regularly for platonic dinners, but then of course they had to go and screw it all up by falling in love.

photo 2(13)

They're OK.

Me and Cody checked in at the spa and were quickly ushered to an dungeon-esque subterranean keep where we waited for our waxer to arrive.

She took us (separately) into a back room with a massage table and some soft music playing, at which point I disrobed and laid down and surrendered my fate into her hands.
Chest wax 3

She warned me that my stomach would hurt more and started with my chest, working her way around in excruciatingly small increments. If you've never waxed, the process involved applying a small amount of hot wax to the skin with what looks like a tongue depressor, applying a strip of fabric and then tearing that off in one swift motion. Repeat ad (seemingly) infinitum.

The sensation itself, as best as I can describe it, feels like having your sunburn slapped repeatedly for a half hour, or an unending series of very precise belly flops.

The nipples were quite sensitive, but nothing compared to the agony of the skin around my belly button, which was compounded by the fact that my body hair is thickest at my belly, thus requiring several repetitions to smooth me out.

Whereas my chest would sting but immediately dissipate, my belly button was a searing pain that didn't go away and only got worse and worse as she went back again and again. I didn't scream, but I groaned a few times and my eyes were watering uncontrollably.
chest wax 4
The Situation before/The Situation after
Properly pampered, we picked up Kelsey and headed over to El Matador to conduct our interview over carnitas and fish tacos.

Wood’s Stock: Who are you and what do you do?
Cody Titmus: My name is Cody Titmus and I am a copywriter
WS: And Kelsey who are you and what do you do?
Kelsey Titmus: I am Kelsey Titmus and I’m an employee relations consultant.
WS: So Cody, how was your waxing experience?
CT: It was something I will always remember
WS: You said you have had some waxing done before?
CT: Yes, my sister went to esthetics school and she has waxed between my eyebrows, inside my nose and once on a dare she did the side of my leg.
WS: How did those compare to today’s experience?
CT: The eyebrow is not painful at all. The nose stings, it always makes my eyes water, and the leg hurt a lot. This one, I felt like up on the chest it didn’t hurt that bad, it definitely stung for a bit, but down around the belly and the belly button was super painful. Like a lot.
WS: Walk me through the experience.
CT: We walked into the spa and checked in upstairs, then they sent us downstairs which was totally dimly-lit. Did they have music playing?
WS: I don’t think so.

photo 1(13)

CT: Yeah, it was just really dark. It didn’t seem like drab but it was just dark and so we sat and waited for probably 5 minutes. Then I had to go first so the girl took me into a very small room with a massage table and she left the room for a few minutes so I could take my shirt off.
WS: Why?
CT: I don’t know, I didn’t ask her to. She just said ‘you can take your shirt off and put your stuff wherever and I’ll be  back in a few minutes.’ So I did and she came in and I quickly informed her of what the status of our visit was.
WS: Cody was a little concerned that she was under the wrong impression when I said I was paying for his chest wax.
CT: I guess I get really weird about that kind of stuff but I always am very quick to clarify that I’m married every time I get my hair cut or do anything like this, which I don’t do anything like this very often, obviously.
She asked whether or not I had ever done this and then just quickly proceeded to lay a thin coat of wax on a small area of hair and then she put a piece of tape on top of it and just ripped it right off.
WS: What did it feel like?
CT: It feels exactly like what it is, you’re getting the hairs of your body ripped off by a piece of tape. I mean, it feels like when you’re a kid and you would put a piece of tape over your mouth and rip it off really quickly. I don’t know any other way to describe it.
I just kept talking to her, that was my way of keeping my mind off of what was going on. So we just went through everything: where she lived, where she grew up, where I live, how long we’ve been married. I talked about our dating story, where we went to school and every time I knew it was coming I would brace myself and hold the sides of the bed and it really wasn’t bad at first but the more we got into it the more it hurt.
WS: Where did it hurt the most?
CT: Around the belly button. That really hurt a lot.
WS: Are you a man who does any manscaping?
CT: No.
WS: So it was completely uncharted.
CT: Yeah.
WS: Kelsey give me the 15 second version of how you and Cody met?
KT: We met at Utah State through my roommate Krista and I asked him out and then he asked me out in 2010 and then we didn’t’ date for a while and then we both moved to Salt Lake and started doing bi-weekly dinners with my roommate and you.
WS: And me! And then you guys got married when?
KT: March 1st, 2013.
WS: What was something you didn’t know about Cody until after you married him.
KT: I didn’t know that he put yogurt in his oatmeal.
WS: Is that good?
CT: I think it is.
WS: I’ll have to try that.
CT: I usually get the big things of oatmeal from Wal-Mart or whatever,  and so it doesn’t have any flavor to it or anything and I like to get something in there to mix it up a little bit.
WS: What’s a surprising thing about married life, or something that you weren’t quite anticipating?
KT: It’s just normal.
WS: Absolutely normal, so if I got married tomorrow it would be like, whatever?
KT: Yeah.
CT: There’s some adjustments. Obviously if you weren’t living together beforehand and then you do live together, sleeping on the same bed.
KT: That’s true, that’s an adjustment. But I feel like it was normal. I didn’t feel weird, maybe he did.
CT: No I like it. Now it’s weird when we don’t sleep in the same bed.
WS: Why do you say it might be weird for Cody? Are you a mover and a shaker?
KT: Probably. It was an adjustment actually for me, I’m a light sleeper.
CT: Kelsey just likes to be really close when we’re in bed.
WS: You’re a close-sleeper?
KT: I’m a close-sleeper.
WS: Are you (Cody) a close-sleeper?
KT: And he is not.
WS: How do you reconcile that?
KT: I cuddle in for a minute and then I move away.
WS: So you make the decision to move away?
KT: Usually.
WS: Even though you would like to stay close?
KT: Sometimes, occasionally, I’ll scoot back.
CT: I don’t need a bunch of space to fall asleep but I feel like I need a little breathing room.
KT: It gets hot.
WS: Yeah, I’m not a close-sleeper.
KT: And he snores a little bit sometimes.
WS: So what’s good about being married? Or is there anything good?
CT: Marriage is awesome.
KT: You just have your best friend around all the time, always someone to talk to who cares about you and helps you.
CT: We’re really open about everything, we like to involve each other a lot in whatever happens to be going on which I feel is really healthy and good. Previously I was the type of person who didn’t rely on my parents much if I was ever faced with anything, I just took it all by myself. So it’s been really nice to have a second pair of eyes, a second opinion on everything. We talk things out and figure them out together.
WS: What do we think about waxed Cody? Good or bad?
KT: I really don’t care. It would probably be weird if he did it regularly.
WS: Cody do you have any plans to be a regular client?
CT: No.
WS: Would you recommend chest waxing?
CT: I feel like it would probably depend on the situation. I wasn’t that hairy so it wasn’t a problem and Kels doesn’t mind it. If Kels liked it I would do it for her. I would.
WS: Really?
CT: Yeah I would. It hurt, but it was only like 20 minutes.
WS: But it really hurt.
KT: Doesn’t it hurt now?
WS: Yeah I’m in pain, are you in pain?
CT: Right now I feel like I was sunburned and applied aloe vera and then put a shirt on. It’s really sticky but then it’s kind of painful. It hurts but my pain level right now is only like a 2, it doesn’t hurt that bad.
WS: Do either of you have anything to promote?
KT: Everyone should watch How I  Met Your Mother.
WS: Are you guys on twitter?
KT: I am not.
CT: I’m on twitter but I don’t tweet. But I am on twitter @ThePaperBadger.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

One Wood Uke: Broadripple is Burning [VIDEO]

10553410_10204449416380343_7121517607838412198_n

A while back me and my friend Jordan decided to take a little road trip around the intermountain west. We hit Goblin Valley, Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend and Zion National Park, stopping to take some pictures along the way.

When we got into Zion, Jordan had the idea to rig up some GoPros and film a little music video, so we attached 3 cameras to his car and drove through the park uke-ing a cover of Margot & The Nuclear So and So's.

We didn't have any microphones to pick up the audio, so everything you hear is native to the video, which as you can see from Jordan's wardrobe we shot just prior to robbing a stagecoach (I kid. In actuality, he suffers from fotografizophobia and the bandana helps him keep the anxiety at bay).

While watching, please keep in mind that neither of us had showered in a couple of days, and that the GoPro's wide lens makes my nose look even more distinguished than it actually is (in college, there was a girl who knew me only as "Hot Jewish Guy." I'll take the compliment).

Also, if you don't know Margot I would highly recommend checking them out. 'Broadripple' is one of their best but they've got a lot of great stuff.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Movie Review: 'Expendables 3' walks (and detonates) familar ground

35a3a7f0-bb5c-11e3-9dc6-c351df2837bc_expendables3_rollcall_gs

I don't remember a single plot point from the original Expendables movie. I can't tell you who the antagonist was or what conflict our team of mercenaries fought to resolve. I remember that Mickey Rourke was in it for all of five minutes and that there was something about a woman who needed saving.

Expendables 2 is slightly clearer, mostly due to recency and that ridiculous moment when Jean Claude Van Damme's villain (whose character name, honest to God, was "Vilain") decides to kill Liam Hemsworth by kicking a knife into his chest.

Kicking. With his foot.

I realize that the dictionary definition bit is a cliche but in this case it bears noting that "expendable" refers to an object that is "designed to be used only once and then abandoned or destroyed" or "of little significance when compared to an overall purpose, and therefore able to be abandoned."

In that regard I say "Bravo" Mr. Stallone, for giving us a piece of cinema del arte that fully realizes the purpose of its creation. Not only is the revolving cast of hulking man meat able to expand, contract and evolve — due to scheduling demands and conflicting egos — but character, plot, and reason are as easily dispatched as the current film's set pieces, reduced to rubble in bombastic fashion and re-assembled for the next go-round.

For our third adventure with Sly Stallone and his band of merry men, we find a weary Barney Ross burdened by the memory of the men he's lost. He breaks one of the original Expendables out of some generic foreign imprisonment — Wesley Snipes, providing essentially 15 minutes of meta action-comedy about the actor's real-life legal woes — before skirting off to a CIA-funded job stopping an infamous international arms dealer.

But Surprise! Said arms dealer is none other than Stonebanks (a gleeful Mel Gibson) another Expendables OG believed deceased after finding himself on the wrong side of Ross' gun many years ago. His resurrection sends Ross into something of blind rage and the mission quickly goes south with the barely getting away and not entirely intact.

So Ross calls it quits on his team and tells them to go home and enjoy a peaceful life, allowing him to recruit a new group of young whipper-snappers whose almost certain deaths won't bother him since going after Stonebanks is a "one-way-trip."

Obviously that doesn't last (since absolutely no one prefers seeing Kellan Lutz pout to seeing Jason Stathum rip bad guys' spines out of their bodies) setting the stage for an old-meets-new teamup in a dilapidated high rise surrounded by a literal army gun-wielding goons.

The young guns are a bore but the additions of Snipes, Gibson and Antonio Banderas liven up the otherwise nondescript sweaty drudgery. Harrison Ford steps into the Bruce Willis rule as "Growling CIA man who inevitably joins the fight," but his contributions are mostly limited to a laughably bad computer-generated helicopter chase.

Expendables is beyond over-the-top, but it's reliance on practical effects gives it a low-key adrenaline charm. It's a shame, then, to see such poorly rendered CG wizardry applied in this third film.
The dialogue, what little there is, is also as stilted as ever, all the more reason for these actors to let the loud firearms they carry do their talking for them.

But I guess that's the point, and if action is on the menu then Expendables 3 delivers, allowing each character a moment to showcase their skills before scooping them all back together for a group hug at the bar as they rest up for the inevitable fourquel. It should also be noted that the PG-13 rating carried for the first time by the franchise doesn't slow things down. There may be less blood splatter and curse words, but number three goes fist to fist with its predecessors, at least as far as I can remember them.

Grade: C+

*'Expendables 3' opens nationwide on Thursday, July 14.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Movie Review: Gleeson shines in difficult but rewarding 'Calvary'

calvary

'Calvary' starts on a jarring note. An off-screen parishioner in confession tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson) that he suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest when he was a child, and that he intends to kill Father James a week from Sunday in some sort of redirected vengeance against the church.

It's hard to tell exactly how fazed Father James is by the threat, due to the incredible way that Gleeson registers and downplays emotion in the role. He tells his presumed attacker that he'll think of something better to say by next Sunday, and then goes about visiting the various lost souls of his flock with a business-as-usual diligence.

Calvary is presented almost as a series of vignettes as James makes his rounds. Some are quite dramatic, like the couple injured in a car accident who require last rites, the prison visit to a convicted killer (About Time's Domhnall Gleeson) and the longing conversations with Fiona (Kelly Reilly), James' daughter from a pre-priesthood marriage. But others are filled with dark comedy: the complacent cuckold (Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd) or Dylan Moran as a man so disillusioned by his wealth that he quite literally urinates on it.

These visits — some bizarre, some pleasant, some combative — are underscored by the weight that Father James is a man fighting, however nonchalantly it may appear, against a ticking clock. He knows the identity of his would-be killer but keeps this information from the audience, preserving an it-could-be-anyone tension as we're introduced to more of the idiosyncratic characters that populate this small town in Ireland.

The setting is one of Calvary's strengths, existing in a world apart from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life but steeped in and struggling to deal with a history of sexual crimes against children. It's made clear that Father James is innocent of the horrors perpetuated by his peers, but he is still burdened by the communal weight of his institution.

These are people largely detached from the crimes of the Catholic Church, and while Calvary does not address those crimes directly, it presents us with the aftermath of a world where institutional trust is shattered.

The film has a lot to say, and achieves it best by having its protagonist leave much unsaid. But there's also a sense that the filmmakers are reaching to string together themes that don't quite coalesce.

The large cast also presents an inconsistent caliber of performances (the scenes with Reilly never quite hit the emotional punch they're intended to) but everyone involved is lifted by the commanding presence of Gleeson as Father James.

When next Sunday arrives and our antagonist is revealed, their malice and anger is not easily reconciled with the interactions they've had earlier in the film. But the film's final scenes, while likely to be divisive, are beautifully shot and written with the appropriate weight of questions that do not provide easy answers.

Viewers will likely come away with different reactions, but speaking broadly Calvary is a film that leaves an impression, not of any particular moment or line of dialogue, but a quiet and introspective mood that haunts you after you leave the theater.

Grade: B+

*Calvary opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 15.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Two Wood Uke: 'Lucky Number' [VIDEO]

533406_4273305635757_1901108619_n

I've been hearing all my life how similar I am to my brother Jake, who is nine years older than me. I could point to several key differences (he's an extrovert, I'm an introvert) but from an observational standpoint I've been told that we look the same, walk the same, talk the same, act the same and dress the same.

Again, I don't know about any of that but one thing we do have in common is ukulele-playing (although technically, I started uke-ing first).

Jake was the lead singer of Dishwoody and the Burritos in his younger years and has always had a better hand at songwriting than I have. That's because I can't write songs at all, and have thus accepted my lot in life as a cover artist.

Anyway, the other night Jake stopped by for a late night jam so we could record a song he had written for his wife as an anniversary gift. It was already late-ish when we got started so in a little over an hour we rehearsed, recorded and edited the song and an accompanying YouTube video.
It turned out pretty good for a smash and grab job and it was kind of nice to be on backup vocals for a change (you're all very welcome).

Here's the video below and since no one downloads these songs but my mom anyway, you can pick up a free copy on my Bandcamp page (where there's also mine and Jake's Beyonce cover).
Enjoy.