Friday, December 28, 2012

A Quarter Century: Happy Holidays

*For suggested audio accompaniment to this post, click here.

photo(23)

This post is admittedly a little late, and while I have skipped one or two holidays in this AQC series it seemed wrong to leap-frog Christmas.

The tricky thing about abridging 25 years-worth of XMas revelry is that "Christmas" is not just a single day but really encompasses the entire month of December.

photo(28)

Take, for example, my 3rd grade production of The Nutcracker. It did not take place on December 25. But how, in a list of Christmas memories, could I not mention my starring role as The Mouse King? My performance was described by some as "brimming with emotional nuance" and "A tour-de-force of moral ambiguity."

When I was finally slain after a pulse-pouding, edge-of-your-seat duel with the titular hero, I kid you not, the audience wept.

photo(24)

Or take the traditional shopping mall Santa experience. I never actually believed in the man (when you're the youngest of 5 children, the jig is pretty much up) but we would still, prior to Christmas morning, sit upon his lap and offer up our list of holiday wishes.

Christmas in the Wood home (like most holidays) was dictated by tradition. We would spend Christmas Eve at my grandmother's with my mother's side of the family, eating Oyster Stew and Spaghetti-O's and reciting poetry. Christmas morning we would line up on the staircase, youngest to oldest, and head downstairs to open our gifts. We would begin with the stockings, which were placed around the room in assigned seating, much like the dinner table, and then proceed to the tree. After the gift massacre was completed, we would typically put on one of the movies the family had received as a communal gift then head to my Aunt Barbara's for Christmas lunch with my father's side.

photo(29)
photo(30)

We always had two trees: one upstairs that was more elaborate with a Christmas village and model train beneath it. The other downstairs for the actual gift-opening purposes. It sounds so cliche to say it, but I loved the crap out of that model train. I would play with it for hours, running my toys along it in some imagined Jesse James adventure and watching it spin lap after lap under the twinkling lights.

photo(31)

There were a few years when we were younger that the family decided to do an impromptu dramatization of the nativity as part of our Christmas Eve celebrations. I'm sure you can imagine the quality when a group of two dozen children, ages 5 to 18, fashion a costume out of whatever items they can find around the house for a character they were assigned just 10 minutes before.

photo(27)

Plus, it always meant that two of us had to play Joseph and Mary, or husband and wife, which still rubs me the wrong way. It was Utah, after all, not Mississippi.

photo(25)

In a similar vein, every so often our local church would put on a "Night in Bethlehem" event instead of a run-of-the-mill Christmas party. We would fashion makeshift costumes of Israeli shepherds, Magi wise men (fun fact, the singular is "Magus") and Roman centurions and snack on pita bread and whatever "theme" food the group of middle-class Caucasian Mormons could think off.

Public displays of cultural ignorance were not as frowned upon back then.

Oddly enough, my family doesn't seem to have many (or any, that I could find) pictures of our Christmas with my dad's family, but in fairness that celebration didn't have the same pomp and circumstance of "religious observance" and "theatrical production." On Christmas Eve, once the Oyster stew was consumed, the poems recited, the dramatizations completed and the presents were opened, the adults would do whatever it is that adults do (read: be boring) while the cousins would crowd around my Uncle Chris and play Dark Tower, the greatest board game ever created.

photo(26)

And of course, there was snow; feet of white powder in good years and a sheen of muddy sludge in bad years. When we were kids, that meant snowball fights and sledding off of the roof (again, in good years). As a slightly-older-kid, that meant shorter, angrier snowball fights and barefoot snow angels.

I grew up in an unincorporated area on the Wasatch Back, which literally means you couldn't go anywhere without passing through a canyon or over a mountain. I remember some years making the slow, perilous climb up Trappers Loop on the way to my grandmothers house, or one of our adult years when an unending storm forced us all to stay at my parents house for another day, and another, and another still. Eventually my brother had to go back to work and I drew the short straw of driving him there to meet his wife. But for three days it was like a snow day in elementary school with the whole family waiting it out, carefree and drunk with holiday spirit.

It's my favorite Christmas that I can remember.

photo(22)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Best of 2012: Number 11


For the readers who may not remember from last year,  as part of the annual Wood's Stock Top 10 (coming soon), we like to award a special 11th-Best Film of the Year Award.

Number 11 is more than just "what would have been number 10 if it hadn't been for those meddling kids." It is a loving tribute to populist, popcorn cinema; a slot specially reserved for a film that was produced for broad, mass market appeal but still managed to keep things classy, smart, and show us something new.

So without further ado, the 11th Best Film of 2011 was:


Skyfall

There have been many Bonds and even more Bond movies. In the 50 years since the dapper British womanizing spy first took names and saved the world, the tone of the films shifted from fun, to silly, to outlandish and back again before landing on the bruised face of Casino Royale's Daniel Craig. Royale was sensational and (in my humble opinion) a superior film to Skyfall, but despite its strengths, the legions of Bond fans disappointed with the Union-Jack-Jason-Bourne-style had reason to gripe.

In their haste to adopt the "realism" that had infused the action drama post-Bourne, Royale's makers had all but thrown every essential Bond element out with the bathwater. Gone were the dry one-line quips, gone was Q and his gadgets, gone was Miss Moneypenny and her innuendo-loaded sparring with 007 and long gone was the tuxedo-wearing Lothario who somehow beat villains to a pulp with his bare hands and escaped again and again from the sure clutches of grim death without so much as a drop of sweat on his French-cuffed shirts.

Again, many of those decisions made Royale a superior film but to many fans, it just didn't seem like a Bond film anymore. Then came Skyfall.

In what is seemingly the perfect marriage of new and old, Skyfall reintroduces long-lost elements to the franchise while still preserving the mortal and bleeding Bond that won over new fans in Royale. Also, Director Sam Mendes added a sort of dramatic heft to the plot, which was tied together in a pretty red bow by the off-kilter brilliance of Javier Bardem as the villain Silva.

Bardem, as the silver-haired tech terrorist, somehow oozed a disquieting presence out of his poured and slipped sociopathy and madness into every syllable he spoke. Every great action film has a great villain, and Bardem turned in the goods.

Because of Skyfall, Bond seems to have an extra spring in his step for a 50-year-old, and what was becoming a shaky and inconsistent franchise suddenly has a breath of new life.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: My Heart Is An Idiot


It's easy to feel angry at Davy Rothbart while reading his collection of essays "My Heart is An Idiot." Angry because his book is essentially the same book you tried to write years ago and, by extension, because while Rothbart's tales of love and live are adventurous and charming, your tales (and your life, and your loves) are ever-the-more mundane and uneventful.

In a series of episodic vignettes, Rothbart talks about landing face first in one American city after another in the pursuit of romance and financial success, only to see himself constantly foiled by lofty expectations and the same men-from-mars women-from-venus misunderstandings we can all relate to. Along the way he sprinkles a few non-romantic tales of the heart into the mix to add levity and variety, such as walking up in nothing but a pair of socks in a New York City park or bonding with a hitchhiker on the unknown roads that make for great classic rock lyric inspiration.

It's a quick, relatively easy read that is more than enjoyable. Rothbart, a sort of neo-beatnick, doesn't shy away from the details – good or bad – resulting in some explicit and graphic diction at times, not to mention some underlying subject matter that might make my mother blush.

The book also takes a few self-promoting turns as Rothbart hawks his magazine at every turn and spends one of his longer segments toward the end explaining the false imprisonment of one of his friends. It reeks of free publicity and a ploy for sympathy, almost like you've been tricked into hearing a sales pitch for time-shares by the promise of a free lunch.

But all in all, MHIAI is a charmingly honest, inspiring slice from the pie of life that makes you wish you had spent more time seeing the world and taking risks, because even in our most embarrassing failures come the best stories later on. B

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best of 2012: Honorable Mentions

2012 has been an amazing year for movies.

Slowly but surely I'm whittling my Top 10 list down to the final titles and in a movie year this stacked I've been forced to painfully leave a lot of great cinema on the cutting room floor. My first pass at a Top 10 yielded 30 titles, which I've since narrowed down to 12, so without further ado, here's a few of the movies that didn't quite make the cut, but deserve recognition of their own.

Best film about college: Liberal Arts



When he's not playing the central character in CBS's highly-successful sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Joss Radnor likes to fill his time writing, directing and starring in quiet independent films. His first was Happy Thank You More Please, which he then followed up with Liberal Arts about a mid-30s university admissions employee taking a trip back to his alma mater and falling hopelessly in puppy love with a young co-ed (played by the disarmingly beautiful indie "it" girl Elizabeth Olsen).

I caught LA at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was tickled pink when it got it's theatrical run. The movie manages to deliver a quiet, emotionally honest film that could have easily ran off the rails into contrived shenanigans but instead stays the course, tapping into the shared nostalgia of the millennial generation and daring you to not fall in love with Olsen right alongside Radnor's character.

For my full Wood's Stock review, click here.

Best Documentary: Bully



When Harvey Weinstein (of The Weinstein Company) started kicking up dust about Bully's R rating, it was obvious that he was making a grab at free publicity for Bully, the little documentary that could. But upon viewing, it turns out it was worth the fuss.

Bully tells the story of a handful of school-age misfits and their struggles to get by in the public school system. It paints a dark picture, mostly by the way it holds a mirror up to adult society and the way we tend to shrug off incident of abuse and violence with a simple "Boys Will Be Boys" and, at most, a slap on the wrist. It ain't pretty, but it's something that must be shown if anything is ever going to change.

For my full review, click here.

Best Superhero(es): The Avengers



After years of mind-numbing Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, you couldn't help but wonder if we had collectively reached the tipping point of diminishing returns on big popcorn summer spectacle. Then a funny thing happened, one after another Marvel started releasing a string of sugar-sweet superhero flicks, all while dangling the carrot of an Avengers team-up project in front of us.

"Madness!" we said. "It can't be done."

Well, it can and was and in their most brilliant move yet Marvel hired super-geek and uber-nerd Joss Whedon to craft arguably the most ambitious action film ever created. The varying franchises came together with seamless harmony, Hulk finally got the treatment he deserved and under the careful tutelage of Whedon we laughed, cried and perched at the edges of our seats. Bravo!

For full review, click here.

Best January surprise (tie): Chronicle and Haywire





In the world of Hollywood, the January-Febrary period is typically reserved as a wasteland to burn off whatever phoned-in piece of nonsense the studios have collecting dust on the shelf. But, every so often, a shrewd filmmaker will strategically place a lesser known but creatively ambitious property into the wasteland, with the hope that the less competitive slate will help the movie find a greater audience.

We're lucky to get one of these, but this year we got two in the form of Chronicle, a found-footage spin on the otherwise tired genre of superhero origin stories with a cast of unknowns, and Haywire, a heavily-pedigreed ensemble action piece centered around a female Bourne-esque hired gun played by professional fighter Gina Carano.

In both cases, you get something familiar and yet not quite like anything you've ever seen. Chronicle uses CGI sparingly and in the process pulls off some very impressive visual treats while still preserving the vibe of three high school punks who stumble into superhuman abilities. In Haywire, A-List director Steven Soderbergh pulls back the camera, showing every kick and punch of his hyper-realistic actions scenes. It's like watching a Bruce Lee kung fu movie, except one with a female hero, a plot and respected actors (Michael Fassbender, Ewen McGregor, Kurt Douglass and Antonio Banderas, to name a few).

Best Indie: Safety Not Guaranteed



In Safety Not Guaranteed, a (possibly) crazy Mark Duplass places an advertisement in the newspaper for a co-pilot to join him in an adventure back in time. The ad catches the eye of a magazine writer, who sets off with two interns to get the scope and meet up with an ex-girlfriend on the way.

That's essentially it, but the minds behind SNG manage to turn a 50-word classified ad into one of the quirkiest, most charming pics of the year as Aubrey Plaza and Duplass train for their voyage through time and New Girl's Jake Johnson deals with the questions of what could be and what could've been. The underlying question of whether or not Duplass' character is completely out of his mind is craftily toyed with for the film's entirety, until everything comes together in a simple yet perfectly satisfying conclusion.

The Wood's Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: The Cabin In The Woods



A jock, a hot blond, a nerd, a stoner, and a "good" girl go away for a weekend in the woods. Oh, you've heard this story before?

No. You haven't.

Joss Whedon (him again?) and Drew Goddard know every horror trope in the book, and gleefully play with each and every one of them in Cabin In The Woods, where five friends head out on seemingly the most cliched movie premise in history only to encounter...well I can't tell you, because it would spoil it.

The first trailer for CITW set the film up for some sort of genre-bending, trippy time, but you can practically hear the filmmakers giggling as they twist and turn the plot before going all-out redonk-a-donk crazy in act III. In lesser hands, CITW would've been simply Halloween part 8 (or whatever number we're on). Even in mediocre hands CITW would've been a failed attempt at meta horror-comedy. But in Whedon and Goddard's hands, CITW is the kind of crazy party I want to go to again and again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Movie Review: Hitchcock

*For suggested audio accompaniment for this post, click here.



Even if you've never seen Psycho, The Birds, Rope, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window or his myriad of other phenomenal works, you've seen Hitchcock.

You've seen the silhouette and you've heard the theme song with or without the accompanying shuffle from stage right and a cordial "Good Evening."

As a director, he is one of the most celebrated and revered in cinematic history, with a technique and style that continue to influence and inspire modern storytelling not unlike the way much of conversational English is rooted in Shakespeare's writings. As a man, his name has become an adjective for a certain je nais se quoi-style of suspense thrillers and also as a delineation of beautiful women that predates the "Bond Girl."

It is because of this familiarity, and perhaps in spite of it, that "Hitchcock" succeeds. Freeing itself from the bounds of a strict bio-pic, the film tells instead a somewhat exaggerated, semi-fantastical version of the artiste's and the making of his seminal film, "Psycho."

With the exception of the indomitable Hellen Mirren (as the woman behind the throne) the majority of the cast simply turn in impersonations of their characters, and rather good ones at that, which in many ways is exactly what the audience wants. James D'Arcy turns in an uncanny Anthony Perkins (or is it Norman Bates? Don't know, don't care) and in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene, Ralph Macchio (The Karate Kid!) pops in as screenwriter Joseph Stephano. I have no idea what Joseph Stephano was like in real life, but as far as I'm concerned, he looks and sounds an awful lot like Ralph Macchio.

Which brings us to our titular giant, as Anthony Hopkins dons facial prostheses and a fake gut to waddle around barking direction to his leading ladies and dealing with the emotional stings of a possibly-unfaithful wife. He is unpleasant to watch, speaking like he is perpetually sucking on a chicken bone and surrounded in a strange editorial choice by extra loud mouth noise, but again, would we expect anything less from a man larger than life?

Ultimately, "Hitchcock" is a delightful look at one of cinema's giants, as well as a nostalgia piece on the old Hollywood machine. It lags in a few points, but the tete-a-tete between Hopkins and Mirren is splendid and the coy bits of behind-the-scenes Psycho trivia alone is worth the price of admission. B

Hitchcock opens in Utah theaters on Dec. 14

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Quarter Century: I Am Totes Adorbs!

photo(16)

Normally I'm not one for heavy-handed sentimentality, but in my quest for an adequate photograph of the annual Wood Family Thanksgiving shenanigans I unwittingly came across a slew (a SLEW, I say!) of pictures from my newborn-toddler era.

I thought to myself, "Self, you should save some of these in case they fit into a future ACQ post." To which my self replied "But Self, your 26th birthday is only a few weeks away. How many of these posts do you really have left?"

My Self found this realization both unsettling and terrifying, since I immediately began thinking of how little I had accomplished in the last year and how I would soon -- yet again -- be celebrating another "milestone" on the pathway to death. Seriously, who's bright idea was it to celebrate birthdays?

So, faced with the cruel, never-ceasing demon we call time I figured a post dedicated to the earliest period in my life would be an appropriate segment for this little melancholy-project I've been working on all year. And Here. We. Go.

photo(15)photo(21)
photo(8)photo(6)

As I've likely mentioned before, I am the youngest of 5 children. These pictures are handy in that a) it documents some quality time between me and each of my siblings and b) they look rediculous in them. But, you will remember, it was the late-80s, so you have to cut all of us some slack.

photo(20)

I've been told -- you'll forgive me forgetting -- that I loved being hoisted around in this carrier. We've always been a hiking family so in our many tomes of family photographs there's a bevy of pictures of me being carried in Yellowstone, me being carried in Zion's, me being carried in Moab and me being carried in other places I don't immediately recognized. Logic tells me that at some point I outgrew the backpack -- since no one offers to carry me any more -- which really is an unfortunate thing.

photo(7)

It's odd looking through these because I honestly don't see myself in these faces until I'm roughly age 3. I mean, common sense dictates that this child is me. The photograph is labeled clearly, my siblings are clearly too old for the time period and unless there's some dark secret involving a 6th child that my family has somehow kept from me all this time, that's me.

I wish someone had told me to avoid horizontal stripes. Between that and the camera I've got an extra 15 pounds in this picture.

photo(9)

It occurs to me as I write how ironically pseudo-typical this blog post is. I always make fun of my friends and family who just post these long pointless photo-essays about how adorable their children are. I suppose this isn't any different, except it's moi, which makes it automatically awesome.

photo(19)

Besides look at that cat: one hand on the wheel, seat back, cruisin for chicks. Kidz got style.
Also, I realize that Red Flyers are essentially cold plastic death, but I still feel they're a crucial part of any child's upbringing. Much like trampolines, and chicken pox (all these liberals and their so-called "vaccines." A real american scratches and is proud of it).

photo(18)

More awkward 80s children, this time with the addition of a few cousins. I love the girls' hair, especially Leah's.

I often say that I have no memory of my brother's existence before I turned 12. It's true, for the most part, but to his credit at least we have photographic proof that he did, on occasion, occupy the same space as me before he became a teenager and got weird. Besides, it could be worse. My only memories of my sister Katie before I turned 12 is her beating the crap out of me.

photo(10)

There, at this point I can admit that kid looks like me. It is somewhat surreal, though, to realize I look more like the figure on the right than the left at this point. Then again, my dad is 60 year's old and runs a sub-2 half marathon. Sure I snore, required braces and max out at about 5'10'' and change, but I suppose the genetic lottery could've been worse.

photo(11)

This photo is a Wood Family classic. There's a corresponding shot of me taken a few minutes before, only having attempted to dress myself and do my own hair. Kid looks good. There really is no such thing as over-dressed.

photo(14)

I tried to find a picture of me and my mother, but there really weren't many during this time period. She was, as you can probably guess, the person behind the camera. My oldest sister Mandie on the other hand -- with whom I share an age difference of 11 years -- by all indications is just completely M.I.A. I can't really blame her. Had I been a teenager when these photos were taken I too would probably have had more interesting things to do than make an awkward Kodak moment out of a family totem pole.

photo(13)

We used to make boats out of zuchini and race them down the creek at my grandparent's house. I look like I'm about to cry in this picture. I would imagine it's because I'm totally jealous of Tony's awesome sail boat. Genius!

photo(12)

I'll end on this one. There's something triumphant about it. Such joy! Such revelry! If you grew up before iPhones then you know that nothing could ever beat finding a good stick!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

My New Uke [Video]


https://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-snc7/p206x206/315731_10200184914850470_1888357934_n.jpg
I've been thinking for a while now about buying a new Ukulele. I love my Lanikai, my Lanikai makes me happy, but its small size, low volume, and high pitch has limitations, especially when you put a microphone in front of it.

Jake Shimabakuro, my Uke-idol, uses a Tenor, and for months now I've become more and more excited about the idea of having a Ukulele I could plug into an amplifier. About two weeks ago I played an open-mic night and between the speaker feedback I got from using two microphones (mouth and uke) in such close proximity and the constant bonking of my hand on the microphone itself I just about made up my mind.

Then I stopped by a Uke store "Just to check things out" (right) and yadda yadda yadda, look at how awesome my new Cordoba is!

Anyway, I made a video (as I am wont to do) showing off both my new Uke and my love of Blind Pilot. The song gets a little out of my range toward the end but who cares, I sing like no one is listening (which judging by my page view counts...they're not).



Also to be clear, I am NOT selling my Lanikai but merely suggesting a similar Uke as an option for people looking to break into the Uke game (why wouldn't you?). When I watched the playback I realized that I mumble incoherently and might be giving people the wrong Idea.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Quarter Century: I am a selfish yam-eater


It took me about an hour looking through my parents' old photo albums to find a legitimate Thanksgiving photograph. And once I did, well, it was this one.


Thanksgiving 1992, a few weeks after President Bill Clinton's first election, one and one-half months before my 6th birthday and about 8 years before we all realized how awful the 90's were. In case you can't find me, I'm the bright blue Macaulay Culkin impersonator in the bottom left corner.

XGiving 1992, as with all XGivings since then and a few before, was spent with the Wood side of my family -- or to be more specific my father's siblings -- at the home of my uncle Scott. It's actually somewhat fitting that my 25th XGiving fell on this year, as it appears to be the last time the turkey dinner (technically lunch in my family) will be so hosted.

I've always held a particular affinity for XGiving, which I mentioned in my Halloween post. In fact, one of the first things I ever had published was a column in which I professed my love for the turkey and potatoes holiday. It is, in my humble opinion, the Greek ideal of holidays: simplicity, perfection and order. Unlike other celebrations like Christmas and Easter that get all tied up in some boring religious undertone, Thanksgiving is nothing more than a day to gather with your family, eat copious amounts of delicious food, watch football, then eat again. Plus, since it lands on a Thursday, it almost always ends up in a 4-day weekend. Give thanks, indeed.

Perhaps that's why there's really not much to chronicle, as little has changed over the years. I remember when I was a kid, we would eat and then my cousins and I would immediately retreat to either  the back yard (during Indian Summers) or the basement (during early winters) to roughhouse, rabble rouse, and otherwise engage in childlike tomfoolery. My uncle lived in a different house back then, and all I can remember of it is that the basement had a room tucked away in the corner which seems to have had no decorations but a really comfortable couch -- the perfect play room for 6 rambunctious boys. I also remember that they had one of those plastic play-house things in the backyard, the kind with the 3-foot red slide and the yellow Swiss cheese wall. And there was a bumper pool table. I don't think we ever bothered to learn the rules of bumper pool, instead electing to just bounce balls around.


In my adolescent years, my uncle's family -- and the festivities -- moved to a home a stone's throw away from my high school. Between the main course and dessert we would run up to the football field to play a quick game of two-hand-touch. I remember loving how it was the one time of the year when our dumb backyard football games had yardage lines and the possibility of an extra point.

We had maybe 3-4 years of decent games before the elder among us began getting married and, even worse, having children. Our rosters dwindled and we took to just throwing a ball around in the street. Now, we're all old and decrepit so we just find a spot on the couch, eat more pie, and forget about any notions of physical activity.
When I was a kid I loved watching the Macy's parade. I'm fully aware that my memory of this is completely inaccurate, but it seems to me like each year we would wake up at some unholy hour and stand in the kitchen for what felt like ages peeling potatoes. I remember the gross sensation of a kitchen sink full of brownish-grey, opaque water and floating potato skins and the longing that I felt to get the stupid potatoes over with so I could run into the party room and watch the parade.

I was able to go to the parade last year, which fittingly involved waking up at an unholy hour and standing for ages in the cold on some crowded corner of Manhattan sidewalk. Still, there is something undeniably charming about watching giant balloons navigate the canyon-like avenues of New York City. Do it at least once if you get the chance.


The rest of my XGiving in New York consisted of a lovely dinner pot-lucked by my friends and serving as the sober designated walker (we weren't driving), looking after a herd of inebriated cats in a city that was still somewhat foreign to me. For dinner I made candied yams, which has been my favorite XGiving dish since discovering them in my early teens (more on that in a bit), borrowing a recipe from my sister that uses actual sweet potatoes, not the canned stuff, and caramelized pecans. Tres Magnifique!

As for the title of this post. There was once an animated cartoon called "Pepper Ann," -- she’s too cool for 7th grade -- which had a special Thanksgiving episode where a secondary character is found huddled in a ball under the kitchen table surrounded by empty cans of sweet potatoes mumbling "I am a selfish yam-eater, I am a selfish yam-eater". Me and my sister are both selfish yam-eaters and the reference has seemed to stick with us over the years.

It's also become something of a mantra for me because I have Thanksgiving, and specifically yams, to thank for my open-minded attitude towards food.

When I was younger I downright refused to eat the candied yams. "They look gross" I would say. "Ewwww!" I would moan. My mother would try to encourage me, telling me that I would like them, explaining that they were covered in melted marshmallows and pineapple and honestly what's not to love?

Then one day, I decided that I was going to try the yams. With one bite I realized how foolish I had been, how I had wasted so many yam-filled years of my life, blinded by prejudice. I had denied myself a decade of sensory pleasures all because I couldn't look beyond my preconceptions.

I would have wept, if I wasn't too busy shoveling spoonfuls into my mouth.

From then on, my entire outlook on culinary self-selection was changed. Never again, I vowed, would ignorance stand in the way of my stomach. And I have this paradigm shift to thank for my love of Hummus, Pad Thai, Ethiopian food, Chicken and Waffles, Capreze salad and those weird asian drinks with the gummy balls in them. Delicious!

In my comings and goings, I've encountered many people who pass judgement on a food they have not yet tried and I plead with them, I beg them to consider what joy they may be depriving themselves. "The YAMS!" I beg, "think about the YAMS!"

Some listen, others don't, there’s only so much you can do. But as for me, I bite first and ask questions later. Yams changed my life, as did the beautiful holiday of XGiving.

And for that, I am truly thankful.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook



When I reviewed The Words in September, I said it was the best performance that we had seen to date from Bradley Cooper. But I added the caveat that we would have to wait until the release of Silver Linings Playbook – in which he stars with Jennifer Lawrence as a man on the other side of a mental health episode – to see if the claim sticks.

It doesn't. Having now seen Silver Linings, I can say to you without a doubt that we have only just begun to see Cooper's potential as a leading man.

In SLP, we meet Pat (Cooper), a history teacher who is moving back in with his parents after a stint in a psychiatric facility. Having found a newfound appreciation for the power of positivity (he shouts "Excelsior" in a sporadically charming, albeit intentionally ad naseum way) he sets out to reinvent himself as a physically fit, emotionally stable man all in the name of salvaging his marriage. Problem is, his mental lapse occurred when he discovered his wife having an affair, which resulted in him beating a naked man to near death – we learn of the event through a series of 1st-person POV flashes as he recounts the story to his therapist – and, subsequently, a restraining order being filed against him.

Pat is also tip-toeing on the verge of another episode, constantly fighting back triggers and outbursts and frequently spouting off inappropriate exposition. Sure, there's obstacles, but with a shout of "Excelsior" – Latin for "Ever Upward" – he shrugs them off, jogging relentlessly to shed the pounds his wife always wanted him to and reconnecting with both family and friends.

It's there that Lawrence enters the picture. Pat is invited to dinner by a friend, whose sister-in-law Tiffany also attends and is also dealing with emotional stress of her own. The two kindred spirits, after a few rocky false-starts, begin a friendship that finds the pair training for a dancing competition in exchange for Tiffany's help in winning back Patrick's wife.

The movie hinges on Cooper and his ability to portray a man at odds with himself. The film is a Dramedy, along the same storytelling tone of quirky ensemble-piece Little Miss Sunshine, and Cooper and Co. deftly and carefully swing from dark to light moments as we see a family longing for catharsis and guarded against disappointment.

Cooper, with a master's hand, portrays Pat's idiosyncrasies with such consistency, honesty, and sincerity that you can't help but question your preconceptions of what 2011's Sexiest Man Alive must be like in real life. His portrayal of mental illness is neither exploitative nor superficial, instead coming across as a shockingly believable human being.

But Silver Linings isn't a great performance, it's a great film. The supporting cast of Lawrence, Robert De Niro and a refreshingly understated Chris Tucker turn in spectacular work while the direction – David O. Russell of I Heart Huckabees – and storytelling pull you into a climax that has the tension of a thriller despite absurdly low stakes that revolve around a dance competition and the Philadelphia Eagles. It trades between moments of laugh-out-loud humor and cringe-inducing discomfort and instills in each character flaws, strengths and humanity.

Lawrence, for her part, returns to the indie-drama roots that put her on the map. It's her first appearance since the over-blown spectacle of The Hunger Games and a welcome reminder that there is so much more to the actress than the melodramatic and two-dimensional Katniss Everdeen. She won her accolades in Winter's Bone but in SLP she exudes an irresistible, enigmatic quality that is nearly intoxicating and completely fascinating to watch.

Silver Linings is one of those rare films that celebrates the failure and weakness inside each of us. By showing us a quiet tale of loss, depression and anxiety it manages to find humor and inspiration in the most unlikely and beautiful of places. A

Silver Linings Playbook opens nationwide on November 21.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How to fix Star Wars

As you -- and likely everyone in the world who's ever watched a motion picture -- are probably aware, Disney recently purchased LucasFilm and expressed their intent to release new installments in the Star Wars franchise beginning in 2015.

Now, I'm going to try to state this as diplomatically as possible: the Prequel Trilogy, and most recent Star Wars films, are a reeking pile of rat garbage.

And it's not just hyper-sensitive fanboys like myself who felt like George Lucas single-handedly crushed our childhoods into dust. Newly-introduced elements like Jar Jar Binks and "Nooooooooooo" have become the stuff of pop culture parody and Phantom Menace got a shameful 57% on Rotten Tomatoes (Revenge of the Sith somehow scored 80%, which I think we can all agree was overly generous...Hayden F*ing Christensen).

But the news of the forthcoming and long-expected episodes 7,8 and 9 have given me pause for reflection, and optimism. As I've digested the thought of new adventures in a galaxy far, far away, I've feel impressed to suggest to the filmakers a few simple tips on how to avoid the mistakes of Star Wars' past and return to the greatness of Star Wars' paster.

1. Give me puppets or give me death (on second thought, just give me puppets)

George Lucas has, by all accounts of perception, a love affair with computer generated imagery. Compared to the tangible, visually impressive characters created for the original trilogy -- which were often operated by several puppeteers or, in the case of the tuskan raider's bantha, consisted of an actual element dressed in a costume. That's right, they put a costume on a freaking elephant!

I got sidetracked, where was I? Oh yes. Compared to that, the prequel trilogy exists in a world where a handful of actors interacted with digitally-rendered characters, in a digitally-rendered landscape, spouting what felt like digitally-rendered wooden dialogue. It was a cartoon, only a cartoon where Hayden Christensen ran around moping in some type of skirt-coat. In other words, it was the worst cartoon ever.

Compare the awesomeness of Jabba the Hut, dripping with slime and saliva, licking his lips and ogling Carrie Fisher in the gold bikini, to the overblown gimmickry of General Grievous. Compare Max Rebo, the purple piano-playing elephant in Jabba's palace to Sebulba, the annoying, dog-like villain who spars with young Anakin Skywalker in the podracer...race, man that really seems redundant when you spell that out: podracer race? Podrace?

Puppet Yoda is superior in every way to jumping dancing cartoon Yoda. Yes, Jim Hensen is irreplaceable but come on, we can do better.

Or forget puppets and just focus on characters that you could actually reach out and touch.  R2D2 with Kenny Baker inside was superior to the fire-spewing, flying R2D2 of the prequel trilogy. Plus, explain to me how R2D2 lost the ability to fly? What?

Or, Compare Chewbacca to Jar Jar. 'Nuff said.



2. Build something

This is a continuation of number one, but from the perspective of the sets. Part of what makes Han Solo's entry into the storyline so awesome is the gritty backdrop of a seedy dive on Mos Eisley, a "wretched hive of scum and villainy." And that's only the beginning. There's the carbonite trap and the tunnels where Vader and Luke fight in the Cloud City. There's the forest moon of Endor, the Sarlack Pit and -- of course -- Jabba's palace on Tatooine that seems to engage all five senses while you watch.

Whereas the prequels, for all their whiz-bang production of colors and lights, pale in comparison. It's hard to care too much about the capitol planet of Coruscant, or the underwater city of Gunga, when it's is so obviously the creation of ones and zeroes on a computer. In Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan's investigations take him to a CG-diner, where he talks to a CG waiter, then to a CG floating city where he talks with, what appears to be, the weird aliens from the end of A.I., also rendered in CG.

Give us something we can reach out and touch. Give us metal bars covered in rust and grime to imprison Solo and Chewbacca behind. Give us dusty shadows to lurk behind and the blinding, seering desert sun of Tatooine. You've got all the money you could possibly ask for, go to hobby lobby and Home Depot, buy some props and build a freaking set for a change.
With CG, less is more. When in doubt, make it real.



3. Bring back the original cast

Sure, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill's stars have fallen somewhat and sure, Harrison looks more like Emperor Palpatine than Han Solo these days, but Luke, Leia, Han and Chewy are precisely what made us fall in love with Star Wars. Even if they were to spout the same nonsense that passed for diologue between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, it still would tickle any Wars fan blushing pink to see the OGs waltz on screen.

They don't have to be the leads. In fact, it only makes sense that 7-9 would focus on their children, with each trilogy telling the story of a different generation of the Skywalker family. But give us Han and Leia growing old together on some moon. Give us Luke training some punk would-be Jedi, Ben Kenobi style.

And just to be safe, avoid child actors altogether, and if you can round up Billy Dee Williams, even better.



4. No more robot villains (or, in a word: Stormtroopers)

We get it, waging a war against an army of droids makes it easier to have bloodless violence and, by extension, secure the PG rating. But when your antagonists are made of bolts and wires it really isn't any surprise when the tension comes of as superficial and, yes, soulless.

I miss the Stormtroopers, with their clumsy yet threatening monotony. I miss the imperial officers, wincing in terror at Vader's threats and rolling their eyes behind his back. I miss real human beings with real human emotion.

And it wasn't just the nameless armies. Remember General Grievous? The six-armed robot dog with whooping cough that was supposed to be some sort of dramatic precursor to Anakin's cyborg transformation? Sure, Vader was more machine than man but he was also emotionally conflicted, had James Earl Jones' vocal chords and was an interstellar B.A. Plus, he may have been mostly machine but he was played by a living, breathing human being, unlike the digitally-rendered Grievous who made it look like Ewan McGregor was having a lightsaber battle with a local TV weather forecast wall.

Plus, there's no tension with robots. You could drop an atom bomb and it would have the emotional implications of shaking a silverware drawer. How about some moral ambiguity? How about some higher stakes? You don't have to gull full-Nolan but come on, let's not forget how dark Empire got.



5. Never again speak the word "Midi-chlorians"

Seriously never. Ever. Ne-Ver!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall



A lot of praise has been heaped upon 'Skyfall'. Many respectable, wise critics have dubbed it "The best Bond ever," lauding it for its ability to both incorporate long lost elements of Bonds-gone-by while still preserving the moody, gritty realism of the Daniel Craig ever.

While I fall short of deeming Skyfall the best of all the 23 Bonds -- or even the best of Craig's 3 outings as the titular provocateur -- I could not agree more that what Sam Mendes has produced is a near flawless fusion of old and new and one of the most thrilling adventures in 007's 50-year career.
Skyfall -- as with all bonds since Thunderball -- begins with a pre-credit sequence that is both breathtaking in scope and pulse-pounding with adrenaline. It hearkens back to movies of yesteryear as bond goes from a foot chase to a car chase to a motorcycle chase along rooftops to a backhoe chase on a moving train, all while pausing to straighten tie and cufflinks (as seen in the trailer). It's a piece of exquisite Bond-action joy that sets up the films resurrection theme as bond is injured and struggles to return back to 100% health and active duty.

From there, we jump skip to a series of attacks on Mi6 that are seemingly directed vendetta-style at Judi Dench's 'M', who has played the role since Pierce Brosnan's Goldeneye (another "best"). On the job is Bond, back from some much-needed R&R, who pursues a somewhat-confusing trail of breadcrumbs first to Shanghai (where apparently everything glows, which looks awesome) then to Macau (where everything is dimly lit and floating on water, which looks awesome) and finally to a remote island where we meet our villain Silva, a snake-tongued cyber criminal with an axe to grind played by Javier Bardem.

Once again Bardem shows that he is adept at playing off-kilter evil, trading his bowl cut and cattle gun from No Country For Old Men for flowing blond locks, a laptop computer and just a pinch of homo-eroticism. He is eerie, off-putting and fascinating to watch but his motivations and actions struck me as slightly incomplete.

Back at home in London there are a number of side elements, such as the re-introduction of gadget-master Q and a political threat to M in the form of Ralph Fiennes, which all come to tie together nicely in the film's third act, which I won't describe suffice to say that it was an interestingly low-key way to stage the final showdown, whichbrought back memories of the Man With the Golden Gun era.

Casino Royale remains my favorite of the Craigs, but I admit that some of the criticism of being Bourne-ified is justified. Skyfall looks, feels, smells, and loves like the Bond we all grew up with; a suave Brit cracking wise, seducing women and taking names around the world. For the diehards, Skyfall is peppered with throwback nods and canonical additions that you may not have realized you missed but are nonetheless grin-inducing when they appear. For the uninitiated, it's just one heckuva good ride. A-

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Quarter Century: All Hallow's Eve



I've always been partial to Autumn as a season: the mild temperatures, the gorgeous scenery, the flexible wardrobe. As a result of that preference, or perhaps as another contributing factor, the back-to-back awesomeness of Halloween and Thanksgiving is by far, in my opinion, the superior holiday season of the year.

Sure, Christmas is quaint, but its squeaky-clean "true meaning" hardly compares to the party potential of dressing up as witches, ghouls and other monsters in a Pagan ritual to scare away demons and ensure a bountiful harvest. Plus, people give you candy, lots of it.

I also come from a family that celebrates the quirky and the offbeat, so the macabre-light of All Hallow's Eve is the perfect excuse for us Woods to fly our freak flags (A full-size model skeleton is a permanent fixture in my childhood home. It wears a necklace of fruit, naturally).

But, as much as I love Halloween I have to admit that I have never been one to put an excessive effort into the design of my costume. Typically speaking I elect to craft some menagerie of common household items into a passable visage.

For example, I remember that for years I was the Grimm Reaper, which consisted of wearing a black cloak and holding a plastic scythe that we already had. By the end of a night of trick-or-treating I would shed the scythe, and then the cloak, leaving just a 10-year-old kid in jeans and a black t-shirt. "I'm a homicidal maniac" I would say, quoting Adam's Family Values. "They look like everybody else."

Speaking of Adam's Family, after I shaved my head in the 6th grade it dawned on me that with my trusty black cloak, I could pull off a decent Uncle Fester. My mom applied the makeup, I borrowed a fake severed hand from the annual decorations and voila!



My mom's ability of face painting is the most effort that I ever put into anything back then. My stunningly awesome Darth Maul costume (again, the black cloak and a foam light saber that I had made to have duels with my cousins) only required that I sit on a stool for about 30 minutes and give my mother a big hug afterwards.

In my Jr. High years I began to think a little differently about Halloween. I couldn't explain it at first, but looking back now I know that I was reaching the paradigm shift where a Halloween costume is not about accurately depicting a character, it's about looking hot. The scales finally fell from my eyes at my 8th grade Halloween Dance, when it became very apparent that, although awesome and time consuming to create, my head-to-toe Duct Tape Man costume gave off a distinct, and strong, odor of adhesive that girls found difficult to dance next to.



As a result of this, I went as Neo from The Matrix for the next two years. Which required only a black trench coat, a skin-tight black t-shirt that showed off my abs (I was in the best shape of my life back then, as sad as that is to say) and a pair of sunglasses.

For the remainder of high school, Halloween was all but monopolized by the school dance, which was girl's choice...moving on.



In college I stuck to my tried and true method of choosing a costume. That is to say, waiting until the last minute and then throwing together some shabby nonsense. My first year, I bought a plastic cape from Dollar Tree and decided that was enough to make me a vampire. The next year, I just asked my mom what costumes she had that would fit me, which resulted in me strutting my stuff in some very tight bell-bottoms and a denim shirt with rainbows on the collarbones.



Heck, I'll say it. I looked hot. Mission accomplished.

But then, finally, I cracked the code. Of all my costumes, through all the years, I have never been more proud of myself than my Junior year of college when I filled the role of the King of Clubs in a four man team. The idea was my friend Trevor's and it was brilliant on two fronts. First, the basic concept was clever and not overdone. Second, it fulfilled the cheerleader effect, which states that an individual always looks cooler when they are part of a group.



That was the apex of my costuming. The next year I reverted to my old M.O., raiding my closet for a makeshift rendition of Professor Plumb. Sure, it was a group costume, but my heart wasn't in it.
That was a great year on the non-costume front, however. Since my friends all studied respectable subjects in college like science, or engineering, we got access to a building on campus after-hours, trucked up a bunch of lovesacs and couches and watched a Horror movie on a projector screen.



That was also the first year I attended a live screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A night of good memories in its own right, further helped by my friend Cody showing up in both drag and full beard. Off-putting yes, but awesome.



The last two years have been difficult. As a newly graduated intern/entry-level employee, work has come before play, impeding my ability to ensure a bountiful harvest by ridding my village of malicious beings from the dark realm. Not that my All Hallow's in NYC last year was a total bust. I was able to attend the annual parade in the Village (wish I had pictures, frowny face) and I watched two girls get into a full-fisted knock down drag out at a White Castle I stepped into after a screening of PA3.

But if there's one thing Halloween is about, it's about hope and bringing loved ones together. Even while I sit at my desk at work tomorrow night, my heart will be out there on the streets with the hooligans, street youths and other miscreants pulling off their shenanigans. I know that soon, if not next year, I'll be enjoying the faint scent of artificial blood and prosthetic, the stomach ache brought on by a pillowcase full of candy and the inhibition-less chaos of our modern world.
Merry Halloween everyone.