Friday, December 28, 2012

A Quarter Century: Happy Holidays

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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]


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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.