Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best of 2013: Number 11



I started naming an 11th best film two years ago. The idea was to reserve a special recognition for mass-market popcorn films of high quality that failed to make the final cut. For example, past winners include 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and 2012's Skyfall.

But this year, I found myself stuck. I boiled the candidates down to World War Z and Iron Man 3 – both great films that I enjoyed – but neither of which felt right to sit, ostensibly, as one-slot-away from the Top 10 films of the year. World War Z ends with a cleverly creepy third act, but that only serves as a reminder of how uneven and – pardon the pun – lifeless the rest of the film is, as Brad Pitt's character hop-scotches around the globe getting out just in time and magically landing exactly where he needs to be. It's essentially 2012 without the cheesy acting.

Iron Man has the opposite problem. The first two-thirds are excellent, trading impressive action sequences with witty humor and culminating in a gonzo reveal, only to then devolve somewhat disappointingly into an over the top explode-a-thon that sees Guy Pierce's villain literally breathing fire and the most predictable non-death in Marvel Cinematic Universe history.

As I wrestled with the decision, my mind kept being drawn to my drafted Top 10 list, which had one title too many. A title I knew would likely be knocked out entirely once I finished screening all of December's releases. A title that I couldn't bear to leave off the list, having given it a perfect A rating and having enjoyed it so thoroughly.

"But it's an indie movie," I said to myself. "The Wood's Stock 11th Best is for big-budget popcorn films and mass-market flicks. A movie shot on a shoestring budget, in which the actors recite Shakespearean dialogue, is the antithesis of this category."

But then I remembered that I AM Wood's Stock. I MAKE the categories. I AM THE LAW!

And so, it is with great pleasure that I announce that the 11th Best Film of 2013 is...

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Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Joss Whedon (The Avengers), and shot in a minimalistic black-and-white over the space of a few days at Whedon's family home in California, Much Ado About Nothing sees all of our favorite Whedonverse friends (Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, etc.) spouting the Bard's prose in a modern take on one of Shakespeare's best comedies.

The story, for those of you who skipped English Lit in high school, revolves around two couples: the sweet, young Claudio and Hero and the independent and disdainful Benedick and Beatrice. While gathered together at the home of Leonato, the Governor of Messina, friends conspire to bring Benedick and Beatrice together while enemies plot to drive Caudio and Hero apart.

Setting aside the pure delight that this movie is, the existence of a film like Much Ado About Nothing in the current cinematic landscape is something that demands attention. This year saw many seasoned film veterans (including Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) lamenting the state of modern film-making and forecasting a dire future as more studios look toward the ballooning budgets of so-called "tentpole" films for their survival while choking out quieter, more artistic storytelling.

Soderbergh announced his retirement (we hope he's not serious) and Spielberg predicted that a few big-budget losses would start a chain reaction leading to an "implosion" of the studio system. He said that in June, right between the releases of After Earth and The Lone Ranger, which went on to be two of the biggest flops in box office history.

Which brings us back to Much Ado. Joss Whedon made the Avengers in 2012. It was the most successful film of that year and the third most successful film of all time with a worldwide gross of more than $1.5 billion. It cemented his status as nerd demigod and creative overlord of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all but extended the keys to the Hollywood kingdom into his hands.
So how did he follow up that success? By calling up a few of his friends for a weekend getaway where, what the heck, let's make a movie.

I would imagine that making Much Ado was essentially one big party, and that energy pours from the screen and infects the audience. The film moves along with such a sense of effortless charm and playful ease that you feel like you're among friends, giddily participating in the ruse that brings Benedick and Beatrice together and anticipating the final reveal where things are made right between Claudio and Hero.

It was one of the smallest of 2013's films and also one of the best, a master class on intimate, emotional storytelling. Here's hoping other directors were taking notes.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Photo Shoot: White Christmas

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Growing up in the Intermountain West, I've been to Yellowstone several times but always in the summer. So this year, a serendipitous turn of events saw me with a three-day weekend right before Christmas and a friend with an empty cabin in Island Park.

So we packed up way more food than four people could reasonably eat and headed North through a snow storm to get some R&R.

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Our first day was spent cruising around the park in a Snow Coach, a.k.a a four-wheel-drive van with caterpillar tracks in place of wheels. We had the coach to ourselves, along with our stalwart tour guide Scott, who regaled us with fascinating bits of trivia about the park and even more fascinating anecdotes from his life as a nomadic naturalist. He's encountered yetti at least twice, has been picked up by a bear, lost some of his eyesight to a scorpion sting and was quick with a story about unwise tourists perishing to the natural dangers of Yellowstone.

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The park is an interesting place in the winter, first because there's almost no one there and second because the cold weather makes the steam and water vapor pouring out of the hot pots thicker and more visible. In the summertime, the geothermal features seem like quaint additions to a heavily forested park filled with wildlife. But in the wintertime, with the horizon dotted with plumes of boiling gasses, it's much more apparent that your meandering on top of a deadly volcano.

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That shot is my favorite one. Scott explained to us that the caldera stays in place while the ground above it shifts along tectonic fault lines, resulting in a consistently evolving landscape. This tree is one of many "Bobby Sock" trees, which became partially petrified after shifts in hot spring run-off.

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The hot pots themselves were less visible in the winter since most of the time they were obscured by thick fog. This is one of the few spots where we were able to see some of the deep blues that you find in the center of these death traps. At the Old Faithful gift shop my buddy Adam picked up a copy of Death in Yellowstone, which starts with a story of a man swan diving head first into a hot spring to retrieve a dog. That particular spring is now called "Hot Dog Spring" and according to Scott some of the dogs fatty tissue is still in the spring, causing it to behave erratically.

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Most of the trees surrounding a spring were covered on one side (the side facing the water vapor) with a wall of ice and snow. The vapor itself is deceptively warm, so you don't realize until you get back into the freezing air that you're covered in water. Water-proof clothing is a must if you plan to visit Yellowstone in the winter.

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On our way out of the park we mostly followed the Firehole river, which runs through the park intermittently picking up hot spring run off and washing out into a swimming hole (for the summer months). I remember swimming in the river when I was a kid, there's a portion that runs through a narrow canyon where you can ride the rapids for about 100 yards before being dumped out into a widened pool. Every so often people will cliff jump off the canyon walls and get slammed against the rocks by the current, it's covered in Death in Yellowstone.

Below is Kepler Cascade, which I had never seen before. If you're coming in from the West Entrance it's a couple of miles beyond Old Faithful. Apparently it's named after the son of the man who found a route into Old Faithful from Jackson Hole. Also, I learned that in order to be a "Falls," water has to free fall for at least 10 feet. As such, this, is a cascade.

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I didn't take too many pictures of our second day. We cooked a big breakfast, did a little snowshoeing/cross country skiing and then mostly sacked out in the cabin for the rest of the day, which in my opinion is exactly what winter cabins are made for.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Movie Review: Lone Survivor



In 2005, a team of Navy Seals on a compromised mission was swarmed by Taliban forces, who ultimately killed all but one man.

That man's eyewitness account was turned into the book Lone Survivor and now the feature film of the same name, directed by Peter Berg (Battleship, Friday Night Lights) and starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster.

Berg lends his trademark kinetic directorial style to a film that is equal parts a gritty, tense actioner and a reverent tribute to the armed forces. Under siege, we watch our four heroes fight to survive with a minimalist trained precision that exhibits none of the customary bells and whistles that typically accompany Hollywood portrayals of war. It is as spartan as it is unrelenting, as the audience feels every piercing bullet, jagged rock and broken bone as the cast quite literally tumbles down the face of a mountain on the run from enemy fire (Berg fans will remember the director's penchant for throwing his actors off cliffs from movies like The Rundown, a practice he has seemingly perfected to almost unbearably realistic-looking results).

The filmmaker's respect and admiration for the military is apparent in every scene, from the opening credits backed with boot camp training footage, to the light-hearted barracks ribbing of a new recruit to the film's epilogue, which passes through a slide-show tribute of the fallen men. Moral questions are raised about the rules of engagement and American superiority, but by-and-large Lone Survivor is a story about the horrors and heroics of modern warfare.

That singular vision works in the movie's favor. Gone are the love triangles of Pearl Harbor, the volleyball games of Top Gun or the surfing of Apocalypse Now. Those scenes served the mission of those particular films, but the mission of Lone Survivor is simply to get home, or die trying.

Grade: B
*Lone Survivor opens in limited release on Dec. 25 and nationwide in January.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Best of 2013: Honorable Mentions

I'm just about ready to post my Top 10 movies of 2013 (I have two more films to watch, although Her is proving to be a challenge since it doesn't screen in Utah until January. Sigh) and as always, there are more quality films than I know what to do with. This year has seen an embarrassment of riches in Cinemas, which has made whittling down to a final 10 particularly difficult.

So in the spirit of recognition, here's this year's list of honorable mentions. As a note, these movies do not necessarily represent what would be ranked 11th, 12th, 13th and so forth from the year. Instead, they are standout films from various categories that deserve some kudos even while they may not have measured up for one reason or another (mostly because the best films this year were just so darned good).



Best January Surprise: Side Effects

January and February are the garbage dump of the Hollywood calendar, as the last of the Oscar season behemoths trickle into wide release distribution and studio execs turn their attention toward their awards campaigns. But ever year, one or two gems take advantage of the less competitive landscape to launch under the radar.

This year, that claim goes to Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh's twisty thriller about prescription antidepressants and the people who use them. The tagline for the movie was "In some cases, death may occur," a riff on the soft-spoken fine print in drug advertisements that foreshadows the fate of Channing Tatum's reformed criminal husband, the catalyst that sets off a cat-and-mouse game between Rooney Mara and her psychiatrist Jude Law where things may or may not be what they seem.



Best Documentary: After Tiller

There are only four doctors in the United States that practice late-term abortions and in After Tiller, we are treated to a day in the life of each of them. By zooming in with a lazer focus on the real-life people at the heart (literally and figuratively) of the Abortion debate, the filmmakers bypass the screaming protestors and demonstrate how the individuals undergoing and performing these procedures are just people, faced with difficult circumstances and even more difficult decisions.



Best Rom-Com: Enough Said

What happens when a masseuse learns that the man she's dating is actually the supposedly dead-beat ex-husband one of her clients has been gossiping about for weeks?

It's the kind of schlocky premise that would feel right at home in a mid-90s Sandra Bulloch movie, but played with extreme earnestness by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, Enough Said is endearingly sweet, hilariously uncomfortable and poignantly understated. The fact that it was one of Gandolfini's last performances also punctuates the entire film with a sort of reverent melancholy that lifts the film above its contemporaries.



Best Superhero: Iron Man 3

Sure, the other Superhero movies this year were largely an indistinguishable mass of destructo-porn (I'm looking at you, Man Of Steel) but even with the weak competition that doesn't lessen what director Shane Black (who also made Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a movie that if you haven't seen you should do so immediately) was able to do with the Iron Man franchise. Where most comic-book heroes are investing in the Michael Bay school of EXPLOSIONS AND MAYHEM, Black doubled down on RDJ's likeability, creating a sort of buddy-cop comedy where our Iron Man spends most of the screen time cracking wise, sans super suit, and making self-referential meta jokes. He also pulled off one of the ballsiest baits-and-switches with his Mandarin reveal, angering fanboys and making a believer out of me.



Best Indie: The Way Way Back

Screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash proved their moxie in 2012 by picking up Oscars for their work on The Descendants and parlayed that success into their directorial debut, a coming of age tale about a Waterpark of Misfit Toys. At moments heartbreaking and triumphant, TWWB strikes an emotional tone that speaks to the awkward teenager inside all of us and in Sam Rockwell's waterpark manager gives us the Mr. Miyagi of the hipster-millenial generation. It's delightful, pure and simple.



Best Head Trip: Prisoners

A lot of critics have put Prisoners on their Top 10 and while I don't think it rose that high, I can understand the point of view. Prisoners, about the kidnapping of two girls and the lengths their parents and a local detective go to find them, has a way of burrowing into your mind and staying with you for days.

After the two girls are kidnapped on Thanksgiving, a suspect turns up in the form of a quiet and possibly confused man played by Paul Dano. With no evidence, the police are forced to let him go, prompting one of the girl's fathers (Hugh Jackman) to take matters into his own hands by attempting to torture a confession out of the suspect. That's just one thread of the multi-layered story, which follows Jake Gyllenhaal's investigation that seems to only turn up more and more questions with few answers.

The movie poses a litany of morally ambiguous questions as your first identify with and are then conflicted about sympathizing with Jackman's character and his "whatever it takes" attitude. The underlying question throughout is "What would you do?" which you are left to answer on your own after the smoke clears and the complex maze takes shape.



The 2013 Wood's Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: This is the End

It's no secret that actors of a feather tend to flock together, giving rise to the multitude of 'verses' that critics love to write about above the heads of more casual film viewers (i.e. The Whedonverse, The Apatowverse, The Andersonverse, The Nolanverse). So what happens when a group of comedy actors and all their friends get together to play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves struggling to survive the end of the world?

That, in a nutshell, is This is the End, but the actual film plays like a synergistic effect as the combined powers of all involved make a product greater than the sum of their parts. Presented almost as a series of mock-horror vignettes we see our key group of Franco, Hill, Rogen, Baruchel, McBride and Robinson performing exorcisms, battling demons, making a home-video sequel to Pineapple Express and getting robbed by an axe-wielding Emma Watson. It's outright absurdity and probably the funniest movie of the year.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

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I have never before used a "Gif" (for the uninitiated, that's the dancing image above these words) but some things in life are beyond contestation, and the visual of Leo DiCaprio robot-dancing is simply one of the most amazing things created on Earth this year.

That scene, in which a coked-out Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) cuts loose at his wedding is one of many unforgettable moments in Martin Scorcese's latest picture, the Wolf Of Wall Street. Playing Belfort, the real-life man who made an ungodly fortune in the early 90s through the sale of penny stocks and less-than-legal market manipulations, DiCaprio shows a humorous side that I, personally, didn't even know existed, literally crawling his way through gut-busting physical comedy while his character dangles precariously off the edge of a bottle of quaaludes. His Belfort is a king perched upon a throne of money, drugs and women and watching that throne tremble and ultimately collapse is a fascinating display of ill deeds and debauchery.

(*note: It's interesting that this film comes in the same year as DiCaprio's The Great Gatsby, as Jordan Belfort is something of a bizzaro-world mirror of F. Scott Fitzgerald's creation)

Unfortunately, in chronicling every infidelity and every bloodshot morning, Scorcese has created a three-hour-long film that needlessly stretches the story's patience. At several points it feels as though the plot is arriving somewhere, only to get bogged down in some new depravity before setting off anew toward some unknown destination. When it finally arrives, it feels like something akin to relief.
Its saving grace is the stellar performances and the otherwise expert direction by Scorcese, who weaves his lens throughout the revelry as though trapped in the point of few of a drunk and stumbling party guest. Every shot is vibrant, bursting with more activity than your brain can process, and even when it seems like things are going nowhere you don't want to look away.

Front and center is DiCaprio, who we meet midway through Belfort's rise before jumping back to his early days on Wall Street as a fresh family man from The Bronx. He gets a job as a low-level punching bag at a trading firm, where he quickly bonds with Matthew McConaughey, a chest-thumping broker who plants the seeds of corruption in our protagonist's head.

With a renewed zeal, Belfort earns his broker's license only to find himself a victim of 1987's "Black Monday." He's down on his luck, and so he finds himself in Long Island at a dingy start-up that sells crap stock to suckers. But the commission is huge, and Belfort soon realizes he's found a golden ticket and goes about building his empire, first with the help of Jonah Hill's Donnie Azoff and later with a collection of old buddies from the borough.

From there, it's a long stream of escalating madness, punctuated by key cameos that serve as plot development – Jon Favreau as Belfort's legal counsel, Kyle Chandler as a straight-arrow FBI agent sniffing around, Jean Dujardin as a smarmy Swiss banker – on Belfort's road to ruin. He upgrades his offices, then his wife, then his house, then his yacht, all the while slipping in and out of consciousness from a cocktail of illegal substances and breaking the fourth wall to narrate his own exorbitant lifestyle.

The supporting cast, led by Jonah Hill in his best role since Moneyball, fashion wholly-formed embodiments of the corruption of wealth that are simultaneously hideous and loveable. It's an electric story, filled with a relentless onslaught of laughs that could go toe-to-toe with the shenanigans of the Hangover trilogy while still maintaining the elevated stature of a Scorsese Film.

I mean really, this is Martin Scorcese, director of The Departed and Goodfellas, one one of the most respected living filmmakers who occupies a select tier of auteurs with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson. And what he has done is create a 180-minute opus about billionaire frat boys. It is, if you will pardon my cavalier vernacular, bonkers.

Had the movie been about one hour shorter, tightly packaged and streamlined, it would likely have been one of the year's best. Instead, we have a series of magnificent moments that never quite come together into something coherent. As a movie, it is a spectacle to witness but sadly wears out its welcome.

Grade: B-

*The Wolf of Wall Street opens nationwide on Dec. 25.

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty



At my screening of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty last night, as the screen faded to white and the words "Directed by Ben Stiller" appeared, I heard a few members of the audience remark in surprise "Oh, I didn't know he made this."

It's an understandable reaction, as Walter Mitty is not what we have come to expect from the director of Cable Guy, Zoolander and the excellent but outlandish Tropic Thunder. While Stiller's latest also straddles the line between realism and fantasy – depicted here as a series of amusing day dreams inside the titular character's mind – it is less a comedy than an ebulliently positive celebration of the joy of living and a melancholy tribute to the magazine publishing industry.

Walter Mitty is a negative asset manager (as in actual, tangible, honest-to-God negative film prints) at a slightly-fictionalized version of LIFE magazine, which you may recall published it's final monthly magazine in May of 2000. He is the quintessential cubicle drone, punching his time card for 16 straight years before going home to a life of check-book balancing and short-sleeve-dress-shirt ironing. He pines for a coworker (Kristen Wiig) and goes so far as creating an eHarmony account in the hopes of interacting with her, but is barred from doing so due to the pervasive blank life experience sections in his profile (he seeks help from an eHarmony IT guy, voiced by American treasure Patton Oswalt).

But LIFE, is ending, and Walter is tasked with tracking down the image for the final cover, shot by the reclusive Sean O'Connell, an artistic nomad personified by Sean Penn. After a little prodding, Walter uncharacteristically throws caution to the wind and sets out on a voyage of discovery that leads him to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan via Yemen ("That's a violent place," an airport security guard muses. "Yeah," Walter replies. "That's why the airfare was only $84.")

Beyond Walter, the supporting characters are thinly developed: from Kathryn Hahn as Walter's failed-actress sister to Adam Scott as a snarky "transition manager" sent from upper management to fire everyone and whose defining characteristic is the world's ugliest beard (you'll want to reach through the screen and tear it from his face by the end of the movie). His interplay with Stiller is fun, but it's clear that his job is to be the antagonist for a few minutes before getting out of Walter's way.

But that's ok, since this movie is, unapologetically, about Walter's journey from repetition robot to life-liver. It's also a surprising beautiful film, presented as tapestry of stunning images as Stiller hops from one exotic location to the next tied to the beats of a fist-pumping soundtrack of Rogue Wave, Of Monsters and Men and Arcade Fire.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an infectiously charming film that uplifts without insulting the intelligence of the audience, a rare feat in today's cynical world and, at a proletariat-friendly PG rating, one that offers a higher-quality family option for the holiday season.

Grade: B+

*The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens nationwide on Dec. 25.

Friday, December 20, 2013

My Life Online: Last Call

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Erin: A fellow INTJ. That's rare.
Me: The few, the proud, the misanthropic :) How long have you played the accordion?
Erin: Um...since 2011. Yeah, I think that's right.
Me: Awesome. That's on my list of dream instruments, between the banjo and the bagpipes.
Erin: I want to play the banjo too. I love the bagpipes, but don't have the lung capacity. That's why I went with accordion.
Me: Yeah, I've heard the pipes are brutal. Still, I feel like I owe it to my Irish ancestors.
Erin: Irish eh? I've got Scottish ancestors, and British but no Irish.
Me: Well, I owe it to my ancestors to war with you over Protestantism then, but you can't always please those guys :)
Erin: Protestants rule, Catholics drool! (Except for the new Pope. He's pretty cool.)
Me: Right! Seriously, Francis is such a class act. Did you see he made TIME's Person of the Year? I was really worried they were gonna go with Miley.
Erin: Oh man, I agree. So you play the ukulele, anything else?
Me: I play the piano and a little guitar. I used to play the saxophone (and still could, technically) but it's been a long time. What about you? Anything besides the accordion?
Erin: Piano, guitar, a very little violin, ukulele and percussion. Now to the important stuff: what are your top 5 favorite bands?
Me: Oh geez, that question sucks :) Um, Blind Pilot, Guster, Carbon Leaf, The Civil Wars and...Ra Ra Riot? Your turn.
Erin: Beatles, Weezer, Said the Whale, the Shins, The Hush Sound and Woodkid. So many more...

And that was it, the last Tinder conversation I will ever have. We were reaching the natural point where an IRL meet up would be suggested.

You like Weezer? Let's discuss Weezer over a cup of coffee. One of your profile pictures is a Star Trek halloween costume. Let's discuss whether Original Series or TNG is superior over a cup of coffee. You have hair? Let's discuss the merits of conditioner over a cup of coffee.

There was just one problem, I wasn't interested. So sue me.

I'm sure Erin is a perfectly fine person. She plays the ukulele so she's clearly an enlightened soul. But after a year of these largely repetitive non-conversations, I'm exhausted. I'm tired of hearing about someone's five favorite bands/movies/books or long explanations of their profile picture, taken during the six months they built orphanages in Cambodia (as if to say "oh, you don't want to meet me? Well I'm a better person than you anyway." Everyone is passive aggressive in the internet age).

But even though I've largely become numb to the concept of human emotion, and skeptical of the advantages of social interaction altogether, there was a part of me that felt motivated to push the conversation with Erin just see if I could score one last date before closing the curtain on My Life Online.

I was actually about to suggest Saturday brunch (because nothing suggests irresistible masculinity like Eggs Benedict) when I realized I didn't know what city she lived in. A quick glance at her profile informed me that she was 41 miles away.

Now, as a rule, I don't believe in the concept of deal-breakers. So what if they've kept a lifetime's collection of toenail clippings in a jar by their bed? Who cares if they were acquitted on six counts of manslaughter due to a technicality? The only question that matters, really, is whether or not I'm interested and feel relatively safe from physical harm in their presence (although there's a degree of flexibility in that last one).

But a one-hour drive (in inversion weather, no less) to have an awkward first date with a person I'm not actually interested in for the sole purpose of generating fodder for my blog? That seems bad for both of us. Oh, and did I mention the drive would culminate in Utah County, the worst geographic location on Earth?

Yeah, call me shallow, but "pass."

And that, in a nutshell, is my experience with online dating. It's not that I've wanted for opportunities. I've "matched" on Tinder, my pictures have been "liked" on Match.com, I've been "viewed" on OkCupid and from time to time I would receive a message on my niche online dating website (hint: It wasn't Purrsonals.com, the dating site for cat lovers).

The problem, ultimately, has been me, and my personal disinterest in the act of dating. Yes, a relationship sounds nice. Yes, I feel like I'm "ready" for love. But if you approach online dating expecting the internet to cure your social weaknesses you are bound for disappointment.

It still comes down, as it does IRL, to your capacity to engage and communicate with another human being. Online dating can remove, or at least weaken, certain barriers, but the task still falls on you to put yourself out there, seek meaningful connections and follow through with persistence and patience.

To borrow from familiar idiom, online dating can lead a horse to water, but it can't make him drink.
That's tough when you're a horse who is cripplingly introverted. There is a part of me that actively wants to die alone, that wants to spend every moment of my life bereft of meaningful relationships. Why? Because there is a social construct that marriage and love is an inevitability, despite ample quantifiable evidence to the contrary. To some extent, I want to prove that construct wrong. I want to be the exception. I want to point at myself and say “here is a man, by all measurements a typical, average man, whom no woman would marry.”

Because I’m angry. I’m angry that my first love felt nothing for me and my second couldn’t be bothered to edit me into her plans. I’m angry at the entire female gender for the vapid men they consistently choose instead of me. And I’m angry at myself for being guilty of the same superficial judgments as the women who reject me.

And yet for all my cynicism I remain a romantic. I believe in “True Love,” whatever that may be. I believe that one day, some random series of events will place me in a position where no amount of bad luck and introversion can protect me from the irresistible appeal of some beautiful creature.

I can’t imagine what I’ll ever say (or type, I suppose) in that scenario, how the words that have so often escaped me before will suddenly find themselves tumbling out of my head. But they will. And through a process that baffles me, that conversation will turn to dinner, which will turn into a series of dinners, made for two, stretched out over a lifetime filled with joy and heartache.

It could happen this year. Who knows, it could happen tomorrow.

And so we reach the end of My Life Online, a year-long investment into the world of digital romance that has proved to be a failure. I've chronicled that failure here for all of you, but what I did not include were the similar experiences that played out day after day in the "real world" that ultimately yielded the same results.

In that sense online dating, it would seem, was not all that different from traditional dating. And if I were to suggest a single takeaway point from this endeavor it would be to reaffirm that despite the stigma attached to online romance, it really is just another example of regular life finding its way into a digital form, good and bad, warts and all.

I've been looking forward to putting this project to bed, but before I do I thought I'd give a ruling on the various services I used in case anyone reading is still sitting on the fence.
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Tinder

Oh Tinder, how you tease.

By far, the most beautiful people are on Tinder. It can actually be a bit jarring to shift from the membership of a traditional dating site to the rolodex of beautiful smiling faces on Tinder, where dancers for professional sports teams and all the other women who would never talk to you IRL are one "match" away, like a carrot dangling just out of reach.

But that's also the problem with Tinder. It's more of a time-wasting game than an actual dating site and no one very few people actually take it seriously. Sure, I have friends who have met each other and gotten married through Tinder, I also have a friend who is a medium for dead spirits. The point: life is crazy, don't get your hopes up.

Odds are if you're the kind of person who might use Tinder, you've already used Tinder. If not, go for Star Wars Angry Birds instead.

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Match.com

I joined Match in August after months of frustration with my initial subscription-based niche online dating service (hint: It wasn't FitnessDates.com). Match proudly boasts of being the "biggest" online dating service and purports to have a superior matching algorithm, which I admit for the first few days results in some intriguing suggestions. But it doesn't take long before the search runs out of new material and you find yourself cycling through a list of familiar faces, date infinitum, as it were.

Also, despite (or maybe because of) the ~ $20 monthly fee, members aren't much more willing than those on free sites to have a conversation. Although that could just be limited to the experience of 26-year-old men who are less than 6 feet tall with the word "writer" in their profiles.

You can filter your searches more specifically than free sites, but that's about the only benefit in the long run.

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PlentyOfFish

It's hard to explain exactly what, but something about POF.com feels trashy. For one thing it feels like a free service, with a design that comes across like the website version of public restrooms: functional, tidy perhaps, but unwelcoming.

Maybe it's the fact that no matter what you're doing on the site, be it chatting with someone or editing your profile, you are constantly bombarded with images of other users. It's as if the site is saying to you "Hey, I don't want to interrupt that discussion about feudal society you're having with Claire, but have you met Sarah? And Alex and Julie and Britney and Trisha and Morgan?"

It's free, so you've got nothing to lose, but In my humble opinion you're better off using...

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OkCupid

Comparing OkCupid and POF is like comparing your neighborhood grocer to Walmart at 2 a.m. The selection is similar and the prices are comparable, but one provides a much more comfortable shopping experience.

All things considered, OkCupid is well-designed for a free site, with search and mail features that rival Match for quality and far exceeded those of my original niche online dating service (hint: it wasn't EquestrianCupid.com) for which I paid $10 each month. That was money wasted, whereas the Free-99 price tag of Cupid feels like a steal.

If you're looking at going digital, I would suggest you start here.

And so my friends, I bid you good luck. As for me, I'm going to unplug for a while.

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On second thought, maybe I'll hold onto Tinder. What's the harm?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Movie Review: American Hustle


Director David O. Russell has been enjoying an impressive run over the last few years. In 2010 he gave us The Fighter, which saw Christian Bale and Melissa Leo picking up Oscar statuettes and nominations for Amy Adams, his direction and the film itself.

He followed up The Fighter with last year's Silver Linings Playbook, which not only made everyone stop and say "Wait, Bradley Cooper can act?" but also saw the impressive feat of landing a nomination in each of the 6 major Oscar categories (picture, director, actor, actress, sup. actor, sup. actress) and a win for Jennifer Lawrence, which subsequently led to one of the best acceptance speeches in Oscar history. (I should also point out that SLP was picked number 2 in that year's Wood's Stock Top 10).

And now we have American Hustle, which serves as a sort of dream team-up of Russell's last two projects, uniting SLP's Cooper and Lawrence (and a scattering of supporting players) with Fighter's Bale and Adams and a side dish of Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. It's a late 70s/early 80s tale of corruption and con men that hooks you in its opening moments by passing from vintage studio title cards to a declaration of "Some of this actually happened" before landing on a bald and potbellied Bale who is laboring to arrange a comb-over that is, in the words of Adam's character, "elaborate."
Bale plays hustler Irving Rosenfeld who, along with his partner in crime/mistress Sydney (Adams), shakes down men desperate for a loan on false promises of financial assistance. "My fee is non-refundable," he tells them, "just like my time."

After the pair get pinched by an over-zealous and excitable FBI agent (Cooper) they're given the choice of either doing time or helping take down other scum like themselves. Sydney wants to run, but Irving is held in place by the manipulations of his off-kilter wife (a hypnotizing Lawrence, clearly having the most fun of anyone in the cast) who uses their son as a bargaining chip.

So our Bonnie and Clyde reluctantly agree to help out, but Cooper's wide-eyed agent has ideas bigger than his reach, and pretty soon the hustle expands to include a few politicians, a wealthy Sheik and a shadowy crew of knuckle-cracking casino mobsters.

American Hustle runs like a folk tale of bad people thriving and failing in the moral ambiguity of days gone by. No single character is completely hero, victim or villain, and throughout the two-hour running time allegiances shift and expectations are twisted.

The individual performances are superb, as Russell once again demonstrates his skill at creating interesting and dynamic ensemble pieces. Bale, as he does, disappears into his role while Adams and Lawrence spar as women simmering under the surface and Cooper rounds out the inner circle as an increasingly unhinged and drunk-with-ambition fed.

And Louis C.K., it should be noted, grounds the film as a jaded and practical superior to Cooper's Agent Richie DeMaso. After his work in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, the people's comedian is quickly establishing himself as an ace in the hole for understated supporting players.

In the hands of other directors, American Hustle could have descended into madcap comedy akin to 1986's Ruthless People (which wouldn't have necessarily been a bad thing), but Russell manages to carefully balance the tone and stakes so that the character's actions become increasingly unbelievable while still felling 100 percent natural.

Grade: A-
*American Hustle opens in select theaters on Dec. 13 and nationwide Dec. 20.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

One Wood Uke: Fare Thee Well [Video + Free Download]

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For the last few months I've been mildly obsessed with the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis. It's the latest movie by the Coen Brothers (boom) about folk music (BOOM!) and features a soundtrack produced by T. Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford with performances by Justin Timberlake (what comes after all caps? BOOM?).

Anyway, I've been watching it a lot, which subsequently led to the featured track "Fare Thee Well" getting lodged in the wet concrete of my head. It's also known as "Dink's Song," a folky ditty that has seen several renditions over the years.

I started playing around with it about a month ago but there was one problem, it's a duet and I am (as my stage name suggests) One person.

But luckily, it's Christmas time and I decided to finally go ahead and by the Blue Yeti microphone I've been wanting ever since we shot the video for "The Boxer." With that in hand, I was able to just descend into the depths of narcissism and sing both parts myself (because who needs friends when you have DIY digital recording equipment?)

The mic runs for a little more than 100 bones, connects directly to your laptop's USB and gets surprisingly good sound – I had to unplug my refrigerator while I was recording because I could hear the buzz in my headphones and one take had to be scrapped because you could hear the "walk" chimes from the intersection half a block down the street.

So here's the latest from One Wood Uke. As always the track is available for free on bandcamp (just click the "buy now" button and then enter zero in the price window).

Enjoy the video, and let me know what you think.


Monday, November 18, 2013

My Life Online: Shadow World

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Two weeks ago I took a trip to New York for some graduate school shopping and while I was there I stopped in at the Museum of Sex, affectionately referred to as MoSex (Mo' Problems, amirite?).
MoSex, located off of Madison Square Park, is dedicated to the cultural significance of human sexuality. It consists of several floors of exhibits, a bar and lounge and a gift shop featuring the kind of items you would expect at a museum dedicated to the cultural significance of human sexuality.

The museum is more than just rocking beds and phallic art (though it has those too, natch). The top floor is comprised of an interesting exhibit on sexuality and reproduction in the animal kingdom (did you know there are single-cell creatures with as many as 7 genders? Neither did I) which focuses mostly on the more atypical habits in nature, such as male sea horses giving birth, ubiquitous self-gratification among primates and Roy and Silo, the two male Central Park Zoo penguins who built a nest together and tried to hatch a little rock-baby. Their story was also transitioned into the children's book "And Tango Makes Three," which is as adorable as you would expect a book about two gay penguins raising a baby would be.

Sidenote: perhaps the 2014 sequel to My Life Online should be my adventures with an imaginary rock girlfriend, "And Trisha Makes Two." /Sidenote.

But the most fascinating part of MoSex -- and the part that relates to MLO -- is the "Universe of Desire" exhibit, which is based on the research of Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, who collected and analyzed internet search data from July 2009 to July 2010 and published their findings in the book "A Billion Wicked Thoughts."

As the puppets of Avenue Q have made abundantly clear, the internet is for porn, and not surprisingly Ogas and Gaddam found that of the more than 400 million internet searches they gathered, roughly 55 million (or 13 percent) were for some type of erotic content.

The exhibit breaks down these searches, ranking specific terms by popularity. "Breasts" were number 4, separate from "small breasts" at number 81. "Buttocks" came in at number 23 and "feet" ranked 54th.

Many of the terms I had never even heard of. For example, there is, evidently, an entire sub-genre of humiliation pornography in which a naked man is ogled and ridiculed by clothed women. I'm not entirely sure who would be into that, but I've never really understood the feet thing either (my brother used to joke that mid-90s singer Jewel had great feet. At least I think it was a joke).

Universe of Desire also included installations on the rise of the sext. A transcript of Anthony Wiener's extra-marital Facebook chats was displayed, as was an email exchange between two coworkers that was meant to be private before it was accidentally reply-all'd, the horror of every intra-office romance writ large for the world to see.

From the museum website:
"Type. Swipe. Search. Upload. Download. Post. Stream. These are the new verbs of desire. Our most intimate thoughts, fantasies, and urges are now transmitted via electronic devices to rapt audiences all over the world. These transmissions -- from sexts to webcam masturbation feeds -- are anonymous yet personal, individual yet collective, everywhere and nowhere, and they are contributing to the largest sexual record to date. In short, desire has gone viral. But what does this mean? And what does it reveal about us?"
Dating, too, has gone viral. Online relationship sites love to tout that half of all new pairings begin online, though I assume that claim -- much like the claim that half of all marriages end in divorce -- is mostly unquantified myth. Regardless of the hard numbers, the way we meet and interact with each other is continually shifting away from "real life," and it is a well-accepted fact that the first thing you do after meeting someone is stalk them on Facebook, comparing their number of friends to your own and digging through years of old photographs to see how they look in all four seasons.

Sex, money, religion and politics are the ever-present subtexts in a modern society that is increasingly digital. We shop online, we vote on computers, we stream sermons and a sea of skin is always only a mouse click away. I don't know what it means, or what it reveals about us, but it is the pixelated reality of the world we live in.

As it happened, I got back from my New York trip just in time for the latest anti-pornography White House Petition to start gaining steam. A person identified solely as M.G. has a beef with porn, and is asking the government to step in and require service providers to only allow access to adult content if a customer "opts in." M.G. is not alone and as of Monday 34,000 like-minded individuals had signed on, although one has to wonder if they've really considered the near-impossibility of the proposal or the unprecedented government intrusion into the private sector that they're calling for. (It should also be noted that the vast majority of signatures come from Utah, a state notorious for 1) it's opposition to pornography and 2) it's highest-in-the-nation pornography consumption).

Then there was the news last month that Silk Road, a relatively unknown-to-the-lay-person corner of the deep web, had been shut down and its facilitator, known online as the Dread Pirate Roberts had been allegedly arrested. For years the site had served as the Amazon.com of online crime, allowing individuals to purchase everything from illegal drugs to child pornography to assassins in convenient secrecy through the exchange of bitcoin, which functions as the digital equivalent of cash.

I don't have the technological head to comment on bitcoin or Silk Road, suffice to say that it's a fascinating example of something that exists unseen in the world around us. If you're curious, I suggest listening to this podcast by the Stuff You Should Know guys.

But there's the lighter side of the internet as well, even when it comes to sexuality. I recently came across the site GhostSingles.com, a satirical online dating service that plays at arranging relationships between the dead. If I search as a male ghost, seeking a female ghost, between the ages of 18 and 200 who died "tragically," I get six matches, including deadgrrrl, whose profile reads as the following:
Hi guys! My real name is Dorothy, and I'm from West Virginia. Do I say where I'm from as where I was born or where I died LOL?
ANYWAY, I used to like to sew, and miss it so bad! I also miss honey butter like nothing else.
I used to miss my cat until she died. That was like seventy years ago, and then she was fun to have back around. Now she disappears for like a decade at a time, then comes back for a few years. Don't ask me what a dead cat's doing. Hey, I thought they had 9 lives! lol!!
Anyway, shoot me a message! XXOO
The take-away message? It's nice to no there's a niche online dating service out there if this project kills me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An Excerpt from 'Committing'



As some of you know, for the last two years I've been working on my first novel, 'Committing,' about a group of friends in their mid-20s dealing with the transition into adulthood while reacting to the death of a friend.

I'm pleased to announce that we are on track for a self-publishing date in early January and possibly late December (right in time for Christmas, eh?) and so to whet your appetites here is an excerpt from the 2nd chapter of the book, which sees our protagonist attending the funeral that sets the story in motion.

Keep checking Wood's Stock for updates on the (relatively short) book, which will be available in both e-book and paperback formats. If you see any spelling or grammatical errors let me know. I'm self-editing and as my former co-workers at the Statesman will tell you, micro-editing is not my strong suit. Also, any and all feedback would be much appreciated.

Enjoy!
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The church was beautiful, a display of minimalist perfection with only a few muted white blossoms and black and white photographs drawing attention away from the ornate structure and its elaborate stained-glass windows. As he entered, Charles couldn’t help but think how lucky Devin was to have married Stephanie, and how lucky Stephanie was that Devin would never plan her funeral. Charles was no more than two steps through the door when little Daniel bounded up to him and wrapped himself around Charles’ leg. He always greeted him this way. Charles called it his Daniel-Socks and would walk around with the young boy sitting on his foot, arms and legs firmly secured behind his calf.

“Uncle Charles!”

“Hey Dan,” Charles said, reaching down and tussling the boy’s head. Stephanie arrived immediately and bent down to smooth her son’s hair back into place before rising to give Charles a hug.

“Steph, this is beautiful.”

“Thanks Charles,” she said before directing her attention to her son. “Come on Dan, Uncle Charles needs to go sit down.”

“I can take him with me, if you want. What do you say Dan? Want to sit with me and Uncle Tyler?” Charles said, noticing the small line of arriving guests waiting to give their condolences to Stephanie. She merely nodded and mouthed the words “thank you” before turning to embrace a large woman, trembling visibly between unsuccessfully muted sobs.

“Hold on buddy,” Charles said, feeling Daniel’s grip tighten around his leg in response.

He walked with a dogged gait, making a louder stomp each time his loaded right shoe struck the floor. He wondered what malady people must assume had befallen him if they were sitting more than 10 feet away and were therefore unaware of the 30 pounds of three-year-old attached to his pants. Tyler was sitting 6 rows from the front and was watching him arrive, having turned like everyone else to see who was making all the noise.

“Hey Dude,” Tyler said, sliding over to allow room. Tyler was a large man, the kind that you assume had attended some junior college on a football scholarship.  In actuality, he was an engineer or something.  Charles wasn’t entirely sure what Tyler did for a living besides get paid more than he deserved.

“Where’s Trish?” Charles asked, peeling Daniel off and setting him down on the bench beside him.
“Work. She’ll be here later.”

Trish and Tyler made up the third branch of their little family. Tyler had lived down the hall from the dorm room Charles and Devin shared their freshman year. He had dated Trish in high school when he was a senior and she was a doe-eyed idiot of a sophomore cheerleader.  When she finally graduated, she conveniently enrolled in the same university they attended, poised to win back her man. After four years of unrelenting affection – during which Trish was a constant presence in all of their lives despite Tyler’s insistence that they were not, nor would ever be, in a relationship – he had finally succumbed to reality and proposed.

“How are the plans going?” Charles asked.

 “Well, my criteria for ‘success’ is not being bankrupt after the honeymoon,” Tyler said. “And in that sense, it’s not going well.”

“Isn’t her dad supposed to pay for everything? That’s a thing, right? Father of the bride and all that?”
“Her dad’s a stingy bastard and she’s a feminist,” Tyler said, “which apparently means she wants the wedding she feels she deserves, paid for with her own money, which really means she wants the wedding of her dreams paid for with my money.”

 “All’s fair.”

“Is it?”

Someone that Charles should have remembered walked by and gave both him and Tyler a handshake, the kind where the person clasps you with two hands, over and under simultaneously. The woman, probably in her late 50s with slightly graying hair, gave each of them their own individual two-minute session of hand-swallowing and fixed, compassionate eye contact. She said nothing, apparently confident that her condolences were being adequately transmitted either telepathically or through touch.

For their part, Charles and Tyler both put on an appropriately sympathetic and affectionate smile and nodded in that way people do at solemn occasions.

“Who was that?” Charles asked.

“No idea,” Tyler replied. “So Trish is mad at me, we kind of had a fight this morning.”

“What about?”

 “Well, she was on my case about not caring about some dumb wedding detail, centerpieces or something, and then all the sudden she says ‘if you hadn’t waited so long to propose then maybe Devin would have been at the wedding.’ Can you believe that shit?”

Charles wasn’t looking at his friend and didn’t respond immediately. His attention was focused on Daniel who was struggling to un-tuck his little white dress shirt from the waist of his pants. “That’s messed up,” he said finally.

Tyler looked to see what Charles was watching and fixed his eyes on Daniel, who had succeeded with his shirt and was now fumbling with cherubic fingers to loosen the bow tie that had become twisted and tight around his neck. Tyler turned back towards the front of the chapel. “Yeah man,” he said softly. “It’s messed up.”

Charles scanned the room. He could see Devin’s parents toward the front of the chapel, sitting hand in hand with rigid backs. As if sensing Charles’ gaze, Devin’s mother turned and met his eyes with an affectionate smile, dipped her head slightly and then turned her eyes back toward the casket that was placed directly in front of them.

It was large, even for a casket, but was otherwise unimposing. The lacquered chestnut was broken only by the silver handle that ran along the side. For the most part, it blended in with the dais at the front of the chapel.

Charles didn’t recognize many of the other guests. He swept his head in one last 180-degree pass from side to side, touching briefly on a few cousins or family friends that he thought he recognized from encounters over the years. Just as his view returned to the front of the room he felt Tyler’s elbow jab his ribs.

 “Oh man!” Tyler said in an excited whisper, “Back door, right side. Look who just walked in.”

He put his arm on the bench behind Tyler to better turn himself and froze when he saw her. Blond hair that fell between her shoulder blades. A sleeveless black dress that stopped just above the knee, giving way to two flawless legs held in perfect shape by a pair of striking heels.

Jessica.

“I didn’t know she was back in town,” Tyler said. “How long has it been since you saw her. Three, four years?”

“Five,” Charles said, his eyes still fixed on her as she passed behind the pews toward Stephanie. She moved effortlessly, the kind of woman who was born in heels and confident in any setting. It wasn’t so much a step as it was a sort of gliding motion across the floor, like a the bow of a ship piercing through ocean waves. In every way she looked like she had just walked across the street from where she was filming a Maybelline commercial.

“You gotta talk to her after, get her number,” Tyler said. “Damn, can you believe how good she looks?”

“Dude, I hardly think it’s appropriate to pick up chicks at Devin’s funeral,” Charles replied, louder than he intended. He quickly ducked his head down, hunkering into the pew like a frightened turtle. He could feel his pulse on the left side of his neck.

“Are you kidding me?” Tyler said, oblivious to any sense of volume decorum. “You know Devin would be proud if his funeral helped you get back together with Jessica Warner.”

“Just … shut up man.”

“I think she’s here alone, I’ll waive her over,” Tyler said, rising halfway out of his seat before Charles forcefully grabbed his arm and pulled him back down.

“Dude, they’re starting,” Charles said. Tyler looked embarrassed and quickly composed himself as the pastor took to the pulpit and invited everyone to take their seats. From the corner of his eye Charles watched Jessica move into a pew by herself near the door. His attention was snapped back forward when Stephanie began addressing the guests.

“Thank you all so much for coming,” she began. “You may not have known this, but Devin hated hosting parties. He told me once that in high school he had tried to put something together last minute on Halloween. There was a single bag of chips on the kitchen table, about a dozen guys taking turns playing foosball and one girl, just one, sitting sullenly in the corner. He was so shamed and scarred by the experience that he vowed to never host anything for the rest of his life. If I ever approached the subject he would throw one fist to the sky and scream ‘Never Again!’”

She paused for a moment and pressed her hand to her mouth, her eyes wet with suppressed tears.

“When his condition worsened, we knew that certain preparations had to be taken care of. He wrote his will and something like 40 letters for my son, Daniel, to open on specific birthdays. I have them at home, in a box tucked away in our closet. He said that it was important that a boy learn certain things from his father and it took him about two weeks to decide at what age Daniel should get the sex talk.”
Charles put an arm around Daniel and scooted him close to his hip. The boy was completely naïve to everything being said but was frantically waiving at his mother, trying to draw her attention. 

Stephanie looked down and saw him and broke into a wide, tearful smile.

“Hi Daniel,” she said with a little wave. “I’m glad you’re listening because you’re going to get an awkward letter from daddy in 11 years.”

Everyone laughed as Stephanie stood there, beaming with glistening eyes.

“Whenever the funeral came up, Devin would just stop the conversation. I remember one night he said to me ‘Babe, you know what the silver lining in this is? It’s my party, but I won’t have to plan any of it and if no one shows up, well, I’m dead anyway.’”

Stephanie didn’t talk much longer. She retold the story of meeting Devin, how his diagnosis had arrived like a lightning bolt just as things where starting to get serious between them. She told how they both decided they weren’t ready to give up on each other and that come what may, they would face it together.

And that was it. She stopped abruptly, which led Charles to believe that she had prepared more to say, and walked down into the audience to sit by her mother, who pulled her daughter in tight and set her head down on her shoulder. After Stephanie, Devin’s mother spoke, then his father and then the pastor gave a few last words.

Charles stood, holding Daniel, and walked to the front of the chapel with Tyler close behind. He handed Daniel to his mother then turned, joined by the other pallbearers, and lifted the casket up over his shoulder. There had been no rehearsal, or even instructions given, but somehow the eight men seemed to operate with a robotic precision, dipping and lifting in unison and marching in step to some silent drummer.

He had not been to many funerals and he had never been a pallbearer. As he walked down the steps and to the hearse he thought of how many times he had watched the scene play out on movies and television shows and wondered whether he looked the part of the dutiful best friend: somber in his black suit at the front corner of the casket that held his most trusted confidante.

The sun was shining, and Charles thought inside himself how it’s usually raining at the funerals on TV.

He rode to the cemetery with Tyler and when they arrived Trish was waiting for them. They stood at the edge of the grave, just behind Stephanie and Devin’s parents. He could see Jessica standing across the casket from him and for the one second that he allowed himself to look at her she returned, and held, his gaze.

Charles quickly dropped his head and stared at the casket. He was close enough to see the pattern in the wood and he traced the lines along the lid until they disappeared beneath the bouquet of white flowers placed on top. The pastor finished his prayer, a piper began to play and Charles watched as the patterns blurred and then disappeared. The flowers shrank and a dark shadow passed over the casket as it dropped, slowly, into the grave.

He placed a hand on Stephanie’s shoulder. As she reached up and pressed her fingers around his, he could feel her shaking.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

TV Matchups: What To Watch 2013

Stockers, it's that time of the year again, in which we pit our new television shows against each other in head-to-head contests based on arbitrary groupings and score them based on the American Football point system (why? Because it's fun).



'Super'-dramas: Bananas and Cheese division

SHIELD premiered to much fanfare and aplomb, only to fall flat on the face of its own efforts to be mass-appeal. You know what the average TV viewer doesn't like? Shows with complicated mythologies that exist in a litany of off-screen comic book source material. You know what the average comic book fan doesn't like? Shows that you can safely watch in the company of a group of kindergarten students. And you know what everybody doesn't like? Milquetoast protagonists and a will-they-won't-they couple who have the chemistry of lukewarm tap water.

Somewhere at the core of SHIELD is an amazing television show, and while the series has shown some improvement in recent weeks it has a long way to go if it wants to step out of its glossy Disney PR-machine packaging.

On the other hand, Sleepy Hollow is a gonzo smash that almost seems like the writers are constantly attempting to one-up what they can get away with. It's got a charming fish-out-of-water star with a British accent (swoon bait) hunted by various baddies that go bump in the night and, most importantly, the showrunners aren't afraid to get a little blood on their hands, employing some impressively cinematic gore for a one-hour drama on Fox's primetime lineup. It's positively insane, and I love it.

Winner: After a slow start that saw SHIELD pull ahead in the first half, Sleepy Hollow rallies to a 10-point victory.




The comeback kids

I'm told that Robin Williams is a bonafide TV comedy actor, having starred in an ABC series that went off the air before I was born. Since then, Williams' particular brand of humor has grown increasingly one-note, with "comedy" amounting to little more than Robin muttering nearly-incoherent nonsense before making some sort of shrill exclamation or launching into an impression to bring the joke home. All of that also applies to The Crazy Ones, which would actually be a better show if RW's character was killed off entirely, allowing the impressive but under-utilized B-Cast to transition into an ensemble comedy.

But where Williams is an acquired taste, Michael J. Fox is peanut butter and chocolate in the sense that if you don't like him you clearly have no soul. Unfortunately for his eponymous NBC comedy, the writers have essentially gone "all-in" on MJF's likeability, forgetting to invest in things like plot, stakes or purpose. It still kind of works, though, because Marty McFly really is that endearing.

Winner: The Michael J. Fox show wins 20-3 after Crazy Ones recovers a late fourth-quarter fumble, runs it to the 5-yard-line and is forced to settle for a field goal.




Family Feud

Family comedies are one of the constants of broadcast television – like police procedurals, medical dramas and 'Friends'-type sitcoms – so it's no surprise that so many of this year's debuts revolve around the home.

Between The Millers and The Goldbergs, only the blast-from-the-past Goldbergs could even hold a candle to reigning champion Modern Family, and even then just barely. The most amusing part about the show is the 80s references that distract from the cast – who are fine as individuals but don't quite sparkle as an ensemble – and Reno 911s Wendi McLendon-Covey as overbearing matriarch Beverly.

Oh and if you're wondering where The Millers are, they likely got lost in an unending sequence of flatulence jokes.

Winner: The Goldbergs score two touchdowns early on before The Millers are forced to forfeit the game out of exhaustion. 




The sexier side of violent crime

"Hey!" says one of the people behind CBS' Hostages "Let's make a show about a surgeon forced to kill the president because her family is kidnapped! We'll call it...'Hostages'."

"Yeah, and we can make each member of her family a bundle of clichéd archetypes with soap-opera-esque challenges to deal with, like a secret affair or a drug debt!"

"Boom! This is gold. We'll have their captor be a morally ambiguous government agent with an adorable daughter and a wife in a coma."

"Dyn-o-mite! Wait, what is this show about again?"

"I don't remember. ROLL CAMERA!"

Meanwhile...

"Hey!" says one of the people behind NBC's The Blacklist. "Remember how good Hannibal is, even though no one is really watching it? What if we did that same show, only made it lighter and more approachable, with a super-charismatic protagonist and a convoluted mystery backstory that we can tease the audience with for years on end?"

"Yeah! Like Fringe meets Lost meets 24 meets one of those CW shows with all the pretty people!"

"Love it! Do you think James Spader is available? We could have him wear a fedora."

"Sold!"

Winner: While everyone is watching the cheerleaders, the Blacklist sneaks up and puts 100 points on the scoreboard, then buys everyone drinks.





Dads vs. Mom

One of these shows is a live-action comedy by Family Guy creator Seth McFarland about two obnoxious fathers who move in with their bonehead sons. The other is essentially Generational Poverty: The Series! in which a woman tries to reconnect with her mother and pregnant teenage daughter while also working to curb her alcoholism.

Which is which? Who cares, they're both terrible.

Loser: America