Thursday, July 25, 2013

Movie Review: The To Do List

In the latest teens-having-sex comedy "The To Do List," Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza plays Brandy, a sexually-naive straight-A student who decides she needs more bedroom experience before transitioning to the extended orgy that is a freshman year at college.

Applying her same academic zeal to the project, Brandy organizes a list of sexual acts (most of which she does not even marginally understand) in her trapper keeper and sets off transforming herself, with the goal of eventually harpooning the great white whale: intercourse with dreamy golden-locked college boy Rusty Waters (played by Friday Night Light's wheelchair-bound quarterback Scott Porter).

But before she can bed Mr. Waters, Brandy gets help along the way from a sprawling cast of B-list comedic talent that would take a full paragraph just to list, which is what I'm about to do: SNL's Bill Hader and Andy Sanberg, Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat, Community's Donald Glover, Happy Endings' Adam Pally, 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Johnny Simmons,  Connie Britton and Clark Gregg.

The To Do List (it irritates me that there is no hyphen in the title) is unabashedly crude in its antics and yet innocent in its portrayal. For a movie in which a new sexual act is performed every 5 minutes, there is not a stitch of nudity as the filmmakers prefer to use the power of sound and suggestion to drive the awkwardness of the humor to almost unbearable lengths that can not be confused with eroticism.

This is not the typical gross-fest that drives teenage boys sneaking into screenings after buying a ticket for Despicable Me. Most of the humor is actually derived from the film's 1993 setting (in Boise, no less) as the film functions best as a winking nod to Gen Y nostalgia (VHS tapes, "electronic mail" etc) than as an entry into the Superbad/American Pie family of shenanigan cinema.

But this also results in the film coming off slightly confused in itself. The tone hop-scotches constantly between Clinton-era tribute piece and naughty-nerd romp, never quite landing comfortably on other side. The winning cast is effortlessly game, riffing off each other and enjoying the 90s stereotypes they've created (Grunge-rocker, sensitive nerd, Rush Limbaugh-reading protective father) but the end result is a funny movie that entertains, but is quickly forgotten.

Grade: B-
*The To Do List opens in theaters Friday, July 26.

Friday, July 19, 2013

2013 Emmy Nominations

The Emmy Nominations are in and boy, are they a doozy. There's the usual list of snubs and surprises but the real bombshell comes in the form of House of Cards, the Netflix-original series about shady political machination, that scored nominations for Drama Series (the TV equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar) as well as lead actor and actress.

That's right, for the first time ever the best drama on television may end up being a drama that never actually aired on a television. A win – which I wager is unlikely – would be a peacock feather in the cap of Netflix, who bet big on its new original programming binge-viewing model, and would also help usher in the end of broadcast tv as we know it.

But no such love for Netflix' flagship comedy, the ultra buzzy Arrested Developed that ressurected this year after a decade-long hiatus. Ultimately it appears the show's unconventional storytelling format, which focused on a single character per episode and featured a meandering, meta-humor, non-chronological plot, proved too out-there for Emmy voters, meaning we continue to live in a world where Two and a Half Men is considered "outstanding." (ed note: The Horror!)

The Good:

• I love that House of Cards was nominated, as it represents a bold statement on modern television and gives credit where credit is due. HOC delivered a season of truly compelling drama, with superb performances from it's lead actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, who both picked up acting nods.

• Emmy voters made the right call by honoring 30 Rock's final season while snubbing the last outing of our friends at The Office. It's a testament to that fact that sentimentality is no substitute for quality.

• If I was going to pick a single actor to nominate from Arrested Development I'm not sure it would be Jason Bateman. Yes, he is the central character that held the various plotlines together, but his storyline during the most recent season ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack. Besides a few great gags about the faux-rivalry between Jerry Bruckheimer and Ron Howard, all of that "You're out of the movie" talk landed with a dull thud for me. It should be noted, though, that fellow AD cast mate Tony Hale (the indelible Buster) scored a nomination for his supporting role on HBO's Veep.

• Similar kudos to the Emmy for recognizing Girls' Adam Driver. Creator-writer-star Lena Dunham earned her well-deserved kudos last year, but in season 2 it was the men of Girls, not the girls of Girls, that stole the spotlight, none more so than the conflicted Adam, who bounces back and forth between hero and villain without ever sacrificing authenticity. It's Adam's storyline that stands out the most this year, particularly for that episode (you know which one).

The Bad:

• The aforementioned Two and a Half Men, which continues to enjoy success in the world despite being the intellectual equivalent of a bag of wet hair.

• I hate to call Downton Abbey's nominations "bad," but given the lackluster third season we just witnessed I can't hep but feel there's other shows/actors/actresses that deserve those slots on the ballot.

• Not to drone on about House of Cards but it's a crime that Corey Stoll wasn't nominated in the supporting actor category. His tragic Pete Russo was the breakout star of the show and the moral glue that held the whole enterprise together. Frankly, I'm a little concerned how season 2 will be without him, since he was just about the only decent human being the audience could root for.

• There's nothing more vindicating for a fan than to see your favorite, ratings-challenged show get nominated post-cancellation, which is why I'm somewhat crushed that my deerly-departed Happy Endings will end its tenure with absolutely no Emmy love. Ensemble shows always provide a challenge for the acting categories (see: the perennial Modern Family dilemma) but come on, couldn't we have left off Two and a Half Men off the Comedy Series category just this one for the sake of truth and justice? (ed note: Ben is now whimpering in a corner)

• Two words: Schmidt happens.

The Interesting:

Connie Britton is great, but Nashville? No nominations required. Also, Scandal? Really?

• Last year's Comedy supporting actor winner Eric Stonestreet is notably absent. But honestly, at this point that category is a just a revolving door of Modern Family men.

• I love that Elisabeth Moss is nominated in both the Drama and the Miniseries categories. Sadly, that probably means she'll win neither.
Here's the (mostly) full list of this year's nominations. Are you shocked? Surprised? Enraged? Let me know in the comments.

Breaking Bad, AMC
Downton Abbey, PBS
Homeland, Showtime
Game of Thrones, HBO
House of Cards, Netflix
Mad Men, AMC

The Big Bang Theory, CBS
Girls, HBO
Louie, FX
Modern Family, ABC
30 Rock, NBC
Veep, HBO

Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey, PBS
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad, AMC
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom, HBO
Jon Hamm, Mad Men, AMC
Damian Lewis, Homeland, Showtime
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards, Netflix

Connie Britton, Nashville, ABC
Claire Danes, Homeland, Showtime
Michele Dockery, Downton Abbey, PBS
Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel, A&E
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men, AMC
Kerry Washington, Scandal, ABC
Robin Wright, House of Cards, Netflix

Jason Bateman, Arrested Development, Netflix
Louis CK, Louie, FX
Don Cheadle, House of Lies, Showtime
Matt LeBlanc, Episodes, Showtime
Jim Parsons, Big Bang Theory, CBS
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock, NBC

Lena Dunham, Girls, HBO
Laura Dern, Enlightened, HBO
Tiny Fey, 30 Rock, NBC
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation, NBC
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep, HBO
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie, Showtime

Adam Driver, Girls, HBO
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family, ABC
Ed O'Neill, Modern Family, ABC
Ty Burrell, Modern Family, ABC
Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live, NBC
Tony Hale, Veep, HBO

Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory, CBS
Jane Lynch, Glee, Fox
Sofia Vergara, Modern Family, ABC
Julie Bowen, Modern Family, ABC
Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie, Showtime
Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock, NBC
Anna Chlumsky, Veep, HBO

Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire, HBO
Jonathan Banks, Breaking Bad, AMC
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad, AMC
Jim Carter, Downton Abbey, PBS
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones, HBO
Mandy Patinkin, Homeland, Showtime

Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad, AMC
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey, AMC
Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones, HBO
Christine Baranski, The Good Wife, CBS
Morena Baccarin, Homeland, Showtime
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men, AMC

American Horror Story: Asylum, FX
Behind The Candelabra, HBO
The Bible, HISTORY
Phil Spector, HBO
Political Animals, USA
Top Of The Lake, Sundance Channel

Michael Douglas, Behind The Candelabra, HBO
Matt Damon, Behind The Candelabra, HBO
Toby Jones, The Girl, HBO
Benedict Cumberbatch, Parade's End, HBO
Al Pacino, Phil Spector, HBO

Jessica Lange, American Horror Story, FX
Laura Linney, The Big C: Hereafter, Showtime
Helen Mirren, Phil Spector, HBO
Sigourney Weaver, Political Animals, USA
Elisabeth Moss, Top Of The Lake, Sundance Channel

Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Life Online: Baby Steps

My friend Karen is a hoot and a half.

We first made each other’s acquaintance in 2011 when I was the editor in chief of USU’s student newspaper. Karen sent me a sternly-worded email expressing her displeasure with a photograph we had chosen to publish in connection with a fundraiser held by her boyfriend’s frat.

The image, which featured a young woman with her legs around the waist of a young man fist-pumping in time to whatever sick jams the hired DJ was spitting, was deemed by some in the Greek community as an intentional, calculated maneuver to discredit the image of these fine, upstanding, campus leaders due to my personal prejudices against fraternal and sororital groups.

In actuality, the photo was selected because it was indicative of the event – a dance party – and was one of the more tasteful images we had gathered during the evening. As for my personal bias, I only had ill feelings toward a single house on USU’s Greek Row, which was not the fraternity in question.

I did my best to explain this to Karen and the issue was mostly settled, as today’s newspapers are tomorrow’s birdcage liners. But for the remainder of the semester Karen I stayed in sporadic contact; she letting me know about upcoming news from the Greeks and I using her insight into an area of campus life foreign to me as a makeshift focus group.

In the years since, Karen and I have often debated politics, philosophy, religion, pop culture and any other myriad number of subjects. I value her opinion and insight immensely, and in fact she has been kind enough to read through an early draft of my novel to provide feedback (a labor of love, I assure you).

And yet, Karen and I have never spoken face to face.

We ran in different scenes in college and, after graduation, I scooted off to an internship in New York City while she headed to Wisconsin to be a librarian. Thanks to the wonderful world of Facebook in which we know live, we may as well be neighbors.

Karen isn’t the only example in my life of a relationship that is primarily digital. Among my 600-odd Facebook friends are many who began as acquaintances but, one “like” and comment at a time, have become indispensable members of my social circle.

For example, in 2010 I spent a week in Georgia at a conference for college newspaper editors. There were a few dozen of us, pulled from schools all over the country, and we spent our days immersed in the study of our shared profession and our nights bar-hopping around Athens.

It was one of the most memorable weeks of my life, and though I effectively haven’t seen any of my colleagues since, we nonetheless keep in touch and come together in an online forum from time to time online to discuss the changing state of our industry.

In today’s world, you can go months, even years, without exchanging so much as a sentence with a particular human being, but with one mouse click Facebook notifies you that “John Doe likes your post,” and you know that connection remains.

Most people, I imagine, have experienced this as most people are now on one form of social media or another. That is why it’s so hard for me to understand the stigma that continues to hang over online dating, since the central concept is the same. If a friendship can be built and maintained online then why not love?

It’s also what makes the constant failure of online dating so frustrating, as most of my attempts at a conversation are either never answered or flame out over the space of two to three days.

But the obvious difference is time. It took two years of slow, incremental progress for Karen and I to become bona-fide friends, whereas most of the articles I’ve read on online dating (and my own experience) suggest that after you “meet” your eJuliet you need to suggest a meeting IRL relatively quickly before they lose interest and move on to the next hazel-eyed brunette with a college degree who enjoys folk music, Thai food and embroidery.

Case in point, Melanie, who I was obliged to friend on Facebook after receiving the following message:
So I have an interesting story for you! It’s an epic story with twists and a surprise ending!
This past weekend, a girl I know passed away. This morning, I wanted to find out more details about the accident, so I went to [a website I contribute to] and guess who was the author of the article?! :)
Here’s the part where it takes a turn.
First off, great article! I also really enjoyed your blog [ed note: Uh-oh] and flipping through your FB pictures! You never mentioned that you are in a band! [ed note: I wouldn’t exactly call One Wood Uke a “band”] These are the kind of facts you wanna broadcast if you’re really trying to impress a girl!
Now, it’s generally understood that everyone Facebook stalks each other. I mean, real talk, that’s what the website is for. But still, acknowledging it flat-out seems like a breach of social protocol, especially when it affects what I can write on my blog.

But it’s mostly a moot point. After accepting my friend request I didn’t bother continuing our conversation on OkCupid, plus I was out of town with limited internet capability. When I returned to society I had the following message from Melanie in my FB inbox:

“So what’s the deal? We become friends on Facebook and stop talking?”

Apparently, yes. But who knows, in two years we could be thick as thieves.

In other news, I’m beginning to think the initial excitement of Tinder is wearing off, leaving only the sad a depressed or the sexual predators as users. My two most recent “matches” include a woman named Kyra whose tagline says “I’m looking for a one night stand” and Lisa, who mere seconds after matching with me initiated the following conversation:

Lisa: Hi! Have we chatted before? 24/female here…you??

Me: Don’t think so. 26.

Lisa: I’m sorry…I get to be forgetful at times!! How’re u??

Me: No worries. I’m good. How are you?

Lisa: Just got out of the shower…..crazy week been working a lot! But I’m feeling naughty!! So what’s up….wanna have some fun?? ;)

Lisa: I want a guy that can make me [explicit sexual phrase] Have you ever made a chick [use your imagination]?? Hahaa

Me: Can’t say I have

Lisa: Gonna change my clothes…..wanna see? :)

Lisa: Want to play on webcam?

Me: I don’t have a webcam

If you’re wondering why I was still responding at that point, it was for academic purposes, natch, I am a blogger after all.

Lisa then proceeded to send me the url for a webcam website where, if I filled in my credit card information, I would be able to enjoy a nice conversation with her about the Socratic method and Plato’s analogy of the cave. She assured me the credit card was just to verify that I was an adult and that I wouldn’t be charged a dime.

Which basically brings us to the present after a mostly non-eventful month. My niche online dating service (hint: it’s not DatingWithHerpes) continues to be an abysmal failure, and to make matters worse I’ve reached the end of my 6-month prepaid period, meaning I know get a nice monthly withdrawal from my checking account to be rejected by women.

If I’m learning anything, it’s that free dating sites offer services as good, if not superior, to paid sites. That may not be true for higher-profile entities like eHarmony or which, if the commercials are to be believed, employ an army of statisticians to painstakingly introduce you to the next love of your life.

What’s more disheartening about my niche online site (hint: it’s not EquestrianCupid ) is that of my 4 services it’s the one I’m failing the most at. I’ve so far stuck to my quota of initiating at least one conversation a week but am sad to say the last time I received a response was June 4.

I’ve updated my profile, I’ve added pictures, but the scientific method would suggest I’m a lost cause. Unbeknownst to me, there must be something about my smile, the way I style my hair, or the way I answered the 6 things I can’t live without that is a secret female code word for “deranged sociopath.”

As the mutants on table 9 and I have come to realize throughout our lives, we simply have nothing to offer the opposite sex.

Or, maybe it’s just that I’m a writer.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Movie Review: Red 2

The action comedy genre has taken a few licks in the last few years. As big-budget superhero extravaganzas and elaborate CG-creations like Avatar continue to shatter the box office, studios and audiences have been less and less drawn to a good old-fashioned shoot-em-up where a hero takes names and cracks wise.

It's also a difficult balance to strike as filmmakers try to keep the tone light and fun in the midst of death and destruction and, hopefully, compelling stakes. For every Lethal Weapon there's a McG-directed This is War or the recently abysmal Tower Heist by Bret Ratner.

But in 2010 we got Red, based on a graphic novel about retired spies deemed "RED," or Retired Extremely Dangerous, by their respective agencies, who are called back into action by circumstances beyond their control. Red, directed by Robert Schwentke, was a winning combination of elegant low-fi action, absurdist comedy and satire that practically came out of nowhere and nosed it's way onto my list of 2010's Top 10 films.

In Red 2 we find our hero, retired CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), adjusting to domestic life with his lady Sarah, played by Mary-Louise Parker, who we quickly learn has developed a degree of boredom to a pedestrian life where bullets aren't constantly flying past her head. They are approached by Moses' former intelligence colleague Marvin (John Malkovich) who warns them that someone is coming for them all.

In short order, Moses is taken in for questioning by FBI agents on something called "nightshade," but those agents are quickly dispatched by a CIA wet team led by Neal McDonough, stepping in for Karl Urban in the Government Agent With Ambiguous Moral Leanings role.

Moses escapes with Sarah in tow, initiating an international hunt for the retired spy with both the U.S. and London calling in assassins to clean things up, specifically Moses' friend Victoria (played by Helen Mirren) in the case of our brothers across the pond and "best in the world" Han (G.I. Joe's Byung-hun Lee) who has a personal vendetta against Moses.

The plot skips from Paris to Moscow to London, picking up a few more characters along the way, namely Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins, and stopping for increasingly elaborate action set pieces at every turn as our band of heroes dodges both the authorities and Han in their search for answers on what/where is Nightshade and why they've been branded as terrorists.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is the weak link in the ensemble. Her character Katja, a Russian intelligence bureaucrat, is presented as a former flame of Willis' Frank Moses and used as a wedge for the relationship between Moses and Sarah, but Zeta-Jones mostly comes off as wooden and the victim of a bad spray tan. Compared to the zippy chemistry of the principal Scooby Gang cast, Zeta-Jones never quite jells with the tone of the film and her scenes stick out awkwardly.

In terms of storytelling, Red 2 suffers from a recurring plot trope that sees the gang's plan nearly foiled on a number of occasions only to be salvaged because a would-be protagonist chooses friendship with Moses over loyalty to king and country. "I'm here to kill you" they bark at Willis, gun pointed in his face. "But we're friends/the greater good/etc" he retorts. "JK! I'll help you," they say, shrugging their weapons over their shoulders.

The film could afford to trim it's running time, particularly from the first act which spends 15-odd minutes on an amusing but ultimately pointless plot tangent. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say Red 2 predictable, there is very little that occurs that is complete unforseen which makes the finale pale slightly in comparison to the ingenuity of the first film's third act.

But the humor pops and the action is great, all done with the same winking smile that made the first film so enjoyable. Director Dean Parisot (who stepped in for Schwentke and who is best known for 1999's superb Galaxy Quest) is more liberal in his use of CGI than his predecessor, but the lion's share of the mayhem is achieved through in-camera effects and choreography, which is one of the franchise's strongest points.

Mary Louise-Parker's role is upgraded considerably as she starts to learn the ways of international espionage and wanton destruction. John Malkovich, whose LSD-damaged pseduo-lunatic Marvin stole the show in Red 1, wisely dials back the neurosis of his character, keeping him from becoming one-note while still providing laughs. If anyone is underutilized it is the indominable Hellen Mirren, who at 67 still looks amazing firing a submachine gun and who, in a particularly great sequence, slips in a meta-nod to her former roles as Queen Elizabeth.

In a landscape of increasingly mindless sequels, Red 2 provides a satisfying follow-up that, while not surpassing its predecessor, matches the tone of the first film and delivers a welcome summer smash.

Grade: B

*Red 2 opens nationwide on Friday, July 19.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Movie Review: The Way Way Back

*This review was originally posted as part of a series of capsule reviews during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. I'm reposting to coincide with the film's upcoming theatrical release. 

The Way Way Back

After picking up a pair of Oscars for their work writing The Descendants, actor-writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (Community's Dean Pelton and Ben & Kate's Ben Fox) took their long-in-limbo script for The Way, Way Back and decided to make the darned thing themselves.

They got plenty of help, namely their all-star cast of Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney and Maya Rudolph.

TWWB tells the story of Duncan (Liam James) a teenager smack-dab in the middle of his "awkward phase" who is dragged against his will on a summer vacation with his mom (Collette) and her new boyfriend (Carell). Once there, he struggles to find his place between the boozy adults and their Ken and Barbie children, ultimately finding his way to a nearby waterpark where he's taken under the wing of the endearingly-arrested man-child manager (Rockwell).  It is there, with his new family of waterpark misfits, that Duncan feels comfortable enough to poke his head out of the teenage cocoon and find a voice.

The movie starts out slow, and Carell's arc doesn't seem fully realized, but the introduction of Rockwell and Water Wizz inject this coming-of-age tale with a shot of adrenaline as the plot comes alive with wit, nostalgia and the kind of heartfelt inspiration showcased in similar indies like Little Miss Sunshine and It's Kind of a Funny Story. James as Duncan is exceptional, almost off-putting in his early on-screen awkwardness before transforming organically in front of your eyes. Faxon and Rash also pop up in a pair of understated bit parts, contributing to some of the most memorable moments and, for those of us paying attention behind the scenes, making the success of the story all the more personal.

*The Way Way Back opens in Utah theaters on Friday, July 19.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

All the Ukuleles (Put a string on it) [VIDEO]

My family has a number of annual traditions but among them are a late-June trip to Bear Lake's Ideal Beach and an extended-family soiree at my parent's house on the 3rd and 4th of July.

Last July 4th, a group of us sat outside in the shade and had an impromptu drum-circle-esque jam session. I had been playing the Uke for about 6 months and by then my mother, brother, cousin and niece had also picked up Ukes of their own, mostly out of interest in the instrument but also due partly (I think) to the recent passing of my late grandfather John, a life-long ukulele player.

Because we were a rag tag group of assorted musical tastes, we stuck to covering mainstream and well known songs that everyone could join in on. After a few rounds of uke-ified Justin Bieber, Train, Beatles, and Coldplay my cousin Alex suggested -- jokingly -- that we try some Beyonce.

What followed was a simplified acoustic version of Single Ladies that I've played probably a hundred times since and has become something of a signature piece for me. Almost every time I've seen my brother in the last year we've talked about how we needed to film a cover of the song, but we could never quite find the right time to do it.

So this year, as we enjoyed our week of lakeside R&R on the Utah/Idaho border, we finally got the thing done. The video is nothing special, just the two of us jamming on the grass with some scattered haphazard b-roll of us goofing around.

At some point I think it would be fun to film a black-and-white version mimicking Beyonce's famous music video. But for now, this will do. If you like it, put a ring on it.

Also, I uploaded the recording to so if you're interested in a free download click here.