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.