Monday, January 27, 2014

Sundance 2014 Quick Reviews: Part IV

This is Part IV in a series of capsule reviews from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. For Parts I, II and III click here, here and here.



Rudderless

After losing his son in a campus shooting, Sam (Billy Crudup) retreats into himself, taking up residence on a boat and ditching his career as a marketing exec to paint houses. But after coming across a box filled with his son’s amateur songwriting, Sam begins performing the music with a garage band that sees local success.

As the directorial debut of William H. Macy, "Rudderless" is a thoughtful tale of grief and the power of music. Crudup is excellent and his chemistry with Anton Yelchin, a bandmate who goads him into performing, is engaging even though Yelchin doesn’t seem like a perfect casting match for his character.

For a first-time feature, Macy displays a healthy restraint in doling out exposition (with the exception of a few clichéd and predictable events in act III) and a significant reveal is handled deftly, casting the entire film in a new light.

Grade: B+



They Came Together

Director David Wain’s latest ensemble satire is to romantic comedies what Scary Movie was to the horror genre. The story follows the romance of Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, she the small business owner and he the corporate robot poised to drive her out of business until their cross paths and they fall in love, with a supporting cast that includes Ed Helms, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Christopher Meloni, Jason Mantzoukas and cameos from just about every actor who has appeared in a critically acclaimed TV comedy over the last five years.

Wain’s comedic tone is ever-present, and the increasingly absurdist shenanigans are undeniably hilarious, but in gleefully dwelling in the tropes of a genre deemed “cheesy” and “lame” They Came Together can’t help but get a little bit of cheese on its own fingers. The framing structure, which sees Rudd and Poehler telling their “how did you meet” story on a double date sets the rules of the game early on but ultimately turns into the kind of repetitive joke that delivers diminishing returns.

In the end, They Came Together is a very funny film, but not a very good film.

*Watch a video of the Q&A with Wain, Rudd, Poehler and Max Greenfield here.

Grade: B



Frank

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring musician plinking away at his keyboard in a frustrated attempt to write a hit song. He feigns sincerity, but in his incessant appeals to social media and his inability to create even mainstream drudge it is clear that he is motivated by a pursuit of fame and not by any deeply-held artistic vision. In a bit of dumb luck, he crosses paths with a band fronted by Frank, a man whose face is perpetually obscured by a large paper-mâché head and for whom music is an end in itself.

Frank invites Jon into the band as keyboardist, whisking him away to a secluded cabin in Ireland to record the new album, despite a cold reception from the other members of the band, including Maggie Gylenhaal as a cold and volatile theremin player.

The film eventually strays from a story about a quirky Euro-band to one about mental illness and expression. But the central question of the movie, "Who is Frank and why does he wear the head?" is left largely unanswered even as the band collapses and Frank’s mental state deteriorates. One would assume that if you cast Michael Fassbender in your movie and spend the whole movie hiding his face that you’ve done it for a reason. Right?

Frank was a buzzy film at this year’s festival. But in this critic’s opinion, the movie is one that perhaps had grand things to say if you could just hear them from underneath a muffled mass of paper mâché.

Grade: B-



The Babadook

This Aussie horror, part of the traditionally edgy and offbeat Sundance At Midnight category, sees Essie Davis as Emelia, a single mother struggling with the behavioral quirks of her son Samuel while also grieving the loss of her husband. Samuel's dad died in a car crash the day Sam was born and it is implied that every year on the anniversary of both her son’s birth and her husband’s death Amelia slips into a period of morose depression, which is further exacerbated by her son’s childhood fears of monsters under the bed.

But then a monster appears, or does it? After a troubling children’s book called “Mr. Babadook” mysteriously manifests on her child’s shelf, the typical menu of strange occurrences begin tormenting the family (passing shadows, strange sounds, whispered voices). Samuel insists that The Babadook has arrived but Emelia is skeptical, even while she grows increasingly unhinged.

While The Babadook treads ground laid before it by other genre films, director Jennifer Kent relies on old-school practical effects and a full plot beyond the creaks in the night to form a delightful scare. The Babadook itself, barely glimpsed in shadow and mostly depicted by the hauntingly simple sketches of a child’s book, is a strong display of restraint, with the movie relying more on a sense of escalating psychological unease than crashing cymbals to get under the audience's skin. The final confrontation is overlong and chips away at some of the goodwill earned earlier in the film, but Kent ends the film on an perfectly eerie note of ambiguity that stops short of definitively answering whether the monster is actual entity or metaphor for something more sinister.

Grade: B+

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Nick Offerman: American Ham

Essentially a live-show of a comedy performance in New York, "American Ham" delivers 90 minutes of Nick Offerman's signature dry humor on subjects ranging from romance and relationships to religion and politics to a disdain for vegetarianism and an appeal to the old-fashioned pleasures of the outdoors and hard work.

The routine, organized as Offerman's 10 tips for living a happy life, is sweet yet irreverent, crude yet cultured, insightful yet familiar and quite funny. It also features Offerman performing a number of musical numbers and frequently mining his sex life with wife Megan Mullaly for comedic impact. Fans of stand-up should be pleased and newcomers will find an easy, albeit adult, entry to the medium.

Grade: B

*The Sundance Award winners were announced Saturday. Read my article on the ceremony here.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sundance 2014 Quick Reviews: Part III

Third in a series of capsule reviews from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. For parts I and II click here and here.



Fed Up

Much has been said about America's obesity epidemic: from the rising rates of obesity and diabetes among children to the growing health-care costs related to swelling waistlines. Even First Lady Michelle Obama, with her Let's Move campaign that encourages children to stay active, has contributed to a national conversation on the need for diet exercise and the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which had the audacity to try to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables during school lunch (the horror!).

But the argument that Fed Up makes is that our national focus on fitness and activity fails to address the elephant in the room: the food industry that increasingly pitches high-sugar processed foods and a national diet that sets individuals up for failure.

Produced and narrated by Katie Couric, Fed Up makes a well-articulated and at times alarming argument. It describes the biological science, the historical events and the private industry motivations that have combined into a sinister cocktail. It lambasts the "diet food" market, which shaves off marginal amounts of calories while maintaining the same – if not higher – sugar levels of their traditional counterparts. And it points a big, accusatory finger at soft drinks, labeling them as the cigarettes of the 21st century and suggesting that a warning label from the surgeon general on a bottle of Coke may be a necessary first step in demonizing the junk food industry.

Informative and empowering, Fed Up is the kind of documentary that sends you home considering what you've seen and checking the nutritional labels on your groceries.

Grade: A-



Song One

In a very "Once"-ian story of love and music, Anne Hathaway plays Fran, a Ph.D candidate who is summoned home to New York after her busker brother is hospitalized in a coma. In an attempt to wake him, Fran goes about rounding up mementos and sounds from his favorite spots in the city – pancakes from a diner, the sound of gulls by the river, etc – and in the process encounters her brother's musical idol, an indie musician named James in town for a limited run of performances.

James soon joins Fran on her quest, resulting in a sort of scavenger hunt of Brooklyn music venues – and a killer soundtrack with performances by Sharon Van Etten and Johnny Flynn, who plays James – with the two growing closer at each step. The cast is rounded out by the wonderful  Mary Steenburgen, who plays Fran's post-bohemian academic mother in an charming performance as a mother trying to maintaining high spirits in the face of grief.

"Song One," which Hathaway also produced, is a charming film that is equal parts music showcase and emotional drama. The chemistry between Hathaway and Flynn isn't exactly electric and its Hathaway that does most of the heavy lifting, but the winsome indie-vibe, backed by beautiful sights and sounds, makes the film a winner.

Grade: B+



Hits

For his directorial debut, Arrested Development's David Cross (Dr. Tobias Fünke) has crafted a two-hour sketch comedy that assaults you with heavy-handed observations on hipsterism, millenials, conservatives and the internet culture. It is undeniably funny, but also scattershot, forced and inconsistent.

In the quiet hamlet of Liberty, New York, blue-collar municipal worker Dave has a beef with his local city government. There's potholes everywhere, the roads don't get plowed and a local restaurant took his favorite dish of the menu. These grievances are routinely filed at the City Council meeting, where Dave loyally arrives to take part in public comment, ranting and shouting and frequently having to be escorted from the premises.

His antics eventually gain him some internet notoriety as a collective of Brooklynite activists take up his cause. This causes Dave's daughter some grief, as she is a fame-obsessed teenage girl desperate to go viral online like the Teen Moms she hate/loves.

"Hits" is peppered with a drop-in cast of likeable actors (Jason Rutter, Michael Cera, David Koechner, Matt Walsh and Amy Sedaris) who each deliver some genuine laughs. But the film is so busy trying to maintaining nonsensicality while still saying something about society that it makes for a hodgepodge that doesn't quite stick the landing.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sundance 2014 Quick Reviews: Part II

Part II in a series of capsule reviews from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. For Part I, click here.



Young Ones

Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult star in "Young Ones," a neo-western set in a dystopian future where prolonged drought has led to a regression of society and feudal states drawn along watershed lines. Shannon plays Ernest Holm who, together with his son Jerome, works a supply run and scrapes a living out of the dry earth. He locks antlers with Hoult's Flem Lever, a motorcycle-riding hot shot who is after both Holm's work and his daughter (played by Elle Fanning).

In "Young Ones," director Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth) has envisioned and constructed a wholly-realized future, populated with new but familiar technologies, customs, economy and aesthetic. It is an impressive feat of world-building, providing a clear picture of the circumstances our characters live in without the burden of noxious exposition.

The story itself is also engaging, unfolding in three distinct chapters that focus on distinct characters. It blends a patchwork of disparate genres -- post-apocalyptic, science fiction, coming-of-age -- with an impressive clarity that allows the actors to shine.

Grade: B+



Ivory Tower

The central question in "Ivory Tower," the latest film from "Page One: Inside the New York Times" director Andrew Rossi, is whether a college education is still worth the investment considering the spiraling costs that over the last 30 years have soared well in excess of inflation and essentially every other market good.

The cause of those rising costs are myriad -- decreased state-level funding, ballooning administrative salaries, inter-institutional competition that drives new, bigger construction and facility enhancement -- but on the other side of the wallet is a student who, statistically speaking, is less and less likely to complete their degree and if they do, they are burdened with 5- or 6-figure debts and a bleak job market that sees half of all recent graduates under- or unemployed.

Rossi does a remarkable job of illustrating the problem without getting bogged down in the quagmire, jumping nimbly through profiles of students and institutions, from the Ivy League to non-traditional schools in Death Valley. The film largely ignores technical education and the community college class, and is less successful at proposing a solution, perhaps because none has yet to present itself. MOOCs, the online super-courses and would-be saviors of higher education are shown to possess interesting possibilities, but the real-world application has so far seen mixed -- if not largely negative -- results.

But it is not the documentarian's job to fix the problem, only to raise the questions that will hopefully be discussed by those in a position to change their behavior and advance toward a new result (in this case students, faculty, administrators and lawmakers). In that regard, Rossi succeeds at making a clear case that reform is needed and a film that would be beneficial viewing to anyone involved in education.

Grade: B+



Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff's diretorial follow-up to "Garden State" was under scrutiny long before its premiere in Park City. The "Scrubs" actor drew the ire of many by asking his would-be audience for help through the fundraising website Kickstarter, with many feeling that it was inappropriate for an established star with Hollywood connections and several year's worth of syndicated sitcom money in the bank to be asking regular folk to turn out their pockets.

But his fans jumped on board, and now the question is whether "Wish I Was Here" delivers their money's worth.

WIWH, like Garden State before it, tells the story of a struggling actor (Braff) at a crossroads in life. In this case, Braff's Aidan Bloom is a 30-something father of two who is in a professional rut. He hasn't worked since "that dandruff commercial," leaving his wife (Kate Hudson) to shoulder the bulk of the family's financial burdens.

Aidan gets hit with another blow in the form of his ailing father (Homeland's Mandy Patinkin) whose cancer has returned and spread throughout his body. Their relationship is strained, with Patinkin's character incessantly voicing his disapproval of Aidan's career choice, but more intact than that of Aidan's brother (Josh Gad) who we presume has barely spoken to his father in years.

The movie is more mature than much of Braff's earlier work, with a surprising amount of tenderness between Braff and his two children (played by Looper's Pierce Gagnon and White House Down's Joey King). But there is a disconnect between the characters and the material that stands in the film's way. Braff and Hudson have little chemistry onscreen and Gad has even less with Ashley Greene in a side-plot awkwardly inserted into the fray. There's also a significant portion of the film devoted to religion that never quite materializes into something impactful.

In the end, Wish I Was Here is a pleasant film with a unique and sufficiently emotional voice. But the movie likely will not live up to the expectations of Garden State fans who waited 10 years for Braff to get back behind the camera.

Grade: B



Happy Christmas

Writer-director Joe Swanberg isn't one to hit you over the head with plot. His films, of which there are many but particularly 2013's "Drinking Buddies" and now "Happy Christmas," tend to be more naturalistic portrayals of everyday drama and humor that come across as minimalist and largely improvisational.

In Happy Christmas, Swanberg reunites with Buddies' Anna Kendrick to tell the story of Jeff and Kelly (himself and the perpetually underrated Melanie Lynskey), a young couple who take in Jeff's sister Jenny (Kendrick) after her break up with a boyfriend. Jenny is a charming (it's Anna Kendrick so, natch) but somewhat stunted and self-interested person who is acting out and prone to moments of immaturity, which makes Kelly nervous about her presence in the house.

But as the advent calendar on the mantel ticks off the days to Christmas the family bonds and Jenny's presence prompts a series of small evolutions within Jeff and Kelly and their already-strong but novice marriage.

The film is filled with moments of simple delight, particularly in the form of Swanberg's real-life son, who steals every scene that he's in. There are character arcs and conflict and resolution but the film is largely a peek into the life of three people who feel as real as any person you might pass on the street. It comes to an abrupt ending, making loose ends of otherwise minimal plot points, but provides a refreshing portrait of marriage and family without the cynicism or pandering of most similarly-themed films.

Grade: B



Life After Beth

I almost didn't see Life After Beth, thinking that my zombie cup runneth o'er considering the limited time I have at Sundance. But luckily a scheduling snafu found me in the theater for the comedy about a young man whose girlfriend dies but inexplicably rises from the dead.

Don't let the above photo fool you, Life After Beth is not a zombie movie in the traditional sense and stays fresh by largely abandoning the trappings of the genre. In the film we follow Zach, played by Dane DeHaan (who is consistently fascinating to watch in whatever project he finds himself in), who is in mourning over the sudden death of his girlfriend Beth (Parks and Rec's Aubrey Plaza) and is subsequently dumbfounded when he comes across her walking around her living room one night.
Her memory is hazy and her behavior is erratic, but Zach and Beth's parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) are too thrilled to have more time with her to care. As time goes by, however, Beth begins to manifest even more troubling symptoms and it begins to appear like her miraculous resurrection may not have been an isolated incident.

Life After Beth stays light, winkingly playing off the expectations of a dead-are-rising Armageddon and years of zombie apocalypse fiction. Plaza, as the undead Beth, goes all in on her performance, committing to a high level of physical humor while growing ever more grotesque as the movie plays out.

The movie is irreverent and inventive, with just the right amount of shocks and gore to balance out the screwball humor. It's a delicate tone to maintain but Life After Beth nails it, and in the process provides a story that will keep you chuckling long after you leave the theater.

Grade: A-



Roger Ebert -- a man whose name is as associated with film as are Hitchcock, Fellini and Spielberg -- was the premiere voice of film criticism in America and the first movie reviewer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, he passed away after a yearslong fight with Thyroid cancer, leaving behind a legacy that will never, and truly can not, be matched.

In "Life Itself," the documentary based on Ebert's memoir of the same name, filmmaker Steve James paints a comprehensive portrait of the man. With Ebert's full collaboration -- or rather, encouragement -- James' camera captures the struggles with alcoholism, the contentious relationship with longtime colleague Gene Siskel, the ego, the poise, the drive, the romantic. We see Mr. Ebert's final weeks in the hospital leading up to his death, expressive and jovial, cracking wise and energetically describing his favorite films as well as the low moments in physical therapy when the frustrations boil beneath his voicelessness.

At one point late in the film Mr. Ebert, speaking with the assistance of his computer, remarks that he does not fear death as it is a part of life and would have felt cheated if his time had come abruptly as a result of an accident, cheating his life out of its poetic arc.

"This is the third act and it is an experience," Ebert says.

The film is a fitting tribute to a great and influential man, whose life was, in many ways, a tribute to the movies.

Grade: Two thumbs way, way up

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sundance 2014 Quick Reviews: Part I



A Most Wanted Man

The always-enjoyable Philip Seymour Hoffman is deliciously sour in "A Most Wanted Man,"  but unfortunately he's about the only intriguing part of this disappointingly lifeless adaptation of John Le Carre's spy thriller.

The story follows Seymour Hoffman's Gunther Bachmann, who heads up a covert anti-terrorist unit in Hamburg on the trail of a suspected terrorist who literally washes up on shore. Bachmann hopes the man can lead him upstream to bigger fish, but he's under pressure from his superiors to act fast before any bombs go off.

A stellar supporting cast -- including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl and Robin Wright -- are largely wasted as the plot tip toes forward in an attempt at slow-burn tension that ultimately fizzles. Le Carre's work has been proven to be fertile ground for low-fi psychological spy games on the big screen with 2011's excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But while A Most Wanted Man shares some of Tinker's DNA, the former plays like going to the senior prom with the quarterback's quiet, gangly, acne-faced little brother.

Grade: C+



Mitt

During the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was frequently described as stiff, distant, unsympathetic and any number of other robotic adjectives. In "Mitt," the documentary by "New York Doll" director Gregg Whiteley, viewers are promised another side of Mitt: the family man.

Whitely was granted extensive access to Romney and his family over the course of 6 years, and that access is apparent on the screen. We see the family praying together, eating dinner together, laughing together, and venting their frustrations together. What we don't see, however, is any substantive examination of the candidate's strategy, politics, or the general state of things during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

It's a shame, as there are interesting stories to be told from Romney's point of view, from his 2008 brawl with John McCain to his revolving door of challengers in 2012. The Romney candidacy is, in many ways, the perfect case study to demonstrated the fractured in-fighting of today's Republican party, but all of that context is left on the cutting floor of "Mitt" in favor of what amounts to a two-hour family photo album.

The film is interesting in that it does, as promised, show a different side of the "flipping Mormon." But that portrait will do little to satisfy audiences looking for intellectual profundity. It would appear that the cost of access, in this case, is a film with good intentions but where lost opportunities abound.

Grade: B-



Laggies

Director Lynn Shelton has become a Sundance regular with her films "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Touchy Feely," and "Your Sister's Sister" and she continues that success with this year's "Laggies," which sees Keira Knightley as a late-20s woman dealing with a quarter-life crises.

Megan (Knightley) is living with her high-school boyfriend and twirling a sign on the side of the road for her father's tax assistance agency after her chosen career as a marriage and family counselor didn't take. After stepping out of a friend's wedding she runs into a group of high school students including Annika (Kick Ass's Chloe Grace Moretz) who invite her to hang out for the night. Soon, Knightley finds herself seeking refuge from her life by hiding out in the guest room of Annika's house, where she meets single-dad Sam Rockwell, doing his typical witty, awesome, Sam Rockwell-esque thing.

The plot follows a familiar path but is saved from redundancy by its sincerity. The inevitable conflicts are not played for melodrama but instead unfold naturally, realistically and with a relatable heart that is both endearing and refreshing. Rockwell follows up last year's The Way Way Back with another stellar performance that grounds the movie and keeps the laughs flowing. The result is the rare dramedy that excels in its simplicity.

Grade: B+



Love Child

In 2010, a newborn girl died from starvation while her parents were away playing video games into the night at a nearby computer lounge. They were charged with involuntary manslaughter and a key element in the case was whether or not their internet addiction minimized their culpability in the death of their daughter.

That case is the center of "Love Child," a documentary that examines the online gaming culture of South Korea and the emerging cases of dangerously obsessive behavior that has resulted from the explosion of internet connectivity. The filmmakers interview police officers and attorneys involved in the case, as well as doctors and experts on the subject of internet addiction, in the attempt of painting a portrait of the couple in question, who clearly did not agree to be interviewed for the film.

That lack of access is the primary weakness of Love Child, which runs out of questions to ask early in its 75 minute running time. We hear about the challenges of internet addiction and the unique circumstances facing this couple -- who relied on the sale of game-earned virtual currency for their income -- from outsiders, leaving an emotional and contextual whole in the center of the film.

Grade: C+



"The Sleepwalker" is about a woman named Kaia who is renovating her childhood home with the help of her live-in boyfriend Andrew. One day, Kaia's somewhat-estranged sister Christine arrives unexpectedly, followed by Christine's boyfriend Ira.

I apologize for the straightforward synopsis but beyond what I have just described little about what transpires during "The Sleepwalker" makes sense to me. The characters behave in inexplicable ways, questioning and provoking each other, and much is teased out with little materializing by the end credits. We learn, through explicit and implicit means, that almost everyone in the film has passed through some form of sinister or traumatizing past, with the assumption being that some drastic turn of events is on the horizon. In the end some mysteries are revealed but its unclear why it matters, or why we care.

Other people may draw a completely different experience from "Sleepwalker's" ethereal mythos. As for me, I was lost.

Grade: C-

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Whiplash

I like Miles Teller. I liked him in The Spectacular Now, I liked him in the Footloose remake and I liked him in the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be 21 And Over. But his performance in Whiplash is what I like most.

In Whiplash, Teller eschews his typical Gen-Y Vince Vaughn cool guy to play a drummer named Andrew so singularly-driven by his desire to be the best that he is misanthropic, abrasive and willing to undergo what can only be described as emotional torture at the hands of his director, a terrifyingly volatile and terrific J.K. Simmons. Insulted and occasionally assaulted, Andrew only hunkers down further to practice until his hands literally bleed.

It’s hard to explain exactly how he does it, but (the shockingly young) director Damien Chazelle portrays a series of jazz music performances with the same pulse-pounding tension of a Paul Greengrass film. In J.K. Simmons he creates a true villain, sneering and dangerous, and the cat and mouse between teacher and student escalates to a fever pitch typically reserved for thrillers where lives are at stake.

The movie is not seamless. Outside of the central duo the supporting characters serve mainly as placeholders. Paul Reiser as the father figure is never quite established as supportive or discouraging and a throwaway plot with a romantic interest is introduced in what could only be a design to illustrate just how myopic Andrew’s interests are.

But those critiques are minor, as Chazelle has crafted a film that is ambitious in its simplicity and utilizes sound to an at-times uncomfortably visceral level. Whiplash will leave you exhausted in the way that a runner feels after a sprint, pulsing with adrenaline and perspiring.

Grade: B+

Thursday, January 16, 2014

One Wood Uke: Down In The Valley [VIDEO + DOWNLOAD]

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So this isn't my best video, a fact that I attribute to two compounding challenges. First, iMovie decided to go ahead and upgrade itself, which is good because the new multi-layer video editing is a vast improvement but also means that I have to re-familiarize myself with the program and all of its new bells and whistles. Second, I had to get it done and posted today before my world gets completely dominated by the Sundance Film Festival, otherwise it would just never happen.

As a note, I apologize for all the closed-eyed ooh-ooh-ooohing. The song demands it and it's hard to ooh-ooh-ooh with your eyes open. In fact, I just apologize for all the facial expressions I make in this. I really need to stop filming from a profile angle.

I'm a big fan of The Head and The Heart. I've seen them perform twice – once at The Depot in SLC and once at Sundance last year – and they're just killer. If you're not familiar with them, stop what you're doing right now and go listen to them. Scratch that, watch my video and like it on Facebook, THEN go listen to The Head and The Heart.

Obviously my own musicality can't even compare to THATH, but I hope you enjoy this song. I actually started working on a version of Down In The Valley about a year ago but could never quite get it right. Then the other day I was just goofing around with hammer-downs and a lightbulb went off for the strum pattern. That, and my new microphone that allows me to add fingerpicking and harmony tracks, sealed the deal.

I hope you like it. As always it's available for free on my bandcamp page. And if you haven't yet, check out the One Wood Uke collection that I created for Wood's Stock. It's all there to satisfy your ukulele-related needs. Enjoy.



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Treat Yo Self: Barbershop Shave With Adam Blair

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My first barbershop experience was in 2011. I was living in Queens and working in Midtown NYC and looking for a place to get my hair cut when a quick Google search pointed me to an obscure little three-chair shop in the basement of a jewelry store in the Diamond District.

It took me a couple of tries to find it, since getting there involved dodging the diamond peddlers on 47th Street (A chorus of "You buying? You selling?" coming at you from every angle) ducking into an unmarked facade and passing through a dark lobby to a staircase that led down to a showroom filled with the unseen mechanics of the New York City jewelry industry. In the back corner was the shop, where three Jewish men chatted in indiscernible Yiddish and your options included "short," "medium," and "long."

I chose medium, a man whose name I never caught went to work with a trimmer and shears and afterward he finished me off with a quick shoulder and neck massage.
And just like that, I was hooked.

During my life in Utah I've typically gotten my hair cut by my sister Katie – a trained cosmetologist who does great work and operates a salon out of her house in North Ogden – and that was true when I first moved back to the state. But with me in Salt Lake City, it became increasingly difficult schedule-wise to drive an hour for a haircut so I found myself, once again, looking for the right place for my routine trims.

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I knew Ray's was the place as soon as I saw it. Located a block South of the City Creek Center on Main Street, Ray's is a mecca of masculinity, located in a long, narrow space filled with old wooden barber's chairs, a shoe shine station and a staff of well-coiffed men (and two women) in sharp vests.

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I've been getting my hair cut at Ray's for the past several months but since my first visit I was curious about getting a Classic Barbershop Shave. In my younger years I always insisted on a razor and cream, scoffing at the very idea of electric trimmers. But there's one problem: I have extremely sensitive skin and literally cannot shave without cutting myself. Combine that with men's styles (including my own) trending toward scruff and the result was last year when for my birthday I invested in a nice beard trimmer and gave up razors for good.

But I'm not a trained professional. And my 10-pack of disposable razors obviously can't hold a candle to a straight razor and strap. So I decided to Treat Myself to the full shave experience, and I invited my buddy Adam to come along.

We got to Ray's at around 2:30 on a Saturday and had about a 30 minute wait so we hopped across the street to Eva's Bakery for some pastry (you are able to schedule appointments, but we weren't in a big rush). When our turns came up Adam was helped by Zach, who's done my hair before, and I got Robert, one of the last remaining "original" Ray's Barbershop barbers.

Robert told me he has been barbering for 16 years and moved out to Utah to attend barber school when he was 13 years old. I wanted to ask him more about this, but there was a very sharp metal blade scraping at the skin above one of the major veins in my body, so I kept the chatter to a minimum.

Robert asked about my skin sensitivity and, sure enough, a pesky skin tag on my chin got nicked pretty much at the word "go." He told me that in all likelihood the razor would take it clean off, which was fine by me, but he was able to work around it and used an intoxicatingly aromatic combination of sprays, creams and aftershaves to make sure my skin didn't freak out.
Oh, and did I mention the steamed towels? Yeah, that was money.

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There was a part of me that thought the process of being shaved by another man would be awkward (a reaction that likely stems from my experience being prepped for hernia surgery in 2005, an experience I would love to never have to repeat again) but in actuality the inter-personal experience of a barbershop isn't much different than a haircut, with the added bonus of the aforementioned creams, sprays and towels.

Clean shaven, Adam and I head around the corner to Siegfried's Delicatessen to do our interview over a plate of Wienerschnitzel and potatoes.

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Wood's Stock: Who are you and what do you do?

Adam Blair: My name is Adam Blair, I am a lab assistant at the University of Utah studying psychology.

WS: What’s the end goal?

AB: The end goal is not to work in psychology. It’s my B.A., I’m also doing prerequisites for P.A. school – physicians assistant school. I would like to be one of those and work in medicine.

WS: Have you ever had a barbershop shave before?

AB: That was my first time

WS: What did you think?

AB: I thought it was really relaxing for the most part. There were a few moments when I realized a man had a straight razor to my neck and that was a little unsettling.

WS: My guy kept asking me questions at times when there was a razor perched over my jugular. Were there times when you didn’t feel it was appropriate for you to be speaking?

AB: Oh absolutely. There was one time when he asked me "Are you all right?" I thought, "um, I don’t really know how to answer this."

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WS: So tell me about what your barbershop shave entailed that you might not get form your own bathroom experience.

AB: They sit you down in a chair like normal when you go to a barber. But they kick the chair back so you’re in a nice, comfortable reclined position.

WS: Like super-reclined though.

AB: Yeah, it’s almost like you’re laying on a bed. Your head might actually be sitting below your chest somehow. But you’re very reclined and then they massage your face with a bunch of salves and odd things. They put a nice hot towel on your face, which is just … that was probably the most relaxing part I would say. At that moment I felt safe. That was when I realized this wasn’t Sweeney Todd.

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WS: I would agree about the hot towel. Awesome. When they put it on my face I thought "I could do this, I could heat up a towell" and yet there’s something different about it.

AB: It’s like cooking your own food. Going out to eat, it always tastes better because you don’t have to put in that effort. It’s just very relaxing. The conversation was kind of minimal throughout most of the shave. I got to know my guy Zach a little bit, seemed like a very nice man from Englewood. But it was odd to have a guy kind of pawing my face, honestly. This is kind of a bizarre thing. But then I thought how my grandfather used to do this so maybe its just a lost art.

WS: Are you a man who is typically averse to touch?

AB: Not usually. I actually tend to enjoy touch but he’s not my regular barber. He’s just this guy, rubbing my face.

WS: Do you have a regular barber or are you a supercuts man?

AB: I go to the Ray’s (Barbershop) up in Foothill. My barber’s name is Colton.

WS: Will Colton feel betrayed?

AB: He must never know.

WS: So you’re a barbershop-goer?

AB: Recently though, within the last year. I think it’s kind of the time right now. There’s something inherently masculine about going to a barbershop versus going to a salon. You’re going to get a different haircut and it’s going to be different service all around. They’re not going to thin your hair out with some funky, weird scissors or anything, but it’s more of an experience where there’s more of a trust involved instead of a constant ‘how’s this?’

WS: Now, you typically wear a beard?

AB: I do. A beard or sideburns.

WS: Are you a razor shaver or a trimmer shaver? What is your process?

AB: If I’m going to shave I usually just use the beard trimmer on an electric razor because I rarely shave all the way.

WS: How many times a week?

AB: Maybe once. Depends on what’s going on.

WS: Whether you have a hot date?

AB: Whether I have a hot date. Whether I want to see how a date will react to a scrappy beard. I feel like you look nicer with a clean shaven face.

WS: Really? I feel like I look four years younger with a clean-shaven face.

AB: Right? Who doesn’t want that?
 
WS: I don’t want that. Any last thoughts?

AB: I think it was interesting. He said there’s always nicks in shaving, that’s what my barber said. I got two nicks today and he said "Don’t worry, you won’t even see them by tomorrow." It’s all right, there wasn’t any freaking out, it was just a very calm thing.

WS: That sounds like a life metaphor.

AB: Yeah, I’m trying to make one. There’s always nicks in shaving, figure that one out for yourself.

WS: Anything you need to promote?

AB: Nothing I need to promote. Sundance is coming, I’m pretty excited for that.

WS: Are you on twitter?

AB: I am. I think it’s @AdamBlair. Check me out, I upload instagram pictures and sometimes tweet about the Jazz.
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Should you be so inclined to Treat Yo' Self:

Ray's Barbershop has two locations in Salt Lake City, at 154 S. Main Street and 1328 S. 2100 E, and a new location in Ogden at 2435 Kiesel Ave. They are a full-service barbershop and a Classic Shave costs $40.

If you don't live in Salt Lake City or Ogden, Google "Barbershop" and call ahead to see what services they provide. I would recommend not trying to give yourself a straight razor shave without some modicum of training and/or practice.

Siegfried's Delicatessen is located at 20 W. 200 S. in Salt Lake City. They're open for lunch every day and dinner on the weekends (closed Sunday).

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Movie Review: Her

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Spike Jonze has made a career out of directing films that are hard to define but ooze philosophical cool from their pores. He is the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and most recently 2009's Where The Wild Things Are, which took Maurice Sendak's 338-word children's story and transformed it into a phantasmagorical tapestry of childhood existentialism.

In his latest, Her, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a sensitive writer nursing the wounds of a broken marriage. To call him "lonely" is an understatement, as we watch Theodore punch the time card at his job – where he composes other people's love notes for them – and instruct his phone to play a "melancholy song" for his walk home through the brightly-lit streets of a futuristic Los Angeles (via Shanghai) where high-waisted hipsterism has apparently swallowed the world whole.

The catalyst that disrupts his funk arrives in the form of Samantha, an artificially intelligent upgrade to his operating system that functions as the great-great-great-granddaughter of the iPhone's SIRI. Samantha is charming, funny, inquisitive, spontaneous and capable of evolving independent of and beyond the intention of her creators. With each new experience with Theodor, she adapts and extends her own understanding of the world, feeling both excitement and surprise at her own potential.
Theodore and Samantha's conversations make up the bulk of Her, almost like Before Sunrise for the digital age with Celine offscreen. Theodore has trepidations at first, but comes to accept the increasingly-romantic nature of their relationship, slowly coming to grips with the myriad challenges that come from having dating a person who is not, in actuality, a person.

Despite its futuristic setting the movie reads like a heartfelt commentary on today's hyper-connected digital world, where texts and snapchats have supplanted personal interaction. We identify with Theodore, a man desperate for connection, who ultimately finds one in the form of a blinking red light and a voice in his ear. At first Samantha seems like the product of clever invention, a program designed to mimic human nature, but before long she is a fully-realized identity, capable of insecurities, jealousies and dreams.

Their relationship is contrasted with that of a platonic and supportive friend, played by Amy Adams, and Theodore's ex-wife, played by Rooney Mara and existing largely in dreamlike flashback sequences of lost love. Theodore tells Samantha that he hid himself from his wife, but misses sharing his life with someone and as he makes that confession we see that Samantha, or a being like her, is simultaneously capable of being more and less than a flesh-and-blood human.

Her is a beautiful and deeply emotional film. The world that Jonze creates is brilliant in its detail and simplicity with a futuristic setting that is constantly apparent – through the subtle hints of advanced technology, wardrobe and atmosphere – but organic and familiar. Those details, along with Arcade Fire's atmospheric score, paint a backdrop that enhance, but never distract from, the characters onscreen.

Phoenix portrays his character with perfect sincerity, conveying so much of what is left unsaid through gesture and mannerism. And Scarlett Johansson, as the voice of Samantha, delivers a knockout in her much-buzzed-about performance. In the months leading up to the release of Her, many critics have called for an unprecedented Best Actress nomination for her voice work. I admit to being initially dismissive of such talk, but having now seen the film I'm tempted to reconsider.

Grade: A
*Her opens nationwide on January 10

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Launch: Committing

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Friends, my first novel "Committing" is now, officially, ready for the public.
It is available in both print and digital formats, so let me do some quick shopkeeping and then we can chat.

To order a paperback copy ($10.99) from the Create Space eStore click here.
To order a paperback copy ($10.99) from Amazon, click here.

The difference? There really isn't one since Create Space is owned by Amazon but if you have an Amazon Prime account you'll probably save money on shipping through Amazon (Also, I get a slightly higher royalty through Create Space. I hate to even bring that up, but there you have it).

To purchase a digital copy on Kindle ($4.99) click here.

*Disclaimer* My paragraph formatting got a little messed up on the Kindle version. My first line indents are gone, which in some places can make a whole page look like one daunting block of text. Let's pretend this was an artistic choice.

Now that that's done, let's talk about the book.

I started writing Committing shortly after moving back to Utah from New York in 2012. It's a relatively short book (just over 30,000 words) but nonetheless took me two years to complete. It is also my first attempt at fiction – besides a few short stories in college – so bear that in mind.
The book is about a group of friends in their mid-20s dealing with the transition into adulthood. In particular, it's about a man named Charles, who has just lost his best friend to cancer, and who is having a hard time embracing the next stage of his life.

For regular readers of my blog who may be expecting comedy, this book is decidedly a drama. I would say it is similar in tone to the last installment of My Life Online or some of my Quarter Century posts.

*Disclaimer No. 2* There is a small degree of adult content in this book, specifically language and sexual innuendo. If you prefer to not read that type of thing I understand completely and thank you for your support either way. It is not my intention to make anyone uncomfortable (including myself, since I will inevitably be hearing about it from my mother).

*Disclaimer No. 3* This book is, above all, a work of fiction. You'll see why I say that after you've read it.

You can read the entire second chapter for free here to whet your appetite, but note that there may have been some minor changes since I posted that excerpt.

I just want to thank everyone for their encouragement over the last two years as I've been working on this. A lot of people chimed in and read early drafts (and you'll see them listed in the acknowledgments section of the book) and also a big shout out to JP Allen for creating the cover image and Erin Jacobs for finalizing the cover design.

I hope you enjoy the book and I can't wait to hear your feedback, good or bad (I self-edited, so yes, there are going to be spelling errors). As a final plea, if you do take the time to read it, please go on Amazon and write a review. It exponentially increases the amount of exposure I get.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Best of 2013: Top 10

Another year, another Top 10. The last 12 months have been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cinema. Yes, big-budget tentpole films are getting bigger-budgeter tentpoler and yes, sequels, reboots and remakes have taken center stage while original stories struggle to find an audience. BUT, this also was a year full of unexpected surprises and visionary spectacles.

We saw the vast expanse of space and the horrors of slavery like we've never seen them before. We watched heroes triumph, villains fall, and a folk singer with a tabby cat.

Enough nonsense, let's do this.



10. Blue Jasmine

We can all imagine how it might be challenging for a 1%-wealthy person to live like the rest of us after losing it all. But in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, we witness the remarkable collapse of Jasmine, a wealthy socialite whose fortune evaporates after her husbsand's Maddoff-esque antics are exposed.

Cate Blanchett's performance is captivating and her Jasmine teeters on the edge of a mental breakdown. She is poised confidence on the outside with a boiling madness flowing in her veins as she refuses to accept her new reality (a struggle represented by frequent flashbacks to her posh former life at the arm of Alec Baldwin's wealthy criminal).

The film is an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire and alternates between the heady psychosis of Jasmine and the proletarian challenges of her sister, whose life is abruptly invaded by Jasmine's presence and who is made to feel lesser for her stature despite Jasmine's superiority being little more than an empty shell. It is witty, sharp, provocative, fascinating and one of Allen's best works.



9. Fruitvale Station

The tragic irony infused in this retelling of the life of Oscar Grant, a real-life 22-year-old man who was accidentally shot and killed on New Year's Day 2009, is thick enough to cut with a knife. Here we have a man who suffered a needless death at the hands of a transit police officer (he later claimed to have been attempting to reach for his tazer and not his gun) and from the first moments of Fruitvale Station we know how the story ends.

That dark cloud hangs over the proceedings like the hand of fate as Grant tries to be a better man for his young daughter and girlfriend. The film portrays only the last day of Grant's life, presenting him as neither sinner or saint, and asks the question of what might have been if this man had been allowed to live.

But part of the film's strength comes form the world it arrived in, with the nation's attention turned to the death of Trayvon Martin in a tragic incident all-too-easily comparable to that of Oscar Grant. The makers of Fruitvale Station could not have predicted the racial debate their film would arrive in, but they didn't need to. What Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin show is that the question of race relations in America is far from settled, and despite our progress these tragedies continue to occur.



8. Blackfish

A documentary does not have to be shocking to be good. One of my favorite docs, for example, is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which tells the story of a Donkey Kong arcade champion. But the power of documentaries is that they portray real-life events, and when that medium is used the expose the obfuscated actions of powerful organizations, the result is nothing short of magical.

So it is with Blackfish, a documentary about the killer whales of Sea World and particularly Tillicum, a male Orca that has been involved in -- if not the intentional cause of -- several deaths and injuries of park trainers. Sea World has spent the last several months actively denying the allegations raised in Blackfish, but the diligence of the filmmakers is hard to question.

Through a series of interviews and truly breathtaking footage, we watch Tillicum move from one park, where he was kept in the oceanic equivalent of a jail cell and a trainer died, to Sea World, where he was attacked by the female Orcas and yet another trainer died. With the help of some amazing – and at times disturbing – archive footage, we watch an employee drug repeatedly to the bottom of a water tank, his foot pinched between an Orcas' teeth. We see park employees scrambling to obscure the view of a whale who rises up out of the water to solute the crowd, exposing several bleeding wounds on his side where the other whales have "raked" him with their teeth. And we watch a female Orca pressing her face against the glass making piercing cries after her child was taken from her.

We hear the interviews of former park trainers, who decry the barbarity of what they saw and the heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent. And in perhaps the most memorable interview, we hear a salty sea dog reminisce about his days as a whale trapper. You can't help but believe him when he says he's seen some things in his day, but it's the whaling that haunts him most.
The film is profound and at times horrific, and makes you feel complicit in a crime for ever having attending an Orca show.



7. All Is Lost

After Life of Pi and even Captain Phillips, there is a temptation to dismiss JC Chandor's All Is Lost as just another tale of a man at odds with the sea. But even with Pi's tiger, and Phillip's gun-toting Somali pirates, it's All Is Lost that dazzles with the relentless abuse inflicted upon its protagonist, in this case a grizzled Robert Redford in an almost wordless role.

Chandor -- who made his debut in 2011 with the spectacular Margin Call -- goes all in on his star, and the bet pays off. Redford is outstanding, relying on nothing but expression and demeanor to convey the terror in his eyes as his ship is first punctured by a stray shipping container and then besought by stormy seas. It's a surprisingly action-filled performance for the 77-year-old actor, who is tossed about relentlessly by the crashing waves before making his way onto a life raft in a seemingly hopeless attempt to survive.



6. The Kings of Summer

In Kings of Summer (full review here), three friends tired of the overbearing pestering of their parents head into the wild to build a shelter, forage for food and live as men. It's a simple premise, but one that is presented with an almost intoxicating level of free-spirited liberation as our heroes run, jump, laugh, scream, and do as they please.

The performances are spectacular, particularly Moises Arias in a scene-stealing breakout role, but also Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso who each deliver fully-realized characters as the other kings and Nick Offerman and Megan Mulaly as the doting parents. The dialogue is hilariously witty, trading between the ebullient simplicity of youth with the dour, stoic practicality of adulthood all while moving through perhaps the most charming story of the year.



5. American Hustle

In the late 70s, a con man and his accomplice are forced to assist the FBI in taking down other ne'er-do-wells in exchange for their freedom. What ensues is a loopy tale of deception, greed, pride and corruption that balloons out of control and is only half as crazy as the real Abscam case it's based on.
At it's heart, American Hustle is the story of Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a beer belly and a garish combover. But orbiting his world are Amy Adams as his mistress/partner, Bradley Cooper as an increasingly unstable FBI agent who thinks he's in charge, Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld's absolutely unstable wife who most definitely is in charge and Jeremy Renner as a well-intentioned politician who is unfortunately dragged into the mess.

It's an All American tale of dirty people doing dirty deeds in the pursuit of fortunes and the unsuspecting victims who get left with the bill. In American Hustle (full review here), everyone's a crook, except the crooks and especially the crooks, but they're not always the same people that get punished.



4. Before Midnight

It's a common complaint levied against romantic comedies that they end precisely where they story should begin. Sure, our hero just ran through the rain to profess his love at our heroine's doorstep, but it's what happens after they kiss that's truly interesting. The morning after, as it were, is when the drama begins.

It's that sense of realism, not relying on casual tropes but interested in a true examination of what "love" is, that has always endeared the Before franchise to fans. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train and spend the next day walking through the streets of Vienna talking about, well, everything. Nine years later in Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet again in France only now he's married with a son and she's in a relationship, but the attraction remains.

And now, 18 years after their initial serendipitous encounter on that train, Jesse and Celine are married and vacationing in Greece with friends. They are full-fledged adults, having spent a significant portion of their lives together and having settled fully into the routine machinations of married life. When their friends gift them with a hotel room in a nearby town the pair get some privacy, only to see the romantic getaway devolve into a bickering argument spurred by miscommunication and misunderstanding and the latent frustrations of what they've each given up to be together.

In Before Midnight, we see that the previous two films have been leading to this and appropriately, the third film is the best one yet. It takes an almost unbearably honest  approach to the idea of marriage as our pair go from loving each other to hating each other and back again in the space of a single conversation. If that's not modern romance, I don't know what is.
Allow me to add my voice to the many that have come before me. Please, give us Before Noon in 2022.



3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Is there anything more universal than the feeling that life has conspired against us, stopping us from catching a break? That's the emotion that sums up Inside Llewyn Davis, a period piece about a struggling folk singer in an unending cycle of near-misses, disappointments and failures. He's a drifter, relying on a rotation of friends' couches to provide shelter from the cold while playing dive bars for a pittance and peddling a box of records like every other no-name head of hair with a guitar.

But the beauty of the Coen Brother's film is how it pulls back the camera and shows the events as if from the perspective of some omniscient being. Llewyn's situation is less a matter of bad luck as it is a series of self-destructive decisions. He passes up opportunities because of his high-minded artistry, neglects the few sympathetic people in his life and refuses to accept the hands that are offered to him. It's a cosmic joke the audience is aware of from our perch in 2013 – at one point a producer suggests there's no money in Llewyn as a solo act, but maybe if he played backup vocals in a trio being put together, which sounds an awful lot like Peter, Paul and Mary? Llewyn thanks him for his time and walks out.

It's a highly symbolic tale, filled with themes and imagery that suggest the importance of being at peace with one's self. But on the surface is a deeply comedic drama about a misanthropic folk singer who is perhaps defined by his failure and layered with the best soundtrack of the year.



2. Gravity

The most lasting image from Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (full review here) is that of Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone spinning uncontrollably in a vast expanse of black space. She is utterly helpless, adrift in an inhospitable environment with the taunting image of a blue Earth before her eyes and no way to reach it.

That image comes early in Gravity's 91-minute running time, suggesting that some change is coming to her situation, but its impact is no less terrifying. In Gravity, Cuaron presents us with the most comprehensive and transformative representation of the horror and grandeur of outer space. It is a symphony of sensory and emotional cues, as we witness with white knuckles the catastrophic destruction of shuttles and space stations obliterated by debris from the frantic perspective of our protagonist trapped in a race against time.

What Cuaron has accomplished with Gravity is a pure spectacle, raising the bar for what is possible with film technology while still delivering a deeply emotional tale of survival. Every moment of screen time is exhilarating, filled with breathtaking and pulse-pounding images that go beyond what was previously the frontier of "edge-of-your-seat" thrills.



1. 12 Years a Slave

In Steve McQueen's brutal, haunting film, we see the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he suffers unspeakable horrors for more than a decade before regaining his freedom.

The power of the film comes from two sources. First, the caliber of performances delivered by the cast, and in particular Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o. Second, the directorial choices of McQueen, who's camera lingers on the atrocities until they become unbearable only to linger a few moments more. To wit, in one particular scene we see Ejiofor's Solomon hung by the neck, the tips of his toes barely reaching the ground, for what feels like an interminable eternity before he is finally cut down and collapses in a wheezing heap. It is as raw as it is uncomfortable to watch but also carries with it a profound dramatic weight.

The desire of that scene and others like it (and the decision to depict them so graphically) is not just a thirst for audience effect. No movie could ever truly capture the horrors of slavery and McQueen knows this, and so when we reach these dark portions of the story he does not pull away, he leans in, filling the screen and presenting us with the inescapable wrongs of our shared past. He forces us to confront one of the ugliest scars of American history in a visceral way that only film can.
Paired with the heartbreaking humanity of Ejiofor's performance, McQueen's work is a triumph, exposing a dark past in the hope of a brighter future.