Thursday, September 18, 2014

5 More Roles In Which Liam Neeson Could Find People

Well, it happened again. I'm watching the "Walk Among the Tombstones" trailer and, sure enough, Liam Neeson, the primary bad guy-finder at the multiplex anymore, is tasked with finding someone - a kidnapped wife of a drug dealer, in this case. Now, I understand that "Walk Among the Tombstones" is based on a novel (by Lawrence Frank) and so I know its case of an ornery dude finding someone existed well before Mr. Neeson turned into the cinema's pre-eminent people finder but nevertheless, I could not help but be stricken in its aftermath by thoughts of an assembly line of roles in which Mr. Neeson's character is structured entirely around finding people. You know what happened next.

5 More Roles In Which Liam Neeson Could Find People

1. As Doug Bartles, an insurance adjustor, on a Royal Caribbean Cruise, Neeson, spending the entire film in a five-dollar Hawaiian shirt, discovers some mysterious fellow passenger is passing himself off as Doug Bartles solely to get every meal on Doug Bartles' Royal Caribbean Cruise meal plan only minutes before Doug Bartles sits down to eat. Stalking the cruise ship, still in his Hawaiian shirt, from the Captain's quarters to the gaming tables, he tries to track down this charlatan. "Those are my meals," Doug Bartles growls. "So help me God, if you take the next, I will have my vengeance, on this ship or in port."

2. As Reynolds Mackey, chief security officer of KFC's so-called Secret Recipe, Neeson is called upon when the Secret Recipe Original Recipe Card is stolen by a meglomaniacal mastermind who plans to sell it to the minions of Putin for an exorbitant price. "The 'secret' isn't merely some ill-advised marketing campaign. This is a matter of national security. I will find the recipe."

3. In the second sequel to "Caddyshack", Neeson plays Angus Spackler, a distant Scottish cousin to Bill Murray's Carl, who is head groundskeeper at the old course at St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. With a ravenous grey squirrel - less Bushwood Country Club gopher than Beast of Gévaudan - tearing up the links, Angus pledges to the gods of golf course maintenance that he will exact revenge. "The last breath this squirrel draws will be when he's face to face with me, about to have his innards extracted with my ditch blade."

4. In a nod to "Seinfeld", Neeson stars as Fred Boynton, a seemingly mild-mannered accountant from Pawtucket who purchases a radar detector off Craigslist from a mysterious seller. When the radar detector naturally goes belly up in its inaugural run and Fred is handed an impressively expensive ticket, he sends an irritable email to this faceless Craigslist rogue. "I will find you. And when I do, I will kill you. Or, at the very least, force you by very uncharitable means to compensate me for the sum of my traffic ticket."

5. As Harry Fitzgerald, single father to a teenage girl, Lisa, he discovers that his precious baby girl is being harassed by an ex-boyfriend. He tee-pees the house. He puts a cherry bomb in the mailbox. He lets the air out of Harry's tires. When Harry fields a phone call from Johnny, he lets him know the score of the game. "I know who you are. And I will find you." "Well sure," says Johnny. "You've dropped your daughter off at my house, dude." "Of course," growls Harry. "I'll be over in five minutes."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Conference on Current World Affairs

"Human fucking beings. What do you have to do?" - Holly Hunter, A Life Less Ordinary

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Cuban Fury

The Simon Pegg cameo in “Cuban Fury” really bothers me. It bothers me because it’s entirely tangential in that Hitchcock sorta way where Alfred would make cameos in his movies not with any sort of relevancy toward the story but with “Hey! Look! It’s me! I’m here!” braggadocio. And while Pegg’s cameo isn’t that smarmy, it’s still too “Where’s Waldo?” for a film that his longtime cinematic comrade Nick Frost is fronting. Now I understand that in opening the review by mentioning the cameo I am, in fact, indulging in the cameo when indulging is precisely what the cameo itself is doing and yet…… I open by talking about the cameo because I wish to impart that for all its faults, “Cuban Fury” still proves that Frost doesn’t need his famed provocateur-in-arms for assistance.

Granted, it’s a shame that Frost, the roly poly English funnyman, could not have found a better vehicle to demonstrate his abilities as a so-called Leading Man. Frost garners a “story by” credit but the screenwriter was Jon Brown and the director was James Griffiths, but even if Salsa music was born of Cuba and even if “the history of Cuban music is one of cultural collisions,” as Ned Sublette once opined, “of voluntary and forced migrations, of religions and revolutions”, well, this “Cuban Fury” is more interested in being “Saturday Night Fever” by way of “Blades of Glory.”

In his youth, Frost’s Bruce (“from the old English saxon, meaning bush, or hedge”) had feet of Salsa dancing fury. Then bullies made him eat the sequins on his dancing outfit and he called it quits. Now it’s years later and he’s a drone at some interchangeable company for some priggish supervisor Drew (Chris O’Dowd). Until, that is, their new company president, striking American Julia Matthews (Rashida Jones) saunters in and reveals herself as a paramour of the Salsa, prompting Bruce to sets his sights on winning fair lady’s heart by seeking out his old mentor (Ian McShane, who gruffly and effortlessly makes us believe he’s sitting on an entirely intriguing story that needs to be told), re-Salsafying and remembering who he really is.

“Cuban Fury” is predictable. It founders on a series of under-imagined montages featuring Bruce kicking up his heels to Latin-styled beats while he and boorish Drew become romantic rivals for Julia’s affection, which leads us directly to the film’s overriding problem. I don’t necessarily believe that Brown and Griffiths set out to create a female character defined entirely by her pseudo-romantic entanglement because I don’t necessarily believe that they thought about the film from the perspective of Julia which might very well rule the first half of this very sentence out of order. I mean, she’s their supervisor. They are under her guidance. Yet the film ridiculously makes it seem the other way around by reducing her to a mere object of affection of her underlings. She can run a whole company but she’s still defined by her romantic status because this is 2014 and……wait, what?

What’s worse, by forcing her into this triangle, the script excepts us to believe that she would be drawn toward Drew, which is absurd because Drew, as played by O’Dowd, is a chauvinist buffoon and Julia, as played by Jones, is pure class. You don’t suspend your disbelief when the entire subplot is patently and moronically offensive.

Still, in spite of its uninventive underdog formula and unfortunate inattention to its female protagonist, “Cuban Fury” has Nick Frost, and he has a winning everyman appeal. It’s reminiscent of a Kevin James part, but whereas James would have focused on the exterior, the pratfalls and boisterous anxiety, Frost focuses on the interior, letting us feel the sadness that has gnawed away at him ever since giving up the thing he loved so much. And that getting back the thing he loved so much, allows him to fully re-connect with himself and with life.

Perhaps in “Cuban Fury 2: Havana Nights”, Frost and Jones can fly this chicken coop and ignore the mechanics of plot for the majesty of dance.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Trip to Italy

“Trip to Italy” is centered around two British actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing themselves. They are purported to be cavorting in the south of Europe as a means to chronicle food and culture for some sort of vaguely defined magazine article, but really the film is just an extended riff between two comedians. It's like a jam band that focuses on celebrity impressions in the midst of recording an 80 minute Live In Italy LP with a second side comprised entirely of “Impersonating Michael Caine In ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’” And if Coogan is the bassist, keeping the band grounded, then Rob Brydon is the lead guitarist who will not stop noodling, forever launching into another never-ending solo.

The film is helmed by Michael Winterbottom, who also helmed its predecessor, “The Trip”, which I have not seen, though by all accounts this follow-up is a virtual redux. As such, it more or less opens with the two actors referencing the difficulties of crafting a sequel that feels fresh rather than a mere retread and so the duo naturally launches into dueling “Godfather” impressions which is pretty much precisely what Jamie Kennedy did in “Scream 2” and so, frankly, this very scene attempting to cut off the retread accusations at the pass feels like a retread.

At least all the improvisational indulging befits all the gastronomy indulging, the endless meals with the ceaseless courses, the incredibly shimmering scenery that serves a decadent reminder as to why films belong on the biggest screen, visiting the haunts of English poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, and engaging in immensely pleasurable Alanis Morrisette sing-alongs that somehow skirt that middle ground between Ironic and Earnest. Still, there is an undertow of melancholy, specifically in romantic entanglements brilliantly presented with a flippancy reminiscent of a quote from Jennifer Grey playing Jennifer Grey on the long-since shuttered ABC sitcom “It’s Like, You Know” when she explained she’d had an affair with her co-star in Italy(!) “because we were on location and that’s what you do.” And it seems that culinary and culture voyages to Italy can’t help but include a little side helping of adultery.

That, however, is about as far as “Trip to Italy” wants to push it. If guilt is meant to impress itself upon Brydon for his choices, it is nigh impossible to feel its weight in the face of another bottle of Barolo and whimsical references to “La Dolce Vita.” Oh, there are career quibbles, like Brydon trying to land a role in a Michael Mann movie, and the film tries to draw parallels between the bombardment of impersonations and the idea that this is where he and Coogan's bread is sadly buttered, in having to assume other personas rather than their own, and that to be a comedian means trafficking in something not necessarily, shall we say, artistically high-minded. But this is all tangential, touched upon but not addressed, an attempt to infuse a series of sitting on picturesque terraces with some semblance of meaning. It is, to quote another comic, mere heavyosity.

This is a film about the funny. And it’s not that I failed to find the film funny because I did. It can be droll, it can be side-splitting. Coogan’s facial expressions, per usual, are a phenomenon, and I even enjoyed a good percentage of Brydon’s impersonations – his Pacino in particular. But. It wasn’t a lack of funny that bothered me, it was the full-frontal assault of funny, the pounding into submission with impersonations. Brydon has no off switch. Even in the most delicate of moments, he’s trotting out a Hugh Grant or a Dustin Hoffman. I felt like his poor wife, back home, talking to him via telephone and not having it when he lapses into yet another voice. “No Dustin Hoffman tonight,” she says. Sing it, sister!

You could attempt to mount an argument that this is precisely the point, that Brydon’s having no off switch is what tinges “Trip to Italy” with tragedy. Unfortunately, by the time the notably pensive (and photogenically luminous) end arrives, I had already mentally checked out from exhaustion. You can't play an hour and forty-five minute guitar solo and then try to deliver profundity in the outro. I had long since stopped listening. I just wanted the show to be over so I could go home.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Actors as Starbucks Baristas

Yesterday I was listening to Bill Simmons’ B.S. Report podcast and his guest was the incomparably fantastic Michelle Beadle, the sports anchor who says what she wants and means what she says, and at one point their entertainingly rambling conversation touched upon the experience of going to Los Angeles Lakers games where there are so many celebrities and you become so distracted by spotting celebrities that you start to think EVERYONE is a celebrity and you assume that’s Meryl Streep a few seats over when it turns out to merely be your local Starbucks barista.

And that, as it had to, got me to thinking. It got me to thinking about actors as Starbucks baristas. What kind of Starbucks barista might they be in accordance with the Pike Place Market Type Theory?

Michael Shannon. The Irritated Barista. “What the hell is a half double decaffeinated half-caf cappuccino? Nope. Sorry. You’re gettin’ coffee, pal. Black. And if you try and put cream in that coffee, so help me God, I’ll take this Sweet ‘n Low and stuff it right up your nose.”

John Michael Higgins. The Way-Too-Personable Barista. We all know this barista. He's the barista who when you say "Can I get a venti Pike?" says "I don't know - can you?" and doesn't mean it snidely but jokingly. Like, hey, you just came in to get a cup of coffee and we're, like, already best friends!!!

Jared Leto. The Axeman Barista. He works mornings to fund his dalliances as lead guitarist for a blues influenced 70's-style rock band called Yellowknife that plays Friday nights at Evy's Lounge.

Nicole Kidman. The Overcaffeinated Barista. This isn't exactly typecasting, I know, and that's precisely the point. I’m just desperate – DESPERATE – to see what Nicole could do with this part.

Daniel Day-Lewis. Cody, The Shift Manager. He's Cody. He's the shift manager. He lives in an apartment in Silverlake. He's taking night classes in environmental policy at community college. He wears trucker hats. He goes camping on his days off. He likes hamachi and Indica IPA. He's dating Katie. She has a dog named Rufus. Sometimes he takes the dog for walks.

Parker Posey. The Disinterested Barista. Scrolling her iPhone. Judging your latte order. Audibly sighing when you ask if you can make a slight amendment to that latte. My favorite barista. Sigh.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

When Vengeance Rings Hollow

Since 2007 I have chosen on or around the anniversary of 9/11 to re-watch Paul Greengrass's “United 93”. Yet this week, for reasons I’m not sure I could have articulated in the moment I made the decision, I reached past the “United 93” DVD for Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” instead. In retrospect, this decision was a result of my bad mood. I think a lot of people are in bad moods these days. There is so much shit in so many corners of the world that is so profoundly fucked up that if I really stop to try and consider it I find that I can’t even fucking breathe –and no, I will not ask you to “pardon my French.” Because fuck that. The fucking world is on fucking fire. And I felt fucking pissed off. And so I guess that as an extension of this mood I didn't really desire the hope of “United 93” (and yes, in that indescribably intense concluding sequence when the passengers fight to take back the plane that’s specifically what I feel – hope). I desired……

Vengeance is the word I’m supposed to employ. I mean, isn’t that what “Zero Dark Thirty” is all about? Wasn’t that the purpose of our ten year odyssey to track down Osama bin Laden, pop a cap in his ass and hurl his remains into the sea? To have our vengeance for his masterminding of the most significant attack ever conducted on American soil? Isn’t that why the film opens with actual recordings taken from inside the Twin Towers before they fell? There are those who would argue the film does not suitably address the "why" nor suitably address America's overall involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but such arguments fail to understand the film's contention that bin Laden was the predominant symbol of 9/11. His death would supply vengeance. Then we could all go back to watching Youtube in peace.

One of the significant knocks levied against Jessica Chastain’s protagonist, Maya, based on a real life CIA agent, was a lack of characterization. No home life, no loved one, no friends, no beers with the boys, no pillow fights, no diatribes about how underrated Juliana Hatfield is. It’s a knock I’ve addressed before as absurdly irrational. The point is her lack of characterization. Is there anything more profound than the utter un-profundity of this shot? 

That’s her. Nothing. No one. A tall boy and a glob of candy on a non-descript couch. Hollowed out to the point of her obsession with finding Osama and nothing else. And in that way, she also becomes emblematic of America’s obsession with vengeance, with finding and punishing bin Laden in the wake of 9/11. David Thomson, my favorite film critic, compared it, unfavorably, to something born of John Wayne jingoism. Now I am rather notoriously not a John Wayne fan. In fact, I was recently at a film exhibit and I quite purposely walked right past the John Wayne display. But I also don’t entirely disagree with Mr. Thomson.

In his movies, Wayne always possessed a “pathological absence of self-doubt mak(ing) everything all right in the end.” That’s a phrase the critic Daniel Pinto used to negatively describe the character of Maya in his own “ZDR” review. He’s right about the pathological absence of self-doubt, which is a trait that Maya the character (“I know how much certainty freaks you guys out”) and Chastain the actress play straight to.

This pathological absence of self-doubt also manifests itself in the torture sequences. It manifests in the movie, of course, in the way that Maya’s initial hesitancy toward it gives way to an almost disturbingly matter-of-fact ruthlessness. “You're not being fulsome in your replies!”

But it also manifested itself in the conversation had by so many around the movie. Was it pro-torture? Was it anti-torture? Were its depictions of torture accurate or imbalanced? EVERYONE had an opinion and EVERYONE’S opinion was RIGHT (i.e. pathological absence of self-doubt). And look, when it comes to the subject of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, I would contend it’s virtually impossible to know the whole truth. The government and its representatives can assert anything they damn well please, but then the government asserted they weren't spying on us until they admitted that, yeah, well, they were. Discerning the proclivity of torture in the pursuit and how much information that torture yielded until everyone involved truly comes clean (which they won't) is a fool’s errand. Perhaps the significance of torture as argued by “Zero Dark Thirty” is overstated compared to the truth stowed in a briefcase chained to some Langley operative’s wrist but torture was employed. That much we know. And the question Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal seem intent to to ask is whether or not it makes – to re-borrow Mr. Pinto’s phrase – “everything” (as in, torture) “all right in the end” simply because it aided in nabbing, “for God and country”, al-Qaeda’s #1 douchebag?

Thomson writes that Maya “is the moral authority at the end of the film, surveying the corpse and nodding, as if to imply, ‘Mission accomplished.’” I respect Mr. Thomson more than any critic alive but have no earthly idea what he was watching. She nods, yes, but how he extrapolated an implication of ‘Mission accomplished’ from the manner in which Chastain nods is utterly beyond me. That nod is partly disbelief for having finally seen the mission through, but it’s so much more – it’s doubt. It’s fear. It’s Bigelow and Boal consciously setting her up this way to take her to the end point of the journey, to the point where her logistical and moral certainty and her pathological absence of self doubt suddenly run up against pointlessness. She boards the military plane. The pilot asks “Where do you want to go?”

Her only answer is tears, and as empty as all the vengeance felt watching those tears in 2012, it felt, in the aftermath of the last few months, even more empty. Two years later and we still have no idea what it really meant or where we really want to go.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


With so much unrest and unhappiness in the world, let's take a moment today to simply see Keira Knightley wearing some hats...