Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Love Actually

Billy Mack, Being Awesome

Film: Love Actually (2003)

Director: Richard Curtis

Starring: Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman

Written by: Richard Curtis

No, I don’t like romantic comedies, and as a proud adherent of the Drop Dead Fred philosophy of Love Is Dis-Gus-Ting I didn’t expect to like this one when it was enthusiastically pushed upon me years ago.  Yet this film, which plays out as a sort of Christmas office party for American recognized British actors, has so many tangled threads that it’s easy to pick out a few favorite moments and ignore the rest.  For every lame tale involving a cameraman painfully lusting after Kiera Knightley, a guy hawking his Brit accent for sex in the States, or Laura Linney playing, well, Laura Linney, there are perfectly passable tales featuring Liam Neeson as a widowed stepfather, the decline of a marriage between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, and Hugh Grant playing a chronically flustered Prime Minister who lusts after a member of his staff and sings Christmas carols for excited children.

Yes!

But the greatness of Love Actually comes almost entirely from the titanic performance of one man, and that man is Bill Nighy.  Though Nighy’s resume shows that the actor is unafraid to take on weird, screwball roles (see: Shawn of the Dead), his portrayal of washed up pop star Billy Mack in Love Actually may be his screwiest to date.  While the rest of the film’s ensemble goes through the usual stages of finding or losing love, Billy Mack can’t be bothered with any of that shit.  His purpose in life is to mangle his biggest hit into a Christmas song, repeatedly embarrass himself in its promotion, and somehow get the song to the top of the charts.  In this quest, he exposes himself publicly, gives stern advice to the world’s youth about the dangers of paying for drugs, and writes off Britney Spears as being crap in bed.  In short, Billy Mack is a man with nothing to lose, and he is utterly amazing in losing it.

And yet he provides the film’s most romantic moment – indeed, the most romantic moment I’ve ever seen in film.  After bumbling his way to victory, Billy Mack realizes that the love of his life is the chubby manager who has stood by his side through good times and bad, putting up with his prima donna abuse.  After awkwardly disclosing this epiphany to his platonic boyfriend, he proposes that they celebrate their totally non-sexual love for one another by getting pissed and watching porn. It’s a moment that would make the devil weep.

Billy Mack is the king of romance!  We should all follow his shining example.  Let’s all get pissed and watch porn!

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The Designer’s Drugs: Wes Moore – The Other Wes Moore

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Wes Moore – The Other Wes Moore: One Name and Two Fates

Anno: 2010

 

When Rhodes Scholar and military veteran Wes Moore learned of the arrest of another man who shared his name and was from his city, imprisoned for his role in a robbery and the murder of a police officer, he decided to get in touch with him.  His goal was to discover what led each person, both of whom grew up without fathers and in less than ideal environments, down their separate paths.  The Other Wes Moore is a combination of what he learned from this relationship and of his own experiences which led him to that point.

What presents itself as a “there but for the grace of God go I” story is a book equally focused upon the decline of black culture in post-civil rights America, and this ends up being the most interesting aspect of the tale.  In describing the lives of both Wes Moores as they grow up amidst the urban chaos, the author discusses the devastation which drugs, and especially the advent of crack, have wrought upon black neighborhoods.  This is the point of divergence between the author and the convict; while the former is forced into military school, where he discovers discipline and self-reliance, the latter embraces the drug dealing lifestyle of his older brother at a very early age, and he never has a chance.

While this dual biography adequately accounts for the lives of both Wes Moores, what I found lacking in the book is the interaction between the two.  The bond between Wes Moore the author and Wes Moore the convict is discussed in very faint terms, presented as quick interludes between their separate stories.  Was the connection between the two men presented and explored more thoroughly, the book would have better fulfilled its premise.  Instead, The Other Wes Moore plays out as little more than a double feature biography.  The author certainly puts in his work, but there’s something missing.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2 – Uncle Eddie’s Island Adventure

Film: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2 – Uncle Eddie’s Island Adventure

Director: Nick Macris

Starring: Randy Quaid, Ed Asner

Written by: Matty Simmons

 

This Christmas, let us honor the holiday season by celebrating National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2, one of its most cherished stories of all time.  Wait, I got that wrong – people HATE this film.  Many roads can bring a person to the unbridled hatred of this film: sequel abuse, the absence of Chevy Chase, its TV movie production value, a plot ripped almost directly from Gilligan’s Island, or the awkward transition of supporting characters from Christmas Vacation 1 into leads carrying an entire film.  One thing is certain, though; no matter how one comes to hate this titan of Bizarro cinema, hatred is almost inevitable.

But I refuse.  No matter how much the rest of the film may stink, there is one man who strides boldly forth and turns every scene into a masterpiece – master thespian (and recent outlaw conspiracy theorist) Randy Quaid.  As he brings Clark Griswold’s Cousin Eddie into the limelight, The Great Quaid pulls out all the stops in his quest to, well, cash a paycheck.  But also to be a comedic genius!

In Christmas Vacation 2, The Great Quaid is a man unafraid to spend an entire movie scampering about a deserted island clad in uncomfortably tight, uncomfortably white shorts.  He’s not afraid to come out second best to a nuclear-enhanced monkey; he knows he’s better than that damn ape.  He’s man enough to be both Skipper and Gilligan, and he can bring nature to its rightful place beneath his bootheel even while stumbling over that same bootheel.  Hot faux-Hawaiian babes stand no chance against his masculine wiles, but The Great Quaid chooses to keeps his torrential manliness in check and remains faithful to his movie family, magnanimously allowing his son and uncle to perv out over the babe instead.  He can build a mansion fit for royalty out of some bamboo, palm leaves, and a boar’s carcass.  And best of all, Cousin Eddie goes through this entire movie without ever soiling his pristine white shorts.

If this film is any indication of his brilliance, I think that The Great Quaid’s recent foray into paranoid insanity is all part of a master plan.  History may one day praise this beady-eyed and disheveled vagabond as the Socrates of our time.  Quaid bless us, everyone!

The Designer’s Drugs: Freezepop – Imaginary Friends

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Freezepop – Imaginary Friends

Anno: 2010

Not every band that makes a name in inside jokes and idiosyncrasy survives the switch to seriousness, but in Freezepop’s case, the change is not only survived but is illuminating.  The first release from the newly remodeled synthpop band shows a change in style to accompany its changes in lineup.  What Imaginary Friends sounds like more than anything is an electronic band busting out high-aerobic singles in its 80s heyday.  Yet despite the fact that it’s on par with the best music of that era, labeling this album as a retro homage or ironic nostalgia would really be shortchanging the quality work that went into its making.

Along with the band’s jettisoning of the rock direction which it flirted with previously, the wry observations and quirky pop culture references that have dotted Liz Enthusiasm’s vocals over the years have largely disappeared.  On the brilliantly synthed up “Lose that Boy,” Enthusiasm’s love advice is the closest the album comes to overt goofiness, but it’s nowhere near her established sense of whimsical self-effacement (see: “Brainpower”).  Instead, the overall impression of Imaginary Friends is that it is a very earnest body of work, easily Freezepop’s most straightforward and concise album to date.  Unless one is hopelessly hung up on references to PBR, Love Ninjas, Game Boys, and the actors of Growing Pains, this is in no way a bad thing.

For my money, the best track on Imaginary Friends is “Special Effects,” an electrojuggernaut that barely has time to slow down for a piano-tinged interlude.  “Natural Causes,” which is a little slower and darker, would be my runner-up.  The album’s against the grain track is its last, “House of Mirrors,” a ballad which plays like a stately version of “Swimming Pool” from the previous album.  And face-forward tracks like “Doppelganger” and “Magnetic” have bouncy hooks that crawl into the listener’s brain and take over.

Though the narrower scope and relative seriousness of Imaginary Friends don’t need to set a permanent precedent, in this case they work out to Freezepop’s advantage.  This is a great work of well-assembled electropop which proves that the new version of Freezepop is just as formidable and enduring as its prior incarnation.

Y Marks the Spot: Ungainfully Employed

THE FUTURE.

There’s a billboard next to the Barnes & Noble in my new base in Washington.  Both store and sign are fairly close to my house, and as such I tend to pass them on my wanderings through town.  Each time I see the billboard, I snicker as my thoughts turn to the unrealistic possibilities of vandalism.

The sign reads “Optimism is contagious.”  Someday, I’d like to spraypaint “Get vaccinated” underneath.

The joke was in my head long before I resigned myself to the growing undercaste of the unemployed, long before my faith in my skills and talents gave way to the realities of the New Depression.  The joke has since become harder, more resentful – but it’s still a joke, and still, oddly enough, optimistic.

The story of my attempts to find a job in my new environment has a theme of sudden fuckovers following sure things.  It began even before I left Wisconsin, as I was plotting a transfer between my old bookstore and the one I now pass on a regular basis.  As an employee of long tenure and high standing, transferring should have been an easy maneuver.

Apparently it wasn’t.  I’d later find out, both personally and through quite a few other people here, that the boss of my intended new store was a pretty big dick – the type who objects to Halloween on moral grounds and uses divine intervention to justify moving to a Jesusy community.  I’m certain that this lame moral fiber played into the picture in some small way, but at the time I took the message that there was nothing available at face value.  Frankly, I didn’t mind.  I’d been doing the same work for the entire four years I’d spent back in Wisconsin, and I was looking forward to doing something else.

On the very first day of my new job hunt, I thought I had that matter taken care of.  Beyond many of its bars’ draconian policies against serving liquor, my new town’s downtown is so much better than the boozy one I left behind.  Within its array of neat shops and attractions nestled a little local record store, and as luck would have it, they were hiring as I was searching.

Being that I have years of record store experience – to say nothing of my years of music journalism – I figured that it would be a slam dunk.  In fact, following the interview, the boss and I scheduled a trial shift in which I would be given the chance to prove my mettle.  Furthermore, another employee would afterward tell me that I was only the second person he had known, in all the years he had worked there, who had been given a formal interview.  Sure thing, right?

Well, there was an issue which became a deal breaker.  As well as selling music, the record store also made its money in head shop paraphernalia, which I’m not all that familiar with.  On the morning I was to go in for my first shift, the boss called me up and called it off, stating that he really needed someone who knew the product in time for the holidays.

Reading between the lines, I’m one of the few people who can say that they didn’t get a job because they weren’t a pothead.  It was actually really funny when it happened, though less so now.

A few false starts later, I was ready to retry the bookstore transfer.  I called my old store manager and resumed the process, then called the store manager and discussed the prospects.  The Washington boss shot it down in the most dickish manner possible.  “I already have transfers coming in,” he sniped, “and you’re not them, are you?”

Nice.

The appropriateness of this exchange would come into play later when I almost got a job at a Blockbuster down the street from my house.  The store boss was a really cool guy with whom I hit it off with immediately.  Another hopeful interview came and went, with the promise of future contact implied.

Yet when I called the boss a week later to follow up, he had bad news.  Apparently a transfer had decided to ship in and take the available position, which took priority.  “We take care of our people,” he explained.  I understood, but considering my own failed attempts at transferring I saw the result as somewhat morbid.

Beyond that, there’s been a lot of trying, and even more silence.  Not even Christmas jobs have been available – though not dealing with tantrum throwing holiday shoppers and never ending Christmas music has probably saved my end of year sanity, for once.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this is the future.  All the fun pissant work selling books and music and movies and video games are ending due to physical products becoming electronic files.  No matter how wonderfully the economy may recover, I don’t really see the job market coming back.  My old prediction of overpopulation and technology making labor obsolete feels like it is coming true, and now we get to live with it.

And I don’t really mind.  I still don’t have it worse than at least half of the world’s population, and even if I don’t have a steady income, I have a job.  Despite a general state of cabin fever resignation, I’m pretty proud of what I do.  I get to write all these rants and reviews and interviews, and I’ve done some of my best journalism while being broke.  I’ve also used the free time on my hands to plot out some amazing stories for the future.  Since moving out here I’ve also taken up improv classes, which has blasted open a great new avenue for me to dive into.  And last week, I put on my first real stand-up performance, which I don’t mind describing as awesome.

I’ve come to the point where I have nothing in the conventional sense, yet though the situation is far from perfect I’m actually pretty happy about how things have turned out.  If this is hitting bottom, sign me up.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: The Astronaut Farmer

Like this, only less reluctant.

Film: The Astronaut Farmer (2006)

Director: Michael Polish

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen

Written by: Mark & Michael Polish

 

On its own merits, The Astronaut Farmer doesn’t qualify as Bizarro cinema.  It’s an overly earnest and sappy film which chronicles the obsessive quest of farmer Charles Farmer (get it?) to build a rocket and blast off into space.  Aside from a scene involving a brick thrown through a bank window, a clever quip dismissing the rocket’s potential as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (because the government wouldn’t have found it if it was one), and a cameo by Bruce Willis playing a guardedly supportive ex-astronaut, this story of a family of dreamers overcoming adversity is downright formulaic.

Yet I do have a solid reason for inducting The Astronaut Farmer into Bizarro canon, and that is because its packaging has the strangest talk-up of a film that I’ve ever seen.  Kind of a strange criterion, I know, but this is much more than a simple matter of bad, punny taglines.  The film’s description of itself is so mind-boggling that the only reasonable explanation for its existence is heavy use of hard drugs, or at least the work of a publicist who hadn’t slept for a week.  Don’t believe me?  Behold The Astronaut Farmer’s epic self-analysis, in all its glory.

 

“All systems are ‘Go’ for Charles Farmer.  He’s faced bank foreclosure, neighborhood naysayers and a government alarmed by his huge purchase of high-grade fuel, but now he’s ready to blast into space inside the homemade rocket he built in his barn.  Just be home in time for dinner, Charlie.

“Billy Bob Thornton portrays Charlie in this charmer about chasing dreams… and about what it means to be a family.  10,000 pounds of rocket fuel alone can’t lift Charlie into the heavens.  He needs a launch/recovery crew, and he has one of the best: his wife (Virginia Madsen) and children, dreamers all.  They have liftoff.  Our spirits have uplift.  Gravity cannot hold down our dreams.  The Astronaut Farmer is that kind of movie.”

 

Um… what?

 

The Designer’s Drugs: Daft Punk – TRON Legacy Soundtrack

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Daft Punk – TRON Legacy Soundtrack

Anno: 2010

 

If you’re expecting Daft Punk to bust out dancefloor classics on the new TRON soundtrack, you’re going to walk away disappointed.  There is a slick track titled “Derezzed” which is vintage Daft Punk, but that’s about all the fanservice this score has to offer.  In the place of robot rock are rather high-minded symphonic tracks, the type of tense string use that is reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean scoring or his work with James Newton Howard on The Dark Knight.  The best example of this is in the tremendously monstrous “Rectifier,” which sounds like a Kraken devouring Jack Sparrow.

Though it’s not their home genre, Daft Punk makes a great transition to film scoring, and hopefully we’ll see more such efforts from the group in the future.  If the movie is as good as it sounds, no sequel fears will be necessary.