Trouble with the Curve

Clint Eastwood is a man who has earned the right to do what he wants. Having starred in movies like Dirty Harry, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, his acting career in Hollywood spans more than 50 years and is replete with more iconic characters than most actors could ever hope to play.  He has also directed more than 30 feature films as well as several episodes of TV shows, and despite his recent oddball speech at the Republican National Convention he commands respect among his peers like virtually no one else.  After 2008’s Gran Torino Eastwood decided to trade his acting chops for a director’s chair, making movies like Invictus and J Edgar.  But recently, because Clint Eastwood does what Clint Eastwood wants, he took another turn in front of the camera for the baseball movie Trouble with the Curve. While the film is certainly not going to win awards for originality it is an enjoyable and well-told tale of family, friendship, and what happens when time simply passes one by.

Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, a scout for the Atlanta Braves who knows baseball backwards and forwards but couldn’t fix a broken relationship if he had instructions that were written in crayon. The ever-charming Amy Adams is daughter Mickey (named after the great Yankees switch hitter) is a workaholic lawyer (is there any other kind in Hollywood movies?) who can’t find time in her life for anything resembling a relationship, thus her interactions with dear ol’ dad are relegated to the occasional dinner at a local pub while checking text messages on her blackberry.  Gus is so old that his ancient art of baseball scouting has been all but replaced by soulless computers, and has long since given up trying to have a real relationship with Mickey. And then there’s Johnny (Justin Tiberlake, basically playing himself), the plucky upstart scout from the Red Sox who follows Gus around as they scour high school games for up-and-coming talent. Ticking off other boxes on the character checklist are Pete Klein (John Goodman), Gus’s old friend who has been with him in the baseball business through thick and thin, and Philip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), the young upstart Braves scout  who finds players based on spreadsheet data, not gut instinct.  Gus mouns the fact that the great game of baseball has changed, and young punks like Sanderson only see numbers and not real players.  Mickey is this close to making partner at her law firm, but might lose it all thanks to a conniving coworker who also wants the open spot. And Johnny just wants to be the best gosh-darned baseball scout he can be, and maybe score a date with Mickey while he’s at it.

So what’s Clint Eastwood doing in a by-the-numbers dramadey like this? Who cares! Trouble with the Curve is as predictable as they come, but Eastwood’s grizzled old man is second to none–particulary when paired with Adams’ pitch-perfect sweetness.  We’re not so much watching a movie as we are enjoying some solid performances from a few great actors. It’s fun to watch because Eastwood is so pitch-perfect for his role–who else could get a theater full of people to laugh with a line like “Get out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you!” as he threatens a bar patron who won’t take no for an answer after striking out with Mickey.  Adams does her best to portray a stressed-out lawyer trying to reconnect with her dad, but she’s not fooling anyone: this is the same girl sang her way into audience hearts as the gleefully innocent Gisele in Disney’s gem Enchanted.  Timberlake…well, no one is ever going to watch him in a movie for his acting chops but he’s clearly enjoying the role and having fun playing the third wheel to Gus and Mickey.  There’s no surprises here, and no cheap deaths for the sake of baiting the Academy.  What you expect is what you get, and when you want two hours of solid if not-exactly-groundbreaking entertainment, you could do a lot worse than this movie.

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The Expendables 2

I enjoyed the first Expendables, but felt like it was missing a little something. It had all the elements of a great action film, but the end result was a tad hollow and left me wanting more. Enter Sylvester Stallone and his crew of misfits for another round of violence, mayhem, and bloodshed in Expendables 2.  It is, in every way, a far more over-the-top version of its predecessor and, in fact, nearly every action movie before it. The plot, such as it is, serves merely as a thin foundation upon which director Simon West builds a gigantic celluloid edifice in tribute to the glorious excesses of the 80’s, and then blows it to smithereens. This film a flurry of bullets and one-liners, delivered with such gleeful tongue-in-cheek earnestness that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud during the late-night screening (along with most of the audience too). In the first movie, Barney Ross (Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) led the titular gang of mercenaries on a mission to overthrow an evil dictator in the South American island of Vilena.  It was a great way to reunite virtually every great action star from the days of yore, but too much exposition and narrative twists bogged down what could have been a nice nostalgic romp. Fortunately, all that is gone in the sequel and what we are left with is the basic elements of a great ‘splode-fest with none of the window dressing.  It’s straight-up good guys vs. bad guys here, and of course the latter outnumber the former by at least twenty-to-one which, as one might expect, means a whole lot of cannon fodder for the good guys.

The movie opens with Ross and his crew infiltrating (read: demolishing and incinerating) a secret compound in order to retrieve a valuable hostage. Turns out there are two individuals worth rescuing: a Chinese billionaire and Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Stallone’s rival from the first film. Upon their rescue, Trench searches for a big weapon and asks Ross’s team member Cesar (Terry Crews, no doubt lathered up in Old Spice) if he can have his. Cesar agrees, and lets Trench know that if he damages the weapon he will be “Terminated.” Cue cheering and applause from the theater audience, and an almost-visible wink from Schwarzenegger.  Yes, director Simon West is assuring us here, we are in for two raucous hours of craziness.  And it’s going to be a fun ride.

No subtlety or nuance here. Just big dudes with big guns.

New to the Expendables team this time around is sniper Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth, giving the girlfriends who got dragged to this movie something to look at), fresh out of the Army but reluctant to sign off on a life of unpredictable globetrotting with the rest of the team. He agrees to go with the crew on one more job, handed to them by the quazi-secretive Church (Bruce Willis) who wants a rather valuable package retrieved from a plane crash. Along the way they run into Villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme, slipping into this caricatured role like a comfy pair of old jeans), the leader of another band of mercenaries who takes the cargo the Expendables were sent to rescue.  I can’t give away too much here, but suffice it to say that after the mission is over, The Expendables have a much more personal reason to get the package back and kill Villain even if it means destroying half of Europe in the process.

Let’s not kid ourselves here, though: the main reason to see Expendables 2 is not the plot, the visuals, or the even action: it’s all about the actors: we’re here to watch Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Statham, Couture, Lundgren, and Li take on the bad guys and leave no man standing. The movie works only because it is these individuals, the titans of the genre, doing the fighting and spouting off one-liners like “I now pronounce you…man and knife” while dispatching evildoers with aplomb. When the team asks Booker (Chuck Norris) what happened after an encounter with a cobra snake, he replies with one of the infamous Chuck Norris Facts: “After five days of agonizing pain…the cobra died.” Schwarzenegger and Willis trade barbs near the end of the film, poking fun at each other’s “I’ll be back” and “Yippie-ki-yay” lines from Terminator and Die Hard while practically cheering along with the audience in the process. Clearly this is not a movie meant to be taken seriously, and it’s all the more fun because of it.

In the 1985 Schwarzenegger classic Commando, there’s a scene in which Arnold racks up over 50 bodies in 3 minutes. It’s ridiculous, ludicrous, illogical–and thoroughly entertaining. Scenes like this allow us to root for an unstoppable here who will do whatever it takes to right the wrongs in this cruel world. The Expendables 2 is an extension of that mentality: there’s no double-crossing, no love story, no shady political backhanded maneuvers, no inner conflict, and no need to dodge bullets (we all know such puny projectiles have no effect on action heroes).  Instead we have a binary world where good is good, bad is bad, and heroes who simply take care of business.  In a summer full of brooding billionaires and squabbling superheroes, Expendables 2 is a reminder of that sometimes all we want is just a rock-solid back-to-the-basics action flick. And boy, does it deliver.

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Downton Abbey: Season 1

DowntonAbbeyWhen my wife and I were dating, she asked me if I would watch Pride and Prejudice with her. I figured I owed her, since she previously watched the original Star Wars trilogy with me, so one night we sat down in front of the TV, popped Tape 1 of P&P into the VCR, and I soon found myself immersed in the world of the Bennet Family. It was a strange place, with giant houses, big poofy dresses, and weird dances that did not look like any fun at all.  But I appreciated the quality and craftsmanship of the acclaimed miniseries, and even though I had to watch it a couple of times to figure out what was going on, I did come to enjoy it on I guess what you would call an intellectual level.  It wasn’t my usual cup of tea, but the depiction of Jane Austen’s classic literary characters was outstanding.  And the dialog…good gravy.  The dialog.  If Star Wars Episode II is the steaming chumbucket of movie dialog, Pride and Prejudice is a bowl of fine turbot.

But I digress. This review isn’t about Pride and Prejudice, it’s about Downton Abbey–the show that is, in many ways, the spiritual successor to its Jane Austen counterpart.  Set in early 20th century England, the show follows the exploits of the residents of the titular dwelling as they work out relationship issues, deal with class struggles, and uncover secrets and hidden revelations about one another that (gasp!) threaten to tear the family apart! And if all this sounds a tad like daytime soaps, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. But what makes the show so compelling is the point of view from which everything is presented.  In a nod to Gosford Park, much of the show does not actually focus on the high-class Crawley family who reside in the Abbey–a house-slash-castle so big it practically makes the Marland Mansion look like a low-rent duplex.  Rather, the main plot of many episodes is actually about the servants and other proletariat who keep the house running so smoothly.  There are territory fights, backstabbing, allegiances formed and rent asunder, and even new technologies like electric lighting and the telephone that throw servant life into a tizzy.  And amidst all of this, the servants must keep the water boiling and the food cooking lest they be thrown out in search of work elsewhere.

Lord Grantham and Carson, the head butler, discussing issues of utmost importance like the color of the draperies in the drawing room.

The overall focus of Season 1 is similar to many period pieces set in a similar time and location: a vast sum of money, along with a great deal of property, must be passed down to a male heir.  And, as fate would have it, no such heir exists for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) as his three children, daughters all, remain unmarried.  So of course a male relative must be unearthed lest the entail be be parceled out to unknown third parties.  And in the spirit of these kinds of dramas, Grantham’s eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) mopes around feeling sorry for herself while refuseing to attach herself to just any old chap and insists on waiting for the right man to come along.  Will she ever get married? Will the other daughters find husbands first? Will tea be served on time? Dear me, it’s all so very much to take in. I feel a spell coming on…

The genius of Downton Abbey lies in its juggling of these first-world problems with the various plights of the servants below, who are constantly struggling with genuine issues that regular people can relate to.  John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Grantham’s new valet who served with him in the military, is constantly at odds with Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), two scheming and conniving servants who will seem to stop at nothing to get him thrown out and into the streets.  Beryl Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the overeager and overbearing cook, is slowly losing her eyesight and can’t afford medical treatment.  Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the butler in charge or running everything behind the scenes, has a shameful past he is trying to keep secret.  The servants are far from one big happy family, and often quarrel and squabble while Thomas and O’Brien revel in slimy scheming.  It’s a stark contrast between the ironed newspapers and formal dinners of the Lords and Ladies whom they serve, and a fantastic cross-section of life rarely seen in period dramas.

Necklace or post-medieval torture device? You decide!

That’s not to say that life is all sunshine and roses for the Crawley family either, just different. The problems and conflicts of the servants and their masters intersect throughout the show, adding a great deal of depth to the characters in the process.  Lord Grantham can be pragmatic and tough as nails, but also humble and compassionate. His meddling mother Lady Violet (Maggie Smith, who delightfully steals almost any scene she’s in) is firmly aristocratic while also showing signs of humanity and genuine concern.  There’s also a compelling political element at work as well, with the onset of women’s rights, rumblings of the first World War, and other events that help the dealings of Downton Abbey feel very much connected with the world at large.   Some subplots border on syrupy melodrama, particularly the fallout from a particularly poor decision Mary makes regarding her interactions with a visiting Turkish diplomat, but overall the show sets a high bar for entertainment and consistently, though not entirely, reaches it and more. Icing on the cake comes in the form of exquisite camera work that consistently captures the grandeur of the residence and nearby countryside, while liberal use of handheld techniques accentuate the cramped, claustrophobic servants’ quarters. Downton Abbey doesn’t quite reach the level of polish attained by its Jane Austen forebear, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling period piece created in the last decade.

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The Other F Word

The Other F WordIt’s not often that a documentary really gets to me on a personal level, mostly because it’s hard for me to separate the filmmaker from the film.  Take, for example, any of Michael Moore’s creations in his continual quest to sully the category of Documentary.  Behind the images and voices put on screen is a clear agenda and a deliberate manipulation of events so obviously designed to shape the perceptions of the viewer that one almost can’t help but roll his or her eyes and pass such blatant fictionalizations off as gussied-up Saturday morning cartoons.  Or Morgan Spurlock’s infamous Super Size Me, in which he outlines an indictment of McDonald’s based on the plain-as-day fact that eating too much of their food will cause an individual to gain weight.  Then there are films like “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price” that claim to investigate a subject, when in reality they are merely pursuing one angle of a story towards a conclusion drawn well in advance.  But even when watching more benign programming such as nature documentaries or works by the venerated Ken Burns, it’s difficult for me to just sit back and learn rather than seeing the work as a presentation of information deliberately skewed in one way or another by the lens of its creator.  And so, this rather skeptical attitude makes it somewhat difficult for me to watch a documentary and really internalize what I am seeing rather than merely viewing it as a presentation of one particular viewpoint.

But when watching The Other F Word, I really did get somewhat lost in the subject matter and found myself becoming emotionally involved with the information I was consuming. Sure, like any documentary, everything here is presented from a particular viewpoint and there are myriad other stories to be told rather than the narrative that was shaped by director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins.  But the subject matter was so interesting, and the characters so compelling, that I couldn’t help but get roped in and even fascinated, at times, with what I was watching.

the-Other-F-Word-Mark-Hoppus

Mark Hoppus, watching his son plays video games as he contemplates sticking it to The Man.

After decades of sonic bombardment and near-endless touring, punk rock staples from the late 80’s and mid 90’s like Rancid, NOFX, Blink-182, The Vandals, Bad Religion, and the rest of their contemporaries are now mostly grown up.  Time, as poet Delmore Schwartz said, “is the fire in which we burn,” and as the members of these bands have aged, they have all faced the same inevitable choice: make the transition into what society would call adulthood, or continue prolonging the anarchistic days of their youth including all the trappings such a lifestyle entailed such as tattoos, piercings, counterculture apparel, disrespect for authority, and a firm adherence to the raised-middle-finger mentality so central to the punk rock ethos.  And so Nevins sets out to see what has become of these men now that many of them are parents and (gasp!) figures of authority in their own families.

The central figure here is Jim Lindberg, singer and frontman for the band Pennywise, who sets out for yet another tour with his band and leaves his wife and three daughters at home for the better part of a year.  We see him pack his suitcase, including Barbie dolls from his kids and black hair dye to mask his greying locks, and head out to do what he’s always done: play music. The contrast is shocking at first, as we see Lindberg and his bandmates on stage inviting their audience to request songs by shouting titles out but requiring that every one be augmented by a dose of vulgar profanity.  Shocking not because such is the nature of the punk rock scene, but because we first see Lindberg goofing around with his family, driving his daughters to school in a perfectly sensible midsize SUV, and participating in what is otherwise an entirely unremarkable slice of modern-day middle-class American lifestyle.

Woven through Jim’s tale are stories of several of his punk rock counterparts who have similarly navigated the turbulent waters of post-adolescent rebellion and now found themselves with families, responsibilities, and being in the somewhat ironic position of setting rules and limits for their own children.  Myriad interviews reveal grown men who are struggling to identify themselves in a society in which the angst-fueled anti-authoritarian spirit of their youth is now a prepackaged commodity, sold to teenagers in trendy mall stores like Hot Topic.  Some of the guys have clearly found ways to make the change work, and some seem like they are still treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry while their fellow rockers-turned-fathers have all gone home to bed.  Mark Hoppus ruminates on how his new perspective on life makes him embarrassed to sing some of his band’s racier songs.  Flea talks about how his daughters have entirely changed his outlook on life.   Fat Mike, who admits in an interview that he and his wife vowed not to change as they grew up, drives his daughter to a stuffy private school in a shiny new SUV while decked out in spiked hair and chains.  The film’s most powerful moments come from the interview segments with Duane Peters, who has clearly lost more than a few marbles in his younger days but has emerged with a new perspective on life despite losing his son in a car wreck.  The only weak point is the inclusion of Tony Hawk, the pro skater who seems to have been added to the cast more as a marketing stunt than to offer any real substance.

What is notable about this movie, though, is what it does not include.  The focus here is squarely on these aging alt-rock stars, and rarely do their wives or children get any screen time. What is it like to be the wife of an middle-aged punker? We never really find out.  Lindberg is seen talking with his family on the phone while on tour, and even setting up for a Skype video call.  But when the video feed dies Nevins focuses on Lindberg, and avoids what I assume must be rather intense frustration from his daughters who were so eager to tell their daddy about their day. It’s these moments that could have added so much to the film, and ultimately hinder it from being a truly singular look at its subject. As it stands, though, The Other F Word is still an extremely interesting and compelling film, and even made me think about the vestiges of my youth that I still carry with me and what I might need to cast off as I struggle to be a good father to my own son.

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The Truth Behind Ron Swanson

office-space-parks-recOne of the best shows to come out recently is NBC’s Parks and Recreation.  It tells the story of Leslie Knope, a heartbreakingly dedicated public servant who works in the Parks Department in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana (“First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity”).  Knope’s eternal optimism and extraordinary work ethic often put her at odds with her fellow government workers, most of whom couldn’t care less about their job and simply show up to do the minimum amount of work required and collect a paycheck.  And while I enjoy the show’s take on the faux-documentary style of sitcom (think “The Office” and you’re mostly there), it’s the characters that really have me hooked.  Andy Dwyer, who embodies the phrase “Ignorance is Bliss” with everything he does; April Ludgate, the twentysomething emo girl with a heart of…well, maybe not gold, but possibly silver or at least copper; Tom Haveford, a thoroughly straight male obsessed with fashion and cologne.  But the most standout character of all is Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson.

In fact, there has recently been something strangely familiar about Swanson.  The mustachioed alpha male has always been one of the high points of the show, but recently I have noticed that his character is eerily similar to another office-dwelling character famous for his slacker-like ambitions but doing his job just well enough to not get in trouble.  The resemblance is so striking that I believe it cannot be coincidental, and might be just one of the best gags pulled on audiences in recent memory.  And after much contemplation, research, and Tapatio-flavored Doritos, I believe I have uncovered the truth behind Mr. Swanson:  he is Peter Gibbons.

Peter-Gibbons-MotivationIf that name doesn’t ring a bell, you might not have been in the narrow demographic who spent their college years watching Office Space while guzzling Live Wire Mountain Dew and playing Halo on the original Xbox.  Office Space, directed by Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, bombed at the box office but struck a chord with college students when it was released on video.  Its central character Peter Gibbons hates his job but does in anyway, dutifully putting in his time as a computer programmer while listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statement.  He eventually gets so frustrated with his job that he and some co-workers (whose positions are on the chopping block) devise a plan to subtly rip off the company such that they never have to work again.  The movie comes to a close with Gibbons working his dream job shoveling dirt for a construction company while his friends drive off to their new jobs at another computer company, while their thorougly inept coworker Milton reaps the rewards of Gibbons’ grand scheme, sipping unsalted mai tais at a beachside resort.

But what happened to Peter Gibbons in the subsequent years?  And what does this have to do with Ron Swanson?  In truth, the two are one and the same.  Though more investigation is needed, my basic theory goes like this: Following the events of Office Space, Peter Gibbons quickly becomes dissilusioned with his construction worker job.  He likes the outdoor work and doesn’t mind the early mornings, but eventually the physical nature of the job becomes too much for him to handle.  After a year or so he parts ways with his fellow worker and neighbor Lawrence and realizes he needs to make a serious change in his life.  But since his only friends are his fellow workers (at this point he has long since stopped hanging out with Michael and Samir, despite Michael’s plea at the end of Office Space for the three of them to “keep in touch.”), he realizes that the best option is to essentially start over.  He moves to the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, changes his name to Ron Swanson, and gets a job doing the only thing he really knows how to do well: mid-level office work.  But in Pawnee, with its less-than-stellar business climate, the best option is government work, and sooner or later he lands a position at the Parks Department–an inconsequential segment of the local government where he can quietly exist as a paper-pusher who collects his checks and doesn’t get in the way.  But soon, his value as an employee is realized by his superiors simply because he isn’t a terrible employee.  Just as The Bobs realized that Gibbons had upper management written all over him, Swanson’s supervisors in the Pawnee government soon promote him to the level of manager.  Initially fearful of the new position, Swanson soon realizes that this job is tailor-made for someone like him, and spends the rest of his days quietly serving his time as the manager of the Pawnee Parks Department, working just hard enough to not get fired.

Allow me to explain further using the following bits of evidence.

1. Physical Appearance.

Peter Gibbons Ron Swanson

This is the most obvious, but also the least convincing, bit of evidence.  Still, it bears pointing out that both have strikingly similar features.  Along with changing his name, Gibbons also grew a mustache and started parting his hair on the other side–not much of a disguise, but then, it’s unlikely that anyone in Pawnee would recognize an inconsequential computer programmer from the Big City.  Eye color is a bit of a mystery, but I have a hypothesis that Gibbons actually wore brown contact lenses while working at Initech because he thought it would make him more attractive to the ladies (my guess is that Michael convinced him to do it). Both prefer muted earth tones and have a penchant for office-casual attire, though Gibbons clearly takes that a few steps too far when he shows up for work clad in jeans and sandals. However, this sense of rebellion is still present in Swanson, but it manifests itself in a more inward political fashion and is ultimately what leads Gibbons to adopt such extreme libertarian views as he ages.

2. Work Ethic

Peter Gibbons isn’t a bad employee, and he famously told The Bobs “it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.”  He might show up a little late, but he’s always at work even if he’s barely doing any work at all.  He even informed The Bobs that “I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working….I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.”  Keep in mind that this kind of work ethic might be possible in an office environment (at least for a while) it would not be sustainable in a construction job.  This is why, according to my theory, Peter just doesn’t last very long on the job site with Lawrence.  But this type of do-the-bare-minimum approach is exactly how Ron Swanson goes about his daily duties, working, as Peter once said, “just hard enough to not get fired.”  And now that Gibbons (aka Swanson) is the manager, it would seem that he really has found a comfortable way to live out his days without ever really worrying about getting fired.  He hires April to be his assistant specifically so he has to do the least amount of work possible, and gives her accolades on several occasions merely because she keeps people away from him and out of his office.  Swanson has also been known to spend time at work whittling things out of wood, while his younger counterpart would simply waste time at work by playing Tetris and munching Cheetos.

ron-swanson-fishing3. Friendships

Before coming to live in Pawnee, Peter Gibbons never had much success with any type of relationship.  His closest friends Samir and Michael weren’t really his friends, but coworkers with whom he could comfortably share a table at a restaurant.  His neighbor Lawrence blatantly disrespects him, taking Peter’s beverages and using his coffee table as a footstool for his dirt-encrusted boots, much in the same way a schoolyard bully might pretend to be friends with a smart kid in order to trick him into doing his homework.  The real tragedy of Peter’s life, aside from his general lack of goals or direction, is that he really is alone.  And after moving to Pawnee, this sense of isolation only manifests itself further as Peter-turned-Ron continues to live a life devoid of any real personal connections save the superficial platonic relationships he maintains with his subordinates at the office.  Peter isn’t exactly the life of the party, and a decade later his new self Ron is equally awkward and uncomfortable in large groups of people.  Ron is most at ease when he is fishing, whittling, or in his woodshop crafting boats.  Peter is never really happy, and it’s too bad that even after starting over in Pawnee, Ron is equally unhappy–though he seems to have at least eked out a comfortable existence doing things that don’t actively make him angry.

4. Relationships

If there’s one thing Ron Swanson is not good at, it’s maintaining healthy personal relationships with women.  Married and divorced three times (twice to the same woman), his alpha-male tendencies often get in the way of the daily give-and-take of a relationship.  And even though we are not privy to many details of Peter Gibbons’ love life, we are given some important clues through his relationship with Joanna, the waitress from Tchotchke’s.  The only thing the two of them have in common is a dislike for their jobs and an affinity for kung fu movies–clearly not the foundation of a solid, healthy relationship.  And soon enough Peter’s inner demons rear their ugly heads and he ends up breaking up with Joanna due to an unfounded suspicion that she had a prior relationship with his boss Bill Lumbergh. It’s clear that Gibbons is more comfortable in front of a TV or computer than in the company of women, and this trait is clearly visible with Ron Swanson as well. Though in the years since Gibbons left his construction job he has clearly gravitated towards more outdoor activities like woodworking and fishing (instead of watching Kung Fu), his new Swanson self is just as awkward with women as his younger counterpart.  It should also be noted that Gibbons enjoys fishing, and continues to later in life after changing his name to Swanson.  Gibbons even takes Joanna out for a day on the lake during which they make several good catches, and he then returns to the office and cleans the fish right on his desk–a move that is right up Swanson’s alley.

Of course all this evidence is merely speculation and a somewhat loose connecting-of-the-dots, and there is certainly evidence to suggest that Ron Swanson is not, in fact, a grown-up Peter Gibbons.  For example, Swanson’s alter ego Duke Silver, who entertains elderly women at nightclubs with his jazz band, is clearly out of alignment with anything we learn about Peter Gibbons in Office Space.  Of course one could always suggest that Gibbons learned the saxophone in his years of soul-searching, but it’s unlikely given his lack of motivation and discipline. And the lengthy time span between Office Space and Parks and Recreation could allow for almost any possibilities, which makes this kind of speculation somewhat moot to begin with. However, I believe that with careful viewing enough parallels between the two characters emerge that certainly seem to suggest an intentional connection.

So is Ron Swanson really Peter Gibbons, all grown up but, in many ways, just as immature as ever? To answer that I will simply pose another question: is Charles Mulligan’s the best steakhouse in Indiana?

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2012 Academy Awards Liveblog!

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The Captains

The CaptainsKirk. Picard. Sisko. Janeway. Archer.  Just hearing these names is enough to bring a smile of fond remembrance to Star Trek fans of all ages, and conjures images of heroism in the face of danger, face-offs with alien races, and some egregious fashion faux pas.  From the original Star Trek in the 1960’s to the 2009 movie by J.J. Abrams, the Star Trek franchise has been one of the most enduring and profitable in Hollywood history, and even though interest in the TV shows has waned in recent years (the recent series Enterprise was cancelled after four seasons), the characters and the actors who played them continue to be a force of pop culture with which to be reckoned.  But despite (or perhaps because of) the myriad documentaries, interviews, and convention appearances that the actors have taken part in over the years, it is the individuals who played the storied captains of the various vessels in the show who continue to fascinate millions of fans worldwide.  And it is with this in mind that William Shatner, who wowed audiences and wooed women as Captain Kirk in the original series, set out to create a film that offers a singular insight into the hearts and minds of the actors who have had the distinct privilege to sit in the fabled captain’s chair.  The result is a documentary consisting almost entirely of simple conversations between Shatner and these actors that is equal parts compelling and funny, while also managing to be heartbreaking and even a bit awkward.  Shatner, whose career includes high profile shows like Boston Legal, melodramas like Rescue 911, and a dose of sitcoms and commercials to boot, is clearly in his element as he interviews the actors–often providing a window into his own heart and even upstaging his subjects from time to time.  It all comes together to make The Captains a fantastic and singular work of art that boldly goes where no documentary has gone before, and offers Shatner the unique opportunity to blaze a trail that no one else could hope to trod.

What would you say if you could sit and chat with Patrick Stewart for an afternoon?  Would you ask him what it was like to play Jean-Luc Picard, one of the most recognizable figures in modern science fiction?  How about Kate Mulgrew, the woman whose Kathryn Janeway helmed the starship Voyager on its 70,000 light year journey through the Delta Quadrant? Or Chris Pine, the young actor who filled Shatner’s Starfleet-issue boots as Captain Kirk in the 2009 film?  What questions could possibly be worth their time–surely nothing these actors haven’t been asked hundreds or thousands of time before.

Shatner-Pine

Captain Kirk vs. Captain Kirk in the arm wrestling match of the century!

And so Shatner wisely stays away from all of the topics that would, on the surface, be of most interest to fans.  Instead, his conversations with the “captains” wander back and forth from pop culture to horseback riding to philosophy, religion, and even death and the afterlife.  Heavy subjects to be sure, but counterbalanced by a liberal dose of Shatner’s off-kilter sense of humor and glowing charm.  The most profound and compelling segments come from his discussions with Patrick Stewart, where things start off cordial but end up digging deep, exposing a side of both actors that has rarely been seen in public.  Stewart goes as far to divulge regrets that are as deeply felt today as they were back when he was filming The Next Generation, and Shatner likewise comes to a realization about his role as Kirk that has haunted him for decades.  I doubt the two are best friends, but it’s clear there is an incredible mutual respect and genuine appreciation for the contributions both have made to science fiction and modern culture.

His visits with the rest of the captains may not be at heart-wrenching, but each is compelling in its own right.  It’s hard to not smile as Shatner and Scott Bakula (Captain Jonathan Archer) shoot the breeze over drinks at a diner, talking about the acting profession and their appreciation of each other’s work.  He visits with Mulgrew on stage at a New York theater, where the two discuss the pioneering work she did as the first female captain in Star Trek and how the work put impossible demands on both of them–the effects of which were bitterly felt by their spouses and children.

While these conversations are thoughtful and compelling, Shatner’s afternoon with Avery Brooks (Benjamin Sisko) goes somewhat off the rails.  Brooks improvs jazz licks on a piano while Shatner provides a somewhat bewildered impromptu lyrical accompaniment, and the two go off on metaphysical tangents that make me wonder if part of Brooks is still lost in the wormhole somewhere.  The weakest link by far is Shatner’s all-too-brief conversation with Chris Pine.  Even though the two men give it a good honest try, their segments are brief and lack nearly all the chemistry from the other interviews.  To their credit, neither actually has much in common besides the Kirk character, and Shatner is old enough to be Pine’s grandfather.  But whereas the role of captain serves as the genesis of Shatner’s conversations with all the other actors, it actually seems to hamper his dialogue with Pine.

There are plenty of other Star Trek documentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes out there, but none so personal and intimate as the portraits Shatner constructs in The Captains.  It is an impressive labor of love that could have been made by only one man, and as a lifelong Star Trek fan I am grateful for the work Shatner has done to assemble this collection of interviews–if nothing else than for sheer posterity.  I would imagine this film would come across as boring or obscure to non-Trek fans, but if you wouldn’t feel at home in a Star Trek convention rubbing elbows with Klingons, Cardassians, and Orion Slave Girls, this is definitely not your kind of movie.  However, for those of us who have spent years venturing into the final frontier with the Star Trek captains, this film is a jewel and not to be missed.

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Goldeneye

GoldeneyeFew movie franchises are as enduring and influential as the James Bond films.  From the early days of Dr. No and From Russia with Love to the modern incarnations including Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, James Bond has been a fixture in worldwide cinema for almost 50 years.  But in 1995, things were looking rather uncertain for the storied franchise.  The previous film, License to Kill, bombed at the box office and audiences and critics were leery of Timothy Dalton’s uncharismatic portrayal of the iconic secret agent.  Meanwhile MGM studios, who owned the rights to the films, was in the middle of financial turmoil and legal disputes.  Soon Dalton, who was originally cast to play Bond once again, resigned and was replaced by Pierce Brosnan–a British actor who was virtually unknown to American audiences.  The original story for the film was scrapped and instead an original plot was written–the first time a Bond movie had been filmed which was not based on one of Ian Fleming’s novels.  The resulting film was widely seen as a successful reboot of the franchise in decline, and Brosnan went on to star in three subsequent Bond films as the titular character.

I must admit my knowledge of James Bond movies is somewhat limited, having seen all the recent incarnations since Goldeneye, but only brief snippets of the classic Sean Connery and Roger Moore films.  Even so, I know a good action movie when I see one, and on all accounts Goldeneye does not disappoint.  From the opening 750-foot bungee jump to the climactic battle on the largest radio telescope in the world, the film is brimming with high-intensity setpieces and explosive conflicts.  The storyline is as convoluted as ever–something about a magical satellite that fries computers that has been hijacked by Russians, then re-hijacked by a rogue MI6 agent who wants to take down the city of London for some reason.  Halfway through the film you will want to just stop thinking entirely and enjoy the ride, which is probably the best way to enjoy most films like this.  There’s also a checklist of Bond prerequisites like a gadget exposition scene with Q, heady personality conflicts between Bond and his boss M (played for the first time by a woman, the classy British dame Judy Dench), car chases, and double-crossing women.  But director Martin Campbell (who would later helm Casino Royale with Daniel Craig) goes entirely for broke with a few over-the-top scenes like a blistering tank chase through St. Petersburg and a stunt near the beginning involving a motorcycle and a runaway Cessena airplane that is so ridiculous, yet strangely compelling, that you can’t help but enjoy it.

Goldeneye: Pierce Brosnan

"Just another day at the office...here in my tank."

Much of the success of Goldeneye rests on the shoulders of Brosnan, who handles his leading man duties with aplomb and is nearly dripping with panache in the classic Bond tuxedo.  He fills the shoes left by his predecessors quite well, and brings his own winking charm and charisma to the role as well.  But the character of James Bond wears somewhat thin by the end of the film, and comes across as more of a cartoon than a character with whom we can relate.  He flies planes, drives tanks, and handles all manner of weaponry so smoothly it’s almost annoying, as if this super-spy can do absolutely no wrong.  Between that and his ability to woo any woman he chooses, Goldeneye is a prime example of escapist male fantasy.  But faulting a James Bond film for being over-the-top is like faulting a Toyota Prius for being too fuel-efficient.

Aside from Brosnan, the supporting cast does an admirable job of portraying their one-dimensional characters.  Sean Bean plays the same character as in most of his movies: The Bad Guy Who Sneers. In this case it’s the sinister Alec Trevelyan, a former MI6 agent gone sour with some post-teenage angst issues that call for some serious counseling.  Famke Janssen and Izabella Scorupco have the thankless task of portraying this film’s female window dressing, and Robbie Coltrane steals every scene he’s in as the mafia boss Valentin Zukovsky.  And while the storyline is convoluted and, at times, undecipherable, it walks a fine line between realistic and outlandish–no heroes dangling over pits of alligators, or megalomaniacal monologuing from the villain, but plenty of unbelievable scenarios peppered by self-deprecating winks that ensure the film resides firmly within the James Bond universe.

Goldeneye essentially accomplished what it set out to do: reinvent the Bond franchise for a new generation, with a slick new star, witty script, and dazzling effects (the St. Petersburg chase is all the more remarkable given that this was filmed before the advent of computer graphics. Everything in the film really is blown up or destroyed, even if it’s just a model).  It became the highest-grossing Bond film up to that point, and set the tone for the franchise for the next decade.  And after seeing Daniel Craig’s moody, boorish portrayal of the spy with a license to kill, watching Goldeneye makes me hope Mr. Craig is out there somewhere taking notes.

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