I haven’t been able to shake how unfunny this season’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Jon Hamm was. In it, Hamm played himself as he was researching a role based on Larry David. As the episode progressed, Hamm spent more time with Larry and started mimicking his phrases and mannerisms. It wasn’t funny. I’ve wanted to write about this episode without making a negative, snarky, mean, or even critical post. So here it goes.
I don’t think the episode fell flat solely because of Hamm, who might not be funny but certainly has the potential to be an interesting character actor with the right roles and directors. He was a real treat nearly playing two characters in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, which is saying a lot considering the cast also included such greats as Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, and Cynthia Erivo. I think the episode failed because it pointed out that impersonation in itself is not funny. Impersonation is funny when it reveals something about the person being impersonated as well as the person performing the impersonation.
There was a brilliant and hilarious episode of the short-lived Showtime series Dice where Adrien Brody played a version of himself researching Andrew Dice Clay for a role in a play. Dice, a well-meaning but excessively confident jerk on the show, is flattered and unsurprised when Brody tells him that he “defines masculinity”. Brody, who is written and plays himself as first nervous and earnest, gradually becomes Dice in voice, manner, and attitude to the point that he out-dices Dices at an open mic. The tables turn so that the once almighty Dice is threatened by the once insecure Brody. The episode is over the top and ridiculous and reveals more about these men’s screen personas than what David and Hamm did in this season’s Curb episode. Impersonation for impersonation’s sake is not funny. It has be revelatory to be humorous. Anyway, watch Dice. It’s underrated.
I was late to watching the second and likely final season of Jon Glaser’s Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter, which aired on Adult Swim between 2015 and 2017. Like all Adult Swim products, Glaser’s show is an outrageous and absurdist postmodern pastiche of small town soap operas, horror films, sitcoms, and even romance novels. The show isn’t without heart though, making it more light-hearted than many of the channel’s more ironic or nihilistic works (Too Many Cooks, anyone?).
In the first season, Glaser played the title character, an all-neon clad werewolf slayer with a Creole accent summoned to a small Vermont town to fight a murderous werewolf. The debut season had a Twin Peaks quality where many of the town’s residents received ample screentime for their various B-plots. The show’s second season is much tighter as Joe’s retirement is interrupted when he’s framed for the murder of his rival Plaid Jeff, played with uptight control by Godfrey. The show is absurd (an Elon Musk-type billionaire is described as just that) and Neon Joe is not without virtue as he fights to prove his innocence and save humanity. Like Kenny Powers, Andrew Dice Clay, and other lovable TV oafs, Neon Joe has a heart of gold buried beneath his loud bravado.
I was late to see Bryan Singer’s Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which is nothing short of magical. While the film is full of historical inaccuracies particularly in how many of its characters’ relationships were established and Queen guitarist Brian May is rather charitably presented as kind and noble (May was unsurprisingly involved in the film’s production), it is nonetheless a sweet and inspiring look at the story behind Queen. There are rousing concert sequences as well as many quiet scenes depicting lead singer Freddie Mercury’s profound loneliness. Everything is bolstered by a fine cast that includes Rami Malek as Mercury, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, and Mike Myers.
Mark Wahlberg certainly continues to show love for his hometown of Boston in his filmography. From The Departed through Patriot’s Day to the recent Spenser Confidential (now streaming on Netflix), Wahlberg frequently chooses projects set in his hometown. In Spenser Confidential, Wahlberg plays the title character, a former Boston Police officer about to end a five year prison stretch for assaulting his police captain over burying evidence related to a young woman’s murder. Upon release from prison, the police captain is murdered and a young, honest cop is killed and framed for the murder. Unwilling to let an injustice go, Spenser investigates the frame-up himself, crossing paths with dirty cops, Dominican cartel members, and many Boston accents of varying degrees of credibility.
Spenser Confidential is a fairly standard buddy action-comedy, but it is elevated by strong writing and an even stronger cast. Sean O’ Keefe and Brian Helgeland adapted the screenplay from a novel by Ace Atkins (based on the late Robert B. Parker’s characters), and Helgeland, a veteran of the noir genre, leaves his penchant for tough-guy dialogue all over the screenplay. Wahlberg is likable as usual and he’s assisted by a trio of comically deft performers in Winston Duke as Spenser’s roommate and defacto investigative partner, Alan Arkin as their mentor, and Iliza Shesinger as Spenser’s assertive Southie girlfriend. Peter Berg, the director and frequent Wahlberg collaborator, seems to let the camera roll a little longer in some scenes just to catch the brilliant comedic timing of these three. Bokeem Woodbine, intelligent and enticing as always, plays the heavy. From the accents to Bruins references to the lobstah, Boston is firmly a character as well.
While socially isolating this weekend, I watched Amazon’s new original series Zero Zero Zero. To put it more accurately, I suffered through the series, if watching a streaming show from the comfort of an indoor mattress while eating Doritos can be called suffering (it can’t). Joking aside, the series is relentlessly, punishingly bleak. On the show, it’s not enough for a young Mexican soldier to be killed by his fellow soldiers for not being dirty, he also has to have a pretty, pregnant wife to leave behind as a widow. A boyish central protagonist has to have a degenerative disease in addition to having to fend off Islamic terrorists and Italian mobsters (you get the idea of this program’s broad implausibilities). I almost stopped watching the eight-part series after a group of Italian mafiaso slaughter a (computer generated) pig and drink its blood.
So why did I stick with such a gruesome and unpleasant program? Well, there is some major talent in this work both behind and in front of the camera. One of the show’s creators as well as the director of two of its episodes is Stefano Sollima, who directed the supremely underrated cartel war sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. The international cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Andrea Riseborough, and Dane DeHaan, three performers who often choose interesting projects. One of the most haunting elements of the series is the evocative, ominous score by the band Mogwai.
A truly transnational story and production, the series follows three globe-spanning groups. There a mafia don in Italy who has gone into hiding and wants to earn back the trust of his associates by purchasing a large shipment of cocaine from a Mexican drug cartel. In Mexico, the cartel has a mole in an anti-cartel Mexican army who just happens to be squad sergeant. The cocaine shipment is brokered by a News Orleans businessman, played by Byrne, who rationalizes working in the drug trade so his business can “keep the world economy afloat” and provide for his two adult children, played by Riseborough and DeHaan. Like the disabled sons of other TV anti-heroes on The Shield and Breaking Bad, DeHaan’s character has the aforementioned Huntington’s Disease in order to bolster viewer sympathy for this family of American criminals.
Is the show worth watching? I think so, if you’re in the mood for a serious, gritty, unpleasant epic. Like its unexplained, evocative title, Zero Zero Zero shares common ground with the late Roberto Bolano’s ominous transnational epic novel 2666. Both works include globe-spanning and interlocking stories, savage violence, and a quiet, cynical worldview. Byrne and Riseborough are serious and understated as always. Like Mr. Robot, the series is interested in what it means for two adults to be grown siblings, and Riseborough and DeHaan have some touching scenes together. There’s no shortage of shows about the cartel war these days, this brutal series is one of the stronger ones.
In an attempt to avoid writing a completely negative review (which is against the principles of this blog) of Dee Rees’s The Last Thing He Wanted, I’ll focus on the new film’s strong suits. There is a good cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, our national treasure Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez, and Toby Jones. Though to be honest, none of them are near the peak of their strengths here, particularly Hathaway and the usually consistent Dafoe.
The film’s big accomplishment is taking the normally masculine-associated subgenres of noir and the paranoid conspiracy thriller and supplying them with a female protagonist. So Hathaway plays a reporter during the mid-point of the Reagan presidency who wants to avoid covering Reagan’s re-election campaign and focus on work she and her colleague, played by Perez, covered in El Salvador. When her absentee father played by Dafoe shows up unable to complete an arms deal where he’s the middle man, Hathaway’s character Elena impulsively decides to take his place and complete the arms transaction for him. This move is more plausible than it sounds because like the male protagonists of films such as The Parallax View and The Passenger, Elena is anti-social and her father’s arms deal intersects with the shady dealings between Latin America and the U.S. that she wants to cover. The messy, complicated female protagonist as well a man fatale played by Affleck surely have much to do with the film being adapted from the work of a female author, Joan Didion, as well as being made by a female director.
With a good cast, a complicated protagonist, and some interesting genre splicing and reversals, why does The Last Thing He Wanted seem to fall apart? The easy answer is that the film is predictable. You’ll guess what choices the characters will make long before they make them. The stronger answer is that the film lacks narrative consistency. The start of the film, showing Hathaway and Perez reporting in El Salvador, is basically a long flashback that almost feels like a trailer for a separate movie. Rees also largely avoids a film score until the last twenty minutes when heavy noir music abruptly begins to appear. Elena, the doomed hero, gets a thorough backstory, but none of the other characters do, leaving them simply good or evil. Overall, the film is a valiant effort. Maybe Didion was just difficult to film.
The first season of Narcos: Mexico on Netflix was an underrated masterwork. It told the sad, true story of Kiki Camarena, a Mexican-born American D.E.A. agent who was abducted, tortured, and killed in 1985. The first three seasons of the original series Narcos had repeatedly alluded to the murder of Camarena and how horrific it was (Camarena’s torturer’s put power drill holes into his body until one to his head killed him). While Narcos attempted a The Wire-esque portrait of the War on Drugs in Colombia, complete with backstories and B-plots for characters ranging from Colombian presidents to cartel sicarios, the first season of Narcos: Mexico told a tight, sad story about Camarena’s end and how it intersected with the rise of drug kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (one of the suspects most likely responsible for Camarena’s murder).
With so many crime shows and films portraying Mexicans as cartel members and criminals, Narcos: Mexico was unique for telling the true story of a Mexican-American who fought and died serving the D.E.A. The writers didn’t make Camarena into a saintly martyr either. He is portrayed as being selfish, hot-headed, and more concerned with his job than getting along with his wife and co-workers. There is a haunting sequence in the first season where Camarena, played by Michael Pena, discovers an illegal marijuana field in Mexico. Surrounded by migrant workers unaware of his status as a D.E.A. agent, Camarena is presented as being truly alone in a crowd, magnifying his outsider status at work and home.
Pena was very good in the first season as was Diego Luna as Gallardo, and Luna along with the American actor Scoot McNairy is one of the main reasons to watch the new season of Narcos: Mexico for the writers have opted for the narrative sprawl of the original Narcos and so Narcos: Mexico becomes a little weaker in its second season. A subplot involving two competing female traffickers feels shoehorned in to make up for the show’s male-dominated story. Another storyline following a more honorable, old-school trafficker than Felix provides a fitting contrast to Felix’s ruthless ways, but in many ways still feels like it could have been its own show. With so many subplots, I wasn’t surprised to learn that McNairy’s character, D.E.A. agent Walt Breslin, was a composite character made up of multiple “real life” figures.
For most of the past decade, McNairy has almost only featured in interesting and adult projects (True Detective, Halt and Catch Fire, Godless, Argo, Killing Them Softly, The Rover, and the list goes on), and he is believable as the sad, reckless, everyman Walt. The major acting standout is Luna, who somehow is able to act with his entire being. Felix is not a static character. He starts off as a family man and a Mexican cop only to slowly lose his soul and become a tightly coiled cartel snake willing to murder women and children to send a message to his own employees. Luna can even project carrying a heavy mental weight with his back to the camera. He’s that good.
So there’s yet another American television program portraying Mexicans largely as cartel criminals and corrupt politicians, but the acting is good. Does that make it worth watching? I guess, if it can help educate cocaine users on how their purchases support crime and violence. As Brad Pitt’s character says in The Counselor, “think about that the next time you do a line.”
Editor’s Notes: The original three season Narcos played fast and loose with the facts. After watching the show, the first two seasons of which followed the D.E.A.’s hunt for Pablo Escobar, I read Mark Bowden’s landmark Killing Pablo to see where the show had held true to the facts and where they had printed the legend. I’d be curious to do something similar with Narcos: Mexico. I’ve read that Elaine Shannon’s Desperados covered the Camarena story shortly after his assassination occurred.
My sister and her boyfriend were kind and generous as usual and took me to The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles over the weekend. If you’re in Los Angeles and love books then this large, organized new and used bookstore is for you.
One of my discoveries at TLB was William Claxton’s Steve McQueen Photographs, published by Taschen in 2004. The late Claxton was born and raised in Southern California, and he was a famous photographer of jazz musicians, movie stars, and fashion models. Claxton and the mega movie star Steven McQueen became friends in the 1960s, and the book’s collection of photographs charts McQueen’s stardom right before and after John Sturges’s The Great Escape immortalized McQueen on celluloid.
Having read Marc Eliot’s very thorough biography on McQueen as well as the supremely touching memoir by Neil McQueen-Toffel (McQueen’s first wife), I was struck by Claxton’s frankness in his linear notes for the photos in this book. Rather than submit to blind worship of McQueen, Claxton mentions McQueen’s abusive treatment of studio-lent automobiles, general distrust of people, and rumored cocaine use (confirmed in Toffel’s book). I was also surprised to learn through the book that McQueen’s first child Terry had passed away. I was less surprised to see some of Claxton’s more tender photos of tough guy persona McQueen cuddling his family cat.
As film critic David Thomson has noted, McQueen is now regarded as somewhat of a hero. Though he passed away in 1980, the influence of The King of Cool continues to live on.