Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon visit Italy in ‘The Trip to Italy’

The Trip to ItalyIn 2010 comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon starred in a successful series, The Trip that had the two men travel through England’s Lake District, sampling the local cuisine and indulging in some comedic mugging and celebrity impression contests. The show was edited into a road movie and became a mini-phenom, particularly because of the awesome Michael Caine-off the comics engaged in, hoping to prove who can do the best Michael Caine impersonation. This year, Coogan and Brydon set off to Italy for a similar kind of trip. And like with their first jaunt, personal travails and career concerns add some poignancy to the proceedings.

In the last Trip, Coogan was worried about his career. In the ensuing five years, he’s had a career uptick with a successful string of films and an Oscar nomination for Philomeena. Despite his career success, he’s not completely satisfied with life. He’s nursing a distant, if functional relationship, with his son Joe. Brydon’s seemingly idyllic family life (a wife and a young daughter) doesn’t alleviate his professional concerns: during the film, he’s hoping to land a part in a loud, big-budget American crime drama. In fact, midlife concerns seem to play a major role in the film. Though both men are still attractive, they know that they no longer will turn heads – at one point Coogan points out that young women look at men like them like “benevolent uncles.” For Coogan, this revelation doesn’t seem to be a huge deal, but for Brydon, it’s painful, and he throws himself at a comely British expat who works as a sailor in a gorgeous Italian seaside village. He juggles his attraction with the beauty with late night phone calls with his harried wife and crying baby.

Putting aside these scripted dramas, The Trip to Italy works best when we just get to watch Coogan and Brydon riff with each other. Unfortunately, we get too much of the aforementioned conflict material and when we get to scenes of the two guys just shooting the shit, often they overindulge in their bottomless bag of impressions. Though they are talented (Brydon edges Coogan slightly), it becomes tiring to see Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Marlon Brando impressions forced on us over and over again. At certain points in the film, the impressions cease to be humorous and start to take on a sad tone – this is especially true in Brydon’s case, who goes through a gallery of celebrity impressions in front of a mirror, while simultaneously berating his chances of scoring his dream role. When unencumbered by the desire to mug, Coogan and Brydon share a funny, familiar, if caustic chemistry. When they are teasing each other, or when they discuss poetry (Shelley comes up repeatedly throughout the film), then the film is a smart and intelligent joy to watch. And though the two guys are pop culture icons (at least in their native UK), they are also incredibly smart and literate, alluding to various great poets, but also taking time to assess the pop poetry of Alanis Morrissette.

And though the second film disappoints, the scenery is eye-melting gorgeous. Pompeii, Rome, and the Amalfi coast are among the picturesque scenery that Coogan and Brydon see while driving around. The Pompeii sequence is sad though – and Brydon’s jokes feel out of place in such a sad and ghoulish tourist attraction. But at its best, The Trip to Italy is a reliable bit of light, escapist entertainment.

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No, Kevin Sorbo, we’re not mad because we hate god…

Former Hercules star Kevin Sorbo went on the radio to give his bizarre theory on why atheists are so angry. According to Sorbo, who is known throughout the land as a leading theologian on such issues, atheists are  angry because:

“these guys must believe in something, otherwise they wouldn’t get so angry about it and they don’t like the fact that there is a higher power out there that is judging how they live their life.”

Huh. What Sorbo and his like doesn’t seem to understand is that we don’t care if you believe in god. We don’t care if you believe in fairies, unicorns, the Loch Ness monster, any of that – we think it’s great that faith gives people succor and comfort in times of great need and stress. But what we don’t like is when people use religion to shape legislation – it’s that simple. I couldn’t care less if my neighbor is a fundamentalist Christian, but I do care that women throughout the country are free from the government legislating their reproductive organs.

But I feel bad hitting Sorbo because it’s an easy target. On the Ferguson crisis, he sagely pointed out, “It is an excuse to be the losers these animals truly are. It is a tipping point to frustration built up over years of not trying, but blaming everyone else, The Man, for their failures. It’s always someone else’s fault when you give up. Hopefully this is a reminder to the African Americans ( I always thought we just Americans. Oh, well.) that their President the voted in has only made things worse for them, not better.” Because it was President Obama’s fault that Michael Brown was shot. Thanks, Obama…

Look, I’m sure Sorbo’s a decent guy – he’s just doing press to sell his junky movie (Sorbo’s graduated from basic cable stardom to Christian film superstardom – watch out Kirk Cameron!), and for that I feel bad for him. It must be excruciating to have to go on crappy radio shows and push a product that will probably end up in a bargain bin in some Wal-Mart somewhere. In the movie he was pushing, he plays an atheist, and he claims he got inspiration for the role by all the foaming-at-the-mouth atheists he sees on TV – because religious folks never get on TV to make fools of themselves -  if I have to sit through one more news segment where an atheist loses his shit while trying to legislate discrimination, reproduction, or women’s health – oh, wait, we don’t do that.

When we get on TV and make a scene we’re doing so because some asshat hiding behind god is saying that women who have abortions or women who marry other women are going to hell. People use religion as an invisibility cloak, hoping that they can get away with some appalling nonsense like Islamophobia, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia – and because TV is an image-driven medium that thrives on easy soundbites and exploitable imagery, the religious folks on TV are usually loud-mouthed buffoons.

Sorbo complained that religious freedom is being chipped away – what he’s complaining about is the beginning of the end of Christian privilege. Because let’s be clear – when folks moan about religious freedoms being taken away, they’re pissed because they can’t shit on gay people or Muslims and have the Federal Government pay for it. Religious freedom is the freedom to practice your religion unless certain practices break the law – so sorry, if your cult requires that you marry little girls then you’ll have to give that up. If your religious texts declare that gay marriage is an abomination, then don’t attend a gay wedding, but if you’re a business owner, you still have to serve gay customers. This renewed call for religious freedom isn’t for religious freedom for all – it’s for religious freedom for a sect of conservative Christianity. Because I seem to recall that when there was talk of erecting a Muslim community center close to Ground Zero in New York, religious freedom wasn’t a huge concern for these guys.

It’s funny but reading about Kevin Sorbo made me laugh a little because frankly, I never thought I’d ever even think about the guy. He’s a crafty one because he knows that he’ll never get any traction with his acting career – he’s strictly celebreality at this point, and should see about getting on Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Big Brother – so he knows that talking nonsense about the president will definitely give him some publicity (think about it – before he went on Piers Morgan and unloaded a steaming pile of stupid, no one was thinking about Kirk Cameron). So, in the spirit of charity and goodwill, I’m doing my part to help the guy out – I’ll write about him so that my tens of readers will read about him, and maybe they’ll pick up a DVD of his movie, and he’ll get some free publicity out of this. Then I know I’ve done some good – after all, charity is a virtue that transcends religion.

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Why the Emmys and Sofia Vergara got it wrong last night

I like Sofia Vergara – in fact, I’m a huge fan of her’s, and think she’s a fantastic comedienne. Unfortunately, last night at the Emmys, she allowed herself to be used in yet another of the seemingly unending list of jokes that poke fun at her physical attributes. While Emmy chairman Bruce Rosenblum droned on about the Emmys, Vergara stood on a rotating platform – kinda like a mannequin. Well, maybe exactly like a mannequin. Because it’s Sofia Vergara, she did what she could with the bit with some nifty and subtle facial expressions to inject some irony into the silly bit, but overall, it was tone deaf, regressive, silly and dull.

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Folks have already taken to social media to voice their displeasure at the gratuitous display, and Vergara herself even defended the skit, scolding the scolds by saying we’re humorless and we just don’t get that one can be hot and funny and make fun of oneself all at the same time. I respectfully disagree. Like I said, Sofia Vergara is probably the funniest woman working on TV today – and to a certain extent, a lot of her comedy comes from her accent and her looks. But in the context of her show Modern Family, her comedic persona is given shading and depth (no, really, I promise). On Modern Family, Vergara’s Gloria is a sarcastic, articulate, and witty wonder, whose perfect comic timing works parallel with the sight gags she’s often subjected to; on the Emmy stage last night, all of that context is scrubbed away, and all we got was Vergara, looking hot, in a tight dress, being displayed for effect. And the lowest hanging fruit of this whole thing is that if you have Sofia Vergara, you don’t need to solely zero in on her looks, at the expense of her other talents; had this been a male comic, none of this nonsense would happen, no matter how good looking he is (though the rub is male comics are allowed more leeway when it comes to looks than their female colleagues). If given fun and smart material, Vergara could’ve done something much more substantial or profound and funny than just simply stand on a pedestal and rotate.

Some argue that the joke was ironic and satire. Yeah, well, then the joke didn’t land because you don’t get to be sexist and then say, “but wait a minute – we were being ironic” – sorry, hipsters try that line every day and it doesn’t work. Others will say that yet again, feminists are poo pooing on someone’s parade, bringing down our hammer of humorlessness. But I never bought into the idea that feminists aren’t funny – after all, Kathy Griffin, Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin, and Kathy Najimy are all hilarious funny feminists who don’t deny their physical beauty nor their comedic talents – they work hand-in-hand. And that’s the case for most of Vegara’s work, too – she’s a combo of both Ricky and Lucy. But last night was a misstep in an otherwise hilarious career.

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Carol Leifer gives career advice with ‘How to Succeed in Business without Really Crying’

Imagine if What Color Is Your Parachute? or Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow was written by a comedian, and you’ll get a decent idea of what Carol Leifer’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, a strange combo of career guide/humor essay memoir. Leifer – a popular and successful comic, stand-up, and comedy writer – gives her readers tips on how to move forward in their careers by using her own story as a source of inspiration. Though Leifer is a very funny lady, the book is fitfully successful.

As a career guide, Leifer’s book rarely moves beyond common sense (dress for success, don’t be late, do research before showing up, that sort of thing, don’t be jerk to the receptionist). She doesn’t have much to offer that most wouldn’t learn from a pamphlet or poster at a high school career guidance counselor’s office. The book’s gimmick – that the tips are illustrated by anecdotes from Liefer’s career and life – isn’t enough to make the book an interesting take on the career guide. If Leifer had worked with a career counselor and collaborated on the project, maybe How to Succeed… might’ve worked.

And though the book doesn’t succeed as a substantive career guide, it does work as a humor essay collection. When she focuses on tales of her work and adventures she had plugging away, building her career as a stand-up comic, the book is pretty fantastic. Also good are the parts of the book which deal with her supportive family and great network of friends, which include Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Riser (and there are some great pictures of Seinfeld and Riser in the book with fun 70s hair).  When Leifer moves away from career search cliches, How to Succeed is a fun, diverting read.

Click here to buy Carol Leifer’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Crying on amazon.com.

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Bob Saget shares pain, triumph, and a lot of dirty jokes in ‘Dirty Daddy’

There are two Bob Sagets: the family-friendly TV personality from such classic anodyne shows like Full House and America’s Funniest Videos and the raunchy, foul-mouthed comic who revels in dick and ball jokes. In Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian, readers definitely get the latter, as the Saget writes about his life and career, but lobs a lot of scatological and sexual asides. While the stories are for the most part heartfelt and poignant – his family suffered a lot of loss, including the deaths of two of his sisters – he sometimes undermines his own work by his stylistic choice of letting his stories and anecdotes trail off on raunchy and off-color tangents. While spoken, these quick quips would probably work and be funny, on paper, it looks confusing and takes away from the power of his writing.

Most casual fans – or people who grew up in the 80s will hope to read some dishy dirt about the behind the scenes antics that went on during Full House‘s run. Those readers will be disappointed because Saget is refreshingly kind and complimentary toward his fictional family. He remains tight with John Stamos, Dave Coulier, Candace Cameron, Jodie Sweetin, and the Olson twins. He’s famously protective of his onscreen daughters, refusing to indulge in any jokes about them, nor allowing for others to tease them in his presence. He writes about how talented the kids are and he remains tight-lipped about the tabloid-heavy celebrity of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson. And though he recognizes that Full House is a syrupy show, he remains surprisingly staunch in his defense of its morals, insisting that family programming like Full House has a place on TV – a strange thing for a comic like Saget to write, especially in light of his fondness for rude language.

When I finished reading Dirty Daddy I thought back and asked myself “Did I laugh?” The truth: not really. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book – it is, and actually some parts of the book achieve a level of greatness that shows a great promise in Saget as an author. When he writes about his comic heroes – Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Newhart – or when he references his comic colleagues and pals like Jeffrey Ross, Louis C.K., or Norm MacDonald, readers get the sense that Saget really loves the art of stand-up comedy. He has a cheeky reverence for the craft and an admirable work ethic.

Dirty Daddy is a solid work that doesn’t achieve its full promise because Saget’s particular comic style doesn’t translate all that successfully on paper. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t pursue writing, but he still needs to develop his author muscle and find his writer voice (as opposed to simply treat his book like a transcript of his stand-up work). Once he figures out how to adapt his estimable comic voice for print, his books will be much stronger.

Click here to buy Bob Saget’s Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian on amazon.com.

 

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Uli Edel’s adaption of ‘The Mists of Avalon’ starts off strongly but loses steam…

The Mists of Avalon [VHS]The legend of King Arthur has been retold many times in print and on film. The consistent theme in the various adaptations has been the male point of view. In Uli Edel’s adaptation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s popular novel The Mists of Avalon is different because the story of the Arthurian legend is told through the perspective of the women in the story, namely Morgaine (a so-so Julianna Margulies), King Arthur’s powerful sorceress sister.

Produced by TNT in 2001, the miniseries shows the story of the battle in England – the Saxons are threatening to conquer Britain. In the sprawling three hours, the script – penned by Gavin Scott – throws a lot at the audience: murder, violence, incest, usurpation, Pagan rituals, religious warfare. It’s dizzying and at times, a bit overwhelming to try and take it all in.

As a protagonist, Morgain’s an interesting choice. A conflicted and complex woman, she come of age, being raised in the traditions of the Goddess. She’s a seer with powers to see into the future. Taken away from her mother at an early age, she’s groomed to be a priestess by Vivian, Lady of the Lake (a commanding Angelica Huston),  the high priestess who is working to protect Avalon from the impending invasion of the Saxons.

Narrated by Morgain, the story takes some tragic turns. The story is plodding and episodic, each sequence working as a separate mini-story (it’s clear when watching the film in its entirety that it’s meant to be viewed in 40-minute increments). Some of the sequences work better than others, and the first half of the film is much more compelling than the second half, which includes elements of soap opera. While watching Morgain’s development and her evolution from wide-eyed child to a wise if calculating woman, we see Britain go through some important changes. Along with Vivian, she also has to contend with her aunt, Morgause (Joan Allen, who approaches scene-chewing camp), a frustrated and duplicitous woman whose machinations has tragic repercussions later on in the film.

For a television miniseries, the production values are impressive. The budgets for TNT made-for-TV movies must’ve been very generous because the scenery is often breathtaking. The scenes on the lake when Morgain is riding on a boat toward Avalon are gorgeous with swirling fog that adds atmosphere. Unfortunately, Edel doesn’t trust in subtly and the addition of the New Agey film score (which includes chanting by Celtic musician Loreena McKennitt) that pushes the film into Enya music video territory.

There are lots of battle scenes, and the violence isn’t for the squeamish – in one scene when Vivian and Morgain return to Camelot, the place is a post-apocalyptic mess with corpses strewn about and severed heads gruesomely impaled on spikes. The fight sequences are expertly filmed and superbly choreographed.

At a little over three hours, The Mists of Avalon drags towards the end. Because every character is full of contradictory impulses and allegiances, it’s difficult to root for anyone – even Morgain, the most sympathetic of the characters, has dark shadings and specious impulses. Still if one chops up the film in installments, then it’s a solid bit of entertainment.

Click here to buy The Mists of Avalon on DVD on amazon.com.

 

 

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A recipe for (and a story about) a poached salmon dinner

I was at the supermarket ready to buy some salmon fillets when I saw the salmon steaks – these huge, meaty, Flinstones-like mofo’s that weren’t too much more expensive. I bought two steaks and the fish monger warned me that I would have to remove the bones. “Be careful,” he advised, “they’re shaped like pins.”

I bought the steaks, and I also got some spinach and some potatoes. I was going to make pan fries, sauteed spinach and poached salmon. All was well until I got the salmon home and saw how difficult it will be to get the bones out. I looked online and saw that most people used tweezers – something I didn’t want to do because we use tweezers in the house for our bathroom-related grooming needs, and the last thing I wanted to do was overlap our bathroom utensils with our kitchen utensils. So I looked around my kitchen and searched for the right tools – I grabbed a pair of tongs, scissors, and pair of herb scissors (which are basically scissors with five blades to save time on chopping herbs).

I took to the salmon and realized this would be a problem. The herb scissors were too big and were hacking away at the meat, making salmon tartar. The regular scissors were simply snipping the ends of the pins, but leaving the bulk of the bone embedded in the meat. And the tongs were to big and get at the end of a pin – you really need tiny instruments for surgery this precise. I was still reticent to use tweezers, so I actually used my teeth and pulled pins out with my mouth like a stupid dog. After a few bones were pulled out, I stopped, realizing that if someone saw me gnawing at a raw salmon steak, it would look nuts, if taken out of context.

So, I broke down and got our tweezers – which worked like a charm. Now, my thing will be how to get the tweezers clean again – I’m thinking of boiling them in a pot of hydrogen peroxide.

So, while watching Mrs. Brown’s Boys in the background (an Irish sitcom with a dude playing a feisty old lady – it’s like the Irish Tyler Perry), I made dinner. I’m still learning to cook and not leave the kitchen looking like a disaster, but haven’t learned it yet, so even though I started with a clean kitchen, my sink is crammed with dishes. I’m a great cook, but I need to a maid to clean up after me.

Anyways, so I made poached salmon steaks with sauteed spinach and oven fries. These are the ingredients.

Salmon:
2 salmon steaks, with the bones pulled out – use tweezers, not your teeth
1/2 cup of dry white wine – I buy the cheap plonk that comes in tiny, airplane bottles.
1/2 cup of water
1/2 cup of vegetarian broth
1 rib of celery, chopped in big pieces
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1/4 onion cut in wedges
4 peppercorns
1 sprig of fresh dill

Spinach:
1/2 bag of spinach
1/2 can of Cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup of vegetarian broth
1 clove of garlic, minced finely
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
pepper

Potatoes:
4 small potatoes, cut into wedges
1 tbl of Coleman’s dried mustard
1 tsp of dried dill
1 tbl of olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, mix the potato wedges, mustard, dill, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and stab some holes into the bowl. Microwave on high for about 3 minutes to parboil the potatoes.

When the potatoes finish cooking in the microwave, remove CAREFULLY – the bowl gets extra hot and when you remove the plastic wrap, make sure that when you unwrap the bowl, keep your face away from the bowl because the heat is ridiculously hot.

Take a cookie sheet and grease it lightly and pour the potatoes onto the pan and spread them until they make a single layer and throw into the oven and bake for about 10 minutes until they form a crispy brown crust – I’d check them after about 8 minutes.

While your potatoes are cooking, work on the fish. Pour the wine, broth, and water into a large pan. Add the vegetables into the liquid and throw in the peppercorns and the dill sprig and let it come to a boil. Lower the heat until it simmers and carefully put in the salmon steaks. let them simmer until they are cooked – about 10 minutes. Grind the pepper and keep mixing.

When your fish is done, remove it from the liquid and cover and let it sit for a few minutes and serve it with the potatoes and the spinach. For a sauce for the fish, I mixed horseradish mustard with sour cream.

While your fish is cooking, heat oil in a pan over a medium heat, and add the garlic and let it cook for about a minute until it gets fragrant. Add the red pepper flakes and stir constantly to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn. Add the beans and broth and mix, raising the heat to high to boil, and let the liquid reduce to half. Then add the spinach leaves, a handful at a time and mix – some of the leaves will be wilted and some will be barely cooked.

 

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