Saturday, January 23, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #41 (Podcast): Joel and Ethan Coen (1984)

A scene from Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

On the Nose: TBS's Angie Tribeca

Hayes MacArthur, Rashida Jones,and Alfred Molina in Angie Tribeca, on TBS.

As you no doubt keep hearing, we live in a particularly crowded era of television. Every day, it seems, a new TV series premieres and another drops away. Television executives are bemoaning that even quality shows can't find the audiences they need to survive, and professional television critics have admitted that they can't keep up. What is a basic cable network to do? This past Sunday and Monday, TBS premiered the first season of Angie Tribeca ... all at once. From 9pm on Sunday to 10pm on Monday, TBS aired the show's first 10-episode season five times, back-to-back and commercial free, in an 'event' they (accurately) called a 25-Hour Binge-A-Thon. The show, prior to its premiere, has already been renewed for a second season. So, fun fact: if you weren't watching TBS last Monday, you are already a season behind on Angie Tribeca. I suppose now the only question is whether or not you should care…

Thursday, January 21, 2016

From the Vault – Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout: New Vegas was developed by Bethesda Softworks and Obsidian Entertainment in 2010.

Sources claim that Bethesda's highly anticipated video game title, Fallout 4, sold over 200% more copies on its first day of sales than its predecessor, Fallout: New Vegas. Taking into account the five years between releases and the people who probably purchased after launch day, my (admittedly questionable) math estimates that as many as 1 in 3 people who own Fallout 4 might not have even played New Vegas, let alone the number of gamers who have yet to even touch this brilliant franchise. This, friends, is a shame, and today I'm going to take a minute to implore you to backtrack and get acquainted with the game that gave Fallout 4 its deserved hype in the first place.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Neglected Gem #88: Alternative 3 (1977)

Alternative 3:  Host Tim Brinton.

The hour-long television documentary Alternative 3 was shown in England in 1977, under the incomparably bland title “Science Report.” Though broadcast on the night of June 20, the program’s closing credits dated it April 1. Many missed the hint. Written by David Ambrose, directed by Christopher Miles, produced by Anglia Television, and broadcast by ITV, Alternative 3 was probably the most successful planned media hoax since Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radiocast. The two works have much in common: each was fiction disguised as documentary, blurring the two in ways that were innovative and, some felt, pernicious; each locked into existing fears – in one case, foreign invasion and world war; in the other, government conspiracy and global catastrophe – and foreshadowed developments to come.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Cowpoke Gumbo: Bone Tomahawk

Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox in Bone Tomahawk.

One of the films from 2015 that slipped through the festival circuit and straight to the on-demand market, flying totally under the radar for most moviegoers, also happens to be one of my favourites of the year. It cheers me to know that films like Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell (wearing his still-burgeoning pre-Hateful Eight power-stache), still have a place in our cinematic ecosystem. Then again, I can’t imagine there ever not being a place for low-budget genre mashup perfection like this, as long as there are weirdos like me for whom Westerns and cannibal gorefests are equally appealing.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Brando on Brando, and Two Valedictories

Actor Marlon Brando is the subject of new documentary, Listen to Me Marlon.

Late in his life Marlon Brando recorded a series of audiotapes on which he put down his thoughts about his life and his career and, unexpectedly, about acting – unexpectedly because in the handful of interviews he agreed to after The Godfather made him famous again he tended to talk about the subject with disdain or to dismiss it altogether. Of course those of us for whom Brando was (and still is) the greatest of all American actors took his slighting of acting with a hefty helping of salt. It’s understandable that his political commitments to civil rights and especially the cause of Native Americans prompted him to put what actors do for a living in perspective and theorize that performing in front of a camera simply isn’t as important to the world as fighting injustice. But the man who put cotton in his mouth to get the right sound for Don Corleone and determined to showcase his humanity rather than play him as a gangster-movie villain (clearly with the collusion of Francis Coppola and his co-writer Mario Puzo), the man who allowed Bernardo Bertolucci to shoot him emotionally as well as physically naked in Last Tango in Paris, was still an actor profoundly committed to his art. And that was after years of making – and often transcending – the crap Hollywood mostly handed him after the too-brief halcyon days when he was generally recognized as the most exciting actor in the world. Even when he was in semi-retirement on his Tahitian island, emerging only occasionally to make movie appearances for which he charged exorbitant fees, he almost always gave audiences something to watch. His power is hardly diminished in movies like A Dry White Season, Don Juan DeMarco, The Score or The Freshman (where he does a witty parody of his own work in The Godfather), and he’s mesmerizing – and deeply unsettling – as George Lincoln Rockwell in an episode of the TV miniseries Roots II. Still, it’s amazing to discover that Brando left behind hours of commentary on acting, confirming – if confirmation was needed – his dedication to his chosen profession.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Spotlight: The Virtues of Craftsmanship

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight.

This review contains spoilers for Spotlight.

The writer-director Tom McCarthy takes a leap into the big time with Spotlight, his extraordinary chronicle of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team breaking the story of the clergy sex-abuse scandal in early 2002. (Their reporting won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for journalism.) McCarthy’s first two pictures, The Station Agent (starring Peter Dinklage) and The Visitor (starring Richard Jenkins), are poignant, small-scale dramas that share a theme: the protagonist is a man who has absented himself from the world and, by chance, gets pulled back in. Both are beautifully drawn – perfect short-story movies – and beautifully acted. What’s amazing about Spotlight is that McCarthy, working in collaboration with Josh Singer, a one-time staff writer on The West Wing who most recently penned the script for The Fifth Estate, is able to apply the same focus and the same skills for working with actors to such density of material. The filmmakers’ approach, a combination of intimacy and specificity, approximates the thorough, step-by-step process by which a team of four journalists – Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who report directly to the paper’s assistant managing editor in charge of investigations, Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) – set on by the Globe’s newly hired editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), uncover a story of thundering resonance and breathtaking immensity. The movie has breadth and depth; a newspaper picture that flies in the face of the idea that we’re in the twilight of the newspaper business and a social-problem drama that never for a moment slips into melodrama, it is, I think, a classic.