Saturday, May 14, 2016

Off the Shelf: Arthur Kent's Risk and Redemption (1996)

Like many television news viewers, I didn't truly become aware of journalist Arthur Kent until 1991 when he was ducking Saddam Hussein's explosive little presents over Dhahran during the first Gulf War. At that time, while decked out in his leather jacket, and his sweeping dark hair blowing in the night air, he emerged with the sexual panache of a movie star. He was America's own Mel Gibson from Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously, caught in the hail of rocket fire, and barely letting it ruffle his locks. This striking image not only won him the moniker "Scud Stud" from female fans rooting for him all over North America, it also won him no end of grief when he refused to be NBC's answer to Geraldo Rivera.

The great story behind Arthur Kent's 1996 memoir, Risk and Redemption: Surviving the Network News Wars (Viking), is how a reputable correspondent, who covered some of the biggest news events in his era, was forced to take the NBC television network to court in a $25 million dollar defamation and fraud suit because the corporate climate of turning hard news into celebrity worship rendered him unable to do his job. But Arthur Kent was also caught in a profoundly ironic trap because it was becoming the "Scud Stud" that actually brought him to international prominence. Risk and Redemption is Kent's attempt to separate what makes a journalist from what makes a luminary. And although you come away from the book cheering Kent's integrity, intelligence and victory, there is still something romantically self-serving about it. He comes across as someone beyond the temptation of stardom – even though television news, the profession on he's chosen, invites it. The incongruity of how the image of the "Scud Stud" (which Kent himself created) shaped a network's perception of him as a journalist, and perhaps implicated him in their corporate plans, doesn't envelop the book as much as I hoped it would.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Big Big Love in Small Places: Sky 1's After Hours

Rob Kendrick, Jaime Winstone, and James Tarpey star in After Hours

Some things you'll do for money /
And some you'll do for fun /
But the things you do for love are gonna come back to you /
One by one.

– "Love, Love, Love" by The Mountain Goats.
Last fall, as audiences worldwide were gearing up for the new Star Wars film, Netflix subscribers were immersed in the dark reality of Jessica Jones' Hell's Kitchen, and our (morbid) fascination with Donald J. Trump was still in its near infancy, the UK channel Sky 1 premiered the first six-episode season of After Hours – a small comedy, set in a small town. After Hours is part coming-of-age story, part love letter to indie music, and it was one of the most delightful things I watched on television in 2015.

Set in Shankly, a fictional northern English village in decline (named, likely, in homage to The Smiths), After Hours is the first television project of John Osborne – poet, radio writer, Edinburgh Fringe-alum – and fellow poet Molly Naylor. Their story centres on recent high school graduate Willow Hannigan, played by James Tarpey (The World's End) in his first television role. When his girlfriend Jasmine (Georgina Campbell) breaks up with him and his short-term travel plans fall through, Willow finds himself suddenly stuck in Shankly with little to look forward to beyond the nightly pleasure he derives from tuning into a local Internet radio program called After Hours – finding solace and friendship in the show's hosts long before their paths ever cross. Broadcasting off a ramshackle canal boat, radio hosts Lauren and Ollie (Jaime Winstone and actor/musician Rob Kendrick) send their laid back joie-de-vivre out to the world, one streaming kilobyte at a time. After witnessing his break-up, Lauren takes Willow under her wing and brings him – literally – on board to help produce their radio show. Before long, Willow finds a new confidence and begins to realize that his small town still offers real opportunities – even if few of the financial sort.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Holiday in Oregon: Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room

Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin, in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room.

Horror stories have a long history of using seemingly bland, everyman characters as their protagonists: the college sorority girls (Black Christmas), the nice, normal family (Sinister, The Amityville Horror), the young attractive co-eds (Until Dawn, The Cabin in the Woods). There’s no denying that the formula works. Seemingly “normal” characters not only serve as an anchor in the unpredictable, swirling insanity of horror movie plots, they also force us to consider the absurdity of “normal people” through the revelation of some inevitable character flaw (e.g., both Nick and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, or Jason Bateman in the sorely underrated 2015 thriller, The Gift); they’re the quintessential blank canvas upon which filmmakers paint any number of issues, hang ups, or dark pasts.

Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller (Murder Party, Blue Ruin), does not do this. Instead, Green Room takes the time to open on atypical characters and establish a story for them, independent of the madness that follows. The Ain’t Rights are a punk band composed of singer Tiger (Callum Turner), bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek Into Darkness), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development fame) and drummer Reece (English actor Joe Cole, Skins). They’re the model of punk life, living out of a van, siphoning gas to get around, and crashing at random promoters’ homes as they take their act on the road in search of good times and a handful of cash. As their tour hits a dead end, an acquaintance hooks them up with a gig at a Nazi skinhead roadhouse in rural Oregon with the assurance that, as long as they don’t talk politics, doing a show there should be just fine – should being the optimal word, here; as we can tell from the trailer, obviously things do not proceed in a manner even vaguely resembling “fine.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Neglected Gem #93: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Robert Duvall as Watson and Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).

Of all the large-screen versions of Sherlock Holmes stories, perhaps the best is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which arrived at the end of 1976. Sumptuously encased in some of the most luxurious costume and production design and cinematography ever lavished on an adventure story, it was the best of that year’s Christmas presents, the one that – depending on your modus operandi – you either wanted to unwrap right away or else save for last. (Oswald Morris’s lighting, Ken Adam’s production design and Alan Barrett’s costumes have been lovingly preserved on the Blu-ray disc.) Truth to tell, 1976 didn't offer such a tantalizing Christmas for movies: the other big releases were Rocky, Network, The Last TycoonA Star Is BornSilver StreakBound for Glory, Nickelodeon and The Pink Panther Strikes Again. The only other movie that offered audiences a treat was John Guillermin’s remake of King Kong – and its delights were buried in a pile of disparaging reviews. But King Kong and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution were alike in that they were both witty and unstinting in their determination to treat the viewer’s senses.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Captain America: Civil War – A Situation Pointed South

Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War.

If you had told me in 2011, after I had just seen Captain America: The First Avenger, that not only would Steve Rogers become one of my favourite superheroes, but that his third sequel would be the absolute gold standard for all superhero movies to follow, I would have laughed in your face. Who gives a crap about Mister Stars and Stripes and his magic shield? But you should cut me some slack – in 2011, there was no way to know yet that Marvel’s plan to dominate the comic book movie market would be such a grossly profitable global success. Captain America: Civil War is pretty much as good as it gets – and I don’t mean that in an equivocating, “we’ll take what we’re given” kind of way. I mean that the ensemble superhero movie has never been done this well before, and likely won’t ever be again. For Marvel and the world of comic book cinema at large, Civil War is a triumph.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Pasek & Paul: Dear Evan Hansen

Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones in Dear Evan Hansen. (Photo: Matt Murphy)

Dear Evan Hansen, which is selling out at New York’s just-off-Broadway 2econd Stage Theatre, is just about the damnedest musical I’ve ever seen. Steven Levenson’s book focuses on a teenage boy – the title character, played by Ben Platt – who struggles with self-image and anxiety problems so severe that he trips over himself whenever he tries to make contact with anyone besides his overloaded, trying-to-stay-positive mother (Rachel Bay Jones), who is raising him alone, and his classmate Jared Kleinman (Will Roland), the son of family friends, whom he’s known all his life. (Presumably Evan is so used to Jared’s sarcasm and casual insults that he barely hears them.) Evan’s therapist has given him an assignment to write cheerleading letters to himself to start his day, but the one he prints out at school on the first day of the new year isn’t positive; it lays bare his defeated state of mind. When another young man, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), whose own depression manifests in erratic, explosive bursts of unpredictable behavior, takes the letter away from him in school and later kills himself, his parents (John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson) assume that it’s a suicide note left for Evan, a close friend they had no idea he had, and they go to see him. Too nervous and cowed to set them straight, Evan winds up weaving a complicated fantasy scenario around this secret friendship. When he finds himself invited into their family as – increasingly – a kind of idealized substitute for their lost son, he can’t resist the attention he’s getting, attention that he’s never had from his father (who’s remarried and lives across the country with a new set of children) or even his mother (who, for all her concern for Evan, is trying so desperately to keep them afloat financially that she’s scarcely ever at home). And Connor’s sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss), whose name is embedded in the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter because Evan has a crush on her, is an added bonus.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Jack in the Box: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of Five Easy Pieces

Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces.

Unlike many of the key actors who became part of the American New Wave of the Seventies, Jack Nicholson was paradoxically alluring. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty etched their eccentricities and differences in characters that formed clear lines of definition to form a close rapport with the audience. Whereas Nicholson rode a wobbly wavelength in search of a port that never arrived. There was no perceived goal of resolution in the characters he played early in his career. He was the man in the mirror seeking out definition while simultaneously railing at the world around him for continually honing him in. And, yet, movie audiences still became closely allied with his smart-ass independence. As critic Steve Vineberg remarked in his book Method Actors: Three Generations of an Acting Style, if Nicholson was playing a son of a bitch, he was his own man, and on terms that had their own unorthodox integrity. Hoffman and Pacino tied themselves close to the Method style and that inspired them to dig for the passport that defined their characters, Vineberg went on to suggest, but Nicholson cut loose from all those ties to create a compelling portrait of solitude.

In his Westerns, John Wayne sought to build a sense of community out of his stance as a loner, but he was always cast out in the end into the very wilderness that spawned him. Nicholson was instead a hermetic figure forever living in bustling communities, but more content to be the jack-in-the-box surprise who popped out aggressively with a lewd grin and bopping eyebrows and keeping everyone on their toes. This aggression he displayed was also key to the roles that made him a star. It set him apart from his contemporaries who chose instead to go deeper into the interior of their characters to explore the promise that abandoned them. In an age when America's greatest ideals were up against defeat and failure, it was no surprise that Jack Nicholson didn't wear that defeat quietly – or passively. His George Hansen in Easy Rider (1969) warned Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper that their country would strike out violently at those seeking freedom, but his spiky humour made him a more memorable victim than Fonda or Hopper's mythic martyrs would be by the end. Detective J.J. Gittes in Chinatown (1974) didn't simply recoil from the evil deeds of John Huston's powerfully rich patriarch, he mocked them. In The Last Detail (1973), his navy lifer, Billy Buddusky (perhaps the doppelganger of Melville's Billy Budd), could be the cock-of-the-walk showing a good time to a young navy recruit he's taking to the brig, but his tap-dancing profanities proved to also mask his own impotence. Nicholson's sly and subtle paradoxes, a key to his success as a movie star, would bloom even later in his career in movies nobody saw. In The Border (1982), playing a quietly righteous border patrol agent, he defies the corruption offered by his partner (Harvey Keitel) by confronting him and literally drawing a line in the sand that he says he won't cross – only to walk over that line right after he finishes his confrontation. In that lightning quick moment, Nicholson reminds us of both his defiance and his vulnerability.