Saturday, May 3, 2014

How To Say Goodbye: Coming-of-Age in Friday Night Lights

For those who haven't watched Friday Night Lights, this piece contains some spoilers. Ed.

Episodes 5 and 6 of season four of Friday Night Lights, which aired in 2010, may be the best two hours of television I’ve ever seen. They’re certainly the most poignant, and I couldn’t keep them out of my head for weeks after I watched them. Almost everyone I know loves Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg’s imaginative expansion of the H.G. Bissinger non-fiction volume about high school football in a small Texas town, yet it stayed under the radar and never made it into the running for the big awards. A narrow but steady audience kept it on the air for five seasons, though every year its fans were on tenterhooks, waiting to see whether it would get renewed for another season. When it returned for its second go-round, in 2007, the writers seemed to be caving in to network pressure to make it more conventional by threading in overblown plot lines. But the level of the acting, the series’ most striking element, never fell, and by the third season the melodrama had vanished and the writing was more delicately observant than ever.

The first three seasons of Friday Night Lights focused on the fortunes of the Dillon High School football team, the Panthers, led by Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), and on the lives of the players and of their parents and significant others, citizens of a town where the Friday night games are the most important event of the week and where Monday-morning quarterbacking is not just a tradition but a civic duty. (Eric inevitably has to sweep up the For Sale signs that jokers, probably in their cups, scatter on his lawn during the night after the Panthers lose a game.) In these episodes the Taylors are a thoroughgoing Dillon H.S. family: Eric’s wife Tami (Connie Britton) begins as a guidance counselor and then (in season three) becomes principal, and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teagarden) dates retiring, deeply sensitive Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), whom Eric molds into an accomplished quarterback when the gifted, charismatic Jason Street (Scott Porter) is paralyzed in a football accident in the show’s opening hour. Jason loses his girl friend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) – the daughter of Eric’s best friend, car salesman and Panther booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) – to his pal Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), a talented player whose ascension to adulthood has been hampered by alcoholic indolence, an ease at getting his way through sexual charm, a dearth of good male role models at home, and a deep-seated conviction that he’s essentially worthless. The other major teenage character is Tim’s ex-girl friend Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), a plain-spoken good ol’ girl whose tough act conceals a terror that she’s not good enough to make it into college and the wide world beyond Dillon. In season two she has a relationship with Matt’s nerdy, generous best friend Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) and forges an unlikely friendship with Julie; the fact that both are A students suggests Tyra’s secret longing to be taken seriously. In the plausibly incestuous social landscape of the community, Buddy and his receptionist, Tyra’s mother Angela (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), have an affair that breaks up his marriage, while Tyra’s older sister Mindy (Stacey Oristano) winds up married to Tim’s brother Billy (Derek Phillips), who has been his unofficial and semi-competent guardian since their ne’er-do-well father deserted them.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Movie Love: Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us, David Thomson’s Moments That Made The Movies and Sophie Cossette’s Sinemania!

I may not be particularly enamoured of the movies much of late – their overall quality is abysmal and they just don’t seem to have the cultural cachet they used to have – but I can still appreciate the enthusiasm of those that are still enthralled by the art form and, more so, enjoy the different approaches they take to expressing their love of cinema. Three recent books all find a way into the movies that is both atypical and idiosyncratic. They’re entertaining and informative in equal measure, fine tributes to the movie love that so many people still possess and a timely reminder of why I fell for the movies in the first place.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Song is Over: The Television Media and the Enabling of Rob Ford

Is it possible that the nightmare of Rob Ford's rule over Toronto is finally over? It would be reassuring to discover that the release of the latest video of our inebriated Mayor smoking crack cocaine and an audio tape of him spewing more invective about gays and women would spell the end of him. But Ford has been a cat with more than nine lives. His political survival in the face of mounting corruption, bad behaviour and substance abuse has been nothing short of miraculous – or has it been? Watching the television coverage of the latest scandal, that continues to taint the political process and one's belief in good governance, what began to emerge was something as disturbing as Rob Ford's actions. If crack cocaine and alcohol have been our Mayor's drug of choice, the television media has made Rob Ford their own prize narcotic.

Coverage from CP24 to CBC Newsworld, so far, reveals a sickening prurience about our mayor's disgusting actions. You don't see reporters talking about the ramifications of Ford's remarks and what they actually say about women, gays and minorities. By watching the news, you would think that Ford's only real problem has been his inability to stay sober rather than the things he says when stoned. Last night, on CBC's The National, a reporter even told us before playing the recent tape recording that the language we were about to hear might be offensive. (As if naughty language is at issue here like in grade school.) Speaking as one who doesn't believe in the 'dirty word' concept, how does saying 'fuck' become more offensive than the Mayor endorsing sexual assault when he says he wants to "jam" mayoralty candidate Karen Stintz? Why are we so worried about four-letter words instead of what he is actually expressing? By avoiding the content of what Rob Ford believes, the news media just turns Ford into their bad boy who essentially keeps fucking up.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Making the Invisible Visible – A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton. I have to say, I never gave him much thought. A quick perusal of my record collection showed that I didn’t even have one song on which he sang including his first big hit, “The Letter,” by Memphis’s Box Tops. Not even on one of those “all American Hit Parade collections.” So why would I buy a book about him? That’s right, I bought the book, it wasn’t one of those galley proofs sent out by a publisher to recruit reviewers. I selected this from the wall of books at my local shop. Got myself a tall Pike while I was at it. But after the coffee was gone I settled down to read Holly George-Warren’s fascinating biography of a musician I didn’t know, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton.

Over 350 pages later I know quite a bit about what happened during Chilton’s career, I even bought a Big Star album, and an anthology of Chilton’s later work, and Big Star collaborator Chris Bell’s solo CD, and a download of The Box Tops greatest hits. That’s a lifetime of music, and I’ve only scratched the surface. I watched the recent bio, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. I’m even considering reading Rob Jovanovic’s book Big Star: the Story of Rock’s Forgotten Band. Just because there’s something eminently intriguing about a rock star who never really got there. The music that Chilton made haunts me. It ranges from the blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops to the power-pop of Big Star, through years of punk, and just about every genre in between.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Counterfeit Action – The Raid 2: Berandal

 Iko Uwais (left) returns as Rama, in The Raid 2: Berandal

The Raid: Redemption came as a surprise to action cinema fans when it surfaced in 2012, combining a rarely-seen Indonesian martial arts style with a ballsy, hyperviolent tone. The film didn’t bother much with plot, filling most of its runtime with intense and brilliantly-shot fight sequences, and it made a name for itself as an example of action purity; if you were going to make a movie filled with nothing but action, then your action had better be as jaw-dropping as The Raid’s. The entire film took place in one apartment block and focused on a rookie SWAT cop (Iko Uwais) who had to ascend each floor of the building, fighting through waves of baddies, until he could find and confront the head honcho. Other films – notably the overlooked Dredd (2012) – have used this video game-inspired formula, but few to such visceral effect. Curiously, The Raid 2: Berandal mostly abandons this simplistic structure in favour of a “reluctant undercover cop” narrative, which proves to be ill-suited to the style established by the first film.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Funny Men: Act One & Beyond Therapy

Tony Shalhoub and Santino Fontana in Act One, at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The three plays I consider the funniest in the American canon came out within four years of one another: The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (1926), Chicago by Maurine Watkins (1928), and Once in a Lifetime by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (1930). All three are hard-boiled comedies, a genre that has, unhappily, all but disappeared, though you’d think that the huge success of the movie musical version of Chicago, which restores more of the original text of the play than the stage musical did, might have had the effect of bringing it back into the culture. (The last great cinematic example of the genre before Chicago was probably Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, in 1970.) Hard-boiled comedies are tough, spirited and satirical. They view the world as essentially a lousy place, certainly a corrupt one, though if you’re clear-eyed and quick-witted and skillful at what you do, you can manage to succeed in it. The hard-boiled comic hero, often the representative of an exclusive group – like the Chicago reporters in The Front Page – is a wised-up pro with a sense of irony and a nose for bullshit, and though his (or her) behavior may not be saintly nor his motives pure, the fact that he’s neither pretentious nor hypocritical places us firmly on his side. The real target in a hard-boiled comedy tends to be institutional or cultural, anyway: politics (The Front Page) or the justice system (The Front Page, Chicago) or the American hunger for celebrity (Chicago).

Once in a Lifetime, my favorite American comedy, is about Hollywood during the chaotic, panicked transition from silents to sound, and its protagonists are a trio of vaudevillians who – since the talkies are killing what’s left of vaudeville – trek out to the coast to start a school of “elocution and voice culture” to take advantage of the general chaos and lack of direction at one of the big studios. (The play provided the obvious inspiration for Betty Comden and Adolph Green when they penned the best hard-boiled movie musical before Chicago, Singin’ in the Rain.) The script for Once in a Lifetime was a collaboration between a twenty-six-year-old novice named Moss Hart, who came up with the idea for it, and the most successful comic playwright of the era, George S. Kaufman; it began a collaboration that spanned a decade and included seven more plays, two of which, You Can’t Take It with You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, were turned into famous movies and are revived often. The only reason that Once in a Lifetime isn’t is that, as befits its subject matter, it’s extremely extravagant, with a massive cast and six sets, including a starry L.A. club and a Hollywood soundstage. The 1932 movie version preserves most of the original script and it’s quite enjoyable, though with a couple of exceptions it doesn’t have the cast the material deserves. The Broadway production is legendary, and the trials and tribulations that led to its ultimate triumph forms the last section of Hart’s 1959 memoir, Act One, which, dramatized by James Lapine, is currently occupying Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. (Lapine is also the show’s director.)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dublin Fog: The Crime Noir Novels of Benjamin Black

Novelist John Banville, aka Benjamin Black, author of the Quirke detective novels ( Photograph: Cyril Byrne)

I suspect that most readers of the mystery genre anticipate that whatever heinous crimes are committed that they will be solved by clever, intuitive police work and that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. That kind of reassurance cannot be found in the novels of Benjamin Black, aka the Irish Booker Prize winner, John Banville. In the six Quirke Dublin mysteries that Black has written – Christine Falls (2006), The Silver Swan (2008), Elegy For April (2010), A Death in Summer (2011) Vengeance (2012) and Holy Orders (2013, Henry Holt and Company) – the scales of justice are frequently tipped to deny justice to murder victims because of official incompetence, the protection of perpetrators by powerful interests who are bent on “hiding the damage,” or suicide to avoid the courts. Then what is the attraction for reading these novels? Well, if the reader can accept the fact that the identity of the perpetrator is secondary to other considerations, it turns out that there are many reasons.