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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 27, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Unpretentious Movies, Flashpoint

When I first noticed Enrico Colantoni in his performance as vengeful mob boss Carl Elias in Person of Interest, I knew he looked familiar.

I only recently realized that he played the poignant-yet-hilarious alien visitor Mathesar in Galaxy Quest.  We could say that the makeup didn’t make him easy to recognize – but that would be false.  His face is memorable and once I made the connection, I absolutely knew him in both parts.

What prevented recognizing him earlier was his hair – or lack of it.  His distinctive pattern of baldness was not visible when he was Mathesar (and he was younger then, so the point might have been moot), and it’s his most easily noticed feature in more recent roles.

I absolutely did not recognize him from his powerful performances in 75 episodes of the crime series Flashpoint, for a very good reason: It’s a Canadian TV series that has never appeared on a major American network.

Until now.  In 2011, Ion Television (which sits just a few channels up from local stations on Time Warner Cable) acquired all rerun rights to this series.

(Don’t be confused by the CBS logo all over Flashpoint’s credits and titles.  The show is produced by CBS’s TV production company, but the CBS broadcast network has nothing to do with it.)

The good news is that despite a slight tendency toward melodramatic speeches, this is a very good police series, full of intelligence and action.

The bad news is that the fifth season was the final one, and the series finale aired in Canada this past December.

But there’s good news for us in America – the whole series is new to us.  As long as you can get Ion Television (which is such a cute name, since it’s pronounced as “Eye On Television”), you can see some of the finest performances by one of the best acting ensembles I’ve seen.

And even better news is that Ion Television also bought the right to order more episodes, though I suspect that Enrico Colantoni won’t be a regular, since he now plays a leading role in the Canadian family medical series Remedy, and seems to matter to Veronica Mars as well.

Then again, he managed to squeeze all his Person of Interest appearances in while being a regular on Flashpoint, so who dares to say how much is too much for this super-actor to do at once?

Flashpoint manages to be surprisingly vague about its location.  I’m sure it was filmed in Toronto, which is famous for being just like New York City, except clean.  The episode set in Chinatown worked just fine – because Toronto has a Chinatown of its own.  Nothing in Flashpoint signaled to me that it was Canadian, though now that I know, I’ll be more alert.

At the same time, I’m betting the producers take some care to keep Canadian specifics out of the show, precisely so it can be syndicated in America without prejudice.

OK, so maybe I’m simply oblivious, but is there any anti-Canadian prejudice in America?  I mean, outside of New England and upstate New York, where apparently there is some use of “Canuck” as a derogatory term.  In most of America, though, is there some wellspring of spite or contempt for Canada?

My own attitude has always been that Canada was a bit more civilized and decorous than America, but also a bit more likely to jump on every politically correct bandwagon.

I’m afraid I have a bit of negativity toward Quebec, but that was earned: What irks me is the double standard, where French must be placed on signs throughout Canada, but inside Quebec, English is removed from signs so that only French is visible.

The same thing irks me about feminism.  It’s essential for women to have “a room of one’s own” where men cannot come, so that women can be truly themselves.  But any place where men can be by themselves is ruthlessly suppressed, because any male privacy is regarded as a conspiracy against women.

I’m afraid I despise hypocrisy and discrimination masquerading as tolerance.  And Quebecois politics has dwelt in that smelly realm for decades.

But for Canada as a whole – including Quebec, when we’re not thinking about ethnic politics – my feelings have been somewhere between benign and enthusiastic.  For instance, I was grateful but utterly unsurprised when it was Canadian diplomats who saved Americans who escaped the embassy in Tehran back in 1980.

To be quiet yet courageous fits well with Canada’s image.  Like the shy fellow at the party who turns out to be a war hero.  Never toots his own horn, but he really is something when the chips are down.

On the other hand, whenever I go to Canada, I run into a surprising number of people with a chip on their shoulder, as if they believe Americans despise them and look down on them.

No, no, you poor saps.  Americans don’t despise you.  Americans just don’t think about you.  But that’s not a bad thing for Canada.  Americans, as a whole, don’t know anything about other countries, and don’t care to learn.

Canada’s greatest source of independence from America is America’s utter uninterest in Canada.  If Canada were ever seen to be of vital interest to most Americans, then they would find out just how overbearing Americans could be.

Or maybe because America is such a huge market and Canada such a small one, Canadians feel the need to make their homegrown television shows generic enough for Americans to feel at home with them.  It makes financial sense.  Then, having made that decision themselves, they resent America for having “made” them do it.

There’s nothing about Flashpoint to make you think that it’s foreign.  Except maybe that when there was a Chinese-speaking cop in the Chinatown protection-racket episode (“Call to Arms”), she was actually fluent and literate in Chinese.  Yet she seemed otherwise to be a perfectly normal member of the police force.

Let me talk for just a moment about the rest of the cast, because Enrico Colantoni isn’t the only actor in the show.

For one thing, this series manages to have two bald guys in leading roles, and never for a moment do you get one confused with the other.  Hugh Dillon (as Ed Lane) is a shaved-bald guy, who looks like the man you would want assigned to you as a bodyguard ... or as a substitute dad.

He seems to be absolutely competent and relentless in pursuit of a goal – and yet of a kindly disposition.  Whether that’s true of him personally I have no way of knowing – but it’s a powerful image on screen, and he’s a superb actor.

I’ve only watched three episodes so far, so the other actors haven’t all emerged as clearly defined individuals for me, though I like them all and love the way they work together seamlessly.

I think American series writers deliberately introduce meaningless quirks and/or conflicts into their series characters and their relationships.  Think of the strangely identical computer-geek female in both Criminal Minds (Kirsten Vangsness) and NCIS (Pauley Perrette), and you’ll see my point.

They are both weirdly eccentric in ways that seem to exist only to make them “unique” and “individual” – like the saddest of the wacko auditioners on American Idol.

Yet I think both actresses would have been capable of individuating themselves in more conventional attire and hairstyles.

American TV, though, assuming the stupidity of their audience, must make such differences painfully obvious.  As if Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey were the designer of all the characters – everything has to be absurdly over the top.

With Flashpoint, what is refreshing is that individuality is developed much more subtly.  It’s there, but never at the expense of believability.  You know, like real life, where people fit in to the surrounding milieu and individuality is only unwrapped when trust has developed over time.

All three episodes I’ve seen have been excellent, tempered only by that hint of melodrama in the writing.  The result, in the season four episode “Grounded,” is a hijacked-airplane story as complex and wrenching as I’ve seen even in feature films.

Let me make a comparison.  I rather enjoy NCIS: Los Angeles, but if I miss a show I don’t mind.  In every episode there are many moments that make me cringe with disbelief or distaste.  The writing is distinctly second rate, with constant reliance on pointless “humor” to create “relationships” – something beyond the skills of the writers, though good actors do the best they can.

Implausible as many of the stories are, it is the acting that saves the show.  Maybe Linda Hunt sets the tone for everyone else, rather the way Harrison Ford advised everybody else in the original Star Wars to play it straight and not go for laughs.  Linda Hunt classes up every joint she’s in; she’s the heart of what makes NCIS: Los Angeles work at all.

Flashpoint, by contrast, has only minor writing flaws, and the writers seem to have some understanding of how serious, hard-working people interact with others they have learned to trust and respect.  The result is that stories move more clearly and swiftly, and characters rarely have to say really embarrassing things.

The actors in Flashpoint are every bit as good as those in NCIS: Los Angeles.  They certainly fit together better as an ensemble – but that superiority may have as much to do with better writing as with the actors.

Enough.  You know where to find Flashpoint.

*

Watching late night TV is so much better when you’re armed with a DVR.

In the old days, we insomniacs knew that if we flipped away from one show during the commercials, we ran the risk of not flipping back soon enough and missing long sections of the story.

Picture-in-picture (PIP) displays in the 1990s helped by letting you see a small window of the original show while the main screen (and the audio) were devoted to the shows you flipped to.

But now, with a DVR, you can set the original show to record while you flip around during commercials.  Whenever you tune back to the first one, you can always backtrack to pick up where the first commercial break left off.  Voila: Nothing missing.

And when you’re done, you just delete it.

The other night, I was flipping back and forth between Hard Ball and One Day.  (I’ll talk about One Day another time, because it’s a pretentious little movie that is secretly an utterly sentimental piece of crap ... and it works.)

Hard Ball is Keanu Reeves’ not-so-comic version of Bad News Bears: An unlikely adult is forced to coach a kids-league baseball team with no particular talent.

Only the kids aren’t as cute and the writing isn’t as funny as Bad News Bears, and it takes a while to realize: Wait, this isn’t a comedy.

Keanu Reeves’s character, Conor O’Neill, has a serious sports-gambling addiction.  He’s heading toward destruction.  But along with the kids’ team, he comes in contact with a schoolteacher (Diane Lane) who finds value in him that he hasn’t found in himself.

Yes, it’s formulaic to say that he finds inner strength through coaching these kids – but the script earns every transformation.  This is so not-a-comedy that one of the kids actually dies.  But that’s part of the truth of coming from a really bad neighborhood.

Of course I cried at the end, but I tear up a little at a sensitive reading of the phone book.  What matters is that I cared and I believed.

Now, I’ll admit that I think Keanu Reeves is one of our best actors, in the Harrison Ford school of acting – so real that you think he isn’t acting.  I’ve enjoyed him most in the films that weren’t hits.  My wife and I find The Replacements compulsively watchable, for instance, and we really liked him in A Walk in the Clouds back in 1995.

Hard Ball and The Replacements are movies Reeves did between The Matrix and its sequels.  The Matrix series made Reeves an even bigger star than he became with Speed.  But what proves him a great actor are performances like Hard Ball, The Replacements and the first movie in which I saw real brilliance in him: Parenthood.

Reeves has some likeability tricks that he uses – but real people have such tricks, and Reeves uses his in a very believable way (again, like Harrison Ford).  That fake-modest head-ducking bit is not just endearing – most people have some version of it.

What matters is that Reeves knows how to set those tricks aside and do soul-searing straight talk; or, rather, he knows how to make his characters set tricks aside and turn honest.

So in a moment that could have been clunky, when the script has Diane Lane assume that he has come to ask her for a second date, when he really came to find out how to apply for a job, Keanu Reeves is required to say, “Am I supposed to be asking you for a second date?”  And a moment later, after more confusion of purpose, he says, “I’m here to do whatever I’m supposed to do.”

It’s the kind of scripting that most actors wouldn’t understand well enough.  Writers who understand the need to actorproof their scripts don’t create such ambiguous moments.  “Supposed to” could make it sound like he’s there to be obedient, that he doesn’t actually want anything but will simply go along.

But Reeves understood the script and played the real meaning, which is: If I have any chance of success, then yes, that’s what I’m here for, because that’s what I really want.

The character just can’t say it out loud.  But this scriptwriter was blessed with having Keanu Reeves to say the line, and he absolutely got it.  So the moment works, when by all rights it should have failed.

Here’s what annoys me.  The built-in Time Warner ratings system gives Hard Ball 1.5 stars.  That’s the kind of rating you give to a sequel without the original cast.  Jaws III.  Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.  Dumb and Dumberer.

By contrast, that same night I saw the ending of Heat, from 1995.  Obvious writing, brutal scenes.  But it was cruel enough and people said enough ugly things to each other that it counted as “edgy,” and it had a kind of tragic-anti-hero ending that made it “cool” in the eyes of shallow critics.

Oh, yeah, and somebody’s daughter attempted suicide.  That definitely made it art – though for a writer, having a suicide is one of the cheapest tricks, right down there with having a little kid cry.

It also had Al Pacino and Robert de Niro at the top of the cast, and even the small parts included Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Amy Brenneman, Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd.  Admittedly, in 1995 some of those weren’t exactly household names yet, but let’s just say that it was obvious this film was aiming to be Something.

The movie tipped its hand with absolute nakedness when, near the end, we have a lingering, almost infinite take of Al Pacino’s face.  It’s the kind of shot that you usually see of Barbra Streisand in films she directed herself.  We’re clearly supposed to be in awe of Pacino’s performance.

But in drama, Pacino overacts as much as Jim Carrey does in comedy.  He’s usually a caricature, not a person, and not for one moment are you allowed to forget what a brilliant performance he’s giving.  Which, to me, means that it isn’t brilliant at all.

Putting him in the same movie with De Niro is almost cruel, because De Niro is the opposite actor, and every moment with De Niro makes Pacino look more false.

But the director is in love with his actors.  He’s trying to make a Significant Film and yet the main significance is: Look at the cast I got!  Wow!  Cool!  This is gonna be a contendah!

Sure, it was well made.  But in its own way, it was every bit as formulaic as the premise of Hard Ball.  The difference is that it wallows in its formula, while Hard Ball transcends it.

Heat is only half a star short of perfection, supposedly.

Hollywood gets sucked in by pretension.  If marriages are shown as hideous failures, teenagers as victimized mental cases and murderous thugs as deeply complicated self-destructive heroes, then Hollywood thinks it’s seeing Art.

That’s the difference between formulas aimed at the masses (you know, people who turn to guns and religion) and formulas aimed at the self-styled elite, who think their poo is pie.

It’s like Twister, one of the best-written films in Hollywood history.  The dialogue sizzles.  It’s listenable.  But for years, Twister was used as a byword, a symbol of formulaic crap.

Yet when I talked to Hollywood people, those who had seen it at all usually agreed with me that it was far, far better than people were willing to admit.  (And these are people who feel free to disagree with me when they think I’m wrong.)

Hard Ball is in the category of movies that are much better than their reputations, just as Heat is a movie that has a reputation far better than it deserves – a reputation that is based on casting decisions and formulas rather than the film itself.

Look, I can’t really vouch for movies I watch during insomniac episodes late at night.  Maybe in the cold light of day I’d find the falseness of Heat less annoying and the sentimentality of Hard Ball a bit less convincing.

I say that to give myself an out if you decide you want to argue with me.  Because I’m not going to argue about this.  If you see Hard Ball and don’t get it, then I just feel sorry for you.  You’ve lost something.

Speaking as a writer, I have to say that if I ever lose the ability to love and be moved by films like Hard Ball, and if I ever start getting impressed by movies like Heat, then my chance of creating stories that will matter to the audience I care about is pretty much gone.

And who is the audience I care about?  People who watch movies and read books naively, in order to include them in their deep inner memory, instead of to be able to say smart things to impress other people afterward.

People who think that the most important thing to talk about is the story and characters, why the people did the things they did, rather than the Art.

The odd thing is that stories that succeed in reaching that audience are the ones that survive for generations, because parents pass them to children and teachers to students and friends to friends.  You have to read this.  You have to watch this.  It moved me.  It matters to me.

Fifty years later, those are the works that are being studied in schools, because ultimately it’s the Great Unwashed who decide what great storytelling is.  The professors and critics barely get a vote.  That’s why Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Margaret Mitchell will live forever, while their much-more-admired contemporaries slide into the sad little kingdom of footnotedom and survey courses.

In some cases, that’s a real shame, because some of those once-admired novels really are brilliant, with powerful stories to tell.  It’s like the difference between William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot.

Eliot is unreadably bad – repetitive, wearing her themes on her sleeve and barely moving through her formulaic little stories.  As if her whole career was devoted to foreshadowing Henry James.

But Thackeray, though he’s every bit as “artificial” (an admired term at the time), so that you never lose sight of the narrator’s witty, snide voice in Vanity Fair, is also relentlessly entertaining, with a heartbroken cynic’s view of the human race.

Compelling people to read George Eliot against their will should be classed with waterboarding as a bruise-free method of torture; only Hawthorne is more likely to induce a lifelong hatred for literature.  But inviting them to read Thackeray may well entice them to realize that beloved as Dickens is and deserves to be, some of the more “elevated” writers of the time were also worth reading and remembering.

So it is with films and television today.  It’s fun to point out how much better some of the despised underclass of films can be than much-touted pieces of formulaic drivel like, say, American Beauty or Heat or the appallingly incompetent American Hustle.

Not to mention utter embarrassments like Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas, which nevertheless were nominated for major awards and won some minor ones.  (Hard Ball and Twister weren’t nominated for anything.)

But that doesn’t mean that every pretentious movie fails.  Sometimes they really are works of genius that happen to have a relatively small audience.  That can mean Terence Malick’s bafflingly beautiful The Tree of Life.  But it can also mean Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which seers my heart just thinking about it.

Love trumps admiration.  That’s the rule.  It’s one thing to tout a film or book to your friends, never able to sort out whether you are hyping it in order to be admired for your fine taste, or because you truly believe it’s a soul-changing film.

It’s quite another, years later, to decide which films you feel your children must see before they leave home, because without that story in their memory, can you be sure they’ve really had the best you could offer them?


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