Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Back to Basics: Reviews of Aurora Borealis & Backstrom

Worth Watching: Aurora Borealis and Backstrom -- There are times I just have to wonder, what does an artist (or group of artists) have to do to be appreciated? In the case of someone like Vincent van Gogh, waiting was the answer, aided by his untimely death. Writers – I hope, at least – will find their audience before they pass, and still be relevant long after. Filmmakers almost have to find their audiences within the first two to four weeks of a film’s release to have enough commercial success to be entrusted with the next project. It is hard to get a small film made, and harder still to get it seen. I sometimes think of them as the poems of cinema, especially when they are good. Television shows also have to find their audience quickly or face premature cancellation. It helps if the material is good, but that is not a requirement. Look at reality TV for proof on that score. Now, I admit freely that I am probably not a very good critic. I look for things to like in anything I review. I always consider that so much effort went into the creation of the project at hand, be it a song or a symphony, a book or a film, that I do not like to dismiss it out of hand. Besides, opinion is highly subjective. Subjectivity can be tainted by mood. A comedy will not be funny to someone who is upset or angry at the moment; the jokes fall flat, the plot feels forced. A drama will not register if the main character reminds you of someone you dislike intensely, so that you do not invest in the outcome. I started Frank Herbert’s great novel Dune four times and got as far as page 50 before I said, this is rubbish. The fifth time, I could not put it down, and read the whole original six-book set. I also ask myself: could I have done it better? Could I have done it at all? Would I have taken the risk or invested the time? I like to like the project I review. The following film and TV pilot, made it easy for me. I start with the 2005 movie, Aurora Borealis, written by Brent Boyd and directed by James C. E. Burke. I will reveal nothing of the plot except to say that Donald Sutherland plays the grandfather of directionless Joshua Jackson and is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and possibly from Alzheimer’s. His grandson (Jackson) takes a job as a handyman in the Old Folk’s Home where Sutherland and his wife (Louise Fletcher) have come to live out the rest of their lives. This all takes place in November through January in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The result, buoyed by fine acting down the line, is a sweet, quiet, film about growing up and about growing old. Like life itself, the story is messy, complicated, sad, funny, and hopeful. This ranks among the best movies virtually no one has ever seen. In contrast, I offer the premiere episode of Raiin Wilson’s new police procedural, Backstrom. This one is snappy, crisp, and full of action in the best hard-boiled 1940’s noir tradition, but with a definite modern slant. Wilson is perfect as the title character, who has a certain disregard for the rules or the niceties. By himself, the character might wear thin after a while, but the supporting cast is brilliant and their characters keep up with Wilson every step of the way. It felt less like having to learn who everybody was and how they thought, as it did like walking straight into a well established series where everyone already felt familiar. I am rarely drawn into a new show before the opening credits. Blacklist did it. The first fifteen minutes of The Newsroom remains some of the best moments ever on television. Backsrom had me hooked in the doctor’s office. Backtrom was developed by Hart Hanson, co-creator of Bones. Hanson also wrote the script for the pilot, “Dragon Slayer.” The series is based on the Swedish books by Leif G. W. Persson. Those Swedes know how to paint uniquely dark detectives. Think of Kurt Wallander with attitude instead of depression. Add an American feel (not easy to do with European material) and set the story in Portland, Oregon. I just hope that Backsrom doesn’t run into any Vessen while running around the streets – Portland is turning into the hot bed of mystery, both natural and supernatural, in America. Time will tell. I hope that the rest of the writers are as good with the characters as Hanson. Episode two was not quite as energetic, but was filled with snippets of back story and an interesting spirit of vengeance, establishing the supporting characters and defining their strengths. The final scene revealed a touching vulnerability in the main character. As in Hanson’s Bones, the auxiliary characters in Backstrom get as much attention as Backstrom himself. And I hope enough people watch the show to keep it strong. It is on CBS, but that is no longer a death knell. It is, however, an uphill journey, made worse by the fact that I like the show – a death knell for any exciting new series unless it’s British, in which case it usually ends at just the right moment.

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