Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Ron MacLean

Ron breathes the clean, white, air of the country.
I'm usually good for only one sports-related blog post every year, so there must be a great disturbance in the force for me to dash off my second on the subject this year. The disturbance is the news that George Stroumboulopoulos, after only two seasons as the host of Sportsnet's Hockey Night in Canada, has been dumped for the muppet man he originally replaced: Ron MacLean. The perceived reason for the change is that ratings for HNIC have gone down in the last two seasons. Sportsnet figured Strombo was just the young, hip, urban, cool cat who'd pull in a different, and broader, demographic. Apparently the fact that Canadian hockey teams have largely sucked over the last two seasons (I'm looking at you, Toronto) and that the game itself has become progressively less entertaining didn't factor into Sportnet's understanding of the ratings slip. Nor did they pay attention to the fact that although they changed the host, the supporting cast of dull, witless, cranky, reactionary, inarticulate colour commentators and analysts has never been tampered with. No, it was all George's fault. But I don't want this to be a blog about what's wrong with HNIC (you can read my post on that here), or why I think Ron MacLean is a puerile, narcissistic, self-important twat and a craven, simpering, enabler of Don Cherry's bigotry. No, what I want talk about here is that by canning GS and resurrecting RM, Scott Moore, President of Sportsnet, has effectively stuck a big sign on the metaphorical front door of Sportsnet that says, "Whites Only."

A bold statement, I know, but bear with me. The Golden Horseshoe area of Ontario, which encompasses Toronto, and the cities of Vancouver and Montreal (and their suburbs) represent the bulk of the population of Canada. These areas are highly urbanized and very multicultural, especially Toronto and Vancouver. These three areas drive hockey viewership in Canada, and their essential makeup is enthusiastically unrepresented on HNIC. Look at the faces on HNIC and it's pretty much wall-to-wall middle-aged white guys. There are two token women, and two visible minority men who get even less airtime than the women. Compare and contrast with any local TV news crew in any of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver; diversity, diversity, diversity.

The resolute whiteness of HNIC (and this also applies to every other hockey broadcast in Canada) is, on one level, simply a reflection of hockey culture in North America. The cost of playing hockey for kids and teens is now so prohibitive it's become difficult for anyone but the overwhelmingly white middle and upper-middle classes to participate in it. Look around the NHL today and you see only a bare handful of visible minorities playing the game. Sportsnet isn't responsible for who is or isn't playing the game, but through their choices in on-air personalities and the editorial tone of the hockey broadcasts, Sportsnet is sending a clear message about who they think the game is for and about. And that brings us back to Ron MacLean.

MacLean might be a crap host, but he's the perfect choice if, as it would seem, Sportsnet is only interested in going after the suburban/rural, conservative, white male in the age range of 40 to dead. Ron launches into a bromantic paean whenever he gets to talk about the small-town roots of this or that player. The gushing gets even more torrid if the player is from the Prairies, which, in the minds of Ron and his on-camera cohorts, seems to be the abode of the gods. If a player is from Saskatchewan or Alberta, Ron is sure to mention that "They raise them tough out there" or "He's a good Saskatchewan boy" or "Those long western bus rides build character." Players from the cities don't get any extra praise, unless, of course, they have an Irish last name, which means we're bound to hear either "He's a tough Irishman" or "He's a fine broth of a lad." It's enough to make you gag on your soda bread. And if you're a visible minority the message is clear: don't bother playing or watching hockey...we don't want you.

As though to underline its commitment to an aging, white demographic, two years ago Sportsnet gave MacLean his own show, Hometown Hockey, which saw him hosting NHL games from a different suburb or small town each Sunday. The idea of celebrating places where the vast majority of people don't live seems odd and/or foolish when you're in the business of pulling in viewers. Sportsnet markets the show as a celebration of Canada and Canadians, but the sub-text of the show is that white, non-urban Canadians is who hockey is for. Visible minorities are in the majority in both Vancouver and Toronto, but  good luck seeing any on Sportsnet hockey broadcasts. Too bad they didn't have the foresight to move to a Newfoundland fishing village or a Manitoba farming community.

I'm part of that aging, white demographic, but I work in Toronto with a very diverse group of people, many of whom are young. They talk a lot about basketball and soccer, even baseball, but the subject of hockey is pretty much left to us old guys. Is this what Sportsnet wants? For some of these young Canadians hockey is as remote and irrelevant as jai alai or Australian football. Hockey broadcasting bears a large part of the blame for this situation. Instead of reaching out to the next generation of sports fans, they have turned their backs on them, almost thumbed their nose at them, with their ceaseless and mawkish love affair with a Canada that hasn't existed for at least a generation. Strombo was a weak choice to pull in new viewers, but bringing back MacLean to front Sportsnet's marquee hockey broadcast probably puts HNIC on the black diamond slope to ratings oblivion. And it's what they deserve.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Review: The Loney (2014) by Andrew Michael Hurley

The DNA for this wonderfully atmospheric and unsettling novel of the supernatural set in the 1970s can be found in two places. The first is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. What Waters did in her novel was overlay a ghost story on a story that's largely about the social upheaval in post-war Britain as it moved rapidly to a social welfare state. This gave her novel a complexity and resonance that's lacking in most horror/supernatural fiction, which tend to have a relentless focus on nothing but the scares. Like Waters, Hurley has crafted a solid, complex, elegantly-written novel that includes a horror element, but it's not all about the horror. Take away the supernatural element and The Loney could still stand on its merits as a straight novel about faith, especially its blindness.

The other strand of DNA in Hurley's novel comes from Barbara Pym, a forgotten and then rediscovered novelist from the 1960s and '70s. Pym wrote gently comic novels about the English middle-classes. Her characters place great importance on social rank and the proper observance of social customs and traditions, often in the context of the Anglican church. Hurley gives us a group of people who could easily have wandered in from a Pym novel One couple even has a wonderfully fruity and Pym-like surname: Mr and Mrs Belderboss. Like Pym's characters, Hurley's are middle-class and carefully, constantly snobbish about their inferiors, especially those who don't appear to be sufficiently pious. And at times, between the chills and frights, Hurley invites us to smile, if not laugh, at their buttoned-down silliness.

And so on to the plot: the unnamed narrator is a fifteen year-old boy who is the chief carer for his brother Andrew, who is mute, probably autistic, and several years older. Their parents, the Smiths, are devout Catholics and their lives revolve around their church, which has recently changed priestly hands. Father Bernard is the new, young, Irish priest. His predecessor died "suddenly," as they say. The Smiths and Belderbosses aren't keen on this disturbance to their routine, and their first chance to put the new dog collar-wearer to the test comes on their annual Easter pilgrimage. They go to a place on the northwest coast of England called the Loney. It's a bit of untamed coastline that's infamous for is deadly tides and bogs. The house they stay in, called the Moorings, is architecturally in keeping with the gloomy, haunted surroundings. The pilgrimage is a both a retreat and a chance to visit various local shrines. The Smiths fervently believe that God will cure Andrew on one of these pilgrimages.

The Smiths and Belderbosses have happy memories of previous trips to the Moorings, but nothing goes right this time. A third couple, Miss Bunce and her fiance David, had lobbied to go to Wales instead, and Bunce is quick to voice her displeasure at the roughness of the land and the accommodations. None of them are entirely happy with Father Bernard, who seems insufficiently stern, and the weather is thoroughly crappy. And then there's those locals; they're an ominous crew with yeasty accents and a habit of making startling and unnerving appearances.

Without dropping spoilers all over the place it's tricky to describe what constitutes the horror in The Loney. Hurley achieves his goal by layering episodes and glimpses of savagery, menace, eeriness, and disquietude. What it all seems to add up to is that the Loney is a patch of England where pagan beliefs and spirits still hold sway, not to mention some nasty black magic. All this pagan horror is nicely contrasted with the religious activities of the pilgrims at the Moorings, who are equally obsessed with the magic in the form of prayers, holy talismans and Christian shrines. It's a case of two sides of the same coin, only the pagans appear to have backed the winning side.

Hurley's deftness with character-building really puts this novel on a different plane. Tonto, who we meet as an adult at the beginning and end of the novel, is shrewd, caring, perceptive and agnostic, if not atheist, at an early age. He's wise enough to see that the faith of his parents and their peers is equal parts hobby and play-acting. The adult characters, even the minor ones, are sharply drawn. The Smiths and their friends could have easily been portrayed as purely fatuous or shallow, but Hurley takes the harder route of showing people whose often foolish belief in faith arises from being wounded or frightened, or in wishing not to offend loved ones.

So this'll be my book of the year so far, and it also has to be one of the most sophisticated horror novels I've ever read. And now please hurry up with the film version, which is in the capable hands of the people who produced Ex Machina.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Film Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

Shane Black, the testosterone-addled writer/director behind such guys with guns films as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Last Boy Scout, isn't wholly to blame for this embalmed-in-nostalgia disaster. It's clear he didn't get the memo. No one who has read the memo would have cast Russell Crowe in anything remotely resembling a comedy. I'm positive a memo was sent out to everyone in Hollywood letting them know that Crowe can't do funny in the same way that Donald Trump can't do rational. The proof is the romantic-comedy A Good Year (2006), in which Russ tried to go the full Hugh Grant and ended up doing a career face-plant that registered on the Richter scale. And I`m positive another memo will shortly be doing the rounds in Hollywood letting people know that Ryan Gosling also appears to be comedy-impaired.

The plot, such as it is, has Crowe and Gosling as, respectively, Jackson Healey,an enforcer for hire, and Holland March, a boozy P.I., joining forces to find a missing girl in 1977 Los Angeles. Also along for the ride is Angourie Rice playing March's precocious 13 year-old daughter. The missing girl, Elaine, is somehow involved in both the porn business and a scandal affecting Detroit's automakers. Various people want her dead and are happy to take out anyone looking for her. As you can see, Black repeatedly hit the cliche key on his laptop when he sat down to write this mess. The thin plot is just a rickety framework for a barrage of dead-on-arrival gags and glitzy, extravagant production design that recreates in lurid detail the era that good taste forgot.

Even if Crowe and Gosling were born comics it's hard to imagine them wringing laughs out of this material. A typical gag has March asking Healey, "What do you call those guys without balls?" March is thinking of eunuchs, but Healey wittily replies, "Married?" This would have been a tired gag in 1977, but Black thinks it's so funny he has his duo do another variation of it later on. Adding a precocious kid into the mix just makes things more like a bad sitcom, and when the girl ends up at a porn producer's party the film takes a turn into the unsavory that it never recovers from. None of the actors survive this train wreck. Gosling and Crowe are poor, Rice is awful, and Kim Basinger as an attorney general is...very odd. When she first appeared on screen I wasn't sure what I was looking at. A Pixar creation? A hologram? And then I remembered that some actors now have it in their contracts that they must be digitally altered to look younger. Basinger doesn't look younger, she looks like a replicant auditioning for a Blade Runner sequel.

Shane Black clearly set out to make a guns and gags version of Boogie Nights. The latter film, however, wasn't fixated on period detail and had a laser-sharp focus on character. The Nice Guys is just a collection of bad jokes dressed up in wide lapels and garish colours. And even the action elements are lacking, which is a shocker in a Shane Black film. Avoid this one and just watch something nasty and funny that was actually made in the '70s like Freebie and the Bean or Busting.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Film Review: The Witch (2015)

Of all the qualities that help make a horror movie succeed, acting usually isn't at the top of the list. Editing, cinematography, makeup and special effects are normally the most mentioned aspects of horror films. In The Witch, the acting is everything. The setting is colonial America in the early 1600s, and the story focuses entirely on a family of Pilgrims who are trying to farm (not very successfully) in the middle of the wilderness. An opening scene establishes that they have been exiled from a Pilgrim settlement due to some transgression on the part of William, the head of the family. Based on how he behaves with his family, it seems likely that his sin was being too pious for his peers, if that's possible. One day the family's infant son is snatched away by a witch, and so begins the disintegration and destruction of the entire family.

The story is rigorously straight-forward, steeped in folkloric imagery, stripped of all modern sensibilities, and doesn't have any of the cliche plot twists and jump scares that are standard issue in most modern horror films. This is a true horror film in that what rivets our attention is the horror of what's happening to the characters, not the scares inflicted on us by things jumping out of the dark or crashing sound effects or blood-soaked visuals. This makes the acting all the more important because it's the actors who largely carry the burden of transmitting the horror to the audience. The small, ensemble cast is superb, and writer/director Robert Eggers has given them rich, chewy, period dialogue that the actors make sound completely natural. There isn't one performance that stands out from the others, but Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the eldest son, deserves special mention for a scene in which he wakes from a fever that is so intense it'll raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

The acting is supported by the look of the film, which is sombre, gloomy and classically understated. Showy camerawork would have taken the audience out of the reality created by the story and the actors, so kudos to the director for that decision. Another subtle and effective touch is that each character is given a flaw that they keep hidden. The father is an incompetent farmer; the mother resents having come to America; the daughter isn't quite pious enough; the son is casting lustful looks at his sister; and the young twins are out and out holy terrors. This isn't a simplistic crew of God-bothering Pilgrims. All in all, the best film I've seen so far this year