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Game Changers 

HBO's Winning Time and Tokyo Vice

click to enlarge When I text, "on my way."

Winning Time

When I text, "on my way."

The editor suggested, due to some fairly horrific recent events, that I keep this week's selection light, perhaps write a column about comfort viewing. I may have met her halfway. There are certainly times when I seek out broad comedy to soothe my beleaguered psyche. As previously (repeatedly) mentioned, my wife and I spent the early months of the pandemic revisiting our DVD collection — yes, we still have one of those — to enjoy a simple laugh in the face of the apparent impending collapse of society. We screened Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Wedding Crashers (2005) and most of the movies bearing the Apatow or McKay imprint, with mostly delightful, restorative results.

When I'm alone, though, and in the depths of some usually self-induced trauma pit, I tend toward thematically darker, generally brooding, almost always violent fare. There have been dark afternoons with Apocalypse Now (1979) and a bottle of Bourbon, and not infrequent late nights/early mornings scored by Michael Mann battle sequences.

And so, this week, in search of succor and in the pursuit of something fresh in the absence of a particularly compelling new movie, I looked to prestige TV; everybody seems to think it's the new cinema anyway.

HBO may or may not have invented the medium, but it is difficult to deny the network has done more work than any other institution to perfect, streamline and (I'm loath to use the phrase) platform it. The Wire and The Sopranos and Oz are more significant cultural touchstones than almost any movie or novel or other work of art in the last two decades. And, yes, people seem to love Game of Thrones.

The advent of streaming and the audience's increased acceptance of long-form storytelling has allowed television series of a certain tier to continue to evolve and advance. While the complaint has been levied in the past that TV is a writer's medium, one that diminishes the role of the director and the visual design of a show, I would counter that there may be more artistic freedom, more invention and more definitive style in some of these series than in the vast majority of movies.

WINNING TIME: THE RISE OF THE LAKERS DYNASTY, created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, with a pilot episode directed by Adam McKay, tells the story of the transformation of the LA Lakers franchise — and of the National Basketball Association, really — under the ambitious, free-wheeling, probably crazy leadership of Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly). Buss, a doctor of physical chemistry turned real estate investment mogul and bon vivant, decided at some point that he just had to get into the basketball business, just when attendance numbers and enthusiasm across the league were in steep decline. Leveraging his holdings (including the Chrysler Building!), he took on the task of rebuilding the Lakers and, initially unbeknownst to Buss, carrying the previous owner's not-insignificant debt load.

With cost no object and caution thrown to the wind in favor of adventure and optimism, Buss drafted Earvin "Magic" Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), an over-height, alarmingly good spirited point guard riding high off a national championship at Michigan State University. Even this simple decision places the rookie team owner at odds with the establishment, including star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) and long-suffering coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke), and puts him into mutual combat with Boston's ultra-dominant, ultra-domineering Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis).

Hopefully you'll forgive the aphorism (and the 35-year-old spoiler), but fortune seems to have favored the bold. Buss built a dynasty, just as he intended, and Winning Time puts us inside the rooms where it happened.

In high McKay fashion, the show uses a singular, vibrant visual language to tell its story, alternating between clean, warm-toned film, scratchy super-eight and period-correct video tape (how much of this was accomplished with modern digital technology I can't say). Characters address the camera and the editing fakes and bounces as adeptly as players on the court. It's often serious, decidedly adult and universally well acted, charming and deeply entertaining. I have a soft spot for the era of basketball with its roots in this period, though I am at best a casual fan. Even if I didn't care for the game at all, I would enjoy the show. HBO MAX.

TOKYO VICE. Years ago I gave a good friend, a scholar and student of Japanese art and culture, an autographed first edition of Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (the title precludes the need for synopsis). It seemed like a fun gift, interested as we both are in true crime, etc. Well, the scholar read the book and all but threw it in my face, displeased with Adelstein's seemingly untroubled immersion in Japanese culture and effortless romantic life.

That anecdote mostly aside, Adelstein's memoir has been adapted, with a first episode directed by Mann and starring Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe. HBO debuted the series with three episodes in a block, doling out the remainder to air weekly.

While Mann has faltered a little in his recent feature work, the pilot episode of Tokyo Vice bears many of his trademark touches: a granular attention to detail, a troubled but determined protagonist, an agile but always controlled camera and an immersive, intensely authentic setting. HBO MAX.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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