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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

You Don't Know Jack (2010)

As most people in Britain must now know, the Sky satellite network has launched a new free channel for its subscribers called Sky Atlantic in a blaze of advertising. It is a blatant attempt to both retain current subscribers and to attract new ones from the chattering classes who normally wouldn't dream of owning anything so common as a satellite dish or to watch Sky's channels in alternate ways. It is largely a British home for HBO, featuring most of its popular series which have previously appeared on rival channels and for premiering its new programming. The star attraction and first feature at the channel's lauch was the Scorsese-produced "Boardwalk Empire" which had just won a Golden Globe for itself and its star, the very likeable Steve Buscemi. Of course this offering has been receiving rave reviews from the television critics. However I would guess that these have been based on preview tapes and not on the actual broadcasting, which is being shown in indigestible lumps, cut up with a plethora of ads.

The only sensible way of viewing this and anything else the channel chooses to offer is to record the programme onto the receiver's hard disc and to fast forward through the ads (or to watch the programme on 'Anytime' if it is one of the week's selected offerings). Sky's saving grace is that they do not interrupt the films shown on its multiple movie channels by any advertising, saving it for the space between films, which is something that no other British channel showing movies, (other than BBC and BBC2) can match. None of the other channels, either claiming to be film-only, like Film Four and TCM do this (although both were adless in the distant past) nor do those channels with mixed programming. My suggestion to Sky, if they really want to increase their appeal to all, would be to ditch the ad breaks on Sky Atlantic as they have successfully done for on their film channels and Sky Arts.

Having learned my lesson, I did not watch the live showing of the above superior cable movie, but viewed it from my recording. The net result is, I am convinced, a definitely more positive reaction. Also fresh from a Golden Globe win, Al Pacino does an amazing job of inhabiting the character of the notorious 'Death Doctor' Jack Kevorkian. A few years back there was a television poll to name the top film actors of our times and to my amazement Pacino was number one. I was, I must admit flabbergasted, since although Pacino has been magnificent in a number of early roles, he has also been a 'shouty' annoyance in many of his later ones. He definitely has regained the high ground here in playing the single-minded advocate of euthanasia, driven to help the terminally-ill who no longer have the will to live, inspired by humanity and not concerned with his wealth or liberty.

The film's title may be that we don't know Jack, but in fact we already know a great deal about him from the publicity he attracted back in the 90s. His determination to do whatever he could to relieve suffering, despite having his medical license revoked by State officials, is contrasted with the intransigence of the 'nutters' of the religious right who fought him every step of the way. Not much is shown in the way of a middle position, leaving the viewer free to cheer Kevorkian's determination to take his case right up to the Supreme Court. He never made it, having been eventually jailed for actually assisting one suicide rather than merely facilitating the act, but by then over a hundred people benefited from his mercy (shown without sugar-coating) -- or his role as a serial killer as the other side would have it.

Director Barry Levinson's casting is spot on, including Brenda Vaccaro as Pacino's sister, John Goodman as a dedicated helper, and Susan Sarandon as an activist who ultimately needs his services herself. Also impressive is the undervalued Danny Huston as his lawyer (in a comic wig), arguing for Kevorkian's rights for as long as it was politically expedient for him to do so. One side effect of watching these actors, including the very raddled Pacino, is to make the viewer aware of how they have all aged and to think about our own mortality in general. It helps one to evaluate whether Kevorkian was indeed a hero or the villain that many would prefer us to believe.
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