Film

The Other Brother: Chris Penn (1965-2006)

Jarrett Berman

During the 1990s, Penn chose vivid characters on both sides of the law, guys named Pulasky, Manetti, Turk, Duke, and Bubba.

Hollywood brims with tragedy, and its unpredictability can be confounding. On 24 January, in a Santa Monica beachside condo, Chris Penn was found in bed, according to Santa Monica police, deceased of natural causes. He was 40 years old. To many, Chris Penn was but a footnote: younger brother to Sean, never garnering the same notoriety or critical acclaim. But to those of us who appreciate a nice piece of prime rib (to paraphrase Nice Guy Eddie), Chris Penn was the real deal: affable, sincere, and satisfying.

Penn was one of three children born to TV director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan. Naturally gifted and exposed to acting studios by age 12, he played supporting roles in All the Right Moves and Rumble Fish (both 1983), before landing the buddy role opposite Kevin Bacon in 1984's Footloose. As Willard Hewitt, the endearing young farmer who learned to dance, awkwardly, Penn stole the show. It was the first time I remember seeing him on the big screen. He didn't have the brooding good looks of his older brother, but was equally versatile and persuasive. He could trade laughs for intensity, appear unpretentious or aggressive. He appeared as likely to throw back a Bud as crack open a bottle of Cristal.

Penn inhabited his characters with zeal. With an imposing build (six feet tall, 300 pounds), he was often cast as the heavy in films like Pale Rider (1985) and Best of the Best (1989). Penn cemented another sort of legacy in 1992, as part of Quentin Tarantino's band of doomed criminals in Reservoir Dogs. Nice Guy Eddie exhibited an explosive mix of humor and ferocity; but Penn also made him a blue-collar antihero, at once good-natured and menacing. He worked a similar tension in True Romance (1993), as overzealous cop Nicky Dimes.

In the years that followed, Penn chose vivid characters on both sides of the law, guys named Pulasky, Manetti, Turk, Duke, and Bubba. He worked convincingly opposite giants like Clint Eastwood and Christopher Walken, and yet Penn was relegated to tertiary roles throughout much of his career. While Sean emerged as a critical sensation, Chris seemed to recede into the shadows. Their paths diverged, with the brothers appearing only once together on film, playing siblings Brad and Tommy Whitewood in the 1986 drama At Close Range. Fittingly, that story portrays a family fated to tragedy.

Chris Penn's presence always punctuated a film, his inimitable style commanding attention even in minor roles. His most acclaimed work came finally with a shared Golden Globe for Best Ensemble Cast (Robert Altman's Shortcuts [1994]), then with a Venice Film Festival win for Best Supporting Actor, as a depression-era mobster in The Funeral (1996). Afterwards, Penn began a slide into mediocrity, eventually parodying himself in Corky Romano (2001) and Starsky & Hutch (2004).

Recently, his career had taken a promising turn with the independent Mexican film, Juarez: Stages of Fear (2005), for which he was star and producer, his first such credit. We can only wonder what he might have done next. Rather than fixate on what he didn't do, we should thank him for what he did: He burned with a fire both reckless and exhilarating. In a family of stars Chris Penn was the underdog, and I loved rooting for him.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

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