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Comments about movies (and about comments about movies)

Gone are the days where you go into a film without a whole lot of Internet chatter about it filling your brain…

The Disaster Artist

This is a movie about the making of a “so bad it’s good” movie, The Room. I’d never seen The Room, but I had heard of it, because it plays regularly at the local repertory cinema. Before going to The Disaster Artist, I listened to a How Did This Get Made? podcast that combined an older interview with Greg Sestero, a lead actor in The Room, and a new interview with James Franco, director and star of The Disaster Artist.

That did give me some insight, such that I, for example, understood faster why it was funny when Tommy Wiseau insisted on randomly throwing a football around with Greg Sestero. I don’t think that advance research is necessary to enjoy this film, though. That scene was funny regardless, thanks to Wiseau’s sheer incompetence at throwing the ball.

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Indeed, overall, this movie was one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while—particularly the part where The Room is premiered to an incredulous, sold-out audience. But it’s an interesting story as well, because Wiseau is such a mysterious and eccentric character, and his friendship with all-American Greg is unexpected.

As for the acting, well, James Franco lost himself so much in the character of Tommy Wiseau that Jean didn’t even realize that’s who it was; he thought that James played the character of Greg (in fact played by James’ brother, Dave). And it’s chock full of cameos by the likes of Sharon Stone, Megan Mullally, Nathan Fielder, and Judd Apatow.

[At least some of the reports of James Franco’s “bad behavior” had come out just before I went to see this. Obviously, I concluded that I still wanted to go. Your mileage may vary.]

Blade Runner

This would be the original 1982 Blade Runner, which I thought we should see before seeing Blade Runner 2049, given that Jean had never seen the original, and I had forgotten almost everything about it—other than it starred Harrison Ford and involved androids.

The version we watched was the “Final Cut”, so it lacked the explanatory voice-over and slightly extended ending of the original. Mid-way through, we were both a bit confused about what was going on. But the story does come together, and the movie as whole is thought-provoking and engaging and has a great look. Interesting that it’s set in 2019. We aren’t as far along as that with androids (I don’t think?), but we have much thinner monitors. (This world was still full of cathode ray tubes.)

What else clangs a bit with modern sensibilities? Jean and I were both taken aback at the “seduction” scene between Deckard and Rachael—because it’s actually a rape scene (albeit one that fades to black). She tries to run away from him. He physically stops her. He insists that she say she wants to be kissed. She never looks anything but frightened.

But I don’t think we’re supposed to read it as an assault, given that later in the movie, Rachael declares that she loves Deckard, and they leave together. Reminding me that Pretty in Pink sees nothing wrong in boys having sex with a passed-out drunk teenage girl, and that Grease has a disastrous message for women in general (“Did she put up a fight?”). How many movies of my youth contain similarly jarring scenes? On that topic, check out Maclean’s column  James Bond was a rapist.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’m not a “Star Wars person,” and I’m a bit mystified by those who are, really. Still, I got curious about the low fan vs. critics ratings of this movie on Rotten Tomatoes—you’d expect that to be the opposite, if anything. But I also knew that a lot of “Star Wars people” liked this one very much.

I figured I should go see it for myself.

I liked the movie well enough, as did Jean. I was pleased that it did have its own plot, instead of borrowing storylines from the older films as The Force Awakens had. I liked that it bounced between three different stories for much of its run-time; preventing any one from getting too tedious. Having all those strong female characters was great. It was pretty long, but it kept me engaged.

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After seeing it, I did some reading on why some super-fans didn’t like it. Certainly for a minority it’s just a matter of sexism and racism (as in, ha ha ha, the men’s right activists who created a nonsensical “no women” edit). But for other critics, seems to me, they just cared too much. That is, they had preconceived notions of what this movie should be and couldn’t handle having those expectations thwarted. They wanted Luke to be a certain way (heroic!), they had their ideas of what was possible with the Force (no astral projection!), they wanted the plot to follow an expected arc (plans should work out!). The movie itself told them to move on from the past, and they didn’t like that.

Whereas I didn’t particular care what happened to Luke (sorry Luke), have no theories of the Force, and found it rather interesting that the plans didn’t work out! (Is the lesson here that you can enjoy the world more if you care less? Hmm.)

I would note that despite its 48% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Jedi was a huge box office success.

Call Me by Your Name

We settled into our theatre seats. The lights lowered as the first of the upcoming attractions was queued up.

“Hey,” Jean whispered to me. “What movie are we seeing?”

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure this would be Jean’s kind of movie. The issue wasn’t that it’s a gay love story. It’s that it’s not much more than that. It’s a slow-paced, character-driven exploration of growing attraction over one summer, between 17-year-old European Elio and the handsome American doctoral student, Oliver, who travels over to work as a intern for Elio’s father. The kind of movie Jeanoften finds boring.

To both our surprises, he didn’t hate this one—though “it was deadly slow,” as he pointed out.

(I personally would have described it more as “languid”.)

But the issues raised by the relationship kept it interesting, and led to quite a discussion afterward. Like the young woman that Elio starts a relationship with as a distraction from the one he really wants. The movie really lets us off the hook in feeling bad for her, with her sincere expression that she’s fine and that she and Elio will always be friends. Big of her!

Then there’s the age difference. The movie is fuzzy on exactly what that is—Jean guessed that Oliver was 30 (accurate to the actor’s age), but according to the novel it’s based on, the character was 24. At any rate, one’s a teenager, one’s a man. “What if that had been a 17-year-old girl?” asked Jean.

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That feels like a bit of a straw man argument, as a movie about a 17-year-old girl and handsome older man would be another movie entirely, one telling a completely different story. The whole point of Call Me by Your Name is that the relationship is not socially sanctioned (it’s set in 1983). That informs everything about it.

And for my part, I felt fine about the relationship, as it was so clearly consensual, and initiated, really, by Elio and not Oliver. It’s a lovely movie, one with a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, and indeed didn’t really understand until I reflected on it a bit later.

Quick takes: Coco and The Third Man

While you can’t count on every Pixar movie being a classic anymore, it’s nice to know that they can still put out great films, as with Coco. I really liked the Mexican concept of the afterlife—one I hadn’t known anything about, going on. And as Jean said, this movie “had a really good message” about the importance of family over personal ambition, about the power of forgiveness. And it looked amazing! Well worth seeing on a big screen.

The Third Man is a classic film from 1949, but Jean and I had never seen it. Turns out it’s one of those that does hold up. It helps that it’s set in a particular time and place, post-World War II Vienna. And also that the moral issues it grapples haven’t gone stale. But mostly that it’s an engaging story about an American writer whose convinced there’s more to his friend Harry’s death than he’s being told. He’s not wrong…

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Lowest of the Low live at Maxwell’s

I went to see Lowest of the Low in concert again on January 20. That ties  them with The Who, Bob Geldof, U2, and Sting as the artists I’ve seen live most often: three times each.

If I keep going back to see Lowest of the Low, it’s partly that it’s so easy to do: All the shows I’ve seen have been at small-ish venues in my hometown. But it’s also that, 26 years after their first album’s release, the music still holds up.

Now, the challenge of finding someone to join me at a Lowest of the Low concert is that most people have never heard of them. (The challenge of finding someone to join me at a concert by a more famous artist is that most people won’t like them enough to want to pay the ticket prices. So concert company is always a challenge.) But, I didn’t give Jean much choice in the matter, and then he suggested I invite Tim and Jess, and they were willing to give it a go.

First we had a rather enjoyable dinner at Solé.  Lots of laughs during the conversation. (Turns out we could make a double-entendre out of anything, even snowshoes.) We also enjoyed the food.

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A rather arty photo by Jean of our Sole dinner

And we arrived in a good time at Maxwell’s, my first time at this relatively new venue. I knew there wasn’t assigned seating, but wasn’t aware there basically wouldn’t be any seating. Jean suggested we go right up to the front of the stage, so we could lean on the barriers. This led to Tim to singing a bit of Alanis’ “Front row” (not one of her more famous songs—but I know it).

And speaking of famous songs, Tim wondered if there would be any Lowest of the Low songs he’d recognize. I had to suggest that, perhaps, he would not know any. Jean, who lives with me, and therefore by osmosis knows many Lowest of the Low songs, was a bit incredulous. What about “Henry Needs a New Pair of Shoes?” he said. Or “Rosy and Grey”?

But the thing is, although Lowest of the Low have the one semi-famous album, Shakespeare My Butt (routinely selected among the “Best Canadian albums of all time”), from which various songs were indeed played on some Canadian radio stations, no one particular song from that album became a big hit. So seems people either know all 17 songs from that album, or they know 0.

Now, we were all the 0 group for opening act Jane’s Party Band—but they weren’t bad at all. They are Toronto-based, and get some support from various members of Blue Rodeo. And their guitar player, who was standing right in front of us, was a real babe. So it wasn’t hard to pay attention.

Then around 9:20, Lowest of the Low started their set. By this time, the place looked really full! They apparently have not lost their ability to draw a crowd in KW.

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I’m in the front row
The front row with popcorn [beer, really]
I get to see you
See you, close up

I knew I’d have no hope of remembering the setlist, but thank you Internet, here it is. Mostly from Shakespeare My Butt, still, starting with “Kinda the Lonely One” and ending with “Rosy and Grey”, with seven others in between. Next most represented was the new album, Do the Right Now, with five songs. Then two each from album three Sordid Fiction and the under-rated (in my opinion) second album Hallucigenia (and that did not include “Black Monday”, much to the dismay of the dude requesting it from the opening chords).

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It was a fun show. Lead singer and songwriter Ron Hawkins is very charismatic and entertaining. And while I like all their music, it is true that the Shakespeare My Butt songs that still make up the bulk of the set have a certain poppy “bounce” to them that it somewhat lost in their later work. The lyrics take on some big issues, so it’s a little weird (when you think about it) to be happily singing and dancing to songs about homelessness, serial killers, mental illness, and the Spanish civil war. Best not to think about it!

“Hey Waterloo. What a perky bunch! Pace yourselves; we have a lot of songs to play.” — Ron Hawkins

New Low ... for the Low :)

The crowd were a perky bunch. When Ron decided to take a lay-down mid-song, the girls behind us requested front-row access to get photos. Which was fine. They also occasionally joined Jean and I in dancing. Also fine. But then another girl decided she was getting the front row, and staying there, and flaying her arms around, putting Jess at considerable risk until Tim made himself a human shield. Less fine.

[Like, if you’re that big a fan, get to the show earlier, man.]

Still, we overall had a good time. I liked this venue better than the last one I’d seen them in, The Starlight. It just seemed cleaner (at least at the start of the show) and was bigger, and better suited to loud, lively band. And since Lowest of the Low fans are few and far between in the world, it really is fun to have the rare occasion of being in a room full of people who also know all the words.

Set list:

  1. Kinda the Lonely One
  2. Powerlines
  3. Saint Spurious
  4. Salesmen, Cheats, and Liars
  5. So Long Bernie
  6. Infinite
  7. California Gothic
  8. For the Hand of Magdelena
  9. Concave
  10. Gerona Train
  11. Gossip Talkin’ Blues
  12. Life Imitates Art
  13. Darkhorse
  14. Henry Needs a New Pair of Shoes (snipping of Bankrobber by The Clash)
  15. Eternal Fatalist

Encore

  1. Subversives
  2. Confetti (The Lemonheads cover)
  3. Bleed a Little While Tonight (with a bit of Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed)
  4. Rosy and Grey

 


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Reservations about resolutions

Angela: [voiceover] What I was thinking, as like a New Year’s resolution, is to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts. Cause I’m, like, way too introspective… I think.

Generally, I find the whole ritual of trying to think of something to change about yourself or your life just because it’s January 1 is silly. Sure, sometimes a change is a very good idea—but it doesn’t need that kind of schedule. Deciding that something in your life just isn’t working or could be better shouldn’t be a once-a-year event. Whenever it needs to be happen, you should try to make it happen.

But, what does occur annually, just before January 1, is that you have down time. That time before and between Christmas and New Year’s when everything just… slows… down…

OK, not everyone gets that down time. Jean is in a line of work where they get super-busy from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.

But, I get that down time. Most people do. Even if you are at work, it’s so quiet and slow-paced. But likely you’re off and you have all this time to read… And to think…

Angela: [voiceover] … but what if not thinking turns me into this shallow person? I better rethink this becoming less introspective thing.

All that reading and thinking can lead, sort of organically, to maybe deciding to try to change something about your life, about now.

I got a bonus dose of that sort of time this year, because Jean wasn’t feeling well in the days before Christmas, so we did fewer activities than we otherwise would have. That meant I upped the amount of reading I did. I got through a number of books, including In my humble opinion. My so-called life by Soraya Roberts, a nice refresher of essays about that beloved series, and suppliers of handy quotes for this post.

But I was also keeping up better with online news, and newspapers, and magazines, which led to some pondering about how I could more routinely keep on top of my reading? But I haven’t quite cracked that nut, given that the biggest obstacle seems to be my job, which is probably wise to hang on to for the time being.

Angela: [voiceover] …okay, so I’ll stay introspective.
But I do resolve to stop doing Jordan Catalano’s homework.

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Angela doing Jordan Catalano’s homework

One Globe and Mail story I read then was called Minimal carbs, lots of fat, incredible dieting results – but not enough science. It was about all the anecdotal evidence that people with diabetes often do really well on a high-fat, low-carb diet—though the point of the article was that there wasn’t scientific study of this, and there should be.

I am not diabetic, but my husband is, and I do the cooking. This got me wondering: Is this how I should be feeding him? I found another article, Low Carb-High Fat Diet And Diabetes: A Detailed Guide For Beginners, whose prescriptions were not only mind-blowingly different from what I thought of as a “healthy” diet, but also sounded fairly gross: pile up on meat, eggs, and high-diet dairy. Don’t eat much fruit or grains, and even limit root vegetables. And beans and lentils.

So bacon is the health food, and apples are the villain now?

There was no way I was going to eat this way. For one thing, I seemed to be keeping myself pretty healthy, and I somewhat feared that switching over to more saturated fat and less fruit and vegetables might be detrimental to me. Plus, there were all those ethical and environmental issues around meat eating.

(As an aside, I once told Jean’s Mom that we ate vegetarian twice a week, and she reacted with stunned amazement that such a thing could be possible. “Deux fois par semaine!” Funny.)

Anyway, I was rather relieved when Jean seemed equally unenthused about this approach. “I don’t like meat that much, ” he pointed out. “I get sick of eggs. I like fruit. I like potatoes. And this granola is actually really good!”

The funny thing is we’re discussing this at Christmas time, when we’re busily eating things like sticky toffee pudding and tourtière. (Hey, we still gotta live.)

Angela: [voiceover] The thing about resolutions is, it’s hard to remember them around somebody like Jordan Catalano.

Once back home, I experimented with moderately increasing Jean’s protein and fat intake, like giving him back bacon (organic and “humane treated”) as side dish on vegetarian night, while he rethought eating five tangerines in one go (“But they’re so good!”).

Then the Globe and Mail ran a follow-up on their “we need to study high-fat diets for diabetics” story with A diet high in fat is best – with the right kind of fat. It said that, no no, we have studied this thing, and the best diet for diabetics isn’t a high-fat, low-carb diet; it’s really the Mediterranean diet. I found a more full report on that here: Best Diabetes Diets.

Jordan: This is wrong.
Angela: What?
Jordan: You, doing my homework, it’s wrong.
Angela: Well I was just trying to help.
Jordan: It’s like I’m taking advantage of you or something.
Angela: You’re not taking advantage of me.
Jordan: Yeah I am. It would be different if we were like… but now you’re just… you know, a friend or whatever. [pause] I can’t do this anymore.

“So what is the Mediterranean diet?” asked Jean, by now pretty weary of my dietary resolutions du jour.

“Lots of fruits and vegetables. Fish, lean meat, and low-fat dairy. Plenty of healthy fats like olive oil. Nuts. Wine. Whole grains. Limit red meats. Avoid sugar and simple carbohydrates.”

“So,” he said. “Pretty much how we were eating before?”

“Uh huh.”

Angela: [voiceover] I couldn’t believe it. For the first time in my life I actually stuck to a resolution.


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On the eve of 2018

I’m not sure how many times we were asked if we were going to the Rainbow Rhythm New Year’s Eve dinner / dance. Often by the same people, multiple times.

But New Year’s Eve, for us, has traditionally been a night for consuming gourmet food, which is not exactly what’s served at the Rainbow Rhythm dinner / dance. The dance people don’t quite get that we’d rather just eat that night, nor are they generally willing to spend as much for a dinner as we are.

So what are you doing that night, instead?

To have some kind of answer, fairly early on I’d booked an 8:00 dinner at The Berlin for New Year’s Eve night. Figured we could cancel it if something better came up, but at least we’d have somewhere to go that night if not. We’d been the previous two years and found it pretty good.

But The Berlin experienced a shakeup earlier this month: Founding chef, Jonathan Gushue—who’s become a bit of a celebrity—decided to leave. He’s headed back to his native Newfoundland to be head chef at a high-end restaurant on Fogo Island. In his place they’ve brought in Ben Lillico, who is all of 23 years old (and looks about 18). Despite his youth, though, he does have some great experience, including a stint at Langdon Hall.

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The Berlin’s new chef

Without intending it, we ended up trying Lillico’s cooking just a few days after he started at The Berlin—at the admittedly easier meal of brunch. Brunch there includes your choice of hot items from the kitchen, along with the buffet table, and we were very happy with the meal.

As New Year’s approached, The Berlin announced that they would be offering a 7-course meal for $95 that night, which sounded intriguing. Initially seating times were listed as 5, 7, 9, and 11, so I switched our 8:00 reservation to 9:00. Then they decided that 2.5 hours might be a more comfortable amount of time for that many courses, and offered seating at 4:30 (!), 7:00, and 9:30. Hence, we would be dining at 9:30.

We had to figure out how to get there and back, since they were offering wine pairings (for $50), which meant that we both planned to be drinking. We tried to reserve taxis, but the local companies don’t take reservations for New Year’s Eve night. Over the Limit (who drive your car home with another car following) were already booked up. We figured Uber’s surge pricing would make that a pretty expensive option.

And so, despite it being -19C that night (air temperature, no wind chill), we took the bus. Buses are free on New Year’s Eve, and Grand River Transit has this very good route planning thing that tells you exactly how to get from point A to point B, including all walks and bus transfers involved. We bundled up, and darned if the buses weren’t exactly on schedule the whole way, such that we arrived exactly when Grand River Transit said we would, at 9:12 pm.

We had a short wait before our preferred table, facing the kitchen, was ready. As we sipped our bubbly, Jean noted that the entire kitchen staff seemed to have changed. We asked our waiter about it later, and he confirmed that when Jonathan said he was leaving, pretty much everyone else in the kitchen gave notice, too.

But the fact the crew had only been together for three weeks by this point did not show in any stumbles in either food or service. Really, I think this was the best New Year’s Eve dinner we’ve ever had at The Berlin.

The amuse was bay scallops escabeche (we asked, and it means cooked in an acidic mixture) with pickled root vegetables and crème fraiche. The seafood had lovely flavor and texture. Next up was this lovely item:

Foie Gras Terrine - Fantastic!

Which was a foie gras terrine with beets and celery. Rich and fantastic. It was served with 2 oz. of Southbrook Farms Whimsy, which is a sherry style drink. It made for an effective contrast with the foie gras.

Truffle Mushroom Soup

The incredible truffle mushroom soup was also served with a contrasting wine, a Chablis from Burgundy. Not a match I would have thought of, but it worked really well.

Seared Ling Cod in Smoked pork Broth adn Sunchoke mask - The mash was the highlight

The ling cod served next was fine, but the highlight of the dish was actually the mashed sunchokes, as set off by the lentils and smoked pork broth. The wine here was a delicious 2015 Sangiovese, light enough to not overpower the fish but picking up on the smoky flavors.

We had a pear palette cleanser next.

Pear and Ice

And the main course was venison prepared in caul fat, which (we asked) made it extremely tender and less “gamey” tasting than venison normally is. That was served with roast parsnips, onions, and juniper sauce. The wine served was a bigger red, a Gingondas from the Southern Rhone.

Venison

That left dessert, which was this absolutely incredible chocolate torte with raspberry sorbet. It was served with Southbrook Farms Framboise, a raspberry wine that is very well suited to chocolate.

Chocolate torte and Rasberry Sorbet

We managed to finish up somewhat before midnight, which meant that we got through to the taxi company with no delay. (There was no suitable bus route back home at this time of day.) That also meant that we rang in the new year while still in the cab, but there you go.

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Christmas 2017

The Christmas season started with a lot of dancing. Mid-December, our dance class event in community centre gym was very well-attended. For Jean and I, it was one of those nights where our dancing was just clicking and we were able to move around the floor with ease. (Which we could bottle that.) We also enjoyed the music choices (our dance instructor played DJ), which included a slow-fox version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and a strict-tempo jive of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

The following night was a fancier dinner/dance at The Victorian Park Pavilion, which is a beautiful venue. We forgot to request seating with people we knew, though the people we ended up with were fine—until one lady started bending Jean’s ear about the wonders of raw-food veganism, or some such.

The meal served was not raw-food vegan, though, but a traditional turkey dinner—and quite good, particularly considering the $35 per person fee. No booze on offer, though! Since we couldn’t bottle it, our dancing didn’t click quite as well that night. Music was a bit more “traditional” as well. But still a nice night out overall.

Finally on this theme, one couple in our dance class hosted a house party that did not feature dancing, but was still a very enjoyable evening of food and conversation. Amazing what these dance classes have done for our social life.


Jean and I did not do a gift exchange with each other this year—though a few new kitchen gadgets still trickled in, as Jean had planned ahead in case, and figured we needed them anyway. But we did do a Christmas dinner à deux, featuring roast duck, wasabi mashed potatoes, broccoli with tahini, and cranberry-pear sauce. Served with a nice California Pinot noir. Then, sugar pie for dessert.

Though we haven’t had the greatest luck with Christmas air travel in the past, we decided to book flights to Timmins this year. Our departure was set for 11 pm the night of December 21—we thought that the airport would be less busy at that time. I had that day off, but Jean was working. Or, he was until about 10 am. At that point he called me to come pick him up at the office, as he was experiencing the serious low back and abdominal pain that indicated kidney stones.

At home, he sat in the tub and drank tea until the worst of it passed. It would still be a few more days, though, until he really felt right again.

It was snowing, and Christmas, so we allowed for a lot of time to get to the airport and check our baggage. Everything went really well, though, so we had a lot of time to wait. At least I got plenty of reading done.

We boarded the plane pretty much on time, but then had to wait in a lineup on the runway for de-icing, for what turned out to be an hour. After about 45 minutes I finally turned airplane mode off on my phone so I could email Dad that we were still in Toronto, so maybe he didn’t want to wait up for us. He agreed that he didn’t.

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Ornament from Dad’s tree

Timmins was nippy when we arrived, but our rental car was already running and setting out front of the airport exit. (And boy was the rental guy happy to see us. We were his last customers, at about 1:30 am, and he’d started at 7 am that day.) Dad didn’t even hear us arrive; the next morning, he wondered if we even had, until he noticed that the guest bedroom door was closed.

Friday and Saturday were pretty mellow, partly because Jean still wasn’t feeling up to snuff yet. We did visit with his Mom, of course, and saw some of his other siblings at her house. And Neal and Sarah-Simone came over to Dad’s for a visit on Saturday. We also tested out the Skype connection with Joanne and Jon ahead of Christmas morning, and ran an errand at the LCBO (booze store, for non-Ontarians). But that was about all the excitement.

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Though this might have provided some excitement, had Dad’s brownies actually contained the ingredient suggested on the lid! (Hilarously, Dad stores his homebaked brownies in a container that previously contained hemp products.)

Christmas Eve morning Michelle, Jackson, and John arrived—Hugh decided to stay in Toronto for the Macphie family Christmas this year. That livened up the house a bit. And in the afternoon we paid a visit to our friends Paul and Sylvie, which is always nice. We got tales of their new cottage, and Jean and Sylvie exchanged photography tips that Paul and I pretended to understand.

We had a nice salmon Christmas Eve dinner at Dad’s that night, then they went to church while we got ourselves (eventually; we did get a bit lost) to my cousin’s for Réveillon #1. Fewer people in attendance this year; my uncle Gilles, for one, was not feeling up to going. But that made for a nice opportunity to talk to those that were there—my cousins, their kids, and their kid’s kids, and my aunt and uncle.

We did have to leave before the game portion of the evening to get to Réveillon #2, at the Lefebvre’s. And now I have to apologize because Jean was kept so busy at this event—first playing Santa to hand out the kids’s gifts, then reciting the left/right story for the random gift exchange—that he didn’t take any pictures. And it just didn’t occur to me to do that instead.

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Ornament from Jean’s Mom’s tree. Not taken on Christmas Eve.

And this year’s gift theme was hats, so that would have made for a lot of amusing photos! Jean, for one, got right into it and provided a whole collection of ridiculous hats: a poop emoji mask, three pucks in a nylons (a hat trick! Think about it), and so on. I supplied this book:

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Which did greatly amuse the recipient, niece Natasha.

A large-format version of the following photo from our anniversary party was provided as a family Christmas gift to Jean’s Mom.

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The Lefebvre family (with part of the McNair family in the background)

The McNair Christmas gift exchange was still the stealing game, but with a couple differences this year: The price limit was set at $30, and the number of gifts to be bought was divided up such that Neal and Michelle didn’t have to buy extra just because they had kids. So each family bought three and Dad bought two, and that covered everyone…

(Except that Michelle was so busy she didn’t quite read all the rules, so she caught the $30 limit but not the fact that she didn’t have to buy as many as item, so we had a couple extras, but that’s OK.)

So we Skyped in Joanne and Jon for the whole thing. Jackson got Hugh in on Facebook on his phone, but only as required—that is, only when Hugh had to pick or was involved in a steal. Otherwise Jackson would just hang up on him. This turned out pretty funny, because I don’t think anyone was involved in more steals than Hugh! So he kept have to be reconnected and then brought up to speed on what exciting new items had arrived since he had last been with us.

The most laughs, though, were courtesy of Jean’s contribution, a leftover ridiculous hat.

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Jackson modelling the hat along with a VR headset, another contributed item

Also somewhat amusing was that Thérèse had accidentally grabbed an individualized gift (slippers for her grandmother) instead of one for the exchange. So we had to imaginarily include what was intended.

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Isaac with his “invisible” hammock

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Some of the kids, mid-play

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Caleb’s cozy gift ends up with Michelle

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And there were a few “Godchildren” gifts to hand out at the end

That afternoon, the temperature hadn’t quite plunged to the depths it was about to in the coming days, so we finally got outside. The snowshoe trails weren’t open at the Ski Club (not enough snow!) so we just walked on Carium Road.

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Outside!

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Winter wonderland, I guess?

The rest of the afternoon was mostly about food prep. Late afternoon Jean headed to the Lefebvre family dinner. Happily, Gilles had recovered enough to join the McNair supper, along with Terrie.

After dinner and cleanup, we played a game of Telestrations, which was one of the items Jean and I had contributed to the McNair gift exchange. It’s like the telephone game, except that you had to draw what the word was and then the next person had to guess what you had drawn. Very simple, but absolutely hilarious, some of the results. (Though should be noted that Neal’s family has enough talented artists that a number of items got through 8 people successfully.)

Boxing Day we were scheduled to fly out at 10:20 am; Jean had to work on the 27th. All seemed good as we boarded the plane and took off on schedule. It didn’t seem we were elevating as much as usual, and drink service seemed a bit slow, but I didn’t think too much of that until the captain came on and said: “I’m sorry for what I’m about to tell you.”

There was a mechanical problem with the plane. The good news was, we weren’t all about to die. The bad news was, we had to fly back to Timmins. The wheels of the airplane weren’t elevating into the plane as they needed to. The drag that caused on the plane meant there wasn’t enough fuel to get us to Toronto.

Then it was a waiting game. They did first try to see if the plane’s problems could quickly be repaired, but that turned out to be a no, and then it was flight cancellation and rebooking time. We recalled that we had purchased On My Way travel assistance for this flight, which was supposed to give us priority in being rebooked. When we called that number, and they suggested that we should be able to get on the 4:00 pm flight that day, but weren’t able to do that immediately as the flight was “frozen” while all passengers were processed. When we finally got our rebooking email, though, had us on a 5:20 am (AM!) flight the next day. We called again, and they said there was nothing they could do.

So we’re following up with Air Canada about that.

Meanwhile, we took a taxi back to Dad’s (who then had to dash out to the grocery to get more food for his now larger number of dinner guests). One upside is that it did give me a chance to visit with my Aunt Irene, who is 88, and my cousin Monique and daughter Simone. They dropped by at Dad’s on their way to bringing Simone to the airport. It was also nice having more time with Dad, Michelle, Jackson, and John. And the lasagna dinner was very delicious.

Getting up at 3:00 am for our next flight was less delicious, particularly as it was -35C at that point, but we did it. Dad very kindly drove us to the airport at 4:00 am. And yes, that flight took off in time, and managed to get all the way to Toronto. Where it had snowed considerably and was pretty darn chilly!

Wishing everyone a happy new year.


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Bright spots in December (other than the obvious one)

The Christmas vacation post is coming, but Jean hasn’t had a chance to select and process the Christmas photos yet. So in the meantime, here’s a list of items that brightened the per-Christmas period for me this year.

Gel eyeliner

I’m a makeup girl. (Woman. Whatever.) I never wear perfume, I rarely bother with nail polish, and I don’t like spending much time styling my hair. But makeup, I find fun. It seems worth than 10 or so minutes lalmost every day.

But eyeliner has always been tricky. Liquid eyeliner is too dramatic for day use. And hard to apply corectly for night use. Pencil eyeliners are easy to apply but often result in a rather pale line that usually smudges during the day, producing that terrific raccoon eyes effect.

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Fortunately it rarely got this bad, but still… (photo from the Huffington Post)

I don’t know why I’m only learning this now, but makeup artists prefer gel or cream eyeliners—the kind that comes in a little pot. Having a good brush is vital, but with that, these eyeliners are pretty easy to apply. And they don’t set immediately, so if you don’t get it quite right, it’s easy to fix. And best of all, once you are happy with the results, it will set and stay with no smudging for the whole day. The line is distinct, but not as harsh as with liquid eyeliners. I love this stuff.

The brand I got was Estée Lauder Double Wear Stay-in-Place Gel Eyeliner in Stay Coffee colour. From The Bay. The brush that comes with it is fairly useless, but with a better one (that I already owned), the product itself is excellent.

 

T-shirt bra

The ThirdLove bra company advertised fairly heavily in the Washington Post this year, til I finally got intrigued. “Discover your best-fitting bra in 60 seconds.” No tape measure required. You just had to answer a series of questions about your breast shape and current bra-fitting issues.

Maybe other people have better mental self-image, but for me this took more than 60 seconds because I kept having to run from PC to the bathroom mirror to see which little breast diagram best reflected my shape and whether my current bra rode up or gapped. But it’s true I didn’t have to use a tape measure.

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Nor, fortunately, were any of these sorts of calisthenics required

Having completed the questions, I tried to take ThirdLove up on their “try free for 30 days” offer, but it didn’t apply to Canada, so I abandoned the effort. Only to then be emailed me and offered a discount. I then went ahead with an order, that was promptly charged to my card.

Some days later I realized I had yet to receive a shipping notification, which seemed odd. Some days more after that, they did email again say there was some issue with my order, but that it would come eventually. And also here’s another discount for my next order. Then there was more radio silence, with the added small aggravation that every time I visited their website to try to figure out what was going on, they’d email trying to get me to buy another bra!

So I was a bit predisposed to be skeptical of their product when it finally did arrive, but damn if it isn’t the best-fitting, most comfortable bra I’ve ever had.

BBC Live Aid documentary

Lo these many years later, I retain fond memories of the 1985 Live Aid concert. It was organized by a singer I really liked (Bob Geldof); my favourite band, Queen, were the stars of the day; and it featured so many other artists I also like (The Who, U2, George Michael, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, The Boomtown Rats…). And all for a good cause!

So I was pretty excited when YouTube coughed up this recommendation:

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I also found this buried in a drawer!

Though produced in 2011 or so, I had never heard of this Live Aid: Against All Odds documentary—a hazard of not living in the UK, I suppose. Being 3 hours long (there’s a Part 2 as well), I had to wait a bit to start it—because once I did, I predictably didn’t want to stop.

I’ve watched other documentaries on Live Aid, I’ve read books and magazines, but still, I learned more from this one. Like just how demented and troublesome a figure Bill Graham was. And that the hosts on the BBC side had never done anything on this scale before and were petrified. There’s also considerable time spent on the degree to which Midge Ure (co-writer of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) was overshadowed by Bob Geldof—though Midge refuses to go into an all-out rant about it. (“That’s just Bob.”)

Definitely recommended viewing to anyone else who looks back on that day fondly.

Yoga mat and blender parts

These things are so prosaic, but still…

mat_group_sweep-COLOURFixMy old yoga mat was basically disintegrating. I was looking to add an item to an online order to get free shipping. I saw they sold yoga mats at what seemed a reasonable price, so I threw that in.

I guess I hadn’t particularly realized that, like anything else, some yoga mats are better than others. This yoga mat is just better than any I’ve had before (though admittedly, the “before” are all cheapie Canadian Tire ones). It’s thicker. It’s “stickier”. It just feels better to stand on. It’s the Halfmoon Studio yoga mat.

(Also, did you know you can clean yoga mats in the washing machine? Cold water, delicate cycle, hang to dry. Works great, no manual scrubbing.)

brevilleAs for the blender parts, I was just glad those were so easy to buy. I used to have Cuisinart blenders. The units worked great, but eventually the bowl or the lid would break, crack, chip—somehow become unusable. And Cuisinart just made it really difficult to buy replacements (at least at the time). Hard to find, expensive… Once I bought a whole new unit just to be able to use the parts with my previous unit.

Now I have a Breville. For which I needed a new small bowl and lid before the cracks spread to the point of making them unusable. Remarkably, all I had to do was go to their website and order those two parts, which were then shipped to my house. Imagine!

Glow

This Netflix series has been out for a while, but it was December viewing for us. Set in the 1980s, it’s about a group of women cast as wrestlers for a television series. Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is the main character we follow through, but all the women get some time in the spotlight. Marc Maron plays the failed B movie director Sam Silvia, hired by rich-boy wrestling fan Chris Lowell to direct the show. All the actors are really strong.

I’m no kind of wrestling fan, but I still enjoyed the pace, drama, and humour of this women-focused series (as did Jean). I even gained some appreciation of wrestling. And as a bonus, it also has a great 80s soundtrack.

 


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100% fresh

We saw Lady Bird last weekend. This indie film is most famous for having attained a record 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that it got positive notices from all 195 critics who reviewed it.

It would be nicely contrarian of me to report that I didn’t like it… but I did. Set in 2002, it’s about a young woman named Christine (who prefers to be called Lady Bird) negotiating her last year of high school in Sacramento, California. Nothing epic or bizarre occurs. She tries to boost her college changes with extracurriculars. She dates boys for the first time. She abandons old friends for new. She consistently fails to please her mother.

But it works because her character and the supporting characters are so strong and appealing, with great acting that makes them all believable. And, because it presents a time of life and experiences that most of us (at least most North Americans) can relate to. Even Jean, who definitely prefers plot-driven films over character-driven ones like this, was able to enjoy the ride. For me, it didn’t hurt that it was centrally a story of women: Christine, her mom, and her best friend are the main characters. Dad, the boyfriends, the brother, were all supporting cast.


Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a new-ish Freddie Mercury biography called Somebody to Love, by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. It’s hardly the first Freddie biography ever written (or that I’ve read) and I missed the fine print that this one would be particularly looking at his life in the context of the AIDS crisis. Which I pretty quickly decided was not the context I prefer to focus on. Sure, it was sort of interesting finding out just how far back the disease’s origins can be traced, and that Freddie had had an encounter with “patient zero”, and that Reagan wasn’t quite as bad on AIDS as they say (though he was pretty bad), but overall I found myself skipping over the pages discussing increasing death rates or what symptoms Freddie developed when, preferring the parts that talked about the music and the important relationships in his life.

Those parts were a reminder, though, of the extent of critical slagging Queen endured throughout their career. The reviews were not just negative—they were scathing.

A Day at the Races, 1976: “I hate this album…. All of these songs with their precious impotent Valentino kitsch mouthings on romance, their spotlight on a vocalist so giddily enamoured with his own precious image—they literally make my flesh creep.” NME. (Hey, NME: Homophobic much?)

The Game, 1980: “Less obnoxious than Queen’s last few outings, simply because it’s harder to get annoyed at a group that’s plugging away at bad rockabilly than with one blasting out crypto-Nazi marching tunes.” Rolling Stone (Yes, Nazi comparisons are always apropos.)

The Miracle, 1989: “Addresses the question how much bad taste it is possible to cram onto one album.” The Times.

Few critics at the time seemed to recognize that Queen wrote songs that would endure, become the soundtrack of people’s lives. That in the multi-layered vocals, they developed a sound unique to them. That they four song writers each capable of writing hit songs. That they had one the best rock vocalists. That this band would come to be seen as one of all-time greats.


Both of which got me thinking of the state of professional criticism today, compared with the pre-digital era. For movies, while the influence of any individual critic has diminished compared with the heyday of the likes of Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane, and Siskel and Ebert, as an aggregate, they seem to have Hollywood spooked!

I find it fascinating that Rotten Tomatoes, a site I’ve been using for years, has recently become this force: How Rotten Tomatoes became Hollywood’s most influential — and feared — website

Decades ago, the only way to evaluate a movie before its release was to read reviews in major publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker or the Los Angeles Times. Today, moviegoers rely on the Tomatometer, a number that shows what percentage of critics recommend the film.

It’s no coincidence that the few breakout hits of the summer box office all have scores of 80% or higher… And for lesser films, a very low score can be fatal.

But for music? Aggregate sites do exist, like Metacritic—but I had to look up that fact, because I don’t use them, even though I do listen to music regularly. And the only thing I’ve read about recent music criticism is that it seems to be overly positive now. The original WSJ article is pay-walled, so here’s a report on (and critique of) that article: No, There Weren’t Only 8 Bad Albums in the Last 4 Years.

Why the difference? Well, movies are still something of an investment, aren’t they? Of time, if nothing else: two or so hours you won’t get back if you hated, hated, hated that movie. But often of money also: people still go to theatres to see movies, buy them on disc, pay to rent them, subscribe to movie channels. And they’re still expensive to make, so there’s only so many of them released each month. And there’s no Spotify of movies, really: Current movies are not in constant competition with movies of the past. If you’re into movies, you can focus on and make a decision about each.

But albums? They’re no longer distributed on vinyl discs you can play only on your home stereo system… And it’s really just about songs now, which are short, and you can listen to those anywhere, and (if you don’t mind the ads) it’s free to do so. Who needs to be warned away from a bad album when the skip button is right there? The danger isn’t in wasting time (or money) on bad music; it’s on missing out on great music because there is just so much music so easily available now. Of course music reviews are mostly positive: Recommendations are all we need.


So yeah, Rotten Tomatoes got me out to see Lady Bird, and I’m glad it did. I would point out that its 100% score doesn’t mean that all 195 critics thought it was the best movie ever, only that all agreed it was a good one. I would say that too. I liked it, but I don’t know if it’s the best movie I saw even this year: Get Out was so creative, The Big Sick did a great job of balancing the tragic and the comic. But Lady Bird was also a worthy two hours.

As for Queen, all those crappy reviews at the time never deterred me—I’m not sure how many I would have read, anyway, in the pre-digital era where British music magazines weren’t easily available. But the band read them, and yes, despite their success, it did bother them. So I’m glad that most of the group has survived to see the tide of opinion change, and that they can still play to sold-out arenas around the world (to positive reviews, at that). It’s just really tragic that Freddie didn’t live to see that, as well.

Fun way to end this:

Most of these kids actually have heard of Queen, which likely in itself says something of their legacy. But the most fun is the one little girl who hasn’t. “That’s the same band?” she comments, amazed, hearing “Killer Queen” right after “Radio Gaga”. “What is this?” she says, eyes wide, of “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

That, my dear, is probably the greatest rock epic of all time.