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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Skating’s greatest hits

The KW Symphony’s intersections series was about combining orchestra and… something else. Physics. Fiddling. Food. Heavy Metal. Though Friday’s concert was not part of that series (sadly not offered this year), it was still of that ilk. The partner this time was figure skating.

cover_kurt-browning-bea9d304There was no way I was missing this one. Particularly as it was being hosted by three-time world champion, first man to ever land a quadruple jump in competition, Kurt Browning.

Jean was considerably less enthused about attending.

If wondering, no, they did not somehow bring an ice rink into Centre in the Square, not have the symphony decamp to play at a hockey arena. Instead, most of the skating seen on video.

After an opening performance of An American in Paris, our celebrity host explained that while music was incredibly important in figure skating, it had to go through a certain amount of mangling to fit the sport’s requirements: Cropped to fit into the time constraints. Tempo adjusted to match the tricks. Bit recombined to create certain moods.

This meant that when the symphony played the soundtrack to a video of Browning’s world championship performance of Casablanca, they couldn’t just the pull out the sheet music for “As Time Goes By”. Instead, the conductor had to write a new orchestral score for the Frankenstein version of that piece that Browning skated to.

It was gorgeous.

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Example of Cranston’s art

Browning was so moved by it, he barely knew what was on next, so conductor Lucas Waldin stepped in to explain that it was a tribute to Toller Cranston (who apparently pioneered this whole orchestra / figure skating idea), featuring selections from the ballet Gayane.  This time, the screens showed scenes of Toller’s amazing paintings and decor before showing his Sabre Dance skate with live orchestra. Just fab.

Given the chance to recover, Browning emerged to point out that while artistic, figure skating is still a sporting competition with some serious rivalries over the years. The Symphony played Sing Sing Sing while we saw clips from the battle of the Brians, the battle of the Carmens (though they didn’t mention that both were defeated by Canuck Liz Manley), Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan (remember that?), Virtue/Moir vs. Davis/White, and so on.

We then moved on to a montage tribute to skaters past, when they had to skate outdoors (!), and future, in the form of the youngsters at the KW Skating Club. And Kurt Browning introduced Don Jackson, 1962 World Figure Skating Champion, who was in the audience. Cool! Oh, and the tune played for that piece was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The next bit seemed to be interrupted by a badly timed cell phone call—only it was Kurt Browning’s phone, and on the line was Olympic Bronze medallist Joannie Rochette. (Seriously.) She talked about she managed to get through that Olympic performance just days after her mother died. Then the symphony played La cumparsita to a video of it. (Using a few stills so as to not have to cut the piece down to exactly 4 minutes.)

YouTube of Rochette’s Olympic performance from European TV

Kurt then dragged out a collection of his costumes from over the years, selecting a purple velvet hat and robe for conductor Lucas Waldin to wear. We then got a montage of some of the more interesting sartorial choices figure skaters had made (admittedly, many from gala and not competition pieces), to selections from Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

Kurt emerged in his Singin’ in the Rain outfit, and we got a singer! And tap dancer, it turned out: Mr. Geoffrey Tyler. With all that going on live, this song was not played to video footage of that famous skating piece. Instead, via roller blades, we got some live Kurt Browning skating! And the first standing ovation of the night.

The video we didn’t see of Singing in the Rain

At intermission, Jean said we very pleased about high entertainment value of the evening so far.

And he was not being sarcastic!

The second half kicked off with the Symphony playing Phantom of the Opera, on their own. Kurt came out to discuss the fact that many skaters tried to skate to that piece—but none had really succeeded in achieving an iconic performance with it. Too big a song, perhaps, for the white, bright, bare stage of figure skating competition.

Singer Tyler returned to perform What a Wonderiful World, a show piece of Kurt Browning’s. Tyler also talked about how he’s worked with figure skaters. on the dramatic aspects of their performance, on connecting emotionally. We then did a bit of a 180 into an Abba medley (though Abba sounds great orchestrated!), highlighting scenes from the world of professional figure skating.

And then, the hauntingly beautiful Mahler piece, Adagietto from Symphony No. 5. Conductor and Browning discussed how only very special skaters could do it justice. Katerina Gordeeva was one; she skated it solo as a tribute to her partner, Sergei Gringov, after his sudden death.

Ekaterina Gordeeva 1996 Celebration of Life / Mahler – Symphony No. 5 (Serguei Grinkov Tribute)

Another were Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won Gold with it at the Vancouver Olympics. The video played to this beautiful piece wasn’t either of those performance in their entirety, but compilations of them along with some from Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who didn’t use the music (that I know of) but certainly brought emotion and drama to their pairs performances.

The next piece didn’t need, and therefore didn’t get, video accompaniment: Ravel’s Bolero, forever synonymous with Torville and Dean. Though Browning informed that Carolina Kotsner is one of the few who has successfully skated to the piece since that team’s perfect performance.

Our finale was the theme of the Vancouver Olympics, I Believe, featuring the adorable singers of the Grand Philharmonic Children’s Choir. And then they gave us an encore! (Note: This is rare at the symphony.) Conducted by Kurt! The Toreador Song.

As a figure skating fan, I was thrilled to bits with the evening.

As a non-figure skating fan, Jean declared that he glad he had been “dragged out” to this performance. (Again, not sarcastically.)

It was a great intersection.

(Thanks to Skate Canada for all the footage they provided they provided for the show. Much higher quality than what you can find on YouTube…)


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Live and on the CBC

I did watch The Tragically Hip show on CBC television last night. It seemed the thing to do, and I was interested enough. I’m of the age where their music formed the soundtrack of my life, whether I realized it or not. I own only two Tragically Hip albums (Up to Here and Road Apples), yet I knew the chorus of almost every song they played last night.

For any non-Canadians who stumble on this: The Tragically Hip’s lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. He’s in remission, and the band has done a cross-country tour, ending in their hometown of Kingston last night. National broadcaster CBC interrupted their Olympic coverage to bring the concert to everyone, commercial-free.

There’s been a lot of great writing about this band, and this tour, in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, The New Yorker. I can’t compete. It’s not only that I’m not as good a music writer—though that is true—but also that, familiarity with choruses notwithstanding, I’m not a big enough fan. I could observe that the band were quite good, that they mostly pumped through the songs without a lot banter with the audience (hard to know what to say, one thinks), that Gord Downie restricted his talking to thank you’s and a comment on First Nations people up north, that they did three encores, that the show was about three hours long.

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Gord Downie from an earlier Toronto show as, in a very strange decision, the promoter would not allow official photographers at the Kingston show

But I couldn’t truly get into the emotion of it. I’m not sure why, in all these years, their songs have never really touched my soul. They’re catchy, they’re in a genre I like, the lyrics are smart and highly original.

Maybe it’s simply that, until last night, I had never seen this band live.


Friday night Jean and I went to our first-ever CD release party. No, not our CD (heavens!); Alysha Brilla’s. Alysha Brilla is a local artist with some (not Tragically Hip level) national fame.

She once lived in LA, and was signed to a big recording contract. But she couldn’t fit into that little commercial box they wanted to put her in.

“They wanted me to write songs about going to the club. And picking up guys.” she commented on Friday. “And I’m like, but I don’t go to clubs. I don’t pick up guys.”

So she scampered away from that contract, and set up as an independent artist in Canada. And the only reason most of us have heard of her is the CBC Radio often plays her songs. (See her public love letter to CBC Radio.)

Her music has always been a kind of fusion of jazz / world sounds with a touch of pop, but the latest album, Human, has more Indian influences than her past work. I listened to it on Google Music (and yes, heard a couple tracks on CBC Radio) before picking it up on Friday, but I wasn’t sure about it. It has a lot of spiritual themes (one song is actually called “Spiritual”), it’s all peace and love and changing the world (another song is literally called “Changing the World”).

It’s very granola, you know?

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Music, singer, songwriter, producer, artist Alysha Brilla

But after having seen her perform several tracks live, I’m kind of digging it. For one thing, she’s just such a charmer live—gets you in her corner right from the opening, and keeps you there. She was playing the Jazz Room, which has an unfortunate rectangular shape that is not ideal for live music, and was very full, and pretty hot, and during the 1.5 hour or so wait before she started, we actually pondered leaving.

But I’m glad we didn’t; the show was interactive and so fun. We got the stories behind some of the new songs: “Gender Rollz” was inspired by her time in LA, and the strict modes of behaviour expected of both men and women in the big music industry. “Ahimsa” (which means peace) came to her while on vacation in Kenya. The “Bigger Than That” singalong has great lyrics. And her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” was awesome.(“Until Amy Winehouse came along”, she said, “I thought, ‘What hope is there for an olive-skinned weirdo like me?’”) It’s not on the album, but it is on YouTube.

And here’s some more:

Introducing Alysha Brilla (Soundcloud)

 


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To the late night, double feature, picture show

Rocky Horror Picture Show and I go way back.

I read about the movie years before I actually saw it. In my small, Northern Ontario town back in the day, there were no late-night (or any time) showings, but I read about them in the rock magazines. I recall being quite taken by the photos of Tim Curry in his fishnets. (I later learned that many women found themselves surprised by how much they were taken by Tim Curry in his fishnets.)

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Attending the film itself had to wait until I went to university in Montreal.  The McGill Film Society showed it and my friends and I were there, armed with newspapers and rice, but not in costume. The audience was a mix of newbies and, fortunately, some veterans who knew what you were supposed to shout at the screen when. I wasn’t entirely sure if the movie was good (so campy!), but I found the whole experience fun.

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Not the performance I was at–back then we didn’t take pictures of everything…

I never did become a regular screening attendee, but I’ve certainly seen the movie a number of times since then. Our local repertory cinema still plays it every year at Halloween. Jean and I attended with friends at least once. We hadn’t planned for enough ahead to get fully costumed as any character, but I did aim for a sort of Goth look. (And I believe that Jean eccentrically went as a clown.)

Since then, I’ve seen Rocky Horror on network TV, purchased and devoured the DVD–including all extras–saw a very fun live performance of it courtesy of the University of Waterloo drama department (being a performance for alumni and faculty, that was a different audience than previous), and even checked out the TMN parody (more nudity, but much less gay).

So when I read that JM Drama Productions had another local version on this past weekend, it was an easy to decision to go.

Most appropriately, we had to run through heavy rain to get to the theatre, where we were confronted by a number of scantily clad Goth types. Rocky Horror is always a sexy beast, but this production really laid that on thick, aided by the many very attractive young actors cast. For instance, Janet starting panting the minute she saw Dr. Frank (and who can blame her), and the choreography ensured that you didn’t miss any of the double entendres in the lyrics.

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The JM Drama cast; picture from The Waterloo Region Record

JM Drama is community theatre, so their budgets were small. But their costumes and makeup were top-notch, and they were very creative about the props and sets. The vocals weren’t always great; but then, that’s not as important for this particular musical. (It’s hardly Les Miz.) Fortunately, some of the best singing was done by lead Dr. Frank, who gave an excellent, charismatic performance.

Appropriately, there was some gender-bending within the casting. Both the narrator and Dr. Scott were played by women, and why not? It even allowed for some fun Frank / Dr. Scott flirtation. And Magenta was played by the absolutely fabulous David Cho.

Overall, the whole thing was a hoot (to quote Jean’s post-show assessment). Of course, with a live production, the audience couildn’t (and didn’t) yell back or throw any projectiles. But, they did invite everyone on stage at the end for a reprise of “The Time Warp.” Jean promptly sat back in his chair, but I went for it! And yay me, as I got to dance near the two hunkiest members of the cast, Rocky immediately to my right and Frank directly in front. (Which is why Jean didn’t manage to get a picture; the actor playing Frank was very tall.)

This isn’t the kind of play that’s meant to be contemplated on too deeply, but this production gave rise to some thoughts:

  • They weren’t nearly as clear on the difference between transsexuals, transvestites, and bisexuals back when this was written as we are now, eh?
  • All that stuff we used to yell at the screen? “Slut!” “The f word for gay!” That would just be uncomfortable now.
  • Is there supposed to be some sort of lesson here, and if so, what is it? Frank is very cool but really the villain, and he doesn’t win in the end. But what of Brad and Janet? Is it good for them that they let loose? They were so uptight at first, but seem so traumatized at the end.

Eh. Too serious. It’s just a jump to the left. And a step to the right.

See you back here after I watch Fox’s Rocky Horror reboot on TV, coming up in October.

Trailer for the new Rocky Horror Picture Show on Fox


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Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty

Just because you find that life’s not fair it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change.

My interest in seeing the musical Matilda was mainly that the music was written by Tim Minchin, a comedian-musician whose songs often promote reason, science, and humanism. And also cheese.

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The show has also received a number of awards, though, and a great review in the Globe and Mail, so I was pleased when my sister and brother-in-law agreed to go see it with me while Jean was off canoeing.

The play opens with a chorus of children whose doting, self-esteem-boosting parents lead them to be believe they are special little princes and princesses. “It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days / Specialness seems de rigueur.” By contrast, Matilda really is remarkable—a genius. Her thick parents don’t know what to make of her love of books and stories; they can barely stand to have her around.

In her big number, Matilda’s mother explains that “People don’t like smarty-pants / What go round claiming / That they know stuff / We don’t know / Content, has never been less important… You’ve just got to be loud.” (This is truly a musical of our time.)

School should be an oasis for such a child, but Matilda’s school is run by the authoritarian Miss Trunchbull. Played by a large man (Dan Chameroy), she cuts a ridiculous-looking figure, but is a terrifying adversary nonetheless—a bully who brooks no dissent, who cares little about fainess (once she decides you’re guilty, you’re guilty), and who favours cruel punishments.

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Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey. Photo by Joan Marcus, from http://www.mirvish.com

Besides the town librarian (delightfully played by Keisha T. Fraser), the only one on Matilda’s side is her teacher, Miss Honey, who calls herself pathetic for not being more effective at standing up to Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents. Matilda, endowed with a sense of justice as deep as her intelligence, realizes that this is a battle she must fight for herself. (With a little help from her schoolmates.)

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me
Nobody but me is gonna change my story
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

Three young girls alternate the role of Matilda in the Toronto production. We got Hannah Levinson, who was dang amazing, delivering each line with such clarity and perfect timing that you never doubted her sharp, mature mind. She also had a lovely singing voice.

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Hannah Levinson as Matilda. Photo by Joan Marcus, from http://www.mirvish.com

With intermission, the play runs just over 2.5 hours. It moves along well, with none of the numbers seeming to drag—proving that Tim Minchin can write songs advocating intelligence, self-determination, justice, and education, without expletives in them. Much like the rest of his oeuvre, Matilda is often thought-provoking and moving—but still kind of fun!

Trailer for Matilda the Musical in Toronto


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Ottawa getaway

Ahead of the long weekend, we took a long weekend, booking the Friday and Monday off and heading up to Ottawa. We had no major ambitions for our visit; it’s just a nice place to go relax. And the weather cooperated—it was a bit warm (hence me wearing nothing but dresses in the photos), but overall can’t complain about a sunny summer weekend.

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The Rideau canal area of Ottawa

We booked in at the Les Suites Hotel, very conveniently located downtown. The rooms are a bit older, but you certainly get a lot of space: a full kitchen, a living room with TV, along with the expected bedroom and bathroom. We took advantage of having a fridge by buying food from the Market to bring home (in a cooler).

Apart from that, the only thing we booked ahead were dinner reservations. Friday we ate at Beckta for the first time. It has a fancy dining room with prix fixe dinners, but we decided to eat in the slightly more casual wine bar. We still got excellent service and delicious food.

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These PEI oysters left us wanting more. We had them with an Ontario sparkling made specially for Beckta.

Jean tried the soup of the day, which was celeriac with coconut.

Celeriac and Coconut Soup

It was good, but not quite as good as my appetizer of Peking-style glazed pork belly in sesame crepe with cucumber and scallion relish.

Pork Belly Crepes

As mains, I had the risotto with shrimp, peas, and mushrooms, while Jean went with the Tagliatelle pasta with confit chicken, black olive pesto, and arugula. We switched to glasses of red wine with those.

Then with dessert, we each got a glass of sweet wine. Jean had a Tokaji, while I had a cabernet ice wine.

Strawberry and Sorbet

Strawberries and chocolate with sorbet

Maple Meringue

Which were almost as good as the maple semifreddo

Saturday we ambled around the uptown in the morning.

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One of the sights we took in

We stopped for lunch at Murray Street, where we had more oysters (this time with cider), and a lovely charcuterie plate of two cheeses, smoked ducks, and two styles of pate.

Charc Plate
In the afternoon we visited the National Gallery.

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Outdoor exhibit

Queen Bee!

Indoor exhibit

For our dinner at Signatures, we were joined by friends who live in Ottawa, which was really nice. Signatures has only prix fixe menus, of three, five, or eight courses. We went with three, but chose different items.

Foie Gras Torchon at Signatures

Jean had the mousse de foie de canard

And I the escargots au pastis et tomates.

Something at Signatures

Then I ordered the cabbage-wrapped trout with dill chips

while it was Jean’s turn for risotto with mushroom and peas. I believe the dessert was the same for both, and can’t recall what that was. (Not because it wasn’t good, though.)

Sunday was even warmer, but we still did the walking around thing in the morning, heading down Bank Street and over toward the Museum of Nature, which we visited after a lunch of Thai food. They had a feature dinosaur exhibit (the Museum of Nature did, that is—not the Thai restaurant).

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Our final Ottawa dinner was at Sidedoor, which has more of a “small plattes” approach. We were in a seafood-y mood, ordering halibut crispy fish taco, tuna sashimi with yuzu, and coconut poached halibut along with jasmine rice and Chinese greens.

Fried Halibut Taco

Lovely fish tacos at Sidedoor

Everything was quite delicious. The only sour note was that our waiter, who had started really well, seemed to lose interest in us at some point, not really checking back once our initial items arrived or asking if we wanted dessert. (I had to volunteer that I did—they have really amazing donuts here!) Odd, as it wasn’t especially busy or anything. Maybe someone had just told him the Brexit news?


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So you think you can dance

The email from the KW Symphony on February 18:

Thank you for purchasing tickets to the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony‘s Dancin’ Through the Decades. To enhance the overall concert experience, we have added a dance floor for these concerts. The dance floor will be located between the first row and the orchestra musicians. Since this floor is on one of the moveable lifts, it will be 14 inches lower than where the seating starts, in the first row, and should not obstruct the view of any patrons.

That seemed neat, but logistically problematic.

“We’re not going to go there in our dance shoes,” said Jean, pointing out the snowy climes.

But our early spring meant that we could, in fact, go there in our dance shoes without wrecking the soles.

However, it remained that our seats were right in the middle of the row, meaning we couldn’t get out to the dance floor without disrupting half of the people in said row. (And it was a pretty well-attended show.) Plus, we definitely didn’t want to be the first ones on the floor.

We stayed put during the swingin’ “In the Mood,” as did everyone else—much to conductor Matt Catinghub’s chagrin. But then a few brave souls made their way onto the floor.

“What is this one?“ my husband whispered as they launched into the new tune. And by that he meant what dance beat is it, not what song title. (Which is just as well, as now I can’t remember the song title.)

“Slow fox,” I answered.

Well, slow fox is like dance cat nip to my husband—he just can’t resist. We proceeded to disturb everyone in half the row and made it down the dance floor.

But, that’s about all the disturbing we did, because then we just stayed on the floor for the whole show.

For ballroom / Latin dance aficionados, the first half, with music of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, was especially appealing. Along with a number of slow foxes, we got to tango (I think), waltz to “Unforgettable” (I know), jive to “Twist and Shout”, and cha-cha to “La Bamba.”

I have never danced to such beautiful sound. The Symphony are terrific, of course; the Centre has some of the best acoustics on the continent; and the guest singer (Anita Hall), drummer (Steve Moretti), and saxophone players were also fantastic—and very energetic! (Matt Caringhub also did some keyboards.)

If you do a Where’s Waldo on this tweeted photo, you might be able to spot us

At intermission we drank a lot of water—and received compliments on our dancing from passing strangers, which was nice! (Maybe we can dance.)

The second half was 70s, 80s, 90s, and current. Disco like “Night Fever” is basically a samba, and I actually know the steps (yes, there are steps) to YMCA.

Of course, everyone knows the chorus part of this dance

Then we got some “Hotel California,” “Don’t Stop Believin”, “Africa”, “Vogue”, “Rock Lobster” (featuring KWS Assistant Conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser on vocals), and “Happy” by Pharell Williams. So a lot of really fun songs—but also a lesson in why no one does partner dancing anymore, since that just doesn’t work as well to those beats.

But hey, it was a really fun night, and I’m so glad the symphony offered the dance floor setup. It was totally worth the sore muscles the next day!

(As for the television show So You Think You Can Dance, I find their new gimmick of featuring dancers age 8 to 13 completely mystifying and utterly uninteresting. I do not plan to watch.)


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Heart and mind: Brooklyn and The Big Short

Bit late to point this out now, but Brooklyn would be a terrific movie to see on Valentine’s Day. It tells the story of Ellis Lacy (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates from Ireland to New York City in the 1950s. At first she is crippled by homesickness, but then she meets a boy… And takes courses in bookkeeping. And generally comes to appreciate her new country.

A death in the family brings her back to Ireland for a visit. She sees her birth place in a new light. Turns out there are boys here, too. Should her “visit” be extended?

Official trailer for Brooklyn (YouTube)

Brooklyn is a gorgeous movie. Both Jean and I were struck by the lighting, of all things (and it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for that). And Ronan is excellent in the lead role, saying a lot with sometimes few lines. The plot is fairly simple; there are no explosions, special effects, car chases. It’s just the story of a bright young woman growing up and having to figure out what her heart wants.

It’s remarkably riveting to join in her journey.


So while that would have been an excellently romantic choice yesterday, since we’d already seen it a few weeks ago, we instead went to see The Big Short. Ying to Brooklyn‘s yang.

The Big Short looks at the few years before and up to the American housing stock market crash  of 2008, and specifically at the few in the financial market who saw it coming. The film has an interesting mix of protagonists (all male; that’s the industry, and the movie is based on fact): an autistic savant (Christian Bale) who works at a major investment firm; a group of cynical hedge fund managers, led by Marc Baum (Steve Carrell) who operate at arm’s length from a big bank; and two smart young guys who invest for themselves, with the assistance of a retired banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

They all choose to short the system; that is, to invest in a way that bets against the conventional wisdom that the housing market is solid and could not possibly fail. And they all take a lot of grief for that position.

Understanding this movie means digging into the arcania of mortgage bonds and such. The films does this is an interesting way by literally stopping the story and cutting to someone such as Selena Gomez, to explain the concepts to us directly, using metaphors.

Official trailer for The Big Short (YouTube)

Jean found the film kind of depressing. I didn’t, because it was so interesting, and often funny. But I did feel conflicted about it. Not quite as much as when watching Margin Call, a movie that focuses on financial advisors at that moment that they realize the housing market and the bonds they are built are about to come crashing down, and they hurry to sell as much as they can, as fast they can, by lying to thousands of investors.

This movie’s mavericks aren’t quite as evil as that. For a time, they also are victimized by the fraudulent system that gives high ratings to what are actually high-risk bonds. They are hardly fans of the fraud, greed, and corruption that created this crisis—particularly Marc Baum and group, who hope this will lead to criminal convictions and banking reform. And while they are aware that this crash will cause a lot of economic hardship. it’s not clear how they could possibly have stopped it.

But it’s still a little uncomfortable that they instead profited, quite handsomely, from the crash. As a viewer,  you sort of want the crash to happen, to prove them right and the unpleasant, smug, venal financial experts wrong. But you also know that the crash means a lot of ordinary, innocent people are going to get hurt.

Brooklyn is good for your feels. The Big Short makes you think.