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


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Movie night

The world is on fire and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. So I’ve decided to write about movies.

The last movies we saw before the theatres shut down were Knives Out and Parasite. Knives Out was a terrific, twisty, murder mystery with an incredible cast. ****

Parasite was last year’s Academy Award winner as Best Picture. In it, a low-income South Korean family con a rich family into gradually hiring each of them. Then things get twisted… ***½

Those are both available for streaming rental now.

Warming up

Since then, we’ve been dubbing one night each weekend “movie night”, making the popcorn, and watching a flick on the TV. Initially, it was an anxious time, we wanted something not too heavy. Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name (Netflix) was a great inaugural, telling the story of how failed comic Rudy Ray Moore (a real guy!) reinvented himself and became an unlikely success. Reminded me of The Disaster Artist. ****

Then we tried The Greatest Showman (Netflix), a movie that critics dumped on but audiences loved. Jean was skeptical about a musical based on PT Barnum, but we ended up siding with audiences and enjoying it. *** As we did Shazam (HBO), a humorous superhero movie from the DC Comics universe. ***

Tom Hanks

Was one of the first famous people to come down with coronavirus (remember that?), which somehow inspired us to catch up with a couple of his movies. Sully (cable) told the story of the pilot who landed the plane on the Hudson River, saving all 150 passengers. We hadn’t realized there had been some doubt as to just how heroic his actions were. *** And Charlie Wilson’s War (Netflix) told the rather interesting story of the US’ involvement in supporting Afghanistan rebels in their fight against the Soviets—without ignoring how that all went wrong in the end. ***½

Girls behaving badly

While not viewed in sequential weeks, for whatever reason we seemed to be drawn to movies about women breaking the law. Or maybe it’s just that they’ve making more of these lately? At any rate…

Ocean’s 8 (HBO) is part of the movie franchise that started with George Clooney’s Ocean’s 11. Kind of a trifle, but entertaining. The difference is that the group of eight are all women, and that does add a layer of fun. ***

Molly’s Game (Netflix) was written and directed by Arron Sorkin, so there is a whole lot of smart, fast-paced dialogue in the telling of the story of Molly Bloom, a former champion skier who ran an exclusive poker game for rich people, including some very famous ones. Initially run legally, ultimately it was not, and the movie starts with her legal troubles and flashes back.

Jean liked this one more than I did. It’s definitely an interesting story; my problem was in the great effort to turn Molly into a noble hero, which I didn’t quite buy. ***

Hustlers (Prime) told the story of strip club employees who, after the Wall Street crash, started drugging their clients to lower their inhibitions and get them to spend more than they otherwise would have on booze and women. Definitely behaving badly! But what’s really compelling is the relationship between the women. It’s like friendship porn. And this one, I liked more than Jean did. My score would be ***½.

Arty farty

Have you heard of Tubi? It’s another movie and TV streaming service, only free—ad supported. Very few ads, in my experience, so I wouldn’t let that put you off.

I noticed they had We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on a good but disturbing novel I’d read of the same name, about a woman who decides to have the child her husband wants, but she doesn’t. That it doesn’t turn out well is a bit of an understatement.

I got it in my head that I’d like see how they adapted the novel to film. They didn’t do a bad job of it—Tilda Swinton is very good in the lead—but overall I preferred the novel’s elaboration of the story to the movie’s inevitable compression of it. As for Jean, he might not forgive me for having him watch this. The story haunted him for days afterward. **½

The movie also led Tubi to recommend a whole series of other disturbing movies to me, none of which I would ever watch. To try clean that up, I selected The Lady in the Van as my next Tubi movie. This British film tells of the relationship between an educated homeless woman and a single male writer. It’s pretty enjoyable—Maggie Smith is terrific—but it is based on a true story that wasn’t overly “Hollywood-ized”, leaving the overall narrative arc a little less satisfying. ***

And I don’t know that it’s truly “arty farty”, except that it’s now an older classic, isn’t it? But we watched Saturday Night Fever (Hollywood Suite), the first time either of us had seen it. Since it’s mostly remembered for John Travolta’s disco dancing, the grittiness of it is a bit shocking: the casual use of the n word, the date rape… But it is a movie worth seeing. ***½

The Princess Cinema started offering some streaming movies recently, and in support of them, we rented The Trip to the Greece. It’s the fourth in a series, and we hadn’t seen any of the previous ones, so it was a bit odd to just jump into this one. Not that there’s a whole lot of complex plot to follow, mind. It’s just two guys who take a road trip, banter with each other, see spectacular scenery, and eat great meals.

The banter is often amusing, but very pop culture–driven, and Jean, particularly, often couldn’t get into it as he didn’t know what they were on about. The funnest part was us saying “Bastard!” every time they sat down for another amazing restaurant dinner, the likes of which are not accessible to us right now, of course. **½


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Good shows

Having finished the latest seasons of Glow and Mindhunter on Netflix, and the six episodes of Chernobyl on HBO (those are all recommended series, by the way, as is the new Stumptown), Jean and I needed a new show to stream. I short-listed four:

  1. Killing Eve
  2. The Expanse
  3. Good Omens
  4. When They See Us

Jean declared interest in all but the last (about the Central Park Five), which he thought he’d find too depressing.

We decided to start with the six-episode Good Omens, from Amazon Prime.

The premise here is that history as told in the Bible is actually true, and all that dinosaur evidence to the contrary is just God’s idea of a joke. Also, the apocalypse is nearing. An angel (Aziraphale) and a demon (Crowley), who have both been on Earth for quite some time, and have grown rather fond of the place, secretly team up to try and thwart it.

Four episodes in, we’re quite enjoying it. It’s quirky and funny. The cast, led by Michael Sheen and David Tennant–but also featuring John Hamm, Michael McKean, and the voice of Frances Macdormand–is terrific. The episodes don’t waste any time in speeding along toward the end of days. As an added bonus, it also happens to feature a great deal of Queen music.

Good Omens trailer

If there’s anything the show reminds of me of, that would be my favourite network show, NBC’s The Good Place.

Currently in season four, with past seasons available on Netflix, The Good Place is a half-hour comedy starring Kristen Bell and Ted Dansen. It begins when Eleanor Shellstrop dies and finds herself in “the good place” (as opposed to “the bad place”). Only, given the wonderfully charitable lives the other inhabits of “the good place” have led, Eleanor fears that she has mistakenly been assigned there. And has to figure out how to avoid being found out and sent to the bad place.

Good Place season 1 trailer

But that’s just the initial setup. This series goes places in its four seasons, with twists you don’t see coming, unexpected alliances, and utterly bold time jumps and compression. The series is really better watched unspoiled, so I don’t want to give much away. But it does share with Good Omens the off-kilter look at religious themes, the representation of the forces of good and evil as largely banal bureaucracies, and a cartoon-like comedy approach to dealing with deep subjects. Like the best of fantasy series (hi, Buffy) both use the fantastical to comment on modern human realities.

Still, you can’t push it too far. Good Omens is a six-part series of one-hour episodes, based on a beloved (albeit not read by me) Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel. It’s largely about poking fun at the absurdity of literal religious beliefs. (I think. I mean, I still have two episodes to go.)

(But, one of my favourite parts of Good Omens so far is the look back at the time of Noah’s Ark.

[The following are not exact quotes, but…] “What’s going on, then?” asks Crowley. “God’s feeling tetchy. She’s decided to drown everyone. Big storm,” replies Aziraphale. “What? Everyone? Even the children?” The angel nods, mutely. Then adds, “Well, just the locals. I don’t think she’s mad at the Chinese. Or the Native Americans…”)

Whereas The Good Place is a completely original, four-season (all short seasons) sitcom. It does not take on traditional religion and its beliefs, but really digs into morality and philosophy: can people change? What does it mean to be good? It’s stunning that there is a half-hour American sitcom about that, isn’t it? (And yes, it’s hilarious!)

So, in summary, Good Omens and The Good Place are both good shows that are somewhat similar but also not really, except that both are deserving of your time and attention.


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Sometimes political art

Concerts, plays, stand-up, and movies are sometimes an escape from current events, sometimes a reflection of it.

Beethoven 9 / Mijidwewinan

The two final concerts of the KW Symphony’s season, featuring new conductor, Andrei Feher, were both sellouts. The draw, besides Feher himself, was the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, a choral piece better known as the Ode to Joy. It’s always a worry, when facing a 65-minute symphonic live performance: Will my pop-music brain be able to stay focused for that long?

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But Beethoven’s skill as a composer made that pretty easy, actually. And the lively conducting didn’t hurt, either.

The concert began, though, with an original piece by a native Canadian composer, Barbara Croall. It was a musical interpretation of a mystical, visionary ceremony in which Anishinaabe get in touch with nature—and humankind’s damaging effects on it. Croall performed as a singer in the piece, which takes us on a day’s journey from dark to light and back to dark.

It was very different from Beethoven, as you might imagine. But equally engaging and moving. Made for a very satisfying overall concert experience.

Jeans’n’Classics: Bowie & Prince

Jeans’n’Classics perform orchestrated versions of popular pop and rock songs. We used to go to all of their shows, but had stopped more recently, when they stopped performing with the KW Symphony (in favor of a smaller, and therefore cheaper, group of classical musicians). But, I really wanted to hear orchestrated Prince.

They played two sets, with an intermission. Both featured first Bowie songs, then Prince ones, each section handled by a different singer (understandably). The Bowie parts were fine; the man wrote some excellent songs. But the energy in the place would just go through the roof whenever the Prince would kick in. Just so much more funky! And very ably handled by Gavin Hope, taking a break from his usual gig with The Nylons, along with singers Kalalin Kiss and Andrea Koziol, who each got featured in a duet.

To me, much as I like Bowie music, this show could have been all Prince. But then, these orchestrations don’t write themselves, and maybe it was a challenge getting enough Prince songs ready. (Bowie has been in their repertoire longer.)

Prince covering David Bowie’s “Heroes” (mixed with “Dolphins”)

Set list:

Rebel Rebel
Let’s Dance
Blue Jean
Ashes To Ashes
1999
Little Red Corvette
Diamonds And Pearls
When Doves Cry
I Would Die For You

Space Oddity
Starman
Changes
All The Young Dudes
China Girl
Baby I’m A Star
Raspberry Beret
Nothing Compares To You
Let’s Go Crazy

Purple Rain
Suffragette City

Kathy Griffin: Laugh your head off!

Kathy Griffin put this show, and tour, together in response to the trouble she got into about a year ago after a photo of her holding a ketchup-dipped mask of Donald Trump was published on TMZ. There was an outcry that went to the highest levels of government. She was fired from various TV jobs, her live shows were cancelled, and she found herself under FBI investigation.

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Much of what happened to her isn’t all that funny, so her almost-three-hour long (yes!) show touches on many other subjects, such as the fun of living next door to Kanye and Kim Kardashian, the weirdness of doing a show for Donald Trump with Liza Minelli (before all that happened, obviously), what Wayne Gretzky is really like (a bit of a hoser), and life with her alcoholic but loving mom. In fact, Griffin switches subjects so rapidly ,and goes on so many tangents, that Jean had trouble keeping up.

It was an impressive performance. So much energy! And the crowd at Centre in the Square (she informed us that the people in Toronto thought it was hilarious she was going to Kitchener of all places) was very different from the symphony! Younger, gayer (as a percentage), livelier, and very warm. It was, mostly, very funny. She manages to bring humour even into (most of) the darker topics—the abusive and threatening messages she and her family received, the loss of support from people she thought were her friends, the interrogation itself, being on the no-fly list, the effect on her livelihood…

It’s great that she’s found a way back, even though she had to take a pay cut to do it.

Come from Away

This was a family outing in Toronto. We bought tickets months ago. But we saw it just days after the US administration imposed punitive tariffs on Canada and followed it up by insulting the Prime Minister, backing out of the G7 statement, and offering Canadians a “special place in hell”.

So it was bittersweet watching this musical about the residents of the small Canadian town of Gander doing everything they could to accommodate the thousands of mostly American travelers who ended up stuck there when US airspace on 9/11. (Aside: This was the musical that Justin Trudeau escorted Ivanka Trump to in happier (?) times.)

How do you make a story of an event like that? By focusing in on a small number of the thousands of travelers, people of different races, religions, and sexual orientations, and following their experiences in that small town (population 7000, doubled overnight). And interspersing that with the logistics that the Gander residents had to deal with: Where will they all sleep? (Among other things, people put them up in their houses.) How do we keep all this extra food fresh? (Re-purpose that hockey rink.) What about the animals on those planes? (Send out the SPCA lady!)

It really is a heart-warming story, even as it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects (such as the prejudice against Muslims). It’s often very often. And it has great fiddle music, which, my Dad pointed, really moves the story forward.

Come From Away Quotes {Taken out of Context}

Source: Come From Away Fan Blog

  • I’ll write S.T.F.D. Slow the fuck down!
  • For the love of God! Stop bringing toilet paper to the Lion’s Club!
  • And my boyfriend Kevin. We’re both named Kevin. It was cute for a while.
  • Excuse me, would you like some Xanax? Because you are freaking out and it is freaking me out and we are all freaking the f*ck out!
  • We ran through every movie we had: Legally Blonde, Doctor Doolittle 2, and…Titanic.
  • Oh my god, this is just so remote.
  • Now there’s the reason I drive slow. That there in the middle of the road? Yah. That’s a moose. She’ll move when she’s good and ready.
  • Safe and sound here on the ground in Iceland.
    No, Newfoundland!
  • I woke up from a dream that we were stuck in some backwater Canadian town and that my air mattress deflated.
  • I wanted to burn my socks.
  • Kevin puts on this plaid – thing. He says he’s “incognito”, and that he’s “going to blend in with the natives”, but he just looks like a gay lumberjack.
  • “We ended up in the gayest town in Canada.”

After a series of sold-out shows, it’s been extended in Toronto, again. I would recommend it.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The Rotten Tomatoes reviews almost scared us away from watching this Netflix movie, but then we were like, hey, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter got even worse Rotten Tomatoes reviews, and we liked that, so what the heck?

I don’t know what all the complaining is about. This movie is exactly what the title suggests: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Only, with zombies. You like the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy? You like seeing kickass women (and men, but mostly women) take out the undead? (These are basically the evil undead, not the nice “they’re just people with a problem” undead of iZombie / Santa Clarita Diet.) If yes, then you’ll like this movie!

pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies-poster-e1455448403185

Nobody puts Elizabeth Bennet in a corner

Really. We enjoyed it. It was fun. (I thought maybe the bad guy had a point about the zombies and the placating them with pig’s brains, given that they reproduce so much faster than people, and that the good guys dismissed that idea a little quickly, but still. Overall, this is a non-guilty guilty pleasure.)


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Of news, Netflix, Amazon, and chimunks

Just because I haven’t been blogging lately doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about stuff…

Not writing about news is good news

I’ve actually started a number of posts about current events, but it all gets so depressing. And it changes so fast.

Like after Charlottesville, I was going to write a thing about how Canadians could join the Sleeping Giant twitter campaign to discourage companies from advertising on the alt-right Rebel Media website. But within days, The Rebel seemed to be sort of falling apart anyway, and it no longer seemed, maybe, the best way to spend one’s limited amount of time for activism.

443527_m1494452946Then I went to see An Inconvenient Sequel, on climate change. That seemed a better target for activism. And then with Harvey’s severity clearly being an illustration of what climate change looks like… But me writing about that, seems like piling sanctimony on top of tragedy. Better to leave it to those who have studied it longer, and have more skin in the game like Eric Berger (This is probably the worst US flood storm ever, and I’ll never be the same) and Brian Merchant (Climate change denial should be a crime).

Whereas I will write more trivial stuff, like…

The chipmunk invader

“We have a chipmunk living behind our TV cabinets”, I wrote to our catsitter.

That was mid-July, and it had already been around for a couple weeks. Nearing September, the chipmunk was still with us.

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Yes, they’re cute. But they’re still rodents.

It seemed to have a developed a routine of leaving its hiding place mid-morning to drink water from the cats’ bowls (handily kept right near the TV cabinets) and scrounge for food—which it was clearly doing successfully, given its longevity.

[Something I just learned from “Interesting facts about chipmunks: “Chipmunks are diurnal. In other words, they only come out during the daytime. The reason is not because they are blind at night, but because everything is too dark for their main defense system—their eyes—to work to their advantage.” Would explain why I never saw it in the evening.]

The chipmunk became increasingly brazen, stopping to give me a look to determine that I still appeared unable to catch (it was right; there is no catching a chipmunk!) before scurrying up the stairs to see what treasures could be found on the main floor. The cats occasionally decided to give chase, but more often just watched it, bemused.

The chipmunk was too big to be caught in mouse traps, too small to set off the squirrel trap, which we’d find untripped, bait missing. (“Great,” I said. “Now we’re purposefully feeding it.”)

We’d leave windows open a crack, but it showed no interest in exiting.

Maybe we need a rat trap, Jean suggested.

Before going that lethal route, we tried one more live trap, this one apparently designed for chipmunks: The Havahart Model #1025.

It took three days, but it actually worked: Chipmunk out for its rounds, almost immediately entered the trap, and… Trap door shut!

Chipmunk not happy.

I was a little freaked out by the success, especially as the little thing was making a terrible ruckus trying to bang its way out. Then I got it together enough to throw a pillow case over the trap (that’s supposed to calm the animal), and cary it out and over to the park, where I released it into the woods.

Herein ends your unrequested lesson in how to get a chipmunk out of your house. Now if only we could locate its entry point, so it can’t find its way back in…

Beyond the Lights or under the radar?

It was nominated for an Oscar and won some BET and critic’s awards, but I’m not sure how many people have heard of the movie Beyond the Lights. I was sort of looking out for it when it was released in 2015, but if it came around, it didn’t stay long.

I saw it recently as a DVD loaner from the library (it’s also on US Netflix). It’s about a young black woman, Noni, whose latest single is a big hit and whose first album is hotly anticipated. But after an award-winning night, she goes off alone and stands on the balcony of her fancy hotel room, thinking about jumping. She’s rescued by the young black officer on duty to protect her. They really seem to connect…

So yes, this is a romance, but better-written than most. Their challenges as a couple—the paparazzi, parental disapproval on both sides, conflicting career aspirations (the police officer also has political ambitions)—seem believable, not just plot contrivances. That Noni has a stage mom is a bit of cliche, but the character isn’t just a cartoon villain. The movie also offers a critique of the highly sexualized way young women are marketed in the music industry. (The film was written and directed by a woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood.) The actors are good, and lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw does have a lovely voice.

So if this sounds like your kind of thing, I think you’ll enjoy it. (And if not, like Jean, you’ll likely still admit it’s a decent film.)

Also recommended—but I assume most people have heard of this movie—the “still in theatres” The Big Sick. Making comedy out of the unfunny matters of race and illness.

Amazon pricing: Maybe it’s a game?

queen_al_live_in_japanSo back in November, the first-ever official live Queen + Adam Lambert blu-ray was released, initially sold only from a Japanese website. I most definitely wanted this thing, but when I did the conversion from Yen, it was $120 Canadian for the single disc + CD, plus shipping from Japan, which seemed… pricey, given that your average blu-ray is about $20.

So I waited for it to be available from Amazon as an import, whereupon it was listed for… $145. This was not going in the right direction. I kept checking it periodically, but the price remained stubbornly high, and nowhere else (including ebay) seemed to offer anything better.

Then one day Amazon emailed me to inform me that the price had dropped. Which it had… To $101.

I was considering that, but wasn’t yet convinced.

Then a little over a week ago, I had a random look Friday at lunch time and… It was $48.

So, fine, I ordered it. (And despite them telling me that by not choosing Prime, I’d have to wait til Thursday to get it, it arrived on Monday, Prime time!)

But the thing is, when I looked at the price again later that very same day—when I happened to be logged in as Jean—it was $62.

And right now, for both of me and Jean, it’s $67.

I’ve heard that Amazon has these sophisticated pricing algorithms that causes pricing to vary at any given time based on your past purchasing habits.

Which makes me wonder: Did I cave too soon? If I had kept checking at random times and days, would I have eventually acquired this item at $25?

And does this mean that all Amazon items are cheaper for me at lunchtime? Or on Fridays? Or have I ruined both now by going through with a purchase at that time and day?

And what’s up with the wildly different prices on the same piece of clothing at different sizes?

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One dress, but each of its four sizes is a different price with a $140 range!

Anyway. The blu-ray is a gorgeous thing, with the best video and sound I’ve ever seen and heard on recorded Queen + Adam Lambert material. So I’m happy with it, even if the camera operator doesn’t always know when it’s important to focus on Adam (like, when he’s getting on his bike, and riding!).

 

Netflix: Giving us the sitcom revivals we didn’t know we needed

I don’t know that the world was clamoring for a remake of the Bonnie Franklin-starring 70s / 80s sitcom One Day at a Time, but Netflix has gifted it with one anyway. I was surprised to see how high it appeared on lists of best Netflix originals, so I decided to check it out.

What has it retained from the original? Well, there’s still a single Mom living in an apartment with her two teenage children, and a building supervisor named Schneider. Also, the same theme song, only re-recorded in a cooler version.

Other than that, not much. The family is Cuban-American; Mom Penelope is an army veteran; there is a daughter and son, not two girls; her mother lives with them, also; and Schneider is a wealthy Canadian ex-pat who never wears denim, carries a toolbox, or hits on Penelope. (See Why the New Schneider on One Day at a Time Is So Much Better Than the Old One.)

With its live studio audience and typical sitcom wisecracks flying, the series initially lulls you into thinking it will be super-light entertainment. But though it never gets too heavy, almost every episode touches on serious and often timely subjects: Dealing with PTSD. The challenges veterans have getting help from the VA. Figuring out your sexual identity. Raising boys in the age of online porn. Crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. Pay equity. Affirmative action.

(Hey, I somehow circled back to news, sort of.)

It wasn’t the sort of addictive thing that I had to keep watching, but I enjoyed every episode and grew quite fond of the characters. Despite that list of Serious Issues, it is a comedy, and a funny one. I was sad to see the end of Season 1. Fortunately, it has been renewed for a second season.


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A “smart” Dirty Dancing?

When I was describing weekend plans to go see the musical Strictly Ballroom in Toronto, a friend asked if it was like a smart Dirty Dancing.

Must say that I’ve never thought of Strictly Ballroom as such. Or spent much time comparing those two movies.

But it is true that they have the same basic plot line: Hunky male dance instructor teaches promising if slightly gawky young woman (from a different background) to dance, and they fall in love.

So how do they differ? I’m not so sure it’s on IQ points.

1. Point of view

Dirty Dancing is Baby’s story. It’s about her coming of age. It’s directed by a woman, and we see most everything from her perspective. Johnny is there to support her narrative.

Whereas Strictly Ballroom is about Scott. It’s about him breaking free of family expectations and becoming his own person. Fran helps on that journey. Yes, she does that blossoming thing, but that’s really just to make her attractive enough to become Scott’s love interest.

2. Setting

Dirty Dancing is a bit of nostalgia for a time that was and no longer is, when teenagers would happily go off with their parents to a summer vacation resort. Whereas Strictly Ballroom both salutes and mocks the world of ballroom dance competition, in which everyone is trying to preserve a form of dance that—let’s face it—is no longer current.

And as I write that, I’m thinking maybe that’s another similarity: That both movies are about the struggle to preserve a tradition against the forces of change. Hmm.

3. Style

Despite the romance at the centre of it and plenty of humourous moments, Dirty Dancing  is basically a drama, the story told in a “realistic” way. Whereas Strictly Ballroom is very much an over-the-top, exaggerated comedy, albeit with some touching moments.

Which is why Dirty Dancing opens itself up to criticism when some of the dialog is clunky or if a character seems more like a caricature. Strictly Ballroom is in-your-face with ridiculous dialog and absurd characters; that’s part of its charm.

And that also may be why, in my opinion, another difference between these two is that Strictly Ballroom made its transition to the stage much more effectively than Dirty Dancing did.


It’s been a while since I saw Dirty Dancing: The Musical, but I recall thinking that they shouldn’t have stuck so close to the movie. That this might have an opportunity to, for example, fix some of the sillier plot points.

Strictly Ballroom also stuck pretty close to the movie template. But in this case,  just the nature of the stage presentation improved the product.

A lot of it is ballroom dance competition, for example. In the movie, these scenes are largely funny and absurd. On stage, they still have that to a degree, but they also enchanting and beautiful. It just feels more “natural” to see that kind of dancing and those wild costumes on a theatre stage than a movie screen.

And then there’s what musicals do, which is allow the characters to give voice to their inner thoughts in song. And that really brought a lot of depth to the story, making many of the characters less cartoonish. They even bring in some of that Dirty Dancing nostalgia by including popular songs of the 1980s as part of the soundtrack. It really widens the range of emotion of the whole enterprise.

I love the movie Strictly Ballroom. But I think I loved the musical even more.


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Not the news

A lot of grim things are happening in the world, the sun was awol for much of January, and I succumbed to one of the season’s cold viruses last week. (And now Jean is complaining of chills.)

But hey, instead complaining at length about all that, I’ll list a few things that made me happy in the past few weeks.

1. KW Glee: Redux

Two years ago we were blown away by a KW Glee (show choir) + KW Symphony concert. This year they did it again. There’s just deep entertainment value in watching a huge group of talented, enthusiastic, and attractive young people sing and dance to popular songs, in costume, while accompanied by a full orchestra.

Last time I had mentioned that I didn’t know a lot of the songs performed—they were too current for me. This time they rectified that with a set from various eras. To the point where I felt kind of bad that they were played so little of of their own generation’s music, though there was one Imagine Dragons song and one by David Guetta / Sia, both very powerful performances.

Other highlights were:

  • That old Gap commercial come to life during “Jump, Jive, and Wail”
  • The outstanding youth singer (a girl—don’t know any names) wailing through the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and “I Want You Back”
  • The beautiful contemporary dance accompanying “Falling Slowly”, from Once
  • Not one, not two, but four different lead female singers proving they were up to the challenge of singing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.
  • “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Performed in full, featuring two lead singers, one male, one female, and treated not as campy fun, but as the somber piece it actually is. Outstanding.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjgbj45yXmA

  • The virtual re-enactment of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” music video.
  • The youth choir’s 80s attire during one segment, some of which looked like it actually dated from that time. The “Frankie Say Relax” T-shirt was my favourite.

cof

Remember the 80s? These kids don’t, but they’re dressing the part anyway.

  • The youth boys running scared during “Ghostbusters” only to be have the youth girls toughly emerge, declaring that they were “Bad”.
  • The use of sign language during “Imagine”—very touching, somehow.
  • The terrific soul singer who performed “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)”. (It is great that so many of the participants get to try a lead, but with some of them, you do wish for more than one song!)
  • The reprise of “Hallelujah” that blew everyone away last time, performed by the same quartet, back from university for the occasion.

A Spotify playlist of their set list!

2. The Good Place

Holy motherforking shirtballs, The Good Place was good.

This is a half-hour, 13-episode, network TV show starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, debuted this year to very little notice—Jean’s the only other person I know who watches it.

But it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen. And I’m loathe to even say that much about it, as it was so much fun to go along for the ride. And it’s so full of twists! Also, hilarious! Week to week, it was the show I found myself looking forward to most.

I will give the premise. Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a not-so-stellar human being while alive, is surprised to find herself in “the good place” (yeah, that one) after she dies. They have somehow mixed her up with some good Eleanor! How does she stay in the good place?

Look, I know there’s too much good TV, no one can keep with it all. So I won’t say you must watch The Good Place. I will just point out that if you do, it might make you happy. And that at 13 22-minute episodes, it’s less time-consuming that many series. And that despite mediocre ratings, it has already been renewed for season 2, so you don’t have to worry about being left hanging.

If nothing else, you can watch this Season 1 trailer—just 2:20

3. Sandra Shamas: The Big What Now

We were in Toronto last weekend.

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And by the way, Jean won another photo contest recently. (Not with this photo. Just thought I’d mention it now.)

8875While there, we went to Sandra Shamas’ one-woman show about “climbing mount menopause”. Despite that intro and the predominantly female audience, it wasn’t all about the hormonal challenges of being over 50. She covered a gamut of topics from her life.

Having recently dealt with a series of similar plumbing issues, we could relate to the mix of disgust and determination in which she handled the events that started when she flushed her toilet and it “came up my bathtub”. I took (hypothetical) heart in her discovery—having failed to make herself lesbian (“turns out it’s not a choice!”)—via dating apps, that plenty of 20-something men will seek the attention of women in their 50s. (She can’t bring herself to take advantage. “Does your mother know what you’re up to?”)

I wonder if I, too, will soon be entering my “ranting” years. (“I always talked to myself. Now I do it in public. And I’m angry!”) And it was hard not to be inspired by how she made it through a serious ice storm two years ago: “I was without hydro for 8 days. But I was never without power.”

Toronto Star review of the show

4. Queen + Adam Lambert

They’re back! In North America, back! And they kicked it off with an appearance on the Late Late Show that soon went viral:

Front man battle: Adam Lambert vs. James Corden foronting Queen


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A most terrible year?

The year-end reviews certainly are gloomy this year. A sort of consensus that it’s hard to find anything good to say about 2016.

And for residents of some countries, that was certainly true. Poor Haiti had yet another earthquake. Syria! A daily dose of tragedy, made all the worse because our countries were involved in trying to stop it. And the Venezuelans—suffering under an incompetent President, their economic situation already bad and getting worse daily.

But as a global aggregate, the fact is that a lot of things are improving. (These charts don’t all include 2015—and can’t include 2016 yet, as it’s not done!—but the trends shown did not reverse themselves last year.)

Extreme poverty is down, and real incomes are up.

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This one is for Canada specficially

People are healthier.

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Life expectancy is also up, globally

Education rates are much higher.

literate-and-illiterate-world-populationHomicide (and other crime rates) are down, even in gun-happy US.

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I think the source of all this gloom is the US election and its highly unfortunate result. Had Hillary Clinton won the Electoral College, Brexit would seem a weird mess the Brits got themselves into rather than part of an alarming global trend. We could celebrate the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement and some actual action on the front (carbon pricing in Canada! Mon dieux!) instead of feeling it’s all a bit for naught now. The loss of beloved celebrities, some at alarmingly young ages (had not realized just how contemporaneous George Michael and I were), would be just a sad thing that eventually happens to us all, and not a pile-on when we don’t want more bad news (on Christmas Day? Really?).

However… while the mood is understandable, it’s still troubling. Because it’s pessimism, and a nostalgic belief that things were better before, and a denial of the inconvenient fact that things are actually pretty good right now—that the President-Elect ran on and got himself elected with.

It’s not a good place to settle in, mentally. It leads to hopelessness, and inactino. This one bad event didn’t make all of 2016 terrible. (And not to bring down the room, but won’t it be worse once he’s actually in office?)

But in 2016, the US had a great President.

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The 2016 Olympics were fun and kind of inspiring.

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The number of women of colour elected to the US Senate in 2016 has quadrupled.

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After a serious health scare last year, Roger Daltrey came back with a Who 2016 tour.

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In 2016 the Canadian federal government and its gender-balanced cabinet made significant progress on trade with Europe, climate change, safe injection sites, assisted dying legislation, pipeline approvals (and rejections), and improvements to the Election Act.

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The Hamilton Mixtape, released December 2016, was awesome.

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And Saturday Night Live (and other satirical programs) provided some catharsis.

“I’m not giving up. And neither should you.”


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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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Mozart in the what-now?

The fact that Mozart in the Jungle won Best Comedy at the Golden Globes caused some consternation. I’m not going to argue that it was the best among the nominees, three of which I haven’t seen the nominated seasons of, and two of which—Silicon Valley and Transparent—I’d concede are more daring programs than Mozart.

But (even though the Globes are basically ridiculous), I couldn’t help be happy that this little show no one’s heard of got some attention. It is a fun one to watch!

So back to my list of TV shows of 2015:

Under the radar

  1. The Americans – Shomi / FX
  2. Borgen – TVO (originally on Danish television)
  3. Catastrophe – Shomi / BBC
  4. iZombie – Shomi / CW

5. Today’s feature: Mozart in the Jungle – Shomi / Amazon

The premise: Mozart in the Jungle looks at the workings of the New York Symphony as it ushers in a new, young, edgy maestro known simply as Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal). He’s determined to shake up and revitalize the Symphony. In this effort, he has the support of symphony President, Gloria (Bernadette Peters), but not necessarily of the major donors and symphony union members.

Aching to join this organization is young oboe player, Hailey (Lola Kirke). She befriends cellist Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), which gives her a bit of an in, but it’s not going to be a smooth ride for Hailey. The series shifts between the symphony goings-on and Hailey’s jobs (oboe teaching, mostly), roomates, and potential love interests.

Notable participants: Apart from Gael Garcia Bernal and Bernadette Peters (whom I can’t believe is 68—she looks amazing!), the series has notable guest stars such as Malcolm McDowell as Thomas, the previous maestro; Jason Schwartzman as an arts blogger; and John Hodgman as an arts patron.

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What’s good about it: It’s funny, and not too heavy, and it’s nice to have shows like that in the mix. The characters are varied and vibrant, with both genders well represented. The characters are passionate and attractive, and sexy scenes do sometimes ensue.

And as a regular symphony attendee, I really enjoy this “behind the scenes” look, even though events are clearly (I hope!) heightened for entertainment value. But I don’t think you have to be a classical music fan to enjoy the series; it’s not as though they play entire symphonies during episodes.

Mozart in the Jungle Season one trailer

Any qualms? Much of the humour derives from the eccentricities of artistic temperaments, with very odd behavior on the part of some characters. Sometimes walks that line between this is weird but interesting and kind of funny and what the hell is going here?.

  1. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Netflix

Critically acclaimed

  1. Agent Carter – CTV / ABC
  2. The Jinx – HBO
  3. Transparent – Shomi / Amazon

Popular successes

  1. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – CTV / ABC
  2. Amazing Race Canada – CTV
  3. Grace and Frankie – Netflix
  4. Silicon Valley – HBO


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2015 TV shows Part 1: iZombie and friends

Is there any more First World problem than “peak television”? “Wah! There’s too much stuff to watch!” But it’s kind of true. Between the various streaming services, HBO, and the networks, there have never been more hours of quality viewing available. There’s no keeping up with it all (and also having a life).

So, no one needs another list of TV shows to watch. Nevertheless, with apologies and with recognition that it most certainly leaves out many fine programs that I didn’t have the time or the inclination to watch, herewith is my best TV viewing of 2015.

Note: I was going to attempt to describe each listed series in this one post, but then I realized that could get really long. And who would have time to read all that, what with all this TV to watch? So let’s just make this a series. (Though like any series, one subject to cancellation at any time.) What could be more fitting for this medium?

Within each category, programs are listed in alphabetical order, as I can’t imagine ranking such vastly different series against each other.

Under the radar

Programs that, seems to me, aren’t that well-known.

  1. The Americans – Shomi / FX: I wrote about The Americans earlier in the year. Season 3 on Shomi later this month!
  2. Borgen – TVO (originally on Danish television)
  3. Catastrophe – Shomi / BBC: I wrote about Catastrophe as well. Season 2 available about now…

 

4. Today’s feature: iZombie – Shomi / CW

The premise: Based on a comic book, iZombie stars Rose McIver as Liv Moore, an over-achieving medical resident who, as shown in flashbacks, is zombified at a party a few months before the series starts. In this world, zombies retain their mental capacity as long as they regularly consume human brains. Liv manages her dietary needs by working at the coroner’s office, where her partner, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti, clues into her condition in episode 1. Everyone else in her life is mystified by her new behavior and look.

Adding to Liv’s challenges is that when she eat someone’s brain, she temporarily takes on some of their characteristics, be it passionate artist, warm country singer, reclusive computer genius, or psychopath killer. She also gets visions of what the deceased went through, and she uses these to work with police detective Babineaux (who thinks she’s a psychic) to solve murders.

iZombie official trailer

Notable participants: It’s produced by the same people responsible for Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero, and shares with that series the rapid-fire wit. As for the actors, though, I personally am not familiar with any of them. But Rose McIver is very good in what must be a challenging (but fun!) role. The casting, generally, is nicely diverse, and Robert Buckley, as Liv’s former finance Major, reminds me a lot of Scott Speedman.

What’s good about it: I like that that this series has self-contained, weekly murders to solve along with ongoing, season-long storylines. And that the characters have complexity and evolve and are generally likeable (even the villains). And that it’s mega-funny, yet delves into complex moral issues of what it means to be human. Happiness is complicated and rare for these characters (especially Liv and Major), but it’s not a depressing show.

It’s not quite at Buffy levels, but like that show, there’s more to it than its title and premise would suggest.

Any qualms? Whenever the characters apply actual science to zombie-ism (Liv and Ravi are doctors, after all), it doesn’t quite work for me. Zombie-ism just doesn’t seem scientifically possible.


 

  1. Mozart in the Jungle – Shomi / Amazon
  2. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Netflix

Critically acclaimed

We’ve all heard these ones are good. I generally agree—though some are likely overrated.

  1. Agent Carter – CTV / ABC
  2. The Jinx – HBO
  3. Transparent – Shomi / Amazon

(I’d add Netflix’ Jessica Jones here—or in some category—except that we haven’t finished the first season yet.)

Popular successes

A fair number of people watch these shows. The public isn’t always wrong.

  1. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – CTV / ABC
  2. Amazing Race Canada – CTV
  3. Grace and Frankie – Netflix
  4. Silicon Valley – HBO