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


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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


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My Internship in Canada (Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre)

My Internship in Canada is that rarest of things: a comedy about Canadian politics. The only other I can think of CBC’s adaptation of Terry Fallis’ fine novel The Best Laid Plans, which CBC rather made a hash of.

My Internship in Canada is more successful. It tells the story of independent MP (another rare thing!) from northern Quebec, Steve Guibord, who—in a parliament where the Conservatives have a very slim majority—finds himself with the deciding vote on whether Canada should join a war effort in the middle east.

My Internship in Canada (official trailer) – YouTube

Following all the drama with great excitement and interest is Guibord new Haitian assistant / intern, Souverain. Souverain proves of great help to Guibord, as he’s intelligent and very well-read on the subject of Canadian democracy. (His explanations to his fellow Haitians back home are also useful to any audience who might themselves not be so familiar with the intricacies of Canadian democracy.) He’s also not above sneaking around behind Guibord’s back, if it’s for the greater good.

Several women play important roles as well: his wife, who’s for the war; his daughter, who’s against it; a local reporter playing out the sometimes-tense relationship between media and politics; and the mayor of one of the main towns in his riding, who becomes increasingly (and hilariously) exasperated with Guibord’s last-minute cancellations.

Geography is also incredibly prominent. The riding is very large (“30 fois la grandeur de l’Haiti!”), and Guibord’s fear of flying make him entirely dependent on the highway system, targeted for protests by natives and truckers.

The laughs at the expense of a stuttering union spokesperson (get it?) are unfortunate, and I’m not entirely sure about the portrayal of the Haitians. Overall, though, this is a good-spirited, funny, and intelligent comedy.

In French with English subtitles.


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Three recommendations

In no particular order… But brought to you by the letter C.

Chef (movie)

This Jon Favreau movie (he stars and directs) is about a talented chef whose restlessness with the owner-imposed constraints of his restaurant come to a head in spectacular fashion when a prominent food critic gives him a bad review. In the aftermath, he starts a new chapter of his life—in the unlikely confines of a food truck.

This movie features three things I love: well-prepared food, travel, and Twitter! And they’re all wrapped up in a funny and endearing story, chock full of great actors in parts big and small. I didn’t buy that—even with his great cooking—Jon Favreau’s character could attract not only Sofia Vergara but Scarlett Johansson, but I’ll forgive him that, as I found everything else so wonderful.

Available on US Netflix (among other places, I’m sure)

Chef trailer

Catastrophe (TV show)

CatastropheAfter a hookup that leads to a week of wild sex, irish teacher Sharon is horrified to find that American Rob has impregnated her. So the two make an attempt at having a real relationship despite the challenges of immigration visas, unsupportive family members, dubious friends, and the health problems that can occur when a 42-year-old gets pregnant. Fortunately, they really like each other…

This is one of the funniest series I’ve seen in a long time. Often crude, but we’re all adults here, aren’t we? And it was nice that the backbone of the series was a couple who are growing in fondness for each other in the midst of considerable craziness and stress.

Also great, in the world of “peak television”, was that this series has only six episodes, and each is only about 25 minutes long! Mind, it did end on a bit of a cliffhanger. But apparently season 2 is on the way soon.

Available on Shomi (Canada), Amazon (US), and BBC4 (UK)

Cabernet Franc (wine)

Sometimes, when at a winery tasting, you get caught up in the fun and excitement—and the effects of alcohol—and you buy and bunch of bottles. But when back at home, with the daily grind, you open them… And you can’t remember what the big deal was. They’re fine, but kind of meh.

Well, that just hasn’t happened with wines we were most impressed with on our Lake Erie winery trip this summer: the Cabernet Franc. We’ve by now had one bottle of the Aleksander (2012) and one of the Cooper’s Hawk (2013) and remain rather wowed by both. Fruity, delicious, vanilla accents, maybe? But not overwhelming. “Can be eaten with food.” Thing is, I don’t remember Cabernet Franc being such a wow grape. Has it improved, have my tastes changed, were those just especially good years?

At any rate, if you’ve been dismissive of Cabernet Franc, you might want to give it another whirl.


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Art films, documentaries, and blockbusters; oh my! Movie roundup

Recommended art film: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and The Dying Girl movie poster

Greg is the “me” of the title. He’s in his last year of high school, trying his best to pass through it anonymously, and uncertain about going to college. Earl is the friend he calls his “co-worker” because they spend a lot of time making short movies based on rewording original title movies (My Dinner with Andre the Giant, A Sockwork Orange, 2:48 Cowboy, and so on). And the dying girl, Rachel, who has stage 4 leukemia, disrupts his tidy life.

Greg narrates this film, pointing out that if it were a “normal” teen movie he and Rachel would fall in love. Instead, they just develop a close (but doomed, he reminds us) friendship.

Though sad in parts, this is not an emotionally manipulative tear jerker. It’s very original, often funny, and definitely a treat for movie buffs.

Other art films worth noting

I'll See You in My DreamsWarning that I’ll See You in My Dreams is not the “great date movie” it’s billed as. In the film, lead character Carol, played by Blythe Danner, reacts to a loss by suddenly reaching out to others, exploring a new friendship (yes, just friendship) with the pool boy and a possible romance with a new man in town. She also opens up more to her daughter. Not everything works out as she might hope, but she retains this new found willingness to open up to the possibilities. It’s kind of inspiring, but not really a date movie.

The F Word, on the other hand… Note that the F of the title stands for Friendship, which is a bit of curse word when you want more than that. This Canadian film (which had to be retitled What If in the US) stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as Wallace and Chantry. The two meet at a party and really hit it off; unfortunately, Chantry has a live-in boyfriend. And he’s not even a jerk. So the agree to just be friends.

It’s perhaps not highly original how the two lurk toward possibly more-than-friendship, but it’s a pretty charming to watch. The two actors have good chemistry.

I’m not sure why I’m assuming here that people pick art movies for dates, but to keep running with it… I’m not sure The Overnight is your best bet for that, either. It is a sex comedy, but I’d say with an emphasis on the funny, not the sexy. In it, a young couple who have recently moved to Los Angeles meet another couple in the park. Their kids hit it off, and they get invited over for dinner. After the kids are in bed, things get a bit weird. A bit weirdly sexual—or maybe just sexually weird.

It’s not a bad little movie. It is funny, it’s different, and the cast is good. Just select your viewing companion carefully.

Mainstream movies

“The movies you’ve heard of”. And of which, I haven’t seen too many  lately, actually, though I have a number on the list to see. But these are older ones.

Recommended mainstream movie: Edge of Tomorrow

Live Die Repeat movie posterThis movie didn’t do very well at the box office, under its original title, Live, Die, Repeat, maybe because the public doesn’t so much like Tom Cruise anymore. But if you can stand to watch him, it is a good movie! (I saw it on TMN.)

The premise is a world at war with an alien race. Cruise plays a Major without combat experience who is dropped into a major conflict zone. Unsurprisingly, he dies. More surprisingly, he revives, finding himself back at the time where his mission began.

So it’s a kind of sci-fi Groundhog Day, except that his time to restart isn’t always just a day—even though no matter how long he survives, he always ends up back at the same starting point after he kicks it. This allows for considerable variety in the action, as he tries this path and that path, and we don’t always know on which attempt we’re coming in. It’s a pretty smart movie, and quite entertaining.

Other mainstream movies

I saw these two on a plane!

  • Into the Woods: I quite enjoyed this alternative retelling of familiar fairy tales, complete with song
  • Kingsmen: The Secret Service: A fun and funny movie about British secret agents—though points off for that unnecessary, very sexist, final scene. (Actually, for whole third act treatment of the princess character.)

Recommended documentary: Citizenfour

Citizenfour movie posterThis Oscar winner follows documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras as Edward Snowden, calling himself Citizenfour, makes contact, offering information that will be “worth her while”. Then we see on film the process of his disclosure of state secrets and its aftermath, including his being charged under the Espionage Act, losing his passport, and finally gaining safe haven in Russia. Against that backdrop, we learn more about the information he leaked by the journalists (Poitras is joined by reporters from The Guardian) who report it.

The film itself is very subtle, with much information necessarily just conveyed via white text on a black screen. But the story that is revealed is quietly fascinating. I thought I knew, basically, what the Snowden leaks revealed, but if so, I really hadn’t internalized the extent to which the NSA was basically poking into all electronic communication, and not just the metadata. Pretty alarming stuff…

Other notable documentaries

Lambert and STampLambert and Stamp focuses on The Who’s original managers, Kitt Lambert and Chris Stamp, giving a new perspective on the band’s history. Being of very different backgrounds and characters, they were unlikely partners, with no experience or contacts in the music business. Yet they nurtured what became one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

As a Who fan, I did enjoy it, but the movie would have benefited from more and tighter editing. It’s also unfortunate that the more interesting of the two managers, Kitt Lambert, died long ago. There is only so much archival footage of him.

With a number of interviews from those who have left the “church”, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief helps explain how people can become devoted to such a recently developed, expensive “religion” with such weird ideas at its core. It also shows the abuse and damage that is inflicted on many adherents, both when they are part of the “church” and often continuing after they leave it. It’s interesting and startling, and not only because so many famous people belong to this organization.


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Award season

Movie award season has come around and I find myself somewhat more interested than some years. If nothing else, at least the talk of movies and actors is a nice distraction from the alarming events going on in the world.

Movie award trophis

Trophies for the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and SAG awards

However, I haven’t seen that many of the big contenders yet. I am pleased that The Grand Budapest Hotel, which we saw back in April, has been remembered and is getting recognition, as it really was quite delightful. But Wild is only getting recognition for Reese Witherspoon’s acting, when I thought the film as a whole was very good. And the fantastic Pride was up for a Golden Globe, but nowhere in the Oscar list.

So I guess my interest is that I would like to see many of the other contenders as well: The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Into the Woods, Big Eyes, Still Alice, and Boyhood. Mind you, except for Boyhood—which I was deliberately waiting for the rental version of—those are in theatres now. Rather unlikely I find time to see all of them before award show season ends.

Birdman posterWe did get to Birdman, however, back in December. And I’m still trying to figure out exactly I what I think of it! It tells the story of an actor who had been the star in a superhero movie franchise, and is now trying to adapt, direct, and star in a revival of a Raymond Carver play on Broadway. The effort of putting on the play is not going smoothly, however, and the stress causes him to break down and hallucinate at times. The hallucinations are largely presented as though they’re actually happening.

So it’s an unusual film, and for me that makes it hard to unabashedly love. But I didn’t dislike it, either. It’s certainly creative, and the actors—star Michael Keaton, Edward Norton as another actor in the play, and Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter—are very good. And you certainly end up rooting for the main character, despite his flaws. Worth seeing if you’re up for a moderate challenge.

Some of the other Oscar contenders, though, I’ve decided I’m not up for the challenge of: Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, American Sniper. All these movies about dark men being nasty. Oscar clearly loves that shit, but I do not.

Oscar also snubbed the Roger Ebert document, Life, Itself, which we had found quite good. Admittedly, though, I didn’t see any of the documentaries they did nominate, so can’t really say whether they were all better than Life, Itself.

The Lego Movie posterSimilarly with the animated movie category: I haven’t seen any of the nominees, but I did recently see The Lego Movie.(which was nominated for a Globe, but didn’t win), and found it to be one heck of a fun and entertaining movie, no matter your age. Jean was quite skeptical when I suggested we watch it, but he quite enjoyed it, too. (As an aside, he had the same reaction to 2012’s Pitch Perfect, the movie about the all-women a capella group, so that’s another recommended one from us, if you haven’t seen it already.)

At least the “Everything is Awesome” song was nominated, but I really think Lego Batman deserved more recognition for his work. 🙂

The Globes also give awards for TV shows and actors, and I’ve hardly seen of any of those nominees. But weirdly, many of the few I was acquainted with actually won. The Affair got best dramatic series—which appalled the TV critics—and best actress in a drama., and the star of Jane the Virgin won for best actress in a comedy—which delighted the TV critics. I, of course, have caught up with both of those shows recently.

In the mini-series category, Maggie Gyllenhaal took it for the amazing Honourable Woman, which I did watch on CBC. The network’s commercial insertions were jarring, but the series was a fascinating, complex look at Israeli / Palestian relations, and Gyllenhaal was great in it (as she usually is). And Matt Bomber won a supporting actor award for HBO’s The Normal Heart, an interesting movie about the early days of the AIDS crisis, that I watched not long after I subscribed to HBO.

I leave you with some links.

Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globe) nominees and winners list

Oscar 2015: Nominations in full (in case you really need to know who’s up for sound editing and for hair and makeup)

Oscar snubs: Shocks and surprises from the 2015 nominations (at least according to The Telegraph)


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Wild women! Some reviews

Wild movie posterIt seems apropos to begin with Wild, the movie starring Reese Witherspoon, that we recently saw at the theatre. I was quite looking forward to it, as I’ve really enjoyed every other movie Jean-Marc Vallée has made. I also thought the rugged, outdoors-y story would appeal to Jean.

Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed, who decides to solo hike the Pacific Coast Trail, which is over 1000 miles long and doesn’t have a lot of “comfort stations.” As her overly full backpack attests, she doesn’t have any experience with this type of trip. As she slogs along, she flashes back to the memories of her past that have led her to this point.

So it’s not inherently the most cinematic movie. The writer, director, and actors deserve credit for making it as compelling as it is.

Cheryl Strayed was kind of wild. Depressed after her mother dies of cancer, she spirals… drops out of schools, engages in casual sex, drinks, experiments with heroin. She does the hike as a kind of act of atonement. Instead she learns that maybe she has nothing to atone for.

The Affair posterThe Affair, an HBO Canada (Showtime in the US) series that we finished watching over Christmas, presents another woman for whom a tragic death leads to “bad” behavior—notably, an affair. The conceit of the series is that each episode is show from two points of view: His (Noah’s) and hers (Alison’s). What’s interesting is how differently each of them recalls the same events. With this series, you can never be sure what the truth is.

Underpinning the story of the affair is a murky murder investigation: For the longest time, we’re not even sure who’s dead. But particularly at the start of the series, it’s the personalities and relationships that are of interest, anyway.

Watching this with Jean was added entertainment, as he’d get so frustrated with the characters and situation at times, he’d have to get up and pace to work off the tension. At one point he commented, “I don’t know why she’s so much more sympathetic than he is.” But she is. It’s sad but understandable that the strain of tragedy has damaged the relationship with her husband. Noah, on the other hand, seems to be undergoing a petulant midlife crisis, with his wife and four children as the victims.

It seems like the kind of series in which everything would get wrapped up at the end of the season, but not so much. This is TV, they wanted a season 2, so it ends in a kind of cliffhanger. That’s worrisome, as I don’t see this necessarily continuing to work well for another 10 episodes.

Jane the ViringJane the Virgin, on the other hand—which we started watching on Shomi about a month ago and have nearly finished already—has enough plot and characters to run for years, probably. Central character Jane is, indeed, a virgin. In a bid to avoid becoming a teenage mom like her own mother, she has vowed to wait until marriage.

Unfortunately, a medical mistake in the first episode causes her to get pregnant anyway. And that’s just one plot among many.

The series is based on and includes Mexican telenovellas, which I know nothing about. But it seems to mean:

  • Fast-moving storylines
  • A large cast of intersecting characters
  • Painfully good-looking actors
  • High drama

(Or maybe that impression is just the result of watching so many episodes in such a short time.) At any rate, it is highly entertaining. If Jane isn’t wild, the same can’t be said of anyone around her: The number and variety of hookups is astonishing. They all (even her mother) see Jane and her morals as a kind of a mysterious, rare bird. Yet she’s not some preachy, perfect, dull character: She’s just a young woman trying to make the best decisions for herself.

In a really crazy world.

Pamela SmartBut HBO documentary Captivated: The Many Trials of Pamela Smart remind us that the real world can be pretty crazy as well.

The Pamela Smart story is one you probably think you know, at least if you were around in 1993. She was the pretty, blonde school worker who had an affair with a teenage boy, who later murdered her husband. She was convicted of conspiring to commit murder, the story being that she had seduced her young lover into committing the act. The case inspired the movie To Die For, starring Nicole Kidmann.

The documentary covers the media circus surrounding the case at the time. I hadn’t realized just how nuts it was on American TV, down to presenting a full re-creation of the supposed crime on television before the fully televised trial (the first ever) even took place! It points out which often-repeated “facts” presented in the media weren’t true, and some of the lax aspects of the case itself (such as allowing the four young men involved to stay together in prison pre-trial; and maybe get their stories straight?).

The “seductress” story was so compelling, it seemed any reality that contradicted it got dismissed.

I went into watching this assuming she was guilty, and the documentary wasn’t necessarily trying to establish her innocence. Still, I’m left wondering, particularly given the inclusion of recordings by one of the jurors (made at time of trial), who had extreme doubts about the evidence as presented. Perhaps Pamela Smart is guilty, But after watching this, I don’t think that’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Nevertheless, she’s in jail for life, The actual murderers are due to be released soon.


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The Book of Mormon

I guess we attended a fair number of shows at Centre in the Square last season, because this summer they offered us a free StarCentre membership, whose main benefit is the opportunity to buy tickets in advance. And the first pre-sale opportunity was tickets for The Book of Mormon in December.

I really wanted to see Book of Mormon even though I really knew nothing about this musical, other than:

  • It was supposed to be really good.
  • It was supposed to be really funny.
  • It was written by the same guys who did South Park.
  • It somehow did involve characters who were Mormons.

The mood for the evening was set early, as we greeted on the corner by an actual Mormon (or so he said, but why would he lie? And he definitely had the outfit) who gave us a free copy of the actual Book of Mormon. (And thus I learned there was an actual Book of Mormon.)

In a bid to find parking at this sold-out performance, we had arrived early, and so decided to take advantage of another membership benefit: The opportunity to use the exclusive Member’s Lounge downstairs, before the show.

That was quite lovely. The room is beautiful and you’re definitely treated like an all-star: Take your coat, show you to a seat, take your drink order, bring it to you with free popcorn. A large-screen TV counts down the time until show start, so you don’t miss anything. Use the washroom without having to line up first.

(The drink prices were rather high, mind you. Luxury has its price, and here it’s $12 for a glass of Pinot.)

Our pre-sale purchase had garnered us seats in row A, which has extra leg room—a bit wasted on us, but pleasant nonetheless.

And on with the show.

The Book of Mormon trailer

Sometimes Kitchener gets “discount” versions of Broadway show, but this one was a proper production, with the full, A-list cast and elaborate sets. And it was everything I expected it to be: good, funny, South Park-y, Mormon-y. But it was full of surprises, too.

It is, to some extent, mocking religion in general, and the modern, American religion of Mormonism in particular. It definitely highlighted some of the odder aspects of that faith’s dogma, which I hadn’t previously been familiar with. (It does not, by the way, touch on the issue of bigamy at all.) It reminded me of the infamous South Park episode where they took on the even more modern, American religion of Scientology.

South Park: The Truth About Scientology Revealted

But it isn’t simple-minded or mean in its mocking. By setting most of the piece in the troubled country of Uganda, it also ends up showing how religion can be helpful, and comforting, and empowering—as long as its allowed to be flexible.

And now I’ve made the musical sound somewhat serious, when it’s not at all—it’s hilarious, in ways obvious and subtle (like coffee being the big temptation for a Mormon!). I think that’s the genius of it. At the time, you’re just being shocked and surprised and thoroughly entertained. But later on, you’re giving it deeper thought (or I am, anyway).

If you get a chance to see this production, I encourage you to do so. Even if you think you don’t like musicals.

(As long as you’re not offended by coarse language. Viewer discretion is advised. 🙂 )