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


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Oscar round-up

I expect I’ll tune in for Chris Rock’s opening monologue tonight, but can’t see me sitting there for the following 3+ hours watching it live, with commercials. Even though I do have some opinion about what I’d like to see happen (though mostly, it won’t).

Best picture / Directing

I rented Spotlight from iTunes last night. It is indeed a very good film. I was only vaguely familiar with the story—of the extent of the Catholic Church’s covering up pedophile priests in Boston—so I was along for the ride as the reporting team’s investigation uncovered more and more disturbing facts.

So I’ve now seen five of the eight Best Picture nominees, and three of five Directing. The Revenant I have no interest in ever seeing. Three hours of Leonard di Caprio going through horrible experiences in the bush. Yeah, no thanks. Bridge of Spies—I know nothing about that movie, really. Room—definitely want to see it. I was able to handle the book; should be able to handle the movie. (But Jean wasn’t so sure he could, so this wasn’t a theatre outing for us. Same as Spotlight.)

best-picture

But how to rank what I have seen?

If I went with my heart, it would definitely be Brooklyn. It was just so lovely, and the only one from a woman’s point of view.

With my head, maybe Spotlight with a slight edge over The Big Short?

Though for pure entertainment, hard to beat The Martian. So suspenseful. And overall liked it more than Mad Max: Fury Road, even though that one did manage to keep me interested in a big car chase, which is no mean feat.

And I really think Mad Max: Fury Road was the most impressive directing job of these.

Other film categories

Inside Out had better win Animated Feature Film, and I stick to that despite not having seen any others in this category. That was just one of the best pictures of last year, period. I note it’s up for Best Original Screenplay, too.

95114614770e1f8118804bc009d4ff88767d6ce8c81180cc618ab8f645ab4fe4-370x492I can’t be quite as categorical in the Documentary category, where again I’ve seen only one of the nominees: Amy. Will say that it is very good, though. Wasn’t particularly an Amy Winehouse fan walking in. Certainly was walking out.

Haven’t seen a single one of the Foreign language film nominees!

Acting

Here I’ve really missed a lot of these movies, though I hope to catch some eventually. And there are definite favorites for these, right? DiCaprio best actor; Brie Larson (Room) best actress; Sylvester Stallone (Creed) supporting actor, and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) supporting actress.

At least on that last one, I can wholeheartedly support. She was amazing. See:

The Danish Girl movie clip: I want my husband

And I really liked Soairse Ronan in Brooklyn, though can’t compare her to Brie Larson.

Brooklyn movie clip: You don’t sound Irish

Best song

I only know three of them, and I think Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” might be the best of the bunch. Powerful.

Then all those other categories…

Sound mixing, animated short films, makeup and hairstyling, film production.. Lordie. This is why the Oscars go on 3+ boring hours.

 


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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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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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Movie review: Fed Up

*** Fed Up (May 2014) – Theatre

Fed Up posterDocumentary about the obesity epidemic, linking it to changes in the food industry, particularly increased use of sugar.

He says: That was depressing.

She says: Fed Up gives the stats on the increasing obesity rates, particularly among children, and includes interviews with several such young people and teenagers. You can’t help but feel for how miserable their weight makes them, and how tough is it to lose.

Various experts than give their views that just saying “kids need to exercise more” is misguided, because the amount of calories burnt during exercise is so limited. (This is further bolstered by showing that one of the obese teens profiled is very active, every day, yet can’t seem to get the weight off.) Instead, they point to the changes in the food industry in the past 40 years, and how these track with increasing rates of obesity in America—and increasingly, around the world. This has had terrible and unprecedented effects on health, such as teenagers developing Type 2 diabetes.

The problematic changes include greatly increased amounts of sugar, greater use of cheese, and making conveniences food available everywhere—like at the checkout counters of stores that sell other things. Several examples are shown of governments trying to make changes to the food supply to make it healthier, and the food industry resisting them. This started with the McGovern Report in 1977 and continues to this day with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign which started as a call to action to change the actual food supply, but now seems to be more about getting kids to exercise. (Ms. Obama refused to be interviewed for the documentary.)

It’s an interesting movie, and a compelling argument. It ends with some tips for what you can do while waiting for a better world :-), but I got to say, until that happens, it really is difficult.

For instance. In talking about the problem with sugar, the movie emphasizes that it’s not naturally occurring sugar in fruit, for example, that’s a problem. It’s added sugar. The movie also points out that in ingredient lists, sugar can be listed under many different names (corn syrup, malodrexin, sucrose, fructose, etc. — it was a huge list).

But what the movie doesn’t cover is that nutrition labels don’t distinguish naturally occurring and and added sugar. They just say Sugar. (This is the same in the US and Canada.) So if you look at a nutrition label on frozen peas, for example—just peas, now, no added anything—it says Sugar: 4g.

Well OK, you know it’s only peas, so you won’t worry about that “sugar”. But what if you buy a frozen dinner or something else with multiple ingredients? How much of that is naturally occurring and how much added on? Unless you understand absolutely every item in the ingredients list and can confidently recognize it all as real food, you have no way to know.

Michelle Obama proposed changing nutrition labels to spell out the two types of sugar – video link: http://fw.to/KXR6e3W

The food industry is “considering” it. They say it would be expensive, and change would not be possible for several years.


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Jordan Catalano does good

Not sure how many people are just learning about Jared Leto now that he’s scooping up every acting award going for his role as Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club, but he’s been at least semi-famous for a while.

Woman on street of New York: Are you someone famous?

Jared Leto: Sort of.

— Scene from “Artifact”

He first drew my attention back in 1994 (20 years ago!) for his role as Jordan Catalano, object of Angela Chase’s obsession, in the wonderful ABC series My So-Called Life. And who can blame her—or me? Look at this guy:

Jordan Catalano

Jared himself is embarrassed by his work on this series, feeling that while the show was great, he was not. (He therefore did not participate in the DVD release of this series, which is a shame, since most everyone else involved did.)

I think he’s being overly harsh on himself, as I can’t imagine anyone else playing than the part better. From just the script, you’d get a beautiful but shallow dim bulb whose only interest was cars, guitars, and sex. From the acting, you read considerably more going on below the surface: a sensitivity, an intelligence. And you needed that more. Angela Chase intense interest had to be justified by more than just a pretty face.

You’re asking a *man* [to Graham, Brad]—sorry, sorry—to describe someone when I’m sitting here? Here’s what he’s like—fairly—out of it, not unintelligent. Sort of um—stray puppy, you know the type you’re always trying to ease their pain. He may even be a halfway decent person, but let me tell you—*trouble*. *Way* too gorgeous.

— Hallie Lowenthal describes Jordan Catalano to Patty, Angela’s mom

If you’ve never seen the series, you should rectify that, but it was low-rated and lasted only one season.

After that, Jared made movies. And at first, I made some effort to track them down, but the ones he starred in often had limited release, making them hard to get hold of back then (Prefontaine, The Last of the High Kinds, both pretty decent once I did see them), and his parts in movies that were distributed were often tiny (How to Make an American Quilt, Thin Red Line, each featuring him for maybe 5 minutes? His Fight Club role wasn’t huge, either.)

And then there were those movies I was just too wimpy to go see,  afraid I’d find them too disturbing: Requiem for a Dream, Chapter 27, American Psycho

Around 1998, he formed a band with his big brother and some other musicians: 30 Seconds to Mars. With their second album, they achieve significant success, which has only continued. But that’s no thanks to me. I was happy to have someone lend me one of their albums, but I just don’t like it all that much. I don’t think their music is terrible or anything, but it doesn’t really speak to me, either.

So the whole Dallas Buyer’s Club thing has been nice for “reuniting” with this artist. He has a good-size part in it; despite the AIDS theme, the movie is not that depressing or disturbing; it’s been successful and well-distributed; and I really liked it. Yes, he plays a woman in it (a very attractive woman), but he’s very much a man in the extensive publicity he’s done around it and while scooping up all those acting awards. At 42, he looks like this:

Jared Leto

That’s some great moisturizer he’s using to stay looking so young and gorgeous. But his Oscar speech also demonstrated great depth, integrity, and warmth. Appears Jordan Catalano really is “not unintelligent” and a “halfway decent person”.

Wouldn’t have guessed Jared Leto for the first MSCL alum to win an Oscar.

— Someone on Twitter

I’ve been following Jared on Twitter, despite that fact that he’s clearly not doing his own tweeting (and whoever is might want to tone down the triple exclamation points and all caps that made him sound like a 16-year-old fangirl). But it contains some useful links on what’s doing, and through that, I’ve learned about his award-winning documentary, Artifact.

It’s currently discounted to a 99-cent rental on iTunes, so I watched it last weekend. Directed by Leto under the name Bartholomew Cubbins, it was originally intended to just cover the making of 30 Seconds to Mars’s new album, but became something else when the band entered into a dispute with their record company. The specifics of the band being sued for $30 million for breach of contract are unusual, but bands fighting for better deals from their labels is not. And this documentary focuses more on that.

So, you don’t need to be a 30 Seconds to Mars fan to enjoy it; in fact, there isn’t that much of their music in the film. But I’d say you do have to be a fan of rock music in general, particularly one who may wonder why bands always seem to be getting ripped off by their record companies. And this documentary suggests: Because that’s their business model. Like, it’s routine that labels charge for “packaging” and “breakage” on sales of digital copies of music! The various reductions on artist’ take means they can earn nothing, or even be indebted, even after selling millions of copies of an album.

And why do artists keep signing with labels? Because of the difficulty of coming up with an alternative model, at least for artists that want more than limited, cult success.

30 Seconds to Mars is still with a record company. How they got there, without paying $30 million, makes for some interesting viewing.


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Women on the brink: “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Game Change”

Comments on two films I recently watched, sans Jean…

Poster: 20 Feet from Stardom20 Feet from Stardom is a documentary profiling backup singers, a group of people I hadn’t given much thought to before—which is what made it interesting. Though a few male backup singers are interviewed, most of the time is devoted to the women who dominate this profession.

What they all have in common is talent. No “weak but interesting” voices here; they all sing with range, power, pitch, and control. So the question is, why are they just supporting the stars?

The answers vary. Darlene Love was long cheated out of stardom by producer Phil Spector, who would not release her performances under her name. The incredible Lisa Fischer had a successful record—even won a Grammy—but ultimately decided she was frankly happier in a supporting role. Many others tried and failed, because of having the wrong look, poor material, lack of promotion… Or just because.

Through their stories, we get the history background singing in pop music from the subdued style of the 1950s to the increasingly expressive 1960s and 1970s (“rock’n’roll saved us”) to its diminishing popularity in more recent years. It’s a reminder of how important those backup vocals are to many of the songs we love, like “Walk on the Wild Side”, “Thriller”, “Young Americans”, “A Little Help from my Friends” (Joe Cocker), and “Gimme Shelter”. (I had the lines “Rape! Murder!” in my head for days afterward, which was somewhat disturbing.)

Stars are also interviewed in the film, including Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger. But it’s nice to see the spotlight finally turned on the talented performers behind them.

This movie received a 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Poster for Game ChangeI finally got my hands on Game Change, the HBO docu-drama about Sarah Palin’s campaign for the vice-presidency, starring Julianna Moore. It’s somewhat old news now, but maybe it’s best to watch it when Palin is at a low point in her political popularity, because man…Otherwise it would be terrifying.

Admittedly, some scenes may have been slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect, but I did some research, and the essence of what was presented is true. The depth of this woman’s ignorance about the world was astonishing, as though she’d had no historical or geographic education whatsoever.

It’s not an entirely unsympathetic portrayal, either. You do kind of, sometimes, feel bad for her as she struggles to cram in mass numbers of facts in a very limited and very high-pressure time, while being made fun of on SNL. I did find myself rooting for her in the Vice-Presidential debate (which was certainly not the case at the time).

But when on more of an upswing, oh my God, she comes across as arrogant and self-centered and just… entitled and horrible. The way the woman herself often strikes me.

John McCain, by contrast, is given a very sympathetic portrayal throughout. But it’s not really his story anyway.

No longer a current event, but this is still fascinating and well-scripted biopic with a great cast. You get behind the scenes to understand how this could have happened: How someone so unqualified was running to be a heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the world. It’s not the easiest thing for the HBO-less to get, but well worth tracking down.


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Movie review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi poster***1/2 Jiro Dreams of Sushi (July 2012) – Rental

Japanese documentary about the 85-year-old chef at the best sushi restaurant in the world.

She says: Jiro Ono works to perfect the art of making sushi. That’s all he’s done his adult life, and that’s all he wants to continue to do. This documentary tells his story, shows some of his food preparation techniques, and reveals the challenging situations his two sons are in, having followed their father into the same profession. The oldest is 50 and still waiting to be master chef, as his father has no intention of retiring. The younger has opened a companion restaurant.

The sushi really does look amazing and you get very hungry watching this, while knowing that anything called sushi that you get around here is not going to compare. Tuna is very much prized ingredient by the chef, and I wondered if they would touch on the over-fishing issue; they did, and in a way that made these types of chefs appear to not be the problem. (They are conscious of the issue, buy only what they need, when they need it, and with the small restaurant always to capacity and serving some of the world’s best food, nothing is wasted.)

Not that much happens in this film, and yet it’s fascinating—at least to a foodie, I suppose.

He says: We have no idea what real sushi is. And we’ll probably never find out.