Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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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!

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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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Battle of the Sexes

That post title could lead to a number of topics, I suppose, but in this case I’m referring to the movie of that title, built around the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

The movie starts earlier than that, with a group of top women tennis players—led by Billie Jean King—protest the growing difference in the amount of prize money awarded to the top men tennis players versus the top women: the men were now earning 4, 8, or even 12 times as much as the women. Reason? The men’s game is just “superior.”

The women—initially a group of nine—decided to boycott the tournaments with such practices and launch their own tour, which came to be known as the Virginia Slims Circuit after their cigarette-making sponsor. In retaliation, the women are dropped from the US tennis association, which means they can’t compete in Grand Slams tournaments (Wimbledon, US Open). But also meant that those tournaments were lacking the top women tennis players.

Against that backdrop came the 56-year-old Bobby Riggs, offering a million dollars to a top woman tennis player willing to play him. Riggs needs the money debts, but also loves the attention, and plays it up by making the most sexist comments possible. First willing to take him on is Margaret Court, who gets rattled and loses fairly decisively. That’s when Billie Jean King decides she must take him on, and the publicity machine goes into overdrive.

When I told Jean we were going to see a “tennis movie,” he wasn’t exactly thrilled, but this movie doesn’t have much tennis. Most of it gives us a “behind the scenes” look at these historical events and the key people involved in them. Interspersed as well is the story (somewhat altered from reality) of Billie Jean King meeting and ultimately starting an affair with Marilyn Barnett, despite being married to a good man, Larry King. “There’s only ever been Larry,” she tells Marilyn.

When we finally do get some tennis, it’s to show the highlights of the Bobby Riggs / Billy Jean King match, one I found riveting, though I already knew who would win.

But the whole movie was well-cast (Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman) and quite interesting. (Jean liked the movie, also, by the way.) Bobby Riggs wasn’t portrayed as a pure villain (that would be Jack Kramer, the tournament chair), but a more nuanced characters with a troubled but loving relationship with his wife, and who was playing a part for the cameras rather than expressing true beliefs. The afterwards of the film notes that Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became long-term friends after their historic match.

The saddest thing is how relevant this still seems, even though these events took place some 44 years ago. Yes—with much thanks to Billie Jean King and her contemporaries—things have improved for women in tennis and maybe in a few other sports? (Golf?) But in so many others (soccer, hockey, basketball), they are still such poor cousins to the men, even when they are playing at a higher calibre (as with US soccer). Not too mention the continuing gender wage gap in almost every industry there is.

The battle continues.


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Movies we watched while waiting for Wonder Woman

I had every intention of seeing Wonder Woman at the theatre this summer—I fully expect I’ll enjoy it—but it didn’t stick around the major theatres as long as I expected, nor did it get the second round at the art cinemas I was expecting. (Especially as the Apollo Cinema did have it listed as “coming soon”, only it never did.)

So when Google offered a movie rental for 0.99, I thought Wonder Woman would be a great way to spend that, and was quite excited to see it listed in the Play store. But when we sat down to watch it, I realized it was only available for $20 purchase at this point, and I did not want to do that.

So I turned to my Netflix list to see what movies I had short-listed there, and hence we instead watched…

The Lobster

Holy doodle, that’s a weird and disturbing movie. The premise is an alternate world in which people who find themselves single have a couple unappealing choices. One is the officially sanctified approach of checking themselves into a hotel where they have 45 days to find a partner. If they fail, they are surgically converted into an animal (a lobster, a dog, a pony).

The other option is to illegally escape and join The Loners in the woods. While always at risk of capture, here you have more freedom, and no threat of having to become another species. But you are strictly forbidden any kind of romantic entanglement.

So, both those options are terrible, and as the movie shows, even those who manage to couple aren’t really in a great situation, necessarily, given the incredible incentives do so.

On Rotten Tomatoes, critics rated this movie as 89% positive, but only 64% of the general public agreed. I can see the critics admiring this—it’s definitely original and in many ways well-crafted. But it’s a tough one to enjoy. And I’m not completely sure what the point was? Perhaps some comment on our society’s antipathy toward singledom…?

I did survive that rather bleak movie, however, this weekend we buckled down and watched…

Still Alice

Which I’d been putting off because I thought it would be sad. And, I was right, it was sad. Very sad to see the highly intelligent and articulate Alice become increasingly incapable of hanging on to her memories, at the young age of 50. (Also scary—I couldn’t help trying to do all of Alice’s memory tests with her.)

But it is a good film, with a great performance by Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart. And it doesn’t deliberately, manipulatively try to heighten the sentiment. It doesn’t have to.

And what were the art cinemas showing instead of Wonder Woman? Well, for one night anyway, it was

Deconstructing the Beatles’ Revolver

Which is a love it or hate it kind of a thing. In Deconstructing the Beatles, a music professor takes a deep dive into one Beatles album, in this case Revolver. He uses rare footage and audio archives to go track-by-track giving insight into the creation of each song, from inspiration to final mix.

Does that sound like something you might interesting? Then you’re probably right. Or does that sound like the most boring thing ever? You’re probably also right.

The only reason Jean joined me at this one was that we were also accompanied by a friend of his that was solidly in the “interesting” camp, and Jean didn’t want to miss out on the social aspect. But this sure wasn’t his cup of tea. I found it cute that he fell asleep during discussion of “I’m Only Sleeping” (“Please don’t wake me, no don’t shake me…”).

As for me, I learned quite a bit about Revolver, one of my favourite Beatles albums, which I think will only enhance future listening of it.

 


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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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Movie review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Yes, we were quite late to this one, but Canada Day weekend we finally took in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. We were both fans of the first one, and had heard generally positive reviews of the sequel, albeit with some debate as to which volume was better.

The first movie was a fun discovery. This one had to meet the expectations raised by that one. It tries to do so in a big hurry, with an amazing opening action sequence that is soon interspersed with a musical interlude featuring a dancing Baby Groot. Shameless, but I loved it anyway.

The whole movie continues along in similar fashion, with more action, more humour, more classic rock, more cute Baby Groot.

But its real strength are its full complement of flawed but lovable characters, who are dealing with various family issues in this one. Peter has a chance to reconnect with the father who abandoned him as a child. Gamora has taken her troublesome sister hostage. Rocket ponders on the consequences of his prickly approach to his teammates (other than Baby Groot). Drax mourns his lost wife and daughter while bonding with a new acquaintance, Mantis.

First one better? Sequel better? I don’t know. I just think the two would make a nice double bill.


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Hidden Figures

In my continuing series of trying to find movies Jean will like, we went to see Hidden Figures, the story of three African-American women whose mathematical and engineering skills contributed greatly to NASA’s space program, during a time of segregation.

While I have not seen all of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, based on those I have, I agree with the assessment that this was the most conventionally filmed. While its based on true stories, you can just feel how reality has been condensed and combined to make for a better narrative arc. Like, as Jean pointed out, the “convenient” fact that the three women whose achievements were most impressive in the end happened to all commute to work together in the beginning. And every moment of victory is signalled with a soundtrack of another inspiring, uplifting song.

But hey, if a formula works, it works, and we both really liked this movie. (It also did the best box office of all the Oscar-nominated films.) Most of us did not know this history before this movie was made, and it is pretty amazing one. NASA felt so much urgency to catch up with the Russians on space exploration, they didn’t have the time to waste the talents of brilliant women just because of their skin tone.

But that didn’t mean any of it was easy, and the movie shows the challenges of trying to succeed in a segregated world. Having to run three-quarters of a mile to use “your” restroom. Seeing your coworkers flinch when you touch “their” coffee pot. Having to steal the FORTRAN book from the white section of the library, because they won’t let you borrow it. Doing the work of a supervisor, without the pay or the title.

These women earned each of their inspiring, uplifting songs!

Hidden Figures is on DVD and on-demand now, as well as still on some art cinemas (where we saw it). Definitely worth a view.