Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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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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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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Movie review: Get Out

We saw this movie only recently, though it was released in February (and is now available on DVD / streaming). What convinced me to go despite horror not being one of my go-to genres was its 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, along with:

mv5bnte2nzg1njkznv5bml5banbnxkftztgwotgyodmymti-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_All this advance research proved correct. Of course the movie had violence, but not much more than you’d see on network TV. It was about suspense, not gore.

And yes, the startling moments, the twists, the laughs, were more enjoyable with a crowd to share them (though this was a sparsely attended showing).

It is a good movie. Just on the surface level, it’s fun trying to figure out the plot, and it does have a good mix of humour in with the mysterious goings-on. The lead character, Chris, is going to spend the weekend with his girlfriend’s family for the first. She’s white; the family does not know that he’s black.

She assures him that it will not be a problem, but in fact, his interactions with the family are uncomfortable, whether by over-compensating (“my man!” exclaims her father) or by thinly veiled hostility of her brother. As well, the few black people in the area behave rather strangely, almost zombie-like. Things only get weirder and, for Chris, more alarming from there.

So if you want to get analytical, there’s also a lot to work with here: issues of cultural appropriation and white liberal racism and even gender issues (the victim here is not the pretty white girl). One of the smarter movies out there.


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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.

 


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Roundup: Riverdale, Lala Land, Malcolm Gladwell, and more

I haven’t done anything major of late, but I’m still keeping busy with a number of minor items, such as…

Watching Riverdale

A very buzzy show right now, playing on CW in the US and on Netflix in Canada. Beforehand, I liked the idea of a dark, Twin Peaks-y take on Archie Comics, and I’ve been generally happy with the results. The tone is still somewhat uneven—sometimes exaggerated Gothic, sometimes gritty realism—and Jean does tend to roll his eyes at the drama, drama of some scenes. But we’re both pretty entertained by it, overall.

Doesn’t hurt that he took an instant shine to Betty, while I am seriously crushing on Jughead… On Jughead, yeah. This is not like the comics! Sure, Archie is handsome, but also a jock and a bit bland, and Kevin is cute, but not  in that Adam Lambert way. But Jughead is a writer, he’s sensitive, he’s moral, he’s troubled (poor and bullied; alcoholic father)—and also, so pretty!

jughead

[SPOILERY] There’s been considerable Internet discussion about whether the Jughead character would be asexual / aromantic as in the comics, so I was curious how that would play out. I can’t say I’m personally disappointed with the decision, but it is certainly a missed opportunity to do something groundbreaking.

Finding a movie Jean likes

Back in December we went to see Office Christmas Party, an over-the-top, light comedy we both found kind of fun. But then we followed withe Loving and Moonlight. These are both quality films that I enjoyed. But they are also slow-paced, character-driven dramas, and Jean was somewhat bored by both. So I took a pass on going to Fences and Manchester by the Sea with him—I’ll catch up on those myself.

The Lego Batman Movie seemed like it should be a good bet, though, right? And while it was not quite as good as the original Lego Movie, I was still very entertained by it. But while Jean wasn’t exactly bored, he was just kind of meh on this one. He just didn’t catch all the digs at the Batman lore that made the movie so clever.

And Lala Land? (“Did you know this is a musical?” he asked, walking in. Umm…)

But hey Mikey, he liked it! (Me too. It’s fun, and beautifully filmed.)

Fretting about details of a party we’re hosting

Usually late at night, when I should be falling asleep.

“Huh,” said Jean, when I reported this. “I don’t think about that at all.”

But he definitely helps me work on whatever aspect I’m most recently fretting about.

I guess that makes us a good partnership. Though I do envy his ability to just assume that things will be fine and work out.

Learning from Malcolm Gladwell

Revisionist History is a podcast series, available on iTunes and Google Play.

Each week, over the course of 10 weeks, Revisionist History will go back and reinterpret something from the past. An event. A person. An idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.

I’ve listened to 8 out of 10 so far, and find them all fascinating. Like:

  • The Lady Vanishes, on how one woman (or African-American, or gay person) achieving breakthrough success doesn’t necessarily pave the way for more.
  • Thanks to The Big Man Can’t Shoot, I now understand that my very disinterest in looking athletic (a hopeless endeavour, anyway; I am simply not athletic) made me a basketball free-throw champion. (It was literally the only thing I was ever better than anyone else at in gym class.)
  • Hallelujah explains the creative process and unlikely series of fortunate events that turned Leonard Cohen’s original un-listenable song into the iconic tune it is today. (Though I think KD Lang should also have earned a shout-out in this piece.) And as a bonus, introduced me to a new Elvis Costello tune.

Listening to women

I’ve always been a feminist, of course, but the US election has made it all feel more acute. My Twitter feed has been feeling gender unbalanced, so I’ve been seeking out more women’s voices:

  • @robyndoolittle, who’s been working on an important series for the Globe and Mail on how many sexual assault cases in Canada are labelled unfounded. (The first: Unfounded: Why police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless)
  • @AKimCampbell, first woman Prime Minister of Canada, and also a really hilarious person. (And very active retweeter, but I’ve learned you can follow a person’s tweets but not their retweets.)
  • @kashanacauley, humorist and now writer at The Daily Show.
  • @tagaq, wherein singer Tanya Tagaq provides an interesting, First Nations perspective on the day’s issues.

I’ve also been listening to more music by women. This has led Spotify, who previously recommended me a whole lot of dance club music (thanks to following Adam Lambert, and perhaps enforced by a bout of listening to show tunes) to conclude, well, maybe I would enjoy some Indigo Girls and Melissa Ethridge as well.

I kind of do like their music, though, so it’s all good. And also, the songs by these strong women: