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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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Finding time to listen

I have found a new (to me) podcasting app Pocket Casts and it’s very good. It has solved all my podcasting problems: It gathers all podcasts in one app, whereas before I was bouncing between iTunes, Google, SoundCloud, and a browser. It keeps my spot in each podcast I’ve started, even when switching devices or playing through Sonos or Chromecasting. It can even cut silences out of each episode, making it each one slightly shorter.

Wait, did I say it solved all my podcasting problems? There’s one it’s likely only exacerbated, even with the seconds or minutes saved by cutting out silences: finding time to listen to all the ones I’d like to.

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Some people do this by listening on what they call chipmunk speed, playing it at a faster speed than recorded. I tried that, but I just don’t like the weird sound that results, even at only 1.5x faster.

I can’t attend to a podcast while reading, or having a conversation, or working (because fortunately my job’s not that boring), or writing, or anything else in which I have to attend to my thoughts. My commute is extremely short, which is wonderful in most ways, but means that it’s really not enough time to make much of a dent in a podcast episode.

And I just don’t want to give up my daily habit of listening to music while making dinner. I also don’t think they would be as good as soundtrack to my Monday night cleaning routine as my “high-energy songs” playlists.

“Know what would make my life better? Listening to music less often.”

— No one, ever.

So I found myself seeking out extra chores I can do, for which a podcast would be a useful adequate. Now, anything that can motivate me to do some tidying up is beneficial. But I still prefer cooking to tidying, so I also find that I’m now trying out more dessert recipes. The value of that is debatable.

(On the other hand, you can definitely overdo this podcast thing, as revealed in this article: I Listen to 35 Hours of Podcasts Every Week. Is That … Bad? Answer: yeah, kind of… And towhich I say… 35 hours a week! Jesus. When do you do… anything else?)

There seems to be podcasts about every topic under the sun, and I’m not always sure how I stumbled upon the ones I try to listen to semi-regularly. But here’s a sampling of them and what I like about them.

Psychology

These are nice because, being less attuned to current events, you can more cherry-pick through them and feel less pressure to listen to them soon after their posting date.

Under the Influence

Good old CBC Radio—the original podcaster! This particular series is by Terry O’Reilly and is on the subject of advertising, or “the art of persuasion”. Recent episodes have covered jingles (with a WKRP reference), use of celebrities (early Ellen Degeneres!), brand myths (no, little Mikey from the Life cereal commercial didn’t die of pop rocks + coke. In fact, he’s alive and works in advertising). I’ve always loved this show, but rarely catch it on the radio. Podcasts to the rescue.

Hidden Brain

Hidden Brain is by NPR: the CBC of the US! This is how it describes itself:

Hidden Brain helps curious people understand the world – and themselves. Using science and storytelling, Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.

One three-part series that actually changed my own behavior a little was on the subject of sleep: The “Swiss Army Knife” Of Health. It makes a pretty compelling case that while sleep feels like a waste of time, it’s really important. And that while those who routinely get only 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night might think they’re managing just fine, they actually aren’t. They just no longer notice how tired they are all the time. But they are chronically under-performing, both mentally and physically. To be at your best, you need an “uncompromising 8 hours of sleep.” Every day.

Pop culture

Pop culture stuff is timely, but not that timely, especially since I almost never see movies on opening weekends, read books when they first come out, or watch TV live (love my PVR). So I can go back a few weeks on the pop culture ones without them feeling irrelevant.

Backtalk by Bitch Media

This one, hosted by two young women, looks at all aspects of pop culture—music, TV, movies, podcasts, books, magazines—from a feminist perspective. I’ve gotten some really good recommendations from it, along with some great insights; for example, their episode about the movie Get Out pointed out a whole lot of racial metaphors and symbols that I had missed, and made me admire the movie even more.

The only issue? And I don’t know how to say this without coming across as a disapproving granny, but wow, they sure swear a lot. I know, there’s a lot for American women to be angry about right now, and you gotta speak your truth. I just feel the arguments might be a bit more effective if the colorful language was applied more judiciously.

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The Americans Podcast

Where Backtalk is very broad; The Americans Podcast is super-specific. It’s not about all the people living in the country to the South, but about the FX TV series by that title that tells the story of Russian spies in 1980s who pose as an all-American couple, complete with all-American children. As previously reported, Jean and I love it.

It’s currently in its sixth and final season, and I have just discovered this podcast, which contains interviews with the cast, crew, and creators of the show, and thus is strictly a post-episode listen, as it’s rife with spoilers. This season is setting up to be epic.

Politics

Political stuff, especially American, is just moving with break-neck speed these days. These are the ones I don’t like to wait too long after post date before listening.

Lovett or Leave It

Crooked Media was a response to the election of Trump. Most of its members used to work for President Obama in some capacity. So they’re not unbiased, but the aim is to have “better conversations about politics.” They have a ton of podcasts, and I’ve sampled various ones. But my favorite is Lovett or Leave It.

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Some sincerely cool Crooked Media merch

Lovett or Leave It is taped live Friday nights in front of an audience, who participates in some segments. It’s a humorous, improvised look at the week’s stories in US politics. To add to the many other sources of humorous looks at US politics. What’s different here, I guess, is that it’s a lot of super well-informed people cathartically doing things like playing a clip from Fox news, saying “OK, stop”, and responding to the stupidity. Or turning the ridiculousness into a game. Or spinning a wheel to decide which topic to rant about.

It’s partly informative, it’s partly therapy.

Oppo – Canadaland

This is a relatively new one, and it’s about Canadian politics! I was drawn to it because they seem to be especially covering wonky issues I get somewhat obsessed with, like carbon pricing, why doesn’t the NDP seem more viable in Ontario, and what’s up with Sikh politics.

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It features journalists Justin Ling and Jen Gerson, who are supposed to in “opposition” from left and right positions, but it took me two episodes to realize that was the idea, because neither of them is really that extreme or partisan. Which I think is good (and also kind of Canadian).


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I have not completely forgotten how to read

This Globe and Mail article, called I have forgotten how to read, was posted some weeks ago now, but the opening sticks with me [bold added by me]:

Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!“ he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

I identified with the gist of the remainder of the article, which is that the Internet has rewired our brains and made it difficult for us to focus on extended text, such as a book. Heck, even a brief Internet outage (maybe 2.5 hours) one Sunday left and my husband and I feeling like lost, disconnected souls, missing our regular jolts of online distraction.

But still, that opening example… You literally can’t sit and read one chapter? That just seems impossible. Like, how boring was this book you were trying to read? Maybe don’t go for Moby Dick or Middlemarch. Try some hot fiction. A lively bio, maybe.

On the other hand, if actually true, it’s made me feel slightly superior, because despite my web-addled brain and Twitter addiction, I still manage to read a book chapter pretty much every single day.

Sure, it takes a bit of conscious effort. No screens in the bedroom (other than an eReader), TV off by a certain time. And quite deliberately having at least two books on the go, so that my Internet-addled brain has variety and choice. Normally, I try to make sure it’s at least one fiction and one non-fiction on the go.

Here’s a few I’ve gotten through—or am working on—recently.

Caught by Lisa Moore

Nobody I’ve talked to seems to have of this book, even though it was supposedly a best seller. It’s a Canadian novel, set in 1978, about a young man convicted of drug dealing who escapes from prison. He then connects with his former partner in crime, who evaded incarceration, for another possible job. But he might not be evading the law as well as he thinks….

This was a well-written novel, with each chapter acting like a short story in itself, with its own suspenseful arc.

I was pleased to see that CBC has adapted the novel as a mini-series, and even more pleased that they’ve changed some plot elements in an interesting way. Now I don’t know how this version will end, as I’m thinking it can’t be the same as in the novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Yes, it was about time I read this, and yes, it came to mind because of the popular mini-series, even though I only watched the first episode of that, because then the free Bravo preview ended, plus I found it kind of dark.

Compared with that one episode of the mini-series, the novel was not as depressing as I’d expected. The episode quickly presents the story of Offred’s capture and “orientation” into the life of handmaiden; the novel spends more time with her immersed in that life, with flashbacks occurring only later on in the book. And it’s overall less graphic, I suppose.

I “enjoyed” reading it, if that’s the right word? It kept me engaged, anyway. And not having seen the rest of the mini-series, I didn’t know how everything would play out.

Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK by Bonar Menninger

This a non-fiction work about what I think is the most convincing take on the Kennedy assassination: that the President was accidentally killed by one of his own security men. It documents the work of ballistics expert Howard Donaghue, who was asked to prove whether Oswald could possibly have fired three times in the necessary time span for him to have acted alone. Donaghue managed to replicate that feat, but wanted to do more research before giving his own stamp of approval on the official account. Hence begins years of research.

He discounts some of what conspiracy theorists insist prove their case; the “magic bullet” problem. He explains that by how Kennedy and Connolly were seated relative to one other, and by the type of bullet used. But he couldn’t buy everything about the official account, either, concluding, for example that the first shot did ricochet onto Kennedy but not Connolly. And he was especially troubled by the fatal head shot: both its trajectory and its effect. Leading to his eventual conclusion that it was actually fired from a different location and type of gun.

I know exactly nothing about gun and ballistics, of course, but the evidence laid out here just works better for me than any other I’ve heard. The official story, about one deranged man acting alone, makes it hard to explain why so many officials did act in such weird, suspicious, cagey ways—breaking Texas law by stealing away the body, later losing the President’s brain (!). But arguing that Oswald was either just a patsy or a party to some government conspiracy doesn’t work that well, either; he really did seem the deranged loner type to try something like this, and he did murder officer Tippet.

But that Oswald alone tried to murder the President, and that one of the security men reacting to the shooting tripped and accidentally fired? And that officials didn’t want the world to know that accident happened? Yes, that makes sense to me.

There was a documentary made about this theory in 2013. (The book was published in 1992.) Trailer below, but the whole thing seems to be posted on YouTube.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Someone had recommended Jo Walton to me as an author, and I picked this particular novel because it was the only one immediately available for borrowing (as an ebook) from my library. It’s a novel about a woman whose life starts off on one trajectory, then splits off in two directions based on a pivotal decision. After the setup chapters, the book alternates between what happens when she says “yes” versus what happens when she says “no”.

It’s not only her own personal life that veers in different directions in each case, but world history itself. Early on we learn that in one case, President Kennedy (him again!) was killed, while in the other he was not. So you initially think that one life will take place in “our” world vs. an alternative one. But no. Kennedy is killed is different way, and a whole other history follows (such as his brother not being assassinated and instead becoming President himself).

With the mix of two personal stories and two alternative world histories, I got totally caught up in this. My original plan was to read what I could doing the three-week borrowing period then check it out again later, but no, I found I really wanted to finish it! The only downside to that was that it meant reading the later chapters in rapid sequence, which got pretty confusing—there was so many characters (friends, children, partners, grandchildren), not to mention varying historical facts—to try to keep straight in each “life” at that point.

I was wondering how this would all come together in the end. The answer wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I didn’t regret the journey one bit.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

The current read, one I am still working on. (Plus, it’s a book club book, so discussion is to come.) Early part is a really sad story, told by a very funny person.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Just anticipating this will be my next fiction read, as that is the Oscar-nominated movie that really had my heart this year. Whereas my brain said Get Out might have been the best in terms of ideas. But the Academy thought Shape of Water, of course—it was also good. Jean and I liked The Post also, but it was more conventional than the other five nominated movies I saw.

I did not watch the actual telecast, beyond the opening monologue. I had reading to do.

 


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Sing-along musicals

The KW Symphony recently presented “Sing-Along Musicals”! I got tickets even though Jean is not so big on “singing along”. When I saw the program, I wasn’t so sure how much of that I would be doing, either. South PacificOklahomaThe King and I? Those are some old-timey musicals! Did I even know any of the songs from those?

Turns out I did, at least somewhat. “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Outta my Hair” has not always been a shampoo jingle, it turns out. Oklahoma includes “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “ I Can’t Say No”, and “People Will Say We’re in Love”. The King and I has “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Getting to Know You”, and “Shall We Dance”. And they projected the lyrics, so you didn’t need those memorized.

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The second half got a bit more modern, with “Defying Gravity” (done as a solo, mind you), selections from The Sound of Music, and a surprise encore of “Let It Go” from Frozen. The whole evening was fun, the concert featuring a youth choir, two talented young singers leading the sing-along (when they weren’t solo-ing), and young dancers making an appearance during some numbers. Conductor John Morris Russell, of the Cincinnati Pops, was lively as usual. So Jean enjoyed it also.

It got me thinking, though: What would be my picks if programming a sing-along musicals concert? Excluding any musicals based on the works of great rock and pop artists (such as We Will Rock You, Tommy, American Idiot, Mamma Mia, and Jersey Boys), because that would be cheating. And I guess that also excludes Moulin Rouge, though kudos to Baz Luhrmann for truly re-imagining all those pop songs in that music.

But merely having mentioned Moulin Rouge, I can now include this Virtue and Moir dance video, right?

First up, musicals with multiple great numbers in them, so we could do a bit of a singalong medley with those. In no particular order…

1. Jesus Christ Superstar

The first collaboration between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, and maybe the best. The songs from this are so good, if lyrically a little weighty, given the subject matter. I loved the Stratford of this play (which later went on to Broadway).

Roger Daltrey’s take on “Heaven on Their Minds” (because, why not Roger Daltrey’s take)

2. Grease

I believe that sing-along versions of the movie Grease actually are a thing. And it is a bunch of great songs. Even if the gender dynamics of the whole movie are a bit troubling, at this point. (“Did she put up a fight?” “She’s a real pussy wagon”)

But Rizzo, women are under no obligation to have sex just because they batted their eyes and danced close! (Still a nice tune, though.)

3. Hamilton

Sing-along-wise, all the rapping sections would be problematic. I think we’d all have to stop at that point and leave those bits to a solo rap artist. There’s also the issue that only the privileged few have managed to see Hamilton at this point (me not among them)—though anyone can listen to the soundtrack on Spotify (just sayin’). And it’s such good music.

4. Rocky Horror Picture Show

Creepy, wonderful fun here—I’m planning to see the Stratford production this summer. Everyone knows “Time Warp”, but it also has “Hot Patootie”, “Touch-A, Touch-A”, “Superheroes”, and the theme song:

Adam Lambert was the only good thing about Fox’s Rocky Horror TV remake, however

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More with Feeling

Once upon a time, there were live showings of the Buffy singalong, whereupon this season five episode in which all the characters magically found themselves singing, as though they were in a musical, played on a big screen with subtitles, while people sang along. But the poo-poo heads at Fox shut it down before I could get myself to one.

The beauty of singing along with this is—some of these actors don’t sing a whole lot better than you do, probably, so it’s much less intimidating. And the songs are surprisingly catchy.

Spike’s big number in the musical, the rockin’ “Rest in Peace”

Then a few individual pieces from musicals.

1. “Seasons of Love” from Rent

Maybe Rent has a bunch of other good songs, but I only know this one, the most famous one.

“Seasons of Love” from Glee, where it was used in tribute to Finn / Cory (and it still kills me)

2. “I Got Life” from Hair

We’re allowed to sing about “tits” and “ass” in these days, aren’t we? Especially as it’s not in a sexual context here?

Treat Williams was amazing in this movie

Actually, with “Aquarius”, “Good Morning, Starshine”, and “Where Do I Go”, Hair almost qualifies for the medley treatment—though a lot of its other songs are considerably more problematic, lyrically, than “I Got Life” (once taken out of context of the play / movie, at any rate).

[I’m being all serious here, as if I’ve actually ever going to program a musical concert.]

3. “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie

Look, it’s a beautiful song, and it’s been covered by everybody.

4. “America” from West Side Story

West Side Story is a brilliant musical and I love it. But I don’t find myself listening to the soundtrack much. Except for “America”.

5. “Dogs in the Yard” from Fame

Leaving the obscurest for last, this is a song from the 1980 movie Fame that I think was just played over the credits. But I had the soundtrack LP, and I’ve always loved this song.

You wild man—you go and play poker! Live a little!


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Comments about movies (and about comments about movies)

Gone are the days where you go into a film without a whole lot of Internet chatter about it filling your brain…

The Disaster Artist

This is a movie about the making of a “so bad it’s good” movie, The Room. I’d never seen The Room, but I had heard of it, because it plays regularly at the local repertory cinema. Before going to The Disaster Artist, I listened to a How Did This Get Made? podcast that combined an older interview with Greg Sestero, a lead actor in The Room, and a new interview with James Franco, director and star of The Disaster Artist.

That did give me some insight, such that I, for example, understood faster why it was funny when Tommy Wiseau insisted on randomly throwing a football around with Greg Sestero. I don’t think that advance research is necessary to enjoy this film, though. That scene was funny regardless, thanks to Wiseau’s sheer incompetence at throwing the ball.

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Indeed, overall, this movie was one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while—particularly the part where The Room is premiered to an incredulous, sold-out audience. But it’s an interesting story as well, because Wiseau is such a mysterious and eccentric character, and his friendship with all-American Greg is unexpected.

As for the acting, well, James Franco lost himself so much in the character of Tommy Wiseau that Jean didn’t even realize that’s who it was; he thought that James played the character of Greg (in fact played by James’ brother, Dave). And it’s chock full of cameos by the likes of Sharon Stone, Megan Mullally, Nathan Fielder, and Judd Apatow.

[At least some of the reports of James Franco’s “bad behavior” had come out just before I went to see this. Obviously, I concluded that I still wanted to go. Your mileage may vary.]

Blade Runner

This would be the original 1982 Blade Runner, which I thought we should see before seeing Blade Runner 2049, given that Jean had never seen the original, and I had forgotten almost everything about it—other than it starred Harrison Ford and involved androids.

The version we watched was the “Final Cut”, so it lacked the explanatory voice-over and slightly extended ending of the original. Mid-way through, we were both a bit confused about what was going on. But the story does come together, and the movie as whole is thought-provoking and engaging and has a great look. Interesting that it’s set in 2019. We aren’t as far along as that with androids (I don’t think?), but we have much thinner monitors. (This world was still full of cathode ray tubes.)

What else clangs a bit with modern sensibilities? Jean and I were both taken aback at the “seduction” scene between Deckard and Rachael—because it’s actually a rape scene (albeit one that fades to black). She tries to run away from him. He physically stops her. He insists that she say she wants to be kissed. She never looks anything but frightened.

But I don’t think we’re supposed to read it as an assault, given that later in the movie, Rachael declares that she loves Deckard, and they leave together. Reminding me that Pretty in Pink sees nothing wrong in boys having sex with a passed-out drunk teenage girl, and that Grease has a disastrous message for women in general (“Did she put up a fight?”). How many movies of my youth contain similarly jarring scenes? On that topic, check out Maclean’s column  James Bond was a rapist.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’m not a “Star Wars person,” and I’m a bit mystified by those who are, really. Still, I got curious about the low fan vs. critics ratings of this movie on Rotten Tomatoes—you’d expect that to be the opposite, if anything. But I also knew that a lot of “Star Wars people” liked this one very much.

I figured I should go see it for myself.

I liked the movie well enough, as did Jean. I was pleased that it did have its own plot, instead of borrowing storylines from the older films as The Force Awakens had. I liked that it bounced between three different stories for much of its run-time; preventing any one from getting too tedious. Having all those strong female characters was great. It was pretty long, but it kept me engaged.

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After seeing it, I did some reading on why some super-fans didn’t like it. Certainly for a minority it’s just a matter of sexism and racism (as in, ha ha ha, the men’s right activists who created a nonsensical “no women” edit). But for other critics, seems to me, they just cared too much. That is, they had preconceived notions of what this movie should be and couldn’t handle having those expectations thwarted. They wanted Luke to be a certain way (heroic!), they had their ideas of what was possible with the Force (no astral projection!), they wanted the plot to follow an expected arc (plans should work out!). The movie itself told them to move on from the past, and they didn’t like that.

Whereas I didn’t particular care what happened to Luke (sorry Luke), have no theories of the Force, and found it rather interesting that the plans didn’t work out! (Is the lesson here that you can enjoy the world more if you care less? Hmm.)

I would note that despite its 48% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Jedi was a huge box office success.

Call Me by Your Name

We settled into our theatre seats. The lights lowered as the first of the upcoming attractions was queued up.

“Hey,” Jean whispered to me. “What movie are we seeing?”

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure this would be Jean’s kind of movie. The issue wasn’t that it’s a gay love story. It’s that it’s not much more than that. It’s a slow-paced, character-driven exploration of growing attraction over one summer, between 17-year-old European Elio and the handsome American doctoral student, Oliver, who travels over to work as a intern for Elio’s father. The kind of movie Jeanoften finds boring.

To both our surprises, he didn’t hate this one—though “it was deadly slow,” as he pointed out.

(I personally would have described it more as “languid”.)

But the issues raised by the relationship kept it interesting, and led to quite a discussion afterward. Like the young woman that Elio starts a relationship with as a distraction from the one he really wants. The movie really lets us off the hook in feeling bad for her, with her sincere expression that she’s fine and that she and Elio will always be friends. Big of her!

Then there’s the age difference. The movie is fuzzy on exactly what that is—Jean guessed that Oliver was 30 (accurate to the actor’s age), but according to the novel it’s based on, the character was 24. At any rate, one’s a teenager, one’s a man. “What if that had been a 17-year-old girl?” asked Jean.

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That feels like a bit of a straw man argument, as a movie about a 17-year-old girl and handsome older man would be another movie entirely, one telling a completely different story. The whole point of Call Me by Your Name is that the relationship is not socially sanctioned (it’s set in 1983). That informs everything about it.

And for my part, I felt fine about the relationship, as it was so clearly consensual, and initiated, really, by Elio and not Oliver. It’s a lovely movie, one with a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, and indeed didn’t really understand until I reflected on it a bit later.

Quick takes: Coco and The Third Man

While you can’t count on every Pixar movie being a classic anymore, it’s nice to know that they can still put out great films, as with Coco. I really liked the Mexican concept of the afterlife—one I hadn’t known anything about, going on. And as Jean said, this movie “had a really good message” about the importance of family over personal ambition, about the power of forgiveness. And it looked amazing! Well worth seeing on a big screen.

The Third Man is a classic film from 1949, but Jean and I had never seen it. Turns out it’s one of those that does hold up. It helps that it’s set in a particular time and place, post-World War II Vienna. And also that the moral issues it grapples haven’t gone stale. But mostly that it’s an engaging story about an American writer whose convinced there’s more to his friend Harry’s death than he’s being told. He’s not wrong…

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100% fresh

We saw Lady Bird last weekend. This indie film is most famous for having attained a record 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that it got positive notices from all 195 critics who reviewed it.

It would be nicely contrarian of me to report that I didn’t like it… but I did. Set in 2002, it’s about a young woman named Christine (who prefers to be called Lady Bird) negotiating her last year of high school in Sacramento, California. Nothing epic or bizarre occurs. She tries to boost her college changes with extracurriculars. She dates boys for the first time. She abandons old friends for new. She consistently fails to please her mother.

But it works because her character and the supporting characters are so strong and appealing, with great acting that makes them all believable. And, because it presents a time of life and experiences that most of us (at least most North Americans) can relate to. Even Jean, who definitely prefers plot-driven films over character-driven ones like this, was able to enjoy the ride. For me, it didn’t hurt that it was centrally a story of women: Christine, her mom, and her best friend are the main characters. Dad, the boyfriends, the brother, were all supporting cast.


Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a new-ish Freddie Mercury biography called Somebody to Love, by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. It’s hardly the first Freddie biography ever written (or that I’ve read) and I missed the fine print that this one would be particularly looking at his life in the context of the AIDS crisis. Which I pretty quickly decided was not the context I prefer to focus on. Sure, it was sort of interesting finding out just how far back the disease’s origins can be traced, and that Freddie had had an encounter with “patient zero”, and that Reagan wasn’t quite as bad on AIDS as they say (though he was pretty bad), but overall I found myself skipping over the pages discussing increasing death rates or what symptoms Freddie developed when, preferring the parts that talked about the music and the important relationships in his life.

Those parts were a reminder, though, of the extent of critical slagging Queen endured throughout their career. The reviews were not just negative—they were scathing.

A Day at the Races, 1976: “I hate this album…. All of these songs with their precious impotent Valentino kitsch mouthings on romance, their spotlight on a vocalist so giddily enamoured with his own precious image—they literally make my flesh creep.” NME. (Hey, NME: Homophobic much?)

The Game, 1980: “Less obnoxious than Queen’s last few outings, simply because it’s harder to get annoyed at a group that’s plugging away at bad rockabilly than with one blasting out crypto-Nazi marching tunes.” Rolling Stone (Yes, Nazi comparisons are always apropos.)

The Miracle, 1989: “Addresses the question how much bad taste it is possible to cram onto one album.” The Times.

Few critics at the time seemed to recognize that Queen wrote songs that would endure, become the soundtrack of people’s lives. That in the multi-layered vocals, they developed a sound unique to them. That they four song writers each capable of writing hit songs. That they had one the best rock vocalists. That this band would come to be seen as one of all-time greats.


Both of which got me thinking of the state of professional criticism today, compared with the pre-digital era. For movies, while the influence of any individual critic has diminished compared with the heyday of the likes of Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane, and Siskel and Ebert, as an aggregate, they seem to have Hollywood spooked!

I find it fascinating that Rotten Tomatoes, a site I’ve been using for years, has recently become this force: How Rotten Tomatoes became Hollywood’s most influential — and feared — website

Decades ago, the only way to evaluate a movie before its release was to read reviews in major publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker or the Los Angeles Times. Today, moviegoers rely on the Tomatometer, a number that shows what percentage of critics recommend the film.

It’s no coincidence that the few breakout hits of the summer box office all have scores of 80% or higher… And for lesser films, a very low score can be fatal.

But for music? Aggregate sites do exist, like Metacritic—but I had to look up that fact, because I don’t use them, even though I do listen to music regularly. And the only thing I’ve read about recent music criticism is that it seems to be overly positive now. The original WSJ article is pay-walled, so here’s a report on (and critique of) that article: No, There Weren’t Only 8 Bad Albums in the Last 4 Years.

Why the difference? Well, movies are still something of an investment, aren’t they? Of time, if nothing else: two or so hours you won’t get back if you hated, hated, hated that movie. But often of money also: people still go to theatres to see movies, buy them on disc, pay to rent them, subscribe to movie channels. And they’re still expensive to make, so there’s only so many of them released each month. And there’s no Spotify of movies, really: Current movies are not in constant competition with movies of the past. If you’re into movies, you can focus on and make a decision about each.

But albums? They’re no longer distributed on vinyl discs you can play only on your home stereo system… And it’s really just about songs now, which are short, and you can listen to those anywhere, and (if you don’t mind the ads) it’s free to do so. Who needs to be warned away from a bad album when the skip button is right there? The danger isn’t in wasting time (or money) on bad music; it’s on missing out on great music because there is just so much music so easily available now. Of course music reviews are mostly positive: Recommendations are all we need.


So yeah, Rotten Tomatoes got me out to see Lady Bird, and I’m glad it did. I would point out that its 100% score doesn’t mean that all 195 critics thought it was the best movie ever, only that all agreed it was a good one. I would say that too. I liked it, but I don’t know if it’s the best movie I saw even this year: Get Out was so creative, The Big Sick did a great job of balancing the tragic and the comic. But Lady Bird was also a worthy two hours.

As for Queen, all those crappy reviews at the time never deterred me—I’m not sure how many I would have read, anyway, in the pre-digital era where British music magazines weren’t easily available. But the band read them, and yes, despite their success, it did bother them. So I’m glad that most of the group has survived to see the tide of opinion change, and that they can still play to sold-out arenas around the world (to positive reviews, at that). It’s just really tragic that Freddie didn’t live to see that, as well.

Fun way to end this:

Most of these kids actually have heard of Queen, which likely in itself says something of their legacy. But the most fun is the one little girl who hasn’t. “That’s the same band?” she comments, amazed, hearing “Killer Queen” right after “Radio Gaga”. “What is this?” she says, eyes wide, of “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

That, my dear, is probably the greatest rock epic of all time.


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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.