Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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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.

220px-tamias_striatus2

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?

dresses-amazon.png

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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Oscar round-up

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

Best picture / Directing

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

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

best-picture

But how to rank what I have seen?

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

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

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

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

Other film categories

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

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

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

Acting

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

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

The Danish Girl movie clip: I want my husband

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

Brooklyn movie clip: You don’t sound Irish

Best song

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

Then all those other categories…

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

 


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Heart and mind: Brooklyn and The Big Short

Bit late to point this out now, but Brooklyn would be a terrific movie to see on Valentine’s Day. It tells the story of Ellis Lacy (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates from Ireland to New York City in the 1950s. At first she is crippled by homesickness, but then she meets a boy… And takes courses in bookkeeping. And generally comes to appreciate her new country.

A death in the family brings her back to Ireland for a visit. She sees her birth place in a new light. Turns out there are boys here, too. Should her “visit” be extended?

Official trailer for Brooklyn (YouTube)

Brooklyn is a gorgeous movie. Both Jean and I were struck by the lighting, of all things (and it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for that). And Ronan is excellent in the lead role, saying a lot with sometimes few lines. The plot is fairly simple; there are no explosions, special effects, car chases. It’s just the story of a bright young woman growing up and having to figure out what her heart wants.

It’s remarkably riveting to join in her journey.


So while that would have been an excellently romantic choice yesterday, since we’d already seen it a few weeks ago, we instead went to see The Big Short. Ying to Brooklyn‘s yang.

The Big Short looks at the few years before and up to the American housing stock market crash  of 2008, and specifically at the few in the financial market who saw it coming. The film has an interesting mix of protagonists (all male; that’s the industry, and the movie is based on fact): an autistic savant (Christian Bale) who works at a major investment firm; a group of cynical hedge fund managers, led by Marc Baum (Steve Carrell) who operate at arm’s length from a big bank; and two smart young guys who invest for themselves, with the assistance of a retired banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

They all choose to short the system; that is, to invest in a way that bets against the conventional wisdom that the housing market is solid and could not possibly fail. And they all take a lot of grief for that position.

Understanding this movie means digging into the arcania of mortgage bonds and such. The films does this is an interesting way by literally stopping the story and cutting to someone such as Selena Gomez, to explain the concepts to us directly, using metaphors.

Official trailer for The Big Short (YouTube)

Jean found the film kind of depressing. I didn’t, because it was so interesting, and often funny. But I did feel conflicted about it. Not quite as much as when watching Margin Call, a movie that focuses on financial advisors at that moment that they realize the housing market and the bonds they are built are about to come crashing down, and they hurry to sell as much as they can, as fast they can, by lying to thousands of investors.

This movie’s mavericks aren’t quite as evil as that. For a time, they also are victimized by the fraudulent system that gives high ratings to what are actually high-risk bonds. They are hardly fans of the fraud, greed, and corruption that created this crisis—particularly Marc Baum and group, who hope this will lead to criminal convictions and banking reform. And while they are aware that this crash will cause a lot of economic hardship. it’s not clear how they could possibly have stopped it.

But it’s still a little uncomfortable that they instead profited, quite handsomely, from the crash. As a viewer,  you sort of want the crash to happen, to prove them right and the unpleasant, smug, venal financial experts wrong. But you also know that the crash means a lot of ordinary, innocent people are going to get hurt.

Brooklyn is good for your feels. The Big Short makes you think.


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Award season

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

Movie award trophis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I leave you with some links.

Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globe) nominees and winners list

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

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


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Movie review: The Artist

We got out to see this one the day before the Academy Awards were on.

*** The Artist (November 2011) – Theatre
Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo. The advent of “talking pictures” spells the end of one star’s career and the rise of another’s.

Image from The Artist

She says: Strictly speaking, this is not a “silent” film. There is sound all the way through (mostly music), and the way the sound is used is one of the most interesting aspects of the movie. Because the story is pretty simple—pretty much A Star Is Born, where the older male movie actor’s career declines as the young woman’s rises. And they happen to be in love, and that makes it all very awkward.

It’s quite enjoyable, though. Although not necessarily more than so than the other Oscar-nominated movies I’ve seen this year: Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Descendants, and The Help, all of which I probably liked at least slightly more than The Artist.

He says: I didn’t like it that much. Not using spoken dialog made the whole thing seem stretched out, and I got tired of the main character’s self-pity. I think my favorite Oscar-nominated movie was Midnight in Paris, though the other four were also good.


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Genies vs. Oscars

I skipped watching the Oscars this year, but I did watch The Genies, which give out awards for Canadian films. What made the Genies a better bet for me:

  • Show was just 1 hour long, vs. whatever crazy length the Oscar show is. They do this by not covering all the categories on air; just the interesting ones. Hello. That’s reason enough all by itself.
  • It’s not preceded by tons of other Canadian movie award shows, so I had no idea who would win. With the Oscars, thanks to the Golden Globes, the SAG, the Director’s Guild, etc. you pretty much knew who’d be clutching the trophies.
  • I’d seen 3 of the 5 nominated Genie movies, vs. only 5 out of 10 of the Oscar ones. So percentage-wise, higher. (I realize that’s unusual.)
  • Musical performances that weren’t lame, because, as far as I could tell, they had nothing to do with movies. But they were by Canadian performers.

So there you be.

I was totally thrilled to see the young actress from M. Lazhar win the Best Supporting Actress award, as she was really was amazing in the role. And gave quite a delightful acceptance speech.

And it’s alway fun to see Viggo Mortenson, winner of Best Supporting Actor for A Dangerous Method, who was also very charming in his acceptance  speech.

For Best Picture, though, I have to see that I was really pulling for Cafe de Flore. Monsieur Lazhar won, and I can’t really complain about that, as it was quite a fine film, and it gave the director a chance to give the Oscar speech he couldn’t. But Cafe de Flore spoke to me in a more compelling way. At least Vanessa Paradis was recognized for her work as the lead of that film.