Friday, May 19, 2023

It’s the hope that kills you 

The underdog Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967.

While reading Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, I took note of this passage on the slate used in London. “Much of the slate used in London building is striated by what geologists term 'pressure shadows' but they are inconspicuous beside the blackened surfaces of Portland stone.”

It’s often said that pressure makes diamonds but in Toronto I think pressure, like the striations in that Welsh slate makes shadows. Shadows, like a hex that darkens the eyes of men. Men who wear blue and white. Playing on a pro team in Toronto, where every eye of every media is glaring at you, must be a pressure that inevitably wears you down. Then again, being worn down on a pro athlete’s salary is not the same as everyone else’s “being worn down”. With the Leafs exit from the playoffs, two contrasting quotes came to mind. One from the team’s perspective and one from the fans’ point of view.

“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”
Jack Dempsey

While this team found ways to push back and win in ways they couldn’t in previous seasons, they still need to learn how to get back up when they can’t.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
— Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan

To be a Leafs fan is to see the team fall, bite your lip until it bleeds, urging them to get back up from the gutter we’re all lying in. Lying in that gutter, looking up at the stars, we hope to see our team soar among the constellations of champions. We hope for the best but expect the worst. All too often those expectations are met. We hope they’ll do better next season, but we all know it’s the hope that kills you.

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Monday, May 15, 2023

70-year-old Salt Peanuts 

It was 70 years ago today.

In 1953 the US and Soviets announce they have the Hydrogen bomb marking the beginning of the Cold War. Eisenhower becomes president of the United States. Khruschev becomes head of the USSR. Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Fisher are the pop stars of the day. Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott are dueling heavyweights. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ascend Mt. Everest. The first colour television set would go on sale and 70 years ago today, one of the greatest Jazz concerts of all time happened at Massey Hall in Toronto. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus played to a small crowd due to logistical mistakes and an underwhelming, amateur promotion. The show was undersold and mostly unknown until Mingus later released the recordings as Jazz at Massey Hall.

Billed by jazz critics as "the greatest jazz concert ever," the May 15th, 1953 concert almost never happened. The quintet of Jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus had never rehearsed or even had a sound check when they made history that night. There are so many stories about this concert. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker arrived later than everyone else as Parker was late arriving at LaGuardia in New York, and Mingus' wife, who was an unexpected guest, bumped Gillespie from the flight to Toronto because Mingus insisted she accompany them. That night, Charlie Parker played on a plastic Grafton Alto sax as he had probably hawked his own to support his drug habit. Bud Powell on piano appeared stone cold drunk or in some kind a trance. Did it matter? No one played Bebop piano better. Max Roach fearlessly set the pace and always brought out the best in Parker. Who knew Charles Mingus would later dub over his own bass parts? Dizzy seemed more concerned about the outcome of the Marciano/Walcott title bout than the gig as he ran to a tavern across the street during intermission to check in on the fight.

The original album cover for Jazz at Massey Hall, designed by Canadian artist Arnaud Maggs, 1953. © Estate of Arnaud Maggs. Courtesy Susan Hobbs Gallery.

Despite the more popular notion that the early 50's represented a benign American polyannaism, it was more truly a period of creative blossoming and experimentation, especially in areas such as architecture, industrial & graphic design, illustration, painting, photography, poetry, film and music, especially Jazz.

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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Seen in April 

Leonard Cohen is your man.

April showers bring May flowers, and also a perfect opportunity to see a matinee in a darkened movie theatre. This month I saw as many films at the Hot Docs film festival as I did from the couch. Seeing films at a film festival is great not just for the movies but for the community of filmgoers and for having the opportunity to talk to the filmmakers. On the other hand, you have to leave the couch. Here is what I saw from both a theatre seat and a couch.

Party Down S03

No one asked for this. No one needed it. Yet, here it is. This little sit-com about a group of aspiring actors and writers working as servers for a small catering company aired its first two seasons over a decade ago before a third season unexpectedly marked its return. The beauty of this show was how cheaply and simply made it was, with such a universal premise. Many people take uninspiring work such as a service jobs to make ends meet while waiting for something better to materialize. The surprising thing of this show when I first saw it, almost 10 years after it was cancelled, was the talent that were either part of the regular cast or made special appearances. Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Megan Mullally, Jennifer Garner, Zão Chao, J.K. Simmons, Ken Jeong, Kristen Bell, Michael Hitchcock and James Marsden all had either regular appearances, multi-episode parts or cameos. You may not recognize the names but their faces have been in everything. It's such a scruffy, funny little gem, where an entire season is filmed over just a few weeks, it's amazing it even exists at all.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, better than you'd think.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Before Marvel commodified the funny sci-fi-action-adventure-drama formula, only rarely would films fit that description. Lately though it feels like Marvel's formula is a flailing attempt to deliver anything coherent at all and has seemed, at times, more like self-parody. At the same time, DC comics have also missed the mark trying to match Marvel’s success. Thus it was that many of us thought that self-referential comedy-action-adventure films had come to their timely end. Enter Chris Pine leading in an unexpectedly good and enjoyable action-adventure-comedy-drama set within the fantasy world of a Dungeons and Dragons quest. For the uninitiated, Dungeons and Dragons is role-playing game wherein the players assume roles as diverse as wizards, dwarves, warriors and elves in a quest created by the Dungeon Master with possibilities determined by the roll of a many-sided die and the general guidelines of the gameplay. Together the Dungeon Master and players create a story that they play within, thus no two "campaigns" (or games, played out over many hours) are the same. D&D seemed to outsiders more like a cult and its popularity in the 80s led to the facetious "Satanic Panic" where parents thought their children were part of some satanic worship rather than just a fantasy role-play game. As the game itself evolved to digital versions, its overall rules and style of play essentially formed the DNA of every role based video game that followed, which is now a multi-billion dollar industry. The repetitive task fulfilment of a D&D yet endless possibilities lends itself to a franchise film series as long as you can find the right cast to anchor the stories. Enter Chris Pine…

Leonard Cohen pursuing peace on Mount Baldy.

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song

You may have heard there was a secret chord that David played that pleased the Lord, but what you may not have heard is that Leonard Cohen penned over 150 different verses of that song and seemed to continuously be rewriting it for years. Cohen was an iconic and prolific songwriter yet this one song both exemplifies his workman like approach to his art as well as a strange parallel tale of his career. So many covers of the song have been performed that even many of the artists who record it seem unsure of its origins or it's original lyrics. That is definitely the hallmark of a great song. The film Inside Llewyn Davis has a quote, "If it was never new, and never gets old, then it's a folk song.", which seems fitting for Hallelujah too. With ever new cover, it gains new fans who never knew other versions. This documentary is probably the most insightful film you'll see about Cohen but it too feels like a cover. If it seems familiar that may be because of the archival interviews or clips you've seen elsewhere, but don't worry, it's the real deal and may have you seeking out some undiscovered part of Cohen's catalogue.
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Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Dinge 

Technically spring, but without the bounce.

I always wondered if the word dingy meant the same to other people as it meant to our family. While others used it to mean dirty or grimy, we more often used to describe a dimly lit room. My mother might find you reading in the living room and say, “It’s so dingy in here! Turn on some lights.” Then she would flip on the lights whether you wanted them on or not. On one occasion, Mom found me reading on the couch, then announced the room was too dingy, then turned on the lights. I continued reading. A few minutes later Dad popped his head in, turned off the lights obviously not seeing me there and thinking of all the wasted hydro used illuminating an empty room.

One word I was sure my mother invented was “dinge”. She would often say, “I don’t like the dinge.” (rhymes with hinge), after turning on a light. “Dinge” being the “dimness” itself. This being the noun form of dingy, not a word for the darkness itself but for the discoloured grey light that cast a pallor over a place. The eery black and white world during an eclipse makes me think of the dinge. When I moved away from home, I rarely heard anyone describe a dim room or a grey day as dingy. That is until I was in the UK and a weather report described a forecast of overcast skies as dingy, with the dinge continuing into the weekend. Is British weather so bleak as to be described as dingy? Yes it is. Was dinge a meteorological term? In England, apparently it is.

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Saturday, April 22, 2023

Seen in March 

Sea Beast is a fun-filled, if predictable, adventure.

It has been a dark and gray winter in Toronto with an even darker spring. A week of sun and warmth may have wiped it from our minds but we did turn to the screen for some speck of light, though, surprisingly it isn't really reflected here (probably due to repeated viewings of Ted Lasso). Here is what I did see.

The Sea Beast

Beautifully animated, designed and executed, this film was nominated for the Academy Award for feature length animated film, and includes the voice talents of Karl Urban as Jacob Holland and Jared Harris as Captain Crow. The story centres on a young girl, Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), who escapes an orphanage to stow away on sea vessel of monster hunters. In this fictional historical past, terrifying sea monsters are hunted to make safe passage for trade and travel by sea. Captain Crow is an icon, but one huge beast has escaped him over all the years and he is determined to find and kill it. Just as they track the beast the Captain's first mate, Jacob Holland and Maisie fall overboard and are rescued by the very creature they are trying to kill. At this point you can see how the story will unfold but it doesn't matter much as you're already along for the ride.

Alexi Navalny survived an assassination attempt when free, yet he may not survive his time in a Russian prison.


Winner of the Oscar for feature length documentary this is the compelling story of how Alexei Navalny is defying Putin's regime in Russia despite the threat to his life or imprisonment. After being poisoned in an almost brazen way by Russian agents, Navalny's wife was able to pressure officials to allow him to leave Russia for treatment and recovery in Germany. Navalny's charisma may be his super-power in a world where influence on social media can be very powerful. Fully knowing if he returned to Russia he would be arrested and imprisoned, he returned anyway. By not running or trying to be an opposition in exile, he travelled back home, was sentenced to nine years in prison on trumped up charges, which has commanded far greater respect among his followers in Russia and around the world. In some way, he has accepted this as the only way for him to become a genuine and legitimate threat to Putin. Putin fears Navalny enough that he can never bring himself to mention him by name. Canadian Daniel Roher's film certainly captures the success, complexity and trepidation of this act of resistance.

The Elephant Whisperers

The Elephant Whisperers

Winner of the Academy Award for best short documentary, this film shows us the emotional bond between a couple in rural India and Raghu, an orphaned elephant who they care for as part of broader conservation effort.

The Night Ride

During a cold winter night in Norway, a woman inadvertently steals a tram when all she really wanted was to stay warm as she waited. She quickly learns to operate the streetcar and in the course of picking up passengers winds up confronting intolerance along the way. The film was nominated for an Oscar for live-action short film.

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Monday, March 27, 2023

Fish and chips of the Magi 

It's only been a few weeks but I think I finally have gotten the memory of a truly awful meal out of my mouth. Though to be safe I ought not think of it. It was a lovely snowy day, that turned into a cold damp night when we had thought to go out for a meal after a long-ish walk. The light wet snow was turning into rain. We were both getting hungry. Julia asked what I was looking for and only one thing came to mind: fish and chips from Allen's restaurant. Initially we thought to take the subway but the nearby station suddenly closed due to a medical emergency. Each bus that passed was packed full and offered no respite. While I was game to walk the 20 minutes or so to Allen's, Julia, whose ill-fitting winter boots were failing her, was growing tired. Thus here we were. I didn't want to ask Julia to keep walking in wet soggy boots and Julia wanted to fulfill my wish for fish and chips. The closest place was a sports pub that had been there for ages but with the notion that perhaps it was under new management we ventured forth.

Don't trust a restaurant that greets you with a potpourri of old cigarettes, stale beer, urinal puck and burned cooking oil. The cigarette smell was particularly odd as there hasn't been smoking in Ontario restaurants for over 20 years. In any case, let's just say the place with multiple screens showing a variety of sporting events (basketball, football and golf), was immediately without charms. I noticed a young lad, maybe nine or ten-years-old, ask his father if he could go to the bathroom and I was alarmed when the adult answered, "Yeah sure, you know where it is." So, this guy regularly took his son to this forsaken spot? Admittedly, this scene made me think, "Well, if you come back here, maybe it's better than I assume." Thus we sat down, Julia ordered a burger and I ordered the fish and chips.

What arrived was passably "food" and even though the burger was edible, the wet "from freezer to fryer" fish I had, was not. Normally I would give it that old college try, or out of an abundance of politeness, at least make it look like I tried, but it was entirely inedible and out of caution, I didn't go beyond the first explorations. The sides of tartar sauce and coleslaw were, I think, passed due, expired, gone off. What was I even looking at? I won't go into detail but needless to say, inflationary pressures aside, this was not what an $18 plate of food should look, smell or taste like. In fact, I'm still a little mad that we paid for it. Someone, in that kitchen, is going to kill someone one day. I'm not joking. There is no way in which that meal seemed safe to eat. Normally, I'm the guy who wants burgers made on the greasiest of grills. The more miles on that grill, the better. Give me fat and salt and I am happy, but this was really the straw that broke the camel's back.

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