Monday, September 21, 2020

Seen in August 

Perry Mason. Image via The Movie DB

When you can't escape where you live due to work, committments or some kind of global epidemic, you find ways to travel through your television to South America, Japan and or in time. You may even travel back to a time when spending time hanging out in a bookstore was normal and comforting.

Lost in the jungle, looking for lost cities. Image via The Movie DB

The Lost City of Z
Amazon Prime
A sort of early 20th century story of Heart of Darkness journey to the darkest, least known areas of the Amazon. Sir Percy Fawcett initially travels to the Amazon to survey a border, but on that trip finds pieces of advanced pottery. With that little bit of evidence he is driven to find what locals have rumoured to be a great lost city. He then spends the rest of his life exploring the jungle looking for the site. This is a mostly romantic view of one of the world’s most dogged explorers who fought to overcome the biases of his colleagues and yet another cinematic ode to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. There were also many scenes of the real dangers and toughness of these men that pushed through the forest and their fear to discover the unknown. This isn’t simply a story of colonialism’s relentless drive into indigenous lands but of the desire of certain people to quench their unending curiosity, no matter what the risk. What was that risk? Fawcett disappeared in the jungle with his son and another man perhaps after encountering an unfriendly tribe. Sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you.

It's Carnivale in Rio in Black Orpheus. Image via The Movie DB

Black Orpheus
The title could not be more obvious. This is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in 1959 during Rio’s Carnivale with a cast of almost entirely black actors and performers. In its time, this film was seen as an exotic trip to world unknown to most Europeans and Americans. From one angle, it’s a view of an incredibly vibrant and unique culture. From another, it’s easy to see how Americans could see this film as a vision of the lustful, exotic and charming folks of Rio. Harmless and simple. At least, that was Barack Obama’s perception particularly given how much his white mother enjoyed the film. The gap between his frustration and his mother’s enjoyment is probably the place where the truth lies. I don’t think for a minute the film makers had any ill intention in making this movie which does have some moments which don’t age well, but for the most part, this story of doomed lovers gives agency to the poorest residents of Rio and shows them living lives full of passion, art, anguish, classism, bias, triumphs and loss.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Seen in July 

A taste of the inventiveness of The Twentieth Century. Image via The Movie Db

In July 2020,  theatres remained shuttered in Toronto but something new appeared on my doorstep: a brand new 55” 4K HDR smartTV, which is actually kind of annoying if I’m being honest - the SmartTV part I mean. I don’t want my TV to need to update its operating system. I want it to stupidly show me what I want. Having a bright shiny television made self-isolating a whole lot more fun.

The Twentieth Century
This eccentric and vibrant Canadian indie film is based on the life of William Lyons MacKenzie King. Very loosely based. Evocative of David Lynch's Eraserhead, or Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg but entirely and uniquely its own thing. On seemingly a tiny budget, filmmaker Matthew Rankin uses graphically bold and theatrical sets to create an epic yet idiosyncratic telling of how MacKenzie King became prime minister and part of Canadian history. If you know anything about MacKenzie King you know he was a weirdo. A life long bachelor who had his dead pet dog stuffed and was so committed to his mother he held seances to try and communicate with her after her death. All of this is fertile ground for this witty and unusual movie that, for me, has a similar tone to cartoonist Seth’s stories of his invented Canadian town, Dominion, Ontario.

Jumanji: The Next Level
I swore off any film with a “:” in the title, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it? But I guess in Hollywood, if it ain’t broke, make another one. This reunites the cast but inserts Danny Glover, Danny DeVito and Awkwafina into the mix. The plot is similar to the previous films, the characters are stuck inside a magical but sinister video game and they must complete the quest to survive and escape. It’s good harmless fun so just relax and enjoy it.

Giri/Haji. Sub-titles sometimes required. Image via The Movie Db

Giri/Haji S01
The title of these series set in London and Tokyo is Japanese for Duty/Shame. One brother has double-crossed the Yakuza and escaped to London but after stint lying low, commits a murder with dire implications; a gang war back in Tokyo. The other brother is a detective in the Tokyo police and to keep the peace has been sent to London to find and retrieve his brother. Basically both brothers are caught between a rock and a hard place, both with reasons to leave either London or Tokyo. Family, obligations, peace, violence, love and hate all play their part. For the most part the series is a straight ahead crime thriller/police procedural despite there being more gun deaths in a single scene than Tokyo usually has in a year. One of the final scenes takes a surprisingly theatrical turn which is both lovely and well, a bit much. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Smell of a Potato

A slightly prettier table spread from Food52 

It hit me by surprise. A combination of smells that transported me through time. That’s how smell works though isn’t it. It’s actually kind of hard to just close your eyes and think of a smell that would take you back to when you last experienced it without actually smelling it. When it happens, the clarity of the memory is so evocative it may trigger all sorts of emotions and tremors in your body. For me it was a baked potato that I had just taken off the grill, cut into and stuffed with a pad of butter. This was paired with a sweet BBQ sauce on pork. The entire meal was improvised and put together quickly. I had decided to bake the potato but didn’t have the energy to do much more. I don’t often grill pork chops and lacking imagination I grabbed a little used bottle of Diana Barbecue sauce. As I absorbed the odours, it was as if the world paused for a moment while my brain took in the flicker of images, sounds and senses from probably forty years ago.

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Monday, August 03, 2020

Some Starry Night 

Sometimes the Universe doesn't care for your plans.

As Toronto finally joins the rest of Ontario in “Stage Three”, which sounds more like a cancer diagnosis than a pandemic economic recovery plan, we’re trying to return to normal except we really aren’t. We’ve had almost 40,000 cases of COVID-19 with almost 2800 deaths, so there’s really nothing normal here, new normal or otherwise. Whether it’s all the restaurants that can’t fully re-open or the closure of movie theatres or the fact that travelling somewhere, anywhere, now feels unnecessarily risky, the pandemic has sucked a good deal of fun from the summer. More than the pandemic however is my own skin which won’t quite heal from the urticaria that has plagued me for the last eighteen months. Fun in the sun is a no-go. Stepping out in the searing bright sunshine almost immediately leads to painful hives. I’d love to go for a paddle but sitting in kayak sweating would be my undoing. A cool swim might be the perfect summer treat until I have to shower and soap up which may turn my skin into a living version of kimchi.

Instead, I’m trying to focus on the stuff I can enjoy this summer instead of all the stuff I’ll miss due to either the Pandemic or Urticaria. I might not get the long rides, kayaking or swims but there will be hammock hangs, grilled meats, home made ice cream, and movies on a shiny, new TV beneath the chill of the A/C.

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Thursday, July 02, 2020

Seen in June 

Hilda and Twig off on an adventure. Image via The Movie DB.

As the days grow longer it’s harder to find screen time. Ha! During a pandemic lockdown there is more time than ever. The presence of so much time would absolutely flummox Einstein or Hawking. Where did it come from and where it is going? Straight down my gullet via my eye sockets that’s where. Here’s what my eyes swallowed whole this month.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist William
Friedkin, director of The French Connection, The Exorcist and To Live and Die in LA, is interviewed at length on the making of The Exorcist. This is sort of dull only because most of the film is just Friedkin expounding on his film and influences, which is exactly the sort of crap I love. Unfortunately, most of the other principle players and contributors have passed away so we really don’t get their view at all. Now if only I had the guts to watch The Exorcist.

Hilda S01
This is a wonderfully cute cartoon for kids full of fantastical giants, trolls, elves and magic all encountered by an adventurous little girl. The show is based on a comic book and maintains the really lovely quality of colour and line that is so gorgeously rendered in this compact show full of personality and wonder.

Space Force. Journey to the unneccesary. Image via The Movie DB.

Space Force S01
Apple TV+
In the parlance of our times, I binged this show waiting for something funny to happen but it never did. This show has plenty of talent such as Steve Carrll and John Malkovich trying to do a send up of the newly formed branch of the military issued by POTUS with the ridiculous name of Space Force but unfortunately there are times they take themselves a little seriously. This could’ve been Avenue 5, HBO’s space based comedy, with a purpose but instead it’s stuck somewhere in between a workplace comedy and a family drama. It’s toothless as a political farce. I laughed out loud once; when an American chimp astronaut is captured by a Chinese space station, Carell praises his brave simian comrade while admonishing him under his breath with, “He’d better not talk!"

Upload S01
Amazon Prime
I binge watched this show thinking, “there's something here” but there wasn’t. Another futuristic comedy in which our lead, Nathan, is seriously injured in an accident and is prematurely uploaded to a posh afterlife by his girlfriend. In the future, when you die, you can have your consciousness saved to a hard drive with a virtual reality. The more you spend the better your afterlife is. In this scenario, Nathan’s customer support representative, considered his “angel”, unexpectedly (well, not really) falls in love with him. Troubles and what not, ensue.

Cheer Up
High school-aged Finnish Teen-agers compete for top spot in competitive cheerleading. They finish last in the standings, but first in your heart. It’s really a lovely documentary showing kids going through family troubles, getting on with life and trying to jump from a human pyramid with a smile on their face.
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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Didi & Gogo Take a Ride 

You meet all kinds on Toronto's streetcars.

On a street car one Saturday, sitting behind me were a couple of real quality chaps. Their use of language was not sublime but limited, basic and coarse. I could smell their cheap, damp cigarette residue a mile away. 

One of them was clearly a native Torontonian as he called to his travelling companion:
“Phil! Phil! Phil…”

“Yeh, what?”

“That was my old school right there.”

“There’s nothing there.”

Phil was obviously the more observant of the two. He had pointed out several times that “there’s nobody there. What’s that bitch talkin’ bout? There ain’t nobody there.”

“I know, sh**head, it was my school. Gone now.”

“Probably gonna be a new condo or some other f**king bulls**.”


I learned two things about this man and his travelling companion. He grew up in Toronto, and now even in his late-50s he hasn’t ventured far. He, at some point got an education (a fact belied by his grammar). He is most likely Catholic. Though the school at some point was referred to as Regent Park/Duke of York was only recently purchased by the Catholic School Board for redevelopment as a new school, he used its “Saint something-or-other” as its designation, a practice I only know to have been done by Catholic schools. Protestant schools were far more likely to name a school after an alcoholic or racist white guy. In any event, it is currently an empty site. I remember when the school was demolished and how the dust was constantly in the air while the machines did their work. More telling was the smell of mould, like musty, mildewy books most likely left to be churned up and crushed along with the brick and cement. 

But back to Didi and Gogo (I’m not sure why I called them that? They were like the two hobos of Waiting for Godot but I’ve long forgotten Beckett’s character names). Why was I being such a petty jerk in my assessment of them? Classic classism I guess. In all honesty I thought to myself, “Why am I so annoyed by these two troglodytes and why do I think they are troglodytes? What is a troglodyte?” Well, firstly, they didn’t sit together but instead, separately took up two seats each (I believe the term is “Man-spreading”), and sat with an additional row between them all while carrying on a conversation by basically yelling to each other. I mean if you want to talk then sit closer together. Everything about them, especially the way they spoke, full of cursing (particularly cursing about other people they spoke of) and just their overall – what? Aura? Body language? Whatever it was, it is exactly the same tiny clues that they would pick up from me to assume I was some hipster douchebag (designery eye-glasses, jaunty scarf, tapered jeans, thoughtfully unshaven, scowling while scrolling through my iPhone or countless other unsaid characteristics I’m unaware of). 

This topic fascinates me. How quickly we pile up tiny indicators to put people in box. I do it so often I’m genuinely surprised when someone I’ve quantified turns out to be very different. I remind myself not to “judge a book by its cover” even if a lot of books are easily and correctly judged by the design of the jacket photo or illustration. Still there are a lot of books in this world with easily judged covers and even more people who by the tilt of their head, their manner of dress and speech are probably exactly the kind of person you think they are. 

This still doesn’t explain why I was so annoyed by their unlimited and entirely meaningless conversation. Its volume? Loud and annoying. Its content? Dull and pointless. Their rudeness, loudness and assumed appropriation of the space was driving me nuts. Why should I care? Why should everyone else apply societal norms but these two can flout them? It was almost as though their complete lack of agency in every other part of their lives entitled them to exert themselves as much as possible in this public realm. And here I thought I was the entitled one? In truth, I am pretty lucky. Born in the right place at the right time - the proverbial third base so I guess I can let these guys have their moment of empowerment, after all, while I can steal a base at a leisurely stroll, they might never make it home.