Sunday, November 15, 2020

Seen in Septober 

Love Letters from Everest. Image via CBC

I'm not sure how I've been able to watch this much television and films but still be too busy to post this. I blame Pandemic Time - the squash and stretch of perceived time - but I'm back to my regular schedule. Now, what did I come in here for?


The football could have been better, the moustaches bigger and the story better. Image via The Movie Db 

The English Game
Set in the 1870s and billed as a history of English Football this is really an examination of the game as a conflict between the working and upper classes, which is no surprise as this limited series comes from Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. Unfortunately, the show wears all its social commentary on its footie jersey sleeves. Also, they talk a lot about how the future of football was fomented in this social conflict but the on pitch scenes are duller than a Spanish set piece. The upper class twits want to keep the game amateur because of course they can afford to play a game as a hobby while the working class men can hardly be expected to work six days in a mill then have any energy left to form a competitive side. I think I enjoyed seeing the period scenography and the over-sized moustaches more than the drama and I particularly enjoyed seeing the scenes set inside a spotless working cotton mill (fascinating to those with an interest in industrial history). Yet, the sort of obvious differences between the Old Etonians and the mill town footballers feels a bit heavy handed. Poor folk live, love and speak their minds over pints of beer, while the upper crust lot, suffer silently while repressing their emotions in tiny glasses of sherry while wearing formal dinner jackets. The charm of the setting may not be quite enough to overcome the "hit you on the head themes" but I enjoyed it – or maybe I was missing sports so much that I was willing to watch anything.

Spies in Disguise
A reliably light entertainment animated story of a super spy, framed by his villainous foe, goes undercover as a pigeon. Will Smith rolls out his comedic chops as a man usually in control of everything who learns the value of team work from his feathered friends and the failed, pacifist scientist voiced by Tom Holland, who got him in this ornithological circumstance in the first place.

While I Breathe, I Hope
This documentary follows Bakari Sellers, the youngest representative ever elected to South Carolina legislature, as he decides to run for lieutenant governor. We watch him on the campaign trail and the numerous stops at fish fry fundraisers and town hall events as he travels seemingly to every small town in the state. Sellers is a young black Democrat running against an establishment white Republican and it’s made pretty clear it would be easier for him to climb Mt. Everest barefoot than win the lieutenant governorship in a heavily Republican state such as South Carolina.

Love Letters from Everest
An animated documentary short about a woman’s parents and the love letters they exchanged while her father was stationed at an Everest base camp. I mean, come on, you already have me at the title and this film is a wonderful gem that shows the most amazing stories are right before us.

Enola Holmes
Charming but simple film about the teenage sister of Sherlock Holmes, with Henry Cavill as Sherlock and Millie Bobby Brown as Enola. A sort of Victorian Nancy Drew mystery sums this venture up pretty well.

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Thursday, November 05, 2020

Hello Mars 

This is Mars. Who are you? Image via The Guardian

When you live in a large city, you get used to not seeing much in the night sky. Only the brightest of objects can be seen. Amazingly, some of the brightest objects are nearby planets. Relatively nearby, that is. For most of this year, I’ve watched the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, a cosmic pairing that pranced through the sky like old dance partners, in a coupling that only comes together once every twenty years, like an old married couple. More recently, Mars has begun to swing above the southern horizon to be so plainly visible as to make you think it was a stationary drone peering down on you.

There’s been a lot of talk about loneliness and longing during the pandemic but I haven’t felt alone at all. Maybe for the first time in years I’ve come to realize how I am surrounded by friends, new and old, that I can count on. There have been bursts of communication that have sometimes felt “bustling”. While I’m familiar with video calls for work, I have been surprised by how so many of my Luddite friends have finally discovered the usefulness of a video call.

Along with the human moments of this pandemic there have been the cosmic ones too. Not to sound like the X Files or something but we are not alone. Looking out into the sky to see our solar system buddies has felt very awesome in that I am full of some large measure of awe.

Now that I’m noticing Mars for really the first time, I’ve wondered, “Hello Mars. Where have you been all my life?” Of course, Mars, just like Jupiter and Saturn have always been there but the truth was, I wasn’t. I’m not sure I understand the phrase of “being present” but if it means something like being aware of a presence than I can say I’ve become a lot more present in the last eight months. Noticing the sojourns of the planets, the path of the moon, the angle of the sun, the sound of songbirds, or the wails of an aging drunkard (yeah, that hasn’t changed in this neighbourhood), I realize I haven’t slowed down (could my life move any slower) but the halting of the world has allowed me to see what passed me before. Maybe this moment, a year with environmental, societal and public health disasters, which has felt like a decade, is similar to how time expands during an accident like a fall from a ladder or just before a car collision. You really have time to take in all the details before you hit the ground.

Or perhaps I’ve reached an age when all that came before happened too fast and all that is yet to come is much clearer in front of me and having that view of the other side of the mountain has shown me the urgency of all I have left that I want to do.

So yes. Hello Mars. How are you?

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Wednesday, September 30, 2020


Planet Earth, hot mess. Image via The Guardian

Siberia is burning with unheard of temperatures over 38˚C. Baghdad is scorching, hitting 52˚C during a heatwave this year. Phoenix is steaming, at almost 46˚C. California is on fire, including a recent record 49.5˚C in Los Angeles. Toronto has had at least one heatwave but lately has had temperate weekdays pockmarked with cooling rain. I’m not here to make the case that incredibly hot summers are proof of climate change, mostly because weather isn’t climate, but you have to admit, Siberian fires are pretty weird. The climate crisis is happening but I’m not sure I’m up to convince anyone who denies it. I’m here to talk about temperature.

Once the summer arrived, I was reminded how different the reported temperature is to the experienced temperature. Environment Canada reports the temperature recorded in the shade. In the shade is so lovely. In the sun, our life giving star could scorch you. On some of our hot days, there wasn’t even a rumour of a cloud in the sky. Living in the city core, surrounded by tall buildings, the air can be still and stagnant while heat radiates off the brick, concrete and asphalt like hot embers. On those days I could barely survive the fifteen or less minutes of putting laundry on the line. I thought I would become like a vampire, waiting for the dark of night to emerge. Then we’d have an equally hot day, with clouds and a breeze, and the experience was entirely different.

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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, commitments 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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