Monday, May 30, 2016

Seen in April + May 

Blade Runner image via The Movie DB

It seems whenever I get busier with volunteer stuff, or start working out more or reading a bit more the squeeze is on television or going out to movies. I guess April and May were busy and full of council sessions, public committee meetings, volunteering meetings which led to more beers and pub meals, which led to trying to go for more runs - I ran about 145 KM in April and May (about 40% more than in previous months). Here's what I saw in-between life and whatnot.

This is the Michael Pollan documentary series on food, how we eat and how we got to where we are today of eating “empty” calories in an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Pollan is best known as the author of Omnivore's Dilemma and many an article on how we have to change our relationship to food. His most simplistic mantra can be summed up in three lines.

Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.

Important in this statement is the definition of "food" because he does not mean manufactured food like Twinkies. As another prescriptive, Pollan suggests just staying in the produce section of your grocery store. His advice is, if your grandmother wouldn't recognize it, you probably shouldn't eat it because it was something invented after WWII when new preservatives and technologies were being used to create things like spam or canned fruit and preserved foods. Of course, this is a bit of broad guideline that puts margarine, cereal and frozen vegetables on that list. They are some of the first manufactured foods that we grew used to seeing and for the most part they are food-ish. I never buy margarine because I don't really use it anyway (rarely use butter, as I usually use cooking oil like olive oil). I love fibre-filled cereals but haven't had a cheerio in years. So Pollan implores us to cook. Why? Well he uses the words of an FDA official who basically says if you only eat what you cook or bake or create, you can eat whatever you want and not worry about your weight or health because the foods that are bad for us are the heavily treated stuff that you never make at home. Eat all the cake, french fries and ice cream you want as long as you make it because then you'll realize what is in it and how difficult they are to make so you'll only have them once in awhile. I doubt you'd lose weight this way. I once made the best oatmeal walnut chocolate chip cookie I've ever tasted (sorry Mom) but two of those cookies were about 300 calories and they weren't hard to make. Likewise for ice cream, which is really easy to make. French fries? Well, the oven version in olive oil is easy. But back to Pollan's point. If you cook your own food, you will find a pride, curiousity, care and respect for the quality of food you eat and you will probably be eating much better. His exploration and curiousity of food is infectious and inspiring. After the episode about bread was released there was a veritable explosion of people trying to make traditional bread (without manufactured yeast and using your own starter) but the question is, would that interest last.

I love Pollan's explanation of his own experiences seeking out traditional foods but there is always something that bugs me. Pollan lives in Berkely, California which is, outside of the south of France or parts of Italy, one of the best places in the world to live to buy food. In Toronto, we have farmers' markets from about June to September. The rest of the time we are in the produce section that makes up about 1/8th of the store's footprint. In that section are Mexican tomatoes, grapes and asparagus from Peru and oranges from Spain. The greens which seem to be the most fragile of food stuffs are pretty much already compost by the time they've arrived. If you don't live on some sort of Elysian Plain of paradise how exactly can you be expected to eat as Pollan suggests? To be honest, I don't want to eat like my grandmother who probably never had sweet or hot peppers, yams, asparagus, fresh pasta or blue cheese. If you love food you will appreciate this series but for me I would like to punch Pollan back to reality and take him shopping in a typical northern Canadian city where cantalopes are $10, the fresh beans are spotty and brown instead of green and the grapes are closer to rehydrated raisins (and cost $5/lb). In that regard he's a little like Mike Holmes who loves to blame someone else's shoddy work and would suggest you replace your roof when all you needed was a bookshelf.

Amy Winehouse image via The Movie DB

I'll be honest, I only ever knew Amy Winehouse's one hit, "Rehab" which to my ear, simply sounded like a throwback R&B tune, oh and by which time I thought, sheesh that girl looks bulimic. I didn't quite understand how people were surprised that someone who looked like a drug addict would have died young nor did I understand their proclamation of her great talent. Seeing this documentary changed all of that. The song Rehab was really only the tip of a very deep iceberg of a talented song writer and performer. The celebrated bouts of heroin use were mere dalliances compared to her alcoholism and bulimia. This young woman, who died at 27 (most likely from heart failure caused by her bulimia), was supremely gifted and undoubtedly loved by friends and family who could not protect her from herself. This documentary peels off the tabloid pastiche and will move you to wonder why her unnecessary death happened. Her father, who has complained he was portrayed poorly in the film only has himself to blame as does her longtime boyfriend and briefly her husband, Blake Fielder, who instead of being the rock she could lean on became the ledge she plummeted from because he was simply too much like her but without any of her insight, intelligence or talent.

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl image via The Movie DB

Gone Girl
I avoided seeing this thriller about a husband suspected in the death of his deceptive wife's death for a long time because, well… Ben Affleck. Yet it was entertaining and enlightening all at once. Affleck plays Nick who is an A-1 jerk. An a-hole. A d-bag, and many other abbreviated descriptors too graphic to type here. His wife, Amy, played by Rosamund Pike is a stone cold bitch. Yet I think it's David Fincher's unflinching and straightforward and honest direction that engages us. Nick is cheating on Amy. Amy is a spoiled kid who always wins. She concocts an incredibly elaborate scheme (really really broaching believability) to frame Nick in her own murder. When her plan slowly falls apart, she creates an alternate and equally elaborate plan. The fascinating thing for me is that these characters are unlikeable, we know it, they know it but we keep watching as Reality Television has trained us to do. The danger of this film is a little like David Mamet's Oleanna in that it shows a woman manipulating others by exploiting our disgust of the sexual abuse of women. Let's be clear, very many women experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. Very few come forward about it. Very few of those that come forward find justice against their abusers. As a man, one of the few things I fear is being accused of such a crime and not being able to defend myself against the accusation. Even the idea that I might have unconsciouslly have hurt or intimidated someone would put me in a shame spiral. This film is a little like the new Fatal Attraction – the wronged woman as pyscho bitch, and it might make some people angry but it will make everyone uneasy and I think that's what David Fincher is working towards and succeeds.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner image via The Movie DB

Blade Runner: Final Cut
I've seen this film too many times to count but I've only seen this version of the film on the big screen once before so when TIFF screened it I couldn't help myself but to see it again. I'm sure everyone knows the story. Harrison Ford plays a futuristic P.I. type who hunts down androids that are so human-like (and potentially dangerous) they've been banned from Earth. At its heart Blade Runner is an exploration of memory and identity. The original theatrical release was not a hit but became a huge cult classic with home video. That version, which was hated by the director Ridley Scott, had a voice-over (which I didn't mind - treating sci-fi like a 1940s noir film seemed interesting) and a polyanna ending of escape where the producers tacked on a helicopter shot of a beautiful New England landscape which was just left over footage from the Shining. This final version nixed the voice-over and helicopter shot but added a scene of Deckard finding the origami unicorn suggesting his partner knew about his plan and wouldn't follow him (though I could be wrong about that). The only thing I don't like about this film is a weird dream (?) sequence of Deckard imagining a unicorn running through a forest, like a scene from Tom Cruise's Legend. What? Why? Then the origami creation his police chum leaves behind is a unicorn. The basic meaning is the cops know he's on the run but won't follow - for now. The suggestion from some quarters is that Deckard is actually a replicant like Rachel with whom he is now running away with. Balderdash! That makes no sense. Rachel is almost undetectably a replicant android who didn't even believe she was one herself and she is pratically a prototype from the Tyrell Corporation. Deckard has a personal history with the LAPD and if he were a replicant he would be a better version than the Rachel version despite being around years earlier. Thus he couldn't be a more advanced model or he would've "expired" by the time the story takes place as advanced replicants were given a life span of only 4 years, almost twice that of my iPhone, but let’s not talk practicality in Sci-fi.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2
The odd thing about season one of Kimmy Schmidt was how the last few episodes slowed to crawl and diffused the incredible momentum of the first half of the season. Season 2 is the opposite. The first few shows were a dissapointing muddle of chuckles but it really picks up midway to rediscover its unique character, Kimmy, overcoming her new life challenges with aplomb and out dated pop culture references. Throughout it all, the larger than life big black gay diva that is Tittus Andromedon sashays straight to your funny bone.

David Sullivan, Will Arnett and Ruth Kearney take a road trip in Flaked image via The Movie DB

Will Arnett’s new series on Netflix is a head scratcher. It’s not a comedy but a drama that occasionally has some funny moments. Arnett plays Chip, a recovering alcoholic living an oddly static yet pleasant life in Venice, California. Chip doesn’t do much, sort of runs a furniture store that has no sales, runs AA meetings, attracts the attention of all of Venice’s lovely ladies and generally is a cad lounging through life. That is until the beautiful and mercurial London starts working at his favourite restaurant. Who is she and why is she so interested in Chip despite his best friend’s advances? Well, there’s the rub. Unfortunately, this show moves at a snail’s pace and takes the whole season to get to a place other shows would’ve reached in two or three episodes. Also, the balance of laid-back humour and some pretty serious story lines is really uneven. I wanted to like it but I just couldn’t despite watching the whole season. I kept waiting for the show’s redemption but it never came.

The Empire of Scents
Recently I purchased a new brand of organic muesli that was on sale at a price I couldn’t ignore. When I opened the package for the first time it smelled like a forgotten summer morning. I mean really, I was transported to a meadow I’m not even sure I’d ever been to. That’s what this fascinating documentary about the sense of smell aims for. It seemed like it would be straight forward enough but it was moving, funny, inventive and curious. From wine sommelier to tea sommelier, to a perverse perfumer to school kids, the interview subjects range from intense, poetic, funny and eccentric. Through it all the director Kim Nguyen, who usually directs narrative films, shows a deft touch at not letting overly verbose or pretentious discussions take over the conversation. This film has a lightness and ease of spirit that makes it special. Oh and do yourself a favour and look up “ambergris”.

Steve and Tony have a heated debate in Captain America: Civil War. It sounds sort of silly when you put it like that. Image via The Movie DB

Captain America: Civil War
Another successful epic superhero film from Marvel that walks the odd line between opera and comedy (I’ve never seen a comic opera so maybe it’s more common than I think). The unfortunate part of these films is watching the formula play out before your eyes. We know other “franchise” films are coming from other characters who seem to make their cameos the same way new flavours of yogurt are put out for free samples. Ant-man, Spider-man, and Black Panther all get enough screen time to whet our appetites and cause confusion in the melee that ensues. Yet the interesting thing is there are real issues at the heart of these films. Whether it is in the taxing and messy inter-personal relationships or trying to decide between security, privacy and freedom (sound familiar?) the Captain America story lines are American concerns and foreign policy writ large in High-Def and 3D. Despite the failings, I’ll take my comic book opera with all the free samples I can get, thank you.

American Ultra
I think we’ve seen this before. A stoner, Mike and his girlfriend, Phoebe, are stuck in dead end jobs in a dead end town but turn out to be something wholly different. Of course they are - otherwise this would be Richard Linklater film. Mike turns out to be a sort of Jason Bourne who can be turned off and on by a psychological cue. When an ambitious CIA director wants to cancel Mike’s program (um, kill him), his original handler tries to warn him thus setting in motion the action thriller part of this action-comedy. The casting of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as the stoner couple is great and Eisenberg is surprisingly believable as a human killing machine. But at the end of the day the film doesn’t really leverage the humour it sets up and squelches what little it does with unoriginal action tropes. It’s too bad they took an original slant on an old idea but then fell right back to the old idea.

Still from Lewis Klahr's 66. Image via Cinema Scope Magazine

Original ideas aren’t the only thing that makes great art. Lewis Klahr’s 66 is a collection of short films made over about 15 years. His technique is best described as stop-motion collage wherein he mixes found photos or graphics like ads and clipped comic book art to create some kind of eery tone poem. These animated collages begin with quotes or titles from classic mythology and are often set to what sound like melodramatic film scores (with a really terrible sound mix I might add). I didn’t get it. In particular I hated the absolutely amateur feel of these films. Only the last two films in the compilation really had any resonance or coherency while the other 60-70 minutes was a drone of experimentation. It’s not like I don’t like that kind of art. The NFB film Very Nice, Very Nice by Arthur Lispsett is amazing. Not to mention Norman McLaren’s Boogie Doodle but this film is not up to those standards. Hats off for trying but I’ll give no hat tip for succeeding.

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