Category Archives: Movies

Hey Oscars – This is no time for La La

Hey Pal:

I know my last post was a rant and I know I sometimes get too soap-boxy in this space, so I apologize in advance for this post, but it has to happen. I’m getting back on my soap box and I’m now going to stop talking to you, Pal, and address some important folks in the entertainment business.

Dear Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

Congratulations! The nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards are out and by most accounts you got it right this year. Critics seem to agree the nominated films and performances recognize the best in movies rather than the best in “for your consideration” campaigns, and there’s plenty of diversity in the mix to help you begin to shake that whole #OscarsSoWhite thing.

Well done.

Now, can we talk about next steps? The real decision-making starts now and I’d like to get radical and strongly suggest that you surprise everyone with your Best Picture choice and not give it to La La Land. Nothing against La La Land, I’ve seen it twice, and it’s a tasty morsel of cinematic confection; beautiful to behold and impeccably made. But this is not the time for La La Land, as great as it may be, because we are living in dangerous times. On November 8, the American electorate made a wildly bizarre choice and the doomsday clock was moved the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953, and now the whole world sits on the edge of our collective seats, watching a freak show unfold while chewing our nails and clenching our sphincters.

This is no time for singing and dancing.

This is time for a statement.

There is a certain film up for Best Picture that can be that statement. I’m not going to say it’s better than La La Land, but it is bigger, bolder and brainier. It’s more important and more profound. That film is…Arrival, the cerebral and thrilling  science fiction film starring Amy Adams as a linguistic professor tasked with finding a way to communicate with a newly-arrived alien species.

arrival-banner-1-final

I know it’s a longshot but hear me out. I’m asking that Hollywood Meryl Streep the shit out of this situation and give Washington a smack upside the head. I’m asking that you stare down a bully with his fake news and “alternative facts” and make a statement of truth and purpose. I’m asking that you award a film that is a perfect counterpoint to so much that’s going on right now, a film that is everything the new president isn’t.

Consider:

As the president drags political discourse into the gutter and shits in its mouth, Arrival eloquently explores the connection between the complexity of language and sophistication of thought.

As the president validates evidence-hating climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, Arrival knows that truth is found through scientific inquiry and the collection of facts.

As the president builds walls out of hatred and discrimination, Arrival shows that a truly evolved species does not waste time and resources bickering over political borders, skin colour and religion.

As the president feeds off the worst human instincts, Arrival is a tribute to the potential of humankind.

As the thin-skinned president thinks small and petty thoughts, Arrival thinks big.

Very big.

Plus – it also happens to be a really exciting movie with plenty of intrigue and surprise, great acting, a perfect score and a killer ending. It’s exciting and emotional, and it would be a great choice for Best Picture no matter who’s in the White House.

There is a particularly potent and stressful moment in Arrival when 12 computer screens one by one blink to black and I fear the world is moving toward that moment for real.

So what do you say, Academy? Do you want to do the obvious thing and go all La La on us, or do you want to make a statement that may, in some small way, help turn those screens back on?

Later, Palsoap-box

7 Reasons Why Independence Day is the Most Offensive Movie Ever

miloPal, I have seen more than my fair share of offensive movies. I have endured scenes of torture and rape, suffered through hideous descents into drug-fueled madness, and even watched a character take a flame thrower to a bus load of children, for Pete’s sake.

But I recently watched a movie that truly takes the cake, a film so offensive it makes all those other sick-fests seem like child’s play. The movie to which I am referring is Independence Day.

Independence Day was released in 1996, was directed by Roland Emmerich and stars Will Smith. It is a thrilling, light-hearted and rousing action adventure about humankind successfully fighting off an alien invasion. It is rated PG and was, by far, the biggest grossing movie the year it was released.

It’s one of the most offensive things I have ever seen. There are so many reasons why, but I’ve narrowed it down to the top 7. Oh, and spoiler alert, if you are the one guy left in the world who has still not seen this movie, but wants to, stop reading right now. I give it all away.

7.  It imitates Satan

Everyone knows how the Devil works. He is wonderful when you first meet him, seducing you with his charm and luring you in. Next thing you know, you’re licking his fiery balls in Hell.

Independence Day works the same way. The first 20 minutes are awesome, a model of how to build suspense as  city-sized alien ships break through our atmosphere without warning or explanation and silently settle over major centres all around the world. Then stupid shit starts to happen. From there the movie just gets stupider and stupider, but by the time you realize what’s happening, it has eaten your soul.

 6.  The aliens’ motive is moronic

There is a popular (and logical) theory that any alien species sophisticated enough to figure out interstellar travel and make their way across unfathomable distances to find us would almost certainly come in peace. They would be infinitely older, wiser and smarter than us and would not feel the least bit threatened by us. We would be to them what salamanders are to us.

So, if they ever get here, there is any number of things they could do: study us, teach us, help us fix our problems. At worst, maybe pilfer some of our resources or put a few of us into their zoo. But to come all this way for the express purpose of annihilating us?  That would be like a person living in New York City building a cruise ship, filling it with soldiers and weaponry and sailing the thing all the way to a small island off the coast of Australia – for the express purpose of machine gunning each and every salamander on that island. It would be, to say the least, excessive.

5.  Everything’s a stereotype

Why complicate a film with characters when you can go with caricatures? In Independence Day, everything is simple. Politicians are assholes. Soldiers are heroes. Peace-lovers are kooky hippies…

on roof

What a pretty laser!

Rednecks drink and drive trailers. Scientists are antisocial and are played by Data…

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Emotion overload, does not compute!

On the international stage, Russians are vaguely menacing, Arabs wear turbans, and Africans wear loin cloths and carry spears at all times…

africans

We’re going to need a bigger spear.

The purpose of this movie is to make Americans love America (good article here). There’s even a speech that explains why World history is really just a subsidiary of U.S. history. So I guess the filmmakers thought it best to just keep everything else as simple and shallow as a pancake. But it pisses me off, and it should piss everyone off.

4. The aliens are incredibly stupid for being so incredibly brilliant 

This is a species that can construct a mother ship one quarter the size of our moon, fill it with sub ships the size of cities, travel millions of light years and, upon arrival, already knew exactly which cities and buildings to target in order to wreak maximum havoc. They communicate telepathically. They are ADVANCED.

And yet, here’s something that happens:

The climax of the film includes a “covert” operation during which Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum use an alien fighter ship to sneak onto the mother ship so they can upload a virus onto the mother ship’s mainframe. There’s a lot to mock about this sequence, but my favourite is that the aliens have no idea there are two humans on the ship that they just let into their giant traveling home. Do they not have any detection systems on board? Do they not read minds? Could they not, at the very least, look into the freakin’ windows?

willjeff-independence-day

Remember me? I was in Jurassic Park. He’s the Fresh Prince.

It gets better. Once they’re on board, Jeff Goldblum, the techie character in the film (we know this because he’s awkward and wears glasses), taps his keyboard about three or four times and says “we’re in”. Seriously? That’s all it takes to hack into this species’ network and wreck everything? They have invisible shields around their ships that can repel nuclear attacks, but they never heard of anti-virus software?

alien

Don’t worry, I’m not as bright as I look.

3. Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar

The climax of this movie is so full of absurdity, so many reasons for hatred, but for me it all just boils down to the cigars. Let me attempt to explain this.

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum have successfully downloaded the virus to the mother ship’s computer (yeah, right), which means the shields are down and the  fighter jets on Earth are able to successfully attack the city-sized sub ships. For Will and Jeff, this means mission accomplished, and so they light up cigars to celebrate. Here’s what they have to do next…

– Fly out of the mother ship while being attacked
– Become engulfed in fire and debris when the mother ship explodes while they are leaving it (please remember this ship is one quarter the size of our moon – that’s a shitload of fire and debris to fly through)
– Travel through space back to earth
– Endure the punishing experience of re-entry into earth’s atmosphere
– Travel around the planet from wherever they re-entered to the precise location in the desert where their wives and the President are conveniently waiting for them

And as they walk heroically across the desert to be embraced by the welcome committee, THEY ARE STILL SMOKING THE CIGARS! And not just that, but the cigars are pretty much the same size as when they lit them.

Saving humankind is a little tiring, but very satisfying.

Now, I don’t know exactly how long that journey home should take, but it’s got to be a whole lot more than three stogie puffs, and I don’t know what condition our heroes would be in (dead, actually), but I would think after the ordeal they just endured, chomping on a tasty Cuban would be the furthest thing from their minds.

 2. Female characters are less important than the cigars

If real life aliens watched Independence Day in order to learn about humankind they would conclude the men are retarded, and that the females have yet to develop brains. The women in this movie do absolutely nothing but think about their men and talk about their men while sitting around waiting for their men to come home and save them. Correction, that’s not all they do. Sometimes they dance in their underwear for money.

Stripping is, like, soooo pro-American!

1. President Pullman may be the most dangerous character in movie history

There is a large (and I fear, growing) percentage of voters who want elected leaders to be just like the rest of us. They vote for the person who seems like “regular folk”. This scares the shit out of me. I want leaders who are vastly superior to me. Why don’t we all want that? If the folks who vote for regular folk were a tiny minority it wouldn’t be a problem, but we know that sometimes these people win, as when the United States elected George W. Bush and Toronto elected Mayor Rob Ford.

rob-ford-leafs

Just one of the boys.

Now, Hollywood has no obligation to show us how leaders ought to be, but they’ve generally done a good job giving us fictional presidents with gravitas, such as Morgan Freeman, Jeff Bridges and Michael Douglas.

For Independence Day, they went with Bill Pullman. Nothing against the guy, he’s fine in the right role, but Most Powerful Man in the World is not that role. He oozes “regular guy” from every pore. He looks ordinary. He talks ordinary. And, within the asinine script of Independence Day, he does things that real leaders don’t do, like fire his Secretary of Defense in front of a roomful of people just because it feels good to do so.

The speech is widely adored. It shouldn’t be.

And then we get the stupidest moment ever put on film, the moment in Independence Day when, if you’re paying attention, you realize your soul has been destroyed and all hope is lost, and you pound your head against the wall again and again.

What do you suppose President Bill Pullman is doing during the climatic battle? Is he holed up in a Situation Room in an extremely well guarded bunker monitoring the situation and making incredibly important decisions because, after all, the fate of all humankind hangs in the balance? No. I’ll tell you what he’s doing – FLYING A FIGHTER JET SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BATTLE!!!

He’s so cool!

If the real life President pulled such a stunt he would be immediately relieved of duties in order to have his head examined, but I’m pretty sure we were all supposed to cheer about this. And I shudder to think how many impressionable young minds watched Independence Day and thought how wicked awesome it was that the President had the balls to dive into battle. Is this half-witted “regular guy” their model for how a leader should be? Is this in any way on their minds when they enter a real life ballot box? Thoughts like these keep me up at night.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures and declares

To wrap up…

The last movie I watched before Independence Day was Troll 2, a film so weirdly incompetent and bad that it has become a cult favourite where people go to laugh their asses off at it. I absolutely loved it.

What’s not to love?

So how can I forgive the idiocy of Troll 2 but lose my shit in anger thinking about Independence Day? Because the people behind Troll 2 were a ragamuffin little crew who didn’t know how to make a movie, but truly thought they were creating something special. They believed in it. They did their best. They acted with sincerity and passion, and through the ridiculousness, it shows.

The makers behind Independence Day knew better. They are big-time, smart, talented filmmakers who knew how idiotic their story was. They were aware of the stereotypes and giant plot holes, but didn’t care. And they knew exactly how Bill Pullman would play as President. They could have created something thoughtful and wise about the potential implications of humankind meeting alien life for the first time, but they knew they could make ass loads of dough with a jingoistic, big budget shit-fest that appealed to America’s basest instincts.

And they were right.

And that’s the most offensive thing of all.

Later, Pal

P.S. Independence Day II: Resurgence is due in theatres in 2016, “celebrating” the 20th anniversary of Part I. Yay!

Reluctant Roundabout Review of a Possibly Perfect Album: The Trouble with Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam

miloHey Pal:

Well I find myself in a bit of a pickle: I’m falling back in love with the music of Cat Stevens, or should I say the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens who, since 1977, has gone by his reborn Muslim name Yusuf Islam.

And therein, more or less, lies the source of the problem.

More on that in a minute.

First, I need to put forward a new title in our Perfect Album series, and I must do so through a slightly meandering story (have faith, it all comes together eventually)…

Part I: In which a young Milo Pal discovers a magical film

As a high schooler in the late 80s I sat down one night to watch the cult classic film Harold and Maude, and it blew my mind.

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You know those films, Pal, the ones that showed you early on that film is an art form that can do more than entertain; that they can also provoke and challenge? This is one of mine. I loved everything about this dark comedy about a 20-year-old man child obsessed with death who learns how to live from his 79-year-old “girlfriend”. Through the ick factor and the dark edges, there is so much humour, sweetness and beauty in this film.

Perhaps the thing I loved most was the music. There wasn’t really a score, just a handful of folk songs from a guy I’d never heard of before; a guy with a voice that was sweet and soaring one moment, growly and wise the next. A guy named Cat Stevens. The songs and lyrics fit the film perfectly. I can’t describe it better than Jordan Cronk does in this 2012 review in Slant Magazine:

“And yet the Cat Stevens soundtrack—unquestionably one of the greatest in the history of the medium—that plays as both running commentary and harmonic transition device, adds an essential dimension to (director Hal) Ashby’s vision, quelling the manipulation of a traditional score while still reflecting and reinforcing his motifs. Stevens’s lyrics work almost as voiceover narration, coloring and enlivening an otherwise dark, deadpan comedy. He’s an omniscient presence, a character unto himself, a spiritual gateway for an audience cold to such guileless expressions of humanity.”

This probably only works for those who’ve seen the film, but I can’t resist providing a few samples, pics with lyrics:

harold and mom

I used to walk alone / Every step seemed the same / This world was not my home / So there was nothing much to gain

car wash

So on and on I go / The seconds tick the time out / There’s so much left to know / And I’m on the road to find out

 

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And if you want to sing out, sing out / And if you want to be free, be free / Cause there’s a million things to be, you know that there are / You know that there are

bed

I think I see the light / Coming to me, coming through me / Giving me second sight / So shine, shine, shine

 

maude umbrella

Bring tea for the tillerman, steak for the sun / wine for the woman who made the rain come

A beautiful marriage of song and visual.

Needless to say, I joined the cult of Harold and Maude and have been a member ever since though, until recently, it had been years since I last watched it.

Part II: In which a young Milo Pal discovers an almost perfect album

One thing was abundantly clear after first viewing – I needed that soundtrack immediately. But wouldn’t you know it, a soundtrack for Harold and Maude was inexplicably unavailable at that time. So I bought the next best thing:

tea-for-the-tillerman

Perfect album?

It was one of Cat’s more renowned albums and happened to have a bunch of the Harold and Maude songs on it, so I purchases up the cassette and popped it into the old Sony Walkman, and what I heard was good, it was very good indeed.

These were folk songs — simple and sweet — but with balls. It wasn’t just a guy plucking a guitar and softly crooning (which is what I thought folk music was). The music was full — driving and urgent. There were drums. Songs built to a crescendo. The voice was arresting, potent and expressive. At times he sounded angry. Every song seemed to be about traveling or searching. Cat wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he knew he wouldn’t find it sitting still:

Miles from nowhere
I guess I’ll take my time
Oh yeah, to reach there

Sometimes he did provide answers. The sense of spirituality and righteousness that would eventually lead him to Islam was already strong:

Yes the answer lies within
So why not take a look now
Kick out the devil’s sin
Pickup, pickup a good book now

I listened to Tea for the Tillerman often but would not, at the time, have declared it perfect. The thing had orchestral touches I found cheesy and a couple of songs I could have done without, most notably the sappy “Sad Lisa”. That song just bugged me.

But overall, for a teenage boy pondering the meaning of life and asking more and more questions about the religion  he’d been taught, this was powerful stuff. I was a budding Cat fan.

Then, tragedy…

Part III: In which something terrible happens

In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill author Salmon Rushdie for writing his great novel The Satanic Verses. And Cat, who’d been Yusuf Islam since 1977, and who had stopped making music and had distanced himself from the secular music he’d made, hopped on board and said in a couple different forums that he was down with Khomeini. Sure, he subsequently backpedaled, but go ahead and look up the quotes for yourself. You can even watch them on YouTube. It’s clear his fundamentalist-soaked mind had decided death was a fitting punishment for free speech.

Pathetic.

As my friend Jerry lamented at the time —  this, from the guy who wrote “Peace Train”.

I can’t tell you I nobly boycotted Cat/Yusuf from that moment on – I have certainly hummed along to “Morning Has Broken” more than a few times since then – but the sad, ugly incident certainly turned what might have been a lifelong musical love affair into a temporary fling. Plans to buy Teaser and the Firecat were cancelled. Tea for the Tillerman crawled to the back of the cassette drawer and was not replaced when growing up Pal entered the digital age.

Part IV: In which an older Milo Pal reconnects and finds perfection

With Cat and Maude and Harold and Yusuf far from mind, I headed down to the library recently to see what free entertainment I could dig up and just happened to toss Harold and Maude and Tea for the Tillerman into the overflowing pile of music and movies I greedily walked out with, and it was not until I got home that I realized I had inadvertently reintroduced into my life this natural film/album combo.

(If I believed in fate…)

No matter, I watched Harold and Maude – introducing it to my 14-year-old daughter – and it was every bit as good as I remembered and, to my slight surprise, the kid really liked it too.

Then I listened to Tea for the Tillerman.

And man oh man what a trip that turned out to be.

I liked that album back in the day. I like it even more now. It’s been a long time, but the whole thing was still vivid in my mind. Every song is a gem (even sappy Sad Lisa is not bad!). All the yearning and searching is still there, but the wisdom of it stood out even more now that I’m 20 years down the road.

“Father and Son” is the obvious stand-out now, being able to hear it as a dad. The aforementioned teenage daughter and I have been having some big talks lately about her life and the future. She’s in the mode of dreaming big. She’s going to write novels, she’s going to travel the world. University seems like a waste of time. She is committed to living an extraordinary life.

Do it, I tell her. I’m all for it. Be extraordinary. Then, because I helped make her, I lapse into offering some practical advice. It’s certainly not the same dynamic as the story that that plays out in “Father and Son”, but I do find myself echoing some of the Father’s lines:

“I was once like you are now.”

“There’s so much you have to know.”

“Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.”

So now I’m the old man. OK. I can live with it. It’s testament to Cat’s lyrics that both sides of that song hold up and are fairly represented.

The other thing that strikes me now about Tea for Tillerman is the length. At less than 37 minutes it is lean and precise. No filler, no wasted moments. Two of the songs are less than two minutes. Cat says what he needs to say and gets out. With my impatient, aging, Twitterized mind, I increasingly love brevity (though I fully recognize I am not demonstrating it in this long-winded post — sorry!). So I admire the hell out of any artist who can say a lot — and say it briefly.

And so, I will now declare it – I consider Tea for the Tillerman a perfect album.

Part V: In which things remain maddeningly unresolved

I’ve been so moved by my rediscovery of this classic, I needed to revisit the elephant in the room. What about the fatwa? Does Cat —  sorry, Yusuf — still stand by what he said? I’d heard he’s returned to making music and no longer renounces what he made before. Could it be that his rational mind has returned? Is he ready to say “shame on me for that whole Rushdie thing”?

Sadly, not so much.

The most recent thing I could find was this interview with Rolling Stone. Here’s the relevant chunk:

It’s still a sensitive subject for Yusuf. When I broach it, his son looks up, concerned. “People need to get over it,” says a clearly irritated Yusuf. “It’s 25 years ago. I’ve got gray hair now. Come on. I was fool enough to try and be honest and tell people my position. As far as I’m concerned, this shouldn’t be the subject of my life.”

That appears to be the end of it, and Yoriyos looks relieved. But Yusuf can’t help himself. “I’m a firm believer in the law,” he says. “I was never a supporter of the fatwa [against Rushdie], but people don’t want to hear that because they keep saying that I believe in the law of blasphemy. All I’m saying is, how can you deny the Third Commandment? It’s an Islamic principle that you must follow the law of the land where you reside.”

Unapologetic answers like that are what make Rushdie and his many supporters unable to forgive Yusuf, and he knows their feud will never end. “That’s the way life is,” he says. “I don’t want to put myself in this bracket, but if you look at any messenger, there’s going to be an antagonist.”

Well there you have it. Still miles from nowhere, if you ask me.

I suppose I’m glad Yusuf found the answers to the questions he was asking on Tea for the Tillerman. It’s just a shame those beliefs need to veer into the odious. Yusuf has his beliefs, I have mine – and at the top of the pile is that if there is one thing in this world that actually is sacred, it’s free speech.

So what to do?

Is this a case of needing to separate the artist from the art? Can I love the music but reject the man?  Or does listening to the music intrinsically mean support for the musician?

I don’t know.

Later, Pal.

yusuf_cat-stevens2

 

Best of 2014 in Movies: The Second Annual Pal-Ademy Awards

miloHey Pal:

Well it’s that time of year again – the Academy Awards are upon us and those of us who love movies are pumped. But even more pump-erific is the annual Pal-Ademy Awards, in which I make up categories to celebrate my favourite movie stuff of the year.

The theme this year is surprises. I had many movie surprises. It was surprisingly surprising. Also, they inspired surprisingly long award names. So without further adieu, here are the awards:

And the award for “Most surprisingly good performance by an actor everyone recognizes but nobody knows” goes to…

J.K. SIMMONS IN WHIPLASH!

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A moment of tribute, please, for character actors — those guys who do piles of movies and shows over dozens of years, and everyone knows he’s that guy from that thing, but no one knows his name. Every so often, one of those guys pulls off a performance so commanding and juicy that all of a sudden everyone notices and he’s up for awards.

This year, it’s Simmons turn. You’ve seen him as Ellen Page’s sweet dad in Juno and Paul Rudd’s sweet dad in I Love You, Man, and now watch as he chews apart the scenery as a monstrous jazz teacher who verbally and physically assaults his students, all in the name of trying to produce just one player whose music will be remembered long after he’s dead (probably of a drug overdose in his 30s).

He seems to have found his match in Miles Teller’s Andrew, an aspiring jazz drummer who couldn’t agree more that greatness comes with a price. It all comes together in my third favourite ending of the year. Great film. Great performance. Best supporting actor Oscar is in the can.

whiplash

You’re not a one tear guy, are you?

 

And the award for “Most surprisingly good performance in a movie that is so much more than my wife thinks it is but for the life of me I can’t convince her to see it with me” goes to…

SCARLETT JOHANNSON IN UNDER THE SKIN!

scarlett2

OK, so Johansson is a sexpot. And she’s usually just so-so as an actress. And in this movie she plays a sexy alien who seduces men for mysterious purposes. And there are several scenes in which she peels away her clothes while seductively walking away from the camera…But it’s not what it sounds like! It’s not trashy! It’s not a re-hash of Species starring Natasha Henstridge!

species

Really it isn’t. It’s artful, provocative, profound and strange, and it’ll make you see the world differently. And Johannson is damn good. Really. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m saying. Come to think of it, if you have seen it, could you maybe talk to Mrs. Pal about it? I could use a little help. All she seems to expect from this movie is this:

scarlett

But it’s not just this! Really!

 

And the award for “Most surprising documentary about a band that isn’t actually a documentary about a band but that nevertheless really makes me want to see that band in concert” goes to…

MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS!

mistaken-for-strangers-poster_copy

It ain’t easy being an under-achieving, bumbling schlub. It’s even harder being an under-achieving, bumbling schlub when your brother is the lead singer of one of the most adored indie rock bands around. Matt Berninger, lead singer of The National, let his brother Tom come on tour to help out with the food and equipment, and to make a little movie while he’s at it. The resulting film I suspect surprised everyone involved. Ostensibly, it’s about The National but it’s really about Tom and Matt, and it’s touching and funny and wonderful.

And even though it’s not really about the band, there is concert footage. Oh, the concert footage! And my second favourite ending of the year.

national live

Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over, surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch/Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults

 

And the award for “Most surprisingly good performance in a surprisingly good movie that I never would have seen if I didn’t have a teenage daughter” goes to…

SHAILENE WOODLEY IN THE FAULT IN OUR STARS!

shailene woodley2

Author John Green tapped right into the teen zeitgeist with his novel about kids with cancer falling in love. I knew all about it because it made the rounds in my house but I didn’t feel a strong need to read it, or see it when it was inevitably made into a film.

But in exchange for introducing my 13-year-old to the teen movie of my time –  Breakfast Club (she loved it) – she sat me down to watch the teen movie of her time, and I don’t mind telling you…I cried a little. Yes, the movie is carefully constructed to detonate every tear duct in range, and it does go over the top at times (I’m looking at you, Anne Frank House scene), but it’s got enough snappy dialogue and brains to keep it compelling and real.

And it has Shailene Woodley, whose effortless, natural performance surprised the heck out of me, and kept the whole thing together. I’d heard of this actress — I believe she’s in lots of other teen-centric movies I’ll probably never see. I can’t wait to see what the kid’s going to do when she grows up.

the-fault-in-our-stars-3

Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.

 

And the award for “Most surprisingly awesome, loveable character who only says one thing and is voiced by an actor I never paid a moment’s attention to” goes to…

GROOT IN GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY!

groot

Vin Diesal starred in about 25 movies before 2014 and I didn’t give a crap about any of them. So imagine my surprise to learn that he was the voice behind the marvelous creation that is Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy.

I enjoyed Guardians, Marvel’s latest super-hero opus. It’s got a lot a more spunk and humour than these things usually have, though it also contains the usual hyper-kinetic, ultra-violent action scenes that we’re all supposed to love but usually just turn my brain to goo and make my over-stimulated eyeballs twitch.

But the best thing by far was Groot. How is it possible to find yourself dearly loving a tree that is smart enough to talk but not smart enough to know more than four words? No idea but, amazingly, Vin has something to do with it.

vin-groot2

We are Groot. Believe it!

 

And the award for “Most surprisingly great sequel in a franchise that’s been around forever but I never bothered with until my son got me into it” goes to…

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES!

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

I’ve often thought I should check out at least one Planet of the Apes movie, but never got around to it until my 9-year-old decided that he and I were going to spend some time with the latest entry in the franchise, and boy oh boy, what a grand surprise this turned out to be — possibly the biggest surprise on this list.

It’s a sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In Dawn, battle lines between human and ape have been drawn and tensions are rising fast. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides, and it’s not easy to choose a side. “I don’t know who to cheer for” my boy said at one point. “I know!” I said excitedly, before realizing that, for him, this was not a good thing. He has a strong moral compass and likes a clear definition between good guys and bad guys. Not me — I like the grey zone.

For him, it was a lesson that right and wrong is not always clear cut. For me, it was one of the most exciting surprises of the year — ape movies are cool! We went back and watched Rise. Just as good. And though it’s been said a million times before I’m going to say it too — Andy Serkis is wicked-awesome at performance-capture acting. That damn dirty ape is a revelation.

dawn-andy

 

And the evening’s final award – “Best movie without need for qualifications or explanations” – goes to…

BOYHOOD!

boyhood

I’ve already written about it here, so I won’t go on and on. Suffice to say Richard Linklater’s 12 year experiment moved me and thrilled me. Plus, of course, it had my favourite ending of the year.

I hope it wins every Oscar it’s up for plus a few others.

boyhood-ellar

Later, Pal.

Best of the Year 2014

miloHey Pal:

I experienced many great things in 2014. It just so happens that some of them were not actually from 2014.

Should that stop me from putting them on my best of 2014 list? I hope not because I’m doing it. Here then is the stuff that blew my mind the most this year.

BEST IN FILM – Stanley Kubrick exhibit at TIFF Bell Lighthouse

TIFF kubrick exhibit

I may be the only person on Earth who thinks Full Metal Jacket is better than Platoon.

I was definitely the only freak in my high school with a Clockwork Orange jean jacket.

I even defended Eyes Wide Shut when it came out in 1999 to wide-spread disappointment and befuddlement.

So when the Stanley Kubrick exhibition rolled into Toronto this year there was no way I was going to miss that. Pal, you were kind enough to accompany me and we saw things I never dreamed I would see with my own eyes. To be in the same room as the creepy twin dresses from The Shining? Are you kidding me?

Rather than talk about the exhibit’s awesomeness (ho hum tour guides aside), how about I just show some pics. Fellow Kubrick fans, prepare to drool. All others, go ahead and skip to Best in TV.

The Shining typewriter

All work and no play makes Jack overact

 

IMG_20141106_182645 2001: A Space Odyssey -- HAL IMG_20141106_181855

A Clockwork Orange

I should mention I actually do have a favourite movie of 2014 – Boyhood (totally with you on Under the Skin, Pal – it may be my second). But I’ve already paid tribute the Boyhood – Boyhood post – and there are too many other movies I have yet to see, so I’ll reserve my true best of the year in movies for the Pal-Ademy Awards in a couple of months.

BEST IN TV – American Horror Story

I am an irresponsible father.

How else to explain that not only did I allow my 13-year-old daughter to watch this sadistic nightmare, but I also sat there happily binge watching the first three seasons – “Murder House”, “Asylum” and “Coven” – right alongside her.

murder house  asylum  coven

Has there ever been a sicker show than this one? Murder, rape, torture, incest – name an atrocity, it’s in there. Characters include school shooters, Nazi doctors, tortuous slave owners and demon nuns who rape (and some of those were good guys).

Our favourite season is “Coven”, though it may be the ickiest of the lot. You don’t know the meaning of awkward until you sit beside your daughter watching what happens to Emma Roberts, star of Hotel for Dogs, at a frat party. (It’s OK, though, because she and friend Taissa Farmiga are witches so justice is served and it is swift and thorough and nasty – call it feminism, American Horror Story style.)

three witches

Do these hats make us look witchy?

 

After every episode I told the kid we really shouldn’t be watching this. Then she’d go make popcorn and I’d cue up the next episode. What a pair of sickos. Next thing you know I’ll be lending her my Clockwork Orange jacket.

TV Runner Up – House of Cards and West Wing

west wing  imagesQKMYFCBZ

Mrs. Pal and I began the year binge watching David Fincher’s House of Cards and finished the year binge watching Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, two depictions of Washington politics that could not be more different.

Technically, I suppose they’re both dramas. But House of Cards really plays out like horror as you watch Kevin Spacey do anything – anything – to satisfy his lust for power (it reached a point Mrs. Pal threw in the towel and I had to carry on solo – it was too cold and cynical for her taste, with no characters to cheer for).

And West Wing is really a fantasy – a depiction of the White House as it ought to be, populated with brilliant, principled people for whom power is a means to an end – improving the world. In my mind, Martin Sheen will always be America’s Greatest President. It’s been a joy revisiting this idealistic world.

Which of these shows is less far from the truth, I have no idea. But, for me, they’re equally fun to watch, and watching one after the other makes for a fascinating contrast. I recommend it.

BEST LIVE EXPERIENCE – Tig and Sinead

This one’s a tie, with nothing in common except they happen to both be women:

  • Comedian Tig Notaro at Just for Laughs: It’s an interesting approach – tell a funny story, add some new context, then tell the same story again and somehow it’s even funnier. It’s brilliant, as is her use of audience participation (she made us complicit in her mockery of the Beatles’ treatment of Ringo). It may have been the best live comedy I have ever seen.

tig

  • Sinead O’Connor at Massey Hall: At long last, and for the first time, I saw my number one musical girlfriend (My Musical Girlfriends post) in concert. Long overdue. From dedicating opener “I am Stretched on your Grave” to the recently fallen Canadian soldier Cpl. Nathan Cirillo to the greatest closer she could have possibly chosen, “Last Day of Our Acquaintance”, she did not disappoint.

sinead o'connor

BEST IN MUSIC – Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire_Weekend_-_Modern_Vampires_of_the_City

There are three problems with this album.

The first problem is that I am not a first year university student undergoing a spiritual crisis and seeing the world through open eyes for the first time. If I were, this album would define me. As it turns out, it came along about 20 years too late, so all I can do is admire the hell out of it.

Modern Vampires of the City is the third album from the brainy pop rockers from New York, and it went deeper, darker and slower than what came before. This is not to say the thing is heavy or sluggish. On the contrary, it crackles with energy. Pitchfork said it well: “There’s more air in these songs, more spontaneity, more dynamics.”

The second problem is that it puts my Pal to sleep. I’m not sure why this is, Pal, but I think it might have something to do with the “air in these songs”.

Regardless of the reason, it is troubling because I fear you may not be making it to the sixth track – “Hannah Hunt” – which means you’re missing the best part. It’s a love story and a road story, a story about busting out of the mold that made you to wander cross country in search of meaning. It’s a delicate, cerebral “Born to Run” for a social media generation. I can’t get enough of it.

hannah

The third problem is that Ezra Koenig’s lyrics fill me with jealousy and despair. If I wrote for a thousand hours straight, I still couldn’t craft lines so lovely:

A gardener told me some plants move
But I could not believe it
Till me and Hannah Hunt
Saw crawling vines and weeping willows
As we made our way from Providence to Phoenix

A man of faith said
Hidden eyes could see what I was thinking
I just smiled and told him
That was only true of Hannah
And we glided on through Waverley and Lincoln

That’s it for me, Pal. Here’s to a great 2014 and even better 2015.

Happy New Year.

My Best of 2014 List

binkleyWell Pal, way to make my Man of the Year seem frivolous with your Woman of the Year. I still stand by my pick though, but good job at keeping us a respectable blog organization.

Anywhoooo, ‘tis the season to highlight the highlights of 2014. As I amassed mine, I noticed there is a common theme. No Bob Dylan. I made good on my resolution to branch out this year. The Bob fog lifted. I also noticed that my picks are somewhat dichotomous. Like matter and anti-matter, there seems to be a counterpoint to each one of my favourite things this year. Without further ado, here it is…

Best Live Show I Saw – White Denim

2014a

I did a blog post about this so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, this band rocked us into oblivion with their highly technical brand of precise riff driven mayhem. My ears were ringing for days and days. I recently heard that the specific ring in your ears is the tone that was sacrificed by the ear damage and when that ringing stops you will never hear that tone again. It was totally worth it.

Best Live Show I Haven’t Seen Yet – St. Vincent

2014b

All year long I have heard or read that the best live show going is St. Vincent. She came out with a stellar album and I have been patiently waiting for her to swing her tour our way. She did one small outdoor gig in Toronto but that would not have sufficed. I need the real show. Well, it’s coming but not until the New Year. We have tickets. I am ever so excited.

Best Genre – Electronic

This was the year of discovering great electronic music. Stand outs include:

2014c

Flying Lotus’ “Your Dead” – This album is an inspiration. It has the same feel as early Jazz Fusion albums, but with a hip hop beat (instead of a rock beat). A Tour de Force. To me, Flying Lotus records always sound like what a rainforest would sound like if all the creatures and trees started jamming together. This one is no exception.

2014d

Dawn Golden’s “Still Life” – This was definitely the year of discovering tripped out electro hipster music for me. “Still Life” has been my number one musical selection to provide the perfect atmosphere while I sip my wine and make dinner.

2014e

Sylvan Esso’s “Sylvan Esso” – Just like DG above, SE rose to the top with her more upbeat brand of electro hipster music. Big base, loop machines, and miscellaneous farts and whistles are collected into a very listenable musical abstract.

Best Opposite of Electronic Music – Mac Demarco’s Salad Days.

2014f

This is a late entry to my list. I had to include it. It was the other (more reputable) ‘best of’ lists that tipped me off to this album. It is a beautiful collection of stark but melodic well written music. No instrumentation changes from song to song. It is obvious that this is a guy in his garage, or whatever, making music. It feels like an intimate show in front of an audience of one. He even takes the time to thank you for listening to the album at the end of the last song. To which I always respond, “no Mac, thank you”. The album smacks of early Kinks (especially the first track). Fantastic.

Funniest Podcast and T.V. Show moment – Horse Punching

2014g

Oh my goodness, this is the funniest comedic premise in 2104. Delivered by guests on the IFC show (originally from the podcast) Comedy Bang Bang (CBB). It’s the Calvins brothers, Smith and Jones portrayed by Taran Killam and Paul Brittain from Saturday Night Live. Two old and grizzled southern fight trainers (picture Micky from Rocky if he was from Alabama).  Although instead of boxing with humans, they train horses to stand on their hind legs and box each other to the death. Stop for a few seconds and visualize that. So ridiculous, so horrific, and so funny. Not since CBB coined the expression “flipping through a vagina”, to describe a specific sex act, have I giggled so much. Thanks again Comedy Bang Bang.

Best Least Funny Podcast – Serial.

2014i

Confusing witness testimony, endless discussion of cell phone records, a drunk flasher who discovers the body and rehashed moment after moment of one day where a high school girl was murdered. The 12 episode long podcast that dove deep into the case of a convicted killer who many propose is innocent is riveting, but not at all funny.

Best Movie that I Can’t Get out of My Head – Under the Skin

2014j

This is one of the most F&@$ed up movies I have seen in a long while. It is awesome. I don’t want to give too much away, but, it is basically about this “woman” who habitually preys on men for some reason. An event occurs where she finds humanity and this becomes an issue for her “missions”. It is a surrealistic horror show that is a feast for the eyes in more ways than one.

Best Movie I Forgot I had Seen – Birdman

2014k

Don’t get me wrong, this is a really great movie. However I have spent no time thinking about it. It left no impression on me. I’m not too sure why. Maybe it’s the subject matter. I do find these fourth wall removing movies to be a bit narcissistic and unrelatable. It is expertly acted and amazingly filmed. Definitely worth seeing, but you might not remember that you did.

Best Thing I Thought I Would Like but Actually Didn’t – Interstellar

2014l

I was sure that I would like this movie but I actually didn’t. There are a few reasons for this. (1) The characters were not compelling at all. In fact I found them quite irritating. (2) The scientific concepts behind the movie are cool. I love to think about time and space and general relativity. Not that I understand it at all. I am only capable to expound on the bullet points and that is what this movie seemed to do. The scientists in this movie talked like I might about relativity. That doesn’t work. I want my scientist to talk like a scientist. As a result, the scientific facts seemed forced and unnatural. As lazy and incomplete as they were, it took me right out of the personal relationships that were being developed throughout the movie. (3) Finally, the main premise of the movie (which I won’t give away here) seemed thrown in without a proper build up. Almost as if we the viewers are just expected to pick up what was being put down without explaining what it was or why we should want it.

Best Thing I Didn’t Know I Loved – Weezer

2014m

Weezer’s new album “Everything will be Alright in the End” was a revelation for me. I f$&@ing love it. Everything about that album screams good time. Weezer was a band that wasn’t on my radar. I knew the hits and liked their first album when I was in University, but that was it. It inspired me to go into their back catalog. Sure there are some duds, but there are also so many gems. They are just a tonne of fun. I also congratulate Weezer for having the best album cover of 2014. With pride, I shout to the rafters I LOVE WEEZER.

Well, that’s it Pal. What is your list?

 

Tribute to a Boy and to Boyhood

“You don’t want the bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” Ethan Hawke, in Boyhood
“It’s like it’s always right now.” Hawke’s son, in Boyhood

miloHey Pal:

This summer, on the third day of overnight camp, my 8-year-old son broke his arm. It was a supracondylar fracture, which means that his upper arm bone, right above the elbow, was in two pieces. If you’re going to break a bone you can’t break it much better than that.

It happened while he was running to breakfast. He tripped over a rock, put out his arms to cushion the fall, and boom…next thing he knows he’s on a 15-hour saga involving two hospitals, four hours in the car, endless waiting, and surgery during which he was put under and woke up with a hefty plaster cast from shoulder to wrist and two pins in his elbow holding him together.

All this happened because that’s just the kind of kid he is. If there’s a rock to trip over, he will find it. If there is an OK way to fall and a not-OK way to fall, he will fall the not-Ok way. I don’t know this for sure, and I won’t ask him, but I suspect he was running, struggling, to keep up with his cabin-mates. He isn’t the fastest kid in the woods.

That’s just the kind of kid he is. He’s not very coordinated – I think he has spilled as many glasses of milk as he has finished. And he’s not much of an athlete – he is far more at home on YouTube than on the soccer field.

He is also the kind of kid who, while waiting for surgery in the hospital, charmed the socks off of every doctor and nurse he met; who sat in Emergency for eight hours waiting to see an orthopedic surgeon without ever complaining because he didn’t want to be annoying to the people around him.

He can sit in front of a room full of strangers and play the guitar or tell a story without a hint of shyness or self-consciousness. He knows how you’re feeling before you do, and when he snuggles into you it feels like he’s a part of you – he’s a perfect fit every time.

That’s just the kind of kid he is.

So why then do I spend so much time trying to “fix” him? Why do I focus on the poor performance on the soccer field? The clumsiness? The lowest marks on the report card? Why do I want to make him smarter, faster, stronger? I have sometimes said, and others have too, that my son is too sweet and gentle for this world. That he’s going to get his heart broken. That we need to toughen him up.

Or maybe we should just back off and leave him be.

The night before my son broke his arm at camp, my wife and I had a date night – because that’s what mommies and daddies do when the kids are away – and we saw Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood.

Boyhood-movie-poster-MAIN1

Boyhood tells the story of a boy as he grows from age 6 to 18. The lad is played by Ellar Coltrane. His parents are played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. His sister, who forever outshines him, is played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater.

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Ethan, Ellar, Lorelei, Richard and Patricia

It was filmed over 12 years. Every year, the cast and crew would come together for a week and film the latest chapter of the story.

The effect is mesmerizing. You watch the characters age before your eyes, you watch the kids grow up. It’s so raw and real it feels like a documentary. It’s deceptively simple. It’s first and foremost the story of a boy growing up but it’s also a story about parenthood, America and what it means to be alive at this time in history. Like many other Linklater films, Boyhood makes ordinary life seem epic.

And for me, it was like watching the past, present and future unfold before my eyes. The boy in the film, whom we first see lying in the grass watching the clouds, is not unlike my son. He is sweet and gentle, an observer who tends to be on the receiving end of things. Life is something that happens to him. And he goes with the flow, to the increasing agitation of most of the grown-ups in his life who want to see him achieve his potential.

He also has a unique view of things and some amazing talents. In high school, when his photography teacher orders him to shoot the football game, he takes pictures of the stands and the sidelines because, for him, that’s where the real action is. And he’s right.

Boyhood’s boy and my boy are not carbon copies by any means, and I have no idea what my son will do with his future, but I couldn’t help but watch that evolving lad on screen and think that a similar story arc is, at the very least, a possibility for my son.

Which is perhaps why I couldn’t take my eyes off the father, played to perfection by Ethan Hawke. He’s a flawed father, barely around and often fumbling when he is, but I think he may be the wisest character in the film. The most potent lessons the kids get are from him.

He teaches them to be stubborn and loud about your beliefs, even if that means posting Obama election signs in a Texas neighbourhood where gun-toting neighbours wave the confederate flag. He teaches them that the only conversations worth having start with a willingness to pour your heart and guts onto the table and see what happens. And he teaches them that rules should be regarded as guidelines, to be broken when they serve no positive purpose. Hell, he even teaches them how to listen to Beatles solo records in a way that won’t lead to disappointment.

He’s also the grown-up in the film who makes the least effort to steer the boy’s course. This may be because he can barely steer his own course, or it may be because he trusts that the boy will work it out in his own time. Either way, the dynamic results in some of the most compelling and revealing interactions in the film.

boy and dad  dad and boy

The day after my son broke his arm and we were all back home from the hospital, a sad, unspoken truth hung heavy in the air: that he would not be returning to camp this year, that the session was over for him. He didn’t say a word about it, probably because he didn’t want to burden us with his sadness, but you could sense what he was feeling.

What he did say to me, out of the blue, was this: “You know what should be on the news? Our camp singing Oh Canada. It’s really beautiful.”

He’d given it some thought, and that’s how he chose to tell me he missed camp.

Because that’s just the kind of kid he is.

I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him as hard as I could, which wasn’t nearly as hard as I wanted to. I had to watch out for that broken arm.