Category Archives: Features

February 2019 Favourites

I wasn’t sure how much I’d have to say about February, as it’s the shortest month of the year and was a busy one for me personally between projects at work and hanging out with friends. But as I thought it about it, some clear highlights emerged. Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve been watching and listening to this month.

Never Look Away

At the Cinema: Never Look Away

February was a big Oscars catch-up month for me, and one of those films that I caught up was Germany’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Never Look Away. For the uninitiated, this thing is over 3 hours long, so sitting in the theatre for that long felt like an event in itself. And while I wouldn’t exactly say that the 188 minutes flew by, I did really like the film. I’m also glad that I got to experience it in the theatre setting where you can avoid distraction and submerge yourself in what’s happening onscreen.

First Man OSTMusic: film scores

Speaking of Never Look Away, while watching it I really took note of the Max Richter score, which was lovely (even if I didn’t think it was always perfectly congruous with the film itself). This sent me down a wormhole of finding other Max Richter scores, and then compiling a playlist of samples from some of my favourite recent film scores. (If anyone happens to be curious, it can be found here.) All of this also led to the realization that Justin Hurwitz was robbed of an Original Score nomination for First Man. (“The Landing” is a personal fave.)

Podcast: Armchair Expert with Jake Johnson (Feb. 25) and Jason Mantzoukas (Feb. 11)

Armchair ExpertI’ve been dipping in and out of Dax Shepherd’s podcast, Armchair Expert, for a few months now. Generally I find it enjoyable, though (as with most conversational podcasts) I find the mileage varies depending on who the guest is. This month Shepherd had two excellent episodes thanks to guests Johnson and Mantzoukas. Both are actors I like but never knew anything about beyond what we see of them on screen. In the podcast setting, both proved to be thoughtful, funny, and open guests. If nothing else, listen to Jake’s episode for his story about the time he went to a party at Natalie Portman’s house.

Harmony HallSong: “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend

I love Vampire Weekend, and Vampire Weekend is back with a new extremely catchy, upbeat song. It’s perhaps a bit more straightforward (dare I say “basic”?) than a lot of their previous music, but it’s a promising first glimpse from their upcoming album. And I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I first heard it.

James Blake live

Live Music: James Blake at Sony Centre, Toronto (February 27, 2019)

I devoted a lot of time last month to gushing about James Blake’s new album, Assume Form, and that’s continued to be on heavy rotation for me in February. But the real treat was getting to see Blake live in concert. It was my first time seeing him live, and he actually exceeded expectations. His voice sounded amazing (only aided by the Sony Centre’s great acoustics) and he proved to also be a more dynamic performer than I anticipated. As well as performing most of Assume Form, he made my night by including “Love Me in Whatever Way” from his previous album, and “A Case of You” as a nod to Canadian icon Joni Mitchell. All around a fantastic show.

Top 5 first-time watches of February

  1. Never Look Away
  2. Free Solo
  3. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  4. Incredibles 2
  5. Vice

January 2019 Favourites

Maybe it’s the clean slate of a new year, but for me January has been a really good month. And that includes the things I was watching, listening to, and reading. Here’s a look at some of my favourite things from the past month.

James Blake

Album: Assume Form by James Blake

If there’s one thing I’ve been obsessed with this month, it’s the new album by James Blake, which came out on January 18. Even though it’s only been out for a couple weeks, I’ve been playing it constantly. I don’t usually listen to albums over and over again in a short period of time, but there is something so relaxing about this album. Blake has really grown as a songwriter and the most straightforward approach of Assume Form suits him beautifully. There’s no way this doesn’t end up being my favourite album of the year.

Lost City of ZAll things Lost City of Z

I caught a 35mm screening of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z in January, and MAN this thing blew me away. The movie had gotten a fair bit of praise when it came out in theatres last year, but I just couldn’t muster up enough excitement to watch it until now. But it’s exquisite, compelling, beautiful… All the complimentary adjectives. And while I’m usually not super tuned into the subtleties of film vs. digital, it looked amazing on 35mm. I also loved the Christopher Spelman score, and have found myself listening to it quite a bit in the weeks since. And just to cement my status as full-blown fangirl, I also have the Mark Grann audiobook queued up and waiting for me on Scribd.

Bad BloodBook: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

My favourite read of the month was John Carreyrou’s nonfiction book from just last year, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. It tells the story of Theranos, a biotech startup that claimed they found a way to test for a multitude of diseases using just a single drop of blood from the patient. Too bad the technology was bogus and their tests didn’t work. Carreyrou gives a detailed but extremely readable account of everything that went down when Theranos soldiered on and decided to pretend nothing was wrong. It’s a fascinating tale of how ambition and greed can bring out the worst in people, and it’s also just a highly entertaining read. Even if you don’t typically enjoy nonfiction, I think most people would find something to like with this.

The Yards

At the Cinema: The Yards (plus James Gray)

Yes, we’re back to James Gray. Along with The Lost City of Z, I also caught a 35mm screening of The Yards (which I’d also never seen), including a post-film Q&A with Gray himself. Gray proved to be an incisive, hilarious, and sassy guest. (He also accompanies every one of his anecdotes with an impression of the person he’s talking about.) It was definitely a treat. Previously, the only Gray films I’d seen were Two Lovers and The Immigrant, which both got a bit of a shrug from me, but I guess I now have to consider myself a convert. Patiently awaiting Ad Astra.

The Sixth SenseAt the Cinema: The Sixth Sense

This was a rewatch for me, but my first time seeing it on the big screen and only my second viewing. It of course plays completely differently on rewatch, but is a blast in its own right as you notice all the things you missed the first time around. Also fun was the fact that someone in the group I went with had never seen the film before, and miraculously made it to 2019 without having the twist spoiled.

Top 5 first-time watches of January

  1. The Lost City of Z (2017)
  2. Our Little Sister (2016)
  3. The Yards (2000)
  4. Stagecoach (1939)
  5. Beau Travail (1999)

Ranked: Best Animated Short Oscar Shortlist

Last year I discovered the wonderful world of Oscar shorts when, for the first time, I checked out the full lineup of nominated documentary and animated shorts. This year, I took things a step further and have now watched all ten animated shorts that made Oscar’s recently-announced shortlist.

Watching all ten shorts in a concentrated period illuminated some common themes (which will probably become clear) but also how much animation can vary. From the glossiest, most vibrant Pixar productions to some frankly, well, weird low-fi experiments, animation can encompass a lot.

Now, after just espousing how there’s room for everything in animation, I’m going to pit these vastly different shorts against each other. It’s worth noting that I enjoyed all 10 shorts (and they’re all better than last year’s WINNER in this category, the Kobe Bryant-produced Dear Basketball). But because this is how my brain works, below is how I rank them in terms of my own enjoyment. (Predictions for what I think will actually get nominated come at the end of the post.)

At the time of publishing, all 10 shorts are currently available online through YouTube or Vimeo. Click each film title to watch.

bilby

10. Bilby

Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between an Australian bilby and a tiny (adorable) bird, Bilby feels like Dreamworks’ answer to the antic-filled shorts that used to be a staple of the Pixar canon. It’s very cute and features a stand-out montage (the two friends narrowly avoiding the various threats that nature poses), but ultimately feels a bit too light to be truly memorable.

age of sail

9. Age of Sail

Age of Sail is one of the few Animated Short contenders with some star power behind it, since it stars Ian McShane as a grizzled sailor whose search for solitude at sea is interrupted when he has to rescue a girl who has fallen overboard from a nearby passenger ship. It’s directed by John Kahrs, who is a previous winner in this category for 2012’s Paperman.  But while the illustration-style animation is used to great effect during a bravura shipwreck sequence, the film’s character-based storytelling it too simplistic to fully carry it for its 12-minute run.

bird karma

8. Bird Karma

At just 4:45 minutes long, Bird Karma is the shortest of the bunch by a fairly wide margin. And the brief runtime suits the simplicity of this morality tale about a greedy bird. The traditional animation style is used to colourful and creative effect, though it doesn’t necessarily push the limits of the medium.

one small step

7. One Small Step

This is the first of several shorts on the list that seem to take inspiration from the emotional tug of the opening of Up. It tells the years-long tale of a serious-minded girl who pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut, sometimes to the detriment to her family relationships. Animated by TAIKO Studios, One Small Step has an extremely vibrant, warm style. The story is a bit predictable, but that doesn’t lessen its emotional impact.

Late Afternoon

6. Late Afternoon

Another tearjerker, Late Afternoon follows Emily, an elderly woman whose memory is becoming increasingly fragmented as a result of Alzheimer’s. With vibrant, almost child-like animation, it does a great job of portraying the disjointed, impressionistic format Emily’s memories have assumed. It’s not subtle with the sentimentality of its storytelling, but it’s effective nonetheless.

animal behaviour

5. Animal Behaviour

Coming from the veteran animation team of Alison Snowden and David Fine (winners in this category for 1994’s Bob’s Birthday), this comedic short portrays what might happen if a variety of animal species came together for group therapy. It takes a more traditional storytelling approach than some of the other shortlist picks, relying on spirited vocal performances and sharp writing. The result is an engaging and funny romp that comes across as quite unique among the nominees.

lost and found

4. Lost & Found

Maybe the most adorable AND the saddest of a pretty uniformly adorable and sad bunch of films, I really loved the knitted stop-motion animation used in Lost & Found. (Apparently this is its own subgenre, which is news to me.) It’s part romance and part thriller, showing a daring rescue mission involving a fox and a dinosaur. It certainly pulls on the heartstrings (heart-yarn?) and the stop-motion animation is done with jaw-dropping precision. It’s a testament to the strength of these shorts that this only made it to #4 on my list.

bao

3. Bao

Likely the frontrunner to win this category, Bao would be a worthy champ. Domee Shi has crafted a layered look at maternal love wrapped in a rich animation style that shows Pixar is continuing to innovate. Heartfelt and more complicated than it originally appears.

weekends

2. Weekends

The top two films on the list landed where they are because, to me, they represent an extra little step of creativity and innovation. Weekends feels like a tone poem. It follows a young child of divorce as he splits his time between a neurotic mother living in the country and his “cool” dad who lives in downtown Toronto. Clocking in at 15:17, it’s the longest of the bunch and earns each second with its artistry and subtle emotion. Quietly beautiful, sad, and strange all at once, Weekends is perhaps the most significant artistic achievement of the bunch.

grandpa walrus

1. Grandpa Walrus

Taking the top spot for me by just a hair is Grandpa Walrus, from French animator Lucrece Andreae. It follows a family mourning the recent death of their family’s eccentric patriarch. Their visit to a favourite seaside spot of brings out a lot of simmering emotions, to say the least. With macabre touches and a unique hand-drawn animation style, Andeae has crafted something that feels deeply personal yet universal in its themes of family tensions and loss. It’s off-beat enough that it’ll probably be an underdog in this category, but it really worked for me.

Predictions

So which five from the shortlist will ultimately get nominated for an Oscar? If I had to guess, I’d put my money on Bao, Late Afternoon, Weekends, Lost & Found, and One Small Step.

Nominations are announced January 22.

Favourites: October 2017

Phantom Thread

My favourite things this month include the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Phantom Thread, and also this picture of PTA with a dog.

While this is purportedly a film blog, lately I’ve been thinking about branching out and using this as a space to write about other things, too. As I’ve not been posting regularly for quite a long time now, I figure that writing SOMETHING (even if it’s not film-related) is better than just not writing at all.

So, I’ve decided to start this “re-brand” of sorts with a general “favourites” post. It’s something I’d like to do monthly, but we’ll see how it goes. Basically, I’ll just be sharing some things that I’ve been enjoying during the past month. Casual. Easy peasy.

Movies

The Square

The Square

Well, you didn’t think I was giving up on movies entirely, did you?

I had the pleasure of seeing The Square, which is just now starting to find its way to theatres in North America after winning the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Describing a film that won the Palme as “good” isn’t exactly a hot take, but The Square is REALLY good. It’s certainly more expansive and a little shaggier than Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, but it’s weird in a truly wonderful way.

It’s partly a skewering of the modern art world, but it’s more a look at morality and self-obsession. It tackles big themes in a funny and accessible way, and it features some satire that is so pitch black that I felt physically anxious at times. But, like… in a good way?

(Note: watch the trailer for The Square at your own peril. It’s not really a matter of “spoilers” with this film, but the trailer gives away a ton of key moments that I feel are best left to watch unfold naturally in the context of the whole film. Instead, I’ve above linked a review of the film from The A.V. Club that I quite like.)

Phantom-Thread

Trailer for Phantom Thread

Is it weird to list a trailer as one of my “favourite” things? Too bad. Any time Paul Thomas Anderson makes a new film it’s a big deal, and the trailer for his latest, Phantom Thread is gorgeous and captivating. And Daniel Day-Lewis playing characters in romantic distress is always a good thing.

It’s hard to say until we’ve actually seen the film, but the trailer doesn’t seem to spoiler-y, instead focusing on evoking the tone of the film. And considering almost nothing (not even the title!) was known about PTA’s new film until about a week ago, it’s nice to have something to base our growing anticipation on. Fingers crossed this ends up being a case of the movie living up to its trailer.

Television

MindhunterMindhunter

I’m not good at binge-watching television, so I sometimes feel a bit removed from the “Netflix” culture. It’s not that I’m snobbishly turning my nose up at television. (I love Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights as much as the next person. I’m not a monster.) It’s more that I’m hesitant to invest a lot of time into one thing, so if you want to talk about the latest Netflix Original Series, I’m usually not your gal.

But hearing that Mindhunter combined David Fincher, the ‘70s, psychology, and Jonathan Groff, I was immediately sold. Usually I could take or leave the whole cultural fascination with serial killers, but I do find it interesting thinking about the psychology behind someone who would commit such acts. I’m only four episodes in (like I said, not good at binge-watching), but thus far Mindhunter totally delivers in that respect.

For those who don’t know, the show follows two FBI agents (played by Groff and Holt McAlleny) who take a new approach to criminal science by more carefully considering the psychology of serial killers, as opposed to reductively declaring them “evil”, as was common at the time. To do this, they begin to interview incarcerated serial killers, and I have to say that the actors that play the killers do an incredible (and very scary) job. Despite featuring little gore, the show is disturbing in its own right, but also extremely interesting, well-constructed, and wonderfully shot (particularly the episodes directed by Fincher).

Big Little LiesBig Little Lies

This month I’ve been watching TWO television series, which is rare for me. I’m obviously a little behind the curve on Big Little Lies, so I’m not sure how much I really need to say about it. It’s a bit soapy but compulsively watchable, and watching queens Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley in a one-and-done eight-part series directed entirely by Jean-Marc Vallee is pretty much my dream. More shows like this, please.

FashionScreen Shot 2017-10-28 at 8.24.38 PM
Roots’ Cotton Cabin Sweater Cardigan

Do I care about fashion? Not really. Normally it’s something I don’t care to think much about or spend much money on. But, friends, I have found a sweater that I’m kind of in love with.

For those who don’t live in Canada, Roots is a brand that is so Canadian it hurts. Sometimes it can feel a little gimmicky. But they DO offer fairly high-quality products and seem to make their clothes relatively ethically, so I can’t get too annoyed about it. In any case, this sweater was calling my name when I saw it online, and now that I own it, I can verify that it is indeed very awesome. It’s great for work (if you work somewhere with a casual dress code) since pairing it with some black skinny jeans and flats provides the desired results of be a comfy yet presentable-looking employee. It also works as a coat of sorts for cool-ish fall days. It’s also long and cozy enough to serve as a housecoat around the house (or cabin, I guess, as the pretentious garment name would suggest). Is there anything this sweater CAN’T do?? Well, yes. It’s just a sweater. But it’s a pretty good one.

BR-Podcast-Logo-289x300Podcasts
Book Riot – The Podcast

I’ve recently been looking to refresh my small go-to stable of podcasts, and the main entry in Book Riot’s large (and frankly unwieldy) roster of podcast content has proven to be a nice recent addition. If you’re into bookish things, this podcast provides a timely look at the week’s book-related news. With the recent announcements of the Man Booker Prize and Nobel Prize winners, there’s been plenty to discuss, but the show is equally fascinating when covering less high-profile book news. It examines the publishing world with a critical eye and sheds some light on the “hard numbers” of book publishing without it ever feeling dry.

The Lonely CityBooks
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

For whatever reason, I’ve found myself reading almost exclusively non-fiction books lately. And Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is the kind of non-fiction I love, but is surprisingly difficult to find; it combines a readable, memoir-ish structure with a wealth of information, creating a nice blend where you feel like you’re learning something while also being told a nice story. (Other non-fiction favourites that pull off this tricky balance include Kate Bolick’s Spinster, Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, and Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live.)

In The Lonely City, Laing examines her own growing sense of isolation, despite living in the highly-populated New York City. Yet this book is not a diatribe about how technology is ruining our lives or something along those lines, as I feared it might be. Instead, it’s a deeply felt meditation on alienation, told predominantly through the lens of a small selection of historical artistic outsiders. It’s interesting to learn more about a couple of figures you’ll surely already have some familiarity with (e.g. Andy Warhol), but the portions I found most arresting were those that examined the AIDS crisis, and society’s attempt to actively alienate those who suffered as a result. It’s a topic that I only have a cursory knowledge of, and one that I’m now certainly interested in learning more about.

Where should we draw the line between TV and film?

Olive Kitteridge

Last week, I finally caught up with HBO’s celebrated 2014 mini-series Olive Kitteridge. Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel of the same name and told over an expansive four-hour runtime, it’s broken into four parts that align with its somewhat episodic “chapter” structure.

Few people would contest the fact that Olive Kitteridge is a mini-series. In terms of narrative scope and format, it’s perfectly suited to hour-long segments. Yet in the opening credits, it’s labelled as “a film by Lisa Cholodenko”. And that feels valid too. Olive Kitteridge has a cinematic feel to it and Cholodenko, whose past films include The Kids Are All Right and Laurel Canyon, clearly brought a Hollywood pedigree to the project.

So with all of that in mind, I began to wonder, where exactly is the line between television and film?

One simplistic and perhaps obvious answer is, “it doesn’t really matter.” Great art is great art regardless of how or where you consume it. And whether something is distributed as a theatrical film or a television mini-series could very well come down to practical decisions related to its potential marketability on a given platform. When you look at it that way, the division doesn’t feel all that artistically significant.

But still, labelling something as “film” or “television” brings certain consequences. In this supposed golden age of television, the line between the two formats is blurring, but many viewers and critics still hold onto the idea that television is “lesser” than cinema. Calling something a “made for TV movie” still has a somewhat withering connotation, even in an age where it’s not uncommon for A-list Oscar winners like Al Pacino or William Hurt to star in said movies.

Even big-name talent might not get the same respect for their work on TV. Frances McDormand won an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for her work in Olive Kitteridge, and in my opinion quite deservedly so. We’ll never know if she would have won her second Best Actress Oscar had Olive Kitteridge been eligible for that award (her first being in 1997 for Fargo), but if you were going to introduce McDormand by her credentials, it seems a lot more likely you’d say “Academy Award winner Frances McDormand” rather than “Emmy Award winner Frances McDormand”.

It’s not all bad news for television, though, since the format obviously also affords some artistic freedom that film doesn’t. By having the luxury of taking four hours to track 25 years in its protagonist’s life, Olive Kitteridge obviously has the room to fully develop its characters. Who’s to say that it would have been so effective pared down to a standard “movie” runtime of half the length?

And it’s not as though television is so ghettoized nowadays. Series like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones are arguably bigger cultural phenomenons than almost any recent movie to hit theatres. If the quality is there people will catch on, and with online platforms enabling viewers to “binge watch” hours of content at a time, it seems the tides are turning in favour of longer-format series that fans can get invested in and discuss for longer than a “one and done” standalone movie.

One film that really worked to blur those lines was O.J.: Made in America (which I reviewed here), Ezra Eddelman’s nearly eight-hour documentary about the notorious O.J. Simpson. Documentaries have always lent themselves nicely to episodic, multi-hour miniseries, whether it be Ken Burns’ lengthy PBS examinations of American history or the Netflix sensation Making a Murder. And O.J. did break into five logical and vaguely self-contained parts to air on television or streaming. But those involved with O.J. stayed adamant that it was in fact a feature film, riding that classification all the way to a (well-deserved) Oscar win for Best Documentary. Some quibbled with the idea of O.J. being a movie, but considering it initially screened at film festivals like Sundance and Hot Docs as a single 463-minute unit, it seems illogical to argue that it’s not.

With that example in mind, perhaps the best way to classify whether something is film or television comes down to intent. If the filmmakers envision their work as an eight-hour film, then so be it. There are certainly examples of arthouse and experimental films that run nearly as long or longer, but they’d also never be broken into smaller, more easily digestible segments simply because they lack marketability, regardless of how you dice them up. If we accept those works as “films” at face value, why do we try to “punish” something like O.J. by claiming it’s not a film, simply because a studio or distributor took the opportunity to get the film out to a wider audience by choosing an alternative format for their film?

Since we’re talking about intent, let’s close with some thoughts from one of the filmmakers in question. When asked about Olive Kitteridge’s format, Cholodenko had this to say:

When I saw it back for the first time on a screen, it’s got this really lovely title sequence and says ‘A Film by Lisa Cholodenko’ — and I watched it and I thought, wow does it feel like that? Is that going to be strange?

And then at the end I really felt like, gosh, that really is a film, it was really such a great opportunity to make this four hour film, you know? It does have these chapters but for me it feels very coherent. It’s all in the piece and it hangs together and it is like a film. We shot it like a film, I approached it like a film, I think visually it feels like a film and narratively I thought of it as a film with the whole arc: Where does she go, where does she start, does it have a midpoint? All these things weave together — even though they’re episodes — into a bigger picture.”