Friday, 23 December 2016

Don't Forget the Popcorn

When the forecast for this Winter said that it was going to be a terrible one I fully believed them. I prepared with extra socks, a stash of good food, and a packed movie list to get me through the dark Winter nights, but we seem to be having a bit of a warm flash just in time for the holidays. I for one (and I know I’m the only one) am cheering for the lack of snow and almost-green vibe we have going on, but I give it about a week before we get back to the norms of -30°C (-40°C with windchill). Not that the cold would really stop me anyways - that’s what heavy duty boots and gloves are for, not to mention my adorable new earmuffs! But if you can’t handle the cold, now is a good time to make a mug (or three) of hot cider, pop some popcorn (none of that chemicalized microwave stuff, please), and cue up a good movie!

As much as I was the exact opposite of Minnie when I was a teenager, the seminal theme of this film resonated so powerfully that I couldn’t help but put it on the top 5 list. Teenage girls are such a unique mystery that it’s almost as if they are united in their mutual strangeness into this ethereal being of continual contradictions. While watching this film I was amused, horrified, uncomfortable, and at the finale greatly warmed and inspired. To be a teenage girl is an incredibly powerful time in any woman’s life, and the depiction of Minnie’s life strikes an intimate chord that is sure to be heard by women throughout the world. Even while I am far out of my teenage years (contrary to what some people seem to assume lately) this movie is one that reaffirmed the belief that I had when I was growing up and which got me through the trying teenage years - do what you must to be true to the person who you are, and you will become the person who you are meant to be. I was one of the lucky ones who go out of it alive without losing who I was, and I just hope that this film is discovered by the young women of the future who maybe don’t have those same support systems or self-belief. We all deserve to be free and to revel in ourselves, for we are the strangest of creatures.

High-Rise (2015)

Of all of the films that I saw this year, High-Rise wins the award for being the strangest and most literary (while still being enjoyable), even though it promotes itself as nothing more than a simple drama of a pocket society. I still don’t fully understand all of the references and inferences that play out through the story, but I kind of can’t wait to watch it again. And then read the novel, obviously, because to do so would likely mean missing some of the finer points.

It’s a good thing that I don’t really take anyone else’s reviews into consideration when I decide whether to watch a movie or not, or I would have written this film off entirely - and I honestly think that would have been terrible, since I immensely enjoyed watching it! So what that it’s not completely consistent with the graphic novels (I’m not reading those anyways), so what that it’s got a lot of characters (some of whom could have been removed for simplicity’s sake), so what if the main protagonist is a rather psychotic woman (come on, we all know Harley Quinn stole the show)? DC broke new ground with their alternative take on superheroes and opened up a whole new universe that is strikingly separate from the established Batman/Superman franchise, and is much-needed with the over-saturation of the spandex-rife genre. And did I mention that the cinematic effects were a whole other ball game? They jump styles throughout the film, but they do so with a surprising amount of expertise that seems to parallel the varying types of characters in the Squad, and which I thoroughly enjoyed seeing in 3D! So haters gon’ hate, but I couldn’t give a fuck - I loved this movie!

Macbeth (2015)

The Scottish Play will always have a special place in my heart as the story that introduced me to the genius of Shakespeare in high school, but this film is the first time that a movie or enactment has matched my ideal vision of the play in action. To me, Macbeth was always driven by a dual motivation; not only was he greatly affected by his own and Lady Macbeth’s political greed, but the role of the witches (whether he sees them in reality or they are a manifestation of madness is up for debate) is often downplayed. The director obviously gives Lady Macbeth a leading role - I found Marion Cottliard’s character to be incredibly frightening even in the face of her own weakness and failure - but the adaptation is so straightforward that it begs watchers to read into it what they will. This simplicity and purity adds up to an incredibly powerful adaptation, one in which the characters are allowed to play out their story on the harsh landscape that is medieval Scotland. Even if Shakespeare is not your normal penchant, this might be the one film which can catch the attention of the unwilling - the final fight scene between Macbeth and Macduff against a sunset is beautifully graphic, even as it treads the space between dream and reality. 

I will admit that when I first read the book The Little Prince, I was not a fan. I still find the story rather incomprehensible except as a source of surrealism, but that didn’t stop me from being completely excited when they announced this film was being made a few years ago. The initial appeal was the unique animation style rather than the story, but I have to say that both far exceeded my expectations. And thankfully the wait for it’s completion and release (which was incredibly annoying in its continual delays due to funding issues) didn’t make me forget to watch it in the first place! It’s been so long since I watched the film (it was the earliest addition to the list) I can’t recall a lot of the minute details, but with a film like this what matters most is the glowing feeling of watching a story that is truly magical. I really can’t wait to watch it again, and relive every moment, because this definitely feels like one of those films that’s destined to be a lifelong favourite and to get better with every re-watch. 

images from here, here, here, here, and Tumblr

Sunday, 18 December 2016

The Winter Warming

I might be spending all of December eschewing my reading list (it’s seriously out of control at this point) and delving back into books I’ve loved in the past, but only because I needed a mental break from all the new and wonderful books that came into my life this year. And let me tell you, it was a damned good year for reading, even if my travels and social life meant that I didn’t hit the same page count as previous years!

The Night Manager - John le Carré

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you, it’s a double win for John le Carré’s The Night Manager (in different formats of course)! After finishing off the amazing mini-series I headed right out to the bookshop to hunt for a copy of the novel. Low and behold, my shopping karma offered me up a first edition hardcover in near mint condition from my favourite local secondhand shop - SCORE (and cue rampant jealousy from my book-loving friends)! Now the novel may not have Tom Hiddleston to feast your eyes on, but thus far this is the most intimately Le Carré has ever gotten into any of his characters - even above the ever-popular George Smiley. The tv series delves well into all of the characters (as I discussed last week), but the novel’s focus is set squarely on our unlikely hero Jonathan Pine and his drive to take down Richard Onslow Roper is clearly driven by a simmering anger that most didn’t quite pick up on in the tv series. Anger at the death of a woman he briefly loved, at the ineffectiveness of the British intelligence apparatus, at the blindness of people, at the unfairness of the world - all culminating into a brilliant deep-cover mission that reads as an ode to “going forward because there's nothing behind and running because if you stand still any longer you'll fall over.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Charles Vess & William Shakespeare

I hit the highest point ever of book karma this year when I finally cracked open Charles Vess’ illustrated version of my favourite Shakespeare play. Not only was I treated to one of my favourite stories combined with the most perfect artwork I can imagine for it, but I had previously missed the inscription penned on the inside cover. It is addressed to [a different] Jaimie with “best wishes,” 1989. Seriously, what kind of past life synergy would make a personalized inscription to a person who spells their name the same way that I do in the year after I was born occur? This is officially my proof that magic exists in the real world - if only you open the pages of a book!

Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, volume 1: Birds, Bees, Blood, & Beer - Ben Templesmith

If creepy, supernatural, beautifully illustrated, blood-soaked, oddly endearing graphic novels are your jam (like they are mine), this is one series not to miss. I picked the first volume up for a song from a library book sale a while back, and finally got around to reading it this year and boy was I glad I decided to take a chance on it. It has hints of everything that I love about the urban fantasy genre (throwing unexpected characters together, treading on modernist themes in a dark faerie tale environment, and plenty of adventure) and takes full advantage of the graphic novel medium to depict the stunningly strange story of one of the oddest protagonists I’ve ever encountered - a supernaturally endowed worm with varying powers, aptly named Wormwood as he is as intoxicating as he is soaked in dry wit. It’s really just too bad that the series had to end so quickly, since, in my opinion, this is one of the few expressions of Templesmith’s art  in which he is truly free to roam the depths of his dark imagination. 

The Lies of Locke Lamora (The Gentleman Bastards #1) - Scott Lynch

Lately it’s been very rare that I pick up a 400+ page book and read it cover to cover in basically one sitting, but once I started reading this book there was really no other alternative. I read it while puppy-sitting the infamous Oscar & Felix (aka the Odd Couple), and literally every minute of that long weekend that I wasn’t playing with them or traipsing around their park my eyes were glued to the adventures of Locke Lamora & the Gentleman Bastards - the most notorious crew of thieves and con-men that the port city of Camorr has ever seen. Lynch’s story reads like a one-off crime caper, but as the series progresses (I also read the rest of the books in preparation for the release of the fourth book this Autumn, which didn’t happen…) the quarrels that Locke & co. pick in this first act start to come full circle and are hopefully building into a fantastic fourth book. The key that makes Lynch’s story so successful, in my opinion, is that he builds his characters and the world that they play in to a very specific point - just enough information to keep the story going but with endless opportunity to build more, which he later takes full advantage of to create well-rounded stories and characters which go far beyond what on the surface seems like a simple caper. Now if only Lynch would hurry up and get the next book published!!!

Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone (illustrated edition) - Jim Kay & J.K. Rowling

I know, including what is technically a re-read novel on the best-of list is cheating a bit, but how could I resist gushing about the beautifully illustrated edition of Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone that came out last Autumn? Harry Potter was and is such a big deal for my generation that this illustrated version could have been judged very poorly if they hadn’t done a good job, but thankfully Rowling has exceptional taste and this is definitely the beginning of a wonderful collaboration with artist Jim Kay!

**images from Goodreads

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Weekend Plans

This has been a bit of an odd year for TV for me. I’ve found myself extremely frustrated with a lot of the so-called popular shows and completely fed up with others that I’ve watched for years (and overall feeling like I was wasting time watching shows that I didn’t actually like very much), which led to the biggest purge of my schedule ever. A purge so big that I cut long-time favs The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural (seriously, why are they still on the air when they aren’t doing anything new), popular pick Orange is the New Black (what’s the point of this show again?), all reality shows except America’s Next Top Model (which may not make it through the re-vamped season unless they up their game), and judged harshly a few so-called “classics of modern tv” (cough Breaking Bad and The Fall). And yet, there were some absolutely phenomenal new premieres this year and I discovered (and re-discovered) some absolute gems, so I’m not writing television off just yet!

I can’t believe that I missed out on this show from the get go, but discovering it 3 years on left me with plenty to binge watch over a few long weekends - which was absolutely awesome. I don’t think that I’ve laughed so hard at the ridiculous antics of a show’s characters since Parks & Recreation wrapped up last year, which is really the appeal behind this show. As the title suggests the main characters are literally the worst, and yet, somehow, they’re absolutely endearing for their foibles, negative behavior, and absolute lack of self-knowledge - all topics which most of our generation can relate to. Maybe a little too much in a few cases! We’re three seasons in and our characters are still stumbling around trying to figure things out, even after a lot of personal growth has happened, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens to them next! Though seriously, Sunday Funday is so over...

I may not be a fan of John Le Carre’s brand of espionage on screen normally (I loved the novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but couldn’t keep track of the look-alike cast in the recent film), but this latest adaptation was absolutely splendid. Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie lead an all-star cast (they had me at Hiddleston, haha) in a spy caper that spans the globe from a hotel in Egypt to a private island and culminates in the warfields of the Middle East, and while the premise of the story is pretty simple it’s really the characters who drive it. Obviously a deeper understanding of the story will be gained from reading the novel (there’s only so much one can visually portray in some cases), but I think that the director and writers did a spectacular job in translating the conflicted character of Jonathan Pine, who goes under deep cover in order to bring down one of the world’s most notorious gun-runners, Laurie’s enigmatic Richard Onslow Roper. The characters are full of surprises, and are at no point simple or one-dimensional - the subtle deceit, rampant bitterness, and the surprising care that they all show at various points makes for one helluva narrative that just begs to be watched in a single sitting (and over and over again). 

I feel a bit bad about including a second series that’s on the surface about espionage, but London Spy is a lot less about spies than a commentary on social constructs. It’s not really a series that I can describe adequately, since it is just so strange in its narrative turns and characterization, but it filled a niche in the tv market that is severely lacking in my eyes. Unlike the Night Manager, which does a lot of traveling and involves a large interaction of characters, London Spy plays things much closer to the chest. It could have easily sprawled into a systematic wounding of the British espionage machinery, but the story circles consistently around Ben Wishaw’s Daniel Holt who seemingly stumbles into a much more complicated world than he ever wanted to be involved with. The finale of the series left me with more questions than answers, but whether they’ll produce a second series is still up in the air - I seriously hope they do (if only so that Holt can get some actual closure), but if they don’t I’ll have to live satisfied that this little gem was produced in all its strange glory in the first place. 

This was definitely the perfect year to get back into South Park. Lots of people I know were glued to the various political satire/comedy shows that seemed to dominate the airwaves this year, but for me South Park was on a whole other level. They can push the envelope on SNL and John Oliver, but South Park’s standing as a show that literally gives no fucks has always been one to ignore the boundaries completely. Maybe they get away with it more because they’re operating on a truly fictional (animated) plane, but I don’t think that’s entirely the case. There were plenty of Donald Trump impersonators, but making the ever-random Mr. Garrison the face of political insanity was pure genius - he is clearly a representation of his real-world counterpart, but he stays true to the Garrison way of reacting before fully understanding the situation and then learning to live with it. What’s next for the newly elected president? Who knows - but more importantly will the newly-reformed Cartman manage to keep his internet history from Heidi? And what of the dastardly member-berries?!

Marvel may not be my favourite among comic book publishers, but they are definitely exceeding expectations with their cinematic universe. Jessica Jones is probably the most off-kilter (and grittiest) that they’ve delved into, thus far, but I fully applaud their choice because it brought audiences a much-needed reprieve from spandex clad superheros. The titular protagonist is has a penchant for leather jackets and sarcasm instead, putting her squarely in same camp as classic anti-heroes like Marvel’s Logan/Wolverine and rival publisher DC/Vertigo’s John Constantine & Lucifer who hate having to be the hero but do it anyways (all while screwing up continually). Considering what has happened previously with TV adaptations of my favourite type of character, I was not expecting much from Jessica Jones & co, but was instantly hooked by the realism of the story. The only truly supernatural part of this story are the powers that some of the characters have, but the situations that they’re in are straight out of the worst parts of human existence. Kilgrave’s abilities have startling similarities to the systematic emotional control and abuse that are unfortunately rampant in society, so the story plays as an extended metaphor and commentary. Bravo Marvel on a unique start - I just hope they don’t ruin it for the second series...

**images from here, here, here, here, and here

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Let the Revolution Begin

For the last few weeks I (like the rest of the world) have been attempting to come to terms with the events that occurred on November 8th south of the border. Putting my disappointment and disbelief into cohesive words hasn’t really been possible (further than shaking my head at the world in incredulation), but I was at a concert the other week and the MC summed it up more perfectly than I ever could. He said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “in the next four years we’re going to see more punk rock music than we’ve ever seen - and personally I can’t wait!” The system might be totally fucked up and the potential for individual lives to become equally as fucked up is even greater (and that’s a scary thing), but out of adversity comes the words of change, songs of protest, and hopefully actions that drive social justice. Oddly enough, this year saw the return of a lot of classic punk acts and some of the best new punk tracks I’ve heard in a long time, so without further ado: here’s my top 5 albums of 2016 (in no particular order, since choosing an actual favourite is just not possible)!

Green Day: Revolution Radio

They had me at the opening riffs of “Bang Bang.” If there was ever a shoe-in for the top 5 list, this triumphant return of classic punk-rockers Green Day is it. Unlike their previous multi-concept-album release in 2012, Revolution Radio returns to their roots, giving us the rock-out-inducing riffs, social commentary-heavy lyricism, and wild antics that we expect from a band that’s going on 30 years of action and expertise in their genre. The first singles and title track are expectedly catchy, but I think that as with the off-single tracks of American Idiot the entire album is packed full of auditory and lyric gems waiting to be discovered. Do I even have to mention how timely the album is, considering American political events? I didn’t think so, but I fully expect Green Day to be riding the same anti-Republican wave back to the top of the punk-arena for the next four years. 

Against Me!: Shape Shift With Me

I’ve never been a huge fan of Against Me! over the years; they have some excellent tracks, but the albums as a whole just didn’t seem to add up. But this one stuck in my head and refused to leave, so it makes the list this year! The opening track’s chords and vocals left me initially sceptical (too repetitive and too potentially screamy-metal sound which isn’t my thing), but by the time I finished listening to the full album I was willing to give it time to grow. And grow on me it did. The looping melody from “Crash” is nothing if not aurally addictive and the lyrics from “Boyfriend” strike a perfect balance between harsh and beautiful (both effecting a surprisingly charm, coming from a harder-leaning punk band). It helps that the driving themes and concept behind the album seemed to reflect the specific atmosphere of the world when I was listening to it (late September and the Halloween season), so it’s not really surprising that it’s becoming a staple in my October Country collection. 

Tegan & Sara: Love You To Death

The latest from Tegan & Sara is a latecomer to the list, but I figured that I should throw some synth-heavy pop onto it just to mix it up. And also because it’s full of strangely beautiful melodies, deeper-than-you-think lyrics, underlaid with a definite must-dance feeling in most of the tracks! You wouldn’t think that duplicating the oddly weird (but absolutely addicting) stylings of Heartthrob would work a second time (it’s been three years, do you think we’d forget), but the girls seem to have settled into a style that works for them and I for one am happy that they’re continuing in this direction. Ironically, I’m not really fond of the first single for the album (“Boyfriend”), but the totally dance-able beats of “Stop Desire” had me hooked. The best track of the album though has to be a tie between “U-Turn” and “Faint of Heart;” catchy beats aside, the world needs more songs that celebrate love in this troubled time. And not just simple love songs (there’s only about a million of those), but these songs embody the complexity that real love is - “It's dangerous to take this path/Everyone will tell us,” but we soldier on because love has the power to change the world. 

Almost Alien: Crash Landing EP

Local bands are normally so far off my radar that they have a chance in hell of getting onto the top 5 list (I’m seriously bad at going to shows, so many bands are flatout terrible, and many of them don’t release actual albums even if they are great…), but I couldn’t not include the debut EP from Almost Alien! Sure, it’s a touch underproduced and only has a handful of tracks, but for a first effort EP it’s actually pretty damned good! Of course, the real catch is their live performances (which I’ve been able to see a handful of times this year - yay), but having an album to listen to in-between live shows means that I can relive their antics in memory. But back to the album: even though I’m quite a few years older than these young dudes (not by a lot, but enough that I feel it some days), the album is really reminiscent of being young and being wild and experiencing the hardships of life for the first time. They cover high school in the wonderfully sarcastic “Frankencharlie,” hit a bittersweet note about love and/or friendship in “I Was Wrong,” and party hard like the punk-rockers they are in the rest of the tracks. I shouldn’t even have to mention how hilarious “Hole in the Wall” is, since it always a crowd-pleaser at their shows and makes for some amusing thematic merchandise - just don’t listen to it at work (haha)! Can’t wait to see what’s next up for these guys - now where’s my signed copy Colton!

When I heard that Catfish & the Bottlemen were releasing a second album a mere year a half after the Balcony (and the time was even shorter for us Canadians who had to wait an extra four months for the Balcony to get to us) I was ecstatic. The fact that I found the album in HMV in Regina on the actual day it was released made me even happier, since I was scheduled to go to the UK a few short weeks later and wasn’t sure I could resist the temptation of buying it there and then having to deal with the annoying UK copyright laws that deny making a digital personal use copy. Skip the internal screaming upon purchasing the album to a few hours later - instant obsession, as fully expected. The singles for the album are great (the opening bassline of “7” is perfection, “Soundcheck” is sonically glorious, etc, etc), but the surprise hit for me was the ballad “Red.” For a song that lilts along and has such a chill mood, it doesn’t really try to hide the underlying anger, frustration, and abject sarcasm of the lyrics. It is absolutely one of those songs that arranged differently would make a killer punk rock anthem, but the dissonance between the lyrics and the melody makes the song even more powerful. It’s punk for logical grown-ups, if you will - the anger and rage is still there, but the delivery is highly controlled. If this is what the band can produce on only their second full-length release, it’s really no wonder that they’re selling out massive stadiums all over the world and are poised to keep doing so. So here’s to The Ride - may it never end!

**album artwork from Wikipedia and Almost Alien's BandCamp page