Sometimes random thoughts on life and entertainment swirl together in my little brain and try to collide into one cohesive idea.
Monday, December 31, 2007
My Pop Culture Obsessions of 2007
Hints on some of what might be on those lists are below.
Have a happy, healthy 2008
Saturday, December 29, 2007
What's the question again?
Will: You like that stat.
Josh: I do.
Josh: Because 9% think it's too high and shouldn't be cut. 9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for "I have utterly no idea what you're talking about. Please, God, don't ask for my input."
Rick Mercer's Talking to Americans segments and specials, where he gets unsuspecting Americans to congratulate Canadians on moving to the 24 hour clock, for example, prey on the human tendency to not want to look stupid, to play along with and even try to impress the surveyor.
Before Christmas, I fielded a call from Ipsos Reid, the pollsters, and felt a little like Josh's hypothetical citizen: "Please, God, don't ask for my input." But they caught me in a good mood – a mood where I accidentally answered the phone without checking call display – plus I've previously relied on Ipsos Reid data for my jobs and figured it was payback time.
The survey centered around the RCMP and the Mulroney/Schreiber situation (non-Canadians, just insert "blah blah blah" here – it's not important to my little anecdote). Rate my confidence in the RCMP on a scale from 1 to 5? Are we talking those who discourage officers in remote outposts to bring backup, with tragic results? The Taser-happy officers? Or the bulk of the force? Do I think a public inquiry should be held into the Karlheinz Schreiber affair? Yes. Do I think he's brought forward these allegations only to stay in the country? Yes. There's no room to explain to the indifferent surveyor how those two opinions aren't really contradictory, but I wonder what use the data will be without an explanation, without knowing how little I actually care about Karlheinz Schreiber.
There's the real truth of most public surveys. Most people don't care about most things, but most of us have an opinion when pressed.
And that brings us back to TV, of course. The Writers Guild and the producers they're on strike against, the AMPTP, have both hired high-powered PR firms as the strike enters its "never gonna end" phase. The WGA touts the fact that surveys show the public supports their side, such as a recent Gallup poll shows 60% support. The AMPTP counters that with a survey that shows almost 2/3 don't have a side in the strike and that 74% of respondents haven't changed their viewing habits because of the strike (but ... we've only just started seeing the effects on our screens).
In my circle of acquaintances, other than those who write for TV, no one cares about the strike. They care when their favourite shows will return, but they barely care what the strike's about, never mind who should get what. This will make some people shudder, but a few friends have asked me to explain (hey, when I worked at the cancer society they'd come to me with questions about their loved one's diagnosis – at least with writers strike questions I can answer the basics). When they understand the residuals issue, they think the writers should get what they want. I steer clear of the rest of the issues because they are less easily digestible. I'm still chewing on them.
But they don't really care. And they shouldn't have to. The strike won't be resolved based on public opinion anyway, but with nuclear weapons in unstable Pakistan and genocide in Darfur and homeless people in downtown Vancouver, not to mention job-related difficulties in every family and circle of friends, demanding that a member of the public care whether American TV writers have secure futures is a bit much.
Though it was apparently deplorable for Ellen DeGeneres and Carson Daly to return to work without their writers, now that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno are joining them this is apparently a great opportunity to have them speak out against their corporate overlords on air, and bring the writers' position to the public. David Letterman and Craig Ferguson are also returning, but with a WGA agreement and with their writers.
I love Dave for old times' sake, and love Stewart and Colbert when I catch them in daytime reruns, though I'm not much for late night TV anymore. I'll watch the first couple of episodes to see what format the Daily Show and Colbert Report use without writers, and what Dave makes of his advantage. But they're going to have to walk a fine line. Hammer too much on the writers strike, they'll not only piss off their bosses, they'll bore their audience. Don't hammer on it enough, and they'll be temporary pariahs in a community that, to judge by Deadline Hollywood Daily comments, sees the world in black and white, supporter of everything the WGA says and does or paid AMPTP shill.
Here's hoping the returning late night hosts can make strike jokes about such a head-up-our-own-asses subject entertaining, without having their audience echo Josh Lyman's "I have utterly no idea what you're talking about" sentiment. I have faith, but that's based on the feeling they won't be the strident on-air advocates some WGA members are hoping for.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen succeeds in trapping the willing tourist
I'd read the travel brochures: It's the kinder, gentler Cancun. A beachside paradise without the resort infestation, a haven for those seeking a more tranquil experience by the turquoise waters of Mexico's Caribbean coast.
I'm not convinced. Playa del Carmen is still a tourist trap disguised as a town, though for the tourist who wants to be trapped into tequila-drenched dancing by the beach, lazing on white sands, and access to snorkling, diving and Mayan ruins, Playa is perfect.
The first sign that this former fishing village is no untouched Shangri-la is the Avenida Quinta pedestrian corridor, where most of the souvenir stores, restaurants, dive shops, and tour agencies are located and where vendors cajole passers-by to purchase their overpriced wares.
Even at night, this is where the action is, along with the string of bars along the beach.
Options include people-watching along the avenue, a quiet cerveza under a palapa, or gyrating to a variety of tunes under the stars. The Blue Parrot Inn's Dragon Bar, with its bar-side swings and uninspired dance music, was named one of the world's top 10 bars in 1996 by Newsweek magazine. Things change in six years, but the Dragon is still one of the liveliest places around to strut your stuff.
When the sun rises, the beaches offer access to sunbathing, swimming, windsurfing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. The shore is remarkably unmarred by highrise hotels, and relative tranquility can be found here.
Though far from cheap, Playa houses decent, affordable hotels which are a good base for exploring this area at the heart of the Mayan Riviera.
In reach of a day trip are the magnificent ruins at Chichen Itza, the manufactured entertainment at Xcaret, and underwater oases such as Xel-Ha, along with Tulum and Cozumel.
A 45-minute ferry ride carts tourists tourists to the island of Cozumel, where Spanish is rarely heard and exorbitant prices are generally listed in US dollars.
After the Spanish Conquest, Cozumel's population was decimated by smallpox and remained largely uninhabited until becoming a refuge for pirates in the late 17th century. Today, it is home to more than 75,000 people. It is also a destination for hordes of tourists bound for the beauties of the Palancar coral reef, made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s.
Taxis, bikes or mopeds can take divers, snorkelers, and sun worshippers from the town of San Miguel de Cozumel, where the ferry docks, to the beaches at Playa La Ceib, Chankanaab National Park, or, a little further south, Playa Francisco and Playa Palanca.
Another easy hour-long journey from Playa del Carmen is the archaeological site of Tulum, spectacular not for the crumbling buildings, which betray the Toltec influence on a declining Mayan civilization, but for their setting on the cliffs above the sea. While you can't climb the temples and pyramids, you can stand on the rocks above for a breathtaking view of the tiny beach nestled between ancient ruins.
For a more private experience, but without the mystique of swimming next to a piece of Mayan heritage, are the beaches south of the ruins. Lined with cabanas where backpackers string their hammocks, giving it more of a hippy atmosphere, these shores are perfect for even a mid-day skinny dip for those so inclined. Boat rentals at the nearby dive shops can take slightly more clothed people out to the nearby reef, and snorkeling equipment can be rented.
Though Tulum's cabanas have their own charm and Cozumel's hotels can offer grand luxury, for those who want some pampering and a great location without the mammoth resorts, Playa del Carmen offers a world of Mayan heritage, beachside escapism, and underwater adventure in one pretty package.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
We were invited to a family's home for Christmas Eve, when Mexicans celebrate. It was a friend of ours, her mother and brother, aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandmother. We had dinner at midnight and it was delicious, and very different from the ubiquitous turkey in Canada. There was pumpkin soup, a spicy fish dish, pork, chicken mole, beef, shrimp dumplings, mashed potatoes, spaghetti, apple salad, and probably many other dishes I'm forgetting. I couldn't possibly have tried them all and not exploded, but I tried my best. ...
Christmas Day it seems everyone packs into the Alameda, a central park close to where we live. We went there to get our picture taken with the Three Kings (they take over the same venue where Santa used to be) and it's a hilarious photo. [I can't find it at the moment, but it was my friend and I sitting with Los Reyes Magos in one of those Santa setups, and bizarre items like stuffed Teletubbies in the background]. It put us in a good, Christmasy mood. Then we had a turkey dinner at a restaurant and went to some non-Mexican friends' house to socialize (translation: drink, eat, and play Risk, believe it or not.)
Feliz Navidad! Prospero Año Nuevo! A bit late, but my seasonal organization went out the window. I had every intention of sending actual Christmas cards but was foiled by the fact that few stores sell boxes of cards here. I wanted to get these great ones with Mexican Christmas artwork, and the proceeds go to a charity, but they are only sold at the charity's office which was open only while I was at work. Then I thought of sending email Christmas cards but had a busy week before taking a week off work (I usually email from work). Then I thought of sending just an email to everyone and didn't get a chance to do even that since my mom was here for Christmas and I didn't do a lot of emailing. So do intentions count? It's New Years Day now and I'm (sniff, sob) at work. But I just had a week off -- the longest holiday so far since I've been here. So now I can say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and may your new year's resolution be to write Diane more.
This was my second Mexican Christmas but my least Mexican of the two. Last year I celebrated with a Mexican family, but this year my mom became a rent-a-mom for all my coworkers who were still in town and assorted Mexican friends who celebrated Christmas Eve with their families and were looking for an excuse to get out of the house. It was a good time and everyone was so grateful to have a mom-cooked meal.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Monday, December 17, 2007
The day the free TV preview died
For a brief, shining moment -- 3 months worth of moments, apparently -- I had been receiving every TV station known to man in a free preview courtesy Shaw Cable. Well, actually courtesy me splurging on a Shaw PVR and them wanting to hook me and then upsell me on a more expensive cable package.
For three months, I was getting the movie channels, Eastern time zone Canadian channels, and a whole lot of channels I quickly flipped through even when they didn't only broadcast the ominous black screen of "Subscription service - For ordering information, press info." Tonight they're gone, and I had to decide if I was hooked enough to be upsold.
I'd started watching Dexter on DVD over the summer, but hadn't finished the first season when I started catching second season episodes on my free preview channels. Jumping ahead like that kind of ruined the end of last season for me, but whatever, I'd already deduced who the Ice Truck Killer was and am still eager to see how it plays out. I caught a few episodes of Big Love and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, enough so that I intend to rent the DVDs ... some day, when I've caught up with The Wire DVDs I finally bought because it was too excruciating waiting for each individual DVD to be returned to the video store.
What appealed to me particularly about the free preview channels was that they aired movies I've seen a million times and love to watch bits of as comfort food, or movies I kinda thought I'd like and could now tell if I wanted to invest the time when I had the time, or these cable shows I could drift in and out of, knowing I'd want just a taste to decide if I wanted to get the DVDs so I could watch them at my own pace.
So when I came home from a shorter-than-average workday today, still burned out from the way-longer-than-average workweeks lately, with my salmon lasagna (homemade - in someone else's home) and my TV, Eh updating to do and emails to return, I was disappointed to turn to Dexter for background viewing and find he wasn't there. That's when I wondered, do I order the channel, knowing that there's at least two series I want to see, and little else on for the foreseeable future thanks to a writers strike?
I knew what they were doing, I was wary of it, I was prepared for it, and yet they did it - they hooked me on my free preview channels. It had become a habit, to turn to the movie channels and see what cable shows I'd been missing out on.
And that's when I realized: my PVR is 63% full of shows I haven't watched yet. And if I didn't think I wanted the pay channels in a good year, why would I want them in a strike year?
I know, I know, people are looking for shows that are new to them to fill in the strike gaps, but I've never had that kind of relationship with TV. Though I prefer to have one, and have never gotten rid of it on principal, just circumstance, I have happily lived without a television set. I start each fall wanting to catch any pilots that sound good to me in case I miss out on the next House, but I don't have a quota to fill. I'm happy when I have one or two must-watch shows in a year, but with much more than that, we're talking about wallpaper viewing, so they can't be too demanding on my time or attention.
Lately, I have only been watching wallpaper TV, things I can half watch while doing other things. The writers strike doesn't have me wondering how I can fill my time; it has me deciding to look at no more House or Pushing Daisies as a gift of time.
Lee-Anne Goodman of the Canadian Press, one of the few reporters to integrate Canadian television into her TV coverage as if it's not living in a ghetto, has an article about the strike today. It raises the question of whether the prolonged absence of scripted television will drive viewers to the Internet, fragmenting the audience permanently. The article is interesting in many ways, but one is that I think some of her interviewees are answering the wrong question.
I don't think people will turn to the Internet to look for the next Lost. I think people will look to the Internet for the kind of content the Internet does best, like YouTube and Facebook and MySpace and whatever the next big thing will be. I think people will continue to watch TV, but they will watch the filler reality shows and find they are not all cut from the same cloth and appeal to a wider range of demographics than those of us who scoff at them will admit. I think people will turn to cable shows and DVDs of shows they haven't yet seen, and some of that will supplant their network viewing.
People are not going to abandon television in droves because of the writers strike. If it goes on too long, their television watching habits will change, and some of that change will be damaging to the traditional television industry. But TV isn't going anywhere, not even when it becomes a screen in your living room indistinguishable from the screen that pumps YouTube and Facebook and MySpace into your living room.
To painfully tie my threads together, the strike is kind of like a free preview of our future entertainment. When it's over, some will choose to continue with more channels and more choice. Some will find the reality strike fare is their new comfort food. Some will discover they prefer the pace of watching TV on DVD or downloads. Some will continue to sit down on the couch after work with their laptop or PlayStation instead of their remote.
Because what few will do while they're waiting for television to return to normal is to just wait. And once you get a new habit, it's hard to break it.
So once I've cleared off the PVR, and finished The Wire, you bet I'm renting Dexter and Big Love. But my moment of temptation is over - farewell, free preview channels.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
DVD Review: The Namesake
Gogol: So I'm two inches away from her. Her luscious lips part. Just as I'm about to kiss her, she looks at me and she says, "What's your name?"
Friend: Gogol Ganguli.
Gogol: End of seduction 101.
In director Mira Nair's film The Namesake, an adaptation of the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, Gogol struggles to reconcile his American upbringing with his Indian heritage, as well as a name that represents neither and both at the same time.
Kal Penn, currently seen as one of the new fellows on House and best known as the stoner on a quest in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, takes a serious turn in The Namesake while demonstrating the same considerable charm.
Though it's his character referenced in the title of The Namesake, for the first part of the film Gogol is nothing more than the name of his father Ashoke's favourite author, Russian oddball Nikolai Gogol. The movie's core is really the love story between Ashoke (Irfann Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), whose quiet devotion acts later as a counterpoint to their American son's more expressive romances.
Our first glimpse of Ashoke has him reading the collected stories of Gogol just as the train he's riding in derails. Ashima we meet as a young woman trying on the newly recovered Ashoke's shoes just before the meeting that will lead to her marrying and accompanying this unknown man to New York.
As they get to know each other, their love becomes obvious but unspoken, and we follow them through a span of about 25 years and two children. The Bengali family lives their lives in two countries and two cultures, returning often to the warmth and colour of Calcutta, and lamenting what they've lost in their new life as much as they appreciate what they've gained.
One of the most obvious losses is the gap between their more traditional ideals and their Americanized children's, particularly when Gogol distances himself from his family to the point of rejecting the name that represents the life his father might never have had, after that train wreck. ("We all came out of Gogol's Overcoat," Ashoke quotes.)
His parents had given him the name Gogol as a baby while waiting for inspiration for his proper name, Nikhil. While a five-year-old Gogol decides to keep that nickname, a teenaged Gogol regrets it. So adult Gogol becomes Nick, and Nick becomes a stylish, successful young man becoming part of his rich white girlfriend's parents before ever introducing her to his own.
He doesn't so much want to turn his back on his family or heritage as to be recognized as someone other than simply the product of them. But small, telling moments show that he is not always wholly accepted as a product of the country he was born in, either, and because of that he is in fact a part of both and neither at the same time.
One of the movie's biggest weaknesses is that it feels very much like an adaptation of a book. The story has an episodic feel to it, with some of those episodes getting short shrift. Particularly underdeveloped is Gogol's later relationship with a sexy Bengali woman, Moushumi (Mo), who first appears to be more his match, and who has chosen a third culture, French, to embrace. It's an interesting but largely unexplored theme, the identity that is created from coming from one place, living in another, and embracing the otherness of a third.
But Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair) is a filmmaker with a lush visual style, and The Namesake is full of scenes beautiful both for their artistry and for their affecting character moments. A scene of a mature Gogol trying on his father's shoes echoes the earlier scene of a young Ashima, and airports become magical or heartbreaking gateways between two worlds. She makes us care about these characters even when their stories aren't explored as much as they could be.
The DVD extras include a commentary with Nair, a few deleted scenes that give a bit more time to Mo, and a brief segment called "In Character with Kal Penn," in which the actor is too erudite to be mistaken for Kumar as he insists that Gogol is comfortable with his identity but not the assumptions others make about it. (In a nice touch, given the themes of the movie, Penn is credited twice for The Namesake, under Kal Penn as Gogol, and under his birth name, Kalpen Modi, as Nikhil.)
In addition, "Anatomy of The Namesake" is a well-titled half-hour documentary dissecting the filmmaking process for a class at Columbia University. Director and producer Mira Nair is joined by others on her team to talk about everything from the vision of the film to financing to post-production. The detail is mind-numbing to a casual film fan like me who's interested in behind the scenes machinations but can't be bothered to understand exactly what a bond company is. Despite that, this is the kind of niche extra I think DVDs should do more often, in this case offering budding filmmakers a mini lesson.
The Namesake isn't as tightly woven or ultimately satisfying a story as I'd have liked, but the warm, funny, touching film uses a specific immigrant experience to illuminate universal themes of family, identity, and loss, which made following its meandering path through the lives of these characters rewarding.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
The Other Side of the Bridge
The prologue, a scene of a childhood game between brothers, perfectly illustrates the relationship of silent, responsible Arthur -- the one his mother depends on -- and his charismatic, reckless little brother Jake -- the one his mother loves. It's a relationship that's irrevocably changed by an incident on the titular bridge, complicated by the arrival of the beautiful Laura, and that comes to a head in the charged climax, decades later.
The book spans Arthur's depression-era childhood on a farm in remote northern Ontario, through the devastation of World War II as seen from the home front, and into the 1960's life of young Ian, who begins to work on Arthur's farm as part of his attempt to escape from the expectation that he will become the next Dr. Christopherson.
The novel's moody atmosphere is punctuated with humour, and Lawson brings alive the tiny (and fictional) town of Struan and its inhabitants through fabulous details of the doctor's practice and life on the farm, for example.
By flicking back and forth through time, The Other Side of the Bridge sets up a sense of the stories colliding, but not of the how, until Lawson chooses late in the novel to reveal key scenes. We have information early on, like the fact that Laura becomes Arthur's wife, or that Ian has a crush on his boss's wife, that we don't quite know what to do with until the story unfolds. That structure adds tension to the quiet world of Arthur Dunn and his young employee, both fighting against their seemingly inevitable fates.
Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, The Other Side of the Bridge is a tender yet catastrophic story of family expectation, responsibility, and rivalry, with exquisite imagery and detail. I haven't yet read Crow Lake, Lawson's first novel, but The Other Side of the Bridge has ensured that I'll be picking that one up, too.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Remember, avoid death
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
House on strike
Monday, December 10, 2007
North Dakota: The 11th province?
Meanwhile, as the US writers strike looks further from a resolution than ever (my laugh of the day came from the funny-because-its-true-ly titled post Strike Watch: Dear God, This Thing Is Going to Last Forever Edition), Canadians might finally be eager to watch Canadian television themselves.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
Intelligence's Steppin' Razor
Friday, December 07, 2007
Speech isn't all it's cracked up to be
So The Late Show writers have their own rebuttal:
Thursday, December 06, 2007
Back to the future
Snopes.com confirms this is an actual video from 1967 predicting what the future will be like in 1999. It "did a fairly good job of anticipating some ways (if not the specific forms) in which technology might be used in daily life more than three decades into the future," as the urban legends site puts it. How it gets things wrong is interesting, too -- the wife controls a camera in a store to remotely make purchases from a screen in her home, and her husband (Wink Martindale) pays the scan of a bill from his console.
Makes you wonder what the next 30 years will bring.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Once, once again
One is Radiohead's experiment in online distribution, In Rainbows (which looks like it will no longer be available for a pay-what-you-like download after Dec. 10). I'll have to check out some of the other top nine I've never heard of, but #9 is Once, which I raved about earlier. Well, I raved about the movie, but I meant the album too. Check out a clip below, or see Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova sing Into the Mystic during their recent visit to Harcourt's show.
Monday, December 03, 2007
Happiness Sold Separately
That's probably not a newsflash, but the specific motivation for my accusation is the blurb on the front cover of one of the books I bought when I finally gave up on my non-serendipitous mistaken purchase.
"A touching, comic tale." - People.
I know, I know, never trust a blurb. Who knows what the full review said. But in Lolly Winston's Happiness Sold Separately, that word "comic" seems very out of place.
There are some funny lines, sure. I occasionally, accidentally make people laugh, too, but you couldn't call me a comic. The book's about "infidelity, infertility, a failing marriage, and a troubled kid." HA! Nothing funnier than those subjects.
OK, I kinda liked that sitcom about a Nazi POW camp, but still.
That aside, Happiness Not Included is an interesting and authentic take on infidelity, infertility, a failing marriage, and a troubled kid, from the point of view of wife, husband, lover, even housekeeper. It hit the spot for me, a light read with real emotion and depth, flawed but sympathetic characters, and insight into the messiness of love. And, yes, wry humour. But I swear you'll be more often closer to tears than laughter.