Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Passenger Side Takes An Eccentric Ride Around LA

This post is a rerun, originally published on Blogcritics in July 2009. I saw the movie and interviewed the brothers last year at the LA Film Festival. Now, it's being released in theatres in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal and you must see it - great film, great soundtrack.

Passenger Side Takes An Eccentric Ride Around LA

It's fitting that Passenger Side, a film about a day-long road trip around Los Angeles and environs, had its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It's also fitting that I saw it two hours after arriving in Los Angeles after being the passenger on a week-long road trip. But the LA of Passenger Side is not the LA of a tourist, unless that tourist were particularly fond of transsexual prostitutes, middle-of-nowhere gas stations, and low-rent porn shoots.

Beyond the seemingly disjointed scenes of LA's underbelly and a couple of plot twists I can't reveal, there is little plot to share. Former addict Tobey (Joel Bissonnette) calls on writer brother Michael (Adam Scott of Party Down) to drive him around Los Angeles supposedly for a series of job interviews, encountering a series of oddball characters along the way.

"The film has a very limited narrative," writer/director Matthew Bissonnette agreed. "A guy shows up, says he's doing one thing, it turns out he's doing another thing, which turns out to be a third thing. It's a 1-2-3 plot, so it's much more about the relationship between the actors."

That third thing made me wish theatres had rewind buttons, since it forces the audience to re-examine events, but the heart of the film is the poignant and unexpected revelations of character rather than plot. Michael is too much an observer of life, not enough a participant. Tobey, whose past is the subject of the road trip, has perhaps participated a little too much. The costs of their life choices, however, are not quite as predictable as the brothers or the audience might think.

The Bissonnette family is well-represented in Passenger Side – Montreal-bred Matt and Joel are brothers, and Matt's dog even has a role in the film. Canadian-born, LA-based brothers making a film about Canadian-born, LA-based brothers invites the most obvious of questions: are the characters modeled on the men?

In one scene, Tobey expresses his dismay at the fact that Michael's failed novel paints the protagonist's brother as a screw-up. Joel denies he had the same reaction to the script. "They're both characters which are perhaps hybrids of both of us and neither of us. And then once we started shooting, there was a whole lot of Adam Scott."

"It was the easiest film I've ever made in part because the narrative is so simple, but also because the actors were both so strong," asserted Matt, who was named one of 10 young American moviemakers to watch by The Independent (yes, they know he's Canadian: they designate him "almost American").

Since both characters are enormously likable, and their barb-laden relationship unfolds effortlessly, it's easy for the audience to go along for a ride where nothing much seems to happen. When Michael describes his next, unfinished novel – one that bears some resemblance to the non-plot of the movie at that point – Tobey comments that it sounds boring.

"That's a little Brechtian type of thing, if you want to get fancy about it," Matt said. "In film school that's what they'd say: it's a Bertolt Brecht moment. It's a difficult thing in a film that doesn't have a lot of story, to sense when the audience might be zoning out on you. I hope that the way this film works is that just as we're reaching that part, you have the end of the film, which pulls it all together."

"I fell in love with the movie again watching it the other night," actor brother Joel admitted. "It's hard to define: it's a road movie, it's a movie about two brothers, in a sense it's a love story."

"I liked the confined space. It set the tone – a very intimate conversational tone. We're not overtly talking about anything really deep, but there's a very definite close, comfortable relationship between the brothers. You get the impression these are guys who have spent a lot of time together, and that's aided and abetted by the space itself, which is intimate."

"The difficult thing was I never got to drive," he joked, explaining that his acting options were limited. "There was a lot of putting on of the seat belt."

"The visual aesthetic was very much defined by the confined narrative. I'm always interested in combining disparate elements," Matt explained, sounding very much like the indie filmmaker he is. "So if you have an intimate, talky film, you want to open it up visually to the extent you can and turn the viewer outward. It was an interesting thing, when to be on the actors and when to pull back."

He also talked about balancing the film's broad laughs with more nuanced humour, and populating the soundtrack with both more and less familiar tunes (including, naturally, Wilco's "Passenger Side").

"I think balance and juxtaposition are how cinema works. You have three basic elements you're juggling – sound, story and picture - and you want to make them not all the same, because that's dull."

Theatrical distribution will partly depend on the reception to its festival appearances, but even if Passenger Side doesn't end up in a theatre near you, it will eventually be available on DVD and, at least in Canada, television. The Movie Network and Movie Central will broadcast it, as they have Bissonnette's two previous films, Looking for Leonard and Who Loves the Sun. "They pre-licenced this one, which they don't usually do with smaller films," the writer/director explained. "But they liked it and they were completely instrumental in getting the movie made."

As Canadian as the funding is – Telefilm is also involved – Passenger Side is a fascinating glimpse of Los Angeles as much as it is an enjoyably voyeuristic look into these two characters' lives.

"I don't know if there's a Canadian sensibility because I don't know what that is," Matt laughed in answer to my obligatory Cancon question. "It has a sensibility that Joel and I are familiar with. Because the people who made it are Canadian there's something there, but I wouldn't know what that something is."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Battle of the FOX iPhone applications: House versus Glee

In these early-ish days of cell phone applications, it’s easy to give points just for showing up. Remember the birth of the world wide web when sites were little more than the company brochure slapped online? If you had one, though – however rudimentary or animated-GIF-encrusted – you were part of a vanguard that revolutionized the Internet.

TV tie-in iPhone applications are still rare. Some day, House and Glee will be proud to be the animated GIFs of the app age. Today, they are the leading edge.

InHouse (Free)

This app looks cool, and has some nice touches, but after using it for a few weeks it seems as though it was rushed out the door with only hard-core fans in mind. That said, I’m not one anymore, yet it caters to the behind-the-scenes geek and former rabid fan in me.

Fresh episode-specific content is released Mondays at 8 pm to coincide with the show’s airtime. Fun and/or informative video interviews are offered in the Writers Room and Media Room (the latter featuring actors and crew members), and are the main source of my affection for this app. Actually, the app had me at Writers Room – I’m fascinated by that process and my fondest memories of my time writing about House are of interviewing the writers.

I enjoy some of the backstage photos under Dark Room, but many of them mean nothing to me. That non-actor walking on the studio lot? Is she a key grip? Gaffer? Other title I only know from watching credits?

The Music Room is slightly odd. Instead of a track listing, there is minimal information and an iTunes link to one or more “music considered for scenes” pages. If you actually want to know what song is playing when, I guess you can use Shazam (aka Best Application Ever).

[Alex Solether, Publicity & New Media director's assistant for House, told me via Twitter that they’re looking into implementing photo captions and in-episode music, so perhaps they should have launched without the not-so-meaningful content.]

Free Clinic offers giveaways to US residents, and the Houseisms section is a small selection of quotes (presented via the most awkward navigation possible, but it looks cool).

Star Hugh Laurie is noticeably absent so far other than vocal snippets used to introduce each app section. (Writers Room = “Schmucks with laptops.” And while those bits are funny the first time, thankfully the app allows you to turn them off.) It’s not surprising that he’s got other things to do, but star power or the wow factor is what draws less-than-devout fans to content. I’m possibly not in the majority in thinking that writers are also stars of a show, or that interviews are a wow item.

Weekly “appisodes” launch May 24 when the show is on summer hiatus. Centred around Nurse Jeffrey (also known as Who?), the three-minute episodes promise to “explore the world of the hospital that exists beyond the regular characters.” Again, likely only die-hard fans – and not all of those – will end up watching Houseless House (or more to the point, No-Characters-You’ll-Recognize House).

More importantly, there’s nothing that uses iPhone functionality to make this a good match of form and function. There’s no social networking tie-ins, no community building, no user interaction. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t fit perfectly on, which has all those nifty things. And hey, that way iPhone users could have browsed a mobile site along with those plebeians who use Android devices or BlackBerries or – god help them – computers.

Glee (99 cents)

I almost called foul when I saw this was a paid app – come on, it’s marketing for a TV show – but it is cheap and you get a fun product beyond the marketing tie-in, so I’ve changed my tune. Pun intended.

The app has one simple purpose: karaoke. It allows you to sing along with songs from the Glee soundtrack. It’s preloaded with a few and new ones to purchase are added weekly. And just like those crazy kids on the show, your voice will benefit from the built-in pitch correction.

You can share your recording with the world, connect to Facebook, join a club of fellow users, or realize that no human ears should be subjected to your singing voice and delete. The best part? Listening to recordings by people from around the world who didn’t have the sense to pick that last option.

I’m not a gadget freak or an Apple disciple, but I got an iPhone because it was the fun choice. The Glee app understands fun. Not my kind of fun, mind you, but it’s a terrific blend of game, social networking, and show awareness … that nonetheless makes me want to throw my iPhone off the balcony. But that’s me. And if the audience for the House app is House freaks, the audience for the Glee app is Gleeks plus anyone who might want to sing karaoke. I’ve seen those inexplicably packed bars.

Glee gets major points off for offending my grammar geek sensibilities with a home page massacre of the “sing” past participle. (“Have you sang duet with Finn yet?” No but I have SUNG a duet with Finn.) But that’s not really a reason to withhold your 99 cents. I guess.

And the winner is …

Which app will I use the most? InHouse, no question. That’s an idiosyncratic choice. Should you get it? It’s free; if you don’t like it I’m sure they’ll give you your money back. There’s bound to be something that will catch your interest, though I’d put money on this app seeming quaint in the not too distant future, like those basically-a-brochure websites.

I sing horribly and don’t enjoy listening to others sing horribly and will never again use any karaoke-like app. However, for best use of the medium and reaching out to an audience beyond the highly devoted, I gotta go with Glee.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Always look on the bright side of volcanoes

I don't think of myself as an optimist. More of a realist. I don't think everything happens for a reason. I think life is chaotic and random and our job is to make the most of what we're given. But I do think we have a choice no matter what: to play victims of fate or to own our lives. Guess which I think is more satisfying?

In that spirit, Teresa and I did our Edmonton is the New Egypt adventure. Now, the Edmonton Journal has picked up the story, so our goofiness fun lives on:
Since the cancellation, I've been straining to come up with ways to look on the bright side. Here's a few:
  • Fame and fortune ... well, fame ... well, we were featured in the newspaper.
  • Double the anticipation!
  • More time to finish my taxes before April 30.
  • I now have a dry run of packing under my belt and won't forget my brush next time. I'll forget something completely new.
  • I, um, probably won't need a catsitter by the end of September. (I love my cat, and I'll be crushed when he dies, but he's a thousand years old and sickly.)
  • How else would I have discovered there's a camel named Hope and Valley of the Tombs in Edmonton? (Thanks Teresa!)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Edmonton is the new Egypt

Right about now I should be exhausted from a day of seeing pyramids and the sphinx and the Egyptian museum, sleeping on an overnight train from Cairo to Aswan where we'd be boarding a felucca to explore the Nile.

Right about now I need to remind myself not to think about what I should be doing if it weren't for that damn ash cloud over Europe.

I woke up in Edmonton Thursday morning to the news that a volcano had erupted in Iceland, disrupting flights to the UK. It took me a few sleepy minutes to realize that this news meant something to me: our flight went through Heathrow. After confirming on the Air Canada website that the flight was cancelled, I called Teresa. She thought I was joking. I mean, come on, a volcano erupted in Iceland and our trip to Egypt was cancelled? Next you'll tell me a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas.

But I wouldn't be that cruel. This was our reunion tour, our trip of a lifetime.

We kept channelling our inner Douglas Adams by reminding each other: Don't panic. Not yet. We spent the morning on the phone with airlines, the tour company, and each other, determined not to give up until we were out of options.

Finally, we were. Even though we had cleverly booked an extra day in Cairo before the tour started, in case of delayed flights, it wasn't enough. It was too late to find a sugar daddy with a private jet. We didn't have the time or extra several thousand dollars to book last-minute, non-direct routes on other airlines. One of us is not unemployed and unfettered and had to consider vacation time and child care, so extending our end date wasn't possible, even if it were an option. The airlines were offering refunds and the tour company postponements, so we resigned ourselves to try again at a future date.

We had two options: mope, or laugh about it. We chose the third option: laugh while moping about it.

Friday, the day we should have arrived in Cairo, we embarked on our Egypt-in-Edmonton tour. We wore our sun hats and sunglasses, carted along our Lonely Planet Egypt book, and went to the pyramids. We saw a camel. We visited the Valley of the Tombs. We ate African food and watched people smoke shisha. We went down to the river. We viewed a mosque.

We also took inspiration from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, prepared with our towels and peanuts and taking pictures with our whiteboard signs. And then we found a hideous song about the ash cloud and made a slideshow of our pictures. Thankfully we're both still goofy young at heart.

We've rebooked for September 30. I'm headed back to Vancouver tomorrow, forcing myself to look on the bright side (double the anticipation! more time to do taxes!) and facing my "what next" questions earlier than expected.

But the long-awaited reunion took place, and we had fun turning volcanic ash into lemonade. Egypt will be there for us in 184 days. Barring volcanic activity or other natural disasters.

(Non-video-ized pictures here)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why Egypt isn't just Egypt

They'd call us the Bobbsey Twins in high school. Ever the pedant, I'd have to point out the Bobbsey twins were two fraternal boy-girl pairs (Bert and Nan, Freddie and Flossie. Don't mess with me on the Bobbseys or Anne Shirley). Besides, we didn't really look alike, though we were both blonde and blue-eyed. Teresa's a little shorter, with curls and dimples. I wore contacts while she was still wearing glasses. If our graduation pictures look eerily similar, that's just the matching caps and gowns.

I'd say we bonded over her evil nature. OK, not exactly; we bonded over a shared sense of humour and sensibility. Other grade 10 classmates were shocked when she would casually say "that's because you didn't have a dad" to me in response to anything from my lack of fishing prowess to my predilection for Corey Hart over Bryan Adams. She was joking, but it was also the first time a peer had gotten the concept that my dad dying when I was 10 months old was not a fresh wound or even a scar - it was a missing piece. It was something I'd puzzle over: What would my life be like if I'd had a dad? So why not puzzle over it with humour? Teresa got it.

We'd sit by our lockers and mock the hairspray girls who needed to enter the bathroom two by two. We were driven mad by people who didn't pick up their feet when they shuffled down the hallway. She'd never tell me she liked my new pants if she hated them. I liked that about her. I still liked those pants.

After high school, we became roommates, sharing a nearly furniture-less apartment in Edmonton first with her brother, then just the two of us, then with her boyfriend. I'd given my blessing for him to move in, then moved in with my own, expecting the inevitable phone call to tell me they were engaged. I was her maid of honour. She'd been with me through some rough times and some great times, and that continued after we lived apart.

I moved to New Brunswick. Then Calgary. Then Mexico City. Then Vancouver. Somewhere between those last two we lost touch. Neither of us are good with the phone. She's not good with email. I'm not good with persisting in the face of silence, and thought she was breaking up with me, our lives having become so different. She had two kids, a husband, a suburban life. I thought I'd lost her and let her go.

When I finally decided in August that maybe I was in Vancouver for good - or for whatever "for good" means to me - I bought a condo here. Sorting through my photo albums in the move, I was struck by how many milestones featured her dimpled smile. It had been about 8 years since we'd talked and I still missed her. I decided to send her a card to tell her so - my thoughts on mode of communication were still 8 years old - and tried to look up her address online. Instead, I found her Facebook page.

Turns out she hadn't moved anyway, but I'm an online kind of girl and didn't want to miss the instant impulse: I sent her the message. She replied. It was almost like no time had passed. Her 40th birthday coincided with the end of my gruelling contract with the Olympics so we started talking about embarking on a Woe is We warm-weather vacation to celebrate and commiserate. She joked about Egypt. It'd been on both our bucket lists since before we met. She'd made me read the Amelia Peabody Egyptian mysteries way back when. Being the pedant I am, I researched a trip. It wasn't that much more than a non-lifetime-dream destination.

It was destiny. We booked. I leave for Edmonton tomorrow, where I will celebrate my brother's birthday, catch up with family and friends, and reunite with Teresa for the first time in person in over 8 years before we head to Egypt on Thursday.

I tell people the (abbreviated) heartwarming story and the inevitable reaction is: What if you don't get along? They don't understand. But that's never mattered. Teresa gets it.

Friday, April 02, 2010

What Vegas needs: more elephant seals

Apparently not only does what happen in Vegas stay in Vegas, but so does what happens on the slow road from Vegas to San Francisco. Not because of any tigers-in-my-hotel-room levels of depravity, in my case, but laziness in updating. The short version:

My first experience of Vegas was fun and even relaxing. Thank god for friends who plan everything and let me sleep in. My first glimpse of The Strip at night coincided with Earth Hour, which we'd forgotten about. The cabbie joked that the lights must be out due to an alien invasion.

We saw Cirque de Soleil's Mystere, which was creepy goodness. We ate at great restaurants and drank at whimsical bars and on the last night, finally did a little gambling. And I do mean a little: $3 bets on craps, which Jen tried to explain to me, and our table neighbours tried to explain to me, and which I still don't understand. People sure loved me when I rolled certain numbers and were not impressed with me when I didn't, though. I also spent a total of $2 on slots, which are not as fun as they appear. Shockingly I did not come away with my fortune from Vegas.

Of course I had to get my picture taken in front of the Luxor's sphinx, since I'll be seeing the real thing in a couple of weeks, and in front of the Eiffel Tower, since I already have a pic of me in front of the real thing. Who needs world travel when you have Vegas (and, last year, Legoland).

I've been calling the upcoming San Francisco to Vancouver coastal trip Phase 2 of my post-employment holiday, so I guess that makes the road trip from Vegas Phase 1.5. I had time to kill before Jenna arrives so I've been winding my way from Los Angeles to, so far, Monterey, doing more head-clearing, horrible car-singing, and gasping at beautiful scenery. Last year I fell in love with the rugged coastal area around Big Sur – as well as the elephant seals who molt around there – and the love remains. This was the area that inspired Jen and I to joke about becoming pirates so we could afford to live here – though it's only coincidence that we ended up staying at Treasure Island in Vegas.

I pick up Jenna from the airport in a few hours and then it's off to Phase 2, starting with a couple of days in San Francisco. One of my favourite things about my brief time in that city was a surprise encounter with the sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf but I hear they've mysteriously disappeared. I'm sure we'll have a good time anyway.