Tuesday, September 30, 2008


If you only read one Al’s Hidden Gems newsletter this year, make it this one!



AHG 24: All-time Hidden Gems

A lot to cover in this issue (reader hate mail and our picks for all-time hidden gems) so we’ll get right into it. For our two-year anniversary (of the letter, that is), we’ll be providing a round up of some of our very favourite movies which we think you might have overlooked. This will hopefully give you some ammunition for the next time you wind up in a video store and are faced with Sex and the City: the Movie. But before we get there, I have to clear up a few things and ramble for a bit. So, if you want to get straight to the movie recommendations and skip the digressions, scroll down about 10 paragraphs to the line which reads “RESUME HERE.”

I’m always surprised when more people don’t share my antipathy towards Sex and the City. I mean, it’s not like I’m never going to watch the movie (I’ll be on a plane again some time, even with high fuel prices), it’s just that the show deteriorated so severely over the years – from something which (I thought) even almost challenged conventional images of women on TV into a drab, repetitive show which reinforced the very worst stereotypes of women (shallow, self-obsessed, and obsessed with marrying well so that they can procure real estate and more shoes). Not even shots of New York in the backdrop can salvage this movie for me.

Could it be that “fabulous” parties and shoe talk aren’t enough to glue a show together for six seasons? (Say that in a Carrie Bradshaw voice)

And don’t even get me started on those hideous drinks. So, one day, when I was complaining about the failed promise of SATC, my friend “Peggy” pointed out something glaringly obvious, which I should have figured out on my own. She said: “Yeah, it’s really just a TV show.”

Which was a very good point. And something I think I should repeat to “Chris,” who has written me almost every day to take me to task for my critique of Mad Men. My position, you may recall was that it had no plot or story arc.

Of course, I still watch it. But pretty well only for Betty’s dresses. And, I do have to admit that something did finally happen on MM last time.

My recap for Season Two: (SPOILER ALERT):

Episode 1: Betty’s car breaks down. It is later fixed. (but off-camera)
Episode 2: Peggy took a bath
Episode 3: Don drank some milk
Episode 4: Don rode in an elevator. It seemed like a really long ride. How tall is that building, exactly?
Episode 5: Betty and Don littered in an otherwise nice park
Episode 6: Jackie Kennedy was on TV. Most of the characters sat and watched.
Episode 7: Joan finally figured out where to put the photocopy machine
Episode 8: Betty threw Don out
Episode 9: Freddy peed his pants

Dramatic upturn in activity in the last two, hey?

But my slagging of Mad Men elicited some pretty strong hate mail. The reader insinuated we had no patience and no intelligence and that we had to wait for the backstory to get slowly filled in.
Now, I don’t want to make an ad populum argument here, but way more people supported my nonplussed feelings about Mad Men than took offence. In fact, in support of MM? One. Against? Six. Hardly a good sample, I know. But here’s my response to the one Mad Men supporter.
I don’t have a problem with a slow emergence of back story. I didn’t mind watching four seasons of The Sopranos to find out why Tony occasionally passed out in the presence of sliced meat. However, in the meantime, I was so charmed with the discourse regarding, oh, say, Columbus Day tensions, appropriation of culture and notions of authenticity that I didn’t give a damn about how long it took to get to the prosciutto.

With MM, I keep waiting for some of that same frontstory discourse to keep me going through the 21 episodes of style-over-substance. Yes, they communicate a lot of stuff visually, but nothing really novel. Like, sure, we know that women really had the short end of the stick back then. (Unlike now.) Yeah, we know that men were an old boys network. (Unlike now.) And, yeah, we know that everybody (except the occasion beat proto-hipster who drifts through the show and has a brief encounter with Don) is repressed by an empty consumer culture in which people sell us things we don’t need. (Somebody get me some shoes and real estate, please.) Other than the beautiful and striking stuff about risk assessment when it came to child safety, smoking, second hand smoke, drinking and seatbelts, I am almost never challenged by the discourse.

The reader pointed out that “Draper is not who he is. And we gradually learn a little more, while never quite answering who he is. Because even he doesn’t know.”

Yeah, great. But do the screenwriters?

I’ll admit that the idea of a TV character representing an ultimately unknowable self would be intriguing. And if the show were to get into esoteric thoughts about the nature of subjectivity, I’d be on board. And I’ll even admit that Betty leaving Don with no evidence of his cheating even kind of smacks of the Lacanian idea that the “letter always reaches its destination.” But I doubt it will go that way, ultimately. Because nobody other than me would be so idiotic as to write a screenplay based on their thoughts about Jacques Lacan. It’s really just a TV show. And, in the end, my money is on Don not knowing who he is cause of the patriarchal oppression of the day and his involvement in empty consumer culture.

The last two episodes, however, had real promise. I hope it continues. And I’ll keep watching to see if it does. I don’t care how many times I have to watch Don washing his hands, Peggy making toast and Joan putting on lipstick to settle this.

RESUME HERE (for those wanting to get right to the recommendations for “all-time hidden gems”)

Lost in America.

Albert Brooks can be a little hard to take, and so I can understand if you have reservations about this pick. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, for example, is almost a deal breaker for me and Brooks. Defending Your Life is so-so in my books. Lost in America, however, is totally worth a shot. It’s a really funny film about a guy who, like Janis Joplin, really wants a Mercedes Benz. Plus, it introduced me to the concept that there are two types of people who go to Vegas: Us vs. all the other schmucks who come here to see Wayne Newton. I think I’m in the first camp. Although we did see Wayne. Twice.

For foodie movies, many people sing the virtues of Big Night. I agree. It’s a great movie. However, if you’re looking for something new, you might have missed Tampopo – perhaps my all-time favourite film about soup. My second favourite film about soup is Babette’s Feast. Al’s always wanted to make an evening of the two, like, cook up a decadent meal and watch the two together as a double bill. I’m assuming it would be me cooking up the decadent meal, since Al only knows how to cook three things: cheese fondue, grilled cheese sandwiches and coke floats. (In his defence, he makes really good best coke floats.)

Next, I’m going to add an oldie but goodie: A Face in the Crowd. I ran across that movie on a few years ago and was struck by how the film’s critique of celebrity culture was nearly identical to contemporary discourse nearly half a century later. I love it when that happens.

I saw Man Bites Dog a very, very long time ago but I remember thinking that it was an amazing film about reality TV long before reality TV had really been imported into North America from Europe. Since, I was accused of watching too much reality TV recently, I add this film to make me look smart and to point out that its origins are mostly Dutch. I’m really hoping Man Bites Dog has held up over the years. Please let me know.

Al told me there’s a documentary about David Lynch coming out and suggested we rent it. I rolled my eyes at the thought. Apparently, it portrays him as an exacting and controlling director with an uncompromising artistic vision – not just a folksy little guy who likes to put midgets on film and have a little fun.

I’m always surprised when people discover that a wildly successful director with an unconventional style is also something of a megalomaniac. I mean, how do you think he got to be David Lynch?

But I digress. The point is that it reminded me that The Straight Story is right up there. It’s about a guy who drives his tractor. That’s my favourite Lynch (although I do love Sailor and Lulu).

And then there’s Fitzcarraldo. Herzog often seems a little self-indulgent to me, but this film is brilliant. It’s a little hazy to me at this moment but Al made me watch it a long time ago and, either we’d had too much champagne or it was an absolutely beautiful story about speculators in South America.

Al also introduced me to Jean de Florette, a film about a tax collector (played by Gerard Depardieu) trying to start up a farm in France with hostile neighbours undermining his attempts. Funnily enough, I believe Gerard Depardieu tried to buy a vineyard in real life but found the hostile locals blocked his efforts. Another one for the Robert Downey, Jr. theory.

(Al points out that you shouldn’t watch JDF without checking out the sequel, Manon des Sources.)

A little bit less epic is Secondhand Lions, a totally fun little adventure movie starring Michael Caine, Robert Duvall and that creepy kid who sees dead people. It’s a pretty entertaining little diversion.

Now, a long time ago, “Beth” suggested The Stone Reader. I asked Al to go get it a few times but he never did. So last night I actually went with him and watched over him until he got it. He kept saying he’d already rented it once. I insisted that, no, he had stubbornly defied my requests every time. About two minutes in, I realized he was right. He’d gotten it and I had fallen asleep right at the beginning. I must have been pretty tired, cause this movie is awesome. I fell in love with it. I think if you wanted a good double-bill, rent it with one of our previous gems – My Kid Could Paint That and spend the evening thinking about art and literature. Nice work, Beth. It’s runner-up for all-time hidden gem. (And sorry it took me about a year to figure it out.)

And now for the other winner: Lars and the Real Girl. It’s a good, every day kind of premise and a situation I think we can all relate to. It’s about a guy who falls in love with a mail-order blow-up doll.

Good work Al.

P.S. Here are few reader recommendations that we haven’t quite got around to. I’d be happy to hear reports back.

Crazy Love
Breakfast on Pluto
A Bear`s Tale
The Myth of Fingerprints
The Daytrippers.
Ruby In Paradise
The Visitor
Black Book

Friday, September 19, 2008

I'm glad to see Nobu getting in trouble for two reprehensible things. First off, the practice of holding waiters' tips. Just because it is common for restaurant owners to eye and confiscate waiters' tips doesn't make it right. When I went to bat at one place where they were planning a hike in the tipout, I was told it was "industry standard." Common ad populum fallacy.

The second thing is raping the ocean. Serving bluefin is nearly the same as serving panda.

At any rate, I'm happy to see a high profile place busted for these things. When they have to reform, hopefully it will do something in the way of changing industry standards.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hi folks. Been running around trying to get this off the ground, finish a proposal, start a new course and a few other odds and ends. By the way, Sue and I will be at the Gremolata re-launch at Hart House on the 25th.

Friday, September 05, 2008


AHG 23

Okay, right off the bat, I'd like to say that somewhere along the line, I've given people the impression that I like the show Mad Men. I'd like to clear up that impression. Just 'cause I've watched every episode and generally clear Sunday nights for the event, doesn’t mean I like it.

One reason I watch it is the dearth of good reality television in the summer. Another reason is probably the lack of commercials (which changed this week when they added three commercial breaks). A third reason might be how beautiful it is. But mostly, I think have a morbid curiosity about how long a show can run in which absolutely nothing happens.

There's no real story arc, no character development, a lot of meaningless digression and, seemingly, no plot. If this is the new style of television, I may have a future career as a TV screenwriter after all.

Or even film, if Al's picks this month are any indication.

We started with Margot at the Wedding, which was supposed to be some kind of “tragi-comedy,” a little like, well…this newsletter, I suppose. The guy who makes these films (I really didn’t like The Squid and the Whale either) is supposed to be some kind of genius auteur or something but I really don’t get it.

Next was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Now, three days before we rented this movie we talked about getting it. And seven days after we rented this movie we talked about how it had turned out. And two hours
before watching this movie we had roast beef. And, yes, that’s exactly what it’s like to watch this frustrating movie, which is obviously inspired by Memento and/or Pulp Fiction. Memo to screenwriters and directors: please don’t mess around with the linear time frame just ‘cause you think it’s cool. It’s not. And in this case, we suspect it was just a way to disguise the lack.

I’m not even going to dignify The Savages with a blurb. Al will rent anything with Philip Seymour in it, including Before the Devil and The Savages, which were both beyond bad. Memo to screenwriters and directors: attaching Philip Seymour to your project just ‘cause you
think he’s cool will not disguise the lack. Although, I’ll concede that it will guarantee you at least one sale at the video store.

While I was on the plane coming back from somewhere, I sat next to a real live objectivist ex-York university professor. He followed Ayn Rand’s teachings and had had a “controversial” career. In the back of my mind somewhere, I think I could remember the controversy but, frankly, my mind is too full of details like which cocktail-shaking technique makes a drink four degrees colder to remember trivial York
politics. Anyhow, he told me to watch Definitely Maybe on the personal TV. I did. Because for that brief flight, I had no independent thought. This light romantic comedy seemed an odd choice for a political scientist or economist or whatever he was. Still, it was a lot better than the romantic comedies Al made me watch on the plane. Fool’s Gold? Really, Al?

So I had to step in and make some choices. I was now guided by rational self-interest and half-way through The Fountainhead. And we watched Death at a Funeral, which was definitely worth it. Then, continuing on the morbid-comedy
trip, we rented The Bucket List. An unexpected pleasure. I’m sure most of you have heard of In Bruges (which “Sergio” had recommended). Also quite good. Really, you wouldn’t do badly with a triple-bill.

But in the end, the real winner was actually one of Al’s picks: Two- Lane Blacktop. Much like the other movies I was criticizing, it was pointless and slow. At the same time, though, it was absolutely mesmerizing. I’m not really saying you all should rent it. If you want entertainment, try the three above. But it’s a really beautiful time capsule and, in case you weren’t aware it had been re-released, you might want to check it out.

Al`s Corner

Okay, now for the usual truthiness.

The Maggot at the Wedding, I never heard of. The Squid I liked; the Whale, not so much.

The Lack …… I think that was one of those we rent – like, for eight or nine days, but use mostly as a coaster. We never seem to be able to get it close enough to the machine with the big slot in it that it actually registers on the TV. You’ve got to get those things pretty close to the slot before you get anything.

But Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead … well, now, I’m a little surprised to hear, like, that there’s time-shifting in there or something. As far as I can recall, that sucker was moving along smooth
as Land O’ Lakes, with hardly even a visible edit. Sort of like Rope.

That Chris says it was inspired by Memento, well now I know she needs to get her medication upgraded because I can’t even watch – what’s it called again? – without plenty of pencil and paper. I also jammed a copy of Memento into a Diet Coke once – you know, just to see. Know what I got? Nothing but fizz. Another urbane mist.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

In case you're wondering what it is I've been getting up to in Holland Marsh.