Revisiting Donnie Darko (2001)

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I remember watching Donnie Darko (2001) on home video, shortly after it was available for rent and being enthralled, creeped out and confused. At the time it didn’t make complete sense, but strangely, it didn’t matter as much as I would have expected it to. I just thought it was a creepy, poignant metaphor for madness. When the Director’s cut was released on DVD in 2004, I bought it, tucked it away and waited for the right time. Over a decade has passed since then. Why was last night the right time? Maybe because Jake Gyllenhaal was on my radar after my daughters and I saw his guest appearance on a recent episode of Inside Amy Schumer . We were looking for a creepy movie to watch together so I figured it was time to watch Donnie Darko again.

 

Wow, this film holds up very well. It is set in 1988 and follows a troubled high school student into what appears to be a descent into madness. Or is it? We witnessed time travel and alternate universes on a backdrop of suburban life. To say more would risk spoiling the experience. I was hoping for more clarity with the director’s version this time around. By the end, I was still left wondering, “WTF?” If you like those kinds of, what I like to call, “WTF Movies” (Inception, Memento, Shutter Island, to name a few) and don’t mind googling an explanation or 2 afterward, then this is film is for you.

The film was written and directed by Richard Kelly and had an awesome cast. Young Jake Gyllenhaal in the titular role was superb as his character flipped between simply awkward to seriously disturbed. He was supported by Drew Barrymore (she also executive produced), Patrick Swayze, Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal (in a meta role as his sister), Noah Wylie and Jenna Malone. There are even a few brief, before they were famous, appearances by Seth Rogen and Ashley Tisdale.

The 80’s New Wave soundtrack (INXS, Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, The Church, Joy Division) was well chosen. The family dynamic portrayed in the film is a sweet realistic contrast to the disturbing events that abound. There is minimal gore. The special effects are few and not distracting. If you like a film that keeps you guessing, Donnie Darko is definitely worth a watch. If you can understand it by the end, then you will have impressed me. I find solace in the knowledge that I was not alone; the late great Roger Ebert shared my confusion. My daughters and I had fun googling for explanations and talking about watching it again in the near future with a better understanding. Maybe I will check out the director’s commentary; that is something I haven’t done with a film in a while.

Below are some links we found helpful, but I caution you to use them only if required, as they contain spoilers.

 

http://www.themoviegoer.com/donnie_darko.htm

http://www.donniedarko.org.uk/explanation/#blog

WHY DONNIE DARKO’S LITERAL PLOT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE (AND WHY IT DOESN’T MATTER)

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

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I went to the theatre last night with my youngest daughter to see Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I am almost embarrassed to say we saw the first instalment in the theatre together 2 years ago, when she was perhaps one of the youngest in the audience. The communal laughter at that time was intoxicating and we were hoping to recapture that experience. Boy did we ever last night.

We wanted to laugh and this movie had plenty to laugh about. There were funny lines, physical pratfalls galore and real warmth to the story. Like most comedy sequels, the plot is rather silly and contrived at times, but if the character beats work, the flaws are easily forgiven.

 

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are in a 30 day escrow period and anxious to seal the deal on their house sale so they can move to accommodate their expanding family. Unfortunately, a group of college girls decides to move into the abandoned frat house next door. The girls are interested in partying their way, which is against the rules of the traditional “greek” community. Soon it is a full on war between the old people and the youth of today.

I found I could relate to many issues raised by both camps. I liked the way the diverse group of girls, lead by Shelby, Beth and Nora (Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein respectively) were depicted. They were simply striving to be themselves and indifferent to pleasing the men around them. I laughed at Mac and Kelly’s struggle to be “good parents.” I even found myself somewhat sympathetic to Zac Efron’s dim-bulb portrayal of Teddy, who returns to the house of his fondest memories, trying to find a place in the world.

This was a good solid comedy with laugh out loud moments and a shocking absence of meanness, despite the retaliatory conflict. It came to a satisfying resolution and was reasonably paced. If you liked the first movie, Neighbors, then you won’t be disappointed by this. I was especially delighted by the fact that my middle school daughter said to me that she thought those drinking parties didn’t seem very fun. She would rather just hang with her friends. That led to a discussion about the substance use (alcohol and marijuana) that was depicted in the film. I am glad that we can talk about these things.

Grantchester: a Review

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I just finished binge watching a charming TV period drama called Grantchester. The second series debut was being promoted on PBS as part of their Masterpiece Mysteries series and my familiarity with the 2 excellent lead actors had me take notice. So I downloaded the first series (6 episodes) from iTunes and enjoyed it over the Easter long weekend in anticipation of the debut of season 2.

This is a murder mystery/buddy cop drama set in 1953, based on books written by James Runcie. James Norton plays Sidney Chambers, a vicar in Grantchester, who befriends Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). Each episode has them solve a murder case with a few threads of subplot (usually involving their personal lives) that carry through to the end of each season. This role is a radical departure from Norton’s portrayal of sociopathic thug Tommy Lee Royce on Happy Valley (another excellent British cop drama, available on Netflix that I highly recommend). Sidney Chambers is struggling to be a good man and leader of his community. Because he remains haunted by his pre-ordination WWII experiences, one gets a sense that his chosen profession serves to heal his soul in addition to his parishioners’.

 

 

Anyone who knows me well may be surprised that I would recommend a show that features an Anglican priest. This show is not preachy and it is super fun. It is exquisitely filmed in the English country side. It weaves elements of social change into the background of well crafted murders of the week. There is romance in addition to good mysteries with reasonable twists. Of course one must suspend one’s disbelief at the number of violent deaths that occur in such a small place. And I try not to think too hard at how a vicar has so much time for police business, not to mention that the police actually encourage it. Nevertheless, everything else about this show rings true. It is not afraid of tackling topics such as racism, abortion, death penalty, homosexuality (illegal in the UK until the late 60’s) and class structure. There is a sweet earnestness to this program with a gentle injection of humour. The characters are very well developed and distinct. The supporting cast is amazing, especially housekeeper Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones) and closeted curate Leonard Finch (Al Weaver). If you are a fan of classic whodunits, English countryside, period drama, thematic depth and well drawn characters, this show just might do it for you.

 

Romantic TV Comedies

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Is it just a coincidence that I am writing about this topic on the eve of  Valentine’s Day? Probably not, I can’t stand greeting card holidays. So maybe that is why I enjoyed binge watching 3 TV comedies about damaged people navigating the waters of love and life. All 3 of these shows have been buzzed about on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast so I thought I would check them out. So glad I did that I thought I would share.

Catastrophe first aired on British TV and I was delighted to find all the episodes (2 short seasons, total of 12 episodes) available for binge-watching on shomi here in Canada (Amazon Prime in the US, but season 2  won’t stream until April 2016). This show takes place in London and revolves around a couple in their early 40’s. She is an Irish school teacher; he is American ad executive. After a brief fling, while he is in town on business, she discovers that she is pregnant. With no external pressure, he decides to relocate and give it a go for the long term. So we get to see this couple, who barely know each other in a sober state, [she is listed in his contacts as Sharon – London(sex)] figure out their relationship as they go through the various stages of pregnancy. The show is created and written by the lead actors Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney and it is whip smart. The acting is superb, the banter is witty, the jokes are funny, starting with the title and building from there. Both lead characters have issues, mostly involving potty mouths, alcohol and obnoxious family members (Carrie Fisher is fabulous as Rob’s mom), resulting in many bumps along the way consequently making them very relatable. This is my kind of romantic comedy but I should warn you, this is strictly for adults and the video below is NSFW.

 

 

YOU'RE THE WORST -- KEY ARTYou’re the Worst is another adult-oriented comedy, airing on FX Canada (FXX in the USA), about a couple in a relationship. I hesitate to call it romantic, but it has a sweet side that occasionally melts through the cold cynicism. Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) are 2 caustic people who recognize and appreciate each other’s toxicity. This bond leads them to a pretty dysfunctional but at times funny relationship. Their few friends are screwed up in different ways and this adds to the humour. This show has aired 2 seasons, with a total of 23 episodes and does a good job as a character study. We learn why these 2 are the way they are and it is quite moving. It is also a TV show that is not afraid to portray mental illness, specifically depression, realistically. We see how depression affects those who suffer with it and its effect on those around them. I think it is a brave choice for a comedy. I should place another warning about the embedded video below, definitely NSFW.

 

 

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Speaking of brave choices, don’t let the title of the last show dissuade you. Crazy Exgirlfriend is aware of how demeaning the title is and addresses it in the opening theme.

This show is a satire on romance and modern living that occasionally breaks out remarkably catchy song and dance numbers. If you like comedic musical theatre, this is definitely worth a look. The show is created and written by the star of the show Rachel Bloom. She plays Rebecca Bunch, a “successful” but unhappy lawyer, who suddenly quits her job in NYC and moves to California to live closer to the object of her affection. Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) is a nice guy who dumped her 10 years ago after a summer fling. Rachel clearly has her issues, but no more so than the cast of colourful characters who surround her. They also match her talent for song, dance and humorous quips. There are so many great songs (usually 3 per 45 min episode) in this show it is hard to believe it is only 11 episodes into the 1st season (18 episodes to air in total) on the CW (Global in Canada is streaming all episodes on its mobile app).

Also NSFW are the following videos which showcase some of my favourite songs so far.

Sexy Getting Ready Song

 

Sex With a Stranger

 

Feeling Kinda Naughty

 

I Give Good Parent

 

Last Man on Earth: TV for mothers and daughters

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I was looking for a comedy to enjoy with the kids and stumbled upon the first season of this 1/2 hour Fox TV show. It is available with a new steaming service, shomi, that is bundled with my cable package. So with neither commercials nor a laugh track and some warm buzz from a few of my reliable entertainment sources, I thought I would give it a try. So glad I did. This show is currently on hiatus in the middle of its 2nd season. After binge-watching to get caught up, our wait for its return on March 6th, 2016 is excruciating. So my daughters and I are rewatching it with my husband.  The second time round is even better with his boisterous laugh joining ours.

This is a dark comedy set in the near future (2022) after the world’s population has been wiped out by a virus. The logistics of this tragedy is not dwelled upon. There are no bodies piled up. Rather, the world is a lonely place for Phil Miller (portrayed by Will Forte, also creator of this show) as he laments his solitude. Because he has spray painted billboards with “ALIVE in TUSCON” a few remaining survivors join him and hilarity ensues.

This show has an ensemble of distinct and quirky characters. Each member is a unique combination of sweetness and wacky. The cast includes January Jones in a surprisingly effective turn as Melissa in a traditional “straight man” role. Kristen Schaal is absolutely brilliant as eccentric misinformed grammar-nerd Carol. Will Forte plays Phil Miller as jerk looking for redemption. His character, although funny, can be almost be cringingly painful to watch. I think this show is a brilliant mix of funny dialogue and physical gags. The joke density is such that I caught things that I missed while watching it the 2nd time. There is no multi-tasking while we watch this; it brings our family together for some great shared belly laughs.

I am the first to admit that humour is so very subjective. But if you think you share a similar sense of humour as me and have enjoyed other comedies that I have reviewed,  you may want to check the first episode out at the link below.

Lone Star (1996) revisiting a modern classic

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Lone Star is a film that I remembered really enjoying almost 20 years ago when it was released on home video. I think I watched it then because Roger Ebert raved about it. Gosh I still miss that man’s writing. I didn’t always share his opinion, but I admired his writing tremendously, coveted his job and appreciated that when I read his review, whether positive or negative, I could usually guess if a film was for me or not. But I digress. Back to Lone Star, when I saw that it was playing on premium cable, I set it up to record and enjoyed revisiting it again.

Lone Star is a modern day western mystery set in a Texas border town. We follow sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) piece together clues to a decades old mystery.  In doing so, skeletons tumble out of many closets. He is convinced that his late father, Buddy Deeds, former sheriff and town saviour has something to do with the skeletal remains discovered in a shallow grave on an abandoned shooting range.

In addition to a very compelling mystery, there is a masterful depiction of small town life and its unwritten rules of the social order. There is also subtle commentary about the complexity of Texas history and how it is perceived by an ethnically diverse population. This is also a story about grown men and their fathers, political corruption and love. It is masterfully presented by writer/director John Sayles with many surprises that I daren’t hint at.

The cast is stellar. In addition to a wonderful and subtle performance by Chris Cooper, there is a young Matthew McConaughey as Buddy Deeds in flashback sequences as well as Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Frances McDormand and a young Chandra Wilson.

This is a great film that still holds up 20 years after it was released. If you like mysteries and social commentary this may be worth hunting down.

Black Sails: a Review of the 1st 2 Seasons

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Ever since Spartacus wrapped its epic tale in the spring of 2013, I have been looking for a show to fill the void. What void you ask? Was it the over-the-top adult-oriented premium-cable sex and violence that I missed? No, even I would admit that Spartacus had too much of both at times. I was looking for a serialized historical drama populated by beautiful people, which had a compelling story I hope would keep me guessing. I had tried Vikings but I could not relate to any of the characters. So when I heard that Starz was promoting a new pirate themed TV show called Black Sails and it starred Toby Stephens (my favourite Mr. Rochester from any Jane Eyre Adaptation) I was intrigued. Unfortunately, my cable package didn’t carry it and I waited for the DVD releases. I have just binge-watched the first 2 seasons (8+10 episodes) and I am hooked. Season 3 returns in the US and Canada on January 23, 2016.

 

Black Sails is set primarily in and around Nassau, New Providence Island in the Bahamas in the late 1700’s. The city is overrun by pirates and corrupt business people trying to remain a step ahead of British rule. Black Sails combines fictional pirates (John Silver, Billy Bones and Captain Flint from R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island) with historical figures (Anne Bonny, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane) to create a labyrinthine tale of plotting and plundering. It is somewhat a prequel to the happenings in Treasure Island. It touches many themes such as commerce, sovereignty, power, idealism, pragmatism, stoicism, politics, leadership, hierarchy, corruption, manipulation, loyalty, sexuality (including LGBT portrayals) and gender roles. Season 1 is primarily concerned with local infighting which serves as a backdrop for the main quest, the hunt for a Spanish ship transporting gold.

This show has a terrific ensemble, including Toby Stephens as Captain Flint, Luke Arnold as a young 2-legged John Silver and Hannah New as Eleanor Guthrie, supplier (and chief fence) of the colony. I especially enjoy the chemistry between co-conspirators Toby Schmitz as Rackham, Clara Paget as Anne Bonny and Jessica Parker Kennedy as local madame, Max. The characters are complex and distinctly developed over the course of 18 episodes. We learn more about the backstory of some of the characters, specifically Captain Flint and his companion Mrs Barlow, in Season 2, via flash back and well-crafted expository dialogue.

 

The South African coast is a sumptuous double for the West Indies. And I guess this is as good a time as any to confess that I do not enjoy sailing; my husband and 2 daughters have gone on 2 sailing vacations without me in the Caribbean. Also I know absolutely nothing about the mechanics of it. Despite this confession, I found the scenes onboard the ships to be spectacular, especially during battles and storms. There are some awesomely gruesome fights done in a realistic style, rather than Spartacus’ over-the-top blood-fests. I had to turn the sound down and avert my eyes on a few occasions.

I am a sucker for underdogs and this show is busting with them. I guess I enjoy Black Sails for the same reasons I love film noir. Although most of the characters exist on the fringes and do horrible things; these egregious acts are often a means to ensure survival in an unjust world. I love when a great scheme is underway, hits a snag and forces clever characters to improvise. Black Sails reminds me of both Spartacus and Deadwood; it is almost as grubby yet sadly, not nearly as poetic. There is a sprinkling of wry dark humour, often delivered by either John Silver or Jack Rackham. Thankfully there is nothing as goofy as Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (a little of that went a long way; I could not watch beyond the 2nd instalment of that franchise).

I am not sure I can wait another year for season 3 to be released on DVD.

 

If you like pirates, buff beautiful actors, twisty plots full of double and triple crosses, good fights and beautiful scenery, this might be one to check out. The first episode can be seen embedded below.

Please Like Me: a Review

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Please Like Me is an Australian TV show that was picked up this summer by CBC when it aired the first 2 seasons. It is the creation of Josh Thomas who is a wonderful young comedic talent. The show is based on his award-winning stand-up comedy, which mines his life for material. This TV show is sweet, romantic and very, very funny. I had read about it in Entertainment Weekly magazine, the A.V. Club’s reviews and then it got a shout out on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Before long, I was intrigued, but I missed it when it aired on the CBC. So I decided to buy the first episode on iTunes. I was smitten and promptly bought the first 2 seasons. It is amazing how quickly I can burn through 16 episodes (almost 7 hours) when I have a week off work. This show kept me on the treadmill and in the kitchen chopping things and cooking up meals days in advance.

 

Not only does he produce and write the show, Josh Thomas stars as Josh, a young university student who is almost 21 years old. We first meet him as he is being dumped by his long-time girlfriend because they have “drifted” and according to her, he is gay. He seeks solace from his best friend and housemate, Tom (Thomas Ward, Josh Thomas’ best friend in real life) and a new friend, Geoffrey. His divorced parents are around, but they are of little help with troubles of their own.

 

This show is aimed at an older audience. There is no laugh track. It has super funny dialogue spoken in wonderful Australian accents, plenty of visual gags and a charming cast of distinctly quirky characters. It is a coming of age story that deals with insecurity, sexuality, mental health, dysfunctional families, romance and relationships (gay and straight, young and old). Oh yes, I almost forgot, there is an underlying love of food and cooking peppered throughout. This is a show with lots of heart and I especially admire its realist depiction of mental illness. It refuses to pretend to have easy answers. I can’t wait for CBC to air the 3rd season, which is currently airing in Australia on the Australian Broadcasting Corp and in the USA on Pivot Network. In the meantime I am watching it again with my daughters. The first episode had them begging for more.

Master of None: a Review

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I just finished mainlining Aziz Ansari‘s new Netflix original series Master of None (10, 30 min episodes) and was absolutely charmed. My familiarity with Ansari was restricted to a few interviews and a stand-up comedy special. He was a regular cast member of TV show Parks and Recreation, but I may have only caught a few episodes of that.

Master of None was getting some great buzz from Entertainment Weekly, the A.V. Club, so I thought I would give it a try. Ansari plays Dev, whom I suspect is a fictionalized version of himself. Dev is the 30 something, American-born, son of immigrants from Tamil Nadu, India. He is an actor, living in NYC, who is trying to make it into the movies after a string of successful TV commercials. Like many adults his age, he is trying to figure out his life, especially his career and romantic relationships. Along the way we watch him navigate not only those troubled areas but also his relationships with his parents and a fun and diverse group of friends.

 

This show is billed as a comedy and it is funny, but not in a traditional jokey sit-com way (no laugh track). The dialogue is super clever and there is some physical comedy too. At times it can be quite dark and at other times quite sentimental. Each episode deals with a specific and often refreshingly unique approach to a theme (i.e. parents, the portrayal of Indians and other minorities on TV, the elderly, cheating, gender differences) with an authentic voice. This show does not dodge controversy. The main and the supporting characters are richly portrayed, uniquely distinguishable and wonderfully acted. I was especially pleased to learn that Ansari cast his non-actor parents as Dev’s parents on the show. As an added treat, Master of None offers a great array of guest actors including Claire DanesH. Jon Benjamin, Noah Emmerich and Danielle Brooks.

Kudos to TV show creators Ansari and Alan Yang for successfully and humourously tackling subjects that are usually eschewed by traditional TV shows. Although not a visible minority, I, as a, North American-born, child of immigrants (from Eastern Europe), could relate to many of Dev’s stories. Except for his career trajectory (sorry no spoilers here), how he managed to avoid a professional career path as a doctor, dentist or lawyer  (listed in hierarchical order of prestige, at least according to the way my parents thought) with the support of his parents is a story that I wish I knew more about. Maybe I will find out next season? I look forward to there being one. In the meantime, I think I will wait a few months and watch it again with my daughters. This will be a fun show to revisit and use as a springboard for discussion with them.

Being Erica: a Review

Being Erica Cast

I just finished binge re-watching Being Erica on DVD. Being Erica is an unabashedly Canadian TV show that aired on CBC from 2009 – 2011. It had 4 short seasons with a total of 49 episodes (45 min each). I loved it when I first watched, as it aired weekly all those years ago and I loved it even more after revisiting it.

Being Erica is an awesome combination of romance, comedy, drama and fantasy. Erica Strange (enchantingly played by Erin Karpluk) is a 32 year old woman whose life is not what she hoped it would be. Then she meets Dr. Tom (Michael Riley in a scene stealing portrayal). Dr Tom gives her an offer she cannot refuse, the opportunity to travel back in time to relive her regrets in an attempt to learn from her mistakes.

 

Erica is very flawed, but very relatable. Watching her stumble through her questionable life choices is not only very entertaining but somewhat humbling as I am reminded of some of my own. Who wouldn’t want a Dr. Tom to guide us, with his many fun quotes (which a great blogger compiled here Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4)? This show is aspirational but not preachy. It makes no secret of its Toronto setting, which I find refreshing. It does not dwell at all on the mechanics of time travel, which I appreciate. It is not a perfect show; however, the flaws (egregious product placement, characters with annoying affectations) are easily forgotten when considering its strengths. It has a great ensemble cast, surprisingly good character development, a satisfying conclusion and it knew when to quit.

If you are looking for something fun and Canadian, you may want to check this show out. It is available on Canadian Netflix or you can watch the 1st episode online here

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