July 25, 2010 Leave a comment

‘Inception’ could go down as one of my favourite films of all time. It is smart, brilliantly constructed, and thoroughly entertaining. Most of all, it is a wonderful breeding ground for further discussion about dreams and dreamworlds, consciousness and subconscious motivations, architectrure (in terms of design, as well as the architecture of an idea), creative inspiration, and the idea of an idea. And surely, there is a whole lot more.

Christopher Nolan has explored so many topics, themes, and ideas in his seven feature films, it would take chapters to discuss them all. Instead, here is My Top 7 Christopher Nolan list… and it’s worth  noting that the idea for this list is not my own.

Number 7: THE PRESTIGE (2006)
This was a good film, but in my opinion, an easy choice for the bottom of this list. Quite simply, it’s just not up to Nolan’s standards. The whole thing is just too unfathomable, and although it’s not completely Nolan’s fault since he did not write the original story (based on a novel), I didn’t really buy it. That being said, it is still a very decent film, and Nolan’s direction makes it worthwhile to watch.

Number 6: INSOMNIA (2002)
‘Insomnia’ is an excellent film in a more or less boring crime drama category. The cast is fantastic, as usual in all of Nolan’s films, and it was very enjoyable to watch. The lines between good cop and bad/corrupt cop for Pacino’s character are blurred, and even his character doesn’t really know if he’s doing the right thing.  The distinction is complicated even further by the character’s feelings of guilt and his inability to sleep. Guilt and motivation seems to be a common theme in Nolan’s films, and the question/assertion that the end justifies the means.

Number 5: BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
This may be the better of the two Batman films (to date) if not for Heath Ledger’s performance in ‘The Dark Knight’. Simply brilliant!

Number 4: MEMENTO (2000)
This was Nolan’s first breakout film, and it was a stunning achievement. The opening sequence with the fading polaroid was a clever touch to start the film, and you never really know what’s going on until the end. Nolan really loves messing with our heads. Just like ‘Insomnia’, he takes an often boring genre, a simple revenge plot in this case, and makes it extraordinary. And as we would come to see perfected in ‘Inception’, Nolan displays an uncanny ability to leave you wanting more at the end.

Number 3: FOLLOWING (1999)
‘Following’ is Nolan’s first ever feature film, and it is brilliant! It’s dark and deceitful, imaginative, and highly intelligent. And it’s a film noir, possibly my all time favourite film genre. As for the film itself, who hasn’t sat around watching other people, strangers, wondering where they’ve been and where they’re going? Nolan takes that fascination twelve steps further, and in a brisk 71 minutes, we see just how deep into desperation and despair one can go – or be taken – when trying break into the lives of others… sound familiar?

Number 2: THE DARK KNIGHT (2006)
Nolan did a wonderful job reigniting the Batman franchise with ‘Batman Begins’, and he continues to demonstrate his talents in ‘The Dark Knight’. And with all due respect to Mr. Nolan, Heath Ledger made this film! It was Nolan’s casting that brought in Heath, and Heath did the rest. Nolan’s character development for The Joker and Ledger’s unrivaled performance will live on in film lore. The opening bank robbery sequence is also one of the best opening sequences I can recall, and the terrorist-style Joker video is as chilling and spine-tingling as anything I’ve ever seen.

Number 1: INCEPTION (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece? It’s possible. In time, we will see. ‘Inception’ is vintage Nolan, in regards to themes, ideas, layers, characters, casting, story-telling and cinematic achievement. He has incorporated elements from every film he’s ever made into ‘Inception’: from ‘Following’, going into other people’s lives and livelihood (through their dreams in Inception); from ‘Memento’, the motivations of a person that manifest to mask intense feelings of guilt; from ‘Insomnia’, questions of whether the end justifies the means, blurring the lines between what’s right and what’s wrong; and the ability to direct some of the most intense and imaginative action sequences, which he showcased in the Batman films. It’s all there! With ‘Inception’, Nolan does everything he’s done before, but better, and with greater imagination in script, story, and theme; and he did it all with an incredibly talented cast and top notch entertainment value.

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The SATC Lifestyle

June 1, 2010 1 comment

The Chicago Blackhawks won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final by a most unexpected, and very exciting 6-5 score, and where was I instead of watching an instant classic… on a double date watching Sex And The City 2! God, help me!

So now I feel the need to write about the cultural phenomenon that is the “SATC lifestyle.” Please God, help me!
A female friend had just seen the latest installment of the franchise on Opening Night, and reported to me about the amazing scene that she witnessed at the local cineplex. Huge groups of women, well-dressed and possibly half drunk, went to the event together. My friend-turned-beat reporter was not to be left out, and was also with ten of her closest friends at the theatre that evening. And from her observations, it truly was something resembling an important cultural event.
As a movie, it was a rather poor two-and-a-half hour marathon, awfully disjointed in its story-telling, and unnecessarily long-winded with far too many scenes having no relevance to the overall story. On the other hand, SATC is a television-turned-movie franchise that has truly captured the imaginations and honest desires of many liberal women, single or married (probably mostly single/dating), many likely 30-something or older, who embrace the virtues of sexual and personal freedoms, and self-empowerment.
And we can certainly say that it is a legitimate form of empowerment simply because this important (female) cultural phenomenon is very much similar to the generally-accepted male mentality and attitudes towards sex and lifestyle. The SATC lifestyle simply reflects many of the same attitudes from a female perspective.
In some ways, the SATC lifestyle is a counter-cultural phenomenon. It’s girl power, but with more common sense and a more realistic line of thought. It’s not really about shouting it out or about being a feminist; rather,  it’s much more about just living a lifestyle that includes clothing and fashion, dating and relationships, sex and friends, personal and professional. It appreciates many of the same values that male culture would embrace about sex, work, life and freedom. And ultimately, it embraces these values by presenting them as intrinsically HUMAN values, while in the meantime, promoting something very different from the male mentality when it comes to personal interests, humour, and discussion topics.
For a man, going to see this movie was a very interesting event to witness and be a part of, and I certainly noticed many of the same things that my female friend noticed about the enthusiastic audience. The in-theatre commentary screamed out from the audience was of a different brand. For example, at a certain point during the movie when I began to complain about how long the movie was, I received a sarcastic response from a woman behind me: “That’s what you get!”
Perhaps this particular woman has taken the SATC lifestyle and attitude to a not-so-charming extreme, as people sometimes do when they find a strong personal appreciation for a piece of popular culture; but overall, it is an interesting cultural phenomenon that is really quite representative of more liberal 21st century attitudes, one that most likely could have only surfaced in the mass media for today’s generation of women. And I would hazard a guess that most women who have a strong appreciation for the franchise see it for what it is: a legitimate source for their own personal and professional empowerment, without resorting to pointless male-bashing and misrepresented political agendas.

And now, I’m off to watch the Stanley Cup Final, Game 2. Go Hawks!

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Diary of an immigrant family

April 8, 2010 3 comments

An interesting anecdote recently came to my mind, about families and the cultural, and possibly generational differences that exist within even the most cohesive family units.

Here, we have a family of five living in Canada, two parents and three siblings. This is an immigrant family from a country that upholds very different cultural values, where children’s upbringings are much more strict and structured. The three children of this family were all born in the family’s home country. The third was only an infant when the family moved to Canada, while the two older siblings were both already in grade school.
Along with the parents’ decision to move to Canada comes the inevitable reality that their children will be brought up in a much different cultural environment than back home. The parents wholly realize and accept this reality, and also know that they will still – or at least try to – hold on to their traditions within home and within the family unit. 
So the question becomes whether or not this kind of co-existent cultural dynamic is realistically possible? Can parents really raise their children within one external cultural environment and expect that the same children will be able to maintain a high level of their ancestral cultural background in the home? 
Are the differences in personal views between children and parents only inherent in an immigrant family like the kind described above, or is it also – or more-so – a generational difference?
Within the family described above, the oldest of the three children is very much like how the parents imagined: (s)he holds the values of the family’s own cultural traditions of structure and discipline, but is also very much Canadian in many of his/her values and attitudes. In this case, the end result that the parents aimed to achieve comes to fruition, and this first child is very much Canadian, while maintaining the values within the traditional family unit. 
The second child is much different, perhaps a little undecided about whether to uphold the family tradition or go in the complete opposite direction; ultimately, this one will fall to the side that makes the most sense to his/her personality. This child does not embody the kind of hard structure and discipline that the parents believe in and promote wholeheartedly, and he/she rejects traditional values of stability and security, which the parents believe must be the ultimate source of happiness. Instead, the second child lives a very liberal lifestyle open to many possibilities, believing that this is a much more realistic source of happiness for his/her personality.
The third child is Canadian in heart and soul. This child will uphold the traditions, values, and beliefs of the Canadian way and will live life accordingly. Meanwhile, the third can also understand and entirely support and respect the tradition and beliefs of the parents; after all, it is the Canadian way to be tolerant of all systems of belief, and to respect the traditions of all cultures. Like the second, the third maintains a liberal lifestyle open to many possibilities, BUT also understands the value in striving for some level of stability and security in order to find eventual happiness.
So how much of these differences are cultural – a dialogue relevant to immigrant families – and how much of this is simply generational – a dialogue between all parents and children?

Clearly, these kinds of personality conflicts within a family unit can exist within immigrant families and native families alike. The question is more about how the family members treat these differences. The parents of the immigrant family will often be very strict and impose rather restrictive expectations upon their children and their personal lives, eg. to marry someone of the same cultural/racial background; or to go to University and get a job they can keep until they retire.

Would we also find these same kinds of high impositions from parents on their children in native families? Certainly it exists, but is it then more of a generational, rather than cultural conflict of personalities; and do we see these generational conflicts within a family as much as we see the cultural ones within an immigrant family like the one described above?

Based purely on subjective empirical evidence, I believe that in Canada, we see a lot more of the cultural conflict within immigrant families, and this does make sense given that Canada is widely known to be an incredible cultural mosaic. The generational conflicts within a family unit will exist more in countries that have a much deeper history, and a more one-dimensional cultural dynamic.

We see the generational conflicts much more in America, and this dynamic is played out and popularized in American mainstream media, in movies and TV dramas and sitcoms. Given this realization, perhaps Canadian media could create an entire industry that focuses more on the cultural context that exists here, for example, Little Mosque On The Prairie…?!?

But I digress! 

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Charlie Winston

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

… And here’s another great artist to look out for, Charlie Winston.

I saw Charlie and his band open for Bedouin Soundclash at The Mod Club in Toronto, and they were excellent, and Charlie was genuinely entertaining. And whadya know, he’s British!

Is it just me, or does so much great music really originate in the UK? Them cheeky Brits come up with so much that is new and great, a new groove or idea; and then Americans steal it, popularize it, and make all the money from it… damn Yankee hacks! =P

In any case, listen to Charlie Winston. If I had to describe his music in one word… GENUINE!

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Middle Class Rut (MC Rut)

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

One week ago, I went to see Alice In Chains at Sound Academy, and it was the best concert I’ve been to in a long time. This was the first time I’ve seen AIC live, and it was everything I wanted it would be. Going to a live show and seeing your favourite bands / artists perform is an experience beyond anything else!

The great surprise of the night was the opening band, Middle Class Rut from Sacramento, California. MC Rut shares some similarities with Filter and Jane’s Addiction, but with a more “apocalyptic” feel in the sound, and in particular, the live performance. MC Rut is a two-piece band, drummer and guitarist – á la White Stripes – and the two members share vocal duties. What a very pleasant surprise!

The sound was loud and thundering in the live performance (though interestingly, they sound much more dry and muted in the studio). The live show was a relentless pummeling of the senses that left me with a powerful feeling not associated with a particular memory of my own, but created out of the music itself.

The kind of “apocalyptic” sound prominent in MC Rut’s music might even be the direction that new music will take. Such a description certainly seems appropriate as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, just as “grunge” was an appropriate label at the end of the 1980s, when a minimalistic form of new music emerged out of the incredibly superficial and materially-obsessed decade preceding. We just need to come up with something more marketable, and less tacky than “apocalyptic” music.

The elements in MC Rut’s music are not new, but the presentation and the song structures, at least on some level, are a real revelation. As an old quote about creative writing goes, “About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment” (Josh Billings). This is a joke, of course, but it holds true, especially for new generations. Truly, great creativity must come in the form of innovation, with good judgments made on the influence.

Check out MC Rut:

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SXSW – Wraps and reviews

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

A few posts earlier, I commented on the fact that there doesn’t appear to be much new and great in popular music in the first ten years of the 21st century. The 4-day South by Southwest festival that took place over the past weekend offers an interesting look into the state of new and emerging music, and also – perhaps, more-so – the old, familiar favourites.

There is some debate on what the spirit of the SXSW festival is really about: some believe that it is a breeding ground for new independent acts that are being given an opportunity to showcase their talents and product to industry people and fans; others will argue that the indie element is only a small part. The bulk of the attention may inevitably be reserved for bands and artists of way-past generations to show that they still have it (Smokey Robinson), and maybe get industry backing for a reunion tour; and for come back attempts from the likes of the once-popular Hole, and the still-relevant Stone Temple Pilots. FYI, STP is about to release a new album.

Whatever the case, it’s difficult to ignore the reality of the latter opinion, as cynical as it may seem. SXSW ultimately is an industry event, and industry people – managers, producers, record labels, etc. – are interested in the tried and true, especially in the absence of the undeniably new and bold. They are also interested in come back stories. Come backs sell! Come backs, by definition, have a market and a fan base already established, and they can market the old to the new – market to a younger fan base.

This is a formula very much like the one used for movie trilogies and franchises, ahem.. Star Wars, Terminator…

And then there’s the trouble that some reviewers of the 4-day event didn’t really feel much of a buzz about any of the performances, that everything seemed more or less muted and unoriginal. Not to say that the event wasn’t a success, it certainly featured plenty of great music and artists; it’s only that nothing very interesting was said to have emerged from the performances.

Nevertheless, I’ll say this: if you’ve never been to a festival concert before, make it a point to go this summer. It’s an experience worth having – like driving 10,000 km back and forth across Canada 😉 – and new or not, great music is still great music! Even veteran concert-goers can find new reasons to go back again and again.

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The art of persuasion – a new age of reverse psychology

March 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Major League Baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, has been reported to be considering a re-alignment idea that would allow teams to switch divisions year to year based on geography, payroll, and intentions to contend for a championship. It’s difficult not to wonder if this is really as ridiculous as it sounds.

An article in the Toronto Star written by Richard Griffin suggest that Selig, not being as dumb as the floating re-alignment idea makes him seem, “must [have] another motive behind this initiative,” and “must be angling for something else… for instance, a few additional wild-card teams” to give more teams a chance to contend.

Griffin’s suspicion seems reasonable, and it seems to be a certain kind of reverse psychology in an attempt to get what he wants without having to take responsibility for suggesting it. It’s clever, and really very simple.

I recently saw a repeat episode of That 70s Show in which Donna forces Eric to help register for their wedding. As you might imagine, Eric does not want any part of the shopping excursion, and so his dad advises Eric to suggest registering items that are so incredibly ugly and unappealing that it will force Donna to say, “Oh forget it, I’ll just do it myself!” Eric takes the advice and it works like a charm.

It’s so simple! And maybe event a little immature; yet, these are the tactics that sports leagues like to employ so often to get their way without having to propose the changes themselves.

Meanwhile, all the talk in the hockey world has been about a problem with head shots. The recent Matt Cooke incident was the last straw for the NHL, and every hockey observer on both sides of the legal and illegal hits debate stood up and said that something has to be done… RIGHT NOW!

A General Managers meeting took place and it was agreed that a new rule will be enacted to outlaw blind-side hits to the head. The NHL releases the news on the decision, explaining that once the new rule proposal is reviewed and accepted by the competition committee – a separate representative players committee – it will be entered into the rule book for the start of next season. At this point, it’s hard to believe that the rule proposal would not be accepted.

On the same day that this news is released, the NHL makes a surprise decision to NOT suspend Matt Cooke for his blind-side head hit on Marc Savard. Not surprisingly, the decision is met with incredible controversy, considering the severity of the hit, and that Savard is out the rest of the season suffering the effects of a serious concussion. Back in October, a very similar hit was delivered by Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers, which also did not result in any supplemental discipline, so the NHL says, the ruling must remain consistent with the rule back and with past precedents.

It appears consistency is the name of the game for the NHL (however contradictory this may seem for the NHL, perhaps good fodder for a whole other discussion). As long as they can argue consistency, the league seems to believe they cannot be questioned.

And so it goes as planned and the NHL is now faced with outside pressure to not wait until the start of next season, and put the rule into effect as soon as possible. After all, Cooke was not suspended because the new rule is not currently in place. That means until the rule comes into effect, it remains open season on blind-side head shots. Clearly, nobody wants this violence to continue any longer, so for the protection of the players and in the best interest of the league, the decision is made to not wait for a full review from the competition committee, and the NHL will go ahead with the necessary training for referees and have the rule entered into the book before the start of the playoffs.

Considering the importance and severity of the issue at hand, the NHL probably could have made the decision to speed up the process on their own without waiting for outside pressures to build. Surely, no one really would have questioned the NHL for making a bold executive decision for a speedy rule change. Yet, it’s possible they even played out this charade to force the hand of the competition committee and the players association, generating the necessary outside pressures to avoid a brouhaha with stubborn athletes. Ultimately, it’s really just so much easier to respond to external pressures than to honestly acknowledge their own responsibilities.

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March 10, 2010 3 comments

After scoring the “golden goal” in the Olympic men’s hockey final against the USA, Sidney Crosby was offered to appear on David Letterman to read the Top 10 list. Sid turned down the offer.

The New York Post released the story, claiming that Sid “snubbed” Letterman and ruined a – pun intended – golden opportunity to promote the NHL in America. Ironically, the “snub” story is now all over the Internet, and has probably created more publicity than what could have been created with a simple appearance on the show.

Journalists clearly wanted to see the appearance and write about it, and the story of Letterman’s invite and Crosby’s “snub” ends up being written about anyway. This shows something about how the media operates in the information age. If they are already interested to write something before the story even happens, they will write about it whether there ends up being a story or not.

The potential for a story is enough to believe it will be written. The question is about WHAT will be written.

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Jay vs Conan: a generational discourse

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Jay Leno is back hosting The Tonight Show. I can’t say I really care, and as I’ve always done with late night shows, I’ll watch it if there is a guest appearance I want to see.

As for the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle, I am firmly in Conan’s corner. But for the record, I do not feel bad for Conan, nor do I have any real sentiments for or against Jay.
If you are unfamiliar with what happened, here is the full story.
Apart from simply taking sides, what really stands out to me is that Jay and Conan represent two very different attitudes and views on life, and it appears to be a matter of specific generational differences.
When Jay was offered to take back the 11:35 time slot, he accepted the offer without too much consideration for Conan’s position. Jay defended, “Where I come from, when your boss gives you a job and you don’t do it well…” He doesn’t really finish the thought, but we get the point. When Mr. Boss Man offers you a job, you take it. And if you don’t do it well, you get canned and leave quietly.
Meanwhile, Conan was offered the opportunity to keep The Tonight Show, but bumped back half an hour, with the half hour from 11:35 to 12:05 reserved for Jay’s show. Conan turned down the offer, saying in a statement that he does not want to be part of what he believes to be the destruction of The Tonight Show legacy. He essentially calls out his bosses for poor management, embarrasses them publicly, and leaves with full severance for him and his entire staff.
We can see pretty clearly here that the Jay vs Conan debate is about much more than just late night TV and a fledgling network. It’s also about the conveniently well-defined differences in life views between Jay and Conan, and between their respective audiences. The lines are clear, and there is very little middle ground to speak of.
Jay and his audience represent the attitudes of Baby Boomers. In a competitive world, you have to look out for your own interests, and you have to play the game to achieve stability. Conan didn’t get the job done and he didn’t get the ratings as host of The Tonight Show. The Jay Leno Show also tanked and Jay gets cancelled too. The fall back for Jay, of course, is that The Tonight Show with Jay Leno has a history of success so Jay gets The Tonight Show back.
Conan and his followers are the Gen-X’rs who are willing to sacrifice their jobs and other symbols of life stability to hold strong to their principles. Maybe it’s a little naive, or maybe it’s the generation of people that have faced less competition than their predecessors and have the luxury to stand more firmly for their beliefs. Maybe having the option to explore the world more freely and the right to refuse breeds a certain kind of cynicism notorious in Gen-X’rs. This is a generation of people who have had far greater opportunities for insight into the kinds of injustices and power struggles that exist.
Even Conan can see the underlying discourse here. At the very least, he certainly knows his audience.
In his parting speech near the end of his last Tonight Show episode, he directs his final statement particularly to “young people”:
“Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favourite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen!”
In a moment of true clarity, Conan takes a step back and appears to transcend the obvious generational differences. His self-awareness is impressive, and in his parting words, he chooses to extol the virtues and break down the pratfalls of both generations. And we must admit, we can all learn a thing or two from both sides.
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Where has all the good music gone?

March 7, 2010 1 comment

Recently, I’ve had many discussions with friends regarding the state of popular music today. The common opinion seems to be that there is very little new music that is worth hearing anymore.

I listen to a lot of music, and I am in constant search for new music, for my own enjoyment, and also for the purpose of understanding past influences on new and emerging sounds. And I can’t help but notice that the observations are true: it is becoming rare to hear any good quality new music, let alone anything that can be said to be influential or inspiring.
The twentieth century was full of great music – from one decade to the next – and we can point to each time period that gave rise to emerging genres, unique styles, and interesting revivals and hybrids.
From jazz music emerging at the beginning of the twentieth century and finding its popularity in various different forms in the 20s, 30s and 40s; to rock, hip hop, r&b, dance, and electronic in the latter half of the century; music in the twentieth century was well-inspired, and continues to influence new music today.
The first ten years of the 21st century, by contrast, has been simply dull and uninspired. Not to say there have not been bad trends in music in the past. Just consider disco in the 70s and superficial glam rock and hair metal of the 80s, and we can see that not everything is wonderful. But while there were misfires, great quality music existed in the meantime, with rock music in its heyday in the 70s, and the emergence of hip hop, rap, and pop in the 80s. 
In the first part of the 21st century, rock has evolved into little boys whining about lost love and broken dreams. Pop music that emerged with Madonna and Michael Jackson in the 80s is now just a derivative of the sappy boy bands and bubble gum teen pop that emerged in the late 90s. And hip hop and rap have turned into punchlines, thanks to the likes of Kanye West and 50 Cent.

Nothing has come out in the last ten years that we can realistically expect to be influential to artists twenty years from now.

Is it a problem of recycling? One friend theorizes that music today is simply trying to revive music of the past, only in very poor quality. This seems pretty accurate since nothing new has emerged since the turn of the century, and the only good that we hear seems to come from bands and artists that emerged in the 90s or earlier.
Given the historical perspective, perhaps we’ve simply reached a point of saturation when new ideas are much more difficult to come by. Maybe all that’s left to do in music will be left to creative DJs and mashup artists to put different spins on previously created sounds. I’m hoping that it’s just a temporary lull in the history of new music, and we will soon begin to see quality music emerge again.
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