Toronto Interlude – Southend

First entry for the ongoing Toronto blog in a while, and it’s about the time I wasn’t in Toronto, or even in Canada. That’s right, this entry is about my recent trip to my home town, Southend-on-Sea.

Where to even begin with this one? There was a lot I had to pack in during this week. Pretty impressive, considering I had to mostly keep quiet about it (I’ll explain why), so a lot of it had to be sorted out on the spot.

I suppose the best place to start is seeing the family again. That was definitely brilliant. Over a year since I had seen them last, it’s the longest time I had been away from them, by a long, long way. It was brilliant to come back to chatting while watching TV together and family dinners. (Especially to mum’s lasagna. Seriously, my mother cooks the best lasagna in the world.)

However, as much as I got to spend time with them, they were also really generous with just letting me do my own thing, so I’m super grateful to them for that. Because with so many places to go and people to see, it was great that I had as much free time as I did.

Railway, Revolution and role-playing

One place I had been eager to see was the Railway Hotel. Bloody hell, I had missed that place. It’s one of those places which generally has a great atmosphere and is perfect for meeting up with friends, or simply catching a day’s entertainment.

And a day’s entertainment was exactly what I got when I checked out a charity show, as organised by one of my friends from improv. A great mix of spoken word, comedy, live music and even burlesque! (I guess that last part is something my favourite place in Southend has in common with two of my favourite places in Toronto: Cherry Cola’s and The Royal cinema.) A perfect example of why I had missed that place.

On Tuesday, I got to meet up with several friends for a quiz at a place called Revolution, which I had never been to before. It was pretty fun. While I only really helped to give one answer during the quiz, (“What year was Skyfall released?”, an easy one as it came out during Bond’s 50th year,) it was great to not just chat with several mates, but also get talking to new people. This was something that would’ve been a lot more difficult, once upon a time.

Middle of the week, I got to hang out with one of my oldest friends from high school. Best part of that was being introduced to several of his friends while briefly joining them for their current role-playing campaign. While I’ve come close to playing Dungeons & Dragons before, that was pretty much the first time I actually took part in a session. It was fun. At times, it even reminded me of improv, as there were a couple of moments I had to think on my feet. Definitely something I should take part in more often.

On the night before I flew back, I got to meet up with several more friends down the Alex pub. Once again, it was good chatting to mates, especially over drinks. And I got talked into staying out a little later than planned, which admittedly was nice. (Not too late though, as my flight really was the next morning.) Not a bad way to round the week off.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the highlight of the week. Something that I had been looking forward to for months, and in fact, helped me to choose that particular week for me to come back. Specifically, my best friend’s 30th birthday.

Planning for a surprise

It’s something that I more or less had been planning for for months. In fact, I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t something I had thought about while I had been preparing for my move to Canada last year. Even while I was about to make a huge step with my life, I couldn’t help but feel that missing something as big as my best friend’s thirtieth just felt wrong. She’s someone who’s been a truly great friend to me over the years ever since high school, and I’ve always done my best to return the favour. However, with trying to sort out stuff like a job and a place to live in a new country, it was something that I decided to put to one side.

Cut to the middle of this year. Mum and Dad were talking about having me over for Christmas, or rather, an early Christmas at least, when the flights were more affordable. Initially, the first or second week of December looked like a good time. Early, but not too early.

Then I got to thinking about my best friend’s thirtieth. The more I thought about it, the more it just seemed too good to miss. Especially when she sent me an invitation. I explained to her that it was looking very unlikely that I’d be around that time, and she understood. More than that, she had pretty much expected it. But she wanted to keep me informed, at least. I think that’s when I knew that I was going to surprise her.

Props to Mum and Dad, they were very accommodating with helping me to arrange a trip for the end of November. It was soon after one of their own holidays, but they didn’t mind, which I’m super thankful for. And Mum even loved the idea that my friend had no idea I was coming back.

Over the next few months, the main focus was on getting the perfect birthday present. Something that would be unbeatable. This initially proved to be tricky. Over the past few years, me and my friend have been trying hard to outdo each other with presents. Last year, she gave me a Doctor Who waistcoat. Custom made. By her mum.

How the fuck was I supposed to outdo that?

Fan Expo

Thankfully, the idea for the perfect present arrived instantly while I was at Fan Expo, a convention in Toronto at the end of August. Of the many actors, writers and artists signing autographs, there was one person that significantly stood out: Nell Campbell.

While I had only seen Rocky Horror once and barely remembered it at all, my best friend has always been a huge fan of it. To the point where she has dressed as the character Columbia several times. So the idea of a personalized autograph from Columbia herself was too good an opportunity to miss.

I must admit, I was nervous about asking for it. Especially as the people in front of me were clearly huge fans, and had tons of stories to tell Nell. And there I was, with this image in my head of me saying, “Hi, I’ve only seen your film once and hardly remember it, but would you mind signing this autograph for a mate of mine? Cheers.”

Thankfully, that awkwardness didn’t happen. Particularly because Nell Campbell is super nice. Seriously, she’s clearly such a lovely person. The first thing she did was point out what I was wearing: the Doctor Who waistcoat. She asked me a ton of questions about the show, about who was my favourite Doctor, even about Sherlock. I answered quite happily, always conscious of trying not to go into too much detail. (As you can see from this length of this blog, I can really go on about awesome stuff.)

I made sure to tell her about my friend, and even show a pic of her in costume. Nell was really impressed, and not only signed the photo, but also took a selfie with me to show off to my friend.

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When I sent it to her, I received a mixture of emotions that started with jealousy and rage, before becoming super happy when I told her how much Nell enjoyed the costume pic I showed her.

Of course, she didn’t work out why I had gotten the selfie until months later…

A long expected party

Cut to late November. It’s the night of my best friend’s birthday, I’m holding her birthday present and card, and I’m heading in, feeling a mixture of nervousness and excitement. There was no big entrance or an announcement of, “Surprise, muthafucka!” or anything like that. I’ve always been a fan of the quiet entrance, myself. So I casually arrived at the party, hoping that the months of secrecy would pay off.

It did. So, so fucking much. The look on her face when she saw me was perfect, and her reaction was even better than I had hoped for. She really didn’t expect me at all, and she absolutely loved the surprise. That reaction alone made every single mile traveled worth it.

In fact, as much as I went on about getting the greatest present ever (seriously, let’s see you try and beat that one), I think it was overshadowed completely by the fact that I had showed up at all.

The rest of the night was chatting and catching up with everyone, eating buffet food, and of course, karaoke. (Naturally, I sung the song that I not only always sing, but was absolutely perfect for the occasion: I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers. Definitely glad I got to sing that one!)

As I look back on my week back home, there’s a couple of things I’ve realized. First, that while I haven’t missed the town so much, I have missed the people. There are a lot of awesome people back home – so many, in fact, that I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to catch up with all of them – and they’ve been what I’ve missed most about the place.

Second, that the move to Canada was definitely the right thing. In a lot of ways, I’ve remained my ol’ geeky self. But in other ways, I’ve changed a lot. Toronto has been a fucking amazing experience, and I think that’s going to continue for a good while yet.

Lastly, I need to thank a lot of people. Thanks to Mum and Dad for being so accommodating and allowing me so much time to spend catching up with my friends. Thanks to all of my friends, especially those who had no idea I was coming back and therefore had to meet up with me at such short notice.

And of course, thanks to my best friend, a woman who’s given me far more faith, trust and friendship than I’ve ever deserved, and someone who really helped me to believe that I really could do anything. Giving you an awesome present and a nice surprise doesn’t repay that, but I hope I made such a major occasion just that little bit extra special.

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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I’m going to be honest: I’ve never seen In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths. The reason I bring this up is that both films were written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Both are on my to-watch list, though. But I’m just making it clear that he wasn’t the reason I rushed to see his new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

No, there were two other reasons I rushed to see it. The first was the cast list, which is absolutely fantastic. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell – all have proved themselves to be amazing actors over the years, so a film with all three involved was bound to be worth a watch.

The other reason was the trailer. Seriously, if you haven’t done so already, just watch it. It’s the kind of trailer that lets you know exactly what kind of film you’re in for, without spoiling too much about it.

(Oh, actually, before you do watch it, just make sure there are no kids around. Seriously, the words “fuck, piss and cunt” are literally said in the second sentence.)

It has to be said, the trailer certainly left an impression on me. But how well was the film itself? Did it live up to expectations?

The plot

The film begins with Mildred Hayes renting three billboards, where she asks the police, in three short but brutal sentences, why they haven’t found the person who raped and murdered her daughter. At first, it doesn’t seem like too much of a problem, since hardly anyone uses the road the billboards are actually on. But gradually, attention towards the billboards starts to grow…

That’s the most I’ll describe of the plot. There are a lot of surprises throughout the film – surprisingly, there’s actually a rather crucial one revealed very early on that the trailer didn’t even hint at – and the less you know going in, the better.

(Having said that, I’m still going to write a detailed review on it while avoiding spoilers, if possible.)

One thing I really liked about the film’s developing plot is that it is entirely focused around the billboards themselves, and not the crime. Oh, the consequences from the crime on Mildred, her family and the community are explored, but the billboards themselves are the primary focus. It’s an interesting take on the crime genre, if this film even fits that description, but it works.

The characters

Ordinarily, a mother grieving for her murdered daughter while seeking justice would be a very sympathetic character. Fuck, in some ways, that’s a sympathetic character by default. Honestly, you’d have to try really fucking hard to make a character like that unlikable, or at least, is challenging to like.

However, you have to be impressed both by Martin McDonagh and Frances McDormand on how together, they achieved exactly that.

Mildred doesn’t want sympathy. She has absolutely none to give. She’s not a mother looking for justice, not really. She’s mainly lashing out, not just at the police in general, but primarily at the chief of police, William Willoughby.

Perhaps Mildred would be more likable if Willoughby was a man who was terrible at his job, like she paints him out to be. But Willoughby is clearly not someone who got the job by pure luck. Everyone in the community loves him, and everyone has good reason to. Willoughby is just a very honest cop who tried to do his very best. Mildred doesn’t see him that way, and that conflict drives a lot of the film.

Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson are absolutely fantastic in their lead roles. Which is to be expected really, as both are phenomenal actors. Both provide a lot of depth to each of their roles, and the scenes shared between them are fantastic to watch.

For the record, the fact that Mildred is so unsympathetic isn’t a criticism. Quite the reverse, in fact. As I mentioned before, she isn’t your typical “grieving mother” template character. She’s distinctive, memorable, and as challenging as she is, impossible not to watch.

A very dark comedy…

Considering the subject matter, it would almost be surprising how hysterical the film is. I say “almost” because, as I said before, the crime itself isn’t important: the billboards are. As a result, the reaction the characters have to the billboards – and to each other – is often hysterical to watch.

The dialogue is well written and equally well performed. Yes, there’s a lot of swearing, but, like one of my favourite satires The Thick of It, there’s almost a sense of poetry in how that swearing is used.

Also, I have to mention that Sam Rockwell is fucking brilliant as Dixon. A racist and violent cop, he’s actually the funniest character to watch in the whole film. (No, seriously.) Seeing him listening and low-key dancing to Chiquitita by Abba would be hilarious to watch just out of context. In context, though? It’s a masterpiece of utterly black comedy.

…with real heart

The thing that surprised me most about the film though was that, as dark and intense as it could get, there’s a real heart to it, too. I don’t want to sound cheesy about it – this isn’t a family film, after all – but when the film finished, I was surprised to find a real sense of optimism. It’s small and very understated, but it works very well. Characters make choices and change in ways that you don’t expect them to. When the ending comes along, it doesn’t feel like bullshit, but it’s not a totally depressing resolution, either.

Three Billboards didn’t just live up to expectations. It honestly exceeded them. Along with Baby Driver, it’s probably one of my favourite films of 2017, and definitely recommended. It also makes me want to watch In Bruges, and not just this single (but brilliant) clip:

Canada: One Year On

On Thursday 14th September, I achieved my goal of living one year in Canada. If I’m honest, I still can’t believe I made it.

In the months leading up to before I left England, there was a part of me that wasn’t sure whether or not I’d have gone through with it. I knew myself too well, and I kept thinking that, as much as I had sorted out the work permit application, a part thought that I would chicken out at the last minute.

There’s an episode of Cheers that I caught a few years ago. In it, one of the main characters, Norm, had this brilliant realization when it came to his life, and decided to leave the country to make a fresh start. At first, the other characters were really proud that he made such a bold decision…until they found out that he chickened out before he got on the flight and had been hiding from them in shame ever since.

Throughout all the planning, that episode had been stuck in my head. There had been many decisions in life that I had backed out of before, some big, plenty small. I really wondered whether I would actually go through something like this.

And yet oddly enough, as time went on, it actually got easier. With a lot of support from my friends and family, I started planning for it bit by bit. The major turning point was when I said “Fuck it!” and actually booked a flight. Once that had been sorted out, I started getting ready for everything else.

Limited preparation

Accommodation was what I focused on first. That took quite some time, especially since, as I mentioned, only my application for a work permit had been approved, not the work permit itself. It wasn’t guaranteed that I’d actually get it, and I’d only know whether everything was completely ok or not when I arrived in Canada and went through customs. So, as you can imagine, it did make things a little difficult. Fortunately, through emails and a lot of applications, I was able to find accommodation, both short term and long term, before I arrived.

Everything else, though? I had nothing sorted out for a job (the fact is that I knew it’d probably be easier if I was able to actually show up to interviews in person); I had savings, but probably less than I should have done, and in terms of electronics, I was bringing with me just a tablet and a phone. To say that I was barely prepared would be putting it optimistically.

But when it came right down to it, when my mum and dad dropped me off at the airport, they asked me, just to make sure, if I didn’t want to just go back home with them right there.

I think even I was a little surprised at how quickly I said “No”. In some ways, I wasn’t nearly ready for it, but in my gut, I was more than ready.

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The hard part

I could say that getting on the flight was the hard part, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Once I got through security, waiting to get on the plane and then boarding it was pretty straightforward. I could say I was nervous about what would happen when I got there – like I said, my work permit would only be approved once I had arrived. But even that wasn’t too bad. Even if it hadn’t been accepted at the last minute, I would’ve been satisfied that I had tried as hard as I could, at least. Even heading into a new place on my own, at least for the short-term, wasn’t too difficult. I was too exhausted to worry at that point.

No, the most difficult part happened the next morning.

I was lying in bed, fully awake, when it suddenly hit me: I was in another country. Holy fucking fuck, I had actually done it!

That idea wouldn’t have been too scary, if another thing hadn’t occurred to me – I didn’t have an adapter for both of my USB chargers.

It’s incredibly silly to think about now. But during that first morning, I was really panicking. Both my phone and my tablet had some juice in them, but it certainly wasn’t indefinite. Without them, I would’ve been basically cut off entirely from the outside world. Job applications, contacting home, even just looking for a local bus route – none of it would’ve been available. I needed a new adapter, and here I was, lying in bed, living in a new country and having no fucking clue about the local area! I was thinking, Oh fuck, I’m not going to last one week here. I’m just going to end up panicking and call home and say I couldn’t make it last.

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That only lasted for an hour, maybe even less than that. But it definitely felt longer. Lying in that bed in a state of almost total panic was, without a doubt, the scariest moment I’ve had in my year of living here. Maybe even in my entire life.

Eventually, however, I just decided to say, “Fuck it!”, and head out and look around for an adapter. After an hour or so of searching, I finally found one, and got both my tablet and my phone all charged up.

Believe it or not, that was actually the most difficult moment I’ve had since I came to Canada.

The first 7 weeks

Everything else after that was piss easy by comparison. And it actually kept getting easier, too. Sorting out a new local number was the top priority, so job agencies and companies could contact me easily. Looking up the TTC and getting a good idea of public transport on my tablet was the next step. For the next couple of weeks, it was mainly applying on my tablet and setting up as many profiles as possible on job application sites.

After moving in to my new place for the long term at the start of October, it wasn’t long before I realized that, as much as I was able to get done on the tablet, there was so much more that I could get done on a laptop. Particularly with the feel of a keyboard under my fingers. (Thank you mum for pushing me into learning touch-typing at an early age. It’s certainly made writing articles and applications so much easier.)

So, I took a bit of a risk and dipped into my savings for a new laptop. Even for something cheap, it wasn’t the easiest of decisions to make. I knew that would cut on both my rent and shopping money considerably. But, again, that was something else I was pretty pleased with – that I was becoming someone who knew when to take risks rather than just lie down and hope that everything would work out nicely. Because I knew that, as many applications as I could make on a tablet daily, I knew I could send out ten times as many on a laptop, easily.

It was a gamble that paid off. During early October, I was regularly going downtown for job agency interviews. I must have been to four or five agencies within those first two weeks. On the next step, I actually started getting interviews for places that I could start working for. My sister also gave me a contact for someone who worked for an agency over here, which definitely helped.

On Halloween, I got two interviews. One first thing in the morning, the other some ways out of Toronto in the afternoon. I don’t know how I did on the first interview, but on the second? They told me at the end of it that I could start the next day. And I’ve been working there ever since. One and a half months. That’s how long it took me to find work over here. Considering the long, depressing gaps I had job hunting that had lasted for years back in the UK, that was definitely a relief. A relief and, honestly, a major confidence booster.

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One hell of a year

As for everything else in my life? It has been nothing short of amazing. I’ve seen Steel Panther live. I’ve been to comic conventions and met some of my favourite stars. I’ve watched hockey and baseball; seen my favourite old movies on the big screen; watched burlesque shows and got drunk as fuck while seeing amazing live bands play. I’ve physically met with people I had only spoken to constantly on the internet and made new friends. I’ve gotten out of Toronto and seen more amazing sights in Ottawa, Montreal and Niagara Falls.

And I’ve been ridiculously lucky when it comes to housemates. As someone who moved in with complete strangers for the first time, I was really lucky to meet some really nice and welcoming people. I even got to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter with a housemate’s family, all of which were really nice.

One more thing

On Friday, at work, all of us in my department were asked to see our department manager. I thought it would be for something like a regular team update, but I was wrong. It was actually the whole team giving me a couple of gifts. Along with a gift card from popular food chain Tim Hortons, I had also been given a mug signed by everyone in the department. It was a really sweet thing for all of them to do, and I barely had the words to thank them. Exactly a year before, I had been panicking in bed that I wouldn’t be able to make it here, and suddenly next thing I know, I’m rewarded by the people I’ve worked with in a really lovely way.

So here’s the important point. If there’s something you really want to do, then just fucking go for it. Don’t let fear hold you back, and just try as hard as you can. Even if you fail, you’ll be satisfied knowing you tried. And you might just surprise yourself by how much you actually succeed.

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Thank you to all my friends and family who have supported me in this. As much work as I’ve put into this, without your support, I’d have never have gone for anything like this, so thank you all. It’s been an absolutely fucking fantastic year, and I can’t wait to find out what’s in store for the next!

 

Toronto #30

Labyrinth, free live music, Mod Night and IT! Here’s the latest blog!

Sorry guys! Once again, with the exception of last week’s Dark Tower review (which, with over 1,400 views, gave me the highest number of views for a post ever!), and a review for the amazing Baby Driver, I haven’t updated this properly in a while. At least, I haven’t been informing all you lovely people of what I’ve been up to in Toronto lately. About time I rectified that, I think.

Last month, I saw a couple of films at the Royal. The first was Labyrinth, which remains a true classic. Not only was that one showing for free, but it also had a live band performance right before it. It was by Hannah Georgas, who I must admit, I hadn’t really heard anything of before. I definitely liked her music, though. Very indie, very honest, and very cool.

Oh, and the best moment? Hearing her rather unique rendition of ‘Magic Dance’ from the Labyrinth soundtrack. Seriously, ‘Magic Dance’ in a distinctly indie rendition was glorious to hear!

The next film I saw was a 50th anniversary screening of Bonnie & Clyde. This one I hadn’t seen before. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it. Violent, but also with a great sense of humour. And the ending is as beautiful and heartbreaking to watch as they say it is. (Even if one of the greatest moments in TV series Cracker is Robbie Coltrane utterly destroying someone by telling them how shit that ending was.) Glad I got to watch that one on the big screen. (And not just because it was part of the Ladies of Burlesque series of screenings, either.)

While I don’t go to Cherry Cola’s nearly as often, it is most definitely my other favourite place in this city. Like I said, I try not to go too often – if you’re drinking, a night out can get expensive real quick – but it was Mod Night last month, so I had to go. And as ever, it was absolutely bloody brilliant.

Along with a cool ska band that opened the night, there was also regular mod band Blackdog Ballroom, who were as amazing as ever. I’ve seen a number of cool local bands in my day. But I don’t think I’ve come across one that nailed the mod spirit quite as well as Blackdog Ballroom has.

Oh, and one great little bonus? On the ceiling, classic movies were playing. We didn’t get to hear them, obviously, but it was a nice touch. Especially as one of those movies was Quadrophenia, in full. I must admit, I always get a craving for that film after a good Mod show, so it was good to fix that craving at the same time as watching great bands perform live!

Aside from that, there’s not really that much to say. I mentioned seeing the Dark Tower movie, and I’ve made my feelings on that very clear. I watched the amazing Baby Driver again, this time with the housemates, so that was awesome.

Once again, reading wise, I’m very much in a Stephen King mood. (No prizes for guessing why that is.) I’m not reading the Dark Tower again, as it’s been mere months since finishing my third entire read of the series. But I am reading the mammoth novel IT again.

I must say, I’m reading it much more easily this time around. I think it’s because I’m reading it on the kindle, as opposed to the paperback copy I had last time. Usually, I prefer reading a paperback, but I absolutely hated how small the font size was in my copy. Seriously, for a relatively slow reader like myself, there’s nothing more discouraging than feeling like you’ve been reading the same page for about ten minutes. Thankfully, this isn’t a problem I haven’t been having with my e-book copy.

Anyway, as well as reading it more easily, I’m finding myself much more absorbed by the world and by King’s storytelling. I love how King tells this story of childhood, adulthood and the horrors of both in one epic story. While I certainly enjoyed reading it before, I think I’m loving it so much more now. Definitely magical when that happens.

Obviously, I’m looking forward to the new IT movie next month. I love that it’s split the story in two, with one film focusing on the kids and the other film focusing on those characters when they’ve all grown up. (Of course, the second half being made depends entirely on how successful the first half is.) Honestly, with how huge and epic the book is in scope, splitting it in two is the only way to do. I hope it’s a good film in its own right, anyway.

Until next time, folks!

The Dark Tower (2017) Review (as written by a Tower junkie)

Finally, after years of waiting, we have the first adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus. But how well does it succeed for this Tower junkie?

Let me make one thing clear about the new Dark Tower movie: it’s not the books. It’s certainly not the first volume, The Gunslinger. And if I’m honest, I never really thought it was going to be.

Compared to so many other fantasy epics out there, The Dark Tower was always going to be harder to adapt than most. It’s not just because of the larger scale, or the fact that the author himself shows up once or twice in the story. There’s also the way it’s told.

With The Gunslinger, we’re introduced to Mid-World directly through the gunslinger’s own eyes. It’s a bit of a strange world already, but that perspective adds some distance between that world and us as the audience. Mid-World is almost abstract in that first volume.

It’s not really that surprising that The Gunslinger is seen by some fans as one of the weaker volumes of the series. It’s not terrible, far from it. There’s a great spaghetti western feel to that opening volume. But things definitely picked up in a major way with The Drawing of the Three. As I’ve written before, that was the volume that actually changed my life.

What’s interesting about the new movie is that it avoids telling either of those stories, at least directly. The Dark Tower uses particularly strong elements from The Gunslinger, it has to be said. But it also uses a lot of characters and places from later volumes, too.

This film essentially lets you know right from the very beginning of how different it is compared to the first volume by presenting Jake Chambers as the key perspective. This isn’t that surprising, really. Since he’s actually from our world, Jake makes a natural choice for giving the audience a key point of view on this strange universe. So it’s a change that makes sense.

Mythology: how much is too much?

In fact, the whole film is like that. There are a lot of changes from the original source material in terms of the story, but there’s a lot of key mythology that still feels the same.

Actually, that brings me to one key criticism I have for this movie. It isn’t that it changes the mythology of the original novels, but rather, that it arguably uses far, far too much of it for a ninety-minute movie. This movie features portals, the Breakers, “Low Men”, and a lot more. At the very start, it explains exactly what the Dark Tower is via a very unsubtle caption. By comparison, the novels didn’t fully explain what the Dark Tower was – or even why Roland was trying to get to it – until the third volume!

I’m not saying we should’ve had to wait for the third film to get the full explanation, but there were a lot of moments where the exposition got a bit heavy handed. I really wish this film had been given just another half hour, just to flesh things out a little better.

The ideas that King had in the novels, they weren’t original ones. Psychic kids, fantasy worlds, monsters from beyond, these had definitely been done before. However, along with a rather interesting mix of these ideas, King was also able to flesh them out and give them so much depth. That’s what made both the world and the story so appealing. Which is easy to do in a novel, but not in a movie, especially in a relatively short movie. So a lot of these concepts that I’ve adored in the novels have the risk of coming across as generic in the film adaptation as a result.

Trying to cram in too much mythology in one go were problems that were shared by the Stallone Judge Dredd movie and the Paul McGann Doctor Who movie, which were also both adaptations and fresh introductions to stories that were important to me. Once again, I’m given another example of how “less is more”.

However, that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Dark Tower at all. Far from it, really. In fact, now that I’ve got my key criticism out of the way, I’ll go into what I did enjoy about the film.

Great performances

First, there are the main characters. For the Gunslinger and the Man in Black, this movie gets them exactly right.

Roland is absolutely spot-on. He’s not given too much dialogue, which is what you expect from his character. But even better, he’s given moments of humour. I don’t mean that he’s suddenly joking and pulling witty one-liners before shooting up some bastards. That would definitely be the wrong way to do it.

But there are nice moments with Roland in our world where he really clashes, and the humour comes from those scenes. This was something that worked with the character in the novels, particularly when he was in New York with Eddie Dean. (One of my favourite smartasses of all time.) So it’s nice that the film at least doesn’t take him too seriously, even while Roland takes himself seriously, at least.

Elba’s performance is also great. When I was reading the novels again a few months back, I was picturing what his version of Roland would be like. I could actually see Elba saying these lines I was reading and how he would say them. And he didn’t disappoint. Seeing him in the film was exactly what I had imagined.

If there’s one performance that overshadows even Elba’s, however, it’s definitely Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black. In the original volume, he’s less interested in killing Roland than he is pushing him to breaking point, and comes across as more of a force of nature or a mystery than a man. In later volumes, he’s much more clearly out to kill him by any means necessary.

What I really liked about the film’s interpretation is that there’s a really nice balance between the two. McConaughey comes across as pure evil as Walter, and he has fun with it without taking away how sinister or deadly his character is. Again, how the character is written for the film also helps. One of my favourite moments includes the words, “Hello, there!” It’s a perfectly evil scene that gets this sheer force of evil exactly right.

I’m not gonna lie: I really enjoyed the climax of the film. It’s really cool to watch, and storywise, it’s pretty satisfying. I’m wondering if it will divide the fans though. To be honest, I’m wondering that about the whole of the film.

The Dark Tower is far from the worst possible adaptation of its source material, but its frankly far from the best, too. It gets a lot right, and it gets a lot wrong. Overall, I liked it and took it for what it was.

I do think it could’ve been made more accessible for a general audience, however. I can’t help but think that this is going to be a film that will appeal more to the fans of the existing source material than for newcomers, and for a blockbuster film, you definitely need to be able to appeal to a wide audience.

It hasn’t been very receptive to critics so far, but time will tell whether it makes enough to earn a sequel, at least. If a sequel is made, let’s hope that it builds on the strengths and drastically irons out the weaknesses of this opening installment.

Review: Baby Driver (Movie)

Last year I, like many comic fans, went and saw Suicide Squad. It wasn’t very well received, and frankly, with good reason. Among the film’s many key problems, one thing that leapt out was the soundtrack. It wasn’t that the soundtrack itself was bad. On the contrary, included on it were such classic songs such as House of the Rising Sun, Seven Nation Army and Bohemian Rhapsody. But, with the possible exception of the last one, none of them truly matched the visuals.

It made me realize something: for a film’s soundtrack to truly work, it needs to be more than just a great mixture of songs to release on CD. Even generally matching a character in terms of style isn’t good enough. For a song to really work on the film’s soundtrack, it has to match the visuals. There’s a real art to this, an art that’s usually almost invisible.

When it’s done well, and with a really great song, you don’t notice it, you just think to yourself, “Fuck yeah, this is a fucking awesome scene with a really fucking awesome song!” It’s when it’s done badly, though, such as in the case of Suicide Squad, that you notice.

With the exception of Edgar Wright’s new movie Baby Driver. This film isn’t a great example of how incredible a fusion of great visuals with a great soundtrack can be. It’s actually the perfect example.

Wright’s first directed movie outside of the comedy genre, Baby Driver is in many ways a familiar yet equally fresh take on the crime movie. Focusing on young getaway driver “Baby”, the film focuses on his involvement in several robberies, how he ended up in a life of crime and his dreams of escaping from it, as well as his sweet new relationship with the more innocent Debora. Like I said, this film uses a lot of familiar plot elements that we’ve seen in many other crime movies. So what is it that makes Baby Driver so different?

Well, there is one little interesting thing with Baby that makes the film a lot more interesting. Specifically, it’s his love of music. He is listening to his iPod(s) virtually all the time. And considering it’s mainly his point of view that we’re experiencing the story from, that means we’re getting a constant stream of great songs to listen to.

It’s how the songs are used that make this film, despite being outside of the comedy genre, that distinctly make this an Edgar Wright movie. It isn’t just that he uses cool songs to make a cool visual even cooler. It’s how every single shot of the film is carefully mapped out to match every lyric, every note, every single beat to perfection. From quick cuts to long shots, nothing is wasted, and you can tell that Wright has meticulously planned out every visual to match the audio completely.

We’ve had hints of this for years. The most obvious example would be the Don’t Stop Me Now scene in Shaun of the Dead, but even before then, (with the help of Simon Pegg’s and Jessica Hyne’s great script,) we had the best use of a phone and a clock ever in Spaced.

What’s even more brilliant is how aware Baby and even the other characters are of how an awesome song has to match with what’s happening directly. Moments like Baby needing to play a song from the start to match a robbery is a brilliant little moment that helps to make Baby that much more relatable.

Wright also makes sure to include a really great mix of distinctive characters. In a way, this is carried over from his comedy movies, particularly The Cornetto Trilogy. While the characters played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost would usually be the main focus in those movies, there’d be a few other characters who would stand out, too. (I’m still a big fan of David in Shaun for being the classic “enemy within” figure.)

However, Baby Driver might just have my favourite group of characters in an Edgar Wright movie yet. This is partly because of the shift from comedy to more straight-forward crime movie. While each of these characters may have their quirks, some of them are scary in how sociopathic or even psychopathic they can be. Some of these criminals could snap at any moment, helping to add a lot of tension to the film.

Of course, there are some really great performances too, which helps. Jamie Foxx is fantastic as “Bats”, who is so trigger happy, that you can probably guess what his nickname is short for. But my favourite performance is definitely Jon Hamm as Buddy. He comes across as really likeable. He’s not particularly close with Baby, but there are a couple of genuinely sweet moments when they have a conversation and can really relate to each other. You’re still reminded that he is an armed robber, and therefore not exactly a good person, but Hamm really brings a lot of charm and likability to the character.

While I’ve mentioned that this film isn’t a comedy movie, it still has plenty of great humour. Some of it is due to dialogue, some of it is due to some really absurd moments (my favourite example has to be the argument between the robbers caused by confusion over the masks they’re going to be using). And some it is due to, once again, Baby’s love of music and how well it’s used. “Was he slow?” is quite possibly the funniest scene in the whole movie.

Wright moving outside the genre of absurd comedy that he’s so well-known for was a risky move, but I’m glad he did it. In many ways, Baby Driver is very different to all of his previous films. The American setting, the darker tone, the number of genuinely tense moments throughout.

And yet at the same time, it’s in many ways very typical of his style. The perfect use of visuals to comedy, the great mix of characters, the sheer love of the genre.

Because of all of this, Baby Driver is one of the coolest crime films of the decade, and just might be Wright’s best film yet.

Toronto #29 – Niagara Falls

(I should’ve just called this ongoing blog “Canada” instead of “Toronto”, shouldn’t I?)

There’s a lot I need to cover in this week’s blog. Starting with something that I should have mentioned in the previous one – I went to my first baseball game a couple of weeks back.

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It was a Blue Jays game (of course). I can’t remember who the other team was. The game itself was interesting, though. Much more relaxed than hockey. Certainly, much less violent. Me and my mate had a good chat over it, which you can’t really do with hockey. The last half hour or so was really cool, as the game wrapped up and the Blue Jays won. Another thing ticked off the Canada list.

Last weekend was really cool, as I finally got to see my first opera! Well, actually, not quite. Back when I was in primary school, we went on a class trip to see Carmen at the Cliffs Pavilion. I have no fucking idea why, though. We were all about 7 or 8 at the time. Hardly the right age to appreciate something as tragic as an opera, especially if it’s in a foreign language!

And that’s one of the reasons why the opera that I saw last weekend was really special. Because for one thing, while it was entirely based on Puccini’s La bohème, complete with the original music, the lyrics had been translated into English. More than that, they had been modernized and there were a few references specific to Toronto. (My favourite in particular was someone getting a job at BMV Books. Gotta admit, that really is one of my favourite places in Toronto.)

The place we went to was also a pretty cool bar, with the performers acting on a slightly raised stage that was right next to the audience. So the whole effect was much more intimate than watching it at a theatre. It almost reminded me of when I performed improv back home, the performers were literally that close to the audience. So in some ways, it’s very different to your standard opera experience.

At the exact same time, though, it was incredibly authentic. For one, those singers? They can sing. Really, really sing. Like, real opera level sing. (I even heard that at least one of the actors had performed in an opera on stage, which didn’t surprise me.) And it really was beautifully made.

Another thing I didn’t appreciate until afterwards was the fact that, despite being modernized and translated into English, it did stick to the exact plot of the original opera, as I later discovered when I read more about La bohème afterwards.

Overall, it was just such a great experience, and great to get my first taste of an opera when I’m finally old enough to appreciate it.

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Last, but definitely not least: I went to Niagara Falls Comic Con today. It was, I must admit, a very last minute thing. I didn’t bother getting tickets in advance, except for transportation, as I couldn’t really afford it until this weekend. Not to mention, there’s your standard last-minute anxiety that makes you think and think again about whether to go or not.

But I had to go. Literally had to. For one guest, and one guest only: Paul Fuckin’ McGann!

(Note: his real middle name is John, but to emphasize his level of awesomeness, “Fuckin'” just seems more suitable in this case.)

He was at the convention all weekend, but it was only today that he was doing a Q&A session with the fans. So being in the same room as one of my heroes and hearing a ton of great stories from him (especially with his voice – there’s a reason he’s my favourite Doctor, even mostly on audio) was too good to miss.

I’ll be honest, it was a bit of a journey up there, and I was afraid that I’d end up missing it. But I got there with just a little bit of time to spare, and in no time at all, I was sitting just metres away from someone who was literally one of my childhood (and adulthood) heroes.

I know what you’re thinking right now. “Never meet your heroes.” Because when you’ve built them up enough in your heads, meeting the real thing can potentially be disappointing. Certainly, it was what was going through my mind before he came on stage.

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But he was just brilliant. While I never asked a question to him myself, it was just so cool seeing how he spoke with fans. It wasn’t just that he was confidant and cheery, but he was really good at seeing if fans were a little nervous and helping with their confidence.

And he had so many good stories and great answers. He was friendly and really engaging with the fans. Even better was that he didn’t just answer questions about Who, but also about Withnail & I and 90s BBC drama The Hanging Gale. It was a really great, informative and entertaining Q&A all round.

My personal favourite moment, though? Getting an autograph from him afterwards and having just a very quick one minute chat with him. Yes, of course, I said he was my favourite Doctor (“I like you a lot!” was his response), but I also mentioned how great Withnail & I was. He was just a really friendly chap, and it really was just the coolest day. They say never meet your heroes. They never met Paul McGann.

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