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Newsletter No. IV: To listen, to watch, to read...

Skipping past the disappointment that is CBC q post Jian Ghomeshi [see: Simon Houpt’s recent “Globe and Mail” evisceration of the new host “Why is Shad So Bad?"], Shad does have one trait necessary for all great interviewers, he can stay out the way. A smart thing to do when you have a subject as profoundly human, real and whip-smart as Sarah Silverman.

She was there to promote her lead in a drama, “I Smile Back”. She plays a depressive and mightily screwed up mother of two. It ain’t a comedy. Word on the film is that it is unfortunately the kind where the central performance vastly out-trumps the movie itself, but no matter. It’s Silverman’s eighteen minute interview with Shad that is worth a listen for the comic’s unabashed openness. Like so many comedians, she has suffered from depression herself, and this interview is the anti-Jimmy Fallon, late-night lip sync shtick performance, fun as those can be. She’s just so real and human, flawed and humble.

Like a Louis CK or a Robin Williams, Silverman communicates an enormous intelligence in a humble manner that manages to both never condescend and yet be straightforward enough for all to understand. I particularly loved what she had to say about turning down the big money jobs so she could have lunch with her friends.

TO WATCH (in theatres): "The Big Short"

Imagine making a story about the collapse of the subprime mortgage industry into a comedy that stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. Then imagine dousing that comedy in enough moral indignation to reveal “The Wolf of Wall Street” for what it really was: a hypocrisy. Because when you have Leo DiCaprio star as the class-A jerk of your film, jerk though you may sincerely make him, Marty, he’s still Mr. Suntan Handsome Ferrari-Driving, Girl-Banging, hero to far too many. “The Big Short” makes no such mistake (Brad Pitt is not the star and is in full beard, glasses I'm Not a Handsome Movie Star mode). The real hero of this movie (Steve Carell), if you can use the word, is betrothed in a hairpiece so bad that he wouldn’t be mistaken for a catch on a dating website never mind star in a romantic drama about a sinking ship. Also, note the scene when two of the film's so-called “heroes” do a dance in the casino – and watch Brad Pitt’s response. I spoil nothing. But you’ll understand when you see.

So it’s a comedy – chock-a-block with moral indignation – it’s extremely informative (because being based on a Michael Lewis book what else could it be?) and if that sounds boring, that’s because I want it to and because director Adam McKay understands that better than anyone and has crafted what I think it the most entertaining film of the year. That it’s got a soul to boot is why it gets my vote for Best Picture. (Note: For those swayed by the Golden Globes awarding "The Revenant" best drama, remember they also once selected "Babel" and "Avatar" not so long ago.)

TO READ: "Sputnik Sweetheart" by Haruki Murakami

Twenty years before “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintentance” (1974) and half a century before all the many 'Zen and the Art of' books to follow in the decades since, there was, originally, “Zen in the Art of Archery” (1953). A great book in its own right; it introduced the western world to Zen Buddhism and illuminated for me the deliciously illogical notion that if you aim too carefully for the bull’s eye you will never hit the bull’s eye.

In the early 1990s, a hop skip from Japan, a superb Hong Kong film director named Wong Kar Wai was struggling to make an artful martial arts movie ("Ashes of Time") that was meant to be his masterpiece. Though Wai likely spent years of his life on the project, including releasing a reduxed version fourteen years later, it never seemed to catch on as other films of his would ("In the Mood for Love", for instance). I tell you all this because, as lore has it, it was during a two month break from editing “Ashes of Time”, that the director whipped together a slight film called “Chung King Express”.  It was melancholy but yet somehow a light love story (two love stories, actually) – a total break from the heavy themes and heavy lifting of the bigger, weightier picture. "Chungking" is a pretty strange and downright silly film at times, and yet it's the one so many fans, myself included, return to. Images etched in my mind of these (pretty stunningly beautiful) lonely souls loitering around this fast food stand late into the night in Hong Kong.

In a similar vein, I’m recommending Haurki Murakami's 1999 novel, “Sputnik Sweetheart” instead of the heftier (in weight - it's 600+ pages - and themes) “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” (1994-1995) which preceded “Sputnik” and that many a critic seems to agree upon as Murakami’s masterpiece. (I would make a case for “Kafka on the Shore” (2002) as a second masterpiece, btw). In this way, I"ll admit my analogy between the great Asian artists doesn't quite work. "Wind-Up" stands as one of Murakami's great books and I'm a big fan, but in re-reads (because that’s how passionate I was for a solid ten years of my life to the Kansai-raised author, that I not only read practically every book of his, fiction and non, novel and short story collection, I re-read all my favourites) it does drag on for me a bit. Its follow-up, however, “Sputnik Sweetheart”, is a book that at 229 pages is slight in size and tone, much like “Chungking Express”. It’s also something of a melancholy love story. And it’s lovely. I've returned to it any number of times, as much for its beauty and wonder as its sense of humour.

Where “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” travels from whimsy to Japanese war crime history and back again, “Sputnik Sweetheart” never pretends to be the Great Japanese novel. In fairness to one of my favourite contemporary authors I’m not sure that’s what Murakami intended with “Wind-Up” but his utter lack of bull’s eye aim in “Sputnik" raises the little book to something seemingly effortless.

The male narrator of the novel is in love with a 25 year-old young woman named Sumire. She doesn't necessarily share the feelings. This is revealed in the opening two pages (I'm not spoiling nothing! Swear.) Sumire is described thusly:

Sumire wanted to be like a character in a [Jack] Kerouac novel--wild, cool, dissolute. She'd stand around, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her hair an uncombed mess, staring vacantly at the sky through her black plastic-frame Dizzy Gilespie glasses, which she wore despite her twenty-twenty vision. She was invariably decked out in an oversized herringbone coat from a secondhand store and a pair of rough work boots. If she'd been able to grow a beard, I'm sure she would have.

By this point in his career, Murakami well knows his craft, has mastered his voice, and, having just finished a tome of a masterwork, has set himself free to have some fun. “Sputnik”, at least the first half, has so much whimsy and wonder the adjective to describe it really is delightful. And who couldn't use a little more delight with their literary pleasures, huh? Huh?

I should add (no: warn) that in the midst one of this otherwise pretty tame and lovely book, is contained one of the creepiest moments in all Murakami’s work. Not gory or gross (well, maybe gross) so much as haunting, like Stephen King at his best.

In an era of overlong books I’m pretty excited to recommend something so elegantly slender.

If “Wind-Up”, “Kafka” and, “1Q84” go down as Murakami’s ‘major’ works, “Sputnik will often get overlooked because it is minor. That’s a shame because it’s great.

TO WATCH (Netflix): "Making a Murderer"

Netflix feels rather vast until you've owned it for a few months. It soon starts to feel quite limited and thus recommendations for its catalogue either mean I go for something obscure, or something obvious. My criteria for the newsletter is simply to recommend things I love that people may miss. This one is getting enough attention, I realize, but it's that good/important.

This is a documentary series. It's not fiction, but it's not a reality show either, as some people are mistakenly referring to it. Despite the name it's *not* at all gory or gruesome. It's about an alleged wrongful conviction. And it's all anyone who watches it can talk/think about.

The one hour pilot has enough plot and suspense, tension and drama for the basis of most Hollywood feature films. That there are nine more one hour episodes was what I spent that first hour continually scratching my head over. What more can there be to say/show? What more can happen? What more? What more?