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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Bohemian Rhapsody: The movie, the critics

220px-bohemian_rhapsody_posterWhat I wanted to do, really, was see Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Freddie Mercury biopic, on its first day out, so that I could make up my own mind about it without the critiques or praises of others clogging my brain. However, a combination of it being released in Europe a week before North America (theoretically, I could have flown to London for the premiere, but that seemed a bit much) and a lack of willpower on my part meant that I did read some early reviews.

Which were not exactly sterling, let’s put it that way (Bohemian Rhapsody review – Queen biopic will not rock you).

But I at least managed to keep my UK reading to a minimum and get to the North American preview performance.

My friends, I loved the movie.

Now, my husband’s said that it was Queen, so of course I’d like it. So I would just like to point out that I do not, in fact, like every Queen-adjacent product. I have this Queen Symphonic Tribute CD that I can’t stand, because the musical arrangements are crap. I’ve slogged through horribly written Queen bios. I did not enjoy the combination of Brian May, Roger Taylor, and Paul Rodgers performing Queen songs.

But this movie? It felt that it was made for me. I enjoyed seeing how they compressed events and use allusions to cover a decade and a half of Freddie’s life in 2 hours 15 minutes. I reveled in all the little in-jokes and references that only real Queen fans would catch: Jim Beach mucking with the sound board at Live Aid. Adam Lambert playing a trucker who catches Freddie’s eye. And I was totally captivated by Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie, which at times nearly brought me to tears.

All the music performance scenes are outstanding. And that whole final scene at Live Aid. Man. That’s every bit as good as you hope it will be. (And I love Live Aid almost as much as I love Queen.)

Being somewhat masochistic, and having seen it now, I can’t help reading the North American reviews. Now, some of them were positive (like the Toronto Star‘s), even if grudgingly (my favourite of these being the Washington Post’s: Bohemian Rhapsody is bad. Go see it anyway). But more were negative, some scathing (Globe and Mail: 1 star! New York Times: Mud on your face! Big disgrace! [that’s at least a clever diss.]). All adding up to a mere 55% (now 60%) positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But a 92% (now 95%) positive audience score.

The most common complaint from the critics is that the movie is not that creative or edgy. And I’m going to grant that this is true. It’s pretty conventionally told, with a script that can’t seem to help but have its characters spell out its themes, however awkward the resulting dialog (The band is family. Freddie invents himself. Queen are a band of misfits.), rather than develop them through more natural interactions.

It’s just that I didn’t care. Cliches are cliches for a reason; they can be quite satisfying! The movie entertained me. But I guess when your job is to see all the movies, you need more from them to give them a good review. Fair enough.

But some other critiques? Deserve their own critique.

1. That the depiction of Freddie Mercury was disrespectful and inaccurate

The Globe and Mail review has that complaint, as does this Uproxx one. Interesting to me that these critics are so confident they know the essence of who Freddie Mercury was better than the people who actually knew and loved him, and who contributed to the film.

Yes, the movie depicts Freddie as, at one point, living a drug- and sex-fueled lifestyle while the rest of the band are settled with their wives and children. And this is a simplification—Roger’s marriages were rather turbulent, Brian fell in love with an actress he ultimately left his wife for, John used to drink vodka on stage, which doesn’t seem a good sign. But it’s a fact that the band was worried about Freddie’s behavior at this time, and that it did cause tension between them.

Overall, Malek plays Freddie as an essentially decent human being, one who struggled with loneliness, and who had a confidence in his talent that led to moments of arrogance. I’m OK with that depiction, and it squares with some of the stories I’ve read about him. I don’t get why it’s making some people so angry.

2. The movie skipped / condensed / reordered / simplified / added event x, y, or z

That it surely did, since otherwise the movie would have to be literally 15 years long. And admittedly, I had the advantage of knowing what was left out or added in, and just filling that in or correcting it mentally. And especially interesting are the bits they just assumed everyone knew and therefore didn’t bother depicting, like how enormously successful “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the song) was.

But OK, you can argue they didn’t make the best choices in how they selected or simplified events.

One common complaint was that it made Queen’s rise to fame look quick and easy, when in fact it was more of a struggle. That could have been interesting to show. But it probably wouldn’t have been as fun. Did you really want to see Freddie just hanging around with Smile for months, making suggestions, until Tim Staffell finally left? Or that one cute scene of him auditioning for Brian and Roger in the parking lot? Would it really be that interesting to watch the entire process of building a song like “We Will Rock You”? Versus just seeing it just go “whoosh” from studio stomping to stadium singalong?

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Then there are the things missing entirely: “How about his childhood in Zanzibar?” “What about all the drama with their first manager?” I could add my own: “What about Brian May contracting hepatitis and kiboshing their first US tour?” “What about Barbara Valentine, the other woman Freddie had a love affair with, in Munich? Wouldn’t that have added an interesting complication in this story?”

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The first cut of this movie was about 3 hours—maybe some of that is in there. If they ever release an extended version on DVD, that would be great. But I don’t think a theatre rock bio should be that long. And I’m not sure what I would drop from this version to add some of those other bits—though I would have scripted Freddie’s party scene differently. The band-mate fight they invented for the movie made them all look like asses; I think the other three getting alarmed at Freddie’s behavior and discussing that amongst themselves would have worked better. But some songs being out of order, the invented breakup… I can accept for the sake of drama.

Certainly the most controversial change was Freddie telling the band about his AIDS diagnosis shortly before the Live Aid concert. But in reality, that happened two years later. Some said that was unnecessarily manipulative.

But I don’t think it would have felt right if they had omitted AIDS from the movie entirely, to keep it in their selected time span. And, it’s an amazing scene in the film.

3. The movie isn’t gay enough

Likely fueled by Sasha Baron Cohen’s comments when he was dropped as the lead, has been the concern that Freddie would be “straight-washed”. Literally, before they even started filming, I read a whole ranty blog post rant by someone who was positive that would be the case. And then when the first trailer came out, and it showed Freddie with Mary Austin but not so much with dudes, same complaints.

But the movie very clearly (though not explicitly) covers the fact that Freddie had sex with men. Lots of men. And if it risks showing his being gay as a tragedy in his life (though that wasn’t, in fact, the easiest time to be gay), it certainly mitigates that by including the start of his loving relationship with Jim Hutton.

I’m too heterosexual to comment on whether the esthetic of this film is gay enough, but nobody’s going to come out of it thinking that Freddie was straight.

Conclusion

Freddie Mercury was a fascinating man. You could approach his life story from a lot of angles. I hope there are other movies, in the future, that have a different take, that focus on different parts of his life.

But for a first go, I’m satisfied. You might be, too.


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Juliet, Naked

Before the film Juliet, Naked, the following trailers were shown:

  • Colette, starring Keira Knightly, about writer Colette’s struggles to express herself as a writer in her own name, after her husband achieves success with the novels she ghost writes for him.
  • Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, about what inspired Shelley to write Frankenstein, including a battle against the men who tried to take credit for it.
  • The Wife, starting Glenn Close, about a woman who gave up on her own ambitions to support her husband’s literary efforts, and what that cost her.

Wow. Can’t imagine why there are so many movies about women’s anger and their fight for self-expression right now.

#BelieveWomen #MeToo #StopKavanaugh

Juliet, Naked is a lighter film—but still the story of a woman. Annie (played by Rose Byrne) is dissatisfied with her life: the job she settled into in the town she grew up in, and especially, her long-term relationship with live-in boyfriend Duncan (played by Chris O’Dowd). Duncan has an obsession with an 1990s singer who released a single album: Tucker Crowe. Even before he has an actual affair, Annie feels she’s lost him to someone else.

Juliet, Naked refers to a demo CD that Duncan gets his hands on, featuring early versions of the songs on Tucker Crowe’s album. Annie writes a dissenting review of the album that attracts Crowe’s attention, and they begin an online correspondence. They finally meet when Crowe has business in London…

This was a perfectly delightful movie, largely because of the cast. Tucker Crowe’s kind of a wreck of man, but Ethan Hawke plays him with just the right amount of messy charm. He has very good chemistry with Rose Byrne. And Chris O’Dowd can’t help but be funny and somewhat likable as Duncan, which is important—you can understand why Annie might have fallen for him in the first place.

And the synopsis might make it sound as though Annie is “saved” by Tucker, but that’s not really how this goes. The impediments to their living happily ever after, often so contrived in romantic comedies, are pretty straightforward in this one: the continent between them, the very different places they are at in their lives. Really, Annie saves herself.

This is hardly a vital film you must see to understand the current state of our culture. It’s an enjoyable escape that you don’t need to feel guilty about. And it has a pretty good soundtrack.

 


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BlacKkKlansman

This new Spike Lee film is based on a true story. In the early 1970s, Colorado Springs’ first African-American police detective, Ron Stallworth, inadvertently begins an undercover operation into the KKK when his request for documents leads to regular phone calls with the organization. When it comes time to actually meet with members of the group, a white detective is conscripted to pretend to be him.

I went in knowing generally that Spike Lee had “dramatized” the real-life story somewhat, but no details. I looked that up afterward. I couldn’t quibble with his additions, as they did make for a more engaging story—and allowed for more interesting roles for women. But what’s particularly interesting is that some of the more outlandish scenes actually did happen.

The movie is as humorous as the trailer suggests, but it’s not flippant. There are moments when the horror of white supremacy is made very real. And while the movie has a very 70s look and feel, the references to today are overt. The final scenes, jumping ahead to Charlottesville, left the whole theatre dead silent.

This is a movie worth seeing.


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Sometimes political art

Concerts, plays, stand-up, and movies are sometimes an escape from current events, sometimes a reflection of it.

Beethoven 9 / Mijidwewinan

The two final concerts of the KW Symphony’s season, featuring new conductor, Andrei Feher, were both sellouts. The draw, besides Feher himself, was the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, a choral piece better known as the Ode to Joy. It’s always a worry, when facing a 65-minute symphonic live performance: Will my pop-music brain be able to stay focused for that long?

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But Beethoven’s skill as a composer made that pretty easy, actually. And the lively conducting didn’t hurt, either.

The concert began, though, with an original piece by a native Canadian composer, Barbara Croall. It was a musical interpretation of a mystical, visionary ceremony in which Anishinaabe get in touch with nature—and humankind’s damaging effects on it. Croall performed as a singer in the piece, which takes us on a day’s journey from dark to light and back to dark.

It was very different from Beethoven, as you might imagine. But equally engaging and moving. Made for a very satisfying overall concert experience.

Jeans’n’Classics: Bowie & Prince

Jeans’n’Classics perform orchestrated versions of popular pop and rock songs. We used to go to all of their shows, but had stopped more recently, when they stopped performing with the KW Symphony (in favor of a smaller, and therefore cheaper, group of classical musicians). But, I really wanted to hear orchestrated Prince.

They played two sets, with an intermission. Both featured first Bowie songs, then Prince ones, each section handled by a different singer (understandably). The Bowie parts were fine; the man wrote some excellent songs. But the energy in the place would just go through the roof whenever the Prince would kick in. Just so much more funky! And very ably handled by Gavin Hope, taking a break from his usual gig with The Nylons, along with singers Kalalin Kiss and Andrea Koziol, who each got featured in a duet.

To me, much as I like Bowie music, this show could have been all Prince. But then, these orchestrations don’t write themselves, and maybe it was a challenge getting enough Prince songs ready. (Bowie has been in their repertoire longer.)

Prince covering David Bowie’s “Heroes” (mixed with “Dolphins”)

Set list:

Rebel Rebel
Let’s Dance
Blue Jean
Ashes To Ashes
1999
Little Red Corvette
Diamonds And Pearls
When Doves Cry
I Would Die For You

Space Oddity
Starman
Changes
All The Young Dudes
China Girl
Baby I’m A Star
Raspberry Beret
Nothing Compares To You
Let’s Go Crazy

Purple Rain
Suffragette City

Kathy Griffin: Laugh your head off!

Kathy Griffin put this show, and tour, together in response to the trouble she got into about a year ago after a photo of her holding a ketchup-dipped mask of Donald Trump was published on TMZ. There was an outcry that went to the highest levels of government. She was fired from various TV jobs, her live shows were cancelled, and she found herself under FBI investigation.

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Much of what happened to her isn’t all that funny, so her almost-three-hour long (yes!) show touches on many other subjects, such as the fun of living next door to Kanye and Kim Kardashian, the weirdness of doing a show for Donald Trump with Liza Minelli (before all that happened, obviously), what Wayne Gretzky is really like (a bit of a hoser), and life with her alcoholic but loving mom. In fact, Griffin switches subjects so rapidly ,and goes on so many tangents, that Jean had trouble keeping up.

It was an impressive performance. So much energy! And the crowd at Centre in the Square (she informed us that the people in Toronto thought it was hilarious she was going to Kitchener of all places) was very different from the symphony! Younger, gayer (as a percentage), livelier, and very warm. It was, mostly, very funny. She manages to bring humour even into (most of) the darker topics—the abusive and threatening messages she and her family received, the loss of support from people she thought were her friends, the interrogation itself, being on the no-fly list, the effect on her livelihood…

It’s great that she’s found a way back, even though she had to take a pay cut to do it.

Come from Away

This was a family outing in Toronto. We bought tickets months ago. But we saw it just days after the US administration imposed punitive tariffs on Canada and followed it up by insulting the Prime Minister, backing out of the G7 statement, and offering Canadians a “special place in hell”.

So it was bittersweet watching this musical about the residents of the small Canadian town of Gander doing everything they could to accommodate the thousands of mostly American travelers who ended up stuck there when US airspace on 9/11. (Aside: This was the musical that Justin Trudeau escorted Ivanka Trump to in happier (?) times.)

How do you make a story of an event like that? By focusing in on a small number of the thousands of travelers, people of different races, religions, and sexual orientations, and following their experiences in that small town (population 7000, doubled overnight). And interspersing that with the logistics that the Gander residents had to deal with: Where will they all sleep? (Among other things, people put them up in their houses.) How do we keep all this extra food fresh? (Re-purpose that hockey rink.) What about the animals on those planes? (Send out the SPCA lady!)

It really is a heart-warming story, even as it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects (such as the prejudice against Muslims). It’s often very often. And it has great fiddle music, which, my Dad pointed, really moves the story forward.

Come From Away Quotes {Taken out of Context}

Source: Come From Away Fan Blog

  • I’ll write S.T.F.D. Slow the fuck down!
  • For the love of God! Stop bringing toilet paper to the Lion’s Club!
  • And my boyfriend Kevin. We’re both named Kevin. It was cute for a while.
  • Excuse me, would you like some Xanax? Because you are freaking out and it is freaking me out and we are all freaking the f*ck out!
  • We ran through every movie we had: Legally Blonde, Doctor Doolittle 2, and…Titanic.
  • Oh my god, this is just so remote.
  • Now there’s the reason I drive slow. That there in the middle of the road? Yah. That’s a moose. She’ll move when she’s good and ready.
  • Safe and sound here on the ground in Iceland.
    No, Newfoundland!
  • I woke up from a dream that we were stuck in some backwater Canadian town and that my air mattress deflated.
  • I wanted to burn my socks.
  • Kevin puts on this plaid – thing. He says he’s “incognito”, and that he’s “going to blend in with the natives”, but he just looks like a gay lumberjack.
  • “We ended up in the gayest town in Canada.”

After a series of sold-out shows, it’s been extended in Toronto, again. I would recommend it.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The Rotten Tomatoes reviews almost scared us away from watching this Netflix movie, but then we were like, hey, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter got even worse Rotten Tomatoes reviews, and we liked that, so what the heck?

I don’t know what all the complaining is about. This movie is exactly what the title suggests: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Only, with zombies. You like the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy? You like seeing kickass women (and men, but mostly women) take out the undead? (These are basically the evil undead, not the nice “they’re just people with a problem” undead of iZombie / Santa Clarita Diet.) If yes, then you’ll like this movie!

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Nobody puts Elizabeth Bennet in a corner

Really. We enjoyed it. It was fun. (I thought maybe the bad guy had a point about the zombies and the placating them with pig’s brains, given that they reproduce so much faster than people, and that the good guys dismissed that idea a little quickly, but still. Overall, this is a non-guilty guilty pleasure.)


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Four days in January

Now that I’ve come up with it, the title of this post seem vaguely ominous, as though I’m about to recount some tragic event that, in four short days, changed my life forever.

But no, sorry, this is nothing that interesting, I’m afraid. (Mind you, I am glad I haven’t recently experienced a great tragedy.)

Jean’s work has been requiring more travel lately, including three weeks in Barrie (about a 2-hour drive away). The first weekend in between, he came home. The second one, he decided to go a conference in Toronto. I would join him there.

This conference is annual, and normally I just stay over for one, maybe two nights. But with us having seen less of each other, I went there Friday after work and took Monday off, such that we could spend three nights and (part of) four days together.

Due to heavy Toronto traffic, my Friday bus was late arriving. Meanwhile, Jean was dealing with the fact that he couldn’t get into his hotel room, because the hotel (Doubletree by Hilton) had mistakenly registered him as staying only one night, even though we had booked for four (and had the paperwork to prove it). Initially, they also weren’t sure where his luggage was. (Turned out it was still in the room.) That all got straightened out shortly before I arrived.

Originally we’d been planning to meet with my younger sister and her husband for dinner, but she’d contacted us a couple days before with the realization that her son had a basketball game and her husband would be out of town, so… We made other plans. Which was just as well, as with the bus delay and hotel troubles, we would have been late for dinner.

But we were on time for the alternative we booked, old reliable Ki, where we once again had a really nice meal of their “modern sushi”, with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

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The jalapenos gave this a nice kick

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Sushi and sashimi assortment

Saturday morning Jean had more conferencing, and we had an early dinner booking, so in the afternoon, we just did a bit of ambling about on Toronto streets…

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Hospital street art

Til the weather became rainy and unpleasant, at which point we decided to explore the Toronto underground. This told us that… A lot of stores in the Toronto underground are closed on Saturdays. Kind of weird.

Dinner was at the very popular Richmond Station, which we’d really enjoyed this past summer. Given its popularity, we were only able to get reservations at either 5:15 or 10 pm. We went with 5:15 pm. We were able to do the chef’s surprise menu, which made it easy. They were able to give us five courses before they needed the table again, and everything was lovely, from the raw oysters…

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To the truffle mushroom soup, and on to the trout with cauliflower and barley…

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to the beef main course, and the hazelnut ice cream dessert, and polished off with some chocolates and macaroons.

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The wine we had was a French Pinot noir that was a pretty flexible match.

We were back at the hotel early enough to watch Eddie the Eagle on Netflix. Pretty much the definition of “feel good movie”, that one, but it’s well done. Eddie the Eagle was the British ski jumper at the Calgary Olympics who had taken up the sport only a year before, and came dead last in the competition, but was thrilled just to land on his feet (and, incidentally, set a British record for that sport). This movie was good at showing that this really was an accomplishment! Landing at Olympic ski jumping is not easy.

So, I’d recommend it. (Canadians, though, will have to look elsewhere than Netflix to watch it. They dropped it on February 1. Hence my hurry to watch it in January.)

Sunday late morning we met with my other sister at the Crown Princess for dim sum. Food and conversation were good, as usual.

Then we headed to the ROM, where they were featuring three special exhibits. Once we got through the rather long entry lineup, we went to the first one, on the Vikings. And found it somewhat underwhelming. Definitely I learned more about the Vikings, but that included the fact that they didn’t leave behind that many artifacts. I was expecting something more spectacular, I guess.

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I was amused by Zuul’s tag line

The Wildlife Photography exhibit, on the other hand, was really great. Lots of fantastic photographs (none of which we could take photos of, of course). As for Christian Dior exhibit? Honestly, we didn’t go ub because of the lineups. Which is really unfortunate, because when we first got to the exhibit door, there was no lineup. Had we realized, we would have gone in then and looked at the Wildlife Photography afterwards. But we didn’t, and we didn’t.

Our dinner that night, with some friends, was at our first new (to us) restaurant, Pearl Diver. It was a little bit noisy, but friendly service and definitely good at preparing its signature cuisine, seafood.

Pearl Diver Restaurant (1 of 1)

Jean’s meal was Spanish-style: No sides! But they weren’t all like that.

And snowy Monday was basically about getting ourselves on the road, back to our respective destination cities.


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Comments about movies (and about comments about movies)

Gone are the days where you go into a film without a whole lot of Internet chatter about it filling your brain…

The Disaster Artist

This is a movie about the making of a “so bad it’s good” movie, The Room. I’d never seen The Room, but I had heard of it, because it plays regularly at the local repertory cinema. Before going to The Disaster Artist, I listened to a How Did This Get Made? podcast that combined an older interview with Greg Sestero, a lead actor in The Room, and a new interview with James Franco, director and star of The Disaster Artist.

That did give me some insight, such that I, for example, understood faster why it was funny when Tommy Wiseau insisted on randomly throwing a football around with Greg Sestero. I don’t think that advance research is necessary to enjoy this film, though. That scene was funny regardless, thanks to Wiseau’s sheer incompetence at throwing the ball.

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Indeed, overall, this movie was one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while—particularly the part where The Room is premiered to an incredulous, sold-out audience. But it’s an interesting story as well, because Wiseau is such a mysterious and eccentric character, and his friendship with all-American Greg is unexpected.

As for the acting, well, James Franco lost himself so much in the character of Tommy Wiseau that Jean didn’t even realize that’s who it was; he thought that James played the character of Greg (in fact played by James’ brother, Dave). And it’s chock full of cameos by the likes of Sharon Stone, Megan Mullally, Nathan Fielder, and Judd Apatow.

[At least some of the reports of James Franco’s “bad behavior” had come out just before I went to see this. Obviously, I concluded that I still wanted to go. Your mileage may vary.]

Blade Runner

This would be the original 1982 Blade Runner, which I thought we should see before seeing Blade Runner 2049, given that Jean had never seen the original, and I had forgotten almost everything about it—other than it starred Harrison Ford and involved androids.

The version we watched was the “Final Cut”, so it lacked the explanatory voice-over and slightly extended ending of the original. Mid-way through, we were both a bit confused about what was going on. But the story does come together, and the movie as whole is thought-provoking and engaging and has a great look. Interesting that it’s set in 2019. We aren’t as far along as that with androids (I don’t think?), but we have much thinner monitors. (This world was still full of cathode ray tubes.)

What else clangs a bit with modern sensibilities? Jean and I were both taken aback at the “seduction” scene between Deckard and Rachael—because it’s actually a rape scene (albeit one that fades to black). She tries to run away from him. He physically stops her. He insists that she say she wants to be kissed. She never looks anything but frightened.

But I don’t think we’re supposed to read it as an assault, given that later in the movie, Rachael declares that she loves Deckard, and they leave together. Reminding me that Pretty in Pink sees nothing wrong in boys having sex with a passed-out drunk teenage girl, and that Grease has a disastrous message for women in general (“Did she put up a fight?”). How many movies of my youth contain similarly jarring scenes? On that topic, check out Maclean’s column  James Bond was a rapist.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’m not a “Star Wars person,” and I’m a bit mystified by those who are, really. Still, I got curious about the low fan vs. critics ratings of this movie on Rotten Tomatoes—you’d expect that to be the opposite, if anything. But I also knew that a lot of “Star Wars people” liked this one very much.

I figured I should go see it for myself.

I liked the movie well enough, as did Jean. I was pleased that it did have its own plot, instead of borrowing storylines from the older films as The Force Awakens had. I liked that it bounced between three different stories for much of its run-time; preventing any one from getting too tedious. Having all those strong female characters was great. It was pretty long, but it kept me engaged.

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After seeing it, I did some reading on why some super-fans didn’t like it. Certainly for a minority it’s just a matter of sexism and racism (as in, ha ha ha, the men’s right activists who created a nonsensical “no women” edit). But for other critics, seems to me, they just cared too much. That is, they had preconceived notions of what this movie should be and couldn’t handle having those expectations thwarted. They wanted Luke to be a certain way (heroic!), they had their ideas of what was possible with the Force (no astral projection!), they wanted the plot to follow an expected arc (plans should work out!). The movie itself told them to move on from the past, and they didn’t like that.

Whereas I didn’t particular care what happened to Luke (sorry Luke), have no theories of the Force, and found it rather interesting that the plans didn’t work out! (Is the lesson here that you can enjoy the world more if you care less? Hmm.)

I would note that despite its 48% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Jedi was a huge box office success.

Call Me by Your Name

We settled into our theatre seats. The lights lowered as the first of the upcoming attractions was queued up.

“Hey,” Jean whispered to me. “What movie are we seeing?”

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure this would be Jean’s kind of movie. The issue wasn’t that it’s a gay love story. It’s that it’s not much more than that. It’s a slow-paced, character-driven exploration of growing attraction over one summer, between 17-year-old European Elio and the handsome American doctoral student, Oliver, who travels over to work as a intern for Elio’s father. The kind of movie Jeanoften finds boring.

To both our surprises, he didn’t hate this one—though “it was deadly slow,” as he pointed out.

(I personally would have described it more as “languid”.)

But the issues raised by the relationship kept it interesting, and led to quite a discussion afterward. Like the young woman that Elio starts a relationship with as a distraction from the one he really wants. The movie really lets us off the hook in feeling bad for her, with her sincere expression that she’s fine and that she and Elio will always be friends. Big of her!

Then there’s the age difference. The movie is fuzzy on exactly what that is—Jean guessed that Oliver was 30 (accurate to the actor’s age), but according to the novel it’s based on, the character was 24. At any rate, one’s a teenager, one’s a man. “What if that had been a 17-year-old girl?” asked Jean.

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That feels like a bit of a straw man argument, as a movie about a 17-year-old girl and handsome older man would be another movie entirely, one telling a completely different story. The whole point of Call Me by Your Name is that the relationship is not socially sanctioned (it’s set in 1983). That informs everything about it.

And for my part, I felt fine about the relationship, as it was so clearly consensual, and initiated, really, by Elio and not Oliver. It’s a lovely movie, one with a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, and indeed didn’t really understand until I reflected on it a bit later.

Quick takes: Coco and The Third Man

While you can’t count on every Pixar movie being a classic anymore, it’s nice to know that they can still put out great films, as with Coco. I really liked the Mexican concept of the afterlife—one I hadn’t known anything about, going on. And as Jean said, this movie “had a really good message” about the importance of family over personal ambition, about the power of forgiveness. And it looked amazing! Well worth seeing on a big screen.

The Third Man is a classic film from 1949, but Jean and I had never seen it. Turns out it’s one of those that does hold up. It helps that it’s set in a particular time and place, post-World War II Vienna. And also that the moral issues it grapples haven’t gone stale. But mostly that it’s an engaging story about an American writer whose convinced there’s more to his friend Harry’s death than he’s being told. He’s not wrong…

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100% fresh

We saw Lady Bird last weekend. This indie film is most famous for having attained a record 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that it got positive notices from all 195 critics who reviewed it.

It would be nicely contrarian of me to report that I didn’t like it… but I did. Set in 2002, it’s about a young woman named Christine (who prefers to be called Lady Bird) negotiating her last year of high school in Sacramento, California. Nothing epic or bizarre occurs. She tries to boost her college changes with extracurriculars. She dates boys for the first time. She abandons old friends for new. She consistently fails to please her mother.

But it works because her character and the supporting characters are so strong and appealing, with great acting that makes them all believable. And, because it presents a time of life and experiences that most of us (at least most North Americans) can relate to. Even Jean, who definitely prefers plot-driven films over character-driven ones like this, was able to enjoy the ride. For me, it didn’t hurt that it was centrally a story of women: Christine, her mom, and her best friend are the main characters. Dad, the boyfriends, the brother, were all supporting cast.


Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a new-ish Freddie Mercury biography called Somebody to Love, by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. It’s hardly the first Freddie biography ever written (or that I’ve read) and I missed the fine print that this one would be particularly looking at his life in the context of the AIDS crisis. Which I pretty quickly decided was not the context I prefer to focus on. Sure, it was sort of interesting finding out just how far back the disease’s origins can be traced, and that Freddie had had an encounter with “patient zero”, and that Reagan wasn’t quite as bad on AIDS as they say (though he was pretty bad), but overall I found myself skipping over the pages discussing increasing death rates or what symptoms Freddie developed when, preferring the parts that talked about the music and the important relationships in his life.

Those parts were a reminder, though, of the extent of critical slagging Queen endured throughout their career. The reviews were not just negative—they were scathing.

A Day at the Races, 1976: “I hate this album…. All of these songs with their precious impotent Valentino kitsch mouthings on romance, their spotlight on a vocalist so giddily enamoured with his own precious image—they literally make my flesh creep.” NME. (Hey, NME: Homophobic much?)

The Game, 1980: “Less obnoxious than Queen’s last few outings, simply because it’s harder to get annoyed at a group that’s plugging away at bad rockabilly than with one blasting out crypto-Nazi marching tunes.” Rolling Stone (Yes, Nazi comparisons are always apropos.)

The Miracle, 1989: “Addresses the question how much bad taste it is possible to cram onto one album.” The Times.

Few critics at the time seemed to recognize that Queen wrote songs that would endure, become the soundtrack of people’s lives. That in the multi-layered vocals, they developed a sound unique to them. That they four song writers each capable of writing hit songs. That they had one the best rock vocalists. That this band would come to be seen as one of all-time greats.


Both of which got me thinking of the state of professional criticism today, compared with the pre-digital era. For movies, while the influence of any individual critic has diminished compared with the heyday of the likes of Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane, and Siskel and Ebert, as an aggregate, they seem to have Hollywood spooked!

I find it fascinating that Rotten Tomatoes, a site I’ve been using for years, has recently become this force: How Rotten Tomatoes became Hollywood’s most influential — and feared — website

Decades ago, the only way to evaluate a movie before its release was to read reviews in major publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker or the Los Angeles Times. Today, moviegoers rely on the Tomatometer, a number that shows what percentage of critics recommend the film.

It’s no coincidence that the few breakout hits of the summer box office all have scores of 80% or higher… And for lesser films, a very low score can be fatal.

But for music? Aggregate sites do exist, like Metacritic—but I had to look up that fact, because I don’t use them, even though I do listen to music regularly. And the only thing I’ve read about recent music criticism is that it seems to be overly positive now. The original WSJ article is pay-walled, so here’s a report on (and critique of) that article: No, There Weren’t Only 8 Bad Albums in the Last 4 Years.

Why the difference? Well, movies are still something of an investment, aren’t they? Of time, if nothing else: two or so hours you won’t get back if you hated, hated, hated that movie. But often of money also: people still go to theatres to see movies, buy them on disc, pay to rent them, subscribe to movie channels. And they’re still expensive to make, so there’s only so many of them released each month. And there’s no Spotify of movies, really: Current movies are not in constant competition with movies of the past. If you’re into movies, you can focus on and make a decision about each.

But albums? They’re no longer distributed on vinyl discs you can play only on your home stereo system… And it’s really just about songs now, which are short, and you can listen to those anywhere, and (if you don’t mind the ads) it’s free to do so. Who needs to be warned away from a bad album when the skip button is right there? The danger isn’t in wasting time (or money) on bad music; it’s on missing out on great music because there is just so much music so easily available now. Of course music reviews are mostly positive: Recommendations are all we need.


So yeah, Rotten Tomatoes got me out to see Lady Bird, and I’m glad it did. I would point out that its 100% score doesn’t mean that all 195 critics thought it was the best movie ever, only that all agreed it was a good one. I would say that too. I liked it, but I don’t know if it’s the best movie I saw even this year: Get Out was so creative, The Big Sick did a great job of balancing the tragic and the comic. But Lady Bird was also a worthy two hours.

As for Queen, all those crappy reviews at the time never deterred me—I’m not sure how many I would have read, anyway, in the pre-digital era where British music magazines weren’t easily available. But the band read them, and yes, despite their success, it did bother them. So I’m glad that most of the group has survived to see the tide of opinion change, and that they can still play to sold-out arenas around the world (to positive reviews, at that). It’s just really tragic that Freddie didn’t live to see that, as well.

Fun way to end this:

Most of these kids actually have heard of Queen, which likely in itself says something of their legacy. But the most fun is the one little girl who hasn’t. “That’s the same band?” she comments, amazed, hearing “Killer Queen” right after “Radio Gaga”. “What is this?” she says, eyes wide, of “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

That, my dear, is probably the greatest rock epic of all time.