Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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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.


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Camel camel camel

I’m probably late to this whole thing, but in case anyone else is too…

Earlier this year I’d written about the baffling and frequent ways that pricing on Amazon varies. My example was a blu-ray of a Queen+Adam Lambert concert. I’d described a price range of $145 to $48. And wondered if I should have waited even longer for a cheaper price.

Among all the Black Friday / Cyber Monday coverage this week, I read about the very handy camelcamelcamel.com website (this link will bring you to the Canadian site, but you can pick another country from there). Here you can paste in a URL of an Amazon item, and see just how much that item’s price has ranged in the last six months. Here’s what I got for that QAL blu-ray:

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Showing that not only had it at times been more than $145, I had indeed purchased it at a historic low price.

Clearly a handy tool if you’re wondering just how good a current Amazon sale price is. (Turns out I should have bought that toaster oven at $203 Friday; that’s just $4 above its historic low and now it’s at $230. Meh.)


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Every purchase tells a story, don’t it

English mints

cofJean: Why are you buying those?

Me: (?) To eat.

Jean: But old people buy those.

Me: Why do you say that? Because my Dad buys them?

Jean: And my Grandmother. She always had a bowl of those out.

Me: Come to think of it, my Grandmother always had mints like these around, too.

Shit.

 

But would your Grandmother buy shoes like these?

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(Or allow shoes on the couch?)

So the mission here was to get another pair of comfy shoes that weren’t sandals (as it seemed, at the time, that Fall weather was coming). And I did succeed at that:cof

But then I saw these other shoes, and they were so cute.

The truth is, outside of ballroom dancing—which requires special dance shoes—I have few opportunities to wear heeled shoes. At work I do the stand-up desk thing, and you can’t do that in heels.

But still…. Pretty cute. And on sale!

I have managed to wear them to one party that was mostly a sit-down affair, and have worn them at work as well, for the sit-down parts of the day. For heeled shoes, they’re pretty comfortable: despite the point, they don’t squish the toes, and the back strap doesn’t dig in. And with so few occasions to actually wear them, they should last for years, right?

Anyone want to borrow a T-shirt?

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It’s possible I have a T-shirt problem.

The above were all acquired this summer, in Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, and right here in Waterloo. And it’s not as though I didn’t have any T-shirts to start with.

A double shot

We came home from one vacation to find that the drip coffeemaker was no longer working. A fuse or something, I guess—you’d press the button and nothing would happen. That was a Delonghi dual espresso / regular coffee maker that I’d received as a work gift. Only, the espresso part broke down within weeks. It looked impressive, but for years had supplied only regular coffee, and now couldn’t even do that.

Still, when we put it out with the trash, someone took it away within minutes. Good luck to them in trying to make it useful again.

Meanwhile, we were doing Bodum coffee, which is very good, but presented a timing issue. Jean is more of a morning person that I am. He’d get up and make enough coffee for both of us, but by the time I was up and ready to drink it, it was often more lukewarm than hot.

So when the New York Times ran an article on the best available coffee makers, I was interested. Especially in this one:

We started by tasting a single-origin coffee to determine which cheap machine was most acceptable to discerning coffee drinkers, then ran the panel a second time with preground Dunkin’ Donuts house blend from the corner store. The Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker (46201) swept both rounds of testing. It placed second to the Oxo [9-cup coffee maker, a $200 US coffee maker] in Round 1 and actually beat the Oxo during the Dunkin’ round.

That Hamilton Beach unit was more widely available in the US than in Canada, but Amazon could ship it to us from an outfit called Moto Liquidation that warned would be “like new” but “show signs of handling/unpacking and usages, boxes have damage.”

That proved pretty accurate—box was somewhat battered but unit looked new. Only the first day we tried it, we found that we only got about half the amount of coffee requested—the rest of the water spilled out all over the counter.

We contacted Moto Liqidation who said that we could either get a refund, or they would send us another coffeemaker. Either way, they said, we could keep the one we had. And hence:

coffee-maker.jpg

Unit 2 has a slight wobble, but not one that interferes with coffee making. And if any of the parts ever break or fail, well, we can pillage them from unit 1.

It does make really good coffee.

TV in the kitchen

I believe it’s not so unusual now, but when we got our kitchen renovated 15 or so years ago, our designer considered it very odd that we wanted space for a TV in there. Still, she penciled one in, above the stove top, plenty big enough for TVs of the time.

Fast forward, and the space is just barely big enough for the smallest of today’s TVs. And there’s absolutely nowhere else in the kitchen a TV could go (short of doing another renovation).

Furthermore, at some point I decided I also wanted the option of listening to music in the kitchen, and I don’t mean over headphones. So we got a Sonos Play 5, with the idea that when we bought a small digital TV to replace the old tube one, we could hook it up as the TV speaker.

But the Sonos 5 is large, and trying to find a spot for it near the TV was a challenge. Not just in having enough room, but also in the fact that anything near the stove top gets totally coated in disgusting grease, and I didn’t want that to happen to my nice speaker.

Then Sonos came out with a new speaker that was exactly what we needed. The Playbase is a wide, flat TV (and music) speaker that the TV is meant to sit on. It’s sized to exactly fit in the limited space we have available. The sound quality, by all accounts, incredible. The only problem? It’s a pricey sucker.

[All Sonos Playbase reviews, summarized: Woah, that sounds awesome. … Wait, you want how much for it?]

So I kept dawdling on it til the the September long weekend, when I just decided to go for it.

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The only available TV spot in the kitchen is… not wide, and at risk of grease

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A better view of the Sonos playbase. The other little box is the Rogers digital adapter.

The new TV took two tries, as the first one had a cracked screen. Figuring out just how to get the cable through was trickier than expected (tip: even it’s a digital TV, you still need a digital adapter to decipher the channels).

But the Sonos was problem-free in hooking into our network of other Sonos units. And it does sound great. And having the Chromecast on the TV opens up new viewing and listening possibilities:  Netflix, YouTube, Spotify (even if not paying for Premium), SoundCloud app.

(The neighbourhood scavengers, by the way, had no interest in the tube TV beyond the power cord. But no worries, we properly e-cycled it.)

As for the grease, we’re trying to minimize its effects by using the back burners more. It’s making that back corner kind of gross, but so far so good on keeping the speaker clean.

So I was happy. Until the following Tuesday (i.e. the next business day) when Sonos decided it was time to offer me 15% off a new Playbase. As long as I hadn’t already bought one, of course…

Bah. Good thing I saved money with the on-sale shoes and the cheap coffee maker, eh?


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Where to eat in Canada: The Berlin

The new Where to Eat in Canada is out, and The Berlin has made the cut for the first time, as a two-star restaurant. We happened to dine at The Berlin this weekend, and the reaction of the staff upon being told the restaurant was listed in the guide now, was basically:

We’re in the what now?

Which likely shows the diminishing influence of a publication that remains strictly print based (save this tiny website). There’s no app. Where To Eat recommendations aren’t included as part of Google searches. Heck, you can’t even get it as an ebook.

The author, Anne Hardy, literally still works on a typewriter, sending an occasional email to her contributors only with great reluctance (and some assistance from her editor).

So why would anyone under 30 know about it, even if working in the higher-end food industry?


Where to Eat in Canada is meant to be a kind of Michelin Guide for Canada—list only good restaurants, with ratings from no to 3 stars. Very hard to be a three-star restaurant—Cambridge’s Langdon Hall just made it back after a few years downgraded to two. But a difference with the Michelin (apart from them being quite web-enabled now) is that all reviews have the personal touch and style of Anne Hardy herself.

This makes it a fun look-over whenever the new edition arrives, and it can be handy when planning a visit to a particular Canadian city or town.

cof

Post-its for possible future travels

But it’s also always been organized a bit strangely, alphabetically by city name. There are maps, but only to indicate where each city / town is, not where the restaurants are in each locality (for how would that fit a in a physical book?). Each listing does include an address, but usually doesn’t say what part of town it’s in. I generally have to sit there book in one hand, Google Maps in the other, to figure out if a listing is anywhere near where my hotel is.

And as an intended traveler’s guide, it does lack some portability. Do you want to cart a 332-page paperback with you as you trek around town as a tourist? Or would you rather just check the TripAdvisor restaurant listings on your phone?


As for our Berlin dinner, they did quite a good job, despite it being a busy Saturday—A full restaurant plus a wedding party in the room upstairs—and having some key players away that day, including chef Jonathan Gushue.

Although the fixed four-course menu was pretty tempting, we went with assembling our own four-course dinner. Jean had the oysters in grapefruit dressing, I the roasted asparagus with lemon and pecorino. I had a really good gruner veltliner with that, Jean a very interesting sparkling.

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As an appetizer Jean went with a terrine of foie gras and pork while I had a tomato salad with fennel, avocado, and prawns.

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Then we both had the goose confit with a broccoli salad and white bean ragout.

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And we shared the strawberries and vanilla ice cream with fennel meringue, which was very interesting).

The_Berlin-0065of0073-20170624-HDR

The only hiccup in the service was a longer-than-ideal delay in getting our second glass of wine, a Tuscany rose for me, an intriguing muscat blend for Jean. Possibly because of that—or because I mentioned I’m a “food blogger”?—we were credited for some items on our bill.


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25th wedding anniversary party: An inside look

I did write a more detailed account of our anniversary party in early May, and I posted it here:

25th wedding anniversary party: An inside look

In that article, you will discover:

  • The perils of using evites
  • The effect of heavy rain on travel plans
  • The tragedy of the missing chocolate mousse with ginger ice cream
  • The secret campaign my sister waged against me for years
  • My ongoing struggles with footwear
  • Why some people thought that Jean and I might be in a rock band (or that Jean likes to disguise himself as a rock star)

And more!

(Any commenting will have to be done back here, though, where WordPress helps me manage any spam-bots.)


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Roundup: Riverdale, Lala Land, Malcolm Gladwell, and more

I haven’t done anything major of late, but I’m still keeping busy with a number of minor items, such as…

Watching Riverdale

A very buzzy show right now, playing on CW in the US and on Netflix in Canada. Beforehand, I liked the idea of a dark, Twin Peaks-y take on Archie Comics, and I’ve been generally happy with the results. The tone is still somewhat uneven—sometimes exaggerated Gothic, sometimes gritty realism—and Jean does tend to roll his eyes at the drama, drama of some scenes. But we’re both pretty entertained by it, overall.

Doesn’t hurt that he took an instant shine to Betty, while I am seriously crushing on Jughead… On Jughead, yeah. This is not like the comics! Sure, Archie is handsome, but also a jock and a bit bland, and Kevin is cute, but not  in that Adam Lambert way. But Jughead is a writer, he’s sensitive, he’s moral, he’s troubled (poor and bullied; alcoholic father)—and also, so pretty!

jughead

[SPOILERY] There’s been considerable Internet discussion about whether the Jughead character would be asexual / aromantic as in the comics, so I was curious how that would play out. I can’t say I’m personally disappointed with the decision, but it is certainly a missed opportunity to do something groundbreaking.

Finding a movie Jean likes

Back in December we went to see Office Christmas Party, an over-the-top, light comedy we both found kind of fun. But then we followed withe Loving and Moonlight. These are both quality films that I enjoyed. But they are also slow-paced, character-driven dramas, and Jean was somewhat bored by both. So I took a pass on going to Fences and Manchester by the Sea with him—I’ll catch up on those myself.

The Lego Batman Movie seemed like it should be a good bet, though, right? And while it was not quite as good as the original Lego Movie, I was still very entertained by it. But while Jean wasn’t exactly bored, he was just kind of meh on this one. He just didn’t catch all the digs at the Batman lore that made the movie so clever.

And Lala Land? (“Did you know this is a musical?” he asked, walking in. Umm…)

But hey Mikey, he liked it! (Me too. It’s fun, and beautifully filmed.)

Fretting about details of a party we’re hosting

Usually late at night, when I should be falling asleep.

“Huh,” said Jean, when I reported this. “I don’t think about that at all.”

But he definitely helps me work on whatever aspect I’m most recently fretting about.

I guess that makes us a good partnership. Though I do envy his ability to just assume that things will be fine and work out.

Learning from Malcolm Gladwell

Revisionist History is a podcast series, available on iTunes and Google Play.

Each week, over the course of 10 weeks, Revisionist History will go back and reinterpret something from the past. An event. A person. An idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.

I’ve listened to 8 out of 10 so far, and find them all fascinating. Like:

  • The Lady Vanishes, on how one woman (or African-American, or gay person) achieving breakthrough success doesn’t necessarily pave the way for more.
  • Thanks to The Big Man Can’t Shoot, I now understand that my very disinterest in looking athletic (a hopeless endeavour, anyway; I am simply not athletic) made me a basketball free-throw champion. (It was literally the only thing I was ever better than anyone else at in gym class.)
  • Hallelujah explains the creative process and unlikely series of fortunate events that turned Leonard Cohen’s original un-listenable song into the iconic tune it is today. (Though I think KD Lang should also have earned a shout-out in this piece.) And as a bonus, introduced me to a new Elvis Costello tune.

Listening to women

I’ve always been a feminist, of course, but the US election has made it all feel more acute. My Twitter feed has been feeling gender unbalanced, so I’ve been seeking out more women’s voices:

  • @robyndoolittle, who’s been working on an important series for the Globe and Mail on how many sexual assault cases in Canada are labelled unfounded. (The first: Unfounded: Why police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless)
  • @AKimCampbell, first woman Prime Minister of Canada, and also a really hilarious person. (And very active retweeter, but I’ve learned you can follow a person’s tweets but not their retweets.)
  • @kashanacauley, humorist and now writer at The Daily Show.
  • @tagaq, wherein singer Tanya Tagaq provides an interesting, First Nations perspective on the day’s issues.

I’ve also been listening to more music by women. This has led Spotify, who previously recommended me a whole lot of dance club music (thanks to following Adam Lambert, and perhaps enforced by a bout of listening to show tunes) to conclude, well, maybe I would enjoy some Indigo Girls and Melissa Ethridge as well.

I kind of do like their music, though, so it’s all good. And also, the songs by these strong women:


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Walk strong!

I’m not a gym person. I do the ballroom dance classes; I’ll go out for walks, hikes, or snowshoeing. But apart from that, it’s at-home fitness for me. I got free weights, I’ve got machines, and I have yoga mats and straps. And I have a big-ass TV, because for motivation in using the fitness equipment, I find exercise videos helpful.

But back in the fall I decided I needed something new. I hadn’t stopped exercising, but was certainly gravitating toward the shorter, 20-minute workouts more often. And finding it fairly easy to make an excuses to skip a day, or days.

inwell_syf-6_image_coverThe videos still in fairly high rotation tended be by Jessica Smith. And I was sometimes supplementing those with free offerings from her YouTube channel, a quite extensive collection of routines she films in her living room, organized by time, style, and activity. But I was intrigued by her Walk Strong! series of videos, even though I had to pay for those.

The physical DVDs seem to be available exclusively from Amazon US for $58.88. but for $5 less ($53.88) you can get instant access to online versions of them. They just run in a browser on PC, tablet, or phone, so all you need is your user name and password (and a means to play or cast them to your TV, preferably).

It also comes with a PDF of a welcome guide that emphasizes this is a program about a health, not a promise to make you skinny (despite the video series’ “6 week total transformation” tagline), and a six-week calendar suggesting an order in which to get through all videos a number of times.

I found this approach really worked for me. Getting 10 new videos at once in itself alleviated boredom. And although you had your typical fun cardio, interval cardio, upper body strength, lower body strength, and so on, there were also a couple with a very original focus:

  • Brain Fitness Fun: Moves requiring coordination and sequencing, that you therefore have to think about. Augmented with on-screen text giving you facts about brain health.
  • Prehab Routine: One that works every joint in your body, from your neck (I always discover mine is remarkably stiff) to your hips (including some Kegel exercises—“We can’t really demonstrate these”) to your toes (mine are not terribly agile).

But if the rest are less wholly original, I still like the style. Jessica’s persona is very much the warm, encouraging coach, not the stern drill sergeant. And though each workout has a particular focus on cardio, strength, or flexibility, it’s not an exclusive. The strength workouts includes sequences where you’re moving fast enough to raise your heart rate. The aerobics will include some resistance. So the whole program feels very well-rounded.

YouTube promo for the program gives a good sense of what it’s like

Each workout is 30 minutes, which is manageable for fitting in to most days. And they all include a countdown clock, which is the greatest thing! Jessica is joined in each workout by two others: Beth (55) who does the advanced moves, and her mom Debbie (59) who does the beginner moves. The women look great, but like real women.

The equipment required is fairly basic:

  • Yoga mat (unless you have very plushy carpet to work on)
  • Sturdy high-backed chair
  • Hand weights (I use 5 lbs and 8 or 10 lbs—might get to 12)
  • Towel (or yoga strap in one case)

These are the other programs:

  • Cardio Party! Steady-state aerobics with focus on fun
  • Total Body Training—Total-body strength training
  • Barefoot Fusion Sculpt—Cardio and strength to build balance, endurance, and flexibility
  • 360 Abs—Cardio core training
  • Dynamic Stretch—Stretch out muscles and build flexibility
  • Upper Body Strength—Upper body strength training
  • Interval Mix—High-intensity interval training
  • Lower Body Strength—L0wer body strength training

I have gone through the whole 42-day sequence, in somewhat more than 42 days (some days I do other types of exercise, some days don’t leave time for exercise). I don’t know that I’ve “transformed”, whatever that means, but I am meeting the goal of working out more often and it has boosted my strength, as I think that’s the area I’d been getting more lax on.

My plan now is to start over again, but to sometimes sub in other workouts I have of a similar genre for that day. I therefore hope to keep the boredom at bay a while longer. (Of course, Jessica also has other fitness programs available…)