Cultureguru's Weblog

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


Gone Girl (the book)

Yes, I know, y’all read this three years ago, when it was new and hot. But I just finished it. So cast your mind back…

(But if you not have read it (or seen the movie] yet: Spoilers ahead.)

Gone Girl coverWhat it’s about, basically

Nick Dunne’s beautiful wife Amy disappears on their anniversary date. The house shows signs of a struggle, but almost in a staged way. The police have to consider Nick a suspect.

What I liked

This was an awesome vacation read. It was very gripping, the plot’s twists and turns continually holding my interest. A perfect way to while away the hours on the sun deck.

But I also found the narrative structure very intriguing. Despite the fact that the story was being told in the first person by Nick—we still weren’t getting the whole story. He was keeping secrets not only from the police, but from us, the readers.

This (along with some of the movie publicity, I must admit) becomes a clue that we should possibly also doubt Amy’s diary entries that intersperse Nick’s telling of her disappearance in the first part of the novel. Who can you trust?

What I had some issues with

The story’s structure is such that we’re supposed to find some equivalencies between Amy and Nick, I think, but, but… Amy is a murderous, vengeful psychopath. Nick is a bit flawed and weak.

Of course, Amy’s extremes made for this very enthralling plot—but it was very extreme.

About that ending

I talked to a number of people about this book and the movie. A lot of people hated the ending. A few people thought it was just right. But love it or hate it, one thing they had in common was: They couldn’t quite remember what the ending was. Only their feelings about it. Curious.

Well, at this point, I can still remember the ending, and I wasn’t crazy about it. It seemed a rather odd choice. And yet I wasn’t sure how I would have preferred that it end. I was briefly determined to see the movie, as I had somehow got in my head that it ended differently than the book, and I was curious to see an alternative. But further research dashed my hopes: It has the  exact same ending, apparently.

Guess I’ll wait to see the movie when I forget the ending, as that seems an inevitable occurrence…

What the book says about marriage

I’ve heard this “it’s an indictment of marriage” theory, but frankly, I don’t think this book says anything about marriage in general. Heck, given the narrative structure, we don’t even learn about Nick and Amy’s specific marriage. Not really. We only find out about it through a lying diary and the fog of memory (his and hers). It’s all past tense, and at a very tense time for both!

Really, I think, the only lesson you can take is: Try not to marry a murderous psychopath.

Can we blame Amy’s parents?

This was another theory i’d heard before reading the book, and then I kept waiting for Amy’s parents to do so or say something that would give a hint as to how they had turned her into what she was, but… Bupkus. Sure, they weren’t perfect. She was an only child, they literally elevated her to “Amazing Amy” status through a series of books they wrote, but not every spoiled kid turns into this.

It’s probably best not to try to find deep meaning in a fun vacation read. Even one written with such skill.


The Americans

The Americans posterIn the continuing quest to find television programs that my husband and I enjoy watching together, we’ve come across The Americans. It’s now in season 3 on FX, a channel we don’t currently subscribe to. But—in Canada, at least—Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Rogers / Shaw’s streaming service, Shomi.

It’s set in 1981. The main characters, Elizabeth and Philip, are Russian spies. The pose as a typical American couple, married, two kids, living in the suburbs, working together as travel agents. Their next-door neighor just happens to be an FBI agent focused on counter-intelligence.

Their lives are very complicated.

Elizabeth is the more radical of the two. More devoted to Russia, more loyal to her oath as a KBG agent, more skeptical of America. But as the series begins, she finds her world shifting a bit due to unexpected development: She seems to be falling in love with her husband.

Philip is already there, and finds this a welcome development. But there’s nothing simple about it. They have years of not completely trusting each of other, of just “doing a job” (even if Philip finds himself liking America and his pretty wife). The past (affairs, secrets, lies) regularly reaches out to bite them. The present missions are stressful. And frequently obliges them to have sex with other people.

The mix of action and romance, politics and relationships, is really compelling. Adding a layer of confusion over the whole thing: Who do you cheer for? Elizabeth and Philip are the protagonists; it’s hard not to root for them. (They have those nice kids!) But as spies, they do terrible things. They threaten, injure, and murder people. Civilians, sometimes.

And we also see the American side of things, through the viewpoint of their FBI neighbor. And the Americans—while very far from purely heroic—haven’t (so far at any rate) done anything quite as appalling as the Russians. Still, you don’t really want your “heroes” caught.

So far, at least, we are both equally engaged with this series. And that’s a very rare thing!

The Americans – Trailer

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Valentine / Family Day weekend

We originally thought of taking a day trip this long weekend—maybe do some snowshoeing—but the record cold temperatures dissuaded us from that plan. Instead we found entertainment closer to home.

Friday night we had dinner with friends at Aqua, the new seafood restaurant in the not-so-new Crowne Plaza Hotel. The service was a little iff-y—bit inattentive—but the food was pretty good. We all went with the Valentine’s special menu. The highlights were the beet soup with smoked trout, the ravioli and beef entree Jean had, and the two desserts: A chocolate mousse cake and a cookie with ice cream concoction. We all concluded we’d eat here again, amidst that special chlorinated pool ambiance. 🙂

Afterward we all attended a symphony concert. It started with a modern piece that our friend accurately described as interesting, but not that musical. Then we got Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert no. 2 in C minor. For me, this would be the number 3 Rachmaninoff piano concerto I have heard live, and he is three for three in my books. I always enjoy them. The second movement of this one sounds so much “All By Myself” that Eric Carmen still pays royalties to Rachmininoff’s estate. (True fact!) The third movement was lively and sensual. The featured pianist was an attractive and obviously talented young woman named Natasha Paremski.

The second half of the concert featured Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, which was also good though, for me, not as good as the piano concerto.

Saturday was actual Valentine’s Day, and we don’t generally go to restaurants then. But it being a holiday, I decided to make a nicer dinner.

I tried a new (to me) Jamie Oliver recipe for slow-cooked duck pasta. We weren’t able to buy the duck until that morning, and it was frozen, so the main challenge was getting it defrosted in time for dinner that day. That required a whole lot of rinsing.

Otherwise, the recipe wasn’t tough: Just required time. The duck cooked at 350 for 2 hours, in its juices, and I had to turn it every half hour. Then in a fry pan I sauteed some pancetta, then I added various vegetables and some can tomatoes and red wine to make a pasta sauce. After the duck cooled, we removed the meat from it, and added that to the sauce. Then it was a matter of cooking rigatoni and mixing it all together, topped with Parmesan.

by Jamie Oliver. Valentine Dinner at home

Quite delish. We served it with a Chateauneuf du pape.

For dessert I made a chocolate mousse cake. No flour, just cocoa, unsweetened, and bittersweet chocolate with eggs and Cool Whip, basically. It was another new recipe (to me), and it turned out well—not too sweet, good texture.

.... or is that chocolate mousse? Too much wine with dinner .. Valentine Dinner with my one and only :)

But we weren’t done eating yet. 🙂

Sunday we braved the cold and drove to Wilk’s Bar, which is at Langdon Hall, for lunch. It isn’t a cheap place (though cheaper than the Langdon Hal dining room), but they do a nice job.

Valentine Lunch at Wilke's Bar at Langdon Hall

We had the “From the Land” sharing platter to start, along with four oysters. The oysters were amazing. The land platter was fine, but not outstanding. The highlight of that was probably the almonds!

Valentine Lunch at Wilke's Bar at Langdon Hall

Muskox stew with mushroom risotto in the background

Both of the lunch entrees were very good, though. I had the wild mushroom risotto and Jean had muskox stew. The glasses of wine were quite nice, also.

But no time (or room, really) for dessert, as we had tea dance tickets for 2:00. After a detour to the wrong location, we got to that event around 2:15. It was a fun time, and a chance to work off some of the food—especially dancing to “Jump, Jive, and Wail”! Wow, that’s a fast song. (Which is why the wailing after the jiving, I guess.)

And then, we dashed to a 4:20 showing of The Theory of Everything at the Princess. Pretty interesting movie about the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Definitely shows the challenges of her having to cope with his increasingly serious illness. Though of course, as we know, he continued to do amazing physics work through it all.

Then we were ready to go back home and relax. Family Day was pretty quiet, and that suited us just fine. Especially as we got some news Sunday night that definitely had us thinking about family.

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Movie review: Selma

***½ Selma (January 2105) David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, and Tom Wilkinson – Theatre

Selma movie poster Selma covers a period of American history I wasn’t very familiar with previously. In 1965, African Americans had won the right to vote, but often weren’t able to exercise that right in southern states due to abusive registration processes that made it virtually impossible for them to get on the voter’s lists. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King took this on as his next battle.

Though continuing to adhere to his belief in passive resistance, King knew that drama was needed to get attention to the cause. While continuing to be peaceful, the protestors had to also be confrontational. They had to go, in large numbers, where they weren’t wanted. This required enormous courage.

Though the threat of violence was always present, I thought director Ava DuVernay did a magnificent job of always presenting attacks as surprising and shocking when they did occur. This is not violence for or as entertainment. These aren’t “action sequences”, but moments of horror.

As today’s film goers are shocked by them, so were some TV news viewers at the time.

But the film also shows that King’s struggled with the sacrifices his followers had to make for the cause—not to mention the ever-present danger to his own family. He was a preacher, and most (all?) of the movement’s supporters were also very devout, some also clergy. So religion and faith play a prominent part in the movie—to an unusual degree for a mainstream film. It made clear, regardless of own belief, that everyone involved at that time really needed God’s support, that they needed that shared belief, to do this difficult and courageous work.

The portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in the film has been controversial. While he is not presented as a villain, he is depicted as a practical politician with much to do, who doesn’t feel he can prioritize voting rights as quickly as Martin Luther King would like. Whether that’s true to history or not, I don’t know. But it definitely makes for a nice dramatic arc when he changes his mind and brings forward the Voting Rights Act.

Afterward Jean and I discussed the question of where we might have stood had we been whites in the US South at that time rather than Canadians now. You’d like to think you’d be on the side of good, or at least not so actively evil. But who knows?

Definitely a movie worth seeing.


Award season

Movie award season has come around and I find myself somewhat more interested than some years. If nothing else, at least the talk of movies and actors is a nice distraction from the alarming events going on in the world.

Movie award trophis

Trophies for the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and SAG awards

However, I haven’t seen that many of the big contenders yet. I am pleased that The Grand Budapest Hotel, which we saw back in April, has been remembered and is getting recognition, as it really was quite delightful. But Wild is only getting recognition for Reese Witherspoon’s acting, when I thought the film as a whole was very good. And the fantastic Pride was up for a Golden Globe, but nowhere in the Oscar list.

So I guess my interest is that I would like to see many of the other contenders as well: The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Into the Woods, Big Eyes, Still Alice, and Boyhood. Mind you, except for Boyhood—which I was deliberately waiting for the rental version of—those are in theatres now. Rather unlikely I find time to see all of them before award show season ends.

Birdman posterWe did get to Birdman, however, back in December. And I’m still trying to figure out exactly I what I think of it! It tells the story of an actor who had been the star in a superhero movie franchise, and is now trying to adapt, direct, and star in a revival of a Raymond Carver play on Broadway. The effort of putting on the play is not going smoothly, however, and the stress causes him to break down and hallucinate at times. The hallucinations are largely presented as though they’re actually happening.

So it’s an unusual film, and for me that makes it hard to unabashedly love. But I didn’t dislike it, either. It’s certainly creative, and the actors—star Michael Keaton, Edward Norton as another actor in the play, and Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter—are very good. And you certainly end up rooting for the main character, despite his flaws. Worth seeing if you’re up for a moderate challenge.

Some of the other Oscar contenders, though, I’ve decided I’m not up for the challenge of: Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, American Sniper. All these movies about dark men being nasty. Oscar clearly loves that shit, but I do not.

Oscar also snubbed the Roger Ebert document, Life, Itself, which we had found quite good. Admittedly, though, I didn’t see any of the documentaries they did nominate, so can’t really say whether they were all better than Life, Itself.

The Lego Movie posterSimilarly with the animated movie category: I haven’t seen any of the nominees, but I did recently see The Lego Movie.(which was nominated for a Globe, but didn’t win), and found it to be one heck of a fun and entertaining movie, no matter your age. Jean was quite skeptical when I suggested we watch it, but he quite enjoyed it, too. (As an aside, he had the same reaction to 2012’s Pitch Perfect, the movie about the all-women a capella group, so that’s another recommended one from us, if you haven’t seen it already.)

At least the “Everything is Awesome” song was nominated, but I really think Lego Batman deserved more recognition for his work. 🙂

The Globes also give awards for TV shows and actors, and I’ve hardly seen of any of those nominees. But weirdly, many of the few I was acquainted with actually won. The Affair got best dramatic series—which appalled the TV critics—and best actress in a drama., and the star of Jane the Virgin won for best actress in a comedy—which delighted the TV critics. I, of course, have caught up with both of those shows recently.

In the mini-series category, Maggie Gyllenhaal took it for the amazing Honourable Woman, which I did watch on CBC. The network’s commercial insertions were jarring, but the series was a fascinating, complex look at Israeli / Palestian relations, and Gyllenhaal was great in it (as she usually is). And Matt Bomber won a supporting actor award for HBO’s The Normal Heart, an interesting movie about the early days of the AIDS crisis, that I watched not long after I subscribed to HBO.

I leave you with some links.

Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globe) nominees and winners list

Oscar 2015: Nominations in full (in case you really need to know who’s up for sound editing and for hair and makeup)

Oscar snubs: Shocks and surprises from the 2015 nominations (at least according to The Telegraph)

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Wild women! Some reviews

Wild movie posterIt seems apropos to begin with Wild, the movie starring Reese Witherspoon, that we recently saw at the theatre. I was quite looking forward to it, as I’ve really enjoyed every other movie Jean-Marc Vallée has made. I also thought the rugged, outdoors-y story would appeal to Jean.

Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed, who decides to solo hike the Pacific Coast Trail, which is over 1000 miles long and doesn’t have a lot of “comfort stations.” As her overly full backpack attests, she doesn’t have any experience with this type of trip. As she slogs along, she flashes back to the memories of her past that have led her to this point.

So it’s not inherently the most cinematic movie. The writer, director, and actors deserve credit for making it as compelling as it is.

Cheryl Strayed was kind of wild. Depressed after her mother dies of cancer, she spirals… drops out of schools, engages in casual sex, drinks, experiments with heroin. She does the hike as a kind of act of atonement. Instead she learns that maybe she has nothing to atone for.

The Affair posterThe Affair, an HBO Canada (Showtime in the US) series that we finished watching over Christmas, presents another woman for whom a tragic death leads to “bad” behavior—notably, an affair. The conceit of the series is that each episode is show from two points of view: His (Noah’s) and hers (Alison’s). What’s interesting is how differently each of them recalls the same events. With this series, you can never be sure what the truth is.

Underpinning the story of the affair is a murky murder investigation: For the longest time, we’re not even sure who’s dead. But particularly at the start of the series, it’s the personalities and relationships that are of interest, anyway.

Watching this with Jean was added entertainment, as he’d get so frustrated with the characters and situation at times, he’d have to get up and pace to work off the tension. At one point he commented, “I don’t know why she’s so much more sympathetic than he is.” But she is. It’s sad but understandable that the strain of tragedy has damaged the relationship with her husband. Noah, on the other hand, seems to be undergoing a petulant midlife crisis, with his wife and four children as the victims.

It seems like the kind of series in which everything would get wrapped up at the end of the season, but not so much. This is TV, they wanted a season 2, so it ends in a kind of cliffhanger. That’s worrisome, as I don’t see this necessarily continuing to work well for another 10 episodes.

Jane the ViringJane the Virgin, on the other hand—which we started watching on Shomi about a month ago and have nearly finished already—has enough plot and characters to run for years, probably. Central character Jane is, indeed, a virgin. In a bid to avoid becoming a teenage mom like her own mother, she has vowed to wait until marriage.

Unfortunately, a medical mistake in the first episode causes her to get pregnant anyway. And that’s just one plot among many.

The series is based on and includes Mexican telenovellas, which I know nothing about. But it seems to mean:

  • Fast-moving storylines
  • A large cast of intersecting characters
  • Painfully good-looking actors
  • High drama

(Or maybe that impression is just the result of watching so many episodes in such a short time.) At any rate, it is highly entertaining. If Jane isn’t wild, the same can’t be said of anyone around her: The number and variety of hookups is astonishing. They all (even her mother) see Jane and her morals as a kind of a mysterious, rare bird. Yet she’s not some preachy, perfect, dull character: She’s just a young woman trying to make the best decisions for herself.

In a really crazy world.

Pamela SmartBut HBO documentary Captivated: The Many Trials of Pamela Smart remind us that the real world can be pretty crazy as well.

The Pamela Smart story is one you probably think you know, at least if you were around in 1993. She was the pretty, blonde school worker who had an affair with a teenage boy, who later murdered her husband. She was convicted of conspiring to commit murder, the story being that she had seduced her young lover into committing the act. The case inspired the movie To Die For, starring Nicole Kidmann.

The documentary covers the media circus surrounding the case at the time. I hadn’t realized just how nuts it was on American TV, down to presenting a full re-creation of the supposed crime on television before the fully televised trial (the first ever) even took place! It points out which often-repeated “facts” presented in the media weren’t true, and some of the lax aspects of the case itself (such as allowing the four young men involved to stay together in prison pre-trial; and maybe get their stories straight?).

The “seductress” story was so compelling, it seemed any reality that contradicted it got dismissed.

I went into watching this assuming she was guilty, and the documentary wasn’t necessarily trying to establish her innocence. Still, I’m left wondering, particularly given the inclusion of recordings by one of the jurors (made at time of trial), who had extreme doubts about the evidence as presented. Perhaps Pamela Smart is guilty, But after watching this, I don’t think that’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Nevertheless, she’s in jail for life, The actual murderers are due to be released soon.

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Movie review: Rosewater

*** Rosewater (November 2014) – Theatre

Rosewater movie posterStarring Gael Garcia Barnal

She says: In 2009, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart sent one of the cast (Jason Jones) to Iran to do a real on-location segment for their fake news show. One of the individuals interviewed for the program was journalist Maziar Bahari. As with many Daily Show items, the resulting segment was both amusing and educational.

Unfortunately, the mock interview was then used as the pretext for the actual arrest of Bahari, who went on to spend 118 days in an Iranian jail, with no trial.

On his release, Bahari wrote a book about his experience. And last summer, Jon Stewart directed a movie based on that book.

So, Rosewater is not a comedy. On the other hand, it’s not all grim and depressing, either. The beginning, focusing on Bahari’s coverage of the election in Iran and its aftermath, when the result was rigged, is quite exciting. I’m sure I followed it on the news at the time (via The Daily Show, if nothing else), but I certainly didn’t remember all the details presented of Iran’s thwarted version of the Arab spring.

The movie certainly becomes more insular upon Bahari’s arrest, when it focuses on the interrogations and the interrogators, and how Bahari managed to cope, mentally—but I found that part interesting as well. And I was relieved there were no brutal torture scenes. Gael Garcia Barnal, as always, is very good.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect that Jon Stewart could make a very decent dramatic film on his first try, but he has.

He says: OK. Iran is off the list of vacation destinations.