Cultureguru's Weblog

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

Leave a comment

Movie night

The world is on fire and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. So I’ve decided to write about movies.

The last movies we saw before the theatres shut down were Knives Out and Parasite. Knives Out was a terrific, twisty, murder mystery with an incredible cast. ****

Parasite was last year’s Academy Award winner as Best Picture. In it, a low-income South Korean family con a rich family into gradually hiring each of them. Then things get twisted… ***½

Those are both available for streaming rental now.

Warming up

Since then, we’ve been dubbing one night each weekend “movie night”, making the popcorn, and watching a flick on the TV. Initially, it was an anxious time, we wanted something not too heavy. Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name (Netflix) was a great inaugural, telling the story of how failed comic Rudy Ray Moore (a real guy!) reinvented himself and became an unlikely success. Reminded me of The Disaster Artist. ****

Then we tried The Greatest Showman (Netflix), a movie that critics dumped on but audiences loved. Jean was skeptical about a musical based on PT Barnum, but we ended up siding with audiences and enjoying it. *** As we did Shazam (HBO), a humorous superhero movie from the DC Comics universe. ***

Tom Hanks

Was one of the first famous people to come down with coronavirus (remember that?), which somehow inspired us to catch up with a couple of his movies. Sully (cable) told the story of the pilot who landed the plane on the Hudson River, saving all 150 passengers. We hadn’t realized there had been some doubt as to just how heroic his actions were. *** And Charlie Wilson’s War (Netflix) told the rather interesting story of the US’ involvement in supporting Afghanistan rebels in their fight against the Soviets—without ignoring how that all went wrong in the end. ***½

Girls behaving badly

While not viewed in sequential weeks, for whatever reason we seemed to be drawn to movies about women breaking the law. Or maybe it’s just that they’ve making more of these lately? At any rate…

Ocean’s 8 (HBO) is part of the movie franchise that started with George Clooney’s Ocean’s 11. Kind of a trifle, but entertaining. The difference is that the group of eight are all women, and that does add a layer of fun. ***

Molly’s Game (Netflix) was written and directed by Arron Sorkin, so there is a whole lot of smart, fast-paced dialogue in the telling of the story of Molly Bloom, a former champion skier who ran an exclusive poker game for rich people, including some very famous ones. Initially run legally, ultimately it was not, and the movie starts with her legal troubles and flashes back.

Jean liked this one more than I did. It’s definitely an interesting story; my problem was in the great effort to turn Molly into a noble hero, which I didn’t quite buy. ***

Hustlers (Prime) told the story of strip club employees who, after the Wall Street crash, started drugging their clients to lower their inhibitions and get them to spend more than they otherwise would have on booze and women. Definitely behaving badly! But what’s really compelling is the relationship between the women. It’s like friendship porn. And this one, I liked more than Jean did. My score would be ***½.

Arty farty

Have you heard of Tubi? It’s another movie and TV streaming service, only free—ad supported. Very few ads, in my experience, so I wouldn’t let that put you off.

I noticed they had We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on a good but disturbing novel I’d read of the same name, about a woman who decides to have the child her husband wants, but she doesn’t. That it doesn’t turn out well is a bit of an understatement.

I got it in my head that I’d like see how they adapted the novel to film. They didn’t do a bad job of it—Tilda Swinton is very good in the lead—but overall I preferred the novel’s elaboration of the story to the movie’s inevitable compression of it. As for Jean, he might not forgive me for having him watch this. The story haunted him for days afterward. **½

The movie also led Tubi to recommend a whole series of other disturbing movies to me, none of which I would ever watch. To try clean that up, I selected The Lady in the Van as my next Tubi movie. This British film tells of the relationship between an educated homeless woman and a single male writer. It’s pretty enjoyable—Maggie Smith is terrific—but it is based on a true story that wasn’t overly “Hollywood-ized”, leaving the overall narrative arc a little less satisfying. ***

And I don’t know that it’s truly “arty farty”, except that it’s now an older classic, isn’t it? But we watched Saturday Night Fever (Hollywood Suite), the first time either of us had seen it. Since it’s mostly remembered for John Travolta’s disco dancing, the grittiness of it is a bit shocking: the casual use of the n word, the date rape… But it is a movie worth seeing. ***½

The Princess Cinema started offering some streaming movies recently, and in support of them, we rented The Trip to the Greece. It’s the fourth in a series, and we hadn’t seen any of the previous ones, so it was a bit odd to just jump into this one. Not that there’s a whole lot of complex plot to follow, mind. It’s just two guys who take a road trip, banter with each other, see spectacular scenery, and eat great meals.

The banter is often amusing, but very pop culture–driven, and Jean, particularly, often couldn’t get into it as he didn’t know what they were on about. The funnest part was us saying “Bastard!” every time they sat down for another amazing restaurant dinner, the likes of which are not accessible to us right now, of course. **½

Leave a comment

Roma: The opposite of Bohemian Rhapsody

Critics are falling over themselves calling Roma the best movie of the year. It has won the New York Critics award, the LA Critics award, the San Francisco Critics Award. It was named top film by The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times. Though it’s available on Netflix now, many of these writers emphasized the value of seeing the movie on the big screen in its limited release. So last weekend, we did that.


We are not entirely in agreement with the critics. In fact, Jean declared it one of the worst movies he’s seen in a while.

Yet, it’s not one of those badly made, stupid movies. The black and white cinematography is, indeed, gorgeous. The actors, including the non-professional lead, are very good. It used surround sound in a way I’ve never experienced before–conversation coming from the side, ambient sound behind us. (In fact, at first I thought we were hearing bleeding from another cinema. Then I remembered it was a single-screen theatre.) The story has some sections that are quite moving, others rather shocking.

But. The story, inspired by writer and director Alfonso Cuaròn’s own childhood, hews very close to life. There are scenes of house cleaning, meal preparing, TV watching, house party attending. Events occur, some rather dramatic, but overall there isn’t much of a driving plot.

And that’s a problem. Apparently not for critics, but I think for much of the public. We want heightened reality out of our movies, because reality is kind of dull.

I realized that I should have researched more before heading out to see this one, but I was motivated by all the praise plus the fact that I’ve really enjoyed other movies by this director, including Y Tu Maman Tambien, Children of Men, and Arrival. I figured this one, like those, would have a strong plot. That was not the case.

It’s kind of the opposite of Bohemian Rhapsody, where many critics slagged the plot as cliche and superficial, and others criticized the many divergences from reality for heightened drama. But Bohemian Rhapsody was a crowdpleaser, likely in part because it did impose a dramatic arc on reality.

Whether you should watch Roma depends on what you’re looking for in a movie. It is on Netflix, so pretty low cost of entry to try it—though unless you have really great TV and surround sound system, it’s true that you’re going to miss out on some of what’s best about it. But if this is your kind of thing, I guess it’s a good example of that kind of thing.

Me, I like more of a story.


The City That Never Sleeps and Québec’s Metropolis

New York is one of the world’s great cities. Montreal is often considered Canada’s best. On our recent trip, we visited both. This was our itinerary:

  • Saturday: Fly Hamilton to Montreal late afternoon; stay in airport hotel.
  • Sunday: Fly Montreal to New York. Visit Museum of Modern Art.
  • Monday: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Cruise. 9/11 Memorial Museum. B&H.
  • Tuesday: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Central Park. School of Rock on Broadway.
  • Wednesday: Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum. Rockefeller Center. Radio City Music Hall tour. Grand Central Station.
  • Thursday: New York Library. Fly to Montreal late afternoon.
  • Friday: Musée des beaux arts. Old Montreal and Old Port area.
  • Saturday: Mile End Local Montreal food walking tour. Mount Royal.
  • Sunday: McCord Museum. Fly back to Hamilton late afternoon.

Radio City Music Hall

Just now noticing the Canadian flag flying between the Japanese and US ones in uptown New York. No idea why.


The view from our Montreal hotel (not the airport one)

Continue reading

1 Comment

My Internship in Canada (Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre)

My Internship in Canada is that rarest of things: a comedy about Canadian politics. The only other I can think of CBC’s adaptation of Terry Fallis’ fine novel The Best Laid Plans, which CBC rather made a hash of.

My Internship in Canada is more successful. It tells the story of independent MP (another rare thing!) from northern Quebec, Steve Guibord, who—in a parliament where the Conservatives have a very slim majority—finds himself with the deciding vote on whether Canada should join a war effort in the middle east.

My Internship in Canada (official trailer) – YouTube

Following all the drama with great excitement and interest is Guibord new Haitian assistant / intern, Souverain. Souverain proves of great help to Guibord, as he’s intelligent and very well-read on the subject of Canadian democracy. (His explanations to his fellow Haitians back home are also useful to any audience who might themselves not be so familiar with the intricacies of Canadian democracy.) He’s also not above sneaking around behind Guibord’s back, if it’s for the greater good.

Several women play important roles as well: his wife, who’s for the war; his daughter, who’s against it; a local reporter playing out the sometimes-tense relationship between media and politics; and the mayor of one of the main towns in his riding, who becomes increasingly (and hilariously) exasperated with Guibord’s last-minute cancellations.

Geography is also incredibly prominent. The riding is very large (“30 fois la grandeur de l’Haiti!”), and Guibord’s fear of flying make him entirely dependent on the highway system, targeted for protests by natives and truckers.

The laughs at the expense of a stuttering union spokesperson (get it?) are unfortunate, and I’m not entirely sure about the portrayal of the Haitians. Overall, though, this is a good-spirited, funny, and intelligent comedy.

In French with English subtitles.


Swing in concert: Tout le monde debout, c’est le temps de danser!

Le Groupe Swing is a franco-Ontarian band that we first discovered at a Canada Day concert in the Ottawa region about seven years ago. As soon as they came on and started playing, the whole crowd was on their feet, and pretty much stayed there. (Whereas they sat for the headliner.) And I became an instant fan of their music, a fusion of traditional folk with elements of hip-hop and techno: Technotrad, they call it.

A taste of Swing: Bouge, bouge

I’d been wanting to see them in concert again ever since, but what the singing mostly in French, Southern Ontario is not a regular destination for them. So I was very excited to see, up on the ad screen at the Princess Cinema, that Swing would be performing at Victoria Pavillon on November 14, courtesy of L’association francophone de Kitchener-Waterloo.

I was wondering how the KW crowd would respond to them compared with the Gatineau one. I’ve found KW audiences to be rather staid and quite reluctant to get up and dance—to a frustrating degree, at times. So I wasn’t too optimistic on that front.

I did predict that part of the crowd might be drawn from Swing’s occasional appearances at local French high schools, and that age group was represented, along with older association members (one assumes). I wasn’t expecting quite so many little kids as there were, however. (Let’s hope those kids aren’t too, too familiar with French Canadian slang, as some of their lyrics are a bit—edgy.)

And did the crowd all jump to their feet at the first note Swing played? No! Absolutely not.

But to be fair, they started with cover—all in English—of “Born to Be Wild”. It was a serviceable version, and I like the song, but I didn’t want watered-down, anglicized Swing.

I needn’t have worried. The rest of the set was almost entirely their music, and when singer Michel Bénac pointed out the big dance space in front of the stage, a stalwart four headed right up there to dance, and stayed pretty much the whole evening.

Furthermore, to my surprise, they were joined by more and more people as the evening went on. I was up there by about song 4, Jean resisted until about song 10, and the other couple we went with finally made their way up there as well, for the final set of songs. The band’s music is just irresistible, the singer determined that we are all going to have a good time!

“C’est un party avec Swing!” And it was.

They definitely included most of my favorite songs of theirs—La tête me tourne encore (“You make my head spin—in a good way”), Au nom du père et du fils et du set carré (“In the name of the father, the son, and the square dance”), Belle débousollée (“Beautiful distraught woman”), La vie comme ca (“Life as it is”), and “One Day” (the song wherein they rib anglophones).

Hey, everything’s OK, because one day soon, we’ll all be just…

The crowd’s favorites (which I also like) were La Goutte (“The Drip”)—“You know this one!” commented Bénac appreciatively (in French)—and the encore, “CB Buddy”.

La Goutte (y’a pas d’high speed, y’a pas d’download, y’a pas d’Livefeed…)

But we were also treated to some of their very latest songs, such as the single released just last week, “C’Okay” (it got to number 6 on iTunes, by the way), and songs from their recent EP, such as “One Thought”, and even a song that won’t be released for a few months yet. So at least at two live premieres of their music.

And, when we all needed a rest from dancing and hopping—including Michel Bénac (who appears to me to be in amazing shape)—we partook of a camp sing-a-long of eighties classics such as “Billy Jean”, “Every Breath You Take“, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun“ (for the girls), and for the guys—“Baby” by Bieber! Psych!

The between-song patter fun and friendly and all in franglais, except for one shout-out to the anglos in the audience, who were thanked for coming and “being the minority for once. Feels weird, eh?”

Apart from Bénac, the band has a DJ who also does some hip-hop dancing, a violinist, a guitarist, a bass player, and a drummer. Unfortunately, the acoustics (or the sound system?) in that room were not very good. Nevertheless, we could tell they had a high degree of musicianship.

Swing is really one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen.

“So good they can even get Kitchener-ites and Waterloo-vians to their feet.”

Leave a comment

Movie review: Secret Things

Secret Things poster*** Secret Things (April 2003) – Rental

Coralie Revel, Sabrina Seyvecou. Two young women band together to use their powers of seduction to take advantage of a wealthy, powerful man. Only to find the tables turn…

She says: By the time sent this to me, I had no recollection of why I’d added it to my zip list, except for a fuzzy idea that Roger Ebert might have covered it. Reading the description on the envelope, I was expecting it to be kind of trashy, and kind of bad. But hopefully in a fun way.

And it did open on a big, erotic strip tease. But overall, it really wasn’t that trashy. It was definitely aspiring to be kind of arty, with all this religious and other symbolism. And despite all the nudity (attractive people of both sexes), it wasn’t all that sexy, either.

Also, it was French (with subtitles, though the translations weren’t always quite spot on). Another thing I wasn’t expecting.

But overall, I found it pretty interesting. A story of people using each other in often cruel ways, it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I didn’t mind it at all, despite it being nothing like what I was expecting.

He says: Definitely more arty than trashy. Pretty girls, but not a very sexy movie. But yeah, it held my interest. Not a bad movie at all.

Leave a comment

Movie review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi poster***1/2 Jiro Dreams of Sushi (July 2012) – Rental

Japanese documentary about the 85-year-old chef at the best sushi restaurant in the world.

She says: Jiro Ono works to perfect the art of making sushi. That’s all he’s done his adult life, and that’s all he wants to continue to do. This documentary tells his story, shows some of his food preparation techniques, and reveals the challenging situations his two sons are in, having followed their father into the same profession. The oldest is 50 and still waiting to be master chef, as his father has no intention of retiring. The younger has opened a companion restaurant.

The sushi really does look amazing and you get very hungry watching this, while knowing that anything called sushi that you get around here is not going to compare. Tuna is very much prized ingredient by the chef, and I wondered if they would touch on the over-fishing issue; they did, and in a way that made these types of chefs appear to not be the problem. (They are conscious of the issue, buy only what they need, when they need it, and with the small restaurant always to capacity and serving some of the world’s best food, nothing is wasted.)

Not that much happens in this film, and yet it’s fascinating—at least to a foodie, I suppose.

He says: We have no idea what real sushi is. And we’ll probably never find out.

Leave a comment

Movie reviews: Never Let Me Go, One Week

Never Let Me Go posterWithout intending this, last weekend we ended up watching two movies on the cheery subject of human mortality, as depicted through the prism of young adults facing a death sentence:

Never Let Me Go, 2010, starring Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan

One Week, 2008, starring Joshua Jackson and Liane Balaban

Based on a novel, the premise of Never Let Me Go, a British film, is an alternate world where cloning technology was perfected in the 1950s, leading to a world where clones are created for the purpose of providing life-extending organ donations to everyone else. We first meet the donors as children in a British boarding school, then move ahead to their lives as young adults. The focus is on three characters who form a love triangle.

One Week is a Canadian movie in which the protagonist receives a terrible cancer diagnosis in the first scene. Instead of immediately going into treatment, as recommended, he decides to take a motorcycle road trip across Canada first, to take stock of his life.

As you might imagine, Never Let Me Go is sad. But at least, blessedly, you’re never made to wallow in the sadness. It’s there, it’s built into the story, but it’s all underplayed, somewhat interior, all very British. It never brought me to tears. It’s very well-made, with a lot of attention to the look, the dimmed color palette. It moves along at an appropriate pace. Both the child actors and the young adults in the film are quite good in their roles.

Most striking about how the story plays out if how accepting all the clones are of their fate. It never seems to occur to anyone to run and try to escape the transplant surgeries that will ultimately kill them. If they had, that would have been a whole other movie. (I think it was called Logan’s Run.) If still wondering why this story was told in these terms, watch the extras! It is explained there.

One Week movie posterI was going to say that One Week is therefore a contrast, as it’s all about escape, but that’s not really true. Lead character Ben knows perfectly well he can’t outran cancer. He’s just looking for a slice of time before he becomes a patient.

Everything in this movie takes place with Ben basically still feeling well, so it’s much less sad than Never Let Me Go. The whole story is approached with wry humour.  It’s also a real love letter to Canada, as you see a lot of the iconic and beautiful Canadian sites Ben travels through, including the Big Nickel, the Terry Fox statue, the rolling prairies, the gorgeous beaches of Tofino.

The script does not have the fullness and depth of Never Let Me Go‘s, but I still found it interesting to participate in Ben’s examinations of the choices that had led him to a job he isn’t passionate about, and into an engagement with a lovely woman who nevertheless may not be The One. And of course, leads you to wonder why you might do if you had a week before entering into likely hopeless cancer treatment.

Jean’s take? He found Never Let Me Go really sad, and overall thinks I should rent more comedies. As for One Week, he was strongly critical of Ben’s treatment of his fiancee, but did enjoy the travel through Canada aspect. I think his attention reasonably well, for another movie that is more about self-realization than plot twists.

Leave a comment

Movie review: Let the Right One In

Finally one we agreed on…

Let the Right One in poster***½ Let the Right One In (March 2009) – Rental
Swedish, with dubbing or subtitles.

Bullied 12-year-old boy’s life takes a turn for the better when he befriends the strange “girl” who lives next door.

She says: The poster makes this look like a horror movie, but despite some bloody murders and a scene of disfigurement, it’s not really that. It’s more about the rather sweet relationship that develops between the bullied boy, Oskar, and the mysterious Eli, who turns out to be a vampire perpetually stuck in a 12-year-old’s frame. Given their ages, this movie doesn’t go with the usual vampire = sex (or even puberty) theme, making for something of a refreshing look at this archetype.

He says: This movie is so weird, I don’t even know why I like it. But I do.

Leave a comment

Genies vs. Oscars

I skipped watching the Oscars this year, but I did watch The Genies, which give out awards for Canadian films. What made the Genies a better bet for me:

  • Show was just 1 hour long, vs. whatever crazy length the Oscar show is. They do this by not covering all the categories on air; just the interesting ones. Hello. That’s reason enough all by itself.
  • It’s not preceded by tons of other Canadian movie award shows, so I had no idea who would win. With the Oscars, thanks to the Golden Globes, the SAG, the Director’s Guild, etc. you pretty much knew who’d be clutching the trophies.
  • I’d seen 3 of the 5 nominated Genie movies, vs. only 5 out of 10 of the Oscar ones. So percentage-wise, higher. (I realize that’s unusual.)
  • Musical performances that weren’t lame, because, as far as I could tell, they had nothing to do with movies. But they were by Canadian performers.

So there you be.

I was totally thrilled to see the young actress from M. Lazhar win the Best Supporting Actress award, as she was really was amazing in the role. And gave quite a delightful acceptance speech.

And it’s alway fun to see Viggo Mortenson, winner of Best Supporting Actor for A Dangerous Method, who was also very charming in his acceptance  speech.

For Best Picture, though, I have to see that I was really pulling for Cafe de Flore. Monsieur Lazhar won, and I can’t really complain about that, as it was quite a fine film, and it gave the director a chance to give the Oscar speech he couldn’t. But Cafe de Flore spoke to me in a more compelling way. At least Vanessa Paradis was recognized for her work as the lead of that film.