Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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The Menu

Jean was complaining that I hadn’t posted anything in ever-so-long—which is kind of true. I’m off for some Christmas vacation time now, so possibly a few posts will be forthcoming. I’ll start here, though, not because it’s most urgent or relevant, but just that it should be good for warming up the writing muscles.

Early in December, we left our house to go to the cinema and see a movie in person! Now, unlike some people, we have done this on a few occasions in these After Times. But I had not realized quite how long it had been since we had visited the Princess Cinema. So long that our membership cards had expired—in July.

We decided that a new membership was probably not a wise investment, even though you only have to see something like three movies a year to make it worthwhile. We just paid the non-member price to see The Menu.

The Menu begins with a small group of people waiting to board a boat to a highly exclusive restaurant on an island. At the centre are Margot, played by Anya Taylor-Joy of Queen’s Gambit fame, and her date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). Margot wonders how the restaurant can be profitable with such a small clientele. “$1,250 a person” replies Tyler. Margot is stunned, but since it’s on Tyler’s dime, is game to go along.

Not being a devotee of the “foodie” scene, however, Margot finds the serving rituals and staff manner rather odd. To someone who does do the “foodie” thing on occasion (albeit not at $1,250 a pop), the emphasis on freshness and regionality (when the clients arrive, staff are literally fishing for the scallops to be served later), the open kitchen and extensive table settings, and the elaborate presentation of each course is kind of familiar—but in this movie, also a bit strange. The staff is so disciplined. The rules of dining are so strict. And aren’t locked doors a fire hazard?

And the bread course? I don’t want to spoil what happens there, but while kind of weird and off-putting, it also seems, maybe, possible?

But as hinted in the trailer, the movie then moves on from the merely strange to… rather horrifying. (No soylent green, though!) For the squeamish, I would say, that while there is violence, it was nothing I couldn’t handle—and I’m pretty squeamish. Though I possibly did close my eyes at one moment…

Class issues definitely come up, particularly centred on Margot, the one client in a different socioeconomic class than everyone else there.

And through all this, the movie remains pretty funny. You’re never lulled into thinking it’s a documentary. “Dark comedy”, they say. I guess that’s a good descriptor.

I found it all pretty riveting, from the mocking of foodie culture, to the dark turn, to the various plot twists. Jean was never bored, but he wasn’t sure until if he actually liked the movie. But finally concluded that he did (though he was also left wondering if he should feel guilty about love of fine dining).

I think it would definitely appeal to other foodies, to horror fans, to fans of dark comedies, or those who appreciate movies with originality.


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Taking the vax pass for a spin

After categorically stating (and repeating) that there was no way, no how that Ontario would require proof of vaccination to access certain public spaces, Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontarians would be required to show proof of vaccination to access certain public spaces. The change of heart itself was no surprise to most Ontarians, who’d by now witnessed many similar policy pivots, but its timing was: early September. That is, before the COVID case count was terrible and inevitably about to get worse before it could get better.

Ontarians were then surprised again to find that from roughly that point on—before the policy actually took effect, and despite the start of school—case numbers have improved. Just slightly improved, and still not as good as last summer, but definitely on a downward. Something that it not happening everywhere in Canada.

The avg. of daily COVID-19 cases has fallen from early September
And locally, the numbers have been a little better than the provincial average (after our “fun” Delta spike in June).

So Jean and I have been getting out there. A little.

I wanted to see the new Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—mainly because I was a fan of the lead actor, Simu Liu, from Kim’s Convenience. But I also liked that it was an origin story, so it wouldn’t matter that I wasn’t versed in all the intricate details of the Marvel universe. That it was both a critical and box office hit also seemed promising.

I figured that seeing it at the Cineplex VIP theatre would be good, because then we could get an actual meal. Made it quite manageable to go there after work for the early evening showing, even though the VIP theatre is kind of across town from where we live.

COVID protocols in place when we went: They checked for vaccination proof (and mask wearing) at the entrance to the building. Then at the entrance to the VIP theatre, they did contact tracing. Each theatre was limited to 50% capacity; when we bought our tickets in advance, we selected our seats, and the system then blocked off the ones to either side of us so we knew no one would be sitting there.

Mind, the movie had been out for about four weeks by then, and it was week day, so though the 50% capacity of that rooms was 35 people, I think there were only about 10 there? And nobody else in our row.

So we felt pretty OK about unmasking to eat our dinner. We don’t get to the VIP theatre often. I still love the novelty of ordering food and wine (!) at my extra-comfortable, reclining seat. My edamame, fish taco, and Kim Crawford Sauvignon were all quite fine. Jean also liked the edamame and his Malbec, but was a little less impressed with the pulled pork.

As for the movie, I found it really fun. Jean complained about how many fight scenes it had. He’s right—so many fight scenes! Normally, this would bore me. But I thought these were quite well-choreographed fight scenes that did move the plot along. It was too bad Simu Liu didn’t get more funny lines—Awkwafina (who was great!) got most of those. But he looked good. I was diverted. Nice night out.

The following Monday, we went to see a different sort of film at a different sort of theatre (but with basically the same COVID protocols to follow): I’m Your Man, at the local art cinema, The Princess. The premise of that one is a woman scientist tasked with testing a humanoid robot designed to be the perfect partner for her.

Tom, the robot, is endowed with artificial intelligence that causes him to adapt to whatever his “partner” wants, though in case he has a partner who’s skeptical of the whole idea and trying to maintain objectivity. As he dials down the romantic gestures and ramps up the practical assistance he can provide, she gives him more mind, and then more heart…. It was quite engaging and thought-provoking and—though Jean thought they could have done even more with the premise—we both enjoyed it.

Then later in the week, we decided to try some more indoor dining, back at S&V Uptown. It’s our third time there since they moved to uptown Waterloo, and again we were really impressed. In terms of consistent food quality, I think it’s the closest we’ve come to Verses—the only issue is the tendency to sometimes over-salt the sauce, at least to our taste. But even that never ruins a dish, because nothing is ever drowning in sauce.

They had just launched their Fall five-course menu, and that’s what we had, again with shared paired wines (1.5 oz each per serving). Fried oysters, halibut with mushrooms, beef cheek, sponge cake…

(I also finally got to wear my new pantsuit.)

Meanwhile, in another bout of optimism, I’ve acquired tickets to a number of events at Centre in the Square for the coming months:

  • Blue Rodeo (in December)
  • Letterkenny Live (in February)
  • Billy Joel’s The Stranger by Classic Albums Live (in April)

These all depend on lifted capacity restrictions—which the government has just announced (albeit not yet for restaurants and gyms). So we’ll see how that goes.

What’s next?

I will mention that the rapid testing program that I blogged about previously has been shut down by the Ontario government. Not entirely—it can still be used by the small businesses it was originally intended for. But Communitech’s extension to community groups and individuals was making the province look bad, I guess, so they put a halt to it.

Meanwhile, there is some opinion that wider deployment of rapid tests are key to ending the pandemic. Until the Ontario government comes to agree with that, here are a few options for getting them:

  • The tests are available free to businesses, who can then make them available to their employees. So talk to your company about it. (If you own a business, get some on that basis.)
  • The Canadian Shield now sells them. About $10 each, so not exactly cheap, but better than the $40 each at Shoppers Drug Mart.
  • Travel to a place like the UK or Nova Scotia, where they’re widely available and cheap (though I have no idea if it’s just as easy for tourists to acquire them)?
Play safe going out (rapid tests) and going in (condoms)
Nova Scotia public health campaign

Now for a bit of trivia: What would you guess is the most highly vaccinated age group in Waterloo region? The over 80s, perhaps?

Nope. It’s the 18 to 29s. Followed not far by the 30 to 39s. (Frankly, my age group are a bit slackers here, at possibly the lowest rate of “at least one dose”?)

Percent vaccination coverage for WR Residents by Age Group
Source: Waterloo Region COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force

The kids are all right—and they’ve earned their way into bars, restaurants, gyms, and concert halls.


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Started back doing those things we used to do

Ontario has reached that point in its slow reopening where almost everything is reopened, but with some restrictions, like distancing, capacity limits, and masks. Vaccination rates are some of the highest in the world, but the pace of increase is slowing. Case counts are fairly low, but slowly starting to rise again.

Mentally, I still switch between feeling fairly good / confident (I probably won’t get it! And if I do, it shouldn’t be that bad!) to still somewhat anxious (But the delta variant! What about long covid!).

And I have missed doing things. Some things, anyway.

One of the local restaurants we like, Swine and Vine, decided to move from its Kitchener location to uptown Waterloo. As part of the move, they rebranded, changing their name to S&V Uptown, and changing their menu focus away from charcuterie board to “upscale bistro”. I loved the look of their menu. I thought that they might not be so busy on Tuesday nights? So we decided to try it, as our belated anniversary dinner out.

Though they don’t have a dress code or anything, we decided to spruce up a bit for the event. I dug into the far reaches of my closet for shoes with heels—first time wearing such-like footwear in a year and half. (Wedge heels, though. Didn’t want to twist an ankle.) And though it was a nice enough day for their patio, we thought we’d try the indoor dining thing. First time we’d done that locally since—well, you know.

It was a quiet evening there, with no other dinners seated right beside us (distanced though that table be). And we were quite impressed with the whole experience:

  • The service was quite attentive and knowledgeable. They presented and described each dish as served. They were able to guide us to some good wine matching choices.
  • Everything was creative and delicious, with the octoplus a la planchette and lamb noisette as highlights.
  • The few service hiccups (they did just open in this space, with this new menu) were smoothly addressed. Our entrees were slightly delayed, so they gave us a pate taster to tied us over, and still compensated us on the bill.

Movie theatres have also reopened at half capacity (masks mandatory for entry and recommended when seated, except when eating or drinking). The last movie we’d seen in person in the before time at The Princess was Parasite, the Oscar winner. This week, in deciding to venture back, we went to see Nomadland, this year’s Oscar winner.

I didn’t pay much attention to the Oscars this year, so Nomadland wasn’t really on my radar until Jean mentioned that he’d read and quite enjoyed the book the film was based on. I then watched the trailer and thought it looked interesting.

It’s about people whose economic circumstances cause them to live in their trailers, or vans, and move around America in search of work. They converge on Amazon to help with the Christmas rush. They work in national parks during tourist seasons. They pick beets. Work in restaurants. It seems kind of bad—and in a number of ways, it is—but maybe not that bad? In terms of the freedom, the camaraderie that develops among the people who do this (the “nomads”), and the ability to see the beauty of the country.

An engaging film, even without a huge dramatic through-line. (And wearing a mask during a whole movie is moderately annoying, but quite doable.)

This long weekend we got tickets to see a production in Stratford. Unable to put on their usual large, elaborate, indoor productions of Shakespeare, musicals, and other plays, they have on offer instead some smaller plays and cabarets, presented outdoors, currently with a limit of 100 people in attendance (I believe with expectation that they can increase this later in the season). At those numbers, pretty much everything sells out, so it was thanks to advance ticket access that we were able to get tickets to the cabaret Play On! A Shakespearean Mixtape.

That took place on a rainy-ish day, with thunderstorm risk present. Still, it was sunny when we walked in under the canopy, about 10 minutes before the start.

But about 5 minutes after it started, the thunderstorm kicked up.

Now, everyone was under canopy, and we were pretty centrally seated, so we stayed dry—unlike the people nearer the opening, who had to raise up their umbrellas behind. And the wind, occasional thunderclap, and sight and sound of heavy rainfall were somewhat distracting to everyone for the storm duration.

But wow, the four singers—two young women, two young men—were terrific. (And one of the gents seriously looked like slightly portly Adam Lambert.) To introduce songs, they would perform some lines from the associated Shakespeare play, then launch into the song. It was quite a wide-ranging set: Taylor Swift, Radiohead, Rush, Mumford and Sons, Madonna, Prince… Well, here’s the playlist:

Some songs were played for laughs—Brush Up Your Shakespeare, Billy S., I Am the Walrus. Some performances were haunting—A Case of You, and especially, Exit Music (For a Film). And some were awesome, notably the take on Rush’s Limelight. Overall, great to hear live music for the first time since January, 2020.

We had selected The Bruce Restaurant for dinner. And we had hedged our bets by making two reservations: one for the patio, one for indoors. Of course, we didn’t want to tie up both tables, and the weather forecast made us think that indoors would be a safer bet. But by actual dinner time, it had pretty much cleared up again. Unfortunately, when asking about being seated outdoors, a large party had already filled the space.

Again, it wasn’t a full establishment, though it was a little busier than S&V Uptown. And just as good! I started with a lovely watermelon salad with a glass of Champagne, while Jean had a goat cheese and beet entree with Stratus White. He then had an amazing truffle pasta with a Languedoc Pinot Noir (new to us, Pinot Noir from that region) while I enjoyed a lobster BLT with the Stratus White. (The bread and bacon were the highlight of that sandwich.)

For dessert, I had berry assortment, with berry tea, while Jean had a cheese plate.

And now we have an email that some ballroom dance classes are restarting—refresher courses (literally). Hmm…


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Coping with 2021

Feeling that I should blog about something, although it’s difficult with so much going on in the world, and so little going on in my life. I could certainly give my opinion of events, but science says that there’s actually no mental health benefit in ranting about an issue that is frustrating you, but that you have no control over. 

So guess I’ll try writing about the little things in my world that do make me feel better, at least for a while.

Writing about stuff I can’t do right now

Travelling to Europe. Attending concerts in person. Going to the movies, in theatres.

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Christmas 2020

This year, like most other people, we weren’t able to do what we normally do at Christmas time. A chance to develop our new traditions, perhaps? Except… Will we really want to nostalgically recall anything from 2020?

So hey, best to focus on the now, and on the “what you can do” vs. what you can’t. In 2021 and subsequent, we’ll see if anything sticks.

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Pandemic vacation in Quebec

That it did wonders for my mental health, there’s no doubt. Despite the constant consideration of risk to physical health in everything we did.

Jean wanted a vacation that actually felt like a vacation, which to him, meant getting out of the province. We weren’t up for flying, though, and of course wouldn’t have wanted to go to the country to the south even if we were allowed to, which we weren’t. In a week, the only “outside Ontario” destination that was possible was Quebec.

We did start in Ontario, with a couple days in Ganonoque. Then it was three days in Quebec City, and two in Montreal to finish. In the days leading up, I became obsessive about reading the daily Covid case counts—which at that point, were actually pretty good. And while away, Ontario trended up a bit, but Quebec was still on a downswing.

It did feel like a vacation. Though one unlike any other. (Including the slightly uneasy feeling about blogging about having managed a pretty good vacation in these times… )

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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


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So instead, I’m writing about “Little Women”

I haven’t blogged in ages because I keep thinking that I should write something personal and insightful. But when I start trying to do that, I just get bogged down. I don’t want to seem preachy, I don’t know how much I want to reveal–I just don’t enjoy it.

So chuck it. Let’s talk about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.


I work at a tech company, and before the Christmas break, the chatter was all about Star Wars. Who would see it when, how many times, in what format, and at which theatre. So much excitement.

… Which I couldn’t share, ’cause I didn’t care. I did see the first two in this new Skywalker set. I thought the first one was too much of a rehash of the original Star Wars. I found the second better, more interesting. But this one, somehow, really seemed primarily aimed at the super-fans (who are legion). I’m sure it’s an entertaining enough movie. But I’m in no hurry to see it.

When I first saw the trailer for the new Little Women, I wasn’t sure it was necessary, given that the 1994 version was so good. I was intrigued, though, by the near suggestion that maybe Jo… Doesn’t get married?

And then all the amazing reviews started coming out, so I started really anticipating its release. I had visions of seeing it at the VIP theatre–lounging in my comfy chair, being served appetizers and wine–but then realized that while it was playing at that theatre, it wasn’t in the VIP room. (Not with stupid Star Wars hogging a bunch of those screens.) So instead we trundled off to see it at on a regular screen at a regular theatre, with regular seats and not even any popcorn, because the lineup to get that was too long. (Stupid Star Wars.)

Jean’s been watching a bunch of women-centred shows with me lately: TV series Fleabag (which he loved), the movie Girls Trip (which he did not; must agree it was pretty stupid), and the movie Booksmart (I liked this one more as it progressed; he remained unmoved by the main characters).

With Little Women, he loved the cinematography and found the characters interesting, if not always likable. He’s never read the book and doesn’t remember the 1994 Little Women (which we saw together), so the story was all new to him. He declared he wished there was more plot. (Does Fleabag really have any more plot, though?) And he kept mixing up the actors playing Beth and Amy (declaring they looked too much alike), which made for a certain amount of story confusion, as you might imagine.

Me, I read the book multiple times in my youth, so it was all about seeing how the famous scenes were interpreted this time. And the unique approach here is that much of the story is told in flash-back form, as the movie begins with Jo in New York, meeting Professor Bhaer. As events occur in that time line, she thinks back on moments from her youth.

It’s kind of an exhilarating way of presenting it, as those of us who are familiar with the story are also, basically, looking back on those scenes with nostalgia. Giving away Christmas dinner to the Hummels. Getting in trouble over pickled limes. Oh right, the ice skating accident. Beth and her piano. The burnt dress. The burnt dress. The burnt stories! (So much burning!)

The movie just skitters along at a contemporary pace, moving across scenes before we can get bored with them, but without seeming rushed.

The actors are all terrific. Among the famous are Saiorse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Timothy Chalumet as Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March. Not previously known to me were Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth, which I assume contributed to Jean’s confusing the two of them. They stood up among this cast, with Pugh doing an especially great job with Amu. And I would note that both actors had startlingly rich, deep voices, which was really striking (to me; Jean claimed to not have noticed).

But does Jo marry? (Spoiler alert, I guess?) That’s the thing: it’s not clear. By that point in the story, Jo is working on a novel called Little Women, based on her life. She is discussing the fate of the fictional Jo with her editor, he of the opinion that women characters must end up either married or dead. There is a scene of Jo and Professor Bhaer kissing in the rain. But did that really happen or is it just written into the novel…?

Brilliant.

This Vox article–The power of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is that it doesn’t pretend its marriages are romantic–gives a great take on Little Women‘s “marriage problem”: that it’s hopelessly unsatisfying that Jo ends up with Professor Bhaer (especially the way he’s described in the novel) while Amy gets Laurie. Apart from making Jo’s marital status ambiguous, Gerwin makes the Laurie / Amy partnership much more palatable partly by, as the article says, spelling the economic reality for women at that time.

Sorry, Star Wars fan, for dumping on your movie, which I haven’t even seen. Just a joke. I do hope you enjoyed it. Because I do understand loving something in your childhood / teenagehood and wanting to see it re-created on-screen. Only for me, that something is a novel about four young women in the time period of the American Civil War.


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Movie review: Yesterday

The movie Yesterday has a great premise. And a great trailer about that premise.

Yesterday movie trailer (YouTube)

In case you missed it (and don’t want to watch it now), said premise is that after a mysterious, world-wide blackout, the entire world has forgotten that The Beatles ever existed. Save one guy. This guy–Jack Malik, a failed singer-songwriter–capitalizes on this anomaly to ignite his career by singing Beatles songs, claiming they are his own.

Even though I know–I know–that great trailers can be made for really poor films, I liked this one so much I made a point to go see this movie on opening weekend.

And… Maybe it’s not quite as great as the trailer? But it was still a very enjoyable, funny, fun, romantic movie.

Romantic? Yes, at heart it’s a romantic comedy about Jack and his manager, Ellie. Ellie has been carrying a torch for Jack for years; Jack has somehow failed to notice. Now she’s letting him know. But his increasing fame is, as one can imagine, nothing but a complication.

It actually fits in well with the story of him trying to build a singing career on singing Beatles tunes, given that they wrote so many love songs. And that part of the movie–Jack introducing the world to The Beatles canon–is as fun as you’d hope. (“Interesting you called it the USSR [re “Back in the USSR”]. Russia hasn’t been called that since before you were born.”) I especially liked the detail that Jack keeps munging up the lyrics. He knows the songs–of course he knows the songs, we all do–but he doesn’t necessarily deeply know the songs. He’s no Beatles guru, and he can’t look up the lyrics on Google. So he has to wrack his brain trying to remember them, and doesn’t always succeed. We get changed words here, reordered verses there, and a truly epic struggle to put “Eleanor Rigby” together.

Also good? While there is plenty of appreciation for The Beatles work (look, those are some catchy songs), it’s not instantaneous nor universal. Many of Jack’s early attempts to revive his career by singing their songs is met with a shrug.

I enjoyed the film’s twists, including the controversial one that I don’t want to spoil (but you, unlike Jack, can Google what that is). You can’t ponder the premise too deeply, of what the world would really be like had The Beatles never existed (no Oasis, sure, but who else…?), or what the nature of this “blackout” really is. You really just have to go with it. And thereby be rewarded with a film full of people that are great to spend time with.

And some pretty nice interpretations of the songs…


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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.