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


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Comments about movies (and about comments about movies)

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

The Disaster Artist

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

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

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

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

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

Blade Runner

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

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

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

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

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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

I figured I should go see it for myself.

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

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

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

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

Call Me by Your Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick takes: Coco and The Third Man

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

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

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100% fresh

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Fun way to end this:

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

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


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A “smart” Dirty Dancing?

When I was describing weekend plans to go see the musical Strictly Ballroom in Toronto, a friend asked if it was like a smart Dirty Dancing.

Must say that I’ve never thought of Strictly Ballroom as such. Or spent much time comparing those two movies.

But it is true that they have the same basic plot line: Hunky male dance instructor teaches promising if slightly gawky young woman (from a different background) to dance, and they fall in love.

So how do they differ? I’m not so sure it’s on IQ points.

1. Point of view

Dirty Dancing is Baby’s story. It’s about her coming of age. It’s directed by a woman, and we see most everything from her perspective. Johnny is there to support her narrative.

Whereas Strictly Ballroom is about Scott. It’s about him breaking free of family expectations and becoming his own person. Fran helps on that journey. Yes, she does that blossoming thing, but that’s really just to make her attractive enough to become Scott’s love interest.

2. Setting

Dirty Dancing is a bit of nostalgia for a time that was and no longer is, when teenagers would happily go off with their parents to a summer vacation resort. Whereas Strictly Ballroom both salutes and mocks the world of ballroom dance competition, in which everyone is trying to preserve a form of dance that—let’s face it—is no longer current.

And as I write that, I’m thinking maybe that’s another similarity: That both movies are about the struggle to preserve a tradition against the forces of change. Hmm.

3. Style

Despite the romance at the centre of it and plenty of humourous moments, Dirty Dancing  is basically a drama, the story told in a “realistic” way. Whereas Strictly Ballroom is very much an over-the-top, exaggerated comedy, albeit with some touching moments.

Which is why Dirty Dancing opens itself up to criticism when some of the dialog is clunky or if a character seems more like a caricature. Strictly Ballroom is in-your-face with ridiculous dialog and absurd characters; that’s part of its charm.

And that also may be why, in my opinion, another difference between these two is that Strictly Ballroom made its transition to the stage much more effectively than Dirty Dancing did.


It’s been a while since I saw Dirty Dancing: The Musical, but I recall thinking that they shouldn’t have stuck so close to the movie. That this might have an opportunity to, for example, fix some of the sillier plot points.

Strictly Ballroom also stuck pretty close to the movie template. But in this case,  just the nature of the stage presentation improved the product.

A lot of it is ballroom dance competition, for example. In the movie, these scenes are largely funny and absurd. On stage, they still have that to a degree, but they also enchanting and beautiful. It just feels more “natural” to see that kind of dancing and those wild costumes on a theatre stage than a movie screen.

And then there’s what musicals do, which is allow the characters to give voice to their inner thoughts in song. And that really brought a lot of depth to the story, making many of the characters less cartoonish. They even bring in some of that Dirty Dancing nostalgia by including popular songs of the 1980s as part of the soundtrack. It really widens the range of emotion of the whole enterprise.

I love the movie Strictly Ballroom. But I think I loved the musical even more.


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Movie review: Get Out

We saw this movie only recently, though it was released in February (and is now available on DVD / streaming). What convinced me to go despite horror not being one of my go-to genres was its 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, along with:

mv5bnte2nzg1njkznv5bml5banbnxkftztgwotgyodmymti-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_All this advance research proved correct. Of course the movie had violence, but not much more than you’d see on network TV. It was about suspense, not gore.

And yes, the startling moments, the twists, the laughs, were more enjoyable with a crowd to share them (though this was a sparsely attended showing).

It is a good movie. Just on the surface level, it’s fun trying to figure out the plot, and it does have a good mix of humour in with the mysterious goings-on. The lead character, Chris, is going to spend the weekend with his girlfriend’s family for the first. She’s white; the family does not know that he’s black.

She assures him that it will not be a problem, but in fact, his interactions with the family are uncomfortable, whether by over-compensating (“my man!” exclaims her father) or by thinly veiled hostility of her brother. As well, the few black people in the area behave rather strangely, almost zombie-like. Things only get weirder and, for Chris, more alarming from there.

So if you want to get analytical, there’s also a lot to work with here: issues of cultural appropriation and white liberal racism and even gender issues (the victim here is not the pretty white girl). One of the smarter movies out there.


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To the late night, double feature, picture show

Rocky Horror Picture Show and I go way back.

I read about the movie years before I actually saw it. In my small, Northern Ontario town back in the day, there were no late-night (or any time) showings, but I read about them in the rock magazines. I recall being quite taken by the photos of Tim Curry in his fishnets. (I later learned that many women found themselves surprised by how much they were taken by Tim Curry in his fishnets.)

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Attending the film itself had to wait until I went to university in Montreal.  The McGill Film Society showed it and my friends and I were there, armed with newspapers and rice, but not in costume. The audience was a mix of newbies and, fortunately, some veterans who knew what you were supposed to shout at the screen when. I wasn’t entirely sure if the movie was good (so campy!), but I found the whole experience fun.

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Not the performance I was at–back then we didn’t take pictures of everything…

I never did become a regular screening attendee, but I’ve certainly seen the movie a number of times since then. Our local repertory cinema still plays it every year at Halloween. Jean and I attended with friends at least once. We hadn’t planned for enough ahead to get fully costumed as any character, but I did aim for a sort of Goth look. (And I believe that Jean eccentrically went as a clown.)

Since then, I’ve seen Rocky Horror on network TV, purchased and devoured the DVD–including all extras–saw a very fun live performance of it courtesy of the University of Waterloo drama department (being a performance for alumni and faculty, that was a different audience than previous), and even checked out the TMN parody (more nudity, but much less gay).

So when I read that JM Drama Productions had another local version on this past weekend, it was an easy to decision to go.

Most appropriately, we had to run through heavy rain to get to the theatre, where we were confronted by a number of scantily clad Goth types. Rocky Horror is always a sexy beast, but this production really laid that on thick, aided by the many very attractive young actors cast. For instance, Janet starting panting the minute she saw Dr. Frank (and who can blame her), and the choreography ensured that you didn’t miss any of the double entendres in the lyrics.

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The JM Drama cast; picture from The Waterloo Region Record

JM Drama is community theatre, so their budgets were small. But their costumes and makeup were top-notch, and they were very creative about the props and sets. The vocals weren’t always great; but then, that’s not as important for this particular musical. (It’s hardly Les Miz.) Fortunately, some of the best singing was done by lead Dr. Frank, who gave an excellent, charismatic performance.

Appropriately, there was some gender-bending within the casting. Both the narrator and Dr. Scott were played by women, and why not? It even allowed for some fun Frank / Dr. Scott flirtation. And Magenta was played by the absolutely fabulous David Cho.

Overall, the whole thing was a hoot (to quote Jean’s post-show assessment). Of course, with a live production, the audience couildn’t (and didn’t) yell back or throw any projectiles. But, they did invite everyone on stage at the end for a reprise of “The Time Warp.” Jean promptly sat back in his chair, but I went for it! And yay me, as I got to dance near the two hunkiest members of the cast, Rocky immediately to my right and Frank directly in front. (Which is why Jean didn’t manage to get a picture; the actor playing Frank was very tall.)

This isn’t the kind of play that’s meant to be contemplated on too deeply, but this production gave rise to some thoughts:

  • They weren’t nearly as clear on the difference between transsexuals, transvestites, and bisexuals back when this was written as we are now, eh?
  • All that stuff we used to yell at the screen? “Slut!” “The f word for gay!” That would just be uncomfortable now.
  • Is there supposed to be some sort of lesson here, and if so, what is it? Frank is very cool but really the villain, and he doesn’t win in the end. But what of Brad and Janet? Is it good for them that they let loose? They were so uptight at first, but seem so traumatized at the end.

Eh. Too serious. It’s just a jump to the left. And a step to the right.

See you back here after I watch Fox’s Rocky Horror reboot on TV, coming up in October.

Trailer for the new Rocky Horror Picture Show on Fox


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Oscar round-up

I expect I’ll tune in for Chris Rock’s opening monologue tonight, but can’t see me sitting there for the following 3+ hours watching it live, with commercials. Even though I do have some opinion about what I’d like to see happen (though mostly, it won’t).

Best picture / Directing

I rented Spotlight from iTunes last night. It is indeed a very good film. I was only vaguely familiar with the story—of the extent of the Catholic Church’s covering up pedophile priests in Boston—so I was along for the ride as the reporting team’s investigation uncovered more and more disturbing facts.

So I’ve now seen five of the eight Best Picture nominees, and three of five Directing. The Revenant I have no interest in ever seeing. Three hours of Leonard di Caprio going through horrible experiences in the bush. Yeah, no thanks. Bridge of Spies—I know nothing about that movie, really. Room—definitely want to see it. I was able to handle the book; should be able to handle the movie. (But Jean wasn’t so sure he could, so this wasn’t a theatre outing for us. Same as Spotlight.)

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But how to rank what I have seen?

If I went with my heart, it would definitely be Brooklyn. It was just so lovely, and the only one from a woman’s point of view.

With my head, maybe Spotlight with a slight edge over The Big Short?

Though for pure entertainment, hard to beat The Martian. So suspenseful. And overall liked it more than Mad Max: Fury Road, even though that one did manage to keep me interested in a big car chase, which is no mean feat.

And I really think Mad Max: Fury Road was the most impressive directing job of these.

Other film categories

Inside Out had better win Animated Feature Film, and I stick to that despite not having seen any others in this category. That was just one of the best pictures of last year, period. I note it’s up for Best Original Screenplay, too.

95114614770e1f8118804bc009d4ff88767d6ce8c81180cc618ab8f645ab4fe4-370x492I can’t be quite as categorical in the Documentary category, where again I’ve seen only one of the nominees: Amy. Will say that it is very good, though. Wasn’t particularly an Amy Winehouse fan walking in. Certainly was walking out.

Haven’t seen a single one of the Foreign language film nominees!

Acting

Here I’ve really missed a lot of these movies, though I hope to catch some eventually. And there are definite favorites for these, right? DiCaprio best actor; Brie Larson (Room) best actress; Sylvester Stallone (Creed) supporting actor, and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) supporting actress.

At least on that last one, I can wholeheartedly support. She was amazing. See:

The Danish Girl movie clip: I want my husband

And I really liked Soairse Ronan in Brooklyn, though can’t compare her to Brie Larson.

Brooklyn movie clip: You don’t sound Irish

Best song

I only know three of them, and I think Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” might be the best of the bunch. Powerful.

Then all those other categories…

Sound mixing, animated short films, makeup and hairstyling, film production.. Lordie. This is why the Oscars go on 3+ boring hours.