Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Favourite

Starring: Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Rating: R


Don't waste your time.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Boy Erased

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Joel Edgerton, Russell Crowe
Director: Joel Edgerton
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Rating: R

This film is a heartbreaking story, unveiling some pretty shocking material. Lucas Hedges stars as Jared in "Boy Erased", a film based on a memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley. In the movie, Jared is a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in a very rural and conservative Arkansas, under the roof of his very straight-laced, fundamentalist parents. When confronted by them after a startling accusation, Jared agrees to attend a gay conversion therapy camp. He honestly seems like he wants to change for his parents and for society, to make his life a little easier down the road. After a grueling few days with camp director Victor Sykes (played scarily well by screenplay writer and director Joel Edgerton), Jared learns that this place is not helping anybody. In fact, it's doing just the opposite. At the end of the film, the audiences learns that 36 states still allow gay conversion therapy.

We learn about Jared and his homosexuality through flashbacks. He turns down his girlfriend's advances, he looks longingly at other men, and while he portrays a spirit of athleticism and masculinity, he is sensitive, thoughtful and introspective. He has a great relationship with his mom, played by Nicole Kidman (who is having the best years of her career) and a seemingly good relationship with his pastor father, played by Russell Crowe in a very convincing performance (a 180 from his turn as Javert in Les Mis, thankfully!) When Jared admits his truth, his parents react in the only way they know how: we must help him change.

Arriving at gay conversion therapy camp, for Jared, is like walking into a prison: young men and women are wearing uniforms, personal belongings are confiscated and staff are like security guards, monitoring your every move - including bathroom breaks. Several camp participants offer Jared advice like "play the part" and "fake it 'til you make it" - whether or not you believe you can change, do what it takes to survive and get out of there. It's up to camp director Victor Sykes as to when you can leave, and at one point, he tells Jared that staying another year at camp would be a better choice for him, as opposed to returning to college. Jared also witnesses Sykes physically and verbally abusing a young man who refuses to participate in a group exercise. Over time, Jared wises up to the truth about Sykes and this program, and chooses to leave, regardless of what that means for his relationship with his family.

This film handles such delicate subject matter very well. All lead actors were believable and while Hedges is indeed the star, his supporting cast of camp mates deliver empathetic performances. This film made me angry, but also more informed. Don't see it unless you're prepared to stomach some disturbing ideas about our society.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech
Director: Bryan Singer

Running Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Rating: PG-13

I have been singing Queen songs nonstop since I saw "Bohemian Rhapsody". Did I have some issues with this film? Yes. But was I also thoroughly entertained? Indeed. The film does a really great job at reminding you of how charismatic a performer Freddie Mercury was, the enormous number of hits Queen had, and how the AIDS epidemic shook our society upon its discovery. The film does a not-so-great job of portraying their rise to fame in a realistic way, and it doesn't shine much light on Mercury's relationships with band manager Paul Prenter (played by Allen Leech, NOT his doppleganger Kevin Connolly) and longtime partner Jim Hutton. Rami Malek though, is a tour de force as Mercury, and while it wasn't perfect, it was very enjoyable.

The film opens as Mercury takes the stage for Queen's well-known Live Aid Concert performance - a stunning visual that we see more of later in the film. But we're quickly transported back to the early 1970s, where Mercury works as a humble baggage claim attendant at the airport. Much to his parents' chagrin, he goes out to the clubs - late and often - and finally approaches a band about joining them. They laugh at his appearance - dark skin, buck teeth and all - until they realize the dude has got some pipes.

What most bands experience - a slow rise to the top, difficulty finding representation, struggle releasing a hit single - Queen seems to find with ease. It's not long before performing in bars becomes a record deal, and famed manager John Reid takes them under his wing (I would have liked more screen time with this character - or maybe I'm just partial to Aidan Gillen from "The Wire" and "Peaky Blinders" fame). Shortly afterwards, hits like "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Killer Queen" start pouring out of the band and rising to the top of the charts. It's almost crazy, how fast the hits came to Mercury. He really was a musical genius. Malek does a fabulous job of capturing the essence and flamboyance of the performer - it's difficult to take your eyes off him. The fake teeth were a bit of a distraction and a little overkill, but it was fun to recognize the infamous looks throughout the years - from the shadowy "Bohemian Rhapsody" photo showcasing the 4 bandmates, to Mercury's plunging neckline jumpsuits, all the way to his mustache and tight white tanks.

We're given a peek into Mercury's personal life, dealing mostly with Mary Austin (played by Lucy Boynton), but I think they could have delved more into his relationship struggles. He was clearly very much in love with Mary, but he was also clearly gay. This is complicated, and they just kind of skimmed the surface without really digging in. It also would have been interesting to see Mercury in his final years after the Live Aid concert, while grappling with AIDS. I suppose those conflicts are for another movie. This one is more light-hearted and about Mercury, the entertainer, not Mercury, the man.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Star is Born

Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle
Director: Bradley Cooper
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Rating: R

I knew I would love this movie from the moment I heard it was in production. I'm very partial to Gaga; anything she touches is gold in my eyes. I wasn't familiar with the 3 previous film versions of "A Star is Born", so I knew very little about the plot going in. I could have watched Bradley Cooper and Gaga for hours. Their chemistry is palpable, and while I wasn't surprised that she was amazing, this was the best I've ever seen Cooper. He completely became his character; he was not the blue-eyed Cooper we all know and love. And for his directorial debut? This film was heartbreakingly beautiful. From the very first scene, it was easy to buy in to this world they created for us. I won't spoil anything, in case there's anyone else out there in the world who didn't know the story. I'll just urge you to see this magical film as soon as you can.

This is a remarkable story of being in the right place at the right time, and how one artist helped jump start the career of another, while also falling in love. We meet Jackson Maine onstage, ripping into a bottle of booze as fast as he rips into the next song. He is weathered, with bloodshot eyes and sunburned skin. It's remarkable that he can remember the notes and words of the song for how loaded he is. Ally is a waitress, and aspiring singer/songwriter in her free time. She struggles with self-esteem and lacks the confidence it takes to pursue a career in music. Ally regularly performs at a drag bar, and one night, famed musician Jack Maine hears her sing, and practically falls in love with her in that moment. They talk all night about life, music, fears and dreams, and he arranges for her to go on tour with him, much to her surprise. We're entranced by Jack's charisma, and fall in love with him at the same time Ally does. We share in her misery when he drinks too much, wasting what talent he has left.

This film has an interesting commentary on the media and public image of an artist. Ally initially finds success being herself, performing singer-songwriter tunes, with little makeup and zero intention behind her every move. When she links up with producer Rez, nearly everything about her changes - her clothes, her appearance, her music, her art - it's a shocking transformation, and Jack isn't shy about letting her know that. While she reaches super-stardom, Jack fears she has totally lost touch with who she is. It's hard for her to hear this from a man who is rarely sober.

Supporting characters Lorenzo (Ally's father, played wonderfully by Andrew Dice Clay) and Bobby (Jack's brother, played by the always amazing Sam Elliott) add to the film, though it's really Ally and Jack's world we're interested in. We get backstory from both characters, but the present is more captivating.

I can't stop singing "Shallow", the lead song of the film. If anyone had doubts that Gaga had amazing pipes, shame on you; but if anyone was unsure of Cooper's vocal and musical abilities, you'll be pleasantly surprised. He even took vocal lessons to lower his voice an entire octave - something noticeable which definitely added to the authenticity of his character. I'm eager to check out the previous 3 versions of this film, though I can't imagine they'll be able to top this one.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

BlacKkKlansman

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace
Director: Spike Lee

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Rating: R

Spike Lee is one of our most powerful, and depending on how you look at it, polarizing voices in Hollywood. Love him or hate him, he is a brilliant storyteller and puts the truth in your face, no matter how hard it is to watch. BlacKkKlansman is his latest masterpiece, and it couldn't be more timely. Several scenes and phrases were a direct correlation with what's happening in the world right now. His frightening tale of an African American cop who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan is a both an entertaining and enlightening story, and while things have improved dramatically since the 1970s, events like last year in Charlottesville remind us that sadly, racism is alive and well in our country.

John David Washington (Denzel's son!) plays Ron Stallworth, a soft-spoken, intelligent, African American cop. He gets a lot of grief from the guys on the squad, but he's willing to take it for the job. An ad for the KKK catches his eye, and gives them a call, asking for more information. His "white sounding" voice over the phone fools the KKK leader into wanting to meet with him. Enter Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, whose star continues to be on the rise) who agrees to play Ron for the meeting. This is the undercover operation of a lifetime, but these guys are pros - cool and calm.

Laura Harrier stars as Patrice, Ron's passionate black advocate love interest, who knows nothing about this undercover operation. When the KKK decides to take action against Patrice and her Black Civil Union student group, Ron's feelings get in the way of work, and things start to get ugly.

The language in this film is striking, and it was difficult to watch some scenes. Topher Grace played Grand Wizard David Duke with such ease, and it was absolutely terrifying to see him justify every cruel thought and action. The casting in this film was superb, and I have high expectations for John David Washington's next picture.

Lee closes his film with scenes from the mess in Charlottesville, just one year ago. It is utterly insane to see the progress our society has made in the past 50 years, and then to see so many people stuck in the past. I have chills as I write this post, and can only hope for a more positive and progressive next 50 years.

Lao Restaurant + Bar

Lao Restaurant + Bar is my new favorite restaurant in Greensboro. It's quickly becoming like another favorite, Bandito Bodega, where everything is just amazing. The atmosphere is upscale and modern, service is prompt and the food is absolutely incredible. But let me back up. Lao Restaurant + Bar took over Crafted's old space on Elm Street in downtown Greensboro. The dining room is still in the back, the bar is still on the side, but the cuisine is Laotian. A country neighboring Thailand, Laos' cuisine is very similar to Thai food. It's all the expected flavors - cilantro, curry, mango - but it's just different enough that you might not recognize any of the dishes. (Instead of Pad Thai, you'll find Laab.) Greensboro has been needing a place like this, and I can't wait to eat my way through the menu.

I was impressed with the extensive cocktail list, and even more impressed that the heat in the Spicy Thai Collins was prevalent. "How well do you handle spice?" asked my server after I ordered the drink, featuring muddled jalapenos, cucumber, Thai basil, lime juice, gin, simple syrup and soda. The heat was exactly the level I was hoping for - and not for the faint of heart. The Sake Sour is also a delightfully light cocktail, with sake (most likely unfiltered/cloudy), lemon juice, egg white, simple syrup, bitters and pineapple juice. Gotta love a cocktail that features egg white, to give it that frothy look and texture.
Loving these cocktails - off to a great start!
I've had Laotian food one time before, at Bida Manda in Raleigh, but I wasn't familiar enough with the cuisine to quite know what I was ordering. Laab is one of the more well-known Laotian dishes, so I started there. It's a cold, chopped meat salad - and tastes way better than that description. I chose chicken for my protein, and it was seasoned with a spicy lime sauce and fresh herbs. I wasn't prepared for the number of red and green onions in the dish, and was pleasantly surprised to find no offensive, overpowering onion flavor. It was absolutely delicious. The dish was light and refreshing, and the mint and cilantro brightened it up. Lime juice provided great acidity, and if you request romaine leaves, you can make your own little Laab burritos. I am also obsessed with the little rice cart that my sticky rice came in!
Chicken Laab
Kua Mee is a sweet and savory stir-fry noodle dish, topped with an egg omelette, your choice of protein, bean sprouts and all the cilantro in the world. For a cilantro lover like myself, I grinned ear to ear when I saw the big bunch of green to brighten up the dish. I chose Pork Belly as my protein, and was happy that it wasn't too fatty. It was like a thick-cut bacon, and added a nice salty bite to the caramelized flavor of the noodles. What's an omelette doing in there, you ask? The same thing it's doing on sushi menus - just try it, you'll like it.
Kua Mee with egg omelette and loads of cilantro!
I thought the Kua Mee was the best thing ever, until I tasted the Mee Katti, a red coconut curry with rice noodles, peanuts, whipped egg, cabbage, bean sprouts, cilantro and your choice of protein. The heat was noticeable but not overpowering, as was the coconut flavor. I chose chicken as my protein, and it was so tender, I couldn't tell whether I was eating the chicken or the egg. The peanuts added a lovely nutty crunch, and the cilantro again...I was a happy girl.
Mee Katti, aka red coconut curry goodness and a side of cilantro
Kua Prabang features tender flank steak, with green beans, green onions, red bell peppers and mushrooms in a wildly flavorful sauce. This is not your average stir-fry. Add in rice, which gets coated in that delicious sauce, and you've got a hearty, familiar, yet new dish.
Kua Prabang
My third favorite dessert in the world is Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango (behind Bananas Foster and cake from Maxie B's). If you like Rice Pudding, you'll love this dish. If you don't like Rice Pudding, you'll probably still adore it. I squealed when I saw this traditional Thai dish on the menu. There's almost a buttery popcorn flavor in the sauce that gets drizzled over the sticky rice, and the sweet acidity of the mango gives this dish a really amazing balance of flavor. Sesame seeds are more for aesthetic and a teeny crunch, but no sweet sticky rice is complete without it.
Heaven.
I am elated that this restaurant is in downtown Greensboro, and they're open for lunch! If you haven't been, or are nervous about trying a new cuisine, get outside your box! Support local businesses! I love introducing my palate to new flavors, and hope this post has inspired you to do the same.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Wife

Starring: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater
Director: Björn Runge
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Rating: R

"How many people could possibly be going to see 'The Wife' starring Glenn Close?" I joked to my mom, after she suggested we go purchase our tickets early to avoid the crowd. I was stunned to walk into a packed theatre - mostly older women - but packed, nonetheless. I'd been hearing buzz about Close's performance in this film, how it could finally win her her first Oscar after 6 nominations. Is this my favorite Glenn Close role? No. Will it earn her an Oscar? Possibly, but probably not. But was her portrayal of a resentful wife, that quietly built throughout the 1 hour and 40 minutes a privilege to watch? Yes. Close is one of our best today, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how strong of a performance Jonathan Pryce delivered. In fact, he may have shown her up.

Close plays Joan Castleman, wife and backbone to Joe, a novelist who has just learned that he won the Nobel Prize in literature. We share in their celebration, but can't help but notice a slight coldness develop in Joan. Their son David is an aspiring writer, and quite troubled. He seeks approval and acknowledgement from his father, but his requests fall on deaf ears. The three of them bicker their way to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony, where we learn that Joe and Joan's seemingly perfect marriage is not quite what it seems.

We learn even more about the characters in flashbacks, where young Joan is played by Close's daughter in real life. This helps us understand how a lifetime of resentment was built up. I must acknowledge my love of Jonathan Pryce, whom I have adored since I saw him in the film "Evita". He has the juicier role here, and his character is more polarizing, which is why it was easy for him to almost steal the show from Close. But the Academy loves Glenn Close (not enough, apparently) and her emotional, wordless stare that indicates something more is happening below the surface will be enough to seal her a nomination. An Oscar though? I'm just not sure.

The reveal of the main conflict took me by surprise, and I hesitate to divulge much more information, so as to not ruin it for you readers! The less you know about this film going in, the better. I encourage you to not watch the trailer, to avoid any spoilers. I knew nothing about the story line, and every twist and turn kept me fully engaged. I loved this film.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Eighth Grade

Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan
Director: Bo Burnham
Running Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Rating: R

I could tell this movie would be special in just the first 3 minutes of the film. Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, you're immediately transported to a typical eighth grade class. We see students sniffing permanent markers, playing with the rubber bands on their braces, stacking crayola markers to make sticks - yep, been there! Such nuanced moments really spoke to the time period of the film and the world these pre-teens live in. I wondered if older generations would enjoy this film as much as I did, since eighth grade doesn't seem that terribly long ago to me. As the film's conflicts and themes unfolded, I realized that anyone can relate to this film, regardless of age, race or gender. Even though the main character is a 13-year-old white girl, it's a universal story, crafted into a brilliant film.

Elsie Fisher portrays Kayla with such ease - you can hardly tell she's acting at all. The pimples on her face, the smudged make-up, the slouched posture - she's just trying to figure it all out. She doesn't have any friends and barely says a word at school, yet is addicted to social media and films her own self-help vlogs (video blogs). We feel sorry for her, and root for her to break out of this neurotic, isolated shell.

Perhaps Kayla's first major social interaction comes when she attends a birthday party for Kennedy, the cool girl at school, whose mom guilt-tripped her into inviting Kayla. We suffer right alongside Kayla, who practically panics the entire time until she meets Kennedy's cousin Gabe, who is very self-unaware and is as awkward as she is. It nearly broke my heart when Kennedy "ooh-ed" and "aah-ed" over everyone's "cool" gifts, and dismissed Kayla's card game gift with disgust. Everyone can relate to the mean, cool girl that you want so badly to impress, but just can't.

The soundtrack is very much in your face. Several scenes had me laughing out loud, when the music would reflect her pulse racing as she sees the class hottie. Her mouth would be agape as she stared at this prepubescent 13-year-old boy with lust and wonder. She even kisses her hand at one point, pretending it's him - what teenage girl hasn't done this?! How did Bo Burnham know?!

Kayla's relationship with her single dad is complicated. The two clearly have a bond, but she often reprimands him for being corny and ignores his efforts to reach out to her. Kayla nearly dies from embarrassment when he catches her in a compromising position with a banana. His monologue toward the end of the film reminded me of the infamous Dad monologue in "Call Me By Your Name". Regardless of this caring father, I was left wondering if her lack of self-confidence had anything to do with not having a mother figure in her life.

Her class goes to a high school "training day", where she meets Olivia, a senior who takes Kayla under her wing, giving her the boost of confidence she so badly needs. She also turns out to be Kayla's first friend. A touching scene with Gabe toward the end of the film leaves you with hope that Kayla will find her self-esteem and be able to move on from this difficult phase of her life.

Several scenes in this film are so viscerally awkward that everyone in the audience reacted differently. Some people slouched down and could hardly look at the screen, while others laughed out loud with a nervous giggle. It's remarkable how well this feeling of discomfort was translated through the screen. I absolutely loved this movie and believe that anyone will be able to connect with it.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Veritas Vineyard & Winery: Wine Dinner

I had no idea how beautiful the Shenandoah Wine Region in central Virginia is. The next time I want a scenic wine fix, I won't need to fly out to Napa, I'll just drive 3 hours North and enjoy myself. We're fortunate to have several wineries right outside of Winston-Salem, in the Yadkin Valley, but the wines in the Shenandoah Valley blew me away. Afton Mountain Vineyards was a favorite, and if you visit King Family Vineyards on Sunday, they have Polo - quite the spectacle. If you decide to go for north for a special occasion, check out Veritas Vineyard & Winery to see if they're offering a wine dinner. My beau and I recently attended one, and adored every course. I'm already checking the schedule to see when we can return.

Upon your arrival, you're greeted with a flute of bubbly - what's not to love? The property is gorgeous. It's exactly what you think of when you picture a lush vineyard, surrounded by mountains. The servers were gracious and the evening was paced appropriately. After the bubbly settled, we were poured a glass of Saddleback Chardonnay to accompany Rye and Mustard Spaetzle with Chicken Sausage and sauteed greens. We're both spaetzle lovers (they're basically just German noodles or tiny dumplings) and the rye and mustard turned up the flavor. We agreed that every wine pairing was lovely, and I appreciated that this Chardonnay was perfectly balanced between dry and buttery. 

The second course was our favorite, hands down. We were both very excited about this dish - Goat Cheese and Corn Bisque, with charred corn and shrimp throughout, which provided a great pop of flavor and texture. It's as if they scraped the corn off the husk, then squeezed every drop of the corn milk into the pot, and married it with the flavor of the goat cheese. It was thick, luscious and amazing! The best dish of the night. The Not Your Grandma's Rosé alongside was perfectly fine, but the bisque stole the show entirely.

You really can't go wrong when you pair a perfectly cooked medium rare steak with a big, bold red. I loved the Vintner's Reserve, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. ...but the filet. It was absolutely to die for, and the Tomato Jam alongside was an unexpected, yet delightful flavor combination. The acid from the jam really cut through the unctuousness of the beef. And to cook filets perfectly for 20 people? Not easy to do. If we weren't already thoroughly impressed with the chef, we were now.

Dessert seemed like it was made specifically for us. We're not chocolate people (I know, pick your jaw up off the keyboard!) so the idea of Watermelon Sorbet with Apple Consommé (like a broth) was both a beautiful palate cleanser and a dessert right out of my dreams. I've grown to appreciate a good dessert wine, and the Petit Manseng brought out the warm notes of the apple, and was a beautiful golden color. It reminded me of drinking mead, which is wine made from fermenting honey and water. A stellar way to end the dinner.

A nip of Port later, and we were calling the Uber. The port was an even tastier digestif, that needed nothing more than a mouth to drink it.

It's difficult to put into words how special of an evening this was. When you like all the food, all the wine, and the company, it really doesn't get much better - unless you can spend the night on the premises, which will happen next time.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Alma Mexicana

Readers! I'm back with a new favorite Winston-Salem restaurant. I had been hearing rave reviews of Alma Mexicana, located in downtown's trendy Bailey Park, and now I can finally add my praises to the mix. This place is awesome. The menu is varied and unique - it's not your average Mexican restaurant. This type of restaurant is a welcomed addition to the Triad. The drink menu is abundant, service is timely, and while there are just high-top tables with bar stools inside, the covered patio and outdoor seating is quite inviting. And you know I was partial to the Dia de los Muertos-themed decor. The menu changes frequently, so you may not be able to find these favorites, but I can say with certainty that what you have will be delicious.
Love the decor!
I enjoyed the Alma Blanca Margarita, which brought together some of my favorite flavors - Domaine de Canton (ginger liqueur), pineapple and nice heat from habanero syrup. My group ordered several tapas to try off the dinner menu, and they came out at an appropriate pace. Among our favorites were the Chicken and Cheese Flautas, quite similar to Taquitos. These were thicker than I expected, giving me a lot of the yummy, cheesy filling. They reminded me of Mexican egg rolls, and it's obvious these babies are rolled and fried in-house - they're nothing like the frozen roll-ups you used to eat (or maybe still do - no shame there.)

If you don't think you like duck, try the El Pato Perfecto. The savory, dark meat is shredded and is not unlike dark meat chicken or turkey. It's topped with queso fresco and pumpkin seeds and served with greens and corn tortillas, so you can make your own duck tacos. You get yummy guac with this dish and a spicy tomatillo verde salsa that added nice acid and heat.

My favorite dish of the night was served in a mini cast iron skillet, earning mad points for presentation. Roasted Poblano Peppers are stuffed with lamb, and smothered with a tomato cream sauce. I could not get enough. I love lamb on its own, but the sauce might have been the star of the show. We ate it with a spoon when we ran out of the buttery, grilled bread that came with it.
Roasted Poblanos stuffed with Lamb
I love a good Ceviche, and that's what the Scallop Ceviche was - good. While it was refreshing and the texture of the scallop was lovely, it was so laden with lime and chile amarillo, that it almost over-powered the fish. I got a little too much acid in this dish, and I would have preferred to taste more of the fresh fish flavor. The fresh tortilla chips and guacamole served alongside were heaven, though.

I am so excited that a place like Alma has found a home in Winston! I would be even more thrilled if they eventually made their way over to Greensboro, so that more people could get a taste of this upscale Mexican cuisine. It's not to be missed.