Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Southern Lights Bistro

Southern Lights Bistro is a long-time favorite of many people in Greensboro. The restaurant moved to a shopping center on Lawndale back in 2010, and while it was wildly popular in its previous location for 25+ years, I think the love is just as strong in their "new" digs. One of the biggest draws for me personally is their patio - there's not enough al fresco dining in Greensboro, and Southern Lights has one of the best in town. It's a relaxed atmosphere, and servers are patient, knowledgeable and want you to enjoy the evening. They offer ample specials every night, so you can get something different nearly every time you go. While I've had a few hit or miss meals here, it's quickly becoming a go-to for family visits and casual nights with friends.

I love to build my own salad, and the options at Southern Lights seem endless. They have a killer Crab Cake - it's more wet than dry (Crab Cake aficionados know what I mean) and very little filler. I also love to add their Salmon, which is always perfectly cooked. Salad toppings are all over the place - Artichoke Hearts, Avocado, Kalamata Olives, Roasted Red Peppers, Havarti Cheese - the list truly does go on and on. The salads are substantial in size and ingredients are of the freshest quality.

The Chili-Garlic Shrimp with Coconut Rice and Squash is not for the faint of palate - the heat level is real. I loved the coolness of the coconut flavor to balance out the spicy shrimp, but I was kind of surprised that squash was the veggie of choice in this dish. I think broccoli would have made more sense, snap peas even, because the squash seemed out of place. I would order this again and ask to sub in a different veggie, but I love the Asian flavors this dish presents.

I can't resist a Cuban Sandwich, and you'd be surprised at how few restaurants in Greensboro offer them! Southern Lights' version is called the Spicy Havana, and it features Spicy Ham, Pulled Pork, Swiss Cheese, Pickles and Dijon Mayo on a pressed sub roll. This seemed a little bread-heavy (usually the quantity of meat keeps me from being able to finish an entire Cuban sandwich!) but the expected flavors were all there and didn't disappoint. The spice from the ham and the dijon married beautifully, and I cannot rave enough about the Pesto Pasta that comes as a side option - it's studded with little green Peas and topped with salty Parmesan. It's ridiculous.

The Adrian consists of some of my favorite ingredients - Roasted Turkey, Cherrywood Smoked Bacon, Havarti and Honey, served hot atop a Croissant. I honestly could have used more havarti and more honey, to keep this from feeling like a plain deli turkey croissant. Next time, I'll ask for a side of honey and extra cheese, which might seem extra, but when you're going big, GO BIG!

Their specials always appeal to me, and on one night in particular, I fell hard for the pan-seared Grouper with Shrimp and Crab étouffée over Jasmine Rice with Broccoli. Being obsessed with all things New Orleans, I am an étouffée fiend, and I was blown away with Southern Lights' rendition. The depth of flavor, the ample shrimp and crab, the perfectly cooked grouper - this is an exceptional dish and I wish they'd add it to their nightly menu.

Another special combines Grilled Sirloin with Angel Hair Pasta and Truffled Cream Sauce, with Mushrooms and Wilted Spinach. I had this when it was featured about a month ago and I lost my mind for it. Truffled Cream Sauce? Are you kidding me! It was insane!! When I saw it featured as a nightly special again recently, I went back to get it (rather, I swam through my pool of saliva to get there for it) and I hate to say, it was not as good. I detected no truffle and instead it tasted more like an Alfredo sauce. Disappointing, but maybe a different chef prepared it that night.

If they're featuring pan-seared Scallops with Bacon and Corn Risotto, do yourself a favor and order it. The scallops are perfectly plump and have a nice salty crust, and the smokiness from the bacon paired with the sweetness of the corn makes this a really well-rounded dish. I would eat this every day if I could.

Their Fried Brussels Sprouts special appetizer also needs to get a permanent spot on the menu - they were roasted to tender perfection and topped with blue cheese, slivered almonds and drizzled with balsamic glaze. This is my favorite way to eat Brussels. It's really the only way.

Whether you want to take advantage of their half-off wines on Thursday, their patio on a beautiful evening, or their Sunday brunch (which is also awesome!), there's really something for everyone at Southern Lights Bistro. I'm thankful the fan base has remained steady in this new location. After a move and 35+ years, this place really stands the test of time and great, quality food.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Hyatt Place Greensboro Downtown

Step aside, Proximity. Move it or lose it, O'Henry. There's a new hotel in town and it's offering a hip, new vibe and some incredible food. Developer Roy Carroll's new Hyatt Place Downtown Greensboro just opened this month, and coupled with the Carroll at Bellemeade, it's probably the most talked about addition to downtown Greensboro in recent years. I wasn't aware of the ample food offerings at the Hyatt - this is way more than just your grab-and-go packaged snacks. I was pleasantly surprised by everything I sampled, enough that I would return here for lunch or dinner anytime. And be sure to check out their exciting cocktail list at happy hour. I know you'll be impressed too.

The Strawberry Mule features Blood Orange Vodka, Campari, Ginger Beer, Lime Juice, Honey and Muddled Strawberries. It is too easy to drink. It's a beautiful light pink hue that's perfect for spring. I've been on a Whiskey Sour kick lately, and the Hyatt's unique rendition might be my new favorite in town. Maker's Mark, Disaronno, Lime Juice, Pineapple Juice and Bitters make for a really tasty flavor combination. I never would have thought to add Disaronno and Pineapple, but now I don't think I can have it any other way! They've also got Mezcal Margs, an Old Fashioned with Chocolate Bitters, and an ample wine and beer selection. Seriously, come for the cocktails, but stay for the food.
Happy hour at the Hyatt!
After you've munched on some addictively salty Citrus-Chile Popcorn, you might want to indulge in another appetizer like the Parmesan-Paprika Fries. The fries are crispy and topped with Parm and Paprika (obviously) but you won't be able to resist the Basil Aioli and the slightly hot Boom Boom Sauce. Or maybe you're in the mood for the best Fried Okra you've ever had? Cut into bite size pieces and cornmeal-dusted, the okra is served with garlicky Spinach, Bacon Jam and a Tomato Aioli that is absolutely to die for. I could not stop eating this. Just trust me on this one. The Crispy Brussels Sprouts are also a must-order. They're perfectly charred and topped with Bacon and a whole-grain Honey Mustard sauce. These are the sexiest Brussels in town.

The Flatbread is extremely satisfying - it's more like a personal pizza. The base is an extremely flavorful, basil-forward Pesto, and it's topped with Prosciutto, Genoa Salami, oven-roasted Tomatoes, Arugula, Mozzarella and Parmesan, and drizzled with Honey. The sweet honey finish goes so well with that salty meat, and it just oozes with cheese. We loved the Chicken and Waffles. The Fried Chicken was perfectly crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, but the Chile-Spiced Honey made it a showstopper.

I can't resist a good Cuban Sandwich - smoky Pulled Pork, Ham, Pickles, Swiss Cheese and Creole Mustard on French Bread? What's not to love?! My only request would be to change the Bread & Butter Pickles to Dill - just a personal preference. The BBQ Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese was a hit, though we all remarked that the mac and cheese was likely not homemade. This surprised us all, since everything else tasted so fresh, from scratch, and cooked to order. The Chicken and Brie Club layers tender Grilled Chicken with Brie Cheese, Kale, Tomato and Bacon, and it's topped with Honey Mustard. Any club that's warm and features Brie gets an A+ in my book.

I apologize for the lack of photos, so you could have really seen for yourself how delicious everything looked. While we may have made a dent in the menu, there were still so many other tempting choices. Maybe next time I'll try the Avocado Toast and Charcuterie Board. Or perhaps I'll indulge in the Baked Brie and Kale Chicken Caesar. The Hyatt Place Downtown really has it all, and it is all so good. Make it a point to stop by and see for yourself.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Crook's Corner

When I was a student in Chapel Hill, my go-to spots were East End/Deep End (RIP), Lucy's (under new management) and Elmo's (still rockin'). My friends and I didn't make it to many high-end restaurants, partly because of our budgets, but mostly because our world didn't exist past the Eastern block of Franklin Street. As I got older, I realized the number of outstanding restaurants in Chapel Hill, namely a famous one by the name of Crook's Corner. According to their website, Chef Bill Smith is "the only James Beard Foundation 'America's Classic Restaurant' chef ever to have been named a final-five finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast - and twice." Don't be put off by the casual atmosphere and diner vibe - you'll likely pay $30 for a top-tiered restaurant entree. The bar is cozy but ample, and it's a very inviting spot. I'm kicking myself for not going here more when I was a Chapel Hillian!

Their cocktail list features the classics done right. You might order a French 75 (a personal fave), a Sazerac, or how about a modern twist on a Mint Julep: a scoop of Mint Sorbet with Wild Turkey poured on top. I couldn't get enough of this. It was perfectly boozy, perfectly sweet, and it also appears on their dessert menu. I was very torn between this concoction and a Red Hot-Orange Sorbet topped with Reposado and Bubbles. Next time.
Mint Julep Sorbet
We were offered crusty bread with butter (always a plus) and while the menu changes often, there are some staples. The Carolina Sampler features Barbecue from Picnic in Durham, which was fun to try. The 'cue had great smoke flavor and the Eastern style vinegar sauce that accompanied it was killer. There truly is no better barbecue sauce. My only note for improvement is that this 'cue was pulled, and I prefer chopped. The sampler also comes with tender Collard Greens that had no offensive, earthy flavor - they were awesome. If you don't think you like collards, try these, as they are cooked with bacon and topped with parmesan cheese. The rendition of Hoppin' John featured Black Eyed Peas on a bed of Rice, topped with Tomatoes, Scallions and Cheddar Cheese. It was tasty, but totally upstaged by the other items on the sampler. This all comes with a fat stack of Black Pepper Cornbread - not too peppery and with a hint of sweetness. It was a lovely counter to all the savory notes on the plates.
Carolina Sampler
I loved Crook's rendition of Flounder. It was thicker than you'd expect, and lightly fried, atop a sweet Onion Puree and Farro. This was an awesomely constructed dish. You get the nuttiness and chew from the farro, the crispy, salty crust on the fish, and the sweet sting of the onion puree. Everything might have been the same color, but it tasted amazing together.
Flounder with sweet onion puree and farro
Crook's is famous for their desserts, namely what's listed on the menu as "Good Banana Pudding". Let me break it down for you. I was never a banana pudding person until I had the warm banana pudding from Mr. BBQ in Winston-Salem. I'm here to tell you that warm banana pudding will change your life - homemade vanilla custard beats boxed vanilla pudding, and torched meringue beats cool whip any day. I thought it was interesting that Crook's Banana Pudding featured the elements of warm banana pudding - the homemade vanilla custard and meringue - but theirs is served cold. It was divine and still beats traditional cold banana pudding, but I was very tempted to ask them to microwave it, because that would really be the ultimate.
"Good Banana Pudding"
Crook's is also known for their Atlantic Beach Lemon-Lime Pie with Saltine Cracker Crust, an Eastern NC classic that I had never tried until a few days ago. The crust had a perfect salty note (obviously) and the custard was nice and tangy. If you love Key Lime Pie, you will love this.
Atlantic Beach Lemon-Lime Pie with Saltine Crust
I was really grateful for the opportunity to try so many classic dishes at a famed restaurant in one of my favorite places on Earth. I can't wait to go back and try the Red Hot cocktail and just about every other item on the menu.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

1618: Pahlmeyer Wine Dinner

1618 Seafood Grill is one of my favorite restaurants in Greensboro. They recently hosted a wine dinner featuring Pahlmeyer wines from Napa Valley in California. I was unfamiliar with this winery, but let's be honest, I'm pretty obsessed with wines from Napa, and the food at 1618 is always exceptional. I was expecting a delicious and unforgettable evening, and they delivered. 

Perfectly fried oyster
1618 does one of the best renditions of fried oysters in the entire Triad, and the first course featured a perfectly crispy and salty Fried Oyster with a Goat Lady Goat Cheese Fondue and Fresh Herb Salsa. It might have been my favorite dish of the night, and I would have eaten ten of these. The richness of the goat cheese fondue, the savoriness of the oyster and the acidity of the salsa made for a perfectly balanced and composed bite. This was paired with a 2017 Jayson Sauvignon Blanc, which was thankfully not too grapefruit-forward, a complaint I usually have with Sauv Blancs. We were off to a great start.

Duo of crab cake and short rib
One of the many things I love about 1618 is their over-the-top creativity with each dish, and I think our second course perfectly encapsulated that: duo of Crab Cake and Barbecued Beef Short Rib with Mango, Pancetta, Cilantro and Mascarpone. That sentence contains so many of my favorite words and ingredients! The crab cake had no filler - it was straight crab, which is how they all should be - and the short rib was super tender. The mango and cilantro brightened up the dish, and pancetta makes everything better. This course was paired with a duo (get it?) of a buttery 2016 Wayfarer Estate Chardonnay and a smooth 2014 Wayfarer Estate Pinot Noir. They each enhanced the dish in their own lovely way.

Duck breast with sweet potato pan sauce
We were offered beautiful Asian flavors in the third course: Hoisin and Plum-Glazed Duck Breast with Baby Corn, Broccolini, Crispy Duck Egg and Sweet Potato Pan Sauce. This dish was all about that crazy delicious sweet potato pan sauce! The duck was tender and the vegetables were crisp, and it was a stunning visual to pop the duck egg yolk and watch it drip down the meat and mix with the pan sauce. This dish was paired with a 2016 Jayson Red Blend and a 2015 Pahlmeyer Merlot. It was really fun to compare these wines with the dish - the blander of the two wines really opened up with the dish, while the spicier, more robust wine was overwhelmed with the flavors of the dish. Dueling wine tastings are so much fun!

Wagyu beef with foie gras and bordelaise

If you're wondering how it's possible to eat this much in one sitting, know that the servings were appropriately sized and the courses were well-paced. Thank goodness, because we had one more large course to go: Wagyu Beef and Foie Gras paired with a Portabella Mushroom stuffed with Wagyu Tartare and Blackberry Compote, and finished with a Bordelaise Sauce. Again, so many of my favorite words. This is the ideal steakhouse dish, and once again, it was all about the sauce. Love or hate foie gras, if it's going to have a place, it's atop perfectly seared Wagyu beef. I did appreciate the sweet acidity of the blackberry compote to brighten the dish. We had one final wine comparison, and these were the best (and most expensive, not surprisingly!) of the bunch. Both the 2014 and 2015 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Reds were fabulous with this dish. Proprietary wines are Cabernet-heavy blends. No wonder I loved them. 
All the wine!!!
We finished the meal with a decadent Chocolate Torte. Readers, you may recall that I don't love chocolate (I know, I know) but this surprisingly wasn't too dark or rich, and it was actually a nice end to the meal. I Ubered home and began planning my next trip to Napa. Or at least 1618.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Preview of Butcher & Bull: Part 1

Award-winning chef Richard Miller has made quite a name for himself in the Triad culinary scene. Previously at the helm of Graze Restaurant, he will now serve as Executive Chef of Butcher & Bull, a new take on the traditional American steakhouse. While the restaurant space is currently attached to the Marriott Hotel in downtown Winston-Salem, Butcher & Bull will be renovated to become a standalone restaurant. It will open this spring, and with Chef Miller attached, it will undoubtedly be a success.

Chef Miller, a Winston-Salem native, is one of the most innovative and exciting culinary voices in our state - he beat out 15 other chefs to win the Winston-Salem finals of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series! Not only will Butcher & Bull feature his adventurous culinary perspective, it will feature locally-sourced ingredients from Triad farmers and artisans including Harmony Ridge Farms, Joyce Farms and Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork, to name a few. For all you beef lovers out there, the restaurant will offer premier cuts, including one I'm particularly intrigued by - the 40 ounce tomahawk steak! Entrees like Lobster and Grits and Wagyu Burgers will also be offered. I imagine the wine list and craft cocktail selection will be killer.

If you want to follow along with the progress, check out Butcher & Bull on Facebook and Instagram.

I promise to give you another sneak peek once they're close to opening, but for now, take a look at these photos that have been taken throughout the menu planning process. They're sure to whet your appetite.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

2019 Oscar Predictions

I know I've been a bit MIA as of late, dear readers, but you know I'd NEVER leave you high and dry without my Oscar predictions! I'm pretty startled by the notable snubs (Bradley Cooper for Best Director; Timothee Chalamet for "Beautiful Boy"; "Crazy Rich Asians" and "If Beale Street Could Talk" for Best Picture; I could go on and on) but alas, it's my favorite night of the year. I hope you enjoy your viewing party with the guests, snacks and libations you hold dearest to your heart!

Best Picture
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star Is Born

Should Win: A Star is Born or Vice. These were easily my two favorite films of the year, and while I'm biased towards anything Lady Gaga does, "Star" was a beautifully made film. I also loved "Vice" and the casting, editing and production design choices made. I would be thrilled if either of these two deserving films pulled out a win.

Will Win: Roma. I just have a sneaking feeling that this will win both Best Foreign Language Film AND Best Picture. I'm not sure how it was eligible to be nominated for both, but the Academy adores Cuarón and frankly, it was an absolutely beautiful film.

Best Actor
Christian "the best" Bale (Vice)
Bradley "snubbed" Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Willem Dafoe (At Eternity's Gate)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Should Win: Bradley Cooper or Christian Bale. I know, I know, I'm very torn this year. But seriously, Bradley Cooper - the man took voice lessons to lower his voice an entire octave. He totally embodied this character and this is the best I've ever seen him. I was totally mesmerized by his hypnotizing and heartbreaking performance, and who knew he had musical chops to boot? I have loved Christian Bale since he was Laurie in "Little Women", and there's no denying he is one of the greatest actors of our generation. He was unrecognizable in his on-point portrayal of Dick Cheney. He threw himself into this role, like usual. I couldn't take my eyes off him.

Will Win: Rami Malek. Yes, he stunned us with his portrayal of Freddie Mercury, but I felt it was a bit silly and like a caricature. I really couldn't get past the exaggerated teeth, but if you can, his musical numbers are pretty great. I just had a stronger reaction to Cooper and Bale's performances this year.

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Glenn "she's due" Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady "queen" Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Should Win: Glenn Close. In my heart of hearts, I am pulling for Lady Gaga, but I am partial to her in this film because I am such a fan of her music. It was easy for me to buy into Gaga portraying a performer, so I found her incredible and believable. However, Glenn Close was excellent in "The Wife". I loved that film. I don't always agree with the Academy's stance on rewarding a body of work after a notable amount of time without a win, but I would make an exception here. While this isn't the best I've seen Glenn Close, she's delivered decades of consistent work, so cheers, Glenn. It's your year.

Will Win: Glenn Close.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
Sam "'stache" Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Should Win: Sam Elliott. Not only is he a veteran actor that is highly deserving of this nomination, he's one of those quintessential supporting actors that steals scenes. I perked up every time he appeared on screen, and I was so impressed with the raw emotions he conveyed.

Will Win: Mahershala Ali. His chemistry with co-star Viggo Mortensen was palpable, and his heartfelt performance had us smiling, crying and looking up Dr. Don Shirley on Spotify. Hersh is a phenomenal actor, but he was better in "Moonlight" (for which he won). And he should have been nominated for Best Actor anyway - he's in practically every scene!

Best Supporting Actress
Amy "always the bridesmaid" Adams (Vice)
Marina de Tavira (Roma)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Should Win: Amy Adams. Sorry, Regina fans, but Amy continues to impress us with any role she takes on, and she's fearless in her portrayal as Lynne Cheney. Amy is one of those actors who, with 6 nominations now, is easily deserving of an Oscar, and arguably for this role more than any other.

Will Win: Regina King. While her body of work is insane (seriously, just look at her IMDB) and she is super deserving of an Oscar, I don't know that it should be for this role. I thought the lead actors (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) ran circles around her in their performances, and they're not even nominated! Regina had beautiful and heartfelt moments in this film, but in all honesty, I have seen her better.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Adam McKay (Vice)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

Should Win: Bradley Cooper, OH WAIT, he's not even nominated. This is as infuriating as the Academy's snub of Ben Affleck for Best Director for "Argo"a few years back. From this list though, I am pulling for Spike Lee and Adam McKay. Their films were both fantastic and they're both major talents.

Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón. The momentum is behind him. He did create a masterpiece with "Roma". He really can do no wrong when it comes to filmmaking.

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.