"I wish monkeys could Skype."

Toronto seems to have awakened from a long, dark winter. Not a hard winter, mind you, just one that seemed never to end. But yesterday the sun came out, and today it’s scorching (41 with the humidex) so I’d like to think this past weekend signaled the final curtain on spring.

Friday we both worked late. When we got home we decided it was a good idea to disassemble the old home theatre (the new receiver and tv stand had arrived) and rebuild it. Somewhere between “disassemble” and “the rest” I got tired of that idea, and we went out for dinner instead. Thinking the Wine Bar would offer a quick, simple meal we went there. We ended up with frites and flat breads and Miami ribs and giant scallops and pork medallions, not to mention pretty much every red by the glass (and a few whites) that they serve. We ended with five cheeses, paired with five wines. We also ended up chatting quite a bit with Carlos, the manager, who was from Spain. We mentioned that we were considering a trip to Spain in the next couple of years. He came back later with a few bits of advice:

On Saturday we stepped gingerly around the pile of cords and equipment in our living room on our way to the market for the week’s supplies, before doing a few errands. Those errands included me picking up a much-needed HDMI cable, which meant we walked past Future Shop’s collection of LED TVs. Nellie pretty much decided on the spot that we needed one; alas, who am I to disagree?

Really, we were up around Yonge & Dundas to see The Hangover Part II (imdb | rotten tomatoes) which was rubbish. Nellie described it well: take the first Hangover, pretend it’s a Mad Lib and just replace all the major plot points with something new…Vegas = Bangkok, tiger = some other exotic animal, and so on. The best part of the movie was being surprised beforehand with the new red band trailer for David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

We came home and, as best we could, set up the new receiver. Still a couple of kinks to be worked out, but it’s getting there. I hear a new LED TV should really pull it together. Anyway, we couldn’t enjoy it too long as we were off to GB’s surprise birthday party. Again, we mistakenly thought this would be an early and easy night. Later, as we drove home in a cab at 2:15AM, we wondered exactly what had happened. I think Nellie kept wondering that the whole next day, which she spent on the couch.

Sunday was unremarkable, save the last-night lightning storm that crashed around the city.


Il Pleut àMourir

A sudden, rather cool-looking thunderstorm rolled through Toronto tonight. I took some pictures and snagged some video, here and here. Check out the lightning and thunder, in the second video, around the 0:10 mark. There was even a nice double-rainbow afterward.

Given today’s news, it’s a relief to live in a place where the weather is at best a photo opportunity, and at worst a pain in the ass, and not somewhere where you have to worry about mile-wide tornadoes.

"But what is so outrageous is that this isn't about Pat. This is about what they did to a nation."

I don’t know why, exactly, but I’ve/we’ve watched a lot of movies this month. Being on a plane for ten hours doesn’t hurt, and I did just get a new digital media player, but given how busy we’ve been at work (and how much good TV is on right now) I was surprised to see that I’ve gone through 14 movies this month. One more and it’ll be the busiest movie month for me since September 2008, when I took a week of vacation and watched 30 movies in 10 days at TIFF.

The five most recent have been:

Restrepo (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was the companion documentary to a book I just read (War by Sebastien Junger) about soldiers deep in Pakistan’s Korengal valley. While I appreciate putting faces to names and seeing the actual ground described in the book, the book was far more compelling. However, it was difficult to watch the documentary knowing that photographer and cameraman Tim Hetherington died last month in Libya.

The Tillman Story (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was another documentary about war, but with a very different twist. Many people knew about Pat Tillman, who played football for the Arizona Cardinals and turned down a multi-million dollar contract so that he could enlist and go to Afghanistan, along with his brother, following the attacks of September 11 2001. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan and immediately celebrated as a war hero — even being awarded a posthumous Silver Star — but his family wanted to understand more about how Tillman was killed. The star of the documentary is kind of Pat Tillman, and kind of his mother, but really is just this entire extraordinary family who display more character than most of us would be capable of.

The Last Exorcism (imdb | rotten tomatoes) had all kinds of promise, and despite being a Blair Witch knockoff in a lot of ways was actually an effectively creepy little genre film, but just lost it badly in the final act. Like, BADLY badly.

Manhunter (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was weird for me. It was the first Hannibal Lecter movie (it was actually spelled “Lecktor” in this movie) before Anthony Hopkins was Lecter and before Scott Glenn was Jack Crawford and when Will Graham was the protagonist, not Clarice Starling. It was, of course, remade with the proper title Red Dragon (imdb | rotten tomatoes) years later, but that remake wasn’t very good. So when I saw that Manhunter had a historical rating of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought it would be better. And it might have been…it was, after all, directed by Michael Mann, one of my all-time favourites. But it’s hard to get past the fact that it was made in 1986, with all the cheesiness you’d expect from a director who was also producer of Miami Vice at the time. The bad music, the absurd clothes, the bad slo-mo…it’s hard to believe Silence Of The Lambs came just five years later. I guess it played better in 1986.

How To Train Your Dragon (imdb | rotten tomatoes) holds a 98% rating on RT, which I couldn’t quite figure out. Upon seeing the ads I had written it off as another animated kids movie, but…yeah, it’s not. It’s really quite good. The animation is ridiculously strong, the story is sweet (and has more meat to it than you might expect) and it doesn’t try too hard for laughs. Kids will obviously like it, but much to my surprise, so might mostly-jaded movie snobs.

***UPDATE!*** We watched Inside Job (imdb | rotten tomatoes) this afternoon — really good, highly recommended — which puts me at 15 for the month…like I said earlier, the most since TIFFapalooza ’08.

"When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Unless you don't have any water or sugar. And then you just eat the lemons, and the rind will give you diarrhea."

Aided by a pair of 5-hour flights and some rainy weather, I have watched seven movies in the last seven days.

The Hollywood Complex (imdb | hot docs) was our final Hot Docs screening. I expected a movie about the desperate lives of aspiring child actors and the parents who push them to evoke a little more emotion, but it felt flat to me. Not bad, but a let-down compared to others we’ve seen at Hot Docs, this year included. I gave it a 3 out of 5 in audience voting.

TRON: Legacy (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was an in-flight movie, watched somewhere between Toronto and San Francisco. I watched it mainly because I have vague memories of both the original TRON movie and the video game, because I will watch Jeff Bridges in anything and because I am mesmerized by Olivia Wilde. And light cycles. It was rubbish, but that’s what I expected, and it served its purpose — to kill two hours. But what was with Michael Sheen channeling David Bowie?

The Green Hornet (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was another in-flight movie, and not a good one. Maybe the worst one. It just felt scattered and random and several steps below what I’ve come to expect from comic/superhero revivals in recent years.

The Next Three Days (imdb | rotten tomatoes) seemed like a good way to kill some time on a plane, given that it was over two hours. That was about the best that could be said for it, unfortunately. I just have no time for Russell Crowe playing anyone other than Jeffrey Wigand, and they did a poor job making us care about the plight of the characters, rather just jumping right in to the action-y parts of the plot. Elizabeth Banks was, as she often us, the only good part of the film.

Dinner For Schmucks (imdb | rotten tomatoes) should have been so, SO much better. I mean, with a cast that included Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, David Walliams, Ron Livingston, Larry Wilmore and Kristen Schaal, I expected something so much better than the bizarre, faux-zany mess that turned up. On the other hand, I suspect this movie would be HIIIIIII-LARIOUS if watched when stoned and/or not on a plane.

Bridesmaids (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was more like it. I was off the plane now, obviously, and seeing this one in the theatre. A very cramped theatre, by the way, full of people who would laugh at every single thing which happened in the movie. Which was kind of annoying. But still, it was a funny movie, and sweet too. That formula has worked for under-appreciated comedians before, and there’s no doubt this was Judd Apatow’s attempt to give Kristen Wiig her own 40-Year-Old Virgin. There were parts that made me laugh very hard, and parts that made me smile for other reasons entirely. Like I said, it’s just a funny, sweet movie…at least, as sweet as a prolonged scatological scene would let it be.

The Fighter (imdb | rotten tomatoes) accomplished the amazing feat of making me hate — not dislike, hate — several of the central characters. I suppose credit is due to the actors (especially Melissa Leo and Christian Bale) for that, but I fear it will have a halo effect and make me hate Toni tonight when I watch Treme. The movie itself was fine…typical Oscar bait where you know exactly what will happen, but the actors were all so good (especially Bale and Amy Adams) that you found yourself caring even if you weren’t emotionally invested.

Trip 1: 13 bottles. Trip 2: 23 bottles. Trip 3: 42 bottles. Trip 4: god help us. That looks like a logarithmic growth curve.

Right, now that we’ve sorted through the pile of bottles and survived a week of Hot Docs / illness, I can write about what a great time we had last weekend!

We’ve been waiting and waiting and our spring just doesn’t seem to want to arrive, so we were pretty happy when we woke up to a bright, beautiful, sunny day last Saturday — perfect weather for our excursion to Niagara wine country, nearly a year to the day since our very first trip. A few quick errands and a stop at the market for the week’s groceries, and we were on our way, just 30 minutes after we had originally planned.

Our mood turned sour, however, when we got to the Discount Car Rental office around the corner from our place. They had given away our car, despite our reservation. It very quickly turned into an episode of Seinfeld where I questioned their understanding of what the word “reservation” meant. They told me it was my fault for showign up 35 minutes late, even though I’ve never heard that policy before and nothing in their emails or rental details said anything about a time limit on the reservation, let alone a time period as short as half an hour. Anyway, I gave up when I realized they a) were entirely unhelpful, b) had clearly given away all cars and c) had absolutely no power do anything to help me anyway. Much cursing and eye rolling later, we left. Ten minutes later we’d booked a nice little Toyota Prius hybrid a few blocks away via Autoshare. Lucky for us, because the staff at the Jarvis Street Discount Car and Truck rental are useless, incompetent, unhelpful twats. Ahem.

Anyway…hooray Autoshare! Only 45 minutes after our target take-off time we were blasting down the QEW, taking advantage of the high-occupancy/green vehicle lane and lack of traffic to make great time to Beamsville. Our first few stops — Hidden Bench, Daniel Lenko and Tawse — were old familiar sites, and were lucrative indeed. Heading east, we angered a long line of bikers pulling into Stoney Ridge to pick up a case of Pinot for my buddy Joe, then drove into the village of Jordan for lunch at Zooma Zooma Cafe‘s patio. The food (ploughman’s lunch for Nellie, chicken sandwich for me) was tasty, but the service was anything but zooma…we waited outside for a long time before getting our bill, during which time my pasty skin got sunburned. No matter; it was a beautiful day and we had more wineries to visit. Next we visited Flat Rock (who have a gorgeous tasting room…we could see our building back in Toronto!) and 13th Street, both for the first time. We then cut through St. Catharines, crossed the Welland Canal and began the drive toward Niagara-on-the-Lake. We stopped at one of our favourites, Southbrook, and finished our touring at an unlikely destination: Jackson-Triggs. Normally we avoid any place with tour buses parked out front, but this was the only place where we could buy wines made by their partner winery Le Clos Jordanne. Here we loaded up, stuffed everything into the car and drove to our hotel, the Shaw Club, a sanctuary from the plague of frilly NotL inns. We strolled around the corner to the Olde Angel Inn for a few pints before returning to the hotel to gird our loins for dinner.

We’d eaten at the Stone Road Grille twice before, and enjoy it so much we’ll likely never pass within 50 miles of NotL without stopping in. My go-to starter — scallops wrapped in duck breast bacon — was gone, so I went off the beaten path and ordered a cheese plate to start, along with a glass of Southbrook Whimsy cab Franc. Nellie had a glass of the 13th street Cuvee sparkling, and then the soup du jour — wild leek and potato — with a glass of Lailey Chardonnay.

For my main I chose the “weekly beast” from the special. I saw “pork loin” and ordered it, not even paying attention to the rest. To my happy surprise what showed up was a great deal of pork loin, a large section of pork belly and a crispy coppa (pork shoulder)…nary a vegetable in sight.

Nellie, meanwhile, had the flank steak with garlicky beans and frites. I’d ordered the same thing the last time we visited, and remember it fondly, but this time there was a twist: an eggshell full of bearnaise sauce which she was to pour over her steak. If I weren’t having a porkgasm at the time I’d have been jealous.

We paired our meals with a bottle of Hidden Bench’s flagship red, La Brunante. Sweet fancy moses, it was tasty, and paired perfectly with our food. Definitely a splurge, but a worthwhile one. We ended our meal with two great flourishes: a six-pack for the kitchen staff (no fooling; it’s actually an item on the menu, and they were so happy they sent someone out to thank us) and a chocolate brownie topped in salted caramel ice cream and garnished with chili chocolate sauce.

At this point we needed a medic. Or at least a walk home. We opted for the latter, and thanked the travel gods for the pleasant weather so that we could work off at least a bit of the sauce, if nothing else.

The next morning our breakfast was mercifully light, and we began day two of our winery visits. Our first two stops — Riverview and Pondview — were new to us and pleasant enough, but weren’t that remarkable. The third winery was the real highlight of our day: Five Rows. It’s a tiny craft winery which I heard about only when they won at Cuvee 2011. We met Wes, the winemaker, walking out of the vines as we pulled up. He poured us each of their wines and we loved them all. He took the time to discuss each one with us — time he probably didn’t have as he had work to do and it was clear the rain was coming — and indulged us as we gushed about each. We left with half a dozen bottles, including a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc…and I don’t like even like Sauvignon Blanc. We also got a bottle of the 07 Pinot Noir, and are laying it down for a few years…can’t wait to come back to it when it’s almost passed from memory. Five Rows, to me, was the real find of this trip, reminiscent of our visit to Shypoke in Napa Valley last year. We’re now anxiously awaiting the release of more reds next month.

Our day wasn’t done, though. We sped round the corner to Ravine, to pick up some of their fabulous bottles, to say hi to Alex face-to-face and to have lunch in their restaurant. Nellie’s sandwich (and awesome fries) and York Road white, and my plate of prawns the size of boomerangs were fine all right, but the dessert almost killed us. Lemon tart and chocolate hazelnut ‘splosion:

Rain had blasted down as soon as we were seated, but happily let up just as we sipped our post-meal espresso. I bought some treats for my team who were working through the weekend, and we took off for our last winery of the day: Colaneri. It’s very new, and the winery will be spectacular when it’s done, but for now the wines are quite young. We picked out some tasty ones though; we polished off the Pinot Grigio tonight as I was writing this.

Spent, we set out for home. Along the way we stopped at Joe’s to drop off his wine, and some Dickinson maple products he’d ordered. Full service, that’s us. In return he cooked us up some roasted garlic on baguette, and ridiculously good lamb chops, and panna cotta. At this point our bodies were begging for mercy, and a gym, so we scooted home, dropped the wine, dropped the car (Grazie Autoshare! You rock, whereas Discount sucks possum balls!) and sat our asses down for a while.

The grand result of all this, apart from an inch on our waistlines, was 42 bottles of excellent Ontario vino. Some familiar, some new, all fun to acquire. A prochaine, Niagara.

In case you’re wondering, that’s:

  1. 13th Street 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon
  2. 13th Street 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
  3. 13th Street 2009 Syrah
  4. Clos Jordanne 2007 Claystone Terrace Chardonnay
  5. Clos Jordanne 2007 Claystone Terrace Pinot Noir
  6. Clos Jordanne 2007 Clos Jordanne Pinot Noir
  7. Clos Jordanne 2007 La Petite Colline Pinot Noir
  8. Clos Jordanne 2007 Talon Ridge Chardonnay
  9. Clos Jordanne 2007 Talon Ridge Pinot Noir
  10. Colaneri Estates 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon
  11. Colaneri Estates 2009 Pinot Grigio
  12. Daniel Lenko 2004 Late Harvest Vidal
  13. Daniel Lenko 2006 Old Vines Merlot
  14. Daniel Lenko 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay
  15. Daniel Lenko 2007 Old Vines Chardonnay
  16. Daniel Lenko 2007 Reserve Riesling
  17. Daniel Lenko 2008 Unoaked ChardonnGay
  18. Daniel Lenko 2009 White Cabernet
  19. Five Rows 2007 Pinot Noir
  20. Five Rows 2009 Pinot Gris
  21. Five Rows 2009 Pinot Gris
  22. Five Rows 2009 Riesling
  23. Five Rows 2009 Riesling
  24. Five Rows 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
  25. Flat Rock Cellars 2009 Pinot Noir
  26. Flat Rock Cellars 2009 Twisted White
  27. Hidden Bench 2008 Fume Blanc
  28. Hidden Bench 2008 Nuit Blanche
  29. Hidden Bench 2008 Terroir Cache Meritage
  30. Hidden Bench 2008 Terroir Cache Meritage
  31. Pondview 2007 Trinity Red
  32. Pondview 2009 Chardonnay
  33. Ravine 2008 Cab Franc
  34. Ravine 2008 Meritage
  35. Riverview 2008 Reserve Cabernet
  36. Riverview 2009 Gewurztraminer
  37. Southbrook 2007 Whimsy Cab Franc
  38. Southbrook 2007 Whimsy Cab Franc
  39. Southbrook 2008 Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon
  40. Southbrook 2008 Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon
  41. Tawse 2008 Quarry Road Chardonnay
  42. Tawse 2009 Misek Riesling



Hot Docs: How To Die In Oregon

Due to a short but bad-ass cold I wasn’t able to see either The Bully Project (hot docs) or If A Tree Falls: A Story Of The Earth Liberation Front (hot docs), but there was no way I was going to miss How To Die In Oregon (imdb | hot docs). It had won the jury grand prize at Sundance, and it was about what I consider one of the most interesting societal debates: doctor-assisted suicide.

The filmmaker interviews several people, but has the most access to one woman (and family) in particular, a cancer patient who has only months to live. She’s smart and funny and formidable and vulnerable and loving and utterly charming, and the audience knows from the second they see her that they will witness her decision to die. It’s an extraordinarily raw and honest bit of life put to video, and thoroughly gut-wrenching to watch, but was never exploitative or saccharine. It was simply — maybe perfectly — a snippet of the beauty and ugliness of life, and of death.

If you ever find the opportunity to watch it, I cannot recommend it enough. Be forewarned, though: when the credits rolled, dry eyes in the theatre were few and far between.

Hot Docs: Better This World

Earlier tonight we kicked off our 2011 Hot Docs festival by seeing Better This World (imdb | hot docs) in our first visit to the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The story about two young Texas men arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota, it reveals little-understood (by me, at least) nuances of the changes in certain laws since September 11 2001. I don’t want to say much more than that, as the film will go to wider release in September of this year. I’ll only suggest enthusiastically that you see it if you can.