Cover photo by Adam Lederer, used under Creative Commons license

“Jesus said that, didn’t he?”

I didn’t get it. American Hustle (imdb | rotten tomatoes), that is. Just…nope. Did not get it.

I mean, it was okay, but it wasn’t great.. And that seems to be the way that most of David O. Russell’s movies land for me. The movies are okay and watchable and all but I never quite get what all the fuss is about. This one was no different.

Oh, and I’ve seen pictures of the 70s. Nobody in those pictures looked as good as Amy Adams or Jennifer Lawrence. Nobody. Stop dressing up the second-worst decade ever.

.:.

Cover photo by Adam Lederer, used under Creative Commons license

Cover photo by cyclonebill, used under Creative Commons license

“I could’ve sworn you were with the FBI.”

The 2013 movie-watching continues:

12 Years A Slave (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was really good, and had superb performances, but despite a 2:14 running time actually felt rushed. It’s such an epic story that it cries out to be longer, especially to help portray the agonizing futility and despair that Solomon must have felt. The film wants to be a 5-hour director’s cut, and I want to watch it.

I found it odd that The Spectacular Now (imdb | rotten tomatoes) ended up near the top of the RT scores from last year, given that it looked like a standard-issue coming-of-age story. It wasn’t, and I’m glad someone’s making something aimed at teenagers that actually makes them think, but I didn’t think it was a 92% movie.

Finally, a 2014 production, and one my wife’s been waiting for: Veronica Mars (imdb | rotten tomatoes). She threw in for the kickstarter fund, so she got to download it on Friday and, after a long week, we drank wine and ate pizza and relived our Veronica Mars years. So, 2005-2007. It wasn’t bad, so long as you watched the TV show; if you didn’t I expect you’d be lost. So you should just watch the TV show, even season 3. It’s worth it.

.:.

Cover photo by cyclonebill, used under Creative Commons license

 

Cover photo by Vince Bossi , used under Creative Commons license

The best beer I’ve ever had

Last year beer writer Ben Johnson started a series on his blog called “The best beer I’ve ever had“, starting with his own story of the first beer he drank while holding his newborn son, in the days after his son’s traumatic birth. He then put out the call for other industry people to submit their stories:

This experience has inspired me to explore the emotional component that sometimes accompanies a great beer and I’ve asked a handful of “beer folks”–brewers, writers, and industry folks–to detail their best beer experience in a series aptly titled “The best beer I’ve ever had.” I’ll share their stories with you here in the coming weeks.

Now, I’m not really a beer folk. I don’t work in the industry or have any real expertise, I’m just a punter. I loved the idea though, and felt like the sharing my story even if no one asked. Hey, you came to my blog, pal. Anyway, here it is.

In October 2010 we were travelling around Napa and Sonoma for a few days. In the couple of years leading up to that we had really begun to get into wine. I suppose Nellie was always there, but now I was attacking the topic voraciously the way I do when I decide I need to get up the learning curve. I’d always been more of a beer guy — in fact, we spent the first half of the trip tackling a number of top beer places back in San Francisco — but when in Napa one drinks wine. At restaurants, at wineries, at the B&B…one definitely drinks wine.

To be honest, we might’ve overdone it the first few days. Nellie was definitely worse for wear after one epic day of sampling followed by an early-morning hot air balloon ride, after which we drove over the mountains into Sonoma and I fell in a ditch. The trip felt like it was going off the rails, so we decided to take it easy the next day. Also, I was getting a little tired of wine — we hadn’t yet learned how to pace ourselves when sampling 15% monster cabs and the like, and it was wearing on me. Frankly, by the time we grabbed lunch on our last day in wine country, all I wanted was a beer.

We pulled into a little roadside restaurant called Café Citti, a regular stopover point for people on the wine trail, where we picked up some pasta dishes to go with a bottle of wine we’d picked up that morning. Just before our food was ready I noticed a few bottles of beer on display, and not just any beers: they were from the Russian River Brewing Company, a nearby world-class producer. A server walking past told me they also had Pliny The Elder, Russian River’s flagship Double IPA and 16th-highest-rated beer in the world (at the time of this writing, according to ratebeer.com) on tap. Our food was due to arrive any minute so I didn’t have time for a full pint, but the gentleman pulled me a small glass and I stood there drinking it, waiting in line for takeout Italian food. Double IPAs aren’t usually my thing, but that fortuitous sample at that exact moment tasted like the best beer I’d ever had.

.:.

Cover photo by Vince Bossi , used under Creative Commons license

Cover photo by Ralph Daily, used under Creative Commons license

“That can happen, but these guys are mighty pale.”

In the continuing saga of trying to watch the best movies of last year, I watched three top-notch movies in the last week or so:

Muscle Shoals (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was music documentary #1 on my flight to Vegas. Awesome doc about this unlikely epicentre of soul music in Alabama.

Sound City (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was Dave Grohl’s love letter to the crap studio where many great rock albums — including Nevermind — were recorded.

Gravity (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was all it was hyped up to be: incredibly tense, and a technical marvel. It’s no wonder it won seven Oscars (including best director and best cinematography) Sunday night.

.:.

Cover photo by Ralph Daily, used under Creative Commons license

“If you have a weakness, Las Vegas will punish you.”

Poor Nellie had never been to Vegas. I’d only been twice (which was enough) but she felt like she wanted to visit, so when I was invited to speak at a conference we decided she should just join me after it ended.

I flew down on Sunday for the conference, checking in quite late at the Signature at the MGM Grand. After a little hiccup with the check-in process I was in my room, an oversized suite, and scarfing some late night room service. The conference itself went fine: my brief portion was uneventful and I got to see Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan and Anna Gunn. Then again, I accidentally slept through the Elvis Costello concert, so it was a mixed bag.

Despite being virtually enclosed in the MGM Grand complex, I managed to locate some decent craft beer in my spare time at Michael Mina Pub 1842 and the lounge in my hotel. Before I knew it, though, it was time to check out and take a cab down the street to the Vdara.

Since Nellie had never been to Vegas I wanted a cool new hotel, and Vdara fit the bill. While it’s attached to the Aria, it’s just a hotel with a simple bar and café…no casino, no stores, no massive restaurants. I was given a room on the 52nd (!) floor with an impressive view south, shaky camera and thick glass notwithstanding.

Nellie finally arrived late in the evening, with just enough time to grab a drink downstairs at the lobby bar and then crash. Like, sleep until 10 the next morning crash. After we finally got up we grabbed some lunch next door at Five50, a pizza place just off the Aria casino floor which also happened to have a solid craft beer selection. Damn good pizza, actually.

The big event we’d booked in for that day was a helicopter tour with Maverick. They picked us up from the Aria and from then on ran everything like a machine: dropped us off, checked us in, weighed us (seriously), and introduced us to our pilot and co-passengers (two Canadians, one Aussie). And man…the tour was fantastic. Just lifting off in a helicopter for the first time in our lives was pretty cool, but then ascending above Las Vegas and flying over the surprisingly striking Nevada landscape to the east was killer. Then we crested a hill and the Grand Canyon spread out in front of us and we were hooked. We flew along the canyon for a while, then did a 180 and landed inside the canyon. We got out and had some champagne, enjoying the quiet sunset just above the Colorado River. After a while we flew back, stopping over the Hoover Dam and then downtown Vegas, sidling down the strip at dusk when the lights of the city took over. We disembarked the helicopter feeling like it had been a fantastic adventure indeed.

Our day wasn’t done though: Nellie had asked me to buy tickets for a show called Zombie Burlesque, which was…pretty much what it sounds like. Hey, she likes zombies, and I was pretty sure I’d like burlesque, so…yeah. I bought those tickets. Bought ’em up. There was some brutal line confusion at the theatre just before showtime, but we got in, got a drink, and took our seats. We were braced for something terribly cheesy, but it was actually really fun and funny. Clever, even. Plus, you know, barely-dressed super-hot women. One of them was an excellent singer, and did a rendition of Bjork‘s “It’s Oh So Quiet”, a difficult song to sing even when one is not dressed in lingerie and dancing with male zombies. Not for everyone, but it was pretty cool.

We walked home along the Las Vegas strip amidst the other zombies (see what I did there?) and, when considering where to eat dinner, decided we had a lot more beer to tackle back at Five50. We had a nice little charcuterie board before splitting another pizza, this one with some kick, and a few more tasty beers. After that we didn’t have much left in us but to waddle back to the hotel and fall asleep.

And then…yet another lie-in, spurred on by the rainy (!) weather. ‘Round noon we got ourselves up to find some food, this time at the Todd English P.U.B., tucked between the Aria and the fancy-pants shops of the Crystals at City Center. We, being brave Canadians, sat on the patio despite the cool weather and rain. We ate duck buns and pretzels and a pastrami sandwich and drank excellent beer while beside us people slipped and fell on the wet sidewalk. Among them was one rather well-lubricated gentleman, carrying lord-knows-what in a novelty plastic boot cup; as he slipped near our table he looked up, raised his cup to us and said in what sounded like a Texan accent, “Y’all want some boot?” We declined.

By the way, we stayed dry because of the overhang of the Crystal structure above us. The building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, who Torontonians might recognize as the architect responsible for the addition of the Michael Lee-Chin crystal to the Royal Ontario Museum in 2007. This one seemed better-executed than the ROM’s jagged burst blister. After lunch we made our lone visit to a casino, inhaling more cigarette smoke then we’d normally experience in a year and promptly losing a few hundred dollars on roulette, then walked back to our hotel to get cleaned up for the evening.

While we’ve seen our fair share of Cirque du Soleil shows, we’re not the biggest “show” enthusiasts. Still, we felt it was part of the Vegas experience, so a little poking around some review sites led us to purchase tickets for Le Rêve. And, uh…holy shit. No really, holy shit. We took our seats a few rows back from the pool (it’s all water-based) and waited for it to get going, still not sure what to expect. But man…after the first big sequence I was speechless. Then it just kept going. At least half a dozen times I yelled — yelled — “WHAT?!!?” as one performer or another did something ridiculous or spectacular or both. By the end I was spent. Le Rêve broke my brain. BROKE IT.

So, yeesh. How to recover from that?

Actually, Nellie recovered by discovering the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Palazzo next door (where we had dinner booked) and I had to drag her out of Christian Louboutin and Coach. Between you and me I think the exchange rate is the only thing that averted disaster. We walked back downstairs to our dinner reservation at Carnevino, Mario Batali’s Italian steakhouse.

Now I’ve long contended that Jacobs & Co. right here in Toronto is the best steakhouse I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a few. But our experience at Carnevino might be right up there among the best. After a 3-cheese amuse we inhaled the octopus starter (along with a surprising Pinot Grigio), followed by the lobster anolini (with a glass of Chard/Sauv blend), and then tucked into our steaks: New York strip for me, bone-in Filet Mignon for Nellie. It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had…no sauces for me, just meat prepared perfectly. Nellie’s cut, while obviously not as flavourable as my own, was almost impossibly tender. We paired these beasts with a 2004 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo – not the varietal we’d normally choose, but when in Rome (or a cheesy facsimile of Venice) you go with the flow. We listened to the White Stripes and Black Keys and ate ourselves stupid, and pencilled the night in among our very favourite meals. Broken, yet again. This time in the stomach. And the wallet; this was officially the most expensive meal we’d ever eaten. Stupid exchange rate.

We asked our cabbie to drop us at the Bellagio because Nellie wanted to see the fountains. Sadly, after waiting there for five minutes, a voice announced there would be no further show that evening. Dejected (not really) we walked home and poured ourselves into bed. We crashed. We were broken.

The next day was a long slog from the bed to packing, interrupted briefly by a truly excellent room service breakfast, to the airport, to one last (terrible) beer in the airport, to the plane, back to Toronto. Correction: back to a snowstorm in Toronto. We got home late, and pretty much died.

Vegas.