Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It was Such a Bother to Finish the Book

After picking it up and putting it down for about seven weeks, I finally finished reading Mark Haddon’s second novel, A Spot of Bother. It’s a smart and funny read, but for some unfathomable reason, it took me way too long to finish.

Usually if I struggle to get through a book, I toss it aside and start a new one. Life’s too short and there are so many books on my “to read list,” that I can’t spend too much time fighting through a novel. But, I was committed to finish A Spot of Bother.

I started the book in January, while visiting family in Ottawa. I really enjoyed the British wit, the quirky characters and all the talk of making tea, but once I returned to Moncton, I put it down for a couple of weeks to read Through Black Spruce for my book club.

After I finished Through Black Spruce, I planned to return to A Spot Bother, but it sat on my nightstand for days untouched. I had read about 150 pages, so I didn’t want to start over, but I had difficulty picking up where I’d left off.

Eventually, I got back into the novel and I’d leaf through a few pages each evening, but I couldn’t gain any momentum. It seemed the harder I tried to read it the more I struggled to stick with it.

The novel is written from the perspective of four different characters. The shift in the narration occurs every two or three pages so the story moves at fast pace. And even though I enjoyed each character’s perspective, nonetheless, I couldn’t devote adequate time to finish the book. For the past two weeks, each evening I would confidently announce that tonight was the night I’d finish the book, only to be distracted by blogging, television or Super Nintendo.

However, tonight it all changed. I turned off the television, ignored the Super Nintendo, put on some classical music and diligently read the final 90 pages of the book. The novel was humorous throughout, but the last fifty pages, were some of the funniest I’ve ever read.

The book is a wonderful piece of literature that deals with a family that struggles to function. Each member is too wrapped up in their own lives to notice how much they need each other for support.

If you enjoy the foibles of everyday life, unique characters, and lots of laughs you will enjoy A Spot of Bother. There’s absolutely no reason why anyone should struggle to finish this book. So what was the problem? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I can guarantee that it wasn’t the book’s fault.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Quick Oscar Hits 9:00 to 11:11

Here are my musings while I enjoy The Oscars

Hugh Jackman is brilliant. I have a new-found respect for the guy. Not only is he Wolverine, but he can sing and dance too! Most definitely the best Oscar opening since Billy Crystal! And I mean Billy Crystal from way back.

I really don’t give two hoots about Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. I hope neither of them win an Oscar. Isn’t it odd that Brad Pitt got nominated for a performance so dependent on special effects? I’m sure he won’t win. He better not win.

When was the last time Steve Martin was actually funny? Do people just laugh at him, because he used to be funny and they feel sorry for him?

Great speech by Dustin Lance Black, screenwriter of Milk- I can’t wait to see this movie. It finally opened in Moncton this weekend. I really wanted to see it before tonight, but it didn’t happen.

Slumdog wins for best adapted screenplay. I can’t wait to read the novel in six months or so.

Milk and Slumdog have both won the writing awards- Does this make them the early favourites for Best Picture. A movie will only go as far as the script will take it!

Is Jack Black funny? I used to think so. I don’t know anymore. He’s kind of a one trick pony.

Surprise, Surprise- the camera panned to Angelina Jolie while Jennifer Aniston was presenting an award.

What does it say about my viewing habits that I’ve seen all three movies nominated for best animated feature? And the Oscar goes to WALL-E. That was pretty much a lock. It’s a shame that Kung Fu Panda came out the same year as WALL-E because in an average year it would’ve been a lock for best animated film. It was a really interesting movie.

How do you even see animated shorts? You Tube? Is there an official venue? Film festivals I guess. I should make more of an effort to watch short films. Are there any short-film fans out there? I do enjoy some NFB shorts. The one with the logger going down the river is a classic. I’ve heard you can actually watch a bunch of the old NFB shorts on its website. I’ll have to check them out.

Carrie Bradshaw and James Bond on stage together. Maybe 007 could mistake Bradshaw as a terrorist suspect and arrest her to save us all from Sex and City II- The quest for Sarah Jessica Parker to Stay Relevant.

The real stars of Benjamin Button- the Art Directors have won Button’s first Oscar. They made Brad Pitt seem interesting.

It’s time now for costume design. The winner is The Duchess. Movies with kings and queens with big hair and big corsets always seem to win this award.

It’s now time for Make-Up. And once again it’s Benjamin Button. Amazing Art direction and great make-up seem to be what brought Button to life and not Brad Pitt.

After seeing the montage of 2008’s best on-screen romance, it appears that no one had more chemistry than WALL-E and EVA.

It seems Ben Stiller is trying really hard to be funny. I wonder if Natlie Portman is enjoying this? Slumdog was such a beautiful film that I hope it wins. So much colour. And yes- there is justice.

It Jessica Beil at the Oscars. Where are the rest of kids from 7th Heaven?

There were some funny movies made this year and some that were supposed to be funny. What’s happened to Mike Myers and Adam Sandler? Are they still funny? Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Step Brothers were both quite funny.

The movie that made me laugh most from 2008 was Baby Mama, but they failed to show a single clip from it. For shame- Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are definitely both still funny.

I’ll have to check out some live action shorts someday soon.

I'd go see Grease! or any musical if Hugh Jackman and Beyonce were in it. Oh dear God! Did they have to ruin the musical montage, by showing those two clowns from High School Musical? If there's any justice in the world we'll never see those two ever again. They ened the montage with "Somewhere" from West Side Story. Best song from a muscial... EVER!

And Heath Ledger wins best supporting actor. It's a classy move to have this family accept the award. This has to be unbelievablly difficult for them to do this. He was a brilliant actor. The best of my generation.

That's over two hours of Oscar viewing. I don't know if I've got much more in me. It's time for bed. I'll have to PVR the rest and watch it the morning. If we get the storm they're calling for there will be no school.

This Diner Can't Get Any Finer!

Diners are awesome. There is no denying that sometimes there’s nothing better than a clubhouse, home cut fries, or a hot sandwich. It’s food for the soul. Sitting in a cozy booth and biting into some greasy goodness is like a warm hug from a loved one. Fortunately, Metro Moncton has its fair share of diners to choose from. Hynes on Mountain Road has some of the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten. Over in Riverview, Steve’s Diner offers generous portions and lots of 50’s kitsch, and across the parking lot at The Homestead, you’ll find sandwiches and toast made with fresh and delicious homemade bread. But according to both my heart and belly, Jean’s Diner on St. George trumps them all.

On a Friday night, after enjoying a pint at The Laundromat, or when a Saturday afternoon craving hits, Jean’s is the spot for all your home cooked favourites. They have seafood fried to a perfect golden brown, gravy that rivals your grandmother’s, and amazing fresh cut fries. Monctonians love their Deluxe French Fries, but trust me; the local chain does not come close to matching the quality of Jean’s fries.

The service is also friendly and fast. This past Friday night Amanda and I popped in for supper and were shocked to be met by a gaggle of young girls. A troupe of Girl Guides had just enjoyed a special meal. They enthusiastically thanked their servers and left for an evening of fun. It was heart-warming to see the troupe at Jean’s. Too often large groups and teams flock to McDonalds or Burger King, but these children and their supervisors supported a local business and enjoyed a far superior meal than that offered by fast food.

Kudos to the troupe’s leaders for choosing to eat at Jean’s, and it was obvious by the smiles on the servers’ faces that they’d enjoyed the girls. They spoke enthusiastically about girls’ energy and how well behaved they’d been.

In no time at all the booths had been cleaned, our orders taken, and before we knew it we were eating our food. Not once did our waitress complain about being swamped. She was swift, friendly and courteous. It’s the kind of service I’ve come to expect after a number of visits to my favourite neighbourhood diner.

On one of my early visits I had a craving for a hot turkey, but didn’t want to be disappointed by a sandwich made with manufactured brown gravy. Our server went back to the kitchen and returned with a small sample of the gravy for me to taste. The sample passed the gravy test and I enthusiastically ordered the sandwich. When it came, topped with peas, I bit into it and it was exactly what I needed. When I thanked the server for letting me try the gravy she just shrugged her shoulders like it was all in a days work.

On other trips to Jeans, I’ve enjoyed their delicious seafood platter, which comes with deep fried haddock, shrimp, clams and scallops. I’ve also tried their clubhouse sandwiches, savoured the homemade beef soup, and even devoured the grilled hotdogs that are served on perfectly toasted buns.

Jean’s Diner is for anyone who enjoys wonderful food, in a relaxed atmosphere, surrounded by friendly servers, who really appear to enjoy their jobs. It’s a place you can really feel good about supporting. Whenever I leave Jeans, it’s with a full belly and a warm heart.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

March 26th, 1993

Like many young Canadians with over active imaginations and a hockey stick, I was a clutch performer. Whenever my team needed me I was there with a burst of speed and a quick shot that always beat the goalie on the low-left side. I led a plethora of imaginary hockey teams to the Stanley Cup.

There’s no doubt that my imagination was as creative as Wayne Gretzky’s playmaking. Unfortunately, my all-star skills didn’t quite translate to the ice. In reality, when I suited up for the Chipman Crusaders, I was a below average skater, who had an uncanny ability to score goals by enthusiastically crashing the crease.

In reality, the closest I ever came to scoring a big goal, was bursting down the wing and breaking a goalie’s shut out, while our team went on to suffer a 10 to 1 loss. We had a tough time competing. There was never a shot at glory, until the wonderful night of March 26th, 1993.

It was the Pee Wee provincials, and we were hosting the tournament. There’s no way we could have qualified on our own, but I was convinced we had a real shot.

We played the first game in front of a packed house. The mayor dropped the puck, a local celebrity sang O Canada and they even played music during the warm-up. It held all the pomp and circumstance of an NHL game. Or at least that’s how it seemed to a bunch of 13 year olds.

The crowd was passionate; there were even a few enthusiastic rounds of “Go Chipman Go!” which totally threw off our opponents from Cap Pele. After the initial shock of the crowd, Cap Pele controled the game, but thanks to the stellar play of our goalie, we were still deadlocked at zero. Just when it looked like we were running out of steam, a defenseman mishandled the puck. Sensing a chance to make my dreams come true, I pounced at the loose puck, when I looked up, I was on a breakaway.

It was the chance I’d been waiting for my entire life, but as I crossed the blue line I panicked. I rifled the puck and hoped for the best. It whizzed by the goalie’s ear, and ricocheted off the glass. I was devastated, but there was no time to sulk.

The play continued back up to our end. I was determined to rectify the missed opportunity. Fate was on my side. As I burst back up ice, the puck once again found its way to my stick.

How often are you able to make up for a lost opportunity, only seconds after blowing your first? I was on another break away. This time I’d do it right.

When I crossed the blue line, I decided to shoot the puck on the low left side, just like in my dreams. I cocked my stick and fired the puck. It drifted to the left, but it careened wide and bounced around the boards and back to the neutral zone. An opponent regained possession and a few seconds later we were down 1-0.

We went on to lose the game 7-1. We lost all our games that weekend, but it was really no big deal. It was a beautiful weekend. On Sunday, instead of watching the finals, I played road hockey with my friends. As our two make shift teams battled, I caused a turn over and quickly ran down the asphalt. In reality, I flipped a tennis ball over my buddy’s ankle, but in my imagination, I scored the winning goal of the Stanley Cup final.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Faulcon's Pryde

I’ve always had a love hate relationship with improv comedy. I’ve never found Whose Line is it Anyway? terribly stimulating; however, I did enjoy watching my college roommate’s improv troupe. There’s nothing more topical than biting improv and sketch comedy, but they can be terribly painful to watch, if poorly executed. (That’s why Saturday Night Live is such a roller coaster lately, for three minutes I’m laughing my ass off, then for the next twenty I want to poke out my eyes. Thank God for PVR).

Attending Improv shows also freaks me out a little. I’m paranoid about getting called on to participate. It’s not that I’m shy of getting attention or don’t enjoy performing, but I need to be in the right head space. When I go to watch a show, I’m there to blend into the audience and not be put on stage. So it was with a little anxiety that Amanda and I went to see Scott Faulconbridge and David Pryde perform their improv show at the Empress Theatre.

Faulconbridge and Pryde are veterans of the Montreal’s improv scene and were performing in Moncton, as part of the Hubcap Comedy Festival. They took to the stage with lots of energy and quickly got the show started with a timed-game where they play a scene for sixty seconds, and then they repeated the same scene in 30, 15 and 7.5 seconds. It really engaged the crowd. There was a little local colour added in the scene, because to start, Mr. Faulconbridge asked for a public place to set the scene, and an enthusiastic audience member shouted “at Tim’s!” For a brief moment, the actor was little taken back, until he realized she meant Tim Horton’s. You could tell he’s not on a first name basis with Moncton’s favourite place to enjoy really bad coffee.

The show continued at a lightning quick pace, as the two went through a series of popular improv games. I was really impressed at how well both performers could control their bodies and contort their faces to create exaggerated characters. They also had impeccable comic timing and knew exactly when to stop a scene. There’s nothing worse than watching a scene that’s obviously going nowhere and they knew how to cut every scene with the audience begging for more.

Both Faulconbridge and Pryde were disciplined performers, who played off each other extremely well. You could tell there was a lot trust between them. They were able to take the suggestions from the audience and turn them into a series of entertaining scenes. They also taught the audience a valuable lesson about improv.

The actors ignored zany and obscene audience suggestions and instead chose ordinary or mundane topics. It’s important for audiences to realize that it’s the actors’ job to create the entertainment not the audience members. If you pick something nonsensical to start a scene, it’s difficult for the actors to create an effective sketch. The only scene during the 60 minute set to flop was based on an audience suggestion of “making a doody.” There are only so many places you can take a scene about having a dump.

Faulconbridge and Pryde’s fast paced, laugh-filled performance has given me a brand new appreciation for improv comedy. It was such an enjoyable hour of entertainment that I can’t wait to check out another Improv show. I hope the Hubcup Comedy Festival considers brining more acts like this next year, because it’s a welcome contrast to stand-up comedy.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Pumphouse Should Stick to Beer

This year's Hubcap Comedy Festival got off to a rousing start Wednesday night with its annual amateur stand-up contest. There were 17 hopeful participants on the docket and I got a bunch of friends together to check it out. It had the makings of an excellent evening. I was especially excited to check it out, because I have aspirations to give stand up a go. I’d never been to this particular contest so I had high expectations, but perhaps my expectations were just a little too high.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting high calibre performances. Amateur stand-up is hit or miss; people are developing new material, others working on their timing, while some are in front of an audience for the first time. Standing alone on stage at the mercy of the crowd is intimidating. You have to admire their courage to trek through their performance after their opening joke gets no reaction. It’s such a hard thing to prepare for, because you have no idea how the audience will react. However, we didn’t have to worry too much about reacting to the comics, because from where we were sitting it was nearly impossible to hear them. This is why Wednesday’s contest was disappointing.

Recently, I’ve missed a few opportunities to see shows, because of lack of planning. I’ve missed the last two Hairy Tease plays, because I didn’t bother to pick up advanced tickets to the sold out shows, so I learned my lesson. If I want to take part in Moncton’s cultural activities, I have to get off my ass, and buy advanced tickets. It was with this in mind that I made arrangements to attend the contest.

I called the Pumphouse on Tuesday afternoon to make reservations. I specifically asked for seats by the stage, because we wanted to watch the comedy. I made reservations for 5:30 so we’d have lots of time to eat and then enjoy the show. Things were set- there were ten of us excited for an evening of good food and laughs. We had lots of laughs, but not the laughs we were expecting.

We arrived at the restaurant, our reservation ready, but it was nowhere near the stage. We were seated at the back, right behind one of the large barrels; if we stood and leaned awkwardly over the booth we could see, but the acoustics were so bad, and the people around us, who had no interest in the night’s comedy, made it virtually impossible to hear. I was upset. I’d been really clear about specifically coming to see the show.

We did enjoy our meals and conversation and hoped to grab seats closer to the front once the show started. However, that was wishful thinking; the Pumphouse was hopping all evening and our hopes of getting better seats were dashed. I popped up from time to time to check out next year’s potential competition. I quickly realized the toughest competition was the crowd. Very few of the contestants were getting any kind of reaction whatsoever (the people seemed more interested in their microbrew than the show) but I give the contestants credit--they just kept the jokes coming. Once it became obvious we weren’t getting any real taste for the show, we just settled in and entertained ourselves.

Perhaps the Hubcap Festival should consider holding their competition at a different venue. The Pumphouse has a poor layout for watching shows. I’m sure they hold it there, because it’s one of the few places in downtown Moncton that’s consistently busy on a week night. The place was definitely crowded, but I wonder how many of the people were there to see the show or were most there to enjoy a few pints. There were 17 contestants in the competition, which suggest there’s enough interest in the competition to attract its own audience. There were probably lots of people who would have gone anywhere to see it. The Empress Theatre would be a nice size venue for this competition and it would encourage people to watch the show. The question is, was Wednesday’s event about promoting local comics or selling beer? We know The Pumphouse will always sell its beer, but these comics rarely have an audience. This competition should provide them with a venue and a captive audience, and The Pumphouse obviously is not that venue.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Portofino is the Place for You!

Last Thursday was Amanda’s birthday, and since we celebrate absolutely everything with food, we decided a special dinner was in order. After a few days of deliberating, Amanda decided on Portofino.

Portofino is a family-run Italian restaurant that prides itself on serving fresh pasta, homemade sausages, and sauces made from scratch. It opened at 40 Weldon Street in Moncton this past November. We’d enjoyed a Sunday night meal there in early December and felt it was time for seconds. We live in the neighbourhood, and since we’re making an effort to support places we can easily walk home from, it was a logical choice.

We had reservations for 7:00 and were seated promptly by the sommelier, who encouraged us to take a look at the wine list. He made a point to tell us they only had wines from Italy, France Germany and Spain. Apparently there’s no room for New World wines when dining on authentic Italian food.

We were quickly greeted by a knowledgeable and friendly server, who gave us water and lots of time to mull over the extensive menu. There’s pasta, pizza, chicken, veal, lamb, steak and seafood to choose from and it’s all pretty tempting, but we had our hearts set on trying another of their homemade pastas.

Amanda and I discussed possible selections, but decided to open our meal with an Antipasto platter and a bottle of Masi. The sommelier returned with our bottle of red and approved of our choice, and he appreciated the look of pure pleasure on Amanda’s face when she took her first sip.

Not long after the wine, our server arrived with the Antipasto. It included a nice sample of authentic Italian cold cuts, cheese, bread, olives, roasted peppers and artichokes. I especially enjoyed the salty cheese and prosciutto. It was just enough to whet our appetites for the pasta.

Amanda got a spaghetti carbonara; she’d always been intrigued by this classic cream sauce made even richer with eggs and pancetta. She was not disappointed by the silky texture that stuck to the fresh noodles. I enjoyed a penne dish tossed with both marinara and pesto, with generous servings of homemade sausage and peppers. The server warned that it was a spicy dish and each bite was a flavourful explosion. We sat in stunned silence as we savoured every forkful.

After we polished off our bottle of wine, we mulled over dessert. Amanda selected her favourite--tiramisu. I had to settle for my second choice, because the server regretfully informed me that they’d run out of fresh cannoli shells. I settled for a pistachio cake, which was wonderfully airy and moist with just enough sweetness.

If there was a downside to the meal, it was the cheesy Italianized pop songs that played on repeat over the course of the evening. The playlist had one highlight, a version of “Someday” from West Side Story belted out by Pavarotti. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the owner to invest in a satellite radio or maybe a compilation of classical music to help set the ambiance. The music was easy enough to ignore for awhile, but it started to grate during the third loop.

At the end of our meal the sommelier escorted us to the door to ensure we had a delightful experience. He thanked us, shook our hands and was extremely grateful for our patronage. It really reiterated the importance of supporting local people, who are passionate about providing us with quality food.

It’s been four days since our meal at Portofino and we can’t stop gushing about it. If you’re craving hearty homemade Italian food or you’re looking for a place to enjoy a gourmet pizza over a nice glass of wine, Portofino is the place for you.

Price Breakdown
1 Antipasto Platter
2 Pasta Dishes
2 Desserts
2 Coffees
1 Bottle of Masi ($30)
Tax and Tip

Total: Approx. $90

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"Wrestling With a Slumdog"

Many evenings I get a hankering to check out a movie at the local Cineplex only to have my hopes dashed after I check the listings. The movie I’d read about in the Globe will not be playing in Moncton, so I have wait for it on DVD. Unfortunately by the time it’s released, I’ve completely forgotten about it.

I should keep better tabs on movies I want to see, but renting movies pales in comparison to the shared experience of the big screen. So you can imagine my elation last week, when Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler opened in Moncton.

There’s not much to say about either film that hasn’t already been said by critics, and, judging by the nominations and awards both films have garnered, the quality of the films are not in question; however, the audience these films attracted did surprise me.

Amanda and I went to the 9:00 show of Slumdog on Friday night, and since it was opening night we arrived early to ensure good seats. We battled our way through the crowd of over-dressed teenagers at the concession stand and then headed to our theatre. We were really impressed by the sizable crowd waiting to be let in. Perhaps a quality independent film like Slumdog was getting some serious appreciation from Monctonians.

We quickly took a spot in line with hopes of still getting a good seat, when the girl from the ticket counter tapped me on the shoulder and said we were in the wrong line. These anxious movie fans were waiting to see My Bloody Valentine- she told us we could walk right in to our theatre.

We thanked her and entered the right theatre, where we had our choice of seats to watch the Oscar nominated picture. We patiently waited not only for the movie to begin, but for more people to show up. In the end, about twenty people were entertained by a fast-paced, heart-wrenching, pulsating film. After our movie ended we fought our way through the throngs of people coming out of the sold out Bloody Valentine. It was a little discouraging to see such a discrepancy in the number of people who came out to see these two movies. No wonder independent and serious film rarely comes to Moncton.

If I was disappointed by Friday’s crowd, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who shared The Wrestler with us the following Thursday. We went to the early show and the theatre was half-full to see Mickey Rourke’s heart-breakingly brilliant performance. So why did so many more people attend The Wrestler on a week night? Do serious film-goers avoid the weekend crowds, or in these tough economic times does the cheaper ticket make a big difference? Or could it be that The Wrestler appeals more to the local crowd than Slumdog? After all, South-eastern New Brunswick has always been a wrestling hot-bed.

Who really knows what makes people shell out money for one movie and not another? In a culture of video on demand and illegal downloads, it’s a big risk for theatre operators to take chances on independent cinema. In the world of bottom lines it’s an easy choice. A sold-out popcorn flick is more attractive than twenty people watching a well-made film.
I’m just happy both Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler came to Moncton and I was able to enjoy them. If either film is still playing in your area, do yourself a favour and check them out. You won’t be disappointed. If they’ve already passed through your neighbourhood, or you’re unable to get to a theatre, keep them in the back of your head, so in a few months when they pop up on DVD you won’t forget them. These films are enjoyable and both deserve and an audience.