Saturday, 27 July 2013

Prince Albert's Needs Its Own Blog Post

If you click on a link for London, Ontario on Urbanspoon you'll find Prince Albert's at the number one position. I haven't figured out how Urbanspoon makes those calculations yet, but it would appear that this location is the most popular in the city according to the site. And it's true. Prince Alberts is one of the defining features of down-town London with its bright yellow exterior, its cool interior, and its famed peanut-butter burger, and it's right in the centre of everything that's anything in the city. I've also met very few people in my time in London that haven't checked out this restaurant before. It was even a place that I checked out during my university years, when I wasn't so adventurous and didn't do much exploring of the city. And so I thought, this place deserves its own blog post, and here that blog post is.

Prince Albert's is something like a hybrid between an old-fashioned diner off of a highway or in a small-town, and a cool student hangout. I was in there last night for the first time in over five years, and they had tunes from old Big Shiny Tunes records spinning at break-neck volumes. The interior was styled classically like a diner, but with a modern edge, not uncommon, but not found everywhere. And of course, the bright yellow exterior that you can't miss as you walk or drive down Richmond. This was a place that I frequented during my younger university years, between the ages of 18-21. It seems to be geared for that demographic.

Now, since I moved back to London my tastes have been more geared to the upper-scale restaurant, with finer foods, and finer drinks. And if in that vein a place like The Church Key Bistro Pub is the defining location of the city, I'd say Prince Albert's is the face of the student crowd. Sure, there are big boxes with generic menus and atmosphere all over the place, draining student pocketbooks, but of those student hangouts Prince Albert's stands out as a real, true-blue part and landmark of London, Ontario, where generations of locals and students have had a burger and a couple beers while listening to a selection of nostalgic tunes.

The menu is about what you'd expect from a diner, the food is solid, the staff are great, the prices are cheap, and the atmosphere is fun. If you want to experience an historic part of the city, make sure you check it out.

Prince Albert's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Bob Seger and Nostalgia

I was working on a school project last Saturday morning, and finished it in the early afternoon. This gave me a few hours in the day to relax, and at the time I remembered that there was a record shop across town, called "Speed City Records", that I had never been to before. It was a great day to check it out, so I scoped it's location and a way to get there, I crossed town and found myself parsing through its five dollar used bin in a back room. It turned out that the five dollar bin had been the collection of someone who lived across the road from the record shop; all of the record covers were slightly water damaged, as they'd spent a lot of time in this person's garage.

I made it through the entire collection, most of it was hard-rock out of the late sixties to late seventies, bands I wouldn't usually be altogether interested in. When I neared the end of the selection I found a few Seger records, "Against the Wind" and "Live Bullet", as well as Springsteen's "Born in the USA". These were two artists who I knew were quite popular, and I knew I had heard their hits over and over again on classic rock radio, and I knew I had enjoyed some of them, but I'd never really given either artist the time of day; this wasn't because of any type of prejudice, I just hadn't gotten there yet. The records being 5 dollars each, I could barely say no, so I picked all of them up.

When I made it home I eagerly placed my first ever Seger record on the spindle, and the needle to the wax. Through the next hour or so my room was filled with nostalgia, a soulful voice that brought me back to some time and place gone by, of groups of friends sitting around a camp-fire in the back of a cottage in Northern Ontario with cases of beer in the back of a truck.

Needless to say my first concerted listen of Seger intrigued me, and I plan to look out for some more of his albums. This interest later led me to check out if Seger was touring. I took a look on his website and he was playing a sold out tour, in venues as big as "The Palace of Auburn Hills", which holds 25 000 people. This is interesting because Seger hasn't made any relevant music in decades; he's filling stadiums based on the strength of albums written thirty-ish years ago, and surely those stadiums are filled with ageing men and women, past their golden years, and moving toward decline.

What I think attracts people to Seger is that his song-writing evokes emotions and imagery that bring them back to those "golden years". Those ageing men and women filling the Palace of Auburn Hills are brought back to a time when they were young and dumb, partying hard, rolling through partners at break-neck speed, marrying, honey-mooning, travelling, seeing concerts, it brings them back to their youth. And maybe there's even something about our own mortality in here. As baby-boomers move into their last years, Seger lets their youth live on, until their dying day.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Where to eat in London (and how to find a restaurant)

Throughout the years I've developed a love of food and dining. Is there anything better than taking a trip to a restaurant, in a relaxed atmosphere, choosing from a huge menu of dishes that you could never make yourself, and not only that, have someone cook it for and set it in front of you? I don't think so, and so a few months ago I turned this love of dining into a greater hobby: I started visiting as many restaurants as I could in the London area and I reviewed them after the experience. The things I was usually looking for were: quality of food, originality of dishes, atmosphere, and price. The best restaurants had the best of all worlds, and the worst... well you can imagine. So in this blog post I am going to outline some of my favourite locations so far, and some of my not so favourites. Bear in mind that I am not an exhaustive reference on the restaurants in the city: there are still many I haven't tried.

Let's start with the best:

The Church-Key Bistro is located on Richmond just south of Dufferin. It is a higher scale restaurant with the cheapest items being in the range of 15-16 dollars. Don't let that deter you. The Church-Key has a fantastic variety of drinks on tap, it has a clean and modern/classic hybrid atmosphere, fantastic patio, excellent service, and their menu items are consistently delicious, satisfying, and original, regardless of what you order. If you eat out very infrequently due to a limited budget I would still suggest making this place a stop at some point, you won't be disappointed.

Now to knock the prices down a little bit, let's talk about Lee-Ga and Kimchi House. Two "hole-in-the-wall" Korean restaurants, one on the corner of Highbury and Huron, and the other on Oxford just east of Wonderland. The reason you want to go to a Korean restaurant is if you want to have your taste buds blown out of the water, and you don't want to spend a lot of money. If you are unfamiliar with Korean dishes what normally happens is you order your meal, and you are immediately brought out 4-5 starter dishes. These can vary, but they are generally a variety of different fresh vegetables, pancakes, and items that are nicely flavoured (in other words not bland). And then depending on what you have ordered, your entree will usually be a tasty assortment of meat, egg, vegetables, sauces, spices, and rice or noodles. Regardless of what you order, though, all of the dishes will be flavourful and healthy, and will only set you back around 15 dollars.

Another favourite of mine is Fellini Koolini's, an Italian place on Albert St. off of Richmond. As you can imagine, as one of my favourites, it is cost effective with a nice atmosphere, and good food. What I like most about this place is how the atmosphere treads the line between up-scale and casual. You get an up-scale and authentic feel, but it isn't stuffy or formal. This would be a good place to take a date on a not-so-serious outing.

The next choice is a place that you may not expect: The Barakat on Richmond. The Barakat is a middle-eastern restaurant with classic middle-eastern items. It is more of a pit-stop than a sit-down restaurant, and you order right at the kitchen and wait for your items to be prepared. The reason that I suggest the Barakat is that the place is clean, the food is fresh, and the prices are cheap. If you're downtown and you're tired of eating McDonalds spend 2 extra dollars and get a real meal from here.

Lastly (in the good list) I am going to give you an unorthodox choice: Archie's Seafood. This one might come with a little bit of bias. I love seafood, I love fried food, I love a cheap meal. Archie's is a classic cheap, grease joint, and the food is tasty. Come here for fish and chips, for scallops, and for fried shrimp.

And now the bad:

The bad falls into one distinct category: over-priced with low quality food. These places don't need much dialogue, their food is bad and their prices are high. They often get away with this by offering a flashy atmosphere, and some don't even do that. To name a few of these places: Waldo's on King, Moxie's, Red Lobster. A trick that I have for identifying such a place is by checking out their dessert menu. Are their desserts generic (chocolate cake, strawberry cheesecake) and cost 7 or more dollars? If so, you've got yourself an over-priced and low quality restaurant, don't eat there.

On the whole I haven't found many restaurants that I genuinely don't like other than the ones I just mentioned. Most places in London seem to offer at least reasonable prices that coordinate with the food that they offer, which is the main thing to be looked at. Don't get me wrong, there are other bad restaurants, but the ones worth mentioning are the ones that are ripping you off.

Now how to find a restaurant

Have you heard of Urbanspoon? It's a restaurant reviewing website that services London, among other cities in North America. People are able to like/dislike a restaurant and leave a review. This gives each restaurant in the city a percentage of those who enjoyed their experience, and a list of specific comments that people had about the restaurant. On this site it is possible to search for different kinds of cuisine and view each restaurant's ranking relative to each other. So if you feel like dropping some cash on a night out on the town, check out this site first and find some restaurants, and then check out some restaurant websites and view their menu and prices before just walking in the door of any old place.

Monday, 14 May 2012

My Favourite Films

About five years ago I took up the hobby of collecting films. Prior to that time and until now I've collected about 150 different movies, and although I haven't yet watched them all, as I age I gain more of an eye and ear for the type of movie that I love, and what I consider to be a "great" movie. There seems to be a tendency in this day in age for Hollywood to recycle old themes, throw out toilet-humor comedies, make superhero movie after superhero movie, and churn out 20 cop thrillers a year, but if you're a collector and you look hard enough eventually you will find a gem of a picture that can move you.

Personally, I am mostly a fan of dramas and the odd love story. When I say drama I mean movies with real characters, who are real people, who have real dialogue, and who are involved in real stories. When I say love story I mean real love stories, not "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" or other light rom-com's; you'll see an example of a few of these in my list.

And so I want to present a few "must-see" films for anyone who is serious about film; these are movies that at one point in my life I considered one of my favourites, and that I would suggest to most people.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley is filled with an all star cast of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Matt Damon usually shines in most films that he's in, but his pairing with the other actors is played beautifully here. It's also rare that you see such an all star cast coupled with an excellent script. The story-line behind this movie is superb, will keep you on edge, and will at times make you cringe. Matt Damon plays a poor "jack of all trades" man living in New York. He meets a rich business-owner in a chance meeting who asks him if he will travel to Italy to try to convince his son to come back to the U.S.. Damon agrees to this plan, seeing it as an open-ended opportunity, and embarks on the trip. It turns out that Damon's character is somewhat of a sociopath who doesn't at all seem to be sure of who he is, but is extremely talented in the art of deception. He spends the movie in interplay with the other characters, trying to play them to his advantage.

The movie is set in 50's Italy and the cinematography is beautiful. Most of all the writing is smart and original, which is a part of what makes this film great.

Before Sunrise/Before Sunset

This is one of the love stories that I speak of. Starring Ethan Hawke, and Julia Delpy, they are near the only important characters in both of the movies. The two films are a series of two that begins with Before Sunrise. In the beginning of Before Sunrise Ethan Hawke finds himself on a train in Vienna where he meets Julia Delpy's character. Spontaneously, after having a conversation with her for a few minutes and reaching his stop, he asks her if she'll join him to spend the day together. She agrees and the movie takes place over a day in Vienna, with the pair walking through the streets and doing nothing but talking. They talk about philosophy, their past, their lives, about many different topics. They end up spending the night together and in the morning they agree to meet in the same spot six months later, but don't exchange any contact information.

The next film shows the consequence of their actions in the first film. Without giving away the actual arch of the story line what makes this movie great are the story line itself, and the dialogue. This is what you could call a "real" love story, that could really happen, that is really true to how people feel and how people react to each other. The dialogue is equally real and you can tell that the two characters are real people and not a fantasized version of ideal characters. This is what makes the movie great, it's true to life, it's a real love story and it describes how love really happens.

The climax of the movies doesn't happen until near the end of the second film and so if you ever plan on watching these you need to watch them together.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

One of the defining aspects of my film collection is that I often like a film with a "quirk". I like films that introduce an interesting, never before thought of idea to me. In "The Truman Show" we have a boy whose entire life is a television show, in "Being John Malkovich" there is a portal that allows characters to enter into the head of John Malkovich, in "Eternal Sunshine" there is a clinic that can erase memories.

The film is made into an intentional mind bender, and the sequence of events isn't always exactly clear; if you're not paying attention you will undoubtedly get lost. But what is clear is that Jim Carrey, and Kate Winslet (Joel and Clementine) were in a relationship. At the end of the relationship Clementine decides to erase Joel from her mind. Upon discovering that this has happened Joel decides that he wants to have the procedure done as well. The film then takes you into Joel's mind as the clinic "erases" each memory, and Joel relives each memory of their relationship and watches them disappear. The problem is that eventually he runs into some memories that he finds beautiful, and so decides that he no longer wants to forget her. The film then becomes a race for Joel to hide Clementine in deep memories in his mind so he'll remember her when he wakes up. This is perhaps one of the most memorable and touching aspects of any movie that I have ever seen.

Outside of Joel's mind there are a few parallel story-lines going on with the "erasers" working with the clinic. One of them has used Joel's memories to win over Clementine. Another is in love with the head of the clinic.

In addition to the concept of the film being unique and intriguing the directing of the movie is also very well done. Michel Gondry, a frenchman, directs the film and does a wonderful job with "physical visuals". In his directing he tries not to rely on special effects, and instead uses props and camera tricks to create unique effects throughout the film, some including Joel as an infant standing under a table, and another of Joel and Clementine bathing in a sink.

Pride and Prejudice: BBC Version

For anyone who has ever been skeptical about classic books, and who has considered them boring, this movie will reverse your conceptions. This is an epic film of about 3.5-4 hours long, that gives us one of the most accurate and full depictions of the classic Jane Austen novel.

Years ago I likely never would have given this film the time of day, but a few years back a friend introduced me to it, and I never turned back. One of the main draws for me, is that as someone who loves history, this film takes me back to a time and place of England's past, of its society, its relationships, its language, its scenery, and its architecture. Very rarely is there a film of historical fiction that meets this level of accuracy and quality, and the film is worth watching on that alone.

But above and beyond that is the actual story found in Pride and Prejudice. This is one of the most classic love stories that has ever been written, and is one that cannot be missed. This is another "real" love story, but it touches on a different aspect than that of the movies I have previously mentioned. More specifically Elizabeth Bennett is poor, but extremely clever and smart. Darcy, a man she meets at a local ball, is one of the richest men in England at the time, who shuns Elizabeth solely on her position in life. He isn't a bad person by any means, but his position in life makes it nearly practically impossible for him to marry someone of Elizbeth's status. The remainder of the story takes you through the lives of the Bennett sisters, and the story of Elizabeth and Darcy.


Al Pacino. That's it. Al Pacino makes this film. Most people have seen Scarface before, but if you aren't paying attention to Al Pacino the entire time you aren't doing it right. Pacino rips through this film and steals every scene in what may be one of the best gangster films of all time. It's a dazzling picture that you can't keep your eyes off of from start to finish. A real psychological thriller.

There are many other films that I love but only so much time in the day to write about all of them. These that I have listed are invariably some of my absolute favourites and films that any movie buff should definitively see. I don't have the time to write about it now, but another one that you could potentially add to this list is "Lost in Translation"

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Don't Look Back: A look at Bob Dylan and the 65' tour film.

When I was sixteen years old I took a high-school trip to Italy. With a parade of other students we trekked across the country, through mountainous villas, within centuries-old basilicas, and in millenia-old cities. I met another student from a school in London on the trip who claimed to be a Bob Dylan fan. Not just a fan, he loved Bob Dylan, and he gave me the run down on the artist as best as he could. Intrigued, I purchased Bob Dylan's greatest hits during the trip and much of his early work became the soundtrack of my journey across an ancient land; at the time there was something congruent about poetry-laden music and the beauty of Italy. I was being initiated into Dylan's work, but it was only the beginning.

Over the years and as I became more of a music fan I would become more and more absorbed by the music of Bob Dylan. His lyrics, although at times deliberately obscure and meaningless, still remained some of the most engaging I had ever heard. His voice was rough, unlike anything I had heard before. His songwriting skill blasted away a decade of tradition and forged an entire new era of music, and gradually he became a legend of the modern age who I was only slowly becoming aware of.

There was a time when I owned a good chunk of his discography on cd, and now I am starting to collect it on vinyl in addition to owning several books and dvds. I have been fascinated by the life of this man, and only more recently have I started making sense of his legacy.

In the beginning of Dylan's career he focused on folk music. He has been quoted as saying that the typical rock music of the fifties was largely devoid of emotion and the "seriousness" that folk music could entail. This focus allowed Dylan to write music that struck people deep inside their person, that struck a chord in their psyche, that made his music memorable. When a listener of the 60's would hear one of his songs, they would have been experiencing a disparity between driving rock music with superficial lyrics, and timeless, unspecific anthems with racial, political, social, and personal undertones. This distinction would have forced him to stand out among his musical peers; he roared through the 60's like a messiah who people watched in silence, ensconced by his words.

There was also another key element to Dylan's success, and that was his integrity. Throughout his career he has never bowed to popular opinion or wrote music to directly appease his fans. He has always followed his instincts, and I believe this was something that people can sense in him, and that has directly led to his popularity, not only as a musician, but as a person. In the beginning of his career he played folk music with social undertones. Soon after he began playing electric music with more sweeping and poetic lyrics. He then had a country phase, and inevitably continued to shift throughout a fifty year career that is still in progress today. Dylan very much lived his life to his own standards.

And so when I finally got a bit of free time from school I decided to revisit "Don't Look Back" to get another glimpse of Dylan in his prime. This film followed Bob on a tour in the UK in 1965. Not only concert footage, the film is mostly comprised of important moments that occur throughout the tour, Dylan backstage, Dylan meeting people, Dylan in his hotel, Dylan on a train, Dylan driving to and from shows.

What is immediately apparent to me about Dylan in the film is that he stands out not only from his peers, but also from his era of time. In the first sense you can never be sure if Dylan even understands or believes in the words he is saying, it seems like he is in a constant state of telling a joke or in a state of one-up-manship. He certainly doesn't take himself seriously at all, and much less so than the people around him. In the second sense Dylan seems to personify a world-view just ahead of his time. In the sixties people began living in the moment and embracing "free-love", but Dylan seemed to be one step ahead of this, almost as if he was a non-socially, anarchic, positive nihilist. He smoked cigarettes one after another, as if he would be content dying on any given day. He spoke obscurely and in double-entendres, he spent his days laughing and in complete oblivion to the future and ambivalent about his importance as an artist.

What perhaps kept Dylan in the public spotlight, and within constant fascination, was this enigmatic character. No matter how often one tries to define him, to summarize him in a sentence, he leaps outside of their expectations and still remains mysterious. This character has created an icon that people look up to, that people look to for some semblance of truth in their lives. They see Dylan and don't see a man, they see a deity.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Scent of a Woman: Pacino brings home "Best Actor"

I'm an avid movie collector and would consider myself a connoisseur. At times I'll purchase a movie because the story line looks great, other times I'll purchase a movie because a particular actor has a starring role. Two of the actors that I've done this for are Johnny Depp, and in this case Al Pacino.

It started off with Scarface, before I knew I was a movie buff. Pacino and his fake Spanish accent playing Tony Montana, snarling on camera, personifying the "bad-ass" gangster perfectly, won me over and made me a long term Pacino fan. In the special features of that film the director of Scarface describes Pacino as an actor who you "can't take your eyes off", which couldn't be more accurate. Pacino steals the show in every movie he's in, and that's why I can't get enough of his roles. Whether he's playing in a money-making b-movie, or the Godfather, his presence in any film makes the experience worth the price of admission.

What makes Pacino so great is his ability to method act. For those less familiar with acting styles there are two broad categories: method acting, and classical acting. Film has only been around for about a century, and so things haven't changed too much, but if you pick yourself up some older movies you'll notice more of a classical acting style. Classical acting is a form where actors express themselves externally through their intonation, their mannerisms, and their body language. If a character is supposed to be angry the actor will shout. On the other hand Pacino is a method actor. A method actor is one who internalizes the character's emotions and feelings, and "becomes the character". This is the more modern style of acting, and why modern actors are usually more believable and seem more "real" than actors of days gone by. Pacino is excellent at it, and he plays the "strong-willed, rough, run-down, wise, assertive" character beautifully, which you'll see him play over and over again in almost all of his films. Pacino's characters are the type of people you want as your lawyer, your friend, they're the people you want on your side, sticking up for you and taking names.

This led me to "Scent of a Woman", which I watched for the first time last night, after purchasing it a few weeks ago. Pacino plays Frank Slade, a blind, retired army colonel who hires the care of a young aide, Charles, (Chris O'Donnell) for a weekend trip to New York. Charles is a prep student on scholarship attending an elite private school who only hopes to make a little extra cash for the weekend. Charles is young, innocent, and inexperienced, Frank is old, wise, and worn-down. A large part of the movie follows the two characters through the trip, where the viewer is faced with the distinction of and interplay between the two characters.

Going in to the film I was expecting Pacino to be playing an atypical role; I thought his character was going to be more gentle, caring, kind. When Pacino finally appeared on screen, however, he had a drink in one hand, cigarette in the other hand, and within minutes was belittling Charles. The Pacino I know and love had arrived. I wasn't at all disappointed by this fact, on the contrary it gave the movie a pleasant and unexpected edge. That's not to say that there wasn't goodness in Pacino's characters, however.

The storyline wasn't spectacular, the pair get to know each other and a few unexpected things happen that I don't want to give away. However, there is a wisdom in this movie, there is dialogue filled with sadness, despair, and joy within a wise soul (Frank Slade), who is surrounded by people who have let him down, and by all means have left him alone. Slade finds comfort from the darkness in booze and women. He drinks frequently, and when a clean scented woman passes by he can pinpoint where she is. The darkness, however, has left him alone and in his eyes unable to truly enjoy life's pleasures.

What won Pacino the oscar for this role is likely the nature of the film itself. He has always been deserving of a best actor award, and the content of this film finally gave him a chance. No longer playing the gangster or the violent cop, the academy was able to give him the honours. If you're a Pacino fan this film is a must see; it's one of Al's roles where he isn't playing in a b-movie, giving him a proper setting to really show off his skills.