Thursday, February 24, 2005

Toronto trilogy part 2 - Raptor rouse applause

Unlike us Brits, who have a predilection for specifics, it is not untypical for an American to be interested in the altogether more generic pastime of ‘sports’. When it comes to American sports, the Toronto Raptors command a similar level of importance in the sporting lexicon as the Springfield Isotopes. When we asked the hotel concierge to fix us up with some tickets, he said that he’d try but with the hockey season locked out “people do funny things, like see Raptors games”. And this guy is paid to sell us the city’s attractions.

The benefit this sort of anonymity enjoys is that, and all the guidebooks reinforce this, a Raptors game is a rare opportunity to see some of the world’s top ‘ballers e.g. those who play for other teams.

Last week the Chicago Bulls were in town, a shadow of the all conquering team of Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippin et al, but one of the bigger boys none the less. According to the Toronto Sun they are a young and exciting team, now I don’t know much about basketball but they were certainly too good for the Raptors.

With Hockey’s political problems marginalising its interest (though not its space in US news bulletins – go on, test me, ask me anything about the strike), the triumvirate of Baseball, Basketball and American Football (what we call Rugby according to our Niagara Falls tour guide) dominate the national psyche. But, similarly to the baseball we went to see a couple of years ago it is not the game of basketball that dominates an American sporting event.

Both the start and finish of a basketball game are strangely muted affairs. It’s a mere sideline to buying merchandise, food and finding your seat. As the clock runs down two and a half hours later the crowd leave as though they’ve just watched a rather average film. At least a football game always ends with a jeer, cheer or muted applause.

Yep, two and a half hours to make it through a 48 minute game something has got to make up the time. NBA have picked up on the Hip Hop chic that surrounds b-ball, so each attack is soundtracked by an instrumental hip hop break. The next day I went out and bought Ludacris, Nas, Lil John and De La Soul albums... suckah.

Interspersed with the game itself is all sorts of tomfoolery; the Raptors Dance Pak do three stints, we play NBA Bingo, Ralph Raptor, the Toronto mascot, shows his nifty moves to a track which has a hook of “Don’t you play around with my click”. He follows this with a skit where he runs into a popcorn selling stooge (evidently Torontonians love that sort of stuff). Then there’s the bit where they run the camera around the arena picking out some lucky fella to sit in the expensive court-side seats. There’s the One Minute Madness, where t-shirts are thrown into the crowd. At half-time the world’s cleverest dog does some appallingly executed stunts which apparently got him and his owner onto the Jay Leno Show. The owner, pushing forty and dressed in a cheerleader’s outfit, urged us all to “Do more stuff with your dogs” as she exited. Then a short ugly redneck failed to basket any of his prize winning shots from the free throw line. In the second half a larger rubberised version of Ralph Raptor appeared to stalk the perimeter of the court. His actions range from hilarious – falling off a ‘trash receptacle’ to downright suspect – mounting a small child. He returned later in his smaller guise to give the dominant Bulls the ‘I’m watching you’ sign (pointing at his eyes then pointing at his prey).

The game itself is a side attraction, it was all but over when, after 2 and a half minutes of the first quarter, the Raptors called an emergency timeout to solve the mystery of how they’d managed to go 10-0 down before half the crowd had finished their first hotdog (my previous assertion that American sports are just a more interesting way of consuming junk food wholly reinforced).

American sports are a fully evolved genre of show business, in Curse of the Bambino Dan Shaughnessy admits that most fans of baseball don’t really care how their chosen teams get on. Plenty happens, there’s lots of opportunity for advertising and making money and you’re almost guaranteed to be entertained – regardless of how good or bad the actual game is. Even though it was a great night of safe light-hearted amusement the game itself ended a rather meaningless 115 to 121 and the Raptors continued their march to humble obscurity. I’m no expert, but they could do worse than draft in their new English phenom, the slightly camp looking ginger number 18.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Let me count the ways...

You might argue that choice is one of life’s gifts and one of life’s curses. Mars, Twix, Yorkie, Snickers… Ford, Volkswagen, Alpha Romeo, Saab…choices choices choices.

I mean how many different ways can you take the piss out of someone who claims to not be able to get to work from Reading (to High Wycombe, 20 completely snow-free miles away) because they were snowed in?

Or do you start on the woman at work who left at 4.30 on Monday because of “what was happening out there” cue: light flurry of fluffy flakes.

Decisions, decisions.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Toronto trilogy - part one - Toronto, Toronto, I love ya, Toronto, it's only a day away

Toronto was a grower for me, following an eight hour flight and a typically irritating tussle with immigration, my fatigued initial reaction was that the city was all building sites and grey snow. It didn’t have the buzz of New York; probably because it was Sunday and everyone was sensibly at home. Nor did it have the instant appeal of Boston, because the lush greenery that compliments Boston’s mix of Colonial, Victorian and Federal architecture won’t survive in Toronto’s sub zero winter temperatures. There’s a distressing number of homeless people struggling to survive on frozen streets sleeping on heated vents under piles of dirty blankets – but their presence is all the more conspicuous because the more fortunate prefer to spend their time in the PATH - the underground city which riddles Toronto’s downtown. Sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in a North America of the mid seventies. Snow tyres are necessities on the cars and trucks so they look typically huge. The workmen are rugged in heavy dungarees and hobnail boots and there are more handlebar moustaches than at a Village People look-a-like contest. It all feels very practical and dour.

But Toronto isn’t the tediously functional city it first appears to be. There’s the exclusive district of Yorkville and the cooler younger homelands of Queen Street West and Kensington Market. Expecting to encounter a stream of ruddy lumberjacks, it’s instead occupied by the stylish, the self-assured and the beautiful. I was surprised by its cosmopolitan complexion; its Chinatown is typically bustling, its Portuguese, Italian and Asian communities a surprise. It mixes modern commerce with colonial history; it’s a young and fresh university town and an exclusive enclave of the nouveaux riche. The city begins to reveal itself as one of effortless style laid over chunky affluent confidence.

Canadians are more direct than their cousins further south. Having set my bullshit-ometer to hyper sensitive to accommodate the infinite cheese of an American service culture, I had to reset to accommodate their more friendly, but pragmatic demure. They love it when you wince at their mild but sub-zero temperatures, telling you that a couple of weeks ago it was -24 (and out of the city, a very nippy -42).

It was mild when we were there, the temperatures didn’t drop below -5 although with the wind chill it was cold enough (Gareth upgrading its cold status from ‘eyeball cold’ to ‘bollocks cold’). The chill can be quickly warmed with a cup of Tim Horton’s hot chocolate so you can comfortably sit and watch (and not do) ice-skating in front of City Hall, visit the CN Tower, see some real, proper NBA basketball, shop at Sam the Record Man or the World's Biggest Bookstore or just hang out with real people living real lives. Valentine's Day was spent eating Burritos in a sparsely populated Tex Mex on Queen Street West with groups of, presumably, singleton Torontonians.

With most cities, four days is usually quite enough for me, mostly for the same reason they appeal; New York’s intensity, Boston’s tranquillity, Rome’s antiquity, Paris’ timeless style, Vegas’ crass commercialism. But I could have spent a few more days in Toronto visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame, or the Bata Shoe Museum, or the Royal Ontario Museum. We only scratched the surface really, there is still plenty to reveal.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The curious incident of the Pod in the flight time

I suppose the least surprising thing about the Da Vinci Code is that Sophie is both brilliant and beautiful. I mean, you're just not going to get... 'Sophie was a brilliant cyptologist, but she was an ugly old sow'. The least surprising thing about Air Canada air stewardesses is that they are, at best, a little ruddy and well worn.

Four hours into the flight, they also managed to pour half a litre of water over my lap, and laugh at me whilst they did. To add insult to iminent nappy rash, my iPod, which was in direct firing line, also got it sploshed making the jog wheel work only intermitently. I completed an 'incident report' which will go to their insurance company. I don't know what the profit margin is on your average transatlantic flight but I doubt it stretches to a new iPod.

Toronto is wet and cold, this library is warm and dry. We shall return to the streets when we've thawed out.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Focking off

I’m off to Toronto on Sunday morning so here’s something to read about Meet The Fockers. Read it slowly, there’ll be nothing new on here for week. Toodle pip…

Ben Stiller’s life is easy; think of a dumb plotline, make it dumber, point camera and shoot. For this read Dodgeball, Zoolander, Starsky and Hutch and his cameo as the anchor of the Spanish language channel in Anchorman (“Ben, put this moustache on and do something stupid for a bit”). He’s not trying to satirise or be clever or win Oscars although presumably he’ll get to a point as Spielberg and Tom Hanks did where he’ll want to be taken seriously and we’ll all hate him for it.

The mistake that was made in Meet The Parents was that he was put on a platform with Robert De Nero. This raised expectations; you expect a De Nero film to deliver something a little smarter. It was a half decent set piece, hapless goon meets uptight father of girlfriend and endures endless contrived mishaps. Maybe De Nero was too big for the film, or more likely they spoiled the simplicity of the concept with the De Nero as CIA agent subplot. It was garbage.

Meet The Fockers should be an even bigger bomb. Whilst playing down the CIA thing (though not completely, it’s just not needed) they treble the gravitas with by introducing Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand as Gaylord Focker’s parents. Both have weighty reputations for taking themselves terribly seriously (see Hoffman in I Heart Huckabees). As “Holly Hunter” says in Team America – “As actors, we have a responsibility to read things in the newspaper and then repeat them as our own opinions”. The problem with big stars is they have big brands to maintain, which means being terribly clever about everything.

So the formulae stinks – poor previous film, stupid plot in itself and enough weighty reputations to sink a battleship full of elephants. But director Jay Roach, presumably introduced Hoffman and Streisand to Stiller and challenged them to out-stupid him. Which they do, they are both brilliantly daft. If they’d cut out the CIA stuff (De Nero has a hi-tech investigation lab in the base of his mobile home, sigh) there’s a risk it would be the best comedy of the year.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Scenes from the maul

Do you ever feel like you’re rushing to keep up? That the world it moving too fast for you to truly comprehend what is actually going on? Lots of little oddities that throw you for a second, but before you have a chance to analyse them, the next thing is on top of you. So, for example: -

Plumber; I’m not coming round on Monday; I’m coming in a couple of weeks. Me: Why I’ve booked holiday and everything. P: It’s down to the Kyoto agreement. Me: Really? P: Yeah, the government are offering £100 off energy efficient boilers in accordance with the Kyoto agreement to cut emissions, but they’re not doing it for a couple of weeks so I’m waiting until the price drops. (result: Kyoto discount doesn’t come through).

Emma leaves a message on my phone saying “Hello, can you tell me what time it is on my mobile”

To the plumber; do you want a tea? Yes please. How do you have it? Just a splash of milk. Sugar? No thanks… what has it come to that plumbers don’t have 45 sugars in their tea anymore? What’s more, the plumbers mate didn’t have sugar either.

The Territorial Army advert where two stern looking women are being chatted up by two blokes, when, eventually the blokes ask the women their names they reply with “This is Lance Corporal Jones and I’m Captain West”. At which point the men recoil with obvious horror and revulsion. Women, join the army to scare and repel men.

The comments book in the curryhouse from Dan and James “Lovely meal, now we’re off to bum each other”

To the plumber; do you want a tea? No thanks I’ll wait a bit. What has it come to when plumbers don’t drink you out of house and home anymore?

10 and a half minutes from the end of my gym session, the ten and a half minute sure-fire adrenalin shot that is Impact by Orbital comes onto iPod. After about 2 minutes it inexplicably flicks onto next ‘shuffle’ track… Transmission by Joy Division.

…and without a word of a lie I saw naked hairy man with his arms round a naked dwarf coming out of the sauna at the gym. The naked dwarf was laughing saying “And I’m not letting you do that again”.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Quiet night in

Sometimes there’s nothing better than a quiet night in. Just cooking a nice meal and watching a DVD. Last Saturday was a quiet night in; Jamie Oliver Botham Burgers, Fried chilli wedges, fizzy pop followed by Tesco Finest Toffee Sundaes at a gluttonous 800 calories per pot. Yummy.

Sorry? Which DVD you say? Oh yeah, Supersize Me.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Low flying high flyer

At first, the Aviator seems to be all sub-plot. You suspect that the story of Howard Hughes is simply too big and Scorsese should have chosen a more modest yarn, like biopic’ing Howard Hughes from Ever Decreasing Circles.

It jumps from one preposterous adventure to another, the world’s most expensive film, the world’s fastest plane, the world’s biggest plane, buying TWA, dating Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardener, taking on the US Government and Pan Am and winning. Hughes did it all, and in this film, he does it really really quickly.

You get no real sense of his impact or the perspective and environment in which he operates. He’s accused of being a war profiteer, but you don’t get a chance to understand whether that’s true, or even that there was a war on. This may just be a reflection of the general detachment the US had during the War. They probably ran their own World (Series) War (Bowl) at the same time proclaiming the Denver Spitfires World War Champions in the process. It feels like you’re watching Hughes’ life through a frosted window, with ear muffs on, and a towel in your mouth… and, well you, get the picture… or not, as it turns out. Eventually, however, the story emerges. It’s about his obsessions; his ability to pull off stunning audacious projects is simply the result of a neurotic fastidiousness he struggles to control.

From compulsive hand washing to fully blown Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Hughes struggles to channel his mania into something productive, and then fails completely. Whilst it’s an overly long film that broods rather than thrills, it’s this that lifts it from a straight Biography Channel story.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Let's rip

For a hackneyed cliché in corporate team building, paintball is a particularly lonely experience. I’ve been twice, both times on Stag dos. Whilst there is a camaraderie that surrounds a Stag party it is a brittle one. The party is made of a mix of work, university and school friends, each with their own histories and stories. To build a team through paintball means that you have to be a close knit team in the first place. Making it all rather pointless.

For those who have never been, a day of paintball involves joining a hybrid team of birthdays, stag dos, corporate team builders and most worrying, hobbyist paintball enthusiasts (serial killers in training). You take part in a series of set piece games with names like ‘defend and attack’, ‘take the flag’ and ‘total annihilation’. Paintball guns fire little pellets of paint that feel like you're being hit by a hailstone. When you’re hit you’re dead. In between each game you gather in a holding area where the general bonhomie of naive squaddies ensues, nonchalant marshals with heavy metal hair drift around waiting for the next game to start, when it does the anomie sets in.

Paintball companies are paranoid about safety, exiting the safety zone you put a full face mask on which makes you look like a Stormtrooper. With everyone wearing identical baggy fatigues you’re stripped of your identity, unable to separate friends from strangers. The walk to the battleground is usually made in near-silence. All you hear is the hiss of your own breathing. By the time you get there, the mask has usually misted up so you can’t see anything.

Once the game starts, hope of any kind of teamwork is instantly forgotten and you become an individual vigilante. The game is explained in about ten seconds and the opportunity for planning almost non-existent. There are two broad strategies you can employ. The first is ‘Hide in a Hole’. This involves finding a nook, or diving behind a bit of wood and randomly firing into the general area of your foe. The second strategy is ‘Run like a Loony’ This involves kamikaze runs at the enemy firing wildly. The first means you play for the whole game, but have no fun. The second means more fun, for about 30 seconds, then you get shot and it hurts.

When you are shot and therefore out of the game, you have no idea who shot you there’s a thud, a burst pain and it’s all over, you’re being bullied by a faceless aggressor. Usually after you’re shot you’re hit a couple more times as you head for the Dead Zone. This is exacerbated by the fact that you don’t know how successful you’ve been because you never see the people you’ve shot. You’re being bullied and you don’t know why, and you are stripped of your individuality and any affirmation of your own ability.

Even a victory is hollow, last Saturday we had a couple of girls in our team. Both were little over five foot tall. In the heat of the first battle a scream was heard behind…

“Are you alright”
“Shit I’ve been hit”
“Oh no, does it hurt”
“A little bit, I’m dead so I’ve got to go”
“I don’t want to get hit, I’m coming too”

We’re not dealing with trained killers, a victory is meaningless.

When the game is over everyone trudges back to base in silence. When the masks come off, everyone has a fictitious war story of taking a hail of paintballs for the team. Johnny had a good strategy, he bought 200 paintballs per game, suggesting he’d either seen some serious action, or was eating them.

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