Monday, February 26, 2007

Milton Burns. Film at Eleven

HOLY CRAP! Our local newspaper just went up in flames:

Champion burns in $500,000 blaze
But business as usual for staff

At least they get to report on themselves. I just hope the invoice for my last column didn't burn.

Another Oscar Wrap-up

Another year, another Oscar night.

  • I felt so sorry for my beloved Peter O'Toole when he got passed over yet again. I suspect this will be his last kick at the can, not counting the inevitable 'Lifetime Achievement' award. Nice to see Forest Whittaker win, though. And impressive that a mere 5 years after Denzel and Halle's groundbreaking Best Actor and Actress awards, it is no longer extraordinary or even noteworthy when an African-American wins an Oscar.

  • I was shocked when 'Pan's Labyrinth' got passed over for Best Foreign Language film, and upset that it wasn't Canada's 'Water' that unseated it. Go figure.

  • I was so very, very happy to see Scorsese get his long overdue Oscar. He is such a classy guy.

  • I thought Ellen Degeneres did a terrific job as host. Of course, I thought Jon Stewart did a terrific job last year. I don't know what it is about that job that brings the knives out. It seems like every Oscar host since Bob Hope has gotten shredded in the press the next morning.

  • I'm never all that interested in what people wear at these things, but this year's Freaky Hair Award was a tie between Philip Seymour Hoffman's sweaty mess (someone get that man a comb!) and Jack Nicholson's Brittany-inspired pate.

  • My big moment of vicarious fame came when I heard the name of a high school friend mentioned among the thank yous. Jeff Skoll (if you don't already know) was the first employee and first president of eBay, and has recently been putting his billions into producing politically and socially conscious films like 'Syriana', 'North Country', 'Good Night and Good Luck', and most impressively, 'An Inconvenient Truth' for which he was thanked last night.

    He was also my little slacker buddy at York Mills Collegiate.

    We used to cut class together and then turn up half-baked at Mr. Daniels' Enriched English class. We took Computer Studies together, back in the days of Fortran and bubble cards. He signed my yearbook ("Have a party-out time!"). I think I might have asked him to the prom, although I could be imagining that part.

    I would have voted him "Most Likely to Be Living in His Parents' Basement at 30". Go figure.

    Yay Jeff!

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Those ceaseless Conservative attack ads are slowly driving me mad. Not just because of Iggy’s annoying twang, either. It’s the fact that there is a simple, two word answer to the accusations in those ads that nobody seems to have the courage to speak aloud:

Oil sands.

Yes, that’s the elephant in the room here. You can talk all you like about biofuels and banning incandescent light bulbs, but there's just no getting around it. The dramatic increase in Canada’s greenhouse emissions over the past few years is due almost exclusively to Alberta’s massive oil sands projects. We’re talking 70-100 kilos of greenhouse gases emitted for every barrel of oil that gets processed. They’re producing well over a million barrels a day. Do the math.

And that’s not even counting what gets spewed out when the oil itself gets burned. Or the pollution of the water table. Or the utter failure of land reclamation efforts.

The Pembina Group presented a study to a Commons committee last week showing that for an extra dollar a barrel, oil companies could drastically reduce their emissions from the processing of the oil sands. Given that the price of oil can fluctuate by several dollars in the course of an afternoon, this sounds like a no-brainer. Right?

Of course not. Oil company reps claim that it would cost too much to make changes to their processing facilities to make them more efficient, and that (more importantly), forcing them to do so would scare off investors. Because really, it’s all about the investors.

I can understand why the Conservatives wouldn’t want to mention any of this in their desperate efforts to appear greener-than-thou. After all, this is Alberta we’re talking about - land of the free and home of their electoral base. But where are the Liberals? Hell, where are the NDP?! Why aren’t they shouting from the rooftops?

Could it be that they hold out hope for an extra seat or two in Alberta come the next election? Are they trying to buy the hearts and minds of western Canadians just as the Tories did in Quebec? Or are they just afraid of being accused of trying to Destroy Alberta’s Economy. After all, that’s the secret Liberal agenda, right? Destroy their economy, steal all their money and turn them all into socialist tree-hugging gun-hating homosexuals.

The fact is, the Liberals could lose every single vote in Alberta and it would make not one whit of difference. Every single seat there is a solid Tory blue and likely to stay that way for a very long time. However, if they could find some way to present rational emission solutions to the people of Alberta without getting themselves tackled by right-wing radio hosts, they might find they have little to fear. Polls show that most Albertans are deeply concerned over the environmental impact of the oil sands and are anxious to find solutions. Fancy that.

Unfortunately, standing up and speaking the truth on these issues in anything above an embarrassed whisper would take something the Liberals haven’t shown much of lately.


I know, it’s a lot easier to work themselves into a outraged froth over a little bronze statue of Lester B. Pearson. Now if they could just work up some of that passion over an issue that actually MATTERS, we might get somewhere.

It may or may not win them votes, but it would certainly earn them some respect. Even in Alberta.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Oh, Happy Day!

I don't want to jinx it, and I don't think I'll actually believe it until pen is put to paper, but it looks like, maybe, at long last...


So, all of you film and television producers out there - get to work!
(and if you happen need any leather costume accessories or intriguing props for your production, I have just the guy for you)


Another thing that makes me happy is my new favorite blog. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

The Canadian Cynic.

I've been feeling a little down lately a whole number of things, including the prospect of Harper's reelection and his slow dismantling of everything I love about this country. It just seems like all the loudest voices are coming from the Right these days, and the Liberals are so afraid of getting into more trouble that they just aren't saying anything at all.

That's why it's so refreshing to see someone go at the Conservatives as hard as they've been coming at the Liberals. Only with wit and intelligence, and oh yeah... the truth.

I'm inspired. Be afraid.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Television: Art or Commodity?

"You people in the arts have got to decide if you’re a business or a charity. If you’re a business, make your market and sell your product. If you’re a charity, go to the government - that’s where the big money is." - Slings & Arrows

There has been much talk lately about how to pay for Canadian television. It’s not a new debate, but it has been brought into the spotlight recently because Shaw Communications and Quebecor have suddenly decided to renege on their CRTC obligations and withhold payments to the Canadian Television Fund (happily, Quebecor recently changed its mind).

Their main complaints about the CTF seem to be that a) most of this money is spent on productions that end up on the CBC, and b) the shows which are subsidized in this way are shows that, according to Jim Shaw, "nobody watches". Shaw’s prime example of this trend seems to be ‘Trailer Park Boys’ which does nothing to bolster his argument. As for most CTF productions ending up on the CBC, this is hardly surprising since they are responsible for the vast bulk of Canadian content currently being aired.

Beyond this specific crisis, the current debate goes to the heart of how we perceive television.

My favorite cabal of Canadian television bloggers (McGrath, Henshaw, Dixon et al) has spent the last few weeks arguing the relative merits of public funding vs. private funding vs. the open market, and the quality and ‘entertainment value’ of shows resulting from these various models, mostly in the pages of ‘Dead Things On Sticks’. I have spoken my piece in response to several of these posts and have so far avoided being banished or flamed into oblivion, for which I am grateful. However, I’m getting the impression that there is a fundamental difference of opinion at work here that needs to be addressed.

With many of these posts, as with Jim Shaw's comments, the underlying assumption seems to be, "if these shows were any damned good, people would watch them". This is basic economics: if you give people the choice between a quality product and a piece of crap, if properly informed they will chose the quality product. This assumption was highlighted in one response which likened the Canadian television industry to the U.S. auto industry, in that it has been protected from open competition for so long that it has resulted in a grossly inferior product.

There are two false assumptions here. I’ve already addressed the inferior product part in my response. The second is that the market operates on cars and entertainment in the same way: if it’s good, people will watch it. Unfortunately, this also assumes the corollary: if it’s crap, nobody will watch it. I think I can dispute that with one word:


A cursory glance at the Top Ten movies at the box office this week - or any week - will dissuade anyone of the notion that quality sells when it comes to entertainment. The same can be said for the top rated TV shows. This is not to say that good shows are never successful or that bad shows never fail. Only that quality, however we chose to define it, has little or nothing to do with how popular a television show will be.

More often than not, the majority of people will chose to watch shows that are comfortable. Shows that follow a familiar pattern, like a sitcom or a police procedural. Shows that do not challenge their opinions or values or make them unhappy. I don’t think this is elitism - it is simply an observation of human nature.

People will sometimes watch other kinds of television shows. Shows that break out of the box. Shows that make them think. Shows that surprise or even offend. Sometimes enough people watch these shows that they manage to survive and even prosper on network television, like ‘Lost’ or ‘Heroes’ or ‘24’. In most cases, however, such shows are relegated to pay cable channels like HBO or Showcase, where only those who can afford to pay can watch them.

The problem has always been that Canada has a tenth of the population of the U.S. and therefore a tenth of the money (or less) to throw into television production. Scripted television is very expensive and ratings-based advertising dollars just aren’t enough in this country for anything other than megahits. This leaves us with two options. Produce a small number of safe, conventional shows that have a better than even chance of appealing to the majority and therefore paying their own way through advertising dollars alone, or…

Subsidize. Through tax dollars, through the CTF, by any means necessary.

If you view television as a commodity, this option is heresy. TV is product. Period. If it doesn’t sell, it’s crap and doesn’t deserve to be on the air.

If, however, you view television as a performing art like, say, theatre or dance, then this is the obvious solution. The arts, especially the performing arts, have always been subsidized for the simple reason that popular (read: profitable) does not always equal good. In fact, hardly ever. For art to do its job as art it has to be allowed to make people uncomfortable, and that’s not the best way to sell tickets.

We aren’t used to thinking of television as art because most of us aren’t old enough to remember when it was an extension of radio, which in turn was an extension of the theatre. It was a lot easier to see the connection back in the golden days of Chayevsky and Sterling when most television shows were performed live on a studio set.

Unfortunately, the current American system has gotten us so used to the idea of television as billboard that we no longer expect art, let alone demand it. We accept that the majority should rule as to what gets aired and what doesn’t. We accept that mediocrity is the will of the people.

"Television, the scorned stepchild of drama, may well be the basic theater of our century." - Paddy Chayevsky

It’s a new century now, and with it comes new technologies and new delivery systems that will likely make the network broadcast model of television as obsolete as the all-powerful corporate sponsorships of the fifties. I like to think that this will be good for television, and for Canadian television in particular, because it will allow unique, interesting shows to reach a small but appreciative audience that won't have to pay through the nose to access them.

I just hope that Canada will still have something unique and interesting to offer when that happy day arrives.

(Next time: How Television Can Save the World)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Because I Said So

I kept having the nagging feeling I had seen this movie before. At first I thought it was just a flashback to when my mother tried to fix me up with a banker. Then I started to wonder if it was a remake of some old Katharine Hepburn / Cary Grant movie.

I finally realized it was just the formula that was familiar.

Romantic Farce #47b: Girl can’t find husband because she (hates men / dresses badly / snorts when she laughs), so Domineering Mother secretly sets her up with Upstanding Man A who is a (banker / lawyer / architect), but Girl falls instead for Unsuitable Man B who is a (teacher / artist / musician). Men don’t know about each other. Girl doesn’t know about set-up. Hilarity ensues.

The worst part was watching poor Diane Keaton having to force a laugh by either wrestling with some infernal piece of technology or getting cake all over her. The relationship between her and Stephen Collins was sweet, but otherwise it was just one cliché after another.

* 1/2 out of five. The half is for Stephen Collins.

(to see what Murray Townsend thought of it, read our column in The Milton Champion)

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Garth Turner Show

I don’t think it came as a surprise to anyone yesterday when Garth Turner changed his suit and joined the Liberal Party. Still, he does know how to put on a show.

There is a lot of righteous indignation being expressed in the op-ed pages and the blogs today, mostly from Conservatives who consider Turner a traitor of the worst kind. There is also a fair bit of criticism from Liberals over the hypocrisy of this move after his condemnation of other defections. His claim is that he isn’t actually switching parties because he wasn’t actually a member of any party when he did it, but that’s obviously just semantics.

I like Garth Turner. I like that he speaks his mind, regardless of the consequences. I like that he embraced blogging before most politicians even knew what a blog was. I even like his blatant self-aggrandizement - it shows an almost charming lack of guile.

I disagree with him on a great number of issues, but the disagreements are mostly in the areas of economics and the military. Not surprisingly, these are the areas where I have always disagreed with the Conservatives, back when they were still the Progressive Conservative Party. And this is why I have less of a problem with Turner’s defection than most.

Turner is a Progressive Conservative to the core. So is my dad, so I recognize the breed. Twenty years ago there wasn’t such a huge gap between the PCs and the Liberals, so switching from one to another wasn’t such a big deal.

Then the Alliance happened, and we were suddenly left with a changeling. It called itself the Conservative Party of Canada. It had blue signs. It even had a few PCs among its membership, but a closer examination would reveal that this new party was really just Reform in a blue suit, complete with Republican-style economics and social policies penned by the Religious Right.

What this meant for old school PCs like Garth Turner was that they were left without a party. Their old middle-right party had suddenly moved so far to the extreme right that the closest party to their old PC position was now… the Liberals.

So yes, I understand why Turner would see his move as no great leap. I’m still not sure if I agree with him enough to want to vote for him, but if he’s going to be our Liberal candidate I guess I’ll have to. And that’s ok. At least he keeps things interesting.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Next 'It' Girl?

I tend to stay up way past my bed time on Tuesday nights. Tuesday is choir practice, so I get my husband to tape my shows for me (hello, my name is Jennifer and I'm a TV addict). Happily we have two VCRs, so I get to come home and watch both 'Intelligence' and 'House'.

Last Tuesday's episode of 'House' was astonishing. The story and the writing were top notch, to be sure, but what really caught my attention was the girl who played 'Eve'.

Meet Katheryn Winnick.

Now, keep in mind that I have a plain girl's aversion to pretty girls. It's a form of bigotry I don't endorse, but I must admit to a tendency to assume that if a woman is classically beautiful then she probably isn't smart, funny or talented until she proves otherwise.

Katheryn Winnick may be beautiful, but I hardly noticed. I was too mesmerized by her performance. Mind you, this was a spectacular, scene-chewing role she was handed, but I suspect that not many actresses could have pulled it off without going over the top into melodrama.

The last time I reacted to an actress like this was the first time I saw Claire Danes in 'My So-Called Life'. Remember that? Remember how fresh and open and genuine she was? Remember thinking that this actress was somehow different and wonderful and going places? That's what this was like.

Sadly, Claire Danes' career never really lived up to that initial flash of potential. In fact, she's way up on my list of the 'Top 10 People Who Should Fire Their Agent' along with Vin Diesel and Christian Slater. Hopefully Winnick has a better agent, because I would really like to see her in more than a single TV episode. It looks like she's got fairly significant roles in a costume drama and a psychological thriller coming up, so this gives me hope.

Oh, and as an added bonus... she's Canadian!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Where To Start...

The ongoing story of the guerrilla marketing campaign-turned-bomb scare in Boston rises to such a level of absurdity that it almost defies parody. There's just nothing you can say to make fun of these people that they haven't already said themselves.

Let me just say this: these guys are my heroes.

They smirk. They giggle. They hold a press conference about hair. They utterly refuse to buy into the earnest indignation being displayed by the mayor of Boston, who seems to think if he keeps stamping his little feet and yelling, "It's not funny!" over and over again that people will stop laughing at him. And yet... really. Dude. It is so very, very funny.

I am so looking forward to watching these guys when they hit the talk show circuit.

Among the many, many amusing aspects of this story is the exact wording of one of the laws these fellows have been charged under. It prohibits anyone from planting a device "that would cause a person reasonably to believe that such device is an infernal machine".

An infernal machine?!?

I imagine some Rube Goldberg contraption, or maybe that puzzle box from Hellraiser. Amazingly, this is a law that was passed just after 9/11.

And here I thought it was some holdover from the Salem witch trials.