Archive for March, 2010

Theo Fleury’s Playing with Fire

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , , on March 26, 2010 by JonH

At the outset of Theoren Fleury’s book Playing with Fire (co-authored by Kirstie McLellan Day) he writes, “I think that people need to understand why. What it was that made me do what I did.”

Now hopefully I don’t seem too unsympathetic—Fleury has been through a lot more than I can possibly imagine a young child having to go through; however, I find it strange that while he wants people to understand what it was that made him do what he did he dedicates little more than five chapters to it; whereas, he spares us no detail when it comes to describing his cocaine/booze fueled binges.
In fact, at one point while reading the book I had come down with the flu and his incessant talk of snorting piles of coke, and slugging back lemon Stoli almost made me puke.

I’m not saying that the book needed to be more detailed in its account of the abuse he suffered at the hands of Graham James, or the neglect he suffered early on at the hands of his mother and father. What he writes at the outset is very powerful. What I am saying is that everything else could have been a lot shorter. The sheer length of the book coupled with the details of his excess took away from the book’s effectiveness. It made it ponderous, and left me thinking: Yeah, Theoren, we know you’re a bad ass. We get it, already.

He does however do an exceptional, albeit biased job, of spicing up the book with hockey anecdotes, and opinion—lots of opinion on certain players, coaches, and hockey personalities. Indeed, whether heaping praise or lambasting someone (the latter, of course, being the more memorable of the two), he is a pretty blunt. Take, for example, his comments regarding former NHL coach Mike Keenan: “I don’t know how far he made it in his hockey career, maybe tyke?” or TSN (then CBC) commentator, Brian Williams: “The most adversity he ever faced on ice was making it to his car in the winter.” How about his description of former NHL defenseman Derian Hatcher: “Big, slow, and dumb with the puck”; or Alexandre Daigle: “He had all the tools, but no box to go with it. Dumb as a post—he didn’t get it.”

The book gets truly bizarre when Fleury starts to go on about proper and improper behavior on and off the ice. In one instance he condemns Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman for an incident with Claude Lemieux:

“In the parking lot after the game, when Claudie and his wife and new baby were walking to their car, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman just went nuts, swearing and calling him all kinds of names. In front of a wife and baby? No matter what has happened during the game, you just do not do that. Not ever.”

Or his reaction to some comments that Chris Chelios made to him during a game regarding his drug habit:

“There is no place in the game for that kind of remark. Play hard against me, slash me if you want—that is part of the game. But there’s a line, and he crossed it. I just fuckin’ lost it.”

Interesting comments coming from someone who still calls strip bars ‘titty-bars.’

My only question is that aside from the first five chapters of the book, what does everything else have to do with his stated purpose of helping people understand why he did what he did, and behave the way he did?

The answer, I think, is fairly simple: money. Anytime someone writes a tell-all book at a point in their lives when the money and fame is all gone their integrity is called into question. Top it off with rediscovering god, and it becomes too predictable. The book no longer seems to be about catharsis, as much as it seems to be about moving units and turning pain and abuse into a commodity.

In the end, the book, unfortunately (in a sadly ironic sort of way), mostly comes across as just mildly entertaining, rather than insightful. Other than a few moments where he discusses loneliness and hopelessness, it only helped me to realize that after the episodes of sexual abuse he was subjected to at the hands of Graham James, Theoren Fleury blames alcohol and drugs for the series of really bad choices he made throughout his adult life.

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The Hurt Locker

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by JonH

The Hurt Locker opens with the quote, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

Although longer and not as concise, they could just as easily have opened with the following quote:

“In modern eyes, [… ] only when forced upon one, is a war now thought permissible. It was not thus in ancient times. […] Modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis […].

The movie tells the story of Bravo Company, a three-man bomb demolition team counting down from their 39th (or so) day of duty in Iraq. Circumstances dictate that the team leader, Staff Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce), is replaced, and the transition creates a certain amount of discord within the unit due to the contrasting nature of the new team leader, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), with that of his predecessor.

Both of James’s colleagues, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), think James is reckless and his actions difficult to understand. Time after time, James steps into hazardous situations with callous disregard for the team’s safety; nevertheless, with each event, the three men begin to come closer to personal realizations. For Eldridge, it’s coming to terms with guilt, and for Sanborn it’s his desire to be a father. James’s own realization comes at the end of the movie after seeing his baby, and his wife, Connie (Evangeline Lilly).

The movie establishes a high level of suspense right from the get-go, and explores interesting facets of male relationships on the way, with, more often than not, James standing at the centre of each element.

Interestingly, there are only two female characters in the movie, James’s wife, and the professor’s wife. With the exception of the shallow stereotype that men use physical violence, booze, and heavy metal as modes of male bonding, the men are portrayed as complex characters; the women are gender stereotypes. Connie stays home and takes care of the baby while James goes to war, and the professor’s wife lashes out at James (as any nurturer would do when an invader enters its nest) when she finds him in her home.

Shot in Jordan, and Kuwait, the movie features cameos from David Morse, and Ralph Fiennes, as well as Pearce and Lilly. Morse’s appearance as Colonel Reed and his dialogue with James is of interest as it reveals a sympathetic character; whereas Pearce’s portrayal of the methodical Staff Sergeant Thompson implies a counterpoint to Renner’s portrayal of the impulsive James.

As the movie ends we come to understand Sgt. William James just a little bit more. He is motivated by an inner compulsion, which is bigger than any of the relationships around him. Incidentally, the alternative quote I suggested for the beginning of the movie is taken from an essay entitled, The Moral Equivalent of War written by the American philosopher William James. James was a staunch advocate of peace, and even though this quote can be read slightly out of context, it sums up the pull war has on the character of the same name. No matter its irrationality—War is the strong life for Sergeant James and he’s unable to resist its allure.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not it’s mere coincidence that James, the soldier embodies James, the philosopher’s words.

Making Connections

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , on March 16, 2010 by JonH

You know those times when you’re expecting to see a particular movie, but for whatever reason you end up seeing a different one? In anticipation of what you think you’re going to see you build up all these internal feelings and expectations that you now have to diffuse because you’re not going to be seeing what you originally had in store. Well, sometimes that can be downright confusing.

It happened to me the other night, prior to the Oscars, when I thought my wife was going to rent the Hurt Locker. She got back from the movie store, dropped a few things off in the kitchen, came into the living room and proceeded to put the dvd in the machine, all the while not saying a word to me. She pushed ‘play’ and took her seat, putting the popcorn on her lap. Now that I think back, the music really should have been a giveaway, but I didn’t clue in. I did, however, figure it out as soon as the title appeared: Up in the Air. What the?!

Now romcoms (shorthand parlance for romantic comedies) is a genre I hardly adore. The fact I was under the impression that Up in the Air was an RC coupled with all the feelings I had built up in anticipation of things to come (feelings like, “seeing stuff get blown up will be cool”), I thought for sure I was going to be let down. Well, truth is, even though nothing blew up – besides George Clooney’s incipient desire to settle down, I wasn’t disappointed with this flick.

Up in the Air tells the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a career transition counselor (euphemism for a guy who is hired to fire people) and fledgling motivational speaker that must come to terms with the fact that his much loved job, which affords him boundless opportunity to live the transient, unattached lifestyle he so loves, is in danger of becoming obsolete. A young upstart named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is pitching a new way of doing things to Bingham’s boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), which will effectively ground all of the transition counselors in favour of a more centralized method of doing things via computers and video cameras. Bingham reacts as anyone would when their livelihood is threatened, and urges Gregory to reconsider implementing the new system, in part, because of how cold and impersonal it is. Gregory concedes, for the time being, but sends Keener on the road with Bingham so she can learn the ropes. Bingham’s lifestyle is further complicated by the fact that he’s falling in love with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman he met in a hotel bar.

The movie has the usual twists and turns, but I can honestly say I didn’t expect it to end the way it did. It left me feeling a bit ambivalent. On one hand, I enjoyed how director Jason Reitman played with the themes of loneliness and loyalty, but on the other hand, the resolution left me emotionally unsatisfied.

The music in the movie is well done and reflects the emotion that the characters convey pretty well. There are also some little gems of dialogue, particularly Ryan’s conversation with Bob (J.K. Simmons) after Natalie comes off a little too ‘text-book’, as well as Alex’s discussion with Natalie about the nature of love and how settling for someone isn’t so bad.

Up in the Air isn’t the romantic comedy I thought it was going to be. It’s a smart and insightful look at how relationships with others can wound, as well as heal; but, that in the end, it’s the connections that help us to grow and understand ourselves better.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2010 by JonH

Apparently loss of memory can be the result of a psychological disturbance, and I think it’s fair to say that if Wonderland was real spending time there would have the potential to be quite disturbing. (Think about it, talking animals, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, a reefer smoking caterpillar . . . yessh, the list goes on.) Perhaps this is what Tim Burton is alluding to when he has his Alice return to Wonderland as a young woman, but with no recollection of the visit she’d taken years earlier, other than as a dream.

The movie starts with Alice, as a child, approaching the open door to her father’s study. He’s discussing, what we find out later to be, fantastic and imaginative business ideas with colleagues when he notices his daughter standing there. She’s been awoken by a reoccurring dream. He excuses himself, takes her back to bed, and they discuss it. She asks whether or not he thinks she’s nuts. He says yes, she’s certifiably bonkers, “but all the best ones are.” They share a laugh as he smiles reassuringly at her.

Thirteen years later, Alice has grown up and she’s entering an arranged marriage at the behest of her mother, a woman far more orthodox than her father (who, incidentally, has passed away, but has left an indelible impression on his daughter’s approach to life, and it manifests itself in her interactions with others.) Alice innocently questions orthodoxy, and people’s deep-seated value of tradition.

While walking in the formal garden with her soon-to-be mother-in-law, Alice is distracted by a white rabbit running hurriedly by. She’s curious, but doesn’t follow. Moments later as she stands on the gazebo with her suitor in front of all of the potential wedding guests she spies the rabbit again, but this time follows. And down the rabbit hole she goes, landing smack dab in the middle of the Wonderland she only remembers from her dream.


Once there, most everyone recognizes her – at least an older version of the Alice they knew. They describe her past actions from memory, and her future actions as foretold by a scroll, which describes a confrontation of epic proportions. Alice, however, disputes who they identify her as, but nevertheless is intrigued by what’s going on.

Like other adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice have done, Burton conflates elements from Alice in Wonderland with Beyond the Looking Glass, and heaps in a fair bit of Jabberwocky for good measure all in an attempt to create a more coherent Lewis Carroll universe.

But that’s the problem. Even with potential juicy themes like struggle for identity, predetermination versus freewill, good versus evil, madness versus rationality, and gender roles as constructs, what could have been a very cool exploration of Carroll’s alternate reality as perhaps a metaphor for coming-of-age falls victim to cliché and historical revisionism. Burton leaves the viewer hanging with his cursory treatment of all of these themes, and by wrapping the movie up before addressing them in any detail he certainly renders the movie more coherent, but also more passé.

Aside from Alice’s suggestion that her potential mother-in-law paint the white roses in her garden red, the opportunity to incorporate smart references to her original visit also falls a little flat, and Burton misses the mark by only vaguely alluding to them.

A few of the characters are memorable. Mia Wasikowska, as Alice, is very good. Helena Bonham Carter does a great job as the big-headed Red Queen, Alan Rickman is trippy as the Blue Caterpillar that waxes philosophically, Stephen Fry is a cool Cheshire Cat; Crispin Glover is particularly sleazy as Stayne, the Knave of Hearts. Matt Lucas is kind of creepy in his appearance as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Sadly however, Johnny Depp is the exception. He delivers a completely bizarre portrayal as the Hatter. I still for the life of me can’t figure out why he goes back and forth between spouting the nonsensical poem, Jabberwocky in a thick brogue to his regular Hatter voice, which sounds very much like a variation on the voice he used as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In the end, however, even though the movie looks great in 3D and does have its moments, the only way it works thematically is if the adult Alice’s complete lack of memory for her previous visit to Wonderland is seen as a metaphor for the viewer’s complete lack of memory for this movie. But I don’t think Burton was trying to be ironic. Simply enough, loss of memory can sometimes just be attributed to an unmemorable event.

Food Inc.

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2010 by JonH

With its roots in 1930’s fast food and the huge buying power that corporations like McDonalds were beginning to wield, food processors began to produce for, and emulate according to, the model presented to them. In this model everyone has a specific job (like on an assembly line), the burger will taste the same no matter which McDonalds you go to; the customer always gets what they want (more white meat, but we don’t have enough? Make the chicken’s breast bigger); more meat, period? (Well, we only have so much grazing land, so what if we moved them inside?) I’m sure you see where that’s going.

“I had no idea that a handful of companies had changed what we eat and how we make our food. I’ve been eating this food all my life without having any idea of where it comes from; any idea of how powerful this industry is. It was this idea of a world deliberately hidden from us, and I think that’s one of the reasons I became an investigative reporter – to lift the veil away from important subjects that are being hidden.”

Revelation is the basic premise that Robert Kenner’s movie, Food Inc. begins with.

Every movement has a poster boy. Big Meat has four in the States: Tyson, Cargill, Swift, and National Beef. While, big agribusiness has one that sticks out: Monsanto.

Food Inc. counters with five of its own: Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and owner of the previous quote; Barbara Kowalcyk, mother of two-year-old, Kevin who died of E. Coli after eating tainted meat; Gary Hirshberg from Stonyfield Yogurt; Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms.

Being from Alberta, it’s the farmer, Joel Salatin that stands out. It’s obvious that the suspender wearing, cowboy hat toting, articulate and irreverent farmer has become a great spokesperson for the American local food movement. He sums up where the system went wrong quite succinctly:

“The industrial food system gradually became so noisy, smelly – not a person friendly place, that the people who operate those plants don’t want people to go there because then people would see the ugly truth. When that occurred then we lost all the integrity and accountability in the food system. If we put glass walls on all of the mega processing facilities, we would have a different food system in this country.”

As an example of another theme (that of misguided consumerism) he unleashes another gem of an observation on us:

“I’ve had people come up in farmer’s markets and say, ‘What!? Three dollars a dozen for eggs?’ and they’re drinking a seventy-five cent can of soda!”

This made me think of the people who complain about the price of gas while they fork over a couple of bucks for bottled water . . .

Additionally, what’s of particular interest is the depiction of Salatin’s farming practices in the movie. It’s not sugar-coated. Salatin produces meat for the market, and we see him and his workers doing just that with the chickens. The difference is that he does it in a humane way. The chickens are free to roam, as are the cows and pigs. They eat the proper feed, again, so do the cows and pigs. The fact is that he’s a meat producer, but he doesn’t support the processing of animals. There’s a big difference, and he’s got some wonderful theories to go along with it.

Coupled with playful music and great graphics, which lend an air of irony to the subject, Food Inc. is a very provocative film that not only meat eaters should see. Monsanto is the biggest producer of soya beans, so consumers of soya should pay attention as well.

One of the most salient messages of this movie is that with every purchase we vote for what’s important to us. What’s far subtler is whether or not we’re far-sighted enough to understand what comes along with that vote.

Addendum:

Here are a few links to Alberta farms, farmers’ markets, and Canadian-based grocery stores that provide consumers with an alternative to factory farmed meat:

TK Ranch Natural Meats (They deliver!)
The Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market (Join the mailing list.)
Alberta Farmers’ Markets
Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association (Direct to market)
Planet Organic

If you have any suggestions of others that should be added to the list leave a comment!

Gene Principe: Having Pun . . . uh, Fun

Posted in Editorial with tags , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2010 by JonH

It was just before noon and Rexall Place was already busy. But I wasn’t there to interview players or coaches. I was there that morning to interview an interviewer, the man that has arguably become the face of Oiler telecasts on Rogers Sportsnet, Gene Principe.

“Gene will be here shortly,” says Louis DeBrusk, an affable bear of a man whose incisive commentary stands as a perfect foil to Principe’s more fun-loving ways. “He’s on Gene time,” he adds with a warmhearted laugh.

Moments later, Gene walks in. He looks like he’s on a mission, and I guess, considering it’s game day, he is. He greets me with a smile and a friendly handshake, and then invites me up to the stands to talk while the Oilers practice. Given the fact he’s on work time, at no point does he seem distracted. In fact, minus the puns (more on that later), he’s much like the guy on the broadcast: well-prepared, enthusiastic, entertaining, and spontaneous.

Principe got his start in the media business with a work placement in Kamloops B.C. in early ’87, and with stops in Lethbridge, Winnipeg, and Toronto before coming back home to Edmonton in 1998 to work for the A-Channel has been going strong ever since. He’s been with Rogers Sportsnet since 2001.

“I wanted to be a broadcaster since I was a kid,” he says. “Of course, I watched Ron MacLean growing up and always thought that was kind of neat.”

He describes how his game preparations go from mid-morning to mid-afternoon and consist mainly of player interviews, compiling notes, and sending production content back to head office in Toronto, but by no means is it a short work day.

“I’m normally out of the rink by 2:30 – 3:00,” he says. “I like to get home for my kids for an hour – hour and a half, and I try and shut off work for that time. Then at 5:00, or so, I’ll come back, and get ready for any last minute stuff: pre-game interviews that sort of thing. Show time’s normally 7:00 or 7:30, then I’m back home about 10:30-11:00.”

As far as production goes, he has mostly free reign in determining what he’ll do during the show, and he’s got the benefit of accommodating co-workers to boot.

“Kevin Quinn and Louie DeBrusk are great at allowing me to have fun – sometimes at their expense. With our producer Larry Isaac, who I work with mostly [although there are others], it’s almost carte blanche. Sometimes they’ll pull you back, and that’s good because I don’t want to go too far. But usually they’re good at saying what do you want to do? – Let’s do it. We do some preplanning in the morning, and then when we get to a commercial break, Larry will say, “What [piece] do you want to do?” and I’ll say [for example] let’s do the story on Marc Pouliot and how he has to warm up now because of sports hernia surgery, and then we’ll set it up during the break.”

Production-wise, it sounds almost like they’re flying by the seat of their pants, and yet everything always seems to look so smooth.

“Sometimes things come up just prior to the game,” he says. “But normally by the time I’m done the morning skates I have a pretty good idea of what can work, and what we can use visually to enhance the story.”

And for viewers, that’s key, while each specific hockey game is the focal point, it’s not the whole story. Another part of the story consists of the athletes and coaches that comprise the team. And sometimes when the team isn’t doing so well, it helps to be light-hearted.

“People bleed copper and blue, so they struggle with the losses as much as anyone else,” he says. “So I think if I can inject some humour without going over the line – and I’m sure sometimes I do – I’ll try it.”

Perhaps this is a perfect lead-in to Gene’s Principe trademark (oh, bad attempt at a pun . . .), puns:

“I just started doing it, and doing it, and doing it,” he says. “And then I couldn’t stop,” he adds with a laugh. “It used to be that you just put a hockey game on and people would watch it, but I think that hockey games have now become an entertainment package and not just simply a hockey game. So whether it’s using different props or wearing stuff like on St. Patrick’s Day or whether it’s puns, I just think that that adds to entertainment value.”

Gene just finished performing a similar job to the one he does day-to-day with the Oilers for the broadcast consortium at the Vancouver Olympics, and we wanted to ask him a question regarding his future and how it relates to something even more iconic in its Canadian context.

“If Ron MacLean retired or quit would you consider working on Hockey Night in Canada?”

“I’d say yeah, but I don’t want to leave Sportsnet. I want to still work for them. I love the interaction I get with this particular team on a game to game basis. It’s HNIC, and I’m like the players in that I grew up watching it, but Sportsnet has been A1 with me, for me, and to me.”

Now add loyal to the list of adjectives that describe Gene Principe.

This article was reprinted with permission from Hockey Edmonton Magazine. Photos courtesy of Stephen Kathnelson.

The Informant!

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on March 6, 2010 by JonH

The Informant! is a black comedy based on what became the largest successful conviction of a price-fixing case in US history. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie tells the story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), an executive for the agricultural food industry giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who alleges to the FBI that he and other executives are involved in a world-wide conspiracy to fix the price of lysine, an additive used in everything from soda pop to granola bars. He then sets out to help the feds build a case against his employer.

Oh yeah, he’s also simultaneously embezzling funds from ADM.

While Whitacre is eager to share all that he knows about the players involved in the lysine scam, he’s not as forthcoming with his other activities involving the company coffers. Consequently, Whitacre’s story is ever-evolving thus threatening the FBI’s case against the agribusiness giant.

With corporate wrong doing as a focal point, it’s understandable to be reminded of other movies with a similar theme, Michael Mann’s The Insider and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton are two that come to mind, but as far as character portrayal goes, The Informant! has nothing in common with either of these.

The difference, as well as the comedic element, comes, in part, from Matt Damon’s portrayal of Whitaker. His appearance, slightly overweight (Damon put on 30 pounds for the role), with a bad moustache, and a tie that continually hangs over his belt, makes him seem harmless, and he is well liked by his co-workers. However, he is a morally complex character – not overtly duplicitous, but also not the everyman’s hero he makes himself out to be. Whitaker is very smart at times, annoyingly obtuse at others, but no matter how deep he gets into it he always has that gosh-darn look on his face of a boy playing a game he’s really in to. Incidentally, the producers evidently want it to feel the same way for the viewers, and the score reflects that playfulness.

Notwithstanding the quirky portrayals of certain other characters (the female FBI agent with the accent straight out of Fargo and the credulity of most of the others), I’d be hard pressed to single out any of the actors in this movie as having not done a good job.

However, one of the flaws of the movie is that even after people are on to him, Whitaker continues obfuscating things. This makes the movie feel a bit tedious, at times. I was looking for the resolution, which I think they could have achieved far before the 108 minute run time elapsed.