In my brief lament about the status of women in the movies, I forgot to mention one movie that had surprisingly whole, interesting female characters: Up in the Air. Overall, the movie was unsatisfying and too Clooneyey, but its treatment of women had nothing to do with my disappointment.

Now, to rhapsodize about my favourite coffee/pie shop. Madeleine’s, Cherry Pie and Ice Cream is one of the things I miss most about the Annex. When I lived in the neighbourhood I spent so much time there (great coffee, great pie, great atmosphere) that I became friendly with the owner Kyla Eaglesham. Two years ago, I even wrote a story about their holiday gingerbread house decorating workshop.

I was at Madeleine’s a few weeks ago and Kyla was trying out something new for the holidays: orange madeleines coated with sparkly rock candy sugar glaze. Delicious, and so pretty. See?

I hope she makes them all winter.

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Ok, not everything. Just a couple of things. But first, here’s a story I wrote about the Science Centre for Saturday’s National Post. It was such a fun one to research, partly because I love any excuse to go to the Science Centre, but also because I interviewed this trio of unbelievably adorable high school students who were eager, bright, and completely devoid of attitude. Parents: send your kids to high school at the Science Centre and they will become studious, enthusiastic angels.

Now, list time. Everyone else on the planet is compiling their list of Best and Worsts of the Year, why not me? Generally, this year was kind of a lame one movie-wise, but there were a few good surprises. Fantastic Mr. Fox was a true original with jaw-dropping productions values and a genuinely surprising ending. Inglourious Basterds was a kick-ass World War 2 fantasy that looked amazing and gave pop culture its baddest-ass Jewish heroine since Esther. Despite John Krasinki’s annoying facial hair, Away We Go was a sweet and moving portrait of a couple, thanks to Vendela Vida’s gentle screenwriting touch and Maya Rudolph’s subtle performance. I hated what Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze did with the screenplay for Where the Wild Things Are – so bleak and joyless – but I loved the Wild Things themselves. Such a treat to see Jim Henson Studio creations back on screen! Visually, A Single Man blew me away. If anyone can get me a still from the scene outside the liquor store, I would be so very grateful.

There were also a few bad surprises. The benign-seeming Pirate Radio turned out to be a misogynistic mess, and a waste of Bill Nighy and a slew of other talented Brits. Most movies I saw this year had a casual streak of misogyny running through them, which is nothing new, but is getting tired. Up, for example, was a shamelessly manipulative tear-jerker that relegated its only female character to dead muse-dom (oh, I cried and loved it, but I got mad thinking about it afterwards). Watchmen turned a supposedly kick-ass lady hero (its only real female character) into a boring bimbo. Watching movies through feminist glasses is a pretty damn demoralizing exercise.

I didn’t travel very much this year, so the only theatre I saw was in Toronto (except for one disappointing show in Halifax that had such potential). I was lucky enough to be a part of two cool experimental shows at the Harbourfront World Stage this year: bluemouth’s Dance Marathon, which invented what should be a new genre – Dance Party Theatre – and Stan’s Cafe’s Of All The People in All the World, which was an art installation involving a group of awesome Brits and more rice than I’ve ever seen before in my life. I literally got paid to count grains of rice. It was a one-of-a-kind gig.
I also appeared in/helped make puppets for a Toronto Fringe kids’ venue show, the adorable glam rock puppet musical Rock Time 2009. It was a blast, even if our set almost killed us (ADVICE: don’t hire a random dude you met in a bar to build your set for you).

Of shows that I did not work on, the most memorable I saw was Soulpepper’s revival of Billy Bishop Goes to War. It’s always exciting to see shows you studied in school, especially when you can see them performed by the original cast. Especially when the original cast is Eric Peterson. I took a British friend along, and it was great to be able to take her to a true Canadian classic. So moving, and it didn’t romanticize war in the way I feared it might. Soulpepper also delivered excellent productions of Glengarry Glen Ross and Travesties. (I’m so glad there’s at least one company in town who can do justice to Tom Stoppard – Travesties‘ three hours flew by compared with CanStage’s clunky production of Rock and Roll.)

I’ve already written about My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, but the original Fringe production was a peak Fringe experience – so moving and intimate, with 80+ people packed into the little backroom theatre at Bread and Circus. My other favourite Fringe show of 2009 was Uncalled For‘s tight and thought-provoking sketch comedy show Today is All Your Birthdays.

Of nifty one-off theatre events, I loved Studio 160’s participation in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, and it was really moving to feel part of such a unique international theatrical event. I also appreciated CanStage’s reading of Tom Stoppard’s epic The Coast of Utopia as part of their Festival of New Ideas and Creation. Rare to see that many actors on one stage outside of a musical!

Finally, for sheer bizarre awesomeness, nothing could beat The Salon Automaton, which had life-size robots onstage.

What were your theatrical highlights and lowlights of 2009?

Avatarded

December 22, 2009

On Saturday I managed to rouse myself from the flu of the decade in order to see the crapfest- I mean 3D movie of the decade so that I could host the live Popcorn Panel of the decade.

This is only the third live panel we’ve ever done, but I really want to do more – they’re more, well, lively than the regular panels, and it’s awesome to have the immediate input from readers as well (how else would we learn about Unobtainium?). You can read the panel as it unfolded yesterday on the National Post’s Ampersand blog, and you can watch for an edited version in the paper next week.

As for the movie itself, wow, was it ever stupid. James Cameron is like the Thomas Kinkade of film making: over the top tacky and self-important, and bafflingly popular (some of the Pandoran landscapes reminded me of Kinkade paintings, too). For me, it became a game of listening for the next terrible one-liner that sounded ripped from a bad 80s movie (“I didn’t sign up for this shit”? For real?). I hate 3D as well – there’s something off about the focus and it gives me a headache, plus the glasses are tinted so it washes out the colour. At the same time, I had a lot of fun watching this ridonkulous million-year-long blue techno-wankfest. So I’m very frustrated, because I just wanted to flat-out hate it because James Cameron is such an annoying bastard. But I don’t. Hmph.

Good grief!

December 20, 2009

This week’s Popcorn Panel was about Tom Ford’s beautiful debut A Single Man, so naturally my chosen panelists had to be very well-dressed. Fortunately, two of the best-dressed people I know, National Post style columnist Nathalie Atkinson and playwright (and good friend) Robert Watson, graced the Popcorn Panel with their well-turned-out presence. Unfortunately, because it’s print, no one can tell what you’re wearing. So just go read the panel and imagine us as though we’ve been ripped from the pages of Vogue.

In other news, I’ve been sick all week, in the deathgrip of some terrible flu. It was thanks to the magic of Buckley’s Complete that I was able to file this panel on time, since before I took it I could barely lift my head from the pillow. Being bedridden is a good excuse to finally watch the first season of Veronica Mars, though, which makes for excellent quarantine viewing: lots of angst and melodrama. Plus, last spring I interviewed Veronica’s dad. He was a peach.

The Neverending Wedding

December 16, 2009

I love a good Toronto Fringe Festival success story. In 2006, when The Drowsy Chaperone won a bunch of Tony Awards, I bawled my face off at Lisa Lambert’s acceptance speech.

So when My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding was picked up by the Mirvishes at last summer’s Fringe, I made sure I was all over that story when the show opened last month.

And today I just received a press release saying that, although the show has to close on January 3 for a production of Cloud 9, the Mirvishes will be bringing it back for three weeks (at least) at the end of February. Woohoo!

The major piece of gossip in the Toronto theatre community for the past couple of weeks has been the funding drama surrounding Convergence Theatre’s Yichud (Seclusion), set to open at Theatre Passe Muraille in February. It was originally going to be a co-production between Passe Muraille and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, but on November 18 (less than two months before the show’s opening date, and less than one month before the beginning of rehearsals), the HGJT informed Convergence that one of their sponsors was withdrawing financial support from the production, due to “concerns that the content of Yichud (Seclusion) might be misinterpreted.” That’s $50,000. Without that cash, the show can’t go on.

I’m not going to dwell on what a cowardly move this was on the part of HGJT (that’s a post for another day), because this story doesn’t have a sad ending. Instead of canceling the production, Convergence Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille rallied, and managed to raise $40,000 in a very short period of time. The show can go on, but they need another $9,000 or the won’t be able to afford their first week of rehearsal.

If you want to give a great Hannukah present to a great group of artists working on a great show, kick them a little donation. You’ll even get a tax receipt for your trouble. Here’s what to do:

1. Go to www.artsboxoffice.ca.
2. Click on the “DONATE NOW” button. Under “FUND DESIGNATION” choose “HELP CONVERGENCE THEATRE!”

Yichud (Seclusion) is a beautiful and worthwhile piece of theatre that explores issues surrounding the Orthodox Jewish community. They deserve their first week of rehearsal.

Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Quebecois performance artist Nathalie Claude for a Q&A about acting with robots for the Toronto Star.

Claude’s show The Salon Automaton opened last week at Buddies in Bad Times, and I was finally able to see it last night. The writing could use some forceful dramaturgy (it’s at least half an hour too long), but you can’t judge this thing by the standards of a normal play. It’s not a normal play. It’s a crazy steampunk meditation on loneliness and mortality that doesn’t make all that much sense, but is never boring. AND THERE ARE ROBOTS. The Automatons of the title are beautiful and jarring, and you really do forget you’re watching robots: they just become characters in the play. And you know that weird feeling you get when an actor onstage looks out into the audience and it feels like they see you? That happened a lot with the Automatons, but with an extra crazy layer of realizing that, no, that performer is NOT looking at you, because that performer is a ROBOT and doesn’t see.

So despite the uneven writing, The Salon Automaton is an insane evening at the theatre, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Crazy Victorian mindfuckery with robots. You can’t call it “good” or “not good” – it’s just crazy and awesome.

What are you sniffing at?

December 5, 2009

Sometimes I get to do silly things in the guise of interviewing people, like hang out at a department store sniffing perfumes, which is one of my favourite frivolous ways to while away an afternoon anyway. (See?)

Ok, that only happened for an interview one time, and it was for this story in today’s paper about actress Patricia Fagan and her playwright husband Adam Pettle and how we hung out and talked perfume because of the current Soulpepper production of Parfumerie, which is the Hungarian play upon which the wonderful Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner is based. (Also, the less wonderful You’ve Got Mail.) You should go to see the play, because it will charm your pants off.

We had a lovely time sniffing perfume, and if anyone wants to buy me a very expensive Christmas present I would certainly not sneeze at a little bottle of Annick Goutal’s Petite Cherie. Just saying.

Fantastically Foxy

December 4, 2009

One of my regular gigs is the Popcorn Panel in the National Post’s Movie section every other week (it used to be every week, but the panel was a victim of downsizing last spring). As the boss of the Popcorn Panel, I get to choose the movies and the panelists. I try to find panelists who will have a particularly interesting perspective on the week’s film, based on their profession or life experience or whatever.

This week’s film is Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is one of my top movies of 2009. My guest panelists are Craig Courtice (who used to be the boss of the Popcorn Panel until he moved to Abu Dhabi two years ago) and Heather Kuipers, the owner of the lovely Beaches bookstore Ella Minnow. You can read the panel here.

As I mention in the panel, I am a big fan of foxes, both as an animal (they’re so elegant and sneaky and red!) and as a pop culture trope. This has been the case since childhood: when I was 7, the Disney character I was most excited to meet at the Magic Kingdom was Robin Hood. There is a significant Fox in one of my favourite short stories, Magic for Beginners, by my favourite short story writer, Kelly Link. I wear a lot of red, perhaps in some unconscious effort to look like a fox.

But my love for this movie is based on more than just high fox content. It was the first movie in I don’t know how long whose ending actually surprised me. Wes Anderson’s films can sometimes be a bit hard to take with their self-satisfied quirkiness, but he never shies away from unpredictable storytelling, much like Roald Dahl himself (remember how at the end of The Witches, the kid lives happily ever after…as a mouse?) Fantastic Mr. Fox is weird, but refreshingly so, which is odd because the movie feels old-fashioned in a lot of ways. Would that more makers of children’s films were to take such care in their execution and storytelling.

One last fox-thing. Here is a very stupid Flash game featuring a cute little fox.

Now, to figure out what the next Popcorn Panel should be. I’m very tempted by The Lovely Bones because I loved the book when it first came out, and have been burning with curiosity about the movie adaptation since the film rights were picked up by Peter Jackson in 2001 or whenever it was – I wonder if you can film that movie with the right amount of detachment, or if it will be a disaster of sentimentality. I guess it’s between that and Invictus, although that’s one of those films I feel like I’ve seen before. You know, SPORTS RALLYING A NATION! IMPORTANT RACIAL POLITICS! MORGAN FREEMAN AS NELSON MANDELA! GIVE US OSCARS OSCARS OSCARS! A movie like that comes out every year, whereas The Lovely Bones is a weird book to choose to adapt to film.

A couple of weeks ago, I kept getting asked to write about billionaires. First, I was assigned by the Post City Magazine to write about the Bayview Post’s “Person of the Year,” the genius philanthropist (and former eBay president) Jeff Skoll. (You can read all about him and his good works here.)

There’s not much that’s more intimidating and inspiring than interviewing a billionaire who is trying to save the world. I won’t rehash all of Skoll’s various achievements here (they’re all in the article), but it’s wonderful that someone with the resources Skoll has is doing his utmost to make a genuine difference. If more rich guys were more like him, the world would be significantly better for it.

Then, as soon as I filed my story about Skoll, my editor called me up to do a rush job on a profile of the North Toronto Post’s person of the year, Galen G. Weston. (You can read this one too, but I’m significantly less proud of it than the Skoll piece.) First of all, Weston refused all interview requests, and Loblaw wouldn’t give me anyone else to talk to, so I had to string together a story based on secondary source research. Plus, after talking to Skoll about his many impressive initiatives, writing about how Loblaws was the first grocery store to charge for plastic bags felt disingenuous. It’s not that Weston is a bad guy – he is indeed a philanthropist, and there are plenty worse corporations than Loblaw, but it was anticlimactic.

Also, I read and typed the word “Loblaw” so many times that I couldn’t stop thinking about Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog, and it is very difficult to write a proper profile of a billionaire when you are laughing your head off.