NDP cooperates with Conservatives, demonstrating the pitfalls of parliamentary democracy in Canada

I began last week’s column by stating unequivocally that there would be an election this fall. Though Canada’s political tides have shifted away from an election since I made this prediction, a fall vote remains a distinct possibility. Everyone would be well advised to keep their lawn signs handy and their campaign pins polished.

However, such an election will likely result in more of the status quo in our parliamentary democracy. Parties will only co-operate in order to maximize their political power, and true co-operation and representation will be left at the House of Commons door. One need only look at last week’s events to see why.

The major turn of events came when NDP leader Jack Layton hinted that his party might support the government in a crucial confidence vote. This, only days after Harper announced he would not engage in “backroom deals” with “socialists” and “separatists,” and after attacking Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s supposed agenda to co-operate with such social democrat scum. But to keep his government alive, the Prime Minister found himself suddenly making concessions on Employment Insurance in order to shore up NDP support.

The bizarre circumstance of a deeply conservative Prime Minister pinning the survival of his government on the support of a party that has been his strongest critic, with an Employment Insurance bill the very nature of which contradicts the ideology he has pledged to uphold, has many pundits’ heads spinning. Similarly, there has been an angry reaction on the left from those who view Layton’s support for the Harper government as a betrayal of progressive principles. It is as yet unclear what the long-term implications of this maneuvering will be for either party.

Of the two party leaders, Harper’s position is perhaps the more surprising. His party is leading in the polls and its chief rival, the Liberal Party, is under attack from all sides for its hawkish stance.

The NDP, however, were presented with a more difficult set of conditions. Had they held to their conventional position of no support for the Harper Government, they too would have been accused of being uncooperative and opportunistic, and would have been responsible for denying badly needed benefits to tens of thousands of unemployed workers—many of whom are their constituents. Yet the left’s visceral hatred of the current government, nurtured by two and a half years of anti-Conservative rhetoric from the NDP, has put Layton between a rock and a hard place.

The Liberals have made it clear they intend to fast-track the EI bill, meaning that a non-confidence vote could still topple the government this fall. It’s difficult to see how the NDP will maintain this most precarious of positions for long when the Liberals have declared, “there’s no turning back.”

Taking a step back from the nightmarish haste of recent events, last week not only exemplifies the dysfunctional nature of our current parliament, but the need for a complete overhaul of the parliamentary conventions and procedures that led us to this juncture in the first place. When Harper accused Ignatieff of harbouring a “hidden agenda” to form a coalition with the NDP supported by the Bloc, he again revealed his disdain for parliamentary democracy, which, in a country as multi-faceted as Canada, must function on the basis of co-operation between parties. Michael Ignatieff was quick to take the bait: no coalitions — we’re going it alone.

Under the current circumstances, it is hard to imagine any party securing a majority. And if Canadians do return to the polls this fall, as is likely, they may find themselves with the same formula that produced last week’s stalemate: a group of regional parties unwilling to work together, no substantive discussion or policy, and a government which effectively represents less than one quarter of the electorate.



Very loosely inspired by Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (2002), this Werner Herzog film is exactly as entertaining and batshit crazy as you’d expect a Herzog version of Bad Lieutenant to be. Excising the Catholic overtones from the Ferrera film, Herzog concentrates instead on the Lieutenant’s (Nicolas Cage) out-of-control drug and gambling addictions, and his zealous descent into corruption to support. You ain’t never seen anyone play a zealous drug addict until you’ve seen a twitchy, spastic Nicolas Cage play a zealous drug addict.

Who but Herzog would be ballsy enough to linger for a full minute on a hallucination of iguanas in extreme close-up? Who else would have characters deliver lines like “Do fish dream?” and “Shoot him again—his soul is still dancing!” Who else would let Cage deliver such a crazed performance that it makes Klaus Kinski look like Mister Rogers? Inspired by the film noir genre, Herzog takes the elements of a classic crime film and intentionally ramps them up to ridiculous extremes, setting them in a post-Katrina New Orleans that is pungent with swampy, sleazy atmosphere. At 121 minutes it could use some trimming, but The Bad Lieutenant is more fun than a desk full of iguanas.


Early in Michael Moore’s latest left-wing polemic, he and his cameraman once again shuffle up to General Motors headquarters, and Moore wearily explains to the guard, “Come on, I have not been let into this building in 20 years!” (Equally weary, the guard rolls his eyes and says into his walkie-talkie, “It’s Michael Moore here to see the chairman.”) This is a cute throwaway moment, and it contributes to the summation feeling of Moore’s new film. All the familiar elements are here—ironic stock footage, Bush-bashing, true-life horror stories, sardonic narration—at the service of a topic at the core of most of Moore’s earlier work: the wealthy class’s manipulation of capitalism for greedy purposes, and their callous indifference to the working and middle classes.

The topic may be broad, but Moore launches his most coherent, focused, and devastating attack since Roger & Me, miraculously turning the already very well documented stock market crash into a compulsively watchable story. It is a delight to be reminded of how powerful a filmmaker Moore can be, so firmly is he in control of his music, images, pacing, and tone. “I can’t really do this anymore,” he admits after his climactic stunt, and he has said in interviews that this could be his last documentary. Too bad, because when hearing Moore propose Roosevelt’s failed Bill of Rights (which would incorporate most of what Moore has lobbied for) as an alternative to unchecked capitalism, I had a startling realization: this guy might be on to something.


The text that opens Creation claims that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was the “biggest idea in the history of thought.” But this slow, stuffy film is not about Darwin’s theory (although we certainly hear the phrase “millions of variations” more than once during a montage) or the effect it had on society (although such repercussions are hinted at in several long, awkward, monologues). Instead, it concerns Darwin’s own gradual loss of faith, triggered by the death of his daughter, and the moral battle he had within himself upon writing his theory. (Basically, it’s Darwin Begins).

As played by Paul Bettany, Darwin is not a particularly dynamic screen character, and his strained relationship with his religious wife (Jennifer Connelly) is, within the context of a Hollywood biopic, fairly flat and predictable. Certainly loss of faith can be an interesting topic, but I can’t help feeling director Jon Amiel has captured the least interesting part of Darwin’s story.


It’s no fun watching a great filmmaker lose his mojo. The best that can be said for George A. Romero’s sixth zombie film is that it’s more entertainingly awful than Diary of the Dead, but this is strictly direct-to-video stuff. Picking up on some of the minor characters from that film, Survival follows a group of soldiers trying to make their way to safety during the zombie apocalypse (Or, in corny Romero-speak, “It was an us vs. them world. All we were lookin’ for was a place where there was no them.”) They meet up with O’Flynn, a mercenary who takes them to the island where he has feuded for decades with the dastardly Seamus Muldoon.

Naming his Irish characters “O’Flynn” and “Seamus Muldoon” would suggest that Romero is out of touch, but nothing prepared me for how this once gritty and intense filmmaker could make a film so free of atmosphere and absent of his usual social commentary (unless the laughable final shot indicates a swipe at partisan politics, and oh god, I hope not). With dialogue, acting, and even zombie carnage lame across the board, somebody needs to finally shoot this franchise in the head.


Ricky Gervais is a funny-looking man, and in The Invention of Lying, his first film as co-director, co-writer, and star, the denizens of an alternate universe where lying has never been conceived are relentless in pointing this out. In the most painful date in movie history since Taxi Driver, Jennifer Garner cheerfully tells him that he is “tubby and with a snub nose” (among other insults) and at one point excuses herself to go masturbate. Gervais is an expert on mining laughs from insincerity and human nature, so I laughed loud and often during The Invention of Lying.

Why, then, do I feel a tinge of disappointment? By creating The Office and Extras, Gervais has set himself an impossible standard, but I still hoped he would have handled the sentimental passages with more nuance, and not saddle himself with such a formulaic plot or a love story with so little chemistry. The film has many of the biggest laughs of the year, and times when the one-joke nature gets tedious. While high-concept studio comedies are where he is best suited, even Ricky Gervais at 60 per cent means a lot of laughs.


Todd Solondz revisits characters from 1998’s Happiness with this similarly disturbing sequel about the difficulty and sometimes impossibility of forgiveness. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is separated from her phone sex–addicted husband and haunted by the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens!). Meanwhile, Joy’s sister Trish (Allison Janney) tries to deal with her son finding out his father Bill is a convicted pedophile, when Bill (Ciaran Hinds) has just been released from jail. If the film lacks the explosive force of Happiness, maybe it’s because we’ve been down this territory with Solondz before, and really, how can you top Dylan Baker masturbating to a teen idol magazine?

The film contains some of Solondz’s most powerful scenes, like the one between Bill and his estranged son, or between Bill and a lonely woman played by Charlotte Rampling—moments so painful and emotional that they make Solondz’s gallows humour feel more cruel and condescending than usual. In *Life During Wartime
* we watch seemingly normal characters deal with overwhelming, almost ludicrous tragedy and transgression, and perhaps it’s the conflict between ludicrous and tragic that makes this film so troubling and fascinating.


In the film destined to be remembered as TIFF 2009’s other George Clooney movie, the square-jawed former Batman plays Lyn Cassady, an ex-officer of a top-secret military operation in which soldiers used supernatural powers, or, as they called it with amusing egotism, they were Jedi using the force. The film, which follows Cassady’s misadventures with a journalist (Ewan McGregor) through a terror-stricken Middle East, possesses a Coen-esque fondness for absurdity with a straight face, but there’s something off-putting about the tone of this movie.

Director Grant Heslov seems a little too sure that he’s made a clever, quirky comedy, and there is an air of self-satisfaction to the film that’s alienating. There are enough laughs in the premise to sustain the first half, but the central joke wares pretty thin, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about any of the characters. Oh, and if I see one more deadly scene where serious characters accidentally get high, I’m swearing off “quirky” comedies.


Most modern movies taking place in ’50s suburbia depict their setting as oppressive, but few suburbs are more oppressive than the one in A Serious Man. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor seeking tenure who suffers from two selfish kids and a wife who has announced her intention to leave him for another man. The Coens are sometimes guilty of being condescending to their characters, but here there is only one character, surrounded by selfish non-people who act as part of the fabric of Larry’s punishing existence. This is the Coens’ funniest movie to date (yes, even funnier than Lebowski), so rich and subtle in its observational humour and background gags that it recalls Jacques Tati. It’s also one of their darkest: I first thought this was an atheistic movie, but with its dark Jewish sensibility, this movie’s version of God is very real, and very, very uncaring.


If you thought Gummo was too mainstream you’ll love Harmony Korine’s latest and least compromising work, closer in spirit to a nasty piece of installation art than a movie. Filmed on a video camera and edited on a VCR (complete with tracking problems, sloppy cuts and “Play” and “Stop” graphics), this grainy and creepy film chronicles nothing more than the random antisocial behaviour of a group of freakish people, including, yes, the vigorous humping of trash cans, among other, even more twisted activities. Early reports that this is a musical are technically correct. Our heroes do indeed periodically sing and dance, but you won’t leave humming any of the tunes.

Korine’s grungy, working-class landscapes are always striking, but I fear Korine is guilty of making little more than a freak show that festival-going intellectuals can feel safe at, obvious social commentary be damned. But I’ll give Korine this: as angry his film made me, it has definitely lingered in my memory.


Michael Haneke is one of the chilliest filmmakers around, and The White Ribbon might be his chilliest movie. After the startling, graphic evil depicted in his earlier films, this slow, black and white mood piece is even more austere than usual, but similarly unnerving. Set in a small German village on the eve of the First World War, fear and distrust strike the populace when an unexplained series of violent incidents begins. In Haneke’s dark vision, nobody comes off looking good: not the sexually abusive Baron, nor the corrupt Pastor, nor the strict and uncaring teacher, nor even the children. I don’t think this is quite top-drawer Haneke. I suppose I held it at arm’s length, admiring its craft but not getting sucked in as mercilessly as Cache, Funny Games, and The Piano Teacher. Still, this is a painful and powerful film, with Haneke’s gorgeous compositions contrasted harshly to his brittle, cruel characters. This village is as rigorously oppressive as that of A Serious Man, and Haneke’s unmistakable inference is that the village’s climate of fear, unfounded hatred, and deep distrust for those who do not conform foreshadows the rise of the Nazis.

Get Active!

Around the world, students are responding to what journalists often refer to as “the biggest challenge facing humanity.” It’s the worldwide effort to transition to a more sustainable society, and mitigate the conditions that will cause catastrophic climate change and the Earth’s sixth great mass extinction (the only one caused by our species).

This week is Earth Cycle at U of T, a week organized to create awareness and get students involved. The environment is at the top of many people’s minds.

UTSU, OPIRG, GSU, and UTERN, among others, are all student groups that address climate change. But they often face difficult internal problems and lack cooperation between them. These groups—all of which receive a student levy—could be far more active on these fronts, and it’s reasonable to predict they will be.

However, the world has very little time to wait. Climate scientists have provided peer-reviewed evidence that anthropogenic climate change is happening very quickly, and that we don’t have a lot of time to make the necessary big changes. “Baby steps” and slow transitions are not adequate. We need to work together, and quickly.

The necessity of creating more renewable energy infrastructure—which the province’s Energy minister has just begun to do—is therefore urgent. So is halting the tar sands expansion and persuading the Harper government to stop obstructing international climate negotiations. In the absence of responsible leadership from government and corporate sectors in Canada, students must fill the gap.

Already, students are taking on many initiatives. Some are working to make the campus more energy efficient by urging President Naylor to sign the Presidents’ Climate Initiative. Two engineering students went to their department head and got green architecture and design courses introduced into the course calendar. Others regularly organize climate and water justice lectures and films. And thousands are part of Powershift, a worldwide student movement for action on climate change.

A few students at U of T do a lot of good work, but many more could be involved on a downtown campus of 40,000, particularly when we are in the midst of that critical period of history when it is still possible to prevent catastrophe. As geography professor Danny Harvey notes, “much has been lost but there is still much that can be saved.”

In other parts of the world, such as Germany and Norway, student groups are doing incredible work, but Canada sees too many young people unthinkingly subscribe to the norms of a society which operates at the expense of future generations and other species. I wonder “why not here?”

Part of the answer lies in how a production-oriented society influences our decision-making. During the Governing Council student elections, a Varsity reporter noted that typical applicants are either “ambitious resume-padders or fiery reform advocates” (Jan. 15, 2009). This turn of phrase neatly describes the twin motivations of many students who get involved in environmental issues at U of T. One could also phrase this as the distinction between those who assume responsibility but fail to carry it out, and those who work very hard to bring about change. As with most human endeavours, it is impossible to neatly classify people into one group or the other. We each have a bit of both in us.

Resume-padding and careerism is endemic to academia, and the environmental concern is no exception. Yet there is also something in the human spirit that can aspire to hope for more and do more. Concern for the other, whether human or non-human, is at the heart of environmentalism. It persuades the engineering student to study “green design” and to forgo the higher paying job with Exxon Mobil. It leads the university administrator to form a greening committee in his or her department or building—and there are many such committees at U of T. It leads a professor to design an interdisciplinary course incorporating environmental awareness.

Environmental concern can compel anyone in the university community to eschew elitism and individualism and embrace community-building around common ideals. But this is not merely idealistic; in the era of climate change and finite resource depletion, it is also a practical necessity.

Paul York is a graduate student and founder of Students Against Climate Change.

Ex Appeal

In a short film from 1947 called Johnny at the Fair, a five-year-old boy and his family spend an exciting afternoon at the Canadian National Exhibition. Bored while his parents peruse the art exhibits, little Johnny sneaks away and embarks on a wondrous adventure, touring the midway, hobnobbing with celebrities (Joe Louis, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Olsen and Johnson), and even visiting an exhibit called “Chemical Wonderland,” where a smiling Ex employee throws him a bouncy ball of Plutonium. Oh, 1947…

I was much like Johnny when I was his age. During my first few years at the Ex, my parents would always make me watch the Second World War veterans’ parade—an unbelievably boring spectacle if you’re five. While my grandpa waved at us in the audience, I anxiously eyed the midway, shaking like a junkie going through withdrawal.

What I love about Johnny at the Fair is its wide-eyed innocence: like my own five-year-old self, Johnny is able to take the Ex purely at face value. For me, the Ex began to lose a lot of its luster when I became a teenager. Why, I asked, would I waste my time on The Zipper or The Haunted House when I could get a better rush on the Drop Zone at Wonderland? Why would I want to wander through a shopping centre with a bunch of skinny men in crew cuts selling mops and Jacuzzis when I could just go to the mall? And oh dear god, what sort of social suicide would I face if one of my friends saw me with my parents at the Superdogs?

Granted, Johnny had the advantage of living in a time when the Ex was a decidedly greater cultural force than it is now. Whenever I go to the Ex, I wander through the always-unchanged “Hall of Memories” (I love seeing that same picture of the Three Stooges year after year) and suspect that I’m witnessing a wistful yearning for better times rather than a pleasant walk down memory lane. Indeed, it sometimes feels like the Ex is virtually unchanged since Johnny visited: a decaying time warp from an era when a trampoline act was exciting and cultural exploration consisted of eating Chinese Chicken Balls at the Food Building.

But this year is different. This year, Bill Clinton is coming to deliver a speech, and curiosity has compelled me to buy a ticket. In the years since the end of his mediocre presidency, Clinton has painstakingly transformed himself into a beloved elder statesman, and one of the most expensive and sought-after public speakers in the world. The Ex, which boasted Elvis Stojko and Petula Clarke as its other big guests this year, rarely lands such an A-list attraction.

I’m back to see Clinton, but this isn’t the first time I’ve been lured to my old haunt. The turning point came last summer when ’70s singer and Branson, Missouri mainstay Tony Orlando came to perform. My knowledge of Mr. Orlando came from his frequent appearances on the Jerry Lewis Labour Day Telethon, where the washed-up entertainer annually belts out his couple of nearly forgotten hits and generally appears as a sad testament to the fickle nature of fame.

I’m ashamed to say that I went to Orlando’s concert solely to laugh at him. “Any Tony Orlando fans out there?” asked the DJ from the radio station sponsoring the event, and I chortled when the throngs of middle-aged couples enthusiastically cheered this kitschy, hack relic of the ’70s. But when Orlando came out on stage and launched into his repertoire, pausing now and then to tell a funny anecdote or banter with his band, he was actually good. Nobody would confuse him for Bob Dylan, but what he lacked in artistry he made up for in likeability, stage presence, and a keen understanding of how to put on a crowd-pleasing, well-paced show. I daresay that I (gulp) enjoyed his performance un-ironically.

I feel much the same way about Clinton. His speech was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship: from the opening moments when he praised Toronto, talked about how much he enjoys fairs like the Ex, and revealed his memories of Ted Kennedy (whose funeral he had come directly from), it’s clear that this is a man who knows how to make sweet, gentle love to his audience. The thousands of people in the BMO Field were eating out of his hand. When he launched into what I can only assume is his standard speech about the environment, the potential for political unity, and the essential goodness of humanity, he occasionally sprinkled it with crowd-pleasing facts about Toronto and the Ex (did you know that the Ex was the first fair to have electric lights?).

There was nothing life-changing about the speech, and I doubt it really mobilized anyone in the audience, but I appreciated it for what it was: a chance to see an old pro deliver a smooth, well-oiled performance. Later, I headed to Ricoh Coliseum to see an ice show of popular songs from movies, during which Elvis Stojko skated to the Kill Bill theme. This was a pretty dreadful show, but there was Elvis, giving a technically flawless performance and providing some mild entertainment.

The Ex is no longer the Toronto juggernaut it once was, but neither is it the tacky embarrassment I saw in my teens. It’s a charming diversion, a chance to play a game of Bingo, sit in a hammock-chair, try out a Miracle Mop, watch a man being fired out of a cannon, or some cows get milked, and leave your self-consciousness behind. Eating my traditional bag of Tiny Tom donuts, embracing the modest pleasures of this tired old fair, I feel, for the first time in perhaps a decade, a little like Johnny.

Genocide in Sri Lanka

It’s time to start calling the situation what it is.

As Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long civil war drew to a close in May of this year, allegations that the Sri Lankan government engaged in genocide against the ethnic Tamil minority proliferated. The editorial boards of all three national newspapers argue these cries are an overblown and frenzied reaction to a much more complicated problem, and comparisons with similar situations in Cambodia and Rwanda have been dismissed.

This Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Hart House, the Hart House Debates Committee and the Canadian International Council will host a panel entitled Sri Lanka: Short Term Imperatives and Long Term Solutions, which will discuss how to bring about lasting peace in the region. The panelists must not gloss over the inconvenient reality in Sri Lanka: the government has committed genocide in every sense of the word .

The UN Convention on the Crime of Genocide lays out specific conditions for determining whether a particular humanitarian crisis can be considered genocide. According to Article II, genocide is defined in international law as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such.”

Genocide can consist of killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Each of these conditions is present in the Sri Lankan case.

An investigation by the Times of London found that in the final days of the war at least 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed, almost entirely by government shelling after being routed onto a small strip of land. That figure represents nearly three times the number of civilians killed in the Srebenica massacre in the Balkans, which is commonly considered a genocide.

In late 2007, Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, published a report in which he concluded that torture was “widely practiced in Sri Lanka.” A new report by the International Crisis Group, an international NGO set on preventing and resolving crises, details how Sri Lanka has further institutionalized the use of torture against minority Tamils. It notes the “endemic torture” practiced by official state agencies, and draws attention to the courts, especially the Supreme Court, who encourage and “abet human rights violations on a daily basis.”

In blatant defiance of international law, the Sri Lankan government is imprisoning some 270,000 Tamil civilians in detention camps where access by independent media is prohibited, according to Human Rights Watch. Despite unspeakable sanitary conditions, inadequate access to food and water, widespread disease, overcrowding, mental illness, and crime within these camps, the International Committee of the Red Cross has recently been asked to scale down its operations, while other aid workers have been told to leave the island entirely. Although the government had guaranteed that the civilians would be resettled within six months, it has pushed that deadline back and now openly advocates establishing permanent structures within the camps.

The government has set up what it calls “rehabilitation centres” for the reintegration of several hundred child soldiers who were recruited into the Tamil Tigers during the civil war. The reality of these camps, however, is that they “fall short of internationally recognized best practice,” according to a press release issued in July by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, an umbrella group headed by Amnesty International. The Coalition further asserts that these children have inadequate access to their families. The facilities are surrounded by barbed wire.

Despite such evidence, it’s still contended that what’s going on in Sri Lanka is not a genocide. Some argue that even though the government is engaged in “genocidal acts,” the crucial condition of “genocidal intent” is not satisfied. They argue the government’s intent is to prevent the resurgence of the LTTE, the rebel group it defeated in May, and not to harm civilians.

But the government itself has openly acknowledged that the LTTE no longer poses a threat. In late June when the United States issued a travel advisory warning against Sri Lanka because of possible LTTE activity, the Sri Lankan government angrily denied that the LTTE posed any threat whatsoever and called the allegations “totally baseless.”

There is, however, a wealth of documentary evidence showing that the government does indeed intend to harm Tamil former combatents. The nongovernmental group University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), recently issued a report on an incident where government troops slaughtered LTTE fighters after these fighters had surrendered. “The army had for the most part conducted itself in a disciplined manner in trying to protect civilians. But once the command gives a signal for barbarity to be let loose, the men touch the most depraved depths of humanity,” the report reads.

We must first be clear about the nature of a problem before we can even begin to talk about ways of addressing it. Thus, a meaningful international response to what is happening in Sri Lanka must start with recognizing the crisis for what it is: a genocide. Far from being an issue of semantics, acknowledging this would activate legal obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention that countries like Canada have agreed to follow.

In her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power concludes that one of the reasons for the recurrence of genocide is the unwillingness of policymakers to identify it when it happens. “They avoid use of the word ‘genocide,’” she writes. “Thus they can in good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract, while simultaneously opposing [their] involvement in the moment.”

It is impossible to overstate the sense of urgency or seriousness in Sri Lanka. The international community must face the reality.

Film Review: Love Happens

The opinions of audiences going to see Brandon Camp’s new film, Love Happens, can be easily depicted by the viewers who were seated to my left and right. My companions in the theatre were a sort of critic-version of the standard devil and angel, each whispering (quite loudly) mixed feelings into my ears. To my left presided a burly and cynical film critic with loftier aspirations than the latest Jennifer Aniston flick, and to my right an elderly couple who were moved by the intended flow of the movie, sobbing at the sad parts and laughing hysterically at the funny ones.

Love Happens stars Aniston and Aaron Eckhart and follows the path of a self-help guru who hypocritically doesn’t follow his own advice. Eckhart’s character, Burke, is still reeling over the death of his wife and coping with an alcohol problem. Aniston plays a florist, fresh out of a bad breakup, who is initially skeptical of both him and his practice. Antics ensue, and she proceeds to help him take the steps he needs to move on.

My devil to the left had no qualms about audibly sharing his disgust at the film, routinely grunting throughout. While he may have taken himself a tad too seriously, I did understand where he was coming from. Aniston’s character, Eloise—through no fault of the actress—is shallowly written and gains nothing from the storyline. While she helps Eckhart’s character through his problems, he does nothing in turn. Eloise’s issues mainly consist of a typical woman-screwed-over-by guys plot and she shows no other depth or complexity. An attempt is made to dive into Eloise’s history when she and Burke visit her mother, who appears to have a problem with alcohol herself (as is suggested by excessive beer bottles and a hint of crazy), but the movie never raises the issue again.

The only interesting aspects about Eloise are her quirks. She has a unique capability to continuously call out Burke on his hypocrisy in a humorous but blunt fashion. For self-gratification, she enjoys writing bizarre words (such as “poppysmic”) behind paintings in the hotel she works for.

Burke’s line of work often deserves a groan or two throughout the movie. At one point he stops Seattle traffic by dragging his workshop members into the middle of the street and forcing them to describe what they see, hear, and feel. When all of them describe things like “cars honking,” “a middle finger,” and “pollution” he takes them to the very top of an adjacent building and asks them the same question. This time, the responses predictably run along the line of “fresh air,” “the sea,” and “the sunshine.” The point of this exercise is to show that everything can change with a different perspective, even though they’re in the same place—a little “aw” inducing, but mostly cringe-worthy.

The character I found most fascinating was Walter, played by John Carroll Lynch, a gruff man struggling with the untimely and accidental death of his son at his construction site. Walter deals with a highly realistic but interesting combination of guilt and anger, a closed-off exterior, and a skepticism of Burke’s work that the audience can clearly relate to. As the film progresses, his character continues to shine. The moment when he is able to shop at a hardware store again, however small a moment it may be, is truly moving.

I would by no means label this movie a romantic comedy, but rather a romance with comedic bits—some of which fell very flat. Potentially the loudest “Oh, God!” produced by my neighbour came when each of the workshop members describe how they had been dealing with the deaths of their loved ones. One woman described how her late husband wanted her to have a plaster replica done of him, which seems a tad odd, but overall understandable. She then proceeds to explain that it’s of his genitalia, and that it was created so that they can still make love. The joke then becomes sick, twisted, and the potential subject of an entirely different, dark, underground indie film.

Despite these moments, the angels to my right continued to weep and break into hysterics on cue, lending support to my opinion that Love Happens is not as bad as I thought it would be. The film does attempt to have more depth than the average romance, and although at times I felt as though it was trying to be Elizabethtown without the authenticity, it succeeded in avoiding a completely superficial tone.

In the end, I left empathizing with both my devil and my angels. I genuinely enjoyed Love Happens, and although I can see much room for improvement, it exceeded my expectations.

What’s the 311?

Torontonians will soon be able to access city info at all hours, when the city’s 311 service opens to the public on Sept. 24. Callers will dial 311 for information and services, whether it’s to report that gaping pothole or a missed garbage collection.

311 is meant to improve accessibility to non-emergency city services, answering the majority of enquiries on the first call. It replaces Access Toronto, which directed callers to various departments. This system brings together many different computer work-order systems to streamline service delivery.

Callers can get a tracking number for some service requests. The list of trackable services is expected to grow as the 311 operation expands.

“I believe that residents and businesses are entitled to high-quality, efficient, and easily accessible services,” said mayor David Miller. “311 Toronto ensures that every resident has direct access to a city employee who can help, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Initially, residents can contact 311 by phone, email, or snail mail. In the coming months, the 311 service will expand on the web at toronto.ca/311, and allow residents to make service requests and track the status of their requests online.

Fourth time is the charm for the service: after Miller first raised the idea in 2003, launch dates were set for July and September 2008. The launch date for this July was delayed because of the city workers strike.

The city will use compiled data from 311 calls and service requests to plan, forecast, and budget for improved service delivery. The call centre at Metro Hall on John Street is expected to field 7,000 calls per day, with 70 staffers at peak times and as few as five for overnight shifts.

Staff are available to respond in more than 180 languages, and there is TTY service for the hearing impaired. Staff were trained to learn 15,000 answers to 13,800 possible questions.

Season Preview: Being Erica

Being Erica is a television show that straddles genres: it’s not a comedy, but it can be wildly funny; it’s not a drama per se, but is at times very dramatic; it’s not a romance, but…well, you get the idea. Perhaps it is this broad spectrum that has allowed Being Erica to reach such a wide fan base and enter a second season.

The premise of the show is one that many of us wish we could experience. The titular character, Erica Strange (Erin Karpluk), is a charming and witty 32-year-old dissatisfied with her life and overdue for a change. Each episode, she magically goes back in time to fix one of the many mistakes she feels put her on the “wrong path.” Through these trips down memory lane, Erica works to find and come to terms with herself, largely through the help of her enigmatic shrink, Dr. Tom (Michael Riley).

The first season was a huge success and Being Erica has secured its place on CBC television’s line-up, despite fears budget cuts would put the new show on the chopping block. “Erica Strange” has even secured nearly 1,500 Facebook friends. (Not bad for a fictional character.) The show’s writing is fresh and fun when it needs to be, and poignant and emotional at particularly harrowing times in Erica’s journey. The casting also works effectively, particularly talented Canadian actors Karpluk and Riley. Karpluk, who has previously appeared on The L-Word
* and *Godiva’s
, brings an authenticity and vulnerability to Erica that make her relatable and easy to root for. On his part, Riley’s performance blows every preconceived notion about psychiatrists out of the water.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s the show’s setting that makes it come alive. Toronto serves wonderfully as the backdrop to this series—it has all the beauty and bustle of a big city, without the overused triteness of Central Park and Times Square (no offense to New York). After all the screen time Toronto has played substitute for other major cities, it is refreshing to see the city cast as itself for once.

The landmarks we all take for granted at U of T are shown in a new light. Places like the CN Tower, the Distillery District, and even the Starbucks in the Toronto Life Building become as much a part of the show’s fabric as its characters and plot lines. One episode, for instance, showcased the Toronto Islands. Though I have been there and done that (or perhaps because I’ve been there and done that), watching Erica relive her perfect day there eating funnel cake at Centreville made me take a longer look at how this city has shaped my own memories. (It also made me crave funnel cake.)

More important than the warm fuzzy feeling and the ability to say “I know where that is!” is how the rest of the TV audience sees Toronto and Torontonians. In every episode, there seems to be a genuine effort to share a bit of Toronto with the audience, from small complaints about the traffic on Bloor to more elaborate things like touring Casa Loma. It gives Toronto a good name, so to speak. Those watching in the States (and there are many) finally get to see a glimpse of Canada that is far from our typical maple syrup and hockey exports.

Season two of Being Erica, like season one, promises to be full of different challenges and harder decisions for the title character. The major problems she faced in the first season, such as finding direction in her career and being in a relationship, have for the most part been addressed, so it will be interesting to watch how the writers let the show evolve and find more nuanced issues to explore.

I would probably watch Being Erica regardless of its Canadian content. After all, a good show is a good show. But how can I not be a number-one fan when I see Ms. Strange participating in a Drop Fees rally at U of T and then head off to class at Vic?

The second season of Being Erica premiers on CBC Tuesday, September 22 at 9 p.m.