Monday, December 29, 2008

Magical Midnight Cinema: The Silent Partner

Gizli Ortak = The Silent Partner (maybe)

I was dizzy from lack of sleep after waking up early for Boxing Day then fighting the crowds for five hours, but when The Silent Partner began with scenes of The Toronto Eaton Centre in 1978, I could not help watching. Initially, it was the time capsule aspect that fascinated me but the movie's plot soon drew me in.

Elliott Gould plays banker, Miles Cullen, a man so underestimated that his boss considers him a safe escort for his mistress, a co-worker of Miles and his secret crush. After accidentally coming across a bank robbery note, Miles deduces that the note is the product of a failed robbery attempt and belongs to the Mall Santa who has been loitering outside the bank. Miles correctly predicts another robbery attempt by the Mall Santa and takes advantage of the situation to transfer money into his own lunchbox, allowing the escaping robber to take the blame for the $50,000 stolen.

The Mall Santa, Harry (Christopher Plummer), is quick to realize that Miles has stolen the majority of the money when news reports fail to match up to his measly $1500 take. After witnessing Harry's brutal beating of a teenage prostitute, the audience knows what Miles soon learns: that Miles has made himself the target of a violent psychopath. What follows is a dangerous game of wits in which a seemingly mild-mannered banker is pitted against a murderous criminal with a vendetta.

Many aspects of The Silent Partner endeared the film to me. The fact that Toronto is featured so prominently when so many movies made in Canada at the time tried to pass off their generic settings as American; Miles works in the Bank of Toronto, doles out Canadian money, and makes reference to actual streets and neighbourhoods in Toronto.

More importantly, I appreciated that screenwriter, Curtis Hansen, who went on to direct L.A. Confidential, did not insult the viewer's intelligence with heist clichés or characters making groan-inducing decisions (writers of "Heroes" take note). Miles's decision to go on the offense rather than simply give up the money to Harry or the authorities is surprising and hence, exciting to watch.

It should also be noted that Christopher Plummer makes for a scary psychopath. Whereas he merely comes across as prickly in The Sound of Music, Plummer's depiction of murderous rage barely contained by an icy demeanor makes Miles's actions all the more thrilling since my own reaction would have been to run crying to the police and the relative safety of a prison cell. Even in drag, Plummer is frightening to behold.

It may be raising expectations too highly to ask readers of this blog to try and obtain a copy of an obscure film like The Silent Partner. However, if the movie ever shows up in the middle of the night, it is worth staying up for.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Getting paid and spending money

Christmas is finally over and it was not bad. Joe and I ate Chinese microwaveable dinners for brunch then we tripped around a skating rink riddled with plastic bags, bread and a winter coat peeking out from its surface. Afterwards, we saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, during which I pretty much cried non-stop when I was not stuffing my face with chips, sausage and chocolate soy milk. Finally, we ate our Christmas dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, lamenting the fact that Swiss Chalet does not actually offer their festive special on Christmas.

But enough with the holiday nostalgia - it is time for some Boxing Day madness! Spending money should be preceded by earning money, which ties this blog entry in with a tag from Dymaxion World regarding my history of paid employment.

Liberty Health - My first paid position and the one that established my anti-corporate work stance based mainly on extreme boredom. The prospect of working in that soulless environment for the next 25 years scared the socialism into me.

Kumon / Success Tutorial / Sylvan - It seems a cruel joke that I should become a tutor at the very tutorial schools that I once attended but this was indeed the case, thus providing a new spin on the adage 'Those who cannot do, teach'. I taught math up to the Grade 11 level before it became clear that some of the students were more qualified than I was.

The Varsity - Getting a masthead position at the student newspaper involved campaigning for votes. In my naivete, I promised more editorial coverage of Puff Daddy to a voting body who obviously preferred Spiritualized, for instance. Luckily, political infighting got me elected, but I continued to pull a Homer when I realized that it was a paid position with my first pay cheque.

Danier Leather / Crabtree & Evelyn - Holiday retail is amazing, no sarcasm intended. The highlight of my experience occurred on Christmas Eve when a male customer arrived in a panic because he needed a gift for his brother's new wife, who he was meeting for the first time. "Nothing says 'love' like a $100 gift basket," I suggested - advice that the customer took to the cash register.

Toronto Life / Eye Weekly - Technically, I was only paid an honorarium as a Toronto Life intern but Eye Weekly published my articles, which is priceless. As a tadpole in a pond of piranhas, it soon became clear that I was a fish out of water, and I gave up on metaphor and a career in journalism.

The Blue Book of Canadian Business - The worst boss that I have ever had to date was the owner of this publication. The man spent equal time on the golf course and in a court of law, which is to say that he was both irresponsible and vindictive. I complained previously about my experience, but to that, I would add that when I called in sick one day, he left a voice message in which he questioned the verity of my illness since I had not answered the phone. As well, he only agreed to pay me the listed annual salary of $23,000, as opposed to $22,000, due to a typo.

Living Arts Centre - In spite of the insane four hour daily commute and the stress-induced bout of bronchitis (blogged previously), I worked as a camp counsellor at LAC for two summers because I genuinely enjoyed the kids. However, after one child lost a tooth because I refused to enforce the camp's 'no running because we can't afford the insurance' policy, it became clear that I am not good for children.

High Level Wellness - The greatest stresses of the position were the customers, who either suffered from failing health or a high sense of entitlement, and my Ann Coulter-like co-worker. The big plus of the position was the close proximity to a gym, which brought about a permanent weight loss of 10 pounds, verified by the parcel scale that I sat on once a week. Still, I was pretty damn happy when I was finally laid off.

Ryerson University - After my last blog about this position, I enlisted my predecessor, who was only too happy to screw over her former boss, to be my referee and thus, successfully obtained my current position. Like a coward, I slipped my two week's notice into my boss's mailbox on a Friday, which I thought quite generous since, as a part-time contract worker, my boss could fire me without notice. To my surprise, my boss displayed a characteristic hybrid of diplomacy and rage when she emailed an offer of one week's pay to "maintain good relations" along with an order to turn in my keys to the department immediately. My replacement barely lasted a month.

University of Toronto - It should be noted that my decision to apply for my current position at U of T was inspired by an amicable summer stint, plus the promise of a free education for me and my family, and the 'Rolls Royce' of pensions. Nothing more to say, which is a good thing.

Some of my most rewarding and interesting jobs were voluntary: as a candy striper at St. Michael's, Women's College, and Scarborough General Hospitals, as an assistant to the world's expert on jungle fowl behaviour, and as an Ambassador for Kids Help Phone. What you are willing to do for free can reveal as much about you as what you are willing to do for money. On that last thought, I confess that I was willing to submit to psychological experiments for $12-20 per hour but I was not willing to submit fecal samples on demand.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Make it go away

I'm ready for the Christmas season to be over. Most of my relatives are out of town and, as a result, I expected greater enjoyment of the holiday but the pressure to do something worthwhile is stressing me out. Buying gifts, giving gifts, plotting out social activities - nothing has made this season satisfying or real. I guess that I will just have to grit my teeth and bear it. Next year's possible strategy: leave the country until Christmas passes.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Night Play List: Snowmageddon

As Torontonians hunker down in their igloos, determined not to call on the army lest the rest of Canada laugh at them again, I propose some music to keep everyone distracted.

"Hasn't Hit Me Yet" - Blue Rodeo
"Jed's Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)" - Grandaddy
"Almost" - Sarah Harmer
"Bobcaygeon" - The Tragically Hip
"Ice Ice Baby" - Vanilla Ice
"Informer" - Snow

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Retail therapy for the cold and flat

An artist's representation of Winnipeg's future IKEA store

Christmas has come early for Winnipeg residents who are beside themselves over news that Swedish home products retailer, IKEA will be coming to town. A dedicated website, an online petition and a Facebook group have brought about a promise from IKEA to bring their good design at low prices to the coldest capital city in the world by late 2011, at the earliest.

Winnipeg mayor, Sam Katz has revealed that emails he received about IKEA were second in volume (and possibly winsomeness) only to emails about the return of the NHL team, the Jets.

I understand the excitement to some extent. As a downtown resident, a visit to IKEA is a planned day trip involving a car rental from Autoshare; my mouth waters at the prospect of Swedish meatballs. And yet, I wonder if there nothing else to aspire towards if you live in Winnipeg.

In the interim three years before the arrival of IKEA, Winnipegers will have to find solace elsewhere. Might I suggest the following sources of retail therapy:

  • Mountain Equipment Co-Op - like IKEA, it promotes an environmentally responsible image except they sell products that will help residents survive the winter. In contrast, a Poang chair will do nothing to protect Winnipegers from the cold.
  • Exchange District - apparently, it's a very charming part of Winnipeg with historic buildings and cobblestones (good friction even in snow and ice). Boutiques are great sources for limited edition items because Winnipegers will soon learn that one downside of IKEA is seeing your dresser, chair, and dining set in your friend's house...and bed sheet, and sofa...
  • Up in Flames by Caribou (formerly Manitoba) - this is a retail purchase as opposed to a destination. The album is full of upbeat electronic music that will make any snowdrift look like a pile of fun. My personal favourite is "Crayon".

I have seen Guy Maddin's My Winnpeg, and living in the city did seem to require a lot of magic realism, or some dedicated plan of escape. It therefore seems fitting that Winnipeg should have a marriage of convenience with the most magical of Swedish retailers.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My latest obsession: Rihanna's "Rehab" video

I have always believed that Rihanna sounds like a robot and that a less attractive girl with the same voice would not have experienced her level of success. Justin Timberlake is admittedly a guilty pleasure whose music I tend to enjoy more in the absence of his face. And yet, combine Rihanna and Justin in a remote trailer park with a good base beat and you get hotness!

In Rihanna's "Rehab" video, Rihanna and Justin build resentful, sexual tension prowling around each other in the middle of a desert trailer park, art directed by some high fashion magazine. She struts around in every possible variation of the granny panty to show off her amazing thighs: a 1950s bikini, a graphical knit bodysuit, a power suit jacket with fishnets. He rides in on a motorcycle but only saunters over to Rihanna after hosing himself down under an open air shower. Her accessories, hair and makeup are better than they have any right to be considering that she is in the middle of nowhere. He barely contributes to the song yet makes like a good hip hop honey when skulking in the background. The song is all about heart break but it's a tease because the tone is definitely 'come hither'.

Watch the video and have the mistletoe ready.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Viva Las Vegas

Fed up with running in the dark, cold Toronto winter, I signed up for the Las Vegas Half-Marathon (December 7, 2008) in a bid to take advantage of my training for the Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon (September 28, 2008). It turns out that I had overestimated my will to train over the two months that separate the events but the latter race was an excuse to go to Las Vegas so all was not lost.

Our trip to Las Vegas showed signs of being auspicious when we walked past George Stroumboulopoulos at Pearson Airport. The surreal sight of tiny George carrying his home on his back was matched only by the guy doing yoga in the waiting area of our departure gate. Yoga guy gave the exercise a bad name with his weak extensions and socks like swiss cheese. Eventually, he ceased embarrassing yogis everywhere by stopping to buy himself a hamburger.

After a plane ride during which passengers decided to start the party early by acting half their age, we arrived in Las Vegas to find ourselves surrounded by cowboys: the National Finals Rodeo was in town (December 4-13, 2008). One would think that participants in the upcoming marathon would be harder to identify than rodeo enthusiasts but it turns out that runners wear a uniform, too. Attendees of the Quality of Life Expo, where racers pick up their race packs, wore their running shoes, and even their technical t-shirts and shorts in order to, literally, run into the convention centre. It was as if runners were incapable of putting on any pedestrian outfit that would not allow them to exercise their cardio at a moment's notice.

Joe and I were not slaves to our running gear and we proceeded to punish our arches by walking in fashion shoes for eight hours a day during the first two days of our trip. As usual, we were driven by our slavish need to see everything, and on the second day, our need to exercise our rights as consumers at the Las Vegas Premium Outlets. Among the amazing deals that we could not pass up:
Calvin Klein Merino Sweaters - originally $59.99, reduced to $26.99
Armani Exchange Shirt Dress - originally $120.00, reduced to $49.00
Theory Melinda Patent Leather Flat Shoes - originally $295.00, reduced to $59.00
Polo Ralph Lauren Cashmere Blend Peacoat - originally $425.00, reduced to $69.99

We arrived at Premium Outlets at 10am and expected to be finished by early afternoon. We left feeling a mix of delight and dismay at 5pm. As we watched the sun set from the outlet mall's taxi queue, Joe exclaimed, "I can't believe we spent the whole day here." The couple in front of us chimed in with their own disbelief and we soon discovered that we were flanked by Canadians, or more specifically, Albertans - two parties in front and one couple behind us. We ended up sharing a cab with the couple who were also in Las Vegas for the half-marathon, and not for the rodeo as one might assume of visitors from Canada's Lone Star province.

The Albertans were the ones to warn us to allot at least 30 minutes to arrive at the start line of the race, and not the 15 minutes that I had planned. It turned out to be good advice as the race corral was a mess. Runners were simply divided into two categories: elite and everyone else, which meant that marathon runners, half-marathon runners, walkers, wheel chair racers, and baby joggers all ran circles around each other in a bid for room. With a whopping 13,000 participants, there were bound to be people who were not familiar with running etiquette. Sure enough, some racers recreated their version of local attraction, the Hoover Dam by walking in the middle of the race course, companionably side by side, forcing runners to dash around them or wait patiently for a fissure in the wall to break through.

However, the frustration of dealing with race neophytes was easy to ignore in the first 10km with the spectacle of the start line fire works, Robin Leach, and the fully lit Vegas Strip to distract us. And by the time the race route wove through desolate downtown Las Vegas in the second half of the half-marathon course, slower racers had fallen away allowing runners an unobstructed view of the seedy motel apartments and their listless occupants.

During the race, the temperature was an ideal 5C with only a moderate breeze and an overcast sky. The only fly in the ointment was the dryness of the desert, which remained even in the absence of any heat. It amazed me to see the line up for the porto-potties along the route since it took a few hours after the end of the race before I even heard nature's call.
Before the run, Joe and I had already begun indulging ourselves with two McDonald's meals in a row and this continued with a crusade to In-N-Out Burger the day after the race. Although the In-N-Out Burger was located well within walking distance, it was a challenge to cross a passive aggressive freeway overpass that forced pedestrians down serpentine walkways under bridges or mislead them onto disappearing sidewalks, in order to reach the fast food outlet. In the end, it was worth it because In-N-Out Burger is simply amazing.

With the exception of shopping and fast food, Joe and I failed to take advantage of other Las Vegas past times like drinking alcohol in public places (in my case, not at all) or gambling (we lost $20). One Las Vegas staple that we managed to score cheap tickets for was Cirque de Soleil's KÀ. We had high hopes for the show but were ultimately disappointed by the overly convoluted production and the uncharitable show producers.

Robert LePage, the show's creator, is reknowned for his technically clever theatre productions but his stage mechanics overshadow the human performers of KÀ. In fact, the only moments during which KÀ succeeded in mesmerizing us were when the skill of the performers was the sole feature on stage: a pas de deux of hand shadow puppets, a solo performance using a pair of batons, and the circus classic, the Wheel of Death. Technical difficulties caused a whole act to loop for what seemed like an eternity before grinding to a halt when it became clear to the performers that they could not stall any longer. The audience were encouraged to go out for intermission while the crew attempted to fix the convoluted equipment and when the show reconvened, a new scene began without explanation. The audience had clapped in support of the performers before the intermission, but, by the end of the show, the applause was less enthusiastic. There was no offer by the management of a partial refund or a rain check for another showing.
On our last day, we were lucky enough to catch the re-launch of the Mirage Volcano. We arrived early enough to position ourselves behind a short couple and therefore, had a nearly unobstructed view of the new volcano, featuring more explosive 'lava', a frantic drum soundtrack, and unexplainable dancing flames shooting out from the water. When the volcano's encore performance came shortly afterwards, Joe and I were lucky enough to be standing on the road median and therefore had a long view of the fireworks (photo seen above).

Leaving Las Vegas meant traveling with a crowd similar to the yahoos that we traveled to Las Vegas with and, of course, another celebrity sighting. Mike "Pinball" Clemons arrived in Las Vegas just as we were departing, and was chased down by the most stereotypical team of Canadian football players: the non-stop talker, the strip club patron, the guy who just got engaged with his longtime girlfriend, who tagged along for the trip but was kept at arm's length by the other guys because she did not look like Tila Tequila. As luck would have it, Joe and I were seated directly in front of the motor mouth and some of his friends. We feared a red eye descent into hell when one stewardess engaged in the most psychotic safety demonstration I have ever seen, to the hoots and hollers of the football players. Fortunately for Joe and me, the immaturity of the football team encompassed a childlike predisposition to pass out once the lights are turned down. We returned to Toronto, grateful that the cold weather culls the local population of roaming, drunken frat boys and overly ripe women teetering on stiletto heels.