Sunday, April 15, 2018

Movie Review: Finding Your Feet

Finding Your Feet is a British romantic comedy written by Nick Moorcroft and Meg Leonard and directed by Richard Loncraine. Unlike the vast majority of films out there, it has an older cast and makes no apologies for it. No one likes dwelling on frailties and aging, it is why Hollywood pretty much is youth obsessed and overlooks a large segment of the population in entertainment.

In the UK, the entertainment industry is somewhat like Canada's in that people move back and forth from stage to TV to film. It happens in the States too but there seems more rigid dividing lines which keep people in their lanes. The cast of Finding Your Feet's experience allows them to capture the character they are portraying in those small moments and in the cinematic ones as well. Too often in the big budget films, character gives way to special effects and a lack of story. The comedic timing of TV is evident everywhere and the choreographed dancing is the stage's contribution and the cinematic moments of a morning swim, the boats on the canal or streets of London or Rome all contribute to the storytelling.

The plot starts off ordinarily enough. Lady Sandra Abbot (Imelda Staunton) prepares for her husband's retirement with a party only to find her husband has been having an affair for a number of years. She leaves in a big blow-up in front of everyone and end up at her sister's council estate with her brand name luggage and an air of privilege despite her desperate situation. The sister Bif (Celia Imrie) is a never married Bohemian who has been estranged from her sibling in part due to the class differences which really never mattered to her. Despite the misgivings, Bif takes Sandra in and upon hearing her sister's weeping in the night embarks to bring her out of her shell and try to live a little.

With some prompting Sandra joins her sister at a community club dance hall. It is where she meets Charlie (Timothy Spall), Jackie (Joanna Lumley) and Ted (David Hayman) who are friends with her sister. She treats them rather disdainfully. Their patience and compassion win the day and Sandra comes out of her shell and re-connects with dancing, something she had left behind in childhood.

The feel good moments of the movie outweigh the dramatic and the highly skilled cast make audiences smile and laugh. If there is a weak area of the movie, it is the dancing. It is also the one confounding aspect of the movie in that the final dance number has no real lead in showing how they prepared for in terms of practice or costumes. It just happens.

Aside from that quibble, the movie delivers the goods with a general good script and solid performances and is the antithesis of what Hollywood generally delivers. A good night out.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Japanese Store Ooomomo Coming to Winnipeg

Ooomomo, a Japanese retailer has confirmed they are coming to Manitoba shortly and maybe close to a deal for Polo Park coming this fall. In 2017, the first location opened in the West Edmonton Mall and a second is shortly following. The company plans are for two dozen or so across western Canada including in Winnipeg.

The success of other Japanese retailers has inspired Oomomo which is Japan's equivalent of a dollar store. The actual price range for products will be about $3 largely made in Japan and high quality given the price.

A market for Japanese products that are cute, innovative and fun had existed for some time and the company would like to see stores in high traffic malls and sell around 20,000 different items. It isn't seen as a direct competitor to dollar stores as the products are so different.

The stores are largely seen as a draw for younger mall shoppers who are less likely to go stores their contemporaries did if they go at all. In this regard, a mall like Polo Park would fight had to attract such as a store as it would for say, an Apple retail outlet. The opportunity to have one of a kind stores like Apple, Disney, Lego is a big draw even in the online world.

Expect to hear announcement of Oomomo's opening sometime in the next while.

Movie Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One started off as a debut science fiction novel in 2011 written by screenwriter Ernest Cline. In 2010, a bidding war by publishers and studios over the completed work saw Random House and Warner Bros. emerge as the rights holders. At that time Cline negotiated for first crack at the screenplay of his own book. The movie was originally set to premiere before Christmas but the fear that the new Star Wars sequel would compete heavily pushed the release to March of 2018.

The involvement of Steven Spielberg immediately makes this movie a tent-pole affair. His ability to direct and produce a movie and the 1980s touchstones the book covers are like catnip no one can resist. Still, because the book has a devoted fandom, criticism can be toxic lest you set a foot wrong. For the most part Spielberg does it right with a script from the creator Cline (Fanboys) and Zak Penn (X Men: The Last Stand) ensuring it would be cinematic.

Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse) stars as Wade Watts/Parzival, an orphan in 2045 living in a slum within the United States where nearly everyone escapes to a virtual reality world called OASIS created by the late James Halliday. The real world don't nearly complete with the VR one and people world-wide spend their time there being whatever they want and doing whatever they want leaving only to eat and sleep. Wade within this world is a Gunter, a person in search an Easter egg left by Halliday through his avatar Anorak. Finding three keys and solving the puzzle of each will leave the user as the sole owner of the OASIS, the largest and richest company in the world.

The task is so difficult and the reward so great that the second largest company in the world and owner of much of the equipment used to access the VR world has legions of indentured slaves working to crack the problem. Wade and a few independent others pursue their own leads in Anorak's Quest despite the odds against them. Among this group Wade has a friendship with four but knows nothing about them in the real world. Moreover, it appears OASIS doesn't know the real world identities of its users. This is obviously in sharp contrast to today's Facebook.

Make no mistake though, virtual money is what the game is about and it takes real money to play it. And the real world consequences are being wiped out virtually and in reality. The future in 2045 in megacity Columbus doesn't look all that great. However, the OASIS is shown in the book and Spielberg's movie as a joyful place. The 1980s and 90's music, video games and cultural references is a fanboy/girl's dream. It is hard not to be swept up in the DeLorean, King Kong and Iron Giant parts of the film without smiling.

The creator of OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is an amalgam of Gates/Jobs/Rainman and we get to see his story and wonder how it went all wrong. Perhaps it was lost love of woman he should have made an effort to be with or the business partner who was forced out over direction of the company. It is for the users to guess in a virtual museum of every memory of the creator preserved and watched over by the Curator.

Our protagonist Wade's main motivation in being a Gunter is to be able to leave the slum he lives in. His High Fives friends inside the game keep him engaged and he even starts to fall in love with one them, a VR redhead called Ar3emis (Olivia Cooke). She brushes him by telling him bluntly that he doesn't even know anything about her except what she wants to reveal. Wade's friend Aech confirms by saying his love interest could be a dude named Chuck.

The consistent failure by Wade and everyone else in the game to even get the first key to Easter Egg makes him go back to the drawing board where he takes a different approach that end ups landing him the breakthrough the find the key. He shares that info with his four friend of the High Fives and together they top the leader board. This draws the attention of the bad guys from IOI whose chief wants to either to get Wade work for him to be crushed underfoot so that his company can rule the world. With the help of a bounty hunter and an assassin, they track down Wade in both the real and virtual worlds.

There are real life lessons and perhaps insights to be made about the type of world Ready Player One is. Critics and fans are likely to love this movie. However, as noted, some fans of the literary work might and will hate parts if not the whole movie for not capturing the essence of the book. To that end, acceptance is needed that to be cinematic and for the sake of time limits of film, things need to be adapted. In today's world 3D is overused. In this movie it is as well done as you will see in film.

Look for some fun parts for The Shining as well as Child Play's Chuckie showing up that really rev up the action. And a Buckaroo Banzai salute that is awesome. Despite amazing box office in North America and especially China, this movie will probably be discovered by more in weeks and months to come. Quite simply, audiences are overwhelmed in much the same way Ready Player One's world is an assault on the senses. The only difference now between the 1980s is that we seem to experience things differently, on different platforms, at different times and less together than ever before.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Ubisoft to Open Studio in Winnipeg

Ubisoft is one of the largest studios in the world in the development of video games with locations in 18 countries. It was founded in France in 1986 and established a studio in Montreal in 1997 with government help. Not often has this type of investment paid off the way it has but in Montreal, the studio has grown to over 3000 employees and is the creative drive behind many of the most popular games the company produces including Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. Quebec fought for and won the location over the company's first choice in New Brunswick.

Today, Ubisoft has five studios in Canada in Montreal, Quebec City, Saguenay, Toronto and Halifax. Ubisoft has closed operations in Charlottetown and notably, Vancouver. At present, there are no studios in western Canada although all four provinces have been lobbying hard for the company's next major investment. That comes to a close today as it will be announced that Winnipeg will be the home to Ubisoft's next studio.

Winnipeg will join the company's world-wide 35 studios and 12,000 employees in producing the popular games that easily out sell the biggest movies Hollywood produces. The attraction to Manitoba likely came in two ways: the first was that the Manitoba tax credit film, media and sound was retained into the future. There was some question why the government of Brian Pallister kept this in the last budget. Now we know. The 35-40% tax credit is a major selling point over the other western provinces. Just ask New Brunswick how they feel about losing Ubisoft to Quebec to know how big landing the company is. The second is: Winnipeg is home to a few winners in software development with Bold Commerce, Skip the Dishes, Invenia and Farmer's Edge. It also as some creative producers in film and TV as well as Red River College to help attract talent. That is nothing to say of the theatre departments of University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba.

It is unknown how many employees will end up working in Winnipeg at this point but recent studio add ons have started at 100 to 125. It is also unknown what projects Ubsioft the company Winnipeg would be working on. Some studios have started off small and have become the creative forces in developing games within their talent pools. It seems likely Winnipeg will start in support of larger operations initially.

A news conference is set for today. More details to follow.

It is now confirmed Winnipeg will start with 100 employees in a five year period at a location not yet disclosed. In Montreal, they have headquarters in a historic building. Given a lot of the movie industry as well as some of the tech sector is in the Exchange, expect to see a first look given to the area rather than building in an industrial park. Ubisoft is accepting applications from engineers, artists and other programmers starting immediately. Total investment announced is $35 million.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sportsnet to End Stanley Cup Coverage If Leafs Lose

It is rumoured that Stanley Cup coverage on the main networks in Ontario is contingent on the Toronto Maple Leafs advancing in the play-offs. Network execs at the highest level met late night in a hotel following the Leafs loss to the Winnipeg Jets March 31st. The game's ratings tumbled as the Leaf's struggled alarming the network's advertisers.

Hockey Night in Canada's main coverage is dependent on the Toronto Maple Leafs doing well. The hosts and game coverage are geared to create the feeling that they are Canada's team even as they play other Canadian teams.

"You can't fault them," said an insider in the network said. "They paid a lot of money to make sure the Toronto Maple Leafs coverage gets the big ratings." At what point in the game senior executives from the network were on the phone arguing with Leaf's management about trying to get penalties and suspension for Winnipeg Jet's star Mark Schiefele over a collision with the Leaf's netminder.

The NHL is also worried about Maple Leaf's performance but have their own set of problems in that a perfect ratings scenario is Las Angeles Kings versus New York Rangers for the NBC network. However, NBC would settle for a Las Vegas Golden Knights western victor as it is a narrative they can sell. Toronto sports teams are always a major drag on American ratings as no one in the U.S. cares about Canadian teams.

The battle between Sportnet and NBC over which teams advance spells bad news for other markets. The NHL has done its resolute best to satisfy Sportsnet where the the bulk of the ratings are and NBC where the future is. NBC coverage also pushes up expansion fees which for Seattle are now $21 million per team.

If the Maple Leafs fail to advance, Stanley Cup broadcasts will drop in Ontario in favour of Toronto Blue Jays baseball which just had their home opener. Sportsnet executives says it is the only thing to do to stop a backlash against the network if Leafs are out. "There is no way we can show Winnipeg Jets games in Ontario," said an insider. "They are many in the network who feel the city should never have gotten a team in the first place. We have covering them. They are a downer for all our staff and fans, The Maple Leafs are Canada's teams. The only reason we cover the Vancouver Canucks is extend the broadcast late Saturday and talk about the Leaks more."

The situation for NBC is more dire. The loss of a few major market teams for the Stanley Cup play-offs means the network will switch to April's coverage of the Waiter and Bartender Games coming in April in Los Angeles. The games hosted by Kim Kardasian are expected to be a big ratings winner but the network is stymied on more coverage as they are obligated on hockey contracts. The only loophole is major market teams failing to qualify.

A final featuring the Winnipeg Jets would likely be pushed to a steaming service on NBC's lower tier or sold off to regional sports networks such as Buffalo and Hartford. In Canada, Sportsnet would a Jets final to Sportsnet 360 which has the lowest cable coverage in the country. "We simply have to have the Toronto Maple Leaf's in the final for the good of the country," said a network official speaking confidentially.

Monday, March 26, 2018

New Kenaston Common Development

It is an awkward triangle property across from Costco in Kenaston Common that has sat fallow over all these years. No doubt it was too small for a big box store so it sat and sat some more. A proposal has now come forward for it and it looks like it will be a drive-thru, another restaurant and a few smaller retail locations.

There isn't anything breathtaking in the design as far as Kenaston Common goes. However, the mall does not have much in the way of drive-thrus within its design. Those seemed to reserved for the other side of the street. No indication of what restaurant will end up getting the drive-thru at this point not of the other restaurant featured in the design. It is possible that Tim Horton's might just simply grab it to deny a competitor.

With the completion of this one small parcel of land, Kenaston Common will be fully developed. And so it is almost everywhere along Kenaston nowadays. Land that has sat empty for better part of 15 to 20 years is being developed and leased. Meanwhile, the pace of development at Seasons of Tuxedo continues although it features an abundance of housing on site as well.

Although some continue to resist changes to Kenaston Route 90, it is unlikely that something will have to be done in terms on road and public transit. Kapyong Barracks, for example, probably can't add 10,000 units of housing without some sort of accommodation. At the moment though there is in no proposal for roads, no budget for it. And yet, we continue to see Kenaston grow in traffic.

The full development of Kenaston Common is an indication of strong demand in the area.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Rec Room Coming to Seasons of Tuxedo

Well, the official announcement has come from Cineplex's Rec Room which has actively seeking a location in Winnipeg for some time. For a while, it looked like they might moving into the Polo Park Target location across from the ScotiaBank Theatre site. However, the complication of the site design made it less than ideal. The other rumour was St. Vital Centre in perhaps the old Sears location but the site was too large and had further complication of two floors and questionable parking.

Ideally, the Rec Room wanted a building tailor made for them covering one floor at about 40,000 square feet. In a perfect world it would be very close to a Cineplex movie theatre. Since Polo Park and St. Vital Centre did not work out the next best choice was a mall and in Winnipeg the newest mall is still actively building. The VIP Odeon and ScotiaBank Theatre are somewhere in the middle along a straight like down Kenaston for those seeking pre and post movie entertainment.

There are a number spots listed on Seasons of Tuxedo's map. The one they seem to be referring to is immediately across from Outlet Collections Mall across Sterling Lyon. Work is to begin soon but the opening will wait to 2019 as million and millions goes into these gaming centers.

The Rec Room will feature restaurants, performance spaces, 110 amusement games, axe throwing, luxury bowling and virtual reality games. At present there are four locations of Rec Rooms across Canada with an expectation of maybe 12-15 nation-wide.

Winnipeg has had gaming centers before but nothing of this scale has ever been attempted. It remains to be seen whether the Rec Room will successful with young adults or not but the investment seems to suggest that Cineplex believes they have a winner.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Toys R Us to Carry on in Canada?

For some time now, Toys R Us has been struggling in the United States. Speculation has been rampant how Canada and U.K operations would fare if the parent went under. Now it is evident that things are afoot.

The 75 Toys R Us in the U.K are biting the dust. Barring a last minute reprieve, they are shutting the doors once they liquidate all their stock. The U.S. operations are indicating they will be shutting down almost everything except for what a potential buyer is willing to keep. In all 800 stores will closed and 200 may be saved only if, and this is the surprising part, if Canada's profitable 75 stores stay open and the head office moves to Canada.

The 82 Canadian stores of Toys R Us are apparently well managed and the jewel of the crown in the company.  The fact that they are thinking that Canada will help save 200 stores in the U.S. is a far cry from when Linens and Things went under and the profitable Canadian operation was liquidated with no thought to preserving it.

In Winnipeg Toys R Us has three locations and their operations continue even though Canada is in creditor protection. A number of companies appear to in the running to buy Canada stores and select locations in the U.S. Make no mistake this will be a devastating loss of about 30,000 workers in the U.S. and a few thousand more in the U.K.

For the sake of the Canadian operations and the possibility of landing the head office of the company entirely, I hope a deal can be made. Some people say that the brick and mortar world of retail is completely gone but there is still evidence that some strong retailers can make it work, especially ones that add pick up and delivery to their service.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Movie Review: Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow was originally a spy novel from former CIA agent Jason Matthews about the "sparrow" program that first started in the Cold War. The book tells the story of a young woman coerced into the program in the new Russia by her uncle in state security. She is assigned a CIA agent and told to find a way into his life so that he reveals who the mole is within the Russian government.

The book written in 2013 was well reviewed and unlike a James Bond novel was fairly accurate about how clandestine operatives did their jobs. Matthews also wrote far more graphic sex scenes found in the genre and for additional fare ended each chapter with a recipe. The young woman who was the sparrow also possessed the ability to discern people's emotions through synesthesia. This manifested itself in her seeing colours that revealed someone's state of mind.

Even before the book was published, Hollywood swept in a paid seven figures for it and was commissioned to write a trilogy. The studios got in a bidding war and 20th Century Fox picked up the rights and shopped it around directors till Francis Lawrence came aboard. He then went to frequent partner in his Hunger Games movies Jennifer Lawrence (no relation to the director) and she signed on to portray the sparrow Dominika Ergerova.

In the spy movie genre, women seem to fall into two categories...Bond Women and Bond Imitators. Salt, Atomic Blonde and Black Widow are all versions of Bond where the woman is the action hero. It is only the rare movie that is done as a procedural or biographical movie such a Fair Game in 2010 which starred Naomi Watts.

John Le Carre has been the master of the procedural spy novel and his books have made for captivating TV and movie productions. They, however, have always had a male protagonist and while they've had some interesting female roles, they have not been the lead. Part of this possibly stems from the fact that in most countries, women historically were not allowed into combat. Subsequently, aside from a few exceptions women who acted as spies were overlooked or forbidden under official secrets acts to reveal their involvement. There are few excellent female spy writers out but the audience for their work largely appears to be men.

Jennifer Lawrence is a bona fide movie star. She has been part of big franchises such as X-Men and Hunger Games and she has headlined in films such as Joy and mother! Increasingly, she has taken roles on her terms, embraced risk while empowering her character and herself as an actress. As a result, her work and her choices have had her nominated four time for an Oscar. She won best actress for Silver Linings Playbook in 2013.

The screenplay for Red Sparrow was written by Justin Haythe. Some of the minutiae of spywork was left off for the sake of the story as well as Dominika Egerova's abilities in seeing people intention read in visualized colour.  Perhaps both of those book related items would be better explored in a long form series rather than a film. At 140 minutes though, it is a long movie with lots of dialogue with a focus on thrills rather than action.

The film starts with two unrelated scenes. The first is introducing Dominika Ergerova as a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet injured in a seemingly tragic accident that ends her career. Even then we see hints of how she is pawed by Russian men who would go further if they could. Lawrence's frozen smile as her bare back is touched reveals all.

Meanwhile in Gorky Park a CIA agent by the name of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is meeting with a high level Russian mole code named Marble when they are interrupted by police from the vice squad. Nash protects his informant but blows his cover and in one of only a few actions scenes has to hightail it back to the U.S. embassy.

Dominika's uncle Ivan played in a deliciously close resemblance to Vladimir Putin by Matthias Schoenaerts manipulates his niece by revealing intelligence showing her dance partner deliberately crippled her to make room for another dancer and lover. The result of this is that Dominika delivers an epic beating in the showers with her cane before escaping unnoticed. This leaves her and her sick mother (Joely Richardson) even more vulnerable and in desperation, she goes back to uncle for help.

It is at this point, we see how Ivan works in state security. He uses men and women to get close to targets to either extract information or to kill them. He uses Dominika in this case because the target already knows her and of her career ending injury. What happens behind closed doors is that she end up being raped and her attacker is killed by Ivan's assassin. As witness to this her own life is forfeit if she does not agree to work for state security as a SVR agent. She is is sent to State School Four to learn how to be a sparrow. Dominika later describes it as "whore school."

To the movie audience the violence, gore, sexuality and nudity will be too much if they like more PG fare like Black Panther which has only chaste kisses and near bloodless combat. This is a R rated film and they don't get made that much anymore. Some critics will with some justification say it glorifies sexual violence, re-victimizes women and is traumatic in general. The truth is that the "honey trap" used to get information or blackmail suspects in Russia is as old as the country itself. It has not been mentioned anywhere but some even theorize that Donald Trump is not critical of Russia because he is beholden to "sparrows" who were used to bring him to heel.

It should also be kept in mind that the same weekend Red Sparrow comes out that a former Russian agent and woman are poisoned in the U.K. With this all happening and connected to modern day Russia, Red Sparrow seems as current as can be. And while too much for some people, it is based on reality. Who's the say that Matron played by Charlotte Rampling does not exist as a trainer of men and women in using their bodies to gather intelligence?

The issue of the mole in Russian intelligence occupies by both the Russians and Americans. Marble has not re-established contact since his handler Nash escaped back to the U.S. With reluctance, the CIA reactivates Nate and sends him to Budapest to hide in plain sight so that Marble reaches out to contact him. The SVR learns that Nash is in eastern Europe but can't extract him and get the mole's name lest every agent would risk the same thing. Rules for the new Cold War apply: Kill our agent and we'll kill yours.

Despite Dominika's resistance in training or perhaps because of it, she is assessed by her uncle's bosses General Korchnoi and Colonel Zacharov played by Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hands. They decide to dispatch her to Budapest to get the information but her life hangs in the balance every step of the way. It is there that she meets another sparrow who tell her that her life will never be her own lest she find a way to do things on terms.

Our two protagonists meet and do eventually end up together but time is running out for Dominika as it is apparent that Nash will not reveal who the mole is. She has to improvise and offers up a secondary target of a Senator's chief of staff (played with boozy enthusiasm by Mary-Louise Parker) but the whole affair goes badly where both Russians and Americans believe the were played.

The graphic violence and sex are hard to watch at times but Jennifer Lawrence never is. Nudity abounds. The chemistry between the two central characters is hard to measure as so much is happening. It also has to be contrasted with the thought that both are using each other although we don't see what Dominka's final play will be until the end. In short, her solution plays itself out by being hidden in plain sight.

Black Panther is dominating the box office all month and could set even more records. However, if you want something more adult then Red Sparrow might be more to the liking. There are few true movie stars left. Jennifer Lawrence is the one that shine brightest right now. It is interesting to see what she does when she is not a Marvel superhero herself.

Monday, February 19, 2018

McNally Robinson The Forks Now Open

On Friday, just as Jets game was getting ready to go and The Forks was about to launch into another monster Festival du Voyageur. there was thing overlooked in all the hoopla At one point on Saturday a warning went out on CBC radio that parking all over from museum to Johnson Terminal was packed with people attending Festival and Mardi Gras at Union Station. For those people convinced downtown ain't got nothing going on especially in winter, it came as a surprise when seeing rugby players in an outdoor tournament by the ScotiaBank Theatre. It was cold out out! Yet, people walking and skating and enjoying events on both sides of the river.

The Common restaurant format at The Forks is probably one of the most innovative and mature decision made in Canada. It basically said it believed Winnipeg was responsible for enough for alcohol, food and retailing in an open concept and weren't going to treat it like a beer garden of...say...irresponsible rugby players. In fact, after play a few rugby players imbibed and asked: Does white wine go with bruises and ice abrasions?

As mentioned, given the high car and foot traffic making it to one of Winnipeg's top attractions, it was a little tweet that indicated a momentous opening was taking place. McNally Robinson has returned downtown for the first time in years. Their last presence in the area has been at Portage Place and they were still a going concern when they made the choice to move to Polo Park. It was a tough start there and they might have survived it had they also not taken up residence in a Toronto mall that was an unmitigated disaster. The creditors gave them a choice...retrench or die. Polo Park and their Toronto location closed and the Winnipeg Grant Park and Saskatoon location survived and eventually turned it around and were sold to principles who worked a long time for McNallys.

A book store at The Forks makes sense. It is where many in the city go to entertain, eat and shop and the events are pushing further out with each year. The truth is that bookstores are still relevant and the store itself will be an attraction there. We've waited a long time for the return of McNally downtown. Welcome back.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Movie Review: Early Man

Early Man is a British animated stop-motion movie from the creators of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. It has a particular look and feel that has become familiar and a type of humour that is absurdist English that has garnered fans around the world. The movie written by Mark Burton and James Higginson and directed by Oscar-winning Nick Park is an Aardman Animations and BFI production distributed by StudioCanal.

In the thirty years that the team behind Wallace and Gromit began, stop motion has advanced greatly but not so far as to remove the occasional thumb print in the clay that is endearing to the art form. There is an old school feel to work and although this an original tale, it comes from the same family of characters except in this case back to pre-historic times.

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) voices Dug, a caveman with aspirations. He is curious why his tribe only hunts rabbits and what the round object everyone is chasing in the cave drawings.  As we come to learn, the round object is a soccer ball and the ancestors of the tribe invented the game. As for why they hunt only rabbits, it quickly becomes clear his tribe is lucky to catch even those adorable creatures. Dug is accompanied by his trusty hog friend in his adventures by Hognob voiced by director Nick Park himself.

Still, life is good in the valley of what we are told in the prologue is near Manchester in Britain. That is, until Bronze-age interlopers come in with machines and elephant to push out the cavemen to the badlands. Lord Nooth voiced by Tom Hiddleston (Thor) in a very French accent arrives and mining begins immediately. The other Bonze-agers have a variety of European accents and a banner of blue and yellow. This nod to Brexit will be lost on the kids but will generate smirks and guffaws from adults and the analogy is tiny little Britain against big old Europe.

Only Dug looks to challenge Lord Nooth but in the attempt gets knocked out and is transported to the the Bronze-age fortress. It is here and undercover that he discovers that the people here play soccer just like in the drawings in the long forgotten Stone-age caves. Unfortunately Dug is captured and a desperate last measure, he challenges the arrogant Nooth to a soccer game between the tribes. The stakes are if Dug wins, they reclaim the valley they lost and of Nooth wins, the Cavemen will work the mines.

Early Man delivers visual humour, puns and slapstick mixed in with politics and sport. Dug finds an ally in Goona (Maise Williams) who longs to play soccer but Bronze-age team doesn't allow girls. She switches sides and teaches the Stone-age team. Meanwhile the scheming Lord Nooth plans how to undermine Dug even before the game. There is some hilarious scenes with a message bird voiced by Rob Byndon that steal the moment and a play by and play and colour commentary of the final soccer game that are full of puns.

At a breezy 89 minutes, Early Man should keep the attention of the young and not be too long for the old. It is the perfect counterpoint to the movies out there that are just too mature for young families. It is sweet and nostalgic and fun.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Popeyes Restaurant and Euro Food Dubromart Coming to Seasons of Tuxedo

Seasons of Tuxedo has confirmed Winnipeg's first Popeyes restaurant is coming to Winnipeg as well as the third location of Euro Food Dubromart in a building well under construction in front of the Outlet Collection of Winnipeg.

More to come...

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Osborne and Stradbrook Mall to Get Makeover

After 20 years with the same owner, the corner of Stradbrook and Osborne across from the firehouse has changed hands. It is has been pointed out in this blog a number of times that there are few actual owners of entire strips of Osborne as they have remained tightly within the families who were to invest in the street. They owned and operated businesses from the 1970s till now although a number of long term retailers and restaurants have closed.

A number of vacancies have lingered on long as rents are very high for newcomers. As a result, thoughts of sub-dividing properties for a better mix of tenants has been proposed. For some owners, it has become a good time to sell. And so it was at Stradbrook and Osborne where Jeckyll & Hyde's pub and the Stradbrook Chiropractic Centre reside amonsgt others.

The corner was purchased by the Norman Hugh Group (NHG) and KAI Asset management. NHG is a Winnipeg-based real estate investment firm based in The Exchange founded by David Bell. KAI is a real estate and business investor also in The Exchange founded by Paul Allard and Robert MacKay. KAI is majority owner while NHG is minority shareholder.

The corner which includes 16,000 square feet of lease-able property and 50 parking spots has some of the highest traffic counts in Winnipeg. The property was purchased for $4.25 million and an additional million is being invested as part of the site improvements as detailed in the picture. The previous owner had not too much in the last 20 years in terms of the overall design.

Over the next months it is expected that several properties will be re-developed and leased along Osborne. It is obvious the value of the property remains high and some of the long term landlords are now cashing in.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Loka to Move to Academy Road

The former home of Moule at Academy Road and Niagara shut down this year and was promptly demolished. Presently before zoning is a plan to build a new two floor building with the retail store Loka occupying the first floor and a physiotherapy clinic taking the second floor.

Parking will remain limited along the side but street parking on Academy can accommodate a number of cars. Loka is presently located on Corydon Avenue at Waterloo Street but for a time was on Academy Road near Lanark Street until it and combined with a Richardson Concourse location in 2014.

River Heights continues to see growth of the commercial sector along Academy. This past year saw controversy over a medical clinic going up near Borebank Street.

The new business should not be as much of a concern as it replaces a business that was already there.

Local businesses that actually serve the local area are probably less of a burden than traffic that races through destined for somewhere else. And as far as parking in the area, this is a reflection that many homeowners own two, three or four cars in a family that do not fit in the generally one car garages ob the neighbourhood. Hence, thousands of cars parked  between Wellington Crescent and Taylor in all of River Heights in front of homes.

Loka and athephysio clinic are likely to be up sometime in 2018.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Polo Park Number 14 Mall in Canada 2017

In 2017, CF Polo Park continued to be one of the top malls in Canada based on sale poor square footage. As expected, Toronto took the top spot along with a few Vancouver malls rounding out the top 3. However, Winnipeg's largest mall came in at number 14 in the listings.

In other categories such as total square footage and most pedestrian traffic, none of Winnipeg's malls ranked in the top 10. Surprisingly, Garden City Shopping Centre had higher sales per square footage than St. Vital Centre. On the face of it, St. Vital has more retailers but obviously more does not equal higher sales.

There were no figures for the Outlet Collection Mall as it just opened this year.

The top four Winnipeg malls will all be dealing with the closure of Sears much like much of Canada. For malls like Polo Park, it represents an opportunity to land Nordstrom's or Simon's. The fully leasing of Polo Park's off campus building in the former Target takes that property off their books. HomeSense/Winners, 24-7 InTouch Call Centre and Cineplex's Odeon's Rec Centre moving in.

It will be interesting to see how replacing Sears in the top malls will affect sales. For some malls who saw Sears leave early on in their woes a few years ago, the sales jumped considerably.

The Retail Council of Canada which conducted the study indicates the Winnipeg has less retail than Alberta but more than Greater Vancouver. It will be interesting to see where the latest building of retails puts the city on the listing next year.

It is believed that Polo Park is looking at a major upgrade being announced soon with the redevelopment of Sears. Sometimes it is lost in the haze of the redevelopment of the old Zellers on the second floor that the mall has had the same decor for some time. It is going to be quite a whirl because four city malls will be in a race to fill their empty Sear space this year.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sam's Club Fargo-Moorhead to Close

On the heel's of Walmart announcing they were raising all their employees wages, the company announced that they were closing one of the two warehouse Sam's Club in Fargo/Moorhead, North Dakota/Minnesota putting 168 workers out of a job by January 26. The store  closing is along the Interstate heading to Minneapolis close to the Menard's in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Unlike Sam's Club in Grand Forks which was built soon after Walmart, the Sam's Club in Moorhead is distant to the Walmart Supercenter which is deeper into the city. This might have proved too problematic as the two stores feed off each other's customer draw.

Costco entered the Fargo-Moorhead market just a number of years ago but they chose their location in the rapidly expanding south Fargo area down from West Acres Mall. The old gentlemen's agreement to have Costco and Sam's staying out of each other's market appeared to have turned into a war.

Unlike Winnipeg's three Costco's which are always busy, Fargo-Moorhead's warehouse stores often have emptier parking lots. This is true of Sam's and Costco's locations. Truth is the U.S. is more over retailed than Canada is and that's saying a lot. It is also adopting online sales at a greater pace than almost anywhere as well.

Store closures can be seen as an opportunity. While West Acres in Fargo and Columbia Mall in Grand Forks have been greatly bruised with the closures of Sears and J.C. Penny stores, they can re-purpose their malls to smaller and more profitable sized retailers and restaurants. Moreover, stores like Kmart that closed in Moorhead only a short time ago have found new regional players like Runnings move in. The 86,000 square at that location became the 16th in a Minnesota-based Runnings group focused on farm and outdoor sales.

Meanwhile In Winnipeg, the last Target will soon be home to a call centre, Winners/Homesense and Rec Centre. That concludes the leasing of all the former Zellers/Target locations in Winnipeg.

The 63 Sam''s locations closures are sad and in some cases shocking to those that worked or shopped there. Sam's in Moorhead was only built in 2014 and occupied 186,000 square feet by a highway. Alas, it was not enough and for Winnipggers who have Sam's memberships (and there are a few), they will still have Grand Fork and West Fargo's Same to shop at.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Hyatt House Season of Tuxedo Plans

They put in an application in May and now it is revised for Hyatt House Hotel in the Seasons of Tuxedo. The six story 135 room L-shaped hotel will be out towards Sterling Lyon Parkway in front of the Seasons apartments and Cabela's.

The revised plans include better landscaping and fencing for the space.

The plans still leave a lot of space which at a guess could small shops or services or more likely a restaurant but nothing is on the books yet.

Across the street in the Outlet Collection Mall and several condos and apartments. The transformation has been dramatic along the street in only a few years.

Hyatt will join the Hilton as the first two hotels built in southwest Winnipeg since the 1960s.

The obvious needs of Sterling Lyon Parkway/Wilkes are going to be more stark in the next months to years. Still, no money for road expansion beyond Shaftesbury Boulevard seems to be in the cards. On the plus side, the city is in surplus this year which is very likely the result of projects like this that are bringing in new taxes in infill areas.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars The Last Jedi

Spoilers for people who have not watched yet.

In 1977 I saw Star Wars 13 times from May through till the fall in different theatres all across the city starting with Grant Park which at the time was a single screen. By the end, I think I saw it at the Kings, Odeon, Park and few other theatres in between throughout that summer and into fall.

Unlike many others, I already knew something about Star Wars because Marvel Comics began releasing monthly comic 1-6 starting in April a month before Star Wars premiere. Jamie Rae at Sir John Franklin Elementary School picked up a copy and Nieman's Pharmacy on Corydon and passed it to me. I thought it was good but it was the first time I read a serialized comic covering one story. And to be honest I had been spoiled by Charlton Comics with their 7 issues of Space: 1999 based on the TV series. I had found that comic to have artwork and stories more matching my impression of the TV series.

I was nevertheless intrigued by this new Star Wars world and excited to find it was coming to theatres in May. At 12 there were many movies I could not see unless with an adult. I had seen Rocky only six months before and remembered the elation after in regards to the story, acting, music and spirit. I was not able to see movies like Jaws a year earlier because of parental accompaniment rules. This was also true of Godfather movies 1 and 2 in 1972 and 1974.

So there I was literally trembling with excitement as I watched Star Wars for the first time at Grant Park. The musical fanfare of the 20th Century logo followed b the caption: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away drew me in. And then ta-da! The epic John William's score exploding on screen with an opening crawl introducing us to the adventure followed by a space battle the likes of which we had never seen before.

I have been a Star Wars fan ever since but not an uncritical one. The writing in sci-fi has to be authentic in that you believe that you are inhabiting the world where the story unfolds. Special effects can't come to dominate over story and character. Humour is important but if too cutesy it can be downright insulting or plain annoying. Striking a balance is never easy.

The re-booted Star Wars franchise starting with The Force Awakens was an exciting romp introducing new characters with old and leaving many fans quite happy including myself. Some critics were less impressed calling it a re-hash which it was with nothing new to add which wasn't true.

In the long wait for the second part of the trilogy, a Star Wars stand alone episode Rogue One told a story separate from the main story but familiar with canon. It was better received by critics and fans alike most mostly did not involve characters from the main Star Wars stories as the main protagonists.

The architect of the now Disney-owned Star Wars stood content to leave the writing and directing duties to someone new. Rian Johnson, who achieved fame withe movie Looper and directing episodes of Breaking Bad, was tasked with taking the franchise to new levels. To critics he achieved all of that and more if reviews are to be believed. To fans, many have come to feel that certain storylines have been abandoned as quickly as they were introduced. A dissonance has emerged that is the opposite of what we normally see. Fans love and critics hate. However, in the latest Star Wars outing many critics have been favourable and some fans ambivalent or even hostile.

First, I'd like to say I enjoyed The Last Jedi but even as I watched wondered if Rian Johnson actually liked The Force Awakens. The reason I say that is because certain storylines and characters were struck down down in the course of the film. The fact that this is the second of a trilogy means that there must have been some sort of agreement from decision makers including J.J. Abrams that this was the way to go. A director of the third movie was already removed over creative differences in favour of a return of Abrams so the idea of some sort of continuity obvious exists. But how do you achieve that unless you walk it back and explain what actually happened.

Here is what is good about The Last Jedi. Daisy Ridley remains a compelling screen presence. As Rey her interactions with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) drive the story. As for Mark Hamill, this was a great opportunity to see him in action again. Like Harrison Ford's return in the previous movie as Han Solo, it was good to catch up on an old character and see them fit in as comfortable as an old glove. It was quite the moment when we saw Luke enter the cockpit and look around remembering much like Han did when he found the Millennium Falcon.

This was Carrie Fisher's last movie as General Princess Leia Organa. Her death shortly after the flight home from filming meant we'd never see her act in another Star Wars. That is sad because her role in this new trilogy has gotten richer and her performance after so many years away from the screen better. Producers had planned for her to be in the third movie but that obviously will not happen now.

I waited a bit to write this review. As an acknowledged Star Wars fan, it was important to realize that some movies are critic proof. They will score big box office and the critics be damned. And the ones that critics like go on to be little watched Oscar winners. It seems that never the twain shall meet. However, it should be noted that the Last Jedi critics and fan ratings are almost identical which shows sometimes convergence.

Critics have rated The Last Jedi high and the fans have mounted a backlash. The box office decline is substantial into second week. Disney will likely earn back all the money spent and then some but direct Rian Johnson has had to comment on the fan reaction.

The reaction to Finn (John Boyega) and new character  Rose Tico 's (Kelly Marie Tran) off ship adventure to find a codebreaker DJ (Benicio del Toro) and Poe Dameron's (Oscar Issac) mutiny against Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) have been particularly polarizing.

I suspect the movie will have to be re-watched a number of times (if people give it the chance) to see how they feel about it without the benefit of the 3D and at their own pace before we get a full measure of things. The Empire Strikes Back left fans uncertain as well till it was seen in the context of the full original trilogy. In other words, we might have a different view when the third movie comes out.

Star Wars fans have long been abused. The original Star Wars has been tampered with so much and George Lucas himself has been responsible. The who shot first scene in the cantina between Han and Greedo is particularly perplexing. Of course Han shot first. However, the scene has been altered. Lucas has not released the original film for preservation to the National Film Registry and subsequently, we don't have the 35 mm print to work from. It is selfish and cruel in terms of history. Fans has been subjected to poor copies in terms of colour or digitally altered versions but never a clean copy of the film of 1977.

If fans feel fit to backlash, it is because it is a love-hate relationship. At the moment, many feel director Rian Johnson is trashing their history with Star Wars. Or as Kylo Ren has said about history: "Kill it."

Given the billions Disney paid for Star Wars, I suspect they will take note. If they are not afraid, they should be as Yoda once said to Luke.

I have not given up on the movie series yet but here are a number of things that could have been done to make this movie outing better. It may not be too late to fix some of them or delve deeper for answers in third movie. Not as easy task as it is both simple and complex at same time.

Notes for improvement:

* Movie length. Longer does not equal better. Tighten it up. Some of the set action pieces would be good to trim. Often it feels they are included not to further the movie story but to drive game sales. Just off the top of my head the entire bombing mission on a dreadnought could have been dropped. The idea of dropping bombs downward in space was insulting and stupid. I realize sci-fi takes liberties with hearing the ship in space as well as faster than light speed but Star Wars at least acknowledges gravity and vacuum in space, right?

* Movie characters. There are a lot. Rian Johnson's solution was to kill a lot off and blow them into space (more on that scene later). The director also killed off other characters such as Snoke before we even understood how the First Order came about and how he emerged as leader and seduced Kylo Ren to the dark side. Fans have hated this because why introduce such a villain and not flesh it out more. Even as characters die (more on Luke later) the director adds DJ and Rose Tico. Hard to follow so many characters or know why you should even care.

* The lack of revelation. If we isolate Luke as main protagonist, the first revelation in the first movie was that his father was a Jedi warrior and this propels him to follow in his father's footsteps. The second movie's revelation is that Luke's father turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader. The third movie's revelation was two-fold in that Luke had a sister and it was Leia. Also, Luke sensed conflict in his father and hoped to turn him back to the light and end the Emperor's reign.

If Rey is the protagonist in the new trilogy, the first revelation is that she possesses the Force and is somehow connected to Luke Skywalker. The second movie indicates there is no familiar connection. Skywalker asks: Who are you? It is later revealed she is the daughter of scrapdealers and created her own mythology of waiting on someone's return.

Now that is either some classical misdirection or the worst opportunity blown ever. Couple of possibilities where they could have gone. Rey is daughter/grand daughter of Ben Kenobi. Probably a bit of reach given Ben's death and years since past then. Better: Rey is daughter of Snoke which would have had nice symmetry with Kylo Ren being son to Han and Leia.

As for Snoke, some wags suggested he could have been a deformed Mace Windu. Bit of a reach there but possible. In any event, better than saying Rey is no one.

* Plain Silly There were a few moment but by far Leia flying in frozen vacuum was awful. And lazy. And nonsensical. The scene shows Leia outside the ship frozen, weightless and dead. Somehow she is alive and able to get back to the ship presumably with the Force. I'm prepared to suspend belief a great deal but that was a ridiculous moment.

All my commentary about what was flawed has not put me off this Star Wars or the franchise. They have made bad choices in the past such as the Star Wars holiday TV special or Jar Jark Binks. George Lucas was a visionary for his space opera but he could err when it came to size and scope of his work. The writing could be clunky, the humour hit and miss, the special effects amazing and overwhelming and the characterization bang on or off. More uncomfortably, he kept changing his work without realizing how polarizing it could be. How dare he keep messing with our memories? Spielberg is guilty of this as well by turning guns into walkie-talkies in E.T.

There will be no perfect Star Wars. I can remember how much controversy there was over Leia saying "I love you" in Empire Strikes back but it had to be seen in the context of Han saying "I love you" and getting the same response in Return of the Jedi. This is the point of a trilogy of having a beginning, middle and end. Some people are great at the beginning, some great end at the end while most struggle with the middle. George Lucas had a strong beginning as did J.J. Abrams. Irvin Kershner gave a textbook example of how to do a second movie in Empire Strikes back with a solid script by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett.

The creator has to know the beginning, middle and end of the story...the bones. But how the meat of the saga is filled by the collaborative effort of all involved in the film. While some creator know how to begin a story others collapse just short of the finish line. J.J. Abrams did this with the TV series Lost which failed to pay off in its finale. The movie goer may not be able to judge The Last Jedi as solidly as they might until the third and final part of the trilogy is told.

I think there is no danger of that The Last Jedi will be the the last movie because of box office. It should do well in the overall world market to make Disney very happy. Hollywood has always been focused on the box office and that is why they've focused on franchises to deliver the goods time in a time out. While some critics have waxed poetic on Rian Johnson and some fans have made a call to arms, I am left awaiting the third chapter to the story because I find it impossible to totally assess this latest effort. I liked it a lot but still have so many questions about the direction and choices made.

Until then I remain a Star Wars fan but am awaiting the pay-off in the third chapter.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Boston Pizza Charleswood Now Open

They had a soft opening last weekend for invited guests but even throughout this past week there have been worker doing finishing touches. Still, the open now sign is affixed to the Charleswood location of Boston Pizza.

It took a number of months in the fall to construct the building but having the doors open before Christmas will likely drive traffic for months to come.

Once known at the Forest Park Mall, the Charleswood Shopping Centre fell on tough times as it lost anchor tenants. After substantial changes, it went from enclosed mall to connect box mall and eventually added popular Tim Horton's and now Boston Pizza to its streetside parking lot.

For a long time Charleswood was underserved for restaurants. A few restaurants associated with hotels and a few Greek places, a Sorrento's,  a couple of take-outs and a Robin's was the hallmark of the area. That has changed.

It is tough being in the hospitality business but there is room for in Charleswood for some more if space was even available. Young people have routinely had to leave the neigbourhood in the past to be able to sit down and have a bite and a drink and watch a game.

With the Boston Pizza's opening, the Charleswood Shopping Centre is more or less fully leased and has a vitality now that was missing as little as 10 years ago.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

FreshCo Coming to Winnipeg

Sobeys announced this week that it will turn about 1/4 of their 255 Sobeys and Safeways in Canada into FreshCo stores. The announcement comes on the heels of continued loses financially and with cuts to employment. Stores have also been closed in several markets. The increases in minimum wages in Ontario and Alberta has the company spooked as well.

To counter the fact that Sobeys often has a competing store of Safeway almost directly across the street in some cases (Kenaston being a prime example), the company is looking to remedy that fact. Rather than close even more stores and inviting more competition from Save on Foods or Red River Co-op, the company is looking to brand some of the stores as FreshCo.

FreshCo is the offspring of Price Chopper and most of the Ontario stores once carried that banner. Winnipeg's Price Chopper was sold to satisfy federal government rules on competition. Northwest Company shut it down in favour of Giant Tiger. It was once thought though that the Winnipeg store might one day carry the FreshCo banner,

The sharing of one flyer between Sobeys and Safeway has become as untenable as when Best Buy and Future Shop did the same thing. Eventually, the consumer asks why go stores that list the same prices and are in proximity to one another.

The solution it would seem is to have FreshCo cater to local ethnic groups and tastes and offer different things than what Safeway and Sobeys does. Given the loss and incompetency of the merger, it would seem some haste is required in righting the ship. There is probably a market for low cost, targeted marketing in fresh food, frozen items and ethnic specialty items. The timeframe is closing as Amazon-owned Whole Foods is likely to expand again soon and more national ethnic food stores look at making a splash in Winnipeg.

Expect to see FreshCo some time in the new year.