Thursday, September 29, 2016

Movie Review: The Queen of Katwe

In 2012, Tim Crothers wrote Queen of Katwe about young chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi from the Katwe district of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Crothers, a former Sports Illustrated writer, managed to capture an inspirational tale of a young African woman in sport that rarely attracts attention. The book was reviewed well and got noticed in Hollywood for its plucky feel good story.

Disney senior creative executive Tendo Nagenda was of Ugandan descent and immediately optioned the book for the studio. He then enlisted the help of Oscar nominated director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay) also of Uganda to sell the studio on the merits of a story. This wasn't as easy as it sounded since the story was primarily set in Africa covering a sport not high on the lists of Americans.

Nair brought in screenwriter William Wheeler (Ray Donovan TV series) to help with the interviews of Phiona, her mother Harriet and chess coach Robert Katende and filmed a short proof of concept that Disney could at.

Disney greenlit the project and in conjunction with sister company ESPN Films, a story and casting began to take place. The part of Phiona Mutesi went to 15 year old Madina Nalwanga found at a community dance class in Uganda. The newcomer was chosen after looking at over 700 girls in the country. The cast was rounded out with Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) cast as Phiona's mother Harriet and David Oyelowo (Selma) as Robert Katende.

A feelgood movie can be cliched and lack nuance but Nair's direction captures the story of Phiona well. The filming in Katwe feels like a character unto itself. It has colour, texture and depths that give you a feel of the hardscrabble life of the poor in Kampala. Some of the scarier aspects of that community described in the book are left out of the movie but the sunny aspects of the vibrancy of the people are mitigated by what they don't have and that finding a place to live and eat is foremost on everyone's mind.

Phiona's father is dead and her mother, sister and two brothers and mother work every day to feed themselves. She looks longingly at the children with school uniforms and know that this life will never be hers. She can't read or write and her future probably will lead on the same path of her older sister who has taken up with an older man.

As it turns out, Phiona's future lies in the unlikely sport of chess taught by Robert Katende in a Christian ministry using sport as a youth outreach. Katende acts as coach while he waits for an engineering job to come up. He knows something about grinding poverty as he was a youth who lost his mother twice. Somehow, he overcame those obstacles and graduated first in his class in university. Still, he waits for his chance at the ministry while living hand to mouth with his wide and child.

Phiona has many obstacles to overcome and throughout the strength of her mother and her coach and to some extent her faith propel her from one championship to another. It is interesting to note that one of her humbling defeats takes place in Russia in a chess match against a Canadian competitor.

In the hands of other filmmakers, it is easy to how this story could have been ruined. A white character might have been made a focal point to better reach audiences, an older actress might have been recruited to play the lead possibly from the west, the Christian faith might have been pushed hard as a motivator or the source of transformation. None of that happened though. Instead a delightful, nuanced and character focused story unfolded that took the audience in and never let it go.

The end titles of the movie cleverly show the actors and the actual people they played and where they are now. Disney magic is often seen in animation but live action is sometimes hit and miss. This particular story shows what can be done with maturity and great talent. One of the finer movies to come out this fall and one deserving a good audience in seeing it.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Winners Coming to Grant Park Shopping Mall

There has been talk about it for some time but a Winners store is indeed opening in the space between McNally Robinson and Red River Co-Op grocery store at the Grant Park Mall. A series of store closures and moves inside the mall and of ones facing out to Grant Avenue are signs of the logistical chess game in preparing the mall for another key anchor.

Modern Taco Company is closed now and Magiccuts has a sign inside the mall indicating where they will be moving to in the future. Once all the spaces out front are vacated, the interior walls will be removed to create the larger space. It is unknown whether this includes an expansion outward to the same line as McNally. Both Shopper Drug Mart and the former Target also pushed out northward to create space in past years.

It seems Grant Park has been under construction for years and in truth, it has been. Only now one of the last corridors is being modernized in the same design as the rest of the mall. Canadian Tire is now open in the spot that Target once occupied. However, they did not take the entire space in July leaving room for Goodlife Fitness to join them on the east side.

Goodlife Fitness will have to do some work on the space as there are literally no windows or entrances out front to the space. Nor is there a trailer out front yet selling memberships. Expect to that and work being done soon.

The addition of Winners will make Grant Park Mall a strange hybrid of big and small stores. Not wholly a big box mall or traditional mall, it keeps evolving and has has big money spent on it to achieve success. Contrast this with what has been happening at Garden City Mall which has seen a steady decline that borders on neglect.

There is no timetable on Winners but the opening seems likely in 2017.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Goldeyes Win Championship!

From Goldeyes Twitter
It has been one heck of a year for the Winnipeg Goldeyes and on Monday night in convincing fashion, they beat Wichita Wingnuts 11-4 in the last of a best of 5 series of the American Association Baseball league. Every time the Goldeyes looked like they were down for the count in the play-offs, they battled back and for only the third time, they bring back a championship.

The previous years the Goldeyes won were 1994 and 2012. Sadly, the final game this year took place in Wichita and while Winnipeg weather was fine for a game, they played under sticky 33 C weather to win it all and despite tickets being $5, there were only a few hundred people in attendance. Imagine the crowds and celebrations in Winnipeg for a hometown win. A number of fans and team front office staff made the trek now south including owner Sam Katz.

It was a team effort for the Goldeyes this year. Pitching and hitting as well as good management in signing players and managing the team roster and game to game line-up. It is never easy to win against the teams that Goldeyes have been rivals with since the 1990s.

Congratulations are in order as this looked like a team in the latter half of the season that would not be denied a long play-off run. It took to the last game but they are the 2016 champions.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

IHOP Coming to Seasons of Tuxedo

They've fooled us one a few years ago with a site plan that showed a International House of Pancakes going up but this time it is for real. Seasons of Tuxedo has put up a revised site plan showing IHOP and Dairy Queen as among the first restaurants of many going up in the parking lot.
Construction continues all over the site which will be dominated by factory outlet mall Outlet Collections of Winnipeg. It opens next year. The Garden Hill Hilton Hotel is well under way as is the Porsche and Audi dealerships. On the west side of the mall multi-residential unit should be ready to go in the new year.
IHOP has never had a location in Winnipeg and given Winnipeg's love of pancakes, it should do well. The Original Pancake House that opened by the VIP Odeon Theatre has been very busy. The IHOP down the street is likely to see as much or more traffic.

Expect to see a flurry of restaurant announcements in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Winnipeg Goldeyes Beat Saint Paul Saints and Advance to Championship

It took till the final game in the best of five series for the Winnipeg Goldeyes to defeat the Saint Paul Saints 3-1. The divisional series was never a sure thing and at one point the team had to fight the odds on enemy territory to come from behind and win 3 games to 2.

A small contingent of Goldeyes fans made the trip down to watch their team win in the Twin Cities. the final game was a mix off defensive and offensive success. Goldeyes pitching was solid and when needed, the team ripped hits out of the ballpark.

The 2016 Goldeyes don't get much rest. They are back it for the American Association Championship Series against Wichita Wingnuts on Wednesday and Thursday in the best of five series. A forecast of rain may affect that schedule in much the same way as the series with Saint Paul was affected. The series heads back to Wichita Saturday and through till Monday if needed.

The team has had an outstanding year and once again get to prove it in a championship series.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Prep Montessori School Coming to Charleswood

The large space in the middle of 3500 Roblin's shopping complex in Old Charleswood has sat empty for some time save for a few elections where it served as temporary quarters for voters registration. Prior to that, the space was last held by U-Weight Loss and before that another weight related business.

Signage has gone up indicating that The Prep Montessori School will be taking over the whole space. They will occupy 3554 feet of space and create a large daycare within. The street already has several daycares nearby so this is a critical mass for parents in the neighbourhood.

The mall becomes fully leased with this move and now there is very little if no space for retail in the area. The second floor of the Charleswood Medical is now the largest space in the area waiting a tenant.

Shopping Malls are finding they need to be more clever in filling space and a daycare in the middle of this complex is likely to be seen as a smart move.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Goldeyes Make the Play-offs

The unrelenting rains on Sunday pushed the Goldeyes/Redhawks game to Sunday and a double header was scheduled on Labour Day. It quickly became known that the Goldeyes needed one more win to clinch a play-off spot ahead of the hard driving Laredo Lemurs.

The first game of the double header was won by 6-1 by the Goldeyes and the result was a jubilant celebration on the field with all the players and managers. It is the 18th time in the 23 year history of the team that they make the play-offs. Only a very strong performance in the latter part of the year got them the spot this year.

On Wednesday, the Goldeyes will face another old rival in the first round of the the play-offs. The Saint Paul Saints will arrive for a best of five series. Shaw Park will host Wednesday and Thursday and CHS Field in Saint Paul will host game three on Saturday and if need be games on Sunday and Monday.

This past weekend also saw the Goldeyes make history with the first play by play called by a woman in radio broadcast. Danielle Doiron did an excellent job and will continue to be a force in the Goldeyes front office.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Goldeyes To Make History Saturday

The Goldeyes complete their final four games in a play-off run against their rival Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. This Saturday though will be one for international history as Danielle Doiron will become the first woman to ever call play by play in a game.

Doiron has been doing great work in her second year as assistant in media relations at the Goldeyes office and is recipient of the Jack Matheson Award from the Manitoba Sports Writers and Sportscasters Association.  The award goes to the top Manitoba-based student currently studying in the sports field.

A recent graduate of Red River College Creative Communications program, Doiron has been handling increased responsibilities on the excellent Goldeyes radio broadcast for away games.

Game time Saturday starts at 6:05 at Shaw Park and Doiron will call the third inning. Goldeyes are in a dogfight for the wildcard spot so should be a great game.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Movie Review: The Light Between Oceans

In 2012, Australian writer M.L. Stedman drew reader in with a story of Tom Sherbourne who returns from the brutality of World War I to take a job as a lighthouse keeper. He is accompanied by his wife Isabel who is the light in her husband's life and wishes to start and raise a family with him on the remote Janus Island. After a number of failed pregnancies and despair at ever having children, a baby washes ashore in a boat. Despite his better judgement, Tom agrees to Isabel's request to raise the little girl as their own. Only a return to the mainland two years later shows that their decision has serious consequences for all.

It easy to see why a studio thought the Stedman material was cinematic and could be a three hanky weeper. Producers brought in Derek Cianfrance to adapt a screenplay as well as direct the movie. Relationships crossing into dark territory is familiar territory for Cianfrance who wrote and directed Blue Valentine.

The casting for the movie brought in the exceptional acting talents of Michael Fassbender (Tom Sherbourne) , Alicia Vikander (Isabel Graysmark) and Rachel Weisz (Hannah Roennfeldt). It was during filming two years ago that Fassbender and Vikander became a couple. The chemistry between the two is obvious.

Fassbender is familiar to Winnipeg people because very on in his now acclaimed career he played Harry Colebourn in the CBC movie A Bear Called Winnie which filmed in Manitoba. Vikander is the new it girl in Hollywood and was seen earlier this summer in Jason Bourne.

The movie is shot on location by Adam Arkepaw in the rarely seen Tasmania. The cinematography is breathtaking in its beauty and loneliness. The other worldliness of the lighthouse and the ocean far from the mainland is a compelling setting for our characters and the blissfulness of their romance is easily felt.

The solitude is also present with the growing number of little crosses representing two failed pregnancies. Vikander as Isabel is exceptional in capturing the emotions of the promise and loss of each child. The arrival of a rowboat washing ashore with a dead man and a new born presents our beleaguered couple with agonizing choices. Fassbender as Tom shows how his dedication to duty of crumbles in the face of his wife's despair at losing the baby to an orphanage just because they followed the rules. Ultimately, they keep the little girl and name her Lucy.

The most unforgiving role in the movie belongs to Rachel Weisz (Hannah), the little girl's real mother. It when Tom and Isabel return to the mainland for a visit and Christening of their child that Tom learns how their Lucy came to be in a rowboat. In the aftermath of World War I, antipathy towards people of German heritage still runs high and in one particularly ugly incident, a man and his newborn are driven into the sea to escape a mob. This leaves the grieving Hannah mourning their loss.

Tom is no longer able to deny the consequences of keeping Lucy once confronted with the truth. He anonymously writes Hannah to assure her little girl is safe and cared for. It has this moment that the movie becomes a love triangle and it is Lucy who is at the center of it. This is where the movie runs into problems.

The writer/director Cianfrance has to show that Hannah was not only a good wife but a good mother before losing both husband and child. The difficulty of this is how to do it with nuance and subtlety. The solution was the insertion of an origin story of Hannah's romance with a German and their marriage and subsequent baby. The segments shown feel like an intrusion rather than imparting information and a long movie gets even longer.

The inevitable conclusion to this tragedy is that Tom's tortured soul eventually results in the truth coming out. The beautiful scenery, talented actors and the very good score of Alexandre Desplat are never able to overcome the fall-off in drama towards the end. There is no villain  except the failure of good intentions. It is difficult to say whether the Stedman book could be adapted without veering away from the source material to create more complex characters and a more sweeping storyline. This is unfortunate because a lighthouse keeper, his wife and a boat washed up shore still sounds like a promising tale.