Saturday, January 31, 2009

Maybe Obama isn’t so bad after all, says Bill Kristol

Last week, Teatro restaurant welcomed William Kristol for the third gathering of the 2008/2009 Salon Speaker Series, a dinner meeting of top intellectuals in Calgary held roughly every month. The affair attracts quite a crowd, impressed by the gourmet fare (sponsored by Enbridge), free-flowing libations (generously provided by Vendemmia Wines and Fieldstone Capitol), and witty, fervent discussions. Bennett Jones LLP is the series sponsor, with Global Public Affairs, National Post, Ron Mathison, and Coril Holdings Ltd. also pitching in.

On the guest list are James and Barbara Palmer, Bill and Sharon Siebens, lawyer Gregory Forrest, managing partner for Bennett Jones LLP Perry Spitznagel, Enbridge'sD'Arcy Levesque, director of the Institute for United States Policy Research Dr. Stephen Randall, president of Calgary Zoo Clement Lanthier, president of Global Public Affairs Randy Pettipas, and of course, the directors of the Salon Series, Rudyard Griffiths and Patrick Luciani.

Kristol, a far-right leaning columnist based in Washington D.C., holds a doctoral degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He jumpstarted his political career in the early 1980’s, working for the Regan and H. W. Bush administrations, as well as think tank “Project for the Republican Future”. In 1994, he founded The Weekly Standard, a highly influential – and Conservative – magazine, which he continues to edit. Last year he became an op-ed writer for The New York Times, and in the year to come he will appear monthly in The Washington Post. Kristol also appears regularly on Fox News.

Given all this, his comments after a sweeping Democratic victory in the last American election might have been predictable. But they were not. Kristol is actually very impressed by his new president, and believes he will govern as a centrist.

A week before his Calgary appearance, Kristol and a handful of conservative columnists dined with the new president at a private dinner party. “He might not have been washed in the blood of the lamb, but he touched the hem,” joked Tom Flanagan.

His personal impressions were positive. “Impressive, intelligent, thoughtful,” he said of President Obama, “He would listen to you and understand your objections to his point of view. He reminded me of moderate law professors I’ve met. He’s very calm. He was refreshingly normal and conversational, and that bodes well for him as president.”

Still, he joked, since the inauguration he’s been yearning for a place more conservative than his own country, and so he came up to Canada. There was an appreciative chuckle, but the comment also raised eyebrows. In this city, a newly appointed senate and “big spenders” budget are causing many to wonder if conservatism is not taking a hit across the continent. Even if that is the case, says Kristol, all is not lost.

Commenting on the weakened state of the Republican Party in the US he said, “I think it’s going to be helpful, ultimately. There will be a reinvigoration of conservative ideas. What you need as a minority like this is some chaos, some bitter debates. It would be helpful for the party.”

Published in National Post, January 31 2009

Bill Brooks Gala is the cat's meow

A new and fabulous trend is emerging in the society circuit – themes.

Everyone loves a theme park, right? And some people even opt for theme weddings, performing their nuptials in everything from Elvis costumes to Robin Hood leggings. Over the holidays, Alykhan Velji, a highly sought-after residential and commercial interior decorator based in Calgary, hosted “A Very Bollywood Christmas”, complete with turbans and synchronized dancing. So it was no surprise that he and his partner Jason Krell, (Tara Parker Tait PR) were not the only ones fully on board for the Bill Brooks Annual Prostate Cancer Benefit.

Its theme was The Great Gatsby, or the 1920’s era. Guests were urged to put on their “glad rags” and grab their “favorite hoofer” for a night of dancing, fine food, and “giggle water.” One was even invited to “drop some jack on silent auction items that are the cat’s meow.” And so they did.

The vast silent auction included a one-week stay in the private Mexican villa owned by CEO of EnCana Randy Eresman, and a return trip for four to Hawaii with a accommodations provided in the Hilton Hawaiian Village lagoon tower, among other hot getaways. Other highly desirable items on the table were: a men’s Seiko Premier Kenetic Direct Drive watch (valued at $1095), dinner for six at Catch restaurant (value $1200), and an original ink drawing by Audrey Mabee (valued at $250).

Lorne Marr preferred to be called Elliott Ness. Kim Stern, owner of Boutik clothing store, was among the many guests wearing a flapper-style dress, long pearls and a feather in her cap. President of the Art Gallery of Calgary, Valerie Cooper, lined up for some prohibition cocktails at one of the many bars around the ballroom. The drink of choice was bourbon, or a lemon drop martini for the more dainty. Food stations offered everything from sushi and dim sum to antipasti, fine cheeses, and bite sized mini burgers of lamb, tuna, or beef short rib.

This is the 11th year for the benefit. 578 people attended, and revenues exceeded past records. Guests attribute its success to the charismatic man behind it all, Bill Brooks, who flew between the guests with a wide smile late into the night.

In the beginning it was a much smaller crowd, who met for a formal dinner and talked about prostate cancer with rare openness. Since that time, Brooks has raised over $3.3 million toward research and treatment costs, and allowed men and medical professionals to talk about the disease publicly in Calgary.

City Alderman Ric McIver, K├Ąthe Lemon, editor-in-chief of Avenue Magazine, Christine Wandzura, CEO of Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta, Jeff Kovitz, chair of the board of governors for The Banff Centre, and Emmy-award winning producer Chad Oakes of Nomadic Pictures were among the guests.

The ultimate cocktail party it may be, but some of the more corporate-minded guests still had their minds on what followed that glamorous era ... the great depression.

Published in National Post, January 31, 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009

How the oilpatch was stirred up by the Academy Awards

The road to the Academy Awards is paved with black gold, it seems. At least in Alberta.

Downstream, a Canadian documentary about cancer rates among residents living south of the oil patch, was recently added to the longlist for an Oscar nomination. While the shortlist nominations did not include a nod to the film, its early recognition sent giddy shock waves through the film industry here, and a mess of panicked PR bungles through an enclave of corporate energy giants and government representatives.

The film behind the buzz is a 30 minute documentary revolving around Dr. John O’Connor, a physician living in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. For six years, the doctor has been making a public fuss about rare forms of cancer in the small town, which he claims are linked to the toxic tailing ponds from nearby oil sands development. For his trouble he was charged with four counts of professional misconduct and forced to move far away from the community, to Nova Scotia. The charges have recently been dropped, the water from tailing ponds tested, and a second – but very slow – peer review study of the situation is currently underway by the Alberta Cancer Board.

The documentary has already been screened at select locations in California, and a slew of film festivals from around the globe will show a full-length version of the film next year. Although very few Canadian have yet to see it – including those interviewed for the film – rumors are flying fast and furious.

Last month, the first response from Alberta Minister of Culture Lindsay Blackett was that “it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense” to fund a film “that’s going to be negative” of the province. “If I’m going to invest money in a film, the whole idea is to show Alberta in a better light,” Blackett said during an on-camera interview with CBC. The Minister retracted his comments six days later, saying his comments were in response to a hypothetical question, and that “no censorship or creative oversight is on the table, and it won’t be in the future.”

But the damage had already been done.

Actors unions cried out. Skittish staffers of the Alberta Film Commission denied it ever happened. The Los Angeles Times reported that “it might be impossible to fund a film in the future that is critical of local government policies and programs” and a tribal council member for the Chipewyan First Nation, whose plight is explored in the film, told local indie magazine FFWD, “The Culture Minister is not supporting the general public of Fort Chipewyan. We pay our taxes too.”

The vilified Minister made amends with locals, but the sandstorm speaks to a much larger communications malfunction. The Oscar buzz arrived soon after a carefully crafted admission by Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) that most Canadians don’t feel all warm and fuzzy about their work. That looks now to be a radical understatement. The same day Minister Blackett’s comments were made public, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation requested a judicial review on the granting of oil sands leases from the province. And soon President Barak Obama will make his first official visit abroad to Canada, including a tour of the developments - America’s closest, and largest, supply of energy. For its part, CAPP is promising a “different conversation” – read: revved up public relations campaign - this year.

Leslie Iwerks, the film’s Los Angeles-based writer and director, says Americans are apathetic and ignorant of what their energy costs in human terms. “I understand that it’s big business and they need to feed the US appetite for oil,” she says of the industry, “But you see the environmental impact and the energy it takes to get at it, and it’s pretty eye-opening. It’s big government, it’s people not caring, it’s massive environmental destruction, it’s doctors getting charged with counts that aren’t necessarily true, and it’s a lot of unanswered questions. Those are the stories I want to tell, because it’s a story about human beings.”

"This product is being produced because there is a demand for it,” says Lorraine Royer, vice president of stakeholder relations at Global Public Affairs, whose clients include many big players in the oil patch, “The industry is well aware that continuous improvement is required, and an incredible investment occurs everyday to reduce that impact.”

What this film means for perceptions of the oils sands remains unclear, but those in the movie business are hoping this bit of drama will only help their industry.

“I don’t want there to be a backlash against Alberta film, that was my main concern,” Minister Blackett explains, “It’s knowledge-based and green and all those other good things. We want more Alberta films, more producers, more work in diverse industries here. Film captures our quality of life here, through our eyes. We can’t expect someone from Los Angeles or New York or Toronto to do that for us. We need the creative industries here. I made one mistake … I misspoke. You live, you learn.”

Published in National Post, January 23 2009 (<--click to see article online)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Opera and audience meet for brunch

Can something still be considered a city’s “best kept secret” if 300 people know about it? That’s a question some regulars of the Calgary society circuit are asking after last Sunday’s Opera Brunch at the trendy Hotel Arts.

Guests included the Honourable Mr. Peter Lougheed and his wife Jeanne Lougheed, Harold and Marilyn Milavsky, Pat and Sherrold Moore, Andrea Brussa, George Leitch, Bill Kerr, Iris Richards, Denise Dunn McMullen of Brunet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP, and David Tavender of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP.

“It’s an extraordinary event,” says Mrs. Moore, “I can remember when it was just a handful of people at the Palliser Hotel, many years ago. It’s really grown.”

As it grew, the brunch moved to The Petroleum Club, where attendees would regularly squeeze into a roundish, multi-tiered room to feast on a formal brunch and listen to cast members from the upcoming production sing a piece of their choosing. This was the first week for the event to be held in the even more spacious Hotel Arts.

“It’s kind of interesting to see the singers in their civilian clothes just get up and sing something they like,” says Mr. Moore, “It gives you a different feeling for them as a performer and an artist. After this brunch, when you then see the opera, it’s like you know them a little bit.”

Indeed, the affair remains an intimate one, despite the impressive ticket sales. Many guests are long-time patrons of the Calgary Opera, and friends. Tables of eight are positioned around the room, with enough privacy to be cozy yet the proximity of a private dinner party. At the front of the room, well-spaced between the two long buffets, is a grand piano and circular stage. After guests have their fill of a mouth-watering breakfast buffet, the performance begins.

Calgary Opera’s next production will be Strauss’ play-within-a-play comedy, Ariadne Auf Naxos, opening January 31. Nine members of the cast individually performed selections from that opera and others, including The Marriage of Figaro, Romeo and Juliet, and the French-Canadian musical Notre Dame de Paris. Mezzo-Soprano Rebecca Hass sang a hilarious piece in English, lamenting the fate of the Alto singer who rarely has a chance to “wear the prettiest dresses and make out with the lead male” on stage. The performances were all brilliant and engaging, wrapping the audience in their melody and plot lines.

“We have one of the most adventurous opera programs in Canada,” says Grant Reddick, an actor and theatre coach for the Opera. He will appear on stage in An Ideal Husband in March.

Apparently, that edict applies on and off the stage. The Calgary Opera website lists some helpful etiquette tips for first-timers, including a suggestion to remove your cowboy hat so people behind you can see the stage. Reddick seems happy that the opera is attracting a diverse following.

Calgary is a very permissive town,” he says smiling, “People here are very supportive and encouraging of the arts.”

Published in National Post, January 24 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009

That's a Wrap for Alberta Film Industry

Mere days before the Alberta Film and Television Awards nomination deadline, movie people from across the province were hitting the dance floor, tossing back free cocktails, and engaging in shameless self-promotion at the annual industry fundraiser.

The 2009 Alberta Wrap Party took place last week at Calgary’s Aero Space Museum. The former hanger filled with vintage planes provided a perfect backdrop for this year’s theme – Take to the Skies. Thankfully, the food was well above typical airline standards. Cal-B-Que, the largest supplier of on-site catering to local production companies, provided a happy assortment of fresh oysters, sushi, pot stickers, cheese and veggie trays, and deserts. The Afro-Latin sounds of local band Cumako sent everyone’s shoulders a-shimmy.

The last few years have given this industry good reason to celebrate. Canadian productions like Passchendaele and Freezer Burn, as well as American films like Brokeback Mountain, Santa Baby, and The Assassination of Jesse James have been filmed here.

Chris McRae and Michael Gibney reminisced about working with Ang Lee and Heath Ledger on the set of Brokeback Mountain. “They were just great guys,” says McRae, who helped Ledger learn to drive a stick-shift for one scene. After years in the industry the pair has recently opened The Window, a production studio and backlot. Business – and the parties that go with it – is still thriving, they say. After a few glasses of wine, they were ready to head to an after-party hosted by the Trailer Park Boys.

Jeff Brinton of Alberta Film Commission says that “good locations, great crews, and attractive financial incentives” make this province hard to resist. But Craig McNeil, the LA-based producer behind Jenny McCarthy’s 2006 hit Santa Baby, had only one blunt word for it – “Money.”

“Money, money money,” McNeil repeated in jovial tones, adding, “Not only is this the most affordable place to make a movie, but the people are great. And the landscape is also very diverse.” His next project, Santa Baby 2, is currently in production, transforming the clean streets of Calgary into lower Manhattan.

Film financing has not been such a cherry issue for everyone lately. Rumors have circulated that Minister of Culture Lindsay Blackett would re-consider funding films critical of the province after a shortened version of Alberta-made documentary Downstream was nominated for an Oscar this year. The film explores the cancer rate among Aboriginal communities just south of major oil sands developments. Randy Bradshaw, a producer of the film who attended the Wrap Party, would only say that he’s “proud and excited” by its success.

Proceeds from the Alberta Wrap Party will be donated to the Alberta Screenwriters Initiative, and the Performing Arts Lodge in Calgary and Edmonton.

One might be surprised by a thriving community of creative, showy, over-the-top types deep within the Conservative heartland, mingling daily among the straight-laced and unpretentious citizens. But as the year wraps up, the economy turns down, and the glamour of award season begins, let us resolve to embrace their homegrown style of entertainment – and provocations – like never before.

Published in National Post, January 17, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The good, the bad, and the beautiful

She was sexy, talented, mysterious, and tragic. But Marilyn Munroe was also a woman of flesh and blood, now brought back to life in two exhibits and several multi-media performances at the Glenbow Museum. A spectacular VIP opening to the collection was held on the 2cd floor of the museum recently, where guests sipped champagne and nibbled on delectable hors d’oeuvres. It was a flashy affair for a world-class exhibition.

Among those in attendance were Olympic medalist Mark Tewksbury, owner of Axis Contemporary Art Gallery Rob Mabee, prominent businessman Harold Milavsky, political scientist Dr. Donald Barry, economist Dr. V. Nallainayagam, artist Chris Cran, Deputy Premiere of Alberta Ron Stevens, and actress Chester Lees, who plays the sixties starlet in a production called Memoirs of a Glamour Girl, showing until February 19 at the Glenbow. President of the Glenbow Museum, Jeffrey Spalding, who was recently awarded the Order of Canada for “his contributions as a champion of Canadian artists”, was also there.

The evening began with guests milling around platters of antipasto, artichoke dips, and hot samosas. Bartenders were poised at each end of the crescent shaped room, complimentary drinks at the ready. Party chatter ranged from the recent proroguing of Parliament to the Glenbow’s reinvigorated exhibit schedule. After a good bit of mixing and mingling, resident art curator Monique Westra gave a guided tour of the exhibits.

The larger exhibit is Marilyn Munroe: Life as a Legend, a collection of over 300 photographs and paintings, including Andy Warhol’s famous silk-screens. We see her stunning beauty, but also a reflection of her voyeuristic audience. Here she is as we want her to be - a perfectly lovely and iconic figure, made even more desirable by her transition from mere mortal Norma Jean to a celebrity stubbornly out of reach. The exhibit has travelled throughout Europe and the United States, and was originally assembled in Hamburg, Germany.

On the other end of the room is Some Like It Haute: The Costumes of Marilyn Munroe. Her most famous gowns hang on adolescent-sized mannequins, giving semblance to her famous 22-inch waist but failing to replicate her generous curves. Here one gets the sense of her physical presence, and the world in which she lived. While the context is important, particularly for those interested in the 1950’s and 60’s (a series of photographs called “Happy Birthday Mr. President” brings that famous performance, and her relationship to Kennedy, dramatically into the room), we also get the sense that she is timeless.

She symbolizes “the good, the bad, and the beautiful” in our society, says Ken Lima-Coelho, “This is a show about how an iconic person was constructed and how she been de-constructed ever since.”

Monique Westra will give another guided tour of the collections on February 5, and an exclusive art auction called mARTinis with Marilyn is scheduled for February 18. Rare photographs of Marilyn Munroe (clad only in a silk sheet), taken by Canadian Douglas Kirkland, were also on display and for sale at AXIS gallery.

Published in National Post, January 10 2009

Thursday, January 8, 2009

YEP - It's the Holiday Season!

While government leaders entered serious talks on climate change in Poland this month, environment enthusiasts gathered in a more casual way here at home.

Young Environmental Professionals (YEP) and the Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS) at the University of Calgary held separate holiday parties this month.

At Ceili's Irish Pub, YEP gathered to sip pints of beer and munch on finger food. A Destiny’s Child holiday album played in the background. Among the organizers present were Jackson Hegland of ARC Resources, Simon Geoghegan of MEG Energy Corporation, Jon Mitchell of EnCana, and Sarah Jordaan, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary.

Founded in 2001, the organization boasts approximately 200 members and holds events every month. Candice Pearce, a civil engineer, says the diversity of people who attend is refreshing.

“When you go to an engineering event, it’s all engineers,” she says ruefully, “And it’s often expensive. A year long membership here is $30, which is about the same as one professional networking event for me.”

Indeed, guests ranged from those working as environmental consultants in energy firms to members of think tanks, students, and those who simply have an interest in environmental issues. Paul McKendrick provides investment analysis for TransAlta, a company operating coal-fired, gas-fired, and hydro facilities. His job is to investigate the possibilities for sustainable technologies, including wind power and carbon capture and storage. It’s an economic opportunity the rest of the world has already realized, he says, and shows exciting potential for his company.

Door prizes were given out, including a bottle of organic wine, a Mountain Equipment Co-op knapsack, Camino chocolates, and a hefty backyard composter. YEP will meet again on January 12, when Peter Tertzakian, author of A Thousand Barrels a Second, will give a talk on the future of energy supply and demand.

The Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS) hosted a holiday celebration the following night. Professors, students, and at least two “resident philosophers” mixed and mingled in the EVDS Gallery on the University of Calgary campus. Black-tie toddlers ran between the legs of exhausted graduate students and staff. Cocktails were available, along with a substantial buffet of cheese, fruit, chicken, and shrimp. Loraine Fowlow, the interim dean, was there, as well as professors Tom Harper, Dr. Noel Keough, and Dr. Stan Stein.

While the atmosphere was cherry, some students still had work on the brain. Masters of Environmental Design students were recently challenged use strategic, creative communication to raise awareness about the emerging global water crisis. Groups submitted their final projects to the AIGA Aspen Design Challenge, a contest imagined at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

“The goal is to sort of work ourselves out of a job,” said Professor Barry Wylant, an industrial designer. He was referring to the role of design in mitigating climate change, and addressing its human impacts.

However, as long as the Arctic ice is shrinking, populations are growing, and mainstream technologies aren’t sustainable, these students are shaping the future, one challenge at a time.

Published in National Post, December 27 2008