For Big Day Downtown this year, Downtown Halifax chose the theme of "People's Choice" and we used our social networks to get ideas for where we could go to spend the $150 that they gave us. Having done earlier Big Days as well, it meant that I had visited much of the downtown area and getting some help with choosing things to do was a good idea. People are good at suggesting where you can spend your money and between some conversations and tweets, I was able to figure out some great downtown businesses to visit.

Downtown Halifax is officially is the area from the Casino to the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market and Pier 21 and extending up to Brunswick Street from the Waterfront. Within that area there are many businesses and they are all fair game to be part of the big day. The bloggers assembled at the newly opened Onyx on Argyle to accept this mission and it was a nice start to the whole exercise with some good drinks and snacks in a comfortable environment with fellow bloggers.

There are a few stops that I had in mind right away, but in asking a few questions my big day got even better with the feedback that I received. Living in Wolfville and working in Dartmouth means I'm familiar with the city and already do a lot of shopping there, but with feedback it helps to discover new places that haven't shown up on your radar. Instead of having one Big Day all together I asked a few questions and incrementally enjoyed a Big Day.

The first question that I asked was about a vegetarian lunch downtown and I got some great responses right away. The Nova Scotia Centre for Craft and Design suggested Fruition in the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market. Lisa Preston suggested The Wooden Monkey. Abad Khan reminded me that Indochine has a location on Barrington and while a triple-lunch day sounds good, I knew I'd need to spread those meals out a bit.

The second question posed on Twitter was for where to get craft beer and Susan Thompson of Fredericton suggested Stillwell, which in posing my question I was secretly hoping for. She'd visited Halifax recently and thought it was great and I agreed and added that to the plan for my Big Day.

The final question that I asked (knowing I easily could use up all $150 at the locations already suggested) was for where to get bike stuff, clothing, or t-shirts. Steve Keeling suggested Lost Cod on the Halifax Waterfront Boardwalk. Arthur Gaudreau (through his HalifaxReTales Twitter account) thought of Biscuit General Store (which I've been to often, and love, but didn't get to visit for this Big Day). Brad Alex Stephens suggested Ideal Bikes. Offline MEC was a suggestion for a spot for bike and clothing stuff as well.

With a to-do list of locations and a prepaid Visa card from the Downtown Halifax Business Commission it was time to make the plan for my day. It ended up being part of three days which allowed for good food and drink along with great shopping in the downtown with lovely late summer weather.

Day 1

Vegan Seitan Donair at The Wooden Monkey

I started off with an old favourite I hadn't visited as part of earlier Big Days – The Wooden Monkey. Having been there often, and usually getting the veggie burger, it was kind of surprising to me that I hadn't tried their Vegan Seitan Donair. Having been a vegetarian for over two decades means that it has been a long time since having a donair, so something new at a favourite restaurant was exciting.

To start I ordered a Big Spruce Brewing Cereal Killer Stout to have some craft beer with my afternoon lunch. Seitan) is not something that I've eaten often, but the way that the Wooden Monkey prepared it with tomatoes, onions, and a sweet coconut sauce all wrapped up in a porridge pita is amazing. With their potato roasties on the side it's one of the best lunches I've had.

Carrot Cake Smoothie from Fruition

Then it was out into downtown again and along the Waterfront Boardwalk to the other end of downtown. The Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market has a great collection of vendors selling food and goods and it can be busy on Saturday morning. But there are many vendors who are there throughout the week, and Fruition is one of them. Their location is bright and right by the windows at the front of the market. Inside they have a range of delicious vegan food and I picked up some of their Power Porridge and got a Carrot Cake Smoothie. The smoothie was just right and a few days later I cooked up the Power Porridge in my rice cooker and that was a tasty breakfast and a nice change from the ordinary oatmeal I have every weekday.

Flat White from The Smiling Goat

With some clouds in the sky, but no rain, I walked along the boardwalk thinking of where to go next when I remembered that the Smiling Goat had a location downtown now. I stopped in there for a Flat White and used their wifi as I sipped espresso and microfoamed milk. The Nova Scotia Centre for Craft and Design then suggested I stop in to look at the show in their gallery, so it was back down the boardwalk past the Seaport Market and before Pier 21.

Mary E. Black Gallery and Nova Scotia Centre for Craft and Design

The Mary E. Black Gallery is in the Nova Scotia Centre for Craft and Design and they feature a variety of exhibitions throughout the year. The most recent exhibition (which ended August 31) was "Presence of Absence" which was a collaboration between Catherine Beck and Jeffrey Cowling exploring loss and remembrance. The exhibition was fascinating. There was jewelry from Catherine Beck using human hair as the starting point and funeral urns and reliquary boxes made from exotic woods by Jeffrey Cowling. It's an interesting reflection on loss and memory.

Blue SC Speed and Cadence Sensor from MEC

I had parked the car in the parking garage next to MEC and while I had explored the food and artistic parts of my Big Day Downtown, I wanted to start on the clothing and outdoor activity part. MEC is the most regular stop downtown for me and this time I looked through the clothes and got a Castelli Velocissimo Tour Cap that was on sale. In the back of my mind I was thinking of another device to track my bike riding activity and picked up a Wahoo Fitness BlueSC speed and cadence sensor for my bike (semi-subsidized with my Big Day Downtown money). The tour cap is great for keeping sweat and sun out of my eyes, and the sensor measures the speed of my bike as I ride as well as the rate that I am peddling, so you can see when you are coasting and when you are working as you look at the data from a ride.

 

Day 2

At the end of a day at work I was able to stop in to Ideal Bikes on Barrington to look through the range of bicycles, equipment, and clothing that they have there. I found some comfortable and durable Darn Tough socks that should last me a long time riding (and they have a lifetime guarantee). Ideal Bikes is also right beside Stillwell, and I met my pal Kendra (@halifaxfilmgal on Twitter) there for some socializing, a beer, and a snack.

Stillwell

Any bar has basic elements that are relatively simple, but are difficult to get right. There is the location, the layout, the staff, the drinks, and the food. At Stillwell they have everything just right. It's welcoming as soon as you arrive and I love the bar. With taps at the bottom of a chalkboard wall behind the bar, it's a simple setup built around great craft beer. The names of the beer are written over the taps. The lineup changes on a continuous basis, so if it is busy you may notice that there is something different on one of the dozen taps on the wall. It's set up in traditional pub style, so you order your food and drink at the bar which gets you moving around a bit.

Board and Taps at Stillwell

Tokyo Fries at Stillwell

With a knowledgeable staff and friendly atmosphere it feels just right and time slips away effortlessly. This time I tried something new and had the Bitter Get'er India Black IPA (from Big Spruce Brewing) which is nice. Kendra had Bulwark Blush Cider which she enjoyed. The food at Stillwell is simple, but amazing. My favourite menu choice is the Tokyo Fries which are usually served with Atari Mayo (which isn't vegetarian), but you can get a honey sauce for dipping, or the vegan option which is a Sriracha-based sauce (which I opted for this time). With a coating of Tokyo steak spice, they're perfect and with the hot sauce it's a nice little kick that goes well with craft beer. The menu adds new things often with all sorts of amazing creations, so you can try something different or stick with something that you like. Stillwell is a gem at the heart of a revitalized Barrington Street.

 

Day 3

Veggie Ball Banh Mi from Indochine

The last stop for food on my downtown adventures was at Indochine. They make the most amazing Banh Mi sandwiches and now have a location on Barrington. My favourite is their Veggie Ball Banh Mi which is a delicious sandwich that is built around veggie meatballs that are made right in the kitchen all within fresh bread. In the summer they have a refreshing iced organic lemonade with mint that is great on a warm summer afternoon.

T-Shirt from Lost Cod Clothing

For the final part of my Big Day I returned to the Waterfront to look at the shops and stop in to Lost Cod Clothing. In a small building packed with t-shirts, hoodies, and hats, they put various logos on the clothing. The logos have a story and they save the history of Nova Scotia by remembering companies that are no longer around. In the shop Chris knows the stories of the businesses that are no longer with us and is more than willing to share them. Looking through the logos and hearing the stories was fascinating. I finally decided on a green t-shirt with the Halifax & Southwestern Railway logo. I like the logo and the story as this was the railway that ran along the South Shore which has a trail I love to bike on.

Black Bear Ice Cream

With my t-shirt and a little bit more time on my hands I walked over to the Black Bear Ice Cream shop to see if there was something there that interested me and there was. Jalapeño ice cream. I like spicy things and after having a sample, I decided to go for it. The locally-owned shop makes their own flavours and the spicy jalapeño peppers are counterbalanced with the coolness of the ice cream which has a fiery aftertaste. It was a good way to wrap up my big day as I sat on the waterfront and looked out at the water at the end of a beautiful late-summer day.

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AuthorChris Campbell
Categoriesplaces

It's a very good challenge picking films to see at a film festival. You look at the list and start to think of what you want to see based on what you recognize. Then you look through the schedule and see how it all fits together, and then you research things to find little gems you may have missed on the first pass or two. The Atlantic Film Festival this year is filled with many difficult choices, but in the world we live in it is becoming easier to see films even if we miss them at the festival. But it's still great to be amongst the first people to see a great film.

There is a cinematic calculus that can help to decide which films to see when there is a scheduling conflict that involves the likelihood of being able to see the films relatively soon. With some films it's an easy choice as there may be two great films, but one of them will be released in theatres in a month or two. That makes the choice a bit easier as in my case I would (usually) pick the more obscure film. But if it is something that you really want to see on a big screen it is better to go with the sure thing to make sure you get to see it. The other factor with a film festival is you're seeing the film with an audience who really wants to be there, so that makes the whole experience better.

At first glance the lineup this year was great. The Atlantic films were announced and that is a great collection of films, then a couple of weeks later the full list came out. There is something for everyone with gentle mainstream dramas, documentaries, and challenging films on the edge. The best option if you like to change your mind (and have the money) is to have a pass as you can decide up to an hour before a screening what to see. But it's good to have a plan to start with, so based on my idiosyncratic tastes, we'll walk through some of my choices for dramatic features.

The opening gala is a film I hadn't heard of before, Elephant Song, but with a solid director, a script based on a play, and a great cast, it looks like a good way to get things kicked off. It's the easiest decision of the festival as it's the only film that is playing. So if you want to see it you can go and attend the party as well. The party is a great place to talk about film and find out about other films coming up. After opening night the decisions get considerably more complicated, so lets look through the schedule to pick out things.

Friday

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby started out as a work in progress screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last year with two films subtitled Him and Her, each telling the story during the same time period, but from the perspectives of each part of the couple. They live in New York and each of the films take place during the same period of time. The third part of the film, Them, is what is screening at the film festival. With Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy playing the couple, with a screenplay written by Ned Benson who also directs this feature triptych debut, it should definitely be interesting.

One of the big highlights for me will be seeing Andrea Dorfman's third feature-length drama, Heartbeat. Working with Tanya Davis as singer/songwriter/actor in the lead of the film and with Andrea's signature style, it should be great. Shot by cinematographer Stéphanie Weber-Biron who is the top visual stylist working in Canada today, it's going to be gorgeous and you really should not miss a chance to see it on the big screen.

Dan Gilroy's directorial debut Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhall (who is on a string of great performances), could be interesting as a look at the underbelly of Los Angeles through the eyes of crime journalists. With a writing background that includes cowriting Tarsem's The Fall, but also writing the story of Real Steel, this new film will hopefully move more towards the genius of The Fall. With a release date scheduled for October and a star like Gyllenhall, it's going to be fairly easy to see this later, so I would always go for something a bit harder to see.

David Robert Mitchell wrote and directed a beautiful gentle gem of a debut feature with The Myth of the American Sleepover which I first saw at the Atlantic Film Festival in 2010. He returns with the horror film It Follows, which should also be interesting. In his previous film he was able to take an ensemble cast of teenagers and create something that was a lot more than a typical coming-of-age film and with It Follows there is a good chance that he'll bring a lot more depth to the idea of a horror film with teenagers.

Saturday

Force Majure (Turist) has a premise and description that instantly draws me in based on the cool, dark, and deadpan Scandinavian sense of humour that I've seen in other films. Set in the French Alps with a family dealing with an avalanche, it should be challenging and darkly funny in the vein of The Bothersome Man or Borgman (an odd standout film from last AFF last year) with moral choices built in.

If you like formal challenges with your films, Stations of the Cross should be intriguing. Consisting of 14 shots with a 14 year-old-protagonist reenacting the 14 Stations of the Cross, it's a story about a young girl trying to remain true to her fundamentalist Catholic religion. It should be emotional and challenging, but if that is one of the things you look for in cinema, this could be a good choice for Saturday afternoon.

Xavier Dolan is all over the Atlantic Film Festival this year, acting in two films and writing and directing Mommy. Exploring some of the similar subject matter to his brilliant debut feature, I Killed My Mother (which played at an earlier AFF along with Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways, Mommy is shot within a square frame with his regular actors Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement who join Antoine-Olivier Pinon as a troubled teen. Sure to be visually interesting with a great soundtrack, it's another film that should be a bit challenging and definitely worth seeing.

Love is Strange looks great with solid performances from both Alfred Molina and John Lithgow who are criminally underused in most of the films that they are in. With them together as a couple dealing with the challenges of living in New York being newly married and unemployed, it should be a treat to see. With a limited release underway now and a wider release coming later in the month, it is something that will be easy to see after the festival.

Deanne Foley directs the adaptation of Lesley Crewe's novel in the romantic comedy Relative Happiness. With a colourful look, great cast, and set in rural Nova Scotia, it will be a rare treat to see a local story on the big screen. A love story built around a woman in her 30s who runs a bed & breakfast and needs a date for her sister's wedding, it should be a delicious treat.

Continuing the strong thread of Atlantic feature films at the festival this year, Cast No Shadow is Christian Sparkes' feature directing debut with a script by Joel Thomas Hynes. Hynes wrote and directed the brilliant short Little Man which played previously at the festival. Cast No Shadow is a coming of age story set in a seaside Newfoundland town with a 13-year-old boy at the centre of the story and it should be a great drama that combines Hynes writing with the dark whimsy that Sparkes also brought to his festival short A River in the Woods.

A rare 3D event is Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language, which is a 3D film from the French auteur. This definitely won't be for everyone with Godard willfully avoiding plot and cinematic conventions in his most recent films, but what would you expect from the man who inserted "cinema" as his middle name in the credits of one of his films. If you've seen recent Godard you should have an idea of what to expect, if you don't like that, I suspect that the film could be a bit of an ordeal, but if you want to see something unique and challenging that will not be coming soon to a theatre near you, it's the place to be Saturday night.

Sunday

Moving on to Sunday and starting relatively early, is the Québecois black & white film Tu Dors Nicole, which looks beautiful and quirky. Shot on film, Stéphane Lafleur's film is about a young woman in her 20s spending time at home when her parents are away and her brother wants to record an album with his band. Watching the trailer makes me want to see it, even if only to see the images projected on the big screen.

Jordan Canning's feature-length debut, We Were Wolves promises to be as great as his shorts were. Having seen Seconds and the delightful Oliver Bump's Birthday at previous festivals a longer drama holds a lot of potential. The film cowritten by Canning and Steve Cochrane (who also costars in the film) is the story of two brothers dealing with their father's death and who they are over a weekend at the family cottage.

On Sunday night the latest feature from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night is a film that has been on my list to see for a while. The Belgian brothers create naturalistic portraits of characters in challenging situations that are powerful and moving. With L'enfant, Lorna's Silence, and The Kid With a Bike they have made beautiful statements with moments that are breathtaking at times. Since 1999 all of their feature films have won awards for them at Cannes, with them winning the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury this year. Starring Marion Cotillard, it will be another memorable and very human drama.

Monday

Monday has a long and languorous Turkish drama from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this past year. His previous feature, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is an amazing drama that slowly and compellingly builds a powerful story by following characters through one night as they search for the body of someone who is murdered. With long takes and a naturalistic style, Ceylan has an incredible grasp of cinematic language that manages to keep me interested even when his films have long running times. With a 3 hour and 16 minute running time, Winter Sleep will not appeal to everyone, but I look forward to immersing myself in one of Ceylan's films again.

Tuesday

The early evening Tuesday slot has some solid-looking feature films and a great free outdoor screening as well. Foxcatcher is getting great reviews and with Bennet Miller (Moneyball) directing, and with Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in the cast, it's going to be easy to see later. Screening outside as part of the Outdoor Film Experience at the AFF is Shandi Mitchell's film The Disappeared, which played to acclaim at the festival in 2012. Seeing it next to the water in Ferry Terminal Park in Dartmouth should be perfect as you watch the compelling film about six men lost at sea.

The final film of Tuesday night looks quite interesting as it is the latest from Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria. He has a range of films from the fun cinematic love letter Irma Vep, to the sparse character drama Clean, and the ensemble dramas Summer Hours and Something in the Air, as well as the docudrama Carlos. With a screenplay written by Assayas and French actress Juliette Binoche as the lead dealing with aging as an actress with Kristen Stewart playing her assistant, it is sure to be filled with metacommentary on the film industry itself along with some solid drama.

Wednesday

Wednesday night should pose the biggest scheduling challenge for many people with a lot of possibly great films overlapping. I have a pretty good idea of what I am going to see that night, but in my mind it keeps switching around as nobody wants to miss out on something that everyone else will be talking about.

Mike Leigh has a gift for assembling great casts and working through an improvisational process for crafting great dramas. With Happy Go Lucky and Vera Drake he has made complex stories that are engaging and surprising. His latest film, Mr. Turner is about British painter J.M.W. Turner and with Timothy Spall winning at Cannes for his portrayal of Turner, it should be a safe bet for fans of British drama.

God Help the Girl is a project that grew out of Belle and Sebastian lead singer / songwriter Stuart Murdoch's) project of the same name that assembled singers for a band together. Later a Kickstarter project was used to help fund the film and I was a backer of that (and received a nifty little pin for that). Now it's done and with Emily Browning (who was in Sleeping Beauty, which played at AFF in 2011) starring in it, the film should be a fun musical look at a summer in Glasgow with a boy and a girl and a band. At Sundance this year it won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award (ensemble) for the cast of the film.

Another Sundance success on Wednesday night is the musical drama Whiplash written and directed by Damien Chazelle which won the Audience Award as well as the Grand Jury Prize. Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer who is relentlessly driven by his teacher. There is also Desiree Akhavan's comedy Appropriate Behavior (which she directs, writes, and acts in) about a bisexual woman in the Brooklyn dating scene who is searching for love as well as concealing who she is from her Iranian parents. A very edgy choice for wrapping up Wednesday night would be Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's harrowing drama The Tribe. With the dialogue taking place all in Ukrainian Sign Language without subtitles, it is set in a boarding school and follows a young man's journey into a student gang.

But for me the latest film from Kristian Levring (one of the original Dogme 95 signatories), The Salvation, is interesting as a Danish Western. With Mads Mikkelsen at the centre of the cast and with a script cowritten by Anders Thomas Jensen (who wrote In A Better World, Adam's Apples, and Levring's previous film, Fear Me Not), it should be a slightly Scandinavian take on the Western genre. Levring's Fear Me Not was an odd reworking of the ideas in Nicolas Ray's Bigger Than Life, so I'm curious to see what he does within the form of the Western which is quite far from the principles of Dogme 95.

Thursday

Finally it all wraps up with the Closing Gala film, Maps to the Stars from David Cronenberg. The Canadian director has been moving away from his earlier genre-based films into unsettling looks at intriguing characters. Working with a script from Bruce Wagner and set in Hollywood, it's the first of Cronenberg's films to actually be shot in the United States. With a celebrity cast including Julianne Moore (who won as Best Actress at Cannes for her performance), Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattison, and John Cusak, it's a high-profile film that should be a bit edgier than most mainstream Hollywood films.

Which dramas look good to you this year at the Atlantic Film Festival?

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AuthorChris Campbell
Categoriesfilm

Romantic comedy is one of the most popular genres and a genre that I don't often watch. When I was invited to a preview screening of The F Word I thought about it, and when seeing that it was directed by Michael Dowse, I was intrigued and wanted to see it. Dowse is a bit of a cinematic smuggler with many of his films on the surface being testosterone-laden explorations of masculinity with a surprisingly deep and emotional core at the heart of them.

Not knowing that there was more than meets the eye to Fubar is probably one of the reasons I hadn't seen it sooner, so the first film by Dowse that I saw was It's All Gone Pete Tong. The mockumentary about a DJ who loses his hearing starts out as a documentary and plays with the form to create an entertaining story about a man struggling to define who he is and what is important. After seeing it I sought out Fubar and enjoyed it as well. With the sequel Fubar: Balls to the Wall he explored the same ideas, but added some real depth and drama in unexpected ways and it was one of my favourite films that I'd seen at the Atlantic Film Festival in 2010.

The F Word is written by Elan Mastai and is based on the play "Toothpaste and Cigars" written by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi and the one-act play is expanded and tweaked into a much more cinematic form. Set and shot in mainly in Toronto, it looks gorgeous with some whimsical visual animated flourishes that add a nice texture to the film. With a romantic comedy the path is well-worn, but what I liked about the film is that it did play with the form in a way that kept it interesting for me.

At the heart of the film are Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan who have fantastic chemistry. Having only seen one of the Harry Potter films, I hadn't actually seen much of what Radcliffe was capable of and he has great comic timing which was a pleasant surprise. I first saw Zoe Kazan in the clever Ruby Sparks (which she also wrote) which subverts many of the romantic comedy conventions. Supported by Adam Driver (who effortlessly steals scenes) and Mackenzie Davis as another couple providing a counterpoint to the central friendship of the film.

It's funny and enjoyable with characters that I cared about and a story that kept me interested by moving between the characters and subplots. There is a sense that the film is grounded and exists in a world closer to reality than most romantic comedies. It's a perfect summer film that allows all involved to work within an established genre without being stifled by it.

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AuthorChris Campbell
Categoriesfilm