A veteran photojournalist on the arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

 

UPDATED MONDAYS

Updated: February 20, 2017

EDITION #123 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 20-26, 2017

Slightly shaky foundations

The Great Wall (Universal)

Cast: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Yimou Zhang

Producers: John Jashni, Peter Loehr, Charles Roven and Thomas Tull

Screenplay: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy; story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz

Film Review

Trying to find a common ground with an East-West production with a international cast is never a easy task to implement and The Great Wall is amongst those that try their very best at it, yet it tries a bit too hard to please one audience over the other as this action-adventure/fantasy does in story, effects and pacing but remains somewhat entertaining when it does.

In a imaginary 18th-century China, a couple of European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are out in the Gobi Desert in search of the elusive and mysterious weapon the Chinese call the black powder and as fate would have it, they come across a garrison at the Great Wall of China manned by a numerous secret elite army unit known as The Nameless Order.

Becoming accidental recruits in a battle against a swarm of alien monsters they call the Tao Tei that arrived on a green comet two thousand years ago and come out once every sixty years like locusts, they unwittingly win the respect of Commander Lin Mae (Tian) and her General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) in order to help them defeat the beasts, despite having some misgivings of their true intentions of two’s presence in their hour of need.

Alliances and friendships are greatly tested as the Nameless Order look for a way to protect their capital Biangliang from the merciless horde that has plagued their country for centuries when greed and regal politics get in the way that might endanger the whole world, if either sides put away their differences in time.

Noted for his art-house features The House of Flying Daggers, Raise The Red Lantern and Hero, Yimou Zhang’s official foray into English and commercialist work is, on the surface, visually impressive with the set designs by Gordon Sim and Mayes C. Rubeo’s costuming brought out fully with the combined cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao. However, here his pacing is unusually faster by the mid-way point that makes it sometimes hard to catch up with during the otherwise decent battle scenes which look good in its 3-D format. And oddly enough, this is the first time Yimou has toned down the usage of martial arts here unlike previous wuxia films.

What partly saves the half-muddled screenplay is co-writers Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy being able to inject some humour into the complex story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz that make it just bearable to sit through. And its cast involving Damon as the once-ignoble soldier of fortune slowly swayed by their hosts’ plight while Pascal and Willem Dafoe as a old mercenary looking for a way out with the black powder represent the darker side of human nature, along with Chinese cinema stars Tian as the brave and capable leader, Andy Lau as a wizen battle strategist and Lu Han as a timid guard out to prove himself do the best they can with what they have.

Contrary to the rumour that The Great Wall depicts Damon as the so-called “white saviour” here couldn’t be more further from the truth since his character is anything but a saviour, but adds to the storyline as a collaborative means to an end. Yet, even with all his box office pull, Damon can’t save the film completely. At times it works and other times not, The Great Wall falls short of being great but at least it’s got a lot of artistic eye candy (like the climatic stained-glass window tower, which is quite pretty) to see.

Our ideal man in Cuba

Escape to Havana

by Nick Wilkshire

288 pp., Dundurn Books

Softcover, $15.99

Fiction/Mystery

Book Review

Intrigue and exotic locales are the boilerplates needed for a political thriller and Nick Wilkshire makes a roughly good start with them for Escape to Havana , as part of his Foreign Affairs Mystery series that has his protagonist caught up in some unpredictable scenarios that keeps the mystery fans guessing and second-guessing.

Living a rather dull existence in the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa and looking to put behind the scandalous end to his fifteen-year marriage by his unfaithful wife, middle-aged Charlie Hillier takes a position as the Management Consular Officer out to the Canadian embassy in Havana and almost instantly the tropical assignment becomes the balm he needed in this next chapter of his life.

While it starts out with doing some exciting things like negotiating around the usual political red-tape for a new location for the embassy with the Cubans to menial task of dog-sitting the ambassador’s dog amidst the optimistic change of relations between the United States and Cuba (prior to the current U.S. administration), Charlie finds out that his posting slowly turns nightmarish when his palatial quarters is hoarding a stash of cocaine underneath his bedroom floor and uninvited hookers literally showing up on his front door.

And if that’s not bad enough, it’s somehow connected to a lot of things around here from a Canadian ex-pat hotelier incarcerated over a phoney bribery charge to muscle him out of his business for the hopeful prospect of American favours to the kidnapping and death of a fellow diplomat unfortunately the victim of a ruthless Colombian drug-runner known as La Muerte who’s out to get his merchandise back, which includes a possible romance with a beautiful legal aide settling the account for the new embassy plans.

Wilkshire puts a lot out from his concepts in here in the first book by getting the feel for the atmosphere without going into the typical schematics, like turning his hero as some cracker-jack amateur sleuth from an Agatha Christie novel or even a adventure-prone diplomat in the vein of a John Le Carre thriller. Instead, Hillier has none of those qualities, which makes him to be the ideal genial everyman-type to get caught in whatever situation and find a way out with as much discretion as he can, like any true Canadian would.

Escape to Cuba is a likeable page-turning cocktail of drugs, geopolitics, greed, (some) sex and murder in a diplomatic pouch full of all the ingredients of what is to become a popular series from Wilkshire involving shady and not-so shady characters around his new hero Charlie Hillier with a lot of promise to evolve into something great.

EDITION #122 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 13-19, 2017

Bondage follow-up tighter

Fifty Shades Darker (Universal)

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford

Director: James Foley

Producers: Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, E.L. James and Marcus Viscidi

Screenplay: Niall Leonard; based on the E.L. James novel

Film Review

Not everyone cosied up to the first cinematic treatment of E.L. James’ infamous erotica trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey which was a relatively good if lukewarm start. But since it drew in $571 million worldwide, gained attention for its onscreen couple’s profiles and a resurgence in book sales in 2015, not to mention being the second-most talked about film of that year (after Star Wars: The Force Awakens , of course). So it was inevitable that its sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, takes us through the same sadomasochistic arena only it develops an easier and tighter pace to engage with.

Over a year since their break-up, Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Johnson) has been trying to move on without her obsessive billionaire magnate boyfriend Christian Grey (Dornan) and his kinky desires she couldn’t fully apprehend nor break through his cool exterior. Landing a copywriter job at an independent Seattle publishing firm after university under her editor boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) who’s just as controlling as Christian was.

Completely lost without her and grappling with his haunted past and jealousy issues, Christian tries to reengage with her with promises to be more open to her. Still having residual feelings over him, a new compromise is struck and a more seemingly willing Ana wanting to experiment with their antics in the bedroom.

But their reunion is fraught with new bumps along the road with Hyde having his eye on Ana in a rather…unprofessional manner, a couple of stalkers including a former lover (Bella Heathcote) of Christian following both of them around and business partner Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), the dominatrix who seduced him into the world of S/M and bondage as a teen, that threatens to come between them and their newfound happiness.

You sense a more (if not completely) freer tone, manner and pace with Darker under the helm of James Foley with his less restrictive direction in comparison to the semi-timid flow of Sam Taylor-Johnson, who did the last film; in regards to the eroticism and the screen adaptation by Niall Leonard that he manages to inject some humour to lessen the sexual tension even better, plus returning composer Danny Elfman’s score is more luscious to accompany each scene.

Johnson and Dornan have now grown comfortable into their roles including the sex scenes and seem like their having a bit more fun with Christian and Ana’s cat-and-mouse gamey relationship. The casting choices for Eric Johnson as the creepy editor and Basinger’s competitive cougar are fine antagonists, but are sorely underused here – that hopefully will be remedied by next year’s Fifty Shades Freer – and Christian’s adopted family (Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Andrew Airlie, Marcia Gay Harden) that seems more than warming to welcome Ana into their circle get a little more screen time to add to the storyline better.

Leaving off a suspenseful cliffhanger, Fifty Shades Darker does offer the some of the darkness it promised and a few more questions to ponder over and a shade more lightly in context and delivery that will please fans of the books and first film without getting too heavy into the rough sex to tantalize.

Sentimental road trip and edgy noir tragedy leads Oscars nom reel

2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation (Shorts HD)

Directors: Various directors

Film Reviews

They’re short, they’re (sometimes) sweet and they’re amongst the categories that most people duck around during the Academy Awards for snacks and/or bathroom breaks. Shorts HD brings out their annual collection of Oscar Nominated Shorts package and in the animation division, they’ve brought a more different and compelling line-up including risky dark horse (and boy, do I mean a dark horse) to the usual family-safe stuff in the 86-minute running time it occupies but never a waste of, either.

Borrowed Time by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj is a melodramatic story of a grizzled frontier sheriff revisiting the scene of a tragic accident in his younger days that he feels accountable for and the guilt that weighs on his conscience until a long-forgotten timepiece helps him to find self-forgiveness and salvation packs enough emotional clout in its seven-minute length.

A six-minute rotoscoping timeline between a daughter and her single musician father is the basis and connection in Pearl, as the two protagonists crisscross the country in their hatchback car singing for their supper and the memories they hold along to the tune of a folk song contains eye-popping colours and characteristic depth in their road trip through life from child to young adulthood is a sweet and sentimental postcard from its director Patrick Osborne, who won his first Oscar short for Feast in 2015.

As I had predicted to be a sure-fire contender, the Pixar short Piper that debuted alongside Finding Dory last summer is about a sandpiper chick learning to forge for itself and overcome the fear of the tide is quirky life lesson in dealing with life’s obstacles and handling independence created by Canadian-born writer/director Alan Barillaro, who’s worked with the animation giant since 1998’s A Bug’s Life; as inspired by a walk along the Californian beach is just as inspiring of a undiscovered world and its wonders the tiny avian finds.

Theodore Ushev of NFB uses a sharp linocut-stylish approach to put perspective on how we see the world and life in general in Blind Vaysha, an old Bulgarian tale about a girl born with one eye that sees only into the past and the other the future, but with no common ground of the present and finding no pleasure in having this uncanny talent. Intense as the questions its narrator puts to the audience, it’s quite a powerful parable to present.

Pear Brandy and Cigarettes is the very adult, noir-drenched Canadian/British production that pushes the envelopes on a otherwise kid-friendly category that stands out as the highlight of the reel, as its narrator/director Robert Valley based on his graphic novel tells the true tale of a old Vancouver chum, Techno Stypes, who was the fast-living king of high school cool until a serious accident sends him on his boozy pathway downwards, leading him to finding a kidney donor in far-flung Guangzhou. Peppered with the guitar-twangy score by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo and Frank Miller-esque shades and lights and neon landscapes, the 35-minute film is a cautionary tale on the fairytale of perceived youthful invincibility and the fragility of human mortality.

Among the other three that got short listed, USC masters thesis film by Alicja Jasina’s Once Upon A Line, which also won at last year’s Student Academy Awards, follows a worker drone who follows a mundane existence until his finds and loses a potential soulmate, only to rediscover life’s joys again in a basic continuous line drawing; the NFB/ARTE France film The Head Vanishes about a elderly woman and her disembodied head’s trip to the seaside directed by Franck Dion takes on a surrealist manner on degenerative dementia has its moments and the French four-minute SF/comedy Asteria’s antiwar message of two competing space exploration missions gone wrong on a asteroid, one from Earth and the other a alien contingent; is caught in its own deliciously hilarious irony.

It would take a leap of enormous faith to give the Best Animated Short statuette to Pear Brandy and Cigarettes for its outright boldness and darkly fluid storyline come February 26, but best bet it will probably go to Piper for its friendlier and uplifting persuasion. One other thing to give credit to this year’s reel is that they’ve kept it shorter with the shortlisters that in previous versions felt more like filler showcases instead of focusing on their artistic qualities.

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2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation, along with 2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live-Action is currently showing exclusively at TIFF Lightbox (350 King Street West). For tickets and information, call 416-599-8433 or tiff.net.

Book shows on packing away kids’ troubles

The Huge Bag of Worries

by Virginia Ironside

27 pp., Hodder Children’s Books/Hachette Book Group Canada

Softcover, $12.99

Children’s Literature

Book Review

Published in 1996, British kid-lit author Virginia Ironside’s The Huge Bag of Worries has just only arrived on North American shores of late. Small as it is, it’s a book that doesn’t weigh too heavy on the subject of the common worries of childhood fears when they reach the age of being exposed to understanding the larger issues of life with a gentle and oft-humorous manner.

Primary school-aged Jenny has a pretty comfortable existence with a nice home and family life, things at school are fine with friends and her teacher and a dog named Loftus. But lately, for some unknown reason(s), she starts taking on the worries of the everyday from body image to possible wars that finally accumulate into this “physically” gigantic bag of worries.

The bag tends to follow her everywhere and interfere with the pleasures and challenges of life – even following her into the bathroom! Despite all measures to ditch the bag from her, it stubbornly clings to Jenny that so overwhelms her, she feel powerless as it grows bigger and bigger by the day. It’s not until the kindly elderly neighbour next door comes to her time of need to show how her how to deal with them in a simple and logical way.

Ironside’s casual writing has a way of using light humour and language children will find easy to understand and learn through the crafty pen and pencil crayon illustrations of Frank Rodgers to add to the book’s buoyancy and mannerism. Parents will find this one of the easiest books to read to their youngsters who abnormally experiences anxiety, to assure them that it’s okay to worry as long as it doesn’t consume with everyday living and they’re easy to conquer by discussing them.

The Huge Bag of Worries is appropriate for school-age children three to six and should provide a delight to the youngsters as well as to adults as well.

EDITION #121 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 6-12, 2017

Light Brite

Research and design group LAVA from Australia provides “Digital Origami Tigers” as the main highlight of the first Toronto Light Festival down at the Distillery District.

Toronto Light Festival

Venue: Various locations between Parliament and Cherry Streets, Distillery District

Dates/Times: Through March 12; Sundays-Wednesdays Sundown-10 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays Sundown-11 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Visit torontolightfestival.com or thedistillerydistrict.com.

Visual Arts Feature/Review

As the old saying goes, it is better to light one single candle than to curse the darkness. While some Canadians will gripe about the long, dark and dreary days of winter and others seek refuge by heading off to a sunny destination, the inaugural Toronto Light Festival offers a rather inexpensive choice in viewing twenty-one light sculptures and art pieces scattered in and around the Distillery District by artists from here and around the world that bring their own unique and luminous visions.

The concept of a visual arts festival on light-based artwork isn’t really new. Several cities worldwide from Singapore to Delhi to Prague have them held at different times of the year, but this year marks the very first one to be held in Toronto and using the historical Distillery District down near the Port Lands as envisioned by its creator and executive director Matthew Rosenblatt, who is also behind the area’s annual Toronto Christmas Market.

Left-right: Ryan Longo’s “Reactor”; “Bands of Friendship” from India’s Vikas Patil and Satosh Gujar and the freerunning-inspired “Run Beyond” by Italian artist Angelo Bonello make use of their spaces around the Distillery District’s first-ever Toronto Light Festival.

“Winter sucks, and we simply want to make winter not suck so much,” he stated succinctly into the reason for launching the festival. “We want to create something special and something that will lift the collective spirit of the city. We aspire to make ourselves proud and organize an event that is inspirational. In a world with so many dark and ominous messages, we want to create a positive, magical urban world that people of all ages and backgrounds will enjoy and look forward to. Simply put, we want to help transform a moment of consciousness, from the cold of the dark into the warmth of the light – even if it can reach minus-twenty degrees Celsius. Oh, and we really, really like pretty lights.

“During the dark, cold days of winter, our hope is that city residents will be drawn out of their traditional indoor habitats to experience Toronto in a way they never have before. The festival exhibits the creativity of local and international artists and is a winter experience designed to entertain and inspire [the public]. I love Toronto, and I really hope that this (festival) makes our great city just a little bit better.”

Of the several light sculptures around, some stand out like the tree-like “Reactor” by local artist Ryan Longo, who’s also a well-known underground electronic music whiz with multicoloured lights and objects adorning the piece reflecting on technology and nature in the Gristmill Lane alleyway, along with the twin oblong drop-shaped “Infinite Support” with this mini-light pattern from the interior mirrors giving off this 1970s-like science-fiction vibe, as created by the Netherlander collective LightForm about the true meaning of endless friendship.

From India comes “Bands of Friendship” by the architect duo Vikas Patil and Santosh Gujar that kind of look like lighted hula-hoops lined up in a row changing colour every few minutes has its fun angle, that carries itself upon entering the Trinity Street square compound where one will find the very self-explanatory “Angels of Freedom” from OGE Group of Israel to let viewer get interactive with the three pieces of wings and halos abound, in return for charity when posting the picture on social media tags Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram together with a promised good deed to perform (#MillStLights) and local brewers Mill Street Brewery will donate $1 to the Daily Food Bank.

Left-right: A section of “Our House” by Belgium’s Tom Dekyvere; Kelly Mark’s “Nothing Is So Important That It Needs To Be Made In Six-Foot Neon” and “Angels of Freedom” from OGE Group lights up between Trinity Street and Tank House Lane in the Distillery District.

Toronto photographer Kelly Mark has several works in the area starting with the video projection project at Trinity Street/Tank House Lane with subversively wicked statements on the satire on philosophy. And further down one will find the humour behind the art parody sign “Nothing Is So Important That It Needs To Be Made In Six-Foot Neon” at the window of optical store Spectacles (18 Rack House Mews) and cater-corner inside the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) with a couple of wall hanging installations; as part of her agenda to look at absurdities and pathos of everyday life are some things to consider.

Strung out like green neon spider webbing, Belgian artist Tom Dekyvere has “Our House” above the Tank House Lane/Cherry Street corridor that consistently change patterns on how nature can manipulate its surrounds like this work does, as well as show about connections with technology and nature and like-wise goes for Angelo Bonello placing his “Run Beyond” atop adjacent buildings of Trinity Street of an animated neon pattern of what looks like a parkour artiste jumping from one roof to another about freedom that only the Rome-based artist allows the viewer to decide on how to interpret freedom, are dazzling visual works.

Light-right: The avocado-shaped “Infinite Support” from the Netherlander collective LightForm; Michael Christian redoes his “IT” sculpture into a nod to H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds to Venividimultiplex’s “The Uniting Lightstar” to give off a retro-science-fiction vibe to the Toronto Light Festival at the Distillery District.

American artist Michael Christian has two works, the first being the already-commissioned permanent sculptures “Flowers” making good use of the purplish tint they take on just off Trinity Square and the Louise Bourgeois-inspired sculpture in the Gristmill Lane corridor for the War of The Worlds -inspired “IT” has that eerie air about it to make it look like it could come alive at any minute.

But the pièce de résistance goes to “Digital Origami Tigers” by the Australian-based LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture), which started out life at a Lunar New Year event in Sydney in 2010 to being adopted by the World Wide Fund to bring attention to their campaign of the endangered species. Their balanced ease of their structure and composition of geometrical design and red glow – the traditional Chinese colour for luck – makes it a winning highlight of the festival.

The only problem the festival has that, perhaps for the lack of – or maybe too much of – space that it tends to hide a few works around the area that could get overlooked, even with the guide maps handed out by the fest volunteers. Three good examples are Studio Toer’s interactive “Social Sparkles” using motion sensors to activate these electronic “fireflies” above whenever you pass under them like a chain reaction (and unfortunately the festival’s weakest piece, due to being unable to capture that much attention) and Venividimultiplex’s futuristic cool dodecahedron “The Uniting Lightstar” that lights up nicely, which the first two are from the Netherlands and ironically enough, the fest executive director’s own “Love Lock Benches” of light peeking through welded locks are funky but too well tucked away into some seasonal bar space area, yet worth looking at.

Given that this is its first year of operation, the festival organizers can know what works and what doesn’t and the Toronto Light Festival gives a pretty good excuse to go outside to see some light sculptures to chase away some of the post-holiday blues when one craves to see seasonal lighting to make things bright other than our nightly skyline.

Casa Loma makes a home for a Beast(ly) exhibit

Costume and set pieces from the forthcoming live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and The Beast make their way to Toronto’s Casa Loma for the Family Day long weekend

Gallery Feature

Since its official trailer release went viral worldwide last fall, the anticipation for the live-action remake of Walt Disney’s Beauty and The Beast has built its momentum for its upcoming release next month now culminates into an appetite-whetter when its temporary touring exhibit makes a visit to the locally-esteemed landmark of Casa Loma (1 Austin Terrace), which seems almost as fitting a place as any to hold there for its Canadian exclusive showing; for the Family Day long weekend of February 17th to the 20th.

Walt Disney Studios Canada invites fans of the tale as old as time to be their guest at Casa Loma for a very special opportunity to see nine costumes from the film, as well as participate in themed activities and view special performances over the course over the weekend. The fun-filled interactive experience and exhibit hits Toronto in advance of the March 17th release of the live-action adaptation of the 1991 animated classic. The film brings to life one of the most beloved tales ever told as directed by Bill Condon (Chicago; Dreamgirls) with an extraordinary ensemble cast that includes Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson.

Casa Loma will be the only location in Canada where fans can see the costumes, many of which were used in the production of the film and include Belle, Gaston, LeFou and many more, which all were designed by the Academy Award-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran. Guests will also see a replica of the iconic rose and bell jar, among the other activities being offered are arts and crafts, face painting and storytellers about, plus performances by ballroom dancers and a circus aerialist.

Access to the costume exhibit and participation in the activities is free with the price of admission to Casa Loma, which will be offered at a special discounted rate only for the Family Day weekend will also have special extended hours for the exhibit until 9 p.m. each night and guests using the promo code “Be Our Guest” at the box office will receive a 20% discount on their ticket purchase.

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Beauty and The Beast opens for wide release in cinemas on March 17. For tickets and information for the Beauty and The Beast Casa Loma exhibit, call 416-923-1171 or visit casaloma.ca.