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.

 

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Updated: September 26, 2016

NOTE: Currently having some technical problems with the archival sidebar and are trying to fix the problem and get it updated. Again, apologies for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience and support. It is truly appreciated! - JB

EDITION #105 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 26-OCTOBER 2, 2016

Gaelic and graphics lead IFOA’s 37th

Left-right: American literary icon John Irving, CanLit heroine Miriam Toews and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative journalist/author Chris Hedge are part of the line-up for the 37th International Festival of Authors starting October 20 to 30.

International Festival of Authors 2016 Preview

It’s the luck of the Irish and the luck of the draw(ings) that will dominate the thirty-seventh edition of the literary fall classic that is the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) down at Harbourfront Centre October 20 to 30, that gives a heavy focus on Irish literature, graphic novelists and non-fiction authors part of the Artsport exhibits, along with celebrations surrounding Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary and the future of literature in a temporary virtual reality installation exhibit as well as family events, readings, workshops and roundtable talks.

Preliminary events to warm-up IFOA is the October 6th Festival launch featuring literary icon John Irving sitting down in conversation with debut novelist Nathan Hill and the currently running autumn exhibit in the Bill Boyle Artsport Gallery (235 Queen’s Quay West) with Stories We Tell by local and international cartoonists and illustrators featuring Nina Bunjevac, Michael DeForge, Nick Drnaso, Jon McNaught, Chris Oliveros and Seth, where they’re also part of the roundtable event Five Artists, Five Ways: The Modern Graphic Novel on October 22.

Continuing on the note of gallery pieces, German portrait photographer Heike Steinweg will have The Last Line, which focuses on world-renown authors meditating on the last lines of their books; that will be featured for the duration of the festival in and around the Artsport. Authors featured in the exhibition include Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander, Nicole Krauss, Lê Thi Diem Thúy, Jonathan Lethem, Aris Fioretos, Marie NDiaye, Ben Marcus, Janne Teller, Assaf Gavron, Ilija Trojanow and Ingo Schulze, among others. Steinweg will also be discussing the work with Sarah Knelman on October 21; and virtual reality finally comes to IFOA with the installation Slave to Mortal Rage making its Canadian premiere in the Artsport Main Loft, which will run for just three exclusive days October 25 to 27. Created by CiRCA69, a British transmedia artist described by Cineuropa Magazine as “one of the most notable names in Europe to be dealing with VR;” as one can walk around and explore the world of Slave to Mortal Rage around you, interact with it, feel the wind upon your face and uncover a story in which you are the central character.

The annual PEN Canada charity event Resistance in Times of Turmoil on October 22 has writer/filmmaker David Bezmozgis in conversation with bestselling non-fiction author Adam Hochschild who will discuss about the lessons learnt from writers and activists battling fascism, racism and other forms of injustice in his latest book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 at the Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queen’s Quay West).

Rounding up the many men and women of letters attending will be American authors Jay McInerney, Peter Geye and Jim Lynch, Spanish author Marcos Giralt Torrente, Danish authors Lotte Hammer Jacobsen and Josefine Klougart, German author Christopher Kloeble, Italian screenwriter and novelist Francesca Melandri, New Zealand author Ben Sanders and Australian author Charlotte Wood and Icelandic novelist Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir to compliment our homegrown talent including John Metcalf, Donna Morrissey, André Alexis, Kevin Patterson, Yann Martel, Alexandra Risen, Charlotte Gray, Jane Urquhart, Nathan Whitlock, Alissa York, Linwood Barclay and Margaret Atwood; among the 100 participants from 16 countries coming to the fest, including debut novelists Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Amy Jones, Molly Prentiss, Eric Beck Rubin and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan.

IFOA will host the Toronto Public Library’s seventh annual Book Bash for the first time at IFOA on the first weekend of the festival on October 22, where families are invited for a free, fun-filled afternoon of storytelling, music, writing and illustrating workshops and demos, tech fun, puppet and magic shows, theatre and author signings to promote and encourage children’s literacy and the joy of reading, that will involve some of this country’s most renowned children’s authors, illustrators, storytellers and musicians like Kingdom of Birds, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, Elise Gravel, Rukhsana Khan, Thao Lam, JonArno Lawson, Ruth Ohi, Kenneth Oppel, Sydney Smith, Joel A Sutherland and more (click here for schedule).

Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel not only brings another live recording of the long-running CBC Radio literary programme at IFOA on October 29 with European authors Christopher Kloeble and Francesca Melandri, she’ll also be in the spotlight of her experiences of hosting the show promoting her own book, The Best of Writers & Company, in a sit-down with the award-winning poet, biographer and anthologist Rosemary Sullivan on October 27.

Four centuries after his death, there’s a reason why William Shakespeare is called the Immortal Bard as the fest with the global Shakespeare Lives programme puts on three events on his death anniversary this year starting with an all-day spoken word workshop Shakespeare Lives in Poetry for October 21 with international poet and facilitator, Deanna Rodger to work with local emerging spoken word poets, culminating in a performance by the participants; October 22 has Lunatics, Lovers and Poets of a live reading of a Shakespeare- and Cervantes-inspired short stories anthology by renown authors Beatriz Hausner, C.C. Humphreys, Hisham Matar and Marcos Giralt Torrente and the Graphic Sonnet Exchange on October 23 where Shakespeare’s mysterious Sonnet 21 will get a graphic novel interpretation by contemporary artists Jonathan McNaught from England and Toronto-based John Martz, plus all audience members will receive a copy of the graphic novel itself.

The @IFOA series has returning favourite The Koffler Centre of the Arts returns this year with one of Toronto’s most celebrated playwrights Ravi Jain in conversation with acclaimed author Olive Senior. Bound by their shared passion for cultural identity and lineage, they will discuss the complications (and joys) of navigating multiple cultures inside and outside of the family, and the relationships between mothers, daughters, and sons on October 23; CBC Radio’s Carol Off hosting short-listed writers nominated for this year’s 80th Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction October 24 and Ireland gets fêted with two @IFOA events: Poetry Ireland’s and its Rising Generation poets Julie Morrisy and Ciarán O’Rourke on October 27 and them joining again on October 29 with authors Emma Donoghue and Paul B. Muldoon.

More recently, the fest has announced this year’s Harbourfront Festival Prize winner with its $10,000 purse going to acclaimed author Miriam Toews, best known for her works A Complicated Kindness and All of My Puny Sorrows; as IFOA Artistic Director Geoffrey E. Taylor explained their choice: “Miriam Toews has contributed so much to Canada’s literary tradition through her own work, but also through the tireless (and often unsung) support she provides others. She is an advocate for the mentally ill, she is a stalwart support to young writers, often providing a place at her home for writers to stay,” he said. “She makes it to book launches —not just for the big publishing houses but also for small independent presses. At home she is truly part of the writing community. She takes that commitment and translates it abroad: she travels the world taking part in writers' retreats, book fairs, readings, and other appearances — and in doing so becomes an ambassador for Canadian writing and culture.”

“I'm thrilled to be chosen as this year's recipient of the Harbourfront Festival Prize!” Toews stated in her reaction to the award. “I saw the list of writers who’ve previously received this prize and it is truly an honour to be counted amongst those titans, people like Alice Munro, Nicole Brossard, Helen Humphreys and Margaret Atwood. I’m so grateful to the committee and the festival. Thank you!”

Other events include two four-hour The Writer’s Toolkit workshops with bestselling author Brian Francis on executive Saturdays, starting with Improving Your Writing (October 22) co-hosting with Simon & Schuster Vice President, Editorial Director Nita Pronovost, and Publishing 101 with Adria Iwasutiak (October 29) giving insider tips on getting published and what the current trends in the industry is like; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist/writer Chris Hedges will present this year’s keynote address for the Humber College’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences conference on October 28 study on truth and lives with The Price of Truth in Journalism in a Post-Fact World and the new Stranger Than Fiction series on October 30 with “A Disappearance in Damascus” with journalist Deborah Campbell travels undercover to Damascus, reporting on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria in the aftermath of the Iraq War; “Root Therapy, Re-imagining the Family Tree” with Alexandra Risen’s memoir Unearthed celebrating family bonds and perseverance between nature, gardens and people and how soil is the new Prozac; “Moving Beyond the Human Era” as Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy explores ecological issues through the lens of the mysterious Area X and “Ireland’s Violent Revolution” where Catriona Crowe will talk about the Irish decade of revolutionary centenaries, from the 1913 Lockout, World War I, the 1916 Rising, Civil War and independence and how a small country dealt with its violent beginnings as a state.

***

Tickets now on sale; some events are FREE. For information, call 416-973-4000 or visit ifoa.org or humber.ca/liberalarts-ifoa/( Price of Truth in Journalism in a Post-Fact World lecture; open to the public)

Transcending the comics panel

Clockwise from left: Marta Chudolinska explores her Polish heritage and history with her diorama Babcia series; Ginette Lapalme subverts punk-pop art with “Three Books”; a details of Keith Jones’ Morons and Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats #3 are part of the “Funnies” showcase section of Harbourfront Centre’s fall exhibit Stories We Tell, now running until December 22.

Stories We Tell: Visual Arts Exhibitions Fall 2016

Venue: Bill Boyle Artsport, 235 Queen’s Quay West

Dates/Times: Through December 22; Tuesday-Sunday 12-6 p.m. (Thursdays 12-8 p.m.), Mondays closed except for civic holidays.

Admission/Information: FREE; call 416-973-5379 or harbourfrontcentre.com

Gallery Review

The graphic novel – some love the name, others not – has not only transcended into the literary world as being legit for the last two decades, it has found another medium of expression: the art gallery. For Harbourfront’s fall exhibit collection of Stories We Tell, several artists take the medium into two- and three-dimensional works of varying disciplines in showing how versatile it can be other than being the usual dialogue and story within a panel medium.

Its major showcase corridor entitled Funnies (and be no sheer coincidence, kind of looks like a series of comic strip panels) plays on the comic section of newsprint dailies that usual appeal to children, but adults also saw some subversive stuff when the art form was a essential part of 20th-century journalism, but has slowly gotten smaller in the last decade, yet these artists have put it to good usage.

Marta Chudolinska’s “Babcia” series describes her native Poland’s history and her late grandmother as a colourful collage of paper and ink with a central sculpture piece chandelier pająki (spider) and wycinanki (paper cutouts) to give it a little fun with folk art; a quirky techno soundtrack with distorted cat sounds accompanies “Endless Wipe by Loose Scrunchie a.k.a. Seth Scriver” with a quartet of revamped popular album covers by Seth Scriver as he airbrushes the likes of Fergi to look like a Ferengi from the Star Trek universe and Gordon Lightfoot is a scary-looking Brad Pitt dead ringer, is a neatly subversive satire on capitalist culture.

A digital print on paper sample of “Wendy – Art Girl on the Go!” as created by Walter Scott is a parody on the art world and of the titular art curator’s life of detailed chances at life, love and her career as a whole; while Meags Fitzgerald’s textile background with fibre arts nicely reinvents Greek mythology and Aesop’s Fables with symbolism for “Newborn” using ink, embroidery thread and cotton. Several things go on with the multimedia sculpture contribution from Ginette Lapalme as punk-pop art, but two of them “Nice Day” and “Three Books” take on a whimsical cuteness disguised with rebellious intentions.

Detail from his forthcoming publication “Morons,” Keith Jones has two antihero rebels without a clue riding on an endless road to nowhere in a Keith Haring style of drawing with a richness for colour. Ethan Rilly plays it straight with plain ink on Bristol board of various subjects from his Pope Hats series consisting of a darkly humorous nature, ranging from as despondent time traveller looking for a childhood memory (“Portal Rock”), a academic seemingly looks like to be given walking papers (“Pope Hats #3”) and two strips about a stray cat (“Dead Cat”) and a satire on paranoia and Google Streetview (“Streetview”). Too bad about contributor Amy Lockhart, who doesn’t show much for originality, other than a childhood sketchbook, a couple of portraits and a pair of red ceramic high heels supposedly a comment on human rights (?) she had done when she was seven, kind of leaves one at a loss.

In the Artsport Gallery the series’ second group exhibit Five Ways, as curated by Canadian cartoonist legend Seth, allows five cartoonists to stretch their imaginations and canvases starting with the standards of finished and original artworks of Nick Drnaso’s “Pudding” from his Beverly comic book series where a one teen girl Tina and her friend Wes meet up with her childhood BFF Charlotte at a party at her place in some faraway town before they head off to college, deal with the isolationism and separate lives they now take doesn’t go so well within its clean linear lines and captivating story on changing relationships, loosely based on the cartoonist’s experience at a birthday party.

Retelling the Artemis and Siproites story in the adult graphic novel work-in-progress “Bezimena” by Nina Bunjevac, where Siproites was turned into a woman after raping one of Artemis’ virgin cohorts in revenge; has a creepy noir feel in the pantomime panels of a home invasion and voyeurism running rampant and crosshatching method working here, plus her doll-making pieces nearby “The Runaways” as two homeless girls look very realistic.

Clockwise from left: Nina Bunjevac’s eerily-realistic “The Runaways” dolls; detail from “The Envelope Manufacturer” by Chris Oliveros and excerpt from “Dockwood”(lower right) and lithographic print “Bricks”(lower left), both by Jon McNaught.

Now semi-retired from his duties running the CanCon comics publishing house Drawn & Quarterly he founded a quarter-century ago, Chris Oliveros turns his hand at the medium with his upcoming “The Envelope Manufacturer” about the ups and downs of a small independent business owner taking a overly drastic measure to keep his failed business venture alive is a interesting, if oddly mirroring in its subject; British cartoonist Jon McNaught uses a vibrant three-colour screen prints for his graphic novella “Dockwood,” a near-pantomime tale based on a summer job he had at a Hampshire seniors’ home as a kitchen porter makes his morning tea rounds to the residents, holds of seniors allowing their twilight years to slip quietly into a monotonous routine, plus lithograph prints “Flagstones” of reflective rain puddles on a street maintain a similar style and a black/white story “The Dunes” inked on drafting film have high frosted sheen to them.

Surrealist cartoonist Michael DeForge’s works dominate the space from his collection of past illustrative works, trading cards and self-published ‘zines, six untitled ink sketches and two oversized mascot heads border on between cuteness and fierce and “Canadian Royalty,” a curious satire of a re-imagined Canada having a homegrown royalty lineage mired with real Canadian history, all have that boggling Dalí-esque state of mind.

Clockwise from left: Sketches, one of two felt mascot heads and a sample series of trading cards by Ottawa surrealist cartoonist Michael DeForge in Stories We Tell ’s main exhibit “Five Ways.”

Near the Artist Studios is the hidden Object Diaries with sculptor Jing Huang and textile artisan Sam Pedicelli in separate showcases. Pedicelli use of velvet, denim, fabric, porcelain and acrylic paint into her fantastical creatures and figures that could properly fit well in a Tim Burton film (“Mer-person”; “Party Animals 2”; “Together”; “Personal Space”) and Huang has her sextet “Dislocation” anthropomorphic series (“Swine”; “Fawn”) with earthenware figurine casts atop drawn sketch pages feel simple, if workable undercurrent running.

Clockwise from left: Sam Pedicelli goes all Tim Burton with her fantasitically eccentric “Party Animals 2” sculpture; “Swine” from Jing Huang’s “Dislocation” series by Chris Oliveros and two plates from Aberrant Tales series by Lindsay Montgomery, “The Company of Wolves Charger” (lower right) and “Hellmouth Charger” (lower left).

Stories We Tell ’s only solo exhibit belongs to ceramist Lindsay Montgomery with her Aberrant Tales. Here she turns the illustrative scripts from medieval times into modern themes on religion, feminism, birth and death painted with maiolica glaze on press-moulded earthenware, going from the bizarre to macabre with pieces entitled “Lioness Charger,” “Hellmouth Charger,” and “The Company of Wolves Charger,” among others. Yet these works provoke and challenge these nuances of the fairytales we grew up on by switching it all around on us to be more subjective on the representation of women in art into something creative and original, if not get a bit more of a chuckle from it for its intelligence.

***

Nina Bunjevac, Michael DeForge, Nick Drnaso, Jon McNaught, Chris Oliveros and Seth will be part of IFOA 2016’s roundtable event Five Artists, Five Ways: The Modern Graphic Novel on October 22. For tickets/information, call 416-973-4000 or visit ifoa.org.

EDITION #104 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 19-25, 2016

Syrian white knights in White Helmets, Luscious La La Land

Toronto International Film Festival 2016 Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Hissane Habré: A Chadian Tragedy

Tuesday, September 13; 11:30 a.m.

Chadian Arabic with English subtitles

Chadian film master Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (A Screaming Man) returns to the festival with his second documentary project Hissane Habré: A Chadian Tragedy on the horrors his country went through under a brutal dictatorship of Hissane Habré and the survivors of his cruelty isn’t any more revealing than what previous films about fallen despots have done, but this one does stand on its own.

From his involvement of kidnapping three Europeans in the First Chadian Civil War in 1974 and his rise to power in 1978, Hissane Habré ruled the country with an iron fist with his secret police known as the DDS, in compliance with French and American support during the Cold War; committed unjust arrests and horrific crimes against humanity on his citizens and foreigners for crimes real and imagined that lead to the deaths of 40,000 – some in mass graves. Until he fled into a comfortable exile in Senegal in 1990 for the next 25 years, he believed, like so many of his victims as well; that he was untouchable and wouldn’t answer for his crimes until his 2013 arrest and his most recent trial and conviction to life imprisonment on May 30, 2016.

Haroun, who mostly spent those dark years away in French exile; films those whose lives were destroyed by the regime, physically and psychological, from the rich importer who was taken and severely beaten by the DDS mainly because of his position, making him invalid and poor; a Chadian of Libyan descent left partly-deaf and blind at a time when Chad was at a border war with Qaddafi in the 1980s with accusations of “sympathy to the enemy” to a “disappeared” rebel leader’s widow who also lost her eldest daughter due to the stress, cannot weep anymore over her losses.

The bright spot comes under the gallant effort of a quixotic activist named Clément, also a DDS torture survivor; that set up a victims’ association to keep the memory of their pains alive and in memory of those who didn’t make it and determined to see Habré brought to justice. He also mediates with the victims and former guards to find reconciliation between them are uncomfortably tense, in particular to an amputee named Badolo Waya and his ex-torturer known as Mahamat “The Cameroonian” giving a half-hearted apology for his actions before forgiveness can be given.

Sad as it is to view such suffering, Haroun delivers a full-bodied documentation in taking in their deadened eyes and silenced souls managing to get through with their lives after such unimaginable ordeals. However you can’t help but feel that certain glee that comes with Clément’s triumphant satisfaction touring the Senegalese courtroom the day before Habré’s trial and the final muted shot of the struggling ex-dictator being hauled off by the court bailiffs to prison in protest, makes it all worthwhile sitting through.

Maliglutit (Searchers)

Wednesday, September 14; 12 p.m.

Inuktitut with English subtitles

Growing up in Igloolik, Nunavut where the only entertainment was watching Westerns at the local community centre came as a natural for Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) to make his first narrative film in over a decade Maliglutit (Searchers), loosely inspired by the 1956 John Wayne classic The Searchers redone as a Northwestern revenge drama; is fantastic watching with its tight direction and storyline put into motion throughout.

Set in 1913 Nunavut, hunter Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) and his eldest son Siku (Joseph Uttak) come back from a successful caribou hunt to find his wife Ailla (Jocelyne Immaroitok) and daughter Tagaq (Karen Ivalu) have been kidnapped by a gang of troublemaking renegade hunters led by Kupak (Joey Sarpinak) and killing his parents and youngest son in the process. With little weaponry at their disposal, Kuanana and Siku chase Kupak’s gang across the frozen wasteland, using his dying father’s spirit helper loon amulet and the obsessive drive to rescue their family.

Replacing horses with husky-driven sleds and burning sierras with arctic snowdrifts, Kunuk and his Fast Runner co-director Natar Ungalaaq manage to create intensity inside claustrophobic igloo interiors, weighty fur coats and yawningly endless tundra feel very real enough by Jonathan Frantz’s cinematography and a balanced plot as scripted by Kunuk and long-time collaborator Norman Cohn to let the elements add to the real-time feel and tension to the film, along with a capable cast to carry out their roles.

Contemporary Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq and composer Chris Crilly add a touch of haunting and pulsing mysticism with their score for Maliglutit (Searchers) ’s brilliant mould of modernism with animism that would make John Ford proud. Already it’s the best Canadian film of the year, perhaps of the decade even.

Wùlu

Wednesday, September 14; 6:15 p.m.

Bambara and French with English subtitles

Malian-French filmmaker Daouda Coulibaly took a long time to make a feature film after many years with shorts with the narco-thriller Wùlu, based on the West African drug trade and the corruptive elements from politicians to terrorists that fuelled the need in the last decade which created a economic collapse in Mali by 2012 Coulibaly exposes unrushed in his direction and minus the usual overtures that comes with the genre.

Ibrahim Koma is Ladji, who finds himself out of work and pushed out of his dream of becoming a minibus owner in 2007 Bamako after he’s passed over for a promotion. Desperately looking for a way out of poverty and to stop his sister Aminata (Inna Modja) from selling her body to make ends meet, he turns to a local drug dealer and along with a couple of buddies (Quim Gutiérrez, Ndiaye Ismaël) of his they start trafficking coke in and around the porous borders of Western Africa.

Becoming more and more drawn into dangerous stakes over a three-year period that eventually wears him down over time, Ladji sees how deep everyone gets tangled in, that also involves a powerful but amoral general (Traore Jean-Marie) for whom his daughter (Ndiaye Mariame) has a eye on Ladji; that he finds there’s almost no way out to be able to secure him without completely sacrificing his soul.

Wùlu (Bambara for dog) has the quietest mannerism I’ve ever seen for a crime-drama that doesn’t go mimicking Scorsese or anything that could be seen as a knock-off (what a relief), but the low pacing works in this film’s and the writer/director’s favour when he puts his characters in situations that they know they’re totally out of their league and how money changes everything in their lives shown in the taunt script.

Koma plays his role as the antihero forced to take drastic measures to fulfill his dreams as the simplicity they once had erodes away with meaningful and calm demeanour if just a bit too serious, as does Ndiaye Ismaël as the unfortunate Zol that becomes a cokehead holds a certain gravitas and Inna as Animata that grows completely materialistic with his brother’s good fortune who will unknowingly become his undoing.

Pierre Milon’s cinematic palette creates palatable moods for Wùlu that give much credit to the film’s commentary throughout on the greed of humanity over drug addiction and the debris they leave behind that Coulibaly navigates with and exposes that underbelly. Can’t wait to see what he will come up with next time.

Short Cuts Program 11

Wednesday, September 14; 9:15 p.m.

Portuguese filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes’ A Brief History of Princess X looks at the modern art sculptor Constantine Brâncuși’s (Francisco Cipriano) commissioned piece on what was supposed to be a sculpture of Marie Bonaparte (Joana Barrios) – the great-grandniece of Napoleon – and turned into a controversial phallic work of art and a exposé on female sexuality interconnecting these elements is a amusing seven-minute tale that elicits a few chuckles on the intricacies of art and politics being of strange bedfellows.

DataMine from the award-winning Nova Scotia animator Timothy Barron Tracey takes a kinetic swipe at the blurred lines of our tech-obsessed society and the surveillance society we find ourselves in through nightmarish stop-motion figures of dolls and action figures have that old-school analog feel to it courtesy of Joshua Van Tassel’s dark techno score; From Indonesia is On The Origin of Fear recalling filmmaker Bayu Prihantoro Filemon’s childhood under the Suharto era was made to watch a anti-Communist propaganda film with graphic torture scenes, as he recreates this through a voice actor (Pritt Timothy) being pushed to the limits physically and physiologically in the recording studio as both torturer and the tortured works alright but kind of average in pacing.

Anna Maguire adapts Dave Eggers’ short story Your Mother and I into a seriocomic story between a father (Don McKeller) and his teenaged daughter (Julia Sarah Stone) in his tall tales of how he and her mother had changed the world for the better as a narrative on personal relationships and loss. It actually looks better than it sounds through its easygoing structure and dialogue as composed from Ian Macmillan’s subdued cinematography and Tisha Myles’s production design in this British/Canadian co-production – and the llamas.

Métis stop-motion animator Amanda Strong, who brought the fantasy Indigo to the 2014 Short Cuts program returns with Four Faces of the Moon, a darker look of Canada’s colonialist history told in four chapters from residential schools to the near-extermination plans on the bison and starving out the First Nations populace through four Native languages and in French had some interesting points, including moments recreating the Riel Rebellions and a reclaiming of one’s heritage. But the linear here is kind of fractured by putting too many ideas and cramming in all into a statement about culture despite its noble efforts to do so.

Controversial Netflix documentary The White Helmets from Academy Award-nominated director Orlando von Einsiedel (Virunga) follows the apolitical Syrian Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets; that was formed in 2013 when the Syrian Revolution broke out and replaced the infrastructure breakdown in the major and minor cities brought a lack of first responder units now with 120 units across the country and were recently nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

In the 40-minute run, the film crew witnesses the Aleppo brigade selflessly risk their own lives while under fire from rebel factions to Syrian and Russian jets targeting civilian populations shows true grit. Coming from all walks of life prior to the revolution, these all-volunteer teams of men and women (they’re conspicuously absent in this doc) works as one cohesive band, as one former anti-Assad rebel said of his now-pacifist life: “It is better to rescue a soul than to take one.”

The most poignant moment comes when the unit rescues this one week-old infant buried under rubble for 16 hours straight they named “the miracle baby” they found alive in one piece and later reunited a year later at a refugee camp during one of their annual training sessions in neighbouring Turkey is a joy, even as one of them anxiously awaits news of his brother that got hit during a bombing raid back home.

The White Helmets, which rightfully earned a honourable mention at TIFF Short Cuts Award for Best Short Film; brings a hopeful face to the Syrian conflict for their hard and heartbreaking work has saved over 60,000 lives while 130 White Helmets have perished since their beginnings, yet their spirits remain ever high is a commendable testimony to human endurance during the most troubled times Von Einsiedel brings to notice for the global spotlight. If this film doesn’t get a Best Documentary Short Oscar nomination and/or win – or a Nobel Peace Prize for this organization – this year, there’s definitely something wrong with world.

General Report on Certain Matters of Interest for a Public Screening

Thursday, September 15; 11:45 a.m.

Spanish/Catalan/Euskera with English subtitles

To coincide with the premiere of his epilogue follow-up General Report II. The New Abduction of Europe at TIFF, the film fest offered a freebie screening of Pere Portabella’s 1976 original General Report on Certain Matters of Interest for a Public Screening, a two-and-a-half hour avant-garde treatise on post-Franco Spain and its tentative baby steps to democracy about two years after his death and the chaos that came with it, brings a certain sense of how complicated it is to implement it after such a lengthy period of dictatorship for any society.

Opening with pro-democracy rallies that get put down regularly by riot police, the film glimpses on behind the scenes workings by party and union leaders who worked underground or had returned from exile during the Franco years debate almost endlessly in homes and offices on how to resolve the political vacuum from attaining safeguards from slipping back into the dark, combating the rampant illiteracy in the lesser-developed areas of the country, rebuilding Spanish Civil War-ruined ghost towns from a failed agrarian program which led the country’s economic stagnation of the 1960s and ‘70s, handling the (then-)still functioning fascist elements remaining in government to accommodating all groups into a workable federalism of states and reasonable constitution, even from nationalist groups of the Catalonians and Basques who fought against the regime.

It can be tedious watching it sometimes with its long-running timeframe for the subject matter at hand, yet the visuals have their sharpness and the arguments show what a democracy looks like to what kind of country Franco left behind and the lessons they learned from postwar Italy’s struggles since Mussolini, whether it’s wondering if rational pluralism can exist in a federal structure after dictatorship to re-educating the masses over their democratic roots and political autonomy.

General Report on Certain Matters of Interest for a Public Screening won’t directly appeal to layperson watchers, given that its antiquated freestyle jazz soundtrack gives it its oddly-contrived sound here and there plus it hasn’t aged very well and long in tooth, it’s a relatively good viewing about Cold War-period Western European history of a country throwing off the yoke of oppression.

Heaven Will Wait

Saturday, September 17; 8:30 p.m.

French with English subtitles

A most timely film about the phenomenon of radicalized youngsters heading off to Syria to fight in their revolution against Bashir Assad, the drama Heaven Will Wait may connect itself to France’s problems in deterring a generation from going to fight jihad and the possibility of returning to commit terrorist attacks on home soil has these last couple of years have demonstrated, it’s a universal story that touches base from producer/director/co-writer Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, if only in a semi-straight manner.

Focusing on two teenaged girls Sonia Bouzaria (Noémie Merlant), of Arabic descent who gets stopped by the authorities just in time from going off to Syria via Turkey, and Mélanie Thenot (Naomi Amarger), a French national who gets seduced by a touts (recruiter) online calling himself Freedom Lover to join; it breaks down into two stories of how these groups can target the vulnerable with their religion’s “noble” cause from denouncing Western values to the point of obsession and make them want to leave behind their countries, families and lives, possibly never to return and their fates unknown.

In the wake of terrorist attacks that have plagued France and Europe of late, Mention-Schaar writes an intelligent story but her direction is incohesive from going all over the place in regarding Sonia and Mélanie’s experiences that’s almost hard to follow at times, but that’s the only weak spot. Regardless, it reveals what these recruits will do to draw in these kids is a real eye-opener and the cast put on really convincing performances of the confusion and suffering these families go through, in particular to Mélanie’s single mother Sylvie (Clotilde Courau) who deeply agonizes the loss of her child with a silent despondence and of Merlant’s character of her deprogramming is like a watching a junkie go through withdrawal and fears of being drawn back is so real.

The film addresses these issues quite accordingly and in a no-nonsense manner, despite the uneven narrative. Yet, Heaven Will Wait does leave that unanswerable question long after it ends: is it ever possible for these former and wannabe jihadists to be normally reintegrated back into society when the indoctrination by these groups, much like a cult, can often run so deep?

My Life as a Courgette

Sunday, September 18; 12:30 p.m.

French with English subtitles

Based on the French YA novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette by Gilles Paris, Swiss animator/co-writer Claude Barras spent ten years getting the film version My Life as a Courgette on the screen and it’s a semi-dark, if wondrously lovely claymation tale of a young boy learning how to cope with life in foster care.

After accidentally causing his alcoholic single mother’s death, nine year-old Icare a.k.a. Courgette (Gaspard Schlatter) is sent to the Fontaines group home for orphaned preteens like himself. Being teased at first about his strange nickname his mother gave him, meaning “zucchini,” doesn’t make the transition easier for him until he learns that everyone here has had their own personal hardships in their young lives including the group home bully, Simon (Paulin Jaccoud).

Upon the arrival of Camille (Sixtine Murat) who witnessed her parents’ murder-suicide and grilled by her mean guardian aunt Ida (Brigette Rosset) after her inheritance; the boy finds a kindred soul in her along with the kindly police officer Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz) who develops a liking to him and believing that life and finding happiness can go on is possible.

Barras injects a simple and sweet charm here and deftly avoids the nuances of a heavy-handed melodrama with its gentle persuasion makes it a real treat for all its heady subjects the other characters have endured from sexual abuse to abandonment issues is handled very delicately. The Céline Sciamma-penned script, along with Barras, Germano Zullo and Morgan Navvaro, is a good adaptation and honest with the language pubescent kids use, even the funnily crude way Simon explains the “facts of life” to his peers.

The vocal casting for the film is great with Schlatter as the superhero-loving sensitive hero, Jaccoud being the resident bully with a heart of gold beating under his tough guy exterior and Vuillermoz’s sympathetic cop looking to fill his lonely existence that he unexpectedly finds with these kids. As a multi-winner at several animation festivals already and Switzerland’s official Best Foreign Language Academy Award entry, My Life as a Courgette shows how the discarded misfits of the world have a place in all of us, including our hearts.

People’s Choice Award Winner: La La Land

Sunday, September 18; 6 p.m.

As always, TIFF People’s Choice Award offers a surprise every now and then and this year’s pick goes to the unconventional romantic-musical comedy La La Land from the director that reawakened audiences to jazz music with his Academy Award-winning drama Whiplash a couple of years back and does the same treatment here, only Damien Chazelle also marries the old-fashioned Hollywood musicals of yesteryear and keeps it quite contemporary for today’s discerning filmgoers.

Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) cross paths in Los Angeles enough times in their endeavours to attain success in their fields and before long, finding each other in a year-long courtship. When one finally achieves and the other flounders, it threatens their relationship on whether having to make some sacrifices to reach their dreams is really worth the cost.

Chazelle does it again in making a highly smart and original song-and-dance musical with Justin Hurwitz composing most of the numbers from its dazzling opening number “Another Day of Sun” during a traffic jam that would look corny in anyone’s hands but here it works brilliantly to the sombre ballads “Waste of A Lonely Night” and “City of Lights,” all to the lush cinematography of Linus Sandgren and graceful choreographed pieces by Mandy Moore.

Gosling and Stone make great chemistry through singing and a little dance as much as they do as a couple onscreen with flirty antagonistic beginnings and in separate performances of Gosling as the traditionalist jazzman being made to make hard choices of wanting to open that jazz nightclub and Stone feeling disheartened with every failed audition, then taking a leap of faith with a self-written one-woman theatre show. Other performances that surprise here is neo-soul superstar John Legend playing the headman of a successful jazz-pop band hiring Sebastian as a sideman and J.K. Simmons returning the favour for his Oscar win in Whiplash by doing a cameo as an hardball nightclub owner.

La La Land is a mainstream rarity of being a movie musical not derived from Broadway and/or a Hollywood musical remake hitting on all levels with charm, humour and drama that’s sure to win over those who don’t like jazz and film musicals touching each other with its own sweet story on following one’s dreams.

Wavelengths: Sharon Lockhart: Rudzienko

Gallery Review

Noted American photographer and filmmaker Sharon Lockhart’s two-channel film installation Rudzienko rethinks ethnographic curiosities to become a sort of video confessional on growing up showing at the west-end Gallery TPW (170 St. Helens Avenue) as part of TIFF’s Wavelengths series.

Cultivated out of a friendship with Milena Slowinska, a Polish girl who Lockhart had begun in a previous film project in 2009 there as part of her recurring theme of her artistry on childhood and adolescence, she organized several rural retreats for Slowinska and her friends in Rudzienko, a village located in eastern Poland 35 kilometres northwest of the regional capital Lublin and filmed over the last four years their thoughts and feelings as they go from the awkward period caught between girlhood and womanhood.

Shot in several vignettes in sparse Polish dialogue often followed with English subtitles of their life experiences, sometimes meaningful, sometimes banal conversations ranging from favourite foods, the shifting of relationships to parental suicides to long-take fixed frames to get the sense of solitude that it’s almost empowering in a sense to drink it all in and find the ability to switch your brain off and just be in that moment as shown on the larger screen; whereas on the smaller screen nearby, a poem by Andźelika Szczepańska runs through in English translation on love’s meditation, although a much shorter run.

From a slow dance without music of two teen girls that looks kind of intimate yet not to a endlessly sweeping vista of a field at dawn before they all spring out of a seemingly empty field and binary dialogue and texts, the film series are a contemplative study of the human condition seen through the eyes of teenaged girls coping with life and themselves in the 21st-century.

***

Sharon Lockhart: Rudzienko continues through October 29; Tuesday-Saturday 12-5 p.m., Sunday-Monday 1-5 p.m.. Admission is FREE. For information, call 416-645-1066 or gallerytpw.ca.

Festival Summary

The 41st edition of TIFF wasn’t a bad one given the line-up provided. La La Land was a obvious choice that touched the heart of its audiences in seeing it as a love letter to cinema itself; while the other standout personal favourites of mine went out to Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, Wùlu, Maliglutit (Searchers), Hissane Habré: A Chadian Tragedy, The White Helmets and La La Land. The Wavelengths visual art exhibits were good, yet rather smallish offerings compared to last year’s abundance.

Can’t complain about how they handled the flow of traffic in getting into screenings, including the People’s Choice Award at Roy Thomson Hall, although a couple of them were held back due to technical problems plagued them could be improved. All the same, TIFF 2016 can go down as being one of the fest’s better years.

TIFF goes (Star) Trekking

Arts Feature

For the first time since its grand opening in 2010, TIFF won’t have a blockbuster exhibit after bringing out such major ones based on celebrity culture (Grace Kelly and Andy Warhol) to filmmaker retrospectives (David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick). So in lieu of one, TIFF Lightbox (350 King Street West) goes into warp light speed with bringing into focus on one of pop culture’s lasting impacts on society as it marks its half-century this year, Star Trek, with a series of film and original television series retrospectives, talks and programmes starting this stardate Saturday (September 24) through to December 21.

Trekkies will have the opportunity to (re)discover all of the franchise’s film releases including the original six features, the Star Trek: The Next Generation tetralogy and the J.J. Abrams-rebooted additions to creator Gene Roddenberry’s universe. Introductions by two special guests are also in the works: 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture will be introduced by its legendary special effects producer Douglas Trumbull and 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, will be introduced by the director of that film and of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nicholas Meyer; which the former is considered the best Trek film in the series with the original cast.

TIFF Lightbox will also show another fifteen-plus marathon screenings of Star Trek television episodes, as well as additional screenings of sci-fi films influenced by the popular series. Working with CBS Consumer Products and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), they will present roundtable discussions and keynote presentations that consider the cultural impact of Star Trek in the areas of television, film, astronomy, astrophysics, technology, education, social justice and politics.

From October 12 to November 16, Trek Talks considers the values and ideals at the core of Star Trek – progress, tolerance, technological innovation and social equity – to once again inspire today’s oft-jaded audiences to seek hope in a world that can, sometimes, seem dark and chaotic for a more optimistic future ahead. Trek Talks include a keynote presentation on Star Trek and space from Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen (October 12); and a presentation from theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the ways in which Star Trek stacks up against the real universe (November 2).

Minus of having the rivalling Star Wars in its line-up, its The Fifth Quadrant: Sci-Fi Cinema After Star Trek film programme will set its sights on exploring the franchise’s influences (and references) across the history of contemporary science-fiction cinema include the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky original Russian existentialist SF epic Solaris, Ridley Scott’s space horror masterpiece Alien to the feel-good ‘80s close encounter classic that defined a generation, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. And Lightbox’s annual Halloween fundraiser will be BOOMBOX:Warp Speed that will be taking its guests through a building-wide, multi-sensory Star Trek-themed party adventure coming October 27. Red shirts and Tribbles are most welcome to attend.

***

Tickets for BOOMBOX: Warp Speed are on sale now at tiff.net/events/boombox. For tickets/information, call 416-599-8433 or visit tiff.net/startrek/.

Blossoming dearies

Hundred Percent

by Karen Romano Young

294 pp., Chronicle Books/Raincoast Books

Hardcover, $23.99

Fiction/Young Adult

Book Review

In the tradition of Judy Blume’s seminal works Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Just As Long As We’re Together, Hundred Percent very much captures that moment of bordering between childhood and adolescence, as written by Karen Romano Young in her first young adult title in almost a decade, of one preteen girl’s school year that she’ll find totally confusing that readers will fully relate to those days where one wants to cling onto being a kid but facing the first steps of growing up.

Christine B. Gouda – Tink to her friends – is about to enter the sixth grade along with her best friend Jacqueline “Jackie” Messina and their other friends they’ve grown up with. Other than going through those bodily changes of being a early bloomer and the hormones kicking in those feelings over boys, Tink tries to figure out about those friendships that once held a firm foundation, all the suddenly goes shaky on a near-daily basis to wondering if she should ditch her nickname altogether for something more mature-sounding.

Chronicling each month over the school year of events and incidents between old friends and new from school parties to sleepovers, be it Jackie’s single mother Bess and her relationship with her beau and his kids or Tink shifting between her schoolroom crushes on the class clown Keith Kallinka and Matt “Bushwhack” Alva, they all know the inevitable: this is the final year in the “baby” elementary school where standing on the brink of starting their teen years is coming around the corner is only the beginning, facing it with excitement as well as trepidation.

Young knows how to tap into today’s tweens of their attitude and style and fuses them into her likeable characters here that is, surprisingly, more into exploring old-school tech of getting into appreciating the music on your parent’s vinyl records over digital downloads and less about puberty, texting and internet lingo, plus the changes in relationships with one’s family members and friends going from warm to bittersweet in a honestly executed fashion.

Hundred Percent speaks a honest and real deal of navigating those growing pains with what’s inside a twelve-year old’s head that can be read by grade five to eight levels and adults will probably get a kick out of it and insight with their younger teenage brood that the need and necessities for these books never grow out of style.

EDITION #103 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 12-18, 2016

Katwe checkmates, Trane and Baldwin legacies resurrected

Toronto International Film Festival 2016 Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Queen of Katwe

Sunday, September 11

Disney picked an unusual subject for one of their usual inspirational underdog film far, far removed from the sports-themed stuff they mainly produce: chess. Ordinarily, films involving chess like Pawn Sacrifice, Searching for Bobby Fischer and others aren’t really much to watch (with the notable exceptions of The Seventh Seal and The Thomas Crown Affair) but they’ve managed to get something out of Queen of Katwe, based on the real-life Ugandan Chess Grandmaster Phiona Mutesi, by turning it into a Rocky of chess without getting too patronizing about it.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) was just another girl etching a living in the slums of Katwe skirting the Ugandan capital Kampala in 2007 with her single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), rebellious teen sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) and two younger brothers, etching out a living selling vegetables on the streets without much thought to the future, until she crossed paths with a ministry outreach councillor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a bright, young engineering grad with a family to support; who teaches the children in the area the board game of chess as to build real skills and self-esteem.

Discovering that Phiona has an uncanny sense of figuring out strategies and winning manoeuvres, Katende tries to convince many doubters from the head of a prestigious Kampala private school (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) and Harriet herself that the girl’s talent could be the way out of poverty’s grip and bring prestige to the country in national and international chess tournaments despite her not having much of a basic education, that will take her far beyond the borders of her nation and herself.

You get the usual chess/life metaphors and triumphs and defeats throughout that director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) takes the film’s heroine through, but at least it’s a thoughtful process done in screenwriter William Wheeler’s agreeable adaptation of Tim Crothers’ ESPN news article-turned-bestselling book with light humour and an unrushed pace. Nair never waters down the grinding slum environs with Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography that shows the strongly-held stereotypes and social classes imposed on these impoverished kids – and then shattering them.

The young talented cast, especially newcomer Nalwanga handles her debut role like a pro in showing all sides of overcoming her obstacles while embodying the preteen whims and growing pains; Nyong’o plays the tough mom struggling to make ends meet is convincingly good while Oyelowo gets some kudos as that’s constantly in Phiona’s corner as the earthy and humble teacher-mentor who’s had his own education through the school of hard knocks is a real gem here and should get some attention during awards season.

Queen of Katwe is a bit long-toothed at its two-hour length, yet at least it’s entertaining and provides life lessons for audiences to come away with and the Afro-pop soundtrack is a pleasure to listen to, but the overdone Alicia Keys-warbled end credits song “Back to Life,” not so much.

***

Queen of Katwe opens in cinemas across North America on September 30.

Inner Workings

To be released along with their forthcoming animated feature Moana (November 23), the Disney short Inner Workings got its premiere screening in TIFF’s Short Cuts programme from creator/director Leo Matsuda, who also worked on Big Hero 6 and this year’s Zootopia ; about the human heart versus mind conflict about an average office drone, Paul, between the constants battles of his living-for-the-moment heart, while his cautionary brain micromanages every aspect and second-guessing consequences that may arise.

Matsuda does a charmingly sweet and humorous parable about exploring and enjoying this short thing called life’s joys and possibilities through traditional and computer animation without dialogue where you feel for the body organs that war about moderation and excessiveness as a thoughtful thing to learn in our otherwise hectic lives and appreciate the time that we have.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

Friday, September 9; 12:30 p.m.

A lot has been written and analysed about jazz master John Coltrane of his music and the man, but director John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) had the wherewithal to do a proper and spellbinding documentary on him,Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, that starts out with a rather flashy opening, but gradually turns out to be a real gem, going from his brief stint with the Miles Davis Quartet in 1957 to his untimely liver cancer death at 40 in 1966.

With the usual parade of celebrity talking heads from other jazz greats like Jimmy Heath, Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis, big-time fans Carlos Santana and Bill Clinton and family members and Denzel Washington voicing Coltrane, Scheinfeld goes the extra mile by bringing in 400 never-before seen photos of the sax man behind “Naima” and “A Love Supreme” out of the 900 used in the two-hour run and personal home movies and as bonuses: his first-ever recording during a stint in the navy in 1946 and a silent colour Super 8 mm footage of him in a studio recording session, which is ultra-rare.

The film peels deeply into his personal struggles with drugs and art, the intellect behind his compositions, be it about personal spiritualism to the Civil Rights politic of the time to one of the film’s endearing moments of a hardcore Coltrane memorabilia collector from Osaka, Japan named Fuji is a real treat watching. This is the most comprehensive and deeply moving bio-doc mingling concert footage, stills, animation and artwork that you’ll likely see this year – and Trane’s music accompanying it helps a lot, too.

I Am Not Your Negro

Saturday, September 10; 9 p.m.

In the summer of 1979, James Baldwin had begun work on a manuscript entitled Remember This House about his friendships with three of the Civil Rights movement’s biggest leaders, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, their campaigns for equality that would cost them their lives and the state of racism in America. Unfortunately by the time his life ended nine years later, the author had only written about thirty pages and it became his unfinished final work. Until now.

Resurrected through a documentary film format by Haitian director Raoul Peck (Murder in Pacot) that took him four years to shoot after Baldwin’s estate gave him the unfinished book ten years prior as I Am Not Your Negro, it’s a fascinating piece done the in firebrand tone and manner that was the iconoclastic literary icon that he would have been most pleased with – even if the status of the African-American hasn’t changed entirely much since.

As narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the director eschews the talking-head formula that would be the basis of most docs and instead goes for the visual through archival interviews mixed with past and current footage of racial violence from Little Rock to Ferguson, plus a few pop culture moments of how Americans like to see themselves courtesy of Hollywood mythology and government films to the awful ugly realities which flare up on occasion.

In it, Baldwin discusses his relationships with the three men, their lives and their viewpoints on how to achieve equality in the hostile landscape of the 1960s, including his own; while contemplating on his feelings about his estranged birthplace he fled from for a life in France until his death in 1987 on the African-American experience and how it’s not eerily all that far removed in the present context from the Jim Crow laws he witnessed in the segregated American South, the near-genocidal war on Native Americans and overt criticism of its empty materialistic society.

Peck creates a very poetic and structured film that never flinches from the subject for a second, thanks to Jackson who nails Baldwin’s character and tone every time as his words remain fresh as ever and totally poignant along with his long-dead friends who never made it out of the ‘60s, especially when he finally reveals what really happened in the so-called 1963 summit he had with Robert Kennedy and Raisin in The Sun playwright pal Lorraine Hansberry.

Other than it going through the lingering psychological scars of America’s slavery past and contemporary urban violence, it’s fun to watch Baldwin tear down his naïve liberal critics with his hard but honest worldview comebacks in those vintage TV interviews that will continue to resonate long after the post-Obama era that will soon come upon America before long which the film addresses. But as the author sums it up very dryly in I Am Not Your Negro: “The story of America is not the story of America. And it is not a pretty story.”

Wavelengths: Ana Mendieta: Siluetas

Gallery Review

Stills from the video Siluetas Sangrienta among the six digitally-transfered Super 8-mm shorts making up the TIFF Wavelengths focus on the late Cuban-born multimedia artist Ana Mendieta exhibit at CONTACT Gallery, Siluetas

Part of the TIFF Wavelengths programme, the art of Cuban-American artisan Ana Mendieta comes alive in the gallery show Siluetas at the CONTACT Gallery (80 Spadina Avenue, Suite 205) brings about her nearly-forgotten films and photographs now restored and resurfacing her impact on the art world of six shorts and two related photographic series show how incredibly ahead of her time she was.

An art performance pioneer atop of her multidisciplinary résumé whose mysterious falling death from a New York apartment window in 1985 at age 36 still rings of controversy, Mendieta held no barriers through her feminist and land art works that she called “siluetas” (silhouettes) of using her body into and with the surrounding landscape throughout the exhibit, the viewer can see a lot is going on here.

The nine-pictured “Untitled: Silueta Series” of her body imprint in the sandy shoreline of Salina Cruz, Mexico and the ebb and flow of the tide into the ground cavity before dissolving into nothingness in representing the female menses cycle to the six-series “Volcán” shot at Old Man’s Creek in Iowa of a volcanic sculpture done in several moments of eruption with gunpowder to its smouldering finish, has its reclamation of the female body, reproductive art and the duality of fire’s giving and destructive nature is a deep one to think out.

Six silent Super-8mm transferred to digital video shorts – out of the 100 she made in her lifetime – all running under less than three minutes, focuses on the forces of nature with 1975’s Energy Charge of a figure (Mendieta?) walking into a wintry forest before an animated fiery imprint burns; the 1979 film version of “Volcán” continue the same photo series’ theme, along with 1981’s black/white Birth (Gunpowder Works) and 1975’s Alma, Silueut en Fuego of a burning crucifix-like shroud figure. Siluetas Sangrienta from 1975 and 1974’s Creek take on a different momentum with nude shots of the artist where the former has her in a shallow body cavity then filled with a red-pigmented liquid and the latter sees her swimming against a water stream in the San Felipe Creek in Oaxaca, Mexico.

What makes Mendieta’s works special are their introspective positions of the women’s liberation art movement with the likes of her follow contemporaries Judy Chicago, Mary Beth Edelson and Suzanne Lacy would follow in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and petered out until its resurgence in the 1980s that have outstood time and importance, dealing with birth, life, death and body politic issues from the male hierarchy are a testament to that post-feminist era.

And don’t pass by, just hidden around the bend inside the venue; the 8-minute mini-documentary Ana Mendieta, Nature Inside made by her niece Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, taking audio from her 1981 lecture at Western New York’s Alfred University and the various videos, photos and artistry are almost reminiscent of another Latina artist, Frida Kahlo, who also explored the very themes she worked with.

***

Ana Mendieta: Siluetas continues through October 29; 12-5 p.m. daily. Admission is FREE. For information, call 416-539-9595 or scotiabankcontactphoto.com.

Festival Street 2016

King Street West to University Avenue, September 8-11

Pictorial Showcase

The closest most people will get to a red carpet at a TIFF event in their lifetimes, inside TIFF Lightbox and the Hudson’s Bay Company-sponsored Red Carpet.

Games people play, including a Jenga stacking section…

…and the return of the chessboard near Roy Thomson Hall, although much smaller than its 2014 version was.

Lineups were a plenty during the weekend-long Festival Street with the food trucks parked along King Street West and other things people will stand in line anything for on the outdoor venue, including chocolates, VR, bathroom tissue…

…even in front the lighted TIFF sign near the Holiday Inn Hotel.

***

NEXT: Part 2 – Wùlu, Maliglutit (Searchers), Rudzienko and more. TIFF 2016 continues through to this Sunday (September 18). For tickets/information, call 1-888-599-8433 or visit tiff.net/festival.

Period rom-drama shimmers

The Light Between Oceans (DreamWorks/Touchstone)

Cast: Bryce Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Producer: David Heyman

Screenplay: Derek Cianfrance; based on the M.L. Stedman novel

Film Review

Most romantic-dramas of late usually drown themselves in the schmaltz commonly attached to its formulaic base. The Light Between Oceans, based on the international bestseller debut of M.L. Stedman; gets a big-screen rendering from its director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) by hitting the right emotional pulls when they come and steadies the flow evenly throughout the film to keep it honest.

Returning home to Australia from the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) takes up a position as a lighthouse keeper in the far west coast of the country to the desolate Janus Lighthouse for a temporary six-month contract. Deadened by the horrific experience of war, he welcomes the isolationism and is seemingly comfortable in his solitude, if it wasn’t for meeting Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), the regional superintendent’s daughter, en route to the job that slowly brings him out of his shell and a relationship blossoms.

When the job extends to a three-year position, Tom and Isabel wed and begin their lives together out at Janus Lighthouse. Their attempts to start a family end in failure and drive her to despair, until one day a dingy mysteriously washes ashore with a dead man and a crying infant girl onboard. Rescuing the child, Isabel out of desperation to be a mother tries to convince duty-bound Tom not to report this incident and to raise the girl as their own, which he reluctantly goes along with.

A couple of years pass and fate intervenes when Tom runs into the grieving widow (Emily Barclay) of the dead man and mother of their daughter Lucy, that they now named Grace (Florence Clery); by a chance meeting on the mainland and his conscience kicks in again as he must now make the tough choice: reunite the rightful mother with her child and redeem himself as a respectable man or risk the love and marriage of his beloved wife and her desire for motherhood?

Cianfrance crafts a very heartfelt and meaningful adaptation in every way from Adam Arkapaw’s effective cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s swirling score and the lush art direction of Sophie Nash from the windswept vistas of the rocky outcrops of the lighthouse where the quiet beauty effectively sweeps over it, as one can feel it. And the directive ease of pace the director/writer pulls works in Oceans’ favour in the script he gently handles, avoiding unnecessary drag that usually hinders films like this.

Fassbender puts on a good performance as the conflicted war vet torn between love and honour, much as does Vikander with her own selfish, if slightly understandable wants and what is right quite convincingly, including their own subtle chemistry which clicks together. Clery is innocently sweet in her performance without being obnoxious; Barclay holds a certain sway as biological mother Gwen Potts and Bryan Brown gets a nice plum if smallish role as her ranching magnate father, but Rachel Weisz’s bit role as Gwen’s sister-in-law seems very underwhelming here and adds very little to the story.

The Light Between Oceans says a lot about love and sacrifice for the characters not caught up in some overdone plot. Predictable the outcome may be for some; at least it manages to be substantial in this beautifully rendered version for the filmmakers to be proud of.

Il Ghetto’s gravitas, Sholom struggles

Shadowland Theatre returned for Ashkenaz Festival in their creation of the festival’s September 5th Ashkenaz Parade at Harbourfront Centre with their theme of commemorating the 100th death anniversary of noted Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem.

Ashkenaz 2016 Reviews

Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) (Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre/Ashkenaz)

Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street

Wednesday, August 31; 8 p.m.

English and Yiddish with English surtitles

Theatre Review

The fabled American Dream. It isn’t for everyone since few can achieve it and it exhausts and consumes those who fervently pursue it as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman as an deconstruct of the United States recovering in the postwar period, as done by the New York-based Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre and given a Yiddish makeover – and subtitled Toyt Fun a Seylsman – of their acclaimed 2015 Off-Broadway production has the flavour of immigration not lost from its reaching performances.

Set in 1950s Brooklyn, it follows aging travelling salesman Willy Loman (Avi Hoffman) trying to project his hopes and dreams onto his adult sons Biff (Daniel Kahn) and Happy (Mikey Samra) for the success he never could achieve while all around him he envies those who have, from his next door neighbour Charley (Sam Stein) and his attorney son Stanley (Michael Gordin Shore) and his younger boss (Ben Rosenblatt) to his rich, but long-dead brother Ben (Spencer Chandler) who appears as a apparition as to mock him from the grave over opportunities lost.

Willy reflects on his failings as a businessman, father and husband to the inner-suffering Linda (Suzanne Toren), he’s more than haunted by them along with the guilt he carries with an affair he had with floozy company secretary Letta (Hannah Gordon) that seem to hasten his downfall over a regretful episode as he tries to salvage what’s left of his dignity as to right his past wrongs for a chance of being a better man from the empty shell he’s become.

If there’s only one flaw in this otherwise fine production is the hour-and-a-half stretch it takes to get to its intermission in the two-hour running time feels too long and lagging, despite a few minor lines cut from it to keep the play’s flow going as leading star/director Avi Hoffman can manage to the visual projections by David Novack and Ellen Mandel’s jazzy klezmer incidental score around a sparse set design, not to mention the interesting use of Yiddish a majority of the time is a reflection of assimilation of that time period as a example on how far one will go to be fully accepted in a society.

Hoffman’s embodiment of a world-weary man driven by self-delusion and pride is a rich and telling role he does well is something to see; Kahn plays the realistic Biff looking to chase after his own desires that doesn’t needs society’s (or Willy’s) approval with a grounded, solemn conviction that could easily mirror today’s so-called “boomerang” generation; Toren gives the faithful housewife watching her beloved husband disintegrate before her eyes some humanistic trait coated with naïveté and the supporting cast give full backbone to the characters and plot.

Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) very much captures the time period it displays and the ideas it may have brought in dispelling the American Dream’s glittery promises that don’t often rewards its champions. While it could have been tightened up here and there, the production is a humble respect to the storyline’s spirit Miller may have had in mind when he wrote it.

A 19th-century gold-plated silver spice box from the Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500 photo exhibit at Ashkenaz in marking the foundation of the little-known Italian Jewish community on their 500th anniversary.

Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500

Marilyn Brewer Community Space, Bill Boyer Artsport, 235 Queen’s Quay West

September 3-5

Gallery Review

Part of the Ashkenaz Festival long weekend down at Harbourfront Centre, the temporary photo exhibit Il Ghetto looks at the near-forgotten enclave and history of Italian Jews as the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto) marks the half-millennia of its foundation in 1516, once as a segregated area of Venice for the community in question as the world’s first and oldest-surviving ghetto – derived from the Italian word geto (pronounced jetto) for “foundry” – as well as include a few post-Ghetto extensions to mention as a pictorial display.

Founded as a deterrent of Jew intermingling with the city-state’s and pre-Unification Italian Catholic populace, the Ghetto Nuovo became inclusive to other Jewish sects from Italian, Turkey, Ashkenazi (East European) and Sephardi (Spanish) and flourished well with Jewish traders in the tenth century and later in the sixteenth and seventeen centuries as exchanges with Venetian and Italian culture. The community didn’t see themselves as part of Venice until 1797, where revolutionary followers of Napoleon Bonaparte destroyed the gates that locked them up on a nightly curfew for two hundred years, but civil integration wouldn’t fully come until the establishment of the Italian State in 1866 and Unification in 1870.

Photographed keys that Christian soldiers used to lock up the once-segregated Venice Jewish ghetto on a nightly curfew basis.

Photographic proof of the Jewry internment by Venetian administrations for those two centuries are seen in “Keys to the Ghetto” as maintained by Christian guards and a Jacopo De’Barbari reproduction of Anton Kolb’s “Venetie (Venice Perspective)” made in 1500 to the black and white photos of Ernö Munkácsi, who founded the Hungarian Jewish Museum and amateur photographer in the 1930s, takes a lot of great detail of Ghetto Nuovo’s various areas that are still in use like its three synagogues, which he would later publish them in How Did It Happen in 1947.

The exhibit extends the discussion from delving into William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the depiction of its Judaic trader Shylock, regardless to the fact that Britain expelled its Jewish citizenry in 1290 long before he presented it in 1605, feeding his Protestant nation’s and European continent’s anti-Semitism through to Italy’s post-Unification period to Mussolini’s and the Vatican’s persecution of Jews to Pope John Paul II’s historic 1986 visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome to correct the Catholic Church’s wrongs.

Left-right: “Interior, Scola Italiana (Italian Synagogue)” and “Interior, Scola Leventina (Levantine Synagogue)” shown at the Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500 photo exhibit.

Other photos include items from the Ghetto Nuovo like a 19th-century gold-plated silver spice box and showing interiors of the three synagogues and their differences each community had in design styles that rarely get seen by outsiders, including the Venice Jewish Museum in the area. Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500 offered a smallish, yet real insight of a little-known community, which was a bit of a refreshing take against the town’s romantic images of canals and gondolas.

Sholom and Motl (Caravan Puppets/Ashkenaz)

Lakeside Terrace, Bill Boyer Artsport, 235 Queen’s Quay West

Monday, September 5; 1 p.m.

Theatre Review

Renowned Bostonian puppetry troupe Caravan Puppets puts a low-keyed spin on their interpretation of Sholem Aleichem’s final book The Adventures of Motl the Cantor’s Son entitled Sholom and Motl through a smattering of Yiddish and simplified storytelling that held its moments about Jewish immigration to early 20th-century America from Europe, if somewhat incohesively.

Narrated by a puppet-like form of Sholem Aleichem, he tells about the young Motl, his older brother Eli and their ever-weepy widowed mother trying to make ends meet in their little village by trying to sell a ice cream-like delicacy made with cream of tartar, water and ice that quickly goes out of business until they decide to emigrate to the United States for a better life.

After a harrowing journey through Western Europe that involves surviving awaiting highwaymen, discouraging immigration committees and a stormy Atlantic passage, Motl’s family and a couple of friends finally arrive as part of the immigrant flux to New York and try their best to make it, be it going on unionized strike at the local factories to becoming their own entrepreneurs as part of the contribution they’ve made to the Great American Melting Pot.

It’s almost too easy to point out some of the 45-minute production’s downsides like its timing of interludes that go on a tad longer that expected or the pre-show onstage choreographic prancing could have been tighter and not so loose. While the interaction with the kids was a nice touch in the venue space given, that too needed some more work since it’s never easy to keep their attention, especially for the play’s time length.

But credit can be given to Caravan in teaching children and adults about the immigration experience in a time when it has become a global hot-button topic of negativity of late by turning it into something that is more positive and the far-reaching benefits it brings to a society, plus what it says about societal inclusiveness to make our communities stronger and better for it. What Sholom and Motl lacks in pace and a straighter storyline, it certainly makes up for the enthusiasm it extols.

EDITION #102 - WEEK OF AUGUST 29-SEPTEMBER 4, 2016

Film fest courts Nollywood, rock royalty and controversy

Clockwise from top left: Nigerian gritty crime-com Oko Ashewo (Cab Driver) ; rock-doc The Rolling Stones Olé! Olé! Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America and the pre-U.S. Civil War drama The Birth of A Nation make some waves for the 41st Toronto International Film Festival.

Toronto International Film Festival 2016 Preview

For the forty-first edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the organizers have their three hundred-plus films to run from September 8th to the 18th choosing some bold moves in bringing in this year’s City to City guest on Lagos as a coming-out party for Nigeria’s booming film industry into a wider global perspective, a new world-premiere concert documentary on the Rolling Stones; plus two films that have already garnered some welcome praise and unwelcome baggage to the fest (more on those later).

The Galas line-up has eighteen films, among them are Montréal filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s close encounter SF/thriller Arrival; disaster docudrama Deepwater Horizon on the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster; Antoine Fuqua’s inclusive remake of The Magnificent Seven; Rob Reiner’s look at the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, LBJ; teen romance-drama The Edge of Seventeen; true-life biopic of a young photojournalist cut down in his prime in The Journey is The Destination; Snowden, Oliver Stone’s highly-anticipated exposé at the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden; family-based dramas Queen of Katwe about a Ugandan teen who aspires to become a world-class chess master and A Monster Calls about a preteen boy struggling to deal with his mother’s illness until a monster comes along to teach him courage and inner strength; British WWII comedy/drama Their Finest; Richard Gere geopolitical drama vehicle Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer and the love triangle story The Promise, set in pre-WWI Turkey.

Also in the line-up are two interracial real-life love stories A United Kingdom, about young African tribal king Seretse Khama who dared to marry a British woman in 1947 and unsettled both his native Buchanaland (present-day Botswana)’s neighbour apartheid South Africa and England’s social and political mores; and Loving of Virginian couple Richard and Mildred Loving who spent a decade fighting their state’s anti-miscegenation laws that eventually were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.

Two documentary concerts get their Gala world premieres: Jonathan Demme’s return to the genre on Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids’s 20/20 Experience World Tour Las Vegas closeout performance simply titled Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids and The Rolling Stones Olé! Olé! Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America, following the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band on their most recent South American tour that concluded with their historic first-ever date in Havana, Cuba earlier this year.

The camera eye goes on the Nigerian capital of Lagos’ film industry – known popularly as Nollywood – by getting the red carpet treatment in the fest’s City to City programme. “Hundreds of films are made every year in Lagos for a voracious audience around the world,” said TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey. “Our City to City spotlight brings some of Nollywood’s most popular filmmakers together with new voices who are introducing an alternative indie spirit to Nigerian cinema. We’re excited to share this unprecedented showcase of talent from Lagos with our Toronto audience.” Films included in the showcase will be 76, based on the failed 1976 military coup d’etat in the wake of Nigeria’s Civil War and the effect it has on one coup plotter’s pregnant wife; crime-comedy Oko Ashewo (Taxi Driver) of a young cabdriver reluctantly caught up in the seedy underworld of Lagos; the coming-of-age drama Green White Green and rom-coms The Wedding Party and Okafor’s Law.

In the Platform series that has the contested juried Toronto Platform Prize of $25,000 up for grabs will be twelve filmmakers; among them are Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s French ghost romantic-fantasy Daguerrotype; Australian outback thriller Goldstone; the Shakespearean-inspired period piece Lady Macbeth; topical drama Layla M. of a radicalized Moroccan-Dutch teen who later ponders the consequences of her beliefs; Jackie, the brave historical-drama of Jacqueline Kennedy’s recovery to carry on after the murder of John F. Kennedy and retain her dignity and husband’s legacy; drama-thriller Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves about four revolutionary Québécois youths who graduate from common radical graffiti artwork to borderline terrorism and Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) is back with his Northwestern revenge tale Maliglutit (Searchers).

For Contemporary World Cinema, it ranges from period dramas to today’s headline grabbers: Death in Sarajevo sees an aging hotel caught in a ideological crossfire during the centennial marking of the outbreak of World War I from Bosnia; the Haitian post-2011 earthquake neorealist fable Ayiti Mon Amour; Singaporean prison drama Apprentice about a state executioner re-examining his country’s death penalty when it personally effects him; timely French socio-cultural drama Heaven Will Wait looks at two teens who are first drawn to go fight in the Syrian Revolution and those who try to stop them before it’s too late and the Romanian moral drama The Fixer where a novice journalist caught up in a political sex scandal tries to make it work to his advantage, only to find it getting more complicated as it grows enough to gnaw at his conscience.

Two films that are bringing a little headache to TIFF before they even get screened are Walter Hill’s latest, (re)Assignment, a bloodied revenge-thriller of a contract killer out to get payback on the vengeful plastic surgeon who forcibly changed him from a man to a woman, has brought out the trans-gendered community to call for a boycott of the film for perpetrating stereotypes and The Birth of a Nation, the talked-about docudrama about the Nat Turner Rebellion twenty years before the American Civil War and a critical darling at this year’s Sundance Festival; currently beset by revelations about its filmmakers Nate Parker and Jean Celestin over a campus rape allegation in 1999 which both were eventually acquitted of. Yet the accuser committed suicide in 2012, and this now threatens the film’s wide release in October and possible awards season chances, especially with its presence at TIFF and the organizers’ continuous stand to present the film come what may.

Up on the documentary block are Steve James’ ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail of a Chinatown bank in New York City during the onset of the 2008 Great Recession; Errol Harris’ new film The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography; the James Baldwin doc on his unfinished final novel I Am Not Your Negro from Haitian director Raoul Peck; María José Cuevas’ examination of aging Mexican burlesque stars in Beauties of the Night; The Ivory Game delves into the illicit ivory trade; Morgan Spurlock taking a unusual look at the worldwide culling methods on rats with the Midnight Madness offering, Rats; Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City uncovers the East German Statsi secret police during the Cold War and three docs that fêtes at music legends, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, I Call Him Morgan on the late jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan’s tragic crime-of-passion murder and The Sixth Beatle about Sam Leach, the band’s near-forgotten manager.

For families, TIFF Kids will show The Eagle Huntress about a Mongolian teenaged girl becoming the first female in twelve generations to become an eagle hunter and her skills are put to the test out on the steppes of northwestern Mongolia in this Daisy Ridley-narrated/executive produced documentary; Netherlander road tale The Day My Father Became A Bush as a ten-year old must travel across a war zone to her mother when her baker father is called to service; French teen romance-melodrama Miss Impossible and the animated My Life as a Courgette where a nine-year old French orphan ends up in a orphanage and learns to make the best of his lot among the other kids who have similar situations worse than his own.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens breakout star Daisy Ridley narrates The Eagle Huntress about Mongolian thriteen-year old Aisholpan and her goal to be the female Eagle Hunter in the sport’s two-thousand year history and up against 70 male competitors at the annual Golden Eagle Festival, which Ridley co-executive produced along with Morgan Spurlock, who is also premiering his latest documentary, Rats, at this year’s TIFF.

TIFF sits down with their In Conversation With… programme with the industry’s movers and shakers with the likes of Mark Wahlberg (September 13), Palestinian actor/filmmaker Haim Abbass (September 13), Nollywood rising stars Kunle Afolayan and Genevieve Nnaji (September 11), Brazilian legend Sônia Braga (September 12), French icon Isabelle Huppert (September 10), Bollywood Renaissance man Karan Johar (September 10) and international superstar Zhang Ziyi (September 15).

The seven-day Industry Conference (September 9 to 15) talks shop with today’s filmmakers from the role of women in the industry with the documentary The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem followed by a roundtable discussion with its director Caroline Suh and executive producers Laura Michalchyshyn and Stacey Offman (September 12); the TIFF Doc Conference (September 13) on documentary filmmaking with several keynote speakers and a special focus of filming in Europe in the wake of first Brexit vote and the future of financing international film projects there.

And the free street party Festival Street for the first weekend of the fest (September 9 to 11) along John and King Street West and University Streets near TIFF Lightbox (350 King Street West Street) coming back for its third popular year, has musical acts, food truck vendors, virtual reality booths and two free screenings of ‘80s cult classics celebrating their thirtieth anniversaries, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Labyrinth and a exclusive TIFF Members-only September 10th screening of Hidden Figures, based on three African-American women who were the unsung heroes behind the American space race program in the 1960s, that includes a cast Q&A and mini-concert with one of the stars of the film, hit maker singer/songwriter Pharrell Williams, who also contributed to the soundtrack.

***

Individual tickets go on sale to the public September 4 at 9 a.m. For information, call 1-888-599-8433 or visit tiff.net/festival.

Outdoorsy Tragic Dane barks and bites

Hamlet (Canadian Stage/York University Theatre)

Amphitheatre at High Park, 1873 Bloor Street West

Saturday, August 27; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

After thirty-four seasons, it’s hard to even fathom that up until this year Canadian Stage has never done a Shakespeare in High Park presentation of one of the Immortal Bard’s most famous plays, Hamlet. Under the direction of Birgit Schreyer Duarte they take a few creative liberties in eschewing some of the supportive scenes, characters and dialogue, yet it’s just as intense as a full-fledged production can carry on its timeless tale of madness and revenge.

Danish prince Hamlet (Frank Cox-O’Connell) isn’t too happy when his uncle Claudius (Alon Nashman) ascends to the throne and marries his queenly mother Gertrude (Rachel Jones) after the sudden death of his beloved father. He gets even more upset when his father’s ghost (also Nashman) approaches him one night to reveal that he’d been murdered by the ambitious Claudius and vows retribution with his best friend Horatio (Qasim Khan) being his witness.

In feigning insanity to cloak his plans, it spirals deeper and deeper into his darkness when it draws in the court aide Polonius (Nicky Guadagni), her fragile daughter and Hamlet’s beloved Ophelia (Rose Tuong) and distraught son Laertes (Kaleb Alexander) in the vortex where even he starts to question his own state of mind and whether the costs that comes with vengeance is worth the price for justice.

This adaptation of Hamlet is the sharpest one I’ve seen in ages with Cox-O’Connell’s titular antihero being deep and moody in all his soliloquies and rages most appropriately when he does throughout; Tuong as the confused love well performed with all her despairs attached; Nashman as the inwardly guilt-riddled yet unbowed Claudius pulls his own weight as does Jones’ conflicted Gertrude. Two interesting changes are the gender-flipped roles of Polonius by Guadagni, Mina James does Fortinbras as a Norwegian she-warrior and from Raechel Fisher playing Rosencrantz, now a royal psychiatrist here (the Guildenstern role got axed) are unique and refreshing takes on the characters.

Canadian Stage does a fine first take on the tragic Dane tale in pace with steady nerve in the casting and direction that also includes some folk music and a little cinema and everything else from the costume design of Michelle Tracey and Oz Weaver’s lighting on Teresa Przybylski’s gorgeous stage layout to the eerily dark score by Lyon Smith to punctuate the moods, not to mention some underlying comedy that appears organically fluid with timing by the cast. It’ll be ending this summer run soon, so see this one while you can – along with its alternative double-bill All’s Well That Ends Well – for goodness knows when the company will do another one again.

***

Hamlet continues through to this Saturday (September 3) on alternative days Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, PWYC ($20 suggested). For tickets and information, call 416-368-3110 or visit canadianstage.com.

Cathartic Nicolas

Nicolas

by Pascal Girard; translated from French by Helge Dascher

106 pp., Drawn & Quarterly/Raincoast Books

Hardcover, $16.95

Graphic Novel and Comics/Literary

Book Review

The loss of a child weighs an eternal heavy burden on any family member as Québécois cartoonist star Pascal Girard opens up for his most personal work to date, Nicolas. From the acclaimed author of Reunion, Bigfoot and Petty Thief, he’s taken work that he did from a previously published work from 2008 over the death of his brother twenty-five years earlier as he was just making his professional debut and adds new material that was already emotional and enhances it as his catharsis he’s still yet to deal with.

When Girard was nine, his five-year old brother Nicolas suddenly died from congenital lactic acidosis, a rare disease of lactic acid build-up in the body; that had a major impact on his life. Throughout the book, we see varying stages of him questioning on Nicolas’ passing first as a simple childlike demeanour on death when he’s entering his tweens before it goes into other behaviours of drowning his sorrows in the heady adolescence experiments with drugs and alcohol to the hauntingly ironic reminder of his death date during the September 11th attacks.

Notably it affects Gerard’s relationships with his first adult girlfriend he’d been with for almost a decade at that point, his surviving youngest brother Joël who was born sometime after Nicolas’ death and sometimes while at the drafting table. Now with a new girlfriend, he searches for peace with himself and others whenever he grapples with anxiety disorder through therapy, bridging a better bond with Joël and looking for closure every day as it comes through positive means.

Keeping the usual Jeffrey Brown-style vignette narration, Girard doesn’t whitewash his feelings of confusion and grief mixed in with anger over a beloved sibling’s death. By not redoing the earlier work to keep the rawness pure and undiluted to what he had drawn a decade before is a smart move here whereas a more perfectionist cartoonist would have done it all over again, but probably wouldn’t get the same kind of results.

In the Afterword section that picks things up to the near-present, the polished work is deftly honest on revealing his fears and unfinished mourning that he may never get over with, but can live with it in the passage of time of healing that he hopes will make it better. Nicolas is Gerard at his frankest depth as a cartoonist story-wise yet and while it may not be a lengthy piece of work, the scale and subject of it speaks volumes.

EDITION #101 - WEEK OF AUGUST 22-28, 2016

Oy, to be goy at Ashkenaz

Left-right: The American-Canadian Jewish-funk supergroup Abraham Inc. and iconoclastic author Michael Wex both make return appearances at this year's biennial Ashkenaz Festival.

The Eastern European Jewish festival returns with a 500-year old exhibit on Venice’s Jewish Ghetto and a Yiddish version of the Arthur Miller classic, Death of a Salesman

Ashkenaz 2016 Preview

The biennial Ashkenaz Festival of that is everything from the Judaic diaspora of Eastern Europe and beyond is back at Harbourfront Centre for the Labour Day long weekend (August 30-September 5, 235 Queen’s Quay West) has a full plate of entertainment of theatre, dance, cinema, literature, food and music that has a few surprises, new and familiar; in store for the whole family and those seeking something different on a cultural scale in ticketed and mostly free events.

One of the major events involved is Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opus magnum Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun A Seylsman), all done in Yiddish with English surtitles at North York’s Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts (1040 Yonge Street) August 31-September 10. Performing in the role that he’s recreating from the acclaimed off-Broadway production for Ashkenaz is veteran actor Avi Hoffman as Wally Loman, the epitome everyman of endlessly and unsuccessfully pursuing the elusive American Dream.

Hoffman is also part of the fest’s literature line-up with his acting career memoir Life of a Seylsman: Five Decades in the Yiddish Theatre (September 5), along with musicologist/klezmer music pioneer Walter Zev Feldman’s latest on the genre, Klezmer: Music, History and Memory (September 4); local restaurateur Zane Caplansky and his smoked-meats empire Save the Deli (September 4); Galeet Dardashti on Israeli rock music, From Pulpit to Pop Charts: Contemporary Mizrachi Music (September 5); Katka Reszke with her book, The Meshugene Effect of the rediscovery of Polish Jewish roots since the end of communism twenty-five years ago (September 4); Born to Kvetch author Michael Wex is back with his newest poke at Jewish culture Rhapsody in Schmaltz (September 5); Ester Reiter’s examination of the secular Jewish left Zingen far Sholem, Zingen far Broyt: Culture and Political Activism in the Jewish left in Canada ; Italian historian Shaul Bassi talks about the nearly-forgotten five hundred-year history of Italian Jewry for The Venice Ghetto, 1516-2016 and a discussion on the iconic Theodore Bikel led by the Theodore Bikel Artist-in-residency expert Daniel Kahn and Bikel’s widow Aimee Ginsburg Bikel (September 4).

As the Venice Jewish Ghetto marks its half-millennium this year, it will get a special presence in the visual arts program in the photo exhibit The Venice Ghetto at 500 at the Artsport’s Marilyn Brewer Community Gallery space; Montréal musician and DJ Socalled makes his debut as a visual artist with 18 Years in the Yiddish Revival: A Socalled Photography Exhibit at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (750 Spadina Avenue; through September 6), including the Ontario Jewish Archives’ Mandel’s Dreamery about a 24/7 window gallery installation celebrating the food history of one of Toronto’s first Jewish neighbourhoods at Fentster at Makom (402 College Street; through October 30).

The musician will also be part of the dance section with his own Socalled’s Retro Dance Party spinning the sacred and the sacrilegious together on September 3 and 4 at the Brigantine Room; master dance classes from contemporary Misnagdic Jewish dancer Zev Feldman (September 4) as well as Avia Moore’s Yiddish dance workshop (September 3-5) and a late night Shtiler Tants concert on September 4 at 11 p.m.

For the film component, the Studio Theatre will screen a series of documentaries, Sholom Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness on the legendary American Jewish author (September 5) and Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem on both the author and his mentor Aleichem’s similar philosophies (September 4); Leo Spellman’s Lost Rhapsody: A Documentary Film-in-Progress (September 4) about the late Toronto musician’s “Rhapsody 1939-1945” that he composed during his internment at a concentration camp he survived from and Chava Rosenfarb: That Bubble of Being on the noted Holocaust literary figure and survivor (September 5).

Foodies will delight with the culinary skills of locals Zane Caplansky (September 4) and culinary tour guide Bonnie Stern (September 5); Brooklynite Liz Alpern, the co-owner of The Gefilteria, an Ashkenazi Jewish restaurant that re-imagines the cuisine itself and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto (September 4) and Baltimore food writer and convert Michael Twitty doing his hybrid Judaic-soul food demo “Kosher Soul” (September 4); and a series of family-related events like the Caravan Puppets’ Sholom and Motl about Jewish immigration in the 20th century in Europe and America (September 4-5) and Avi Hoffman reading Dr. Suess stories in Yiddish (September 4).

Then the music section ranges from the collaborative Israeli-Iranian Music Initiative (September 4), Zev Feldman Trio’s neo-traditionalist klezmer (September 5), Winnipeg folk-classical chamber music sibling act The Mayors of Sambor (September 4), Istanbul Ladino group Janet and Jak Esim Quartet (September 4), Ukraine’s Zhenya Lopatnik (September 3), Torontonian acts Beyond the Pale (September 5) and Lemon Bucket Orkestra (September 3),returning Jewish-funk supergroup Abraham Inc. (September 3), the Tokyo-based world music ensemble Jinta La-Mvta (September 3) and the ever-popular Ashkenaz Parade that will close out the fest on September 5.

***

Ticketed events now on sale. For information, call 416-973-4000 or harbourfrontcentre.com (Harbourfront events), 416-250-3708 (Toronto Centre for the Arts box office) or 1-855-985-2787/ticketmaster.ca (Death of A Salesman) or ashkenaz.ca.

The Tragically...Hyped?

The Tragically Hip’s farewell concert was a momentous event in Canadian music history. But was the over-saturated media coverage necessary?

Arts Commentary

As the hometown crowd roared its encore for their rock gods made good, The Tragically Hip ended their Man Machine Poem tour and possibly their touring days in Kingston on August 20th that was broadcast on radio, television, online and broadcast parties across Canada and for their fans around the world, as a chance to say goodbye and thanks to the band and its headman Gord Downie, who announced this past May of being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer; who gave so much to the national character in their thirty-plus year history and fourteen studio albums, five of them all number one in a row.

In its wake, I had to wonder to myself to the mass media consumption that had been building up to that apex since Downie’s cancer became known and the nationwide farewell tour that followed to which I’ve observed with scrutiny from musicologists, commentators and fans alike: did it really had to go, as one of the Hip’s classic hits would say, to the hundredth meridian?

Before I get a massive hate-on from this, just hear me out first. I’ll admit I’ve never been a huge or casual fan of the Hip and never seen a concert or bought any of their albums, yet I’ve heard them in passing and pretty much enjoyed songs like “Ahead By a Century,” “Bobcaygeon” and the aforementioned “At the Hundredth Meridian” (and still do). They definitely deserved to be our answer to R.E.M. and their contributions to the Canadiana songbook sit right up there with the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

And never, ever would I knock on all this recent attention drawn to the Hip because of the malady Downie is now facing with such bravery and conviction, although the odds are very much stacked against him at this point.

It’s not the way this genuinely heartfelt tribute to the Hip is being done. It’s how it was being done.

The media has swarmed all over this story and the tour in a manner that smacks of an American-style consumption to the point of obsession that any particular subject must be attached to it unfortunately, like talking to Downie’s doctor on tour to make sure he’s okay to perform (and being a Hip fan himself). Or culture critics telling their personal stories of when they first got turned on by the Hip’s lyrical content that spoke to them ranging from the frustrations of teenage angst to coping with the postmodern existence in one’s young adult lives. I get it. Don’t believe for a moment that I don’t.

But when it starts becoming almost 24/7, one has to stop to think and say: “Wait…how this is get all out of control?”

Does it have to get to a point when there’s some online petition to have Downie invested in an deserved Order of Canada before he eventually dies (Terry Fox got his months before his death)? Or getting over-analytical on what Hip guitarist Gord Sinclair had stated on tour that this may not be the last hurrah for the Hip as of yet from one fan’s Twitter feed, sending the Twitterverse – and fans’ hopes – all aflutter? Or that it brings Prime Minister Justin Trudeau onstage at the final concert not just only to praise the Hip’s contribution to the nation, but as a fan?

This reminds me of that time in 2009 when Michael Jackson died and the whole world went into a collective mourning. Some weeks after his memorial and the media buzz still hadn’t died down, an aunt of mine commented on how fatigued she got every time the TV or press mentioned some Jackson-related story that she had to get away from it for a little while. I knew what she meant then, and it still holds resonance with me now on this.

I have nothing but complete respect for the Hip, their fans and the music that spoke of us, by us and for us all. Yet even the most diehard of diehard fans must be feeling the weariness and overexposure from the media so caught up in all of this and maybe the band members themselves, especially Downie. We Canadians are proud of our musical heroes, from Oscar Peterson to The Guess Who to Bryan Adams to Drake and they’ve earned out attention. It doesn’t necessarily have to get to out of hand to show how much we love them like this.

Beatles 50 T.O. exhibit twists and shouts

When the Beatles Rocked Toronto: Metropolitan life and music in the mid-60s

Venue: Market Gallery, St. Lawrence Market, 95 Front Street East, 2nd Floor

Dates/Times: Through November 12; Tuesdays-Thursdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Fridays 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; closed Mondays and statutory holidays

Admission/Information: Adult $10, Seniors (65+)/Youth (13-18)/Child (6-12) $5, Child (under 5) FREE; Call 416-392-7604 or toronto.ca/beatles50

Gallery Review

Has a half-century really gone by since four Liverpudians lads last taught Toronto how to play? The city of Toronto has jumped on that bandwagon (no pun intended) in commemorating their last performance here on August 17, 1966 at the long-defunct but not forgotten Maple Leaf Gardens (now the refurbished Ryerson Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens) before they decided to quit doing live performances with When the Beatles Rocked Toronto at the well-hidden St. Lawrence Market Gallery space touches on a lot of nostalgia and a intriguing peek not only at the changing music scene of the day, but also of the city as well.

Broken into three sections, the first one How We Lived focuses on the growing demographics of the postwar baby boomer generation of a town dusting off the conformities of the 1950s with a detailed timeline of how the social, political and cultural mores were changing from urban renewal to the birth of Canadian Tire money to the blossoming of hippie culture in the Yorkville area, almost culminating with the first airplay of the Fab Four in 1963 with a Canada-only album release and five singles.

It also comes with a slight reproduction of a typical rec room of the day with the modernist designs by local furniture makers like Spanner Products Ltd. with a biomorphic sofa, a throw blanket and a Beatles print curtains adds a certain kitsch to it, teak furniture, vinyl albums, a uniquely handmade Beatles knit sweater that still holds up years later and has actually aged good.

Where We Played looks at the Yorkville area, long before it became the glossy high-end shopping enclave of today, when coffee shop poets and balladeers would make their names like Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot at the Penny Farthing to long faded-out legends The Dirty Shames and The Ugly Ducklings at the Riverboat. Some artwork captures that period like Clark McDougall’s 1964 “View of Yonge Street” depicting the busy street life through roughhewn brushstrokes in vibrant oils, a cartoon-like map of the area by Joseph Sherman in 1997 but neatly updated for this exhibit of where all the coffee (and head) shops existed, plus surviving relics of a Colonial Tavern swizzle stick and the rescued Riverboat entrance sign.

Various Beatles memorabilia includes almost everything you could think of to capitalize on the Beatlemania, including a cheap (50 cents!) pulp novelization of their second film Help! to a unopened package of black micromesh nylon hosiery depicting their images and guitars. An interesting piece here is two covers of the Yesterday and Today album with the original “butcher” version of dismembered mannequin parts and slabs of meat are posed with them as Paul McCartney’s “warped joke” commentary on the Vietnam War. Controversial at the time but a popular cover in Europe, it was pulled out of circulation by Capitol Records’ North American division and was replaced by the suitable “trunk” version, is a rare find indeed to which the original cover was in the collection of a van driver working for Capitol for years given to him secretly as a gift.

When the Beatles Rocked Us gives the documented events in question of the band’s only three tour stops in that era when Beatlemania was at its height from 1964 to 1966, the clean-cut moptop hairdos that drove fans nuts and older people to distress before their later psychedelic period further immortalized them. Through known shots by local photo-journo legends Boris Spremo, Lynn Ball and John Rowlands are honest and straightforward; two slideshows feature rarely-seen photos – a couple of them in rarer colour print – from official media coverage to fan POVs of them are a surprise to the phenomenon they created, including three photos of a female Beatles tribute band to the line-up premiere screening of A Hard Day’s Night.

The things that are constant in all these photos are the police presence in riot gear outside Maple Leaf Gardens, the throng of teenyboppers, medics helping out frenzied passed-out fans (catalogues included have the numbers of each concert breakdown, set lists, opening acts, etc.) and a armoured truck transport to move them back and forth to the venue is stupendous and still shocking to view again, even now. You wouldn’t see this kind of thing much at a Justin Bieber or Beyoncé concert tour today.

Small and humble as it may be in stature, When the Beatles Rocked Toronto looms greatly in how much it packs the counterculture of the time when rock’s first boy band managed to capture the hearts, souls and sounds of millions worldwide and how the Toronto music landscape and mosaic had changed with them. Rustically charming, this exhibit will make new and old fans twist and shout over it, yeah-yeah-yeah!

EDITION #100 - WEEK OF AUGUST 15-21, 2016

Psyching out and jumbled juxtapositions

SummerWorks 2016 Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Left-right: SummerWorks Music series coordinator Adam Bradley leads the discussion on how artists can and cope with social anxiety at the Factory Theatre with screenwriter Crystal and musicians Kurt and Kallie on August 10.

Social Anxiety in the Arts Community (SummerWorks)

Factory Theatre Lobby, 125 Bathurst Street

Wednesday, August 10; 2 p.m.

Why does anyone want to become an artist, other than to be able to visually, verbally and physically express oneself? Talent often plays a part, but also it’s used to function within society when one is unable to socially connect like regular people can. In the Conversations forum “Social Anxiety in the Arts Community,” the music series curator Adam Bradley brought three other SummerWorks artists who share the same psychological affliction of social anxiety, which is often misunderstood by the general public and given labels like “shy,” “introvert,” “loner” and unjust titles of “misfit” and “weirdo.”

For about an hour running the panel was treated like a free-for-all format with no basic direction in guiding the talk being mostly musicians with an agoraphobic drummer Kurt, who suffers from panic attacks; Crystal, the soft-spoken screenwriter/arts therapist and extrovert musician Kallie, who hides her anxieties by being more outspoken as a façade than a character trait.

Bradley was able to bring up some related topics to the forefront, seeing that the arts can be instrumental to interact with the audience from social media usage, turning music jam sessions into “group therapy meetings,” learning to get over it is as “part of the job” as artists, fixating on other people’s anxieties to calm your own and being aware of one’s limitations to the classic psychology trick of imagining everyone in the audience in their underwear (sometimes it works, not always).

Despite the topic as presented, the lobby area of the Factory Theatre was not a decent choice location to hold it since there was stage rehearsal going on nearby and the acoustics weren’t that great for the well-attended small audience that participated. Still, advice on conquering social anxiety when performing and at receptions were given out near the end but they’re never easy to put into practice since every situation can differ when you have to force yourself out of your shell or “psyche out,” as it were.

[decoherence]/NEW RAW (Vazari Dance Projects/Mutable Subject/SummerWorks)

Theatre Centre Mainspace, 1115 Queen Street West

Saturday, August 13; 9 p.m.

An experimental dance double bill featuring the Vazari Dance Projects’ [decoherence] and Mutable Subject’s NEW RAW was a mixed bag of ideas displayed with the same type of results. First is [decoherence], performed and choreographed by Jessie Garon and Jarrett Siddall; is meant to be about quantum entanglement, a scientific theory of when particles interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently, giving into a system as a whole. In layperson terms, if you move one particle on one side of the universe, its entangled partner will mirror that movement at the same time.

For twenty minutes, Garon and Siddall mostly run around, tumble, convulse, tremble and wither to Lyon Smith’s gangly ethereal sound design to the theme in question, yet the conceptual production leaves one empty, even if Shannon Lea Doyle’s minimalist set/lighting design fits the mood enough to make sense of the constant subconscious’ playing field.

NEW RAW offers some better coherence, yet just as daunting to follow. Creator-dancer Deanna Peters with Elissa Hanson, Alexa Mardon and Jeanette Kotowich does this dance party/variety act/fashion show about voyeurism, gender politics, identity issues empowerment and desire while creatively manipulating the speed of a record turntable to tunes by Fritz the Cat, Rose Melberg, Art of Noise and Nitzer Ebb.

Peters’ choreography feels nuanced for all its juxtapositions in the first half then picks up in the latter half to be kinetic, if unfortunately subdued to save it face in the thirty-minute production. Under James Proudfoot’s lighting to the costume/set designs of Natalie Purschwitz, they all seemed like good ideas and do work when they do but these measures feel too little, too late to make amends with it.

Festival Summary

SummerWorks 2016 had a lot to offer with the issues of the day we’re coping with now, be it immigration (Amanah), sex education in schools (SExT) or the increase of urban violence in our cities (Nize It); and there were lots the artists involved did bring to make it a varied and progressive one. Some could have been better than others, but all in all there was heart in the making and presentations of them.

My only real complaints were a lack of visual arts offerings, compared to the last couple of years and a better space to hold the Conversation series since the acoustics in the Factory Theatre Lobby space is rather poor and wireless mikes would have helped big time. Otherwise, SummerWorks allows works that probably wouldn’t get the ample opportunities of mainstream theatre they’ve been doing for about twenty-six years.

Lofty family remake flutters along

Pete’s Dragon (Walt Disney)

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence

Director: David Lowery

Producers: James Whitaker

Screenplay: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks; based on the screenplay by Malcolm Marmorsite, based on the story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field

Film Review

Pete’s Dragon, probably one of Disney’s underrated projects from the 1970s done in their live-action/animation formats; gets a remake minus the songs like most of their revamps of late like Cinderella and Maleficent this time around. As a family film, it works for the most part and upholds the traditional wholesomeness they’re best known for, yet it feels just a touch average seemingly missing its vibe from the 1977 original.

Set in the present-day Pacific Northwestern small town of Millhorn, park ranger Grace (Howard) discovers a ten-year old orphan Pete (Fegley) living out in the forests that she’s trying to protect from the expansionist ambitions of Gavin (Karl Urban), who also happens to be her fiancée Jack’s (Wes Bentley) brother, the town’s lumber mill manager. Trying to figure out how the boy managed to survive all alone in the wilds, Pete tells her a furry green dragon that’s been part of the town’s folklore for decades that he named Elliot has been his guardian and best friend for the last six years.

Rather skeptical at first, she employs her tall tales-telling father Meacham (Redford) who claimed to have run into the same dragon years ago whether this is some kind of kids’ game. As Pete tries to reacquaint himself with civilization which includes befriending Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence), Gavin plans on catching Elliot for fame and glory Pete is determined to save from his clutches.

Some things going for this modern-day fantasy update are the cast’s roles here of Howard playing the motherly type that needs to be more open to the unexpected with warmth; Redford as the grandfatherly Meacham in brief parts hold some levity to the film; Fegley’s wildness moppet is cute by maintaining all the innocence, wonder and adventurism a kid can pull off in a fare like this and even Urban is kind of fun being the film’s benign antagonist.

It’s almost a pity that co-director/screenwriter David Lowery with Toby Halbrooks aren’t able to make the middling second act of the film as interesting in regards to the pacing but rescues it in the third act when the action really begins and partly redeems itself. There’s quiet humour displayed, so the chuckles are well earned and one notable feature of this remake is that Millhorn sticks to being pretty much having an old-school feeling without turning the film into a period piece. You won’t find any computers, cellphones, internet or iPads – a rarity in current cinema – seen in these here parts, that is a refreshingly humbling and homey touch.

The friendly dragon itself, all in its CGI form, does provide some charm in a klutzy comical fashion and the special effects impress, however Pete’s Dragon runs on the sentimentality laced in the script that might keep the younger kids entertained at best but some adults might find it plodding sometimes although they won’t get really bored with it either.

Nairobi Masala

Who Will Catch Us As We Fall

by Iman Verjee

442 pp., OneWorld Publications/Publishers Group Canada/Raincoast Books

Softcover, $15.95

Fiction

Book Review

For her second novel on the East Asian diaspora in Africa, Iman Verjee’s Who Will Catch Us As We Fall dressed up as a romantic melodrama without many clichés involved to off-put any reader interested in seeing a contemporary Africa with its basic problems as it looks at the country’s social, cultural, class and racial divisions of modern Kenya void of any stereotypes.

Returning home from her university studies in England after a four-year absence, Leena Kohli arrives in 2007 Nairobi as the nation prepares for general elections which are usually fraught with political rioting to follow while her fellow Indo-Kenyans try to leave to avoid them. Being from a well-off mercantile family, she’s also home to finally come to grips over a traumatic moment which led to the self-imposed exile and to rebuild her shattered life.

She goes back and forth over that incident while remembering her preteen years in the mid-1990s when she and her elder brother Jai lived with their mother Pooja and father Raj in their palatial home with their carefree lives as children not caught up in the cultural taboos imposed by their mother against the African populace that isn’t always welcoming to anyone Indian, whom they feel act privileged and separated from the political and social realities left behind by the British during and since independence.

Among those who feel that way is Jeffery Omondi, a police constable in the Kenyan Police who once joined the force in order to provide for his aging mother in the urban slums he grew up in and idealistically dreamed of cleaning up the corruption within. But now he’s pretty much part of that rotted system and does almost anything to maintain a certain lifestyle from bribery to peddling influence, that makes him emotionally dead inside and his conscience conflicted.

There’s also the sensitive mural artist Michael, Jai’s best friend since his mother used to be the household domestic help as kids and a adult partner-in-crime as they graffiti the city walls at night about the country’s ills that simply can’t be handled by the unwilling political process to improve the democratic institutions.

As they grow up together, Michael and Leena feel a connection that runs deep despite Pooja’s fearful prejudices and neo-colonialist attitudes (ironically) as well as from the Hindi community, while Jai and Raj ever remain the idealists that Kenya belongs to all those born, raised and live there to build a better society, even after the incident that somehow involved Omondi years ago; refuses to create the barriers between them.

Verjee writes of a cosmopolitan Nairobi – where she also was born and raised in – on both sides and all of its characteristics and various characters from hustlers, ambitious student leaders, artisans, crooked cops and party henchmen trying to survive daily living and ethnic rivalries so richly detailed of late-2000s Kenya and more with a flair and certainly has tapped into its pulse to be believable.

It’s a love story about Kenya and of two people done in realistic and grounded terms and doesn’t get too flowery or mushy thankfully for all the obstacles the characters endure in Who Will Catch Us As We Fall’s pages, and yet is uplifting all at once that eventually they’ll be conquered by hope and in faith that human nature will prevail.

EDITION #99 - WEEK OF AUGUST 8-14, 2016

Bourne at the right time

Jason Bourne (Universal)

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel

Director: Paul Greengrass

Producers: Paul Greengrass, Matt Damon, Frank Marshall, Ben Smith, Jeffery M. Weiner and Gregory Goodman

Screenplay: Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse; based on the characters created by Robert Ludlum

Film Review

Like anything else, espionage thrillers have come a long way from the days of invisible ink and trench coats but the tricks of the cloak-and-dagger trade remain the same in regards to intrigue and suspense that Jason Bourne upholds, along with Matt Damon back at the helm of this popular action-spy film franchise to give it some grit, as well as leave something left over.

Nine years after the events of The Bourne Ultimatum – and the relatively good 2012 spin-off The Bourne Legacy – former CIA operative Jason Bourne (Damon) has maintained himself off the grid but still feels troubled over one last chunk of memory that he’s struggled to reconcile with. Then an old associate from his Treadstone days, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), shows up to fill in the missing piece she’s recently hacked from their ex-employers back at Langley.

Still not entirely pleased with all the trouble he created in exposing and dismantling their black ops programs, CIA Director Robert Dewey (Jones) sends in a ruthless agent known only as the Asset (Cassel) to take Bourne out permanently as he criss-crosses the world to find the answers he needs to resolve his demons over his identity and conscience.

Also involved is Heather Lee (Vikander), a young cyber-ops division head who may (or may not) be a credible ally for the rogue agent in stopping Dewey from launching a brand new black ops unit called Ironhand, which involves reluctant metadata tycoon Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) whom he’s strong-arming on to tap into his social media platform Deep Dream; in order to extend the agency’s surveillance on the unsuspecting public.

Co-writer and returning director Paul Greengrass keeps Jason Bourne as taunt and visceral as he has done previously in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum in every scene, as well as throwing in the standard hidden agendas, vendettas and plenty of double crosses for the all the characters involved, as much as it does discusses about personal privacy in the post-Edward Snowden era it eerily brings up in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando and Nice.

Damon is older, wiser but just as directed and intense playing the eponymous anti-James Bond, yet is more angrier at his targets for making him the man that he is and the system he now rebels against to make him the hero we desperately need in these times when democracy is threatened by the ones we’ve entrusted to maintain our freedoms not to be violated.

Jones’ crusty mannerism makes him the ideal main antagonist Dewey corrupted by power and control in the name of national security and not above screwing over anyone getting in his way; Cassel’s cold-hearted assassin who has a serious bone to pick with Bourne is the best and worthiest heavy the series has ever had in years; Vikander displays an icy cool veneer over the underling Lee and her ambitions with Machiavellian designs and Ahmed, Ato Essandoh as Dewey lieutenant Craig Jeffers, Scott Shepard as a cautious intel director and Vinzenz Kiefer’s questionable Berlin hackivist Christian Dassault all do well in their supportive roles.

Jason Bourne fully honours Robert Ludlum’s superspy series and the film franchise for all its set pieces from the anti-government street riots of Athens to its climatic Las Vegas showdowns and the real-world topical issues they contend with on who watches the watchers that watch over us into an incredible and smart adrenaline rush.

Beautifully eclectic Mexico found in LÙZIA

LÙZIA (Cirque du Soleil)

Grand Chapiteau, Port Lands (51 Commissioners Street)

Thursday, July 28; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

Like the running woman artisan who unfurls her Papillion butterfly wings as she opens LÙZIA, Cirque du Soleil does a beautifully eclectic showcase of Mexican culture, flora and fauna unlike ever seen to show that they haven’t lost their touch yet in finding and exploring new themes they bring to the forefront with a brave conviction and dazzling array.

A clownish Eric Fool Koller parachutes and undertakes a surreal, uncharted trip through the Mexican landscape for all of its wonders whenever he’s trying to referee a beach ball through a whistle instrument or his ever elusive search for water. Among the many other acts encountered over its two-hour-plus run, be it the way-tricky and exciting hoop diving on treadmills by a group of hummingbirds meant to symbolize reincarnated Aztec warriors; a swinging lucha libre wrestler going all 360° rotation literally; a tribute spoofing the Golden Age of Mexican cinema via a hand-balancing act by Ugo Laffolay to a couple of footballers Laura Biondo and Aboubacar Troaré doing pok-ta-pok, a Mesoamerican precursor to soccer; from juggling to moonwalking as a ode to their national obsession like hockey is to us Canadians.

Creator/director Daniele Finzi Pasca has mostly outdone himself with this thirty-eighth production of Cirque in maintaining the right balance of myth and modernity since his last outing with the Montréal-based neo-circus with Corteo over a decade ago, is also tinged with a hint of bittersweetness over his co-author/director wife Julie Hamelin Finzi, who passed away during the initial run of LÙZIA this past spring at age 43 from heart disease; which the show is dedicated in her memory to.

No more is the intricate beauty of the show more seen in the indoor water wall they’ve specifically made for this show to create amazing patterns or simply to show the significance of rain in the desert Roue Cyr wheel and trapeze act of Angelica Bongiovonni, Rachel Salzman and Emily Tucker, Benjamin Courtenay on aerial straps or the comic foil to Koller’s antics on occasion. Other highlights include a percussions parade around a decoratively patterned curtain and a puppet jaguar and horse, both serenaded by Majo Cornejo and Aleksei Goloborodko doing the most nimble contortionist act I’ve ever seen from Cirque since Zumanity.

As helped by Eugenio Caballero’s elaborate set and prop designs, the majestic puppets of Max Humphries, Martin LeBrecque’s lighting and exuberant costuming by Giovanna Buzzi to the Simon Carpentier’s lushy soundtrack (see review below), LÙZIA stands out as another masterpiece for Cirque weaving a respectful and colourful dreamscape of Mexico awaiting to exotically deluge the senses.

***

LÙZIA continues through October 16. For tickets and information, call 1-877-924-7783 or visit cirquedusoleil.com/luzia.

Loaded Latin LÙZIA OST

Cirque du Soleil

LÙZIA (Cirque du Soleil Musique/RED Distribution/Sony)

Producers: Ramón Amezcua and Pepe Mogt

Soundtrack/World Music

Album Review

Québécois composer Simon Carpentier embarks on his fourth Cirque du Soleil project with a flourish for LÙZIA with some help from the Tijuana collective known as Botisch+Fussible in doing the remixing of the show tunes involved with the production of traditional mariachi, cumbia and flamenco with the sounds of electronica into a flavourful mix.

Bouncy dancefloor material can be heard about “Así Es La Vida,” “Pez Volador” and the album’s best track “Los Mosquitos;” whereas a dramatic structure keeps “Flores en el Desierto” in check and warped techno trickery grounds “Pambolero” firmly. Show lead singer Majo Cornejo carries her voice on record as well as onstage on selected tracks (“Tiembla La Tierra”), but for the most part Azzul Monraz sings throughout the album diligently in her place.

With the ever-present trumpet and trombone of Jorge “Zorrita” González and accordionists Juan Téllez Zavala and Gerardo Espiricueta to give a Ennio Morricone-like feel to “Tláloc,” the inspired soundtrack is quite flamboyant as it captures that flavour and soul courtesy of the Luis Elorza and Botisch+Fussible’s own studios in Tijuana. It’s danceable and listenable fun.

Cat-tastical Wildings’ conclusion

The Hundred Names of Darkness

by Nilanjana Roy

400 pp., Random House Canada

Softcover, $22.95

Fiction/Fantasy Adventure-Thriller

Book Review

Continuing where she left off with her bestselling cat fantasy The Wildings (click here for previous review), Nilanjana Roy’s neatly wraps it all up in The Hundred Names of Darkness in a dark and dangerous adventure that supersedes the first one in a more expanded and intriguing universe of the unseen world of street animals that isn’t akin to The Secret Life of Pets, but more like the realities seen in Watership Down.

Set about almost several months after the events of The Wildings, life is slowly returning back for the stray cats from the Nizamuddin district of Delhi after the horrendous battle of the Shuttered House with the dark feral feline Datura almost annihilated them all. However, urban renewal by the Bigfeet – the book’s name for humans – in the area is expanding and is threatening the ancient cat clan to the point of going extinct.

Their only hope in getting them out of this potentially looming crisis is the young telepathic Sender, Mara, who’s broadening the extent of her powers yet still has a problem relating to her clan since she’s an indoor cat reluctant to deal with the outside world and other outdoor cats that view her with suspicion like clan leader Katar, with the exceptions of her somewhat troublesome boyfriend, Southpaw and mentor/clan co-leader, Beraal, currently tending to her new litter of kittens.

Her highly-developed powers have attracted the attention of the Circle of Senders, a nationwide network of telepathic cats that communicate via a mind-link; who unexpectedly become her new teachers and allies by instructing her on her duties and obligations of a clan Sender, in particular to Magnificat over in Goa, which at first seems doesn’t to want to fulfill her responsibilities.

That changes with Southpaw getting injured during a hunting raid, then mysteriously vanishing en route from a veterinarian’s visit by her caring Bigfeet and a little humility lesson for Mara when she gets lost in Nizamuddin quite by accident does she understand the scope of life on the harsh streets and her destiny. As well as learning about the Sender heritage she carries upon her whiskers, Mara again becomes a crucial part in saving the clan, with the further help of new friends gained and more dangers lurking on the horizon.

Roy once again taps into the psyche of the cat and the animal world into a plausible story for Hundred Names filled with adventure, thrills and humour guaranteed to leave readers quite satisfied in the outcome with its character-driven arcs and the mystical trips it takes them into with Mara’s abilities to experience the dark as well as the light within her powers. It also sees to a couple of subplots regarding Tooth the cheel’s son Hatch learning to overcome his fear of flying to an overambitious bandicoot rat quest for power that could lead to his undoing complimenting the main story quite adeptly.

The Hundred Names of Darkness is a worthy follow-up to the series and gives its author a more than credible standing in the world of global literary fiction for her first two novels. Would love to see what Roy she will come up with next to add credence to her storytelling prowess she has acquired for herself.

Stunning Silence and a womb with a view

SummerWorks 2016 Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Osia (Kukua Productions/SummerWorks)

Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street

Saturday, August 6; 6:30 p.m.

Playwright Jijo Quayson makes a remarkable debut in her debut work Osia about the perspective of hopes dashed in this drama surrounding a Ghanaian family with a universal concept in a bright and bountiful pace as performed by an enthusiastic cast of characters in a mixture of folklore, music and reality.

In present-day Ghana lives Harmosia (Nicole Nwokolo) – Osia for short – with her mother (Chemika Bennett-Heath) who eagerly awaits for the return of her brother (Paul Ohonsi) from America so they can immigrate there for a better life, while her best friend Bernice (Chiamaka G. Ugwu) likes to keep tabs as much as being the neighbourhood gossip. A preteen with the mind of an eight-year old, Osia is a vivid and rambunctious storyteller who is the light in her mother’s and her smooth-talking uncle’s eyes, who is seemingly flushed with the trappings of success overseas.

However, not all is well as it looks as he gets involved with some shady dealings upon arrival as he brings his storekeeper friend Kwefi (Roshawn Balgrove) into that gets him into hotter and hotter water while constantly making promises he’s unable to keep. Worse of all, some deep dark secrets slowly surface that will shock all they effect and become undone as the veil is lifted to find something completely disturbing about this family.

Director Brad Fraser handles this material that mixes humour and drama of a girl about to be thrown into the adult world a lot sooner than expected and trying to keep her carefully constructed world together in the 90 minutes-long study about broken dreams and ugly truths beneath. The cast performs diligently, especially Nwokolo playing the headstrong if not all sound in mind young girl in her worlds of fantasy and reality conflicting each other; Ohonsi plays it cool as a silver-tongued figure with a nadir personality hidden in the layers and Bennett-Heath’s Mama with a loving soul, if imbued with a tragic naivety, as Balgrove and Ugwu become the unwitting victims and witnesses to this familial discord.

Quayson certainly has great potential to bring Osia into the forefront with a bit more polish for a full production to go on the theatre circuit and for future endeavours onstage as she aims directly at a common theme here on the portrait of souls who learn about the complexities of life.

IN UTERO OUT (Drawing With Knifes experimental shadow puppetry company/SummerWorks)

The Drake Underground, The Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen Street West

Saturday, August 6; 8:30 p.m.

In its 40-minute state of avant-garde, IN UTERO OUT wants to take the viewer back into the womb with a boom through its ethereal musings and large-scale puppets conceptual-wise, but it tends to veer into that otherworldly ether which gets a bit murky and quirky for the uninitiated and lags a bit in reaching certain points in the birthing experience.

Broken into three different stories starting with “Twilight Sleep” of a Francophone centenarian grandmother explaining her origins and childbirth drenched in a hallucinogenic dream-like state; a rural mother of two who surprisingly delivers twin sons in the era before ultrasound came into being in “They just thought it was a boy” and “One of Many” has a expecting transgender lesbian who finds herself conflicted from her own identity issues and the imbalance of emotions she comes to grips with between her biological and adoptive mothers; and in between are the transitional interludes of fluids of amniocentesis and blood intermingling with these themes.

Creators/puppeteers Brescia Nember Reid and bloodbeard have some interesting ideas kicking around and they do their best to bring these things to be aware to what we owe of our very existence in the haunting songs, shadow puppets creations and certainly the visuals and a little humour (ending song “Oh My Placenta” is amusing) does work for the most part including Nic Murr’s technical support.

However, IN UTERO OUT tends to be a bit incoherent in parts, except for the third act “One of Many” having more clarity than the first two; and the illustrative introductory part could have been a bit shorter. It’s really admirable to make recognitions to the First Nations and the primordial analogy between oceanic life and swimming within our mother’s womb, but that’s kind of unnecessarily long even for an experimental theatre piece.

Trophy (STO Union/SummerWorks)

Shaw Park, CAMH Grounds, Queen Street West/Shaw Streets

Saturday, August 6; 10 p.m.

Much like life itself, Trophy kind of defies description or destination it being an ongoing interactive play-cum-art installation where you get to add a bit to what is going on through your mind and life at that point as the five personalities from all walks of life inhabit each semi-translucent tent and for about fifteen minutes or so in the 45-minute production, they describe a moment in their personal lives that have made them or the circumstances around them change, for better or for worse.

In this one-day only production (although for some reason, the creators stated they’ve been onsite at the CAMH Grounds for three days), these five had some tales to tell: living with a boyfriend’s cat from hell and doing the right thing in a emergency situation; an arts administrator who wanted to pursue his passion; the lesbian clown having to be a reluctant underling to a Mexican clowning legend; turning the tables on a unruly neighbour in an example of wielding power and a artist’s believing to be approaching a near-death experience – then writing down on a Mylar sheet of an experience about or near-to theirs afterwards.

Trophy is an interesting human experiment on swapping stories as director/co-creator Sarah Conn puts these into practice about transformation and its positive benefits on how one can overcome personal obstacles to find and/or better themselves (in)directly. It may be off-putting or uncomfortable for some to engage with as some of these stories are outrageous, but it does bring its point across through all these stories can we call relate to at one time or another on the human condition.

A Moment of Silence (Nowadays Theatre/Modern Times Stage Company/SummerWorks)

Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street

Sunday, August 7; 9:15 p.m.

Some could wish to sleep away from all the unpleasantries life can bring. But what if doing so made things even worse? For writer/director Mohammad Yaghoubi, the first English language translation for his celebrated play of the turbulence his country underwent in the early days of the Iranian Revolution, A Moment of Silence, is a triumph although a very doleful one at that for a lone woman’s experience and a battle cry for freedom itself.

Awakening in 1980 Tehran, Shiva (Sarah Marchand) finds herself in a empty apartment and phoning for a husband and her brother who have mysteriously disappeared, but soon learns from her sisters Shirin (Parmida Kakavand) and Sheida (Melanie Pyne) much to her shock she’d been asleep for three years and slept through the downfall of the Shah and the rise of the ayatollahs that have permeated all aspects of Iranian life.

Also learning that Sheida had married her husband during her absence just to have a child plunges her back into another deep sleep and awakens in 1983 to a country at war with Iraq and a new shade of paranoia creeps into the life of a playwright Hasti (Lara Arabian) and her husband (Paul Van Dyck) when they become targets of the regime’s crackdown on dissent from the country’s artisans and intellectuals, resisting to be silent or go into exile.

By the time Shiva reawakens in 1987, all are driven to depression by the war and the ongoing crushing of civil liberties that are kept at bay, thanks to Shirin’s cabdriver husband Jimmy (Maxime Robin) with his twisted sense of humour and outlook at life that’d rather be the lighted single candle than to curse the darkness enveloping them. Or, is this all in the mind and pages of Hasti’s script she writes in while she’s being hounded with verbal death threats from the Revolutionary Guard?

Torange Yeghiazarian makes an intelligent translation out of Yaghoubi’s book and characters to follow, slipping in some projected surtitles to fill out the surrealism parts evenly and puts the cast on their toes with its sharp dialogue and fluid direction from drramaturg Matt Jones’ doing. Marchand as the Rip van Winkle trying to make sense of a world she barely can make sense of and looks for a way to keep her sanity from going overboard is brilliant and tragic in her portrayal; Robin keeps it light at the play’s court jester and consumes his role with a flourish; Pyne manages to present selfishness and guilt to be believable and Arabian and Van Dyck make for a loyally fine if somewhat foolhardy artisan couple managing to stick through thick and thin against the odds.

A Moment of Silence is a moving and stunning commentary on an Iran still grappling over the mistakes made in the name of revolutionary zealotry Yaghoubi unabashedly aims with a glaring spotlight at for audiences to ponder over what our basic civil rights should mean to us and defended over in this unflinching human drama.

***

SummerWorks 2016 continues through to Sunday (August 14). For tickets and information, visit summerworks.ca.